Summus Proelium

Together And Alone 27-12 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

Well, so much for getting out of here before the super-powered people started showing up. Now not only did we have several sedans full of very angry Breakwater assholes chasing us, but there was also a flying guy. At least he didn’t seem to be one of the faster fliers. Sure, he was keeping pace as I floored the pedal and pushed the van up to seventy on our way down this quiet residential street, but I’d seen plenty on the news who already would have been able to catch up with us, tear the doors off, and haul us all out of the van before we could blink. Maybe we were lucky and Breakwater couldn’t afford to send the real heavy hitters yet. It would be nice to have some luck during this whole situation, at least. Which probably wasn’t a very fair thought, considering we had the machine, plus we’d found Robert and a brand new TONI friend. But still, given what these guys would do if they caught up with us, I was hoping for a little more on the luck side. 

Gripping the wheel tightly, I had to swerve around a tow truck that was pulling out of some guy’s driveway. Probably his own. He leaned on the horn, shaking his fist angrily out the side window while shouting curses. Which just made me wonder what that guy thought was happening. He saw a van hauling ass down the street with several sedans and a flying man chasing after it. That hardly would’ve raised eyebrows back in Detroit, but something told me it wasn’t exactly a common sight around here. He was probably calling the cops right now. How were they going to react to this? Was I about to have to avoid a bunch of local police along with the Breakwater people?

Pushing those thoughts out of my head, I took a sudden right turn onto a side street. Paige shouted something about there being a no outlet sign, but I ignored that. I wasn’t here for the road. Instead, with our pursuers coming up right behind us, I aimed for the fence beside one of the houses on the far side of this cul-de-sac. 

“Faster, faster!” Still perched on my shoulder and clinging there, Qwerty cheered while seeing the fence rapidly approaching. “Blow right through it! That thing doesn’t stand a chance! Shred it!” 

Robert, for his part, simply called, “I hope you know what you’re doing up there, kid!” He pointed his pistol out the back window he’d already broken and fired a couple shots that made the flying man swerve to one side, slowing him down just a bit. 

I definitely knew what I was doing. Well, hopefully anyway. Telling myself it would all be fine, I focused on the fence and pointedly pushed my foot down harder. The van roared as it hit the curb, bouncing roughly before tearing up the grass. I had just a second to wince at how the owner of this place was going to react before we hit the fence and ripped right through it. Yeah, the homeowner probably wouldn’t like that either. By the time this was over, I was going to be the most hated person in Tooele, and they wouldn’t even know who I was. 

Well, hopefully. If this went badly enough, they would know exactly who I was. But in that case, I’d have a lot more problems than some people who were mad at me for ruining their lawns and fences. 

As soon as the van hit the backyard, I spun the wheel to the left and went right through yet another fence into the yard next door. There was a sandbox followed by one of those miniature wading pools, and we destroyed both on our way. Yep, definitely gonna be loathed here in Tooele. Somehow I doubted they would be giving me the key to the city anytime soon. Or recommending me for a driver’s license, if they had anything to say about it.

Obviously, I wasn’t just destroying all these yards for fun. We went through two more of them before I quickly twisted the wheel to the right once more and sent us off an incline, between several large trees with barely enough space (as it was, several branches scraped loudly against the windows and the passenger-side mirror was broken off), and over a railroad track. The van jostled heavily, but held together while we flew into open air several feet above the ground on the far side of those tracks. All of us aside from Robert screamed as the van dropped, slamming into the ground. But the tires found purchase on grass there, and suddenly we were moving again. We were on the back field of some local school. The running track was to the right, the main building straight ahead, and to the left was the baseball diamond. 

Behind us, the flying man shot out of the trees, with the sedans right behind him. Well, most of them. One of the cars slammed into the same tree that had taken our passenger mirror, and another came off the railroad tracks at too steep of an angle, slamming into the ground hard enough to fill the air with dark smoke. Neither of them would be going anywhere anytime soon.

Okay, so two cars down, three left. Plus the flying guy. We could work with that, right? Please let us be able to work with that. 

Heading for the baseball diamond, I was just telling myself we had a chance here when the flying man abruptly picked up speed. Apparently we’d pissed him off, because he was suddenly catching up. By that point, he was close enough for me to get a good look at him in the rearview mirror. The guy was clearly pretty thin, wearing a dark blue bodysuit with black armored panels in important places, and a blue metal helmet with white eye lenses. There was no insignia or anything indicating who he was. Probably because he worked for Breakwater rather than acting as a normal Star-Touched. And even though I couldn’t see his expression, something told me the guy hadn’t picked up speed so he could hurry and congratulate me on my awesome driving skills. Which was too bad, because property destruction aside, I was killing it right now. 

Oh, and he was wearing a jetpack. Well, what looked like a jetpack. It wasn’t projecting flames out the back or anything, but it definitely seemed to be the source of his flight. I didn’t know if he was a Tech-Touched, or just some guy using something another person created. Whatever it was, he definitely wanted to end this whole chase. 

“Poise,” I tensely spoke up toward the girl seated beside me. “I think you better–” 

“On it,” she agreed. With that, she hauled herself up and partway through the side window there, pointing a gun across the roof at the incoming flier. Watching the rearview while the baseball diamond rapidly approached, I saw him spin off to one side just as she sent several bullets flying that way. Robert, in the back, anticipated that move and actually hit the man with his own shot, though it bounced off his helmet. The impact was still enough to make the guy’s head snap back briefly and slowed him down. Which bought us just a few more precious seconds. 

As soon as we hit the baseball field, I spun the wheel to stay on the baseline, following it all the way from home plate to first, then second, and back around to third. Our tires sent dust flying into the air, creating a thick cloud that the flier and three remaining sedans had to drive into. And just like that, we were heading straight toward the rear-most car as it reached home plate and started to turn the way we had gone, its driver partially-blinded by the dust. 

Paige, who had dropped back into her seat by that point, gripped the armrest tightly while speaking through gritted teeth. “I hope you know what you’re–” 

“Hang on!” I interrupted with a shout. With one hand, I reached up to grab hold of Qwerty so he wouldn’t go flying through the windshield. In the next second, our front left bumper slammed into the rear-left corner of the last sedan, spinning it around so hard its front end very nearly slammed into us as it came back around. But we were going fast enough that it barely missed, as the sedan went spinning out across home plate to slam down into the dugout. Its lower half was caught up on the bench there, as the engine screamed from the driver’s attempt to get going again. I could hear several voices screaming out for him to hurry up, and a handful of bullets ricocheted off the back of our van. They definitely weren’t playing anymore. 

Another sedan was down. Meanwhile, the other two cars and the flying man had reached the far side of the dust cloud. Any second now, they would realize we weren’t ahead of them, but behind. Especially with the screaming and shooting coming from the guys in the third car. But we were already hauling ass once more, back the way we’d come. Or at least somewhat. I angled the car to head more toward the running track, and the parking lot beyond it. A glance in the rear view showed those two remaining cars doing quick U-turns, while the flying man inverted in the air and came right after us once more. If they hadn’t been angry before, they sure as hell were now. 

Letting go of Qwerty so I could grab the wheel once more, I sent the van up and over the low grassy hill leading onto the track. Once again, we were sending up a dirt cloud that blocked the people behind us from seeing very well. Though something told me the same trick wouldn’t work twice. They were going to be on the lookout for us to turn around. Which was exactly what I wanted. If they were holding back, anticipating the same move, they wouldn’t be pushing so hard to catch up. With any luck, I was making them second-guess themselves. 

Of course, that was when we got the bad news. As we launched off the track and headed through the open gate to the parking lot, a dozen cop cars came skidding around the corner of the street ahead of us and into the same lot. So yeah, now the local authorities were involved. Fantastic. And we still had the two Breakwater sedans plus the flying guy behind us. This whole thing was just going swimmingly. 

Okay, thinking the word ‘swimmingly’ was clearly a bad idea, because it would be just like the universe to decide the best thing to do next would be to send us right into that stinky lake, and I didn’t want to give it any ideas on that front. As if it needed any help from me. 

The twelve cop cars coming at us had spread out a bit, already trying to block us in. I felt a rush of apprehension, but pushed it down and focused. A slight twist of the wheel to the left sent us just past the first car, its front bumper passing our rear one within a couple inches while the cop inside leaned on his horn, sirens already blaring deafeningly. The instant we were past that, I spun the wheel to the right, cutting back that way. Which put the left side of the van directly in the path of the cop car coming up behind that first one. But as I’d expected, that guy reflexively hit the brakes just enough to stop from hitting us. And a very slight adjustment to the left sent our van right between the next two cars over, passing them perpendicularly just ahead of the nearer one and just behind the further one, with barely enough space left on either side. Seriously, I was pretty sure you couldn’t fit a finger in the area between all of our bumpers. 

At the very instant that we were past those two cars, I hauled the wheel left once more, braking just a touch. The van slipped directly between the last two vehicles that were in our way, coming so close that the sides of our vehicle crashed right through their mirrors, sending up a loud, protesting sound of screeching metal. It was a good thing this van was reinforced, or it probably would’ve fallen apart on us already. We were going to have to send a big thank you card to the guys Paige had hired to deliver it. Maybe even a gift basket of our own. 

Either way, we were through those cars. I had managed, however barely, to thread the needle between all of them. Now the cops and the Breakwater sedans were in each other’s way. I had no idea how that was going to go, and we weren’t sticking around to find out. Instead, I floored it once more, sending the van out the same driveway the cops had just come in through. To one side, I could see a bunch of students standing around the front and side doors of the school. The sun was just barely starting to come up, so just how early did they start classes around here? I had half a mind to send the school district a link to all the studies about how students should be getting more sleep than that. 

But uh, yeah that would probably have to wait. 

Of course, even with the cop cars and sedans needing to separate themselves and turn around, we still had the flying man to deal with. He came right over that whole mess, flew up a bit higher, and pointed some sort of rifle our way that he had pulled off one side of his jetpack. I wasn’t sure what it was, but still jerked the wheel to the left just as we hit the street. It was a good thing I did, because whatever the man was pointing at us sent a beam down that struck the chain-link fence there and ripped it halfway out of the ground. He fired again just as I shoved the wheel to the right, and a big blue mailbox was sent flying. It was some sort of magnetic cannon. Which was probably going to do bad things to our very-metal van if he managed to hit us. 

“Distract him!” I shouted toward Robert and Paige while thinking quickly. Okay, right, I knew what to do. The question was whether we could pull it off. Actually, that wasn’t a question. We had to, no matter what. So, while those two fired several shots to keep the flying man from getting a good aim at us with that magnetic cannon thing, I gritted my teeth and sent the van flying down the street once more. If I remembered the layout of this city from what I’d seen on the map right, there should be a good place for what I had in mind coming up in just a couple blocks. Assuming we made it that far. 

On the way, I used one hand to carefully pick Qwerty off my shoulder and bring him around to my face. “You said you could glide, right? Can you help us out here?” I didn’t feel great about sending the little guy into danger, but he really was our best shot of this.  

For his part, the tiny bird-squirrel bobbed his head rapidly and saluted. “Put me in, coach! I’m ready to kick some ass!” 

“Don’t worry, you won’t have to do much kicking,” I promised, just before twisting the wheel to send the van down the next street. It was a neighborhood on a steep hill, and I kept the pedal floored while telling our new TONI friend exactly what I needed. Beside me, Paige made a noise of uncertainty and apprehension, but didn’t say anything. Robert remained silent too, aside from reloading his gun to send several more shots at our friend with the jetpack, forcing the flier to pull back just a bit. 

While he was distracted with that, I put my left hand against the door and sent an orange line down under the seat and all the way through the front area where Paige and I had our feet. If this was going to work without tearing the whole van apart, we needed all the protection we could get. 

It was now or never. As we reached the top of the hill, I twisted the wheel to send us to the right, going through the backyard of one of the houses yet again. I really was a menace to property values. The van ripped through another fence, crushed a couple flower beds under our wheels, and completely destroyed a bird feeder while I continued to spin the wheel, sending us back through the yards of the same houses we had driven past a second earlier. But that was okay, in another second, we weren’t going to be in any yards anymore. We weren’t going to be on the ground anymore. 

“Hang on!” I shouted once again, gripping Qwerty in one hand while sending the van up over an incline on the side of the hill. With the roar of the engine, we shot out into open air, tore through some branches in a tree, and were suddenly face to face (err, face to windshield?) with the flying man. He definitely hadn’t been expecting that, and quickly dove to one side. But even as he went, I gave Qwerty a hard throw that way, out the window. The bird-squirrel spread his wings with a scream that seemed half-maniacal, half-joyous. He went flying right over the other man, took a sharp turn, and glided down after us. 

For our part, the van didn’t exactly stay in the air very long. Right after we passed our flying pursuer, we hit the ground. I activated the orange paint just in time, but we still landed pretty hard, crashing down onto the pavement at the base of the hill. Ahead of us, the cop cars and Breakwater people were still extricating themselves from that parking lot, with a lot of shouting and threats being hurled back and forth. 

Our flying man, meanwhile, had already inverted in the air. He lifted that magnetic cannon, ready to take advantage of the fact that we were momentarily motionless. But in that second, the crystal bomb thing that Paige had given me before I went into that house, the one I had handed Qwerty, exploded right where the TONI had tossed it. Namely, in the flying man’s pocket. A sudden electricity-draining pulse filled that hundred feet around the man. Not only did that kill the gun he was holding, it also drained whatever he was using to fly. The man dropped out of the sky, crashing and rolling along the ground. 

With the flying guy dealt with, and the cars back in the school lot still sorting themselves out, I reached out with one arm to give Qwerty a spot to land. He glided in, half-crashed into my hand before scrambling back inside, and blurted, “Now that’s falling with style, assholes! Whooo! Come get some!” 

“Can we get out of here now?” Paige pressed, eying the mess of cars across the way. 

“Yeah,” I agreed, already turning the wheel to head the other way. The street was completely clear ahead of us. 

“Trust me, I’ve had more than enough of this town for awhile.” 

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Together And Alone 27-11 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There was a commissioned interlude for this story posted a couple days ago that focuses on a look at a few Orb religions. If you haven’t seen that yet, you do so by clicking the previous chapter button above.

Okay, so the coast was clear for a minute. But apparently that wouldn’t last, so we had to get the machine out of this place and into the van before those reinforcements showed up. Especially if Robert was right about them being Touched reinforcements. I didn’t really want to try to fight people with powers when I couldn’t use mine effectively. Actually no, if it came down to that, I would have to stop holding back and use my powers the right way. Even if that did tell Breakwater more than I wanted. Sure, they couldn’t exactly inform the authorities that I was out of Detroit without exposing what they were doing, but even just letting Breakwater themselves know was probably too dangerous. I had enough problems without drawing that sort of heat down on myself. And something told me that they would be very interested in me if they knew I was the one trying to steal Pittman’s machine right out from under them.

So yeah, the best option right now was for us to get the hell out of here before those people showed up. Paige and I both sprinted through the house and out the front door. Thankfully, all the neighbors had already been escorted away from this place, so there were no onlookers to gawk and ask questions as we ran past the unmarked but official-looking Breakwater vans to our own. On the way, I gave those vehicles a quick look. There really was nothing on them showing where they were from, but they had clearly reinforced armor, along with police style lights. They would just look like ordinary SWAT vans to most people. Which I supposed made sense considering Breakwater wouldn’t want to let anyone know they were operating here. But had they gotten permission from the local authorities? Did the cops here even know anything about what was going on? I was pretty positive they didn’t know the whole story. No way would these Breakwater people trust local cops to keep their secret. But what had they told them? Either way, in a town like this, the whole situation was going to be big news. A whole neighborhood being evacuated? They would talk. And boy would that be a big thing around here. Over in Detroit, it probably wouldn’t even make the front page and would at most be a casually-mentioned three sentence thing at the end of a news broadcast. But in a place like this? They would be going over it for months. 

Actually, come to think of it, that was probably a big part of why they hadn’t sent Touched in here to grab the machine to start with. Not only because they thought it was going to be a simple smash and grab (Pittman’s defenses notwithstanding), but also because they didn’t want anyone who stood out with powers to be seen. Sure, they could hide what their powers really were so it would be harder to identify them specifically, but still. This whole bit had been the safest way for them to do it. At least until they found a few complications when they ran into us.

And speaking of creating complications for them, both Paige and I thought about doing something to the vans to stop them from following us or being used anytime soon. Unfortunately, according to the other girl, those tires were the reinforced type that wouldn’t be popped even from a bullet. 

Still, I had another idea. And with this one it wouldn’t matter how reinforced the tires or armor were. Quickly dropping onto my back with Paige right beside me, I extended my hands and took aim under all the vans before sending a spray of pink paint out over their axles. As soon as all of them had the pink spots, Paige fired her pistol repeatedly. Each bullet tore through that spot of pink that I had made and destroyed the axle on all of the vans. They wouldn’t be going anywhere. Which might also force them to try to explain things to the locals a bit more. I was just sorry I wouldn’t get a chance to see that. 

Paige also took the time to wirelessly hack into their vehicle cameras to erase them so they wouldn’t be able to see what we had done. It wouldn’t exactly be a great idea to do all this to hide who we were, then leave them camera footage of me using my paint power. 

Anyway, that was about as good as we could do with these things. And we didn’t want to take the time to try anything more elaborate. No, the trick now was to get out of here before this became an even bigger issue. So, we reached our own van and Paige hopped in the driver seat, with me right behind her on the other side. She spun the van around and then backed it right up over the curb to put the thing directly in front of the house. Even avoiding letting the wheels hit any of the traps I had marked out, we still ran over the grass and flower bed, but neither of us cared. The time for subtlety was completely gone. 

As soon as the van was in position, we both hopped out and ran inside. Robert was already downstairs, disconnecting the machine from the pipes in the ceiling and floor it had been connected to. We’d have to work out specifics about how this thing worked later. Or rather, Wren would with as much help as we could provide. Which just made me feel bad again about how much pressure we were putting on the poor kid. But what else were we supposed to do? She was the best shot we had at this. I was just going to have to make sure she knew how appreciated she was. 

The machine split apart into four pieces, each only about five feet wide and four feet tall. But that was still too big to just carry through the doorway and up the stairs. Or at least I thought it was. But a moment after the two of us arrived, Robert moved to the wall next to the entrance and pressed a hidden button there. As he did so, that whole section slid out of the way. Suddenly, we were looking at a doorway several times larger than it had been. Even the stairs were bigger. Or, more accurately, they had always been larger than they looked, but now there weren’t walls on either side to hide that fact. It was like whoever had built this place made a much larger stairwell and then positioned the walls to make it look smaller. I had no idea why they’d go to the effort of hiding the larger stairway, but now wasn’t the time to question it. Instead, I just moved to one of the machine pieces, secretly used a fair bit of hidden purple paint for strength, and lifted it up. 

Paige and Robert were already strong enough to each lift one of the pieces on their own, so we carried three of the four through the now-larger doorway and up the stairs. I just had to keep redoing the paint on myself every ten seconds, praying silently that we weren’t about to walk right into an army of Breakwater Touched. Please, just let them be a little slower. We could do this. We could get the hell out of here before they showed up. Because if fighting a bunch of superpowered people before hadn’t been my idea of a good time, doing so while holding the very machine they wanted to destroy was even worse. There was no way that would go well.

Fortunately, our luck seemed to hold for the moment. We rushed the pieces through the house and into the garage through another oversized doorway that Robert opened up. From there, we just had to hit the button for the garage door and carry the machine straight to the van. On the way, I found myself asking, “Hey, how did you know about the secret door things?”

He gave me a quick look, eyes seeming to look right through both my mask and my soul, before answering simply, “I had time to look around before you showed up. And let’s just say I have some experience finding and hiding that sort of thing.” 

Yeah, considering who he had worked for, I supposed he would. Which just made me think about how many secret doors were probably all around my own house. Maybe I should look into that. If I found anything and my parents caught me in the process, I’d just say I was exploring and play dumb. After all, it wasn’t like they expected me to actually know anything important.

By that point, we had reached the van. The other two waited while I quickly set my piece down and opened the back doors. Soon, we had all three of the pieces we’d carried up, and Paige said she was going back for the other one. 

As she disappeared back through the garage, I looked at Robert. There was so much I wanted to say at that moment, but I didn’t dare get into most of it. Instead, I asked, “What if the guys out back decide to start causing problems again? We were kind of in too much of a rush to secure them very well.” 

Again, he looked at me with a somewhat curious expression. It looked like he wanted to ask something, but wasn’t sure if he should. Finally, the man just replied, “Don’t worry about it, they’re not here anymore.” 

Okay, now I was really curious. And that just reminded me of the fact that there was no sign of the people out here in the front where he had been dealing with them. “What happened to those guys? What about the ones who were supposed to be out here? I don’t see anybody. It’s like you made them disappear.” Had he disintegrated the bodies or something? Please tell me he didn’t disintegrate them. I wasn’t sure how I would react to that sort of thing.

Looking down at his phone, Robert grunted. “Start the van,” he ordered. “We’re cutting it really close.” Then he seemed to come to a decision and looked at me while adding, “I used this.” He reached into the inside of his jacket and pulled out what looked like a simple pair of barber shears. “Press it against the back of a person’s neck and press the button for a second. It sends them a few hundred miles away. Stops them from being a problem for awhile.” 

Part of me wanted to ask where he got something like that from. Hell, another part of me wanted to just flat out ask if he was still working for the Ministry and how much he knew about my parents. After all, there were a hell of a lot of questions he could answer and blanks he could fill in. But this probably wasn’t the right time, even if I had wanted to expose that much to him. So, I shoved that down and quickly ran around the front of the van. Jumping in, I turned it on and looked up just as a truck came screaming around the corner. There was a guy standing up in the back with a rifle pointed our way, before he could get off a shot, Robert had his own pistol out and fired a single shot that caught the man and sent him flying out of the truck. Then he fired a couple more times at the driver, but the windows appeared to be bulletproof.

Leaning on the horn, I watched as the truck went skidding sideways across the street. There! Paige finally emerged from the garage, carrying the last piece of the machine. With Robert covering her, she shoved the thing in, then the two of them hopped up, closing the doors behind them while both shouted, “Go!” 

Right, it was way past time to get the hell out of here. Shifting into drive just as I heard Paige say something about reconsidering this, I hit the gas. The van leapt forward off the grass and tore through part of the fence in the process of slamming down onto the street. Shouting for the two in the back to hold on, I kept the pedal pressed down. Instead of turning left or right once I reached the pavement, I just sent the van straight across and up into the yard of the person across the street. 

Robert and Paige, of course, had loud opinions about this. But I ignored them because they weren’t exactly helpful. I knew what I was doing. Angling the van at the fence in the neighbor’s yard, I plowed through it and straight over their front lawn, past the side of the house, and into the back yard. I had to swerve to the left to avoid a swingset, but we made it to the back fence and went through that as well. Only then did I violently shove the wheel to the left, coming out onto a rear alley that I had known was there from our research into this place. The Breakwater people might have put up some sort of traps on either end of the regular street, but it was less likely that they would have covered the alley back here.

As we reached the end of that alley, I gave the wheel a jerk to the right to send us out onto the next street over and kept my foot firmly on the gas. We went up over a curb and actually got airborne. In the back I could hear Robert grunt a little while Paige made a noise in the back of her throat that seemed to be a mix of worry and reluctant enjoyment. It was like she was having fun with this, but was afraid of letting me know that in case I used it as an excuse to do something even more wild.

Then there was the loud exuberant cry of, “Whoooooooo!” That was… unexpected. Especially since it seemed to be coming from directly above us, outside of the van. Twisting my head to look at the ceiling, I reflexively hit the brakes. That exuberant cry got even louder as a very small figure flew forward into view past the windshield. I couldn’t pick out many details, but it was pretty tiny and colorful. At the last second before it hit the pavement, wings extended from the thing and glided it to the ground. A long bungee cord of some kind lay draped over the windshield from where it was hooked onto the luggage rack on top.

Paige and Robert were both blurting questions while I quickly shifted the van into park and jumped out. A quick glance showed that I was right about the bungee cord being hooked onto the van. The opposite end, laying near the front bumper, had a makeshift handle on it. It was like someone had been using our van’s momentum to parasail. Someone very small.

With that realization, I quickly ran to the figure I had seen while Robert and Paige jumped out the back. Now, as I approached, I had my first decent look. It was a small, yet colorful creature that was maybe about eight or nine inches long, plus a big fluffy tail almost the same length. The thing appeared to be covered in bright red, green, and blue fur. But it also had a pair of feathery wings that were equally colorful. As it rolled over and groaned a little, I could see that his face was mostly that of a squirrel, but with a small beak. 

Laying there splayed out on the ground, this strange creature lifted its hand and gave me a thumbs up. “That… was… awesome. Let’s go back and do it again.”

Paige, who had come right up beside me by that point, blinked a couple times. “Did you switch brains with that creature or something?”

Ignoring that, I crouched down. “Hey, are you okay? What–uhh, who are you?” I wanted to ask why it looked like a hybrid of a bird and a squirrel, but I wasn’t sure how to do so without being offensive.

The creature finally focused on me and offered a broad smile. “Hey, you’re the driver! You’re awesome. Hi!” Jumping to his feet (the way he had been sprawled out before belatedly made me realize for certain that he was a boy), he announced, “The name’s Qwerty. I’ve been so freaking bored around here, but then I saw what you guys were doing and I knew you’d be making a fast getaway, so I hitched a ride. At first I was just using that bungee to hold on, but then you started going so fast so I had to try letting my wings out, and whooooosh!” He opened his feathery wings to indicate what had happened. “It was totally awesome and I wanna do it again. Can we do it again, please, please, please? I haven’t been able to figure out how to fly properly with this body yet, just glide. That was the closest I’ve ever gotten. At least, this version of me.”

Paige was the first to find her voice. “Are you a bird or a mammal?” Apparently she didn’t have a problem sounding awkward with questions like that. “And why are you called Qwerty?” 

Qwerty scuffed a bit. “Why, I’m both! One of me was a parrot and the other was a squirrel. We both touched this orb thing at the same time and then we were smart and also me. Both of them turned into me. Just one brain. I guess you could say I’m a flying squirrel!” His ears drooped a little. “Except the part where I can only glide. Oh and I’m Qwerty because I found out I could read when I saw this little broken computer in the garbage and Q-W-E-R-T-Y were the first letters I read on the keyboard.” 

I had so many questions right then. Unfortunately, now definitely wasn’t the time for them, considering the sound of screeching tires we could hear from down the street. My head jerked that way in time to see five dark sedans approaching rapidly. “Those probably aren’t the local neighborhood watch.” 

Robert straightened and turned, firing three quick shots from his pistol that made the cars swerve just a little, but they were still coming. “Get back in the van,” he ordered. 

Well there was no way I was leaving this poor guy here to get run over. “Come on, Qwerty, time to go,” I quickly said while putting both hands down in a cupped position. He climbed onto them, then ran all the way up my arm to perch on my shoulder with his wings tucked in close against his back. 

I jumped in the front, with Paige right beside me while I started the van once more. In the rearview, I could see the sedans getting closer. Worse, there was a figure flying just above them. A Touched of some sort. 

“Hey look,” Qwerty noted while turning around to look out through the back window of the van. “That guy figured out how to fly. I wonder if he’d give me lessons.”

“Let’s not ask him,” I replied while flooring the gas once more to send the van screaming down the street with the sedans and flying man in hot pursuit.

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” our new tiny friend agreed. 

“He looks like a jerk.”

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Together And Alone 27-10 (Summus Proelium)

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So wasn’t this just absolutely fantastic? Paige and I had come all this way to get this machine so we could force Pittman to tell us how to save her sister, my parents, and all the others. And now it turned out we were going to have to fight a bunch of people from the very same prison that had been meant to stop that son of a bitch from doing this sort of thing in the first place. Granted, I had fantasized about punching those people repeatedly for their complete and utter failure to do their jobs, but not quite like this. Somehow, I wasn’t sure I would actually get any satisfaction this way. For one thing, the people I really wanted to punch were those in charge, not the grunts they sent to clean up their mess. Something told me the people out there weren’t making the real decisions. They were just going to get kicked in the head for them. Which seemed to be about typical. 

While I was processing that, Robert was still looking at the video feed on his phone to check what the people out there were doing as they evacuated everyone from the neighborhood and surrounded the house. He checked his pistol and then glanced at us, his voice flat. “I’d say stay here, but they’re coming from the back too and I can’t be everywhere at once. I’ve seen how both of you move, and I’ve seen how good you are. If they get to this machine it’s over. You got this?” 

Oh right, that was another thing. I needed to do all of this without openly and obviously using my powers. Not only because I didn’t want Robert to realize I was Paintball, since that would open a whole can of worms about being a girl, but also because I didn’t want the people out there to realize that Paintball had left Detroit. Yeah, this was even more complicated than I’d thought. 

Still, at least these people weren’t expecting to run into us. We had the element of surprise. Plus, just because I couldn’t openly use my powers didn’t mean I couldn’t find sneaky ways of doing so. That whole thing at the fast food place had shown us that much. I could work with this. 

Pushing all those thoughts out of my head, I gave the man a nod. A dozen things to say came to mind, but most of them were jokes and I still didn’t trust how much I could say in front of him without giving away my identity. Was it weird to think that if I said more than a few sentences around Robert then he would immediately know exactly who I was? He hadn’t even been around me or talked to me or anything for like half a decade. And even when he had been, I was just some kid he was playing bodyguard and driver for. There was no way he’d recognize me.

And just why in the hell did that thought make me sad?

There was too much going on for me to spend any time dwelling on stupid and confusing things like that. So I pushed them out of my head while Paige answered for us. “Yes, we’ll handle the ones coming in from the back. That is, if you can take the front.” 

Starting toward the steps, Robert replied in a soft voice. “I suggest you use whatever toy that one has that let her make a hole in that ceiling to go out the back.” He nodded to me, making me belatedly realize that he hadn’t actually seen the pink paint, which explained why he didn’t have any questions on that front. All he knew was that I’d made a hole in the floor above. 

“Watch your backs,” the man continued. “If you need help, shout.” He paused at the bottom of the staircase and looked back at us with a clearly reluctant frown. It was obvious that he really didn’t like the idea of sending us out there, but couldn’t come up with anything better given the situation. “Just be careful,” he reminded us after a brief moment. “These people aren’t playing around. They’re here to cover up something incredibly embarrassing for their employers, which could potentially cost them billions of dollars. They’re not going to stop for anything. You can’t negotiate with them unless you can outbid Breakwater. And they’re not quite that bad off yet.”

Yeah, my allowance wasn’t that big, even if I had been comfortable exposing who my family was. Even combined with Paige, that might be a problem. So, the two of us just nodded and watched as he went up the stairs with an added warning to wait until we heard his signal before making our own move.

Once he was gone, Paige looked down at her own phone, and I realized she had tapped into the same video feed Robert was watching, the one showing all the Breakwater agents gathering up around the house. Did he know she’d done that? 

Looking over at me, Paige spoke quietly. “Looks like they’re about to move. You ready?” 

I knew what she was really asking. She wanted to know if I was actually going to do this without openly using my powers. I could hear the warning in her voice, as well as the promise that if things went wrong and I had to use them, had to expose that much, she would have my back. 

How exactly I read that much in just a couple words like that was a mystery, but there we were.

“Yeah,” I replied simply, looking up toward the hole in the ceiling. “Let’s do this.” Activating the blue paint I’d put on the bottom of my shoes while simultaneously leaping, I flew right up through the opening, landing back in that bedroom that was on the other side of the stairs. Paige leapt up right after me, and the two of us glanced carefully out the window there overlooking the backyard. Sure enough, what appeared to be a fully armed and armored SWAT team was carefully approaching the building. It looked like they were doing the same thing I had been, checking for traps. Which had at least bought us some time. 

“I’m surprised they don’t know we’re in here,” I murmured. “You’d think they’d have heat sensors and stuff in those helmets, considering what they’re supposed to deal with.” 

“The house is shielded,” Paige informed me, speaking just as quietly. “None of that sort of tech can see into it. Trust me, I tried.” 

Yeah, that made sense, now that I thought about it. Of course Pittman wouldn’t want it to be that easy for the place holding his ticket out of Breakwater to be raided. But really, that also just raised the question of why there weren’t actual Biolem defen– oh, Robert had dealt with them, of course. Honestly now I was just wondering what he’d done with them.

But now wasn’t the time to think about that. Fortunately, I was able to multitask and had been covering every bit of the inside of my clothes with as much paint as I could. At the same time, I put a hand on Paige’s sleeve, then the side of her leg to give her some paint under her clothes as well, just in case. The two of us peeked out either side of the window once more and compared that with the camera feed on her phone. I hoped Robert was ready on his side, because we were already cutting it close. Those guys were halfway across the yard. We had to get out there right now if we were going to stop them from getting in the house. Otherwise it would become even harder to keep them away from the machine.

Of course, we weren’t just going to go barging out the back door. We weren’t that stupid. Instead, I used pink paint on the ceiling of that room and we went up to the second floor, then again to get onto the roof. By the time we were up there, the troops outside were approaching the back patio. There were a dozen of them, and they all had their guns raised and pointed at the building. One guy in the back kept checking some sort of wristwatch he was wearing, calling out whenever they got anywhere near any of the traps buried in the ground so they could step around them. But even more than that, any time he called out, a little laser pointer thing shot out of the watch, hit the part of the ground where the trap was, and made a sort of small, one foot high glowing flag marker thing on it so they’d know where they couldn’t step. Which made me briefly consider the idea of setting them off intentionally to stop those guys, but I wasn’t sure how lethal the traps would be. Besides, there was always the chance that something could happen to the machine if it detected those traps going off. After all, it was a teleportation machine. Maybe it would just disappear. Then this whole situation would be for nothing. 

So, unfortunately, I had to put that brief thought out of my mind. From the hard stare Paige was giving the marked spots, I was pretty sure she was going through a similar process. We both exchanged glances while simultaneously realizing the same thing. It wasn’t just that we couldn’t use the traps to make taking these guys out easier. We also had to avoid accidentally setting them off at all during this fight for the same reason. If we hit someone and they fell on a trap, that could screw this whole thing up and make the machine disappear too. But we also couldn’t risk letting them get into the house because the machine could even end up being damaged that way.

All of which meant this was going to be even trickier than I’d thought. We had to keep them out of the house, we couldn’t let them hit any of the traps (or hit any ourselves), and I had to do all of it while handicapped by not using my powers to their full extent. And without giving away that I was Paintball in any other way. 

On the plus side, I didn’t have time to worry about that too much. Because right as I was wondering just how badly this was going to go, the gunfire started out front. Which I was going to go out on a limb and guess was the signal from Robert. A signal that gave us a quick opening as the guys on the grass below reflexively looked toward the sound of those gunshots. So every doubt and uncertainty I had was shoved aside. Whatever we were going to do had to happen right now, before the Breakwater troops recovered.

Slapping a hand against Paige’s back, I activated one of the orange boosts I’d given her and blurted, “Go!” 

She went. Taking a few steps back to give herself a running start, the blonde girl hurled herself off the roof. Her leap was belatedly followed by more gunshots. Only these ones came from right below us. Yeah, we definitely had their attention. 

My first instinct was to throw myself right after Paige, but I stopped myself and waited for two seconds first. I wanted to give the guys down there time to turn toward the spot where she landed instead of jumping right into view while they still had their guns raised at that same spot. That seemed like a good way to get shot about a dozen times. Which, orange paint or not, wouldn’t be much fun. 

On the other hand, letting Paige get hurt wouldn’t be fun either. So, after two seconds that felt like thirty, I launched myself off the roof as well, activating a bit of orange and green paint as I went, while also activating blue paint on my shoes at the last second just to get even more momentum. 

Paige was already on the ground in the middle of the yard, ripping one of the rifles out of a man’s grip while simultaneously kicking another man in the stomach with enough force to make his body fold in on itself as he fell over. And sure enough, the other troops scattered across the yard had pivoted that way, already taking aim. Which meant the two directly below the roof had their backs to me, a fact they would quickly regret as I slammed into both of them from behind. They were standing close enough together that I hit one with both knees while slamming my arms into the guy next to him. Thanks to my green speed combined with being launched by the blue paint on my shoes, I crashed into the two hard enough to knock them down despite my frankly diminutive height. And thanks to the orange protection, I didn’t break half the bones in my body doing so. They, on the other hand, weren’t about to get up in a hurry. I might’ve only weighed like a hundred pounds, but taking a hundred pound cannonball to the back, even with body armor, was probably enough to make most normal people have to lay down for a minute. 

Twelve troops to start and I had just knocked two of them down, right after Paige had already kicked a third while ripping the gun away from a fourth. And while I had taken these two guys to the ground, she had flipped that gun around to slam the butt of it into the faceplate on the helmet of the man she took it from. That guy started to stumble backward before Paige caught his arm, yanking him away from the trap he had been about to step on. She hauled him forward, throwing his rifle overhand to hit another guy’s gun while he was lining up a shot. 

A bullet hit my shoulder from the far side of the porch even as I was picking myself up. The guy there had adjusted faster than I’d expected. Fortunately, the orange paint meant it felt like getting hit with a thrown rock instead of a bullet, but still. I managed to restrain my yelp while pivoting that way. My foot lashed out, kicking the rifle that one of the men had dropped. It went flying that way, making the guy who had shot me recoil reflexively as it crashed into him.  

At the same time, another guy was coming up behind me. I heard him approach, the way his heavy boots sank into the grass and dirt, the way his clothing and body armor rustled in the air, his grunt as he reached out to grab me. But I wasn’t there anymore. Even as my foot came down from kicking the rifle into the other guy, I pivoted on it to twist away from this guy’s grasp. My hands caught his outstretched arm, and I activated hidden purple paint to give myself enough strength to yank him off balance. He stumbled forward and I brought my right foot into the back of his leg to knock him down to his knees right in front of me. 

Before he could recover, I hopped up, planted my left foot against the back of his neck, and kicked off him to send myself right into the guy who had been a few steps over, sighting in on me with his weapon. He dropped his gun and caught me in reflexive surprise, just before I brought both arms down on his shoulders with all the purple-enhanced strength I could muster. That was enough to make the man fall to one knee, allowing my feet to touch the ground so I could grab the front of his helmet, yanking the thing with enough force to pull it off his head. Which meant his face was exposed to my rising knee. 

Blood. There was blood on my knee from where I’d hit the guy’s nose. It was probably broken. Which I felt a little guilty about, but not too much. He recoiled as I released him. But again, before he could fall, I yanked him away from the nearby trap. It wasn’t marked by their laser thing, but I knew it was there. 

Activating another set of purple, green, and orange paint, I stepped aside while shoving the guy over to land on top of the one I had kicked off of to throw myself into this one’s arms. The two of them got tangled up with each other, buying me a couple seconds. Which I used to glance quickly toward Paige so I could activate the same trio of paints for her. 

By that point, the other girl had already put three more guys down. That meant, of the twelve we started with, she’d dealt with five of them. Meanwhile, the two guys I had crashed into weren’t going to be getting up any time soon. And as for the two who were now tangled up and scrambling to separate themselves, I took three quick steps that way and snapped my right foot out, kicking the guy who still had his helmet in the back of it hard enough to knock it into the face of the one who didn’t. Given that guy already had a broken nose, it probably wasn’t much fun. Both of them were definitely cursing up a storm, but weren’t about to jump up again. Nine down, three left. 

One of those three was the guy who had shot me, just now recovering from the gun I had kicked at him. He was already taking aim to shoot me again, but I dove forward and threw myself into a roll while he shot right over my head. As I came out of it barely a foot from one of the trap markers, I was hurling the helmet I’d taken from the other guy that way. It collided with the gunman’s own helmet, and by the time he’d recovered from that, I had already launched myself off the ground, over the trap, and collided with him. He fell against the wall of the house while I ripped the gun out of his hands, pivoted, and slammed the thing into the side of his helmet. That was enough to knock him down, and the follow-up smack into the back of his head from his own weapon made sure he stayed there. 

Two left, and we had thus far managed to avoid setting off any of the traps. I kept hearing gunshots from out front, but all I could do on that was hope Robert was okay. There wasn’t time to focus on anything more than that, considering one of those two remaining guys was coming straight at me. 

He wasn’t using his gun. Instead, he had some sort of electrified baton, snarling a nasty curse as he lunged in to swing at my throat. I still had a bit of time left on my green, enough to barely lean back and turn my head so the baton went right past my cheek. He tried to snap it back to crash into my neck from that side, but I ducked and let it sail over the back of my head. Then my right arm went up, catching his wrist as he brought the baton back for a third swing. Even with my purple-strength, the guy very nearly knocked my arm out of the way and hit me with the baton anyway. It was all I could do to keep myself in place. But I managed it before quickly driving my left fist as hard as I could into his elbow. It was enough to make him drop the baton. Which I caught with my right hand and drove up into his exposed armpit, a spot that wasn’t covered by armor. There was a trigger thing on the handle of the baton, so I pushed it down, sending a jolt of electricity into the man. He scream-cursed at me while spasming a bit before hitting the ground. 

And just like that, it was over. Well, close enough. Not all these guys were knocked out or anything, but they weren’t going to be jumping up to do jumping jacks (or run into the house to blow up the machine) anytime soon. Paige had already put the last one down, leaving the guy holding his stomach and groaning painfully. 

The two of us looked at each other for a second, took in the sight of these guys, then turned quickly to the back door of the house just as it slammed open. But it was just Robert. He came into view, looking a bit bruised and covered in blood that wasn’t his. “Go get your van and pull it in as close as you can.” Without waiting for any objections, he added, “We need to grab that machine downstairs and get out of here. These guys have reinforcements coming. Some of which are probably Touched. 

“And we really don’t want to be here when they show up.” 

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Together And Alone 27-09 (Summus Proelium)

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For a couple long and incredibly silent seconds, I just stood there in shock staring at the man in front of me. I couldn’t think of anything to say or do. Hell, I couldn’t think of anything at all. I just stood there while a loud static sound seemed to play through my head. Of all the possible things I had considered might happen when we got to this place, running into Robert Parson wasn’t anywhere on the list. What the hell was I supposed to do now? What was he doing here? Where did he come from?

For his part, the man allowed the silence to carry on for a moment before speaking again. “Something tells me you’re not one of his, are you?” He looked me up and down, mouth pursing thoughtfully. “No, you’re definitely not one of his. So my question is, what are you doing here? You’re not just some kid out looking for a thrill, or those traps would’ve caught you. You couldn’t have gotten in here if you didn’t know what you were doing. You disabled them or you snuck past them. Either way, you made it all the way in here because you were looking for that thing.” He raised his hand to point at the machine. “Which leads me back to, who are you?”

While I had been standing there lost in my shock, I heard Paige’s increasingly insistent voice through my bluetooth earpiece wanting to know what was going on. She was obviously getting worried. So worried, in fact, that she stopped waiting for a response and said she was coming in. Which she somehow managed to do so quickly and quietly that the first sign that she was even inside was the door to the stairs being kicked open and the sound of her clothing rustling in the air as she jumped all the way to the bottom without hitting a single step.

“Stop!” she snapped that single word even as she landed smoothly with a pistol pointed at Robert. She was holding it steady, and directly at his head as she took in the situation. Only belatedly did she seem to notice who it was, and froze not unlike the way I had. I couldn’t see her expression behind the mask she was wearing as well, but I could imagine it looked similar to my own.

If he was at all surprised or worried about the second girl who was just showing up and pointed a gun at him, Robert didn’t show it. He simply stood there and looked at both of us curiously before grunting under his breath. “Now that’s a little more curious.” His gaze centered on Paige. “I wasn’t sure about her, but watching the way you move, you’re definitely one of his creations. So why exactly would any of his creations be breaking into his place here to steal his machine?”

Paige’s voice was dark and brittle, clearly barely containing her anger in that moment. “I’m not his. He doesn’t own me.”

Robert considered that briefly before inclining his head. “Ah. You’re the one who contacted me back then. You’re the one who exposed him in the first place. Then you just disappeared. Or seemed to.”

He went silent for a few seconds, still holding the gun, but without actually pointing it toward either of us. It was just sort of there. Paige hadn’t taken her aim off his head, but he still didn’t seem to care. He paid absolutely no attention to it. Instead, he just stood there looking thoughtful for another few seconds before making a noise of decision. 

“To be honest, for a while I thought you exposed him just to take his place, but then there was nothing. So I thought he killed you before we could take him. Still, I wanted to make sure. So I went through a whole little investigation. Tried to find out everything I could. Which led me around to one thing.” He offered a thin smile, holstering the gun pointedly. “How are you doing, Paige?”

It wasn’t too surprising that he knew who she was, not after the clues he had left. Which, to be honest, I still didn’t know why he’d done that or who the clues were for. There were those toys in his cabin that had led me to the file about her in the Seraphs place. But that couldn’t have been for me. He didn’t know anything about me being aware of my parents, and he couldn’t possibly have known I would have any access at all to those files. 

Paige slowly lowered her own pistol and reached up to take the mask off. “If you figured out who I was, why didn’t you ever say anything?”

Robert shook his head. “It seemed to me like you went through a lot of trouble to hide your identity. I assumed you wanted to keep it quiet and live a normal life. At least as normal as you could. Pittman was already in prison. I thought the best way for you to move on was if everyone left you alone. If anyone else knew who you were or what you were capable of, or even where you came from, you’d never get that chance. And after what you did to help stop him, you deserved that much.”

He gave me a brief, curious glance before turning back to her as he added, “I suppose it makes sense that something like this got you to come out here. He’s the one responsible for what happened in Detroit, isn’t he? As soon as I heard about the Breakwater thing and who was involved, I knew it had to be him. That’s why you’re here.” He pointed at the machine again. “That thing is supposed to get him off that island somehow. Now please tell me you’re not stupid enough to think you can trade his freedom for the cure to save your adopted sister and everyone else.”

Paige kept her voice flat. “I am nowhere near that stupid. That thing is a teleporter. We’re going to use it to get to him and get the cure the hard way. For him.”

Robert cocked his head a little, absorbing that. “Yeah? What makes you think you can do enough damage to make him give up literally the only advantage he has? I don’t think you’re the type of person to go that far. And even if you were, I don’t think you’re dumb enough to think it would work. He’s not about to give up his advantage no matter how rough you are. Believe me, that’s not a bluff you can win.”

He was still clearly curious about who I was and what I was doing there, along with why I hadn’t said anything yet. I could have spoken, of course. I had my voice changer active under the mask. He wouldn’t immediately recognize me through that. And even if he did, would that be a bad thing? I still didn’t know. There was so much I didn’t understand. Was he still part of the Ministry? Would he tell my parents the second he knew about me? Almost every sense I had was screaming at me to trust him, but could I trust my instincts? Could I trust anything right now? I had no idea. I was so confused and lost and the only thing I could do was stay there frozen, waiting as these two continued their conversation.

Paige, for her part, shook her head again. “We weren’t planning on torturing him. Let’s just say we have a virtual reality machine. A friend of ours is fixing it up so we can plug Pittman into it and get into his subconscious. We can find out things he doesn’t want us to know by pulling him into virtual reality and making his brain show us the truth.”

Yeah, that had been our plan. We were going to teleport Pittman off of Breakwater or teleport ourselves there, we still weren’t sure on that exact point. But either way, we would have the virtual reality machine and plug him into it. Wren was working on combining her work on that with the suit she had put together to force Ashton to lead us to the vials. The suit worked by reading their subconscious thoughts when they were asked a question and controlling their motor functions to lead us to the place they were thinking of. Wren was pretty sure she could adapt that to work in virtual reality so he would move in the precise way he needed to in order to make the cure. It was our running theory anyway. And, of course, the best shot we had.

After absorbing that as well, Robert brought his hand up to his chin and ran his fingers along it thoughtfully. Then he grunted. “You’re part of that new Avant Guard group. Poise, right? I haven’t been spending much time in Detroit lately, but I do keep up on things. As much as I can anyway. And from what I’ve heard, that’s the group that could and would try something like this. Which makes you…” he turned to look at me once more. “Hmm. You’re the right height for a couple, but you’re definitely a girl. So I’m gonna say you’re the one she always partners with. Style, isn’t it? Poise and Style. You’re another one of his creations, one that went rogue too.”

Oh boy. Yes, it was probably a good thing that he was jumping to that very understandable conclusion. After all, we did look identical whenever one of us wasn’t actively disguising ourselves. And if things hadn’t changed at the last minute, Sierra really would have been the other one here. But did I want to let him just keep going along with that assumption? Should I just tell him who I really was? I still didn’t know. I’d been debating that wildly in my head this entire time. He was the man who had saved my life. When I looked at him, everything I had said that I could trust him with my life, with my soul. He would never ever betray me. But up until a few months back, I would’ve thought the same thing about my parents. And part of me still did. My family loved me. They wouldn’t knowingly hurt me either. But even if they wouldn’t knowingly hurt me, would they do something bad thinking it was for my own good? And would this man, whom I also trusted with everything I had despite barely consciously knowing him, do something that was bad just because he thought it was for my own good as well?

Finally, all I could do was give a short nod. “Pretty much.” I kept my answer short, not wanting to say too much even with the voice changer.

Paige, who had obviously been waiting for me to decide how to answer, rolled with that immediately. “It’s a long story,” she informed him slightly. “And not one she likes to get into. So why don’t you tell us why you’re sitting here with this thing?”

Robert glanced at the machine again before turning back to her. “Like I said, I figured out he had to be involved. I’ve been tracing your big sister’s footsteps for a while, trying to figure out how they ended up on Breakwater. That led me to a few of their men, Breakwater’s, that is. They were… well let’s just say they were trying to clean things up and erase any other connections to that place. It turns out Flea and Trivial told those people exactly how they ended up there. But Breakwater didn’t bother telling our authorities. They just sent people over here to erase that trail themselves. On the plus side, it seems those Star-Touched were smart enough not to tell Breakwater the truth until they were on their way home. They kept that little bit of information to themselves to make sure the prison people didn’t try to pull a fast one and accidentally lose them.”

Oh, right. We had wondered about that and whether we would end up finding nothing here because the authorities had already taken the machine. But nothing in what Paige had been able to find in official files or communications had indicated that they had any idea about this place, so we took a shot. Now at least we knew why the officials didn’t know. Of course Breakwater had wanted to cover up something like that. They wouldn’t want anyone, not even the American government, to have their hands on a device that could teleport people onto their island. 

Robert continued easily. “All that led me here, and I’ve been examining this machine trying to decide what to do with it. To tell you the truth, part of me wants to turn it on, go over there, and beat the shit out of Pittman myself. But that wouldn’t really accomplish much, now would it? On the other hand, if you think it could be used to drag him over here, that’s another story.”

I shook my head quickly, the words coming before I really thought about it. “You said it yourself, beating him up wouldn’t accomplish anything. He’s not going to tell us how to make the cure just because we hurt him. We have to get him back to Detroit and plug him into the machine so he has no choice but to show us the truth.”

Robert looked at me, his expression curious once more. But whatever he was thinking, he didn’t give voice to it. Instead, he simply gave a short nod and replied, “You’re probably right. As nice as it might feel to punch that son of a bitch until his face breaks, it wouldn’t get us anywhere. That’s another reason I’ve been sitting here thinking, trying to decide who to involve in this.” He looked back-and-forth between us. “Now it seems like I’ve got an answer that I wasn’t even considering.”

All of this was dangerous. It was so very, very dangerous. Involving Robert in this whole situation? How could I even consider it? And yet, was there any other choice? It wasn’t like he was just going to back off and let us do it without him. Not now. We’d given him a potential solution to his problem, a way to get answers out of Pittman. But there was absolutely no way he would just step back and let us do the work ourselves. No, he would have to be involved. Even though involving him ran a very good chance of exposing my identity. And I still didn’t know if that was a good thing or not. There was such a big part of me who wanted to rip off the mask, throw myself at this man I subconsciously trusted so much, and tell him absolutely everything.

And even beyond that, I wanted to get answers from him. There were so many questions I had about everything, including his cabin out in the woods, what was going on between him and Pencil, and everything else. I needed actual answers, but I was afraid that the only way to ask them was by exposing myself to more danger. 

I was torn, to say the least. I have no idea what the right answer was, and if I did reveal myself, it was something I could never take back. After all, unlike my parents, I didn’t have a convenient person to erase his memory if this went wrong.

Did that sound bitter? It probably sounded bitter.

We were all silent for a moment before Paige gestured while starting to move to the stairs she had just leapt down. “Give us a minute, would you?”

Robert gave a simple nod. “Of course. The machine and I’ll just wait here for you.” 

Paige and I started to move to the stairs to go up and talk this out. But even as I took a few steps that way, a sound caught my ear. It was coming from Robert’s phone, a chime that filled the air. He glanced at the screen and frowned. “We have company.”

Paige snapped her gaze that way, speaking sharply. “More of Pittman’s people?” From the sound of her voice, she was more than willing to take all of her frustration out on them if so.

Robert, however, shook his head and turned the phone to show us. There was a view of the street outside. I could see our van, but also about six others, all lined up along the curbs. There were people in official looking uniforms going up to the houses around us and pulling people out. I didn’t know what they were telling them, but within just a few seconds dozens of people who lived in this neighborhood were being rushed to one of the vans and driven away. 

“Breakwater people,” Robert informed us flatly. “Looks like the guys I took care of had a lot of backup. And they won’t be playing nice.”

Paige made a noise in the back of her throat before sighing. “They also won’t listen if we tell them we need to use the machine to fix this problem, will they?”

Robert grunted, looking down at his pistol as he drew it back from the holster. “No, they won’t. Their job is to protect Breakwater and stop that place from getting any more bad publicity. There’s no way they’ll risk allowing an access point like this to exist, or let anyone else know about it. They’re here to destroy the machine and make sure it can’t ever be used again. They won’t care about fixing the situation in Detroit.”

Of course, this whole situation couldn’t resolve itself peacefully. We couldn’t just get the machine without much fuss and drive home with it. No, even running into Robert wasn’t enough of a complication. Now we had to fight these Breakwater people. Because if they got their way, they’d destroy our only chance of getting answers out of Pittman and fixing this whole situation. I had to fight the people responsible for keeping the worst of the worst supervillains in prison in order to save Irelyn, my parents, and everyone else who had been poisoned. 

But hey, at least I was going to have an exciting road trip story to tell.  

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Together And Alone 27-08 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Hey people! The continuing non-canon that is… sort of for this story but heavily leans into Heretical Edge as well with Cassidy being sent into that world is out for everyone to read right here

Well, we were in Tooele. Which, I had been informed, was pronounced too-ill-uh rather than toolie like it was spelled. At least it wasn’t named after that big smelly lake like the capital of this state was. 

Either way, as we drove through town and looked at all the buildings, I couldn’t help but wonder why Pittman had set up his safe house here. Was there an actual reason, or was this just a nice out-of-the-way town with relatively few people to ask questions? It was small enough to be somewhat quiet and everything, but still populated enough that someone new or different wouldn’t immediately be noticed. Forty thousand seemed like a fairly decent level of population to hide in, after all. Hell, who knew how many of the people here were his own Biolems? Maybe everyone in the neighborhood we were heading toward was secretly his. We were going to have to be careful about that, which was one of the reasons we wanted to get there while it was dark. Anxious as we were to deal with this, we couldn’t rush things. That would’ve been a pretty good way to fuck this whole thing up. We had to take our time and scout out the situation.

Eventually, we found our way to the street in question. I could see the house right there, and it was tempting to tell Paige to stop so I could just run inside and look for what we needed to get this whole thing over with. But no, we kept driving. Both of us glanced that way and took in everything we could about the place. It was quiet, without any vehicles in the driveway or lights on. The house looked abandoned, though the homes on either side were definitely occupied. I still definitely didn’t trust the idea that this place was going to be that simple to walk into. Not for a second. 

As we continued on to drive around the corner, I spoke up quietly. “You think we should park down the street a bit and walk back? We can always bring the van around once we’ve got the machine secure.” My voice was tense. This was it. After over a day of driving, we were right here. If we were going to get what we needed to grab that son of a bitch and get answers out of him, it was going to happen over the next few minutes. Or slightly longer, depending on how long it took to actually get inside. 

Paige gave a short nod, her expression one of intense thought and worry. She definitely still didn’t like the idea of me going in that place by myself to get rid of his anti-Biolem defenses. “I’ll stay far enough back that I shouldn’t trip any sensors. But be careful, Cassidy. He’ll have other things in there too, stuff you aren’t immune to. And if I can’t get anywhere near the place to back you up until you disable those other defenses…”

“I’ll be fine, don’t worry so much,” I insisted. “Come on, I am capable of standing up for myself without you right behind me, you know.” I said it with a little smile despite myself, watching her. It really was strange for me to think of Paige worrying about me so much. But it was also nice. I’d definitely take this over the way our relationship had been for the past few years. Even if it was a weird feeling. 

Paige, for her part, took one of those energy crystal things from her pocket. But this one had a couple wires wrapped around it along with a small button that looked like it had come off a television remote. “Fine, but take this. I set it up so if you hit that button for three seconds, it’ll set off an EMP, basically. The crystal will drain all the electricity out of everything within about a hundred feet or so. Which should include any Biolem orbs. If you get in trouble, set it off. But be careful. I only made one of them. We’ll need the rest for the machine.”

Taking the offered bomb, I grimaced. “Yeah, I’ll be careful with it.” I also didn’t want to accidentally set it off right here. If it really did affect Biolems, it would probably take a while for the other girl to reset herself. Longer than I wanted to wait.

By that point, Paige had found a place to pull over and stop the van. A glance toward the clock on the dash revealed that it was just after four in the morning. If we were going to do this, now was basically the best possible time. So, I sent a text to the others back in Detroit letting them know we had arrived and that I was about to check the place out. Then I put the crystal bomb thing in my pocket carefully before pulling out my mask and gloves. Once again, I wasn’t going in there as Paintball. If I absolutely had to, I would use my powers more openly than I had at the restaurant, as long as I was just dealing with Pittman’s defenses. But I didn’t want anyone else who happened to see me and start wondering why a Touched from Detroit was all the way out here. Especially with the lockdown. That would just create a whole new host of problems for us to deal with.

Of course, I didn’t put the mask on immediately. I also didn’t want people to look at their windows and see someone in a ski mask walking down the street. That was bound to draw attention we didn’t need anyway, even if they didn’t work for Pittman. 

Together, the two of us stepped out and started moving that way, keeping our eyes open for any trouble. Or anything at all, really. The whole place was incredibly quiet. Almost eerily so. Detroit was never this silent. Not even now with everything locked down. It made me think something must be wrong before I pushed the paranoia aside. This was probably just what things were like in a place that didn’t have over a million people. Even if it did make me feel weird.

Pushing those thoughts off, I kept walking while scanning the houses around us intently. It didn’t look like there was anyone paying undue attention, or even anyone at all. But I didn’t entirely trust that. There was no way that Pittman would have left this place completely unprotected. Something was going to happen. The only questions were what and when.

Apparently Paige didn’t see anything either, though she stopped a few houses away from the right one. Neither of us wanted to push things any further than that. Well, she had made it clear that she would risk quite a bit, but not this. As much as she wanted to go in that house, her desire to not be controlled by her father was much stronger. 

So, promising her yet again that I would be careful, I took a breath and kept walking after putting my earbud in and making sure it was connected to her so we could talk. Though we had set it up so I had to unmute my phone every time I wanted to say something, so she wouldn’t accidentally hear any commands from her dad if I set something off. I felt the crystal EMP thing she had given me in one hand while I held the balled-up mask in the other. After giving one last quick glance around and seeing nothing, I pulled the mask on and adjusted it. I already had every bit of paint I could possibly fit underneath my clothes. Whatever happened in there, I was going to be ready for it.

And just like that, I was standing in front of the house. I had thought long and hard about how to handle this, raising some truly paranoid ideas in my own head about what sort of instant-kill defenses this place could have just for stepping foot on the sidewalk. But then I had dismissed those possibilities. Sure, there would be defenses, but not that extreme. The whole point of this place was to not attract attention. He had a teleportation machine here that was supposed to connect to Breakwater. There was no way in hell he was going to put up an automated defense that would disintegrate the first Girl Scout or church person who happened to try knocking on his door. That would be a good way to get the whole neighborhood shut down and have his little machine found by experts. No, the worst defenses would be inside, where he could be certain that anyone who wasn’t supposed to be in there was already a problem.

But while I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be lethal defenses right at the front gate or anything, there were cameras, hidden in the branches of a nearby tree and on the house itself. But I avoided those things thanks to my special awareness power. I had enough of an understanding of that by this point that it didn’t just tell me they were there, I was able to tell through the shape of things in my mind which way they were facing. I made sure to move under them without being seen and then painted the lenses. Yeah, if anyone was monitoring that, they knew something was wrong. But they wouldn’t know exactly what was happening, or who was here. 

I also found a bunch of pressure plates partially buried in the dirt and grass around the house. I wouldn’t have found them at all, except the same special power that told me where the cameras were pointed those out as well. Another way it had proven itself unfathomably useful. 

I didn’t take the time to dig out whatever those pressure plates were connected to. I needed to get inside before someone saw me. But I did let Paige know, taking a picture of the yard before editing it to mark all the traps before sending that to her. 

Finally, after dealing with all the cameras that could have seen me and sending that picture, I simply walked right up to the front door. Of course, I kept my eyes open and activated a bit of orange paint on the way just in case I was wrong about that whole no lethal defenses thing. It never hurt to be safe. 

Okay, that was a lie. Sometimes it did hurt to be safe. But it was generally the right choice in the long run. 

Either way, if anyone did look outside and saw me in a ski mask approaching the front door of this random house, they would’ve called the police by now. Especially considering the way I had been sneaking around to deal with those cameras and check for traps. I probably looked incredibly suspicious. Fortunately, Paige had already connected to the local police scanner and she was going to warn me if a call went out. But a check with her confirmed there was nothing so far. 

Now that I was closer to the door, I could see that it wasn’t in the best shape. Actually, it looked like it had been completely broken off its hinges and then put back hastily. Whoever did it had seemed to be in a hurry, probably to make the door look right from the street before any neighbors noticed. Still, someone had kicked down the door? Suddenly, I had a few thoughts about that, but now wasn’t the time. Instead, I quickly checked around the edges of the door for any obvious booby traps. I was looking for wires, string, putty, anything that shouldn’t have been there and could be a sign of a bomb, alarm, or whatever. 

Nothing, at least as far as I could see. Still, I didn’t trust that. Sure, I wasn’t going in the door anyway, it just would’ve been nice to identify the trap on the front door, because I didn’t believe there was nothing. And sure enough, a glance sideways revealed something against the small mailbox set against the wall next to that door. I squinted closer and realized it wasn’t a mailbox at all. Oh, it would hold mail, sure. But it was also an intercom with a connected computer behind it. Tilting my head, I realized I could hear a very low, quiet… almost static sound. Was this–oh yeah, it had to be part of Pittman’s plan to take Paige back. Grimacing, I put a bit of pink paint on the thing, then used a little bit of purple on myself to rip it off the wall. Yeah, I probably took a little too much satisfaction in crumpling that thing into a ball. 

From there, I walked along the side of the house, watching every spot I stepped on while paying strict attention to my sensory power. I found a couple more pressure plates in the wood, and another intercom thing that was blasting static. The former I avoided and the latter I broke. Then I kept going. Eventually, I reached one of the windows and felt all along the sides for more wires and such. And that time, I found something. There was some sort of tiny glass tube about as long as my finger and slightly thinner than a pencil right up inside the space between the top of the window and the wall of the building. Within was an angry-looking orange red cloudy substance swirling around. If the window was moved very much, it would break the glass vial. And something told me I didn’t want to let whatever that stuff was out. It probably wasn’t a misplaced welcome to the neighborhood present. 

Giving the vial a little bit of orange paint so it wouldn’t break, considering how fragile it had to be, I pried it out and looked at the thing for a moment. I was no chemist or anything, so I had no clue what was in there. I also didn’t trust it not to break in my pocket, so I carefully set the thing aside, planning to pick it up on my way out. Then, on second thought, I took my costume bag out and put it in there. Now there was no way it would be broken or lost. The thing was sitting in a bag back in Detroit. Really, it was too bad this little bag of mine almost certainly wasn’t big enough to put the machine in. It would’ve made sending the whole thing back home a hell of a lot easier. But hey, maybe we’d get lucky and the thing we were here for would be small enough to fit in something about the size of a fanny pack. 

Either way, I checked the other windows just in case I had to make a quick exit or someone else came in here. There were more vials stuck in all of them, and against the door around back. So I took those as well. I wasn’t going to go through any of these windows to get in, but there was no way I was just going to leave them there. If nothing else, one of the others might be able to do something useful with whatever this stuff was. Which just reminded me that we still had to figure out what was in those vials we’d taken from the Ministry base. If only new problems would stop presenting themselves for a little while. 

Finally, I was satisfied as I could be that the cameras were all covered and I had identified all the traps I could find, including a couple more static-producing intercoms. Something told me the inside was going to be much harder to deal with. Pittman may have been careful not to draw attention to this place out here by having a bunch of dead bodies pile up, but he probably had no such qualms about killing any person who made it in. 

Ignoring the windows and the doors I had spent the past couple minutes dealing with, I walked up to a corner of the house behind a lower bush and made sure no one could see me from there before making a pink circle big enough for me to pry it out and clamber through. Which put me in the corner of a small, barely furnished kitchen, next to a rickety cold sink. I had been updating Paige occasionally the whole time (via text as soon as I realized the intercoms were constantly going), and now I let her know where I was. Then I simply knelt there in the shadows, the place only illuminated by a small light over the stove. Silence filled the whole house. Well, aside from the heavy ticking of a clock. And yes, it made me jump as soon as I heard it. Only after assuring myself that it was a normal clock and not a bomb did I breathe again. It was just a normal analog clock attached to the wall, shaped like a cat. The ticking was accompanied by its eyes shifting back and forth. And speaking of paranoia, I pulled the thing off the wall and used pink paint to tear it open. There were no cameras there, nothing special. It was just a clock. Boy, I really was losing it. But could anyone really blame me at this point? Not with this piece of shit involved. I wasn’t going to take anything for granted. 

There were cameras inside this place, one in this very kitchen. But it was pointed toward the window, as expected. Sending Paige a message that I was in safely and hadn’t set anything off, I waited another moment, listening for anyone who might be here. Or anything at all now that the ticking of this clock had stopped. The house could be empty, or there could be a small army of Biolems in the basement. 

Nothing. I couldn’t hear anything at all–wait–no, that was the hum of the nearby refrigerator kicking on. Boy, were those things supposed to groan and creak that much when they were working? That was really distracting. 

Shaking my head and telling myself to focus, I tried again. Nothing else seemed to be happening in this place. Nothing save for–oh, there was another intercom behind the stove. I leaned over and ripped that out as well. Then I took a second to cover the camera before pushing myself up to start walking around carefully. 

From the texts she was sending me, Paige was getting a bit impatient and nervous. Well, a bit more impatient and nervous. I needed to speed this up. So, I started looking around this floor of the house. It was pretty tiny, so that didn’t take long, even considering the fact that I had to carefully deal with cameras and traps. And yes, there were plenty of both. I covered nine more cameras, marked seven pressure plates and a dozen tripwires that were all connected to who knew what, and had to break no less than five laser turret things. At least I assumed they were laser turrets. They were relatively small, the main body being about the size and shape of my fist, with fancy-looking gun barrels only a few inches long. Each of the turret things were situated up in the corners of the rooms and hallways, mostly near the front or back door. Whatever they were meant for or capable of, I shot pink paint at them, followed by red to rip them out of the wall.

And, of course, I dealt with all the intercoms I could see. Again, this was a small place. You could probably raise your voice a little bit and be heard everywhere inside it. But there were intercoms in every single room, even two in some of them. And most were sort of hidden out of the way, where you wouldn’t immediately notice. Like the one in the living room behind the couch, or the one in the front hall that was on the ceiling directly above the door so you’d have to be looking directly up as you came in to see it. Every single one, as soon as I was anywhere near it, started giving off that same static noise. Yeah, I was definitely leaning toward ‘secret code hidden in the noise to control any Biolem.’ 

Finally, after what seemed like forever, I had the whole ground floor dealt with, as far as I could tell. I did a couple more passes through just to be as certain as possible, then stopped at the doorway leading into the basement. I hadn’t been able to find anything resembling a machine up here, so it had to be downstairs. If it was here at all. 

No. No, I wasn’t going to let myself think that. It was down there. And… well, I had been loud enough by this point that if anyone was down there, they were either setting up an ambush or completely deaf. Either way, I wasn’t using the stairs. Instead, I walked away a short distance into another room near the stairs, pointed my hands down, and sprayed a circle of pink paint on the floor. Then I activated some purple on my legs and stomped a couple times to knock that bit out, making a hole I could see down through. 

Before anyone who was down there could possibly adjust their ambush from the stairs, I quickly dropped down, activating just a bit of yellow paint under my clothes to slow my fall so I could land normally. And just like that, I was in a simple, unfinished basement consisting of cement walls and a matching floor and ceiling. Ahead of me was a…. well, it was definitely a machine. The thing was about ten feet wide, reached all the way to the ceiling, and seemed to be made entirely of random sheets of metal, long, twisting tubes with liquid in them, glowing light bulbs, pipes, and more. It looked more like some sort of weird modern art piece than a teleportation machine. But what did I know? 

In any case, if this wasn’t the thing we’d come here for, I was going to be very surprised. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much of a chance to look it over. Because at that moment, a voice spoke up. “Well, I think it’s safe to say I’ve got a few questions.” 

Spinning that way so fast I almost fell over, I stared at the figure who stood in the corner. It was a good thing the ski mask was still covering my face, because the shock and panic in my expression probably wouldn’t have done much for my reputation. I’d genuinely had no idea anyone was there. 

The man who stood in the corner had a gun, but he wasn’t pointing it at me. He was tall, like NBA player tall, at six feet, eight inches. And built like a truck. His skin was dark, and he was wearing a nice suit. 

Oh, and I instantly recognized him. 

“And boy,” Robert–Bobby Parson continued, “do I hope you have some answers.”

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Together And Alone 27-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Well hey, we weren’t even halfway to our destination and we already had those energy crystal things, which was going to help in the long run. That had to be a good sign about how our trip was going to go, right? Unless it was more of a consolation prize because we were going to completely fail and– no, Cassidy, don’t let yourself think like that. It wasn’t going to help anything.

I sort of drifted between positive and negative opinions about the whole situation over the next while, as Paige continued to drive down the freeway. Sometimes we talked and other times we simply rode in silence, watching the cars around us. But it wasn’t an awkward sort of silence. It felt comfortable and just… easy in a way I hadn’t around people that weren’t my family for a long time. Of course, Izzy was included in my family by now, and I had definitely felt comfortable with her. But being this comfortable with Paige? This was new. Unless it wasn’t. That whole thing was still messing with my head. I had this long history with her that I couldn’t actually remember. But maybe my subconscious did and that’s why it was so easy to sit with her like this despite the history I did remember? Yeah, no wonder it was so complicated and headache-inducing whenever I stopped to think about it. 

So, I tried not to think about it. Doing so wasn’t helping right now. I just had to live in the moment. To that end, I pushed all those thoughts out of my head and focused on what was actually happening right now. The two of us were going to get to that town in Utah, find that house, get rid of whatever defenses Pittman had on it, and take the thing back to Detroit. 

We made our way across Iowa while playing various car games, or just talking. Not even about anything important, honestly. We chatted about nothing in particular, about movies, games, people at school, that sort of thing. There was a whole fifteen minutes devoted to debating one actor versus another for the role of a hypothetical movie. It was dumb and pointless. And honestly, it was absolutely wonderful. I was so stressed about my parents and that whole situation back home that letting go of that and simply talking about absolutely nothing important was exactly what I needed. Once in awhile, she passed along a question from Sierra through their connection about how she should react ‘as me’ to something in school. 

After another few hours in the van following the whole restaurant incident, I was finally too tired to keep my eyes open. It had been a long night, to say the least. We’d had to leave the city, walk a good distance to reach the van, and now we had been driving for about twelve hours by that point, with an interruption for that fight in the middle. Sure, the fight hadn’t taken that long, but it was still draining. I found myself leaning against the far side of the seat, staring out the window as my consciousness gradually left. Cars were passing us, the signs were all the same, the lines along the road blurred together, and the soft music Paige had put on filled the back of my head just enough to lull me even more. She had entirely stopped talking by that point, clearly realizing that I was drifting off. I tried to tell her she should help me stay awake so I could keep her company, but she simply replied that she was fine and that I needed to sleep. 

And eventually, I did. I was completely out of it, dreaming about something to do with visiting the zoo with a couple friends when I was younger before gradually coming out of it. I wasn’t leaning against the other side of the seat near the window anymore. I was laying down with my head on something soft. My eyes opened, only to find myself looking up at Paige. I was laying with my head against her shoulder. She raised an eyebrow while looking at me, waiting until I was clearly fully conscious before calmly noting, “You really are accustomed to having a big bed to roll around on.”

Yeah, if I hadn’t already been fully conscious, that would’ve done it. Eyes widening, I felt my face turn pink as I quickly sat up and shifted around. I’d completely changed position to turn that way and ended up sleeping against Paige while she was trying to drive. How had I done that without waking up? Why didn’t she stop me, or push me back the other way, or–ugghh I was never going to sleep in the car like that again. My face was burning even more as I composed myself. “Sorry,” I murmured, shaking my head quickly. “I’m really sorry. You should’ve woken me up.” 

“You needed to sleep,” she reminded me flatly. “If you’re going to be the one heading into that place first, you can’t do it while you’re exhausted.” She still sounded like she wasn’t that happy about the whole idea. She wanted to be the one going in ahead, but that wouldn’t work. Not when we were pretty sure there would be at least some sort of Biolem defenses. Because Fred had a point. Pittman had to have planned for that. He had been the one who wanted us to go there in the first place, back when he was pretending there was a chance we could work together. He had to have planned for Paige to be in the house. So there was no way in hell I was going to let her go in until I checked the place over thoroughly. Yeah, it wasn’t the most perfect plan in the universe. It wasn’t like he couldn’t have security measures to deal with me too. But at least those couldn’t include his voice saying a couple words and completely turning me off or switching me into some sort of obedient kill mode or something. At least, I really hoped they couldn’t. 

Once I calmed down from my embarrassment, I checked what time it was. Late afternoon running into evening. Paige informed me that we were about six hours outside our target, and that she was going to pull over in the next hour or so to get some rest herself. She had been driving for a long time by that point, and wanted to be completely fresh before we had any chance of running into any of Pittman’s goons, be they human or Biolem. We genuinely had no idea what trouble we might run into, but whatever it was, we both had to be ready for it. 

Over the next hour and a half or so, we talked a bit more. I very specifically avoided any discussion of what we were going to find once we got to that house. Instead, I focused on asking Paige a little bit more about Anthony and how that whole situation had been. She’d already told me about how we met, including the part where I had run right into Pittman while playing with Anthony at his house. So basically my relationship with the man had started out with me slamming right into him headfirst to stop the guy in his tracks. Yeah, that uhh… that was weirdly appropriate. Which made me wonder how he would feel if he knew who I really was. Not that I was quite curious enough to risk him finding out. But still, just the thought of how freaked out he might be to learn the truth kind of made me smile a tiny bit inwardly. I’d had a taste of it back in Paige’s Biolem brain with the virtual Pittman, but this would be the real thing. 

To be fair, I didn’t make Paige do all the talking the entire time. As curious as I was about the whole Anthony relationship, it was only fair that I talked some too. So, I told her a bit about what had happened with me after I Touched. She already knew the basics, and I had told her some of it along with the others back when I explained the Ministry situation, among other things. But now I just talked about all the little stuff. Things like how I’d tested my power in that unfinished rec center, about the first time I had realized I could paint my skates, or how I had first yanked myself to the top of a building. I talked about a lot of firsts, and about how terrifying and yet fun it had all been. I told her about how I probably threw myself into those early death-defying moments specifically to stop thinking and worrying about my family. Hell, I was still doing that even now. Shutting off my brain to focus solely on jumping and flinging myself from rooftop to rooftop gave me the chance to stop obsessing over the Ministry and just live in the moment. I had to admit that living in those moments, scary as they might have been, helped me keep myself somewhat put together. 

Of course, Paige pointed out that given the person I was, I would’ve thrown myself off roofs anyway even if I didn’t have a reason to want to be distracted. And she was right. There was no way that I could have these powers and not use them the way I was. It didn’t matter what the rest of my life was like. How could I possibly not run around from building to building? I had to shudder inwardly at the thought of what a boring person I would have to be for that. 

Eventually, we pulled over at a motel. There was some debate about using a rest stop instead, but we both wanted to shower after walking and then sitting in the van for so long. We felt disgusting. Which, to be fair, I also felt that way emotionally about going to this house in the first place. But at least with a shower I could feel physically clean again. 

Paige used a fake ID to check into the motel, then we headed inside. She showered first while I sat on the edge of the bed and turned on the television. With the news talking about some random traffic report, I called Izzy back in Detroit.  

After a couple rings, she answered with a quick, breathless, “Hey Cass, hang on gotta put Simon in the trunk and try to put out the fire. Do you think your parents will notice a couple cars missing, or like six… seven rooms in the house being destroyed? Eight at most. Sierra did a really bang-up job containing that fight, considering how many guns were involved.” 

Catching myself after a second with the realization that she was absolutely messing with me, I blurted, “Okay, that’s not funny.” My words were met with a disagreeing snicker from the other girl before I rolled my eyes. “Right, I take it that means things are okay over there?” 

“As okay as they can be,” she confirmed a bit more soberly. “I’m in your room right now. We just had dinner and Sierra’s getting cleaned up. She really likes your shower, for the record.” 

“Our shower,” I reflexively corrected while glancing toward this bathroom as I heard the one here running. “And what a coincidence.” Shaking that off, I pushed on. “Does that mean you guys ate with Simon?” Obviously we’d known that would happen, and there was no reason to think that simply sitting at the same table would allow my brother to instantly realize Sierra wasn’t me. But it was still a thought that made me tense up a bit reflexively. There was too much riding on this. If he even got a little suspicious and paid too much attention to me… but no, I couldn’t focus on that. There was nothing I could do to affect that situation right now, so obsessing wouldn’t help.

“Yeah,” she replied. “He made a big deal out of wanting to eat together. He was a little weird during dinner, but we’re like ninety-eight percent sure that’s just because of everything else going on. You know, it’s like he’s trying to hold everything together or something, doing what he thinks your–” She paused briefly. “I mean our parents would want. He left again as soon as dinner was over. I um, I don’t think he’s been sleeping that much.”

Great, now I was worried about my brother for a completely different reason. Absolutely fantastic, really. A wild thought went through my head about calling him to say he should get some sleep and that everything would be okay. But seriously, me calling from some random number and telling my brother he looked tired probably wouldn’t go the way I wanted it to. Especially if he happened to find out the call was coming from some other state halfway across the country. Which, considering how weird that whole situation would be, he would almost certainly look into it. But hey, on the other hand, at least ‘someone claiming to be his sister calling from several states away to tell him to sleep more’ would probably fairly effectively distract Simon from worrying about our parents. 

Okay, yeah, that still probably wasn’t worth the trouble it would cause. 

Izzy promised me things were going okay. Sierra had gone to school as me and didn’t act completely different, according to what Amber had told her. Apparently the other girl had stuck pretty close to my doppelganger whenever possible, just in case, but nothing weird happened. Or nothing too weird, anyway. Thankfully, with everything that was going on, people would probably excuse ‘me’ for behaving at least a little oddly.

“Yeah,” Izzy agreed when I expressed that thought, “and if anyone does start to suspect that anything weird is going on, she can just hang-glide from a skyscraper straight onto a jetski or something and everyone’ll believe she’s you again.”  

Flushing a bit at that, I snorted. “Okay one, you guys need to stay out of my dream journal and don’t you dare let her steal that idea. And two, you guys are completely sure it’s going okay? You’re not just saying that so we don’t come right back? Because you could tell me if everything already fell apart.” 

“It didn’t fall apart,” she insisted. “It’s fine, Cass, I swear. What about you guys? How’s the drive? You guys didn’t really get in a fight at a burger place, right?” 

Oh right, Sierra. Paige would have told her what was going on. So, I confirmed that it was the truth, and told her about the energy things. Which just made Izzy vocally wonder if I was absolutely certain that one of my powers didn’t involve a type of paint that could attract trouble. 

“I guess I’m just lucky that way,” I murmured before changing the subject. “Seriously though, it’s fine. We’re…. somewhere in Wyoming, a place called Laramie Falls. We’re gonna rest up here for a bit and let Paige sleep, then head down. We should get there early in the morning, before things get too busy. Hopefully before it’s light out. Then we can sneak in, get the machine, and get out before anyone even knows we’re there.” That was maybe being a bit optimistic about how the whole situation would go, but hey, I had to at least try. 

“Yeah, good luck.” From the sound of her voice, Izzy had her own doubts about how simple it would be, but she didn’t voice them. We just talked a little bit more about how the day had gone over there, and she let me know that she and Sierra were going to head over to the shop to check in. I talked to my doppelganger as well once she got out of the shower, and she asked a couple clarifying questions about some people from school just to make certain she hasn’t said anything wrong in the brief conversations she’d had that she hadn’t already gotten info on through Paige. From everything I heard, it was all normal and under control. I just hoped that it actually would stay that way the whole time I was gone. Just a few days. The city just had to stay relatively calm for a few days. They could handle that, right? They could stick to the normal, Prev-style crime for that long. Just avoid completely blowing up into a maelstrom of Touched destruction until Paige and I finished this. 

And while I was dreaming, I really wanted a diamond pony with a rocket saddle. 

In any case, eventually I let them go and went to take my shower once Paige got out. When I was done and emerged, she was buried under the blankets, sleeping. I kept the TV turned low and sat there watching for awhile to see if they said anything about the situation back home. But there was only about a quick sixty second piece about how things back there were still under control and how the authorities were doing a fine job maintaining order. Which, yeah, of course that was all they were going to say. I managed to get a little more details thanks to posts from people from school whose accounts I followed, and things were a little more dicey according to them. There was still a lot of crime in the streets, even if the Fell gangs were staying quiet. Everyone knew the other shoe would drop soon enough, and the longer it took, the worse they all assumed it was going to be. 

In the end, I slept as well for another hour or so, just to refresh myself. Once we were both awake again, we got some food at the nearby diner in this small town, avoided running into any robberies this time, and then got back on the road. Driving through those final few hours, we talked about what we were going to do, the sort of things I needed to look for and disable. She gave me a list of passcodes that might work, which I recorded on my phone just in case. And mostly, she just warned me over and over again to be careful and to let her know the second anything went wrong. 

Eventually, we drove through Salt Lake City. Tooele was about thirty miles south-west. Which also meant we had to drive past the actual Great Salt Lake, and that was a real treat. It smelled horrible, to the point that we had to roll up the windows. Not that doing so helped completely. Seriously, how did people live around that? 

“It’s the dead algae,” Paige informed me. “I mean, the algae feed off the wastewater with all its nutrients, then they die and the bacteria eat them. That produces hydrogen sulfide, which is what we’re smelling. That’s the rotten egg stench.” 

“Well I wish it’d knock it off for awhile,” I replied, shifting in my seat. “How long till we get there?” 

She nodded ahead of us. “Here comes the city limits right now. You sure you’re ready for this?” 

“I’ve gotta be, right?” I shrugged, offering her a small smile while we cruised right into Tooele, population forty thousand. “Come on, it’ll be okay. We’re gonna handle this, grab that machine, and get out of here.

“But for the record, when we drive home, we’re taking a route that doesn’t go past that smelly freaking lake.” 

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The pool was dark. Both the lights in the ceiling, and those under the water itself, were turned off. This deep underground beneath the Evans’ mansion, the entire area was pitch black. And within that darkness, a single figure floated on his back on top of the water, staring through the void-like shadows. Not that the darkness mattered in this case. Simon Evans wasn’t looking at anything that existed in the physical world. Instead, he was staring into an unknown and potentially nightmarish future. He was staring at the potential future in which his parents never recovered from what had been done to them.

He didn’t even want to entertain the possibility, of course. He was neither eager nor anywhere near ready to come close to filling their shoes. If it came down to it, there were others in the Ministry leadership who could and would help with that, at least. But so much of their entire organization depended upon both of his parents that it absolutely would not be the same.

Then there was the fact that they were his parents. From a business perspective, it would’ve been impossible on its own to replace them. But from an emotional one, it was so much worse. A portion of Simon’s entire soul had been set aside since the moment he found out what happened. That portion was devoted solely to quietly and privately despair over the horrific possibility of never talking to his mother and father again. He couldn’t allow it to take up too much of his mind, not with everything else they had to focus on. So, he simply took a part of himself, pushed every personal fear and worry he had about the potential loss of his mom and dad into that piece, and set it aside. Every time he found himself thinking about his mother’s touch against his cheek, or the way his father ruffled his hair while giving him a knowing smirk, he shoved those thoughts into that piece. If the time came and worse came to worse, he would deal with it then. He would let that piece of himself out and give it control. But for now, it wouldn’t accomplish anything.

At least, that was the idea. That was what he had been trying to do throughout these past couple days, especially when he was around Cassidy and Izzy. He didn’t want to make things even worse for them. Hell, they didn’t even know half of what was really happening, and it was already bad for those two. If they had known the truth, it would be even worse. So no, he had to keep things together for their sake. And, naturally, because he couldn’t afford to look weak in front of the rest of the Ministry. His parents absolutely trusted the main leadership with their lives, but there were others who could potentially smell blood in the water. He wasn’t going to give them any sort of opening.

Simon knew he was already not a top choice for taking over the Ministry if it came down to it. Besides the fact that he didn’t want that job, he didn’t have the capacity for it. He wasn’t the type to be a leader that way. Hell, even when he was simply in charge of a smaller group, he tended to overcompensate. He tried to make certain no one questioned his ability by lashing out when he didn’t need to. In these private, quiet moments, he could lament those times.

Paintball. That was definitely the kid who had seen Simon that night. How different would the whole situation have been if Simon hadn’t been so angry? He’d let his frustration about the whole thing, the threat to his sister that had led to putting those two in that hotel and executing them, cloud his judgment. Two people who had discovered some of the truth about the Ministry and threatened Cassidy, sending letters about what could happen to her if their demands weren’t met. Of course he had been pissed off about that. And simply shooting them in the head hadn’t been enough to quell that anger. When he discovered there was a witness, someone else who could potentially threaten his family, Simon had overreacted. Now this boy, who could potentially have been an ally if Simon had just calmed down and tried explaining the situation, knew more than he should.

He wasn’t sure why that thought came to him when he was so focused on what had happened to his parents. Perhaps because it was another threat to his family, albeit one less immediate and damaging than what they were experiencing right now.

With a splash of water, Simon straightened in the pool, kicking his legs below him in the darkness while having a long sigh. None of this was helping. Not that he expected it to. He had no medical skills, no science degree, nothing that could actually contribute to getting his parents back on their feet. He’d already made certain the right people were dealing with that, as had the other Ministry leaders. He let them deal with that stuff, simply stamping his okay on anything they brought to him. If his parents trusted those people to handle the day-to-day stuff, then he trusted them too. Not enough to not read through everything they brought, of course. But when it came to making actual decisions requiring expertise and understanding of complex subjects, he took their word for it.

What he could focus on, on the other hand, were all the leads about where that poison had been created. From what Simon had been able to understand out of what the medical people were saying, it had to have been made somewhere in Detroit or in the surrounding fifty miles or so. The concoction had been too unstable to risk being teleported, and it wouldn’t have lasted very long. Fifty miles was their best estimate for how far away the lab could possibly be. Granted, all of Detroit plus fifty miles in every direction was quite a bit of ground to cover when it came to finding a secret lab. But Simon didn’t care if they had to scour every single inch of every building in that area. They were going to find that lab and deal with everyone who had been responsible for this, no matter what it took.

One of the first orders of business, as far as that went, had been to check the backgrounds for every single doctor and scientist who had been brought in to try to fix the situation to begin with. As far as Simon was concerned, they were the top suspects. If they were high enough in their field to be considered as people who could cure this problem, then they were high enough to have created it in the first place. Besides, he wouldn’t put it past them to have done this intentionally in order to be brought in so they could sabotage ongoing efforts to fix it or whatever.

So, he’d ordered the Ministry people to dig into those backgrounds, looking for absolutely anything out of place. They scoured bank records, receipts, broke into homes and went digging through personal belongings, checked every piece of property that was owned, rented, or repeatedly visited by everyone who had been brought in to deal with this. It was a lot of work, and it meant that some of their people were pulled away from keeping a lid on various gangs. Simon didn’t care. Yes, they had to keep the city somewhat together so there would still be a Detroit when his parents woke up. But he also had to get to the bottom of what had really happened. And he was convinced that this was the best way to do that.

Shaking his head, Simon struck out to swim through the darkness until he reached the side of the pool. His grasping hand found the edge, and he hauled himself out before turning to sit there with his legs still in the water. So much of this didn’t make sense. They were missing something important. Probably several important things. 

The Banners. They were the ones who had been transformed into those bio-weapons. But how? And why? Did Flea ending up on Breakwater have a direct connection to this? It had to, right? There was no way it could possibly be a coincidence. But had someone simply taken advantage of the fact that the Banners would be able to get into the Conservator headquarters to do that much damage?

No, the Banners had disappeared before Flea did. She had gone off to find them when she vanished. Their adopted daughter, that Paige girl, said that her father was paranoid about business rivals or something. Paige herself was an enigma. She knew so much about the Ministry already that she was a danger just for that. She’d convinced Simon’s parents to leave her alone based on the promise not to release any of the files she had. Honestly, Simon was pretty sure if they really tried, the Ministry could deal with that and silence her. But his mother had been curious about the girl and the potential she had. His parents were always looking for people they could recruit for the future. This Paige chick probably already would’ve been recruited if she didn’t have that history with Cassidy. As far as Simon knew, his parents were waiting to see if that could be resolved before extending an offer to join them.

Reaching out, the boy grabbed a nearby towel from where he left it, then rose and dried himself off. Maybe he should go find Paige himself and talk to her. Not as Simon, of course. His mother wasn’t awake to use her illusion power, but he could still disguise himself. If he found the girl and got her to tell him everything she knew or even suspected about what was going on, that could lead to some answers. Yeah, it was a long shot, but those could pay off sometimes. Drying his hair while making a thoughtful noise under his breath, Simon pivoted and walked toward the locker room. On the way, he spoke clearly. “Lights fifteen percent.” The pale illumination came up as ordered so he could find his way out of the pool room without breaking his neck.

If he did talk to Paige and get answers out of her, maybe he could fast forward this whole recruitment thing. He honestly had no idea what the hell her problem with Cassidy was. From everything he’d heard about the girl besides that, she was perfectly pleasant to others. She just seemed to have some completely irrational hatred of Simon’s little sister. Hell, maybe he could do Cassidy a favor by ending that as well. It was definitely something to think about.

He finished drying and dressed himself in the locker room, then took the elevator back up to the main floor of the house. No one was awake at this point. At least, he didn’t think they were. Then the boy stepped into the dining room to get a late snack and almost jumped at the sight of someone else already sitting at the table with the lights turned almost all the way off. They were simply a silhouette that his eyes snapped to. “Fuck, Cassidy? You scared the shit out of me.”

For her part, his little sister simply took another bite of the sandwich she was eating and eyed him curiously. “You’re up late,” she remarked.

“Me?” Simon recovered from his surprise and gave her a look while ordering the lights to come up a bit so he could see her better. There was something different about the girl, something slightly off. But that was stupid and ridiculous. He was just jumpy thanks to what had happened to their parents. It made him confused and paranoid. And God, how would Cass react if he knew what he was thinking? She already had enough to deal with. So he firmly pushed that entire thought aside and added, “Don’t you have school to go to in the morning?”

Oh, fuck. What if that was the wrong thing to say? Quickly, he added, “I mean, it’s no big deal if you want to stay home. I think we can deal. I mean–” Fuck! What was he supposed to say right now? How could he make this better? Hell, how could he possibly stop screwing up this conversation? If Cassidy couldn’t deal with school right now, who was he to try to say she should?

Finally, the girl shook her head and spoke clearly. “It’s okay, I’m going to school. I’ll get to bed soon. I just couldn’t lay up there anymore, you know?”

Simon sighed and moved to sit next to her. After a bit of hesitation, he put his hand on her shoulder. “Trust me, I get it. But Mom and Dad are going to be okay. They’ve got the best people in the world helping them. There’s no way whatever this stuff is could ever beat that.” God dammit, why did he say that? What if the worst did happen? He’d basically just promised Cassidy it wouldn’t. How could he get her hopes up like that when it really could still go badly? But what else was he supposed to say? Was he supposed to tell her to be ready for their parents to die? That would be even worse. 

While those thoughts were stampeding through his head, Cassidy moved her own hand to rest on top of his on her shoulder. “I know. If it’s possible to fix this, they will. There’s a lot of really good people dealing with it. And probably some bad ones too.” She added that part with a small smirk before adding, “I mean, it’s the government, right? They probably aren’t exactly discriminating about who they hire to deal with this.”

Shaking his head as he pondered how the girl would react if she had the slightest idea how right she was, Simon replied, “Yeah, something like that. Personally, I don’t really care who they hire, as long as Mom and Dad come back. And all those other people, of course.”

The two of them sat together for another minute in silence before Cassidy passed off the remaining half of her sandwich to him. “I’m gonna try to sleep some more,” she informed the boy before heading out.

Simon watched her go before taking a bite of the sandwich. It really was pretty good. When had Cassidy gotten so skilled at making sandwiches? He took another bite and smiled, though it was mostly a humorous, sad smile. She had been holding out on him when it came to her sandwich making skills, but look at how much they were holding out on her. She probably still had the high ground when it came to that. 

While he was finishing up that sandwich, the phone buzzed in his pocket. Taking it out, Simon checked the ID, then answered. “Tell me you have something useful.”

“Squire,” the voice on the other end first addressed him, “yeah, I think we might. Even if it’s not the main lab, we found a place that probably did some of the work on that thing. We haven’t gone in force yet–”

“Don’t,” Simon interrupted. “Wait for me to get there. And call up some more guys. I don’t want to take any of this lightly. We go in force and deal with anything inside. I want every person in that building taken alive. Don’t let them trick you into killing them, and don’t let them commit suicide. I want them secured and ready to be interrogated.”

He got the address for the place, a small building about thirty miles west of the city, then disconnected so the other man could start arranging the full force. Looking around the kitchen once more, Simon brushed off his hands and headed for the garage. Cassidy and Izzy would be fine here without him. Security was outside and there were still a few house staff sleeping in their own quarters just in case.

Still, he had a moment of hesitation. He might not have been fully in charge of the Ministry, thank God, with the other leaders stepping up. On the other hand, he was in charge of his little sisters. If anything happened to them while his parents were hurt, he would never forgive himself. But why had that even occurred to him? This place was safe. No one was after the two of them. It was fine.

This whole situation with his parents had made him paranoid, that was the only explanation. That and the fact that he had been thinking about those people who had threatened Cassidy before, the ones that led to the whole thing with Paintball. Maybe that was why he had that stupid, morbid thought. Either way, it wasn’t something to deal with right now. Cassidy and Izzy would be fine here for a few hours. They were safer in this house than they would be absolutely anywhere else.

So, Simon headed for the garage and chose a car. He didn’t want to stand out when they pulled up to that place, so he chose a nondescript dark sedan. It was still a hell of a lot better than it looked from the outside, with enough secret upgrades that it could blow most other cars off the road. But anyone glancing at it would simply see a random car.

Sitting behind the wheel, Simon glanced toward Royal Thunder, the 71 Cuda that he had driven that night when Paintball had witnessed what happened. What if it was driving that car that brought this whole thing about? For all he knew, the entire reason that boy had come anywhere near that hotel in the first place was because he saw the car. Fuck, why didn’t he drive a nondescript car like he was now? He’d just had to show off by going out for a job like that with a car that called attention to him? If the whole situation would’ve been different just from him keeping his temper under control, how different would it be if he’d taken a different vehicle?

More importantly, why was he still thinking about that? Paintball had nothing to do with this situation. Was it just because the potential threat to Cassidy was similar to his parents being hurt? 

Yeah, that was probably it. Brains were weird that way.

Shoving those thoughts firmly aside as hard as he could, Simon shifted the car into gear, hit the button to open the garage, and headed out. Maybe this wouldn’t lead anywhere useful, but it meant he was doing something, at least. He wasn’t just sitting around waiting for word. And if it did lead somewhere, well, he was going to make damn sure they got every answer they needed.

No matter what sort of damage they had to do in the process.



“I’m just asking, if it came down to it and there was no other choice, is that something you could deal with?” The man who was talking, a dark skinned figure in a black suit and cheap sunglasses, stood in a large garage area. He was staring intently at the tiny figure on the table in front of him.

That figure focused on her work for a few more seconds. The tiny mouse known as Lion wore a pair of protective goggles over her eyes that had been specially made for her. In her mouth was an equally tiny blowtorch with an attached protective shield she was carefully using on the circuit board she had been adjusting. Her hands were dexterous enough to use something like that themselves, but doing it with her mouth allowed her to get right up close and personal with her equipment and see things from that perspective. She very pointedly didn’t respond to the man’s words until she’d taken the time to adjust the board the way she wanted it. And, of course, given herself time to think. 

Finally, the small yet brilliant mouse let go of the torch and straightened up. “You’re asking if I can put a protective shield over the entire city of Detroit just to make sure whatever contagion was unleashed there doesn’t escape into the wider world. You want me to plan out how to trap over a million people, is that right?”

The man, a representative from the government, sighed. “None of us want that at all, Miss Lion, I promise. We’re just saying, if this situation gets worse and the only solution is to block off the city, how difficult would that be?”

Somehow, that tiny mouse was able to give him a look that would have withered stone. “Difficult physically or morally? I don’t like that idea. I don’t want to think about it.” Then she gave a soft sigh of her own while drumming her tiny paws against the table. “But, I suppose it would be possible. It wouldn’t even be that difficult, at least with the resources you’re talking about.”

“If it came down to it,” the man assured her, “resources would be no object. Like I said, this isn’t something we’d want to do lightly. We’ve got the city locked down as much as we can without taking permanent action. But if this is the sort of thing that’s going to escalate, we have to explore every possible option, even if it remains in hypotheticals for the moment.” 

Lion promised the man she would think about what he said and conceive of a possible solution. What she didn’t tell him was that she was also going to think about other ways to deal with it besides sealing up the entire city. 

Once he left, she lost herself in her work for another hour or so, though her heart wasn’t really in it. All she could think about were the people she knew in Detroit. Lucent was there, as was that brilliant young Tech-Touched she had helped out so recently. Could she possibly even think about finding a way to lock up all those people in that city so no one could get out? No, there had to be another way. They had to be able to identify and eliminate this disease. It wasn’t the first time Lion had wished that her specialty lay in some other category, but this particular moment was stronger than most. Yes, she usually loved the fact that she could build such incredible defensive structures, yet right now she would have given that up for a focus on diseases and medicine. Not only would that mean that she wouldn’t have been asked to think about this sort of thing, she actually would’ve been able to contribute to fixing the actual problem.

Wait, maybe she actually could do something about the problem. After all, she did have friends in Detroit. It was possible that one of them would know more about what was going on, or be able to find some information. 

That line of thought led the small mouse to another important one. Wren. The girl’s specialty was on transportation, on movement. In some ways it was almost the opposite of Lion’s. While her own inventions were centered on creating things that were stationary for the most part, or at least hard to move, Trevithick’s were all about moving. If anyone could potentially explain how Flea and Trivial have been transported to Breakwater in the first place, it was that girl. And Lion was positive that those two ending up where they did had a big part to do with what had happened. She wasn’t sure exactly how those pieces connected, but it was definitely important. It was entirely too much of a coincidence for the attack to happen right as they were being welcomed back to the city, in the same building no less. She’d heard rumors that the attack was connected to Flea’s family somehow, but people were being tight-lipped about the details for obvious reasons.

Yes, that was how she could help with this. Some part of her brain would work on that whole containing the city problem just in case. But if Lion had her way, it would never come down to that. She was going to find out the truth about what really happened to those two, how they ended up on Breakwater, and what that had to do with the biological attack. And that whole thing would start with contacting Wren Donovan and finding out if there was anything the girl could tell her about the situation. 

Lion just hoped she wasn’t putting too much pressure on that poor girl. 


Young Flea – 2004

Irelyn Banners didn’t care about Ricky Pickerson. All her friends thought she did, because he was the cutest boy in school. Which was a thing that they, as the very mature twelve-year-olds they were, had to be very aware of. The very idea of being seen as a child who was too young to notice such things was utterly mortifying as far as they were concerned. Of course, there was always the chance that she would have been more interested in Dinah Ollers instead, an option that adults in general got so weird about for reasons very few of those in her grade level could understand. 

But no, Irelyn didn’t care about Ricky or Dinah. She didn’t care about any of that stuff, and she didn’t have to play games to pretend to be more mature than she was. She had responsibilities, real ones. Responsibilities she herself had chosen in most respects, but responsibilities in real life. She couldn’t just walk away from them. Even if she wanted to, there was no way her father would allow it. This might have been something she chose to do herself at first, but now that her dad was involved, it was all regulated and controlled. And, of course, her father’s primary focus was on how he could make money off of it. Off of her. 

All those thoughts weighed on the young girl’s mind as she sat at the cafeteria table in the school listening to her friends chattering away about Ricky and Dinah. She had no idea why they were so interested in making her declare who she was interested in. It all seemed so pointless, but she kept an easy smile plastered to her face and replied as mysteriously as she could, as though she was simply keeping the subject of her interest a secret. That didn’t exactly discourage them from pushing the issue, but it kept them busy and occupied. 

Finally, she could take it no longer and excused herself. Of course, her friends decided she was heading off to meet someone and giggled to themselves about who it could be.That was the only thing on their minds, it seemed like. What boy (or girl) was Irelyn making time for? 

She knew why they thought like that, why their minds were so focused on who she ‘liked.’ She was Irelyn Banners. Her parents were the richest people in–sorry, second-richest people in the city. That amendment weighed heavily on her father, as it had since the very moment their status had changed. For over a decade, her family had been the richest people in a failing city. Her dad had enjoyed a sort of special status where everyone who was anyone in the city paid attention to him and asked for favors. His money was tied to businesses outside of the city, but he was more than capable of benevolently donating to whatever he wanted to. Some people said that Detroit was only kept afloat thanks to the kind donations from Aaron Banners. Even when she had been as young as a first-grader, Irelyn had understood how that made her father feel. It had been everything to him. And losing that status to the Evans had become everything.

As she made her way through the wide corridors of this school, which had only been built about a year and a half earlier thanks to donations from both her family and the Evans (her dad had been angrily matching everything they donated in an effort to out-do them, so the building was completely state of the art in every respect), Irelyn thought briefly about what things had been like just a few weeks earlier. That was before her parents had found out about her extracurricular activities.

A few days after her twelfth birthday, Irelyn had run out of the house to hide within one of the fountains on the grounds. There was a problem with the pipes for that particular fountain and it had been empty for almost a year, becoming her favorite spot to sit and think. Or, in this case, stay away from her dad while he was angrily ranting about Elena and Sterling Evans. He never got violent or anything. Her dad wasn’t that sort of man. But she didn’t like to hear him so upset. Hiding out in her fountain, the young girl had been startled by the appearance of a strange glowing orb. She touched it, had seen images from her life in a gray, formless void, and had come out of the situation with incredible powers.

At that time, it had only been a few years since those orbs first started showing up. But even as young as she was, Irelyn had known what it meant. She was a superhero. Or she could be. For those first few seconds, she had almost immediately gone to run inside to tell her parents what happened. But in her excitement, she ended up using her new powers for the first time to jump all the way from the back patio to the balcony outside their window, a nearly one-hundred-foot leap. Clinging there, the startled girl had heard her dad going on and on about what they could do to take the Evans down a peg. Hearing how angry and vindictive he was about something as silly as who the richest family in town might’ve been made her realize that telling him was a bad idea.

So, she hadn’t. Instead, the young girl had begun sneaking out of the house using a cobbled-together costume. One piece of that costume was an old samurai mask she found in storage. But even with the costume and her powers, she didn’t go out to fight crime or save people, not at first. No, her primary goal in leaving the house was to get away from her angry father and experience true freedom. For her entire existence up to that point, so much of her life had been completely planned out for her. Her parents scheduled every minute of her day, filling it with activities that were supposed to make her look good to future prospective universities. Even the girl’s leisure time was carefully scheduled. Her only real time alone, where she could do anything she wanted, was when she was supposed to sleep. Which, of course, she couldn’t do much with. 

At least, not until the orb happened. Because with those came one very important power. Not her jumping ability, not her enhanced strength that made her the equivalent of most adults, not even the speed boost that meant she could run almost thirty miles per hour. No, all those were really good, but they weren’t what kept her going for so long. That was entirely thanks to her stamina-drain power. Anytime she used it, people close to the girl got tired, and she felt more energized. It wasn’t exactly a one-for-one exchange, as she only gained a bit of energy for everything she drained, but it still helped. She could use it just a little bit while walking through a crowd, make a lot of people just a tiny bit more tired than they would have been, and be fully energized after a few minutes. As long as she spaced out who she was affecting, no one really noticed or was hurt by it. 

Which had meant that she could go through her family’s whole daily schedule for her, make sure to drain enough people just a little bit over the entire day so she wouldn’t get tired, then sneak out at night and have some actual fun. With that boost, all she needed was an hour or so of sleep. Other than that, she was free. And for hours and hours through those first nights, the young girl had reveled in that freedom by tearing through the city. She leapt from building to building, her speed and jumping power opening up the world to her in a way it had never been before. She’d had all night long, night after night, to explore, to learn about the city she lived in, to escape the responsibilities and expectations of her family. 

It was only after about a month of that exploration and freedom that Irelyn had first used her powers to help someone else. While sitting on the edge of a roof watching the city around her, she had seen a man being dragged down an alley by some really bad-looking people. So, Irelyn jumped down there. The men had laughed at her samurai mask and tried to grab her, but she avoided them. Her speed combined with the fact that she was as strong as they were, even if she lacked any real training, allowed the girl to escape their grasps and keep them moving until her draining power, which she had cranked up as high as it would go, knocked them out. 

Of course, that meant the man she had jumped down there to save in the first place had been unconscious too. But Irelyn dragged him away from the bad guys, then called the police using his phone. When they showed up, she ran away, afraid that they would try to detain her and call her parents. 

But from that moment, seeing that she could make a difference, Irelyn had continued to do so for a while. Equipping herself with a Y-style slingshot that she could use to hit people from various heights and distances, the twelve-year-old had spent almost two months stopping small crimes here and there. She didn’t find problems every night, and if they looked too dangerous, she simply called the police using a disposable phone she had taken from one of the first muggers she’d helped catch. The mobility of her powers meant she could get into areas they didn’t expect her to be, where she could hide and describe everything they were doing for the incoming authorities. Often, she used her slingshot to make them angry enough to stick around trying to catch her if they were about to leave, occupying them long enough for the police to arrive. 

All of that had worked well enough until one night a few months after she first gained her powers. She had misjudged how much weight a crate attached to a chain could hold. When she landed on it, the chain broke and she fell. In most cases, that wouldn’t have mattered. She could fall basically any distance and be just fine, as long as she landed on her feet. But with that fall, she’d landed on her arm and broke it, along with her wrist. Thankfully, the police showed up and took her to the hospital. But that had been the end of her parents not knowing. With those injuries, they’d had to be notified. 

To say her father had been angry was an understatement. He couldn’t believe she would keep such a secret from him, especially when he realized that it had been going on for months. And he made it clear that she was not to go out on her own anymore. Instead, he was going to sign her up for a brand new program that had just been started that year. It was called the Minority, a national organization where young people with powers, Touched as they called them, could train with each other and help stop crime. Basically it was a training program, which they could graduate from to join one of the adult teams with some actual experience. 

For three weeks now, Irelyn had been with this ‘Minority.’ She was the youngest person on the team, by far. The other five members were all at least fifteen. Three years might not have seemed like that much to adults, but for teenagers, it was an eternity. They all treated her like a child whom they could barely tolerate, more of a mascot than a teammate. And no one wanted her to go out with them. Thanks to her jumping power, they had begun referring to her as ‘an annoying flea,’ a name which had stuck. Now she was and would always be Flea. 

Leaving the school through a backdoor while all those thoughts were on her mind, Irelyn checked her phone. There were still twenty minutes left of her lunch period. So she could get a little running in. Finding a place to hide, she put on the samurai-mask from her backpack. It wasn’t the same as the one she’d taken from her family’s storage. This was a special mask that was bulletproof. It was also specifically made so that the shape of the eye holes enhanced her own quarter-Asian features so that anyone who looked at her like that would go away with a much different idea of what she looked like under the mask. That had been the idea of the people who talked her father into putting her into this new Minority. Anything that helped hide her identity. If anyone trying to find out who this tiny girl really was kept searching for an Asian child who matched her physical description, the real Irelyn would stay safe. 

With her mask and gloves on to keep her identity secret, Irelyn went for a run. Of course, for her, that meant jumping from roof to roof through the city. It helped the girl clear her head and be ready to be ignored and treated like a pest by her teammates. None of them wanted her there, and being put on ‘Flea-duty’ was seen as a punishment. No matter who she was partnered with for a training patrol through the city, they always complained. It meant they would inevitably see almost no action. When Flea was with them, they had strict orders about where to go and how much to intervene. She was there to train and observe, not to become directly involved in dangerous situations. At most, they could report to the proper authorities and step in only if there was an immediate threat. Which of course meant some heavily exaggerated the meaning of both immediate and threat, but still. They always saw her as an anchor around their necks, a weight chaining them down and stopping them from true heroics. No matter what she did or what she said, no matter how much she tried to be friends with her teammates, none of them wanted her around. Which wasn’t helped by the fact that she wasn’t allowed to let them know who she really was. Her father wanted that kept secret even from the people she was training with, since he didn’t trust ‘some random children’ not to expose Irelyn and her family. The rest of the Minority teenagers all knew each other in their civilian lives and were allowed to hang out. But Flea, in addition to being the child mascot chaining them down, never revealed who she really was. So there would always be a vast gulf between them. They didn’t know her, and they absolutely didn’t want her involved with their lives. 

Ten minutes into her mind-clearing run, as she struggled to keep thoughts of her supposed teammates out of her mind, Irelyn heard a loud clang against the edge of the roof she had just landed on. Jumping a bit, she spun and looked down in time to see a figure climbing up toward her. The strange part was that the figure was climbing on nothing. Oh, her motions made it look as though she was climbing a ladder. Her hands reached up and grasped empty air as though it was an invisible rung, pulling herself up and putting her foot down on another one. She just kept climbing on nothing.

Confused as she watched the person climb toward her, Irelyn reached down to feel for an invisible ladder, but felt nothing. Guardedly, she stepped back and watched as whoever it was climbed all the way up and scrambled onto the roof. Only then did she get a good look at them. The person seemed to be no older than she was, an eleven or twelve-year-old. She was also dressed in a costume of her own, one consisting of a blue turtleneck, mismatched blue and white gloves that clearly came from very different sets, baggy white pants, simple tennis shoes, and a blue ski mask. It looked like something she had put together out of a lost and found box. Straightening up, the girl waved both hands and cheerfully greeted Irelyn with a quick, “Hiya! You’re that Minor girl, right? Flea.” 

“Minority,” Irelyn reflexively corrected. “But, um, who are you? And what was that?” She gestured toward the edge of the roof. 

“Oh that? That’s my power!” the other girl informed her with obvious excitement. “Watch this.” Looking around quickly, she bent to pick up a small rock and gave it a light toss toward Irelyn. It bounced off the girl’s chest and fell to the ground. 

“Uh.” Confused as to what that was supposed to mean, Irelyn looked down, then back up again just in time to see the stranger make another throwing motion, this time with an empty hand. And yet, once again, she felt the rock bounce off her chest just as it had before. A second later, the girl made the same motion but adjusted her aim, and Irelyn felt the rock bounce off her arm and stomach. It didn’t hurt or anything, it was just surprising. And confusing. 

“I’m Echo!” came the quick and cheerful explanation. “That’s what I decided to call myself, anyway. I hear things really well. Like, super-well. And whenever I hear an object doing something, I can make a… sort of copy of it. My friend said it’s like having telekinesis but instead of moving things around, I make telekinetic shapes out of the stuff I hear. Or something like that. It has to be pretty close to what I actually heard. Like when I heard my dad put a ladder against our house, so now I can make an invisible ladder against buildings. Or just now because I heard the rock fly over and hit you, and I can make invisible rocks fly at you as long as I make the same sort of motion. I guess it’s sort of like being a mime? I hear something and see what it was, and then if I make the same motion I saw that made that sound, I can make the same effect. Does that make sense?” 

“But I felt the rock,” Irelyn pointed out. “I couldn’t feel the ladder.” 

“Yeah, it’s kinda weird like that,” Echo agreed. “I think other people can only feel the things I make if it’s really quick, like being hit by the rock. If it’s something long-term like a ladder or a bridge, only I can use it. Watch this!” She held her hand and gave the other girl a high-five. Then she stepped back and made the same motion with her hand from a few feet away, and Irelyn felt that quick hand slap once more. 

“Or uhh, this.” Moving her hands as though holding a bucket, Echo made a motion to throw the contents toward Irelyn. Immediately, the other girl felt what she could have sworn was a buckets-worth of water splashing all over her front. It should have left her soaked. And yet, a second after it happened, she wasn’t wet at all. 

“It feels real, huh?” Echo happily put in. “I did it to myself a few times too. If I heard some guy throw a brick at someone really hard and then copied it, you’d have a bruise. But if it’s something like water, you only feel that first bit before it goes away. I guess because there’s not actually any water to keep you wet? So you get the first feeling of it, but it only lasts for a second.” 

This was a lot to take in, to say the least. But above everything else, Irelyn was simply ecstatic to meet another person her age with powers. The two of them moved to the edge of the roof and sat down to talk. Which they did for hours, through the rest of the school day. Her dad was upset when he found out about her skipping afternoon classes, but he got over that very quickly as soon as she told him about Echo. The idea that he could potentially be responsible for introducing two full Touched into the city made the man forget all about the classes she had missed. And so, very soon, Echo joined the Minority as well. Which meant Irelyn had a friend to hang out with. Soon, the two of them were all but inseparable. Together, they learned how to be real heroes. 

Until all of that changed. 


Four Years Later, 2008

“Echo, stop! What are you doing?!” Now sixteen years old, Flea stood on the edge of a tall hotel deep in downtown Detroit. She had her sling extended from one hand. After the past four years, she was no longer considered a helpless child, and hadn’t been for quite some time. As soon as she had been allowed to involve herself in fights regularly, the girl had been given the proper equipment for that. But rather than go back to using a slingshot the way she had while on her own, she had been taught to use a real old-style sling. That allowed Irelyn to use her actual enhanced strength properly. The sling itself was attached to her glove, retracting back into it when not needed and extending out into place, attached via her index finger, whenever she squeezed her hand a certain way. 

Of course, she had broken several peoples’ bones with that sling. Jumping around to good vantage points, producing a piece of ammunition from her belt, and then whipping it at arms and legs, had done more than her fair share of damage. So she had also been taught to use a blunt sword to protect herself close in. When it came down to it, being close enough for her stamina-draining power to kick in was actually safer for the bad guys than hitting them with her sling was. That simply put them to sleep. But she had to be within grabbing range to do so. Thus, learning to protect herself at close range. And after four full years of training, she was very good at that.

The sword may have been dull, but she could still do some damage with it by hitting someone in the right place. Right now, she definitely wanted to hit someone, she just wasn’t sure who. The sword was gripped in her left hand while she kept the sling in her right, already loaded with a piece of hard plastic ammunition. On the far side of the roof stood the girl who has been her friend for the past several years, her closest confidant in the Minority, even after the rest of the team had opened up to them more and others closer to their age had joined. The two of them had planned on going into the new security team Irelyn’s father was putting together. He’d already promised them the top positions. They would leave the Minority once they were eighteen, and step right into leading the field team of a private security firm. 

At least, that was what was supposed to happen. 

“Hey, sorry, babe. You weren’t supposed to find out like this.” Echo–or Haley as she was known in their civilian lives, wore a much better costume than she’d had that first time they met. It consisted of a similar color scheme, with a white turtleneck that was actually reinforced to protect her from most impacts, a blue jacket, white full face-covering helmet with a blue visor, black cargo pants, and combat boots. She held a baton in one hand, while the other was free. 

“Find out what,” Irelyn shot back, “that you’ve been helping the bad guys for… for… how long?” She gestured toward the unconscious detective and the bag of money laying nearby. “I thought he was lying. I was going to prove he was wrong about you, that you hadn’t actually been taking bribes all this time. How many criminals got away because you let them go in exchange for a quick buck, Haley?” 

“Hey, don’t judge me!” the other girl shot back. “You’ve been rich as fuck your whole life. You don’t know what it’s like to need something and not be able to–” 

“Don’t try that!” Irelyn interrupted. “You’re my best friend, you know I would’ve given you anything you asked for.” 

Echo’s head shook rapidly. “Given! Given me anything?! Don’t you get it? That still wouldn’t be mine, it wouldn’t belong to me. It’d be charity from you.”

“And taking dirty money is better?” Irelyn was aghast. “Detective Deeks said it was more than that. You didn’t just accept bribes, you stole stuff yourself. You used your connections through the Minority to find out where patrols would be, where security was light, even how to break into places without getting caught. Is that true?” 

Instead of directly answering, which was an answer in and of itself, Haley chuckled softly. “Look, I’m not gonna fight you. I’ll never fight you. I might not be into this hero thing as much as you are, but you’re still my friend. You’re like a sister to me. But I guess you won’t keep this to yourself. So I’m gonna walk away now, Irelyn.” 

“You’re not going anywhere,” Flea, she had to be Flea right now, and the person in front of her had to be Echo. It hurt too much to think of herself as Irelyn and the other girl as Haley. “You’re coming with me, and–” 

Before she could finish the sentence, Echo moved one hand up, shaping her fingers in the pantomime of a pistol. A second later, a loud gunshot filled the air. Another use of her power. Flea had seen her friend ‘echo’ guns in order to actually shoot things before, though in this case she was only using the sound to interrupt.

“I’m sorry, I really am.” Echo certainly sounded like she was. “I never wanted it to turn out like this. I thought I could convince you to come with me, to switch sides. But you just don’t have it in you. You’re not that sort of person.” 

“Look, we don’t have to do this,” Flea pleaded. “We can still–”  

Again, she was interrupted. But this time, Echo held out both hands, making a motion as though she was holding a hose. The sound of hissing gas filled the air, and Flea’s vision was suddenly blocked. Fog. She’d seen the girl use this trick before. Even though there was actually nothing in the air, she could temporarily blind people by ‘echoing’ the sound of the one time they had encountered a man using a backpack-based fog machine. Her powers had grown enough by that point that she could temporarily induce dozens of effects, including this blindness. 

Flea immediately leapt into the air, but even once she was clear of the ‘fog’ it didn’t help. The way Echo’s powers worked, she would be blind for the next few seconds no matter where she went, just because she was within range of the ‘fog’ at the start. Long enough that, once the blindness cleared, her friend was long gone with the bag full of money. 

For hours, then days, then weeks, and even months, Irelyn tried to find her missing friend. But Haley had fled the city entirely. She was gone. Occasionally, they would hear about her popping up in one city or another for a job. But she never came back to Detroit. Because no matter what she became, no matter how many bad guys she worked with, there was one promise she kept. 

She would never fight the girl who had been her best friend. 


Present Day

“Hey, you don’t have a parachute!” the pilot of the small plane flying as close to Detroit as they were legally allowed to with everything going on right then called over his shoulder toward the figure standing by the open doorway. “You’re gonna die from this height!” 

“Oh, don’t worry,” the now-adult Echo replied. She still wore a nearly identical-looking costume to what she’d had during her time in the Minority, aside from the dark blue jacket being changed to a matching trench coat. “I’ll just pretend.”

With that, before the man could react, she jumped from the plane she had hired and plummeted for several seconds. Once she had fallen far enough, the twenty-eight-year-old woman focused on her power. Summoning up the memory of hearing parachutes open in the past, she applied that to her current situation. And just like that, the sound of a parachute unfurling filled the air and her fall was slowed. Gradually, she began safely drifting through the dark night sky toward the lights of the city in the distance. 

Haley Torres had sworn that she would never come back to Detroit. But now… now she finally had a decent reason to. She was going to find out who was responsible for hurting Irelyn Banners. And then she was going to kill them. 

Even if she had to burn the whole fucking city to the ground in the process. 

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Together And Alone 27-06 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so there we were, about thirty minutes outside of Chicago in a random fast food joint that we’d stopped at for just a few minutes to grab lunch. And somehow we had already ended up entangled in some sort of robbery. A robbery that we needed to deal with, and get away from, without actually exposing either our real identities or our Touched ones. If the authorities knew we were away from Detroit where the lockdown was, they’d probably be a bit upset. And I didn’t think the two of us stopping a robbery would make them feel better about that.

Yeah, this was going to be a bit complicated, to say the least. Thankfully, I had ways of using my powers that weren’t obvious. As long as I put the paint underneath my clothes, I could be fast and strong and all that without actually revealing who I was. On the other hand, revealing that Cassidy Evans had powers would complicate my life just as much as showing them I was Paintball. And while I was very confident that no one out there knew me at a glance, especially with my current disguise, I wasn’t so sure that they wouldn’t have cameras. In fact, I knew they did. There were the security cameras, after all. Security cameras that had already picked me up coming inside here in the first place. And my disguise might not hold up to intense scrutiny. Fortunately, Paige already said she could deal with that once we were done. 

I also had a simple solution to hiding my identity even better than the altered hair and all that right now. I had access to my costume in the bag, and even though I didn’t want to use the whole thing, I could still put on the mask. After all, most people identified Paintball as having the helmet. But I always wore the ski mask under it as well. So, I put that on, as well as the gloves to protect myself from leaving fingerprints, changing both to be black. Then I changed the rest of my clothes to match. Great, fantastic, now I just looked like a burglar or something. Which wasn’t the best thing when stopping a robbery. But at least I wouldn’t be associated with a certain Star-Touched from Detroit. Hopefully, anyway. 

Okay, now my identity was at least somewhat safe. Assuming I could get through this without screwing something up. To that end, I stood next to the doorway and waited while Paige did her own thing. She was working her way around to the back door, where she would disconnect the emergency alarm and slip inside so she could access the security system. Which would allow her to both delete the footage of the two of us, and tell me exactly where every bad guy was. I just hope she worked quickly, before those guys got too antsy about where their buddy was. Right now they seemed to be distracted by everything else involved with using at least four guys to rob a small fast food joint in the middle of the day (seriously, what the fuck) but something told me that wouldn’t last.

Thankfully, if Paige was one thing, it was efficient. I had barely started to get anxious before the text came back from her to let me know she was in the manager’s office. She’d already dealt with one guy who was in there and now she had control of the cameras. She sent a link that allowed me to connect to them on my phone as well, giving me a view of the whole front lobby and kitchen. I quickly counted four bad guys out there. Three were the ones Paige had noted before, scattered through the lobby holding guns on the customers, while the fourth was up by the grill, keeping the staff under control. And seriously, by my count, that was six guys. Four up front now, one in the manager’s office, and one who had come back into the restroom. Six freaking guys to rob a single fast food joint. How much could they possibly have been expecting to get from that? This whole thing was patently absurd. Maybe these guys were all complete idiots. Overly-armed idiots. It wasn’t out of the question. Or, just as likely, something else was going on that we didn’t understand or have the context for. 

Either way, now I knew where those guys were and could keep an eye on them through the cameras. Between that and the fact that I had my mask in place, it was time to move. So, I sent a text back to Paige, telling her to go ahead and start the distraction. We needed to pull their attention toward the back before I made my move. Sure, these guys seemed dumb. But with those hostages out there, now wasn’t the time to screw anything up or get too cocky. One wrong move, one of those guys losing it and opening fire, and this would be… really bad. It was a thought that made me grimace, trembling a little despite myself. Staring at my hand, I watched it shake before forcing myself to breathe out and steady it somewhat. But not enough. Why now? I had been through dangerous situations before, why was that thought making me freak out? Was it just because we were away from Detroit? Was it all the other stress piling up, including my parents’ situation? Was it the fact that this whole thing seemed so random and absurd? 

All of the above. It was all of the above. Everything was adding up, and in that single moment right as I was waiting for Paige’s distraction, it almost seemed to be too much. Hugging myself tightly, I tried to get my breathing under control. Stop it. Stop shaking. This was a stupid robbery, it was fine. It was going to be fine. I could handle it. No one out there was going to die. 

I was distracted from my turmoil by the buzzing of my phone. It was another message from Paige. ‘Going for it. Don’t worry, we can handle this. I’ve got your back.’ 

That was it, all she said. But reading the message… helped. I closed my eyes briefly, allowing the words to fill my mind. She had my back. We could handle this. And just like that, I could breathe easily again. The knot in my stomach relaxed, as I straightened up and pushed all those doubts and worries away for the moment. My hand finally stopped shaking. All that mattered right now was dealing with this. 

Paige had pretty good timing as well. Because at the very moment that I had pulled myself together, thanks to her message, I heard a shout coming from the back rooms where she was. It was a man’s voice, but I knew Paige was the one talking. “Oh shit, it’s the goddamn motherlode! Get back here and check this out! We’re fucking rich!”

We figured that they weren’t quite stupid enough to send everyone that way and completely leave the hostages unguarded, no matter how excited their partner sounded. But it at least made them move that way a bit, their attention drawn toward the back area. And in that moment, as I watched the guys take their eyes off the hostages reflexively, I pushed open the door and activated the black paint on the inside of my socks, as well as the green lines running down the inside of my pants. A second later, I was sprinting completely silently out of the restroom. 

The way the layout of this place worked, this door was at the very end of the hallway, with the door leading into the actual women’s restroom on the right-hand wall next to it. On the same wall about halfway to the dining room was another door leading into the kitchen. But the three guys out front weren’t heading for that door. They were just planning on moving into the kitchen area by jumping over the front counter. One of them had already done so, joining his partner over there as they both looked toward the back where their partner’s voice had come from. The second guy had his hands on the counter and was staring that way as well, while the third and last guy in the lobby had moved a few steps that way, his back to the hostages. I took all that in with a quick glance at my phone while sprinting down the hall toward the lobby. The guy who was still nearest the hostages had his right side facing me, and I was just barely outside of his peripheral vision as I came out of that hall. 

I could hear the other people in the room, the hostages, reacting to my sudden appearance. But of course, they didn’t know what was going on, especially since I just looked like another thief right then. Ignoring them, I threw myself at that nearest guy with a little assistance from blue paint secretly put on the bottom of my shoes and orange on the inside of my shirt. Before he had any idea what was happening, my body collided with his hard enough to take him to the ground with a strangled yelp. 

I immediately rolled off of him, allowing that initial impact to keep the guy out of the way for a second. Seriously, I may have been small, but getting hit with around a hundred pounds right in the stomach going at top speed probably didn’t feel very good. He wasn’t in a rush to get back up. Well, maybe he was mentally. But physically, it was going to take a moment. Just in case, however, I made sure to quickly kick the gun the man had dropped, sending it skidding across the floor and underneath a booth in the distance. 

The other guy who was still in the lobby, the one who hadn’t already jumped over the counter and instead stood right in front of it, heard the commotion and turned. But by the time he did, I had already rolled off the first guy to put myself right near him. While he was taking in the sight of his partner already on the ground struggling to breathe, my foot lashed out to hit his leg, backed up by a bit of hidden purple paint. Which was enough to make that guy stagger and fall to one knee, cursing out loud in a mix of surprise and pain. And before he could recover or catch himself, I punched him in the face, knocking his head backward against the counter he had just been leaning on. Which ended up making him about as eager to keep moving as his buddy. 

Meanwhile, the two guys on the other side of the counter had clearly heard something happen out here. They would have heard their partner curse, but by the time they turned around, he was out of sight from me kicking him in the leg. From their point of view, he had just magically vanished. Already, I could hear them shouting demands about what was going on, where these guys were, and that this definitely wasn’t funny so they should stop fucking around. 

Out of sheer habit, and possibly as a product of my own fear, I opened my mouth reflexively to blurt a joke of some sort. But at the last second I stopped myself. It was already going to be hard enough to keep my identity as Paintball a secret out here. The last thing I needed to do right now was start making jokes that the witnesses would remember. So, I simply pushed myself up, caught the second guy by the face with one hand, and shoved his head backwards into the counter once more with enough force to stun him again. At the same time, my foot kicked the gun he had been holding out of the way as well, off to join the other guy’s. 

By that point, the first guy I had crashed into had picked himself up to his knees and opened his mouth to shout a warning. But I planted my hands against the floor to shove myself upward and outward with my arms, extending one leg until my foot collided with his chin, snapping his mouth shut just as he managed to get a single syllable out. The force of the blow was enough to make him fall backwards on his rear, grabbing his mouth in pain while letting out a flurry of curses. Something told me this wasn’t the sort of situation he’d signed up for when they came to rob this place. 

Meanwhile, everything I was doing out here had definitely fully grabbed the attention of the two guys in the kitchen area. They shouted for their partner to come help and were already coming back to the counter to jump over and see what the hell was happening, since they had completely lost sight of two buddies here and could only hear them cursing and yelping. 

Which meant neither of them paid much attention to the sound of footsteps coming out of the back, assuming it was the guy they just called for. So they were taken by surprise when Paige showed up. Not that I saw her from my position, but I definitely heard her arrival. One guy let out a strangled yelp, followed by a loud crash as he was thrown into something. A second later, there was a thud as the second guy’s head was slammed down into the front counter right there. That was followed by a curse from the first guy as he tried to get up, but Paige did something else that made him crash back down again. That time he stayed in place.

Popping up to my feet, I took a quick step forward to snap my foot out, kicking the guy I had crashed into once more. He tried to blurt either a threat, or a plea. I wasn’t sure which. Either way, my foot collided with him and he went down, groaning a little. 

That was it. They were done. Turning, I saw Paige for the first time during this whole thing. She was wearing a mask of her own, likely simply taken from the man she had taken out in the office. Our eyes met, and she gave me a quick nod before tossing something my way. Zipties. She had zipties. 

The two of us secured the men on either side of the counter, making sure they couldn’t escape. Then Paige addressed the stunned hostages, who were sitting there staring at us. She told them to call the cops and make sure these guys got picked up. This, of course, was another subtle thing we had come up with to obscure our identities. Normally I was the one who did the talking in these situations. But in this case, I hadn’t said anything at all and she had talked instead. 

Yeah, maybe all of this was pointless. We were like three hundred miles away from Detroit, after all. But still, it never hurt to be careful. I had no idea just how intense the cops out here would be about trying to figure out who we were, so it was best to err on the side of caution.

With all that done, we didn’t waste any more time. There was no telling how long it would take the authorities to show up here. The two of us raced out the van once more, hopping inside. A second later, Paige peeled out and we were racing out of the parking lot. 

But we didn’t go straight to the freeway. Instead, the other girl simply pulled around behind the nearby self-serve car wash, out of sight. I hopped out, made sure there were no cameras anywhere around, and painted the van so it was red and white instead of green. Paige still had access to the security cameras in the restaurant itself, and had deleted all the footage of the two of us, as well as our van. But we figured the people in there would describe it. Now anyone trying to find us on the freeway would be looking for the wrong color vehicle. 

While I was doing that, Paige had run around to the back of the van, ripping the old license plate off before putting a new one on. Another service from the group who had delivered the vehicle in the first place was leaving a small stack of extra plates to use, apparently. 

As soon as we were both done with that, Paige and I started to run back around to our own doors. But we basically ran into one another, colliding before both of us stumbled back. My hand snapped out to catch one of hers before she could fall, and she did the same for my other hand. We caught each other, stared, and then we were both jumping up and down excitedly. The sudden rush of exhilaration about what we had just done hit me in that moment, as the two of us laughed like overly-caffeinated hyenas and continued hopping wildly. It probably looked really stupid from a distance, but who cared? We were just taking a few seconds to indulge ourselves and be silly. 

A moment later we disengaged and sprinted back around to the right doors to clamber in. Then we were back on the road once more, heading onward. I pulled the mask off and slumped back in the passenger seat, while glancing over at Paige with a shrug. “Well that was an interesting lunch break, huh?” 

Snorting, the other girl took her borrowed mask off and dropped it between the seats. “You have a funny definition of the word ‘break,’ Cassie.” 

“Hey, I’m just glad we didn’t get bored,” I shot back, smirking a little despite myself. “Though I kind of worked up another appetite doing all that. You sure we can’t go back for some more fries?” 

“You’ll just have to wait,” she informed me primly. “We need to put some miles between us and–” Even as she said that, the sound of multiple sirens filled the air. Both of us tensed a bit, but the handful of cop cars simply went screaming past us back the way we had come, heading for the scene of the robbery. We had gotten out of there just in time. 

“That has to be the weirdest attempted robbery I’ve ever heard of,” I found myself saying once we were both able to relax. “Six guys with guns just to steal from a fast food place in the middle of the day? What could they possibly have hoped to get away with that would be worth all that? What, were they going to divvy up two hundred bucks amongst themselves or something? This whole situation doesn’t add up. But I guess we’ll never know what was actually going on.”

Paige shrugged. “Oh, I already know what they were stealing. These.” With that, she reached into her pocket and took out a small leather bag. Opening it, she showed me while continuing to drive. I looked inside to see a small handful of bright blue gemstones, which seemed to glow and gave off a very soft, almost imperceptible humming sound.

Eyes widening, I blurted, “Wait, are those–” 

“Energy Diamonds, yup,” she confirmed. “Designed by that Tech-Touched in Boston. Each of those things hold a hell of a lot of power, enough to help charge up some pretty heavy-duty Touched-Tech without drawing attention from the power company. Seems that whole restaurant back there was a front for smuggling these things around.” 

“And you just took them?” I managed a little weakly. 

“Not all of them,” she corrected me. “Just a few. There was a whole safe full of the things. The cops can have those. But I thought we could let the kid use these ones to charge up that teleportation thing so we don’t have to use Pittman’s energy source. And for anything else she wants to use them for.” 

Taking that in, I slowly nodded. “Right, sure. That makes sense. I guess we should use what we can get. Especially when it comes to this. This isn’t the best time to be picky about it. And hey, we’re not even halfway to Utah yet but we’ve already got more resources than we left with. 

“At this rate, we’re gonna have everything we need by the time we get where we’re actually going.” 

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Together And Alone 27-05 (Summus Proelium)

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So, while we drove down that freeway alongside all those cars of completely ordinary people going about their normal days, Paige told me everything she knew about Anthony. She started very simply, talking about what he looked like, showing me what his voice sounded like by modulating her own to match his as a child, and even what he smelled like. Apparently asking someone with a computer memory to describe someone ended up getting you a lot of details. Not that I minded at all. I just put my seat back and closed my eyes as she described the boy who had once been my very best friend in the world, before his life was taken away by my grandfather, and his memories by my parents.  

She told me about his favorite foods, the toys he liked, what shows we watched together. She talked about some of the silly arguments she’d heard us have, what games we played with one another, even little things like the fact that Anthony liked to use military time/twenty-four-hour clock instead of the standard twelve hour version. Apparently he’d heard people use it in a movie or something when he was barely old enough to understand time at all, and had thought it was a fun secret code. And speaking of secret codes, he also had a watch that doubled as a voice recorder. He used to hold down the button and talk into it like he was a secret agent, then use the other button to play back the message later. He played the roles of both the field agent like James Bond, and his own boss, passing messages back-and-forth under each different persona through the watch. Which apparently included arguing with himself as each person. But again, only through the watch messages. He would entirely switch characters to record the messages, go somewhere else, then switch again to listen and react. 

Of course Paige and I both had our own secret agent characters as well, so we could help him in the field. According to the other girl, the three of us had once spent an entire afternoon pretending to be convinced that a catering company that was setting up for some party in his parents’ yard were actually Russian spies, whom we had to identify and send pictures of back to headquarters, then ‘eliminate’ by touching the center of their backs without being seen before managing to do so. 

Was it dumb that it was the description of that silly spy game that finally made the tears start? I still couldn’t actually remember the boy, or any of that stuff myself. But the way she described it was enough for me to see it in my head. I also developed a headache that wouldn’t go away, very quickly into her description. Paige noticed and tried to stop, but I insisted she keep going, that I could handle it. I wanted to handle it. My parents had tried to take away my pain by erasing my memory, but all that did was bury it. I needed this pain. 

So, she continued describing everything she knew about Anthony and my relationship with him. As much as it hurt, as much as it made that pounding in my head worse, it also felt good. I needed it. I needed to hear the words and picture the boy I had lost years earlier. I had to feel all of it, everything I should have felt before. 

All of this actually hurt even more than it would have, considering the situation my parents were in. I could very easily lose them as w– no, no, I couldn’t think about that. I couldn’t–yes. I had to. I had to allow the thought to enter my mind, no matter how much it practically destroyed me. I loved my parents. Thinking about either of them dying felt like a betrayal of the worst kind, a bigger betrayal than anything else I had done against the Ministry, honestly. This wasn’t about their crimes or choices, it was about their lives. No matter what they had done, they were still my parents, and the very thought that they could die…

But they could. They might actually die before this was over. And if they did, I had no idea how–or if I would ever recover. How could I ever even start to come back from that?  

Thinking about that possibility, while also doing my best to remember anything about my best friend who had been tragically murdered, probably wasn’t doing great things for my emotional health. Or maybe it was, in the long run. I needed to go through this. I needed to process what I had lost with Anthony, as well as the possibility of what could happen if one or both of my parents didn’t make it. Not that I really accepted the latter as an actual possibility beyond my darkest thoughts. But still, I needed to at least think about it, no matter how hard it was.

Honestly, maybe this was weird, but I thought it was good for Paige too. She had been the one who remembered everything about our history, and Anthony. She had been grieving not only for him, but our entire relationship for the past five plus years. Worse, she had been forced to not only ignore our friendship, but actually had to treat me badly for all that time. I had to think about that for a minute, trying to understand what it would have felt like if one of my best friends died and then my other best friend’s entire memory of our relationship was erased and I had to spend half a decade treating her like shit just so people would believe I would actually try to kill her later. 

Yeah, I was pretty sure I still had absolutely no real concept of what that had been like for her. It was an impossible set of shoes to put myself in. But at the very least, I understood that she had suffered too. The past few years had been far from a picnic for the other girl. That was something I had to keep reminding myself of. Nothing that happened between us through all those years had been her choice. She had spent all that time coming up with the best solution she could for how to avoid killing me. In the end, she’d had to actually do it, but she also brought me back to life. When it really came down to it, she had been willing to kill herself to make sure her father was finally stopped. Her plan had been to end her own life just to protect me, even after suffering for years under her own father’s programming. 

Sometimes I couldn’t help but obsess over that whole thing, especially when I was thinking about Anthony. What would all three of our lives have been like if none of that happened? What if I had grown up with Anthony right there the whole time, and the two of us had to figure out how to help Paige? What if–

No, now wasn’t the time to dwell on that. We had important real things to focus on. Finally, I stopped Paige from talking about Anthony, and turned the subject toward how we were going to handle scouting out the house we were heading for to disable all the traps her father had definitely had his people set up around the place. She had plans for that, of course, but it would be up to me to carry most of it out since it was too dangerous for her to get close until we were absolutely certain there was nothing there that might fuck with her programming. I had the feeling she didn’t like the idea of me getting close to that house and all those potential problems without any backup, especially from her. But it was the best choice we had.

The other thing I did through all that was keep texting Izzy, Sierra, Wren, and everyone else. I wanted updates about what was going on while I was gone, especially in my own house. Part of me was convinced our little trick would be instantly figured out and exposed. But according to Sierra and Izzy, no one was paying that much attention. They’d gone back to the house together after dropping us off, got up early in the morning, and went to school like it was a completely ordinary day. My ‘twin’ pretended to be me through breakfast, the ride with Jefferson, and those first couple classes. Some part of me was almost offended that it was so easy for her to fake being me without anyone noticing. But honestly, that was beyond stupid. Of course people didn’t immediately realize I had a secret twin who was now taking my place. Why would they even start to think that? Besides, I wanted her to pull off the switch. Things would be a lot worse if she didn’t. So I pushed those dumb, instinctive thoughts aside and simply sent another message telling her to ask me if she needed any specific answers to anything. If someone asked something she didn’t know the answer to, she should say something about an emergency and run to the restroom. Yeah, it might come off as weird, but that was still better than the alternative. 

With Amber right there in several of her classes, and sticking by her side in the hallways, this might just work. At least for a few days. I had to hope she wouldn’t need to pose as me for any longer than that. Paige and I were just going straight to that house, where we would grab the machine and bring it back. 

God, I really hoped it would be that simple.

Eventually, we had been driving for hours and hours. It was just past ten-thirty  in the morning, and I hadn’t had anything to eat since the night before. Even then, I hadn’t been able to force myself to take that much, considering how nervous I’d been about this whole thing. Not that those nerves went away, but I was finally so hungry they were completely outweighed. So, we stopped just off the freeway at a fast food place and ate in the van together. I wolfed down two burgers, fries, and a milkshake like my life depended on it, finishing in record time before slumping back in the seat with a groan. “That was one of the best meals I’ve ever had.” 

With a snort, Paige poked me. “Maybe you shouldn’t wait so long between them next time. That can’t be healthy. Not that anything about this meal is healthy anyway.” She added that bit while critically examining her own burger before finishing it in a couple bites. Then she brushed her hands off. “You ready to get back on the road before it gets any later?”  

I nodded before sitting up. “Yeah, just let me hit the restroom first. Gotta stretch my legs. I’ve never gone this long in a car before. We always take one of the planes when we go on vacation. Or a helicopter. Or a yacht.” 

Rubbing two fingers together to demonstrate the world’s smallest violin, Paige rolled her eyes teasingly. “Well, see, that’s what you get for not booking a flight down there ahead of time. We could’ve been done with this already if you’d thought to do that.” 

“Yup, totally my fault,” I shot back. “But hey, now at least I get to pay for my mistake by suffering through a whole day of driving with you. I think that’s repayment enough.” Sticking my tongue out, I laughed despite everything and moved to jog into the restaurant. Yeah, this whole situation was awful. The dark reason we had to be out here like this wouldn’t leave the back of my head. But honestly, I could think of much worse ways to spend this time. And much worse people to spend it with. Which would have seriously blown my mind a few months earlier. 

Shaking off those thoughts, I made it to the restrooms, checked the signs, then headed in and did my business. Only when I came out of the stall did I notice the urinals lining the far wall. Wait… why were there urinals in that–

This was the men’s room. I had stopped in that hallway, looked at the signs, and walked into the men’s room. Was I that accustomed to pretending to be a boy? But I wasn’t even doing that right now, so what–why was–why had I…

That was when I heard the first gunshot. Yeah, gunshot, even though I wasn’t sure what it was at first. Or maybe I just didn’t want to admit it. The terrifyingly loud bang wasn’t muffled at all, making me jump as it came from out in the main lobby. It was followed by an assortment of screams that told me it wasn’t a car backfiring or anything innocent like that. No, this was absolutely something bad. Of course. I couldn’t get through a simple meal and continue an important road trip without something like this happening. There just had to be a robbery, or whatever this was, right now. 

Even as those thoughts were running through my head, I heard a man shouting for everyone to get down. Then there were footsteps rapidly approaching this room. I heard the other restroom door slam open, just before the steps continued this way. I was about to have company. Thinking quickly (or possibly not thinking at all), I shot red paint up toward the ceiling above the door and launched myself that way. An instant later, as soon as I was safely out of sight, the door was kicked open and a man wearing a ski mask stepped in. He was directly under me, crouching to look under the stalls for any feet. Praying he wouldn’t look up, which would be incredibly bad considering I wasn’t wearing a mask or anything, I held myself there against the ceiling, staring down at the guy. Should I hit him with something? Take him out right now while he was out of sight from whoever he had come with? I didn’t have my mask or special cuffs or anything. Well, I did technically have my costume with me, since I had Wren’s special bag folded up in my pocket. But I didn’t have time to change into it. I couldn’t even move right now without drawing his attention. I had to stay as still and silent as possible, or he was going to look up and see me.

And what was Paige doing out there right now? I had absolutely no doubt that she knew what was going on. Especially since I felt vibration in my pocket as my phone buzzed for a text that had to be from the girl herself. Thankfully, it was completely silent. Or at least quiet enough that the man didn’t hear it over the sound of his own shoes squeaking on the floor as he straightened up, apparently satisfied that the restroom was empty. But if I was going to do something about him before he went back out to the main room, it was now or never. The restroom door was shut. I wouldn’t get a chance like this again. These guys, whoever they were, had come into this place firing off guns and traumatizing everyone in here. No matter how inconvenient it was, I had to do something about it. Who knew just how far the assholes would go if their opening move was using a gun? 

With that thought running through my head, along with the sound of the man out in the lobby shouting for people to hand over all their valuables, I made my decision. I couldn’t sit this out. Though I was going to have to be extra careful right now. The last thing I needed was for this guy to see my face. I had the feeling he wouldn’t politely forget it, considering what I was about to do. 

Covering the inside of my shirt with purple paint, and my legs under the jeans with green, I activated both before dropping down behind the guy. On the way, I used black paint on my shoes to silence my landing. All of which meant he had no idea what was about to hit him, as I caught hold of his left arm with my own hand and the back of his neck with the other. In the process, I put black paint on him as well to silence his reaction. Then, keeping my grip on him as he tried to struggle, I used blue paint under my feet to launch myself forward, through the length of the restroom before slamming the man’s face into the far wall. Just before impact, I managed to use one finger to hit the tile with another shot of black so the people outside wouldn’t hear anything. 

The man hit the wall hard, stunning him a bit. Which I took advantage of by pulling his shirt up over his head and tying it into a makeshift blindfold. Yeah, it wasn’t much, but at least it meant he couldn’t easily see me. I was doing the best I could with what I had. 

While he was still stunned, I managed to dig into my pocket for the special bag. There wasn’t time to change right now, but I did get a set of zip ties out. They weren’t staydown cuffs, but hopefully this guy wasn’t strong enough for it to matter. Through all that, the man was struggling violently, clearly doing his best to scream and curse. But I reared back and kicked him hard enough to drive the air out of his lungs, then shoved him onto his stomach and secured his wrists behind his back with one of the zipties, before getting his ankles with another. In the process, I hit him with another shot of black paint to keep the man quiet. Not that that would last forever. I needed a better way of silencing him. 

Thinking quickly on that front, I yanked the man’s shoes off, then took one of his socks and balled it up. Carefully, I pulled his shirt up to expose his mouth, and while he was silently screaming at me, shoved that sock inside. Then I used the other to tie around his head in order to keep it in place, before shoving the shirt back down. Okay. Right now he was still blinded enough that he couldn’t see me, and secured so he couldn’t get away. One down, who knew how many left to go? 

Oh right, someone else probably did. Still listening intently just in case anyone came to check on this guy, I took out my phone and looked for the message. Sure enough, Paige wanted to know if I was okay. Subsequent messages informed me that there were three bad guys in the main dining room, and that they were all armed with handguns. If I didn’t respond, she was going to assume I was in trouble and come in. 

Quickly, I sent a message updating her. Then I stared down at the guy I had secured, before adding, ‘We need to deal with these guys, without exposing who we are.’ Paintball and Poise were supposed to be locked down in quarantine. I couldn’t even imagine how the nearby authorities would react if they knew we were out here. 

But something told me it would be a lot worse than dealing with a few random thugs robbing a fast food joint. 

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