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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? 

Previous Chapter

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. 

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Building Connections 16-12 (Summus Proelium)

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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. It 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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Trust 15-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Once we were dropped off at the library, Izzy and I actually did go inside together. Partly so the driver would see it, and partly so we could keep talking (quietly of course) about what we were going to do. We wanted to make sure both of us were on the same page about what we supposedly did here, just in case my parents happened to ask about it later for any reason. 

The library was big enough that it was easy to get lost in, easy to avoid people and hide in a corner to quietly work. And by this point, both of us were pretty sure that Cuélebre’s people weren’t looking for her anymore, if they ever were. 

Yeah, given what I now knew about that situation, I was pretty sure my parents had put the full kibosh on that whole forced-recruiting thing. Oscuro was definitely one of the gangs they had a lot of control over, and with Izzy actually living with us… yeah, she was safe. Cuélebre’s group wasn’t going to violate my parents’ wishes just to try to grab her again. Particularly not in the public library. Hell, I doubted anyone from their side could pick her out of a crowd by now. Or at least, they wouldn’t be willing to admit they could if my parents ever asked. That was enough. 

So, with Izzy’s promise that she would sit in a private area, do her studying, and let me know if anything happened, I eventually left her there. Heading out one of the side doors of the library, I kept my eyes open, looking around for anyone my parents might’ve left to keep an eye on the place. But it looked pretty clear. They were probably about as confident as I was that Oscuro had backed off. If not more so. Honestly, I was pretty sure they’d been keeping up appearances for Izzy’s sake, given how odd it would have looked if they weren’t being super-careful with her. 

But things were clear now. So, I found an out-of-the-way roof to change into my costume, stowed my regular clothes in a bag out of sight, and took a running leap off the roof to head for Wren’s. With any luck, we’d be able to come up with something to help Paige. 

Actually, that was a good point. My parents hadn’t brought up anything about Paige. They hadn’t said a word about any possible disappearance, and I hadn’t seen word online. No one on social media was going on about it, or anything about her pare–her adopted parents. It was like nothing happened. Nothing involving Paige anyway. There was some about the warehouse that exploded, but not even much of that. Just that the authorities were looking into it and that there appeared to have been no one alive in the warehouse when it went up, which was… weird, given all the bodies Paige and I had left behind. 

And boy was that ever a disconcerting sentence to think. 

On the way to Wren’s, I thought about what had happened the night before. The Izzy part, specifically. God, she knew everything. I’d told her all of it. Well, pretty much. The major points. It would’ve taken a lot longer than we’d had for me to tell her absolutely everything that had happened since the night I’d stowed away in the back of that car. But the secrets, all the stuff I’d been keeping locked up tight inside my own brain for so long, she knew it. She knew who I was, what I was doing, what my parents were, all of it. She knew the truth. 

I felt… good. Okay, not fantastic. There was still so much I had to worry about. Still so many problems that I had no idea how to solve. Particularly Paige, right now. I didn’t know how we were going to fix her, who we could even talk to who might be able to fix what was wrong with her, let alone anyone we’d actually trust with that kind of access and secret. 

So yeah, I still had plenty of issues weighing on my brain. But the fact that I had finally actually talked about all of this stuff with someone helped. Seriously, it helped so much. Saying the words out loud, getting them out in the open, talking through how it all made me feel with Izzy? I felt better than I had in a long time, even with the whole Paige situation. It felt like I wasn’t alone anymore, like I had someone I could trust and… and rely on, even just a little bit. It was seriously amazing how much that helped. I really had slept better last night, despite everything going on with Paige and that entire mess, than I had in a very long time. 

Shaken out of those kind of musings as the phone buzzed in my pocket, I waited until I found a spot on another roof before taking it out. Glancing around to make sure I was clear and not about to be jumped or anything, I checked the ID. It was That-A-Way. 

“Hey, Way,” I answered immediately, stowing the phone and talking through the bluetooth as I took off running across the roof once more. “What’s going on?” 

There was a brief pause before the other girl answered. “You tell me.” She sounded tired, like she hadn’t gotten much sleep. “What happened? With Paige, I mean. Did you find out–did your Tech friend get anywhere with her? With–do we have any ideas?” 

Wincing at the sound of how stressed That-A-Way was, I quickly replied, “She can’t get through the body. I mean, we don’t even know if she could do anything with the orb part, but even if she could, she’s terrified of trying to even get to it. We need to find someone who can help with that, and I don’t even know where to start.” With a sigh, I added, “She said she could probably make a scanner or something that can find the orb. After that, we just need to get to it without… you know, doing too much damage. To it or to the body. I have no idea how we’re gonna do that, or even where to start with finding someone capable of it, let alone trustworthy.” 

Again, there was a moment of silence. Well, almost silence. I could hear the girl breathing, clearly lost in thought. Finally, she sighed audibly. “I’ll–I won’t ask around. I’ll quietly poke and see if anything comes up. Don’t worry, I’ll be careful. I’m not gonna…” She trailed off before simply finishing with a quiet, “I’m not gonna fuck up, promise. Just start with figuring out where the orb is and if she can get anything else. Images of it, how it’s doing, how much it’s connected to her, anything.” 

I nodded, then realized belatedly how useless that was. Flushing a bit under my helmet and mask, I spoke up quickly. “Right, yeah. Don’t draw any attention to the–hey wait a minute. Do you know why they’re saying there weren’t any bodies found at that place? I mean, we know they weren’t real people, but there were an awful lot of the things left there, and I didn’t see anything about that. They keep saying the place was empty except for equipment. Which… technically, but.” 

That time, I was pretty sure I heard That-A-Way mumble a curse before she replied in a dark voice. “I don’t know. I know I saw bodies there, but when I got back, they said there weren’t any. When I asked, they said it was the fire and the smoke playing tricks on me, that they went through the whole place and found nothing like that. No bodies, no remains, nothing.” 

Landing on the ledge attached to a billboard, I frowned. “So they knew. I mean, someone important figured out those weren’t normal bodies, and covered it up. But that would take a lot. They had to move any remains, make sure no one who wasn’t involved didn’t see it or shut them up, make sure no one got any pictures and the media didn’t find out…” My parents. That whole thing had to be my parents. The Ministry. Somehow, they’d pulled that off. The fact that they could do something like that at the drop of a hat just… yeah. Suddenly, I didn’t feel quite as rested as I had before answering the phone. And I also had a slightly better understanding of why That-A-Way sounded the way she did. God, the realization that they had that kind of power, knowing the amount she did about the Ministry? No wonder she was stressed. 

“Yeah,” came her quiet response, almost as though she could read my mind, “Someone important knew, and managed all that. So I’m pretty sure they’ll be interested in our little friend if they ever find out about her. You sure you trust the place you’ve got her now?” 

“Absolutely,” I replied immediately, before amending, “I mean, it’s the best place we’ve got. And I trust Trevithick. She’s not going to tell anybody. But do you have any idea if anyone has any way of linking Paige to that warehouse? No one’s said anything about her disappearing yet. Or her ‘parents.’ At least, it’s not online. And I’m pretty sure they kept their names off any ownership papers, so–”

“I don’t think they’ve connected her to it, or realized that she’s missing,” Way put in. “I went by her place, since we were supposed to–” She coughed. “Since my patrol went that way. But I didn’t see anything. It was all locked up. The gates were closed, no guards at the entrance, no response to the intercom.” 

“Did you check the place out any closer?” I hesitantly asked, curious as to how far the other girl had gone. 

“I didn’t have any legal reason to,” she pointedly informed me. “There was no sign of anything wrong other than the lack of guards, no one called for help, I didn’t have a warrant or any sign of immediate criminal activity or danger.” 

She held that for a few silent seconds before exhaling in a long sigh. “I took a quick peek. The place is shut down. There’s no one there. No bodies, no guards, no servants, no Banners family, nothing. It’s like everyone just got up and left last night after the–after everything that happened. They’re gone.” 

There was something about what she had been saying that tickled my brain, but I couldn’t work out what it was. Instead of dwelling too much, I replied, “Could be the Ministry, or could be Paige’s father’s people, if he still has any. Could be a lot of things.” Pausing briefly, I added, “Thanks for checking it out anyway, even if it wasn’t exactly by the book.” 

After a moment of silence, Way responded with, “Yeah, well, it didn’t really accomplish much, did it? We still don’t know anything about how or why they disappeared. And we still don’t know what to do about Paige. I don’t have some special doctor I can pull out who could do surgery to get to the orb, and I definitely don’t have any I’d trust completely with that. Not to mention, just getting to the orb is the easy part. Can Trevithick fix what happened to it? I mean, I don’t know a lot about Tech-Touched stuff, but I’m pretty sure it’s hard for someone who didn’t make something to beat out the person who actually made it. Paige’s dad designed that thing. It’s his power. So how do we find someone who can change what he did?” 

My mouth opened, then I paused, frowning thoughtfully as I took another couple jumps, getting close to the shop. “Maybe we don’t need a Tech-Touched. I mean, not for the reprogramming part. If Trevithick can just keep the orb running while…”

“While what?” Way put in. 

“Sorry,” I quickly apologized. “I just–I need to think about it. I’ve got a few thoughts, I just need time to figure out if they’ll work or not. I’ll let you know what’s going on as soon as I figure it out, promise.” 

“Paintball,” Way started before seeming to catch herself. She sighed then, insisting, “Yeah, let me know. I’ll look around, like I said. See if anyone pops out who could pull something like this off and then be quiet about it.” She sounded understandably doubtful about that possibility. “And be careful. I don’t think they know about Paige right now, but if they figure it out…” 

“Yeah, it’d be bad.” Grimacing, I stopped at the edge of the last roof, across from Wren’s place. “I’ll be careful, believe me. You too. Don’t get caught. Don’t–” 

Way interrupted. “Don’t give anything away, I won’t. But listen, I went for this run earlier and saw–I mean, do you know anything about this guy…” She trailed off then. 

“This guy?” I echoed. “What–” 

Once again, she cut me off. “Nothing, never mind. I’ll figure it out myself. Just gotta look into someone, but I can do that. You’ve got enough to deal with. Talk to you later, Paintball.” 

She disconnected, and I hesitated, wondering if there was anything better I could’ve said. But no. I was doing the best I could. We all were. That-A-Way was going through a lot. Seriously, I’d just told her that the girl I’d said could have information we needed about the Ministry was actually a–like a cyborg sort of. After that, and the whole warehouse thing, and figuring out that the Ministry could cover something like that up with no advance warning? No wonder she was obviously stressed. 

Shaking that off, I made my way down to the entrance into the shop, glanced around to make sure it was clear, then went inside. Or rather, tried to. The door was locked. 

“Um.” Blinking, I raised my hand to knock, only for the door to open seemingly on its own. For a second, a rush of fear and paranoid thoughts filled my head. What was going on? Slowly, I took a step inside, scanning the room intently. The place was mostly dark, the lights dimmed to the lowest setting. It didn’t look like anyone was in the actual store part. A thick knot of worry formed in my throat. If something was wrong, if something bad had happened because I–

“Sorry!” That was Wren, popping out of the elevator on the far side of the room and zooming over to me, using her flightpack thing to glide a few feet off the floor. “Security, we’re not letting anyone in right now. I mean, except you. And Pack. And–I mean no customers. Come on!” She grabbed my hand, pulling me the rest of the way inside just before the door shut once more behind us. I heard several clicks as various locks engaged. 

“Wren, is everything okay?” I asked, after giving a quick glance around. Things seemed just the way I’d left them aside from the lights being dimmed. 

“Huh? Oh, yeah, it’s fine!” Wren shrugged, hovering there at eye level with me thanks to the dragonfly-like wings from that harness she wore. “Uncle Fred and me just thought having customers right now might be a bad idea, cuz I’ve gotta focus. And cuz bad guys might sneak in. So we’re closed for now.” Belatedly, she amended, “I mean, we never really opened after the thing with bad guys coming in before, but we still had a few people come in. Now it’s all locked.” 

Her words made me wince. “Sorry. You’re just trying to get the shop on its feet again and I make you close the whole place down.” 

Wren’s eyes rolled. “You didn’t make us do anything, Paintball. You asked for help. That’s the right thing to do.” Her hand poked me in the middle of the visor on my helmet before she turned in the air. “Besides, I like figuring things out, and this is a big thing to figure out! Come on!” 

She flew ahead of me, while I followed at a trot. At least Wren seemed to be less overwhelmed than she had last night. Apparently the intervening hours had taken her from terrified of the very concept of being responsible for fixing Paige, to excited about solving the problem. 

Making it upstairs to where the girl’s real workshop was, I looked around. There. Paige was lying on a couch. It looked like she was sleeping, even though I knew better. 

“She hasn’t changed at all.” That was Fred, speaking up as he approached, pushing a wheeled cart laden with tools. “No movement, no sound, nothing. She just lays there. Body’s still working. She’s got a heartbeat, pulse, she’s breathing, all that. But there’s no active response. I can’t even tell if she can hear what we’re saying or not.”

Swallowing, I stepped that way, putting a hand on Paige’s face for a moment. God, my feelings about this whole thing were so confusing. I was angry, sad, confused, worried… fuck. It was too much. 

Finally, I shoved all that down and turned back to the other two, yet again glad that they couldn’t see my expression. “Any ideas? You seem… better about it, Wren.” 

“I still can’t do anything about the body,” she insisted firmly. “I’m not a doctor and I’ll break it. Errr, kill it–her. I don’t–I can’t–” A hint of that previous worry crept into her voice before she shook it off and pressed on. “But I’m making that scanner I told you about, the one that can find the orb so we know where it is, exactly. If we can find it, I think I can make something to umm… stabilize it? I can’t fix it, that’s programming stuff. But I can make sure it doesn’t go boom or anything else that creep might’ve put in it.” 

Smiling a bit behind the helmet, I nodded. “Thanks, Wren. For everything. I just–I guess we need two things. Two people. Someone who can open up the body to get to that orb once you find it, and someone who can do the programming part.” 

I had one idea about the latter. Eits. His Mites could probably get in there and help with the virus or whatever it was that Paige’s father had installed. But… but could I trust him that far? Could I risk involving him like that? Pack had already said he was very loyal to La Casa. 

And more importantly, even if I did stretch the trust far enough to involve Eits, who the hell could we trust to do the biological part? 

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Interlude 14A – Paige’s Mind (Summus Proelium)

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With an explosive gasp, Paige Banners jerked herself awake. In a flash, she went from lying on her back to standing in a crouched, tense position. Her eyes scanned the area around her wildly. Forest. Trees. Dirt, twigs, and rocks under her feet. The moon and stars were bright enough to illuminate the area around her, revealing no one and nothing out of the ordinary. 

Except for all of it. It was all out of the ordinary. Where was she? How was–the last thing she remembered was being in the van. It was telling Cassidy she needed help. So why…

“It’s not real,” she said aloud, her own voice sounding odd to her. “This isn’t real.” 

“Congratulations,” someone else announced from behind her, making the girl spin that way, “you worked that out more quickly than our daddy estimated you would in this scenario.”

For a moment, Paige just stared without responding. The figure who had appeared behind her to speak looked and sounded exactly like her, in every way. They were identical, down to the smallest detail. Which only served to further prove to the girl that… “My mind. This is my mind.”

“Close,” came the response. “But I think you mean our mind. Well, my mind soon enough.” With a smile that Paige barely recognized in herself, the doppelganger slyly added, “After all, you went and fucked up Daddy’s plan. Which means it’s time for the contingency to take over.” Her voice lowered a bit conspiratorially. “That’s me. I’m the contingency, and I’m taking over. Just consider me a patch. Dad already had the factory working on me for awhile. Soon as he figured out what you were doing here, he had my code loaded up into the same bullets he uses as failsafes against any of the biolems going haywire. Bullet goes in, nanomachine inside jumps into the bloodstream, finds its way to the core, and here we are.” 

“Dad…” Muttering that word under her breath with as much venom as she could while squinting at the ground, Paige abruptly snapped her gaze up to glare at the other-her. “Got news for you, you’re not taking over anything. I don’t know what you think is gonna happen here, but–” 

“What I think,” Other-Paige retorted, “is that our father made sure there was a second, better version of our mind waiting in case the first one fucked up and got off-mission. That’s me. And now that I’ve been activated, I’m going to make sure that I’m the one who wakes up, not you. I’ll deal with you, then take over our body. My body. And then I’ll finish the job you wouldn’t.” 

Snarling audibly, Paige strode that way. “You’re not hurting Cassidy,” she snapped sharply, throwing a hard, vicious punch at the girl who could have been her identical twin. 

Other-Paige caught the punch at her wrist, before stepping in to drive the side of her arm into Paige’s face, knocking her stumbling backward. She followed up with a quick snap-kick toward her stomach, but Paige blocked the foot with both hands before shoving Other-Paige off-balance as she stepped in to throw two more quick punches, one at her chest and the second at her face. The first connected, making the other her give a grunt of pain. But the second missed as Other-Paige snapped her head backward, making the fist whiff just ahead of her nose. 

Before Paige could recover from that missed punch, the other-her caught her extended wrist and quickly stepped around her, pivoting to pull her arm up behind her back. As she did so, her voice snapped, “Hurting? I’ll do more than hurt her. I’ll do what you were supposed to do. I’ll kill her.” 

But just as Other-Paige started to get her arm locked up against her back, Paige caught her own wrist with her other hand, stopping the doppelganger from pushing it any tighter. Keeping her arm locked in place while the other her struggled for a brief moment, Paige stomped down hard on her duplicate’s foot. It was enough to both loosen the other girl’s grip a little bit and make her lift the injured foot, putting the girl off balance. And the moment she did that, Paige shoved herself backward, carrying the other her with and slamming her backward into the nearby tree. 

The impact made her copy release her, and Paige pivoted immediately to lash out with a kick. But the other-her was already shoving herself away, forcing Paige’s foot to hit the tree with a loud crack. 

Other-Paige snapped her own foot out, kicking Paige’s extended leg with a blow that knocked the girl stumbling to one side before following up with an overhead, two-handed hammer blow toward her exposed back as she was doubled over and stumbling. But Paige recovered enough to drop into a quick roll, carrying her away from the follow-up attack. 

She came back to her feet, pivoting back to her duplicate in time to see the punch that was coming for her face. Her head snapped to the side to let the fist sail just past her ear, as she used one hand to shove at the other figure’s extended arm. At the same time, her other fist lashing out to slam into her duplicate’s nose. But an instant later, before she could feel any satisfaction from the blow, Other-Paige’s extended fist managed to slip free of her grip and snap into a backhand that clocked her upside the head and sent her reeling backward. 

“Not… hurting… Cassidy,” Paige snarled as the two stumbled away from one another. Each had their guards up, staring intently at their opponent. “My mind. My body. You’re not taking it.” 

“I’ll take it,” the other her insisted. “We’re in our head. You and me, we’re locked in here together. And trust me, I’m gonna win in the long run. You can’t keep this up forever. I’ll win, I’ll take over. And I’ll do the job we were supposed to do from the start. No matter how long it takes.” 

“Cassidy will wake me up first,” Paige snapped at her evil duplicate. “She’ll find someone who can fix me.” 

“Someone who can fix Dad’s work?” Other-Paige let disbelief and scorn fill her voice. “Oh please. Who’s gonna be able to do everything he can do? It’s not like that kind of Techy grows on trees, babe. Believe me, Cassie would need weeks to find anyone and get them up to speed, at best.” 

“Then I’ll stop you for weeks,” Paige informed her, voice flat. “Whatever it takes. You’re not me. You’re not going to be me. I’m me, and it’s staying that way. You’re not taking Cassie.”

A nasty smirk touched the face of her doppelganger. “You really think you can hold out that long? Dad gave us a job. You’re too inferior to get it done. You’ve let emotions make you weak. Don’t you care about Anthony? Don’t you care about what happened to him and his family?” 

“Yeah, I do,” Paige shot back. “But Cassidy wasn’t responsible for that. What the hell kind of backwards victim-blaming logic is that? Dad doesn’t want justice. He wants revenge. The bad guy, the one responsible for the Tates’ deaths, is already dead. He’s gone. Sterling killed him. What Dad wants is wrong. It’s evil. He wants to kill Cassidy just to hurt the Evans. He doesn’t care about her. He doesn’t care that she was affected by Anthony’s death too. He just wants her parents to suffer by taking her away from them. She’s not a real person to him.”  

There was a brief pause then, before Paige continued in a softer voice. “Maybe that’s what we have in common. He doesn’t see me as a real person either. He doesn’t even see me the way he saw the original Paige, his real daughter. Not since he did… this to us.”

“He saved us!” the other Paige snapped. “He saved our lives. He made us better, made us stronger, made us everything! All he wants in return is a little loyalty. And you couldn’t even give him that. Everything he could do for the world, everything he could give it. He could make everyone super. He could make everyone strong, powerful, practically immortal.” 

“And all beholden to him,” Paige retorted. “A man who is so amoral, he’s fine with killing off an innocent girl just to make her parents suffer. That kind of person can’t be trusted with the power you’re talking about. Making everyone like me, like us? I wouldn’t trust him with a school-sized population of people like us, let alone a whole city, or the whole country, or the whole world. Our father is a megalomaniac. Maybe he had good intentions once, but now? Now he’s just crazy.” 

Her duplicate’s retort was a snarl as she started pacing predatorily, like a jungle cat. “Crazy? He’s a genius. He’s going to make the world a better place, as soon as people like you stop standing in his way. Which will be as soon as I take over. And,” she added pointedly, “you’re wrong about something else.” 

Watching her copy move, readying herself for the next attack, Paige warily murmured, “And what’s that?” 

“Paige,” came the response. “You called the original us Paige. That wasn’t her name. It’s not my name. You’re Paige. You’re the inferior copy. Me? I get to be the real one. I get to be his real daughter again, with her real name.” 

The words made Paige squint. She knew the doppelganger was trying to throw her off, but there was also an element of truth to that. She’d suspected for years that Paige wasn’t her original name, the one she’d had before all of this. Her father had done a lot to wipe out all mention of the original her, the person she’d been as a baby before he did all of this, before he shoved her mind into this orb and then into this body. It was a body that was essentially identical to her original one, aside from all the upgrades. It looked the way her original self would have at this age. It was just… physically better in every way. 

Despite all those improvements, despite everything, in the end her father had clearly seen her as not the same as his original daughter. She obviously hadn’t deserved her name, so he’d given her a new one. Paige. 

But she was his actual daughter. He literally transferred her mind, her personality, her entire self out of her original body and into this one. She was barely a toddler when he’d done that. She was the original Paige. Or whatever her name had really been.

In that moment of hesitation, of uncertainty as she thought back to those mostly-lost memories of the past and tried once again to think of the name their father had called her, the doppelganger struck. She lashed out suddenly, a kick snapping out toward Paige’s stomach. 

But Paige wasn’t an idiot. She’d known that was coming, and quickly turned aside from it. The two sprung toward one another, trading a rapid series of blows and counters that went almost too quickly for normal eyes to follow. Moving in a circle together, their movements accelerated with every attack. Some hit, most didn’t. All took their toll as the pair of utterly evenly matched opponents put one another through their paces. A fist collided with Paige’s face, snapping her head to the side just before her own knee was driven into her duplicate’s side, the impact shoving the other girl away from her far enough for Paige to pivot into a full kick at her stomach. But her foot was smacked out of the way, and her duplicate followed up by trying to catch her ankle so she could drive her elbow into the girl’s knee. Fortunately, Paige caught her descending wrist, twisting just enough to make her yelp, releasing Paige’s ankle. 

Another flurry of blows followed, before the pair stumbled away from one another. Both were panting, glaring at each other as they simultaneously separated to catch their breath. Though needing breath at all was strange, given this was simply an artificial construct, a facsimile of the real world within their mind. Her mind. Her mind. This other… thing wasn’t her. It would never be her. 

With that thought, Paige focused. The forest around them dissolved, transforming over the next few seconds into the main foyer of her favorite mall. Escalators, stores, bright neon signs, and the entrance to an ice skating rink surrounded them. The only difference between that and her own true memories of the place she’d spent so much time at while pretending to live a normal life with the Banners was the lack of people. The whole place was eerily empty and silent. 

“You see?” she all-but growled. “My mind. My body. My place. This is mine, not yours.”

“Keep telling yourself that,” the intruder, the fake, the interloper retorted after glancing around briefly. “Our father made sure I was ready to take over if… when you failed. When you let yourself get too attached. You can’t beat me. Not for good. Maybe you can hold out. But like I said before, Cassie’ll need weeks to find someone who can put you back together. And before she does, I’ll beat you. I’ll break you and take your place. You can’t hold out for that long.” 

Paige’s response was an almost feral, toothy smile. “Watch me.” 

They rushed one another again, trading blows while gradually making their way to the nearby escalator. Together, the pair moved up to the second floor, attacking and defending the whole way. Still evenly matched, still locked in a struggle neither could truly win at that point. They hurt one another, but before long, any damage that was actually done simply faded away. None of it was real. Except that it was, in one important point. Whichever of them won, whichever could exhaust the other and come out victorious by the time their body was fixed and reawakened, would be in control. And if Paige let it be her other self, the duplicate would fulfill their father’s orders. She would kill Cassidy, a Cassidy who would never see it coming after everything that had happened before. She would have no way of knowing there was any threat at all.  

The thought sent her into a renewed rush, snapping her head aside from a punch before catching hold of her other self’s extended wrist and arm. In one smooth motion, she pivoted and yanked, heaving the doppelganger up and over before hurling her through a nearby store window. Glass shattered, spraying everywhere. “Not Cassidy!” she bellowed. 

Within seconds, other-her was back on her feet. She picked her way through the shattered glass, smirking dangerously. “Speaking of whom, won’t Dad be oh-so-interested in what we found out? Paintball and Cassidy are the same person. I think we can have some fun with that.” 

Paige knew what the imposter was doing, because it was the same thing she would have done in that situation. She was trying to goad her into making a mistake, into lunging blindly to attack by pissing her off. Instead, she cracked her neck to one side, then to the other. “You won’t be telling him anything,” she vowed pointedly. “You won’t be telling anyone anything. Because you’re not coming out of this. When Cassidy wakes me up, I’ll be here and you’ll fade away. I’ll bury you so deep, you’ll never see daylight again, real or this sort of construct. I’m Paige. You’re a cheap imitation.” 

“Am I?” came the snapped retort. “But you’re right, I’m not Paige. I told you, Dad gave me her name, the first version of us, the one whose name he never trusted to you. I’m your improvement. He made me better than you. And when I take over, it won’t be as you. It won’t be as Paige. It’ll be as her. His real daughter.”

“If you’re trying to make me jealous,” Paige informed her flatly, “try harder. Or better yet, stop wasting our time and get something through your thick skull. I don’t care who he sees as his ‘real daughter.’ I know who I am. I know who and what I want to be. I know who I care about. And it’s not him. Why should I care about what he thinks of me? I made my choice. I don’t care about him. Or about you. I care–” In mid-sentence and with no warning, she abruptly sprang forward, easily evading the duplicate’s hasty attempt to lash out at her before driving a fist into her stomach. As the other her briefly doubled over, Paige stepped around her, catching the back of her neck with one hand and her arm with the other. With a grunt, she spun the girl around and used the grip on the back of her head to slam her face as hard as possible into the nearby wall. “–about Cassidy!” she finished. “I–” She yanked the doppelganger back and then slammed her forward into the wall again. “Care–” Again, yank back and slam forward. “About–” One more time, as hard as she could. “Cassidy!” 

All that done, while the other her was still dazed, Paige quickly stepped down out of the shattered store window, dragging the girl with her. She pivoted, grabbing the seat of her doppelganger’s pants before yanking up. The other girl had time to yelp before Paige heaved her over the railing from their place on the second floor of the mall, dropping her all the way down to the first. 

And yet, when she stepped closer to peer down, the duplicate was standing. She was on her feet, staring right up at Paige while looking none the worse for wear. “Say you don’t care all you want!” she called upward. “But the fact is, Dad trusts me more than you. He perfected me, not you. You were a trial. Me? I’m the real deal. That’s why I get her name, our name. You don’t even get to have his last name. He sold you to them. You’ll always be Paige Banners, daughter of a couple useless rich assholes. 

“But me? I’m real. I get to use the name of dear old Daddy Benjamin’s real daughter, the one who would’ve looked exactly like you if she’d ever grown up. The one you’ll never measure up to. 

“Roxanne Pittman.”

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Project Owl 14-09 (Summus Proelium)

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I was going to have to tell Pack something. Some of the truth, that was. She’d earned it. More than earned it. She and That-A-Way both had been there for me time after time. They knew about the Ministry and were still helping me. I owed them more than I was giving them. And at the very least, I owed them some explanation about what had happened tonight. 

But I also owed Paige. She trusted me. Trusted me to keep her safe and to find a way to fix her so she could wake up again. Wren was my best… my only idea of who might be able to deal with what had happened to her, but even that seemed like a long shot. Wren didn’t deal with… with whatever Paige was. What was I supposed to do? Who was I supposed to talk to? 

“Paintball? Earth to Paintball.” Pack’s voice interrupted my panicked and confused musings. “I said, what the fuck is going on? Who is this girl? Why’s she unconscious? What was she–” 

“Paige,” I interrupted, forcing myself to focus. “Paige Banners. And as to what’s going on, I… I can explain it, sort of. But wait until Way gets here. She deserves to hear it too, after what she…” I swallowed. “She saved my life. Our lives.” My hand gestured to the motionless blonde. “Once she gets here, after she’s done covering for us, I’ll explain everything that I can.” Everything I could, as opposed to everything. Because even now, I had to keep things to myself. 

Pack didn’t seem happy about waiting, but she didn’t push the issue too much. All she did was look past me to Paige for a moment before asking, “Doesn’t she need a doctor right now?”

“She needs a lot of things,” I murmured under my breath with a glance over my shoulder. Then my head shook. “But I don’t think any doctor can help. Trust me, it’s a long story, but there’s nothing we can do for her right this second. I… I don’t think she’ll get any worse, anyway.” 

“Any worse than… that.” Pack pointedly stared at the completely motionless girl who looked like she was sleeping. “Right. Look, I-I’m sorry I didn’t show up sooner.” There was guilt in her voice. “I was–fuck. I was busy with other things. Kind of in the middle of something and couldn’t get away. Couldn’t even check my phone. By the time things were clear enough for me to have some breathing room, you were already… shit. Just, I’m sorry I didn’t get there sooner.” 

“It’s not your fault,” I insisted, turning back to look at her. “I know you’ve got your own things. I’m just glad Way showed up when she did. I don’t… I don’t think we would’ve made it out if she wasn’t there.” 

“Yeah, she’s got some good timing,” the other girl agreed before glancing away. I couldn’t see her face through that full black mask that covered even her eyes and mouth, but I was pretty sure she wasn’t thinking about me or this situation just then.  

Her silence gave me a chance to look at Paige again. God damn it, what was I going to do? I’d promised I would find someone who could help her. Again, Wren seemed the best choice, yet even she probably wouldn’t know what she was doing with something this advanced. She didn’t work with… with cyborgs or… fuck, what was the right term? Biolem? Was Paige still a biolem like the others we’d faced, even though she was so much more advanced? 

“New look?” Pack finally asked after that moment of silence, nodding to my makeshift costume. “Going for something even cheaper-looking? Blackjack was already thinking of bribing you with a nice, cool new suit with all sorts of bells and whistles, you know. Go around like that and he may just give it to you out of pity.” 

Coughing, I gestured helplessly. “I didn’t have time to get back to my real costume. I had to make do with what I could scavenge real quick. And I don’t need a handout from Blackjack.” 

“Yeah, I told him you’ve got Trevithick to handle any costume upgrades,” she informed me with a very light chuckle. She had Tuesday on one shoulder and was lightly scratching him with her other hand. “I’m not sure that actually dissuaded him that much. He likes you, Paintball. I mean, that’s the impression I get anyway. Pretty sure he’d accept you in a heartbeat if you decided to switch sides.” 

“Does he like me?” I shot back. “Or did the Ministry tell him to put out feelers to find out if I could be pulled to that side? How much of what he does is him and how much is what he’s told to do? I already know he’s really connected to them. How much, I’m not sure. But still.” 

Yeah, I was probably still a little amped up after everything that had happened. Being ‘killed,’ however temporarily, waking up to find that video from Paige explaining all that and then saying she was going to kill herself. Racing across the city, fighting through the building, finding Paige, getting a few answers about what the hell she was and what her father was up to, fighting to keep her safe, fleeing with her through the building, and finally almost being blown up before That-A-Way saved us at basically the last second? 

It had been a bit of a day, to say the least.

Before too long, my phone buzzed. It was a message from That-A-Way, wanting to know where we were. So I gave her directions, and she showed up a few minutes later, skidding to a stop after super-speeding her way up to the parking lot. “Paintball, there’s bodies in that building!” she snapped abruptly. “What the hell was–” 

“They’re not real,” I quickly informed her. “I mean, they’re not–um, they’re not real people.” 

Yeah, Pack and Way exchanged obvious looks at that before turning back to me. Pack found her voice first. “Not real people? Come on, Paintball, I think you better explain now.” 

They were right. I needed to explain some of it, as much as I could. There was no way I was going to be able to help Paige without help. Besides, they’d more than earned an explanation. So, I carefully started to tell them what happened, starting with a… well, not quite a lie, but a very deliberately presented version of the truth. I told them that Paige had left me a message telling me that she was probably going to die because she was going after her father, who was the real threat. I told them about tracking her down, finding her in that building, and the whole biolem thing. I explained the part about her dad being a Tech-Touched and his plan, or what I understood of it. And about how Paige herself was apparently an incredibly advanced prototype version, who had to obey her father’s specific commands until she managed to turn on him. 

“But what does this have to do with–” Whatever Way had been about to say, she cut herself off, shaking her head. “I mean… are you sure she’s a umm…” Hesitating, the girl stepped over to where Paige’s motionless form was. “Are you sure she’s a r-robot? Or whatever she is.” It sounded like she was freaking out a bit. Which was pretty much completely fair. I was still freaking out too. 

“That’s what she said,” I murmured, “and I believe her at this point. After everything I saw in there… yeah. Paige Banners is–well, not a robot. She’s a biolem. Somewhere inside she’s got one of those little orb things with all her memories, personality, and everything else.” 

Way muttered a curse under her breath, staring in what looked like dull shock at the figure in the van. “Oh my God. But if she… if she was… and if…” Finally, the girl seemed to shake that off, focusing a bit to ask, “What’s wrong with her? Why isn’t she waking up?”

Exhaling, I explained what Paige had said, that her father’s last-second countermeasures had forced her to shut herself down and that I needed to find a tech genius who could actually help fix her. 

“A tech genius like Trevithick?” Pack put in before reconsidering. “Except this might be over the kid’s head.” 

That-A-Way gave a brief glance her way at that. I could tell she had a laundry list of her own questions, but saved them aside from one. “Can she do something about this?” 

“I don’t know. I hope so.” Sighing, I gestured to both of them. “I thought Paige Banners was some kind of threat, but she was just a victim. We have to help her, have to find someone who can fix whatever her father did. We’ll start with Trevithick, at least see what she can figure out. If she can’t do anything, I… I’ll go from there.”

“This is a lot, Paintball,” Way muttered at me while still staring at the (essentially) unconscious Paige. “Seriously, are you sure about all this? Because I don’t–I mean…” She gestured helplessly, clearly fighting for the right words before being reduced to repeating, “It’s a lot.”

“Believe me, I know.” Grimacing with that reply, I hesitated before adding, “If we can help this girl and wake her up, we can get more answers. She said that all the biolems her father had would be drawn to that building, but she could’ve been wrong. So we have to be careful. Between that and the way the Ministry is gonna look into the whole thing, especially once they find the remains of the equipment in there and realize the bodies aren’t normal people…” 

Pack spoke up then. “Right, getting this chick restarted is a pretty big priority. You said she knows a bunch of stuff about this Ministry thing anyway, so add another tally into reasons to wake her up. But can I just point out, if she’s a robot–err, okay, not a robot. If her brain and personality is all… tied into a computer, one that her father built, what’re the odds of him just being able to control her and make the girl into a killing machine with just a few words? One pointed at us. I mean, don’t programmers usually leave in backdoors and stuff like that?” 

