Bokor

Equal And Opposite 21-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Dad’s speech didn’t go on for very long. Which made sense, he was kind of an expert at reading a room and knowing just how much to talk. This audience consisted of a bunch of people who were all important in their own rights, and were also waiting to eat. If he had gone on too much, he would’ve annoyed them. So, he just propped up their egos a bit with a few words about how special they were and how wonderful it was that they gave so much back to the city. And, of course, a bit about how vital the Seraph’s work was when it came to protecting the hospitals. Soothe the sense of self-importance the rich people in this place had by talking about how the city was only doing as well as it was because of them, and then make it clear (in a subtle, encouraging way) that the Seraphs and other Star-Touched teams were largely responsible for keeping the city safe so the investments these people put into it could pan out.

He said all that in very few words, while somehow making it sound and look as though he was talking to each person individually. He didn’t call anyone by name, but he met people’s gazes and gave that… that special smile that made it seem like he knew everything about you, like you were both sharing some sort of private moment even though there were plenty of other people around. The room was full of men and women who were accustomed to being the most important people around, yet my father’s speech, short as it was, made them feel it in a totally different way. And he did it while actually being the richest person in the room himself. 

I had seen my father’s speeches before, but never exactly like this. Not from this perspective, and not… not knowing what I knew. It made the whole thing even more impressive somehow. My father wasn’t just obscenely rich, he was also one of the most powerful Touched in the country and ran an organization that controlled all crime in one of that country’s biggest cities. He was, inarguably, the most powerful man in the room. But no one would know that just from listening to the way he spoke just then. He made everyone else seem important without putting anyone down. He built people up, he–yeah. No wonder my dad was such a successful businessman.

In any case, the point was that he didn’t talk for too long. Soon, there were waiters going around asking what people wanted to eat, while the band started up in the background. A few couples started to dance, but mostly people got ready for food. Especially at this table. Not that we saw very much of each other. As the waiters began to spread out and take people’s orders, privacy screens rose around us. There was the main privacy screen, a square that rose up around the table blocking any of the other people from seeing us, while remaining transparent from our side so that we could see others. Then there were also the individual privacy screens that rose up around each of our spots so we couldn’t see each other and could eat without giving away our identities. They were like the ones back at Caishen’s place, extending back a bit off the table on either side. You could put the screen back down if you wanted to, or combine them so that the people immediately surrounding you who knew your identity already were included. Obviously, I left mine up. Then again, I also didn’t remove the mask entirely. I just slid the front of the helmet up and pulled the mask high enough to uncover my mouth so I could eat. 

Call me paranoid, but I wasn’t going to take that sort of risk around here. Not with my parents and undoubtedly plenty of their minions in the room. And that wasn’t even counting anyone else who might have interest in finding out people’s real identities. 

Beside me, Peyton didn’t totally uncover herself either. She looked around a bit and considered, before simply reshaping the helmet around her face so that her mouth could be seen. Then she leaned closer to me while whispering, “They aren’t gonna serve food with like fifteen different forks and then tar and feather us for not knowing which one goes with the salad, are they?” 

“Oh, don’t worry,” Dynamic spoke up from where she was sitting, hidden behind her own screen, “we’ve been going to plenty more of these than you and we still don’t know which fork goes with what. But the secret is, they’re all too afraid of us to actually speak up and say anything about it.” 

Clearing her throat a bit, Brumal put in, “I believe the more important thing is that they can’t see how you’re eating, so there’s no complaint to make. But either way, don’t worry about it.” Her voice softened slightly, as I saw just enough of the top of her head to know that she was looking toward Alloy and me. “No one who matters is going to give you a hard time about what utensils you use.” 

“And if they try,” Amber put in, “just tell them where to shove it.” 

“Please don’t tell the financial backers to shove anything into any place,” Brumal pleaded, her head turning to give a look toward That-A-Way. “They are not that hard to ignore without causing a scene, believe me.” 

