Framework

Enkindle 23-09 (Summus Proelium)

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“What’d you do, multiply?” 

The question came from Framework, the Braintrust Tech-Touched who focused on attaching a vast assortment of devices to his own body in a personal power armor/mecha-sort of fashion. Thankfully, he was currently wearing one of the far more subtle versions of the armor and stood only just under seven feet tall, rather than any his larger ones. Those could reach all the way up to twenty feet, and had been seen going toe to toe with Cuélebre. Though even the smaller versions of his armor packed an awful lot of dangerous toys. In the same way that Wren’s ‘movement focused technology’ power could be exploited a lot, Framework could design almost anything as long as it was attached to his body or something he was wearing. 

Oh yeah, and that whole ‘attached to his body’ thing had gone far enough that the man literally had his arms and legs amputated and attached robotic replacements to them. Actually, I was pretty sure he’d had a lot more than just his limbs replaced, but it was hard to know for sure how much of what we saw was replacements and how much was just covering his biological parts. 

Thankfully, either way we weren’t here to fight him, no matter what size his armor was or how much of himself he had replaced. Not unless this whole thing went a lot worse than I was expecting it to. 

“Multiply?” I echoed while letting my head tilt a bit exaggeratedly. Then I turned to look at the others as we all stood in the parking lot of that old pizza place Glitch had wanted to meet at. Besides myself, there was also Alloy of course. The armor she had fashioned her marbles into at the moment consisted of bronze-and-black interwoven chainmail-like leggings and chest, along with a gold helmet and cape. The silver, purple, and white marbles hovered around her in the shapes of a sword, hammer, and spear respectively. 

Beyond Alloy, there was also Roald and Murphy. Or Calvin and Hobbes, rather. They were wearing their own new suits, the ones that allowed them to teleport and create temporary protective shields around themselves. When they had first tried them out, the suits had looked just like ordinary black coveralls with silver wrist and ankle bands. But I had taken the time to change that by painting them almost entirely white, and then covering them in a lot of various colored splatters. They both looked like modern art canvases. Or, more accurately, like someone had just violently shaken half a dozen different paint brushes at them. There were no real shapes there, just various splatters of color. They also wore simple (also white) ski masks along with black goggles to protect their eyes. They were much more on-brand for being connected to my own Paintball identity, and to ‘Avant-Guard’ in general. Each of them also had one of Wren’s special rifles slung over their shoulders. Anyone or anything hit by a shot from one of those weapons would be violently catapulted in a direction set by the person holding it. 

Then there were Paige and Sierra. The two of them were standing together a bit to one side, very slightly separate from the rest of us. A quick trip to the store mixed with stuff Wren had already been working on or had lying around her shop had left them each wearing cargo pants, combat boots, a long-sleeved turtleneck under a lightly armored vest, a long leather coat, and a surplus tactical military-style helmet that covered the whole face and head, with a visor over the eyes. The pants and boots for both of them were black, while the rest of their color schemes were opposite one another. Paige had a red shirt and slightly darker red combat vest under a white leather coat, along with a matching white tactical helmet and red visor. Sierra, meanwhile, had a white shirt and vest under a red leather coat, red helmet, and white visor. Beyond that, obviously, they looked different thanks to Paige being like eight inches taller (well six while Sierra had those lifts) and more… gifted.

Finally, there was the last official member of the team. Wren, or as she preferred to be known to everyone else, Trevithick. She was wearing what was basically the same costume she had used to meet Lion before. It was a black, form-fitting bodysuit with pink armored panels along the chest, legs, and arms, along with a full-covering black helmet and pink visor. She also had the wing-pack, of course, and was currently hovering a foot off the ground. 

That was us, the whole group. At least, those who were actively members of this little team and not just helping out secretly now and then, like Pack, That-A-Way, or Raindrop. For the first time in anything resembling public (as much as a secret meeting with a group of Fell-Touched could be considered public), we were appearing together, in-costume and on the same page. It had felt like the right time, since they all knew the truth about me now.

After taking all that in the way that Framework had to be seeing it, I smiled to myself before turning back toward him. “Yeah, you could say we’ve been multiplying. I thought your boss might like to meet the full Avant-Guard. You know, before we come to an agreement about how this whole arrangement is going to work.” 

The armored man looked us over once more before snorting a bit. “I sure hope you’re not trying to be intimidating, kid. Because I don’t think that would work out well for you. Any of you.” 

“Buddy,” Sierra put in, “If we were going for intimidating, you wouldn’t have to wonder.” 

He regarded her briefly before curiously asking, “So what do you and your nega-twin there call yourselves? I don’t think I’ve seen anything about you before.” 

“She’s Style,” Paige informed him with a nod toward the girl beside her. “I’m Poise.” 

“It fits,” Sierra added. “I do have a lot more style than her. And she is a poser.” 

“Poise,” Paige corrected. “Poise and Pose are two very different words.” 

Clearly grinning beneath her helmet, Sierra cheerfully retorted, “I didn’t say they meant the same thing, I was just calling you a poser.” 

Coughing pointedly, I focused on the man in front of us. “We’re not here to start anything. We just want your boss and everyone else to know what they’re dealing with. That’s all. We came to make the arrangement. So does your boss still want to talk about that stuff?” 

Rather than answer immediately, Framework turned away and murmured something quietly, probably speaking into a communicator of some sort. There was a brief conversation before he looked back to me and gestured to the door into the restaurant. “Sure, go right ahead. But just know that if you do decide to start something, as you put it, it won’t matter how many extra friends you brought along for the ride. This may not be our actual home base, but we’ve had all the time in the world to prep it. And you know what they say, you don’t fuck with a Tech-Touched on territory they’ve had time to prepare.”

Painting a wide smiley face across my helmet like the Cheshire Cat, I replied, “Oh, trust me, we know all about that rule. It’s a good one for everyone to keep in mind.” 

That said, I started to the door, with the others trailing behind. We were a small parade heading into the same place where I had met with Glitch before. 

The woman herself was waiting, sitting casually behind a table as she watched us enter. She wore the same costume as before, with burgundy cargo pants that were covered in pockets, belts, and pouches containing all manner of weapons and tools. She also had a black scale-armored turtleneck and a white leather jacket, along with that familiar metal choker that could change her appearance to anything she wanted, rather than an actual mask. At the moment, she looked like a red-haired woman with deeply tanned skin and unnaturally bright green eyes. 

“Well, well, well,” Glitch drawled as we filed into the room and spread out a bit, “isn’t this interesting. You’ve been recruiting, I see. I thought you were trying to be a solo hero out there.” 

I moved myself straight to the middle of the group, front and center. Trevithick was just barely to my left, while Alloy stood slightly behind me and to the right. Calvin and Hobbes were together a bit further back and to that side, while Sierra and Paige/Style and Poise were together opposite them on the left. 

I had worried about bringing the two of them here, given Glitch’s ability to screw with Touched-Tech. But according to Paige, she had spent about four months awhile back worrying about that herself before picking out enough information about how Glitch’s power worked to realize she was safe. Apparently one of the repeated problems the woman had was with tech that was implanted inside of people. Or other animals. It was like living biological material blocked her ability. So long as they kept their finger wire things firmly inside, she shouldn’t be able to detect them or do anything to screw them up. 

“Oh, I can still do plenty of things by myself,” I informed the Braintrust leader after letting those thoughts run through my mind. “Don’t you worry about that. But I’ve found that it helps to have people watching your back in this town. And we thought it’d be a good idea to let people know what they’re dealing with. After all, we’ve already had to deal with one group trying to steal stuff from us. Don’t suppose you’d know anything about that?” 

She didn’t, of course. Mostly because I was making the whole thing up as part of our own cover story. Her face didn’t give away any reaction at all other than a very slightly raised eyebrow. “Pardon?” 

“A group of people broke into one of the places we’ve been keeping supplies,” I claimed. “Dug a tunnel straight under the shed. Must’ve taken them a week to do it without setting off any of our alarms. If we hadn’t been right outside doing some training, they would’ve gotten away with everything.” 

It was something of a bold claim, of course. A way of creating a bit more separation between us and the group who had broken into the Ministry base. I was positive that Glitch at least would have already heard about it, as my parents probably went to her about anyone who could have dug a tunnel like that. We were also going to have to make a point of having our black-suited selves break into another gang’s territory soon, just to keep up that lie. I had a few thoughts as far as that went, but now wasn’t the time to dwell on it. The point was that acting as though that mysterious other group had stolen things from us as well would hopefully help shield us from suspicion. 

There was a long pause as Glitch stared at me, then glanced to the others before slowly asking, “How long ago was this? And you think it was my group?” 

I offered her a shrug. “Maybe a week? And I dunno. Didn’t look like any established gang to us. Just black suits and ski masks. I thought you might’ve been trying to send a message.” 

“If you were,” Alloy put in, “It wasn’t a very clear one.” 

“I assure you,” Glitch replied, “That group has no connection to me. I’ve heard a bit about them, however. They seem to be attempting to…” She trailed off, making a thoughtful noise in the back of her throat before shaking her head. “Whatever they are attempting to do, they will find themselves put in their place soon enough. Interesting that they chose you as a target as well. A practice run, perhaps.” 

“Practice?” I made myself ask, since I definitely would have if I didn’t already know what she was talking about. “Practice for what?” 

Her response was a mysterious smile. “Never mind about that. I don’t believe you will have to worry about this other group for much longer. Why don’t you introduce me to your assortment of friends?”  

So, I did just that, introducing her to Alloy, Calvin, Hobbes, Style, and Poise in turn. Finally, I took a breath before putting a hand on Wren’s shoulder. “And, the person you’ve actually been wanting to meet this whole time. Trevithick, this is Glitch. Or the face she’s using right now.” 

Hovering a bit higher off the floor, Wren stared at the woman. “You’re the one who wants me to pay you or build things for you so you can hurt people.” 

Eyes focusing on her, Glitch gave a very slight smile. “Fascinating. I suppose my guess that you were a younger girl Paintball was protecting paid off after all. I don’t suppose you’d care to verify whether I was right about being a younger sibling, specifically?” 

“Sorry,” I replied before Wren could, “we prefer to play things a little closer to the vest than that. It’s just safer that way. I’m sure you understand. Unless that’s your real face we’re looking at.” 

With a wink, Glitch pointed out, “It very well could be.” She turned her gaze back to Wren. “Trevithick, was it? I must say, from what little I’ve seen of your work, I’m quite impressed. And yes, we are the group who control Tech-Touched in this city. If you wish to operate here, you must pay the tax. That can either be monetary or in extra work done for us directly. I do leave it up to you, though I believe you have a preference.” 

“Does it matter?” Wren demanded while folding her arms as she hovered there beside me. “If I build things for you, you’ll use them to hurt people. If I pay you, you’ll use that to buy more things to hurt people. Either way, you’re hurting them because of me.” 

The woman absorbed that with a thoughtful expression, tapping her fingers idly along the table. “Yes, I suppose that is true. And yet, it is how things work in this city. Unless you wish your new friends here to get into an extended conflict with my organization, one which we are far better prepared and trained for, it’s in your best interest to… as they say, bite the bullet and follow the rules. And I do hope this wasn’t meant to be a show of force before declaring war.” Her hand gestured to indicate the rest of us. “Because, while intrigued, I am not frightened.” 

“Like Style over there said to your buddy outside,” Hobbes informed her, “There were a lot better ways for us to try to intimidate your crew than just stand here in front of you.”  

Pointing with my thumb, I nodded. “Yeah, that. We’re just here like this to make sure everyone’s on the same page about where we all stand. If you want some sort of tax, maybe you should make sure it’s a fair one. You know, because I don’t think this city needs to have even more fighting going on than it already does. And neither do any of us.” 

Glitch offered me a curious and reevaluating smile. After a moment, she leaned back in her seat and casually remarked, “In other words, you’re showing me that you have more strength than I might have thought you did, and think that I don’t want to start another war while the one between those other gangs is still going on. But what if I feel ignored and want people to start paying attention to me again instead of those guys? Picking a fight with one little Star-Touched and his pet techy would’ve just looked like I was bullying someone. Not nearly enough action to get any of the right attention. But here you’ve just shown me you have a whole gang. So maybe you’re more worth fighting than I would’ve thought. Maybe we bloody each other’s noses, put a couple on each side in the hospital, really give the good folks at home stuff to gossip about. Then I could be right back at the top of the Twitter trends.” 

A couple of the others stiffened around me, but I could tell she wasn’t serious. She was teasing, and also testing my reaction, or our reactions, rather. Poking at us just to see what we would do, what we would say. I had surprised her with a bunch of people she didn’t know anything about, so she was giving a little verbal prod so she could take note of how each of us reacted to it. I had no doubt that she had cameras up and would be thoroughly analyzing everyone’s body language later so she could pick out who might be vulnerable to being taunted into doing something if the time came that we did fight. 

I had my dad to thank for immediately realizing that without even really having to think about it. He’d talked to me a lot about being in business meetings, negotiating with people, that sort of thing. Come to think of it, he had probably been talking about this sort of situation too, even if I hadn’t realized it at the time. To me, I was just listening to my dad tell stories because I liked hearing his voice. But what had it been to him? Was he telling me those stories because he expected me to go into business, or because he expected me to go into the family business? 

I had no idea. It actually distracted me for a moment, as I wondered what my father intended with all that. But now really wasn’t the time, so I pushed the thought down and focused. “Maybe, but I’m pretty sure you won’t do anything like that. You didn’t invite us over here to start a fight, and we didn’t come to provoke one. Like I said, we just wanted to make sure you know what you’re dealing with so you treat us fairly. So you treat her fairly.” I amended myself with a look toward Trevithick. “Not that I’m saying you’d try to get away with pushing around a couple people if she and I came by ourselves, just to get even more work out of her.” 

Of course, that was exactly what I was saying, and everyone in the room knew it. Glitch regarded me for a silent moment before tapping the table thoughtfully. “Yeah, well that’s fair enough, I suppose. Sure, go ahead and keep all your people here. It won’t really make a difference. Like you said, none of us are here to start a fight. In fact, I really don’t think your friend there will object too much to what we’re asking for.” She focused on Trevithick, offering a faint smile. “Something tells me if I asked you to build a weapon, or anything that would hurt people, we’d have a problem, right?”   

“I’ll pay a pe-percentage of what I make off selling in town,” Wren informed her in as firm a voice as she could manage while clearly being incredibly nervous. “But no, I’m not going to build weapons for you. No matter what you say.” She lifted her chin a bit at the end. 

“Tough kid,” Glitch remarked with a slightly more genuine smile. She seemed almost charmed. “Like I said the other day, I don’t like forcing people to build stuff when they don’t want to. It’s a good way to end up in a really bad situation. Especially when I’m a little too busy to stand over your shoulder watching you work all the time. So that’s not my style. And yeah, I could take your money, sure, but I’ve got plenty of that as it is. That’s part of why it’s been so hard these past few weeks, trying to decide exactly what I was going to ask for from you. You’re sort of a unique commodity, kid. And yeah, I know, commodity’s kind of an insulting term. But it’s the best one I can come up with right now. You’re unique, and I don’t really think taking a bit of money from you is the right approach. But right now, I think I’ve finally got an idea.” 

“Well, you’ve certainly talked it up enough,” Style put in glibly. “How about you just explain what you want and we’ll see how long it takes us to get to it.” 

Her words were met with a brief stare from the woman, before Glitch rose from the chair she had been lounging in. “Absolutely. You all might have heard about a little gang war going on, between a few of the other gangs.” 

“It’s come up once or twice,” I dryly confirmed. “Including like thirty seconds ago when you talked about being afraid Braintrust isn’t getting enough attention right now. Which, for the record, I bet if you just let us arrest your entire group and send you to prison, you’d have all the focus you could ever want. You might even get a book deal out of it.” While saying that, I painted a smiley face across my helmet. 

