Benjamin Pittman

Schooling 24-10 (Summus Proelium)

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As promised, Wren had the tracking device done by the time we met over there when school was over. In this case, ‘we’ meant Paige, Sierra, and me. Well, aside from Fred and Wren themselves, of course. Murphy, Roald, and Peyton all weren’t going to be able to make it for a while thanks to things they had to do at home. The last thing we wanted was for their families to get annoyed or upset about them being gone too much. Especially in Murphy and Roald’s case. With Murphy’s brother… dead, and their parents still in prison, Roald’s older sister had a lot of pressure on her. She needed all the help she could get, which meant those two had to be around when she needed them. Obviously, that was understandable. 

But, the three of us were here, so we watched as Wren put her hand on top of what looked like an ancient Apple 2e computer, the kind from like forty years earlier with the tiny horizontal main part attached to a keyboard with a tiny monitor set on top. Seriously, this thing looked positively archaic. If you counted Sierra as having only been alive for like a month (or less, if you went by how long she’d actually had her body), I was pretty sure the computer was just about as old as her, Paige, Wren, and me all put together. Somewhere in there anyway. 

But of course, it didn’t look like that under the hood anymore. Wren had done a lot of upgrading and changing things. When she hit the spacebar button, an incredibly detailed color map of the world appeared. At the moment, it showed the whole planet slowly rotating around in a circle while small words under it said to input coordinates and that it was waiting for connection. While we were watching, the young Tech-Touched took a cell phone and connected it via cord to the back of the computer. The ‘waiting for connection’ line on the screen changed to ‘actively tracking.’ There was even a smiley face emoji after that, as well as what I thought were supposed to be randomly colored firework splashes. 

“Um, if… if it works,” Wren started to explain, “it’ll track any connection no matter how they try to hide it. But it’ll take longer the more they’re protecting it. And I’m pretty sure they’ve got a lot of blocking stuff over there. I mean, I would, and they’re a lot smarter than me. And they have more money, more resources, more time, more–” She stopped herself in mid-sentence, shaking her head. “Anyway, uh, we should try it with something else first. I mean, I tried it already, but you should see for yourself. You know, before we actually try the big thing.” 

Yeah, she was obviously nervous about this whole situation. And who could blame her? I was basically shaking in my pace-skates as it was, and I wasn’t the one responsible for building this thing that we were trying to use to beat Breakwater security. The kid had a lot of pressure on her. Too much, really. It wasn’t fair. But then, not much about this entire situation was.  

Reaching out, I squeezed her shoulder so she would look at me. “Wren, trust me, each of these people by themselves is not smarter than you. You’re right that they’ve got more resources, more time, and all that. But they’re not ready for you.” With a smile, I gestured. “So, how do we want to test this thing first? Would it work if we tried calling the phone we used to call the island in the first place? You said that thing physically moves the signal to other towers, so… wait, would this thing still work then? What if that’s what they do?” 

Paige spoke up before Wren could. “There’s no way that’s what they do. They use signal jammers, not signal movers. They don’t want any signal getting out at all. Our father must be using some sort of direct-link satellite phone. My guess is that he’s built something on the island that points out into space, and when a satellite comes into range, he gets a connection.” 

“It’s probably too big and unwieldy to move around,” Sierra put in. “Plus it would have to be hidden so the guards over there can’t see it on their monitors. Which means he can only use it when the satellite moves into range.” 

I nodded slowly. “Right, so when we do this, we’re gonna have to just leave a message and tell him to call us. Like at ten pm, the exact time he told me to have Paige ready to answer the phone before. I’ll be done with dinner at Arleigh’s by then.” After saying that, I grimaced and held up my crossed fingers. “At least I really, super-duper hope so.” 

We agreed to tell him to call back at ten, then moved on to the actual testing the tracker part. As it turned out, Wren had a jammer of her own. It wasn’t as good as her actual untraceable phone, because it didn’t move the signal so much as… move… pieces of junk data into the–yeah, I had no idea. She explained it, but there were a lot of technical words. The basic gist seemed to be that it obscured the signal source by throwing a bunch of false data in there. Whatever it was, she said it would work to block most tracking systems, but it would be obvious what was happening. There was no subtlety to it, or anything. The ‘move the signal somewhere else’ solution was like a magician deftly using misdirection, whereas this one was like throwing down a flashbang. Everyone who saw it would know exactly what happened. 

She showed us how it worked using an ordinary, over-the-counter tracking device. Which, apparently, was something she had one of her online Tech-Touched friends send over. The thing was essentially used by city and state-level authorities to track people past most low-to-mid level blockers. Essentially, it was meant to bypass the security measures local gangs used to hide where they were calling from. As with most situations like this, that whole thing was an arms race between what criminals could get their hands on, and how easily police could counter it. This was an older model that was only sold to complete rubes. Useless for evading any but the lowest type of search. But, it would work for demonstration and testing purposes. 

To that end, Wren activated the jammer on another phone and called the one attached to the commercial tracking system. We all watched that small, hand-held screen as Wren showed us the way dozens of different addresses, some on other continents, flashed across it. The jammer was doing its job. Next, she called the blocked phone using her own brand new system. Again, the jammer was working, at least at first. The pointer on the world map kept dancing around for a moment, going from the United States over to Europe then down to Africa and up to Canada. It jerked almost violently, before moving to the United States again. Only it ended up in California, starting to focus in there. My mouth opened to say something, but Wren held a finger up to stop me, staring intently at it while whispering, “Come on, come on…” 

Sure enough, only about ten more seconds of that followed before the pointer on the screen abruptly spun sideways, the view pulling out of the San Francisco neighborhood it had previously been zooming in on. It went north-east, all the way to Michigan, then zoomed in on Detroit. It took the thing another ten seconds or so to get that far, but finally it was pointing straight at a satellite view of this neighborhood. 

As soon as that happened, Wren jumped up and down, pumping her fist into the air while cheering. “I knew you could do it! Good boy!” She bounced over and hugged the machine. “Who’s a good boy? Who’s gonna get a treat today? You’re getting a polish and a cleaning and you can be plugged into the best outlet for electricity. Yummy yum yum, power.” 

Okay, that was both amusing and adorable. A very slight giggle escaped me before I clamped down on it and cleared my throat. “Thanks, Wren. That’s pretty awesome. And yeah, if this thing does its job, we’ll make sure it gets all the yummy electricity it could ever need.” That said, I paused before exhaling slowly. “So, uh, I guess since it’s about as working as we’re gonna get it, we should call and leave that message?” 

Sierra spoke up. “Use the special phone with the tracker anyway. Even if you don’t expect him to answer, there’s always a chance. And I don’t think he’ll accept it if we just tell him ‘oops, hang on, let us call you right back. We weren’t expecting to be able to get a hold of you this easily.’” Her eyes met mine before she pointedly added, “We can’t screw this up. Not now.” 

“We won’t,” I promised her. It was still strange looking straight into my own eyes like that. It probably always would be, and made me wonder briefly if this is what it would’ve been like to be born with a twin sister. But I focused on the main point. “I promise, we’re gonna use him to find out where Irelyn, Flea, and Trivial are, and get them off that island.” 

Fred, who was busy doing some paperwork again, looked up from it and put in, “You’re sure that whole thing isn’t gonna lead them right to our door? I really don’t want to test these defenses you’ve been putting in against people like that, kid.” 

Wren’s head bobbed rapidly. “It’s safe, Uncle Fred, I promise. I mean, as safe as I can make it. I mean…” She trailed off, biting her lip before visibly shaking off her insecurity. “It’s okay. We can do this.” Her gaze moved to me, and she gave a little nod of encouragement. 

So, making sure the system was still active, I picked up the phone connected to that ancient looking computer and found the number Pittman had called from. It had come in as unknown, but Wren had done something that had to do with checking call logs, or some such thing, and managed to get the actual number itself. We were hoping it still worked. 

Just before I hit the button, Paige half-swatted me upside the shoulder and gestured to my ear. “Voice,” she pointed out. 

Right, just in case he answered, I couldn’t sound like myself. Hitting the bit on my phone to turn the voice changer on my earbud back on before adjusting it to the same random male voice I’d used before, I gave her a thumbs up. And with that, I  called Pittman while everyone, even Fred, stared in complete silence. They were all watching my face, waiting to see what would happen. I would’ve switched it to speaker, but we were still a bit afraid of any special voice commands the man might end up having. So, I was just going to relay anything he said. 

As it turned out, it was a good thing that Sierra said we should use the tracker just in case, and that Paige had made me turn on my voice changer. There was a click, then another click, then a beep, and finally I heard what sounded like the ocean before a familiar man’s voice spoke, “I’m a little shocked you actually managed to track down this number, even with my daughter’s aid.” 

My expression, combined with faint sounds from the man speaking, must’ve been obvious, because the others immediately reacted. Sierra’s mouth opened as a flash of rage came across her face, but Paige was faster, slapping a hand over it before she could say anything. I saw Fred and Wren react with surprise too, but I forced myself to sound as casual as possible. “I’m full of all sorts of surprises. And so are you, it seems like. I didn’t expect you to have phone privileges right now. Thought I’d have to leave a message.” 

“You’re lucky you called within one of the satellite windows,” he informed me flatly. “Now, is my daughter there? Are you all finished having your childish tantrums and prepared to make a deal for Irelyn and the other one?” 

I was barely listening to him. My attention was on the screen. The tracking system was clearly having trouble. It was moving around the Pacific ocean at the moment, which didn’t exactly narrow it down. Wren, for her part, looked a bit anxious but not upset. She waved a hand for me to keep talking. 

So, I made a noise deep in my throat. “Are you still trying to play that game? As if we don’t know that you don’t actually have them?” I knew being so dismissive and arrogant right back to him would piss the man off. But I was hoping it would make him want to rant at me rather than hang up. It was a tough line to balance. Quickly, I pushed on before he could think about it too much. “Let’s not lie to each other. You want to get off that island and we want to get them off that island. You had a way to do it when you were going to get Paige over there, so why is that impossible now?”

It was a stupid question, of course. Paige wasn’t there, and I was pretty sure his plan heavily involved using her. But it being a stupid question was the point. I hoped it would prompt him to spout off at me a little bit, which would give the tracker more time to do its thing.

To my relief, the man took the bait. He gave a long, heavy sigh before snidely retorting, “She’s not here, is she? But, if you truly wish to do something that will get all of us what we want, you should listen very carefully. I don’t know who you are, or why my daughter brought you into this, but I assume you are not entirely incompetent. To that end, you will need to collect a few things if we are going to safely transport off of this island. Do that, pick up what I need, and I will ensure both Star-Touched know where to meet so that we can all leave the island together.” He gave a tired sigh then, and I could imagine him waving his hand dismissively. “With, of course, proof of life before you transport all of us.” 

For some strange reason, I didn’t really believe that he intended to let them get off the island safely. Call me crazy. But, a glance toward the monitor showed that the cursor was starting to narrow in on something. It was still covering far too much territory in the ocean to be usable, but at least it was working. So, I waited for just a moment to make the man think I was considering it before replying, “No promises, but what exactly do you need me to get?” 

The man began to give me a list of equipment I was going to need to go find if I followed his little plan, whatever it ended up being. Honestly, I really did write it down. If nothing else, it would help us understand what he intended to do, and that was always a good thing. But I was also keeping an eye on that monitor while Wren’s machine did its best to narrow down the location. It was taking a long time (or maybe it just felt like it given the stakes), but it was definitely getting closer and closer. The girl herself looked even more anxious, as did Paige and Sierra. Even Fred, still sitting over by the counter, had completely abandoned all pretense of doing paperwork and was staring at the monitor along with the rest of us. 

