Mars Bar

Interlude 23A – Broadway (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Hey people! The non-canon for this story is out for everyone to read right here!

As she left the Star-Touched people, who would hopefully make sure her brother’s monsters didn’t kill anyone, KD Rafferty sprinted toward the door labeled for employees of the ballpark. Pack and her lizards were right next to her, a reassuring presence. Unlike the woman ahead of them. Why was Grandstand here? She said she only wanted to talk to Jason about finding someone else, but KD didn’t completely trust her. Yes, she didn’t have to present herself to them, and she certainly didn’t have to make it easier for them to reach the ballpark. She’d obviously heard enough while eavesdropping to know where they were heading, and could’ve gone ahead of them. But still, KD didn’t know exactly what the woman was up to, and when it came to her family, that made her anxious. 

Then again, she didn’t know what Jason was up to either. Could he really be trying to get himself into the Scions? That didn’t sound like him, at all. But was she just viewing him through rose-tinted glasses? She hadn’t spent that much time with him for awhile now. Maybe he really had changed that much. Or maybe he’d always been like that. She didn’t want to believe it, but she had seen way too many stories about people having no idea that their sibling, or son, or neighbor was an evil piece of shit to say that it was impossible. And, well, given the company she tended to keep, she had some first-hand experience when it came to seeing evil pieces of shit.

Whatever, the best way to find out the truth was to get to Jason and make him tell them. If he really had gone this far, if he was willing to attack a stadium full of people, she was done holding back. She hadn’t wanted to expose her identity to him. But if that was what it took to really get through to her brother and get answers, then she would do that. She’d gotten into the whole criminal thing to make money and have some fun. To say nothing of attacking what she saw as an unjust, entirely corrupt system that benefited only the rich. But she sure as hell didn’t want to kill innocent people. This whole thing was going entirely too far. Whatever it took, whatever she had to do, she would get through to him. She would stop him from hurting anyone else, even if that meant revealing her true identity and pleading with him to stop. He would listen to her then, right? There was no way he would be that far gone.

With those troubled thoughts filling her mind, the girl reached the base of the cement stairs leading up to a higher walkway where the staff offices and whatnot were. Grandstand was almost all the way up them, but KD pointed past her while triggering a burst of sound from her gauntlet. With a thought, her body transformed and traveled along those soundwaves, reappearing instantly at the top of the stairs. To KD, it felt a lot like surfing a very unstable wave. A wave that was going out in every direction. She just sort of forced herself to go one way along it. The act of teleporting that way had made her feel sick and woozy afterward for awhile, until she grew accustomed to it. Even now, however, traveling too far that way could leave her feeling wobbly.

“Oh sure!” Pack called from below. “She’s got super speed and you can teleport, just let me walk!” 

“Don’t walk!” KD called back. “Keep running!” 

“Besides,” Grandstand idly added, “I only have as much speed as there are people to make ignore me. And since I’m trying to stay with you two, that doesn’t really leave a lot to work with.” 

Even as she said that, a couple people poked their heads out of a doorway down the hall, one calling, “Hey, what’s going on down there?!” 

“Well,” Grandstand announced, “That’ll do.” And with that, she took off running faster than she had been moving before, even as the two people shifted their gazes away from her entirely, having forgotten her existence. 

Which left those two people staring at the La Casa Touched, quickly realizing that this wasn’t some sort of game. The man fumbled, yanking his phone from his pocket. “I–I–I’ll call the cops!” he blurted in a voice that shook a bit too much, KD thought. For fuck’s sake, they weren’t monsters. It wasn’t like La Casa went around killing people willy nilly at the slightest provocation. 

Eh, then again, most people probably didn’t have a lot of interaction with Fell-Touched. Certainly not enough to really get into the differences between different groups. As far as this guy was concerned, they were all just villains. So, she pushed that thought aside and simply started running again while calling out, “Please do, I’m sure you’ve got the address! The heroes downstairs probably need the help!” 

“She’s not kidding,” Pack added while running along behind her, “they really do need help down there, and you should probably all evacuate as fast as you can. Good luck!” Her own words were echoed by a series of yips and growls from the menagerie of lizard-animals trailing behind in a ridiculous parade. They seemed to be expressing much of the same general point. 

“Okay,” KD announced as they ran together, “he’s obviously not in that room. So what do we do, just check all the rest of them one at a time?” 

In response, Grandstand pivoted and lashed out with her foot. As she did so, KD felt her attention suddenly riveted to the woman. She really was beautiful, and pretty damn cool all things consi–fuck! The woman released her power just as her foot managed to kick in the door, having obviously pulled not only KD’s attention, but that of Pack and all her lizards too, giving herself enough of a strength boost to knock the door off its hinges. 

“Would you warn us before you do that?!” Dani blurted. “It’s disorienting!” 

In response, Grandstand simply turned away from the open doorway. “Not in there. And just consider this a blanket warning ahead of time, I’m going to keep using my power to kick these doors in, because we don’t have time to be polite. Unless you’ve forgotten that this place is about to be crawling with a bunch of evil fire zombies, or you don’t want to find this guy before he manages to get a bunch of innocent people killed by the aforementioned evil fire zombies.”

Before either of them could respond to that, they heard Paintball’s voice over the game announcement system, loudly calling for everyone to evacuate. Which was a good reminder of just how little time they probably had at this point if they were going to make sure Jason didn’t kill anyone.

Dani and KD looked at one another briefly, their eyes meeting (despite the fact that one of them was wearing a featureless black mask and the other had a visor over her face) before they both turned back to the other woman and spoke as one. “Use your power all you want.” 

So, Grandstand did just that. Together, the three of them ran down the hall, kicking doors in and telling anyone they saw that they should get the hell out of the building. Granted, most of the people they were warning thought that that the trio were robbing the place or something, but whatever got the point across. As long as they got out of there, that was all that really mattered.

And yet, there was still no sign of Jason. KD had taken to asking everyone if they saw if there was someone who fit his description, a tall, lanky guy with long dirty blond hair and a tattoo of a rose on his neck. Or anyone wearing a mask or otherwise looking shifty. Which ended up getting the girl an awful lot of strange looks, given the circumstances. 

Whatever, she didn’t care. All that mattered was finding him before he did something he could never take back. She’d even be fine with him going to prison for what he’d done so far, as long as they could stop him from doing something even worse. She desperately wanted to stop her brother from being sent to Breakwater, if that was at all possible. Unleashing a horde of monster zombies on a minor league baseball game? That wasn’t something the authorities would overlook. It wasn’t just having fun, messing with people, stealing from the rich, it wasn’t any of that. 

It was terrorizing, and possibly murdering, innocent people. If he really was that far gone, if he wanted to join the Scions and murder people like that, then… then KD would push him into Breakwater herself. Even as a part of her still clung to the idea that this was all a misunderstanding, or he was being used somehow, or… or any number of increasingly desperate and unlikely explanations, she had already firmly told herself that fact in a small, quiet part of her brain. If Jason was responsible for this, he had to be stopped. And he had to be put away. 

And yet, there was still no sign of him. They reached the end of the private office area, and had found little more than a dozen or so now-terrified employees, who were hopefully evacuating while flooding the emergency network so the authorities might actually do something. Through a doorway at the end of that hall, there was another stairwell leading back down, or a walkway that would take them across to an area where the private executive boxes for the rich fans sat. 

A mixture of staff and those rich fans were milling about in the corridor, talking loudly to one another about what was going on down on the field and why Paintball was here. Before Broadway and the others could do anything, or even be noticed, someone screamed from inside one of the rooms. The cry was echoed by another, and soon more people were streaming out from the private boxes while shouting about monsters and zombies. So, apparently Jason‘s little friends had made their entrance. At least they didn’t look stupid for trying to evacuate people now. 

The crowd turned to run right to the stairwell, only to stop short when they saw the Fell-Touched standing there. KD could see the people putting two and two together. In this case four wasn’t actually the right answer, but still. A few cried out while everyone spun to run the other way, even as she opened her mouth to blurt, “Hey, no, we’re not…” A groan escaped her. “Oh never mind. Whatever, run that way then.” Under her breath, she muttered, “We are so getting blamed for this.” 

Grandstand was already moving to the first door while casually noting, “Having a reputation has its upsides and downsides.” She kicked the door in, glanced around, and shook her head. “Fuck, this is taking too long. Can’t we search this place faster? Send your little friends there, lizard girl. They could spread out and hit every room a hell of a lot more efficiently than the three of us.” 

Pack looked like she was about to argue, then thought better of it and shrugged before stepping aside as she sent the lizards out to check every room ahead of them. Which was… well, quite a sight. Watching reptilian hybrid versions of an eagle, bear, gorilla, panther, monkey, and reindeer split up to kick in doors was pretty surreal. 

As they kept moving behind the scattered lizards, Grandstand turned to glance at Broadway. “Where the hell is he? You know him, right?”

“I have no idea!” KD blurted. “Obviously, I don’t know very much about him after all. Not if he’s the type of person who could do something like–” In mid-sentence, she was interrupted by the sudden appearance of one of the zombies. He was a heavy Latino man with dyed blond dreadlocks, and an obvious bullet hole in the middle of his head. He came slamming his way out of a door leading into what looked like a custodial supply closet, snarling as he saw them. 

Before he could do anything, Broadway pointed and sent a burst of sound that way while converting herself to follow it. Surfing that wave right past the man in her sound form, she reappeared behind him and pivoted to bring both hands up, unleashing a narrow burst of high-pitched music from her gauntlets. As soon as the sound was in the air, she caught it with her power and both magnified and narrowed the sound even more. She had used this to punch holes through concrete before. Normally, of course, she toned it down for human beings. She wasn’t a killer and had no desire to permanently cripple people. But this was different. This guy was already dead. He was a corpse who just needed to be taken apart. She had no need to hold back. 

And yet, despite the fact that those twin bursts of sound would have shattered concrete blocks in front of them, they did barely anything to the zombie. He staggered slightly, before pivoting with stunning speed. His hand flashed out to smack Broadway, but before he could make contact, there was a roar from the other side. Mars Bar came in out of nowhere and slammed into the man, knocking him sideways into the wall. The lizard bear howled in pain immediately, staggering back with visible burns all over his body. Pack shouted out in dismay, before quickly ordering Twinkle Toes to back off before the lizard-gorilla could come to his friend’s aid. In the same moment, she raised that shotgun and fired a beanbag around into the zombie’s face. The force made his head rock backwards, but did very little else. 

Abruptly, however, the air was filled with several more gunshots. These came from the two pistols that Grandstand had produced, which she repeatedly fired while advancing that way. Each shot made the zombie’s head rock backwards again, but he still wouldn’t fall.

Stopping Holiday from charging in, Pack reloaded the shotgun with a couple more shells, then took aim once more. Before she could fire, Broadway shouted, “Just knock him down, he doesn’t matter! He’s just delaying us!” Even as she said that, the girl charged up her gauntlets to unleash an even louder burst of sound. “Both of you hit his knees!” 

To her relief, the other two didn’t argue. They quickly readjusted their aim, Pack calling left so they wouldn’t both hit the same spot. An instant later, she unloaded the shotgun into that knee, while Grandstand hit the other with both of her pistols. 

At nearly the exact same time, as soon as she heard those shots, Broadway unleashed the sound burst from her gauntlets. The guns were much quieter than they should have been, thanks to Touched-Tech, but she still caught hold of that sound as well, just to add as much as possible to her power. This time, she didn’t narrow the force nearly as much. She wasn’t interested in cutting through the zombie. Instead, she kept it just about as wide as his body and magnified it as much as she could. It slammed into the already-dead figure like a freight train, just as his legs were knocked out from under him by the shots. Unable to brace himself as the blast of sound-powered force slammed into him, he was sent flying down the corridor. 

Without wasting another second, the three of them spun to the supply closet the zombie had come out of. Broadway was there first, poking her head in and looking around. There. A ladder that had clearly been pulled away from somewhere else led upward through a hole that had been burned into the ceiling. 

Either way, that was where he was. So, she looked up, pointing so she could send a burst of sound through the hole and teleport herself that way. No way was she going to wait around to use the ladder. Not when Jason was about to make the worst mistake of his life.

Reforming herself in what turned out to be some sort of enormous attic type storage space that had to be as wide and long as the entire building’s structure, she spotted the boy in question almost immediately. No, not boy. He was an adult. Older than she was, certainly, and adult enough that the authorities would have no problem sentencing him to Breakwater for this. He was on the far side of this wide open attic area (what was this for?), yet incredibly easy to spot. Because there was nothing else up here. It was just a wide open space with nothing in it. Nothing except for Jason himself. He was standing over by a narrow window that overlooked the field, staring down that way with his back to her. As soon as she had taken that in, however, he spun, and she saw his face. 

It was him. It was her brother. He had lightly tanned skin from spending a lot of time outside, was well-muscled thanks to all the yardwork he tended to do for extra cash, and had long dirty-blond hair pulled into a simple ponytail. He had no shirt on, and her attention was immediately drawn to several polished stones that seemed to be attached to the boy’s skin. The largest one, a red, gleaming, almost flat ruby, sat in the middle of his chest. It was about four inches across and looked incredibly smooth. There were also two blue ones up by his shoulders that were about half the size, and a couple of equally-sized green ones on either side of his stomach, just above his hips. An amber-colored stone that was smaller than all the rest sat right over his navel. Finally, there was a black one just under his throat. All of the stones were glowing faintly. 

He also wore glasses, which he was staring at her through while pointing what turned out to be a weird-looking pistol. It wasn’t an ordinary gun, that was for sure. 

“I got no problem with La Casa or any of you,” he was saying, his voice cracking a little. “But if you don’t back the fuck off down that ladder, I will.” 

“Jason,” KD blurted, “you have to stop this!” 

“I don’t exactly have–wait,” he interrupted himself, “how the fuck do you know my name?” 

Right, he wouldn’t recognize her. Not only was it impossible to see her face through the helmet, the armor she wore boosted her height by several inches. He’d never guess who she really was. Which had been a large part of the point of wearing this sort of costume, so no one would recognize her. But now… now what was she supposed to do? 

“Jason,” she started hesitantly. “We–” 

That, however, was as far as she got before the older boy abruptly crumpled to the floor. Suddenly, Grandstand was standing behind him, having clearly injected him with something from the syringe she was just putting away. 

“Jason!” KD blurted, before her gaze snapped that way. “What the hell did–” 

“Oh, sure,” Grandstand retorted, “I was really just going to stand around and let you have a moment with him or whatever while his monsters were out there killing people. We can both chat with him once we get him out of here and somewhere that he can’t attack us with his zombies.” 

“Uh,” Pack started before KD could respond to that, “speaking of his zombies, they aren’t falling down.” She had climbed up by then and was standing over by the window, staring at the field. “They’re still running around out there. Why aren’t they falling down? He’s unconscious.” 

“Does it have something to do with those… gems?” Pack asked, squinting that way. “What the fuck are those?” 

“No fucking idea, maybe if someone hadn’t knocked him out, we could’ve asked him. And maybe he has to actively make the zombies stop?” Broadway pointed out. “So, wake him up.” 

“That uhh, that might be a problem,” Grandstand admitted. “He’ll be out for hours thanks to this stuff.” She was looking at the syringe. “I really thought him going unconscious would stop the zombies. Isn’t that usually how it works?” 

“Fuck!” Pack snapped her gaze to her bird-lizard. “Riddles, go get Paintball! Lead him up here, we’ve gotta figure out what the fuck we’re supposed to do now! 

“If we can’t make those zombies stop without waiting for this guy to wake up, we’re in trouble.” 

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Enkindle 23-16 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, we were all a bit surprised to find Grandstand suddenly standing in front of us. Or, more to the point, crouched on top of the van. Giving a double-take while the others reacted around me, I found myself blurting, “You’re the reason the cops never tried to pull us over!” Wait, she had been crouched on the roof the entire time we had been driving up here, at those speeds? What the hell was this chick doing? Why would she have been following us like that? Why was she here at all? 

Under her Zorro-like bandana mask, the woman smiled faintly while hopping down to land on the pavement next to the van. “Worked that out quick, didn’t you? You’re welcome. Now, like I said, are we gonna go in there and be heroes, or what?”

Poise, stepping slightly in front of me, spoke up sharply. “What are you doing here? Last I checked, you and Cuélebre were on the outs, but I don’t think that means you suddenly decided to switch sides out of the goodness of your heart.”

“Better question,” Pack abruptly put in while holding that shotgun of hers. She hadn’t gone as far as to point it at her, but the point was made. “Why were you following us close enough to find out what we’re doing?” 

“My business is personal,” the woman shot back. “But, just to ease this along since I’m pretty sure we don’t have time for a lot of arguments, let’s just say I wasn’t following you. Or, well, I was only following you recently. I’ve been tracking down the guy you’re after right now. You know, the one responsible for those zombie attacks, like the one that’s about to happen right in there. I need to talk to him. He has information about the guy I’m really looking for. I’ll help you stop him, then I get to talk to him until he tells me what I need.” 

While the rest of us were absorbing that, Broadway stared at the woman, voice dark and clearly suspicious. “What exactly do you want to talk to him about?”

“Relax, it’s not about your secret identity,” Grandstand retorted while visibly rolling her eyes. “I’m gonna be really honest here and say I very seriously couldn’t care less about that. This is a hell of a lot more important. And yeah, I know, my old gang and your gang aren’t exactly friends right now. Big whoop. I’m here for bigger fish. Like the kid over there said, I’m not at the top of Cuélebre’s best friends list at the moment, so picking a fight with some kids over your secret identities or whatever isn’t even on the first ten pages of my to-do list. My real friend, a close friend, was murdered. And the guy in there knows something about who did it.” 

Broadway made a noise before starting with, “If you think–” 

“Relax, Soundwave,” Grandstand interrupted, “It wasn’t him, so I’m not out for revenge. If I was, none of you would’ve ever known I was here. He’s not the guy who killed my friend, but he’s got information I need about who it really was. Now that’s all I’m gonna say about it. I figured since I caught a ride with you guys, and I only know where he is thanks to you, I owe you some sort of explanation. But that’s enough. I’m going in there to find him before he takes off again. If you all want help making sure a bunch of innocent people don’t die, you’ll get over yourselves and come along.” With that, she started to move to the entrance.

Calvin’s head shook while our whole group looked at one another uncertainly, the boy hesitating before managing a confused, “What’re we supposed to do? She’s a bad guy, right?” 

I shrugged, with a glance toward Pack and Broadway. “Not like she’ll be the first villain we’re working with. And she’s right, people in there are going to get hurt or die the longer we stand out here and debate about it.” A funny feeling ran down my spine, but I shook it off and turned to run toward the stadium. On the way, I fumbled with my phone and used the redial to call Caishen yet again. I left another message to say that we were there and that we needed help. What else was I supposed to do? Yes, she had told us not to go after whoever was responsible for the zombies alone, but we couldn’t just let this happen without trying to stop it. We weren’t hiding the fact that we’d found him. We’d called everyone we possibly could. They were all busy. The only option besides going in there was to just let it happen. And I didn’t care if she got mad at us or not, I wasn’t going to do that. Dangerous or not, we weren’t just going to let a bunch of people die. If it turned out she thought we should… well, then the Michigan heroes were a lot worse than I thought. 

There was, of course, one more thing I could do. Slowing my run, I turned toward Paige and lowered my voice. “Call the Ministry as yourself real quick. Tell them Paintball called you and told you what was going on, and asked you to tell them they need to do something. They know that I know something about them anyway, and that you have their number. But can you do it without them tracking your phone as coming from right here?”

Paige, absorbing that, gave a short nod. “I’ll forward the call from another phone back in the city.” With that, she set to work doing just that, while I started running once more. Maybe it was dumb to call in the Ministry and ask them for help, but I was seriously desperate. They wanted to keep crime under control, and something told me Jason hadn’t received their permission to do this. 

“Glad to see it didn’t take long for you to come to your senses,” Grandstand informed me as we approached the gate. Unsurprisingly, the man who was standing there looked a little surprised at the sight of what was coming toward him. He was staring at all of us, but mostly at the woman beside me. I saw his hand move to the radio on his belt, only to stop short as his eyes abruptly shifted toward me, hand dropping away from the belt as though he’d never reached for it to begin with. “Hey, sorry, costume night’s not til next week. I don’t know who screwed that up, but hey, you all look pretty g–holy shit what the fuck?!” That last bit came as he caught sight of Holiday and Mars Bar, who were already partway shifted into their large forms. 

Oh, and he paid absolutely no attention to Grandstand as the woman simply walked right past him. Obviously, she had used her power. On the other hand, she did pause to wait for us, while making an impatient ‘hurry up’ gesture with her hand. Whether it was because she genuinely wanted to help, or because she thought she had a better chance of finding this Jason guy with Broadway and Pack, I wasn’t sure. A voice whispered in the back of my ear that it might be less about thinking Broadway could help find him, and more about thinking she could use Broadway as a hostage against him if he found out she was his sister. 

Then again, would he even care about that? Could someone who was trying to show off for the Scions give a shit about his sister being in danger? I had no idea. But then again, I couldn’t even fathom having a brother who would try to show off for the Scions in the first place. Yeah, my brother had clearly killed people, but there was a pretty vast gulf between that and auditioning to hang out with Pencil, Cup, and their gang.

Ignoring the gate guide for just a moment, I turned to the two La Casa Touched. “You guys go find him. Have Riddles let us know if you track him down. We’ll get everyone out of here. Just… be careful.” With that, I turned back to the guy, who looked even more confused. He’d grabbed his radio from his belt again and was fumbling with it. As it fell from his hand, I shot red paint at it and at that hand, making it jump back into his grip as he made a noise of surprise. 

“Dude,” I quickly put in, “the zombie-monsters over in Detroit, you heard about them? The guy who’s been controlling them is here. As in he’s in this stadium, not just the city. He’s gonna attack this place any minute. You need to start evacuating people right now.” As his eyes widened in shock about what I was saying, I grabbed his wrist and shoved the radio up to his ear. “Call it in! Open every gate, every door. Let everyone out, right now! Set off the fire alarms, whatever you need to do, just get everyone to move!”

That was all I could take the time to say. Leaving the man stammering in confusion, I ran past him and into the entrance area of the stadium. The others were right behind me. Grandstand gave me an evaluating look briefly before nodding as she pivoted to run toward an area labeled for employees. On the way, she called back, “Your pal‘s gonna want to have a good view of the stadium and privacy! Probably upstairs somewhere!” 

Broadway and Pack were right behind her, along with the assortment of lizards, who were growing by the moment. I barely paid any attention to that, however. My focus was on several guards who were jogging up from around the other corner. As they approached and tried to tell us we had to leave and that this whole thing wasn’t funny, I snapped a hand up to shoot green paint over the rest of our little group. Seeing me actually do that brought the guards up short as they realized this either wasn’t a costumed prank, or it was a really good one. 

“Zombie bad guy from Detroit’s attacking this place, you gotta get everyone out!” I blurted while already activating the green paint to run past them. “You guys get down to the field and help people get to the exits! Watch for zombies!” I called over my shoulder just as we reached the top row of bleachers. The people there, watching the game below, jerked in surprise at the sight of me. Though most, again, didn’t realize I was the real thing. Not yet, anyway. But they would pretty soon. 

Stopping short, my gaze scanned the field, then the bleachers, then up into the higher areas. Nothing untoward. The place seemed completely normal. If we were wrong about this, if he’d changed his mind and we were sounding the alarm for no reason–no. We definitely couldn’t take that risk. Even if we ended up looking paranoid and stupid, it didn’t matter. 

To the people around me, who were staring in even more confusion about whether this was some sort of presentation, I added, “Unless you guys wanna be trampled, you need to get out right now. Run! Get the hell out of the stadium! It’s not a game, it’s an attack, so go! Just spread the word and get the fuck out of here right now!” With that, I pointed my hand toward the announcers booth. It was above the bleachers by the first base line, while we were above home plate. A line of red paint went flying from my hand, making the nearby audience gasp as they realized I wasn’t a fake. That gasp became a cry of surprise that spread throughout the audience as I triggered the paint and launched myself over their heads, across all those bleachers, and all the way to the raised booth. 

“Korey Rikers, the second baseman, coming to–what the fuck?!” That was the announcer himself, his shock broadcast all over the stadium and over the radio as I hit the window next to him. I could see the skinny guy with his big droopy mustache holding a hotdog in one hand, which slowly fell to the desk, dripping ketchup and mustard over the keyboard sitting there as he stared at me wide eyed. The man turned to a guy next to him and half-covered the mic while hissing a question about whether this was some sort of promotional stunt. Despite the covered mic, his words were still picked up and broadcast, and I could see more people looking up to where I was and pointing. If I’d wanted everyone’s attention, I was sure getting it. Now I just had to do something useful with that.

To that end, before the stunned announcer could recover, I planted my knees against that window (staying in place thanks to the gravity defying boots), painted a bit of the glass pink, and punched through it. As the man gave another curse of surprise, I apologized before grabbing the mic from his hands. “Everyone get out of the stadium right now!” I blurted into it while squeezing the button so my voice was projected. “There’s a bad guy who wants to hurt everyone here, you need to get out of your seats and get to the parking lot! And then keep going! Just get out of here! Find an exit and get out!” Yes, it wasn’t perfect. There was a good chance we would cause a panic. But what choice did we have? We needed to get everyone out as fast as possible. The second Jason saw us or realized people were starting to leave, he would unleash his monsters. There was no time to be subtle about it. Besides, we could watch for anyone being trampled or suffocated. We–we had to do it this way. 

Okay, the truth was, maybe someone more experienced would’ve had a better idea of how to do this. Maybe there were twenty different better ways. But I had to do something right then. I didn’t have time to stop and think about it. 

At least people were listening. The group who had been close enough to hear me tell them what was about to happen before I painted my way up here had already cleared out and were running out the same way we had come in. Which left an opening for others below them in the stands to pick themselves up and start running. Meanwhile, the guards had actually listened and spread the word. I could see other entrances being hauled open, the people there shouting for more of the audience to get out those ways. 

The rest of the team were busy getting everyone moving. Calvin and Hobbes were helping by using the teleportation power. Hobbes was all the way over on the far side of the field where there was a gate that was usually only opened to allow cars to drive onto the field. It was open now, thanks to one of the guards there. With Murphy by the gate, Calvin got everyone he could in the lower stands to grab onto him, and teleported them over there. Then Murphy started to run. They were splitting up how much work they each had to do by taking turns with which one of them ran to collect people and which one stood by the gate to catch their breath. 

Meanwhile, Poise and Style were in the middle of the stands, on opposite sides of the stadium, directing everyone about which way to go. The two of them were making sure no single exit was overwhelmed with people. And anyone who tried to shove their way through quickly found themselves grabbed and pulled out of the way so others could get past. Sierra and Paige seemed to be everywhere at once, slipping through the crowd easily to find the potential troublemakers before anything bad could happen. 

Then there was Alloy. She was above the crowd, hovering in her armor. Apparently she’d started to get the hang of using just that to keep herself in the air without a board under her feet. That or she felt like she needed every other marble she possibly had for other things. Either way, those other marbles were turned into various walls and ramps to lead the audience one way or another. Whenever one exit area started to get too full, she noticed from her elevated position and used one of her marbles to block that way off, directing people down a lesser-occupied route. 

Spotting a group of players mixed with employees and some of the audience being pushed to one side out onto the field, I used a mix of blue and red paint to throw myself that way. “Hey, coming through!” I called out to announce my arrival before landing near the group. Quickly, as they looked at me and started to blurt questions, I painted a pink door onto the nearby wall, before lashing out with a purple-powered foot to kick through it. I had to kick a couple times, but I finally knocked out enough of the pink door shape to reveal the open, weed-filled lot behind the field. “Go!” I blurted. “Run and keep running. Just trust me, go!” Even as I said that, my gaze snapped around the field and up into the stands. There were still a lot of people, but the place was getting emptier by the moment. We were actually doing this. We were going to get these people–

And then it happened. A loud, terrifying shriek filled the air, as a man appeared on top of the announcer’s booth where I had just been. And not just any man. A clearly dead one. The top third of his head was gone, leaving some of his brain visible. His arms were twisted around the wrong way, and he forced them back into position with a series of audible snaps, while all of us stood there and watched in horror. Then, he tilted his head back and gave a terrible howl that was half-banshee and half-wolf. It echoed around the field, before being answered by another howl. Then another one. And another. 

They were everywhere. Two of them burst out of the restroom up behind the third base stands. Another one came crawling out from under the outfield fence. The visiting team dugout had one that came through the locker room area, chasing two people who had been going out that way. More were in the stands. We’d gotten some of the people out before Jason reacted, but not nearly enough. And now these monsters were here. Not just one or two. There had to be a dozen of the things, at least. 

This sick piece of shit wanted to put on a show for the Scions, and he was going to do it by slaughtering as many innocent people in this place as he could. Unless we stopped him. But we had barely been able to handle one of these things before with all of us working together. What the hell were we supposed to do about twelve of them all spread out, and with a bunch of civilians in the way?

Whatever it was, we were going to have to figure it out soon. Because, with another chorus of horrifying howls, the zombies attacked.

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Enkindle 23-14 (Summus Proelium)

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Of course, the first step toward stopping Broadway‘s foster brother from the whole zombie thing was to find out if he actually was the person behind all of it. Granted, from what she had told us, it seemed pretty obvious. But, to be fair, it wasn’t completely impossible that his power was limited to small animals or something and this was someone with a stronger version. Yeah, I knew how that sounded, but I didn’t want to completely dismiss anything just yet.

Besides, even if it was him, maybe someone else was forcing him into it or something. We really had no idea about all that beyond the fact that he apparently had this power that looked an awful lot like what we had been dealing with. I certainly wasn’t going to hand him over to the authorities, and therefore the Ministry, without at least finding out more for myself about how much he was responsible for. 

So, we had to investigate. Which meant going to that house to check things out. Of course, that did leave the question of whether we were butting up against Caishen’s rule about calling in help before confronting the person behind this. But we weren’t planning on even physically seeing him. We were going to check it out while he wasn’t there. I wanted to at least find out as much as we could before calling in the cavalry. Again, if this wasn’t his fault, I didn’t want to sic the Ministry on him. And we knew the moment we called in for help, the Ministry would know about it.

According to Broadway, despite the fact that he was older than she was, he still lived with their foster parents, technically. Though apparently he had moved out to the separate standing garage, treating it like an apartment. Which at least meant that we wouldn’t have to break into the house itself. Given what we had heard, that would have been fairly impossible to do without being seen by someone. There was no time when the entire place was empty, at least no time that could be counted on to be that way for longer than five minutes. 

For her part, Broadway said she would help us by inviting her brother to dinner at her cover apartment to get him out of that garage so we could get in there and look around without worrying about him finding us unexpectedly. We were just going to have to be both quick and quiet about it considering there would be people in the nearby house just a few feet away. A lot of people, given what we had heard. Apparently there were no less than nine foster kids in that place, ranging in age from about two all the way to twenty. Well, the twenty-year-old was Jason. The next eldest, still living in the house itself, was a sixteen-year-old girl named Molly. 

We also didn’t have a lot of time to waste, considering how much damage the zombies had already been doing around the city. They had stopped for now, but still. At this rate, I was afraid that things would escalate completely out of control if we let it go on much longer. We had to find out if Jason was responsible for this, and stop him if he was. 

So, we were going in there the very next day. Broadway convinced her brother to go with her, and we made our way to the lumberyard just down the street from the house in question. We wouldn’t all be going inside. Even with Wren being back at the shop doing her own work, having that many people trying to sneak through a garage would just be asking to end up getting caught. Instead, it would be Paige, Roald, Pack, and me. Pack was going in because Broadway was her friend and she insisted on being involved. Paige knew how to find hidden things and was pretty sneaky on her own. And as for Roald… well, he was going just in case someone started to come into the garage. Murphy would be waiting on the far side of the road, visible through a window in the garage. If someone started to come in, we would all grab onto Roald while he used the teleportation tech in the suit to get us all the way out to where Murphy was instantly. Hopefully without being seen by anyone. 

“You sure you’re gonna be okay in there?” Peyton asked a bit tentatively while she watched me. “If this is the right place and one of those things pops out at you guys, or breaks in while you’re there and you can’t get away…” 

“That’s why you guys are waiting right here,” I pointed out gently, nodding to her and Sierra. “You guys and Murphy too. She’ll be able to see what’s going on and we’ll be in contact over the phone. You’re backup. If we run into trouble, the three of you can come to the rescue.” 

She sighed a little before giving a short nod. “Yeah, I know. You’re right. If something goes wrong, we’ll be ready. But still, be careful, okay?” She had told me before that it was going to take awhile before she stopped thinking of me as a little brother or something, and I heard that same general idea in her words, and in the small smile as she made the helmet over her face shift apart so I could see it. “Don’t go getting yourself killed now.” 

Smirking despite myself, I gestured. “I’ll do my best. Besides, I don’t think the others are all that eager to be eaten by zombies either.” 

“Not particularly,” Pack agreed flatly. She stood there with her arms folded around Mars Bar, holding the iguana to her chest. Twinkletoes, in his ordinary chameleon form, perched on her shoulder. “So are we gonna get in there and find out what’s really going on, or just stand around out here talking about it?” 

“Yeah, yeah, we’re going,” I assured her before painting myself completely black. Then I pointed at Paige and did the same to her costume, followed by Roald and finally Pack herself. Once we were all thoroughly dark, Pack put her lizards back in her bag (or rather, the cage connected to the bag) and we set out. There was a narrow alley leading behind the houses from the lumberyard. On the way, I activated small bits of the black paint I’d put on everyone. That was a new thing I’d figured out I could do, activate just a portion of a much larger amount of paint. All I needed was to silence our footsteps on the gravel, which was pretty quiet already. Adding in just the small amount of black paint I was using and we were able to walk over all that loose gravel without making a single sound. 

That helped deal with being heard, and from there we just had to take it easy and watch for any lights on from people who might be standing on their back porches or in windows. But nothing jumped out as we carefully and quietly snuck through that alley and right up to the gate behind the house in question. It had a heavy-duty padlock on it, but a quick squirt of pink paint allowed me to pull the thing apart. Then I simply shot another bit of black paint at the hinges of the gate to make sure it wouldn’t squeak while it was pushed open so the others could head through. Once they were in, I pulled the gate shut and replaced the lock, using pink paint again to ensure it was back the way it should be. 

We watched the house carefully while going in. The gate was far enough away through a wide backyard that we wouldn’t easily be seen by people just passing by windows. The garage itself was straight ahead of us and slightly to the left, while the house was further away and to the right. There was a small sandbox full of toys to one side that we carefully stepped around while moving to the far side of the garage where we wouldn’t be seen. Aside from that, a tall wooden fence to our left blocked vision from the house next door, and the garage itself would stop anyone in this home from spotting us. So far so good, but we weren’t out of the woods yet. This whole thing could blow up in our faces pretty easily if we weren’t careful. 

With that in mind, I checked the small window on this side of the garage. It was just like Broadway had described. The window didn’t close completely, given how old and relatively ramshackle the place was. There was a tiny crack between the window itself and the structure of the building. Not large enough to use as a way of getting inside, but that was okay. Leaning down, I peered through the window. The garage was basically one open room with a bed and den area on one end, a sort-of pseudo-kitchen to the left near where this window was, a makeshift bathroom with a shower curtain-type pull around for some degree of privacy, and a small living ‘room’ right near the entrance. I could see all the way through it from this window, including both the big rolling door and the regular entrance. It was the latter I focused on, specifically the deadbolt. 

“Okay,” I murmured, “here goes nothing.” 

With that, I painted my hand and part of my arm pink. Which, with effort, I managed to shove through that narrow crack. It was a pretty disconcerting process, particularly considering I knew I had to be quick. Forcing my hand through the crack was like pushing Play-Doh through one of those rolling mill machines. It came out almost flat on the other side. But I ignored the weirdness of it, twisting my hand up and around once it was on the other side of the window so I could point toward the deadbolt on the far side of the room. A moment later, a shot of red paint sailed across the open space and hit the tiny latch perfectly. One more shot put a bit of red just to the side of it. Quickly, I yanked my hand back out before the pink paint could run out while activating the red. In turn, the bolt was pulled down, unlocking the door. 

“Okay,” I announced while pushing myself back up, “we’re good.”

Yes, we could have just used pink paint to make a hole in the wall big enough to go through, but that would’ve been a lot to clean up without letting Jason know we’d been there. We were trying to be subtle. 

Roald leaned in to stare at that before giving me a look. “Seriously,” he asked in a whisper, “how do you do that? You hit that thing in one try, from across the whole length of the garage and with your hand literally flattened and pushed through that little crack.” 

“I know, right?” That was Murphy speaking through the bluetooth device in my ear. We all had them right now, and were in a conference call on our phones so we could stay in contact with the others. “He’s got insane fucking aim and just acts like it’s normal.” 

“He clearly has that as part of his power set,” Paige flatly replied. Not only were they both saying ‘he’ because Pack was here, but also because we had agreed that I would continue to be referred to as a boy while I was in costume. It would help stop anyone from screwing up and giving away my secret if they continued to be in that habit. It was probably a little confusing for them, but it was the best we could do. 

Speaking of which, maybe someday I would need to tell Pack the truth too. She was basically the only… sort-of member of our little group who didn’t know by now. But she also wasn’t a full part of Avant-Guard. She was still a Fell-Touched, albeit falling into a sort of gray area. I told myself I didn’t want to put her in the position of knowing that much about me and not telling her boss anything, but I wasn’t sure how much of that was simply justifying it. The truth was that I really didn’t want to think that there were even more people out there whom I couldn’t control who knew my secret. 

In any case, I shrugged at them. “I guess that makes sense, but I don’t know why super-aim would come along with paint powers. To say nothing about the whole navigating in darkness thing.” When the three of them all looked at me, I waved it off. “This is really not the time to get into it. I promise, we can do all the testing you want later. Come on, let’s see if we can find anything.” With that, I walked around to the edge of the garage, peeked to make sure we still looked clear, then quickly and silently made my way to the now-unlocked door and slipped inside. The others were right behind me before I tugged the door closed. 

Right, now we were in here, hopefully without having attracted any attention so we could search the place and not deal with some cops showing up. That would end up being a bit hard to explain. Especially with Pack here. It would be a whole thing. So, better to just avoid the whole situation. Thankfully, the only windows facing the house were covered in black-out curtains. Probably because Jason didn’t want snoopy foster parents or siblings to see what he was doing out here. Which worked in our favor, though we still weren’t going to turn a bunch of lamps on. Instead, we all took out our phones and dialed the flashlight apps down low. Just enough to see what we were doing as we spread out to search. 

I honestly wasn’t sure what we expected to find, but it could’ve been anything. Trophies from the zombies he’d made? Their wallets or whatever with photographs we could use to identify them? Maybe a manifesto about everything he was doing and why, or even an audio recording of him detailing his master plan? Okay, maybe those were asking for a bit much, but hey, you never knew. Maybe we would get extraordinarily lucky. It could happen. 

For my part, I went all the way to the back of the garage and started looking around the area where he slept. I carefully checked under his pillows, taking note of how they were positioned so I could put them back properly just in case, before ducking down to peer under the bed itself. The light from my phone panned over the floor down there, revealing a lot of empty fast food cartons and such, not to mention dirty magazines. Those I rather reluctantly picked up, turned over, and rifled through to see if anything fell out. Nothing, aside from a few cards to order more dirty magazines. 

“Who gets those things anymore?” Pack demanded as she looked over from looking through one of his dressers and saw what I was holding. “Hasn’t he ever heard of internet porn?” 

“The family monitors internet access,” Paige put in from the other side of the garage. “They have child locks on most adult websites. Those are probably his way of compensating for that when–” 

“Okay, can we please change the subject?” I hurriedly interrupted. “Something tells me none of this will ever be relevant for what we’re actually supposed to be doing here.” 

“Hold on, how do you know the thing about monitoring internet access?” That question came from Alloy, still waiting back at the lumberyard. “And the childlock.” 

“We have wireless internet access,” Sierra informed her, sounding amused. “She can see all the connections from there.” 

Pushing their conversation out of my mind, I shoved the magazines back under the bed where I had found them. In the process of arranging them where I was pretty sure they’d been, I noticed something else. A small box was shoved up into the space between the wooden board of the bedframe and the box springs. Squinting that way, I reached out to tug the thing out, then turned and put my back to the bed with the box in my lap so I could examine it. The box was about eight inches long and six inches wide, along with being several inches deep. There was a clasp on the front, which had a keyhole. I set the thing down, ignoring the lock. Instead, I painted the top pink and used my fingers to pry a hole into it that way. Inside the box was a small folded stack of papers, along with what looked like a debit card that had the name Jordan Johnson on it, and a driver’s license. The picture matched the one of Jason that we had been shown by Broadway before coming over here, but the name was also Jordan Johnson. Opening the folded papers, I found a birth certificate and other things identifying him as, yet again, Jordan Johnson. Frowning, I called the others over to show them what I was looking at. 

Roald shook his head. “So, ahh, he’s got fake identification and a debit card? Does that mean he’s gonna run away or something? Is he getting ready to disappear if he gets caught?” 

Paige examined the ID and paperwork. “This is all professional grade,” she remarked. “It’s not something he got off the street for a hundred bucks. This looks real. Someone with some actual skill, and probably access to the DMV system did this. So how does some nobody foster kid, no offense, get it? Does he just happen to know somebody that good or that well-connected? And why does he have it?” 

“It takes a while to get something like that anyway,” Pack put in. “Trust me, I’ve had a set done myself. And if it takes Blackjack a couple weeks to get that quality of work, then I’m pretty sure almost nobody else could do it faster. Maybe the Ministry themselves, just because of the connections they have, but I think we’re operating under the assumption that he’s not working for the Ministry?”

I paused to consider that. “I mean, it wouldn’t really make sense if he was. We’re pretty sure they’re the ones who had Luciano killed. And now he’s been brought back as a weird zombie thing attacking people. Plus, he was just sort of found in the alley. I don’t think they would’ve left him there if they did bring him back to life. What would be the point of having him kill those couple kids who happened to find him? It doesn’t make any sense coming from them. I don’t see any profit in it. And it sure as hell isn’t making the area more stable.” 

Paige agreed with a nod. “Right, it doesn’t make sense. So I’m pretty sure the fake ID had to be planned and set up awhile ago, before we started seeing these zombies. This isn’t a situation where things got out of control and he just went out to pick up a fake ID to run away with at the spur of the moment. He had a professional make these. A professional who either owed him a huge favor, or one he paid a lot of money to.” 

“She’s right,” Sierra’s voice put in, “If that fake ID stuff is really that good, it’s not something this guy could just go down to the street corner and pay some random guy for.”

 I looked down at the papers again and flipped through them. It wasn’t just a birth certificate and other identification stuff, I realized. At the end of the stack was a bit of lined paper that had been torn out of a notebook. The name ‘N Kent St’ was scrawled across the middle of the page in pen, along with a phone number. Under that, the number 9,412 was written and underlined with a smiley face next to it. 

“Is that the guy who made the fake ID and the amount he paid for it?” Roald guessed. “N Kent St. kinda sounds like a name. Or a street? It could be N Kent Saint or N Kent Street. Maybe it’s an address. Nine Four One Two North Kent Street?” 

Of course, I immediately thought of Kent Jackson, Tomas’s dad. He had memory powers. What did he have to do with this? Aloud, I murmured, “There’s a guy who works for the Ministry. He can… erase memories. His name’s Kent. But that’s his first name, not his last. And there’s no N involved in the name. I don’t know an N Kent. And certainly not a Saint. I guess it could be him, but I’ve never heard him called by that… I dunno. This still doesn’t sound like the Ministry. Unless Kent’s been freelancing?” Even that didn’t sound right. “It could be a coincidence on the name… Anyway, what would he be paying Kent for? Yeah, look up that address.”

“Already did,” Sierra informed us over the phone. “There is no 9412 North Kent Street anywhere in Michigan. It’s gotta be a price and name or something. The amount he paid for that new identity?”   

“Pretty high price for this sort of thing,” Paige murmured. “I mean, you can get a passable fake identity for about fifteen hundred bucks. If he paid over nine thousand… well, it’d explain the quality. And there’s probably more to it. Maybe it included transportation to a new place or something. Safe passage out of the city if things fall apart and probably some sort of established place somewhere else. Unless the Ministry Kent is involved and he’s being paid to adjust memories? But you’re right, I dunno what the N could stand for.” 

“Keep looking around,” I urged while spreading the papers, fake ID, and debit card out to take pictures of them with my phone. I wanted to keep a record of everything we found without letting Jason himself realize we knew anything about it. As soon as I had all of it in my phone, I folded the papers and stuff back up, put them in the box, then used my pink paint to fix the lid so it was basically as good as new. Finally, I put the thing back where I’d found it and went to lift the mattress so I could see if there was anything there. Sure enough, I certainly found something. And it wasn’t just more papers. Right there between the mattress and box springs was a nine millimeter pistol and a box of ammunition. Grimacing at the sight, I started to tell the others about it, when Roald called out for us to look at something else.

Setting the mattress down, I moved over to where he was in the ‘kitchen’ area. Roald was holding a piece of paper he’d dug out of the trash. Printed across it were the words, ‘One or two aren’t going to impress us. You want to join our club, make a real splash. I hear opening night could be a real homerun.’ It wasn’t signed, at least not with names. But there were two pictures where a signature would be. The picture of a number two pencil, and one of a mug. Or rather–

“Cup,” Pack snarled. “Pencil and Cup.” 

“Wait, wait!” I suddenly blurted, eyes widening behind my helmet. “N Kent St, it’s not North Kent Street, or anything to do with Kent. It’s New Kent Stadium. The minor league baseball place. It was named Old Kent Park back in the nineties, then LMCU Park in 2000, back when it was in Comstock like two hundred miles from here. But last year they moved the team closer and went back to calling it Kent. Only it’s New Kent Stadium instead of Old Kent Park. It’s just, like, twenty miles outside the city now. Pai–Poise, what’s the–” 

Paige was already ahead of me. “The seating capacity for New Kent Stadium is nine thousand, four hundred, and twelve. And opening night is today.”

“Pack!” I snapped, turning that way. “You’ve gotta call Broadway and tell her–” 

“Too late,” she informed me, holding a phone in her hand. “I just got a text from her. She says Jason was going to the restroom and disappeared. She has no idea where he is.” 

“I think we know where he’s going though,” I found myself muttering. “He wants to impress the Scions. 

“And he’s gonna do it by unleashing his zombies on that stadium.”  

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Equal And Opposite 21-09 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Two quick things! First, there was a non-canon for this story posted yesterday for EVERYONE to read, focused on Joyride vs the Minority, right here. And second, if you only read this story rather than Heretical Edge, there is an important note in my comment at the end of this chapter concerning updates to Patreon bonuses and goals. If you do support these stories or have any interest whatsoever in doing so to help ensure they are as good as they can possibly be (and help get every reader even more of those stories), it would be fantastic if you could read that comment after you finish the chapter. If you do read Heretical Edge and have already seen that comment/update, there’s nothing new there.

So, that Andy guy and I stepped away to a small hallway just outside the main room. It led to some offices or something, and while we could still hear people going nuts through the closed door, it was at least quiet enough that we could talk without shouting to make ourselves heard. For a few minutes, I talked to him about having a Tech-Touched friend who was looking to get into selling stuff and how we wanted to make sure she wasn’t giving away her location that easily. He made it clear that he had a pipeline of people who could move the stuff and sell it if it was any good, including himself. So, I told him I’d talk to Trevithick and set up a meeting if she wanted to, or just continue to be the go-between if she didn’t. He seemed pretty stoked about either option, to be honest. Especially when I asked for his phone number and an address where I could maybe find him later. He fumbled a bit, but eventually gave me a card with a business office listed on it, quickly letting me know that he shared it with a couple other people but all I had to do was ask for him and someone would track him down. Or call the number on the back, day or night. He stressed that part, making it clear I could call him any time I wanted. 

After promising that I would be in touch, and that he should be ready to move product as soon as Trevithick had something done, I made my way back out onto the main floor while stowing the card he had given me. Alloy was waiting by the door, apparently preferring to let me handle that part while she simply watched more of the convention. Which was fair, given how much there was to see. 

When I emerged, she glanced my way and tilted her head curiously. “So how’d it go, Mr. Businessman? Are we gonna be rich and powerful?” 

“Well, you’ve got the powerful part down already,” I pointed out. “As for rich, let’s hope for successful to start out. Gotta build contacts, make it clear we can deliver what we promise, that sort of thing. Being Touched will help somewhat, but if you screw up early on or overhype it, people’ll just end up turning on you as fast as they turned to you. Better if we build a solid ground network and improve it from there. This guy’s got his own contacts, if we can get some stuff into his hands and let him sell it, we’ll have a better chance at laying a foundation that–what?” I blinked that way, realizing she had been staring at me intently for most of that. 

Quickly, Alloy shook her head. “Uh, nothing. I mean, you’re just really into this stuff. You know a lot about it for a–you know, middle schooler. No offense. Err, I guess that would be more offensive to everyone else. You just–never mind.” 

Blushing a little bit despite myself, and glad that I had the helmet to cover it, I shrugged helplessly. “It’s really not a big deal. I just read a few paragraphs out of a book in the library. You know, after we talked about doing something like this with Trev the other day.” What else was I supposed to say, that I had heard my father talking about business stuff and what sort of problems startups ran into since I was a little kid sitting on his knee? And then I’d just follow up by telling her exactly who my father was. That would sure go over well. 

Okay, I thought that sarcastically in my head, but really, I did need to tell her the truth at some point. Just not right at the moment. There was way too much to deal with as it was. I wasn’t ready to get into that whole thing, even if it would help the whole feeling of awkwardness around her thinking I was a kid. 

Yes, yes, there were several good reasons to tell her everything. Another large one being that she deserved to know if we were going to work together. Soon, I told myself. It would have to be soon. Even if I couldn’t make myself get into it right now, it would come up eventually. It had to. And better that it be on my own terms. Just… yeah. 

Shaking all that off, I gestured for her to come with me. “Where’d the other three go?” 

Stepping up beside me, she raised a hand to point. “That Fragile girl– boy that’s a weird way to phrase it–she wanted to check out something called a dimensional-phase room. Which, for the record, sounds completely amazing, and we are so going over there. You’re lucky I lost the paper rock scissors game for who had to stay and wait for you.” 

I pointedly adopted an exaggerated huffy voice. “And here I thought you were just being a loyal partner.” 

“Partner shmartner,” she shot back, “did you hear what I said about dimensional-phase room? Sorry, but if it comes down to a choice between you and one of those, you’re gonna lose.” She seemed to consider those words briefly before amending, “I mean, unless it’s a villainous dimensional-phase room. Then… well, how villainous are we talking, on a scale from say, rob an ATM to murdering innocent children… a four and under, you’d probably lose out too.” 

Before I could even start to try to respond to that, someone dressed like Boulderdash began to approach us. It was a pretty good costume too, with clear effort put into small foam rocks over most of the body, and a big shell over the back that was probably fiberglass or something. For the head, they had a black and gray ski mask to match the rest of the body, with painted goggles to mimic his large eyes. They were a little bit short for the real thing, but still. 

The Boulderdash person slipped through the crowd, walking up before stopping right there in front of us. Their voice was muffled. “Here to see all your adoring fans, huh?” 

Confused, I exchanged a glance with Alloy before turning back that way. “Uhh, do we–” 

Before I could say anything else, ‘Boulderdash’ reached up to the shell on their back, opening a little slot on it so I could see a familiar face peering out at me. A familiar lizard face. It was Mars Bar. I swore he smiled as soon as he saw me, giving me an iguana grin. 

“Wha–” Giving a quick double-take at that, I snapped my attention back to the figure herself while demanding, “What the hell are you doing?” 

In a voice that was still muffled yet suddenly recognizable, Pack teased, “Well, I had to wear a costume that allowed me to get my little buddies in. You really think I’m going to come here and not let them see all this cool stuff? They’d never forgive me.” 

Giving the girl a look, I retorted, “Believe it or not, it’s not the lizards’ presence here I’m concerned about. I mean, okay it is, but they’re only here because you are so why are you–what’s–are you guys–” 

“He’s freaking out, isn’t he?” That particular question came from Lucent. Or rather, a giant version of him, a person in a raven costume, who stepped over to join us. “I told you he’d freak out.” 

“If you’re one of her lizards that she’s somehow given full speech capability to, I swear to God,” I managed, shooting a look back and forth between them before the voice struck me. “Wait, Broadway?!” I hissed that name, of course, not that it was strictly necessary. It wasn’t like anyone was eavesdropping. Actually, I was pretty sure I could have screamed, ‘Two real life members of La Casa are right here’ and no one would’ve heard me or paid attention. Not with how nuts and loud everything was around us. 

“Aww, he recognized me!” Broadway was clearly beaming under her costume, shooting a look toward her criminal teammate. “Wait, did he get me faster than he got you? Does that mean he likes me more?” 

