Fred Donovan

Together And Alone 27-03 (Summus Proelium)

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So, we had Cavalcade on our side. Or at least willing to do work for us and not take jobs from the bad guys while she was on retainer. Assuming she kept to her word, and I had no reason to think she wouldn’t after what I had seen and read about her, that was one thing off my mind. Sure, there would be other Sell-Touched who would cause problems. Even Paige and I couldn’t afford to pay all of them, especially not without attracting more attention than we were ready to deal with. But still, it was something. And it was becoming more and more obvious that the city’s authorities were going to need as much help as they could get before this was over. 

Once that was safely dealt with, I went home to find Izzy. Obviously, she wasn’t too sure about the new plan. But she also knew as well as I did that we didn’t have much in the way of choices. Someone had to get down to that place in Utah and bring back that teleportation machine so we could get answers out of that son of a bitch. And since sending two biolems into a place he’d had had all the time he needed to have guarded against them was a bad idea and we didn’t have time for Wren to program a new teleportation thing, I was the only choice. Wren had set up the way out of the city with my body in mind. Or Sierra’s body, as it was. We didn’t have any other options. Either I went with Paige, or we had to wait even longer for the girl to change the teleportation parameters. And who would we change them to anyways? If I didn’t go, it would be one of the others. Murphy, Roald, Fred, or Peyton. I wasn’t willing to let any of them run off to do what I wouldn’t. Besides, they didn’t have someone here who looked exactly like them and could cover for their absence, even if we did have the time to waste. And I was pretty sure we didn’t. No, this was the right–only move, no matter how much Izzy and I both hated it. 

For about an hour, we went over the details of that, including how she was going to help Sierra continue to pose as me for as long as possible. Our major saving grace, as sick as it was to think, was the fact that both of our parents wouldn’t be home, or coherent. Honestly, if they’d been here and in their right mind, I wasn’t sure Sierra could pull off being me. At least not for the several days this was going to take. Which, of course, didn’t help the rush of guilt I felt when the thought occurred to me. 

Still, I shoved that away as firmly as possible. We didn’t have time for those feelings. Instead, the two of us made all the plans and arrangements we could, including a few potential emergency measures. If everything completely went to hell and Simon figured out Sierra wasn’t me, there were a couple ways Izzy could potentially react, depending on how it happened. None were all that good, of course. But at least we had something resembling a plan. 

Promising my new sister that I would keep her updated about everything that was going on, and extracting the same promise from her, I gave the girl a tight hug as we stood in my room. Then I chuckled softly. “Well, at least you won’t get bored while I’m gone.” There was no actual humor in my chuckle or the words themselves. I was doing my best to make her feel better, and myself. But it didn’t really work. All I could focus on was seeing our parents in that hospital room and thinking about what would happen if they never came out of it. 

No, they would. That was why I was doing this. Paige and I were going to go down there and get the machine, and then we would get answers out of Pittman, no matter what it took. 

Izzy, for her part, clearly read my expression and offered a weak smile. “You do what you need to. We’ll hold down the fort here. I promise there’ll still be a city when you get back.” After another moment, she added, “What’s it gonna be like, going with Paige?” 

After a brief hesitation, I shrugged. “Not so long ago, I probably would’ve gagged at the thought. But now… I’m not sure. It could be worse.” I sighed heavily. “I still wish I had my memories back, at least then it might help me know exactly how I should feel about her. It’s all just confusing, you know?” 

She gave a quick nod. “I know.” Her voice was solemn. “Just be careful, okay? Get the thing and come back together. We need both of you if we’re gonna get through this.”

Putting one hand on the other girl’s head, I smiled despite myself. No matter how awful I felt, or how scared I was about everything that was going on, at least I had Izzy. This whole situation would’ve been completely impossible to get through without her. It was hard to believe I’d only met her so relatively recently. She was, in absolutely every important way, my sister. “You be careful here too,” I reminded her. “No unnecessary risks. If they try to overwork you, tell them to back off. You don’t have to do everything. Even if they are understaffed.” 

Snorting, Izzy retorted, “Understaffed is one way to put it. A really underwhelming way.” 

So, we embraced once more. Then we headed out. We were going to visit our parents together and then she was going to come over to Wren’s shop with me so she could see us off, and make sure everyone who was staying behind knew they could contact her for help while we were gone. And she wasn’t the only one. Amber was going to meet us over there too, since I’d sent a text that way letting her know what was going on. I needed to know my team–my friends–were going to have backup while Paige and I were on our little trip. 

Simon was still gone on whatever Ministry business he was doing right now, so we didn’t have to explain anything about where we were going. I also took an exact match of the same outfit I was wearing with us, so Sierra could wear it when she and Izzy came back together. Maybe the staff wouldn’t have noticed if ‘I’ came back wearing a different outfit than I had left with but we weren’t willing to take that chance. Passing Sierra off as me was already going to be dangerous enough as it was without pushing our luck right off the bat. 

There was nothing new with Mom and Dad. They hadn’t gotten any better, but they weren’t worse either. I just had to hope nothing bad would happen while I was gone. Please, Mom… Dad… just hang on. I was going to go punch Pittman in the face a few dozen times and get the cure for them, for everyone. 

After about half an hour there, I couldn’t wait anymore. So the two of us said goodbye to them through the intercom that had been set up, not that they could understand us, and headed out. We took a moment to change into our costumes a few blocks away from the shop, then made our way to the back door and into the main room where everyone else was already waiting. As soon as she saw me, Amber (dressed as That-A-Way of course) approached as I was headed for the restroom, handing me a small sack from the store while whispering, “Are you sure about this?” 

Coughing, I shook my head while stepping into the restroom to take the stuff out of the bag. “Sure about it working? Absolutely not. Sure that it’s the best choice we’ve got? Yeah. We don’t exactly have a lot of good options here. And considering I can see how exhausted you are even with that mask on? I don’t think your people have anything better either.” 

My words made her wince. “Yeah, you’re right, we’re just barely treading water right now. And the big bads haven’t even made any real moves yet. They’re waiting until we’re too worn out to put up much of a fight. But we can’t just not step in when the Prev gangs make trouble. It’s not just the Star-Touched that were hit with that attack, you know. There were a bunch of important cops in that building too. The police leadership has been practically crippled. Which doesn’t help their communication and organization issues. It’s… it’s not good.” 

That pretty much matched what I had heard before, but still made the knot in my stomach worsen. “That’s why we have to do this. He’s the guy who did this, so he’ll know how to stop it. We can’t play into his hands by telling the authorities to get him out of there. We’ll get the machine and figure out where to go from there, how to… you know, get answers out of that bastard.” 

As we were talking, I used the hair dye to make my hair blonde, then used the special tanning spray on the exposed skin of my hands, arms, face, and neck. As a final touch, I added the colored contacts, and then accepted the glasses that Amber handed me. When I put them on and looked in the mirror, I was… well, I was Sierra. Which meant I still looked a lot like myself, but there were just enough differences that if someone didn’t know me that well, they probably wouldn’t immediately recognize me. Normally this wouldn’t even have been necessary, but my picture had been shown on the news a couple times in relation to my parents being affected by this whole thing, and I couldn’t swear that someone during our road trip wouldn’t recognize me. Which was really annoying, but we just had to deal with that.

We continued talking for another moment before Amber accepted that this was the only real choice. She still didn’t seem like she liked it very much, which was fair. Still, the two of us returned to the group, and I got my first look at the new Sierra. Or rather, the old Sierra. She had basically done the same thing I just did, only in reverse. She took out the blonde dye, and fixed her hair to have the same pink streaks in front as I did. Aside from her clothes, she looked completely identical to me again–no, she looked identical to how I had looked five minutes earlier. Which was still a bit of a trip. 

As our gazes met, she offered me a very faint smirk. “Have a good trip out there, twin-babe. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, but try to do a few things I would, huh?” 

“I shudder to think about what your suggestions would be,” I shot back, my voice cracking just a little. Yeah, I was nervous. Still, I pushed that feeling away just like I had been clamping down on everything else, and added, “Please do everything I would do and nothing I wouldn’t.” 

“Well, I don’t know how many tall buildings I can skateboard off the side of,” she noted, “but I’ll do my best to keep it interesting.” 

Peyton quickly spoke up. “You guys be careful, okay? You’re just going out there by yourselves, and–and we don’t know what sort of defenses that prick set up, or how many people he has helping him, or–or anything.” Her marbles were flying in an agitated halo around her head. “Seriously, I just wish more of us could go with you.” 

“We need you here.” That was Amber, her voice firm as she looked that way. “Losing Paintball and Poise, even just for a bit, is gonna be hard enough on top of everything else. We’re gonna need all the help we can get.” 

“We’ll be back as soon as we can,” Paige assured her, and the others. “But seriously, just take care of yourselves, okay? Don’t–” She grimaced visibly. “Don’t do anything crazy while we’re gone.” 

Sierra made a clear point of rolling her eyes. “Relax, Mother. Just worry about yourselves and what you’re doing. We’ve got this. Right, guys?” 

Murphy and Roald exchanged glances before nodding to one another, the latter speaking up. “Yeah.” His voice didn’t sound completely confident, but at least he was trying. “We’ll keep it together.” 

“Damn straight we will,” Murphy confirmed. “You guys just get down there, get that machine, and come back so we can teach that cocksucker what a bad idea this was.” 

Wren, hovering in the background, bobbed her head up and down. “Yeah! I mean, I can’t say that word or Uncle Fred won’t let me have ice cream tonight, but get that thing so we can stop him and help everybody! And… and be careful, okay?” Her voice cracked just a little at the last bit, betraying just how hard it was for the girl to contain her emotions about this whole situation. 

“Oh don’t worry, we’ll do our part,” I promised. “You guys just listen to Sierra. She’s in charge in the field while we’re gone.” That was a bit of a hard choice, of course. But out of everyone here who was part of Avant-Guard, Sierra had the most experience and training. No matter how she had started out, I trusted her now. She would keep Peyton, Murphy, and Roald safe out there. 

“Well, no time to waste,” Paige put in after we all fell silent for a second. “Let’s go do this thing. I wanna get on the road before traffic gets too nuts.

“And make absolutely sure you pee before we leave, because I don’t want to stop for awhile.” 


So, after just a bit more talking, we all left the shop together and piled into a van that Fred had waiting. It looked like a completely normal, average green van from the outside, but apparently had a few tricks under the hood just in case we ran into trouble on our way to the… launching point. Not that we expected to, but considering the condition the city was in, better to be safe than sorry. Our luck, if we went out there expecting nothing to happen, we’d run right into an army full of every Fell-Touched who hated our guts. 

Thankfully, we didn’t. We could hear lots of calls going out over the police scanner that was installed in the dash, along with sirens that kept filling the air. But things were quieter where we were. Probably because we took as many back streets as possible, avoiding major intersections. Between that and the fact that most of the city was still hunkered down, these particular roads were almost entirely empty. The whole thing was pretty eerie, to be honest. We knew there was a lot of bad stuff going on all over the city, but because we were avoiding major areas like that, it made the city seem almost empty despite all the sirens and calls over the scanner. Yeah, this wasn’t good. Hearing the cops, ambulances, and firefighters doing their level best to reach the worst of the emergencies, and hearing about the ones they had to push to the bottom of the line, just reinforced that for me. As if it actually needed to be. 

Paige and I exchanged looks while hearing all that, and I nodded once. We both thought the same thing. We had to get to Utah, find that machine, and deal with this right now.

There was no more discussion about whether this was the right thing to do or not. No one was going to question it after spending 15 minutes listening to all that. Finally, Fred pulled the van over in an old parking lot next to a print shop. This was the best place we’d been able to find while looking at the maps app and comparing it to some scouting the others had done while I was busy. There was a freeway in the distance, with a checkpoint and a roving patrol making sure no one got past. Well, that was their goal anyway. The temporary tower with its floodlights that had been set up was just barely too far away for the guards to notice our arrival in the parking lot. Especially since Fred had doused the lights for the last couple blocks.

We all piled out and said our goodbyes one more time. I spent a couple minutes with Sierra, telling her everything I could about what she needed to know to imitate me. Not that it was necessary after all the time I had spent earlier writing message after message for her with the same information, but still. It felt like this whole thing was going so quickly. Just that morning the plan had been for those two to leave the city while I stayed here with the others, but now I was the one going. I knew it was the right thing, the only choice really. And I knew we didn’t have any time to waste. It may have felt to me like this was all happening too quickly, but every minute we wasted, the city was put in even more danger. More people would get hurt and die if we stalled around too much.

Sierra and I changed phones, and recorded a few extra numbers in each just in case. Of course I also said a few last minute things to Izzy and Amber, promising that Paige and I would be back as soon as possible. They, in turn, promised to help cover for me and take care of things here. I gave both of them a hug, then shrugged and did the same for the others.

“Bring us back something nice,” Murphy urged with a small, worried smile. “Like a way to beat the living shit out of that son of a bitch until he coughs up the cure to all this.”

“Oh, I think we can handle that,” I assured her, trying to feel as confident as I sounded. Or at least as confident as I thought I sounded. From the look on their faces, I might have needed to work on that a little bit. 

Either way, Sierra took the special rifle as Wren handed it out from the van, while Paige and I hooked the harnesses on. They basically looked like a combination belt and suspenders with a silver and blue circle in the middle of the chest area that was a few inches across. We got them all hooked on with a little help, and then Sierra raised the rifle and looked through the scope. She focused on the watchtower first, then shifted a bit to aim past it and off into the fields beyond the patrolled area. The rifle had an active range of a couple miles, and it didn’t have to be completely precise. All that really mattered was getting past the patrols.

While I was silently wishing I’d had another family dinner with my parents before all this went down, Sierra pulled the trigger. Then she shifted her aim just a tiny bit and fired again, each shot sending one of the teleportation beacons that way.

Wren quickly moved to hug me tightly once more. “Be careful, please? Come back, as soon as you can. Just call and we’ll teleport you back across.”

Returning the hug, I promised we would. Then Paige and I each touched that circle on the harness, looked at one another, and shoved the button on that inward. 

Instantly, the world spun around me. I felt like I was flying through the wildest roller coaster I’d ever been on. And, to be honest, I’d been on quite a few. I was spinning head over heels, falling, flying up, all of it all at once. It seemed to last for ages, even though it was over in just a couple seconds.

And just like that, I was lying in the dirt about two miles away from where I’d started. I could see the freeway a hundred yards or so to the left, and the lights from Detroit were far behind me. We were officially on our way, outside Detroit. 

Normally, the freeway would be incredibly busy, even at this time of night. But now, it was dark and empty aside from a few roving trucks. I saw Paige take herself up out of the dirt as well, both of us moving to join each other while waving back in the direction of the others since Sierra would be watching through the scope. “You said you arranged a ride?” I asked after making sure the backpack I brought with everything I thought I’d need was still intact.

She nodded and pointed. “There’ll be a truck waiting for us, but we’ve gotta walk another couple miles first. They wouldn’t bring it any closer.”

“Well then,” I managed, “guess we better get moving.

“I really don’t think we want to be out here once that sun comes up and lets those guys see us.”

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Together And Alone 27-02 (Summus Proelium)

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“Okay, we’re all here,” Sierra announced a short while later once the whole group had gathered in the work room of Wren’s shop. “So now can we talk about how we’re going to get Paige and me the hell out of this city so we can get on to the very important business of punching our dad so many times his concussion has a nice little litter of baby concussions?”

Paige sat on one of the heavy metal tables, staring at the floor for a moment in deep thought before giving a short nod as she looked to the girl in question. “Yeah, I know the city needs us right now, but anything we do here is just a short term solution. we need to get answers out of our dad before this goes on too long.”

Roald raised his hand. “I uhh, I know we’ve been over this already, but before we get too into any of that, can I just say that it still might be a good idea to tell the doctors here exactly who was responsible for this and let the authorities get answers out of him? Yeah, I know they’ve been corrupted by the Ministry and all that. And even without that stuff, there’s only so much you can trust people like that to do. But this is something big, and I think we need bigger people than us to deal with it. If more of those victims die just because we didn’t tell these people that he was responsible… I don’t think I could handle that.”

The rest of us exchanged looks, and I exhaled before speaking. “You’re right, that’s not something any of us want to be responsible for. I keep going back-and-forth about what the best answer is, and the problem is there’s no way to be sure. No matter what we do, it could lead to more people dying. What if we tell them who it was, and the wrong person finds out, you know, someone who works for him, or one of his creations? He has to have more resources out there than we knew about, or he couldn’t have done this much. The Banners had to have gone somewhere and been physically modified by someone to turn them into those biological bombs. Someone working closely enough with Pittman that he could make those changes. Which to me means someone with medical knowledge and tools, someone they might have called in specifically to help with this. You get what I mean? Anyone with the expertise to physically do what Pittman needed could also be the same person the authorities brought in to try to cure it. So what if we tell them what we know and Pittman finds out through that contact, making him decide to go with a new attack?”

Paige agreed. “That or there’s the other possibility we talked about. What if he does want us to tell everyone just so he can get himself put into a position to escape? He wants us to be emotional and angry and point the finger at him. He’s had years to set up an escape plan. Probably several different ones by this point. And you’re right, he obviously has more resources than we knew about. For all we know, the second he’s pulled off that island for an interrogation, he’ll be able to escape, no matter what safety measures they put in place. All we know with relative certainty is that at this very second he can’t get out. We can’t risk changing that. We can’t make changes to the board until we know what the board looks like. He wants us to do something that changes his circumstances.”

“Which we’re totally going to do,” Sierra noted. “Just not in the way he wants. We’re going to go over there, beat the living shit out of him, and get that cure.”

Peyton coughed. “That’s another little problem. Once we get this teleporter thing up and running, who is actually going to the island? I mean, let me put it another way. Who among us is actually going to the inescapable prison island where all the super murderers are, and risking getting trapped there forever if they can’t teleport off again?” She quickly looked over at Wren. “I mean, no offense–”

Wren, for her part, shook her head quickly. “No, it’s okay. I’m scared too. I haven’t even seen his teleporter yet. What if I can’t fix it? What if I make it worse? What if–”

Reaching a hand out to touch her shoulder, I reassured the girl. “We’ll just take it one step at a time. Don’t start fretting about what you can or can’t do with the teleporter until you take a look at it. No one’s going to force you to make it work if it seems completely out of your wheelhouse. It’s okay. This is just one plan. If you see the thing and think it can’t work, just tell us and we’ll go with something else. We’ll figure out something.”

She calmed down a little bit then, before telling us the actual plan for getting Paige and Sierra out of the city. With the roads and everything guarded, there was no way they could simply drive down the freeway. And the last thing we wanted was for them to get caught trying. Not only would it complicate any attempts we made in the future, but someone who looked identical to me being found trying to leave would make my life a bit of a mess. More of a mess than it already was. To say nothing of how the Banners’ adopted daughter trying to leave would look.

We had mostly jokingly talked about building a tunnel out of the city like the one we’d used to get into the Ministry’s mall base. But that would’ve taken a hell of a lot longer than we actually had, or wanted to spend doing it.

Fortunately, Wren’s plan didn’t involve a tunnel. Instead, she had worked with that teleporter system of her own. It still needed an anchor point to safely teleport the person to, so she had created a couple of those in the shape of a bullet. All we had to do was take the rifle she provided, aim far past the area where the patrols were set up, and fire them. If all went as it was supposed to, the anchor bullets would hit and plant themselves in the ground, and these two could be transported over there. Once they got back, it would be a simple matter to teleport them back across the line with the machine itself. Apparently Wren wasn’t too worried about that last part. She was mostly afraid of teleporting living matter. 

Either way, it sounded fairly simple enough, aside from the part where we had to make sure none of the patrols happened to see any of us pointing a rifle past them. Yeah, that part could be dangerous. But then again, this entire situation was dangerous, so what else was new? It was just something we were going to have to deal with.

No matter how hard this was, no matter how dangerous it could be, we didn’t have a choice. Pittman was trying to trap us, trying to give us no choice but to play his game, and we couldn’t do that. I had no doubt that if he was free, this whole situation would be a hell of a lot worse than it already was. He had managed to do all this while locked up on Breakwater. The very thought of what he might be able to do if he was free and had all his resources was staggering. 

So no, no matter how panicked I was, no matter how terrified I might’ve been about what could happen, and was already happening, to my parents, we couldn’t let ourselves be trapped into playing by his rules. We had to get out of this our way.

Everything seemed to be at least as in order as it could be right then, until Fred spoke up. “Uh, hey, I’ve just been thinking a little bit about this, and I’ve got a question. The whole reason you didn’t let that girl talk on the phone to the living pile of rotting garbage that is her dad is because you were afraid he had some special control thing he could use to take over, right?”

Glancing at Paige briefly, I nodded. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure he has something exactly like that. That’s why Wren’s also been working on noise canceling tech to put in their suits before the whole Breakwater thing goes down.” And yes, I was still trying not to think too much about that whole situation just yet. 

Fred looked back at me and shrugged. “So… how can you be sure he doesn’t have stuff at this house in Utah that could take control of them? Automated defenses or whatever. You know, since you’re sending just the two of them all by themselves.”

My mouth opened, then shut. I absorbed the question, slowly looking over at the other two, who were staring right back at me with the same look of realization. My palm found its way to my forehead. “God, we’re idiots. You’re right, what if he has defenses on that house they could just take control of you guys? Hell, that might’ve been why he tried to send us there in the first place. I mean, for Paige.” He still didn’t know that Sierra was a thing, which was one of the few advantages we had. But he could’ve had that whole place set up to put any stray Biolems back under his control. 

Murphy shrugged. “So send someone else with them. I could totally blow off school for a couple days. A road trip sounds fun.”

“We can’t!” That was Wren. “I set up the teleporter on their bodies. That took a couple days all by itself to make sure it would work with the bullet system. It’d take even more time to scan one of yours in, let alone more.”

Thinking quickly, I replied, “Well, I guess it’s a good thing two of us are completely identical when it comes to our bodies.” Looking at Sierra, I added, “I’ll take your slot, go down to Utah with Paige, and then go into the house myself to make sure it’s safe. I’m not a Biolem, his automated defenses can suck it.”

Peyton objected. “Speaking as someone with my mother, don’t you think your brother might notice if you disappear for several days? You said he’s been stepping up a bit, and yeah, maybe he’s been content for phone calls most of the time, but I don’t think you can leave for that long without him noticing.”

Before I could say anything to that, Sierra spoke up. “In that case, I’ll just have to take advantage of our similarities on this side too. I’ll pose as Cassidy and go to school and her house and stuff, make things seem normal.”

Oh boy, did that idea terrify me. The thought of Sierra pretending to be me in front of my brother, my classmates, teachers, and all that made loud warning sirens go off in my head. But I shoved them aside. We didn’t have any better options. We had to go with what we had. The mere fact that I did look identical to Sierra so we could do something like this was a miracle in and of itself. There was no point in pushing things. 

So, after a bit more talk back-and-forth, that was what we agreed on. I was going to go down to Utah on a road trip with Paige, while Sierra stayed here and posed as me for a few days. Or however long it took. I was really hoping we could get this done in as short of a time as possible. But I also wasn’t naïve enough to really believe it would be that simple. Either way, the Biolem girl would be me for a while. At least I would be able to tell Izzy what was going on so she could help out and cover as much as possible. 

Yeah, this whole situation had the distinct possibility of spiraling completely out of control. But again, our options were limited.

And speaking of options, Paige and I stepped aside together to talk about something else we wanted to do. I had been thinking about it for quite a while by this point, weighing the positives and negatives. But right now it seemed like the right way to go. Paige agreed, moving downstairs to make the phone call while I talked with the others a bit more.

There was still a little bit of work to be done on the teleporters to make sure they worked properly. We would leave town tonight, once it was dark.

Soon, everyone else was dealing with that, while Paige and I left the shop together after she made that call and arranged the meeting. I still had to go home and talk to Izzy, as well as some of the things I needed to do to make sure I was ready to leave now that I was the one that would be going to Utah. Including paying another visit to my parents. I knew it wouldn’t help anything, but I wanted to see them one more time before leaving.

First, however, was the meeting Paige had set up. The two of us were in costume as we made our way through the city, listening to all the sirens going off from all directions. Things were getting worse. Even worse than they had been before Pittman made his move. They had already been stretched while we had every Star-Touched in the game. But now? Now things were rapidly getting very bad. Just hearing those sirens, and looking online at people talking about stores being robbed, various attacks throughout the city, and more made my stomach clench in on itself. Yeah, there were still no signs of the Fell gangs making their moves just yet, but I knew that wouldn’t last forever. Hell, something told me they were probably at least partially behind the rising violence among the minor criminals, trying to stretch the system we had as far as it could go and exhaust people before they made their own real moves.

In any case, eventually the two of us reached our destination, a small, unused shop that had been a bakery not so long ago. After checking to make sure the coast was clear, Paige input a code on the electronic lock next to the back door, which beeped affirmatively. We walked through the cramped back room and kitchen, then into the front where the counter was. Sitting there, eating a doughnut from a box that was clearly not from this shop (considering it hadn’t produced donuts for at least a few weeks), sat a familiar figure in a dark red bodysuit that had swirly black lines all over it, along with dark boots and gloves, and a pair of red goggles with attached gas mask. 

Cavalcade used two fingers to push the pink box from one side of the table she was seated at to the other. “Help yourselves. I just couldn’t stand to wait around this old place and not get some doughnuts, you know? Psychological thing, I guess. But hey, they’re pretty good.” 

“I’ll save it for later,” I replied easily before adding, “You uhh, you came after all.” 

“I keep my deals,” the woman informed me simply, before adding, “That’s why I don’t make them unless it’s in my best interest.” 

Paige grunted softly before staring back at the woman. “I bet you’ve been offered a lot of deals over the past couple days.” 

Cavalcade’s tone gave away nothing. “Maybe. The city does suddenly find itself rather busy. Fortunately for you, I got your call first. Almost before everyone else knew what was going on and how bad it actually is. Kinda makes a girl curious. You got some sort of inside source?” 

I made my own tone give away nothing as well, forcing it to be as flat as possible while images of my parents’ current condition ran through my head. “Maybe.” 

“Intriguing.” With an obvious smile, Cavalcade leaned forward to stare at both of us. “Okay, well, the girl there managed to call me the night this all started and put down a retainer for a meeting, and for me to not agree to any other jobs until then. Or rather, until now. This is that meeting. I’ve got another potential one lined up twenty minutes from now. Unless, of course, we come to some arrangement beyond delaying me from taking another job. Or did you have to empty all your piggy banks just to buy yourselves these past couple days?” 

In answer, Paige reached into her pocket before tossing a one inch thick bound-together stack of hundred dollar bills onto the table. “There’s a hundred there. Ten thousand dollars. You get another one of those every three days that you keep doing this job.” 

Before replying, Cavalcade checked out the money, making sure it was all there and real before setting the stack down carefully. “And what job is that, precisely?” 

“We’re sure the gangs have been trying to hire you to help out with whatever they want to do,” I noted. “Maybe even some of the Stars, since they’ve been… depleted.” Swallowing, I added, “We want to put you on retainer. Don’t do any other jobs for any criminals, but you can take any job you want for Stars if they want to pay you to do something. And be ready to help with anything we ask for until we’re done retaining you, once this whole situation calms down. We’ll pay extra for that. The ongoing retainer is just to stay away from any of the Fell jobs.” 

Cavalcade absorbed that, shifting in her seat. “Let me get this straight. You’re going to pay me ten thousand bucks every three days in exchange for me not taking any criminal jobs. But I can still take legitimate ones. And then just make myself available to come help you out when you need it. Which you’ll pay extra for.” 

My head bobbed once. “Exactly. Any other job you want as long as we don’t need you and it’s not a criminal one. Stick to that and you keep getting the money.” 

“How do I know you’re good for it?” the woman asked idly, tapping the stack of bills. “That’s an awful lot of dough to throw around. Just how many rich grandparents do you people have?” 

Paige answered simply. “We’re good for it. And if we miss a payment, you can just drop the agreement and do whatever you want. This installment is for the next three days. So we’re good until then. It’s win-win for you.” 

For a moment, Cavalcade didn’t respond. Then she rose, picking up the money. “Yeah, we’re good. You’ve got my number. Keep the doughnuts.” Turning, she walked to the front door, pocketing the cash on her way. “Pleasure doing business with you. 

“I can’t wait to see what job you need help with first.” 

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Center Of Attention 26-13 (Summus Proelium)

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Caishen wasn’t kidding about those meetings, or how boring they were. Once our whole team was brought together, we ended up getting debriefed by her, as well as their entire security leadership, several high-ranking police officers, my father (as Silversmith of course), and more. They all had a bunch of questions for us, often ones we had already answered. We told them everything we could about what had happened, why we made the choices we did, and even how we had ended up bringing weapons into the courthouse. I made it clear that we had only brought the guns through once the fighting started. I left it fairly vague when it came to exactly how that worked, simply saying that we had a way to transfer equipment from one place to another. They accepted that well enough, probably because we had proven to be so useful. But still, there were a lot of questions. 

In between all those, I managed to get some answers of my own. They had not managed to arrest Banneret, even though we’d left her perfectly trussed up for them. All they had found in that room was a puddle of goo where Wren’s prototype had been. I wasn’t exactly surprised by that news, but nor did I believe she escaped on her own. Given the situation, and the fact that the Ministry was clearly a big part of this, I had a very strong suspicion that she had help from the first responders when it came to getting out of there. 

Nor had Fogwalker been caught. Though in his case, the TONI had escaped the building before the authorities breached. He left in the middle of the fight against Paige and the other three, apparently deciding discretion was the better part of valor once it became clear that Poise and Style were still quite dangerous even within his darkness. I still had no idea whether people thought the two of them were simply incredibly well-trained people with technology help, or some sort of Touched in their own right. Something told me I should take a look at the SPHERE forum and see what everyone was saying. But that could come later. 

So basically, despite everything we’d done, all the important people, the Fell-Touched, had managed to escape. I felt a little let down by that, not helped by the fact that they had managed to take some of the equipment from that vault after all. Telling myself that they would’ve gotten away with a hell of a lot more helped a little bit, but not that much. It seemed like we should have been able to do more. Or maybe I just felt guilty about the fact that my family had clearly helped put this whole thing together. Which was unhelped by the presence of my father as he went through all those questions with us. 

One thing we managed to do was free Trevithick from all this questioning. Or rather, Caishen did. She sent the girl off with her own daughter so she could meet Lightning Bugs’ not-so-little friends, who had apparently been locked up in one of the other rooms when the invasion happened. So at least Wren didn’t have to sit in that stuffy Ten Towers room going through more than an hour of questioning. I almost envied her for that. 

We also managed to establish that San Francisco and his parents had been found safe. They were locked up in the basement of their home, having been threatened, but not severely injured. I felt a wave of relief wash over me at that. Sure, San could be a little exhausting with his constant thoughts of romance and who belonged with who and all that, but he was still my friend. I didn’t want to think about anything happening to his family. 

None of us outright asked if they had seen Pack, Broadway, and those others they had been with in the courthouse. Maybe we should have, considering they were bad guys who had clearly broken into that place for possibly nefarious things. But I still felt like we owed the girl for all her help, and given we didn’t know why they were there or who she had been working with… yeah. There was a fair chance they were just there to steal some stuff and blame it on the Trendscendants. I was going to have to talk to her and see what I could find out, and hopefully not come to regret not telling the authorities. 

