Pack

In Like Flynn 17-11 (Summus Proelium)

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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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In Like Flynn 17-05 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – The non-canon chapters for this story and for Heretical Edge were posted over the weekend. You can find the SP chapter here and the HE chapter here

So, this was just great. Now we were being attacked by a bunch of computer program defense systems that looked like my teachers and other staff from school, all of them trying to defend Paige because they thought we were enemies. And we were going to have to tear our way through them to get to her. Yeah, I was pretty sure a therapist would have a field day with this. 

Even as the group was rushing toward us, I caught a glimpse of That-A-Way grabbing hold of Mars Bar before they both vanished, reappearing behind the mob that was ahead of us. It took the lizard-bear only a second to adjust, turn back the other way, and fall on the crowd from behind with a terrifying roar that shook all the lockers and windows around us. 

Meanwhile, Alloy was standing there, making a noise of awe as she stared between the spot where Way and Mars Bar had been, and where they were now. “Oh, man,” she muttered, “that’s so–” 

“Alloy!” I blurted toward my new partner, “help them hold those guys off!” 

“O-oh, right.” Sounding guilty, the girl quickly made the marbles that weren’t part of her armor join together to create the scoop from a bulldozer, large enough to cover the entire hallway. It slammed forward into the crowd to stop them at the same time as Mars Bar crashed into them from behind. Yeah, it sounded nasty over there. And that was even before counting the fact that those things were still letting out those horrific screams, which echoed through the hall as a sort of background accompaniment to Mars Bar’s roars.

Unfortunately, that still left the mob that had come through the doors behind us for Pack, Riddles, and me to deal with. Quickly, as they came rushing in, I shot green, purple, and orange paint at the La Casa Touched, then activated it for her before putting blue under my feet to launch myself up in a flip over their heads. I intended to land behind them, but one of the security programs (it looked like my quite elderly and quite overweight ninth grade English teacher) leapt into my path, so I slammed into her. Which seemed to hurt me more than it did her, being a program and all. 

I used to like Mrs. Moderane. She was one of my favorite teachers freshman year. But those fond memories started having a bit of trouble when she came down on top of me as we landed on the floor, then punched me in the stomach. At the last second, I managed to paint my helmet orange (still unsure of exactly how well this program ‘translated our powers into virtual reality’), but even with that, the blow was enough to make me grunt. God damn it, these things were strong.

Putting purple arrows across both arms, I grabbed both of Mrs. Moderane’s shoulders and then jerked myself backwards as hard as I could before planting my knees in her stomach while simultaneously heaving with both hands to send her flying over my head and into the wall. In the same motion, I kept rolling backwards to move into a crouched position just in time to see one of the janitors and a security guard rushing me with these big, jagged machetes. My hands snapped up to shoot red paint that way… only to miss the two entirely and send both blobs of paint past both of them to hit a couple lockers against the opposite wall. Wait, what th–

A loud bang suddenly filled the air, as Pack came out of nowhere to slam the metal door she’d ripped off a locker into the head of the security guard who was rushing at me. She hit him with enough force to bend the door in half while also basically caving in the entire backside of his head. There was very little blood, all things considered, it mostly just seemed to pop like a balloon before the entire body vanished. The janitor spun that way just in time for her to snap the bent locker door back into his face, sending him crashing to the floor in a heap. 

“Would you keep moving, Ball?!” the girl snapped at me before throwing the by-now totally crumpled hunk of metal at the legs of another charging teacher. “They’re not real, stop playing nice and just make sure they stay down! We don’t have time for this, remember?!” 

As if to punctuate her owner’s words, Riddles let out a shrill battle cry as she flew overhead, tore a bat out of the hands of another virtual teacher, and sent it flying into the face of one of the office secretaries. Which was only a distraction before the lizard-eagle was right in her face as well, tearing at the woman’s eyes with talons and beak alike. 

Okay, yeah, they were right. We didn’t have time for any of this. Paige could lose her ongoing battle against her other self any minute, and we’d already stretched this out long enough. I just–I was used to hitting things I aimed for. Missing completely when they were right in front of me was… kind of new. But I couldn’t worry about that right now. I had to focus on this. 

Giving the other girl a quick recharge of purple and orange, I launched myself upward, renewing my own purple arms before spinning toward a heavyset old man in a plaid shirt. He was wielding a chain, which he tried to swing around my throat while still giving that horrible scream that just would not stop. They were all doing that. Yeah, it was obviously an alarm to call more of them or whatever, but seriously, we got the point. Everyone got the point. Knock it off already. 

My hands managed to catch the weapon as it swung at me, forcefully tearing it out of his hands even as I reflexively blurted, “Don’t you hate it when someone yanks your chain?” 

Not only did the virtual computer simulation program not laugh at my joke, it responded by simply creating a new one in its hand, then swung it at me even harder. 

Catching the new chain against my arm as well, I quickly jerked on it to yank the figure closer while simultaneously lashing out with a kick. “Ah, you’re prob–aaaaahhh!” That last part, interrupting what was going to be a fantastic follow-up to my joke before, came as the damn thing caught my leg and spun to throw me toward the other lockers. I barely managed to flip over in the air and send a shot of blue that way, which helped me rebound off the metal doors (caving them in partway) before crashing into the guy. We both hit the ground, but I managed to wrap the chain around his throat tightly, jerking a bit on it. A purple lion face appeared on my chest for additional strength. For an instant, I hesitated. Video game. It’s just a video game, I told myself. 

With that, I jerked as hard as I could at the tightly twisted chain around the figure’s neck. There was a nasty crack, and the body under me vanished. I… killed him. It. I killed the–

Shoving that thought out of my mind, I hurled myself into a sideways roll just as a machete came down into the space where I had just been. My 10th grade social studies teacher was there, snarling and screaming (do not ask me how he managed both at the same time) with the knife buried halfway into the floor. 

Planting my hand against the floor for leverage, I used that to shove myself up, blurting, “Just a thought–” My foot lashed out, kicking hard into the man’s face. “Sneaking up on someone works better–” As his head snapped backward from the blow, the foot I’d used to kick him the first time hit the floor and I rose on that single leg while simultaneously twisting around to plant my other foot in his face as well, hard enough to send him skidding backward down the hall. “If you’re not fucking screaming the whole time!” 

“Paintball, up!” Alloy called from behind, over the sound of the continued wailing.

My gaze snapped that way, just in time to see what looked like a thin blade the width of the hallway come flying our way. With a grunt, I grabbed Pack, launching both of us toward the ceiling with one more puddle of blue under our feet. We flipped over in the air and I planted my boots (Wren had included their gravity-flipping in this, thankfully) against the ceiling while holding Pack’s hand as she dangled under me. Or above me, as far as my boots were concerned.

Below us, Alloy’s blade uhh… yeah, it cut through about half of those guys right around the waist. It went straight down the middle of the corridor, moving really quickly as soon as Pack and I were out of the way. Some of the computer programs managed to duck under or jump over it, but she cut a good number in half. Again, there was very little blood. They just vanished. 

Dropping Pack to the floor, I pushed off, flipping over to land next to her. The remaining ‘faculty’ were starting to close ranks, but before either of us could do anything, That-A-Way called out. “Come on! Let’s go!” She, Alloy, and Mars Bar had cleared the path. We could get out of here. 

So, that was exactly what we did. Spinning on our heels, Pack and I raced over to meet up with Alloy, before all three of us ran to the other two, with Riddles soaring along just above our heads.

Ahead of us, two doors on either side of the hall tried to open to admit more staff into the hall to block us. But before the doors could fully open, Alloy sent two of her marbles that way, each transforming into what amounted to a crowbar to slam into the doors with enough force to slam them shut once more. The transformed marbles stayed in place while we ran onward, giving us time to get past before flying in to join up with their owner once more. 

“Dude,” Way blurted, “those things are awesome! You are welcome to join in on these ‘do whatever insane thing Paintball drags us into’ jobs any time you want!” 

Before I could defend myself from that total slander and point out this wasn’t my fault, the four of us (six counting both lizards) reached an intersection in the school hallway. To our right was the hall leading to the library and media room. Straight ahead was a wall full of academic trophies and a couple doors that would lead into the history section of the school. And to our left was the front hallway leading to the main offices, with an open section about halfway down on the right side of that left hall that would take us to the cafeteria and the main gymnasium. A set of stairs leading to the second floor was in the corner of this intersection, near the hall to the front offices. 

“Where’re we going?” Alloy demanded, spinning in a circle. “Uhh, and can we decide pretty quick?” She was looking back the way we had come, where more of those security programs were coming fast. And I swore some of them were the same people we’d already put down. So either the computer was spawning people with the same faces, or the program itself was respawning after being put down. But really, was there a functional difference?  

Dammit, where were we supposed to go? Where would Paige be fighting her evil duplicate? How were we supposed to guess something like that? I had no idea, and time was of the essence. Worse, there were suddenly more fake faculty coming down the stairs toward us. 

No, wait. they weren’t coming down the stairs. They were standing halfway up, blocking the stairs. And suddenly, I knew which direction Paige was in. Raising a hand, I pointed that way while blurting, “We wanna go whichever way those guys don’t want us to go!” 

Several things happened in very quick succession then. Pack sent Mars Bar to slow down the guys coming up from behind us. Riddles, meanwhile, flew up to harass the guys on the stairs. And left must’ve been the direction of Way’s superspeed, because her form blurred before she was suddenly up there on the steps in time to catch hold of the arm of one guy who was swinging a bat at the lizard-hawk, pitching him over the edge to crash down to the floor below, where Pack herself took his own bat and slammed it into his face so hard the program fizzled and vanished. 

Meanwhile, I ran forward, using blue paint on my shoes to launch myself up and forward. In mid-flight, I extended both hands and sprayed a wide burst of red at the remaining guards. Then I activated it, making all six of them slam together in a tangled jumble of limbs just before I landed on the edge of the railing. At least, I meant to land on the railing, but I overshot a bit and ended up crashing into the opposite wall with a grunt. 

Okay, I was starting to think there was something wrong with me, my powers, or both in this place. It was all just… off for some reason. I didn’t feel as coordinated as I should. There was something missing. Nothing felt right. It just… my powers were all here, my paints were doing what they were supposed to, but somehow it was wrong. Something was different or missing. 

Thankfully, Alloy (who had, once more, been standing flatfooted watching this for a moment) snapped out of it and took advantage of me tangling all six guys together by hitting them with a big shovel made out of two of her marbles to knock all of them down the stairs before the paint expired. 

That-A-Way caught my arm, pulling me away from the wall I’d crashed into. Her voice was clearly concerned. “Paintball, are you okay? You seem–” 

“I’m fine,” I quickly blurted, just as Alloy’s shovel-formed marbles reshaped themselves into a board to lift her past the just-then separating heap of computer troops to reach us. “Just… orienting.” 

Ignoring the other girl’s look, I raised my voice to shout, “Pack, hitch a ride!” With that, I pointed both hands. But rather than shooting the girl herself as she stood in the middle of the intersection down there, I fired purple and green paint toward Mars Bar, who was busy smacking around several of those fake faculty members. And again, I missed with one of the shots. The purple paint blob hit a wall, and I had to quickly adjust to shoot a second blob. 

“Dude,” I heard Alloy mutter toward Way, “have you ever seen him miss?” 

Ignoring that, I quickly activated the paints on Mars Bar while shouting, “Come on!” 

Pack didn’t need me to say it twice. She gave a quick whistle, and the big bear-lizard spun around, dropping onto all fours before charging that way. That green paint on him, he really charged. He was a runaway truck, screaming its way across the polished floor. Pack barely had time to leap on, half dragging herself up and over his back before he continued in a headlong rush. The guys at the bottom of the stairs where Alloy had pushed them didn’t even know what hit them before Mars Bar barreled through with enough force to make all six explode.

These stairs weren’t specifically built for something like a giant lizard-bear, but they were built to look impressive to a bunch of spoiled rich teenagers who did ridiculous, dangerous stuff all the time. So, they held. But I was still pretty sure sticking around here for long would’ve been a bad idea even if we weren’t already in a rush for plenty of other reasons. And I wasn’t even going to wonder if the stairs here had the same structural integrity as the ones in the real world. That was just way too complicated for me to think about right then. 

Before the computer could summon more things to block our path, we all went charging up the stairs. Pack stayed on her pet’s back, while the rest of us ran. I thought about using green to speed us up, but decided it was probably best to hold off. After all, we had no idea what we were running into. Okay, I did know where we were running. At the top of these stairs would be another intersection, similar to the one we had left below us, except with a big glass window looking into the second floor of the library. 

At least, that was what we were supposed to see. But we didn’t. Instead, all of us reached the top of the stairs and emerged into a small wooden structure that smelled awful. Alloy, Way, and I stopped short in confusion just long enough for Mars Bar to crash into us from behind, sending us stumbling through the nearby doors and out into… sunlight? The fuck? 

Yeah, we were standing outside, in broad daylight just outside of a barn, which we had climbed the stairs in the school to reach. The barn sitting in the middle of this obvious farm. There were cows in a nearby pasture listlessly mooing, a silo nearby, the farmhouse itself in the distance, another paddock with horses, and so on. It was an honest to God farm. 

Wait, hold on. I knew this farm. We had taken a school trip out here in middle school. Yeah, this was the farm we’d visited on that first school trip after I met Paige. Err, re-met Paige, I supposed. She hadn’t exactly been nice up to that point, but it was here on the farm when things had really turned bad. Or rather, when she had really turned up the mean. She and her new friends had made up a whole song about me being a cowboy. Specifically, Hopalong Cassidy. Yeah. Which might sound cute, but it wasn’t. It was very much not cute. I didn’t exactly have great memories about this place. 

“Okay,” Alloy was saying while the marbles hovered around her, “for the record, there’s no more stairs in that barn. They disappeared after we all went through. And speaking of, uhhh, all this, either that rich kid school is even more absurd than I thought, or–” 

“The program shifted,” I put in, looking around quickly. “Everything changed to a new location. The–a farm, I guess?” I’d been about to say the name of the farm (which was burned into my mind, as much as I might’ve wanted to forget), but that felt like a bad idea for my secrets. Yeah, other schools might visit this place too, but still. 

“Paintball.” That was Pack, looking at me. “You sure you’re cool? You uhh, seemed like… a little off back there.” 

“I’m off?” Flushing a little, I mumbled, “Yeah, I know. I just– it’s weird in here. Doesn’t it feel weird to you guys? Like, isn’t it screwing with your powers a little bit?”

All three of them looked to one another for a silent moment before turning back to me and offering a collection of shrugs. 

“Great, so it’s just me.” I started to mutter something about that being just typical before shaking it off. Instead, I looked around, focusing on the reason we were here. I’d just have to deal with whatever was wrong with me as we went. And hope I didn’t screw things up for everyone. “Well, I don’t see that girl we’re supposed to be helping. In fact, I don’t see anyone. So how are we supposed to find her now?” 

“We could always ask those guys,” Pack dryly remarked. Her attention was centered off in the distance, where a group of ranch hands were riding closer on horses. 

“Something tells me they’re not gonna be any more helpful than the teachers back there were,” Way retorted. “Especially since–down!” That last bit came as the assortment of farm people all produced a mixture of rifles and pistols, taking aim. 

Yeah, we all hit the dirt. I sent a burst of orange from both hands to hit the other five (yes, I included Riddles and Mars Bar, of course) while putting more on myself, just before several of the bullets struck home. The paint saved us. And a second later, Alloy managed to combine her marbles into a low wall to give us cover, while more bullets ricocheted off as the hail of gunfire continued. 

“Okay!” I shouted over the unending barrage as we all huddled behind that conjured wall, “you know what?! 

“This might be jumping to conclusions a bit, but I’m really starting to feel like this computer might not want us around!” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

In Like Flynn 17-04 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Right, so now we had a fancy new team name, thanks to Peyton. I was just hoping we’d get a chance for the name to actually matter before something terrible happened to us. A nagging part of me was convinced that giving ourselves a name was going to curse this whole thing. Meanwhile, another part was telling me I was being stupid and selfish for even involving people in my problems like this. What if something happened to them? How was I going to feel? 

Eesh, maybe they were right about that whole brooding thing. It was just possible that my Touched powers had come with an additional ‘gift’ of being very, very pessimistic sometimes.

With effort, I pushed those thoughts out of my head. Yes, this could be pretty dangerous, for more than one reason. And yes, it was risky to involve other people in what could lead to a confrontation with my family eventually. But it wasn’t like I could just shove them out again. I couldn’t tell them to go away or whatever. It wouldn’t work like that. They were here, and I really needed them. I couldn’t do this by myself. I was just going to have to deal with the risk. 

Besides, I didn’t want to do this by myself. Scary as it was to trust others, even with only a small part of what was actually going on, I needed them. Not just physically. I needed their skill and power, yes. But it was more than that. I needed to know there was someone else I could depend on, even if it was only for bits and pieces of the truth. Hard as it was to admit, I really didn’t want to be alone in this. Having Izzy around to talk to had shown me how important that was.

Working as quickly as we could, our little group did everything we had to over the next short while to get the virtual reality system ready to go. We basically acted as several extra sets of arms and legs for Wren, letting the girl tell us everything she needed to get the thing done. 

For a while, I thought we’d never finish. But, eventually we were all standing around what still looked like a complicated MRI machine. Wren had just tightened one last bolt on the side before stepping back to drop the wrench onto a table and brush her hands off with a note of finality. 

After a moment of all of us standing there looking at the thing, happy to be done working on it, Peyton raised her hand. “I’ve got a question. This thing sorta looks like it’s for one person to lay in. Maybe two if you squeeze and get pretty friendly. How are all of us going to use it, exactly?”

I had actually been wondering the same thing in myself, and turned toward Wren before raising my arms in a shrug. “She’s got a point there. Please tell me we don’t need to build another one of these for all of us. I’m pretty sure we don’t have that kind of time.” 

Giggling to herself, Wren shook her head. “Nope! You’re not laying inside the thing, she is.” With that, she gestured toward Paige. “She lays inside it, her computer links to the VR system, and you guys wear these.” With that, the girl turned to the nearby table before picking up a cardboard box, holding it out to us. We all leaned forward, only to find… sunglasses and gloves. Yeah. All of them had various bits of wires and other clearly technical stuff attached. The sunglasses even had what looked like short antennae glued along one side of the frame. And the lenses were bright, solid green. Meanwhile, the gloves had little microchip-like things attached to the end of each finger. 

Wren quickly explained, while we were staring at the contents of the box. “All you gotta do is put the glasses and gloves on, then sit down by the machine there, see? You’ll get linked into the computer and, as long as it’s on, you’ll see and hear and move in there instead of here.  Whenever you tell your body to move, you’ll actually tell your avatar thing in the computer to move instead.” 

That-A-Way spoke then. “Three questions. First, do we have a way to cancel out of it if we need to? You know, in case there’s an emergency. Second, how much of what happens in there are we going to actually feel? And third, what’s the deal with using our powers? I mean, am I going to impulsively try to teleport and all of a sudden the real me is off on the other side of the room in a pile of boxes? Oh, and come to think of it, question three-b, how am I going to use different parts of my power if my body is simply facing one direction? And what about her lizards?”

Wren quickly explained. “Oh, well, first you just use the code ‘Falling Star’ to jump out of the system. And for the second thing, you really aren’t physically experiencing any of it, but the computer will sorta… give you feeling impressions up to a certain point. You’ll feel things, but you can’t die from it or actually be injured or anything. If you get hurt enough to ‘die,’ you’ll just wake up out here and have to go back in from the start and make your way to where you were again.” 

Once that much was explained, Pack put in, “You said we could use some mental approximation of our powers or whatever, right?” 

Wren’s head bobbed quickly. “Uh huh. It’s sort of hard to explain. But the computer looks at what your brain thinks it’s capable of and basically copies back into the system. If you were going into a world I made, I could make you like Superman! But… but you’re not. You’re going into another world, and I don’t have any control over it. Or at least, not very much. The best I can do is make sure you have what your own brains think your powers are.” She fidgeted a bit, starting to apologize for not being able to do more than that. 

“Don’t you dare,” I quickly interrupted, raising a finger to point at the girl. “Wren, after everything you’ve done– just don’t apologize. You pull all this together in one day. That’s amazing. Seriously, you’ve done enough. More than enough. Just let us handle the rest of it, okay?” 

Blushing at that, Wren stammered an agreement. Then she quickly moved on to show a couple tiny animal collars, explaining that putting them on a couple of the lizards would link them to Pack and let her take them into the simulation as well, just like they were really there. They would see and experience things the same way we did. Which, to be fair, was probably going to confuse the hell out of them. I just hoped Pack could make sure they understood well enough. 

“Who’re you taking in with you?” That was Way, looking at the girl in question curiously. “I mean, if you can only take two lizards, which two is it gonna be? They’re all pretty helpful.” 

“Tell me about it,” Pack muttered, her gaze focused over into the corner of the lab, where her assortment of reptiles were all spread out across the floor, curiously investigating their surroundings. “I think… Mars Bar for muscle and Riddles for utility. She can fly and let us know what she sees. Might make finding this chick and her evil twin easier, wherever we end up.” 

That said, she turned to look at Wren once more. “But you’ve gotta make sure the rest of them are cool, okay, kid? They’re gonna be confused, so you keep them happy while we’re busy.” 

Wren promised she’d make sure the rest of the lizards were okay, while part of me wondered exactly how much of Pack’s request had been for the lizards’ benefit, and how much had been for Wren herself. She was definitely going to feel pretty anxious as she waited for the rest of us to get through this whole thing. Anxious because she ‘couldn’t help,’ even though she had already helped more than enough. Getting her to keep the lizards entertained and distracted would also entertain and distract her. It was a distraction for both sides. Pack was pretty good at that sort of thing. Which made me briefly wonder if she had any younger siblings she had to distract like that.

But there wasn’t time to focus on that for long. Because Wren was running through one final checklist. She sounded like mission control for a space launch or something, intently and seriously checking over every part of the system. She didn’t spend long on it, only a couple seconds for each bit, just to make sure everything was still running smoothly. She even had us speak several sentences into a microphone, which would help translate our voices into the virtual world so we would sound right. Which was a real load off my back, since I’d been wondering how I was going to deal with the whole voice changer thing if it turned out to be an issue. 

Once she was satisfied, Wren gestured toward the motionless blonde girl on the table. “Can umm, you guys move her over to the machine?” 

Between the four of us each taking part of Paige’s body, Pack, Way, Alloy, and I managed to shift her as gently as possible over to the MRI-like machine. We laid her in place, before Wren hit a button and the thing retracted to take her inside. From there, the kid-genius picked up what looked like a small ipad and started fiddling with it. With each brush of her finger across the screen, the machine we had put Paige into gave what I hoped was an affirmative beep. The last thing we needed right now was for something to go wrong with the system. 

Okay, so I could think of a lot worse things than that, particularly revolving around one of the Fell-Touched teams like the Scions or Oscuro suddenly attacking. But that was (thankfully) pretty unlikely. Something going wrong with the device Wren had built in a day really could happen. 

Fortunately, the machine itself seemed fine. It gave happy beeps with each check Wren made, before she finally turned to us and gave a thumbs up. Her voice was nervous. “O-okay. I think it’s ready. I mean it is ready. She’s plugged into the system and it’s reading her computer. They’re completely linked. The computer says it’s all green lights. I mean, maybe a couple very faint yellow ones, but it’s still okay. Definitely okay. We are on the positive side of the line!”

Part of me wanted to ask what the yellow lights were, but I was pretty sure knowing wouldn’t help. This was the best we were going to get. And Paige didn’t have time for us to wait for everything to be completely perfect. So, looking to the other three, I asked, “We ready to do this?” 

Apparently we were, or at least as close as we were going to get. Sure, there was a lot more I’d like to do to be ready for this, but we didn’t have the time or resources. Paige was in trouble right now. We had to get in there and help her while we still could. So, the four of us arranged ourselves in chairs around the machine. Two on each side. I sat next to Alloy, lifting the front of my helmet to slip the sunglasses on through the holes in the ski mask. Then I exchanged my own gloves for the new ones and looked over to the girl beside me. She looked back and gave a thumbs up. 

“You guys ready over there?” That-A-Way called after a moment. “Cuz we have two lizards over here who are very confused about why they’re suddenly wearing collars. So we should probably get this show on the road. You know, so they can be even more confused.”  

“They’ll be fine,” Pack insisted. “Just make sure you hold Riddles carefully. Sometimes she forgets she’s not in bird form and tries to fly off things.”

Wren quickly assured us that as the machine kicked in, all commands to move that our (and the lizards’) brains sent our bodies would be translated into the virtual world instead. At least until we gave the Falling Star code. She also belatedly mentioned that we could yank each other out of the system in case of an emergency by saying that person’s Touched name in between the ‘falling’ and ‘star’ part of the name. 

“Okay, okay, right.” Wren sounded just as nervous as I felt. “Um, one more thing you should probably know. It won’t just be the virus duplicate thing you have to fight. You guys are technically sort of invaders in that system, so whatever defenses her computer has will probably try to kick you out. Especially if she’s not really in full control of it. I’m not sure how it’ll show itself, but umm, just be careful. It’ll probably look like soldiers or guards or something. Whatever fits with the scene they’re playing out you know? The defenses will try to fit in.” 

Well, that sounded fun. On the other side of the machine, Pack spoke up. “So hope this chick and her evil twin aren’t playing out some kind of Star Wars shit full of super battle droids, got it.” 

“Personally, I’m gonna close my eyes and really push for a Willy Wonka scenario,” That-A-Way put in. “I could dropkick half a dozen Oompa-Loompas when they start singing. Creepy shits.”

Yeah, we were definitely trying to keep our minds off what we were actually going to run into. Whatever it was, I had the distinct feeling it wouldn’t be as easy as drop-kicking Oompa-Loompas. But hey, maybe we’d get lucky. 

Yeah, I didn’t believe it either.   

In any case, after running one more, possibly paranoid check, Wren took a breath “Okay, alright. Um, you guys ready?” 

We confirmed that, as I shifted in the chair a bit. It wasn’t some random folding chair. The thing was a recliner that was actually fairly comfortable. Not as good as the chairs at home, of course, but at least I wouldn’t fall out of it the moment my body went limp. Or whatever was supposed to happen once I was in the system. 

Once she was satisfied, Wren looked over to the other side of the room, where Fred was standing next to a computer. She started alternating between typing stuff on a little iPad, and calling out things for him to type into his own keyboard. Behind me, I heard a gradually rising whirring sound as the MRI-like machine that we had put Paige into came to life. There was power in the air, enough that it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Oh boy, this was about to get really–

A sudden bright light blinded me, before quickly changing to a swirling pattern of colors that shifted through the entire rainbow multiple times. It wasn’t flashing or anything, just drifting, sort of like a slow kaleidoscope. I could hear the sound of dogs barking, then the sound of ocean waves, then an airplane, people talking in hushed tones, and more. It was cycling through all these random sounds that made no logical sense. Nearby, I heard another sound that I belatedly realized was Alloy muttering under her breath about not wanting to be drugged. 

Finally, the swirling colors turned into a reddish-purple fog and I had the distinct sensation of going down the drop on a roller coaster. A startled yelp escaped me, joined by three others, just as the falling sensation stopped and the fog vanished. 

I was standing in the hallway of my school. I mean, I wasn’t. I was sitting back in that room next to the machine. I knew that. Logically I knew that. But my brain was absolutely convinced at that moment that I was standing here. It looked exactly identical to one of the side corridors near the science classrooms. It even smelled right, for God’s sake. I wasn’t even sure how that part was possible, but it was. No matter what my conscious brain said, I really felt like I was standing in that hallway, as if we had been teleported there. God, this was so weird. I’d expected it to be weird, but anticipation was nothing compared to the real thing.  

