Together And Alone 27-03 (Summus Proelium)

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So, we had Cavalcade on our side. Or at least willing to do work for us and not take jobs from the bad guys while she was on retainer. Assuming she kept to her word, and I had no reason to think she wouldn’t after what I had seen and read about her, that was one thing off my mind. Sure, there would be other Sell-Touched who would cause problems. Even Paige and I couldn’t afford to pay all of them, especially not without attracting more attention than we were ready to deal with. But still, it was something. And it was becoming more and more obvious that the city’s authorities were going to need as much help as they could get before this was over. 

Once that was safely dealt with, I went home to find Izzy. Obviously, she wasn’t too sure about the new plan. But she also knew as well as I did that we didn’t have much in the way of choices. Someone had to get down to that place in Utah and bring back that teleportation machine so we could get answers out of that son of a bitch. And since sending two biolems into a place he’d had had all the time he needed to have guarded against them was a bad idea and we didn’t have time for Wren to program a new teleportation thing, I was the only choice. Wren had set up the way out of the city with my body in mind. Or Sierra’s body, as it was. We didn’t have any other options. Either I went with Paige, or we had to wait even longer for the girl to change the teleportation parameters. And who would we change them to anyways? If I didn’t go, it would be one of the others. Murphy, Roald, Fred, or Peyton. I wasn’t willing to let any of them run off to do what I wouldn’t. Besides, they didn’t have someone here who looked exactly like them and could cover for their absence, even if we did have the time to waste. And I was pretty sure we didn’t. No, this was the right–only move, no matter how much Izzy and I both hated it. 

For about an hour, we went over the details of that, including how she was going to help Sierra continue to pose as me for as long as possible. Our major saving grace, as sick as it was to think, was the fact that both of our parents wouldn’t be home, or coherent. Honestly, if they’d been here and in their right mind, I wasn’t sure Sierra could pull off being me. At least not for the several days this was going to take. Which, of course, didn’t help the rush of guilt I felt when the thought occurred to me. 

Still, I shoved that away as firmly as possible. We didn’t have time for those feelings. Instead, the two of us made all the plans and arrangements we could, including a few potential emergency measures. If everything completely went to hell and Simon figured out Sierra wasn’t me, there were a couple ways Izzy could potentially react, depending on how it happened. None were all that good, of course. But at least we had something resembling a plan. 

Promising my new sister that I would keep her updated about everything that was going on, and extracting the same promise from her, I gave the girl a tight hug as we stood in my room. Then I chuckled softly. “Well, at least you won’t get bored while I’m gone.” There was no actual humor in my chuckle or the words themselves. I was doing my best to make her feel better, and myself. But it didn’t really work. All I could focus on was seeing our parents in that hospital room and thinking about what would happen if they never came out of it. 

No, they would. That was why I was doing this. Paige and I were going to go down there and get the machine, and then we would get answers out of Pittman, no matter what it took. 

Izzy, for her part, clearly read my expression and offered a weak smile. “You do what you need to. We’ll hold down the fort here. I promise there’ll still be a city when you get back.” After another moment, she added, “What’s it gonna be like, going with Paige?” 

After a brief hesitation, I shrugged. “Not so long ago, I probably would’ve gagged at the thought. But now… I’m not sure. It could be worse.” I sighed heavily. “I still wish I had my memories back, at least then it might help me know exactly how I should feel about her. It’s all just confusing, you know?” 

She gave a quick nod. “I know.” Her voice was solemn. “Just be careful, okay? Get the thing and come back together. We need both of you if we’re gonna get through this.”

Putting one hand on the other girl’s head, I smiled despite myself. No matter how awful I felt, or how scared I was about everything that was going on, at least I had Izzy. This whole situation would’ve been completely impossible to get through without her. It was hard to believe I’d only met her so relatively recently. She was, in absolutely every important way, my sister. “You be careful here too,” I reminded her. “No unnecessary risks. If they try to overwork you, tell them to back off. You don’t have to do everything. Even if they are understaffed.” 

Snorting, Izzy retorted, “Understaffed is one way to put it. A really underwhelming way.” 

So, we embraced once more. Then we headed out. We were going to visit our parents together and then she was going to come over to Wren’s shop with me so she could see us off, and make sure everyone who was staying behind knew they could contact her for help while we were gone. And she wasn’t the only one. Amber was going to meet us over there too, since I’d sent a text that way letting her know what was going on. I needed to know my team–my friends–were going to have backup while Paige and I were on our little trip. 

Simon was still gone on whatever Ministry business he was doing right now, so we didn’t have to explain anything about where we were going. I also took an exact match of the same outfit I was wearing with us, so Sierra could wear it when she and Izzy came back together. Maybe the staff wouldn’t have noticed if ‘I’ came back wearing a different outfit than I had left with but we weren’t willing to take that chance. Passing Sierra off as me was already going to be dangerous enough as it was without pushing our luck right off the bat. 

There was nothing new with Mom and Dad. They hadn’t gotten any better, but they weren’t worse either. I just had to hope nothing bad would happen while I was gone. Please, Mom… Dad… just hang on. I was going to go punch Pittman in the face a few dozen times and get the cure for them, for everyone. 

After about half an hour there, I couldn’t wait anymore. So the two of us said goodbye to them through the intercom that had been set up, not that they could understand us, and headed out. We took a moment to change into our costumes a few blocks away from the shop, then made our way to the back door and into the main room where everyone else was already waiting. As soon as she saw me, Amber (dressed as That-A-Way of course) approached as I was headed for the restroom, handing me a small sack from the store while whispering, “Are you sure about this?” 

Coughing, I shook my head while stepping into the restroom to take the stuff out of the bag. “Sure about it working? Absolutely not. Sure that it’s the best choice we’ve got? Yeah. We don’t exactly have a lot of good options here. And considering I can see how exhausted you are even with that mask on? I don’t think your people have anything better either.” 

My words made her wince. “Yeah, you’re right, we’re just barely treading water right now. And the big bads haven’t even made any real moves yet. They’re waiting until we’re too worn out to put up much of a fight. But we can’t just not step in when the Prev gangs make trouble. It’s not just the Star-Touched that were hit with that attack, you know. There were a bunch of important cops in that building too. The police leadership has been practically crippled. Which doesn’t help their communication and organization issues. It’s… it’s not good.” 

That pretty much matched what I had heard before, but still made the knot in my stomach worsen. “That’s why we have to do this. He’s the guy who did this, so he’ll know how to stop it. We can’t play into his hands by telling the authorities to get him out of there. We’ll get the machine and figure out where to go from there, how to… you know, get answers out of that bastard.” 

As we were talking, I used the hair dye to make my hair blonde, then used the special tanning spray on the exposed skin of my hands, arms, face, and neck. As a final touch, I added the colored contacts, and then accepted the glasses that Amber handed me. When I put them on and looked in the mirror, I was… well, I was Sierra. Which meant I still looked a lot like myself, but there were just enough differences that if someone didn’t know me that well, they probably wouldn’t immediately recognize me. Normally this wouldn’t even have been necessary, but my picture had been shown on the news a couple times in relation to my parents being affected by this whole thing, and I couldn’t swear that someone during our road trip wouldn’t recognize me. Which was really annoying, but we just had to deal with that.

We continued talking for another moment before Amber accepted that this was the only real choice. She still didn’t seem like she liked it very much, which was fair. Still, the two of us returned to the group, and I got my first look at the new Sierra. Or rather, the old Sierra. She had basically done the same thing I just did, only in reverse. She took out the blonde dye, and fixed her hair to have the same pink streaks in front as I did. Aside from her clothes, she looked completely identical to me again–no, she looked identical to how I had looked five minutes earlier. Which was still a bit of a trip. 

As our gazes met, she offered me a very faint smirk. “Have a good trip out there, twin-babe. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, but try to do a few things I would, huh?” 

“I shudder to think about what your suggestions would be,” I shot back, my voice cracking just a little. Yeah, I was nervous. Still, I pushed that feeling away just like I had been clamping down on everything else, and added, “Please do everything I would do and nothing I wouldn’t.” 

“Well, I don’t know how many tall buildings I can skateboard off the side of,” she noted, “but I’ll do my best to keep it interesting.” 

Peyton quickly spoke up. “You guys be careful, okay? You’re just going out there by yourselves, and–and we don’t know what sort of defenses that prick set up, or how many people he has helping him, or–or anything.” Her marbles were flying in an agitated halo around her head. “Seriously, I just wish more of us could go with you.” 

“We need you here.” That was Amber, her voice firm as she looked that way. “Losing Paintball and Poise, even just for a bit, is gonna be hard enough on top of everything else. We’re gonna need all the help we can get.” 

“We’ll be back as soon as we can,” Paige assured her, and the others. “But seriously, just take care of yourselves, okay? Don’t–” She grimaced visibly. “Don’t do anything crazy while we’re gone.” 

Sierra made a clear point of rolling her eyes. “Relax, Mother. Just worry about yourselves and what you’re doing. We’ve got this. Right, guys?” 

Murphy and Roald exchanged glances before nodding to one another, the latter speaking up. “Yeah.” His voice didn’t sound completely confident, but at least he was trying. “We’ll keep it together.” 

“Damn straight we will,” Murphy confirmed. “You guys just get down there, get that machine, and come back so we can teach that cocksucker what a bad idea this was.” 

Wren, hovering in the background, bobbed her head up and down. “Yeah! I mean, I can’t say that word or Uncle Fred won’t let me have ice cream tonight, but get that thing so we can stop him and help everybody! And… and be careful, okay?” Her voice cracked just a little at the last bit, betraying just how hard it was for the girl to contain her emotions about this whole situation. 

“Oh don’t worry, we’ll do our part,” I promised. “You guys just listen to Sierra. She’s in charge in the field while we’re gone.” That was a bit of a hard choice, of course. But out of everyone here who was part of Avant-Guard, Sierra had the most experience and training. No matter how she had started out, I trusted her now. She would keep Peyton, Murphy, and Roald safe out there. 

“Well, no time to waste,” Paige put in after we all fell silent for a second. “Let’s go do this thing. I wanna get on the road before traffic gets too nuts.

“And make absolutely sure you pee before we leave, because I don’t want to stop for awhile.” 


So, after just a bit more talking, we all left the shop together and piled into a van that Fred had waiting. It looked like a completely normal, average green van from the outside, but apparently had a few tricks under the hood just in case we ran into trouble on our way to the… launching point. Not that we expected to, but considering the condition the city was in, better to be safe than sorry. Our luck, if we went out there expecting nothing to happen, we’d run right into an army full of every Fell-Touched who hated our guts. 

Thankfully, we didn’t. We could hear lots of calls going out over the police scanner that was installed in the dash, along with sirens that kept filling the air. But things were quieter where we were. Probably because we took as many back streets as possible, avoiding major intersections. Between that and the fact that most of the city was still hunkered down, these particular roads were almost entirely empty. The whole thing was pretty eerie, to be honest. We knew there was a lot of bad stuff going on all over the city, but because we were avoiding major areas like that, it made the city seem almost empty despite all the sirens and calls over the scanner. Yeah, this wasn’t good. Hearing the cops, ambulances, and firefighters doing their level best to reach the worst of the emergencies, and hearing about the ones they had to push to the bottom of the line, just reinforced that for me. As if it actually needed to be. 

Paige and I exchanged looks while hearing all that, and I nodded once. We both thought the same thing. We had to get to Utah, find that machine, and deal with this right now.

There was no more discussion about whether this was the right thing to do or not. No one was going to question it after spending 15 minutes listening to all that. Finally, Fred pulled the van over in an old parking lot next to a print shop. This was the best place we’d been able to find while looking at the maps app and comparing it to some scouting the others had done while I was busy. There was a freeway in the distance, with a checkpoint and a roving patrol making sure no one got past. Well, that was their goal anyway. The temporary tower with its floodlights that had been set up was just barely too far away for the guards to notice our arrival in the parking lot. Especially since Fred had doused the lights for the last couple blocks.

We all piled out and said our goodbyes one more time. I spent a couple minutes with Sierra, telling her everything I could about what she needed to know to imitate me. Not that it was necessary after all the time I had spent earlier writing message after message for her with the same information, but still. It felt like this whole thing was going so quickly. Just that morning the plan had been for those two to leave the city while I stayed here with the others, but now I was the one going. I knew it was the right thing, the only choice really. And I knew we didn’t have any time to waste. It may have felt to me like this was all happening too quickly, but every minute we wasted, the city was put in even more danger. More people would get hurt and die if we stalled around too much.

Sierra and I changed phones, and recorded a few extra numbers in each just in case. Of course I also said a few last minute things to Izzy and Amber, promising that Paige and I would be back as soon as possible. They, in turn, promised to help cover for me and take care of things here. I gave both of them a hug, then shrugged and did the same for the others.

“Bring us back something nice,” Murphy urged with a small, worried smile. “Like a way to beat the living shit out of that son of a bitch until he coughs up the cure to all this.”

“Oh, I think we can handle that,” I assured her, trying to feel as confident as I sounded. Or at least as confident as I thought I sounded. From the look on their faces, I might have needed to work on that a little bit. 

Either way, Sierra took the special rifle as Wren handed it out from the van, while Paige and I hooked the harnesses on. They basically looked like a combination belt and suspenders with a silver and blue circle in the middle of the chest area that was a few inches across. We got them all hooked on with a little help, and then Sierra raised the rifle and looked through the scope. She focused on the watchtower first, then shifted a bit to aim past it and off into the fields beyond the patrolled area. The rifle had an active range of a couple miles, and it didn’t have to be completely precise. All that really mattered was getting past the patrols.

While I was silently wishing I’d had another family dinner with my parents before all this went down, Sierra pulled the trigger. Then she shifted her aim just a tiny bit and fired again, each shot sending one of the teleportation beacons that way.

Wren quickly moved to hug me tightly once more. “Be careful, please? Come back, as soon as you can. Just call and we’ll teleport you back across.”

Returning the hug, I promised we would. Then Paige and I each touched that circle on the harness, looked at one another, and shoved the button on that inward. 

Instantly, the world spun around me. I felt like I was flying through the wildest roller coaster I’d ever been on. And, to be honest, I’d been on quite a few. I was spinning head over heels, falling, flying up, all of it all at once. It seemed to last for ages, even though it was over in just a couple seconds.

And just like that, I was lying in the dirt about two miles away from where I’d started. I could see the freeway a hundred yards or so to the left, and the lights from Detroit were far behind me. We were officially on our way, outside Detroit. 

Normally, the freeway would be incredibly busy, even at this time of night. But now, it was dark and empty aside from a few roving trucks. I saw Paige take herself up out of the dirt as well, both of us moving to join each other while waving back in the direction of the others since Sierra would be watching through the scope. “You said you arranged a ride?” I asked after making sure the backpack I brought with everything I thought I’d need was still intact.

She nodded and pointed. “There’ll be a truck waiting for us, but we’ve gotta walk another couple miles first. They wouldn’t bring it any closer.”

“Well then,” I managed, “guess we better get moving.

“I really don’t think we want to be out here once that sun comes up and lets those guys see us.”

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Together And Alone 27-02 (Summus Proelium)

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“Okay, we’re all here,” Sierra announced a short while later once the whole group had gathered in the work room of Wren’s shop. “So now can we talk about how we’re going to get Paige and me the hell out of this city so we can get on to the very important business of punching our dad so many times his concussion has a nice little litter of baby concussions?”

Paige sat on one of the heavy metal tables, staring at the floor for a moment in deep thought before giving a short nod as she looked to the girl in question. “Yeah, I know the city needs us right now, but anything we do here is just a short term solution. we need to get answers out of our dad before this goes on too long.”

Roald raised his hand. “I uhh, I know we’ve been over this already, but before we get too into any of that, can I just say that it still might be a good idea to tell the doctors here exactly who was responsible for this and let the authorities get answers out of him? Yeah, I know they’ve been corrupted by the Ministry and all that. And even without that stuff, there’s only so much you can trust people like that to do. But this is something big, and I think we need bigger people than us to deal with it. If more of those victims die just because we didn’t tell these people that he was responsible… I don’t think I could handle that.”

The rest of us exchanged looks, and I exhaled before speaking. “You’re right, that’s not something any of us want to be responsible for. I keep going back-and-forth about what the best answer is, and the problem is there’s no way to be sure. No matter what we do, it could lead to more people dying. What if we tell them who it was, and the wrong person finds out, you know, someone who works for him, or one of his creations? He has to have more resources out there than we knew about, or he couldn’t have done this much. The Banners had to have gone somewhere and been physically modified by someone to turn them into those biological bombs. Someone working closely enough with Pittman that he could make those changes. Which to me means someone with medical knowledge and tools, someone they might have called in specifically to help with this. You get what I mean? Anyone with the expertise to physically do what Pittman needed could also be the same person the authorities brought in to try to cure it. So what if we tell them what we know and Pittman finds out through that contact, making him decide to go with a new attack?”

Paige agreed. “That or there’s the other possibility we talked about. What if he does want us to tell everyone just so he can get himself put into a position to escape? He wants us to be emotional and angry and point the finger at him. He’s had years to set up an escape plan. Probably several different ones by this point. And you’re right, he obviously has more resources than we knew about. For all we know, the second he’s pulled off that island for an interrogation, he’ll be able to escape, no matter what safety measures they put in place. All we know with relative certainty is that at this very second he can’t get out. We can’t risk changing that. We can’t make changes to the board until we know what the board looks like. He wants us to do something that changes his circumstances.”

“Which we’re totally going to do,” Sierra noted. “Just not in the way he wants. We’re going to go over there, beat the living shit out of him, and get that cure.”

