Paige Banners

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 you look exactly like she would have if she’d ever grown up, but will 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!”

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Project Owl 14-08 (Summus Proelium)

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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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Project Owl 14-06 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – For anyone who does not read Heretical Edge, this month’s Non-Canon chapter for Summus Proelium (focusing on a look at an alternate reality where Cassidy joins La Casa) has been posted on Patreon and is available for everyone to read right here. And remember, Patrons of any level get those non-canon chapters one day early, $5+ Patrons get to vote on which non-canon ideas are made into chapters, and $10+ Patrons get to GIVE ideas to be voted on. Not to mention, of course, the fact that $5+ Patrons always get every chapter a day earlier than the public!

I had no idea how long Paige and I stood there staring at one another after I took off that helmet. It felt like hours. Hours where the two of us simply stood in silence. I could see the array of emotions and competing thoughts that played across the other girl’s face. Confusion, disbelief, and much more made her expression twist. Once or twice, she opened her mouth as though to say something, but nothing emerged. For once in this entire thing, Paige was the one who looked completely lost. She was shocked, that much was certain. She’d had absolutely no idea who I really was under that helmet. And now that she did, it seemed like her brain had blue-screened.

Of course, I wasn’t doing much better. The terror of exposing myself to anyone, let alone someone who had (however unwillingly) been such a horrible bitch to me for so long, left me practically quivering in place. God, fuck, what was I doing? What was I doing?! What if this was a mistake? What if she had been playing me this whole time… somehow? What if I’d just thrown my life away by revealing my secret to Paige Banners?! What the hell was wrong with me? 

Yeah, I had a lot of doubts, to say the least. And a lot of emotions. It didn’t matter how illogical they were, how little sense the idea that Paige had somehow manufactured all this just to fuck with me made. None of that mattered. I was running on pure emotion in those few seconds. And my emotions were doing a real bang-up job of showing me all kinds of worst-case scenarios. 

Approximately seven years later (my mental state might have been exaggerating the length slightly), I finally managed to find my voice just enough to quietly say, “So, I guess we have a lot to talk about.” Yeah, the words sounded absurd given the enormity of what was going on, but I had to say something. Especially the way Paige was still gaping at me like a fish. 

At the very least, it also prompted her to find her own voice. “You–” After that single word, Paige’s head shook, like she was trying to clear it before trying again. “You’re really–” Again, she stopped. That time, however, it was because her hand was snapping out to grab my arm. Before I even knew what was happening, Paige was yanking me off my feet and tossing me to the floor behind her while snapping a quick, “Get down!” In the next instant, a semi-muffled gunshot rang out, before the bullet struck the wall right near where my head had been. 

Fuck, right, there were still bad guys here! Behind me, I heard Paige launch herself at wherever that shot had come from. Scrambling a bit, I managed to shove the helmet back on my head and turned in time to see the blonde girl catch one of those suited guys by the wrist, shoving it to the side so his next shot went far wide. In the next instant, a gleaming knife appeared in her other hand as she shoved the blade right into the man’s throat. Blood spurted out as he fell. 

“Paige!” Leaping back to my feet, I took a quick glance around to make sure we weren’t about to be immediately jumped by another guy before lunging that way. “Stop!” My hands caught her arm, turning the girl to face me. Somehow, it felt safer doing so from behind the helmet, even if she did already know who I was. I stared at her. “You can’t just keep killing all these guys! I know they’re bad, but… but you can’t just kill all of them. And you can’t–” My voice caught in my throat while I grabbed the other girl tightly by both shoulders. “You can’t kill yourself.” 

For a moment, Paige just stared at me in silence. I could, yet again, see a lot playing out in her eyes. A lot of things she didn’t say, or thought of saying and didn’t know how to put words to. Finally, she murmured a soft, “Cassie, it’s… it’s you.” With those quiet words, her hands rose to touch either side of the helmet before using her thumbs to push up the black visor so she could see my eyes. “All this… everything that… you were… it was always…” Visibly swallowing, she shook her head. “It was you. All that time, it was you. You’re Paintball. Everyone thinks–but you’re actually–it was you. It was you.” There was a mixture of awe and bafflement in her words. 

“Believe me,” I managed in a weak voice, “I was pretty confused by all of it too. More than you are, I think. Pretty sure you know more about what’s going on than I do.”

Flinching a bit, Paige quickly blurted, “I–I’m sorry. Everything–all the stuff–all that–” 

“I saw the video,” I quietly assured her. “I saw it. Like I said, you can’t kill yourself. You can’t. And you can’t just keep killing all these people. I know they’re bad, but they’re still people.” 

“No.” To that, Paige shook her head. “They’re not people, Cassie. They’re biolems.”

Well, I’d had a lot of thoughts about what Paige would say next, but that definitely wasn’t on the list. “Biolems?” I echoed. 

“Biological golems,” she explained. “It’s what my father–look.” With that, she turned and grabbed the slumped body of the guy she had just killed. To my utter horror, Paige hauled him up a bit, then drove that knife of hers down into the top of his head. It must’ve been pretty damn sharp and she must’ve been pretty strong, because the blade went right through the skull without any apparent resistance. 

Quickly, I made a sound of disgust before starting to raise my hand to stop her. Then I stopped, as Paige quickly cut a hole in the man’s head and tore it open. Horrifying as that was, I couldn’t help but see the inside where his brain was. 

Or rather, where his brain should have been. Instead, there was a small metal orb, about the size of a baseball, with various colored flashing lights over it. Wires ran from the orb into the rest of the head and lower, toward the… the spine, I supposed. 

Reaching in, Paige grabbed the metal ball and yanked it out with a grunt of effort. It tore free, pulling a handful of those wires with it. “Biological golems,” she repeated. “They don’t think, they don’t feel, they don’t make choices. They follow orders. His orders. My father’s.” 

“Your dad… he… he’s Touched,” I managed. “He built these things?” That raised even more questions. And a few other thoughts that made my mind reel. 

“He’s Tech-Touched,” Paige confirmed. “His focus is on biology, on medical things, on… on this.” She gestured to the body of the so-called ‘biolem’ before releasing her grip to let it slump back down. The metal orb was still in the hand she was using to gesture with. “This and a whole lot more. These are his foot soldiers, Cassie. They’re not built with any free will, no personality, nothing like that. They’re built to do what he tells them to, and to look like real people.” 

Swallowing hard, I met her gaze. “Is… is that what he did with you? I mean, except with personality and all, because umm, you’ve definitely got one of those. But you said you didn’t have any choice but to obey his orders. And you… you’re stronger and faster than you should be. I just–all that stuff–you fought all those people and you won. You’re–are… are you…?” 

“I’m different,” Paige informed me, sounding like this was all really hard for her to talk about. The words came out as though she was forcing them. “I’m not… exactly a–” Before she could finish, the sound of running footsteps drew our attention toward the door I had come through. We couldn’t see it thanks to all the servers in the way, but there were definitely people coming. A lot of them, from the sound of it. Or rather, more of these biolems, as Paige put it. 

Worse, there were some coming from the other direction as well. There must’ve been a door at the far end of the room, because it sounded like an army was closing in on us from both sides. 

“He had more than I thought,” Paige murmured. “He sent them all to stop me, to stop–” She looked to me, a rush of emotions playing across her face. “Cassie–” 

The first guy came around the corner then, gun raised. Quickly, I painted a big orange smiley face on my chest, grabbing Paige to yank her around so the shots hit my back. “We deal with these guys!” I blurted out loud, even as more rushed to join in. “Then we talk!” 

With that, I painted my gloves purple, grabbing Paige by her arms and lifting her before giving a heave to throw the girl up and over the heads of the three guys who came sprinting in from that direction. She landed behind them while they were still trying to pivot back that way. 

Paige had those guys. I had to trust that Paige had them, because I had my own problems to deal with. Namely, the guy who was still shooting me in the back, and the three friends who had joined him. Four guys. Or four biolems. Whatever. The point was, they were very intent on killing the two of us. 

Just before my orange paint could wear off, I added green to my legs and used that, coupled with the remaining strength from my purple gloves, to hurl myself at the nearest guy. His last shot hit my left shoulder hard enough that I knew there would be a bruise there. But I ignored the pain and caught his extended wrist, twisting it hard enough to break so that he dropped his gun. 

Behind him, the other guys were starting to shoot. Clearly, they didn’t care that he was in the way. And why would they? If Paige was right, they were all mindless drones following orders. 

But I couldn’t think about that right now. Instead, I used the last of the purple strength to hoist this guy up and bodily threw him into the three guys just before they could shoot. They all hit the floor together and I quickly sprayed them with red paint before they could disentangle themselves. Another shot of red went to the far back of the room and all four men were yanked that way. None of them screamed or even yelped. They were all silent while being hurtled the length of the room to crash into the wall. It was kind of creepy, to be honest. 

Nor did it really seem to slow them down very much. Even as they collapsed to the floor, the quartet were already separating from one another and picking themselves up. The three whose guns I hadn’t taken even still had them, and were pointing them as they straightened.

Suddenly, there were four quick gunshots from just beside me. Paige was there, pointing a weapon she had taken from one of the others. And with each of those four shots, a matching hole appeared in the center of each man’s forehead. They all collapsed like puppets whose strings had been cut. 

“Not real!” the other girl snapped at me. Blood was covering the front of her shirt and most of her face, giving her the look of a feral, primitive warrior. Well, except for the whole gun thing. “They’re not real people! They can’t feel, they can’t think, they can’t do anything except what they’re programmed to do. They’re flesh and blood, but robots. They’re robots, Ca–Paintball! They’re not going to stop just because you hit them a few times. You have to break them!” 