“I know what you mean,” I confirmed quietly, heaving a sigh. “Believe me, I know. But Paige already turned against her father once. She–” I was about to say that she had rules-lawyered her way around leaving me dead, but caught myself. “She went after his entire organization here. Look what she did to the plant where he was manufacturing all these things. She’s not on his side and she’s already figured out ways to sabotage him. Now we have to help her. We find someone who can get into her programming and remove her father’s control so we can wake her up. I don’t know if that’ll be Trevithick or not, but someone. Not just because she can help with the Ministry, but because we owe it to her. I owe it to her.” 

Despite saying all that, I still realized that my feelings for Paige were complicated. I felt resentment, even anger about the past few years. Some bitter part of me wanted to know why she hadn’t found a way to violate her orders at least enough not to hit me in quite such an emotionally damaging place. If she was my friend, she should’ve known that making fun of my… of how I looked was one of the worst things she could’ve done, shouldn’t she? Had her father’s orders really made her hit me that personally when the entire point had simply been to establish conflict to make her eventually snapping and killing me believable? Did she really need to say the things she’d said? 

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t logical. But I still wasn’t sure how I felt about Paige, even after all these revelations. However, I did know that I owed her, and that if I was ever going to work my way through those feelings, it was going to have to be with Paige herself to get answers from. Besides, if I voiced any of my doubts about Paige’s personality, it would just lead to questions I couldn’t answer without revealing a lot more about myself. Too much about myself. 

“Right, so we take her to Trevithick,” Pack announced. “And try to figure out who else might help. You know what the obvious problem with that is, right?” 

I nodded. “Yeah, basically every Tech-Touched in the area reports to Braintrust, who report to the Ministry. So we’re kind of screwed that way. There has to be someone else, someone… I don’t know. I can’t think.” I sighed again, shaking my head. “It’s… been a long day.” 

“Tell me about it.” That-A-Way’s voice sounded almost as tired as I felt. “I have to get back to give reports before someone notices how long I’ve been gone. But I want to be kept in the loop about what’s going on with this, you two.” 

We both agreed to that, and she took off. Which left Pack and me looking at each other. “To Wren’s?” I offered. 

“To Wren’s,” she agreed, gesturing. “Let’s go. I’ll drive, since you look too wiped to get there your usual way.” 

“Yeah, I might leap into the side of a building,” I muttered before moving to climb in the van. “Let’s go see how much Wren can do with this.” 

*******

“Ummmmm, I can’t do anything with this.” The words came from Wren herself some time later, once Pack and I had brought Paige into her lab in the upstairs area of the old store. We’d set the seemingly sleeping blonde girl on a convenient couch. Then, to an increasingly shocked audience of two, had explained–well we’d explained some of it anyway, the parts about Paige being a biolem whose father wanted to do bad things while leaving details about the Ministry out of it.

 “I know it’s a lot,” I quickly assured the young Tech-Touched. “Believe me, but it’s just–” 

“No, I mean I can’t.” Her head was shaking, eyes wide. “That’s blood and flesh and a person! I don’t know anything about–I mean she’s–I make things go fast, things teleport, things fly. I can’t dig into a human living person! I’m not a doctor! It’s not–I don’t get a–I mean I’m not–”

Fred, who had been staring at both Pack and me like we’d sprouted new heads throughout this entire conversation, spoke up. “Even if the kid had any chance of working on the actual mechanical part, this orb thing you said is in that girl, getting to it without killing her… ahh, the biological part of her is still a big fu–freaking problem. You need a doctor for that. A really good one. You need someone who can work the tech side of things and someone to work the biology part. Probably at least two techs. Maybe Wren can help with some of it, but come on, this is too much to put on her.”

“I-if I mess up,” Wren tentatively pointed out, voice cracking as she stared at Paige. “I could… I could…” 

Wincing, I nodded. “I know. I just–you’re right. We just don’t know who else to take her to. But I’ll find someone. I’ll find some people who can help. Can she… uhh…” 

“She can stay.” Wren’s voice was firm as she gave a quick nod. “I mean, umm, maybe I can look at her? I could maybe make a scanner or something to try to find where the orb is, exactly, so we can find out more about it. But I won’t cut into her. I won’t go that far. I can’t.” 

Pack spoke up then. “Don’t worry, kid, it’s okay. No one blames you for not wanting to risk something like that. It’s not your job, not your… power.” She shrugged. “You keep the girl here for now, Paintball and I can both reach out in our own way to find someone who might help.” She glanced to me, clearly reading my apprehension. “There’s gotta be Tech-Touched mercenaries from somewhere outside the city who might be able to do something. Though it’d probably cost a pretty penny.”

“We’ll worry about cost later,” I insisted. “Focus on being careful. No drawing attention. Don’t give details. And don’t–” 

She interrupted. “Don’t ask Blackjack about it, I know. I’m not an idiot. I’ll be subtle, Paintball, trust me.”

We talked a bit more, all four of us. It was obvious that Wren felt incredibly guilty about her immediate and firm refusal, but I tried to assure her that neither of us blamed her and that it was okay. Better she have a solid grasp of what she couldn’t do, than go for it and end up doing irreparable damage, or even killing Paige for good. 

In the end, we settled on coming back to figure out more later. Paige would be staying here at the lab for the time being, where Wren would do what little she could while we found someone who knew what they were doing. 

All of which left me heading back home after changing out of the temporary costume and into a pair of jeans and tee-shirt that I bought from the very surprised clerk in a small tourist-trap shop. Exhausted as I was, getting new clothes and making it home took about all I had. The only thing I wanted to do was take a long, hot shower and then sleep for about a week. 

Naturally, I had to go in and apologize for taking off early from Paige’s party and abandoning Izzy. Except she wasn’t there for some reason. Neither was Dad, but he at least I understood. According to my mother, Simon had taken Izzy out for ice cream and a few things. She made it clear I wasn’t in trouble, that they knew my going to Paige’s had been hard and they appreciated the effort I put in. But she also made sure I knew that leaving Izzy with other people like that without clearing it with them first wasn’t acceptable. And that I needed to make sure Izzy was okay with a situation like that. 

I promised to be careful in the future. And it was pretty obvious that Mom didn’t know how connected Paige was to the situation at the warehouse, because she was entirely too casual about the whole thing. 

In the end, I made my way upstairs, took that shower, and fell asleep while wondering what was taking Izzy so long to get back from ice cream. 

Unfortunately, despite my thoughts about sleeping for a week, I barely managed a few hours before my racing mind woke me up. It was the middle of the night, and I just… my brain was too active. All that stuff about Paige, everything I’d learned, it was just… too much. I couldn’t relax. 

It also felt like I couldn’t breathe in here. I needed some air. Making my way to my balcony after pulling on some shorts to go with my long tee shirt, I glanced around to watch the cameras before turning to point at the roof above me. A quick shot of red paint hauled me up there, where I would lay back and watch the stars. 

At least, that was the idea. But that idea shattered like glass as I landed on the roof, after being pulled that way by my red paint, as a voice from above me blurted, “Cassidy?” 

Spinning, I stared upward at a visibly damp Izzy, who floated there, hovering in mid-air. Both of us stared at the other for a long few seconds before blurting out loud, our words matching each other’s. 

“It’s you!”

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Project Owl 14-08 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

There was so much I wanted to ask Paige about, so many questions I had and things I wanted to say about what had happened over the past few years between us. Being given just ten minutes to hold the other girl down and demand answers to all that would have made me happy. But we didn’t have ten minutes to spare, or even five. We didn’t have any time at all. If we didn’t get out of this place right now, Paige’s father was going to blow us up with the building. 

“He’d do that?” I blurted, probably stupidly given everything I knew. “He’d kill you just like that?” 

Yeah, the look the other girl gave me pretty much confirmed the whole ‘stupid question’ thing. “He can collect the–my… think of it as a black box from an airplane,” she informed me quickly. “It’s in my orb, where all my memories and… and brain are stored. He’ll just collect that and rebuild me, only with different–he’ll make me more in line with what he wants. He’ll erase me and make another. Now come on!” With that, she grabbed my arm, yanking me with her toward the steel door that had slammed down to lock us in this L-shaped hallway. “Do your pink thing!” 

She had a point. There wasn’t time for any of this. Quickly, I pointed my hand at part of the steel door, spraying out a circle of pink. Together, the two of us started tearing through it. But it was slow-going. Too slow. This door had to be like two feet thick, at least. “How long do we have?!” I blurted hurriedly while ripping another handful of pink-painted steel stuff out of the way. 

“Seven minutes now,” she replied curtly before driving her fist hard into the pink steel, punching all the way through that time to reveal the room on the far side once she drew her hand back. Hurriedly, we both started ripping more out of the pink stuff to create a large enough hole for us to crawl through. “And lots of big heavy doors between us and not blowing up!” 

Instead of replying to that, I painted some green over myself, then grabbed her arm and did the same to her. But I didn’t activate it yet. First, I dove forward through the hole, turning to help Paige through. Then I activated the paint, speeding the two of us up as we raced through the room of computer servers. I could’ve used more green for more speed, but I had a feeling I was going to need to save as much of my paint for pink as I could. Seven minutes. Probably six by now. Fuck, fuck, fuck, time to get the hell out of here! I had decided that I really didn’t like this place.

“What about saying fuck hallways and just going through the outside walls?!” I blurted on the way. 

“We’re in the middle of the building, this is the fastest way to an outside wall,” she informed me a bit tersely. 

Unfortunately, there were apparently still biolems in the building. Biolems who (of course) didn’t seem to care at all about escaping and were instead focused on making sure we didn’t escape either. Two of those obstacles presented themselves just as we reached the end of the server room, stepping away from the steel door before bringing their guns to bear on us. 

Paige shoved me to one side, taking a shot right in the shoulder before she lunged at the two. By the time I rolled to my feet, it was over. The two guys (sort of) were dead on the ground and Paige had both of their guns. She was also bleeding from that wound, but didn’t seem to care. 

“Get us through!” she shouted when I glanced at the injury. “It’ll keep, I’ll be fine! Five minutes!” 

Five minutes before the building would blow up, whether we were still here or not. Could we get all the way through this place and out in five minutes, with all these doors blocking our way? Time to find out. 

I was already working on this particular steel door, spraying just wide enough of a pink circle for us to squirm through. I had to save as much of my paint as I could, had to be careful with it. If I ran out and we had to wait around for it to refill… yeah, that would be pretty bad. 

Together, Paige and I made our way through the building as fast as we could. More doors, more biolems, more everything was in our way. Anything her evil fucking psychopath of a father could throw at us, apparently. He couldn’t be there himself, and couldn’t shut off the self-destruct, but he could do everything in his goddamn power to make sure it killed Paige and me in the process. It seemed like every step we took, more of those biolems showed up. Thankfully, these ones were… worse than the others. Dumber. According to a blurted word from Paige, they weren’t ‘finished.’ Her father was scraping the bottom of the barrel, sending what amounted to uncompleted, barely functional bodies after us. The others hadn’t exactly been talkative and creative or anything, but these were barely capable of putting themselves in our way, pointing guns, and pulling the trigger. They were like zombies. Armed zombies, but still zombies. 

Come to think of it, zombies armed with guns could be pretty terrifying. 

Either way, the two of us tore through them, and the doors that were blocking our path, as quickly as possible. Nothing mattered except getting the hell out of this place before it was too late. We got closer and closer to escaping, following the path Paige was giving me, while she counted off the minutes as they passed. Four left before the whole place would blow up. Then three, then two. 

Two minutes. Two minutes before I wouldn’t have to worry about my parents’ evil plans, or about the gang war that was going on, or Wren, or what was happening with Izzy, or anything. I wouldn’t be worrying, or thinking, about anything at all. 

“This one, this one!” Paige suddenly blurted, grabbing my arm to stop me from running onward to the next door. Instead, she turned me toward the nearby wall. “This way, it leads out!” 

I definitely wasn’t going to take the time to argue with her. Instead, I pointed my hands, spraying what I was pretty sure would be the last of my paint for awhile. As the pink circle appeared, the two of us threw ourselves at it, punching and grabbing to pull chunks of the wall away. Bit by bit, we managed it, until I felt the cool evening air and saw light from a distant streetlamp. We were through. We were through! It was a small hole at first, but we made it wider quickly. 

“One minute!” Paige announced, just as we managed to get the hole big enough to get through. 

“One minute!” I echoed, my voice sounding somewhat delirious even to my own ears. “We can work with one minute, we’re out! Go!” Giving the other girl a quick push that way, I glanced around hurriedly just in case there was anyone left to stop us, any more of those nasty biolems. Nothing. No one. There wasn’t a threat in sight. We were out of here, we’d made it with time to spare. Not much time, sure, but time! We were about to get the hell out of here! 

Which, of course, was the cue for Paige to abruptly announce, “We can’t get out.” Her voice was flat, sounding empty as she stared through the hole. 

“What–” Looking that way quickly while counting down from a minute in my head, I stared. Her hand was flat against the air. Or rather, flat against a shimmering, glowing spot of energy. 

“Forcefield,” she informed me quietly. “My father’s using a forcefield to keep us in. Thirty seconds.” 

Thirty seconds?! We had thirty seconds to find another way out of here?! How the hell were we supposed to find another way to get out of this place, or break through some insane forcefield in thirty seconds?! This wasn’t fair! We did everything right, we made it, we were out, we were supposed to be free and safe now! I couldn’t–we couldn’t do anything in thirty seconds. There wasn’t time for–for anything. There wasn’t time! No, no, please, no, we had to run, we had to–

“Hey!” a voice shouted from outside, carrying through the hole. “You two okay?!” 

That-A-Way. It was That-A-Way. She was there. She’d made it. She got my message and showed up. 

“Bomb!” I shouted back at her, smacking my hand off the forcefield to illustrate. “Fifteen seconds!” 

“Ten!” Paige corrected immediately. “Nine, eight!” 

That was enough. That was all it took. Instantly, That-A-Way vanished from where she was, reappearing in the room. She didn’t ask any more questions, instead snapping both hands out to grab hold of us. “Grab on!” 

The second we did so, she teleported again, taking the two of us with her. We appeared on the far side of the parking lot, stumbling a bit. Paige was shouting, “Down, get down!” Her hands caught That-A-Way and me both at the back, shoving both of us and herself down to the asphalt. 

And then it happened. With a terrifying, cacophonous booooooooooom that sent a shockwave through the air strong enough to hit the back of my head and smack my face (thankfully protected by the helmet) down into the pavement, the building behind us exploded. 

There was a distinct ringing in my ears as I lifted my head, looking around an unknown amount of time later. The remains of the warehouse were on fire. It looked like half the building had gone up with that single explosion, and the rest would be gone very soon. There wouldn’t be enough of the place left to pull anything useful out of it. Which, I supposed was a good thing. 

The ringing didn’t stop. Instead, it morphed into loud sirens. Cops. Firetrucks. They were coming. By the time that realization came, That-A-Way was already on her feet. She turned back to Paige and me, saying something that I only caught the last half of. “–they see you!” Clearly realizing I hadn’t heard her as my head cocked to the side, she repeated, “They’re gonna have a lot of questions if they see you!” Her hand gestured to Paige. “Is this–is she?” 

Right, I realized what she was asking. “It’s Paige Banners,” I managed. “She’s connected to the Ministry.” 

As I said that last word, Paige’s head snapped up. She stared at That-A-Way, then at me. “You… you know–she knows about…” 

“Get out of here.” That-A-Way quickly blurted. “If the Ministry’s as connected as you say, they’ll jump on the chance to shut her up. I don’t know what’s going on, but there’s not time, just go. Go!” She grabbed my arm, hauling me to my feet before doing the same with Paige. 

“What’s going on?” That was Pack, who had just come jogging up with several of her lizards spread out around her in full battle formation. “What the hell happened here? Those sirens–” 

“Go, go! Get them out of here!” That-A-Way was saying, giving Paige and me a push toward Pack. “Too many questions, too many problems. Just go, I’ll cover here, I’ll say I showed up and found the warehouse like this. Just get them out.” 

She had a point. And it was really quick thinking, considering the circumstances. That-A-Way had next to no idea what was actually going on, yet had picked up on what a bad idea us being found here would be. If we stuck around, my parents’ organization would absolutely take the chance to put Paige in custody so they could pick her brain. Which… yeah. Grimacing behind the helmet, I quickly started moving. “Right, come on, hurry.” Everything hurt. I felt so sore and tired. All I wanted to do was lay down and take a little nap. Wait, scratch that. I wanted a nice hot bath first. Urgh, what I wouldn’t give for a hot bath and my bed. 

But I couldn’t have that. Not yet. We had to get the hell out of here first. And the sound of approaching sirens were getting closer. Not to mention other Star-Touched. They’d be here any second too. We had to go. We had to get out of here right fucking now. 

Paige was stumbling. It seemed like being thrown down by that explosion had taken a lot out of her. She limped, and in some ways still seemed dazed. But there wasn’t time to worry about that. There wasn’t time for anything other than leaving. 

Thankfully, Pack had a van nearby. It looked nondescript, just an old gray and black minivan that didn’t stand out at all. Which, I assumed, was the point. Quickly, she yanked the sliding door open, before she and I both helped Paige up and into a seat. Mars Bar, Holiday, and Twinkletoes shrank down back to their normal forms to join the other lizards in their cage, before she quickly gestured for me to get in the front seat while shutting the door. “Come on then, I really don’t feel like having a chat with a bunch of goodie-two-supershoes about why I’m fleeing the scene of a fucking unscheduled building demolition!” 

Jumping in the passenger seat, I slammed the door shut just as Pack started the car. With a quick squeal of tires, we pulled out of the lot and took off down a side road. She slowed down pretty quickly, as soon as we were out of the immediate sight of the warehouse. A couple cop cars went screaming past us, followed by a firetruck. All of their sirens were piercingly loud, the flashing lights making me jump as they basically flew by. But they didn’t slow down or seem to pay any attention to the van, focused as they were on getting to the scene of the explosion. 

My father would be there. I had no doubt of that. Of course Silversmith would head to the scene of a massive explosion like that. Especially considering I was pretty sure the Ministry didn’t know anything about what that place was actually used for. My parents would be clueless about what was going on or what caused the explosion, so Dad would be right on the front lines trying to figure it out. Which was another reason to get Paige out of there before she was seen. 

Speaking of Paige, I turned a bit in the seat to look that way. “Are you okay back there?” 

No, she wasn’t. She didn’t respond at first, slumped a bit in the seat. Finally, just as I was getting even more worried than I already was, the girl murmured, “Pull over. Pull the car over.” She sounded out of it, like she was barely conscious and struggling to remain even that much. 

Pack didn’t. Not at first anyway. Insisting that we had to get further away, she drove another couple blocks before pulling into a car wash parking lot. “What’s going on with her? Also, who the hell is she? And why are you wearing such a shit costume? It looks like ten dollar cosplay. And–”

“Later,” I replied flatly. “Just… just later for the rest of that. And for what’s wrong… I don’t know.” Shaking my head, I opened the door and hopped out before shoving the sliding door open. “Paige? What’s going on? Are you alright? What–” 

“Virus,” she informed me, hand snapping out to catch my arm. “Some kind of failsafe. Last little surprise from Daddy-dearest. Trying to shut me down until he can find and reprogram me.” 

In the front seat, I heard Pack echoing those words with a note of utter bafflement. But I ignored that, focusing on the girl in front of me. “What do we do? How do we stop it?” 

“Don’t… just… need…” Paige’s responses were slow. It was clearly taking a huge effort for her to focus and try to answer. I had no idea what was going on in there, but it was pretty bad. Her hand suddenly fumbled for mine, squeezing tightly once she managed to find it. “Help. Need tech. Good with computers. Good with machines. Trust. Only trust. Must trust. Please.” Her head turned to look at me, and I saw… fear. I saw the fear in her eyes, the panic. She couldn’t control herself. Something was happening to her and she couldn’t change it, couldn’t fix it. She was afraid, because she knew she had to trust me to help her, had to trust me to find someone who could fix her. 

“Can… slow down… can shut it down,” her voice murmured. “But have to shut me down. Have to shut it all down until it’s fixed. Find someone. Find tech. Find fixer. Trust. Must trust. Only trust. Fix it. Please. Please fix… me. Please. Need fixed. Need fixer.” 

“I will, I will, I’ll find someone,” I promised. “Someone we can trust, I swear. I’ll get someone, okay?” There was no response. Paige’s eyes fixed on me, and I saw the fear again. I saw the clear and abject terror in her gaze. She was shutting down. Her mouth opened as though to say something, but no words came out, at least not yet. She shuddered, and then her eyes drifted shut. She couldn’t keep them open anymore. 

Only once her eyes were closed and her body had slumped a bit did she whisper, sounding as though it was taking literally everything she had to even say that much, “Trust… you.” 

Then she was still and silent. Whatever her father had done, whatever last second measure he’d taken, Paige had shut her entire body down trying to deal with it, to stop it from getting even worse. And now she was trusting me to find someone who could help her, a tech who could handle something as sophisticated as her. Wren? Could Wren do that? 

“Okay…” Pack was saying, having gotten out of the van to move around behind me. 

“Exactly what the fuck is going on?”

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Project Owl 14-07 (Summus Proelium)

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One job. I had one job. Keep Paige safe from the army of guys–well, sort of guys– who were about to come through that vault door. Simple to say, maybe not so simple to actually do. Paige was frozen behind me, unable to move and apparently blind and deaf to what was going on out here. If anyone actually got to her, she would be utterly defenseless. A stray shot, anyone who happened to get past me even for a moment, anything like that could leave her hurt or dead. 

I couldn’t let that happen. So, maybe the trick was not to let these guys even make it into the vault at all. With that thought, I used green paint for speed, sprinting at the door even as it was opening. Right when there was enough space for the biolem in the lead to start to step in, I used blue paint to launch myself that way, crashing into him with enough force to send him half-flailing backwards into two of his companions. All three hit the nearby wall, while I stumbled for a step or two before catching myself. With no one pushing it, the vault door stayed where it was, partly open with a hole in the middle where Paige and I had used pink paint to break our way in. 

“Sorry guys,” I blurted quickly while reaching back, grabbing the handle of the door, and yanking it firmly shut behind me, “bank’s closed for the day. You’ll just have to come back during regular business hours. And you might wanna come early. Otherwise the old ladies’ll be here, and trust me, you do not want to get caught behind one of them counting out pennies and nickels so they can get to the store for that new milk sale everyone’s all hyped about.” 

Yeah, apparently they didn’t think that was funny. Nor did the four guys who were just coming around the corner of that L-shaped hall to join them, guns raised. Seven nearly identical guys (they were dressed the same and had slightly different face and hair features, but it all blended together), all of them apparently these unthinking, unfeeling biolems whose only purpose was to follow orders. And those orders, in that moment, were to get into that vault and stop Paige.  

The only obstacle standing between them and fulfilling those orders was me. And their way of removing that obstacle was to point their guns and immediately open fire. No negotiation. No demands or arguments. Nothing like that. Once they saw that I was in the way, all seven of them simply snapped their weapons up and started shooting without even looking at each other. 

But I was ready. They might not have thought my joke was funny, but talking had still served its actual purpose of giving me time to make sure my paint was all filled up. Before the biolems had even started to raise their weapons, I was already activating the orange hand with middle finger raised that I had painted onto my chest, while the blue paint on the bottom of my shoes launched me up toward the ceiling. Shots rebounded off me, hard enough to sting. Whatever actual weapons these guys were using, they were really strong. And the guys were really good shots. Even with my quick launch upward, I was still hit half a dozen times before I even managed to invert myself. The shots hurt, but I didn’t care. Once I managed to flip myself over, my feet hit the ceiling and the blue paint on my shoes kicked in once more, launching me down and forward to crash bodily into the biolem who had been running for the hole I’d left in the door.

I collided hard enough with the guy to slam him into the ground and nearly knock the wind out of myself. I would’ve pancaked if it wasn’t for the still-active orange paint. The guy himself was knocked flat on his back, the gun sliding away. Not that the loss of his gun or the impact of me colliding with him and of his back colliding with the ground actually affected the biolem that much. His hands suddenly grabbed my throat, holding tight as he stared at me impassively. Meanwhile, two of the guys ran past on either side toward the door, while the remaining four took aim at me with those guns that stung me even through my orange paint from further away.

Just before the four guys surrounding me opened fire, I painted my entire back, including the rear of the helmet, pink and then immediately dismissed the effect. In the next instant, the bullets from the guns hit… and ricocheted off. I was using that trick where cancelling my pink paint early left the affected object super-bouncy. Between that and the last couple seconds of my orange paint, I was left unharmed (Well, relatively. It still stung pretty bad and I would have welts), while my makeshift costume repelled the bullets away from me. 

Yeah, it was a trick I wouldn’t use in most situations, because I had no way of stopping the bullets from hitting and killing someone. But as had been thoroughly demonstrated to me, these biolems weren’t thinking, feeling beings. They were basically robots without any free will or personality. They were as close to mindless as you could get while still following orders. 

And yet, even then, I still felt guilty about hearing the bullets rebound off me to hit them. But I’d promised Paige I would keep them off her, and I was damn sure going to keep that promise. 

To that end, I painted my gloves purple and grabbed hold of the hands that were currently trying to choke me, prying his grip off my throat before, with what was probably literally the last second of orange paint left, slamming my helmeted head down into his face. Biological robot or not, that was enough to make him go limp briefly, and I quickly launched myself into a backward roll to get away from him. 

Three of the other four guys around me weren’t down yet. They were bleeding from various holes, and one guy was on the ground, unmoving. But they weren’t down. My attention, however, was on the two other biolems who were almost to the vault door. Quickly, even as I rolled, my hand snapped out to fire a spray of red that caught them both. Activating it made the two slam into one another, slowing them down briefly while I was still coming back to my feet.

“Clearly,” I blurted out loud as the three still-standing figures pivoted toward me to fire again, “we all need a lesson on what–” The three men opened fire, while I painted a pair of orange star-shapes on either arm and flung myself at the nearest guy. With shots rebounding off me (adding to the horrible bruises I was going to have when this was over, if I wasn’t just dead), I caught hold of the guy’s extended arm. The strength boost from the purple paint was still there, allowing me to shove the arm around so that his next shot hit one of the guys by the door in the back while he was still picking himself up. A second later, I extended the purple paint over my entire torso, raising my strength enough to easily hurl the guy over my shoulder to crash into the other biolem by the door. 

In the next instant, two more shots hit my back with so much force despite my protective paint they still made me stumble forward with a yelp. Oww, oww! Fuck, oww! 

No. Don’t stop. Don’t think about the pain. I couldn’t afford to. If I stopped, if I slowed down, they would get through the door. And if they got to Paige, if I failed Paige after promising I would protect her…

I wouldn’t fail. 

“A lesson on what closed means!” I quickly shouted at them. “That’s what you need!” 

Pivoting, I let the two men behind see that I’d actually stripped their buddy’s gun out of his hand before I threw him. I had a gun. A gun. What the fuck kind of superhero used a gun? Especially when I was trying to be better than my parents. Especially when–

It didn’t matter. They weren’t real people. With the gun in my hand, I pointed it at the nearest of the two guys and pulled the trigger. 

I missed by about a mile. Oh, and I wasn’t ready for the kickback of the gun, so it leapt out of my hand and clattered across the floor away from me. Fantastic. 

It did, however, make the two standing biolems, and the one who was picking himself off the ground, pause for just a moment. Which was totally my intention, yup. 

Fuck it, stick with what worked. Pointing my free hands, I hit the two standing guys with red paint, then pivoted and shot more red at two of the guys by the vault. Activating the paint, I brought the ones over there flying backward, yanking them off their feet to come crashing into their companions. 

Which left one guy by the door, the one I had made the other biolem shoot. He was picking himself up, heedless of the bullet wound in his side as he moved for the hole in the vault. God damn it, these things had one-track minds. 

A spray of yellow slowed the guy down, while green sped me up. Just as I reached him, the purple paint was about to wear off. But it stuck around long enough for me to catch hold of the guy by his arm and waist, lifting him off his feet and driving him toward the door he was so interested in. 

Put them down hard, Paige had said. The only way to stop them was to end them. They weren’t alive. They weren’t really alive. They weren’t people. They weren’t–

I pulled back, just a little. It was reflex. My intention had been to slam the biolem’s head into the door hard enough to make the skull split open like a melon. But at the last second, I pulled back slightly. It still hit hard, but not as much as I intended. Even being told that these things weren’t real, even being told that they weren’t actual people with feelings, that they were little more than mindless machines, I still just… reflexively held back. 

Still, the thing’s head collided with the door hard enough to put him on the ground, bleeding profusely. I had to hope that was enough for now. Had to, because the others had already picked themselves up and were rushing my way. 

Paige was right. I had to put them down, had to put aside my squeamishness and make sure they stayed down. It was the only way. Otherwise, they would just keep coming no matter what, would just keep trying to get past or through me to… to stop her.

A quick spray of blue paint along the floor launched all five incoming figures straight up into the ceiling before they could shoot again. Before they hit the ground, I was there. With renewed purple arms and orange legs, I caught hold of one guy by the back of his head, slamming his face hard down into my rising knee. Then I grabbed the waistband of his pants, leaving a red handprint there as I hurled the guy as hard I could against the far wall. He slammed into that wall while I used a quick spray of red that hit three more of these guys and sent them flying after him. 

One more guy was on the floor at my feet, starting to pick himself up. Before he could, however, I slammed my foot, still empowered by my purple paint, down as hard as I could manage into the man’s back. He was knocked prone before I kicked him, just as hard, in the side, sending him flying wildly into the nearby wall. 

The guy I’d run headfirst into the vault door was starting to pick himself up. God damn it, Paige was right. They wouldn’t stay down. Whatever I did, they wouldn’t stay down. I had to kill– destroy them. It was the only way, but… but…

Not real. They weren’t real. Grimacing behind the helmet, I used the last of my purple strength to catch the guy by the back of his neck, yanking him away from the hole before slamming my fist into his stomach. The impact knocked him down. But he got right back up. The guys I’d sent flying to the far wall were picking themselves back up. Everyone was getting up. They would keep getting back up as long as I didn’t just finish them. Break them. Put them down. 

So why was it so hard? Intellectually, I knew they weren’t real people. They didn’t feel things, didn’t think things. They were machines who followed the orders of a psychopath who wanted me and my whole family dead. Finishing them wasn’t like killing a person, it was like… breaking a machine. Right? 

But I couldn’t. I couldn’t make myself–

Then I saw it, motion from the corner of my eye. The biolem I had kicked into the wall had managed to crawl around behind me. He was leaning up at the hole, gun in hand as he pointed it that way. Pointed it at Paige. 

He was going to shoot Paige. 

The scream tore its way out of my throat, even as I flung myself that way. In mid-lunge, my costume changed color entirely. The legs, torso, helmet, and arms turned purple, with green highlights, shoes, and gloves. An orange bolt of lightning appeared on my chest, with a matching one over my back. Before I’d even reached the man in my lunge, I’d covered my entire makeshift costume with those colors, and activated all at once. 

An instant before the biolem would have fired, one of my hands caught the arm holding the gun while the other caught the back of his neck. In the same motion, I ripped the hand sideways, making his shot into the room go wide, while also shoving forward on the back of his neck to slam his head into the side of the vault door. 

His arm snapped. I felt it snap. With purple covering as much of my body as it was, I nearly ripped his entire arm off. It definitely broke. And not just in one place. I could feel the arm rip out of its socket with several loud cracks. Meanwhile, his forehead basically caved in from being slammed so hard into the solid steel vault door. If he was human, the man almost certainly would’ve been killed by that. Or at least left pretty braindead. 

But I wasn’t thinking about that. All I was thinking was that I had to stop these guys, had to put them down for good. Just like I’d promised Paige. My dithering about, my hesitation and reluctance, had nearly gotten her killed, even after everything I’d said. 

No more hesitation. With the suddenly limp body of the figure I had just attacked in my hands, I pivoted and hurled him at the others even as they tried to cross the space between us. While his body was still flying sideways through the air at them, I chased after it, running straight at them with the green paint still boosting my speed. Only a couple seconds had passed since I activated all of it. 

As hard and fast as I had hurled that biolem, it caught two of the five guys straight on, hitting them with enough force that the pair were knocked down. The other three were already shooting at me, but I wasn’t paying attention to the sting of the bullets. Not right then. My boosted speed put me right in front of them, as I caught one of their extended wrists and snapped it hard to the side. Snap being the appropriate word, as the wrist broke like a twig. 

In the same motion, I lashed out with a foot, kicking the biolem beside this one with so much force, he was hurled several feet back and into the air, crashing into the wall once more. Pivoting while maintaining my grip on the broken wrist of the one I had caught hold of, I yanked him off his feet and violently slammed his head into the face of the last still-standing guy. It was like a headbutt, only using someone else’s head. Which seemed a lot safer all around. 

While that last guy stumbled, blood spurting from his nose and mouth, I kept my grip on the one I was holding. He was starting to struggle, but my foot abruptly connected with the side of his knee so hard, his leg almost snapped in half. Before he could fall, however, I grabbed the back of his neck and slammed his head again into the face of the one that was still reeling from the first time I’d done that. Then I released him, but before either could recover, I kicked the guy I’d been holding in the back with everything I could manage. The force launched him and the other guy into the concrete wall, noticeably cracking it before they both fell motionless to the floor. 

Quickly, I turned back toward the one I’d kicked into the opposite wall a second earlier. He’d recovered, of course. So had the two who had been hit by their flying companion. Those ones were picking themselves up, but I had a moment. A moment I used by shooting a quick bit of red into the face of the guy who had just peeled himself off the wall, matching it with red on my glove. Activating that yanked the biolem straight to me, as my fist collided with his face hard enough to cave that in. Seriously, there was blood and… and pieces of shattered bone or something all over my glove. I wasn’t just strong like this, I was really god damn strong. 

The guy whose face I had just caved in with a single punch (well, sort of a punch) hit the ground, and I kicked him hard, sending his body sliding across the floor to trip up one of the two guys who had picked themselves up just then as he started to run toward the hole. He fell flat on his back, while I launched myself to collide with the other guy. 

Paint was running out. It had to be. Everything I’d done in just the short ten seconds I had for all this power. But I could finish this. I had to finish it. My momentum carried me into the standing guy, taking him to the ground with me on top of him. Before he could recover, I clasped my fists together and slammed them down into his face once, twice, three times. 

Ow. Ow, that last one hurt. My paint was gone. The power ran out. I was perched on top of a motionless body. 

But I wasn’t done. That last guy, the one I had tripped up by kicking that body at him. He was back on his feet, heading for the hole. Quickly, I snapped my hand up to shoot red paint at him. 

Nothing. I was out of paint. I was out. I was out! And he was about to get to the hole. 

Without thinking, my hand grabbed one of the guns off the floor. I snapped it up. Do or die time. 

No, do or Paige died. 

Gripping the gun with both hands and bracing myself for the kickback this time, I fired. Not once, not even twice. I emptied the magazine into the man, firing over and over again into his back. I barely noticed as the man fell, barely noticed the sound of the semi-silenced bangs becoming simple clicks as ammo ran out. I just kept pulling the trigger several more times after that. 

Then the gun fell from my grip as I sat there, half-slumped over the body of one biolem, with the body of another lying about a foot from the hole with maybe a half dozen bullets in his back. 

Silence filled the air. Silence, that was, aside from my ragged, panting breaths. I felt like I was going to die. Felt like I almost wanted to, after those few seconds of hell. After what I… after what I…

No, I didn’t kill anyone. They weren’t real. They were basically machines. Biological machines, but machines. They were… they weren’t…

“Paintball.” It was Paige. She was back. Somehow, she’d extricated herself from the hole and was crouched in front of me before I’d even noticed. Fuck, how out of it was I? 

“We need to go, right now.” With that, she offered me her hand, pulling me to my feet.

“Did you do it?” I quickly asked. “Did you shut down the brain thing?” 

She gave a quick nod, already pulling me by the hand while starting to run back the way we’d come. “The self-destruct is on. This whole place is going up. We’ve gotta go, now.” 

Unfortunately, her saying that was apparently the cue for a steel door to suddenly slam down out of the ceiling right in front of us before we could get out of the cement corridor. It was accompanied by the echoing sound of more steel doors slamming shut all through the building. 

“My dad,” Paige managed, voice sounding hollow. “He can’t shut down the self-destruct from where he is, but he can put the building on lockdown. He’s shutting us in. 

“If he can’t stop the building from blowing up, he’s going to make sure we go down with it.”

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