Fred Donovan

In Like Flynn 17-03 (Summus Proelium)

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It wasn’t that hard to convince That-A-Way to come meet us. Apparently, she had to beg off from doing some kind of school project with somebody, but didn’t really mind that much. In fact, going by her texts, the girl almost seemed grateful for the excuse. Especially when I told her I was with Pack and that this was something important that had to be done within the next few hours. Obviously, she had questions, but the girl held them until she got to the tire shop where we had both gone back to wait for her. It was close enough to Wren’s shop for this. 

Patient as she might have been over the phone, Way definitely wanted the whole story as soon as she showed up. Looking back and forth between the two of us as we all stood on that roof, she insisted that we tell her everything that was going on and what kind of emergency this actually was before anything else happened and before she would agree to go anywhere.  

So, I gave her the quick version, explaining what our Tech-Touched friend had found out about Paige’s apparently increasingly desperate situation, and how we were going to try to deal with it to at least buy ourselves time so we wouldn’t end up with the virus duplicate taking over and turning her into Evil Paige. Way made a few noises of confusion and surprise as I went through all the VR stuff, but mostly remained quiet until I was finally done explaining the whole thing.

Once I was finished, the blonde girl slumped back a bit and seemed to be lost in thought for a few long moments. She was clearly going over all of that in her head before eventually straightening up. “Wow. You really do get into some really crazy stuff, you know that?”  

With a cough at her words, I shook my head. “Trust me, you really don’t know the half of it.” 

She, of course, gave me a look while flatly pointing out, “And whose fault is that, exactly?” 

Shifting uncomfortably, I waved that off. “Anyway, like I said, we’ve got an extra slot for someone to help us go in there and help that girl. If you’re interested. But we have to do it tonight. Like, in a couple hours, so if you’ve got something else you can’t get out of… I mean, it’s short notice.” 

Snorting, That-A-Way drawled, “Totally smooth change of subject there, Paintball. How do you do it?” That point made, she firmly added, “And yeah, I’m totally in. Absolutely. If you two are going into some kind of Tron world to save Paige from turning into psycho evil crazy Paige, then I’m going too. No way am I letting both of you have that kind of adventure without me.” 

Before I could say anything, Pack spoke up first. “Technically, it wouldn’t be the two of us anyway.” Her gaze moved over to me as she slyly added, “Not with Paintball’s new sidekick.” 

Well, that definitely got Way’s attention. Her gaze snapped from Pack back to me, staring a bit. “You mean it’s true then? You really did recruit that girl you were with? Why? Who is she? Do you trust her? Have you told her about this Ministry thing? Have you told her what we’re doing at the mall? What else does she know? How long have you known her? How many times–” 

Quickly, I interrupted. “I haven’t known her very long. And no, I haven’t told her anything about the Ministry. But she kind of already figured out that there was a good reason not to join the Minority, because I keep refusing to even though I’m obviously fine with working with you guys.”

“Yeah, who could’ve seen that coming?” With that flat retort, Way shook her head before continuing. “So, are you going to tell her the truth about all that? I mean, if she’s signed up to be your sidekick or partner or whatever, she’s probably going to figure out there’s something bigger going on eventually. That, or something horrible is going to happen to her because she doesn’t know the truth and you’ll feel like a gigantic piece of shit for not warning her about it. Do you really want that? Do you want to put this girl in danger because you wouldn’t tell her the truth?” 

Wincing, I shook my head. “I’m gonna tell–okay I think I’m gonna tell her the truth. Just not–not yet. I want to build up to it first. More to the point, I want to get to know her first, see how she reacts to things, you know? I just need to get to know her more before we jump into the deep end with all the Ministry stuff. I mean, that’s a lot to shove onto a brand new Touched.” Glancing down, I muttered under my breath, “Seriously, it’s a lot.” 

From the corner of my eye, I saw Way’s mouth open as though she was going to say something. But she stopped herself. I had the feeling she was going to bring up my not telling them the whole story and keeping important things to myself again, then thought better of it.  

Of course, Pack chose that moment to speak up with, “Don’t worry, once you guys get through taking down Pencil and the Scions, you’ll definitely know her really well.” 

What?!” Yeah, unsurprisingly, Way had a bit of a reaction to that. Her eyes behind that domino mask were wide as she pointed at me. “Dude, what is she talking about? You are not going after Pencil or the Scions and you’re definitely not doing it with this brand new girl. What the hell?” 

Giving Pack a quick, pointed look (which she ignored), I sighed before launching into an explanation of the situation. I told the girl about the whole favor thing, and that we weren’t actually going after the Scions themselves, but a living witness from Pencil’s early days who might possibly have some kind of secret important insight about that piece of shit that would give Deicide an edge over him. With, of course, the added note that pointing her at the Scions was a hell of a lot safer than us having anything to do with trying to take them down. 

By the time I was done, Way had sat down and picked up Holiday (in her little skink form) to hold in one hand while gently rubbing the back of the lizard’s head with the other. She was watching me dubiously. “Do you really think it’s going to be that simple? You’re just going to track this girl down and get her to tell you some secret about how to stop Pencil, a secret she hasn’t told anybody else yet because she’s so scared of him? She’ll just tell you because you, what, ask nicely? Then you’re going to give that secret to one of the leaders of a Fell-Gang and she’s going to deal with him? And if this whole thing works, there won’t be any terrible consequences and nothing will go wrong?” 

With a long sigh, I shook my head. “I don’t know how it’s gonna go. Probably not that smoothly. But it’s the favor Deicide called in. A favor I definitely owe her. And quite frankly, she could have asked for something a hell of a lot worse than that. We all want Pencil to be stopped. If this works, great! If not, at least we tried. I’m paying back the favor by trying to help stop Pencil from killing more people. Like I said, Deicide could’ve tried to get me to do something a lot worse.” 

“Besides,” Pack put in, “I already told him to pull me in as soon as they get anywhere with it. He’s right, Deicide earned that favor. But she did it by helping save my boss’s kid. So I’m not letting him and his new sidekick run off by themselves and get hurt trying to pay her back for it.”

That-A-Way let out an audible breath, her voice dark. “Believe it or not, finding out that you’re getting involved in this whole thing doesn’t actually make me feel that much better. In fact, it kinda makes me feel even worse, because I really don’t feel like letting the girl I–” In mid-sentence, she stopped herself, clearly adjusting her words. “–the girl I’m pretty sure isn’t that bad make herself a target of that psycho piece of shit too!”   

Pack and I exchanged brief looks before the La Casa girl cleared her throat. “Sure, right. Well, the… girl you’re pretty sure isn’t that bad is already a target for Pencil. So are you. And so is our little buddy here.” She gestured toward me. “Sooner or later, he’s going to get around to targeting us to get back for what we put him and Cup through. So, you know, it seems to me that we ought to take this chance to get someone as strong as Deicide to maybe take him out. If that means we do a little digging and hopefully find an actual weakness no one else knows about so she can actually do something useful, so be it. Better than just sitting around waiting to see what his revenge for that night up at the cabin is gonna be.” 

It looked like Way wanted to argue with that for a brief moment. Then she exhaled and sank back a bit. Her finger gently traced along the body of the tiny skink before she found her voice. “Yeah, okay, I get it. You’ve both got a point. But don’t–don’t go running into life and death shit without getting help, okay? If anything happens–actually, scratch that. Anytime you’re doing anything that has to do with this… plan, tell me. Make sure I know where you’re going and what you’re doing. If you don’t keep checking in, I’ll be there. Just consider me your back-up. But that means you have to keep me updated. Got it?” From the tone of her voice, she wasn’t going to accept any arguments. 

“Sure,” I immediately answered, giving her a thumbs up. “Like we’re gonna argue against you having our backs? Fat chance, Pencil’s a piece of shit, but he’s a scary piece of shit.” 

“What he said,” Pack muttered, gesturing toward me. “I mean, if this thing works out perfectly we won’t get anywhere near him or any of the Scions. But I think we all know how unlikely that is. Nothing ever works out perfectly. Besides,” she added slyly with a look toward Way, “I could definitely think of worse people to have watching my backside out there.” 

Making a disconcerted noise in the back of her throat, Way pointedly looked at me. “What do we need to do to get ready for this? And, wait a minute, how are we going to do anything in there? I don’t know about you two, but I’m pretty reliant on my powers. I mean, yeah, I’ve had self-defense training, duh. But do you really think we can do enough in that place to help? Hell, you’re taking some brand new girl in there too and I doubt she’s had special training or experience. Unless you somehow managed to recruit a teenage ninja master commando.”

Briefly thinking about Peyton wearing a ninja commando outfit with a big rifle and a sword strapped to her back, I coughed before shaking my head quickly. “Not exactly, but Wren says we should be able to use at least some form of our powers in there. It has something to do with the system reading what we’re capable of, or something like that. I dunno, it’s complicated. The point is, we shouldn’t be completely helpless. Except…” Trailing off, I looked to Pack and frowned as a thought occurred to me. “I’m not exactly sure how you’re going to use your power. I mean, will she spawn in lizards for you or something? What’s the deal there.”

Before responding to that, Pack glanced to Way and informed her, “Wren’s the name of our friendly little tech kid.” 

“Kid?” the other girl quickly put in as she looked from Pack over to me and back, rising to her feet with Holiday still in her hand. “Hold up. You mean this Trevithick you’ve been talking about-”  

“That’s a long story too,” I muttered. “Yeah, she’s a kid. A genius kid, but a kid. Don’t worry, you’ll meet her soon. She said she’s cool with it. Apparently, she has this crazy idea that if I somehow get in trouble or something, having you to call for help would be a good idea.”  

Giving me an intense stare, Way flatly retorted, “Gee, what on Earth could ever have made her think she needed to plan for that ridiculous eventuality? You’re always so careful and definitely never take on more than you can handle. I mean, you’re practically the avatar of caution.”  

Flushing at her words behind the helmet, I waved both hands. “Yeah yeah, I get it. You’re hilarious. Anyway, we don’t have a lot of choice right now. If we wanna save this Paige girl, we have to get in there. And the only way we’re gonna get in there to save her is with Wren’s help. Believe me, I wouldn’t–I’d be dead without her. Several times over. I’ve made it this far because of you guys, and her. Yeah, she’s a kid. But she knows what she’s doing.” 

After a brief pause, Way gave a slow nod. “Right, well, I guess it could be worse. I mean, I go out in the field with Raindrop and she’s saved me a hell of a lot more than once. And this kid isn’t going out to fight or anything, she’s just building stuff.” With that, her gaze snapped over to stare me down intently, “She’s not going into the field, right?” 

My head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, of course not. She’s support. And she’s really good at that. Hell, her being really good is the only reason we even know about Paige being in trouble, let alone have any chance of doing anything about it. Seriously, Wren’s building a virtual reality system and patching it into Paige’s computer core in like twenty-four hours. She’s pretty amazing.”

“He’s right,” Pack agreed before pushing on. “Anyway, as far as being helpless in there goes, the kid already said she could patch exactly two of my little friends with me. Something to do with technical limitations or whatever. Point is, she can wire in two of my buddies so they’re linked to me in there, just like in the real world. I just uhh…” She trailed off, looking from Holiday on Way’s hand over to the backpack cage where the rest of the lizards were. “I have to choose which two to take in there.” I could hear the grimace in her voice. “Really wish we knew more about what it was like so I knew who I should take with me.” 

Shrugging, I pointed out, “I guess we could head over there and see if Wren needs any help. Maybe she’ll know more about what we’re dealing with.” Glancing to Way, I added, “And you can meet her. You know, if you don’t have anything better to do right now.” 

She, in turn, gave a short nod. “Trust me, I cleared my schedule for this. Paige sounds like our best chance of finding out more about the Ministry. I mean, we’ve got the mall thing, but that’s going to take a while. Plus, it’d be better if we knew what Paige knows before going in there.” 

So, keeping an eye out for anyone watching, the three of us carefully made our way through those alleys to reach the shop. We took the same route Pack and I had before, and I noticed the homeless guy from earlier was gone. Briefly, I wondered if he had just moved to a different spot, or if he had already taken the offer to start working for La Casa. Not that I could blame him if he had. The dude was living on the streets. Getting safety and resources from Blackjack and his people was probably pretty tempting. 

In any case, we made it back to the shop, where Pack and I introduced That-A-Way to Fred and Wren. To my surprise, Fred immediately copped to what he had done to make the whole Ashton thing worse with that tool to break into the bank vault. For a moment, Way looked like she wanted to say something about how stupid that was, but she saw the look on his face and let it go. He already knew just how bad it had been. 

Besides, by that point, Wren had already jumped in to start asking her a million questions about her power, her costume, and everything else. The kid looked even more worn out than she had earlier, making it clear just how much effort getting this thing done in time was taking. But at that moment, she really didn’t seem to care that much. The exhaustion fell from her eyes as she excitedly pressed Way to answer all her many, many questions about how the Minority worked. 

It was only a few minutes of that before the kid quickly shook her head. “Sorry, sorry, sorry. Gotta get the machine done. Getting there. Almost there. Really close. It’ll be done in time, I promise.” That last bit was directed toward me. “I’ll get it done.” 

Quickly, I spoke up in as reassuring a tone as I could manage. “Wren, it’s okay. You’re okay. I know. You’ll get it done. Just don’t kill yourself over it. And tell us how we can help, okay?” 

So, for the next hour or so, the three of us kept moving through the shop, carrying stuff up to Wren, holding things for her, passing the kid whatever tool she needed, and generally being as useful as we could. 

We also used that time to ask her about what we were going to be walking into. Unfortunately, Wren didn’t know much. Mostly because she hadn’t wanted to interrupt or distract Paige from defending herself against that invader. The best she could tell us was that the area we were entering kept changing appearance. Sometimes it was an open city street, sometimes it was a mall, a forest, the roof of a building, a huge mansion, a library, whatever. It changed all the time. So we couldn’t exactly plan on what kind of surroundings would be there. 

Eventually, the three of us were downstairs sorting through a couple of shelves when the buzzer at the backdoor rang. It was Peyton, covered by the armor she’d used yesterday, the purple and silver Power Rangers-like bodysuit with the ‘helmet’ that was purple on top across her head and silver across her throat and lower half of her face, leaving her eyes and nose exposed. 

The girl looked surprised to see That-A-Way when we let her in. She was also slightly surprised to see Pack, but at least I had already told her we would be working with the La Casa girl. There was a quick back-and-forth of introductions and explanations as I informed Peyton that we could trust That-A-Way with this. 

“Alloy, huh?” Pack put in as soon as that was done. She looked the other girl up and down curiously. “Cool name. Guess it fits with the whole melding your marbles together to turn into things.” 

Alloy, for her part, looked a little uncertain as to how she should react to the supervillain complimenting her name choice. In the end, she offered a little shrug. “Uh, thanks, I guess.”

“Hey,” Way put in, “I’m just glad you don’t have yet another P name.” 

Peyton, of course, practically choked, head snapping that way. “What?” 

“You know,” Way continued, “We’ve got Pack and Paintball.” She gestured between the two of us in question. “And the girl we’re supposed to be helping is named Paige. Too many P names. It’s becoming a thing.” 

Clearly glad that most of her face was covered to hide her expression, Peyton nodded slowly. “Right, good thing.” 

“Hey,” Pack suddenly put in, “speaking of names, what exactly are you two gonna call your little team-up thing? Hell, pretty sure you should count Trevithick too, so what’re you all gonna call yourselves? Every group’s gotta have a name, especially if there’s two of you out in the field.” 

“Batman, Robin, Batgirl, and the rest of that group didn’t have a team name,” I pointed out. “I mean, besides Bat-family. Hey, you could be–” 

“We’re not being Paint-family,” Peyton immediately interrupted. “And definitely not the Ball-family. Forget it.” 

That, of course, was the cue for Wren to come down the stairs, blurting, “Are we choosing a team name?! We’ve gotta choose a team name, right?” 

Groaning, I shook my head. “Is this really the best use of our time right now?” Another part of me was really resistant to the idea of making this whole team-up thing official in any capacity. It was dangerous, it was reckless, it could backfire with–

“I have an idea.” That was Alloy, hesitantly speaking up. “I mean, it might be a little silly, but I was thinking about Paintball’s powers, and mine, and the way Trevithick makes brand new things. And I sorta… I sorta came up with a suggestion?” She squirmed uncomfortably, kicking her foot against the floor. 

Not wanting to discourage her despite my trepidation, I nodded. “Okay, whatcha got?” 

So, she told us, and explained the spelling. Once she had it out, all of us exchanged looks. Pack shrugged. “I’ve heard worse. I mean, it ain’t my team, but I wouldn’t mind jumping under the banner now and then whenever you need a guest star.” 

Wren was bobbing her head rapidly, of course, gushing about how cool it was. 

“Yeah, it’s definitely cool,” Way agreed, looking to me. “What do you think?” 

“Let’s see how it looks,” I murmured, raising both hands before using my paint to spray the name across the wall in red with black outline. Once it was there, all of us stared at it. 

“I like it,” I finally agreed despite the worry I felt. “Good job, Alloy.” 

After we’d all taken in the name that we would apparently be using, Way turned from the wall. “Well, should we get busy? From what you guys said, time is sorta of the essence.” 

She was right, of course. So, we all got back to work, finishing up the last things that needed to be done before we would be able to jump into virtual reality to save Paige. Hopefully. 

In the background, meanwhile, the name of my brand new team remained in bold red letters across the wall. 

Avant-Guard.

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In Like Flynn 17-02 (Summus Proelium)

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For those who read Heretical Edge, there was a commissioned interlude posted yesterday. If you missed that, you can read it right here

So yeah, Pack obviously had a lot of things to say about the whole thing with this Amanda girl. Mostly centered around how many ways it could either be a trap or backfire on us. She went on about how stupid it would be to intentionally piss off Pencil and make myself and my new friend an even bigger target for him then we were now. I had made him angry already, first by screwing up his plan at the Children’s Hospital so that he didn’t do nearly as much damage as he meant to, and then by escaping up at the cabin. Not to mention the fact that I had actually hurt Cup. Yeah, obviously he didn’t need an excuse to target me. And yet, here I was, about to poke my nose into his business again. Pack had more than a few loud opinions on that idea.  

In the end, all I could say was that at least we weren’t actually going anywhere near the man himself. And, I pointed out that someone had to put a stop to him. The longer he went on being able to torture and kill people, the longer his list of innocent victims would get. Even if I didn’t have a chance in hell of confronting him directly and winning, the least I could do was contribute to bringing him down by finding Amanda Sanvers and trying to convince her to tell Deicide about any actual weaknesses Pencil might have so that she could actually do something about it. 

“I’m not stupid. I know it’s dangerous. But he has to be stopped. And I do owe Deicide for that vial. The vial that saved your boss’s daughter. She came through with it and asked for a favor. She could have asked for a much harder favor than this. Okay, maybe this isn’t exactly easy, but it’s not bad or wrong. I don’t have a moral issue with stopping Pencil and the Scions. This might be hard and dangerous, but it’s still a good thing to do. And I’m going to do it. Or try, at least.” 

Through all of that, I could tell Pack was staring at me intently. She seemed to be weighing something back and forth in her head for a silent moment before giving a long, audible sigh. “Right, fine. But don’t go digging too far into finding this chick without me, got it?” When I started to object, she interrupted. “No, you’re right. You got into this favor to help save the boss’s kid. You saved her life, and now Deicide wants you to pay that back by possibly pissing off that psycho? You’re not doing that alone. Or even with some girl who’s had her powers for like half an hour. I’m not saying I’ll fight that son of a bitch, I’m not stupid either. But me and my buddies here can help everyone get away if shit goes south. If you’re doing this, I’m gonna be there to make sure you don’t go too far with it. Fuck, I owe you that much for the vial thing. Plus, you know…” She trailed off, kicking the roof with her foot before muttering, “I don’t exactly hate you. And the list of people like that isn’t long, so I’d rather not have to deal with that fucking freak getting his hands on you. Not to mention how Way would react if she found out I just let you… yeah. So, that’s it. If you’re doing this, I’m going with you. No arguing about it, capisce?” 

Snorting despite myself, I gave a short nod. Behind the helmet, I was smiling a bit. “So, my takeaway from all that is that you like me. You really like me!” 