By that point, the waitress had arrived at our table (standing far enough back that she wouldn’t be able to see anyone’s face over the screens) and listed what was available. She proceeded to take everyone’s order, and even spent a minute explaining what different foods were past the fancy names for the benefit of the others. And technically mine too, since I wasn’t supposed to know what they were either. I tried to play as clueless as possible, asking easy questions. 

Once everything was ordered and the waitress had stepped away, the conversation turned toward the gang war. It seemed like everyone sitting there had a particular story to tell about something bad that had happened through it. They had saved plenty of people, of course. But there were others who had died or at least been injured, had their property destroyed, and so on. Every Touched sitting at that table had a story about watching someone lose, if not their life, then things that mattered deeply to them. 

Peyton and I glanced toward one another. I had lowered the screen between the two of us, since I still had most of my face covered anyway. Our eyes met, and I could see how troubled she was. It probably reflected back from my own gaze to her. We were both thinking about the Ministry, and how they could stop this war if they really wanted to. And about Pack. Yes, she was right about the fact that she couldn’t do anything to stop the war, but she also helped participate in it. Even if she personally avoided hurting innocent people, how much did her teammates? How much–urgh. Between her and Eits, I felt very uncomfortable about the whole situation. Hell, even Broadway. From what I’d seen of the girl, I liked her. That was my biggest problem with this whole situation. So many of the people I would have thought I was adamantly against were more likable than they should have been. It was my problem with my family, with Blackjack and the rest of La Casa, even with Deicide. 

It was all just so complicated. If only they could all be more like Cuélebre. At least I could be pretty sure that he didn’t have some special backstory that would make me sympathize with him or anything. Although, now that I actually thought that, it would probably turn out that his entire criminal Empire was built up to take care of a hospital full of injured orphan puppies or something.

Okay, yeah, that wasn’t very likely. But still, I was starting to think that everyone had their own understandable reasons for being involved in bad stuff. Well, except for the Scions. I was pretty sure there was no amount of tragic backstory or mitigating circumstances that could come close to excusing the things they had done. 

By that point, the waitress was coming back with a tray of drinks. As she approached, the privacy shield extended up and over our heads making it totally cover the table so she couldn’t see anyone’s face. Which made me wonder briefly how she would put the drinks down without dropping them, but maybe there was some sort of… thing? Curious, I stood a bit and looked down. Sure enough, the table was visible. The screen specifically only scrambled the appearances of people within it. Looking at the table itself was a bit like looking through an actual window screen. A bit distorted, but still plenty visible. But when I looked over at Peyton, her face (with the helmet still covering most of it anyway) was incredibly blurry and smudged. 

“Is everything alright?” A familiar voice spoke up nearby, and my head snapped that way. Immediately, I realized two things. First, this was not the same waitress who had taken our order. The one who would come with the drinks was different. And second, I knew her. Actually, I knew her fairly well, considering I saw her practically every day. 

Christiana Diaz. The thin, young Latina woman who worked as one of Chef Claudio’s assistants. I’d recognize her anywhere, considering one of the things we had in common was our height. She was only an inch taller than my five foot zero. And that wasn’t the end of our similarities. Christiana had the same ‘look younger than she really was’ thing I did, given she was actually twenty-two but looked more like she was in her late teens. She wore her hair short on the sides with a mop of curls on top. 

So, I recognized her instantly. A rush of thoughts went through my mind, and it took basically everything I had not to blurt her name in surprise. Boy would that have been hard to explain. But somehow, I managed to shove the reaction down and simply put all my surprise into a gasp before giving a sharp exhale that turned into as much of a laugh as I could manage. “Oh! Damn, sorry. You uhh, you sure you’re not a ninja? You kinda snuck up there.” 

There was a very brief pause before Christiana giggled and shook her head. “No, no, sorry. It’s my fault. I keep saying I should put some little bells on this outfit.” With a wink, she added, “Can I help you with anything, sir?” 

The lower half of my face was exposed. She could see my mouth. Did she know my face well enough to recognize me from not? No, of course not. That was ridiculous. And yet, I almost couldn’t stop myself from reaching up to pull the mask down. That would have been even more suspicious, of course. But it was still almost impossibly tempting. 