Quickly, I raised my hands to my face and looked down to check. Sure enough, I was still in my costume. It had translated perfectly into the system. I had the gloves, the suit, even the helmet. Everything felt fine. Hell, the gloves were mine rather than the ones I actually had on for this, and the front of my helmet was down despite being up in the real world. Convenient.  

“Wha–” Nearby, That-A-Way was looking around. She too was in her normal costume, just the way she should’ve been. “Why are we at–in a… a school?” I could see the slight frown of confusion as she squinted at one of the classroom doors. “That’s what this place is, right?” 

Stepping from behind me to move into view, Alloy slowly shrugged. “Definitely ain’t my school. No graffiti, the lockers are way too big, everything smells clean and rich instead of like piss, sweat, and broken spirits.” 

“It’s the school for rich cunts,” Pack put in before adding, “I mean, it’s gotta be, right? Look around, tuition for this place must be fucking absurd. I bet these spoiled fucks only get world-touring, chart-topping bands to play their fucking dances.” Which totally wasn’t fair, considering the headliner of our last dance had only been like… ninth on the charts. 

In any case, even as Pack said that, Riddles and Mars Bar moved into view, sniffing around their owner’s feet before looking around. I could feel the confusion coming off of them as they adjusted to the fact that their poor lizard brains convinced them that they were somewhere completely new.  

“You guys hear anything?” Pack asked, while focusing on growing each of her pets into their larger, more capable forms. I really hoped that, like our movements, the lizard transformations weren’t translating back into the real world. Then again, we’d probably find out real quick if the iguana on the girl’s lap had suddenly turned into a full-sized grizzly bear with scales.  

“Nope,” Alloy was saying after we all took a moment to focus. “I don’t hear a damn thing. Is that weird? I mean, shouldn’t we hear them fighting or something? I thought they were supposed to be fighting.”

“Maybe they’re stalking each other,” I pointed out quietly. If they were sneaking around, it was probably a bad idea for us to make a lot of noise. Looking up and down the hallway uncertainly, I frowned in thought. Part of me wanted to call out to get Paige’s attention, but that was almost certainly a bad idea. We needed a better handle on what was going on in here before we just started shouting out for attention. Considering she had some sort of evil duplicate and we still weren’t sure how we were supposed to tell the difference between them if she decided to play that game. Seriously, what did an ‘evil Paige’ look like, after the years and years the real version had spent deliberately tormenting me (under her father’s orders, but still). It was really weird to think of the girl who had insulted and bullied you for years having an evil twin. 

No, we definitely needed to be quiet and go through this whole thing carefully. With any luck, maybe we could find our way to where they were and eavesdrop long enough to know which was which.

Unfortunately, of course, I wasn’t that lucky. And we definitely weren’t going to get much of a chance for the whole sneaking thing. Because even as I had that thought, several figures emerged from the classroom doors ahead of us. It was a mixture of teachers and school staff, even a few of the security guards and janitors. I recognized most of them. But they weren’t smiling at me the way they normally did. No, they looked pretty angry. Not to mention violent. Soon, a crowd of over a dozen had formed up to block our path forward. 

“Uhh, guys?” Alloy spoke up, and I looked back that way to see a similar group had come through the door leading to the outside. We were penned in on both sides. Worse, the assembled figures began to produce various weapons. Knives, bats, chains, and so on. This definitely wasn’t something we could talk our way through. 

“Trevithick was right about the security measures,” I muttered. “They’re definitely not happy to see us.” 

“Right, well, these guys we can rip apart, right?” Pack put in quickly, as the groups on both sides started to advance. “They’re just computer programs or whatever.” 

My head gave a quick nod. “Yeah, no need to play nice. Just get through them. And fast. We have to find Paige.” 

Either my saying her name was some kind of signal, or it was just a coincidence of timing. Either way, the moment I got those words out, a collective, horrific scream tore its way out of the throats of the people advancing on us and filled the air like some sort of terrible alarm. They all did it, shrieking like banshees. 

And with that, they attacked. 

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In Like Flynn 17-03 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avant-Guard.

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In Like Flynn 17-02 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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