“I–I’m sorry, I just–they look like people!” I stammered. “I can’t just kill–I mean–” 

“You’re not killing them,” she informed me flatly. “Because they’re not alive. They never have been. They’re mindless drones, I swear. They don’t–down!” Pivoting with me, Paige fired a quick shot into the face of yet another incoming biolem who had been aiming at us from behind one of the rows of computer servers. 

“God, how many these things did your dad make?!”  I reflexively blurted. 

“Too many,” she responded darkly. “That’s why we have to get to the source. The main server.” 

“What’re all these?” My hands waved quickly to encompass the room full of computers. 

“Part of it,” she replied. “But not the part we need. It’d take too long to do anything here, trust me. If we’re going to stop Project Owl, we need to get to the heart of things. That’s this way. Now come on!” With that, her hand moved to grab mine and she started to run. 

Quickly, I kept pace with her. “What the hell is Project Owl?!” I demanded as we sprinted past row after row of computer servers and made it to a small door that was almost hidden behind two larger server banks. Paige was already lashing out with a foot, kicking the door open. It led to a wide hallway with no windows or decorations of any kind. The floor, walls, and ceiling were made of solid concrete. This hall was all about function, not form.  

“It’s an acronym!” the other girl informed me quickly, even as the two of us moved through the hall. It was L-shaped. At the far end, it turned to the left, revealing a heavy, vault-like door directly in front of us. “It stands for Organic Wonderwork Legacy. It–”  Turning back toward me then, Paige looked as though she wanted to take another hour or so to actually explain everything, and the fact that we didn’t have time for that was frustrating her. Finally, she simply added, “It’s my father’s big plan. You remember that little metal ball I took out of that thing’s head back there? My dad wants to make advanced versions of those for everyone in the world, and let them upload their brains into them. Then they could have bodies built for themselves that can look like anything. Humanoid, animal, alien, giants, anything! They just have the body built, install the orb that has their brain and personality and all that, and off they go. They could even have multiple bodies and switch between them. He wants to give everyone in the world a perfect body, and put them in those little orbs so they can live forever. I mean, as long as the orb survives. If the body wears out, they just transfer to a new one. He wants to create immortality in perfect bodies that allows everyone to be exactly what they want to be, forever.” 

For a moment, I just stared at her. “Um. What a…. monster? Wait, is he the good guy in thi–” 

“He’s not a good guy,” Paige instantly snapped. “One, he wants you and your family dead. Two, there’s problems with his system. There’s–he’s–look, I can’t explain it all right now. But even though his goals might sound great, you really don’t want to put someone as crazy as he is in charge of literally every life on the planet. How long do you think it would take him to just stamp out the ones he decided he didn’t like? Giving one person that much power, especially someone like him… it’s a bad idea.” 

While I was processing that, she turned back to the big vault door, focusing on a keypad next to it. “This is the part that could take a long time. I don’t know the password, so I have to do this the hard way.”

“Not that long,” I quickly put in, already pointing both hands at the door. Focusing, I started to spray a circle of paint on it a couple feet in diameter. As Paige watched in confusion, I painted my fist purple before punching into the pink bit, starting to tear it out. “Help me with this?” 

She got it then, and the two of us started to tear out a hole in the door. I had to spray a couple more times, given how thick the thing was. But eventually, I managed to tear a full hole all the way through and into the room beyond. 

Paige went first, shoving herself through the hole. I squirmed through right after her before straightening up to look around. Now we were in a circular room about twenty feet across. In the middle there was a two-foot-wide red obelisk-looking thing with a computer console attached to it, while more servers were mounted to the walls on all sides. 

“What… the hell is this place?” I muttered. “What is all this for?” 

“It’s the heart of everything,” came the response. “This whole place–it’s all part of his plan. In other parts of the building, there’s automated systems building more of those biolems, and working on more advanced versions of the orbs. Ones that can hold full human minds. Like I said, the ones we’ve faced so far are running on his default programming. But he wants to put actual human minds in the new ones. So this place is important. There’s redundancy after redundancy built into it. But if I can destroy this part here, he’s done in this city. He can’t do anything else. This is his pride and joy, the center of everything, the brain of his lab. This is the place I didn’t know about before. Without this, he’s dead in the water and can’t build any more of his biolems.” 

“So we destroy it,” I agreed. “Then we get out of here.” 

“It’s not that simple,” she insisted. “I can blow it up, but I… there’s security measures, Cassidy. If I tell it to blow up and then leave, the self-destruct will just be disabled. I have to be here when it goes, up to the very last second. Otherwise, the system will just turn off the self-destruct.” 

For a moment, I stared at her. “You mean you have to be standing here when the place blows up. That’s what you meant when you said you’d kill yourself.” 

“That and me being dead means my father can never use me to hurt you again,” Paige said in a soft voice. 

“You being dead would hurt me!” I quickly insisted. “It–I don’t have anyone else to talk to about–I can’t–Paige, you’re not dying. We have to find another way. There has to be another way.” 

For a moment, it looked like she was going to argue. Then Paige hesitated before quietly murmuring, “There… is a way I could shut the security brain down directly so it can’t turn off the self-destruct. But to do that, I’d have to plug directly into it.” 

“Plug directly into it?” I echoed, frowning a bit behind the helmet. 

She nodded, looking a little uncertain and self-conscious. “Cassidy, I–I’m like them. Like those biolems. Only different, more advanced. I’m pretty much a real person. I mean my brain is, my mind is, my personality… my self is real. My dad…he–he had a wife and a daughter, a little girl. But they got caught in a Collision Point. His wife was killed and his daughter, she was just a toddler, was hurt bad. Catastrophically bad. He built her a new body, but it was taking too long. Back then, it took a lot longer. He was still new to all of it. It was taking longer than she had, so he had to try to copy her mind, her personality, and hold it somewhere until he had the new body ready. That’s when he came up with the orbs. He had the idea of copying minds over to them, but he had to test it first. I was the test, the first prototype when he tried to copy his daughter’s mind. It–I wasn’t a perfect copy. But I wasn’t supposed to be. I was just his first attempt while he ironed out the wrinkles. Then he was going to copy her full brain. But… but she died before he could. She died, and all he had was me, the incomplete copy. He filled in the blanks as much as he could with data from other brains he copied, but even then I was never going to be the real thing. I was just based on his daughter. 

“The point is, he copied most of his real daughter’s brain over to create me. Then she died, and he didn’t–I think he never got over the fact that I wasn’t a perfect copy. I was just what he was left with. I was the closest thing he had to his real daughter, but I wasn’t close enough for him. He never forgave me for not being his real daughter. But he had to use me or have nothing, so he uploaded me into the body he made for his daughter. It was based on her DNA, so I’d grow up looking the same way she would, and… and you think I’m a freak now, don’t you?” 

I was staring at her. Because that was a lot to take in. Seriously, what the fuck. Her dad lost his wife and was about to lose his daughter, so he built a new body to transfer her into, but she died before he could finish, so he had to use the prototype mind transfer that wasn’t a perfect copy of her brain and put that in what was supposed to be his real daughter’s new body? And now Paige–the girl I knew as Paige, she was actually a… a… I… What the fuck.

Swallowing, I shook my head. “Paige, trust me, I don’t think you’re a freak. I don’t–never mind. Just do that thing you said. Plug in directly.” 

“But if I do that,” she insisted, “it’ll mean I’m completely shut down out here. I couldn’t do that before because those biolems would just come in while I was helpless and… and stop me.” 

Meeting her gaze, I quietly replied, “But you can do it now. I’m here. I’m right here, Paige. I won’t let them stop you. I won’t let them hurt you. Trust me.” 

Paige, for a moment, looked completely vulnerable and afraid. Then she straightened a bit, giving me a short nod. “I do. I trust you, Cassidy. But… but be careful. Please be careful. And remember what I said, they won’t stop unless you break them completely.”

“I remember,” I murmured. “Paige, we can do this. You can do this. Plug in, shut this place down. I’ll keep you safe. I swear. I won’t let them stop you and I won’t let them hurt you.” 

With one more nod, Paige turned back to the console. Her hand reached out, pressing against the keypad. I saw a few little wires emerge from her fingertips, snaking their way through the keypad and into the console itself. A second later, her eyes went dull. It was hard to explain, except that I could tell she wasn’t seeing anything out here. She had loaded herself into the system. 

A second later, I heard lots of running footsteps, even as the big vault door began to swing itself open to allow the incoming biolems entrance. 

Okay. They were coming, and Paige was completely offline. I had to keep her safe long enough for the girl to shut this place down. She was completely helpless, and from the sound of those running footsteps, we were about to be attacked by a small army. It was up to me to give Paige the time she needed to finish this. 

I turned to the opening door and set myself to welcome them.

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Project Owl 14-05 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N: The subjects of the second edition of non-canon chapters have been decided by donators! For this story, the non-canon chapter will focus on a look at Cassidy as a villain, a member of La Casa. That as well as the HE non-canon chapter will be out for any donator regardless of level tomorrow/Saturday on Patreon, before being released for EVERYONE 24 hours later on Sunday. They will still be on Patreon, but you will be able to read them no matter what, even if you do not donate anything at all. Thanks again for everything!

My quick search over the phone to figure out where I was going had told me one thing about this warehouse on Gratiot. Back in the old days, like… before I was born, it had been a lot more rundown than it was now. Like most of the city, really. But, also like most of the city, it had grown in the past decade or so. Now, the warehouse part took up a little over twice the space it had before, while the rest of the city block was a parking lot. And there were other large buildings around it that hadn’t existed before. There was a bit on the page I’d looked at that showed the difference between the old neighborhood and the new one, and jeez. It had basically all been completely rebuilt, thanks to the new storage demands as the city itself had been expanding. 

But the way the warehouse had been before didn’t matter. All that mattered was the fact that Paige was inside it now, and she was in trouble. Trouble I couldn’t begin to understand yet, but still trouble. 

There were cars parked in front of the warehouse as soon as I landed on a building nearby, a dozen of them scattered around the lot. It looked like they’d come in a rush, all parking wherever they happened to stop, leaving the vehicles sitting at odd angles to one another. A few were up on the curb, one looked like it had mowed down a small chain link fence on its way in, and another had its front end dangling partway into a ditch. All had doors that were hanging open, where their occupants had leapt out and run inside without bothering to close them.   

Suffice to say, it was pretty obvious that whatever was going on in there, all the people from those cars had come in a damn hurry. Paige… whatever she was doing, she’d managed to get a whole crapton of people to come to this warehouse. 

I had to get in there before she went through with her plan. Whatever else was going on, whatever nasty shit her father had planned, I had to get in there and stop Paige from killing herself. I just… I had to. Not to mention all the people she was planning on killing. They might’ve been bad people, but they were still people. How Paige could even plan on killing that many–

I had to find out what her deal was. 

Standing on the roof of that nearby building, I glanced at my phone while catching my breath. There was no response yet from either Pack or That-A-Way. And I’d heard a lot of sirens as I passed through the city. Something else was obviously going on. Whether it was an intentional distraction, or just more of that war between the gangs, I wasn’t sure. But it was obvious that the people I’d been hoping would come and help were busy. 

Exhaling, I opened the tiny compartment on the back of the phone case, taking out the bluetooth earbud that was there before sticking it in my ear. Hitting the button on it made the earbud sync with the phone, activating the voice changer on it. I may not have my real costume, but at least I would sound like myself. Or rather, not sound like myself. 

That done, I put the phone away and took out the radio I’d grabbed from the… the dead guy back at the house. It had been crackling off and on throughout my trip here. I’d heard men talking about arriving at the warehouse, about being close, about gunfire, about protecting ‘the vault’ and ‘the mainframe.’ Though the warehouse looked calm from the outside, it was clear from the radio that it was anything but. There were people shouting, calling out orders and responses about where ‘she’ was. There was running footsteps, loud banging from heavy things hitting metal, and even gunshots. Some of those were quiet enough that I had a hard time distinguishing what they were outside of context, while others were loud, clearly from guns that weren’t silenced. 

And yet, standing out here looking at the building in question, it was impossible to tell that anything was going on. It looked quiet in there. I might’ve thought that I had the wrong place if it wasn’t for all the cars parked out front. Which were added to as yet another sedan came squealing around the corner. It fishtailed a bit on its way into the lot, spinning around before skidding to a stop. Three guys leapt out, guns in hand. They wore dark suits and ties, looking like any number of high-end private security I’d seen my entire life. But these ones didn’t just stand around talking into earbud radios. They took one quick glance at the street before starting to sprint toward the warehouse, guns held at the ready. 

Nope. No, I wasn’t going to let even more people run in there to add to the chaos. Dropping the still crackling radio back in the pocket and zipping it, I painted my shoes blue to send myself hurtling up and forward. I still didn’t know exactly what was going on in there, or if I was going to get any help from That-A-Way or Pack, but it was time to get involved. I couldn’t wait anymore. 

Apparently the men rushing toward the warehouse were laser-focused on what was going on inside, because none of them seemed to notice my approach as I sailed right over their heads. At least, they didn’t notice until I sent three quick shots of red paint down at each of them, activating all of it together to send the three slamming into one another. They collided hard, collapsing into a heap just as I landed in a crouch in front of them. 

“Hey, guys!” I found myself blurting without thinking about it. “Sorry, can I see your invitations? Cuz this is a private party and the host is a real bitch about it.” 

The trio immediately reacted by snapping their weapons up and opening fire, but I activated an orange star I’d painted on my back, letting the couple shots they managed bounce off me (stinging a bit) before hitting all three guns with quick shots of red paint. Activating my borrowed, red-painted motorcycle glove yanked their weapons to me, and I tossed the pile aside. 

“Nope, these invitations look forged. You’ll have to come back later.” 

The men… did not seem interested in coming back later. Instead, the three of them charged at me, producing some kind of batons. Yeah, they really weren’t in the mood to play nice. Whatever was inside that warehouse, they were willing to attack (including shoot at) me to get to it. This had to be big, even bigger than I’d first thought. It wasn’t just about stopping Paige from killing herself, this had to be something big enough to make all of her father’s men go this fucking insane about protecting it. 

The orange paint had worn off by then, just as the first of the three men reached me, swinging down hard with his baton to hit my shoulder. The guy behind him was coming in lower, aiming for my stomach. They wanted me on the ground, fast, so they could bypass me and get inside. They were obviously really well-trained, and fast. Not to mention pretty well coordinated. 

But they weren’t faster than me with my legs painted green. Instantly, I was quick enough to see the baton descending toward my shoulder in what amounted to slow-motion. I painted four purple stars across my right arm, boosting my strength beyond theirs as I pivoted away from the descending weapon, putting my left hip into the path of the second baton for a moment. My hand caught the first weapon just as it would have hit my shoulder if I’d still been standing there, stripping it down and away from the man to tear it out of his grip. Though it was harder than I expected. The dude was pretty strong. 

With that baton in hand, I snapped it down to hit the second baton hard enough to send it flying out of that guy’s grasp. Simultaneously, my leg kicked up hard into the first man’s stomach. He was obviously wearing some kind of body armor or something, but it was still enough to make him start doubling over with the beginning of an explosive wheeze of air leaving him. 

The boost to my strength wasn’t just good for my arms either. It also meant my legs were strong enough to launch myself up and over the three men while the first two were reacting to losing their weapons (and the one in the lead was doubled over from that kick). Flipping in the air, I landed behind the rear-most guy. Only a bare handful of seconds had passed, so I was still fast and strong. Using that, I lashed out with a kick into the third guy’s back to send him crashing into the first two. All three hit the ground in a heap. 

While they were still recovering, I hurriedly pointed my hands at the ground on one side of them, shooting a spray of pink. Activating it, I lunged that way, shoving my hands down into the now clay-like material. With a grunt, I used my boosted strength to yank the pink-painted pavement up and over the pile of briefly dazed men before they could disentangle themselves. 

The pink pavement I’d yanked up was about eight inches thick and a foot wide. Quickly, I shoved it down into place over the three men, securing the other end against the pavement there. The power ran out, putting the literal piece of parking lot back to normal and leaving the men trapped under what amounted to a loop of asphalt that was pinning them against the ground while they struggled and cursed at me. 

Yeah, it wasn’t perfect. But it would do for now. The men might wriggle free in time, once they started cooperating. For the moment, however, they weren’t a problem. So, ignoring their threats, I hopped over the group and looked toward the warehouse. Three guys at least temporarily dealt with. But Paige was still in there, along with God only knew how many more, given all the cars that were out here. 

I had to get in there. I had to find her. But the warehouse was so huge, how was I supposed to figure out where she was quickly enough to do anything? 

Start at the top. That was my only choice. I had to search the building as fast as possible, starting from the top and working my way down. Hopefully, I’d hear something either over the radio that I still had, or in-person, that would give me a better hint. 

Also hopefully, That-A-Way and Pack would show up soon. Because something told me I was really going to need their help before this was over. 

Ignoring the men who were pinned to the ground by the arch of pavement, I took a running start before using red paint to yank myself all the way up to the top-most window of the warehouse. Hitting the wall next to it, I silently cursed the fact that I didn’t have my real costume with the shoes that would’ve let me stick to this wall without my paint. Fuck it, I was going to have to make do. 

To that end, I took a quick peek through the window, seeing nothing but an empty hallway beyond. It looked like this top floor was offices. A tug at the window accomplished nothing, and my red paint was going to run out any second. So, I used black paint to silence the soon-to-be-shattered glass, then colored my fist purple and punched through it a couple times to clear enough space before hauling myself through. 

Now I was in, and, thanks to the black paint, no one who might’ve been nearby had heard me break out the window. For a moment, I crouched in that cheaply carpeted corridor, listening and watching. There was an elevator almost directly across from me, with a closed door to the right and an open one to the left. The open door led into an office that was only lit by the streetlights coming through the windows. It didn’t look like anyone was in there. Nor could I hear anything at all for the mo–

Gunshots. And they were coming from somewhere below me. It was kind of hard to tell for sure where, given the echo through the building, but yeah. Definitely coming from some lower floor. Grimacing, I gave a quick glance toward the open office before running the other way, to the elevator. Hitting the button made nothing happen. Either it was locked down or… or something. Fuck, fuck! I bolted for the closed door, slamming into it while turning the knob. It opened easily, and I almost fell over into the corridor beyond. This one was also cheaply carpeted, leading to some other rooms. More importantly, there was another door labeled ‘stairs’ just to the left. 

