Izzy Amor

Enkindle 23-01 (Summus Proelium)

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Things hadn’t changed at all after I slept for a few hours. Nor did they after I splashed water on my face rather aggressively three or four times, or after I took a long hot shower. Even after all of that, as I got dressed, the situation was the same. Raige had her new body, and it looked identical to my body. She looked like me. Well, a blonde me with glasses and all, but still. How was I supposed to deal with that? What was I even supposed to do with it? I had no idea. I just–I couldn’t even think about it without my brain showing one of those old television test patterns. I thought I had been prepared for her to look like another Paige, even a younger Paige. It had occurred to me that a prototype body might look like a kid version of Paige. Or some random person. But a body that looked like me? It had never even crossed my mind as a vague possibility. I was completely dumbfounded by that whole situation, even now that I had gotten some sleep. If anything, I felt even more flummoxed by it. I just… couldn’t deal. 

Once I was in the hall outside the bathroom once more, Izzy was there waiting. She glanced toward me, then down the hall where the stairs were before shaking her head. She didn’t need to say anything. I knew what that meant. There was no sign of my parents. They were either still upstairs and hadn’t come down yet, or they had yet to come home. Given the situation we had left them with, I was going to bet on the latter. I was pretty sure it had been a long time since someone–anyone actually struck a blow against them at all, let alone got away with it. And given my parents weren’t standing in front of me demanding I tell them what the hell I was doing, they clearly hadn’t gotten any actual answers from their investigation so far. So, yeah, they were probably still out there working on it. 

Okay, was it weird that I felt a little bad about costing them sleep? Sure, part of me was glad for it, a little vindictively. But another part felt guilty. Why did I feel guilty about that? It was a tiny cost for them, basically inconsequential. And yet, I couldn’t entirely shut it out, even after telling myself how stupid it was. My brain wouldn’t listen to itself. Which felt unfair, though unsurprising.

Shaking that off, I nodded at Izzy before starting to walk that way. We didn’t go upstairs, of course. Those rooms were for my parents, and I had no reason to be there for the moment. The very last thing–okay one of the last things I wanted right then was for Mom and Dad to be told by the staff that I was snooping around. Given how paranoid they were bound to be after last night, I felt like they weren’t likely to dismiss anything like that. So, tempting as it had always been for me to go looking through their rooms for anything important and then just say that I was looking for them if anyone found me, now was probably not the best time. They would be on hyper-alert for anything out of the ordinary. 

Which was why we were going down to eat breakfast and then go to school. Even though I really didn’t want to, there was no choice. I’d rather curl up in bed for another three hours or so, and then get started dealing with all the everything that was waiting for us at Wren’s shop. But if my parents got a call that I had skipped school, that would be something out of the ordinary for them to pay attention to. Again, we had to avoid any suspicion right now. While they were dealing with the break-in, I needed my parents to think that everything back here at home was perfectly normal. We couldn’t give them any reason whatsoever to suspect that there might be something going on here, or just with us in general. There was too big of a chance that the whole house of cards would fall apart. 

So, we ate breakfast and took the ride from Jefferson to school. On the way, I checked the news on my phone. I wasn’t expecting to see anything about what had happened and I didn’t end up being surprised. There was a lot of stuff about the gang war and all that, even a bit about a car chase involving a van and several vehicles that had ended with the van in the water. But it didn’t go into any details other than that, and was stuck in the middle of an article about general violence in the city. Obviously, my parents weren’t going to let any details about what they knew get reported in the public news. So I checked for any social media posts about it, and got a couple vague ones that mentioned the ‘police chopper’ chasing the van. Other than that, it was all pretty much the same. 

Putting my phone away, I glanced toward Izzy before looking to the front. The partition was up, giving us privacy back here. And, well, giving Jefferson privacy up there. Shifting in my seat to use the intercom button, I waited for the beep before asking, “So how late did the play go last night? Should I feel bad that I wasn’t there, or glad that I can actually sit through school today without getting in trouble for falling asleep?” Boy, was it hard to get through that with a straight face. But it was even harder to get through it without yawning, which would’ve been even worse. 

There was a very brief pause before Jefferson’s voice replied, “It was nearly two in the morning when the play ended. I can hardly believe your parents would actually have allowed either of you to attend on a school night.” 

“Yeah, I think that was mostly Dad not thinking,” I replied easily. Again, I had to stifle a yawn. “But hey, maybe he would’ve convinced Mom that we should all stay home and sleep this morning. You think he’ll get up before noon?” I figured that was innocuous enough, a way of looking more like I was teasing my dad rather than probing for information. 

Again, there was a brief pause before he responded. “I believe your father was up and leaving for the office slightly before you appeared for breakfast, Miss Evans. He is very punctual when he wants to be.” There was a note of pride in his voice then, given his own preference for punctuality. Then he added, “Though I cannot say for certain what he will do once he arrives at the office, and he does have a quite comfortable couch.” 

Making a show of giggling a little, I let go of the intercom and leaned back to glance at Izzy. Neither of us said anything. We weren’t that stupid. We had talked a little bit before sleeping, and some more when the alarm dragged us out of far too little sleep. Now, all we did was nod very slightly before starting to talk about utterly inconsequential things. If anyone had actually been eavesdropping, I was pretty sure they would either give themselves a concussion falling asleep, or claw out their own ears to get away from the mundane teenage girl talk. 

Eventually, we reached the high school and I said goodbye to both Izzy and Jefferson  before hopping out. Without looking back, I started walking to the front door, as though it was just another ordinary day like any other. Some people waved and greeted me with a word or two, and I returned it before heading inside. Normal. I had to look normal. No seeming paranoid, no jumping every time someone said my name, no acting like that guy walking past was sent by my parents to grab me because they had figured everything out and wanted to have a discussion about it in person. Normal. Totally normal. 

“Cass!” Amber called out, nearly giving me a heart attack as she popped into view. “Come on, I’ve gotta show you something.” With a flick of her finger as though beckoning, she pivoted and walked toward the entrance of the library. “There’s no way we’re not getting those bonus points.” 

The two of us made our way through the library, heading upstairs and back to the reference section. This early in the day, there was no one back there. Well, almost no one. 

“Hey,” Paige spoke up, rubbing the back of her neck as she turned away from the large encyclopedia she had been looking at. “Uh, well I guess the first thing I should say is that Raige went for a walk.” 

That made me do a quick double-take. “I–she what? She went for a walk? As in out in public?” 

Paige shrugged a little, lowering her voice. “She said she had to get out and look around, stretch her legs, that sort of thing. And that she was going to get some more things to disguise herself, like colored contacts and spray tan. She had to get out of there. After all that time stuck on the couch, I can’t really blame her. And I’ve actually been free to walk around before. It’s her first time outside of sharing my memories.”

“Yeah, it’s her first time. Do you really think she–” Stopping myself, I exhaled. “Sorry. I’m just… kinda paranoid, I guess.”

“You have reason to be,” Amber put in, gesturing back and forth between the two of us. “And Paige has reason to want to trust her–you know, sister? Sort of? Even if she looks like–this is weird.” Her face twisted a little as she thought that through before settling on, “Really weird.” 

“You can say that again,” I muttered. With a sigh, I added, “But I get it. She’s not a prisoner, and we can’t treat her like one if we want to keep this whole allies thing going. Your dad already fucked her over and made her turn on him, I don’t want to be the same as that creep. Or even vaguely similar. I’m just a little weirded out by the idea that there’s some girl out in the city right now who looks like me. Even if she’s in disguise. It’s just… I guess it is like having a twin. And right now, my parents seeing a twin of me would be a real fucking disaster.” 

“They won’t,” Paige assured me. “Raige knows better than to go anywhere near them. Your parents are gonna be too busy dealing with everything that happened last night to go eat breakfast in some random dive, or walk through a completely different mall. Or whatever else Raige does. It’s a big city with a lot of people. As long as she doesn’t do anything to draw a bunch of attention to herself, she will practically be invisible. And I know how it sounds when I say that, but even Raige knows how to be subtle, believe me. She’ll be fine.” 

It kind of sounded like she was trying to fully convince herself of that, but I left it alone. There was no use worrying about something I couldn’t affect right now anyway. Instead, I took a breath before focusing on Paige herself. “You know this whole thing is going to be weird too, right? I mean, you being back at school and all that. People are going to wonder if the two of us aren’t at each other’s throats all of a sudden. It’ll be something weird and different, and stuff that’s weird and different might get back to my parents. It’s a little more complicated than two plus two to figure out what’s actually going on, but I feel like them knowing that you know something about their business and all of a sudden the two of us are all buddy buddy might just… give them too much to work off of. They might not get all the way to four, but I don’t particularly want them to know that there’s any addition to be doing at all.” 

Grimacing a bit, Paige nodded. “Yeah, that’s fair. I just–yeah, we’ll have to fake it. I mean, I was always faking it, so that won’t change for me. But–” She stopped, giving a low sigh. “You’re right, it’s weird. I always thought that… that at least after my birthday, I wouldn’t have to act like that anymore.” 

“You thought that because you were planning on being dead,” I shot back. “I’m gonna go out on a limb and say pretending to hate me and act like a psycho cunt who picks apart my insecurities is at least better than being dead.” 

Paige, in turn, coughed. “I do prefer being alive. I just–I hate that my dad’s bullshit still has to affect me even now. I just want to shove him out of my mind, but I–he’s… I still have to act the way he wanted me to act, just so your parents don’t get suspicious about things. And we still have to deal with him because Irelyn and Trivial are stuck out there. Which, for the record, I looked up everything I could find about Breakwater, and no one has said anything about anyone being there who shouldn’t be, let alone a couple Star-Touched.” 

My mouth opened, before I stopped and looked toward Amber. “Uh, wait, you know what–” 

“I told her,” Paige confirmed. “Earlier this morning. I don’t– I’m going to try not to tell anyone else in the group, if possible. Not yet, anyway. That’s just too many people to spill Irelyn’s secret to. But I thought having Amber involved would help. Four heads are better than three, or something.” She raised one shoulder in an absent half-shrug, clearly focusing mostly on the actual problem itself, her missing adopted sister. 

“Right, I know about that. But my question is, how is that even possible?” Amber demanded. “Them being trapped there, I mean. They have to have people watching the island, right? How could they have two Star-Touched running around there and not notice them?” 

“Maybe they did notice and just don’t care, or think it’d be a bigger controversy to get them off it,” I muttered a bit darkly. “The big thing about that place is that no one who isn’t supposed to be there can find it, and no one imprisoned there can get off, right? It’d probably be a pretty major hit to the place’s reputation if people found out that someone managed to send a couple Star-Touched there. Or anyone there. Which–how did they get there? We still don’t know. We don’t know anything about all that.” 

While Paige grimaced, Amber spoke up. “We’ll find out what happened. I, uhh, I’m not sure how yet, but we will. We just have to take this whole thing one step at a time. Getting Raige her own body was a step. Now we’ll figure out what the next one is. If they are hiding the fact that there’s two people stranded on Breakwater, maybe we can get the word out about that. You know, anonymously.” 

I wasn’t sure how that would work, or why anyone would believe rumors like that. But instead of naysaying, I nodded. “We’ll think about it. And we’ve got all those papers and files to go over still. Probably won’t help with this thing directly, but maybe they’ll have something about your dad from when they caught him, you know?” I looked to Paige then. “Something we can use.” 

“What about your pare–I mean your adopted parents?” Amber asked the other girl. “We still have no idea where they are, right? What’s the school gonna say?” 

Paige shrugged. “Not much. As far as they’re concerned, they already talked to Mr. Banners over the phone and he apologized for keeping me away for so long. But… yeah, we don’t know where they are. I never knew what my father was going to do after all that went down. They haven’t… found their bodies or anything, so…” She shifted, looking uncomfortable. “I don’t know. I wish I did.” 

We talked a little bit more about all that, and other stuff, but hadn’t come up with anything substantially useful by the time we had to go to class. Amber and I let Paige go first so we wouldn’t be seen walking together. After she headed out, I looked at the other girl. “I kinda feel like I could fall over and die for ten hours or so. And thinking about all the things we still need to deal with isn’t helping.” 

“Tell me about it,” she replied, “I almost threw my alarm clock out the window this morning. You have no idea how tempting it was to just call in sick. Err, well I guess you do.”

“I definitely do,” I agreed, yawning. “I’m gonna take a nap this afternoon. I don’t want to, but I don’t think I have a choice. I’ll be worthless sitting at the shop staring at those files if I don’t sleep for a couple more hours.

“If Raige really wanted to walk around and experience her new body, I should’ve had her take my place today so I could sleep in.” 

******

Thankfully, nothing much happened through the rest of the school day. I saw Paige a couple more times from a distance, or in the classes we shared, but we avoided having any direct contact for the moment. Neither of us were exactly eager to get back to playing things out the way they were supposed to go, so I supposed we were avoiding it. Paige was with all her school friends every time I saw her, laughing it up and going on about her long vacation and how her dad had insisted on some sort of spiritual retreat to ‘get back to basics’ or something. Whatever her cover story was, it had her audience enthralled. 

She did apparently talk to Amber a bit more, specifically about Raige. Who had apparently chosen a different name to go by. 

Now it was later that evening. As promised, I had gone home and taken a nap for a little bit. When I got up, my parents still weren’t around. They were really busy with this whole break-in thing. So Izzy and I ate a quick early dinner before heading out. She and Amber had to do Minority stuff, which left me standing here on the roof of Wren’s shop with Paige and the girl formerly known as Raige. Or rather now…

“Sierra, was it?” I asked the girl in question while looking her up and down. She did look somewhat different from me here in the daylight. Well, the resemblance was still there, obviously. But with slightly darker tanned skin, different-colored eyes with the contacts, glasses, long hair on both sides, and the fact it was blonde… yeah, she was different. Then there were the clothes. She was wearing a tummy-baring shirt and tight pants that I just could not pull off. 

Well, I supposed technically there was–that is–I wasn’t… huh. Now I felt even weirder.

On top of all that, she was a couple inches taller than me, somehow. All put together, while I was sure my family and those really close to me would recognize her–or rather me, most others would probably at worst notice a weird resemblance. Hopefully we could do more to shift her appearance eventually, but this was a fairly decent start for the time being. 

Inclining her head a bit, the girl nodded. “That’s right. Raige was a little over-the-top and not really… me. So you know, my solution for being too over-the-top was to name myself after a mountain range. Sierra Nevada. First name, last name. We’ll be working on paperwork and identification.” She gave me a sly smirk. “On top of all the trust issues and psychological trauma, Pittman did give us a pretty good understanding of how to go about that. You should see all the fake IDs Paige has.” 

Clearing her throat, Paige gestured. “At least she pulled off looking pretty different.” 

“Even took a page out of your books and got a few different shoes with lifts in them,” Ra–Sierra drawled idly, gesturing down at them. “Not huge ones, just a couple inches. Enough that your pals down there probably won’t look at the two of us and see that we’re the exact same height.” 

“Right, uhh, thanks for that.” Biting my lip thoughtfully, I looked her up and down once more. “I don’t suppose you came up with any genius ideas for getting Irelyn and Trivial off Breakwater while you were at it?” 

“Sorry, babe,” she replied with a shrug. “I thought about it, but kinda came up empty. I think we’ll have to get the kid involved. If anyone’s gonna have an idea about how to move a couple people off an island we can’t find, it’s her.” 

She had a point. And, as I was thinking about that, we all heard voices from below. Peyton was arriving at the store, along with Murphy and Roald. 

“Well,” I started with a gesture toward the ladder leading down, “I guess we should get down there and start talking it over with her, huh? And while we’re at it, we can officially introduce you to the others, Sierra.

“But for the record, if any of them immediately says ‘hey that’s Cassidy Evans with blonde hair,’ I quit.” 

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Dig In 22-15 (Summus Proelium)

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“Ohhhh no. Oh no, no, no. Nope, no.” Those words and more filled the air, sounding dull with shock and disbelief. It took me a moment to realize that I was the one saying them, even as I took several reflexive steps back. My head was shaking almost violently. In between words, I was making a disbelieving, distressed sound in the back of my throat. It sounded vaguely like a low whine, and also possibly like an airplane plummeting toward the ground. Which was probably a pretty decent metaphor when it came to what my brain was doing at that moment. 

Amber and Izzy were just staring in shocked silence, their body language making it clear that they had no idea how to respond to what we were looking at. Not that I would have heard it if they did say something, most likely. Not through the ringing in my ears that seemed to get louder the longer I stood there and stared at… at… me. Not me. Raige. Raige who now looked like me. Like a version of me who was wearing a simple gray sweatsuit. What–how was that–why would–what– My brain kept looping back in on itself. Every time I thought I was ready to say something besides no, it came right back around to that same blank, confused denial. I had absolutely no idea how to react to this, inwardly or outwardly. 

Clearing my–her throat, Raige spoke up with my voice again while looking straight at me (with my eyes). “So, I completely understand that this is probably a lot to take in. You know, us being new twins and all. But hey, we accomplished the mission. I have an orb and a body.”  

“A bo–you have my body!” I found myself blurting, a flush rising to my face under the mask. “You look like me. I mean it, you look identical to me. I mean–what–how–what?” It was all I could do to stop those last few words from turning into another inarticulate whine.  

“It’s the only body we can find,” Paige gently put in. “The only biolem that was still sitting around waiting for our father to do something with.”  

Amber was the first to finally find her voice after that. “Why… the hell would your father have a biolem who looks like Cassidy?” She demanded in a hissed tone. “What was he playing at?” 

“He was probably planning on replacing her.” That was Izzy, speaking quietly as she looked back and forth between the updated Raige and me. “You know, embed a fake as a spy. Or maybe he thought they might work with him if he offered to download your brain into a biolem and make you immortal? Or–” Her head shook as she managed a weak, “I dunno. I dunno, it’s just—obviously a replacement, right? Or, I mean–” 

“I get it,” I put in. My voice sounded a bit hollow even through the changer. Really, was it ironic that Raige sounded more like me right now than I did? Because this was just… I had no idea how to… or what was… ugh. My brain was looping back in on itself again, which wasn’t helpful. 

“I don’t know for sure,” Paige hesitantly offered, “but I think she’s right.” Her head nodded toward Izzy. “I think one of his plans involved either replacing Cassidy or offering to make you and your family part of… the system in exchange for funding at one point. This was like a proof of concept or something. He had DNA samples from somewhere. I swear I don’t know where he got them. But they were in there, in that machine that was holding this… body. They grew it just like this, and it’s been sitting there growing and being groomed this whole time with no–uh, brain or personality. Just an empty body.” 

“From DNA,” I found myself murmuring, barely resisting the urge to scream it. “He had my DNA. That’s how he–how this thing looks like me still. Even though he must have built it a while ago. Wait, you said it aged normally? Did he just create it at–I guess that makes…” I trailed off before I could finish saying that it made sense, because none of this made sense to me. I felt like I was in the middle of a crazy fever dream or something. 

“He would have created the body at the age you were when he built it,” Paige slowly remarked. “So it makes sense that it would be the same age you are now. It’s just been sitting here, being automatically cared for just in case he decided to come back to it or… something. Once he gave up on working with your parents, he probably kept it around in case there was an opportunity to… to replace you.” She spoke the last few words quietly, wincing.  

Putting both hands against my forehead, I breathed in and out a few times. Hearing that Pittman had been planning to replace me with a copy, who would probably have ended up doing terrible things to my family, was a lot to take in. Even considering the fact that it was coming from a guy who had already demonstrably planned to kill me. I was starting to think that I didn’t come out ahead in very many of Pittman’s plans. It was almost like he had some sort of grudge against me personally instead of just my family. Was he pissed because I had made friends with Paige? Was that it? I had no idea, but this whole thing was starting to feel personal.  

