Cavalcade

New Deals 13-04 (Summus Proelium)

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When I abruptly told the Sell-Touched that I would go with her after all, she did a quick doubletake. Obviously, she hadn’t been expecting that. For a second, the woman just looked in my direction, squinting through the goggles. “That right?” she finally settled on, before adding, “Just a quick little tip kid, if you think you can use this whole thing as a way to make a name for yourself by busting a bunch of people just having fun at this casino, I don’t know what kind of–” 

“It’s neutral ground, I know,” I quickly assured her. “Starting shit at the casino is a good way of pissing off everyone in the city who isn’t government-aligned. And even some of them. When you’re at the casino, you play nice with everyone else that’s there, or you become a target.” That much had been made clear in the documentary about Detroit Touched that I’d watched awhile back. They didn’t actually get to go to the place (or any other couple designated neutral points), but there’d been enough details from interviews and the like to make that much clear. 

After another brief moment of watching me, clearly trying to read exactly what I intended, Cavalcade gave a short nod. “Okay, kid. Let’s go to the casino. I’ll show you how independent Star-Touched like you are supposed to get there. But first…” She trailed off meaningfully. 

“Money, right.” Giving a quick nod, I reached into my pocket, producing the five one hundred dollar bills that I’d already set aside before holding them out for her. “We’re good now, yeah?” 

“Sure, kid, we’re good.” That answer came after Cavalcade had taken the money, examined it carefully as though to check for counterfeits or something, then tucked the five bills away. “We’re totally good. Now, let’s get to the games so I can be even better than good.” 

Something told me Cavalcade and Pack could have a whole conversation about how much they liked getting paid, or just money in general. Maybe between the two of them they could eventually get a big pool full of cash and swim in it. Actually, Cavalcade was still a bit of a mystery, but I really wouldn’t put it past Pack to do exactly that if she had the chance. 

In any case, the Sell-Touched led me back to her car, already explaining. “The way people like you get to the casino is a little different from people like me, or Fells. Don’t think of it as people not trusting you, but uhhh… actually yeah, yeah, think of it as people not trusting you. You’re a fine, upstanding citizen, a good guy. So you don’t get to know exactly where the casino is.” 

As we drove, she explained that there was a building for Star-Touched like me to go to, a place nowhere near the actual casino. There would be a guard whom I would tell about wanting to visit the casino. He’d do whatever he needed to in order to make sure I was on the up-and-up, then send me in to the next step. 

Cavalcade explained everything I needed to do, before pulling to a stop in front of an old three story office building across the street from a car dealership. “Here we go, kid. I don’t feel like going through all the rigamarole, so you have fun. Maybe I’ll see you in there. But just–one more time, don’t start shit just because you see a bad guy, okay? Save it for the streets.” 

Giving her a thumbs up, I stepped out of the car and walked toward the building. It had occurred to me that I could insist that Pack meet me elsewhere to avoid going in a place like this. But she’d seemed insistent that she had to show me something. Plus, I was kind of curious to see how this casino thing worked. Hell, I had a suspicion it might actually be connected to my parents after all. Neutral ground that was somehow enforced for everyone? That sounded a lot like Ministry-related stuff to me. 

So, taking a deep breath as I approached the doors, I focused on the man who was standing there. He looked like any ordinary guard, wearing a pair of brown pants and a white, ill-fitting shirt with a random security company name across the sewn-on badge. He was leaning against the doorway, straightening when I walked toward him. “Hey, there, Paintball!” His voice was cheerful, and when I got closer, I could see the smile stretched across his face. He was kind of a heavy-looking guy, with a bright, flushed face and lines that made it clear smiling was his default expression. He kind of looked like a young, brown-haired Santa Claus, to be honest. Only maybe a little more cheerful. He definitely did not look like a hardcore guard protecting a possible entrance to a place full of Fell-And-Sell-Touched, that was for sure. I was pretty sure he wasn’t even wearing a weapon aside from the heavy maglight that hung from his belt. 

“Um, hi.” I hesitated before raising a hand. Cavalcade had said this was the right place. Plus, come to think of it, they obviously wouldn’t want someone who looked like a paramilitary badass standing out in the open. So, I pushed on with the phrase the woman had given me. “I’d like to play a ginny run up to the royal flush.” Apparently the passphrase changed every once in awhile and you had to be in good standing to get the new one. But it was always something like that. 

“Well!” The man in front of me smiled even more, letting out a loud chuckle that filled the air around me. It actually made me feel a little better about the whole situation, taking some of the uncertain tension out of me. I felt like everything was going to be okay. “You’re not trying to get in there to fight or arrest anyone, are you?” His tone was light and teasing, as if I couldn’t possibly be doing anything like that. And in that moment, I knew I could trust him. He was a good guy, a friend. He was everything I’d been looking for in a confidant. 

A confidant. That was it. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? I could tell him everything I knew about the Ministry. I could tell him about my family, about the fact that I was really a girl, even about the whole situation with my memories, and about Pa–

“Paintball?” A familiar voice interrupted my rush of thoughts, making me jerk that way.

She wore a mask, a simple white cloth mask secured to her turtleneck. But I knew the voice immediately. It was the voice of a person whose name had, in that very moment, been in my mind. Paige. It was Paige Banners, in the flesh, standing a bit behind me with her arms folded. The white simple, blank white mask with eye holes in it couldn’t disguise her voice. It was her, I knew for a fact. She was squinting curiously at me. “What’re you doing here?” 

Blinking at the masked Paige, a rush of thoughts came over me. First of all, what the fuck?! Not her, this guy. I had been about to spill every possible secret I had to him if he’d asked. In that moment, I’d thought he was my best friend, someone I could trust with my life. How–what the fuck?

Power. He had to be Touched. That was the only explanation. He was Psy-Touched. That was the one that meant their power affected other people’s minds. 

No wonder he was guarding this door. Not only did he look completely non-threatening, he had a power that made people confide in him. God, what if he’d asked something that made me spill something important? 

“Tell.” Paige looked past me to the man in question, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. “You weren’t trying to get secrets out of my friend here, were you?” 

The man looked abashed, waving a hand. “Shucks, Miss Kahn, I wasn’t actually gonna make him spill anything important. I know the rules, I was just checking to see if he was here for anything bad, you know? Gotta do my job and all, and it’s my job to make sure overzealous heroes and the like don’t find their way into the casino. Keeps everyone safe and all. I know how to ask safe questions.” 

“Uh huh.” Paige (or Miss Kahn, according to the guard) didn’t sound convinced, but also didn’t push the issue. Instead, she looked at me. “You sure you wanna go in there, Paintball? It’s like the guy said, they don’t allow any funny business, and if you break up the truce, well… I’d hate to see you turn into target numero uno for everyone in the city with a grudge against heroes.”

For a second, I just stared at her. Seeing Paige like this was just… weird. She was wearing a mask like it was second nature, was interacting with the La Casa guard as if she’d done so dozens of times. And she was talking to me like a normal person, not as if she loathed my very existence. 

Had it really been like this before? Had Paige, the girl who had done everything she could to insult, belittle, and demean me for every day that I remembered her, actually been my friend once upon a time? Had we really once been so close that, upon being found surrounded by dead bodies, she pleaded with the authorities to find me? Did she really just not remember, like I didn’t? 

There were so many questions I wanted to ask. But I couldn’t. Especially not right then, in front of our onlooker. Instead, I snapped myself out of it just as my silence had dragged on almost too long, blurting, “I’ve just got somebody I need to talk to, no big deal. I’m not going to cause trouble.” 

“There, see, Tell?” Paige gestured to the guard. “He’s not about to cause trouble. He’s with me anyway, I’ll take him.” She gave me a sidelong look, her voice pointed, “I’m sure he won’t make me look bad.” 

Oh boy, were there a lot of things I almost wanted to say to that. But I bit my tongue and gave a quick nod. “No trouble here. Like I said, I just need to talk to someone–err, someone who will want to talk to me. This isn’t like a confrontation or anything.”

The guard, Tell, apparently, stepped out of the way while opening the door. “In that case, go ahead, Paintball. And it’s great to see you again, Miss Kahn. You both have a fun, safe time. And good luck at the games if you play any.” 

Paige walked past me, grabbing my sleeve on the way past. With a quick glance toward Tell, who had turned his attention back to the road, I followed her into the small lobby. The place looked empty. Paige didn’t even glance at me on her way to the nearby elevator, where she hit the button to go up. The doors immediately opened, and she stepped through. 

Right, if Cavalcade had been on the level about this, the elevator was actually connected through Touched-Tech to another building entirely somewhere else in town. It would deliver us to the casino. this way people who weren’t exactly trusted by La Casa could visit the place without actually knowing where it was physically located. There was also supposed to be jammers blocking any phone signal or other tracking devices. When you went to the casino, you had to go dark to the outside world. 

So yeah, here was hoping I didn’t end up in some kind of trouble in there, or my parents didn’t suddenly have a panic attack about not being able to reach me. Cuz I was about to be out of contact for awhile. 

With a deep breath, I stepped into the elevator, letting the doors close behind me. My voice cracked just a little. “So, come here often?” 

Instead of answering immediately, Paige reached out to hit the door stop button. Which was weird, because the elevator wasn’t moving yet anyway. She held that button down, then hit four of the floor buttons in quick succession before looking to me. “Okay, we’ve got privacy now. Seriously, Paintball, I know you said you’re not going in there to make trouble, and I believe you, but do you know what you’re getting into?” 

Whelp, there was a lot I wanted to say to that too. There was a lot I wanted to say to Paige in general. A part of me wanted to just take off the mask and ask her what the fuck happened all those years ago, if she remembered us being friends, if she thought I betrayed her or something, why she singled me out to hate so much. I just–damn it, I wanted answers. Every time I thought I was about to get some answers when it came to Paige, I just ended up with more questions. So yeah, part of me wanted to just get the whole thing over with, expose who I was and what I knew about her our apparently shared past, and just… deal with it. 

But as with everything else, that was a genie that I wouldn’t be able to put back in the bottle. The second Paige knew who I was, she’d stop treating me like Paintball and start treating me like Cassidy. And ever since I remembered knowing her, treating me like Cassidy meant bad things. Treating me like Cassidy meant I couldn’t trust her. 

I couldn’t take that risk. I couldn’t expose my identity and secrets like that. Not to her. Especially not before I knew more about her whole situation and why she had started acting this way. The danger of what would happen, of what Paige could do if she reacted poorly to the whole thing was too dangerous. 

So, I just kept things simple. “I need to talk to one of the La Casa Touched. Nothing bad or anything, just… need to tell them something I found out. We’re sort of… working on something. It’s mutually beneficial.” Yeah, something I found out, like the fact that Braintrust had their eyes on Wren and wanted her to start paying taxes. The paying part wasn’t even an issue, really. I’d work on that myself if it came down to it. But Wren deserved to know what was going on, and that Braintrust wanted either money, donations of tech, or consultation in exchange for leaving her alone. 

If it was about me, I’d tell them to fuck off and take my chances. But Wren was just a kid, and she deserved the chance to be left alone to do her work without dealing with someone whose entire schtick involved, in part, making Touched-Tech temporarily not work right. I couldn’t be there to back her up all the time. Until–unless there was a better answer, a better way of making Glitch and the rest of Braintrust back off, keeping them happy by playing along was the best thing I could think of. 

Paige was staring at me. “Mutually beneficial,” she echoed flatly. 

Clearing my throat, I gestured. “Uhh, yeah, anyway, what about you? You look pretty comfortable wearing that mask, walking into a place like this.” 

“Most people wear masks in the casino,” Paige informed me, stressing the word to make it abundantly clear. “Even the Prevs. You’d be surprised what kind of important people show up there that you’d never think would hang out in a place owned by supervillains.” I had a feeling she was smiling behind the cloth that covered everything but her eyes. “No one can attack each other, forced neutrality, full privacy, everything you could want. They even have pretty good food and entertainment. And no one bothers enforcing any kind of minimum age requirement. Not like they’re going to be raided by the cops, you know? Hell, a lot of the people in there are the cops. Dirty ones, anyway. Not that they’ll admit that. Another one of the rules is you can’t call people out on who they are if they’re trying to keep it hidden, no matter how obvious it is.”

“You sure know an awful lot about all this stuff,” I pointed out gently. And oh boy was that the understatement of the century. What the hell was her deal? What was–what was everything about Paige? Where had she come from, what happened to her memory, why was she connected to Anthony, who was her father, why did she hate me now, why had she been around those dead bodies, what was she doing

At the moment, what she was doing was offering a shrug while glancing away with a thoughtful, “Point is, it’s a good place to have secret meetings.” 

“You have a lot of secret meetings?” I asked, trying not to sound too much like I wanted to violently shake her until she gave me real answers. It was a really close call.

In response to the question, the other girl reached out to hold the door closed button again, before pushing the nine button four times and the eight button three times. Which would’ve looked kind of odd in general, given this building only had two floors. Immediately, the elevator made a humming sound. It felt sort of like we were moving, but not really. It was a strange sensation that made my stomach just a little queasy for a moment. 

Either way, while that was happening, Paige finally replied, “A girl’s gotta keep herself busy, you know? Believe me, I’m being careful. And hey–” She gave me a quick hug that left me sputtering. “–thanks for not being all pissed at me, dude. See you around, and good luck with your meeting with the lizard girl!” 

Then the elevator opened to admit us to the casino, just before Paige was through the doors and gone. 

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New Deals 13-03 (Summus Proelium)

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The building that Cavalcade had brought me to was an old pizza restaurant that had been closed for awhile. The neon sign with the place’s name was still above the door, but several of the letters were missing, and there were boards over the windows. It looked like there should’ve been boards over the door itself too, but they had been pulled off and moved to the side. The interior lights were on, so there was at least still power in the place, and I could hear music. 

Glancing to my escort, I waited until she pointed to the door. Then I sighed and walked that way, opening it up before stepping through with the mercenary right behind me. Here went nothing.

Most of the tables that had been in the dining area of the pizza place were gone. What remained was a single card table that had obviously been brought in just for this, along with a couple metal folding chairs, all of which was arranged in the middle of the room. A single figure sat casually at the chair facing the door where we were coming in, and a couple more were at the far end of the room behind the counter, half-hidden by the enormous pizza ovens. 

The two Touched at the back of the room were instantly recognizable. One was Fabulist, the guy in gleaming silver armor that displayed a bunch of various television and movie scenes in a collage across it. The guy next to him was shorter and wore what amounted to random robot pieces that looked like they were scavenged from an ancient black and white movie. That was the unfortunately named Rotwang, the guy who built robots and stuff like that. Apparently he’d taken his name from some old scientist in a movie from the 1920’s. If you asked me, he should’ve given up on the reference and kept looking for a better name than Rotwang.  

My eyes focused on the woman at the table then. Glitch, of course. Her costume consisted of burgundy cargo pants with dozens of pouches and belts full of bits of equipment (in addition to what was in all those pockets), with a black long-sleeved turtleneck shirt. The shirt had visible scales, making it look like very fine armor. She also wore a white leather jacket. At least, it looked like a leather jacket. But I knew from the news that the ‘jacket’ could expand in an instant to become a full suit of armor, strong enough to take an ongoing barrage of gunfire or a full strength lightning blast from Cuélebre without any apparent ill-effect. And those pockets and pouches of hers were filled with dozens of Tech-Touched toys to totally terrorize towns. 

In any case, beyond the pants, armored shirt, and transforming jacket, the Braintrust leader also wore a metal choker around her neck, but no mask at all. Her face was perfectly visible. I wasn’t fooled by that, however. People had been in the past, when she first showed up without anything apparently covering her face. But that was deceptive, because the choker around her neck was a special shapeshifting toy. It allowed Glitch to make her face look like anything she wanted it to. She could change a lot about her appearance with the collar. The only limits seemed to be that it could only affect what her face and hair looked like. Or her skin color in general, I supposed. It couldn’t change her build, height, or anything else about her actual body. Sometimes she showed up looking like a pale blue-eyed blonde, other times she had darker hair with green eyes, or could even appear to be a black woman. Right now, she looked Asian. But who the hell knew what her real appearance was. She fucked with people constantly by looking slightly different every time she appeared. Hell, until people had found out that her choker allowed her to change her appearance, there had been a rush to identify her from the pictures. An innocent woman had almost been put in prison for looking almost identical to her. But then Glitch herself had shown up outside the courthouse, showed what her choker could do, and actually apologized to the woman who had been mistaken for her. 

Yeah, that had been a huge thing. So now nobody could trust any description for Glitch. Or any of her people, for that matter. There were rumors that Braintrust was working on mass producing those disguise chokers and equipping all their rank and file Prev gang members with them. Which would be just fucking fantastic, really. 

“It’s Paintball, right?” Glitch was saying, already gesturing toward the folding chair across from here. “Take a load off, kid. You want something to drink? We brought soda, coffee of the hot and iced variety, water… sorry, no pizza. Seems our hosts took all the ingredients with them when they left this place. But we could order out if you like. Might be worth it just to see another pizza joint deliver to this place–wait, there’s another one of these places within delivery distance, right? Can you imagine if they had to drop off a pizza here? Come on, you wanna see that?”

Opening and shutting my mouth, I quickly shook myself and moved to take the offered seat. A part of me felt like I should keep standing, but being rude right now felt like a bad idea. Yeah, these guys were Fell-Touched, but they were being casual enough about all this (aside from paying a mercenary to bring me to them) that escalating things straight off was the wrong way to go. Besides, Cavalcade had made it clear that she would only help me get out if I didn’t start shit and played nice. 

“I’ll get a burger later,” I finally managed to reply while starting to sit. Partway through, however, I stopped. Hovering without actually sitting, I rose once more, watching the woman in front of me while I picked up the chair and turned it over to look at the bottom real quick. I’d seen enough movies. The last thing I wanted was to sit down on a seat that had some kind of pressure sensitive bomb on it or something and end up trapped there. 

Right, nothing visible. Which, given the gang I was dealing with, didn’t actually prove anything. But what else could I do. Shrugging, I put the chair back down and sat. 

Glitch had watched through all of that, finally chuckling once I was down. “You see, boys?” she called to Fabulist and Rotwang. “I told you our boy here was a smart one. Wouldn’t’ve survived through half the shit he’s already been thrown into if he wasn’t smart.” Her voice adopted a conspiratorial tone. “Wang over there wanted to play this rougher. It’s why he’s not the negotiator. Or the leader.” 

Rotwang’s only apparent response to that was to fold his arms tightly across his chest. The weird bulky, square 50’s alien robot head that functioned as his helmet had two little glowing rounded antennae sticking out either side of it that turned colors. Both went from being white to red, which I was going to guess meant he was annoyed. But he stayed silent. 

“You can relax, kid,” Glitch informed me. “We’re not here to fight, or play hardball. We just wanted to have a little chat. Sorry, I just wanted to have a chat. Wang over there thinks we should say something about making your friend work for us or else yada yada bad things threats, you know how it is.” 

“Friend?” I made myself echo, watching her reaction. 

