Peyton Favors

Together And Alone 27-03 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Center Of Attention 26-14 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Center Of Attention 26-13 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I helped!” the girl in question insisted. 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“More training!”  

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Center Of Attention 26-10 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Center Of Attention 26-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Oh. Oh this was bad. Now we had guys who weren’t even here in the courthouse who were about to go out and kill some innocent people somewhere completely different? Not to mention burn down their house. All just to send a message to some guy who tried to stop them. 

We couldn’t let that happen, obviously. But that wasn’t our only problem. We also had those guys who were heading here right now with the laser thing. Which was undoubtedly going to lead to Theory and Praxis wanting to know if the doorway into the rest of the tunnel was open yet, and… yeah, complications. So many complications. 

Even as we were all reacting to that, I had my phone out and was trying to call Amber. My first thought was to call Izzy, but given I was calling from the Paintball phone I didn’t want my parents to start wondering why she was my first thought. Even now, in this situation, I had to worry about that sort of thing. 

I also half-expected (okay, more like three quarters-expected) to get no signal at all, considering how prevalent call blockers seemed to be. But, miracle of miracles, I immediately heard ringing. Apparently our friends upstairs weren’t concerned about people making phone calls. Probably because they thought they had them all together in that room. Also the fact that it didn’t matter how many calls they made if the authorities couldn’t actually come into the building, of course.

The phone rang three times before I heard Amber’s voice. Or rather, her That-A-Way voice. “Paintball? We just made it outside. Are you guys really in there? What’s going–” 

“Way!” I interrupted, giving a quick, questioning look toward Paige before nodding to the stairs. She, in turn, shook her head to indicate that we weren’t about to have company yet. So I continued. “Yes, we’re here, but you have to go somewhere right now before innocent people get killed.” I quickly gave her an incredibly condensed version of what was happening and why she had to hurry, passing along the address as Paige recited it from memory for me. “So you have to get there first, you have to go now!” I wasn’t quite shouting, not wanting to draw attention just in case my voice carried too much. But I was definitely doing my level best to stress the urgency. Every second that this took made me more convinced that those other guys were gonna get there first. 

“Damn it, that’s to the south-east!” came the response a second later after Way had looked up the address. Which meant neither her super-speed nor teleportation could work, given those were only available when she was moving west or north, respectively. “Hang on, just–Dynamic!” she shouted away from the phone, apparently flagging down the speedster/energy manipulator from the Conservators. I couldn’t hear the next few seconds of conversation aside from some muffled words, but she came back a moment later. “She’s going. She’s heading over there right now. It’s okay. I mean it’s really not okay, but she’s got it. What about you guys? What the hell is going on in there?” 

Before I could respond to that, Paige waved her hand to get my attention and pointed to the stairs. So I quickly replied, “Call you back, gotta deal with something.” 

With that, I disconnected the phone, and we all spread out to get out of sight, putting ourselves on either side of the stairwell entrance. Soon, I heard the footsteps approaching, and glanced over at Paige. She held up three fingers. Right, so we had a trio coming down here. We could deal with that, no problem. The real question would be how to handle what came next. Would the bad guys just keep sending a few people down at a time to see what was going on? Unlikely. But maybe we could set things up so that they only came down at a speed and quantity we could deal with. As long as the people upstairs didn’t get wind that their troops were being taken apart down here, at least. 

Of course, we’d run into problems as soon as it was someone like Juice or Janus, anyone we couldn’t take down and get under control immediately. But that was a problem for later. One step at a time. 

And speaking of steps, our three bad guys came off the last ones and went dashing through the doorway together. Two of them were carrying a four-foot long, one-foot wide tube thing that sort of looked like a grenade launcher. They came without even noticing Poise, Calvin, and me standing on one side of the doorway, or Style, Hobbes, and Alloy standing on the other. And they certainly didn’t notice Trevithick hovering in the air above them. She didn’t have her wing-pack right now, but apparently she had already upgraded her shoes and gloves to allow her to hover in the air without it.

In any case, the guys didn’t notice her either. They did, however, notice the stack of guns and radios piled up about halfway through the room. Coming to a sudden halt, the group stared that way uncomprehendingly. One of them reached for the radio on his hip, which was our cue. Raising both hands, I shot that guy with a mix of purple and black paint before activating it. The muting power of the black paint was expanded by the purple to encompass all of them. They had already started to twist around, eyes widening as they saw us. But now they couldn’t even communicate with each other, let alone call for help on their radios. And that was just about it for them. Within seconds, all three guys were down, their equipment secured, and Sierra and Peyton were escorting them to the room where their friends were already locked up.

Once that was taken care of, I picked up one of the radios those three had left behind. “Okay, now what’s going on up there?” I was looking toward the ceiling, where Wren was still hovering while keeping an eye on the view from her bee-drone. She’d had the audio playing through that mask of hers so she could hear it without giving us away to the new arrivals.

She, in turn, quickly returned to the floor so I could see the screen for myself. “That, umm, hostage guy, he’s begging them not to hurt his family.” Her voice caught a bit. “I muted it while he was… while he was doing that.” The kid audibly swallowed. “I’m sorry, I just couldn’t– He’s really sad.”

“It’s okay,” Paige put in while crouched over the tube thing those guys had dropped when we jumped them. “She let me connect to her equipment. I can hear what’s going on. It’s–they haven’t made him stop pleading yet. I think they like hearing it.” 

Well, these guys were assholes. Not that that was a surprise. After all, they were the ones who had sent people to go murder an innocent family just because the father didn’t behave for them. At least they were consistent that way. 

“Yeah,” I replied to both girls, “well Dynamic’s heading over there right now. She’ll save his family. We just have to focus on saving him, and the rest of those people up there. And we still don’t know where Theory and Praxis, Juice, or Janus are. And–” 

“Hang on a second,” Paige interrupted. “Trevithick, do you see–” 

“The girl!” Wren blurted, sounding both confused and excited. 

“What girl?” That was Murphy. “Huh?” 

So, Wren showed us on the screen, rewinding the footage. As we watched, the blonde gang woman from before with the mostly-buzz cut hair exchanged whispered words with Fogwalker. Then she stepped away and took out her cell phone before typing in a message. Wren must have moved the bee closer or zoomed in or something, because we quickly saw the screen a bit better. She was sending a message to… wait, she was sending a message to the Doephone app? It was a warning about two guys going to an address to–what the fuck? She was sending the authorities a warning about the two guys they had sent to the address of that guy’s house. She was telling the cops to stop the very guys she had sent to–huh? 

My head was shaking even as I watched the woman give Fogwalker a nod to show it was done. “Wait. Hold on, was that whole thing an act? I mean, hold up, sending a couple guys to kill a woman and some kids and burn down their house just because a guy annoyed them must be further than the Ministry wants them to go. So was that whole ‘go kill them’ just to build their rep as dangerous, or convince the hostages not to try anything else, or… something like that?”

Sierra muttered a few curses. “But they don’t wanna go completely against the Ministry’s rules, so they alert the authorities and pretend it could’ve come from anyone’s phone in the building. I mean look, they’re practically begging someone in that room to secretly use their phone. They’re barely looking at them.” 

Okay, well at least these guys weren’t so bad that they would actually kill a family like that. But still. “What the hell is their plan?” I demanded. “The real one, I mean. Theory said the tunnel down here is Part B, and that the whole thing only works if they get enough attention. So is the other part of the plan just… another escape tunnel or something? Maybe they want to draw attention to this tunnel so they can use a different one. One that might not be so well-covered?” I was already frowning throughout that. “No, that’s not it. Theory said they need ‘the tunnel,’ not ‘the other tunnel’ or ‘that tunnel.’ So it can’t just be that simple. But what then? They’re not just walking out the back door. What… the hell are they doing up there?” 

“I’ll find them!” Wren declared, directing the bee drone out of the courtroom with a murmured apology to the man there. Things would be bad if Fogwalker and the others decided to kill some of those hostages after all. But we only had one drone and we still had to find the other Fell-Touched. The longer we went without knowing where those guys were or what they were up to, the worse my bad feeling got. Besides, after what we had just found out, I was pretty sure it would take an awful lot before they actually killed any of them. 

Style spoke up in a flat voice while the drone was making its way through the building. “Right, brilliant, so as long as they keep sending a couple guys at a time, we’re good. No chance they mix it up, get creative, or just figure out we’re fucking with them, right?”

“We’ll deal with it,” Poise informed her while picking up the tube thing. “So this is the laser they were talking about. I checked, there’s no self-destruct on it, no listening devices, but there is a tracker. I can disable that whenever you want. They’ll know when I do it though.” 

“They figured the laser was powerful enough to cut through a vault door,” I murmured, “so it’s gotta be pretty strong. Maybe we can use that for something. If nothing else, Wren can have it for spare parts and to examine.” 

Wren, for her part, clapped while bouncing up and down in the air using her hover boots. “Yay, toys! I mean, not toys, dangerous weapon. But I can make it–I mean I can–” 

“It’s okay, we get it,” I assured her. “And yeah, you can turn it into something useful. Or at least learn from it.” That said, I looked down at the screen on the phone she had handed me as the drone slowly made its way along the ceiling to check other rooms. “Now we just need to–” Quickly, I interrupted myself while hitting the button on the screen to stop the drone. Juice had just emerged from one of the doors, accompanied by Janus, Theory, and half a dozen armed guys. “Look, look,” I blurted, waving a hand while unmuting the thing so we could all hear instead of just Paige. The others gathered around while I held it up. 

“–finally just get those cops to come through and get her ass back with the others so we can get out of here,” Juice was saying. 

Wait, what? Get the cops to come through? Where–why–huh? Now I was even more confused, to say the least.  

Theory shook his head, looking one way, then the other down the corridor. Thankfully, he didn’t look straight up at our tiny drone. Finally, he gestured for the others to follow as he went right, further away from the courtroom where the hostages and Fogwalker were. “Banneret knows what she’s doing. They’ll get those cops’ attention, make them think we’re fighting our way out through there so they pull in all the help they can get to reinforce. Which they obviously can’t pull off the doors they’re already covering, so they’ll have to pull it in from somewhere else.” He gave a low, dangerous chuckle then, sounding a lot like the mad scientist his outfit already seemed to be channeling. “And that’s when the real fun starts. So go grab troops and make sure everyone’s got their ducks in a row for it.” 

Okay, I definitely didn’t like the sound of that. And from the way the others reacted, they didn’t either. I couldn’t see their faces, but from what I could pick out… yeah, they were all as worried as I was by that. Clearly, opening up that tunnel behind us was an integral part of the Trendscendents’ plan. So they weren’t just going to give up on it or only send a couple people. As soon as this took too long, they’d investigate. Probably in force this time. Plus, what was that about the real fun starting once they managed to lure reinforcements to the tunnel? 