Shaking that off, I raised myself before taking a few steps that way. Leaning in close to stare into my duplicate body’s eyes, I slowly scanned down my–her face, taking in every possible detail. It was me. Well, obviously a bit different with the longer, undyed hair, but still me. Staring into the face was like looking into a mirror. Every bit of her was just me. She was me, from top to bottom. 

“It was lying facedown in the machine,” Paige informed us. “And Raige was… excited. We didn’t really look at it until after she was plugged in. I knew there was something familiar, but–” She cut herself off, sighing a little. “Like she said, we know it’s a lot to take in. But–” 

“It’s my body,” Raige interrupted. “The only one there is, the only one we’ve got. So it’s the one we have to use. Unless you’re going to try to go back on the deal.” Her tone turned slightly dangerous, though still mostly understanding, as she squinted at me. As my own eyes squinted at me. “You know, the one where I help in exchange for this? Because if this is too much and you’d rather go back to the old status quo where I fight every single one of you…” It wasn’t quite a threat. Well, It might have sounded like that to an outside observer, but I could hear the worry and frustration in her voice, the fear. She was afraid that we would stab her in the back just like Pittman had. Because of course she was. That was how her father had treated her, how he’d treated both her and Paige. So why wouldn’t she assume the worst from other people? 

Taking a breath before letting it out, I shook my head firmly. “No one’s saying anything like that. Just–just give me a second.” I had to move away from her, taking a few steps the other way before turning my back to my new duplicate body. My hands covered my face and I gave a long, slow exhale. A lot to take in? That was basically the understatement of the century. I hadn’t even begun to start thinking my way through all of the ramifications of this, let alone the simple question of what we were going to do with having someone who looked just like me. Not just in the wider city, but simply around everyone else on the team who didn’t know who I was. 

Actually, that was probably the best question of all. Taking another breath, I turned back that way. “What are we going to say to the others? They’ll want to know if we found a new body for Raige, and I’m pretty sure they’ll be a bit interested in seeing it.” 

The girl in question was still squinting at me. Which, again, was weird to see coming from what was essentially myself. “Does that mean you’re not gonna start a big fuss over it?  You’re going to let me keep the body?” 

My mouth opened to say something, before I paused and held up a hand to take a moment. I had to think about my next words briefly. “I… that was the deal. You would get a body of your own. I didn’t question it when we thought it would look like Paige, or like some random person. It wouldn’t be fair to—it’s weird, yeah. Totally fucking weird. No question about that. But no matter what it looks like, it’s your body, not mine. It’s my appearance, my face, my–it makes me feel funny. But I’m not going to say you can’t use it, just because it looks like me. But bear with me a little bit, okay? It’s a lot to deal with. I can’t–oh jeez, it really looks like me. You. You really look like me.” I was looking it–her up and down once more. It was still surprising, no matter how many times I closed my eyes, told myself what I was going to see, then opened them again. Some part of me kept thinking that it would look different the next time I opened up my eyes. But it never did. She always looked identical to me. That wasn’t going to change. I just had to deal with that and move on. Which meant figuring out what to do about it as far as everyone else was concerned. 

Amber stepped closer as well, hesitantly lifting a hand to touch the long hair of my duplicate. “Damn,” she murmured, “They really got down to the smallest detail, didn’t they? I mean, of your–yeah.” 

Grimacing visibly, Raige brushed the other girl’s arm away from her. “As much as I love everyone complimenting Bastard Dad’s work, we should probably get down to business. Cuz if Cass over there is really gonna let this go without raising a fuss, then she’s right. We probably do need to explain why I look like this.”   

She was right, of course, we did need to explain that. A part of me was wondering just what the odds were that we would’ve just happened to only come here with the people who already knew my identity. If Peyton had come with us, or Pack? Yeah, this whole thing would be even more awkward. 

“I could tell them the truth,” I murmured under my breath, barely able to put voice to the thought. “I could tell them who I really am, and we could explain… you know, all of it. They already know about the Ministry and all that. It’s just one more step or two for the rest of it.” 

“Pretty big steps,” Amber pointed out. “Are you really ready to tell Pack, Wren, Fred, Peyton, Murphy, and Roald who you really are and what your connection to all this is?” 

“You mean do I trust Pack to keep it to herself?” I replied flatly, meeting her gaze. “I mean, she is a thief in the long run. She still works for Blackjack, who is still linked to my parents. She works for him, and he works for them. Well, maybe not for, but you know. He follows instructions. He pays his taxes. He just–” Stopping myself, I sighed. “That is the real question, isn’t it? Not to mention Fred. Sure, he’s really learned a lot, but he screwed up once and nearly got Blackjack’s daughter killed for it. He’s grown, but do we know for sure he’d never make a mistake like that again? Not even a mistake like that, necessarily. Do we trust them to never use my identity for their own ends, or to even mess up and accidentally reveal it?”

After getting all that out, I gave a heavy sigh before focusing on Amber once more. “They already know about the Ministry, and about what we know. They know we were the ones who broke into that base tonight. We’re already all in this together. And if they wanted, or just messed up, we’d already be completely screwed. I trusted them this far. I trusted them with it this far. I’ve taken this many steps out over the ledge, and now I feel like one of those cartoon characters who’ll fall if I look down and see how far up I am. So you tell me, do you trust Pack not to give up my identity to her boss?” 

There was only the slightest hesitation as Amber ran the question through her mind before giving a short nod. “I… I know she likes you. I mean, she thinks you’re a lot different than you are, but she still likes you. And I don’t think she would reveal your secret to anyone. Not for money or anything else. She talks a big game about being a bad guy, and sure, she still steals stuff. But she’s loyal to her friends. She’s loyal to Blackjack because he’s helped her out so much, and I think she’d be loyal to you too. So yeah, I think you can trust her with this.” 

Before I could say anything to that, Raige cleared her throat. “Sure, that’s sweet and all. Very touching. But you know you might not have to, right?” As we all looked at her, she rolled her eyes. Which gave me a good idea of what it looked like when I did that. “Yeah, I look like her. But you people do know that disguises exist, right? Fuck, I already have long hair instead of having it short on one side. Give me some blonde hair dye, some colored contacts, some glasses, let me dress differently, whatever. And that’s before you get into the Touched-Tech stuff that could change my appearance even more drastically. Sure, it’s not exactly sitting on the shelves of Wal-Mart, but it’s not impossible to get either. They don’t have to know we look identical now, that’s all I’m saying. Trust your buddies or don’t, but you don’t need to let me looking like this force you into making a decision before you’re ready, that’s all.” 

Glancing away for a moment as thoughts ran through my mind, I finally gave a nod and looked back that way. “You’re right, there are ways to disguise you. Besides, it’s not like my picture is all over the news constantly. Between the media’s disappointment that I don’t take after my mom, and my parents protecting me, most of the general public can’t instantly pick me out of a crowd. Add in a few changes like different hair and all that stuff and… yeah, I guess it would work. Hell, it’s not like any of them have any reason to know what the real me looks like anyway. I’ve never met them as myself.” 

While everyone else exchanged looks, I went on. “The point is, maybe it is time to tell the others the truth about me. But Raige is right,  it’s probably a bad idea to let something like this force us– force me into it. I’m going to tell them. I want to tell them all of it, the full truth. They’ve definitely earned it. But I want to do it because I decided it was the right time and place, not because I didn’t have any choice. I just–I want to tell them when it’s right. Soon. But maybe all separately. Peyton first. She’s earned that, she’s supposed to be my–my partner and all that. My–I need to tell her. And I will.” 

Realizing I was rambling a bit, I coughed. “Anyway, we should focus on this right now.” My hands gestured toward Raige. “We need to make her look different before we go back to Wren’s. Who, for the record, is probably already wondering what’s going on with us.”

“Um, it’s not like there’s a store open right now,” Amber pointed out. “It’s the middle of the night and there’s a curfew. So how are we supposed to find hair dye and stuff like that at this hour?” She hesitated very slightly before adding a weak, “We’re not gonna steal it, are we?” 

“If we did break in somewhere,” I replied, “we’d be subtle about it and we’d leave money. I know it’s not perfect, but…” With a heavy sigh, I shook my head. “Lots of ways it’s not perfect. But what choice do we have? You’re right, there’s no stores open that we can use.”

“We don’t have to steal anything.” That was Izzy. “And we don’t have to buy it.” She reached into her bag, pulling out, of all things, three bottles of hair dye in various shades, and several different styles of glasses. She also had three different tee-shirts in varying sizes, and a few different pairs of pants, also different sizes. When everyone stared at her, she squirmed under the attention. “I um, I didn’t know if the body we found would have clothes, or what it would look like. I just thought if it looked–I mean if she looked too noticeable or if we needed to change her appearance for some reason. Or– I mean it’s not like I didn’t have plenty of money for it. So I just–”

“Izzy, you’re a genius,” I interrupted. “A straight-up genius. I can’t believe none of the rest of us even thought about that. Of course disguising the body was a good idea, no matter what it looked like.” 

“Yeah, she’s brilliant and all. Congratulations,” Raige put in. “Now can we get down to business, please? Because I’d like to take this body for a spin, not stand here all day talking about it. I don’t know if you’ve all forgotten or something but this is my first time having a physical body all to myself, without somebody backseat walking.” She added that with a pointed glance toward Paige. “Need to run around the block, do some flips, get in a fistfight, really put this body through its paces.” 

Grimacing at her choice of words, I managed a weak, “Please don’t get into a fistfight anytime soon, okay? Not just because–well… that looks like me and it’d be weird, but also because we’re trying not to attract attention.”  

I was treated to the sight and sound of what looked like my own body scoffing at me. Raige waved a hand dismissively. “Yeah, yeah, no running off and punching the first person I see. It was a figure of speech, or whatever. The point is, I just want to get it out there and test this body for real. You don’t know what it’s like being all cooped up and having to share what little control you have with someone else.” 

“Gee, thanks,” Paige mumbled before focusing. “She’s right though. I mean, about all of it. She deserves to stretch her legs, even just a little bit. Not to mention, we don’t know how long we might have before someone in the Ministry thinks to start checking these places. Sure, it’s not super-likely anytime soon, but we probably shouldn’t push our luck. So can we get started?” 

“Hang on,” I interrupted, biting my lip before stepping back over there. I had to look at myself again. My hands rose to settle on my–her shoulders, as I simply stared, taking it all in. It was still so weird to see my own body standing there like that. It made a funny feeling rise up in my stomach. Not revulsion or disgust or anything bad like that. Just… a funny feeling. It was hard to describe. Standing there, I looked myself–no, I looked Raige up and down once more. This was the biolem body that would have taken my place in my family, that would have secretly spied on my parents and probably ended up doing something horrible. Actually, probably more than one horrible thing. It was–yeah, it was a lot to take in, to say the least. It was going to take a lot more time than these few seconds for me to adjust to the idea that there was someone who looked identical to me, even if we were going to make her look slightly different now. This was a pretty huge thing. 

So, after a moment of that, I released my new twin and stepped away. “Okay, let’s get to it. Let’s make a version of you who looks at least somewhat different than me.” 

We got to work on that pretty quick. The hair dye was one of the new kinds that sprayed in, only affecting hair even if you got it on something else. Well, it affected other things, but it was really easy to wipe off if that thing wasn’t hair. Raige chose the blonde color, and soon there was what amounted to a blonde me standing there in front of us. She changed out of the sweatsuit, switching it for a simple red tee-shirt and jeans that mostly fit, then searched through the glasses until she managed to find a pair she didn’t completely hate. They were thin metal frames. 

“So, how do I look?” she finally asked while standing in front of us. 

“Let’s just say we definitely need to do more to change you before anyone who actually knows me sees you,” I managed with a hesitant shrug. “But… you know, pretty good other than that.” 

“Great.” Giving us all a thumbs up, Raige started to walk around us toward the ladder. “Now let’s get the hell out of here. Like I said, gotta take this puppy for a test drive.” 

Paige glanced to me, hesitating before asking, “Are you really okay?” 

“I’m not sure yet,” I admitted, “but she’s right, we do need to go. 

“If you think it’d be awkward to run into my family after breaking into one of their secret bases, imagine doing it while one of us looks like a Hannah Montana version of their daughter.” 

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Dig In 22-14 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so we weren’t quite done for the night yet. At least, some of us weren’t. Pack, Alloy, Murphy, and Roald might’ve gone home, but Amber, Izzy, and I were still going to go along with Paige and Raige to check out those secret labs. Part of me felt a little worried about going out again this soon, but it really was the best time. The Ministry would be occupied trying to figure out what the hell had just happened to them and who was responsible. They certainly wouldn’t be reinforcing these other places. Not yet, anyway. They might have been talking about refurbishing Pittman’s labs for other things, but I was pretty sure that that would be one of the furthest things from their minds right now. Later, of course, it would become a problem. Especially once they decided that they needed to put a heavier security on all of their properties. It would become a hell of a lot harder to get in those places and take what we needed then. That was why we needed to go tonight, while they were still reeling and distracted. 

I was telling myself all of that while putting the hated stuffed bra back on along with the suit itself. Seriously, I did not like doing this. But if we went in there as ourselves and found out too late that the Ministry had put up cameras, we would be screwed. I was going to go ahead and assume my parents could look at their mall base being invaded and then Pittman’s old labs being searched a couple hours later and put two and two together. 

So, we were suited up once more as we crouched in an alley across the street from what looked like an old dive bar that hadn’t been open for ages. It was sandwiched between a pawn shop and a tiny Chinese restaurant. From what we had been able to put together, the last time the bar was open was over ten years earlier. Pittman had bought it and used the place as one of his smaller labs. Which, given there was an entire basement area beneath the shop, made it possible that there was a hidden area somewhere in there that my family’s people hadn’t found. 

Sure, it wasn’t likely that we’d get super-lucky with the first place we checked. Hell, there was a good chance that we wouldn’t find anything at all in any of these places. The Ministry had to have gone over them pretty thoroughly. But we had to try, and trying meant starting somewhere. So, this seemed like as good of an option as any. 

The area we were in wasn’t exactly the best part of town, to put it mildly. Even with the curfew, there were still some people out walking in small groups. Probably because the cops didn’t patrol here that often. The place wasn’t rich enough to have constant security, and it wasn’t right in the middle of disputed gang territory. Not those sort of gangs anyway. There were just a lot of poor people around, and homeless, and… yeah. It wasn’t a good neighborhood. 

Still, eventually the way was clear. There was no one in sight at the moment, after a couple very clearly drunk guys managed to find their keys and stumble into an apartment a few doors down. We exchanged glances before collectively nodding. With one more quick glance around to make sure no one was looking, we darted from the alley and crossed the street to the doorway of the old bar. Paige was in front, and she ignored the visible deadbolt, instead turning to what looked like one of those intercom systems on the front of apartment buildings where you hit the button to contact one of the places inside so they could buzz you in. Despite being for a single place, there were about twenty buttons spread across the thing, all of them unlabeled. Paige didn’t hesitate at all, her fingers dancing across the console to put in the eight digit code. There was an immediate corresponding beep, and then a click as the door opened. She gave the rest of us a brief look, her expression unreadable under the mask. With a muttered reminder to be careful, she opened the door the rest of the way, and we all slipped inside. 

Yeah, this had definitely been a bar at one point, though it was clear that almost everything of value had been taken out of it. The only things left were the booths along one side and the bar itself. The shelves were bare, there were no tables or chairs, and I could see a spot where there had clearly been a jukebox at one point. It was all gone now. It had been emptied out, either by Pittman himself, or the Ministry, or people who managed to break in somehow before the place was secured. Whatever it was, that didn’t matter. We didn’t care about any of that stuff. We were there for far more important things than a jukebox or some random alcohol. 

Quickly, we scanned the room, but couldn’t see any cameras. It was possible the Ministry didn’t have any set up here yet, given they would have taken out everything they could find in this place and didn’t have any reason to keep it under constant surveillance. Not this long after Pittman had been sent to Breakwater. As far as they would be concerned, he had no way of getting out of there, so why spend the effort and resources to watch over his random properties constantly years after he had been dealt with? They were talking about converting his spaces to new labs, but until that happened, they probably didn’t care too much. Not yet, anyway. Which, again, was why we needed to do this right now.

It didn’t take long to find the door to the basement, and we carefully descended the cement stairs while keeping our eyes open for cameras or traps. But the place was empty. We got down there to find a wide-open space, like an unfinished basement in a house. It was all cement, with a heavy sink in one corner, and clear markings where there had once been equipment. But now all of it was gone. There was nothing in here. At least, not that we could easily see. 

“We should spread out,” Amber murmured, “check for any hidden doors or anything.” 

Raige, who had apparently taken control of Paige’s body in that moment, snarled, “If we have to check the quick way by knocking down some of these walls, so be it.”  

We scoured every wall, even going over the floor for trapdoors. And yes, we put a couple small holes in the walls where there might be something. We even found one promising bit, a hidden space in one corner. But it turned out to just be the size of a closet (one in a normal house, not mine), and held little more than some random science equipment and tools, like scalpels and flasks. There might have been something useful within that stuff, but it wasn’t what we were looking for. We took some of it in a bag, looking around the place for another minute or so, then made our way out. This was our first try, and it was basically a bust. Which wasn’t surprising or anything, but still. A part of me had hoped that we would get lucky. 

At least we had several more options to go. So, we made our way out, returned to the alley, and headed for the next spot. All these labs were close enough together, in this part of town, that we could get there by moving through alleys, keeping our heads down, and watching out for anyone. Which meant I didn’t have to keep changing back into my Paintball costume to play lookout. Pittman had probably intentionally kept his places close enough to quickly move back and forth between. Far enough apart that they all wouldn’t be found if one was (if you didn’t have the addresses already), but close enough that he could walk to any of them within about fifteen minutes.  

Or maybe I was overthinking it, and he chose these places because it was an area he could afford to buy property in, and set up a shop without attracting a lot of attention. 

The second place we checked looked like it had once been a clothing shop. There were still metal racks sitting around, but that was about it. We didn’t even find any secret rooms in that one, no matter how much we searched. It was even more of a dead end than the first place. 

The third place we checked, on the other hand, didn’t look like it had been anything of note before. It was just a smallish, one-story building sitting in one corner of a parking lot near a much larger pharmacy and medical supply center, the sort of place you would drive past your entire life without really noticing. At most, you might idly wonder what the place was as you drove past, then forget about it immediately as soon as you turned the corner. The building was just there, amounting to little more than scenery in the neighborhood. 

After once more taking the time to make sure the coast was clear, we made our way over there and into the building, using the code to unlock the door. Inside, the place was a maze of small offices, with a waiting room out front. It looked like this had once been a doctor’s office or something. Which made sense given the nearby pharmacy. And it was obvious why setting up in a place like this would be good for someone like Pittman, who would need ready access to a lot of medical stuff in order to build his bodies. This place was looking somewhat promising. But on the other hand, it also meant that the Ministry would have gone over everything very thoroughly too. We still had to get lucky and hope that they hadn’t taken everything useful in here. 

A search through the main floor revealed little of consequence. A few empty pill bottles, some dusty medical tools that hadn’t been taken lying here or there, that sort of thing. Most of it was picked clean by one group or another. But just as I was starting to think this would be a dead end as well, Raige kicked open a supply closet, and a thorough search revealed a trapdoor in the floor under the carpet. The four of us (five, actually, given Paige and Raige both counted) exchanged looks. Then I went first, struggling very slightly with my fake chest (and yes, I did mutter and curse the entire time about it) before climbing down the ladder to the room below. 

Upon arriving in the room below, the place was filled with a steady humming sound. It was also pitch-dark. But I was able to run my hand along the nearby wall and find a light switch, which I flipped up. As I did so, a long row of overhead lights began to turn on one after another, starting almost directly above me and leading down the length of what turned out to be a room roughly the size of a basketball court. 

As the others joined me, we could immediately tell that this place was different. It was readily apparent that the Ministry had not found that secret door. It reminded me a little bit of Wren’s lab for the fact that there were tables along the room full of tools and random bits of machinery. But there were also large floor to ceiling freezers all along both walls to either side of us. Those were the source of the humming sound that filled the room. As I looked at them, I could see a clipboard hanging next to each door. With a glance to the others, I walked toward the nearest and carefully pulled the board up to look at it. There were notes there, listing what appeared to be names, dates, ethnicities, diseases, and causes of death. There were two dates actually. One generally between fifteen and forty years earlier than the second. 

I wasn’t dumb. I knew what this was. My eyes selected to the freezer then to the clipboard and I grimaced while stepping away. “Bodies,” I announced. “He’s got dead bodies in all these freezers. Or parts of them, I don’t know. Either way, it looks like this is the place where he was doing a lot of his dissection to figure out how to make new bodies or whatever.” 

Sounding a bit sick, Izzy weakly noted, “I guess that means we’re in the right place? I mean… not really the right place, but…” She trailed off, shaking her head. 

“Yeah, doesn’t feel like a place we really want to be,” I agreed, “But it’s probably the best shot we’ve got. So let’s look around.” Even as I said that, my eyes were widening. “We’ve gotta check all these freezers, don’t we?” 

“Check the clipboards,” Paige advised, already moving to the opposite side of the room to start working her way down the line there. See if you can find any that don’t sound like a person who was alive before.” 

“We’ll work on that,” Amber put in before nudging Izzy. “You should check the tables for anything useful. We still need one of those orbs.” 

We all knew what she was doing, making it so Izzy didn’t have to go down the row of freezers and potentially have to open some of them to check inside. And I was glad for that. Izzy had been through more than enough emotional turmoil tonight. She didn’t need to deal with… that. I wasn’t exactly thrilled about doing it myself, obviously, but still. She deserved a break. 

So, we searched down at the line of freezers on either side. Unfortunately, none of the clipboards said anything about a newly built body or anything like that. They all listed birth and death dates as well as causes. Some of them had the information crossed off in red ink, followed by a third date and either a checkmark or the word ‘disposed.’ My best guess was that that meant he had either used that body or discarded it. 

This whole situation was incredibly morbid, to say the least. And I was desperately hoping that we wouldn’t have to actually open the freezers. But I was starting to worry that we wouldn’t have another choice. We couldn’t risk walking away from this place without checking if there was the slightest chance he had simply stuffed one of his prototype biolem bodies inside one of them. And it was looking more and more like we wouldn’t find one conveniently labeled as such. 

We started with the freezers that were labeled as the bodies having been used, of course. Amber and I both stood in front of one, looking at the clipboard announcing that the body had been ‘disposed’ about six years earlier. Exchanging glances, the two of us sighed heavily together, then reached out to grab the heavy metal bar on the door. Neither of us wanted to do it alone. With a pair of grunts, we hauled the door open, bracing ourselves for… 

Nothing. There was nothing in that freezer, just as the clipboard had promised. Well, almost nothing. The space within the freezer was basically coffin-sized (which just made the whole thing even worse, and the walls were covered in blood and… and probably other body stuff that I really didn’t want to think about. It also smelled so bad that I instantly recoiled and gagged against the mask, barely keeping my stomach under control. Amber was in much the same boat, but managed to shove the door shut first. 

“Don’t you–ugh, love being a superhero?” she asked while half-doubled over and clearly doing her level best not to lose her dinner. 

Grimacing, I gave a short nod, breathing heavily. “Yeah, it’s fantastic. Nothing but glory and sunshine for this job.” Even as I said that, my eyes were scanning the row of freezers. Oh god. If an empty one smelled that bad, how was it going to be when we had to open one with an actual dead body in it? The freezers–damn it, this was not my idea of a good time. 

Unlike Amber and me, Paige–no wait, that was Raige– was on the other side of the room opening one door after another, looking inside before muttering a curse, and moving on. Somehow that made me feel worse, like I was making such a big deal out of this while she was just fine with it. She was looking for a body she could use, a body she could live in. And here I was just being a baby about smelling some–okay yeah it was still awful. But still. 

Before I could think too much more about that, Izzy abruptly called out from the far end of the room where she had been sorting through a pile of stuff in a large crate there. “Hey! Hey, I think I–look.” She turned as the rest of us looked that way, holding up something in one hand. It was a small metal ball about–oh. 

Raige was there in a second, literally shoving one of the other tables out of the way and sending a small pile of tools crashing to the floor in the process. “Wait, is that–holy fuck, kid, I could kiss you right now.” Even as she said that, the girl was taking the orb from Izzy’s hand. “This is–this is it. I mean it’s not perfect, it’s not the most advanced version, but I can definitely use it.” 

Amber and I arrived then, looking at the thing. Just like the one I had seen back in the warehouse when Paige cut open that biolem’s head, the orb was baseball-sized and had a series of various-colored flashing lights along it. I could see a collection of short, maybe three-inch wires sticking out of the bottom, which probably extended when the orb was… inserted. I remembered the other one had had those wires leading down through the body to control various parts. 

“So you can use that?” Amber asked, giving the thing a long look. 

Shifting just a bit as she stared down at it, Raige gave a short nod. “Yeah, get me a body to plug it into and we’re in business. But this is a great start, pipsqueak.” She reached out to give Izzy a light punch in the shoulder. 

“Probably shouldn’t call her that.” That was Paige, clearly. “I think she’s earned a better name than pipsqueak.” Even as she said that, the girl was clearly examining the ball in her hand. 

“It’s a term of affection,” Raige announced. “Anyway, this looks like the start of home sweet home. Now let’s find an actual–” 

“Hey, look at this.” Amber, who had stepped away to the other side of the table where Izzy had found the orb, put her hand against the wall. “This bit here looks a little–” Her hand pushed hard against that bit of wall, and it abruptly shoved inward. Hidden door. There was a hidden door in this already-hidden room. Whatever was in there, Pittman definitely didn’t want anyone to find it.

One by one, we slipped through that hidden door, and found ourselves in a much smaller room. This one was barely large enough for the four of us to stand in along with the large metal tube taking up most of the space. It was about four feet across and six feet high, and had a large computer console next to it that seemed to be displaying a bunch of information that I couldn’t even keep track of. But the gist I got from it was that this might be exactly what we were looking for. 

Sure enough, Paige smiled. “This is it. This is what we need.” 

Her face shifted then, as Raige spoke. “Could uhh, could the rest of you wait outside for a minute, huh?” I could tell she felt a little awkward, which was strange to see coming from her. “This bit’s a little personal. Like changing clothes.” 

Amber, Izzy, and I exchanged glances before collectively shrugging. Then we moved back to the larger room, stepping away while talking a bit to each other about what was going on. Not that we had very productive things to say. We were all exhausted by this point. All I wanted to do was go back home and sleep. Especially knowing that I was going to have to get up in a few hours and go to school if I didn’t want my parents to suspect anything. And now it was even more crucial that they didn’t. 

Eventually, Paige stepped out of the room. She grimaced a bit when we looked that way. 

“You okay?” Amber asked. “I mean, are you… you?” 

“I’m me. Just me,” Paige confirmed. “We made the transfer, but uh, we’ve got a umm, maybe a slight… uncomfortable… a uhh, issue with–” 

“Fuck it, I’ll show ‘em!” A voice called from in the room. Something about it made me blink. Something very famili–

And then Raige stepped into view in her new body. Only she didn’t look like Paige. And she certainly didn’t look like any random person. 

The hair was different, long on both sides rather than short on one, and without the dyed tips. But other than that, her new body… was me. 

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Dig In 22-13 (Summus Proelium)

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So, we made our way back to the shop. We were careful, of course. First, Peyton and I took the time to each find a private area to change into our actual costumes. Amber had grabbed the bag with the costumes in it just before teleporting us out of the van. Naturally, the most important part of that point was that I was able to take the damn bra thing off. I resisted the urge to hurl it as far as I could, but only barely. I really hoped that nothing would come up in the future forcing me to wear it.  

Now I was back in my costume and far more comfortable. I was the right height, the right… shape, and everything felt a hell of a lot better, even if we weren’t out of the woods yet. I was just plain happier like this. 

Alloy and I basically just had to do the exact same thing we had done to get to the motel in the first place, only in reverse. Now we were heading back to the shop, and it was even more crucial that the others not be seen. It would have been bad enough to deal with cops or other Touched seeing them dressed up like that before. Now… now it would be a lot worse. 

Thankfully, the Ministry was still busy scouring the lake and area along the shore for us. I had no doubt that the search would widen soon enough, but we would be safe in the shop by then, and everyone would be out of the incriminating suits. Or so I kept telling myself throughout the entire very tense affair of oh-so-slowly working our way through the city. We couldn’t afford a single screw-up now. We had to get back there and get rid of all the evidence before anyone, particularly anyone who might work for or talk to the Ministry, saw us. 

Yeah, it was a bit nerve-wracking. But, despite having several near heart attacks on the way there and time and space doing their level best to stretch the whole thing out into an eternity, we finally made it. We were back in the alley behind the shop, and as far as we could tell, no one had seen us. It probably would have been impossible, or at least a lot harder, to do it that way before the curfew was put in place, so I did have to thank the authorities for that. Maybe I would send them a nice card or something. 

Fred opened the back door, giving us a nod. “We had cameras set up the last couple blocks, watching you. There’s no one on your tail. Come on.” He stepped aside then, holding the door for us to go in while his eyes carefully and suspiciously scanned the alley despite his own words. Apparently after the mistake he had made with that whole Ashton situation, he was being a lot more careful in general. Or maybe my paranoia was rubbing off on the people around me. Either way, I wasn’t going to object. He was Wren’s guardian, and there would be people who wanted to use her skills for their own ends. 

Speaking of which, I was going to have to give Glitch an answer about that whole situation soon. She had said she would send someone in two weeks, but it had been longer than that without a word. I assumed that had something to do with the whole war escalating thing. Maybe they were busy helping my parents work out nasty new toys to play with or something. Whatever the case, I knew that it was only a temporary delay. Soon enough, she would send someone to get our answer about what Wren was going to do. We’d talked about it of course, and… well, I just hoped we knew what we were doing. 

But right now, I had to focus on this particular situation. We all slipped through the doorway, before Fred closed it after us. I felt a sudden rush of relief wash over me in that moment. Tension that I hadn’t even realized I was holding in myself rushed out in a heavy sigh. We were safe. Well, maybe not completely safe from everything. The Ministry would be looking for whoever had stolen from them. They would be turning over every stone they could, and would go over that van with a fine-toothed comb. Thankfully, there was nothing for them to find. The van wasn’t registered to any of us, or connected to us in any way. Pack had stolen it from a place that rented them out for people to move furniture, and none of us had touched anything in it with our bare hands. We didn’t touch anything and we didn’t leave anything. They wouldn’t find any leads there. 

So, they would look, but they wouldn’t find us. Not right now, anyway. We had time. We had space to breathe and think. And to find out what we’d actually taken from them. 

Of course, first we all had to survive an attack of a completely different kind. The moment we came into the main shop area, I was suddenly hit straight on by a (literal) flying tackle-hug as Wren zoomed across the open space on her wings to crash into me. “You made it!” 

Staggering backward, I laughed. It was a laugh of relief, which felt really good right then. So did the hug itself, actually. I closed my arms around the girl and nodded. “Yup, we sure did. In and out just like that.” Even as I said those words, my voice cracked a little. I still couldn’t believe it had worked. And despite the fact that most of me was celebrating, there was a small but not insignificant part of me that was convinced that Ministry bad guys were about to crash through the windows while my brother and dad blew the door down and came storming in. It was… not a fun thing to imagine. 

Wren didn’t hug me for long, quickly moving on to the others. As she did, I stepped back and glanced toward Fred. “Good driving back there,” I informed him quietly. “Looked like a real wipeout. I’m sure they’ll have their suspicions, maybe even enough to be sure once they investigate and don’t find us anywhere. But still, you sold it in that moment.” 

Folding his arms, the man gave a short, thoughtful nod. “That’s the important part, isn’t it?” he mused. “If they don’t know exactly what happened, it’ll slow down their search. Even if they know you intentionally went into the water, they’ll look for diving equipment and extend the search area to find places further along where you could’ve come up. It’ll confuse them, muddy the waters, so to speak.” He gave a soft grunt of amusement at his own joke. 

“Every little bit helps,” I confirmed before letting out a breath. “Thanks for being around to help with all this. We definitely couldn’t do it without you. I mean, certainly not without Wren, but you too. I…” Biting my lip behind the mask and helmet, I hesitated briefly, wondering if I was overstepping. “I know you… you’ve felt shitty about what happened before.” 

“It was a stupid mistake,” he replied flatly, not looking at me. “I should’ve paid more attention to what that idiot wanted to do with that stuff, to exactly what he was going to steal. He just said he was going to rob a bank and–shit.” Shaking his head, he muttered something I didn’t catch under his breath. Then he sighed heavily. “Sorry I treated you the way I did when you showed up. You know, with the whole pointing a gun at you thing. That was out of line. It was–I’m glad you found us. Glad you… did all that.” 

I knew what he was saying. He was horrified at the very thought that he might have been even indirectly responsible for the death of a child. If we hadn’t found those vials and gotten them back to Blackjack in time… yeah, I didn’t really want to think about it either. I’d never met his daughter, but no kid deserved to die. Especially like that. 

I was spared from having to find some way of responding to that when Pack abruptly spoke up. “Okay, well, it’s been real fun basking in the glory of pulling something like that off, but can we get the next part of this show on the road?” She had all of her lizards out on the counter and was brushing her fingers over them tenderly, clearly apologizing for leaving them behind. 

Paige cleared her throat, straightening up with a slight grimace that told me she and Raige were having their own discussion inside her head. “Yeah, we, for two, would like to see what we pulled out of that place and if it was anything useful.” 

Her face shifted just a bit before Raige added, “And it had damn well better be after all that.” 

Of course, we couldn’t just open up the bags and dig through them just yet. There was way too big of a chance that the Ministry had put tracking devices on their hard drives. Right now, the special bags that Wren had provided were bouncing any potential signal all over the country.  But we weren’t going to take the risk of pulling anything out until there was no chance of us being tracked back here. Which meant that Wren had to take the bags into a specially prepared large metal crate she already had set up in a corner of the room. It was just large enough for her to sit inside with her tools and the stuff we’d grabbed, and did basically the same thing as the bags themselves while giving her room to work. Which meant the rest of us stood around and talked about what we had just done while she got busy. Anxious as we were to see what we had managed to grab, none of us wanted to take any risks. We had gotten through this so far without giving away who we were, and this was no time to start getting reckless. Slow and steady, one bit at a time. We’d done our part, now it was time for Wren to do hers. 

Okay, that wasn’t even in the least bit accurate. Wren had done more than her part so far. As I’d said to Fred, we would have been pretty screwed without her the entire way through this. The very thought of having to try to get into that place by myself, or even just without her, was basically inconceivable. I… maybe could have done it. At least, I could have dug the tunnel, but damn would it have taken a lot more time. Making everything pink and digging it out like that myself, I probably would have taken another month just to get there. Let alone having to go in alone. I either would’ve gotten caught, or I would’ve had to use my powers openly. Which would’ve let my parents know that Paintball was onto them, and that would have been a whole other–yeah. If I didn’t have these guys here to help, all of them, I would have been screwed. 

Those thoughts and more were running through my head as the others were loudly discussing just how crazy everything in that base had been. Murphy, Roald, and Peyton were going on about the guy they’d had to fight inside one of the other rooms, while the latter girl’s marbles spun wildly around her head. They were clearly as worked up and excited as she was, and possibly feeling a little agitated about the fact that they hadn’t been able to help in that place. If they could feel agitated, I still wasn’t sure how that whole thing worked. But in either case, whether it was the marbles or Peyton’s own subconscious, they were definitely energetic now, spinning around her head like a colorful halo or something. 

Glancing at her phone, Pack gave a soft grunt of annoyance. “Fuck. I gotta go. Getting a bit late and I’ve got a meeting with the boss before school in the morning.” 

“A meeting?” Amber’s gaze moved that way, clearly worried. And possibly curious. 

With an audible snort, Pack gestured casually. “Don’t worry, babe, the meeting was scheduled yesterday. Just a thing with me and a couple others about a job we need to do this week. A crime job.” She was clearly teasing the other girl. “But I promise, it’s the fun sort of crime.” 

Sighing, Amber waved a hand around the room. “You realize you’re talking about doing crime in a room full of Star-Touched, right? You’re literally admitting that you’re planning to do something illegal and expect us not to do anything about it.” 

“Oh, you can do something about it,” the other girl slyly replied. “Feel free to show up whenever you get the call and try to stop us. It’d be fun to play cops and robbers. Maybe one of us can tie the oth–” 

With an almost violent cough and vigorous clearing of her throat, Amber interrupted. “Didn’t you say you had to go? Meeting, school, all that?” 

Pack was clearly grinning behind that full face-covering mask as she gave a thumbs up. “Yup. But remember, I get to see the information you guys pull out of that stuff too. Don’t cheat me on this. I earned it.” 

We all promised to keep her informed about what we found, before the girl headed out with her lizards. Once she was gone, Murphy and Roald noted that they really should get home too. Obviously they couldn’t go by themselves, not with the curfew up. So Fred took them in his sedan, where they would hide under some blankets. He had an ID that identified him as a delivery driver for a local bakery, and if anyone stopped him he would just say that he was on his way to work a bit early to fill in. Assuming they called the place, the supervisor there was a friend of Fred’s and would cover for him. We’d thought about using that cover to get everyone to the motel earlier, but dismissed it both because we didn’t want anyone to take note of Fred being anywhere near the motel right before that whole thing went down, and because hiding all of us was a lot harder than just hiding Murphy and Roald. 

Finally, Peyton reluctantly admitted that she should probably start heading back home too, given her mother would freak out if she didn’t wake up in time to go to school. And besides, she had a test in the morning. So, after also making us promise to let her know what we found, she took off. 

Which left me there with Izzy, Amber, and Paige/Raige while we all waited for Wren to get done identifying and disabling the tracking devices. We talked a bit more, and had a snack of chips and cookies while watching the news for any word about what had happened. The only mention was something about a gang-related car chase that had ended with one of the cars involved driving into the lake. Of course, they identified the chopper as being part of the police force. And hell, for all we knew it really was. I would not have been at the least bit surprised to hear that it was an actual police helicopter that had been chasing us with that light. It gave them the perfect cover, anyway. And it wasn’t like my family having those sort of contacts and resources would be surprising. 

Eventually, Fred returned and whistled long and low while shaking his head as he saw what we were watching. “These people really have their fingers dug into fucking everything in this city, don’t they? They didn’t have any warning that you were going to be in there, and they still just snapped their fingers and summoned up a helicopter to chase after you. And just like that, it was a police chopper. Now they get to control the whole damn narrative. It’s just that quick, that easy. They say the word and the media reports what they’re told to.” 

“Helps when they have people in the police and the media,” I pointed out quietly. “Plus, we didn’t exactly give the news much of a reason to doubt that story. It makes sense that what happened right there would be a gang fight. And that it would disappear pretty quick. I mean, look at what’s happening in the rest of the city. As far as everyone else is concerned, it was just one more little event. Barely even worth reporting on, in the grand scheme of things.” 

Fred has started to say something, but before he could, the crate slid open and Wren emerged.  Her always-wild blond hair was sticking out in even more directions than normal, and she gave herself a shake, almost like a dog. Then she flashed us a broad smile and held up a plastic bag full of what looked like the remains of several small computer chips. They had been smashed into lots of tiny pieces. “All good now,” she informed brightly. “They can’t track these things anymore, and the last signal they got made it look like they were in Oklahoma. And there weren’t any tracking devices on the filters or papers, just the hard drives. It’s safe to look at the stuff now. Oooh, cookies!” With that, her wings extended and she literally flew over to the counter to grab a chocolate chip treat in each hand before smooshing them together into her mouth. “Mmmphh. Ur ruv oorrkiesh.” 

“Wren, don’t talk with your mouth full,” Fred advised. “And try to stick to one cookie at a time, kid.” Even as he said that, the man was shaking his head as he poured a glass of milk for her and handed it over, smiling as she drank greedily. “Good job though.” 

Reaching down to pick up the bag of broken tracking devices she had dropped in her rush, I examined it and smiled. “Definitely a good job. I’m pretty sure the Ministry is pissed off right now.” I had to pause then, imagining my parents being angry. It made me feel weird in my stomach, but I shook that off. Now really wasn’t the time to focus on that. We had to look through that stuff. It was getting pretty late, but still. I couldn’t leave yet. Not when we knew that Irelyn and Trivial were in some sort of horrible danger. There wasn’t time to waste. 

So, Amber, Izzy, and I took the papers and split them up to look through while Paige plugged herself into one hard drive after another. There was a lot of information here, too much to really take in with the time we had. Mostly we were just looking for the addresses of Pittman’s labs at the moment. There would be time later to take a full inventory of all the information once we had dealt with the most pressing matter. 

So, I was simply scanning through pages, looking for certain words like Pittman himself, or laboratory, or robots, biolems, anything about biological experimentation, and so on. I saw several things that made me want to go back and read more, but not right at the moment. Pittman. I had to focus on Pittman. 

Finally, after a few minutes of that, Amber abruptly spoke up. “Hang on, wait, I think I’ve got something.” As we all turned it to look that way, she held up a stapled-together stack of papers, flipped to somewhere in the middle. “Right here, it looks like an inventory of places where they could set up a lab to work on something called Project Carpenter, whatever that is.” 

“At least it’s not Project Owl,” I murmured before adding, “I take it the list has some interesting places?” 

“You could say that,” she replied before pointing to one part of the page. “This part here, there’s four addresses and  it says, ‘Acquired from B.P. Equipment on-site, inventory needed.’ B.P. That could be–” 

“Benjamin Pittman,” Paige interrupted. “That would make sense. We’ve got something here too. It’s not the addresses, but I think it’s codes to get through the doors. They changed the locks, obviously.” 

“You guys aren’t going out there now, are you?” That was Fred, frowning. “It’s already late.” 

“And as soon as they find out what we stole,” I pointed out, “they’ll start locking things down. They might not know exactly what we were after, but I don’t want to take that chance.” Belatedly, I grimaced to myself. “I mean, I don’t want to speak for any of you–” 

“No,” Amber interrupted, “you’re right, we need to get over there while we can. They’ll be busy scouring that base and van for any clues, or trying to track us by the lake.” 

The others nodded in agreement, Raige taking the time to point out that Irelyn needed help right now. So, I exhaled. “Right, okay then. Hope you guys don’t mind putting those suits back on just in case there are cameras in those places. 

“Looks like we’ve got one more job to do tonight.”  

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Dig In 22-12 (Summus Proelium)

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The tunnel was louder now than it had ever been in its entire existence. Heavy panting filled it, along with the sound of running footsteps as we raced, single-file, away from the sound of angry guards who had found their pursuit blocked. 

“Go, run, just keep running!” Amber blurted after giving a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure we were coming. “They’ll be right behind us.” 

She was right. I would have loved to say that we were through the hard part now, but I wasn’t that naive. We may have gotten out of the base itself with our hides (and identities) intact, but we were far from home free. Until we were out of this tunnel, miles away from this place, and positive that we weren’t being actively chased, everything could still go completely wrong. It wasn’t like my family’s people would just collectively shrug at the pile of dirt in their way and give up. This wasn’t a video game where the enemy would stop tracking you and go back to normal behavior after the mildest of obstacles. They knew we had been inside the secret base. They knew there was a tunnel here. They knew we were still running through it. And soon they would know where the other end was. There was no doubt of that. They would already be scouting it out. The only real question was whether we would escape before they closed the net. And there was nothing I could do about how quickly they managed that.

On the other hand, I could do something about our own speed. Now that we were out of sight from any cameras or onlookers, there was nothing stopping me from using my paint. So that was exactly what I did. Aiming quickly as we ran, I shot a stream of green paint until it had hit everyone, including Paige behind me. Then I activated it, boosting our speed as much as I could. 

God, it felt so claustrophobic down here all of a sudden. More than it ever had while we were digging it. Was that just the adrenaline and panic from the situation? I felt trapped in this tunnel, knowing that the Ministry people were no doubt already spreading out to find it from above, or to find the other end. They would be working out where it was, and the motel site wouldn’t exactly be hard to guess. We just had to beat them there. Which was not a given, considering the resources they had. Hell, I wouldn’t have been the least-bit surprised to find out that they had a helicopter up there scouring the area already. That might’ve seemed ridiculous in some cases, but this was my parents and the Ministry. They definitely had the resources to get something in the air that fast if they really wanted to. And the intruder alarm in one of their secret bases going off would definitely make them want to. 

The tunnel didn’t just seem tighter, more suffocating, it felt longer too. I could have sworn I had walked out of it faster than we were running. Was there some spatial distortion effect going on? Did my parents have that much power? Were they capable of pointing something at the tunnel to bend space so we could never get out of it? No. No, they didn’t. That was ridiculous. I knew that already. We’d barely started running. It wasn’t any longer. And yet, even knowing that, I couldn’t shut the panicked thought out of my head. Nor could I stop imagining us getting to the end of the tunnel and climbing up, only to find both of my parents and a horde of their people sitting there waiting for us. Every step we took, part of me screamed that this was taking too long. We were too slow. We were too fucking slow!

Wren and Fred were on standby, of course. If we had to, we could use Wren’s emergency teleporter, or even just have Amber teleport with us. But we really didn’t want to do either of those if we could help it. Wren’s especially, given how nervous the girl was about putting it into action. That was only for if we were completely fucked and about to be captured, or worse. Amber’s was slightly more useful right now, but we wanted to avoid using that too. Mostly because we wanted the Ministry to see how we had escaped and not start wondering if teleportation had been involved. Sure, it was unlikely that that would necessarily lead them directly to Wren or Amber, but still. Every little bit of misdirection was important. If they could follow our trail all the way through the tunnel and see how we had driven away, they would be even less likely to glance in directions we didn’t want them to glance in.  

The real trick was to give them enough of a trail to follow without getting caught. Because quite frankly, I really didn’t want to end up getting memory-wiped by my parents today. Or any day, really. Once was enough. Not that I even knew for sure that it had only been–

Oh thank God, we were there. The others had already reached the open area at the head of the tunnel, with Paige and me right behind them. Even as the two of us emerged, Pack was already climbing the ladder with her borrowed stun gun raised, just in case. Her head and upper-body disappeared through the opening, and I found myself holding my breath for what felt like an eternity before she called, “We’re clear!” 

With that, she hauled herself up and out. Meanwhile, I pointed, painting a bit of blue right at the base of the ladder before activating it. Alloy stepped there first, tucking her arms to her sides as she was sent flying up just enough to reach the top rung and pull herself out the rest of the way. One by one, the others followed suit, stepping to the paint and bouncing up. We weren’t taking the time to climb the ten feet to the room above. A quick bounce on blue paint did the trick. 

Technically we could have used Amber’s teleportation from this spot since we knew they weren’t here yet and could track us this far, but again, we wanted them to see exactly how we had escaped and that it had nothing to do with teleportation. 

It was just possible we were being too paranoid about that, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that letting my family have the slightest hint that we had used teleportation to escape was a bad idea. Especially considering how obsessively they would be scouring this place. For all we knew, they had some way of detecting that. How I had no idea, and yet… yeah, this was just safer in the long run. Assuming our luck (and planning) held out a bit longer. 

While the others made their way up, I glanced back the way we had come, just in case our not-so-friendly pursuers had managed to get through the dirt we blocked them with. Nothing. I couldn’t hear a thing from down there. Either they weren’t trying to dig through, or–whatever, everyone else was gone. Which meant it was my turn to go. And that, of course, was when I heard it. Two its, really. First, the sound of men in the tunnel. They were coming. Worse, there was the distinctive heavy thwump thwump thwump of helicopter blades. Not only were our pursuers coming up the tunnel, they were above us in the air. Which meant I had to get the hell out of here. 

The blue paint was gone, and I didn’t want to take the chance that the guys coming up the tunnel would see it before I could make the spot disappear. So I simply coated the inside of my suit with green paint to speed myself up and climbed as fast as possible. I took the ladder two rungs at a time, practically flying up it while blurting, “They’re coming through!” 

As soon as I was out, the others shoved the pallet with the cement bags on it back into place. Again, anything to slow these guys down. We just wanted them to know how we had escaped, not handcuff ourselves to their guns. 

Knowing that wouldn’t stop them forever, or even for that long most likely, none of us exchanged another word. We just ran straight out of the room and into the construction lot. The helicopter was high above, its spotlight at the far end of the construction site. They didn’t know exactly which room we would be coming out of (or even that this was the right place for sure), and were apparently right in the midst of flipping around for another pass. Even as we all glanced that way, the chopper’s spotlight was swinging back along the grounds, looking for us. 

It hadn’t been that long. Despite my panic, I was certain that it had only been a few minutes or so since we set off that alarm by going into the base. Everything, everything that happened in there had been incredibly quick. And yet, just as expected, my family’s people already had a helicopter in the air right above the construction site. They had narrowed it down that quickly, had gotten the chopper in the air and searching already. It was crazy. An expected and unsurprising crazy, yes, but still crazy. 

Naturally, our escape plan didn’t end at the motel. We had known that the Ministry would be right behind us, and were pretty confident they would have helicopter support. It wasn’t fantastic, but we’d planned for it. 

To that end, we all ran across the construction site, racing all-out toward a pitch-black corner near a big mound of dirt. Next to that mound, a dark brown tarp covered the next stage of our escape. It wouldn’t have hidden the thing from anyone standing down here with light, but from above a helicopter doing a quick sweep looking for running people would’ve missed it. At least, that had been the idea, and it seemed to have worked, given the chopper wasn’t focusing its light that way.

Oh, but it was focusing on us. Yeah, it hadn’t taken long for someone up there to notice us. Before we were halfway to the tarp, the spotlight swung our way, and suddenly it was like I was back on stage during the seventh-grade play. Only I was pretty sure the consequences to freezing up right now would be worse than a little embarrassment and polite chuckles from parents who didn’t want to be there to begin with.  

Thankfully, the spotlight had barely made it over to us before we darted out of its sight, with the dirt pile blocking most of the chopper’s view. It was still in the midst of swinging around though, so that advantage would only last for a couple seconds. Worse, I could see headlights approaching from the mall parking lot, cutting straight across the street in the process. The engines were loud and angry, like violent hornets whose nest had been disturbed. 

Without missing a beat, we all crouched, grabbed a piece of the tarp, and yanked it off the van that was waiting there. Pack went to get in, but Paige–no, it was Raige– beat her there while taking the key from her hand with a quick promise that she could drive faster. Pack hesitated only a split-second before realizing that arguing about it was a bad idea. Instead, she dove in the back right after Murphy and Roald got in, Alloy right behind them with me bringing up the rear. Amber was in front with Raige. Izzy was already in the back too, so I grabbed the door and yanked it shut while shouting, “Let’s go, let’s go!” 

“We’re going!” Raige shot back. She had already started the van and was flooring the gas while twisting the wheel to pull sharply away from the mound of dirt that had helped hide the vehicle. But she didn’t head for the road, where we could already see three different cars hauling ass to get up here while the helicopter’s spotlight resettled on us. Instead, Raige floored the gas to send the van heading straight for a small dirt ramp we had built at the edge of the lot. It wasn’t the ‘get air’ sort of ramp, awesome as that would’ve been. No, I had shown a truly remarkable amount of restraint if I did say so myself, and only put together a high enough ramp to let the van drive up and over the curb to the dirt and weeds beyond. Just like that, we were plummeting down the hill toward the road, while the helicopter kept pace, the light making sure we couldn’t disappear on them. 

At least, not yet. 

Raige wasn’t content in just driving straight down the hill. Instead, she started snapping the wheel from one side to the other, making the van jerk violently in the process. Right after she started doing that, the rear window shattered as a bullet hit it. A bullet that narrowly missed all of us and embedded itself in one of the seats while we reflexively screamed and dropped lower. 

“Stay down!” Raige snapped, spinning the wheel hard to the right and then back again. She was giving the sniper up in the chopper as hard a time as possible, but we had to get off this hill. Between the chopper with the gunman above us, and the guys in the cars right behind (they were just crossing our ramp), this whole situation could spiral out of control in seconds. 

“You people better be holding on back there!” Raige informed us through gritted teeth. “Cuz here we… go!” On that ‘go,’ the van hit an inclined bit of ground and launched itself. Seriously, that time we really did catch air, flying for what sure felt like several glorious seconds before coming down hard on the actual road. Really, the only bad part about it (besides the fact that we were in a chase for our lives) was that the stupid stuffed bra thing on my chest bounced up to smack me in the face as I looked down. Because everything I was dealing with right then wasn’t enough, I also had to be literally physically assaulted by the reminder that I wasn’t especially well-endowed. 

As soon as we were on the street, Raige floored the gas and we took off, speeding around a couple oncoming cars in the process. As the van angled toward a side street, we picked up several tails coming up fast, and that helicopter was still right above us. The gunman up there  had tried a couple more shots, apparently aiming for the wheels. But Raige wasn’t giving him the benefit of keeping the van steady, jerking the wheel wildly so he couldn’t get a clear shot. 

“Think we’ve got their attention?!” Amber called back while gripping the bar above the front passenger seat window. 

Murphy, ducked down low with Roald, shouted, “I don’t think we’re gonna get a better audience than this, boss! At least not without its own problems!” 

She was right. We had several cars on our tail and the helicopter above us taking shots. This wasn’t going to get any better than it was, and it had the potential to get a hell of a lot worse. We wanted Ministry people to see what happened, not actually catch or stop us. So, I grabbed my phone and hit the speed dial button. 

“Doctor?” It was Wren, using the code we’d established to make sure it wasn’t someone else using my phone after we had all been captured. 

“All I have is patience,” I replied with the counter code. 

Wren sounded somewhat relieved, but not all the way. There was still a bit of apprehension in her voice as she asked, “Option A… o-or Option F?” 

F for fail, as in we had to use the emergency teleporter. Grimacing a bit, I shook my head. “Option A.” 

Sounding considerably happier, Wren quickly replied, “Oh! Okay, got it. Good, good. Aaaand, there.” 

Abruptly, the van jerked a bit for a reason entirely unrelated to Raige’s driving. Really unrelated, given her hands were off the wheel. It continued to weave back and forth across the road, but now it was Fred in control, from all the way back at the shop. He was remote-controlling it using a small camera on the dash and one of Wren’s toys plugged into the electrical system. 

With Fred in control of the van and all our pursuers coming up fast, Raige abandoned the driver’s seat and clambered into the back with the rest of us. She was joined quickly by Amber, and we all huddled in close together. 

“How close are we?” I asked into the phone. 

“Wait for it,” came Wren’s terse answer as she was clearly watching the map and comparing it to Fred’s driving. “Just a little more…” Even as she was saying that, I felt the van lurch a bit as one of the pursuing cars slammed into us from behind. And in that moment, the right rear tire was blown out, making the van start to violently lurch before the rims screamed in protest. We were bouncing along. 

“Now, tell her now!” Wren blurted. Even as she said that, the van started to spin-out, the tires (or what remained of them) screaming in protest.

“We’re there, do it!” I snapped immediately, while the world outside the deeply-tinted windows whirled wildly. 

Amber wasted no time. We all grabbed onto her as she crouched in the middle of the group, and then we were elsewhere. We all appeared on top of the roof of a building that we had scouted out earlier. Amber knew where it was, and how to teleport to it from the spot on the ground where the van had just been when Wren gave the word. She didn’t have to look, she just trusted that it was the right distance and angle, and poof, there we were. 

The instant we arrived, we all heard the scream of breaking metal. While we were still in there, the van had been hurtling straight toward a sharp corner, only to ‘miss’ and spin out. And the instant we teleported to safety, Fred sent the ‘out of control’ vehicle right through the guardrail that was supposed to stop vehicles from plummeting off the road to end up in the middle of Lake St. Clair. 

And that, of course, was exactly what we wanted. 

My head snapped up to look for the helicopter first. There it was, off in the distance several buildings away. They were fully focused on the remote-controlled van just as it went hurtling off the embankment at top-speed, literally catching air off the slight incline at the bottom before flying out to crash into the water. It sank out of sight immediately. 

The helicopter stayed in place over at the spot where the van had disappeared, while the cars took the longer way down there. I could almost hear my parents on the phone already, ordering divers to get into the water. Even now, a second spotlight had appeared from the chopper, scanning the water to look for anyone surfacing while the first stayed on that spot. They were watching for us. No doubt they would have even more people scouring every place where we could climb ashore, while the divers picked through the wreckage. 

It was okay, they wouldn’t find much. Wren would already have self-destructed the remote control and camera, and she had assured me that there would be nothing to find. In her words, it would turn into goo and wash away. 

So, they would find nothing in the van. Of course, they would realize we had escaped, but they wouldn’t know how exactly. And while they were wasting time searching down there, we were all the way over here. We were done. We were out. We… we…

“We made it.” That was Roald, sounding completely shocked by his own words. “We didn’t get caught.” 

“We did?” Alloy was patting herself down, just as surprised by the declaration. “We… we did.” 

“Let’s not celebrate too much until we get back to the shop in one piece,” Amber pointed out, her eyes on the chopper in the distance. “But yeah, looks like we actually pulled it off.” She glanced toward me, then over at Pack before adding, “They’re gonna be really pissed off now.” 

“We knew they would be,” I replied, resisting the urge to reach up under my suit to rip off the fake bra. I wanted the damn thing off, but now wasn’t the time. Instead, I glanced toward Raige, who was staring at the assorted backpacks full of the stuff we’d stolen. “Remember–” 

“I know, I know, don’t open the bags or the tracking device blockers the genius built into them won’t work,” she interrupted. “Don’t worry, I’m not a fucking idiot. We don’t get to look through the loot until we get them back to the shop and she okays everything as not being tracked. So come on then, let’s get back there and get on with this already. And I sure as fuck hope there’s something we can use somewhere in there, because I am done sharing a body.” 

“Trust me, Raige, I hope there is too,” I quietly replied, glancing out toward the hovering helicopter in the distance. “Because whatever happens next, I’m pretty sure we’re gonna want both of you up and moving.”

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Dig In 22-11 (Summus Proelium)

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Even as the guns started, Paige was already yanking me to the floor with a snapped, “Table.” A second later, I heard a heavy thud as the table itself that she had dragged me behind was knocked over to create a shield. Which, honestly, I had no faith whatsoever that a table was going to block incoming bullets, but it seemed to do the job. At least if the sound of them rapidly ricocheting off the metal just a few inches from my head was any indication. 

Well, so much for doing this quickly and quietly! Now Paige and I were in a pitch-black room, crouched behind a metal table that was, thankfully, shielding us from the hail of gunfire from who the hell knew how many guards. A not-insubstantial part of me was terrified, as I put both hands over the back of my head and struggled not to scream or cry under the assault. These weren’t stun guns, and these guys clearly weren’t playing around. They were intent on killing at least one of us. As the man had said, they only needed one of us to answer questions. And I was pretty sure the idea was that whoever survived would be more willing to talk if they were faced with the dead body of their companion. 

For just a second, I thought about what would happen if I was the one who died. What if I was dead and my parents found my body? What would they do? How would they react? The morbid hypothetical filled my mind, making it hard to focus on anything else for a moment until I shoved it aside. Now really wasn’t the time to think about dying. 