Her reaction, as it turned out, was to laugh. Her head shook as she chuckled. “Come on, let’s not treat each other like idiots, Paintball. Fabulist already told you that we have ways of detecting T-Tech. Obviously, you’re not the one making it. And it’s no one we know about. The style’s different. You’ve got a Tech-Touched working with you. One that has annoyed Cuélebre a great deal, from what I hear. And you are the only person they seem to be working with. What are we talking about here, is this a sibling? A brother maybe? Or a sister. Ah, maybe a younger sister, one you feel like you have to protect. That would explain why you’re the only Touched they’re working with.” 

I didn’t react at all at first. Honestly, let Glitch go off on her wrong assumptions. The more she thought that Wren and I were siblings, the less chance she had of actually figuring out who either of us were. I wasn’t going to dissuade any of that. 

Instead, I simply replied, “If you know I want to protect them, you’ll forgive me for not talking very much about them. Especially not with people whose entire thing revolves around recruiting Tech-Touched into their gang. And for the record, have you thought about expanding out into allowing other types of Touched? Cuz you’re really pigeonholing yourself with that one.” 

“Why?” came the casual response as the ‘Asian’ woman eyed me, “were you interested? Because if that’s what it takes to sign up your friend, maybe we can find something for you.” 

Yeah, I supposed I deserved that one. Grimacing behind the helmet, I shook my head. “Sorry, I prefer not being a wanted criminal. Makes it easier to get around town without all the cops chasing me.” 

“Well, from what I hear,” Glitch reminded me, “you already have enough people who want your hide as it is. Cuélebre is very unhappy with you. Pretty sure Janus is too. And there’s even rumors that you’ve managed to annoy Pencil himself. You have been a busy little bee. And you know how busy little bees survive and thrive? By being part of a hive. You could use some friends to help you pull through whenever one of those enemies you’re racking up makes a move.” 

“Sure,” I agreed quickly and easily. “You’re right, having friends is a good thing. You and I just disagree a little bit on who my friends are.” Pausing, I decided that might be a little too rude, and added, “But if I was into your side of things, I could probably do worse than signing up.” There, that was going to have to be good enough to fit Cavalcade’s request that I play nice. Which, judging from the very slight snort I heard from her direction, it was. 

“Yeah, I guess we do disagree a bit on that.” If Glitch was annoyed by my words, she didn’t show it. Instead, she remarked, “Since it’s been brought up, I guess I don’t have to ask if you know how our little Braintrust works. The more Techs we’ve got, the better off we are. And let me tell you something, kid, from everything I’ve heard, this new Tech of yours is a good one. One we’d really like to have around.” She paused, then added a bit more pointedly, “One I’d really like to have around.” 

I’d known this was where this whole thing was going from the moment Cavalcade had made it clear who wanted to talk to me. Hell, I’d basically known it was coming from back when Fabulist told me they could detect the Touched-Tech I was using. I’d just hoped it would come later, when I didn’t have so many other things to deal with. But that was obviously a stupid hope. 

Exhaling, I looked to the woman and chose my words carefully. “My Tech isn’t interested in your organization. Sorry, but they’re not. And you should know that it’s a bad idea to try to force Techs to work for you when they don’t want to. I mean, you can only use your power to stop them from retaliating against you so much. And this Tech has friends. Friends like me, and others, who won’t just let you abduct them. Saying this as… respectfully as possible, going after my Tech is not worth the hassle it would be for you. It would be a huge fight, one involving more people than I think you realize. Yes, they’re really helpful. But I promise, they are not worth what you’d be pulling onto your head by forcing this whole thing. Find someone else.”

There was a long pause as the Braintrust leader watched me. It was really different to be able to see the whole, unmasked face of one of these Fell-Touched people. I was used to staring into a mask, trying to judge their reactions from body language. But in this case, there was nothing covering the face I was looking at. And yet, in some ways it was even harder to guess her thoughts. Her expression was completely unreadable, flat and emotionless through those few seconds. I didn’t know how much of that was the shapeshifting choker helping her hide any reaction and how much was her natural poker face. But either way, I couldn’t read her. 

Finally, Glitch gave a very short nod. “That’s about what I figured.” She chuckled slightly as I stared at her. “Don’t be so surprised, kid. I run a whole gang full of Techs. You think I don’t know how dangerous they can be if you piss them off? Yeah, we play hardball on recruitment. But there’s a fine line between playing hardball and being stupid. Braintrust works because we put our heads together and work to make the best toys we can possibly make. If we have a rotten egg in there, it’ll spoil everything. I’m not about to kidnap your friend, chain them to a workbench, and start cracking the whip. That’s a good way to get shitty results at best. And probably explosive ones. And it affects everyone else’s work. We don’t have the vast majority of Tech-Touched in the city because I’m a slave driver, Paintball. We have them for two reasons. First, because Techs like working with other Techs. It helps to collaborate. Not just in the normal way, but literally. There’s been studies that show two Techs working together produce better results than working alone. Their own gifts get stronger. Make it a whole group, and well… yeah. 

“Anyway, the second reason we have the most Techs is because I pay my people very, very well. I provide resources, workshops, privacy, and other Techs to collaborate with, other people who understand them. You don’t win this kind of game with sticks, you win it with carrots. Between that and my own gift to improve what they make… it’s a good system. And don’t take this the wrong way or anything, but I’m not about to mess up a good system by chaining up an unwilling Tech and trying to force them to play nice. Bad egg, you see? I don’t care how good they are, it’s not worth that kind of pain.” 

Blinking a couple times behind my helmet, I hesitated before offering her a shrug. “Oh. Well, in that case, good luck on all your–wait I can’t say that, I’m one of the people who’s supposed to stop you from all those criminal things. Um. See you later, I guess? Glad this went so well.” 

There was a soft chuckle from the seemingly Asian woman, before she shook her head. “It has been going well, yes. But we’re not quite done yet.” She held a hand up placatingly. “Almost. We’re almost done. But there’s still something important about your friend we need to discuss. As I said, I’m not about to force them to work for me. That’s not how we do things. But see, there’s another part to all this. Yeah, we won’t make your friend work for us. But if they’re a Tech-Touched operating in the city, they still have to pay the tax.” 

I squinted at the woman for a moment before remembering that she couldn’t see that expression. “A tax,” I echoed almost flatly, allowing a hint of disbelief to enter my voice.

Ginning at me, Glitch confirmed, “Yeah, a tax. See, Braintrust is the official Tech-Touched organization. We… let’s just say we pay our dues. And part of that involves collecting taxes from people who don’t work for us. Put simply, if you’re not part of the organization, you don’t get the tax credit.” 

I watched her for a moment, glanced to Fabulist and Rotwang briefly, then turned my attention back to their leader. “You’re saying that you’re not going to force my friend to work for you, but in exchange for operating in the city, you want them to give you money.” 

She winked, leaning back in the chair a bit. “That’s right. Your friend pays a monthly fee to operate in the city. In exchange, we leave them alone. We don’t try to recruit them, we don’t try to drive them out of the city, we don’t cause problems for them in general. Because let me be clear, while it is not worth the effort to chain an unwilling Tech to a workbench, it very much is worth it to drive them out of the city if they don’t cooperate with the system.” 

“You’re basically a protection racket,” I pointed out. “You’re extorting Tech-Touched who don’t work for you. That’s the real reason why there’s so few independents in Detroit. Because they can’t afford your taxes and it’s easier to either agree to work for you, or leave to go somewhere else.” 

“What can I say?” Glitch shrugged. “I don’t like competition. But I’ll put up with it in exchange for cash. You tell your friend they’ve got two weeks to decide if they want to play ball or move to a new city. It’s totally up to them. Two weeks. If they agree, we can talk about the specifics. Oh, and they can pay either in cash or donations of tech. Or consultation time.”

“So if they don’t have cash for you, they can give you pieces of their technology that they made, or agree to ‘consult’ on your own projects?” I managed, thinking about how Wren would react to all that. 

“Or leave the city, yup. That’s plenty of options.” With that, Glitch gave a sharp wave of her hand. “Two weeks from today. I’ll send someone to get an answer from you. And hey, looking forward to the first time we get to actually have a little scuffle, kid. You seem fun.” 

She stood, turning to walk toward her two minions then. Even as she left, Cavalcade spoke up. “Let’s get out of here. I wanna get to the La Casa casino before all the good tables are gone. Actually, you wanna go too? Cuz I’m about to have five hundred bucks burning a hole in my pocket, and I wouldn’t mind making some more off you.”  

Shaking my head while muttering that I’d give her the money once we were out of there, I stood and headed past my mercenary escort to go out the same door I’d come in. In the parking lot, I brought my phone to my hand. Because there was someone I needed to talk to about all this. Pack. She was friends with Wren too. If anyone would understand the complication of this whole Braintrust situation, it was her. She knew Wren, she knew about Braintrust, she knew (at least some) about the Ministry. She was basically the best person possible to bounce this off of. 

Quickly, I typed a message, asking where she was and that I needed to talk to her about Wren, adding a joke about how Cavalcade had invited me to the casino if she wanted to meet there. I figured that would get her attention. 

I had no real intention of going to the casino with Cavalcade, of course. I had way too much to think about and deal with. Not to mention the fact that I didn’t want to make a point of hanging around a Fell-Touched place like that, even if it was supposed to be neutral ground. The rules, as I understood them, were that any Fell-Touched or Sell-Touched who weren’t actively at war with La Casa were welcome, as well as any Star-Touched who were independent/not connected to an actual official government team. If you didn’t start shit, you could be there and play. 