Shoving that impulse down as hard as I could, I gave a quick shake of my head. “Nah, nah.  It’s all good. I was just seeing how the–you know, what the screen–what it looked like.” I was babbling, and I was saying too much. I needed to stop talking. The more things I said, the more likely she would figure out who I really was. I had to give her as little to work with as possible. So, my mouth snapped shut after saying all that. Then I reached out. “Oh, uh, I’ll take ours.” 

There was a brief pause before Christiana nodded, carefully turning the tray and extending it so I could take the glasses meant for Alloy and me. Mumbling a thanks, I sat down and gave my partner her drink. 

Peyton, of course, was staring at me. “Are you okay?” she asked in a whisper that was barely audible. “You seemed a little… uhh, not.” 

Taking a gulp of my drink, I quickly shook my head. “It’s fine, I’m fine. It’s just … different being in a place like this, you know?” 

That seemed to do the trick. The other girl achieved a sigh while nodding almost frantically. “Believe me, I know what you mean. It’s so weird being here with all these rich people who wouldn’t even notice if they ran over me in the street.” 

Amber made a noise in the back of her throat, and I winced at Peyton’s choice of words. But I couldn’t exactly explain why it was the wrong thing to say. Instead, I simply replied in a low voice, “Some of them would notice.” 

That started even more discussion around the table, centered around celebrities and rich people they had worked with, saved, or whatever. It was a mix of horror stories and nice ones, even a couple bits about celebrities who I thought would be real pains in the ass ending up actually sounding pretty cool. Which didn’t exactly prove they were nice to everyone, given who these people were, but still. 

Honestly, once I got past my surprise of being served by Christiana (she also brought our food), and the fact that my parents were on the other side of the room, it was… nice. I was able to just sit there and listen to more experienced Touched tell stories and exchange inside jokes. Sure, I didn’t get all their references, but they tried to explain it as much as they could. And even aside from that, it was just cool to sit and listen to these guys talk about fights they’d been in, people they had saved, villains they fought, it was… it was actually one of the first times I really felt like a part of this community.  

That wasn’t exactly a good thing, of course. I wasn’t a part of their community. I couldn’t be. I couldn’t trust all of them. For all I knew, half the people at this table worked for the Ministry in one way or another, even if they didn’t really know it. No matter how welcoming they seemed, I couldn’t let myself forget that fact. I could talk with them, even work with them, but I couldn’t entirely trust every single one of them. And that meant I couldn’t entirely trust any of the people here aside from Peyton. 

Well, and aside from Amber and Izzy, of course. They were a different story, and I was incredibly lucky that I had them as a connection to the Minority. For a brief moment, I tried to think of how this whole situation would have played out if I didn’t know who those two really were. It wasn’t a very fun thought. Actually, come to think of it, I might have been too paranoid to even come if I didn’t have those two helping. 

In any case, I was silent through most of the rest of the meal, content to simply sit there and listen as the others went on. And from the looks that Peyton gave me once in awhile,  she was enjoying herself too. We both sat there listening to the stories, feeling a bit like we had been given a backstage pass or something. Which was weird, given we were technically, like, one of the bands, to stretch the analogy. But still, it was just different somehow. Sitting here, listening to the far-more-experienced people trade war stories, made the whole thing more real. 

It helped that the food was pretty good. Or, if you listened to Peyton go on, it was completely amazing. She finished off her entire plate, and then a second one when Christiana came by to ask if anyone wanted more. It honestly just tasted like the food we had at home, but then, I supposed that made sense. If Christiana was here, maybe Claudio was too. He had, after all, been the head chef of a five star restaurant before my parents snatched him up. 

As dinner was winding down, we had another speech to sit through, but this one I didn’t mind too much. It was Radiant, standing right up there on stage to talk about how important Detroit and its Touched-Tech factories were to the nation at large, and how proud everyone here should be about how much the city had been turned around in the past couple of decades. It was no secret that Detroit hadn’t been in the best of shape before the whole Touched thing came around, but now we were one of the strongest, most economically sound cities in the country. Not to mention one of the fastest growing, to an absurd degree. The people who had come to the city and invested in that growth had a lot to do with that, and most of them were sitting in this room. Radiant basically told them to give themselves a pat on the back for that. 