The group on screen split up at that point, with Juice and Janus moving back the way they had come while Theory continued down the hall. Wren gave me a quick look, asking, “Who’re we gonna follow?” 

I had to think quickly before making the drone trail after Theory, watching the man from above. “He’s the one who was talking about the plan, whatever it is. I want to see what he’s doing now. If those other guys are getting the troops ready, he’s gotta be the one doing the actual work for whatever it is, right?” 

“Works for me,” Sierra agreed, eating a piece of beef jerky. When we glanced at her, she shrugged. “One of those guys had it in his pocket. What’s he gonna do, complain about it?” 

Before any of us could actually respond to that, Theory stepped into a small, clearly private elevator at the end of the hall. He had to put his hand on a fingerprint/palm scanner, which he did while wearing a glove. The scanner went over the glove and beeped an affirmative. So clearly, there was something special about that glove. Before the doors closed, I sent the bee drone inside and moved it to a corner, so it would be out of sight.

Hobbes was bouncing up and down on her toes, clearly anxious. “What do we say when he calls back and asks if they’ve got that wall open yet? I mean, if it’s that big of a part of their plan, he’s not exactly gonna be patient about it, right?” 

I had to think about that for a moment. It wasn’t as though the guy wouldn’t notice if the people outside never summoned reinforcements. The longer this took, the more suspicious he was going to become. But we still had to know what they were doing, and why this whole thing was happening. This had to be about more than just breaking their people out of the courthouse. It was too complicated.

Besides, I had already been through one situation with these guys where what they were apparently doing was a lot different than what was actually going on. I didn’t trust this one to be straightforward either. 

Finally, I sighed. “When he calls in to check, tell him we’re cutting through the wall and we can hear cops on the other side. Let them tell us what to do next. Maybe it’ll give us some idea what their full plan is. But obviously, act like we know what it is already.” I was looking toward Sierra, since she had been the one to talk to him before. “Think you can fake your way through another one of those as our friend in there?” 

“I’ve been listening to every second of audio we have of her, here and from the news,” my doppelganger replied. “Trust me babe, as long as he doesn’t ask anything too personal, I can handle it.” 

I still wasn’t sure how I felt about anyone calling me babe, let alone someone who looked exactly like me outside of a few minor cosmetic changes. But I couldn’t think about that right now. Instead, I focused on the screen as the elevator stopped and Theory stepped out. The drone followed the man, while he emerged into what turned out to be some sort of private judge’s office. And a pretty lavish one too. The room was as big as my dad’s main office at home, and almost as well furnished. Theory moved to the nearby bar and poured himself a glass of whiskey before heading for the desk. “Okay, shitface,” he announced aloud, “let’s see if you were lying about where the wardrobe to Narnia is.” 

Oookay, I had no idea what that meant. Who was he talking about? Wait, he was inputting a password on the laptop, which it immediately accepted. Quickly, I made the bee drone turn, looking for some sort of answer as to whose office this was. There, on the desk. There was a nameplate for Honorable Horace Cavers. Wait, Horace Cavers? That was San’s dad. I’d known he was a judge of some sort, but didn’t realize he had an office like this. 

“Guys,” I addressed Poise and Style quickly, “can you check on Judge Horace Cavers and find out where he is right now? I don’t know if there’s any way to–” 

“He’s not in the building,” Paige interrupted. “I started checking as soon as you got that nameplate on screen. He called in sick this morning. And San–his son–” She added that for the benefit of the others. “–was supposed to be at baseball practice today and never showed up. His wife had a date to get drinks with a couple of her friends and called to cancel at the last minute.”

“They have them,” I realized. “These guys must have jumped the Cavers at their home before they came here. They got information out of the judge, his password and some sort of secret about a door, I think. What–” 

By that point, Theory was already typing on the computer. He had some sort of program up that looked like blueprints. But before we could zoom in for more details, he triumphantly hit one last button. As he did so, there was a loud beep and part of the wall across the office slid aside. 

“Hell yeah,” Theory announced, before picking up his radio. The message came through all the ones we had lying around us. 

“Okay people, if you’re not working on that tunnel, pack your shit and get up here. Banneret, you better be ready to get those reinforcements called in right fucking now. Cuz I’ve got Switchshift’s backdoor open. 

“And while Ten Towers is busy sending all their troops out to help the cops down there, it’s time for us to stroll into their own vault and grab everything that’s not nailed down.”

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Center Of Attention 26-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Giving Murphy and Roald a second to catch their breath, Paige and I turned to Sierra. She offered a shrug. “They did pretty well, all things considered. Kept a couple of those guys off my back.”

“What’s going on upstairs?” I asked tensely while looking around at the fallen figures. Before they could recover too much and cause more problems, I started red-painting their weapons, radios, and equipment belts over to where we were, making a small pile. “Please tell me they have stuff under control by now.” 

Paige shook her head. “We have no idea. Most of the cameras have been destroyed already. The only ones left are outside and a couple in this stairwell here. So we can tell you if anyone’s coming, but that’s about it.”

The answer made me grimace and curse a few times under my breath. Now, what were we supposed to do? Should we just sit tight like we’d been told? What if they sent more people down here to find out what had happened to their friends? Would it be better to wait here and meet them? Well, obviously, yes. We could prepare this area. Better than if we went looking for them. But on the other hand, what if there were people up there being hurt right now? What if people died while we were sitting around down here doing nothing? 

Sierra moved over to the nearest guy, and began to drag him by his ankle while he was still groaning in pain. “Oh shush, you big baby. I didn’t hit you that hard. Just be glad I didn’t get to bring my new taser cane. Then you’d really have something to whine about.” With that, she unceremoniously kicked open the door into the room across from where we had left Banneret with Peyton and Wren, shoving him inside.

Page and I quickly started to help, and soon we had all of them shoved into that room. Sierra shut the door and locked it, leaving those guys in there. It wasn’t perfect, obviously. But it would hold them for a minute. And hopefully we’d hear if they started trying to break out.

“Okay,” I started, “so now we have a whole pile of weapons here, and we’ll know if they start coming down the stairs. But we have no idea what’s going on up there in the rest of the courthouse. We’ve gotta find some way to check on things.” 

“I can help!” That was Wren, coming out of the other room. She bounced up and down a little while, reaching into her pocket before producing a tiny thing that I had to lean closer to see. It looked like a bumblebee made of metal, like some sort of tiny ornament, or something. 

“It’s a drone!” the girl announced proudly, as we all stared. “See?” She touched the top of its head, and the thing floated up in the air. Then she turned her phone around to show us the screen, where we could see our own faces from the view of the drone itself. “It can fly around and show us what’s going on! I was building it to help with security at the shop. Cuz Uncle Fred said we needed more cameras and the ones that just sit there and don’t do anything are boring.” 

“Kid’s got a point,” Sierra agreed. “Bee cam is much more interesting than boring old do-nothing cameras. Plus, you wouldn’t be able to send one of those upstairs to snoop around.”

Nodding slowly, I painted a smiley face on the front of my helmet. “Good job, Trev. Why don’t you send your little buddy up there and we’ll see if the good guys have this under control yet.” 

She did just that, while Peyton stood in the doorway of the other room so she could watch while also keeping an eye on the still-cursing Banneret. Together, we all stared at Wren’s phone while she controlled the bee with it, sending the thing up the stairs. 

“Why isn’t there an elevator to come down here, anyway?” Peyton demanded with her arms folded. “Isn’t that like, the law or something? You’d think a courthouse of all places would have to be accessible to the handicapped.”

“There is an elevator,” Paige informed her. “It’s just hidden over by the western wall that way, near the stairs. You can sort of see the seam where the doors are. I guess they only let certain people use it, or only open it when someone comes in who needs it.” 

“But why is it hidden in the first place?” I pointed out. “What’s the point of hiding an elevator?” 

“Dude, this whole underground place isn’t supposed to be here at all,” Sierra reminded me. “The lawyers who get brought down here have to be blindfolded first so they don’t know where it is, and the entrance is labeled as a supply closet.” 

Right, no wonder Banneret and her people had thought they found a secret exit when they started coming down those stairs. And, actually, they had. I kind of doubted that big metal security door would have stopped them forever. So if we hadn’t been here, they eventually could have gone all the way down the tunnel to that house, where we still had no idea what was going on with Officer Metts and the others. Part of me wanted to pink-paint my way through the vault door and run down that way to check on them, but there wasn’t time. They were probably fine and just locked down this place to stop anyone from escaping that way. Which I would obviously mess up by doing just that. 

Either way, by that point, the bee drone had flown all the way to the top of the stairs, where it found the aforementioned empty ‘supply closet.’ Wren carefully sent it through the open doorway, peeking first one direction, then the next. It was in a very large open corridor somewhere on the ground floor of the courthouse. To the right was the front rotunda with the welcome desk (where no one was sitting at the moment), while the corridor went on to the left past an assortment of doors into various offices. It looked like there was another corridor past the rotunda leading to even more doors, with a sign above the entrance to it listing various courtroom locations. From here, we couldn’t see any signs of people, aside from the fact that several doors had clearly been kicked in, and there were random bits of debris lying around. 

Wait, scratch that, there was a sign of people. Namely, the gunfire. It came from the rotunda area abruptly, making me jump. The sound was followed by a view of three armed guys backing up into frame from where they had apparently been right by the front windows of the building. They were pointing their guns outward, one of them shouting, “Yeah, you want your precious legal eagles to stay alive, keep the fuck back!” 

Okay great, so now we knew they had hostages, and they were using them. No wonder the authorities hadn’t stormed this place yet. But that made our whole situation even more complicated. What were we supposed to do now? Obviously, rushing up there when they could kill innocent people was a bad idea, to say the least. But should we just sit tight and wait like the people outside were apparently doing? I really wished we still had all the cameras so we really knew what was going on everywhere in the building, but at least there was Wren’s little bee drone. We just had to be patient and watch.

Wren asked where she should send the thing next, and I thought about it for a moment while the others looked at me expectantly. Finally, I gestured. “Send it higher up so we can get a better view of everything going on. Then I guess we should check out the court rooms on the far side of the front area. They probably put everyone in one place so it’s easier to keep an eye on them, and one of those places is probably the best for that.”

Murphy sighed. “Why don’t they just make a run for it? They’ve gotta know the longer this goes on, the more screwed they are, you know? It’s not like they’ll actually be able to negotiate their way out of this. What’re they gonna do, demand a fleet of helicopters?”

“That’s what our friends down here were dealing with,” I replied. “They were looking for a secret way out. I’m not sure if they actually knew where the tunnel went or that the cops probably know about it, or even how they had any idea it could be here. But that’s definitely what they were doing.”