Finally, they were done with us. We met up with Wren again, as she finished saying goodbye to her new friend and promised to visit later. Lightning Bug seemed excited by that possibility, as did all of her assorted partners. I had a feeling we would be coming back here for a field trip soon enough. 

But, that, like so many things, would come later. For the moment, the seven of us made our way out of the building through one of the back doors, escorted by Skip since her sister was still busy dealing with all of that. She thanked us again, and then held out a card. “For your services.” 

Blinking, I leaned closer to stare at the thing. It was one of those prepaid debit cards. “Uh, that’s really not–” 

Sierra’s hand snapped out to take it before I could finish that sentence. “Thanks so much. We appreciate the recognition and wouldn’t want to be rude by refusing.” She said that with a glance toward me. 

Skip, for her part, simply gave a short nod. If she had any thoughts or reactions to that exchange, it didn’t show. Not that that meant anything, of course. Instead of commenting, she simply replied, “I’m glad you were in a position to lend aid. I hope to return the favor some time.” 

Before I could point out that she’d already been plenty of help in the past, especially when it came to getting me out of that situation with the Scions, the girl was gone. She vanished, clearly teleporting back into the building to help her sister. 

Which left us standing in an alley on the far southern side of the Ten Towers Plaza. It felt weird, like we should have been doing something else, or like there should have been more to that whole debriefing. After everything that had happened, we’d talked to the authorities for just over an hour, and now we were done. We were just… standing out here in the shadows between a couple buildings. It was sort of surreal, I supposed. It just felt like there should be more to all that, something bigger for us to do than simply walk out and be on our own again. 

Shaking off that feeling, I turned to the others. “Okay, well, I don’t know about you guys, but I am starving. How about we go back to the shop and order something to eat?” 

Murphy’s head bobbed up and down rapidly. “Hell yeah,” she agreed, “I could eat a whole cow. Preferably cooked, but at this point, I’m not really that picky, to be honest.” 

“We should use this thing,” Sierra put in, holding up the card she had accepted from Skip. “I think Ten Towers owes us a meal, assuming they put enough on it to cover that. We should probably check.” 

So I did, by calling the number on the back and putting the code into the automated system. And boy did they ever put plenty for more than one meal, to say the least. The card was loaded with ten thousand dollars. So apparently the Towers people were more than a little grateful for what we had done. When I told the others, I thought a few of them were going to faint. 

“What the hell are we supposed to do with all that?” Peyton demanded. 

“We’ll put most of it into the shop,” I announced. “Wren deserves to buy some good stuff, and it’ll help all of us in the future, especially since we wouldn’t have gotten this far without that little drone of hers.” As I said that, my hand reached out to ruffle the top of her head, while she ducked away with a noise of embarrassment. Then I focused on Murphy, Roald, and Peyton. “But we also wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without you guys. So I think it’s fair if you all get a bonus too. Let me get some cash to match what’s on here and I’ll make sure you each get like, what, a thousand dollars to do whatever you want with? That sound fair?” 

Once again, I thought the three of them were going to pass out. They seemed a bit overwhelmed, but they had definitely earned the cash. And probably a hell of a lot more than that. With that in mind, I led the way out of the alley and to the van Fred had just pulled up in. None of us had enough energy to take the long way back to the shop, so we’d simply told the man where to meet us ahead of time. As he opened the doors, we all piled in and practically fell over in the back. Except for Paige and Sierra, who seemed fine. They both went in the front with Fred, talking to him about everything that happened while the rest of us lay in the back and tried to relax through the drive. 

Soon enough, we were at the shop and I had to put the call in for food delivery. We were going to have Chinese. A lot of Chinese. But I didn’t use the card for it, despite Sierra’s suggestion. I was pretty sure the money on it wasn’t a trap, and yet it still felt dangerous to use it and have food delivered right to the store. Instead, I used my own money. Later, I’d use the card to withdraw cash somewhere far away from this place and hand it out to everyone. That was just safer than giving anyone connected to this card a direct link to Wren’s shop. 

And, of course, I made sure there wasn’t a tracking bug on the card itself. At least, as sure as I could be with Wren’s help. Was I being overly-paranoid when it came to Ten Towers? Maybe, but better safe than sorry. Because if it went wrong, we’d be very sorry. 

Either way, when we did get our food delivered, it was a veritable feast, one I could enjoy even more considering I was able to take the helmet and mask off in front of these guys and eat normally. We laid the whole thing out on one of the long tables in Wren’s lab upstairs and really went to town on it. Even Fred seemed famished, probably because he had spent the past couple hours freaking out here at the store, waiting to hear what happened. We basically put away enough to satisfy a small army. 

And we didn’t only eat. We also talked a fair bit. Once we’d put away just enough food that it didn’t feel like our stomachs were about to devour us from the inside. We talked about everything that had happened back there. Sure, we had just gone through an hour of meetings about the whole situation, but this was different. We were recounting everything to each other, laughing, teasing, praising, exaggerating, just… having a good time. We had all happened to be in the right place at the right time to help out, and even if the bad guys still got away with some of what they had been after, it would’ve been worse if we weren’t there. I was able to put aside my own feeling of guilt enough to accept that, especially when it came to making sure the others knew how awesome they were. I didn’t want them to feel like they hadn’t done enough the way a small part of me still did. And no, telling myself that if they had done enough then I clearly had as well didn’t entirely help. Feelings were weird and stupid like that. 

Fred wanted to hear about everything too, obviously. He sat there, listening in with often worried fascination as we went through the whole thing for him. Staring at me by the end, he demanded, “How do you keep running into all that danger? You went to a courthouse, a courthouse, and managed to interrupt something like that. Before that, you were at a silly skating exhibition, and we all know what happened there.” 

Flushing a little visibly, I offered a helpless shrug. “Trust me, if I knew, I’d plan for it a bit better. And I definitely wouldn’t have brought Wren along.” 

“I helped!” the girl in question insisted. 

“You did,” I agreed. “Believe me, we would’ve been completely screwed without your drone. We all know that. But still, I just–” Hesitating, I finally shook my head. “Like I said, I’d plan for things better if I knew how they kept happening. but seriously, I’m glad you were all there.” Biting my lip, I looked down at my mostly finished plate, thinking for a moment before closing up again. “You’re my friends. I’d be lost without you. Not just today, but with all of it, all of this.” My eyes even found their way to Paige, the girl I had such a complicated history with. “I’m glad you’re here.” 

She met my gaze for a moment, a series of complicated emotions seeming to pass over her face. Then she gave a short nod. “Glad to hear it,” the girl announced. “And I hope you still feel that way tomorrow, because I’m gonna need a pretty big distraction while we wait for Irelyn’s plane to land. So all of you better be ready for some pretty intense training. 

“Don’t think what happened today is gonna make me take it easy on you.” 


School the next day was… well, interesting. San had come despite his family saying he could stay home, and had a lot to say to everyone when it came to his house being invaded by the Trendscendants. He, like a lot of people, had started calling them Trendies, probably because the name itself was already ridiculous and calling them that helped make what his family had gone through not quite so terrifying. I could tell it really affected him, even though he did his best to play it off as no big deal. 

I also took the time to tell Amber everything that happened from our point of view, just as I had Izzy the night before. She’d heard a lot of it third-hand, and had some stuff to say about being on the outside waiting to go in, but her group really hadn’t seen much action. Pretty much the only bad guys they managed to find once they breached the building were already dealt with by our group, so her whole thing had been a lot of waiting around followed by walking through a building to find unconscious or tied-up people. 

She was definitely interested when I told her about Pack and Broadway being in that place, though Amber didn’t have any better answers than I did about whether not telling the authorities was a mistake. If anything, she seemed even more uncertain about all that than I was. 

Even through all that, the other girl had seemed distracted. I asked her what was up and she just said there were some personal things she was dealing with. But it didn’t seem bad. To tell the truth, she was kind of giddy and silly. Part of me was confused about that until I saw her with Dani later that day. They were in the middle of an intense conversation at the back of the library, their fingers interlaced as they sat together on one of the couches. 

Oh, so that was what was going on. Well, good for her, though I wasn’t sure how that whole thing with Pack was going to go now that she was involved with Dani. Either way, it wasn’t any of my business. That was all up to her. 

Finally, school was over, so I took an Uber close to the shop before walking the rest of the way. It was about three when I got there, and according to the news, the plane carrying Trivial and Flea (and the ‘anonymous woman they had gone to save’) would be landing around six pm. We couldn’t actually be at the airport, of course. It was a private field north of the city, and that whole place was completely locked down. They were allowing certain reporters in to broadcast the arrival, but that was it. There was no way we could get near it. So Paige was just going to meet her sister back at the Banners’ house, which only served to remind me that we still had no idea where they were. Granted, them being on Breakwater too wasn’t completely out of the question, but something told me they weren’t. 

Paige wasn’t kidding about that training thing, either. Throughout the entire time we were waiting for the news to announce the plane’s arrival, she put us through our paces. First in the virtual reality system, but also over an hour of real-world exercise. She and Sierra were both pretty intense through that whole thing. 

Finally, Fred called out for us to come watch the television. So we gathered in front of it, all of us sweating and panting aside from, of course, the two biolems. That didn’t stop the broad smile that came as I saw the footage of the plane landing and taxiing to a stop. A minute later, the hatch opened, and the stairs were wheeled up to it, allowing three figures to emerge. Two were immediately recognizable as Trivial and Flea, while the other was a woman wearing a heavy coat and ski mask to protect her identity. Part of me wondered whether they had Irelyn dressed up as Flea or the anonymous woman at this point. Probably the former, in case anyone wanted to see her powers or compared old footage to this in order to figure out if they were faking her return. 

Whatever the answer, she was there. Dozens of reporters were shouting questions from the tarmac while the three descended the steps and waved to show that they were okay. 

Smiling broadly at the sight, I patted Paige on the back. “I guess you’ll be heading back to the house to meet her, huh?” 

“I uhh… I want you to be there too,” she informed me, seeming a bit awkward. “I mean, as yourself, not Paintball. I thought…” She rubbed the back of her neck. “I thought maybe we could pretend we’ve gotten over our issues or something. You know, so Sierra can be around the house too sometimes while Irelyn’s there.” 

“Oh.” I blinked once. “I mean, yeah, sure. We wouldn’t be pretending, but I guess we would be pretending that it just happened or how it–never mind, that’s all complicated. Sure, yeah, if you really want me to be there when she gets home… I mean… yeah.” I was making it even more awkward. “I’ll come with you.” 

“Great.” She offered me a brief smile before blushing as she looked away with a cough. “We should uhh, get dinner set up. I’m pretty sure Irelyn will be hungry whenever they finally get done with her.” 

“Great,” Peyton teased. “After all that training, you get to have Paige make you a meal at her nice cushy house, and what do the rest of us get?” 

“Oh, I’m staying here,” Sierra informed her. “Can’t have Irelyn see me looking like this, after all. Worse, I’ve still got plenty of energy and nothing to do with it. So what do you all get?” 

Peyton, Murphy, Roald, Wren, and Fred all chorused the answer together with varying degrees of cheerfulness and/or exhaustion. 

“More training!”  

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Center Of Attention 26-03 (Summus Proelium)

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Obviously, they weren’t just going to fly the missing Star-Touched right back here to Detroit, pat them on the head, and let them go immediately. We didn’t even get any current video of them, so there was no way to know for sure what sort of condition they were in. Instead, there were simply reports from the prison itself that they had picked all three women up and would be bringing them home as soon as they went through various debriefings and medical examinations to ensure they were safe. But according to the report, there are no serious injuries. 

That was reassuring, to say the least. Now that they had publicly acknowledged that the women were with them, it would be much harder for Breakwater to just make them disappear and pretend they had no idea what anyone was talking about. It took an enormous load off my shoulders. 

And if I felt better about it, Paige and Sierra were like totally new people judging by the conversations we had online and over texts that night. Oh, there was still suspicion there, of course. Especially on Sierra’s part. Neither of them would be exactly satisfied until Irelyn was right in front of them. But still, this was pretty positive and we all knew it.

At the very least, it helped me get to sleep that night without feeling too guilty and anxious. Which was a real treat, for sure. I had school the next morning, and the whole weekend had been long and draining. Getting good news to cap it off was just the thing I’d needed, so I decided to crash before anything could happen to ruin that. It was basically a ‘stick my fingers in my ears and pretend there’s nothing bad going on so I can fall asleep’ defense. 

As for school itself the next day, it was, well, busy. There were a lot of people talking about the Flea and Trivial thing, and how they had gone in to save ‘the unknown woman.’ And boy was there a lot of speculation about who that was. People weren’t sure if Breakwater was covering up her identity, or the news, or the government, or all of the above. The fact that she was someone who lived here in Detroit prompted everyone to start asking one another which important people in the city they hadn’t seen in awhile. And yes, my mother’s name came up. As did a few others I recognized. But no one could agree on whether they’d been seen, or even seen closely enough to be certain they were that person and not some sort of double. To say nothing of all the talk of holograms or shapeshifters or whatnot. When that subject came up, I felt like the living embodiment of the awkward look monkey puppet meme. 

In any case, Amber and I spent some time out on the bleachers by the football field, well away from anyone else. We talked a lot about what had happened Saturday at the park, as well as the whole Breakwater thing. She seemed distracted, but when I asked about it, she just said it was a personal situation and she’d be fine. So I asked if Jae was doing okay after that whole weird situation with the maybe homeless guy. According to Amber, she was also fine, but there was a little bit of hesitation there that made me think she wasn’t completely sure. 

Or maybe she just didn’t want to talk about Jae having a boyfriend in Damarko. I had seen the two of them (Jae and Damarko, that was) talking again at the edge of the school grounds when I was dropped off, and whatever it was about, they seemed pretty close. But I still didn’t know if Amber was aware of that situation or not. Or if she was pointedly ignoring it. He was already their friend, so I could see how that might be a little weird. But it definitely wasn’t my place to push. I had enough stuff going on as it was anyway. Not to mention how dangerously close I was veering toward being a gossip. So, I just let it go. 

On the other hand, Amber did want to talk a lot about Izzy agreeing to be adopted. Obviously, we both knew that entire situation was a lot more complicated than it was even on the surface, and it was already complicated there. Izzy knew what she was getting into, and had apparently talked it over with Amber a bit as she was coming to her own decision. As for Amber, she wasn’t sure how she felt about Izzy being adopted by the people in charge of the Ministry, considering she still thought they might have been responsible (at least in some way) for the guy who killed her dad getting away. That made things even more complicated, and I promised if there was any chance to find out if they were involved or knew anything about it, I would help her find answers. 

After all that business at school, I spent a little time at home with Izzy as we made a whole big deal about playing games together to celebrate the adoption. Mom and Dad had already put the paperwork in the day before (it being Sunday didn’t matter at all for various obvious reasons), and the judge would be going through it over the next couple days. It wouldn’t take long at all before Izzy was officially and legally my sister. Not that I needed anyone to tell me anything ‘officially and legally’ for that to be true at this point. I’d only known the other girl for a short time, but it still felt like she’d been around for much longer. Was that just because I had needed someone in my family I could completely trust and confide in? 

That was part of it, sure. But not the whole thing. Izzy was amazing all on her own, no matter what my own situation was. Her being here, knowing things, and me being able to confide in her was clearly one of the luckiest things that had ever happened to me. And, to be quite clear, my life was already pretty damn lucky to begin with, despite its complications. 

So, Izzy and I made our appearances in the house to make sure we looked appropriately giddy about the situation. Not that it really mattered all that much given Mom and Dad weren’t even home (but I was sure Mom would ask the staff how we were and if we seemed okay). Then she went off to do Minority stuff, and I made my way to the shop to check in. 