Peyton coughed. “That’s another little problem. Once we get this teleporter thing up and running, who is actually going to the island? I mean, let me put it another way. Who among us is actually going to the inescapable prison island where all the super murderers are, and risking getting trapped there forever if they can’t teleport off again?” She quickly looked over at Wren. “I mean, no offense–”

Wren, for her part, shook her head quickly. “No, it’s okay. I’m scared too. I haven’t even seen his teleporter yet. What if I can’t fix it? What if I make it worse? What if–”

Reaching a hand out to touch her shoulder, I reassured the girl. “We’ll just take it one step at a time. Don’t start fretting about what you can or can’t do with the teleporter until you take a look at it. No one’s going to force you to make it work if it seems completely out of your wheelhouse. It’s okay. This is just one plan. If you see the thing and think it can’t work, just tell us and we’ll go with something else. We’ll figure out something.”

She calmed down a little bit then, before telling us the actual plan for getting Paige and Sierra out of the city. With the roads and everything guarded, there was no way they could simply drive down the freeway. And the last thing we wanted was for them to get caught trying. Not only would it complicate any attempts we made in the future, but someone who looked identical to me being found trying to leave would make my life a bit of a mess. More of a mess than it already was. To say nothing of how the Banners’ adopted daughter trying to leave would look.

We had mostly jokingly talked about building a tunnel out of the city like the one we’d used to get into the Ministry’s mall base. But that would’ve taken a hell of a lot longer than we actually had, or wanted to spend doing it.

Fortunately, Wren’s plan didn’t involve a tunnel. Instead, she had worked with that teleporter system of her own. It still needed an anchor point to safely teleport the person to, so she had created a couple of those in the shape of a bullet. All we had to do was take the rifle she provided, aim far past the area where the patrols were set up, and fire them. If all went as it was supposed to, the anchor bullets would hit and plant themselves in the ground, and these two could be transported over there. Once they got back, it would be a simple matter to teleport them back across the line with the machine itself. Apparently Wren wasn’t too worried about that last part. She was mostly afraid of teleporting living matter. 

Either way, it sounded fairly simple enough, aside from the part where we had to make sure none of the patrols happened to see any of us pointing a rifle past them. Yeah, that part could be dangerous. But then again, this entire situation was dangerous, so what else was new? It was just something we were going to have to deal with.

No matter how hard this was, no matter how dangerous it could be, we didn’t have a choice. Pittman was trying to trap us, trying to give us no choice but to play his game, and we couldn’t do that. I had no doubt that if he was free, this whole situation would be a hell of a lot worse than it already was. He had managed to do all this while locked up on Breakwater. The very thought of what he might be able to do if he was free and had all his resources was staggering. 

So no, no matter how panicked I was, no matter how terrified I might’ve been about what could happen, and was already happening, to my parents, we couldn’t let ourselves be trapped into playing by his rules. We had to get out of this our way.

Everything seemed to be at least as in order as it could be right then, until Fred spoke up. “Uh, hey, I’ve just been thinking a little bit about this, and I’ve got a question. The whole reason you didn’t let that girl talk on the phone to the living pile of rotting garbage that is her dad is because you were afraid he had some special control thing he could use to take over, right?”

Glancing at Paige briefly, I nodded. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure he has something exactly like that. That’s why Wren’s also been working on noise canceling tech to put in their suits before the whole Breakwater thing goes down.” And yes, I was still trying not to think too much about that whole situation just yet. 

Fred looked back at me and shrugged. “So… how can you be sure he doesn’t have stuff at this house in Utah that could take control of them? Automated defenses or whatever. You know, since you’re sending just the two of them all by themselves.”

My mouth opened, then shut. I absorbed the question, slowly looking over at the other two, who were staring right back at me with the same look of realization. My palm found its way to my forehead. “God, we’re idiots. You’re right, what if he has defenses on that house they could just take control of you guys? Hell, that might’ve been why he tried to send us there in the first place. I mean, for Paige.” He still didn’t know that Sierra was a thing, which was one of the few advantages we had. But he could’ve had that whole place set up to put any stray Biolems back under his control. 

Murphy shrugged. “So send someone else with them. I could totally blow off school for a couple days. A road trip sounds fun.”

“We can’t!” That was Wren. “I set up the teleporter on their bodies. That took a couple days all by itself to make sure it would work with the bullet system. It’d take even more time to scan one of yours in, let alone more.”

Thinking quickly, I replied, “Well, I guess it’s a good thing two of us are completely identical when it comes to our bodies.” Looking at Sierra, I added, “I’ll take your slot, go down to Utah with Paige, and then go into the house myself to make sure it’s safe. I’m not a Biolem, his automated defenses can suck it.”

Peyton objected. “Speaking as someone with my mother, don’t you think your brother might notice if you disappear for several days? You said he’s been stepping up a bit, and yeah, maybe he’s been content for phone calls most of the time, but I don’t think you can leave for that long without him noticing.”

Before I could say anything to that, Sierra spoke up. “In that case, I’ll just have to take advantage of our similarities on this side too. I’ll pose as Cassidy and go to school and her house and stuff, make things seem normal.”

Oh boy, did that idea terrify me. The thought of Sierra pretending to be me in front of my brother, my classmates, teachers, and all that made loud warning sirens go off in my head. But I shoved them aside. We didn’t have any better options. We had to go with what we had. The mere fact that I did look identical to Sierra so we could do something like this was a miracle in and of itself. There was no point in pushing things. 

So, after a bit more talk back-and-forth, that was what we agreed on. I was going to go down to Utah on a road trip with Paige, while Sierra stayed here and posed as me for a few days. Or however long it took. I was really hoping we could get this done in as short of a time as possible. But I also wasn’t naïve enough to really believe it would be that simple. Either way, the Biolem girl would be me for a while. At least I would be able to tell Izzy what was going on so she could help out and cover as much as possible. 

Yeah, this whole situation had the distinct possibility of spiraling completely out of control. But again, our options were limited.

And speaking of options, Paige and I stepped aside together to talk about something else we wanted to do. I had been thinking about it for quite a while by this point, weighing the positives and negatives. But right now it seemed like the right way to go. Paige agreed, moving downstairs to make the phone call while I talked with the others a bit more.

There was still a little bit of work to be done on the teleporters to make sure they worked properly. We would leave town tonight, once it was dark.

Soon, everyone else was dealing with that, while Paige and I left the shop together after she made that call and arranged the meeting. I still had to go home and talk to Izzy, as well as some of the things I needed to do to make sure I was ready to leave now that I was the one that would be going to Utah. Including paying another visit to my parents. I knew it wouldn’t help anything, but I wanted to see them one more time before leaving.

First, however, was the meeting Paige had set up. The two of us were in costume as we made our way through the city, listening to all the sirens going off from all directions. Things were getting worse. Even worse than they had been before Pittman made his move. They had already been stretched while we had every Star-Touched in the game. But now? Now things were rapidly getting very bad. Just hearing those sirens, and looking online at people talking about stores being robbed, various attacks throughout the city, and more made my stomach clench in on itself. Yeah, there were still no signs of the Fell gangs making their moves just yet, but I knew that wouldn’t last forever. Hell, something told me they were probably at least partially behind the rising violence among the minor criminals, trying to stretch the system we had as far as it could go and exhaust people before they made their own real moves.

In any case, eventually the two of us reached our destination, a small, unused shop that had been a bakery not so long ago. After checking to make sure the coast was clear, Paige input a code on the electronic lock next to the back door, which beeped affirmatively. We walked through the cramped back room and kitchen, then into the front where the counter was. Sitting there, eating a doughnut from a box that was clearly not from this shop (considering it hadn’t produced donuts for at least a few weeks), sat a familiar figure in a dark red bodysuit that had swirly black lines all over it, along with dark boots and gloves, and a pair of red goggles with attached gas mask. 

Cavalcade used two fingers to push the pink box from one side of the table she was seated at to the other. “Help yourselves. I just couldn’t stand to wait around this old place and not get some doughnuts, you know? Psychological thing, I guess. But hey, they’re pretty good.” 

“I’ll save it for later,” I replied easily before adding, “You uhh, you came after all.” 

“I keep my deals,” the woman informed me simply, before adding, “That’s why I don’t make them unless it’s in my best interest.” 

Paige grunted softly before staring back at the woman. “I bet you’ve been offered a lot of deals over the past couple days.” 

Cavalcade’s tone gave away nothing. “Maybe. The city does suddenly find itself rather busy. Fortunately for you, I got your call first. Almost before everyone else knew what was going on and how bad it actually is. Kinda makes a girl curious. You got some sort of inside source?” 

I made my own tone give away nothing as well, forcing it to be as flat as possible while images of my parents’ current condition ran through my head. “Maybe.” 

“Intriguing.” With an obvious smile, Cavalcade leaned forward to stare at both of us. “Okay, well, the girl there managed to call me the night this all started and put down a retainer for a meeting, and for me to not agree to any other jobs until then. Or rather, until now. This is that meeting. I’ve got another potential one lined up twenty minutes from now. Unless, of course, we come to some arrangement beyond delaying me from taking another job. Or did you have to empty all your piggy banks just to buy yourselves these past couple days?” 

In answer, Paige reached into her pocket before tossing a one inch thick bound-together stack of hundred dollar bills onto the table. “There’s a hundred there. Ten thousand dollars. You get another one of those every three days that you keep doing this job.” 

Before replying, Cavalcade checked out the money, making sure it was all there and real before setting the stack down carefully. “And what job is that, precisely?” 

“We’re sure the gangs have been trying to hire you to help out with whatever they want to do,” I noted. “Maybe even some of the Stars, since they’ve been… depleted.” Swallowing, I added, “We want to put you on retainer. Don’t do any other jobs for any criminals, but you can take any job you want for Stars if they want to pay you to do something. And be ready to help with anything we ask for until we’re done retaining you, once this whole situation calms down. We’ll pay extra for that. The ongoing retainer is just to stay away from any of the Fell jobs.” 

Cavalcade absorbed that, shifting in her seat. “Let me get this straight. You’re going to pay me ten thousand bucks every three days in exchange for me not taking any criminal jobs. But I can still take legitimate ones. And then just make myself available to come help you out when you need it. Which you’ll pay extra for.” 

My head bobbed once. “Exactly. Any other job you want as long as we don’t need you and it’s not a criminal one. Stick to that and you keep getting the money.” 

“How do I know you’re good for it?” the woman asked idly, tapping the stack of bills. “That’s an awful lot of dough to throw around. Just how many rich grandparents do you people have?” 

Paige answered simply. “We’re good for it. And if we miss a payment, you can just drop the agreement and do whatever you want. This installment is for the next three days. So we’re good until then. It’s win-win for you.” 

For a moment, Cavalcade didn’t respond. Then she rose, picking up the money. “Yeah, we’re good. You’ve got my number. Keep the doughnuts.” Turning, she walked to the front door, pocketing the cash on her way. “Pleasure doing business with you. 

“I can’t wait to see what job you need help with first.” 

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Together And Alone 27-01 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Hey there was a commissioned interlude focusing on the world’s most powerful superhero, Baldur, posted earlier today. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to use the previous chapter button above. Thanks!

“Look, I did my part, okay? I disconnected the alarm. So you guys do your parts and get your asses in there so you can carry out all the shit!” The dark-skinned man with red sunglasses snapped those words while impatiently gesturing for his three disgruntled companions to go in the back door of the electronics shop he had just helped them break into. The van they had arrived in was idling nearby with the driver listening to music, while two more guys stood at the end of either side of the alley behind the store, keeping watch for any approaching flashing lights.

“What, so just cause you’re a fucking nerd means you don’t gotta lift shit?” one of the designated movers complained while the three of them headed for the open door. 

Red sunglasses guy gave a three-fingered salute, followed by raising his middle finger alone. “You’re damn right that’s what it means. Now get busy. The cops and Stars may be distracted, but let’s not push our luck. I don’t like being out in the open like this.”

“Relax, dude.” The driver of the van drawled those words before taking a long hit off a joint. He was leaning back in his seat, his posture actually relaxed while nodding his head to the music. “With all the shit they’ve got to deal with after that bio-attack, there’s no way we’ll have any trouble. We’ll be in and out of here in ten minutes, fucking hours before they’ll have anyone to spare to check what’s going on. I bet we didn’t even need to disconnect that alarm in the first place.” 

A sudden, heavy boom filled the air as I landed on top of the van in a crouch. While everyone in the area suddenly spun my way, including the three guys who were carrying the start of their stolen goods out of the store, I spoke brightly. “Really should’ve taken that bet, guys.” My tone turned conspiratorial, a stage-whisper. “You could’ve cleaned up.” Even as I said that, guns were coming out. I launched myself forward off the side of the van with a tiny bit of blue paint on my shoes, flipping over in the air while extending both hands outward to shoot a double spray of yellow across the three guys who had dropped their stolen boxes to reach for their weapons. Not only did the paint slow down their motions, giving me a second to hit the ground, but it also made the boxes they had just dropped fall slower so the contents hopefully wouldn’t end up broken. 

Popping back to my feet after rolling across the pavement, I activated a purple lion symbol across my back, as well as a pair of green wings along either arm. The lion quadrupled my strength, so instead of being able to lift about fifty pounds, I could’ve done two hundred. Between that, plus my roughly twenty-percent speed boost versus their fifty percent speed loss, the three guys in front of me didn’t stand much of a chance. I caught one of their wrists, yanking him forward and off balance to drive my other hand into his face, feeling his nose break under the impact. Then I was sidestepping, letting the stumbling man trip over my extended leg before pivoting around his falling body. 

By that point, the four guys on lookout, two at either end of the alley, had decided that actually shooting those guns of theirs at me when their companions were right on the other side was probably a bad idea. They started to run in closer to get a better shot. Noticing that as I put my back against the chest of the second guy to have come out of the store while stomping down hard on his foot, I called out, “Hey, the fight’s gonna be over by the time you get over here! Lemme help with that!” 

And just like that, I activated the red paint I had secretly hit all four of them with before announcing myself. They were all yanked off their feet and pulled inward to slam into one another in a tangled pile of limbs and curses. 

Meanwhile, the guy whose foot I had just stomped on staggered on that side, allowing me to slam my helmet backwards into his chin. He recoiled, while I threw myself into a sideways roll and shot two more quick bursts of red paint. One hit the man’s face, while the other struck the nightstick that the third man had been trying to hit me with at that moment. Its course was corrected, and even though the man was slowed down so it didn’t hit with full force, the blow to the second man’s face right after I had just headbutted him with my helmet was still enough to make him fall backwards onto his ass in the doorway of the store as I canceled the red paint linking his face to the weapon.

My dive away from those two carried me just past the guy in the red sunglasses at the very second that he managed to get his own gun out of its holster on his belt. He was already pivoting, starting to bring the pistol in line with my form as I hit the ground and rolled. Before he could finish aiming and pull the trigger, however, the man’s left foot hit a circle I had left there. A blue-red circle. Instantly, he was treated to the effect we had recently found out would happen when my pull paint was mixed with my push paint. Namely, whatever it was connected to became incredibly slippery. His foot went right out from under him, and he bellowed a curse while falling hard onto his side. 

“Oooh, gotta watch that form, dude,” I blithely informed the man as both of us lay on our sides. “The judges are gonna–” Rolling backward, I planted my foot in his face with all the force my boosted strength could manage. “–dock you!” 

While he was reeling, the guy whose nose I had broken before tripping him managed to fall onto his side and lift his gun to point my way.  At the same time, the one I had headbutted and forced to take the hit from that baton groggily did the same from the doorway he had fallen into. In that instant, I activated the orange and blue design I had already prepared on the underside of my costume, where they couldn’t see it. The men opened fire, three of their bullets hitting the ground around me before a couple struck my chest. It felt like having rocks thrown at me, which wasn’t the most pleasant experience, but it was worse for the two of them. They immediately recoiled with a pair of sharp cries as part of the damage was rebounded back onto them. They obviously hadn’t been expecting it, dropping the guns in surprised pain. I had intentionally made sure the orange and blue paint was out of sight, trying to teach the people I went up against that they could never be absolutely certain what paint I had available and active. Making the people who fought me be reluctant to actually shoot at any given point from fear that I might have that particular combination ready would really help in the long run. Especially when that particular lesson was reinforced with pain.

Of course, the guy who had attacked with the nightstick in the first place hadn’t been taught any particular lesson just yet. He stumbled off balance for a moment, but now he had righted himself and spun to face me just as the yellow paint wore off. He started to come after me, which was the moment that I activated the paint I had quickly and surreptitiously hit his shoes with while he was standing around complaining about having to carry the stolen items. As with the red paint with those other guys, I’d done that before ever showing myself. Like the spot on the ground, his shoes were blue and red, making them incredibly slippery. Or rather, making everywhere he stepped slippery. He immediately went flailing out of control, slipping and sliding wildly before falling hard on his back with a pained curse. 

Reactivating purple and green on myself, I popped to my feet and pivoted to put my foot into the face of the guy with the sunglasses once more even as he tried to sit up, knocking him back down. 

Throughout that whole bit, the man in the van had been trying to get out to help his buddies. But he couldn’t get the door open, thanks to the red paint I’d shot into it while crouched there. For ten full seconds, his door had been practically welded shut, and he’d been too frantic and freaked out to think about climbing out the window or one of the other doors. He just kept yanking at the handle while shouting. Finally, the paint faded, and he managed to shove the door open. But, seeing his buddies all on the ground, the man apparently thought better of it and immediately shut the door again before hitting the gas to send the van screeching out of the alley. 

Meanwhile, the four guys who had been tangled with one another managed to separate themselves. They took one look my way, before running to dive into the back of the van, since the doors were still hanging open. Well, three of them did anyway. The fourth leapt, but I managed to hit his back and the ground with red paint, yanking him back down.

“Calvin, Hobbes, take these guys!” I shouted, already starting to sprint that way as the van peeled out. Behind me, I saw the two in question drop into view, Touched-Tech guns raised and pointed at the men who had been left behind. They might’ve still tried to fight even then, but a quick shot from both of Wren’s special guns sent orange beams around two of the men by the doorway, and slammed them into the other two. After that, none of them seemed to feel like arguing with the orders to lay there so the two could quickly start zip-tying their hands and feet. 

Of course, I only saw enough of that to be certain things were going okay. On my way out of the alley, I hit every bad guy gun I could see with red paint and sent them all flying into the nearby dumpster, just in case. With their Wren-provided weapons and suits, Murphy and Roald could take it from there with those five. 

Which left me to catch that van with the four remaining men in it. Pointing toward the edge of the nearby roof with both hands, I sent a red and green shot that way, while simultaneously activating the green-blue mix on my feet. I was positively launched off the ground as though I had been shot out of a cannon. I deactivated the red-green paint halfway there, allowing the momentum to simply shoot me up and over the rooftop. 

The van had just, in that very moment, managed to reach the end of this first street. I caught a glimpse of the men slamming the rear door while screaming for the driver to go faster. They hit a pothole and the van bounced violently.

Before I could come down or lose any momentum, I sent two shots of red paint right at a certain object waiting for me on the roof of a building on the opposite side of the street, where I had left it to avoid announcing myself to these guys before I was ready. It was the dirt bike I had borrowed from Paige before. The paint pulled me that way, allowing me to land right on the seat before kicking the bike into gear. 

The engine roared, at least as much as a dirtbike could, as I sent it flying right at the edge of the roof, hitting the spot just ahead of me with blue paint to launch it up and out over the street.

The men in the van hadn’t noticed me just yet, but that would end quickly, as I used red paint on the wheels and the side of the nearby building to pull it that way before driving along that wall. I was driving along the side of a building! And thanks to a bit of experimentation earlier, I’d found that with Wren’s gravity boots on, it didn’t matter which way the bike was facing. It could be upside down and I could still sit on it just fine without having to use red paint to keep myself there. The boots treated the bike the same way they did a ceiling and wall. Which was convenient.

The guys in the van were trying to watch for me, but they were looking straight behind them instead of to the side where I had moved by that point. Still, the hum of the engine and sound of the wheels running along brick made the one who had clambered up into the front passenger seat glance my way before his eyes widened. He started to shout, but I hit him with a shot of black paint, then a red one. An instant later, he was yanked right through that open window and sent flying into the wall behind me, where I had left another bit of red.

Of course, the men couldn’t help but notice their buddy suddenly vanishing through the window. But I had already activated blue paint on the tires of the bike, bouncing me sideways off of that wall. With a hit of purple strength, I managed to straighten the bike properly in midair and twist it around so that the thing landed on the far side of the van, facing the opposite direction. I came down near the driver’s door, while the man himself was looking the other way, right at the spot where his buddy had just been, so he still hadn’t seen me.

As I drove past the van on that side, I hit it with yellow paint, but didn’t activate it just yet. I just sprayed it all along that side before activating the green dragon images I had already put along the sides of my own bike to speed it up even more. That allowed me to spin my ride around and catch up with the van before it could completely get away from me. 

The three guys remaining in the van, the driver and his two friends, had finally noticed me in the rearview by that point. The two in the back shoved the rear door open and tried to take aim with their guns, but I had already pulled past them, driving up along the passenger side of the van before sending a spray of yellow that way as well. Now both sides had been largely covered with that paint. I was running low, but that was okay. This was almost over.

With that in mind, I braked hard, letting the bike fall behind me as I threw myself off of it with help from blue paint I had already put on the seat. It ejected me upward, and I flipped in the air before using just a little bit of red to yank myself down onto the roof of the van.

Leaning over near the front driver’s side, I hit the steering wheel and a spot on the edge of the dash right by the window with red paint, even as the man shouted about me being on the roof. Activating that made the steering wheel yank hard to the left, sending the van sideways, straight off the side of the steep embankment they had been driving past. It led down into a long, deep cement canal meant to safely carry overflow flood waters when it stormed. The van might have crashed down too hard, but I activated the yellow paint I had already put on it while flinging myself up and off the roof. Finally, I activated the orange paint I already had on my legs, coming down in a crouch right on the edge of that embankment while the van crashed into the canal. I had slowed it down enough that the men wouldn’t die, but they were still jostled pretty hard, and the van itself wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

I recovered before they did, of course, making it down there before pulling open the back doors of the crumpled vehicle. The men were still dazed as I took their weapons away and pulled them out. “Don’t look so down, guys,” I informed them in as cheerful of a voice as I could manage in that moment. “You might’ve failed at robbing that electronics store, and arguably failed at life in general for being such useless fucking assholes that you’d take advantage of a situation like this to get rich, but you helped me pull off a completely awesome stunt. And I really think you should be proud to be a part of that. 

“So, who wants to take a picture to commemorate the occasion?”


In the end, it turned out the party poopers wanted nothing to do with any pictures. They grumbled and cursed the whole time the cops, who took an inordinately long time to show up, were putting them in the back of their cars. 

Finally, once they and the group I had left back with the other two were safely taken away, I stood next to the dirtbike I had propped up next to my two companions and let myself breathe for a moment. It had been a long few days after everything went down at the Conservators’ place. 

A few days after my parents had been poisoned. Not to mention Paige and Sierra’s sister, and plenty of others. I was still reeling from that, even if the doctors insisted those who hadn’t died yet would recover eventually. Of course they were saying that, they didn’t want people to panic. 

The city had been locked down. No more people in or out, enforced by national guard troops from out of town putting up guard stations along the streets leading away, police boats on the water, and a complete freeze on any planes coming or going from the airports. It wasn’t perfect, of course. But it was the best they could do under the circumstances. Until they found out for certain if anyone else had been infected by whatever it was that Pittman had hit the Conservators building with, and how to deal with it, they weren’t going to take any chances. 

Of course, that also meant it wouldn’t be easy for Paige and Sierra to get out of the city in order to go down to Utah and find the device Pittman had been talking about. If it was even still there. But that was our best lead, so we had to try. Wren was working on that little problem, while we tried to keep the city itself from burning down. 

Thankfully, things weren’t as bad as they could have been, considering most of the Fell-Touched seemed to be organizing or making big plans. Or maybe the Ministry was actually doing some good. Either way, the situation still wasn’t great. While powered people might have been laying low so far, there was plenty of nonpowered crime. More than we could handle, honestly. Most of my weekend had been spent trying to help keep things at least somewhat together. There had been several close calls already, as the violence kept escalating. The other Star teams, or at least everyone who was left, were being run ragged as well. I had no idea who was still in charge of the Ministry at this point or what they were doing, but it was clear that if they were responsible for the Fell-Touched laying low, that was all they could do. And something told me it wouldn’t last forever. Sooner or later, there was going to be another big clash of the people with powers. Which would make the past couple days spent dealing with ordinary people seem like a cakewalk.

Of course, Paige had been busy as well. The authorities had grilled her for most of a day about what she might know about her adopted parents’ disappearance. She kept up the same story about Mr. Banners being paranoid that one of his business rivals was after him, and how she had convinced him to let her come back to school after weeks of hiding out. She had no idea what happened to them after that. Thankfully, the people in charge didn’t push too much harder, probably not wanting to attack a girl whose parents had just died and whose sister was still in a coma. Besides, Paige was very convincing. 

By Monday, I had assumed school would be canceled, but it wasn’t. Probably because they were trying to keep everything as normal-seeming as possible. Not that we had done much in class anyway. No one could pay attention to any lectures, so it had mostly been a day of talking about what was going on. Which didn’t exactly help my barely-contained fear and anxiety. There was no news about any of those who had been infected. Or at least none that the doctors were sharing with us. Simon was almost never home, which was fine with me since I had my own stuff to do. He did call repeatedly to make sure I was okay, and I told him I was hanging out with friends. 

Finally, now it was Monday night. The attack had happened Friday evening, so it had been three days. It felt like an eternity. I wasn’t sleeping enough, I knew that much. But every time I closed my eyes, I kept having nightmares about my parents… not recovering. 

Whatever, all that mattered was finding that teleportation device and letting Wren do what she needed to do with it so we could get to Pittman and pry answers out of him. Of course there was a lot more to that whole situation, but I wasn’t thinking about any of it at the moment. 

Shaking those lingering thoughts out of my head, I addressed my companions. “So, that worked out well. Good job, guys.” The two of them had heard those men talking that morning about this ‘job’ in the stairwell of the apartment building they lived in.

“Thanks, PB,” Murphy murmured. “What about the others, did they finish their thing yet?” Sierra, Paige, and Peyton had been dealing with another problem we’d heard about. Again, everyone was being stretched thin. 

I started to answer, before the phone in my pocket buzzed. Tugging it out, I glanced at the screen before nodding. “Guess so, one way or another. Wren wants us back at the shop ASAP. Sounds like she’s got a way to get Sierra and Paige out of the city so they can go to Utah. 

“And hopefully get what we need to end this mess and cure everyone while there’s still a city left to put back together.” 

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Center Of Attention 26-16 (Summus Proelium)

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Obviously, it was even harder for me to keep myself under control with that bit of news. Sure, they said the victims who had survived so far were stable, but that could change at any second. They were still quarantined. Both of my parents had been hit by this chemical attack or whatever it was. How did that happen? Why had my mother even been here in the first place? She wasn’t part of the Conservators or any government institution. 

Even more importantly, at least in a larger and more immediate sense, what was going to happen with the Ministry over the next however long it took for my parents to get better? Obviously they had a power structure in place, but they were both the leaders. Who would be giving out orders now? 

Actually, come to think of that, I asked, “The… sick people, how bad are they? I mean, you said they were quarantined, but are they conscious? Can they talk to people?”

The man paused as though he wasn’t exactly sure how much information he should give out. Then he exhaled. “Look, I know you’re worried about all those people, and about how the city’s going to get along in the middle of all this gang shit with half of two of our major Star teams out of commission. Trust me, we’ve all been thinking about it. Some of the affected are awake, but even then, they’re… well they’re sort of delirious. They’re not thinking straight, and sure as hell not communicating properly. The others are in some sort of coma. The doctors think whatever gas got loose in there makes them hallucinate and puts them in a dream-like state. For some it’s stronger and completely knocks them out. Like I said, they’re working on a cure. But unless either of you have a degree in medicine, I don’t think you’ll be much help in there.”

He was right, of course. Well, about me anyway. For all I knew, Paige did have the equivalent of a medical degree somewhere inside her programming and training. But I doubted they would listen to her. None of those people were going to listen to us, not even if we tried to tell them where this attack had come from. Why would they? 

While I was thinking about that, the man continued. “But I’ll tell you where we do need you. Out there on those streets. As soon as those gangs figure out that some of our Touched are out of commission, they’re really gonna start raising hell. As if it wasn’t bad enough already. So we need to make sure all the people we do have left on their feet are ready to go. And from what I’ve been hearing, you guys and the rest of your team are pretty good to have around.”

I couldn’t even begin to think about how to respond to that. My brain was going in too many directions at once. And a lot of those directions led straight toward panicking. Crying was in there too. My parents were sick, delirious, hallucinating, or even in a coma. What the hell was I supposed to do? I couldn’t even go in there and see them like this.

I was still mentally flailing and getting really close to losing it, as Paige pulled me by the arm. “Come on, Paintball, we’ll see what we can do to help somewhere else.” Her voice remained remarkably even as she looked at the man and thanked him for talking to us. And just like that, we left. I walked the bike back to the other edge of the roof, and both of us dropped down together with it. It wasn’t until we were a block away that I managed to find my voice. “Paige, your sister–”

“And your parents,” she finished for me. “Yeah, believe me, I know. But he wasn’t going to let us in there or tell us any more specific information. Not unless we both told him a lot more than either of us wanted to.”

We were standing by an alley as I looked at my hand and tried to will it to stop violently shaking. I felt sick, as though a stone was rolling through my stomach. My heart kept pounding against my chest, and a chill tried to run through me. It felt like I was sick, which was completely ridiculous. I hadn’t been exposed to anything, so why would I feel any effects? It was just my stupid emotions going wild.

Finally, I managed to respond. “We have to find out what’s actually going on in there, and how sick they are. We have to–” Before I could say anything else, my phone buzzed. I fumbled with it before taking the thing out and almost answered as Paintball before realizing I was holding my personal phone. What’s more, the person calling was Simon. Boy would that have been a horrifyingly simple and mundane way to blow my secret. At the last second, I caught myself before turning off my voice changer app. Then I answered as myself, trying to sound as normal as possible under the circumstances. “Simon?”

“Oh thank fuck!” my brother blurted. “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been sending you texts and calls for the past thirty minutes! Look, never mind. Just tell me where you are so I can pick you up.”

Blinking, I looked at my phone. He was right, I had a bunch of missed calls and texts from him. I hadn’t even noticed in the rush to get over here and all that. Obviously, he was freaking out a little bit right now too. 

Again, I had to pretend I had no idea what he was so upset about. I wasn’t supposed to know that dad was Silversmith, and I certainly wouldn’t have any idea that Mom had been in that building. So, despite the terror in my stomach, I forced myself to sound as disinterested as possible. “Dude, I’m just hanging out. I don’t need a ride home. I haven’t needed a ride home in like forever. Why would you even–”

“Just tell me where you are!” He snapped. “I know you disabled the tracker in your phone a long time ago so Mom and Dad wouldn’t hassle you, but I really need to know where you are right now, Cassidy.” His voice caught, sounding as emotional as I’ve ever heard. Then he got himself under control. “Look, you’re not in trouble or anything, and I’m not messing with you. I just need to talk to you and it’s better if we do it in person. I know, I know I’m not good at this or anything. But please, just tell me where to meet you, or go back to the house and I’ll see you there.”

Somehow, the way he was acting made me feel even worse. I wanted to scream at him to knock it off, because him being serious right now and sounding only like he was losing it was going to make me lose it too, in a way I couldn’t afford. But I simply clenched my free hand tight enough to hurt before making the next words come out. “I’ll see you at home. I’ll be there soon. What about Mom and Dad? What about Izzy?” Oh God, Izzy. This had come right after she agreed to be adopted.

Simon informed me that Izzy was already with him in the car as he was talking to me. Izzy, for her part, spoke up quietly to confirm that. I could hear the uncertainty and fear in her voice. She probably knew as much as I did, if not more. She probably would have already called me if she hadn’t been in the car with him.

So, after promising to be home soon, I disconnected and looked at Paige. She, in turn, gave a short nod. “Go home. I’m going to figure out how to get more information out of that place.”

My mouth opened before I caught myself and took a breath to consider what I was saying. “Paige,” I finally managed, “be careful, okay? That place has got to be on super-lockdown right now. They aren’t going to let anyone who isn’t authorized in there. And if you try to force it, they… I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”

The blonde girl paused before quietly replying, “They know Irelyn is my sister, at least some of them have to. I’ll just show up as myself and demand to know how she is. There’s no reason I wouldn’t be there to check on her. My parents are missing and she’s the only family I have around. Maybe they’ll tell me more, or let me see her, even if it’s through a quarantine shield. At the very least I can find out more than we know right now. If I get anything, I’ll let you know. And I’ll check on your parents too, if I can.”

There wasn’t much more I could say to that, so I simply thanked her and then changed in the alley while she kept lookout before summoning an Uber to take me home. The whole time, I still felt like I was going to throw up. Or possibly pass out. There was a ringing in the back of my head that still wouldn’t go away. And now I had to go into my house and act like a clueless little girl who was getting this news for the first time. Speaking of which, how was Simon going to present it? There was no way he would tell me that our dad was Silversmith. So what reasoning would he give for both of them being at that place? Hell, what would he say about Mom being there? I had no idea. I really didn’t, and I also wasn’t looking forward to feigning cluelessness about the whole situation again.

But I was about to find out, as the car dropped me off by the gate. I made sure to tip the driver extra since I was sure I hadn’t been a very good passenger. I barely responded to his comments with distracted grunts, and I sure wasn’t smiling. The fact that I had communicated enough to confirm that I was the person he was there to pick up was pretty much the limit of my communication abilities at that point.

From there, I basically ran in the front door. My mouth opened to call out for my brother, but he was already waiting there, his expression impatient and a bit freaked out. Which obviously didn’t help anything. As soon as he saw me, Simon gestured. “Come on, Izzy’s waiting.” 

So, forcing myself not to blurt out questions I shouldn’t even have known to ask yet, I followed after the boy into the dining room. Our new sister was, sure enough, sitting at the table. As soon as she saw me, Izzy jumped up and moved in for a hug, which I returned tightly while looking at Simon. “Wha-what’s going on? What happened? Where’s Mom and Dad?” At least at that point, considering how they were acting, it made sense for me to sound worried and scared. It would have been weird if I sounded completely normal right then. 

Getting both of us to sit down, Simon launched into an explanation. Or at least as close to an explanation as he could give us while thinking we were completely clueless about all the Ministry and Silversmith stuff. According to my brother, Mom and Dad had been at the Conservators building in order to take part in welcoming Trivial and Flea back to the city, because of the political favors they had helped pull against Breakwater to get them out of there in the first place, and to give them a gift for everything they’d gone through. Then there was some sort of biological weapon attack on the building and now they were sick. He stressed that they were both alive and as stable as anyone else in there, but they were quarantined and couldn’t come out. The doctors were working on a cure, analyzing our parents and the rest of the victims, as well as some residue that had been left behind. He tried to sound as confident as possible when he told us our parents would be fine and would come home soon, but his voice shook a bit throughout that whole thing. He was really close to completely breaking down. Which really didn’t help me. 

Shoving myself to my feet, I shook my head rapidly. “We have to go down there! We have to go see them. What–why aren’t we already there? Simon, let’s go! We have to go see Mom and Dad!” 

“Cass, we can’t–not yet.” Simon took a breath, holding up a hand for me to wait. “Look, you don’t think I want to be there right now? The doctors need us to stay out of the way so they can work. They said we can go visit later tonight, alright? They’ll call when it’s okay to come down there. And I promise I won’t leave without you. We’ll go together, we’ll visit them, and you’ll see that it’ll all be okay. Come on, it’s our parents. They can afford the absolute best doctors in the world, even if they have to fly all the way in from China. And this was at the Conservators’ headquarters. They’ve got the best of the best of the best working on this.” He pulled me into an embrace, which I didn’t fight at all. Then he did the same for Izzy, pulling her close as well as he hugged both of us. “I swear, it’s going to be okay. We just have to take care of ourselves for a little bit. And considering we have like fifty people working in this house to take care of our every need, I think we can handle it.” He was trying to make a joke to lighten the mood, but his voice wasn’t that convincing.

There was so much I wanted to say at that moment, but I wasn’t sure how much I could get away with. Even now, terrified out of my mind for our parents’ safety, I had to worry about saying the wrong thing, or even just something that might make him think something I couldn’t afford him thinking later. All of which just made me feel even more sick inside. My parents were sick, maybe even both in a coma for all I knew, and all I could do was worry about giving away my secrets? Was I that bad of a person?

I had to get out of there. I couldn’t stand to stay in this room anymore. So, after making Simon promise to come get us as soon as it was time to go, Izzy and I went up to my room and laid on my bed. Once we were safely alone, I told her everything I had found out and what Paige and I had been doing when Simon called. She laid there on the bed with me, the two of us holding one another as I lost the struggle not to cry. Izzy wasn’t exactly in much better shape as far as that went, and for awhile we just lost ourselves that way. 

Finally, after an hour or so, Izzy quietly asked, “This is going to be bad, isn’t it? The Ministry’s two top leaders are out of commission, and so are a bunch of Star-Touched, including the leaders of both the Conservators and the Spartans. The bad guys are going to jump on that. They’re not gonna slow down. They’re going to go to war even harder and make the city worse.” 

A heavy sigh escaped me. I’d been obsessing over that myself, and hearing someone else say it right then just made it feel worse and more real. “I don’t know how bad it’ll get,” I admitted. “But you’re right. It’s probably not going to be good. We just have to be ready to do something about it. At least as much as we can.” The words of that guard back at the Conservators’ base talking about how they were going to need visible Star-Touched out on the street to keep things in order played through my head. “I think we’re gonna end up getting a lot of overtime.” 

After saying that, I sat up and let my legs hang off the side of the bed. My voice was quiet. “They’re going to be okay, right? Tell me they’re going to be okay.” I needed to hear it again, even if she had no better idea of how this was going to turn out than I did. My stomach was churning again. It felt like I was going to throw up, even though I hadn’t eaten anything in quite awhile. Hell, that was probably part of the problem. But there was no way I could force anything down, not like this. 

Izzy sat aside me and took my hand with a nod. “You know Simon’s right. They’ve got the best doctors they could possibly have, and the best equipment. They’ll take care of your mom and dad.” 

“Our mom and dad,” I reminded her, squeezing the girl’s hand. “You’re right, yeah. They–they survived this long, they made it past the main attack. They’ll be alright. Just–we just have to give the doctors time.” 

Before either of us could say anything else, my phone buzzed. It was Paige, so I answered it with a glance toward Izzy. “What happened? Are you okay?” 

There was a pause, long enough that I almost started to think the connection had dropped, before the girl spoke up. “It was them.” Her voice sounded even worse and more strained than it had earlier, cracking slightly. 

“Them?” I echoed uncertainly. “Who? What do you mean?” 

Another pause, then, “The Banners. Remember how they were missing? They showed up at the Conservators place to meet Irelyn. That’s why they were allowed inside, right into that room. Of course they let them in. I wondered how my dad could’ve gotten any of his biolems close enough. It was the Banners, the real Banners. They just walked in, and… and then…” She audibly gulped. “He–he did something to them. His people did, his biolems, I mean. He had them do something to the Banners while they were missing. That’s why they were gone for so long. He did it. His people. They– they made them–he turned them into bombs, Cassie. 

“Pittman had the Banners turned into biological weapons and made them blow up right in front of Irelyn. They’re dead, and Irelyn’s in a coma, because of him.” 

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Center Of Attention 26-15 (Summus Proelium)

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The next few moments were a complete blur. I didn’t even remember leaving that kitchen, to be honest. The next thing I knew after hearing those words, I was on top of the fence at the edge of the Banners’ property. Paige was saying something behind me, but I didn’t care what it was. I used blue paint to launch myself outward and then sent a shot of red toward a street light in the distance to yank myself that way. The instant I hit that lamp, I was using another shot of blue to throw myself even higher and further. The corner of a building was coming up and I hit that with pink before instantly disabling it so that when I hit, I bounced right off, propelled onward like it was a slingshot. 

I wasn’t even consciously thinking about where I was going. There was no question about it in my head. My entire body, without any internal consultation on my part, knew we were heading for the Conservators’ building. I had to get there. I had no idea what I was going to do once I did, because I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. I wasn’t thinking at all. The only thing I was doing was moving. One jump, one lunge, One bounce at a time, one after another, I leapt from building to sign to lamp post to another building. There was a high-pitched whine in the back of my head that could’ve been my imagination, or it could’ve been myself actually making that noise. Was I screaming? Was I praying? Was I crying? I had no idea. I couldn’t focus. Images of my father being hurt kept playing through my head no matter what I did. And when I tried to think more clearly, the images only got stronger. The only peace I got was by pushing everything out of my mind and blindly running.

I was honestly surprised that I didn’t end up crashing into anything or slipping. It was either a miracle, or my power was helping somehow. I just ran onward without even stopping to consider literally anything. My dad was hurt. He had been in that building when the chemical attack or whatever it was went off. I had to get there. I had to help him.

After a few minutes of running like that, I was oh-so-gradually getting closer to my destination, though it was still incredibly far away. Some part of me said I was tired from all the running, but I pushed it aside. It didn’t matter. Nothing else mattered. I could keel over and I wouldn’t care. I just had to get to that building. Even if the still-reasonable part of my brain told me it was too far to run to within any reasonable amount of time. 

Abruptly, I heard the sound of a motorcycle revving up and managed to glance down just in time to see the machine itself go flying up off a makeshift ramp of a truck, landing on the roof of the small building just in front of me before skidding to a halt. It was Paige, still dressed as Poise of course. She stared at me for a second before speaking up. “Cassie, I know! I know, believe me. But you can’t go running in there like that.” 

“Are you stupid?!” I reflexively blurted without even thinking. “Get out of the way, my dad’s hurt!” I started to move around her. When she reached out to grab my arm, I used a bit of purple paint to rip myself free violently enough that it yanked her off the bike. I didn’t care. All I knew was that her dad had planted something in there that had ended up hurting mine. Or… or… worse. Tears tried to blind me before I blinked them aside. No. No, I wouldn’t assume that. I wouldn’t even let myself think it. My dad was okay. He had to be okay. But I had to get there first and make sure, and I wasn’t going to let Paige Banners stop me. 

“I know!” Paige, letting the bike fall, blurted while keeping herself in my path. “Cassidy, Cassie, I know! My sister’s in there too, I don’t know what’s going on with her. I don’t even know if she’s–I don’t know how she is! But if you go running in there like this, if you go screaming for your dad, they’ll figure out who you are! They’ll know.” 

“Do you think I give a shit about that?” I still wasn’t thinking, not at all. “I don’t care if they find out who I am, my dad–” 

“What if Pittman has spies in there still?” she pointed out flatly. “What if he figures out who you are, or one of the Scions or someone like that do? There’s still a lot of other ways they can hurt you, hurt all of us, Cassie. Please.” She swallowed audibly before clearly forcing herself to speak as calmly as possible. “We have to go. We have to find out if we can help, and what’s going on. I swear, we will, but you have to take a breath. I’m sorry, I’m sorry I’m such an evil, stupid bitch. I’m sorry I stopped you, sorry I had to stop you.” I could hear the emotion in her voice. “I don’t want you to hate me, Cassie. I’m sorry. Please. We can go there. We can check on them, and help. But we have to be careful. Your identity matters. Your life matters. Please. I–I need you to breathe. I need you to… to not hate me, please.” 

It hit me in a rush. Her sister, no matter how much she acted as though she didn’t really see her that way, was hurt too. She had been within a hair’s breadth of getting Irelyn back safely and now all of a sudden she had no idea if the older girl was even alive. It was possible that her sister had been ripped away from her right when she was about to be able to tell her the truth about herself, and possibly have a real relationship with her. 

She was going through all that worry, and I had run off blindly, forcing her to pull herself together and chase after me just to stop me from doing something that could have put all of us in incredible danger. Now my emotions were in even greater turmoil, and there was still a part of me that wanted to tell her to get the hell out of my way and let me go storming in there. But, as terrified and panicked as I was, she had a point. Beyond the fact that she had every right to be as worried as I was, if I went into that building like this, people would figure out I had someone in there I cared about. And from there it probably wouldn’t take long to blow my entire identity. Which was if I didn’t blow it myself by shouting for my dad or something like that. Hell, in the mood I had been in just a second earlier, I might have gone as far as ripping my helmet and mask off just to get close to him. I hadn’t been thinking about anything else. All of that flashed through my mind over the next couple of seconds while I stood there staring at Paige. She must have interpreted my body language because she slowly lowered her hands and took a step back, speaking again, a little more softly. “We’ll go there. We’ll find out what happened and how we can help. But you have to be calm, okay? Can you do that?” 

It took me a moment to find my voice and to decide how to answer. “I don’t know,” I finally admitted. “But I’ll do my best.” Reaching out, I touched her shoulder. “I’m sorry,” I offered a bit weakly. “I mean, for running out without you, for that bit right there, for–” 

She interrupted. “Don’t worry about it, worry about your dad, and let’s get over there.” 

I started to move, only to stop and look back at the motorcycle she had come up here with. It was a dirt bike. Paige saw me looking at it and lifted her head. “What are you thinking?”

In reply, I marched to the motorcycle and stuck my leg over it. “Get on,” I ordered while revving the engine. “We’re getting to that building right now.” 

I could’ve sworn Paige murmured a prayer before quickly climbing on behind me. Then she was holding on around my waist as I focused. And that was when I realized something. This dirtbike was small enough that I was able to paint it while sitting on the thing as though it was part of my own clothes. In other words, I could make colors appear on it without having to point my hand and spray. 

Now this, this was something I could work with.

Without another thought, I gunned the engine and sent the dirtbike flying toward the edge of the roof. Paige clung tighter to me as I made both of the tires green with a thought, and suddenly we were going three times as fast. The dirt bike was pretty high-end, considering it came from the Banners’ garage, so it could hit about ninety miles per hour, though with this short of a path we had, it would only naturally reach about sixty. But with the paint I had just added, we hit one-eighty before we hit the edge of the roof. Oh, and I pointed my hand ahead to shoot a bit of blue paint that way so that when we did hit it, the bike was catapulted into the air at that speed. 

Yeah, we were both screaming. Though mine at least was out of sheer excitement. Even in this moment, even as terrified as I was about what could’ve happened to my father, I was still taking a dirt bike off the roof of a building at almost two hundred miles per hour to fly through the air. Before the bike could start to descend, I painted the front part, including that tire, red while shooting another bit of the same toward the side of the taller building in the distance. We were yanked that way as I had to cling even more tightly to the bike so it wouldn’t be yanked out from under me. Even then, I had to give myself a little purple boost. Paige’s grip tightened as well. And we were both still screaming. 

When we were three quarters of the way to the building, I canceled the paint, allowing our momentum to carry us a bit further. Before doing anything else, I painted the bottom part of my pants red as well as the seat to stick myself to it more firmly. Paige essentially wrapping herself around me meant I could do the same to her so she wouldn’t go flying off. Then I shouted for the other girl to lean left while doing the same myself. Leaning left meant leaning toward the ground. It should’ve at least raised a question, but Paige didn’t even hesitate. She leaned that way with me just as I painted both of our tires red that time, following it up by spraying a line of red all along the side of the building we were hurtling toward. Suddenly, we were yanked that way even more strongly, though this time it was the two tires being pulled. I waited until the second the wheels hit the brick wall and then gunned the engine once more. The dirtbike lurched forward. At the same time, I canceled just part of the paint on the wall, but only the part we had just driven over. I continued to do that, canceling the paint we left behind so it wouldn’t pull us backwards, while the paint we were actually on continued to work so the bike stayed against the wall. 

And just like that, we were driving sideways along the building. Oh yeah, and the bike had gotten up to its maximum speed, so we were actually going almost three hundred miles per hour. Needless to say, it didn’t take long to reach the end of that wall. As we did, I used another shot of blue to bounce us sideways off that building, followed by more red on both tires and the building ahead of us. Only this time, I painted a vertical line so that as we were sent flying that way, the bike landed and started to run straight up before shooting over the edge. We flew into the air while I pushed down on the front, and a second later we hit the roof of that building and kept going. I had to renew the green paint by that point and did so instantly, so we could continue to cannonball our way from one end of the roof to the other. 

Was it possible that I was coping with my fear and worry by throwing myself through the biggest daredevil stunt I could think of right at that moment? Yeah, probably. But still, it was working. Not only was this incredibly fun, something I would appreciate later when I knew for certain that my dad was safe, as I told myself, but it also forced me to focus entirely on what I was doing. I constantly had to throw every ounce of my attention and thought processes onto the next jump or stunt. It stopped my brain from dwelling on the what if’s. All that mattered was getting through the next few seconds, and the next few after that, and so on. I absolutely did not have to think about things that I really did not want to.

As we hit the edge of that roof, I aimed the bike toward the top of a billboard that was below us. It was way too far down for a normal bike to land safely. So it was a good thing there was nothing normal about what we were doing. I estimated the distance we were falling and gave the bike some yellow paint along with orange, slowing it just enough that the orange paint would help it stay together. After a quick consideration mid-fall, I also sent a spray of orange toward the sign itself to help avoid having the whole thing crumble underneath us. I had to aim just perfectly, but with that secondary power of mine, the one that helped me know where everything around me was, doing so wasn’t a problem. I judged the distance perfectly, landing the bike with the top edge of the sign right in the middle of the tires. Then we went driving straight across that as well before I used a bit of blue at the end to bounce us forward and up just enough to reach the roof of yet another building, this one much lower than the others. 

And so it continued that way. I couldn’t use my paint every second, of course. I’d run out quickly that way, even if my reserves had become much deeper than they were before. But even when I couldn’t use my paint, we were still driving a dirt bike, so it was faster than running. And we were almost always doing it across a roof or sign, somewhere away from traffic. In the rare instances we were in traffic, I weaved in and out of cars, paying absolutely no attention to the rules of the road. I didn’t care about any of that. All I cared about was getting to that building, no matter what it took. Maybe I couldn’t go running inside screaming for my dad. But I could sure as hell make my way there as quickly as possible and just behave like a Star-Touched who wanted to help when I heard about a biological weapon attack.

Yeah, okay, it was dangerous. But me not barging in and immediately ruining my secret identity was already a stretch. I was keeping myself about as together as I possibly could under the circumstances. 

Eventually, I managed to bring the bike to a stop right at the edge of a roof across the street from the main Conservator base in Detroit. The place looked pretty unassuming. It was just a four story square building with what looked like glass windows over the whole thing, but of course they were actually made of some super secret material that was capable of withstanding a hell of a lot more damage than even solid steel. Plus they had this neat fibermesh stuff running all the way through the building that reacted to any attack on the building by activating this sort of forcefield. 

There were a lot of other defenses on the place, many of which I was sure I didn’t know about. Some of those I was aware of included lookouts and snipers. One of whom was standing right there at the corner of the building we had just landed on. He waited until we came to a stop, then spoke above the sound of the bike’s engine. “Paintball, prove it’s you, then state why you’re here.” 

Only after he said that did I notice the remote in the man’s hand. His finger was already pressing the button, which was probably the source of the automated gun turret that had just popped out of the innocuous-looking chimney nearby. It wasn’t shooting at us, probably because he was still holding the button down. A deadman’s switch, in case we did anything to him. He’d drop the remote and then the gun, and probably many other defenses, would do their job. 

So, I pointed away from the man, shooting a bit of red paint at a metal lunchbox that sat there before making it come to my hand. Then I killed the engine on the bike and stepped off. It took literally everything I had to keep my voice as even and normal as possible. It was so hard not to just demand to know if my dad was okay. “We heard there was some sort of attack, and… and I thought I could help get people out, or calm people down, or–what’s happening in there?” My head snapped around to stare at the place, while Paige remained silent behind me. 

The man exhaled, clicking something on the remote to make the gun retract. “You really shouldn’t come rushing up like that, especially not in a situation like this. They’ve moved the victims to the medical wing already, and both that floor and the one where the attack happened have been locked down. There’s not much for you to do here, sorry.” 

“How–” I had to control my response. Fuck, fuck, I couldn’t scream at this guy, I couldn’t start crying. “How many were hurt? Who–did we lose anyone?” 

The man blinked at me once, before his expression softened. “A few died immediately. More didn’t make it to the medical wing. Whatever that stuff is, it’s… it’s bad. From the last report I got, Flea, Trivial, and that woman they brought with them are pretty sick. As are… basically half the Touched member of the Conservators and Spartans. Half of both of those teams are out until they find a cure to this stuff. Silversmith and Bokor were in the room with them, and so were Brumal and Boulderdash. And a couple from the Seraphs who were checking in. But don’t worry, they’ve got them stabilized. It’s just… they can’t get out of there until the docs come up with a cure.” 

My dad was sick. He was sick. Just sick though. He wasn’t–it wasn’t worse. “But–but they’ll find a cure to this stuff, right? They’re working on it?” I had to get in there, I had to see him. But I felt a bit of the panic ease. Just a bit. 

“I hope so, kid,” the man replied. “Especially since that Evans lady was in there.” 

“Wait, what?” I gave a quick doubletake at that. Evans lady? Huh? 

He nodded. “Yeah, Elena Evans. She was in there too for some reason. So I guess they’ll be spending all their resources to help cure this thing.” 

Oh… it wasn’t just my dad who was out of commission, sick and locked down in quarantine waiting for the medical people to find a cure.

It was both of my parents. 

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Center Of Attention 26-14 (Summus Proelium)

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“You know, I’m starting to think something might be wrong with you.” 

Hearing me say that as the two of us stood on the roof of a building not too far from Wren’s shop a few minutes later, Paige glanced at me. Her face was covered once more by the full combat helmet and visor she wore as Poise, just in case anyone happened to notice us out here. But I could still read the uncertainty in her body language, as well as hear it in her voice as she slowly echoed, “Wrong with me?” A slight pause came then, before, “There’s so much you could be referring to.” 

Snorting once, I admitted, “Yeah, okay, fair point. And you could turn that whole thing back around on me because we both know I’m the kettle to your pot when it comes to something being wrong. But for the record, I meant because you’re letting me get out of training back there.” My thumb gestured in the direction of the shop. “They’re gonna be working their butts off and you’re just letting me waltz out of there without even so much as a pushup? You must be losing it.” 

I definitely saw her eyes roll through the white visor. “Hilarious. But you’re forgetting two things.” 

For a moment, I tried to think of what she was referring to. But I was still a bit distracted by thinking about what was going to happen when Irelyn made it to her family’s place and we had to decide exactly how much to talk to her about. “Okay, I give up. What am I forgetting?” 

Paige, in return, replied evenly, “First, it’s no fun if I’m not there to make sure you’re doing it right. And second, there’s nothing saying I can’t put you through training back at the house until Irelyn gets home. Something tells me she’s going to be busy with the authorities for awhile.” 

Oh. Right, she had a point. We might not have Sierra and the others with us, but she could still put me through some personal training, just a one-on-one thing. Which, yeah, made me feel weird. Just the thought that I would be willingly going over to Paige Banners’ house with her would have been utterly absurd not so long ago. Adding in the idea that I would be training with her to learn how to better protect myself from people who wanted to hurt me? I would have thought that anyone saying such a ridiculous thing was on drugs, or screwing with me. 

Yet, here I was. And as proof of how much everything had changed, I didn’t feel complete revulsion and anger when I looked at Paige. Not only because I couldn’t see her face. I knew that was her, and my insides did twist a bit. But it was more in… confusion about the conflicting feelings that kept working their way through me. Some part of me desperately wished I could actually consciously remember the time when we had been friends as children. Maybe that would help entirely erase the feelings that came from how she had been forced to treat me these past few years. But even without actively having those memories, I could still feel something that I thought came from them, something that had been reawakened in this past short while. It was like I couldn’t actively see my childhood memories, but still felt a little bit of their effects. Ghost feelings, or something.

Either way, the idea that I would be spending time in Paige’s house alone with her, working out and stuff while we both waited for Irelyn, made me blush deeply behind my mask and helmet. Firmly pushing that reaction aside as much as I could, I instead focused on replying, “Well, in that case I guess we better get over there so we can do as much training as we can, huh? But uhh, do you mind if we take a little more time than we have to? I’ve sort of got an idea that I’ve been meaning to do but keep forgetting. And if you really think it’ll take her awhile to get there…” 

Paige looked at me with what was obviously curious body language. “I’ve linked myself to a few of the cameras in the police precinct they took her to for debriefing, the exterior cameras of buildings near the Conservator base, and the ones for several city blocks around the Banners’ house. I’ll know when she leaves and when she’s close to getting home. So what’s your new idea? And if it’s just ‘avoid physical training,’” she warned while raising a finger in what I interpreted to be a half-joking and half-serious threat. 

Playing up my reaction as though panicking, I held both hands out, head shaking quickly. “Oh no, no, no. Absolutely not, I promise, no stalling over here. This is actually important. I think you’ll like it too, trust me. Here.” Walking over to the edge of the roof, I pointed my hands down and began to paint a blue and green line along it, a few inches wide. I carefully fed the green into the blue, but didn’t activate it. I was careful to make it look sort of like it could be a normal design on the edge of the roof as much as possible. It also wasn’t a single continuous two-colored line. I included breaks every couple feet, an inch or so of space between the lines. 

Watching me do that, Paige was silent for a moment before straightening up as she realized. “You’re prepping for later, for an emergency.” 

“Or any time I need to move quickly,” I confirmed before amending, “any time all of us do, really.” While saying that, I leaned over the edge of the roof and shot several red circles into discreet locations that I would be able to use either from the ground or another roof if I knew they were there. “I figure saving as much paint as possible in that sort of situation is probably a good thing. So if I paint the buildings around the store and work my way out through the city that way, adding a bit more whenever I get a chance…” My shoulders shrugged. “We’ll have to keep checking on it to see if my paint wears off eventually and redo it, and maybe this whole thing will turn out to be pointless, but–” 

“No, it’s a good idea,” Paige interrupted. “You’re right, having as much paint as possible in an emergency is… is good. Plus it’ll help you move even faster if you don’t have to focus on spraying, or… shooting it out.” 

The two of us stood there awkwardly for a second, staring at each other as those weird feelings continued to make my stomach flip over. Finally, I coughed and turned. “Can you use those cool cyber sensors or whatever to help me find some good spots to put some of this paint?” 

She agreed after a brief hesitation of her own, and we set out to do just that. For the next little while, the two of us worked our way in a circle around the spot where Wren’s store was. Then we did so again, moving one building further out to prepare those ones. I took my time, since it required a fair bit of paint to prepare each of these things. At Paige’s suggestion, I made most of the paint look like random graffiti so it wouldn’t stand out that much, including using colors that probably wouldn’t be useful on a wall like that so it looked more natural. I just hoped we wouldn’t run into a situation where it was an emergency and I tried to activate the paint on a piece of graffiti, only to realize it was real and not my own stuff. That would be pretty embarrassing, and potentially dangerous. Which was probably why Paige announced that she was going to continually quiz me about which pieces were actually mine, so I’d better memorize them. 

Honestly, focusing on all this helped a bit, since it meant I couldn’t completely obsess over what was going on with Irelyn. And I was pretty sure Paige appreciated the distraction too, even if it probably wasn’t as effective for her. 

Eventually, we did start making our way toward her place. Or the Banners’ place, as she put it. Even now, it seemed like Paige didn’t see that as her house. Maybe even especially now. On the way, I asked again if she had any inkling of where her adopted parents could be, and she again insisted she didn’t have the slightest idea aside from the belief that Pittman had done something to them. From the way she said it, I was going to guess she didn’t think it was anything good. 

I also left a few paint bits on other buildings along the way, though not nearly as much as I had near the store. Eventually I would work my way out and add pieces of my own fake graffiti everywhere I thought it might be useful. Though come to think of it, was that ‘fake graffiti’ or just ‘my graffiti?’ I was still vandalizing places, even if it was for a good reason. 

Eh, whatever. The point was, with Paige’s help I prepped more buildings for potential situations. Plus, while we were doing that, I came up with the idea of ‘signing’ the graffiti. Not with my own name, obviously. And not as Paintball. Instead, I signed them as Andy Garris. The initials AG, for Avant-Guard. It wasn’t the hardest thing to see through, obviously. But that little stylized signature would remind me of which pieces were mine. 

Of course, Paige still insisted that I not sign all the ones around the shop. She rightfully pointed out that doing so could potentially lead bad guys right to our base. Which was already in enough danger considering Oscuro knew it had some connection to a Tech-Touched and Paintball. Part of me wondered how much of them leaving the place alone was out of fear of how prepared it would be by this point, and how much was because the Ministry told them to. Possibly because dealing with Tech-Touched was supposed to be Braintrust’s job or whatever. 

And that just reminded me that Wren was still working on the thing Glitch had requested. I still wasn’t sure agreeing to do that was a good idea. Actually, I was pretty sure it was a bad idea. But we really couldn’t afford to have a big fight with those guys at this point. We already had more than enough to deal with. Nor was it a good idea to rock the boat where the Ministry was concerned. We needed to make it look like we were playing along as much as possible. Which, sadly, meant the best play we had was for Wren to make the device for them. 

Oh fantastic, I’d managed to distract myself from one huge situation by obsessing over a different one. Which wasn’t even anywhere near the complete list of problems and potential emergencies occupying the back of my mind. What even was my life, at this point? 

Eventually, Paige and I reached the area near the Banners’ property. We both took a long time to make sure we weren’t being followed or watched, and even then we went through the back forested area on the far side of the lot rather than going through the front. According to Paige, there were hidden cameras as well as motion sensors dotted throughout the trees so she would know if anyone was behind us, or followed our trail. 

Reaching the high stone wall after going through a half-mile of forest, I gave us a spot of blue paint to leap up and over it. And just like that, I was back on the Banners’ property for the first time since that fateful night of Paige’s birthday. In the distance, I could see the garage I had broken out of. The garage where I was supposed to wait for Paige to kill herself. 

Following my gaze, Paige seemed to flinch slightly before speaking quietly. “A lot has happened since then, huh?” Her voice caught just a little bit as she was talking, like she was having emotions about the whole thing. “Things are different now.” 

“Different,” I agreed softly, swallowing hard as my own emotions played havoc with my brain. It felt like I should say more, but I had no idea what. In the end, I simply gestured to the house. “We should head inside, right? You said something about getting dinner on before we do the training thing. And what about Irelyn? Where uhh, where is she now? Wait, have you figured out whether she’s herself or Flea?” 

“She’s Flea,” the other girl replied while walking across the grounds toward one of the mansion’s side doors. “The cops who were supposed to be debriefing ‘Irelyn’ were actually in on the whole thing. I mean, in on who Irelyn is. They work with the Conservators a lot and help cover some of their secret identities in an emergency. You know, like this.” She gestured for me to head into what turned out to be the main kitchen, then followed after. “Silversmith and Brumal are talking to her and Trivial right now. I don’t know what they’re saying, can’t get a connection inside the Conservator building without being too obvious. But they went in together. My guess is they’ll be busy for at least another hour. Especially since they’ll have to run through CHACE protocols again.”

“CHACE,” I echoed. “That’s uh, Clear Head And Clear Eyes? The system they go through to make sure someone hasn’t been corrupted, controlled, brainwashed, shapeshifted, anything like that.” 

Her head bobbed absently while she started to take things out of cabinets and one of the three massive refrigerators lining one wall. “That’s it, yeah. They have a lot of different ways to check that sort of thing, but it’ll take awhile. If I know anything about their system, and I do, they already ran both her and Trivial through them a few times before sending them back here. But the people here will do it again anyway.” 

“How much have you, uhh, talked to Irelyn since she was rescued?” I hesitantly asked while glancing around the large kitchen. This whole place seemed hauntingly empty and quiet with no staff working here anymore. I had no idea how Paige and Sierra dealt with that. Nor did I know what Sierra was going to do if Irelyn chose to stay in the house with Paige after everything she’d been through. For some reason, Paige didn’t think that was likely. 

“Not a lot,” she replied quietly, seeming pretty focused on measuring out water for a pot to put on the stove. “Just enough to tell her I’d be here when she gets back and that she should come over so we can talk.” The other girl paused then, and I heard her swallow with her back to me. “I have no idea how that’s going to go. So… you know what, maybe this was a bad idea. You being here, I mean. She’s gonna want to talk about what happened, and we don’t want her knowing about your parents–” 

“Don’t we?” I found myself saying that without stopping to think too much. “I mean, would her knowing the truth be a bad thing, honestly? We know she’s not part of the Ministry. She can’t be. So would it really be terrible to have someone like her know the truth so she could be on our side?”

Before the other girl could respond to that, the phone in my pocket buzzed. It was Peyton. So I tugged it out and answered. “Okay, if you’re calling to complain about Sierra putting you through–” 

“It’s their dad,” Peyton interrupted. “He called on that special phone and wants to talk to you. I mean, the person he talked to before. He said we’d really regret it if we don’t let him through.” 

Blinking, I glanced toward Paige. She could obviously hear the other girl just fine, and had a look of annoyance mixed with resignation. In the end, she nodded for me to take it. 

So, sighing at the fact that we had to deal with this asshole having another hissy fit, I told Peyton to go ahead and forward the call to my phone. Then I adjusted my voice changer to the male one I’d been using on these calls and waited through a couple clicks until I could hear the man breathing. Only then did I speak. “You really need to stop calling so much. Can’t you tell we’re just not that into you?”

Unlike the other times he had called recently, the man’s voice was eerily calm. “You should have worked with me. We could have come to an arrangement. Now you forced my hand. Tell my daughter she had her chance.”

I started to retort, but the line went dead. That was all he needed to say, apparently. I guess he wasn’t feeling that chatty, I announced, while turning to glance at Paige. But she wasn’t looking back at me. Her gaze was focused off in the distance, staring at nothing as she mumbled something about ‘all the ambulances and firetrucks.’ Abruptly, she pivoted and snapped a command for the television to turn on to a certain channel. 

My eyes turned that way as well, following hers even as I saw some sort of breaking news alert. On the screen, the news anchor was saying something about a biological attack. I was still trying to process what was going on as the image switched to show a reporter standing on a roof a couple buildings over from the Conservator headquarters talking about how the authorities wouldn’t let anyone in the building and medical staff weren’t giving any update on the victims. 

“Victims?” I found myself asking in confusion while a steady feeling of dread kept rising in me. “What victims? What biological attack?” 

“My father,” Paige answered in a brittle voice that was clearly on the edge of breaking entirely. “He did this. He wanted me to know he did this.” Her eyes found mine. “Cassie, he sent one of his biolems in the building, that’s the only explanation. He must’ve filled it with some sort of gas or something.” 

“Gas?” I echoed. “Paige, what are you talking about?” Some part of me knew, had already caught up, but my conscious mind wouldn’t accept it until she spelled it out.

“He set off an attack inside the building,” she explained, voice shaking. “Cassie, Irelyn was in there, a-and your dad. 

“And I don’t even know if they’re alive.” 

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Center Of Attention 26-13 (Summus Proelium)

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Caishen wasn’t kidding about those meetings, or how boring they were. Once our whole team was brought together, we ended up getting debriefed by her, as well as their entire security leadership, several high-ranking police officers, my father (as Silversmith of course), and more. They all had a bunch of questions for us, often ones we had already answered. We told them everything we could about what had happened, why we made the choices we did, and even how we had ended up bringing weapons into the courthouse. I made it clear that we had only brought the guns through once the fighting started. I left it fairly vague when it came to exactly how that worked, simply saying that we had a way to transfer equipment from one place to another. They accepted that well enough, probably because we had proven to be so useful. But still, there were a lot of questions. 

In between all those, I managed to get some answers of my own. They had not managed to arrest Banneret, even though we’d left her perfectly trussed up for them. All they had found in that room was a puddle of goo where Wren’s prototype had been. I wasn’t exactly surprised by that news, but nor did I believe she escaped on her own. Given the situation, and the fact that the Ministry was clearly a big part of this, I had a very strong suspicion that she had help from the first responders when it came to getting out of there. 

Nor had Fogwalker been caught. Though in his case, the TONI had escaped the building before the authorities breached. He left in the middle of the fight against Paige and the other three, apparently deciding discretion was the better part of valor once it became clear that Poise and Style were still quite dangerous even within his darkness. I still had no idea whether people thought the two of them were simply incredibly well-trained people with technology help, or some sort of Touched in their own right. Something told me I should take a look at the SPHERE forum and see what everyone was saying. But that could come later. 

So basically, despite everything we’d done, all the important people, the Fell-Touched, had managed to escape. I felt a little let down by that, not helped by the fact that they had managed to take some of the equipment from that vault after all. Telling myself that they would’ve gotten away with a hell of a lot more helped a little bit, but not that much. It seemed like we should have been able to do more. Or maybe I just felt guilty about the fact that my family had clearly helped put this whole thing together. Which was unhelped by the presence of my father as he went through all those questions with us. 

One thing we managed to do was free Trevithick from all this questioning. Or rather, Caishen did. She sent the girl off with her own daughter so she could meet Lightning Bugs’ not-so-little friends, who had apparently been locked up in one of the other rooms when the invasion happened. So at least Wren didn’t have to sit in that stuffy Ten Towers room going through more than an hour of questioning. I almost envied her for that. 

We also managed to establish that San Francisco and his parents had been found safe. They were locked up in the basement of their home, having been threatened, but not severely injured. I felt a wave of relief wash over me at that. Sure, San could be a little exhausting with his constant thoughts of romance and who belonged with who and all that, but he was still my friend. I didn’t want to think about anything happening to his family. 

None of us outright asked if they had seen Pack, Broadway, and those others they had been with in the courthouse. Maybe we should have, considering they were bad guys who had clearly broken into that place for possibly nefarious things. But I still felt like we owed the girl for all her help, and given we didn’t know why they were there or who she had been working with… yeah. There was a fair chance they were just there to steal some stuff and blame it on the Trendscendants. I was going to have to talk to her and see what I could find out, and hopefully not come to regret not telling the authorities. 

Finally, they were done with us. We met up with Wren again, as she finished saying goodbye to her new friend and promised to visit later. Lightning Bug seemed excited by that possibility, as did all of her assorted partners. I had a feeling we would be coming back here for a field trip soon enough. 

But, that, like so many things, would come later. For the moment, the seven of us made our way out of the building through one of the back doors, escorted by Skip since her sister was still busy dealing with all of that. She thanked us again, and then held out a card. “For your services.” 

Blinking, I leaned closer to stare at the thing. It was one of those prepaid debit cards. “Uh, that’s really not–” 

Sierra’s hand snapped out to take it before I could finish that sentence. “Thanks so much. We appreciate the recognition and wouldn’t want to be rude by refusing.” She said that with a glance toward me. 

Skip, for her part, simply gave a short nod. If she had any thoughts or reactions to that exchange, it didn’t show. Not that that meant anything, of course. Instead of commenting, she simply replied, “I’m glad you were in a position to lend aid. I hope to return the favor some time.” 

Before I could point out that she’d already been plenty of help in the past, especially when it came to getting me out of that situation with the Scions, the girl was gone. She vanished, clearly teleporting back into the building to help her sister. 

Which left us standing in an alley on the far southern side of the Ten Towers Plaza. It felt weird, like we should have been doing something else, or like there should have been more to that whole debriefing. After everything that had happened, we’d talked to the authorities for just over an hour, and now we were done. We were just… standing out here in the shadows between a couple buildings. It was sort of surreal, I supposed. It just felt like there should be more to all that, something bigger for us to do than simply walk out and be on our own again. 

Shaking off that feeling, I turned to the others. “Okay, well, I don’t know about you guys, but I am starving. How about we go back to the shop and order something to eat?” 

Murphy’s head bobbed up and down rapidly. “Hell yeah,” she agreed, “I could eat a whole cow. Preferably cooked, but at this point, I’m not really that picky, to be honest.” 

“We should use this thing,” Sierra put in, holding up the card she had accepted from Skip. “I think Ten Towers owes us a meal, assuming they put enough on it to cover that. We should probably check.” 

So I did, by calling the number on the back and putting the code into the automated system. And boy did they ever put plenty for more than one meal, to say the least. The card was loaded with ten thousand dollars. So apparently the Towers people were more than a little grateful for what we had done. When I told the others, I thought a few of them were going to faint. 

“What the hell are we supposed to do with all that?” Peyton demanded. 

“We’ll put most of it into the shop,” I announced. “Wren deserves to buy some good stuff, and it’ll help all of us in the future, especially since we wouldn’t have gotten this far without that little drone of hers.” As I said that, my hand reached out to ruffle the top of her head, while she ducked away with a noise of embarrassment. Then I focused on Murphy, Roald, and Peyton. “But we also wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without you guys. So I think it’s fair if you all get a bonus too. Let me get some cash to match what’s on here and I’ll make sure you each get like, what, a thousand dollars to do whatever you want with? That sound fair?” 

Once again, I thought the three of them were going to pass out. They seemed a bit overwhelmed, but they had definitely earned the cash. And probably a hell of a lot more than that. With that in mind, I led the way out of the alley and to the van Fred had just pulled up in. None of us had enough energy to take the long way back to the shop, so we’d simply told the man where to meet us ahead of time. As he opened the doors, we all piled in and practically fell over in the back. Except for Paige and Sierra, who seemed fine. They both went in the front with Fred, talking to him about everything that happened while the rest of us lay in the back and tried to relax through the drive. 

Soon enough, we were at the shop and I had to put the call in for food delivery. We were going to have Chinese. A lot of Chinese. But I didn’t use the card for it, despite Sierra’s suggestion. I was pretty sure the money on it wasn’t a trap, and yet it still felt dangerous to use it and have food delivered right to the store. Instead, I used my own money. Later, I’d use the card to withdraw cash somewhere far away from this place and hand it out to everyone. That was just safer than giving anyone connected to this card a direct link to Wren’s shop. 

And, of course, I made sure there wasn’t a tracking bug on the card itself. At least, as sure as I could be with Wren’s help. Was I being overly-paranoid when it came to Ten Towers? Maybe, but better safe than sorry. Because if it went wrong, we’d be very sorry. 

Either way, when we did get our food delivered, it was a veritable feast, one I could enjoy even more considering I was able to take the helmet and mask off in front of these guys and eat normally. We laid the whole thing out on one of the long tables in Wren’s lab upstairs and really went to town on it. Even Fred seemed famished, probably because he had spent the past couple hours freaking out here at the store, waiting to hear what happened. We basically put away enough to satisfy a small army. 

And we didn’t only eat. We also talked a fair bit. Once we’d put away just enough food that it didn’t feel like our stomachs were about to devour us from the inside. We talked about everything that had happened back there. Sure, we had just gone through an hour of meetings about the whole situation, but this was different. We were recounting everything to each other, laughing, teasing, praising, exaggerating, just… having a good time. We had all happened to be in the right place at the right time to help out, and even if the bad guys still got away with some of what they had been after, it would’ve been worse if we weren’t there. I was able to put aside my own feeling of guilt enough to accept that, especially when it came to making sure the others knew how awesome they were. I didn’t want them to feel like they hadn’t done enough the way a small part of me still did. And no, telling myself that if they had done enough then I clearly had as well didn’t entirely help. Feelings were weird and stupid like that. 

Fred wanted to hear about everything too, obviously. He sat there, listening in with often worried fascination as we went through the whole thing for him. Staring at me by the end, he demanded, “How do you keep running into all that danger? You went to a courthouse, a courthouse, and managed to interrupt something like that. Before that, you were at a silly skating exhibition, and we all know what happened there.” 

Flushing a little visibly, I offered a helpless shrug. “Trust me, if I knew, I’d plan for it a bit better. And I definitely wouldn’t have brought Wren along.” 

“I helped!” the girl in question insisted. 

“You did,” I agreed. “Believe me, we would’ve been completely screwed without your drone. We all know that. But still, I just–” Hesitating, I finally shook my head. “Like I said, I’d plan for things better if I knew how they kept happening. but seriously, I’m glad you were all there.” Biting my lip, I looked down at my mostly finished plate, thinking for a moment before closing up again. “You’re my friends. I’d be lost without you. Not just today, but with all of it, all of this.” My eyes even found their way to Paige, the girl I had such a complicated history with. “I’m glad you’re here.” 

She met my gaze for a moment, a series of complicated emotions seeming to pass over her face. Then she gave a short nod. “Glad to hear it,” the girl announced. “And I hope you still feel that way tomorrow, because I’m gonna need a pretty big distraction while we wait for Irelyn’s plane to land. So all of you better be ready for some pretty intense training. 

“Don’t think what happened today is gonna make me take it easy on you.” 


School the next day was… well, interesting. San had come despite his family saying he could stay home, and had a lot to say to everyone when it came to his house being invaded by the Trendscendants. He, like a lot of people, had started calling them Trendies, probably because the name itself was already ridiculous and calling them that helped make what his family had gone through not quite so terrifying. I could tell it really affected him, even though he did his best to play it off as no big deal. 

I also took the time to tell Amber everything that happened from our point of view, just as I had Izzy the night before. She’d heard a lot of it third-hand, and had some stuff to say about being on the outside waiting to go in, but her group really hadn’t seen much action. Pretty much the only bad guys they managed to find once they breached the building were already dealt with by our group, so her whole thing had been a lot of waiting around followed by walking through a building to find unconscious or tied-up people. 

She was definitely interested when I told her about Pack and Broadway being in that place, though Amber didn’t have any better answers than I did about whether not telling the authorities was a mistake. If anything, she seemed even more uncertain about all that than I was. 

Even through all that, the other girl had seemed distracted. I asked her what was up and she just said there were some personal things she was dealing with. But it didn’t seem bad. To tell the truth, she was kind of giddy and silly. Part of me was confused about that until I saw her with Dani later that day. They were in the middle of an intense conversation at the back of the library, their fingers interlaced as they sat together on one of the couches. 

Oh, so that was what was going on. Well, good for her, though I wasn’t sure how that whole thing with Pack was going to go now that she was involved with Dani. Either way, it wasn’t any of my business. That was all up to her. 

Finally, school was over, so I took an Uber close to the shop before walking the rest of the way. It was about three when I got there, and according to the news, the plane carrying Trivial and Flea (and the ‘anonymous woman they had gone to save’) would be landing around six pm. We couldn’t actually be at the airport, of course. It was a private field north of the city, and that whole place was completely locked down. They were allowing certain reporters in to broadcast the arrival, but that was it. There was no way we could get near it. So Paige was just going to meet her sister back at the Banners’ house, which only served to remind me that we still had no idea where they were. Granted, them being on Breakwater too wasn’t completely out of the question, but something told me they weren’t. 

Paige wasn’t kidding about that training thing, either. Throughout the entire time we were waiting for the news to announce the plane’s arrival, she put us through our paces. First in the virtual reality system, but also over an hour of real-world exercise. She and Sierra were both pretty intense through that whole thing. 

Finally, Fred called out for us to come watch the television. So we gathered in front of it, all of us sweating and panting aside from, of course, the two biolems. That didn’t stop the broad smile that came as I saw the footage of the plane landing and taxiing to a stop. A minute later, the hatch opened, and the stairs were wheeled up to it, allowing three figures to emerge. Two were immediately recognizable as Trivial and Flea, while the other was a woman wearing a heavy coat and ski mask to protect her identity. Part of me wondered whether they had Irelyn dressed up as Flea or the anonymous woman at this point. Probably the former, in case anyone wanted to see her powers or compared old footage to this in order to figure out if they were faking her return. 

Whatever the answer, she was there. Dozens of reporters were shouting questions from the tarmac while the three descended the steps and waved to show that they were okay. 

Smiling broadly at the sight, I patted Paige on the back. “I guess you’ll be heading back to the house to meet her, huh?” 

“I uhh… I want you to be there too,” she informed me, seeming a bit awkward. “I mean, as yourself, not Paintball. I thought…” She rubbed the back of her neck. “I thought maybe we could pretend we’ve gotten over our issues or something. You know, so Sierra can be around the house too sometimes while Irelyn’s there.” 

“Oh.” I blinked once. “I mean, yeah, sure. We wouldn’t be pretending, but I guess we would be pretending that it just happened or how it–never mind, that’s all complicated. Sure, yeah, if you really want me to be there when she gets home… I mean… yeah.” I was making it even more awkward. “I’ll come with you.” 

“Great.” She offered me a brief smile before blushing as she looked away with a cough. “We should uhh, get dinner set up. I’m pretty sure Irelyn will be hungry whenever they finally get done with her.” 

“Great,” Peyton teased. “After all that training, you get to have Paige make you a meal at her nice cushy house, and what do the rest of us get?” 

“Oh, I’m staying here,” Sierra informed her. “Can’t have Irelyn see me looking like this, after all. Worse, I’ve still got plenty of energy and nothing to do with it. So what do you all get?” 

Peyton, Murphy, Roald, Wren, and Fred all chorused the answer together with varying degrees of cheerfulness and/or exhaustion. 

“More training!”  

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Center Of Attention 26-12 (Summus Proelium)

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A handful of the bad guy troops opened fire on the spot where I was, or rather, where I had been. I was already flinging myself into a backwards leap, assisted by my blue paint to get the hell out of that spot. An instant later, a lightning blast went flying through the air, as Juice very clearly targeted the spot he thought I was going to be in. But I had thrown myself backwards rather than straight up, anticipating something like that.

Thankfully, he didn’t have time to follow up with that, because Caishen had recovered from her own surprise, and lashed out with a punch at his back. She must have used her power to magnify the ‘value’ of that blow, because even with his incredible strength, it still knocked him down. The man caught himself on his hands and knees before his leg snapped out into a kick. Caishen managed to pivot out of the way just as Ephemera produced a shotgun and unloaded both barrels into the man’s face. I had no idea what the thing was loaded with, but it was enough to make his head snap back with a bellow of pain.

Leaving them to that, I activated a series of green interlocked circles on myself and Alloy, as both of us went sprinting toward Janus together. On the way, I saw Devil’s Due trying to pick himself up, so I activated the black-painted band-aid on his neck just to make sure he couldn’t fuck us over any time soon. Then I took a quick glance over my shoulder at an area behind us to judge my aim before sending a shot of red that way. That done, I gave a sharp whistle toward Janus themselves ahead of me. “Hey I’m pretty sure if you wanted a job here, you could’ve just dropped off an application! Or two? Whatever, the enthusiasm is good but coming in with all your friends for moral support is just gonna make you look immature and needy. It does not look good to a hiring manager.” 

They took the bait. An instant later, there was a fist the size of my entire bed flying at both of us. Alloy went high, having her marble suit lift her into the air, while I dove into a low slide as though I was heading for homebase. On the way, I hit the massive fist with two shots of paint. One was green and the other red, with the former fed into the latter for speed. I activated all of them, including the red paint I had sent over my shoulder a few seconds earlier. Janus was taken by surprise as their fist flew much faster than they expected, stopping them from adjusting their aim as I went sliding under the extended limb. “Hey, hey,” I shouted, “I know you need support, but no hugs!” 

Meanwhile, their fist was pulled by the red paint, extending outward faster than they could recover and stop themselves until it slammed into the backs of Two-Step and Last Word. Both men were knocked to the floor. Not down and out, unfortunately, since the former had managed to notice the incoming fist soon enough to throw up one of his ghost-like copies to absorb some of the impact, and the latter was using some sort of power that enhanced his strength. Still, they were down for the moment. More importantly, Alloy and I weren’t. That was always a positive thing.

Of course, Janus still had an arm that wasn’t being extended out clear across the room. Which they unfortunately realized in that moment and lashed out with it at Alloy and me. At the last second, I managed to activate the orange shield pictures I’d painted across both of our backs. But we still took that suddenly-massive arm head-on, knocking the other girl out of the air before we both went tumbling across the floor together. 

Grabbing my partner, I rolled myself on top of her before slumping down with a pained, incredibly dazed and barely coherent, “Don’t… can’t…” 

I could almost see the smirk on Mister Harmful’s face as he brought his sedan-sized fist down toward us, attempting to squash Alloy and me like a couple bugs. His fist hit us… and then bounced off as Janus recoiled from the force of the blow that had just hit them. Or rather, that they had just hit themselves with. When I rolled on top of Alloy, I had activated a second set of orange paint, this one mixed with blue. Not only was I protected from the worst of the damage (though it still felt like getting slugged in the back so definitely not fun), but a portion of that damage was reflected back onto its source. Janus, in this case. They staggered with a surprised and clearly confused yelp, before abruptly cursing several more times in quick succession as a series of zapping sounds filled the air, like insects repeatedly hitting one of those bug killing electrical light things. 

Yeah, that definitely wasn’t me, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t Alloy either. Both of us rolled away from each other, looking up in time to see Skip holding some sort of fancy-looking baton. She kept appearing all around Janus, taking advantage of the opening we’d given her to repeatedly hit them with that weapon. With each blow, a jolt of electricity was sent into the men, apparently strong enough to hurt even them. They kept trying to grab her, but she was constantly disappearing and reappearing in a different spot. It looked like she had run in a circle around the joined men and was now simply ‘skipping’ back and forth through that circle, wherever their hands weren’t. Every time their limbs started to grow, she smacked them with that baton and interrupted their focus. And yeah, they were clearly getting pretty pissed off about that. 

Finally, the men both let out a pair of enraged screams, and suddenly grew much fatter. That was the only way I could describe it. Their torso became three or four times as wide as it had been. I’d had no idea they could even do that. I thought they were limited to increasing the size of their limbs. But either way, it was enough to catch Skip and knock her to the floor. While she was briefly dazed, they stomped down toward her. But Alloy was faster, having already sent one of her marbles that way, transforming it into a stretcher-shape just in time to scoop the other girl up and pull her aside before the foot slammed down into that spot. 

Alloy and I managed to jump to our feet, even as the marble stretcher dropped Skip off right beside us. By that point, the massive form of Janus had turned to face our direction, bringing both hands up. But even as we started to brace ourselves, another voice filled the air. “It’s scrubbed, go!” The voice came from that second vault, where the mostly-naked red metallic skinned T-1000 woman was. But it wasn’t coming from her. Or rather, it was, but not from her mouth and not in her voice. A new face, one that looked an awful lot like Theory if he was made of red metal, had appeared on her stomach. Which absolutely was weird as fuck. As was the fact that he was speaking through that face. It was his voice and his orders, somehow projected onto a re-creation of his face on her own metal skin? Yeah, I was both horrified and confused. 

But whatever that whole thing was, it made all the bad guys in the room immediately stop fighting. Instead, they abandoned their opponents, including Janus, both of whom took turns giving Skip, Alloy, and me one last glare before they took off at a quick run. Before the rest of us could react, another surprising thing happened. Namely, that metal chick jumped up, bounced off Two-Step’s raised and cupped hands, then off the hands of his ghostly duplicate who appeared in the air slightly above him, before flipping over in the air to dive right toward the floor, like she was going into a pool of water. But instead, she became the pool. As her body impacted, it spread out into a fifteen-foot-wide liquid metal thing. 

Then it got even weirder, as all the bad guys proceeded to jump into her. They jumped into that metal… puddle, vanishing from sight. I was honestly so surprised by what we were seeing that it took me a moment to even realize that we should probably be trying to stop them. And I was pretty sure the others were in the same boat. By the time we all started moving, there was no one left aside from Juice. And he proceeded to unleash a massive blast of lightning throughout the room. It wasn’t targeting anybody, it was just meant to slow us down, essentially a dome of electricity that made most of us hit the dirt. Then he jumped into the metal puddle, leaving the transformed woman alone. Except not, because the second he was through, the puddle seeped into the floor and vanished. They were… gone? 

“Holy shit, did we win?” Alloy, standing beside me, managed. 

“Not completely.” That was Linesight, shaking his head as he emerged from the vault where they had been fighting. “Several of their people managed to grab a few of our secure cases from a couple of our vaults. That’s why they brought the big guns in here, to force us to focus our response on their Touched while the Prev troops grabbed whatever they could.” 

Ephemera, currently in the form of a male who appeared to be in his early twenties, insisted, “Dude, it would’ve been a hell of a lot worse without these guys.” They gestured toward Alloy and me. “Getting rid of Praxis before she could do much damage with those laser-hands? That was pretty dope.”

“Indeed,” Caishen agreed. “Forcing those two to waste their time with that power. Even if they had come up with a way to return, it would require abandoning the power they had just created, finding a new one that would work, and then arriving back here while only having a short time left with the transportation gift before they would be forced to switch back into Theory so he could craft a new power for his partner.” 

“And while they did that, they’d be vulnerable in here again,” I confirmed. “Yeah, that’s basically what we were thinking. Or rather…” Wincing just a little, I amended, “what your daughter thought?” 

“Hi, Mama!” Sure enough, that was Lightning Bug herself. She and Trevithick emerged together from the elevator shaft and waved while everyone looked that way. Caishen gave a startled gasp, staring at her daughter in surprise for a moment before quickly moving that way. She scooped the girl off the ground, blurting, “That was your escape teleport badge! Why are you still here? I told you to get out of the building, Bug.” 

Clinging to her mother, the little girl shook her head. “I couldna just leave you! They were bad guys. What if you needed help?” 

For a moment, it looked like Caishen was going to say something about that. But in the end, she just exhaled. “We’ll talk about this later, and I promise it’s going to be a long one.” Holding her daughter close, she turned to the rest of her people. “Do an assessment, find out what they got away with. And get our internal communications back up so we can call security to do a full sweep of the building to make sure they’re all either gone or secure. Bring medical down for whoever needs it.” Her gaze turned to us then before she nodded to the elevator. “Let’s go talk while I check in with my people.”

Skip accompanied us as well, as we all went that way. The elevator arrived a moment later, clearly summoned by Caishen somehow. A control on her costume maybe? Whatever it was, Alloy, Trevithick, Caishen with Lightning Bug in her arms, Skip, and I filed onto the thing. 

As the doors shut behind us, Caishen turned our way. “First things first. You’re the Tech-Touched who’s been helping Paintball here. I saw you in the footage from that zombie fight. Trevithick, right? After the inventor of the steam locomotive.” 

Clearly surprised that the woman recognized the reference, Wren gaped at her for a second before giving a hurried nod. “Uh huh, uh huh! Practically nobody ever knows who that is!” 

“I get paid to know things,” Caishen informed her, sounding more than a little tired. Which was fair, considering everything that had just been going on. Then she turned her attention to me. “Second of all, thank you–all of you–for your help back there.” 

“We didn’t stop them completely,” Alloy muttered darkly, folding her arms over her chest while giving a heavy sigh. “They still got away with important stuff from your vaults.” 

“Far less than they would have,” Skip, her even tone betraying no more emotion (good or bad) than ever, noted. “And with less damage being done to our people.” 

Caishen nodded. “My sister is absolutely correct. If you hadn’t shown up when you did, and managed to remove one of their biggest threats from the fight, I’m afraid they would have been able to escape with far more than they actually managed. This might not have been a complete failure for them, but nor was it the level of success they were looking for, especially considering how much effort they put into it. Besides, something tells me that your group is the reason we were given any warning about the invasion at all. So we owe you a debt of gratitude for that as well. Which, I suppose, helps make up for the fact that you did not insist that my daughter use her escape badge while she had the chance.” 

Wincing a little, I offered a weak, “I mean, if it helps, they were supposed to fly up the elevator shaft and hide as high as they could. It umm, it wasn’t as good as teleporting out of the building, but when she said it could work to get Praxis out of there…” I sighed. “I’m really sorry that we didn’t just make her teleport out of here. It was–it was the heat of the moment, I saw an opportunity to get one of the biggest threats out of there, and I thought she’d be safe in the elevator shaft since we were gonna be dealing with the bad guys anyway. But something still could’ve happened. She still could’ve been hurt, and if she was, that… that would’ve been on me.” 

“On us,” Alloy put in quickly. “We both made the call. We–we’re sorry.” 

“Hey.” Caishen shook her head, considering her next words briefly while the elevator doors opened to reveal a bunch of Ten Towers people running around. One approached, but she held her hand up to stop him, addressing us a bit more. “I understand why you made the decision you did. I just needed to be certain that you understood the possible ramifications and that you didn’t make it lightly. Whether it was my daughter, or any other vulnerable person, what matters in that sort of situation is making certain they’re all as safe as possible. You did what you could and you made what you believed to be the best decision in the moment. Thank you again for everything you did. I know it’s not always easy to make perfect decisions every time, believe me. You’re still learning, and you’re doing the best you can. In my book, for the record, you’re doing pretty well.” 

Having said all that, she paused briefly before adding, “But if anything had happened to my daughter, we would be having a very different conversation right now. Just keep that in mind.” 

We promised we would, and then she checked in with her people. While the woman was doing that, I grabbed my phone to do the same with ours. Paige picked up on the first ring. “The courthouse is all good,” she immediately announced. “The Stars and cops managed to breach the place and deal with everyone we didn’t. What’s going on with you?” 

“They all retreated,” I explained. “We can get into the details later. What about Fogwalker?” 

“He bounced,” the other girl informed me. “But we caught a few of their people. Maybe the Stars will be able to get some answers out of them. Like the location of their base.” Even as she said that, the girl’s tone made it clear she didn’t believe it. Of course not, the Ministry wouldn’t let something like that happen to a group they had only just allowed to come into their city. How would they ever make all the money they needed in that case?

“Here’s hoping,” I agreed. “Can you guys get up to the judge’s office so Trevithick can let you through to join us over here? I mean, I don’t know how hard it’s going to be to slip past the–” 

The other girl interrupted me with a chuckle. “Look up.” 

Blinking in confusion, I tilted my head that way, only to see Poise, Style, Calvin, and Hobbes leaning over the railing of one of the open balcony areas that overlooked this lobby area from several floors above us, waving down. Paige spoke into the phone she was holding. “Once we knew there was a door there, it wasn’t hard to get it open. We were going to help, but it sounds like you’ve got everything under control here.” 

“Oh you know, we’re doing our best,” I replied with a vague gesture. “Come on down, join the party.” 

By that point, Caishen had come back. She looked up to see where the rest of us were staring, before shaking her head. “Clearly, we need to do something about Switchshift’s door. And several other things. But yes, do please bring your full team together. We owe all of you a great deal of gratitude for your help. And yet, I’m very sorry to say, the form that gratitude is going to take at the moment is a series of meetings for you to explain everything you know. Very long, excruciatingly boring meetings.” 

“I knew it,” I managed to get out while Alloy groaned beside me. “You really are pissed about Bug’s teleportation badge.

“We should’ve let Mister Harmful smash us.” 

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Center Of Attention 26-11 (Summus Proelium)

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So, following the directions of our new security buddy, Alloy, Trevithick, and I made our way through the building toward the vault area that the bad guys were apparently trying so intently to break into. We ran into a few other scattered groups of security people, but they recognized us and didn’t open fire despite a close call or two. When we told them where we were going, they even helpfully pointed the right way. Unfortunately, none of them could come with us, because they were too busy trying to keep the rest of the building as safe as possible. 

Yeah, this gang really knew what they were doing when they came in. They had scattered just enough of their heavily armed troops away to various corners of the building to put people in danger so Ten Towers couldn’t focus their entire response on the vaults. Between that and the fact that they had locked down the building so no one outside could get in, and terminated communications, it was obvious that they had come in with a plan.  

To be honest, part of me was wondering how much of what they knew was thanks to my family. Did the Ministry give them all the information about how the security in here worked, the codes to get through, the fact that they could get everything they needed about the courthouse Switchshift door from San’s dad? They had to be at least partially responsible, right? Which would mean they wanted these guys to be able to get in here and take these weapons. Why? 

Not for the first and certainly not the last time, I wished I could just ask my parents what the hell they were thinking. Instead, I shook off those thoughts as the three of us approached the elevator that was supposed to lead down to the vault. It was locked down, of course. And according to the guy we had talked to upstairs, it would take hours to drill through the metal this thing was made of. But thankfully, we didn’t have to worry about that. Really, all I had to worry about was getting billed for damages over what I was about to do, but how much could that possibly cost? 

Besides, if this worked, they would totally owe us. They could deal with replacing part of their elevator door, no matter what it was made out of. 

As we approached the huge freight style elevator with the security doors, I shot a spray of pink paint over it in a circle before adding black paint around it to silence the metal. Then Alloy turned one of her marbles into a battering ram, and it slammed into the pink paint with enough force to knock the circle out, manifesting claws to grab onto the pink-covered metal before it could fall into the elevator shaft and loudly announce our presence. 

That left a hole wide enough for each of us to dive through one at a time, which we did without hesitation. Now we were in the elevator shaft, and I used a shot of black and red paint from each hand to pull myself over to the far wall, where I stuck with my boots. Alloy landed on her own marble battering ram, turning it into a platform (which was still holding onto the pink metal from the door). Trevithick, of course, hovered on her boots. They weren’t as quick or maneuverable as her wings, but they still allowed her to stay off the ground.

The three of us looked at each other, then turned our attention downwards through the shaft to the next floor below. We could hear fighting going on, gunshots, shouting, that sort of thing. We were definitely in the right place. Which was good, considering how little time we undoubtedly had. If we’d gotten turned around and ended up breaking through some other elevator so we had to circle back again, I had a feeling we would’ve been too late. 

But we hadn’t gotten turned around. We were here. So, together, we quietly made our way down to that lower level. The doors here were just as reinforced as the ones above, if not more so. But that wouldn’t matter any more than those others had. What really mattered was that we had to get out there and hit the Trendscendent Touched before they noticed our arrival. We had to take them by surprise if we were going to actually end up helping rather than hindering. There were only two of us who could actually fight, because there was absolutely no way in hell I was going to let Trevithick get anywhere near actual danger. To do this right, we had to take full advantage of the fact that Trendscendents had no idea we were here. 

To that end, I had already covered the three of us with as much paint as I could on our way down here. Alloy simply moved parts of her armor out of the way a bit at a time so I could paint underneath the marble. Even though it would be covered by her marbles, I could still activate it with a glance as long as I knew exactly where it was and could picture the paint in my head. 

Trevithick, again, was absolutely not going into combat. She was here to help from the sidelines. Even so, I still gave her all the paint I could, just in case. If something bad happened, I wanted her to have protection. Between that and the gun she’d had Fred send over in case of an emergency, hopefully she’d be okay as long as she stayed out of sight.  

Now we were as ready as we were going to be. We just had to be careful about exactly when we showed ourselves. So, I made another pink circle on this lower door, but this time I made it smaller, and down near the bottom so I had to crouch to be in front of it. From there, I gave myself a bit of a purple boost by activating the hummingbird image on my left shoulder (replacing it with one facing the other direction) before giving that bit of pink a poke. 

It popped out, falling to the floor on the other side. Thankfully, it was small enough that the people over there didn’t hear anything over the sound of gunfire and all that. Which left a small hole. Too small, in fact, for me to get my helmet close enough to peer through. Even then I wouldn’t have been able to see everything on the other side. 

On the other hand, it was not too small for Trevithick to send her bee drone through. Which she did, before flying it into the air to give us a decent view of what was on the other side through the screen on her phone.

The room immediately visible on the other side of those doors through the drone’s camera was a wide open circular area about a hundred feet across with a single desk in the middle where someone was supposed to sit, be it a security guard, receptionist, assistant, or whatever. There were three vault doors around the circular wall, one directly across from the elevator we were in and the other two spaced to either side. All three of those doors were open, but that didn’t mean the bad guys already had the loot. Because through each of those doors was another open area similar to the first one, with another desk and a single vault door behind it. Those were the doors that led into the secure storage areas. The Trendscendents were going to have to break through those second doors to get what they wanted. And that was what Caishen and her people were here to stop them from doing. 

There were at least a couple dozen armed Prev troops in that first room alone. Their gang had managed to completely take over that area. Unfortunately, that meant Caishen’s people were cut off from each other within whichever of the vaults they had each managed to retreat to. There was no way to go from one vault to the other without going through that first area. 

It took a moment to figure out who was where, even with the drone’s help as it flew around to get a better look at things. Finally, we had it. Caishen, three security guards, and Ephemera were in the vault to the left, fending off Juice, Two-Step, Last Word, and a handful of their guys who weren’t part of the two dozen who were busy keeping that first room locked down. The second room was being assaulted by some three-quarters naked woman with metallic-red skin and blue hair, wearing only a bikini top and bottom along with a metal mask over her face with eye holes in it. The T-1000-like woman, I was going to guess. She was accompanied by another group of the Trendscendant Prev gang members, along with Theory (taking cover while clearly planning out what power to give Praxis next), and Devil’s Due, who was being protected by one of Ten Towers’ own security people. He must have used his power on the guy. Another four Ten Towers people were protecting the vault from them, along with Stick, Bunglebotch, and Linesight. That last one was the one who seemed to be doing the most work in keeping these guys away from the vault, considering his ability to mark four different spots so that if anyone looked at them, a blast of concussive force would hurl them away. 

Finally, the third vault was being protected by Skip, another few troops, and a guy I didn’t recognize. Either he was a brand new Touched, or (far more likely) a transfer from one of Ten Towers’ organizations in another city. Or maybe a recent graduate from a Minority program somewhere else? Either way, yeah, he was clearly Touched, considering the dark green, metallic armor he wore along with a helmet with a black visor. In one hand the man held what looked like a billy club that was the same color as his armor. 

Janus were the ones assaulting that vault. They were accompanied by more of their troops, but really, they were the biggest threat. They had already used one massive hand to smack several of the security guards hard enough into the wall that they wouldn’t be getting up again anytime soon. And their other hand, grown to the size of a small car, slammed down against the floor right where Skip had been a second earlier. If she had been an instant slower in teleporting a few feet away, she would’ve been squished. 

The Prevs tried to open fire on her just as she appeared in that new spot. Not that it would have done much, but maybe they hoped she was too distracted to skip the effect. Either way, they didn’t get a chance to shoot. That guy I didn’t recognize extended his billy club. He was still a good fifteen feet away from them, but the weapon extended that far. What’s more, it sliced right through the guns to cut them in half. Yeah, the club looked like a blunt instrument without a single edge on it, and yet it still cut through the very metallic guns as if they were made of butter. I was confused, but now really wasn’t the time to think about it. We had to help them, as well as everyone else in there. Caishen’s people were doing their best to hold off the assault, but something told me that wouldn’t last forever. Especially with Theory clearly about to give Praxis what had to be one doozy of a power considering how long it looked like he had been ‘planning.’ 

“We’ve gotta help them,” Alloy whispered. Obviously, with the fighting that was going on in there, we could have screamed at the top of our lungs, and probably not revealed ourselves, but it wasn’t worth the risk.

My head bobbed quickly. “Right, but we need a plan first. Can we contain Theory somehow?” Even as the words came out of my mouth, I was grimacing before answering my own question. “No, because he can just shift over to Praxis. Even without counting any powers he could give her, they can appear in different places. If we trap Theory in one of your marble boxes, he’ll just make Praxis appear outside it.” 

“I’m not sure how we can trap them,” Alloy admitted, “but I do have another idea for you.” She made part of her armor slide out of the way so she could dig into her pocket before coming out with a handful of coins. 

“Uh, loose change?” I blinked at that. “Sorry, I’m not sure how that’s supposed to help.” 

So, she told me. And it was a pretty good idea. I was still taking that in, holding the coins she had handed me before a sudden, unexpected new voice spoke up from just over our heads. “Hi!” It was still a whisper, but a happy one. 

Yeah, we jerked in surprise. Falling onto my butt, I looked that way to see none other than Lightning Bug. She was hovering upside down with her wings right there in the elevator shaft above us, staring down with those large, bright blue compound eyes. 

“Bug?!” I found myself blurting, staring that way. “What’re you doing here?” 

Landing next to us, the tiny red-skinned girl hurriedly replied, “I was with my mama when the bad guys broke in, so she told me to hide. Well, she told me to get away, but I hid in here instead. Then you guys came. Are you gonna help Mama and Aunt Skip?” She sounded hopeful, looking back and forth between us eagerly.

“Yeah, that’s why we’re here,” I confirmed. “But you should still stay here with Trevithick. You guys keep an eye on what’s going on with her bee-drone.” 

“Bee drone?” Bug was suddenly interested. “Like Kenobee? He’s locked up in a safety vault with my other friends.” 

“We’ll show you later,” I promised. “But here, sit down right next to Trevithick where it’s safe. Alloy and me’ll go out there and help your mom and the others.” Even as I said that, my eyes were glancing toward the screen itself to check on what was going on. Everything was pretty much the same, as they continued to fight to a standstill. But Theory still hadn’t brought out Praxis. And the longer that took, the more worried I was about what sort of powers she was going to appear with. We had to get in there and help deal with these guys before this whole thing escalated completely out of control. 

Unfortunately, we still had no idea how to lock Theory and Praxis down, but hopefully if we helped deal with the others, something would present itself. There was no more time to talk about it or plan. Not if we didn’t want to be fighting these guys all by ourselves after they beat the Ten Towers people. 

If. If they beat the Ten Towers people, of course. But that wasn’t worth the risk. Better to assume the worst would happen and jump in now. 

“Mr. Ball?” Lightning Bug spoke up hesitantly, raising a hand. “I uh, I heard what you were saying about trapping the bad guy. And um, I think I can help you help Mama.” 

That made me blink a couple times at the tiny five-year-old. But what the hell? It wasn’t as though we were drowning in ideas. With that in mind, I heard her out. She explained it in just a few seconds, and she was right, it could work. We were just going to have to be quick about it. 

So, I double-checked the paint we had to make sure we were covered before Alloy and I went on either side of the elevator doors. I painted them pink with black along the sides to keep it quiet. Then I added a shot of black to the battering ram the other girl created, just in case. We had to take these guys by surprise before they had any warning that we were there. The two of us looked at each other, nodded, then went for it. Alloy made her battering ram marble slam into the pink doors, knocking a hole through them, which the two of us dove through together. 