Paige’s hand found my arm, as she hissed in my ear, “They’re circling, we need to move.” Thanks to the voice changer, it would be impossible to identify her if their recording equipment managed to pick up her words. But hearing her talk still made me flinch reflexively. 

Still, she was right, I knew immediately. If we just laid here and I surrendered to the terror that had overwhelmed me in that moment, it was all going to be over. Even if we didn’t die, we would be captured and my parents would find out the whole truth. Then they would either… wipe my memory or… something. I had no idea, and I really wasn’t in any hurry to find out. Nor did I want to find out what they would do to the others. I didn’t want to think about everyone’s memories being wiped, about them going back to having no idea what was really going on in this city. And that was the best possible scenario of what would happen if we were caught. 

“Can you see?” I found myself hissing under my breath. It was a good thing that the guns shooting at us were using some form of silencer. Or at least a quieter. The shots were loud, but not nearly as deafening as they would have been otherwise in this space. 

Wait, in this space. Now that I thought about it, I knew the exact dimensions of the room. It was forty-five feet wide at our end, shaped mostly like a half-circle with the curved side opposite us. The ceiling was basically twelve feet up, but also slightly concave. Wait, or convex. Which one meant curved upward slightly? Whatever, it was slightly curved to the point that the very middle of the ceiling was actually more like fourteen feet high. There were six long metal tables in the room just like this one, each arranged seemingly randomly, and adorned with tools, microscopes, computers, silver trays, stuff like that. Not to mention the eighteen swivel chairs and four wooden ones. There were objects all over the room, and I knew where they were. I knew the dimensions of the place and what was in it. Not the people, but at least the objects. Some of them, anyway. I knew stuff about the room, even though it had been pitch-black since we walked in and I had absolutely never seen it or been in here before. 

How did I know that stuff?! I had no idea. But I was absolutely certain it was right. The knowledge just jumped into my head in that instant, even as Paige hissed that she could, in fact, see. 

Okay, so Paige could see, and I could sense everything in the room for some reason. I’d have to figure out how later. Right now, all that mattered was getting out of this alive and uncaptured. I had no doubt that the others were on the other side of that door, waiting for an opening. They had to know that we were still alive in here, given that the gunfire hadn’t stopped. But they couldn’t come in to help, or they’d be in the middle of a shooting gallery. And even if these suits protected against the worst damage of being shot a couple times, I really didn’t think they could stand up against this level of incoming fire. 

We needed to give them an opening. And I knew just how to do that. At least, I hoped I did. 

To that end, I grabbed Paige’s arm and whispered, “Table run.” To demonstrate, I took her hand and pushed it against the underside of the table, then took the other and pushed it against one of the legs. 

She understood, immediately grabbing both spots as she started to lift the table from that side. Quickly, I activated a couple more green and purple paint spots on both of us, before grabbing the table myself. Together, the two of us rose, lifting the table with us as the gunfire continued to ricochet off it. Whatever this thing was made out of, it was strong enough to take a hell of a lot of abuse. I just hoped it stayed together long enough for us to do this. 

Together, clutching the table as a shield, Paige and I ran straight toward the men, who seemed to be firing even more frantically. They were also starting to split apart, if my judgment of where the shots were coming from was any indication. Given an extra second or two, they would have spread out far enough to shoot us from the side, where the table would be no protection. 

Thankfully, the table was quite long, and we weren’t going to give them that extra second. Just before the men would have been far enough apart to pose a real threat, Paige and I heaved the table at them, using the boosted strength to send it flying quite hard that way. The thing collided with the men. I couldn’t see them, but I could hear as they were struck by the thing and went down like an assortment of bowling pins. From the sound of things, a couple managed to dive out of the way. Including one who ended up going under the table in a roll that brought him right near the two of us. I could hear him right by my feet, as he started to push himself up. 

Before he could, and before I managed to react myself, Paige’s hand grabbed the man by the back of his neck and his arm. I heard his yelp, and her grunt, as she hauled him from the floor and literally threw the man to the other side of the room. 

She must have taken his gun too, because the next thing I knew, Paige was yanking me behind her while extending her other arm as the sound of gunfire exploded right there. She was shooting at the other men, even as her voice snapped, “New table six feet to your left and back two!” 

I knew that, of course. But she didn’t know that I knew it. Still, I was already moving, jumping at just the right time despite the pitch-blackness to throw myself that way and slide across the top of the table in question. I was pretty sure I could have cleared it normally, with my boosted strength, but between the unexpected weight on the front of my chest and these shoes, I didn’t trust myself to land properly. So I took it a bit easy. A handful of random tools, trays, and so on were knocked out of my way as I slid to the far side and off before shoving the table over with a grunt of effort. These things were heavy, even with my boosted strength. No wonder they were able to stand up to so much punishment. 

A second later, Paige was right beside me as she vaulted over the overturned table to land in a crouch on my left. “We’re on the opposite side of the room,” she hissed. “I hit three guys in the knees and two in the side. Enough to put them down for now. There’s ten left, including their leader. They’re spread out and regrouping.”

We couldn’t give them time to do that, of course. Hitting them now, while they were temporarily split up and disorganized, was our best shot to get out of this. Not to mention, there had to be reinforcements on their way right now. The longer this took, the more screwed we were going to be. 

Fortunately, we weren’t in here alone, and now we were on this side of the room, it would give Amber and the others an opening. We just had to let them know the opening existed before it was too late. This, right now, was our very best shot at dealing with these guys before things got a hell of a lot worse. 

With that in mind, I hissed, “Can you see the light switch?” 

Rather than answer immediately, Paige leaned up over the table and used her acquired gun to fire several shots. I could hear the men scrambling out of the way. Then she looked around briefly before ducking back with a grunted, “Found it. Twelve feet right. I can get there but need a distraction.” 

“You’ll have it,” I assured her. “On three. One, two, three.” 

On that third number, I activated the large orange and purple dragon I had been painting on the inside of my suit for the past couple seconds. At the same time, I activated a couple more orange and green spots on Paige, to give her a bit of a boost. Then I rose, grabbing the table we were using as cover. With the amount of paint I had given myself, I was able to lift it fairly easily. The guards clearly saw it, because they opened fire immediately. They had also gotten smart enough to aim for my feet and ankles as I lifted the table. But my hidden orange paint made those bullets bounce off the boots, before I went running toward the middle of the room and hurled the table to one side, in the direction I could hear the most gunfire coming from. There was another table immediately to the opposite side, and I, once again, threw myself in a slide across it. I misjudged the length of my own foot thanks to those shoes, hitting a computer monitor and knocking it off the table with a loud crash. 

Roughly, a hand grabbed my shoulder and I felt a fist slam into my face. Fortunately, it hurt that guy a lot more than it did me, thanks to my still-active paint. The man yelped in pain as I heard several of his fingers crack under the impact. In his case, it was like punching a brick wall. He instantly regretted it. And he also regretted being close to me, as I yanked my arm out of his grip before grabbing the front of his shirt. I could feel that he was wearing some sort of uniform and body armor. Which didn’t stop me from hoisting the man off his feet before I threw him as far as I could. As it turned out, the guard’s name was not Wilhelm, but he did give a pretty good scream anyway.

And in the next instant, the lights suddenly turned on. It was briefly blinding, but I was prepared for it while the others weren’t. I could immediately take in the room around us, which–well, looked identical to how my power had said it did. But now I could see the guards in their white and gray body armor all around. They had helmets with clear night-vision goggles attached. Unfortunately, they were clearly using the more advanced night-vision that instantly turned off when the lights came on, because none of them were screaming or tearing at the goggles. They recoiled slightly, but no worse than I had. Taken by surprise, yet not blinded. 

But we had a little more help. In the next second, even as everyone in here was still reacting to the lights coming on, the double doors at the other side swung open. Amber and Pack were right there, both with their borrowed stun guns raised. They each shot at two of the men in sight, sending them to the floor in a fit of spasms. 

A third guy was turning that way with his gun raised, but Murphy and Roald were right behind those two and managed to dive at the man together. They collided with him, taking the guy off his feet from the impact of being hit by both teenagers. The pair hit him with their batons, and he was out of the fight. And the fourth guy, who had been behind the door there, was taken down by Peyton as she drove her own baton hard into his stomach just as he took aim at the others. 

My paint was about to run out, but it wasn’t gone yet. So, I reached down to grab the fallen computer monitor that I had knocked over during my slide across the table. With a grunt, I turned and pitched it toward the nearest guy, while he was aiming toward the new arrivals. It took him in the side of the helmet, knocking him to the floor with a cry. 

At the same time, Izzy had appeared in the doorway with her own stun gun raised to take down yet another man on that side of the room. Three seconds into this since the lights had come on, and of the ten guys that Paige had said were still up and moving, I had thrown one into the wall and clocked another with the computer monitor, Amber, Pack, Peyton, and Izzy had each taken down one, and Murphy and Roald together took another. Seven down, which left three. 

No, not three, I realized. Two of the remaining guys were already down at Paige’s feet. How she had dealt with them, I have no idea. But they were definitely done. 

So there was one more left. And my eyes found him just as the man in question rose with his arms raised above his head. He looked basically like the others, aside from the fact that his body armor looked a little fancier and he had a radio held high in one of those raised hands. “I don’t know who you are or who you’re working for!” he called while scanning all of us. “But I promise that every single one of you is going to regret this pretty damn quick.” 

Reinforcements. They had reinforcements coming. We had already known that would happen, of course. But considering this guy was clearly the leader of their security down here, and he had the radio, I was going to assume he had already called for help. Which meant we were about to officially be out of time. If those reinforcements got here while we were still standing around, it was going to be a hell of a lot worse than this had been. 

Amber obviously knew that too, because she didn’t hesitate before lifting her own stun gun to fire a shot straight into the man’s chest. He recoiled and hit the floor, the radio falling away. Then she spoke sharply. “Turn your boosters to max, don’t worry about burning them out. Grab everything you can, then we’re gone.” 

Boosters to max. I knew what she was talking about. The paint. She was telling me to activate their speed paint so everyone could move faster, but doing it in a way that if anyone was watching the video of this later (like my parents), they would think that the speed came from enhancements on the suits or something. Either way, it would disguise the truth. 

I gave a quick glance around the room, focusing on each of them in turn to activate the paint. Not just their speed, but strength too. Then I ran to the nearest computer tower. The second I started moving, the others knew their own paint had been activated, so they ran too. There were computers all over the room, and we were already yanking them open to tear out the harddrives.  All around the room, computers were being ripped apart so we could get at what was inside. I was shoving the first drive in my bag even as I ran to the far wall, where there were a bunch of papers taped up. I couldn’t take the time to read what they said, not now. I just yanked them off the wall and shoved them in the bag, then grabbed a handful of vials of various liquids that were sitting on the nearby table, before doing the same for another handful in a fridge. It just looked like a bunch of colorful liquids inside glass vials. I had no idea what they were for or how we would figure it out, but they looked like they might be important, so I grabbed them. Unsure of how fragile they were, I grabbed a nearby towel to wrap them up in before stuffing them in the front pocket of the bag, apart from the rest of the stuff.

Next, I noticed a small room next to the fridge. There was a desk in there with another computer and a heavy filing cabinet. I managed to yank that harddrive just before my paint ran out, and I had to renew it once more so I could break the lock on the filing cabinet. 

Paige was right there, the two of us working together to grab everything from the drawers. We didn’t bother looking at what we were taking, we just yanked the folders and shoved them into our bags. Then we retreated from the room. Paige was shouting, “Move! Go, now! No time!” 

We went. Sprinting back the way we had come, we all raced for the entrance we had made. Whether we had anything useful or not, I had no idea. But we couldn’t push things any further than we already had. We would sort through it all later, once we were safe. 

Unfortunately, we weren’t homefree yet. As we raced down the hall back the way we’d come (past several other unconscious figures that the others had apparently dealt with), I could hear the door starting to open at the top of the stairs nearby. The real entrance. They were here and coming in. 

Paige heard it too. She still had the gun she’d taken from one of the guards back there slung over one shoulder. In one smooth motion, she pulled it free, aimed the weapon with one hand, and let loose that way. The hail of bullets all hit the door just as it was starting to open, making the person on the other side reflexively yank it shut once more. 

“Go!” she shouted at the rest of us while sending another couple shots that way to keep the people outside from coming through. Not that I expected it to hold them for long. 

We went. One by one, we all lunged through the opening and back into the tunnel. I was second-to-last, right behind Paige. “Come on!” I shouted back that way, standing just inside the tunnel entrance. 

Her gun clicked dry, just as the door at the top of the stairs opened. The gunfire from their side started up, and Paige threw herself through the hole with bullets hitting the ground right where she had been an instant earlier. Already, the men coming in were descending the stairs, their shots starting to come closer to us. Together, Paige and I exchanged a quick look, before racing to join the others. We ran through the open area, and I chanced a glance up. The canvas tarp was straining under the weight of the dirt and rocks piled up on it. 

We reached the far end of the open space, and Paige’s hand was already lashing out to grab the anchor rope. She yanked it hard while shoving me forward, diving after me. In the next instant, I heard a terrifying crash as all that stuff came crashing down. The ceiling in that area had been carved up high enough to allow so much dirt and rocks into the space that when it dropped, nearly that whole area in front of the entrance was blocked. I had no doubt they would force their way through, but it would take them a little time. Time that was incredibly important right now. 

Standing bunched up together in the tunnel, we all looked at one another. We could hear shouts from the other side of the dirt pile. They would be coming soon. They would also be spreading out and going up to find out where the tunnel was from above, or where the other end was. We didn’t have time to regroup, not just yet. 

So, with an assortment of nods, we turned back to the tunnel. And we started to run once more. 

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Dig In 22-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so dressing up like this felt as weird as I thought it would. With the raised boots, I was standing several inches taller than I was accustomed to. That was enough to throw me off all on its own, even though I had been practicing with them for awhile in preparation for this. Despite the hours spent walking and running in these, it still felt weird to see things from this high up. 

And, quite frankly, the fact that I could refer to five feet, four inches as ‘this high up’ was more than a little depressing. To say nothing about how much of a difference that padded bra made against my chest. I actually looked like a girl my real age now, if not older. Which was just… Yeah, I was going to try not to think about it too much. Which, I suppose, made the fact that I had plenty of other things to focus on right then a good thing. There would be time later to dwell on the fact that I had never filled out a set of clothes as well as I was right then, and almost certainly never would. Or I could just shove it onto my brain shelf and pretend I didn’t notice it. 

Pack whistled as we all met up inside the main room above the tunnel. Her eyes (hidden as they were behind the lenses in her own mask) were on me as she clapped a couple times. “I hate to tell you this, babe, but you might’ve missed your calling with that Y chromosome. You’re looking great that way.” 

What was I supposed to say to that? How was I supposed to react? She didn’t know what she was really saying. I knew that. Deep down, I knew that Pack had absolutely no idea how hard this was, or what her words really meant. She had no idea how long I had spent wishing that I really did look like this, and especially didn’t know how much the things she was saying stung. She was just joking around. She thought she was teasing an actual boy about how well he could pull off looking like a girl. I just–I had to shove all that out of my mind and try to react from that point of view. 

“I guess I should just be glad you’re not the jealous type,” I found myself retorting, with no idea of how I pulled the words out or made them sound so casual.  

Pack, in turn, snorted. “Please, in the alternate universe where you’re actually a girl, I’m sure I’ve already taken you under my wing to teach you everything I know.” 

Amber made a noise in the back of her throat from the corner of the room where she had been talking quietly to Izzy, both in their own suits. “Everything you know about lizards or about being a thief? Because I’m not sure how either of those would help Paintball, no matter what sex he is.” 

“Oh, you’d be surprised how many relevant things I could teach,” Pack shot back. “Maybe I’ll show you someday, babe.” 

From the opposite corner where he and Murphy had been, Roald spoke up a bit hesitantly. “Um, personally I’m just glad I’m not the only guy in the group.” The poor, clueless boy gave me a nod and a somewhat weak thumbs up. “Right?” 

Yet again, I somehow dug deep and found a casual response, returning the thumbs up. “Uh, sure, yeah. How’re those suits fitting?” 

Shifting a bit, Murphy rubbed at her leg, then at one of the lenses across her eyes. “Not as cool as ours, and I miss the teleport thing. But I guess they’re good enough for this.” 

Murphy and Roald weren’t wearing the prototype suits that Wren had put together for them. There had been some discussion both ways for that, but in the end, they had decided they wanted to eventually be able to use them for more than just this. And we knew that if they used the suits through this little mission and then appeared publicly as part of Avant-Guard, the Ministry would almost certainly be able to put two and two together. So, they were wearing a couple more of the other suits that Wren had traded for. 

Alloy offered them a shrug. “Hey, I feel weird not wearing a suit made from my own marbles. And I’m pretty sure they’re jealous.” She glanced down to the pocket where she was keeping them out of sight. 

When I glanced to the doorway where she was standing, Paige spoke up. “Does anyone have any questions about what we’re about to do?” 

Pack, in turn, replied, “I mean, to tell you the truth, I’ve got a ton of questions when it comes to you and how your whole… everything works. Especially with two of you in that head. But for this? Nah, I think we’ve all got the gist. We tunnel through the last bit of dirt we’ve got left, break into the base, grab everything that isn’t nailed down, and get out of there before we end up in the middle of a battle we can’t get out of. In and out, quick as we can. You can’t get a lot simpler than that. I mean, obviously it would be better if we had the actual blueprints for this place so we could plan out who runs where, or even build a full scale mock-up and practice. But I guess we’ve gotta be satisfied with what we’ve got.” 

“You know an awful lot about how to get away with robbing a place,” Alloy noted. “How would y-ohh yeah.” 

Coughing, I nodded. “She’s not wrong. It would be cool if we had the blueprints. But yeah, we don’t have time for that. Unless someone here spontaneously manifested the power to make that a thing?” I injected my words with a note of optimism and hopefulness while looking around. “No? Damn.” 

“Okay, I’ve just gotta say,” Murphy put in, “It is kinda weird to see you look like that, while sounding like… well, you.” Her hands gestured to encompass my whole form. “You sound like Paintball, but you look, uhh… yeah.” Coughing a bit self-consciously, the girl shrugged. “It’s weird.” 

“You think it’s weird from your end?” I retorted. “Try being on this end of it.” Boy did she not even know the half of what that meant.  In the background, I could see Izzy and Amber stifling their reactions. 

“She’s right though,” Paige put in while stepping up beside me. “At least about one thing. Your voice does seem odd coming out of this look. So maybe we should turn on the things.” 

Right, the things. I had ‘come up with’ the idea of all of us using voice changers, just to make sure that our voices wouldn’t be recorded in there. We all had essentially the same set-up that I always had under the masks. Now, we turned them on, and I waited a moment before speaking in a voice that was robotic and vaguely feminine. “We good?” 

“We’re good,” That-A-Way agreed in a quite similar voice before looking at me. “But even with these, maybe you shouldn’t do much talking in there. You know, just to be on the safe side. You know, because Paintball talks a lot and if you don’t, it’ll make them even less likely to connect you to Paintball.”  

Shifting a little, I gave a slow nod. “Right, yeah, I guess I do have a tendency to talk a little bit.” As everyone else exchanged pointed looks, I felt a blush cross my face under the mask. “Okay, okay, a lot. I talk a lot. I get it. I’ll be so quiet in there they’ll never know it’s me. Hell, maybe I’ll be so quiet you forget I’m supposed to be with you and leave me in there. And then they’ll find me and this whole thing will blow up in our faces. See what being quiet leads to?” 

None of them seemed convinced by my hypothetical for some reason, and we exchanged just a few more words. We were all nervous about what we were about to do, that much was clear. But eventually, we can’t put it off any longer. One by one, we grabbed the buckets that were waiting for us, then descended the ladder and began to enter the tunnel. Pack made a comment about how she had promised to bring her lizards back a souvenir of some kind to make up for not bringing them in with her. Which, I was pretty sure, was her way of playing off how nervous and out of her element she felt about that fact. 

