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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 17-04 (Summus Proelium)

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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. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Building Connections 16-12 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

I was already spinning on my heel to walk to the nearby door before stopping myself as I realized that I didn’t have any idea where I was going or what to do. Holding my arms tightly against my chest, I spun back that way. “Except I don’t know how to do that. How are we supposed to save Paige right now? How are we supposed to do anything right now? We don’t even have anyone lined up to fix the computer orb thing yet! We don’t–wait.” Realization came to me as I blink at the younger girl. “You went out to get a bunch of stuff. What were you–” 

Wren quickly nodded. “It’s okay, Paintball! I mean it’s not okay. It’s really scary. But I didn’t just call you with problems. I’ve got solutions too! I mean sorta maybe solutions, I mean help for–”  Cutting herself off, she took a deep breath and let it out before starting once more. “We still gotta find someone to fix the little orb-computer thingie, but I think we can help the good Paige stop the bad Paige. You know, send her reinforcements so she doesn’t get taken over or erased or anything. It’s not perfect, but it’ll, you know, buy her some time? If it works. I think it’ll work. I have to adjust some stuff, but it should work. I mean, if the first part works like it’s supposed to, like he said it should, then I can adjust the second part and make it… work?” Clearly realizing she was babbling and repeating herself, Wren trailed off and shrugged helplessly, adding a very quiet, “I think, maybe.” 

Forcing myself to calm down from the rush of panic, I took a step that way. “You mean you have a plan?” I tried to keep my voice as steady as possible. Inwardly, I was screaming at myself. Of course Paige’s father would have some kind of fail-safe to overwrite her or whatever. That just made sense, especially since I knew he’d managed to hit her with that virus in the first place. Stupid, stupid. Why did I take so long trying to find someone who could fix her? Telling myself it had only been a few days didn’t help. The guilt kept welling up in me no matter what I thought. 

“What do you mean you have to adjust something? Who is this ‘he’ you’re talking about? Did you really already find someone that could help? Are you sure it’s someone we can trust with this? Who is this guy, where did he come from, what does he do? How did you find him so fast?”  

Wren, for her part, held up both hands for me to slow down too. Waiting for quiet, the kid finally started to explain. “Okay, so, this guy isn’t actually someone I talked to about this. He doesn’t even live anywhere near here. He’s in France. He’s a Tech-Touched in France. Anyway, we started talking about our toys–err, our inventions, and he told me about this machine he made.  They’re going to start selling it over there soon. He’s gonna make a lot of money! It–” Clearly catching herself from going too far off-subject, Wren quickly reeled it in. “Sorry, I mean the point is, when he told me about it, I thought it could help. But only if I make a second part that moves the first part over to where we need it cuz his invention is just a video game thing and that’s really cool and all, but it doesn’t help with Paige. But if we can move it over to where she is, then–” 

It was my turn to hold up both hands. “Hold on, hold on. Okay, one thing at a time. What did he make that’s supposed to help with Paige? You said something about it being a video game?” 

Wren’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh! Paintball, he made this really cool virtual reality thing. You put it on and it like, projects your consciousness into the game. I mean, not really. You’re really sitting right there with the machine wired up to you. But your brain thinks you’re in the game. You can see things and interact with things and move them around and it’s all super real to you and to the machine. You can change things in the machine, in the game.” 

She stopped, staring excitedly at me while I processed that. Rocking back on my heels, I managed, “You’re saying he made a virtual reality game that plugs you into the machine.” Thinking about that, I gasped. “And you want to use that to plug me into Paige’s computer core? That’s what you’re trying to adjust. You don’t want to put me into some random virtual reality game, you want to put me into Paige’s computer so I can help her deal with this duplicate.”

Again, Wren’s head bobbed quickly. “Yes! I talked to my friend in France and he said he could help. I mean, I didn’t tell him the whole story, just that it was really, super, incredibly important, life and death important. He trusts me, cuz we’re friends and I promised I wouldn’t make money off his thing. He said he’d send the list of stuff I need and the blueprints to make a prototype version of his thing. It won’t be as good or as stable or anything, but it’ll work for this, we think. I just have to fix it so that instead of going into a game, it moves you over into Paige’s computer.” 

Okay, this was all a lot to take in on short notice. Especially considering I hadn’t even known that she had a friend in France. But I supposed that made sense. Of course Tech-Touched talked to each other and compared notes. The internet made that super-easy to do. 

Still, it was a lot to deal with. Seriously, virtual reality stuff? She wanted to plug my brain or whatever into Paige’s computer so I could go in there and help her deal with this crazy duplicate virus before it took over. What the hell kind of psychotic Tron-crazy shit was this? Seriously? I’d done some of that VR stuff before, of course. It came with the territory of having rich parents who liked to spoil you by throwing all the newest special toys your way. I’d been in full-scale simulations, some better than others. But it was still weird to think of something like this being used this way. Full-scale virtual reality outside of just putting a helmet on your head and faking it wasn’t exactly common. Mostly it was limited to a few very specific demonstrations. And I had no idea if this French guy’s version was any good, especially if it was basically being cobbled together to work with however Paige’s system worked. Two systems I didn’t know at all being taped onto one another by one little kid, who wasn’t even the person who originally made either of them. This was a whole new level of crazy desperation, wasn’t it? 

But I had to push all those confused thoughts aside and focus on the main situation, the main problem. Paige. Whatever happened next, we had to help Paige. So, I simply reached out and put my hands on Wren’s shoulders, squeezing a bit. “Do you really think this can work?” I asked quietly, yet intently. There were so many questions I had beyond that. Especially when it came to who this guy in France was, whose name I didn’t even know. But we didn’t have the months (at least) that it would take for me to decide that I trusted him myself. I was going to have to go solely off what Wren thought. I trusted her with this. I had to. 