It looked like the thing had gotten to within five hundred miles. Which wasn’t perfect, but it was definitely a lot better than we had before. It was dancing around erratically, still trying to hone in on the exact spot. All I could do was keep him talking for as long as possible. And to that end, I did my best to ask clarifying questions that he would expect to hear without getting suspicious about me dragging the call out. Playing on his need to lecture me about how much smarter he was and all that seemed to do the trick. This was not a man who was averse to gloating, or demeaning others. Especially since I’d been so rude to him before. 

After getting through what was apparently the normal part of the list, the man paused before speaking very intently. Once you have those items, you need to go to this address in Tooele, Utah. That’s T-O-O-E-L-E. There is a house there–” 

“Whoa, whoa,” I found myself interrupting reflexively. “What’s this about going to Utah?  Did you recruit the Mormons into helping you escape from death-prison island? I knew you were a piece of work, but I thought you had standards.”  

I swore I could hear the man growling a little under his breath before he pushed on, ignoring my comment entirely. “You need to go to that address and find the equipment in the basement. Take my daughter there. She will know what to do with it, especially if you have the other pieces I just told you to pick up. Fix the machine properly, call if you are both too incompetent to manage that much and I will talk you through it. When it’s done, we will talk about how to ensure we all get what we want.” 

My mouth opened to try to say something else to keep him on the line, but he had already disconnected. Quickly, I snapped my gaze back over to the monitor while blurting, “Did we get it? Please tell me we got it, because I don’t think he’ll accept another call any time soon. He is not a patient man.”

Even as I was saying that, I could see the cursor. It was blinking steadily on one specific spot, with latitude and longitude coordinates displayed next to it. 

“It’s okay,” Paige flatly replied, her gaze laser-focused on that spot. “We’ve got him. He can play all the games he wants now. It doesn’t matter. 

“We know exactly where that son of a bitch is.” 

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Dig In 22-08 (Summus Proelium)

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So clearly my parents had incredible timing. Just when we really needed to focus on what we were going to be trying to do that night, they dropped that bombshell on Izzy, asking if she would allow them to adopt her. Which sent the girl into an emotional tailspin for many different, equally valid reasons. Even after everything her mother had done, she still loved her and missed her. Some part of her still hoped to work things out, at least in some way. Which was something I could definitely understand, given my entire situation and how hard it was for me to see my parents as being capable of the stuff I knew they were capable of. 

In any case, I stayed with her while she talked a bit more about her mother. Not just about reading Charlotte’s Web, but other stuff too. She wasn’t in denial about the whole situation. She did tell me some bad things, and I could hear the anger and frustration in her voice. It was obvious that the girl wasn’t under any delusions about what sort of person her mother really was. Not anymore. Still, there were plenty of moments that she looked back on fondly, even if tears kept filling her eyes whenever she thought about them. 

My parents came by around eight-thirty in the evening to ask if we were certain that we didn’t want to go with them to the play. Yeah, they were going to see the opening performance of some new production that was supposed to be pretty huge. The guy behind it was being eccentric about the start-time and insisted that it begin precisely at eleven pm, rather than the standard eight. I had no idea if that was actually important for anything in the play, or if he just thought making a demand like that would make his play stand out. Whatever the answer, that was another reason for why we had chosen tonight to make our move. The play was a big enough deal that the media was covering people who showed up, so my parents would actually be there. Between the play itself and all the schmoozing my parents would need to do afterward, I was pretty sure they weren’t planning on going anywhere near the base tonight. And they were taking Simon with them, which was another bonus. Obviously, the base wouldn’t be completely unprotected or anything. At least I was pretty sure it wouldn’t. It would be pretty surprising if the place was empty. But either way, my family wouldn’t be there. Though it was almost certain that they would get a call very shortly after our arrival. I had a feeling my parents wouldn’t be sitting there through the entire play once that happened. But with any luck, by the time they got to the base, we would be long-gone with everything we could grab. And with a bit more luck, at least one thing within all the stuff we managed to grab would actually be useful. Particularly the address of Pittman’s secret labs that Raige had said was in that place.  

Needless to say, we politely declined the invitation to go with them, and I gave my parents a hug. Izzy looked uncertain, but stayed where she was on the bed while giving a hesitant wave. Mom and Dad seemed happy to see us sitting and talking together, and they tugged me aside to talk in private in the hallway for a moment. 

“Cassidy,” Mom started, “I know this whole thing was a lot to spring on you. On both of you. Your father and I… we thought about talking to you first. But we wanted Izzy to feel like this was about her. It’s her choice, she–she deserves to have that focus. And with as much as the two of you have been getting along, it was… perhaps we–” 

“It’s okay,” I interrupted. “You’re right, we have been getting along. I like Izzy. I mean–” Boy there was a lot I wanted to say, but keeping it simple and short was probably the best way to go. “You’re right, you didn’t need to ask my permission to ask Izzy if she wants to… to stay. She’s not a pet dog or whatever. It’s about what she wants. It should be about–it should be about what makes her comfortable and… and making her know she’s wanted. You didn’t need to ask my permission.” 

My parents glanced at one another, then each embraced me once more. Dad lifted me from the floor, crushing me against his chest. “That’s my girl,” he murmured proudly before setting me back down. “Aww, now see, you went and messed up my suit.” 

“Naturally,” Mom retorted as her eyes rolled. “She’s the one who messed it up.” Giving me a look, she added, “He just wanted to be able to blame it on you rather than on the way he’ll be slouching in the theater.” 

“Eh,” I replied with a shrug, “I guess I can take that hit.” Without another word, I reached out and started rubbing my hands over the jacket and shirt as though deliberately mussing it up. 

Dad swatted me away lightly, but laughed. “See, told you she was my real hero.” he announced while winking at me. “I can always count on her to come through in the end.” 

