Paintball

Project Owl 14-09 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s you!”

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Project Owl 14-08 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly what the fuck is going on?”

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Project Owl 14-07 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wouldn’t fail. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was going to shoot Paige. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, do or Paige died. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Project Owl 14-06 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Project Owl 14-05 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had to find out what her deal was. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I…” I started, then stopped. 

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

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

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

She was willing to kill herself to protect me. 

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

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

And took it off. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Project Owl 14-04 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

No. 

No, no, no, no! Fuck no. Absolutely not. I wasn’t going to let this happen. Like hell. I had spent years hating Paige Banners. Years being belittled, attacked, insulted, and demeaned by her while having no idea what the hell I had done to piss her off so much. Years spent like that, only to finally find that it wasn’t either of our faults, that she had behaved that way because of her father’s orders. Not only that, but also that we had been friends before my parents had my memory erased. Paige Banners and I had been friends. And now, now that I finally knew all that, she was going to sacrifice herself? She was going to kill herself to protect me from her dad? 

Fuck. That. 

Of course, the first thing I tried was running to the door. It was a heavy, solid metal thing that stood completely firm as I yanked at it. Naturally. Paige thought she was protecting me, so she wasn’t just going to stick me in some random broom closet with a door I could easily kick down. 

Fortunately, she didn’t know I had superpowers. So, after yanking uselessly at the door a couple times, I stopped and squinted at it. Glancing around, I saw nothing. No cameras hidden up in the corners, nothing like that. Which wasn’t perfect evidence, but I didn’t have time to worry about it. Paige was going to kill herself unless I stopped her. And I was going to stop her. 

First, I started by painting my hands and arms purple, powering that up while shoving at the door as hard as I could. Nothing. The thing didn’t budge at all. Whatever this place was originally built for, the door was meant to hold against something a lot stronger than that. 

Okay, fine. I painted my entire upper torso purple, from my neck down to my waist, front and back, arms and hands included. That time, when I slammed myself as hard as possible up against the door, I felt something. It wasn’t very much, but the damn thing did react, at least. Unfortunately, a few more hits during those ten seconds didn’t accomplish much more than that.

As my paint vanished, leaving me looking normal again, I took a breath and let it out. Then I blinked. “I’m an idiot,” I muttered. I’d been in such a rush, so blinded by my urgency to get out of here, that I had stopped thinking. Quickly, I painted a thick pink line all along the outer edge of the door, the whole way around. Making the part of the door that was actually touching the wall rubber instead of steel would make it a hell of a lot easier to break down. 

That done, I turned, walking away from the door, all the way to the far side of the room. There, I pointed, drawing a line of green paint wide enough to walk on. The second that was done, I put orange paint on my shoes and hands for protection. Then I covered every last remaining bit of myself with purple paint. Everything. From my ankles all the way up to my head. My clothes and exposed skin, including my face and hair, were all purple, aside from my orange hands and shoes. I probably looked completely ridiculous, but fuck it. I didn’t care about fashion at that moment. I didn’t care about anything except for getting the living fuck out of this goddamn room. After a brief second of thought, I added a little puddle of blue about a foot from the actual door.

Once I’d managed to set all the paint I needed, I focused on my target once more. “Okay, asshole,” I snarled at the inanimate object, “let’s see just how strong you are, huh?” With that, I took off, activating all the paint at once, aside from the blue. The green on the floor sped me up, making me cross the distance almost instantly. At the last second, strengthened and toughened by the purple and orange paints and sped up by the green, I hit the blue puddle, which launched me at the door, itself weakened by the pink paint around the edges where it was attached. A scream escaped me as I slammed myself full force into the damn thing as hard as I possibly could, protected by the orange paint while the green, purple, and blue worked together to let me hit it with a hell of a lot more force than I should’ve been able to.

Two things happened the moment I hit that pink-painted door. First, it became very clear that I hadn’t actually used enough orange paint after all. It saved me from breaking anything, at least, but it still hurt like hell. It was like… well, it was like slamming myself into a metal door. But at least I didn’t splatter myself into a gooey puddle at that speed and force like I probably should have. 

And the second thing that happened was that the door finally gave out. Yeah, it was enough. As I slammed full-tilt into the fucking thing, it burst open. No, not just open. The whole thing broke free, slamming into the opposite wall just before I slammed into it as well. With a yelp that probably sounded incredibly unsuperhero-like, I rebounded off it before landing on my backside. For a moment, I just laid there, dazed and trying to recover as I stared blankly up at the ceiling of the garage.  

Wait, garage? 

Yeah, I was definitely lying in a garage. A big one, though not quite as big as my family’s. There were fifteen cars and trucks lined up around me, as I lay between a Mercedes-Benz and a Komorebi (they were a luxury electric car company founded by a Tech-Touched in Japan about twelve years ago). A row of four-wheelers and motorcycles took up the space next to the door I’d come out of, leading to a big metal cabinet that stood open to reveal hanging jumpsuits, knee and elbow pads, helmets, and more safety equipment. Finally, there were cameras in this room, up in opposite corners. But they’d been broken, torn free of their mountings and were hanging loose by the cables that were supposed to connect them to the walls. Someone hadn’t wanted anything in here to be recorded. 

So yeah, the garage. My guess was that the room I had been locked up in had started as some kind of mechanic’s office or something at one point.  

Either way, I was out. And dazed (not to mention sore and bruised) as I was, I still remembered the whole point of why I had been so intent on getting out. Paige. Paige was going to kill herself. Well, after she killed a bunch of her father’s goons. But the point was, I had to stop her–save her–whatever, I had to make sure she didn’t fucking die! 

That thought motivated me enough to ignore the pain. I shoved myself back to my feet, scrambling a bit to grab the side of the nearby car so I could get all the way up. Garage. I was in the garage. On the far end there was the door into the main house itself, while three separate rolling-style doors lay at the opposite end from there to let the cars in and out. Beside those was another human-sized door. It was to that last one that I ran, sprinting as fast as I could. I didn’t care about anything else. Getting out of here and finding Paige was the only thing that mattered.

Getting through that door was a hell of a lot easier than the first one. I used a little bit of purple paint on my leg, and the thing broke right open as soon as I kicked it and burst through into the open air of the early evening. 

Specifically, I was in the driveway, where I could see… well, no one was here. The cars that had been lined up were all gone, and all of the lights in the nearby mansion were off. It was dark. Clearly the party was over. But it was more than that. The whole place was dead silent. Even the guard shack at the bottom of the driveway looked empty. It was like Paige had told everyone to go home. Not just her guests, but everyone. It was kind of eerie, actually. Seeing what should have been a full, bustling mansion just… empty and dark. It seemed wrong. 

Or maybe it just felt that way because I knew what the girl was planning to do, why she had sent everyone away. 

Okay, now I was out. I was free. So what the fuck was I supposed to do? How was I supposed to find Paige in order to stop her? Because it was pretty blatantly obvious that she wasn’t here.

As if in answer to that very question, a sudden burst of static from the nearby bush made me jolt, nearly jumping out of my skin. It was followed by a voice blurting, “–here anymore, just bodies!” 

After settling myself out of that particular heart attack, I realized what I was hearing. Radio. I was hearing someone speaking over a radio. Sure enough, lunging that way revealed someone lying in that bush. 

Or rather, it revealed the dead body that was lying there. One of Paige’s family’s security guards was facedown, blood pooling from a traumatic and very unsurvivable head wound. Something had hit him really hard. The voice had come from the radio that he was holding in one hand. It looked like he’d been taken completely by surprise, assaulted from behind by something. Or someone. 

He was dead. He was just… dead. Staring at the body of the man for a moment, I felt bile rise in my throat. She’d killed him. That was the only answer, right? The only thing that matched what I knew. Paige had killed him, just like she’d said she would.

Paige. The security for the Banners, they must actually work for her father. Her real father. 

Those thoughts and more rushed through my head, even as the radio crackled again with a different voice than the first one. The words were mixed with static. “–matter–get to–cover the–mainframe—Gratiot warehouse. Holed up–can’t let her—get here now.”

Gratiot. There was an old (really old) warehouse on Gratiot Avenue. That’s where these guys were being called to. I didn’t know why, or what was there that made it so important, but apparently it was where Paige was going. 

So it was also where I was going.  

But first, I pivoted back and ran into the garage once more. Worried as I was about what was going on with Paige, intent as I was that she would not kill herself, I couldn’t expose myself any more than I already had. Using my powers out in the open to get to her? No. No, that would be the absolute end of my life, possibly literally. If people knew who I was, it would get back to my parents, and that… that would be bad. Apocalyptically bad, as far as my life was concerned.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t like I could spare the time to go all the way home to get my actual costume. I was pretty sure whatever was going on over at that warehouse would be over by then. Nor could I call home and have them deliver it, because wouldn’t that be an interesting conversation to have? Hey, Simon, could you go to my room, find a way to move the huge mirror, open the floorboards, get the bag out, and bring it to me? Oh, and don’t look inside it. K, bye!

Yeah, not likely. Luckily, I did have another option. Once in the garage, I beelined straight for the metal cabinet where I’d seen those jumpsuits and safety equipment. I didn’t know if it was just a bunch of old equipment from Paige growing up, or stuff for guests/friends, or some mixture of both. Whatever, the point was, there was a lot of stuff there, and a quick (frantic) moment of searching scored me a motorcycle jumpsuit that mostly fit, and an old helmet. It wasn’t as good as even my original helmet, let alone the super-special one that Wren had made. But it had a black visor. It would do. It would have to. 

Changing clothes as fast as I could, I shoved the helmet down on my head after zipping up the jumpsuit. Good enough. It was good enough. A pair of motorcycle gloves from the nearby drawer completed the look, and I ran back out. I didn’t have my own helmet. I didn’t have my special shoes, only normal (if expensive) sneakers. I didn’t have…  I didn’t have anything other than my powers and this incredibly makeshift costume. But this was all I had time to grab. Even that, the less than a minute it took me to grab and change into those clothes, felt like too much. 

Reaching the driveway once more, I started to run toward the gate, only to stop short. My gaze snapped toward the body I’d found, and I moved that way. Not to help him. He was beyond help, no matter what I might’ve wanted. Instead, I stooped and reached for the radio in his hand. But then I hesitated. He was dead. Taking something out of a dead man’s hand, it was… it was…

I had to help Paige. Grimacing behind the helmet, I grabbed the radio and pulled it free while trying not to gag. Under my breath, I murmured, “I’m sorry.” 

Then I was up and turning, racing toward the gate. Like the cameras in the garage, these ones were broken, and the light in the guardhouse was off. There was a body lying there too, and a quick glance that way showed me that he wouldn’t be getting up any sooner than the one I’d taken the radio from. They were both dead, and I was positive there were more bodies than just those two. 

I had no idea how Paige had killed them, but she did. She killed those men and was planning to kill more. Everyone who worked for her father, she’d said. And then herself. I couldn’t let that happen. I just–I had to stop her, whatever it took. I wasn’t going to find out that Paige and I had been friends and then immediately lose her again just because she thought she had no choice but to kill herself. Fuck that.

Reaching the end of the driveway, I used blue paint to launch myself up and over it. In mid-air, I shot red toward a tree in the distance, using that to throw myself further before cutting out the paint so that I wasn’t drawn straight into the tree. Instead, I flipped over, shooting a bit of blue at the branch I was heading toward in order to bounce myself even higher off it. 

There weren’t a lot of houses or traffic out here by Paige’s mansion, of course. Like our family, their property was enormous. But I was able to use the streetlights, signs, and trees to make my way back toward the city proper. In the process, I barely touched each landing spot, bouncing off them immediately to keep going. I’d hit a tree, run two steps, leap again, then hit a street sign with a quick blue spot that hurled me up and forward. I was doing everything I could to keep going. But it still wasn’t enough. Faster, I had to get back to the city faster! 

On the way, I took the time to paint the helmet and jumpsuit both black. I was going to go with white, but I had the feeling that I’d want to blend into the darkness rather than stand out. I had no idea what I was walking (or rather, running and flinging myself) into, other than the fact that it was dangerous. Who Paige’s real father was, how he could control her as much as she said he could, why all these men apparently worked for him even though he was stuck in Breakwater… I didn’t know the answers to any of it. Yet all the questions pointed to this being a situation where taking people by surprise would be a pretty fucking good thing. 

Eventually, I reached the more populated part of the city. Which meant there were a lot more cars, buildings, and other things for me to use, speeding up my progress. I still wasn’t moving as fast as I could have if I’d had my pace-skates (why the fuck didn’t I find a way to bring my costume and hide it somewhere nearby?), but it was something, at least. Speeding myself up with green paint as I raced along the roof of an old apartment building, I frantically tried to remember exactly where Gratiot was. I thought I knew, but what if I was wrong? What if I was going the wrong way? What if–

My phones! I was an idiot. God, of course. Hurriedly, while still sprinting along that roof, I fumbled to get my Touched phone out and looked at it. Bars. It had bars. I had a signal! Which meant I could use the map to make sure I was going the right way. 

But more than that, I could also call for help. But… from who? Who the hell could I ask for help from, exactly? I had no idea what I was walking into here, and if Paige was killing people to stop her father, if she was–if–

Fuck. Stumbling to a stop, I hesitated right there on the corner of the building. Call for help from someone or don’t, which was the right answer? That-A-Way or Pack. Should I call them in or not? If I didn’t and everything went wrong because I didn’t have help… but if I did and it exposed everything…

I had to make a decision, right now. 

And in the end, there was only one real option. Before I could second-guess myself any further, I quickly opened a text conversation with both That-A-Way and Pack, sending, 911 – Need *BOTH OF YOU* to help at Gratiot warehouse ASAP. Plz hurry. Life & death. 

There. Right or wrong, I’d made my decision. I asked for help. Now I just had to get there myself, before it was too late. 

Tucking the phone away once more after checking the map for my direction, I took a breath before hurling myself off the edge of the building, hand outstretched to shoot the paint that would take me closer to the warehouse. Closer to stopping Paige from killing herself.

This wasn’t over yet. I could get there in time. 

I had to get there in time. 

I had to. 

Please. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

New Deals 13-11 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N: The first non-canon chapters for both of my stories were posted over the weekend on Patreon. They will not be posted here on the site but they are free and available for everyone to read over there. They were originally posted on Saturday for Patrons of any level, before being released for everyone 24 hours later. If you’d like, you can read the Heretical Edge chapter by going right here and the Summus Proelium chapter by going right here. Both will open in a new tab. Thanks!

Taking a nap helped. I was getting pretty good at splitting my sleep and having a few hours in the afternoon or evening sometime, going out late at night, and then getting a few more hours before getting up for school. Was that what all the Touched did? For that matter, how did my dad pull off being so busy all the time? Yeah, he didn’t exactly have a nine to five job or anything. But he still had tons of meetings to attend and had to put in appearances as well as his civilian self and as Silversmith. Was all of that explained just by him having another employee use one of those illusion machines or whatever it was to pose as him in public? That couldn’t always be it. He had to actually play both roles himself a good chunk of the time.

Yeah, even with that explanation, I was pretty sure my dad only slept a few hours a night. Especially when you added in him being present in my life to be a father and just the general family stuff. He was like a machine. Was that just from having a lot of practice or something? 

Either way, I was back out in the city after checking on Izzy. This time, I left a note on my pillow for her saying I needed air and that I would be back, along with a reminder that she could text or call me if she needed something. 

It was getting close to midnight by the time I made my way near the gas station where this whole thing with my new delinquent friends had started. That was when I told them to meet me, so I put myself at the edge of one of the buildings, painted myself black to blend in, and watched carefully for them to show up. 

I actually had to wait longer than expected. It wasn’t until almost ten minutes after midnight before something drew my attention toward the edge of the building I had told them to meet me behind. Two teenagers, sans masks, came jogging around the corner. They were clearly out of breath and sweating. 

The girl, obviously Murphy, had brown hair that was cut very short, with skin that was just dark enough to make me figure one of her parents was black and the other white. There was also something weird about her face, but I couldn’t tell what from the roof. 

Wow, ‘something weird about her face.’ When I put it like that, it sounded bad. But seriously, she had like a tattoo or something. I couldn’t see that well even with the nearby street light. 

Roald, meanwhile, was a pale boy with very light blond hair. He was trying to say something to his friend, gesturing to some kind of small bag or something he was holding. 

Murphy, however, waved him off before turning in a quick circle and she raised her voice to call, “Hey, we’re here! Don’t be a fucking dick about punctuation, we made it!”

Yup, it was definitely them. Shaking my head, I used a bit of orange for protection before stepping off the edge of the roof and dropping those couple stories. I landed neatly right to the side of them, and both jumped in obvious surprise. “Punctuality. No masks tonight?”

“Fuck!” Murphy blurted while raising her hands defensively before she saw who it was. “Like you said, it’s not like it’ll be hard for you to figure out what ‘Murphy and Roald’ looked like. And did you really have to scare the shit out of us like that?” she demanded. 

But her words weren’t what I was paying attention to. Instead, my gaze was on her face. Now I could see what I thought was a tattoo. It wasn’t. She had a cut on her face, just to the side of her left eye and stretching up into her hairline. And not just a little scrape either. This was big. It had been leaking a decent amount of blood down onto her cheek, blood that had partly dried into the mark I’d seen. The cut itself was partly covered by a couple small bandaids, but they clearly weren’t all that adequate. Especially since they didn’t actually cover the whole thing. 

“Jesus Christ,” I found myself blurting. “What happened to you?”

It was Roald who answered. “Tyson.” He stepped over, and I finally saw that the thing he’d been trying to get the girl to pay attention to was a first aid kit. “Her brother.” 

“Never mind that,” the girl herself snapped while trying to wave him off. “The point is, we’re here. So don’t go knocking on doors looking for us or anything. That’s kind of the last fucking thing we need right now.”

Opening and then shutting my mouth, I took a second to put my thoughts together before looking at the boy. “You got cleaning wipes in that kit?” When he nodded, I held my hand out and he passed a couple to me. “Hold still,” I told the girl before carefully reaching up to wash some of the blood from her face. She grimaced and muttered complaints, but didn’t move. 

Once that was done, I looked around before pointing. “Come on, over there.” I was gesturing toward the park across the street where I knew there were a couple public restrooms.

The other two seemed uncertain and confused, but followed as I led them that way. Once we were in the restroom, I told her to stand in front of the mirror so she could see herself. Then I stripped my gloves off, set them aside, and scrubbed my hands really well with soap.

“What’re you, a doctor now?” Murphy demanded.  But she didn’t really object. From the faces she was making, I was pretty sure that cut hurt.

“No, but I can help a bit before we see a real doctor,” I replied. “Hold still, again.” With that, I carefully wiped more of the blood away before very gingerly taking the almost useless bandaids away. They basically slid right off, so soaked through with blood were they. 

From there, I had the girl lean over the sink so I could wash the wound. That prompted more hissing and cursing, but I promised it would be okay and tried my best to be gentle. Carefully, I cleaned it, then took a cloth from that little first aid kit, applied a little antiseptic, and told her to hold it against the cut. 

It probably wasn’t exactly right. I’d had first aid training a while back, and I’d had plenty of cuts treated myself. But it was the best I could do right now. 

That done, I took out my business phone and texted Pack, asking if she could give me the current address of the criminal doctor who had treated Eits. I added that it was for a friend, who probably needed stitches. 

By the time I finished sending that message, both Murphy and Roald were staring at me, the former still holding the cloth against the cut. 

“The hell’s your deal?” she blurted. “I thought you wanted us to come show up and do some work for you.”

I nodded. “And I’d prefer you not pass out or die from blood loss or an infection or something in the process. Now— hang on.” I had to interrupt myself, because the response from Pack came. She included a phone number and told me to call it. Apparently the number was to some kind of roaming ambulance that served Touched, including Fells, in the field. It would work for these purposes. There was an added bit about how she wanted to hear more about this injured friend later. 

Calling that number, I told the gruff voice who answered what the problem was and told him where we were. There was a brief pause before the same gruff voice said they’d be in the parking lot in a few minutes and to watch for a red van. 

Once that was done, I focused on the other two once more. “Okay, seriously. What the hell happened? How did you get a cut like that? It was from your brother?”

From the glare that the girl shot toward her friend, I had the feeling that she hadn’t wanted him to say that much. Her voice was a mumble. “It’s not a big deal. He was just ticked off because I wouldn’t take a package for him. Told him I was busy.”

“Drugs.” That was Roald. “He knew we were going out, so he wanted her to carry some drugs to his friend a few streets over.”

Murphy snarled, “Yeah, if by friend you mean fellow meth-head. I told him before, I’m not touching any of that shit, not even to take it somewhere. Usually he lets it go.” With a small wince, she adjusted the cloth against her head. “Guess he was in a bad mood tonight.”

That made me stare at her for a few seconds. “Your big brother wanted you to take some meth to his friend and when you said no he cut you like that?” Fuck, my brother worked for a literal supervillain conspiracy and he treated me better than that. 

Murphy waved that off. “Look, you don’t have to worry about any of that shit. That’s my problem. Who the hell did you call?” 

Not wanting to push her too hard, I simply explained that it was a special ambulance with paramedics who would give her some stitches right here without needing to go to the hospital or anything. She wouldn’t have to talk to anyone about where the cut came from, even if I personally thought she should. 

It didn’t exactly help to calm her down, though. Instead, she blurted, “Are you fucking kidding me? What part of us stealing food from a gas station makes you think we can afford some motherfucking stitches? Who do you think we are, the goddamn Evans family?!”

Uhhhh… better not answer that. Raising both hands, I shook my head. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve got this. You guys are going to do some work for me, right? So I need you in good shape. Just chill out, okay? Relax. Let the paramedic look at that cut and see what you actually need.”

Murphy looked reluctant, but mumbled something I took as both agreement and gratitude. Then she squinted at me. “You can’t go after my brother. It’s not his fault. His stupid ass piece of shit friend got him hooked on the garbage and he can’t control himself. He gets crazy.”

For a moment, I didn’t say anything. Then I quietly asked, “Is the fact that he can’t control himself going to make it better the next time he decides to carve up your face? What if he decides to cut something more vital? What if he cuts somebody else, or worse, and all three of us have to live with knowing we could have stopped him before it got that far? Saying he can’t control himself isn’t a reason for why you shouldn’t turn him in. It’s a reason for why you absolutely should. Not because you don’t care about him. Because you do.”

“Kid’s got a point, Murph,” Roald noted hesitantly. “Ty’s not gonna get off that shit all on his own.”

Murphy scowled. “Yeah? So we turn them in and then what? They throw him in prison with a bunch of other druggies and hardened fuck-ups, he gets hooked even more, then he gets out and can’t get a job, so he does more bad shit, gets thrown back in prison again, and the merry-go-round of eternal bullshit continues forever until he’s dead. Did you or the kid ever think of that?”

I tried to smother my annoyance at being called kid by people about my same age with the satisfaction that my disguise was working. My mouth opened to say something, though what, I wasn’t exactly sure. Either way, I was saved from having to by headlights. As promised, a large red camper van was pulling in.

The medic guys were dressed more like janitors. I wasn’t sure what kind of medical expertise they actually had, but they did seem to know what they were doing. They looked at the cut on Murphy‘s face, cleaned and sanitized it a bit more professionally, and gave her a few stitches. 

I’d heard from some people about how getting stitches used to involve needles and stuff. I supposed that’s where the term came from. Nowadays, it simply involved pressing what looked like a white cloth firmly against the wound for several seconds and then peeling it away to reveal that the wound had been closed with a special, temporary sealant. Judging from the faces and sounds coming from Murphy, it still managed to sting as much as it had the last time I had gone through it. Still, it was quick and easy. 

“How much do we owe you?” I asked once it was done. 

The man who had done most of the work and examination, a thin Latino, offered a shrug. “Whatever you think is fair. We survive off donations. Just keep in mind, stiffing us is a good way to make us not show up when you ask for it. And if we don’t make enough to keep going, this whole service disappears.”

I still didn’t want to draw too much attention, so I simply gave the man a couple hundred dollars while thanking him again. They both informed Murphy that the sealant would go away by itself in about a week, and that her cut should be better by then with barely a scar.

Then they took off for another call they received, leaving the three of us standing there at the edge of the lot next to the park. 

“Just think a little bit about what I said, okay?” I asked while looking at the girl once the medics were gone. “I won’t push again right now, but seriously. Think about it.”

With a bit of obvious reluctance, she promised to do so before changing the subject by asking, “So what’s the job we’re supposed to do for you, Mr. Superhero?”

Over the next few minutes, I told them about Wren. I explained that she was a young Tech-Touched who needed more hands in her shop to help with everything, from putting basic equipment together, to carrying boxes around, to cleaning up, to just helping to run the shop in general. 

“That sounds like a job, not like… charity or whatever,” Roald pointed out. 

I nodded. “That’s because it is basically a job. And it’s one you’ll keep if you don’t screw around. You help get the shop off the ground and you’ll be paid. Part of your payment for working is going to go to helping other people who need it, until you work off a full thousand dollars. That’s the two hundred I gave you before, plus five hundred for the door that I gave to the shop owner, rounded up.”

Murphy was staring at me intently. “Dude, you want us to work off a thousand bucks?”

I nodded. “Like I said, it won’t all be taken at once. You’ll still be paid, it’ll just be part of your wages. You work in the shop, do everything you’re told, and you’ll be paid. Part of that payment will be taken and sent to other people who need it, to charity. Then once you’re done, you can either quit, or you can stick around and keep working. If you stick around and keep working, you’ll start being paid the full amount. As long as you help out and make yourselves useful, you can keep doing the job and keep being paid.”

Roald was shaking his head in confusion. “The only thing you know about us is that we tried to rob a gas station for snack food. Why would you try to hire us to work for some super techy place?”

For a moment, I didn’t answer. I just considered him in silence before slowly replying, “Because I think there are a lot of people who do bad things just because they don’t have any other choice. Not all of them, obviously. There’s a lot of awful people who do it for fun, just because they can. But there’s others who start small, like you guys with the gas station, and then get worse. They build up. I can’t give everyone on the edge like that the chance they need. But I can give it to you. I can give it to both of you.”

Looking back and forth between the two of them, I added a bit pointedly, “Maybe you’ll just go on and start doing worse crimes anyway. Maybe this won’t make any difference at all. But, if you do go on to be real thieves, if a couple years pass and you’re just as bad as all those other gang people out there, you won’t be able to say that it’s because no one ever gave you a chance. I’m giving you a chance right here, right now. I don’t care where your families come from, I don’t care who they are. I don’t care what kind of education you have, or what your neighborhoods are like. I don’t care what you’ve had to do up to this point. The jobs are yours. Once you work off the charity part, the rest is up to you.”

After that, I told them a bit more about the jobs. Specifically, that they should meet me Tuesday afternoon to go meet their new boss. I left out how young she was, figuring I’d let that be a surprise. I also told them not to meet here, but instead gave them an address a few blocks away from the shop itself. 

After that, I looked at Murphy. “You shouldn’t go home tonight. Not with your brother like that.”

She shrugged. “I’ll stay with Roald til things cool down. Not like it’s the first time.”

Not the first time… A sigh escaped me. “Think about what I said, okay? Your brother’s not going to get better just because you don’t want to get him in trouble.”

She squinted at me, but gave a short, silent nod. So, I sent them on their way, after exchanging my Touched phone number for both of theirs. I told them to let me know if anything else happened or changed. 

Then they left together. Right, so that was dealt with. And now, well, honestly, I was about to go right back to bed. I had a feeling I was going to need all the rest I could get before tomorrow came around. Because then it would be Saturday. Time for Paige’s birthday. The one I had been invited to for some reason.

Boy, I just couldn’t wait.

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

New Deals 13-09 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Things mostly calmed down pretty quickly after that. The Star-Touched adults had managed to regroup a bit and sent a couple of their people to help the Minority. By that point, the warring gangs had basically separated and gone to their respective corners, so to speak. So it was just a bit of cleanup.

The other Fell-Touched, like Janus, had managed to escape. But we kept hold of Suckshot and Landlock, eventually seeing them both hauled into the back of two separate special armored containment vans. 

Through most of that cleanup, I worked with Raindrop. I had the feeling that the people around us assumed we were about the same age. Actually, come to think of it, maybe she was an incredibly small sixteen-year-old too. Wouldn’t that have been just perfect?

Either way, she was pretty fun to hang out with once things calmed down a bit. She didn’t say a lot, but the things she did say tended to be insightful or just funny in a very simple, straightforward way. I would say something and she’d have a one or two word response, in a totally serious tone, that made me snicker. For whatever reason, it felt like I knew her a lot better than I did. We’d only just really met, and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling like we’d interacted a lot more. It was weird. But then, maybe she was just one of those people who made friends easily. 

While we were doing that, I noticed some of the cops and reporters in the distance talking. I couldn’t make out most of what they were saying, but I did hear both of our names come up and saw some of them pointing our way. They were clearly talking about the fact that Raindrop and I were working together, but what… what were they saying? And why were some of them taking pictures? 

Eventually, That-A-Way approached and asked to speak to me privately. We stepped out of the way, over by a corner of the theater building while both of us watched the assortment of cops, reporters, and other Touched milling around. 

“Thanks,” Way murmured quietly. “You know, for showing up. You really helped turn things around.” She glanced toward me, lowering her voice even more. “I heard a few of those gang guys talking. This whole thing, it’s just a skirmish. Just the opening salvo. Apparently things are going to get a lot more heavy pretty soon. They’re going to war with each other.” 

Grimacing, I shook my head. ”If this was just a few opening shots, I don’t want to see what their idea of a full war is.”

“Neither do I,” she agreed, “but I have a feeling that we don’t really have a choice. This whole thing is gonna escalate really fast. And more civilians are going to be caught in the crossfire.” 

There was another brief pause while she clearly thought about her next words before quietly asking, “Those people you were talking about, shouldn’t they keep this kind of thing shut down? Seems like having a bunch of pissed off gang members at war with each other would be bad for business. If they really have that much control over every criminal in the city, shouldn’t they snap their fingers and make these guys back down? I mean, if there’s going to be one benefit to a group like that, you’d think it would be them stopping all-out war like this.”

Yeah, she had a point. I had no idea just how much my parents knew about this situation. But I refused to believe they were clueless. From everything I had seen, there was no way the gangs here would do something like this without at least mentioning it to my family, to the Ministry. Which meant they had to have at least partially approved this sort of thing. But why? What did they get out of it? Was it just not worth the hassle of trying to contain these guys constantly? Did they have to let them get their aggression out now and then before things blew up too much to control at all? I had no idea how that worked. 

With a sigh, I shook my head. “I dunno. But something tells me that if we want to find out how all this works, we need to get into that place. The sooner the better. There’s got to be some answers in there.”

Of course, there was also the possibility that those answers would lead toward my family. But that was a bridge I would cross when we came to it. I still had no idea exactly what I was going to do if and when Way and Pack, the people I had brought into this, found out that the Ministry was led by the Evans. I just… didn’t know. 

Way was looking at me again. “We have to come up with a plan and get in there,” she murmured quietly. “I’m pretty sure you’re right. That’s where we’re going to find answers. That’s where we’re going to…” She trailed off, grimacing for a moment before finding her voice once more. “It’s where we’re going to find out more about who we can’t trust.” There was a somewhat dark grimness to her voice, and it made me think for a moment about what all of this must have been like for her. She didn’t know who on her own team she could trust. She didn’t know which of her mentors she could look up to. What was it like from her side? Especially considering I wasn’t telling her everything I knew, a fact she was no doubt totally aware of. 

I started to agree with her, that we would get into that secret mall base as soon as possible. But before I could say more than a couple words, someone approached. It was, in no uncertain terms, the worst person I could think of to potentially overhear what we were talking about. Yeah, my dad, as Silversmith. He approached, offering each of us a nod while speaking up. “It seems we owe you another debt of gratitude, Paintball.” His hand extended toward me. “Thanks for stepping in and helping out today. Not sure how this would have gone without you.” 

Desperately fighting back the impulse to give any suspicious reaction whatsoever, I forced myself to accept the offered hand while shaking my head. “Way asked for help. I wasn’t just going to tell her to jump off a bridge.”  

He chuckled lightly, an encouraging sound that almost made me smile. How did he do that? How did he disarm me so easily when I knew who he was and what he did? Was it just because he was my dad? No, it had to be more than that. He was just that good at talking to people. He was just that good at convincing them that he was a friend, someone they could trust and confide in. It was scary seeing it from this side of things. 

While I was still fighting those reactions in my head, Dad put his hand on That-A-Way’s shoulder, squeezing slightly. “We owe just as much congratulations and thanks to you. Knowing when to call for help is important. Not trying to go at it alone, not showboating and getting people killed in the process, that’s what makes for a real hero. You did great today. All of you did.” 

“People still got hurt,” Way quietly pointed out. “Some still died. We didn’t save everyone.” 

Dad gave a short nod of agreement, as a long, heavy sigh escaped him. It sounded like he bore  the weight of each and every one of those injuries and deaths on his shoulders. Which was funny (in a totally not funny at all way), because I was pretty sure he really did bear the weight of them. He let it happen. He let this war get started. The Ministry allowed it. So yeah, the weight of it should have been on his shoulders. But he was still standing, and I was going to bet somehow getting even richer off of this whole thing. Yeah, I wasn’t exactly sure how, but the only thing I could think of that would make the Ministry allow something like this was if they were somehow making more money from it than if they hadn’t. Money or power, one or the other. Or both. I wasn’t sure of the specifics, not yet. But I did know that my father and mother had given the go-ahead for all of this to happen. They allowed it, so they were responsible. 

“You’re right,” Dad spoke up. For a crazy, horrifying second, I thought he had somehow read my thoughts. Then I realized he was responding to the girl beside me. “We didn’t save everyone. But you can’t always. All you can do is try. Put the effort in. Save everyone you can. Because, and I want both of you to listen to this right now, it isn’t about how many you fail to save. It’s about how many would have died if you weren’t there at all. And believe me, there would have been a lot more people hurt or even dead today if the two of you weren’t here. All those people in that theater, you saved them. You and Raindrop.” 

He said the last bit while stepping aside a bit and gesturing for the girl in question to join us. Which she did, moving up between Way and me while staring at my dad, at Silversmith. I couldn’t see her face, of course, hidden as it was behind that faceplate. But from the way she held her head, her body language, and everything else, I had the distinct impression that she basically hero-worshiped him. I had no idea what was going on there, but it was pretty obvious that she really looked up to him. Again, not surprising, considering how well my dad played the role of champion for the masses. He should have won an Oscar or two by now. Still, it made me feel sick in my stomach. Actually, the thought that he was fooling Raindrop in particular seemed to raise my hackles more than it really should have. I barely knew the kid. Maybe it was just because she was a kid? Maybe it reminded me of how much I had looked up to Silversmith before I knew the truth. 

Either way, Dad held his arm out, pantomiming looking at a watch. “Unfortunately, no matter how impressive you guys are, I have a feeling none of you can quite stop time just yet. And since everything seems calm enough now, I should get going. There’s going to be a lot of paperwork about all this. Be glad you guys only have to deal with a bit of that. And hey, you even get to avoid most of the reporters.”

Reporters… Oh damn, right, that dinner with the guy from the Times. It was getting close. No wonder Dad was making his excuses to leave. He congratulated us again, then offered to walk That-A-Way and Raindrop back to their base with the rest of their team. Way declined, saying she’d catch up after talking to me for a minute, claiming she still had to thank me herself. 

So, Raindrop headed off with him by herself. And I tried to figure out why the sight of her walking with my evil dad made me want to throw myself after them to stop it. Well, besides the obvious reasons. There was something else making it hit me more than I thought it should have. 

“It pisses you off too, doesn’t it?” Way spoke quietly with a glance toward me. “Seeing the way everyone loves him. Especially Rain.” She sighed, turning my way fully, as though to put her back to that whole thing. “I know you said you can’t say everything you know, but you made it pretty clear that he’s one of the ones that can’t be trusted. You said especially don’t tell him anything. So yeah, I’m pretty sure he’s one of your big conspiracy people. But he’s such… I mean…” She exhaled, slumping over a bit. “Fuck.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “fuck. Trust me, I know. It’s a whole thing. But you’re doing a good job of hiding it.”

She snorted at that. “You just couldn’t hear all the nasty thoughts I was having when he was here.” 

“Yeah, and neither could he,” I pointed out. “Look, we’ll get answers, okay? We just can’t rush it. They already know that I know some of what they’re up to. They just don’t know how much. Not even close. But they know that I know some of it. So we have to be careful.”

Way paused, then chuckled. “You know, the way you act about all this, sometimes I forget you’re younger than me. You seem a lot older than you should be.”

Shit, getting her off the train of thought was probably a good idea. But I wasn’t sure exactly what to say. So, I just shrugged. ”I’ve had to grow up quick lately. But if I don’t get out of here now, I’m going to end up grounded. Then we’ll see how grown up I am.”

With that, I excused myself and took off, using a shot of red paint to a nearby building to hoist myself out of there. Right, I hadn’t really been exaggerating that much. If I missed this dinner, Mom would never let me hear the end of it. She’d made it clear that it was important that we present ourselves as a family tonight. Which gave me a lot of other thoughts I felt like saying, but kept to myself for obvious reasons.

As I raced home, I did my best to push those thoughts out of my head. This guy was an award-winning investigative reporter. It would probably be a bad thing if I gave him a reason to be suspicious of my family. For him as well as us. He may have been a big shot, but I was pretty sure my parents wouldn’t hesitate to have him killed if it came down to protecting themselves and the family. And I was also willing to bet that my family’s resources trumped whatever he could come up with. 

It had, of course, occurred to me to try talking to the guy about everything. I had the random, crazy impulse to just spill my guts to him and have everything out in the open. He was a reporter, after all. But again, that would be stupid. He’d never be able to publish an article like that, not with the contacts my parents had. The only real option to get it out before they erased it would have been some kind of online thing, but that would probably be dismissed as a conspiracy theory. Even if I was involved, I’d just be the rebellious kid. There was no doubt in my mind that my family could quash the whole thing. Hell, it wasn’t as though it would be anything all that new. People claimed enormous criminal conspiracies against the rich and famous all the time. A lot of it was even true. And this was one of those times. But it would be dismissed like all those others. No, if… when I went public about all this, it had to be perfect. I would only get a single shot at that kind of thing. I would only be able to take my family by surprise once. It was going to have to be a silver bullet situation. Proof. I needed proof of everything, and I needed to understand exactly how the organization worked, who was a part of it, who could be trusted and who couldn’t. I needed all of it.

Of course, the other big reason for not telling this Chambers guy the truth? For all I knew, he was on my family’s payroll. Yeah, he was all the way down in LA, but did that really mean anything? After all, Mr. Jackson had been in the UK for a long time. And it really would be within my family’s interest to have one of the best investigative reporters from one of the biggest news outlets on their side.

No, clearly for a lot of reasons, I couldn’t open up now. Not to anybody, let alone a reporter who may or may not be working for my parents on the down low. 

Shoving those thoughts out of my head firmly, I focused on getting home. That meant changing clothes in a public restroom at the edge of a park and taking an Uber the rest of the way. I was cutting it fairly close, considering I still needed to shower and all. But at least I wasn’t late. 

Paying the driver after he stopped in front of the gate, I hopped out, grabbed my bag, and headed in. On the way past, I greeted the guard waiting there, who teasingly informed me that I’d better hurry. 

Mom and Dad were in the front foyer as I passed through the door. Mom stepped over, looking like she was going to embrace me, but thought better of it. She was already dressed up for dinner and wrinkled her nose a little at how sweaty I was. So sue me, running across the city was a bit of a work out, even with powers. 

She settled on gently touching the side of my face. “I’m glad you made it, Principessa. Thank you for remembering. Now please, go and get cleaned up. We will be eating in thirty minutes.”

“Yeah, kid,” Dad spoke up, “and see if you can help Izzy with whatever she needs? She should just be about done getting cleaned up herself. The clothes she helped pick out are on her bed.”

God, he really had no idea that I had just been talking to him a short time earlier. Hell, he didn’t look like he’d been out doing anything at all. I was sweaty and all that from rushing home. My hair was a mess from being under the helmet and mask.  But Dad? He was perfectly put together. Not a single hair was out of place and it looked as though the biggest workout he’d had in the past couple hours was pushing a few papers. 

Shoving that thought aside, I promised that Izzy and I would be right down. Then I headed up the stairs two steps at a time. Yeah, I’d go get cleaned up so we could get this whole thing over with.

Time to meet Lincoln Chambers and his family.

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

New Deals 13-08 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N: There was a commissioned interlude focusing on the Touched-Bees of Eastland, Oregon posted yesterday. If you haven’t read that yet, you might want to use the previous chapter button above. Thanks!

Also, if you’d like to see what the actual place that Cassidy is going through in this chapter looks like, check my author comment in the replies after the chapter.

When the Fox Theatre was built and opened almost a hundred years ago, in 1928, it had been the biggest, most impressive theater in the city with over five thousand seats. It had basically been the anchor of an entire chain of theaters owned by Fox, and a stunning wonder for everyone at the time. Over the following decades, it gradually fell into decline until it was restored in the late 80’s. Then it was upgraded and given a fresh life once more about ten years ago, around the same time that the baseball stadium across the street had been rebuilt. 

A lot of money had gone into restoring and upgrading this entire area of the city. Hell, a lot of money had gone into restoring the entire city in general. Yeah, I was fully aware that for quite some time through the end of the last century, the city had been spiraling down a hole. But I’d always experienced a Detroit that was on the rise, or even a full-on leader in development and manufacturing. We had one of the strongest economies in the world, and had for the past decade or so, with plenty of Touched who flocked here to build or benefit from Tech-devices. They couldn’t build neighborhoods fast enough for the people who wanted to move to this place. Even with the crime, even with the violence in the streets, you could still be successful here. 

But how much of that success was directly connected to the things my parents did? My family were villains, they helped criminals do bad things, helped them steal from and hurt people. That was completely true. And yet, it was also completely true that the city was better now than it had been for decades before Touched powers appeared. Would the city have been even better than it already was without this ‘Ministry’ directing things? Or would it be worse? Had they been responsible for pulling enough manufacturing and such back here? Or would there be as much growth and not as much crime if they weren’t stirring the pot? How much good had they done, and how did it weigh against the bad they’d done? And did any of that actually matter, morally?

All those thoughts and more kept playing through my head the entire time that I was moving toward the broken-in doors of the theater (covering my costume with various paint colors the entire way). But I shoved them down, with some effort, focusing on the real problem. That-A-Way and Raindrop were trapped in there, with civilians and bad guys. Beyond that, I had no idea what I was getting into, only that those two needed help. 

The lobby of the theater was fucking gaudy as hell. Seriously, the ceiling towered like fifty feet over my head, sloping upward with slanted golden walls on either side, brilliant red and gold pillars lined both sides of the massive room, with golden lamps hanging down to illuminate everything, and plush red carpets covered the floor. I’d heard people refer to its style as ‘part-Egyptian, part-Hindu, and part-Babylonian.’ It was a lot, to say the least. 

More important than the loud design choices was the fact that I wasn’t alone in the lobby. The second I entered, two guys dressed as Easy Eights gang members and three dressed as Ninety-Niners all whirled my way. One of the Easy Eights guys tackled the nearest Ninety-Niner, starting to wail on him with the butt of his pistol before the guy managed to get an arm up and the two struggled together. 

But I couldn’t exactly intervene with either of them, because the remaining three guys (one Easy Eights and two Ninety-Niners) apparently decided that I was the bigger threat. All three opened fire, even as I activated the picture of an orange shield I’d painted onto my chest before coming in here. At the same time, I triggered a pair of green swirly lines along my legs and hurled myself into an upward flip, using red paint shot toward one of the pillars to lift myself higher even as most of the shots passed by under me. A few struck home, but the orange paint reduced the bullets to a mere stinging annoyance. 

In mid-leap, as the red paint attached to my gloves and to the nearby pillar yanked me that way, I cut it off, flipping over in the air while hitting the pillar with blue. The second my feet hit it, I was launched straight down toward the men like I was being shot out of a cannon. 

They tried to react in time to shoot me again, but couldn’t adjust their aim fast enough. Between the green paint speeding me up and the blue sending me hurtling straight at them from above, the three guys were basically sitting ducks. And my orange paint was still active, so I just stuck both arms out, crashing into two of the men full-on. They hit the ground together with me on top of one, wind knocked out of them both. 

The third guy was whipping around to shoot (which probably would’ve hurt more from that range), but I managed to throw myself on my side and lash out with a foot to kick at his leg while boosting myself with the small purple stegosaurus shape I’d put on one side of my left arm. It wasn’t a huge increase to my strength, but it was enough that the solid kick knocked the man’s legs out from under him, dumping him onto his back with a cry. 

Rolling backward and rising to both knees, I saw the two men I’d knocked down both scrambling to grab their guns off the floor while still trying to suck in air. Even now, they were going to try to shoot me. Or possibly each other. I really wasn’t sure which. But it didn’t matter. Quickly, I hit the weapons with red paint, yanking them to my gloves before tossing them to either side with a blurted, “You’ll shoot your eye out, Ralphie!” 

While they were trying to react to that, I planted blue paint under my knees while pushing off, launching myself up and forward over all their heads. On the way past, I flipped over, hitting all five men (including the two who were still struggling with one another) with a wide spray of red paint from both hands. Then I landed in a roll before bringing myself to a stop. 

Covered in red paint, the five men all started to move at me as one massive rush. But, they came up short as I used white and a little bit of black paint to color in a bright, toothy grin across the front of my helmet. Unnecessary, but hey. Then I pointed both hands upward, drawing their attention toward the ceiling so far above. A ceiling where I had also taken the time to shoot more red paint. 

The curses started before I even activated the paint, morphing to screams as the five men were hurtled upward. I let it carry them about halfway there before cancelling the paint. Their momentum brought them even higher, nearly to the ceiling itself before gravity kicked in. Then they were screaming for an entirely different reason, as they fell toward the hard floor below. 

I couldn’t just let them hit the ground, not from that height. Forty-plus feet wasn’t exactly jumping out of an airplane, but it could still potentially kill them. And as much as I felt like they deserved a few broken bones for putting uninvolved, innocent civilians in danger with their stupid fucking gangwar, that was too much. And it wasn’t my place to decide something like that anyway. 

So, before the screaming, flailing men hit the ground, I hit them with a spray of orange paint. Just enough that the fall still hurt, still left bruises and maybe a bit worse than that, without being lethal. They laid there, sprawled out and panting (along with a few whimpers). None looked like they were in any mood to fight right then. Or even move, really. 

I didn’t have time to play with them anymore. Damn it, damn it, I couldn’t have just moved past them and left them to shoot me in the back (even this felt like a risk, justifiable as it was), but still, it felt like I was wasting time. Running onward through the lobby, I called back, “Why don’t you guys take five, we’ll pick up from the top later!” On the way, I thought to hit each of their scattered weapons with small shots of red paint, yanking them to me before dumping the pistols in a garbage can I was passing. It wasn’t perfect. None of this was. But at least the guns were out of sight and the guys behind me were too busy getting over pissing themselves to worry about fighting right at that moment. It was the best I could do with the time I had.

If the lobby of the theater was crazy opulent, the main room with the stage was completely fucking absurd. There were fake stained glass windows that could be lit up or darkened at any point, and could have the actual design changed to match the mood of the play. There was gold everywhere, several tiers of seats, all of which were incredibly plush (and really easy to fall asleep in if you were a bored eleven-year-old who was dragged to the theater by your parents). There were more pillars, an incredibly beautiful vaulted ceiling, the works. The place was, again, large enough to seat over five thousand people. For some kind of reference, I’d asked someone before and they said a modern public movie theater sat between two hundred and three hundred people in a single screening room. 

So yeah, the place was fucking enormous. And, as promised, there were people in here. The moment I passed through one of the entrance doors, I could see a group of civilians huddled together ahead and to the right, cowering between some seats. It looked like there were several dozen at first glance, but I wasn’t sure because of how they were crouched down. 

Of more immediate importance was the reason they were all cowering. Namely, all the bad guys that were everywhere. Seriously, I saw a mix of Ninety-Niner and Easy Eights Prev thugs spread throughout the entire room. They were clustered up in small groups, but those groups were all over the place. They were brawling with weapons, a few had guns they were trying to bring in to play, and none seemed to care about the civilians they were endangering. Hell, I could see a few innocent people who weren’t with the main huddled group. Instead, they ducked where they were, hands over their heads as they tried to stay low. 

It was all-out chaos in the seating area, a brawl that was tearing this place apart. I could see where several of the opulent ‘windows’ and hanging lights had been destroyed, places where seats were torn out, and more blood than I wanted to think about.

Then there was the stage itself, straight down and across from where I entered. The enormous stage was where That-A-Way and Raindrop were. And they weren’t alone. Landlock, a short guy (just about five feet, four inches tall) who wore dark green and brown body armor with a football player’s helmet over a simple black face mask, was there. He was one of the Easy Eights, like Janus outside. His power basically made a fifty-foot diameter circle of ground or floor under his feet transform to stone wherever he went. It would change back as he moved away from that spot, but while he was standing there, it would be rock. No matter what hit him, he couldn’t be knocked outside of his circle, and he could make a bunch of rock constructs within it. 

The Ninety-Niner Touched he was trying to fight, meanwhile, was Suckshot. Yeah. While Landlock wore the football helmet, Suckshot was basically dressed like a hockey player, with that Touched name written on the back. His powers allowed him to create these black orb things about the size of a volleyball in front of his hands that could yank things (or people) toward them. Once they were close enough to touch the orbs, he could then launch them away at high speed. The orbs were also some kind of pocket dimension thing that he could store objects in as long as they were smaller than the orb. He kept objects in there and used them as ammo to shoot at people. 

And in the middle of all this, between those two, were That-A-Way and Raindrop. Way had both arms wrapped around her younger teammate, with her back to Landlock. Apparently her invulnerability power was active, because in the second that I watched, the Fell-Touched Made two large rocks float up out of the floor and fly at them, only for the rocks to shatter against her back. 

At the same time, Raindrop had one hand extended toward Suckshot. She was sending a torrent of water his way, a sideways downpour that would’ve allowed the kid to manipulate his gravity if she could get him wet. But he was sucking up all the water with his own power, making it disappear into his orbs. It was a stalemate. 

Well, not anymore. Taking a running start, I shot blue paint down to launch myself up and forward, catapulting over the line of seats. In mid-air, I shot red paint high over the stage to pull myself that way, before sending a few more small shots of red toward the brawling thugs below. I didn’t get anywhere near all of them, but I did hit a few. Mostly I tried to focus on the ones who were holding guns, nailing the weapons themselves with a bit of red before extending my hand back the way I’d come to hit the door with one more shot. Linking all of those together, I activated them and the guns (as well as a couple other weapons) were yanked out of the thugs’ hands. 

It wasn’t much, but it was something. Mostly I was hoping that if the Touched were dealt with, the rest of the guys would follow suit quickly, or at least retreat. 

And speaking of dealing with them, I flipped over in the air after canceling the red mark I was being yanked toward. Upside down as I passed over the stage, I shot two bursts of white paint, one at each of them. Unfortunately, the paint that was going toward Suckshot was, well, sucked right into one of his little black hole orbs. Fuck. I really should’ve known that would happen.

But the other spot of paint struck home, hitting the spot of Landlock’s chest right under his chin. Instantly, I activated it, sending a blinding flare right into his eyes that made the man stagger backward, the large boulder he’d been forming falling apart before he could launch it. 

Activating a bit of orange near my left leg on the hip, I finished flipping over and landed a short distance away from where the two Minority were. “Heard you all might need an understudy if this performance is gonna go on,” I blurted as everyone stopped what they were doing and snapped a glance toward me. At the same time, I hit Way with orange paint from one hand and purple from the other, before Suckshot could recover from my sudden appearance and start using his power again. Activating both, I snapped, “Get ‘em!”

The direction she’d been facing toward Suckshot in keeping her back to Landlock for protection had given her invulnerability. The opposite direction must have been super speed, because she pivoted away from Raindrop and, in a blur of motion, was suddenly directly in front of the man who had been launching boulders at them, punching him across the face with her enhanced strength. He had some measure of that himself, but the punch was still enough to put him on the stone-turned floor. 

For the next ten seconds, That-A-Way had the extra strength and toughness which, added to her own super speed, would let her deal with that guy. 

That left Raindrop and me to handle Suckshot. And I had the feeling that the suck part of that was going to be pretty apt. Whether it was my paint or her water, he could suck all of it up if it came anywhere near him. 

Just as I had that thought, the two of us were nearly taken out just like that as a handful of literal bricks shot out of those black orbs, straight at our heads. Fuck! 

But Raindrop was fast too. A swirl of water spraying up to catch the bricks, turning their gravity so they were launched up and over us to careen off into the distance. A metal pipe and another set of bricks joined them a second later. 

Yeah, the suck was definitely strong with this one. Good thing I had an idea. Lowering my voice to a whisper, I addressed the young girl nearby. “Dude, can you soak me, then when I say now, zero my gravity?” 

“Um, okay,” came the quiet, uncertain voice. It tickled something in my brain, but I didn’t have time to think about it.

Instead, I pushed myself forward even as I felt my costume suddenly get really wet. Raising my voice, I shouted at the man, “Hey, Suckface, lemme guess, you’re a Touched vacuum!” 

It definitely worked to get his attention. The man shot another metal pipe at me, but I popped the wheels of my skates out and slid under it, cocking my hand back as though I was going to throw or shoot something at him. Immediately, I felt the pull of his power as he focused it on me. I was yanked off my feet and sent that way, even as he took aim, clearly about to use me being off my feet and helplessly pulled toward him to take one final shot. 

“Now!” I called out while simultaneously activating every bit of green and orange that was still on my costume. 

Instantly, my gravity was zero. Which meant I was suddenly flying toward the man in front of me faster than he expected. Even better, the green paint I’d activated sped me up even more. In that instant, I was careening at the man several times quicker than he was ready for. 

He didn’t have time to correct it. I slammed into him full-bodied, with enough force to knock him clear to the floor, his orbs disappearing as he collapsed under me with a cry of pain and surprise. I, of course, was fine thanks to the orange paint. But it didn’t look like the guy under me was going to be in the mood to move anytime soon. 

Still, I produced a set of the stay-down cuffs I still had, hooking them around his wrists before rolling away. 

Sitting up, I saw That-A-Way doing the same to her guy. They were both down. We had them in hand. 

Even better, seeing their super powered members captured did, in fact, make the rest of the bad guys decide to cut and run. There was a rush toward the exits, the two rival groups still fighting each other as they fled like rats leaving a sinking ship. Meanwhile, the cowering civilians were starting to pick themselves up cautiously. 

Raindrop was in front of me, offering her hand with a blurted, “That was cool!” 

Again, her words made something in the back of my mind flash a bit. But what–never mind, I was just crazy and tired from all that, clearly. 

Taking the offered hand, I stood and breathed out a long sigh of relief while looking at her and That-A-Way. “Well,” I managed in between heavy panting, “if you guys really want, we could stick around and see the show tonight.

“But I hear it really sucks.”

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

New Deals 13-07 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

It wasn’t a mistake, apparently. My name was written out and everything. Paige was inviting me to her birthday party. Or her (adopted) parents were making her. Or this was some kind of elaborate trap. Actually, the fact that I genuinely wasn’t sure if it was a standard mean girl school teenage bullshit trap or something more nefarious involving her supervillain father (not that I had any room to judge as far as that went) kind of said something about how my life was. 

So which was it? Assuming this whole thing was intentional, was Paige playing her bitchy shtick again, waiting for me to either come so she could pull something or not come so she could tell everyone what a snob I was? Or was it something worse she and her father had cooked up?

Complicating everything, of course, was the fact that I’d found out we used to be friends. Which was still something that I couldn’t wrap my head around, no matter how many times I thought about it. Paige Banners and I were friends at some point? The same girl who had been… who had made so much of my school life… who had… how were we friends? Why was she apparently so different now? It couldn’t just be memory loss, right? What was going on? 

In any case, two days (really a day and a half) after getting the invitation, I still didn’t know exactly what that was all about. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much of a choice about going. Apparently Paige’s family (or the people who had apparently adopted her?) had also sent the invitation to my parents, making it an official sort of thing, and my mother had said that I needed to put in an appearance to avoid upsetting the Banners. It was a rich people thing. My family was rich, the Banners were rich, we had to play nice in some respects. I didn’t have to stay for long, but I had to at least show up. 

In any case, now it was Friday, which meant two things. First, we were supposed to have dinner with that reporter guy who was up from Los Angeles. And second, I was going out that night to meet with those two from before, Murphy and Roald. I actually had a plan for that bit, at least. I’d talked with Wren and she said she could use their help putting some stuff together. Extra hands and all that. 

So, that at least was something I could start them on. Honestly, I was just glad I’d come up with an answer to one of the questions I’d been thinking about the past couple days, even if it was the simplest one. As for the whole birthday thing and the wider Paige situation… yeah, I had nothing. My brain kept saying that at least I could use this chance to find out more. It was the best opportunity I’d been offered to get close to Paige (a thought that would have made me dry heave not long ago) without it being obvious that I was investigating her. She’d invited me, after all, whatever the reason. I could use that, maybe. 

To distract myself from all those confusing thoughts (as well as the fact that I had every reason to be suspicious about this party), I was taking a trip through the city as Paintball about an hour after school. Not really looking for anything in particular, just running and skating through the rooftops and across buildings to clear my head. I was going to have to head home for dinner eventually, but that wouldn’t be for another couple hours. We weren’t eating until seven, which gave me plenty of time to take a good run and hopefully get my brain on straight before it twisted itself into knots. 

Yeah, clearing my mind was obviously going super-well, given how much I was still thinking about that whole thing. Urgh. Giving my head a hard shake, I focused on where I actually was. The answer, in that case, was ‘skating along the very edge of a roof, using green paint for speed as I raced toward the far end.’ The building was a good twenty stories high, leaving the view immediately to my left fairly… precarious, to say the least. I ignored that, staring straight ahead as the wheels of my skates glided easily along the roof. The green paint meant I was ‘gliding’ at about forty miles an hour, so the far end was coming up pretty fast. That steep drop loomed. 

Spraying blue paint at the very edge of the roof just in time, I activated it, crouching at the last second before I was launched up and forward with a loud scream of adrenaline. Fuck, fuck! Say whatever about the stress of my whole situation, but I loved this part of my powers. It was so incredibly freeing. I literally hurled myself out into open air twenty stories up. If I fell, if I fucked up, if my powers dropped for whatever reason, if I made any real mistake, the consequences would have been catastrophic. It was terrifying but also so… so amazing. I loved it. I loved my powers, and how I could use them. 

Flipping over high in the air, I twisted my body until my feet were pointed sideways toward the side of the building I was flying at. The momentum from my launch carried me clear across the street that was so far below, until I hit that wall. Instantly, the pace-skates that Wren had put together shifted gravity so that being sideways against that building was the same as being right-side up for me. I didn’t even slow down, ‘landing’ hard against the wall before immediately continuing to skate, that time along the wall. My skates made clickety-clack sounds as they passed through the grooves of the bricks, almost calming in a way. Especially if you didn’t think about how high up you were. It helped. All of this was helping me feel better. 

Before reaching the edge of that wall, I retracted my skates with a quick command and simply ran the last few steps while focusing on the purple stars I’d previously set up along my legs. Activating them for the strength boost, I threw myself sideways off the wall. At the same time, I turned my entire arm and hand bright pink and heaved it out as hard as I could while activating that paint as well. My arm, suddenly rubberized, actually stretched a good ten feet out to catch hold of the ledge of another building. Between the purple and pink paint, I was able to grab the ledge and swing myself over that way, letting out another loud whoop of joy at the rush. 

Releasing the ledge as I managed to swing myself over, I cancelled the pink paint so my arm snapped back to normal. Now I was diving through the air feet-first, at an angle toward the side of a much lower building, only a few stories tall. 

Pointing my hands that way, I shot a spray of pink paint, activating both that and the orange sun image I already had on my back. The instant before I would have hit the pink paint, I deactivated it, shifting the pink to its secondary effect of making the target very springy for those brief few seconds. Which was all the time I needed before my feet collided with the wall, visibly denting it inward a bit before it snapped back to the way it had been to launch me back up and toward the opposite side of the street. 

Flipping over through that, I hit the wall of another building a couple stories up and glanced down to see a few people taking pictures from below, or even waving. A few called, asking for autographs, or even for a ‘ride’ through the city.   

I waved back, crouching a bit to slap my hand against the wall. The logo I’d made up for ‘signing’ things back at the Ten Towers headquarters appeared. Black oval with ‘Paintball’ written in white cursive letters, along with a rainbow spray of all the other colors from one side to the other. I made the logo large enough to see before throwing myself back into a run once more. I’d let the people down there have some time to take pictures of the logo before dismissing it so some poor guy didn’t have to scrub it clean. 

Yeah, that stuff seemed pretty silly and even arrogant if I thought about it too much, but I’d heard about how important it was to keep a good public image. I really didn’t have it in me to drop down there and talk to people while I was still trying to clear my head. But I could, at least, give them that little logo thing to show I wasn’t ignoring them. Besides, playing things up like that was fun. And I had to admit, the cheers as I ran along the wall before using blue paint to launch myself up and away were pretty amazing to hear. 

Just as I landed on the edge of another roof, the Touched-business phone buzzed in my pocket. Glancing down to see the people gathering up under the logo I’d painted to take pictures, I pulled the phone out and glanced down. It was the number That-A-Way had given me. 

“Hey, you busy?!” she immediately blurted the second that I answered. It sounded like she was out of breath. “Cuz we could use a little help over here!” 

Well, that got my attention. Quickly straightening, I asked, “Help over where, with what?” Tempting as it was to add a snarky comment about how she better not be asking me to help her move, I restrained the impulse. This sounded serious. She was definitely in the middle of something big, given the shouts and other sounds I could vaguely hear in the background. 

There was a brief pause while That-A-Way clearly dealt with something else, before she responded. “Fox Theatre on Woodward! Near downtown. You know where–what the fuck am I saying–the baseball stadium! We’re at the baseball stadium! There’s some big fight going on between the–Rain, get down! Some big fight going on between the Niners and the Eights. They’ve got the big guns a couple blocks north, but we’re catching the edge of it and could use a little–” There was a sudden loud pair of gunshots that cut off her words, and my heart leapt into my stomach until her voice came back midway through a sentence, “–of shit! Paintball?” 

“I’m on my way!” I blurted quickly, wanting the other girl to focus on what she was doing. “I’ll be right there, I’m just–I’m coming, just a few minutes out!” With that, I dismissed the logo on the building nearby before running to the edge of the roof I was on, launching myself upward. Fox Theatre on Woodward. That was the same street where the library that I’d eavesdropped on Paige’s conversation with her father was on, but a couple miles further south. And That-A-Way was right, it was also directly next to Whitaker-Trammell Field, the massive domed baseball stadium (for the Detroit Tigers) my father had helped fund the creation of to replace the former Comerica Park about ten years earlier.

In any case, I really was only a few minutes away. At least the way I traveled. Staying atop the buildings, I raced toward the theater as quickly as possible. My skates seemed to barely touch down before I launched myself again, urging myself to fucking move already. It didn’t matter how fast I was going. It didn’t matter that I was hurtling myself recklessly through the air while barely paying attention to my surroundings. It felt too slow. Go, go, I had to get there. If something happened to That-A-Way, or any of the others, because I was too slow to help… I couldn’t let that happen. I had to get there right god damn now. 

Actually, I really wasn’t paying that much actual attention to my surroundings. I was running along the side of buildings, jumping across billboards, popping my skates out to glide across the very edge of roofs, all while going way too fast to be judging all of this manually. It was like when I was navigating through those trees in the middle of the night. I just… knew where to go. 

Not something to worry about right then. Another example of my weird extra sense or whatever, but I didn’t have time to focus on it. The Minority. That-A-Way. I had to get there to help. Any other weirdness could wait until later. 

On the plus side, it didn’t actually take that long for me to get where I was going. And it took an even shorter amount of time for me to hear some of what was going on. There was gunfire, blaring horns and squealing tires from cars still trying to get away from being in the middle of it, screaming, and more. So much more. I was heading straight into a storm of chaos and violence. And, from the sound of what That-A-Way had said, this was just the edge of things. Just how bad was it further north, where the so-called ‘big guns’ were fighting? 

Pretty bad, clearly. But I had to focus on helping these guys. First, however, I had to see what was going on. My eyes scanned the street below frantically as I came to a stop at the edge of an office building across the street from the theater itself. Below me was the spot where the smaller Columbia street crossed Woodward. Columbia led straight through a couple large parking lots directly in front of the stadium. 

But baseball wasn’t the point. The real point were those two parking lots and the theater across Columbia street. There were people down there, spread all through the street, partially in the theater itself from the look of things, and in those parking lots. It was a mix of police, Prev gang members, Touched gang members, and the Minority. Not to mention a handful of civilians who were cowering on the ground, unable to get out of the line of fire. 

Judging from my quick look, what Way had said made sense. There were definitely two different gangs down there, a mix of Ninety-Niners and Easy Eights. It looked like some kind of massive fight had broken out, the cops intervened and were quickly outgunned, and now the Minority were trying to help. But they too were outnumbered. Luckily, the two gangs seemed more interested in fighting each other than in actually causing damage to the Star-Touched or police.

There. Janus (Uncle Friendly and Mister Harmful) were standing at the edge of the nearest parking lot. They’d made their hands and arms massive, and were currently using them to lash out at the nearby Whamline. But the Minority guy kept launching energy coils that exploded to knock the incoming hands out of the way. He couldn’t do more than that, fighting a defensive battle, because there were two civilians huddled on the ground right behind him. Whamline was covering them, repeatedly knocking Janus’ hands out of the way. But with every grasp, the conjoined men kept getting closer to getting hold of him. They were using the fact that Whamline had to protect the prone civilians against him, almost like they were playing a game. Like a cat with a mouse. They were wearing him down. 

Using one shot of blue paint to launch myself that way, then another on top of the traffic light in the middle of the intersection, I flipped over in the air before shooting a spray of pink toward the tall lamp post about ten feet away from Janus, coating it as much as possible. Just before crashing into that same post (activating a bit of orange on one arm to avoid knocking the wind out of myself), I cancelled the pink paint while blurting, “I know you’re into this villain thing, but–” My full body hit the post, bending it all the way over in half before I threw myself off it to the side. “–I really think you should see the light!” As I said those last words, the lamp post snapped all the way upright and then continued over in the opposite direction, like flicking one of those springy doorstop things. The top of the lamp literally slammed into the top of their joined heads. “Up close and personal-like,” I finished from my crouched position, watching the men reel backward. Or forward, in Uncle Friendly’s case. Not that he looked all that friendly right then. They both seemed fairly annoyed with me, even as the lamp post snapped back to its normal position. But hey, at least I had their attention. 

Green paint, green paint, green paint! Activating the wide emerald wings I’d put on my back, I used the enhanced speed to barely avoid the truck-sized fist that Janus basically launched at me. Hurling myself upward and over, I landed on his extended wrist as that hand shot by right under me, shooting yellow down at that to slow them just a little. At the same time, I threw myself in a sideways flip, hitting the underside of their other arm, which was raised slightly higher, running along that with my gravity-defying boots.  

A few steps in and Janus clearly knew where I was, as the arm lifted up before abruptly slamming toward the ground. They were trying to squish me like a fly. And they might’ve managed it, if I hadn’t used that shot of yellow to slow them slightly. As it was, I barely managed to toss myself at the ground and away from the descending arm, tucking into a forward roll that carried me just out of the way as it slammed into the ground so hard I nearly lost my balance. 

Fortunately, the fact that I’d managed to get their attention so well wasn’t all bad news. It also meant that Whamline was able to regroup. Mister Harmful shouted a cursed warning, but it was too late, as the Minority Touched sent out four quick energy coils, which wrapped around Janus by all four limbs before quickly hurling him out of the way and across to the far side of the lot. 

“Go help Way and Rain!” he blurted at me, pointing to the theater across the street. “They’re inside, with hostages! I’ve got these guys!” 

My head snapped that way. I could see where the doors of the theater had been broken down entirely. That-A-Way and Raindrop were in there with bad guys and innocent civilians, apparently. Without pausing to think at all, I threw myself into a sprint that way, ignoring the screamed threat from Mister Harmful. He didn’t matter. Neither did his conjoined partner. The only thing that mattered was getting to That-A-Way and Raindrop. 

And hoping I wasn’t too late. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter