Paintball

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

New Deals 13-06 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                               Next Chapter

For a few long seconds, I just sat there, frozen from confusion. Pack saw two guys standing there talking to Blackjack. But I saw my parents. Was I being affected by some kind of power that made me see things differently? No. That didn’t make sense, did it? No one in here knew enough about me to make me see my family members over there. Plus, if it was some kind of ‘see people you know’ power or something, Pack wouldn’t just be seeing two random guys. 

Okay, so it wasn’t that. My flash of panic that someone in here knew about my identity and my family and was fucking with me only lasted a brief moment before I got it under control. There was another explanation, one that didn’t involve all my secrets suddenly being out, thank God.

“Dude.” Pack sounded confused and maybe a little exasperated. “Are you okay over there?” 

Was I okay? Hah. Not really, considering the way my heart had just been trying to claw its way out of my chest so it could escape. “Sorry,” I quickly muttered, resisting the urge to stare at Blackjack and the people who were either my parents or looked exactly like them. “It’s been a long day.” And from the looks of it, getting longer by the minute. Wait, all days got longer by the minute. Fuck, I knew what I meant. “You were talking about those… guys.”

Guys, she saw guys. It had to be a power of some kind, right? My parents–wait, was that how they hid their identities? By appearing as different people to others–but why would I see them for who they were? Was I immune to the power or something? Why would I be–hold on…

“Like I said,” Pack was in the middle of replying in a low voice, “they came in to talk to Blackjack. I didn’t hear a lot before they went into the other room, but I heard a name. Tate.” 

That made me do a double-take, looking at her while seeing my mother and father still in the middle of what seemed to be an intense conversation. “Tate? You definitely heard that?” 

“Yeah, as in the name of that kid you were talking to Way about,” she confirmed. “What was it–Andy? Tate, that was right, wasn’t it?” For a brief moment, she sounded uncertain. 

“Anthony,” I corrected in a much lower voice. I still wasn’t comfortable here like this. “Anthony Tate, yeah. So those two came in and talked to your boss, and they said something about Tate.”

“I told you,” she reiterated, “I didn’t hear much. They went into the other room pretty quick. I heard something about Tate, and then something about someone’s father being dead.”

Blinking a couple times, I echoed, “Someone’s father being dead? Whose?” 

Snorting, Pack retorted, “The fuck should I know? I wasn’t exactly in a position to ask for clarification, dude. They said something about someone’s father being dead–oh, I kind of got the impression this wasn’t something new. The way they said it, he’s been dead for awhile.” 

Someone’s father had been dead for awhile. Biting my lip, I tried to sound as casual as possible. “Which one of them said it? What’d they say, exactly? I mean, as much as you can remember.”   

The other girl took a moment, clearly focused on recalling as best as she could. “The guy with the red hair said, ‘The Tate situation was supposed to be over and done with. We put it behind us.’ Then Blackjack said, ‘At least the father’s dead.’ Wait. Wait, did he say ‘the father’ or ‘your father?’ Shit. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure. He either said ‘At least the father’s dead’ or ‘At least your father’s dead.’ Then they went into the other room.” 

Sinking back in my seat, I thought about that for a few seconds. The Tate situation, my parents were annoyed because something about it was coming back to bother them after they thought it was handled. But what? Was it something about Paige? Paige had been erased from my memory around the same time that Anthony was, and I’d heard her talking about how whatever she was doing had something to do with him. She’d specifically said that my mom and dad had no idea where she came from or why she was doing… whatever she was doing because they hadn’t thought about the name Anthony Tate in years. So of course they were connected, but how much of that did my parents know? Was this whole conversation about the Tate situation not being over because of Paige, or because of something else? What prompted that? 

“You sure you’re okay?” Pack was asking, her voice clearly uncertain as she absently scratched one of her lizards. “Do you know those guys over there or something?” 

Boy, talk about being simultaneously very wrong and very right. For a moment, brief as it was, I almost considered telling her about how I wasn’t seeing those two the way she was. But that would’ve led to her asking who I was actually seeing. And even if I just described them instead of saying they were my parents, she’d definitely start looking into those details. And if that led her to who they really were… well, was that really bad? Did I think it was bad because it would put her in danger, or because it would put my family in danger? Which one was I really bothered more by? God damn it, what was wrong with me? 

Finally, after shaking myself, I nodded. “I’ll be fine. And no, I’ve never seen those two guys.” Hell, those words were the literal truth, I had most certainly never seen the two guys she was talking about, not even when I looked right at the two who were supposed to be them. 

And yet it was still a lie. A lie that made me feel like shit after saying it. Pack was a villain, but she’d also been my friend. She’d helped me, had gone out of her way to come save me from Pencil. She had put her lizards in danger to help me, and how was I paying her back? 

Fuck. This whole thing was just so complicated. Too god damn complicated. I had no idea how to make it better. I couldn’t tell her the truth. Not… not yet, right? But no matter how many times I said ‘not yet,’ it was becoming increasingly obvious that I was going to have to make that kind of leap at some point. Once I did, it would be a leap I couldn’t take back. And it felt like the longer I waited, the harder the fall after that leap was going to be. 

I couldn’t see her face, of course, but I had the feeling that Pack was squinting at me uncertainly. After a moment of that, she shook her head. “Well, keep an eye out for them. Sounds like they’re connected to this Anthony Tate thing you’ve been looking into. And…” She hesitated before offering a shrug. “And that other thing you were talking about.” Apparently even Pack didn’t actually want to mention the Ministry out loud right here in the casino. 

“I’ll see what I can find out,” I promised, before adding, “Thanks, Pack. Seriously, I know this whole thing is hard for you after everything La Casa’s done.” 

“Yeah, well, I’m not doing anything against La Casa,” she insisted firmly. “Just looking out for my own interests on top of that. I wanna get to the bottom of this whole thing. I–” In mid-sentence, she glanced over before squinting. “And there they go.” 

Sure enough, my parents and Blackjack were walking away together, heading for one of the exits. Not the one I had come through, of course. 

After we both watched the trio head off, Pack turned back to me. “Right, so, about this whole Trevithick thing. You want help getting Braintrust to play nice.” 

“I want to make sure they know that pushing any harder is going to end up being more of a pain than it’s worth,” I confirmed. “I know we can’t get away with telling them to fuck off completely. Not like that. But giving them something so they feel like they’re walking away the winners, while making sure they know they can’t get anything more than that without a bigger fight? That sounds doable. I mean, with help, yeah.” 

Pack was quiet for another few seconds, before she gave a short nod. “I like the kid. Not just gonna sit around and let her be exploited. So yeah, I’ve got your back. Just tell me when and where so we can make an impression.” 

Thanking her, I added, “Speaking of making an impression, you’ve gotta tell me. What does the new lizard turn into?” 

“Scatters?” There was sly amusement to the girl’s voice. “Oh, I’m not telling you yet. 

“You’ll just have to wait and find out.”

*****

I couldn’t just leave Wren out of the situation entirely, much as I might’ve liked to. That wasn’t fair to her, given the fact that the whole thing was about Braintrust wanting to use her talents in one way or another. She deserved to know what was going on and be included in this situation.

So, Pack and I went there next. Actually, we called to arrange a meeting the next day, but Fred said the kid tended to work through the night and sleep in the mornings (being home-schooled through the afternoon). So, we headed over right then. To keep things subtle and avoid drawing attention to the girl, we used her car (or at least, a car that La Casa allowed her to use), with heavily tinted windows, heading for Wren’s shop. 

The girl herself met us on the main shop floor, literally (with the help of her little winged jetpack thing) throwing herself clear from the elevator to the entrance to half-crash into the girl beside me for a tight hug while squealing, “Pack! You’re okay! Hi! Are the lizards okay?! Can I see ‘em? Are they sleeping? Can I pet ‘em? Are they hungry? Can I feed ‘em? Did you really get a new one? Is it a boy or a girl? Did you bring her? Wait, did you eat already? Are you hungry? We could get pizza. For us, not for the lizards. But I have crickets and worms and stuff for them just in case! Hey, maybe they could put those on a pizza!” 

The words all came in a rush, blurted out as soon as Wren thought of them, without any pause to allow Pack to actually respond. And through it all, she clung tightly to the other girl as if she was a long-lost best friend who had only just returned. It reminded me of the fact that these two had bonded for days while Pack stayed around Wren when the whole situation with the vials was going on. Pack wasn’t some criminal to Wren. She was a friend. 

Then again, she wasn’t some criminal to me either. It was a lot more complicated than that. More complicated than even she knew, really. I didn’t exactly have that much right to judge her given who my family was and the fact that I still hadn’t told anyone about it. Yeah, it was dangerous, but it was also… fuck. It was complicated. All of it was just so complicated. 

Shaking that off for the moment, I watched as Pack introduced Scatters to Wren, who basically lost her mind over the adorable little neon gecko. Pack pulled the rest of her lizards out of their cage and carried them to the nearby table, where they ate from the assortment of reptile-appropriate food that the Tech-Touched girl had provided. Wren, of course, asked the same thing I had, about what Scatters turned into. Again, Pack deferred for the moment, promising to show both of us after we talked to the girl about what we had to talk about. 

And then we did just that. Well, after asking for Fred (he’d been up in the apartment area) to come down so we could talk to both of them together. I laid out everything that happened with Braintrust, how they had approached me, their offer/request/demand, and why I thought it was for the best to appease them at the moment to avoid any problems. I promised that I was going to look into dealing with their group for good, but that that was a long ways off and I didn’t want Wren or Fred to become targets in the meantime. 

“I’m not making anything for them,” the nine-year-old blonde insisted flatly, folding her arms stubbornly across her chest while setting her chin. “They’ll hurt people with it. And I’m not helping them fix their own stuff.” 

“Yeah,” I replied with a glance toward Fred. “That’s kinda what I assumed. Which leaves the option of paying taxes to them for operating in the city. Pack and me are gonna go over there, find them, and let them know that they’ll get a small bit out of whatever you sell, and that’s it.” 

“But you can’t just beat them up and arrest them?” Wren sounded confused, staring at me with those wide sea-green eyes. “They’re bad guys, they do really bad… err…” She trailed off, glancing toward Pack as though only just realizing that the other girl was technically a villain.

Pack, for her part, sounded a little amused as she casually drawled, “Everyone’s got their reasons for doing stuff. And everyone’s got friends that do bad things sometimes. These guys aren’t your friends, and they’re demanding you give them money or toys to hurt people with.” 

“Yeah, what she said.” I agreed, before adding, “And I’m pretty sure I’m not ready to take on a whole gang of Touched-Tech-Enhanced supercriminals yet.” My fingers tapped the side of my helmet. “Not that I haven’t pissed off plenty of them already, but it feels like I should pace myself.” I did not point out that I didn’t want Wren and Fred to be targets. It felt like the younger girl wouldn’t take that very well. I wasn’t sure if she’d insist she could take care of herself, or be upset that I wasn’t fighting the bad guys just to protect her, or what. But I was pretty sure framing it as me having too much to take on right then without adding yet another gang of pissed off supervillains would play better with her.

From the way Fred looked at me, he understood the rest of what I wasn’t saying. The man offered me what was obviously a thankful nod, but let his niece do most of the talking. 

It worked. Wren still clearly didn’t like the idea of appeasing the bad guys, for sure. But she accepted that it wasn’t a fight we needed right now and that the best way to handle it was to hand money to them so they’d go away. At least until we were ready. She did, however, insist that she was going to work on ideas to deal with Braintrust while also reiterating that she was never going to build anything for them, no matter what. That was her firm line in the sand. 

After that was settled, Pack took Scatters and transformed the tiny, colorful lizard into her alternate form. Which, as it turned out, was an equally colorful large reindeer. Seriously, this thing was metallic blue along most of the body, its legs were darker blue, it had a black stripe running down the sides to offset the two blues, and its head and antlers were bright green. 

Wren lost her mind all over again, grabbing onto and hugging the incredibly beautiful reindeer-lizard while cooing about how adorable she was. 

Pack informed us that they were working on a saddle for Scatters, after helping Fred pick Wren up and set her on the animal’s back. The young inventor held on tight, squealing happily as Scatters took her for a short, slow trot around the inside of the shop. She was having the time of her life. Which made me wonder how much she’d love it if the lizard-deer could go out on the street and let loose. 

Someday, I told myself, I’m gonna show that kid how to have a really good time, without a bunch of stupid supervillain bullshit getting in the way.

Pack interrupted my thoughts about that by raising her voice to ask, “Hey, Wren, you think my new friend is cool, has Paintball over there shown you his new paint thing yet?” 

“New paint thing?” Wren, still perched atop the neon lizard-deer, echoed curiously while looking over at me. Fred, standing a bit out of the way, also looked interested. 

So, I showed them how the pink paint worked. That was as much of a hit as Scatters was, especially once I showed Wren how she could stretch her limbs out while they were pink. She thought that was the funniest thing in the world, and kept having Fred hold her hand in place while she ran the other way to pull her arm as far out as she could. 

Watching the kid goofing off like that while occasionally redoing the pink paint again, or shooting some random object she pointed out with it, I found my thoughts shifting back to what I’d seen at the casino. My parents except not my parents. They had been at the casino in some kind of… power-enhanced disguise? Except whose power? Maybe it was a Tech-Touched device. Right, that made sense. Some kind of… umm…illusion-generator that somehow didn’t work on our own family? Maybe so that they could keep track of each other and still see each other for who they–wait. 