At least, that’s how it started. And clearly it was where the rich people in the room expected it to stay. But before long, the woman shifted her focus a bit. She went from talking about these important, wealthy people giving so much to the city to talking about the city itself, and the people in it. And almost before anyone realized the subject had changed at all, suddenly Radiant was talking about how the people in the city were the ones who really changed it. The people here had benefited a lot, and their influx of money helped give the place the jumpstart it needed. But no amount of money-fueled jumpstarts would have accomplished anything if it wasn’t for the people who lived here, the ones out on the street doing the work every day. 

It was kind of amazing to sit there and watch, because it wasn’t that she insulted or demeaned the rich people in the room. No, she propped them up just fine. She gave them their dues. But she also pulled other people up, putting them on an equal level with the millionaires and billionaires (and even the Touched) in this room. She lifted everyone up, noting the importance of each contribution. She wasn’t denouncing the rich people while making some stand for the little guy. She had started by propping up the people in this room, making it that much harder for them to disagree or be offended when she brought the rest of the population up to the same level. 

Leaning a bit closer to Peyton without taking my eyes off the woman on stage, I whispered, “If I was the type of person to be interested in someone older than me, I might be in love.”

“Oh, believe me,” she replied in a hushed voice, also without looking away from Radiant, “you’re not the only one.”

With a chuckle, Wobble spoke up. “Sorry, you guys. We’re pretty sure she’s already spoken for.” 

Amber was nodding. “We’re not sure by who, but we’ve seen her with a wedding ring. So, you know, you’re kind of late for that train.” After a brief pause, she added, “And I don’t think you meet the age requirement.” 

After Peyton and I both made a show of snapping our fingers in disappointment, our attention turned back to the woman in question as we listened to the rest of her spiel. She made it clear through all of it that the people in this room needed to keep contributing to the overall benefit of the city if they wanted it to continue to thrive, pointing out the forces that were already trying to drag it down. She talked about how Star-Touched chose to use our powers to help people, and that those with resources like these people possessed had the same responsibility. And yet, it wasn’t like she was shaming them or anything. The way she phrased it made it sound as though she was proud of the opportunity these people had, going on a bit about how they could have everything they wanted while still contributing to raising the standard of living for everyone in the city. 

It was more than a little impressive, made even more so for how relatively short it was. She didn’t talk for very long before simply promising that she would be keeping an eye on things here to see how California could incorporate the incredible ideas that they came up with, and bring some of those ideas…. and the people involved, to projects in her own state. 

So there it was, the biggest crux of her speech. She wasn’t just praising these people for the work they could do here, she was essentially saying that she would be keeping an eye on the city and the people she liked would get her recommendation for all-new projects in California. How much money would that be worth? A lot, to say the least. Without actually shaming anyone, Radiant told these people that she expected them to look after the regular population, and that those who did would be rewarded with enormous new contracts. 

As she left the stage and the music picked up, we watched more couples move to the dance floor. Including my parents. I was focused on staring at them while trying not to look like I was staring at them, when Amber reached over to touch my hand through the privacy screen. “Hey,” she started, “you wanna go down with us to check out the convention floor? I’ve gotta see if there’s more people dressed up as you or Whamline. 

“And it better be you, or I owe him fifty bucks.” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-06 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, okay then. Apparently there was a new member of the Minority. A pretty young one from what I could see. As murmurs came up all around the room, I stared a bit more intently at the girl in question. She wasn’t hiding her face or anything, but then again, it probably would have been hard for someone to mistake her for some other girl made of glass. The detail was incredible, even from here. She looked like an ice sculpture that had been carved by the best in the world. Well, if ice sculptures were capable of looking around, her eyes clearly shifting to scan the crowd. Again, the parts that were ‘skin,’ like her face and exposed hands, were clear, like regular glass or ice. The parts that were supposed to be her clothes were like stained glass. It was a pretty neat effect, especially the fact that she was very clearly alive and moving around. For a brief moment, I found myself caught up in just staring.

