Paintball

In Like Flynn 17-05 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

A/N – The non-canon chapters for this story and for Heretical Edge were posted over the weekend. You can find the SP chapter here and the HE chapter here

So, this was just great. Now we were being attacked by a bunch of computer program defense systems that looked like my teachers and other staff from school, all of them trying to defend Paige because they thought we were enemies. And we were going to have to tear our way through them to get to her. Yeah, I was pretty sure a therapist would have a field day with this. 

Even as the group was rushing toward us, I caught a glimpse of That-A-Way grabbing hold of Mars Bar before they both vanished, reappearing behind the mob that was ahead of us. It took the lizard-bear only a second to adjust, turn back the other way, and fall on the crowd from behind with a terrifying roar that shook all the lockers and windows around us. 

Meanwhile, Alloy was standing there, making a noise of awe as she stared between the spot where Way and Mars Bar had been, and where they were now. “Oh, man,” she muttered, “that’s so–” 

“Alloy!” I blurted toward my new partner, “help them hold those guys off!” 

“O-oh, right.” Sounding guilty, the girl quickly made the marbles that weren’t part of her armor join together to create the scoop from a bulldozer, large enough to cover the entire hallway. It slammed forward into the crowd to stop them at the same time as Mars Bar crashed into them from behind. Yeah, it sounded nasty over there. And that was even before counting the fact that those things were still letting out those horrific screams, which echoed through the hall as a sort of background accompaniment to Mars Bar’s roars.

Unfortunately, that still left the mob that had come through the doors behind us for Pack, Riddles, and me to deal with. Quickly, as they came rushing in, I shot green, purple, and orange paint at the La Casa Touched, then activated it for her before putting blue under my feet to launch myself up in a flip over their heads. I intended to land behind them, but one of the security programs (it looked like my quite elderly and quite overweight ninth grade English teacher) leapt into my path, so I slammed into her. Which seemed to hurt me more than it did her, being a program and all. 

I used to like Mrs. Moderane. She was one of my favorite teachers freshman year. But those fond memories started having a bit of trouble when she came down on top of me as we landed on the floor, then punched me in the stomach. At the last second, I managed to paint my helmet orange (still unsure of exactly how well this program ‘translated our powers into virtual reality’), but even with that, the blow was enough to make me grunt. God damn it, these things were strong.

Putting purple arrows across both arms, I grabbed both of Mrs. Moderane’s shoulders and then jerked myself backwards as hard as I could before planting my knees in her stomach while simultaneously heaving with both hands to send her flying over my head and into the wall. In the same motion, I kept rolling backwards to move into a crouched position just in time to see one of the janitors and a security guard rushing me with these big, jagged machetes. My hands snapped up to shoot red paint that way… only to miss the two entirely and send both blobs of paint past both of them to hit a couple lockers against the opposite wall. Wait, what th–

A loud bang suddenly filled the air, as Pack came out of nowhere to slam the metal door she’d ripped off a locker into the head of the security guard who was rushing at me. She hit him with enough force to bend the door in half while also basically caving in the entire backside of his head. There was very little blood, all things considered, it mostly just seemed to pop like a balloon before the entire body vanished. The janitor spun that way just in time for her to snap the bent locker door back into his face, sending him crashing to the floor in a heap. 

“Would you keep moving, Ball?!” the girl snapped at me before throwing the by-now totally crumpled hunk of metal at the legs of another charging teacher. “They’re not real, stop playing nice and just make sure they stay down! We don’t have time for this, remember?!” 

As if to punctuate her owner’s words, Riddles let out a shrill battle cry as she flew overhead, tore a bat out of the hands of another virtual teacher, and sent it flying into the face of one of the office secretaries. Which was only a distraction before the lizard-eagle was right in her face as well, tearing at the woman’s eyes with talons and beak alike. 

Okay, yeah, they were right. We didn’t have time for any of this. Paige could lose her ongoing battle against her other self any minute, and we’d already stretched this out long enough. I just–I was used to hitting things I aimed for. Missing completely when they were right in front of me was… kind of new. But I couldn’t worry about that right now. I had to focus on this. 

Giving the other girl a quick recharge of purple and orange, I launched myself upward, renewing my own purple arms before spinning toward a heavyset old man in a plaid shirt. He was wielding a chain, which he tried to swing around my throat while still giving that horrible scream that just would not stop. They were all doing that. Yeah, it was obviously an alarm to call more of them or whatever, but seriously, we got the point. Everyone got the point. Knock it off already. 

My hands managed to catch the weapon as it swung at me, forcefully tearing it out of his hands even as I reflexively blurted, “Don’t you hate it when someone yanks your chain?” 

Not only did the virtual computer simulation program not laugh at my joke, it responded by simply creating a new one in its hand, then swung it at me even harder. 

Catching the new chain against my arm as well, I quickly jerked on it to yank the figure closer while simultaneously lashing out with a kick. “Ah, you’re prob–aaaaahhh!” That last part, interrupting what was going to be a fantastic follow-up to my joke before, came as the damn thing caught my leg and spun to throw me toward the other lockers. I barely managed to flip over in the air and send a shot of blue that way, which helped me rebound off the metal doors (caving them in partway) before crashing into the guy. We both hit the ground, but I managed to wrap the chain around his throat tightly, jerking a bit on it. A purple lion face appeared on my chest for additional strength. For an instant, I hesitated. Video game. It’s just a video game, I told myself. 

With that, I jerked as hard as I could at the tightly twisted chain around the figure’s neck. There was a nasty crack, and the body under me vanished. I… killed him. It. I killed the–

Shoving that thought out of my mind, I hurled myself into a sideways roll just as a machete came down into the space where I had just been. My 10th grade social studies teacher was there, snarling and screaming (do not ask me how he managed both at the same time) with the knife buried halfway into the floor. 

Planting my hand against the floor for leverage, I used that to shove myself up, blurting, “Just a thought–” My foot lashed out, kicking hard into the man’s face. “Sneaking up on someone works better–” As his head snapped backward from the blow, the foot I’d used to kick him the first time hit the floor and I rose on that single leg while simultaneously twisting around to plant my other foot in his face as well, hard enough to send him skidding backward down the hall. “If you’re not fucking screaming the whole time!” 

“Paintball, up!” Alloy called from behind, over the sound of the continued wailing.

My gaze snapped that way, just in time to see what looked like a thin blade the width of the hallway come flying our way. With a grunt, I grabbed Pack, launching both of us toward the ceiling with one more puddle of blue under our feet. We flipped over in the air and I planted my boots (Wren had included their gravity-flipping in this, thankfully) against the ceiling while holding Pack’s hand as she dangled under me. Or above me, as far as my boots were concerned.

Below us, Alloy’s blade uhh… yeah, it cut through about half of those guys right around the waist. It went straight down the middle of the corridor, moving really quickly as soon as Pack and I were out of the way. Some of the computer programs managed to duck under or jump over it, but she cut a good number in half. Again, there was very little blood. They just vanished. 

Dropping Pack to the floor, I pushed off, flipping over to land next to her. The remaining ‘faculty’ were starting to close ranks, but before either of us could do anything, That-A-Way called out. “Come on! Let’s go!” She, Alloy, and Mars Bar had cleared the path. We could get out of here. 

So, that was exactly what we did. Spinning on our heels, Pack and I raced over to meet up with Alloy, before all three of us ran to the other two, with Riddles soaring along just above our heads.

Ahead of us, two doors on either side of the hall tried to open to admit more staff into the hall to block us. But before the doors could fully open, Alloy sent two of her marbles that way, each transforming into what amounted to a crowbar to slam into the doors with enough force to slam them shut once more. The transformed marbles stayed in place while we ran onward, giving us time to get past before flying in to join up with their owner once more. 

“Dude,” Way blurted, “those things are awesome! You are welcome to join in on these ‘do whatever insane thing Paintball drags us into’ jobs any time you want!” 

Before I could defend myself from that total slander and point out this wasn’t my fault, the four of us (six counting both lizards) reached an intersection in the school hallway. To our right was the hall leading to the library and media room. Straight ahead was a wall full of academic trophies and a couple doors that would lead into the history section of the school. And to our left was the front hallway leading to the main offices, with an open section about halfway down on the right side of that left hall that would take us to the cafeteria and the main gymnasium. A set of stairs leading to the second floor was in the corner of this intersection, near the hall to the front offices. 

“Where’re we going?” Alloy demanded, spinning in a circle. “Uhh, and can we decide pretty quick?” She was looking back the way we had come, where more of those security programs were coming fast. And I swore some of them were the same people we’d already put down. So either the computer was spawning people with the same faces, or the program itself was respawning after being put down. But really, was there a functional difference?  

Dammit, where were we supposed to go? Where would Paige be fighting her evil duplicate? How were we supposed to guess something like that? I had no idea, and time was of the essence. Worse, there were suddenly more fake faculty coming down the stairs toward us. 

No, wait. they weren’t coming down the stairs. They were standing halfway up, blocking the stairs. And suddenly, I knew which direction Paige was in. Raising a hand, I pointed that way while blurting, “We wanna go whichever way those guys don’t want us to go!” 

Several things happened in very quick succession then. Pack sent Mars Bar to slow down the guys coming up from behind us. Riddles, meanwhile, flew up to harass the guys on the stairs. And left must’ve been the direction of Way’s superspeed, because her form blurred before she was suddenly up there on the steps in time to catch hold of the arm of one guy who was swinging a bat at the lizard-hawk, pitching him over the edge to crash down to the floor below, where Pack herself took his own bat and slammed it into his face so hard the program fizzled and vanished. 

Meanwhile, I ran forward, using blue paint on my shoes to launch myself up and forward. In mid-flight, I extended both hands and sprayed a wide burst of red at the remaining guards. Then I activated it, making all six of them slam together in a tangled jumble of limbs just before I landed on the edge of the railing. At least, I meant to land on the railing, but I overshot a bit and ended up crashing into the opposite wall with a grunt. 

Okay, I was starting to think there was something wrong with me, my powers, or both in this place. It was all just… off for some reason. I didn’t feel as coordinated as I should. There was something missing. Nothing felt right. It just… my powers were all here, my paints were doing what they were supposed to, but somehow it was wrong. Something was different or missing. 

Thankfully, Alloy (who had, once more, been standing flatfooted watching this for a moment) snapped out of it and took advantage of me tangling all six guys together by hitting them with a big shovel made out of two of her marbles to knock all of them down the stairs before the paint expired. 

That-A-Way caught my arm, pulling me away from the wall I’d crashed into. Her voice was clearly concerned. “Paintball, are you okay? You seem–” 

“I’m fine,” I quickly blurted, just as Alloy’s shovel-formed marbles reshaped themselves into a board to lift her past the just-then separating heap of computer troops to reach us. “Just… orienting.” 

Ignoring the other girl’s look, I raised my voice to shout, “Pack, hitch a ride!” With that, I pointed both hands. But rather than shooting the girl herself as she stood in the middle of the intersection down there, I fired purple and green paint toward Mars Bar, who was busy smacking around several of those fake faculty members. And again, I missed with one of the shots. The purple paint blob hit a wall, and I had to quickly adjust to shoot a second blob. 

“Dude,” I heard Alloy mutter toward Way, “have you ever seen him miss?” 

Ignoring that, I quickly activated the paints on Mars Bar while shouting, “Come on!” 

Pack didn’t need me to say it twice. She gave a quick whistle, and the big bear-lizard spun around, dropping onto all fours before charging that way. That green paint on him, he really charged. He was a runaway truck, screaming its way across the polished floor. Pack barely had time to leap on, half dragging herself up and over his back before he continued in a headlong rush. The guys at the bottom of the stairs where Alloy had pushed them didn’t even know what hit them before Mars Bar barreled through with enough force to make all six explode.

These stairs weren’t specifically built for something like a giant lizard-bear, but they were built to look impressive to a bunch of spoiled rich teenagers who did ridiculous, dangerous stuff all the time. So, they held. But I was still pretty sure sticking around here for long would’ve been a bad idea even if we weren’t already in a rush for plenty of other reasons. And I wasn’t even going to wonder if the stairs here had the same structural integrity as the ones in the real world. That was just way too complicated for me to think about right then. 

Before the computer could summon more things to block our path, we all went charging up the stairs. Pack stayed on her pet’s back, while the rest of us ran. I thought about using green to speed us up, but decided it was probably best to hold off. After all we had no idea what we were running into. Okay, I did know where we were running. At the top of these stairs would be another intersection, similar to the one we had left below us, except with a big glass window looking into the second floor of the library. 

At least, that was what we were supposed to see. But we didn’t. Instead, all of us reached the top of the stairs and emerged into a small wooden structure that smelled awful. Alloy, Way, and I stopped short in confusion just long enough for Mars Bar to crash into us from behind, sending us stumbling through the nearby doors and out into… sunlight? The fuck? 

Yeah, we were standing outside, in broad daylight just outside of a barn, which we had climbed the stairs in the school to reach. The barn sitting in the middle of this obvious farm. There were cows in a nearby pasture listlessly mooing, a silo nearby, the farmhouse itself in the distance, another paddock with horses, and so on. It was an honest to God farm. 

Wait, hold on. I knew this farm. We had taken a school trip out here in middle school. Yeah, this was the farm we’d visited on that first school trip after I met Paige. Err, re-met Paige, I supposed. She hadn’t exactly been nice up to that point, but it was here on the farm when things had really turned bad. Or rather, when she had really turned up the mean. She and her new friends had made up a whole song about me being a cowboy. Specifically, Hopalong Cassidy. Yeah. Which might sound cute, but it wasn’t. It was very much not cute. I didn’t exactly have great memories about this place. 

“Okay,” Alloy was saying while the marbles hovered around her, “for the record, there’s no more stairs in that barn. They disappeared after we all went through. And speaking of, uhhh, all this, either that rich kid school is even more absurd than I thought, or–” 

“The program shifted,” I put in, looking around quickly. “Everything changed to a new location. The–a farm, I guess?” I’d been about to say the name of the farm (which was burned into my mind, as much as I might’ve wanted to forget), but that felt like a bad idea for my secrets. Yeah, other schools might visit this place too, but still. 

“Paintball.” That was Pack, looking at me. “You sure you’re cool? You uhh, seemed like… a little off back there.” 

“I’m off?” Flushing a little, I mumbled, “Yeah, I know. I just– it’s weird in here. Doesn’t it feel weird to you guys? Like, isn’t it screwing with your powers a little bit?”

All three of them looked to one another for a silent moment before turning back to me and offering a collection of shrugs. 

“Great, so it’s just me.” I started to mutter something about that being just typical before shaking it off. Instead, I looked around, focusing on the reason we were here. I’d just have to deal with whatever was wrong with me as we went. And hope I didn’t screw things up for everyone. “Well, I don’t see that girl we’re supposed to be helping. In fact, I don’t see anyone. So how are we supposed to find her now?” 

“We could always ask those guys,” Pack dryly remarked. Her attention was centered off in the distance, where a group of ranch hands were riding closer on horses. 

“Something tells me they’re not gonna be any more helpful than the teachers back there were,” Way retorted. “Especially since–down!” That last bit came as the assortment of farm people all produced a mixture of rifles and pistols, taking aim. 

Yeah, we all hit the dirt. I sent a burst of orange from both hands to hit the other five (yes, I included Riddles and Mars Bar, of course) while putting more on myself, just before several of the bullets struck home. The paint saved us. And a second later, Alloy managed to combine her marbles into a low wall to give us cover, while more bullets ricocheted off as the hail of gunfire continued. 

“Okay!” I shouted over the unending barrage as we all huddled behind that conjured wall, “you know what?! 

“This might be jumping to conclusions a bit, but I’m really starting to feel like this computer might not want us around!” 

Previous Chapter

In Like Flynn 17-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so now we had a fancy new team name, thanks to Peyton. I was just hoping we’d get a chance for the name to actually matter before something terrible happened to us. A nagging part of me was convinced that giving ourselves a name was going to curse this whole thing. Meanwhile, another part was telling me I was being stupid and selfish for even involving people in my problems like this. What if something happened to them? How was I going to feel? 

Eesh, maybe they were right about that whole brooding thing. It was just possible that my Touched powers had come with an additional ‘gift’ of being very, very pessimistic sometimes.

With effort, I pushed those thoughts out of my head. Yes, this could be pretty dangerous, for more than one reason. And yes, it was risky to involve other people in what could lead to a confrontation with my family eventually. But it wasn’t like I could just shove them out again. I couldn’t tell them to go away or whatever. It wouldn’t work like that. They were here, and I really needed them. I couldn’t do this by myself. I was just going to have to deal with the risk. 

Besides, I didn’t want to do this by myself. Scary as it was to trust others, even with only a small part of what was actually going on, I needed them. Not just physically. I needed their skill and power, yes. But it was more than that. I needed to know there was someone else I could depend on, even if it was only for bits and pieces of the truth. Hard as it was to admit, I really didn’t want to be alone in this. Having Izzy around to talk to had shown me how important that was.

Working as quickly as we could, our little group did everything we had to over the next short while to get the virtual reality system ready to go. We basically acted as several extra sets of arms and legs for Wren, letting the girl tell us everything she needed to get the thing done. 

For a while, I thought we’d never finish. But, eventually we were all standing around what still looked like a complicated MRI machine. Wren had just tightened one last bolt on the side before stepping back to drop the wrench onto a table and brush her hands off with a note of finality. 

After a moment of all of us standing there looking at the thing, happy to be done working on it, Peyton raised her hand. “I’ve got a question. This thing sorta looks like it’s for one person to lay in. Maybe two if you squeeze and get pretty friendly. How are all of us going to use it, exactly?”

I had actually been wondering the same thing in myself, and turned toward Wren before raising my arms in a shrug. “She’s got a point there. Please tell me we don’t need to build another one of these for all of us. I’m pretty sure we don’t have that kind of time.” 

Giggling to herself, Wren shook her head. “Nope! You’re not laying inside the thing, she is.” With that, she gestured toward Paige. “She lays inside it, her computer links to the VR system, and you guys wear these.” With that, the girl turned to the nearby table before picking up a cardboard box, holding it out to us. We all leaned forward, only to find… sunglasses and gloves. Yeah. All of them had various bits of wires and other clearly technical stuff attached. The sunglasses even had what looked like short antennae glued along one side of the frame. And the lenses were bright, solid green. Meanwhile, the gloves had little microchip-like things attached to the end of each finger. 

Wren quickly explained, while we were staring at the contents of the box. “All you gotta do is put the glasses and gloves on, then sit down by the machine there, see? You’ll get linked into the computer and, as long as it’s on, you’ll see and hear and move in there instead of here.  Whenever you tell your body to move, you’ll actually tell your avatar thing in the computer to move instead.” 

That-A-Way spoke then. “Three questions. First, do we have a way to cancel out of it if we need to? You know, in case there’s an emergency. Second, how much of what happens in there are we going to actually feel? And third, what’s the deal with using our powers? I mean, am I going to impulsively try to teleport and all of a sudden the real me is off on the other side of the room in a pile of boxes? Oh, and come to think of it, question three-b, how am I going to use different parts of my power if my body is simply facing one direction? And what about her lizards?”

Wren quickly explained. “Oh, well, first you just use the code ‘Falling Star’ to jump out of the system. And for the second thing, you really aren’t physically experiencing any of it, but the computer will sorta… give you feeling impressions up to a certain point. You’ll feel things, but you can’t die from it or actually be injured or anything. If you get hurt enough to ‘die,’ you’ll just wake up out here and have to go back in from the start and make your way to where you were again.” 

Once that much was explained, Pack put in, “You said we could use some mental approximation of our powers or whatever, right?” 

Wren’s head bobbed quickly. “Uh huh. It’s sort of hard to explain. But the computer looks at what your brain thinks it’s capable of and basically copies back into the system. If you were going into a world I made, I could make you like Superman! But… but you’re not. You’re going into another world, and I don’t have any control over it. Or at least, not very much. The best I can do is make sure you have what your own brains think your powers are.” She fidgeted a bit, starting to apologize for not being able to do more than that. 

