Jania Estrada

Hostile Witness 18-09 And Patreon Snippets 21 (Summus Proelium)

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“Wh-what happened?!” Alloy was blurting, clearly in the midst of some level of panic attack. Completely understandable, given the situation she woke up in. “Who–where did–why can’t I–” 

I was on my back still, but now I was staring up at trees, and felt a few rocks poking into my back as I lay in the dirt somewhere outside of the petting zoo. Out. Out. We were out. We were safe and fine. Okay, well, not exactly fine just yet, considering I still couldn’t move. And from the sound of Alloy grunting and Pack cursing, neither could they. Which wasn’t surprising, considering it hadn’t been anywhere near the hour that Cup had said it would take for the effects of the ray to wear off. Assuming she had even been telling the truth. 

“Alloy, it’s okay!” I called over to her. “We’re out, we’re… safeish. Amanda was Cup–is Cup. But we’re out now. All three of us are paralyzed, but she said it would wear off in like an hour.” 

“An hour?!” Somehow, Alloy wasn’t too reassured. “Wait…” Abruptly, I saw her rise to a standing position. But it wasn’t like she stood up, it was more like she floated upward and set herself on her feet. And then abruptly fell down again with a yelp. “Damn it! I’m all… woozy. I think it’s making my marbles woozy too. Can’t focus on staying upright. It’s all dizzy and weird. Like trying to play a video game that keeps inverting the controls.” 

Oh yeah, her armor was made out of her marbles, and they could move. But apparently she was still affected enough that it wasn’t working very well. Which… was that what Cup had been referring to when she said that Alloy being knocked out made sense? 

“It’ll be okay,” I tried to promise. “It’ll wear off.”  

“Right, cuz the psycho supervillain said so,” she retorted, “and why are we taking her word for it?” 

“We don’t have a choice right now.” That was Way, her voice tight. “We still need to get out of here before that bitch calls in reinforcements.” Kneeling between us, she looked over to Raindrop. “Stay here with them. Keep an eye out for anyone, I’m gonna go grab the van.” 

“Hold on!” Pack blurted. “You can’t go back around there by yourself! What the hell do you–” 

“Pack, stop.” Way’s voice was firm. “We don’t have a lot of options right now. This should be far enough away that she can’t find you. But I have to get the van before they do. I’ll be right back.” 

I didn’t like that. I really didn’t like it at all. But it was like she said, we didn’t have much choice. Pack, however, apparently had other ideas. “Get my backpack off and put my hand in it.” 

That-A-Way only hesitated slightly before following her instructions. Lifting Pack up carefully to get the ‘empty’ pack off her, she unzipped it and placed the other girl’s hand inside. “Okay?”

“Twinkletoes, here boy!” Pack called, waiting until she apparently felt the little chameleon against her paralyzed hand. “Okay, boy. You know what to do. You remember, we practiced this. You can do it. Just like back in the parking lot. Okay… now go, get out of the cage!” 

“Uh.” Raindrop started to speak up before hesitating. “Are you doing what I think you’re doing?” 

“He’s transformed,” Pack replied. “And… just get us to the road. He’ll drive the van down it. At least I think he will. We practiced it for awhile just in case of an emergency. He should be able to follow the road, but I’m not exactly sure how good he is at getting out of the way of other drivers, and I know he doesn’t understand road signs or… yeah, we should get back to the road and keep an eye out. This could get a little messy. Or a lot messy.” 

I had seen a lot of weird things since becoming a Touched, but the idea that there was about to be a lizard-gorilla hybrid creature driving a van down the road kind of… reached its way up into the top ten. But again, we didn’t have a lot of options. Pack was clearly desperate to make sure Way didn’t have to go near the petting zoo by herself, and that idea didn’t appeal to me either. 

Now all we had to do was get to the road. Which actually ended up being fairly easy, since Alloy transformed her floating marbles into a couple fancy stretchers for Pack and me. Then she simply used those plus her own armor to make our group float that way. Raindrop and That-A-Way played escorts, keeping their eyes out for any Scion activity, just in case. We had no idea how long it would take Cup to call in reinforcements and whether they’d even go out into the surrounding area searching for us. But it felt better to be safe rather than sorry. We had to get out of there. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t that far to the road. Way could’ve teleported us, but we would’ve been much further north in the process. This was fine. Or at least, I kept telling myself it was. Really, my mind was still spinning wildly from everything we had just found out. Cup. Amanda was Cup. Which meant her brother Nick was Pencil. And something told me he wasn’t actually in Alaska. 

“You know he’s going to be even more pissed at all of us now.” Way practically read my mind while we were moving toward the road. “We know too much about him, and the rest of their group. And we hit his sister again. They’re gonna be targeting us any chance they get.” 

“They’ll move her first,” I pointed out. “They don’t know how long it’ll take us to get reinforcements, so they’ll focus on getting her and all her stuff out of there.” 

“Speaking of which, shouldn’t we be calling in those reinforcements right about now?” Alloy put in. “And who are we calling anyway, the… uhh, ones who call themselves actual heroes or the woman we were supposed to be doing this whole thing for in the first place?” 

It really was a good question. We were supposed to let Deicide know what was going on so she could go after Pencil. And I was damn sure she’d want to know about this. But on the other hand, it was also the biggest lead that anyone in the Star-Touched society could possibly have. We had uncovered the identity of Pencil and Cup. That was huge. The authorities could probably do a lot to try to track those two down from knowing who they really were, though I was sure they both knew how to disappear. It was something, a way of potentially stopping them from killing more people, if they were too busy keeping away from the authorities. 

“Both,” I abruptly answered. “We’ll let Deicide know what we found out, but we’ll contact the Conservators too. Flea. We’ll contact Flea. And Caishen. We’ll let them both know, let them come check this place out with the cavalry. The more people who know the truth about Pencil and Cup, the better chance of someone tracking them down. Maybe they’ll go on the run.” 

If she could have moved, I was sure that Pack would have turned to stare at me with an incredibly dubious look. “You don’t really believe that shit, do you? Seriously, come on.” 

I sighed heavily. “I don’t know. But every little bit helps. Like I said, the more people we have going after them, the better off everyone’s going to be. Someone might get lucky. And yes, I know it’s unlikely. But even the slightest chance that someone could maybe stop them is better than nothing. Plus, if they’re busy staying out of reach from the big guns, that’s less time they have to put into making innocent people suffer. It’s not much, but it’s all we’ve got right now.” 

By that point, our strange little convoy of stretchers and floating armor had reached the road. We stayed low, just on the edge of the treeline in case one of the Scions happened along. Then we waited. 

It wasn’t long before we heard a horn blaring, coming from up the road. Raindrop and Way looked at each other, then leaned out of the trees to stare that way. For about the eighty-seven thousandth time, I wished I could move to see for myself. The sound of the blaring horn got louder, joined by another, then a third. A car that was driving past in the opposite direction joined the chorus a moment later, and I saw it swerve off to the other side of the road. 

“Alloy?” I put in over the sound of the horns. “Could you–” 

She immediately lifted the stretchers and turned them to face the road so we could see. And what a sight it was. The van was heading toward us, swerving in and out of both sides of the street like some sort of incredibly drunk fat man. It wasn’t moving all that fast for a vehicle, barely reaching fifteen miles an hour. But the way it was swerving back and forth, every vehicle from every direction had to get out of the way. Not that there were that many, but still. The few who were there pulled off the road and honked, or just shouted out their windows. 

Raindrop quietly spoke up while she and Way both looked pointedly toward Pack. “I don’t think Twinkletoes should try to get his driver’s license anytime soon.”  

“You kidding?” the La Casa girl shot right back, “He’s doing better than a lot of the useless pieces of shit I’ve seen on the road back in the city. Look, he’s even signaling. Uh, sort of.” 

She was right, particularly about the sort of part. Somehow, Twinkletoes kept flipping the turn signals on and off randomly. It had no connection with which way the car was going, but still. He also kept turning the windshield wipers on and off. I had the feeling he was just randomly hitting things in there. Honestly, we were lucky he had his foot on the pedal and was keeping the van on the road, even if it was taking up the entire road in the process. He was a lizard in a partial gorilla body, so I was going to give the extent of his driving skills a break based on the fact that they existed at all. I had really had no idea that Pack could possibly make her lizards do something like this. It raised even more questions about how smart they were, or how well they could be trained. Questions that were obviously going to have to wait until later. After all, we had slightly more pressing things to deal with right now. 

Pack had Alloy lift her stretcher out into view so the incoming Twinkletoes could see her. He immediately stopped and managed to get his driver’s side door open. Not that we saw much. He was invisible, after all. Yeah, that was another thing throughout all of this. The van had been driving wildly down the road while apparently having no driver. We just saw the door pop open once the van was near enough, and a moment later the gorilla-lizard revealed himself by popping up right in front of Pack while making worried grunting sounds that were kind of adorable and endearing. He kept gesturing to her, then to the van while making those anxious gorilla noises. I honestly wasn’t sure if he was more terrified about what he had just done, or about what was wrong with his owner. Probably some mixture of both, really. 

Oh yeah, and meanwhile, the van was still moving. Yep, the lizard hadn’t actually stopped it at all, let alone put the thing in park. He just opened the door and hopped out. The thing was still heading down the road, already past us and continuing on, coasting entirely off momentum. 

“I’m on it!” Way blurted, her figure turning into a blur as she raced out of my sight. I heard the van door close a second later, and then the thing started backing up toward us once more. She parked it right nearby, then hopped out. She and Raindrop opened the backdoors, letting Alloy guide herself and the stretchers into the rear compartment. As soon as we (including Twinkletoes) were in, Way shut the door, hopped in the front, and started to drive off. No way were we going to sit around here talking about things. We need to get somewhere safe. 

Raindrop, meanwhile, stayed in the back with us. As Way was driving, I asked the younger girl to get my phone out of my pocket and use the number for Deicide that I had recorded in it. The phone was still connected through my Bluetooth, so I heard it ring in my ear a few times before the woman’s voice answered. Rather, that same booming feminine voice that was clearly being projected from the books she had nearby. Yeah, she still wasn’t talking in her own voice, even on the phone. So she was doing this whole thing on speaker? I still wasn’t sure why she talked like that. Was she incapable of speaking the normal way? Like, was she mute or something? 

Either way, the voice came through my earbud. “Do you have something for me, Paintball?” 

“Oh boy, do I ever,” I managed as my eyes reflexively rolled. “First of all, your intelligence is the fucking worst, lady. Also, the fucking best. Both, at the same time. I’m not sure how you pulled that off, but seriously.” Yes, I knew it wasn’t her fault, at all. But I had to say something.  

There was a brief pause at my words before her projected voice replied, “Pardon me?” 

So, I explained the situation. Very succinctly, I told her about Amanda’s real identity, what had almost happened, and what Amanda’s real power was. Yeah, that last one felt like something that some people might’ve kept a secret or only told the authorities. But fuck it. It was just like I had said, the more people who knew the truth, the more chance there was of actually stopping these guys. It was obvious that one of the biggest reasons Cup and Pencil had managed to stay off the trail of the authorities for so long was because they had no idea that Cup herself was the one building a lot of their Touched-Tech toys. Hell, knowing about that, maybe we could actually convince Braintrust to go after her for not doing her part to contribute to them the way they insisted all Tech-Touched do. Or even convince Sherwood to target them in retaliation for Cup building the devices in the first place, since they hated technology so much.  

Yeah, getting Sherwood and Braintrust to actually work together against the same target. Boy, wouldn’t that be pretty wild. But if any people could inspire such incredibly different enemies to be on the same side, it was definitely Pencil and Cup. Those two never played by any rules. Even the Ministry would obviously be fine with shutting them down. I had no doubt that my parents wanted the entire Scions organization taken out. 

By the time I finished explaining what had happened, my fingers were starting to twitch just a little. It wasn’t much, but I could feel them respond ever so slightly to my desperate orders for them to move. The paralyzation was gradually starting to wear off, though I was pretty sure it would still take awhile for me to be able to do more than make the ends of my fingers bend. 

Deicide was quiet for a moment after I finished. Finally, her voice returned. “That is surprising.”

Right, so apparently another of her superpowers was incredible understatements. “Yeah, tell me about it. You asked us to find this Amanda chick and tell you what she knows. We found her and… well, I think you can safely say we told you what she knows. Deal’s done, we’re even.” 

“Yes,” came the response immediately. “Your favor is repaid in full. You have done more than I could have expected.” There was a brief pause before she added, “I am… very sorry for sending you into that danger, Paintball. It was never my intention. If I had had the slightest inkling that you would have run into that sort of trouble, I never would have made that the favor.”  

She obviously didn’t have to apologize. But I appreciated it anyway. Taking a breath while coaxing my fingers to wiggle a little more, I replied, “Thanks. We’re safe enough now, anyway. And umm, and we’re calling the authorities too. They need to know the truth about those two.”

Part of me expected the woman to argue against that. Instead, she replied, “Give me the address. I can be there before the authorities. I’ll do my own examination and leave before they get there. I can…” She hesitated. “I can find out everything I need without moving anything.”   

Part of me felt slightly uncomfortable about that, but on the other hand, it wasn’t like I could object to sending a bad guy there, considering I was going to be doing the same thing when we contacted the Conservators. Okay, okay, I didn’t actually know that any of them beyond my own dad were actually bad. But still, the whole situation was incredibly gray. I might as well let Deicide do her own investigation on top of the one the authorities would do. 

With that in mind, I gave her the exact address about where she could find the petting zoo with Amanda’s apartment. That earned me a look from Raindrop, but she remained silent. 

“Got it,” Deicide replied. “I will be there shortly. You may feel free to contact the authorities. And Paintball… thank you.” 

If I could have shrugged, I would have. “Yeah, well, we might be really different people, but I think we can all agree, ‘fuck those two and their little gang in particular.’”

“Indeed,” she confirmed before adding, “though someday you may find that we are not quite as different as you believe.” There was something important behind those words, but I couldn’t read enough into what it was before she simply finished with, “I will see you another time, Paintball. With any luck, it will not be on the battlefield. I would hate to be faced with you.” 

Well, that was a little surprising. I expected her to say something like she would be sad to have to kill me. Before I could respond to her actual words, she disconnected the call. I was officially done with my favor to Deicide. 

Even better than that, when I finished telling the others that it was done, I was able to close my hand into a fist and then open it again. I could also make my toes twitch. The paralyzation was definitely wearing off. Which, thank God Cup had actually been telling the truth about that. There’d been a small nightmare working in the back of my head about it being either permanent, or needing some kind of exterior cure to turn it off. But, thankfully, it really was temporary. 

“So what now?” Alloy put in. I could barely see enough of her hand from this position to tell that she was doing the same thing as me, closing and opening a fist. “We call in the authorities and tell them where to descend to rain righteous legal hell on that place and look for clues?” 

“How do we explain what we were doing there?” Way put in carefully.  

I had been thinking about that this whole time, and finally exhaled heavily. “I think the best thing we can do is just say that Alloy and me were investigating something independently, and we called you for help, Way. You were out with Raindrop, so you guys came to see what was going on.” 

“Without calling anyone else?” Raindrop put in. “If we were going anywhere near the Scions–” 

“We didn’t know it was actually the Scions,” Alloy pointed out. “None of us did.” 

I agreed quickly. “That’s a good point. It’s the truth. We really didn’t know they were going to be there, only that it was a lead that might not pan out at all. We just tell the truth, as far as that goes. We looked into it and called you guys for help talking to who we thought was just a normal witness just in case she might respond better to someone from the official hero teams.”

Way hesitated slightly before shifting around in the front seat to look back at us through the window while still driving. “Yeah, I think we can deal with that. How’re you guys doing with that whole moving thing?” 

In answer, I slowly moved my head from the left, then to the right. It was almost painfully stiff, but I managed it. “Getting there. Call Flea and get the Conservators there. I’ll get hold of Ten Towers as soon as I can move my hand a little more.” 

“Yeah, I’ll–” Way started, just before the van abruptly jerked violently, almost skidding sideways off the road. All of us in the back were thrown to the floor. 

“Dude, what the hell?!” Pack blurted. 

Way was looking at the side mirror, her voice tight. “Hang on, guys. That was some sort of–” She suddenly spun the wheel, sending the van to the left just as a high pitched whine of something shooting past us on the right filled the air. “It’s Cup! And some others. They’re in a car and–” She spun the wheel back the opposite way to avoid another shot. 

Right, apparently we weren’t quite done with that whole escaping from the Scions thing. But hey, maybe if I was lucky, I’d manage to get myself fully unparalyzed before they killed all of us. 

Patreon Snippets 21

Arleigh

January 16th, two months before the start of the story. 

“Hey!” Arleigh Fosters pushed her way through a crowd that had gathered around the bottom of the long cement staircase in the outside courtyard of Cadillac Preparatory School. “Move, damn it.” There were too many people in the way, making the tall blonde growl under her breath in frustration. She grabbed the nearest guy by the elbow, making him turn to her. “What the hell is going on? Someone said Cassidy Evans was out here.” And god, she better be. If Arleigh had to go back home yet again and tell her dad she hadn’t had any luck getting close to the Evans kid…

The guy shrugged and nodded. “Sure, she’s right over there.” He stepped aside a bit, raising a hand to point over at the top of the long set of cement steps. 

The sound of wheels clacking rapidly across the cracks between concrete squares grew louder, as Arleigh looked that way just in time to see the girl in question. Cassidy Evans, daughter of the richest and most powerful (in more than one way) people in Michigan, reached the top of the stairs on her skateboard before grunting as she jumped the board up and turned so that it landed sideways on the metal railing running down the middle of the steps. With that, arms held high above her head, she rode the board all the way down to the bottom, jumped it before the very end, flipped the board over three hundred and sixty degrees in the air, then landed smoothly on the wheels before rolling to a stop. As the assembled students who had been watching cheered, she stepped off the board and popped it up into her hand before grinning as she took a bow. 

“Thank you, thank you,” the obscenely wealthy girl called out before focusing on one guy in particular, a senior who had been watching with folded arms. She held a hand out. “From the entrance all the way down the walk and off the railing. Isn’t that what you said would prove I wasn’t a poser? Now uhh, I think we bet something, didn’t we? Right, right, for me, it was a hundred bucks. For you, it was… what was it again?”  

“You know what, Evans?” The guy was practically baring his teeth as he snarled, “You’re just lucky you–” 

Taking that as her cue, Arleigh immediately stepped that way, putting one arm around the other girl as if they were BFFs. “Hey now, if you made a bet, you better honor it,” she informed the boy while wagging a finger at him. “You wouldn’t wanna be known as a welcher, would you?” 

The boy looked as though he wanted to argue, but finally just sighed and reached into his pocket before pulling out a pair of tickets, thrusting them out. “Fucking take ’em, whatever.” 

As he stalked off and the crowd started to disperse, Arleigh saw that the tickets Cassidy had taken hold of were for a concert the next night. Pretty good seats too. Perfect. This was perfect. If she went to a concert with the Evans girl, her dad would stop being such an asshole about making friends with her. 

“Oh hey, if you’re going to that concert, I could–” 

Cassidy, however, was already slipping out from under the arm that Arleigh had slung over her shoulders. “Nah,” she dismissively replied, holding the tickets out to some other girl, a sophomore. “Val’s the one who won them, Greg just convinced her he’d date her if she went to the concert with him.” 

The girl in question gave a relieved nod as she clutched the tickets to her chest. “But as soon as I let him hold them ‘for safe keeping’, he broke up with me and pretended he didn’t know anything about it. When I pushed it, he said they were payment for… looking at my ugly face.” She cringed. “I couldn’t tell my dad, he’d think I was just so stupid.” 

Arleigh’s mouth opened to tell the girl she was stupid for falling for something like that. But Val spoke again, addressing Cassidy. “Hey, maybe we could go together, since I don’t have anyone else to use this ticket for?” 

Stupid or not, the girl had just given her the opening she needed, and Arleigh immediately took it. “Yeah, I can get a ticket too and we could all go together. I could drive, so you don’t have to arrange anything. We could even go to dinner first.” Perfect, this whole thing was pe–

“No thanks,” Cassidy infuriatingly replied with a shrug. “Hey, you two should go together. Have fun.” She turned without another word, heading off with the skateboard tucked under one arm. 

God damn it! Arleigh fumed, watching the girl leave. Beside her, Val started to say something about arranging a place to meet tomorrow, but the older girl simply turned to stalk away without another word. Then she pivoted back, grabbed one of the tickets, and replied, “Five o’clock, front of the school right over there. Don’t be late.” 

Then she stalked off, ticket in hand. What the fuck was wrong with Evans? She was friendly enough, she stuck up for people she could have been much more popular than she was, even before you counted the whole rich thing. And she was… popular enough as far as school went. Some people liked her, some didn’t. She just… she had school ‘friends.’ As far as Arleigh had been able to figure out in the past several months since her father had started on this whole ‘make friends with the Evans girl’ kick, Cassidy didn’t have anyone from school who was actually close to her. She hung out in groups, she went to games and movies and stuff with other people, but there was no one she actually confided in or spent time with alone. 

“What the fuck is her problem?” Arleigh muttered to herself while mentally rehearsing what she was going to say to her father. 

Needless to say… she was going to be glad to get out of the house tomorrow night. 

*********

Plan Z

Jania Estrada, the sixty-six-year-old Panamanian woman who had worked as a maid in the Evans household for eighteen years, was humming to herself while running the vacuum back and forth across the carpet in one of the dens downstairs. More accurately, she was humming along with music playing through a single earbud. The music, humming, and vacuuming all stopped when a single buzz from the phone in her pocket informed the woman that she had a message. She turned off the vacuum and checked what had been sent to her, reading the message twice before leaving the vacuum where it was, pivoting to walk out of the room. Exchanging greetings with a couple other staff members, she made her way to the kitchen, where Chef Claudio and his two assistants were preparing lunch for the employees.

The moment she stepped into the room, the three of them looked up. Claudio started to say something about when their food would be ready, but Jania pointed to one of his assistants. “Christiana,” she announced while holding up her phone. “Mrs. Evans would like to have a few things picked up from the grocery store.” 

