Fisher

Schooling 24-03 (Summus Proelium)

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Obviously, I had been through a lot of ridiculous things since I’d Touched the orb that one night a couple months ago. It was pretty hard by this point to say that any single moment definitively topped all others as far as standing out went. But I was going to have to admit, standing on a rooftop in the middle of the night, giving our made-up story about how my friends and I had been robbed by a group that was actually us to a bear and raccoon who shared the same space and kept taking turns being physically present? Yeah, that was going up near the top of the list, at the very least. 

And, to be quite frank, it was probably pretty up there as far as being terrified went. So I had to hide that reaction as much as I could. I was standing here lying to what was apparently not only one (or two) of the Ministry’s highest ranking people given they had the title of Minister, but one of them was probably capable of smacking my head clean off my shoulders. Yes, I had orange paint and all that, but still. Standing in front of a nine-foot tall bear, even if he was in an incredibly-tailored suit, while lying my ass off about something as important to the Ministry as who had robbed them… it wasn’t exactly my idea of a fun time. 

Still, at least we had planned out exactly what we were going to say about this. We’d known that there would come a time when we had to tell the story, and that we might not all get to tell it together. If they asked us separately without any warning, we wanted to have our story straight. This way, whichever of us they talked to would say the same thing. 

In short, the story we’d come up with, which I relayed to my alternatingly bear-raccoon interrogators, was that our group kept some supplies for Trevithick’s work hidden in a few old sheds around the city. Sheds which we had rigged with alarms and other protection to keep the equipment safe. One day, we had been talking and practicing outside one of those sheds when we heard something moving inside. Opening it up, we found three black-masked figures starting to pull boxes over to a hole they’d made in the floor. We were, quite understandably, surprised to see someone there. So they managed to throw some sort of flash bang thing before we could react. We chased them through the tunnel after recovering, but it simply led all the way to a large drainage ditch a couple blocks over, where we’d lost them. 

“But at least they only made off with a couple boxes worth of stuff,” I finished with a shrug. “And we put cameras in our storage places now, believe me.” 

Price, the raccoon, was perched on top of one of those small metal smokestack things, rubbing his paws together thoughtfully as he regarded me. “I don’t suppose you can show us where this other tunnel is so we can check for any other evidence?” 

Looking right back at him, I replied, “I don’t suppose you can show me where your tunnel is?” As he lifted his chin in reaction, I added, “I mean, that’s why you showed up like this to ask these questions, right? These people broke into some place that was important to you, and now you’re looking for any clues that could help you track them down. But something tells me you don’t want to let the sharing thing go both ways.”  

There was a brief pause as he seemed to consider my words, before hopping down as the smoke and light burst appeared. The bear, Fisher, was back. “You’re ahh, you’re right, we don’t have the authority or permission to take you to that place. But we did hope that–” 

“Look,” I interrupted before I could talk myself out of interrupting a bear, “I get it. I know why you all want to stop these people. I mean, I may not know the whole story, but something tells me your whole secret gang doesn’t really like the idea of another secret gang horning in on your territory. Trust me when I say you guys have a better chance of catching them than we do. But if, by some chance, we do happen to get them first, we’ll be sending them to prison, not to you people. Don’t take that the wrong way, it’s just… yeah.” It was important that I stick that bit about sending them to prison in there. It implied that I didn’t know they could get to any prisoner quite easily, and I really wanted to obfuscate just how much I knew about the Ministry. Or just let them think I was that naive. 

“We did get off on the wrong foot, didn’t we?” Fisher noted while giving me a curious glance. He stepped backward, hunching down a bit. I had the feeling he was intentionally trying not to intimidate me. “We heard our introduction to you was Squire carrying out an execution.” 

Squire. That name immediately leapt out to me, for more than one reason. First, he was obviously talking about my brother. That was Simon’s name in the Ministry, Squire? And second, I’d heard that name recently anyway. Back when we had been working out where Luciano was, Murphy had read a bit about how they were sending Squire instead of Plan Z to take care of something else, because Plan Z was busy. Simon was Squire. 

Absorbing all of that, I focused on the large bear in front of me, who was still doing his best to look unimposing. “You mean when I wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time, saw two people get shot in the heads, and then this Squire guy ordered his friends to kill me for being there? I’d say that was more than one wrong foot. That was at least a wrong leg.” 

Fisher gave a slight nod, slumping down to a seated position there on the roof in front of me. “Yes, very regrettable. We wish that had gone differently. If you like, we can answer questions, such as what exactly it was that you walked into that night.”

Questions? Oh boy, yeah, I had a lot of those. And yet, “How would I know you’re telling the truth? I mean, I hate to sound like a broken record, but again, don’t take that the wrong way. If you’re gonna say those two people were pedophile rapists who got what was coming to them, I have no way of knowing if that’s true or not.” 

With a poof of light and smoke, Price was back. “You’re right,” he agreed. “You got no reason to believe anything we say. And we’re obviously not about to be best friends here. Still, like we said before, we wanted to thank you for putting all that aside when it came to this zombie situation. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll be able to laugh about all this tension.” 

“Maybe,” I allowed with a little shrug. There was no sense in being needlessly hostile. Not only did I really want to avoid a fight right now, but I needed the Ministry to continue seeing me as not a threat. They knew that I knew a bit about them, and that I wasn’t on their side. But as of right now, they also saw that I was willing to ask for their help, and I hadn’t tried to go to the cops or anything. I wasn’t an immediate problem they had to deal with, which meant I could potentially be an asset at some point in the future. I wanted them to keep thinking that. On the other hand, I was pretty sure they would be suspicious if I was too easy on them. 

To that end, I added, “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to let me take this Squire guy to the cops so he can tell them the whole story about why he killed those people. You know, as part of laughing about everything in the future, once they accept his story and give him a pat on the back for doing such a service to the community?” My head tilted one way, then the other. “No? Worth a shot.” 

There was a snort from the small raccoon, before he replied, “Sorry, that probably won’t happen. Not unless Squire… let’s say, screws up very badly.” 

Yeah, there was a lot I was tempted to say about that too, but about ninety-eight percent of it would’ve given away far too much about who I was. So, I simply shrugged once more. “In that case, I should probably get out of here. I mean, it’s been pretty cool, talking to a bear and raccoon at all, let alone a bear and raccoon who keep switching places. I feel like it’d be fun to hang out sometime. Maybe go see a movie. But right now, I’m basically asleep on my feet. Seriously, remember that whole ‘saving a stadium full of people from a bunch of fiery zombie monsters’ thing? You were there to see how awesome we were. But being awesome takes energy, so I need to go home.” 

With a slight chuckle, Price waved a paw, which gave me a nice look at his claws and reminded me that just because he wasn’t as big as his partner didn’t mean he couldn’t still be dangerous. “Sure thing, kid. And might I just say, you took talking to a raccoon and bear who keep swapping places better than a lot of people might’ve.” 

Speaking dryly, I replied, “Well, you did make it clear that my first impulse to hug you was a bad idea, and my second impulse to ask for a selfie probably wasn’t much better. You don’t seem like the type of guys who want to have your picture out there, considering I would’ve heard about you otherwise.” 

Fisher returned, swapping places with Price before giving me a short nod. “Those are some good instincts. Maybe they’ll take you a long way. But ahh, as far as hugs go, I will note that I am much more open to the concept than my partner.” 

My mouth opened, before I paused, looking him up and down. Then I shrugged, “Mmmmaybe we should hold off on the hug until a second meeting. But there’s something…. else that could be cool.” With that, I told him what I was thinking. 

Absorbing the request, Fisher made what sounded like a low chuckle. “You are an odd and fascinating boy, Paintball. And yes, perhaps we’ll see you again sometime. We know we can’t tell you not to tell any of your friends about us, if you’ve said anything about the Ministry already…” He trailed off, as though waiting briefly to see if I would react at all. When I didn’t, he just carried on. “But just know that if word gets out about us, or anything else, we know how to track it back. So be careful. And that goes for everything else you know about our group. Discretion is the better part of valor, and valor keeps everyone happy.”

Promising the bear that I would keep that in mind, I added, “About that request?” 

His eyes widened just a little. “You were serious about–ah… well yes, I believe we can accommodate that, if you are certain.” With that, he extended one arm, waiting expectantly. 

Some part of my brain was asking if I was crazy, rather vehemently. I ignored that part (it was used to that), and stepped that way. Pausing, I pointed and coated both of his arms with purple paint before turning around. Fisher reached down, and I felt his enormous paws close around either side of my waist. Without any apparent effort whatsoever, he hoisted me up in the air. “You are certain about this.” 

In response, I gave him a thumbs up while activating the paint I’d given him. “Let’s light this candle!” 

There was a brief pause, before Fisher leaned back, holding me out over his head, almost horizontal to the ground. Then he snapped upright with a roar, and hurled me out over the city. Between his natural bear strength, the Touched-based increase I was pretty sure he already had, and the boost I’d given him, I was sent flying over the rooftops with a loud scream that was half-terror and half-exhilaration escaped me. Several seconds in, and the scream turned to a laugh. I was sailing past several buildings, tumbling head over heels through the air. I was dizzy, in the middle of some terrifying mixture of flying and falling, and it was absolutely amazing. 

Just before I would have splatted against the side of a building, I managed to right myself, using orange paint on my legs, and a shot of blue against the wall so I could simply bounce off it, maintaining my momentum through another couple jumps and a shot of red that sent me sailing freely over the next roof. Fuck, fuck, fuuuuuuuuuck this was fast! 

I wanted to do it again. But I had a feeling they wouldn’t be there if I went back. So, I let my speed gradually slow so I could get my bearings once more.  

What did it mean, exactly, that Ministers Gray had shown themselves to me? Was it just that they were testing how I would react and whether word of their existence would leak out? Obviously, just like Fisher had said, if they showed themselves to me and then rumors of a bear-raccoon joint TONI started going around town, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out what happened. But was that the only reason they made a point of letting me see and talk to them, or was there something else? Were they trying to make me think there could be trust between us or something? I… I didn’t know. 

What I did know was that I needed to get home and sleep, before I ended up crashing right into a wall or falling off the edge of a roof. Though to be fair, either one would result in me not being conscious anymore. Which was sort of like sleeping. 

But hey, at least I probably wouldn’t have to worry about being turned into a murder-zombie if that happened. So we had accomplished something today. 

******

The next morning was Thursday, May 14th. When I’d gotten home the night before, Izzy had already been asleep in her bed. I took just enough time to check on her, then crashed into my own bed and slept until the alarm went off for school. Then I dragged myself through the shower and was just getting dressed in my room when the intercom buzzed to let me know she was out there. So, I let her in and the two of us took a few minutes to talk about what had happened the night before. She’d had just as much excitement as me, given the whole Cuélebre situation. 

“So now he’s pissed at you too?” I asked while nudging her as we sat on the edge of my bed. “You know you didn’t have to do that just to be like me, right? Actually, imitating me in general is just a bad idea all around.” 

Audibly snorting, the other girl lightly kicked my leg. “I wasn’t imitating you. He was gonna hurt Whamline, so I had to spray him down. You know, as a distraction.” After a brief pause, she grimaced. “But uhh, yeah, I don’t think he likes me very much right now.” That said, she turned my way and poked me in the arm harder than she had kicked me. “What about Broadway’s sister? She’s still out there, and she’s gonna be even more mad at you than Cuélebre is at… uh, both of us?” Squirming a bit, Izzy added, “Plus, she wants to get into the Scions, and they hate you too.” 

“Pretty sure they hate both of us,” I pointed out mildly, even as my face twisted a bit. “But yeah, she’s probably gonna be a problem. We know she’s out there now though, and so do the good guys. And the Ministry. It’s gonna be hard for her to show her face out there very much. Not that that solves the problem or anything, just… yeah, we’ll keep our eyes open. And uhh, keep watching for bears and raccoons.” 

She blinked at that, then stared and listened with an open mouth while I explained about meeting the Ministers Gray. When I was done, she took a moment to make sure I wasn’t pulling her leg, then sank back a bit, absorbing all of it. Finally, she murmured a soft. “Wow.” 

My head bobbed. “Wow about sums it up, yeah. I guess they want to see what I do with that sort of information. It’s definitely a test, and… I think also a sort of threat. But we can handle tests and threats, right? 

“Right,” she agreed before pushing herself up. “But you know what’s gonna be an even bigger threat if we don’t move?” 

“Jefferson,” I confirmed, hopping up after her. “Yeah, you’re right. We better get down there, or he’ll kill us before Jennica even has the chance to try.” 

So, the two of us had a quick breakfast before joining Jefferson for the drive to our schools. We talked about ordinary girl stuff on the way, to the point that I was pretty sure poor Jefferson’s ears practically started to bleed. Which I felt a little bad for, but hey, anything to make sure he’d report that there was absolutely nothing interesting going on with us. 

In any case, I eventually found myself at school, where I took a waiting Amber for a walk around the back field for her turn with the whole catching up thing. She apologized for not being able to get there, and for not even being around when the rest of the Star-Touched showed up. 

“They took us straight to the clubhouse, then had our parents pick us up,” she was saying while we studied some graffiti on the side of one of the football goalposts. “I mean, they promised your situation was already taken care of, but I still… you know.” 

“I know,” I confirmed. “It’s okay. I mean, like I said to your…” Briefly, I made a point of looking at my phone. “Seventeen text messages, we’re good. We were safe.” 

Her gaze met mine as she bumped her fist into my shoulder. “Sure, if you count adding another pissed off enemy to your ongoing list as being safe.” She tried to make it sound teasing before visibly sobering. “Look, just be careful, okay?” 

“Oh, don’t worry,” I assured the girl, “I wouldn’t wanna be eaten by a bear.” Letting that hang for a moment as she stared at me trying to figure out if that was some sort of strange figure of speech, I finally snorted and explained the situation. Which meant I was treated to my second ‘person staring open-mouthed at me while trying to figure out if I was screwing with them’ of the past hour. 

Finally, Amber rocked backward on her heels. “Oh. I mean… oh. Wow. Well, either they’re sharing information with you because they don’t think you’re a problem…” 

“Or because they’re planning on making sure I’m not,” I finished, feeling a slightly queasy sensation run through me before pushing that aside. “Yeah, but I’m pretty sure it’s that first one.” 

Amber sighed. “I hope so. You’ve got enough people angry at you as it is.” 

“You know, people keep saying that,” I pointed out. “But the way I see it, if I get enough people pissed at me, when they do make a move, they’ll all run into each other, start a fight, and then I can escape unscathed. Like those cartoons where the whole group dog-piles the guy and he just crawls out from under the dust cloud and walks away.” My eyebrows waggled pointedly while she stared at me. “No?” 

“You should probably go back to the drawing board and come up with a better plan,” Amber replied flatly. Her mouth opened to add something else, before looking past my shoulder as she adjusted to call out, “Hey, Jae, what’s up?” 

Sure enough, Jae was approaching. She had on a wide-brimmed hat as well as sunglasses, and was clearly wearing sunscreen to protect her delicate skin. And even then, I was pretty sure she wouldn’t stay outside for very long. She also stayed silent until she was right next to us, before finally offering a slight smile our way while speaking softly. “Morning. Would…” She hesitated, clearly wanting to ask something but apparently uncomfortable with it. 

“What is it, Jae?” Amber prompted. “It’s okay, you can tell us. Unless you wanna just talk to one of us?” She glanced to me, looking slightly uncertain. Or possibly uncomfortable. 

“Oh yeah, sure. Sorry.” Holding up both hands to assure them it was okay, I started to say I would see them inside. For all I knew, Jae wanted to talk to Amber about stuff involving her being That-A-Way and didn’t realize that I already knew that. Hell, I didn’t know if Jae knew that. It was a weird situation. The two of them were friends, but that didn’t mean she definitely knew, and even if she did, I didn’t necessarily want her to know that I knew because that could lead to figuring out who I was, and then–yeah. It was a whole thing. 

Before I could head off, however, Jae quickly spoke up. “I–uh, actually I was… wondering if you both could take notes for me today. I have a… doctor’s appointment. I mean, Amber in the classes we have and… and Cassidy in the classes we have that I don’t have with Amber. I–that is–”

“Sure thing,” I assured her before she could fumble on with that. “No problem. Doctor’s appointment, huh? Everything cool?” 

“Yeah,” she confirmed while glancing out toward the parking lot. “Dad just wants me to get a check-up since he’s back in town. He was just working on some movie with this contagion outbreak, and… it made him paranoid. So Kella’s gonna drive me over there.” 

I rarely heard Jae say much, so this was practically a whole speech by her standards. Which made me once again think she must’ve been feeling awkward about the whole Amber being That-A-Way thing. But that wasn’t a discussion I could get into right then, so I just let it go and promised again to take notes for her. Amber did the same, and then Jae headed off. 

“She knows, doesn’t she?” I started quietly after watching the girl leave. 

Amber seemed to jump a bit, turning back my way. “Huh?” 

“About you being Touched, I mean,” I clarified. “Err, sorry, I probably shouldn’t have said anything. It’s just, that was a little awkward right there, like she wanted to say something but didn’t. Or… something.” 

There was a brief pause before Amber gave a slight nod. “Uh, yeah. She knows. But she doesn’t know anything about you.” 

“Yeah, that’s probably why it was awkward,” I noted, shaking my head before starting to walk to the school building itself. “This whole situation is just weird sometimes, you know?” 

Muttering something about me having no idea, the other girl followed. The two of us were just heading inside, when I glanced toward the parking lot. There, I saw Jae getting into the passenger seat of some random car. At first, I thought it was her stepmother giving her that ride she was talking about, but the driver was a man. One that I belatedly recognized. 

Okay, so if Jae’s stepmother was supposed to be taking her to the doctor, why was she getting into a car with that Damarko Myers guy? Wait, hold on…

Did… did Jae have a secret boyfriend? 

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Schooling 24-02 (Summus Proelium)

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Once we made our way out of there and over to the van that, as promised, was waiting, the driver took us back into the city. We had the man drop us off a few blocks away from the shop, and thanked him for the lift. Then, once he drove off, we moved into the nearby alley and all of us practically collapsed against the nearby walls to look at each other. The drive had been a nice chance to sit for a bit, but we hadn’t really relaxed there, not with that guy around.

“Man,” Murphy announced while slumping down to sit on the ground, “I feel like I could sleep for a week. And my hand won’t stop shaking. Is that normal?” 

Sitting next to her, Roald shook his head. “My hands are just fine, but my knee won’t stop moving. See?” He gestured as his leg bounced erratically. “Seriously, it’s like I’m exhausted, but I sort of feel like I want to run a marathon. I could close my eyes and fall asleep right here, or my brain could keep me up all night. My body’s ready to fall apart, but…” 

“It’s adrenaline,” Paige advised him. “That’ll wear off. You’ll want to get back home and in your bed before that happens. Otherwise you really might end up sleeping in an alley. And that’s not as fun as it sounds, believe me.” 