“Dude.” It was Alloy’s turn to hiss at me. “How many members of La Casa are you friends with?” 

Once again, I was glad that my costume choices left my flushed face undetectable. Yes, that was clearly the biggest benefit, rather than stopping anyone from knowing who I was in the first place. With that filling my mind, I coughed. “We’re not exactly–I mean– that is…” Okay, I gave up on that, turning to face the other two. “Wait, are we about to have a problem?” I said that while trying very hard not to pointedly look at the several cameras around the room. I had no doubt that there was some advanced security in here including audio. Not that they would necessarily just happen to be paying attention to us, but still. 

Pack, however, shook her head as she interpreted my meaning. “Don’t worry, we’ve got it under control. Some of their surveillance equipment is just having a little bit of a hiccup now and then. Nothing too dramatic, just enough to make sure they can’t hear us. Or a few other places, just so it’s harder to narrow down where it’s coming from.” 

“Their surveillance is having issues and they’re not like, evacuating the building?” Alloy questioned. She too seemed to barely resist the urge to literally look at the cameras. 

“Like she said,” Broadway put in, “it’s just audio. And maybe a bit with not allowing them to zoom in, blurring a few cameras here and there, that sort of thing. They’re not gonna evacuate the building for that. Especially when they can stand right there and see that nothing’s going wrong. Besides, with all the amateur Touched-Tech all over the place in here, they’ve gotta expect it.” 

“On that note,” I questioned, “What’re you guys doing here?” 

“He keeps asking me that,” Pack informed Broadway in a clearly put-on confused tone. “It’s like he thinks we’re not supposed to want to go to places and have fun or something.” 

“Okay, I think my question is, are you here to have fun or here to have fun?” I managed with a somewhat weak voice. “I mean, you did just point out that there’s lots of… toys around here.”  

“Pshh, now he thinks we’re here to rob the place.” Pack was clearly rolling her eyes. “Honestly, if we were, we wouldn’t announce ourselves to a couple Boy Scouts. I mean–” She looked toward Alloy and gestured. “Not Boy–you know what I mean.” 

“They let girls in now anyway,” Alloy informed her with a shrug. “And what are you doing here if you’re not being nefarious? Which, for the record, is a very fun word.” 

“Having fun, without the nefarious part,” Broadway replied a bit primly. “And yeah, totally a fun word. But seriously, dude, look around. We’re not like, supervillains twenty-four/seven/fifty-two. We have time off.” With that, she gestured around us. “This place is sweet. We came in to have fun. Sweet, innocent, totally legal fun.”

“Sweet, innocent, totally legal fun that requires you to use security jamming tech?” I pointed out. 

Broadway, in turn, giggled. “We’re not using it all the time. We just have it in case things go wrong and we need to skedaddle, you know? And in this case, to come over and say hi without being eavesdropped on. And without you guys getting in trouble for not immediately starting in on the whole ‘halt evil-doers’ business. So slow your roll. Or, you know, whatever the right term would be.” That last part came in a distracted tone as her head (still covered in the raven mask) turned to follow a large man dressed up as The Hyperborean, a seven-foot-tall muscular guy made of ice who wore bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and sunglasses. This guy didn’t quite match the real Hyperborean in height or muscle, but it was pretty close. And the costume he wore over himself resembled ice pretty well. 

“See, now she’s distracted.” Shaking her head, Pack nudged her partner. “Like she said, we’re here to have fun, not cause trouble. Scout’s honor. And as your partner there said, we can actually join them now, so it’s all kosher. I mean, I’m not Jewish either, but you get the point.”

Before I could find my voice to respond to that, That-A-Way approached with Raindrop and Fragile, the three of them holding several light green balls. The (currently) blonde girl was already speaking. “Okay, so they let us take a couple extra–uh?” She had just noticed the other two. 

Clearing my throat, I nudged Peyton and slipped a twenty dollar bill in her hand. “Hey, there’s souvenir hats over there, why don’t you take our new friend to get one?” 

“Super-subtle, I don’t suspect anything weird at all,” Fragile announced, giving me a thumbs-up before pivoting on her heel to walk that way with Alloy. 

“Aww, man, that’s a great costume,” Pack abruptly announced, giving Way a pointed look. “You look just like the real Way, only even more attractive and smart.” 

“Uhh,” Way managed to repeat her previous noise. 

Broadway, in that raven costume, was looking after the departing Fragile as she noted, “Hey if she’s hanging out with you, she must be that new chick, right? That was a nice entrance she had up there. Should’ve seen the look on those rich fucks’ faces. It was a hoot.” 

“Uhhhhhhhh!” Way’s gaze snapped to me, her eyes wide. 

“God damn it,” I muttered before waving my hands back and forth. My voice was as low as it could be while still being audible to them. “It’s Pack and Broadway.” 

Even as I finished saying that, Pack was opening up the little slot in her costume shell. That time, it was Tuesday the Gecko who was looking out at us, joined quickly by Scatters the Neon Day Gecko. Both of them seemed to brighten when they saw Way, who had turned that wide-eyed stare at them. 

“You–what–how–why–” Her brain was clearly stuck, as she couldn’t put a full sentence together and had resorted to simply pointing. 

“They’re not here to cause trouble,” I finally put in while shaking my head. “I mean, obviously they’re here to cause us some mental trouble, and having a lot of fun with it, but other than that…” 

Looking back and forth between them as she processed all of that, Amber opened and shut her mouth a couple times before focusing on Pack. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” She hissed those words while her eyes darted toward Broadway a couple times. 

The other girl agreed, and they stepped out of the way. Which left me standing there with Raindrop on one side and Broadway on the other. Which was just the most comfortable and excellent position to be in. But at least–nope, I wasn’t even going to think about hypothetical ways it could get more uncomfortable. That just seemed like a recipe for disaster. 

While all those thoughts were running through my head, Broadway gave Raindrop a thumbs up. “Hey, while we’ve got the chance, great job the other day with that whole dropping the tarp from that hardware store on us? I swear, you almost got me.” 

“Um, are you… complimenting me for almost arresting you?” Izzy sounded understandably confused. 

“I mean, sure?” Broadway shrugged as much as the bird costume allowed her to. “We do illegal stuff, you try to stop us. If you manage it, good for you. It’s not personal, dude. And like I said, it was a cool move. I’ll be ready for it next time, but you uhh, you keep me on my toes. It’s cool.”

Izzy clearly had no idea how to respond to that, but eventually settled on a weak, “Um, thanks.” Then she thought about it for another moment before adding, “I uh, I don’t suppose you’d like to give me some advice?” 

“To catch me, my friends, or bad guys I don’t care about?” Broadway shot back with clear amusement. “Because something tells me the last one would still lead to the first two. Unless you want to hand over a written statement that you’ll never try to catch me again. And, quite frankly, I like the whole cat and mouse thing, so not even then. But, I’ll tell you one thing. I don’t know what happened to you recently, but you’re a hell of a lot cooler than you used to be. I mean, you’re more confident, you look like you stick up for yourself more, you’re even answering questions on the news sometimes. You used to be this quiet little wallflower who always looked like you were afraid the person who was asking you questions was gonna hit you with the microphone. I mean, I don’t ahh, I’m not trying to be insulting or whatever. I don’t mean it in a bad way. I mean, I do, but only in the sense that you’re not like that–and it’s fine to be like that if you’re not comfortable with–fuck.” 

For a brief handful of seconds, she was quiet, as though considering her words. Then she gave a short, decisive nod. “What I mean is, whatever changed in your life recently to make you more confident, it’s a good thing. You’re a lot more fun this way, and a lot harder to get away from. So whoever or whatever was making you all meek and stuff before, I’m glad you’re in a better situation now.” She paused, clearly ran those words over in her head, and then nodded once more. “That’s it.” 

I almost said something, but decided it was a bad idea. Not only because I wasn’t supposed to have that close of a relationship with Raindrop, but also because she could speak for herself just fine. Which, come to think of it, was Broadway’s entire point. 

So, I stayed quiet. Izzy, however, straightened up a bit. “Thanks, I um, I guess. But just so you know, I’m still going to try to catch you, even if you are nice to me.”  

“If I thought anything less, I wouldn’t have said anything,” the other girl informed her casually. “And who knows, you keep pulling out tricks like that tarp and you might just do it.” She didn’t sound worried about the possibility, yet it wasn’t as though she was dismissing it entirely or being insulting. She simply wasn’t worried about what would happen if she was caught. 

By that point, Pack and Way had finished their conversation and came back. Amber cleared her throat. “Let’s just say, you guys… don’t start anything and we’ll all just pretend we don’t know anything about each other.” She gave a quick glance toward the girl in her Boulderdash costume before adding, “Please don’t make me regret trusting you when you say you’re not here to do anything bad.”

“Promise,” Pack solemnly replied. “We are absolutely here for casual fun and nothing else. Legal casual fun,” she added quickly after giving that a second of thought. “You know what they say. Be gay, do crime. And you’re already halfway there.” With what was very clearly a wink that was hidden behind her costume, she took Broadway by the hand and they started off. 

Shortly after that, Alloy and Fragile approached once more. The latter had a quite snazzy-looking red top hat, which she was practicing flipping around in her hands, along her arms, and up to her head. She was surprisingly good at it. Once they arrived, she looked to me and brightly announced, “If you have any more friends around here that you don’t want me to hear you talk to, they’re selling these really cool belts at the booth next to the hat one.” 

Flushing a little, I mumbled something about keeping that in mind, before thanking her for playing along. Then I added, “What’s with those things you guys came back with, anyway?” My hands gestured to the light green balls she, Amber, and Izzy still had. 

“They’re for the phase room,” Amber explained. “They’ve got a lot of people waiting to go in, so they do it by colored balls. When these light up, it’s our turn. We got a couple for you guys too.” She passed them over toward Peyton and me. “Seriously, we’ve gotta try it. It’s all set up like a normal living room and kitchen, but they can phase you while you’re in there. You know, make you intangible. So you can walk around and wave your hands through stuff.” 

For a brief second, I just stared at her. “Dude, you can already do that by yourself. Why do you need to wait around and go in a special room for it?” 

“Pfft, I can do that while going one direction,” she retorted. “I always wondered what it’d be like to be able to use my power anywhere I wanted. Believe me, if they had a ‘teleport room’ or a ‘be super fast’ room, I’d try those too.” 

By that point, it was time to go over to where those guys were taking the photograph of all the people dressed up like Alloy and me. I felt a little weird about actually being in the picture, but then, it was also pretty fun to think that nobody there knew. 

It also turned out the guy who thought he could get the real us to sign the photo once it was blown up to giant-size was Richard Mornes, the guy from Ten Towers who was in charge of coordinating with law enforcement, recruiting people from the Minority, that sort of thing. I wasn’t sure if he recognized me while we were doing the picture, but as soon as one of the other Paintballs asked if he was sure he could get me to sign it, the man glanced my way. His eyebrow rose before he replied, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure he’ll be interested.” 

Shortly after we were done with that, the balls lit up. As soon as she saw that, Fragile seemed to light up herself. “Oooh, come on, come on, let’s go check out the phasing room!” 

Before we could head that way, however, my attention was drawn to one side, as none other than Silversmith approached. Okay, to be fair, there had been like fourteen Silversmiths, all varying levels of believable. But something told me this was the real thing. This was really my dad. 

“Ahem, sorry for interrupting,” he spoke while I did my best not to react to his presence. “I’ll let you guys get right back to enjoying the rest of the convention down here in just a second.” 

“Uh, so, there’s nothing wrong?” Amber asked, obviously worried about the whole Pack and Broadway situation. 

“Nope,” my father confirmed. “Nothing at all. Actually, you guys can go ahead.” His attention turned from her, sliding over the others and settling on me. 

“Paintball, you mind having a little chat for a minute?” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

In Like Flynn 17-11 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N – The monthly non-canon chapters were posted over the weekend! You can find the chapter for this story, Summus Proelium, right here and the one for Heretical Edge right here

I had definitely experienced bigger shocks in my recent history. Certainly much worse ones. Everything that had to do with my family and what they really were totally beat out this moment, no question about it. And yet, standing there right then, staring at the girl across from me, still ranked pretty high up there. The sudden revelation that the Minority-Touched I had been working with so much, and the girl I spent time at school with were the same person sent me reeling, both physically and mentally. A series of noises escaped me, but they weren’t coherent or even vaguely decipherable as words. They were only sounds, filling the air meaninglessly. Somewhere in the middle of that, I plucked my helmet off and held it loosely in one hand (I hadn’t put the actual mask back on) so I could stare bare face to bare face with the other girl. I just… I had to see her straight on, with nothing between us. Not that I was entirely sure how it would help, but still. 

“Now you know how I felt back at… your house,” Amber informed me dryly while arching an eyebrow pointedly. “And I had to jump right to it and keep trying to fight that son of a bitch. At least you’ve got downtime to process.” 

After a very momentary pause, she visibly winced at the words that were about to come out of her mouth before asking, “I mean, it is you, right? That wasn’t actually some trick you and the kid programmed in to distract that guy if anything like that happened, just in case?” It was clear that she didn’t think that was in any way possible, but still wanted to cover her bases just in case. And really, who could blame her? This entire situation was pretty fucked up. 

Before I could answer, Raige, whom I had forgotten was standing there with the shock of this whole revelation, spoke up almost cheerfully. “Oh no, it’s really her. And it’s a pretty good disguise, if you think about it. I mean, who’s ever going to think that Cassidy Evans is willingly posing as a little boy? Especially after everything my doppelganger over there put her through.” 

“Shut up,” Paige muttered, her face slightly flushed. She was looking at me the whole time, voice softening slightly. “I didn’t have a choice. My–” She glanced at the identical girl nearby before belatedly amending her words. “Our father set the rules about that very clearly.”

A brief start of realization, Amber looked back and forth between us. “Oh my God, your dad has some huge grudge against the Evans, so he made you treat her like an enemy all this time? What the hell did that accomplish?” she demanded, sounding exasperated with the whole thing.

“She was supposed to do more than just antagonize me for years,” I informed her without taking my gaze away from Paige herself. “Back at her birthday party, she was supposed to kill me.” 

While Amber gave a double-take at that, Paige and I took turns explaining, with a little ‘help’ from Raige, exactly what was supposed to happen that day, along with what had actually happened. We filled in the blanks about that whole situation so that Amber knew the full story. At least as far as that went. There was a hell of a lot more story to fill in for everything else. 

Which was made perfectly clear when Amber let out a breath. “Okay, I guess I understand that day and all that, but what about everything else? How did you get powers? Why did you start going out as a boy in the first place? What do you know about these Ministry people, and how? What does any of that have to do with Paige’s father? Why does he have some big grudge against your parents, and what–” Abruptly, she trailed off. Her eyes widened dramatically with realization as she snapped her gaze to me. “Oh my God! It’s them, isn’t it? The Ministry. Your parents are connected to the Ministry. That’s how you found out about them, and…” She slumped back on her heels, head shaking. “That’s why you’re so obsessed with hiding your identity. It’s why you won’t join the–” Once again, she interrupted herself as a different realization jumped to mind, making her blurt a sudden, “Oh God, Izzy! I mean–”  She cut herself off, blanching as though she had said too much already.

“It’s okay, I know,” I assured her. “And I’m pretty sure those two know everything about the Minority.” I said that while looking toward the twins. “They’re pretty well-informed, after all.” 

Sounding pretty cheerful and amused by the entire situation, Raige nodded easily. “Oh yeah, we know all your identities. Parts of the benefit to having a backdoor in with the Ministry. Okay, maybe not an entire door. But at least a window. Enough to know some pretty juicy secrets.”  

“Secrets we don’t talk about,” Paige snapped pointedly, before adding, “And you two should get out of here before they send someone in to check on you. I mean, you can have this whole conversation somewhere better than this place, right?” For a brief moment, she looked as though she was going to say something else, before stopping herself. I had the feeling she actually wanted us to stay even longer, and pointing out that we should leave was her way of ripping the Band-Aid off. 

But she also had a point. We had to eject before the guys outside freaked out and came in after us. They would obviously give us a little leeway, but I didn’t want to push that even further. So, biting my lip, I focused on the blonde girl who had antagonized me for so long. “I’ll come back and check on you when I can.” Belatedly, I glanced toward Raige. “I’ll check on both of you, I mean. So try not to antagonize each other too much while we’re gone. Like I said, just go to your own corners of the world if you have to. Whatever it takes to play nice and get along until we can separate you.” 

“What he–I mean she said.” Shaking her head a bit at her own correction, Amber continued. “Seriously, just leave each other alone if you need to. We’ll both come back and check on you whenever we can. And we want to find you both without all these bruises, so no more fighting.”

“Hey,” Raige replied easily with a shrug, “I was just following orders before. Now that Daddy made it abundantly clear what he thinks of loyalty, I don’t have any reason to fight with that one over there. I mean, as long as you work on getting me that new body so I can go off and live my own life far away from all of you. Just do that and everything’ll be totally hunky-dory.”

Exchanging brief looks, Amber and I both replaced our mask and helmet respectively. Really, I wasn’t exactly sure why we did that. It wasn’t like whether we had them on or not would affect our bodies in the real world. Maybe it was just a psychological way of telling ourselves that we were going back to being That-A-Way and Paintball for the time being. 

In any case,  I watched intently as her facial features shifted slightly along with her hair turning blonde. Touched-Tech, obviously. Which again, made perfect sense. It had always seemed a little odd that the adults behind the Minority would let her get away with only hiding her identity behind a little domino mask. The fact that it did so much to actually change what she looked like solved that question.

Once we were suitably disguised, I glanced over to the twins to promise one more time that we would check in on them. There was more I wanted to say, but it would have to wait. I really didn’t feel like talking to Paige about all the issues we had while in front of an audience. Even if I was now aware that I knew That-A-Way much better than I had thought. And yeah, that would be a whole thing in and of itself. The two of us were clearly going to have a long chat. Between that and the fact that I definitely still needed to talk to Peyton about some of the stuff she’d heard in here, I had several of those ‘important conversations’ coming up in my near-future.  

