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.”