Glitch pretended to consider that. “Hmm, maybe that could be a decent back-up choice. Of course, to make it realistic, we’d have to put a few of you in the hospital.” She let that stand before continuing. “Or we could just go with my plan.” Her eyes found Trevithick, as she reached down, picked a bag up off the floor, and tossed it to her. “I want you to build these and make them work.” 

Clearly confused, Wren opened the bag and took out a pair of long leather gloves, with bits of electronics hanging off the inside and outside. “What… are they?” 

Glitch leaned against the table, regarding us. “Do you remember that little thing you pulled to get the vials for Blackjack, where you made that guy wear a suit that forced him to walk to where he hid those things?” 

Wren dropped the gloves in the bag, shaking her head quickly. “I’m not building something that will make someone hurt people.” 

“And if that was my intention, we’d have a problem,” Glitch retorted. “Trust me, you can put in all the safety measures you want. That’s not what this is about. What I want you to do is build working gloves that will connect to another person’s brain. Someone far away. Not to hurt people, to help them. See, if there’s one thing this gang war has shown, it’s that we don’t have enough well-trained medical professionals out there who can deal with traumatic situations. There’s a lot of victims out there, and only so many people who can help. And a lot of the ones who do exist can’t get there in time. But imagine every paramedic in the city, every cop, firefighter, anyone like that, carries a pair of these gloves in their vehicle. They find someone suffering from a medical trauma that won’t wait until they get back to the hospital. So they grabbed the gloves and put them on, then they call the hospital itself. Even a hospital in another city, or another state entirely. They find the expert, the expert puts on a helmet, and takes control of their hands. The hands in the gloves, that is. That way, the doctor can do what he needs to do right then and there, just by piloting the hands of the other person. Hell, we make enough of them, and we can sell them to individuals. Imagine if as part of calling 911, you strap on a pair of these gloves and the emergency services link you to an expert surgeon in Los Angeles who can save your poor injured mother before the ambulance even gets the call.

“We could revolutionize the entire emergency medical services world. And all you’d owe us is thirty percent.” 

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Fault 10-02 (Summus Proelium)

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So, there I was. Standing in an alley facing twelve men with Tech-Touched guns, my hand held by the teen girl that I’d been rescuing from what I thought were normal (if well-armed) kidnappers. The space was wider than a typical alley given it opened up into the space behind these buildings. But the part where the men were standing was still narrow enough that they were all bunched up. Actually, bunched up as they were, maybe I could get some blue paint at their feet and really throw off–

“Don’t do it, Paintball.” That voice came from behind me, and I spun quickly, putting myself beside the girl with my right side mostly facing the group of armed men so I could keep track of what they were doing out of the corner of my eye. To my left as I glanced that way, I saw a single figure. He stood about seven feet tall, but that was deceptive, because his legs and arms were both very clearly artificial. They looked like the limbs from the endoskeleton of the T-800 Terminator from the Schwarzenegger movies. He’d replaced his limbs with robotic prosthetics.  

While the man’s metal arms and legs were exposed, his torso was covered in black armor sculpted to his muscular body (or at least made to look like his body was muscular) with the insignia of an F slightly in front of a W on the upper left portion of the chest, both letters looking like they were made out of girders. Given they were kind of silver against a black background, you had to squint a bit to make them out. Finally, his face was covered by a black helmet with three glowing red dots on the front, two where his eyes would be and one where his mouth would be. 

I knew this guy. Well, not personally, of course. But he was called Framework. His whole deal was attaching Tech-Touched devices and weapons to his body and deploying them as needed. When he was in battle, he tended to appear in any of several full-on personal mech suits, which ranged in size from basically what he was now, all the way up to his full twenty-foot tall version.

Oh yeah, he was also one of the Fell-touched of Braintrust, the Tech-Touched gang. Which made sense, considering a bunch of their minions were currently blocking my exit from the alley. 