Peyton was already there when I arrived, apologizing for being stuck with her mother the day before. I tried to tell her it was fine, but she informed me, with a slightly haunted look, that her mother had dragged her through something called a ‘craft fair,’ whatever that was, and that it definitely wasn’t fine. She looked like she had just been through a war. When Fred asked if she’d rather spend a few more hours at one of those, or fight more super-heated zombies, she had to think about it. 

Unfortunately, it was Murphy and Roald who wouldn’t be joining us today. They were stuck babysitting at home, since Roald’s sister Rubi had an important meeting at work to try to get a raise while his little sister was having friends over for some sort of party. 

All of which meant it was just Fred, Wren, Peyton, and me waiting there when Sierra showed up on her own. She came in the front door, just like a customer, holding up this silver-topped cane she had apparently found lying around the Banners house. The girl was going on about how it had a taser in the tip that she could either poke someone with or shoot out a full fifty feet if needed, and wasn’t that cool? 

“Sierra,” I finally interrupted my blonde doppelganger once I could get a word in edgewise. “Where’s Paige? We thought she was with you.” She had come in all by herself, and considering how long she had been talking about the cane without the other girl coming through the door behind her, seemed to be alone. 

“Huh?” Looking up from the cane, Sierra made a dismissive noise. “Oh, that, she’s talking to people from the Ministry over at the house.” 

Needless to say, that provoked a reaction. Especially from Wren, who was sitting cross-legged on top of the glass counter. Even as the rest of us were jerking a bit in surprise, the younger girl fell over backwards with a yelp. There was a crashing sound behind the counter that sounded like a bunch of metal pans falling over, and Fred gave a visible flinch. 

“I’m okay!” Wren called out, popping back to her feet with her hands up. “I’m okay!” Only then did she notice the metal colander on her head, quickly taking it off with a blush. “Uncle Fred’s showing me how to cook!” She added that bit while holding up the colander proudly. 

Ignoring the fact that that didn’t really explain why there was all that stuff downstairs behind the counter, I focused on the much more important and immediate situation. Which was Sierra, who happened to be curiously poking through a shelf full of random stuff with her new cane. My mouth opened, but before I could actually say anything, Peyton beat me to the punch. 

“What do you mean, she’s talking to the Ministry?!” All of her marbles were spinning in circles around her head like a multicolored halo or something. In most cases, it would have been distracting. But now? Now I barely noticed. 

Sierra, still looking completely unconcerned, shrugged. “Uh, after what we did, are you that surprised? I mean, even if they don’t know it was us, obviously they’d want to see if she knew anything about it. Or how she feels about Irelyn coming home. Or if she has any idea where the Banners are. You know, all that stuff. Of course they sent someone over to talk. We were expecting that. Even if…” She trailed off, glancing toward me. 

“Even if what?” I prompted, my stomach already twisting itself into knots. Yes, it made sense that the Ministry would want to talk to Paige after that. But still, the idea that she was out there with them… it made me anxious. Anything could happen. How was Sierra so calm about this? 

Looking like she wasn’t sure if she should say anything or not, the other girl finally sighed while leaning on the cane. “Well, we’re pretty sure the people who are over there talking to her right now are your parents. You know, using their disguise holograms or whatever they are.” 

Now I kind of wished I had a bunch of pots and pans to fall off a counter onto. As it was, I made a choking sound in the back of my throat, eyes widening as I grabbed hold of the nearby shelf. “My what?! What? What?!” It was tempting to just keep shouting that single word at her, but I restrained myself to just three times. 

“Right, I was supposed to say that when I first got here.” Sierra frowned thoughtfully. “Sorry, I got distracted when I figured out this thing could shoot the taser darts too. Anyway, yeah, we think your parents stopped by for a two-on-one conversation. They’re in disguise, like I said. They’re not saying they’re the leaders of the Ministry or anything, it’s just… sort of the impression we’ve got.” 

“So why are you here?” That was Fred, asking the very good questions. “Why aren’t you back there, just in case things go wrong?” 

“Well, one, we’re in contact up here.” Sierra tapped the side of her head. “She’s letting me know how it’s going. So if that whole situation does go sideways, I’ll know. And now, since I’m here, so will you guys. Which brings me to point three, if the Ministry decided to abduct Paige, I’d sort of need you guys to help stop it. And if it comes down to that and I had to have a confrontation, it might be a little awkward to just be there as myself.” Her finger twirled around her face demonstrably. “They might have some questions, you know?” 

Okay yeah, that made sense. Still, I took a moment to breathe out and try to calm myself just a little bit before asking, “You said you’re still in contact and she’s fine? What’s going on?” It was all I could do to convince myself that changing into my costume and charging out there right this second was probably a bad idea. My parents, if they really were the ones over there (and even if they weren’t) would also have questions if Paintball suddenly showed up. 

Clearly realizing we were anxious about this whole thing and enjoying dragging it out, Sierra took a moment to make herself comfortable leaning against one of the shelves. Then she shrugged. “They’re just asking about what she knew and if she had anything to do with this information getting out. She’s telling them that someone she doesn’t know came to ask her what she knew and she told them the same thing. Then they told her about the Breakwater thing and asked if she wanted to help. So she gave them the boat and let them break it to make those pictures and send them. We figured they might be able to figure out what the boat was somehow, and that it was actually sitting at the marina here. So we might as well give them that one. They wanted to know why she didn’t come to them, and she pointed out the whole ‘trying to shoot her in the head thing.’ They seem to be accepting that.” 

Taking that in, I tried to make my heart slow down. It didn’t really help. My stomach was still all twisted up. I was paranoid about what else could happen. My parents were at Paige’s house right now. What if they decided she needed to be disappeared and put that into play before we could actually do anything about it? Yes, it made sense that they would want to talk to her, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t really thought about that too much. With everything that had happened over the weekend, I just didn’t consider that part of it. 

Sierra was already continuing. “She’s telling them that she doesn’t know who these people are, just that they contacted her in person. She’s giving them a couple descriptions that won’t lead anywhere, and telling them that she’s pretty sure those people were intermediaries. Plus the usual other ways this sort of thing happens. You know, meeting in dark warehouses with people she couldn’t see, that sort of thing. Real interesting spy stuff. The point is, she can’t identify them. She did say they might have worked with Mr. Banners, so that might lead them down the wrong rabbit hole.” 

“But she’s okay?” I pressed. “I mean, they aren’t calling for a van to take her away, or giving her any dangerous vibes? Does she want us to suit up and be ready? I mean we could–” 

Pushing off the shelf, Sierra walked over to stand in front of me, putting her hands on my shoulders. And boy did it ever feel weird to have this happen with someone whose face looked like my mirror double. “Dude,” she pointedly intoned. “It’s gonna be fine. We knew they’d want to talk to her, so we planned this out. I mean, we didn’t know it’d be your parents exactly, but still. If she’s in trouble, she’ll let me know. And we’ve got plenty of emergency measures just in case. I mean, it’s not perfect and foolproof, but it’s better than you losing your mind and rushing over there.”

Okay, if having my near-twin talk to me face to face like that was weird, having her tell me the same thing I had been telling myself was even more so. It was like my inner monologue was given physical form. And she was right, of course. Just like I had been right when I thought the same thing. So, I exhaled and gave a little nod. “Right, sure. Just tell us if anything goes wrong. Maybe we should suit up and be ready anyway, just in case? We could get–” 

“They’re leaving,” Sierra interrupted. “They said they’ll report to their ‘superiors’ and let her know if they find out anything important. And that she should call the number they gave her if she remembers anything else about the people who came to her. See? No big deal.” 

“No big deal?!” Peyton blurted before I could. “It’s a very big deal! The Ministry leaders–her parents–just went to talk to Paige in person about all this! Of course it’s a big deal!” 

“What she said,” I muttered with a gesture that way. “But at least it’s just ‘big deal’ and not ‘giant, immediate, blaring emergency.’” 

“Weren’t you worried at all?” Wren pressed. She had put the colander on her head like a helmet. 

Holding the cane up, Sierra replied, “Why do you think I was distracting myself with my cool new toy? Yeah, I was worried too, kid.” She sounded like it was hard for her to admit that. “But seriously, everybody just breathe. Paige is gonna be here soon.” Her eyes found me with a tiny smirk. “And then you’re really gonna be in trouble.” 

“Me?” I blinked at that. “Why would I be in trouble?” 

With a small chuckle, the blonde version of myself poked me with the cane. “Because Paige really needs a distraction right now. And you told her about those new paint combination things. So you better be ready when she gets here. 

“Cuz she is gonna put you through so many tests you might as well change your name to Guinea Pig.”  

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Center Of Attention 26-02 (Summus Proelium)

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The answer to the question of how pissed Pittman was, as it turned out, was very. Apparently it wasn’t that hard for the man to put together that we were the ones behind this sudden revelation in the news (more confirmation that he had contact with the outside world that he shouldn’t have had). He spent a good minute ranting to me about what was going to happen to the two Star-Touched on that island now that we had fucked him over. Nor was he particularly happy when I let him know that we were already aware that he didn’t have them anyway, so his threats were meaningless. 

But you know what probably pissed him off the most? The fact that, while he was gearing up for another rant about how we could have worked together and made everyone happy, I disconnected. And boy was that a satisfying click. Putting the phone away, I looked up to Paige, Sierra, Murphy, Roald, Fred, and Wren staring at me. Their looks made me shrug. “The dude already plotted my death for years from inside the most secure prison on the planet. What else is he gonna do, exactly, if I annoy him as Paintball too? He can go suck an egg.” Pausing briefly, I added, “Whatever that means. Seriously, what kind of egg–never mind. The point is, he’s already pissed off and I didn’t particularly feel like standing there and letting him yell at me all day.” 

“I wish I could’ve hung up on him like that,” Paige murmured before shaking that off. “Anyway, we’ve got the list of equipment he wanted us to put together, and we still have the address in Utah to check out at some point. Some of us, anyway. Maybe some of that’ll help figure out his backup plans. But either way, those government groups better motivate the hell out of Breakwater to cough up Irelyn and the others.” 

“Yeah,” Sierra agreed while hopping up to perch on the counter next to Wren. “Cuz if government agencies wagging their fingers at you isn’t good motivation to do what they say, what is?” 

“It’s more than that,” I pointed out, dragging a stool around so I could drop myself onto it. “They’ve got official eyes on them now, and if I know anything about ordinary prisons from the stuff I’ve read, they don’t really like that. I’d bet a place like Breakwater is even more averse to it. They’re gonna want to make the public and government people happy as fast as they can. Which means playing along with our little story.” 

“Are you sure they won’t just say, ‘nope, never heard of those people, that’s totally made up?’” Murphy put in, before grimacing. “I mean, sorry to be the Debbie Downer.” 

Roald, standing beside her, shrugged. “It’s possible, isn’t it? They could just pretend this whole thing is a prank or something and ride it out.” Glancing to his friend, he added, “I guess we can be Debbie Downers together. Or, wait, is it Debbies Downer? That always confuses me.” 

It was Fred who addressed the actual point, still sitting on his normal seat behind the register. “The ball’s already rolling. The public thinks it’s true, and you can’t put a genie back in the bottle that easily. If they try to say it’s all a lie, they’ll still have a bunch of those people sniffing around. Hell, it’ll probably threaten their budget. That’s the real way to get those types to piss their pants. Easier for them all around if they just play along, hand the three of them over, and act like it was all part of the plan. Still makes them look a little bad considering a random civilian accidentally ended up on their prison island and then try to keep it secret, but it’s better than the alternative.” 

“Uh, yeah, what he said,” I agreed with a gesture that way. “This was our best chance to pull that off anyway. And I don’t exactly feel bad about putting that sort of pressure on them, since I refuse to believe they didn’t know those guys were on the island. They were willing to just leave them there to protect their precious reputation, so we took that option away from them.” 

Paige straightened up, moving to pluck a random piece of a vacuum off one of the shelves. “It was the best move. The only move. No way would our dad actually keep his end of that deal and help get them off the island. And even if he did, getting him off wouldn’t be worth it. He’s too dangerous. Look at what he’s been able to do while he’s in there. Giving him free rein to go anywhere in the world and get all the resources he could–” Cutting herself off, she sighed. “That can’t happen.” 

“It won’t!” That was Wren, looking up from some weird machine she was putting together in the corner. I had no idea if it was something special, or just the girl randomly tinkering with nothing in particular in mind. The way she worked, it could go either way. Maybe it was a sandwich baggie dispenser. It kind of looked like one of those. “They’re gonna let all three of them off that jail place.” Before we could say anything to that, she added, “And I’m not just being a dumb kid who doesn’t know how the world works or anything. Things are really scary around here right now, cuz of the gang war, and the stupid people trying out for the Scions, and… and all sorts of stuff. But the Ministry wants to keep things in control, right? They need superheroes here for that. So they’ll put all the power and like, uh, resources and stuff they’ve got into making the jail people play nice.” 

“Kid’s got a point,” Sierra muttered, sounding grudgingly admiring. “But now there’s nothing else we can do except wait and see what happens.” 

Paige, however, shook her head. “Oh yes there is.” Her gaze turned to me, eyes narrowing pointedly in a way that weirdly reminded me of just how horrible she had been to me for so long. It was a thought that I pushed aside as firmly as I could. “You can tell us exactly what you did yesterday with that whole ‘combining paint’ thing. The whole story. 

“And this time, you don’t get to blurt a few confusing words and then run off.” 


So, I spent the next little while getting into all that. Needless to say, Paige and the others were all pretty curious about the whole thing. The options that even just the combined paints I had already figured out opened up were pretty incredible. And who knew what other combinations I could put together?

Unfortunately, it was going to be awhile before we got into that. Paige really wanted me to spend the next couple hours going through all of it, but I had barely finished going through the paints I’d already used when my mother called and asked me to come home early so I could clean up and get dressed to go out. We were having family dinner at a restaurant that night to celebrate the Izzy adoption thing. And apparently Mom wanted to make sure we got through all that and made it back home before, as she put it, those violent psychopaths wake up from their naps and decide to start fighting again.

Part of me wondered briefly what the real reason was for why she wanted to get this dinner done with earlier than usual. Then I realized it almost certainly had to do with the Breakwater thing. That situation was probably moving about as fast as they could manage, but the big stuff wouldn’t happen until later. Mom wanted to keep our normal dinner, especially with Izzy. But things were also probably going to start happening pretty quickly tonight. At least, I hoped that was the reason. I really wanted to see the news report that Flea and Trivial were on a plane back here. I kept glancing at my phone, praying for a social media blow-up about it. Of course there was nothing so far. Stuff didn’t happen that quickly. Even if the Breakwater people had already gotten them off the island, they would be… laying down the strict rules about what they were allowed to say once they were out in public. 

Yeah, I had no idea how they were going to enforce that sort of thing. And thinking about it made me nervous, to say the least. But right now all that mattered was getting them off that island and back here. We would deal with anything else when the time came.

So, I had to tell the others that we have to pick this up another time. Promising to keep checking in and that they should tell me if they found out anything else, I headed out. As far as my mother knew, I was practicing some tricks at a smaller, out-of-the-way park that wasn’t currently blanketed with law-enforcement investigation people. Which meant I had a perfect excuse for paint-racing home. Mom expected me to be all sweaty. That’s why she made a point of calling for me to come home early and get cleaned up. Honestly, if I had shown up still all clean and fresh, she would’ve known something was up. Which was why I not only paint-ran most of the way home, but also took care to get myself dirty once I’d gotten close enough to change into my regular clothes. I quite literally rolled myself in the dirt and grass to sell the illusion. 

Well, that and also because it was fun. How often do you have a really good excuse to roll in the dirt? Especially in clothes that were bought with supervillain money. I may have gotten just a little too much enjoyment out of that. 

Once I made my way inside, suitably dirty and disheveled, along with the skateboard I had hidden on the far side of the wall surrounding our property, Mom took one look at me and made a noise that was part chuckle and part groan. “I see I didn’t make a mistake by pulling you in early.” Her hand reached out to gently brush over the dirt I had painstakingly put on my cheek. “Please tell me you had a good time, at least. Better than yesterday. I know it must have been as disappointing as it was frightening, considering how you feel about that girl.”

I made myself shrug, playing the part of a kid who didn’t want her mother to worry so much. “Sure, it was pretty scary, I guess. But like I said, I didn’t really see that much. I just hid.” With that, I made a point of injecting annoyance and self-recrimination into my voice. If I acted like a terrified child the whole time, Mom would never buy it. But she would believe that I had been scared in the moment but now wanted to move past it and was annoyed at myself for not actually doing anything to help. 

It worked. Mom used two fingers to tilt my head up to look at her. “And we are very glad for that. You are not a soldier or a police officer. If you ever see anything like that, hiding is exactly what you should do. It stops the bad guys from hurting you, and keeps you out of the way for the people who are actually trained to help. Hiding under that car was the best thing you could have done, okay?”

Oh boy was there an awful lot I wanted to say to that. But, of course, I kept myself under control and simply offered my mother a small smile. “Sure, I guess. Izzy’s the real superhero around here anyway. Where is she?” Right after saying that, I made a noise of realization. “Ohhh she’s probably doing Minority stuff, huh?”

“She’ll be home soon enough,” Mom assured me with a smile. “For now, perhaps you should go get cleaned up. We’ll be leaving within the hour. Oh, and I do hope you worked up an appetite while you were out.” She winked. “Your father really wants to spoil Izzy tonight, so I have a feeling he’ll be pulling out all the stops to make this a memorable meal.”

I could think of a few ways it could be memorable, but I sure as hell wasn’t about to suggest any of them. Instead, I simply promised to be ready soon, before jogging upstairs with my skateboard tucked under one arm. On the way, I passed Simon coming down while talking on the phone with one of his friends. Or maybe it was one of the Ministry people. Or both. Hell, maybe he was talking to a girl. It wasn’t like every last thing he did had to revolve around the Ministry. 

Yeah, okay, I’d rather think about my brother plotting mysterious things with a secret criminal underworld than about him being romantic with a girl. Blech. Honestly, there were a lot of things I’d rather think about than that. My brother’s love life wasn’t exactly on my top one thousand list of stuff I had any interest in. 

Pushing that thought far, far out of my mind, I grabbed a set of nice clothes (a teal silk shirt and black slacks) from my room before taking a long, hot shower. Partly because it helped me relax a bit, and partly because it took awhile to get clean. Maybe I had overdone the whole rolling in the dirt thing just a little bit. But at least it was sufficiently convincing for my mother so she didn’t ask any uncomfortable questions.

In any case, we had dinner at an out-of-the way restaurant. It was a nice place on the edge of town where they were very discreet. But more than that, their owner and head chef was a genius when it came to food. Seriously, that wasn’t hyperbole. Her name was Nadia Campbell and she was literally a Tech-Touched with a focus on cooking rather than building machines or weapons or whatever. 

Technically I wasn’t supposed to know that she was Touched, it wasn’t like she went around advertising it to everyone. But I’d heard my parents talking about her even before I’d found out about the Ministry. Nadia used to be the teacher for our own chef, Claudio. Dad tried to hire her to come to the house, but she didn’t go for it so he hired Claudio, her protege. 

If he was good at cooking, Nadia was the master. And she made certain everyone who worked in her kitchen followed her instructions. I had had a meal that was prepared by her personally a couple times before, though it wasn’t a regular occurrence by any means. She didn’t seem to care about my family‘s money, or any money really, aside from what it took to keep her restaurant afloat and allow her to do her work. 

No, despite all the money and influence they had, Nadia only agreed to personally cook for my family on very special occasions. The most recent one had been my sweet sixteen, back in January. But apparently she had agreed to this meal after finding out about Izzy agreeing to be adopted. And boy was that ever a good way to make this time memorable. 

Izzy, for her part, didn’t really understand what the big deal was. Not at first, anyway. And she was even more confused when there didn’t turn out to be any menus to look at. We just sat down in the private room at the back of the restaurant and one of Nadia’s assistants came out to talk to everyone. It wasn’t her, but that wasn’t surprising either. The small, deceptively young-looking black woman rarely directly spoke to any customers. Or anyone else, as far as I knew. She wasn’t the most sociable person, which was probably another reason why she turned down my family‘s offer. 

Instead of menus, Nadia‘s assistant, a man named Tumaini, talked with all of us. Some of it was about what sort of food we liked, but it was also seemingly random conversation. It went on for just a few minutes before the man smiled, thanked us for coming, and went out again.

After he left, Izzy hesitantly asked what that was all about. With a chuckle, Dad replied, “The woman here, Nadia, let’s just say she’s very special. She was listening to all that, and she’ll use the conversation to design a meal for everyone here. It’s what she does, and she’s quite good at it.”

Izzy was able to find out just how good Nadia was pretty soon, as our meals were eventually brought back to the table. My own food was an Italian pasta dish with semi-spicy meatballs and a creamy sauce that made my taste buds want to jump onto the table and start dancing. Izzy, meanwhile, had some sort of salmon dish with fingerling potatoes, which were apparently good enough to leave her completely shocked after just one bite. Though the shock didn’t last long, probably because it would have meant taking longer before actually eating the stuff.

Mom, Dad, and Simon had their own meals that were clearly just as good. We dug into the meals in earnest, while occasionally talking. The main subject was, naturally, Izzy. She blushed a lot and mumbled, apparently not sure how to handle being the center of attention like this. But I could tell she was having a good time regardless. We all were. 

Mom insisted we not have phones at the table while we were eating, so despite my anxiousness to know what was happening with the Breakwater thing, I couldn’t keep checking up on it. 

When we left the restaurant and all piled into the back of the limousine, however, I immediately dug the phone out of my pocket and checked. It didn’t take long to find what I was looking for, and a lot of it. Fourteen messages from Paige and the others, along with nine news alerts, and a couple phone calls. All of which amounted to the same thing.

Flea and Trivial had been found and would be coming home soon. 

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Center Of Attention 26-01 (Summus Proelium)

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My–our parents weren’t home the next morning (Sunday) when Izzy and I got up. Which was just fine with us, given we had plenty to do that day as it was. Especially considering what the others had put into place overnight. Between that and the whole thing with Inessa and her brother’s vault, it really was no wonder that the Ministry was busy. Part of me wondered if our parents had gotten any sleep at all the night before, but I pushed that feeling of guilt away as firmly as I could. After everything that had happened and the sort of things they were responsible for, they could deal with a busy night. Hell, for all I knew, Dad had a super-energy pill or something to help with it. That would explain how he managed to be a superhero, successful businessman, and help run a criminal conspiracy at the same time. Actually, come to think of it, that was probably still too much even if he never slept at all. 

Izzy and I watched the news on our phones in the dining room while we were eating our breakfast. Of course, they were talking about the biggest story of the day, or possibly of the whole year. The news that someone had ended up trapped on Breakwater before two Star-Touched had secretly been sent in to save her wasn’t exactly going to fly under the radar.

Oh sure, there were plenty who doubted the story. They had news consultants and experts on every channel it seemed like, all of them arguing about whether something like this was possible or not. There was discussion about security measures, about the sort of paperwork that would have to have been filed with the local governments, about this being an elaborate prank, and about it being completely real. The arguments ran across the political spectrum. There were plenty who were using it as an excuse to show why Breakwater was a bad idea to begin with, while others crowed about this being the first problem of its kind and how that proved how incredibly secure and safe the place was. After all, if one person getting accidentally stuck there, a one in a billion chance, ended up being such a pain in the ass to retrieve, then of course it meant it would be impossible for anyone who was supposed to be there to actually escape. 

Of course people had reached out to Breakwater itself, but they weren’t giving any statements yet. There was talk about several governments investigating, including a congressional committee here in the States. Some of that was just politicians trying to jump on something that would make a name for themselves, but still. All of this meant that Breakwater couldn’t just sweep it under the rug. Which was the entire point. We’d intentionally pointed as big of a spotlight as we could at the place to keep everyone’s eyes on it long enough to pull this off.

As planned, the news stories the others had dropped off weren’t about pointing fingers and being accusatory, even if some of the analysts took it that way. For the most part, we had made it look as so we were praising Breakwater for their quick action and incredible competence. This whole thing was about making it look as though Flea and Trivial had already rescued Irelyn, and now they were just in debrief with the Breakwater people. That way, they couldn’t just make the pair disappear and shrug their shoulders.

To that end, Paige and Sierra hadn’t simply delivered some photoshopped pictures of the broken boat. No, they had gone far above and beyond that. Some of the papers they had dropped off at the various news organizations looked like photocopies of actual orders and memos from Breakwater. Stuff about gathering information about the intruder on the island, about where she had come from, her movements, and how to recruit a couple Star-Touched from her own home city to help handle the situation without causing a panic. We didn’t make them look perfect, of course. That wouldn’t have been realistic, and we still wanted them to squirm at least a little bit. There were notes in there about how bad this would look if it got out, and that they needed to handle it quickly and quietly. But for the most part, they came off looking competent, at the very least. Especially considering we had made it look as though their plan had worked. There were notes in the end about how the two Star-Touched had successfully retrieved the lost woman without suffering any fatalities. 

Of course this whole thing would blow up in everyone’s face if there had already been a major, obvious problem on the island that wasn’t covered in the notes. But we were trying not to focus on that possibility. All that mattered was getting them off that island, and now we had given Breakwater the best excuse they could possibly have to just pick them up and let them go. Of course they would have to convince the pair to go along with the cover story that we had given them, but that was also something we couldn’t affect right now. We just had to hope Flea and Trivial would go with it.

This was undoubtedly the hardest part of this whole thing. We’d pulled the trigger on everything we could do, and now we just had to sit here and wait. We couldn’t affect anything else, not when it came to this. We were stuck watching to see how Breakwater would handle it. 

And if this was hard for me, I couldn’t even imagine what it was like for Paige and Sierra. They had lit the dynamite and tossed it out into the world. Now they had to sit around waiting to see what happened.

Or, apparently not. At least as far as the sitting around bit went. I learned the truth about that after Izzy went off for a meeting with the Minority people and I made my way to the shop. According to Wren, who was eating fried chicken at ten o’clock in the morning, the other two were out again already. Something about sneaking into a couple of these news and government places to eavesdrop on what was actually being said in the background. They wanted to get a better idea of how things were going beyond what was actually being reported on the news.

Yeah, I should’ve known better than to assume that Paige would be patiently sitting around the shop. I just hoped that whatever they were doing to sneak into these places wouldn’t end up with my parents being called to come pick up their daughter. Sure, Sierra had changed her hair color and stuff like that, but still. The whole idea made me even more anxious.

Gnawing on a chicken leg while perching cross-legged on one of the glass counters near the register, Wren beamed my way. “It’s okay, we did the hard part already. Now it’s up to them. We just have to wait and see what happens, you know?” With that, she took a big gulp of lemonade and made a sound of contentment. She had done her part, at least as far as that went. Now there was nothing else she could do to affect the situation, so she wasn’t worrying about it. Boy, wouldn’t that have been nice? 

My head shook as I gave a soft sigh. “Yeah, I’m not exactly sure that’s what I would call the easy part. It’s hard to just sit around and hope things work out. Especially when it comes to something like this. I keep feeling like I should be out there doing something to help, you know?” 

“Like what?” That was Fred, who settled back in an easy chair next to the register with his own plate of chicken. They’d offered me some when I came in, but I was still full from breakfast, so I’d declined. “Do you have some super-special color paint that can take you all the way to that prison island that you’ve just been holding back this whole time for the heck of it?” When I shook my head, he gestured. “Well, there you go. You can’t do anything about it right now. Heck, you’ve even got Paige and Sierra out there doing the sneaky-sneak parts to find out what the people who do have some authority are doing. Just wait to find out what they come back with. Maybe there’ll be something you can actually contribute to.” He gave a self-depreciating snort then, eyes rolling. “Maybe that will even be something I can do besides sit around and be the denmoth–uncle, denuncle. Is that a thing? Eh, it is now. Even if it does sound like a freaking Pokemon.” 

He had a point, of course. Er, about the me not being able to affect the situation thing. I couldn’t do anything important right then, so I simply moved to a corner and started working on my homework for the next day. I could’ve done that at home, but I felt the need to be here at the shop, just in case.

The sound of the bell ringing by the door as someone came in startled me, and my gaze snapped up, body reflexively tensing and ready for trouble. But, lo and behold, it was just a customer. An actual real life customer for the pawn/repair shop. In this case, he was there for the repair side, having brought in an old broken betamax player. Apparently it had belonged to his grandmother and he wanted to be able to watch some of her old videos. I watched from the corner as Fred made a show of turning the thing over to examine it from every angle before telling the man he could come back for it in an hour. The guy seemed surprised that it would be that fast, and Fred asked if he’d prefer it take a week. The man quickly apologized, thanked him and promised to be back in the hour before making his way out. He barely even glanced my way through the whole thing. Still, part of me wondered if I should go upstairs if customers were going to start visiting. 

Pushing myself up, I stepped over that way and asked, “You think Wren can fix that thing in an hour? She hasn’t even looked at it.” 

He snorted at me, setting the thing down on the counter gently before reaching out to pick up a screwdriver and a small flashlight. “The kid isn’t coming anywhere near this little beauty. She’d probably put a rocket pack on it and send the thing to the moon or something.”

Wren, for her part, bobbed her head in quick agreement. “I do like rockets, they’re fun!” 

“I’ve fixed plenty of these in my time,” Fred informed me while starting to work on the betamax player. “It’s no big deal. I may not be a superpowered genius, but I can work on this.” 

More customers did come in over that hour, and I ended up not going upstairs after all. Instead, I took down their information, helped them find things they were looking for, and generally lost myself in working as a random, anonymous employee. It was nice, especially considering I doubted any of the people who had come in would remember my face two seconds after leaving. I was just a nobody, someone who helped sell them whatever they needed (or failed to do so). Between that and getting my actual homework done, it helped take my mind off worrying about the Breakwater situation, the Inessa one, the one where someone was possibly targeting the Minority–yeah, all of it. I was able to clear my head pretty well. Not that it would last, but still. 

Eventually, Murphy and Roald came in, and they started helping out too. Not just with customers, but with some of the minor repairs. Fred and Wren supervised that, simply giving instructions about what to do, while we did the grunt work. 

After several hours of that, things finally slowed down. The three of us who were actually high school students did our homework together, even though we didn’t have the same classes. It still helped to bounce things off each other. Besides, the other two were weirdly interested in what sort of classes and lessons I had in what they called my spoiled rich shit school. 

It turned out most of the stuff they were currently working on was at least a grade level or two behind what I had been assigned when I was in their grade. Not because I was smarter, to say the least. It was because my teachers focused on more advanced stuff, because they had the support and supplies needed to teach it properly. Not to mention the way the parents, including my own, would push for that. The more I heard about Murphy and Roald’s school, the more clear it was that I really needed to push my parents to contribute some real funds to schools like that. They deserved more than they were getting, and it wasn’t like doing so would be hard. I was relatively certain we could double their annual budget with what was in our couch cushions. 

I also spent part of that time texting back-and-forth with Ryder about that whole situation. And no, I was still not even close to being accustomed to the idea that fucking Arleigh and her family were actually Sherwood. Out of all the things I’ve had to deal with and accept, that one was coming close to breaking my brain. Not the idea that she was a villain, naturally. No, the part I couldn’t accept was her being a nature-loving villain. Or at least pretending to be one. I couldn’t even believe that she was able to fake something like that so well. She was incredibly good at playing both roles, to the point that part of me wondered which was the real her. Because Clime was just… a flower girl hippy type. A violent flower girl hippy, but still. 

In any case, the two of us caught each other up as best as we could, while also joking around a fair bit. That, probably more than anything else, helped calm me down. Talking to Ryder, even simply by texting over the phone, was just… nice. Even though we were talking about very serious and dangerous things, it was easy to talk to him. Now that he knew who I was, and vice versa, it had removed a wall between us. We were able to just chat about everything, and about nothing. Was it weird that I could spend ten minutes talking about various jelly bean flavors and what the absolute worst, yet still edible type would be? And did the fact that that was mixed in with also talking about things like Jennica make that better or worse?

We also had the news on throughout the day, just in case. Not that there was anything new to hear about. The bomb was still gradually exploding. Or maybe this was more like the aftershocks. Either way, they weren’t saying anything that I hadn’t heard already. They were just going over the facts again in the end, about how long ago Flea and Trivial had last been active, who the mystery woman who had ended up on the island in the first place could be, and everything else. There were people who reported having seen the two Star-Touched long after I knew they wouldn’t have been around. Part of me wondered if that was a cover-up from the Ministry or from the law enforcement themselves to help hide their identities. Honestly, did the difference really matter at that point?

Finally, Paige and Sierra showed up. They had a little more news than what was being reported. Apparently the Star-Touched organizations were taking it incredibly seriously and had actually confirmed via back channels with Breakwater that there were indeed a couple on the island who matched Flea and Trivial’s descriptions. They also assured them that all efforts were being taken to ensure a safe exit for everyone involved. Of course, all of that led to discussions and arguments about whose fault this whole thing was and who bore ultimate responsibility. Not just for the initial situation, but also for the leaking of the information. There was a lot of finger-pointing going on, but thankfully, none of it seemed to be coming anywhere near us. Not that that was all that surprising, considering how much care we had taken to cover our tracks, but still. Things could easily have gone wrong with that whole thing. Part of me had half-expected the people in charge to figure out it was us within an hour or two. 

Still, it seemed like it was going to take more time for the people in charge to work all that out. But, things were moving in the right direction. The fact that Breakwater admitted those two were there in the first place and weren’t trying to lie about it was a pretty good sign. Hopefully this whole thing would be resolved without us needing to lift another finger. 

On the other hand, now that she couldn’t do anything else about that situation, Paige was fully focused on what I had been doing at the park the day before. Specifically, all the paint combinations. She had me walk her through exactly what it happened and what I did. And she had a few choice words to say about my way of experimenting, making it clear that we were going to do some very in-depth testing in safer conditions. And yes, I was pretty sure she drooled a little when saying words like testing and experiments. No way was I going to get out of that now. 

But we didn’t have time to get into it too much before the phone rang. The phone, the one we used for talking to Pittman. 

Sure enough, it was him. The system told us he was coming from the same location we’d tracked before. It had to be him. Staring at the phone as it rang, I picked it up and looked at the others. “Well, I’m guessing he’s heard the news and knows we don’t have to work with him after all. 

“So, let’s see just how pissed off he is, shall we?” 

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Exhibition 25-01 (Summus Proelium)

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“And then we got to smash it all to bits with hammers!” Wren enthusiastically informed me the next morning. “It was so fun. I got to break the glass windows, but Uncle Fred said I had to wear gloves and long pants and stuff, but it was still fun! We smashed everything and then drove it out in this U-Haul truck that Uncle Fred rented, and we dumped all the pieces out on the lake!” 

It was just a little bit before lunchtime on Saturday, May 16th. Which meant I didn’t have to go to school. I did need to go see Inessa’s show that night, but for now, I was free. Well, Cassidy was free. Paintball had plenty to do. Starting with catching up with how everything had gone for the others the night before. I had just shown up at the shop a few minutes earlier, so Wren was excitedly telling me everything in between bites of a ham and cheese sandwich and chips. Her hand was waving around wildly, apparently to illustrate the way she had swung that hammer.

“Always fun to break things,” I agreed, boosting myself up with my hands to perch on the glass counter as I watched the girl with amusement. “Sorry I missed it. But you think it was convincing?” The important part was to make enough people who saw the pictures believe that it was the wreckage of a boat out on the ocean. I knew we wouldn’t fool everyone, and of course the people in charge of the island would know it was complete bullshit. But we just needed public opinion to believe that the wrecked boat was how Irelyn had gotten to the island. 

“Uncle Fred!” Wren called, waving that half-eaten sandwich. “Can you show him–err, sorry, her the pictures?!” 

“Him is fine,” I reminded her. “Let’s not get in the habit of calling me her too much. It’ll just confuse everything and risk making a mistake in public. I–” Hesitating as a weird feeling passed through me at the thought of telling someone it was okay to refer to me as a boy, I shook that off. “Whatever, it’s cool.” Talking about that made me think about the fact that Eits knew my secret, my full secret, now. And I knew his. Which was a whole complicated situation that I really couldn’t think about too much right now. Not when I really had to focus. 

Fred, who had already finished eating his own lunch/breakfast, stepped over and handed me a digital camera. “The girls, Paige and Sierra, they said they could clean them up and do the editing to put an island in the pictures. This is just for the wreckage part.” 

Looking through the images on the screen, I nodded slowly. They really had done a number on what had apparently been a pretty impressive boat at one point. I could tell that even from the shape it was in. It was barely recognizable as a boat at this point. Most of the thing was in a dozen or more different pieces, floating on water. They had taken the pictures with a drone of some sort, first from high enough up to make it clear that they weren’t being taken from another boat, and then up close enough to make out details. The base shape of the boat was still there, with the name visible in a couple of the pictures. Orcastra. Yeah, spelled like that. Totally hilarious. 

“Well you guys sure put that thing through its paces. How did Paige feel about smashing it apart?” Something told me she wouldn’t be too bothered about it, considering the reason we were doing all this to begin with and where the money for the boat had come from. But on the other hand, maybe she had good memories involved with it.

“She did most of the damage,” Fred informed me. “Her and Sierra both, really. They really went to town on the thing. I think they were working through some stuff.” 

Yeah, that made sense. I had a feeling they had probably been picturing Pittman’s face whenever they swung those hammers or whatever they used. I knew I would’ve. 

“Right, so they’re probably busy with that over at the Banners house,” I murmured thoughtfully. “I’m sure they’re good at that sort of thing, but Paige is gonna want these to be perfect before we show them to anyone. I just… I wish we could talk to Irelyn or one of the others ourselves and make sure they’re okay. And uhh, you know, let them know someone’s working on getting them out of there.” I couldn’t even imagine how bad it must’ve been to be trapped there, realize the people in charge had to know you were there, and that they weren’t going to actually help. 

Wilting a little, Wren sank back on her seat and gave a quick nod. “I’m sorry, I–I really wanna try to talk to them too, but I can’t figure out–” 

“Oh, oh no, no, it wasn’t–it’s okay.” Scooting off the counter before moving that way, I sat next to the girl on another folding chair and reached out to take her hand. “I wasn’t saying you should’ve done something. You’ve done enough, Wren. You’ve done more than–more than anyone could’ve expected. You’re amazing, really. It’s not your fault Pittman got Irelyn’s phone.”

She nodded slowly, giving me a hesitant smile before it quickly blossomed into a more genuine one. “Oh! I have something for you!” While saying that, she hopped off the chair, shoving the last quarter of her sandwich into her mouth before darting off toward the elevator. She said something about being right back, but it was hard to make out through her full mouth. 

Glancing toward Fred, I raised an eyebrow. Which just reminded me again about the fact that I was able to have my mask and helmet off in here so he could see my eyebrow. He, in turn, offered me a confused shrug. “Don’t look at me, the kid builds what she wants. I didn’t think she even had time to make anything else, considering how busy she’s been.”

Both of us sat there, waiting for a minute until Wren came back from the second floor. She used the stairs that time, bounding down them several at a time before literally using her wing-pack to fly off the last one. There was something in one of her hands, but I couldn’t make it out yet. “I made it when I was fixing the teleporting thingie for Murphy and Roald!” 

With that, she landed in front of me, grinning widely while holding up what looked like a small leather bag with a drawstring. It was like one of those bags to hold a marble or dice collection. “Open it, look inside!” The kid was practically vibrating with excitement. “I fixed the last parts last night after I helped beat up the boat! Look, look, look! Er, I mean, please look.” 

Well, okay then. Taking the bag, I pulled the drawstrings apart and peeked inside. Then I blinked. “Uh, I don’t know how to tell you this, Wren, but the bag’s empty.” I held it out for her to see too. 

Rather than seeming distressed or confused by that, the girl giggled. “Pull it shut again and then push the little button thing on the end of the string for three seconds.” She was definitely vibrating with excitement, her eyes eagerly snapping back and forth between the bag and me. 

As instructed, I pulled the drawstrings to shut the bag. Then I inspected them more closely. Sure enough, what I had thought was a simple bead on the end of one of the strings had a tiny button on it. I pressed that in and held it. “What’s supposed t–oof!” 

That last part was because the bag was suddenly larger, and heavier. Not dramatically heavier, but still. It went from being completely empty and maybe five by seven inches, to being a couple feet and clearly not empty. 

“It stretches!” the kid helpfully informed me. “I uhh, I didn’t make that, I bought some material from somebody else for it. But the other part is me. The stuff is inside the fabric, I sewed it in! You can probably find it if you pull it apart. Uhh, don’t pull it apart, please.” She added the last bit quickly. “Then I’d have to fix it.” 

While she was saying all that, I squinted at the larger bag and pulled it open. Inside was… a pair of pants, a shirt, two old mismatched shoes, and a baseball cap. “Hold on, is this–” 

Clearly unable to hold it in anymore, Wren clapped happily. “It’s a teleport bag! I made the basic parts when I was testing the teleport system on the suits for Murphy and Roald. It’s easier to teleport stuff that isn’t alive, especially if one of the locations is always the same!” Her hands waved wildly as she almost tripped over her own words in her rush to explain. “There’s two bags, they’re connected. When you hold the button like that, it swaps contents. See, you can leave your costume in one bag so you don’t have to carry it around with you. Take the empty bag in your pocket. When you need your costume, you hold the button, and poof! Your costume shows up. You can change, then put your normal clothes in the bag and hold the button again, and they’ll show up in the other bag until you’re ready to change back into them!” 

Okay… okay, wow. My eyes widened a bit as I took all that in, staring at the random clothes in the bag before looking back to Wren. She was staring at me so excitedly, so proudly, that I couldn’t help but giggle as I grinned right back at her. “Dude, that’s awesome. That would’ve been so useful when… well, a few times. Now I don’t have to try to finagle a way to go home to get it, or carry it around in my backpack.” And boy was that a load off my mind. The fear I’d felt whenever I carried the costume with me, that someone would look in my bag, never really went away. But if I had this thing and anyone looked at it, they wouldn’t think anything about it. This was amazing. 

“I’ll make some for the others too,” Wren quickly put in. “That was just the first one, and I thought you should have it. Cuz, you know…” She squirmed a bit on her feet. “It’d be really bad if your family found your costume. Worse than it would be for the others.” 

“Well, I’m not sure Peyton would survive her mom finding out what she does,” I pointed out mildly. “But she kind of manifests her own costume with her powers anyway.” 

I went into the bathroom to change from my costume, which I was still wearing aside from the mask and helmet, into my street clothes. Then Wren showed me where the other bag was, up in a safe area in her lab. We put the costume inside that one, and I spent a couple minutes practicing with moving it back and forth between the two bags. Well, I guess it wasn’t really practice after the first time. It was more playing with it. But hey, it was really cool.

Tucking the currently-empty bag into the pocket of my jeans (seriously, the thing could just fold up very small when it didn’t have anything inside), I gave the kid a thumbs up. “Seriously dude, that’s amazing. I can’t even–thanks.” 

Now Wren looked self-conscious, shaking her head. “I-it’s no big deal. I just wanna help and that was–it was sort of extra. Like I said, I was mostly just working on making the suits teleport with people inside them and I had to practice with things that weren’t alive. I umm, I thought it’d be useful for this sort of thing.” 

“It definitely is,” I confirmed with a smile as I patted my pocket. “But I guess I should head out for now. Paige just texted to say they’re gonna be at that for the rest of the day before they’ll be satisfied that it’ll pass inspection. 

“And apparently That-A-Way wants to tell me something pretty important.”  


“Somebody tried to kill Fragile.” 

Absorbing the ‘pretty important’ thing Amber had wanted to tell me as the two of us sat in the back of a diner, far from anyone who could overhear, I stared at the other girl. “I–what?” I couldn’t have heard her right. Unless–my eyes widened. “One of the Scion–” 

“We’re not sure,” she admitted in a quiet voice. There were dark circles under her eyes. “All we do know is that someone convinced the guy who was hired to drive her home to plant some sort of device in the car that…. uhh, let’s just say it got really, really hot in there. Industrial grade furnace-level hot.” 

That made me gape some more, barely comprehending what she was saying. “You mean someone was trying to melt her?” The shock of that made me physically reel backward a bit. 

Amber grimaced, glancing away. “We don’t know if it would’ve worked, but yeah. They tried. And something tells me it wasn’t just idle curiosity about her defenses.” 

“They were literally trying to kill her,” I managed. “What–that has to be Pencil and Cup, or one of their auditions. No way would the Ministry okay something like that. Never.” I flat out refused to believe that my parents would give the go-ahead for Fragile to potentially be burned to death in a furnace. That absolutely had to be someone operating without their permission, and the Scions were the only ones I could think of like that. Besides, it just sounded like their sort of thing. 

“That’s definitely what we’re thinking,” Amber confirmed with a heavy sigh. For a moment, she started to say something else, then seemed to catch herself. Instead, she shook her head and muttered a curse. “There was another attempted attack, this one on Carousel and Syndicate. We weren’t sure if it was intentional or not, but considering this attack…”

“Whoever’s behind this, the Scions or wannabe Scions, they’re targeting the Minority.” Finishing that for her, I dropped my gaze to stare at the half-eaten food on my plate. “That’s bad.” 

“Tell me about it,” the other girl muttered before adding, “But I’m also supposed to tell you to be careful. Well, you and everyone on your team. They don’t know if this is someone targeting the Minority or someone targeting juvenile Touched. Either way, just… watch out, okay?” 

My head bobbed before something else occurred to me. “I’ll add it to the list of things I’m paranoid about. But wait, you said they tried to kill Fragile in an impromptu car furnace. How’d she get out of it, blind luck?” 

Coughing, Amber shook her head. She couldn’t respond yet, however, as the waitress came by to ask if we needed anything and to refill our drinks. Only once the lady was gone and we were sufficiently alone did Amber meet my gaze and whisper, “Deicide saved her.” 

Okay, that made me do a double-take, shifting in my seat before hissing, “Did you just say–” 

“Deicide, yeah,” Amber confirmed. “Apparently they were like… talking or something before that. Somehow Deicide figured out what was going on and stopped Fragile from getting in the car.” 

“Uh, does that sound suspicious or am I just paranoid?” I pointed out a bit weakly. 

Amber’s head shook. “No, you’re right, it probably would be suspicious. But we know Deicide is on the good side of the Ministry. She plays by the rules. No way would she risk that by pretending to put Fragile in mortal danger. For what purpose? What would be the point?” 

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “But she has to be pretty pissed off right now about what happened with her own people betraying her right when they were about to beat Cuélebre. She really seems to have it out for that guy. Maybe that pushed her over the edge?”

Amber considered that before shaking her head. “I don’t think so. What does putting Fragile in danger and then saving her get her, really? Maybe the Ministry would forgive her for overstepping a little if she goes after her traitors, but… I’m pretty sure they’d already do that, and they’ve okayed her war against Oscuro.”   

“Fair,” I agreed thoughtfully. “Maybe I am just a little too paranoid. But how did she figure out Fragile was in danger?” 

“Apparently the guy had a note in his pocket about it,” Amber informed me. “Seems like Deicide… read it before she could see it?” 

Absorbing that, I made a face. “That would fit with her making books talk, but if that means she can read things around her from a distance, I… we probably shouldn’t keep anything written down when we’re around her.” 

“I don’t plan on being around her at all if I can help it,” Amber pointed out. “But yeah. That could be dangerous.”

Great, another thing for me to worry about. With a sigh, I poked at my food. “Okay so she just talked to Fragile for some reason, noticed the attempted attack, and saved her. That still leaves the problem of who started targeting the Minority and knows enough about them to do something like that. If it’s one of the Scion wannabes, does that mean they’re someone with connections into the Minority base? Like one of the cops or security people, or an officer worker, or–” 

“There’s a few options, yeah,” Amber muttered, looking out the nearby window with a frown. “They’re working on figuring that out. And I’m pretty sure your parents are throwing their own stuff at it. This can’t be good for their business.” 

We talked a bit more about that, though she seemed a little distracted, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t just the Scions/Deicide/Fragile thing. Finally, I asked, “Are you okay? I mean, besides all this stuff.” 

Looking up from her phone, Amber flushed guiltily before nodding. “No, yeah, no, I’m good. I’m fine. I just–I uhh, it was a long night. Long day. Long everything. I…” She shifted in her seat. “It feels like I’m keeping a lot of secrets lately.” 

Wincing, I gestured. “I’m sorry. I mean, you’ve gotta keep the whole Ministry thing away from the rest of your team. That’s gotta be hard.” And speaking of secrets, I was keeping the one about who Ryder was from her and everyone else. 

“Yeah, it…” Amber looked away, swallowing visibly before turning back to me. “Let’s talk about something else. You’re going to that Inessa show tonight at the park, right?” 

My head bobbed. “Yup. I promised Izzy I’d take her with. Should be pretty cool, as long as we don’t get stuck near Arleigh again.

“And hey, speaking of cool, wait til I show you the bag Wren gave me…”  

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Schooling 24-10 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Schooling 24-06 (Summus Proelium)

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The first place we found ourselves in once we had arrived within the virtual reality space just looked like an ordinary dojo. There were mirrors on every wall, and the floor was padded enough to be a little springy under our feet. Only after looking around for a minute did I notice what made this place not just a normal dojo, besides the obvious. There was no door. The whole thing was just this one room. We also appeared wearing simple shorts and tee shirts. Even now, knowing everyone here knew who I was, it still made me reflexively tense up to see myself in clothing that made me being a girl blatantly obvious. 

Okay, not that blatantly. I wasn’t exactly packing melons under my shirt. But still. It was clear that I was a girl, and that by itself was still an odd sensation for me. 

Seeing me looking around, Paige immediately realized what I was thinking and spoke up. “This way there’s no distractions. You know, random cars driving by, pedestrians, other buildings in view, whatever. We don’t need to make anything else except for this place. It means we can put more of our effort and energy toward the actual training. It felt like the best way to do this.”

“That is,” Sierra put in, “if you all think you can focus without feeling claustrophobic just because you’re in a room with no door.” After visibly considering that, she added, “Come to think of it, getting over distractions like that should probably be part of your training anyway, so yeah.” 

Murphy was grimacing as she slowly turned her head to look at every wall. “You know, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed if you guys hadn’t pointed it out.” She exchanged with Roald before adding, “But whatever, what I really want to know is… is this shit for real?!” After blurting that out, she patted down her own face, then poked Roald in both shoulders with a gasp before turning to the nearest wall. She ran that way, bouncing off the mirror before running her hands over it. Then she knelt down and punched the padded floor, staring at everything in complete wonder. “Seriously, is this place for real?!” Her gaze snapped from Paige and Sierra to me and then back again. “We really didn’t just teleport somewhere?” Belatedly, she made a face. “Not that that wouldn’t be fucking cool too, but like, I mean… this whole thing is all in our heads?”

Paige made a waving so-so motion with her hand. “Basically, yeah. The machine is projecting this into your minds from our orb-cores. That’s the really basic version. Anyway, your physical bodies are still out there just sitting in those chairs. But, as you can tell, your brain interprets what you should feel in here into actual sensation.” With that, she reached out to poke the girl in the forehead. “Up to a certain point,” she added quickly. “I mean, if you take too much pain, there’s a certain cut-off where it won’t let you feel it anymore. And you can’t really be physically injured. Otherwise there’s no point to doing this stuff in here instead of out in the real world.” 

Sierra quickly piped up with, “But you’ve got to feel some pain as we do this, or you won’t learn from it. You know what they say, no pain no gain. And we’ve really gotta make you gain a lot if we’re gonna keep helping Cassidy over there get through the shit she gets herself into.” 

Making an exaggerated harrumphing noise under my breath, I pulled myself up to my full (totally pathetic and inconsequential) height and squinted that way. “You know most of–some of–there are parts of that stuff that are absolutely not my fault. Besides, you say that as though you wouldn’t be incredibly bored out of your mind if you didn’t have all this stuff to help all of us deal with.”

Audibly snorting, my doppelgänger retorted, “If I thought you were all being boring, it’d be because you weren’t planning on doing something about dear old dad. And that would mean I’d be out of here so fast your heads would spin. Let’s just keep that in mind, huh? He’s a lying, traitorous piece of shit, and I don’t want my–I don’t want Irelyn or the others anywhere near him. But I know I can’t do this by myself.” She squirmed just a little, the admission of any weakness clearly making her uncomfortable before she pushed on. “I need help. I mean, we do.” Her gaze toward Paige briefly. “As fucking badass as we might be–and the answer to that is very, we still can’t just swim over there and take on everyone ourselves before ripping Dad’s head off and playing soccer with it. We need you people. Not just for the whole photoshopped blackmail plan, but in case we need to do more than that. And the only way you’re going to be able to really help us if shit goes down is with some actual training. You need to learn how to fight. So, are we gonna do this, or what?”

I shrugged despite myself. “You really didn’t have to talk me into it. I know what the stakes are, and yeah, we need some help. Even without this whole thing with Breakwater–which is super-important, don’t get me wrong. But even without that, stuff in the city is just getting more and more dangerous. Sure, I’ve been doing sort-of okay with the basic few self-defense lessons my parents made me get. I mean, that and my powers. But it’ll be nice to have something better to fall back on. Something tells me just expecting to fall back on luck all the time is gonna backfire sooner or later.” 

“Yeah!” Murphy immediately put in. “And some of us don’t have powers to rely on anyway.” 

Peyton, who had been quietly looking around the room while taking in everything we were saying, slowly nodded while turning back to us. There was a small smile on her face, as though she could barely contain herself. “Dude? We’re in a fucking virtual reality. I mean, sure, I was here before. But it wasn’t exactly–I didn’t get a chance to savor it that much. We were sorta busy. And now you’re talking about letting these badass ninja android girls teach us how to fight? I am all-in. All-fucking-in, okay? Let’s do this thing.” 

Smirking despite myself, I gestured to Paige and Sierra. “You heard the girl. We’re, ahem, all-fucking-in.” 

“Good to know,” Paige replied flatly, exchanging a look with her sister before turning back to us. That slowly spreading smile seemed somewhat serpentine. It was a vaguely dangerous look. A look that told me she was going to enjoy putting us through our paces. “In that case, everybody line up right here in the middle of the room. Give yourselves a few feet between each of you. 

“Time to start whipping you people into shape.” 


There weren’t any actual whips involved, of course. Not yet, anyway. Though I was pretty sure Sierra might’ve been tempted. We weren’t even doing anything that intense to start out. Mostly because we started out covering very basic things. Stuff like how to make a fist, how to throw a very normal punch, how to hold your arm, how to position yourself, even how to breathe properly. They spent a decent amount of time just on that last part, teaching us to keep our breathing steady to get enough oxygen in the middle of a fight. It was all stuff I’d heard before, but going over it again didn’t hurt. Besides, the others needed to hear it. We had to get through the basic stuff like that before anyone would be ready to learn more. I was just glad Paige and Sierra weren’t moving too quickly on that. I’d been a little worried that they might jump straight into the advanced training, leaving Roald, Murphy, and Peyton (and let’s be honest, me) completely lost. But no, they were actually pretty good teachers. Which made me wonder if they’d been given programming for that, or just–yeah, I had no idea how that worked. Apparently Pittman had programmed their fighting ability into them, which was just confusing on another level. Did he know how to fight that well? Did he have someone else work on that programming and then add it? Did he just download a bunch of instruction manuals and videos into them? I–eh. It was confusing when I got right down to it. But either way, they knew how to fight and they knew how to teach the rest of us. 

As I had heard before, and as they reiterated when this whole instruction thing started, one of the biggest, most important things to do was to make these motions be instinctive. We needed to be able to do them immediately without thinking about it. We had to see the attack coming, or the opportunity for our own attack, and react instantly. Because, as Sierra put it, the moment we had to stop and think about what we were doing would be the moment we were either maimed or killed. She wasn’t the sort of person to sugarcoat things like that. She made the whole thing very blunt, standing right in front of Roald as she repeated the word killed while poking his chest hard enough to make the boy wince just a bit. 

So, we went through the motions as they taught us, straight from the simplest, most basic movements and positions. Once they had us to the point where we could all stand properly, make fists without looking stupid, and more importantly, without doing it in a way that could have broken our fingers the moment we hit anything, we… did that some more. But in this case, they made a game of it. Basically, they had us stand around talking to each other or watching a television screen they’d put up on the wall, or any number of other distracting things. Randomly and without warning, one of them would shout one of our names and tell us where the threat was coming from, using clock positions. We had to spin that way and get into a decent position to defend ourselves within a certain amount of time before they would set off a loud buzzer and say we were dead. 

They were lenient on how much time they allowed at first, but as the hours wore on, they grew less and less so. Eventually, they got to the point of throwing a ball at us immediately, as soon as they called out the threat. We had to spin that way and react to it, either dodging the attack or blocking before it hit us. In some ways, it was fun. Which, I was pretty sure, was the point. But it was also stressful, and definitely took a lot of practice. We all got hit with plenty of balls, enough that I was glad I wouldn’t be carrying any of these bruises out of this virtual reality with me. We might not have been going totally nuts on how we used this place just yet, but even that was incredibly helpful. Maybe I could’ve explained away any minor injuries from this sort of thing with some story about falling on my skates, but this was just easier in the long run. 

Plus, the fact that we were in virtual reality meant it took a lot longer to get tired. It was still there, in its own way. Learning things and actively using our brains like this wore us out too, but it took much more time. Which meant we could train for a lot longer than we would’ve been able to otherwise. Long enough, in fact, that I finally had to ask how long we had been doing this whole thing. Upon finding out how late it was, I insisted that we had to stop. I wanted to do a quick patrol to make sure nothing in the city was on fire before heading home, and it was already getting late enough that Murphy, Roald, and Peyton might end up with people wondering where they were. 

So, with promises that what we had just done was only the very beginning, we exited the program and found ourselves back in the real world. I groaned while picking myself up from the chair and staggered a bit. Plucking the visor and headphones off, I sighed and shook my head. To one side, Paige and Sierra were pulling themselves out of the machine, while the others were in the same position as me, staggering a few steps one way or the other while shaking off the weird feeling of having not moved at all for hours, despite what our brains thought. 

Fred was there, eating some of the leftover pizza while watching us with a raised eyebrow. “How’d it go with Sensei Morpheuses? Wait, would that be Senseis Morpheus? Morphesei? Wait–” 

Coughing, I gestured. “It’s good. I think ahh–I think this is gonna be a really important advantage. Especially once we get to the point of doing more than learning basic motions.” Before Paige and Sierra could say anything, I quickly added, “Not that that stuff isn’t important. I know, believe me. You have to learn how to walk before you can run. I’m just saying, once we get to the point where we can use that place like a real-world virtual reality training ground, and take advantage of the sort of scenarios we can run through… it’s gonna be big. Yeah, I’m pretty sure some other groups have their own virtual reality training rooms of one sort or another, but I don’t think it’s anything like ours. And, they won’t expect us to have it. Which means they won’t expect us to be able to train like this.” 

“Being underestimated is a big deal,” Peyton chimed in while rubbing the back of her neck. “I really like being underestimated.” With those words, she added a smile that looked almost feral.

“Dude, as useful as you’ve been with those marbles, I don’t think people are gonna underestimate you any time soon,” Murphy pointed out. 

“That’s the point though,” Roald put in. “If everyone thinks she’s reliant on the marbles, they’ll think she depends on them. So they won’t be ready when she can actually fight without them.” 

“Exactly,” I agreed, before turning my attention back to Fred. “What’s going on with Wren? Is she–” 

“Still working on the tracker thingamabob,” he confirmed. “She locked herself up in the room over there so she can work without any distractions. Told me to tell you that she’s gonna be busy with it for the rest of the night and that it’ll be ready by the time you come back from school tomorrow. Assuming you’re planning on coming?” 

My head bobbed. “Yeah, I’ve got–” A grimace found itself to my face. “I’ve got plans for dinner, but I’ll be here first.” Seeing them all stare at me, I sighed before explaining what was going on. 

“Dude,” Murphy put in, “you’re going to dinner to hang out with Inessa Sidorov? What the fuck? I mean like, this is normal for you? God, you’re lucky.” She grunted as Roald nudged her. “Err, yeah, there’s all the other complicated stuff and–yeah, but still!” 

“If I could invite you and have more people on my side, I would, believe me,” I assured her, before grimacing.

Paige, of course, grimaced just as much as me. “You really have to go over to Arleigh’s house? Couldn’t just make an excuse not to?” 

“Like Murphy said, Inessa Sidorov is gonna be there,” I immediately shot back. “If my dad ever found out I gave up the chance to meet her, he’d immediately have my head examined to make sure I didn’t have a mind-controlling slug or a little cybernetic ball inside my head.”

Meeting my gaze, the taller, blonde girl gave a very tiny smirk. “Yeah, that’s true. You always were a little obsessed. I used to think you had a bit of a crush or something.” 

Blushing at that, and at the weird feelings I had from having this sort of casual conversation with someone I had seen as a nasty, vindictive bitch for so long, I mumbled, “She’s just a really good skater. And she’s cool, and she’s got great fashion–shut up. Just shut up, all of you.” 

Ignoring their snickers, I gestured. “I’m gonna head out for that quick patrol, just to see what’s going on. The rest of you should head home.” 

“We’ll go with you,” Paige insisted, gesturing to Sierra and back to herself. “We don’t exactly have people waiting around for us, and I don’t think anyone should be going around on their own right now. I don’t know what Deicide is going to do about that betrayal, and it might take her a few days, but something tells me her retaliation is gonna be pretty loud. Between that and Jennica still being out there…” 

“Right, sure.” Nodding a bit, I glanced to the others. “Speaking of which, you gonna be okay?” 

They confirmed that they would be sticking together on the way back. Peyton would drop the other two off at their apartment before going to her own, which wasn’t that much further away. Especially not the way she traveled. 

So, we talked a little bit more about what we had done and what we were going to do, then separated. I found myself back in costume, mask and helmet firmly in place, while standing on the roof of the shop. Paige and Sierra were stretching a bit behind me, as I looked out over the neighborhood below, and at the much taller skyscrapers in the distance. “Things are gonna get worse before they get better, aren’t they?” I found myself murmuring. 

Paige, stepping up beside me, confirmed, “That’s why we’re doing this training. It’s important. We all have to be better, we have to be ready.” 

“Not just for this whole gang war thing,” Sierra pointed out while stepping up on my other side. “I know we’re all hoping this plan with the edited picture and all that is gonna work. We let everyone know where Irelyn and Trivial are, give Breakwater a way to come out of it looking like they’re not completely incompetent, an excuse that gives them a reason to keep those two alive, and… and then it’ll be over. But in case it’s more complicated than that–” 

“In case, we need to be ready,” I agreed. “And that means we need a lot more training than we’ve already got. You’re right. Don’t worry, we’re with you. Whatever happens, we’ll figure out a way to get Irelyn and Trivial out of there. If it’s not this plan, it’ll be another one. But at least this is a start.” 

Paige gave a short nod of agreement, her own voice soft. “It’s definitely a start. In a lot of ways.” 

For another moment, the three of us stood there together, looking out over the city. Then I cleared my throat. “Well? Let’s go for a run so I can get home and sleep. 

“Something tells me I’m gonna need all the rest I can get if I’m gonna survive visiting Arleigh’s house tomorrow.” 

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Schooling 24-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Obviously, part of me wanted to immediately start asking Amber about the situation. But on the other hand, I didn’t want to expose Jae’s secret like that. It wasn’t up to me to kick her into the spotlight. If she didn’t want to tell Amber and me about having a boyfriend (if that’s what that whole thing was), then blabbing about what I had seen to the other girl was probably pretty rude. It had to be her choice if she wanted to share something like that. Besides, the idea of bringing it up felt way too much like I would be turning into one of those weird gossiping girls. 

So, I pushed the thought out of my mind and continued on through the school day. Though obviously curious about just what was so important about Jae’s maybe-boyfriend that she had to skip classes for the day, I still took down the notes she had requested. Maybe she’d explain it later. Especially if I poked her strategically for answers. 

Either way, beyond needing to pay extra attention for those notes, school itself was relatively normal. I sat with San and Dani at lunch, answering a bunch of questions peppered at me from the latter about what sort of doctors I’d been to whenever I was hurt doing one stunt or another. It was kind of a weird conversation, starting around her talking about healthcare and hospitals and stuff, before she started asking about what doctors I, as a rich kid, had visited. It could easily have turned… well, not hostile but at least uncomfortable. I knew I was privileged in so many ways, that especially. I had access to top of the line medicine, including Touched-Tech stuff. I thought that’s where Dani was taking it, to be honest, that she wanted to start an argument about how terrible it was that people without money couldn’t get that sort of care. 

It wouldn’t be much of an argument, given I agreed with her. But still, that’s not what she was doing. At least, it didn’t feel like it was. It felt more like she was genuinely curious about the hospitals I’d been in and who my doctors were. 

San noticed too, swallowing a bite of his pizza before asking, “Dude, are you writing a book about rich doctors or something?” 

With a snort, Dani waved a hand dismissively. “Nah, I just–like I said, I grew up dirt fucking poor, okay? I’m not used to having any money. Like, a few months ago I was digging in the couch cushions to get change for lunch. And now my great-aunt’s sorta-kinda talking about how I need to get a check-up or something. I just thought if I could figure out what doctors the richest parents in town send their accident-prone kid to, that’d be the one to try. Since the old lady’s the one footing the bill for it, might as well go to a good one.” She mumbled the last bit, poking at her plate with a fork before sighing. “Never mind, it’s stupid.” 

My head shook quickly at that. “Hey, it’s not stupid. I uhh, I mean, if you want, I can give you a list of the doctors my family goes to who are still, you know, available. There’s a couple who don’t have public practices anymore, but–err, sorry, that sounds way too braggy. I wasn’t–sorry.” 

“Sure, whatever,” the other girl replied with a shrug. “You wanna make a list of the people your parents trust with their precious baby girl, I guess that’ll be enough to make my aunt happy.” 

So, I did just that. Well, I didn’t write a note. I went through my phone to find the names and texted them to her. 

When I was done with that, San gave a blow whistle as he stared at his own phone. “Man, you guys see what that Paintball kid and his new team were up to yesterday? That shit’s crazy.”

“Pretty sure the whole city was crazy yesterday,” I pointed out with a little shrug. “Didn’t like, every gang in the city explode or something? I heard a bunch of people switched sides.” 

Dani gave a short nod, rocking back on her seat with a muttered, “Yeah, there were a bunch of traitors.” That was followed by a shrug. “But then, I mean, they’re criminals. What can you expect?” 

San was giving a dismissive wave. “Yeah, yeah, it was fucking nuts. They had, like, everything locked down, cops patrolling every neighborhood, the works. It was crazy. But, like, this other thing was different from that. They were up at that Whitecap stadium and a bunch of those fucking fire zombies attacked the place. You–” 

Dani laughed. “Dude, are you kidding me? Of course we saw it. It’s only, like, the top six videos on the SPHERE threads and all over the YouTube homepage.” 

That made me do a double-take. “It is? I mean they are? What?” 

So, both of them made me watch several cell phone videos taken by various people in the stadium while that whole thing was going on. Or from the security cameras. There were a lot of comments from people who were there, or people who knew people who were. They were going on and on about what it was like, especially when it came to the rest of the team. I–or Paintball, was still a pretty big topic, but most of the focus was on the others. They got our name right, and someone had put the names we used under screenshots of each of us. There was a bit of arguing over which was Calvin and which was Hobbes, or which was Style and which was Poise. But still, for the most part they had it right. Everyone in the comments was going on about what would’ve happened in that stadium if no one showed up. Of course, some of the comments were raising conspiracy theories about how we happened to get there right in time. But for the most part, everyone was pretty positive. And to be fair, I couldn’t really blame the distrustful people. It was weird that we’d made it right in time, or would’ve been if I didn’t know the truth.

In any case, by then, it was time to head back to class. But as I stood up, San caught my hand. “Hey, I gotta ask you something. You remember when we went to that farm with the sheep and Deborah thought it’d be a good idea to try dying their fur with food coloring and water. And–” 

“San,” I started, “what are you talking about? What farm? Who’s Deborah?” 

His voice grew more distracted as he leaned around me to look that way. “You know, the farm with the–okay, that’s probably enough.” 

“Enough of–what are you doing?” Turning to look for myself, I saw Dani walking to the exit just as Amber and Tomas came from another part of the cafeteria. At the last second, Tomas split off from Amber, disappearing into the crowd just as she ended up at the exit with Dani. The two of them stopped there and started to talk. 

“You guys planned that?” I demanded, turning to squint at San. 

It was Tomas who answered, coming out of the crowd. “Sort of. Well, mostly through a few looks and a text or two while you were busy.” 

San nodded. “Yeah, I mean you were talking about doctors or whatever and Amber was over there. We just sort of made sure they ended up in the same spot at the same time. Tiny nudge. I mean, come on, they’re cute together, right?” 

“He’s right,” Tomas agreed, “they are cute together.” 

“You guys are so weird,” I informed them, shaking my head. “Incredibly weird. But if you two matchmakers are done for the moment, I need to actually go to class.” 

Tomas pretended to consider. “You know, speaking of people who are cute together–” 

“Okay, that’s enough of that!” Red-faced, I pivoted and started to walk away quickly. I really did not want to think about who Tomas thought I would be cute with. Considering he was my ex and–wait, was he talking about him? Did he–no, wait, did I even want–no, wait–

I was so busy focusing on that whole issue, that I ended up walking right into someone who had stopped in the doorway ahead of me. There was a grunt of surprise, before the girl in question spun to blurt, “Watch where you’re going, you fucking–Cassidy!” 

It was Arleigh, of course. Because that was just how my luck went. She immediately plastered a smile over her face and laughed unconvincingly. “Sorry, I guess I shouldn’t stop right in the doorway, huh?” Another laugh came before she snapped her fingers. “Hey, you know, while you’re here, I was talking to your dad at my internship the other day–” 

“You have an internship with my dad?” I asked bluntly. 

She laughed again. “Not exactly with your dad. I’m just interning at one of the offices where he shows up sometimes. Anyway, the point is, he was talking about how you love that skater chick, ahh, Inessa Sidorov?” 

Blinking at that, I found myself nodding in confusion. “Sure, she’s awesome. Inessa’s basically been my hero for years. Why?” As soon as I said that, I felt like it was probably a mistake. 

With a grin that was almost shark-like, Arleigh pounced on my reaction. “Oh, well that’s cool, because she’s staying at our house right now. Just a little something with her agent screwing up a hotel booking while she’s here for some video, and my father happened to be at the hotel when they told her there weren’t any rooms. He offered her a place at our house, so she’s staying with us. You know, if you want to meet her.”

Oh crap. Shit. First of all, there was a big part of me who really did want to meet her. I had been watching her videos on skating for as long as I can remember. And beyond that, another part pointed out that if I declined, it could cause trouble. My dad knew just how obsessed with Inessa I was. If I turned down the opportunity to meet her, he was going to ask why. He was going to ask what else I had to do. And those were things I really couldn’t afford to have my parents asking. I needed them to ignore me. Finding out that I had turned down the opportunity to meet this girl would make them do the opposite of that. They would start paying attention. They would worry about me. They would look into what else I was up to. 

There was absolutely no choice. I was going to have to agree to go over to Arleigh’s house. That thought by itself was almost enough to make me reconsider. But my parents knew too much about how much of a fan of Inessa I was to think that I would let avoiding Arleigh keep me from meeting her. 

Pushing down all my conflicted thoughts about the situation, I forced myself to smile as much as I could. “I mean, are you sure your dad really wants people coming by just to gawk at his guest? Hell, what about Inessa? She probably just wants to relax and–” 

With another laugh, Arleigh punched my shoulder lightly. Sort of lightly. “Don’t be silly. You’re not just any ordinary lame-o person. Besides, my parents would totally love to have you over for dinner. Come by tomorrow. Ryder’ll be there too. We’ll have a whole, like, little party thing. Just don’t invite anyone else. Little party. Just us.” 

Ryder was going to be there? Okay, sure, maybe this whole thing wouldn’t be a complete waste. If Inessa and Ryder were there, at least I wouldn’t be stuck with just Arleigh and her parents. Or maybe I was just telling myself that. Either way, I had to go to this thing. Which was going to be interesting. 

Finding the words to mutter a thanks to the other girl and promising to text her later, I quickly made my way down the hall. With thoughts of Jae’s possibly secret boyfriend, the whole Dani and Amber situation, and the fact that I was going to have to visit Arleigh’s place tomorrow filling my head, I made my way to class. One thing was for sure. 

My civilian life was starting to be just as ridiculous as the Touched one. 


Eventually, school was over, and I took the ride home with Izzy and Jefferson. I had homework that I really had to get done. It wouldn’t exactly help my ability to keep my activities secret if my parents started getting calls about failing classes. So, I locked myself in my room and tore through that as quickly as I could. I’d already made arrangements to go over and visit the others at the shop for a real discussion about everything that had happened the day before. But for now, I had to stick around home and go to our normal family dinner. 

Thankfully, I didn’t really need to say much throughout the dinner. Simon took up most of the talking, going on and on about a trip that he and his friends were taking next week. Apparently, they were heading to Yellowstone to do some camping. Or at least, that’s the story Izzy and I were being given. Maybe it was even true. I sort of doubted that everything my brother did was for the Ministry. Still, there was no way for me to know for sure. Was this a real camping trip, or was he off to do something else and we were just being given an excuse for why he wasn’t around? Given his outward enthusiasm, my brother was either a very good actor, or it was the truth. Or maybe he really was doing something secret, but was just as excited about that as he would have been about camping with his friends in Yellowstone. 

Whatever the truth was, it meant I didn’t have to talk very much. Still, I tried to make things seem as nice and normal as I could, teasing Simon about being eaten by bears. Which, of course made me think about that little visit I’d had with the Minsters Gray. They had obviously reported everything I said to my parents, so I wondered briefly what they thought about that. Too bad I couldn’t just ask them. Even if the thought of how amusing it would be to suddenly pipe up with that in the midst of Simon going on about some sort of special meat they would be barbecuing out there was enough to make me have to bite my lip. 

Eventually, dinner was over, and I was able to excuse myself. Izzy had another night of patrol to get to, but we took a few minutes up in my room to talk a bit more about everything that happened. I thought about bringing up my idea about Jae having a boyfriend, but decided against it. First, that was way too close to being one of those weird gossiping people. And second, why would Izzy care? She barely knew who Jae was, outside of just being Amber’s friend. She’d met her like once here at the house, as far as I knew. 

Pushing that thought out of my head, I made sure she promised to be careful out there, considering how crazy the city had become. Granted, things might have calmed down a bit after yesterday, but it was just as likely that they would get worse. Not to mention the fact that Jennica was still out there and wanted to make a name for herself. She agreed, before going to what my parents were claiming was a study date. Because, of course, I still wasn’t supposed to know about her powers. I wondered how long they would keep that up if this adoption thing happened. Was that entirely up to Izzy herself? Would my parents let her tell me the truth about that much at least? And how was I supposed to react when it happened? 

Thinking about that while I made my way out of the house, I headed for the shop. The others were there already, and once I was inside, I took a few minutes to explain again about my encounter with the bear-and-raccoon Ministers. Needless to say, everyone had a lot of questions. Not to mention how openly (and loudly) vindicated Peyton felt about finding out she really had seen a raccoon at the stadium. There was dancing and jumping up and down involved. 

I fielded their questions for a few minutes before finally shaking my head. “Guys, I swear, I don’t know more than that. It’s a little weird that they let me see them. I think it’s some sort of test. You know, to see just how much I can keep secret. Like they said, it’s not like it’ll be some big mystery about who exposes them, if they start hearing rumors about a bear and raccoon TONI. So, you know–” 

“Don’t go blabbing about it,” Sierra interrupted. My doppelganger was sitting on one of the tables full of junk in the middle of the pawn shop main floor, eating a very large burrito. “Not if we wanna avoid more Ministry attention for the moment. Which sounds like a good idea to me. Especially since we’re supposed to be focusing on Breakwater now.” 

“Yeah,” Murphy put in from where she and Roald were sitting in a couple metal folding chairs, “now that the zombie distraction is taken care of. Which, for the record, I’d rather never see any of them again. I am done with zombies for the rest of my life.” She paused briefly before adding in a dark, muttered voice, “Especially the Luciano kind.” 

Peyton, who was sitting cross-legged on one of her hovering marbles that had transformed into a simple disc, spoke up. “Yeah, let Broadway and Grandstand look for that crazy bitch. And Pack, I guess. It’s not like we don’t have important things to focus on.” 

Jumping on that, Wren piped up from the glass counter where she was perched. “I’m almost done with the thing to track the location of the place when you call that jerk. But I wanna make sure it works the first time, you know? Because if we try it and it doesn’t work, they’ll probably notice and make it even harder.” 

“Good idea,” I agreed. “We need to know where that place is so we can convince him to do the right thing. But I’d rather they not realize where we are in the process.” 

The younger girl quickly bobbed her head to that, promising that she would get it done as soon as possible. “I’m working as hard as I can, I swear.” 

“Don’t hurt yourself,” Peyton put in. “You’re only one person. Don’t forget, you’ve got us to help. We might not be Tech-Touched, but we can be extra hands.” 

Fred grunted from the cash register, where he had been working on counting cash and paying bills. “Don’t worry, I’m making her take breaks.”

“Good.” That was Paige, who was standing nearby with her arms folded. “But in the meantime, we should probably talk about the actual plan for what we’re gonna do after we have the island’s location. Personally, I don’t think that’s something we should just leave for the last minute.” 

“Oh come on,” I found myself teasing. “Are you seriously saying you don’t want to totally wing blackmailing the world’s most secure and secretive supervillain prison into doing our bidding? 

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” 

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