Glitch

Enkindle 23-09 (Summus Proelium)

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“What’d you do, multiply?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Deals 13-03 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go see this casino.”

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