“Gee,” I started quickly while glancing back and forth between the assortment of troops and the Fell-Touched man himself, “are times really so hard for you Tech villains that you have to resort to using a whole army to kidnap one girl? I bet there’s an online training course you can take to learn how to be competent villains and get all the way up to robbing banks in no time if you try.”

Shockingly, that was apparently the wrong thing to say, as all the men to my right abruptly raised their weapons with a collective sound of annoyance and anger (though I swore at least one guy snickered a little bit before it was quickly cut off at a look from his companions) at the insult.  

Thankfully, Framework raised his voice. “Stop.” He looked to the troops sharply, waiting until they relented before turning his attention back to me. “We didn’t come to start a brawl with you, Paintball, though we’ll finish one if we need to. We came to get our property back, that’s all.”

Feeling offended on behalf of the girl who was still tightly clinging to my hand, I glanced to her with what I hoped was a reassuring look despite the blank visor of my helmet before snapping at the man. “Yeah, you know what? Maybe if you keep calling the girl you were trying to kidnap your property, I’ll just go ahead and jump right into that brawl you were just talking about.”  

There was a very brief pause as Framework’s head tilted. The red dots on his helmet dulled, flickering briefly before flashing a couple times as the sound of what I belatedly realized was a chuckle came. “No,” he replied flatly. “I wasn’t talking about the girl. We don’t even know who she is. Take her, return her to her school, do whatever you like. We came for that.” He raised a hand, pointing at the ground to one side. Looking there, I saw the Tech gun I’d tossed out of the car. 

Blinking a couple times, I tried to catch up. “Um. Excuse me? You brought a bunch of armed men to grab the gun just because I threw i–wait, no.” Turning, I pointed at the guy who was still in the car and hadn’t moved to get out. “Them. That guy and his friends. You were after them because they weren’t with you, and they had a gun that–that they stole from you, right?” 

Framework inclined his head, regarding me while those lights flickered a bit once more. Then he gave a short nod. “Smart boy. Like I said, we’re not here for the girl. We don’t care about her. We’re here for our property. It was taken from us and we’re taking it back. Stand aside from that and we’ll have no issues. This time, anyway.” He added the last bit after a momentary, pointed pause. “Any future conflict can be saved for just that. The future.”   

I thought about it for a second, but honestly… yeah, I couldn’t see any real point to insisting on a fight right now. Not for something like this. I wasn’t arrogant enough to think I could easily take on a whole group of Tech-armed soldiers who could have had any number of tricks, and a Fell-Touched guy whose entire deal was bringing mech suits into play. Pushing for a fight just to stop them from taking one of their guns back? That actually seemed pretty stupid, honestly. Especially with this innocent girl standing right next to me who would end up in the crossfire.  

So, I slowly nodded. “Fine, take your gun and leave. We’ll save the fighting thing for later.” 

Without moving from where he was standing, Framework gave a short nod to one of the men. That guy stepped forward carefully, leaning down to grab the gun from the ground. As it was stowed away, he asked his boss, “What about him?” He was looking toward the guy still inside the car. 

“He stays here,” I quickly put in. “You can take your gun, but the guy stays. He’ll go to jail for kidnapping… ummm…” Trailing off, I glanced toward the red-haired girl beside me. 

“P-Peyton,” she provided, eyes wide as she kept staring at the assorted weapons around us. 

“Peyton,” I echoed with a nod. “He’ll go to jail for kidnapping Peyton. That’ll have to be enough.” 

Framework simply shrugged. “Is that really a fight you want to have right now? You’re really willing to throw down with all this over protecting a guy who kidnaps some innocent girl?”  

“I’m definitely not willing to just let you take justice into your own hands,” I retorted. “He’s here with me, he’s going to the authorities. The question is, are you willing to start a fight right now when other Touched could show up any second. Not to mention cops. I mean, the news chopper was–” As I said that, my eyes glanced up toward the sky, only to pause. There was no chopper in sight. Which was weird, because I was pretty sure they should’ve found us by now. 