Paige nodded. “And they’re probably not the only ones. Believe me, this isn’t the only tunnel this place has, and there’s plenty of rumors about them and where they might be. Some more secret than others.”

By that time, the drone had reached the ceiling and gave us a good view of what turned out to be seven guys spread out in the rotunda. They were staying mostly behind cover and keeping a close eye on whoever was outside. I had no doubt that they had more guys at the other entrances, but this was the main one. All of the men were armed, and clearly had radios on so they could warn everyone else in their little gang. I didn’t see any of the Fell-Touched, but there was no doubt they were somewhere around here. I didn’t believe Banneret would be the only one to come on this rescue mission of theirs. And knowing those guys were around somewhere, but not exactly where they were or what they were up to made me nervous.

Shaking that thought off for the moment, I continued to stare at the screen while the drone flew over all those guys’ heads. Their focus was centered on the front windows, so none of them even thought of looking up, even if that would have helped. Given the size of the drone, they might not have noticed it even then. 

The doors leading into the various court rooms were all closed, aside from one. A man with some sort of automatic rifle slung over his shoulder was standing there playing lookout. So, that was obviously where Wren sent the drone. 

We had to be more careful with this. The man was actually watching the hallway at least part of the time, though he turned to glance inside at what I presumed were the hostages now and then. Considering he didn’t have his eyes on them all the time, I doubted he was the only guard. Not to mention the fact that he occasionally seemed to mumble something under his breath as though talking to somebody nearby. We had to get the drone low enough to make it into the room without actually letting him see it, and without flying directly into the view of whoever he was talking to on the other side.

To that end, Wren carefully made the drone land on top of the doorjamb just over the guy’s head.  From that position, we could see his balding spot, and finally hear what he was saying. Basically, he was annoyed that the others hadn’t checked in yet, and wanted to know how long they were supposed to stand around and wait. He also mentioned that he wasn’t sure whether he trusted their new Fell-Touched yet. Apparently Mister Harmful had said something to him that was rude or whatever and he didn’t appreciate it.

After that, we heard another voice, female this time, say that she didn’t care how rude any of them were, because moving to this city was the best thing she’d done. She had some sort of excellent sign-up bonus for agreeing to come here with ‘Gregory,’ whom I was taking to be her son through context. Apparently she’d even been set up with a decent cover job. 

Working extremely carefully, Wren moved the drone to the corner of the doorway and made it peek down. Thankfully, we didn’t have the extremely horrible luck of the woman staring right at the thing. Her back was to the other man as she watched what was very clearly a large group of hostages. The woman had blonde hair that was mostly buzzed. Aside from a ponytail-sized bit on one side that was long enough to fall to her shoulders. She also had a tattoo of something on the back of her neck that I couldn’t really make out but looked like a flower with something in it. Like her partner, she had a gun slung over her shoulder.

As for the hostages, it looked like there were a couple hundred of them, a mix of court employees, disarmed police officers, lawyers, even defendants. They were all sitting down in the audience area of the courtroom.  We couldn’t see the whole area, and everything was upside down from this point of view, making us tilt our heads around to try to make sense of it. Paige and I even managed to slightly bang our heads together in the process, making the other girl flush as she murmured an apology. 

Wren made the bug slip fully into the room, inverted itself, and fly up toward the ceiling once more. Now we could make everything out better, and see that there were a couple more armed thugs spread throughout the room. And perched up in the judge’s seat was Fogwalker. He was probably there so that if any of the hostages tried to make a run for it, he could fill the place in his power and make it impossible for anyone aside from their own people to see what was going on. Which would probably also work if any authorities tried to break in. Before they could actually handle everything, the place would be dark, and any number of the hostages could be killed. Come to think of it, the cops and Stars outside probably knew that. I was pretty sure these guys had made that much clear to them. It made sense that they would want those people to know what a bad idea it was to try to break in here and stop this by force.

Or maybe I was just overthinking it. Either way, we knew where at least these hostages and one of the Fell-Touched were. Now we just had to figure out what to do about that, if anything. We had already dealt with one group that came down here. Was it a good idea to just sit tight now or not?

While I was still trying to decide the best move, a voice came over the radios on both of their hips. I hadn’t heard it much, but still recognized it as Theory. “Has anyone heard from Banneret? She’s not picking up on our channel.”

The rest of us exchanged quick looks before Sierra pivoted and grabbed one of the radios from the pile of equipment on the floor. Holding it up, she spoke in a perfect imitation of Banneret’s voice. “Yeah, well, maybe you should try being on the right channel. It was supposed to be one zero four nine.”

There was a brief pause before the man’s voice came back with a sigh. “No, it was one three one five. How the hell did you get the wrong one?” 

“Whatever, why’re you bothering me right now?” Sierra replied as Banneret once more. “Don’t we all have jobs to do?” 

“Yeah,” came the response, “and I’ve gotta make sure you’re actually doing yours. So, what the hell’s going on down there? Did you find that tunnel or what? Part A of the plan is pointless if we don’t get enough attention with Part B. For that, we need the tunnel. Or we won’t have time for part C.” 

Injecting annoyance into her voice, Sierra retorted, “Yeah, we found it. And the chupapollas blocked it off. They sealed the tunnel with some sorta vault door. We’re working on it.” 

I had no idea what that word she’d said meant, or why she was saying it right now while trying to pose as Banneret. But I also couldn’t ask. Paige, clearly interpreting my body language, put a hand on my shoulder and nodded reassuringly. 

And boy, how much had my life changed when Paige Banners could do anything that reassured me? 

Fortunately, Theory didn’t seem to object or question that particular phrasing. He simply replied, “Hold there, I’ll send a couple down with one of the laser cutters we brought for Part C. They’ll get through it. Looks like the Stars are still regrouping outside, but you know how their type is. They’ll decide to breach sooner or later. I’d rather be onto the next phase by the time that happens.”

I tensed up a bit, but Sierra only hesitated for a second before replying, “Yeah whatever. Give my guys enough time and they’d find a way through this. But sure, if you’re worried about a few Stars, go ahead and send your little toy down here. Or maybe I’ll grab one of those hostages and try using their head as a battering ram.” 

The response was a little chuckle before the man signed off. Meanwhile, on the screen, the two guards in the courtroom were bantering with each other about which lawyer or judge they might send downstairs as a living battering ram if it came down to it. 

“What’s a chupapolla?” Peyton asked. “And how’d you know to say that?” 

“Let’s just say it’s a bad word,” Paige put in. “And we heard her use it twice while we were listening over the security cameras, so it was a safe call. But now they’re sending a couple guys with a big laser down, so what do we do?” 

“We let them bring it, then we take it from them,” I replied slowly, looking toward the stairs once more. “I think we can–” 

“Uh, Paintball!” That was Trevithick, blurting the words out fearfully as she pointed at the screen where the bee drone was still monitoring the courtroom. “Look!” 

We all did, just in time to see one of the hostages, a red-haired guy in a fancy suit, lying on the ground with one of the other Prev bad guys standing over him. The thug was breathing hard, a slight bruise forming under his eye, while the hostage’s nose looked like it was broken. Something had just happened. 

“You think you’re tough, huh?!” The Prev gang member snapped, aiming his gun at the man on the floor. “Cheap-shotting piece of shit, let’s see how tough you are with–” 

“No.” That was Fogwalker, jumping down from the judge’s stand to perch on the nearby railing. “You shoot him, he doesn’t learn anything. Neither does anyone else who wants to be a hero.” He looked around the room, a small smirk seeming to cross his feline face. “No, if you wanna really teach them a lesson, you hurt the ones they care about.” 

With that, he nodded to the blonde woman from before, who reached down and tugged a wallet out of the fallen man’s pocket. Opening it up, she held it out for the TONI to see while flipping through it. Fogwalker almost purred. “Nice pictures? These your kids? Oooh and a wife too. Excellent.” 

The man started to respond, but the blonde woman put a foot on his throat while taking out her radio. Tuning to some other channel, she held the radio out for her boss. The lynx immediately began to speak again. “Amos, Terrence, you guys still cruising out there? Need you to make a quick stop.” His head turned once more to look at the license his subordinate was holding up for him, reading off the address for Amos and Terrence. 

“Head over there right now and kill everyone you find in that house. Then burn it down.”

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Center Of Attention 26-07 (Summus Proelium)

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According to Sierra and Paige, we had a dozen members of the Trendscendents coming our way. Fortunately, almost all of them were the ordinary Prev-type soldiers. There were eleven of those, though heavily-armed and ready for trouble, and only one of the Touched. That was the good news, such as it was. The bad news was that the single Touched who was coming was Banneret, and she had already taken the time to put some boosts on her people. So even though they might not have had any powers of their own, they were still enhanced by hers. Which was just great.

But hey, if she could boost her friends, I could boost mine. Over the next few seconds, I quickly put plenty of paint on everyone as we got ready for what was about to happen.

The other bit of good news was that it didn’t sound like these guys actually knew what they were about to walk into. They were just checking every corner of the building and had found this basement. So they were exploring it. Paige said it seemed like they thought this might be a secret escape tunnel they could use to get out of here without running into any cops or Stars.

Boy were they in for a surprise. 

To get ready for their arrival, I silenced the door just in case before letting Paige go ahead and force it open. That would undoubtedly set off alarms, but I didn’t think anyone cared by that point. We were able to see out through the open doorway toward a room across from us that was probably identical to this one, aside from the fact that that door was already open. 

Oh, and there was one very important thing that hadn’t been here before. Covering the entire width of the corridor just past these rooms, was a heavy steel vault-like door. It was blocking the way down the tunnel toward the safe house we had come in through. 

“Security measure,” Paige noted quietly. “The authorities don’t want anyone getting out that way. Or starting a fight with the people in the house.”

Right, of course they’d have something like that. But could the good guys come in that way? I pondered that before shaking it off for the moment. The point was that there was no one in that other room across the hall from us. At least, there wasn’t anyone in it, until Calvin, Hobbes, and Style darted that way. The three of them crouched down behind the door on that side of the hall. 

What the hell was I doing? Murphy and Roald didn’t even have their Wren-tech guns with them. Fuck, why didn’t I put them in my special bag before we came in here? What was I thinking? That this place was safe and we wouldn’t need them? How stupid was I? And now I was actually going to let them try to fight these guys without those Touched-Tech weapons? This was stupid. Not to mention Wren. She was here too, and involving her seemed practically inexcusable.

And yet, what other choice did we have? There was no way in hell these people would listen if we just told them we weren’t fighting today. We had absolutely already pissed them off plenty at the park when we interrupted their mission. When they saw us here, and they would definitely check the rooms, there would be trouble. We just had to be as ready for that as we could.

But still, I could keep Wren as far out of the fight as possible. Which I did by telling her to stay in the corner of the room out of the way until her moment came. She kept trying to apologize for not having one thing or another ready yet, including more of the bags like I had or some system she was working on to instantly transport weapons and equipment around. Obviously, we all told her not to worry about it. She was already doing more than enough as it was, and she would still have a part to play in this situation. But I was pretty sure she still felt guilty. 

Boy, good thing I didn’t know anything about what that felt like.

After giving Trevithick one last glance to make sure she was safely out of the way and ready to do her thing when the time came, I left Poise and Alloy crouched by the first door and stepped out into the hall. It was about twelve feet wide, with a fifteen foot ceiling. The tunnel we’d come through to get here was fifty feet to my right, past more doors, and the open doorway leading to the stairs the gang members were already stampeding down was thirty feet to the left. 

Judging from the sound of those footsteps and voices, the bad guys were almost here. They would be within view any second. So, I activated black paint to silence myself while running that direction. On the way, I leaned down and trailed my finger along the floor, leaving large blue lettering with yellow outlines, feeding the latter into the former. 

Once I was three-quarters of the way there, I straightened up and used red paint to yank myself up to the ceiling right above the entrance from the stairwell. Thanks to my special boots, I was able to crouch against the wall there indefinitely. Just as our soon-to-be guests were coming around the final turn in the stairs, I covered the floor under me with more blue and yellow paint, making a semicircle shape that time, as though it was an intentional design on the floor. Then I glanced back at the letters I had drawn along the floor on my way. From here, they read ‘Proceed With Caution’ one letter at a time, with the P starting right at the edge of the semicircle I had just made, and the N just in front of the doors where the rest of my team were waiting. 

Then I waited. From here, I couldn’t see the others, just the doors that were slightly open with the darkened rooms beyond to make it look like there was no one down here. For a second, I glanced at the big steel vault door and wondered what was going on with Officer Metts and the others over there. 

Then I didn’t have time to wonder anymore. Because the bad guys were here. The first couple Prev troops came through carefully, weapons raised as they looked around them. But they didn’t look up. Nor did they seem to wonder about the blue and yellow tiles they were walking on. Really, they had this whole thing coming. 

I didn’t hit them right away though. I let them keep coming. One of them called over his shoulder while continuing through, “More office shit! Probably stick the peons down here to do research or something for the judges.” Belatedly, he added, “But there’s a vault door here too! Think we found that tunnel!” That set off a chorus of cheers amongst the others in the group, and I heard a few mutters about winning some sort of bet with some other group as more of them continued on through the doorway and began to move down that hall toward the door to check it out. 

Through all that, I waited as patiently as possible. I couldn’t make a move yet. The last thing I wanted to do was go too soon and end up with half these guys still in the stairwell where they could use the doorway for cover and start shooting. I had to wait until they all came through, even if it was incredibly nerve racking to just crouch here and hope no one thought to look up. 

Nine people were through, ten, a few had moved to the sides, off the area I had painted to check the corners of the room. Hell, they were so close to seeing me out of the corner of their eyes, but their focus was on the walls themselves, searching for, I supposed, any cops hiding within the completely open and clearly empty space there. 

Okay, to be fair, that wasn’t completely impossible with Touched-Tech and stuff. But still, you’d think they would–

“Oh shit!” 

Ah, there it was. One of the men who stepped over toward the corner of the hall had turned back to say something to his buddies, which gave him a clear view of me, crouched above them. His hand was already rising to point, which was better than if he had lifted the gun in his other hand. But either way, the time for waiting was over. 

By that point, all eleven of the Prev troops had come fully into the hall, with four of them already off the paint I had put down. The other seven were still at least partway on one of the letters or the semicircle. Including Banneret, who had just stepped through. Her head snapped straight up to look at me, following the line of sight of her minion. 

“Hi!” I called cheerfully, waving that way even as all those guns immediately started to swing up toward me. In that instant, I activated the paint. Instantly, those seven guys plus Banneret were launched off the floor. Only, of course, they were launched slowly. It kept them in the air longer while also slowing their movements down to about half speed right as they were trying to bring their weapons in line with me.  

Unfortunately, that left a couple problems. First, the guys who weren’t on the paint obviously weren’t affected at all. And second, there was Banneret. Oh sure, she was slowly rising through the air, right toward me, actually. But she also had about a dozen guns floating around her, and those were all suddenly pointed my way just as they opened fire. 

Or at least, they were pointed where I had been a second earlier. I’d already activated green paint on my shoes, catapulting myself off the wall and away from the incoming bullets. On the way, I managed to blurt, “Lemme guess, you’re having trouble with this escape room too!” 

While still flying down the corridor thanks to that paint, I pointed back the way I’d come with both hands, sending a shot of red from one and a shot of purple from the other. Both hit Banneret. Flipping over, I landed on the floor near the vault door, skidding backwards a bit on the tile from my momentum. At the same time, I held my hand up, revealing the purple-red combination paint on my glove as I activated both that and the same mix I’d hit Banneret with. She had still been floating, but now she was immediately yanked toward me. The purple boosted the strength of the red’s pull, yanking her straight toward me until I canceled both that and the yellow-blue effect, allowing her to drop just a few feet away from me. 

She probably would’ve liked to lunge at me right then. But the second her feet touched the floor, two things happened. Or rather, two doors opened, the ones on either side of her, where the others were. Alloy and Poise came out of the left door, facing the still-recovering Banneret. Meanwhile, Calvin, Hobbes, and Style came through the other door. But they didn’t turn our way. Instead, they immediately pivoted to head back down the corridor toward where I had left the rest of those guys. The second I laid eyes on those three, I activated the orange, purple, and green paints I had given them. 

As soon as they had taken just a couple steps that way, Alloy made her white, gold, and black marbles combine together into a literal wall. It wasn’t very thick, but it covered the entire space from floor to ceiling and out to either wall. The silver marble transformed into a large hammer and hovered there in front of her, while she continued to use the purple and bronze marbles as her suit (it made her look like a ninja, with purple as the base and bronze padding). 

Poise, right beside her, had produced two knives from somewhere and had one held out the normal way while the other was backwards. Both were raised and ready for any move the Fell-Touched woman made. 

And just like that, we had cut her off from basically all of her resources and aid. The guns she had put under her control and her minions were both back on the other side of the wall, where she couldn’t see to direct them, and they couldn’t get through to help her. That was the whole point of this plan: ambush them before they knew what was happening, then drag the main threat and force multiplier down here, separating her from everyone she had empowered and the weapons she was controlling.

This was the major reason I felt so guilty about the Murphy and Roald situation. They barely had any training and no special guns, and I was sending them into the other side of the hall with a bunch of armed and pissed off bad guys, who were going to be rather intent on going through them and finding a way past this wall. The biggest advantage they had was Style, who was almost certainly enough of a badass to handle ordinary guys. But those weren’t ordinary guys, they had been boosted by Banneret and we didn’t know if she needed line of sight to keep those boosts active once they were placed. 

I just had to hope that between Style and the boosts I had given my people, the trio could deal with those guys for a bit. Banneret was the one we really had to deal with, and right now while she was cut off like this was our best (possibly only) chance. 

All of that, and my associated doubts had been playing through my mind ever since we came up with the plan. But now we were in the thick of it, and I shoved them down hard while addressing the woman right in front of me. “Yeah see, like I said, we’ve been trying to beat this escape room for practically the full hour now, but the puzzles are ridiculous. I swear, you practically need a law degree to figure this place out.” My voice adopted an even more cheerful tone. “You wanna team up?” 

Apparently, the answer was no, because the woman extended her arms to either side, pointing toward Paige and Peyton with one and me with the other. A very slight humming sound was the only other warning we had before a pair of concussive blasts, like the ones from the bracelets and guns that Theory and Praxis used, shot out. 

Thankfully, we didn’t need much of a warning. Honestly, at this point, if an obvious bad guy like that pointed at you, it was probably a good idea to hit the dirt just in case. Who knew what sort of power or tech they had? 

In my case, I used renewed blue paint on my shoes to launch myself upward toward the ceiling so the blast could pass by underneath me. Paige and Peyton, meanwhile, dove to either side and let it go between them. It hit the marble wall, which held, fortunately. But we couldn’t let her do too much of that or we’d risk losing the biggest advantage we’d been able to set up with this ambush. 

Even as I bounced off the ceiling, I was sending two shots of paint toward the woman. One was red, which I used to pull myself toward her, while the other was yellow to slow her down so she couldn’t easily grab me and use her power to make me slower or weaker or whatever. There was an advantage to being able to debuff from a range. Inverting in the air, I managed to slam both feet into her shoulders, knocking the woman over to land hard on her back. Going down with her, I rolled over Banneret’s head. Her hands grasped for me, but the yellow paint slowed her down just enough that I was able to get out of her reach. 

Meanwhile, Poise took advantage of the woman’s extended hands as she tried to grab me, throwing those two knives with expert precision. Each cut through something on Banneret’s armored wrists, sending a spray of sparks out. The weapons she had just used to send those concussive blasts at us. She wouldn’t be doing that again any time soon. 

While she was still reacting to that (which involved sputtered cursing), Alloy sent her remaining marble, the silver one, flying that way in its hammer form. The woman flinched just slightly, but Peyton wasn’t hitting her with it. Instead, the marble transformed into a pair of shackles, attaching themselves to Banneret’s wrists while her arms were still extended over her head as she lay on her back from me knocking her over. 

As soon as her wrists were secured, the marble-shackles hoisted her up. At the same time, Poise grabbed her feet. Then she and the marble worked together to quickly carry the struggling, cursing, wildly threatening woman straight through the open doorway into the room where we had been having our whole meeting not so long ago. 

Trevithick was there waiting. The second the other two got Banneret into the room, she ran up with her flightpack held in both hands. The marble-shackles hoisted the woman upright while Poise released her legs. But before she could get her feet under herself and react properly, Wren stuck the pack up against her back. It latched on immediately, the wings extending to fly her up halfway to the ceiling. 

And now she was stuck like that. The flightpack kept her off the floor so she couldn’t get any leverage or go anywhere because it would only listen to Wren’s orders. And the silver marble in its shackles form kept the woman’s hands extended outward so she couldn’t reach around to touch the flightpack and control it. 

We’d done it. The crazy plan worked. We had separated Banneret from her troops and put her in a position where she couldn’t use her power on anything. Now we just had to hope the others had–

Oh shit, the others! All of us had the same thought, exchanging glances. “Watch her!” I shouted toward Wren and Alloy. Sure, we believed she was safe now, but we weren’t taking stupid chances. They would keep an eye on the woman. Meanwhile, Poise and I sprinted out of the room and raced for the marble wall, which split apart so we could pass through as Alloy poked her head out to watch us go. 

The two of us made it to the other end of the hall just in time to see Style hurl what appeared to be the last of the Prev troops into the wall hard enough to make him bounce off it and fall to the floor with a groan of pain. Nor was he the only one making that sound. All eleven of them were lying in various states of ‘I have no desire to do anything aside from lay here and contemplate my life choices.’ 

Calvin and Hobbes were down too, but not in pain. They both just seemed exhausted, lying side by side on their backs where they had apparently slumped down to breathe hard. When they saw us arrive, both looked up, Murphy speaking through several long, deep breaths. “So… are… we winning?

“And if so… can we call for a five minute timeout?” 

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Center Of Attention 26-06 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There was a non-canon for this story (sort of, it’s a pretty big crossover with the setting of Heretical Edge) posted a few days ago right here

When we got to the neighborhood near the courthouse, I showed the others where the right building was. According to Paige, several of the other nearby houses and buildings were either empty, or used as anonymous safe houses, homes for people with the authority to know about this place, that sort of thing. And they had cops whose job it was to ensure no one was lurking around for too long. As well as a few other measures, all of which was meant to make it even harder for anyone to notice the Touched who went in and out of the place. 

I was pretty sure that also meant the small camera above the door was unnecessary, given how many other people we undoubtedly had watching us the entire time we were in the neighborhood. But it was probably mostly for show. Or to give the person at the door somewhere to look when whoever was inside spoke to them over the intercom if they didn’t open it immediately. 

Either way, I showed everyone how to get to the building, then reached out and knocked. “Okay everybody, wave and try not to look like Fell-Touched impersonators.” I informed them before raising my hand to do just that for the camera. I even painted a big smiley face on my helmet. There was a slight pause before the door opened, revealing my old friend, Officer Metts, the guy I’d met the first time I came here to drop off the detainment paperwork for that whole Ashton situation. Upon seeing me, the man raised an eyebrow. “My, you’ve been busy, haven’t you?” 

“Yeah well,” I replied, “I figured out there’s less work to do when I have more people to help.”

“Not to mention more targets for the enemies to shoot at,” Style put in. She casually evaded my attempt to step on her foot while adding, “I’m surprised he doesn’t make us wear bullseye costumes, really.” 

Trevithick, wearing that costume consisting of the black bodysuit, bright pink armored panels over the chest, arms, and legs, and a matching black helmet with pink visor, bounced up and down excitedly. “I could make matching costumes like that!” Her voice made it decidedly unclear if she was kidding or not.

Flushing a bit behind the helmet and mask, I shook my head, “Uh, thanks, I think we’ll find another way to show team unity.” To Style, I added, “And sure, because I definitely don’t make a big enough target of myself as it is. That’s me, always keeping my head down and avoiding any trouble.”

Snorting at us, Officer Metts gestured. “Okay, I still need your leader here to demonstrate his power so we can prove it’s really him. Then he takes responsibility for the rest of you being who you say you are. It’s faster than making all of you demonstrate, and I’m pretty sure you aren’t all Touched anyway.” He added that last bit slyly, clearly curious if we’d confirm or deny anything. 

Of course, we did nothing of the sort. I demonstrated my power, and Alloy showed off her transforming marbles as well just to add to the evidence. The officer accepted that and stepped aside so we could go in. Soon, we were led through the building and down the stairs to the tunnel. Officer Metts waved and then headed back upstairs while we went through the tunnel to meet the guy at the other end, who let us into the basement of the courthouse.

From there, we sat in a few different rooms, being moved around into different combinations as well as sitting by ourselves now and then, all while giving depositions about everything that had happened throughout the past little while. We had already planned out exactly how to talk about that stuff, as well as what we weren’t going to talk about. I knew it was incredibly unlikely that they would suddenly start asking about the Ministry or the Breakwater situation. The idea that my parents would ambush us with something like that wasn’t completely impossible, however, so we had practiced what to do if anything like that happened. The only person I was maybe a little worried about was Wren, just because she was so young. I’d already told her what to do if they pushed her too hard while she was by herself. She was just supposed to shut down and tell them that she wanted Poise or me to be with her. She had that right. Technically we all had the right to leave or refuse to answer whenever we wanted. But as an obvious child, they were on even stricter rules with her. As a Touched involved in this sort of thing, she could voluntarily come in and discuss these things. But the moment she said she didn’t want to talk about it anymore, or that she wanted one of her older teammates to be there, they had to acquiesce. 

But nothing like that happened. The whole thing went pretty smoothly, aside from a couple defense lawyers who pressed us on a few different points. They didn’t really seem to get anywhere, however, and it was all done before long. I had the impression that most of the people involved were just going through the motions and wanted to get done with it as soon as possible. They also kept checking their phones as well as whispering to one another in the hallways. I heard Flea and Trivial’s names come up a couple times, so it was obvious what they were distracted by. There didn’t seem to be any news yet. They, like the rest of us, were simply hanging on the edge of their seats, waiting to see what happened. 

Everything seemed completely fine to me, even somewhat boring, really. Until we started to leave the main conference room. After the last bit of testimony, there was a sudden, sharp, chiming sound that made me jump. The armed bailiff guy held up a hand and asked us to wait a minute, adding that something was going on in the courthouse. Then he escorted the two lawyers, stenographer, and judge out into the hall. The door shut behind them, and we all looked at one another as the alarm went quiet. Obviously, I had the sudden, somewhat paranoid thought that this was some sort of trick. Maybe my parents really were trying something after all. This did seem a little bit obvious, but honestly, it wouldn’t be that hard. The only people we knew had heard that alarm besides ourselves were two lawyers and a few court people. It wouldn’t have been hard for the Ministry to have those few people in their pockets.

Still, I didn’t actually think it was them. It didn’t seem right. But I didn’t say anything. At least not until Paige and Sierra both turned back to us and nodded. “We’re good,” Paige announced. “The security system here is just going to think we’re standing around talking about what that alarm could be.” 

“It’s not the cheapest system in the world,” Sierra added idly. “I mean, I don’t think I would’ve been able to get through it on my own with the primitive-ass hardware my new orb is made of.” 

Rolling her eyes, Paige put in, “Oh stop complaining. It’s not that far behind. You’re more advanced than any of Dad’s other work. It’s pretty obvious that body was one of the last things he put together. Besides, I’m sure Trevithick could–” 

“Nuh uh.” That was Wren, head shaking rapidly. “I’m not gonna mess with those things until you guys find an intact one, or like, several so I can mess around with them without, uh, you know…” She shifted uncomfortably. “Without breaking you. I want some orbs I can play with and take apart so I can see how they work.” 

“Thanks, kid,” Sierra replied while giving her a thumbs up. “Glad to hear you don’t wanna break me. If we can find some more of dear old Dad’s toys for you to tinker with, maybe we’ll see if you can make any improvements.” 

Wincing a bit, I raised a hand. “I know you guys say it’s safe and all that, but can we just not talk about any of that stuff while we’re in this place, please? Now what’s going on out there?” 

Murphy, standing near the door, offered a shrug. “I can’t hear a damn thing out there. Pretty sure they made this place soundproof on purpose. Probably every room down here, just so they can gossip in the hall and not let the rest of us hear any of it. Assholes.” 

Paige shook her head, focusing on me as she explained, “It looks like there’s some sort of attack going on in the courthouse. Some of those guys you helped catch at the park the other day, they’re here for arraignments and their gang showed up to rescue them.” 

That made me do a double-take. “Wait, you mean like, Janus and the rest of that group? Wait, what the hell does that gang call themselves anyway? I forgot to ask when we were all punching each other in the face.” 

“Trendscendents.” That was Roald, actually. He shrugged when we looked that way. “You know, like transcendence and trend put together. I was, um, you know, curious after all that. They were called the Trendscendents in their old city and I guess they kept the name after moving here.” 

“That is a stupid fucking name,” Sierra noted. “But fine, whatever. The Trendscendents are attacking the courthouse to save the rest of their people. And yeah, that means the Touched people too, if you’re that eager for round two.” 

“I don’t think it matters how eager I am,” I pointed out while gesturing to the door. “Something tells me that thing isn’t exactly gonna be easy to open if we tried. And if the court house is under attack, they probably wouldn’t react that well to us breaking out of here, even if we’re trying to help.” 

Peyton started to say something, but Paige interrupted. “That bailiff is coming back, maybe he’ll ask for help.” 

Sure enough, after another second or two, the door opened and the uniformed guy stepped in. “Ah, apologies, we’re having a bit of a situation in the courthouse.” 

“We–” Catching myself before I would have given too much away, I amended what I had been about to say. “We can help get people out if there’s a fire or something.” 

Wren caught on immediately and piped up, “Yeah, we’re really good at saving people like that! I mean, theoretically, you know? Fires, floods, gas leaks, or if there’s some old guy who won’t shut up and thinks everyone wants to hear his opinion about something that doesn’t actually affect him. Those guys are the worst.”

As I was giving the younger girl a look for that odd, seemingly rehearsed statement, Murphy and Sierra both snickered a little behind me. Oh, of course it was them. When had they planned that

The man paused briefly before shaking his head. “I don’t wanna just leave you in the dark. It’s not a fire, or a flood, or… anything like that. There’s some people attacking the courthouse. And yeah, I’m sure you’d love to help. But it’s against protocol. Y’all need to stay here and wait. We’ve got plenty of help already as it is, with more on the way. There’s just… security measures to keep in mind.” He visibly grimaced. “Might not be what you wanna hear, but it’s the rules. You stay in this place and wait for the all-clear. I’ll come back and check on ya soon enough.” 

Before any of us could say anything, he offered another apology and stepped out, pushing the door closed behind him. It wasn’t surprising, obviously, but still. The idea that there were bad guys right upstairs in the rest of the courthouse and we were just supposed to sit here and wait was… uncomfortable, to say the least. Especially when those bad guys were the very people we had all just helped fight a few days earlier. 

“Can you see what’s going on up there?” I quickly asked Paige as soon as she gave the signal that they had once again stopped the security system from observing and recording us. “How bad is it?” I was really hoping that this whole thing was already all-but over and that the bad guys would be handled without anyone else getting hurt. I didn’t actually believe that was possible, but I still hoped. 

Unsurprisingly, however, Paige shook her head. “We don’t have the full picture. They keep destroying the cameras up there or just blocking them. But from what I can see, it’s nowhere near being under control yet.” 

“That’s for sure,” Sierra added. “I mean don’t get me wrong, looks like they’ve got some solid Touched-Tech defenses up there, but things are still pretty wild. If you were seeing what we’re seeing, uhh, well you’d probably want to find a way out of this room to get up there even more than you already do.” 

“They had to know this was a possibility, right?” That was Peyton. “I mean, the courthouse has to be one of the biggest targets every day, let alone when they’ve got a bunch of gang members here who just got picked up a couple days ago. You’d think they’d have extra security. Like, some big guns just to make sure everything went smoothly. Unless they–wait this is the Ministry again, isn’t it?”