“Another child.” The voice was a murmur just above my head, and I belatedly realized that it was Lucent, muttering those two words with what sounded a bit like disappointment. Or possibly dismay. He didn’t elaborate further, however. Instead, he gave my helmet a very slight peck for attention before adding, “If you will pardon me, I have a few people to speak with. Do enjoy the party and I hope to see you soon.” Giving a short look toward Hallowed, he launched himself off my head and flew over to another side of the room. His motions got some people’s attention, but when they realized who it was, they just turned back to their business. Well, their business of staring at this new Minority girl who had so dramatically introduced herself. 

After those few seconds had passed, Silversmith raised his hand for attention before speaking up once more. “As always, we are incredibly grateful every time we are blessed with another addition to our young team. One of my greatest honors in this life has always been to see the way the youngest among us can grow and become truly remarkable heroes, protecting the innocent and vulnerable. Having this opportunity to watch their growth, and guide them into the type of stalwart champions this world deserves, is truly one of the most gratifying and humbling aspects of this job. Each and every one of these Minority kids are very special. They put their time and gifts toward helping to protect this city. And they risk far more than they have to.”

He let that hang in the air for a moment before speaking again. “But, I’m sure you’ve all heard me ramble on long enough. Well, for now anyway. I promise, you’ll be hearing more later. So much it might make some out of you consider withholding the donations you’ve pledged until they give this job to one of the other team leaders we’re fortunate enough to have with us tonight.” 

Once the scattered chuckles to that had died down, he continued. “Our new friend here has made it clear, in more than one way, that she would like to introduce herself. So, why don’t I just give her the chance to do that.” Stepping aside, he raised one hand as though to gesture for her to go ahead. At the same time, he turned a bit to look out into the crowd, and I followed his gaze before finding my parents. Yes, including my father. They were both sitting at one of the tables near the front, along with Kent and Mills Jackson, Tomas’s parents. Oh, and that Eric Abbot guy I had been introduced to right before I’d gotten the call from Pack to tell me that Eits had been attacked for looking into the name I’d asked him about. He was there too, though he didn’t have anyone else with him. All five were sitting at the table, watching what was going on intently. 

Well, that clearly answered the question of whether my dad was really in the Silversmith armor, at least. Though I still wondered if he was projecting his voice to it somehow, or just having someone else speak for him. It really could’ve gone either way. 

The urge to interrupt them and cause a distraction, just to see if anything happened to the Silversmith on stage, was incredibly strong. But somehow I doubted I could get away with that without causing suspicion. Besides, they had almost certainly already planned for anything that might take my father’s attention off his other self. I’d risk exposing myself for no real benefit. 

By that point, the new girl, Fragile, had stepped up to take center-stage. As she did so, a small tornado of glass emerged from behind the nearby curtain, flying up in front of her before transforming into a podium, and a small set of stairs for her to step up to it. So she wasn’t just made of glass, she could also manipulate it, and turn it into new things. It wasn’t like the glass shards were just vaguely in the shape of a podium. She had literally transformed them into a solid structure. 

“Wow,” Alloy murmured beside me, “that’s pretty fucking cool.”  

Her words made Hallowed, who had apparently been just as caught up as the rest of us, start a bit. I was pretty sure he had briefly forgotten that we were there in the first place. With a quick glance our way, he whispered something about showing us where to sit, then gestured for us to follow him as he started to move. Alloy and I glanced at one another before following. Meanwhile, Fragile was talking into the microphone, her voice filling the room. “Hi, everybody! It’s so cool to see you guys, and be here! Seriously, you have no idea how awesome this is. I have superpowers, isn’t it neat?!” With those words, the glass podium reformed into the shape of a horse that she was perched on top of. “And now I get to make my own pony, so I can stop bugging my dad!” That made a few people chuckle, before she shook her head. “But you know what? Horses are kind of lame. Alligators are better.” And sure enough, the glass horse transformed into a large alligator underneath her, its head swinging back and forth as its mouth opened and shut repeatedly to reveal large dagger-like teeth. 