“Don’t you dare,” I quickly interrupted, raising a finger to point at the girl. “Wren, after everything you’ve done– just don’t apologize. You pull all this together in one day. That’s amazing. Seriously, you’ve done enough. More than enough. Just let us handle the rest of it, okay?” 

Blushing at that, Wren stammered an agreement. Then she quickly moved on to show a couple tiny animal collars, explaining that putting them on a couple of the lizards would link them to Pack and let her take them into the simulation as well, just like they were really there. They would see and experience things the same way we did. Which, to be fair, was probably going to confuse the hell out of them. I just hoped Pack could make sure they understood well enough. 

“Who’re you taking in with you?” That was Way, looking at the girl in question curiously. “I mean, if you can only take two lizards, which two is it gonna be? They’re all pretty helpful.” 

“Tell me about it,” Pack muttered, her gaze focused over into the corner of the lab, where her assortment of reptiles were all spread out across the floor, curiously investigating their surroundings. “I think… Mars Bar for muscle and Riddles for utility. She can fly and let us know what she sees. Might make finding this chick and her evil twin easier, wherever we end up.” 

That said, she turned to look at Wren once more. “But you’ve gotta make sure the rest of them are cool, okay, kid? They’re gonna be confused, so you keep them happy while we’re busy.” 

Wren promised she’d make sure the rest of the lizards were okay, while part of me wondered exactly how much of Pack’s request had been for the lizards’ benefit, and how much had been for Wren herself. She was definitely going to feel pretty anxious as she waited for the rest of us to get through this whole thing. Anxious because she ‘couldn’t help,’ even though she had already helped more than enough. Getting her to keep the lizards entertained and distracted would also entertain and distract her. It was a distraction for both sides. Pack was pretty good at that sort of thing. Which made me briefly wonder if she had any younger siblings she had to distract like that.

But there wasn’t time to focus on that for long. Because Wren was running through one final checklist. She sounded like mission control for a space launch or something, intently and seriously checking over every part of the system. She didn’t spend long on it, only a couple seconds for each bit, just to make sure everything was still running smoothly. She even had us speak several sentences into a microphone, which would help translate our voices into the virtual world so we would sound right. Which was a real load off my back, since I’d been wondering how I was going to deal with the whole voice changer thing if it turned out to be an issue. 

Once she was satisfied, Wren gestured toward the motionless blonde girl on the table. “Can umm, you guys move her over to the machine?” 

Between the four of us each taking part of Paige’s body, Pack, Way, Alloy, and I managed to shift her as gently as possible over to the MRI-like machine. We laid her in place, before Wren hit a button and the thing retracted to take her inside. From there, the kid-genius picked up what looked like a small ipad and started fiddling with it. With each brush of her finger across the screen, the machine we had put Paige into gave what I hoped was an affirmative beep. The last thing we needed right now was for something to go wrong with the system. 

Okay, so I could think of a lot worse things than that, particularly revolving around one of the Fell-Touched teams like the Scions or Oscuro suddenly attacking. But that was (thankfully) pretty unlikely. Something going wrong with the device Wren had built in a day really could happen. 

Fortunately, the machine itself seemed fine. It gave happy beeps with each check Wren made, before she finally turned to us and gave a thumbs up. Her voice was nervous. “O-okay. I think it’s ready. I mean it is ready. She’s plugged into the system and it’s reading her computer. They’re completely linked. The computer says it’s all green lights. I mean, maybe a couple very faint yellow ones, but it’s still okay. Definitely okay. We are on the positive side of the line!”

Part of me wanted to ask what the yellow lights were, but I was pretty sure knowing wouldn’t help. This was the best we were going to get. And Paige didn’t have time for us to wait for everything to be completely perfect. So, looking to the other three, I asked, “We ready to do this?” 

Apparently we were, or at least as close as we were going to get. Sure, there was a lot more I’d like to do to be ready for this, but we didn’t have the time or resources. Paige was in trouble right now. We had to get in there and help her while we still could. So, the four of us arranged ourselves in chairs around the machine. Two on each side. I sat next to Alloy, lifting the front of my helmet to slip the sunglasses on through the holes in the ski mask. Then I exchanged my own gloves for the new ones and looked over to the girl beside me. She looked back and gave a thumbs up. 

“You guys ready over there?” That-A-Way called after a moment. “Cuz we have two lizards over here who are very confused about why they’re suddenly wearing collars. So we should probably get this show on the road. You know, so they can be even more confused.”  

“They’ll be fine,” Pack insisted. “Just make sure you hold Riddles carefully. Sometimes she forgets she’s not in bird form and tries to fly off things.”

Wren quickly assured us that as the machine kicked in, all commands to move that our (and the lizards’) brains sent our bodies would be translated into the virtual world instead. At least until we gave the Falling Star code. She also belatedly mentioned that we could yank each other out of the system in case of an emergency by saying that person’s Touched name in between the ‘falling’ and ‘star’ part of the name. 

“Okay, okay, right.” Wren sounded just as nervous as I felt. “Um, one more thing you should probably know. It won’t just be the virus duplicate thing you have to fight. You guys are technically sort of invaders in that system, so whatever defenses her computer has will probably try to kick you out. Especially if she’s not really in full control of it. I’m not sure how it’ll show itself, but umm, just be careful. It’ll probably look like soldiers or guards or something. Whatever fits with the scene they’re playing out you know? The defenses will try to fit in.” 

Well, that sounded fun. On the other side of the machine, Pack spoke up. “So hope this chick and her evil twin aren’t playing out some kind of Star Wars shit full of super battle droids, got it.” 

“Personally, I’m gonna close my eyes and really push for a Willy Wonka scenario,” That-A-Way put in. “I could dropkick half a dozen Oompa-Loompas when they start singing. Creepy shits.”

Yeah, we were definitely trying to keep our minds off what we were actually going to run into. Whatever it was, I had the distinct feeling it wouldn’t be as easy as drop-kicking Oompa-Loompas. But hey, maybe we’d get lucky. 

Yeah, I didn’t believe it either.   

In any case, after running one more, possibly paranoid check, Wren took a breath “Okay, alright. Um, you guys ready?” 

We confirmed that, as I shifted in the chair a bit. It wasn’t some random folding chair. The thing was a recliner that was actually fairly comfortable. Not as good as the chairs at home, of course, but at least I wouldn’t fall out of it the moment my body went limp. Or whatever was supposed to happen once I was in the system. 

Once she was satisfied, Wren looked over to the other side of the room, where Fred was standing next to a computer. She started alternating between typing stuff on a little iPad, and calling out things for him to type into his own keyboard. Behind me, I heard a gradually rising whirring sound as the MRI-like machine that we had put Paige into came to life. There was power in the air, enough that it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Oh boy, this was about to get really–

A sudden bright light blinded me, before quickly changing to a swirling pattern of colors that shifted through the entire rainbow multiple times. It wasn’t flashing or anything, just drifting, sort of like a slow kaleidoscope. I could hear the sound of dogs barking, then the sound of ocean waves, then an airplane, people talking in hushed tones, and more. It was cycling through all these random sounds that made no logical sense. Nearby, I heard another sound that I belatedly realized was Alloy muttering under her breath about not wanting to be drugged. 

Finally, the swirling colors turned into a reddish-purple fog and I had the distinct sensation of going down the drop on a roller coaster. A startled yelp escaped me, joined by three others, just as the falling sensation stopped and the fog vanished. 

I was standing in the hallway of my school. I mean, I wasn’t. I was sitting back in that room next to the machine. I knew that. Logically I knew that. But my brain was absolutely convinced at that moment that I was standing here. It looked exactly identical to one of the side corridors near the science classrooms. It even smelled right, for God’s sake. I wasn’t even sure how that part was possible, but it was. No matter what my conscious brain said, I really felt like I was standing in that hallway, as if we had been teleported there. God, this was so weird. I’d expected it to be weird, but anticipation was nothing compared to the real thing.  

Quickly, I raised my hands to my face and looked down to check. Sure enough, I was still in my costume. It had translated perfectly into the system. I had the gloves, the suit, even the helmet. Everything felt fine. Hell, the gloves were mine rather than the ones I actually had on for this, and the front of my helmet was down despite being up in the real world. Convenient.  

“Wha–” Nearby, That-A-Way was looking around. She too was in her normal costume, just the way she should’ve been. “Why are we at–in a… a school?” I could see the slight frown of confusion as she squinted at one of the classroom doors. “That’s what this place is, right?” 

Stepping from behind me to move into view, Alloy slowly shrugged. “Definitely ain’t my school. No graffiti, the lockers are way too big, everything smells clean and rich instead of like piss, sweat, and broken spirits.” 

“It’s the school for rich cunts,” Pack put in before adding, “I mean, it’s gotta be, right? Look around, tuition for this place must be fucking absurd. I bet these spoiled fucks only get world-touring, chart-topping bands to play their fucking dances.” Which totally wasn’t fair, considering the headliner of our last dance had only been like… ninth on the charts. 

In any case, even as Pack said that, Riddles and Mars Bar moved into view, sniffing around their owner’s feet before looking around. I could feel the confusion coming off of them as they adjusted to the fact that their poor lizard brains convinced them that they were somewhere completely new.  

“You guys hear anything?” Pack asked, while focusing on growing each of her pets into their larger, more capable forms. I really hoped that, like our movements, the lizard transformations weren’t translating back into the real world. Then again, we’d probably find out real quick if the iguana on the girl’s lap had suddenly turned into a full-sized grizzly bear with scales.  

“Nope,” Alloy was saying after we all took a moment to focus. “I don’t hear a damn thing. Is that weird? I mean, shouldn’t we hear them fighting or something? I thought they were supposed to be fighting.”

“Maybe they’re stalking each other,” I pointed out quietly. If they were sneaking around, it was probably a bad idea for us to make a lot of noise. Looking up and down the hallway uncertainly, I frowned in thought. Part of me wanted to call out to get Paige’s attention, but that was almost certainly a bad idea. We needed a better handle on what was going on in here before we just started shouting out for attention. Considering she had some sort of evil duplicate and we still weren’t sure how we were supposed to tell the difference between them if she decided to play that game. Seriously, what did an ‘evil Paige’ look like, after the years and years the real version had spent deliberately tormenting me (under her father’s orders, but still). It was really weird to think of the girl who had insulted and bullied you for years having an evil twin. 

No, we definitely needed to be quiet and go through this whole thing carefully. With any luck, maybe we could find our way to where they were and eavesdrop long enough to know which was which.

Unfortunately, of course, I wasn’t that lucky. And we definitely weren’t going to get much of a chance for the whole sneaking thing. Because even as I had that thought, several figures emerged from the classroom doors ahead of us. It was a mixture of teachers and school staff, even a few of the security guards and janitors. I recognized most of them. But they weren’t smiling at me the way they normally did. No, they looked pretty angry. Not to mention violent. Soon, a crowd of over a dozen had formed up to block our path forward. 

“Uhh, guys?” Alloy spoke up, and I looked back that way to see a similar group had come through the door leading to the outside. We were penned in on both sides. Worse, the assembled figures began to produce various weapons. Knives, bats, chains, and so on. This definitely wasn’t something we could talk our way through. 

“Trevithick was right about the security measures,” I muttered. “They’re definitely not happy to see us.” 

“Right, well, these guys we can rip apart, right?” Pack put in quickly, as the groups on both sides started to advance. “They’re just computer programs or whatever.” 

My head gave a quick nod. “Yeah, no need to play nice. Just get through them. And fast. We have to find Paige.” 

Either my saying her name was some kind of signal, or it was just a coincidence of timing. Either way, the moment I got those words out, a collective, horrific scream tore its way out of the throats of the people advancing on us and filled the air like some sort of terrible alarm. They all did it, shrieking like banshees. 

And with that, they attacked. 

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In Like Flynn 17-03 (Summus Proelium)

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It wasn’t that hard to convince That-A-Way to come meet us. Apparently, she had to beg off from doing some kind of school project with somebody, but didn’t really mind that much. In fact, going by her texts, the girl almost seemed grateful for the excuse. Especially when I told her I was with Pack and that this was something important that had to be done within the next few hours. Obviously, she had questions, but the girl held them until she got to the tire shop where we had both gone back to wait for her. It was close enough to Wren’s shop for this. 

Patient as she might have been over the phone, Way definitely wanted the whole story as soon as she showed up. Looking back and forth between the two of us as we all stood on that roof, she insisted that we tell her everything that was going on and what kind of emergency this actually was before anything else happened and before she would agree to go anywhere.  

So, I gave her the quick version, explaining what our Tech-Touched friend had found out about Paige’s apparently increasingly desperate situation, and how we were going to try to deal with it to at least buy ourselves time so we wouldn’t end up with the virus duplicate taking over and turning her into Evil Paige. Way made a few noises of confusion and surprise as I went through all the VR stuff, but mostly remained quiet until I was finally done explaining the whole thing.

Once I was finished, the blonde girl slumped back a bit and seemed to be lost in thought for a few long moments. She was clearly going over all of that in her head before eventually straightening up. “Wow. You really do get into some really crazy stuff, you know that?”  

With a cough at her words, I shook my head. “Trust me, you really don’t know the half of it.” 

She, of course, gave me a look while flatly pointing out, “And whose fault is that, exactly?” 

Shifting uncomfortably, I waved that off. “Anyway, like I said, we’ve got an extra slot for someone to help us go in there and help that girl. If you’re interested. But we have to do it tonight. Like, in a couple hours, so if you’ve got something else you can’t get out of… I mean, it’s short notice.” 

Snorting, That-A-Way drawled, “Totally smooth change of subject there, Paintball. How do you do it?” That point made, she firmly added, “And yeah, I’m totally in. Absolutely. If you two are going into some kind of Tron world to save Paige from turning into psycho evil crazy Paige, then I’m going too. No way am I letting both of you have that kind of adventure without me.” 

Before I could say anything, Pack spoke up first. “Technically, it wouldn’t be the two of us anyway.” Her gaze moved over to me as she slyly added, “Not with Paintball’s new sidekick.” 

Well, that definitely got Way’s attention. Her gaze snapped from Pack back to me, staring a bit. “You mean it’s true then? You really did recruit that girl you were with? Why? Who is she? Do you trust her? Have you told her about this Ministry thing? Have you told her what we’re doing at the mall? What else does she know? How long have you known her? How many times–” 

Quickly, I interrupted. “I haven’t known her very long. And no, I haven’t told her anything about the Ministry. But she kind of already figured out that there was a good reason not to join the Minority, because I keep refusing to even though I’m obviously fine with working with you guys.”

“Yeah, who could’ve seen that coming?” With that flat retort, Way shook her head before continuing. “So, are you going to tell her the truth about all that? I mean, if she’s signed up to be your sidekick or partner or whatever, she’s probably going to figure out there’s something bigger going on eventually. That, or something horrible is going to happen to her because she doesn’t know the truth and you’ll feel like a gigantic piece of shit for not warning her about it. Do you really want that? Do you want to put this girl in danger because you wouldn’t tell her the truth?” 

Wincing, I shook my head. “I’m gonna tell–okay I think I’m gonna tell her the truth. Just not–not yet. I want to build up to it first. More to the point, I want to get to know her first, see how she reacts to things, you know? I just need to get to know her more before we jump into the deep end with all the Ministry stuff. I mean, that’s a lot to shove onto a brand new Touched.” Glancing down, I muttered under my breath, “Seriously, it’s a lot.” 

From the corner of my eye, I saw Way’s mouth open as though she was going to say something. But she stopped herself. I had the feeling she was going to bring up my not telling them the whole story and keeping important things to myself again, then thought better of it.  

Of course, Pack chose that moment to speak up with, “Don’t worry, once you guys get through taking down Pencil and the Scions, you’ll definitely know her really well.” 

What?!” Yeah, unsurprisingly, Way had a bit of a reaction to that. Her eyes behind that domino mask were wide as she pointed at me. “Dude, what is she talking about? You are not going after Pencil or the Scions and you’re definitely not doing it with this brand new girl. What the hell?” 

Giving Pack a quick, pointed look (which she ignored), I sighed before launching into an explanation of the situation. I told the girl about the whole favor thing, and that we weren’t actually going after the Scions themselves, but a living witness from Pencil’s early days who might possibly have some kind of secret important insight about that piece of shit that would give Deicide an edge over him. With, of course, the added note that pointing her at the Scions was a hell of a lot safer than us having anything to do with trying to take them down. 

By the time I was done, Way had sat down and picked up Holiday (in her little skink form) to hold in one hand while gently rubbing the back of the lizard’s head with the other. She was watching me dubiously. “Do you really think it’s going to be that simple? You’re just going to track this girl down and get her to tell you some secret about how to stop Pencil, a secret she hasn’t told anybody else yet because she’s so scared of him? She’ll just tell you because you, what, ask nicely? Then you’re going to give that secret to one of the leaders of a Fell-Gang and she’s going to deal with him? And if this whole thing works, there won’t be any terrible consequences and nothing will go wrong?” 

With a long sigh, I shook my head. “I don’t know how it’s gonna go. Probably not that smoothly. But it’s the favor Deicide called in. A favor I definitely owe her. And quite frankly, she could have asked for something a hell of a lot worse than that. We all want Pencil to be stopped. If this works, great! If not, at least we tried. I’m paying back the favor by trying to help stop Pencil from killing more people. Like I said, Deicide could’ve tried to get me to do something a lot worse.” 

“Besides,” Pack put in, “I already told him to pull me in as soon as they get anywhere with it. He’s right, Deicide earned that favor. But she did it by helping save my boss’s kid. So I’m not letting him and his new sidekick run off by themselves and get hurt trying to pay her back for it.”

That-A-Way let out an audible breath, her voice dark. “Believe it or not, finding out that you’re getting involved in this whole thing doesn’t actually make me feel that much better. In fact, it kinda makes me feel even worse, because I really don’t feel like letting the girl I–” In mid-sentence, she stopped herself, clearly adjusting her words. “–the girl I’m pretty sure isn’t that bad make herself a target of that psycho piece of shit too!”   

Pack and I exchanged brief looks before the La Casa girl cleared her throat. “Sure, right. Well, the… girl you’re pretty sure isn’t that bad is already a target for Pencil. So are you. And so is our little buddy here.” She gestured toward me. “Sooner or later, he’s going to get around to targeting us to get back for what we put him and Cup through. So, you know, it seems to me that we ought to take this chance to get someone as strong as Deicide to maybe take him out. If that means we do a little digging and hopefully find an actual weakness no one else knows about so she can actually do something useful, so be it. Better than just sitting around waiting to see what his revenge for that night up at the cabin is gonna be.” 

It looked like Way wanted to argue with that for a brief moment. Then she exhaled and sank back a bit. Her finger gently traced along the body of the tiny skink before she found her voice. “Yeah, okay, I get it. You’ve both got a point. But don’t–don’t go running into life and death shit without getting help, okay? If anything happens–actually, scratch that. Anytime you’re doing anything that has to do with this… plan, tell me. Make sure I know where you’re going and what you’re doing. If you don’t keep checking in, I’ll be there. Just consider me your back-up. But that means you have to keep me updated. Got it?” From the tone of her voice, she wasn’t going to accept any arguments. 

“Sure,” I immediately answered, giving her a thumbs up. “Like we’re gonna argue against you having our backs? Fat chance, Pencil’s a piece of shit, but he’s a scary piece of shit.” 

“What he said,” Pack muttered, gesturing toward me. “I mean, if this thing works out perfectly we won’t get anywhere near him or any of the Scions. But I think we all know how unlikely that is. Nothing ever works out perfectly. Besides,” she added slyly with a look toward Way, “I could definitely think of worse people to have watching my backside out there.” 