Although, to be entirely fair, I was pretty sure she had at least one of her lizards in the pocket of the jacket she had put on over the suit. At least, if I was her, I would have. 

Eventually, we all crowded into the slightly widened spot where the tunnel ended. It looked mostly the same as it had the other night when I was here, save for a single addition that Fred and Pack had put in while the rest of us were busy. Namely, a thick canvas tarp across the ceiling. It was secured by metal spikes in the four corners of the ‘room.’ Between the strength of the tarp and the spikes, Wren had assured us it would hold at least most of the dirt we would be pulling out of the rest of this tunnel. There was an anchor rope next to the thing keeping it all in a place. Once it was full of dirt, if we cut that rope, the whole thing would almost instantly collapse and fill this open space. It wasn’t quite like collapsing the entire tunnel behind us, but it was something. Once we got out of there, we would drop the tarp and they would have to dig through at least this much room to find the rest of the tunnel. It gave us a little bit more of an edge. And we needed all of the edges we could get.  

Twenty feet ahead and fifteen feet down, the metal wall marking the edge of the Ministry base waited. We hadn’t wanted to get any closer until we were ready to go in, just in case. But now was the time. No more waiting. We were going to dig through the last few yards, angling downward, and get inside. Which was a thought that made my heart pound so hard I thought it might jump out of my chest. But hey, at least I had some extra padding there now to keep it in place. 

Yeah, okay, it was vaguely possible that I was feeling weird about this whole situation. Still, I pushed that away and began to use pink paint on the dirt and rocks ahead of us. The others immediately used their hand shovels to pry away the painted bits, dumping them in buckets that we had brought before Raindrop floated the buckets up onto that tarp, being careful to spread the dirt and rocks out to avoid putting too much weight on one spot at a time. This was the most important part of the entire thing. After all the time and effort we had put into this, the last thing we wanted was to screw up now. We were all working as quietly as possible, each of us in our own little world. It was incredibly unlikely that our voices would have carried anywhere near the base, but still. It felt wrong to be chatting, so we didn’t. We just worked as silently and efficiently as possible. After all the pink-paint digging we’d done over the past weeks, we didn’t have to talk, or even think very much. We were basically experts at the whole thing.  

In what honestly felt like no time at all, given how nervous I was about the next stage, the tunnel was finished. Finished for good this time. We were there. We had dug downward enough that the metal wall was right in front of us, now fully revealed. On the other side of it was the Ministry base. And, with any luck, a whole lot of answers about my family’s business. 

I’d had a momentary thought of how bad it would be if there were any pictures or anything inside the base that would give away my parents’ identities. But I dismissed the thought just as quickly. There was absolutely no way that my family would be that sloppy. They hadn’t kept this whole thing a secret for this long by being stupid enough to have pictures of themselves lying around their hidden base. Mom had smacked Simon with a shoe for bringing it home when it was connected to their unknown witness (me). If Dad suggested leaving pictures of themselves around their criminal empire base, she’d probably hit him with a shoe store

Besides, would it be that bad if I was forced into explaining the whole situation to the others? Amber and Izzy already knew. Not to mention Paige and Raige. By leaving the others out, I was creating a divide. Someday soon, I was going to have to do something about that. If I didn’t, it was almost certain that the whole thing would bite me in the ass. I knew that, I acknowledged it. But it just… it wasn’t the right time. I’d only just told them about the Ministry itself. Getting into my own family’s involvement was… yeah. I would get into it. I would tell them. Just not yet. 

Shaking those thoughts off, I turned to the others while putting my hand against the metal wall. Still remaining silent, I simply looked at each of them. They were spread out a bit through the open chamber, and when I met their gazes, they all gave me a thumbs up, a nod, or some other sign. Paige, in particular, gave me a dual thumbs up. One for herself and one for Raige. They were ready. We all were. It was time to do this.

To that end, I painted the wall in front of us pink. Then I stepped out of the way as Pack and Way moved forward with another toy from Wren. This looked like a handful of batteries strapped to some silly putty. Like a bomb. It looked like a bomb. But according to the girl who had created it, the device would send a strong concussive blast forward, like a shaped charge or whatever. The battery-powered putty thing was attached to the middle of the pink-covered wall, and I activated the paint just before Amber hit the button to trigger Wren’s ‘explosive.’ 

Instantly, the chunk of wall was blown inward, creating an opening. Before the changes tonight, Amber was supposed to be the first one through. But Paige had insisted that she should go first, given the skills she had. And after what I had seen her do in her father’s factory, I couldn’t exactly argue with that. Now that she was participating, there was no question that she was the best one to be in the lead. If there was anyone on the other side of that opening, Paige could deal with them. And if she couldn’t, well, the rest of us were probably screwed in this situation.

So, she went through the hole, followed closely by Amber, then Pack. I went fourth, with the others right behind me. I hadn’t heard any gunfire or struggling yet, so I supposed there hadn’t been–

There was an unconscious figure on the ground at Paige’s feet. She had clearly just dragged the person, who wore a white lab coat over casual clothes, away from the hole as I stepped through into what turned out to be a pristine white corridor at the bottom of a long set of stairs that almost certainly led up to the entrance I had seen before. The corridor itself went on for about another ten feet to the right before curving left, and there was a door almost straight across from the hole we had made. Meanwhile, a camera poking out of the ceiling right where the hall curved basically proved we had already been seen. Yeah, this was going to have to be quick. Not that that was exactly news. 

And speaking of being quick, there was that unconscious person. I seriously had not heard a single thing. Paige knocked them out–wait, were they… yes, I could see the person’s chest moving up and down. They were alive. She knocked them out without me hearing it, even though I was only a few feet behind her. That was just–wow. 

No time to be amazed, though. With that camera up there and proof that there were at least some people still in this base, we had to move. Immediately, Amber, Izzy, and Pack ran to the door that was right there. The two older girls went through first, already unslinging their backpacks so they could start shoving things inside.

Meanwhile, I ran alongside Paige, with Alloy, Murphy and Roald bringing up the rear. The five of us passed just under the camera, which had shifted to follow us. But I grabbed the electrified baton that Amber had provided, snapping it out to its full extension as we ran under the camera before jumping to lash out with it. The blow took the camera full on the lens, shattering it. They still knew we were here, but at least they couldn’t actively track us with that camera. 

We turned the corner, seeing a whole long corridor ahead of us with doors on both sides, leading to a set of swinging double-doors at the end, like in a hospital. Or a laboratory, I supposed. Either way, there was clearly a lot to search down here. And we didn’t have much time. 

“Split up,” Paige announced in her own altered voice. She pointed to the nearby door, then to Alloy, Murphy, and Roald. “You three grab everything in there. All of it. Scream if you see anyone. Come on.” That last bit was to me, as she grabbed my arm before heading down the hall toward those double doors. 

To the left, one of the doors opened as we neared it. Paige lunged ahead of me, but it was just Pack coming through. Apparently the room they had gone into over in the first corridor connected through to this one. Her bag was clearly about half-full of stuff, and we barely exchanged looks before she went straight across to the room across the hall. Izzy and Amber were behind her, both of them splitting up to take a different room. 

Thus far we hadn’t seen any people other than the one that Paige had knocked out. Maybe that guy was the only one here. Wouldn’t that be–nope, I wasn’t even going to consider it. 

Instead, I focused on running alongside Paige as the two of us full-on sprinted to those double-doors. And boy did it feel weird to run with all this… weight on the front of my chest. Yeah, yeah, it wasn’t really that much. But it still threw me off. It still felt awkward and–blah. It was different. I felt off-balance, probably not helped by the thought of exactly what I was wearing. There was a not-insubstantial part of me that wanted to rip it off. 

Just as we reached the doors, my hope that there was no one else here ended up being dashed, as two figures stepped into view. These were no scientists, however. They were clearly security guards, wearing dark blue uniforms with a couple submachine guns in their hands. Yes, these were literal submachine guns, not pistols or whatever. These guys weren’t playing around. 

Fortunately, we wouldn’t have to find out if they were planning to shoot us with them. The instant those doors started opening, I activated a bit of the hidden green and purple paint on myself and Paige. The two of us hit the two guards much sooner than they expected, ripping the guns out of their hands before tossing them aside. I caught hold of my own guard, yanking him around bodily by the wrist with my enhanced strength while he yelped in surprise. In the next second, I had him shoved hard up against the wall while shoving the taser baton into his back. 

I’d heard plenty of times that tasers didn’t generally work like they did in the movies. It wasn’t like you got hit once and fell unconscious. But the ones that Amber had provided came from the police and were Touched-Tech. They did knock you out, assuming you weren’t protected in some way. Taking a direct hit from a baton like that could put you down for a few minutes. And a few minutes was all we needed. 

As my guy dropped, I snapped my gaze to the side. Paige had already dealt with hers and was moving through the swinging doors. So I went right behind her, hearing the others behind us tearing apart their own rooms. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see what the room on the other side of those double doors looked like. It was pitch black as we went through. I couldn’t see six inches in front of my face. But I did hear a voice abruptly speak loudly, the sound echoing through what sounded like a large space. 

“Interesting. Leave one alive to answer questions.” 

And then the gunfire started. 

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Dig In 22-09 (Summus Proelium)

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So there we were, all gathered in the main area of Wren’s pawn shop. There was Alloy, Pack, That-A-Way, Raindrop, Roald, Murphy, Paige/Raige as a last-minute addition, and me. Wren and Fred were here too, of course. But they would be staying at the shop, ready to go with our ‘everything’s fucked’ emergency escape plan if it came down to it. Unfortunately, that basically amounted to Wren using a half-finished cobbled-together teleporter that she wasn’t confident in. We would all be carrying the markers that were supposed to allow it to grab and move us to a safe location. But again, it was unfinished. Wren had given me a few details about what could have gone wrong the one time she teleported me, back when I had been chased by Cuélebre, and I was seriously still debating on whether it would have been safer to stick with fighting him. Suffice to say, we really didn’t want to have to try this one until she decided it was one hundred percent safe. But we didn’t have time to wait for that, especially not now. 

“So ahh, maybe I should have brought this up when you came up with your genius plan,” Raige (obviously) announced after introductions had officially been made back and forth to everyone, “but how exactly are you planning on making it so they don’t realize a bunch of kids and teens just screwed them over?” Her hand gestured toward Raindrop and then to me, before she nodded to Murphy and Roald. “Like those two over there, or those two there. I mean, none of us actually look like full-grown adults, but seriously. Having a few people who look that young feels like a bit more information than you want them to have. Especially when their computers can compare the heights of probably all their top suspects, and something tells me Paintball might fall somewhere on that list given the history you have with them. Just saying.” 

Before the rest of us could respond to that, Murphy asked, “Okay, sorry, I just need to ask. Is the person talking now the super-scary but ultra-hot cyborg girl, or the ultra-scary and ultra-hot cyborg girl?” 

There was a brief pause as their head tilted before Raige spoke again. “Paige would like you to know she’s offended that you don’t find her ultra-scary too, and that if you knew her better, you’d understand that’s a terrible way of differentiating us. You could say nice one or mean one, but that’s not exactly accurate either. Let’s stick with names, hmm? That seems easy enough.” 

“Sure,” I confirmed. “Totally simple to just stick with names. So, to answer your question, Raige… ahh, Wren, you got the things?” 

With a broad grin, Wren held up a pair of boots. “Yup! Err, I’ve got these ones.” She tossed them to me before gesturing. “Uncle Fred?”

He, in turn, reached down to pick up a cardboard box and carried it over to the middle of the room. “They’ve got lifts in ‘em,” the man explained to Raige (and Paige). “Just enough to add about four inches of height for all these guys. They’ve been practicing with them for awhile.” 

“We had the same thought you did,” I murmured while holding the boots against my chest. “It’s not the perfect solution, but it should at least confuse things a bit. If they don’t see anyone my–err, you know, Paintball’s height in this group, and I don’t use my powers in a way they can see, it’ll really muddy the waters about who attacked their base. Which means we really need to get in and out without too many problems so I don’t have to use my powers in an obvious way.”

That said, I hesitated before adding, “And speaking of not using my powers in an obvious way…” Reaching into the backpack on the table in front of me, I started pulling out tee-shirts and tossing them to the others. “You all need to wear these under the rest of your clothes when we go in there.” Every shirt had an assortment of colored shapes across them. Several of each type. There were orange suns, green leaves, and purple mushrooms. Three different colors, three different shapes, all arranged in three rows across the front and three across the back. I had taken the time to prep the shirts ahead of time while sitting at home.
“I’ve been practicing,” I noted, mostly for Paige and Raige’s benefit. “As long as I know one of my bits of paint is there, and exactly what it looks like, I can activate it through other clothes when I’m looking at it. Not through a wall or anything, but still. It’s something. These are all completely the same. So I can look and remember exactly what the orange sun looks like to make all of you temporarily really tough, or strong, or fast. Or all three at once. Probably that last one. I can do it six times for each of you, and they last about ten seconds each time. That’s sixty full seconds for all of us to have full boosts without me obviously using my powers.” 

“And you won’t have to use them constantly!” Wren quickly put in. “There’s the suits too. Err, I mean, okay, I couldn’t give all of you suits as cool as the prototypes Hobbes and Calvin have. But we do have the normal ones.” 

“Normal, she says.” Fred huffed a bit. “They ain’t just boring old mundane suits. Kid traded the design for those wings of hers to some Tech-Touched in Texas for a shipment of these. Just got ‘em in yesterday. They’re supposed to adjust to your body size and all that. They’ll cushion any impact you take. Won’t make a bullet feel like a love tap, but it’ll make it survivable. Probably. From what the guy said, it’ll still feel like getting kicked pretty hard, so you don’t want to stand there and dare them to shoot you.” 

“Cushion impact, but no teleporting,” Wren put in. “And the cushion bit isn’t as protective as the total momentum-stop on the suits Calvin and Hobbes have. But, uhh, it actually works constantly instead of draining a bunch of power every time, so…” Her face twisted a little bit guiltily and self-consciously 

“Sounds amazing, kid,” Pack put in. “Can’t believe you gave your wing designs to some other tech, but I guess you got your money’s worth. Err, you know what I mean. Your blueprint’s worth? Whatever.” 

Way spoke up then. “So we have the lift shoes to throw off our height, the colored shirts from Paintball so he can give us temporary boosts, and these suits you were talking about for some extra protection. Plus these.” From her own bag, she produced several batons with tasers on the end, along with a couple gun versions. “Police-issue. I… borrowed them from one of the deployment trucks when they sent it in for repairs after Suckshot yanked it off the road.” Before Pack could say whatever she had obviously been about to, the girl pointedly added, “And I want them all back when we’re done. So try not to drop them or anything. Just… just be careful, okay? Everyone be careful in general.”  

“Good advice,” Raige noted casually. “And I guess it’s not bad as far as hiding your identities goes. Not perfect, but eh. You don’t exactly have the time, resources, or ruthlessness you need to make it perfect. And I don’t want to sit around waiting for my new body until you get every single duck in a row. So we’ll go with the ducks you’ve got. But hey, at least you’ll have one of us with you. And believe me when I say that’s quite the upgrade.” 

I quickly spoke up. “She’s not wrong. And we can use all the help we can get. Which–are we forgetting anything?” 

“Not exactly forgetting,” Pack put in, “But circling back to that whole hiding who we are thing, I did have another thought. Especially when it comes to you.” She focused my way. 

“Me?” Blinking a couple times at that, I glanced to the others, who all shrugged, before looking back to her. “What about me?” 

“I was thinking about it, and I came up with the perfect plan,” Pack informed me with no small amount of pride. She paused briefly to let the anticipation grow, before dramatically announcing, “You should pretend to be a girl.” 

Okay, well, apparently it was not quite yet possible for me to literally die of shock. Although I did audibly choke and stumble a little, my eyes widening dramatically behind the helmet as I stared that way in total bewilderment. “I–wha–not–what–tha–yo-I-wha–” 

Quickly, That-A-Way moved over to slap my back a couple times, laughing pretty convincingly. “Whoa, hey there. No one’s questioning your manliness, buddy. I know how you guys are sensitive about that sort of thing.” She hit my back again, harder that time, while clearing her throat a bit pointedly. “You okay?” 

Thank God I had Amber in my corner to help cover. It gave me a second to collect myself. And with her help, my reaction made it look like a teen boy who didn’t like the idea of pretending to be a girl, instead of the truth, which… was a hell of a lot more complicated.

The point was, I absorbed the nuclear bomb that Pack had set off in the room and came out  relatively unscathed. Coughing once, I managed to look that way and found my voice. “Sorry, did you say I should pretend to be a girl? I don’t even–what would that–huh?” Right, totally smooth recovery. But again, at least she had suggested something that my fake teen boy-self reacting that way to made complete sense.  

With a snort of amusement that seemed to prove she really did buy that reasoning, Pack replied, “Look, I know it’s not going to be your most favorite thing ever, but being a girl isn’t the worst thing in the world, dude. I’m just saying, if everyone who sees you in there, or on video, thinks you’re a girl, there’s no way they’ll connect that you to Paintball, you know? Which means they’ll be even less likely to connect it to the rest of us.” 

Oh boy was there a lot that came to mind when she said that. Even when I filtered out all the curse words and stammering in my head, there was still a fair amount. A glance toward Raindrop revealed the girl standing completely still, not giving anything away. Nor were Raige or Amber, thankfully. All of them kept my secret perfectly. Probably better than I was. So, I pushed down my initial thoughts and simply asked, “Um, how exactly do you think we should do that? Err, if we did. I don’t think we can just put a skirt on the outside of one of these suits, so unless you’ve got a better–”  

“I have a better thing than that,” Pack interrupted. With that, she reached into her own bag and pulled something out before tossing it to me. 

It was a bra. I realized that even as I caught the thing in both hands. But more than that, the cups of the bra were stuffed, or padded, or whatever. It was clearly made so a guy could wear the bra and look like he had breasts. 

“This… this is…” I stared down at the thing in my hand, trying to find words. My stomach was rolling. There was absolutely no way that Pack could have known what a sensitive issue, in more than one way, this whole thing was. She didn’t know that I really was a girl pretending to be a boy, and she definitely didn’t know how sensitive I was about the fact that I didn’t exactly fill out a dress the way most guys wanted. Again, I wasn’t flat or anything. But well, this stuffed bra definitely had me beat rather handily. Which was a bit depressing all on its own. Again though, Pack didn’t know anything about that. She was just trying to help by offering what was, to her, a pretty good idea about concealing my identity. She wasn’t mocking me, she wasn’t messing with me, she wasn’t intentionally pushing my buttons. She was helping. 

Knowing all that helped me shove my reactions down. This was about hiding who I was, and whether I was really a girl or a boy wasn’t the point. There was absolutely no one way that my parents or anyone who worked for them would look at someone wearing this fucking thing and think it was either Paintball or their daughter. Pack was right, this was the best way to go.

Not that knowing that made it that much easier to resist throwing the thing into the nearest trash can as fast as I could, but it still helped. So I bit my lip and looked up again. Everyone was watching me. I could tell they were all curious about what I was going to say. Izzy, Raige, and Amber for one reason, and Murphy, Roald, Pack, Wren, and Fred for basically the complete opposite reason. They were all waiting to see what I would do. 

I wanted to say no. I wanted to dismiss the idea and say that it wasn’t necessary. After all, I would already be wearing completely different clothes, covering my face, not using my powers in any way that the Ministry would see, and even changing my height. I wanted to tell Pack that wearing this, that ‘pretending’ to be a girl was overkill. But the fact was, there was no such thing as overkill when it came to hiding our identities. My parents and the people who worked for them could not have any clues about who we really were. We had to throw them off as much as we could, because if they started coming after us directly, we would have no chance of winning. Not right now, at least. We needed more information, more details about their capabilities, their weaknesses, their–everything, all of it. Which was the whole reason we were breaking into the base so we could take enough stuff to hopefully know more. But to do that, to get away with it, I needed to be willing to do something that made my entire insides want to shrivel up and blow away in the wind. I couldn’t be selfish right now. I had to go with the hard choice. 