“I wouldn’t worry about the authorities or anyone else showing up to start, or finish, any problems,” Framework informed me. “We’ve got nothing but privacy for the moment.” 

As he said it, the man looked pointedly toward one of the rooftops. I glanced that way, only to see another of the Braintrust Touched. This was a man with sleek silver body armor that had dozens of scenes from various TV shows and movies playing across its surface in a collage of random images. It was Fabulist, a guy whose inventions were able to create illusions, elaborate special effects, that kind of thing. He was clearly making sure that the news chopper didn’t find us. Hell, he’d probably created a whole separate chase scene for them to keep following. I was alone. 

Swallowing slightly, I straightened. “You’re still not taking him without a fight. I can’t just let you walk away with that guy. Not when I’ve got a good idea of just how he’ll be treated.” 

For a few seconds, I wasn’t sure how Framework was going to take that. He regarded me in silence before holding up one finger as though telling me to wait. His head turned and he spoke aloud, “Glitch, slight issue.” 

Glitch. That was the leader of Braintrust. As I understood it, she was able to identify problems or flaws in technology, even of the Tech-Touched variety. She could even improve them, basically allowing her to upgrade the work of everyone in her gang. Beyond that, she could also make specific technology within her vicinity fail to work, or install ‘glitches’ into it that would flare up now and then for awhile even after the tech was away from her. 

So yeah, there was a reason she got to be the leader of a group entirely focused around technology and inventions. I just hoped she was also the leader because she was capable of making rational decisions. 

While the man in front of me was having a murmured conversation with his boss, I turned slightly to look at Peyton. “Are you okay?” 

She was staring at the assembled group, who weren’t exactly pointing their guns at us, but hadn’t lowered them either. “Um.” Her voice was very tentative and uncertain. “I… I don’t know. I just wanna go home.” 

“Do you have any idea why those guys grabbed you?” The fact that they had used what was apparently a stolen Tech-Touched weapon made me doubt that it was a completely random abduction. And I was really hoping this wasn’t about to turn into a whole new mystery. I had enough of those. 

There was a brief pause before the girl explained, “I was chatting with this guy online. We really hit it off. He was funny and everything. Then I found out that he was using his little brother’s pictures. He was a lot older. So I broke it off and he got all upset. I never told him where I lived, but I guess he picked up on my school.”

Turning a bit, I stared at her. “Hold on, you’re saying this whole thing is because one of those idiots that was in the car catfished an underaged girl and his response to that being broken off was to steal a super gun and kidnap you in broad daylight and then have a high speed chase?!” My voice got louder and more incredulous by the word. “Which one was it, Larry, Curly, or Moe?”

Coughing quietly, the girl nodded toward the vehicle. “The… um, idiot that’s still in the car.” 

Before I could do more than give a sharp look that way, Framework cleared his throat for attention. When I turned to him, he announced, “Mmmkay, you can take the genius. We’ve had our pound of flesh.”

My mouth opened, but said genius blurted from the car, “What’s that supposed to mean?!”

Framework was all too happy to explain. “We found your address and torched your apartment.” To me, he added pointedly, “Made sure there were no living things in it and contained the burn to only that apartment. Also put up a nice sign letting his neighbors know that this whole thing was because he tried to diddle a fifteen year old. Including pictures of their chat transcripts. Oh, and we sent the same thing to his employer, family, and university. So, you know, we figure we’re even on the whole stealing our equipment issue.” After a brief pause, he asked flatly, “We good here?”

While I was still staring, Peyton leaned over and whispered, ”I’m not supposed to root for the bad guys. Help.”

Shaking my head, I muttered that I wasn’t doing any better on that (and not just from today) before meeting Framework’s gaze. “Yeah. We’re good.”

He held the look, then twirled his finger in a quick circular motion. “Pack it up! We’re gone!”

And just like that, he, the rest of the troops down on the ground, and Fabulist all left. They simply walked away. I stayed tense for another couple seconds while watching just in case. But they didn’t come back. 