Making a disconcerted noise in the back of her throat, Way pointedly looked at me. “What do we need to do to get ready for this? And, wait a minute, how are we going to do anything in there? I don’t know about you two, but I’m pretty reliant on my powers. I mean, yeah, I’ve had self-defense training, duh. But do you really think we can do enough in that place to help? Hell, you’re taking some brand new girl in there too and I doubt she’s had special training or experience. Unless you somehow managed to recruit a teenage ninja master commando.”

Briefly thinking about Peyton wearing a ninja commando outfit with a big rifle and a sword strapped to her back, I coughed before shaking my head quickly. “Not exactly, but Wren says we should be able to use at least some form of our powers in there. It has something to do with the system reading what we’re capable of, or something like that. I dunno, it’s complicated. The point is, we shouldn’t be completely helpless. Except…” Trailing off, I looked to Pack and frowned as a thought occurred to me. “I’m not exactly sure how you’re going to use your power. I mean, will she spawn in lizards for you or something? What’s the deal there.”

Before responding to that, Pack glanced to Way and informed her, “Wren’s the name of our friendly little tech kid.” 

“Kid?” the other girl quickly put in as she looked from Pack over to me and back, rising to her feet with Holiday still in her hand. “Hold up. You mean this Trevithick you’ve been talking about-”  

“That’s a long story too,” I muttered. “Yeah, she’s a kid. A genius kid, but a kid. Don’t worry, you’ll meet her soon. She said she’s cool with it. Apparently, she has this crazy idea that if I somehow get in trouble or something, having you to call for help would be a good idea.”  

Giving me an intense stare, Way flatly retorted, “Gee, what on Earth could ever have made her think she needed to plan for that ridiculous eventuality? You’re always so careful and definitely never take on more than you can handle. I mean, you’re practically the avatar of caution.”  

Flushing at her words behind the helmet, I waved both hands. “Yeah yeah, I get it. You’re hilarious. Anyway, we don’t have a lot of choice right now. If we wanna save this Paige girl, we have to get in there. And the only way we’re gonna get in there to save her is with Wren’s help. Believe me, I wouldn’t–I’d be dead without her. Several times over. I’ve made it this far because of you guys, and her. Yeah, she’s a kid. But she knows what she’s doing.” 

After a brief pause, Way gave a slow nod. “Right, well, I guess it could be worse. I mean, I go out in the field with Raindrop and she’s saved me a hell of a lot more than once. And this kid isn’t going out to fight or anything, she’s just building stuff.” With that, her gaze snapped over to stare me down intently, “She’s not going into the field, right?” 

My head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, of course not. She’s support. And she’s really good at that. Hell, her being really good is the only reason we even know about Paige being in trouble, let alone have any chance of doing anything about it. Seriously, Wren’s building a virtual reality system and patching it into Paige’s computer core in like twenty-four hours. She’s pretty amazing.”

“He’s right,” Pack agreed before pushing on. “Anyway, as far as being helpless in there goes, the kid already said she could patch exactly two of my little friends with me. Something to do with technical limitations or whatever. Point is, she can wire in two of my buddies so they’re linked to me in there, just like in the real world. I just uhh…” She trailed off, looking from Holiday on Way’s hand over to the backpack cage where the rest of the lizards were. “I have to choose which two to take in there.” I could hear the grimace in her voice. “Really wish we knew more about what it was like so I knew who I should take with me.” 

Shrugging, I pointed out, “I guess we could head over there and see if Wren needs any help. Maybe she’ll know more about what we’re dealing with.” Glancing to Way, I added, “And you can meet her. You know, if you don’t have anything better to do right now.” 

She, in turn, gave a short nod. “Trust me, I cleared my schedule for this. Paige sounds like our best chance of finding out more about the Ministry. I mean, we’ve got the mall thing, but that’s going to take a while. Plus, it’d be better if we knew what Paige knows before going in there.” 

So, keeping an eye out for anyone watching, the three of us carefully made our way through those alleys to reach the shop. We took the same route Pack and I had before, and I noticed the homeless guy from earlier was gone. Briefly, I wondered if he had just moved to a different spot, or if he had already taken the offer to start working for La Casa. Not that I could blame him if he had. The dude was living on the streets. Getting safety and resources from Blackjack and his people was probably pretty tempting. 

In any case, we made it back to the shop, where Pack and I introduced That-A-Way to Fred and Wren. To my surprise, Fred immediately copped to what he had done to make the whole Ashton thing worse with that tool to break into the bank vault. For a moment, Way looked like she wanted to say something about how stupid that was, but she saw the look on his face and let it go. He already knew just how bad it had been. 

Besides, by that point, Wren had already jumped in to start asking her a million questions about her power, her costume, and everything else. The kid looked even more worn out than she had earlier, making it clear just how much effort getting this thing done in time was taking. But at that moment, she really didn’t seem to care that much. The exhaustion fell from her eyes as she excitedly pressed Way to answer all her many, many questions about how the Minority worked. 

It was only a few minutes of that before the kid quickly shook her head. “Sorry, sorry, sorry. Gotta get the machine done. Getting there. Almost there. Really close. It’ll be done in time, I promise.” That last bit was directed toward me. “I’ll get it done.” 

Quickly, I spoke up in as reassuring a tone as I could manage. “Wren, it’s okay. You’re okay. I know. You’ll get it done. Just don’t kill yourself over it. And tell us how we can help, okay?” 

So, for the next hour or so, the three of us kept moving through the shop, carrying stuff up to Wren, holding things for her, passing the kid whatever tool she needed, and generally being as useful as we could. 

We also used that time to ask her about what we were going to be walking into. Unfortunately, Wren didn’t know much. Mostly because she hadn’t wanted to interrupt or distract Paige from defending herself against that invader. The best she could tell us was that the area we were entering kept changing appearance. Sometimes it was an open city street, sometimes it was a mall, a forest, the roof of a building, a huge mansion, a library, whatever. It changed all the time. So we couldn’t exactly plan on what kind of surroundings would be there. 

Eventually, the three of us were downstairs sorting through a couple of shelves when the buzzer at the backdoor rang. It was Peyton, covered by the armor she’d used yesterday, the purple and silver Power Rangers-like bodysuit with the ‘helmet’ that was purple on top across her head and silver across her throat and lower half of her face, leaving her eyes and nose exposed. 

The girl looked surprised to see That-A-Way when we let her in. She was also slightly surprised to see Pack, but at least I had already told her we would be working with the La Casa girl. There was a quick back-and-forth of introductions and explanations as I informed Peyton that we could trust That-A-Way with this. 

“Alloy, huh?” Pack put in as soon as that was done. She looked the other girl up and down curiously. “Cool name. Guess it fits with the whole melding your marbles together to turn into things.” 

Alloy, for her part, looked a little uncertain as to how she should react to the supervillain complimenting her name choice. In the end, she offered a little shrug. “Uh, thanks, I guess.”

“Hey,” Way put in, “I’m just glad you don’t have yet another P name.” 

Peyton, of course, practically choked, head snapping that way. “What?” 

“You know,” Way continued, “We’ve got Pack and Paintball.” She gestured between the two of us in question. “And the girl we’re supposed to be helping is named Paige. Too many P names. It’s becoming a thing.” 

Clearly glad that most of her face was covered to hide her expression, Peyton nodded slowly. “Right, good thing.” 

“Hey,” Pack suddenly put in, “speaking of names, what exactly are you two gonna call your little team-up thing? Hell, pretty sure you should count Trevithick too, so what’re you all gonna call yourselves? Every group’s gotta have a name, especially if there’s two of you out in the field.” 

“Batman, Robin, Batgirl, and the rest of that group didn’t have a team name,” I pointed out. “I mean, besides Bat-family. Hey, you could be–” 

“We’re not being Paint-family,” Peyton immediately interrupted. “And definitely not the Ball-family. Forget it.” 

That, of course, was the cue for Wren to come down the stairs, blurting, “Are we choosing a team name?! We’ve gotta choose a team name, right?” 

Groaning, I shook my head. “Is this really the best use of our time right now?” Another part of me was really resistant to the idea of making this whole team-up thing official in any capacity. It was dangerous, it was reckless, it could backfire with–

“I have an idea.” That was Alloy, hesitantly speaking up. “I mean, it might be a little silly, but I was thinking about Paintball’s powers, and mine, and the way Trevithick makes brand new things. And I sorta… I sorta came up with a suggestion?” She squirmed uncomfortably, kicking her foot against the floor. 

Not wanting to discourage her despite my trepidation, I nodded. “Okay, whatcha got?” 

So, she told us, and explained the spelling. Once she had it out, all of us exchanged looks. Pack shrugged. “I’ve heard worse. I mean, it ain’t my team, but I wouldn’t mind jumping under the banner now and then whenever you need a guest star.” 

Wren was bobbing her head rapidly, of course, gushing about how cool it was. 

“Yeah, it’s definitely cool,” Way agreed, looking to me. “What do you think?” 

“Let’s see how it looks,” I murmured, raising both hands before using my paint to spray the name across the wall in red with black outline. Once it was there, all of us stared at it. 

“I like it,” I finally agreed despite the worry I felt. “Good job, Alloy.” 

After we’d all taken in the name that we would apparently be using, Way turned from the wall. “Well, should we get busy? From what you guys said, time is sorta of the essence.” 

She was right, of course. So, we all got back to work, finishing up the last things that needed to be done before we would be able to jump into virtual reality to save Paige. Hopefully. 

In the background, meanwhile, the name of my brand new team remained in bold red letters across the wall. 

Avant-Guard.

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In Like Flynn 17-02 (Summus Proelium)

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For those who read Heretical Edge, there was a commissioned interlude posted yesterday. If you missed that, you can read it right here

So yeah, Pack obviously had a lot of things to say about the whole thing with this Amanda girl. Mostly centered around how many ways it could either be a trap or backfire on us. She went on about how stupid it would be to intentionally piss off Pencil and make myself and my new friend an even bigger target for him then we were now. I had made him angry already, first by screwing up his plan at the Children’s Hospital so that he didn’t do nearly as much damage as he meant to, and then by escaping up at the cabin. Not to mention the fact that I had actually hurt Cup. Yeah, obviously he didn’t need an excuse to target me. And yet, here I was, about to poke my nose into his business again. Pack had more than a few loud opinions on that idea.  

In the end, all I could say was that at least we weren’t actually going anywhere near the man himself. And, I pointed out that someone had to put a stop to him. The longer he went on being able to torture and kill people, the longer his list of innocent victims would get. Even if I didn’t have a chance in hell of confronting him directly and winning, the least I could do was contribute to bringing him down by finding Amanda Sanvers and trying to convince her to tell Deicide about any actual weaknesses Pencil might have so that she could actually do something about it. 

“I’m not stupid. I know it’s dangerous. But he has to be stopped. And I do owe Deicide for that vial. The vial that saved your boss’s daughter. She came through with it and asked for a favor. She could have asked for a much harder favor than this. Okay, maybe this isn’t exactly easy, but it’s not bad or wrong. I don’t have a moral issue with stopping Pencil and the Scions. This might be hard and dangerous, but it’s still a good thing to do. And I’m going to do it. Or try, at least.” 

Through all of that, I could tell Pack was staring at me intently. She seemed to be weighing something back and forth in her head for a silent moment before giving a long, audible sigh. “Right, fine. But don’t go digging too far into finding this chick without me, got it?” When I started to object, she interrupted. “No, you’re right. You got into this favor to help save the boss’s kid. You saved her life, and now Deicide wants you to pay that back by possibly pissing off that psycho? You’re not doing that alone. Or even with some girl who’s had her powers for like half an hour. I’m not saying I’ll fight that son of a bitch, I’m not stupid either. But me and my buddies here can help everyone get away if shit goes south. If you’re doing this, I’m gonna be there to make sure you don’t go too far with it. Fuck, I owe you that much for the vial thing. Plus, you know…” She trailed off, kicking the roof with her foot before muttering, “I don’t exactly hate you. And the list of people like that isn’t long, so I’d rather not have to deal with that fucking freak getting his hands on you. Not to mention how Way would react if she found out I just let you… yeah. So, that’s it. If you’re doing this, I’m going with you. No arguing about it, capisce?” 

Snorting despite myself, I gave a short nod. Behind the helmet, I was smiling a bit. “So, my takeaway from all that is that you like me. You really like me!” 

A low growl escaped the girl. “Don’t make me change my mind, kid. This still all seems pretty stupid. But if you insist, I’m gonna make sure you don’t go too stupid with it.” 

“Not going too stupid, got it.” Giving her a thumbs up, I added, “But hey, at least we don’t have to worry about that for a while. I mean, that’s the problem behind door number two. We’ve got a whole other problem behind door number one we have to deal with first. Isn’t that great?”

Pack didn’t sound incredibly enthused, for some reason. “You know the whole ‘door number one or door number two’ bit is supposed to imply you pick one or the other? It’s supposed to be a choice, not a thing where you dive headfirst into both of them whenever you want.” 

“Meh.” I shrugged. “I always was a little selfish. Gotta have all the doors for myself. But hey, you’ll be there too.” I adopted a teasing tone once more. “Because you liiiiiike me. Because we’re super-good friends and you won’t let anything happen to me. Because we–”

She shut me up with a kick to the shin that made me yelp, then pointedly replied, “So, are we gonna find out if Wren’s got another slot we can slide Way into before we call her in, or what?” 

Giving her a thumbs up while using my other hand to rub my leg, I nodded. “Sure, sure. Let’s head over there and see what she can do. The more friends we can pull into this whole Tron adventure, the merrier.” Grimacing then, I added, “I can’t believe I’m saying that with a straight face. This is all super-weird, right?”

Snorting at me, Pack plucked Riddles off her shoulder where the bearded dragon had crawled. “Yeah, definitely super-weird. But you know, that’s pretty much par for the course as far as you’re concerned, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not like you ever do anything the normal way.” 

Opening my mouth to argue, I ended up hesitating before coughing. “Okay, fair. I guess I really don’t. But whatever, come on, let’s go talk to our kid-genius inventor friend about letting the Minority superhero chick we’re both friends with come along on the trip to go into the cyborg-girl’s brain so we can save her from the evil duplicate virus her supervillain psycho father installed before she gets erased.” 

So, the two of us collected the lizards, put them back in the backpack-cage thing, then headed down and made our way through the maze of back alleys toward Wren’s shop. We passed a confused homeless guy on the way as he poked his head up from his sleeping bag next to a dumpster, and I gave him a twenty dollar bill before heading on. Pack watched me do that, seemed to consider for a moment, then sighed and passed him a twenty as well before whispering something in his ear. 

“What’d you say to that guy?” I asked once we had moved out of the man’s earshot. 

“Hmm?” Pack glanced toward me, then looked over her shoulder that way. “Oh, I just told him if he wants an easy lookout job that pays really well, he should call the number on the money I gave him. Blackjack’s always looking to recruit the unfortunate. Even if they don’t have any powers or skills, you’d be surprised how much information they can get for you. Plus, like I said, they can play lookouts really well. No one pays attention to them. Get enough on your side, and you have a whole spy network working for you. Just takes a little cash here and there. Which is something Blackjack has to spare.” 

My mouth opened and shut a couple times before I sighed. “You know, I genuinely have no idea how I’m supposed to feel about that. At least he’s giving them money, I guess?” 

“Money they’re earning,” Pack clarified pointedly with a raised finger. “That’s the big part. Plus, some of them do enough to get promoted into the actual gang instead of just being street-eyes. All depends on how much work they do, and how good they are at it. There’s actually a decent amount of ex-military types on the streets.” 

I was still processing that as we made our way up to the back door of the shop and rang the bell. There was about a twenty second pause before the door was pulled open by Fred, who looked a little distracted and disheveled. “Come in, then. You can help carry some shit upstairs.” With that, he gestured to two milk crates on the floor that had random bits of equipment piled up in them. It looked like he had been pulling pieces off the shelves and shoving them in there. 

“Everything okay?” I asked while stepping in and moving to pick up one of the crates. Beside me, Pack did the same while the lizards chirped and squeaked from the backpack. 

Fred was taking a long drink from a bottle of water before wiping off his forehead. “Yeah. I mean as good as it can be. Just busy. Wren’s been working all day on getting this VR thing up and running, and it’s… look, she’s working really hard, so take it easy on the kid, okay?” 

My head bobbed quickly, and I started to ask if she was okay, but Pack beat me to it. “How’s she doing with all this? Gotta be a lot of pressure on the girl, even for someone with a techy brain that big. You made her get some sleep last night, right?” There was a firm tone to her voice that reminded me just how much Pack cared about Wren too, after the time they’d spent together. She definitely didn’t like the idea of the kid stressing herself out over this whole thing. Which was fair, even if I was worried about what was going on with Paige. I was worried about Wren too. The kid was taking a lot onto her plate, with trying to put her dad’s store back in business, designing things we could actually build and sell, upgrading my equipment, and trying to help with the Paige situation. She’d even apparently gone as far as building that whole communication thing just to check on Paige herself, found out there was something wrong, and reached out to her Tech-Touched friend in France to find a solution she could jury-rig. It was a lot for anybody, let alone a nine-year-old who should be focusing on having fun. Part of me wished I could just tell the kid to forget about the whole thing and focus on her shop. But, of course, I couldn’t do that because it would mean hanging Paige out to dry.

Fred had already nodded by the time I worked through all that in my head. “You’re damn right I made the kid go to sleep. Wasn’t easy either, she was bound and determined to work through the night, but I nipped that in the bud. So yeah, she slept, otherwise she wouldn’t be conscious right now. But she’s still working her butt off on this whole thing, so take it easy with anything you ask about, got it?” His gaze moved back and forth between the two of us. 

Pack and I exchanged glances before nodding. That time, I found my voice first. “Yeah, we do… we do need to ask her about something as far as this VR thing goes, but we’ll take it easy. Trust me, Fred, we don’t wanna pile anything else onto her. She’s done enough with all this.” 

His gaze seemed to bore straight into and even through me. “So you’re not about to ask her to try to fix that orb thing anyway, even after everything she said about not being able to do it?” 

Okay, that one definitely took me by surprise. Giving a double-take despite myself, I couldn’t find my voice for a second. “Wha–no! No, I swear, that’s not why we’re here. I mean, she said she couldn’t do it, that’s–I get it. Trust me, Fred, we are not about to try to talk her into working on the orb. I know it’s more than she can handle. I didn’t–” Oh. He thought I’d brought Pack for backup in talking the poor kid into taking on that job too. No wonder he was making a point of talking to us like this, especially after Wren had outright refused to work on Paige the first time. And now he thought we were here to pressure her into taking it up, just because it was an emergency and–oh. Now I definitely understood what his whole deal was. 

“He’s right,” Pack put in, clearly having gone through the same thought process. “We’re not here to talk the kid into doing stuff she already said she couldn’t do. We just think we might need more help if we’re going into this… computer world thing, so we were wondering if she could make enough links or helmets or whatever it is for us to bring That-A-Way over.” 

Quickly, I added, “And, you know, ask if she’s cool with That-A-Way knowing where the shop is and all that. I mean, she knows a good bit already. Some of it anyway. But it’s a pretty big step to have Way over here. Especially since she always knows what direction she’s facing, so putting a bag over her head to drive her to the shop wouldn’t really do that much. She’d probably still be able to figure out where we were going and all that.” 

Without missing a beat, Fred pointed out, “We could teleport her directly here, you know. Her knowing what direction she’s facing wouldn’t tell her the exact location if she was teleported in from somewhere else, right? It’d just take time to calibrate for her and all, as the kid would say.” 

Oh, right. Pausing to consider that, I slowly nodded. “We’ll ask Wren what she wants to do. Either way, having masks around for you or anyone who wants one would probably be a good idea, just to, you know, be on the safe side.” 

Fred looked like he was going to say something to that, before shaking it off. “Right, yeah. Well, if that’s what you need, go ahead and carry those crates up to the kid. And let me know if I need to start calibrating that teleport marker. Kid made me learn how to do it in case there was an emergency or whatever, and God knows she’s got enough to work on today as it is.” 

