Peyton Favors

Schooling 24-06 (Summus Proelium)

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The first place we found ourselves in once we had arrived within the virtual reality space just looked like an ordinary dojo. There were mirrors on every wall, and the floor was padded enough to be a little springy under our feet. Only after looking around for a minute did I notice what made this place not just a normal dojo, besides the obvious. There was no door. The whole thing was just this one room. We also appeared wearing simple shorts and tee shirts. Even now, knowing everyone here knew who I was, it still made me reflexively tense up to see myself in clothing that made me being a girl blatantly obvious. 

Okay, not that blatantly. I wasn’t exactly packing melons under my shirt. But still. It was clear that I was a girl, and that by itself was still an odd sensation for me. 

Seeing me looking around, Paige immediately realized what I was thinking and spoke up. “This way there’s no distractions. You know, random cars driving by, pedestrians, other buildings in view, whatever. We don’t need to make anything else except for this place. It means we can put more of our effort and energy toward the actual training. It felt like the best way to do this.”

“That is,” Sierra put in, “if you all think you can focus without feeling claustrophobic just because you’re in a room with no door.” After visibly considering that, she added, “Come to think of it, getting over distractions like that should probably be part of your training anyway, so yeah.” 

Murphy was grimacing as she slowly turned her head to look at every wall. “You know, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed if you guys hadn’t pointed it out.” She exchanged with Roald before adding, “But whatever, what I really want to know is… is this shit for real?!” After blurting that out, she patted down her own face, then poked Roald in both shoulders with a gasp before turning to the nearest wall. She ran that way, bouncing off the mirror before running her hands over it. Then she knelt down and punched the padded floor, staring at everything in complete wonder. “Seriously, is this place for real?!” Her gaze snapped from Paige and Sierra to me and then back again. “We really didn’t just teleport somewhere?” Belatedly, she made a face. “Not that that wouldn’t be fucking cool too, but like, I mean… this whole thing is all in our heads?”

Paige made a waving so-so motion with her hand. “Basically, yeah. The machine is projecting this into your minds from our orb-cores. That’s the really basic version. Anyway, your physical bodies are still out there just sitting in those chairs. But, as you can tell, your brain interprets what you should feel in here into actual sensation.” With that, she reached out to poke the girl in the forehead. “Up to a certain point,” she added quickly. “I mean, if you take too much pain, there’s a certain cut-off where it won’t let you feel it anymore. And you can’t really be physically injured. Otherwise there’s no point to doing this stuff in here instead of out in the real world.” 

Sierra quickly piped up with, “But you’ve got to feel some pain as we do this, or you won’t learn from it. You know what they say, no pain no gain. And we’ve really gotta make you gain a lot if we’re gonna keep helping Cassidy over there get through the shit she gets herself into.” 

Making an exaggerated harrumphing noise under my breath, I pulled myself up to my full (totally pathetic and inconsequential) height and squinted that way. “You know most of–some of–there are parts of that stuff that are absolutely not my fault. Besides, you say that as though you wouldn’t be incredibly bored out of your mind if you didn’t have all this stuff to help all of us deal with.”

Audibly snorting, my doppelgänger retorted, “If I thought you were all being boring, it’d be because you weren’t planning on doing something about dear old dad. And that would mean I’d be out of here so fast your heads would spin. Let’s just keep that in mind, huh? He’s a lying, traitorous piece of shit, and I don’t want my–I don’t want Irelyn or the others anywhere near him. But I know I can’t do this by myself.” She squirmed just a little, the admission of any weakness clearly making her uncomfortable before she pushed on. “I need help. I mean, we do.” Her gaze toward Paige briefly. “As fucking badass as we might be–and the answer to that is very, we still can’t just swim over there and take on everyone ourselves before ripping Dad’s head off and playing soccer with it. We need you people. Not just for the whole photoshopped blackmail plan, but in case we need to do more than that. And the only way you’re going to be able to really help us if shit goes down is with some actual training. You need to learn how to fight. So, are we gonna do this, or what?”