Even as we dove into the room, I activated the green wings on both of our backs to speed us up. At the same time, I reared back before hurling the handful of coins right at the assembled Prev troops who stood with their backs to us, focused entirely on the vaults. The coins were all painted a mix of blue and green, thanks to Alloy’s suggestion. Just as they were being flung through the air, I focused on that paint and activated it at the very instant that the coins started hitting the bad guys. Sure enough, the coins did their jobs, sending the armed Prev troops flying. Two of them were flung to the ground by the force of the blue painted coins hitting their backs, one was hurled sideways into the desk, three more went forward a dozen feet before crashing to the ground, and so on. The green paint fed into the blue made them expend their entire charge in that single second, making it strong enough to throw these guys around just by being hit by a few coins. 

It was fun, to say the least. And something I was going to have to play around with later. But for now, my eyes were laser-focused on Theory. He had noticed us by that point, even as Alloy went flying past me on her marble-board to slam into Devil’s Due with enough force that he wouldn’t be trying to say anything anytime soon. And just in case that wasn’t enough, as he was falling, she slapped a band-aid against the back of his neck. A band-aid that I had painted black and would activate the instant it looked like he was going to try to say anything. 

In that same instant, Theory disappeared, replaced by Praxis. She stood there with a raised hand pointed my way. Of course I had no intention of waiting around to see what she could do now, so I used blue paint on my shoes to fling myself upward just as a blast of some sort of laser erupted from her extended hand and tore a hole through the nearby wall. These guys weren’t playing around. Considering how easily that laser punched through the vault wall, it easily could’ve killed me. But I didn’t have time to panic about that. Instead, I hit the woman with red paint, just a quick little shot. She, in turn, sent a second powerful laser beam into the air from her other hand. The beams weren’t ending either. They were a continuous blast, cutting through the walls all around me. She was trying to pen me in, trap me between both beams. Fortunately, I had already managed to hit her with the red paint. Which was phase one of the plan. Phase two came a second later, as I dropped back toward the ground while holding up what looked like a tiny metallic badge just a couple inches across. It already had red paint on it, which I activated to send the thing flying toward the red paint on Praxis’s shoulder. 

The woman was so focused on lasering me to death, she didn’t notice the thing until it smacked into her. And by then, it was too late. For her, anyway. Her eyes looked down in confusion at the badge (it said Ten Towers VIB, for Very Important Bug, on the front) while she brought the twin laser beams from each hand closer and closer to my falling form. 

I could feel the laser beams practically cooking me in my costume, closing in from either side. Just as I hit the floor, however, the beams vanished. As did Praxis herself. That was Lightning Bug’s idea. She had that badge which, when activated, would teleport the person who was wearing it (supposedly Bug herself) to any of a dozen safe locations, including outside of the city. It was a single-use sort of thing, only for dire emergencies. Her mother intended for her to use it to get out of the building, but she hid in the elevator shaft instead. 

All of which meant that Praxis was transported away from the building, to the parking lot of a Ten Towers facility in Grand Rapids, which was over a hundred and fifty miles away. That would keep her from getting back here anytime soon, and effectively removed both her and Theory as a threat. 

Unfortunately, Lightning Bug didn’t have any more badges like that. It was rare and incredibly expensive. Another thing for Ten Towers to add to my tab. Which meant that we were going to have to help Caishen and her people deal with the rest of these guys the hard way. 

And judging from the pissed off looks I was getting at that moment, as the Trendscendents realized what I had just done, the hard way was about to be very violent.

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Center Of Attention 26-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Wait… that’s what these guys were really up to? Under this whole cover about being here to get their people out of custody, they were actually looking for this apparent back door to transport directly to Ten Towers so they could steal shit? Switchshift was the Tech-Touched who created things like the connected rooms that allowed the Minority to reach their secret headquarters from multiple doors all across the city (which I had only recently learned about from Izzy). So it made sense that he would have other things like that. Which, in this case, apparently included a door from the courthouse to a sensitive area of Ten Towers.

While the others were reacting to that, I quickly called Way back. As soon as she answered, I gave her a rushed explanation of what we had just heard, and told her to warn Caishen and her people. And that she should get someone who could find the Cavers family to make sure they were okay. I was still worried about San Francisco and his parents considering these guys had apparently extracted information about this Switchshift door from them, but there wasn’t enough time to focus on that. Way promised to do all that immediately before signing off. 

With that done, I made another quick call. This one was to Fred back at the store. Needless to say, he was a bit… worried about everything that was happening. Especially when it came to Wren. But I promised him we were looking after her, and that we could do that even better if he did something for us. Namely, taking Roald and Murphy’s Tech-Touched guns as well as one of the prototype versions Wren had been working on, and putting them in the special bag where my clothes currently were. The one I’d left at the store that was linked to the one in my pocket. After a quick back and forth, he did just that. 

So now Calvin and Hobbes had their weapons, which was useful. And we had the prototype. Which, in this case, was essentially a long, wand-like cylinder with a couple buttons on it. It could pick things up and move them around with a beam of energy. Or, in this case, hold them in place. Yeah, we set it up to help hold Banneret so Alloy could have her marble back, since it seemed like she’d need it. We’d have to leave the prototype in this room so it could continue projecting the energy beam that held Banneret off the floor and stopped her from touching anything, but like most of Wren’s equipment, any unauthorized person touching it for too long would make the thing melt into goo anyway. So we weren’t worried about someone taking it. 

With Calvin and Hobbes sufficiently armed and Alloy reunited with her marble, my mouth opened to say something to the others, but before I could, Wren raised a hand and pointed at her screen. “Wait, wait, look!”  

So we looked. Theory was on a video call on his phone, holding it out in front of himself. From that position, our bee-drone could see the screen. It was a view of the courtroom where the hostages were waiting. Fogwalker was perched on top of the judge’s podium, desk, or whatever it was called. Apparently one of their people was holding a phone up for him to talk to his partner with. Which he did in a low, snarling voice. “We’re getting a bit anxious down here, Genius-boy. Are we ready to go or what?” 

Theory nodded. “Yeah, bring ‘em all up. Whoever’s left at Towers once this goes down gets to decide how many hostage deaths they wanna be responsible for.”

With that, he disconnected before picking up his radio, sending a message to Banneret for her to ‘do the thing.’ Without waiting for a response, he stood, waving for the line of Prev troops who had been waiting for his go ahead to start moving through the special door he had unlocked. The invasion of Ten Towers was underway. Worse, they were apparently going to be bringing those hostages in there with them to use against the security forces there. 

I froze for a moment, my panicked mind seizing up. What were we supposed to do now? What–how–the hostages. We had to focus on the hostages. If they took those people into Ten Towers, that whole situation was going to be a hell of a lot worse. 

“Pack and the others?” I blurted, even as I started to move toward the stairs. The others were right behind me. 

“No sign of them,” Sierra replied. “Not since that first bit when they were heading into the records room. You want someone to go down there and check on them?” 

My head shook, sprinting up the stairs two at a time. “No, leave it, we’ve gotta get those hostages. No more playing around.” Maybe the authorities would end up being upset about us, leaving the basement and interfering, but I really didn’t care at that moment. Not when those guys were about to start dragging innocent people into the middle of a fight to use as human shields. 

“Paintball,” Paige interrupted my thoughts, “you and Alloy should go help Ten Towers.” When I turned that way in mid-step to argue, she insisted. “It’s Fogwalker and some guys with guns. The rest of us can handle that. Trust me–trust us. We’ve got it, Paintball. But Ten Towers is about to be under threat from the inside where they’re not expecting it. You know how dangerous people like Juice and Janus are. That’s where Lightning Bug lives. Even with That-A-Way warning them, it might not be enough. We need to split our attention.” 

“I’ll go too!” That was Wren, hovering up ahead of us along the stairs with her special boots. “I can help, I promise!” 

Part of me wanted to argue even more, but there wasn’t time. And Paige was right anyway. They could handle the hostage situation. The real threat was the rest of the Fell-Touched and their army heading into the middle of Ten Towers. We had to get over there and help. 

So, reaching the top of the stairs and emerging into the courthouse proper, we split up. Poise, Style, Calvin, and Hobbes sprinted toward the lobby. I could hear the guards there react, but they wouldn’t be enough to stop Paige and the others. 

Meanwhile, Trevithick, Alloy, and I looked toward the ceiling together. Reaching out, I sent a wide shot of pink paint that way, before all three of us were lifted up on a platform one of Alloy’s marbles turned into. Reaching the pink-paint, I activated it, then used a bit of purple strength to tear through quickly. Soon, we were moving through the ceiling and into the upper floor. It was one of the other judge’s private quarters, not the one we needed. But we were getting closer. A quick glance toward Wren’s phone as she held it up revealed that there was still a line of Prev troops heading through the doorway. And all of them were heavily armed. They had come loaded for what looked like a full scale war. Worse, Janus, Juice, and Devil’s Due were heading through as well. Whatever the situation on the other side of that door was right then, I doubted ‘pleasant’ was anywhere near the list of adjectives. Yeah, assuming the others stopped Fogwalker and his group they at least wouldn’t have a bunch of hostages to use, but still. We had to get in there and help.

Thankfully, with my paint, we could get there quickly. We didn’t bother trying to go through the hallways or anything like that. We just picked the right direction and used pink paint to go through the walls, racing from room to room like that, one after another. Maybe the authorities would complain about that, too, but we’d worry about it later. Right now, all that mattered was getting there before this whole situation became completely unsalvageable. 

And as we were going, I sent a quick text to Way to let her know what was going on and what we were doing. Then I put the phone away just as we went through the last wall. There were only a couple more guys left, including one standing next to the computer. As soon as he saw the three of us Kool-Aid Man our way into the room, he lunged for the keyboard, apparently intent on closing the doorway. Fortunately, Alloy was faster, sending a fist-shaped marble to slam into the man and knock him to the floor. 

The other guy took one look at us before turning to dive through that doorway in order to warn the rest. But I was faster too, sending a shot of red paint that hit his back and yanked him away from it to crash into the wall next to me where I had sent a second shot of paint.

“Hey, hope we didn’t miss the party!” I blurted. “We would’ve RSVP’d, but I’m pretty sure crashing is fashionable these days.” 

Without wasting another second, Alloy and I both grabbed handcuffs that the men themselves had on their belts, and secured them to a metal pole along the wall. Doing that plus grabbing the keys from their pockets and their guns before tossing the latter out of the way took precious seconds, but we didn’t want them coming after us. 

Finally, we exchanged quick looks between ourselves and Wren, nodded to one another, and went straight for the special doorway. I just hoped that we could handle whatever was on the other side, and that Paige and the others were doing okay with their part of this whole thing. But hey, at least I had a team to worry about now. 

I had absolutely no idea what I would’ve done if I was by myself right then. 

Alloy and I went first, passing through the doorway together before emerging into what looked like another office similar to the one we had just left. Which made sense, I supposed. If the judge guy was working both at the courthouse and here in Ten Towers, he’d probably need a similar space. 

Whatever the specific reasoning, we came out on the far side of the room from the doorway leading into the building proper. I could hear a bunch of alarms going off already, and there were several of the armed gang troops in front of us, facing the exit as they fired a few shots out into the hallway. Apparently they were in the middle of an ongoing fight. From that quick glance, I didn’t see any of the Fell-Touched, just these few guys. They had probably been left behind to guard this exit or something. 

One of the guys noticed our presence behind them and turned to look. Before he could shout, I hit him with black paint to mute the man. At the same time, the two of us leapt that way. He and his partners went down quickly, the others never knowing what hit them until they were on the ground. They struggled, obviously, but Alloy kept them in place with one of her marbles shaped like a long metal band, trapping the three against the floor while we took their weapons away. 

Trevithick appeared through the doorway a moment later, and I held up a hand for her to wait there before looking toward the opposite exit. The Ten Towers guards were still out there, and I didn’t trust them not to open fire the second they saw movement. 

I could have protected myself with orange paint, but instead, I pointed my hand and shot a bit of red paint out into the hallway beyond. Not to pull anything, in this case. Instead, I painted words on the floor in as large of letters as I could manage, reading, ‘Paintball Here. Bad Guys Down. Don’t Shoot.’ 

Was it weird that I was able to paint that in perfectly legible script while shooting a stream of paint out of a doorway to write it essentially upside down and sideways from my perspective? 

After doing that, I glanced toward Wren. She had the laptop from the judge’s office. As I looked at her, she gave me a thumbs up before hitting a couple keys on it. Immediately, the door behind her closed and I heard it lock. “Now nobody else can come through! Unless Poise and the others wanna come, then I can unlock it again!” 

Giving her a thumbs up, I turned back to the other doorway, just as a shout filled the air. “This is Towers Security! If you’re really there, Paintball, show yourself and prove it!” 

It could have been a trick, or something, of course. But something told me it wasn’t. Theory and the others were here for a reason and it wasn’t to hang out around this room. They’d probably taken off running for their target as soon as they came through. Still, I gave myself some orange paint for protection before carefully stepping out. I had my hands raised as I looked around. 

It was, obviously, the middle of an office building. This particular room was in the corner, with a wide corridor extending in both directions away from it, leading to (presumably) more offices. A dozen or so armed and uniformed security guards were using those other doorways for cover as they kept their weapons raised and pointed at me. 

“Prove you are who you say!” the man who was apparently in charge called. “And tell us what the hell is going on!” 

Right, that was fair. Carefully, moving my hands to either side, I shot paint at the walls. Then I put a big blue smiley face in the middle of my chest. Once they had a chance to see that much, I spoke up again. “Those guys attacked the courthouse. But it was a trick. They just wanted to use Switchshift’s door back in that office over there to come through and attack this place. The rest of my team and I were there to make some reports and got caught up in this whole thing. We heard what they were doing over here, so a few of us came to help.” As I said that, I gestured for the other two to come out. Soon, Trevithick and Alloy were on either side of me. 

Finally assured that this wasn’t some sort of trick, the security guards lowered their weapons and approached. The leader glanced into the office and saw the still-pinned guys there before ordering a couple of his guys to cuff them. Alloy promptly removed the bar so they could do that. 

“Any more trouble gonna come through there?” the leader asked, nodding toward the inner door. 

My head shook as I gestured to the laptop that Trevithick was holding up. “We’ve got the computer for that. She locked it down, but if you guys want to post guards, I think we’d understand. What’s the situation around here?” Even as those words came out, I was already bouncing up and down on my toes, looking around quickly just in case we ended up with unwanted company. There were still alarms going off, and I could hear gunshots echoing throughout the building occasionally. This whole thing wasn’t anywhere near contained yet.

The security guy exchanged a look with his companions before sighing. “All of our communications are cut off inside the building. We can’t coordinate with the rest of our teams. They shut down most of our security measures. We’re not even sure how they knew about it, let alone how to turn it off. Worse, they’ve locked down the building. No one can get in. Except through that door, apparently.” He added that bit with a nod to the room behind me. “As for the bad guys, they’re everywhere, it seems like. But the biggest force seems to be heading for our weapons vaults, where we keep all the big stuff.” His expression sobered as he met my gaze. “I don’t think I have to tell you how bad it would be if they got all that stuff. The boss and the rest of our Touched who were in the building before it got locked down are holding them off down there. Our job was to stem the tide and make sure no more reinforcements could come through. And cut off their escape from this end.” 

For a second I just took all that in. “Okay, Fogwalker’s in the other building still. Our uhh, teammates are dealing with him. And we already caught Banneret. Which means the ones attacking your vault must be Theory and Praxis, Juice, Janus, and Devil’s Due. Honestly, that last guy is probably one of the biggest threats when it comes to getting into places you don’t want him. But assuming Skip is here, she’d be immune to him, so that probably helps. I–”

“Pardon,” the security head interrupted. “That’s only four Touched. Well, four and a half. We’ve got seven in the building, at least. Two-Step and Lastword are here too, and they’ve got someone else with them. Some woman with what looks like liquid metal powers, like the T-1000 from that old Terminator movie.” 

Two-Step and Lastword? Jeez, how long had it been since I thought about them? And apparently they had more help with a third member of their little group? That made things even more complicated and difficult than they already were. I had thought that we only had the four known bad guys to deal with, which already would have been bad enough, considering how dangerous they could be. But now we had to add three more Touched into the equation. One of whom could have basically any power since Lastword’s abilities changed based on the… well, last word he spoke. And the new girl was almost a complete unknown. T-1000 powers? How far could she stretch that? What else was she capable of? We had no idea. Yeah, this just kept getting worse the more I thought about it. And we hadn’t even come here with the whole team. It was just Trevithick, Alloy, and me. 

“They hired mercenaries to help,” Alloy muttered while I was processing that. “Just great. What do we do now?”

Grimacing under the helmet and mask, I replied, “We stop them. Caishen and her people need help down there. But then again–” I winced, looking toward the security guy. “You said they’ve got more troops spread through the rest of the building?” 

“Buildings,” he corrected. “And yeah, it’s bad. But trust me, it’ll be a hell of a lot worse if they get into that vault. We can deal with the rest of it. If you can help the boss, we’d appreciate it.”

Yeah, he had a point. If all of the Fell-Touched were focused on getting into the vault, Caishen and her people wouldn’t be able to hold them off forever. We had to get down there and help, or this whole situation was going to get a hell of a lot worse. Both in the short and long term. But if something else happened while we were busy with that, or if one of those Fell-Touched managed to…

“Okay,” I finally managed, shaking off as much of the doubt and uncertainty as I could. This was what we had to deal with. There was no point in worrying or wondering about what-ifs. “Just point us in the right direction. We’ll get down there and help Caishen kick these guys out of your offices.

“But we better be invited to the next Christmas party for this.” 

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