Yeah, Fred had definitely changed since I first met him. Or had he? His whole thing when he had gone against Wren’s rules and made the deal with Ashton had been to get money to take care of her and to pay the bills for her parents’ hospital and funeral stuff. Yeah, he’d definitely done something bad, but he hadn’t known how bad at the time. He had just wanted better for himself and his niece, and that wasn’t exactly the worst crime in the world. And now he was still trying to take care of her, just without going too far. He’d learned from his mistake, but he was still the same guy, for the most part. 

“You okay over there?” Pack asked as the two of us walked to the stairs with the crates.

Heading up first, I nodded quickly. “Yeah, sorry. Just been thinking a lot. You know, about everything. It’s just–” I sighed. “There’s a lot going on.” 

Snorting, Pack nodded while starting up after me. She had left the bag with her lizards inside on one of the counters downstairs with strict orders for them to stay put, eat their food, and relax. Aside from Twinkletoes, who was perched on her shoulder, curiously watching everything. “A lot going on, right. And yet, here you are, taking on more responsibility day after day after day.” 

Wincing, I shook my head. “Hey, I told you, it’s not my fault. I owed Deicide for the–yeah.” 

“I know, I get it,” she muttered, reaching up to scratch under Twinkletoes’s chin affectionately. The way she brought him with just as we were going up the stairs, I had the feeling Pack didn’t like to go anywhere without at least one of them. Which, again, made me curious about how she went to school. Did she go to school, or was it just like some kind of tutoring situation in La Casa? And why did I keep wondering about it? Seriously, it was none of my business. I had no idea why the question kept popping into my head. Like I didn’t already have enough to worry about and focus on? 

By that point, we had reached the top of the stairs and moved through the hallway there to get to the lab where Wren was working on what I swore looked like a large, makeshift MRI machine that was taking up a decent portion of one corner. The kid had the side of the machine open and was lying on one of those little wheeled carts that mechanics use, buried up to her waist in the wire-filled guts of the machine. We could both hear the girl talking to herself, or rather, to the machine. She was mumbling about making the thing work whether it wanted to or not. 

Exchanging a brief look with the girl next to me, I stepped that way. “Uh, hey, Wren. You need any help down there? Got some stuff for you.” I shook the crate in my hand a little demonstrably.   

Hearing my voice, the girl slid out, blurting, “Paintball!” She saw the other girl then and added a quick, “Pack! And Twinkletoes!” Hurriedly, she climbed into her feet, almost slipping on the wheeled cart before managing to catch herself. “Hi! Oh, you can put that stuff right there on the floor, I’ve gotta dig through it and find the right stuff. Do you know if Uncle Fred found the–” And then she said something so ridiculously technical that she might as well have been speaking in a completely foreign language. Or even an alien language. Hell, for all I knew, she was talking in complete gibberish and that entire sentence was just the girl screwing with us to see if we had any clue what she was going on about. And from the sound that Pack made in the background, I was pretty sure she didn’t have the slightest idea what any of that meant either.  

After a moment, I found my voice. “Uh, sorry he didn’t say anything about that. But it seemed like he found what you sent him for? So maybe it’s in there. If you want some help digging through it…” Oh, really? Where was I going to go with that, genius? I had no idea what any of what she was asking about looked like, so how exactly was I going to help her find it? 

Thankfully, Wren politely declined, saying she’d look through it later. Then she frowned slightly, looking back and forth between us while holding Twinkletoes (the chameleon had been quickly handed over to her and was quite thoroughly enjoying the attention). Curiously, the girl asked, “You guys aren’t here to do the thing yet, are you? Cuz I–I’m really sorry but it’s not ready yet. I’ve been trying and I swear I’ll get it working, but I had to sleep cuz Uncle Fred said I couldn’t–” 

Quickly, I interrupted. “No, no, it’s okay. We’re not here for that.” With that, I explained why we were there, asking how the girl felt about bringing That-A-Way over, how secret she wanted us to make it, and whether she thought there would be a way of bringing one more person into the VR thing. But I made it perfectly clear that if adding someone else was too much to get ready in time, she absolutely shouldn’t worry about it, and that it was just a thought we’d had about getting more help in there.

Thankfully (because I really thought we were going to need all the help we could get), Wren immediately agreed. According to her, once she had the actual system working, it wouldn’t be too hard to create an additional link-in for it. Especially since she had apparently been planning on making another one ‘just in case’ anyway. It was intended to be just in case one of the regular link-ins didn’t work properly, but assuming everything did work, there would be an extra one for That-A-Way.

“And you want us to go the blindfold, teleportation route?” Pack put in curiously. “Cuz if so, I think Paintball should do it. Just cuz someone from La Casa putting a bag over a superhero’s head and teleporting them to a secret location kiiiinda has a weird feeling to it.” 

Wren, however, shook her head. “Nuh uh, you can bring her here. She’s a superhero! She’s a good guy–errr, girl. An’ besides, if you guys trust her, I trust her.” Belatedly, she added, “Besides, if bad stuff happens, it’s probably a good idea to have someone like her know where we are, right?” 

“Uh, good point,” I agreed, giving her a thumbs up before looking over to Pack. “So, what do you say? 

“Shall we go find out if That-A-Way wants to play Tron with us?” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

In Like Flynn 17-01 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Needless to say, Izzy and I had a lot to talk about that night. The two of us took a long walk near the mall after I changed clothes and got back to her, going over everything that had happened. I told her about Peyton, about Deicide calling in her favor and what exactly she wanted, about the whole Paige situation and how that was suddenly a much bigger priority than I had thought, all of it. It was a huge dump of information, obviously, and I wanted to get all of it out before we went home. Besides, walking around helped me think a bit, and God knew I really needed to think. 

There was one good thing about Paige’s situation being so dire, at least. It meant that everything else had to wait. She was the priority. Seriously, my feelings about the girl might be complicated considering the years we’d spent at each other’s throats, but logically I knew that wasn’t her fault. It didn’t entirely help my subconscious feelings and emotions and all, but still. And after everything she’d done to try to avoid carrying out her father’s orders, I owed her. So, I was going to do this whole virtual reality thing, see inside that computer core of hers, and save her from this evil virus double. Or, well, that was the goal, at least. Here was hoping we actually pulled it off. 

In any case, talking about it with Izzy helped organize my thoughts about the whole thing. There was nothing else we could do about Paige until tomorrow evening. 

While we were walking around, I’d also texted Pack to tell her that I had to ask something important that had to do with ‘the girl we took to the shop’, and her first response had been to ask what was going on and if it was an emergency. So, I sent back a bit about the situation and said that it was important, but that we couldn’t do anything about it until the next evening. She, in turn, asked to meet me the next afternoon on the roof of some old tire shop to get details. 

So, with that much done, Izzy and I had gone home. We ate a snack in the kitchen while making a point to talk about the movies we had supposedly both seen (she told me about them while we were walking so I’d know what to say) in front of the household staff before heading to our rooms. And, once again, the two of us ended up talking even more, long into the night before falling asleep together in the same bed. All in all, it could’ve been a much worse day. 

The next morning, we were up and talking some more before it was time to get up. I’d already gotten so accustomed to splitting my sleep, getting only a few hours at night and a few here and there during the day, that it was weird sleeping almost all the way through. I was newly refreshed even before the sun finished rising. Which was probably a good thing, because I was pretty sure this whole situation with Paige tonight was going to end up being a doozy. 

Sitting cross-legged on my bed, Izzy asked, “Do you really think this umm, Pack is going to want to go in and help you save Paige? I mean, she doesn’t really know her, right? And it’s not like she’ll get anything she wants out of it. There’s no reward or anything.” She shifted a bit, clearly feeling uncomfortable just bringing it up. “I just mean, yeah, she likes you or whatever. She’s been nice to you and helped and all. And she wants to do something about the Ministry–” 

“That’s why she’ll help,” I put in. “She knows that Paige knows more about the Ministry, and that she can help us do something about them. Or at least get her a better deal. I’m pretty sure that’s what Pack’s leaning toward…” Trailing off, I sighed before adding, “So yeah, I think she’ll help, because her reward is getting more info about the Ministry and being in a better position overall.” 

“And Peyton?” she immediately asked. “Do you think she’s umm, you know, ready for this?” Once again, the younger girl looked awkward. She clearly felt weird about questioning how ready a girl several years older than her was to do this sort of thing. But it was completely fair, considering Izzy had been using her powers and working alongside a team to help people for awhile now, much longer than even I had. And Peyton, meanwhile, had been doing this for… well, about a day. Despite the difference in their ages in one direction, there was a big difference in experience in the other. 

Of course, thinking about that made me realize something that I really should’ve thought about before. Biting my lip, I looked over to the other girl. “Izzy, do you… feel bad that you’re not involved in this? I mean you are, you help me just by talking about this stuff, seriously. You make me feel like my head’s not about to explode. But… I mean, do you feel left out because I’m not taking you to help with stuff like this? I um, I mean, in some ways you’re in an even worse position than me. You have to go play good little Minority teammate and pretend you don’t know anything. It’s… it’s gotta be hard. I know it’s hard. And I’m really sorry about that. I wish there was something I could do–I mean something we could do. It’s just, you know, really complicated.”

For a moment, Izzy didn’t say anything. She seemed to be considering, her expression pensive. Finally, she gave a very slight nod and quietly spoke. “Uh huh. It’s really complicated. And yeah, part of me feels a little… bad that I don’t get to be there, and that I have to keep pretending not to know anything. It’s hard. But I know why I have to, and I know why I can’t be involved with, like, actually helping. Physically helping. I know, I get. I just… I wish I could do something. And I wish we could find my mom. I know, I know she’s bad and all. I just… I wanna make sure she’s okay.”

Wow, yeah that was rough. Wincing, I reached out to take her hand. “I know. I get it. Believe me, I do. Look at my parents, my whole family. We know what they are. But if they were missing, I’d still be worried about them. I’d be out of my mind. I’d still want them to be okay.” 

Izzy, in turn, shook her head, voice firm. “It’s not the same. Your parents love you. They didn’t try to sell you into slavery, or get pissed because they couldn’t make enough money off you, or–or hurt you like that. They’d never hurt you, Cassidy. Not on purpose. They–they really love you.”  

Oh boy. Yeah, I knew what the implied bit of that was, that her own mother didn’t love her. And why shouldn’t she think that? After everything that piece of shit had done, after what she’d tried to do to her own kid, she deserved–yeah. She deserved a lot of bad things that I shouldn’t think about.

Still, I swallowed back all those thoughts, managing a quiet response. “I know. I know my parents love me and that it’s not the same as your situation with your mom. But I still get it. You love your mom and you want to know that she’s okay. You don’t want anything bad to happen to her.” 

A very slight blush of guilt crossed the other girl’s face then, before she held up two fingers close together and whispered, “Maybe I’m okay with a little bit of a bad thing happening. I mean, prison. Jail. I think she should go to jail. She tried to do bad things to me and she might’ve done other bad things, I dunno. I think she should go to jail for it. Maybe… maybe if she does, she’ll realize what she did was wrong and umm… get better?” There was a small, very faint hint of hopefulness to her voice that really tore at me. Wow, that hurt. 

For a few seconds, I had no idea what to say. I didn’t want to tell her that her mother wasn’t likely to change, especially not from being in jail. Who was I to crush that tiny little hope she had? Especially considering all the private hopes I had about how things with my family might end up turning out. I’d be a gigantic fucking hypocrite of the worst caliber.

So, in the end, all I could do was squeeze Izzy’s hand and quietly reply, “I’ll help you find her as soon as we can. I promise. We’ll figure out where she went and… and what happened. And if we can get her back here and make her go to prison, we’ll do that, okay?” 

Izzy, in turn, met my gaze. I could see a lot of different emotions working their way through her before she finally nodded, her own voice barely audible. “Okay, Cassidy. 

“And thanks. I’m really glad I have you to talk to. Because you help me too.” 

********

School that day seemed like it would never end. It was impossible for me to focus and I even blew it more than once when a teacher wanted me to answer a question. I kept zoning out, watching the clock and imagining what the whole trip into Paige’s computer thing was going to be like. And, of course, worrying about what would happen if we couldn’t save her. Not to mention everything that was going on with Deicide’s favor and finding this Amanda girl. 

The point was, I had a lot of stuff to be distracted by. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell my teachers the reasons I was distracted, so I just had to deal with their annoyed or disappointed looks. Oh well, I supposed I would try to make it up later when I took a few of these things off my plate. 

Hah, listen to me trying to pretend that I didn’t know full well that more things would land on the plate just as quickly as I cleared them off. It almost sounded like I was that optimistic, didn’t it?

Either way, the school day couldn’t literally drag on forever, no matter how it felt. Eventually, classes were over and I bolted, with a few quick words toward my friends on the way out. Someone said something about a party that weekend, but the best I could manage was a noise acknowledging the invitation before hitting the doors almost full-speed. There was no way I was going to be able to hang out and chat just to look sociable. Yeah, I wasn’t actually doing the Paige thing until that evening. But I still had to meet with Pack to find out if I was right about her being willing to go on this little trip. And talk to her about Peyton coming along too. I had the feeling that was going to be a fun conversation all on its own. Especially when the possibility of eventually telling the girl about the whole Ministry situation inevitably came up. I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do about that. I couldn’t worry about it right this second. There was too much else to focus on. 

Including, apparently, catching myself from plowing straight into San as I jogged down the front walk of the school. He was looking the other way and I barely managed to skid to a halt, comically flailing my arms in the process, right before I would have planted my face right into his shoulder. The hopeful part of me wanted to say I’d knock him down, but the truth was that I’d probably bounce right off. 

Noticing my flailing, last second stop, San turned my way. “Dude, what is with the girls in this school running all over the place? First I try to have a nice conversation with Dani about how awesome Amber is before she practically runs over me saying something about her aunt calling home, and now my good, wonderful, oh-so-polite friend Cassidy tries to turn me into road pizza too.” 

Barely paying attention to what he was saying, I stopped just long enough to apologize and added something about needing to get home so I could take my parents’ call from their hotel. Whatever San’s response was ended up being lost in the wind as I ran all the way off the school grounds. I’d already told Jefferson that morning that he didn’t need to pick me up because I would be hanging out with friends for awhile. So all he had to do was take Izzy home, which I was sure he was thrilled by, considering how much time it shaved off his route. Yeah, he didn’t like his schedule being unexpectedly changed. But as long as he was told early enough, I was pretty sure the prospect of saving time outweighed the annoyance of change. At least, that was the impression I’d got. Telling him in the morning or the night before that he wouldn’t have to wait around for me tended to go over a lot better than if I tried to call and cancel when he was literally on the way, or even waiting. I’d found that out the hard way. 

So, he wasn’t there waiting for me, thankfully. Instead, I simply ran off the school grounds, cutting my way through all the other cars (including a fair number of dark SUV’s and limousines) that were lined along the front waiting to pick up their own passengers, and continued across the street. My backpack bounced with each pounding step, reminding me of the heavy weight of my helmet in the very bottom. I really needed to find a better, safer way of going around with this stuff. I was probably pushing my luck every time I went to school with it. But I wasn’t sure what else I could do besides always going home to my closet to change. At times like this, when I had to change and get out there as soon as possible, I had to take the risk of carrying it. Or, again, find another way. But I couldn’t think of what that could be. 

Getting myself out of sight, making sure I wasn’t being followed or spied on, and quickly changing into my costume, I headed on my way. I had to double-check the location of the tire shop that Pack had asked to meet at. Thankfully, it was in the same general neighborhood as Wren’s place, so I had a good idea of how to paint my way there. 

Apparently I had such a good idea of how to get there that I completely beat Pack. Seriously, I was there and lounging around on the roof for a solid ten minutes before finally hearing the sound of someone climbing the ladder. I was back on my feet and facing that way, ready just in case it turned out to be someone else randomly climbing onto the roof of a closed tire shop in the middle of the afternoon. Hey, stranger things had definitely happened in my life. 

But no, it was Pack. She had the cage with her lizards in it strapped onto herself like a backpack as she climbed the rest of the way up, huffing a bit before shrugging it off and setting the cage down. Only then did she look at me. “You’re lucky… your school… gets out early.” The girl panted in between every couple words. “And you’re lucky you’re one of the good guys.” Finally, she straightened. “Because that means you can run and jump around all willy nilly through the sky and let everyone see you, no problem. I mean yeah, I’ve got Scatters here.” With that, the tiny neon-colored lizard poked her head around from the back of her neck where she was perched. “And she is amazing for getting around. Aren’t you, buddy?” Pack raised a gloved hand and let the little lizard crawl into her palm before nodding to her own question. “Yes, super-amazing. Seriously, you think your way of getting around is fun? You should try riding a lizard-deer that can jump thirty feet and stick to the walls. It’s… exciting.” 

Sobering after taking a moment to let me picture that, the girl pointedly added, “But, I couldn’t exactly ride her all the way here. You know, laying low and all. So I had to hoof it about four blocks, with my friends here. All of which is to say, why exactly am I here, Paintball? You said a little bit last night, but let’s go with details this time, huh?” 

So, over the next few minutes, I did just that. I went into detail about everything I knew as far as the new Paige situation went. I told her about Wren’s proposed virtual reality rescue mission, and how that was supposed to go. Actually, I had little to no details there, because we all had no idea how it was going to go. All we knew was that it would make us feel like we were inside Paige’s computer system, in her brain, whatever that would look like. And I told Pack about Peyton going in with us. Or rather, about Alloy going in. 

By the time I finished getting all that out, Pack had released the rest of her lizards to crawl all around the roof so they could explore. Meanwhile, the girl herself was staring at me. Yeah, her mask covered her entire expression. But I could tell she was staring. 

“You seriously don’t ever take a break, do you?” she managed in a soft mutter before sighing. “And you already picked up a sidekick. I heard about that, but I was half-convinced they were making it up.” For a moment, it looked like she was going to go on about that, before focusing. “Well, I guess we’re going in this robo-chick’s brain, huh?” 

Letting out the breath that I hadn’t even realized I was holding, I managed a smile that the other girl wouldn’t see. “So, you’re in? You’ll help with this?” Damn it, I sounded like a little kid. Wait, was that a good thing? It helped my cover and all that, right? So why should I care that it–never mind, I wasn’t going to think about that. Too many other problems. 

Pack was nodding even as I shook all that off. “Yeah, yeah, I’m in. Like hell am I gonna let our best non-Mall-related chance of finding out more about this whole Ministry thing disappear just because her psycho Daddy hit control alt delete or whatever. But seriously, you think the two of u—sorry, the three of us can deal with whatever this virus thing is?” 

I shrugged. “We’re gonna have to. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have an army I can call in to help. And I’m pretty sure Wren can’t make that many virtual reality links.” 

Pack was looking at me again, making a thoughtful sound in the back of her throat before simply asking, “What about Way? She knows what’s going on. I mean yeah, she doesn’t know exactly where the kid’s place is or anything, but she’s still involved in this. And you’ve trusted her with other things. If Wren says it’s okay, I think you should see if Minority girl wants to jump in.” 

Jeez, maybe I really was just super-accustomed to keeping secrets and compartmentalizing. I hadn’t really thought about asking That-A-Way. Still, even as Pack suggested it, a dozen thoughts of what could go wrong went running through my head. Maybe I was also a little bit paranoid. Forcing those thoughts aside with more than a little effort, I finally gave a short nod. “We can ask Wren. Then… well, it’s up to her. But if she’s okay with it, and if she has an extra slot, we can see if That-A-Way wants to go play Tron tonight.”  Pausing, I added, “Does that sound as weird out of my head as it did inside?” 

“Weirder,” Pack assured me. “But yeah, if we’re doing this, let’s do it right. We’ll go see Wren, find out what the deal is, and try to call in the Minority Babe if she doesn’t already have a date with some other Touched stuff tonight.” 

Curiously, I tilted my head. “You sound jealous about that possibility.” 

Yeah, Pack definitely shot me a dirty look at that. I could tell even through her total-face covering mask. “Let’s just do this before something more interesting comes along to distract me, huh?” 

“Well hey,” I started while moving toward the edge of the roof to head down, “if you’re looking for something interesting and this isn’t enough, I should tell you what Alloy and me are supposed to be doing for Deicide. 

“Now that’s a real doozy.”  

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Patreon Snippets 20 (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 20th edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers.

Murphy and Roald

“What do you think she’s like?” Roald asked Murphy as the two of them trotted up the last short distance to the pawn shop that Paintball had directed them to before taking off to deal with those Easy Eight people. “I mean, if she’s working with Paintball, she must be pretty cool, right?” 

Shrugging, Murphy looked up at the sign above the door as they approached. “Wren’s Nest. Looks like this is the place. So I guess we’re about to find out if she’s cool, or just some boring old rich chick who likes to build things.” She made a face then as a shudder ran through her. The two moved away from the front door to head around the back the way Paintball had said they should. “God, I hope she doesn’t smell funny. I’m not sure how much I can work for some old chick if she smells funny.”  

“It’s a real job,” Roald reminded her. “Paintball, he… he gave us a chance. He’s giving us a chance. C’mon, Murph. We can work for someone who smells funny, just get that chapstick stuff that smells really good and put it under your nose. Just remember, we’re not working for some smelly old woman, we’re working for a superhero.” Belatedly, he added, “Um, and don’t tell her she smells funny, okay? Even if she does. Cuz–” 

“That was one time, Roo!” Murphy shot back, holding up a finger. “One time. And that woman smelled like she walked through the perfume aisle at the store and dumped every single bottle they had on herself. There was a little girl on that bus who was crying because of that smell. She couldn’t breathe. Nobody could breathe. That woman was a danger to everyone. I’m pretty sure the driver was practically blind from the fumes! I did everyone a favor.” 

Snorting, Roald nodded slowly before pointing out, “Sure, right. It was bad. I’m just pretty sure there was a better way to handle it than dumping your water bottle out over her and asking if she was aware that chemical weapons are a war crime.”  

With an audible snicker, Murphy lifted her chin. “Hey, it got the point across, didn’t it? She got off the bus at the next stop. And I’m pretty sure she took it easy on the perfume after that. I really did a service to everyone she ever meets in the future. Sometimes you have to go with the direct approach. Tough love.” As she said that, they had reached the back door, and the girl put a hand out to ring the buzzer there. 

“Yeah, well,” Roald replied, “at least you don’t have a water bottle this time.” 

Spinning on him at that, Murphy pointed. “That’s why you wouldn’t let me stop to get a drink, you–”

She was interrupted then, as the door abruptly swung open to reveal a six-foot tall, roughly fifty-year-old man with dark slicked back hair and a pronounced potbelly that was at odds with the rest of his quite thin body. “You know, if you kids are trying to play Ding Dong Ditch, you forgot the ditch part.” When he spoke, the two could smell cigarettes. 

“Oh God,” Murphy managed, “are you Wren? I swear, he said she, right?” She looked to Roald. 

Squinting at them, the man grunted after a second. “Hold up, you’re those kids Paintball was gonna bring over.” He leaned out the doorway then, looking both ways before turning his attention back to them. “So, where is he?” 

“Uhh… he had to go fight some bad guys,” Roald hesitantly replied. “Easy Eights, they were driving by in a truck and um, and it looked like something bad was about to happen. So he sent us here, uhh, Mr. Wren, sir.” 

“What?” the man blinked that way, then laughed. “Hell naw. Name’s Fred, not Wren. C’mon, I’ll introduce you.” He stepped back then, holding the door as he waited for them to enter. 

For a brief moment, the two teenagers looked at one another, silently communicating. Finally, they shrugged and stepped in before looking around. Murphy gave a low whistle. “Wow. This place looks awesome. Look at all the shit you’ve got around here. Holy crap, is that a real record player? Like, that thing’s real and not just some fake with an MP3 player built into it or something, right?” She was already moving that way to squint at the thing on the shelf. 

“Uh huh!” A new voice piped up from right in front of Murphy, as a small blonde girl popped into view from where she had been bent down behind the shelf. She had an armful of random objects that she’d clearly just picked up. 

Murphy, of course, yelped and stumbled backward while cursing. “Shit, shit, fuck, what, what?” 

“Sorry!” the younger girl blurted before turning to carefully put the stuff she had collected into a nearby box. “You just sounded really excited about the record player. It’s a Pioneer PL-55X. Classic.” 

Roald, who had come up to Murphy’s side, blinked at the kid. “Oh, uhh, hey. That’s cool. So, is this your… mom’s shop? Your grandmother’s?” 

“Well,” the girl frowned thoughtfully. “It was my dad’s, but… but my parents died.” She went quiet then, before shaking off those feelings. “Now it’s mine.” 

“Yours?” Murphy managed a bit weakly, as the truth began to dawn on both of them. 

“Oh! I’m dumb. Sorry, hi.” With that, the younger girl extended her hand with a bright smile. “I’m Wren!” 

That, of course, left the two teenagers staring at her, then at each other, then back at her again. Roald was the first to find his voice. “Wren the… second, right? You live here with your… grandmother and…” He looked back to Fred. “And him.” 

“That’s Uncle Fred,” Wren informed them. “And nope, it’s just us. Me and Uncle Fred. We help Paintball! And now you get to help us help Paintball. Isn’t that great?” 

In a dull, flat voice, Murphy agreed, “Totally fantastic. He just uhh, he didn’t exactly mention that…” 

“He didn’t tell them you were a kid,” Fred grunted from where he was standing by the door. The man sounded amused by the whole situation. “Probably wanted to see their faces or something. His loss.” 

“So–so wait, wait.” Murphy was clearly still reeling from the whole thing. “This is real? Like, really real? It’s not a joke? You–you’re the Tech-Touched Paintball wants us to help around this place?” 

Scrunching up her face a bit, Wren hesitantly asked, “Is… is something wrong?” 

Once more, the two teenagers exchanged looks before turning back to her. Roald shook his head. “You know what? Nope. Nothing’s wrong. We’re good. You’re like, this really cool Tech-Touched, right? You can really build things?” 

“Can we see some of it?” Murphy put in then, her eagerness totally eclipsing the uncertainty she felt about apparently working for a child. 

The worried, uncertain look on Wren’s face faded quickly, and she brightened. “Sure! C’mon, I’ve got some really great stuff.

“If you think the record player’s cool, wait till you see the machine that makes people really, really slow. Or the teleporter, or–” Abruptly, she hit something on her sleeve, and a pair of dragonfly-like wings sprang out, as she lifted off the ground. “Or these!” 

“You know what, Roald?” Murphy managed, staring up at the hovering, giggling girl, “I don’t care if she’s a kid, a toddler, or an old lady. Even one that smelled. 

“This is gonna be an awesome job.” 

********

Peyton

“Hey, Mom. Yeah, I’m good. What’s up with you? What? Whaaaat? Are you serious? Fell-Touched? Like, real bad guys? What? No, no, I wasn’t there. Nope, I was at McDonalds. I was walking home. I was at the bus stop. I was grabbing a sandwich from the store. I was behind the mall buying a bagful of drugs to sell at school. You should see the profit margin on that shit.” 

As she walked across the back parking lot behind the apartment building where she lived, Peyton Favors slowed, grimacing. “Yeah, probably not that last one.” Opening her cupped hands where the assortment of colored marbles quivered and pulsed excitedly, she asked, “What do you guys think? Which excuse is Mom gonna buy?” 

The marbles floated up off her hand, spinning around in circles rapidly before bouncing off each other. Which wasn’t exactly helpful for making up the right thing to say, even if it was cute. Plus, they were going to attract attention. So Peyton quickly pulled them back and pushed the marbles into her pockets. “Just be quiet for a little bit, okay? I can’t explain you to Mom. She just… she wouldn’t understand. She wouldn’t understand any of this.” Muttering that last bit to herself, the girl took a deep breath and then jogged across the parking lot. “Time to face the music.” 

She still hadn’t settled on exactly which excuse to use by the time she had gone in the back entrance and used the elevator to reach the ninth floor, where the apartment she and her mother lived in actually was. There, she headed down the hall, and was just about to use her key to unlock the apartment itself when the door suddenly swung open. 

Automatically, Peyton began to launch into her recited speech. “Hey, Mom. Yeah, I’m good. What–” 

If her mother noticed that the girl had accidentally started responding to questions she hadn’t even been asked yet, she didn’t show it at all. Instead, the short, red-haired (just like her daughter) and almost abnormally skinny woman grabbed Peyton by both arms and pulled her into the living room, then hugged her so tight the girl thought she might’ve cracked a rib. “Oh my God, you’re home! I was just talking to the police, they told me you weren’t one of the hostages down there and I told them how fucking incompetent they were and–” 

“Mom! Mom, what–” Taking a deep breath to prepare herself for what was coming while her mother was holding her so tight, Peyton managed to extricate herself. “What are you talking about? You called the cops because I was a little late? What hostages? What? Mom, what happened? What did you say to them?” She did her best to look completely baffled and lost about the whole situation, hoping her mother wouldn’t see through it. 

Then she met her mother’s frantic gaze and had to suppress the urge to react. Oh boy, this was hard. It wasn’t like Peyton enjoyed lying to her mother. As much as she might have bristled against the woman’s overprotectiveness lately, she really did love her. Seriously, it had been the two of them basically on their own for as long as she could remember. Lying to her mother right now was hard. But she knew what would happen if she didn’t. Her mom would overreact. She would try to stop her from doing anything dangerous. After Peyton’s dad left, they just… she kind of lost her mind at the thought of losing her daughter too. 

Peyton understood that. She really, truly did. But she couldn’t let that stop her. She had these marbles, these powers, for a reason. She had to use them to help people. Someday, she would be able to explain it to her mother, once she proved that she was a real hero. She would establish herself–her Touched self, as a bonafide, genuine hero. Then she would show her mother who she really was. Once her mother saw what she could do, how she could help people… maybe she would understand? 

Pushing all those thoughts down, she focused on looking as confused as possible while her mother went on about the attack at the shopping center. Through it all, Peyton continued to insist that she hadn’t been there, that she went earlier but had been gone by the time any of that went on. She claimed she was eating with a few people from school that she’d run into. Thankfully, any doubts her mother might’ve had were forced to contend with the fact that Peyton was right there in front of her and that the cops had told her she wasn’t with the group of hostages. 

Of course, Peyton had to explain why she hadn’t answered any calls or texts from her mother. Thankfully, she had an excuse ready for that. Namely, her phone was dead. Mostly thanks to the special app she had downloaded and run to make sure it had been completely drained by the time she got home, but still.

Finally convinced that her daughter was fine after all, and had never been in any actual danger, Suzanne Favors gave a long sigh before looking over to her own phone. “Okay, I guess I’ve got a police lieutenant to apologize to. Let me get that done and then I’ll make you some–oh, you’re not hungry.” 

Peyton started to object that she was starving, only to catch herself. Fuck. She’d said that she was eating with those people from school. Right, damn it. She was going to have to grab some food later. Eating now would just make her mother suspicious again. “Yeah,” she murmured, “couldn’t eat another bite. I uhh, I’m gonna go to my room.” 

Her mom hugged her once more with a sigh of relief, before Peyton headed off with a sigh of her own. But hers was not one of relief. She heard her mother starting to apologize on the phone, hesitating before looking over her shoulder to see the woman standing with her back to her. For a moment, Peyton just stood there, staring for a moment while listening to that. Her voice, when she spoke, was a barely audible whisper. “Sorry, Mom.” 

Yeah, it was probably a good thing she wasn’t trying to eat anything right now. 

She probably wouldn’t be able to keep it down anyway. 

**********

Cavalcade

Technically, the woman who drove her Range Rover through the gates of the storage facility somewhere in the middle of Detroit, a mile or so away from downtown, was known to the world at large as Cavalcade. But no one would have recognized her now. Her hair in that public identity as a Sell-Touched was long, flowing, and black. The woman who was parking her vehicle near the building that served as the main office had short blonde hair styled in a pixie cut. She also wore thick-rimmed glasses. And yes, she was aware that she was leaning into that trope, but the truth was she actually needed them. The goggles she wore in costume weren’t just for show, after all. They had prescription lenses. 

In addition to the different hair and the glasses, she wore a pair of slightly loose jeans and a somewhat too-large shirt and jacket that helped to play down and conceal rather than emphasize her voluptuous figure. The opposite of her Touched-Self’s red bodysuit. 

No, it was quite clear from both a glance and further inspection that this woman and the mercenary known as Cavalcade were very different. By design, of course. Being someone who worked for the highest bidder on either side of the legal line tended to also make you enemies on both sides of that line. Even when you lived by your own code, kept things professional, and refused to either rat out criminals who employed you or work with total psychopaths like the Scions, there were still those who would love to make life hell for a poor mercenary who was just trying to get along. 

Okay, ‘poor’ was a very bad descriptor for her in almost every way. But still. 

Stepping out of the Range Rover before crossing the short distance to the main office on a pair of simple, functional tennis shoes, the much-less outrageous and attention-getting woman tugged open the door before poking her head in. “Morning!” she called toward the desk that took up about half of the room in this small office. 

“Miss Mclean?” the dark-haired young woman, practically a kid really (she was still in college, after all) rose from the seat. “Is everything okay?” 

Brianna Mclean. That was what people (generally) knew her as whenever she wasn’t being Cavalcade. It wasn’t the name she had been born with, of course. She’d left that behind at least two identities ago. But Brianna Mclean worked. 

“Oh, absotively!” Brianna confirmed with a smile, still standing in the doorway. “I just wanted to let you know I got your request for next week off, and you go right ahead. We’ll get people to cover your shifts, you focus on studying for that test, Jessie.” 

Brightening, Jessie thanked her, and Brianna gave the girl a quick thumbs up before stepping out again. There, she had done her job as the owner of this place. Time for a little fun. 

She left her vehicle where it was. It wouldn’t surprise anyone, since her apartment was actually connected to the lot itself. She often left her vehicle at random places on the property. 

However, rather than walk toward that small building, barely a stone’s throw away from the door into the main office, Brianna turned the opposite way and began to stroll through the parking lot, past dozens of storage sheds where random people kept their random junk. 

Walking to a specific storage unit, Brianna hummed to herself while reaching out to open the nearby keypad. Thumbing in the code, she waited until it gave a confirming beep, then looked straight at the tiny lens on top, waiting for it to scan her face. As it did, there was one more beep, followed by a ding. The ding was from the woman’s phone in her pocket, where she would have just gotten an alert that the door had been accessed. Even if someone managed to copy her face and get her code (and know to come here in the first place), she would get the alert that they were there. 

Taking the phone from her pocket, Brianna entered the six digit code there that would prevent the place she was about to enter from engaging security measures. Then she reached down, hauled the door up, stepped inside, and let the door roll back down behind her. 

The storage room looked like any other, on the surface. There were boxes stacked up that had various clothes and books, a pair of skis, a rundown chair, and some paintings in the corner that weren’t worth more than twenty to thirty bucks a piece. Walking around all that, Brianna moved to the back corner of the room. Taking her phone out, she pressed a button, and, with a low grinding noise, a small section of the floor there slid away to reveal a set of stairs leading down. 

She descended, letting the hidden trapdoor slide shut behind her before continuing on to emerge into what turned out to be an enormous penthouse condo that took up a large portion of the underground area beneath the storage facility lot. The place would have been right at home functioning as the imperial suite in a five star hotel. 

This was Brianna’s real home. She spent enough time in her supposed apartment at the edge of the lot to make it look as though she lived there, and it was where her official residence was. But this was where her money went. This was where she relaxed. She had everything she needed here, far from prying eyes and legal entanglements. 

With a smile, the woman glanced around the luxurious living room that her hidden tunnel opened up into. Her gaze passed over the ‘windows’ along the opposite wall, which were actually video screens showing a view of the skyline over Tokyo at the moment. 

“Lana,” she addressed her personal assistant computer. “Dim the lights to half, run a hot bath in the master whirlpool, and put last night’s Pistons game on the screen in there, starting from the second quarter when I had to leave.” 

“Yes, Brianna,” came the soft response. 

As the lights dimmed and she heard the distant sound of basketball and running water, Brianna sighed in appreciation. Then she walked that way, stripping down as she went. 

Even the Evans couldn’t have it much better than this. 

*********

The following takes place a short time in the future from the current regular chapters

Right, I couldn’t avoid it anymore without drawing attention. Even though I was still dealing with everything that happened (and was still happening) with Paige, there was something important I had to do. Okay, there are a lot of things I had to do, but this one jumped to the top of the list. I had to go to court. Well, I had to go to the courthouse and give my depositions for everything official that had happened since I started this whole Star-Touched thing. Every bad guy that got arrested because of me, every official police case I had any involvement in, all of that. 

First, I’d gone through that same unremarkable building a block away from the courthouse That-A-Way had directed me to so I could turn in those papers about holding Ashton prisoner before. I’d even been escorted through to the tunnel that led to the courthouse itself by my old pal, Officer Metts. 

And now, here I was, sitting in one of the so-called deposition rooms. As Flea had promised, the room consisted of a long table. The judge sat at one end, the court stenographer at the other end. I sat in the middle on one side, while a couple empty chairs sat opposite me, and one just a little bit down from where I was sitting. 

The judge, an old, entirely bald black man with the last name of Pamure, gently asked, “Do you know how this is supposed to work?” 

Swallowing back the nerves that I felt, I nodded. “Those folders next to you are all the cases that I have something to do with. You’ll go through each case one at a time, call in the lawyers for both sides. The defendant lawyer sits over there, the prosecuting attorney sits over here on this side. They each get to ask questions about everything in the case, just like they would in court. The stuff I say gets recorded by her, and by that.” I nodded toward the stenographer, then to the camera up in the corner of the room. “We do that for every case, then move on.” 

Judge Pamure confirmed, “Yes, pretty much. We also like to move these things along as quickly as possible, because there’s a lot to go through every month. You, it’s been more than a month, but we let newbies slide a little bit. Not like the system doesn’t have enough to deal with anyway.” He cleared his throat then. “Anyway, that’s the gist. You don’t have to answer any questions about your identity, your personal life, anything you feel uncomfortable with. We’ll zip through the questions from both sides, you just tell the truth about what happened–you’ll be sworn in before we start, and we’ll all get out of here. Okay, you’ll get out of here. I’ll move to the next Touched in line. So, you ready?” 

After I confirmed that I was, the judge had the first pair of lawyers brought in by the bailiff–who happened to be the same man who subsequently had me put my hand on a copy of the state constitution and swear to tell the truth. I did, of course, and everyone settled in for the first set of questions, from the prosecuting attorney. 

Ashton. This was all about Ashton. I should’ve figured they’d start with this one. Bit by bit, question by question, I established everything safe for them to know about what had happened, why we held him prisoner for a short time, what we’d done to get back the vials that he had stolen and why, and so on. 

Ashton’s lawyer, of course, had her own questions. But honestly, she didn’t seem all that invested. Oh, she did her job. She pushed back on a few things I said, just enough for the judge to calmly tell her to back off at least once. But she didn’t really seem completely devoted. Probably because she was a public defender. She did her job well enough to be counted, but Ashton wasn’t an important case to her. He was just a number. I also had the feeling that some of those questions had come from Ashton himself, thinking he was going to trip me up. A few I saw her cross off with a pen without even reading them. So those ones must’ve been real doozies. 

Eventually, it was done. Both lawyers said they had no more questions. But instead of leaving, they both shuffled some papers around, and suddenly we were talking about a different case, a random mugging I’d stopped weeks back. It took me a bit by surprise before I recovered. Right, of course the same lawyers would work different cases. They were going to run through every case that involved the same attorney(s) while they were already here. 

Yeah, this was going to take awhile. But at least I only had to do it once a month. So, I pushed my thoughts away from worrying about that whole… Paige thing and focused on answering questions. 

If nothing else, trying to answer all these questions without saying the wrong thing was a pretty good distraction from everything else going on in my life.

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Building Connections 16-13 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Hey guys, congratulations! We have pushed over the 400 dollar per month mark on the Patreon! Which means you’ve hit the reward level that raises the minimum chapter length from 3000 words to 3500 words! As long as we stick above 400 (or generally close to it) I’ll keep that minimum length there. And hey, if we ever get up to 500, that will mean the minimum length goes up to 4000 words! Thank you all so much and now let’s get on with the last chapter of this arc.

Of course, talking to Peyton about Paige meant that I was going to have to expose a bit about the other girl. But what else was I supposed to do? I couldn’t save her by myself. Well, I could try, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t go very well. If there was someone in there that was giving Paige a hard time, if that virus duplicate was enough to make Paige desperately call for help, then I couldn’t deal with her by myself. I just couldn’t. And I was pretty sure even one other person helping wouldn’t be enough. Especially considering Wren wouldn’t have any control over what happened once I was in there. I’d seen plenty of movies and games about going into computers, and the person in control tended to be able to, like, manipulate the environment. That would complicate things, to say the least. Especially if I was in there by myself. 

Yeah, I had no choice but to involve Peyton in this situation (if she was willing to be involved), because I was going to need all the help I could get to save Paige from this virus thing. It wasn’t the most… optimum situation. But then, when had I ever been in an optimum situation since that first night? The night when my entire life had changed, when I’d found out the truth about my family. Or started to. Things had been complicated ever since then, and they only seemed to be getting more so as time went on.  

At the very least, it was possible that I could stop Peyton from actually finding out who Paige really was beyond her first name and what she looked like. Seriously, it wasn’t like she had any reason to recognize the girl on-sight or whatever. Paige wasn’t famous, and her face wasn’t all over the news. She hadn’t been reported missing. Most people had no idea who she was, thanks to the fact that her family (her adopted family anyway) didn’t exactly go showing her off for the press or whatever. Sure, she was pretty and all that, but lots of people were pretty. I was fairly sure that even her name wouldn’t be recognizable. Well, maybe her last name if it happened to come up for some reason. But just a blonde girl named Paige? Yeah, maybe I was just trying really hard to justify it to myself, but I was pretty sure Peyton wouldn’t have any clue who the other girl was, even if she heard her called Paige and saw her face. After all, she definitely didn’t go to our school. That was one benefit to knowing who Peyton was. I already knew for a fact what school she went to. Paige would be just some blonde girl she knew nothing about, right? 

Not to mention, all of that, again, depended upon Peyton actually agreeing to go along and help with this ridiculous, insane thing. As I reached the main store and saw the girl in question over helping Murphy and Roald pick some things up and restock them, I had a sudden wave of doubt. Should I even bring it up? God, what was the right answer?  Even if she wanted to contribute to this, what if something happened to her in there? Okay well, supposedly nothing could happen to her in the virtual reality system. It was basically the safest mission we could go on, aside from what would happen if we failed and the evil virus duplicate took over and started controlling Paige. And the best way to stop that would be to have as much help as possible, right? Yeah, just great. This was all just so great. Wonderful situation I’d found myself in, yet again. 

Taking a deep breath just as the others noticed me and looked over, I walked that way. “Hey, Alloy, could I talk to you for a minute outside? It’s kind of important. Okay, it’s really important.” I was trying to stress that importance with my voice without actually sounding as panicked as I felt about the whole thing. 

After a brief pause where she glanced at the other two, Peyton shrugged and nodded. “Uh, sure, yeah. No problem. I’ll be back, you guys. But remember, don’t you dare ask the kid what that machine in the corner is without me. I’ve still got five bucks that says it makes waffles and I’ll be damned if I’ll let you cheat me out of it.” 

That said, the two of us headed out through the back door together and into the alley behind the shop. Once we were there, Peyton just watched me curiously while I hemmed and hawed for a few long seconds, trying to decide exactly how to bring this whole thing up and explain it. Because boy was this ever hard to jump into. Seriously, how was I supposed to easily bring her up to speed and then ask her to get involved?  

Finally, I settled on giving her the basic story, that there was a girl who was part android thanks to her evil Tech-Touched father who wasn’t in the city anymore, but her identity had to remain mostly secret for her own safety. I explained that we had to use virtual reality to go into her mind, essentially, to stop an evil duplicate virus from that same evil father from taking over and controlling her into doing lots of horrible things. And yes, the longer I went on, the more crazy it sounded even to me. And I had been living it. I knew it was true, but I still felt like a complete gibbering psycho the more the words about it came out of my mouth. How did I go on day by day living with this kind of insanity? 

Unsurprisingly, by the time I finished, Peyton was staring at me like I had just told her the most ridiculous, absurd story she’d ever heard. Funny, that. She made a noise now and then as though to say something, but no words came out the first several times she tried to speak. Finally, with one finger raised (the index, not the middle as some might have after that kind of story), she asked, “Are you fucking with me right now?” 

Snorting at that despite myself, I shook my head as firmly as possible. “No, believe me, a big part of me wishes I was. I wish this whole situation was a joke, that my life wasn’t actually this complicated and ridiculous. And you really don’t even know a quarter of it.” Muttering that part under my breath, I shook it off and pushed on quickly. “But the point is, I’m telling you the truth about what’s going on here. You seriously don’t need to get involved in this if you don’t want to. Trust me, I will absolutely understand if you decide to turn around and run away as fast and as far as you can. Err, metaphorically speaking. Don’t run away from home or whatever. The point is, this is just something I have to do. And it would be pretty nice to have as much help as possible, especially considering I have no idea how much control this virus thing is going to have over the… you know, environment or whatever in the virtual reality system. Honestly, I don’t know anything about how it’s gonna go in there. Maybe you’d be safer leaving well enough alone. Maybe you’ll regret it if you go. Maybe we both will. But I’m going in there, and if–if you’d help me do it, I’d be really grateful.” Yeah, that whole thing sounded and felt incredibly awkward both in my head and out loud. But what else was I supposed to say? This was the simple and easy part of how things were. If I told her the full story about my family, the Ministry, and all of that, I was pretty sure she really would run screaming in the other direction as fast as she could go and I’d never see her again. Sometimes, I really wished I could do that. Just run away from the whole thing.

So, I just got all of that out there, breathed a couple times, and looked to the girl with a hesitant, “So, ready to change your mind about that whole ‘teaming up’ idea now that you know what kind of insanity comes with it? Believe me, I will absolutely understand if you’re ready to bounce.”

For a few seconds, Peyton was completely silent. She seemed to be weighing the whole thing. Which, I honestly couldn’t blame her for either. I would have needed a hell of a lot more than a few seconds if I was going to process being told what she had just been told without any real warning. It was a lot to take in. Eventually, however, she straightened and looked at me. “If this is the kind of stuff you’re involved in, then it’s the kind of stuff I’m involved in. I told you, I wanna team up. I know you’re still keeping a lot of important things away from me. I’m not dumb. But I don’t blame you for keeping things to yourself. You don’t even know me. Not really. And if this is how I can start to earn your trust, I’ll do it. Yeah, it sounds crazy, but we’re teenagers with superpowers, of course it all sounds crazy. For all I know, this is a completely normal day for Touched people. Maybe they go into virtual reality machines to help android girls all the time. I just–I wanna help, Paintball. Seriously, I want to be involved. Whatever it takes for me to prove you can trust me.” 

Yeah, even after she said that, a part of me wanted to tell her to turn around and get the hell out of here. But I pushed the impulse down and just told the girl to be back here tomorrow evening. And that we would focus on looking for that Amanda Sanvers girl once we dealt with this situation. Yeah, repaying Deicide was important, and so was doing whatever we could to get rid of Pencil before he killed more people. But we had to prioritize, and Paige came first right now. Especially after everything she had done to avoid killing me. I owed her.

Finally, Peyton looked to me before asking, “So, it’s just you and me going in there tomorrow? Or are you taking your minions in too? That Murphy girl seems like she’d be a good scrapper.” 

My head shook quickly. “We’re not taking them in. But there is someone else. There’s… okay, so there’s this girl I’ve sort of been… right, this is gonna sound weird, again.” With that, I explained that Pack would be coming over to help, assuming she agreed. Which required a lot of explanation about how I was almost, kind-of, sort-of friends with someone from La Casa and all that. Even after I did explain it, I was pretty sure that Peyton was still confused about the whole thing. Which, who could blame her? The entire situation was really strange. But, she basically accepted it, shaking her head before muttering something about how I seemed to have a lot of contacts on both sides of the fence. 

“Actually,” the girl quickly put in, “that reminds me, what’s that whole thing about how it’s not ‘time yet’ for you to talk to Glitch? Or whatever you said. Something like that. You thought Cavalcade was there to get you to talk to Glitch instead of Deicide. How many bad guys do you owe favors to? And does that have anything to do with why you won’t join the Minority or any other team? Is this about trying to play both sides just to make good things happen? Cuz that seems pretty complicated. Oh, wait, is this about me? Do you owe Glitch a favor because of me and that whole thing?” 

Snorting at that, I replied, “Trust me, it’s definitely complicated. And no, it’s not really about you. It’s about…” Glancing over my shoulder, I gestured to the store behind us, explaining the whole thing about Glitch wanting to be paid a fee to allow Wren to operate in the city without being part of her gang. 

Immediately, Peyton asked, “What about Switchshift? You know, the Tech-Touched who works for Ten Towers. Do you really think he’s paying some kind of fee to a bunch of villains just to work in the city, when he’s actively working for people like Ten Towers? Hell, do you think they’d let that happen? I mean, it wouldn’t really be good for their business to let themselves be extorted, right? Not when their entire thing is, like,  keeping businesses safe from bad guys.” 

Right, Switchshift did exist. People didn’t really see a lot of him, since he didn’t do much in the way of fieldwork. Which came from the fact that he was apparently paralyzed from the waist down. Or at least, he had to use a wheelchair. Still, he was a guy who made ‘things that transformed, changed position, or switched places.’ There were rumors that he helped make special tools that allowed the heroes of the city to quickly get from one area to another, though nobody was really sure how that worked. Or if it was even true, aside from the fact that the Star-Touched did tend to be able to get around faster than you might expect in this city. 

Anyway, the point was, he was part of Ten Towers. Who might indeed have a problem with paying extortion money to a group of villains just to allow their guy to operate without the constant harassment. For a moment, I considered that, weighing it back and forth my head.

“Maybe,” I finally murmured. “Or maybe they consider paying a small, secret fee to be better than having to fight all the time. Especially if there’s some kind of provision about how much Glitch and her gang are allowed to do against them as long as they’re paid up. I mean, we’re talking about a bunch of corporations here. They care about the bottom line. Like, I can see them deciding that writing off a monthly or yearly fee or whatever is worth it if it makes a group like Braintrust play somewhat nice.” Getting all that out, I reconsidered, adding, “On the other hand–” 

“On the other hand,” Peyton put in for me, “Braintrust attacks Ten Tower places all the time. Okay, I mean, not all the time. But they definitely do it. Would they really be okay with paying them off to leave one guy alone, while Braintrust just keeps hurting their customers? It’s like you said, if they were going to make that deal, they’d want to get more out of it. I mean, if that was even on the table, they probably go ahead and pay enough of a fee to get Braintrust to back off completely, right? It just seems weird if they’ve got some financial arrangement like that with a group that’s actively attacking their property and stealing from them.” 

Thinking about that for a moment, I gave a slow nod. “Okay, so maybe they don’t go after someone like Switchshift because he’s got strong friends around him. Too strong for Glitch and her gang to intimidate. Or maybe it’s something else. The point is, they are coming after Wren. They want her to start paying them for permission to operate here in the city, and she doesn’t want to join Ten Towers, or any other big group in the city that could protect her from them.” 

Peyton was squinting at me, her voice dry. “Yeah, gee, I wonder where she could possibly have gotten the idea that joining some big, powerful group in the city would be a bad idea.”

Flushing a little, I shook my head. “It’s not like that. It’s not– I mean–  okay, maybe I’m not sure what it’s like. I just…” This was getting entirely too close to a conversation we weren’t ready to have yet. Instead, I waved that off. “I know it sounds bad, but I think the best thing to do is to pay the fee, at least for now. We can work on getting rid of Braintrust later, or at least getting into a position where we’re too strong and they have to back off. Right now, I really don’t want to give them a reason to target Wren or this place, you know? We can’t be here twenty-four seven. She’s got defenses already, and she’s working on more, but these are other Tech-Touched. It just–it feels like a bad idea to push things when we don’t have to. If they’ll take money to leave Wren alone until we’re in a better position and know she can protect herself, it just feels like that’s the best move.” 

Peyton thought about that for a few seconds. I wondered how much she was considering what the Braintrust people had done for her before, when they ruined that asshole’s life and exposed him for being a creepy pedophile piece of shit. Even if they had basically done it for their own purposes, just to punish him for stealing their equipment, it had to affect the way she saw them, right? Did she think they were nicer than they really were? I wasn’t sure how that would go. 

In the end, she gave a short nod. “Okay, but is this place even ready to start paying fees, or whatever? Cuz I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly get enough of an allowance to help pay off a supervillain gang. And I don’t think this is the best time to go get a job.”

“Actually,” I pointed out, “it might be the very best time to get a job. Just not a real one. Or at least, not a normal one.” As the other girl stared at me, I quickly explained, “If your mom thinks you have a part-time job, she won’t be as curious about where you keep going all the time, right? It might keep her happy.”   

“Okay,” Peyton agreed, “maybe, but where exactly am I supposed to find a place where I can pretend to have a job, which includes getting paid, but also be able to run off with you whenever…” She trailed off, following my pointed gaze back toward the building we had come out of. Staring that way, the girl raised a hand, then lowered it, quietly murmuring. “Oh. Wait, you really think that’d actually work? You think I can just pretend to have a job here?”  

I shrugged. “I don’t see why not. I mean, come on, it’s just a small pawn shop as far as your mom would be concerned. Run by some guy and his little niece after her parents passed away. They’d pay you to clean up, help around the store, whatever. It sounds like a good cover to me.” 

She was quiet then, considering the point for a few seconds before giving a slow nod. “Okay, yeah, I guess that might work. But isn’t that asking for this little pawn shop to pay out even more money when they haven’t even officially reopened or whatever? I mean–wait, they’re doing more than just pawning stuff, aren’t they?” 

Chuckling, I nodded. “As soon as Wren gets a chance to catch up on everything, which includes this… situation we’re dealing with tomorrow, she’s gonna start working on projects that she can sell. That’ll bring in more money. Trust me, she’s already got ideas, and I’m pretty sure they’re good. The pawn shop’s just a cover. But it should be a pretty effective one. It’s–it’s gonna be okay, Peyton. I know everything seems really complicated right now, and it is. I can’t even–fuck. I can’t get into it right now. But if you can stick with it, I think playing at being an employee here could really give you the cover you need to…” 

“To go out with you and help people?” she finished for me, offering a slight smile. “Sorta like a sidekick?” 

Squinting at that, I looked away, running the thoughts through in my head before turning back with a short nod. “Yeah,” I murmured, “that’s probably fair. You know, to try it out, see if you umm, if you actually want to stick with it once you see how crazy everything is.” That said, I extended a hand to her, waiting for her to take it. “I know I haven’t told you everything. That’s gonna take awhile, if–it’s gonna take awhile. We’ll work up to it. I’m not exactly super-quick to trust people. I mean–it’s a long story. Maybe I’ll even get into it someday. But for now, if you’re up for it, I… yeah, I’d like to work together. You really up for all that, sidekick? What do you say?”

“What do I say?” Peyton echoed. 

“I say, give me a month, and I’ll get you to call me partner.”  

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Building Connections 16-12 (Summus Proelium)

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I was already spinning on my heel to walk to the nearby door before stopping myself as I realized that I didn’t have any idea where I was going or what to do. Holding my arms tightly against my chest, I spun back that way. “Except I don’t know how to do that. How are we supposed to save Paige right now? How are we supposed to do anything right now? We don’t even have anyone lined up to fix the computer orb thing yet! We don’t–wait.” Realization came to me as I blink at the younger girl. “You went out to get a bunch of stuff. What were you–” 

Wren quickly nodded. “It’s okay, Paintball! I mean it’s not okay. It’s really scary. But I didn’t just call you with problems. I’ve got solutions too! I mean sorta maybe solutions, I mean help for–”  Cutting herself off, she took a deep breath and let it out before starting once more. “We still gotta  find someone to fix the little orb-computer thingie, but I think we can help the good Paige stop the bad Paige. You know, send her reinforcements so she doesn’t get taken over or erased or anything. It’s not perfect, but it’ll, you know, buy her some time? If it works. I think it’ll work. I have to adjust some stuff, but it should work. I mean, if the first part works like it’s supposed to, like he said it should, then I can adjust the second part and make it… work?” Clearly realizing she was babbling and repeating herself, Wren trailed off and shrugged helplessly, adding a very quiet, “I think, maybe.” 

Forcing myself to calm down from the rush of panic, I took a step that way. “You mean you have a plan?” I tried to keep my voice as steady as possible. Inwardly, I was screaming at myself. Of course Paige’s father would have some kind of fail-safe to overwrite her or whatever. That just made sense, especially since I knew he’d managed to hit her with that virus in the first place. Stupid, stupid. Why did I take so long trying to find someone who could fix her? Telling myself it had only been a few days didn’t help. The guilt kept welling up in me no matter what I thought. 

“What do you mean you have to adjust something? Who is this ‘he’ you’re talking about? Did you really already find someone that could help? Are you sure it’s someone we can trust with this? Who is this guy, where did he come from, what does he do? How did you find him so fast?”  

Wren, for her part, held up both hands for me to slow down too. Waiting for quiet, the kid finally started to explain. “Okay, so, this guy isn’t actually someone I talked to about this. He doesn’t even live anywhere near here. He’s in France. He’s a Tech-Touched in France. Anyway, we started talking about our toys–err, our inventions, and he told me about this machine he made.  They’re going to start selling it over there soon. He’s gonna make a lot of money! It–” Clearly catching herself from going too far off-subject, Wren quickly reeled it in. “Sorry, I mean the point is, when he told me about it, I thought it could help. But only if I make a second part that moves the first part over to where we need it cuz his invention is just a video game thing and that’s really cool and all, but it doesn’t help with Paige. But if we can move it over to where she is, then–” 

It was my turn to hold up both hands. “Hold on, hold on. Okay, one thing at a time. What did he make that’s supposed to help with Paige? You said something about it being a video game?” 

Wren’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh! Paintball, he made this really cool virtual reality thing. You put it on and it like, projects your consciousness into the game. I mean, not really. You’re really sitting right there with the machine wired up to you. But your brain thinks you’re in the game. You can see things and interact with things and move them around and it’s all super real to you and to the machine. You can change things in the machine, in the game.” 

She stopped, staring excitedly at me while I processed that. Rocking back on my heels, I managed, “You’re saying he made a virtual reality game that plugs you into the machine.” Thinking about that, I gasped. “And you want to use that to plug me into Paige’s computer core? That’s what you’re trying to adjust. You don’t want to put me into some random virtual reality game, you want to put me into Paige’s computer so I can help her deal with this duplicate.”

Again, Wren’s head bobbed quickly. “Yes! I talked to my friend in France and he said he could help. I mean, I didn’t tell him the whole story, just that it was really, super, incredibly important, life and death important. He trusts me, cuz we’re friends and I promised I wouldn’t make money off his thing. He said he’d send the list of stuff I need and the blueprints to make a prototype version of his thing. It won’t be as good or as stable or anything, but it’ll work for this, we think. I just have to fix it so that instead of going into a game, it moves you over into Paige’s computer.” 

Okay, this was all a lot to take in on short notice. Especially considering I hadn’t even known that she had a friend in France. But I supposed that made sense. Of course Tech-Touched talked to each other and compared notes. The internet made that super-easy to do. 

Still, it was a lot to deal with. Seriously, virtual reality stuff? She wanted to plug my brain or whatever into Paige’s computer so I could go in there and help her deal with this crazy duplicate virus before it took over. What the hell kind of psychotic Tron-crazy shit was this? Seriously? I’d done some of that VR stuff before, of course. It came with the territory of having rich parents who liked to spoil you by throwing all the newest special toys your way. I’d been in full-scale simulations, some better than others. But it was still weird to think of something like this being used this way. Full-scale virtual reality outside of just putting a helmet on your head and faking it wasn’t exactly common. Mostly it was limited to a few very specific demonstrations. And I had no idea if this French guy’s version was any good, especially if it was basically being cobbled together to work with however Paige’s system worked. Two systems I didn’t know at all being taped onto one another by one little kid, who wasn’t even the person who originally made either of them. This was a whole new level of crazy desperation, wasn’t it? 

But I had to push all those confused thoughts aside and focus on the main situation, the main problem. Paige. Whatever happened next, we had to help Paige. So, I simply reached out and put my hands on Wren’s shoulders, squeezing a bit. “Do you really think this can work?” I asked quietly, yet intently. There were so many questions I had beyond that. Especially when it came to who this guy in France was, whose name I didn’t even know. But we didn’t have the months (at least) that it would take for me to decide that I trusted him myself. I was going to have to go solely off what Wren thought. I trusted her with this. I had to. 

Clearly realizing just how important my question was, Wren met my gaze with a look of maturity that far outweighed her years. Her voice was quiet, yet firm. “Yes, Paintball. It can work. It won’t be super-stable, and you’ll have to be really quick about it. And it would be better if you had someone with you. Someone else who could fight with you. I don’t want to send you in there by yourself. Maybe you could get Pack, or that new girl you just brought back today? Or both! Both would be better, a lot better.” 

“Alloy?” I blinked at the suggestion, glancing towards the elevator down to where we had left her and the others. “I don’t know if we should involve anyone else in something like this. It’s–” 

“It’s dangerous!” Wren interrupted, blurting the words loudly as she stared at me. “It’s super-dangerous! I mean yeah, if you get hurt or whatever in there, I don’t think it’ll actually hurt you out here. It’s not like that old Matrix movie or whatever. It doesn’t work like that, cuz that’s silly. It would be a really bad game if it did. But if you get knocked out, you won’t be able to go back in very fast. It’ll take awhile to get back to where you were, you know? And in that time, maybe Paige will lose. Maybe she’ll be taken over and erased! That could happen! She sounded really scared in that message, Paintball. So this evil virus duplicate thing is probably really strong. So if you go in by yourself and you lose, then you wouldn’t have actually helped her. I think… I think you need to trust someone else to go in with you. More than one, if you can. You know, because it’s dumb to take risks like that when it comes to actually helping someone you care about, right?” 

Fuck. Yeah, she had a point. As much as I hated the idea of involving other people in this, I was pretty sure I didn’t have much of a choice if I really wanted to save Paige. If I went in there by myself, I’d probably just end up getting my butt kicked. I needed to take others for back-up, and there really wasn’t anyone I could trust with it beyond those two she had already suggested. Pack and Peyton. If they’d even go at all. I couldn’t be sure they’d agree to the plan, after all. 

“Actually, wait,” I suddenly blurted as a thought occurred. “That reminds me. We can’t even use our powers in that place, can we? Which would make all of us pretty helpless if we’re supposed to be saving Paige. I mean, it’s like a virtual reality thing–or wait, do we get like… all the powers because it’s virtual reality? You can just cheat code everything if it comes down to it, right? How does that work, exactly?” 

Wren, however, shook her head. “Not exactly,” the kid hesitantly answered before quickly pushing on. “I mean, we’re not exactly putting you in a place we made up, you know? You’ve gotta go inside the place her computer made, in her like.. computer mind or whatever.” She was poking the floor with her foot uncomfortably, clearly upset about not having better news. “I can build my friend’s virtual reality thing, but it’s like… sorta duct taped to Paige’s thing to make it work and I can’t change too much and I definitely can’t mess with what’s going on inside Paige’s mind cuz that’s not really what my thing is and it’s not what this is and I’m really sorry, but–” 

“It’s okay, it’s alright,” I quickly interrupted, holding up both hands. “Thanks, Wren, I know you’re doing your b–hell, you’re doing better than your best. You went totally above and beyond, dude. You got help from some guy in France to figure this out and to give us a chance to save Paige. That’s amazing, you’re seriously–you’re great. I didn’t mean to make it seem like you should be doing more. I was just–yeah. Sorry, dude. Whatever we can do for her, anything at all, really.” 

After managing to get all that out, I waited for a second before adding, “Okay, so we can’t have cheat codes to go in there, because you can’t control what happens inside Paige’s computer. You’re just like–like her thing is the game server and all you can do is hack us a couple player accounts?” I had no idea how accurate that was, but it seemed like the best comparison. 

Thankfully, Wren seemed to get it, already nodding. “Uh huh, uh huh! Like that. The server will only accept you if you go in as yourself. Like, I can change your clothes or whatever, but it accepts the umm… the you in your head. The way you umm… see yourself, pretty much? Which, um, I think should mean you can use your powers in there, cuz they’re a part of you.”

“Well hey, that’s something, at least.” Giving the girl a thumbs up, I looked past her to where Paige was. “Okay, so how long do we have before you can put all this stuff you’ve got together? Cuz I’m pretty sure we don’t have umm… okay, I’m pretty sure Paige doesn’t have a lot of time.” 

Following my gaze, the kid immediately made a sound in the back of her throat that sounded like a half-yelp, half-gasp. “Oh! Yeah, I can–I mean it’s still gonna take time to put all this together, and I’ve gotta do a lot of it myself cuz only I can understand the instructions. I mean, I don’t–it’s not like you’re stupid or anything, it’s just got a lot of really specific technical stuff and if we mess up putting it together it could break and if it breaks we have to spend a lot more time fixing it and finding the hard-to-get parts and if that happens we might not have time to save this Paige girl so I really don’t wanna have to do it all over again, not cuz you’re dumb or anything, just cuz–” 

“Got it, I get it.” Once more, I held up my hands for her to stop. “Trust me, it’s okay. Do it right. If there are ways I can help, let me know. But, how long do you think it’ll take you to put it together the right way? You know, making sure it’ll work the way it’s supposed to and all.”  

Wren looked hesitant for a moment, clearly nervous about the job she had taken on. But, in the end, she straightened a bit before firmly replying, “Tomorrow evening. I–I can have it done by tomorrow evening, I promise. I–I’m sorry it can’t be done before then. I wanted t–I know it’s dangerous. I know she’s in trouble, but if I try to go any faster, I might mess up, and if I mess up-” 

“If you mess up, we don’t get another shot at this,” I finished for her gently. “At least not in time to actually save Paige before that virus takes over. I get it, really. It’s okay, Wren. Do it right the first time. Take however long you need. I mean, try to hurry and all, but don’t rush too much, okay?” 

She agreed, and I asked if there was anything I could do to help without getting in the way. Unfortunately, there wasn’t. She said she really just had to focus on it and asked, as politely as she could, for me to go away and come back tomorrow. And for me to bring Peyton back so she could talk to ‘the cool marble girl’ again when she wasn’t so distracted. 

So, I asked one last thing. “Did you send another message to Paige? You know, to let her know that we got her message and we’re working on it?” 

Offering me a very faint smile, Wren nodded. “Uh huh, I sent a message so she’d know she wasn’t talking to nobody. But… I think it’d make her feel better if you sent a message too. Like I said, it’ll take a long time for her to get it, but you can type the message into the thing there and tell her you’re working on it. Like I said, it’ll only send one or two words every fifteen minutes. But you can type whatever you want and just let it go. I won’t… uhh, disturb it, I promise.” 

Oh, right. Slowly, I stepped over to where the Gameboy/Atari thing was and picked up the little handheld part. Looking at the screen, I could see where you moved the cursor around to select letters for the input. Okay then, here went nothing. 

And for a moment, ‘nothing’ was exactly what went. Seriously, what the hell was I supposed to say to let Paige know that I had her message and that I was working on it? What would actually make her feel better or whatever? 

In the end, after thinking about it for a minute, I carefully typed a short message into the device. 

PAINTBALLC

WE’VE

GOT

PLAN

STAY

STRONG

COMING

PROMISE

Yeah, it was a little silly or whatever. I really didn’t know what else to say in a brief message. As it was, it would take a few hours for Paige to get that entire thing. I just had to say my name first so she’d know who was talking, and add a C at the end which she would hopefully understand to mean ‘Cassidy’ so she would be certain it was me. As for the rest… yeah. It was the best I could do without saying too much. The last thing I wanted was for a message I sent to Paige to end up exposing who I really was to anyone else who read it. I just… hoped it was enough to help her keep going long enough for us to get in there. 

And speaking of us getting in there, I took a breath and turned back to the younger girl. “I guess I should ask the others if they’re free to help go into virtual reality land tomorrow.” Oh boy, this was going to be a fun couple conversations. 

“Good luck!” Wren was smiling distractedly, her mind clearly focused on the work she still had to do. “I’ll do my part, I promise.” With that, she saluted, then turned her back to me, put her phone up on the table, and called that French friend of hers for help. The last thing I heard while heading back downstairs was the sound of a teenage male talking in heavily accented English, happily greeting Wren by name and asking if she had everything. 

Right, time to leave the tech people to do their thing, while I did mine. Which… huh, was asking Peyton to help me save Paige in virtual reality more or less crazy than asking her to help me scour the city to find a witness who could potentially take down Pencil? 

She sure picked one hell of a time to decide to jump on Team Paintball. 

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Building Connections 16-11 (Summus Proelium)

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On the way through the back alleys to the shop, I explained who Trevithick was (as well as what the name meant). It was all stuff I’d meant to tell her as we were making our way through the city, but then our little race thing happened and well, here we were. So, I just filled her in with the brief SparkNotes version. As we approached the back door, I mentioned that the kid was pretty young, and asked if she would have a problem working with someone like that. 

I clearly hadn’t thought that question through entirely, because Peyton looked at me pointedly and asked, “Young like you? Because I’m pretty good with that. I don’t think I get to judge what a kid can do after one saved my life like… twice within the same month, dude.” 

Burying my annoyance at being seen as a kid again beneath the much more useful fact that my disguise was stopping anyone from suspecting who I really was, especially my parents, I nodded once. “Younger than me.” It was the literal truth, after all. Wren really was younger than me.  I just wasn’t specific about how much younger. “She’s a kid. But she’s a genius Tech-Touched.” 

That said, I reached up to hit the buzzer. But before I could, the back door was flung open, and Murphy stood there, looking back and forth between the two of us for a moment before seeming to realize who Peyton was. “Ohhh, it’s marble girl. You changed your armor.” With that, she looked the other girl up and down briefly as though judging it. “I like this one better.” 

Peyton, in turn, stared at her briefly before turning to me. “She’s not younger than you.” 

Exactly how many times was I going to be tempted to blow my cover within a five minute span? Seriously, I was starting to think this was just gonna be a thing going forward. Exhaling, I shook my head and gestured between them. “This is Murphy, she’s… helping. It’s a long story.” 

“He caught me and my friend, Roald, after we broke into a gas station to steal food, and told us we could be his minions and help out around here or whatever instead of going to jail,” Murphy promptly summed up. Then she looked at me and added, “It’s really not that long of a story.”  

Peyton, meanwhile, had turned to look at me with obvious incredulity. “Wait, you have minions?”

Before I could respond to that, Murphy put in (with a voice that was basically the most cheerful I had ever heard her sound), “Just for now. But I think if we do a good job, he might upgrade us to henchpeople.” That, of course, was accompanied by the girl raising both hands to show her crossed fingers. “I’m pretty sure that’s when we get the matching uniforms.” 

Shaking my head, I gestured for the girl to step back so we could come in. Once the door was closed behind us, I asked, “So where’s Trevithick? Upstairs?” 

“Who?” Murphy blinked at me before remembering. “Oh, right. Nah, she had to run out. Took Fred and Roald and made me stay to watch the shop. Something about needing to grab important supplies or whatever.” Her hand gestured my way. “Kid said she was gonna text you an update.” 

“Text me an–” As I echoed those words, my hand was taking the phone from my pocket, and I blanched a little behind the helmet. I had a message from Wren, alright. Sure enough, it was all about how she had to go grab a few super-important things and that she would explain everything about what was going on once they got back. “Oh, well okay then. I guess we’ll wait here for them.” 

As I finished saying that, Murphy had already shrugged and moved back to a corner of the main shop floor where she had apparently been sweeping and mopping. From the look of it, she was actually doing a pretty good job. Okay, a very good job. Better than I could have, considering I’d basically almost never done anything like that except for the times when I was a kid trying to help the maids. Actually, I remembered that being kind of fun. But even now, I knew the reason it felt ‘fun’ to me at the time was because I could stop any time I wanted to. It didn’t depend on doing that to live or put food in my mouth. If I had to do it every day, as much as the people who worked in our house or at my school had to? Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t enjoy it as much. It was a thought that made me shift a little uncomfortably. Yet Murphy seemed pretty fine with what she was doing. It made me wonder how much cleaning she ended up doing at home. Which also made me think about her brother. Part of me wanted to ask how that was going and if he’d stopped being pissed at her about not running those drugs over to his friend. But I was pretty sure that would be pushing a bit even if we were alone, let alone with Peyton here. 

So, I decided that conversation could wait. Meanwhile, Peyton herself had started to walk around the shop floor, picking up and examining various things from the shelves. “Wow,” she murmured quietly while turning an old miner’s helmet over in her hands, “they’re actually selling all this random junk?  

Wincing, I stepped over that way. “Don’t let the kid hear you calling it junk. This was her dad’s store, she’s pretty protective of it. And right now I think a lot of it is just a way of having basically any random thing she needs at any point when she starts building stuff.” 

A noise of regret escaped the other girl, as she turned to me while shaking her head. “I–sorry. I didn’t mean to just–ugh. I didn’t mean it like that. I wasn’t trying to like–insult her family’s shop or anything. I was just… yeah, sometimes I don’t think before I speak.” She muttered the last words before giving a heavy sigh. 

“It’s okay,” I assured her before reaching out to squeeze the girl’s arm. “Seriously, don’t worry about it. All this stuff is a lot to get used to. Believe me, I know.” And boy was that a severe understatement. A lot to get used to? Wait until she learned the real truth about the city–no, stop it. I couldn’t tell her the full truth about the city. Except she was already helping, and she was going to push that help as far as helping me find the girl who might be able to take Pencil down. Even if the idea was to stay completely away from that piece of shit and never directly involve ourselves with him, there was no definite one hundred percent certainty that we wouldn’t see him. And she was still here, still willingly putting herself in danger. Didn’t I owe her the–fuck. Would this question ever end up getting me anywhere except for more uncertain and confused?

“Dude.” Peyton, who I belatedly realized had been staring at me for the past few seconds while I went through all that in my head yet again, spoke up hesitantly. “Are you okay?” 

“It’s fine,” Murphy called from where she was still working. “He just does that sometimes. I think he likes brooding or something. That or he’s listening to podcasts in that helmet and gets distracted.” 

Flushing a bit behind the aforementioned helmet, I shook my head. “It’s not brooding or podcasts. I just–never mind. I was just thinking.” 

“Hey, speaking of just thinking,” Murphy called out again, “what do you call yourself, anyway? I mean, we can’t just stick with ‘that marble girl’ all the time, right?” 

It was Peyton’s turn to blush, slightly visible through the space that left part of her face around her eyes uncovered. “Uhh, we sort of went over some ideas, but I’m not sure. It’s really hard to come up with a good one that doesn’t sound stupid or overly dramatic or… whatever.”

“Oh, I know all about that too,” I muttered mostly to myself before gesturing. “Well, while we’re waiting, why don’t we go over the list? You wanna help, Murphy?” 

She, in turn, looked at the mop in her hand for a moment before setting it aside to step over where we were. Shoving her hands in her back pockets, the brown-skinned girl rocked back on her heels before asking, “What sorta options are you working with?” 

So, Peyton and I tugged a couple random stools over and slid one over to Murphy before starting to go over all the potential names. The three of us went back and forth for awhile about the ones that sounded good, why they were good, the ones that probably wouldn’t work, and so on. 

We went over all that for a good ten minutes. Finally, Peyton said she had some favorites, especially after talking to the two of us, but she wanted to think about it some more before deciding, and maybe ask the others what they thought. Which was pretty good timing, considering it was only a couple minutes after that before Wren showed up with Fred and Roald. 

“Wow,” Peyton murmured very quietly in my direction as the trio arrived with armfulls of paper grocery bags, “you weren’t kidding about her being young. But she’s really that good?” 

“She’s really that good,” I confirmed before stepping that way to take a bag from Wren. It was heavier than it looked, geez. The bag was completely filled with what looked like half of an average-sized store’s electronics department. Peyton was already doing the same for Fred. “Hey guys, look who I brought back. It’s… uhh, she doesn’t actually have a name yet. So TBD. But TBD, this is Wren or Trevithick, her uncle Fred, and Roald.” 

That was followed by both Fred and Roald shaking the girl’s hand, the latter commenting that her armor looked different this time. Peyton then explained how that worked with her marbles. Both of them seemed a little awkward and uncertain in a way that almost seemed kind of cute. Especially when Murphy inserted herself and all three of them went back and forth about different types of armor and weapons she might be able to make with the various marbles. 

For her part, Wren waited until all the bags were put down and was quietly respectful of letting the other three talk for about ten more seconds before flinging herself that way with an added boost from her flight pack wings (the pack was on under her jacket and it projected the wings through a couple almost-invisible slits in the back) to cross the distance before landing directly in front of her. “Hi! I’m Wren, like he said! You are so cool, I watched the videos of you fighting those bad guys like eighteen times! When you hit Juice with the battering ram and then threw him with the gloves, that was so awesome! You were like, ‘don’t you touch him!’ then wham! Did you really just get your powers? You totally kicked his butt before he even knew what was happening!” 

Peyton, looking more than a little taken aback by the enthusiasm, managed a little giggle. “Uhh, thanks. Just beginner’s luck, really. I think he was more focused on being mad at Paintball, so he wasn’t paying any attention to me.” 

“He was definitely distracted,” I agreed, “but that doesn’t take away from the fact that most people wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of that distraction the way you did. Seriously, she’s right, you were awesome back there. I would’ve been screwed without your help.” Blanching a little, I added, “Still don’t know why they keep calling you my ‘sidekick’ though. I mean, I haven’t even been doing this for two whole months yet.” 

Wow, saying that part out loud made me think about just how much had happened in the past six-ish weeks. The vials, finding out about my family, being taken by Pencil, the whole situation with him and the rest of the Scions at the hospital, the Paige thing… Just how damn busy was I

While I was focused on that, Peyton had started to explain her whole naming situation and the various ideas she was working off of. Roald, Wren, and Fred gave their own opinions and went back and forth for awhile, until Peyton finally held up both hands. “Okay, okay. I’ve got it, I think. The name I’m gonna go with is…” She took a breath, letting it out before finishing. “Alloy.” Even after she said it, the girl looked uncertain. “I mean, is that good? I think– never mind. Sorry. I’m terrible at making decisions! I even like boys and girls cuz throwing out half my options is bullshit!” With that cry, she waved both hands vaguely. 

It was Fred who spoke up. “Hey, why don’t you uhh, close your eyes for a second.”

Looking a little confused and uncertain, the girl did so with a quiet, “Um, okay.”  

Clearing his throat, Fred spoke up loudly. “Alloy, Paintball needs your help, get out there!” After a pause, he asked, “So, did that sound right? I mean, the name, did it sound like something you’d like to be called?” 

Peyton opened her eyes. I had the feeling she was smiling behind the mask. “Uh huh. That’s it. That’s the right name. Thanks, uhh, Mr. Donovan.” 

“Fred’s fine,” the man insisted, looking self-conscious as he rubbed his head. “I just know sometimes it helps to hear the name from someone else. It’s how…” He paused briefly before continuing in a softer, more subdued tone. “It’s how I helped Wren’s folks choose her name.” 

Well, that was sobering. I still wasn’t sure about the whole story there, other than the fact that her mother and father had died in the hospital after racking up quite the medical bill. Which was the whole thing that led to Fred selling that device to Ashton so he could steal the vials in the first place. Not that Fred had known what his plan was at the time.

Of course, thinking about that reminded me of why we had come here today to begin with. “Um, Wren? You said you had something really important to talk about. What’s wrong? And, uhh, does it have anything to do with the fact that you just went on a huge shopping spree? All this stuff looks pretty intense.” I said that while gingerly reaching into one of the bags and picking up what appeared to be a circuit board with seven different colored wires leading out of it and a large computer power supply attached to one side.  

Immediately, Wren looked guilty about her distraction. “Oh, uhh, yeah. I should probably talk to you upstairs about it.” She winced, shifting back and forth on her feet, clearly anxious. 

I had the feeling Peyton really wanted to ask what was going on. Instead, she gestured to the others. “Hey, you wanna see how I raced Paintball to get over here? I could show you outside, if y–hold on!” Tugging her buzzing phone out, she blurted, “Everybody be quiet, or sound like shoppers!” Then she was answering it, talking to her mother, who was checking in again. After a moment, she muted her phone, grabbed Murphy by the arm, and hissed at her to pretend to be someone named Dana coming up to say they had to check out some sale somewhere.  

Looking to Wren while that was going on, I whispered, “Are you okay?” 

“Wha–oh.” Her head bobbed quickly. “Uh huh. It’s not about me. It’s–it’s about Paige.” 

Of course it was. I’d figured it had to be as soon as whatever the problem was didn’t turn out to have anything to do with bad guys at the shop, her or Fred’s health, and involved her going out to buy a bunch of things on an emergency shopping trip. Much as I might’ve loved to hope this whole thing was just a kid overreacting to some brand new idea she had about an invention that she wanted to show off, I knew Wren better than that. And I knew my luck better than that. 

So, while Peyton (or Alloy now) took the others out back to show off the whole hoverboard thing, I went with Wren upstairs. The two of us took the elevator, the younger girl being oddly quiet and subdued all the way. Finally, once the door opened and we stepped out into the hall, she turned to face me. “Okay, see, I felt really bad that I couldn’t help wake up your friend. So I thought maybe if I could at least find a way to communicate with her, it might help. You know, connect with her umm, mind or whatever?” She was fidgeting nervously or self-consciously. 

“Did… did you manage to communicate with her?” No, that didn’t make sense. Why would her succeeding at something like that make Wren so… like this? It certainly wouldn’t be an emergency. 

Sure enough, the blonde girl shook her head quickly. “No–I mean yes, I mean sort of. Hang on–c’mere.” Pivoting, she grabbed my hand and led me into the lab where Paige was lying comfortably (I hoped) on a padded table. There was a wheeled cart nearby with some electronic equipment stacked up on it. Wren picked up what looked like the drum and tubing part of a stethoscope that led into what I swore was part of an ancient Atari video game system with an original Gameboy attached to it via a series of wires. Yeah, it was a whole confusing thing.

“This,” Wren told me while holding up the end of the stethoscope, “sends electronic messages and receives them at close range. It–okay it gets complicated. The short version is that you’re supposed to be able to put it on Paige close to where her CPU thing is, then it’ll send a message to her. Then she can send a message back. Or, you know, whatever tiny part of her is still conscious. They have to be simple messages, and slow. Like one or two words every fifteen minutes. It’s like talking to her in her dreams.” 

“I’m guessing the big emergency isn’t that it didn’t work?” I asked hesitantly, staring at the thing in her hand, then back to Paige. 

“No,” she confirmed quietly. “It worked. I sent a message asking, ‘Can you hear?’ and she sent back, umm, well it took awhile to get all of it, but…” 

Rather than finish, she simply picked up the Gameboy and turned it so I could see the screen. Written across it were eleven words in succession, one under the next, all in capital letters. 

HELP

DAD

VIRUS

SECOND

ME

COPY

TRYING

ERASE

REPLACE

KILL

HELP

PLEASE

Reading all that through, I took a second to process it before my eyes widened. “Her dad made a virus that’s like a copy and it’s trying to replace her. I–we don’t have any more time to try to come up with the perfect plan or find the perfect people to help. We don’t have time for any of that.

“We have to start saving Paige right now.”

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Building Connections 16-10 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N – There is an update for voting on Peyton’s name in my first comment at the bottom of this chapter! If you’d like to participate in the final round of determining what her Touched name will be out of the three finalists, jump down there once you finish this chapter!

Deicide didn’t know exactly where this Amanda Sanvers was, of course. That would have been too easy. Instead, she had a list of possible last locations, along with people who had spoken to the girl somewhat recently and might be able to give a better idea of where she was. Apparently Deicide was worried that if she or her people dug any deeper than that, Sanvers herself would hear about it and go even deeper into hiding out of paranoia that they were somehow working for the monster who had traumatized her so much years ago. 

She also told us a bit more about that situation, about how a very early Pencil, before even taking up leadership of the Scions, had taken this girl’s family prisoner. Apparently, on camera, he had forced Amanda’s parents to shoot each other in order to save the lives of both Amanda and her brother. Nick Sanvers had completely disappeared within a year, something about going to an Alaskan oil rig to work. But Amanda had stuck around for one reason or another, mostly going underground, changing her name repeatedly, that sort of thing. From what Deicide knew, it sounded like the girl was staying specifically to testify against Pencil if they ever managed to catch him. So the police and Star-Touched kept her somewhat informed about how their various investigations into the Scions were going. It wasn’t really by-the-book, but they were impressed by how tough she was to not take off for another continent. And honestly, so was I. If she had experienced Pencil firsthand and still wanted to stick around to testify against him given the chance? Yeah, she was pretty brave. 

Brave, but not entirely stupid. Hence the whole changing her name and disappearing thing. A couple of the authorities knew how to contact her, but even they had to jump through certain hoops to do so. She refused to go into normal witness protection. Something about not trusting it and wanting to manage on her own. Which, apparently she was pretty good at if the girl was still alive after all this time. So yeah, kudos to her. 

Which, of course reminded me of a certain other person who had stayed hidden from the Scions for a long time now. Robert–Bobby Parson, my old driver and the man who had apparently saved me back when my own grandfather had sent his men to kill Anthony and his family, and to abduct me. Yeah, Bobby was another one I needed to find. I had the feeling that he would be able to answer even more questions about my family. Especially considering everything I’d already found. Like the toys in his cabin with the code that had led me to find out more about Paige. Why did he have those there? And where was he now? Had he just gone deeper after finding out Pencil had gotten so close to finding him? And why was Pencil really after him? If the psychopath was that obsessed with tracking him down, it had to be something pretty important, right? 

Whatever, the point was, I had a lot to deal with. Right now, I really had to focus on finding a different member of the ‘stay the fuck away from Pencil society.’ I had to focus on finding Amanda Sanvers. 

Okay, that wasn’t exactly the immediate concern. That, at the moment, was looking at me from across the roof both of us were standing on a few minutes after Cavalcade had dropped us off. She was just finishing the sandwich that the mercenary had insisted on picking up for us. I had one too, but wasn’t eating it yet. It was still wrapped up and tucked into one of the pockets of my suit for later. 

Taking a breath, I focused on Peyton. “Look, you really don’t need to be involved in any of this. Trust me, you don’t want to. Like I said, you don’t owe Deicide anything. And you definitely don’t owe me enough to put your neck anywhere near this shit.” 

Peyton just stared at me. “Dude, you’re like.. what, a thirteen-year-old kid? You shouldn’t be anywhere near this shit either. But you are, for some reason. Maybe that paper chick’s right about this Sanvers girl talking to you because you’re not a threat. But like, that brings up a good question. If Amanda Sanvers has been like… you know, cooperating with the authorities and trying to bring Pencil down, why does Deicide think she’s got this top secret information about his power or whatever?” 

“I asked her about that when you went out with Cavalcade and I stayed behind for a minute,” I informed her. “Apparently this Amanda girl thinks that the only reason Pencil hasn’t like… totally gone after her is because he believes she doesn’t know anything important about him. According to Deicide, Amanda saying she’d cooperate with the cops and then supposedly not being able to tell them anything useful is her way of letting the Scions know they don’t need to come after her. I mean, think about it. Pencil doesn’t really care about leaving witnesses. They know what he is and what he’s done. It’s not like he’s thinking ahead that much to a trial or whatever. The only thing that would make him come after her hard is if he thought she knew something dangerous about him, something that could bring him down or expose a weakness. So, Amanda makes it clear she’s trying to help the cops but can’t tell them anything helpful. Which reassures Pencil so he has no real reason to expend that much effort looking for her, because if she did know anything, she would’ve told them.” 

Peyton considered that for a moment, running it through in her head before nodding. “I guess that makes sense. But what makes Deicide think this girl actually does know something big?” 

I shrugged at that. “Something about hearing it through a friend of a friend of a friend, or whatever. Amanda said something to someone that made it sound like she might know a secret about Pencil’s power, and it got back to Deicide.” With that, I shook my head. “But seriously, like I said, you don’t need to be involved in this, Peyton. This is way, way too much to ask.” 

She, however, shook her head. “I’m not going after the Scions, dude. No fucking way. I don’t–I’m scared. Yeah, I’m too scared for that. But if this girl–if she really does know something that can stop those assholes from–” She choked a bit on her words, blanching while her arms folded across her stomach. The floating marbles that weren’t part of her armor hovered protectively in front of her. “Everyone knows what Pencil does to people. If this Amanda girl really does know something that can help stop him? I don’t care if it’s Deicide or the Star-Touched, the military, or the freaking Smurfs who pull it off. Getting rid of that bastard is a good thing. And if I can help do that just by helping you track down this girl? Then… then I wanna be a part of that.” 

Squirming on her feet, the girl quietly added, “I was… scared–terrified when that asshole and his friends abducted me, and they didn’t even have any powers. Then yesterday with Juice and those fucking–” Cutting herself off, she gave a quick shake of her head, eyes closing briefly as she pulled it together. “I’ve been really scared, so I know what that’s like. But I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be one of his victims. I can’t–” The girl swallowed hard, clearly afraid even as she pushed on. “Even if all I do is help a little bit, I wanna help stop other people from feeling as terrified as I was before. No, even more terrified, because… because the Scions are worse. All the things they’ve done, everything they like to…” Again, she trailed off, taking a moment to collect herself before forcing the last words out. “ Please. I just want to help.” 

Well, shit, what exactly was I supposed to say to that? No, you’re not allowed to be brave? No, you can’t contribute to helping people, only I’m allowed to do that? Wait a minute, was this how people like That-A-Way had felt about me throwing myself into danger while refusing to join their team (before she understood why I’d done that)? Hell, was this what people felt in general about me doing this sort of stuff? Or worse, since as far as they knew I was like, twelve or thirteen? 

Eesh, how did they deal with it? 

Shaking that off, I finally agreed, “Okay. I mean, I’m not sure how it’ll go, but yeah. If you wanna help out, that could be cool. And we can like… talk about doing some other Star-Touched stuff together, if you still want. You know, to help people and to help you figure out exactly how your power works.” Taking in a breath and letting it out as I struggled not to show my own nervousness about this whole situation, I faced the girl. “If you really want to join me and my friends, and just… help people without being part of a real team, then… then that’s cool.” 

I wasn’t going to tell her the full truth about the Ministry. Not yet. But I could ease her into things, take her to meet Trevithick and the others there. Which would also, hopefully, mean Wren would have another person to come help in case something bad happened at the shop. Yeah, yeah this was a good thing. And if eventually it turned out Peyton really could be trusted with the Ministry information, that had to be good too, right? 

Anyway, it was the best plan I had right now. Yeah, it wasn’t perfect and there were definitely still ways it could go wrong. Not to mention the guilt I would feel if Peyton got hurt specifically because she was hanging around me and all my problems. But it wasn’t up to me to tell her she couldn’t help. And I couldn’t bring myself to send her off to the Minority while knowing what I did about how she would likely be exploited and used. So, this was the best compromise I had. 

While Peyton was about to respond to that, the Touched-business phone in my pocket buzzed. Turning a bit, I took it out and glanced at the screen. There was a text from Wren, saying she really needed to talk to me asap, along with a few ambulance and police emojis. Then there was an added note that there were no cops and that she and the others were fine but it really was super-important bordering on emergency and–yeah, she went on a bit in several texts. Clearly, something big had happened but it wasn’t to the point of active gunfire or anything, and they weren’t in immediate life and death danger. But it was still an emergency. One she apparently didn’t want to get into over the phone for whatever reason. 

So, exhaling, I sent back a message that I would be there soon and that I was bringing our new friend. With that, I looked back to Peyton. “Well, I guess I’m needed back at… okay, there are some things I need to tell you. I’ll do it on the way. That is, if you still want to come?” 

Peyton, in turn, nodded quickly. “I’m in. I mean, I’m as in as you want right now, I guess. I mean–” Cutting herself off, she simply shrugged. “I wanna help. I wanna participate. I um, hold on.” Pivoting, she took her own phone out, which had apparently started buzzing as well. Transforming the helmet to expose her mouth so her voice wouldn’t be muffled at all, she started talking brightly. “Hey, Mom! Nope, like I said, I’m just fine. Uh huh. Oh right, the password is peppermint patty. Uh huh. Yes, I’m positive. Thanks. Yep, I’ll be good. Bye. Bye!” Repeating the last word emphatically, she hit the disconnect button and exhaled. “Sorry, Mom’s been a bit… protective ever since the you-know-what happened. If I don’t give her the password she thinks someone’s holding a gun to my head to make me say everything’s fine.”

“So, definitely not gonna tell her what you’re up to now, huh?” I put in mildly. 

Blanching, the girl shook her head quickly. “Not on your life. She’d never understand. I mean, I love her, she loves me, all that stuff. But she’d never really understand that… that I have to help make sure no one else feels helpless like I did.” Squaring her shoulders, Peyton faced me, the mask returning to cover the bottom of her face once more. “I’m ready to go.” 

With a nod, I turned to the edge of the roof. “Right, let’s get–” I’d taken two steps before stopping with my leg raised. Pivoting back, I blanched a bit. “Uhhh, right. I’m not sure how we get you over there. Think you could run alongside me and I could paint you to places once we–” 

“Dude,” she interrupted. “Check this out.” With that, the girl looked toward the marbles hovering nearby. “Show him, guys.” 

Immediately, the gold and white marbles flew into one another before starting to shift and grow. Soon, what looked like a gold surfboard with white trim literally hovered there in the air beside the girl. Peyton, in turn, floated up off the roof herself. She literally floated up a foot or so in the air. “I can make the armor lift me up,” she announced. “Sorta like flying. The armor floats and I go with it. But I don’t really um, have the hang of it yet. Hard to keep focusing on it while the armor pulls and pushes my–yeah. It’s easier to do this.” 

With a gesture from one hand, she sent the floating surfboard under her feet before landing on it. “See? My armor bonds to it, so…” To demonstrate, she flew up another few feet before the board turned upside down with Peyton still attached. She dangled there, hanging from her feet. Or rather, from the boots of her armor, which were firmly attached to the board. “Can’t fall off!” 

“Hah, dude…” Despite myself, I was grinning. “That’s cool.” It seriously was. I’d wondered if the fact that her marbles and the things they made could hover would mean the armor could actually fly, but it made sense that the armor yanking her around through the air wouldn’t be super comfortable. Maybe she’d get used to that or learn to adjust how she made it move so that she could actually fly normally with it eventually. In the meantime, the hoverboard (or was that flyboard?) was an amazing compromise. 

“Right?!” Clearly grinning behind the helmet, Peyton flipped herself rightside up. “Now I can keep up with you.” 

“Oh, can you?” Feeling myself start to smirk, I glanced toward the edge of the roof. “Let’s find out.” 

First, of course, I texted Izzy to let her know something came up over at Wren’s that I had to check out and that she should definitely go see that second movie. 

That done, I told Peyton what area of town we were going to, using a landmark she was familiar with. Then I gave her a short nod, a thumbs up, and took off running while activating the green wings I had painted onto my shoes. Behind me, Peyton shouted something about cheating, before taking off on her board just as I reached the edge of the roof and used blue paint to spring up and forward through open air in a long flip. Instantly, as soon as my body righted itself, I used red paint to yank myself the rest of the way to a billboard, adding a bit of blue against the sign itself to spring up and forward even further. 

As I landed on the next roof, Peyton on her flying surfboard was just gliding past the sign I had bounced off of. She was crouched a bit on bent knees, urging the board to go faster to catch up with ‘that dork.’ The girl was clearly saying the last part loud enough for me to hear, so I painted a face with its tongue out on my back just before activating another bit of green I had pre-painted to keep my speed boost going as I popped my skates out and practically flew along the edge of that roof. 

That continued over the next few buildings. I built up a lead while running with the green paint active, but I couldn’t keep it going forever. Peyton would close the gap with her steady speed and ability to fly straight over or around any obstacle, while I used red paint to pull myself ahead every time we hit the edge of a roof. Once in awhile, she pulled ahead, then I would use a combination of blue, red, and green paint to regain the lead. 

It was… fun. That’s all there was to it. We laughed, teasing each other and making up ridiculous claims or faux-threats while she flew upside down over my head and swatted the back of my helmet, or when I used red paint against her board to propel myself past her in one spot where there was a large gap between buildings. I could see some people on the street stopping and noticing, but mostly I was just paying attention to trying my level best to stay ahead of Peyton. 

Then she got creative. Just as I was increasing my lead again, something thin, long, and metallic went flying past me. It looked like a whip with a grappling hook attached, which latched onto the corner of the building I had just been about to jump to. Twisting around, I saw Peyton still on her board. She had one hand extended, while the black and bronze marbles had combined to transform into that whip-grapple thing. Even as I watched, flatfooted for a second, the grapple-whip (it was a good fifty feet long, just very thin) retracted, yanking her forward and past me even faster than she could fly. Now she was getting the benefit of the two marbles that made up the board and the two that made up the whip-grapple. 

“Wha–hey!” Just as the girl flew past me with a cackle, I sprang to leap after her. “Totally cheating, you’re not supposed to figure out new tricks to your power before I get to beat you!” 

Her response, of course, was more cackling. 

From there, things were even closer. Peyton had worked out that she could separate the black and bronze marbles into separate but shorter whip-grapples, lashing them forward to either side of her to catch hold of things and then pull herself forward. Or she could combine them for the longer one whenever it was needed to reach something further away. She used them not only for additional speed, but also for fine course corrections. They let her spin around corners much faster. It was pretty damn cool, honestly. What she was doing was kind of a mix between hoverboarding and like… grappling her way from building to building. 

Still, I had been doing this for a bit longer. I knew my way around the city like this, especially when it came to getting over to Wren’s place. So, at the last second, I took an alley shortcut that was practically invisible until you were right on top of it, coming out to land on the roof we’d agreed to meet at just barely ahead of the other girl. There, I jumped up and down with my fists up even as Peyton landed beside me, her board and whips turning back into marbles. 

“Next time!” she declared. “I am so gonna beat you when we go again.” 

Snorting at that, I headed for the edge of the roof. “Yeah, we’ll see. Come on, whatever’s happening, Trevithick made it sound pretty important. 

“So let’s go see what’s on fire this time.”

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