With a nod, Peyton put in, “Yeah, and speaking of sleeping in an alley, if I don’t get home, my mom is really gonna freak out.” She looked over at Murphy and Roald. “I’ll give you guys a ride if you want.”

They agreed with that, and we arranged to meet and talk about things the next day. Then those three headed off together, while I focused on Sierra and Paige. “Well,” I started, “at least we stopped that whole thing. I mean, sure, that evil chick is still running around out there trying to impress the Scions, but this whole thing could’ve been a hell of a lot worse.”  

The two of them exchanged glances before Sierra spoke up. “Yeah, it sure could’ve.” Turning back toward me, she added, “Which is why we decided something on the way back here.”

“You decided something?” I asked while looking back-and-forth between them. “I didn’t think you guys even said a single word to each other that whole drive.” 

“We didn’t have to physically talk,” Paige informed me. “Remember, we have Wi-Fi. We set up our own private chat server and talked there. We can add you guys in, so you can join the chat room on your phone or computer. That way, we can all stay in contact.” 

“Wait hold on,” I interrupted, “is that whole ‘we have Wi-Fi’ thing a joke? Because I’m pretty sure that’s not the most secure thing for you guys to be talking about private stuff on. Especially if it was Wi-Fi inside a government van.” 

“Yes and no,” Sierra informed me. “It’s not a joke because we really can connect to Wi-Fi if we want to. But we also have our own private network. Trust me when I say, it’s secure. The version we were using in the van is short-range, line of sight communication. The signal went from me to her and back again. On top of that, it’s all encrypted. They’d have to literally be one of us to understand it. We’ll have to fix up your devices so they can connect to it, and when you do, you won’t exactly find a bunch of fun websites. But at least we’ll all be able to use our little chat room to stay in contact.” 

“Okay, right, cool.” Nodding slowly, I murmured, “So you’ve got this secure little chat room for just the two of you, and you’re gonna let us into your clubhouse so we can all keep up with each other in a way that doesn’t involve normal texting.” 

Paige straightened while looking down the alley as she confirmed, “That’s about the size of it. Obviously, when you guys use it, you’ll be going through the regular internet. But it’ll still be secure. A hell of a lot more secure than ordinary phone texting, anyway. Add that into using phones your parents don’t know about and that’s about as safe as we can be. We’ll make sure the program we add to your stuff looks like something innocent, and wipes anything incriminating if anyone pokes at it.”

“Right, sounds good to me,” I managed. Hell if I knew anything about the details. If they said it would be safe, I believed them. Which was an odd feeling coming from the whole Paige direction. But I shoved that thought out of my mind and asked, “So, what was this decision you guys were talking about before we got off on that little tangent?” 

Once more, the two of them exchanged glances before turning back to me. Paige started, “Like you said, that situation could’ve gone a lot worse. And there’s going to be more like it. Jennica is still out there. She’s trying to hook up with the Scions, who don’t really like you very much. So they won’t like any of us very much. To say nothing of all the other bad guys out there.”

“Including our father,” Sierra put in. “We still have to get Irelyn and that Trivial chick out of there.” 

“Exactly,” Paige agreed. “But if we’re– that is if you’re all going to survive all that, you need real training. Or you’re just gonna die.” 

“Don’t get us wrong,” Sierra put in, “with your powers, you’re pretty awesome. And, you know, it’s obvious you’ve had a little self-defense practice. You know how to punch someone. But you need more than that. A lot more. And so do the others. I just started to like you guys a little bit, so I’d rather not watch you get murdered. You’re all a lot more fragile than we are. And we can’t exactly go shoving the lot of you into more biolem orbs and bodies… yet.” 

“So,” Paige finished while I was giving Sierra a double-take, “we’re going to start teaching all of you how to fight. Really fight, I mean. We’re going to train you so that you’re not completely helpless without your powers.” 

Sierra coughed. “Well, let’s be honest, you’d still be in pretty bad shape without any power. I mean, come on, look at us, you and me. We’re like five foot nothing and, what, a hundred pounds? If I didn’t have enhanced biolem-strength, I’m not completely sure my foot wouldn’t snap off if I kicked a ball.”  

Grimacing, I retorted, “It’s not that bad. But yeah, you’ve got a point. I mean, about us needing to train. Do you really think you two can help with that?” 

Paige gestured pointedly. “We might as well put what Pittman programmed into us to good use. And the very best use I can think of for it is teaching all of you how to survive long enough to kick his ass and get Irelyn and Trivial off that island.” With a shrug, she added, “Besides,  with the way you make a habit of pissing people off in this city, you need all the survival training you can get. And so does anyone who’s planning on spending time with you.” 

My mouth opened as I raised a finger, before pausing. “I… yeah, okay, that’s fair. So, sure, that sounds like a plan to me. Or a goal, at least. If you guys want to designate yourselves our official trainers or whatever, feel free. You’re right about us needing all the help we can get. Seems like everything out there is getting more dangerous, not less. And you’re not the only ones who don’t want to see anything happen to anyone else in this team now that we just started to–uh, be a team.” 

“We’ll work something up,” Paige informed me. “But right now, you should get some rest. Do you want help getting home?” 

My head shook. “No, that’s cool. I’ll be fine. You guys head back to the shop.” She had been staying there with Sierra, even though they were both mobile and in separate bodies now. 

“Actually,” the girl who was my doppelganger under that mask informed me, “we’re gonna head to the Banners’ house, considering no one’s there right now. Not even any staff. And since the Ministry already interrogated Paige–” 

That made me do an almost violent double-take, while reflexively painting half a dozen question marks across my chest and helmet. “I’m sorry, the Ministry did what?” 

Sierra gave a look toward Paige, her voice reproachful. “I thought you said you were going to tell her.”

“I was,” Paige confirmed, “but then we got a little busy. The zombie baseball apocalypse was distracting.” Looking at me, she insisted, “It wasn’t a big deal. One of their agents talked to me earlier today, before we met up for all this. He wanted to know where I’ve been, and if I knew anything about Irelyn’s disappearance. I told him my dad was paranoid about something and took my mother and me on a bunch of increasingly stupid retreats. And I said that I finally convinced him to let me come home so I could go back to school, but when I got here, Irelyn had already left to go find us. I don’t know where they are now, and I don’t know where she is either.” 

Absorbing all that quietly, I finally asked the most important question, “Do you think he believed you?” 

Paige considered, though I was absolutely certain it was something she’d already thought about a lot. “If I didn’t, I would have brought it up sooner. They’re covering their bases. They know I was adopted by the Banners, and that I disappeared with them, then two of the local Star-Touched, one of whom happens to be the daughter the Banners bought me to replace after she pissed them off, disappeared too. Between that and me knowing about the Ministry, I would’ve thought something was wrong if they didn’t have a discussion with me. Mostly they wanted to know if Aaron Banners knew anything about them. So I told them I was pretty sure that’s not why he’s paranoid, and that he said something about business competitors and maybe Japan, or China or something. I kept it vague enough.” 

“Besides,” Sierra put in, “they’ve got other things to worry about right now.” 

“Right, our break-in secret is conveniently distracting them from peering too hard at our other secrets.” Snorting at that, I added, “Speaking of which, we need to decide what gang to hit next as our other-selves. Err, our other-other-selves. You know what I mean. If we’re gonna keep up the facade about there being some other group out there robbing them, we need to do it again.” 

“We’ll workshop that,” Paige agreed before flatly adding, “later. Right now, you really need to sleep. You’re swaying a lot more than you think you are right now.” 

She had a point, as much as I hated to admit it. It felt like there were still a dozen things I should be doing right then, but I really was incredibly tired after everything that had happened. So, with a heavy sigh, I nodded. “Fine, fine, I’ll head home and get some sleep. Just promise me that you guys are going to be careful.” 

Sierra coughed again and smirked at me after taking the mask off. “I’m not gonna get caught by your parents, trust me. It’s all cool, twin.” Her head tilted as she looked at Paige, then back to me. “Have you guys ever thought about how weird it is that I’m technically the twin of both of you in different ways?” 

Staring right back at her, I replied dryly, “Believe me, it’s come to mind.”

With that, I left the two of them and began to race-paint my way across the city. The chaos had thoroughly died down by the time we got back here in the van, as the gangs had all gone back to their own respective corners to lick their wounds and reassess their current situations. So, I had the city pretty much to myself. It was after curfew, and the emergency services were busy cleaning up various messes, or just recuperating themselves. I saw a few faces in windows waving or calling out greetings at me as I passed, so I waved back. One guy leaned out a nearby window entirely and shouted my name. Well, my Touched name anyway. When I stopped and looked, he waved a baseball bat while cupping his other hand against his mouth to shout, “Could you sign this!? Come on, I wanna give it to my kid!”

Well, what was I supposed to say to that? I launched myself that way and planted my knees against the wall next to his window after landing. “Hey there! What’s your name? And your kid’s name?” 

The man, a blonde guy in his forties with a neatly trimmed beard, beamed cheerfully. “Name’s Kyle. My son’s name is Edgar. Yeah, I know, but it was his mom‘s choice. She named him after her great uncle. Tried to go with Eddie, but the kid insists it’s Edgar. He’s nine. Just starting Little League.” 

Taking the bat as he offered it to me, I touched the side and instantly inscribed the words, ‘Hey Edgar, hope you smash a homerun so hard the bat breaks and I have to sign another one – Paintball.’ It took up most of the length of one side. 

Grinning as he saw what I had written, Kyle thanked me profusely and asked if I minded if he took a quick picture so he could prove it was real to his son. I agreed, and he leaned back in the window while holding the phone up so he could take a picture of us together. 

With that done, I gave him a thumbs up before launching myself away from the wall once more. As I was flying through the air, he called after me, “Oh, shit, thanks for what your new team did at that ballgame! I meant to say that!” 

Laughing, I turned over in the air to wave at him, using yellow paint to slow myself for that long. Then I landed on a lamppost and immediately used blue to hurl myself upward once more. The adrenaline was running low. I needed to get home, fall into my bed, and just die for awhile. 

Which, of course, was the thought that I had just as another figure caught my eye. This one was waving too, as I launched myself over another building. But it was waving from the roof, rather than from a window. And that wasn’t the only odd thing about it. The waiting figure wore a nice suit that looked like it belonged at one of those fancy millionaire dinner parties my parents liked to go to. It definitely wasn’t the suit of a man who would normally have been standing on top of an old used tire shop. Oh, then there was the fact that the man wasn’t a man at all. It was a bear. A literal bear, as in the furry animal, stood on its hind legs, wearing a perfectly tailored suit, waving at me. 

Okay, either I had been dosed with something, I was even more tired than I thought I was, to the point of being delirious, or that was a TONI. Wait, a bear in a suit. I’d thought I saw a bear in a suit back at the stadium! Wait a minute, was this… was this someone new? I wasn’t sure. I’d definitely never heard of a bear TONI in Detroit. But either way, it certainly got my attention. Especially since it meant I hadn’t been seeing things back when all that was going on. 

So, making sure I had enough paint on me to protect myself and get out of there if something went wrong, I used a shot of red to yank myself down that way. Landing smoothly, I straightened up and stared at the bear. Yeah, nothing had changed. From up close, that suit looked even more expensive. I’d seen a lot of fancy clothing in my time, even if I didn’t tend to wear much of it myself. I’d been in the sort of stores where these suits were sold, and I knew this one was top of the line. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had its own Touched-Tech enhancements for protection. Those expensive ones tended to have bullet-proofing and even fire-protection, that sort of thing. 

And this wasn’t just any bear. He was enormous, standing what had to be nine feet tall and impressively built, a fact that was apparent even under that suit. He looked like he could take my head off with a casual swat. 

After looking the bear up and down briefly, I hesitantly started by raising my hand in a wave. “Uh, hello? Did I… did I see you earlier? Back at the stadium. I thought I saw… but then…” 

“Ah, good evening, Paintball,” the bear replied. His voice seemed to literally come from him, rather than an electric translator. Which wasn’t always the case. Some TONIs could speak normally, others couldn’t. “Do you mind if we call you that?” 

“Uh, to be honest, I’m still not sure I’m conscious right now and didn’t just plow into a building to give myself a concussion,” I informed him with a shrug. “But sure, I guess. If this is real, you should probably call me the same thing as everyone else.” 

The bear smiled, and it took me a moment to realize that he was trying to reassure me rather than be intimidating. Those teeth were very sharp. “Don’t worry, “ he rumbled politely, “you’re not in a coma and you’re not dreaming. Or hallucinating. And yes, to answer your question, we were at the stadium earlier, attempting to provide what aid we could given the circumstances. I am called Fisher. We are Minister Gray.” 

Okay, that made me do a double-take. “Wait, Minister? As in–” 

“Part of the Ministry, yes,” came the response, while he held up both paws. “But please, relax yourself, we are not here with any ill-intention. Rather, we wish to offer our thanks for your aid in maintaining relative peace within the city.”

Regardless of his words, I reflexively took a step back and glanced around. “Okay, you keep saying we, but I only see one of you. Wait, sorry, are you–” 

“We are not plural,” the bear informed me. “Not in the way you are thinking, anyway. But–ah, it is a bit complicated. Please, this is not a threat or an attack, though it will be a bit of a surprise.” 

Even as I opened my mouth to question that, there was a sudden burst of smoke right where the bear was, along with a glowing pyramid shape right in the center. I jumped backwards and brought my hands up despite his warning, but the smoke cleared to reveal that the bear was gone. Then a voice spoke up sharply. “Hey, down here.” 

My gaze lowered promptly, until I saw a raccoon. Just like the bear, he was in a clearly-tailored suit. And yes, it looked completely goddamn adorable. The bear had been intimidating, but seeing this little raccoon in a suit made me want to pick him up and squeeze him. 

“Don’t even think about it, kid,” the raccoon snapped, clearly interpreting my body language. “No hugging me, no picking me up. The name’s Price. Like my partner was saying, we’re Minister Gray. The short version is we Touched together, now we share space and take turns being on the outside. You don’t get to know any more than that.” 

This was a lot for me to take in. My mouth opened and shut a couple times as I fought to work my way through the confusion before I managed, “Wait, you were at the–I mean of course you were at the stadium too, but Alloy saw you!” 

“She sure did,” Price the Raccoon retorted, “cuz I wanted her to. How else were you supposed to find those hostages in time?” 

Absorbing that, I fumbled for a response before landing on, “You guys are part of the Ministry?” Yeah, it was dumb, but I had to say something

“That’s right, and we came to thank you for putting aside any differences of opinion you might have with us. Getting that girl to call for help was the right thing to do,” he informed me. “The situation back at that ballpark could’ve been an outright massacre. But you accepted help from people others would call villains, and you requested help from us. That showed both initiative and forward thinking. It shows we might need to reevaluate a few things about you.” 

“I uhh… well, thanks, I guess.” What the hell was I supposed to say to that? “But you could’ve sent that message with someone who wouldn’t attract this much attention. Don’t take this the wrong way, but something tells me you’re not just here to say thank you. I don’t think you would’ve revealed yourself if that was it.” 

The raccoon smiled, showing his own teeth. “Well, no, not exactly. But that was at the top of the list. We also hear you’ve experienced a bit of a break-in from a set of masked… intruders. We’d like you to tell us exactly what happened, in detail.” 

“Oh, uh, right.” We had mentioned that to Glitch, of course, as part of maintaining our cover and making it look like Avant-Guard and the black-masked people who broke into the Ministry were different people. “That might take awhile.” 

“It’s quite alright,” came the response. “We’ve got all the time in the world.” 

“And we’re not going anywhere until we hear that story.” 

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Enkindle 23-17 (Summus Proelium)

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The nearest zombie, a heavyset woman with a big hole in her stomach, lunged at one of the baseball players who was struggling to reach the hole in the fence I’d made. Before she could reach him, I activated orange angelic wings on my back for protection while using a blue puddle to launch myself that way. Inverting in the air, I slammed both feet into her shoulders. The impact was barely enough to make her stagger slightly, and felt like I had crashed into a brick wall. Still, it made her stop chasing that guy so he could escape. Rebounding off her, I flipped in the air and landed in a crouch, shooting a bit of red paint at her knee. At the same time, I hit a nearby folding chair one of the security guards had been using with another shot. She came charging my way that time and grabbed for me with her arms, just as I let the chair fly into her legs. It crumpled under the impact, and immediately melted partway, but still managed to knock her off her feet. 

Now the panic was really setting in. There was screaming from all around me as people bolted for the exits and tried to climb over each other to reach them. I launched myself upward with blue paint once more while giving a sharp whistle. To my relief, Alloy was actually paying attention and one of her marbles came up under me, shifting into a platform for me to land on. My hands pointed straight down, hitting the bit under my feet with red paint before I glanced to where she was hovering and made a quick motion with one hand as I threw myself off it and pointed toward the female zombie. A new stream of red paint hit the woman in the head and shoulders. 

Once again, Peyton understood. The platform flipped over so the bit I had painted was faced down, just as I activated the paint. The woman was yanked upward, slamming full force into that platform. Which transformed into a hand to close around her before she could fall, quickly spinning around several times before opening to send the zombie woman flying off to crash into the outfield, as far from people as we could manage. 

Meanwhile, I had dropped back to the ground just in time for one of the other zombie creatures to throw itself off the stands to crash down toward me. Seeing it coming from the corner of my eye, I activated green, purple, and orange stars along my sides while throwing myself sideways, just as the thing landed right where I had been. Shoving myself up before it could recover, I caught its wrist and yanked hard, ignoring the heat that I could feel even through the orange protection. With the added strength and speed boost, I managed to spin with the zombie and hurl it headlong into the nearest wall before the thing could recover. It wouldn’t stop the monster, of course. But this wasn’t about stopping them, it was about slowing them down long enough for all their potential victims to get out of this place safely. 

Speaking of which, I saw a group of people running for one of the exits. They were about to trample right over a couple older women who were struggling to move that way on walkers. Before anything terrible could happen, I used a pair of purple thumbs up symbols on my chest for strength, while painting both of my arms (sleeves and actual body alike) pink. With a grunt, I heaved as hard as my enhanced strength could manage. Between that and the pink stretchy power, my arms extended a good fifteen feet (getting narrower along the way, like taffy being stretched out), just far enough for me to catch hold of the two elderly women. A quick shot of orange from both hands ensured I wouldn’t break anything in them as I yanked the pair away from the stampeding group just in time. 

The two women were still trying to figure out what had just happened, as they looked at my stretched-out arms and yelped in surprise. 

“Sorry!” I called out while using my hands to yank them up to their feet. “But you really need to go now!” With those words, I snapped my right, extended arm sideways like a whip, using a bit of orange on my own back for protection just as my fist collided with the jaw of a zombie who had been clambering that way. It barely made an impact on the thing, but it still looked surprised that I had punched it from a distance. 

“Yeah,” I called out while my arms shlurped back to their normal length, “I’ve got some tricks, you wanna see another one?” As the zombie howled and came charging at me, I shot a quick line of pink paint along the ground. It stomped right through that line, and thus through the painted ground itself as I activated it. Like stomping into wet cement. Soon, it was buried up to its waist in the ground, and let out a horrible scream before slamming its fists down. Just as the thing did that, I deactivated the pink paint. Since I stopped it early, the paint became incredibly bouncy at the exact moment that the monster’s fists slammed into it. The ground instantly indented a good three feet under the force of that blow, and the zombie had an almost cartoonish look of surprise and confusion just before the ground snapped back into place, launching that monster far into the sky. It was like he’d been shot out of a cannon. 

Knowing that still wouldn’t get rid of the damn thing permanently, I glanced around quickly. To one side, I saw a guy on the ground with his arms up, trying to shield himself from a zombie who was lunging at him. Meanwhile, to the other side, there was a small group of children who were being shielded by a different man as he faced down another charging zombie. Without taking the time to even think about it, I activated a couple spots of green to speed myself up, while snapping my arms out to either side. A shot of red paint went from one hand to the guy who was cowering on the ground before I just as quickly adjusted my aim to hit a spot at my feet and activated both. He was immediately yanked away from the lunging monster just before it would have grabbed him, and pulled over to crash into the grass next to me with a yelp. At the same time, I shot a blue square onto the ground directly in front of the man who was protecting those kids. As that zombie ran over the square, he was launched upwards. Before he could come down again, Alloy turned one of her marbles into a large baseball bat and slammed it into him to knock the zombie out of the way. 

Throughout that, I caught glimpses of the others. Poise and Style were getting people to the nearest exits, and stopping any fights before they really got started. They moved deftly through the crowd, ducking and weaving like it was all some perfectly choreographed dance as they made sure no one ran into any zombies. Calvin and Hobbes, meanwhile, were still taking turns with the teleporter powers to get people closer to the exits. 

Then I saw something… weird that couldn’t be right. For just a second, up near the far back area behind the third base bleachers, I thought I saw a… bear. A large, heavy-set and furry bear. But that wasn’t all. This bear was wearing a suit. I could’ve sworn it was there, just in the corner of my eye as I was scanning. But as the sight registered in my brain and my eyes snapped back to that spot, there was nothing there. 

Oookay, this whole situation was making me a little nuts, that was for sure. 

Pushing that aside, I spun back toward the elderly women who were still trying to reach the exit. “Hi,” I greeted them quickly. “Sorry, I know this is probably gonna suck for any vertigo and nausea, but I promise I won’t let you get hurt.” With that said, I renewed the orange paint I’d given them before. Then I quickly caught hold of the first woman before using purple circles on my arms and blue stars on the bottom of my shoes so I could pick her up and launch myself all the way up and over the fence. She gave a loud cry of surprise, just as we came down on the other side. 

“Sorry, sorry!” I blurted before quickly launching myself back the other way. A moment later, I returned with her friend. They were both now out on the field. “The parking lot’s that way!” I called out, pointing them in the right direction. From there, I went right back into the stadium. There were still a lot more people to get out of there. 

As I landed back in the field, Alloy whistled for my attention and pointed toward a few people in the upper stands who were struggling to stay away from one of the zombies as it barged right through the bleachers toward them. She already had a couple of her marbles working together to lift another group over the fence, while two more appeared in front of me to create a narrow set of stairs with a platform at the top. Immediately, I ran up them and launched myself off with a bit of blue on my shoes to reach the upper deck just behind the rampaging zombie there. He was about three rows from the trapped group, who looked like they were seriously considering just jumping off the edge and taking their chances with the fall. 

So, that was exactly what I told them to do. Spraying all six people there with the line of orange, I activated it while shouting, “Jump! I swear, you’ll be fine! Just jump right now, the paint will protect you!” 

In response to my voice, the zombie spun toward me and howled once more while lashing out with one hand. I managed to throw myself backward out of the way to avoid it, while the group I’d hit with that paint followed my instructions. Some were more eager than others, but all of them threw themselves over the side of the railing and dropped down to safety below. Relative safety, anyway. I had to hope that they would keep running once they were down there. But for now, I had my own problems. Namely, I was out of paint for the moment. I’d felt it coming, but had been too distracted to pay much attention. I’d used all my paint and what I already had on myself. Now I had to wait for it to recharge while this zombie was coming after me. Quickly, I shoved myself to my feet and popped the wheels out of my shoes so I could pivot away from him and skate out of the way. I heard him stumbling after me, burning his way through those metal bleachers. Apparently I had pissed him off. But hey, at least he wasn’t following those innocent people over the railing. I was pretty sure he could survive that fall too. 

Well, not survive, per se. Continue being animated? Whatever, I was glad he was chasing me instead of them. 

At least, that was what I told myself as I frantically hopped onto one of the bleachers and skated along it while glancing over my shoulder to see the zombie rapidly catching up. I still had to wait even longer to get my paint back, so I pushed myself to move faster, skating along those metal bleachers before one of Alloy’s marbles flew past me. It transformed into a short ramp leading up to the wall of one of the fancy luxury suites where people like my family would watch the game in the equivalent of a hotel room. Like the place where my dad had taken us to watch the races. 

Immediately, I skated up the ramp, before allowing the gravity-boots to keep me rooted to the wall so I could skate all the way up it to the roof. That didn’t require my paint, at least. And from the sound of things, it made the zombie chasing me pretty mad. 

Right, from here I had a decent view of what was going on. Most of the stadium had been emptied by now. That was the good news. The bad news was that there were still a dozen zombies, and our group was rapidly becoming their focus. Both because of the shrinking number of other targets, and because we had pissed them off. Or pissed off the guy who was controlling them. I still wasn’t sure exactly how that worked and how much autonomy they had. Either way, the point remained the same. Lots of dangerous monsters were focused on coming after us in particular now that we had spoiled their… fun. And there was still no sign that the others had managed to track Jason down yet. 

Just as I was taking all that in, a shout from below caught my attention. Calvin was there, looking right up at me while raising one of those high-tech Wren rifles that he’d had over his shoulder. In the next instant, I heard something behind me and spun just in time to see the zombie who had been chasing me coalescing out of a cloud of ashes. Right, they could teleport. Fortunately, even as that thought, accompanied by a jolt of shock, was filling my mind, a bolt of energy from Calvin’s rifle struck the zombie and sent him flying backward off the roof with a howl. 

“Thanks!” I called out while throwing myself off the roof. There was another zombie below me, but I managed to land several feet past it, coming down on the bleachers once more before letting my momentum carry me along on my wheels while the zombie swiped at me uselessly. Fuck, fuck, paint, please! I needed more paint right– From the corner of my eye, I saw one of the monsters down by the visiting team dugout. There was a ballboy there, huddled in the corner behind a rack of baseball bats, while the zombie stalked toward him. It seemed to be savoring the boy’s terror. 

No, no, no! A rush of panic filled me as I stuck my hand out that way, my mind a mix of silent cursing and prayer. Please, please have been long enough, please just–there! Red paint appeared and shot from my hand, hitting the space just above the dugout. With a thought, I put orange on myself while letting the red yank me that way. Just as the zombie was reaching out toward the last bit of equipment keeping him from the cowering ballboy, I slammed into him feet-first. The impact knocked the zombie back several steps with a confused grunt. Before it could recover, I reached out, caught hold of the boy’s wrist, and yanked him up with a little help from a purple fist on my shoulder. “Kudos on the loyalty,” I blurted, “but I don’t think anyone would blame you for leaving the game right now!” With that, I used blue paint on my shoes to launch both of us away from the dugout just as the zombie was recovering. In midair, another bit of red yanked us toward the exit that Calvin and Hobbes were trying to keep clear with multiple shots from their rifles to knock back any zombies who approached. Landing a bit awkwardly and almost falling over in the process with the boy (he was only a couple inches shorter than me), I gave him a little push toward the open gate. “Make like you’re trying to steal home for the World Series win!” 

He ran for it, and I spun back to put myself between Calvin and Hobbes while they continued aiming and shooting at any zombie who tried to approach. The problem was that the shots might have knocked the things back a few steps, or even a good ten feet on a solid hit, but they weren’t actually stopping them. They just kept coming. “What about the thing Trevithick did to lift that one guy up?!” I called out while activating a couple green handprints I still had on the back of their costumes so they could shoot faster. 

“We could do that!” Calvin agreed while taking aim to shoot at one of the zombies who was trying to run at us from up on the bleachers. 

“But we’d only be able to hold one of them at a time!” Hobbes added, taking a knee so she could shoot at another one coming up on the other side. “Two if we both did it! Then the rest could do whatever they wanted!” 

Thinking quickly, I replied, “Time it! One of you lift them up, then let them go just as the other shoots. If you hit them when they’re off the ground, they’ll probably fly further. They won’t be able to brace themselves or anything! And, wait, can you move them while they’re caught?!” 

Murphy realized what I was getting at immediately. I could hear the smile in her voice. “Damn straight! Ro–Calvin, get ready!” With that, she flicked a switch on the rifle she was using, before taking aim as one of the zombies came charging toward us once more. A blast of energy erupted from the gun, wrapping itself around the animated corpse before lifting the thing off the ground. From there, she gave a hard yank on the gun, hauling it around as the energy line dragged the zombie like a tether until it was right in front of another running zombie. “And… fire!” Even as she called that out, the girl took her finger off the trigger to release the energy tether. 

At the same time, Calvin pulled his own trigger. The blast of energy from his gun shot out, slamming into the dangling zombie before it could finish falling. It was sent soaring backward, slamming into the one coming up from behind it so both of them went crashing into the dirt a good twenty feet back. 

As those two set to work using their newfound joint tactic, my eyes were already snapping around the field, searching for any more problems. Okay, well, they didn’t have to look far to see problems. There were still a bunch of zombies running around. But I was looking for the worst, most immediate ones. Something that had to be taken care of right now. At the same time, I was inwardly cursing the fact that there was still no sign of Riddles. What was taking so long for them to find this guy?!

Even as that thought filled my head, I saw it. Or rather, her. Riddles flew up into view from one of the covered areas in the upper stands, where the concession stands were. As soon as she came into view, I blurted, “Fuck, finally!” To the others, I shouted, “Keep getting people out, I’ve gotta go help them!” 

With that, I launched myself up that way, using red paint to land in the stands. Riddles flew down and circled me with a shriek, and I gave a quick nod. “You got it, buddy! Let’s go!” 

Before moving, however, I turned back to check the others. Alloy was working with Poise and Style, the three of them keeping a ramp that Peyton had created clear so more people could run up and over it to cross the fence. Seeing me looking that way, Poise waved a hand wildly. “Go! Get that son of a bitch, we’ve got this!” 

Right, they had it. They could deal with this. I just… Shoving my insecurities down, I turned back to see Riddles passing through an open door leading into the staff area. I had to do this. The others could handle getting the rest of the people out. What mattered now was finding Pack, Broadway, and Grandstand… and helping them deal with this guy before his monsters killed anyone else. With that thought in mind, I painted green lightning stripes on my legs for speed, and ran straight for the open door. 

Whatever came next, it was time to end this. 

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Patreon Snippets 26B (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 26th edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Summus Proelium-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Izzy and Amber

Standing on the edge of a large pond in the middle of a park, Izzy Amor held a bag of mixed chopped lettuce, cracked corn, and frozen peas. The nearby ducks chased after every handful she tossed out, and the small girl giggled to herself at the sight just how eager they were to get the food. She tried to spread out her tosses so the ducks would separate a bit and not run into each other so much. Some of it ended up out in the water, and they chased those bits just as frantically, speeding out with their motorboat-like legs before their heads dove down to get the food. Some became distracted by other things in the water. And through it all, loud, excited quacking filled the air. 

“Well they sure seem to be having fun,” Amber O’Connell noted as she stepped up beside Izzy and watched the ducks eagerly chasing the most recent tossed handful. “What about you?” 

Rather than answer that question directly, Izzy instead quietly noted, “It’s really simple like this, you know? The ducks are always here, they don’t keep the super elite ducks hidden behind some sort of pay wall. They don’t expect anything but this cheap food.” She shook the bag in her hand and then promptly threw out another batch to the grass and water as the ducks eagerly and loudly made their hunger known. “They just like being fed.”

Amber stood next to the younger girl and watched the ducks for a moment before quietly murmuring, “They don’t ask if you want to be adopted by a family of billionaires?”

Wincing visibly, Izzy gave a heavy sigh before nodding. “Yeah, they definitely don’t do that either.” Her foot kicked the ground before she added, “I’m being stupid about this, huh? I mean, anyone else would practically cut their own leg off to be adopted into the Evans family. Some literally. I mean with an axe and everything.”  

“Maybe,” Amber allowed with a mixture of a smirk and grimace at the imagery there, “but they don’t know what we do. Seriously, the family isn’t exactly normal, like, at all. Not that billionaire families are ever normal, but you know what I mean. There’s a lot more to that whole situation. It’s one thing to live there and know what you do, and another thing to actually be that connected to them. Like, totally connected. Legally connected. They’ve done bad things.” 

“But that’s what makes it even harder,” Izzy pointed out with a sigh as she threw another handful. “They’re really nice. It would be easier if they were mean and terrible, but they’re not. I know what it’s like to have a mom who treats you like a tool, like all you’re worth is what you can do for them. I know what that’s like, but they’re not like that. Mrs. Evans is nice. So is Mr. Evans.”

Her face twisted into a grimace as she let that thought run through her head. “I keep thinking I’ll realize that they’re just using me, but the more time I spend there, the more it feels like they really, actually care about me. Not just for what I can do for them, but because of me. It feels like they care… about what I want, about who I am. Not my power. Me.” 

She went silent for a moment, but Amber didn’t interrupt. The two of them simply stood there, watching the ducks. Not that it was actually quiet with all the quacking around him, but still. 

Finally, Izzy gave a new heavy sigh before continuing. “My mom, my real mom, she just wanted to use me. She sold me to the bad guys so I could be tortured into being their puppet. She did that just to get a little money for herself. Because she’s… she’s selfish. I know she is. But the Evans, who basically run all the supervillains, they’re really nice to me. Now they want to adopt me. So why…” She trailed off once more, closing her eyes as a single tear made its way down her face. “Why do I feel like I’m the one betraying her for even thinking about this at all? Why does it feel like I’m dirty and evil because part of me likes the idea of being adopted? And not by just anyone, by people who run all the supervillains in the city!”

Izzy threw the next handful of food farther than before, her other hand clenched tightly around the bag. “What’s wrong with me?”

Amber‘s hand found its way to her back and gently pressed there. “Listen to me, Izzy. Nothing is wrong with you,” she insisted. “I mean, okay, maybe there’s some stuff wrong with you. Terrible taste in cereal, you’re horrible at tying knots, can’t keep the list of state capitals straight…” She stopped as a little smile played at the other girl’s face, before squeezing her back. “But as far as this goes, nothing. You still love your mom, even if she did all those bad things. Part of you does, anyway. You love the mom you knew in between those times. You love the mom she could’ve been. And you know that accepting this adoption thing will be completely and officially cutting her off from ever being that person again. You’re not evil, Izzy. It’s not wrong to want to be around people who care about you. And yeah, the Evans being who they are makes it even more complicated than it already was. But it’s like you said, they treat you well. You’re not bad for liking that.

“Remember what Cassidy said. They’re not totally evil and monstrous. They really do care about her, and they care about you too. After what happened with your mom, of course you feel drawn to that. And it’s not a bad thing.” Her head shook firmly. “Look, I really don’t know what’s going to happen eventually with that whole thing. I don’t know how all of this is going to play out. But I know they really care about you. If someday they end up in prison or whatever, they can still care about you. Just like they’ll still love Cassidy.”

Both girls went quiet again, and Izzy handed the bag to Amber so she could throw some food for the ducks. Finally, after a minute of that, she spoke up. “I want them to…” She trailed off, clearly unsure of her words. When she spoke again, her voice was even more hesitant. “I like spending time with them. I think–no, I know I’d like it even if they didn’t have all that money. They’re nice. They’re fun. Mr. Evans makes me laugh. He’s really good with Cassidy, and I know he’s trying to include me. I just wish they weren’t… you know.” 

Amber’s hand gently rubbed her back. “Maybe the whole Ministry thing is over-complicating it, you know? You’ve already got enough to think about when it comes to this whole situation without adding that in. And yeah, someday, somehow, we’ll have to do something about that. Even Cassidy doesn’t know what, and she’s already their daughter. But whatever it is, that’ll come later. Maybe, just for now, you should think about how you’d feel about this whole thing if you didn’t know anything about that. Just try to set it aside for a minute and think about the rest of it.” 

Izzy gave a soft, yet audible laugh while shaking her head. “You say that like it makes it easier. But it’s still hard. Even if I didn’t know anything about the Ministry, I’d still be telling my mom I don’t want her to be my mom anymore.” Before Amber could say anything to that, she added, “Yeah, I know what she did. I know she started it. But if I do this, it means I’m finishing it.” Her body gave a full, visible shudder. “I know that’s stupid, okay? I know there’s no way she could ever be my mom again. It can never be the way it was before, and it shouldn’t be. She broke it. She broke it and it was her choice. She didn’t have to and she did. She made it so we can’t ever be what we were before. My mom can never be my mom again.”

Her hands clenched tightly as she fought to find the right words. “But this is still another door. It’s a door that I’m shutting. I’m telling my mom that I’m done with her. If she comes back, if they find her, I won’t be her daughter again. I’ll be one of the Evans. If I do this, it closes everything with her, forever. And that’s a choice I’m making that I can’t unmake.” 

Amber moved her hand away from the girl’s back to throw another bit of food before speaking softly. “Maybe you should think about what’s good for you. I know, I know it’s painful. I know it makes you feel dirty, believe me. It feels like being selfish is wrong, and sometimes it is. But when it comes to your life, to your future, to your… to who you are, you have to be selfish sometimes, Izzy. You can’t bend your entire life around trying to please the people who abuse you, just in case they might stop someday. You owe yourself better than that. It’s your life.” 

She swallowed audibly, clearly pushing herself to say more. “It’s like my whole thing with my dad. Every time I think about how I can be happy and make jokes and stuff while he’s still dead and we have no idea who did it, there’s this pain in my stomach, and it feels like it’ll never go away. I don’t think it ever will, not completely. It’ll always be there, to some extent. But then I have to think about how my dad wouldn’t want me to be miserable all the time. He’s my dad. He loved me. He wouldn’t want me to spend every moment of my life being sad.”  