Clearly realizing just how important my question was, Wren met my gaze with a look of maturity that far outweighed her years. Her voice was quiet, yet firm. “Yes, Paintball. It can work. It won’t be super-stable, and you’ll have to be really quick about it. And it would be better if you had someone with you. Someone else who could fight with you. I don’t want to send you in there by yourself. Maybe you could get Pack, or that new girl you just brought back today? Or both! Both would be better, a lot better.” 

“Alloy?” I blinked at the suggestion, glancing towards the elevator down to where we had left her and the others. “I don’t know if we should involve anyone else in something like this. It’s–” 

“It’s dangerous!” Wren interrupted, blurting the words loudly as she stared at me. “It’s super-dangerous! I mean yeah, if you get hurt or whatever in there, I don’t think it’ll actually hurt you out here. It’s not like that old Matrix movie or whatever. It doesn’t work like that, cuz that’s silly. It would be a really bad game if it did. But if you get knocked out, you won’t be able to go back in very fast. It’ll take awhile to get back to where you were, you know? And in that time, maybe Paige will lose. Maybe she’ll be taken over and erased! That could happen! She sounded really scared in that message, Paintball. So this evil virus duplicate thing is probably really strong. So if you go in by yourself and you lose, then you wouldn’t have actually helped her. I think… I think you need to trust someone else to go in with you. More than one, if you can. You know, because it’s dumb to take risks like that when it comes to actually helping someone you care about, right?” 

Fuck. Yeah, she had a point. As much as I hated the idea of involving other people in this, I was pretty sure I didn’t have much of a choice if I really wanted to save Paige. If I went in there by myself, I’d probably just end up getting my butt kicked. I needed to take others for back-up, and there really wasn’t anyone I could trust with it beyond those two she had already suggested. Pack and Peyton. If they’d even go at all. I couldn’t be sure they’d agree to the plan, after all. 

“Actually, wait,” I suddenly blurted as a thought occurred. “That reminds me. We can’t even use our powers in that place, can we? Which would make all of us pretty helpless if we’re supposed to be saving Paige. I mean, it’s like a virtual reality thing–or wait, do we get like… all the powers because it’s virtual reality? You can just cheat code everything if it comes down to it, right? How does that work, exactly?” 

Wren, however, shook her head. “Not exactly,” the kid hesitantly answered before quickly pushing on. “I mean, we’re not exactly putting you in a place we made up, you know? You’ve gotta go inside the place her computer made, in her like… computer mind or whatever.” She was poking the floor with her foot uncomfortably, clearly upset about not having better news. “I can build my friend’s virtual reality thing, but it’s like… sorta duct taped to Paige’s thing to make it work and I can’t change too much and I definitely can’t mess with what’s going on inside Paige’s mind cuz that’s not really what my thing is and it’s not what this is and I’m really sorry, but–” 

“It’s okay, it’s alright,” I quickly interrupted, holding up both hands. “Thanks, Wren, I know you’re doing your b–hell, you’re doing better than your best. You went totally above and beyond, dude. You got help from some guy in France to figure this out and to give us a chance to save Paige. That’s amazing, you’re seriously–you’re great. I didn’t mean to make it seem like you should be doing more. I was just–yeah. Sorry, dude. Whatever we can do for her, anything at all, really.” 

After managing to get all that out, I waited for a second before adding, “Okay, so we can’t have cheat codes to go in there, because you can’t control what happens inside Paige’s computer. You’re just like–like her thing is the game server and all you can do is hack us a couple player accounts?” I had no idea how accurate that was, but it seemed like the best comparison. 

Thankfully, Wren seemed to get it, already nodding. “Uh huh, uh huh! Like that. The server will only accept you if you go in as yourself. Like, I can change your clothes or whatever, but it accepts the umm… the you in your head. The way you umm… see yourself, pretty much? Which, um, I think should mean you can use your powers in there, cuz they’re a part of you.”

“Well hey, that’s something, at least.” Giving the girl a thumbs up, I looked past her to where Paige was. “Okay, so how long do we have before you can put all this stuff you’ve got together? Cuz I’m pretty sure we don’t have umm… okay, I’m pretty sure Paige doesn’t have a lot of time.” 

Following my gaze, the kid immediately made a sound in the back of her throat that sounded like a half-yelp, half-gasp. “Oh! Yeah, I can–I mean it’s still gonna take time to put all this together, and I’ve gotta do a lot of it myself cuz only I can understand the instructions. I mean, I don’t–it’s not like you’re stupid or anything, it’s just got a lot of really specific technical stuff and if we mess up putting it together it could break and if it breaks we have to spend a lot more time fixing it and finding the hard-to-get parts and if that happens we might not have time to save this Paige girl so I really don’t wanna have to do it all over again, not cuz you’re dumb or anything, just cuz–” 

“Got it, I get it.” Once more, I held up my hands for her to stop. “Trust me, it’s okay. Do it right. If there are ways I can help, let me know. But, how long do you think it’ll take you to put it together the right way? You know, making sure it’ll work the way it’s supposed to and all.”  

Wren looked hesitant for a moment, clearly nervous about the job she had taken on. But, in the end, she straightened a bit before firmly replying, “Tomorrow evening. I–I can have it done by tomorrow evening, I promise. I–I’m sorry it can’t be done before then. I wanted t–I know it’s dangerous. I know she’s in trouble, but if I try to go any faster, I might mess up, and if I mess up-” 

“If you mess up, we don’t get another shot at this,” I finished for her gently. “At least not in time to actually save Paige before that virus takes over. I get it, really. It’s okay, Wren. Do it right the first time. Take however long you need. I mean, try to hurry and all, but don’t rush too much, okay?” 

She agreed, and I asked if there was anything I could do to help without getting in the way. Unfortunately, there wasn’t. She said she really just had to focus on it and asked, as politely as she could, for me to go away and come back tomorrow. And for me to bring Peyton back so she could talk to ‘the cool marble girl’ again when she wasn’t so distracted. 

So, I asked one last thing. “Did you send another message to Paige? You know, to let her know that we got her message and we’re working on it?” 

Offering me a very faint smile, Wren nodded. “Uh huh, I sent a message so she’d know she wasn’t talking to nobody. But… I think it’d make her feel better if you sent a message too. Like I said, it’ll take a long time for her to get it, but you can type the message into the thing there and tell her you’re working on it. Like I said, it’ll only send one or two words every fifteen minutes. But you can type whatever you want and just let it go. I won’t… uhh, disturb it, I promise.” 

Oh, right. Slowly, I stepped over to where the Gameboy/Atari thing was and picked up the little handheld part. Looking at the screen, I could see where you moved the cursor around to select letters for the input. Okay then, here went nothing. 

And for a moment, ‘nothing’ was exactly what went. Seriously, what the hell was I supposed to say to let Paige know that I had her message and that I was working on it? What would actually make her feel better or whatever? 

In the end, after thinking about it for a minute, I carefully typed a short message into the device. 

PAINTBALLC

WE’VE

GOT

PLAN

STAY

STRONG

COMING

PROMISE

Yeah, it was a little silly or whatever. I really didn’t know what else to say in a brief message. As it was, it would take a few hours for Paige to get that entire thing. I just had to say my name first so she’d know who was talking, and add a C at the end which she would hopefully understand to mean ‘Cassidy’ so she would be certain it was me. As for the rest… yeah. It was the best I could do without saying too much. The last thing I wanted was for a message I sent to Paige to end up exposing who I really was to anyone else who read it. I just… hoped it was enough to help her keep going long enough for us to get in there. 

And speaking of us getting in there, I took a breath and turned back to the younger girl. “I guess I should ask the others if they’re free to help go into virtual reality land tomorrow.” Oh boy, this was going to be a fun couple conversations. 

“Good luck!” Wren was smiling distractedly, her mind clearly focused on the work she still had to do. “I’ll do my part, I promise.” With that, she saluted, then turned her back to me, put her phone up on the table, and called that French friend of hers for help. The last thing I heard while heading back downstairs was the sound of a teenage male talking in heavily accented English, happily greeting Wren by name and asking if she had everything. 

Right, time to leave the tech people to do their thing, while I did mine. Which… huh, was asking Peyton to help me save Paige in virtual reality more or less crazy than asking her to help me scour the city to find a witness who could potentially take down Pencil? 

She sure picked one hell of a time to decide to jump on Team Paintball. 

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Building Connections 16-11 (Summus Proelium)

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On the way through the back alleys to the shop, I explained who Trevithick was (as well as what the name meant). It was all stuff I’d meant to tell her as we were making our way through the city, but then our little race thing happened and well, here we were. So, I just filled her in with the brief SparkNotes version. As we approached the back door, I mentioned that the kid was pretty young, and asked if she would have a problem working with someone like that. 

I clearly hadn’t thought that question through entirely, because Peyton looked at me pointedly and asked, “Young like you? Because I’m pretty good with that. I don’t think I get to judge what a kid can do after one saved my life like… twice within the same month, dude.” 

Burying my annoyance at being seen as a kid again beneath the much more useful fact that my disguise was stopping anyone from suspecting who I really was, especially my parents, I nodded once. “Younger than me.” It was the literal truth, after all. Wren really was younger than me.  I just wasn’t specific about how much younger. “She’s a kid. But she’s a genius Tech-Touched.” 

That said, I reached up to hit the buzzer. But before I could, the back door was flung open, and Murphy stood there, looking back and forth between the two of us for a moment before seeming to realize who Peyton was. “Ohhh, it’s marble girl. You changed your armor.” With that, she looked the other girl up and down briefly as though judging it. “I like this one better.” 

Peyton, in turn, stared at her briefly before turning to me. “She’s not younger than you.” 

Exactly how many times was I going to be tempted to blow my cover within a five minute span? Seriously, I was starting to think this was just gonna be a thing going forward. Exhaling, I shook my head and gestured between them. “This is Murphy, she’s… helping. It’s a long story.” 

“He caught me and my friend, Roald, after we broke into a gas station to steal food, and told us we could be his minions and help out around here or whatever instead of going to jail,” Murphy promptly summed up. Then she looked at me and added, “It’s really not that long of a story.”  

Peyton, meanwhile, had turned to look at me with obvious incredulity. “Wait, you have minions?”

Before I could respond to that, Murphy put in (with a voice that was basically the most cheerful I had ever heard her sound), “Just for now. But I think if we do a good job, he might upgrade us to henchpeople.” That, of course, was accompanied by the girl raising both hands to show her crossed fingers. “I’m pretty sure that’s when we get the matching uniforms.” 

Shaking my head, I gestured for the girl to step back so we could come in. Once the door was closed behind us, I asked, “So where’s Trevithick? Upstairs?” 

“Who?” Murphy blinked at me before remembering. “Oh, right. Nah, she had to run out. Took Fred and Roald and made me stay to watch the shop. Something about needing to grab important supplies or whatever.” Her hand gestured my way. “Kid said she was gonna text you an update.” 

“Text me an–” As I echoed those words, my hand was taking the phone from my pocket, and I blanched a little behind the helmet. I had a message from Wren, alright. Sure enough, it was all about how she had to go grab a few super-important things and that she would explain everything about what was going on once they got back. “Oh, well okay then. I guess we’ll wait here for them.” 

As I finished saying that, Murphy had already shrugged and moved back to a corner of the main shop floor where she had apparently been sweeping and mopping. From the look of it, she was actually doing a pretty good job. Okay, a very good job. Better than I could have, considering I’d basically almost never done anything like that except for the times when I was a kid trying to help the maids. Actually, I remembered that being kind of fun. But even now, I knew the reason it felt ‘fun’ to me at the time was because I could stop any time I wanted to. I didn’t depend on doing that to live or put food in my mouth. If I had to do it every day, as much as the people who worked in our house or at my school had to? Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t enjoy it as much. It was a thought that made me shift a little uncomfortably. Yet Murphy seemed pretty fine with what she was doing. It made me wonder how much cleaning she ended up doing at home. Which also made me think about her brother. Part of me wanted to ask how that was going and if he’d stopped being pissed at her about not running those drugs over to his friend. But I was pretty sure that would be pushing a bit even if we were alone, let alone with Peyton here. 

So, I decided that conversation could wait. Meanwhile, Peyton herself had started to walk around the shop floor, picking up and examining various things from the shelves. “Wow,” she murmured quietly while turning an old miner’s helmet over in her hands, “they’re actually selling all this random junk?  

Wincing, I stepped over that way. “Don’t let the kid hear you calling it junk. This was her dad’s store, she’s pretty protective of it. And right now I think a lot of it is just a way of having basically any random thing she needs at any point when she starts building stuff.” 

A noise of regret escaped the other girl, as she turned to me while shaking her head. “I–sorry. I didn’t mean to just–ugh. I didn’t mean it like that. I wasn’t trying to like–insult her family’s shop or anything. I was just… yeah, sometimes I don’t think before I speak.” She muttered the last words before giving a heavy sigh. 

“It’s okay,” I assured her before reaching out to squeeze the girl’s arm. “Seriously, don’t worry about it. All this stuff is a lot to get used to. Believe me, I know.” And boy was that a severe understatement. A lot to get used to? Wait until she learned the real truth about the city–no, stop it. I couldn’t tell her the full truth about the city. Except she was already helping, and she was going to push that help as far as helping me find the girl who might be able to take Pencil down. Even if the idea was to stay completely away from that piece of shit and never directly involve ourselves with him, there was no definite one hundred percent certainty that we wouldn’t see him. And she was still here, still willingly putting herself in danger. Didn’t I owe her the–fuck. Would this question ever end up getting me anywhere except for more uncertain and confused?

“Dude.” Peyton, who I belatedly realized had been staring at me for the past few seconds while I went through all that in my head yet again, spoke up hesitantly. “Are you okay?” 

“It’s fine,” Murphy called from where she was still working. “He just does that sometimes. I think he likes brooding or something. That or he’s listening to podcasts in that helmet and gets distracted.” 

Flushing a bit behind the aforementioned helmet, I shook my head. “It’s not brooding or podcasts. I just–never mind. I was just thinking.” 

“Hey, speaking of just thinking,” Murphy called out again, “what do you call yourself, anyway? I mean, we can’t just stick with ‘that marble girl’ all the time, right?” 

It was Peyton’s turn to blush, slightly visible through the space that left part of her face around her eyes uncovered. “Uhh, we sort of went over some ideas, but I’m not sure. It’s really hard to come up with a good one that doesn’t sound stupid or overly dramatic or… whatever.”

“Oh, I know all about that too,” I muttered mostly to myself before gesturing. “Well, while we’re waiting, why don’t we go over the list? You wanna help, Murphy?” 

She, in turn, looked at the mop in her hand for a moment before setting it aside to step over where we were. Shoving her hands in her back pockets, the brown-skinned girl rocked back on her heels before asking, “What sorta options are you working with?” 

So, Peyton and I tugged a couple random stools over and slid one over to Murphy before starting to go over all the potential names. The three of us went back and forth for awhile about the ones that sounded good, why they were good, the ones that probably wouldn’t work, and so on. 

We went over all that for a good ten minutes. Finally, Peyton said she had some favorites, especially after talking to the two of us, but she wanted to think about it some more before deciding, and maybe ask the others what they thought. Which was pretty good timing, considering it was only a couple minutes after that before Wren showed up with Fred and Roald. 

“Wow,” Peyton murmured very quietly in my direction as the trio arrived with armfulls of paper grocery bags, “you weren’t kidding about her being young. But she’s really that good?” 

“She’s really that good,” I confirmed before stepping that way to take a bag from Wren. It was heavier than it looked, geez. The bag was completely filled with what looked like half of an average-sized store’s electronics department. Peyton was already doing the same for Fred. “Hey guys, look who I brought back. It’s… uhh, she doesn’t actually have a name yet. So TBD. But TBD, this is Wren or Trevithick, her uncle Fred, and Roald.” 

That was followed by both Fred and Roald shaking the girl’s hand, the latter commenting that her armor looked different this time. Peyton then explained how that worked with her marbles. Both of them seemed a little awkward and uncertain in a way that almost seemed kind of cute. Especially when Murphy inserted herself and all three of them went back and forth about different types of armor and weapons she might be able to make with the various marbles. 

For her part, Wren waited until all the bags were put down and was quietly respectful of letting the other three talk for about ten more seconds before flinging herself that way with an added boost from her flight pack wings (the pack was on under her jacket and it projected the wings through a couple almost-invisible slits in the back) to cross the distance before landing directly in front of her. “Hi! I’m Wren, like he said! You are so cool, I watched the videos of you fighting those bad guys like eighteen times! When you hit Juice with the battering ram and then threw him with the gloves, that was so awesome! You were like, ‘don’t you touch him!’ then wham! Did you really just get your powers? You totally kicked his butt before he even knew what was happening!” 

Peyton, looking more than a little taken aback by the enthusiasm, managed a little giggle. “Uhh, thanks. Just beginner’s luck, really. I think he was more focused on being mad at Paintball, so he wasn’t paying any attention to me.” 

“He was definitely distracted,” I agreed, “but that doesn’t take away from the fact that most people wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of that distraction the way you did. Seriously, she’s right, you were awesome back there. I would’ve been screwed without your help.” Blanching a little, I added, “Still don’t know why they keep calling you my ‘sidekick’ though. I mean, I haven’t even been doing this for two whole months yet.” 

Wow, saying that part out loud made me think about just how much had happened in the past six-ish weeks. The vials, finding out about my family, being taken by Pencil, the whole situation with him and the rest of the Scions at the hospital, the Paige thing… Just how damn busy was I

While I was focused on that, Peyton had started to explain her whole naming situation and the various ideas she was working off of. Roald, Wren, and Fred gave their own opinions and went back and forth for awhile, until Peyton finally held up both hands. “Okay, okay. I’ve got it, I think. The name I’m gonna go with is…” She took a breath, letting it out before finishing. “Alloy.” Even after she said it, the girl looked uncertain. “I mean, is that good? I think– never mind. Sorry. I’m terrible at making decisions! I even like boys and girls cuz throwing out half my options is bullshit!” With that cry, she waved both hands vaguely. 

It was Fred who spoke up. “Hey, why don’t you uhh, close your eyes for a second.”

Looking a little confused and uncertain, the girl did so with a quiet, “Um, okay.”  

Clearing his throat, Fred spoke up loudly. “Alloy, Paintball needs your help, get out there!” After a pause, he asked, “So, did that sound right? I mean, the name, did it sound like something you’d like to be called?” 

Peyton opened her eyes. I had the feeling she was smiling behind the mask. “Uh huh. That’s it. That’s the right name. Thanks, uhh, Mr. Donovan.” 

“Fred’s fine,” the man insisted, looking self-conscious as he rubbed his head. “I just know sometimes it helps to hear the name from someone else. It’s how…” He paused briefly before continuing in a softer, more subdued tone. “It’s how I helped Wren’s folks choose her name.” 

Well, that was sobering. I still wasn’t sure about the whole story there, other than the fact that her mother and father had died in the hospital after racking up quite the medical bill. Which was the whole thing that led to Fred selling that device to Ashton so he could steal the vials in the first place. Not that Fred had known what his plan was at the time.

Of course, thinking about that reminded me of why we had come here today to begin with. “Um, Wren? You said you had something really important to talk about. What’s wrong? And, uhh, does it have anything to do with the fact that you just went on a huge shopping spree? All this stuff looks pretty intense.” I said that while gingerly reaching into one of the bags and picking up what appeared to be a circuit board with seven different colored wires leading out of it and a large computer power supply attached to one side.  

Immediately, Wren looked guilty about her distraction. “Oh, uhh, yeah. I should probably talk to you upstairs about it.” She winced, shifting back and forth on her feet, clearly anxious. 

I had the feeling Peyton really wanted to ask what was going on. Instead, she gestured to the others. “Hey, you wanna see how I raced Paintball to get over here? I could show you outside, if y–hold on!” Tugging her buzzing phone out, she blurted, “Everybody be quiet, or sound like shoppers!” Then she was answering it, talking to her mother, who was checking in again. After a moment, she muted her phone, grabbed Murphy by the arm, and hissed at her to pretend to be someone named Dana coming up to say they had to check out some sale somewhere.  

Looking to Wren while that was going on, I whispered, “Are you okay?” 

“Wha–oh.” Her head bobbed quickly. “Uh huh. It’s not about me. It’s–it’s about Paige.” 

Of course it was. I’d figured it had to be as soon as whatever the problem was didn’t turn out to have anything to do with bad guys at the shop, her or Fred’s health, and involved her going out to buy a bunch of things on an emergency shopping trip. Much as I might’ve loved to hope this whole thing was just a kid overreacting to some brand new idea she had about an invention that she wanted to show off, I knew Wren better than that. And I knew my luck better than that. 

So, while Peyton (or Alloy now) took the others out back to show off the whole hoverboard thing, I went with Wren upstairs. The two of us took the elevator, the younger girl being oddly quiet and subdued all the way. Finally, once the door opened and we stepped out into the hall, she turned to face me. “Okay, see, I felt really bad that I couldn’t help wake up your friend. So I thought maybe if I could at least find a way to communicate with her, it might help. You know, connect with her umm, mind or whatever?” She was fidgeting nervously or self-consciously. 

“Did… did you manage to communicate with her?” No, that didn’t make sense. Why would her succeeding at something like that make Wren so… like this? It certainly wouldn’t be an emergency. 

Sure enough, the blonde girl shook her head quickly. “No–I mean yes, I mean sort of. Hang on–c’mere.” Pivoting, she grabbed my hand and led me into the lab where Paige was lying comfortably (I hoped) on a padded table. There was a wheeled cart nearby with some electronic equipment stacked up on it. Wren picked up what looked like the drum and tubing part of a stethoscope that led into what I swore was part of an ancient Atari video game system with an original Gameboy attached to it via a series of wires. Yeah, it was a whole confusing thing.

“This,” Wren told me while holding up the end of the stethoscope, “sends electronic messages and receives them at close range. It–okay it gets complicated. The short version is that you’re supposed to be able to put it on Paige close to where her CPU thing is, then it’ll send a message to her. Then she can send a message back. Or, you know, whatever tiny part of her is still conscious. They have to be simple messages, and slow. Like one or two words every fifteen minutes. It’s like talking to her in her dreams.” 

“I’m guessing the big emergency isn’t that it didn’t work?” I asked hesitantly, staring at the thing in her hand, then back to Paige. 

“No,” she confirmed quietly. “It worked. I sent a message asking, ‘Can you hear?’ and she sent back, umm, well it took awhile to get all of it, but…” 

Rather than finish, she simply picked up the Gameboy and turned it so I could see the screen. Written across it were eleven words in succession, one under the next, all in capital letters. 

HELP

DAD

VIRUS

SECOND

ME

COPY

TRYING

ERASE

REPLACE

KILL

HELP

PLEASE

Reading all that through, I took a second to process it before my eyes widened. “Her dad made a virus that’s like a copy and it’s trying to replace her. I–we don’t have any more time to try to come up with the perfect plan or find the perfect people to help. We don’t have time for any of that.

“We have to start saving Paige right now.”

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Building Connections 16-01 (Summus Proelium)

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“Hold up, wait just a second. Wait, so let me get this straight, you just came right out and asked for someone to help you fix a Touched-Tech robot-android thing on a public forum?” 

The incredulous words were from Pack, who stood in one corner of Wren’s upstairs lab at the shop, staring at me as if I’d just told her I was engaged to marry the Abyssal Typhon. 

It was Tuesday, April 14th, the next day after my interesting dinner with Caishen, Skip, Lightning Bug… and my parents. I’d spent some time after they left just hanging out with Bug, playing with her insect friends (and making them pretty, of course). Eventually, I’d promised to visit again soon and made my exit. Then I’d told Izzy all about what happened while we were safe in my room, which was… yeah. Just being able to tell someone else about the near-panic attack I’d had when I saw my parents there, and all the way through it, was basically a life saver. Or at least a sanity saver. 

Anyway, now it was the next day, shortly after school had let out. Pack and I had arrived at roughly the same time, which made me wonder how far away her school was. Did she even still go to school as a supervillain member of La Casa? Or was there like a… work-study program? 

Coughing while pushing that thought away, I held up both hands quickly, glancing off to the side where Wren was carefully running the new scanner she’d made over every inch of Paige, who lay motionless on a padded table. “Not exactly,” I corrected. “I’m not that stupid. Like I said, Lion told me about that secret code to privately hire Tech-Touched, so I’m just… feeling it out. I’m not giving any details yet. I’m seeing who bites and chatting with them a bit. Just, you know, feeling them out. It’s a potential option.” 

I couldn’t see her face, of course. But from her body language alone, I was pretty sure Pack wasn’t exactly convinced. A side glance toward her cage full of lizards sitting on a nearby equipment table showed that they seemed to be just as doubtful about the situation. Which, honestly, was a really weird impression to be getting from a group of reptiles to begin with.

With a sigh, Pack started to respond. “Look, I know I don’t need to tell you about the dangers of trusting anyone you talk to online and the whole stranger-danger, pedo–” She stopped, choking a bit before giving me what was clearly a sharp look. “I don’t have to tell you about that, right?” 

Squinting at her from behind the mask and helmet for a long, silent moment, I very slowly shook my head while keeping my voice even and flat. “I’ve had the discussion a few times before.” 

“Good, just… good.” Sounding almost insultingly relieved, Pack pushed on. “The point is, just because you think someone might sound trustworthy in a few internet conversations doesn’t mean they are. Don’t do anything crazy that you might regret, okay? It’s not like you’ll get a second chance if whoever you bring in here happens to blab about the whole situation.” 

“I’m not gonna do anything crazy,” I solemnly promised, raising my hand as though taking an oath. “I wouldn’t bring anyone in without seeing what you guys thought anyway. Not with something that important. Just–believe me, I won’t be stupid about it. But we have to do something, and soon.” With that, I glanced over to Wren again, who was still working.

Pack hesitated, watching me for a moment before giving a very short nod. “We will, Paintball. Trust me, I know it’s easy to feel… you know, fucking anxious and shit about all this. But we’ll figure it out. You said yourself there’s no real rush. The girl’s fine over there, just sleeping. And honestly, if we were in a rush, I’d rather trust Eits to get in there and fix the damn orb thing.” She shrugged. “Even if that meant finding a way to get to it. You sure you can’t just pink paint it?” 

Grimacing slightly, I offered a hesitant shrug before admitting, “I dunno. I’ve never really pulled someone’s body, uhh… apart or open like that. It just stretches the body part out like taffy. And I’m afraid–I mean, what if it does actual damage? Like, the part that’s painted is protected, but what if I rip open her stomach or whatever and expose her inner… uhh… organs and that goes wrong? I’m pretty sure they have super sterile operating rooms for a reason. And like, a bajillion years of lessons about how to safely open someone up.” My face twisted a little at my own words. “Plus I’d have to keep reapplying the paint or the whole thing would just, umm, schloop back. And that’s if it works to begin with.” 

“Too bad you don’t have another biolem body to practice with,” Pack noted thoughtfully. 

Before either of us could pursue the thought any further, Wren called out, “Got it, I got it!” 

“You sure, kid?” Pack asked while immediately stepping over that way with me just behind her. 

Wren, who was perched on a stool with the scanner against Paige’s back as the other girl’s motionless body lay on her stomach, gave both of us a hurried nod of excitement. “Uh huh. I mean, unless she’s got some other metal orb thing in her body that’s connected to all her nerves and muscles and all for a completely unrelated reason.” Pausing as though considering that, she quickly shook her head, pointing to a point about midway down Paige’s back before hurriedly insisting. “It’s here. Right in there. Basically right between her lungs. You know, protected by the ribs.” 

Exchanging a look with Pack, I slowly nodded. “I mean, that makes sense. Her dad would want it to be safe. He put the others inside the skulls, but maybe he thought avoiding obvious headshot damage would be easier?” Shrugging, I added, “Anyway, great job, Wren. At least we know where it is now. And if it’s in her chest instead of her head, maybe it’ll be easier to get someone else involved without exposing her identity. I mean, we can mask her up pretty well, right? If it comes down to it, we can just hide her identity that way. They’d know there was a really good biological android… person, but not who she actually is.” 

It was Wren and Pack’s turn to exchange looks, before the latter shrugged. “Sure, it’s an idea.” 

For a moment, it looked like she was going to say something else, but a sudden chirp from my phone interrupted. Holding up a hand, I glanced at the phone. “Oh, hey, it’s time for me to go pick up my uhh…” 

“Your minions?” From the tone of her voice, Pack was incredibly amused by the whole situation. With a wave of both hands, she teased, “Time for the noble and incredibly valiant Star-Touched hero to go meet up with the older teenagers he press-ganged into being his loyal minions.” 

Boy was I glad the helmet meant she couldn’t see my blush. It really would’ve wrecked my rep. Or something. “They are not minions!” I blurted, my voice rising in an embarrassing squeak that Pack did an absolutely awful job of pretending not to laugh at. Hurried, I pushed on. “I mean they’re not–I’m not–they’re just… you know, helping out in exchange for not getting in trouble and then we’ll give them money if they keep helping and keeping everything we’re doing secret and oh my God they really are minions.” 

“Hey, it’s okay!” Wren piped up. “I’m sure you’ll treat your minions really good, right?” She started to say something else, then paused while looking at Pack. Something on her face made me glance that way too, before realizing what it was. The other girl was standing basically directly beside the painted banner on the wall that read, ‘We Never Work For Bad Guys.’

Pack, who turned a bit to see where we were looking, pivoted back and offered an exaggerated shrug. “Hey, I consider this more me working for you.” 

Wren, however, simply shook her head. “It just says we don’t work for bad guys. You’re not a bad guy. There’s bad guys and then there’s bad guys.” 

Coughing, the lizard-tamer gently pointed out, “Far be it from me to argue, kid, but I literally rob places. I mean, sure it’s fun to do some good stuff now and then, especially with you guys. And I’ve got my limits. Still, I ain’t gonna stop stealing shit. Most people would consider that being a bad guy. Pretty sure taking what doesn’t belong to you is part of the definition, actually.” 

“Uh huh.” Sounding entirely unconvinced, Wren pivoted to look at me. “Uncle Fred’s picking up a pizza! And some breadsticks and stuff! So you should bring them back so it’s still hot when they get here. Oh, and make sure they’re not lactose intolerant or gluten-free or anything,” she added sagely. 

“Speaking of which, have you told those guys about ahh… who they’ll be working for in this place?” Pack asked, making a vague token effort at keeping the amusement out of her voice. As she spoke, her hand fell on Wren’s shoulder, squeezing it. 

“Not yet,” I replied, already starting to head to the nearby window so I could head out. “I mean, I could’ve. 

“But why spoil the surprise?” 

*******

Reaching the roof above where I was supposed to meet Murphy and Roald, a few blocks from Wren’s shop, I was greeted with the sound of a basketball being dribbled, then bouncing off a rim. Peering over the edge, I saw the two in question playing on a nearby court attached to the small apartment complex this building was a part of. Yeah, it was definitely them. Roald the skinny, pale blond boy and Murphy (seriously, was that her first name?) the biracial girl with very short brown hair and a temper that was even shorter. 

Neither seemed to be particularly good at the game they were playing from the few moments I watched, but they were clearly having fun. And who was I to judge someone else’s basketball skills? I wasn’t exactly… uhhh insert good basketball player. Simon would know.

In any case, they missed a lot more baskets than they made, but neither of them seemed to care. Crouching there, staring at the two, I saw the way they just goofed off and acted like they were both hotshot stars, playing up for an imaginary crowd and trash-talking each other.

God, what was I doing here? Why was I involving them at all in any of this? I should just disappear, leave a message to let the two of them know everything was fine and they didn’t owe anything, and let them live in peace. Even if I wasn’t planning on involving them in any of the actual… bad stuff, just having any connection to me could put them in danger. They didn’t have any powers or anything. They were total civilian Prevs with their whole lives to deal with. 

Right, their whole lives. That was the problem. I’d promised the two of them jobs, a way to get out of the holes that were their lives if they put some effort into it. Sure, they were going to have to work off the cost of the damage they’d done before, but after that, working for a Tech-Touched could seriously change everything for them. If I snatched that away now, after saying I was going to give them a chance, I doubted they’d listen to ‘but it’s for your own good.’ I’d just be another asshole who didn’t give them a chance. 

Besides, I could still keep them out of the worst of it. Working with Wren wasn’t exactly being around me. And Wren had all those defenses she’d been working on, right? Right. Yeah, I just had to keep convincing myself that this wasn’t an awful, terrible, horrible idea that I was going to regret. 

Pushing on past all that, I straightened, took aim, and fired a shot of red paint at the ball while it was in midair. Holding out my own red glove, I activated the paint, summoning the ball to me just as it bounced off the edge of the big wooden board thing the rim was attached to. 

Murphy and Roald both pivoted, their eyes following the ball as it flew all the way up to the roof of the three story building I was on. While they watched, I overhand chucked it back the other way, hurling the ball as hard as I could in the vague direction of the basket. It sailed… nowhere near going in. But while the ball was still falling, I hit both it and the inner part of the rim with red paint, activating them with a thought. That sent the ball on a complete course correction, falling neatly through the net. 

“Whooo!” Leaping from the roof, I painted my feet orange to land comfortably on the pavement. “How many points is that? Like seven?” 

The other two exchanged looks, before Roald jogged over to get the ball. As he was doing that, Murphy approached. She still had the mark on her face from the sealant that the ambulance guys used, since it hadn’t been a week yet. 

Oh my God, it hadn’t been a week yet? What the fuck? Was it really only Tuesday when Paige’s birthday party had been Saturday? It felt like it had been a couple months at least. What the hell was happening to my life? 

While I was busy reeling from the shock of how time worked, Murphy gestured toward the ball that her friend was picking up and remarked, “How’d you do that?” 

“Uhh, you do know I used my power, right?” I was confused. “I’m pretty sure I wasn’t that sneaky.” 

While the girl rolled her eyes so hard I thought she might pass out, Roald approached and spoke up. “She means the paint part. You hit the ball in midair twice from all the way up on the roof. And you hit the inner part of the rim. Those are like… really good shots.” 

“Oh.” Blinking at the thought, I finally shrugged. “I dunno. Guess I’ve had practice aiming my paint lately. And if you think that’s impressive, you should see me navigate a forest in the middle of the night.” 

Right, I should probably try to figure out what was up with that at some point, huh? 

Poor Roald and Murphy, meanwhile, were just staring at each other in silence for a few seconds before both turned back to me. “Dude,” Murphy managed, “if you try to get us to follow you into a dark forest, I’m gonna have to peace out. I don’t do nature walks. Also, I’m pretty sure that’s how like half of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales start. You know, the original really psycho ones.”

“I promise to wait awhile before taking you to the Gingerbread House,” I solemnly replied before gesturing. “Anyway, you guys ready?”

“Sure, do we need these?” From her pocket, Murphy pulled out a ski mask. Probably the same one she’d been wearing that night when they tried to steal from the convenience shop.

“We weren’t sure how much you wanted us to hide,” Roald put in. 

“Depends,” I replied, “do you want to wear those the whole time you’re working for your new boss? I mean, it’s totally up to you and I’m pretty sure she could help you with more comfortable ones if you wanna keep your identities secret and all that. But you don’t have to. Like I said, up to you.” 

After a moment of thought and whispered conversation, Murphy shoved the mask away again and shrugged. “Whatever. I mean, you said we’re working for this chick, right? This shit is legit?” From the sound of her voice, she was at least half-expecting me to laugh in their faces and take off. Between that and the whole thing with her drug-addict brother giving her that cut on her face, I was getting the vague impression that Murphy didn’t have a lot of dependable people in her life. 

“As legit as we can make it,” I assured her. Briefly thinking about how both of them were going to react to finding out their boss was technically still young enough to get into the theater using kid prices, I smiled faintly. “I mean yeah. It’ll be real work and, as soon as you catch up with what you owe for your little escapade, you’ll make real money. From there, well, we’ll see what happens.” 

“Okay, sure, whatever. But how do we get there?” Murphy gave me a doubtful look. “And please don’t say we have to let you carry us or something. That’s just gonna be embarrassing for everyone involved.” 

Snorting at that, I shook my head and gave them the address and directions. “It’s just a couple blocks that way. You head there and wait by the backdoor. I’ll let you in and we’ll meet your new–” 

In mid-sentence, I cut myself off. Something had drifted past the corner of my eye, over by the building. My gaze snapped that way, and I thought I saw it right next to one of the bushes there. I could’ve sworn that it looked like one of those Summus Proelium orbs, but it was gone the instant I focused, so it must’ve just been my imagination. A trick of the light or something.

Either way, facing that direction meant I saw the trucks that went past. Several of them, in fact, all decked out with Easy Eight decals, men with weapons standing in the backs. I even caught a glimpse of Juice himself in one of the passenger seats. He was looking away from me, his attention on wherever they were going. But it was definitely him. 

A bunch of Easy Eight people heading down the street into what I was fairly certain was considered Ninety-Niner territory? Fuck. This wasn’t gonna end well. Or start and proceed well, come to think of it. It was gonna be bad all around. 

“Paintball?” That was Roald, drawing my attention. “What’s–” 

“Go to the address,” I blurted, already starting to move after the line of trucks. “Hit the bell on the back door, tell them who you are, and that I’ll be there soon. Just let them know that I’m going after some Easy Eights heading into Ninety-Niner territory.

“Looks like there’s not gonna be a ceasefire in the gangwar today after all.”

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