Another loud, echoing gunshot came as I bolted through that door. The steps beyond were made of cement, clearly intended for function rather than form. They continued down through the three flights in a spiral, with doors at each landing and an open space in the middle. The fact that there were multiple floors here in a warehouse seemed odd for a moment, but I figured this whole side must’ve been the offices. The actual warehouse part was probably further in. Though I sort of wondered why a warehouse needed multiple levels of offices. Was that normal? 

Not that I had time to worry about it for long. Hearing that gunshot, I listened briefly. Shouts. There were shouts coming from the second floor. At least… I thought it was the second floor. I was pretty sure. 

My level of certainty went up a moment later as I saw the first floor door bang open and a quartet of armed guys (also dressed in those same secret service-like suits) rush up the stairs and through that second floor door. They were in such a hurry and so focused on their target that they didn’t notice me peering down from above. 

That’s where Paige was. Grunting, I painted my shoes orange and black, activating both before vaulting over the side of the stairs and dropping. The air rushed past me as I dropped a good thirty feet, landing easily on the second floor railing. 

Ahead of me, the door was open, revealing some kind of computer lab. Wait, a computer lab? Yeah, it was a huge open room filled with those big computer mainframe things. Like, a lot of them. And I was no expert or anything, but they looked pretty advanced. They were in these sleek black shelving units with what looked like bulletproof glass covering the exposed parts and little keypad consoles beside each of those glass bits, as though you had to enter a code to even open it. Even more crazy, it looked like there was also some kind of retinal scan too. A retinal scan and a code to enter? What the hell was this place? Because this was definitely not an ordinary warehouse. Which I really should’ve expected, considering the whole thing with Paige coming here and all these guys being so obsessed with getting to her. There was something important about this place, and I was pretty damn sure it had at least something to do with these computers. 

The room was big enough to house a basketball court, with row after row of those tall black shelves full of computer stuff. I could hear struggling going on clear toward the back, along with the sound of running footsteps as the guys I had just seen go in ahead of me rushed to join their companions. To my left, slumped in the corner, there was a body of another suited man, with blood and… and other bits of his insides splattered across the floor. 

Paige. This was all Paige. She was doing this. How? Why? What did–Shaking off all those thoughts, I renewed the black paint to keep myself silent and raced around the side of the computers to head for the source of all the commotion. 

There she was. At the far end of the room, I saw Paige, surrounded by what looked like a small mountain of dead guys. Seriously, there had to be like fifteen or so all piled up, along with a few more who were still trying to kill her. Even as I came around the edge of the computers in time to see that, she caught one guy’s wrist, twisted it to make him drop his gun (there was a loud crack as his wrist broke), and lashed out to kick another guy in the knee with enough force to break that as well. As that second guy was still collapsing toward the ground, Paige twisted the first guy’s gun toward his own chest and made him shoot himself. 

Two guys further away who were still up each had their own weapons raised and were about to fire, when I hit them in the backs with a wide spray of red paint, using the other hand to hit the floor behind them with another spot so they were hauled off their feet and slammed down with a pair of yelps. 

There were still a couple more. Paige pivoted toward the nearest one, head snapping just a bit to one side as he fired his own (actually silenced) pistol right past her ear, before her fist hit him in the throat. 

Meanwhile, the other guy was coming at her from the side with some kind of combat knife, and the two guys I had knocked down were already sitting up and trying to shoot again. But I was already racing between them, and I quickly hit the back of their heads with more red before shooting one more blob back the way I’d come, sending them flying off that way. As they went sailing, I painted back purple before slamming into the guy who was trying to stab Paige. I hit him hard enough to knock the man out as he crashed into the reinforced glass surrounding the nearby computer thing. And the glass didn’t even dent at all. 

By that point, Paige had dealt with her own guy and spun back to me. “Paintball?!” she finally blurted, sounding totally taken aback. “What–what’re you doing here?” Yeah, I had definitely taken her off-guard. 

“I…” I started, then stopped. 

Paige was still staring. One of the guys started to move, and she lashed out with a kick to his face that put him back down without even looking. “Paintball…” There was suspicion in her voice by that point. “How did you get here? Wait, that’s not your normal costume. What…” 

She had tormented me for years. She made me feel like shit, had literally brought me to tears when I was younger because of how I looked, because I was more like a cute little boy than a teenaged girl. She had been the worst thing about that school and had done her level best to make me miserable whenever she could. 

But that… wasn’t her fault. That wasn’t the real Paige. The real Paige had been… my friend? The real Paige had been–no, was willing to literally kill herself to stop from being forced to kill me. I had no idea how her father controlled her, but he did. And the only way, at least in Paige’s mind, to make sure he would never be able to order her to kill me again in a way she couldn’t rules lawyer her way around was by killing herself. And she was willing to do that. 

She was willing to kill herself to protect me. 

And she already knew… more than I did about my family’s business, and was against it. She’d been working against them. 

So, I said nothing. I remained completely silent, even as I reached up to the borrowed motorcycle helmet…

And took it off. 

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Project Owl 14-03 (Summus Proelium)

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You have to die. 

Coming awake after fading into darkness with words like that ringing in my ears wasn’t exactly a fun experience. Wait, scratch that. What the fuck was I saying? Waking up at all after hearing words like that as the darkness had claimed me was a remarkably fun experience. If I was awake, I was alive, considering actual full-on ghosts didn’t really exist. 

Also, I had a headache. I kind of doubted that people in any kind of afterlife had headaches. Unless–well, on the other hand…

Right, focus, Cassidy. I was alive, awake, and my eyes were open. At least, I thought they were open. It didn’t make much of a difference, because everything around me was dark. I didn’t feel any pressure against my face or anything, so it wasn’t a blindfold. And I wasn’t handcuffed or tied up in any way. I was just lying on a floor. A cold cement floor, from the feel of it. 

For a few seconds, I just laid there, listening. I was trying to figure out if I could tell anything else about where I was or if anyone was in here with me. But there was nothing. The room was completely silent and completely dark. I didn’t know if there was someone else in here, or if there were cameras with night vision, or anything. So, no using powers just yet. Especially since I had no idea what I would use said powers on even if I had actually wanted to reveal them. 

Okay, this was getting me nowhere. If there was someone in here, they weren’t going to say anything. And lying here wasn’t accomplishing anything or getting me any more information. I had to move. Carefully, I put my hands down against the cement floor, starting to push myself up. I made it to a sitting position, then got my feet under me to stand. But in mid-motion, the lights came on with a suddenness that made me yelp out loud, almost falling over again. 

Wait, no. Not lights. One light. Specifically, a television. It was a large flatscreen mounted on the nearby wall. But the illumination from the screen coming to life allowed me to see more of the room I was in. Not that there was much to see. It looked like an empty unfinished basement room, about fifteen feet by twenty feet. So, pretty small. The floor was concrete, as expected, and so were the walls. In the far corner there was some kind of heavy metal door. 

“Cassidy.” 

The sound of Paige’s voice made my gaze snap back to the television. She was there, on the screen. She looked… bad. Well, no, she looked perfect, as always. Physically, there was nothing wrong or different about her. She was just as much the pristine cheerleader princess as always. But there was something… something else wrong, something deeper that I couldn’t really define. Maybe it was in her eyes. She looked tired and worn out. Definitely stressed. 

“I know you must be very confused right now,” she continued. “I wish I could be there myself to tell you what’s going on, to tell you all of it. But I can’t. I just–” For a moment, it looked as though the other girl was going to say something else, before she finally just shook her head. “I can’t be there. This recording, this video, is going to have to do. It’s linked to a motion sensor that should only go off once you’re sitting up, so… unless I really screwed up, hopefully you’re actually awake when it starts playing. Otherwise, this–” Seeming to realize that she was getting off-topic, she visibly shook herself and focused. “But there’s one thing you need to know, one thing I wish I could’ve said before.” 

Those words were followed by a long, silent pause as Paige apparently took the time to collect herself. I saw her swallow hard, barely keeping herself somewhat together. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything I said to you before, for everything I–for everything that happened between us. My father–my real father, not the man you know, he… well, he didn’t give me a choice. I never wanted to hurt you. I never wanted to say the things that I said, or–or do any of that. You were my–” Again, she stopped, heaving a long, heavy sigh before looking down. It took her a few more seconds to collect herself like that, staring at the floor. From the background of the video, it looked like she’d recorded it in this same room. She might as well have been standing in front of me. 

No, because if she was standing in front of me, I could have shaken her violently and demanded she actually give me some fucking answers. Or at least said ‘what the fuck’ to her in person. That would’ve been nice. 

Eventually, Paige looked back up. If anything, her gaze looked even more haunted. “Let’s just say you and I have a very complicated history, Cassidy Evans. Even more complicated than you know. My father wanted me to hurt you. He didn’t give me a choice. I know that’s hard to understand, I know it’s not a real–that I’m not explaining what you really need to know. But I can’t be sure this recording won’t end up with the wrong people, no matter how careful I am. So there are things I can’t say.” 

Taking in a long breath before letting it out, she continued. “There are few things I can say. Things that I know you have no reason to believe. Especially after the past few years and everything that I’ve said and done. All I can say is please just… just listen for a few minutes, because everything I’m about to tell you is one hundred percent true.  

“First, your best friend when you were young was a boy named Anthony Tate. You were going to his birthday party five years ago, when you found his entire family and their household staff murdered. You saw Anthony himself killed right in front of you. The men who did it worked for your grandfather, your mother’s father. He was angry at your parents and sent those men to kill Anthony’s family and to abduct you. But your bodyguard, a man named Robert Parson, saved you. He killed them, and your dad killed your grandfather.” 

Paige trailed off like that, apparently giving the words time to sink in. And I was definitely reeling. Her explanation made sense, so far. It fit everything I knew, and definitely filled in some blanks. Was it the truth? She’d said it was, but…. right, just listen. I’d sort out how I felt about it and whether I believed the whole thing once she was done.

“The thing you need to know, Cassidy,” Paige continued eventually, “the thing you need to believe even if you don’t believe anything else, is that your parents love you. Never doubt that. They’ve made mistakes. They’ve screwed up, made choices in trying to protect you that might have done more damage. But it was never out of malice. They love you, Cassie. They saw you were hurt and they wanted to take that hurt away.” 

If I hadn’t been able to piece some of what had happened with Anthony Tate together before, this whole thing would’ve left me reeling even more than I already was. Hell, if I didn’t know about my family’s real situation, I would’ve been even more lost. At least I had a head start on understanding some of this, and I still desperately needed to sit down. 

Almost like she was ripping off a Band-Aid, Paige continued. “Your parents had a special Touched use his power to erase that traumatic event from your memory, Cassidy. They did it because they love you, and you were in pain. They shouldn’t have. They should have let you get better, should have let you get through it. But they didn’t want you to feel all that pain. When your best friend died, when he was murdered by someone working for your grandfather, they didn’t want you to be stuck with that memory. So they had it erased. Not because they were hiding some dirty family secret from you. Not because they didn’t trust you. Because they wanted to help you. Right or wrong, good or bad, they wanted to take your pain away.” 

Wanted to take my pain away. My parents had wanted to make me stop hurting after I’d seen my best friend murdered in front of me, along with the bodies of all his family and house staff, so they’d had my memory erased. Was that true? Was that the only reason they had Tomas’s father do his thing? 

And what about the rest of it? Anthony and his family were killed because my grandfather was pissed at my parents? Was he really capable of that? Was–what was I saying, my parents were capable of doing plenty of evil things. They had to get it from somewhere, right? Or was that just a dumb way of thinking? I didn’t–fuck, I had no idea. 

Paige had stopped talking on the video, as though giving me time to process all of that. Then she continued. “Your parents…” Trailing off, she looked uncertain of how to proceed or how much to say. Finally, a heavy sigh escaped her. “There’s a lot you need to know about your parents, Cassidy. But I know you have no reason to believe anything I’d say to you about them. Not after everything that’s happened over the past few years. I’d say trust me, but… that would be stupid. So, I’m just going to say it and you can decide how much you believe.” 

And then she told me about the Ministry. Basic stuff, really, most of which I’d already worked out or realized on my own. She told me my parents ran the organization, that they kept crime in Detroit to what they considered a reasonable (and profitable) level, and that they had contacts inside most of the Star and Fell organizations in the city. And, after telling me that what she was about to say would hit me really hard so I should sit down or brace myself, she ‘revealed’ that my father was Silversmith. While, of course, telling me that she knew I probably wouldn’t believe it. 

Beyond all that, Paige also explained that the backbone of the Ministry had evolved from a criminal organization run by my grandfather. Detroit’s version of the Mafia. My parents had stolen the organization out from under him somehow, kicked him and his loyalists out of the city, and gradually reworked it into what it was today. The fact that my grandfather’s group had strong contacts and allies in the police force and government (not to mention the amount of powerful people they could blackmail) was what gave Mom and Dad the headstart they needed to put their spies in place on so many Star-Touched groups. They basically took the city’s criminal mob, complete with all that organization’s influence over corrupt law enforcement, and twisted it into this whole ‘control or manipulate all supervillain and most superhero actions in the city’ thing. 

Yeah, it was a lot to take in even while knowing what I did. I couldn’t even imagine how I might’ve reacted if this had all been completely new to me. Would I have stood there through all of these claims? Would I have shouted back denials at the television? Would I have ignored her completely, or even tried to break the screen? Would I have tried to leave, or just ignored her? Would I have–wait, my phone. 

While listening to the recording continue, I dug in my pockets. My phones were there, but there was no signal. Of course. I had the feeling that, whatever else was going on, Paige didn’t want me leaving this place, or calling for help. Particularly considering I might’ve called my parents before she explained everything. And certainly before I would’ve believed her if I hadn’t already known the truth. 

Paige pushed on. “The point is, your grandfather was pissed about being kicked out of his own organization, his own city, by his daughter and her husband. So he brought his loyalists in and they attacked your best friend’s birthday party. They killed Anthony in front of you, and your bodyguard barely got you out. He was almost killed by your grandfather, who wanted to abduct you, before your father showed up and killed him. Then they had your memory erased to protect you. That was the end of it… or so your parents thought. 

“You see, my father was working with Anthony’s. They were working on… on a huge project, one that was supposed to change the world. It’s called Project Owl. When your grandfather had Anthony’s father killed, it ruined Project Owl, my father’s life work. He blamed–blames your parents for it. He tried to get back at them by having your brother abducted and… and altered so that he would kill his sister… you. Then Simon would have revealed the whole truth about the Ministry to the public, and while your parents were occupied with all of that, my father would have taken their resources and used them to finish Project Owl. 

“But I couldn’t let that happen. Because when your parents erased Anthony and his death from your memory, they erased me too. You and I–we were friends too. And Anthony. All three of us. You were-” She stopped, clearly choked up a bit before managing to catch herself. “You were both my friends. But it was a secret. Your parents didn’t know about me, so they didn’t know they were erasing me. You forgot about me. But I didn’t forget about you, and I couldn’t let my father do that. So I… I called your bodyguard, Robert Parson. He was still too injured to do much back then, but he made some calls. He made sure my father ended up arrested and sent to Breakwater. Because he’s… he’s Touched, Cassidy. He’s a Tech-Touched, but his focus is on working with bodies, working on living things, biological things. He’s–” She stopped, considering for a moment before shaking her head. “The point is, they sent him to Breakwater, and that was supposed to be the end of it too, just like your parents thought before.”

Again, there was a brief pause, before the girl made a face. “But… but I didn’t realize that my father had contingencies. I can’t… really get into them right now. All that matters is that he can control me. He can make me do exactly what he says, even if I don’t want to. I have to follow the letter of his orders, even through intermediaries. And he used that intermediary to order me to go with the Banners. He sold me to them, and ordered me to spend a few years being a total cunt to you. He wanted to establish years of bad blood, of arguing, of… of us being rivals, I guess. Because when I turned seventeen, when I was old enough to be sent to Breakwater too, I was supposed to kill you myself and, when the authorities came after me, make it look like I was Tech-Touched, using the equipment he left. Then I’d be sent to the island, but… but it wouldn’t stop me. When they sent me to Breakwater, I would be able to break my father out and he would go back to his plan to use your parents’ organization to finish his project, while they were too busy mourning you to defend themselves.

“Like I said, I had to follow his orders to the letter. He ordered me not to warn you or anyone about this until it was over. He ordered me to treat you like shit, to start fights with you, to insult you, to do everything I could to make the two of us fighting be realistic. He–there were a lot of orders, Cassidy. Most importantly, he ordered me to kill you on my seventeenth birthday. He ordered me to invite you here, and to kill you in a roomful of people. So I did.” 

Well, that part was a bit confusing, yeah. I just stared at the screen as she continued. “I followed the letter of his orders. The gas I pumped into you was enough to kill you. You died, Cassidy. And I did it in a room full of people. But I had the lights go out so they didn’t see what happened. My father never said the lights had to be on, only that there had to be a lot of people in the room when it happened. And he said you had to die, but he never said you had to stay dead. So, when everyone was still reacting, I took your body through a secret door and gave you the antidote. You were dead for about one minute. That was enough to fulfill my father’s orders.” 

Glancing away for a moment on-screen, Paige seemed to gather herself. “But he still has people who will kill you if they find out you’re alive. So I can’t–you have to stay there. I used this…” With that, Paige pointed some kind of remote at the camera she’d been using to record this whole thing. As she clicked it… I appeared in her place. It was some kind of video editing overlay on the screen or something, but it looked and sounded completely realistic. It looked like me. Suddenly, Paige wasn’t the one on-screen, I was. It was only a view from the waist up at that point, which helped with the height problem. 

“Hey, guys,” my voice said, “that was pretty fucking crazy, huh? Listen, I… I can’t deal with this. Paige is just–she’s too much. So when the lights went out, I sort of… I took off. I just need to clear my head. Could you make sure Izzy’s okay and that she gets home? Thanks. And–and sorry. I just had to get out of there. I’ll explain later, I promise.” 

Paige clicked the image thing off, returning to herself. “I spoofed your phone number and video called Amber like that. So, you shouldn’t get in too much trouble or anything, I hope. I just–stay there, Cassidy. The room’s set to unlock and let you out in two hours. That should be long enough for me to do what I have to do to make sure you stay safe. 

“I’m sorry, Cassie. I’m sorry about everything. I wish we could’ve stayed friends. But I was never… I was never meant to have friends. As for everything I’ve told you about your family, you can decide to do whatever you want with that information. Believe it, don’t, look into it yourself, just… be careful, please. I wanted you to know the truth. You deserve the truth. I can’t tell you how to react, whether to believe me or not, who to talk to about it. I can’t tell you anything like that. All I could give you was the facts. The rest is up to you. Because I–I can’t be there. I want to, but I can’t. I’m going to take out every single one of my father’s agents here. I’m going to kill everyone he could use to hurt you or your family. And then… and then I’m going to kill myself, so he can never use me to hurt you either.

“By the time that door unlocks and lets you out, my father’s people will all be dead, and so will I. 

“Goodbye, Cassie.”

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Project Owl 14-02 (Summus Proelium)

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“I think they might want us to go that way.” 

Tomas’s dry words came as our large assortment of teenagers made our way into the front foyer of Paige’s house, behind the birthday girl herself, just to find the grand room with its sweeping staircase and priceless artwork, filled with servants. There were maids blocking various doorways, what looked like a gardener standing in front of an antique grandfather clock as though to stop anyone from getting near it, a cook standing in front of those stairs, and so on. A dozen or so of the Banners’ staff stood in key positions to stop any of our group from wandering off or touching something they shouldn’t. And all of them were pointing toward the only doorway that wasn’t blocked. 

Yeah, most of them were smiling (or at least trying to), but it was still really damn creepy. Actually, it was probably even creepier with the smiles. They almost looked like robots, standing there guarding everything deemed valuable or important from the scary teenagers. Boy, I was glad my family didn’t live like that. Did Paige have to worry about being glared at by random staff for getting near a painting or a statue, or was this just for us? 

Okay, thinking back on the things I’d seen my classmates do (and that I’d done myself), this was fair. A huge group of teenagers in one area like this–yeah. It made total sense to make sure things didn’t… go wrong. Especially given how we could egg each other on into doing very stupid things. Which I could say with a considerable amount of authority, considering I was very often the one who was egged on to do those stupid things. But hey, they’d already had that Slip ‘N Slide set up in the school hallway. What was I supposed to do, say I couldn’t make it from one end to the other? 

Wait, that was another thing that ended with me being soaked while someone screamed at me. Huh. Maybe Izzy had a point. 

Shaking off those thoughts, I let myself be pulled along with the rest of the group as we moved through the doorway, finding ourselves in another hall, then a T-junction of corridors before making it to a door leading to what turned out to be the back patio. This was where the party was supposed to be, apparently, given all the balloons, decorations, tables laden with treats and presents, and so on. The nearby pool, a huge, horseshoe-shaped thing, even had ‘Happy Birthday Paige’ written above it in colorful Tech-Touched hologram lights from nearby projectors. In the distance, on the far side of the grounds, some kind of outdoor stage had been set up with curtains raised around it.

The moment we were out here, everyone spread out a bit. Paige had moved to the edge of the pool, pivoting back to face us with that smile that I’d seen her use on teachers and other adults for so many years. It was a smile that could instantly dissolve into a vindictive scowl the moment their backs were turned and I was the only one who could see her. I’d long-since learned not to trust it. And today was no different. Seeing that smile made a slight shiver run through me.  Whatever Paige was up to, I definitely wasn’t going to turn my back to her anytime soon. Otherwise I’d be likely to get a dagger shoved in it. Metaphorically, of course.

“How’re we doing today, Dynasties?!” the blonde called, her voice filling the area without even needing a microphone (her time as a cheerleader had done wonders for her ability to project). Dynasty, somehow, was the name of our school’s mascot. Yeah. We were the Cadillac Dynasties. And some of my classmates wondered why we were considered spoiled and privileged. That was a real mystery. 

And speaking of being spoiled and privileged, Paige waited until the resulting enthusiastic cheers died down before continuing. “In a couple hours, we’ll have some pizza and wings, then cake and ice cream! And after that… well, then I get my presents.” She said it casually, with a confident, yet charming and somehow self-deprecating smile that made most people chuckle.

“But after I’ve been thoroughly impressed and bribed by all the goodies you’ve brought,” she continued easily, “then we’ll all go inside to my family’s private theater, where you are all invited to watch the new Lou Devereux movie, not due out in public until next week!” 

Yeah, that definitely got cheers. I heard a lot of excited murmurs, words about how cool this was, how they knew Paige would have something good planned, and so on. Beside me, Tomas patted my back slightly, while Izzy actually touched my hand gently. I had a feeling she could tell I was uncomfortable, whatever I did to try to hide that. 

Paige was already continuing. She had adopted a clearly put-on, confused tone. “Except, there’s a problem, isn’t there? I mean, we’re not eating for a couple hours, and the movie is after that. So, what are we going to do in the meantime? It’d be boring if we just sat around, huh?” Her head tilted back and forth as though she was thinking about it, before perking up. “I know! Parties have music, right? So we should have some music.” 

The blonde raised her voice even more then, practically shouting. “Hey, boys! Think you could give us some music?!” 

With that, and as Paige pointed, the curtains around the stage in the distance suddenly dropped. Everyone turned that way to see a band already there in position. And this wasn’t just any band. No, of course not. This was–

“Zenith Renaissance?!” one of the other party guests blurted, her words quickly taken up by others. Because yes, the internationally famous Zenith Renaissance, a band that regularly sold out world tours and whose albums were some of the hottest releases of the past few years, was right there on the stage. And they were already starting to play one of their main songs. Which, of course, drew screams of delight from everyone around me as a bunch suddenly rushed that way to get closer to the stage. A stage that was, naturally, suddenly protected by several big guys in labeled security shirts. 

“How the fuck did she keep this a secret?” San Francisco blurted from a bit behind me, his tone utterly amazed. “And how did her parents convince these guys to play a private concert for a couple hundred people at best?” 

Quietly, I murmured, “You’d be surprised at how good she is at keeping secrets.” Then I quickly shook that off and added, “And money, probably. A lot of money. Probably flew them straight out here from wherever they’re touring right now.” Belatedly, I added, “Come to think of it, where are her parents?” There’d yet to be any sign of them. Paige and the household staff were the only ones we’d seen. 

Most of our classmates had already rushed to be in front of the stage. Even Amber and Jae headed that way to get a good spot, the former calling back that they’d save space for us. But Tomas was still there with Izzy and me, offering a shrug. “Probably busy. Not like they need to be down here. And from what my mum said,” he added in a somewhat quieter voice, “they don’t spend a lot of time with Paige to begin with.” 

That made me do a quick, confused double-take. “Wait, since when does your mom have anything to do with Paige or her parents?” 

That earned another shrug from the boy, who started to walk that way to join the others while answering. “They’ve been golfing together a couple times since we got back! And they do brunch.” 

Okay, now I really wanted to know more about all that. Especially given the fact that Tomas’s father had only recently tried to kill Paige to shut her up. Now his mother was friends with her adopted–uuuurgggh, this was all too goddamn confusing. 

The sound of someone clearing their throat drew my attention behind me, as I belatedly realized that Izzy and I were the only ones still standing away from the stage. Well, Izzy, me, and Paige. Yeah. She was the one clearing her throat, gazing at me with an unreadable expression. I couldn’t tell if she looked sad or smug. 

For a moment, Paige and I just stared at each other, before she casually drawled, “That can go on the table with the others.” Her head nodded toward the present that was still clutched in one of my hands. “Or in the trash if you want to spare one of the maids the time it’ll take to put it there themselves. Either way, I’m sure it’ll end up where it belongs.” A brief pause, then, “I’m sure a lot of things will end up where they belong today.” 

“Hey!” That was Izzy. “When someone brings you a present, you’re supposed to say thank you.” 

Paige, for her part, looked a little amused. “Aww, Cassidy, look. You finally found someone shorter than you to hang around with. Tell the truth, which elementary school is she from?”

“The one where they teach basic manners,” Izzy immediately shot back, surprising me a bit. “You obviously wouldn’t know it.”  

For a brief moment, Paige just stood there without saying anything. Finally, she chuckled and pivoted to walk away with a deceptively casual, “Good to see you’ve got someone to fight your battles for you, Cassie. Not like you’re any good at it yourself. Maybe try someone who’s old enough to stay up past eight o’clock next time?” 

She kept going, heading to join all her devoted fans (who were really fans now that she was giving them a private concert and advance movie screening) even as the music started up. They greeted her with a cheer, of course. Yeah, she owned this party. 

Izzy, meanwhile, looked at me. “Is she really always like that?” 

My mouth opened to confirm it, before I stopped, pausing as an important realization struck me. “No,” I murmured in surprise. “She isn’t always like that.” Quickly, I corrected myself. “I mean, yes, she’s always a bitch to me. That’s not new. But she’s usually nice to other people. Look at what she’s like with all those guys. Amber and Tomas both even said that Paige is cool to everyone except me. So…” Squinting uncertainly, I looked to the girl beside me. “Why would she act like that to you? She’s always more diplomatic with other people, or just uses them defending me as a way of turning it around on an insult to me, like she did at the end with that whole thing about me not fighting my own battles. But she insulted you. She made fun of you being short and young. That doesn’t–she doesn’t do that. Why would she do that now?” 

Izzy offered an uncertain shrug. “Because she knows I’m staying with you, maybe?” 

“Maybe,” I allowed, though it didn’t sound right. There was something off about this entire situation, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Something was wrong here. Seriously, where were Paige’s adopted parents? Shouldn’t they at least make an appearance?

Speaking tentatively, Izzy asked, “Do you want to drop off the present and leave? You’ve made an appearance like your parents wanted.” 

Part of me just wanted to do just that, wanted to take off right then and say screw this whole thing. But I couldn’t. Not when this was my best chance to actually find out the truth about the whole Paige situation. This mystery had been going on long enough, and now that I was actually here in her house, I wasn’t giving that up. Something big was going on here, and I couldn’t just walk away from it. 

So, I shook my head, offering the younger girl what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “Not gonna let her being a bitch chase me away from a party. Even if it is hers and even if she’s being more of a bitch than usual. Come on, let’s drop off the gift then go see if Amber and Jae managed to save us a spot.” 

*******

We watched the concert. Outside of the fact that it was in Paige’s backyard and I still didn’t know what the hell was going on with her, it was pretty great. Especially once I let myself give up on the idea of trying to sneak into Paige’s house during the whole thing. There were way too many people around, with various house staff members standing by every entrance. I had the feeling they were there to make sure none of the guests went on an unauthorized tour. Which was exactly what I wanted to do, but not for the reasons they might have expected. 

Or maybe it was for the reasons they expected. For all I knew, the entire house staff was in on this whole thing and knew what Paige was up to. Maybe they were just there to stop a bunch of teenagers from making a mess or stealing things. Or maybe they were there to make sure that whatever was going on went off without a hitch. 

If something was going on. I still didn’t have any proof of that, and it felt like I was crazy for thinking there was. Yet there was that tickle in the back of my brain that just wouldn’t go away. Something was happening, something big. Paige was throwing this party and had invited all these people, including me, for a reason. But… why? What was her deal? 

I still didn’t have any better ideas and wasn’t any closer to answers by the time we all ate pizza, followed by cake and ice cream. It was served out on a large buffet table where you could take anything you wanted. Izzy gorged herself. Obviously, she didn’t exactly feel guilty about taking all the food she could possibly want from Paige after that whole confrontation. 

After that, Paige opened her presents. She oohed and awed dramatically over each one, making a big deal about thanking the person who gave it. Well, except for mine, of course. She opened the one from Izzy and me, producing a couple premium seating tickets to a play that was all-but impossible to get into for most people. It was a play I knew she wanted to see, because I’d heard her talking to a couple friends about it back at school. But because it was from me, she simply held them up, announced what they were, and said a simple, “Thanks so much.” Without naming me, of course. But everyone knew. 

Then it was time to head in to see this movie. I probably could’ve taken off by now. I’d more than made an appearance. But I just… I had to see this through. Something was keeping me here, some thought that this was too important for me to just give up and head home. The answers to what the hell Paige’s deal was were here somewhere, and this was my best chance to get them. 

Once more, as we made our way through the house to the Banners’ private movie theater, there were staff members standing around to make sure nobody wandered off. Good lord, I’d thought this would be a chance for me to sneak away and search the house, but that just wasn’t gonna happen. Not with all the eagle-eyed and attentive maids and such who were bound and determined to watch every step we took. It felt like if someone had so much as taken a wrong turn down a different hallway, a SWAT team would’ve descended on them. I probably would’ve had more luck searching this place by coming in the middle of a school day or something. Because this was just insane. 

But I was here now, and maybe things would calm down during the movie. Yeah. Once everyone got settled in and it was dark, I’d slip out to ‘use the bathroom’, then manage to get myself lost. That felt like my best chance. For now, I’d just wait for the movie to start and everyone to get engrossed in it. 

Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t the first thing on Paige’s mind, apparently. Once everyone was seated in the private theater (there were just barely enough seats for the entire crowd with a couple left over), she moved front and center with her hands up. “You guys all having a good time?!” 

The answer, of course, was a resounding roar of approval from most people, and I watched as Paige… well, seemed to ignore it. Most of the time she would have basked, but now it felt like she was just going through the motions. The look on her face, it wasn’t–it was wrong. It was the wrong expression for this kind of thing, even if she was really good at hiding it. There was something…

Belatedly, I realized Paige was still talking while I was trying to decipher her expression and mood. Something about giving presents to everyone who came–right. Yeah, she was going to gift a present to each and every person here, one at a time. There was a table full of colorful gift bags beside her, and she proceeded to start calling every person up, one at a time, to get their present for being a ‘wonderful guest.’ 

The gifts were either a new phone, new smart watch, or new ipad, depending on what Paige had determined each person needed or would want more. And yeah, everyone went nuts. A few people hugged her after getting their gift, before heading to their seat. 

Honestly, I expected her to skip over me. Expected it so much I almost didn’t hear her when she said my name. So she said it again. “Cassie Evans.” 

She was looking at me. They were all looking at me. Fuck. Pushing myself up while asking myself what the hell her game was, I headed to the front. Cassie. She called me Cassie. Paige never did that. It was always Cassidy. Cassie was way too familiar and friendly. And she’d called me that earlier, hadn’t she? With Izzy. Why…? 

Reaching the front, I squinted at the girl, almost silently daring her to pull something now in front of everyone. She, in turn, offered me a faint… kind of sad smile. Sad? Why was she sad? 

“I want you to know,” Paige informed me, loudly enough for everyone to hear, “I think you earned this a long time ago.” With that, she turned to pick up yet another small gift bag, this one with my name on it. She held it up, and I saw her hand dip into the bag, eyes rising to meet mine with an expression of… fear…? 

A sudden, terrifying bang filled the room. It sounded like a gunshot. Instantly, the lights went out. The whole area was suddenly pitch black and everyone started screaming, even as something was shoved against my face. A mask? No, like an oxygen mask. It was an oxygen mask, except it wasn’t pumping oxygen. It was–it smelled sweet, it smelled–

My knees went weak. I collapsed forward, caught by Paige in the darkness even as my consciousness started to fade. I felt sick, I felt wrong, everything was… everything was…

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Paige’s voice whispered in my ear as she slumped to the floor with my falling body. Her voice, her apology, was the last thing I heard. “You have to die. I don’t have a choice.

“You have to die.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right? 

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huh. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quietly, Jae pointed out, “Her too.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You came.” 

Me? Was–was she talking to–

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

“Let’s get this party started.”

********

Patreon Snippets – Raindrop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 13B – Paige’s Preparations (Summus Proelium)

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A sleek, elegant-looking sports car slowed at the road construction cones that blocked off the quiet, otherwise empty street. The orange lights atop the ‘detour’ sign flashed repeatedly in the darkness of the post-midnight hour, illuminating an arrow pointing toward a nearby alley. A sign next to the alley itself insisted that it would lead around the construction. For a moment, the driver seemed to be considering their options, before putting the car into reverse, pulling back a few feet, and then following the ‘detour’ instructions by pulling ahead into the alley. 

Only once the car had made it halfway down the alley did its headlights actually reveal the truth. There was a wall at the opposite end, with no way of actually getting through. Nor was there room in the alley to turn the car around. There was barely room to open both doors. 

Just as that became clear, a large van pulled backward into the open alleyway, blocking the exit. Immediately, the back door of the van opened, and four men wearing red and black masks and dark jackets with various years written across the back and (in smaller lettering) over the front pocket, emerged. The years were all different, but each was 1999 or earlier. Of course, because these were members of the Ninety-Niners gang, those who only allowed members who had either lived (or had family who lived) in the city prior to the year 2000. They tended to boast of how long each of their families had lived in Detroit. The further back you could trace your family connection to the city, the higher you were regarded and the easier it was to be promoted. 

Each of the four Ninety-Niner men who hopped out of the back of the van carried a gun. Two had pistols, while two had shotguns. They split into pairs, one of each weapon type, and advanced. Two moved to the driver’s side, while the other pair moved up on the passenger side. All four glanced toward the license plate on the car. It was an out-of-state plate, of course. That was what had made this particular vehicle such an attractive target. Fucking outstaters coming to their city, reaping the benefits of what people whose families had actually lived there had earned? Hell no, not anymore. The Ninety-Niners were going to make damn sure that didn’t happen. Especially with some rich, spoiled cocksucker who thought they could come here in their fancy sports car. Detroit was for Motor City natives, not some Johnny-come-lately.

The driver of the car hadn’t moved once the men emerged. They kept sharp eyes on the reverse lights while raising their weapons, making it clear if the person tried to reverse into them, they’d be hit by a hail of gunfire. But the driver gave no indication of doing anything of the sort. They simply sat there, as though waiting for the gunmen to approach. 

Reaching the back of the car, the two pairs of masked figures briefly exchanged glances before starting around. The two by the passenger side carefully used small lights attached to their weapons to check for anyone crouched or laying in the back on that side, but found it empty. The car’s only occupant was the driver, whom they could now see was a blonde female. 

The two on the driver’s side glanced at each other once more. Then the one with the pistol, who was in the lead, tapped his weapon lightly against the roof of the car. “Open the door,” he ordered. “Put your hands out first, then step out slowly. Do it now and you won’t get hurt. We want your car and any money you’ve got on you, that’s it. After that, you can run off, call the cops, report to your insurance, whatever. Not like some rich cunt like you can’t afford it.”

There was no response to his words, only the very faint sound of whimpering. The blonde girl’s head was down, and it sounded like she was crying, obviously in shock. She gave no indication that she had even heard what he said, seeming lost in her own terror. 

Great, it was going to be one of these. People who screamed and cursed them were one thing, but the criers were really annoying. Grimacing behind his mask, the man sighed and steadied himself before knocking a bit louder with the butt of his gun. “Hey!” He raised his voice. “You hear me? Just get out of the car and you’ll be fine. I–” He cast an annoyed look back to his partner before leaning down to be even with her open window. “Look, just fucking cooperate and we’re not gonna hurt you or anything.” 

“I know,” Paige Banners replied, no hint of emotion in her voice. As the man reacted to that, eyes widening, her hand snapped out through the open window. She caught hold of his jacket and yanked hard, slamming the man’s forehead against the top of the car. Twice in rapid succession, she repeated the same move, shoving the man back and then slamming his head against the car, all before any of the others could react. His arm with the pistol came up, and she caught it with her free hand, yanking his dazed and barely conscious body partway into the car in order to force his own hand to point toward the opposite side as she made his finger pull the trigger, shooting the pistol-armed man who stood by the passenger door. Silenced as it was, the weapon made almost no sound. They hadn’t wanted to attract police or Touched attention if this went wrong. Which it was, but not in a way they could ever have imagined. 

The first man’s partner with the shotgun was trying to get a clear aim, but Paige was using his buddy as a personal shield, blocking his view. Smoothly, she stripped the pistol from the man’s grip, lying backward across the seats with him on top of her as she pointed the weapon backward, firing a single shot that hit the other man on the passenger side right between the eyes. He dropped, his own shotgun clattering to the ground. 

Finally, the man with the shotgun on the driver’s side took quick aim, desperately trying to get a shot at the girl herself. Before he could see anything other than his own buddy’s flailing body, however, Paige released said buddy’s jacket. Her now-free hand snapped up and flicked to the side, prompting a small silver dagger to jump into her palm from her sleeve. Another quick snap of her wrist sent the blade through the open window, where it rebounded off the nearby brick wall before stabbing itself firmly into the back of the remaining man’s neck. 

He collapsed to the ground, gun clattering loudly. Finally, Paige used her foot to kick her door open, emerging as the barely conscious figure of the first man fell to his knees on the alley floor when she pushed him out of the car with her. He jerked just a little bit while making a sound. It could have been a curse, a protest, a plea, she didn’t care. The hand with the gun she had taken from him simply pointed that way and she shot him through the side of the head, leaving his body to collapse. 

Everything had transpired in the span of just a few seconds. Short enough that the driver of the van barely had a moment to realize just how terrible things had suddenly become. As Paige looked that way, the van shifted into drive as the driver panickedly began to flee. Rather than chase him, however, she pivoted toward the door of the nearby building. The van started to tear out of the alley, while Paige fired a single shot from her borrowed pistol at the doorknob before shoving her shoulder into it. The door opened, and she sprinted through the closed and empty shop, vaulting over a couple tables and counters on her way to the front. 

She reached the main door, firing another shot that shattered the glass so she could leap through it, just as the van came out of the alley and around the corner. The driver barely had time to notice the figure emerging into view before she sent one more shot into the side of his head. The van kept going for another twenty feet or so before coming to a slow stop as the now-dead driver slumped over.

Looking one way then the other up and down the street, Paige checked for anyone paying attention. But the Ninety-Niners had chosen their ambush spot for a reason. There was no one around. Satisfied, she walked to the van, yanking the door open before pulling the dead driver out. Letting the body fall to the ground, she examined him critically, turning him over with her foot. 

“Between the five of you,” the girl muttered darkly under her breath. “I sure hope one has clothes that actually fit me. 

“Otherwise this really was a waste of time.” 

*******

An hour later, the Ninety-Niners van pulled through another alley and stopped at the rear entrance into a laundromat. Paige, dressed in the clothes, jacket, and mask of one of the men she had killed (which did actually fit, to her relief), parked the van, turned it off, and stepped out with a shotgun held loosely in one hand. 

A whistle from the doorway drew her attention to the similarly-dressed gang member who had previously been hidden out of sight. “Yo, you by yourself tonight?” 

When Paige spoke, her voice came out sounding far deeper than it did naturally, matching that of the man the clothes had actually belonged to. “Lost a fucking bet. They get to grab food at Dino’s, I get to bring this shit over.” 

“Hah, figures.” The man pushed his way away from the door and moved to the back of the van. “Let’s get it over with. You get a good haul, at least?” 

Paige, in turn, waited until the man yanked open the rear door of the van and was confronted with the sight of his five dead fellow gang members. Just as he started to react to that, she drove the butt of the shotgun into the back of his head, knocking him senseless. Casually, the girl shoved him up into the van, grabbed the keys out of his pocket, and shut the doors once more while muttering, “Mostly trash.” 

With that, she headed for the door of the laundromat, unlocking it with the keys she had grabbed before stepping inside a short hallway. As she passed through the doorway, she heard a simple beep. To most people, it wouldn’t have meant anything. But Paige knew that the single beep was the sound of the Ninety-Niners’ security system verifying that the jacket and mask she wore contained the hidden microchips tagging her as one of their own members. If it had detected her entering without those microchips, the alarm would have sounded immediately. 

Straight ahead the hall opened up into the main room where the machines were, while a single door to the right was labeled ‘restroom’ and a door to the left read ‘staff only.’ The sound of a loud television and a man chuckling came from that latter door. 

For a moment, Paige simply stood and listened, head cocked to the side. Two people. There were two people in that room. And, from the sound of things, one further off in the main room, doing something with the machines. There was an occasional bang and curse as he was apparently having trouble with his work. Three guys upstairs. More downstairs, she was sure. 

Rather than open the door to the office where the two men were watching television, she simply produced a small, matchbook sized silver box and pressed it against the doorjamb. It stuck in place, remaining there while giving a soft, barely audible beep to confirm it had been armed. That done, Paige walked swiftly and silently past the door, heading for the main room. The man working there had his back to her as he leaned over one of the washing machines, fiddling with it. Paige, in turn, moved right up behind him. He sensed her presence at the last second and started to turn, but she caught the back of his neck and shoulders with both hands and forcefully slammed his forehead down into the top of the washing machine twice. Then she shoved his dazed form down, lashing out with a kick that put him down. 

She paused, listening just in case. But there was no movement from the office. They obviously believed the bangs they had heard were simply more examples of their companion’s annoyance with his work. 

Satisfied, Paige stooped to grab a badge off the man’s belt and moved to an unlabeled door on the far side of the room. It was barely visible, intentionally positioned and painted to blend into the wall. If you weren’t looking right at it, and sometimes even then, you’d have no idea it was there. At most, anyone who didn’t know what it was would think the door led to a small supply closet or something. 

But Paige knew better. She had spent months researching to know better. It had taken that long to work out what she needed for her plan to succeed, and to find out where it actually was. 

There was no obvious place to put the badge that she had taken from the unconscious man’s belt, which was also intentional. But Paige, again, knew what to do. She held the badge up against what appeared to be a simple stain on the wall next to the door. After a couple seconds, there was a click, and she hauled the door open with her other hand, keeping the shotgun tucked under one arm. 

Stairs lay beyond, which the girl quickly started down. So close now. She was so close. Just a little more and she’d have what she so desperately needed. 

A man emerged from a door at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at her in clear surprise. “Hey, what’s going on? Is something–” 

Paige shot him. There was no time to waste, no way she was going to risk losing out on her goal when she was so close. The shotgun blast took the man directly in the chest, making him collapse to the floor while Paige hopped over him, landing in the doorway he had come out of. It was a sterile lab, where the Ninety-Niners mixed their drugs. A dozen men and women in plastic cleanroom suits jerked upward from their work at the tables, but Paige simply held the shotgun up, watching as they jerked their hands in the air and went still. 

Drugs lined the tables, and the people clearly expected her to take them. But she ignored those. Instead, keeping the shotgun raised and trained that way, Paige made her way across the room to another door. Just as she reached it, a man came rushing out, pistol in hand. He would have fired, but Paige had already reacted. Even as the door was still opening, before the man had actually emerged, she snapped her free hand out, producing one of her knives before throwing it. The blade whistled through the air, driving itself into the man’s throat the instant he came into view. He never had a chance to so much as fire a shot before he was already falling. 

That prompted a lot of screaming, with one man from the cleansuit brigade bolting toward the stairs. Paige let him go, and the rest followed suit, scrambling to escape. 

She didn’t care. They didn’t matter. All that mattered was in that room. She stepped over the dead body, entering what looked like a small storage area filled with the supplies and equipment the people in the main room needed to put the drugs together to be sold. 

There. In one corner of the small room was a locked metal cage, about four feet high and four feet wide. Paige murmured a word of thanks under her breath before crouching. Her hand found the padlock, and she gripped it tightly and took a breath before yanking hard. It took a couple tries, but the lock finally snapped, and she tossed it aside before opening the cage. 

There. A small green and silver tank, just like one that would hold oxygen, sat there alongside several more just like it. But this one didn’t have oxygen. Technically, the Ninety-Niners used small portions of it in some of their drugs. But that wasn’t why Paige needed it. She had… a different use in mind. 

Grabbing the tank, the girl straightened and turned. She quickly made her way across the main basement room and up the stairs. Emerging into the laundromat itself, she found the main door hanging open where the workers had all fled. To the left, she saw the hallway she had come in through. The door to the manager’s office was open, and the two men who had been watching television inside lay slumped on the ground where the device she’d attached to the doorway had left them when they triggered it on their way out. 

Satisfied that there were no more surprises, Paige pivoted and walked out through the open front door. More Ninety-Niners would be on their way shortly, but she would be long gone by the time they got there. They would have no way of finding who had ambushed their men, infiltrated their facility, and stolen their equipment. 

Quickly moving down the street, Paige found her way to a small parking lot beside a diner. The car she had left there earlier, before any of this started, was still waiting. Opening the back door, she carefully stowed the stolen tank, then stripped out of the jacket and mask, tossing them into the nearby dumpster so she couldn’t be tracked. 

That done, the blonde girl gave one last look around, then stepped down into the anonymous sedan, started it up, and pulled away. In the rearview mirror, she saw three vans full of Ninety-Niners come screaming up to the laundromat before dozens of armed men went storming inside. 

But they were too late. Paige had what she needed. She was ready for her birthday party. 

She was ready to deal with Cassidy. 

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