Was that why I’d seen Simon out without any kind of mask or anything on? Was that why he’d been going around apparently without anything to protect his identity, because he was using one of those illusion devices? That made sense too. I’d wondered before about just why my brother could go around without a mask or anything to hide his face. If he was using that illusion tech, it would explain a lot. Even if it didn’t explain exactly where those illusion devices came from. At the very least, it made sense that my family would have access to them. 

Which might also explain how my father could be in two places at once, come to think of it. It could help explain how he could operate as Silversmith and appear as himself at the same function, if they used that illusion tech on someone else to look like him. That was probably part of it. 

“Hey, kid.” That was Fred, watching me curiously from nearby while Pack and Wren whispered about something over by Scatters. “You okay? Seemed kinda… lost there for a minute.” 

Forcing all those thoughts away for the time being, I made myself nod. “Oh, yeah. I’m good. I just found a couple pieces to a puzzle I’ve been working on for a long time.” 

Of course, this illusion thing meant it would be even harder for me to prove my family were the bad guys even if I found someone I could safely point that out to. What was I supposed to do, point at someone who, to everyone else looked like some random guy, and insist he was my mother? Somehow, I didn’t think that would go very well. To say nothing of all the other illusion-tricks they could pull. 

It was something, at least. As I’d told Fred, it was a couple more pieces to this puzzle. It didn’t solve the entire problem, but at least it answered a couple questions for me. True, none of those answers were to the question of what I was supposed to do with everything I knew. But hey, at least I was making progress. 

While lost in those thoughts, my normal phone buzzed in my pocket. Knowing that I had to check in case it was my parents so they didn’t send out a search party, I made sure no one was paying attention before tugging it out. It was an e-mail, and I almost put it away again before doing a double-take. The e-mail was an invitation to a birthday party on Saturday, just a few days away. That wasn’t that odd, considering how many birthdays and other things I got invited to regularly. The odd part was that it was for Paige. 

Now why the hell would Paige Banners invite me to her birthday party? 

Previous Chapter                                               Next Chapter

New Deals 13-05 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                    Next Chapter

In case you missed it, there was a commissioned interlude focusing on a certain very special termite colony posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

I’d seen casinos in person before. Not that I’d actually stepped inside them, of course. But my family and I had stayed at hotels where casinos were, and I’d seen the rooms themselves from a distance. This one, though, was far different from those glimpses I’d had of the public versions. Emerging from the elevator, I didn’t see a massive, wide-open area full of bright, colorful slot machines loudly clanging and chiming everywhere. I didn’t see neon lights, scantily-clad women walking around with trays of snacks and drinks, or… anything I typically associated with an idea of what a casino floor looked like from my own experiences and movies. 

Instead, I mostly saw an enormous circular room, big enough to hold a full-size basketball game in. Directly in the middle of that circular room was an equally circular bar that took up maybe one-fourth of the space. There were a bunch of people sitting at the bar, and others serving them from behind it. Or within, rather, given the fact it was a circle. Either way, most of them, employees and guests alike, were wearing masks of various kinds. It wasn’t one hundred percent or anything. I did see a couple people’s faces. And some of the masks were clearly more elaborate or expensive than others. But elaborate or cheap, most people wore something that in some way obscured their identities, just as Paige had said. 

The bar itself seemed to be made entirely of glass in a way that was clearly deliberately meant to resemble ice. It was ‘frosted over’ in places, had actual buckets of ice sitting out with bottles resting in them, and so on. As if the whole thing had been carved out of a frozen block.  

The floor under my feet resembled ice-like glass as well. It was like stepping onto a skating rink, except not slippery at all. Actually, there was a tiny bit of bounce to the floor, making it soft to walk on despite its appearance. And it wasn’t just the floor that maintained that appearance. The walls, the decorations, the soft blue lighting that filled the room, it was all winter themed. 

Meanwhile, in the area immediately surrounding the bar, there were tables where people were quietly playing cards. On the far side of the room, opposite where I had come in, there were the games like roulette and craps. You had to go up a very short flight of about three steps to a vaguely raised area to reach those tables, and there was some kind of guard or bouncer posted next to the steps. What he was there for, I wasn’t exactly sure. But he was definitely a big guy, and it looked like he had a visible gun attached to his hip. So they weren’t screwing around. Like the rest of the people in here, the bouncer over there wore a mask. His was shaped like a bull’s head, with actual horns. He looked like a modern minotaur armed with a Glock or something.

Finally, there were doors scattered around the entire outside edge of the large room, even some up on the raised area where the roulette and craps tables were. Most of the doors had keypads next to them, as well as some kind of intercom. Some were labeled with numbers and names I didn’t know the meaning of, like ‘Starfall’ or ‘Viridescent.’ It was that latter door that I saw Paige pass through, giving me one last look and wave before it closed after her. 

Other doors were more simply named with obvious meanings like, ‘Slots Room 1’ or ‘Karaoke Room 3.’ I didn’t really need to think much about those ones, obviously. 

Curious, I checked the maps and GPS thing that Wren had included in my helmet display. As expected, they were offline. People like me weren’t allowed to know where this place was. 

Just as I managed to take all of that in, a voice from one side drew my attention. “Ahh, Mr. Paintball.” It was a man in a well-tailored suit, wearing a white, form-fitting mask against his face with only his mouth exposed. Even his eyes seemed to be covered, though he could clearly see through it. He was approaching me briskly, his voice quick, yet polite. “Such a pleasure to have you take a look at our establishment. I trust you have been informed of the rules here.” 

“No fighting, no trying to unmask people, no acting like you know them if they haven’t introduced themselves to you, mind your own business, basically?” I offered with a shrug. “I got the rundown, yeah.” And unless I missed my guess, this guy had probably already heard everything that had happened outside from Tell. 

“Very good, sir,” the white-masked man politely replied with a slight nod. “We take such rules quite seriously here, I assure you. That is how we remain in business. I am called Chips. Was there anyone you wished to meet, a game you might like to try? Rest assured, we also have rooms full of the finest and most advanced… ahhh… ‘video games’ if you would like to rent time by the hour.” 

Before I could say anything to that, Pack approached from around one of the nearby tables with a quick, “I’ve got it, Chips. Thanks. Paintball just needed to settle a little bet we made while all that was going on with the boss’s kid.” She had Riddles perched on one shoulder (in lizard form), but her other pets weren’t in view.   

“Very good, Miss Pack,” came the crisp response. “Please do let someone know if you require anything further. It would be our pleasure to provide for someone who was so instrumental in the protection of our princess.” 

He pivoted on one heel then, striding away. Watching him go, I lowered my voice. “So what did you want to show me? Please tell me it’s not the sick game room you rented out.” 

Instead of answering right away, Pack glanced around before turning. “This way, walk with me.” Turning, she headed around the edge of the room, counter-clockwise. Riddles, on her shoulder, turned a bit as though making sure I was following. 

So, I did. Picking up the pace to catch up with her, I spoke up. “Look at all the people around here. You wouldn’t know it was… wait, what time is it? I’ve lost track. It’s been a busy night.”

On the way, I saw some people look up from their games or drinks. They didn’t pay too much attention, given that was apparently against the rules. But my appearance obviously made them curious. Yeah, I had no idea what they were making of the fact that I was here. How well known was the fact that I had helped Blackjack with his daughter?

“It’s about one in the morning,” came the response, before Pack gestured to a table in a darker area far from any of the games. Her lizards were all spread out over the surface, happily crawling over one another as well as eating and drinking from bowls that had been laid out for them. Except… 

“Hey,” I spoke up, pointing to a tiny (seriously, it was about the length of her finger) lizard with a neon blue body and bright green head. “That one’s new.” 

Pack pulled out a chair, sitting down before kicking the leg of another for me to join her. She put her hand down close to the lizard in question, letting it run up her fingers. Then she lifted her opposite hand, watching as the beautiful thing jumped almost a foot to reach it. “This is Scatters. She’s new, yeah.” 

Taking the offered seat, I smiled behind my helmet, leaning a bit closer. “She’s really pretty.” 

“Believe me, she knows,” Pack drawled, setting the lizard back on the table near a bowl of water. “She’s a daredevil and a show-off.” Shaking her head, she focused on me, her voice low. “Okay, so my thing I can’t really show you yet. People came to talk to Blackjack.” 

“Wait.” I quickly put in. “Should we be saying anything? I mean with–” 

“It’s okay,” she interrupted. “No surveillance allowed in the casino. And trust me, I know how fucking weird that is. They have ways of checking for cheaters, but they don’t allow cameras, bugs, or any kind of recording devices. It’s the only way this place attracts the clientele it does, and they have lots of people come in to make sure it stays that way. No one wants to have any chance that things they say in here, or even just the fact that they were here, could get out. See those things up near the ceiling?” She gestured to what looked like loudspeakers positioned throughout the room. “They stop your phone from working, any GPS you have, cameras, audio recording equipment, whatever. None of that stuff works in here, even for us. And I had Eits check, just to be completely sure. If it ever got out that La Casa did keep any kind of surveillance here, this place would be completely dead. And everyone else in the city would probably unite to attack us.” 

“What about people with eavesdropping powers?” I pointed out quickly. “Enhanced hearing, that kind of thing.” Even if they couldn’t record what we were saying, I really didn’t want to take the chance of anyone even hearing it. There was too much at stake, too many ways someone having the slightest idea of what we were doing could totally fuck all of us over, evidence or no.

“Stand up,” Pack urged, gesturing for me to move. “Take a step over there and look at me.” 

Uncertain, I did so, rising from the chair and taking a few steps away. Again, I could see a few people glance over, some clearly more interested than they actually wanted to show. I was a young boy (as far as they knew) Star-Touched sitting in this secret casino. Obviously, they were a bit curious. Which, again, made me wonder just what they thought was really happening here.

Either way, I took those few steps away before looking at Pack. She pointedly reached up, lifting the black, featureless mask enough (revealing dark skin) that I could see her mouth open as she started to speak. And I heard… nothing. Her mouth was moving, but no sound was coming out. Or– she beckoned for me to come closer. So I did, and she held up a hand to stop me, reaching up to take my arm. Mouth still moving, she pulled me forward and down to be within a foot of her. Instantly, I heard her reciting some monologue speech. It sounded like it was from a play or a movie or something. Whatever it was, she was reciting it carefully. After another word, she gave me a push backward by the arm. The second my head was a few inches further away, the sound disappeared. Her mouth kept moving, but I heard absolutely nothing. 

Pack repeated that a couple times, pulling me forward to hear, then pushing me back to demonstrate that the sound disappeared. Finally, she gestured for me to sit down, tugging her mask back down over her mouth as she explained, “Touched-Tech attached to the tables. Makes it impossible to hear things if you’re not invited to the meeting. No eavesdropping allowed. Again, that’s how this place can function as a place for secret meetings, dude. You think we’re the only ones who would be in deep shit if our secrets got out? This whole world revolves around secrets. Nobody would trust La Casa’s casino as a place to have their meetings at if there was any chance, any chance those secrets might get out. Like I said, they have independents and people from other gangs show up to inspect the place. Blackjack isn’t gonna risk giving up the money all these people bring in just to catch a random secret or two before people figure things out and we all become public enemy number one.” 

She had a point. I knew that. Everything she said made complete logical sense. Still, I didn’t like it. It was too risky. Which maybe made me too paranoid. All the stuff Pack told me about how protected everyone’s privacy was in this place, and I still didn’t trust it. Because the real problem was, the second I trusted something like that and was wrong was the second everything fell apart. I couldn’t take that kind of risk, not with something like that. The thought of any of these bad guys, even Blackjack, finding out who my parents were was just… bad. Very bad. 

So, I wasn’t going to say anything too dangerous, just in case. But I supposed the bit about Wren wasn’t the worst possible thing for anyone to overhear if the privacy measures failed or whatever. With that in mind, I explained everything that had happened with Cavalcade and Glitch, how Braintrust wanted Wren to start paying her way in one form or another. Though I still used the kid’s chosen Touched name instead of her real one. I also made a point of not outright talking about how this was obviously related to the Ministry tax thing, but the implications between my words were obvious enough that I could tell the other girl picked up on it. 

When I was done, Pack gave a long series of muttered curses. “Those guys are pretty arrogant fucks, huh? I don’t suppose just going in there and beating their asses is an option.” 

“I don’t think I’m quite ready to challenge a gang like that, even if you helped,” I murmured dryly. “Kinda got a lot going on as it is. Besides, they’d be after Trevithick, not me. And I can’t be there to help her twenty-four seven. I don’t wanna put her under that kind of pressure.” 

Shrugging then, I added, “I mean, sure, working on getting rid of Braintrust is a noble goal and all. Probably more noble than you care about. But that’s a long term thing. Short term, keeping them happy and away from Trevithick is the best way to go.” 

“She’s not gonna make stuff for them,” Pack observed quietly, leaning back in her seat as she watched me for a moment. “All the time I spent with that kid during that whole thing… yeah, she’ll never go for that part. She is not gonna make toys for the evil, terrible supervillains.” I had a feeling her eyes were rolling a bit as she over-stressed those last few words pointedly. 

“You’re right,” I agreed. “She won’t make stuff for them and she won’t consult on any of their projects. That’s just… that’s not her. I–well, maybe she would. If she thought it would help us, if she thought her uncle or one of us was in danger, she might do what they said just to protect them. But it would… it would hurt her. She’d hate it. She’d–I don’t want to do that to her.”

“So what are you gonna do?” Pack asked curiously, fingers idly brushing the head of Mars Bar.

“I think the best thing to do is to tell her about the tax part, about paying them out of money that she makes selling her stuff,” I carefully answered. “I can help a bit.” I could help more than a bit, but I didn’t want to be too cavalier about the money I had access to. It felt like that might be a bit risky as far as maintaining my secret identity went. “But the point is, it’ll take time to set all that up. Meaning I need to make sure the Braintrust people understand they’re only getting a little bit and that it’ll be awhile before they start seeing any of it. And that if they start playing hardball, it won’t go well for them.”

“You want backup for that,” Pack realized. “You want someone to help you make sure Glitch and her people know if they pick a fight with the kid over this whole thing, they’ll be biting off a bigger piece than they think.” 

I nodded once. “Yeah. They’re playing relatively nice now, but the… implications were pretty obvious. I want them to know there’s a bigger fight than they might think if they try to push too hard, too fast. They’ll get something out of it, but they have to back off until Trevithick’s damn good and ready.” Even as I said that, a sigh escaped me. “I’m a shitty Star-Touched, huh? Look where I am. Look what I’m doing. I’m talking about getting some innocent–I’m talking about getting Trevithick to pay taxes to a fucking supervillain gang instead of just fighting them.”

“You’re talking about not throwing her under the bus to satisfy your ego,” came Pack’s retort. “You already said taking them down or whatever is a long term goal. Which is pretty damn ambitious on its own, for the record. But keeping them off Trevithick’s back for now, that’s not a bad thing. Like you said, you can’t be there twenty-four se–wait, here we go.” 

Before I could ask what that last bit meant, she urged, “Don’t look up too fast or too obviously. Use your helmet to cover it, just turn your eyes as much as you can. Like I said before, some people came to talk to Blackjack. They were in one of the private rooms over there. Very carefully, just turn your eyes to look a bit to the left, that way.” 

Uncertain, I did so. And immediately almost fell out of my chair. Because she was right, Blackjack was there. And he was standing with my parents. They were just… there. No masks or anything. Standing right in the open. 

I was so shocked in that moment, that they would be so brazen, that I didn’t say anything for a second. And with my helmet, that meant Pack couldn’t see my reaction. Which turned out to be a good thing, as she noted, “I just wish I knew who they were.” 

Wait. Wished she knew who they were? My parents were… kind of famous, especially around Detroit. It was possible she might not recognize them, but… “You don’t know who they are?” I asked carefully, trying to keep my voice even instead of letting it shake. My gaze was locked onto my parents, who were deep in conversation with Blackjack. 

“Nah,” came the response. “Do you? They seemed important when they showed up, but I’ve never seen them before.” She chuckled then. “Too bad we can’t take a picture and put it out there like, ‘Does anyone recognize these two guys?’” 

My head started to nod, then I stopped. “Two guys?” 

“Uhh, yeah, dude.” Pack sounded slightly confused. “Those two men standing right over there with Blackjack. The tall guy with the black crewcut and the red-haired guy next to him.” 

Was… was she blind? Neither of my parents had red hair, and my mother certainly wasn’t a guy. Unlike me, she could never have been mistaken for a boy. She had long black hair, while my father’s hair was dark blond with just a bit of distinguishing gray to it. They… they didn’t look a single bit like what she was describing. And yet, they were very clearly the only people standing there talking to Blackjack. 

So why the fuck was I seeing my parents talking to him, while Pack saw two entirely different people?

Previous Chapter                                    Next Chapter

New Deals 13-04 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                            Next Chapter

When I abruptly told the Sell-Touched that I would go with her after all, she did a quick doubletake. Obviously, she hadn’t been expecting that. For a second, the woman just looked in my direction, squinting through the goggles. “That right?” she finally settled on, before adding, “Just a quick little tip kid, if you think you can use this whole thing as a way to make a name for yourself by busting a bunch of people just having fun at this casino, I don’t know what kind of–” 

“It’s neutral ground, I know,” I quickly assured her. “Starting shit at the casino is a good way of pissing off everyone in the city who isn’t government-aligned. And even some of them. When you’re at the casino, you play nice with everyone else that’s there, or you become a target.” That much had been made clear in the documentary about Detroit Touched that I’d watched awhile back. They didn’t actually get to go to the place (or any other couple designated neutral points), but there’d been enough details from interviews and the like to make that much clear. 

After another brief moment of watching me, clearly trying to read exactly what I intended, Cavalcade gave a short nod. “Okay, kid. Let’s go to the casino. I’ll show you how independent Star-Touched like you are supposed to get there. But first…” She trailed off meaningfully. 

“Money, right.” Giving a quick nod, I reached into my pocket, producing the five one hundred dollar bills that I’d already set aside before holding them out for her. “We’re good now, yeah?” 

“Sure, kid, we’re good.” That answer came after Cavalcade had taken the money, examined it carefully as though to check for counterfeits or something, then tucked the five bills away. “We’re totally good. Now, let’s get to the games so I can be even better than good.” 

Something told me Cavalcade and Pack could have a whole conversation about how much they liked getting paid, or just money in general. Maybe between the two of them they could eventually get a big pool full of cash and swim in it. Actually, Cavalcade was still a bit of a mystery, but I really wouldn’t put it past Pack to do exactly that if she had the chance. 

In any case, the Sell-Touched led me back to her car, already explaining. “The way people like you get to the casino is a little different from people like me, or Fells. Don’t think of it as people not trusting you, but uhhh… actually yeah, yeah, think of it as people not trusting you. You’re a fine, upstanding citizen, a good guy. So you don’t get to know exactly where the casino is.” 

As we drove, she explained that there was a building for Star-Touched like me to go to, a place nowhere near the actual casino. There would be a guard whom I would tell about wanting to visit the casino. He’d do whatever he needed to in order to make sure I was on the up-and-up, then send me in to the next step. 

Cavalcade explained everything I needed to do, before pulling to a stop in front of an old three story office building across the street from a car dealership. “Here we go, kid. I don’t feel like going through all the rigamarole, so you have fun. Maybe I’ll see you in there. But just–one more time, don’t start shit just because you see a bad guy, okay? Save it for the streets.” 

Giving her a thumbs up, I stepped out of the car and walked toward the building. It had occurred to me that I could insist that Pack meet me elsewhere to avoid going in a place like this. But she’d seemed insistent that she had to show me something. Plus, I was kind of curious to see how this casino thing worked. Hell, I had a suspicion it might actually be connected to my parents after all. Neutral ground that was somehow enforced for everyone? That sounded a lot like Ministry-related stuff to me. 

So, taking a deep breath as I approached the doors, I focused on the man who was standing there. He looked like any ordinary guard, wearing a pair of brown pants and a white, ill-fitting shirt with a random security company name across the sewn-on badge. He was leaning against the doorway, straightening when I walked toward him. “Hey, there, Paintball!” His voice was cheerful, and when I got closer, I could see the smile stretched across his face. He was kind of a heavy-looking guy, with a bright, flushed face and lines that made it clear smiling was his default expression. He kind of looked like a young, brown-haired Santa Claus, to be honest. Only maybe a little more cheerful. He definitely did not look like a hardcore guard protecting a possible entrance to a place full of Fell-And-Sell-Touched, that was for sure. I was pretty sure he wasn’t even wearing a weapon aside from the heavy maglight that hung from his belt. 

“Um, hi.” I hesitated before raising a hand. Cavalcade had said this was the right place. Plus, come to think of it, they obviously wouldn’t want someone who looked like a paramilitary badass standing out in the open. So, I pushed on with the phrase the woman had given me. “I’d like to play a ginny run up to the royal flush.” Apparently the passphrase changed every once in awhile and you had to be in good standing to get the new one. But it was always something like that. 

“Well!” The man in front of me smiled even more, letting out a loud chuckle that filled the air around me. It actually made me feel a little better about the whole situation, taking some of the uncertain tension out of me. I felt like everything was going to be okay. “You’re not trying to get in there to fight or arrest anyone, are you?” His tone was light and teasing, as if I couldn’t possibly be doing anything like that. And in that moment, I knew I could trust him. He was a good guy, a friend. He was everything I’d been looking for in a confidant. 

A confidant. That was it. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? I could tell him everything I knew about the Ministry. I could tell him about my family, about the fact that I was really a girl, even about the whole situation with my memories, and about Pa–

“Paintball?” A familiar voice interrupted my rush of thoughts, making me jerk that way.

She wore a mask, a simple white cloth mask secured to her turtleneck. But I knew the voice immediately. It was the voice of a person whose name had, in that very moment, been in my mind. Paige. It was Paige Banners, in the flesh, standing a bit behind me with her arms folded. The white simple, blank white mask with eye holes in it couldn’t disguise her voice. It was her, I knew for a fact. She was squinting curiously at me. “What’re you doing here?” 

Blinking at the masked Paige, a rush of thoughts came over me. First of all, what the fuck?! Not her, this guy. I had been about to spill every possible secret I had to him if he’d asked. In that moment, I’d thought he was my best friend, someone I could trust with my life. How–what the fuck?

Power. He had to be Touched. That was the only explanation. He was Psy-Touched. That was the one that meant their power affected other people’s minds. 

No wonder he was guarding this door. Not only did he look completely non-threatening, he had a power that made people confide in him. God, what if he’d asked something that made me spill something important? 

“Tell.” Paige looked past me to the man in question, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. “You weren’t trying to get secrets out of my friend here, were you?” 

The man looked abashed, waving a hand. “Shucks, Miss Kahn, I wasn’t actually gonna make him spill anything important. I know the rules, I was just checking to see if he was here for anything bad, you know? Gotta do my job and all, and it’s my job to make sure overzealous heroes and the like don’t find their way into the casino. Keeps everyone safe and all. I know how to ask safe questions.” 

“Uh huh.” Paige (or Miss Kahn, according to the guard) didn’t sound convinced, but also didn’t push the issue. Instead, she looked at me. “You sure you wanna go in there, Paintball? It’s like the guy said, they don’t allow any funny business, and if you break up the truce, well… I’d hate to see you turn into target numero uno for everyone in the city with a grudge against heroes.”

For a second, I just stared at her. Seeing Paige like this was just… weird. She was wearing a mask like it was second nature, was interacting with the La Casa guard as if she’d done so dozens of times. And she was talking to me like a normal person, not as if she loathed my very existence. 

Had it really been like this before? Had Paige, the girl who had done everything she could to insult, belittle, and demean me for every day that I remembered her, actually been my friend once upon a time? Had we really once been so close that, upon being found surrounded by dead bodies, she pleaded with the authorities to find me? Did she really just not remember, like I didn’t? 

There were so many questions I wanted to ask. But I couldn’t. Especially not right then, in front of our onlooker. Instead, I snapped myself out of it just as my silence had dragged on almost too long, blurting, “I’ve just got somebody I need to talk to, no big deal. I’m not going to cause trouble.” 

“There, see, Tell?” Paige gestured to the guard. “He’s not about to cause trouble. He’s with me anyway, I’ll take him.” She gave me a sidelong look, her voice pointed, “I’m sure he won’t make me look bad.” 

Oh boy, were there a lot of things I almost wanted to say to that. But I bit my tongue and gave a quick nod. “No trouble here. Like I said, I just need to talk to someone–err, someone who will want to talk to me. This isn’t like a confrontation or anything.”

The guard, Tell, apparently, stepped out of the way while opening the door. “In that case, go ahead, Paintball. And it’s great to see you again, Miss Kahn. You both have a fun, safe time. And good luck at the games if you play any.” 

Paige walked past me, grabbing my sleeve on the way past. With a quick glance toward Tell, who had turned his attention back to the road, I followed her into the small lobby. The place looked empty. Paige didn’t even glance at me on her way to the nearby elevator, where she hit the button to go up. The doors immediately opened, and she stepped through. 

Right, if Cavalcade had been on the level about this, the elevator was actually connected through Touched-Tech to another building entirely somewhere else in town. It would deliver us to the casino. this way people who weren’t exactly trusted by La Casa could visit the place without actually knowing where it was physically located. There was also supposed to be jammers blocking any phone signal or other tracking devices. When you went to the casino, you had to go dark to the outside world. 

So yeah, here was hoping I didn’t end up in some kind of trouble in there, or my parents didn’t suddenly have a panic attack about not being able to reach me. Cuz I was about to be out of contact for awhile. 

With a deep breath, I stepped into the elevator, letting the doors close behind me. My voice cracked just a little. “So, come here often?” 

Instead of answering immediately, Paige reached out to hit the door stop button. Which was weird, because the elevator wasn’t moving yet anyway. She held that button down, then hit four of the floor buttons in quick succession before looking to me. “Okay, we’ve got privacy now. Seriously, Paintball, I know you said you’re not going in there to make trouble, and I believe you, but do you know what you’re getting into?” 

Whelp, there was a lot I wanted to say to that too. There was a lot I wanted to say to Paige in general. A part of me wanted to just take off the mask and ask her what the fuck happened all those years ago, if she remembered us being friends, if she thought I betrayed her or something, why she singled me out to hate so much. I just–damn it, I wanted answers. Every time I thought I was about to get some answers when it came to Paige, I just ended up with more questions. So yeah, part of me wanted to just get the whole thing over with, expose who I was and what I knew about her our apparently shared past, and just… deal with it. 

But as with everything else, that was a genie that I wouldn’t be able to put back in the bottle. The second Paige knew who I was, she’d stop treating me like Paintball and start treating me like Cassidy. And ever since I remembered knowing her, treating me like Cassidy meant bad things. Treating me like Cassidy meant I couldn’t trust her. 

I couldn’t take that risk. I couldn’t expose my identity and secrets like that. Not to her. Especially not before I knew more about her whole situation and why she had started acting this way. The danger of what would happen, of what Paige could do if she reacted poorly to the whole thing was too dangerous. 

So, I just kept things simple. “I need to talk to one of the La Casa Touched. Nothing bad or anything, just… need to tell them something I found out. We’re sort of… working on something. It’s mutually beneficial.” Yeah, something I found out, like the fact that Braintrust had their eyes on Wren and wanted her to start paying taxes. The paying part wasn’t even an issue, really. I’d work on that myself if it came down to it. But Wren deserved to know what was going on, and that Braintrust wanted either money, donations of tech, or consultation in exchange for leaving her alone. 

If it was about me, I’d tell them to fuck off and take my chances. But Wren was just a kid, and she deserved the chance to be left alone to do her work without dealing with someone whose entire schtick involved, in part, making Touched-Tech temporarily not work right. I couldn’t be there to back her up all the time. Until–unless there was a better answer, a better way of making Glitch and the rest of Braintrust back off, keeping them happy by playing along was the best thing I could think of. 

Paige was staring at me. “Mutually beneficial,” she echoed flatly. 

Clearing my throat, I gestured. “Uhh, yeah, anyway, what about you? You look pretty comfortable wearing that mask, walking into a place like this.” 

“Most people wear masks in the casino,” Paige informed me, stressing the word to make it abundantly clear. “Even the Prevs. You’d be surprised what kind of important people show up there that you’d never think would hang out in a place owned by supervillains.” I had a feeling she was smiling behind the cloth that covered everything but her eyes. “No one can attack each other, forced neutrality, full privacy, everything you could want. They even have pretty good food and entertainment. And no one bothers enforcing any kind of minimum age requirement. Not like they’re going to be raided by the cops, you know? Hell, a lot of the people in there are the cops. Dirty ones, anyway. Not that they’ll admit that. Another one of the rules is you can’t call people out on who they are if they’re trying to keep it hidden, no matter how obvious it is.”

“You sure know an awful lot about all this stuff,” I pointed out gently. And oh boy was that the understatement of the century. What the hell was her deal? What was–what was everything about Paige? Where had she come from, what happened to her memory, why was she connected to Anthony, who was her father, why did she hate me now, why had she been around those dead bodies, what was she doing

At the moment, what she was doing was offering a shrug while glancing away with a thoughtful, “Point is, it’s a good place to have secret meetings.” 

“You have a lot of secret meetings?” I asked, trying not to sound too much like I wanted to violently shake her until she gave me real answers. It was a really close call.

In response to the question, the other girl reached out to hold the door closed button again, before pushing the nine button four times and the eight button three times. Which would’ve looked kind of odd in general, given this building only had two floors. Immediately, the elevator made a humming sound. It felt sort of like we were moving, but not really. It was a strange sensation that made my stomach just a little queasy for a moment. 

Either way, while that was happening, Paige finally replied, “A girl’s gotta keep herself busy, you know? Believe me, I’m being careful. And hey–” She gave me a quick hug that left me sputtering. “–thanks for not being all pissed at me, dude. See you around, and good luck with your meeting with the lizard girl!” 

Then the elevator opened to admit us to the casino, just before Paige was through the doors and gone. 

Previous Chapter                                            Next Chapter

New Deals 13-03 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                    Next Chapter

The building that Cavalcade had brought me to was an old pizza restaurant that had been closed for awhile. The neon sign with the place’s name was still above the door, but several of the letters were missing, and there were boards over the windows. It looked like there should’ve been boards over the door itself too, but they had been pulled off and moved to the side. The interior lights were on, so there was at least still power in the place, and I could hear music. 

Glancing to my escort, I waited until she pointed to the door. Then I sighed and walked that way, opening it up before stepping through with the mercenary right behind me. Here went nothing.

Most of the tables that had been in the dining area of the pizza place were gone. What remained was a single card table that had obviously been brought in just for this, along with a couple metal folding chairs, all of which was arranged in the middle of the room. A single figure sat casually at the chair facing the door where we were coming in, and a couple more were at the far end of the room behind the counter, half-hidden by the enormous pizza ovens. 

The two Touched at the back of the room were instantly recognizable. One was Fabulist, the guy in gleaming silver armor that displayed a bunch of various television and movie scenes in a collage across it. The guy next to him was shorter and wore what amounted to random robot pieces that looked like they were scavenged from an ancient black and white movie. That was the unfortunately named Rotwang, the guy who built robots and stuff like that. Apparently he’d taken his name from some old scientist in a movie from the 1920’s. If you asked me, he should’ve given up on the reference and kept looking for a better name than Rotwang.  

My eyes focused on the woman at the table then. Glitch, of course. Her costume consisted of burgundy cargo pants with dozens of pouches and belts full of bits of equipment (in addition to what was in all those pockets), with a black long-sleeved turtleneck shirt. The shirt had visible scales, making it look like very fine armor. She also wore a white leather jacket. At least, it looked like a leather jacket. But I knew from the news that the ‘jacket’ could expand in an instant to become a full suit of armor, strong enough to take an ongoing barrage of gunfire or a full strength lightning blast from Cuélebre without any apparent ill-effect. And those pockets and pouches of hers were filled with dozens of Tech-Touched toys to totally terrorize towns. 

In any case, beyond the pants, armored shirt, and transforming jacket, the Braintrust leader also wore a metal choker around her neck, but no mask at all. Her face was perfectly visible. I wasn’t fooled by that, however. People had been in the past, when she first showed up without anything apparently covering her face. But that was deceptive, because the choker around her neck was a special shapeshifting toy. It allowed Glitch to make her face look like anything she wanted it to. She could change a lot about her appearance with the collar. The only limits seemed to be that it could only affect what her face and hair looked like. Or her skin color in general, I supposed. It couldn’t change her build, height, or anything else about her actual body. Sometimes she showed up looking like a pale blue-eyed blonde, other times she had darker hair with green eyes, or could even appear to be a black woman. Right now, she looked Asian. But who the hell knew what her real appearance was. She fucked with people constantly by looking slightly different every time she appeared. Hell, until people had found out that her choker allowed her to change her appearance, there had been a rush to identify her from the pictures. An innocent woman had almost been put in prison for looking almost identical to her. But then Glitch herself had shown up outside the courthouse, showed what her choker could do, and actually apologized to the woman who had been mistaken for her. 

Yeah, that had been a huge thing. So now nobody could trust any description for Glitch. Or any of her people, for that matter. There were rumors that Braintrust was working on mass producing those disguise chokers and equipping all their rank and file Prev gang members with them. Which would be just fucking fantastic, really. 

“It’s Paintball, right?” Glitch was saying, already gesturing toward the folding chair across from here. “Take a load off, kid. You want something to drink? We brought soda, coffee of the hot and iced variety, water… sorry, no pizza. Seems our hosts took all the ingredients with them when they left this place. But we could order out if you like. Might be worth it just to see another pizza joint deliver to this place–wait, there’s another one of these places within delivery distance, right? Can you imagine if they had to drop off a pizza here? Come on, you wanna see that?”

Opening and shutting my mouth, I quickly shook myself and moved to take the offered seat. A part of me felt like I should keep standing, but being rude right now felt like a bad idea. Yeah, these guys were Fell-Touched, but they were being casual enough about all this (aside from paying a mercenary to bring me to them) that escalating things straight off was the wrong way to go. Besides, Cavalcade had made it clear that she would only help me get out if I didn’t start shit and played nice. 

“I’ll get a burger later,” I finally managed to reply while starting to sit. Partway through, however, I stopped. Hovering without actually sitting, I rose once more, watching the woman in front of me while I picked up the chair and turned it over to look at the bottom real quick. I’d seen enough movies. The last thing I wanted was to sit down on a seat that had some kind of pressure sensitive bomb on it or something and end up trapped there. 

Right, nothing visible. Which, given the gang I was dealing with, didn’t actually prove anything. But what else could I do. Shrugging, I put the chair back down and sat. 

Glitch had watched through all of that, finally chuckling once I was down. “You see, boys?” she called to Fabulist and Rotwang. “I told you our boy here was a smart one. Wouldn’t’ve survived through half the shit he’s already been thrown into if he wasn’t smart.” Her voice adopted a conspiratorial tone. “Wang over there wanted to play this rougher. It’s why he’s not the negotiator. Or the leader.” 

Rotwang’s only apparent response to that was to fold his arms tightly across his chest. The weird bulky, square 50’s alien robot head that functioned as his helmet had two little glowing rounded antennae sticking out either side of it that turned colors. Both went from being white to red, which I was going to guess meant he was annoyed. But he stayed silent. 

“You can relax, kid,” Glitch informed me. “We’re not here to fight, or play hardball. We just wanted to have a little chat. Sorry, I just wanted to have a chat. Wang over there thinks we should say something about making your friend work for us or else yada yada bad things threats, you know how it is.” 

“Friend?” I made myself echo, watching her reaction. 

Her reaction, as it turned out, was to laugh. Her head shook as she chuckled. “Come on, let’s not treat each other like idiots, Paintball. Fabulist already told you that we have ways of detecting T-Tech. Obviously, you’re not the one making it. And it’s no one we know about. The style’s different. You’ve got a Tech-Touched working with you. One that has annoyed Cuélebre a great deal, from what I hear. And you are the only person they seem to be working with. What are we talking about here, is this a sibling? A brother maybe? Or a sister. Ah, maybe a younger sister, one you feel like you have to protect. That would explain why you’re the only Touched they’re working with.” 

I didn’t react at all at first. Honestly, let Glitch go off on her wrong assumptions. The more she thought that Wren and I were siblings, the less chance she had of actually figuring out who either of us were. I wasn’t going to dissuade any of that. 

Instead, I simply replied, “If you know I want to protect them, you’ll forgive me for not talking very much about them. Especially not with people whose entire thing revolves around recruiting Tech-Touched into their gang. And for the record, have you thought about expanding out into allowing other types of Touched? Cuz you’re really pigeonholing yourself with that one.” 

“Why?” came the casual response as the ‘Asian’ woman eyed me, “were you interested? Because if that’s what it takes to sign up your friend, maybe we can find something for you.” 

Yeah, I supposed I deserved that one. Grimacing behind the helmet, I shook my head. “Sorry, I prefer not being a wanted criminal. Makes it easier to get around town without all the cops chasing me.” 

“Well, from what I hear,” Glitch reminded me, “you already have enough people who want your hide as it is. Cuélebre is very unhappy with you. Pretty sure Janus is too. And there’s even rumors that you’ve managed to annoy Pencil himself. You have been a busy little bee. And you know how busy little bees survive and thrive? By being part of a hive. You could use some friends to help you pull through whenever one of those enemies you’re racking up makes a move.” 

“Sure,” I agreed quickly and easily. “You’re right, having friends is a good thing. You and I just disagree a little bit on who my friends are.” Pausing, I decided that might be a little too rude, and added, “But if I was into your side of things, I could probably do worse than signing up.” There, that was going to have to be good enough to fit Cavalcade’s request that I play nice. Which, judging from the very slight snort I heard from her direction, it was. 

“Yeah, I guess we do disagree a bit on that.” If Glitch was annoyed by my words, she didn’t show it. Instead, she remarked, “Since it’s been brought up, I guess I don’t have to ask if you know how our little Braintrust works. The more Techs we’ve got, the better off we are. And let me tell you something, kid, from everything I’ve heard, this new Tech of yours is a good one. One we’d really like to have around.” She paused, then added a bit more pointedly, “One I’d really like to have around.” 

I’d known this was where this whole thing was going from the moment Cavalcade had made it clear who wanted to talk to me. Hell, I’d basically known it was coming from back when Fabulist told me they could detect the Touched-Tech I was using. I’d just hoped it would come later, when I didn’t have so many other things to deal with. But that was obviously a stupid hope. 

Exhaling, I looked to the woman and chose my words carefully. “My Tech isn’t interested in your organization. Sorry, but they’re not. And you should know that it’s a bad idea to try to force Techs to work for you when they don’t want to. I mean, you can only use your power to stop them from retaliating against you so much. And this Tech has friends. Friends like me, and others, who won’t just let you abduct them. Saying this as… respectfully as possible, going after my Tech is not worth the hassle it would be for you. It would be a huge fight, one involving more people than I think you realize. Yes, they’re really helpful. But I promise, they are not worth what you’d be pulling onto your head by forcing this whole thing. Find someone else.”

There was a long pause as the Braintrust leader watched me. It was really different to be able to see the whole, unmasked face of one of these Fell-Touched people. I was used to staring into a mask, trying to judge their reactions from body language. But in this case, there was nothing covering the face I was looking at. And yet, in some ways it was even harder to guess her thoughts. Her expression was completely unreadable, flat and emotionless through those few seconds. I didn’t know how much of that was the shapeshifting choker helping her hide any reaction and how much was her natural poker face. But either way, I couldn’t read her. 

Finally, Glitch gave a very short nod. “That’s about what I figured.” She chuckled slightly as I stared at her. “Don’t be so surprised, kid. I run a whole gang full of Techs. You think I don’t know how dangerous they can be if you piss them off? Yeah, we play hardball on recruitment. But there’s a fine line between playing hardball and being stupid. Braintrust works because we put our heads together and work to make the best toys we can possibly make. If we have a rotten egg in there, it’ll spoil everything. I’m not about to kidnap your friend, chain them to a workbench, and start cracking the whip. That’s a good way to get shitty results at best. And probably explosive ones. And it affects everyone else’s work. We don’t have the vast majority of Tech-Touched in the city because I’m a slave driver, Paintball. We have them for two reasons. First, because Techs like working with other Techs. It helps to collaborate. Not just in the normal way, but literally. There’s been studies that show two Techs working together produce better results than working alone. Their own gifts get stronger. Make it a whole group, and well… yeah. 

“Anyway, the second reason we have the most Techs is because I pay my people very, very well. I provide resources, workshops, privacy, and other Techs to collaborate with, other people who understand them. You don’t win this kind of game with sticks, you win it with carrots. Between that and my own gift to improve what they make… it’s a good system. And don’t take this the wrong way or anything, but I’m not about to mess up a good system by chaining up an unwilling Tech and trying to force them to play nice. Bad egg, you see? I don’t care how good they are, it’s not worth that kind of pain.” 

Blinking a couple times behind my helmet, I hesitated before offering her a shrug. “Oh. Well, in that case, good luck on all your–wait I can’t say that, I’m one of the people who’s supposed to stop you from all those criminal things. Um. See you later, I guess? Glad this went so well.” 

There was a soft chuckle from the seemingly Asian woman, before she shook her head. “It has been going well, yes. But we’re not quite done yet.” She held a hand up placatingly. “Almost. We’re almost done. But there’s still something important about your friend we need to discuss. As I said, I’m not about to force them to work for me. That’s not how we do things. But see, there’s another part to all this. Yeah, we won’t make your friend work for us. But if they’re a Tech-Touched operating in the city, they still have to pay the tax.” 

I squinted at the woman for a moment before remembering that she couldn’t see that expression. “A tax,” I echoed almost flatly, allowing a hint of disbelief to enter my voice.

Ginning at me, Glitch confirmed, “Yeah, a tax. See, Braintrust is the official Tech-Touched organization. We… let’s just say we pay our dues. And part of that involves collecting taxes from people who don’t work for us. Put simply, if you’re not part of the organization, you don’t get the tax credit.” 

I watched her for a moment, glanced to Fabulist and Rotwang briefly, then turned my attention back to their leader. “You’re saying that you’re not going to force my friend to work for you, but in exchange for operating in the city, you want them to give you money.” 

She winked, leaning back in the chair a bit. “That’s right. Your friend pays a monthly fee to operate in the city. In exchange, we leave them alone. We don’t try to recruit them, we don’t try to drive them out of the city, we don’t cause problems for them in general. Because let me be clear, while it is not worth the effort to chain an unwilling Tech to a workbench, it very much is worth it to drive them out of the city if they don’t cooperate with the system.” 

“You’re basically a protection racket,” I pointed out. “You’re extorting Tech-Touched who don’t work for you. That’s the real reason why there’s so few independents in Detroit. Because they can’t afford your taxes and it’s easier to either agree to work for you, or leave to go somewhere else.” 

“What can I say?” Glitch shrugged. “I don’t like competition. But I’ll put up with it in exchange for cash. You tell your friend they’ve got two weeks to decide if they want to play ball or move to a new city. It’s totally up to them. Two weeks. If they agree, we can talk about the specifics. Oh, and they can pay either in cash or donations of tech. Or consultation time.”

“So if they don’t have cash for you, they can give you pieces of their technology that they made, or agree to ‘consult’ on your own projects?” I managed, thinking about how Wren would react to all that. 

“Or leave the city, yup. That’s plenty of options.” With that, Glitch gave a sharp wave of her hand. “Two weeks from today. I’ll send someone to get an answer from you. And hey, looking forward to the first time we get to actually have a little scuffle, kid. You seem fun.” 

She stood, turning to walk toward her two minions then. Even as she left, Cavalcade spoke up. “Let’s get out of here. I wanna get to the La Casa casino before all the good tables are gone. Actually, you wanna go too? Cuz I’m about to have five hundred bucks burning a hole in my pocket, and I wouldn’t mind making some more off you.”  

Shaking my head while muttering that I’d give her the money once we were out of there, I stood and headed past my mercenary escort to go out the same door I’d come in. In the parking lot, I brought my phone to my hand. Because there was someone I needed to talk to about all this. Pack. She was friends with Wren too. If anyone would understand the complication of this whole Braintrust situation, it was her. She knew Wren, she knew about Braintrust, she knew (at least some) about the Ministry. She was basically the best person possible to bounce this off of. 

Quickly, I typed a message, asking where she was and that I needed to talk to her about Wren, adding a joke about how Cavalcade had invited me to the casino if she wanted to meet there. I figured that would get her attention. 

I had no real intention of going to the casino with Cavalcade, of course. I had way too much to think about and deal with. Not to mention the fact that I didn’t want to make a point of hanging around a Fell-Touched place like that, even if it was supposed to be neutral ground. The rules, as I understood them, were that any Fell-Touched or Sell-Touched who weren’t actively at war with La Casa were welcome, as well as any Star-Touched who were independent/not connected to an actual official government team. If you didn’t start shit, you could be there and play. 

I had other things to focus on besides gambling. Actually, come to think of it, I was doing an awful lot of gambling lately. It just all had to do with risking my parents finding out what I knew or who I was, or one of the other Touched finding out I was a girl, or any of my other issues rather than money. Or even getting hurt. It was still a risk, still gambling every time I went out like this.  

And yet, barely a few seconds after I’d sent the message to Pack, my phone buzzed. It was a message from her, reading: ‘Come 2 casino. Have 2 show u. Huge’

Had to show me? Had to show me what? Frowning, I looked up to Cavalcade. “Uhh, well, I guess I’ll take you up on that offer after all. 

“Let’s go see this casino.”

Previous Chapter                                    Next Chapter

New Deals 13-02 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                  Next Chapter

Well this night was suddenly potentially a lot worse. And why exactly did that surprise me anymore, after everything that had happened? How many times was I going to think my night out in the city was just about over without anything going too wrong, only to be blindsided? 

Right, what did I know? At least Cavalcade wasn’t technically a villain all on her own. She was Sell-Touched. In other words, she worked for whoever was paying her. That could be good guys or bad guys. The last one I’d known she was working for was Deicide, who I still owed a favor to. But Cavalcade had said that her new employer wanted to talk to me. That wouldn’t be Deicide. 

“Man,” the woman herself drawled with obvious amusement, “I wish I could see the look on your face right now, kid. I’ve been sitting over there on that building for the past twenty minutes watching your whole… thing here.” She gestured vaguely. “Gotta say, that didn’t go the way I expected it to. Makes you kinda intriguing, you know? Like, if I go find those kids you let go, would they have anything interesting to say about you?” From the tone of her voice, she wasn’t serious, just testing my reaction to all that. She was teasing me, pushing to see what I would do.

Somehow, I found my voice. “Well, you know, I was just super-busy and couldn’t take the time to turn them in. And hey, speaking of which, I hope this mysterious new employer of yours takes rain checks, cuz I really shouldn’t be stacking more onto my plate. So much to do, so little time.” 

There was a low chuckle of what sounded like genuine amusement. “They’re not really the type to wait patiently for someone like you to fit them onto your dance card, sorry. Let’s go ahead and squeeze you in right now.” There was a brief pause before she added pointedly, “While this is all still nice and casual.” The implied threat behind her words was crystal clear. This wasn’t a choice. She wanted me to go with her, or this would turn into a fight as she forced the point.

Could I outrun her? I wasn’t sure. Her power allowed her to make rapidfire, short-term duplicates of herself. They only lasted a brief couple seconds, but she made them incredibly quickly, and used that to simulate superspeed by making hundreds or even thousands of duplicates really fast, each one slightly ahead of the other. Plus, she could choose to make one her real self, dismissing the previous body to disappear like the others. That allowed her to travel through the city while leaving a rapidly fading ‘train’ of duplicates behind her, simply always making the body at the head of the ‘train’ her real self. And the fact that the duplicates lasted a couple seconds allowed her to pull off tricks like going straight up the side of a building by having the duplicate behind give the one ahead a push before they vanished. So getting off the ground to the rooftops wasn’t a solution for getting away from her. 

Plus, I couldn’t just use yellow paint to slow her down, because I was pretty sure it would only apply to the single duplicate I hit with it. And I couldn’t just keep hitting every single duplicate who showed up or something. As it turned out, her specific method of speed made my method of slowing her completely useless. Which was just fantastic, really. 

Right, so running away was probably out of the question. What about fighting her? Again, huge problem. Because I wouldn’t just be fighting her, I’d be fighting every duplicate she could summon in a short time span. I’d seen Cavalcade fight people before. She made dozens of duplicates really quickly, surrounded the target, and hit them from every side. Her clones lasted just long enough to throw a punch or two, then vanished. And she could choose to make any of them her real body. So even fighting back was hard. The best way to pull it off was with area-effect attacks that could hit every version of her at the same time or in quick succession. I could maybe pull something like that off with a wide spray of the right paint, but did I have anything that would actually knock her out or whatever before she just made more duplicates who weren’t painted? I didn’t think so. 

Yeah, this whole situation was really not conducive to anything I was ready to do. Fighting her was liable to end with me just exhausting myself without accomplishing anything. And I probably couldn’t escape by running. Again, at best I would wear myself out and she’d be just fine. 

Fighting and running were both bad ideas. But that wasn’t the real question. The real question was whether those two options were worse than the third one. Which was to actually go with her. My options were fighting, running, or going to see this employer of hers. So which one of those was the least bad? Because if her employer was, say, Pencil, I’d definitely take my chances with fighting or running. But on the other hand, everything I knew about the woman (particularly the fact that she did occasionally work with Star-Touched) said that she wouldn’t play nice with the Scions. I was pretty sure it wasn’t Pencil and his ilk. Unfortunately, there were still plenty of bad options. 

“Hey, kid,” Cavalcade interrupted my racing thoughts (that whole sequence had only taken a few seconds in my head, but still), “fun as it is to watch the smoke shooting out of your head from how hard you’re thinking about this, let me make it a little easier for you. My employer is Glitch, and she said to tell you that it’s worth your time to talk to her.” 

Glitch. Leader of Braintrust. Her whole thing was about improving technology or temporarily breaking it. She could take other Tech-Touched designs and automatically understand how they could be improved, and she could also focus on any given piece of technology and force it to either not work at all temporarily, or instill random glitches (hence the name). She was also obsessed with recruiting every Tech-Touched she could get her hands on. 

Wren. This had to be about Wren. She knew I’d worked with the girl and now she wanted to talk to me about something that, in her words, would be worth my time. Fabulist had already raised questions about where I was getting my tech from, back when I saved that Peyton girl. My guess was that they’d worked out more about the situation, maybe from talking to some of Cuélebre’s people, and now Glitch wanted to extend an offer to Wren, through me, to join her little gang. And I was equally confident that my saying no right now wouldn’t be the end of it. She might just end up trying to go straight at Wren by that point. And as much as the girl was working to keep herself and Fred safe, I wasn’t going to throw her into the deep end like that.

So, there wasn’t much choice about any of this. I had to at least attempt to talk to Glitch and get her to understand that Wren working for her just wasn’t worth the effort it would take. Which was bound to be fun, because I was super-sure she’d be totally reasonable about the whole thing.

With a sigh, I finally nodded. “Right, fine. I guess I’ll go with you. But can we do it without the cuffs this time? I’m just really not in the mood for that kind of thing right now.” 

“Now why does it sound like there’s a really interesting story behind that comment? One that I’d love to hear more of.” With those curious words, the woman stared at me. I could see her red-tinted eyes through the goggles, and wondered if she saw the whole world like that. It felt like that would make things more difficult. But then, given how much money she brought in for her services, the goggles were almost certainly Tech-Touched stuff. 

When I didn’t respond to her probing question, Cavalcade finally shrugged. “Well, maybe I’ll hear it later. Right now, I’m being paid by the task, not by the hour. So let’s get you over to have this little discussion.” 

“Wait.” I blinked, suddenly remembering that I had another super power I hadn’t considered through all that. “She’s paying you to have me over there for a discussion, right? That’s it?” 

There was a brief pause as the woman regarded me with renewed curiosity. When she answered, her voice was slow and thoughtful. “Yes, that’s right. It’s not some trick to shoot you in the back of the head in private or something. Mercenary’s honor, for what that’s worth. Probably not much, but hey. What’ve you got to lose? Okay, better question, what choice do you have?” 

Thinking quickly, I came to a decision. “I’ll go with you. I’ll help you fulfill your task so you can get paid. But then I want to hire you.” 

It was Cavalcade’s turn to sound surprised, her gaze snapping to me. “You want to hire me?” 

I nodded once. “Yeah. I’ll hire you to make sure I get out of there again in one piece. Your job right now is to get me there. So get me there and get paid. Then get me out again and get paid again. I don’t know how much you charge, but I’ll give you five hundred dollars to get me out.” 

There was a brief pause, before the woman chuckled. But she was clearly uncertain. “One, five hundred bucks isn’t much for my profession. Two, I’m just supposed to believe you’ve got that?” 

“It’s a fair amount for doing nothing except making sure I walk out of there in one piece,” I pointed out. “It’s like five minutes of your time. And I’m good for the money. After all, it’s not like you’ll just let me walk away from you without paying up. If I could just take off, I wouldn’t be here right now.” After hesitating while my mind raced, I quickly added, “Besides, if you work with me now, there’ll be more where that comes from, because I’ll know I can trust you to take the money.” Belatedly, I shrugged. “Plus, if you’re telling the truth about how Glitch just wants to talk to me and that she’ll make it worth my time, you shouldn’t have any reason to object to being given five hundred dollars just to escort me back out again. Say it’s five minutes of work. That’s a hundred dollars a minute.” 

Of course, I could have offered a lot more than that. Especially if I added the point of letting me collect money and give it to her later. Even then, I still had twice that amount on me, since I’d taken to keeping a little bit of cash on hand. But I felt like five hundred was safer to start with. I didn’t want the woman (or anyone else) to know just how well off I was. Besides, if she refused the initial offer, I needed something to raise it to. 

The Sell-Touched seemed to consider that argument for a few seconds, regarding me. “Five hundred bucks, huh, kid?” Her squint hardened as she seemed to practically be staring through my soul. Finally, she straightened and gave a short nod. “Fine. Five hundred bucks and I’ll take you out of there. But you show it to me first. Right here, right now. Show me you’ve got it.” There was a mixture of doubt and genuine curiosity in her voice. She wanted to know if I was good for it before she took the risk of potentially annoying a steady employer. Which I supposed was fair. 

So, I turned away from her, carefully unzipping my pocket while the woman watched silently. Collecting the five one hundred dollar bills, I turned back, holding them up for her to see. “Five. It’s supposed to be for paying my Tech-Touched. But they’ll get over it.” There, maybe a slight answer as to why I had that kind of money on me would help stop her from thinking too hard about it. 

Another brief moment of consideration passed, before Cavalade gestured. “Right then. Put it away and let’s get out of here. You’ve got a deal. I’ll take you in, let you have your talk with Glitch, then walk you back out again. Ah, but one caveat.” She added the last bit while looking at me pointedly. “No starting a fight in there. If you get attacked, you can defend yourself. I’ll help. But you don’t start anything. And you don’t be insulting. You treat them respectfully as long as they treat you respectfully. You try to start some fight thinking I’ve got your back and you’re gonna be disappointed.” 

“Deal,” I agreed a bit distractedly, my mind racing about everything that was about to happen. “I’ll defend myself if they pull anything, but I won’t start a fight. I’ll listen to what she has to say, respond as… politely as reasonably expected, and leave with you.” 

“Good.” Cavalcade gestured toward a sedan that was parked nearby. “Let’s take a little ride then.” Belatedly, she added, “It’s not as fast as I can be on my own, but a car stands out less to certain busybody Touched who have too much time on their hands.” Pausing, she added, “And that goes for Star or Fell. People don’t know how to mind their own business in general.” 

Right, she worked both sides of the line, so Cavalcade would obviously be more aware of how both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys could be similar. For a moment, I thought of my family and how they played both sides, just in a different way. But then, was it so different? She did it for money, and they did it for money and power. Just on a whole different scale than her. 

There were definite similarities. But I shoved those thoughts down before moving to get in the car she had indicated. A part of me wondered not only if I was going to regret this, but how much and how soon. Getting in this car to go see one of the city’s biggest Fell-Touched villains felt like a bad idea. But I didn’t have much choice if I didn’t want this whole thing to escalate even more. 

Besides, I’d rather the Braintrust people try to talk to Wren through me rather than going straight at her. I was going to try to shield that kid from as much of this as I could for as long as possible. At least until she had enough defenses up to really protect herself and Fred.

Cavalcade joined me in the car, starting it up before pulling away. “You like Toni Kalla?” she asked while turning the radio on to fill the air with pounding rock music. “If not, plug your ears. Or go ahead and punch yourself in the face, cuz Toni’s the best Touched-Singer in the world.”

Yeah, some Touched didn’t go for hero, villain, or mercenary. They used their powers for normal, everyday activities. Toni Kalla, for example, was a singer who could literally weave what amounted to holographic illusions using her voice. She used that to create a show that went along with the music. There were other aspects to her power, but mostly it was the hologram thing. 

Murmuring something noncommittal, I looked out the window. It probably wouldn’t do my secret identity much good for me to mention that I’d met Toni multiple times, had dinner with her both at restaurants and at our house, and that she’d already sent me a copy of the album that wouldn’t be out for another couple months. Maybe I was just crazy, but that felt like it might give a few too many hints about who I was. 

So, instead of focusing on that, I changed the subject. “You gonna try to blindfold me or something? Or, you know, make me duck down so I don’t see where we’re going?” 

The answer was a snort. “No,” she replied flatly. “They’re not having me take you anywhere near their base anyway, kid. We’re just going to a neutral meeting place. You wanna go scour it with a fine-toothed comb looking for clues and Scooby Snacks later, knock yourself out.” 

Despite how casual she was being about the whole thing, I couldn’t exactly relax through the drive. A voice in the back of my head kept screaming about how stupid this was and that I should fight tooth and nail, make her drag my unconscious body to this meeting if she could manage it. I pushed that voice deep down, but could still hear it yelling at me. 

To distract myself from the voice, I looked to my… sort-of captor(?) and asked, “How do you work with both good guys and bad guys?” 

“Oh, kid, don’t start on moralizing,” came the groaned response. “We all have to make a living, and I have my own lines I don’t cross. Besides, you’d be surprised how many supposed good guys aren’t that good.” 

Choosing not to debate that last point about how surprised I would or wouldn’t be, I instead corrected, “No, that’s not what I meant. I mean how do you get the good guys to let you work with them after you worked with villains like… the week before?” 

“Ah.” There was a brief pause before Cavalcade answered. “Because I’m useful. I have a really good power, and that gives me some leeway. Long story short, I have what you might call a special deal with the city. If they catch me doing bad things and working with villains, they get to take me in. But if they extend a contract, if they hire me to do a job, them or any of the other goodie teams, I get a free pass while that contract is going on. It’s written into every contract. My lawyer draws them up. Any time one of the Star-Touched teams wants my help, they have to sign one of those contracts. Means they can’t come after me for anything they think I did in the past for the duration of whatever they’re hiring me for.” 

“And they just… let you do that?” I managed, staring at her. 

“Like I said,” she replied carelessly, “I’m really useful. Most Sell-Touched like me, the ones who work both sides, have something like that. But even then, bad guys tend to pay more.” She turned, winking at me through the goggles. “They have more disposable income and less whiny qualms about who they work with.” 

“That’s surprising,” I muttered under my breath before catching myself. Shaking my head, I looked back to her. “Not to get all moralizing or anything, but the whole… switching sides all the time doesn’t bother you?” 

“Nope,” came the flat answer. “Cuz I just plug my ears with all the money I make, and it makes it really hard to hear that annoying little voice like you’ve got in the back of your head telling you to be some paragon of virtue or whatever bullshit. People are selfish. They look out for themselves and the ones they care about. I’m just making a living.

“And speaking of making a living…” The car stopped. “Let’s go deal with this meeting and then get out of here.   

“Cuz I want that five hundred bucks.” 

Previous Chapter                                  Next Chapter

New Deals 13-01 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                Next Chapter

A/N: One of this story’s wonderful readers has commissioned a picture of Cassidy by the artist Shameichi, which can be seen on the  art page or directly right here

The shrill shriek of a store alarm filled the air two nights later, as a couple guys in dark masks came tearing through the door they’d already busted open not even two minutes earlier. From the perch atop the billboard that I’d just landed on, I saw both of them scramble away from the closed convenience store. Their arms were full, each carrying a couple bags worth of stuff as they raced past the dark gas pumps and headed for the mostly-empty street. Whoever these guys were, they’d chosen a target near an area of town that was pretty quiet at one in the morning. Which was probably why the gas station was closed to begin with, come to think of it. 

Either way, I launched myself off the sign using a spot of blue paint under my feet. Rocketing ahead of the two guys, I hit them each with a quick spray of yellow to slow them down, before flipping myself over to land directly between them while activating the orange parachute and green rabbit shapes that were already on my back. With myself sped up and the two guys slowed down, it was child’s play to grab the bags out of their hands, tossing them behind myself before quickly blurting, “Holy crap, did you guys win one of those contests where you get to keep anything you can grab in like sixty seconds or something? Cuz…” Trailing off, I hit them both with red paint in the chest, jumping back while shooting a matching bit of red in front of them. A quick activation yanked the two facedown onto the pavement. “I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to wait for the news crews to be around before you cash in one of those.” 

Personally, I thought it was kinda funny. Not the best, but hey, maybe worth a very slight chuckle. Okay, maybe not even that. But it definitely wasn’t worth crying over. Which… was the next sound I heard. Crying. Stopping short, I cocked my head to the side, staring down at the figure to the right. Crying. He was definitely crying. Um. Well shit, this was kinda awkward now. 

“Sorry, I’m sorry,” came the babbled words. “I’m sorry, it was stupid, it was so stupid, we’re sorry.” The voice was so choked up by tears I could barely understand what was being said.

“Dude!” The other person snapped suddenly. It was a female voice, breaking my assumption that both of the thieves had been male. Which, given my entire situation, was probably a pretty bad assumption to have in the first place. “Shut the fuck up, don’t admit anything!” 

“I don’t… think you necessarily have to admit anything?” I pointed out weakly, still confused by what was going on. “We’re like… a couple hundred feet from the store. You barely made it out of the parking lot. A few feet closer and you’d still be on their property. The property of the store you just… broke into. And the bags with all the stuff you stole are right…” I reached back, grabbing one of them. “… here?” It didn’t jingle or anything. Opening up the bag, I found a bunch of bags of chips, sandwiches from the cooler, beef jerky, some sweets, a few packaged fruits and cheeses, that kind of thing. 

While I was busy staring down into the bag, the red paint must’ve run out. Because the female on the ground was suddenly on her feet, grabbing the crying boy and yanking him up. They started to run, until I hit them both with more red paint to yank them back to the ground. That time I used orange too, just to make sure it didn’t hurt. 

The boy was still shaking and crying. The girl was shaking too, but also cursing up a storm. She threatened all sorts of anatomically impossible things, lying there on her back. And now that I stared at them, I noticed… they weren’t adults. Even with the ski masks on, that much was obvious. Fuck. Fuck, looking at them now, like this? They were barely my age, if that. They were teenagers. 

Quickly, I dropped to my knees between them, setting the bag aside. “Stop it, hey. What the hell are you guys doing stealing this stuff?” Even as the words left my mouth, I knew they were pretty dumb. But I didn’t know what else to say. My mind was scrambling. I’d just heard the alarm while Paintballing around to clear my head a bit, already thinking about heading home. I heard the alarm and reacted. I’d expected to find hardened criminals stealing from a jewelry store or something, not… this. 

Sure enough, the masked girl blurted, “We heard there’s a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory in one random bit of gas station shit, and really want to swim in a chocolate fucking fountain, prick!” 

“Murphy, stop it!” the boy blurted, still shuddering. He managed to twist his head to look at me. “W-we’re sorry, we’re sorry. We were just… we were hungry. And our friends, my little sister, her big brother, we–we just wanted–we didn’t think it was–we didn’t know there was an alarm and then it was so loud and we were just g-gonna be really quick and–” 

“Roald, I swear to God if you don’t stop confessing to shit!” the girl, Murphy apparently, snapped. She was staring at me too. I could see the fear in her eyes despite her bluster. The mask didn’t cover them, leaving the wetness visible. She was just as scared as her companion about what was happening, even if she was better at hiding it verbally. 

Well fuck. God damn it, I did all this to stop real bad guys, and now I was… what, knocking down teenagers who were trying to feed their friends with gas station shit? Despite myself, I demanded, “Where’s your parents? Why don’t they feed you? What–” 

“Prison, fuckface!” came the retort from the girl. “Cuz they’re hardened fucking criminals for slinging a few happy pills to consenting adults. You got any other stupid questions?” 

“Murph,” Roald all-but moaned, his terror mixed heavily with exasperation, “Please.” The boy was clearly terrified of what antagonizing me was going to do. Which somehow made me feel even worse about the whole situation. God damn it. This was just supposed to be a quick little nothing, stopping a couple thugs from ripping off a gas station. What the hell? 

The brief sound of a siren interrupted my thoughts, making my gaze snap up. A few streets away, a cop car with its lights on had just used its siren for an instant to get through the intersection and was on its way. There were another couple intersections for it to go through, but the car would be here in just a few moments. 

“We’re going to jail. We’re going to jail,” Roald lamented, already linking his hands behind his head with his mask-covered face against the ground. “Please. Just… just keep me, okay? Just keep me and let her go. Our families, they’ve gotta have her around. I swear, I’ll take the fall, I’ll confess, just let Murph go.” 

“Shut the fuck up, Roald!” Murphy snapped at him. “I’m not leaving you, got it? It was my idea, I pushed you into it, so–” 

She stopped talking then, because I was yanking her up by the arm. My other hand was pulling Roald as well, as I activated a purple bear figure on one of my shoulders. It was enough of a boost that I could haul them both to their feet, while putting blue on my own shoes to launch myself upward. The two squealed in surprise, as we flew up and over to land on the roof of a nearby fast food place. Releasing them instantly, I hit them with black paint, activating it before  yanking the two down with me as I dropped to my stomach. “Be quiet,” I hissed sharply. 

Below us, the cop car had just pulled into the lot of the gas station. I could sense the eyes of Roald and Murphy on me, both of them clearly confused as to what the fuck I was doing. Which was fair, considering I was pretty confused about what the fuck I was doing too.  

A couple cops got out of the car. One moved to look at the shattered glass of the door where one of these two had broken it with a brick or something. The other noticed the bags on the ground off in the distance and walked that way. He approached cautiously, shining his flashlight around the bags before gingerly touching the nearest with his nightstick. Then he checked more thoroughly and called out something to his partner about idiots dropping their ‘loot.’ 

Just to be on the safe side as Murphy bristled beside me, I hit both of my delinquent companions with another shot of black paint to keep them quiet. I’d already painted my entire costume black as well, to blend in more. We watched from our prone positions as two more cop cars pulled in, lights flashing, and the ones who were already here went to confer with them. Another car, that one apparently not a cop (the owner of the gas station, maybe?) pulled in nearby as well. He and a few of the police went into the store while others spread out and started looking around. They didn’t exactly seem to be putting their all into any kind of real search, honestly. Mostly they were chatting in pairs while halfheartedly shining flashlights around. None of them even bothered to look up toward the roofs. Obviously, they were convinced that whoever broke in was long gone. And the bags full of stolen shit were right there.

Most of the cops left within about ten minutes. The last ones were the pair who showed up first, who seemed to be taking a statement from the owner. They went into the store itself again, and I exhaled before pushing myself to my feet. Turning, I walked away a few steps before putting my hands against the front of my helmet, pushing the front part up so I could feel my hands against the mask while letting out a low groan. A few muttered curses escaped me. 

What the hell was I doing? Why did I do that? What was I even thinking? Why didn’t I just turn these guys in? Why’d I take them with me and keep them quiet. Hid them. That’s what I did. I fucking hid them from the cops. Why? Just… just… they were hungry. They were teenagers, not out for any kind of thrill or to fuck with that guy, but because they were hungry. They, and the people they cared about, were hungry enough that they’d risked prison by smashing their way into a gas station to grab a couple bags worth of random crap food. Sandwiches, snacks, things they could’ve taken back to their families to fill their stomachs. They weren’t hardened criminals. They weren’t thugs. They were just scared, hungry kids doing something stupid out of desperation. And I almost sent them to prison for it. Breaking and entering, burglary, whatever else the authorities could throw at them. And that kind of thing would follow them forever. Just because they were hungry. 

“Hey!” The initial, blurted word from the girl was sharp, a snapped demand that immediately shifted to a clearly awkward, confused, “What… what’re you doing?” 

Yeah, these two obviously had no more idea what the fuck was going through my head than I did. No wonder they were just sort of standing there staring at me like my legs had just morphed into a plate of spaghetti or something. They probably still weren’t entirely sure I wasn’t just going to decide to grab them and turn them in after all. They were stuck here on this roof with me. 

At first, I didn’t say anything. I just held up a hand for them to wait a minute while staring off into the distance. Fuck. What was I going to do? What was my next move after all this, exactly? I had to think. I had to figure… something out. Something besides throwing them to the cops. But what? 

I could hear the two whispering behind me. Not enough to make out the actual words, but they were definitely murmuring about what was going on. Apparently this whole situation was confusing them. Which… yeah, fair enough. I’d probably be pretty confused too, in their shoes. 

In the end, I finally came to the only real decision I could. It was the only thing that made sense to me. Pivoting on my heel, I faced the two, whose gazes snapped away from each other to stare at me as though totally convinced that I was about to take them to the cops after all. 

“Okay, guys,” I started, doing my best to sound confident and firm instead of like I was just flying by the seat of my pants with this whole thing. It probably wasn’t enough to convince them after I’d just spent several minutes very clearly silently freaking out, but maybe it was the effort that counted. Either way, I pushed on. “First, I’m not turning you in to the cops. But–” 

That was as far as I got, as the two high-fived and made an assorted bit of noise until I hit them with black paint again. “Wait a minute,” I hissed sharply. “You know, keep making a bunch of sound right now and I won’t have to turn you in, cuz those cops’ll come see what’s going on.” 

That obviously hit home, and both of them sobered, shrinking inward a bit. Satisfied, I continued. “Like I said, I’m not turning you in to the authorities. Not this time. But you’re gonna have to do some things for me in exchange for not going to prison.” 

Murphy immediately took a step in front of Roald, protecting her friend. “Do some things for you?” she echoed as the black paint wore off, suspicion heavy in her voice. “Like what? If you think we’re just gonna–” 

Roald put a hand on her arm, leaning in to whisper something to her. I caught a bit about hearing me out, and that it had to be better than going to prison. The look she shot him made it clear she was thinking of all sorts of ways that wouldn’t necessarily be true. 

“Okay, hold on,” I quickly put in, holding up my hands. “I’m not going to ask you to do anything bad. Just… work.” I was still planning this whole thing out in my head while I was talking. The thought I’d had was based entirely on my situation with the Seraphs. I was essentially stealing that wholesale. “I won’t turn you in, but you have to do work to make up for it.” 

“What kind of work?” Murphy demanded, though her voice was softer. She clearly wasn’t the least bit eager to throw away this chance and go to prison, despite her obvious suspicion. 

“I’m not exactly sure yet,” I admitted. “But I’ll find some kind of… helpful thing you can do for the community or something. I’ll find it, and you guys will do it.” 

“Um.” That was Roald, raising a hand. “How’re you gonna make us do that? I mean, how’re you gonna find us after this? You don’t even–” He stopped then, apparently reconsidering pointing out that I didn’t know what their faces looked like under those masks. 

“I’m not going to make you take your masks off,” I assured them both. “I mean, the hypocrisy of that might crack the planet in half. But I know your names. And you’re not exactly hardened criminals, so I dare bet you live not too far away from this place. Exactly how hard do you think it’d be for me to track you down if I just started going around asking for two teenagers named Murphy and Roald? Particularly a girl named Murphy.” 

From the look the two gave each other, my point struck home. They knew I was right, it wouldn’t be hard to find them with their names if I really tried. 

“Um, okay, fine.” Murphy sounded a bit shaken. Obviously she’d figured out that they shouldn’t have used each other’s real names. “We get it. So what’re we supposed to do?” 

“Be back here, behind this building on Friday night.” I replied quickly. Two days, that would give me time to actually figure out what the hell I was going to have them do to make up for this. “I’ll take care of the broken door and all that… this time. In exchange, I’ll find something for you guys to do. But you be here in two days at midnight. Got it? Two days, midnight, here. If I don’t make it within half an hour, feel free to take off and I’ll meet you back here the night after that. You know, just in case something happens.” 

The two agreed to show up then, and I took a breath before turning away from them. Reaching into the pocket of my suit, I carefully counted out some cash, considering before adding a little bit more. Then I turned back to them and held it out. 

“Here. This is two hundred dollars. Take it and get your families the food they need for a little while. But I want receipts, guys. Make the two hundred stretch as much as you can. Get real food, not gas station crap. Go to the grocery store, buy good things. Rice, beans, meat, canned stuff. Get decent food, as much as you can, and show me the receipts when we meet again, got it?” 

The two stared at me. Murphy found her voice first. “Y-you’re… just… giving us two hundred dollars for food? Why? What’s in it for you?” 

“Like I said,” I pointed out, “you’ll be working it off. This too. You’ll work off this money and the fact that you broke into that shop down there. I just know people need a break sometimes, okay? So I’m giving you a break. Don’t make me regret it.” 

They both hesitantly agreed, and I helped them down to the ground. With one more warning that they had better be here on Friday night, I watched them run off, flipping on my night vision so I could see them for longer, until they were out of sight. 

Then I flipped the vision in my helmet back to normal, and took a quick walk around the corner. The owner of the gas station was alone by that point, sitting in his car as he talked on the phone. The car itself had been pulled up to park right by the broken door, and it sounded like he was arguing about getting someone out there to fix it and how much it would cost. 

Right. How was I going to do this part? Frowning uncertainly, I thought for a moment while watching the man in the car. In the end, I went for the simple option. Which was to use a bit of paper and pen from my pocket (no way did I want this associated with my paint), and scrawl out a quick, blocky all caps note reading, ‘SORRY FOR THE DOOR.’ Then I took an extra five hundred dollars, red painted that and the note to a rock I found, and hurled the rock that way. It bounced off the ground loud enough to attract the man’s attention, just as the red paint wore off. 

Watching as the store owner picked up the note and the cash before looking around in confusion, I quickly ducked back. Breathing out, I turned to leave. That would have to be good enough for now. I’d figure out what work I could have those two do. But at the moment, I really had to get home and get some sleep. 

At least, that was the plan. Unfortunately, no sooner had I turned to start to leave, than I found myself face-to-face (so to speak) with the slightly familiar sight of a tall-ish woman in a dark red bodysuit with black random swirly lines, black boots and gloves, and a pair of red goggles and a gas mask over her face. 

Cavalcade. It was the Sell-Touched Cavalcade, the mercenary I’d met when I was abducted by Deicide’s men, by Janus. 

“Fancy meeting you here, kid,” came the woman’s almost-purred words. “Hope you’re not too busy right now.

“Cuz my new employer would really like to talk to you.”

Previous Chapter                                Next Chapter

Pink 12-09 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                    Next Chapter

The three of us talked a bit more, getting a fairly rough plan of what we might do to get into that secret base. We had ideas, though there were a few blank spots we’d have to fill in later. It was something, at least. And thankfully, having these two onboard meant that I had people to bounce thoughts off of other than myself, people who could point out flaws in any idea I had, and who could come up with their own. Not coming up with the entire plan entirely by myself was a real treat. Almost as much of one as not carrying out the entire plan alone would be. 

And yet, I was still alone, wasn’t I? On the big stuff. There were still things I wasn’t telling them about, things I couldn’t tell them about. They had no idea who I was, that my own parents ran the secret criminal conspiracy I’d clued them in on, that… that… a lot. There was a lot they didn’t know, and that I couldn’t share. Not yet. Maybe someday? Maybe–fuck. Or maybe I was just keeping it to myself out of habit or paranoia or something. Should I tell them who I really was? Should I tell them everything? They knew enough to really get in trouble now, so what exactly was the point of holding back on those few very key details? Was there a real reason? 

Yes. Because once I told them all of my secrets, there was no going back. There wasn’t really any going back now, of course. But telling them about the Ministry was a different kind of vulnerable than telling them about me. Showing them who I was, who my family was… that would be something I could never actually walk back, a box I could never close. It would leave me personally vulnerable in a way I wasn’t just by telling them about the Ministry existing. 

Did that mean I was a coward, because I didn’t want to expose myself like that? Was I just a scared little girl, was I protecting my family, was I… was I… what? What was I? Was my refusal to tell them the truth about everything good or bad? What was the right decision? When was the right time to tell them about who I was? How far did this have to go before I told the full truth? How much did they have to do to prove they were on my side? What did I want from them, exactly? How many times was I going to run these questions through my head. 

Fuck! I didn’t know. I just didn’t know, and I was terrified of making the wrong choice. Which was actually a big reason why I didn’t tell them about me. Because that would be making the choice to do so. A choice I could never change. So I just… didn’t. Somehow, in my head, not telling them spared me from making that choice. At least for the moment. But it was coming. I knew that much. At some point, I was going to have to reveal who I really was and how much I was really connected to this Ministry. 

How would they react to that? I… I didn’t know. I was afraid to think about it. 

Either way, I wouldn’t have to deal with it right now. At the moment, Pack and I were standing alone just outside the storage place, in a dark alley untouched by any of the distant streetlights. That-A-Way had just excused herself, saying she had to get back to her patrol before any of the people on her side noticed anything wrong. She’d paused before leaving, looking at Pack and me for a few long seconds. It seemed like she had been about to say something. But, in the end, she just muttered something about meeting us later to ‘deal with all this’ before teleporting away. 

For a moment, Pack was quiet. The only sound in the alley came from the lizards in the cage crawling around. Finally, she spoke up. “If you don’t have any damsels in distress to save, Eits wants to talk to you too.” 

“What?” I blinked, turning that way. “How’s umm… how is he–” 

“He’s doing better,” she informed me. “Not perfect. We’ve got our own access to special healers, but it’s not an immediate thing. He should be back to normal in another day or two. But he’s up and around. And, like I said, he wants to talk to you. In private. If you’re up to it.”