With a few more words about staying with Izzy for the evening and seeing how she felt about things, the two of them headed out. Sure, it was still early as far as the play went, which wouldn’t start for a couple more hours. But if there was one thing I’d learned about this sort of thing by growing up in my family, it was that people stood around talking for about as long as the play itself, if not even longer. There was a reason I’d decided long before I knew anything about the whole Ministry thing that I didn’t want to have anything to do with going to those events. 

After standing at the front door long enough to make sure they had left, I said good night to a couple of the staff who were standing around. It took everything I had not to run upstairs, considering I wanted the staff to have no idea that anything was going on. And thus have no reason to tell my parents that I seemed to be up to something. Once all this went down, and I wanted my parents to think that Izzy and I had been here asleep, or at least just hanging out, the whole time. So, I made a trip through the kitchen to grab a couple cold drinks before meandering upstairs. I didn’t go as far as whistling innocently, of course. That might have been a little over-the-top and suspicious. But I did basically everything up to that.  

Izzy was still sitting on the bed, looking at the back of that book. When I came in, however, she  stood up and waited until I closed the door before speaking. “Did um, did they leave?” While saying that, she set the book down and stood a little taller, clearly trying to show that she was ready for this. Which I had my doubts about, but who was I to tell her not to go? It wasn’t like I was any better when it came to being emotionally compromised. 

“Yeah,” I confirmed. And speaking of being emotionally compromised, “So I guess we should get over to the shop before Mr. Pittman calls.” 

Izzy made a face at that. “Do we have to call him mister? I don’t think he’s really earned that sort of courtesy or whatever. Can we call him Jerkface Pittman? Or Stankbutt Pittman.” 

Despite myself and this entire situation, I found myself snickering at that. “Stankbutt Pittman, huh? Yeah, I think the twins might be good with that.” Pausing then, I frowned. “Is twins the right word?” 

“Close enough,” she agreed with a tiny smile, before swallowing hard. Her gaze met mine. “We should go. I need umm, I need a distraction, please.” She sounded almost desperate then, clearly needing to take her mind off the whole family situation. Which, again, I could completely understand. 

So, I gave her a quick nod. “Yeah, let me just grab my stuff.” 

After grabbing her backpack, the other girl was right behind me as we slipped out into the empty hall, looked around briefly, and headed for my own room. There, I took my own bag out of its hiding place under the heavy mirror and floor in the closet and slipped it onto my shoulders. Then the two of us waited at the balcony for an opening before heading out. With Izzy’s help, we floated right over the wall, landing silently on the other side out of sight of the cameras before heading off through the darkness. We went a pretty fair distance through the wooded area before cutting across to the sidewalk, not wanting to let anyone passing by see us at this hour. At the very edge of the treeline, the two of us watched the empty street for a minute to make sure it was clear. In the distance, we could see the guard shack where the obviously sleepy guy sitting at his chair was doing his level best to stay awake with coffee. Which was a bad sign for how his night was going to go, considering it was just barely after nine o’clock. Or maybe it was fine for him. I doubted my parents would allow any part of the gang war to take place this close to their house, so the guard at the gate for getting into the neighborhood (as much as it could be considered a neighborhood given how far apart the houses were) probably wouldn’t have anything to do. His job was to make sure that cars going in and out were allowed to be there, and given the whole curfew situation, he probably wasn’t getting many of those. 

Of course, there was also always the question of how involved he was with my family’s business. Was he really half-asleep, or was that a front? Did he know exactly what was going on? It just made sense that my parents would have the gate guard to their neighborhood have at least some idea of the situation, didn’t it? Or maybe they—

Shaking that off with some effort, I took a step back (literally) into the woods once more as Izzy and I changed into our costumes in the darkness. We shoved our normal clothes into the bags, then continued on our way, following the treeline to get as far away from that neighborhood as possible. In no way, shape, or form did I want anyone to see Paintball and Raindrop emerging from the same neighborhood we lived in. That was just entirely too dangerous. 

Eventually, we managed to walk far enough away from the gate that we both figured it was safe. So Izzy made us both weightless while I used paint to yank us from rooftop to rooftop. We were still careful to avoid people following us, but that was easy enough at this point. It wasn’t like there were many cars on the street or anything. Still some, particularly police cruisers here or there. But for the most part, things were quiet. 

Everyone else was waiting in Wren’s shop, but I just took the time for a few quick greetings before heading upstairs. It was getting close to the time that Pittman was supposed to call, and I didn’t want to screw that up. Not with what could be on the line. So, I asked the others to wait a few minutes and jogged up there. I was still dreading the conversation that was about to happen, given we had no idea what the situation with Irelyn/Flea was. Not to mention the fact that just thinking about Irelyn and Flea being the same person still made my head spin.  

Paige’s body was sitting up on the couch when I got up there. She and Raige were obviously waiting for me. When I came into the room, they exhaled sharply before Raige noted, “About time. Cutting it a little close, weren’t you?” 

Before I could respond at all, the same mouth and voice spoke, but it was clearly Paige that time. “Stop it. She’s here, that’s what matters.” Her eyes found me. “He hasn’t called back?” 

My head shook. “No, he hasn’t called. We still have time.” There were a few other things I wanted to say, but I couldn’t find the right words. I could tell she was worried about Irelyn too. Actually, given Raige’s reaction, it seemed like they both were. Which raised some interesting questions about what sort of feelings and memories the other girl had, but this probably wasn’t the right time to get into all that. I wasn’t sure when the right time would be, but it definitely wasn’t when we were about to take a call from their psychotic father to find out what he wanted in exchange for not hurting their adopted sister. 

Of course, thinking about ‘adopted sister’ put my brain in another spin for that whole Izzy situation. But again, not the right time to think about it. I was going to have to shove that in a box and deal with it later too. Boy, this shelf in my brain was getting a bit full. At this rate, I was going to have to take some of the things out of their boxes and deal with them. 

Or build another brain shelf. Yeah, that sounded more likely. 

Shaking that off for the moment, I focused. “Okay, real quick. I don’t think we should say anything about Raige.” Before they could respond, I pushed on. “I mean, he didn’t say anything, so I don’t think he knows. As far as he’s aware, she’s been erased. I don’t know if that’ll ever be a relevant advantage, but it feels stupid to give him information that he doesn’t already have, you know? Maybe someday him not knowing that Raige exists will be important.” 

There was a brief pause while they clearly considered that. Then Raige agreed. “Sure, I can go with that. Fucker tried to kill me, might as well let him think he succeeded. Then it’ll be a nice surprise when I punch the back of his head in.” Another pause, then, “I mean, nice for me anyway.” 

“Nice for us,” Paige confirmed. 

Before I could say anything else, the special phone buzzed in my pocket. I jumped a bit even though I had been expecting that. Plucking it out, I looked at the unknown name and number briefly before exhaling. Then I put the phone to my ear and answered, making sure to use the same voice changer setting I’d had a couple nights earlier. “Hey again.” Boy was it hard to make my voice sound even somewhat nonchalant. Somehow, I managed it. Maybe it was all the practice I’d had over these past couple months. 

There was a brief pause before the same man spoke. “Give the phone to Paige, now.” Again, this guy was obviously accustomed to people hopping to follow his every command the moment he said it. Which seemed a little odd coming from someone who was living on a prison island full of other psychotic supervillains, but I had no idea how things worked over there. Plus he was obviously used to working with his automatons and other things he could program and control.

But I wasn’t one of those. Giving a quick glance toward Paige, I shook my head. “No, sir, I don’t think I’ll do that.” 

Again, there was a pause as though he couldn’t comprehend the words and was playing them back in his head in total disbelief. When he spoke again, his voice was even more dangerous. “This is not the time to be playing games, whoever you are. Give the phone to my daughter.” 

Steeling myself a little, helped by how annoyed I was by his demanding tone (not to mention the fact that he’d tried to have me killed by a girl who should have been my friend), I once more denied him. “You can repeat yourself as much as you want, but I’m still not giving her the phone. She’s right here. If you want to talk to her, I’ll tell her anything you want to pass along. The thing is, I’m pretty sure you probably still have some secret commands that even she doesn’t know about. So in the interest of fairness, I’ll just give her the gist of whatever you want to say to her, and she can respond. If you want, you can ask something that only she’d know the answer to, just to make sure she’s really here.” 

From the sound of the heavy sigh that escaped the man, I was pretty sure it was taking all he had not to curse me out and spit out a bunch of threats. A glance toward Paige showed the girl watching me with a mixture of curiosity and worry, but she didn’t say anything. And boy was it a weird feeling to look at the girl who had been such a royal bitch to me for so long and worry about how she was feeling. 

Finally, Pittman spoke. “Tell her to say… what color her carpet was in our first primary lab, in her bedroom.” 

Blinking at that, I finally shrugged and muted the phone before looking at Paige to pass along the question. 

“It’s a trick question,” she immediately replied. “There was no carpet in my first bedroom.” 

“Yeah,” Raige agreed darkly, “motherfucker put us in a room with linoleum on the floor.” Belatedly, she added, “That was white.” 

Making a face, I unmuted the phone. “White,” I replied, letting that hang for just a second before adding, “But it wasn’t carpet. It was linoleum. Which, for the record, makes you an even shittier father than I expected. And that bar was already pretty low, so congratulations on managing to limbo under it.”

“You think you can judge–” Pittman started to snarl before catching himself. “I don’t care what you think. I care about progressing the human race. Now tell Paige that she needs to get back in line and do her job, or the superheroes, including her sister, who ended up on this island thanks to her will pay the price.” 

My mouth opened to echo the word ‘superheroes,’ only to catch myself. Muting the phone, I stared at it for a second before murmuring, “He says Flea’s there on the island.” 

“Fuck!” one of them blurted before slamming Paige’s hand into the side of the couch. “Stupid piece of shit! I knew that whole thing was a bad idea, I knew it was–I knew–fuck!” 

“Just–wait.” Quickly, I interrupted before they could go on. “He said superheroes, as in plural. Who would Irelyn take with her? Who else is–?” Even as I said that, my fingers were snapping. “Trivial. It’s Trivial. She’s the other one who hasn’t been around lately. The news was talking about that earlier, about how she’s been on some sort of vacation or something. I was mostly thinking about how her timing sucked with Flea being gone too.” 

“He… he has Irelyn and Trivial,” Paige murmured. “We have t–” 

“Hang on.” Holding my hand up to stop her, I thought quickly for a couple frantic seconds. Then I hit the button again and spoke to Pittman. “Put them on the line. If you want something from Paige, we need to know Flea and Slider are both safe.” 

Another sigh escaped the man. “They are fine, for now. Unless Paige fails to do as she has been told. Then they both die. Put her on the phone.” 

My finger hit the mute button again, and I looked back to Paige and Raige. “He doesn’t have them. He has her phone, but not them. Trivial’s only been here in the city for less than a year. And she was in Nebraska before. He doesn’t know who she is. He didn’t know the name was wrong. And he refused to put them on the phone.” 

“He could not know who she is and still have her,” Paige pointed out slowly. 

My head shook. “I don’t think so. If he had her, he seems like the type to dig into who she actually is so he’d know how to keep her contained, you know? If he doesn’t even know her name, I don’t think he knows anything else about her. Just that she exists.” Then I thought of something else. “Besides, think about it. If he had two different heroes’ lives to bargain with, do you really think he’d waste time trying to tell you to do the same job you were doing before? Seems to me like he’d be bargaining with someone who has more actual power than you. Hell, he could call out to a news station and threaten to kill two Star-Touched. But either way, he’d know what her name was, because he’d be talking about her with the outside world. He would’ve gotten as far as knowing her name.” 

“If he doesn’t have them, but has Irelyn’s phone… what does that mean?” Paige murmured. 