The display of her powers made everyone clap a bit. And by then, Hallowed had led Alloy and me through the room. We were seen and recognized by a few people, who gave us whispered greetings, or just waved, to avoid interrupting. We waved back, a bit awkwardly, while keeping up with our guide. 

Soon, we found the table we were being led to. It was on the far side of the room, up closer to the stage but half-hidden by the orchestra pit. I knew it was where we were going because there were a bunch of other Touched already there. Unlike most of the tables, this one wasn’t circular and meant for only a few people. Instead, it was one of the long, rectangular tables, large enough to hold like thirty people. The Minority (or at least everyone aside from Carousel) were seated at the table, as were most of the Conservators and Spartans. 

As we approached, I could see every member of the Minority, especially Raindrop and That-A-Way, staring very intently at the girl onstage. But they weren’t the only ones. The Conservators and Spartans were pretty focused that way too. Something told me this was as much of a surprise for the people here as it had been for everyone else. Which seemed a bit odd to me. Did my dad really just put this girl on the team without telling any of the other Star-Touched in town until just now? 

Not just odd, actually. Suspicious. But… she was just a kid. She couldn’t be working for the Ministry or–fuck, I was really getting paranoid about this. Or maybe I wasn’t paranoid enough. I seriously couldn’t tell. 

When she saw us approach, Izzy whispered something to Amber before nodding subtly toward a couple seats across from them. Amber openly gestured for us to come that way. So, Alloy and I did just that. We took a second to thank Hallowed for the invitation, before moving over there. I took the seat across from Amber, while Alloy sat next to me and across from Izzy. The seats on our opposite sides were both empty for the moment. The way the table was set up, the Minority people (and the rest of us) were at one end, while the Conservators were at the other end on the side the Minority were seated on, and the Spartans were at that end on the other side (the one Alloy and I were seated on). Well, three members of the Spartans were, anyway. Brumal, Skin-Head, and Versed were there, while the large, rock-formed Boulderdash with his big armadillo/turtle-like shell was seated on a special reinforced chair at the very end of the table. He wouldn’t fit sitting in a normal seat like the others. 

Meanwhile, the Conservators who were here consisted of Dynamic, Kriegspiel, RePete, and Bokor. Four members of the Spartans and four of the Conservators were attending this thing. Also Silversmith, of course, who was still standing back on the stage to watch that Fragile girl. Or at least, the person posing as Silversmith was. Or my father’s empty armor with a voice–never mind. It was complicated. 

Either way, as soon as we sat down, I met Amber’s gaze and gave a little wave. “Looks like you guys have a new teammate, huh?” 

It was Syndicate (or at least the one who was physically sitting here) who spoke up from his spot two down from That-A-Way. “I’d say good because we need the help, but she looks a little young.” He glanced down the table toward Raindrop before adding, “Uh, no offense.”  

Whamline, seated between him and Amber, reached around the girl beside him to pat Izzy on the back. “If she’s anything like our Raindrop, our team just got a huge upgrade. The kid’ll be saving our butts in no time.” 

Wobble, seated on the far side of Syndicate, looked toward Alloy and me. “I think what my teammates are trying to say is hi, glad you could make it. Sorry, I guess we’re just a little surprised by this whole thing.” He nodded toward the stage, where Silversmith was just stepping up by Fragile to put a hand on her shoulder and guide her down off the stage. And, as it happened, toward the rest of us. The audience was applauding, while several photographers took a few pictures. The same photographers noticed Alloy and me sitting with the Minority and snapped pictures our way too. Peyton immediately made a noise deep in her throat and turned away as though afraid of being recognized, before clearly remembering that her face was covered. I felt her embarrassment and put a hand on her arm before giving the girl a quick nod, trying to be encouraging. That was probably the right thing to do, wasn’t it?

By that point, Silversmith and Fragile had reached the table. He kept his hand on her shoulder, looking at the rest of us. “Ah, sorry for the little ambush about all this. It felt like a fun surprise at the time, but in hindsight, maybe we should have let you guys meet in private.” With a self-conscious cough (or at least a put-on one), he gestured. “Anyway, everybody, this is Fragile.” To the girl herself, he added, “Fragile, meet your new teammates. And the others you’ll be learning from.” One by one, he introduced everyone on all three teams by name, while guiding the girl around to sit next to Izzy. “I’ll let you guys all get acquainted. But don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other away from here. For now, just ahh, have a good time.” With that, he patted the glass-girl’s shoulder once before stepping away to go back up on stage, where one of the city’s politicians was already starting to give a speech of his own. 

Now I was getting a closer look at her face, and it was even more detailed than I had thought it was before. That really shouldn’t have surprised me, of course. Seriously, her body was literally made out of glass. Why wouldn’t it be detailed? It was her face. Still, it was kind of fascinating to see. Especially when she turned a bit to look straight at me and offered a bright smile. “Hi! You’re Paintball! You’re so cool. I was gonna ask to join your team, but I didn’t know if you were hiring or anything. Is hiring the right word? I dunno, but you’re not really open to new membership, and besides, my dad really wants me to be on the Minority, cuz he says they can keep an eye on me and make sure I don’t get in trouble. He said you have a habit of finding your way into trouble you shouldn’t be in, which is silly cuz I think the trouble really finds you. But I said that and he said that didn’t really change the point that you and trouble are really close and he wants me to be here instead, I mean on the team with–” 

In mid-sentence, she turned to look at Izzy sitting next to her, then leaned over to see the rest of the Minority watching her. “Hi, guys!” She gave a happy wave once more. “Sorry, that was probably pretty rude, huh? I didn’t mean I didn’t want to be on a team with you guys. I just meant that–uhh…” A slight red tint came over her clear glass face as she tried to find the right words.

“It’s okay,” Amber immediately assured her. “Trust me, we know how cool Paintball is. Maybe with you onboard, you can help us try to recruit him and his new partner over to the team.” She offered me a wink while saying it. Of course, Amber had to keep looking as though she was trying to get me to join. It would have been suspicious otherwise. And the last thing we wanted to do was make the Ministry at all suspicious about what she knew.

“Sorry,” I replied as casually as possible, “still just a lone wolf over here.” At a cough from Peyton, I shifted and amended, “Or a duo wolf. Dual wolves? Actually even that’s not true. We uhh–we’re a very small pack. A–never mind. Hey, look at it this way, being separate like this means that we can play back up for you guys. And vice-versa. Trust me, we’re gonna need your help a lot.” 

Syndicate focused on me. “Hey, that’s right. Way was saying that you came up with your own new team or something? Even had a name.”  

“Is that right?” The new voice was Dynamic, speaking up from further down the table. She had turned a bit to face us and was giving a little wave our way. “Hey there. Good to finally get to talk in person. I mean, after all the stuff you’ve been into, I feel like I should be asking for your autograph.” 

RePete, seated beside her, raised a hand as well. “Hey, me too. My niece would kill for a Paintball autograph, especially if it was a signed picture. Actually, I’m pretty sure she’d kill me for one, which makes me a little jealous, cuz I used to be her favorite.” 

Their words had attracted the attention of the rest of the adults down there, and now we had both the Conservators and Spartans looking at us. Which made me want to squirm a bit uncomfortably at all the attention. It was one thing to be out on the street showing off for crowds, in or out of costume. I was accustomed to doing crazy (even stupid) shit for the hell of it. But here, sitting at a table with a bunch of costumed heroes who were all looking at me like I was one of them? That was a lot to take. Beside me, I was pretty sure Peyton was feeling pretty much the same, if not worse. Probably worse. But I pushed the thought aside and embraced my role. Paintball wouldn’t be embarrassed here. 

“I’ll trade you any autographs you want, one for one,” I quickly found myself replying. “But believe me, I’m pretty sure yours is worth a lot more than mine. So really, I’m making out like a bandit.”  