My head bobbed hurriedly, as I blurted, “Sure, yeah! I mean, of course. If he’s up to it. I just–I didn’t want to push him, or you, or… or the whole situation. I just–I wanna tell him how–” 

Pack interrupted with a raised hand. “Not me,” she said simply. “Whatever you wanna say to him, you can say to him. Just uhh, let’s keep this Ministry stuff to ourselves for now, huh? He’s already gotten pretty hurt once recently. Plus, he umm… he owes Blackjack a lot for helping him transition and all that. I’d rather not make him choose between loyalties right this second. Maybe later, but right now it’s just a bad idea. Let him recover, at the very least.” 

I swallowed hard, thinking about how much trouble Eits might’ve gotten into if my parents thought he was onto them. “Yeah.” My voice was quiet. “I don’t want him to get hurt again either.” She was right, the last thing Eits needed at this moment was to get in trouble again. Even if using his help to break through the security in the mall base would–no. No. The Scions already hurt him really bad once. If something happened to him and it was because of my parents, I’d… I’d… I didn’t know what I’d do. But I wasn’t taking that chance. Not right now. 

With that much agreed between us, Pack and I left the alley. She had a car parked nearby that the two of us slipped into. From there, it was a short drive to some old, beat-up parking lot behind a self-serve car wash. She’d texted while we were on the way, but Eits hadn’t arrived yet. 

Instead, the two of us sat in the car, watching the mostly-empty road as we listened to the lizards in their cage once more. That time, I was the one who found my voice first. “This whole situation is pretty screwed up, huh?” 

Gazing sidelong at me, Pack was quiet before slowly replying, “Something tells me I don’t know the half of how screwed up it is from your point of view.” She shrugged elaborately. “You’re holding stuff back. I get that. There’s parts of this you’re not ready to share. And from what you have shared, there’s probably a good reason for that. Just…” Hesitating, Pack obviously took the time to consider her words. “Just try not to let it bite all of us in the ass, huh?” 

“I’ll do my best,” I promised. What else could I say? I wasn’t going to deny that I still had secrets, or that they could be dangerous, or anything like that. She and I both knew how stupid that would be. But I meant what I said. I would do my best not to let things get even worse. 

Before the other girl could respond, headlights drew our attention to the entrance of the lot, where a gray sedan pulled in. The lights flickered twice, then once before the car pulled up alongside us. I saw Eits sitting in the driver’s seat, though he didn’t seem to be actively holding the wheel or anything. Must’ve been using one of his mites. 

“Go ahead,” Pack urged with a gesture. “He said he wanted to talk in private. And Paintball…” She paused briefly, looking toward me in silence as though she couldn’t decide exactly what to say. Finally, she settled on, “Thanks for trusting me with this. I know I gave you shit about what happened to him, but… but I know you were doing the best you could. It wasn’t your fault.” 

Awkwardly thanking her, and promising that we would get to the bottom of the whole thing, I stepped out of her car and moved to get in the passenger side of the other. Closing the door after myself, I hesitated before looking over to the boy in the driver’s seat. My voice was quiet, and obviously a little strained. “Hey.” 

Eits shifted in his seat to look my way. There was the slightest grunt of discomfort. Soft as it was, I still cringed at the thought that even moving that much hurt at all. “Hey yourself,” he replied. Belatedly, the boy added, “Pack wasn’t giving you too much shit, was she?” 

“I’d deserve it if she did,” I insisted. “I never should’ve asked you to get involved in something that–” 

His hand rose to stop me. “Paintball, stop. If it wasn’t important, you wouldn’t have asked. Hell, if it wasn’t important, those assholes wouldn’t have jumped me. And they wouldn’t have abducted you. I just–fuck, Paints, they’re the Scions. Of course they’re into some really bad shit. But you…” He raised his gaze to mine, staring at me. The diagonal black and gold bands that ran across his face to serve as his mask did nothing to hide the intensity in his eyes. “You didn’t know the Scions were involved before.” 

Quickly, I shook my head. “No. No, of course not. I swear, I didn’t know they were involved. I didn’t know it’d be that dangerous. I mean, I knew it was important or I wouldn’t’ve asked. But if I knew the Scions had anything to do with it, I swear I would’ve warned you. If I asked you at all. I would’ve made sure you had backup, and… and, you know. I would’ve done more.” 

“I know you would’ve,” Eits assured me. He hesitated before adding, “Did you find what you needed at the cabin? Pack said you went back in for a minute after all that.”

Oh God. How much should I say? For a moment, I sat there, frozen by indecision. But… look at what he’d already gone through. I’d already promised Pack we wouldn’t involve him in the rest of this just yet. But I could at least talk about what I’d found a little bit, right? He deserved that, after what he’d been through to get me as far as I was. 

“I found a few toys,” I carefully answered. “They had a code on them that glowed in the dark. The code was to a folder in Seraph HQ, and when I looked at that, I found a bit… more about what I’ve been looking for.” 

That made Eits give a quick doubletake. “Err, how exactly did you look at a folder in Seraph headquarters? You been making friends in high places over there too?” 

Oh, wait, shit. Fuck. He didn’t know about that whole thing. Freezing, I stared at him guiltily from behind my mask and helmet. “Um.” Wow, good thing he couldn’t see my expression. “It umm, I guess it sort of…” Squirming there in the seat, I managed a weak, slow, “They sort of… found out about the program you put on the computer in that shipping company and Hallowed was waiting after I returned the item, so we made a deal for me to do a little work for them in exchange for ‘borrowing’ their equipment?” 

For a moment, Eits just stared at me. His uncovered mouth fell open, a slow, quiet sound of disbelief escaping him. Finally, he managed, “And you didn’t tell me?! I–Paintball, that was my fault! I should’ve–that–I didn’t put everything I could’ve to–I figured a trucking company wouldn’t have–that–you should’ve told me! I was involved in that too.” 

“I know! They know, I mean–” Flushing deeply, I insisted, “It’s okay. I mean–yes, yes I should’ve told you. But it’s over. I’m working it off and they were pretty understanding about the whole thing.” 

Still, Eits shook his head. “Damn it, Paints, if I’d known they were onto that, I would’ve helped you another…” Exhaling, he pointed to me. “You’ve gotta stop trying to do all of this by yourself. I don’t know the half of what you’re up to, but I know it’s big. I know it’s important, and that you’re keeping a hell of a lot to yourself. I’m also pretty sure you’ve told Pack part of it too, a different part than you’ve told me. And I know you’re doing all of it like that because you’re afraid of something even worse happening than me getting a little beat up. But for fuck’s sake, if it’s that big of a deal, you can’t do it alone.” 

I froze, not saying anything. What could I say? I didn’t want to lie to him, but I couldn’t tell him anything more than I already had. Not right then. It was a bad idea even if I hadn’t promised Pack that I wouldn’t get him deeper involved until he fully recovered. 

For a long few seconds, the two of us just stared at each other like that. Eventually, Eits sighed, slumping back a little. “Paintball, we both know you’ve got secrets. Big ones. And you’re obviously keeping them for a reason. Just… just don’t try to do everything all by yourself. Find someone you can trust, even if it’s just to talk to. Even if it’s not me or Pack or anyone, find someone you can unload with. Does anyone beyond me even know that you’re… you know.” 

“A girl?” My head shook, voice quiet as I glanced out the window. “No. You’re literally the only person besides me who even knows that much.” Quickly, I snapped my gaze to him once more, blurting, “And you can’t–” 

“I’m not telling anyone,” Eits insisted firmly. “I already promised I wouldn’t. Your secret is safe with me, I swear, Paintball. That wasn’t my point. Just… you just need someone to talk to. Someone you can trust to just… just vent about all this to. Believe me, as someone who had a hell of a lot of my own venting to do about my situation, it really helps. And bottling it up, trying to handle all of it just by yourself? That’s gonna make things worse. Please. Find someone you can unload this stuff on before it boils up too much, okay? Just try.” 

What was I supposed to say to that? I couldn’t tell him why I didn’t trust anyone with the stuff I knew, or why I didn’t want to burden the people I did at least mostly trust with the whole story. I couldn’t tell him that I still wasn’t sure whether I was protecting other people or my family by keeping it to myself, or what any of that meant to me. It was just too much for me to ‘unload’ like he was saying. 

But I couldn’t refuse either. So, throat dry, I nodded. “I’ll work on it.” That was all I could manage. 

Belatedly, I changed the subject. “Hey, we figured out what my pink paint does!” Yeah, it was an obvious attempt to talk about something less uncomfortable, but still. I really did want to share it. 

From the sound of his voice, Eits was just as aware of what I was doing, but he was curious too. “You did?” 

“Yeah, with a bit of help,” I confirmed. “Uhh, watch.” Carefully, I pointed to the steering wheel and covered about four inches of the top right side with pink. As Eits watched, I reached out, activating the paint before grabbing hold and stretching it up and back to myself. That part of the steering wheel stretched like chewing gum, while the boy beside me made a noise of surprise. 

Letting it go, I watched as it stayed perfectly in place, stretched out like that. It was easily stretched and molded, yet when I released it, the painted thing remained solidly where it was. 

I showed Eits a few more things with it while he watched, obviously enthralled. And while doing so, I realized something else. When I had a nonliving object painted and let the paint run out on its own, it would simply stay where it was, like that bit with the steering wheel. 

But, if I disabled the paint ahead of time, if I focused on turning it off, the object didn’t immediately go back to its normal state. Instead, for just a few extra seconds, it turned sort of… loose-rubbery, for lack of a better word. Like a rubber band. I could pull it out, let go, and it would snap back to where it was when I first turned the paint off. It was only for like three seconds or so. But the point was, I could paint something, disable the paint, yank it out, then it would snap back to the position it was in when I disabled the paint once I stopped holding it back. Again, like a rubberband. 

“Wait, wait, wait.” Quickly, I scrambled out of the car. Pack was still sitting over in hers, apparently involved with her lizards. She looked up and over as I climbed up on Eits’ sedan, even as the boy himself asked what I was doing. 

“Check this out!” I blurted, before spraying the pavement with pink. Instantly, I dismissed the paint and then jumped. As my feet hit the ground, it literally bent under the force of my impact, then snapped back to where it was, launching me several feet into the air. Trampoline. It was like a trampoline. It wasn’t quite the same kind of launch I got from blue paint, but still. It was cool. It was really fucking cool. 

Pack came over to see what the hell I was doing. When I explained, she brought the lizards. Then we let them play, bouncing off the ground and into the air. They seemed to enjoy it, especially when Eits stepped out of the car and stood in a third spot as we all bounced them back and forth. I kept reapplying and dismissing the paint whenever needed, and the three of us played bounce the lizards off the trampoline ground. Pack, of course, made sure her little friends weren’t scared or anything. They seemed to understand what was going on. Which made me feel even more confused about how exactly her power worked and what it did to them. 

Either way, the three of us were laughing throughout all of that. For a few minutes, I forgot everything else. I stopped worrying about that whole stupid situation and just had goofy fun with the two Fell-Touched. I even forgot they were technically villains. We just goofed off with Pack’s lizards, finding things to bounce them off of. I used orange paint to keep them safe from being hurt, and we just… forgot everything else. 

Eventually, the other two had to leave. I thanked them both again, promising Eits that I would think about what he’d said. As I was walking away, however, he called out before coming over to join me. He was moving slower than normal, and wincing a little, but at least he was moving. 

Once the two of us were a bit away from Pack, who studiously paid attention to getting her lizards back in the car, Eits lowered his voice. “I meant to say something before, about that Paige Banners girl.” 

“You said you couldn’t get any more info about her without physical access to the adoption records,” I replied, shaking my head. “I don’t want you doing anything like that. I’ll deal with it myself.” I hadn’t even told him about finding out that Paige was found by those Ten Tower people, or the dead bodies that had been around her. 

“Well, too late,” he retorted. “I already got something for you. It’s not much, but… here.” With that, Eits produced a piece of paper with a name written on it. “Turns out that Paige girl has some kind of history with Ten Towers. Not sure what it was, but one of the Ten Towers Prev troops who was involved in all that sort of went rogue a couple years ago. He’s working as grunt muscle for the Ninety-Niners now. Maybe you can get something out of him about what he saw back then?” He shrugged helplessly. “Sorry, it’s the best I could do.” 

“That’s–” Swallowing, I took the note. “Thanks. But just… just get better, okay?” 

As soon as he promised he would take it easy, I took a running start, spraying blue at the ground in front of me. As my feet hit it, I was launched up and forward. In mid-flight, I sprayed a pink circle into the middle of the billboard I had launched myself toward. Twisting in the air, I activated and immediately disabled the pink, just before my feet hit it. That spot of the billboard bent inward dramatically, bowing in like a trampoline being pushed to its limit. Then it snapped back to normal, hurling me even higher into the air and over the roof of a building. 

Yeah, I had a lot to deal with. But Pack and That-A-Way were going to help. They knew some of it. I had… something approaching friends, even if none of them knew the whole story. And, just as importantly, I knew how to use the pink paint now. I knew how to use all of my powers, I had allies who were ready to help with the whole Ministry thing, and I had a new lead for figuring out Paige’s whole deal.  

Maybe, just maybe, I was finally going to get somewhere with all this. 

Previous Chapter                                    Next Chapter