So, with a heavy sigh, I found myself nodding reluctantly. My voice sounded just a little hollow with the first word before I cleared my throat. “Okay–I guess you’ve got a point. As long as it means they don’t have any reason to suspect me, this has gotta be worth it.” 

While Amber gave me an understanding look, Pack pulled another stuffed bra from her bag. “I ahh, got one for the other pipsqueak over there too.” Her head nodded toward Raindrop. “Figured it’s not quite as big of a deal as it is for Paintball since you, you know, actually are a girl. But still, you’re not exactly–making you look different is better.” 

Izzy was clearly reluctant (even if not nearly as reluctant as me), but she finally agreed to the plan too. The bra that Pack gave her was just enough to make the fact that she was female more obvious even on-camera through the suits that we would be wearing. 

Actually, this whole thing was almost a good thing for another reason. I had been planning on wearing a jacket or a vest over my infiltration suit to hide the fact that–well, again, I wasn’t completely flat. Usually the coveralls I wore as the base of my costume were loose enough in that particular area to hide that. But I was going to have to cover it with a jacket when wearing these suits. Except now I didn’t have to. So… yay? 

In any case, the actual new suits turned out to basically look like a cross between a thief and a ninja. There was a basic layer of a black bodysuit that looked like a top and bottom set of pajamas, along with a vest that cinched across the chest for added protection (which probably would have covered my not-a-boyness well enough already), and what looked like a ski mask with black goggle-like lenses over the eyes. There was extra hidden padding in there to protect our heads. Finally, there were deceptively thin-looking gloves that were still quite protective and would hide our fingerprints. Between all that and the raised boots, we would look decidedly different than we usually did. Which, of course, was the point.  

The others changed in the shop, giving me a chance to see what the suits looked like, but Alloy and I stayed in our usual costumes. Given how sensitive this whole thing was, everyone getting caught by the authorities out in the streets dressed up like thieves or ninjas or whatever would kind of screw our entire night (and probably a lot more than that). Fortunately, we had a plan for that, even with the curfew in place. The plan was named Amber. Or That-A-Way. Wren’s shop was just south enough from the mall that she could teleport the group a bit at a time, from one roof to the next. The group, that was, aside from Wren and Fred, who would be staying at the shop, and Alloy and me, who had our own part to play. That was why the two of us were in full-costume instead of the suits, scouting ahead to make sure the way was clear. We texted back and forth to That-A-Way to let her know when it was safe to bring everyone over to the next spot, rather than shouting or using any lights or anything. Any cops or Star-Touched who saw us didn’t say or do anything about it, other than to wave and thank us for the help now and then. We would make sure each spot was safe, and then Amber teleported herself and the rest of the group there, disguised in those dark suits. 

There was a quick, relatively minor situation when Alloy and I actually saw a crime we had to intervene in. Some guy in a simple stocking mask was trying to loot an old pet grooming place. Yeah, I had no idea what he was hoping to find, but the dude was rearing back to throw a cinder block through the window and had an empty backpack with him. I managed to red-paint the block just as he went to hurl it that way, yanking it to a red spot on the street behind him. Then Alloy trapped him in a marble cylinder, until I got down there. He took a swing at me as soon as Alloy released the circular cage, but I used a bit of purple paint across my back to yank him by the arm over to a light post and used a ziptie to secure him to it while he shouted and threatened me. Then I used the Doephone app to contact the authorities to let them know where to pick him up and what his crime was. 

Shortly after that, Alloy and I returned to our planned spot and I let Amber know it was safe. Almost immediately, she appeared nearby with Pack, Izzy, Murphy, Roald, and Paige (she was the one in control right now) all touching her arms or hands. 

As soon as they appeared, everyone looked to me for an explanation about the delay. So I gave a quick rundown, before adding that we needed to get out of there before cops showed up to grab that guy. Not that they could see us from down there, but still. There were helicopters here and there in the sky with their spotlights passing over buildings. We needed to move on. 

So, we did. Bit by bit we made our way to the motel site, and took a minute to make sure it looked safe. No one was around, Wren’s sensors hadn’t picked up anything out of the ordinary around our tunnel, and the nearest patrols didn’t seem to be anywhere near this spot. The coast was clear.

The others headed for the main room while Alloy and I split up so we could go change. But first, I looked to Paige and hesitated. “Your… it feels different to see you standing up and moving around.” 

Paige (or Raige) was the only person here who didn’t have one of the special suits to wear. Wren, of course, hadn’t expected them to be part of this, so she didn’t get a suit for them. Instead, they were wearing a simple pair of jeans, a dark long-sleeved shirt, and a normal ski-mask. The mask itself was pulled up so it was barely covering their hair, acting more like a normal hat at the moment. Both of them had insisted that it was fine that they didn’t have a protective suit. After all, they already had their own advantages. Plus I had at least been able to paint another tee-shirt for her, like the ones the others had. 

“Feels different from this side too,” Paige informed me quietly before pausing. “Raige wants me to say that what she’d like to feel is how different it is to move around in her own damn body, so would we pick up the pace, please. I added the please.” 

Smirking just a little despite myself, I shook my head. “Don’t worry, Raige. We’re on it.” Still, I paused once more before adding, “Do you really think Flea and Trivial are trapped on that island?” 

“It’s the only answer that makes sense,” she pointed out. “Like you said, if Benjamin or his people had them, he’d know more about who Trivial is. But if they were free, they would’ve come back by now. Somehow… somehow they must’ve ended up there. Probably another one of his escape plans. I just–even if he doesn’t have them, that doesn’t mean they’re safe. They’re running around on an island full of the worst supervillains in the world. And that’s the optimistic scenario.” 

Grimacing, I took a second to find my voice. She was right, that was… it was bad. We had to get Raige a body so they could both act independently and then figure out what to do about it. Even if that meant sending messages to somebody about two Star-Touched being trapped on that island. Which raised the question of why people didn’t know about that already, or what–it raised a lot of questions. And I didn’t like any of the hypothetical answers. 

Forcing those thoughts down, I managed a weak, “We’ll figure out what’s going on. We’ll… we’ll find them. Right after we do this part.” 

Paige held up her fist, and I only hesitated for a second before bumping mine against it. I wanted to say something else, but nothing came out. Instead, I heaved a sigh, looked down at the stuffed bra in my hand, and headed for the room where I was going to change. 

If we didn’t get something useful out of this when all was said and done, no amount of being disguised would matter. Because I was probably going to scream so loud my parents would be able to identify my voice from the other side of town. 

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Dig In 22-08 (Summus Proelium)

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So clearly my parents had incredible timing. Just when we really needed to focus on what we were going to be trying to do that night, they dropped that bombshell on Izzy, asking if she would allow them to adopt her. Which sent the girl into an emotional tailspin for many different, equally valid reasons. Even after everything her mother had done, she still loved her and missed her. Some part of her still hoped to work things out, at least in some way. Which was something I could definitely understand, given my entire situation and how hard it was for me to see my parents as being capable of the stuff I knew they were capable of. 

In any case, I stayed with her while she talked a bit more about her mother. Not just about reading Charlotte’s Web, but other stuff too. She wasn’t in denial about the whole situation. She did tell me some bad things, and I could hear the anger and frustration in her voice. It was obvious that the girl wasn’t under any delusions about what sort of person her mother really was. Not anymore. Still, there were plenty of moments that she looked back on fondly, even if tears kept filling her eyes whenever she thought about them. 

My parents came by around eight-thirty in the evening to ask if we were certain that we didn’t want to go with them to the play. Yeah, they were going to see the opening performance of some new production that was supposed to be pretty huge. The guy behind it was being eccentric about the start-time and insisted that it begin precisely at eleven pm, rather than the standard eight. I had no idea if that was actually important for anything in the play, or if he just thought making a demand like that would make his play stand out. Whatever the answer, that was another reason for why we had chosen tonight to make our move. The play was a big enough deal that the media was covering people who showed up, so my parents would actually be there. Between the play itself and all the schmoozing my parents would need to do afterward, I was pretty sure they weren’t planning on going anywhere near the base tonight. And they were taking Simon with them, which was another bonus. Obviously, the base wouldn’t be completely unprotected or anything. At least I was pretty sure it wouldn’t. It would be pretty surprising if the place was empty. But either way, my family wouldn’t be there. Though it was almost certain that they would get a call very shortly after our arrival. I had a feeling my parents wouldn’t be sitting there through the entire play once that happened. But with any luck, by the time they got to the base, we would be long-gone with everything we could grab. And with a bit more luck, at least one thing within all the stuff we managed to grab would actually be useful. Particularly the address of Pittman’s secret labs that Raige had said was in that place.  

Needless to say, we politely declined the invitation to go with them, and I gave my parents a hug. Izzy looked uncertain, but stayed where she was on the bed while giving a hesitant wave. Mom and Dad seemed happy to see us sitting and talking together, and they tugged me aside to talk in private in the hallway for a moment. 

“Cassidy,” Mom started, “I know this whole thing was a lot to spring on you. On both of you. Your father and I… we thought about talking to you first. But we wanted Izzy to feel like this was about her. It’s her choice, she–she deserves to have that focus. And with as much as the two of you have been getting along, it was… perhaps we–” 

“It’s okay,” I interrupted. “You’re right, we have been getting along. I like Izzy. I mean–” Boy there was a lot I wanted to say, but keeping it simple and short was probably the best way to go. “You’re right, you didn’t need to ask my permission to ask Izzy if she wants to… to stay. She’s not a pet dog or whatever. It’s about what she wants. It should be about–it should be about what makes her comfortable and… and making her know she’s wanted. You didn’t need to ask my permission.” 

My parents glanced at one another, then each embraced me once more. Dad lifted me from the floor, crushing me against his chest. “That’s my girl,” he murmured proudly before setting me back down. “Aww, now see, you went and messed up my suit.” 

“Naturally,” Mom retorted as her eyes rolled. “She’s the one who messed it up.” Giving me a look, she added, “He just wanted to be able to blame it on you rather than on the way he’ll be slouching in the theater.” 

“Eh,” I replied with a shrug, “I guess I can take that hit.” Without another word, I reached out and started rubbing my hands over the jacket and shirt as though deliberately mussing it up. 

Dad swatted me away lightly, but laughed. “See, told you she was my real hero.” he announced while winking at me. “I can always count on her to come through in the end.” 

With a few more words about staying with Izzy for the evening and seeing how she felt about things, the two of them headed out. Sure, it was still early as far as the play went, which wouldn’t start for a couple more hours. But if there was one thing I’d learned about this sort of thing by growing up in my family, it was that people stood around talking for about as long as the play itself, if not even longer. There was a reason I’d decided long before I knew anything about the whole Ministry thing that I didn’t want to have anything to do with going to those events. 

After standing at the front door long enough to make sure they had left, I said good night to a couple of the staff who were standing around. It took everything I had not to run upstairs, considering I wanted the staff to have no idea that anything was going on. And thus have no reason to tell my parents that I seemed to be up to something. Once all this went down, and I wanted my parents to think that Izzy and I had been here asleep, or at least just hanging out, the whole time. So, I made a trip through the kitchen to grab a couple cold drinks before meandering upstairs. I didn’t go as far as whistling innocently, of course. That might have been a little over-the-top and suspicious. But I did basically everything up to that.  

Izzy was still sitting on the bed, looking at the back of that book. When I came in, however, she  stood up and waited until I closed the door before speaking. “Did um, did they leave?” While saying that, she set the book down and stood a little taller, clearly trying to show that she was ready for this. Which I had my doubts about, but who was I to tell her not to go? It wasn’t like I was any better when it came to being emotionally compromised. 

“Yeah,” I confirmed. And speaking of being emotionally compromised, “So I guess we should get over to the shop before Mr. Pittman calls.” 

Izzy made a face at that. “Do we have to call him mister? I don’t think he’s really earned that sort of courtesy or whatever. Can we call him Jerkface Pittman? Or Stankbutt Pittman.” 

Despite myself and this entire situation, I found myself snickering at that. “Stankbutt Pittman, huh? Yeah, I think the twins might be good with that.” Pausing then, I frowned. “Is twins the right word?” 

“Close enough,” she agreed with a tiny smile, before swallowing hard. Her gaze met mine. “We should go. I need umm, I need a distraction, please.” She sounded almost desperate then, clearly needing to take her mind off the whole family situation. Which, again, I could completely understand. 

So, I gave her a quick nod. “Yeah, let me just grab my stuff.” 

After grabbing her backpack, the other girl was right behind me as we slipped out into the empty hall, looked around briefly, and headed for my own room. There, I took my own bag out of its hiding place under the heavy mirror and floor in the closet and slipped it onto my shoulders. Then the two of us waited at the balcony for an opening before heading out. With Izzy’s help, we floated right over the wall, landing silently on the other side out of sight of the cameras before heading off through the darkness. We went a pretty fair distance through the wooded area before cutting across to the sidewalk, not wanting to let anyone passing by see us at this hour. At the very edge of the treeline, the two of us watched the empty street for a minute to make sure it was clear. In the distance, we could see the guard shack where the obviously sleepy guy sitting at his chair was doing his level best to stay awake with coffee. Which was a bad sign for how his night was going to go, considering it was just barely after nine o’clock. Or maybe it was fine for him. I doubted my parents would allow any part of the gang war to take place this close to their house, so the guard at the gate for getting into the neighborhood (as much as it could be considered a neighborhood given how far apart the houses were) probably wouldn’t have anything to do. His job was to make sure that cars going in and out were allowed to be there, and given the whole curfew situation, he probably wasn’t getting many of those. 

Of course, there was also always the question of how involved he was with my family’s business. Was he really half-asleep, or was that a front? Did he know exactly what was going on? It just made sense that my parents would have the gate guard to their neighborhood have at least some idea of the situation, didn’t it? Or maybe they—

Shaking that off with some effort, I took a step back (literally) into the woods once more as Izzy and I changed into our costumes in the darkness. We shoved our normal clothes into the bags, then continued on our way, following the treeline to get as far away from that neighborhood as possible. In no way, shape, or form did I want anyone to see Paintball and Raindrop emerging from the same neighborhood we lived in. That was just entirely too dangerous. 

Eventually, we managed to walk far enough away from the gate that we both figured it was safe. So Izzy made us both weightless while I used paint to yank us from rooftop to rooftop. We were still careful to avoid people following us, but that was easy enough at this point. It wasn’t like there were many cars on the street or anything. Still some, particularly police cruisers here or there. But for the most part, things were quiet. 

Everyone else was waiting in Wren’s shop, but I just took the time for a few quick greetings before heading upstairs. It was getting close to the time that Pittman was supposed to call, and I didn’t want to screw that up. Not with what could be on the line. So, I asked the others to wait a few minutes and jogged up there. I was still dreading the conversation that was about to happen, given we had no idea what the situation with Irelyn/Flea was. Not to mention the fact that just thinking about Irelyn and Flea being the same person still made my head spin.  

Paige’s body was sitting up on the couch when I got up there. She and Raige were obviously waiting for me. When I came into the room, they exhaled sharply before Raige noted, “About time. Cutting it a little close, weren’t you?” 

Before I could respond at all, the same mouth and voice spoke, but it was clearly Paige that time. “Stop it. She’s here, that’s what matters.” Her eyes found me. “He hasn’t called back?” 

My head shook. “No, he hasn’t called. We still have time.” There were a few other things I wanted to say, but I couldn’t find the right words. I could tell she was worried about Irelyn too. Actually, given Raige’s reaction, it seemed like they both were. Which raised some interesting questions about what sort of feelings and memories the other girl had, but this probably wasn’t the right time to get into all that. I wasn’t sure when the right time would be, but it definitely wasn’t when we were about to take a call from their psychotic father to find out what he wanted in exchange for not hurting their adopted sister. 

Of course, thinking about ‘adopted sister’ put my brain in another spin for that whole Izzy situation. But again, not the right time to think about it. I was going to have to shove that in a box and deal with it later too. Boy, this shelf in my brain was getting a bit full. At this rate, I was going to have to take some of the things out of their boxes and deal with them. 

Or build another brain shelf. Yeah, that sounded more likely. 

Shaking that off for the moment, I focused. “Okay, real quick. I don’t think we should say anything about Raige.” Before they could respond, I pushed on. “I mean, he didn’t say anything, so I don’t think he knows. As far as he’s aware, she’s been erased. I don’t know if that’ll ever be a relevant advantage, but it feels stupid to give him information that he doesn’t already have, you know? Maybe someday him not knowing that Raige exists will be important.” 

There was a brief pause while they clearly considered that. Then Raige agreed. “Sure, I can go with that. Fucker tried to kill me, might as well let him think he succeeded. Then it’ll be a nice surprise when I punch the back of his head in.” Another pause, then, “I mean, nice for me anyway.” 

“Nice for us,” Paige confirmed. 

Before I could say anything else, the special phone buzzed in my pocket. I jumped a bit even though I had been expecting that. Plucking it out, I looked at the unknown name and number briefly before exhaling. Then I put the phone to my ear and answered, making sure to use the same voice changer setting I’d had a couple nights earlier. “Hey again.” Boy was it hard to make my voice sound even somewhat nonchalant. Somehow, I managed it. Maybe it was all the practice I’d had over these past couple months. 

There was a brief pause before the same man spoke. “Give the phone to Paige, now.” Again, this guy was obviously accustomed to people hopping to follow his every command the moment he said it. Which seemed a little odd coming from someone who was living on a prison island full of other psychotic supervillains, but I had no idea how things worked over there. Plus he was obviously used to working with his automatons and other things he could program and control.

But I wasn’t one of those. Giving a quick glance toward Paige, I shook my head. “No, sir, I don’t think I’ll do that.” 

Again, there was a pause as though he couldn’t comprehend the words and was playing them back in his head in total disbelief. When he spoke again, his voice was even more dangerous. “This is not the time to be playing games, whoever you are. Give the phone to my daughter.” 

Steeling myself a little, helped by how annoyed I was by his demanding tone (not to mention the fact that he’d tried to have me killed by a girl who should have been my friend), I once more denied him. “You can repeat yourself as much as you want, but I’m still not giving her the phone. She’s right here. If you want to talk to her, I’ll tell her anything you want to pass along. The thing is, I’m pretty sure you probably still have some secret commands that even she doesn’t know about. So in the interest of fairness, I’ll just give her the gist of whatever you want to say to her, and she can respond. If you want, you can ask something that only she’d know the answer to, just to make sure she’s really here.” 

From the sound of the heavy sigh that escaped the man, I was pretty sure it was taking all he had not to curse me out and spit out a bunch of threats. A glance toward Paige showed the girl watching me with a mixture of curiosity and worry, but she didn’t say anything. And boy was it a weird feeling to look at the girl who had been such a royal bitch to me for so long and worry about how she was feeling. 

Finally, Pittman spoke. “Tell her to say… what color her carpet was in our first primary lab, in her bedroom.” 

Blinking at that, I finally shrugged and muted the phone before looking at Paige to pass along the question. 

“It’s a trick question,” she immediately replied. “There was no carpet in my first bedroom.” 

“Yeah,” Raige agreed darkly, “motherfucker put us in a room with linoleum on the floor.” Belatedly, she added, “That was white.” 

Making a face, I unmuted the phone. “White,” I replied, letting that hang for just a second before adding, “But it wasn’t carpet. It was linoleum. Which, for the record, makes you an even shittier father than I expected. And that bar was already pretty low, so congratulations on managing to limbo under it.”

“You think you can judge–” Pittman started to snarl before catching himself. “I don’t care what you think. I care about progressing the human race. Now tell Paige that she needs to get back in line and do her job, or the superheroes, including her sister, who ended up on this island thanks to her will pay the price.” 

My mouth opened to echo the word ‘superheroes,’ only to catch myself. Muting the phone, I stared at it for a second before murmuring, “He says Flea’s there on the island.” 

“Fuck!” one of them blurted before slamming Paige’s hand into the side of the couch. “Stupid piece of shit! I knew that whole thing was a bad idea, I knew it was–I knew–fuck!” 

“Just–wait.” Quickly, I interrupted before they could go on. “He said superheroes, as in plural. Who would Irelyn take with her? Who else is–?” Even as I said that, my fingers were snapping. “Trivial. It’s Trivial. She’s the other one who hasn’t been around lately. The news was talking about that earlier, about how she’s been on some sort of vacation or something. I was mostly thinking about how her timing sucked with Flea being gone too.” 

“He… he has Irelyn and Trivial,” Paige murmured. “We have t–” 

“Hang on.” Holding my hand up to stop her, I thought quickly for a couple frantic seconds. Then I hit the button again and spoke to Pittman. “Put them on the line. If you want something from Paige, we need to know Flea and Slider are both safe.” 

Another sigh escaped the man. “They are fine, for now. Unless Paige fails to do as she has been told. Then they both die. Put her on the phone.” 

My finger hit the mute button again, and I looked back to Paige and Raige. “He doesn’t have them. He has her phone, but not them. Trivial’s only been here in the city for less than a year. And she was in Nebraska before. He doesn’t know who she is. He didn’t know the name was wrong. And he refused to put them on the phone.” 

“He could not know who she is and still have her,” Paige pointed out slowly. 

My head shook. “I don’t think so. If he had her, he seems like the type to dig into who she actually is so he’d know how to keep her contained, you know? If he doesn’t even know her name, I don’t think he knows anything else about her. Just that she exists.” Then I thought of something else. “Besides, think about it. If he had two different heroes’ lives to bargain with, do you really think he’d waste time trying to tell you to do the same job you were doing before? Seems to me like he’d be bargaining with someone who has more actual power than you. Hell, he could call out to a news station and threaten to kill two Star-Touched. But either way, he’d know what her name was, because he’d be talking about her with the outside world. He would’ve gotten as far as knowing her name.” 

“If he doesn’t have them, but has Irelyn’s phone… what does that mean?” Paige murmured. 

“It means he’s fucking with us,” Raige answered. “Still thinks he can make us–err, you dance under his strings. They must be on the island, but not… he doesn’t have them. Maybe they dropped the phone or–whatever the fuck, all that matters is he doesn’t have them.” 

We talked for another moment before I unmuted the phone. “Pittman?” I dropped the mister, as Izzy had suggested before. “Paige has something to say to you.” With that, I hit the button to make it so he could hear her voice but she couldn’t hear his. 

“Hey, Father,” she announced flatly. “I just wanted you to know that you should probably get to work on giving yourself a robot dick. Because when Flea finds you, she’s going to cut the real one off. We’ll call back and leave a message when we have something to say to you.” 

With that, I disconnected the call. Which had to piss him off, but that was what we were going for. We had other things to worry about right now. He didn’t have Irelyn or Trivial, that was what mattered. 

“Okay,” I announced, “I’m going to head out for that tunnel thing so we can get Raige a new body and go from there.” 

“Close,” Paige replied, “but I’m going too. Or we are.” 

“What?” I blinked at that. “What do you–” 

“We’re sharing the body for this,” she informed me, already pushing herself to a standing position. “If Irelyn is stuck on that island somehow, who… who the fuck knows how, but either way, if she and Trivial are stuck there, we need to get on with this.” 

“So yeah, we’ll share it for now, for this,” Raige put in. “We’ll take turns. So I can get my own body, then we can figure out how we’re going to get those two the fuck out of that prison.” 

“Well… in that case, what are we waiting for?” I slowly replied. “Speaking of bodies, let’s go tell the others we’ve got another one coming along for this mission.

“God knows we can use all the help we can get.”  

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Dig In 22-07 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

“I hope you aren’t planning something dangerous.” 

The words from my father came at dinner the next evening as we all sat at the table. I had been lost in thought about what would be happening later that night oh, only to be drawn out of it by his voice. Jolting a little, I forced any guilt away from my expression before looking up. “Uh, what?” Smooth, Cassidy. With casual and expert deflections like that, I was practically a secret agent. Call me Double-Oh Paint, starring in No Time To Dye.

Okay, that one was bad even for me. Thankfully, I was interrupted from dwelling too much on it when my father raised an eyebrow. “You’ve barely touched your food and you keep looking at the wall with that thoughtful look that tells me I’m about two days away from getting a call from the school, the hospital, or both. Please tell me you don’t have some new trick in mind.” 

Blushing despite myself, I inwardly cursed at the fact that I’d let myself focus too much on stuff I really shouldn’t be thinking about around my family. My head shook. “No sir, no new tricks here.” 

Dad squinted at me, glanced toward my mother, then back again. “I sure hope not. After all, you’re getting closer and closer to graduating from that driver’s ed class. And from what I hear, you might just make it with a passing grade.” 

Clearing her throat, Mom pointedly put in, “A passing grade by our standards, that is. Which, you may find, is somewhat higher than the educational system.” And yet, even though she was trying to sound stern then, she clearly couldn’t help the small, proud smile that came when she looked at me. “I am certain you are up to maintaining that standard.” 

Yelling at myself that I really had to make things seem as normal as possible now that my father had noticed my distraction, I forced a casual shrug. “Yeah, well, I mean if Lite-Brite over there can pass your driving requirements, I think I’ll probably be okay.” 

While Simon made a face at me, Izzy blinked. “Lite-Brite?” 

“Sure,” I confirmed while shifting in my seat to glance at the girl next to me. “Or Monopoly, Hungry Hungry Hippo, Battleship, Guess Who, Trouble, Clue, or any other game I could think of when I was your age. You know, cuz his name’s Simon. Like Simon Says. I used to just pick a random game and call him that whenever I wanted his attention.” 

“And for the record, I still can’t believe you guys let her get away with that,” Simon complained. 

Dad chuckled, exchanging a brief look with my mother before offering Simon a shrug. “I hate to tell you this, champ, but when it comes to little sisters calling you things, you got off pretty light with board games. Besides, honestly, your mother and I had a bet going to see how long it took her to get to ones like Scattergories and Boggle. Though I will admit, she got to Candy Land faster than expected.” 

“Ahem.” Mom gave Dad a pointed squint before looking back to us. “What your father means to say is that it’s very nice to see when our children can get along and be nice to one another.” She paused deliberately, making a show of considering her words. “Rare, but nice.” 

Picking up from the table, I moved to the side where the pitchers of iced tea and juice were, pouring myself a fresh glass of the former. Then I asked if the others wanted any and ended up refilling Izzy’s juice and Simon’s iced tea as well. Placing the glass in front of my brother last, I gave him a too-sweet smile. “See? I can be nice.” 

“Oh, nice, huh?” Simon gave me a look, and I had a brief flash of danger run through my mind before he pushed back on his chair and yanked me over by the arm. Before I knew what was happening, he had me in a headlock and was running his knuckles over my hair while I yelped. “Yup, super-nice! Nice hair, nice yelping, and I bet…” His hand moved away from my hair, but he wasn’t letting me go. Instead, he started to tickle me. “Nice and squirmy!” 

“Ahh! St-aahaha-stop-ahhh stop!” Squealing and kicking my legs out, I struggled, but couldn’t find any leverage in that position. He had me half-yanked off the floor and over his chair, one arm keeping me trapped in that headlock while his other hand tickled all along my side. In the background, I could hear Mom saying something, but couldn’t pick out the actual words. It didn’t sound like she was too angry or anything though, and Simon didn’t immediately release me. 

Finally, he let me go, standing me back up before poking me in the stomach. “See that? Don’t forget, I’m still the big brother, Booster.” 

“You’re a big something, alright,” I retorted, my face flushed. “Pretty sure I can think of a few words more appropriate than brother.” 

Once again, Mom cleared her throat. “Go back to your seat, Cassidy,” she gently yet firmly chided. “This is, after all, family dinner. Not, ahh, WrestleMania?” 

Squinting first at her, then at me as I found my way to my seat, Simon asked, “Is it just me, or is Mom saying WrestleMania really weird?” 

“Definitely weird,” I agreed. “Like hearing a priest curse. Or–” Reconsidering that, I amended, “Actually, I think hearing a priest curse would be less weird.” 

Sniffing once, Mom primly informed us, “I’ll have both of you know that your father and I have attended a good number of wrestling events. I do have a life outside of lecturing my children. Even if they often do their best to make that a full career.”  

Oh boy did I want to ask what sort of life it was and what she liked to do when she wasn’t being my mother. Including a few specific time and date verifications. But that felt like it might be pushing things. 

Simon, on the other hand, lifted his chin while slyly replying, “Sure, a life. That I buy. You go to all sorts of, like, charity auctions, dances, even musicals. Maybe golf for a sport. But anything involving wrestling? Yeah, sure. If I asked you who your favorite wrestler was, you’d probably–” 

“Hmmm, from the nineties and early two thousands? Either Mick Foley or the Undertaker,” Mom informed him. “And yes, I was there for their Hell in a Cell. But as for the Touched division these days…” She considered for a moment before nodding decisively. “Definitely Iron Grimes.” 

Feeling Izzy tug at my sleeve, I looked that way before the younger girl quietly asked, “Is your mom serious, or did she just say that to mess with Simon?” 

I was just realizing that I had no idea what the answer to that was, when Dad chuckled while speaking up. “As it happens, your mother is the one who talked me into investing in the fledgling Touched division of wrestling back in the day. I was a bit skeptical, but she saw the potential.” He was smiling that way, and the two of them exchanged the sort of tender looks that would have made a younger me gag on my finger. It was the sort of look that almost always precipitated–yup there it was. They kissed. 

Simon waited what he apparently thought was an appropriate amount of time (two seconds) before speaking up. “Hey, hey, come on. Doesn’t the poor innocent child over there deserve better than to be traumatized by you two being gross?” 

While Izzy protested that she was fine, Dad reached over to lightly swat Simon on the shoulder. “Just bear in mind, boy, someday you’ll want to bring someone you care about around to the table, and I’ll remember eeeeevery moment like this.” 

Shrugging, I put in, “Well, first he’d have to get someone to come home with him who actually wants to do the kissing thing, so I’m pretty sure he’s safe on that front.” 

“Oh I think someone needs another headlock,” Simon declared, teasing as though he was going to push himself up and come around the table after me. 

Someone,” Mom pointedly declared, “needs to stay in his seat and remember that as exciting as wrestling can be, it has its time and place.” To punctuate her words, she took a sip of her wine while watching Simon with a cool gaze. She hadn’t raised her voice or anything like that. She didn’t need to. 

“You’re lucky this time,” Simon noted with a squint my way. “But watch out next time you’re in arm’s reach.” 

“Son, much as I don’t think encouraging any underhanded behavior is a good idea,” Dad put in dryly after setting his own wine glass down, “maybe you could reconsider making threats against your sister within earshot of your parents. Particularly with Izzy here.” His eyes passed back and forth between us to make sure we were paying attention. “I had hoped that both of you would set a better example.”

“It’s okay,” the younger girl quietly insisted, “I kind of like this kind of example.”  

Her words made my parents exchange glances. Some sort of silent communication passed between them before Mom turned back to us. “Yes, well, on that note, before dessert comes, perhaps it’s time to have a conversation that has been some time coming.” 

“A conversation?” I found myself echoing, glancing toward the girl next to me before turning back that way. “What conversation?” A brief spike of paranoia about what they could possibly know jumped into my mind, but I shoved it back down with some effort. Now was definitely not the right time to panic.  

Dad took a breath, offering a reassuring smile. “A good one, we hope.” His gaze turned from me to the other girl as he continued. “Izzy, I hope that you understand just how much we enjoy having you here, and how much it feels like you’ve filled a void in this household ever since you came. Whatever the circumstances behind your arrival, Elena and I are incredibly grateful that it happened. You are a brilliant, talented young woman, who deserves to succeed at everything you put your energy and mind toward.” 

Izzy’s hand was tight on her glass, before she abruptly released it and dropped both arms to her side. “You want me to leave.” Her voice was dull with resignation, as if she had been expecting something like this but was still hurt deeply that it had come. “It’s alright, I–” 

“Isidora, no.” Mom’s head shook intently. “No, nothing like that. The opposite, in fact. We don’t want you to go. Thus far, you have been living with us under temporary guardianship. Our friends in law enforcement and the foster system have been gracious enough to grant us broad leniency in that, yet now that it has been over a month with no sign of your… of your mother, they believe that a more… permanent decision needs to be made. Not immediately. You have all the time that you need.” 

“I… I have time?” Izzy was staring at my parents in confusion, clearly taken aback by all this. “Time for what?” It was obvious that she was expecting to be told that she had time to pack her bags and get out of the house. 

Dad’s voice was gentle. “Izzy, we’d like to become your permanent guardians. After what–” He stopped himself, clearly not wanting to say more in front of me. I was sure Simon already knew the whole story, even if Izzy wasn’t supposed to know he did. “After your personal situation with your mother, it’s… staggeringly doubtful that she would ever be granted custody of you again. But, we also understand that this is a lot to throw at you, and that this family itself can be… more than what anyone wants to handle sometimes.” 

While Izzy continued to stare, her hand found mine under the table and squeezed so tight it was almost painful. But I kept the reaction off my face and squeezed back. She clearly tried to speak a couple times, but couldn’t find the right words, so all that came out were a couple uncertain sounds. 

“What Sterling is saying,” Mom put in, “is that we would like to adopt you, Izzy. Legally and permanently. We would like you to be part of our family, part of this family, for the rest of all our lives. As he said, the decision is entirely up to you. Take your time, think about it, decide what is best for you. If you decide you don’t want to be here, we will find a quieter place for you. No matter what you decide, you will never be abandoned. You will never be alone. We will make certain there is always someone who can take care of you, even if you decide that you would rather that person not be us.” 

Izzy was squeezing my hand even tighter, biting her lip for a moment before managing to find her voice. “Tha–thank you. Thank you for… for everything. I–” The words caught in her throat briefly before she forced them out. “I’ll think about it. I–I have to think.” 

With a smile, Mom nodded. “Of course. Take all the time you need. Just know that whatever you decide, we all care about you. And when your mother is found, we will ensure that she gets the help she needs to become a better person. While being prosecuted for her actions, of course.” Her voice was gentle and understanding. “She is still your mother.” 

********

We all had dessert after that. But I could tell Izzy wasn’t really tasting it. She was polite and everything, and even cleared off the plate. Yet her movements were mechanical, and it was obvious that her attention wasn’t on the food. As soon as it was over, she excused herself and headed out. I waited another couple minutes to give her a little time before doing the same, muttering something about checking on her. 

She was in her room, and I quickly closed the door behind me after finding her there before checking the intercom on the wall to make certain it was off. Just to be on the safe side, I pried the thing open and flicked off the little switch inside. It was a trick I’d learned awhile back to make sure Simon couldn’t eavesdrop on me when I was on the phone. I’d long-since modified my own intercom to always chime when it was activated, no matter what. Not that it was hard to do. There was literally a setting for it once you opened the thing up and knew what to look for. Which I did, thanks to an afternoon spent reading the manual years ago. 

Or did I? Was that how I knew how to do that, or had Paige actually been the one to teach me about it, back when she taught me how to sneak out of the house? No, that didn’t make sense. I didn’t remember how I knew how to sneak out of the house, only that I did, and I had never really questioned that. But not remembering something was very different from remembering something totally different. Tomas’s father had erased my memories of Anthony, and of Paige by extension. He didn’t put specific new memories in. Especially not memories of how I knew something Paige had taught me. He didn’t know about Paige, so there was absolutely no reason he would know to give me specific memories about learning the intercom system. 

In any case, I knew how to make it chime every time and how to turn it off. I did the latter with Izzy’s so we would be left alone, before looking that way. She was sitting on her bed, legs folded with a book in her lap as she stared down at it intently. She clearly knew I was there, but hadn’t looked up or said anything since I entered. 

After a moment of hesitation, I walked over that way to sit on the bed next to her. My voice was quiet. “Are you okay?” 

She didn’t answer at first. Instead, she kept staring down at the book before closing it. When she spoke, her voice cracked slightly. “We’re still going out tonight, right? So… so we can get into that base.” 

My head bobbed slightly. “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to, Izzy. We can make do.” 

“No.” Looking up to meet my gaze, Izzy insisted, “I’m going. I want to. I have to. Especially–” She flinched in mid-sentence, glancing away. “Especially now. If–I want to know more. I want to know everything your parents do. I want to know what– I want to know all of it.”

Boy did I understand that feeling. The need to know the truth, even if you were certain it was going to hurt. I had spent all this time planning how to break into that secret base, just so I could get some firm answers about what sort of people my parents were. Even if I knew the answer was going to hurt, even if I knew I would regret knowing details, I still had to do it. I had to be certain. And now my parents were asking Izzy to join the family officially. No wonder she had to know the truth too. Even if it hurt. 

“They do care about you,” I assured her, for all the good it probably did. “It’s not just about wanting your power, Izzy. They could get that in other ways. I might not know everything about them, but I know the look my mother has when she’s looking at someone she cares about. And she definitely cares about you. I know that probably doesn’t help. Trust me, I know. But they don’t just want to use you. They aren’t just manipulating you to get something. They care about you. I care about you.”  

Izzy was silent, not responding for a few seconds. Then she exhaled. “I care about you too. And them.” The latter admission came with a look of guilt as she glanced away. Which was something I understood just as much as her need to know the truth. Knowing that my parents weren’t exactly bastions of morality and righteousness, knowing that they had done some terrible things and allowed people to die, and even killed plenty themselves, didn’t make it easy to not care about them. It was like they were two separate groups, the people who were my parents and brother, and the people who did those terrible things. Yet they weren’t different groups. They were the same. And trying to accept that was hard. 

For a couple minutes after that, the two of us sat in silence. Izzy took a few long, deep breaths to steady herself before speaking in a quiet voice, “She wasn’t always bad.” 

“Your… your mom?” I hesitantly asked, unsure if she actually wanted to talk about it or not. 

Izzy nodded, clutching the book in her lap tightly before holding it up so I could see. It was Charlotte’s Web. “My mom used to read it to me,” she murmured. “Not this one. This is from your library. Ours was beaten up and had scribbles in it. My scribbles. It was the first book I remember her reading. And… and usually when I was sick, she would read it to me again. She would sit in bed with me and read it. She made the voices funny and… and…” Closing her eyes, she looked down, shoulders slumped. I could see the tears leaking out as she weakly insisted, “My mom wasn’t always bad. She wasn’t always like… like that. She got worse for awhile, but before… but–” Clamping her mouth shut, she shook her head helplessly. 

Wincing, I shifted closer and put an arm around her. “She’s your mom.” 

“But they won’t let her be again,” Izzy whispered, leaning against me. “After what she did, even if your family wasn’t… um, what they are, the authorities wouldn’t ever let my mom be my mom again. And–and I know she shouldn’t be. After what she did, she shouldn’t–she can’t–I–” A shudder escaped the girl, before she turned her head to press her face into my shoulder. “She can never be my mom again, not like it was. She broke it. She broke it, Cassidy, and she can’t put it back. She can’t fix it. It doesn’t matter what I say to your parents, it doesn’t matter what I do, it doesn’t–I can’t change it. I can’t fix it. I can’t make my mom be… I just–I just wanted her to be–I just wanted–” Unable to continue, Izzy wrapped both arms around me, clinging tightly. “I wanted to be good enough.” The weak, plaintive words snapped my heart in half. 

“Why wasn’t I good enough?” 

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