I shrugged despite myself. “You really didn’t have to talk me into it. I know what the stakes are, and yeah, we need some help. Even without this whole thing with Breakwater–which is super-important, don’t get me wrong. But even without that, stuff in the city is just getting more and more dangerous. Sure, I’ve been doing sort-of okay with the basic few self-defense lessons my parents made me get. I mean, that and my powers. But it’ll be nice to have something better to fall back on. Something tells me just expecting to fall back on luck all the time is gonna backfire sooner or later.” 

“Yeah!” Murphy immediately put in. “And some of us don’t have powers to rely on anyway.” 

Peyton, who had been quietly looking around the room while taking in everything we were saying, slowly nodded while turning back to us. There was a small smile on her face, as though she could barely contain herself. “Dude? We’re in a fucking virtual reality. I mean, sure, I was here before. But it wasn’t exactly–I didn’t get a chance to savor it that much. We were sorta busy. And now you’re talking about letting these badass ninja android girls teach us how to fight? I am all-in. All-fucking-in, okay? Let’s do this thing.” 

Smirking despite myself, I gestured to Paige and Sierra. “You heard the girl. We’re, ahem, all-fucking-in.” 

“Good to know,” Paige replied flatly, exchanging a look with her sister before turning back to us. That slowly spreading smile seemed somewhat serpentine. It was a vaguely dangerous look. A look that told me she was going to enjoy putting us through our paces. “In that case, everybody line up right here in the middle of the room. Give yourselves a few feet between each of you. 

“Time to start whipping you people into shape.” 

*******

There weren’t any actual whips involved, of course. Not yet, anyway. Though I was pretty sure Sierra might’ve been tempted. We weren’t even doing anything that intense to start out. Mostly because we started out covering very basic things. Stuff like how to make a fist, how to throw a very normal punch, how to hold your arm, how to position yourself, even how to breathe properly. They spent a decent amount of time just on that last part, teaching us to keep our breathing steady to get enough oxygen in the middle of a fight. It was all stuff I’d heard before, but going over it again didn’t hurt. Besides, the others needed to hear it. We had to get through the basic stuff like that before anyone would be ready to learn more. I was just glad Paige and Sierra weren’t moving too quickly on that. I’d been a little worried that they might jump straight into the advanced training, leaving Roald, Murphy, and Peyton (and let’s be honest, me) completely lost. But no, they were actually pretty good teachers. Which made me wonder if they’d been given programming for that, or just–yeah, I had no idea how that worked. Apparently Pittman had programmed their fighting ability into them, which was just confusing on another level. Did he know how to fight that well? Did he have someone else work on that programming and then add it? Did he just download a bunch of instruction manuals and videos into them? I–eh. It was confusing when I got right down to it. But either way, they knew how to fight and they knew how to teach the rest of us. 

As I had heard before, and as they reiterated when this whole instruction thing started, one of the biggest, most important things to do was to make these motions be instinctive. We needed to be able to do them immediately without thinking about it. We had to see the attack coming, or the opportunity for our own attack, and react instantly. Because, as Sierra put it, the moment we had to stop and think about what we were doing would be the moment we were either maimed or killed. She wasn’t the sort of person to sugarcoat things like that. She made the whole thing very blunt, standing right in front of Roald as she repeated the word killed while poking his chest hard enough to make the boy wince just a bit. 

So, we went through the motions as they taught us, straight from the simplest, most basic movements and positions. Once they had us to the point where we could all stand properly, make fists without looking stupid, and more importantly, without doing it in a way that could have broken our fingers the moment we hit anything, we… did that some more. But in this case, they made a game of it. Basically, they had us stand around talking to each other or watching a television screen they’d put up on the wall, or any number of other distracting things. Randomly and without warning, one of them would shout one of our names and tell us where the threat was coming from, using clock positions. We had to spin that way and get into a decent position to defend ourselves within a certain amount of time before they would set off a loud buzzer and say we were dead. 