For the moment,  Amber and I simply spoke the code to eject ourselves from the simulation. Again, my vision was filled with the kaleidoscope of lights, colors and all the random sounds. Seriously, at one point it sounded like one of those old World War One fighter planes had flown practically right through me. To say it was disorienting was a massive understatement.

Finally, there was that reddish-purple fog from before, accompanied by the sensation of falling straight down on a roller coaster. I had thought I was ready for it this time, but a yelp still escaped me. Then I was conscious and aware, jerking a bit against the seat I’d been perched in. Nearby, I could see Wren watching anxiously, even as I heard Ambe–no, That-A-Way jerking in her own seat on the opposite side of the machine. We’d made it, we were back in the real world. Quickly, I pulled the sunglasses and special gloves off before fixing my mask and helmet. Only then did I push myself up and give an almost dog-like shake. My body felt weird and tingly. Probably a side effect of sitting for so long while my brain thought I was actually moving. “Wow, that’s some nifty gizmo you got there, dude,” I informed Wren with an only slightly shaky thumbs up. “Seriously, that French guy you got this prototype from really knows his shit. And you put it together, just–maybe see if he wants to collaborate on something, cuz you two do good work.” 

Wren proceeded to blush deeply, hopping off the edge of the table she had been anxiously perched on. “You’re okay? You’re all okay? It took you awhile to come out of it, longer than the others.” Even as she said that, the girl was looking over to the corner of the room, where Pack and Alloy were clearly exercising/playing with the lizards. They had both straightened up when That-A-Way and I had emerged from the machine, Pack standing with two of her lizards (Twinkletoes the chameleon and Holiday the skink) perched on either shoulder, while Scatters the tiny Neon Day Gecko was settled right on top of her hooded and masked head. “You two good?” she asked, though her attention was more on That-A-Way than me.  

“We made it,” Way confirmed while casting a brief glance back toward me before her attention shifted to Wren. “And he’s right, that was a lot more realistic than I expected. Hope your French guy gets it up and running so I can talk the bosses back at the Clubhouse into buying one for the rest of the Minority to use in training. Seriously, just being able to practice stuff and have full-contact sparring without worrying about hurting anybody would be pretty amazing.”  

Alloy, who had picked herself up from the floor while holding Riddles in her small bearded dragon form, abruptly spoke up. “Are we seriously just being this casual right now after what happened in there? Who the hell is Paige’s father and how did he send some… some virtual copy of himself into her computer brain thing and oh my God I sound like a nutjob.” 

“Welcome to the club,” I replied, reaching out to squeeze Wren’s shoulder briefly before leaving the girl to walk over to where Alloy herself was. “Seriously, welcome to the club. There’s a lot of stuff to talk about. And I will, I promise. You’ve earned some answers. And maybe I should have talked about it with you before. But I just… it’s hard for me to get into all that. I’m sorry. You deserve more of an explanation than you’ve gotten so far. Especially after you went in there with us. I really don’t know what we would have done without your help.” 

“Damn straight,” Pack put in. “You were the MVP in there. So if he doesn’t treat you right and start giving you answers, I can talk Blackjack into a really good signing bonus for you.”

Letting out a clearly exaggerated sigh, That-A-Way protested, “Seriously? Could you at least wait until I’m not in the room before you start trying to recruit for your criminal boss?” 

“Sorry, babe,” Pack replied casually and without any actual regret, “You know what they say. Always be hustling. Especially when your boss offers such attractive bonuses for anyone who recruits a good Touched to begin with.” Slyly, she added, “Speaking of which, do you have any idea how much bank you and I could make if I bring you over to the shady side? Huh, huh? We could have a lot of fuuuun.” She intentionally and pointedly drawled out the last word. 

Visibly flushing a little behind that mask, Way shook her head. “Sorry, not interested in anything Blackjack has to offer. You’re just gonna have to do without. Why don’t you try robbing another bank to make up for it,” she added while rolling her eyes. Even as the words were out of her mouth, however, the girl was already frantically trying to verbally back up. “I mean, not that I–” 

It was too late, as Pack raised both hands triumphantly over her head, playing that whole thing up for all it was worth. “And there it is! You all heard it. I have carte blanche to rob a bank, given straight from a prestigious and, dare I say, truly stunning member of the Detroit Minority.” 

“Sorry,” Way retorted while giving a dismissive wave of her hand. “You forgot to get it in writing, so I guess you’re screwed and you’ll just have to go to jail like the other bank robbers. Oh, I know, how about you have a total redemption moment and come over to the sunny side?”  

Pack, in turn, shot back, “Tell you what, as soon as the kid over there joins you guys, so will I.” She was nodding in my direction, of course. Considering how clear I’d made my unwillingness to do that, as well as (at least partially) why, Pack obviously felt safe making the bet.

Before they could banter back and forth any more, Alloy abruptly blurted, “Oh shit, I need to get home.” She was looking at her phone before wincing while glancing up. “Sorry, I didn’t realize what time it was. We were in there for longer than I thought. I umm, I really have to go, before Mom has a coronary. Uh, thanks for inviting me to that… crazy thing, I guess?” Looking to me, she added, “I really do want answers about what’s really going on and all that. And about what that guy wants and how he’s ‘trying to end death’ or whatever. But you know, Mom comes first.”

“Oh, believe me,” I assured her immediately, “I know exactly what you mean. And yeah, we’ll definitely talk later, I promise. Just go do what you need to. And Alloy, thanks. Seriously, I wasn’t just saying it before. I really don’t know what we would have done in there without your help.” 

Obviously embarrassed by the attention, she made a few noises about it not being a big deal and headed for the elevator to leave. Just as it started to descend, she called out that she would text me sometime the next day so we could meet up again and have that conversation.

Once she was gone, the three of us who were left gave Wren an actual update about what had happened. Alloy and Pack had given her the CliffsNotes, but they had been waiting for us to get into the whole story. So, over the next few minutes, we explained what was going to happen. Unsurprisingly, as soon as we got to the part about needing to find another body, the Tech-Touched girl was immediately apprehensive. Her head shook, insisting she couldn’t build anything like that. But I assured her that we already had some leads about how to possibly find one of Paige’s father’s prototype storage places. All she would have to do was look it over, and possibly help us compare it to Paige’s body to see if we could figure out what was different. 

“Plus,” Way pointed out, “since Raige isn’t actively fighting her anymore, she can probably talk you through some of this stuff herself. You know, with that communication thing you built. Hell, if it’s about getting her own body working, I bet Raige would help out too. You three could all collaborate to figure it out. You’d just be their hands. You know, in a manner of speaking.” 

That calmed the girl down a bit, and eventually Pack said she needed to go as well. After a little more teasing back and forth about what kind of crimes she was off to commit, she headed out. Meanwhile, Wren was yawning and trying to hide it, leaving Fred in the corner of the room giving us meaningful looks. He’d been downstairs before, but came up as Pack was on her way out. Now, the man was basically doing everything up to pantomiming that we should leave so he could get Wren to go to sleep. Yeah, after all the work she’d done to get that machine working in such a short time, the kid definitely needed to get some rest. Even if she was trying to hide exactly how exhausted she was. Any minute now, her head was probably going to hit the table. 

Without even needing to look at each other, That-A-Way and I both said we needed to get out of there. We thanked the kid one more time before taking the elevator down and heading out. Both of us were completely silent the whole way through the store, and even once we got outside. Together, we walked silently through the alley behind the shop, before Way caught my arm and looked meaningfully to a nearby roof. When I nodded, she teleported us up there. 

Once we were on the roof, the girl looked around to make sure we were alone before taking off the mask. As her hair and face shifted to normal, she stared intently at me. It looked like she was taking a moment to try to find the right words. While she did, I slowly pulled the helmet off and set it on top of the nearby air conditioning unit. Then I took off the mask. And boy did that ever feel weird. It made me feel naked, standing there with my face exposed. Finally, I plucked the Bluetooth device out of my ear and put it, and the mask, next to the helmet. And then I just stood there, looking at the other girl in silence for what felt like an eternity. There were several times that one or both of us started to say something, before stopping. Neither of us knew exactly what to say. 

Finally, I let out a long breath and looked to her while trying to clamp down on the nerves that were making my heart want to beat its way out of my chest. There was no point in holding back right now. Amber knew who I was. She was way too close to things for me to push her off, and quite frankly she’d earned the truth. So, that was exactly what I was going to give her. “Okay,” I announced, “I’m gonna tell you what happened the night I got my powers. And everything that came after that. I’ve only told the whole story once before, and that was to Izzy.” 

Amber blinked at that, hesitantly asking, “You mean Izzy really does know about you? How… how much does she know, exactly? And for how long?” 

“All of it,” I informed her. “I told her everything. And she found out the night we had that whole thing with Paige in the first place. When I got home after all that, I guess I wasn’t really thinking too clearly. I ended up going up on the roof, and she was already up there. She saw me use my paint and I saw her floating. That kind of forced us to talk about everything.” 

“Like you’re gonna talk about everything now?” Amber pressed, folding both arms as she watched me intently. 

“Yeah, like–wait a minute, she knows who you are, doesn’t she?” I suddenly realized. “She–boy, she really is good at keeping secrets.” After processing that realization, I shook my head before focusing on the matter at hand. “Okay. Well, here goes. 

“It started when I was pretending to drive one of my family’s cars, and my brother came into the garage…” 

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In Like Flynn 17-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, I had set out to get this guy’s attention and to distract him from what he’d been about to do. And I was going to go ahead and call myself wildly successful at those goals. The guy completely abandoned the orb, spinning around and practically turning into a blur as he got right up to where I was. His hand grabbed my throat and squeezed as he stared into my face, his eyes wide. “You? You?! No, no this is a trick. You changed your form to look like her. No, wait. How… wait…” As his confusion and uncertainty grew, his grip around my throat tightened. Out of the corner of my eye while choking, I could see That-A-Way staring at me in silent, gaping shock. I guess finding out I was actually a girl, and someone she had probably heard of at that, was really taking a lot out of her. I couldn’t even imagine what was going through her mind. 

Unfortunately, I also didn’t have time to really think about that. All of my attention was on the fact that this guy was choking me. Not that he could really hurt me. At worst, I’d be kicked out of the simulation. But that would leave him alone here with the still-trapped and powerless Way, and his two ‘daughters,’ whom he was still trying to erase.

Yeah, I couldn’t let that happen. Luckily, he’d been too distracted to notice as I snapped the last of the wires before he could summon more. With a grunted, “Let’s kick this off,” I lashed out with my foot, the blow enhanced by an intricate purple dragon image running up my leg and over my back. It took the man in the chest and knocked him across to the far side of the room, where he crashed into one of my old paintings. 

The wires were trying to wrap around me again, but I’d already painted a green rabbit over my back and dove out of the way. Landing near Way, I grabbed the wires that were holding her and ripped them out before hitting the girl herself with a quick shot of purple and green. 

She reacted instantly, shoving me out of the way with her new strength just before our angry new friend’s fist passed through the air where my head had just been. He literally punched through the wall. Yeah, he obviously didn’t quite have godlike control over this place, but he had certainly been able to give himself plenty of advantages. 

“Your parents ruined everything!” he snapped at me while blocking a punch from Way. Almost contemptuously, he tossed her away from him. All of his attention was on me. “Their idiotic and pointless war against your grandfather destroyed my chance to change the world! I could have saved everyone! Everyone!” He was spinning to punch at me, and I barely ducked before his fist shattered a metal statue that had been sitting on my dresser. 

Hitting him with two shots of yellow from both hands, I dove between his legs and rolled while retorting, “Because you definitely come off as the altruistic sort!” Before he could turn, his movements slowed by the paint, I hoisted myself up on both hands from the floor and kicked out with my feet to hit the small of his back. Just before impact, I renewed the purple enhancement with the image of an anthropomorphic dog holding a baseball bat. 

The kick landed hard enough to knock the man to the floor. But he didn’t stay there long before lunging back to his feet. He grabbed my dresser and spun with it, lifting the whole thing up before swinging it at me like a baseball bat. A very large and awkward baseball bat. Oh yeah, and he was screaming like a totally deranged maniac. That was fun.

Luckily, he was still slowed down slightly. So, I launched myself upward in a flip before planting my feet against the ceiling. Extending both hands from above the man, I fired two shots of red. One missed, but the other hit, albeit just barely. It clipped his shoulder. Quickly, I activated both, so that he was yanked down toward the floor where the first shot had struck. 

Way was back on her feet by that point, and I managed to hit her with purple and orange paints just before the son of a bitch bounced back to his feet and grabbed my arm. A yelp escaped me, as he tried to crush it in his grip. I felt it start to snap as he yanked me off the ceiling and held me dangling there. 

“Let her go!” Way blurted, using the strength I had given her to grab my desk chair and hurl it overhand at the guy. But he was too quick, twisting right out of the way just in time without ever losing his grip on me. Just as the chair went past his head, he caught it with his free hand and sent it right back to the other girl, who had to dive out of the way. 

I tried to kick at him, but it didn’t seem to do anything, even with a bit of purple. It wasn’t enough. The best I could do was give myself an orange pumpkin image that made it harder for him to snap my arm. Even then, I wasn’t sure how long it would hold out. 

Wait, I was being stupid. Quickly, I painted that part of my arm pink. His tight grip immediately squished it, but it didn’t matter. I dropped out of his hand and back to the floor, with a narrow tendril of pink connecting one part of my arm to the other, which was dangling from his fist. My arm was basically stretched and squished like silly putty. And oh boy did he look confused. 

“Thanks!” I chirped, “I’ve been trying to work that kink out of my arm for weeks!” Even as I said that, I was painting my entire lower half purple for lashing out with a kick that took the man in the gut. That one finally made him stumble away from me, and freed my arm. I dismissed the pink paint, and my limb quickly schlurped right back to normal. Which was still disgusting and weird, of course. But I didn’t have time to worry about that. Instead, I used the time I had left with purple paint to spin, grabbing my flat screen television off the wall before coming back around to slam the whole thing into his face. The impact knocked him backward against my bedroom door. Then I reared back to hurl the thing at him. Unfortunately, he caught it in one hand and used the other to snap it all in half before tossing both sides away. His voice was a deep, angry growl. “This… is… my world!” As he said that, the floor changed into what amounted to pudding under my feet and Way’s as she pushed herself back up. Both of us stumbled and fell forward, our hands ending up trapped in the floor as well just as it turned solid again. I strained, using a purple elephant on my chest, but I couldn’t break free. Not quickly, anyway. 

Pushing away from my door, Pittman snarled, “I built these environments. I control them, me. I built her. I made her flesh and blood and I made her cybernetics. I made everything about her. She is mine. Nothing, no one is going to take her away from me. Not even her. I am–” 

“Hey, Dad.” It was Paige, the words coming even as she lunged away from the orb. In an instant, she had caught hold of the man’s arm and shoved it back against the wall on one side of the doorway. “Why don’t you–” 

“Shut the fuck up!” Her words were finished by Raige, who joined her twin by lunging over to grab the man’s other arm, holding it pinned against the other side of the doorway. 

“Wha–what are you doing?!” Pittman demanded. He was clearly straining against their grips as they worked to hold him in place. It took both of them thanks to the strength he had given himself in this world, and it was obvious that they wouldn’t be able to hold him for long. “I created you. I’m your father! You do what I tell you to and I tell you to let… me… go. Help me deal with our enemy!” His gaze was locked on me, hatred filling his eyes in a way that made him seem almost rabid. 

The two identical blondes exchanged looks. Even now, I could tell there was little love lost between them. There was definitely still tension. But they had joined up to work together against their common enemy. Their father was the problem, and they weren’t going to let him control them. 

“You want help, Dad?” Paige managed through gritted teeth, still doing everything she could to hold his straining arm in place. 

“You seem hungry,” Raige put in, equally straining. “Maybe… we could offer you… a snack.” 

Paige finished with, “It’s not a Snickers. But… how about… a Mars Bar?” 

And at that moment, the sound of shattering glass, wood, and part of my entire wall filled the air where my balcony and sliding glass door were. Or where they used to be. As my gaze snapped that way, I caught a glimpse of some kind of high-tech motorcycle thing made out of Alloy’s gold, silver, and black marbles crashing through everything to reach my room. But it wasn’t Alloy riding it. It was Mars Bar himself. Well, he wasn’t controlling it or anything, of course. But the big guy was definitely perched on the contraption as it barreled through my room, right between where Way and I were still trapped. 

Pittman barely had time for his eyes to widen before the motorcycle-riding lizard-bear collided with him, right where Paige and Raige were holding him pinned in front of the door. His arms were torn free by the impact, as the man himself was sent out into the hallway beyond, and then through the next wall, with Mars Bar right on top of them, snarling and roaring the whole time. 

“Guys!” I blurted in shock. “Are you–”  

Tossing her father’s (completely bloodless and clean) arm to the floor, Paige looked at me. As she did so, the floor pushed my hands and legs up so I could escape. Nearby, Raige did the same for That-A-Way. “It’s done,” Paige said flatly. “The invaders are being pushed out and erased.” 

“Yeah,” Raige confirmed in a grunt while stepping away from her twin as though she couldn’t stand being that close any more. “And by the time our dad can even hope to pull himself out of that…” She glanced over her shoulder, where the sounds of Mars Bar going to town on the bellowing man were still audible. “He’ll be erased too. Just takes another minute.” 

“Not our dad,” Paige muttered. “Not even the same sort of individual detail as the two of us. Just a quick copy of his mind. The real thing is still out there.” Looking my way, she added, “He didn’t have any kind of ongoing connection to it. He won’t have any idea what happened in here. Or what his other self saw.”  

Before I could say anything, That-A-Way was standing in front of me. She seemed to be staring right into my soul. “Cassidy…” the girl managed in a low voice that seemed equal parts awed and confused. “Cassidy Evans. You–” 

“The others are coming,” Paige interrupted. She stooped a bit, grabbing my helmet and tossing it to me. “I don’t think you’re ready for all of that.” 

Gripping the helmet tightly, I looked at Way for a moment before putting it on. “We’ll talk about it later,” I muttered. “I promise.” Not that I had any idea what I was going to say to the other girl now that she knew who I was, but I’d think of something. I had to. She knew so much of the truth now, and a lot of what she didn’t know, she could probably put together with a few minutes to think. Nothing I could do about that now except tell her the truth when we had time. 

I’d barely fixed the helmet in place before Pack and Alloy came floating up on a board made out of the latter’s remaining (white) marble. They stepped off and entered the room, looking around. 

“So,” Pack asked in an almost casual voice. “What happened? Did we win?” 

As if in answer to that, Mars Bar came lumbering back through the hole his flight through the doorway had created. He looked extremely pleased with himself and sat back on his haunches with a grunt. A moment later, the three other marbles came flying in over his head and rejoined Alloy, bouncing around her head like excited puppies showing off that they had done a good job.

“He’s gone,” Paige announced in a quiet voice that was barely more than a whisper. “We erased him. That shadow version, anyway.” 

Clearing my throat, I gave a short nod. “I guess what she’s saying is yes. 

“We definitely won.” 

********

Despite me saying that, things weren’t exactly completely solved at that point, obviously. Raige had worked with us to save herself from being erased, and to stop that copy of their dad after he betrayed her. But everything wasn’t sunshine and rainbows with her. She still insisted that she was her own person and wasn’t just going to lay in the back of Paige’s mind doing nothing. 

Yeah, it turned out that she hadn’t only focused on erasing the invaders while they were connected to the core together. Raige had also taken the time to link herself to it so she couldn’t be erased or controlled the same way. An insurance policy, she called it. Just to keep everyone honest. She and Paige now held identical power over the system. 

“I’m telling you,” I insisted about twenty minutes later, “give us a chance and we’ll find a way to help you.” We had left the virtual version of my home and returned to the farm place (the cowboy rancher people were there, but they left us alone and went about their pretend duties). 

“And like I said,” Raige shot back, “I’m giving you a chance. I’ll play nice in here and not attack my twinsy. I’m not even spilling anyone’s secrets. But I want my own body. I want my chance to be myself and live my life the way I want to. And quite frankly, I don’t trust anybody, not even you people. Dad made it perfectly clear that the only person I can trust is me. I can’t depend on anyone else unless I have leverage. So until you figure out how to get me what I want, my leverage is that this body stays put. If I don’t control it, she doesn’t control it. But hey, get me a new body and everything‘s hunky-dory. Can’t be too hard for Team Super-Competent, right?”

“If you just sat down and shut up and let me move my own body,” Paige snapped, “I could help them get one for you.”

“Yeeeeah,” Raige drawled casually, “but there’s that whole not trusting any of you thing I mentioned. Kind of a sticking point when it comes to giving up any power I’ve got. So no, I think we’ll let your friends handle this. Come on, Paige, have a little faith in someone else. I mean, isn’t that basically what you were telling me to do? And you’re supposed to be the good one.”

Alloy spoke up. “So, maybe this is a really dumb question or whatever, but how exactly are we supposed to find a robot body for this chick to move into? I mean, I don’t exactly have one of those in my basement. I don’t even have a basement, cause I live in an apartment. But you get the point.”

“Can’t just be any robot body,” Raige noted as she created a tennis ball in one hand and began to toss it up and down. “It’s gotta be one like this. That’s what my system is compatible with. I need another one of Dad’s orbs, and a body to go with it.”

Staring at her for a moment, I managed a fairly controlled, “And how exactly are we supposed to grab one of those? I know, we’ll book a flight to Breakwater, find your dad, ask him to pretty please build you a new orb and body, and then come back with it.”

The twins exchanged pointed glances before Paige sighed. “There is another slight possibility. Our father had multiple prototype labs all over the city. When… when he was captured, they took or destroyed almost everything he had.  But, it’s possible they didn’t find all of the secret storage rooms in those labs. It’s all been locked up and sealed away for years, but if you can find one of those labs with a prototype in it, you could probably get the kid out there to fix it up. Maybe with a little help.”

Biting my lip, I slowly nodded. “Sounds pretty slim, but I guess at least it’s something. How exactly do we get to these labs to find out if there’s anything left? Can you give us some addresses?”

Paige shook her head. “It’s not that simple. I didn’t even know about those places until… until we interfaced.” She glanced briefly at the identical figure nearby. “And she doesn’t know exactly where they are either. But, she knows where the addresses are. In a secret base under the mall, controlled by you-know-who.”

“Uhhh.” Alloy raised a hand. “I don’t? I don’t know who. What the hell is going on? Secret base under the mall?”

After blinking a few times, I shook off my surprise before muttering to the other girl that we would explain later. Yeah, by that point, I was pretty sure I was going to have to bring her all the way in. Well, at least as far as the Ministry stuff went. But right this second wasn’t the time for it.

Instead, I focused on Paige and Raige. “Yeah, we know the place you’re talking about. We were even working on ways to get in there. But it’s gonna take a while.”

Stretching her arms up lazily over her head, Raige replied, “Well, I guess it’s a good thing we’re both playing nice in here in the meantime, isn’t it? Go to the secret base and get on their computer systems. Look up any files under our dad’s name and then check out the addresses. Hopefully, you’ll find something useful.”

There was a lot I wanted to say, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t exactly blame her for wanting to make sure that we had no choice but to help her. So, with a heavy sigh I waved a hand. “Yeah, we’ll figure it out. But we’re also going to be checking in. So make sure you’re really playing nice. Just, go to your own separate corners or whatever if you have to. No more fighting or trying to kill each other.”

They both agreed, and Paige and I exchanged looks once more. There was other stuff I wanted to say, but couldn’t in front of everyone here. Maybe another time. Besides, it wasn’t like I had a shortage of important conversations that I needed to have soon.

“Okie dokie,” Pack put in. “Well, it’s been really interesting, but if we’re all done with this shit, I’d like to get back into the real world. I don’t even know what time it is, but I’m pretty sure I’m fucking famished. Plus, I need to check on Riddles and the others.” As she said that, the girl was rubbing Mars Bar’s side affectionately while he made a sound that was similar to purring.

With that, she spoke the code to eject from the simulation, both her and the lizard-bear vanishing. 

Alloy was next after a brief hesitation, her image fading away as she removed herself back to the real world. 

Which, of course, left me standing there with Paige, Raige, and That-A-Way. All of whom now knew who I was. Because every time I thought my life had reached the peak of complication, I was proven wrong. 

Taking a breath, I looked to Way. “Okay, obviously you recognized me. Which means we’ve got a lot to talk about.”

Before I could say anything else, Paige spoke up. “You’re gonna tell her, right?” But she wasn’t addressing me. Her attention was on Way. 

“You mean you—” The other girl stopped herself and shook her head. “Of course you know. Who am I kidding?”

With a sigh, she turned back to me. Her hand rose to her mask and she started to take it off.  As she did so, her hair began to darken from blonde to black, while several distinct features of her face shifted just a little bit. 

“You’re right,” Amber O’Connell announced, “We really do have a lot to talk about.”

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In Like Flynn 17-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Paige, the real Paige that was, turned to me with an exasperated look. “You can’t seriously think that you can trust her. Come on, Paintball, don’t be naive. She was sent by my dad to erase me, to replace me. Do you really think she’ll just give up on that? She’s like his golden child or whatever. She just wants to get all of us to lower our guards so she can find a way to take over again and prove that she’s worth keeping around. The whole thing is a trick. I bet she’s actually in control of those guys after all, and would’ve made something else happen to stop them from killing her if none of you had. She’s playing games with you, with all of us.” 

Offering her a helpless shrug, I pointed out, “She didn’t have to reveal who she was. She could’ve kept that going. Why switch to a different mind game like that unless they really were trying to kill her? Now we know which one she is and which one you are.” Through that whole bit, I was silently reminding myself that Paige really was the one on my side. Actually, come to think of it, being face to face with two Paiges like this was basically straight out of my nightmares. Or it would’ve been not that long ago. It was still a whole thing, and separating ‘good Paige’ from ‘bad Paige’ was a real mindblower just for ‘good Paige’ existing at all.

Maybe that made it easier for me to accept that this other Paige was possibly telling the truth. If I had to shut down my suspicions of the regular Paige herself so much just to accept that one of them could be on my side, I might as well accept that the other one was telling the truth now.

Beside me, Alloy piped up with, “I mean, it sounds to me like she’s just trying to save her own skin, right? Err, whatever the digital version of that is, I guess. Point is, she doesn’t wanna die, so we can all work together to keep the ‘not dying’ thing going for both of you. Then work from there, right? ” 

From where she was standing next to Mars Bar, Pack put in, “I hate to point out the obvious, but we really don’t have time to bat this back-and-forth. If those guys are trying to reformat this chick’s entire harddrive, we better get there before they do. You can bitch and argue about the rest of the shit later.”

Way was nodding. “She’s right, we don’t have time for any of this. Can you two get us to the core? And how do we stop these guys permanently in the first place?”

Green (Not-Paige) gave a feral smirk. “Control of this place is kind of split between both of us playing tug-of-war. Between that and Dad‘s invasion force, we don’t exactly have a firm grip on anything. But if you help us get to the core and let both of us plug into it, I’m pretty sure we can shut them out. You know, working together.” Even as she said that, the girl was giving a sly look toward her doppelgänger. 

Paige looked like she had a few choice words to say about that, but Way interrupted. “Great, we’ll figure out the rest later. Let’s just do this before we end up losing both of you.”

“Oh good,” Green drawled lazily. “I love working together. We can all be friends who keep each other‘s secrets.” She wasn’t looking at me when she said that, but she really didn’t need to. I knew exactly what she was saying. 

“So, sis,” she added with a humorless smile, “you wanna take the shortcut?” As she asked that, the girl was extending her hand that way. “With all this interference from Daddy‘s invasion, it’s going to take both of us to control a shift like that instead of just randomly jumping from place to place.”

Again, it was obvious that the real Paige had a lot of things she wanted to say. But even as her mouth opened, I saw her head cock a little to the side as though listening to something. Whatever she heard or sensed must have been pretty bad, because her mouth snapped shut and she simply gave a short nod before reaching out to grab her twin’s hand. 

“You all might wanna get close,” Green murmured. “Wouldn’t want to accidentally leave anyone behind.”

Still unsure if we could trust this girl any further than Wren could’ve thrown her without any invention assistance, all of us squeezed in close. I felt a weird heat rippling through the air around us while both identical figures glared at one another. It really looked as though they would just as soon rip each other‘s throats out than work together. But, somehow they restrained themselves. 

The air grew even hotter over the next few seconds, to the point of almost being painful. It never quite got that far, but it was definitely uncomfortable. I briefly wondered if this was actually a trick after all and we were all about to be incinerated. 

But, with a sudden flash of light and an abrupt, dramatic twisting in my stomach, we were suddenly somewhere completely different. Different, and yet also incredibly familiar. 

“Wha—” Alloy was looking around before her gaze centered on the massive structure in front of us. “What happened? Did the mansion just change?”

“It’s a different mansion,” That-A-Way informed her in a voice that sounded just as confused, even if for other reasons. “Haven’t you seen all the billboards and magazine covers?” Turning to face the enormous building that I had been silently staring at the whole time, she quietly noted, “That’s the Evanses’ place.”

Mars Bar made a confused grumbling sound, and Pack nodded. “He’s right, what the fuck is going on? What’s with the grand tour of all the rich people places? What do the Evanses have to do with any of this?” 

It was Green who answered, without even glancing in my direction. “Dad always wanted to be them. Always wanted to be even more successful and powerful. Of course he made our core be the center of their power. Plus, you know, the man wants to cure death. You don’t get as far as he has with that goal without being pretty arrogant. Putting the center of operations in the house that represents a couple of the most successful people in the state? That just makes sense.”

“Wait, I’m sorry,” Alloy managed, “did you just say he wants to cure death?”

“It’s not that simple,” I informed her flatly before turning my attention back to the house. My house, or a simulation of it. This was all getting way too close to home, quite literally. “So, we get in there and get you guys plugged into the core thing, whatever that is. But where are the invaders? Tell me they’re not already inside.” 

Paige shook her head, turning to look down toward the front gate (where I half-expected to see familiar guards patrolling). “We took a shortcut. But they’re coming. They’ll be here any minute.”

Cracking her neck (was that even necessary), Green casually asked, “So who’s going inside to help us get plugged in, and make sure we don’t kill each other? Cuz the rest of you are gonna have to stay out here and make sure those guys don’t interrupt. This could take a few minutes, and something tells me they’ll be hitting this place pretty hard as soon as they figure out what we’re doing.”  

From the look on her face, Paige wanted to argue just for the sake of arguing, but she clearly knew her twin was right. With the faintest nod, she muttered, “They’ll come from that way, but you’ll have to stop them from spreading out. We need someone in the house watching our backs just in case, but most of you should stay out here.” 

Yeah, it wasn’t even a question really, and I didn’t need any further prompting than the very subtle glance she sent to me. Immediately, I announced, “I’ll go in with Paige and…” Trailing off, I looked toward the other girl. “I’ve been calling you Green, but do you–” 

“I was gonna be Roxanne,” she interrupted, sounding thoughtful. “You know, dear old Daddy’s real daughter. But since he’s decided to be a giant fucking jackass and try to erase me just for taking a few extra minutes, maybe I don’t wanna carry on that legacy for him. I’m not Roxanne, and I’m certainly not Paige.” Those words came in a snarl as she looked to the girl in question. “Why don’t you call me something in between. How about… Raige.” A smirk crossed her face briefly. “Yeah. That sounds good.” 

“Are you sure we can’t just call you Edgy McEdgerson?” Alloy piped up, before ducking back with a squeak when the girl in question squinted at her. 

Waving that off, I shook my head. “Whatever. I’ll go in with Paige and Raige. You guys stay here and protect the house. We’ll get this done as soon as we can.” 

That-A-Way looked like she wanted to object, raising a hand. But in the end, she sighed rather than argue. “Just get it done. I’ll save my questions for later.” 

“Yeah, and believe me, there will be questions,” Pack put in, resting a hand against Mars Bar while holding a gun that she had taken off one of the invading troops in the other hand. 

After taking a very brief moment to assure Alloy that she would be fine and all she had to do was stay with the others and watch their backs, I turned to the two identical blondes who were standing several feet away from each other. The tension between them was palpable. It was very clear that the only reason they weren’t actively attacking one another was that they both needed each other to survive. I had no doubt that things were going to get complicated again once the invaders were eliminated. But we would have to deal with that later. One thing at a time. 

To that end, I walked right between them and moved toward the front door. Once there, I sprayed pink paint against the front door in a circle wide enough to put my hand through, then painted one arm purple so I could punch through that pink bit easily. If this place was built to be anything like the real house, kicking the door in wouldn’t have worked. The door in the real world was built to stand up to much worse than that. 

This way, I was able to punch through the little hole and unlock the door from the other side before opening it. Turning back to the other two, I gestured. “After you. So, where’s this core thing? You guys are going to have to help me get through this freaking maze. Wait, tell me they don’t actually have a hedge maze inside the house. Cuz I heard a rumor about that.” 

By that point, we were inside. Using her foot to idly kick the door shut again, Raige snorted with amusement. “Good try at keeping your identity secret, babe. Have you been practicing?” 

“Shut up,” Paige snapped. She took my arm and pulled, keeping herself between me and her twin while starting to stalk through the front foyer, still addressing the other girl. “Don’t talk to her. Don’t even look at her. You’re the one who wanted to kill her for Dad.” 

“And yet,” Raige pointed out while trailing behind us, “you’re still the one who treated her like shit for years. All that time in school being a bitch to her, making fun of how she looks, taunting her for not being classically beautiful like dear Mommy, or even the ‘guys panting at our poster on the wall’ example of sheer hotness that we are.” In an eager tone, she added, “Gee, I wonder what kind of complicated feelings she has about that whole thing.”  

Growling under my breath despite myself, I snapped, “She can talk for herself. Both of you stop. This seriously isn’t getting us anywhere, and I’m not in the mood to talk about any of it. Not with either of you. So let’s just find that core thing and get you plugged in so we can get on with all of it. Tell me you know where it is, because I think we all know that this place is too big to search room to room.”  

“We know where it is,” Paige informed me, already heading for the stairs. She had let go of my arm, but was still making sure that she stayed between me and her other self. There was definitely very little trust there. After a moment, she added, “It’s in your room. In your closet.” 

Sounding downright chipper, Raige put in, “It’s in the spot where old Paige here was hiding while she watched you get your memory wiped. She thinks if she’d done something different that day, things would have been better. If she’d stopped them from wiping your memory, or gotten you out of there and taken you somewhere… whatever. That’s where so much of her regrets and fears all boil together. So, it’s a natural place for our core.” 

My core,” Paige snapped a bit testily, giving an icy look that way before starting up the stairs at a trot. “And it doesn’t matter why it’s there. We just need to get to it and do this.” 

Halfway to my room, we all heard shouting start outside. Right, the invaders were here. Time to get on with this. We exchanged very brief looks before breaking into a run. Together, the three of us sprinted the rest of the way up the stairs to the right floor,  and continued down the hall to the wing where my room was. As we approached the door, I put purple paint on my foot before lashing out to kick the whole thing in, not waiting to open it. Sure enough, the door flew off, admitting us into a reasonably accurate facsimile of my bedroom… five years earlier. Yeah, the real thing had changed a decent bit in that time, but this version was clearly taken from back then.

Oh, and there was one other pretty major difference. My closet door was open to reveal a glowing silver ball about two feet across with scattered orange and red lights flashing across it. It was just hovering there in mid-air, giving off a low humming noise. 

“Time to plug in,” Raige announced. “And boy, isn’t it weird that we all keep ending up in situations like this? We plug in, turn vulnerable, and have to depend on our little friend Cassidy to protect us.”

Instead of verbally responding, Paige just gave her a shove toward the orb before looking back at me. “Be careful. If they get inside they’ll come straight here. They won’t bother attacking us, they’ll just try to destroy the core itself.”

Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I gave a short nod. “I’ll cover you, I promise. Just do what you need to do. And Paige… I know what it’s like to have to work with someone who tried to hurt you so much, no matter why they were doing it.” Meeting her gaze, I added, “Don’t let that get in the way of doing what you need to do for all of us to get through this.”

With that, I moved back to the broken door and peeked out, looking one way down the hall, then the other. I could hear the fighting going on in the distance through a few open windows. God, I wanted to be down there. I wanted to help the others. It felt wrong to just stand here and depend on them to do the bulk of the work out there without me. But I couldn’t abandon these two. If they didn’t finish their work with the core, the fight outside didn’t matter. 

So, hard as it was, I kept my position. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw the two identical blonde figures standing with their backs to me, one hand from each on the orb. They were clearly interfacing with it, or whatever the term was. I just hoped it wouldn’t take that long, because from the sounds of things outside, this was a full-scale assault. I heard gunfire, shouting, and a lot of deep roars from Mars Bar. It was clearly getting nasty out there, and it was probably just going to get worse. 

The next few minutes were incredibly tense, to say the least. I kept watching and listening for anyone to breach the house, but they were clearly doing a pretty bang-up job out there, because no one was making it in. For a brief moment, I stupidly let myself think we would actually pull this off without bigger complications. Yeah, I know, how could I be so dumb?

As if to immediately prove me wrong, the sound of shattering glass suddenly filled the air behind me. Whirling that way, I saw a figure leaping through the window to land smoothly on the carpet. 

He wasn’t dressed like a soldier, or anything like that. He was about average height, in his late thirties with dark blond hair and an intense look. There was also something incredibly familiar about him, something right on the tip of my tongue. 

“Sit down,” he snapped in my direction. Abruptly, a series of wires tore their way out of the nearby wall and wrapped around my elbows, ankles, and stomach to yank me back and pin me next to a virtual recreation of my own dresser. I was trapped in an awkward position, with one hand pinned against the nearby wall and the other bent up over my head. And these wires were strong. Painting a purple ninja across my back, I focused on breaking them. But it was going to take a few seconds. 

Before I could get anywhere with that, Way suddenly appeared in the room, having teleported in. She went to grab the man, but he pivoted out of her reach and lashed out with a baton that suddenly appeared in his hand. There was a spark of electricity or something, and she hit the floor with a yelp. Rolling over, she went back to her feet, only to stop short, blurting, “Wha–I can’t use my powers.” 

“Think you can fight me in here?” the man snapped. “Me?! I built this world.” With that, he waved a hand, and several more wires tore their way out of the wall to wrap around That-A-Way and yank her back next to my old bed. 

Eyes widening at that, I managed, “Paige’s dad?” 

“It’s Benjamin Pittman,” he informed both of us, brushing himself off. “Or, well, a reasonable facsimile, anyway. Let’s just say I didn’t leave anything to chance when it came to making sure my child would be brought back into line. Just took the automated code I had running some time to build… me.” He waved a hand to himself. “A virtual version of my own mind. You know what they say, if you want something done right, do it yourself.” With that, he started to turn to where Paige and Raige were. 

“Wait!” Way blurted, clearly trying to buy time for them. “What the hell do you think you’re going to do, erase both of them and then what? You’re going to take over the body? How far do you think you’ll get like that? And seriously, there are so many different levels of fucking creepy in that.” 

“She’s right,” I pointed out, “this whole thing is pointless. Just let them go.” 

The man looked for a moment like he might rise to that bait and argue with us. Unfortunately, he decided against it, simply shaking his head. “You know what? I don’t particularly care what either of you think. You don’t matter. You’re nobody.” 

He was already turning back to where the other two were, taking a step that way while my heart beat its way out of my chest. I was straining at the wires, and had even started painting them pink to snap them more easily. But more appeared to entangle me every time I got free of one. I couldn’t get out of this in time. I couldn’t point my hand toward that guy, not with one arm pinned against the wall and the other bent up over my head. I was as trapped as That-A-Way, both of us struggling uselessly to free ourselves. In a moment, both Paige and her twin were going to be wiped out of existence! I had to do something! I had to–I couldn’t–what could I–

“Wait!” It was my turn to shout that word, though that time the man didn’t even slow down. He was reaching out toward the core. But I wasn’t done. “You think I don’t matter to you?! I do!” 

Without looking my way, the man started to lay his hand against that orb, his voice dismissive. “You’re nobody.” 

Painting as much of my body purple as I could, I tore at the wire holding my arm above my head. It snapped enough to let me grab my helmet. In one motion, I tore it up and off, along with the mask, tossing both of them aside to land at Way’s feet before speaking in my normal voice.

“Was I a nobody when you told Paige to kill me?” 

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In Like Flynn 17-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so I had two main issues to deal with right now. First, we had to figure out which Paige was the real one. Which was bound to be all sorts of fun, because that sort of thing was always such a blast in the movies. And second, I had to figure out how I was going to stop the fake one from blurting out all my secrets the second we knew who she was. It might look suspicious if I just kept putting black paint on her to make her stop talking. If she was just a virus program that copied Paige’s form, we could delete her or something, right? Wait, would that be like killing? If Paige was a real person, what about a program that copied her? Was–what were we supposed t–yeah. That raised a whole new giant and incredibly complicated mess of questions. 

Apparently everyone else was just as confused as me, because no one said anything for a few long, incredibly tense seconds following Pack asking how we were going to figure out who was who. We all just stood there, gazes snapping back and forth between one another. I could practically hear the dramatic, tension-filled music in the background. 

Finally, it was, well, one of the Paiges who broke the silence. “How did you all get in here?” Her voice was brittle, like she was right on the edge of really freaking out. Unfortunately, I had no way of knowing if that was because she was the real Paige who had been forced to fight for her life for several days, or the fake one who was about to have her chance to kill and replace the real one taken away from her. Too bad my powers didn’t include some kind of truth-forcing paint. 

“It’s a Matrix thing, or a Tron thing,” Way replied before I could speak up. “Whatever. Tech girl linked us into your computer and sent us in here to help you. They… they said you sent a message asking for help. Or the real one did, whoever you are.” 

Of course, both identical girls immediately declared that they were the real one. Unsurprisingly, there was no way to tell which of them was lying. This whole thing was going to be just as complicated as I’d thought. I had spent the past couple minutes frantically trying to think of how to deal with this, but had come up utterly blank. 

Also, we were all still standing partway in water. I was up to my knees, while the others were only up to their shins or so. Because on top of everything else, I was still really freaking short. 

While I was still focused on that (the identifying the right Paige thing, not the being short and standing in water thing), one of the ‘twins’ turned her attention toward Peyton. “Who the hell is that? If she’s someone new, my father could have–” 

“She’s not from your father. Or Paige’s father, whatever.” My head shook. “Trust me, it’s a long story, but she has nothing to do with your dad.” 

“Uh, hi!” Peyton herself piped up. “My name’s Alloy. I enjoy old movies, racing simulators, and listening to people talking about me like I’m not here. So, you know, feel free to continue.” 

Way spoke, her voice tense as she glanced around. “Whatever we’re doing, we need to do it now. Before more of those security things show up. I don’t feel like going through round three.” 

“They won’t bother you here,” one of the Paiges informed us. “As long as you’re with me–” 

The other Paige quickly interrupted. “As long as you’re with me, the security drones won’t attack.” Her eyes narrowed pointedly toward her identical duplicate. “Which gives us time to deal with this.” 

Like people watching a tennis match, our eyes bounced back to the previous Paige as she glowered while retorting, “You’re the one who’s going to be dealt with. Dad thought he could use you to replace me? Well, he’s wrong. Dad’s staying right there on that fucking prison island where he belongs. He’s a fucking psychopath who deserves to be right there on Breakwater forever.” 

In the background, I heard Alloy make a noise in the back of her throat. But she didn’t say anything. Instead, the girl gestured and a couple of her marbles transformed into a flat surface about as long and wide as a surfboard, with a narrow set of stairs leading up to it. She climbed out of the water, shaking her legs out before folding her arms. “Can we please go back to solid ground while we figure out which one of these is Dark Samus? I don’t know whose idea it was to make this place so realistic it even smells like a dirty old lake, but they did a fantastic job. I hate it.”

Slowly, we all made our way out of the water. Mars Bar brought up the rear, keeping wary eyes on the two identical figures who were pointedly glaring at one another. It was clear that they were half a second and a single word away from lunging at each other’s throats again. They’d been fighting in here for days, and while both were obviously some form of exhausted (if you could even get exhausted in this particular situation), I didn’t think either of them would hesitate to go right back to trying to drown one another. And I was still confused as to how that worked. 

Once we were back on dry land, That-A-Way pivoted to face the two duplicates. “Okay!” she announced, “Let’s figure this out right now. Look, one of you is the real Paige, and the other one is being used by… by your father to try to kill the first just so he can put you back under his control. Whichever of you is the copy, is that really something you want? Do you want to be some kind of slave under that psychopath’s control? Does that sound like fun?”

Folding her arms pointedly, Pack added, “Yeah. For one thing, what do you think he’s going to do with a second version of you annoying him or wanting to do your own thing? Even if you succeed at this and take over this chick, what makes you think this guy won’t have a third version of you ready to pop in anytime you so much as have a different opinion? Do you really think he’ll go through all this to make a copy he can use to take over now, and then politely hash things out the next time? You’re willing to be his lapdog right now, but what’s going to happen the second you want to do something else? Or do you really think you’ll be satisfied taking marching orders from some crazy guy on an island? Oh, right, he probably wants you to help him get off that island, huh? Do you think you’ll survive something like that?” 

From where I was standing, I quickly put in, “Do you think he cares if you survive it?” 

One of the Paiges spoke up tensely. “Believe me, I spent the past few days trying to tell her that. She won’t listen. She thinks my dad is going to make her the real Roxanne, as if he’d let anyone be her. As if he’s even capable of caring about one of us like that.” 

Before any of us could say anything to that, the other Paige snarled, “No, I tried to tell you that. Because I’m Paige, and you’re the duplicate. They’re going to figure that out, and as soon as they do, you’re–” 

“Hold it!” I finally managed to cut in, my gaze snapping back and forth between them. “Who the hell is Roxanne? What is–what’s–what?” Yeah, it wasn’t exactly a coherent series of questions, but hey, could you blame me? This whole thing was completely crazy. I was just glad I’d somehow managed to sound even that clear with the way this whole situation was going. 

“Yeah…” Way sounded pretty confused too, frowning as she echoed, “who is Roxanne?”

Unfortunately, before either Paige could answer, everything around us suddenly shimmered and changed. We weren’t standing at the edge of a pond near the farmhouse anymore. Instead, we were all on a perfectly maintained grassy lawn next to a fountain. Straight ahead of me, I could see an intricate flower garden that looked similar to those at my own home. Actually, all of this looked similar to my own home. The grass, the fountain, the flowers, all of it could’ve been in my own backyard. 

Of course, that particular thought made me gasp as my head snapped to the side to look toward the building in the distance that I’d caught a glimpse of out of the corner of my eye. I expected to see my own house looming over all of us. But while there was a great looming mansion, it wasn’t my family’s. And it wasn’t some pseudo-replica either. It looked very different. Smaller, for one. And it wasn’t Paige’s adopted family’s place either. It didn’t look similar enough to either of those, aside from the fact that it was a mansion. And yet, there was still something deeply familiar about the place. Staring at it, a sense of warm familiarity filled me. But also a feeling of deep, horrible dread. There was something very bad about this place, and I really didn’t want to be here. An animalistic, instinctive part of me wanted to run away right then. It wanted me to get away as fast as possible, not caring about anyone else who was here. I just wanted to leave. Seeing that house made me instinctively whimper just a little under my breath before I even realized what I was doing. In the end, it was all I could do to stay right there where I was, planting my feet firmly. I didn’t care how afraid this house made me. I wasn’t running away. 

Belatedly, I realized what this place was. This was Anthony Tate’s house, right? It had to be. That was the only thing that made sense. The memories of being Anthony’s friend, and of what had eventually happened to him and his family, had been erased from my mind. But some part of me still remembered, still reacted to seeing this house. Which made me wonder just how bad my reaction here would have been if I actually remembered everything about all that. 

Alloy was the first to find her voice as she turned in a circle, marbles floating around her head, “Okay, first we’re in some super-elite private school for wealthy spawn, then on a farm, and now we’re standing in front of some rich guy’s fucking house? What the hell is going on? Why did everything change this time? Why are we here now? Who the hell decided to flip this switch?” 

“She did.” The answer came in a chorus from both Paiges, each of them glowering at the other. Though they had to do that peering over the head and shoulders of Mars Bar, who had lumbered up on all fours to put himself between them while we were distracted. Clearly, he took the job he’d been given to guard them very seriously. When we got out of here, I was going to give both him and Riddles (who was still soaring overhead playing lookout) all the treats Pack would allow. 

“Look, it was her,” one of the Paiges insisted. “She’s playing games, controlling things in here.” 

“We both control this place,” the other Paige snapped. “And I didn’t change the scene.” 

Looking from one Paige to the oth–okay I was just going to think of them as One and–no, if I thought of them as One and Two, It would influence which one I saw as the original. I had to think of them by completely even names. So, I raised both hands, shooting a burst of green paint onto one and a burst of blue paint onto the other. The paint covered the front of both of their shirts in a large blotch as I announced, “Okay, for now, we call you Green and you Blue.” 

“Great,” Way announced, “Would either Green or Blue like to say anything that could give us an idea of which one is the real one so we can get out of here? Seriously, whichever one of you is… not Paige, the guy you’re so intent on working for obviously isn’t going to be that loyal to you. Look what he’s doing to his own daughter. Do you really think he cares about you?” 

I was watching the two carefully, trying to pinpoint when one of them looked as though she might want to argue about that. The real Paige hated her father. So, the second one of them looked as though she might want to defend him, that was the fa… wait. Hold on a minute. 

Half-expecting a light bulb to have literally popped to life above my head (hey you never knew in a place like this), I started to blurt, “Hang on, I think we’re going about this the wrong way. If–” 

Unfortunately, that was as far as I got before my words were interrupted by the loud and piercing sound of Riddles shrieking from up in the sky. Which was followed immediately by gunfire from far off on the distant side of the ground, behind a building next to a tennis court. It wasn’t aimed at us, but rather, at the lizard-eagle herself. As bullets filled the air, she took a screaming, dangerously steep and fast dive toward the ground to escape it, only for that scream to turn into a pained cry as one of the bullets clipped her wing before she could get out of sight, causing her to start spiraling uncontrollably.

“Riddles!” Pack screamed, sounding horrified and panicked. I didn’t blame her for not remembering in that instant that even if any of us, including the lizards, were killed in here, it wouldn’t translate to the outside world. With that cry, she was already starting to sprint to the spot where the crumpled figure was plummeting. 

That-A-Way, however, was faster with her teleportation. She vanished from where she was standing, appeared in the air to catch Riddles and tuck the bird-lizard against her chest, then teleported a few feet further ahead and back to the ground. Then she turned back the other way just in time for Pack to get there and take her little friend into her own arms. 

One sort-of crisis averted for the moment. That still left the main problem, which was the fact that the sources of Riddles being shot were coming into view from around the sides of that building by the tennis court. Namely, a whole bunch of very nasty-looking bad guys in what appeared to be military uniforms. They were carrying assault rifles and other weapons, and really did not look as though they had any interest in blending into the actual scene that they were supposed to be a part of anymore. They looked more like they should have been storming the streets of Rome back when the Fell-Touched Ambit and Giufà had teamed up with their own private armies to take the whole city over for a few days about ten years back. Raising that kind of army was a pretty simple thing to do when your powers involved everyone believing that no matter where you were or what you were saying, you belonged there and knew what you were talking about in the case of Ambit. Or, in Giufà’s case, forcing everyone to think that anything you did, no matter how horrible, was funny. Even if you were the person he was torturing to death. 

The point was, the soldiers running toward us could have been part of the assortment of troops who had been sent in to deal with the army those guys had put together back then. They were heavily armed, and clearly weren’t interested in stopping to ask any questions. The second they saw Pack and That-A-Way when coming around the building, all twenty or so of them immediately took aim and started to fire. I was already shouting a warning (joined by Mars Bar, who was still obediently guarding Blue and Green but issued a pants-wetting roar to join my shout). In the midst of that, I raised both hands to shoot orange paint that way. But, just like before, my aim went wide, missing entirely. Which was just fucking fantastic.

Fortunately, Way had already reacted by turning to the east while yanking Pack close. That direction triggered her invulnerability, and the thick hail of bullets ricocheted off them. For the moment, they were safe. But those guys were still sprinting toward them, and Pack had an injured lizard-bird in her arms.

I was about to launch myself that way, mouth open to blurt for Alloy to watch the two Paiges with Mars Bar. But before I could, even as I formed the blue paint beneath my feet, the girl was already shouting a warning at me. A warning about something else besides the small army of guys with guns charging around the tennis court. Namely, the small army of guys with guns charging out of the nearby mansion. Yeah, because obviously we weren’t dealing with enough problems as it was, there were a dozen or so well-armed soldiers coming right out of that building too. And they were already taking aim at us. 