Everyone looked at me, and I grimaced behind my costume. I still didn’t want to talk about this stuff here. But Paige insisted it was safe. They couldn’t overhear us on the security system. Which, to be fair, if she had been wrong about that, we all would’ve been fucked back when she and Amber took me down into that special room in the school’s basement to train. If Paige said she had control of the system and no one could use it to spy on us, I had to take her word for it. Even if it did make me incredibly uncomfortable. And I still wasn’t going to say anything that could potentially give away my identity. 

All of that ran through my head before I nodded. “You’re probably right. I mean, they did make a deal with this gang to help them with that Inessa situation. Setting up a scenario where they could break out the ones who got captured doing that is… probably fair, as far as they’re concerned.”

Even as I said that, I was straining to listen, trying to hear some evidence of what was apparently an intense fight going on. But Murphy was right, we couldn’t pick up anything beyond the door. They had gone through a lot of trouble to make this place soundproof. Honestly, a big part of that was probably for the opposite reason. They didn’t want people in the hall to be able to hear depositions being given by people with secret identities. Then again, there were multiple rooms like this, so maybe it was just as much about making sure people in one of them couldn’t overhear what was being said in one of the others. 

Whatever the reasoning, it did its job, and we were stuck here waiting in silence. Well, most of us were. Paige and Sierra could keep track of what was going on, and for a moment I envied them. Then I thought about the father they had to deal with and decided I didn’t envy them anymore. My own family situation was weird and complicated enough, but at least I knew my parents loved me. 

None of that mattered right now, however. What mattered was dealing with what was happening upstairs. According to our resident two Biolems, every Touched member of that gang (the… Trendscendents) was here. They were all fighting up there while we just sat here. Damn it, why couldn’t that bailiff just let us out so we could help? Protocol or not, damn that, and damn the rules, we could be in there, helping to make sure those guys didn’t escape. After all, we were a big part of the reason they had been arrested in the first place. Yes, yes, we weren’t cleared through their security measures and could end up being targeted by them too. Logically, I knew all that. But it didn’t help me feel any less anxious and annoyed about this whole thing.

Pushing all that out of my mind, with some effort, I focused on what we could affect right now. Namely, planning what to do if that fight made it all the way down here. Rules or not, if those guys came to this room and picked a fight, we were going to show them one. Unfortunately, I couldn’t decide if I actually wanted that to happen so I’d have an excuse to get involved or not. 

So, we talked quickly about what the Touched on their side were capable of, how their Prev troops seemed to act the other day at the park, and how we could possibly counter them. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot to say on that point. We hadn’t had time to create any big new strategies or countermeasures. Give Wren equipment, tools, and time, and I was sure she could come up with something good. But it had only been a couple days since we first found out half these people existed. We needed more time to put something real together. At the very least, however, we could talk it out a bit. Besides, it gave us something to focus on besides just waiting for Paige and Sierra to tell us whether the situation was resolved or if we had trouble coming our way. 

In the midst of that, however, Sierra cocked her head to the side. “Well that’s odd,” she murmured. “Isn’t it?” 

Paige frowned. “Yeah, definitely weird.” 

“What?” Murphy blurted. “What’s so weird? Is Janus wearing a tutu? Please tell me Janus is wearing a tutu. Are wearing? I’m not sure what the right word would be. But tell me a tutu is involved.” 

“Please stop saying tutu,” I pleaded before focusing on the Biolem girls. “But she’s right, what’s happening?” 

The two of them glanced at one another before Paige answered. “The Trendscendents aren’t the only Fell-Touched here right now. We only caught a glimpse of them before they broke the camera, but it looks like Pack and Broadway are here too, with a couple others I didn’t recognize. Just kids in ski masks. Whatever they’re doing here, they were headed for one of the archive rooms, with the paper files.” 

That news made me blink in confusion. “Wait, what’re they doing–” 

As I was in the midst of questioning that, the lights in the room went out. We were plunged into darkness. Just as Sierra put in, “Uh, I don’t know how to tell you guys this, but we’ve got bad guys coming our way after all. 

“Things are about to get pretty violent.” 

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Center Of Attention 26-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Over the next couple of days, people got louder and more insistent about wanting to see Flea and Trivial come back from Breakwater. Not just people in Detroit, but all over. The story about two Touched going onto that island to save a missing woman had worldwide attention. Not only did the mayor of Detroit and governor of Michigan put out public statements urging their safe and timely return, but the president of the whole United States did too. That congressional inquiry was proceeding along, with several representatives on multiple sides of the political spectrum giving soundbites about it. So did my father, both as himself and as Silversmith. It was a whole thing. Flea and Trivial were both made out to be a couple of the biggest heroes around. The news played various clips from across both of their careers, including Flea as one of the first Minority members way back when the whole Touched situation was just getting off the ground.

Needless to say, the more this went on and the bigger it became, the more nervous I was about it potentially blowing up in our faces. We had known it would be a big deal. That was the whole point after all, we had to make it loud and public enough that the people behind Breakwater couldn’t just sweep it under the rug and ignore it. But this was even more than I had expected. If anyone found out we were the ones responsible for it, I didn’t know what would happen. 

Breakwater, of course, had already officially acknowledged that the two were there and that they had safely recovered the missing civilian woman (who would remain ‘anonymous’) from the island. According to those people, the three were simply being examined to make certain they were safe. As public voices grew louder about wanting to see them back where they belonged, Breakwater put out another statement basically saying they would be on the next available plane and would touch down here in Detroit on Friday afternoon. Then they would be able to answer questions and show everyone they were safe.

At the moment, it was Thursday, two full days after Peyton and I had done that whole thing with the homeless camp. The past couple days had been spent mostly helping to keep Paige and Sierra from totally losing their minds while we all waited. There had been a couple more calls from their dad, but we ignored them. None of us wanted to deal with him right now. 

A lot of the job of distracting them came down to training. Not just with my new paint combinations, but all of us doing more to learn how to protect ourselves. The two of them really threw themselves into that whole thing, making us spend hours every day getting our butts kicked and stretching our muscles both in virtual reality and in real life. They insisted that it was more important to train and to be ready than it was to be out on the street right at that moment. Sierra in particular took great pleasure in describing all the ways she could think of that we could end up hurt or crippled. Paige, on the other hand, took the tack of explaining just how bad we would feel if we went out to help people and ended up making things worse. So, for those couple days, we mostly stayed inside and worked on that whole training thing. Though we did keep an eye on local social media in case something big happened. But, for the most part, the city was quiet through those days. It was like all the gangs were collectively taking a breath and evaluating their next moves. 

Finally, on Thursday afternoon, we had something other than training planned. It was time for me to take my whole team in to do the court deposition things. I had called ahead to set up an appointment for that, so they knew we were coming. Obviously, I was nervous about how that would go. Not that I expected anything bad to happen, and yet. We would all be in the underground court place giving our depositions and talking to the lawyers for all the people we had fought against. I had no idea how that was going to go. Especially considering I had only done it myself once before. If the lawyers pushed Murphy or Sierra too much about one thing or another, I had no idea how they would react. Murphy in particular was still getting through her emotions about her brother’s death, and I really could not imagine how she would react if any lawyer for one of Luciano’s thugs pressured her on what had happened with them. It probably wouldn’t be pretty, that was for sure. I had warned her that the subject might come up, but still.

But all of that would be settled later. At the moment, I was still in school. It was right before my last class of the day, and I was exchanging books from my bag to the locker. As I grabbed the last book I needed from the shelf, a voice spoke up behind me. “Cassidy Evans?” 

Glancing over my shoulder, I saw a familiar Asian face, though one I hadn’t expected to see around this place. “Maki?” Turning fully, I blinked that way and closed my locker with one foot. “What’re you doing here? I mean, not that you’re not allowed to be here, I just–I thought you were homeschooled or whatever.” Okay, I really had to stop talking right then, or I might just accidentally blurt out something about them changing sexes randomly and that would be hard to explain knowing about. Even if I was incredibly curious about how that worked. 

Maki, for their part, offered an easy smile. “Oh, I am. My parents rather insist on it, particularly given how much we move around. But there are certain subjects even they are not as versed in as they wish to be, so I tend to come to one school or another for extra tutoring during a teacher’s free hour. They are compensated quite well for it. Which I would normally say the teachers compensate for their criminally low regular pay, but from what Tomas says, this school is an exception to that rule.” 

Coughing slightly, I nodded. “Yeah, we’re a private academy so the teachers are pretty, ahhhh, well-compensated already, I guess.” I ignored the fact that my parents were one of the biggest reasons for that, along with my own question of how many of the staff around here were spying for them in one way or another. It was a bad idea to get into that line of thought around anyone, let alone a near-stranger whom I knew had some sort of Touched powers that I didn’t understand. 

Granted, it was unlikely that ‘shapeshifting sex and maybe possibly making things taste really good’ would translate into being able to magically know what I was thinking about, but I was pretty sure weirder things had happened. And I still had no idea how those two things worked together. 

Yeah, this whole situation and things like it would sure be a hell of a lot easier if I could just come out and ask people what I wanted to know. Come to think of it, that would solve a lot of my issues. Granted, it would almost certainly create even more, but it was still somewhat tempting. 

If they noticed anything weird about my expression, Maki didn’t comment on it. Instead, they replied, “They do seem happier here than in other schools I have seen.” They give me a curious look then. “Do you mind if I ask you a rather personal question? You are free to simply tell me that it’s none of my business if you don’t wish to answer.” 

“I uhh, sure, go ahead.” Shrugging, I added, “I’ll do my best, but no promises that any answer I give will actually be worth anything. You know, even if I do feel comfortable with it.”

Giving a nod of acceptance of that, they asked, “I know that the only reason you and Tomas broke up was his move back to England. But do you still have feelings for him? I mean, feelings you wish to pursue, if I was not in the picture.” 

Ohhhh boy. Couldn’t they just ask me if I knew anything about this big criminal organization known as the Ministry, or if I had ever seen these biological robot things around, or something easier to get into like that? This was so much harder to think about than those things. 

Blanching when they saw the expression on my face, Maki quickly held up a hand. “Don’t worry, forget about it. You don’t have to answer. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot or cause any problems. Pretend I didn’t say anything, it’s–” 

“No, it’s okay,” I interrupted before glancing around. Not for the first time, I was glad my school wasn’t exactly super-crowded. Even though we were between classes right now, there weren’t too many people near enough to overhear this whole personal conversation. “Believe me, I get why you were asking. I do. I’d probably wonder about it too if I was in your situation. I just–” Taking a deep breath, I pushed on. “If he hadn’t moved, I think we’d still be together. I like him a lot. He’s fun and talented, and all those things you already know. But he did move. And because he was gone, we broke up. Now he’s with you. And I know he likes you. You two are together, that’s what matters. Not what it is. He’s with you, and I’m happy for both of you. Trust me, I just…” A sigh escaped me. “I don’t really have time for that sort of thing right now anyway.” 