They were lenient on how much time they allowed at first, but as the hours wore on, they grew less and less so. Eventually, they got to the point of throwing a ball at us immediately, as soon as they called out the threat. We had to spin that way and react to it, either dodging the attack or blocking before it hit us. In some ways, it was fun. Which, I was pretty sure, was the point. But it was also stressful, and definitely took a lot of practice. We all got hit with plenty of balls, enough that I was glad I wouldn’t be carrying any of these bruises out of this virtual reality with me. We might not have been going totally nuts on how we used this place just yet, but even that was incredibly helpful. Maybe I could’ve explained away any minor injuries from this sort of thing with some story about falling on my skates, but this was just easier in the long run. 

Plus, the fact that we were in virtual reality meant it took a lot longer to get tired. It was still there, in its own way. Learning things and actively using our brains like this wore us out too, but it took much more time. Which meant we could train for a lot longer than we would’ve been able to otherwise. Long enough, in fact, that I finally had to ask how long we had been doing this whole thing. Upon finding out how late it was, I insisted that we had to stop. I wanted to do a quick patrol to make sure nothing in the city was on fire before heading home, and it was already getting late enough that Murphy, Roald, and Peyton might end up with people wondering where they were. 

So, with promises that what we had just done was only the very beginning, we exited the program and found ourselves back in the real world. I groaned while picking myself up from the chair and staggered a bit. Plucking the visor and headphones off, I sighed and shook my head. To one side, Paige and Sierra were pulling themselves out of the machine, while the others were in the same position as me, staggering a few steps one way or the other while shaking off the weird feeling of having not moved at all for hours, despite what our brains thought. 

Fred was there, eating some of the leftover pizza while watching us with a raised eyebrow. “How’d it go with Sensei Morpheuses? Wait, would that be Senseis Morpheus? Morphesei? Wait–” 

Coughing, I gestured. “It’s good. I think ahh–I think this is gonna be a really important advantage. Especially once we get to the point of doing more than learning basic motions.” Before Paige and Sierra could say anything, I quickly added, “Not that that stuff isn’t important. I know, believe me. You have to learn how to walk before you can run. I’m just saying, once we get to the point where we can use that place like a real-world virtual reality training ground, and take advantage of the sort of scenarios we can run through… it’s gonna be big. Yeah, I’m pretty sure some other groups have their own virtual reality training rooms of one sort or another, but I don’t think it’s anything like ours. And, they won’t expect us to have it. Which means they won’t expect us to be able to train like this.” 

“Being underestimated is a big deal,” Peyton chimed in while rubbing the back of her neck. “I really like being underestimated.” With those words, she added a smile that looked almost feral.

“Dude, as useful as you’ve been with those marbles, I don’t think people are gonna underestimate you any time soon,” Murphy pointed out. 

“That’s the point though,” Roald put in. “If everyone thinks she’s reliant on the marbles, they’ll think she depends on them. So they won’t be ready when she can actually fight without them.” 

“Exactly,” I agreed, before turning my attention back to Fred. “What’s going on with Wren? Is she–” 

“Still working on the tracker thingamabob,” he confirmed. “She locked herself up in the room over there so she can work without any distractions. Told me to tell you that she’s gonna be busy with it for the rest of the night and that it’ll be ready by the time you come back from school tomorrow. Assuming you’re planning on coming?” 

My head bobbed. “Yeah, I’ve got–” A grimace found itself to my face. “I’ve got plans for dinner, but I’ll be here first.” Seeing them all stare at me, I sighed before explaining what was going on. 

“Dude,” Murphy put in, “you’re going to dinner to hang out with Inessa Sidorov? What the fuck? I mean like, this is normal for you? God, you’re lucky.” She grunted as Roald nudged her. “Err, yeah, there’s all the other complicated stuff and–yeah, but still!” 

“If I could invite you and have more people on my side, I would, believe me,” I assured her, before grimacing.

Paige, of course, grimaced just as much as me. “You really have to go over to Arleigh’s house? Couldn’t just make an excuse not to?” 

“Like Murphy said, Inessa Sidorov is gonna be there,” I immediately shot back. “If my dad ever found out I gave up the chance to meet her, he’d immediately have my head examined to make sure I didn’t have a mind-controlling slug or a little cybernetic ball inside my head.”

Meeting my gaze, the taller, blonde girl gave a very tiny smirk. “Yeah, that’s true. You always were a little obsessed. I used to think you had a bit of a crush or something.” 

Blushing at that, and at the weird feelings I had from having this sort of casual conversation with someone I had seen as a nasty, vindictive bitch for so long, I mumbled, “She’s just a really good skater. And she’s cool, and she’s got great fashion–shut up. Just shut up, all of you.” 

Ignoring their snickers, I gestured. “I’m gonna head out for that quick patrol, just to see what’s going on. The rest of you should head home.” 

“We’ll go with you,” Paige insisted, gesturing to Sierra and back to herself. “We don’t exactly have people waiting around for us, and I don’t think anyone should be going around on their own right now. I don’t know what Deicide is going to do about that betrayal, and it might take her a few days, but something tells me her retaliation is gonna be pretty loud. Between that and Jennica still being out there…” 

“Right, sure.” Nodding a bit, I glanced to the others. “Speaking of which, you gonna be okay?” 

They confirmed that they would be sticking together on the way back. Peyton would drop the other two off at their apartment before going to her own, which wasn’t that much further away. Especially not the way she traveled. 

So, we talked a little bit more about what we had done and what we were going to do, then separated. I found myself back in costume, mask and helmet firmly in place, while standing on the roof of the shop. Paige and Sierra were stretching a bit behind me, as I looked out over the neighborhood below, and at the much taller skyscrapers in the distance. “Things are gonna get worse before they get better, aren’t they?” I found myself murmuring. 

Paige, stepping up beside me, confirmed, “That’s why we’re doing this training. It’s important. We all have to be better, we have to be ready.” 

“Not just for this whole gang war thing,” Sierra pointed out while stepping up on my other side. “I know we’re all hoping this plan with the edited picture and all that is gonna work. We let everyone know where Irelyn and Trivial are, give Breakwater a way to come out of it looking like they’re not completely incompetent, an excuse that gives them a reason to keep those two alive, and… and then it’ll be over. But in case it’s more complicated than that–” 

“In case, we need to be ready,” I agreed. “And that means we need a lot more training than we’ve already got. You’re right. Don’t worry, we’re with you. Whatever happens, we’ll figure out a way to get Irelyn and Trivial out of there. If it’s not this plan, it’ll be another one. But at least this is a start.” 

Paige gave a short nod of agreement, her own voice soft. “It’s definitely a start. In a lot of ways.” 

For another moment, the three of us stood there together, looking out over the city. Then I cleared my throat. “Well? Let’s go for a run so I can get home and sleep. 

“Something tells me I’m gonna need all the rest I can get if I’m gonna survive visiting Arleigh’s house tomorrow.” 

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Schooling 24-02 (Summus Proelium)

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Once we made our way out of there and over to the van that, as promised, was waiting, the driver took us back into the city. We had the man drop us off a few blocks away from the shop, and thanked him for the lift. Then, once he drove off, we moved into the nearby alley and all of us practically collapsed against the nearby walls to look at each other. The drive had been a nice chance to sit for a bit, but we hadn’t really relaxed there, not with that guy around.

“Man,” Murphy announced while slumping down to sit on the ground, “I feel like I could sleep for a week. And my hand won’t stop shaking. Is that normal?” 

Sitting next to her, