Summus Proelium

Enkindle 23-03 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

A/N – Hey guys, the non-canon for this story was posted over the weekend and can be read by everyone now right here!

For the next hour or so, we worked our way through searching the stuff we had taken from the Ministry base. Amber (as That-A-Way of course) showed up to help out while on a break from patrol duties, and was immediately recruited to scan through a pile of papers. The more the merrier. Or at least, the more the less this mind-numbing job of reading what often looked like gibberish would drag on. 

There was something that appeared to be a key for the code that was written on those papers and the vials, but I wasn’t able to decipher it with a brief once-over. So, I passed it over to Paige, who said she would figure it out and decode what was written on them, but it would take awhile. 

Beyond that, we found some interesting things. First and possibly foremost, there was a ledger that showed how up to date on their payments various gangs were. Not just the Detroit ones, but practically all of the organizations throughout the entire state. Nearly every Fell-Touched group (aside from a couple like the Scions) and even most of the non-Touched gangs were represented in the ledger. If you were a criminal group of more than one person (and even some who were solo), you paid taxes to the Ministry. 

But it went further than that. Because obviously having that many people know about the Ministry would make it impossible to keep even a little bit secret. So the vast majority of criminals who paid their fees had no idea that it was part of a larger organization. The Ministry had lieutenants who acted as though they were the boss of an area, unconnected to anyone else. They made people who acted in their territory pay tribute, then secretly passed everything but their own salary to the higher-ups. And for the most part, even the lieutenants didn’t know how wide-reaching the whole thing was. They were all divided into smaller cells who didn’t know anything about the other groups, and didn’t know that a number of their rivals in an area were actually also working for the Ministry. Some of the lieutenants were gang bosses, while others were actually their right-hand people who were secretly keeping the Ministry up-to-date on what was going on. The operation encompassed the entire state of Michigan, and we had all these names and the explanations of what they were doing. 

It wasn’t all in one spot, of course. It wasn’t like all of this information was conveniently written out for us. We had to piece it together between the ledger and several other pieces, including on a few of the hard drives, which were heavily encrypted and password protected. We would have been shit out of luck if we hadn’t had Paige and Sierra. They were able to use the…wires that extended from their fingers to plug into the hard drives and access them directly. 

As expected, there were none of my family’s real names written down anywhere. Not even in the secret encoded parts of the computers. Which made me slightly relieved, a reaction which instantly made me feel guilty. This was wrong, it was all wrong. It was going to blow up in my face somehow, I just knew it. But right now, I just had to focus on this stuff.  

Murphy was shaking her head, muttering about how none of this would help find Luciano, when she abruptly paused. From the corner of my eye, I saw the girl quickly shuffle back through a few other pages she had been looking at before elbowing Roald beside her. She asked him where something else they had been looking at a moment earlier was, and he dug through a discarded pile before handing it to her. She had two papers, one in each hand, and was looking back and forth between them. “Hey… hey I think I got something about that piece of shit.” 

We all turned our attention that way, as she explained. “Okay so on this page they’re talking about something called Plan Z. I think it’s a group or a person or something. It says Plan Z couldn’t be called on for this other thing they needed, so they should send Squire. Then this other page with the same date mentions that this safe house is ‘now available’ because ‘L’ has been taken by Z and won’t be needing it anymore. That’s right after Luciano got away. Whoever or whatever Plan Z is, they probably escorted this L, Luciano, away from that safehouse and out of Ministry territory.”  

Taking that in, I frowned thoughtfully. “There’s a few other bits in here about a Plan Z. I thought it was like… an actual plan, but you’re right, it sounds more like a person or a group. Maybe a set of Touched they use? I dunno. Sending a group to escort Luciano seems like overkill, but then again, maybe they were nervous about us finding him again.” My shoulders raised in a slight shrug. “Does it say anything about where that Plan Z might’ve taken him?  I doubt he stayed there, but it might give us a place to start from.” 

“Maybe not there, but it does here.” That was Peyton, waving a hand with a small notebook clutched in it. “It’s like a memo or a reminder note or something in the margin. I didn’t think it was important at first, but the page right before it has the same date as those ones, and the memo says, ‘Z pick-up’ and then an address in Pontiac.” 

Right, Pontiac was a city about twenty miles north of Detroit. I absorbed that information. It made sense as a place to take Luciano. Far enough away to be clear of the city without taking up too much of their time.

Pack, who had been sitting at the far end of the table we were all gathered around, made a thoughtful noise in the back of her throat. “So, whoever these Plan Z people are, it sounds like they needed to be picked up after taking Luciano somewhere. Maybe they gave him the vehicle?” She ran two fingers along the top of Tuesday’s head as the gecko sat perched beside the papers she had been looking through, before turning her attention elsewhere. “What do you think, Sierra? Pretty interesting stuff, but then, you must be tired of just sitting around. Being trapped for all that time in a body with someone else, and now you’re completely free. But here you are just playing with paperwork. Don’t you want to get out there and have some fun?” 

“Please don’t try to recruit her into your villain gang until she at least has time to stretch her legs a bit,” Amber idly requested from where she was sitting basically right next to the La Casa Touched. She didn’t bother to look up from the files she had been scanning. “As far as having a body goes, she’s not even one day old.” 

As for Sierra herself, she offered a shrug. “Yeah, I wanna get out there. But there’s gonna be this nagging voice in the back of my head if I don’t help find Irelyn and those two Touched girls and get them off that island. And believe me, after everything we went through to get me this body, the last thing I want is another nagging voice in my head. I just got the old one to be external.” She gave a quick glance over toward Paige before adding, “So, the sooner we save those three, the sooner I can move on and figure out what my real life is going to be.” 

Clearing my throat a bit, I looked toward the stairs. Wren was up in her main lab, working on that tracer device that was supposed to tell us where exactly Breakwater was. I still wasn’t absolutely sure we would go with the plan to blackmail the people in charge into helping Flea and Trivial, but knowing where the island was would at least be a good place to start from. 

“Well, until we have something else to work with,” I announced, “I think we should check out that address that you guys found. Maybe Luciano isn’t there. I mean, he probably isn’t. But there could be something to tell us where else to look. He might’ve left a clue or something.” 

Murphy was nodding rapidly, shoving herself up from the table so firmly she nearly knocked over the stool she had been sitting on. “Fuck yeah, let’s get out there. I can’t take looking at another piece of paper right now or I’ll scream.”

Standing up, I hesitated. “We need to be quiet and stealthy about it. Whatever that address is, I don’t know if it’s a Ministry place or just somewhere they took Luciano and dropped him off. But whatever it is, if we show up and make a spectacle of ourselves, it’s going to get back to the Ministry. And I’m pretty sure they could put two and two together, considering those files were just stolen from their base yesterday. If the place looks like it’s guarded or whatever, we have to wait. And we don’t let them see us.” 

Paige started to rise, and I focused that way, shaking my head. “You should stay here. Keep working on those harddrives and see if there’s anything else we can use. This isn’t gonna be a fight, we’re just checking the place out and looking around if it seems clear. We need to be subtle right now.” 

“Paintball, subtle?” Pack snorted and gave me a look. “If I asked you to define that word, would you be able to?”  

Flushing a bit under the helmet and mask, I huffed at the girl. “I can be subtle when I want to be, I promise. I was subtle in that base last night.” Before she could say anything, I hurriedly amended, “I mean I was subtle about who I was and my power and—you know what I mean.” Now I was really blushing. “Look, the point is, we’ll just head over there and check the place out.” 

“Uh huh,” Pack gave me a long look. “And how are you going to get there, exactly? You know, to the city twenty miles north of Detroit. Without attracting attention.”

My mouth opened, then I paused before tilting my head. A muttered curse escaped me while Pack snickered. 

“I can’t drive,” Way hesitantly pointed out. “I’ve gotta get back to patrol pretty soon, or they’ll start to wonder where I am. Which we really don’t want.” 

Pack nodded. “And I’ve got–uhh, let’s just call them plans and leave it at that. Gotta do my real job, or the boss might wonder what else I’ve been doing with my time. Which, as Rose over there said, we don’t want.” 

“Yeah,” Way muttered, “wouldn’t want you to get kicked out of your job as a thief.” 

“I could drive,” Sierra idly noted. “I mean, I’d need a car for it, but I could drive.” She offered a somewhat feral smile then, which was weird to see on a face that was so like my own. It made a funny feeling form in my stomach before I pushed it down as she continued. “And hey, if I need to acquire a car for it–” 

“We’re not stealing a car,” I interrupted. This whole situation was already precarious enough without adding something like that in. It wasn’t likely that she would get caught, of course. And even less likely that she would stay caught, but still. The image of Sierra, in a body that looked like a blonde me, getting taken to the police station was just… no. No, we couldn’t risk anything like that. 

“Besides,” Murphy pointed out, “That body looks like you’re younger than we are. That body’s, what, fourteen?” 

“Oh, I dunno,” Pack put in casually, “appearances can be deceiving. Some people look older than they are, other people look younger. You can’t really go off first impression these days.” 

Murphy shrugged at that. “Whatever, the point is any cop who saw her driving would definitely pull you over to check, stolen car or not. She’d stand out. And I thought the whole point of this trip was to blend in and not attract attention.” 

I nodded quickly. “She’s right, we need to be subtle. That means not stealing any cars and not having someone drive who would make the cops do a double-take. So all of us who are wearing masks are out.” 

While we were all looking at each other and trying to figure out where to go from there, Fred grunted. “I’ll drive. Whatever, it’s just a quick recon thing, right? The kid’s gonna be busy upstairs for awhile, and if she needs something, you can take care of it.” He nodded toward Paige before turning his attention to me. “You want subtle, can’t get much more subtle than an old sedan. Long as that’s not a big fancy neighborhood, it’ll fit in just fine. Plus, I’ve got that bakery ID, so I can be out after curfew. Trouble is, I can only take a few of you. We can say you’re helping with loading stuff into the bakery trucks for some extra cash since the place is shorthanded.” 

“Well, Pack and Way are out,” I noted. “Raindrop isn’t here. So I’ll go with Alloy, Hobbes, and Calvin.” I nodded toward Murphy and Roald. “We’ll check it out, see what we can find.” 

“I’ll go with you.” That was Sierra. “Like I said, I really need to get out of here and stretch my legs. Besides, this way if something goes wrong, you’ll have some back-up.” She gave Paige a look. “It’s my turn to be out there. You can keep scanning the hard drives.” 

For a moment, I thought Paige was going to object. But she paused before exhaling. “Be careful.” Her gaze moved over the rest of us as she added, “All of you. Just don’t get involved in some big thing. If there’s trouble, get the hell out of there and come back. Like you said, we don’t want the Ministry to know that you’re involved. This whole house of cards will come down pretty damn quick if they get too many pieces of the puzzle.” 

Amber looked a bit guilty about the fact that she wasn’t going to be able to go with us. Focusing on me, she urged, “She’s right about being careful out there, okay? We caused a big scene last night. The Ministry is going to be on guard and itching for some payback after the bloody nose we gave them. They can’t cover everything, and they won’t know what we were looking for since we grabbed everything we could. But still, just… watch yourselves and don’t attract a bunch of attention. And if something goes wrong, call. I’d rather make an excuse for–I’d rather ditch and figure out how to explain it later so I can come help than have you guys end up in even worse trouble.” 

“We’ll be careful,” I promised. “We’re just going to check the place out and see if there’s anything to find that might tell us where that guy went. From those papers, it sounds like the Ministry took him from their safehouse to that spot. I’m pretty sure that means they just dropped him off, probably in a place he chose. Which would mean they don’t really have any ties to it. But either way, we’ll watch our backs.” Reaching out, I squeezed her shoulder. “But you watch yourself too, okay? Don’t get so distracted worrying about what we’re doing that you get yourself in trouble. There’s still a gang war going on out there.”

Pack made a noise in the back of her throat, before quietly excusing herself. She said something about coming back to check in on what we found later, before heading out to do her… whatever it was La Casa was doing. That whole situation was becoming more complicated by the day, especially given how much I could tell she and Amber liked each other. But it wasn’t my place to say anything. 

Instead, I focused on getting ready to go. With some reluctance, I changed into the other suit, complete with the raised shoes and fake chest. I didn’t want to, but if it came to it, better to be spotted by the Ministry looking like this than as Paintball. There was no sense in taking the risk, even if we weren’t planning on making a big scene. Or so I told myself repeatedly while putting the other suit on in the bathroom before going out to join the others. 

Peyton, Murphy, and Roald wore the same suits as last night as well, while Sierra simply had a ski mask. I had conflicting thoughts about her going out like that. But then again, I had conflicting thoughts about everything involving her. Including the fact that she was wearing a tummy-baring shirt and somehow pulling it off better than I could have even though the body she was using was literally identical to mine. 

So yeah, conflicting thoughts all around. Still, if we got caught and her mask was removed, we… it would be a whole thing anyway. If we got caught to the point that she lost the mask, I would lose mine too. And then we’d really have a situation. 

For the moment, however, I put all of that aside and tried not to focus on the terrible what-ifs. Instead, I headed out to the back lot where Fred’s car was. Unfortunately, just as we were about to head out, Peyton got a call from her mother. Apparently they had a sick friend, and her mother needed her to watch that friend’s kids while she took the woman to the hospital. She obviously felt bad about ducking out, but I assured her it was understandable and that we would be fine. After all, we were just going to poke around, it wouldn’t be that bad. 

She still looked doubtful, but stepped back while I got in the back of the sedan with Murphy and Roald. Sierra got in the front passenger side, not bothering with the mask just yet. 

Starting the car, Fred glanced in the back at us. “Don’t worry, those back windows might look clear, but…” He reached out, hitting something on the dash. “Now they’re tinted from the outside. Nobody can see you back there.” With a proud smile, he tapped the steering wheel. “She might look like an old jalopy, but Wren’s done a lot of tinkering. We get in a chase, whoever’s after us will be in for a big surprise.” 

“Let’s hope there’s no opportunity for you to prove that,” I put in. “At least, not today. But good to know.” 

“Just don’t let Paintball drive if you get into a chase,” Peyton pleaded while standing just outside the car, staring at us as though she was about to change her mind about going to help her mother.

Making a scoffing sound in the back of my throat, I primly pointed out, “I got us out of the last chase pretty well.” 

“You also got my stomach out of my lower torso pretty well,” Peyton shot back. “I’m pretty sure it still hasn’t settled properly.” 

Another huff escaped me. “Wimp. I could totally have driven crazier than that. I took it easy on you.” 

From the front seat, Fred gruffly informed us that he would be the one driving today. And with that, we all waved to Peyton and the others before pulling out onto the street. 

“Now,” our driver announced, “you all might want to sit back and relax for a few minutes, cuz if we’re trying to avoid attention, that means following the speed limit. And I guarantee, there’s gonna be traffic.”

He was right, of course. There was plenty of traffic from people heading home to get back before curfew hit. And just getting out of work in general. Pontiac had grown as well, alongside Detroit as it acted as a suburb for people to live in while working here in the city. At last count, the place had a population of about a hundred and fifty thousand or so. And part of me thought that the entirety of that was on the freeway with us. It made me want to jump out and find my own way to the city. Which would have been a terrible mistake, but still. 

It took over an hour and a half for us to drive the twenty miles from Detroit to Pontiac, which would have been worse if I hadn’t fallen asleep leaning against the window. When the car abruptly stopped, I jolted awake, suddenly feeling panicked about where I was and what was going on. 

“It’s cool,” Murphy assured me. From the sound of the yawn that came with her words, she had actually fallen asleep too. “We’re here.” 

“That’s right,” Fred confirmed, raising his hand to point across the street from where he had parked. “That’s the address. It’s number 3C.”  

I looked that way with the others and we immediately spotted an apartment building with what looked like some sort of memorial out front. There were flowers, wreaths, candles, and similar stuff all stacked up next to the stairs. 

“What…” I frowned. “What is that?” 

“I’ll check it out,” Sierra announced. And before I could say anything, she had the door open and was walking across the street to look at the memorial. There were a couple people standing nearby, and she said something to them before listening to their response. The whole time, I sat with my hands clenched tightly, praying nothing went wrong. 

A minute later, Sierra came back and got in. “It’s a memorial alright,” she announced. “Apparently a couple teenagers were killed by someone the day after that Luciano creep was supposed to have been dropped off. From what the one witness who survived said, they were poking around the dumpster back behind the building and someone attacked them. They ahh, they said it was a monster. Actually they said zombie. He came out of the garbage and screamed at them. The girl got away but her friends were… they weren’t as lucky. Apparently the monster bit them. Ripped their throats out with–” She stopped, grimacing. “It was bad, that’s the point. Real bad. And from the description the girl gave…” 

“Luciano?” I asked, before grimacing when she gave a silent nod. “Fuck. Okay wait, so…. the Ministry brought Luciano here… and the next day a few teenagers found him in the garbage, and when they disturbed him, he attacked and murdered a couple of them? By ripping their throats out with his teeth? And they said he was like a zombie? What–what does…

“What the fuck does that mean?”  

Previous Chapter

Enkindle 23-02 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

To my relief, the others did not immediately recognize the newly-dubbed Sierra as looking like me. The real me, that was. In the back of my mind, I sent a silent thanks that I had never really been a focus of paparazzi or whatever. I didn’t know how much of that was the fact that I didn’t fit what they would want to show as a daughter of Elena Evans, and how much was my parents keeping me sheltered from it. But either way, it helped me out right now. I could only imagine what sort of explanations we would have had to give otherwise. 

Maybe the truth. I was going to tell them the truth anyway, so why not now? It was a question I couldn’t quite answer, even to myself. th

Murphy, Roald, and Peyton were all circling Sierra, looking her up and down. Peyton gave a low whistle. “Damn, you really do look completely–I mean…” She looked back and forth between her and Paige. “I guess saying you look real is pretty bad, isn’t it? Cuz, like, you are real.”

Paige snorted at that. “Yeah, we’re real. Flesh and blood body, just like you. Well, not just like.” 

“More like a new and improved us,” Murphy murmured, before flushing a bit. “I mean, I didn’t–” She seemed to squirm a little bit as though embarrassed. “You both look great, but what I meant was the whole strength and speed stuff. Wait, do you have that same–you know.” She gestured a bit vaguely toward Sierra. “Improvements, I mean. Are you like a super-soldier like Paige?” 

A very slight smirk crossed the other girl’s face. And yes, seeing a look like that on my own face was still weird. The whole thing was weird. Every time I looked at her, I had another startling moment of realizing I was staring at my own face. It threw me off, to say the least. That smirk stayed as she inclined her chin a bit. “Like her? I’m pretty sure I could kick her ass.” 

Paige started to respond to that, and I quickly spoke up. “Why don’t we save finding that out for later? I’m just glad Rai–I mean Sierra has a body now, so we can move on to the next problem.” 

Roald made a noise deep in his throat, folding his arms across his chest before hesitantly asking, “You mean we don’t get to just be glad we got out of that whole thing alive and relax for awhile? She um, she has a body now, and it’s gonna take awhile to look through all that stuff, right? You don’t… you don’t want to go out and do something like that again already…”

Murphy’s hand slapped his back. “I think what he means is, we just did a lot of pissing some really powerful people off. And while all of that was fun, and they have that and a hell of a lot more coming–” Her face twisted a bit as thoughts of her brother clearly filled her mind briefly before she pushed them away. “–we probably don’t wanna push too hard, too fast. They’re gonna be on guard now. Even more on guard than usual. They’re gonna be watching for us. So maybe we should chill out.”

“He didn’t mean anything to do with the Ministry,” Paige informed them with a glance my way. “This is about my–our father.” The correction came as she met Sierra’s gaze briefly. “And the fact that he’s got…” She hesitated slightly, clearly deciding how much to actually say before starting over. “The fact that he’s got two Star-Touched trapped on that prison island with him. With them. With all those prisoners.” 

That made everyone else besides Sierra and me do a double-take. It was almost funny. Wren flew right up in the air, wings lifting her into a hovering motion so she was several feet off the ground. “Wait, wait, what?! He’s got Star-Touched on Breakwater?” 

“How did that happen?” Peyton demanded. “And how do you know about it?” 

Paige took a breath before explaining, “The Banners–the people who adopted… who bought me, they have an older daughter, a real daughter, who was estranged from them. When they went missing–err, when we went missing, she started looking for them. I guess Trivial was a friend of hers, because she convinced her to help look. Trivial got Flea, from the Conservators, to help too. When we found out that there were Star-Touched looking for me, we were afraid they’d tip off the Ministry. Or even that they were Ministry. So we made them think I was in Florida. You know, using a phone that made it look like that was where I was calling from.” 

Wren abruptly spoke up. “You were calling the umm, Trivial with that?” 

“Not at first,” Paige replied. “But when I wouldn’t tell Irelyn where I was, she uhh, thought making me talk to a Star-Touched would help. Obviously it didn’t change anything, but they kept trying.” 

This was all uncomfortable, obviously. I didn’t like the idea of lying to these guys. But then again, it was about protecting Irelyn’s secret identity. Awkward as the whole situation was, it would have been even worse to go blabbing that when it wasn’t our secret to tell. There was no simple answer here. We could either betray their trust by lying about the whole Irelyn/Flea situation, or betray Irelyn by exposing her identity to a lot of people she didn’t know anything about. I just had to hope that if this came out in the future, they would understand why we hadn’t told them the truth. Actually, I had to hope that they were cool with an awful lot of ‘not the whole truth.’  

I shook those thoughts off while Paige finished with a simple, “We thought it’d be safe enough down there, that they couldn’t get in trouble that far away from what was actually going on.” 

“You also sent them away from the city when this whole gang war is going on,” Roald pointed out. He didn’t exactly sound completely recriminating, but he didn’t not sound that way either. It was somewhere in the middle. “They could have done a lot of good here for people.” 

Wincing visibly, Paige nodded. “You’re right. We didn’t think they’d be gone for this long, honest. We assumed they’d go down for a few days and then come back. We didn’t expect anything like this.”  

“Stupid us, apparently,” Sierra put in. “Cuz they managed to get Pittman’s attention somehow and he had them… uh, we dunno what or how exactly, but they ended up on Breakwater. He has the phone they were using to communicate with Paige. Irelyn gave them the number. I guess she thought they might have more luck convincing her to tell them where she was.”

Peyton was looking back and forth between all of us, marbles orbiting agitatedly around her head while she was clearly thinking intently. “Okay, so this Banners woman was looking for you and her missing parents and she got a couple of Star-Touched involved. Does she know they ended up on Breakwater?” 

“We’re pretty sure she’s there too,” I found myself saying, picturing the hole I was digging getting deeper with each word. Though technically that was the absolute literal truth. We were pretty sure Irelyn was there. “Flea and Trivial went with her as back-up and now…” I grimaced. Fuck, it was so easy for this to go wrong and fall apart. The moment they didn’t see Irelyn with Flea and Trivial, it was–fuck. That was a problem to figure out later. We were doing the best we could not to give away her secret identity, but that could only go so far. 

“So there’s a Prev trapped on that island too?” Murphy blurted. “How’re they keeping her safe?” 

Paige shifted her weight a little, her tone flat. “She’s fully capable. Her father was training her to take over his security division before they had a falling out. She’s had more– she can take care of herself in a fight. With those two backing her up–or her backing them up–whatever, she can help.” 

I really almost had to admire Paige’s ability to lie in that moment. She really sounded like she was sticking up for Irelyn being able to keep up with a couple Star-Touched, as if offended by the insinuation that she would drag them down. 

Peyton started to say something else before stopping as a noise of confusion escaped her. “Wait, hold the phone, why isn’t this all over the news? If there were a couple heroes and some ordinary person trapped on that place, wouldn’t it be front-page material? We’d be seeing it on television, there’d be top pinned posts about it on Sphere, on Reddit, everywhere. And trust me, it’s not there. No one’s talking about anything like this. Not even rumors.” 

Grimacing behind my helmet, I shifted my weight uncomfortably before nodding. “That’s why we think they’re keeping it secret. The people on Breakwater, I mean. I don’t think they want anyone to know that there’s even a chance of good people ending up there. Because if people knew it was possible for someone to be transported onto Breakwater–” 

“They’d realize there must be a way to transport off of it,” Murphy finished, sounding disgusted. “And we can’t have that. Gotta keep up the fucking illusion of perfect security so there’s not mass panic in the streets or whatever the fuck they’re scared of. Even if it means abandoning those three–wait, do you think they’ve told the people here? Do you think their teammates know what happened to them? I guess they wouldn’t tell anyone that Irelyn chick knows, but the other two?” 

My head shook. “I don’t think the people in charge of that place would be able to keep it a secret if the Star-Touched here knew about it.” Pausing to consider, I added, “I mean, maybe one or two know, like the leaders? But I don’t… I don’t think even them. Honestly, I’m pretty sure that if even the Ministry knew about it, they’d be doing something to get the word out. Remember, their whole thing depends on balance. It’s not just about giving the villains a free ride. They need to have the power on the good side to shut down anyone who steps out of line. Losing two really good Star-Touched at any point, but especially right now, isn’t exactly conducive to that.”

“Besides,” Sierra put in, “Pittman’s their enemy. They’d want to get the word out and put a stop to it just to make sure that there was no chance of him getting off that place.” 

Peyton was nodding slowly, her voice thoughtful. “I mean, that’s a good point, right? Like, there’s no reason they’d be helping to keep this secret. Safe to say they don’t know anything about it.” 

Roald snorted. “Yeah, well, maybe we should tell them so they can do our work for us.” 

My mouth opened, before I stopped and grimaced behind the helmet. “I know you meant that sarcastically, but part of me wants to know if that’s something we could do. I mean, think about it. They’ve got a hell of a lot more resources than we do. And like we said, they’ve got every reason to want to shut him down and save Flea and Trivial.” 

“Has Irelyn been reported missing?” Peyton asked, her golden helmet tilting my way. “I mean, I doubt she took this much time off work. Her–wait, what does she do for work?” 

Paige was the one who answered. “She’s a security consultant for a few different tech companies. Trains their staff, works with a couple mercenary groups, that sort of thing. Freelance, so she doesn’t have anyone to report to. They might’ve noticed she hasn’t been answering calls, but what are they gonna say? Hell, they’d probably think she’s on some assignment for a different company.” 

Clearing my throat, I quickly spoke up. “The point is, it’s pretty doubtful that either the people she works with, or Flea and Trivial’s teammates, know how bad their situation is. Maybe they’ve noticed them missing, but even then it’s not like they’d jump straight to ‘they’re trapped on Breakwater,’ you know? No matter what they think happened, they’re probably keeping it quiet to avoid a panic.” 

“They might be blaming the Scions,” Roald pointed out with an audible grimace. “Maybe they think those guys grabbed them and are planning some big event.” 

“Please don’t even give me any reason to picture that,” Alloy groaned. “Cuz now I’m just wondering what those guys are actually planning for their big revenge come-back.” 

My head shook quickly. “Let’s not think about that right now. We’ve got enough problems to deal with. We just need to focus on how we get those people off of Breakwater.”

“Maybe you should let the Ministry know,” Fred put in. He was sitting over in the corner with a copy of the newspaper and a cup of coffee, shrugging when we looked at him. “Like you said, they’ve got the resources you–we don’t, right? And they’d want to convince the authorities to get those three out of there. You get them to put pressure in the right places, maybe the people in charge of the island just step in and pull them out. Could be that easy.” He paused, frowning at his cup. “Yeah, I know, it sounded wrong as soon as I heard it.” 

“I’m not sure how we can let them know what’s going on without becoming even more of a target ourselves,” I carefully murmured, thinking about it for a moment. “Or how we could get them to believe it. I mean, maybe we could get them to think that the people who hit them last night worked for him and lead them to it that way? But I don’t know how we could do that, exactly. It seems pretty… easy to screw up.” 

Wren was practically vibrating as fast as her wings while hovering in the air. “I think I can find out where the island is.” When everyone looked at her, she quickly added, “When you use the phone to talk to that mean guy. I think I can build something to track the signal to the source. Would that help? I mean, um, if you know exactly where the island is, maybe you could trade that to the people in charge and say something like, ‘you wanna keep that whole location a secret, so maybe you should get our friends out and it’ll stay that way.’”

That made me stare even more, my mouth opening and shutting a couple times. Of all the people who might have suggested literally blackmailing the authorities into getting Flea and Trivial off that island, I never would have expected it to be Wren. 

Apparently everyone else was just as surprised, because the girl found the whole group staring at her. Slowly, she lowered herself back to the floor, wings continuing to beat for a few more seconds before slowly fluttering to a stop. “What?” she asked weakly, looking back and forth between all of us. “Was it a bad idea?” 

I was the first to answer, my head shaking quickly. “No, not a bad idea. A surprising one for sure, and definitely a dangerous one too. Blackmailing the government into doing what we want them to do, even if it’s the right thing, could get a target put on our backs. Especially with something as big as the location of their super-inescapable prison.”

Paige spoke slowly. “He’s right about that. Believe me, just trying to force them to do what we want in the first place would be enough to make them look at us in a, let’s say not favorable light. Add in the part where it involves the secret location of the supervillain prison that every government in the Armistice alliance uses and…” She grimaced a bit. 

“But it’s still a good idea,” Sierra put in flatly. Her tone has made it clear that she was practically daring us to disagree, which would obviously mean coming up with a better plan of our own. “Think about it, it’s not like we can get over there ourselves. Even once we know where the island is, that place is so well defended that we’d get blown to smithereens before we got anywhere near it. Unless the kid’s ready to upgrade the odds of her teleportation system from a fifty percent chance of successfully moving a few blocks to a one hundred percent chance of moving all the way across the continent and over the ocean.” 

Wren visibly blanched at that, head shaking slowly. “Um, I’d rather risk blackmailing the government. Wait, does that make us bad guys?” 

“We’re saving a couple Star-Touched, and another good woman, from real bad guys,” Peyton reminded her. “That gives us a little wiggle room on the good or evil chart, doesn’t it?” 

“Yes,” I confirmed. “A little wiggle room. But let’s be careful with that, because I’m pretty sure we’ve been wiggling a fair bit already. Um. Wren, maybe you could work on creating that tracking system so we can call Pittman and get his location? Then we can decide what to do from there. I mean, it’s not like having the location automatically means we have to blackmail the government people, right? If anyone else can come up with a better plan, feel free.” 

“One that helps Trivial, Flea, and Irelyn as soon as possible,” Paige put in. “They might be good at what they do, but they’re stuck out there on an island full of the worst of the worst. Nobody’s good enough to survive in that place forever. And it’s our fault that they’re stuck out there to begin with.” 

A nagging voice in the back of my head was saying that everyone trying to think of a better solution might have more luck if they knew the full, correct situation. They were operating under the assumption that Flea and Irelyn were two separate people. That could very easily come back to bite us in the ass. But again, until we had permission from the woman herself, we couldn’t just go around blabbing her identity to everyone here. We were doing the best we could with a shitty situation. 

Wren was nodding almost frantically. “I’ll work on it. I’ll build it. I mean, I’ve got the design in my head already, but we might need to get a few things. They’ve probably got blockers–I mean they’ve definitely got blockers. Things to stop stuff like exactly what we’re gonna do. But I think I know how to get past them. I–uhh, gotta draw!” Even as she finished saying that, Fred was handing over a tablet with a stylus, and she quickly moved to a corner of the room to start sketching designs. 

After watching her for a second, I turned back to the others. “Well, that’ll keep her busy for a while. I guess there’s nothing else we can do for those three right now, so maybe we should start going over the stuff we found? Sorry, I mean the stuff we stole. Wren says the tracking stuff is all gone, right, Fred?” 

“Yeah, it’s all taken care of,” he confirmed. “The kid promises that everything over there is safe.” He gestured to a table on the other side of the room, where our bags were spread out. “There were a lot of trackers on it, but we got rid of them. Nobody’s gonna find that stuff here.” 

So, we all went over to find our own bags and started to sort through what we had stolen. First, I took those vials from the front pocket and unwrapped them from the towel before frowning thoughtfully. There were five vials in total, one blue, two purple, one brownish-black, and one a bright amber. There were labels on the vials, but it wasn’t like they had easy-to-understand names and explanations. Each label had four numbers and three letters on it. Such as, on the blue one, 9F2X7P0. The two purple ones looked identical, and the codes on them were close but not the same. One was 8D1J4N1 and the other was 8D1J4N8. Did that mean they came from the same batch? I had no idea. And I certainly wasn’t going to do anything stupid like uncork them and smell or touch the stuff without having a better idea of what it was. 

Hopefully there would be information in the files we’d taken, something we could use to decode the labels. For the moment, I carefully set them aside on the folded towel and turned my attention to the assortment of papers I had yanked off the wall back in that place. They had been taped up near the vials, so maybe they had something I could use? 

Unfortunately, the papers were no help. At least, not yet. They had the same sort of code written on them. Until we found the key for it, we still couldn’t decipher what any of it meant.

While I was focused on that, Pack arrived at the back door. Fred let her in, and she came with her lizards all over her shoulders, arms, and head. “I tell you, these guys must’ve been pretty upset about being left behind, because–what?” She had stopped in mid-sentence, staring at Sierra, who had just looked up. “What the hell are– err… oh.” Seeming to catch herself abruptly, the masked girl pointed. “That’s the body you found for Raige?” 

“Sierra now,” the girl in question corrected. “Sierra Nevada.” 

“Sierra Nevada,” Pack echoed thoughtfully, still staring at her. I couldn’t read her expression through that completely blank mask, but she sounded… odd. “Well, it’s good to meet you, Sierra. 

“Very good to meet you indeed.” 

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Enkindle 23-01 (Summus Proelium)

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Things hadn’t changed at all after I slept for a few hours. Nor did they after I splashed water on my face rather aggressively three or four times, or after I took a long hot shower. Even after all of that, as I got dressed, the situation was the same. Raige had her new body, and it looked identical to my body. She looked like me. Well, a blonde me with glasses and all, but still. How was I supposed to deal with that? What was I even supposed to do with it? I had no idea. I just–I couldn’t even think about it without my brain showing one of those old television test patterns. I thought I had been prepared for her to look like another Paige, even a younger Paige. It had occurred to me that a prototype body might look like a kid version of Paige. Or some random person. But a body that looked like me? It had never even crossed my mind as a vague possibility. I was completely dumbfounded by that whole situation, even now that I had gotten some sleep. If anything, I felt even more flummoxed by it. I just… couldn’t deal. 

Once I was in the hall outside the bathroom once more, Izzy was there waiting. She glanced toward me, then down the hall where the stairs were before shaking her head. She didn’t need to say anything. I knew what that meant. There was no sign of my parents. They were either still upstairs and hadn’t come down yet, or they had yet to come home. Given the situation we had left them with, I was going to bet on the latter. I was pretty sure it had been a long time since someone–anyone actually struck a blow against them at all, let alone got away with it. And given my parents weren’t standing in front of me demanding I tell them what the hell I was doing, they clearly hadn’t gotten any actual answers from their investigation so far. So, yeah, they were probably still out there working on it. 

Okay, was it weird that I felt a little bad about costing them sleep? Sure, part of me was glad for it, a little vindictively. But another part felt guilty. Why did I feel guilty about that? It was a tiny cost for them, basically inconsequential. And yet, I couldn’t entirely shut it out, even after telling myself how stupid it was. My brain wouldn’t listen to itself. Which felt unfair, though unsurprising.

Shaking that off, I nodded at Izzy before starting to walk that way. We didn’t go upstairs, of course. Those rooms were for my parents, and I had no reason to be there for the moment. The very last thing–okay one of the last things I wanted right then was for Mom and Dad to be told by the staff that I was snooping around. Given how paranoid they were bound to be after last night, I felt like they weren’t likely to dismiss anything like that. So, tempting as it had always been for me to go looking through their rooms for anything important and then just say that I was looking for them if anyone found me, now was probably not the best time. They would be on hyper-alert for anything out of the ordinary. 

Which was why we were going down to eat breakfast and then go to school. Even though I really didn’t want to, there was no choice. I’d rather curl up in bed for another three hours or so, and then get started dealing with all the everything that was waiting for us at Wren’s shop. But if my parents got a call that I had skipped school, that would be something out of the ordinary for them to pay attention to. Again, we had to avoid any suspicion right now. While they were dealing with the break-in, I needed my parents to think that everything back here at home was perfectly normal. We couldn’t give them any reason whatsoever to suspect that there might be something going on here, or just with us in general. There was too big of a chance that the whole house of cards would fall apart. 

So, we ate breakfast and took the ride from Jefferson to school. On the way, I checked the news on my phone. I wasn’t expecting to see anything about what had happened and I didn’t end up being surprised. There was a lot of stuff about the gang war and all that, even a bit about a car chase involving a van and several vehicles that had ended with the van in the water. But it didn’t go into any details other than that, and was stuck in the middle of an article about general violence in the city. Obviously, my parents weren’t going to let any details about what they knew get reported in the public news. So I checked for any social media posts about it, and got a couple vague ones that mentioned the ‘police chopper’ chasing the van. Other than that, it was all pretty much the same. 

Putting my phone away, I glanced toward Izzy before looking to the front. The partition was up, giving us privacy back here. And, well, giving Jefferson privacy up there. Shifting in my seat to use the intercom button, I waited for the beep before asking, “So how late did the play go last night? Should I feel bad that I wasn’t there, or glad that I can actually sit through school today without getting in trouble for falling asleep?” Boy, was it hard to get through that with a straight face. But it was even harder to get through it without yawning, which would’ve been even worse. 

There was a very brief pause before Jefferson’s voice replied, “It was nearly two in the morning when the play ended. I can hardly believe your parents would actually have allowed either of you to attend on a school night.” 

“Yeah, I think that was mostly Dad not thinking,” I replied easily. Again, I had to stifle a yawn. “But hey, maybe he would’ve convinced Mom that we should all stay home and sleep this morning. You think he’ll get up before noon?” I figured that was innocuous enough, a way of looking more like I was teasing my dad rather than probing for information. 

Again, there was a brief pause before he responded. “I believe your father was up and leaving for the office slightly before you appeared for breakfast, Miss Evans. He is very punctual when he wants to be.” There was a note of pride in his voice then, given his own preference for punctuality. Then he added, “Though I cannot say for certain what he will do once he arrives at the office, and he does have a quite comfortable couch.” 

Making a show of giggling a little, I let go of the intercom and leaned back to glance at Izzy. Neither of us said anything. We weren’t that stupid. We had talked a little bit before sleeping, and some more when the alarm dragged us out of far too little sleep. Now, all we did was nod very slightly before starting to talk about utterly inconsequential things. If anyone had actually been eavesdropping, I was pretty sure they would either give themselves a concussion falling asleep, or claw out their own ears to get away from the mundane teenage girl talk. 

Eventually, we reached the high school and I said goodbye to both Izzy and Jefferson  before hopping out. Without looking back, I started walking to the front door, as though it was just another ordinary day like any other. Some people waved and greeted me with a word or two, and I returned it before heading inside. Normal. I had to look normal. No seeming paranoid, no jumping every time someone said my name, no acting like that guy walking past was sent by my parents to grab me because they had figured everything out and wanted to have a discussion about it in person. Normal. Totally normal. 

“Cass!” Amber called out, nearly giving me a heart attack as she popped into view. “Come on, I’ve gotta show you something.” With a flick of her finger as though beckoning, she pivoted and walked toward the entrance of the library. “There’s no way we’re not getting those bonus points.” 

The two of us made our way through the library, heading upstairs and back to the reference section. This early in the day, there was no one back there. Well, almost no one. 

“Hey,” Paige spoke up, rubbing the back of her neck as she turned away from the large encyclopedia she had been looking at. “Uh, well I guess the first thing I should say is that Raige went for a walk.” 

That made me do a quick double-take. “I–she what? She went for a walk? As in out in public?” 

Paige shrugged a little, lowering her voice. “She said she had to get out and look around, stretch her legs, that sort of thing. And that she was going to get some more things to disguise herself, like colored contacts and spray tan. She had to get out of there. After all that time stuck on the couch, I can’t really blame her. And I’ve actually been free to walk around before. It’s her first time outside of sharing my memories.”

“Yeah, it’s her first time. Do you really think she–” Stopping myself, I exhaled. “Sorry. I’m just… kinda paranoid, I guess.”

“You have reason to be,” Amber put in, gesturing back and forth between the two of us. “And Paige has reason to want to trust her–you know, sister? Sort of? Even if she looks like–this is weird.” Her face twisted a little as she thought that through before settling on, “Really weird.” 

“You can say that again,” I muttered. With a sigh, I added, “But I get it. She’s not a prisoner, and we can’t treat her like one if we want to keep this whole allies thing going. Your dad already fucked her over and made her turn on him, I don’t want to be the same as that creep. Or even vaguely similar. I’m just a little weirded out by the idea that there’s some girl out in the city right now who looks like me. Even if she’s in disguise. It’s just… I guess it is like having a twin. And right now, my parents seeing a twin of me would be a real fucking disaster.” 

“They won’t,” Paige assured me. “Raige knows better than to go anywhere near them. Your parents are gonna be too busy dealing with everything that happened last night to go eat breakfast in some random dive, or walk through a completely different mall. Or whatever else Raige does. It’s a big city with a lot of people. As long as she doesn’t do anything to draw a bunch of attention to herself, she will practically be invisible. And I know how it sounds when I say that, but even Raige knows how to be subtle, believe me. She’ll be fine.” 

It kind of sounded like she was trying to fully convince herself of that, but I left it alone. There was no use worrying about something I couldn’t affect right now anyway. Instead, I took a breath before focusing on Paige herself. “You know this whole thing is going to be weird too, right? I mean, you being back at school and all that. People are going to wonder if the two of us aren’t at each other’s throats all of a sudden. It’ll be something weird and different, and stuff that’s weird and different might get back to my parents. It’s a little more complicated than two plus two to figure out what’s actually going on, but I feel like them knowing that you know something about their business and all of a sudden the two of us are all buddy buddy might just… give them too much to work off of. They might not get all the way to four, but I don’t particularly want them to know that there’s any addition to be doing at all.” 

Grimacing a bit, Paige nodded. “Yeah, that’s fair. I just–yeah, we’ll have to fake it. I mean, I was always faking it, so that won’t change for me. But–” She stopped, giving a low sigh. “You’re right, it’s weird. I always thought that… that at least after my birthday, I wouldn’t have to act like that anymore.” 

“You thought that because you were planning on being dead,” I shot back. “I’m gonna go out on a limb and say pretending to hate me and act like a psycho cunt who picks apart my insecurities is at least better than being dead.” 

Paige, in turn, coughed. “I do prefer being alive. I just–I hate that my dad’s bullshit still has to affect me even now. I just want to shove him out of my mind, but I–he’s… I still have to act the way he wanted me to act, just so your parents don’t get suspicious about things. And we still have to deal with him because Irelyn and Trivial are stuck out there. Which, for the record, I looked up everything I could find about Breakwater, and no one has said anything about anyone being there who shouldn’t be, let alone a couple Star-Touched.” 

My mouth opened, before I stopped and looked toward Amber. “Uh, wait, you know what–” 

“I told her,” Paige confirmed. “Earlier this morning. I don’t– I’m going to try not to tell anyone else in the group, if possible. Not yet, anyway. That’s just too many people to spill Irelyn’s secret to. But I thought having Amber involved would help. Four heads are better than three, or something.” She raised one shoulder in an absent half-shrug, clearly focusing mostly on the actual problem itself, her missing adopted sister. 

“Right, I know about that. But my question is, how is that even possible?” Amber demanded. “Them being trapped there, I mean. They have to have people watching the island, right? How could they have two Star-Touched running around there and not notice them?” 

“Maybe they did notice and just don’t care, or think it’d be a bigger controversy to get them off it,” I muttered a bit darkly. “The big thing about that place is that no one who isn’t supposed to be there can find it, and no one imprisoned there can get off, right? It’d probably be a pretty major hit to the place’s reputation if people found out that someone managed to send a couple Star-Touched there. Or anyone there. Which–how did they get there? We still don’t know. We don’t know anything about all that.” 

While Paige grimaced, Amber spoke up. “We’ll find out what happened. I, uhh, I’m not sure how yet, but we will. We just have to take this whole thing one step at a time. Getting Raige her own body was a step. Now we’ll figure out what the next one is. If they are hiding the fact that there’s two people stranded on Breakwater, maybe we can get the word out about that. You know, anonymously.” 

I wasn’t sure how that would work, or why anyone would believe rumors like that. But instead of naysaying, I nodded. “We’ll think about it. And we’ve got all those papers and files to go over still. Probably won’t help with this thing directly, but maybe they’ll have something about your dad from when they caught him, you know?” I looked to Paige then. “Something we can use.” 

“What about your pare–I mean your adopted parents?” Amber asked the other girl. “We still have no idea where they are, right? What’s the school gonna say?” 

Paige shrugged. “Not much. As far as they’re concerned, they already talked to Mr. Banners over the phone and he apologized for keeping me away for so long. But… yeah, we don’t know where they are. I never knew what my father was going to do after all that went down. They haven’t… found their bodies or anything, so…” She shifted, looking uncomfortable. “I don’t know. I wish I did.” 

We talked a little bit more about all that, and other stuff, but hadn’t come up with anything substantially useful by the time we had to go to class. Amber and I let Paige go first so we wouldn’t be seen walking together. After she headed out, I looked at the other girl. “I kinda feel like I could fall over and die for ten hours or so. And thinking about all the things we still need to deal with isn’t helping.” 

“Tell me about it,” she replied, “I almost threw my alarm clock out the window this morning. You have no idea how tempting it was to just call in sick. Err, well I guess you do.”

“I definitely do,” I agreed, yawning. “I’m gonna take a nap this afternoon. I don’t want to, but I don’t think I have a choice. I’ll be worthless sitting at the shop staring at those files if I don’t sleep for a couple more hours.

“If Raige really wanted to walk around and experience her new body, I should’ve had her take my place today so I could sleep in.” 

******

Thankfully, nothing much happened through the rest of the school day. I saw Paige a couple more times from a distance, or in the classes we shared, but we avoided having any direct contact for the moment. Neither of us were exactly eager to get back to playing things out the way they were supposed to go, so I supposed we were avoiding it. Paige was with all her school friends every time I saw her, laughing it up and going on about her long vacation and how her dad had insisted on some sort of spiritual retreat to ‘get back to basics’ or something. Whatever her cover story was, it had her audience enthralled. 

She did apparently talk to Amber a bit more, specifically about Raige. Who had apparently chosen a different name to go by. 

Now it was later that evening. As promised, I had gone home and taken a nap for a little bit. When I got up, my parents still weren’t around. They were really busy with this whole break-in thing. So Izzy and I ate a quick early dinner before heading out. She and Amber had to do Minority stuff, which left me standing here on the roof of Wren’s shop with Paige and the girl formerly known as Raige. Or rather now…

“Sierra, was it?” I asked the girl in question while looking her up and down. She did look somewhat different from me here in the daylight. Well, the resemblance was still there, obviously. But with slightly darker tanned skin, different-colored eyes with the contacts, glasses, long hair on both sides, and the fact it was blonde… yeah, she was different. Then there were the clothes. She was wearing a tummy-baring shirt and tight pants that I just could not pull off. 

Well, I supposed technically there was–that is–I wasn’t… huh. Now I felt even weirder.

On top of all that, she was a couple inches taller than me, somehow. All put together, while I was sure my family and those really close to me would recognize her–or rather me, most others would probably at worst notice a weird resemblance. Hopefully we could do more to shift her appearance eventually, but this was a fairly decent start for the time being. 

Inclining her head a bit, the girl nodded. “That’s right. Raige was a little over-the-top and not really… me. So you know, my solution for being too over-the-top was to name myself after a mountain range. Sierra Nevada. First name, last name. We’ll be working on paperwork and identification.” She gave me a sly smirk. “On top of all the trust issues and psychological trauma, Pittman did give us a pretty good understanding of how to go about that. You should see all the fake IDs Paige has.” 

Clearing her throat, Paige gestured. “At least she pulled off looking pretty different.” 

“Even took a page out of your books and got a few different shoes with lifts in them,” Ra–Sierra drawled idly, gesturing down at them. “Not huge ones, just a couple inches. Enough that your pals down there probably won’t look at the two of us and see that we’re the exact same height.” 

“Right, uhh, thanks for that.” Biting my lip thoughtfully, I looked her up and down once more. “I don’t suppose you came up with any genius ideas for getting Irelyn and Trivial off Breakwater while you were at it?” 

“Sorry, babe,” she replied with a shrug. “I thought about it, but kinda came up empty. I think we’ll have to get the kid involved. If anyone’s gonna have an idea about how to move a couple people off an island we can’t find, it’s her.” 

She had a point. And, as I was thinking about that, we all heard voices from below. Peyton was arriving at the store, along with Murphy and Roald. 

“Well,” I started with a gesture toward the ladder leading down, “I guess we should get down there and start talking it over with her, huh? And while we’re at it, we can officially introduce you to the others, Sierra.

“But for the record, if any of them immediately says ‘hey that’s Cassidy Evans with blonde hair,’ I quit.” 

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Interlude 22C – Double-Oh Eits (Summus Proelium)

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This whole thing had always been stupid. It was so stupid, and dangerous. Ryder Towling knew that. He had known from the start just how bad it would be for him if he was caught doing something like this. Going into Sherwood territory undercover as a tutor so he could find out why Cup and Pencil wanted to find this Errol Fosters kid so badly? It was ludicrous. He’d come in here repeatedly with no backup, no one who even had the slightest clue where he was, doing his best to snoop around without getting caught. If the Sherwood people realized that there was a member of La Casa in their territory… Yet what choice did he have? If he was going to get the answers he’d been looking for, he had to take a few risks. 

But he had never expected those risks to come to this.

“Last chance. Either tell the truth right now, or… well, you should just tell the truth. Trust me, you don’t want to face the consequences. I can get pretty creative.” 

Facing his interrogator, Ryder closed and opened his hands a couple times. He could feel sweat on his palms, and had to restrain himself from shaking them out or wiping them against his legs. To show fear would give them what they wanted, and he couldn’t do that. Not if he wanted to get through this. 

“Okay, fine,” he finally managed, speaking through a throat that had threatened to close up on him. “I’ll tell you… I’ll tell you the truth.” He took a deep breath, bracing himself before forcing himself to speak the words that his tormentor was waiting for so expectantly. 

“The first time I ever kissed someone was when I was fourteen. She was a girl in my bio class who wanted to see if I umm… if I kissed like a boy. It was while I was still, um, pre-op.” 

Hearing that, Arleigh Fosters whooped and thrust both arms in the air while leaning back in her seat at the kitchen table right next to him. “Hah, told you losers, earlier than both of you! That’s two points for answering the question, and two more points for beating you guys. Dude’s first kiss truth was worth four points. Suck it.”

Across the table, Micah Fosters, Arleigh’s twenty-year-old brother who had actually asked the question before ‘teasing’ Ryder about facing the consequences, smirked a little. “I don’t think that fourth point counts.” He gestured to the thirteen-year-old boy beside him. “Errol’s not even fourteen yet. If he gets a kiss before his next birthday, that’ll be an illegal point.”  

Glancing to the scrawny, stringy-haired blond boy with glasses, then back to Micah, Arleigh snorted in clear disbelief while waving a hand. “Yeah, sure, dude. I’m shaking in my boots at the possibility. Errol, when was the last time you physically, in-person spoke to a girl your own age outside of school?” Belatedly, she added, “And off the school grounds. Truth or Dare, E. I’ll spot you six points, minus one for every day it’s been. Or you can go for a six point dare, your choice.” 

From the dangerous smile she gave then, the dare would probably have been a bad idea. 

Shrinking back in his seat slightly, Errol hesitated before slowly answering, “Away from school and off school grounds? An hour ago.” 

While Micah guffawed, Arleigh let the front of the chair she had been tipping back on come back down with an audible thump. “What? When did you talk to a girl?” 

“Izzy,” Errol replied promptly. “We had to talk about our project so we met at the library. You said away from school, you didn’t say it couldn’t be about school.” 

“Oh come on!” Arleigh protested. “It was implied! The whole point was, when was the last time you had a real conversation with a girl that she didn’t have to have because of school.” 

With some effort, Ryder managed to resist the urge to elbow the girl beside him. Honestly, he didn’t even think she was thinking about how she was treating her little brother. She wasn’t intentionally trying to make fun of or embarrass him, it was just… how she was. Not that that made it any better, really. And it made him wonder just how nasty she could be when she was trying. 

Micah, by that point, was shaking his head. “Nuh uh, no take-backs. You said what you said. That’s six points for Errol here. Not his fault you suck at phrasing things. It was an easy six points for your side. All you had to say was, ‘when was the last time a girl chose to speak to you outside of school and for no school-related reason.’”

Yeah, okay, maybe they both just sucked, Ryder decided. Not that this was a new revelation. It hadn’t taken him very long to decide that both of the older siblings were the sort of people whom he would quite gladly never have anything to do with if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. 

And yet, was it absolutely necessary? The thought drifted through his mind briefly before he dismissed it. Yes. If he wanted real answers about the whole Errol situation, and he did, then it was necessary. He had to keep sitting here, playing their stupid points-based Truth or Dare game for as long as it took to get his other work done. Work that would have been finished already in most houses, but for this one he had to be extra careful. He has spent several visits over these past few weeks mapping out the house as best as he could. Specifically mapping out not only the cameras he’d been able to spot, but every plant as well. Here in Sherwood territory, all flowers, cacti, vines, potted plants of every variety could be a spy. He’d had to come here multiple times, using secret cameras in his backpack he could study the video in an attempt to find a route through the house that didn’t involve passing any plants that could’ve spotted an intruder.

Luckily, the intruders he had in mind were only about five inches tall. 

Even with all his planning, walkthroughs, and the videos of his time in the house, this whole thing would’ve been impossible if it wasn’t for one thing. The Roomba. Every time he’d visited, stood in the kitchen to talk to one of the others, gone upstairs to tutor Arleigh, every time he was around, Ryder had noticed a Roomba busily doing its work somewhere in the house. It was one of the newer models with the ability to hover so it could more easily get around obstacles or go upstairs. Which was pretty important when it came to his plan.

Unfortunately, the only time the Roomba went upstairs, as far as he had seen, was right when he was normally leaving. Which really didn’t work for him, and was what led to this whole situation. Managing to maneuver himself an invitation to stay for dinner without being obvious about it had taken some time and a bit of luck, but now he was here. Even better, their father wasn’t here. He’d told them to order a couple pizzas and not to stay up too late or turn the music up so loud that it would bother ‘them.’ The Sherwood people, obviously. How the Fosters managed to maintain even relatively calm relations with the infamously technology-hating gang when their dad was so deeply tied to the tech-delivering company Taurus was still a mystery. 

Well, actually, money. The answer was probably money. No matter how much Sherwood hated technology, Ryder was willing to bet they put it aside for a certain amount of cash. And lord knew the Fosters had cash. Not Evans-level cash, but then again, who else was that loaded? 

Either way, the Roomba was the key. While he and the Fosters had been sitting around the table playing the stupid game as they waited for the pizza to be delivered, Ryder listened and watched for the little robot vacuum to buzz by on its way under the table. That was the only totally clear spot here in the dining room. There were two cameras that could each keep the entire area they were sitting at in view, and no less than five potential spy plants. He didn’t know that they were being watched by the plants, but it was a possibility. And that was too dangerous. Even if the Sherwood people weren’t on good enough terms with the Fosters to say anything about seeing the innocent, nobody tutor snooping around using tiny energy gremlins, they sure as hell would have a few words to say to Ryder about it. He’d be throwing his secret identity away, letting Sherwood know who he was, and exposing himself to all sorts of trouble. 

Thus, waiting until the Roomba went under the table. As it did, he shifted his position just a little as though turning to look at Arleigh. In the process, the boy summoned four of his so-called mites (miniature invaluable technology elves). The quartet of tiny figures were crowded on his hand, but they knew to stay silent rather than make their normal cackling shrieks. This was a stealth mission. As soon as the Roomba passed by beneath his outstretched hand, they leapt off and fell onto the thing, disappearing inside it right before the robot exited out the far side of the table and back in view of everyone. 

So far so good. Managing not to let his relieved exhale be too obvious, Ryder spoke up. “Are you sure the pizza guy’s gonna be okay coming through this area? I mean… you know.” Even as he was saying that, he was also viewing things through the eyes of his mites. Or rather, through the Roomba they were possessing. 

He may have been just this side of useless in a direct physical confrontation, but if there was one thing Ryder actually was good at, it was multitasking. It was literally a superpower, allowing him to carry on his own actions and engage in full conversations with the people around him while also seeing and directing his mites off on their own things. He couldn’t really describe what it was like to see things through multiple sets of eyes at once, let alone how it felt to direct multiple different actions at the same time. It felt like acting as himself but multiple times and all at once. 

Yes, it was weird. But it was also quite useful. During official missions with the rest of La Casa, he could monitor multiple possessed cameras, doors, vehicles, and more all at once with no problems of having to divide his attention. Every mite he had active was another completely separate focus that he could keep track of all at once. 

While the Roomba slowly made its way out of the kitchen (he couldn’t exactly just take control and direct it straight where he wanted the thing to go without being too obvious), Arleigh snickered. “You mean those nature-loving pussies? Don’t worry, they know better than to mess with our food.” Turning a bit as though looking at one of the nearby flowers, she added, “They’re not as tough as they think they are.” 

With a sigh, Micah muttered, “Don’t antagonize the gang, Arleigh.” 

“Oh please, they’re not always watching.” Arleigh rolled her eyes before glancing to the boy beside her. “They just want people to think they are. They love to make everyone paranoid.” 

While all that was going on, the Roomba with its stowaways trundled along out of the kitchen and did several passes through the small area in front of the stairs. Much as he wanted to send the thing straight to where he needed it now, what Ryder absolutely did not want was for Mr. Fosters or anyone else who happened to review the camera footage from today for any reason to notice something amiss. Everything had to look as normal and mundane as possible. Still, he couldn’t help but hurry it along a bit. The thing still followed its normal route, but did so faster than usual. He really doubted anyone paid quite that much attention. 

So, before long, the Roomba made its way up the stairs, hovering onto each one to vacuum it in turn. Speeding the thing up slightly without running out the motor or attracting attention, Ryder continued to focus his own physical body’s attention on the others, offering a shrug. “I guess if you think it’s okay. Pizza guy wouldn’t agree to make the delivery if it was that dangerous, right?” 

Errol spoke up a bit hesitantly, “Yeah, they know what sort of rules to follow. They come in, deliver things, then leave. There’s um, a list of license plates and people who aren’t allowed to deliver in this area anymore because they broke the rules.” 

“And the place we order from has a good rep,” Micah put in. “So don’t worry your little head off, my man. It’s all gonna be fine.” 

At that point, it was Errol’s turn to offer a truth or dare to one of the two sitting across from him. After giving his sister a brief look while she stared him down, the boy instead focused on Ryder. “Truth, what do you want to be when you grow up? I mean, when you graduate and all.” 

While Arleigh made a noise that was halfway between a groan and a laugh, Micah spoke up. “Oh come on, dude. You can do better than that. That’s the wussiest question ever. We’re not five years old. Here.” He leaned over and whispered something in the younger boy’s ear. 

Errol hesitated after hearing it before sighing. Focusing on Ryder once more, he tried again. “Okay, okay. What do you want to be when you grow up for one point, and for one point each, name three jobs you’d rather die than take.”

With a visible smirk, Micah shrugged while drawling, “Kid still really doesn’t seem to get the point of Truth or Dare, but we try to keep things light for him. Consider this a freebie. But be warned, next time it comes back to us it’ll be my turn again and I will make up for my brother taking it easy on you.” 

Right, this wasn’t that hard. And even if it had been, there was no way that Ryder was going to request a dare. Not when everyone in the room was allowed to make suggestions. He already knew that the older two Foster siblings had plenty of what they would consider interesting ideas on that front. So, he hesitated only slightly before replying, “Well, as far as what I want to be when I grow up…” Several thoughts ran through his mind, most of which he couldn’t say without exposing too much about his true extracurricular activities. “I kinda want to be a chef. Like, a pastry chef. I want to make super-delicious treats that people pay a lot of money for. You know, the kind they serve in five-star restaurants and charge ridiculous rates for. Not really for the money or fame or anything. I don’t think pastry chefs get famous no matter how good they are. But because I want to make those obscenely rich people pay absurd amounts of money for my cakes and things, then turn around and sell stuff that’s just as good to completely normal public high schools for like… pennies. Just because I can.” 

While saying that, he was also focusing on the Roomba. It had made it up the stairs and was heading into Micah’s room. The door opened for the little robot automatically, allowing the thing to get in there and do its work. Ryder had only been in that room once, so he had to be careful. Watching through the Roomba’s camera, he waited until it went under the bed, then made one of his mites hop out. The thing would only have a few seconds of life before vanishing, so he had to be quick. On the way through, he’d taken note of the two plants in the room. One was a small flower up on a shelf by the door, while the other was a cactus sitting in one corner. As long as he had the mite stay under the bed until it reached the end, then use the desk for cover, he could get it around to the back of that desk and up into the computer without being spotted. 

At the same time, the Roomba had finished its work and went out into the hallway. From there, it went through Arleigh and Errol’s rooms, and he did pretty much the same thing. Getting his mites into the computers of all three Foster siblings, all while continuing on to detail the three jobs he’d rather die than take (veterinarian, police officer, pest control). 

Then it was his turn to ask a question. Honestly, he’d rather just pass and focus more on what he was doing, but he had to keep up the ruse. So, after thinking about it for a moment, Ryder looked at Micah. “Truth, if you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?” 

Rather than respond immediately, the older boy seemed to consider for a few seconds. Then he offered a slow smile before replying, “Dare.” 

Well that was a little surprising. Why would the boy rather do a dare, one he had to know his sister would jump on, then answer the question of where he’d like to live? 

Sure enough, Arleigh was already bouncing up and down, delighted about getting a chance to do a dare against her older brother. As soon as the boy confirmed he would be going with that, she bolted off the seat and began to prepare some sort of concoction in the kitchen that she was going to make him drink. 

Yeah, that sounded gross, but whatever. It gave Ryder a moment of peace, and he took full advantage of that. The Roomba had made it to its main target, the office that he had never been allowed to go into. It was Trey Fosters’ office. Arleigh, Errol, and Micah’s father. And here, he had to be even more careful, using the Roomba’s camera to watch for anything that could spot his last mite. From what he could tell, there was only one spot under the desk that would be out of sight of the large floor to ceiling plant in the corner by the window (which itself had a large tree visible through the glass). He waited for it to be there, then had the mite hop out, shimmy along the corner of that desk, then slip through a hole for a cord and into the actual computer. 

He had done it. All four of the computers had his mites in them,  and he was pretty sure no one knew about it. Now all he had to do was have them download all the files from those computers to the beefy ten terabyte USB drive in his pocket. He doubted he’d need that much, but he’d wanted to come prepared. 

While his mites did their work, Ryder focused on making as queasy a face as he could. It wasn’t that hard, considering he could see some of the things Arleigh was putting in that drink. “Are you sure you want to taste that?” 

“I think you underestimate me, tutor-guy,” Micah retorted. “Believe me, if there’s one thing you should know, it’s this. 

“I play for keeps.” 

*******

He should have brought a bigger USB drive. As it was, Ryder ended up having to focus mostly on the files from Trey Fosters’ computer. That by itself had ended up being a full six and a half terabytes. The rest of the space he’d split up among the other three as evenly as possible, getting all the files he could with a focus on anything that mentioned Touched, the Scions, Errol’s name, and so on. 

He didn’t really look at what he’d gotten in the process. Even his multitasking ability only went so far, and he didn’t trust himself to keep a poker face if he found something important. So, he waited until he was safely done eating, out of that house, in his car, and far from the Sherwood neighborhood before pulling over in a parking lot next to a bookstore. Then he used a cord to plug the USB drive into his phone and started to look at what he’d found. It would take a long time to sort through it all, of course, but he wanted to get at least a first glance. 

Using one of his mites for help, Ryder searched through the video files from all the security footage that had been on Trey’s computer. He had his little buddy search specifically for any moments in the audio that mentioned Errol and the Scions within thirty seconds of each other. 

There, a conversation had been recorded inside the office about a week earlier. Quickly, after glancing around reflexively to ensure that he was still alone in the dark parking lot, Ryder told it to play on his phone screen from a point a few seconds before those keywords were mentioned.

Two people were standing in the office when the video started. One was Trey Fosters himself, a dark-haired man in his early forties who clearly spent a lot of time working out. The other, meanwhile, was a nondescript red-haired man with a neatly trimmed goatee and dark eyes. 

“You know why Cup and Pencil are after my son?” Trey was asking, standing behind his desk with his attention laser-focused that way. “Then don’t keep me in suspense. Or do I have to say pretty please, Minister Gold, tell me why the Scion psychopaths have been trying to find my son all this time?” 

Minister Gold? That was a weird–shaking that off, Ryder focused on listening. 

“Yes, Hemlock, we do,” came the response.  

Despite his resolve to focus, Ryder quickly paused the video. Hemlock?! Arleigh’s father was Hemlock, second-in-command of Sherwood? Did she–did they–of course they knew. That was… that was why they–oh. The man who was so big in the technology delivery game was second-in-command of the gang that hated technology? What the fuck was that about? Why–how would–oh.

Oh. Big oh. He hadn’t just stolen information and files from some random family inside rival gang territory. He’d accidentally stolen identity-revealing information from the gang itself. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. He didn’t mean to. Could he–no. No, he couldn’t apologize. They didn’t know what he’d done, and if they found out, they weren’t going to listen to him try to claim he hadn’t done it on purpose. Oh God. Wait, did that mean Arleigh was–she couldn’t–wait.

Shaking those thoughts off for the moment, he hit play once more. However reluctant he was to do so, after he’d done all this already he might as well get the answers he’d been looking for. 

“It took some digging,” that Minister Gold was saying, “but it turns out Errol’s birthparents, Colette and Shane Elbrecht, were old college roommates and friends of Rodney Barlow. AKA Overseer.” 

Overseer. Ryder had heard that name before. He’d been a huge threat in Wisconsin about seven years earlier. Wisconsin to start anyway, but with enormous potential to become a national problem, with his power to touch anything that came off a person’s body, like their hair, blood, sweat, and so on, and ‘charge’ it. When a body part was charged, Overseer could see through that person’s eyes, hear what they heard, and even control them like they were an extension of himself. But even worse than that was the fact that if he got enough body parts, he was able to fashion them into small dolls. And those dolls could be used by anyone, even someone without powers, to control the person in question. 

Needless to say, Overseer had been a real target. He’d risen up the Fell-Touched ranks, been a problem for awhile, and then disappeared. There were a lot of rumors about Touched on both sides of the fence banding together to get rid of him before he became too much of a threat, given he could control all of them if he’d gotten his hands on enough of their hair and other bits. 

“From what we’ve been able to put together,” Minister Gold was saying, “Cup and Pencil have gotten their hands on a DNA-locked safe from the Elbrechts. We believe that inside that safe are various… dolls their old friend left in their care.” 

“Dolls,” Hemlock echoed. “You mean Overseer’s dolls, the ones he was making on his way to come play in this town before you sent your dogs after him.” 

“Yes,” Gold replied. “Which means if Pencil and Cup manage to open that safe, they’ll have access to every doll he stored in there. 

“And they’ll be able to control potentially every Detroit Touched who existed back then.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Interlude 22B – Meanwhile On Breakwater (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The drone passing over the island known as Breakwater was silent, while its physical appearance was masked by the thick clouds. Clouds which threatened rain, but had not amounted to more than a few drops just yet. Yet before the day was out, it would certainly become a deluge. Being an island in the middle of the ocean, rain was not exactly an uncommon occurrence. Its inhabitants had long-since learned to recognize the signs that a particularly strong storm was coming and seek shelter. From their various caves, holes, and more man-made shelters, these people who would have been (and once were) considered some of the most dangerous supervillains in the world would watch the rain when it came. For most, it was a welcome sight each time, as it meant they would have more fresh water collecting in the various tarps and bins they had set up for such a purpose. More water meant they could be more active, and even meant they could eat more food. Digesting food properly required water. When there was less water, even when they had food, it was dangerous to eat. They would dehydrate faster if they ate food without having enough water. Having as much as possible was important, and it wasn’t always possible to get to the island’s main river, or the various smaller streams that led off from it. 

There were three ready-sources of potable water on the island, if someone didn’t want to go through the process of making the sea water drinkable. One was the river that ran through the center of the island. But the river, and the streams leading off from it, were often dangerous. Even if one avoided passing through claimed territory, there were those who hunted one another along its banks. After all, the people of this island had not been sentenced here for their ability to be nice to one another and get along. While the island was thirty-six miles long and sixteen miles wide, the river was only about nine miles in length, originating just north of the center, and angling southwest. Those nine miles were heavily protected either by various established and fortified camps of prisoners who had agreed to work together under the often dictatorial fist of their strongest and/or most dangerous member, or by rogue loners who ambushed anyone foolish enough to come into their view and look vulnerable. They had been removed from society for being monsters who killed, tortured, and destroyed lives. They didn’t all stop and become better people simply because their only possible targets were others like them. 

The second source of decent water was the rain, like that which would soon be pouring heavily onto the island, ensuring that even those who stayed far from the dangerous river would survive. Even if they had to slurp from the heavy leaves the rain left soaked through, they could keep going. 

And the last real source was the supply drops, where large crates of not only water, but also food, medicine, and even entertainment were sent to the island. There were two different kinds of these drops. The first sent the supplies to the same location every time, regular drops that could be depended on. Like the easily-defensible spots of the river, the areas each of these drops were made had almost immediately become encircled and fiercely defended by the largest gangs of Breakwater prisoners. Though ‘largest’ wasn’t saying much, given no gang on Breakwater had more than twenty members. They simply could not get along beyond that. Larger groups inevitably broke apart as their personalities clashed. 

In any case, these smaller groups sometimes did work out. They formed camps around where these drops were. The boundaries of these camps constantly fluctuated, as the various gangs fought to bring and keep as many of the steady supply drops within their territory as possible. Especially any supply drop within a near enough distance to the river for a gang to control both. Those were the single most dangerous parts of the island, as small-scale wars often broke out for control of them. A lot of blood had been shed in the name of holding onto the most coveted areas.

But the second type of drop was far more interesting in some ways. Rather than being sent to the same location every time, these drops were random. The crates would simply be sent down first, then have their locations broadcast over the island’s speaker system so that everyone would know where to go find them. 

Why did they do that? Because the people behind the island enjoyed mixing things up and seeing their prisoners fight one another. Which was why the crates with the most entertainment and extras beyond the bare necessities were often these random drops. The people behind Breakwater had long-since found that the island’s inhabitants would fight the hardest for these extras. The prisoners saw water and basic food as possible to get in other places. They had fish, they had animals, they had ways of feeding themselves and drinking, even if it wasn’t the best and wasn’t easy. Books, though? Pillows and blankets? Batteries for their music devices and new music itself? Even cards and board games, and other ways of making the days go by. Those were what worked best to encourage the prisoners to go out and run into one another. They were what the people would most often fight and even sometimes kill for. So those were what was often put into the randomized drops. Even then, they often weren’t really random. They were deliberately chosen in ways that would push so-called interesting groups or individuals together in order to create intriguing or exciting situations. 

After all, it was important that the prisoners entertain their eternal watchers. 

“You’re sending out a drop now, in this weather?” 

The question came not from one of the island’s prisoners, and not even from the island itself. Rather, it came from a man standing in the hatchway of a small room located on a large military ship several miles away. His dark blond hair was cut short on the sides, though the top was a bit of a mop of curls. At a glance, he would have been guessed to be in his late thirties.

Meanwhile, the man he was addressing appeared to be ten years younger, with black hair that was worn somewhat long, just past his ears. This one sat at a console, watching several monitors in front of him as the drone he had launched passed over the island they and those like them were charged with watching over. 

“I’m sending those Stars a little help,” the man at the console replied. “They’ve survived this long, it’s about time they got something.” 

From the doorway, the other man made a noise in the back of his throat. “You know what the orders were, Colin.”

“Yeah,” Colin confirmed. “They can’t get off the island because finding out people can be sent there would make everyone paranoid. And because this is our biggest ratings boost since this whole show started. I get it, Lyle.”

“Do you?” Lyle stepped into the room, shaking his head. “All three of the Earths that we broadcast this Vile Island reality shit to have reported record numbers. Having those two on that island with all those people looking for them is gold to the Board. They are seeing cartoonish levels of dollar signs, my man. Before this happened, they were talking about doing some other big stunts to spice things up. I even heard a couple of them talking about possibly letting the people on this world watch the show.” 

Colin gave him a brief, disbelieving look. “This world? There’s no way that would fly. We’d get shut down so fast the Boards’ heads would spin if the people of this world knew the ultimate island prison was a goddamn supervillain Truman Show mixed with one of those battle royale flicks. Has the Board lost their minds, or did they just forget that that’s the whole damn reason we broadcast to other worlds? Worlds where they know no version of Baldur exists so they can’t rat us out to this version, I might add. If they’re so paranoid about being caught they won’t even broadcast to a world where another version of Baldur exists, how the fuck were they going to broadcast it here?” 

“You got me, man,” Lyle replied with a shrug. “All I know is they were talking about it. But since those two showed up, it’s all about them. They want to see more. They want the prisoners to keep chasing them, keep fighting them. And it’s not just views. People have been betting on this shit. On how long they last, on which of them will die first, how many they’ll take out with them, whether they’ll find a way off, all of it. And since the Board owns all of the official betting sites, they take a cut. I think they’re getting visions of Scrooge McDuck’s money bin. So trust me, if anything threatens that, they’ll come down on us like a hammer the size of this ship. If they even get a whiff that we’re about to fuck up their bottom line, they will shove the fist of God up our asses and rip our colons out the hard way.” 

“Relax,” Colin retorted, “I’m not threatening their bottom line. Everything in the drop is kosher.  Nothing in there that isn’t approved by the Board themselves. You know how hard it is to sneak something new into those crates. Everything has to be approved sixteen different times. All I did was give them some extra supplies to keep going, and send it near their last known location.” 

Lyle watched him for a moment. “Let me guess,” he slowly put in while tugging a chair out to sit next to the other man at the console, “you’re not announcing the drop over the PA.” 

“Rules are rules,” Colin pointed out, “I have to announce it. Except I always get the grid mixed up. Is this area six-eleven or eleven-six? Oh well, I suppose if it turns out to be the wrong announcement, I can always correct it later.”  

“After all the prisoners are sent in the wrong direction,” Lyle murmured with a very faint smirk. “So those girls you like can get everything out of it and move on.” 

Colin turned back to the monitors then, watching as the drone targeted the area for its drop. “Maybe I can’t help those two get off the island, or tell anyone what’s going on so they can get them out of there. But I can damn sure give them a little bit of a fighting chance to keep going. Especially after they’ve made it this far on their own. You got a problem with that?” 

There was a very brief pause before Lyle offered him a sly smile. “Nah. I’ve got money riding on them getting out of this.” 

******

Irelyn Banners had not had a very good week, to say the least. Since the moment she and Trivial had ended up on this island, they had been fighting to survive. The best of the people here wanted to kill them. The worst… well, she’d rather not focus on that. There were cannibals and truly horrific monsters among the Breakwater inhabitants. Being evil was a requirement to be sentenced to this place. The population was one hundred percent hardened supervillains. 

Or rather, ninety-nine point nine percent. She and Trivial had thrown off that perfect score slightly. 

The two of them had been moving around a lot, staying away from the gangs as much as possible. As confident as she was in her own abilities, and Hazel’s, they couldn’t stand up to all of these monsters at once. And if there was one thing that gave the assholes reason to work together, it was hunting for a common enemy. So, Irelyn and Hazel kept moving, finding various safe places to stay for a day at the most before moving on. 

At first, Irelyn had not expected to be on the island that long. Surely as soon as someone behind the multitude of cameras watching the place saw who they were, there would be an extraction. But as the hours and days went on, she very soon realized that there would be no help coming. The people behind those cameras didn’t want to admit what had happened. If they let the public know that a couple of Star-Touched had been sent by some third party to this place, there would be panic about others being sent there. Or about people who were supposed to be here being transported off of it. There would be a huge mess for the people in charge, a potential shake-up of the whole system. 

So, Irelyn and Hazel were on their own. How they were going to get off this place was… a question for later. Right now, they were focused on surviving. And on hoping that their teammates would raise enough of a fuss for a real investigation into their whereabouts to happen. 

She still cursed the fact that she had dropped her phone back when they first arrived. They’d run into trouble almost immediately after realizing where they were, and in the ensuing fight, she’d lost the cell. Now it was who the hell knew where. Not that it would’ve helped that much anyway, given this island very obviously had no cell service, and no way to charge it. As evidenced by Hazel’s phone. But still, it would have been nice. 

Just what the hell was going on that whoever was behind Paige’s… entire situation had ended up transporting them to Breakwater? Irelyn had no idea, but she knew who did. That Albert Elcott guy, the one who had posed as the agent who had processed Paige’s adoption, and two others that same year. The man who had built the portal machine that transported himself as well as Irelyn and Hazel to this island to begin with. He had answers. If they could find him, if they could get him to talk, they would find out the truth. 

Unfortunately, finding him was hard when they couldn’t even go anywhere without being hunted by the assortment of psychopaths who had been forced to make this island their home. The two of them were working on that. Right now, their best plan was to find a way to make it look as though they had either died or been taken off the island so that the search for them would fade. Once they didn’t have so many people scouring this place for them, they could start their own search for Albert. He was here somewhere on the island. And whoever he had been trying to help get off the island with that teleporter would have the real answers. If they found Albert, they would find the truth about what was going on with Paige. 

But first, they had to survive. Which had led them here. At one point this had been a decent-sized stream, if not a full on river. But other prisoners had diverted the water with a dam in order to direct it to their own base years ago. Now it was a dry creek bed, about twelve feet across and two or three feet deep, like a ditch running through the ground for two miles or so. Sitting in the center of that creek bed right then was the latest cargo drop, a bright red metal crate six feet across on all sides. The parachute it had used to land safely lay nearby, connected via an assortment of cords. 

The intercom had lied. Though she had only been here a short time, Irelyn had quickly realized how the grid system worked, and where they were. Whoever was doing the announcement of the drop had inverted the numbers. Whether that was intentional or no–it was intentional. She had to believe that. The fact that the drop had come practically right on top of them, yet the gangs who would have been after it were sent in a completely wrong direction couldn’t have been a coincidence. The people in charge may have decided not to help them get off that island, but someone out there was deliberately sending them supplies. 

Unfortunately, it still wouldn’t be as simple as just walking up and taking them. They weren’t the only ones who had noticed the actual physical drop. Even as Irelyn crouched on the outstretched limb of a tree that hung over the dry creek bed, she could see two men approaching the crate. One was about six and a half feet tall, wearing a pair of ratty old jeans that were falling apart and a black tank top. The exposed parts of his brown skin were covered in dozens of small, crescent shaped white markings that ran across his upper chest, down his arms, across his face, and so forth. The other man was a few inches under six feet, with short blond hair and clothes roughly similar to his companion. They approached the crate, keeping a wary eye out for anyone trying to intercept their prize. 

It was now or never. Waiting until the two men had their attention focused on opening the crate, Irelyn (or Flea as she was in-costume) gathered herself before leaping that way. From her crouched position a good thirty feet away, she lunged straight to the men in a single bound. The taller man spun that way, but her foot collided with his chest and sent him flying backward six or seven feet before he fell to his back and skidded through the dirt even further. 

“Haha, two for one!” the man’s partner crowed while pivoting to face her. His hands began to glow brightly red. “We get a supply drop all to ourselves and a tasty treat to play with.” Even as he said that, a pair of red rings of energy shot out from his extended hands, flying straight at Flea.

Meanwhile, behind her, the man she had knocked down was picking himself up as his hand literally ripped one of the white crescent shapes from his own skin. As it was pried up, the mark transformed into a fully three dimensional shape, extending and growing into what amounted to a boomerang. Just as his partner let loose with those two ring blasts, the second man hurled that boomerang. Rather than fly straight at her however, the thing took off like a miniature drone of its own, flying up and to one side as tiny yet very dangerous and rapid laser blasts shot from it. 

With a snap of one hand, Flea sent a sword flying up and to the side, cutting through the ‘drone’ and sending it crashing to the ground. At the same time, she gave what was for her a very slight hop, carrying herself six feet to one side as the rings of energy shot through the space she had been in a moment earlier. The man fired several more times in rapid succession, but Flea was never where he expected her to be. Her quick hops carried her back and forth as he grew increasingly frustrated, firing those rings faster and faster. 

Then, as quickly as if a switch had been flicked, the man passed out. He collapsed abruptly, hitting the ground already snoring. Through those rapid few seconds, Flea had been using her stamina draining power, until he was so tired within even that brief amount of time that he literally fell unconscious while standing up and actively fighting. His body hit the ground and he started to snore. 

Meanwhile, the sword that she had tossed to cut through the small drone had been caught in midair, as Trivial appeared. Turning invisible for three seconds and teleporting one foot at a time might not have sounded like much, but it added up to a lot very quickly when she was coming up from behind the crescent-marked man. Especially when her ability to float several inches off the ground meant he never heard her footsteps. She had run up to a spot almost directly behind him, then turned invisible, taking a few more steps past the man before teleporting that single foot at the last moment to grab the sword. By the time he actually saw her, Trivial had spun back that way, putting the blade right up to his throat. “Touch another of those crescents and I’ll carve a new one that you can’t rip off.” 

The man glowered that way, though he didn’t move. “You think you stand a chance on this island? You should give up now and ask for protection. Or maybe beg for it. Yeah, I like that idea. How about the two of you… sorta… tell me how… far… the dragon… kicked the… ehhhh….”

Trailing off like that after starting to speak exhaustion-inspired randomness, the man’s eyes rolled into the back of his head as he collapsed not far from where his partner had fallen. 

“I do like when they rant or monologue,” Irelyn noted. “Makes it so much easier to put them to sleep. And it makes them say funny shit like that when it kicks in.” Glancing to the other woman, she added, “Are we good?” 

“We’re good,” Hazel confirmed. “Just help me pull them up next to each other.” 

So they did, putting the two men side by side. Hazel knelt between them, putting one hand on each man’s forehead. “Remember, I only get to erase one minute worth of memory per person, per day, and I forget everything that happened in that minute too.” With that, she focused, then abruptly sank back with a gasp. “What–wha?” Her gaze snapped around quickly before realizing where she was, and the two unconscious figures lying on either side of her. “Oh. I guess we won?” 

“We won,” the other woman confirmed. “And within the sixty seconds too, so if we move these guys somewhere else before they wake up, they won’t have any memory of seeing us, or what happened here.” 

The two of them were interrupted by the sound of slow clapping. As their eyes snapped toward the source, a heavy-set pale-skinned man with long red hair and eyes that were jet black with no visible whites stepped into view from the treeline. “Oh, excellent. Excellent indeed. Now I don’t have to share.” 

As Irelyn took a step that way, he held up one hand. “Bup bup. I assure you, I have seen more than sixty seconds of this situation. And even had I not, a word from me and every person on this island hears my voice. You come toward me, and I will ensure they all know where you are.” With those words, the man rubbed his hands together as his eyes turned from black to white, and both women felt the uncomfortable sensation as though their own hands were rubbing together. When he touched his neck while his eyes remained white, they felt a hand on their own necks. Not only could the man share his voice with the entire island, he could make anyone he wanted to within his line of sight experience the exact sensations either he himself, or anyone else within the same area, experienced. 

“Now,” the man continued. “We can come to an arrangement of course, one that does not necessitate that I share my bounty with anyone else.” 

“You’re not getting a damn thing,” Trivial informed him. 

Her words made the man chuckle low, his eyes shifting back from white to black as he ceased focusing on his power for the moment. “No? Because from where I’m standing, you both have very few choices. You could take me prisoner, but I’m too far away right now for your little sleepy power to work, so you’d have to get to me before I can speak the words that would summon every nasty fiend on this island right here. I promise, you can’t fight all of them. And even if you did manage to take me prisoner, I’d get the word out eventually. It seems to me your only chance is to do what you’re told, or try to kill me. But you’re just a couple of superheroes, you’re too good and pure and perfectly innocent to do what–”

In mid-sentence, the man was abruptly cut off. As was his head, which went tumbling off into the bushes. He’d never had a single moment of warning before Flea, in one instantaneous lunge, had put herself right in front of him, slicing through his neck in a blindingly-quick slash. 

“I carry swords for fuck’s sake,” she informed his body as it fell one way, his head rolling off in a different direction. “Did you think I don’t know how to be lethal if I have to?” She looked down at his fallen form, murmuring, “You know who that was?” 

Hazel nodded. “Sharealike. He kidnapped four girls and three boys over a two year period before he was imprisoned here. Most of them didn’t survive. The one who did is going to be traumatized for the rest of her life. Then he killed another thirteen people in one mass terror attack at a grocery store. When the police searched his apartment, they found his girlfriend. The one he killed when she tried to call the cops after she found out who he really was, just before the grocery store incident.” 

“Yup,” Flea confirmed. “So if his fucking ghost thinks I’m going to lose any sleep over him being dead,  he can think again.” 

With that, she gave a sharp flick of the blade and sent the blood away before looking over to her companion. “Are we clear?” 

Cocking her head to the side, Hazel listened with her slightly enhanced senses. She wasn’t exactly able to hear a fly land on a leaf, but it was the best they had. After a moment, she nodded. “I think so, but we should hurry up and get away from this place. Those flipped coordinates are only gonna confuse people for so long.” 

“Right,” Irelyn agreed, hopping away from the body, back toward the crate. “Let’s see what we’ve got in here. 

“And hope it gives us what we need to hole up until this heat dies down, so we can go find Albert and smack some fucking answers out of him.” 

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Patreon Snippets 25 (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 25th edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Summus Proelium-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Paige and Sierra

The sound of bladed skates sliding across ice was joined by that of a hockey stick tapping the puck back and forth a few times as it was brought forward. Then a loud crack filled the air, followed by a solid whoomph as the puck was sent flying into the net just over twenty feet away. Almost all of the lights were off, leaving the ice rink only dimly lit. There was only one person out there. 

Well, two now. 

“Good shot.” As she said those words, Paige glided across the ice from the entrance onto the rink, joining her… sister (the fact that she was using a body that looked like Cassidy was confusing on multiple levels as far as that went) in front of the remaining pucks that had been lined up across from the goal. “But then, I suppose it would be.” 

“Pittman did program us to be good at all sorts of physical stuff,” Sierra agreed without looking up. She raised the stick, judged the distance and angle, then whacked the next puck hard. It bounced off the inside of the left post and ricocheted into the net. “And don’t you still have that whole school thing going on right now? Playing hooky your first day back seems like a bad idea. Were you that paranoid about what I was doing?” 

Paige addressed the latter point first. “Free period. Which you knew when you let me know where you were going to be. And I wasn’t talking about him.” As she spoke, the girl held her hand out for the stick. 

Sierra considered that before taking her next shot. After watching the puck hit the net dead center, she handed the stick over. “You’re talking about Irelyn.” She paused briefly, then added, “About how she brought you here and tried to teach you how to skate, and how to play hockey. Just because you mentioned liking those Mighty Ducks movies.”

“Us,” Paige corrected while lining up her own shot. With another loud track, the next puck was sent into the net. “You have all my memories of those times.” 

Shaking her head, Sierra pushed off and glided around in a slow circle along the ice. “Not really the same thing, babe. I wasn’t really there. It was more like reading a book or watching a movie for me. A movie I’ve completely memorized, but still. I wasn’t actually there experiencing it.” Another pause, then, “I mean, I wasn’t here, I guess. The point is, it’s not a real memory for me. It’s just something that was uploaded when I got… eh, shot into you, literally.” 

“Is that why you’re here?” Paige asked curiously, even as she lined up the next shot and sent the puck flying that way. “Trying to get some sort of personal context for that memory you inherited? Also, considering this place isn’t even supposed to open for another hour today, how much did you bribe the guy to let you in?” While asking that, she held the stick out that way. 

“Fifty bucks for half an hour,” Sierra replied. “Why, did you want me to get a receipt so I could pay you back?” Her hand took the offered stick as she teased Paige, quickly and efficiently lining up another shot so it would bounce back and forth between the front two posts a couple times with a loud ringing sound before going in the net. 

Snorting, the other girl shook her head. “Trust me, there’s a lot more where that came from. Too much, really. And considering the source, I don’t really care what happens to it. I just wanted to make sure you got your money’s worth. You know, since you don’t exactly have a lot of experience with buying stuff.” 

Sierra gave an exaggerated gasp. “Ohh is that why the waitress looked so happy when I handed her two thousand bucks for my meal? The bill probably said twenty dollars, but I just got so confused with the period before the zeroes for the coin amount.” 

“You’re hilarious,” Paige retorted flatly. “But uhh, Sierra, huh?” 

“Sierra Nevada,” the girl confirmed. “First name, last name. If anyone asks, my parents were eccentric. Which, if you ask me, is a step up from the truth.” That time, she pushed off and did a couple slow skating circles before taking another shot. “A pretty fucking huge step up.” 

Rather than respond to that immediately, Paige was quiet for a few seconds. And when she did respond, it wasn’t directly to that. Instead, she asked, “You remember when we… when I was sitting over there, the first time Irelyn brought us to this place?” Her hand gestured over to the bench behind the entrance gate, where people would sit and tie their skates on. 

“She thought you were nervous about being out on the ice,” Sierra murmured, her own gaze moving that way. “She gave that whole pep talk about trying new things and not worrying about being laughed at.” She glanced away with a small frown. “You were only partly listening. Mostly you were worried about looking too good on the ice. You had to hide all that perfect balance, aim, enhanced strength, and everything else that Pittman programmed into us, so you’d actually look like a normal kid skating for the first time. She thought you were afraid of skating and looking bad, but you were really afraid you wouldn’t look bad enough.” 

Paige was quiet once more, her gaze locked onto that bench in the distance as she played that memory out a few times. “You’re right, especially about the part where I wasn’t really paying attention to her. But then, why would I? As far as I knew, she didn’t really care about me being here anyway. I thought she was just going through the motions, doing what was expected of her as the ‘older sister.’ She was already literally disowned, I guess maybe I thought… I dunno, I thought she was just doing that because I might bring her back into the family once her dad was gone or… something.” Saying it out loud like that made her grimace. “Or looking better for her mother. Or for the public. Whatever, I don’t know. I just never considered it as… I never thought she was…”

Sierra’s skate lightly kicked the front of hers, making her look that way. “Never thought she was doing all that stuff because she really wanted to spend time with you? Never thought she really, genuinely wanted to get to know you?” 

“Never occurred to me,” Paige confirmed in a soft voice, wincing inwardly. “I always thought she was playing the role or making an angle for something in the future. And since I never expected to actually have a future in that family, I ignored it. I ignored her. Or, I mean, I ignored the overtures she made. I played the role like I thought she was playing it and… and just assumed she didn’t care beyond that. Back when we were stuck on the couch, when I heard about the Banners disappearing, I thought she might look into that. I thought she might look for them. You know, because they’re important people. And they’re her parents, even if they did disown her. Either way, I thought she might look for them. But me? Why would she look for me?” She turned a bit, her gaze moving from the bench across the way over to where Sierra was quietly watching her. “Why would she look for me?” There was urgency to her repeated question, her voice rising slightly. 

“Because she wasn’t going through the motions,” Sierra informed her flatly. “She wasn’t faking anything, wasn’t pretending. All that stuff she was doing, or trying to do, it wasn’t an attempt to look good, or convince you to bring her back into the family, or anything like that. It was about you. It was about her wanting it to spend time with you. Because she cared about you, dipshit. She was trying to treat you like a real sister. And now she’s looking for you like a real sister.” 

Paige thought about that for a moment, turning away to gaze into the distance without actually seeing anything in front of her. Her focus was directed inward, playing through memories with a different point of view. She thought of everything Irelyn had said to her in the past, everything she’d done, all the times she had invited Paige out to eat, or to an event, or just to spend time together. And she thought of all the times she had used any excuse to get out of it. 

“Fuck,” she finally muttered. 

“Yeah, pretty much,” Sierra agreed. “And now she’s out there in trouble because she wouldn’t stop looking for you. Well, for you and for the parents who disowned her in the first place. Even after we sent her on a wild goose chase, she somehow managed to track something all the way to one of Pittman’s actual labs. Or one of his biolems found her. Or–fuck, I don’t even know. We sent her to Florida, the other side of the fucking country. How the hell did she manage to get anywhere near anything important to Pittman? How’d she manage to end up on Breakwater, for fuck’s sake?” 

Paige took in a breath before letting it out. “I guess we’ll have to ask her, once we get her away from that place. Once we….” She trailed off, words turning into a heavy sigh. 

“Once we actually have a plan for how to do that,” Sierra finished for her. “You know that’s easier said than done, right? This is Breakwater we’re talking about, not just some random prison. The whole point is that it’s supposed to be impossible to get anyone out of there. It–”

“I know!” Paige blurted. “I know it’s going to be hard. Hell, I know it’s going to be practically impossible. But we have to. I mean I have to. I’m not gonna make–I mean–” She blanched, folding her arms as she stood there on her skates. “I’m not gonna force anyone else into anything stupid. But I have to get Irelyn off that island. Her and Trivial too. They were trying to help me. They–she… Irelyn’s there because I sent her on a wild goose chase, and then she actually found real danger. Now she’s a Star-Touched in literally the worst possible place on the planet for her to be. They both are. It’s my fault they’re there, and I have to help them. I have to help her.”

“And then what?” Sierra asked. “I mean, not to completely skip past the impossible part of getting them off that island, but assuming we manage that, what will you do next?”

After a brief pause, Paige admitted, “I don’t know. Honestly, I have no idea. I know I want to talk to her. I want to ask… why. You know, why she actually cared so much, why she tried so hard to find me, and why she wanted to get to know me. I want to ask her why it mattered to her. She was already gone from the family when I was ‘adopted.’ They kicked her out, disowned her, then took me in. I was her replacement. Why wouldn’t she be angry about that? Why wasn’t she angry? Why did she want to know me? Why did… just… why?” She had unfolded her arms by that point, putting her hands up against her forehead. “I don’t understand.” 

With a loud crack, Sierra sent the last puck into the net. “Speaking as someone with a unique perspective, considering I have all those memories but it wasn’t me experiencing them, maybe she was trying to be what she wished she had.” She pushed off and started to skate over to the goal while adding, “I mean, when she was younger. She knows exactly what growing up in that family was like, how demanding her parents are. She went through it and she didn’t have anyone to talk to. Maybe she was trying to be the sister she wished she had. And maybe she kept trying so you’d always know she was there if you needed someone. Even when you barely paid attention, she still–you know, wanted to be in your memory. Just in case you ever opened up.”

Paige didn’t respond to that at first. She ran the words through her head a few times along with her own memories. Memories that she knew the other girl was running through as well. Finally, she repeated her earlier, “Fuck.” That was followed by an enthusiastic, “Damn it, damn it! She gives a shit. She really, genuinely gives a shit. And we just–I’m sorry, I mean I just wrote it off like she was playing a role. Maybe because that’s what I was doing all the time. I don’t know. But like I said, I have to get her out of there. And then tell her the truth. At least about myself. I have to tell her about me, and why all of that happened. She deserves that much. Deserves to know what was really going on, what her parents wanted, what my–yeah. And if she’s repulsed by that, if she wants nothing to do with me once she knows what I really am, then… then fine. But she needs to know.”

“Let’s focus on getting her out of there,” Sierra replied, while giving the pucks one light smack after another with the stick to send them out of the net and back that way. “We can worry about the details about what we’re going to tell her once she’s not trapped on an island full of the worst supervillains who have ever been imprisoned.” 

“We?” Paige echoed, glancing that way curiously. 

Sierra opened her mouth, then hesitated. “I mean, yeah that might get kinda complicated.” She glanced down at herself with a slight grimace. “She knows Cassidy. So this…” Her hand gestured up toward her face. “This might not work. So yeah, maybe you should talk to her yourself. But fuck it, I’m still gonna help get her off that damn island.” 

Paige nodded slowly in agreement. “That’s the part that matters right now. We can figure out the rest of it later.” She bit her lip, a guilty flush crossing the girl’s face. “Maybe you can help me come up with an idea of how to start making up for sending her on the wild goose chase that landed her and Trivial on Breakwater to begin with.” That tone of disbelief that such a thing had actually happened was still apparent in her voice. 

For a few long, silent seconds, the two of them stared at one another. Finally, Sierra broke that silence with a quiet, “She brought you here. She taught you how to skate and play hockey. Or tried to, anyway. She did all that stuff, because she really… she actually cared.” 

“She went looking for me because she cares,” Paige put in, her own voice equally soft. “She turned a total wild goose chase all the way down in Florida into a one-way trip to Breakwater just because she wouldn’t give up trying to find me. And the parents who disowned her. She did all that because she really cares about me. She was trying. She was really, genuinely trying, and I just–” Cutting herself off, the blonde girl sighed heavily once more. “Can I see that?” Raising her hand, she held it out and waited until Sierra had silently passed her the stick. Then she lined up a shot on one of the pucks, staring down at it intently for a long moment of contemplation. “When she’s off that island, I’m gonna bring her back here.” She paused, then looked over. “We. We’ll bring her back here.” 

“We?” Sierra raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that complicated?” 

“We’ll get you a better disguise or something, I dunno.” Paige shrugged. “What I do know is that you have my memories. You’re part of this too. If… if you want to be.” She waited until the other girl gave a slow nod before continuing. “We’ll figure it out. But whatever we have to do, whatever happens, we’re bringing her back to this place.” 

With that, she raised the stick and snapped it down. The puck was sent flying not into the net, but off the left bar. It rebounded backwards through the air, before Paige smacked it with the stick once more, swinging the thing like a bat. The puck was sent forward to bounce off the right bar, coming back toward her. Once again, she smacked it that way, making it rebound off the top bar that time. From there, it flipped up, end over end through the air before coming down neatly on the fat end of the hockey stick that Paige was holding out sideways. 

“And maybe we’ll be the ones teaching her some stuff next time.”

*********

Aftermath Of A Joyride (Continuing the NON-CANON storyline from chapters here, here, and here)

Most of the general public would have been disappointed to see the utter mundanity of the room that the collective leaders and second-in-commands of the various Star-Touched groups of Detroit were meeting in. Most anyone, upon hearing that such an important and powerful people were gathering together to make big decisions, would almost certainly have pictured a grand room with walls of solid steel, high-tech displays along every wall, a massive table in the center of the room projecting a holographic map of the city and surrounded by chairs with each Star-Touched’s name and symbol emblazoned across the back, and possibly even more amazing things. 

In truth, however, they met in an average conference room on the third floor of a local police precinct. The smell of old coffee and stale donuts filled the room, which itself consisted of a heavily-cracked linoleum floor, wooden walls that had seen better days, and a tiled ceiling that probably needed to be replaced soon. It was furnished simply by a couple wooden tables and an assortment of metal folding chairs, as well as an old podium near the front, next to an actual chalkboard.

Silversmith was standing at the front by that podium. Beside him was a plainclothes police detective who was murmuring a bit in his ear, while Flea stood on the opposite side, flipping through messages on her phone. Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the room, Brumal and Trivial from the state-sponsored team known as the Spartans, Caishen and Skip from Ten Towers, and Hallowed and Lucent from the Seraphs were scattered and engaged in their own private conversations with one another, or looking through their own phones. 

Finally, Trivial looked up from the file she had been glancing through and cleared her throat until Silversmith looked at her. Once he did, she asked, “So are we going to get this show on the road or what?” Straightening up in her costume consisting of purple scalemail armor, a black hooded cloak, tan pants, and a purple helmet with black visor, she gestured toward the nearby (somewhat stained) window. “You know, before the bad guys out there get the idea that we’re all off the streets and start acting like kids whose parents went out of town for the weekend.” 

Beside her, Brumal (also wearing her own standard costume of blue and white camo, a tactical combat helmet with an interwoven mesh covering the rest of her face, and bright blue lenses over the eyes) gave a short nod. “She’s right. Blunt, but right. If we’re going to discuss the situation, we should get into it.” 

“You mean discuss Joyride,” Flea put in. The futuristic ninja/samurai-clad woman put her phone away while adding, “And what exactly we’re going to do about her.” 

“Ahem, what are we planning on doing?” That was Lucent, perched atop the edge of a lamp on one of the tables. “Thus far, the girl has not overtly harmed anyone. In point of fact, she has aided us by exposing a quite… negative influence within our own Minority team.” 

“Whamline,” Silversmith muttered, giving a nod toward the plainclothes man nearby. “Detective Lanner here was just filling me in on what they’ve found so far. Apparently they have enough evidence to officially charge the boy with a few different murder counts, now that they started digging. More might be coming, we’re not sure yet. I won’t give into the details right here, but I’m having him send the files to each of you.” He paused before continuing. “But of course, we’re not here to talk about Whamline. This is about Joyride herself.” 

Skip, wearing her blue-black bodysuit with a short-sleeved white robe including a hood over her hair and a black cloth mask over the bottom half of her face, spoke up in her typical calm, nearly-emotionless voice. “She exposed the boy as the dangerous psychotic that he is. In our book, that makes her more of an ally than a threat.”

Beside her, the woman in black boots, dark gold pants with black lines running down them, purple scalemail armor covered by a gold leather coat, and a black metal helmet with purple lenses shook her head. She was Caishen, Skip’s own older sister and team leader. “She also decided that Lightning Bug is her archenemy,” she pointed out quietly. Her voice was very slightly strained as she added, “And Bug is very excited about that fact.” 

Silversmith took a breath before gently pointing out, “She doesn’t seem to have any intention of harming your daughter, considering she… summoned you to help the girl rather than leave her alone out there after their… confrontation.” Though his face was sealed behind that metal armor, they could hear the smile in his voice. Everyone in the room had seen the recording of the ‘fight’ between Lightning Bug and Joyride, and how little actual danger either had been in. It was far more of an imaginative play-fight than anything else. 

Hallowed, in his bright golden armor and metallic wings, spoke up while folding his arms across his broad chest. “Can we talk about that whole ‘summoned her’ bit? Because that’s what concerns me. It sounds like this little kid managed to teleport the leader of a Star-Touched team all the way from one side of the city to the other with a snap of her fingers. She didn’t have time to set something special up at the time, so she must have had that in place already. Does that mean she could teleport anyone anywhere? Could she hit a button right now and teleport all of us in this room to Kansas? Or worse if she ever decides to be more violent? So far she hasn’t really hurt anyone, but she obviously could. She has that teleportation tech, and the…” He paused as though unable to believe what he was saying. “The giant robot dinosaur.” 

“Toto,” Lucent put in. “She called it Toto.” 

“Yes, Toto,” Brumal flatly confirmed, head shaking. “The girl has run circles around everyone who encountered her, stolen anything she wants, and demonstrated the ability to transport other people at will, as well as use a giant robotic dinosaur as a direct threat. If she intended to do real harm, we would be in trouble.” 

“But that’s the point, isn’t it?” Trivial put in. “She obviously doesn’t intend to do real harm. She’s been really gentle with everything she’s done, considering what she’s capable of. And she sent Lightning Bug’s mother to pick her up. It’s obvious that she’s intentionally holding back. She wins, but she doesn’t hurt anyone. And like we were just talking about, she exposed a murderer inside the Minority.”

“She would be an incredible asset on our side,” Silversmith pointed out, his tone curious. “If we could somehow convince her to stop stealing things, can you imagine the amount of help she’d bring to the city? Just being able to transport our people anywhere they needed to be instantly, as soon as trouble came up, all by itself, would completely revolutionize our work here in Detroit.” 

Hallowed shook his head. “Except she’s never shown any interest in helping us. Not beyond exposing Whamline or making sure Lightning Bug wasn’t left by herself with those criminals. She’s been pretty clear that her motivation is to steal things.” 

“She steals from the rich, from corporations and wealth-hoarders,” Trivial pointed out. “Should we really give that much of a shit?” 

Coughing, Caishen replied mildly, “Those corporations are a large part of why Detroit has progressed as much as we have in the past twenty years. If they begin to see the city as not safe enough, they will take their business elsewhere. We cannot have her running completely amok and doing whatever she wants.” She paused briefly, before adding, “That said, my daughter likes her. And is very… enthusiastic when it comes to the idea of being her archrival. And I do believe she does not mean to harm anyone.”

Lucent straightened up on his perch. “Thus, what we have before us is the question of what to do about a young girl who is clearly physically capable of much worse harm than she has ever engaged in. She intentionally holds back, while using the bare minimum force necessary for her to achieve her… goal of stealing from what she considers acceptable targets. What do we intend to do about that, precisely? We have proven inadequate at stopping the girl thus far, and I believe that escalating force to the level required to capture and detain her would cause more of a problem than it would solve. I, for one, would prefer to convince her to curtail her criminal efforts in exchange for compensation leading toward mutual benefit.”

“You mean you want to pay her not to steal things,” Brumal put in, giving the TONI bird a long look. “Would she be a salaried employee, or would we simply do it on a contract-basis? Say, find a list of places we would prefer her not to steal from and pay a flat fee for each?” 

“Your sarcasm is noted,” Silversmith informed her. “And yet, with some adjustments, is that such a bad idea? Surely the companies involved would be willing to pay for such… insurance against being directly attacked, and if such funds were pooled, it would be enough to pay this girl under what we could refer to as a mercenary contract for protection. Shift her from a Fell-Touched to a Sell-Touched and pay her for security against threats to these locations. We wouldn’t technically be paying her not to steal from them, we would be paying her a ‘security fee’ to… protect those locations. Including targets she herself might have hit. Those would appear to be our two options. We either escalate force beyond what she herself has demonstrated to reach a level of being able to potentially contain her, or we make an offer to cease her criminal efforts and attempt to eventually negotiate that into actual cooperation.”

“A vote then?” Lucent suggested. “A raised hand–or wing as the case may be, if you prefer escalating force against a newly-emerged juvenile Tech-Touched who has made a clear effort to avoid harming anyone.” He glanced pointedly around the room, waiting until no one had raised any hand. “Ahem, and a raised hand or wing if you prefer attempting the diplomatic approach.” 

Silversmith raised his own hand, then watched as the others all did the same, including Lucent with one of his wings. Then he smiled behind the helmet. “Okay then, now let’s get into specifics. We’ll contact each of the companies who have expressed concern and see what they’re willing to offer.” 

“Ah, how do we pass that offer onto the girl herself?” Trivial asked. “I don’t think she left her number lying around.” 

Caishen spoke flatly. “Something tells me that won’t be a problem. It won’t be long before Joyride makes a spectacle of herself again.

“And personally, I find myself… disturbingly curious to see what happens when she does.” 

*********

During The Ministry Base Incursion 

The short, unassuming man stood just a hair over five foot seven, and would have been considered very slightly underweight. His short brown hair and hazel eyes were incredibly average, and he wore glasses with thin metal frames, as well as a simple suit of moderate worth and fit. Not too expensive, yet not too cheap. His job was to blend in. He was known as Alcazar, the word for a Spanish fortress or castle. One of the top lieutenants within the Ministry, his job was to attend to the security and protection of their various facilities throughout the state of Michigan. 

At that particular moment, Alcazar was sitting at his desk in an office in downtown Detroit. It was very late at night, but that was normal for him. His typical schedule found the man sleeping during the day, as most of his work was done at night. Night was when people tended to attempt to cause problems. He would sleep from roughly eight in the morning until early to mid afternoon, then spend time with his family until seven or so before making his way to one of his offices to start his actual job. It was a little after midnight just then, and he was looking forward to the next day (or later that day, rather), when he would cut his sleep short in order to visit his youngest son’s school to watch the boy perform in a play. Eleven-year-old Karl was incredibly excited about his part, even if it wasn’t a leading role. It was still important, and he had extracted a firm promise from his father (who he believed to be an architect) about being there. 

Alcazar had made arrangements to leave the office a bit early that day, getting home by five or so just to have enough sleep so he could enjoy the play and then take his wife out to lunch. That would be in another few hours, and he needed to get all the work he could done by then. Sitting at his desk, he flipped through a folder while typing an email to one of their contractors, arranging for a new shipment of steel beams for Project Carpenter. Very few people in the Ministry were aware of the colony of Touched Termites that had been brought into the city, but he was one of those few. And he worked directly with their spokesman (spokesbug?) in gathering the proper resources, providing them what they asked for. Which, in this case, was more steel for the termites to melt down with their fog-breath and then convert into a larger amount of the stuff for building purposes. Specifically, for building the structures within the city that the Ministry was contracting them to build. 

In the midst of his work on that, his nearby cell phone, sitting silently on the desk next to a pile of folders, abruptly went off. It rang audibly rather than buzz, which meant that it was coming from one of the few numbers he had programmed into the phone to bypass his normal silent mode. And that would only happen if this was an emergency. 

A slight frown found its way to the man’s face as he reached out to answer the phone with a simple, “What happened?” 

The words he heard made the man immediately stand, almost knocking his chair over in the process. “What? Right now? How many? Lock down. Get everyone there. Alpha level priority. Have you contacted White and Gold? Do it, right now. Interrupt the play.” Even as he spoke, Alcazar was plucking a separate phone from his pocket, rapidly texting one of his contacts. “Are they still in the building? Then lock down the entire area. Get a chopper in the air. Who’s close? Yes, move that one over. Find the spot where they started from and be there to meet them when they evac. Do everything you can to hold them in that building until I get there, but be prepared to track them if they escape.”

Taking the phone away from his ear, he held the second one up to the opposite side and spoke. “Yellowbrick, I need a walkway. Yes, there.” He waited for a moment then before getting the go-ahead. Once that came, the man opened the door of his office. Beyond was what appeared to be a black void and an amber-colored path leading out into nothingness. Without missing a beat, he walked straight out onto the path. As always when doing this, the void itself felt cold, though not to the point of being a problem. It was like a chilly wind that made one hunch in on themselves a bit. Or typically did. In the current situation, he barely noticed. 

Striding quickly along the bridge through that void, the man made it precisely thirty feet. It was always thirty feet, no matter what the actual distance between the two connected doorways happened to be. Whether Yellowbrick was creating a path between two doors in the same building, from one building to another in the same city, or between two different continents, the bridge through the void was always precisely thirty feet. The void itself seemed to go on much further, as did the bridge. It extended off seemingly endlessly. But after walking that thirty feet (and only after walking, it wasn’t visible before), a new doorway appeared in front of the man. It was the door into one of the supply closets within the Ministry’s base under the local mall, and he didn’t break stride at all before reaching out to grab the knob and pull it open as he stepped through. From an outsider’s point of view, it would have looked as though he was simply stepping out of the closet, as they wouldn’t see the void and bridge behind him. Yellowbrick’s paths were only visible and accessible to people she wanted them to be visible and accessible to.

The very instant he was in the base (stepping into one of the secondary labs where an unconscious Ministry security guard lay on the floor next to an overturned chair), Alcazar activated his power. He had no idea whether the intruders were still inside or not, but there wasn’t time to waste finding out. As soon as he focused on his gift, the man could see the effects. The small lab around him shifted, the floor, walls, and ceiling turning somewhat fuzzy and wobbling like jello for a brief moment before completely transforming. The floor became beaten and cracked old wood, while the walls and ceiling were made of intricately carved stone. The door behind him, leading into the closet, became an ancient wooden type with a metal latch. The view through that half-open door revealed not the closet it was supposed to be or Yellowbrick’s void, but a set of stone stairs leading down. 

The stairs would go nowhere. Or, more to the point, they would go everywhere. They would lead to a corridor, or another room, which itself would lead to more corridors and more rooms. That, in essence, was Alcazar’s power. While he was using it, the structure he designated (the Ministry base, in this situation) would physically transform into the interior of a medieval castle or fortress. Not a specific one and never the exact same. More importantly, space itself was twisted and expanded within his affected area. Even if he only used it on a single room, the resulting castle interior would appear to stretch on forever. Every hall would lead to a new room, every new room to a new hall. No matter how far one walked, no matter how many doors they went through, there would be more and more in front of them. Eventually, they would loop back around to where they started. You could walk straight for a solid mile of corridors and rooms, go up six different flights of stairs at six different locations, then pass through a final door and find yourself right back where you had started from, height differences be damned. 

Alcazar and those he designated were the only ones who could properly navigate and leave the affected area. Now, if the intruders were still inside, they would be trapped. There would be no escape. And they would be answering questions very soon. 

The moment his power clicked into place, Alcazar walked through the opposite door, which would have led into the main hall adjacent to the stairs leading out of the base. Now it was about twice as wide as it should have been, which was right. There was also a hole in the wall near the base of the stairs, which was wrong. As soon as he saw that hole, Alcazar strode that way. It had to have been there before his power took effect. The hole wasn’t a normal part of the structure, so his power hadn’t taken it into account. It had built around it. 

Looking into the hole, he saw several of their security people attempting to dig through what had apparently been a cave-in about twenty feet in and upward. Undoubtedly intentional by the intruders to block pursuit. 

“Hold,” he ordered, before sticking his hand through the hole to touch the dirt. This tunnel wasn’t great for him. His power worked best on established buildings. With a bit of extra effort, he could affect something like this, but only within the immediate area he could see. Still, it would help somewhat. As his hand touched the dirt wall, the man released his focus on the rest of the base. Behind him, it reverted back to its normal condition (aside from the hole). Meanwhile, this area of the tunnel became another castle corridor. The area the guards were trying to dig through was transformed into a full-sized room. The dirt and rocks from the cave-in were still there, but the room was large enough for them to simply move around all of it. About ten feet past that room, the effect of his power faded and it became ordinary dirt once more. 

“Go,” he ordered the men. “Catch up with them if you can.” That was all he said, all he needed to say. Before the words had even finished leaving his mouth, the men were off and sprinting. 

Turning away from the hole, Alcazar took one of the phones from his pocket as it buzzed. “Yeah. Bring the chopper in from the east, sweep across the mall lot just in case they popped up there, but I think they started from further back.” He paused briefly, then grimaced. “The construction site across the street, where they’re building the hotel. It’s been shut down for awhile. Focus there. Send the call to get our people over there right now.” 

Without another word, he disconnected the call. At nearly the exact same instant, the phone rang in his hand. Rang, not buzzed. A single word was displayed on the screen. No number, just a name. White. Minister White. She’d gotten the message, apparently. 

“Yes, ma’am,” Alcazar answered. “Yes, I’m here. They’ve already left. The troops are in pursuit, through a tunnel leading to what I believe is the motel construction site. Yes, we have a police helicopter diverting there right now, eta twenty seconds. I have people loading up in a few of our cars to head them off above ground as well. Absolutely. We’ll have a full sitrep for you when you get here. I have no idea what they took, I was about to look into it. Yes, ma’am.” 

That was the end of the call, so he disconnected before looking back the way he had come. Unconscious figures littered the hall, and the rooms around him. Whoever this was, whoever had broken into the Ministry’s base, they had come in here for something. But what? 

More importantly, who the hell were they? This attack came out of nowhere. The Ministry was… well, not quite totally peaceful. But they were secure. Every Fell-Touched gang in the city either worked directly for them, or paid tribute to them and had enough informants within who would rat out anything like this. Well, almost every Fell-Touched gang. There were the Scions, but this wasn’t their style. Leaving everyone alive? They’d never do that. 

So again, who in this city had taken the time and care to secretly tunnel into the Ministry base, steal things while leaving everyone alive, and then leave? Whatever the answer, whoever they were, Alcazar was certain of one thing.

They were just getting started. 

*********

Sterling and Elena 

Standing on the edge of the road where the group who had invaded the Ministry base had gone sliding out of control and into the water beyond, Sterling Evans watched divers attempting to search the submerged wreck for anything useful. Raising his gaze toward the sky, he saw two helicopters combing the banks in either direction, their spotlights scouring for a sign that the intruders had come ashore. More of the Ministry’s people were searching surrounding neighborhoods, talking to potential witnesses, digging through anything and everything they could find. 

There wouldn’t be much. He knew that. This hit was too well-coordinated, too perfect. This wasn’t an amateur outfit. They knew what they were doing, and had the training, equipment, and skill to pull it off without getting caught. How long had they been working in secret, building that tunnel leading straight to the mall? Weeks? Months? They had gone completely undetected, despite the security measures the Ministry had in place. Which meant they had been quiet, somehow digging that entire tunnel without making any more vibrations than cars passing overhead. And that implied powerful Touched-Tech, a surprise considering the Ministry themselves owned the only purely Touched-Tech group in the city, as well as the company responsible for transporting it safely. If such machines had been delivered or ordered here, he would have heard about it. 

This raised… many questions. 

Stepping up beside him, Elena watched the water in silence for a moment. The two of them, to everyone else in the area, would look quite different than they appeared to themselves. Thanks to Elena’s gift, others would see him as a bald man who resembled Principal Strickland from Back To The Future, while Elena had made herself a near dead-ringer for the character of Marion Ravenwood in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. 

After standing there with him in contemplative silence as they watched their people work for several moments, Elena quietly spoke. “It was an excellent play, at least.” 

She was right, of course. The play had been excellent. At least, as much as they’d seen of it. The lead had been one he’d kept an eye on from back when he was still barely more than a background player, and Sterling’s early faith that the man had strong potential had not been misplaced. Through his life, even as a near-nameless accountant for the Russo mafia under his now-wife’s father, Sterling had had a way of predicting potential. To him, potential was a combination of natural talent, drive, and a bit of luck. The first two were what he looked for when it came to investments. Luck was something he could manufacture for them. A word in the ear of a basketball recruiter to visit a certain high school to see a student who would have gone unnoticed, leading to a starring role on an NCAA drive to a state championship, a moderate donation to the science lab of a university in order to ensure that a brilliant geneticist had the funding they needed to continue the research that had eventually led to saving many lives. Those and far more examples, many as subtle as bringing the right two people together at the right time, had allowed his life to progress to what it now was. 

Sterling knew he was lucky. He had no doubt about that. His brilliant, beautiful wife, his strong son, amazing daughter, and now potentially a second daughter whom he was coming to care about as much as his own biological children. A life as charmed as his had taken a lot of work and sacrifice to reach this point, but it was all worth it. As close as they had come to losing it several times, particularly when it came to Elena’s father, and yet they had come through on top. 

Whatever it took, he would protect his family. He would continue to build this empire, would continue to strengthen and solidify it. When the time came, he wanted his children, all three if Izzy agreed to be adopted, to have the best possible foundation. He would, at some point, pass the keys to this kingdom to the three of them. And then he would see just how far they could take it. As solid as the Ministry was, as strong as it had become, he had no doubt that his children could take it further. They were who he built all of it for. Together, his family would create a legacy that would shape the state of Michigan, and far beyond, for a long time to come. 

Bah, he was getting ahead of himself. And perhaps swelling too much with pride for his family. It was far too easy to let his thoughts and hopes run away, like a poor child being dragged along by an overly-excited dog on a leash. He sounded arrogant to his own thoughts, which wasn’t his intention. He simply… wanted his family to build something truly lasting, something that could be passed down through their generations. As more and more superpowers emerged, as the world grew into this new era, things would change quickly. 

The truth was, Sterling Evans believed that it would not be long (relatively speaking) before states across the country, and even countries across the world, began to break up into smaller territories. Kingdoms of a sort, smaller areas protected by powerful Touched. The militaries and governments themselves simply could not keep up with so many random citizens gaining often incredibly destructive powers. There was no test they had to take, no money to be paid, no qualification in wealth, race, gender, orientation, or any other thing that had previously been used to prevent one group or another from gaining power. It could happen to anyone anywhere. 

Thus, Sterling believed that the old rules of society, of government power, would gradually break down as more and more people who would previously have been considered ‘nobodies’ or ‘inconsequential’ gained true power. He believed that the government’s power would fail, and far more localized fiefdoms, of a sort, would rise. That was the entire point of the Ministry. That was their endgame, to have this structure in place so that when the inevitable collapse of government came, they would still be there in its place. They would keep Detroit, and Michigan beyond, safe and prosperous. 

And that goal was why he would not allow whoever this group was, whatever their intentions might have been, to escape judgment and punishment. If other groups, other organizations, saw that the Ministry could be hit like that, they would become emboldened. An example had to be made. They would be found, dealt with, and everyone would see that the status quo would be maintained. 

Whoever was behind this attack would find themselves regretting it, Sterling promised himself. Whatever their endgame, whoever they were, wherever they had come from, he would make an example of them. Every gang, every snake now poking their heads out with interest at the news that the Ministry had been attacked, would see what became of such people. 

With a nod to Elena, Sterling took the phone from his pocket, hitting the number to contact Alcazar back in the base itself. “Talk to all of our people in every gang. Find out who knows something about this. Shake the bushes, kick the trash cans, call in favors, make every threat we need to make. Do everything you can until five o’clock, then go home. Yes, Alcazar, I don’t want to hear it. Go home at five, that’s an order. Your son needs you at that play tomorrow. Karl’s been looking forward to you being there too much for you to put it off. Do the work, then go home. We have plenty of people to keep searching while you’re busy. Delegate, it’s the only way to survive in this business. And tell Karl I said hi.” 

He paused then before nodding slightly. “Yes. Yes, I do think our people will find something. There is someone in this city who knows the truth. There is a weak link somewhere, a link connected to the people responsible for this. 

“And when we find that weak link, we’ll snap the chain in half.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Interlude 22A – The Artist Formerly Known As Raige (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

“Where are you going?” 

Hearing that voice as she strode across the main room of the pawnshop in her brand new body, the girl known as Raige paused and let out a long, low sigh. Then she smiled, because sighing was yet another thing she could now do with her own body. The last few hours, since they had come back to this shop and everyone else had left, had been full of those moments. Everything she did, every sound she made, was brand new. Bending her arm or fingers a certain way, raising her leg, winking, scratching her head, turning in a circle, hopping on one foot, everything and anything she did was completely new and completely hers. This was her body, one she didn’t have to share with anyone. Even if it did happen to look like Cassidy Evans if she was blonde and had glasses, it was still Raige. Or…

“Should I keep the name Raige?” she mused aloud while turning to look at Paige, who had been the one to address her from the stairs on the other side of the room. “I mean, if I want to blend in, Raige might not work for that. Plus, it’s not me. It’s not my name. It’s a combination of your name and our… original self’s. Roxanne and Paige. I guess we could’ve gone with Poxanne or Poxxy, huh?”

Paige was silent for a moment before giving a short nod. “Whatever name you want to go by, that’s what we’ll use. It’s all up to you. But like I said, where are you going?” 

“I waited for curfew to be over,” Raige (for now) replied casually. “Which was really hard, I’ll have you know. Do you have any idea how much I want to be out there walking around? There’s so much stuff to see, so many people to talk to and things to hear. Ohh and taste. I’ve been waiting to taste things for so long. Soda, pizza, broccoli, steak, brussel sprouts, bread, chocolate–I’ve heard good things about chocolate. I mean, sure, I have the basic memories of tasting things from your head, and from that prick bastard’s programming. But that’s not the same thing as tasting it with my own mouth.” She gestured that way with one hand idly. “The point is, this is a brand new body, my body, and I have a lot of things I need to do with it.” 

“You’re right,” Paige agreed, “We do have a lot of things to do, like figure out how to save Irelyn and Trivial. And what to do with all that other stuff we took from the Ministry. And you still look like–” She turned a bit, looking around as though to make sure no one was around to overhear. Not that there was much chance of that, given how early it still was. The two of them might have had plenty of energy, particularly considering how long Paige’s body had been resting, and the fact that Raige’s had effectively been asleep for literally years. But Wren and Fred didn’t have that luxury, and they had been up for a long time. It would be several hours before either of them started moving. Still, it didn’t hurt to check. Only once she was confident they were alone did Paige continue. “You still look like Cassidy, at least somewhat.” 

“And that’s another thing I’m gonna take care of while I’m out,” Raige informed her sister. “I figure I can get some of that self-tanning stuff to make my skin a little darker, and colored contacts too. Between the hair change, the glasses, and that stuff, I won’t exactly look totally different, but it’ll help. So you see, I’m thinking ahead.” She tapped her temple before waving. “I’d invite you to come with, but weren’t you going to go to school today? You know, since everyone’s wondering where you are.”  

Paige was quiet for a moment, running that through her head before she sighed softly. “You’re not planning on disappearing, are you? Tell me you’re not just going to go out in the world and vanish so we never see you again.” 

Mouth quirking just a bit in a sly smile, Raige replied, “Are you saying you’d be worried about me? Or that you like having me around? Or that you need my help.” One hand waved around in front of her own new face. “Or maybe you’re just afraid that I’ll get in trouble while looking like this.”

“All of the above,” Paige informed her. “I’m worried about all that. And we definitely need you if we’re going to stop… Benjamin.” She was clearly making an effort not to say ‘father.’ “You said you cared about Irelyn, after everything you saw in my–our memories.” 

Raige nodded idly. “I do, and I’m definitely gonna help. Not just because of the caring thing, but also because fuck Benny. He’s a piece of shit traitor and he’ll get what’s coming to him. So yeah, I’ll be there to help with that. But the genius kid’s asleep, and you and everyone else are going to be busy all day going to school. Which leaves me, and I refuse to be cooped up in here that whole time waiting for you people to tell me I’m allowed to do something. I’ve been cooped up and trapped my entire existence, first in the computer, then inside that bullet, then inside you. We’ve spent weeks just lying there. And while I do think you’re better company now than I thought before, I need more than that. This is my body now, and I’m going to go out and have some fun. I’ll be careful, sort of, but I’m not just going to sit around like your wind-up toy. I’m not going back in the box. And if you try to make me, then we might have a problem.” 

Paige’s head shook. “We don’t–we won’t have a problem. I’m not trying to force you to stay in a box. It’s just–you’re right, you haven’t been out in the world by yourself. You have my memories and your programming, but that’s different from being out on your own. I just–fuck, I’m worried about you, okay? Just be careful, please? Here.” She reached into her pocket, tugging out a roll of twenty dollar bills, which she passed that way. “Don’t steal shit. Try not to attract a lot of attention. And if you get lost–” 

“I can’t get lost, we both have internal GPS,” Raige reminded her with a smirk. “Besides, I took one of these.” She held up one of the special cell phones from Wren’s lab, the ones that couldn’t be tracked. “Don’t worry, Mother Hen, I’ll call if I need anything. Now breathe and focus on your own shit. Wait, focus on my shit one more time. You never answered the question about changing my name. 

“What do you think of Rassidy?” 

********

They hadn’t come to a conclusion on that name thing by the time the currently-still-named Raige left the shop. She knew Paige was still fretting over what she was going to do out in the big city by herself, which was almost amusing. Despite their initial meeting, particularly the part where they had tried to kill each other for so long (which, okay, was mostly Raige’s doing), she had grown fond of her sort-of twin over all that time. 

Was twin even the right word now? After all, she was currently more of a Cassidy twin. And it was unlikely that they would find another body she could use. Hell, she wasn’t even sure she would want to if the option came up. It had only been a few hours, but this one was already starting to feel comfortable. It was shorter than the first body, but she could work with that. It would help make people underestimate her. And that could be incredibly useful.  

Walking out of the alley behind the shop, she made her way to the sidewalk and slowly looked around. The street in front of Wren’s place wasn’t exactly incredibly busy yet, not this early. But there were people walking around here and there, and cars were passing by on their way to work. The sun was up and bright, and Raige tilted her head back, spreading her arms out to let its warmth wash over her. A long, content sigh escaped her. This was what she had been waiting for, this was what she had been missing. Being outside, completely free and able to do her own thing. She hadn’t even technically done anything other than walk outside yet, but this was still the best day of her life. She could do anything right now. This was completely different than being inside the holographic mental projection mind space that she had been sharing with Paige. She couldn’t control this world. She couldn’t shift it around however she wanted. And that, more than anything, excited the girl. There could be surprises out here, new adventures, even danger. Oh, she hoped there was danger. She could have a lot of fun with danger. 

A sudden ringing bell and a shout of, “Hey, get out of the way!” filled the air. Reflexively, Raige pivoted aside, even as a bike messenger went sailing past right where she had just been standing. The annoyed rider called back over his shoulder, “Watch what you’re doing, dumbshit!” 

Clenching her fist, the girl took a step that way, her eyes scanning at the ground for something to throw after him. But she stopped herself. No, she had promised to be good and not attract attention. Assaulting a bike messenger in broad daylight directly in front of Wren’s shop just because he was a bit rude to her probably didn’t fall within the line of not attracting attention.

So, grumbling a little to herself, she turned the other way. Food. She could have some real food now, her own food. She could find out what this body liked to eat, how its tastes went. 

That prospect thoroughly distracted her from the annoyance about that guy on the bike, and she set off walking down the sidewalk. She had no idea where she was going, or what sort of food she was looking for. But that was basically the best part. She didn’t have a plan, and she wasn’t doing something anyone told her to. She was just walking. If she chose, she could turn around and go back the other way, or simply turn the corner to go right at this intersection. 

She went left instead. No real reason, she just made a last-second decision. Crossing the street, the girl smiled brightly and chose to skip a few times along the asphalt. Just to see what it was like. Once she made it to the other sidewalk, she did a cartwheel. Yet again, solely because she could. Other people nearby looked at her a bit curiously, but she ignored them. They weren’t important. Her new freedom was important, and she was going to enjoy it. Anyone who didn’t like that could go jump in a river. She’d gladly help them do so if they tried to say anything about what she could or couldn’t do. Come to think of it, if that rude messenger came by again, she wouldn’t mind temporarily relieving him of his bike so she could see how it felt to ride one.

Unfortunately, a glance around revealed no sign of him, or any other bicycle, so she simply started walking once more. A young couple were passing her going the other way, and she promptly met their gazes with a bright, “Fun to be out walking with our own feet today, isn’t it?” 

For some reason the two seemed freaked out by that and didn’t respond, instead putting their heads down as they hurried past. Which seemed rude, but oh well. She didn’t have the time nor inclination to waste worrying about two people she didn’t know anything about. There was far too much to do, far too much to experience. 

Speaking of experiencing things, right ahead of her was a corner diner. Spotting the sign, the girl smiled. Food. It was time to experience real food, not someone else’s memories, or the fake sensation from the virtual world she had shared with Paige. 

As she approached, there was another brand new sensation. The scent of food filled her nose, and the girl almost tipped over sideways. Her mouth fell open in surprise. Smelling things in virtual reality hadn’t felt anything like this. And experiencing memories second hand? Forget it.  That was absolutely nothing compared to standing outside this diner and smelling the food within. Her existence had been fairly short, and her experience with an actual body of her own even shorter (counted in a handful of hours), but she could safely say that this was the most amazing moment of her life so far. 

On the other hand, if standing out here smelling the food was such a good experience, how amazing would–Even as that thought filled her mind, she quickly stepped that way. Her hand found the handle for the door and she stepped inside. Now the scent was even more overwhelming. She stood just inside, tilting her head back to let the experience wash over her. She could smell dozens of different plates of food, hear people talking from all sides, the clink of glasses, of dishes being moved around, the sizzle of stuff cooking back in the kitchen, all of it. She felt all of it, standing there with her head tilted back and her arms spread. For those few moments, she let it all wash over her and just… absorbed everything. 

“Yo, kid, you okay?” A tired-looking woman with frizzy red hair and a waitress uniform stood a few feet away, eyeing her with a mixture of concern and obvious nervousness. It was clear that the last thing she wanted was to deal with someone who was about to pass out or throw up on her floor. “If you need some he–” 

“Food,” the girl interrupted. “I need food. I’m very hungry, feels like I haven’t eaten in… ever.” Saying those words made her give a broad smile, even if the tired waitress didn’t get the joke. 

Eh, it was pretty funny though, wasn’t it? She thought those words inwardly, before pausing for a moment. No response. Right… right, of course there wasn’t. Paige wasn’t here. They weren’t sharing a body anymore, so they couldn’t communicate like that. Which was… good. It was good, of course. She had her own body now. If she wanted to talk to Paige, or anyone else, she would just track them down and do that. Or use the phone she had borrowed. She didn’t need to have the other girl inside her head, spying on all her thoughts and just–this was better. So much fucking better. 

The waitress had given her a brief scan, before striking as she turned to lead the girl to a booth in the corner. Setting a menu down, she asked, “Get you anything to drink?” 

“Yes,” the girl immediately answered. “I would like coffee, and orange juice, and iced tea, and… chocolate milk.” 

Squinting at her, the woman asked, “You got… other people coming? Hang on, if this is some sort of YouTube prank, I don’t–” 

“It’s not a prank, and they’re for me.” Reaching into her pocket, the girl produced the roll of twenties, passing one of them to the woman immediately. “I know I can be odd, and I might say more weird things. But that’s for you right now. If you bear with me, I’ll give you another one just for you after I’m done. And I’ll pay for the food. It’s not a dine and dash, or a dumb joke. Please just bring me coffee, orange juice, iced tea, and chocolate milk. In small glasses? I want to taste all of them.” 

The waitress waited a moment, clearly considering her indecisively before taking the money with a nod. “You got it, kid. Coming right up. You ain’t the weirdest customer I’ve had around here, not by a long shot.” 

Through the next half hour or so, the girl tasted a little bit of everything she could. She judged the orange juice as acceptable, coffee as delicious with and without sugar, chocolate milk as bad, and iced tea as almost as good as coffee. Foodwise, normal pancakes without syrup were fair, adding each different flavor syrup or jam made them better, bacon was amazing, sausage was almost as good, and of the multiple kinds of eggs she tried, all were adequate but sunny-side up was the best. She liked dipping the toast and sausage into the bright yellow yolk. 

Chocolate pie was another thing she tried, and hated that as well. Both chocolate milk and chocolate pie tasted gross to her. So she tried ordinary milk just to check, and that was fine. So it was clearly the chocolate thing. But people were supposed to love chocolate, so… clearly they were the weird ones. That stuff was nasty. 

After paying for her food (plus the promised extra tip) and leaving the diner, the girl found herself back out on the street once more, focused on something else. Her name. Did she want to continue to be Raige? She’d brought it up before, but really. For the entire time she had been in that diner, she hadn’t thought of herself as Raige. It didn’t really… feel like her anymore. Sure, she could be angry sometimes, but was that really the name she wanted to represent herself? Even if the idea had been that she was part Roxanne and part Paige, maybe she… needed a name that was just her. She wasn’t Roxanne or Paige. She was herself. It was like she had said to Paige, she needed her own name, one that didn’t tie her to either of them. 

But the idea of calling herself Rassidy was still pretty funny.

Considering all that and musing over the possibilities, she picked a random direction and started to walk once more. She had experienced food (and smell) but there was still so much more out there. Plus, she needed to buy that stuff to help change her appearance a bit more. 

Eventually, she found her way to a mall (not the same one their little group had raided the night before), and casually made her way through it, looking over the assortment of stores. She also bought a candy bar, tried it, and tossed the rest in a trash can. Yeah, chocolate was disgusting. One of the mall security guards approached while she was looking at a pair of shoes in a display window and asked if she was supposed to be in school. She, in turn, cheerfully informed the man that she was not in the school because she had been suspended for fighting with another girl. Which didn’t seem to make him feel much better about her being around the mall, but at least he backed off. 

Eventually, she bought some new clothes, as well as the self-tanning spray and colored contacts. A trip to the restroom gave the girl a chance to apply all of it, and she also changed into some of those new clothes, a pair of designer white jeans and a tummy-baring black top, along with new sneakers. Checking her new look out in the mirror with those now blue eyes and long blonde hair, she smiled faintly. This was the new her, not just a blonde Cassidy Evans, even if the resemblance was still apparent. For one thing, Cassidy would never dress like this. 

Satisfied with her new look for the moment, the girl turned to walk out. She was still musing over a possible name, one that really said who she was. It had to be a good one, because she didn’t want to keep changing it. Not Raige, not Roxanne, not Paige. One for her, one that said who she was. The only problem was… what could it be? She wanted one that actually fit her, one that felt like hers

Turning her head slightly, she caught sight of a large picture on the wall just outside the restroom. It was a breathtaking image of snow-covered mountains that made her gasp. After a moment, she stepped that way and gently touched the picture. It was quite possibly the most beautiful view she had ever seen, a photograph taken high above those peaks. It made her feel as though she was flying over those gorgeous mountains. Right next to that photograph was another, this one of the same mountains but lower down. That second view was taken with a gorgeous lake framed in the center, while the mountains themselves towered over it in the background. Slowly, she raised both hands, touching each picture. For a moment, her fingers brushed over the images. There. She wanted to go there. She wanted to see those mountains, that lake. She wanted to be there. That… that was freedom. 

Eventually, her gaze was drawn to a small caption explaining where the photographs had been taken. She leaned in close, reading that before moving her eyes back and forth between the pictures and the caption. These mountains were perfect. They wouldn’t be pushed around. They were free and strong. They were indomitable. They were everything she wanted to be. 

The phone she had taken buzzed in her pocket, and she glanced at it before answering in an intentionally-deepened voice. “I’m sorry, whoever’s calling, the girl who had this was just dragged away by a SWAT team for killing some guy on a bicycle.” 

“Very funny, Raige,” Paige flatly retorted. “I was just calling to make sure you’re okay.” 

“Oh, I’m just dandy,” the girl replied evenly. “But it’s not Raige anymore.” She turned slightly to look back at the name of those beautiful mountains once more, another smile finding its way to her face. 

“Call me Sierra. Sierra Nevada.” 

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Dig In 22-15 (Summus Proelium)

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“Ohhhh no. Oh no, no, no. Nope, no.” Those words and more filled the air, sounding dull with shock and disbelief. It took me a moment to realize that I was the one saying them, even as I took several reflexive steps back. My head was shaking almost violently. In between words, I was making a disbelieving, distressed sound in the back of my throat. It sounded vaguely like a low whine, and also possibly like an airplane plummeting toward the ground. Which was probably a pretty decent metaphor when it came to what my brain was doing at that moment. 

Amber and Izzy were just staring in shocked silence, their body language making it clear that they had no idea how to respond to what we were looking at. Not that I would have heard it if they did say something, most likely. Not through the ringing in my ears that seemed to get louder the longer I stood there and stared at… at… me. Not me. Raige. Raige who now looked like me. Like a version of me who was wearing a simple gray sweatsuit. What–how was that–why would–what– My brain kept looping back in on itself. Every time I thought I was ready to say something besides no, it came right back around to that same blank, confused denial. I had absolutely no idea how to react to this, inwardly or outwardly. 

Clearing my–her throat, Raige spoke up with my voice again while looking straight at me (with my eyes). “So, I completely understand that this is probably a lot to take in. You know, us being new twins and all. But hey, we accomplished the mission. I have an orb and a body.”  

“A bo–you have my body!” I found myself blurting, a flush rising to my face under the mask. “You look like me. I mean it, you look identical to me. I mean–what–how–what?” It was all I could do to stop those last few words from turning into another inarticulate whine.  

“It’s the only body we can find,” Paige gently put in. “The only biolem that was still sitting around waiting for our father to do something with.”  

Amber was the first to finally find her voice after that. “Why… the hell would your father have a biolem who looks like Cassidy?” She demanded in a hissed tone. “What was he playing at?” 

“He was probably planning on replacing her.” That was Izzy, speaking quietly as she looked back and forth between the updated Raige and me. “You know, embed a fake as a spy. Or maybe he thought they might work with him if he offered to download your brain into a biolem and make you immortal? Or–” Her head shook as she managed a weak, “I dunno. I dunno, it’s just—obviously a replacement, right? Or, I mean–” 

“I get it,” I put in. My voice sounded a bit hollow even through the changer. Really, was it ironic that Raige sounded more like me right now than I did? Because this was just… I had no idea how to… or what was… ugh. My brain was looping back in on itself again, which wasn’t helpful. 

“I don’t know for sure,” Paige hesitantly offered, “but I think she’s right.” Her head nodded toward Izzy. “I think one of his plans involved either replacing Cassidy or offering to make you and your family part of… the system in exchange for funding at one point. This was like a proof of concept or something. He had DNA samples from somewhere. I swear I don’t know where he got them. But they were in there, in that machine that was holding this… body. They grew it just like this, and it’s been sitting there growing and being groomed this whole time with no–uh, brain or personality. Just an empty body.” 

“From DNA,” I found myself murmuring, barely resisting the urge to scream it. “He had my DNA. That’s how he–how this thing looks like me still. Even though he must have built it a while ago. Wait, you said it aged normally? Did he just create it at–I guess that makes…” I trailed off before I could finish saying that it made sense, because none of this made sense to me. I felt like I was in the middle of a crazy fever dream or something. 

“He would have created the body at the age you were when he built it,” Paige slowly remarked. “So it makes sense that it would be the same age you are now. It’s just been sitting here, being automatically cared for just in case he decided to come back to it or… something. Once he gave up on working with your parents, he probably kept it around in case there was an opportunity to… to replace you.” She spoke the last few words quietly, wincing.  

Putting both hands against my forehead, I breathed in and out a few times. Hearing that Pittman had been planning to replace me with a copy, who would probably have ended up doing terrible things to my family, was a lot to take in. Even considering the fact that it was coming from a guy who had already demonstrably planned to kill me. I was starting to think that I didn’t come out ahead in very many of Pittman’s plans. It was almost like he had some sort of grudge against me personally instead of just my family. Was he pissed because I had made friends with Paige? Was that it? I had no idea, but this whole thing was starting to feel personal.  

Shaking that off, I raised myself before taking a few steps that way. Leaning in close to stare into my duplicate body’s eyes, I slowly scanned down my–her face, taking in every possible detail. It was me. Well, obviously a bit different with the longer, undyed hair, but still me. Staring into the face was like looking into a mirror. Every bit of her was just me. She was me, from top to bottom. 

“It was lying facedown in the machine,” Paige informed us. “And Raige was… excited. We didn’t really look at it until after she was plugged in. I knew there was something familiar, but–” She cut herself off, sighing a little. “Like she said, we know it’s a lot to take in. But–” 

“It’s my body,” Raige interrupted. “The only one there is, the only one we’ve got. So it’s the one we have to use. Unless you’re going to try to go back on the deal.” Her tone turned slightly dangerous, though still mostly understanding, as she squinted at me. As my own eyes squinted at me. “You know, the one where I help in exchange for this? Because if this is too much and you’d rather go back to the old status quo where I fight every single one of you…” It wasn’t quite a threat. Well, It might have sounded like that to an outside observer, but I could hear the worry and frustration in her voice, the fear. She was afraid that we would stab her in the back just like Pittman had. Because of course she was. That was how her father had treated her, how he’d treated both her and Paige. So why wouldn’t she assume the worst from other people? 

Taking a breath before letting it out, I shook my head firmly. “No one’s saying anything like that. Just–just give me a second.” I had to move away from her, taking a few steps the other way before turning my back to my new duplicate body. My hands covered my face and I gave a long, slow exhale. A lot to take in? That was basically the understatement of the century. I hadn’t even begun to start thinking my way through all of the ramifications of this, let alone the simple question of what we were going to do with having someone who looked just like me. Not just in the wider city, but simply around everyone else on the team who didn’t know who I was. 

Actually, that was probably the best question of all. Taking another breath, I turned back that way. “What are we going to say to the others? They’ll want to know if we found a new body for Raige, and I’m pretty sure they’ll be a bit interested in seeing it.” 

The girl in question was still squinting at me. Which, again, was weird to see coming from what was essentially myself. “Does that mean you’re not gonna start a big fuss over it?  You’re going to let me keep the body?” 

My mouth opened to say something, before I paused and held up a hand to take a moment. I had to think about my next words briefly. “I… that was the deal. You would get a body of your own. I didn’t question it when we thought it would look like Paige, or like some random person. It wouldn’t be fair to—it’s weird, yeah. Totally fucking weird. No question about that. But no matter what it looks like, it’s your body, not mine. It’s my appearance, my face, my–it makes me feel funny. But I’m not going to say you can’t use it, just because it looks like me. But bear with me a little bit, okay? It’s a lot to deal with. I can’t–oh jeez, it really looks like me. You. You really look like me.” I was looking it–her up and down once more. It was still surprising, no matter how many times I closed my eyes, told myself what I was going to see, then opened them again. Some part of me kept thinking that it would look different the next time I opened up my eyes. But it never did. She always looked identical to me. That wasn’t going to change. I just had to deal with that and move on. Which meant figuring out what to do about it as far as everyone else was concerned. 

Amber stepped closer as well, hesitantly lifting a hand to touch the long hair of my duplicate. “Damn,” she murmured, “They really got down to the smallest detail, didn’t they? I mean, of your–yeah.” 

Grimacing visibly, Raige brushed the other girl’s arm away from her. “As much as I love everyone complimenting Bastard Dad’s work, we should probably get down to business. Cuz if Cass over there is really gonna let this go without raising a fuss, then she’s right. We probably do need to explain why I look like this.”   

She was right, of course, we did need to explain that. A part of me was wondering just what the odds were that we would’ve just happened to only come here with the people who already knew my identity. If Peyton had come with us, or Pack? Yeah, this whole thing would be even more awkward. 

“I could tell them the truth,” I murmured under my breath, barely able to put voice to the thought. “I could tell them who I really am, and we could explain… you know, all of it. They already know about the Ministry and all that. It’s just one more step or two for the rest of it.” 

“Pretty big steps,” Amber pointed out. “Are you really ready to tell Pack, Wren, Fred, Peyton, Murphy, and Roald who you really are and what your connection to all this is?” 

“You mean do I trust Pack to keep it to herself?” I replied flatly, meeting her gaze. “I mean, she is a thief in the long run. She still works for Blackjack, who is still linked to my parents. She works for him, and he works for them. Well, maybe not for, but you know. He follows instructions. He pays his taxes. He just–” Stopping myself, I sighed. “That is the real question, isn’t it? Not to mention Fred. Sure, he’s really learned a lot, but he screwed up once and nearly got Blackjack’s daughter killed for it. He’s grown, but do we know for sure he’d never make a mistake like that again? Not even a mistake like that, necessarily. Do we trust them to never use my identity for their own ends, or to even mess up and accidentally reveal it?”

After getting all that out, I gave a heavy sigh before focusing on Amber once more. “They already know about the Ministry, and about what we know. They know we were the ones who broke into that base tonight. We’re already all in this together. And if they wanted, or just messed up, we’d already be completely screwed. I trusted them this far. I trusted them with it this far. I’ve taken this many steps out over the ledge, and now I feel like one of those cartoon characters who’ll fall if I look down and see how far up I am. So you tell me, do you trust Pack not to give up my identity to her boss?” 

There was only the slightest hesitation as Amber ran the question through her mind before giving a short nod. “I… I know she likes you. I mean, she thinks you’re a lot different than you are, but she still likes you. And I don’t think she would reveal your secret to anyone. Not for money or anything else. She talks a big game about being a bad guy, and sure, she still steals stuff. But she’s loyal to her friends. She’s loyal to Blackjack because he’s helped her out so much, and I think she’d be loyal to you too. So yeah, I think you can trust her with this.” 

Before I could say anything to that, Raige cleared her throat. “Sure, that’s sweet and all. Very touching. But you know you might not have to, right?” As we all looked at her, she rolled her eyes. Which gave me a good idea of what it looked like when I did that. “Yeah, I look like her. But you people do know that disguises exist, right? Fuck, I already have long hair instead of having it short on one side. Give me some blonde hair dye, some colored contacts, some glasses, let me dress differently, whatever. And that’s before you get into the Touched-Tech stuff that could change my appearance even more drastically. Sure, it’s not exactly sitting on the shelves of Wal-Mart, but it’s not impossible to get either. They don’t have to know we look identical now, that’s all I’m saying. Trust your buddies or don’t, but you don’t need to let me looking like this force you into making a decision before you’re ready, that’s all.” 

Glancing away for a moment as thoughts ran through my mind, I finally gave a nod and looked back that way. “You’re right, there are ways to disguise you. Besides, it’s not like my picture is all over the news constantly. Between the media’s disappointment that I don’t take after my mom, and my parents protecting me, most of the general public can’t instantly pick me out of a crowd. Add in a few changes like different hair and all that stuff and… yeah, I guess it would work. Hell, it’s not like any of them have any reason to know what the real me looks like anyway. I’ve never met them as myself.” 

While everyone else exchanged looks, I went on. “The point is, maybe it is time to tell the others the truth about me. But Raige is right,  it’s probably a bad idea to let something like this force us– force me into it. I’m going to tell them. I want to tell them all of it, the full truth. They’ve definitely earned it. But I want to do it because I decided it was the right time and place, not because I didn’t have any choice. I just–I want to tell them when it’s right. Soon. But maybe all separately. Peyton first. She’s earned that, she’s supposed to be my–my partner and all that. My–I need to tell her. And I will.” 

Realizing I was rambling a bit, I coughed. “Anyway, we should focus on this right now.” My hands gestured toward Raige. “We need to make her look different before we go back to Wren’s. Who, for the record, is probably already wondering what’s going on with us.”

“Um, it’s not like there’s a store open right now,” Amber pointed out. “It’s the middle of the night and there’s a curfew. So how are we supposed to find hair dye and stuff like that at this hour?” She hesitated very slightly before adding a weak, “We’re not gonna steal it, are we?” 

“If we did break in somewhere,” I replied, “we’d be subtle about it and we’d leave money. I know it’s not perfect, but…” With a heavy sigh, I shook my head. “Lots of ways it’s not perfect. But what choice do we have? You’re right, there’s no stores open that we can use.”

“We don’t have to steal anything.” That was Izzy. “And we don’t have to buy it.” She reached into her bag, pulling out, of all things, three bottles of hair dye in various shades, and several different styles of glasses. She also had three different tee-shirts in varying sizes, and a few different pairs of pants, also different sizes. When everyone stared at her, she squirmed under the attention. “I um, I didn’t know if the body we found would have clothes, or what it would look like. I just thought if it looked–I mean if she looked too noticeable or if we needed to change her appearance for some reason. Or– I mean it’s not like I didn’t have plenty of money for it. So I just–”

“Izzy, you’re a genius,” I interrupted. “A straight-up genius. I can’t believe none of the rest of us even thought about that. Of course disguising the body was a good idea, no matter what it looked like.” 

“Yeah, she’s brilliant and all. Congratulations,” Raige put in. “Now can we get down to business, please? Because I’d like to take this body for a spin, not stand here all day talking about it. I don’t know if you’ve all forgotten or something but this is my first time having a physical body all to myself, without somebody backseat walking.” She added that with a pointed glance toward Paige. “Need to run around the block, do some flips, get in a fistfight, really put this body through its paces.” 

Grimacing at her choice of words, I managed a weak, “Please don’t get into a fistfight anytime soon, okay? Not just because–well… that looks like me and it’d be weird, but also because we’re trying not to attract attention.”  

I was treated to the sight and sound of what looked like my own body scoffing at me. Raige waved a hand dismissively. “Yeah, yeah, no running off and punching the first person I see. It was a figure of speech, or whatever. The point is, I just want to get it out there and test this body for real. You don’t know what it’s like being all cooped up and having to share what little control you have with someone else.” 

“Gee, thanks,” Paige mumbled before focusing. “She’s right though. I mean, about all of it. She deserves to stretch her legs, even just a little bit. Not to mention, we don’t know how long we might have before someone in the Ministry thinks to start checking these places. Sure, it’s not super-likely anytime soon, but we probably shouldn’t push our luck. So can we get started?” 

“Hang on,” I interrupted, biting my lip before stepping back over there. I had to look at myself again. My hands rose to settle on my–her shoulders, as I simply stared, taking it all in. It was still so weird to see my own body standing there like that. It made a funny feeling rise up in my stomach. Not revulsion or disgust or anything bad like that. Just… a funny feeling. It was hard to describe. Standing there, I looked myself–no, I looked Raige up and down once more. This was the biolem body that would have taken my place in my family, that would have secretly spied on my parents and probably ended up doing something horrible. Actually, probably more than one horrible thing. It was–yeah, it was a lot to take in, to say the least. It was going to take a lot more time than these few seconds for me to adjust to the idea that there was someone who looked identical to me, even if we were going to make her look slightly different now. This was a pretty huge thing. 

So, after a moment of that, I released my new twin and stepped away. “Okay, let’s get to it. Let’s make a version of you who looks at least somewhat different than me.” 

We got to work on that pretty quick. The hair dye was one of the new kinds that sprayed in, only affecting hair even if you got it on something else. Well, it affected other things, but it was really easy to wipe off if that thing wasn’t hair. Raige chose the blonde color, and soon there was what amounted to a blonde me standing there in front of us. She changed out of the sweatsuit, switching it for a simple red tee-shirt and jeans that mostly fit, then searched through the glasses until she managed to find a pair she didn’t completely hate. They were thin metal frames. 

“So, how do I look?” she finally asked while standing in front of us. 

“Let’s just say we definitely need to do more to change you before anyone who actually knows me sees you,” I managed with a hesitant shrug. “But… you know, pretty good other than that.” 

“Great.” Giving us all a thumbs up, Raige started to walk around us toward the ladder. “Now let’s get the hell out of here. Like I said, gotta take this puppy for a test drive.” 

Paige glanced to me, hesitating before asking, “Are you really okay?” 

“I’m not sure yet,” I admitted, “but she’s right, we do need to go. 

“If you think it’d be awkward to run into my family after breaking into one of their secret bases, imagine doing it while one of us looks like a Hannah Montana version of their daughter.” 

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Dig In 22-14 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so we weren’t quite done for the night yet. At least, some of us weren’t. Pack, Alloy, Murphy, and Roald might’ve gone home, but Amber, Izzy, and I were still going to go along with Paige and Raige to check out those secret labs. Part of me felt a little worried about going out again this soon, but it really was the best time. The Ministry would be occupied trying to figure out what the hell had just happened to them and who was responsible. They certainly wouldn’t be reinforcing these other places. Not yet, anyway. They might have been talking about refurbishing Pittman’s labs for other things, but I was pretty sure that that would be one of the furthest things from their minds right now. Later, of course, it would become a problem. Especially once they decided that they needed to put a heavier security on all of their properties. It would become a hell of a lot harder to get in those places and take what we needed then. That was why we needed to go tonight, while they were still reeling and distracted. 

I was telling myself all of that while putting the hated stuffed bra back on along with the suit itself. Seriously, I did not like doing this. But if we went in there as ourselves and found out too late that the Ministry had put up cameras, we would be screwed. I was going to go ahead and assume my parents could look at their mall base being invaded and then Pittman’s old labs being searched a couple hours later and put two and two together. 

So, we were suited up once more as we crouched in an alley across the street from what looked like an old dive bar that hadn’t been open for ages. It was sandwiched between a pawn shop and a tiny Chinese restaurant. From what we had been able to put together, the last time the bar was open was over ten years earlier. Pittman had bought it and used the place as one of his smaller labs. Which, given there was an entire basement area beneath the shop, made it possible that there was a hidden area somewhere in there that my family’s people hadn’t found. 

Sure, it wasn’t likely that we’d get super-lucky with the first place we checked. Hell, there was a good chance that we wouldn’t find anything at all in any of these places. The Ministry had to have gone over them pretty thoroughly. But we had to try, and trying meant starting somewhere. So, this seemed like as good of an option as any. 

The area we were in wasn’t exactly the best part of town, to put it mildly. Even with the curfew, there were still some people out walking in small groups. Probably because the cops didn’t patrol here that often. The place wasn’t rich enough to have constant security, and it wasn’t right in the middle of disputed gang territory. Not those sort of gangs anyway. There were just a lot of poor people around, and homeless, and… yeah. It wasn’t a good neighborhood. 

Still, eventually the way was clear. There was no one in sight at the moment, after a couple very clearly drunk guys managed to find their keys and stumble into an apartment a few doors down. We exchanged glances before collectively nodding. With one more quick glance around to make sure no one was looking, we darted from the alley and crossed the street to the doorway of the old bar. Paige was in front, and she ignored the visible deadbolt, instead turning to what looked like one of those intercom systems on the front of apartment buildings where you hit the button to contact one of the places inside so they could buzz you in. Despite being for a single place, there were about twenty buttons spread across the thing, all of them unlabeled. Paige didn’t hesitate at all, her fingers dancing across the console to put in the eight digit code. There was an immediate corresponding beep, and then a click as the door opened. She gave the rest of us a brief look, her expression unreadable under the mask. With a muttered reminder to be careful, she opened the door the rest of the way, and we all slipped inside. 

Yeah, this had definitely been a bar at one point, though it was clear that almost everything of value had been taken out of it. The only things left were the booths along one side and the bar itself. The shelves were bare, there were no tables or chairs, and I could see a spot where there had clearly been a jukebox at one point. It was all gone now. It had been emptied out, either by Pittman himself, or the Ministry, or people who managed to break in somehow before the place was secured. Whatever it was, that didn’t matter. We didn’t care about any of that stuff. We were there for far more important things than a jukebox or some random alcohol. 

Quickly, we scanned the room, but couldn’t see any cameras. It was possible the Ministry didn’t have any set up here yet, given they would have taken out everything they could find in this place and didn’t have any reason to keep it under constant surveillance. Not this long after Pittman had been sent to Breakwater. As far as they would be concerned, he had no way of getting out of there, so why spend the effort and resources to watch over his random properties constantly years after he had been dealt with? They were talking about converting his spaces to new labs, but until that happened, they probably didn’t care too much. Not yet, anyway. Which, again, was why we needed to do this right now.

It didn’t take long to find the door to the basement, and we carefully descended the cement stairs while keeping our eyes open for cameras or traps. But the place was empty. We got down there to find a wide-open space, like an unfinished basement in a house. It was all cement, with a heavy sink in one corner, and clear markings where there had once been equipment. But now all of it was gone. There was nothing in here. At least, not that we could easily see. 

“We should spread out,” Amber murmured, “check for any hidden doors or anything.” 

Raige, who had apparently taken control of Paige’s body in that moment, snarled, “If we have to check the quick way by knocking down some of these walls, so be it.”  

We scoured every wall, even going over the floor for trapdoors. And yes, we put a couple small holes in the walls where there might be something. We even found one promising bit, a hidden space in one corner. But it turned out to just be the size of a closet (one in a normal house, not mine), and held little more than some random science equipment and tools, like scalpels and flasks. There might have been something useful within that stuff, but it wasn’t what we were looking for. We took some of it in a bag, looking around the place for another minute or so, then made our way out. This was our first try, and it was basically a bust. Which wasn’t surprising or anything, but still. A part of me had hoped that we would get lucky. 

At least we had several more options to go. So, we made our way out, returned to the alley, and headed for the next spot. All these labs were close enough together, in this part of town, that we could get there by moving through alleys, keeping our heads down, and watching out for anyone. Which meant I didn’t have to keep changing back into my Paintball costume to play lookout. Pittman had probably intentionally kept his places close enough to quickly move back and forth between. Far enough apart that they all wouldn’t be found if one was (if you didn’t have the addresses already), but close enough that he could walk to any of them within about fifteen minutes.  

Or maybe I was overthinking it, and he chose these places because it was an area he could afford to buy property in, and set up a shop without attracting a lot of attention. 

The second place we checked looked like it had once been a clothing shop. There were still metal racks sitting around, but that was about it. We didn’t even find any secret rooms in that one, no matter how much we searched. It was even more of a dead end than the first place. 

The third place we checked, on the other hand, didn’t look like it had been anything of note before. It was just a smallish, one-story building sitting in one corner of a parking lot near a much larger pharmacy and medical supply center, the sort of place you would drive past your entire life without really noticing. At most, you might idly wonder what the place was as you drove past, then forget about it immediately as soon as you turned the corner. The building was just there, amounting to little more than scenery in the neighborhood. 

After once more taking the time to make sure the coast was clear, we made our way over there and into the building, using the code to unlock the door. Inside, the place was a maze of small offices, with a waiting room out front. It looked like this had once been a doctor’s office or something. Which made sense given the nearby pharmacy. And it was obvious why setting up in a place like this would be good for someone like Pittman, who would need ready access to a lot of medical stuff in order to build his bodies. This place was looking somewhat promising. But on the other hand, it also meant that the Ministry would have gone over everything very thoroughly too. We still had to get lucky and hope that they hadn’t taken everything useful in here. 

A search through the main floor revealed little of consequence. A few empty pill bottles, some dusty medical tools that hadn’t been taken lying here or there, that sort of thing. Most of it was picked clean by one group or another. But just as I was starting to think this would be a dead end as well, Raige kicked open a supply closet, and a thorough search revealed a trapdoor in the floor under the carpet. The four of us (five, actually, given Paige and Raige both counted) exchanged looks. Then I went first, struggling very slightly with my fake chest (and yes, I did mutter and curse the entire time about it) before climbing down the ladder to the room below. 

Upon arriving in the room below, the place was filled with a steady humming sound. It was also pitch-dark. But I was able to run my hand along the nearby wall and find a light switch, which I flipped up. As I did so, a long row of overhead lights began to turn on one after another, starting almost directly above me and leading down the length of what turned out to be a room roughly the size of a basketball court. 

As the others joined me, we could immediately tell that this place was different. It was readily apparent that the Ministry had not found that secret door. It reminded me a little bit of Wren’s lab for the fact that there were tables along the room full of tools and random bits of machinery. But there were also large floor to ceiling freezers all along both walls to either side of us. Those were the source of the humming sound that filled the room. As I looked at them, I could see a clipboard hanging next to each door. With a glance to the others, I walked toward the nearest and carefully pulled the board up to look at it. There were notes there, listing what appeared to be names, dates, ethnicities, diseases, and causes of death. There were two dates actually. One generally between fifteen and forty years earlier than the second. 

I wasn’t dumb. I knew what this was. My eyes selected to the freezer then to the clipboard and I grimaced while stepping away. “Bodies,” I announced. “He’s got dead bodies in all these freezers. Or parts of them, I don’t know. Either way, it looks like this is the place where he was doing a lot of his dissection to figure out how to make new bodies or whatever.” 

Sounding a bit sick, Izzy weakly noted, “I guess that means we’re in the right place? I mean… not really the right place, but…” She trailed off, shaking her head. 

“Yeah, doesn’t feel like a place we really want to be,” I agreed, “But it’s probably the best shot we’ve got. So let’s look around.” Even as I said that, my eyes were widening. “We’ve gotta check all these freezers, don’t we?” 

“Check the clipboards,” Paige advised, already moving to the opposite side of the room to start working her way down the line there. See if you can find any that don’t sound like a person who was alive before.” 

“We’ll work on that,” Amber put in before nudging Izzy. “You should check the tables for anything useful. We still need one of those orbs.” 

We all knew what she was doing, making it so Izzy didn’t have to go down the row of freezers and potentially have to open some of them to check inside. And I was glad for that. Izzy had been through more than enough emotional turmoil tonight. She didn’t need to deal with… that. I wasn’t exactly thrilled about doing it myself, obviously, but still. She deserved a break. 

So, we searched down at the line of freezers on either side. Unfortunately, none of the clipboards said anything about a newly built body or anything like that. They all listed birth and death dates as well as causes. Some of them had the information crossed off in red ink, followed by a third date and either a checkmark or the word ‘disposed.’ My best guess was that that meant he had either used that body or discarded it. 

This whole situation was incredibly morbid, to say the least. And I was desperately hoping that we wouldn’t have to actually open the freezers. But I was starting to worry that we wouldn’t have another choice. We couldn’t risk walking away from this place without checking if there was the slightest chance he had simply stuffed one of his prototype biolem bodies inside one of them. And it was looking more and more like we wouldn’t find one conveniently labeled as such. 

We started with the freezers that were labeled as the bodies having been used, of course. Amber and I both stood in front of one, looking at the clipboard announcing that the body had been ‘disposed’ about six years earlier. Exchanging glances, the two of us sighed heavily together, then reached out to grab the heavy metal bar on the door. Neither of us wanted to do it alone. With a pair of grunts, we hauled the door open, bracing ourselves for… 

Nothing. There was nothing in that freezer, just as the clipboard had promised. Well, almost nothing. The space within the freezer was basically coffin-sized (which just made the whole thing even worse, and the walls were covered in blood and… and probably other body stuff that I really didn’t want to think about. It also smelled so bad that I instantly recoiled and gagged against the mask, barely keeping my stomach under control. Amber was in much the same boat, but managed to shove the door shut first. 

“Don’t you–ugh, love being a superhero?” she asked while half-doubled over and clearly doing her level best not to lose her dinner. 

Grimacing, I gave a short nod, breathing heavily. “Yeah, it’s fantastic. Nothing but glory and sunshine for this job.” Even as I said that, my eyes were scanning the row of freezers. Oh god. If an empty one smelled that bad, how was it going to be when we had to open one with an actual dead body in it? The freezers–damn it, this was not my idea of a good time. 

Unlike Amber and me, Paige–no wait, that was Raige– was on the other side of the room opening one door after another, looking inside before muttering a curse, and moving on. Somehow that made me feel worse, like I was making such a big deal out of this while she was just fine with it. She was looking for a body she could use, a body she could live in. And here I was just being a baby about smelling some–okay yeah it was still awful. But still. 

Before I could think too much more about that, Izzy abruptly called out from the far end of the room where she had been sorting through a pile of stuff in a large crate there. “Hey! Hey, I think I–look.” She turned as the rest of us looked that way, holding up something in one hand. It was a small metal ball about–oh. 

Raige was there in a second, literally shoving one of the other tables out of the way and sending a small pile of tools crashing to the floor in the process. “Wait, is that–holy fuck, kid, I could kiss you right now.” Even as she said that, the girl was taking the orb from Izzy’s hand. “This is–this is it. I mean it’s not perfect, it’s not the most advanced version, but I can definitely use it.” 

Amber and I arrived then, looking at the thing. Just like the one I had seen back in the warehouse when Paige cut open that biolem’s head, the orb was baseball-sized and had a series of various-colored flashing lights along it. I could see a collection of short, maybe three-inch wires sticking out of the bottom, which probably extended when the orb was… inserted. I remembered the other one had had those wires leading down through the body to control various parts. 

“So you can use that?” Amber asked, giving the thing a long look. 

Shifting just a bit as she stared down at it, Raige gave a short nod. “Yeah, get me a body to plug it into and we’re in business. But this is a great start, pipsqueak.” She reached out to give Izzy a light punch in the shoulder. 

“Probably shouldn’t call her that.” That was Paige, clearly. “I think she’s earned a better name than pipsqueak.” Even as she said that, the girl was clearly examining the ball in her hand. 

“It’s a term of affection,” Raige announced. “Anyway, this looks like the start of home sweet home. Now let’s find an actual–” 

“Hey, look at this.” Amber, who had stepped away to the other side of the table where Izzy had found the orb, put her hand against the wall. “This bit here looks a little–” Her hand pushed hard against that bit of wall, and it abruptly shoved inward. Hidden door. There was a hidden door in this already-hidden room. Whatever was in there, Pittman definitely didn’t want anyone to find it.

One by one, we slipped through that hidden door, and found ourselves in a much smaller room. This one was barely large enough for the four of us to stand in along with the large metal tube taking up most of the space. It was about four feet across and six feet high, and had a large computer console next to it that seemed to be displaying a bunch of information that I couldn’t even keep track of. But the gist I got from it was that this might be exactly what we were looking for. 

Sure enough, Paige smiled. “This is it. This is what we need.” 

Her face shifted then, as Raige spoke. “Could uhh, could the rest of you wait outside for a minute, huh?” I could tell she felt a little awkward, which was strange to see coming from her. “This bit’s a little personal. Like changing clothes.” 

Amber, Izzy, and I exchanged glances before collectively shrugging. Then we moved back to the larger room, stepping away while talking a bit to each other about what was going on. Not that we had very productive things to say. We were all exhausted by this point. All I wanted to do was go back home and sleep. Especially knowing that I was going to have to get up in a few hours and go to school if I didn’t want my parents to suspect anything. And now it was even more crucial that they didn’t. 

Eventually, Paige stepped out of the room. She grimaced a bit when we looked that way. 

“You okay?” Amber asked. “I mean, are you… you?” 

“I’m me. Just me,” Paige confirmed. “We made the transfer, but uh, we’ve got a umm, maybe a slight… uncomfortable… a uhh, issue with–” 

“Fuck it, I’ll show ‘em!” A voice called from in the room. Something about it made me blink. Something very famili–

And then Raige stepped into view in her new body. Only she didn’t look like Paige. And she certainly didn’t look like any random person. 

The hair was different, long on both sides rather than short on one, and without the dyed tips. But other than that, her new body… was me. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Dig In 22-13 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

So, we made our way back to the shop. We were careful, of course. First, Peyton and I took the time to each find a private area to change into our actual costumes. Amber had grabbed the bag with the costumes in it just before teleporting us out of the van. Naturally, the most important part of that point was that I was able to take the damn bra thing off. I resisted the urge to hurl it as far as I could, but only barely. I really hoped that nothing would come up in the future forcing me to wear it.  

Now I was back in my costume and far more comfortable. I was the right height, the right… shape, and everything felt a hell of a lot better, even if we weren’t out of the woods yet. I was just plain happier like this. 

Alloy and I basically just had to do the exact same thing we had done to get to the motel in the first place, only in reverse. Now we were heading back to the shop, and it was even more crucial that the others not be seen. It would have been bad enough to deal with cops or other Touched seeing them dressed up like that before. Now… now it would be a lot worse. 

Thankfully, the Ministry was still busy scouring the lake and area along the shore for us. I had no doubt that the search would widen soon enough, but we would be safe in the shop by then, and everyone would be out of the incriminating suits. Or so I kept telling myself throughout the entire very tense affair of oh-so-slowly working our way through the city. We couldn’t afford a single screw-up now. We had to get back there and get rid of all the evidence before anyone, particularly anyone who might work for or talk to the Ministry, saw us. 

Yeah, it was a bit nerve-wracking. But, despite having several near heart attacks on the way there and time and space doing their level best to stretch the whole thing out into an eternity, we finally made it. We were back in the alley behind the shop, and as far as we could tell, no one had seen us. It probably would have been impossible, or at least a lot harder, to do it that way before the curfew was put in place, so I did have to thank the authorities for that. Maybe I would send them a nice card or something. 

Fred opened the back door, giving us a nod. “We had cameras set up the last couple blocks, watching you. There’s no one on your tail. Come on.” He stepped aside then, holding the door for us to go in while his eyes carefully and suspiciously scanned the alley despite his own words. Apparently after the mistake he had made with that whole Ashton situation, he was being a lot more careful in general. Or maybe my paranoia was rubbing off on the people around me. Either way, I wasn’t going to object. He was Wren’s guardian, and there would be people who wanted to use her skills for their own ends. 

Speaking of which, I was going to have to give Glitch an answer about that whole situation soon. She had said she would send someone in two weeks, but it had been longer than that without a word. I assumed that had something to do with the whole war escalating thing. Maybe they were busy helping my parents work out nasty new toys to play with or something. Whatever the case, I knew that it was only a temporary delay. Soon enough, she would send someone to get our answer about what Wren was going to do. We’d talked about it of course, and… well, I just hoped we knew what we were doing. 

But right now, I had to focus on this particular situation. We all slipped through the doorway, before Fred closed it after us. I felt a sudden rush of relief wash over me in that moment. Tension that I hadn’t even realized I was holding in myself rushed out in a heavy sigh. We were safe. Well, maybe not completely safe from everything. The Ministry would be looking for whoever had stolen from them. They would be turning over every stone they could, and would go over that van with a fine-toothed comb. Thankfully, there was nothing for them to find. The van wasn’t registered to any of us, or connected to us in any way. Pack had stolen it from a place that rented them out for people to move furniture, and none of us had touched anything in it with our bare hands. We didn’t touch anything and we didn’t leave anything. They wouldn’t find any leads there. 

So, they would look, but they wouldn’t find us. Not right now, anyway. We had time. We had space to breathe and think. And to find out what we’d actually taken from them. 

Of course, first we all had to survive an attack of a completely different kind. The moment we came into the main shop area, I was suddenly hit straight on by a (literal) flying tackle-hug as Wren zoomed across the open space on her wings to crash into me. “You made it!” 

Staggering backward, I laughed. It was a laugh of relief, which felt really good right then. So did the hug itself, actually. I closed my arms around the girl and nodded. “Yup, we sure did. In and out just like that.” Even as I said those words, my voice cracked a little. I still couldn’t believe it had worked. And despite the fact that most of me was celebrating, there was a small but not insignificant part of me that was convinced that Ministry bad guys were about to crash through the windows while my brother and dad blew the door down and came storming in. It was… not a fun thing to imagine. 

Wren didn’t hug me for long, quickly moving on to the others. As she did, I stepped back and glanced toward Fred. “Good driving back there,” I informed him quietly. “Looked like a real wipeout. I’m sure they’ll have their suspicions, maybe even enough to be sure once they investigate and don’t find us anywhere. But still, you sold it in that moment.” 

Folding his arms, the man gave a short, thoughtful nod. “That’s the important part, isn’t it?” he mused. “If they don’t know exactly what happened, it’ll slow down their search. Even if they know you intentionally went into the water, they’ll look for diving equipment and extend the search area to find places further along where you could’ve come up. It’ll confuse them, muddy the waters, so to speak.” He gave a soft grunt of amusement at his own joke. 

“Every little bit helps,” I confirmed before letting out a breath. “Thanks for being around to help with all this. We definitely couldn’t do it without you. I mean, certainly not without Wren, but you too. I…” Biting my lip behind the mask and helmet, I hesitated briefly, wondering if I was overstepping. “I know you… you’ve felt shitty about what happened before.” 

“It was a stupid mistake,” he replied flatly, not looking at me. “I should’ve paid more attention to what that idiot wanted to do with that stuff, to exactly what he was going to steal. He just said he was going to rob a bank and–shit.” Shaking his head, he muttered something I didn’t catch under his breath. Then he sighed heavily. “Sorry I treated you the way I did when you showed up. You know, with the whole pointing a gun at you thing. That was out of line. It was–I’m glad you found us. Glad you… did all that.” 

I knew what he was saying. He was horrified at the very thought that he might have been even indirectly responsible for the death of a child. If we hadn’t found those vials and gotten them back to Blackjack in time… yeah, I didn’t really want to think about it either. I’d never met his daughter, but no kid deserved to die. Especially like that. 

I was spared from having to find some way of responding to that when Pack abruptly spoke up. “Okay, well, it’s been real fun basking in the glory of pulling something like that off, but can we get the next part of this show on the road?” She had all of her lizards out on the counter and was brushing her fingers over them tenderly, clearly apologizing for leaving them behind. 

Paige cleared her throat, straightening up with a slight grimace that told me she and Raige were having their own discussion inside her head. “Yeah, we, for two, would like to see what we pulled out of that place and if it was anything useful.” 

Her face shifted just a bit before Raige added, “And it had damn well better be after all that.” 

Of course, we couldn’t just open up the bags and dig through them just yet. There was way too big of a chance that the Ministry had put tracking devices on their hard drives. Right now, the special bags that Wren had provided were bouncing any potential signal all over the country.  But we weren’t going to take the risk of pulling anything out until there was no chance of us being tracked back here. Which meant that Wren had to take the bags into a specially prepared large metal crate she already had set up in a corner of the room. It was just large enough for her to sit inside with her tools and the stuff we’d grabbed, and did basically the same thing as the bags themselves while giving her room to work. Which meant the rest of us stood around and talked about what we had just done while she got busy. Anxious as we were to see what we had managed to grab, none of us wanted to take any risks. We had gotten through this so far without giving away who we were, and this was no time to start getting reckless. Slow and steady, one bit at a time. We’d done our part, now it was time for Wren to do hers. 

Okay, that wasn’t even in the least bit accurate. Wren had done more than her part so far. As I’d said to Fred, we would have been pretty screwed without her the entire way through this. The very thought of having to try to get into that place by myself, or even just without her, was basically inconceivable. I… maybe could have done it. At least, I could have dug the tunnel, but damn would it have taken a lot more time. Making everything pink and digging it out like that myself, I probably would have taken another month just to get there. Let alone having to go in alone. I either would’ve gotten caught, or I would’ve had to use my powers openly. Which would’ve let my parents know that Paintball was onto them, and that would have been a whole other–yeah. If I didn’t have these guys here to help, all of them, I would have been screwed. 

Those thoughts and more were running through my head as the others were loudly discussing just how crazy everything in that base had been. Murphy, Roald, and Peyton were going on about the guy they’d had to fight inside one of the other rooms, while the latter girl’s marbles spun wildly around her head. They were clearly as worked up and excited as she was, and possibly feeling a little agitated about the fact that they hadn’t been able to help in that place. If they could feel agitated, I still wasn’t sure how that whole thing worked. But in either case, whether it was the marbles or Peyton’s own subconscious, they were definitely energetic now, spinning around her head like a colorful halo or something. 

Glancing at her phone, Pack gave a soft grunt of annoyance. “Fuck. I gotta go. Getting a bit late and I’ve got a meeting with the boss before school in the morning.” 

“A meeting?” Amber’s gaze moved that way, clearly worried. And possibly curious. 

With an audible snort, Pack gestured casually. “Don’t worry, babe, the meeting was scheduled yesterday. Just a thing with me and a couple others about a job we need to do this week. A crime job.” She was clearly teasing the other girl. “But I promise, it’s the fun sort of crime.” 

Sighing, Amber waved a hand around the room. “You realize you’re talking about doing crime in a room full of Star-Touched, right? You’re literally admitting that you’re planning to do something illegal and expect us not to do anything about it.” 

“Oh, you can do something about it,” the other girl slyly replied. “Feel free to show up whenever you get the call and try to stop us. It’d be fun to play cops and robbers. Maybe one of us can tie the oth–” 

With an almost violent cough and vigorous clearing of her throat, Amber interrupted. “Didn’t you say you had to go? Meeting, school, all that?” 

Pack was clearly grinning behind that full face-covering mask as she gave a thumbs up. “Yup. But remember, I get to see the information you guys pull out of that stuff too. Don’t cheat me on this. I earned it.” 

We all promised to keep her informed about what we found, before the girl headed out with her lizards. Once she was gone, Murphy and Roald noted that they really should get home too. Obviously they couldn’t go by themselves, not with the curfew up. So Fred took them in his sedan, where they would hide under some blankets. He had an ID that identified him as a delivery driver for a local bakery, and if anyone stopped him he would just say that he was on his way to work a bit early to fill in. Assuming they called the place, the supervisor there was a friend of Fred’s and would cover for him. We’d thought about using that cover to get everyone to the motel earlier, but dismissed it both because we didn’t want anyone to take note of Fred being anywhere near the motel right before that whole thing went down, and because hiding all of us was a lot harder than just hiding Murphy and Roald. 

Finally, Peyton reluctantly admitted that she should probably start heading back home too, given her mother would freak out if she didn’t wake up in time to go to school. And besides, she had a test in the morning. So, after also making us promise to let her know what we found, she took off. 

Which left me there with Izzy, Amber, and Paige/Raige while we all waited for Wren to get done identifying and disabling the tracking devices. We talked a bit more, and had a snack of chips and cookies while watching the news for any word about what had happened. The only mention was something about a gang-related car chase that had ended with one of the cars involved driving into the lake. Of course, they identified the chopper as being part of the police force. And hell, for all we knew it really was. I would not have been at the least bit surprised to hear that it was an actual police helicopter that had been chasing us with that light. It gave them the perfect cover, anyway. And it wasn’t like my family having those sort of contacts and resources would be surprising. 

Eventually, Fred returned and whistled long and low while shaking his head as he saw what we were watching. “These people really have their fingers dug into fucking everything in this city, don’t they? They didn’t have any warning that you were going to be in there, and they still just snapped their fingers and summoned up a helicopter to chase after you. And just like that, it was a police chopper. Now they get to control the whole damn narrative. It’s just that quick, that easy. They say the word and the media reports what they’re told to.” 

“Helps when they have people in the police and the media,” I pointed out quietly. “Plus, we didn’t exactly give the news much of a reason to doubt that story. It makes sense that what happened right there would be a gang fight. And that it would disappear pretty quick. I mean, look at what’s happening in the rest of the city. As far as everyone else is concerned, it was just one more little event. Barely even worth reporting on, in the grand scheme of things.” 

Fred has started to say something, but before he could, the crate slid open and Wren emerged.  Her always-wild blond hair was sticking out in even more directions than normal, and she gave herself a shake, almost like a dog. Then she flashed us a broad smile and held up a plastic bag full of what looked like the remains of several small computer chips. They had been smashed into lots of tiny pieces. “All good now,” she informed brightly. “They can’t track these things anymore, and the last signal they got made it look like they were in Oklahoma. And there weren’t any tracking devices on the filters or papers, just the hard drives. It’s safe to look at the stuff now. Oooh, cookies!” With that, her wings extended and she literally flew over to the counter to grab a chocolate chip treat in each hand before smooshing them together into her mouth. “Mmmphh. Ur ruv oorrkiesh.” 

“Wren, don’t talk with your mouth full,” Fred advised. “And try to stick to one cookie at a time, kid.” Even as he said that, the man was shaking his head as he poured a glass of milk for her and handed it over, smiling as she drank greedily. “Good job though.” 

Reaching down to pick up the bag of broken tracking devices she had dropped in her rush, I examined it and smiled. “Definitely a good job. I’m pretty sure the Ministry is pissed off right now.” I had to pause then, imagining my parents being angry. It made me feel weird in my stomach, but I shook that off. Now really wasn’t the time to focus on that. We had to look through that stuff. It was getting pretty late, but still. I couldn’t leave yet. Not when we knew that Irelyn and Trivial were in some sort of horrible danger. There wasn’t time to waste. 

So, Amber, Izzy, and I took the papers and split them up to look through while Paige plugged herself into one hard drive after another. There was a lot of information here, too much to really take in with the time we had. Mostly we were just looking for the addresses of Pittman’s labs at the moment. There would be time later to take a full inventory of all the information once we had dealt with the most pressing matter. 

So, I was simply scanning through pages, looking for certain words like Pittman himself, or laboratory, or robots, biolems, anything about biological experimentation, and so on. I saw several things that made me want to go back and read more, but not right at the moment. Pittman. I had to focus on Pittman. 

Finally, after a few minutes of that, Amber abruptly spoke up. “Hang on, wait, I think I’ve got something.” As we all turned it to look that way, she held up a stapled-together stack of papers, flipped to somewhere in the middle. “Right here, it looks like an inventory of places where they could set up a lab to work on something called Project Carpenter, whatever that is.” 

“At least it’s not Project Owl,” I murmured before adding, “I take it the list has some interesting places?” 

“You could say that,” she replied before pointing to one part of the page. “This part here, there’s four addresses and  it says, ‘Acquired from B.P. Equipment on-site, inventory needed.’ B.P. That could be–” 

“Benjamin Pittman,” Paige interrupted. “That would make sense. We’ve got something here too. It’s not the addresses, but I think it’s codes to get through the doors. They changed the locks, obviously.” 

“You guys aren’t going out there now, are you?” That was Fred, frowning. “It’s already late.” 

“And as soon as they find out what we stole,” I pointed out, “they’ll start locking things down. They might not know exactly what we were after, but I don’t want to take that chance.” Belatedly, I grimaced to myself. “I mean, I don’t want to speak for any of you–” 

“No,” Amber interrupted, “you’re right, we need to get over there while we can. They’ll be busy scouring that base and van for any clues, or trying to track us by the lake.” 

The others nodded in agreement, Raige taking the time to point out that Irelyn needed help right now. So, I exhaled. “Right, okay then. Hope you guys don’t mind putting those suits back on just in case there are cameras in those places. 

“Looks like we’ve got one more job to do tonight.”  

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