A low growl escaped the girl. “Don’t make me change my mind, kid. This still all seems pretty stupid. But if you insist, I’m gonna make sure you don’t go too stupid with it.” 

“Not going too stupid, got it.” Giving her a thumbs up, I added, “But hey, at least we don’t have to worry about that for a while. I mean, that’s the problem behind door number two. We’ve got a whole other problem behind door number one we have to deal with first. Isn’t that great?”

Pack didn’t sound incredibly enthused, for some reason. “You know the whole ‘door number one or door number two’ bit is supposed to imply you pick one or the other? It’s supposed to be a choice, not a thing where you dive headfirst into both of them whenever you want.” 

“Meh.” I shrugged. “I always was a little selfish. Gotta have all the doors for myself. But hey, you’ll be there too.” I adopted a teasing tone once more. “Because you liiiiiike me. Because we’re super-good friends and you won’t let anything happen to me. Because we–”

She shut me up with a kick to the shin that made me yelp, then pointedly replied, “So, are we gonna find out if Wren’s got another slot we can slide Way into before we call her in, or what?” 

Giving her a thumbs up while using my other hand to rub my leg, I nodded. “Sure, sure. Let’s head over there and see what she can do. The more friends we can pull into this whole Tron adventure, the merrier.” Grimacing then, I added, “I can’t believe I’m saying that with a straight face. This is all super-weird, right?”

Snorting at me, Pack plucked Riddles off her shoulder where the bearded dragon had crawled. “Yeah, definitely super-weird. But you know, that’s pretty much par for the course as far as you’re concerned, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not like you ever do anything the normal way.” 

Opening my mouth to argue, I ended up hesitating before coughing. “Okay, fair. I guess I really don’t. But whatever, come on, let’s go talk to our kid-genius inventor friend about letting the Minority superhero chick we’re both friends with come along on the trip to go into the cyborg-girl’s brain so we can save her from the evil duplicate virus her supervillain psycho father installed before she gets erased.” 

So, the two of us collected the lizards, put them back in the backpack-cage thing, then headed down and made our way through the maze of back alleys toward Wren’s shop. We passed a confused homeless guy on the way as he poked his head up from his sleeping bag next to a dumpster, and I gave him a twenty dollar bill before heading on. Pack watched me do that, seemed to consider for a moment, then sighed and passed him a twenty as well before whispering something in his ear. 

“What’d you say to that guy?” I asked once we had moved out of the man’s earshot. 

“Hmm?” Pack glanced toward me, then looked over her shoulder that way. “Oh, I just told him if he wants an easy lookout job that pays really well, he should call the number on the money I gave him. Blackjack’s always looking to recruit the unfortunate. Even if they don’t have any powers or skills, you’d be surprised how much information they can get for you. Plus, like I said, they can play lookouts really well. No one pays attention to them. Get enough on your side, and you have a whole spy network working for you. Just takes a little cash here and there. Which is something Blackjack has to spare.” 

My mouth opened and shut a couple times before I sighed. “You know, I genuinely have no idea how I’m supposed to feel about that. At least he’s giving them money, I guess?” 

“Money they’re earning,” Pack clarified pointedly with a raised finger. “That’s the big part. Plus, some of them do enough to get promoted into the actual gang instead of just being street-eyes. All depends on how much work they do, and how good they are at it. There’s actually a decent amount of ex-military types on the streets.” 

I was still processing that as we made our way up to the back door of the shop and rang the bell. There was about a twenty second pause before the door was pulled open by Fred, who looked a little distracted and disheveled. “Come in, then. You can help carry some shit upstairs.” With that, he gestured to two milk crates on the floor that had random bits of equipment piled up in them. It looked like he had been pulling pieces off the shelves and shoving them in there. 

“Everything okay?” I asked while stepping in and moving to pick up one of the crates. Beside me, Pack did the same while the lizards chirped and squeaked from the backpack. 

Fred was taking a long drink from a bottle of water before wiping off his forehead. “Yeah. I mean as good as it can be. Just busy. Wren’s been working all day on getting this VR thing up and running, and it’s… look, she’s working really hard, so take it easy on the kid, okay?” 

My head bobbed quickly, and I started to ask if she was okay, but Pack beat me to it. “How’s she doing with all this? Gotta be a lot of pressure on the girl, even for someone with a techy brain that big. You made her get some sleep last night, right?” There was a firm tone to her voice that reminded me just how much Pack cared about Wren too, after the time they’d spent together. She definitely didn’t like the idea of the kid stressing herself out over this whole thing. Which was fair, even if I was worried about what was going on with Paige. I was worried about Wren too. The kid was taking a lot onto her plate, with trying to put her dad’s store back in business, designing things we could actually build and sell, upgrading my equipment, and trying to help with the Paige situation. She’d even apparently gone as far as building that whole communication thing just to check on Paige herself, found out there was something wrong, and reached out to her Tech-Touched friend in France to find a solution she could jury-rig. It was a lot for anybody, let alone a nine-year-old who should be focusing on having fun. Part of me wished I could just tell the kid to forget about the whole thing and focus on her shop. But, of course, I couldn’t do that because it would mean hanging Paige out to dry.

Fred had already nodded by the time I worked through all that in my head. “You’re damn right I made the kid go to sleep. Wasn’t easy either, she was bound and determined to work through the night, but I nipped that in the bud. So yeah, she slept, otherwise she wouldn’t be conscious right now. But she’s still working her butt off on this whole thing, so take it easy with anything you ask about, got it?” His gaze moved back and forth between the two of us. 

Pack and I exchanged glances before nodding. That time, I found my voice first. “Yeah, we do… we do need to ask her about something as far as this VR thing goes, but we’ll take it easy. Trust me, Fred, we don’t wanna pile anything else onto her. She’s done enough with all this.” 

His gaze seemed to bore straight into and even through me. “So you’re not about to ask her to try to fix that orb thing anyway, even after everything she said about not being able to do it?” 

Okay, that one definitely took me by surprise. Giving a double-take despite myself, I couldn’t find my voice for a second. “Wha–no! No, I swear, that’s not why we’re here. I mean, she said she couldn’t do it, that’s–I get it. Trust me, Fred, we are not about to try to talk her into working on the orb. I know it’s more than she can handle. I didn’t–” Oh. He thought I’d brought Pack for backup in talking the poor kid into taking on that job too. No wonder he was making a point of talking to us like this, especially after Wren had outright refused to work on Paige the first time. And now he thought we were here to pressure her into taking it up, just because it was an emergency and–oh. Now I definitely understood what his whole deal was. 

“He’s right,” Pack put in, clearly having gone through the same thought process. “We’re not here to talk the kid into doing stuff she already said she couldn’t do. We just think we might need more help if we’re going into this… computer world thing, so we were wondering if she could make enough links or helmets or whatever it is for us to bring That-A-Way over.” 

Quickly, I added, “And, you know, ask if she’s cool with That-A-Way knowing where the shop is and all that. I mean, she knows a good bit already. Some of it anyway. But it’s a pretty big step to have Way over here. Especially since she always knows what direction she’s facing, so putting a bag over her head to drive her to the shop wouldn’t really do that much. She’d probably still be able to figure out where we were going and all that.” 

Without missing a beat, Fred pointed out, “We could teleport her directly here, you know. Her knowing what direction she’s facing wouldn’t tell her the exact location if she was teleported in from somewhere else, right? It’d just take time to calibrate for her and all, as the kid would say.” 

Oh, right. Pausing to consider that, I slowly nodded. “We’ll ask Wren what she wants to do. Either way, having masks around for you or anyone who wants one would probably be a good idea, just to, you know, be on the safe side.” 

Fred looked like he was going to say something to that, before shaking it off. “Right, yeah. Well, if that’s what you need, go ahead and carry those crates up to the kid. And let me know if I need to start calibrating that teleport marker. Kid made me learn how to do it in case there was an emergency or whatever, and God knows she’s got enough to work on today as it is.” 

Yeah, Fred had definitely changed since I first met him. Or had he? His whole thing when he had gone against Wren’s rules and made the deal with Ashton had been to get money to take care of her and to pay the bills for her parents’ hospital and funeral stuff. Yeah, he’d definitely done something bad, but he hadn’t known how bad at the time. He had just wanted better for himself and his niece, and that wasn’t exactly the worst crime in the world. And now he was still trying to take care of her, just without going too far. He’d learned from his mistake, but he was still the same guy, for the most part. 

“You okay over there?” Pack asked as the two of us walked to the stairs with the crates.

Heading up first, I nodded quickly. “Yeah, sorry. Just been thinking a lot. You know, about everything. It’s just–” I sighed. “There’s a lot going on.” 

Snorting, Pack nodded while starting up after me. She had left the bag with her lizards inside on one of the counters downstairs with strict orders for them to stay put, eat their food, and relax. Aside from Twinkletoes, who was perched on her shoulder, curiously watching everything. “A lot going on, right. And yet, here you are, taking on more responsibility day after day after day.” 

Wincing, I shook my head. “Hey, I told you, it’s not my fault. I owed Deicide for the–yeah.” 

“I know, I get it,” she muttered, reaching up to scratch under Twinkletoes’s chin affectionately. The way she brought him with just as we were going up the stairs, I had the feeling Pack didn’t like to go anywhere without at least one of them. Which, again, made me curious about how she went to school. Did she go to school, or was it just like some kind of tutoring situation in La Casa? And why did I keep wondering about it? Seriously, it was none of my business. I had no idea why the question kept popping into my head. Like I didn’t already have enough to worry about and focus on? 

By that point, we had reached the top of the stairs and moved through the hallway there to get to the lab where Wren was working on what I swore looked like a large, makeshift MRI machine that was taking up a decent portion of one corner. The kid had the side of the machine open and was lying on one of those little wheeled carts that mechanics use, buried up to her waist in the wire-filled guts of the machine. We could both hear the girl talking to herself, or rather, to the machine. She was mumbling about making the thing work whether it wanted to or not. 

Exchanging a brief look with the girl next to me, I stepped that way. “Uh, hey, Wren. You need any help down there? Got some stuff for you.” I shook the crate in my hand a little demonstrably.   

Hearing my voice, the girl slid out, blurting, “Paintball!” She saw the other girl then and added a quick, “Pack! And Twinkletoes!” Hurriedly, she climbed into her feet, almost slipping on the wheeled cart before managing to catch herself. “Hi! Oh, you can put that stuff right there on the floor, I’ve gotta dig through it and find the right stuff. Do you know if Uncle Fred found the–” And then she said something so ridiculously technical that she might as well have been speaking in a completely foreign language. Or even an alien language. Hell, for all I knew, she was talking in complete gibberish and that entire sentence was just the girl screwing with us to see if we had any clue what she was going on about. And from the sound that Pack made in the background, I was pretty sure she didn’t have the slightest idea what any of that meant either.  

After a moment, I found my voice. “Uh, sorry he didn’t say anything about that. But it seemed like he found what you sent him for? So maybe it’s in there. If you want some help digging through it…” Oh, really? Where was I going to go with that, genius? I had no idea what any of what she was asking about looked like, so how exactly was I going to help her find it? 

Thankfully, Wren politely declined, saying she’d look through it later. Then she frowned slightly, looking back and forth between us while holding Twinkletoes (the chameleon had been quickly handed over to her and was quite thoroughly enjoying the attention). Curiously, the girl asked, “You guys aren’t here to do the thing yet, are you? Cuz I–I’m really sorry but it’s not ready yet. I’ve been trying and I swear I’ll get it working, but I had to sleep cuz Uncle Fred said I couldn’t–” 

Quickly, I interrupted. “No, no, it’s okay. We’re not here for that.” With that, I explained why we were there, asking how the girl felt about bringing That-A-Way over, how secret she wanted us to make it, and whether she thought there would be a way of bringing one more person into the VR thing. But I made it perfectly clear that if adding someone else was too much to get ready in time, she absolutely shouldn’t worry about it, and that it was just a thought we’d had about getting more help in there.

Thankfully (because I really thought we were going to need all the help we could get), Wren immediately agreed. According to her, once she had the actual system working, it wouldn’t be too hard to create an additional link-in for it. Especially since she had apparently been planning on making another one ‘just in case’ anyway. It was intended to be just in case one of the regular link-ins didn’t work properly, but assuming everything did work, there would be an extra one for That-A-Way.

“And you want us to go the blindfold, teleportation route?” Pack put in curiously. “Cuz if so, I think Paintball should do it. Just cuz someone from La Casa putting a bag over a superhero’s head and teleporting them to a secret location kiiiinda has a weird feeling to it.” 

Wren, however, shook her head. “Nuh uh, you can bring her here. She’s a superhero! She’s a good guy–errr, girl. An’ besides, if you guys trust her, I trust her.” Belatedly, she added, “Besides, if bad stuff happens, it’s probably a good idea to have someone like her know where we are, right?” 

“Uh, good point,” I agreed, giving her a thumbs up before looking over to Pack. “So, what do you say? 

“Shall we go find out if That-A-Way wants to play Tron with us?” 

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Patreon Snippets 20 (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 20th edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers.

Murphy and Roald

“What do you think she’s like?” Roald asked Murphy as the two of them trotted up the last short distance to the pawn shop that Paintball had directed them to before taking off to deal with those Easy Eight people. “I mean, if she’s working with Paintball, she must be pretty cool, right?” 

Shrugging, Murphy looked up at the sign above the door as they approached. “Wren’s Nest. Looks like this is the place. So I guess we’re about to find out if she’s cool, or just some boring old rich chick who likes to build things.” She made a face then as a shudder ran through her. The two moved away from the front door to head around the back the way Paintball had said they should. “God, I hope she doesn’t smell funny. I’m not sure how much I can work for some old chick if she smells funny.”  

“It’s a real job,” Roald reminded her. “Paintball, he… he gave us a chance. He’s giving us a chance. C’mon, Murph. We can work for someone who smells funny, just get that chapstick stuff that smells really good and put it under your nose. Just remember, we’re not working for some smelly old woman, we’re working for a superhero.” Belatedly, he added, “Um, and don’t tell her she smells funny, okay? Even if she does. Cuz–” 

“That was one time, Roo!” Murphy shot back, holding up a finger. “One time. And that woman smelled like she walked through the perfume aisle at the store and dumped every single bottle they had on herself. There was a little girl on that bus who was crying because of that smell. She couldn’t breathe. Nobody could breathe. That woman was a danger to everyone. I’m pretty sure the driver was practically blind from the fumes! I did everyone a favor.” 

Snorting, Roald nodded slowly before pointing out, “Sure, right. It was bad. I’m just pretty sure there was a better way to handle it than dumping your water bottle out over her and asking if she was aware that chemical weapons are a war crime.”  

With an audible snicker, Murphy lifted her chin. “Hey, it got the point across, didn’t it? She got off the bus at the next stop. And I’m pretty sure she took it easy on the perfume after that. I really did a service to everyone she ever meets in the future. Sometimes you have to go with the direct approach. Tough love.” As she said that, they had reached the back door, and the girl put a hand out to ring the buzzer there. 

“Yeah, well,” Roald replied, “at least you don’t have a water bottle this time.” 

Spinning on him at that, Murphy pointed. “That’s why you wouldn’t let me stop to get a drink, you–”

She was interrupted then, as the door abruptly swung open to reveal a six-foot tall, roughly fifty-year-old man with dark slicked back hair and a pronounced potbelly that was at odds with the rest of his quite thin body. “You know, if you kids are trying to play Ding Dong Ditch, you forgot the ditch part.” When he spoke, the two could smell cigarettes. 

“Oh God,” Murphy managed, “are you Wren? I swear, he said she, right?” She looked to Roald. 

Squinting at them, the man grunted after a second. “Hold up, you’re those kids Paintball was gonna bring over.” He leaned out the doorway then, looking both ways before turning his attention back to them. “So, where is he?” 

“Uhh… he had to go fight some bad guys,” Roald hesitantly replied. “Easy Eights, they were driving by in a truck and um, and it looked like something bad was about to happen. So he sent us here, uhh, Mr. Wren, sir.” 

“What?” the man blinked that way, then laughed. “Hell naw. Name’s Fred, not Wren. C’mon, I’ll introduce you.” He stepped back then, holding the door as he waited for them to enter. 

For a brief moment, the two teenagers looked at one another, silently communicating. Finally, they shrugged and stepped in before looking around. Murphy gave a low whistle. “Wow. This place looks awesome. Look at all the shit you’ve got around here. Holy crap, is that a real record player? Like, that thing’s real and not just some fake with an MP3 player built into it or something, right?” She was already moving that way to squint at the thing on the shelf. 

“Uh huh!” A new voice piped up from right in front of Murphy, as a small blonde girl popped into view from where she had been bent down behind the shelf. She had an armful of random objects that she’d clearly just picked up. 

Murphy, of course, yelped and stumbled backward while cursing. “Shit, shit, fuck, what, what?” 

“Sorry!” the younger girl blurted before turning to carefully put the stuff she had collected into a nearby box. “You just sounded really excited about the record player. It’s a Pioneer PL-55X. Classic.” 

Roald, who had come up to Murphy’s side, blinked at the kid. “Oh, uhh, hey. That’s cool. So, is this your… mom’s shop? Your grandmother’s?” 

“Well,” the girl frowned thoughtfully. “It was my dad’s, but… but my parents died.” She went quiet then, before shaking off those feelings. “Now it’s mine.” 

“Yours?” Murphy managed a bit weakly, as the truth began to dawn on both of them. 

“Oh! I’m dumb. Sorry, hi.” With that, the younger girl extended her hand with a bright smile. “I’m Wren!” 

That, of course, left the two teenagers staring at her, then at each other, then back at her again. Roald was the first to find his voice. “Wren the… second, right? You live here with your… grandmother and…” He looked back to Fred. “And him.” 

“That’s Uncle Fred,” Wren informed them. “And nope, it’s just us. Me and Uncle Fred. We help Paintball! And now you get to help us help Paintball. Isn’t that great?” 

In a dull, flat voice, Murphy agreed, “Totally fantastic. He just uhh, he didn’t exactly mention that…” 

“He didn’t tell them you were a kid,” Fred grunted from where he was standing by the door. The man sounded amused by the whole situation. “Probably wanted to see their faces or something. His loss.” 

“So–so wait, wait.” Murphy was clearly still reeling from the whole thing. “This is real? Like, really real? It’s not a joke? You–you’re the Tech-Touched Paintball wants us to help around this place?” 

Scrunching up her face a bit, Wren hesitantly asked, “Is… is something wrong?” 

Once more, the two teenagers exchanged looks before turning back to her. Roald shook his head. “You know what? Nope. Nothing’s wrong. We’re good. You’re like, this really cool Tech-Touched, right? You can really build things?” 

“Can we see some of it?” Murphy put in then, her eagerness totally eclipsing the uncertainty she felt about apparently working for a child. 

The worried, uncertain look on Wren’s face faded quickly, and she brightened. “Sure! C’mon, I’ve got some really great stuff.

“If you think the record player’s cool, wait till you see the machine that makes people really, really slow. Or the teleporter, or–” Abruptly, she hit something on her sleeve, and a pair of dragonfly-like wings sprang out, as she lifted off the ground. “Or these!” 

“You know what, Roald?” Murphy managed, staring up at the hovering, giggling girl, “I don’t care if she’s a kid, a toddler, or an old lady. Even one that smelled. 

“This is gonna be an awesome job.” 

********

Peyton

“Hey, Mom. Yeah, I’m good. What’s up with you? What? Whaaaat? Are you serious? Fell-Touched? Like, real bad guys? What? No, no, I wasn’t there. Nope, I was at McDonalds. I was walking home. I was at the bus stop. I was grabbing a sandwich from the store. I was behind the mall buying a bagful of drugs to sell at school. You should see the profit margin on that shit.” 

As she walked across the back parking lot behind the apartment building where she lived, Peyton Favors slowed, grimacing. “Yeah, probably not that last one.” Opening her cupped hands where the assortment of colored marbles quivered and pulsed excitedly, she asked, “What do you guys think? Which excuse is Mom gonna buy?” 

The marbles floated up off her hand, spinning around in circles rapidly before bouncing off each other. Which wasn’t exactly helpful for making up the right thing to say, even if it was cute. Plus, they were going to attract attention. So Peyton quickly pulled them back and pushed the marbles into her pockets. “Just be quiet for a little bit, okay? I can’t explain you to Mom. She just… she wouldn’t understand. She wouldn’t understand any of this.” Muttering that last bit to herself, the girl took a deep breath and then jogged across the parking lot. “Time to face the music.” 

She still hadn’t settled on exactly which excuse to use by the time she had gone in the back entrance and used the elevator to reach the ninth floor, where the apartment she and her mother lived in actually was. There, she headed down the hall, and was just about to use her key to unlock the apartment itself when the door suddenly swung open. 

Automatically, Peyton began to launch into her recited speech. “Hey, Mom. Yeah, I’m good. What–” 

If her mother noticed that the girl had accidentally started responding to questions she hadn’t even been asked yet, she didn’t show it at all. Instead, the short, red-haired (just like her daughter) and almost abnormally skinny woman grabbed Peyton by both arms and pulled her into the living room, then hugged her so tight the girl thought she might’ve cracked a rib. “Oh my God, you’re home! I was just talking to the police, they told me you weren’t one of the hostages down there and I told them how fucking incompetent they were and–” 

“Mom! Mom, what–” Taking a deep breath to prepare herself for what was coming while her mother was holding her so tight, Peyton managed to extricate herself. “What are you talking about? You called the cops because I was a little late? What hostages? What? Mom, what happened? What did you say to them?” She did her best to look completely baffled and lost about the whole situation, hoping her mother wouldn’t see through it. 

Then she met her mother’s frantic gaze and had to suppress the urge to react. Oh boy, this was hard. It wasn’t like Peyton enjoyed lying to her mother. As much as she might have bristled against the woman’s overprotectiveness lately, she really did love her. Seriously, it had been the two of them basically on their own for as long as she could remember. Lying to her mother right now was hard. But she knew what would happen if she didn’t. Her mom would overreact. She would try to stop her from doing anything dangerous. After Peyton’s dad left, they just… she kind of lost her mind at the thought of losing her daughter too. 

Peyton understood that. She really, truly did. But she couldn’t let that stop her. She had these marbles, these powers, for a reason. She had to use them to help people. Someday, she would be able to explain it to her mother, once she proved that she was a real hero. She would establish herself–her Touched self, as a bonafide, genuine hero. Then she would show her mother who she really was. Once her mother saw what she could do, how she could help people… maybe she would understand? 

Pushing all those thoughts down, she focused on looking as confused as possible while her mother went on about the attack at the shopping center. Through it all, Peyton continued to insist that she hadn’t been there, that she went earlier but had been gone by the time any of that went on. She claimed she was eating with a few people from school that she’d run into. Thankfully, any doubts her mother might’ve had were forced to contend with the fact that Peyton was right there in front of her and that the cops had told her she wasn’t with the group of hostages. 

Of course, Peyton had to explain why she hadn’t answered any calls or texts from her mother. Thankfully, she had an excuse ready for that. Namely, her phone was dead. Mostly thanks to the special app she had downloaded and run to make sure it had been completely drained by the time she got home, but still.

Finally convinced that her daughter was fine after all, and had never been in any actual danger, Suzanne Favors gave a long sigh before looking over to her own phone. “Okay, I guess I’ve got a police lieutenant to apologize to. Let me get that done and then I’ll make you some–oh, you’re not hungry.” 

Peyton started to object that she was starving, only to catch herself. Fuck. She’d said that she was eating with those people from school. Right, damn it. She was going to have to grab some food later. Eating now would just make her mother suspicious again. “Yeah,” she murmured, “couldn’t eat another bite. I uhh, I’m gonna go to my room.” 

Her mom hugged her once more with a sigh of relief, before Peyton headed off with a sigh of her own. But hers was not one of relief. She heard her mother starting to apologize on the phone, hesitating before looking over her shoulder to see the woman standing with her back to her. For a moment, Peyton just stood there, staring for a moment while listening to that. Her voice, when she spoke, was a barely audible whisper. “Sorry, Mom.” 

Yeah, it was probably a good thing she wasn’t trying to eat anything right now. 

She probably wouldn’t be able to keep it down anyway. 

**********

Cavalcade

Technically, the woman who drove her Range Rover through the gates of the storage facility somewhere in the middle of Detroit, a mile or so away from downtown, was known to the world at large as Cavalcade. But no one would have recognized her now. Her hair in that public identity as a Sell-Touched was long, flowing, and black. The woman who was parking her vehicle near the building that served as the main office had short blonde hair styled in a pixie cut. She also wore thick-rimmed glasses. And yes, she was aware that she was leaning into that trope, but the truth was she actually needed them. The goggles she wore in costume weren’t just for show, after all. They had prescription lenses. 

In addition to the different hair and the glasses, she wore a pair of slightly loose jeans and a somewhat too-large shirt and jacket that helped to play down and conceal rather than emphasize her voluptuous figure. The opposite of her Touched-Self’s red bodysuit. 

No, it was quite clear from both a glance and further inspection that this woman and the mercenary known as Cavalcade were very different. By design, of course. Being someone who worked for the highest bidder on either side of the legal line tended to also make you enemies on both sides of that line. Even when you lived by your own code, kept things professional, and refused to either rat out criminals who employed you or work with total psychopaths like the Scions, there were still those who would love to make life hell for a poor mercenary who was just trying to get along. 

Okay, ‘poor’ was a very bad descriptor for her in almost every way. But still. 

Stepping out of the Range Rover before crossing the short distance to the main office on a pair of simple, functional tennis shoes, the much-less outrageous and attention-getting woman tugged open the door before poking her head in. “Morning!” she called toward the desk that took up about half of the room in this small office. 

“Miss Mclean?” the dark-haired young woman, practically a kid really (she was still in college, after all) rose from the seat. “Is everything okay?” 

Brianna Mclean. That was what people (generally) knew her as whenever she wasn’t being Cavalcade. It wasn’t the name she had been born with, of course. She’d left that behind at least two identities ago. But Brianna Mclean worked. 

“Oh, absotively!” Brianna confirmed with a smile, still standing in the doorway. “I just wanted to let you know I got your request for next week off, and you go right ahead. We’ll get people to cover your shifts, you focus on studying for that test, Jessie.” 

Brightening, Jessie thanked her, and Brianna gave the girl a quick thumbs up before stepping out again. There, she had done her job as the owner of this place. Time for a little fun. 

She left her vehicle where it was. It wouldn’t surprise anyone, since her apartment was actually connected to the lot itself. She often left her vehicle at random places on the property. 

However, rather than walk toward that small building, barely a stone’s throw away from the door into the main office, Brianna turned the opposite way and began to stroll through the parking lot, past dozens of storage sheds where random people kept their random junk. 

Walking to a specific storage unit, Brianna hummed to herself while reaching out to open the nearby keypad. Thumbing in the code, she waited until it gave a confirming beep, then looked straight at the tiny lens on top, waiting for it to scan her face. As it did, there was one more beep, followed by a ding. The ding was from the woman’s phone in her pocket, where she would have just gotten an alert that the door had been accessed. Even if someone managed to copy her face and get her code (and know to come here in the first place), she would get the alert that they were there. 

Taking the phone from her pocket, Brianna entered the six digit code there that would prevent the place she was about to enter from engaging security measures. Then she reached down, hauled the door up, stepped inside, and let the door roll back down behind her. 

The storage room looked like any other, on the surface. There were boxes stacked up that had various clothes and books, a pair of skis, a rundown chair, and some paintings in the corner that weren’t worth more than twenty to thirty bucks a piece. Walking around all that, Brianna moved to the back corner of the room. Taking her phone out, she pressed a button, and, with a low grinding noise, a small section of the floor there slid away to reveal a set of stairs leading down. 

She descended, letting the hidden trapdoor slide shut behind her before continuing on to emerge into what turned out to be an enormous penthouse condo that took up a large portion of the underground area beneath the storage facility lot. The place would have been right at home functioning as the imperial suite in a five star hotel. 

This was Brianna’s real home. She spent enough time in her supposed apartment at the edge of the lot to make it look as though she lived there, and it was where her official residence was. But this was where her money went. This was where she relaxed. She had everything she needed here, far from prying eyes and legal entanglements. 

With a smile, the woman glanced around the luxurious living room that her hidden tunnel opened up into. Her gaze passed over the ‘windows’ along the opposite wall, which were actually video screens showing a view of the skyline over Tokyo at the moment. 

“Lana,” she addressed her personal assistant computer. “Dim the lights to half, run a hot bath in the master whirlpool, and put last night’s Pistons game on the screen in there, starting from the second quarter when I had to leave.” 

“Yes, Brianna,” came the soft response. 

As the lights dimmed and she heard the distant sound of basketball and running water, Brianna sighed in appreciation. Then she walked that way, stripping down as she went. 

Even the Evans couldn’t have it much better than this. 

*********

The following takes place a short time in the future from the current regular chapters

Right, I couldn’t avoid it anymore without drawing attention. Even though I was still dealing with everything that happened (and was still happening) with Paige, there was something important I had to do. Okay, there are a lot of things I had to do, but this one jumped to the top of the list. I had to go to court. Well, I had to go to the courthouse and give my depositions for everything official that had happened since I started this whole Star-Touched thing. Every bad guy that got arrested because of me, every official police case I had any involvement in, all of that. 

First, I’d gone through that same unremarkable building a block away from the courthouse That-A-Way had directed me to so I could turn in those papers about holding Ashton prisoner before. I’d even been escorted through to the tunnel that led to the courthouse itself by my old pal, Officer Metts. 

And now, here I was, sitting in one of the so-called deposition rooms. As Flea had promised, the room consisted of a long table. The judge sat at one end, the court stenographer at the other end. I sat in the middle on one side, while a couple empty chairs sat opposite me, and one just a little bit down from where I was sitting. 

The judge, an old, entirely bald black man with the last name of Pamure, gently asked, “Do you know how this is supposed to work?” 

Swallowing back the nerves that I felt, I nodded. “Those folders next to you are all the cases that I have something to do with. You’ll go through each case one at a time, call in the lawyers for both sides. The defendant lawyer sits over there, the prosecuting attorney sits over here on this side. They each get to ask questions about everything in the case, just like they would in court. The stuff I say gets recorded by her, and by that.” I nodded toward the stenographer, then to the camera up in the corner of the room. “We do that for every case, then move on.” 

Judge Pamure confirmed, “Yes, pretty much. We also like to move these things along as quickly as possible, because there’s a lot to go through every month. You, it’s been more than a month, but we let newbies slide a little bit. Not like the system doesn’t have enough to deal with anyway.” He cleared his throat then. “Anyway, that’s the gist. You don’t have to answer any questions about your identity, your personal life, anything you feel uncomfortable with. We’ll zip through the questions from both sides, you just tell the truth about what happened–you’ll be sworn in before we start, and we’ll all get out of here. Okay, you’ll get out of here. I’ll move to the next Touched in line. So, you ready?” 

After I confirmed that I was, the judge had the first pair of lawyers brought in by the bailiff–who happened to be the same man who subsequently had me put my hand on a copy of the state constitution and swear to tell the truth. I did, of course, and everyone settled in for the first set of questions, from the prosecuting attorney. 

Ashton. This was all about Ashton. I should’ve figured they’d start with this one. Bit by bit, question by question, I established everything safe for them to know about what had happened, why we held him prisoner for a short time, what we’d done to get back the vials that he had stolen and why, and so on. 

Ashton’s lawyer, of course, had her own questions. But honestly, she didn’t seem all that invested. Oh, she did her job. She pushed back on a few things I said, just enough for the judge to calmly tell her to back off at least once. But she didn’t really seem completely devoted. Probably because she was a public defender. She did her job well enough to be counted, but Ashton wasn’t an important case to her. He was just a number. I also had the feeling that some of those questions had come from Ashton himself, thinking he was going to trip me up. A few I saw her cross off with a pen without even reading them. So those ones must’ve been real doozies. 

Eventually, it was done. Both lawyers said they had no more questions. But instead of leaving, they both shuffled some papers around, and suddenly we were talking about a different case, a random mugging I’d stopped weeks back. It took me a bit by surprise before I recovered. Right, of course the same lawyers would work different cases. They were going to run through every case that involved the same attorney(s) while they were already here. 

Yeah, this was going to take awhile. But at least I only had to do it once a month. So, I pushed my thoughts away from worrying about that whole… Paige thing and focused on answering questions. 

If nothing else, trying to answer all these questions without saying the wrong thing was a pretty good distraction from everything else going on in my life.

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Building Connections 16-11 (Summus Proelium)

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On the way through the back alleys to the shop, I explained who Trevithick was (as well as what the name meant). It was all stuff I’d meant to tell her as we were making our way through the city, but then our little race thing happened and well, here we were. So, I just filled her in with the brief SparkNotes version. As we approached the back door, I mentioned that the kid was pretty young, and asked if she would have a problem working with someone like that. 

I clearly hadn’t thought that question through entirely, because Peyton looked at me pointedly and asked, “Young like you? Because I’m pretty good with that. I don’t think I get to judge what a kid can do after one saved my life like… twice within the same month, dude.” 

Burying my annoyance at being seen as a kid again beneath the much more useful fact that my disguise was stopping anyone from suspecting who I really was, especially my parents, I nodded once. “Younger than me.” It was the literal truth, after all. Wren really was younger than me.  I just wasn’t specific about how much younger. “She’s a kid. But she’s a genius Tech-Touched.” 

That said, I reached up to hit the buzzer. But before I could, the back door was flung open, and Murphy stood there, looking back and forth between the two of us for a moment before seeming to realize who Peyton was. “Ohhh, it’s marble girl. You changed your armor.” With that, she looked the other girl up and down briefly as though judging it. “I like this one better.” 

Peyton, in turn, stared at her briefly before turning to me. “She’s not younger than you.” 

Exactly how many times was I going to be tempted to blow my cover within a five minute span? Seriously, I was starting to think this was just gonna be a thing going forward. Exhaling, I shook my head and gestured between them. “This is Murphy, she’s… helping. It’s a long story.” 

“He caught me and my friend, Roald, after we broke into a gas station to steal food, and told us we could be his minions and help out around here or whatever instead of going to jail,” Murphy promptly summed up. Then she looked at me and added, “It’s really not that long of a story.”  

Peyton, meanwhile, had turned to look at me with obvious incredulity. “Wait, you have minions?”

Before I could respond to that, Murphy put in (with a voice that was basically the most cheerful I had ever heard her sound), “Just for now. But I think if we do a good job, he might upgrade us to henchpeople.” That, of course, was accompanied by the girl raising both hands to show her crossed fingers. “I’m pretty sure that’s when we get the matching uniforms.” 

Shaking my head, I gestured for the girl to step back so we could come in. Once the door was closed behind us, I asked, “So where’s Trevithick? Upstairs?” 

“Who?” Murphy blinked at me before remembering. “Oh, right. Nah, she had to run out. Took Fred and Roald and made me stay to watch the shop. Something about needing to grab important supplies or whatever.” Her hand gestured my way. “Kid said she was gonna text you an update.” 

“Text me an–” As I echoed those words, my hand was taking the phone from my pocket, and I blanched a little behind the helmet. I had a message from Wren, alright. Sure enough, it was all about how she had to go grab a few super-important things and that she would explain everything about what was going on once they got back. “Oh, well okay then. I guess we’ll wait here for them.” 

As I finished saying that, Murphy had already shrugged and moved back to a corner of the main shop floor where she had apparently been sweeping and mopping. From the look of it, she was actually doing a pretty good job. Okay, a very good job. Better than I could have, considering I’d basically almost never done anything like that except for the times when I was a kid trying to help the maids. Actually, I remembered that being kind of fun. But even now, I knew the reason it felt ‘fun’ to me at the time was because I could stop any time I wanted to. It didn’t depend on doing that to live or put food in my mouth. If I had to do it every day, as much as the people who worked in our house or at my school had to? Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t enjoy it as much. It was a thought that made me shift a little uncomfortably. Yet Murphy seemed pretty fine with what she was doing. It made me wonder how much cleaning she ended up doing at home. Which also made me think about her brother. Part of me wanted to ask how that was going and if he’d stopped being pissed at her about not running those drugs over to his friend. But I was pretty sure that would be pushing a bit even if we were alone, let alone with Peyton here. 

So, I decided that conversation could wait. Meanwhile, Peyton herself had started to walk around the shop floor, picking up and examining various things from the shelves. “Wow,” she murmured quietly while turning an old miner’s helmet over in her hands, “they’re actually selling all this random junk?  

Wincing, I stepped over that way. “Don’t let the kid hear you calling it junk. This was her dad’s store, she’s pretty protective of it. And right now I think a lot of it is just a way of having basically any random thing she needs at any point when she starts building stuff.” 

A noise of regret escaped the other girl, as she turned to me while shaking her head. “I–sorry. I didn’t mean to just–ugh. I didn’t mean it like that. I wasn’t trying to like–insult her family’s shop or anything. I was just… yeah, sometimes I don’t think before I speak.” She muttered the last words before giving a heavy sigh. 

“It’s okay,” I assured her before reaching out to squeeze the girl’s arm. “Seriously, don’t worry about it. All this stuff is a lot to get used to. Believe me, I know.” And boy was that a severe understatement. A lot to get used to? Wait until she learned the real truth about the city–no, stop it. I couldn’t tell her the full truth about the city. Except she was already helping, and she was going to push that help as far as helping me find the girl who might be able to take Pencil down. Even if the idea was to stay completely away from that piece of shit and never directly involve ourselves with him, there was no definite one hundred percent certainty that we wouldn’t see him. And she was still here, still willingly putting herself in danger. Didn’t I owe her the–fuck. Would this question ever end up getting me anywhere except for more uncertain and confused?

“Dude.” Peyton, who I belatedly realized had been staring at me for the past few seconds while I went through all that in my head yet again, spoke up hesitantly. “Are you okay?” 

“It’s fine,” Murphy called from where she was still working. “He just does that sometimes. I think he likes brooding or something. That or he’s listening to podcasts in that helmet and gets distracted.” 

Flushing a bit behind the aforementioned helmet, I shook my head. “It’s not brooding or podcasts. I just–never mind. I was just thinking.” 

“Hey, speaking of just thinking,” Murphy called out again, “what do you call yourself, anyway? I mean, we can’t just stick with ‘that marble girl’ all the time, right?” 

It was Peyton’s turn to blush, slightly visible through the space that left part of her face around her eyes uncovered. “Uhh, we sort of went over some ideas, but I’m not sure. It’s really hard to come up with a good one that doesn’t sound stupid or overly dramatic or… whatever.”

“Oh, I know all about that too,” I muttered mostly to myself before gesturing. “Well, while we’re waiting, why don’t we go over the list? You wanna help, Murphy?” 

She, in turn, looked at the mop in her hand for a moment before setting it aside to step over where we were. Shoving her hands in her back pockets, the brown-skinned girl rocked back on her heels before asking, “What sorta options are you working with?” 

So, Peyton and I tugged a couple random stools over and slid one over to Murphy before starting to go over all the potential names. The three of us went back and forth for awhile about the ones that sounded good, why they were good, the ones that probably wouldn’t work, and so on. 

We went over all that for a good ten minutes. Finally, Peyton said she had some favorites, especially after talking to the two of us, but she wanted to think about it some more before deciding, and maybe ask the others what they thought. Which was pretty good timing, considering it was only a couple minutes after that before Wren showed up with Fred and Roald. 

“Wow,” Peyton murmured very quietly in my direction as the trio arrived with armfulls of paper grocery bags, “you weren’t kidding about her being young. But she’s really that good?” 

“She’s really that good,” I confirmed before stepping that way to take a bag from Wren. It was heavier than it looked, geez. The bag was completely filled with what looked like half of an average-sized store’s electronics department. Peyton was already doing the same for Fred. “Hey guys, look who I brought back. It’s… uhh, she doesn’t actually have a name yet. So TBD. But TBD, this is Wren or Trevithick, her uncle Fred, and Roald.” 

That was followed by both Fred and Roald shaking the girl’s hand, the latter commenting that her armor looked different this time. Peyton then explained how that worked with her marbles. Both of them seemed a little awkward and uncertain in a way that almost seemed kind of cute. Especially when Murphy inserted herself and all three of them went back and forth about different types of armor and weapons she might be able to make with the various marbles. 

For her part, Wren waited until all the bags were put down and was quietly respectful of letting the other three talk for about ten more seconds before flinging herself that way with an added boost from her flight pack wings (the pack was on under her jacket and it projected the wings through a couple almost-invisible slits in the back) to cross the distance before landing directly in front of her. “Hi! I’m Wren, like he said! You are so cool, I watched the videos of you fighting those bad guys like eighteen times! When you hit Juice with the battering ram and then threw him with the gloves, that was so awesome! You were like, ‘don’t you touch him!’ then wham! Did you really just get your powers? You totally kicked his butt before he even knew what was happening!” 

Peyton, looking more than a little taken aback by the enthusiasm, managed a little giggle. “Uhh, thanks. Just beginner’s luck, really. I think he was more focused on being mad at Paintball, so he wasn’t paying any attention to me.” 

“He was definitely distracted,” I agreed, “but that doesn’t take away from the fact that most people wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of that distraction the way you did. Seriously, she’s right, you were awesome back there. I would’ve been screwed without your help.” Blanching a little, I added, “Still don’t know why they keep calling you my ‘sidekick’ though. I mean, I haven’t even been doing this for two whole months yet.” 

Wow, saying that part out loud made me think about just how much had happened in the past six-ish weeks. The vials, finding out about my family, being taken by Pencil, the whole situation with him and the rest of the Scions at the hospital, the Paige thing… Just how damn busy was I

While I was focused on that, Peyton had started to explain her whole naming situation and the various ideas she was working off of. Roald, Wren, and Fred gave their own opinions and went back and forth for awhile, until Peyton finally held up both hands. “Okay, okay. I’ve got it, I think. The name I’m gonna go with is…” She took a breath, letting it out before finishing. “Alloy.” Even after she said it, the girl looked uncertain. “I mean, is that good? I think– never mind. Sorry. I’m terrible at making decisions! I even like boys and girls cuz throwing out half my options is bullshit!” With that cry, she waved both hands vaguely. 

It was Fred who spoke up. “Hey, why don’t you uhh, close your eyes for a second.”

Looking a little confused and uncertain, the girl did so with a quiet, “Um, okay.”  

Clearing his throat, Fred spoke up loudly. “Alloy, Paintball needs your help, get out there!” After a pause, he asked, “So, did that sound right? I mean, the name, did it sound like something you’d like to be called?” 

Peyton opened her eyes. I had the feeling she was smiling behind the mask. “Uh huh. That’s it. That’s the right name. Thanks, uhh, Mr. Donovan.” 

“Fred’s fine,” the man insisted, looking self-conscious as he rubbed his head. “I just know sometimes it helps to hear the name from someone else. It’s how…” He paused briefly before continuing in a softer, more subdued tone. “It’s how I helped Wren’s folks choose her name.” 

Well, that was sobering. I still wasn’t sure about the whole story there, other than the fact that her mother and father had died in the hospital after racking up quite the medical bill. Which was the whole thing that led to Fred selling that device to Ashton so he could steal the vials in the first place. Not that Fred had known what his plan was at the time.

Of course, thinking about that reminded me of why we had come here today to begin with. “Um, Wren? You said you had something really important to talk about. What’s wrong? And, uhh, does it have anything to do with the fact that you just went on a huge shopping spree? All this stuff looks pretty intense.” I said that while gingerly reaching into one of the bags and picking up what appeared to be a circuit board with seven different colored wires leading out of it and a large computer power supply attached to one side.  

Immediately, Wren looked guilty about her distraction. “Oh, uhh, yeah. I should probably talk to you upstairs about it.” She winced, shifting back and forth on her feet, clearly anxious. 

I had the feeling Peyton really wanted to ask what was going on. Instead, she gestured to the others. “Hey, you wanna see how I raced Paintball to get over here? I could show you outside, if y–hold on!” Tugging her buzzing phone out, she blurted, “Everybody be quiet, or sound like shoppers!” Then she was answering it, talking to her mother, who was checking in again. After a moment, she muted her phone, grabbed Murphy by the arm, and hissed at her to pretend to be someone named Dana coming up to say they had to check out some sale somewhere.  

Looking to Wren while that was going on, I whispered, “Are you okay?” 

“Wha–oh.” Her head bobbed quickly. “Uh huh. It’s not about me. It’s–it’s about Paige.” 

Of course it was. I’d figured it had to be as soon as whatever the problem was didn’t turn out to have anything to do with bad guys at the shop, her or Fred’s health, and involved her going out to buy a bunch of things on an emergency shopping trip. Much as I might’ve loved to hope this whole thing was just a kid overreacting to some brand new idea she had about an invention that she wanted to show off, I knew Wren better than that. And I knew my luck better than that. 

So, while Peyton (or Alloy now) took the others out back to show off the whole hoverboard thing, I went with Wren upstairs. The two of us took the elevator, the younger girl being oddly quiet and subdued all the way. Finally, once the door opened and we stepped out into the hall, she turned to face me. “Okay, see, I felt really bad that I couldn’t help wake up your friend. So I thought maybe if I could at least find a way to communicate with her, it might help. You know, connect with her umm, mind or whatever?” She was fidgeting nervously or self-consciously. 

“Did… did you manage to communicate with her?” No, that didn’t make sense. Why would her succeeding at something like that make Wren so… like this? It certainly wouldn’t be an emergency. 

Sure enough, the blonde girl shook her head quickly. “No–I mean yes, I mean sort of. Hang on–c’mere.” Pivoting, she grabbed my hand and led me into the lab where Paige was lying comfortably (I hoped) on a padded table. There was a wheeled cart nearby with some electronic equipment stacked up on it. Wren picked up what looked like the drum and tubing part of a stethoscope that led into what I swore was part of an ancient Atari video game system with an original Gameboy attached to it via a series of wires. Yeah, it was a whole confusing thing.

“This,” Wren told me while holding up the end of the stethoscope, “sends electronic messages and receives them at close range. It–okay it gets complicated. The short version is that you’re supposed to be able to put it on Paige close to where her CPU thing is, then it’ll send a message to her. Then she can send a message back. Or, you know, whatever tiny part of her is still conscious. They have to be simple messages, and slow. Like one or two words every fifteen minutes. It’s like talking to her in her dreams.” 

“I’m guessing the big emergency isn’t that it didn’t work?” I asked hesitantly, staring at the thing in her hand, then back to Paige. 

“No,” she confirmed quietly. “It worked. I sent a message asking, ‘Can you hear?’ and she sent back, umm, well it took awhile to get all of it, but…” 

Rather than finish, she simply picked up the Gameboy and turned it so I could see the screen. Written across it were eleven words in succession, one under the next, all in capital letters. 

HELP

DAD

VIRUS

SECOND

ME

COPY

TRYING

ERASE

REPLACE

KILL

HELP

PLEASE

Reading all that through, I took a second to process it before my eyes widened. “Her dad made a virus that’s like a copy and it’s trying to replace her. I–we don’t have any more time to try to come up with the perfect plan or find the perfect people to help. We don’t have time for any of that.

“We have to start saving Paige right now.”

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Building Connections 16-04 And Patreon Snippets 19B (Summus Proelium)

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So, after a very quick detour to grab the girl’s phone from where she had apparently dropped it, I helped her get away from that scene. She was freaking out about needing to go home before her mother found out what she was involved in, but waited at least long enough for me to give her my number to stay in contact. There was a moment after that where it looked like she was going to say something important. She looked at me and I saw uncertainty in her eyes, visible through the helmet. But in the end, she just shook her head and promised to text eventually. 

Then, with the sound of sirens still filling the air as more Emergency Services arrived, she took off running out of the alley we were in. For a moment, I stood there and watched her leave before shaking my head. What was I going to do when she did call? Should I point her toward the Minority?  What if she asked what I thought of them? What was I supposed to say to that? I didn’t even know this girl at all. I couldn’t just start telling her about the Ministry and all that shit. Even if she was a good person, which I didn’t really know at all (though risking her life to help those hostages was a really good indicator, to be fair), I still didn’t know how she might react to the actual truth. I had no idea how good she was at keeping a secret, especially not one that huge. Or if she would even want to. For all I knew, she would see the Ministry as a great thing and immediately side with them. I really had no idea what would happen if I told her the truth. 

Right, sigh. So, at the moment I had absolutely no idea what to do about the girl. Which was an ongoing theme. Hopefully, I would think of something useful and stop being so indecisive before she called. But for now, I needed to put it aside and focus on other things. Important things, like-

“So, who’s the chick with the sweet armor?” 

Taken completely by surprise when the voice behind me suddenly spoke up, I spun that way to see a different armored figure standing over by the nearby dumpster. Of course, I immediately recognized her. “Broadway?” I found myself blurting the La Casa Touched’s name. Suddenly, I couldn’t decide if this was a good thing or a bad thing. I wasn’t exactly as close with her as I was with Pack, and the lizard-controlling girl didn’t seem to be anywhere nearby. I didn’t know Broadway at all, though the fact that she had helped save me from Pencil was about a million points in her favor. So I wasn’t exactly on my guard. But I wasn’t relaxed either. 

She, in turn, actually giggled at my reaction, taking a moment before speaking again. A moment which gave me time to take her in a bit more fully. As always, Broadway wore dark-purple armor with white speaker system vents all over it. Her helmet was the same color purple, with three vertical speaker vents where the girl’s ears would be, angled forward. There was a wide V-shaped visor over the face part of the helmet, where a series of bright, multi-colored lines bounced back and forth in rhythm with the words whenever she actually spoke. 

“You know her name?” the girl asked, making those lines dance with her words. “Tell me she’s got a name–wait, no, if she doesn’t it’ll be cool to come up with a good La Casa name for her.” 

Squinting at her, I shook my head. “She’s not joining La Casa, or any other gang. She just helped stop your allies from holding hostages over there, you know.” I gestured back toward the shopping center with those words. “And hey, speaking of which, since I was just fighting them, shouldn’t you be like… swearing vengeance or starting some kind of brawl or whatever?” 

“Meh,” she replied with a dismissive wave of her hand, sounding fairly bored. “Whatever. I mean, Easy Eights and us, we’re basically allies in the sense that… Churchill and Stalin were allies? The slightly lesser asshole of the bigger asshole is my asshole. Or something like that.” 

“You know, Stalin killed an awful lot of people before he was done,” I pointed out flatly. 

“True,” the girl agreed, head tilting just a little as she looked at me. “The point is, I wouldn’t say we’re exactly friends. And personally, I definitely don’t care what you did to stop them from whatever the hell that was. I’m more in this whole thing for the fun, the rush, you know? Not taking hostages and hurting people.” 

For a moment, I just stared at her. “You really think your boss doesn’t hurt people just like these guys were? Cuz I’ve got news for you, he definitely takes hostages too. He steals from innocent people, and innocent people get hurt because of things he does. Just because he’s more–I dunno, classy and cool about it doesn’t make him some upstanding figure or anything.”  

“Yeah, that’s fair,” the girl easily agreed. “Never said we were great people or anything. But there’s like… levels of that shit. The people I work with try to avoid putting civilians in unnecessary danger, though scaring them’s a bit fun. We don’t go out of our way to kill and torture anybody, and most of the shit we take is insured stuff from businesses anyway. You don’t see me mugging old ladies on the street, do you? Hell no. You can call it petty justification or whatever, but the way I see it, capitalism is a fucking failure that just makes the rich get richer and stomps on the poor. Anything I can do to fuck with that system and have a little fun while I’m at it is fine with me.” She pointed to her own armored chest then. “I’m not a hero, never claimed to be anything of the sort. But I’ve got my own standards, and I stick with them. Blackjack, he’s got standards too. He keeps his word, he lets us refuse jobs that make us uncomfortable, he doesn’t intentionally go after innocent civilians or target people like that. And right now, he’s fighting a war to deal with people who tried to let his kid die. Gotta say, I’m totally onboard with that. You would be too, if you ever met the kid.”

“Of course I want the people who almost got Blackjack’s daughter killed to be brought to justice,” I pointed out. “Not just for that, but for everything else they’ve done too. But if your boss really wants them to pay, he could just work with…” Then I trailed off. He could work with who? The authorities? I knew the truth. The Ministry would only allow Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners to be brought to justice if it worked for their bottom line. They were allowing this war to happen, probably because doing so would keep Blackjack on their side. But that didn’t mean they’d just let the cops actually put them all away. I had a feeling that whatever came out of this war, my parents and their business would somehow end up in an even better position than before. 

Broadway, arms folded across her chest, had clearly noticed the way I trailed off. But she didn’t actually address it. Instead, the girl offered me a simple shrug. “It’s complicated. I chose my side and I stick with it. You, on the other hand, seem really confused about where you want to be. You won’t join the Minority or any of the other heroes, and you helped my boss get those vials. You’re even like… sort of friends with good ol’ Pack. But you won’t join us either. You’re right in the middle of this whole thing, you know? Whose side are you really on?” 

For a moment, I was silent. Then I let out a breath and looked back to her to reply firmly, “I’m on whatever side protects innocent people at the time. The rest of this, I don’t–I don’t know. Sometimes the Star-Touched are right, sometimes the Fell-Touched are. It’d help if–” Again, I stopped myself. Fuck. I couldn’t say ‘if the Ministry wasn’t a thing.’ Instead, I ended that with, “It’d help if it was actually simple. But it’s not.” 

Broadway pointed at me. “Hey, I’m pretty sure that’s the smartest thing I’ve heard you say. You’re right, it’s complicated. But just to be clear, I’m still a bad guy most of the time. And I’m okay with that. I steal some things, break other things, piss people off, and you know what? I have one hell of a fun time doing it. I think you could have a lot of fun too if you just let go a bit.” 

My eyes, hidden behind the helmet, narrowed. “Were you here trying to recruit me, or that new girl?” 

I could hear the grin in her voice. “Hey, whatever works. I wouldn’t mind getting a two-for-one deal.” She paused then, watching me for a moment before adding, “Does this mean you’re not giving me her number or name?” 

“I don’t have either,” I retorted honestly. “She’s brand–never mind. You know, we’re probably supposed to be fighting right now or something.” 

“You saying you wanna wrestle?” came her response with obvious amusement. “Sorry, buddy, I think I’m a little too old for you.” With that, she held out both hands to either side. “Actually, to be honest, I mostly came over to make sure you were okay. For Pack’s sake. She likes you. But not like that, don’t get any ideas. She’s more into That-A-Way, if you get my drift. Though that was less drifting and more plowing straight through the wall.” 

That-A-Way and Pack. They were–oh right. Blinking at that, I started to say something before catching myself. There was no reaction I could have that wouldn’t either just amuse her or give the girl way too much information. Instead, I just managed a slightly weak, “I’ll uhh, keep that in mind, thanks, I guess. But you’re still not gonna recruit that girl.” 

That earned me a thumbs up. “We’ll see, PB. It’ll be fun to find out where she ends up. And hey, glad to see those guys didn’t rough you up too bad. I’ll let Pack know you’re cool.” 

With that, she gave me a salute, then pointed up and over my head to the roof of the nearby building. The sound of a dog barking came from her armored gauntlet, as the girl vanished, teleporting along the soundwaves. 

Which left me standing there, belatedly realizing that one of the phones in my pocket had gone off a couple times already. Quickly, I took it out to check. It was the Touched phone, with messages from Wren wanting to know if everything was okay now since she’d been watching reports online about what was going on. There was an adorably rambling bit about how she didn’t want to send any message while I was busy fighting bad guys but now the news said the fight was over but wasn’t saying anything about me so was I really okay and what happened, etc. It was a pretty long run-on sentence which ended with, ‘PLZ CALL PLZ’ and then a series of hugging bear emojis. So yeah, pretty freaking adorable. 

Of course, how could I make her keep worrying? I had to let her and the others know I was okay. But first, I used red paint to pull myself up to the roof of another building (different from the one Broadway had used), looking around to make sure I was alone. Only once I was satisfied did I hit the button on the phone to connect with Wren’s, using the bluetooth in my ear rather than the actual phone itself for the conversation. 

“Paintball?!” came the blurted word after the phone had gone for like… half a ring. 

“Hey, kid,” I quickly confirmed. “Everything’s fine. I’m on my way. How’re my new friends doing?” 

There was a very brief pause at that before the girl’s voice returned, sounding just a little scolding. “They were really surprised when we met them.” 

Snorting despite myself at the thought of those two finding out just who their boss was, I admitted, “Yeah, I’m sorry I missed it. Anyway, things are good here. I’ll be at the store in just a few minutes. Everything okay besides that little surprise?” 

She confirmed that things were chill there, and I disconnected before heading off. Time to pick up the pace a bit. I still had about an hour before I needed to head home for family dinner, but still, I definitely wanted to at least say more than two words to the people who were supposed to be helping Wren. Especially now that they knew just who they were going to be working for. 

Again, I was really sad that I’d missed that reaction. 

In any case, I managed to make it back to Wren’s shop in record time, even with taking a short loop to make sure no one was following me. Then I moved to the back door and hit the buzzer to be let in. The moment I did, Wren was right there, wanting to know everything that had happened. Behind her, I saw Murphy and Roald watching the whole thing from next to one of the shelves full of random junk in the middle of the main pawnshop floor. It looked like they had already been set to work organizing things. Which was almost unfair, given how chaotic the whole shop was. It was definitely a job that would take awhile. 

So, for all three of their benefits (as well as Fred’s, as the man came downstairs just after the start), I explained everything that had happened, including meeting the new girl. It was during that part that Murphy finally piped up. “So that girl just got her powers because those fucks attacked the place she was shopping at?” 

Pausing, I shrugged. “That’s what it seems like, yeah. She definitely wasn’t used to them, that’s for sure. She didn’t have a name or anything. But she’s got my number, so hopefully she’ll call back.” 

“You gonna tell her to go to the Minority?” That was Roald, his voice sounding curious. Belatedly, I realized he was also curious about why I myself hadn’t gone there. Apparently everybody wanted to know that these days. Either way, it was a fairly clever way of getting around outright asking the obvious question, and I gave the boy a brief, appraising look. 

Before I could respond, however, Wren piped up. “You should tell her to join our team! We don’t need no Minority! She can be with us.” Giving me a dual thumbs-up, the girl added, “Besides, you said she was afraid of her mom finding out about it, right? If she goes to the Minority, they have to tell her parents. If she comes here, we don’t. Plus, we get another person on our team. See? Perfect plan.” 

“We have a team now?” I asked, watching the girl. 

“Well, it’s either a team or a gang,” Wren pointed out. “Team sounds better. I mean, you already have minions!” She flailed both hands randomly back toward the other two. 

“Oh my God, they’re not minions!” I insisted with a groan. 

Wren, of course, chose that moment to pivot back that way and demanded, “Guys, what are you?” 

That, of course, made Murphy and Roald look at each other. There was a moment of mostly-silent conversation with a few muttered words before both turned back and nodded, the girl speaking. “Yeah, we’re minions.” 

“Cool with that,” Roald confirmed. “Long as you don’t make us wear blue overalls and speak gibberish.” 

“And become weirdly associated with incredibly stupid antivax mothers on the internet,” Murphy added. 

“I’ll uhh, do my best not to let that happen,” I managed with a soft cough, shaking my head. “But seriously, you guys are just–I mean… I’m not gonna–look, you’re here to help and I appreciate that. Seriously. You’ll get paid just to work here in the store, not to go out and get in trouble.” 

“Whatever,” Murphy replied. “You want help, we can help. Better than stealing shit and going hungry. Or ending up in jail. Or dead.” 

“She means there’s a lot worse options than playing minio–assistants to a superhero,” Roald added. “We get paid here, we get to work without involving drugs or hurting people, it’s…” He paused, seeming to search for the right words before settling on, “It’s cool.” 

“Really cool,” Murphy put in. “If you need more than just some clean-up and shelf stocking, you let us know. Seriously, we don’t have like–you know, powers or anything, but we can do other things. Whatever you need. We–uhh…” She kicked the floor, suddenly looking self-conscious. “We wanna help.” 

“Okay, but… I’m still not gonna put you guys in any more danger than I have to,” I insisted. “I’m glad you’re here and willing to do stuff, but just… just focus on helping Wren.” 

We talked a little more, I promised to let them know if I needed more help and about what happened with the newly-Touched girl. Then it was about time to head home for dinner. But first, I went upstairs to see the still comatose Paige. 

Standing by the motionless figure, I hesitated, putting my hand in hers and squeezing it. “Sorry this is taking so long,” I murmured, unsure if she had any idea I was even there, let alone speaking. “But I swear, we’ll find the right person. I’ll find whatever we need to fix you and wake you up. Just hold on a bit longer, okay?” Then I snorted. “What do I mean, hold on? You’re just taking a little nap, right? You probably won’t even know any time has passed by the time we turn yo–by the time we wake you up.” 

Still, standing there, staring at the girl, I couldn’t help but feel like I was failing. She was counting on me and I was failing. It felt like there was a time limit, like… like there was some bomb counting down and if it hit zero, everything would… what, explode? 

I didn’t know. But one thing was for certain. We needed to help Paige and wake her up as soon as possible. Maybe then the awful feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach whenever I looked at her lying unconscious like that would go away. At the very least, it would be nice to scratch one damn thing off my to-do list. 

And hey, at least my whole encounter with the new girl and that conversation with Broadway were two more examples of how I was gradually building connections in this city. 

Wait a second.

Hold up. 

I was building connections… I had built more connections… made… connections.

That was it. I had an idea. 

I knew how we were going to break into that base under the mall.

Patreon Snippets 19B – Lightning Bug

“C’mon, c’mon guys, we gotta go to bed in a hour! That’s like–that’s a, that’s less than a movie. That’s like half a Frozen. They didna even make it to the ice castle in half a Frozen!”

The blurted, rushed words in the doorway of the brightly lit room heralded the arrival of what was quite possibly one of the strangest-looking Conga lines in anyone’s memory. At the head, and the one speaking, was the small, red-skinned five-year-old girl with long white hair, too-large compound blue eyes, and insect-like wings. Her arms were outstretched to hold onto a truly massive (relative to her size) bowl full of popcorn. The bowl was decorated with images of fairies flying through some trees, surrounded by various insects. It was known as the Bug Bowl, the closest thing they had to something that showed the girl and her friends, with the fairies standing in as images of Lightning Bug herself. Despite its size, the girl ate all of her snacks and treats out of it, along with some of her meals, even when they only filled a very small portion of the actual bowl. While her arms were full of the bowl, in one hand she also carried her ‘Bug Cup’, a bright blue sippy cup with a lid shaped like a ladybug. 

Behind the bowl and cup-bearing girl came the rest of their strange Conga line in the form of the five-and-a-half foot tall praying mantis named Simminin (Or Cinnamon), the three-foot-tall emerald-green beetle named Snugglebug, and then much smaller (but still relatively enormous) cat-sized and metallic purple-colored Orchid bee named Kenobee bringing up the rear.

The room they entered together was the entertainment room of the penthouse apartment where Bug and her mommy lived with Aunt Hana. The room had a massive flatscreen television that was hung up in the middle of the wall, surrounded by a big couch and several chairs. There were even several video game systems set up on the nearby shelf. But Bug and her companions ignored all of that, instead moving to the other corner of the room, where several fluffy cushions and a couple beanbag chairs lay haphazardly around a second television that was set close to the floor. A plastic table nearby held various half-finished crayon drawings, a few toys, and a computer pad covered by a shock-proof plastic shield with large, colorful designs. 

Plopping herself down on one of the bean bags while her trio of insect friends spread out to perch themselves around her on various cushions, Lightning Bug carefully settled the bowl in her lap and put the cup on the nearby table. Then she picked up the computer pad and tapped it a few times. As she did so, the screen of the nearby television popped on to display the YouTube homepage. From there, Bug typed in her search request very carefully, tongue poking out the side of her mouth as she painstakingly typed the right letters while sounding them out. Partway through, she turned a bit in her seat and called loudly toward the doorway. “Mommy, what’s the letter for T?! Tuh Tee Tuh Tee.” She giggled then, happily repeating the sounds to herself to the point that she nearly forgot what it was she was actually asking. 

A moment later, her mother appeared in the doorway. Out of her public-people costume, Bug’s mother was an Asian-American woman of mixed descent, with short, close-cropped black hair and a faint, barely visible scar across one side of her face, from her cheek, over her right eye, and up to her forehead. She held her phone in one hand, telling whoever was on the other end to hold a moment. “T, Buggy? Hold up the pointing finger.” As her daughter did so, holding up an index finger, she added, “Now put the other pointing finger on top.” A fond chuckle escaped the woman as the young girl put the tip of her other finger against the tip of the first, so they were pointing to each other. “Good try, other way, see? Sideways. There you go!” She smiled when the girl got it right. “Like that. You see it? The T looks like–yup, good job!” 

While her mother went back to the call, Bug finished typing in her search request, then scrolled her finger along the screen of the pad while watching the television until she found the video she wanted. It took a couple tries, but eventually she got it. “Oh, oh, this is a good one! It’s really funny.” With that promise to her trio of insect friends (all of whom were watching the screen with far more understanding and intelligence than should have been possible), she started to hit play, only to be stopped as Simminin bumped one claw gently against her arm, somehow managing to look beseechingly at her.

“Oh! Sorry, guys.” Quickly, the young girl reached into the big bowl in her lap. She began producing several smaller bowls that had been stacked up inside it. The first, which she set it down in front of Simminin herself, was full of small dead crickets. The second, placed in front of the cushion where Snugglebug had draped himself, had seeds, bits of leaves, pieces of dry fruit, and some honey mixed in. Finally, the bowl she put in front of Kenobee’s perched form held a sugar-nectar mix, which the bee immediately stuck his face up against to start slurping from. 

Now all her friends had their respective treats, Bug took a handful of popcorn out of the bowl for herself, then hit play on the computer pad while shoveling the snack into her own mouth. 

Immediately, a video about Paintball started up. She’d seen it before, of course, but this one was one of her absolute favorites. It was a combination of scenes from people’s phones and the news all about Mr. Ball jumping and flying through the air, and making bad guys look dumb. The music in the video came from one of the Super Mario Brothers games, and whoever made it put in the Mario jumping sound effect whenever Paintball bounced around, along with various ‘jump on an enemy’ sounds when bad guys were hit. It was funny every time, and Bug was quickly doubled over in the seat, laughing so much her mother poked her head in once or twice to make sure she was okay. 

For most of the hour she had before her bedtime, Lightning Bug watched more videos, alternately bouncing in her beanbag chair and hovering above it with her rapidly beating wings. The videos weren’t all about Paintball. Some of them were about Aunt Hana or Mommy. Or other people. But the Paintball ones were her favorites. There was just something about the colorful, bouncy Star-Touched that made for fun videos. Some of the videos were mean, like with the dumb guys who said Paintball should stop being selfish and join a team. She turned those ones off really quick. 

In the midst of watching another of the fun ones, Bug pointed. “Look!” she blurted, as though her insect trio’s eyes weren’t already firmly fixated on the screen, “it’s Mr. Lucent!” 

Sure enough, on that particular video, someone had captured the image of  Lucent the Touched-Raven perched on a lamppost as he watched Paintball jumping through the air in the distance. The video, taken from the high-up balcony of a hotel room, went on to show Lucent follow Paintball for a short distance, before diving away into an alley. From there, the video switched to showing various scenes of Paintball and Lucent each fighting criminals at different times (none of them together, but the video made it look like they were), while a song about fathers and sons played. 

Eventually, Bug’s time with the videos ended as her mother called that it was time for her bath. Finishing the last of the juice from her cup, the girl hit the button on the pad to turn off the TV before pushing herself up. “C’mon, you can help Mommy!” she announced while starting to leave. 

It was fun watching videos about Paintball. Bug really hoped she would visit again soon and make more pretty designs for her friends. 

He. She hoped he would visit again soon, Lightning Bug told herself sternly. He, he, he. She had to make herself think of Paintball as a he. 

After all, she wasn’t supposed to give away people’s secrets.

A/N: Do YOU have an idea of what Peyton’s Touched name should be? Just like when Cassidy got her name, I’m leaving it up to you guys to decide what it should be. Submit your suggestions either in the comments of this chapter OR via e-mail to ceruleanscrawling(at)gmail.com and a future chapter will list as many possibilities as I can out of what is given. After that chapter, I’ll list the possibilities again and everyone will be allowed to vote on them.

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Trust 15-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Once we were dropped off at the library, Izzy and I actually did go inside together. Partly so the driver would see it, and partly so we could keep talking (quietly of course) about what we were going to do. We wanted to make sure both of us were on the same page about what we supposedly did here, just in case my parents happened to ask about it later for any reason. 

The library was big enough that it was easy to get lost in, easy to avoid people and hide in a corner to quietly work. And by this point, both of us were pretty sure that Cuélebre’s people weren’t looking for her anymore, if they ever were. 

Yeah, given what I now knew about that situation, I was pretty sure my parents had put the full kibosh on that whole forced-recruiting thing. Oscuro was definitely one of the gangs they had a lot of control over, and with Izzy actually living with us… yeah, she was safe. Cuélebre’s group wasn’t going to violate my parents’ wishes just to try to grab her again. Particularly not in the public library. Hell, I doubted anyone from their side could pick her out of a crowd by now. Or at least, they wouldn’t be willing to admit they could if my parents ever asked. That was enough. 

So, with Izzy’s promise that she would sit in a private area, do her studying, and let me know if anything happened, I eventually left her there. Heading out one of the side doors of the library, I kept my eyes open, looking around for anyone my parents might’ve left to keep an eye on the place. But it looked pretty clear. They were probably about as confident as I was that Oscuro had backed off. If not more so. Honestly, I was pretty sure they’d been keeping up appearances for Izzy’s sake, given how odd it would have looked if they weren’t being super-careful with her. 

But things were clear now. So, I found an out-of-the-way roof to change into my costume, stowed my regular clothes in a bag out of sight, and took a running leap off the roof to head for Wren’s. With any luck, we’d be able to come up with something to help Paige. 

Actually, that was a good point. My parents hadn’t brought up anything about Paige. They hadn’t said a word about any possible disappearance, and I hadn’t seen word online. No one on social media was going on about it, or anything about her pare–her adopted parents. It was like nothing happened. Nothing involving Paige anyway. There was some about the warehouse that exploded, but not even much of that. Just that the authorities were looking into it and that there appeared to have been no one alive in the warehouse when it went up, which was… weird, given all the bodies Paige and I had left behind. 

And boy was that ever a disconcerting sentence to think. 

On the way to Wren’s, I thought about what had happened the night before. The Izzy part, specifically. God, she knew everything. I’d told her all of it. Well, pretty much. The major points. It would’ve taken a lot longer than we’d had for me to tell her absolutely everything that had happened since the night I’d stowed away in the back of that car. But the secrets, all the stuff I’d been keeping locked up tight inside my own brain for so long, she knew it. She knew who I was, what I was doing, what my parents were, all of it. She knew the truth. 

I felt… good. Okay, not fantastic. There was still so much I had to worry about. Still so many problems that I had no idea how to solve. Particularly Paige, right now. I didn’t know how we were going to fix her, who we could even talk to who might be able to fix what was wrong with her, let alone anyone we’d actually trust with that kind of access and secret. 

So yeah, I still had plenty of issues weighing on my brain. But the fact that I had finally actually talked about all of this stuff with someone helped. Seriously, it helped so much. Saying the words out loud, getting them out in the open, talking through how it all made me feel with Izzy? I felt better than I had in a long time, even with the whole Paige situation. It felt like I wasn’t alone anymore, like I had someone I could trust and… and rely on, even just a little bit. It was seriously amazing how much that helped. I really had slept better last night, despite everything going on with Paige and that entire mess, than I had in a very long time. 

Shaken out of those kind of musings as the phone buzzed in my pocket, I waited until I found a spot on another roof before taking it out. Glancing around to make sure I was clear and not about to be jumped or anything, I checked the ID. It was That-A-Way. 

“Hey, Way,” I answered immediately, stowing the phone and talking through the bluetooth as I took off running across the roof once more. “What’s going on?” 

There was a brief pause before the other girl answered. “You tell me.” She sounded tired, like she hadn’t gotten much sleep. “What happened? With Paige, I mean. Did you find out–did your Tech friend get anywhere with her? With–do we have any ideas?” 

Wincing at the sound of how stressed That-A-Way was, I quickly replied, “She can’t get through the body. I mean, we don’t even know if she could do anything with the orb part, but even if she could, she’s terrified of trying to even get to it. We need to find someone who can help with that, and I don’t even know where to start.” With a sigh, I added, “She said she could probably make a scanner or something that can find the orb. After that, we just need to get to it without… you know, doing too much damage. To it or to the body. I have no idea how we’re gonna do that, or even where to start with finding someone capable of it, let alone trustworthy.” 

Again, there was a moment of silence. Well, almost silence. I could hear the girl breathing, clearly lost in thought. Finally, she sighed audibly. “I’ll–I won’t ask around. I’ll quietly poke and see if anything comes up. Don’t worry, I’ll be careful. I’m not gonna…” She trailed off before simply finishing with a quiet, “I’m not gonna fuck up, promise. Just start with figuring out where the orb is and if she can get anything else. Images of it, how it’s doing, how much it’s connected to her, anything.” 

I nodded, then realized belatedly how useless that was. Flushing a bit under my helmet and mask, I spoke up quickly. “Right, yeah. Don’t draw any attention to the–hey wait a minute. Do you know why they’re saying there weren’t any bodies found at that place? I mean, we know they weren’t real people, but there were an awful lot of the things left there, and I didn’t see anything about that. They keep saying the place was empty except for equipment. Which… technically, but.” 

That time, I was pretty sure I heard That-A-Way mumble a curse before she replied in a dark voice. “I don’t know. I know I saw bodies there, but when I got back, they said there weren’t any. When I asked, they said it was the fire and the smoke playing tricks on me, that they went through the whole place and found nothing like that. No bodies, no remains, nothing.” 

Landing on the ledge attached to a billboard, I frowned. “So they knew. I mean, someone important figured out those weren’t normal bodies, and covered it up. But that would take a lot. They had to move any remains, make sure no one who wasn’t involved didn’t see it or shut them up, make sure no one got any pictures and the media didn’t find out…” My parents. That whole thing had to be my parents. The Ministry. Somehow, they’d pulled that off. The fact that they could do something like that at the drop of a hat just… yeah. Suddenly, I didn’t feel quite as rested as I had before answering the phone. And I also had a slightly better understanding of why That-A-Way sounded the way she did. God, the realization that they had that kind of power, knowing the amount she did about the Ministry? No wonder she was stressed. 

“Yeah,” came her quiet response, almost as though she could read my mind, “Someone important knew, and managed all that. So I’m pretty sure they’ll be interested in our little friend if they ever find out about her. You sure you trust the place you’ve got her now?” 

“Absolutely,” I replied immediately, before amending, “I mean, it’s the best place we’ve got. And I trust Trevithick. She’s not going to tell anybody. But do you have any idea if anyone has any way of linking Paige to that warehouse? No one’s said anything about her disappearing yet. Or her ‘parents.’ At least, it’s not online. And I’m pretty sure they kept their names off any ownership papers, so–”

“I don’t think they’ve connected her to it, or realized that she’s missing,” Way put in. “I went by her place, since we were supposed to–” She coughed. “Since my patrol went that way. But I didn’t see anything. It was all locked up. The gates were closed, no guards at the entrance, no response to the intercom.” 

“Did you check the place out any closer?” I hesitantly asked, curious as to how far the other girl had gone. 

“I didn’t have any legal reason to,” she pointedly informed me. “There was no sign of anything wrong other than the lack of guards, no one called for help, I didn’t have a warrant or any sign of immediate criminal activity or danger.” 

She held that for a few silent seconds before exhaling in a long sigh. “I took a quick peek. The place is shut down. There’s no one there. No bodies, no guards, no servants, no Banners family, nothing. It’s like everyone just got up and left last night after the–after everything that happened. They’re gone.” 

There was something about what she had been saying that tickled my brain, but I couldn’t work out what it was. Instead of dwelling too much, I replied, “Could be the Ministry, or could be Paige’s father’s people, if he still has any. Could be a lot of things.” Pausing briefly, I added, “Thanks for checking it out anyway, even if it wasn’t exactly by the book.” 

After a moment of silence, Way responded with, “Yeah, well, it didn’t really accomplish much, did it? We still don’t know anything about how or why they disappeared. And we still don’t know what to do about Paige. I don’t have some special doctor I can pull out who could do surgery to get to the orb, and I definitely don’t have any I’d trust completely with that. Not to mention, just getting to the orb is the easy part. Can Trevithick fix what happened to it? I mean, I don’t know a lot about Tech-Touched stuff, but I’m pretty sure it’s hard for someone who didn’t make something to beat out the person who actually made it. Paige’s dad designed that thing. It’s his power. So how do we find someone who can change what he did?” 

My mouth opened, then I paused, frowning thoughtfully as I took another couple jumps, getting close to the shop. “Maybe we don’t need a Tech-Touched. I mean, not for the reprogramming part. If Trevithick can just keep the orb running while…”

“While what?” Way put in. 

“Sorry,” I quickly apologized. “I just–I need to think about it. I’ve got a few thoughts, I just need time to figure out if they’ll work or not. I’ll let you know what’s going on as soon as I figure it out, promise.” 

“Paintball,” Way started before seeming to catch herself. She sighed then, insisting, “Yeah, let me know. I’ll look around, like I said. See if anyone pops out who could pull something like this off and then be quiet about it.” She sounded understandably doubtful about that possibility. “And be careful. I don’t think they know about Paige right now, but if they figure it out…” 

“Yeah, it’d be bad.” Grimacing, I stopped at the edge of the last roof, across from Wren’s place. “I’ll be careful, believe me. You too. Don’t get caught. Don’t–” 

Way interrupted. “Don’t give anything away, I won’t. But listen, I went for this run earlier and saw–I mean, do you know anything about this guy…” She trailed off then. 

“This guy?” I echoed. “What–” 

Once again, she cut me off. “Nothing, never mind. I’ll figure it out myself. Just gotta look into someone, but I can do that. You’ve got enough to deal with. Talk to you later, Paintball.” 

She disconnected, and I hesitated, wondering if there was anything better I could’ve said. But no. I was doing the best I could. We all were. That-A-Way was going through a lot. Seriously, I’d just told her that the girl I’d said could have information we needed about the Ministry was actually a–like a cyborg sort of. After that, and the whole warehouse thing, and figuring out that the Ministry could cover something like that up with no advance warning? No wonder she was obviously stressed. 

Shaking that off, I made my way down to the entrance into the shop, glanced around to make sure it was clear, then went inside. Or rather, tried to. The door was locked. 

“Um.” Blinking, I raised my hand to knock, only for the door to open seemingly on its own. For a second, a rush of fear and paranoid thoughts filled my head. What was going on? Slowly, I took a step inside, scanning the room intently. The place was mostly dark, the lights dimmed to the lowest setting. It didn’t look like anyone was in the actual store part. A thick knot of worry formed in my throat. If something was wrong, if something bad had happened because I–

“Sorry!” That was Wren, popping out of the elevator on the far side of the room and zooming over to me, using her flightpack thing to glide a few feet off the floor. “Security, we’re not letting anyone in right now. I mean, except you. And Pack. And–I mean no customers. Come on!” She grabbed my hand, pulling me the rest of the way inside just before the door shut once more behind us. I heard several clicks as various locks engaged. 

“Wren, is everything okay?” I asked, after giving a quick glance around. Things seemed just the way I’d left them aside from the lights being dimmed. 

“Huh? Oh, yeah, it’s fine!” Wren shrugged, hovering there at eye level with me thanks to the dragonfly-like wings from that harness she wore. “Uncle Fred and me just thought having customers right now might be a bad idea, cuz I’ve gotta focus. And cuz bad guys might sneak in. So we’re closed for now.” Belatedly, she amended, “I mean, we never really opened after the thing with bad guys coming in before, but we still had a few people come in. Now it’s all locked.” 

Her words made me wince. “Sorry. You’re just trying to get the shop on its feet again and I make you close the whole place down.” 

Wren’s eyes rolled. “You didn’t make us do anything, Paintball. You asked for help. That’s the right thing to do.” Her hand poked me in the middle of the visor on my helmet before she turned in the air. “Besides, I like figuring things out, and this is a big thing to figure out! Come on!” 

She flew ahead of me, while I followed at a trot. At least Wren seemed to be less overwhelmed than she had last night. Apparently the intervening hours had taken her from terrified of the very concept of being responsible for fixing Paige, to excited about solving the problem. 

Making it upstairs to where the girl’s real workshop was, I looked around. There. Paige was lying on a couch. It looked like she was sleeping, even though I knew better. 

“She hasn’t changed at all.” That was Fred, speaking up as he approached, pushing a wheeled cart laden with tools. “No movement, no sound, nothing. She just lays there. Body’s still working. She’s got a heartbeat, pulse, she’s breathing, all that. But there’s no active response. I can’t even tell if she can hear what we’re saying or not.”

Swallowing, I stepped that way, putting a hand on Paige’s face for a moment. God, my feelings about this whole thing were so confusing. I was angry, sad, confused, worried… fuck. It was too much. 

Finally, I shoved all that down and turned back to the other two, yet again glad that they couldn’t see my expression. “Any ideas? You seem… better about it, Wren.” 

“I still can’t do anything about the body,” she insisted firmly. “I’m not a doctor and I’ll break it. Errr, kill it–her. I don’t–I can’t–” A hint of that previous worry crept into her voice before she shook it off and pressed on. “But I’m making that scanner I told you about, the one that can find the orb so we know where it is, exactly. If we can find it, I think I can make something to umm… stabilize it? I can’t fix it, that’s programming stuff. But I can make sure it doesn’t go boom or anything else that creep might’ve put in it.” 

Smiling a bit behind the helmet, I nodded. “Thanks, Wren. For everything. I just–I guess we need two things. Two people. Someone who can open up the body to get to that orb once you find it, and someone who can do the programming part.” 

I had one idea about the latter. Eits. His Mites could probably get in there and help with the virus or whatever it was that Paige’s father had installed. But… but could I trust him that far? Could I risk involving him like that? Pack had already said he was very loyal to La Casa. 

And more importantly, even if I did stretch the trust far enough to involve Eits, who the hell could we trust to do the biological part? 

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Project Owl 14-09 (Summus Proelium)

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I was going to have to tell Pack something. Some of the truth, that was. She’d earned it. More than earned it. She and That-A-Way both had been there for me time after time. They knew about the Ministry and were still helping me. I owed them more than I was giving them. And at the very least, I owed them some explanation about what had happened tonight. 

But I also owed Paige. She trusted me. Trusted me to keep her safe and to find a way to fix her so she could wake up again. Wren was my best… my only idea of who might be able to deal with what had happened to her, but even that seemed like a long shot. Wren didn’t deal with… with whatever Paige was. What was I supposed to do? Who was I supposed to talk to? 

“Paintball? Earth to Paintball.” Pack’s voice interrupted my panicked and confused musings. “I said, what the fuck is going on? Who is this girl? Why’s she unconscious? What was she–” 

“Paige,” I interrupted, forcing myself to focus. “Paige Banners. And as to what’s going on, I… I can explain it, sort of. But wait until Way gets here. She deserves to hear it too, after what she…” I swallowed. “She saved my life. Our lives.” My hand gestured to the motionless blonde. “Once she gets here, after she’s done covering for us, I’ll explain everything that I can.” Everything I could, as opposed to everything. Because even now, I had to keep things to myself. 

Pack didn’t seem happy about waiting, but she didn’t push the issue too much. All she did was look past me to Paige for a moment before asking, “Doesn’t she need a doctor right now?”

“She needs a lot of things,” I murmured under my breath with a glance over my shoulder. Then my head shook. “But I don’t think any doctor can help. Trust me, it’s a long story, but there’s nothing we can do for her right this second. I… I don’t think she’ll get any worse, anyway.” 

“Any worse than… that.” Pack pointedly stared at the completely motionless girl who looked like she was sleeping. “Right. Look, I-I’m sorry I didn’t show up sooner.” There was guilt in her voice. “I was–fuck. I was busy with other things. Kind of in the middle of something and couldn’t get away. Couldn’t even check my phone. By the time things were clear enough for me to have some breathing room, you were already… shit. Just, I’m sorry I didn’t get there sooner.” 

“It’s not your fault,” I insisted, turning back to look at her. “I know you’ve got your own things. I’m just glad Way showed up when she did. I don’t… I don’t think we would’ve made it out if she wasn’t there.” 

“Yeah, she’s got some good timing,” the other girl agreed before glancing away. I couldn’t see her face through that full black mask that covered even her eyes and mouth, but I was pretty sure she wasn’t thinking about me or this situation just then.  

Her silence gave me a chance to look at Paige again. God damn it, what was I going to do? I’d promised I would find someone who could help her. Again, Wren seemed the best choice, yet even she probably wouldn’t know what she was doing with something this advanced. She didn’t work with… with cyborgs or… fuck, what was the right term? Biolem? Was Paige still a biolem like the others we’d faced, even though she was so much more advanced? 

“New look?” Pack finally asked after that moment of silence, nodding to my makeshift costume. “Going for something even cheaper-looking? Blackjack was already thinking of bribing you with a nice, cool new suit with all sorts of bells and whistles, you know. Go around like that and he may just give it to you out of pity.” 

Coughing, I gestured helplessly. “I didn’t have time to get back to my real costume. I had to make do with what I could scavenge real quick. And I don’t need a handout from Blackjack.” 

“Yeah, I told him you’ve got Trevithick to handle any costume upgrades,” she informed me with a very light chuckle. She had Tuesday on one shoulder and was lightly scratching him with her other hand. “I’m not sure that actually dissuaded him that much. He likes you, Paintball. I mean, that’s the impression I get anyway. Pretty sure he’d accept you in a heartbeat if you decided to switch sides.” 

“Does he like me?” I shot back. “Or did the Ministry tell him to put out feelers to find out if I could be pulled to that side? How much of what he does is him and how much is what he’s told to do? I already know he’s really connected to them. How much, I’m not sure. But still.” 

Yeah, I was probably still a little amped up after everything that had happened. Being ‘killed,’ however temporarily, waking up to find that video from Paige explaining all that and then saying she was going to kill herself. Racing across the city, fighting through the building, finding Paige, getting a few answers about what the hell she was and what her father was up to, fighting to keep her safe, fleeing with her through the building, and finally almost being blown up before That-A-Way saved us at basically the last second? 

It had been a bit of a day, to say the least.

Before too long, my phone buzzed. It was a message from That-A-Way, wanting to know where we were. So I gave her directions, and she showed up a few minutes later, skidding to a stop after super-speeding her way up to the parking lot. “Paintball, there’s bodies in that building!” she snapped abruptly. “What the hell was–” 

“They’re not real,” I quickly informed her. “I mean, they’re not–um, they’re not real people.” 

Yeah, Pack and Way exchanged obvious looks at that before turning back to me. Pack found her voice first. “Not real people? Come on, Paintball, I think you better explain now.” 

They were right. I needed to explain some of it, as much as I could. There was no way I was going to be able to help Paige without help. Besides, they’d more than earned an explanation. So, I carefully started to tell them what happened, starting with a… well, not quite a lie, but a very deliberately presented version of the truth. I told them that Paige had left me a message telling me that she was probably going to die because she was going after her father, who was the real threat. I told them about tracking her down, finding her in that building, and the whole biolem thing. I explained the part about her dad being a Tech-Touched and his plan, or what I understood of it. And about how Paige herself was apparently an incredibly advanced prototype version, who had to obey her father’s specific commands until she managed to turn on him. 

“But what does this have to do with–” Whatever Way had been about to say, she cut herself off, shaking her head. “I mean… are you sure she’s a umm…” Hesitating, the girl stepped over to where Paige’s motionless form was. “Are you sure she’s a r-robot? Or whatever she is.” It sounded like she was freaking out a bit. Which was pretty much completely fair. I was still freaking out too. 

“That’s what she said,” I murmured, “and I believe her at this point. After everything I saw in there… yeah. Paige Banners is–well, not a robot. She’s a biolem. Somewhere inside she’s got one of those little orb things with all her memories, personality, and everything else.” 

Way muttered a curse under her breath, staring in what looked like dull shock at the figure in the van. “Oh my God. But if she… if she was… and if…” Finally, the girl seemed to shake that off, focusing a bit to ask, “What’s wrong with her? Why isn’t she waking up?”

Exhaling, I explained what Paige had said, that her father’s last-second countermeasures had forced her to shut herself down and that I needed to find a tech genius who could actually help fix her. 

“A tech genius like Trevithick?” Pack put in before reconsidering. “Except this might be over the kid’s head.” 

That-A-Way gave a brief glance her way at that. I could tell she had a laundry list of her own questions, but saved them aside from one. “Can she do something about this?” 

“I don’t know. I hope so.” Sighing, I gestured to both of them. “I thought Paige Banners was some kind of threat, but she was just a victim. We have to help her, have to find someone who can fix whatever her father did. We’ll start with Trevithick, at least see what she can figure out. If she can’t do anything, I… I’ll go from there.”

“This is a lot, Paintball,” Way muttered at me while still staring at the (essentially) unconscious Paige. “Seriously, are you sure about all this? Because I don’t–I mean…” She gestured helplessly, clearly fighting for the right words before being reduced to repeating, “It’s a lot.”

“Believe me, I know.” Grimacing with that reply, I hesitated before adding, “If we can help this girl and wake her up, we can get more answers. She said that all the biolems her father had would be drawn to that building, but she could’ve been wrong. So we have to be careful. Between that and the way the Ministry is gonna look into the whole thing, especially once they find the remains of the equipment in there and realize the bodies aren’t normal people…” 

Pack spoke up then. “Right, getting this chick restarted is a pretty big priority. You said she knows a bunch of stuff about this Ministry thing anyway, so add another tally into reasons to wake her up. But can I just point out, if she’s a robot–err, okay, not a robot. If her brain and personality is all… tied into a computer, one that her father built, what’re the odds of him just being able to control her and make the girl into a killing machine with just a few words? One pointed at us. I mean, don’t programmers usually leave in backdoors and stuff like that?” 

“I know what you mean,” I confirmed quietly, heaving a sigh. “Believe me, I know. But Paige already turned against her father once. She–” I was about to say that she had rules-lawyered her way around leaving me dead, but caught myself. “She went after his entire organization here. Look what she did to the plant where he was manufacturing all these things. She’s not on his side and she’s already figured out ways to sabotage him. Now we have to help her. We find someone who can get into her programming and remove her father’s control so we can wake her up. I don’t know if that’ll be Trevithick or not, but someone. Not just because she can help with the Ministry, but because we owe it to her. I owe it to her.” 

Despite saying all that, I still realized that my feelings for Paige were complicated. I felt resentment, even anger about the past few years. Some bitter part of me wanted to know why she hadn’t found a way to violate her orders at least enough not to hit me in quite such an emotionally damaging place. If she was my friend, she should’ve known that making fun of my… of how I looked was one of the worst things she could’ve done, shouldn’t she? Had her father’s orders really made her hit me that personally when the entire point had simply been to establish conflict to make her eventually snapping and killing me believable? Did she really need to say the things she’d said? 

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t logical. But I still wasn’t sure how I felt about Paige, even after all these revelations. However, I did know that I owed her, and that if I was ever going to work my way through those feelings, it was going to have to be with Paige herself to get answers from. Besides, if I voiced any of my doubts about Paige’s personality, it would just lead to questions I couldn’t answer without revealing a lot more about myself. Too much about myself. 

“Right, so we take her to Trevithick,” Pack announced. “And try to figure out who else might help. You know what the obvious problem with that is, right?” 

I nodded. “Yeah, basically every Tech-Touched in the area reports to Braintrust, who report to the Ministry. So we’re kind of screwed that way. There has to be someone else, someone… I don’t know. I can’t think.” I sighed again, shaking my head. “It’s… been a long day.” 

“Tell me about it.” That-A-Way’s voice sounded almost as tired as I felt. “I have to get back to give reports before someone notices how long I’ve been gone. But I want to be kept in the loop about what’s going on with this, you two.” 

We both agreed to that, and she took off. Which left Pack and me looking at each other. “To Wren’s?” I offered. 

“To Wren’s,” she agreed, gesturing. “Let’s go. I’ll drive, since you look too wiped to get there your usual way.” 

“Yeah, I might leap into the side of a building,” I muttered before moving to climb in the van. “Let’s go see how much Wren can do with this.” 

*******

“Ummmmm, I can’t do anything with this.” The words came from Wren herself some time later, once Pack and I had brought Paige into her lab in the upstairs area of the old store. We’d set the seemingly sleeping blonde girl on a convenient couch. Then, to an increasingly shocked audience of two, had explained–well we’d explained some of it anyway, the parts about Paige being a biolem whose father wanted to do bad things while leaving details about the Ministry out of it.

 “I know it’s a lot,” I quickly assured the young Tech-Touched. “Believe me, but it’s just–” 

“No, I mean I can’t.” Her head was shaking, eyes wide. “That’s blood and flesh and a person! I don’t know anything about–I mean she’s–I make things go fast, things teleport, things fly. I can’t dig into a human living person! I’m not a doctor! It’s not–I don’t get a–I mean I’m not–”

Fred, who had been staring at both Pack and me like we’d sprouted new heads throughout this entire conversation, spoke up. “Even if the kid had any chance of working on the actual mechanical part, this orb thing you said is in that girl, getting to it without killing her… ahh, the biological part of her is still a big fu–freaking problem. You need a doctor for that. A really good one. You need someone who can work the tech side of things and someone to work the biology part. Probably at least two techs. Maybe Wren can help with some of it, but come on, this is too much to put on her.”

“I-if I mess up,” Wren tentatively pointed out, voice cracking as she stared at Paige. “I could… I could…” 

Wincing, I nodded. “I know. I just–you’re right. We just don’t know who else to take her to. But I’ll find someone. I’ll find some people who can help. Can she… uhh…” 

“She can stay.” Wren’s voice was firm as she gave a quick nod. “I mean, umm, maybe I can look at her? I could maybe make a scanner or something to try to find where the orb is, exactly, so we can find out more about it. But I won’t cut into her. I won’t go that far. I can’t.” 

Pack spoke up then. “Don’t worry, kid, it’s okay. No one blames you for not wanting to risk something like that. It’s not your job, not your… power.” She shrugged. “You keep the girl here for now, Paintball and I can both reach out in our own way to find someone who might help.” She glanced to me, clearly reading my apprehension. “There’s gotta be Tech-Touched mercenaries from somewhere outside the city who might be able to do something. Though it’d probably cost a pretty penny.”

“We’ll worry about cost later,” I insisted. “Focus on being careful. No drawing attention. Don’t give details. And don’t–” 

She interrupted. “Don’t ask Blackjack about it, I know. I’m not an idiot. I’ll be subtle, Paintball, trust me.”

We talked a bit more, all four of us. It was obvious that Wren felt incredibly guilty about her immediate and firm refusal, but I tried to assure her that neither of us blamed her and that it was okay. Better she have a solid grasp of what she couldn’t do, than go for it and end up doing irreparable damage, or even killing Paige for good. 

In the end, we settled on coming back to figure out more later. Paige would be staying here at the lab for the time being, where Wren would do what little she could while we found someone who knew what they were doing. 

All of which left me heading back home after changing out of the temporary costume and into a pair of jeans and tee-shirt that I bought from the very surprised clerk in a small tourist-trap shop. Exhausted as I was, getting new clothes and making it home took about all I had. The only thing I wanted to do was take a long, hot shower and then sleep for about a week. 

Naturally, I had to go in and apologize for taking off early from Paige’s party and abandoning Izzy. Except she wasn’t there for some reason. Neither was Dad, but he at least I understood. According to my mother, Simon had taken Izzy out for ice cream and a few things. She made it clear I wasn’t in trouble, that they knew my going to Paige’s had been hard and they appreciated the effort I put in. But she also made sure I knew that leaving Izzy with other people like that without clearing it with them first wasn’t acceptable. And that I needed to make sure Izzy was okay with a situation like that. 

I promised to be careful in the future. And it was pretty obvious that Mom didn’t know how connected Paige was to the situation at the warehouse, because she was entirely too casual about the whole thing. 

In the end, I made my way upstairs, took that shower, and fell asleep while wondering what was taking Izzy so long to get back from ice cream. 

Unfortunately, despite my thoughts about sleeping for a week, I barely managed a few hours before my racing mind woke me up. It was the middle of the night, and I just… my brain was too active. All that stuff about Paige, everything I’d learned, it was just… too much. I couldn’t relax. 

It also felt like I couldn’t breathe in here. I needed some air. Making my way to my balcony after pulling on some shorts to go with my long tee shirt, I glanced around to watch the cameras before turning to point at the roof above me. A quick shot of red paint hauled me up there, where I would lay back and watch the stars. 

At least, that was the idea. But that idea shattered like glass as I landed on the roof, after being pulled that way by my red paint, as a voice from above me blurted, “Cassidy?” 

Spinning, I stared upward at a visibly damp Izzy, who floated there, hovering in mid-air. Both of us stared at the other for a long few seconds before blurting out loud, our words matching each other’s. 

“It’s you!”

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New Deals 13-06 (Summus Proelium)

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For a few long seconds, I just sat there, frozen from confusion. Pack saw two guys standing there talking to Blackjack. But I saw my parents. Was I being affected by some kind of power that made me see things differently? No. That didn’t make sense, did it? No one in here knew enough about me to make me see my family members over there. Plus, if it was some kind of ‘see people you know’ power or something, Pack wouldn’t just be seeing two random guys. 

Okay, so it wasn’t that. My flash of panic that someone in here knew about my identity and my family and was fucking with me only lasted a brief moment before I got it under control. There was another explanation, one that didn’t involve all my secrets suddenly being out, thank God.

“Dude.” Pack sounded confused and maybe a little exasperated. “Are you okay over there?” 

Was I okay? Hah. Not really, considering the way my heart had just been trying to claw its way out of my chest so it could escape. “Sorry,” I quickly muttered, resisting the urge to stare at Blackjack and the people who were either my parents or looked exactly like them. “It’s been a long day.” And from the looks of it, getting longer by the minute. Wait, all days got longer by the minute. Fuck, I knew what I meant. “You were talking about those… guys.”

Guys, she saw guys. It had to be a power of some kind, right? My parents–wait, was that how they hid their identities? By appearing as different people to others–but why would I see them for who they were? Was I immune to the power or something? Why would I be–hold on…

“Like I said,” Pack was in the middle of replying in a low voice, “they came in to talk to Blackjack. I didn’t hear a lot before they went into the other room, but I heard a name. Tate.” 

That made me do a double-take, looking at her while seeing my mother and father still in the middle of what seemed to be an intense conversation. “Tate? You definitely heard that?” 

“Yeah, as in the name of that kid you were talking to Way about,” she confirmed. “What was it–Andy? Tate, that was right, wasn’t it?” For a brief moment, she sounded uncertain. 

“Anthony,” I corrected in a much lower voice. I still wasn’t comfortable here like this. “Anthony Tate, yeah. So those two came in and talked to your boss, and they said something about Tate.”

“I told you,” she reiterated, “I didn’t hear much. They went into the other room pretty quick. I heard something about Tate, and then something about someone’s father being dead.”

Blinking a couple times, I echoed, “Someone’s father being dead? Whose?” 

Snorting, Pack retorted, “The fuck should I know? I wasn’t exactly in a position to ask for clarification, dude. They said something about someone’s father being dead–oh, I kind of got the impression this wasn’t something new. The way they said it, he’s been dead for awhile.” 

Someone’s father had been dead for awhile. Biting my lip, I tried to sound as casual as possible. “Which one of them said it? What’d they say, exactly? I mean, as much as you can remember.”   

The other girl took a moment, clearly focused on recalling as best as she could. “The guy with the red hair said, ‘The Tate situation was supposed to be over and done with. We put it behind us.’ Then Blackjack said, ‘At least the father’s dead.’ Wait. Wait, did he say ‘the father’ or ‘your father?’ Shit. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure. He either said ‘At least the father’s dead’ or ‘At least your father’s dead.’ Then they went into the other room.” 

Sinking back in my seat, I thought about that for a few seconds. The Tate situation, my parents were annoyed because something about it was coming back to bother them after they thought it was handled. But what? Was it something about Paige? Paige had been erased from my memory around the same time that Anthony was, and I’d heard her talking about how whatever she was doing had something to do with him. She’d specifically said that my mom and dad had no idea where she came from or why she was doing… whatever she was doing because they hadn’t thought about the name Anthony Tate in years. So of course they were connected, but how much of that did my parents know? Was this whole conversation about the Tate situation not being over because of Paige, or because of something else? What prompted that? 

“You sure you’re okay?” Pack was asking, her voice clearly uncertain as she absently scratched one of her lizards. “Do you know those guys over there or something?” 

Boy, talk about being simultaneously very wrong and very right. For a moment, brief as it was, I almost considered telling her about how I wasn’t seeing those two the way she was. But that would’ve led to her asking who I was actually seeing. And even if I just described them instead of saying they were my parents, she’d definitely start looking into those details. And if that led her to who they really were… well, was that really bad? Did I think it was bad because it would put her in danger, or because it would put my family in danger? Which one was I really bothered more by? God damn it, what was wrong with me? 

Finally, after shaking myself, I nodded. “I’ll be fine. And no, I’ve never seen those two guys.” Hell, those words were the literal truth, I had most certainly never seen the two guys she was talking about, not even when I looked right at the two who were supposed to be them. 

And yet it was still a lie. A lie that made me feel like shit after saying it. Pack was a villain, but she’d also been my friend. She’d helped me, had gone out of her way to come save me from Pencil. She had put her lizards in danger to help me, and how was I paying her back? 

Fuck. This whole thing was just so complicated. Too god damn complicated. I had no idea how to make it better. I couldn’t tell her the truth. Not… not yet, right? But no matter how many times I said ‘not yet,’ it was becoming increasingly obvious that I was going to have to make that kind of leap at some point. Once I did, it would be a leap I couldn’t take back. And it felt like the longer I waited, the harder the fall after that leap was going to be. 

I couldn’t see her face, of course, but I had the feeling that Pack was squinting at me uncertainly. After a moment of that, she shook her head. “Well, keep an eye out for them. Sounds like they’re connected to this Anthony Tate thing you’ve been looking into. And…” She hesitated before offering a shrug. “And that other thing you were talking about.” Apparently even Pack didn’t actually want to mention the Ministry out loud right here in the casino. 

“I’ll see what I can find out,” I promised, before adding, “Thanks, Pack. Seriously, I know this whole thing is hard for you after everything La Casa’s done.” 

“Yeah, well, I’m not doing anything against La Casa,” she insisted firmly. “Just looking out for my own interests on top of that. I wanna get to the bottom of this whole thing. I–” In mid-sentence, she glanced over before squinting. “And there they go.” 

Sure enough, my parents and Blackjack were walking away together, heading for one of the exits. Not the one I had come through, of course. 

After we both watched the trio head off, Pack turned back to me. “Right, so, about this whole Trevithick thing. You want help getting Braintrust to play nice.” 

“I want to make sure they know that pushing any harder is going to end up being more of a pain than it’s worth,” I confirmed. “I know we can’t get away with telling them to fuck off completely. Not like that. But giving them something so they feel like they’re walking away the winners, while making sure they know they can’t get anything more than that without a bigger fight? That sounds doable. I mean, with help, yeah.” 

Pack was quiet for another few seconds, before she gave a short nod. “I like the kid. Not just gonna sit around and let her be exploited. So yeah, I’ve got your back. Just tell me when and where so we can make an impression.” 

Thanking her, I added, “Speaking of making an impression, you’ve gotta tell me. What does the new lizard turn into?” 

“Scatters?” There was sly amusement to the girl’s voice. “Oh, I’m not telling you yet. 

“You’ll just have to wait and find out.”

*****

I couldn’t just leave Wren out of the situation entirely, much as I might’ve liked to. That wasn’t fair to her, given the fact that the whole thing was about Braintrust wanting to use her talents in one way or another. She deserved to know what was going on and be included in this situation.

So, Pack and I went there next. Actually, we called to arrange a meeting the next day, but Fred said the kid tended to work through the night and sleep in the mornings (being home-schooled through the afternoon). So, we headed over right then. To keep things subtle and avoid drawing attention to the girl, we used her car (or at least, a car that La Casa allowed her to use), with heavily tinted windows, heading for Wren’s shop. 

The girl herself met us on the main shop floor, literally (with the help of her little winged jetpack thing) throwing herself clear from the elevator to the entrance to half-crash into the girl beside me for a tight hug while squealing, “Pack! You’re okay! Hi! Are the lizards okay?! Can I see ‘em? Are they sleeping? Can I pet ‘em? Are they hungry? Can I feed ‘em? Did you really get a new one? Is it a boy or a girl? Did you bring her? Wait, did you eat already? Are you hungry? We could get pizza. For us, not for the lizards. But I have crickets and worms and stuff for them just in case! Hey, maybe they could put those on a pizza!” 

The words all came in a rush, blurted out as soon as Wren thought of them, without any pause to allow Pack to actually respond. And through it all, she clung tightly to the other girl as if she was a long-lost best friend who had only just returned. It reminded me of the fact that these two had bonded for days while Pack stayed around Wren when the whole situation with the vials was going on. Pack wasn’t some criminal to Wren. She was a friend. 

Then again, she wasn’t some criminal to me either. It was a lot more complicated than that. More complicated than even she knew, really. I didn’t exactly have that much right to judge her given who my family was and the fact that I still hadn’t told anyone about it. Yeah, it was dangerous, but it was also… fuck. It was complicated. All of it was just so complicated. 

Shaking that off for the moment, I watched as Pack introduced Scatters to Wren, who basically lost her mind over the adorable little neon gecko. Pack pulled the rest of her lizards out of their cage and carried them to the nearby table, where they ate from the assortment of reptile-appropriate food that the Tech-Touched girl had provided. Wren, of course, asked the same thing I had, about what Scatters turned into. Again, Pack deferred for the moment, promising to show both of us after we talked to the girl about what we had to talk about. 

And then we did just that. Well, after asking for Fred (he’d been up in the apartment area) to come down so we could talk to both of them together. I laid out everything that happened with Braintrust, how they had approached me, their offer/request/demand, and why I thought it was for the best to appease them at the moment to avoid any problems. I promised that I was going to look into dealing with their group for good, but that that was a long ways off and I didn’t want Wren or Fred to become targets in the meantime. 

“I’m not making anything for them,” the nine-year-old blonde insisted flatly, folding her arms stubbornly across her chest while setting her chin. “They’ll hurt people with it. And I’m not helping them fix their own stuff.” 

“Yeah,” I replied with a glance toward Fred. “That’s kinda what I assumed. Which leaves the option of paying taxes to them for operating in the city. Pack and me are gonna go over there, find them, and let them know that they’ll get a small bit out of whatever you sell, and that’s it.” 

“But you can’t just beat them up and arrest them?” Wren sounded confused, staring at me with those wide sea-green eyes. “They’re bad guys, they do really bad… err…” She trailed off, glancing toward Pack as though only just realizing that the other girl was technically a villain.

Pack, for her part, sounded a little amused as she casually drawled, “Everyone’s got their reasons for doing stuff. And everyone’s got friends that do bad things sometimes. These guys aren’t your friends, and they’re demanding you give them money or toys to hurt people with.” 

“Yeah, what she said.” I agreed, before adding, “And I’m pretty sure I’m not ready to take on a whole gang of Touched-Tech-Enhanced supercriminals yet.” My fingers tapped the side of my helmet. “Not that I haven’t pissed off plenty of them already, but it feels like I should pace myself.” I did not point out that I didn’t want Wren and Fred to be targets. It felt like the younger girl wouldn’t take that very well. I wasn’t sure if she’d insist she could take care of herself, or be upset that I wasn’t fighting the bad guys just to protect her, or what. But I was pretty sure framing it as me having too much to take on right then without adding yet another gang of pissed off supervillains would play better with her.

From the way Fred looked at me, he understood the rest of what I wasn’t saying. The man offered me what was obviously a thankful nod, but let his niece do most of the talking. 

It worked. Wren still clearly didn’t like the idea of appeasing the bad guys, for sure. But she accepted that it wasn’t a fight we needed right now and that the best way to handle it was to hand money to them so they’d go away. At least until we were ready. She did, however, insist that she was going to work on ideas to deal with Braintrust while also reiterating that she was never going to build anything for them, no matter what. That was her firm line in the sand. 

After that was settled, Pack took Scatters and transformed the tiny, colorful lizard into her alternate form. Which, as it turned out, was an equally colorful large reindeer. Seriously, this thing was metallic blue along most of the body, its legs were darker blue, it had a black stripe running down the sides to offset the two blues, and its head and antlers were bright green. 

Wren lost her mind all over again, grabbing onto and hugging the incredibly beautiful reindeer-lizard while cooing about how adorable she was. 

Pack informed us that they were working on a saddle for Scatters, after helping Fred pick Wren up and set her on the animal’s back. The young inventor held on tight, squealing happily as Scatters took her for a short, slow trot around the inside of the shop. She was having the time of her life. Which made me wonder how much she’d love it if the lizard-deer could go out on the street and let loose. 

Someday, I told myself, I’m gonna show that kid how to have a really good time, without a bunch of stupid supervillain bullshit getting in the way.

Pack interrupted my thoughts about that by raising her voice to ask, “Hey, Wren, you think my new friend is cool, has Paintball over there shown you his new paint thing yet?” 

“New paint thing?” Wren, still perched atop the neon lizard-deer, echoed curiously while looking over at me. Fred, standing a bit out of the way, also looked interested. 

So, I showed them how the pink paint worked. That was as much of a hit as Scatters was, especially once I showed Wren how she could stretch her limbs out while they were pink. She thought that was the funniest thing in the world, and kept having Fred hold her hand in place while she ran the other way to pull her arm as far out as she could. 

Watching the kid goofing off like that while occasionally redoing the pink paint again, or shooting some random object she pointed out with it, I found my thoughts shifting back to what I’d seen at the casino. My parents except not my parents. They had been at the casino in some kind of… power-enhanced disguise? Except whose power? Maybe it was a Tech-Touched device. Right, that made sense. Some kind of… umm…illusion-generator that somehow didn’t work on our own family? Maybe so that they could keep track of each other and still see each other for who they–wait. 

Was that why I’d seen Simon out without any kind of mask or anything on? Was that why he’d been going around apparently without anything to protect his identity, because he was using one of those illusion devices? That made sense too. I’d wondered before about just why my brother could go around without a mask or anything to hide his face. If he was using that illusion tech, it would explain a lot. Even if it didn’t explain exactly where those illusion devices came from. At the very least, it made sense that my family would have access to them. 

Which might also explain how my father could be in two places at once, come to think of it. It could help explain how he could operate as Silversmith and appear as himself at the same function, if they used that illusion tech on someone else to look like him. That was probably part of it. 

“Hey, kid.” That was Fred, watching me curiously from nearby while Pack and Wren whispered about something over by Scatters. “You okay? Seemed kinda… lost there for a minute.” 

Forcing all those thoughts away for the time being, I made myself nod. “Oh, yeah. I’m good. I just found a couple pieces to a puzzle I’ve been working on for a long time.” 

Of course, this illusion thing meant it would be even harder for me to prove my family were the bad guys even if I found someone I could safely point that out to. What was I supposed to do, point at someone who, to everyone else looked like some random guy, and insist he was my mother? Somehow, I didn’t think that would go very well. To say nothing of all the other illusion-tricks they could pull. 

It was something, at least. As I’d told Fred, it was a couple more pieces to this puzzle. It didn’t solve the entire problem, but at least it answered a couple questions for me. True, none of those answers were to the question of what I was supposed to do with everything I knew. But hey, at least I was making progress. 

While lost in those thoughts, my normal phone buzzed in my pocket. Knowing that I had to check in case it was my parents so they didn’t send out a search party, I made sure no one was paying attention before tugging it out. It was an e-mail, and I almost put it away again before doing a double-take. The e-mail was an invitation to a birthday party on Saturday, just a few days away. That wasn’t that odd, considering how many birthdays and other things I got invited to regularly. The odd part was that it was for Paige. 

Now why the hell would Paige Banners invite me to her birthday party? 

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Pink 12-05 (Summus Proelium)

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I had a dozen texts and three voicemails from Wren once I tore my replacement phone out of its plastic packaging, set it up, and downloaded my old Touched phone data to it. Mostly they were a three-to-one mix of her being terrified of what had happened to me and her wanting to show me the stuff she’d been working on. Apparently she and Fred had already started moving stuff back to the old shop, and she had some spiffy new defenses she wanted me to see. 

So, I called her up to let the girl know I was on the way and that I was fine. Fine enough, at least, that she really didn’t need to know how sore I felt or how much my ribs hurt if I turned too fast or bent over. Yeah, I wasn’t going to make her even more worried. She was a kid, and was still trying to put her own life together. No way was I going to put something like that on her. 

Wren hurriedly informed me that she and Fred were at the old store right then, and I promised I’d be there soon. After that, it was just a matter of getting another ride over to that general area, using a random roof to (somewhat awkwardly) change into my costume (sans the helmet, which was still back with the damn Scions), then heading over to the pawn shop itself. On the way, I kept a sharp lookout for anything out of the ordinary. Yeah, people weren’t after the vials anymore and most knew that attacking a Tech-Touched on their own turf was a bad idea. Not to mention the fact that very few should have any idea a Tech-Touched lived there. But still, the whole idea made me nervous. I really wanted to tell Wren to give it up. Except this was her dad’s store. There was no way she would just walk away from it, no matter what the potential danger was. Getting her to create defenses was the best I could hope for. Well, that and hoping that if things were actually bad, Fred would insist they leave. 

Stepping through the front door, I found the main floor of the shop looking about the same as it had the first time I was there. It was, of course, still an enormous open space about as wide as the school gym, with dozens of shelves scattered around that were filled with all sorts of seemingly random stuff, while the central third of the space was several feet lower than the rest, with various built-in steps leading down into that pit area. 

The same four glass counters formed the same rectangle around the space where the clerk worked. As I entered, both Wren and Fred were there, busy talking about something. The moment the bell dinged, Wren blurted my name (well, Paintball at least), slid off the counter she’d been perched on, and dashed my way. Two steps into it, the wings popped out of her metal backpack thing and she glided the rest of the way before landing right in front of me. Then I was being hugged tightly. Luckily, I saw it coming and popped an orange circle onto my back for defense so I wouldn’t crumple from the force of it. As it was, I had to grit my teeth tightly, managing a weak, “Hey, Wren. Sounds like you’ve been pretty busy lately, huh?”

Pulling back a bit, the little blonde nine-year-old squinted up at me, very obviously annoyed. “Pretty busy? Pretty busy? You go off and almost get yourself killed and all you have to say about it is that I’ve been busy?!” She gave a loud huff, folding her arms. “You’re in trouble.” Despite her words, it was obvious that it took a lot for her to sound as stern as she did. The kid was trying as hard as she could to be serious and let me know just how upset she was without too much squeeing and hugging. 

Still, I knew she was right, and had to wince at how much I’d obviously upset her. “Sorry. I guess Pack let you know what was going on then?” Obviously, just being scolded by That-A-Way and Pack herself hadn’t been enough. I had to have Wren and her puppy eyes sicced on me too.  

“I was trying to call you and you never answered,” she informed me in a sad voice, head shaking. “So I asked Pack if you were okay and she told me what happened.” Again, the girl squinted at me. “She said you got in trouble cuz you said you had help but you didn’t.” 

“That’s… about the size of it,” I confirmed while cringing a little bit. “I definitely learned my lesson, believe me. I won’t do something like that again. If I say I have help, I’ll have help.” 

“Good.” That was Fred, as the man approached. “Cuz I really don’t wanna have another night of sitting up with the kid until someone actually bothers to let us know that you’re okay.” 

“My phone was broken,” I mumbled helplessly. “And I had my own parents to–I’m sorry. I’m sorry I made you worry, Wren. I’m sorry I made both of you worry. But seriously, I’m okay. And I really want to see what you’ve been doing over here. Are you sure it’s safe to be in this place?” 

“Don’t worry,” Fred informed me, “I told the kid we couldn’t come back here until she had a fool-proof way of getting us out if anything went wrong.” As he said that, the man waved a hand, showing me the watch attached to his wrist. “It’s a teleporter linking this place to the other shop. Something happens, just push the face in and say the command. Then poof, we’re not here.” 

Wren showed me her own watch, nodding eagerly. “And I’m working on one for you! That way if you get caught again, you can just teleport away.” Squinting pointedly, the kid added, “I’ll hurry and make it faster, cuz you get in trouble a lot.” 

She wasn’t wrong, but I still made a huffing noise. I would’ve stuck my tongue out at her, given my lack of a helmet, but that seemed a bit childish at the moment. “Just make sure you guys are safe here first. You can really teleport out as soon as anything happens?”

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh! And there’s another defense too, you wanna see?” Even as the girl said that, I could see the mix of eagerness and mischievousness in her eyes. Apparently, whatever she wanted to show me was really funny. 

Glancing to Fred briefly, I waited until he gave a subtle nod before agreeing. “Okay, let’s see.” 

With an excited squeaking sound, Wren cleared her throat before loudly declaring, “Intruder defense Alpha-Zero-One engage, ninety percent.” 

As soon as she said that, I heard a weird… humming sound. It filled the room, and I started to look around. But then a blur went rushing past me. It was Wren. She went from standing in front of me, to the door behind me, to the counter, back to one of the other shelves, then back to me, then to a shelf on the far side of the room all in just a brief few seconds. 

The same thing happened with Fred, as he vanished into the elevator leading upstairs, then came back, then checked on something at the register, then came to me with something in his hands all before I could so much as raise my hand. He held it up, and I belatedly realized it was an analog clock. As I stared at it, the second hand spun rapidly. In the brief four seconds or so that I watched, about three minutes passed. 

Finally, I saw Wren open her mouth. The sounds she made came out in a rush so fast they didn’t sound like words. At least at first. But finally, the humming sound stopped and I heard the tail end of her saying, “– and restore to default security measures.” 

Things were back to normal. My gaze snapped around quickly, as I blurted, “Wren, are you screwing around with time stuff?! Are we–we’re not–you didn’t–” 

With a giggle, the younger girl shook her head. “No, see, there wasn’t any time travel or anything. I mean, not like you’re thinking. The defense system targets intruders and makes them slower. Everything else was moving at normal speed. You were just moving and thinking really, really slow so everything around you seemed really fast. See, you were in there for fifteen minutes and to you, it was only about thirteen seconds. That way, if anyone comes in who isn’t supposed to be here and we turn on the defense, we have time to do basically anything. Even call for help if we need to.” 

As she finished explaining all that, Wren stared at me eagerly, eyes shining with delight as she blurted, “Isn’t that cool?!” 

I didn’t even have to exaggerate my agreement as my head bobbed. “It’s totally cool, Wren. You outdid yourself with this. Nonlethal and super-effective. How long can it keep going like that?” 

Squirming a little, the girl admitted, “Only about twenty seconds or so of slow-time. But we’re working on getting the time up and cutting the energy use. And that’s almost half an hour real-time, which is plenty for us to do a lot of things while any intruders are basically frozen, you know? Even if it’s just leaving.” 

“You’re right, a lot can happen in half an hour.” I gave her a thumbs up that made her grin happily before asking, “So teleporters to escape and this slow-down effect as soon as intruders get in. Can that be automatic or do you have to actually give the command like you did just now?” 

It was Fred who answered. “Either-or. Kid set it so we can set it off manually, or tie it to an alarm for whenever the shop’s not open. As long as no one else but us is supposed to be here, if anyone does show up, it slows them down and lets us know what’s going on.” 

“And there’s gonna be more!” Wren insisted. She was bouncing up and down with excitement. Which, considering her jetpack wings were still out, actually sent her up above my head, then back to the floor with each bounce. It was enough to make me snicker a bit before containing myself. Meanwhile, she was still explaining. “I’ve got ideas about Flingbeams, they’re–err, wait, I’m not gonna say it yet cuz they might change. Also they’re a surprise. But they’re gonna be cool! No one’s gonna break Dad’s store again. I mean, not without being hurt a lot and stuff.” 

“As long as you’re safe,” I agreed, glancing to Fred before adding, “I don’t think you being here is exactly common knowledge or anything, but you should still be careful. Especially with Braintrust out there and interested. If anything seems fishy, you jump out of here and worry about details later, okay? Call me, call Pack, call whoever you need to for help.” 

“Don’t have to tell me twice to look after our skins,” Fred assured me. The man gave a very slight self-deprecating smile. “Seriously though, what the kid said before, that goes for me too. You’ve done… right by us, even when I didn’t really deserve it. Don’t go getting yourself in hot water like that without help of your own. You uhhh…” He coughed, sounding self-conscious suddenly. “You’re a good one, so don’t be an idiot and get killed.” Belatedly, the man added, “Who’d bankroll the kid’s business without you, huh?” He sounded more comfortable then. 

Snorting, I gestured vaguely. “Silly me, I can’t die without making sure Wren’s Nest becomes the best tech shop in the city. Maybe one of you could write a note so I could give it to the next person who tries to stab or shoot me?” 

My reward for that was a poke in the stomach from Wren (luckily she didn’t jab higher or I might’ve yelped), as she countered, “What about a new helmet instead? Pack said yours got lost or something, and you don’t have a replacement yet.” Her hand waved toward my simple mask. “You weren’t gonna go get into another fight without something to protect your head, were you?” There was definite recrimination in her voice at that idea.

Quickly, I raised both hands while shaking my head. “Nope, no, ma’am. I just didn’t wanna make you wait anymore. I was gonna go get a new helmet after this, before I… umm, do the next thing on my list.” After defusing that quickly, I blinked before adding, “Wait, new helmet?” 

“It’s not super, super special like the boots,” she lamented. “I didn’t have time to do that much with all the stuff I was making for the shop. But it’s still something! And I’m totally gonna improve it later, in different versions, I swear.” With that, she turned and launched herself into the air and clear across the room, soaring over a dozen random shelves to reach the far side of the central counter, where she started digging through a few different bags. 

While she was gone, Fred glanced to me. His voice was quiet. “You seen a doctor about those ribs?” When I shot him a quick, surprised glance, he snorted. “You’re good at hiding things from the kid. But I saw how you reacted when she hugged you, and that poke. I’m not gonna scare her, just… you saw someone who could take care of it, right? If not, I think I can–” 

“I saw someone,” I hurriedly assured him. “A doctor, I mean. It’s–it’s a long story, one I can’t get into. But he looked at me and… and it’ll be okay.” Belatedly, I added, “Um, thanks. You know, for caring.” I knew the whole thing sounded awkward. It felt awkward. Still, it was the best I could do. 

Before Fred could respond to that, Wren was back. She had, as promised, a helmet in her hands. It looked almost identical to my last one, with the front part that could be pushed up out of the way while still leaving the secondary visor in place across my eyes. This helmet, however, had what looked like two small headlights built into either side of it, facing forward. It also had a little speaker grill bit built into the front (the part that could be pushed up out of the way when I opened the helmet). 

Wren quickly explained while handing the helmet over. “See the volume thing on the left side? You can push that up to project your voice really loud. You know, if you need to shout over people or call out to someone. It’s like a megaphone. And the lights are for when it’s dark and you don’t want to use the night vision.” 

Raising an eyebrow (which was dumb considering she couldn’t see it anyway), I asked, “Night vision?”  

The kid’s head bobbed up and down so fast I thought it might fall off. “Uh huh! Of course there’s night vision, what kinda amateur do you thi–never mind.” Giggling despite herself, she informed me, “there’s night vision and thermal vision, you just have to say ‘night vision engage or night vision disengage’ or ‘thermal vision engage and disengage’ while you’re wearing it. You can whisper it too. Or touch that button there right next to the main visor for three seconds, then let it go for night vision and five seconds then let it go for thermal vision. Then touch it again to go back to normal.” 

Turning the helmet over in both hands, I smiled like an idiot before managing, “Wren, that’s really cool. I didn’t–I mean I don’t–I mean thanks.” 

It was her turn to blush a bit, squirming in the air (she was hovering about a foot off the ground) before hurriedly explaining, “That’s not all. There’s one more thing. Put the helmet on and pull the front down.” 

So, I did as she asked. The helmet fit snugly in place, and I slid the front part down, making it lock in place before giving her a thumbs up. “All good so far.” 

“Okay!” With clear excitement, Wren explained, “Now say, ‘Map me, then give an address or a request, like ‘nearest McDonalds.’” 

Considering that briefly, I settled on, “Map me the Henry Ford Museum.” 

As soon as I said that, a few images appeared on the visor in front of my face. At the bottom, which I could only read by focusing my eyes that way, were the words Henry Ford Museum and an address. In the top right corner of the visor was an arrow pointing me in the right direction, along with a thing telling me how many kilometers away I was. 

Wren pushed on quickly. “The arrow appears on the side you need to turn to, or right at the top if you just need to go forward. You can say ‘dim map’ to make it go away so you can focus, then ‘raise map’ to bring back the same thing without asking directions again. Or you can say ‘end map’ to turn it off completely.” 

“Wren, this is…” Swallowing hard, I leaned over to hug the girl as tightly as I dared. “Thanks. This is awesome. Seriously. Between this and the shoes, you’re really decking me out.” 

With a clearly self-conscious giggle, Wren insisted, “It’s nothing big. I can do better. I will do better. You know, with more time, and… and everything. I’ll make it better.” 

“This is enough for now, I swear.” Smiling, I nudged the girl while releasing her. “Really, take care of your shop and all that. You’re just… you’re awesome. Thanks.” 

After that, I stuck around for another twenty minutes or so, just hanging out and making sure Wren knew how grateful I was. And, of course, reassuring her that I really was okay. With a promise to check in soon, I excused myself. It was time to go visit the Seraph base and hopefully find out just what the hell was in that file once and for all.

And hey, with this fancy new helmet, at least I wouldn’t get lost. 

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Private Affairs 9-03 (Summus Proelium)

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Please note that there was a commissioned interlude focusing on That-A-Way and Pack posted yesterday. If you have not seen that, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find anyone else that I could hit that night. I did run across a couple… situations, but by the time I got there, they were already well in hand by one Star group or another. I mostly watched while a few of the Conservators or Ten Towers people mopped up some bad guys here and there. In a way, it was bad for the fact that I didn’t get to hit anyone else (and I was really in the mood to hit things). But it was also cool to watch other Touched from a good vantage point when I didn’t have to worry about life and death problems. 

Okay, correction, I was worrying about life and death problems. But not immediate ones. 

Anyway, it was also a good thing because less crime meant less people being hurt. As much as I wanted to work some of my stress off, that much was undoubtedly true. And just what the hell was wrong with me anyway? What had changed so much in such a short time that I felt at least a little bad that I couldn’t find more violent bad guys to punch? Was that really the best way to deal with all the stress I was feeling because of the whole… every bit of my current situation?  

No, probably not. Undoubtedly not. Ideally, I should talk to someone about it and just vent to a live person. But who the hell was I going to talk to? Who could I tell… half this stuff to, let alone all of it? Telling anyone about who my parents were was just… it was either too dangerous or unfair. I couldn’t dump it onto Wren. I wouldn’t dump it onto Wren. She was a kid. A pretty great kid with an incredibly useful power, who was fun to talk to and all that. I trusted her. I liked her. That was why I wouldn’t tell her about all this bullshit. She didn’t deserve that kind of stress. 

In the end, I found a less violent way of working off my aggression. Specifically, I spent an hour or so skate-painting my way across the city. Jumping from building to building, running along walls, popping the wheels out to race down the side before hitting a blue patch that sent me rocketing back up to a nearby billboard, and so on. It was my own insane extreme sport and I actually noticed a few people here and there taking pictures and video recording. I might’ve hammed it up a bit for them just because it was a way of putting everything else out of my mind. 

So, while I couldn’t hit anyone, I did manage to… exercise a lot of my aggression out. At least enough that when I finally made myself go home… home to a house full of bad guys save for Izzy, I actually fell asleep very quickly. And, wonder of wonders, I didn’t have any bad dreams. Or any dreams at all. I was able to sleep through the whole rest of the night, and because it was Saturday, I didn’t even wake up until midway through the next morning. It was almost eleven when I finally dragged myself up. Apparently I’d really needed that extra sleep. Go figure.  

Yup, I was well-rested. Which was probably a good thing, considering tonight was supposed to be Amber’s big birthday party. And I was pretty sure she would hunt me down if I didn’t show because I was too tired. If I was afraid of nightmares now, the thought of Amber kicking my door in while I was napping through her party was even worse. Yeah, I was definitely going. 

And so was Izzy. I had no doubt we wouldn’t be going anywhere without the entourage that had ‘secretly’ followed us around when we went to the mall to pick up treats for that movie night. Which meant I was going to have to be super careful not to do anything that might give away my own secrets. Because I was positive that there were going to be a lot of eyes, my family’s organization watching to make sure that… whatever threat they were protecting Izzy from didn’t touch her. Or making sure that she stayed put and didn’t run away. Or making sure she didn’t–

Okay, so I still had absolutely no idea what that was about. Was my family protecting her? Were they keeping her prisoner, even if she didn’t know she was a prisoner? Some combination of both? Part of me wanted to drag the girl into a closet and get answers out of her about all that once and for all, but that… that would probably be a bad idea. A very bad idea. 

In any case, I spent those few hours I had before the party taking a trip out to see Wren. Making my way to the other girl’s hidden shop, I found her and Fred hard at work in the basement once the door buzzed to let me in. The two appeared to be converting the room where we had been keeping Ashton into some kind of metal workshop. Which probably made sense, given the fact it was already apparently soundproofed. Actually, Wren had said something about setting up that room for ‘little explosions and stuff’, which… come to think of it, should that kind of worry me?

Nah. I was sure Wren knew what she was doing. And if she didn’t, I certainly couldn’t be any help. 

“If you install a swivel chair that can turn around slowly,” I informed her while leaning against the doorway to watch her work, “I think I might know someone who can get you a fluffy white cat.” 

“Hi, Paintball!” she blurted, popping to her feet and pushing the welding mask she’d been wearing up away from her face. Her hands were covered in what looked like black soot. “I like fluffy white cats, but it’s not an evil lair. It’s a room for me to build things that could, um…” 

“Things that could damage the rest of the building if they aren’t contained,” Fred finished for her. He was just setting a heavy H-shaped metal beam thing down against a spot on the wall that had been marked out with tape to show where it should go. As he spoke, the man picked up an electric screwdriver sitting nearby and proceeded to start driving in screws through slots in the metal thing. Clearly, he was doing the heavy lifting part of this after Wren detailed what to do.  

“Well, it’s a good thing you have this room to contain anything like that, huh?” Stepping into the room, I asked, “Is there anything I can do to help? Even just grunt work. I need to take my mind off… things.” Why did I say that? Why did I even bring it up? Now Wren was going to– 

“What’s wrong?” Sure enough, the little girl immediately piped up with that question. 

My head shook quickly. “It’s nothing I can’t handle, really. It’s okay, if I need help, I’ll definitely ask.” Giving her a thumbs up in the hope that it would stop her from worrying about me, I gestured. “Like I said, I need a distraction right now. So, how can I help out around here, huh?”  

I spent the next couple hours just helping them fix up that room. There was a lot to do to get it ready for all the stuff Wren wanted to build and experiment with, And the more she talked about all of that, the more excited she was. Not that I really followed what she was saying that well, but her eagerness was infectious. It really did help me take my mind off all my stuff, thankfully.

When we were done, at least for the moment, Wren beckoned for me to follow her into the main room. She moved to a box and produced what looked like the same shoes I was wearing. “Ta da!” 

Grinning behind the helmet, I teased, “Hey, they look just my size too. If this whole Tech-Touched genius thing doesn’t pan out in the end, you could probably make a killing as a cobbler. Mmmm, cobbler. Now I want pie. Do you think shoe cobblers want pie a lot? I bet someone at some point heard ‘shoe cobbler’ and got very confused about people’s tastes.” 

“You’re weird,” Wren informed me with a giggle before tossing the shoes to me. “Try them on! Come on, come on, I wanna see!” She was bouncing up and down with obvious excitement. 

Chuckling despite myself, I moved to sit down on the nearby couch. While Wren (And Fred, who stood in the doorway and looked pretty curious himself) watched, I took off my own pace-skates and pulled the new shoes on. As expected, they fit just fine. Perfectly, really. Lacing them up, I stood and walked back and forth across the room a couple times. “Yup, they feel great.” 

Literally bouncing up and down eagerly, Wren urged, “Say, ‘Wheels-Out’.” 

Readying myself, I did so. Of course, the wheels popped out. The phrase ‘Wheels-In’ brought them in. According to Wren, the skates would only respond to the code being spoken by the person wearing them, which was nice. It meant I could make them work even if I wasn’t using my voice changer thing, without asking her to program my real voice into it. Part of me wondered just how much of a coincidence that actually was. Did she, like Blackjack, know I was using a voice changer and simply wasn’t pushing to find out why? 

“But I didn’t just reinvent the same pace-skates,” Wren excitedly informed me. “That’d be boring. They’ve done that already. These are special! Check it out, when the shoes or the skate wheels are against something like a wall or a ceiling, they’ll stay there unless you pull them away yourself.”

“But the wheels still roll and everything?” I asked, certain she knew better than I did how to make something like that work, but still curious about the specifics. 

Sure enough, her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh, uh huh. See, they don’t… ummm… they don’t really stick like your red paint does. It’s more of a… a gravity thing.” 

Blinking, I asked, “Gravity thing?” 

So she explained. “See, whenever the shoes or the wheels are pressed against something, they project a sort of… umm, okay well the simple version is that they change your personal gravity depending on the orientation of the thing they’re pressed against. If you’re walking on the ground, your gravity is normal. If you put them against the wall, it’ll change your personal gravity so that it’s coming at you from the side instead of above, see? And if you’re upside down with the shoes against the ceiling, it’ll reverse gravity so it’s coming at you from below to keep you up there. No matter which way you’re facing, the shoes will make the gravity bubble around you act like you’re standing right-side up on solid ground!” As she finished explaining that much, the kid was (understandably) beaming. 

“Holy shit, Wren,” I muttered in amazement. “You do good work on short notice.” 

She shrugged at that. “Not really short notice. I was working on the gravity thing for my own stuff, and started sketching ideas for your thing right after we met. Getting your size was the last part and that was just to buy shoes to put the equipment into. It–” She hesitated, biting her lip with obvious apprehension and uncertainty. “You really like it? I thought it’d help if you could get around like you do without using as much paint.” 

“Like it?” I echoed, stepping over to hug her tightly despite myself. She gave an eep of surprise and then returned it with a giggle. “It’s amazing, Wren. I mean damn. This is ridiculous. Come on, let’s see…” 

Letting her go, I stepped over, lifting my foot to press it against the nearby wall. Then I lifted the other foot and put it against the wall too. Sure enough, I just sort of… stood there, sideways, with my feet against the wall. It was kind of disorienting, but not hard at all. There was a brief twisting sensation in my stomach as my own personal gravity reoriented, but nothing too bad. After that, it was just like Wren said, I felt as though I was standing upright on the ground.

Standing like that for a few seconds, I started walking up the wall. Whistling casually, I walked all the way to the ceiling, put my foot up to that, took a breath, and then put my other foot up. That twisting sensation came back as my stomach briefly protested gravity adjusting the way it did, before I was suddenly crouching against the ceiling. Crouching against the ceiling with no paint. Holy shit. Holy shit. This was…

From below, Wren called, “You can jump to get down, but be careful!” 

Taking her advice, I pushed off with both feet. Gravity swung up and around into the proper position again, and I felt a rush while flipping over. I didn’t exactly land completely smoothly, stumbling a bit to the side. But still, it was pretty good. 

Popping back upright, I grinned. “See, I knew partnering with you was gonna be awesome. I just didn’t know it was gonna be this awesome this quick.” I was smiling broadly like a goofy idiot. She was right, I’d be able to move around as Paintball a lot more easily like this, traveling the way I liked to without using up red paint to stick to walls. That would free up paint for a lot more things. 

“I’m gonna make more!” Wren promised quickly. “More fun things that’ll be even better for you, I swear. I’ve got lots of ideas, and I think you’ll really like them. But they take time and work and stuff. But I–” 

Stepping that way, I embraced the girl. “It’s okay, Wren. These are amazing. Seriously, thanks. Every bit of paint I save from not having to use it to stick to walls will be paint I can use other ways, to help people. I can move faster like this. You’re amazing, and so are these.” 

“Superkid’s right,” Fred put in. “You did good work. But you know the rules, what we said.” 

She nodded, glancing to me, “Gotta do homework, not just fun work.” 

Chuckling, I rubbed the top of her head. “Good. I’ve got things to do too. But I’ll put these things through their paces, I’ll tell you that much. Thanks for making these so fast, Wren. 

“Something tells me they’re gonna come in handy real soon.” 

*****

Of course, hopefully that real soon wouldn’t apply to tonight. Because it was time to go to Amber’s party. I changed into my street clothes before stopping by the mall on the way back to look for a present that she might like. In the end, I grabbed her some new AirPods and an iPad that I thought she’d like, along with a box of chocolate candy, and had them all wrapped there. 

Yeah, part of me still felt bad about using what was obviously dirty money from my parents to buy gifts for some girl at school. But the truth was that that money was already there. Whatever had been done to get it was over. It wasn’t like ignoring it would make whatever bad things that happened to get it just… disappear. Making my parents contribute to some random girl’s birthday was a hell of a lot better than a lot of other ways the money could be spent. 

Besides, if I didn’t spend money to buy Amber a present, it would look awfully strange at this point. Mom and Dad knew we were going to a party, knew Amber was a close enough friend that we’d brought her home to see that movie, and so on. If they noticed me not buying her something nice, it’d attract attention.

All of which were things I told myself repeatedly while picking out those gifts. It didn’t help entirely erase the guilt about that whole situation, but it was something.

Catching an Uber ride home, I found Izzy and the two of us headed out to where Jefferson, the driver, was waiting. He led us to Henlein (Jefferson’s favorite black BMW, named after the guy who invented the watch), and we were off. 

On the way, I glanced to the girl beside me. “Here.” I offered her the package with the AirPods. “Those can be from you.” 

Blinking in surprise, she looked at me with a frown. “But I didn’t help–I mean I never–I didn’t even… what?” 

“Don’t worry about it,” I assured her. “Just help me with something now and then and we’re totally even. I mean, technically my parents bought the gifts, so you might as well get as much credit as I do for one of them.” With a wink, I glanced out the window to watch as we passed other cars on the road, adding, “Oh, that reminds me, Dad said I should give you your allowance card. He said as long as you’re living with us, you should get the same benefits Simon and me do.”

“Um. Allowance card?” The other girl was clearly baffled. “What’s an allowance card?” 

Digging into my pocket, I came out with the thing, handing it over. It was a debit card with her name on it. “Dad said he’s starting you out with a thousand a week, but if you end up needing–”  

“A thauuuuuwhat?!” Izzy blurted, jerking in her seat as she dropped the card as if it had burned her. “What? A what–he’s giving a–what?” 

Reaching down, I plucked up the card, holding it out to her again. She eyed it like it might be a snake. “A thousand a week. You should be able to get whatever you need with that, but like I said, if you need more, Dad’s usually good with fudging it and adding extra to the account.”

Now she was staring at me like I’d grown three extra heads. “Why would I need more than a thousand a week? What–how do you–what bills do you even have?!” 

First I giggled reflexively at her reaction, ignoring the pit in my stomach. How bad was it to get Izzy involved in this whole thing by handing her dirty money? But as with the whole gift thing, Mom and Dad would really notice if I didn’t give her the debit card and tell her about the allowance. Then I’d have a lot more questions to answer. I had to act like the money didn’t bother me. 

Again of course, giving it to Izzy was another way of putting at least a little bit of that dirty money to better use. Even if it was just like bailing water out of a sinking boat with a teaspoon. 

“Just have fun with it tonight,” I urged. “Play whatever games you want. Buy games for other people too. It’ll be great.” 

Izzy was still staring at me open-mouthed, as I put the card back in her hand. “I guess so… all this stuff is… you know how weird this is, right? That’s a lot of money for most people.”

“Yeah, I know.” Looking back to her, I replied, “I mean, not personally, but I kinda get it. But seriously, it’s okay. If this freaks you out, you should see where Dad wants to take us for vacation next time.” 

Flatly, the other girl replied, “Right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer was Mars.” 

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” I retorted with a grin. 

“Like he’d take us to the same place two years in a row.”  

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