“You don’t?” Maki blinked. “Your friend, ah, San Francisco, he made me believe that you were actively looking for someone to go out with.” 

“He did wh–” Catching myself, I felt my face flush a bit. “Yeah well, San tends to read into things that aren’t there. And he has a bit of a one track mind sometimes. Trust me, I’ve got plenty of stuff to keep me busy. You know, schoolwork and… just trying to stay on top of things.” It was a lame response, I knew immediately. But what was I supposed to do, tell them most of my free time went into either being a Star-Touched or training to become a better one? 

Shoving those thoughts out of my head, I forced myself to continue. “And I’m definitely not looking to get back with Tomas, I swear. You guys are cool together.” 

Maki started to say something else, but the bell rang. They looked up before turning their attention back to me. “Thank you, Miss–I mean Cassidy. I am very sorry for putting you on the spot. I just thought it was best to be open about these things.” 

“Oh no, sure, yeah, no problem.” Realizing I was babbling, I flushed a bit before stepping away from the locker. “I get it. And hey, good luck with your whole tutoring thing. I’m sure you’ll be perfect at it.” 

I turned to head to my own class then, but not before seeing the weird way Maki’s head snapped around to stare at me in what looked like disbelief and uncertainty. 

Was it something I said? 


“This is bullshit!” Those words were accompanied by a loud bang as Sierra punched the wall upstairs in Wren’s lab. She was dressed in a pair of long black slacks and a purple silk shirt with a black tie, her dyed blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. Even then, and with her having sunglasses on as well, I could still see the deep similarities between us. But I had no idea if that was just because I already knew we were physically identical. Nor did I know if that was really what I looked like when I was exasperated and angry. 

“Friday?” she continued. “If they already got them off that stupid island, why would it really take them until Friday to send them back here? It doesn’t take that long to get a plane over there. especially not with the sort of pressure they’re under. Official, government-level pressure.” Her expression tightened, as she took the sunglasses off and tucked them into the front pocket of the shirt. “They’re up to something, I just know it.” Her voice was dangerous, making it clear just how much she wanted to show her displeasure about the delay to the people responsible for it. 

Before responding to that, I glanced around. The others were all up here too, as we got ready to go deal with that court thing. Everyone was standing around, looking anxious. Understandable, really. Even if we didn’t have the depositions to do, there was the obvious Breakwater situation. Everyone else might not be as open about their feelings on the subject as Sierra was, but we were all feeling the pressure from the delay. Still, I was trying to remain optimistic. If nothing else, the others really needed me to. 

So, I took a breath before starting with, “Yeah, it’s possible they’re up to something. I wouldn’t really put it past them to be doing everything they can to cover their butts. But honestly, they already acknowledged that Flea and Trivial were there, and they claimed that they got them off the island. If those two disappear now, it’ll be a lot worse for Breakwater’s people. They already have all the attention on them. In the long run, it’s best if those two just show up back here in Detroit following the same story we gave them. That’s probably what they’re spending these couple days on, making sure they’re on the same page and that they’ll stick to the story. I mean, besides the whole medical evaluation thing, which they probably really are doing too. I mean, that’s an exotic island full of super villains who could be doing anything. It’s not really surprising that they’d need to go through a whole evaluation period.” 

Paige spoke up with clearly forced calmness, though I could hear the tension behind her voice too. “They’re probably also scouring the info we sent in, trying to figure out if it was someone in their own ranks who exposed the situation.”

Oh right, that made sense. I hadn’t even really thought about it that way, but yeah. Of course Breakwater would think it was one of their own people who had sent that information out, rather than it actually having come from here in Detroit. After all, their own people would be the ones who knew that Flea and Trivial were on the island. They probably thought that whoever it was had a soft heart or something and had simply made it look like the information came from here. It did make more sense from their perspective for it to be one of their own people. It was a thought that made me wince a little bit at the idea of what the employees there were probably going through as their bosses struggled to identify the leaker. 

“That’s probably part of the reason for the delay too,” Roald put in while raising his hand. “Maybe they want to see if they can figure out who was responsible for exposing the situation before they actually send them home.”  

Murphy snorted. “In that case, it’s gonna be a pretty long time before we see them.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, the girl visibly blanched and focused on Paige and Sierra. “I mean, shit, sorry. I didn’t mean to make it sound like–I mean… sorry.” 

Wren quickly piped up from where she was busy using her wrench on some big metal box-like thing she had been working on. “They’ll be home soon, I know they will. And they’ll bring your sister with! But uhh…” She looked up, pulling the goggles off her face to stare at Sierra in particular. “What’re you gonna tell her about… you?” 

“Hey, that’s a good question,” Peyton agreed. She popped up next to Wren, holding the box of tools the other girl kept asking for items from. “How are you gonna introduce yourself to her? Or explain any of–you know.” She gestured back and forth between the other girl and me. 

Sierra hesitated before shaking her head. “I’m not. I mean, I’m not gonna introduce myself. How could I? I’d have to get into that whole thing, all of it.“

“Would that be a bad thing?” I pointed out. “Seriously, she’s probably our best chance at getting an adult involved in this. We can be pretty damn sure she’s not involved in the Ministry herself by this point, and she’ll trust Paige.” 

“Will she?” Paige put in, shaking her head. “I’m the reason she ended up on Breakwater to begin with. Whatever she’s been through over there, whatever–” She stopped, giving a heavy sigh before pushing on. “Maybe she’ll want nothing to do with me. I just want to know she’s safe, and… and I don’t know. But if she wants me to leave her alone forever after all that, I’d completely understand.” Even as she said that, the girl glanced in my direction. I knew what she was thinking. She’d expected me to not want anything to do with her after years of being forced to treat me like shit. But that was the key point, she was forced to do that. Even if I still had some lingering uncertainty and emotional… issues with the whole thing, logically I knew it wasn’t her fault. 

“We’ll handle it,” I managed after taking a second to collect myself. “When she gets here, we’ll figure out how she’s feeling and… and all the rest of it. Then we’ll go from there. But for now–” As I said that, the alarm on my phone chimed, and I looked down to check. “Uh, right, for now, it’s time to go to court. You guys ready to head out?”

Raising his hand, Roald asked, “Is it too late to call in sick? Because I think I might ralph.” 

“Oh don’t worry,” I assured him, “I’m pretty sure that’s a normal feeling. But if it happens, do us all a favor and please don’t aim for the lawyers.  

“No matter how tempting it is.” 

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Center Of Attention 26-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Sierra wasn’t kidding. When Paige showed up, after a quick run-through of everything that had happened with my parents (if it was really them), she insisted we find a place to start testing my paint combination powers. We couldn’t really go back to the secret room in the school without drawing attention, so we went down to the store’s unfinished basement. Half of it was taken up by stacks of boxes that Wren swore she still needed to go through at some point, but the other half was basically an open room with cement floor and walls. It would work for some testing. 

Before getting into that, however, I focused on Paige. Sierra was down here too, along with Wren and Peyton. Fred was upstairs to deal with any customers who came in, though he made us promise to tell him what we found out, and show him anything ‘neat.’ Of course I told him that would take a while since everything I did was neat. 

Now, facing Paige, I asked, “Do you think my parents believed everything you were saying?”

She, in turn, shrugged. “Probably not all of it. At the very least they knew I was holding some things back and not telling them the whole story. The real question is whether they believed enough of it. And yeah, I think they did. At the very least, they don’t think I’m an immediate threat. I actually think they believe I could be useful.” 

That made me blink. “Useful? Because you could lead them to this mysterious group who contacted you for this whole thing?” 

She nodded. “That and because they want to recruit me.” 

Needless to say, that made me choke a little, while Sierra snickered in the background at my reaction. Finally, I stared at Paige. “You think my parents want to recruit you into the Ministry?” 

“Well they don’t want to recruit me to plan your birthday party next January,” she informed me with a tiny smile. “But yeah, they know I can lie to them. They know I’ve got some skill in manipulation and infiltration, since I stole those documents and managed to get away from them. You know, with Paintball’s help. They don’t know everything, not even a quarter of it. They definitely don’t know what I really am. But they know enough to think I could possibly make a decent early recruit. I wouldn’t be surprised if they reach out soon enough and try to make an offer. After waiting what they deem an appropriate amount of time from when they tried to kill me.” 

That was… yeah, that was a lot to take in. She had a point, of course. Naturally my parents would be looking for anyone they could recruit with the skills they needed. And even if they didn’t know anywhere close to the real story, Paige had demonstrated that sort of skill and she already knew about the Ministry. From what she’d told me about how she’d handled that whole situation, they probably also believed she was still malleable enough to be guided and trained the way they might want. 

So yeah, it made sense. But it still left me uncertain about exactly how I felt about that. I was worried about what would happen if my family paid too much attention to Paige (not that it was easy to avoid that given the whole Irelyn thing, to say nothing of them already knowing about her having Ministry information), and about everything that could come crashing down because of that if one of us said the wrong thing. And beyond that, I knew my family was aware that I didn’t really get along with Paige, to say the least. What would they do about that? Try to get us to work through our issues? That was an image that made me blanch. My family, trying to counsel Paige and me on how to get along so we could work together within their criminal enterprise.

Well we had been trying to figure out how we could get away with Paige and me hanging out without attracting suspicion. Wouldn’t it be convenient if my parents worked toward explaining that completely on their own? 

Yeah, that was going to be a whole thing, if it came up. Which would probably also mean that they would at least move closer to telling me what was going on. And boy oh boy was I looking forward to that just ever so much. I couldn’t wait to go through that and try to figure out how to react. If I said the wrong thing once they did reveal the Ministry to me, would they just erase my memory of the whole situation again? Would I know if they did? I still had no idea how to tell when that happened, or if there was any way to defend against it if you weren’t a Biolem like Paige. That Kent guy hadn’t seemed completely and utterly shocked beyond all belief by the fact that his power hadn’t worked on her, so maybe there was a way to resist? I wasn’t sure, nor did I know how we could go about testing it.

Shaking all that off for the moment, I focused on the issue at hand. “Well, if they do try to recruit you, make sure to hold out for a decent salary and benefits. You know my family can afford it.” 

Paige, who actually seemed a little nervous about how I would react to that, offered me a quick smile. “Yeah, for sure. I know what I’m worth, can’t take any lowball offers.” 

“I’d take a lowball offer,” Peyton put in while raising her hand. “But only because I’m pretty sure you guys have no real concept about what anything costs, so their idea of a lowball offer might just pay my entire way through university.” 

We all snickered at that, even Wren. It helped ease the mood a little, which was nice. Then we got into the actual testing. I had already shown them what I could do when it came to the paint combinations I used at the park, but now it was time to get into seeing what else I could do, and how exactly the combinations worked.

Clearly, whatever effect the main paint possessed remained the center of any combination, and was simply twisted or adjusted by the color I fed into it. When I’d added green to white, it sped up the effect and made the entire ten seconds worth of light go off in an instant, creating a blinding flash grenade. And when I had added green to red, it made the whole pulling thing happen much faster. I had been hauled incredibly quickly toward Uncle Friendly when I did that before. We tested it with a couple empty boxes down in the basement now, just to see for sure. Paige used a stopwatch app on her phone, and made me experiment with adding different amounts of red and green. In the end, it turned out that the more green I added into it, the faster the pulling happened. But the more red I used, the heavier the object that could be moved. And beyond that, the more green I added, the less time the red would pull and hold for. Adding too much green would move things very quickly, yet also detracted from the normal ten seconds that the pull should have lasted for normally, similar to the whole green with white thing. It was a balancing act. Beyond that, I also couldn’t feed more paint into something than the original color had. Any image I made had to be made of at least fifty-one percent of the base color and only up to forty-nine percent of whatever was fed into it. Which made sense, given it was supposed to be the base color, so if there was more of the other, it wouldn’t really make sense.

Anyway, it seemed like that same ‘speed up’ principle applied to green being added to other colors. Like when I had fed green paint into that blue circle to launch Fogwalker away from me at incredibly high speed. The green made the effect faster and stronger, but at the cost of lasting for less time. But how would that translate into powers that weren’t so easily ‘sped up?’ 

Under Paige’s direction, we tried orange with that. But of course, we needed a baseline for how much orange protected on its own. We used cardboard boxes, which Paige and Sierra took turns hitting, because they could be certain to use the exact same amount of force every time, and at regular intervals. Or they could simply apply a steady amount of pressure to the box the entire time the paint was active, so we knew exactly when the defense wore off. All of which meant we could get useful data. And the way Paige said ‘useful data’ was a little weird. Like me when I was talking about an awesome ramp. 

Between that system and a bit of ‘how much do you feel this poke, how about this one’ we were able to figure out that, by itself, the orange paint protected against something like ninety percent of the damage that would have been done, even at the smallest, most basic amount of paint. As long as it was a notable amount to begin with (more than just a speck of paint, it had to be something real), roughly ninety percent of the damage done would be negated. That increased by one percent for every added ten percent of the item in question that I covered with orange, up to a max of ninety-eight percent. Whatever I did, two percent of the damage would always get through. 

Once we had that baseline, we tried green mixed into orange, because we were all curious about what that would do. How would speeding up ‘being invulnerable’ actually help at all? 

As it turned out, the answer was closer to the white paint. Adding green into the orange made the invulnerability stronger for a shorter time. After a bit of testing, it seemed like for roughly every ten percent of a total image that was taken up with green instead of orange, the amount of time the defense lasted for was dropped by two seconds, but the amount of protection it provided was raised by two percent. 

Due to the limit of only making up to about forty-nine percent of an image green instead of orange, that meant I could, at most, raise the total protection ten percent. And doing so would decrease the orange defensive time from ten seconds down to essentially nothing, just a brief one second at most burst of protection. But that was where it got interesting. Because unlike orange paint by itself, which could only get up to ninety-eight percent protection no matter how much I added, with the maximum amount of green mixed in, that level of protection could get up to one hundred percent. Sure, it only lasted for an instant, but it would completely protect me or anyone else from all damage if I timed it right. 

Again, there was a balance to be struck with how much of the base paint I used versus how much of the other color I added into it. It wouldn’t be useful or practical all the time, but in a few specific cases… yeah, I could do something with that. 

Once we did that, Peyton brought up the question of what purple added to orange would do. If green already made the paint stronger at the cost of making it last for a shorter amount of time, what would the paint that was meant for increasing strength do?

The answer ended up being that it still raised the amount of defense, and without shortening the amount of time the orange paint lasted. But it only raised it by one percent for every ten percent of purple that was added to the orange, so it reached a max of ninety-five percent protection. That, of course, was something I could reach with just orange by itself. So maybe not every single paint combination was useful. I just had to find the ones that worked the best. Which was exactly what we were doing here. Paige wanted me to be prepared for whatever happened. 

Well, that and she was really anxious about what was going on with Irelyn and needed to distract herself. 

To that end, I looked toward Peyton. “You wanna see what happens with black and green?”

She gave me a look at that. “You mean do I want to be your guinea pig so you can hit me with that combination and see if anything weird happens?”

Grinning at her I gave a thumbs up. “See, you’re already on top of things. That’s the best partner slash lab rat.”

She rolled her eyes, but acquiesced. We had her start reading aloud from a random book that was in one of the boxes down here, while I put black paint across her back along with a strip of green and fed the latter into the former. Then we all watched while I activated it. 

“Andwhenwewalkedupthehilltherewereelevensoldiersin—“ The words all came out of the other girl in a nearly completely indecipherable rush that sounded like one of the cartoon Chipmunks talking very quickly. She stopped short after that, eyes widening as she looked back at us. Then she took a breath and tried again. But again, the words came out all together and high-pitched like that. She was visibly trying to slow her voice down, but it wouldn’t work. Not until the paint had worn off. 

Bouncing up and down, which in her case involved using her wing pack to reach the ceiling, Wren blurted, ”Ooh, I wanna try, I wanna try! Please can I try?!”

Of course I let her. We tried that a couple more times to the same result. It didn’t make the person physically faster, it just forced them to speak very quickly and somewhat squeakily. Anything that was affected by the paint would produce any sound much faster than it normally would have. I wasn’t exactly sure when or how that would be useful, but at least we knew what it did.

Then there was green with yellow, which brought anyone who was affected by it to a complete halt, expending the yellow’s entire charge, but only for that instant. It would stop someone, then immediately wear off. I could definitely see where that would be useful, and filed it away.

Green with purple was the same idea. It wore off immediately, but gave a very momentary incredible burst of strength. 

Then there was pink. If that one did anything, we couldn’t figure it out. Then again, it was hard to say what making something affected by pink faster could even look like. Suffice to say, it wasn’t terribly interesting at the moment. 

While we were at it, we also checked what would happen when I added purple paint to a couple other colors. It made red paint able to pull larger, heavier things and do more damage if they collided. It also made the glow from the white paint notably brighter. And it made both green and yellow stronger with their respective powers. Not as dramatic of an increase as green gave yellow, or purple for that matter, but it also didn’t wear off immediately. It was simply a boost.  

After the green with black incident, we naturally checked purple with black. How would it make muting things stronger? 

As it turned out, adding purple to black made the muting affect extend outward a bit from the thing that was painted. For every ten percent of a picture that I made purple, the effect extended in a two feet diameter circle. Again, only up to just under half of a picture could be the second color. So at most, I could make a circle that was ten feet in diameter where no sound could emerge. Now that would be very useful. 

We knew from my whole artificial stilts and whip-arms trick at the park that adding purple into pink made the stretchy bits stronger. But if going the other way around and adding pink to purple did anything, we couldn’t figure it out right then.

That was about as far as we got before I called a halt to the testing. It was already starting to get late, and I wanted to take a lap around the city to stretch my legs and check in on things. After all, we were supposed to be helping people, not just playing with my paint combinations.

Paige and Sierra stayed to help Wren get some other work done, but promised to join us if we found anything big. Meanwhile, Peyton and I took to the streets. We didn’t exactly find a big fight, but as we were making our way across the rooftops, I spotted what I initially thought was some sort of gang gathering in a field near a freeway overpass. It turned out to be a bunch of homeless people all camping out. As we watched them from a nearby building, I felt my stomach twist itself over. This, this was how we should have been helping the city. 

So, that was exactly what we did. Similar to that time when I had been by myself, the two of us went to a nearby store and bought a couple carts full of supplies. Which was going to attract attention, but it wasn’t like I could go there without my costume. If this situation got out and my parents checked the cameras of the store to see me buying a bunch of stuff that Paintball eventually gave the people out there, they might just be able to do the math.

And yes, there were still people in the store. It was barely before curfew, which had been extended to ten pm. Again, not out of any real connection to how dangerous it was, but because people couldn’t stand to be locked in that early. 

In any case, we attracted attention, and the two of us tried to play it off and joke around with the crowd as best as we could.

I bought every premade sandwich the store had, along with a dozen loaves of bread and peanut butter with honey. Then I bought various boxes of cookies, crackers, cans with easy pull-tops that had fruit or meat inside, anything I could find while we went through the store with a couple different grocery carts.

Needless to say, people wanted to know what we were doing. One even jokingly asked if we had turned to a life of crime and we’re going to steal all this stuff. So we just told them that we’d gotten anonymous donations so we were going to provide food for the homeless. A few people scoffed at that, but others actually donated money of their own, which I really wanted to tell them not to bother with, but had no idea how to do so. I couldn’t exactly tell them I was actually paying for all this myself without risking my identity.

By the time we left the store, we didn’t just have money donations. There were also a dozen other people with their own carts full of not just food, but other supplies. They went to the back of the store and got sleeping bags and blankets, as well as flashlights and lanterns. Seeing that, I bought a bunch of clothing that could be passed around as well. 

Together, our small army made our way back to that freeway overpass a couple blocks over. Peyton and I helped distribute everything, and hung out with the people there for a while. It was… interesting, considering how many wild stories the people had. Not that it was all fun and games. They definitely needed every bit of help they could get, but they were doing their best. And hopefully this stuff would help. 

When I asked one of the guys there if they were worried about the cops making them disperse or chasing them off, he informed me that the land they were on was owned by ‘those Evans people’ and that they… my family… had designated it and about half a dozen other places throughout the city as a safe place for them to set up homeless camps. They also had a few shelters and a couple apartment buildings set up to be temporary homes for people who were trying to get work and needed a place to get back on their feet while they waited for a solid paycheck. So they did help put roofs over peoples’ heads, but also had these bits of land where anyone could sleep without being harassed by the police. Apparently this was one of the newest places like that. Others had port-a-potties and a few other needed amenities. 

So my family did… all that. Yeah, I had a lot of thinking to do. Not that that was anything new. 

Eventually, the two of us slipped away and left together. We were back on that first building where we had seen them before, as I spoke in a low voice. “Sorry we didn’t get into any cool, dramatic superpowered showdowns.” 

Peyton, in turn, shrugged. “Meh. This was fine. In fact, it kind of feels like we should make this a regular thing, you know?”

Watching the people in the distance, I smiled to myself behind the mask and helmet. “You know what? I think you’re right. 

“This should definitely be a regular thing.”

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