I had other things to focus on besides gambling. Actually, come to think of it, I was doing an awful lot of gambling lately. It just all had to do with risking my parents finding out what I knew or who I was, or one of the other Touched finding out I was a girl, or any of my other issues rather than money. Or even getting hurt. It was still a risk, still gambling every time I went out like this.  

And yet, barely a few seconds after I’d sent the message to Pack, my phone buzzed. It was a message from her, reading: ‘Come 2 casino. Have 2 show u. Huge’

Had to show me? Had to show me what? Frowning, I looked up to Cavalcade. “Uhh, well, I guess I’ll take you up on that offer after all. 

“Let’s go see this casino.”

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New Deals 13-02 (Summus Proelium)

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Well this night was suddenly potentially a lot worse. And why exactly did that surprise me anymore, after everything that had happened? How many times was I going to think my night out in the city was just about over without anything going too wrong, only to be blindsided? 

Right, what did I know? At least Cavalcade wasn’t technically a villain all on her own. She was Sell-Touched. In other words, she worked for whoever was paying her. That could be good guys or bad guys. The last one I’d known she was working for was Deicide, who I still owed a favor to. But Cavalcade had said that her new employer wanted to talk to me. That wouldn’t be Deicide. 

“Man,” the woman herself drawled with obvious amusement, “I wish I could see the look on your face right now, kid. I’ve been sitting over there on that building for the past twenty minutes watching your whole… thing here.” She gestured vaguely. “Gotta say, that didn’t go the way I expected it to. Makes you kinda intriguing, you know? Like, if I go find those kids you let go, would they have anything interesting to say about you?” From the tone of her voice, she wasn’t serious, just testing my reaction to all that. She was teasing me, pushing to see what I would do.

Somehow, I found my voice. “Well, you know, I was just super-busy and couldn’t take the time to turn them in. And hey, speaking of which, I hope this mysterious new employer of yours takes rain checks, cuz I really shouldn’t be stacking more onto my plate. So much to do, so little time.” 

There was a low chuckle of what sounded like genuine amusement. “They’re not really the type to wait patiently for someone like you to fit them onto your dance card, sorry. Let’s go ahead and squeeze you in right now.” There was a brief pause before she added pointedly, “While this is all still nice and casual.” The implied threat behind her words was crystal clear. This wasn’t a choice. She wanted me to go with her, or this would turn into a fight as she forced the point.

Could I outrun her? I wasn’t sure. Her power allowed her to make rapidfire, short-term duplicates of herself. They only lasted a brief couple seconds, but she made them incredibly quickly, and used that to simulate superspeed by making hundreds or even thousands of duplicates really fast, each one slightly ahead of the other. Plus, she could choose to make one her real self, dismissing the previous body to disappear like the others. That allowed her to travel through the city while leaving a rapidly fading ‘train’ of duplicates behind her, simply always making the body at the head of the ‘train’ her real self. And the fact that the duplicates lasted a couple seconds allowed her to pull off tricks like going straight up the side of a building by having the duplicate behind give the one ahead a push before they vanished. So getting off the ground to the rooftops wasn’t a solution for getting away from her. 

Plus, I couldn’t just use yellow paint to slow her down, because I was pretty sure it would only apply to the single duplicate I hit with it. And I couldn’t just keep hitting every single duplicate who showed up or something. As it turned out, her specific method of speed made my method of slowing her completely useless. Which was just fantastic, really. 

Right, so running away was probably out of the question. What about fighting her? Again, huge problem. Because I wouldn’t just be fighting her, I’d be fighting every duplicate she could summon in a short time span. I’d seen Cavalcade fight people before. She made dozens of duplicates really quickly, surrounded the target, and hit them from every side. Her clones lasted just long enough to throw a punch or two, then vanished. And she could choose to make any of them her real body. So even fighting back was hard. The best way to pull it off was with area-effect attacks that could hit every version of her at the same time or in quick succession. I could maybe pull something like that off with a wide spray of the right paint, but did I have anything that would actually knock her out or whatever before she just made more duplicates who weren’t painted? I didn’t think so. 

Yeah, this whole situation was really not conducive to anything I was ready to do. Fighting her was liable to end with me just exhausting myself without accomplishing anything. And I probably couldn’t escape by running. Again, at best I would wear myself out and she’d be just fine. 

Fighting and running were both bad ideas. But that wasn’t the real question. The real question was whether those two options were worse than the third one. Which was to actually go with her. My options were fighting, running, or going to see this employer of hers. So which one of those was the least bad? Because if her employer was, say, Pencil, I’d definitely take my chances with fighting or running. But on the other hand, everything I knew about the woman (particularly the fact that she did occasionally work with Star-Touched) said that she wouldn’t play nice with the Scions. I was pretty sure it wasn’t Pencil and his ilk. Unfortunately, there were still plenty of bad options. 

“Hey, kid,” Cavalcade interrupted my racing thoughts (that whole sequence had only taken a few seconds in my head, but still), “fun as it is to watch the smoke shooting out of your head from how hard you’re thinking about this, let me make it a little easier for you. My employer is Glitch, and she said to tell you that it’s worth your time to talk to her.” 

Glitch. Leader of Braintrust. Her whole thing was about improving technology or temporarily breaking it. She could take other Tech-Touched designs and automatically understand how they could be improved, and she could also focus on any given piece of technology and force it to either not work at all temporarily, or instill random glitches (hence the name). She was also obsessed with recruiting every Tech-Touched she could get her hands on. 

Wren. This had to be about Wren. She knew I’d worked with the girl and now she wanted to talk to me about something that, in her words, would be worth my time. Fabulist had already raised questions about where I was getting my tech from, back when I saved that Peyton girl. My guess was that they’d worked out more about the situation, maybe from talking to some of Cuélebre’s people, and now Glitch wanted to extend an offer to Wren, through me, to join her little gang. And I was equally confident that my saying no right now wouldn’t be the end of it. She might just end up trying to go straight at Wren by that point. And as much as the girl was working to keep herself and Fred safe, I wasn’t going to throw her into the deep end like that.

So, there wasn’t much choice about any of this. I had to at least attempt to talk to Glitch and get her to understand that Wren working for her just wasn’t worth the effort it would take. Which was bound to be fun, because I was super-sure she’d be totally reasonable about the whole thing.

With a sigh, I finally nodded. “Right, fine. I guess I’ll go with you. But can we do it without the cuffs this time? I’m just really not in the mood for that kind of thing right now.” 

“Now why does it sound like there’s a really interesting story behind that comment? One that I’d love to hear more of.” With those curious words, the woman stared at me. I could see her red-tinted eyes through the goggles, and wondered if she saw the whole world like that. It felt like that would make things more difficult. But then, given how much money she brought in for her services, the goggles were almost certainly Tech-Touched stuff. 

When I didn’t respond to her probing question, Cavalcade finally shrugged. “Well, maybe I’ll hear it later. Right now, I’m being paid by the task, not by the hour. So let’s get you over to have this little discussion.” 

“Wait.” I blinked, suddenly remembering that I had another super power I hadn’t considered through all that. “She’s paying you to have me over there for a discussion, right? That’s it?” 

There was a brief pause as the woman regarded me with renewed curiosity. When she answered, her voice was slow and thoughtful. “Yes, that’s right. It’s not some trick to shoot you in the back of the head in private or something. Mercenary’s honor, for what that’s worth. Probably not much, but hey. What’ve you got to lose? Okay, better question, what choice do you have?” 

Thinking quickly, I came to a decision. “I’ll go with you. I’ll help you fulfill your task so you can get paid. But then I want to hire you.” 

It was Cavalcade’s turn to sound surprised, her gaze snapping to me. “You want to hire me?” 

I nodded once. “Yeah. I’ll hire you to make sure I get out of there again in one piece. Your job right now is to get me there. So get me there and get paid. Then get me out again and get paid again. I don’t know how much you charge, but I’ll give you five hundred dollars to get me out.” 

There was a brief pause, before the woman chuckled. But she was clearly uncertain. “One, five hundred bucks isn’t much for my profession. Two, I’m just supposed to believe you’ve got that?” 

“It’s a fair amount for doing nothing except making sure I walk out of there in one piece,” I pointed out. “It’s like five minutes of your time. And I’m good for the money. After all, it’s not like you’ll just let me walk away from you without paying up. If I could just take off, I wouldn’t be here right now.” After hesitating while my mind raced, I quickly added, “Besides, if you work with me now, there’ll be more where that comes from, because I’ll know I can trust you to take the money.” Belatedly, I shrugged. “Plus, if you’re telling the truth about how Glitch just wants to talk to me and that she’ll make it worth my time, you shouldn’t have any reason to object to being given five hundred dollars just to escort me back out again. Say it’s five minutes of work. That’s a hundred dollars a minute.” 

Of course, I could have offered a lot more than that. Especially if I added the point of letting me collect money and give it to her later. Even then, I still had twice that amount on me, since I’d taken to keeping a little bit of cash on hand. But I felt like five hundred was safer to start with. I didn’t want the woman (or anyone else) to know just how well off I was. Besides, if she refused the initial offer, I needed something to raise it to. 

The Sell-Touched seemed to consider that argument for a few seconds, regarding me. “Five hundred bucks, huh, kid?” Her squint hardened as she seemed to practically be staring through my soul. Finally, she straightened and gave a short nod. “Fine. Five hundred bucks and I’ll take you out of there. But you show it to me first. Right here, right now. Show me you’ve got it.” There was a mixture of doubt and genuine curiosity in her voice. She wanted to know if I was good for it before she took the risk of potentially annoying a steady employer. Which I supposed was fair. 

So, I turned away from her, carefully unzipping my pocket while the woman watched silently. Collecting the five one hundred dollar bills, I turned back, holding them up for her to see. “Five. It’s supposed to be for paying my Tech-Touched. But they’ll get over it.” There, maybe a slight answer as to why I had that kind of money on me would help stop her from thinking too hard about it. 

Another brief moment of consideration passed, before Cavalade gestured. “Right then. Put it away and let’s get out of here. You’ve got a deal. I’ll take you in, let you have your talk with Glitch, then walk you back out again. Ah, but one caveat.” She added the last bit while looking at me pointedly. “No starting a fight in there. If you get attacked, you can defend yourself. I’ll help. But you don’t start anything. And you don’t be insulting. You treat them respectfully as long as they treat you respectfully. You try to start some fight thinking I’ve got your back and you’re gonna be disappointed.” 

“Deal,” I agreed a bit distractedly, my mind racing about everything that was about to happen. “I’ll defend myself if they pull anything, but I won’t start a fight. I’ll listen to what she has to say, respond as… politely as reasonably expected, and leave with you.” 

“Good.” Cavalcade gestured toward a sedan that was parked nearby. “Let’s take a little ride then.” Belatedly, she added, “It’s not as fast as I can be on my own, but a car stands out less to certain busybody Touched who have too much time on their hands.” Pausing, she added, “And that goes for Star or Fell. People don’t know how to mind their own business in general.” 

Right, she worked both sides of the line, so Cavalcade would obviously be more aware of how both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys could be similar. For a moment, I thought of my family and how they played both sides, just in a different way. But then, was it so different? She did it for money, and they did it for money and power. Just on a whole different scale than her. 

There were definite similarities. But I shoved those thoughts down before moving to get in the car she had indicated. A part of me wondered not only if I was going to regret this, but how much and how soon. Getting in this car to go see one of the city’s biggest Fell-Touched villains felt like a bad idea. But I didn’t have much choice if I didn’t want this whole thing to escalate even more. 

Besides, I’d rather the Braintrust people try to talk to Wren through me rather than going straight at her. I was going to try to shield that kid from as much of this as I could for as long as possible. At least until she had enough defenses up to really protect herself and Fred.

Cavalcade joined me in the car, starting it up before pulling away. “You like Toni Kalla?” she asked while turning the radio on to fill the air with pounding rock music. “If not, plug your ears. Or go ahead and punch yourself in the face, cuz Toni’s the best Touched-Singer in the world.”

Yeah, some Touched didn’t go for hero, villain, or mercenary. They used their powers for normal, everyday activities. Toni Kalla, for example, was a singer who could literally weave what amounted to holographic illusions using her voice. She used that to create a show that went along with the music. There were other aspects to her power, but mostly it was the hologram thing. 

Murmuring something noncommittal, I looked out the window. It probably wouldn’t do my secret identity much good for me to mention that I’d met Toni multiple times, had dinner with her both at restaurants and at our house, and that she’d already sent me a copy of the album that wouldn’t be out for another couple months. Maybe I was just crazy, but that felt like it might give a few too many hints about who I was. 

So, instead of focusing on that, I changed the subject. “You gonna try to blindfold me or something? Or, you know, make me duck down so I don’t see where we’re going?” 

The answer was a snort. “No,” she replied flatly. “They’re not having me take you anywhere near their base anyway, kid. We’re just going to a neutral meeting place. You wanna go scour it with a fine-toothed comb looking for clues and Scooby Snacks later, knock yourself out.” 

Despite how casual she was being about the whole thing, I couldn’t exactly relax through the drive. A voice in the back of my head kept screaming about how stupid this was and that I should fight tooth and nail, make her drag my unconscious body to this meeting if she could manage it. I pushed that voice deep down, but could still hear it yelling at me. 

To distract myself from the voice, I looked to my… sort-of captor(?) and asked, “How do you work with both good guys and bad guys?” 

“Oh, kid, don’t start on moralizing,” came the groaned response. “We all have to make a living, and I have my own lines I don’t cross. Besides, you’d be surprised how many supposed good guys aren’t that good.” 

Choosing not to debate that last point about how surprised I would or wouldn’t be, I instead corrected, “No, that’s not what I meant. I mean how do you get the good guys to let you work with them after you worked with villains like… the week before?” 

“Ah.” There was a brief pause before Cavalcade answered. “Because I’m useful. I have a really good power, and that gives me some leeway. Long story short, I have what you might call a special deal with the city. If they catch me doing bad things and working with villains, they get to take me in. But if they extend a contract, if they hire me to do a job, them or any of the other goodie teams, I get a free pass while that contract is going on. It’s written into every contract. My lawyer draws them up. Any time one of the Star-Touched teams wants my help, they have to sign one of those contracts. Means they can’t come after me for anything they think I did in the past for the duration of whatever they’re hiring me for.” 

“And they just… let you do that?” I managed, staring at her. 

“Like I said,” she replied carelessly, “I’m really useful. Most Sell-Touched like me, the ones who work both sides, have something like that. But even then, bad guys tend to pay more.” She turned, winking at me through the goggles. “They have more disposable income and less whiny qualms about who they work with.” 

“That’s surprising,” I muttered under my breath before catching myself. Shaking my head, I looked back to her. “Not to get all moralizing or anything, but the whole… switching sides all the time doesn’t bother you?” 

“Nope,” came the flat answer. “Cuz I just plug my ears with all the money I make, and it makes it really hard to hear that annoying little voice like you’ve got in the back of your head telling you to be some paragon of virtue or whatever bullshit. People are selfish. They look out for themselves and the ones they care about. I’m just making a living.

“And speaking of making a living…” The car stopped. “Let’s go deal with this meeting and then get out of here.   

“Cuz I want that five hundred bucks.” 

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New Deals 13-01 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N: One of this story’s wonderful readers has commissioned a picture of Cassidy by the artist Shameichi, which can be seen on the  art page or directly right here

The shrill shriek of a store alarm filled the air the next night, as a couple guys in dark masks came tearing through the door they’d already busted open not even two minutes earlier. From the perch atop the billboard that I’d just landed on, I saw both of them scramble away from the closed convenience store. Their arms were full, each carrying a couple bags worth of stuff as they raced past the dark gas pumps and headed for the mostly-empty street. Whoever these guys were, they’d chosen a target near an area of town that was pretty quiet at one in the morning. Which was probably why the gas station was closed to begin with, come to think of it. 

Either way, I launched myself off the sign using a spot of blue paint under my feet. Rocketing ahead of the two guys, I hit them each with a quick spray of yellow to slow them down, before flipping myself over to land directly between them while activating the orange parachute and green rabbit shapes that were already on my back. With myself sped up and the two guys slowed down, it was child’s play to grab the bags out of their hands, tossing them behind myself before quickly blurting, “Holy crap, did you guys win one of those contests where you get to keep anything you can grab in like sixty seconds or something? Cuz…” Trailing off, I hit them both with red paint in the chest, jumping back while shooting a matching bit of red in front of them. A quick activation yanked the two facedown onto the pavement. “I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to wait for the news crews to be around before you cash in one of those.” 

Personally, I thought it was kinda funny. Not the best, but hey, maybe worth a very slight chuckle. Okay, maybe not even that. But it definitely wasn’t worth crying over. Which… was the next sound I heard. Crying. Stopping short, I cocked my head to the side, staring down at the figure to the right. Crying. He was definitely crying. Um. Well shit, this was kinda awkward now. 

“Sorry, I’m sorry,” came the babbled words. “I’m sorry, it was stupid, it was so stupid, we’re sorry.” The voice was so choked up by tears I could barely understand what was being said.

“Dude!” The other person snapped suddenly. It was a female voice, breaking my assumption that both of the thieves had been male. Which, given my entire situation, was probably a pretty bad assumption to have in the first place. “Shut the fuck up, don’t admit anything!” 

“I don’t… think you necessarily have to admit anything?” I pointed out weakly, still confused by what was going on. “We’re like… a couple hundred feet from the store. You barely made it out of the parking lot. A few feet closer and you’d still be on their property. The property of the store you just… broke into. And the bags with all the stuff you stole are right…” I reached back, grabbing one of them. “… here?” It didn’t jingle or anything. Opening up the bag, I found a bunch of bags of chips, sandwiches from the cooler, beef jerky, some sweets, a few packaged fruits and cheeses, that kind of thing. 

While I was busy staring down into the bag, the red paint must’ve run out. Because the female on the ground was suddenly on her feet, grabbing the crying boy and yanking him up. They started to run, until I hit them both with more red paint to yank them back to the ground. That time I used orange too, just to make sure it didn’t hurt. 

The boy was still shaking and crying. The girl was shaking too, but also cursing up a storm. She threatened all sorts of anatomically impossible things, lying there on her back. And now that I stared at them, I noticed… they weren’t adults. Even with the ski masks on, that much was obvious. Fuck. Fuck, looking at them now, like this? They were barely my age, if that. They were teenagers. 

Quickly, I dropped to my knees between them, setting the bag aside. “Stop it, hey. What the hell are you guys doing stealing this stuff?” Even as the words left my mouth, I knew they were pretty dumb. But I didn’t know what else to say. My mind was scrambling. I’d just heard the alarm while Paintballing around to clear my head a bit, already thinking about heading home. I heard the alarm and reacted. I’d expected to find hardened criminals stealing from a jewelry store or something, not… this. 

Sure enough, the masked girl blurted, “We heard there’s a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory in one random bit of gas station shit, and really want to swim in a chocolate fucking fountain, prick!” 

“Murphy, stop it!” the boy blurted, still shuddering. He managed to twist his head to look at me. “W-we’re sorry, we’re sorry. We were just… we were hungry. And our friends, my little sister, her big brother, we–we just wanted–we didn’t think it was–we didn’t know there was an alarm and then it was so loud and we were just g-gonna be really quick and–” 

“Roald, I swear to God if you don’t stop confessing to shit!” the girl, Murphy apparently, snapped. She was staring at me too. I could see the fear in her eyes despite her bluster. The mask didn’t cover them, leaving the wetness visible. She was just as scared as her companion about what was happening, even if she was better at hiding it verbally. 

Well fuck. God damn it, I did all this to stop real bad guys, and now I was… what, knocking down teenagers who were trying to feed their friends with gas station shit? Despite myself, I demanded, “Where’s your parents? Why don’t they feed you? What–” 

“Prison, fuckface!” came the retort from the girl. “Cuz they’re hardened fucking criminals for slinging a few happy pills to consenting adults. You got any other stupid questions?” 

“Murph,” Roald all-but moaned, his terror mixed heavily with exasperation, “Please.” The boy was clearly terrified of what antagonizing me was going to do. Which somehow made me feel even worse about the whole situation. God damn it. This was just supposed to be a quick little nothing, stopping a couple thugs from ripping off a gas station. What the hell? 

The brief sound of a siren interrupted my thoughts, making my gaze snap up. A few streets away, a cop car with its lights on had just used its siren for an instant to get through the intersection and was on its way. There were another couple intersections for it to go through, but the car would be here in just a few moments. 

“We’re going to jail. We’re going to jail,” Roald lamented, already linking his hands behind his head with his mask-covered face against the ground. “Please. Just… just keep me, okay? Just keep me and let her go. Our families, they’ve gotta have her around. I swear, I’ll take the fall, I’ll confess, just let Murph go.” 

“Shut the fuck up, Roald!” Murphy snapped at him. “I’m not leaving you, got it? It was my idea, I pushed you into it, so–” 

She stopped talking then, because I was yanking her up by the arm. My other hand was pulling Roald as well, as I activated a purple bear figure on one of my shoulders. It was enough of a boost that I could haul them both to their feet, while putting blue on my own shoes to launch myself upward. The two squealed in surprise, as we flew up and over to land on the roof of a nearby fast food place. Releasing them instantly, I hit them with black paint, activating it before  yanking the two down with me as I dropped to my stomach. “Be quiet,” I hissed sharply. 

Below us, the cop car had just pulled into the lot of the gas station. I could sense the eyes of Roald and Murphy on me, both of them clearly confused as to what the fuck I was doing. Which was fair, considering I was pretty confused about what the fuck I was doing too.  

A couple cops got out of the car. One moved to look at the shattered glass of the door where one of these two had broken it with a brick or something. The other noticed the bags on the ground off in the distance and walked that way. He approached cautiously, shining his flashlight around the bags before gingerly touching the nearest with his nightstick. Then he checked more thoroughly and called out something to his partner about idiots dropping their ‘loot.’ 

Just to be on the safe side as Murphy bristled beside me, I hit both of my delinquent companions with another shot of black paint to keep them quiet. I’d already painted my entire costume black as well, to blend in more. We watched from our prone positions as two more cop cars pulled in, lights flashing, and the ones who were already here went to confer with them. Another car, that one apparently not a cop (the owner of the gas station, maybe?) pulled in nearby as well. He and a few of the police went into the store while others spread out and started looking around. They didn’t exactly seem to be putting their all into any kind of real search, honestly. Mostly they were chatting in pairs while halfheartedly shining flashlights around. None of them even bothered to look up toward the roofs. Obviously, they were convinced that whoever broke in was long gone. And the bags full of stolen shit were right there.

Most of the cops left within about ten minutes. The last ones were the pair who showed up first, who seemed to be taking a statement from the owner. They went into the store itself again, and I exhaled before pushing myself to my feet. Turning, I walked away a few steps before putting my hands against the front of my helmet, pushing the front part up so I could feel my hands against the mask while letting out a low groan. A few muttered curses escaped me. 

What the hell was I doing? Why did I do that? What was I even thinking? Why didn’t I just turn these guys in? Why’d I take them with me and keep them quiet. Hid them. That’s what I did. I fucking hid them from the cops. Why? Just… just… they were hungry. They were teenagers, not out for any kind of thrill or to fuck with that guy, but because they were hungry. They, and the people they cared about, were hungry enough that they’d risked prison by smashing their way into a gas station to grab a couple bags worth of random crap food. Sandwiches, snacks, things they could’ve taken back to their families to fill their stomachs. They weren’t hardened criminals. They weren’t thugs. They were just scared, hungry kids doing something stupid out of desperation. And I almost sent them to prison for it. Breaking and entering, burglary, whatever else the authorities could throw at them. And that kind of thing would follow them forever. Just because they were hungry. 

“Hey!” The initial, blurted word from the girl was sharp, a snapped demand that immediately shifted to a clearly awkward, confused, “What… what’re you doing?” 

Yeah, these two obviously had no more idea what the fuck was going through my head than I did. No wonder they were just sort of standing there staring at me like my legs had just morphed into a plate of spaghetti or something. They probably still weren’t entirely sure I wasn’t just going to decide to grab them and turn them in after all. They were stuck here on this roof with me. 

At first, I didn’t say anything. I just held up a hand for them to wait a minute while staring off into the distance. Fuck. What was I going to do? What was my next move after all this, exactly? I had to think. I had to figure… something out. Something besides throwing them to the cops. But what? 

I could hear the two whispering behind me. Not enough to make out the actual words, but they were definitely murmuring about what was going on. Apparently this whole situation was confusing them. Which… yeah, fair enough. I’d probably be pretty confused too, in their shoes. 

In the end, I finally came to the only real decision I could. It was the only thing that made sense to me. Pivoting on my heel, I faced the two, whose gazes snapped away from each other to stare at me as though totally convinced that I was about to take them to the cops after all. 

“Okay, guys,” I started, doing my best to sound confident and firm instead of like I was just flying by the seat of my pants with this whole thing. It probably wasn’t enough to convince them after I’d just spent several minutes very clearly silently freaking out, but maybe it was the effort that counted. Either way, I pushed on. “First, I’m not turning you in to the cops. But–” 

That was as far as I got, as the two high-fived and made an assorted bit of noise until I hit them with black paint again. “Wait a minute,” I hissed sharply. “You know, keep making a bunch of sound right now and I won’t have to turn you in, cuz those cops’ll come see what’s going on.” 

That obviously hit home, and both of them sobered, shrinking inward a bit. Satisfied, I continued. “Like I said, I’m not turning you in to the authorities. Not this time. But you’re gonna have to do some things for me in exchange for not going to prison.” 

Murphy immediately took a step in front of Roald, protecting her friend. “Do some things for you?” she echoed as the black paint wore off, suspicion heavy in her voice. “Like what? If you think we’re just gonna–” 

Roald put a hand on her arm, leaning in to whisper something to her. I caught a bit about hearing me out, and that it had to be better than going to prison. The look she shot him made it clear she was thinking of all sorts of ways that wouldn’t necessarily be true. 

“Okay, hold on,” I quickly put in, holding up my hands. “I’m not going to ask you to do anything bad. Just… work.” I was still planning this whole thing out in my head while I was talking. The thought I’d had was based entirely on my situation with the Seraphs. I was essentially stealing that wholesale. “I won’t turn you in, but you have to do work to make up for it.” 

“What kind of work?” Murphy demanded, though her voice was softer. She clearly wasn’t the least bit eager to throw away this chance and go to prison, despite her obvious suspicion. 

“I’m not exactly sure yet,” I admitted. “But I’ll find some kind of… helpful thing you can do for the community or something. I’ll find it, and you guys will do it.” 

“Um.” That was Roald, raising a hand. “How’re you gonna make us do that? I mean, how’re you gonna find us after this? You don’t even–” He stopped then, apparently reconsidering pointing out that I didn’t know what their faces looked like under those masks. 

“I’m not going to make you take your masks off,” I assured them both. “I mean, the hypocrisy of that might crack the planet in half. But I know your names. And you’re not exactly hardened criminals, so I dare bet you live not too far away from this place. Exactly how hard do you think it’d be for me to track you down if I just started going around asking for two teenagers named Murphy and Roald? Particularly a girl named Murphy.” 

From the look the two gave each other, my point struck home. They knew I was right, it wouldn’t be hard to find them with their names if I really tried. 

“Um, okay, fine.” Murphy sounded a bit shaken. Obviously she’d figured out that they shouldn’t have used each other’s real names. “We get it. So what’re we supposed to do?” 

“Be back here, behind this building on Friday night.” I replied quickly. Two days, that would give me time to actually figure out what the hell I was going to have them do to make up for this. “I’ll take care of the broken door and all that… this time. In exchange, I’ll find something for you guys to do. But you be here in two days at midnight. Got it? Two days, midnight, here. If I don’t make it within half an hour, feel free to take off and I’ll meet you back here the night after that. You know, just in case something happens.” 

The two agreed to show up then, and I took a breath before turning away from them. Reaching into the pocket of my suit, I carefully counted out some cash, considering before adding a little bit more. Then I turned back to them and held it out. 

“Here. This is two hundred dollars. Take it and get your families the food they need for a little while. But I want receipts, guys. Make the two hundred stretch as much as you can. Get real food, not gas station crap. Go to the grocery store, buy good things. Rice, beans, meat, canned stuff. Get decent food, as much as you can, and show me the receipts when we meet again, got it?” 

The two stared at me. Murphy found her voice first. “Y-you’re… just… giving us two hundred dollars for food? Why? What’s in it for you?” 

“Like I said,” I pointed out, “you’ll be working it off. This too. You’ll work off this money and the fact that you broke into that shop down there. I just know people need a break sometimes, okay? So I’m giving you a break. Don’t make me regret it.” 

They both hesitantly agreed, and I helped them down to the ground. With one more warning that they had better be here on Friday night, I watched them run off, flipping on my night vision so I could see them for longer, until they were out of sight. 

Then I flipped the vision in my helmet back to normal, and took a quick walk around the corner. The owner of the gas station was alone by that point, sitting in his car as he talked on the phone. The car itself had been pulled up to park right by the broken door, and it sounded like he was arguing about getting someone out there to fix it and how much it would cost. 

Right. How was I going to do this part? Frowning uncertainly, I thought for a moment while watching the man in the car. In the end, I went for the simple option. Which was to use a bit of paper and pen from my pocket (no way did I want this associated with my paint), and scrawl out a quick, blocky all caps note reading, ‘SORRY FOR THE DOOR.’ Then I took an extra five hundred dollars, red painted that and the note to a rock I found, and hurled the rock that way. It bounced off the ground loud enough to attract the man’s attention, just as the red paint wore off. 

Watching as the store owner picked up the note and the cash before looking around in confusion, I quickly ducked back. Breathing out, I turned to leave. That would have to be good enough for now. I’d figure out what work I could have those two do. But at the moment, I really had to get home and get some sleep. 

At least, that was the plan. Unfortunately, no sooner had I turned to start to leave, than I found myself face-to-face (so to speak) with the slightly familiar sight of a tall-ish woman in a dark red bodysuit with black random swirly lines, black boots and gloves, and a pair of red goggles and a gas mask over her face. 

Cavalcade. It was the Sell-Touched Cavalcade, the mercenary I’d met when I was abducted by Deicide’s men, by Janus. 

“Fancy meeting you here, kid,” came the woman’s almost-purred words. “Hope you’re not too busy right now.

“Cuz my new employer would really like to talk to you.”

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Alliances 6-01 (Summus Proelium)

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Something flicked hard against my helmet, snapping me awake with a gasp. I tried to sit up to take stock, but a hand was holding me down. A very big hand. 

My eyes opened, only to see the smiling face of Uncle Friendly staring down at me. He had enlarged his hand to take up most of my torso, easily holding me in place. “There we are,” the man announced. “You’re awake now.” 

“Good!” The snarled word came from the back of his head, where Mister Harmful’s face was. “If he’s awake, let’s get on to the fun part. We owe this little bastard.”

Oh… okay, this was bad. This was really bad. I couldn’t even tell where I was, aside from the fact that it was some room somewhere. I’d been knocked out long enough that we were no longer out on the street. We could have been anywhere. I… what was I supposed to do now? 

Besides be afraid, because I was acing that part. 

I started to shift a bit, but Uncle Friendly tightened his grip painfully, drawing a gasp from me. His voice was still polite and calm. “I see one bit of paint and I’m afraid I’ll just have to snap every rib you have. Then I’ll take those ribs and start jamming them through random bits of your body. And we really don’t want that, do we?”

“We don’t?” his other self retorted. “I thought that was the Plan A.”

Uncle Friendly gave a soft chuckle. “Forgive my eager counterpart. He finds it difficult to forgive and forget. I’m afraid you very much annoyed him, and he’s quite looking forward to hurting you. Let’s try not to let it come to that. You and I, we can work this out peacefully, I believe.”

For a moment, I was silent, mind swimming as I thought to think of anything. That, and I needed a few seconds to collect myself so my voice would do more than whimper. Finally, all I could do was manage a weak, “So, is talking allowed?”

That smile of his brightened. “Of course it is! We can talk about a lot of things. But there’s one thing I’d rather focus on first. I think you know.”

Despite everything, a dozen potential smartass retorts popped into my head. But honestly, I… I was afraid. Yeah, maybe it was stupid and a real hero would’ve been cool and collected. But me? I was just scared, even if I didn’t want to show it. Could I put blue paint on myself to knock the man away for me? Probably. But could I do it fast enough that he couldn’t do a hell of a lot of damage to me first? I didn’t know. And this really wasn’t the best time to test it. I wasn’t even sure I could activate orange paint quickly enough to protect me from his retaliation. Except maybe I could put it on my back. If I put it on my back, I could hide it from him and—

“Now, now.” Friendly whacked a finger in front of my face. “You’re thinking. This isn’t something you need to think about. You know exactly what we need from you, don’t you?”

Face hidden behind my helmet and mask, I hesitated for just a second before replying, “You think I can tell you where Ashton Austin is.”

“You see?” Friendly gave a cheerful laugh. “We’re doing so well. You’re great at this. Except for one thing. We know you can tell us where the guy is. And the inventor girl. Both of them. You can tell us where they are, and we’ll all be civilized about this.”

They wanted Wren too? That made me focus more than anything else had. Slowly, I nodded. “Yeah. I guess. There’s just one problem. See, you keep insinuating about all the bad things you’re going to do to me if I don’t do what you want. Which could be a great motivator, don’t get me wrong. But like you said, there’s a little girl involved. Two, actually. And if I tell you what I know, I’ll be sentencing one to death, and the other to whatever painful things you already have in mind for me. If you think I’d be okay with that, that I’d help kill one girl and condemn another to being your slave so you can torture her into building you weapons to kill even more people… then you’re even dumber than that two-headed freak show act makes you look.”

A sudden pain filled my chest, as the man clamped down. It only lasted for a second, before he released me to spend his torso around so I was facing Mister Harmful. There was a sadistic grin on the second man’s face, and he raised his free hand while clamping down once more with the other. “Oh, I am so glad you said that. You’re mine now, you little cocksucker. I’ll show you just what a mistake you made.”

This was it. I had to get out of here right now, while I still had the—

“Stop.” The simple, yet commanding voice came from someone beyond Janus. Harmful sighed, making a face at me, while Friendly spoke. “At ease, Cav. We’re just getting a few answers. As long as the boy cooperates, he won’t suffer any permanent damage. But I’m afraid he needs to be convinced of the seriousness of the situation and our… enthusiasm.”

The voice, which I now recognized as female, spoke again. “Your boss wants to see him now. You know, upright and walking? As opposed to whatever condition he’d be in when you two finished up.”

Keeping their hand on my chest warningly, the conjoined pair slowly moved out of the way so I could see who they were speaking to. It was a rather voluptuous woman a couple inches under six feet. She wore a dark red bodysuit with black swirly lines randomly patterned across it, with black gloves and boots. Her face was covered by a large, oversized set of red goggles with some kind of breathing apparatus attached over her mouth and nose, like a gas mask. 

The woman saw me looking and chuckled briefly. “Good morning, little boy. Like what you see?”

With that, she was suddenly kneeling in front of me. Along with about five other versions of herself all lined up behind her all the way back to where she had started. A couple seconds later, all of them aside from the one kneeling in front of me disappeared, starting with the one furthest back and quickly making its way all the way up to her as they each in turn popped out of existence. 

I knew her. Or of her. This was Cavalcade. Her power was essentially a mixture of superspeed and duplication. Basically, she moved really fast in any direction by creating a duplicate of herself, then that version created another duplicate, and so on. She did this so quickly that it seemed to be super speed. Each duplicate only lasted a couple seconds before disappearing, so when she was running around, you’d see a trail of about twenty or thirty versions of her. I’d seen videos of her using it to surround a target and attack them from all sides at once. It was… pretty cool. 

And she also wasn’t a member of the Easy Eights. At least, not the last I’d heard. Cavalcade was a Sell-Touched, a mercenary, sometimes working for the bad guys, sometimes for the good guys. She went where the money was, like Lastword and Two-Step. 

Apparently the Easy Eights were currently paying her, because here she was, patting my arm reassuringly. “Don’t you worry. I’ll take you away from the big bad freakshow. But first…” She held up something I knew quite well. It was a pair of the stay-down cuffs. Which I really shouldn’t have been surprised that they had access to, yet made me wince inwardly nonetheless. 

She chuckled softly. “Yeah, he knows what they are. Come, turn over, let’s get you ready to see the lady throwing buckets of cash at me.”

The woman who was paying her. Deicide. She wanted to take me to see Deicide. Oh, this was bad. This was really bad. What was I supposed to do? I had to get out of here, but how? I still didn’t know where I was, aside from the fact that I could now see we were in a cement room that was probably intended to be a holding cell of some kind. That’s what they were using it for, anyway. A large metal door was over in the direction she had come from. But how could I get past Janus and Cavalcade? And even if I did manage that, I had no idea where that door led. Nor did I know how many threats might lay beyond it. I could maybe take them by surprise and get out to the hall, but then what? There could be anyone there. And this woman had super speed, of a sort. What in the living hell was I supposed to do now?

My musings were interrupted by a growl from Harmful. “She told you to do something, you little brat. Don’t make me—”

The woman held up a hand to stop him. “It’s okay, he’s just making sure there’s not an easy way to escape.” Her attention turned back to me then, tone curious. “So, are you satisfied or do we have to do this the hard way?” She didn’t sound threatening at all, more genuinely interested in what I was going to do. And totally casual, of course. It’s not like she really saw me as a threat given the situation. 

It almost would’ve been worth it to punch her, just to see how she reacted. But on the other hand, I really didn’t want to be left here with Janus. Plus, even with the cuffs on, if I got out of here, I could see what lay beyond this cell. There could be an opening. 

So, with an inward sigh, I turned over to present my wrists behind my back. Boy, did this ever suck. I was definitely not going to talk about this in any potential memoirs. 

Did people still write memoirs? 

The cuffs secured my hands behind my back, and the woman stood up with a gesture. “Come on, let’s go. You know how these things work, so stay right with me. You try to run off and you’ll regret it, I promise. And not just because of the cuffs.”

Friendly gave me a little wave, promising that we’d see each other soon. Then the woman led me out of the door. Beyond lay a slightly larger room that looked pretty similar. There were a couple armed thugs there, sitting at a table playing cards. They looked up as we came in, one of them coming to some form of attention. The other leaned back to get a better look at Cavalcade’s backside as we passed through. She ignored them entirely, taking me to the opposite door. There, we were met by a guy who at first glance looked like any other gangbanger. Really, he had baggy jeans with a chain hanging from them, a couple layers of shirts, and a leather jacket, all with nasty sayings on them. The only thing that gave him away as being Touched was the green helmet he wore. It was a full head and face covering thing, made of some kind of metal with clasps on either side. The front of the helmet was an engraved face of a laughing man, and the eyes were covered by sunglasses. 

This, I knew, was Sockinit. Yeah. Unlike my escort, he was one of the official Easy Eight Touched, one of their eight lieutenants, like Skadi and Janus. His power allowed him to dampen or cancel any number of things. He could mute voices or other sounds, stop chemical reactions from occurring, disable electricity, even slow or stop someone’s powers from functioning properly for awhile if he focused long enough on them. 

“Yo, Cav,” Sockinit drawled as we approached the door, “I was thinking–” 

“Don’t,” the woman interrupted. “Because every time you think, you say something stupid that makes me kick your ass, and it turns into a whole thing.” 

She brushed past him, pulling me with her while the man was still reacting to her words. We exited into what was obviously a warehouse. There were people moving crates around, a forklift nearby being loaded up, and a supervisor with a tablet, directing everyone about where to go. I could see the boxes were labeled with both serial numbers and the names of the eight lieutenants in the gang, including the guy we had just passed. 

My escort led me through the maze of shelves and crates. I glanced up as subtly as possible a couple times, looking for a skylight or something. But it was just a blank metal ceiling. Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy. What was I thinking? 

I was thinking that I desperately needed to get out of here, before the situation got even worse than it already had. Unfortunately, I seriously had no idea how to do that. It wasn’t like I could do anything useful like teleport.

Unless the pink paint did that. But I wasn’t going to count myself as that lucky. Plus it hadn’t done anything like that before, so why would it start now? 

Cavalcade led me to a back office. A couple guards there looked up as we approached. These were more alert than the other ones had been, and one turned to open the door behind them while the other gave a nod of greeting. 

“Go on then,” my escort prompted while giving me a little push. “She wants to see you, and the cuffs are keyed to her too. And don’t embarrass me, kid, I kinda like this job. Pays pretty well.”

Right, okay. This is it. Did I have any ideas about how to get out of here without seeing the Easy Eight leader? Did I have a way to escape without walking into that room, with these guards in front of me, Cavalcade behind, and a warehouse full of enemies, while wearing these handcuffs that would slam me to the ground as soon as I tried to leave?

No. No, I did not. So I had no choice. Closing my eyes briefly, I exhaled before walking through the door. 

Entering the office, I saw Deicide immediately. As usual, she looked like a tall, paper-covered female knight. Or like a statue made of paper. Either way, she stood in the corner of the room, near a large wall-mounted television that was currently dark. As I came in, her head turned toward me, and a handful of books floated off the nearby desk. One of them opened up, pages turning rapidly until it stopped, as a disembodied voice read a word on the page. “Hello—” A second book had already been flipping through its pages, stopping at another point to add, “Paintball.”

Yeah, that was really freaky. And, speaking objectively, pretty cool. As far as I knew, no one understood why she didn’t just speak for herself. There were rumors that she was actually mute, or that she just did it for intimidation. Either way, this was how she communicated. 

We faced each other for a moment before I nodded. “I’d wave, but…” I shrugged my shoulders pointedly to indicate the handcuffs. “Of course, you could always take them off. Then I’ll do all the waving you like.”

The floating books flipped through pages rapidly, words coming basically as quickly as a single person talking normally. “On your way out the door, I suppose? You’re fun, kid. I hope nobody has to hurt you too much.”

It was a reminder that made me swallow a little, lifting my chin. “Like I told your pit bull in the other room, I’m not sentencing one kid to being tortured by you people until she builds whatever you want, and another one to die from some disease just so you can take her medicine and—”

In mid-sentence, I was interrupted as the figure in front of me held up a small, familiar object. The books flipped through pages before announcing, “This medicine?”

That was it. It was a vial, just like the one  I had gotten from Ashton. They were basically identical. my mouth fell open, and I just stared for a moment. “You… you have the—”

“Just one,” the floating books informed me while Deicide tucked the vial away somewhere on herself while continuing to speak through her books. “Let’s just say, Cuélebre’s men found it. As I understand, the Ashton boy hid it somewhere in the inventor girl’s shop. They turned the place upside down, but this was the only one. And I ensured that it made its way here.”

There was a brief pause then, while I continued to stare and shock, before she mused, “He didn’t tell you about that yet, did he? So he’s still being cagey about where the rest of them are.”

I started to say something, but she held up a hand, her books continuing. “Let’s settle a few things right now. First, if I wanted to take the location of your friend, I could. Along with any other secret you might have.” 

Before I could object, she made a gesture toward the corner of the room, where someone I hadn’t noticed before was sitting. As my gaze moved that way, the man stood up, coming more into view. He wore a sleek red suit over a black silk shirt, with red leather boots and a full face-covering devil mask that was a mix of black and gold. 

“Hi there,” he spoke in a silky-smooth voice. “Would you mind telling me what you had for dinner last night?” 

Oh. Well, I could do that. Dinner? That didn’t give anything away. “Lamb chops with garlic-rosemary sauce and roasted potatoes.” 

“Oooh, must’ve been a special occasion,” the devil-faced man replied. “How about telling me the first letter of the name of the street your house is on, then walk over to that table over there, pick up that knife, and cut off your left index finger?” 

Hey, that was totally reasonable. He wasn’t asking about Wren or Ashton. “N,” I promptly answered, while moving to the table. Putting my back to it, I fumbled a bit before finding the knife, then somewhat awkwardly tried to line it up with my other hand. . 

“Okay, stop right there,” the man ordered. “That’s enough.” 

I stopped, wondering what I’d done wrong. Did he want me to take off a different finger? I’d heard him right, hadn’t I? It was–

Fuck! Jerking backward, I dropped the knife. It clattered to the table, then to the floor while I stumbled and cursed in shock. What–how was–that guy had…

“You see?” Deicide announced through her books after giving a dismissive wave of her hand for the man to leave, which he did with a salute toward me. “He may dislike direct confrontation, but Devil’s Due is still quite useful. It would be a very simple matter for me to extract all the information you’re trying to hide, if I really wanted to. Given five minutes, I would know all of your secrets. And that’s not counting the… less easy methods a few of my people would like to use.” 

She let that sink in for a moment, before continuing. “Despite what you may think of me, I don’t want Blackjack’s daughter to die. Nor do I want to torture your little friend. Oddly enough, hurting a genius inventor and then depending on her to build something I would subsequently use feels like a bad idea. 

“So no, I don’t want to hurt either girl. Nor do I want to hurt you. I want favors. Three, actually. One from you, for ensuring you get out of this place without further… damage. One from that girl for letting her brand new friend go. And one from Blackjack, in exchange for the vial that I have. Three favors, three wishes. Think of yourselves as a three-headed Genie.”

I hesitated for a second before asking, “How do you know we’ll actually do anything for you after this?

There was a slight chuckle from the actual figure rather than from any book, but it sounded kind of weird. Almost more high-pitched than it should? Before I could dwell on that too much, her books replied, “Blackjack is a man of his word, to a fault. If he swears he will do something for me, within reason, he will. As for you and the girl, well, let’s just say I doubt this will be the last time that the two of us are face-to-face. And I assume you would rather not be on my very bad side. After all, even enemies can be cordial and owe one another. That’s the way the world works.”

“I won’t hurt anyone,” I informed her. “That would kind of defeat the purpose of this deal.”

Her head bowed a bit. “Of course it would. And if I wanted people hurt, I have no shortage of people willing to do that. You’re impressive, kid, but I have enough leg-breakers. No, I promise you any favor I ask will not knowingly kill anyone at all, nor will it hurt anyone who doesn’t have it coming by your own moral standard, and within the bounds of the same. There, are you happy now?”

I hesitated again, thinking quickly. “I can’t speak for Wren. I’m not in charge of her.”

“Just ensure that she knows exactly why you were freed,” came the response. “And make it clear that the same deal applies. Whatever I ask her to build will not directly kill anyone. I am asking for favors, not trying to convert either of you to the dark side of the Force.”

“I can’t make any promises except for myself,” I replied, “but on my part, you have a deal.” What else could I do? By some miracle, maybe I could get out of here. But I doubted it. And I certainly couldn’t get that vial off of her first. No, despite myself, this was the best solution. Owing a favor to any bad guy seemed really wrong. But then, I was already working to save the daughter of one. So this situation was weird to begin with. And she had promised that it wouldn’t be killing anyone or anything like that. I still felt like I was going to regret this somehow, but didn’t have another choice. 

“Excellent,” the books replied for her. “Then I will have Cavalcade take you somewhere, remove the cuffs, and drop you off. She’ll also exchange phone numbers with you. When that number calls, answer. Give it to the others as well. And tell Blackjack the sooner he calls me, the sooner we can work out a deal for him getting this vial back. Which, as I understand, will give him another full month with his daughter. 

“It’s been nice talking to you, Paintball. I hope this is the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial relationship.

“Or at the very least, that I don’t have to have you killed the next time we meet.”

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