“Alloy!” I blurted while lunging forward. Painting orange over myself for protection, I leapt over the low wall that the other girl turned her marbles into. The wall was semicircular and shielded herself as well as the two Paiges. And Mars Bar, who dropped down a bit on his haunches to be behind it while the deafening sound of bullets rebounding off that joined the sound of bullets rebounding off of Pack and That-A-Way in the distance. 

Landing on my feet while bullets collided with my orange-painted body in a way that I knew would have left me sore and bruised if any of this had been real, I quickly sprayed as wide of a burst of blue paint as I could from one hand, and an equally wide burst of red paint from the other. As soon as I had covered as many of the troops as I could, I activated all of it at once. Instantly, they were all yanked toward each other by the red paint, slammed together, repelled by the blue paint out several feet, yanked back in again by red paint, then slammed apart, and so on. It was complete chaos for a few seconds. Which would’ve been great. Unfortunately, it didn’t solve the problem. Mostly because there were still more troops coming from around and out of the building, who looked fresh, armed, and pretty pissed off. 

Suffice to say, we were all doing just great. This really was just the perfect situation. Pack and That-A-Way were trapped on the far side of the yard, pinned down by the rapidly approaching troops from that direction. Meanwhile, I had Alloy, Mars Bar, and both the version of Paige who had bullied and insulted me for years but didn’t want me to die, and the version of Paige I had literally just met but did want me to die. I could hear Alloy herself demanding to know which of them had summoned the armed troops, but they both sounded genuinely confused while shouting back that this shouldn’t be happening. 

Were they both telling the truth? Was this neither of them? I had to consider that, and how to approach actually talking to not only the real Paige, but the other one too. Because that was the thing I had figured out moments earlier and had been about to say before this sudden interruption. If we were going to get through this without everything getting screwed up, I couldn’t think of the two girls here as one being Paige as the other being some virus that just had to be erased. If Paige herself was considered a real person as a thinking, conscious human mind inside a computer, then the mind that had been put in here with her could be one too. Yeah, she did what her creator/father told her to. But what other choice did she have? What other choice had we actually presented to her, besides pointing out that her father would kill her as easily as he did Paige? As far as she knew, we were simply going to delete her the first chance we got anyway. So yeah, maybe she knew that she couldn’t trust the man in the long run. But at least if she sided with him, it would give her time to think of something to deal with anything else he did when the time came. 

So, all I had to do was help beat all these guys here, help Pack and That-A-Way deal with their guys, keep both Paiges under control, survive without being killed so I wouldn’t have to start this entire thing over again, and then convince the newer version of Paige that we could figure out some alternative so that neither of them had to die. Oh, and convince her that I was more trustworthy than their father. And I had to do all of that without letting her expose my real identity. Well, I thought as the approaching troops came sprinting toward me while raising their weapons to take aim, I sure hope I don’t get bored in here.

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In Like Flynn 17-06 (Summus Proelium)

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So there we were, four girls, a lizard-bear, and a lizard-eagle, all crouched and huddled behind a marble-construct wall that was being pummeled by gunshot after gunshot. I honestly had no idea how much longer it was going to be able to hold up under this kind of assault. And I really didn’t want to know what was going to happen if it crumbled and left all of us open and exposed. We had to deal with these ‘cowboy’ programs quickly, before we ended up as fish in a barrel.  

And, of course, it had to get worse. Because the ranch hands were all on horses. So they didn’t exactly have to stay where they were while firing. Already, several of them were starting to spur their mounts to take off to either side so they could get a clear line of fire around the wall. 

Yeah, this was a not-great situation that was getting worse by the moment. Not to mention the trouble I was having with my own power. I was just plain off on aiming, on knowing where things were, on everything. And I didn’t have time to sit around trying to figure it out. Yeah, there was obviously something different about the way my powers really worked and the way the machine was interpreting them. Like the way I had traveled through the dark forest, or the way Murphy and Roald had pointed out my aim at the basketball court. But I couldn’t fix that or even spend time dwelling on it. I had to work with what I had in here. Paige was counting on me to do something before it was too late and she ended up being taken over by this evil copy, not just lament about power problems. 

“We’re jumping,” Way blurted, even as the shots from the guys who were spreading out got way too close to the edge of the wall. Alloy had adapted by curving the thing inward to continue covering us, but it was getting spread pretty thin to do so, and was already shuddering under the force of the incoming bullets. Pretty soon, the wall was going to be a full circle, and I really didn’t know how long it would hold up like that. Way was right, we had to teleport out of there. 

Still, I had an idea, so I quickly put a hand up against the girl’s arm and shook my head. “Wait! I’ve got something. Alloy, dome us. Doesn’t have to last long, just cover us up, now!”  

She may have been even newer to this stuff than I was, but Peyton knew how to listen. Immediately, she shifted the circular wall into a dome to cover us entirely, even sending the silver marble out of her own suit to reinforce. Which left the girl wearing only the main purple part of her Sentai-like armor. It didn’t exactly expose her skin so much as make the rest of the violet material spread out to cover what was left, but it was obvious that the remaining armor was weaker. Even so, it did, at least, give the dome around us a bit more of a boost to survive as the hail of gunfire only seemed to intensify. The bullets were coming in from all sides constantly.

The point was, we really didn’t have much time. So I didn’t waste any, quickly blurting out my plan in a few words. The others looked at one another, but nobody had anything better. And we didn’t have the precious minutes it would take to come up with something else. So, everyone agreed, and we went to work over the next few seconds, while the dome flickered around us. Any moment now, that shield was going to fail. We knew it, and our attackers knew it. 

Moments later, the shield broke apart into its individual marbles. But, the security programs weren’t faced with a group of exposed victims like they thought. Instead, they found themselves staring down the solitary figure of a large reptilian-bear. A very large, very angry, very colorful reptilian-bear. Mars Bar had green across all four paws and ankles, purple up all four legs, and the rest of his body was entirely covered in orange, save for his head. 

As soon as he was revealed, the big colorful bear-lizard let out a terrifying roar that seemed to shake the entire world, before taking off. The green made him so fast that the fake cowboys were barely able to react before he slammed into the first of them. And with the added strength from the purple paint, the force of that collision made both the ‘man’ and his mount burst apart, shattering into light particles. In the same motion, Mars Bar lashed out toward the next nearest attacker, that simple swipe of his enormous paw literally shattered the program he hit. The security figure flickered and vanished as if it had never been there, before it could even retaliate.

Finally, the other cowboys reacted and started shooting. But with all that orange paint and the bear-lizard’s natural defense, their bullets didn’t stand a chance of stopping him before it was too late. He fell on the largest group, going through them like a wheat thresher even as they all continued to frantically concentrate all of their gunfire on the huge threat tearing them apart.

And that, of course, worked to distract the remaining cowboys from the threats that had just shown up behind them. Namely, the rest of us. That-A-Way had teleported us out of there before Alloy took down the shield to reveal Mars Bar. We ended up behind the barn, and made our way back around just in time for me to activate the paint so the big bear could do his thing. 

Now, instead of being trapped there while literally surrounded by a group of gun-toting security figures, we were behind them while they were completely focused on the threat who was tearing through the largest clump of their men. And they had no idea where we were. Not yet, anyway. Which was something we were about to take full advantage of. 

We hit them before they knew what was happening. Pack, wielding the bat she’d taken from before, popped up beside one guy’s horse and slammed her liberated weapon into the back of his head as hard as she could. At the exact same time, Way grabbed two guys and teleported a few feet to the north and a good two hundred feet into the air before releasing them. As she started to fall, she teleported another couple feet forward and right back to the ground before pivoting to face two guys who were shooting at her. Except she was facing south, so her intangibility meant the bullets just passed through her and hit a couple of the remaining cowboys on that side. 

Meanwhile, Alloy and I hit the remaining guys, whose attention had suddenly been diverted to where Pack and Way were. Peyton had brought her marbles flying back to herself, reinforcing her armor once more while creating a white and bronze sword in one hand, which cut through one of the men just as he pivoted on the horse to face her. The black and gold marbles had, at the same time, transformed into a huge floating hammer, which crashed into another guy to send him flying before he splattered apart against the wall of the barn. 

Which left me. I had saved just barely enough paint after setting up Mars Bar to put purple stripes across my arms and an orange exclamation point on my back. It wouldn’t save me from sustained fire or anything, but it gave me a little bit of a boost so I could grab the leg of one cowboy and yank him off his horse. He struggled, catching me in a tight grip, but I grabbed hold of his shirt collar and slammed my helmeted head into his face before he could do more than that. It was enough to make him let go of my collar before I spun and threw him into the next guy, who had just been taking aim at me.

Ignoring the horse, I stooped and grabbed the guy’s fallen gun off the ground. While he and the figure he had crashed into were picking themselves up, I took aim from right up close, hesitating only slightly before telling myself it was just like a video game. No matter how real it felt, these people aren’t real. They were just obstacles to stop us from getting to Paige in time. 

With that thought filling my mind, I narrowed my eyes and pulled the trigger several times. The gun kind of bucked in my hand, but not as much as the one back in the real world had when I’d been fighting those biolems. This was more of a videogame gun, naturally. The bullets hit the figures on the ground and made them blow apart into light fragments before disappearing. Quickly, I turned the weapon to any others I could see, firing several more times before the gun clicked empty. Even without the harsh recoil, I still missed with a couple shots, because as much as this was like a video game, there was still a major difference between physically holding a gun and pulling the trigger, or doing so on a screen with a controller. But hey, two of the shots hit their targets, making the ranch hand figures burst into pixels. 

Between the four of us, Mars Bar, and even Riddles (who dropped in out of the sky to cover her partner-lizard, raking at the eyes of anyone still taking shots at him), we cleaned out the rest of the guards pretty quickly. Which left us standing there alone, at least for a moment. 

“Gotta hurry,” Way was saying while we panted there together, catching our breath. “These things are just going to keep respawning and coming after us. We’ve gotta find Paige. So where is she? I–this is some farm outside town. A bunch of schools take field trips out here all the time. So why is this important? Why would Paige’s computer thingie put us out here? And how do we find her? Preferably before we end up in brawl number three with those assholes.”

She was right, we couldn’t just run around in circles hoping to accidentally trip over Paige. There had to be a reason that the scene had gone from the school to this place. This… ranch was where my first real nasty encounter with the girl had happened. That was important, right? Was Paige like… reliving things or whatever? Or just jumping between various locations where important moments of our history had happened. 

Oh boy, if that was true, we really had to get through this before the scene changed to something that would give too many hints about who I was. That was a thought that spurred my brain to start working overtime. It was time to figure this out and find Paige

Pack had already turned and started to move, with Mars Bar quickly starting to lumber after her. “The main farmhouse. It’s the best chance we’ve got, right? It’s like the main building. They’ve gotta be up there. Where else would they be?” 

Where else indeed? Yeah, the main farmhouse made sense. Except that wasn’t right. The second she made the suggestion and started moving, I knew where Paige actually was. It jumped into my head instantly. The pond. There was a pond just over the hill, where the two of us had had our first ‘fight.’ She’d kicked muddy water up onto me, and I sort of shoved her into it, then she pulled me after her and we both had to be separated. It was a whole thing. That was it. That was where this program had put her when the scene reset. It had to be. Not the farmhouse, the pond. 

But how was I supposed to get them to go over there without giving anything away? I couldn’t explain how I knew the truth, and they were already heading the wrong way. For a brief moment, I stood there, frozen by indecision. Then I simply blurted, “Hey, did you hear that?!” As they all turned toward me, I pointed toward the hill. ”It was coming from that way.” Oh boy, if I was wrong about this, it was a real fuck-up. But I was positive that I had to be right. We’d barely even gone in the farmhouse on that tour. If this was supposed to be an important place for Paige, it had to be over by the pond. 

The others were saying they didn’t hear anything, but I didn’t wait around for that. I was already turning that way and rushing while claiming I’d definitely heard something. My only chance was to fully commit to this and not give them time to object more. 

Thankfully, I was apparently convincing, because the others didn’t question it too much before simply following. Apparently I had just become that good of a liar, which was probably something I should examine later. But right now, the only thing that mattered was getting to Paige.  

Unfortunately, the direction we were going was not within Way’s super speed or teleportation range of direction. So, it would have taken a long time to make the whole trek, following the trail that I had vaguely remembered. It had been like a twenty minute hike. Fortunately, we had Alloy. She made a large, semi-circle shaped board to fly everyone that way, including Mars Bar. She was at the front, and the only one standing given her ability to lock her armor boots in with the board itself. Meanwhile, the rest of us were kneeling and holding onto handles she had created, with That-A-Way and me to one side, Pack to the other, and Mars Bar lying down in the middle. The poor lizard-bear did not seem to be happy about flying, and kept making low groaning noises of objection. I just hoped he wouldn’t lose his lunch, if that was even possible in here. Digital bear vomit was not something I wanted to think about, on top of everything else. 

It wasn’t the most stable or fast ride, given the weight involved, but it was a hell of a lot quicker than walking. With that help, it only took us a couple minutes to reach the hill and get to the top, Which meant that, at the very least, my paint had had time to regenerate completely. 

Finally, we reached the crest of the hill and could immediately see the glistening water of the pond stretched out below. At first, I saw nothing else. My eyes frantically scanned the ground around the water, searching for what I knew had to be there. Or rather, who. But I saw nothing. Oh God, oh God, was I wrong? If I had fucked this up, I’d never forgive my—

“There!” It was Alloy, pointing toward the far edge of the pond, where a large mess of reeds had grown up out of the shallow water. They stood several feet high, blocking the view of anything within. But, as my eyes focused that way, I could see two figures rolling around in there. They weren’t standing up, but rather, were scrambling on their hands and knees, grappling one another, and generally struggling together. Whatever was going on in there, it seemed nasty. From up here, it sure as hell looked like they were trying to drown one another. It was impossible to make out any details about the figures, including what they look like or who was winning. But it had to be Paige and the virus, right? There was no other real option. It was them, and from the look of things, they were really going at it. 

“Get us over there!” I blurted, eyes widening at the sight. Through the reeds and across so much distance, it was all I could do to make out that the two figures were both struggling to push one another’s heads under the water. Part of me wondered what that would accomplish inside a place like this, but maybe it was representative of a different kind of computer attack or something. Either way, we had to intervene, because I had no idea which one of them was winning. That was something we were going to have to sort out once we separated them. Hopefully without being interrupted by more security programs. We had enough to deal with. 

With a hasty nod, Allow sent the board flying down the hill. Mars Bar groaned again, before Pack reached over with one hand to rub his head comfortingly. Meanwhile, Riddles flew in a dive right beside us, clearly resisting the urge to let out a shrill bird-of-prey cry. The eagle-lizard was smart enough to know that we were trying to be quiet right then. We had to hit Paige and the virus copy before they knew what was happening, separate them, and figure out where to go from that point. There had to be a way to get rid of the virus for good. 

We were rapidly getting closer as we blew down the hill. But it wasn’t fast enough for me. I desperately wanted to launch myself that way with a shot of red paint to hit one of them, but I didn’t trust my aim in this place. There was still something wrong with my power. Closer, we had to get closer. Tightening my grip on the handles, I stared intently that way, trying not to seem too desperate. This whole situation was going to be hard enough to navigate without letting the others wonder why I was so emotionally invested in saving Paige. 

Finally, we were close enough, and I couldn’t wait any longer, secrets be damned. It was clear from this distance that one of the figures was on top of the other, pushing their head under the water. It could have been Paige winning, but I couldn’t take that chance. With a blurted thanks for the ride, I put blue paint under me to launch myself forward just ahead of the flying board. Extending both hands, I sprayed a much wider burst of red paint that I normally would have, just to make sure I hit my target. The figure on top twisted around just as the paint hit them, reacting instantly by looking that way. Before they could do anything else, I activated the paint and was immediately yanked through the air the rest of that distance. Once I was within about fifteen feet, I tried something new by focusing on reversing the pull so that the other girl was yanked toward me instead. Just as she was hauled off her feet and launched my way, I released the paint entirely, tucking myself into a ball with a green exclamation point across my chest to speed up my drop. 

It worked. I fell faster than the figure I had yanked up rose, passing just beneath her before twisting in the air to land on my feet, up to my knees in the water. An orange smiley face across my back protected me from the impact. 

Meanwhile, the figure I had yanked into the air landed about ten feet away, crashing down with a splash in the water before popping up and spinning toward me. It was Paige. 

Then the figure she had been trying very intently to drown popped up as well, just a few feet to one side. That was Paige too. 

“Cassidy!” They both blurted. Thankfully the board with the others was still too far for them to hear, but still. I flinched inwardly, shooting a burst of black silencing paint at each of them. 

“First one to try to expose my secret is obviously the fake,” I blurted immediately. “That’s the one we get rid of.” 

A moment later, while both Paiges (they each looked pretty exhausted, injured, worn-down, and generally as if they’d been fighting for a long time) reacted to that, the others reached us. Alloy dismissed the board into separate marbles while they all hopped off and looked around. That-A-Way stepped forward right next to me, looking like she was about to say something before catching herself and reconsidering. 

Both Paiges, meanwhile, were clearly reeling from the shock of all of us showing up like this inside their computer brain digital world. I could see their eyes darting from one person to the other, obviously taking everything in while they panted from their recent fight, taking the moment to recover. 

In the end, it was Pack who spoke first. Her voice was blunt as she stood next to a looming Mars Bar. “Right, so we found them. Good for us. So, how do we figure out which one is the real chick and which one’s the fake?” 

My mouth opened before I stopped. I had no idea. But, worse than that, I didn’t know what was going to happen once we finally did identify them. Right now, the thing stopping the fake Paige from giving up my identity was the fact that she was still trying to pass as Paige herself. At least while she looked for an opening. But if we figured out who the fake was, she would have no reason to keep quiet anymore. 

And once that happened, how was I going to stop her from blurting out every secret I had? 

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