Then a brief sound caught my attention. Turning quickly, I saw the man in the car starting to scramble out. Before he could get very far, however, Peyton stooped, picked a chunk of concrete off the ground, and smacked him in the face with it. It was an awkward swing that made it clear the girl had probably never thrown a punch in her life. But the sound of the smack was still satisfying. As was the man’s yelp as he fell back into the car and held his nose.

“Yeah, I’d stay there if I was you,” I informed him while taking out my phone to call the authorities. 

“Or don’t. I’m not averse to her hitting you a few more times.”

*******

Eventually, that was done with. Peyton was in the hands of the authorities, who could take her home. And her abductor (plus his buddies) were in custody.

So that was one problem dealt with. I thought to avert another possible one by contacting the Seraphs to let them know why I was late. Not that I actually needed to, considering the person on the phone just said that they saw the news. 

I was in the midst of my third task, calling Wren to fill her in and thank her, when a voice spoke up from the side of the roof where I was standing. “So who are they?”

Turning quickly, I saw the figure from before with the television shows playing all over his silver costume. Fabulist, the holograms and illusions Tech guy. “What? What do you want?” I snapped, suddenly wary. 

The man held up both hands, not that that made me feel any better. “Easy. We’re just curious where you’re getting your tech from.” Turning his arm a bit, he showed me a screen on it that appeared to be a series of meters. “We detect Touched-Tech. Scanner works even when you’re not actively using it or just when you’ve been around it recently. Makes it easier to track down our stuff. And you… you’ve been around very advanced stuff. We don’t know what. Just that it’s impressive. Cutting edge. But who makes it for you? It’s none of us.”

Wren. He wanted to know about Wren. Well, fuck that. Shaking my head, I replied, “Sorry, that’s on a need to know basis, and I don’t see any reason you need to know that.” Oh, please don’t let this turn into a fight now after I’d managed to avoid one with these guys just a few minutes earlier. 

Thankfully, the man simply considered me for a moment longer before offering a shrug. “We will find out in time. We are very interested in this tech.”

I started to reply that he could go ahead and be interested, but the man simply vanished in a cloud of smoke. Given his particular proficiency, I wondered if he had even actually been standing there at all.

Speaking of his proficiency, I quickly left the roof and made my way several blocks without saying or doing anything. Reaching a small park, I made my way into the outdoor restroom, locked the door, and stripped myself down. Then I spent ten minutes poring over the entire costume and helmet looking for any possible thing he could have stuck to it that could be a bug or something. I went over it with a fine tooth comb several times in my paranoia before then turning my attention to my phones. I carefully checked them as well, running virus checks and everything. Only then, after dressing once more, did I relax a little bit. As far as I could tell, I wasn’t bugged. I’d hoped not, considering as far as I knew, he never got near me. But given his powers and Touched Tech in general… yeah. I was being careful. 

But the tech gang knew about Wren. Or at least that she existed. And it probably wouldn’t take them long to find out more. I was going to have to warn her to be careful now that she had their interest. That whole thing could get really complicated really fast.

When I called, she wanted to know everything that happened from the moment the news chopper lost sight of us. Apparently the holograms had led them on a wild goose chase far from the actual confrontation. 

So, I explained everything, including how it was resolved and that they had detected her technology.

“Wren, you better make sure you focus on your defenses now,” I insisted. “You know how Braintrust is about recruiting. Make sure you’re safe.”

“I am, I will!” she chirped. “Don’t worry, Paintball, I’ve got lots of ideas. It’s gonna be great. Oh, and really safe, obviously. Those guys don’t get to tell me what to do, or what to build, or who to build it for, or anything! I don’t build for anybody but me! Um, and you! And people who buy stuff from me! But not bad guys! That’s the important part. No bad guys.”

Chuckling a little after extracting that promise for her to take care of herself, I thanked the kid a few more times for letting me know about the abduction. Assuring her that Peyton really was safe, I promised to come see her soon. Then I disconnected and exhaled. That was over. It had been a brief, though important distraction. But now I had to focus on the actual reason I was out here in the first place. 

Time to go see the Seraphs. And hope that I didn’t run into any more kidnapping victims along the way. 

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