“It means he’s fucking with us,” Raige answered. “Still thinks he can make us–err, you dance under his strings. They must be on the island, but not… he doesn’t have them. Maybe they dropped the phone or–whatever the fuck, all that matters is he doesn’t have them.” 

We talked for another moment before I unmuted the phone. “Pittman?” I dropped the mister, as Izzy had suggested before. “Paige has something to say to you.” With that, I hit the button to make it so he could hear her voice but she couldn’t hear his. 

“Hey, Father,” she announced flatly. “I just wanted you to know that you should probably get to work on giving yourself a robot dick. Because when Flea finds you, she’s going to cut the real one off. We’ll call back and leave a message when we have something to say to you.” 

With that, I disconnected the call. Which had to piss him off, but that was what we were going for. We had other things to worry about right now. He didn’t have Irelyn or Trivial, that was what mattered. 

“Okay,” I announced, “I’m going to head out for that tunnel thing so we can get Raige a new body and go from there.” 

“Close,” Paige replied, “but I’m going too. Or we are.” 

“What?” I blinked at that. “What do you–” 

“We’re sharing the body for this,” she informed me, already pushing herself to a standing position. “If Irelyn is stuck on that island somehow, who… who the fuck knows how, but either way, if she and Trivial are stuck there, we need to get on with this.” 

“So yeah, we’ll share it for now, for this,” Raige put in. “We’ll take turns. So I can get my own body, then we can figure out how we’re going to get those two the fuck out of that prison.” 

“Well… in that case, what are we waiting for?” I slowly replied. “Speaking of bodies, let’s go tell the others we’ve got another one coming along for this mission.

“God knows we can use all the help we can get.”  

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Dig In 22-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Okay, apparently my heart was in decent shape. Because I managed to avoid going into cardiac arrest the second I heard the man on the phone say those words. Though it was a pretty near thing. My stomach flipped over and I spun around to look out into the darkness as though he had been standing right behind me, even if that was ridiculous. A thousand thoughts and questions were screaming through my head. 

I knew who it was immediately. When he said he was Paige’s father, he wasn’t Mr. Banners. Not the way he said it, not–no. This was Pittman. Benjamin Pittman. I knew his voice from that time inside Paige’s head, facing his digital doppelganger. It was him. 

What the hell? How did he get the phone number? How was he talking to me right now? Was he still on Breakwater? Did he do something to Irelyn? How? Was it one of his goons? Had they somehow found out that the woman was looking for Paige and took her? Was she alive? Was she okay? Fuck, fuck! How–what? Paige and Raige were both going to lose their minds, lose… lose everything. We had sent Irelyn down to Florida and now somehow Benjamin Pittman had the phone number we had been using to call her? There was no way that was a coincidence. It couldn’t be. Something was really wrong. And when those two found out, they were going to–

“I’m waiting,” the man snapped, his voice interrupting my panicked rush of thoughts. Clearly, this was a man who was accustomed to people immediately jumping to answer his questions and follow his orders. Probably because so many of the people he worked with were mindless drones he had built. “Give the phone to my daughter, whoever you are. Unless you think she would prefer to never learn just how I acquired this number.” 

Grimacing for a brief moment, I tried to force down the panic so I could respond without sounding completely out of my depth. I was, of course, but I didn’t want to sound like it. “Sorry, she’s not exactly here right now. You want me to have her call you back? Is this a good number to reach you at, or is there a Breakwater switchboard that we need to go through?” How I managed to get those words out and make them sound at all casual (and even snarky) while my heart was trying to beat its way out of my chest was completely beyond me. There was obviously something really screwed up in my head. 

From the way the man on the other end of the line paused, I could tell he was taking a second to figure out how to respond to that. And probably smothering outrage that I wasn’t immediately hopping to follow his every whim. When he finally spoke again, his voice had a forced, brittle calmness that wasn’t at all convincing. “I have very little time on this call, for reasons you obviously know. Take the phone to my daughter and make sure she has it Sunday evening at ten pm your time. I will call back then, and she had better answer. Otherwise, there will be consequences she does not want to bear. Do you understand me, boy?” 

Well, what was I supposed to say to that? I didn’t dare mouth off to him too much, not when his men here in the States could possibly be holding Irelyn hostage. A rush of almost staggering guilt at the thought of what we had accidentally sent the helpless woman into ran through me, even as I swallowed hard before responding. “Sunday night at ten. Got it. She’ll have the phone then.” 

“Good,” came the snapped response. “See that she does.” 

With that, the line went dead. He disconnected without another word. I was left standing there in the darkness of the construction site with the phone held to my ear in silence for a long moment before slowly lowering it. Although my mouth was silent, my brain definitely wasn’t. Fuck, fuck, fuck! What was I supposed to do now? It was late, and I had no idea if Fred and Wren were even still awake, or if they had gone straight to bed. Could I disturb them just to get inside so I could talk to Paige and Raige? Would going there right this second to tell them what was going on be a good idea? We couldn’t do anything about it right now anyway. But how angry would they be if I waited hours before telling them? Even if they couldn’t actually do anything about it, they probably wouldn’t like not being told. And yet… and yet… would it be worse to not tell them yet, or to go straight to the shop and wake up everyone there just to let Raige and Paige know that there was this huge problem they were completely incapable of doing anything about right then? 

In the end, I decided that waiting was the best choice. Again, no one could do anything about it right now. It was the middle of the night in Detroit, Irelyn hadn’t answered the phone any of the other times we called, and now that crazy fuck had this number. That was all I knew, and it was impossible to actually do anything about it now. Not to mention the fact that tomorrow and the next day were already going to be busy with all the stuff I had lined up as it was. 

So, already feeling guilty about my decision, I started to head for home. I would sleep a few hours, give time for Wren and Fred to wake up, then go over there and… and let Paige and Raige know what was going on. It definitely wasn’t a conversation that I was looking forward to, but they needed to know. We could decide what to do about it from there, though I was pretty sure it would be limited to waiting for their father to call. Which was just super-fantastic. 

Clearly, I hadn’t already had enough shit going on this weekend. I needed even more than all this to avoid total boredom. Maybe I’d get lucky, and end up getting kidnapped by another gang leader for a face to face. Cuélebre hated me, right? And he had to be in a bad mood with everything that was going on over there. He could definitely show up right now and punch me in the face. I wouldn’t even be that surprised.  

Okay, I was going to stop thinking about that and tempting fate, no matter how sarcastic my mental voice was. It was time to go home and sleep, or try to, before anything else happened.  

But hey, at least spending time with Tomas and Maki wouldn’t be the most anxious part of my day anymore. 

********

The second Izzy and I were up later that morning, I made sure she knew I had something important to talk about. The two of us were on our way out the front door to take a car service ride before nine o’clock, and yet both of my parents were already gone. From what one of the maids said, they had left by seven, despite the fact that my dad wasn’t home until almost three. 

Yeah, they were obviously busy too. But I couldn’t think too much about what all that was about. Probably just more stuff involving the gang war, yet… no, Cassidy. I had to shove that out of my mind. I had enough to deal with right in front of me. My plate was full, so no reaching across to grab something else to pile it on even more. Whatever was going on with my family’s business could wait. It would have to wait, no matter how paranoid my brain got about the possibilities. 

Having the driver drop us off by a small diner, the two of us grabbed some breakfast sandwiches to go, and ate while we walked down the street. Keeping my voice low despite the fact that there was no one around, I told the younger girl exactly what had happened in the middle of the night right after I’d split off from her and the others. 

Needless to say, she was pretty freaked out upon learning about that call too. And she was just as worried about Irelyn and guilty about what we had sent the woman into. The two of us walked in silence for a minute once I’d finished explaining the situation, but a quick glance that way showed me how Izzy’s expression was twisting pensively. With a visible cringe, she finally announced, “They’re going to be really upset.” 

My own grimace immediately matched hers. “Tell me about it. I wish I had a solution or more information to give–hang on.” Producing the phone from my pocket, I considered it for a second before looking at the other girl. “Should I try calling Irelyn again? I mean, maybe Paige’s dad was just bluffing when he implied that he had her. He could have just gotten the number without having her, somehow. Or maybe whoever has her actual phone will pick up.” 

“Unless he has the phone,” Izzy pointed out flatly. 

“How would he–” In mid-sentence, I stopped. “Okay, I was going to ask how he could have gotten the phone, but obviously he has ways of calling out, even if he’s limited on when and for how long. Maybe he had a way of having the phone sent to him on the island. Or… or…” I trailed off, looking at the phone in my hand. Before I could change my mind, I tried calling Irelyn once more. No answer, of course. Unsurprising though still disappointing. A part of me had been desperately hoping that she would find me and reveal that Benjamin Pittman really had been bluffing. 

But of course, we weren’t that lucky. After trying once more to no avail, I put the phone away, shoving it deep in my pocket while shaking my head. “I don’t know what to do about it. I just–fuck. God damn it. This whole thing is just so screwed up, you know?” 

With a slight nod, the other girl reached out to touch my arm. “We need to go over there. You need to tell them what’s going on. Even if they can’t do anything about it right now, they need to know. They deserve to know.” 

She was right, of course. Letting out a long breath, I nodded. “Yeah, let’s get changed and go that way. 

“I just hope Irelyn’s okay. Because if she’s not, I don’t think anything, not even being on a secret island thousands of miles out in the ocean, is going to stop those two from going after their dad.” 

*******

Izzy didn’t end up accompanying me all the way to the shop. Not because she didn’t want to, but there was a call from one of the officials back at the Minority base, asking for her to come in to help out with something. She couldn’t exactly defer without drawing questions, so with a promise to check in later, she took another Uber that way. Or rather, to one of the secret entrances to the Minority base. Which was still freaking cool to hear about. The fact that they had doors scattered all over the city that would all transport them to the base–or rather, the clubhouse as they called it– was awesome. And I would’ve been even more enthused about learning more about how that worked if my focus wasn’t on Irelyn, and what I had to tell Paige and Raige about all that. 

So, bracing myself for what I had to say, I changed into my costume before making my way to Wren’s shop where she and Fred were waiting. They were barely up when I arrived, and even that only because I’d called ahead. The two of them had just gotten dressed and were staring at me blearily as I handed the bag of food over as a peace offering. “Sorry, guys. It’s really important.” 

With that, I gave them a brief version of what happened the night before, telling the two about the phone call and my worries about what was now going on with Irelyn. Needless to say, it immediately woke them up even more than the scent of sausage and bacon had. Both of them had a lot of questions. Unfortunately, they were the same questions that I already had, so they wouldn’t be getting any answers from me. Not immediately, anyway. Telling them I had to go upstairs and talk to the others, I left the two with the breakfast I brought over and went up, dreading the conversation that I was about to have. 

Needless to say, Paige and Raige  were both confused as to why I was back so soon. They immediately asked if Irelyn had called, which made me wince. I thought my reaction was subtle, but Paige’s eyes immediately narrowed. She was half-sitting up, her back slumped against the corner of the couch. “What is it? What happened?” 

Right, there would be no beating around the bush for this. They needed to know the whole truth. So, taking a deep breath, I quietly told them exactly what had happened from the moment the phone had buzzed in my pocket. I told them exactly what I had said and what he said. And what he implied. 

Before I knew what was happening, Paige’s body was on its feet. She–or rather they– jerked upward and lashed out with a punch toward the nearby wall, hitting hard enough to put a slight dent in it despite the fact that I was pretty sure it was reinforced. At the same time, they (and it was definitely both of them) blurted, “I’ll kill him!” 

Only then did the two of them seem to realize what had just happened. Paige had a look of  confusion and surprise, just before her entire body collapsed. One leg went one way, her arm flailed out, and her head sort of jerked a little. It was like they were both trying to control the body and it wasn’t working. Not when they weren’t completely in sync.  

Quickly moving that way, I took a knee. “Are you guys okay? Look, he’s going to call back Sunday. Like I said, he wants you to be here to answer the phone. Well, Paige anyway. He didn’t say anything about Raige. I guess he doesn’t know what happened there, or if–I dunno. But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know you’re around. He definitely doesn’t know the whole situation.” 

I was obviously rambling a little bit, so I cut myself off and simply helped them turn over. I could see the anger and frustration on their face. What they really wanted to do in that moment was somehow teleport to that island and beat their father’s face until there was nothing but a puddle of unrecognizable mushy liquid left. 

Finally, Raige spoke first. “Either he has Irelyn or some of his people do. Which…” She trailed off, then added, “We need to say it.” 

The same mouth spoke then, but it was obviously Paige. “It’s not our place to expose that.” 

“But it’s relevant, Paige,” came the response from Raige. “You know it’s relevant. She deserves to know the whole story. If she doesn’t, and something happens to Irelyn because she didn’t know…” 

“I’m the she, right?” I quickly cut in, frowning in confusion. “What exactly should I know? What’s going on? Is there something you haven’t told me about this whole thing?” 

There was a long pause as Paige clearly considered and debated internally. Actually, she was probably literally debating with Raige inside their head. Whatever this was about, it was big enough that she was still resisting the idea of talking about it. Finally, her eyes shifted to focus on me, her voice quiet. “Help us get over to the couch. Then I… then we can talk.” 

Okay, now I was very confused. But I shook that off and did as she asked, helping them get the body up and over to sit down once more. Dropping next to them, I squinted. “Now are you going to tell me what all that was about? What do I not know about what’s going on? Because if there’s something big, I should probably know about it before we try to  plan anything.” Inside, I was trying to think of what Paige could possibly have been holding back. I was trying not to be paranoid and understand that she had a reason to keep quiet about whatever it was, but a part of me was angry at the thought that she had been keeping more secrets. Truthfully, I was pretty sure most of it was my lingering hang-ups and personal feelings about the past few years of dealing with the way Paige had been forced to act. But knowing that didn’t make it go away. 

There was another momentary pause before Paige answered. “I want you to know that your secret is safe with me. I wouldn’t tell anyone who you really are or… or any of that unless it was an absolute emergency and… and telling people like Alloy your real identity was the only way to save you.” As she spoke, her gaze met mine intently. “I promise, I take keeping secrets like that seriously. I would only tell someone if it was completely necessary.” 

My head shook slowly. “Okay, I guess I’m glad you–wait.” Yes, I had been slow on the uptake, probably because of how distracted I was about everything going on. But even I wasn’t that slow. It came crashing into my head as I gave a sharp double-take, my eyes widening. “Wait, wait a second. Are you saying–are you–is Irelyn a–” Abruptly, I shoved myself to my feet, spinning on my heel to stare down at them as my mouth worked a few times in total disbelief. “Who?” The word came blurting its way out after a few false starts and sputters. “You’re saying Irelyn is Touched? Who is she? Is she Star or Fell? Wait, is she Deicide? Is she Brumal? Is–” I was trying to sort through all my mental images of female Touched in the city who could possibly match her description, or at least get close to it.

Then it occurred to me. One Touched who hadn’t been seen in the city for these past couple weeks who could possibly fit. “Trivial,” I blurted. “She–no, fuck. She can’t be Trivial. Trivial only came over from the Nebraska Minority last year. She–” I frowned, realizing who the other person who had been missing for awhile was. “Wait…” 

“Yeah,” Paige confirmed flatly, her gaze meeting mine. “You got it.” 

Okay, now I was reeling again. “Irelyn is Flea? But she looks–I mean she’s not…” Trailing off in the midst of pointing out that the woman’s eyes looked Asian through the mask, I remembered the way Amber’s costume turned her hair from black to blonde and as part of that, shifted her facial features slightly to look different than her normal self. “Oh. But that still, um, feels a little wrong?” It wasn’t quite blackface or–but it wasn’t great. Yeah, not great. But it did help keep her identity secret. 

“She doesn’t alter her face,” Paige informed me as though reading my mind. “Her grandmother’s Japanese, but she mostly takes after her father. If you block everything else and only see her eyes, you can see the resemblance. Anyway, she’s been doing that since she was on the Minority. From back in the old days, you know, when Touched were first becoming a thing.” 

She was right, I remembered. Flea had been one of the earliest Touched in the city, and definitely the youngest as far as I was aware. At least the youngest who had joined a team and actively done anything. She wasn’t quite there at the start, but it was only a couple years into things, back when they were still working out the details in the system. Flea had been a little kid back then. It was part of why she used the name Flea. She was tiny and jumped around a lot. Between that and her health/stamina draining power, Flea fit. She just kept the name as she grew up. Probably because it meant a lot to her by that point. 

“Keeping identities secret was harder back then,” Paige informed me. “They didn’t have the system and rules that exist now, so they had to be very careful, especially with Irelyn being as young as she was. Her parents wanted her to–they wanted to profit off what she could do, the way parents of a child actor or model can. But they needed her identity to stay secret, so they came up with that. No one would even look twice at Irelyn Banners because they’d be looking for an Asian girl.” 

My mouth opened and shut a couple times before I grimaced. “That makes sense. And if she is part-Asian it’s not nearly as… Anyway, I guess the point is she’s… she’s Flea. Wait, we talked to her! I talked to her, repeatedly! We told her about the whole Cup situation. We–she was–the whole time I–” 

“Yup,” Raige (don’t ask how I knew it was her) confirmed. “That was her. And now she’s in trouble.” 

I had no idea what to do with this new information. My mind was spinning. “I–if he knows she’s–oh. How does he–but how did–if she’s–” Yup, definitely spinning. “What do we do?” 

“Answer the phone when he calls Sunday,” Paige answered.

“And you guys get me a body,” Raige added.  

“So both of us can go rip him apart limb from limb.” 

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