Christiana Diaz, a quite thin, young Latina woman with dark hair that was cut very short on the sides with a mop of curls on top, set down the knife she had been chopping with and politely excused herself before heading to the door. The two of them stepped away together, leaving the sounds of Claudio and Ethan picking up the pace in chopping vegetables. 

“Aunt Jania,” Christiana started once they were alone in the corridor. “What is it?” 

Seeing the two walk side-by-side, it was easy to notice the family resemblance in their faces, specifically their eyes and around their always-smiling mouths. Christiana was smaller than her aunt, standing only an inch over five feet. That, combined with her general youthful looks and hairstyle, made her appear to be closer to the end of her teens, rather than the twenty-seven she actually was. Or the twenty-two the rest of the household believed her to be, in her job as Claudio’s assistant.  

Not that that was her only job within the Evans household. 

In response to the question, Jania held up the phone for her to see. Indeed, it was a message from Elena Evans, asking her to send Christiana to the store to pick up a list of items. Anyone who glanced at the message would see nothing untoward about it. Certainly, they wouldn’t see the code buried in the list. Christiana, however, read the code as well as she read plain English. Or Spanish, for that matter. Her finger traced over a few key points, making certain she had translated it correctly. Then she took her aunt’s phone and sent back an answering response. To an outside observer, it would appear to be simply querying what prices were acceptable and if specific substitutes were okay, just in case. In actuality, the response included a separate code, which essentially repeated the gist of the assignment so that Elena could inform her if she had translated incorrectly or misunderstood anything. 

But no, as usual, she was spot on. The confirmation came back a moment later, and Christiana nodded to her aunt, passing the phone back to her. “Tell Claudio I’ll be back as soon as I run the errand,” she remarked, before turning on her heel, heading for the side door that led to the small employee parking lot, hidden out of sight from the front of the house for aesthetics.

Fifteen minutes later, Christiana parked a car in the underground lot of an office building. It wasn’t her car, but rather one she had borrowed from a grocery store several blocks away. No one would see her own car anywhere near this building. Rather than step out immediately, she took out her own phone, texting a totally different number from the one that Elena had used to contact Aunt Jania. Mrs. Evans’ rules. They divided these instructions and responses between multiple phones to make it even harder for anything to be traced back or decoded. The message she sent simply read, ‘You awake?’ After a few seconds, Elena sent back an emoji of a man in a business suit. Which was the last confirmation. Unless Elena sent a message to stop her, it was time to go. 

Tucking the phone away, Christiana focused for a moment. Her body shifted, transforming into a dark, mist-like shadow. Looking straight at her in this form, people would see only a pitch-black humanoid shape with a simplified face that would be impossible to recognize as anyone specific. She was clearly female, yet that was the only specific feature that could be determined. 

Stepping out of the car without opening the door, simply passing through the solid material, Christiana looked up while focusing once more. Her humanoid form shifted slightly, becoming even more of a shadow than a person, a human-sized bit of darkness. A moment later her shadow-form flew through the ceiling and into the building proper. She was in a corner of the main lobby, yet no one noticed. Anyone who looked that way would only see a notably darker section of the room, as if something nearby was casting a dark shadow there. And these people were too busy rushing back and forth to the elevators or the street to notice something like that. 

After making certain she hadn’t been noticed, Christiana moved even closer to the far corner of the lobby and continued her way upward. Floating higher, she passed through the ceiling and into what turned out to be a restroom on the second floor. Yet she didn’t stop there. One by one, she passed floor after floor, counting them to herself as she went. Finally, on the eleventh floor, she stopped. This too was a restroom, and she made her way forward through it, a barely visible shadow fog heading for the door. It opened just as she reached it, her dark figure hidden behind the door itself as a man walked right past on his way to the urinal. 

Christiana walked through the door as it closed, looking both ways in the corridor. People rushed every which way, calling out requests or questions from their cubicles while phones rang and managers worked to keep it all organized. They paid no attention to the dark shadow moving through the room. She was intangible, practically invisible, and they were distracted. 

On her way, however, she heard one man in particular snarling some very untoward things toward his clearly junior, female employee. The poor girl sat huddled in her seat, drawn in on herself while the man hissed hateful things about how terrible she was at her job as well as how useless she was in plenty of other aspects of life. He also made sure to mention at least three times that he was about to have a very important meeting with a couple of the vice presidents and if this girl knew what was good for her, she’d get him those files right now. Listening to him for only a few seconds, Christiana could tell exactly what he was. She knew his type far too well. Lording his power and authority over others, he knew the girl he was attacking here had self-confidence issues and reveled in his ability to make her miserable. 

Her job could wait for a moment. Turning to face the man, a simple shadow against the wall of the cubicle, she reared back before giving him a hard shove as hard as she could. 

He gave no reaction, of course, as her intangible hands passed through him. That was, he gave no reaction yet. Turning, Christiana stepped out of direct sight, waiting for the man to lead her back to his own small office along one side of the room. While he stopped in the doorway to say something to another middle manager, Christiana found the mug of coffee on his desk and gave it a simple push with one finger near the top. Again, there was no physical response, as her finger simply passed through. Then she swept her arm across the desk, through all the little knick knacks, before shoving both hands into the computer monitor. Finally, she turned and kicked the trash can next to the desk as hard as she could, aiming for the doorway. As always, none of these actions had any effect.  

By that point, the man had moved into the office and took a seat at his desk, clearly antsy as he waited for that important meeting. He kept glancing up at the doorway, leg bouncing anxiously. 

Standing in the corner of the room where her shadow shape would be all-but entirely invisible, Christiana watched as well. She saw the way the man’s eyes lit up when two older guys in much nicer suits began to approach. This was it, his meeting. He reached down, taking up his mug for one last sip. 

And that was when Christiana set to work. Focusing on the mug, she triggered the action she had used on it. When she had shoved her finger against the brim, nothing had happened. Now the mug reacted to that previous action, tipping over while he was sipping in order to spill all across the front of his shirt. 

While the man yelped and cursed at that, she triggered the response to her arm sweeping across the desk. All those little bits and pieces, the mug of pens, the stapler, the pristine and polished nameplate, everything went flying off to the side. A second later, she triggered the action on the computer monitor, sending that off to slam into the wall with a crash. 

By that point, the man had bolted upright, his eyes wide. “What the fuck?!” He shouted those words just as the two higher-ups came into the doorway. And in that moment, Christiana triggered both the shove into the man’s back and the kick against the trash can. Simultaneously, the man staggered forward while the can itself was sent flying over, literally smacking into one of their heads. 

And then it was done. The man was left standing there beside his desk where he had stumbled, monitor broken against the nearby wall, random junk from his desk scattered across the floor, while his trash can had just hit one of his bosses in the face. From the fresh stain on his shirt, it would appear to those men as though he had spilled his own coffee and violently overreacted. Even the stumble forward from being pushed combined with the flying trash can looked like he had lunged that way to kick it.

With a small smirk, Christiana stepped backward through the wall into another office, leaving the man to explain that whole situation while the yelling started. 

Satisfied with her own moment of justice, she moved through several more offices, finding the one she was looking for. A heavyset, very tall man sat at the desk there, reading through a few files. Christiana took the time to ensure that this was the right man, before holding one hand out as she stood behind him. A thought made a knife appear, while she solidified herself into a more humanoid form. Then she gave a low whistle. 

The man jolted, turning to face her. As soon as he did, Christiana stabbed the knife into his throat. He yelped, jerking backward before falling to the floor. But, of course, the knife had done nothing. Not yet, anyway. 

“Do you know who I am?” she asked, standing there over the suddenly terrified man while he clutched his perfectly-fine throat. 

“Y-you… you work for them. Z. They call you Z,” he stammered. 

“Plan Z, to be completely accurate,” she informed him. “Then you know how this works. They’ve asked you for the files twice. This is the third time. The last time. You have one hour. Deliver the files, then they will call me and tell me to call it off. If I don’t get that call by that point, I will trigger the effect. Your throat will be slit. If you go to the cops, I will trigger the effect. If you tell anyone, I will trigger the effect. No one else can save you, no one else can stop it. Nobody. If I trigger that knife I just put in your throat, you will die. Deliver the files and you’ll be fine. You have fifty-eight minutes now. Do you understand?” 

He tried to plead with her, and she simply repeated, “Do you understand? Fifty-seven minutes and forty seconds. If I was you, I would hurry.” 

That was all it took. The man lunged to his feet, blubbering a bit as he bolted for the door while saying something about getting the files out of storage. Christiana watched him go, then simply turned and stepped through the nearby wall, floating down along the outside of the building before reaching the street. There, she made her way back to her own car where it was parked several blocks away, resumed her normal form, and took out a different phone out of the glove box to text to yet a third phone number, ‘Got the tickets, you still wanna go to the game?’ 

‘Let me check with the old lady’ came the response. 

And there it was. Christiana only had to wait now. If the response came back affirmative, that the supposed person at the other end of the line was allowed to go to the game, it meant their target had delivered the files as instructed and she could cancel the knife attack. But if it came back negative, that the ‘old lady’ had denied them, it meant he had not followed instructions. In which case… he wouldn’t be making any other decisions again. 

Reaching out, Christiana turned on the car to listen to music. 

And then she waited. 

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Project Owl 14-01 and Patreon Snippets 17B (Summus Proelium)

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The single requested snippet for Summus Proelium this month follows the end of this regular chapter. Thank you very much to the patron who requested it! 

The morning started out like most others did these days. In other words, it started by me being woken up by Jania Estrada, our elderly-yet-eternally-energetic maid from Panama, turning on the vacuum cleaner a few feet away from the bed I was snoring on. As usual, the sudden loud noise sent me tumbling out of bed with a yelp, which made Jania’s cheerful laugh overwhelm the sound of the machine itself. She wasn’t malicious about it, of course. Jania was one of the nicest people I knew. But she had a job to do and I tended to sleep in on non-school days, for reasons that should have been fairly obvious (not that I could give them to her). She wasn’t waking me up for the hell of it, even if my reaction did give her some amusement. She did other work upstairs and waited as long as she could before Olivia, our head housekeeper, would have had harsh words for her tardiness. 

Still, whether by choice or not, Jania did find waking me up with the vacuum and my subsequent reactions to be ever-so-amusing. Sometimes I managed to wake up first, but others, like now, she would put the vacuum close enough to give me a minor heart attack when it flipped on. 

Lying in a heap on the floor, I turned my head just enough to stare at the gray-haired woman who was currently giving an entirely-too-innocent expression while vacuuming back and forth. “Oh, Miss Evans!” Her mock surprise wasn’t the least bit convincing, and she obviously knew it. “I did not see you there. Were you not downstairs already eating?” Her head tilted, and then she made a sound of put-on realization. “Oh, that must have been Miss Amor who was at the table.”  

With a groan, I rolled backward and managed to pull myself to my feet somewhat awkwardly. “Yeah, sure,” I retorted, “simple mistake. We look so much alike.” Picking up one of my pillows, I chucked it lightly at her. She, of course, smoothly ducked without paying much attention. For an old lady, she was pretty spry and had good reflexes to go along with her good mood and sense of humor. 

Checking the time, I grimaced. It was almost eleven o’clock. God, I really had needed sleep. Worse, Paige’s party was supposed to start at two, so that was only three hours away. Urgh. Once again, I considered just pleading off. But not only was there that whole ‘keeping up appearances for the family’ thing, I also really wanted to know what the hell was going on with her, and this was basically my best (if not only) chance to find out. 

As far as the first bit went, I did wonder just what my parents were thinking about all this. They knew that Paige knew at least something about their business, that she had enough information to make them back off and leave her alone. Yet they still wanted me to go to this party. Was I some kind of unwitting spy? Were they going to ask me all kinds of things about her when it was all over? Was this just their way of getting someone in Paige’s house? Were they using the whole party thing as a way to find out how much Paige really knew, as some kind of test or… something? I had no idea. All I knew was that my mother said that it would be rude for our family to turn down an invitation from her family, but that I was free to leave once I’d made an appearance. Which was an offer I still wasn’t sure if I’d take or not. Sure, I was wary of going, but once I was there, it made sense to stick around and see what happened. Again, it wasn’t as though this kind of opportunity came around a lot. 

Still, with only three hours to go, all sorts of doubts and insecurities were popping up in my head. Anything could go wrong over there. And by that, I meant anything. Paige could be planning some kind of humiliating, nasty attack against me, or this could end up being some big Touched/Ministry-related thing. Or it could be nothing at all, just both sides (her and my parents) feeling each other out to see what the other would do. 

It was fucking complicated, and I had no idea how it was all going to play out. What I did know was that I was hungry, and that at least was something I could take care of immediately. Well, almost immediately. First, I headed into the bathroom, took a nice, hot shower, then dressed before heading downstairs. 

The others were obviously long-since done with breakfast by then, with Dad already off to some meeting, Mom having a conversation in the front hall with some florist or dressmaker or something who had stopped by (I wasn’t sure, as I kept hearing both words about flowers and fabric), and Simon paused on his way out the door of the kitchen as I was going in just long enough to give me a noogie before he headed for the garage. 

Izzy was still sitting there, looking at the comic strips in the newspaper. After ordering food at the intercom, I took a seat next to her. “How’s Garfield today?” 

“Fat and lazy,” she replied, looking over at me. “Are you really going to that girl’s birthday party? Isn’t she, umm… not very nice?” 

Yeah, I may have said a thing or two about Paige while Izzy and I were playing video games before. Plus, she’d seen her back at Amber’s own party. Grimacing, I shook my head. “Don’t really have much of a choice. It’s a whole ‘rich people’ thing. Her family’s rich, mine is rich, we have to play nice at times like this. According to Mom, it wasn’t even Paige who wanted to invite me. It was more ‘her family inviting our family’, with me as the proxy.” Rolling my eyes, I added, “Fun, huh?” 

“Super,” came the simple response, before Izzy turned a bit more to face me directly. “Your umm, your mom asked if I wanted to go, cuz there’s supposed to be a lot of different kids there, even my age. It’s a whole thing. The Banners invited half the people in the city, it seems like. But I… I told her I wasn’t sure if you wanted company. Or, you know… some kid tagging along.” 

That made me do a double-take, blinking at her. “Wasn’t sure I wanted–sure, Izzy. I mean, I’ll take all the back-up I can get. And you’re not just some kid, you’re–” Realizing I had no idea how to finish that sentence, I settled on doubling down with, “You’re not just some kid. Besides, if Paige is awful, I’ll just retreat to the tweens area and hang out with you.” 

“You don’t think that’ll just give her more ammo about you being too young?” Izzy pointed out, clearly trying to sound diplomatic about the whole thing. 

I, in turn, shrugged. “It’s not like she needs any excuse. I’m not gonna live my life by what might give Paige Banners a way to make fun of me. She’ll do that regardless. I’d rather have fun. And if I’ve got to make an appearance there, I’d rather have someone else to hang out with, like you.” 

“And Amber and Jae,” the other girl pointed out. “They’ll be there too, right?” 

“Right, yeah, them too.” I gave a slow nod before giving her a quick wink. “You guys really hit it off before, huh?” 

A brief, vaguely odd look crossed the girl’s face before vanishing. It could’ve been my imagination. Either way, she gave a quick nod. “Uh huh, they’re nice.” The curt answer was followed up by a curious, “What’s a birthday party for the rich like?” 

“Oh, you’ll see,” I informed her with a cough. “It’s always different, and I haven’t exactly been invited to many of Paige’s, so I don’t know what she does.” Or did I? At some point, I’d clearly been close enough to Paige to know a lot more about her than I did now. Did I visit for her birthday? Had I–

“Cassidy?” Izzy’s voice interrupted, as she touched my arm. “Are you okay?” 

“Oh, uhh, yeah, sorry.” Flushing despite myself, I nodded. “I’m fine. The point is, birthdays are extravagant. But then, I’m pretty sure you’ve figured out a lot of things around here are extravagant by now.” 

Even as I said that, the kitchen door opened and Christiana, one of Chef Claudio’s assistants, emerged with the tray holding my breakfast. After thanking her for setting it in front of me, I quickly dug into it, while glancing at the girl next to me, “So, you’re gonna come, right?” 

“Um, okay.” Izzy still sounded unsure about the whole thing, but gave me a little nod. “If you want me to.” 

Honestly, I really wasn’t sure how all this was going to go down. Would having Izzy there put her in danger? I’d basically figured out and accepted by that point that my parents didn’t mean her any harm, whatever reason they had for her being here. But taking her out to where Paige’s house was, when I wasn’t sure why I had even been invited? Was it stupid? 

Maybe. But there would be a lot of people there, as Izzy herself had noted. No one was going to pull something obvious with so many witnesses and bodyguards around. 

Right? 

********

“Holy shit, Evans, you actually showed up?” 

Izzy and I had just been dropped off in the front drive of the Banners mansion. Like my family’s place, the ‘driveway’ was long enough to have several school buses park along it. There weren’t exactly school buses parked there now, though there were several cars all letting out an assortment of teenagers. Most looked pretty damn impressed by the massive house in front of them. 

That obviously surprised exclamation had come from a short (well, taller than me but only by about four inches or so), vaguely heavyset black guy with glasses and an ever-present red baseball cap worn backwards. San Francisco Cavers. Yeah, his first name was San and his middle name was Francisco. His parents really thought they were clever, I supposed. 

“Hey, San,” I greeted him. He’d gone by Frank (as in San Francisco) for awhile back in junior high before deciding he hated that worse than just San. “What’s up?” 

Whether his name was cool or weird, San was a friend. Sort of. Mostly he was a ‘hang out at school or go do something dangerous and crazy afterward’ sort of buddy. Not that we’d exactly hung out any time recently. Mostly because I hadn’t hung out with… any of my school friends. How could I? Either I’d be putting innocent people in danger by being around them, or I’d be spending time with people who were planted by my parents to keep an eye on me. Any of my ‘friends’ at school could’ve been secretly reporting to my parents. Or collateral damage if something happened to me. 

Paranoid? Sure, definitely, no question. But didn’t I have reason to be? Yeah, I’d avoided most of my school friends since that night. It hadn’t been all that hard, given how much I’d tended to keep them at a distance anyway. For… reasons I was starting to understand, with this whole Anthony Tate thing. He’d been a really close friend and he died. Whatever happened back then had obviously been traumatizing enough that my parents erased it from my memory. But I had a feeling that some of it had stuck around. Between that and Paige apparently being erased and–

Actually, was it possible that… if Paige and I had been friends, even if she was also somehow erased from my memory, when she’d showed up again and acted like such a bitch to me, I’d subconsciously taken that as some kind of betrayal? Could that have helped my whole… avoiding close friendships thing too? 

Huh. 

San was shaking his head. “What’s up? What’s up is I’m surprised you came. I mean, it ain’t like you and Princess Peach in there are all that close.” 

Grimacing, I nodded. “Yeah, well, it’s a family sort of thing. You know, gotta keep up appearances.” 

With that, I started to introduce Izzy as a girl who was staying with us for awhile, just as Tomas approached. Of course he was there too, speaking of people whom I still didn’t know if I could trust at all or not. I wanted to, naturally. But I kept flipping back and forth between just how involved he was with his father. The fact that he’d been my boyfriend for awhile after Mr. Jackson erased my memory back in the day… yeah, it made me uncomfortable. But Tomas was just so… decent, so cool. He made me feel like I was special. 

Then again, so had my parents. And look at that whole situation. 

Pushing those thoughts aside, I focused as Tomas was saying, “You know Cass isn’t going to let someone being a hellbeast stop her from doing anything.” His hand patted my back as he added, “I mean, come on, this is the same girl who, according to some very interesting stories people were telling the other day, jumped into Maggie DeLeano’s pool from the roof just because someone said she was too chicken to do it from the balcony. She didn’t just beat the dare, she upped the ante. And freaked out Mr. DeLeano when he saw her fall past the window, so he came out and started yelling.” 

“You did?” That was Izzy, staring at me with wide eyes. “Wait, how big was the DeLeano house?” Clearly, she was trying to figure out just what level of crazy I actually was. 

“Just a few stories, no big deal,” I insisted. “They have a deep pool too. Trust me, it was nothing.” 

“Nothing?” Tomas chuckled, giving me a look. “From what I heard, no one else was ready to go jumping off after her.” 

“That’s because they’re all sissies,” I pointed out mildly, poking him in the chest. “And so are you.” 

“Sissy and proud of it, ma’am,” he replied with a grin that made my heart twist itself into knots. Even now, even with everything I knew and all the things about that whole situation that terrified me, Tomas could make my knees shake and my mouth go dry with a single look. How was that fair? 

With some effort, I shoved all those thoughts away before looking at San. “Anyway, can we stop telling Izzy all about the dumb things I used to do when I was young and stupid?” 

Lowering his head, the boy stared at me over the top of his glasses, looking entirely unimpressed. “Dude, it was like…. four months ago.” 

“Four month–” Izzy looked at her fingers, doing the mental math. “Wasn’t it still winter then?” 

“Pshh, their pool was heated,” I pointed out, as if that actually solved anything. Still, my face flushed a little. “And yeah, four months ago. Like I said, young and dumb. I wasn’t even sixteen yet. Totally not worth ever bringing up again.”

“What’s not worth bringing up again?” Amber, approaching with Jae (who was heavily done up in a hat, sunscreen, and dark shades to protect her sensitive albino skin), asked. She exchanged a fist bump with San, while looking toward me. “You sure you wanna be here?” 

Despite myself, I rolled my eyes. “Come on, guys. I didn’t accidentally have the driver drop us off here thinking it was the mall. And I didn’t bring this for my health.” From my pocket, I produced a small, red-wrapped present to wave at them. “Believe me, if it was my choice, I’d rather be almost anywhere else. But her family and mine just–we have to play nice.” 

Quietly, Jae pointed out, “Her too.” 

“Right, that should mean she plays nice too, especially with all these people here,” Amber agreed. “But shouldn’t we go in to find out? What’s everyone standing outside like this for anyway?” By that point, there had to be over a hundred teenagers out here, all talking in small groups or pairs. 

San shrugged, looking around at the rest of the mingling groups. “One of the butlers was out here before. He said something about the party being prepared and that we’ve all gotta wait.” 

Tomas gave a short nod of confirmation. “Yeah, and he didn’t look too happy about all the people out here either. Pretty sure if it was up to him, he’d turn the hose on all of us.”

That, of course, was the perfect opening for San to start talking about the time I’d managed to get Mrs. Kormish to turn her hose on me after one too many times running through her backyard to get the balls that ended up back there. Her yard was right on the edge of the park where I took my skates and board to use the ramps and rails, and some of the guys played baseball on the nearby diamond. I didn’t really play, but every time a ball went in mean old Mrs. Kormish’s yard, the boys all looked to me to go get it. Apparently I was the only one who wasn’t chicken, given how much she yelled at and threatened anyone who got near her grass. 

Anyway, one time I’d gone too close to her back porch, and she came running out from the side of the house (apparently she’d been working in the flower garden there), spraying me with the hose and screaming bloody murder. That was a fun time. 

Izzy was squinting at me. “How come so many of your stories end with ‘and then I got soaked while someone screamed at me?’” 

San laughed. “Oh, kid, you think that’s bad, you should’ve heard about the time we were out on the beach, and–” 

He was interrupted (and I was spared hearing that story again), by the arrival of Paige herself. Several people quickly spoke up, pointing her out as the birthday girl stood at the front door. Her gaze swept over the crowd and… I swore she looked right at me. Our gazes locked, holding steady for a solid couple of seconds before she spoke up. 

“You came.” 

Me? Was–was she talking to–

By that point, her gaze had swept on, taking in everyone with a very faint smile. Whatever had been there on her face earlier was gone now. It had been replaced by a polite smile, that of a gracious host. “Thank you all. I’m sorry for keeping you waiting. But believe me, it’s going to be worth it. Come on inside.” She turned, gesturing as two maids there opened the large front doors, holding them wide for everyone to follow as Paige herself walked back into her house. 

“Let’s get this party started.”

********

Patreon Snippets – Raindrop

“Does this hurt?” With that question, the paramedic who stood in front of Raindrop gently turned her arm, testing the range of motion. “You said a brick clipped it right here? Or was it higher?”

It had been a few minutes since the fight with Suckshot and Landlock. Izzy was still standing in the theater, though no longer up on the stage. Still in full-costume, of course, the girl was holding her arm out absently for the medic to check over while her gaze remained centered on the spot where Paintball was waving off a medic of his own, insisting he was fine. 

Realizing belatedly that she had been asked a question, Izzy flushed under her mirrored faceplate and quickly turned her attention back. “Huh? Oh-um, no, it’s just a little sore. Um, bruised, I guess?” Her gloved hand moved to gingerly touch the spot where she had been clipped by the brick before Paintball showed up. Before Paintball helped save them. Helped save her

She was blushing again. Forcing herself to focus once more, she listened as the medic finished up with making sure she wasn’t injured even worse, and told her what to do if she did find that it was more than a bruise. 

Finally, he left. Paintball, meanwhile, had already started to head for the exit after seeing that the authorities had Suckshot and Landlock in hand. After giving a quick glance around herself to make sure she wasn’t ignoring anyone, Izzy jogged after, catching up with the boy. For a second, she hesitated. What was she going to say? The first thing that sprang to mind was to ask how he was already so good at this stuff when he’d just started out a short time ago and wasn’t working with a group. He was her age. Her age, but he did all this stuff alone, or even came to help when they needed it even though he wasn’t part of their team.

And that was another question Izzy wanted to ask. Why? Why didn’t he want to work with them? Actually, it was pretty obvious that he was just fine working with them, as long as it wasn’t official. So… so what was his deal? 

Ugh, he was so mysterious. He came out of nowhere, was super-good at this stuff even if he made mistakes, and he just… he just helped. She’d even heard that he was giving out sandwiches and stuff to the homeless. Again, what was his deal

But she couldn’t bring herself to ask any of that. It was too confrontational, too direct. And after everything he’d done, after the way he’d jumped in and–

Blushing again. Good mask. Very good mask. Izzy had never been so thankful for–

“After you.” Paintball was holding the door open leading out to the street. Holding the door and waiting for her expectantly. 

“Thanks,” Izzy quickly piped up before starting to move through. The minor voice changer she used, just enough to make it so people wouldn’t be able to put her voice online to figure out who she was, picked up the squeak in her words, making the girl blush even more as she quickly stepped through the doorway. Then she turned back, facing Paintball. “Um. Thanks for all of that, I mean. Thanks for helping.”

For a second, Paintball seemed to be confused. “Thanks–oh. Uh, no problem. It’s what we do, right?” 

“Right,” Izzy agreed hurriedly, bobbing her head. It was just what they did. Never mind that Paintball managed to be funny and cool about it while not having a team with him or anything. Never mind any of that. Stop thinking about that. Yeah. 

Clearly, whatever else Paintball was, he was not telepathic. Because he gave no indication that he had any hint of anything Izzy was thinking. Instead, his helmeted head turned as he took in the sight of various cops rounding up mostly-injured and only slightly resisting gang members all around them. “I guess we should help clean up a bit, huh?”  

Once again, Izzy found herself nodding. Right, they should help clean up. She and Paintball should help. 

Her blush was going to burn through the mirrored faceplate, she just knew it. 

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Discovery 1-04 (Summus Proelium)

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I had to know more. More about my family’s… business, about all the bad things they were into. I had to know. That was the only way I was going to be able to go through with turning them in. I had to find out just how bad they were, just how deep they were into these things. Showing myself the kind of… of evil they’d done, the kind of evil they would keep doing, was the only way I’d be able to psych myself up to turn them in.

Which worked, since I needed proof anyway. There was no way I’d go to any authorities, cops, Touched, or anyone else just with my own word. A sixteen-year old kid tells them that one of the richest and most important businessmen in the newly rebuilt Detroit was a bad guy? No thanks.

So, proof. I needed proof. Which meant I needed a plan to get that proof. That was… a work in progress. Progress that was eventually stalled by the end of the school day.

I had spent the rest of that time alternating between trying to decide how to get the proof that I needed and practicing with these paint-powers. Of course, ‘practicing’ had devolved to playing with them pretty quick. But tomayto, tomahto. It also killed a third bird by helping me clear my head a little bit from all the horrible, horrible things that I couldn’t stop thinking about.

I had a few hours to add to that distraction between the end of school and family dinner, which everyone was expected to be at every Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday unless you were literally dead or in the hospital. It was Tuesday and I didn’t have an excuse (or at least not one that I could actually tell them about), so I had to be there.

But before that happened, I would distract myself from the upcoming nightmare by hiding in my room and looking up information about the various gangs in the city. Specifically, which of them was currently claiming or working the most in the area of the city where that motel was. It might give me an idea of what group my family was involved with. Or running, for all I knew.

On the way to my room, however, I was stopped by Jania. The maid was standing in front of me, a curious look on her face. “Ah, Miss Evans,” she started. “A message came from your school today, about you.”

Freezing briefly, I stared at her like a rabbit in headlights for an instant before getting myself under control. “Uh–it did?”

She nodded, a clearly knowing look on her face. “Yes, they asked that the message be passed along to your mother or father.” There was a brief moment of silence before she continued in a lamenting voice. “… but I seem to have forgotten to write it down. And with my memory… well, I am getting old. I don’t suppose you know what the message was?”

Staring at the woman, I hesitated before slowly shaking my head.

“Hm,” Jania pondered briefly before nodding. “Well, if you do recall, I trust you will inform them yourself.”

Again, I nodded, staring at her before hurriedly making my way past and to my room. There, I tried to throw myself into figuring out exactly who my family might be working with.

Dad wasn’t a small-time player. I knew that just from his personality and resources, let alone everything I’d heard last night. He was big. So I had no doubt that whatever he was into, it would have to have something to do with one of the established criminal groups. And since this was Detroit, that meant one of the Fell-Gangs.

Fell-Gangs. That’s what they called groups that were led by Fell-Touched, Touched who were villains. There were still gangs who weren’t controlled or even populated by Touched, of course. But they tended to either stay small or not get very far when put up against actual Fell-Gangs. And if I knew my dad at all, he would be involved with one of Detroit’s Fell-Gangs. Probably working as their main financer or something. Maybe that was why Simon was important enough to throw orders and threats around like that, because Dad paid their bills. I could see that.

I knew who most of the Fell-gangs around the city were, of course. You had to, if you lived in the area. But it was still good to get a refresher. The gangs changed often enough, by merging, falling apart, taking each other over by force, splitting up, or just plain dying, that I really needed to look up exactly what things looked like now.

There were smaller groups of Fell-gangs that were just a few people, or even individuals. I ignored those. Dad wouldn’t be involved in anything that inconsequential. He had the money and influence to be part of a bigger group, one that could actually do some damage.

For Detroit, that left seven possibilities right off the bat. Seven that were large enough for Dad to be involved with.

First up, Oscuro. They weren’t exactly likely, to say the least. Oscuro was the Hispanic street gang, led by a Fell-Touched who called himself Cuélebre. Like the monster he was named after, Cuélebre was basically a dragon. Or so people said. Standing at anywhere between twelve and fifteen feet tall, complete with bat-like wings and a bladed tail, he looked more like a demon than a dragon as far as I was concerned, but whatever. For awhile some people had thought that he was actually one of the Abyssal. Those were… Touched that went wrong. I didn’t really like to think about them. No one did. The point was, Cuélebre definitely wasn’t one of them, because he still communicated and showed restraint. Abyssals… didn’t.

In any case, Dad wouldn’t be working with Oscuro. They did a lot of stuff with drugs and weapons, which he could have made money off of, but they didn’t work with anyone who wasn’t one of them. Dad wasn’t Latino, so they wouldn’t have anything to do with him.

Then there was a group who called themselves Braintrust. Their leadership was basically a mixture of mad scientist/inventor types and people with charm or luck powers. And, of course, their assortment of minions and thugs, both of the living and robot variety.

Braintrust got into a lot of things, between needing to take in absurd amounts of money to keep their experiments going, to stealing material for those experiments, to just plain causing havoc with those experiments. There wasn’t much they wouldn’t do, and Dad definitely might have been working with them. They always needed money, which was basically his superpower.

Almost as unlikely as Oscuro would be the group called Sherwood. They were basically hippies and nature-fanatics who had named their organization after the forest from Robin Hood. Most of them hated technology, and they were always trying to destroy or stall it. So yeah, given how much Dad put toward the manufacturing industry… I couldn’t see them working together.

Then there were the Scions of Typhon, or Scions for short. Typhon was one of the first named Abyssal, a monstrously destructive beast who still showed up to wreak havoc every now and then. His ‘Scions’ were basically anarchy-loving chaos worshippers who reveled in causing as much destruction and misery as possible, under the guise of making everyone have ‘fun’. As far as I knew (and could find online), they had no real alliance or even interaction with the actual Typhon, they just used the name for shock value. Still, I couldn’t see Dad getting along with them. They were too wild and unpredictable.

That left three possibilities, three more groups who were large enough for my family to be working with. The first were Oscuro’s primary rivals, another street gang called Easy Eights, a collection of what had been eight individual gangs who banded together to stand against Oscuro. They amounted to basically every street gangster who wasn’t hispanic or a supremacist of whatever race they happened to be. There were gangs like that, white supremacists for example, but they tended to get smacked down pretty quick either by Oscuro or the Easy Eights.

I could see my father supplying for the Easy Eights. They were thugs, but they knew enough to organize and kept themselves together. They were an option, at least.

The next group called themselves Ninety-Niners. Basically, they were a group of people who either lived here before the year 1999, or whose family did if they weren’t born yet. They saw people who moved here after that year, when Touched started to be a thing and Detroit was brought back from the brink as freeloaders or intruders. They hated them, and used the word ‘tourist’ (incredibly derogatory to them) to refer to anyone who didn’t have firm family history in the city during the so-called bad years.

Dad… hadn’t lived here his whole life. But he did grow up here and he had family history in the city. So I was pretty sure he’d be in their good graces. But I didn’t know if he’d work with them or not. They were a maybe.

One last group out of those I thought were big enough for Dad to have any business with. And this one was probably the most likely. They were known as La Casa, Italian for The House. La Casa were basically the mafia for Detroit, though they didn’t only take Italian people or anything. That was just how they started out. Nowadays, if you could bring something they wanted, you could get in, at least at the foot soldier level. And if you came as a Touched, you could get into the leadership. As their name kind of implied, all their people used names that were in some way related to gambling or card games.

It hadn’t exactly escaped my notice that Mom was Italian. La Casa were controlled and coordinated enough that I could definitely see Dad working with them if he was going to work with any bad guys.

So those were the seven possibilities I could see, from my memory and from a little research. Oscuro, Braintrust, Sherwood, Scions of Typhon, Easy Eights, Ninety-Niners, and La Casa. Of those, I only really saw Braintrust, Easy Eights, and the Ninety-Niners as possible, and La Casa as the most likely. Oscuro wouldn’t work with people who weren’t Latino, Sherwood hated technology, and the Scions were too unpredictable.

Of course, I still hadn’t figured out what to do with my suspicions by the time the dinner chime rang through the house. Mom had insisted that every room have the chime installed. In addition to the noise itself, the lights would flicker on and off to get your attention if you were using headphones. Two chimes and two flickers meant it was time for dinner, or whatever meal. Three meant it was a family meeting or some kind of activity. Four or more, or even continuous, was an emergency.  

Summoned by the two chimes, I started to move to my door automatically, even going as far as to open it. Then I stopped short. For a moment, I just stared at the hallway beyond the door and tried not to hyperventilate. How was I supposed to do this? What was I supposed to do, just… just… sit at that dinner table with my family like nothing was wrong when I knew they were… they were… bad? Dad, Mom, Simon, they were all involved with at least two murders that I knew of. And given how Mom and Simon had been acting, I was absolutely positive that it was more than that. It was old hand to them, nothing new. They had almost certainly been responsible for a lot more deaths than that.

And now I just had to sit there and eat food with them like I didn’t know?! How?! How was I going to do that without staring at them the whole time?

They’d know. They’d take one look at me, one look at my face, and know that I knew. Mom would glance my way and then immediately say ‘you were the witness last night, weren’t you, Principessa?” And I would fold instantly.

No, no, no. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t sit down there with them.

Unfortunately, just as I decided that, Simon came past. I wasn’t sure what he was doing over here since his room was one floor up and on the other side of the house. But he passed my door, reached in, and caught my arm. “C’mon, Booster, you know how Mom gets if she has to chime for us more than once.”

Booster. It was the nickname that Simon had come up with years ago, when I was still a kid. It referred to when I had to use a booster seat whenever we went out, because I was so short. Which was just so incredibly hilarious.

“Oh, uhh…” I really tried not to flinch too much, even as my skin crawled violently under his touch. “I’m not really that hungry, so–”

“Oh no you don’t,” Simon cajoled, dragging my protesting form out of my room and down the hall. “You’re not abandoning me to keep Mom and Dad company. Have you seen how testy she is today? Hell no. I’m not putting up with that and her being pissed that you’re not at dinner. It’s Tuesday and you’re not in the hospital or the morgue. You’re coming.”

Nothing I could say would have changed anything. And I couldn’t find my voice anyway. I was too busy remembering what I’d heard last night, when he had shot one of his own men. Or one of our dad’s own men. Whatever. I remembered the sound of his voice, the way he’d spoken to those guys. It made me shiver inwardly, and I nearly stopped short in the hallway.

But Simon kept pulling me down the stairs and over to the dining room. Or one of them, anyway. We didn’t use the main dining room for these little dinners. That place could seat thirty people and we would’ve needed a megaphone to speak from one end to the other.

Instead, we ate in the secondary dining room. The table in there ‘only’ seated ten, and we all sat at one end. Dad sat at the end seat, Mom to his right, and Simon to his left. I sat next to Mom.

Our parents were already waiting as we got there. Seeing them, I felt my blood go cold. My body went straight into autopilot, moving me to my seat beside my mother even as I struggled to keep my expression as neutral as possible. I couldn’t think about what I’d seen and heard last night. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

My mom was bad enough. I loved my mother. Seeing her there, I couldn’t help but think about what she’d done last night, what she’d proven she knew. The image of her smacking Simon with the shoe jumped into my head, and I jolted just a little, my eyes flicking to the man beside her.

My father was basically movie star handsome. He wore his ever-present dark turtleneck and white slacks. Dark blonde hair with just a little bit of gray to make him look even more distinguished, a chiseled jaw and deep blue eyes that seemed to stare right into my soul. I’d had so many friends basically fall in love with my dad that I’d lost count of them. Him or Simon. It used to make me want to throw things either at my friends or my brother and father. But these days I just let it roll off me.

Or I had. Because that thought was a mistake. The thought of my friends pining (or worse) after my brother, let alone my father, was enough to bring tears of shame and revulsion to my eyes about what I knew.  

My daddy. My daddy hurt people.

“Aww, is something wrong, my little Principessa?” Mom gently teased, her hand finding its way to my shoulder to squeeze. I thought again of the way she had smacked Simon across the face with the shoe because he’d dared bring a piece of evidence back to the house. She knew what it was evidence of. She knew that those men had been murdered. My mother… my mother knew. The woman who sang me lullabies, who called me her princess specifically because I was self-conscious about being called a little boy so much, was perfectly fine with people being executed in cold blood. How could I handle that? How could I reconcile it with how I knew her?

“Cassidy?” That was Dad, his voice cutting through my panicked, rambling thoughts. “What’s wrong?”

My eyes snapped over once more, and I stared for just a second before finding my voice. “Err, nothing, I just… um, I have to… meet Rachel later,” I mumbled. “We’re going shopping.”

“Don’t let her keep you out too late,” Mom ordered before reaching out to pick up a little silver bell. She gave it a single ring, and before she had set it down, the nearby door opened. Ethan and Christiana, two of Chef Claudio’s assistants, emerged carrying a couple covered trays.

Once the food was delivered, Claudio was there at the edge of the table, taking his usual time to inform us of exactly what we were about to eat. Mom and Dad were listening intently and nodding along, while I just stared across the table at Simon, who was texting on his phone with a furrowed brow.

Mom noticed it just as Claudio left, reaching over with her spoon to smack his hand. “Simon Leonardo Evans, you know the rules. No phones. Put it down.”

He did so, looking over at our dad while clearly putting the phone in his lap so he could continue to surreptitiously look at it. “I gotta go pick up that thing tonight.”

“What time is it coming in?” Dad asked.

“Ten,” Simon answered before taking a bite from the plate that had been put in front of him.  

I was staring down at my own plate, trying as hard as I could to look like I wasn’t listening. Fork. I had to put food on my fork. Gripping it tightly, I moved my shaking fork to the plate to take a bite without actually tasting it. What thing did Simon have to go pick up? Was it a normal thing or a bad thing?

I had to find out. Which meant I had to be there. But I didn’t know where ‘there’ was, and I couldn’t exactly ask him. What was I supposed to do?

Look at his phone. I needed to see the messages. It was in his lap, and he kept glancing down to keep track of the messages coming in. How could I look at it though? How… how… how…?

I had an idea. Quickly draining the milk from my glass, I slipped my own phone from my pocket and switched the camera on, setting it to record with a single glance down. Then I stood up to fill my glass once more from the pitcher on the nearby serving table. On the way, I moved behind Simon and, with a deep breath, forced myself to wrap an arm around him while setting my chin on his shoulder. “Oh wonderful, lovely, perfect, brave, amazing big brother…” I started in a sing-song voice even as my entire body tried to turn itself inside out in revulsion.

Eyes rolling, Simon turned his head a bit to look at me. “What do you want, Booster?”

Ignoring the taunting nickname, I asked, “Would you drop me off at the mall after dinner?”

He sighed, making a big production out of it before shrugging. “Yeah, yeah, I’ve got stuff to do anyway. You need a ride home?”

“Don’t get her started with that,” Dad groaned, teasing me the same way he would have any other night. “She’ll start in on driving herself, again.”

After she passes drivers ed,” Mom quickly put in, shaking her spoon at me. “Don’t let me catch you practicing without Jefferson or Simon in the car, young lady.”

I straightened, making myself pout a little before moving to pour my glass as I informed Simon that I had another way home.

Chuckling easily, just as personable as I had ever known him to be, Dad pointed a spoon at me. “Don’t you worry, Daydreamer. Another couple months and you’ll be driving yourself all over the place. And I may have a little surprise for just that occasion.”

“If you’re good,” Mom cut in, giving Dad a brief look whose silent message was to stop spoiling me.

While they whispered briefly in the same tone I had come to associate with my parents play-fighting/flirting, I set my phone on the serving table, replaying the video I had just taken. With the sound off, of course.

There. I’d been holding the phone in my hand under the table, waving it around in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Simon’s phone in the recording. There it was. Pausing it, I glanced over my shoulder to make sure no one was paying attention to me before squinting at the thing. I could barely make out an address in Simon’s message history. That had to be where he was going tonight, since I also saw whoever he was talking to saying ‘should b there b4 10.’ Then there was a message from Simon about what would happen if they screwed up, but I couldn’t read the whole thing thanks to the angle my camera had caught the message. I was kind of okay with that, though. I had no desire to see my brother threaten someone again. And at least I knew where he was going.

Which meant it was also where I was going. Because I had to see what was going on out there, what Simon was picking up and whether it had anything to do with their… activities.

But first, I had to make sure no one would recognize me. And that meant I needed a disguise. Or, more to the point…

I needed a costume.

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Discovery 1-03 (Summus Proelium)

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I slept.

Yeah, it wasn’t exactly going to solve… well, any of my problems. But hey, I was really tired by that point. And I figured there really wasn’t anything I could do about it right then. I’d sent an anonymous call to the cops about the bodies. Short of actually confronting my mother right then and there, I couldn’t actually do anything in the middle of the night.

So, I crashed. At first, I’d thought it would be impossible for me to sleep, that I’d toss and turn all night. But as it was, I didn’t even have a chance to take more than my hoody off and fall face-down across the width of my bed before I was out like a light. There were no dreams, which felt weird. I would have thought that I would have nightmares. But I didn’t. I just slept through.

I slept so long, in fact, that it was the sound of the vacuum turning on that woke me up. The high pitched hum of the motor jerked me awake, sending me up and over the side of my bed to crash onto the floor with a loud yelp.

Slowly poking my head up over the bed, I stared at the self-satisfied smile of Jania Estrada, one of our maids. She was from Panama, before her mother brought her over the States in ‘68, when Jania had been fourteen. Now she was in her mid-sixties, but you’d never know it. She was basically one of the most energetic, cheerful, playful people I’d ever met. She was always playing pranks on the other, often younger staff members. Olivia, our head housekeeper, had tried to fire her a few times, but the butler, Dexter, had final say and never let it stick.

“Oh, good morning, Miss Evans,” Jania called over the sound of the vacuum in a sing-song voice that completely failed to convey any actual surprise that she had startled me. “I did not see you there. I thought you would be downstairs by now.” She gave me a significant look while methodically cleaning my carpet. Translation: I was late.

Groaning a little, I picked myself up and glanced to one of the clocks on my wall. I had seven of them, six showing the time from some other country. It was a product of Dad traveling so much, I’d wanted to know what time it was in the countries he was in the most so I’d know if it was okay to call him. By now I could basically figure it out myself, but when I was a little kid, it was useful. And they’d basically been there for so long that I didn’t want to take them down.

According to the Detroit clock, it was already quarter after seven. Which meant I only had an hour before school started.

School. How the hell was I supposed to think about school when my family was… when… when we were…

I shook it off. But Jania must have seen something in my face, because she stopped the vacuum, her voice turning serious. “Miss Evans?” she started, clearly concerned. “Are you alright?”

“I…” My voice faltered, and I very nearly went to hug her like I had so much when I was little. Or at least littler. I glanced to her, biting my lip before nodding. “Just waking up. I–thanks, Jania.”

Turning to my closet, I moved to open it and walked inside. The thing was big enough to be a small room of its own, and I basically had every single outfit I’d ever owned in there that hadn’t already been given to charity. There was even the cheerleading uniform from when I’d done that for a semester in junior high under the mistaken assumption that people would finally stop calling me a boy. Instead they just made jokes about how the school was so inclusive now because they finally had a male cheerleader. Hilarious.

Once I’d finally had enough up top to be considered breasts, people had switched to either asking if I was ‘mid-transition’ or if I was using padding. I deflected by making a comment about how if I was using padding, I’d use more of it. That was usually the best way to deal with that kind of thing.

I’d gone out with a guy for about a week during my freshman year, before people teased him about ‘being gay’, or complimented him for landing ‘the school’s pretty boy’, so he broke it off. My relationship last year, as a sophomore, had fared better. That had gone on for almost four months before Tomas ended up moving back to Britain with his diplomat dad.

That was my reputation. I had been called the prettiest boy in school since I was twelve, and it just wouldn’t go away. For awhile, I’d thought about only wearing things that emphasized what little breasts I had, but that just wasn’t me. I wasn’t comfortable like that. So I decided screw it, and kind of… leaned into the whole thing. I decided to out-boy most of the boys and kind of developed a reputation for throwing myself enthusiastically at any dare or bet they could come up with. I’d put myself in the emergency room a couple times just because I wouldn’t say no when someone dared me to do something stupid and dangerous. I mean, I had a limit, of course. But if I thought I could do it, I’d throw myself at it even if I was afraid.

If they wanted to call me a boy, I was going to do things that boys were too scared to do, damn it.

Standing there in the closet, staring at the old cheerleading stuff, I finally shook off the memories and grabbed my school uniform. It consisted of black shoes, black pants, a black blazer, a blue shirt, and a white tie. The name of the school was Cadillac Preparatory School, named for Antoin de la Mothe Cadillac, the French explorer who founded the place that eventually became Detroit (the car company was named after him too), and that name was written across the front of the blazer.

Taking the uniform, I ran into my bathroom to shower and dress in record time. I took one quick detour back to my room to shove a few things into a backpack and made it downstairs just as Jefferson, our driver, was looking at his watch.

“Two minutes late, Miss Evans,” he pointed out while tapping his watch. “You know how that affects the schedule.”

Yeah, I knew. Jefferson was obsessed with punctuality. He timed everything, to the point of knowing exactly what speed he needed to travel at to hit every green light on each of his daily routes. Me being late threw that off. And I didn’t even have a chance to grab breakfast. Not that I would have wanted to risk seeing–

“Aww,” Simon spoke up from behind me, making me jump. “Don’t be too hard on the kid. After all, maybe it was lady problems. I mean, she’s probably started puberty by now, right?”

It was light-hearted teasing. At least, that’s how I’d seen it before. But now, it gave me the creeps in a way it hadn’t before. Especially when he squeezed both of my shoulders from behind. I jumped, spinning around to face him as my hands went up defensively. At the last instant, I stopped myself from making any paint appear.

“Whoa, hey there, slugger,” my brother relented while holding up both hands in surrender. “Sorry, maybe that was too far.” He blinked at my expression. “You okay, Booster?”

He didn’t know. He didn’t know what I’d heard the night before, what I’d… I’d seen. Getting my breath under control, I quickly nodded. “Y-yeah, I just… I’m waking up. You should wear a bell around your neck or something. Maybe those clown shoes that squeak when you walk.”

God damn it, don’t mention shoes, for the love of fuck! Out of everything you could mention right now, why shoes?! And stop shaking, I told myself. Stop staring at him, stop trembling. Just stand still.

Simon was clearly distracted, because he didn’t notice my behavior. He just glanced at his own phone, mumbled something about meeting someone, and started off.

Jefferson wasn’t in the mood to wait any longer, and I didn’t mind, since I had no desire to run into any other member of my family just then. So I followed the man out to the garage, making a point of not looking at Royal Thunder. Instead, I headed straight for the black BMW that Jefferson called Henlein (after Peter Henlein, the inventor of the watch) and stepped into the back.

Despite my being late getting downstairs, we still made it to the school in record time. Jefferson let me out right at the front. I thanked him, walking inside past a dozen people who called out or waved. I had already plastered a smile onto my face, waving back as I made my way into the school.  

From there, I went all the way through to the back, bypassing my locker without a second glance. I was still walking, trying to keep to myself without looking like I was keeping to myself, when a voice stopped me.

“Hah, fancy seeing you here.”

Blinking, I turned to look over to where one of the janitors was mopping up a spill. My eyes rose to his face before I made a sound of surprise despite myself. It was that Latino guy from last night, my Uber driver. He was wearing the uniform of the school custodian instead of that Hawaiian shirt, but he still had his black driving cap. The nametag on his uniform read Adrian.

“You’re–you… I… you…” I pointed at him a bit dumbly.

“Driving doesn’t pay all the bills,” the guy replied, gesturing to the mop and bucket. “Gotta do something else while I wait to hear back from Spielberg about that script.” He winked then. “Hey, you ever find your shoe?”

“Shoe,” I echoed flatly before suddenly shaking myself. “Err, yeah. Yeah, it’s fine. I… you weren’t here before.”

“Only been around a couple days,” he agreed. “Mostly in the boy’s locker room. You know, new guy’s gotta spitshine that armpit of hell. Joke’s on them, I take care of four younger brothers, two still in diapers and the other two old enough to need deodorant but too young to care.” Gesturing to his face, Adrian added, “My sense of smell threw itself off a cliff years ago.”

My mouth opened and shut before I managed to cough, smiling despite myself. “I, um, yeah. I’ve been by the locker room with the door open. Trust me, your nose made the right move.”

Realizing that I needed to get moving then, I awkwardly excused myself and hurried on while feeling him watching me leave for a few seconds before the crowd swallowed me up.

Heading through one of the other doors, I greeted more people, heading across the football field. Halfway there, I heard the buzzer announcing that school was starting.

I ignored it. Picking up speed, I jogged the rest of the way across the field to reach the street beyond.

Yeah, after everything that had happened, I was in no mood to just sit in classes and fidget for seven hours.

I could have called another Uber (one that wouldn’t be Adrian), but my destination was only about nine blocks away, so I skated. I needed time to think, time to clear my head. Taking a moment by the back fence of the school, I took my pace-skates from my bag.

Pace-skates were an invention of one of the Touched whose powers lent themselves toward creating or building things. In this case, they were basically shoes or boots that could shift into rollerblades by clicking the heels together or speaking a codeword that was programmed with your own voice. They had been a huge fad a couple years earlier, but had faded a bit over time. I still liked them though.

On the way, while leisurely skating down the sidewalk, I took my phone out to check what had been reported the night before about the murders at the motel.

Nothing. Literally. There wasn’t a single story about the motel or any crime reported within a few blocks of there. No mysterious deaths, no signs of violence, not even a random jaywalking. There was nothing. Clearly the cops had gotten there, found nothing, and written it off as a prank or whatever. Great. Not that unexpected, but still.

With a sigh, I moved faster. A few people gave me second looks, but mostly everyone minded their own business. I made it all the way to where I was going without any interruptions.

As for where I was going, it was a building that was set back away from the street a little ways, past a chainlink fence and a parking lot. From the outside, it looked like a warehouse. It had been one at one point. But the place had closed down years earlier. A few months ago, one of Dad’s companies had bought it and started renovating the place for some kind of youth activities area, for the local kids. Unfortunately, work on that had stalled only a few weeks into the project. Something about permits. So the whole place had sat basically empty for all this time.

Empty, that was, aside from when I wanted to use it. I’d found the code for the door written down on a pad of paper on the kitchen counter one day, along with the address. Apparently Dad or Simon had come down to check the place out for one reason or another. I walked down during lunch that day, and had found a place that I could mess around in.

Slipping through the gap between the gate and the fence where the chain wasn’t tied tightly enough (yay for being small and thin), I made my way over the lot to the door. Looking around briefly, I input the code in the security pad nearby. It beeped, and I opened the door to step inside.

The place was dark, but the electricity still worked, so I flipped on the lights. It was… a warehouse. Mostly it was a huge empty room, with random junk everywhere. Taking up about a quarter of the enormous space, opposite the door where I had come in, was where the contractors had done most of the work while they were active. It was an indoor skate park. Or part of one. They had a couple concrete ramps set up, a half pipe, a couple quarter pipes, and a large bowl right in the middle. The whole place had been intended to get kids (read: teenagers) off the streets. Apparently there was supposed to be an arcade, a separate area for younger children to play in like… ballpits and stuff, and even tutoring.

But right now, there was this: an enormous empty room with a partially-finished skate park. Worked for me. I’d spent hours in here over the past couple of months, messing around. Whenever this place finally opened, if it did, it was going to be pretty amazing.

Setting my bag down, I opened it up and dug inside for the regular clothes I’d put in it. Quickly changing into the cargo pants and tee-shirt (doing so in a wide open room like this, even if I knew it was empty, still felt weird), I left the rest of the stuff in the bag for the moment. Instead, I walked over to the raised ramp nearby, muttering, “Okay, superpowers. Let’s see what you’ve got.”

Taking a breath, I extended one hand and focused. That small spinning orb appeared in front of my palm once again. It was blue, and, at a thought, a matching spray shot from it to hit the side of the ramp. Immediately, I gasped and stumbled back, staring that way. My voice was hushed, yet still echoed a bit in the mostly empty space. “Oh my God, it still works.”

Blue. Blue. That was the repelling or bouncy stuff. But I hadn’t, like… powered it or whatever that I was doing last night. To test that, I reached down to pick up a small rock from the floor, underhand tossing it toward the blue spot. Sure enough, it struck and just fell. Right.

Taking out my phone, I strolled back and forth for a couple minutes, answering texts. Some of my friends back at school wanted to know where I was, so I said I needed a ‘mental health day’. Then I checked for any news stories about that motel once more, or even anything in a local blog. There were still none, but it helped pass the time.

Finally, I looked over at the ramp. The spot was still there. It had been about five minutes. So the paint didn’t disappear unless I actually powered it. And each color had a different result from being powered. Okay. Okay, I could follow that.

To test it, I thought about the blue paint. I focused on it being powered up. It was hard to explain, but I felt a brief connection to it, like a spark. Then I tried throwing that little rock at it once more, winding up first before hurling the thing like a baseball.

That time, when the rock hit the blue spot, it rocketed off. The thing rebounded violently, shooting past my face as I ducked before it shattered loudly off one of the other ramps.

Slowly, I raised my head to stare at the blue paint. It vanished a second later, leaving the ramp blank once more. Then I turned to stare at the remains of the rock. “Holy shit.”

Okay, maybe I shouldn’t throw the next rock so hard. Apparently the blue stuff magnified the force applied to it when sending it away again. Right.

Next, I put a line of green paint on the ground. Once again, I tested it to make sure the stuff stayed as long as it wasn’t powered. Satisfied, I focused on powering it. Then I ran through it.

God damn. I’d been in track, but I’d never been that fast. It wasn’t like… super or anything, but it was definitely faster than I’d ever run before. I made a longer line after that one disappeared and tested it, nearly running into the wall before stopping myself.

Then I took my phone out and downloaded a speedometer app. Setting it up and making sure it seemed to work, I shoved the phone back in my pocket before drawing another green line, once again wide enough to run on.

Cracking my neck to either side, I hopped up and down in a circle, psyching myself up. Standing near the line, I powered it while crouching into the ready position. At a mental starting gun, I took off, running as fast as I could. As I hit the paint, my speed suddenly boosted once more. That time, I really did run into the wall, though I slowed down enough that I was basically just hugging it at the end, laughing despite myself. What a rush.

Then I checked my phone. Apparently I’d been running about thirty miles an hour. Which might not sound like much for a car, but it was really fast for me. Holy shit.

I tried to do it again, but I was only able to spray down about a quarter of the line before the paint just wouldn’t come. It took about sixty seconds for me to be able to make more. So there was a cooldown on it. Last night, I had sprayed so much paint everywhere that first time that I’d hit the limit right off.

But wait a minute… what if…

Blinking down at my shoes, I raised one leg curiously. Pointing my hand at the bottom of the shoe, I sprayed green paint onto it. Then I did the same with the other shoe. As a test, I took a couple steps. The paint didn’t leave any marks. So apparently even the non-powered stuff dried instantly.

Once more, I powered the green paint, this time on my shoes. Then I tried running. It worked. I was fast. Damn, was I fast. Even if it only lasted for a short time. Curious about that, I timed it on my phone. Ten seconds. The paint lasted for ten seconds once it was powered.  

Of course, it didn’t have to be on my shoes. I realized that belatedly, and tried spraying a bit of paint on my pants, my shirt, or even my arm. It all worked, making me move faster.

For a few minutes, I just kept doing that. I would spray more paint on my shoes, then run as fast as I could until it ran out. It was fun, and it let me forget about all the really serious, horrible stuff I should have been focusing on.

Yellow paint worked the opposite way. It slowed me down. Or whatever it touched. Right. Blue was bouncy, green was fast, yellow was slow. What was next?

Red. The sticky/magnetic-type stuff that pulled things it was painted on together. To test that, I first picked up two discarded rocks, each about the size of a softball. Squirting a bit of red paint on both, I held them in front of me, then powered the paint.

They were yanked out of my hands, slamming together before falling to the floor. Right on my foot, actually. Ow.

Next I tested the distance. Making a red mark on one of the walls, I painted another mark on a rock and tried activating it starting from just a few feet away before making my way further and further back. In the end, I had no idea how far apart they could be, because even from one end of the warehouse to the other, it worked. The rock was pulled clear to the other end as soon as I activated the paint on it, though there was a slight delay of a second or two the further it had to go before the rock reacted.

During the testing, I also figured out that I could paint multiple rocks red, and then activate them one at a time. Powering up one bit of paint didn’t power all of it.

Okay, so what did I know? The paint would stay as long as I wanted it to if I didn’t activate its power. And it instantly dried. Green made things go fast. Yellow made things go slow. Blue repelled things. Red pulled them together.

What about orange? That had been on the wall last night, but I never saw what it did.

Curiously, I sprayed a bit of orange paint on the nearby wall and stared at it for a moment. Orange. What did it do? Shrugging, I focused on giving it power (whatever that power was), then reached out to touch it tentatively.

Nothing. I didn’t feel anything. It wasn’t sticky, it didn’t push me or pull me or… anything me. I sprayed some on the floor and moved over it, first walking, then running, then hopping. I even tried sliding on it. It was just… paint. The hell?

Maybe I could prompt it to do something. Throwing several separate spots of orange paint on myself, I tried running around while activating one after another. I didn’t feel any different during it. Moving to one of the discarded hunks of wall that had been left in the middle of the room, I tried to lift it. Nope, orange paint did not make me strong. Nor did it give me laser eyes, flight, or anything exotic like that. I tried jumping, doing cartwheels, even a handstand that made me feel ridiculous. Nothing.

Then I got a little overly ambitious, walking too far upside down on my hands. I hit the edge of the skating bowl and lost my balance. With a yelp, I tipped over, already cringing inwardly as I fell. Ouch.

Except… not ouch. I landed hard in the bowl, but… it didn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt at all. It was like falling backward onto my bed. What…?

The orange paint. Curious again, I walked back up to the top of the bowl, looked around, and kicked the nearby ramp.

Ow. That was dumb. But worth checking.

More orange paint on my leg. I activated it once more, then kicked the ramp again.

Nothing. Like, really nothing. It didn’t hurt. That’s what the orange paint did. It made things tough, or invulnerable, or… something.

Okay, add ‘orange makes things tougher’ to the list. I wasn’t sure how tough yet, but that felt like something to be tested under better conditions.

Now I knew what all the colors I’d used last night did. But could I make any other colors? Moving back to the wall, I tried a bunch. Only four more actually did anything. Four more colors I didn’t know. Pink, purple, black, and white.

The white was easy to test. The second I tried powering it, the bit of paint lit up like a lightbulb. Okay, white paint glowed.

Black was fairly easy too. I painted a rock with it and threw it, then I didn’t hear anything. Even when it bounced off the wall, there was no sound. A little more testing confirmed, black silenced whatever it was on. I tried painting myself with it and screaming, only to hear no sound at all. It was creepy.

White made things glow and black silenced them. That left pink and purple. What could they do?

Purple, as it turned out, made me stronger. I wasn’t sure how strong, of course. Mostly because I had no idea what the random junk lying around the partially remodeled warehouse actually weighed. But I could basically use one hand to lift the heaviest bit there, which had to be a few hundred pounds. That was pretty freaking cool, actually. I’d always been small, so being able to pick up something that weighed as much as my entire bed and hurl it across the room was enough to make me laugh probably more than I should have.  

Purple made me strong. That left pink. I knew what all the rest did aside from that one. And no matter what I did, I could not figure it out. I tried for almost an hour, but it didn’t seem to do anything.

Okay, I’d go back to that one. Pink was a question mark still. But I knew what red, orange, yellow, blue, green, black, purple, and white did. Which wasn’t bad for a couple hours work.

Heh. Wasn’t bad. Wasn’t bad? I had superpowers! I had freaking superpowers! I could run fast, I could pick up really heavy things, I could pull things together, or repel them, or silence them, or… or…

This was so fucking cool!

For a little while, I forgot my whole family problem. I forgot everything else. I just played with the paint powers, spraying myself or the floor and running around. I sprayed blue paint in front of myself before jumping into the middle of it, sending myself flying over the ramp. Coming down, I sprayed a bit of orange paint on myself, before landing without any damage or pain.

Then I tried something that was probably dumb. I put green paint on myself, and purple. Then I sprayed a blue circle onto the floor and moved away from it. Taking a breath, I activated the green paint and ran as fast as it let me, straight toward the circle. At the last second, I activated the purple paint to make myself stronger and leapt as high as that allowed. As I came down on the circle, I activated the blue paint there.

Hoooooly shit. The next thing I knew, I was flying violently toward the far wall. And not just the wall, the top of it, near the ceiling, which was a good thirty feet up. Screaming despite myself as I hurtled straight toward the wall, I hurriedly sprayed a bit of orange onto my leg, activated it, and threw my hands in front of myself as the wall came rushing up.

My scream died in my throat as I hit that wall. It didn’t hurt. And… and I didn’t fall. Slowly, I opened my eyes, staring at my hands. Red. There was red paint on the wall. And… on my hands? I’d instinctively thrown red paint out just as I hit the wall. And now my hands were stuck there. My hands and my… legs? Looking down, I saw my knees pressed against the wall, with a bit of red there as well. I was basically crouched against the wall, stuck there by red paint. Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit.

Wait, it was only going to last–

It stopped. The paint disappeared, and I fell. A scream tore its way from my throat, even as I slapped a hand against my own stomach, spraying orange and desperately activating it.

It worked. I landed hard on my back, but it didn’t hurt. Even falling from thirty feet up and landing on my back didn’t hurt. I mean, I felt it, for sure. It felt a bit like being punched. But not that hard. And it sure didn’t break anything like it definitely should have.

For a couple minutes, I just laid there on my back, staring up at the spot on the wall where I had just been. I laid there, and my eyes slowly closed.

“My family are bad guys.” It came in a weak, trembling voice that I barely recognized as my own.

“What am I gonna do? What am I supposed to do?”

Why would the cops believe me? Why would anyone believe me? I didn’t have any proof, or… or…

That was it. Proof. That was what I needed.

I was going to get proof that my parents and brother were bad guys. I was going to get proof, and take that… not to the cops. To the Conservators or the Spartans, the federal or state-sponsored teams. I would get proof that they were doing bad things, that they… that they killed people, and take it to the superheroes. They’d know what to do with it. Maybe I could even meet Silversmith, the leader of the local Conservator group. He had basically been my favorite hero since I was a little kid. His power was an essentially unlimited supply of this liquid metal stuff that he turned into a suit, or weapons, or even vehicles. He conjured the stuff in liquid form, shaped it into what he needed, and then it solidified. When he was using it as a suit, it also made him incredibly strong, let him fly, and he could even go into space with it.

Silversmith. That’s what I needed to do. He’d know what to do about my family. I just had to get proof and find a way to take it to him.

Right, turning in my own family to the superheroes. That was the right thing to do. But… but could I actually do that? They were my family, my mom and dad, my brother. They were my family. Could I really just… betray them like that?

And did the fact that I was hesitating mean that I was just as bad as they were?

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