Izzy watched the ducks for a minute before quietly asking, “What am I supposed to think about, then?” 

Amber gave a hesitant shrug. “You keep focusing on the mom you had in between and before the bad times, the mom she was and could’ve been if all this didn’t happen. Think about her again. I don’t mean in a ‘make you feel guilty and dirty’ sort of way. I mean, think about the good version of your mom and what she would want for you. You said she used to read you stories and stuff, right? Think about that version of your mom for a minute. Think about being in bed listening to her telling you those stories, reading that book. Think about how she would want you to feel as you grow up. Would she want you to be sad? Would she want you to be miserable, just to be loyal to her after what she did? Or would she want you to be with people who treat you well and care about you? Think about that version of your mom for a minute. What would she want you to do? What choice would she want you to make?”

Izzy didn’t say anything to that at first. She was silent, staring at the lake without actually seeing the water or the ducks. Instead, her mind was focused on that imaginary scenario. She thought about laying in her bed, with her mom sitting on the side of it reading stories to her. She thought about the touch of her mother’s hand against her hair and how safe she had felt in those moments. It made another tear fall slowly before she spoke through the thick lump in her throat. “My mom would want me to be happy.” It was one of the hardest things she had ever said. And yet, it was the truth.

For another few minutes, the two girls stood by the water, throwing food for the ducks while remaining silent. Both were lost in their own thoughts. Finally, when the last of the food was gone and the sun began to set, Izzy turned to the other girl. Her mouth opened, but instead of speaking immediately, she simply wrapped her arms around Amber to embrace her tightly. When her voice came, it cracked a little. “Thank you.” 

“Hey, anytime,” Amber replied, returning the hug. 

“But you know, once you’re an official billionaire’s kid, I might have to start charging you.” `

*******

Ministry Meeting Some Time Before The Raid On The Ministry Base

Sterling Evans owned several buildings throughout the city of Detroit, and had offices in even more. At the moment, the top floor of one of those main buildings had been entirely shut down for both employees and clients. The elevators were locked and would not come to that floor, or the one under it, and the doors into the stairwells were sealed tight. Between that and several Touched-Tech security measures, the place was kept as private and secure as it could be. It had to be, when the official leadership and higher ranks of the Ministry was meeting there. 

Someone might’ve said that meeting in a building he owned was too dangerous, and would have suggested something like an abandoned warehouse somewhere. But this building was one that Sterling could put all of his security measures into. He knew for a fact exactly how safe it was. And if any tried to invade or eavesdrop, they would have a lot of surprises coming their way. Besides, if there had been any planned raid of any of his offices, their contacts within every law enforcement group in the state would have said something. If anyone in any position of authority even suspected them of wrongdoing and launched the smallest investigation, the Evans would be informed of it before the task force had even finished brewing their coffee. 

Even beyond that, they would have been safe. Here, in this room at the center of the building, they were cocooned away from any possible interruption or spying. No electronic device, Touched-Tech or otherwise, could get through the security measures. The room was meant to host large meetings of his normal board of direction directors. Which meant it was also plenty large enough for this situation. 

Sterling stood at the head of the table in the center of the room, his chair slightly behind him. His wife, Elena, sat at his right side. His son, Simon, was to the left. Exchanging looks with both of them, Sterling cleared his throat. “Well, I think it’s about time we start this discussion.” 

Down the table on the right, a pale man with dark-blond hair and incredibly dark green eyes shifted in his seat. Kent Jackson, better known among this particular group under the moniker of Rook, raised one hand. “I know this is only the first official one of these I’ve attended in person since coming back to Detroit, but I remember we used to have these incredible little cakes at the old ones, and I’ve got to say, I was looking forward to that.” 

With a soft, polite chuckle, Elena assured him, “We still have those, but we moved them to the end of the meeting. I find that it helps people pay more attention, and gives everyone some reason not to drone on longer than necessary.” 

Beside Kent, his wife, Mills, patted him on the shoulder. The tall, beautiful blonde woman, who looked like a fashion model or movie star but had actually spent more time in dive bars and dirty, smoke-filled clubs than on runways, spoke with clear amusement. “Well, you’ve made his day. You should’ve seen his puppy dog sad eyes when we came in and those cakes weren’t out here.” 

Across the table from them and slightly further down, the man known as Alcazar took a sip of the water glass in front of him. As usual, the man looked completely ordinary in as many ways as possible. He was thin, but not to the point of distraction, stood just under five foot eight when he wasn’t slouched in a chair as he was now, and his brown hair and hazel eyes would do nothing to draw attention. He held his wire frame glasses in one hand, absently cleaning them with his shirt as he spoke. “There is a lot to get into today, so maybe we should start with the easiest thing.” His head turned to look at Sterling while he added, “The new superheroes in town.” 

Beside him, a gray-haired woman wearing dark jeans and a red button-up shirt that was tucked in added, “The dears have an actual name now, don’t they?” 

“Yes, Relapse,” Elena confirmed with a nod to the woman. “They call themselves Avant-Guard. Guard with a u. I think it’s cute.” 

Opposite Relapse and a bit down from Mills and Kent, a dark-skinned man drummed on the table with one hand thoughtfully, his voice quiet. “I like this Paintball kid. He’s funny. The whole being Lucent’s son joke, that’s some good stuff.” Abruptly, he tapped twice more a bit more firmly, before turning toward Sterling. He wasn’t looking that way. His sightless eyes would have made that impossible. But Hakeem Harris, known throughout the Ministry as The Tapping Man for his tendency to always… well, tap things, knew that people were more comfortable if you were facing them as you spoke. Pointless as it might have been. “But like him or not, is he going to be a problem?” 

“Yeah,” the voice from the figure at the opposite end of the table from Sterling put in, speaking loud enough to be heard by everyone else given the space between them, “that’s what we wanna know too.” 

The voice came from a raccoon, dressed in a tiny, yet perfectly tailored suit. He stood on the table itself, with his polished shoes clicking against its surface as he took a few steps forward while sipping from the miniature cup of coffee he held in one paw, while a miniature cane tapped against the table lightly a couple times. “You said he knows something about us, so does that make him a threat? And by threat, I mean one we need to take care of.” 

“Ministers Gray,” Sterling began, “you have a point, the boy does know something about the Ministry. We’re not precisely certain how much, yet he is certainly aware of our organization to some extent. But no, we don’t think he’s a threat.” 

Rather than respond to that himself, the raccoon made a noise in the back of his throat before turning to step off the side of the table. As he did so, a cloud of smoke and light encompassed his form, with a pyramid-shape in the center of it. As the light and smoke faded, a much larger form had taken his place. An enormous brown bear, nearly nine feet in height, towered over the others as he stood by the table. Like the raccoon, the bear was fully dressed in a tailored, multi-thousand dollar three-piece suit. He even wore a fancy derby hat. “Ah, I believe my partner wanted to know if ahh… if you’re certain about that,” he began in a voice that was slightly more nervous and uncertain than the confident tone of the raccoon. “After all, the ahhh, the strongest building can collapse thanks to a small flaw.” 

Some might have questioned why a shape-shifting bear/raccoon was part of the leadership of the Ministry. But, of course, it was more complicated than that. First, they were not a shapeshifter. Ministers Gray had been two separate animals when they both touched one another and the orb. Its power had bonded them together in a very particular way. Essentially, they possessed a private pocket dimension which one of them always had to be inside of, while the other remained in the outside world. They could swap back and forth at will. Beyond that, as well as the usual increase from animal intelligence to human-level, they had also gained the ability to speak properly (not always a given with TONIs) and the outside animal could create a small glowing pyramid. Any single living being who was touched by the pyramid would be sent into that pocket dimension with the inside animal. Only one being could be held like that, as any attempt to take a second one inside would eject the first.

And yet, their power was far more impressive than a simple ability to imprison a single living being indefinitely. Within the pocket dimension, the bear or raccoon could control the flow of time to equal that of the outside world, or cause it to pass much more quickly inside than it did outside. This allowed those inside to experience days and weeks within seconds or minutes for the outside world. Regardless of how time passed, those inside would never grow any older. And as long as another living being was inside the pocket dimension, the Ministers Gray could absorb any academic knowledge or physical skill that being possessed. They had taken a small army worth of brilliant academic scholars, elite soldiers, athletes, and more into the pocket dimension for what amounted to months at a time in order to absorb everything they knew and could do, before having those peoples’ memories of the event erased by Rook. 

More than that, Ministers Gray could also take others into their pocket dimension and teach those other skills much faster than they should have been able to learn them, given the time-dilation that was possible. 

In all, there was a reason why Sterling and Elena had chosen to accept them as one (well, two) of the main leaders of the Ministry, even giving them the title of Minister themselves.

“He’s a child,” Elena replied. “One who wants to do the right thing, but still a child. We think… we believe he knows there is a larger conspiracy of sorts, but is willing to… play nice. He has some experience with the Banners girl, saving her from…” She looked toward Rook. “Well, saving her. She made a deal to, ahh, leave our organization alone as long as we do the same for her and Paintball. We believe he is aware enough of that deal.” 

“In other words, let the boy be a superhero,” Sterling put in. “It’s good business. People like this Paintball kid, and his new partner, Alloy? They’re doing some great work out there. We keep an eye on them, just in case, but personally, I don’t think they’ll be that much of a problem. Relapse, you’ve had some interaction with him, what do you think?”