That prompted a couple soft chuckles, and some actual official introductions were passed back and forth. The adults at the table were all pretty laid back, though Brumal remained a bit standoffish. Or maybe that was just my impression. She didn’t say very much and seemed distracted. But the rest of her teammates who were there made up for it. Skin-Head, Boulderdash, and Versed were all really friendly and quick to make jokes. Boulderdash in particular had a very distinctive roaring laugh that he had to muffle a few times when people from other tables shushed him because people on stage were still talking. 

And that was another thing. There were important people up there. Important as far as the city went. They were giving long speeches about donating money to the Seraphs and their related organizations, basically patting themselves and each other on the back for all the good they were doing. But no one at this table was actually paying any attention to them. We were all talking amongst ourselves (albeit in whispers) and basically ignoring that whole situation over there. It wasn’t what I had expected when we came here, but I wasn’t going to complain either. I would much rather talk to a bunch of Touched than listen to self-important rich blowhards. After all, I’d been doing the latter since… well, basically since I could talk. 

The others all wanted to know what was up with our supposed new name and all that too, so Alloy and I exchanged glances before I put my hand out onto the table. As they watched, I made the name appear there in bold red letters, just like I had on the wall of Wren’s shop. Avant-Guard

“Okay,” Versed announced while pointing to it. “That’s a cool name. You’re not accepting new members after all, are you?” She was clearly teasing, and grunted as Boulderdash nudged her. “What, I didn’t say I wouldn’t take you with me, big guy.” 

Snickering despite myself, I held up both hands. “Before any of you get eager about jumping over to this side, I should probably point out that we don’t exactly offer a salary or benefits.” 

Versed immediately made a show of grumbling. “Oh, well in that case, I think I’ll stick to this team.” She looked around, frowning. “Huh. I was going to tell the boss that he’s lucky, but he’s not here. As usual.” The last bit came in a muttered voice that made me blink that way. It sounded as though she was a little annoyed with Silversmith, which… huh. 

It also made me think of something else, and I quickly asked, “How come not everyone’s here? I mean, where’s Carousel? And uhh, Flea and Trivial. Are they around here somewhere?” I had noticed that both the Spartans and Conservators had a missing member earlier, and this felt like the best time to bring that up. 

“Flea had some personal business to take care of out of town,” Kriegspiel informed me. “She’s on leave for a few days. Not the best timing, but you know. Shit happens when it happens. Ah, sorry, stuff happens when it happens.” 

“I’ve heard the word before, it’s okay,” I assured him, before giving a double-take toward Raindrop and Fragile. “Oh. Right. I’m not the only one sitting here.” 

“I’ve heard it too,” Izzy put in, her voice dry.

“Anyway,” Brumal announced with a short clearing of her throat. “Trivial took a little time off as well, to help out with Flea’s situation. And I’m sure if they need anyone else, they will ask for it.” That was said in the direction of Skin-Head, who had started to say something. Clearly, that was a bit of a long-standing argument between the two of them.

“And Carousel just stayed home tonight,” Wobble informed me. “She needed the night off to spend with some friends who came in from out of town or something. So, you know, she’s just chilling out, playing games, while we’re stuck here watching…” He gestured up to the front. “This.” 

“I don’t know about you,” Amber corrected him, “but I haven’t been watching it for about twenty minutes now.” She looked down the table toward Fragile before adding, “And that was some entrance.” 

Giggling, the girl shifted in her seat. “Yeah? Sorry, I didn’t tell Silversmith about that, or my dad, or… anyone. I just thought it’d be cool to see everyone’s reactions.” 

“Well, it was definitely an exciting introduction,” Wobble confirmed. “I don’t think anyone will forget about it anytime soon.” 

And then it was time for yet another rich, important blowhard to talk. Specifically, my father. As the others continued to chatter, I noticed him get up from the table, give my mother a brief kiss, then start up to the stage. My eyes followed him, and I sat up a bit reflexively. 

There was a strong impulse to stand up and shout out questions about how he divided his attention between his regular business pursuits, leading the Conservators, and being the leader of the secret organization that ran all crime in the city. I didn’t do that, of course.

But boy, was it tempting. 

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Interlude 16B – Conservators (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Flea confirmed. “Go for it.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So who exactly is Robert Parson?” 

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