“Oh, he’s a sweetheart,” the woman agreed with a smile. “Came right into the Seraphs and did the work he was asked to without even grumbling about it. And he enjoyed my candy.” 

The words made Elena give the older woman a sharp look. “Tell us you didn’t–” 

“Pish posh, calm yourself,” Relapse tutted. “I am capable of simply giving people I like candy without using my–ahem, power.” The woman’s own gift, as somewhat implied by her name, allowed her to force any person she made physical contact with to be addicted to any edible or potable substance she chose. The addiction could last only a few minutes, or longer than a month, and a subject failing to feed that addiction would experience severe illness and hallucinations. They were also strongly encouraged to follow her instructions, given how easily she could magnify or lessen the effect. She would never be one to run around in tights and armor, considering she had Touched when she was fifty years old and that itself had been twenty years ago. But for a seventy-year-old, she still had her own tricks. 

And, as one of the Seraph’s most popular and beloved receptionists, Tricia had plenty of contacts who knew nothing of her loyalties or powers. It made her a valuable asset to the Ministry, as she had been from the very start. People tended to underestimate her.

“Of course you are,” Sterling interjected with an easy smile. “In any case, it’s good to hear the boy has his own real work ethic. And that he doesn’t seem to be a problem. So we’ll leave it there for now. We have the Banners girl’s reasoning for leaving them both alone for the time being, but even without that, I don’t believe he is an immediate concern. If he starts asking the wrong questions or pushing too much at the wrong thing, we’ll deal with it then. Besides, with everything going on in the city, I don’t think we can afford to be pushing more Star-Touched away at the moment.” 

“Speaking of what’s going on in the city,” Kent started, not wanting to spend any more time talking about how he’d let the Banners girl get away from him, “we need to inform the gang leaders to keep their business away from our shipment coming in on Tuesday.” 

“He’s right, the shipment can’t be delayed. Not a second time,” Hakeem noted while giving the table another soft tap. It would send out an echolocation-like pulse which gave the man a visual representation of the room and everyone in it. But more than that, the more times the ostensibly blind man ‘echolocated’ a person within the same general area and situation without an extended (roughly an hour) break, the better his minor precognition power worked to allow him to predict their physical movements in any altercation. Given enough taps, he could flawlessly know precisely how someone was going to move and how to counter them. Not that the man expected an altercation with his companions, of course. It was simply a deeply ingrained habit. 

Mills waved her fingers back and forth idly while speaking up. “Don’t worry so much. We’ll bring the shipment in and get it squared away. It won’t be a problem.” As she spoke, a glowing white feather flew back and forth across the table. Her own Touched gift allowed her to empower one pound worth of material every week. Anything that was empowered remained that way forever, allowing it to be telekinetically manipulated by Mills within her line of sight, as well as allowing her to teleport to anywhere one of those empowered objects was, or vice versa. Additionally, regardless of their actual size, empowered objects were incredibly durable and could be made to weigh almost nothing, their actual weight, or the sum total weight of every empowered object she possessed. With a thought, she could put something that weighed as much as a pencil on top of someone’s head and then make it weigh several hundred pounds.

Then there was the last part of her power. Which she idly demonstrated in an attempt to alleviate her own boredom by sending one of her feathers across the room to touch the three hundred pound desk in a corner of the room. As the feather brushed the side of it, the desk rose several feet in the air and spun in a slow circle. Any of her empowered objects were capable of extending her telekinetic abilities into any other object they touched, so long as that object, again, weighed less than the total weight of all of her empowered objects put together. And considering Mills, or Haven as she was called in these meetings, had had her power for most of the past two decades, her weight limit would have approached a thousand pounds even in a normal situation. 

And yet, her situation was far from normal. In the early days of the Ministry, her power and her skills had received a bit of a jumpstart as she spent week after week inside the Ministers Gray’s pocket dimension, while only hours and then days passed outside. It allowed the woman to go from only being able to control a single pound worth of material, to over twenty pounds, in what had been only a few days rather than half a year. These days, with additional time spent with her raccoon and bear friend whenever they could all spare it, she was up to almost three thousand pounds. 

She had a lot of random objects spread not only all over the city, but all over the world. 

“Very well,” Elena agreed. “Let’s discuss how precisely we will handle this shipment next. 

“And we should open the phone line so Yellowbrick may be included. I believe she should be finished with her last assignment by now.” 

*******

The Morning After The Raid On The Ministry Base

“Thank you, Yellowbrick,” Elena politely spoke while stepping through a door leading out of her subordinate’s void-dimension, and into the front lobby of a small, rundown doctor’s office. There were already several of the Ministry’s people poking around the corners, looking through the various observation rooms, and even breaking down a few of the walls in search of hidden safes. They paid no attention to her, as they were taught to. Not that they would have recognized the woman she was posing as under her illusion power anyway, but still. She preferred the people who worked for them be taught to ignore as much about them as possible. 

“How many?” she asked the man who had just stepped up beside her. 

“Three, we believe,” Alcazar replied. “This is the last one where the security sensors were tripped. Either they got better at avoiding them after that, or…” 

“Or they found what they were looking for,” Elena finished for him. “And all three belonged to Benjamin Pittman?” 

“That’s correct, ma’am,” he confirmed, glancing up as a couple men walked past carrying some equipment that would allow them to see through walls. “We believe the entire point of the original intrusion was to search for that list of facilities owned by Pittman when he was active. Armed with that list, they began to search them.” 

“Until they found this place, and whatever they were looking for inside.” Elena frowned slightly, considering that as a wave of thoughts passed through her mind. “Either they weren’t working for Pittman directly, or he forgot where he put the thing they needed.” 

“My guess,” Sterling put in while stepping up on the other side of her, “is that whoever these people are, they’re working for his other partners or investors. People he told enough about his project that they wanted to find something involved in it, but not enough to know specifics. Something we missed.” 

“But why wait this long?” Alcazar asked with a frown. “It’s been, what, over five years since Pittman was arrested and put on Breakwater? What changed?” 

Before Sterling could pose any guesses for that, one of the men called out from a supply closet. When the three of them moved that way, he stepped aside so they could see how the carpet was ripped away to reveal a trapdoor. 

“Alcazar,” Elena began, “do our files indicate which of our employees was tasked with searching and clearing this space five years ago?” 

“They do,” he confirmed. 

Her voice was flat. “They’re fired.” 

“The ahh, gold package, silver package, or… bronze package, ma’am?” Alcazar carefully asked. 

Studying the trap door, Elena exchanged a brief glance with her husband before answering. “We certainly aren’t setting them up for a rich life. Not gold. But I don’t believe they deserve to be killed for a mistake, either.” 

“The silver package then,” Sterling agreed. “Get Rook to erase their memories and set them up with new lives.” Another glance passed between husband and wife before he added, “Somewhere out of the city. We don’t need them here.” 

“After,” Elena put in, “you ensure that missing this wasn’t intentional. I want a full investigation into their lives. If there’s any sign that they were involved in this… bring the information to us.” 

With that established, the three descended the ladder to reach the large room below. A brief investigation later revealed the contents of the various freezers along the walls, as well as the presence of yet another, smaller hidden room at the far end. A room with a different metal tube inside, which had clearly been holding something. Another body, perhaps. 

Sterling put his hand close to the tube, eyes narrowing. “This is it. This is what they did all that for. Whatever was in this tube. A prototype for one of his creations?”  

“A dangerous weapon of some sort, whatever it is,” Elena agreed. Her gaze remained fixed on the tube, imagining what might have been kept inside. One of Pittman’s artificial bodies, certainly. They had dealt with enough of them already. Yet something about this seemed different. This was a hidden room inside of a hidden room, one that had been receiving power this whole time. From what they could tell given a brief examination of the thing, it had been active until very recently. Actively keeping its contents… well, alive probably wasn’t the right word. Unless it was. Well, yes, in fact. Even if the, for lack of a better word, brain of these creatures came from the installed cybernetic orbs, the bodies themselves were biological. 

Either way, she shook off the thought. What mattered was why this one in particular had been so special. 

“Maybe it was his,” Sterling mused. “Maybe it took Pittman this long to set up something like this to get his own new body back and transferred himself into it. Or–I don’t know how his tech works. Could he have uploaded his brain and sent it into this body?” 

The thought was enough to make Elena grimace. “If he did, he will start making a nuisance of himself very soon. Whatever was in here, we need to find it. And the people who did his bidding. But yes, I believe it’s safe to say that Pittman is behind this, at some level. Whether it is in a current, active fashion, or this is the result of someone picking up the pieces of his old work…. we need to find out.” 

Turning from Elena to Alcazar, Sterling ordered, “Have our people find out what’s happening on Breakwater. Do they know where Pittman is? What’s been going on over there lately? Just… see if anything is out of the ordinary.” 

“We don’t have the strongest contacts in Breakwater, getting any information will take a little while,” the other man carefully replied. 

Elena gave a slight nod. “We know you’ll do your best, Alcazar, thank you.” With that, she turned to her husband, gaze passing over the other equipment throughout the room. “Pittman being the source of that raid explains quite a lot. At least we know we don’t have some brand new threat to keep track of. Just an old one with some new help.” 

Sterling, meanwhile, raised a hand to press against the machine. “Have our people look into exactly what was in this thing. Or… who. We need to know whether this was Pittman or someone else. 

“And what face they’re wearing now.” 

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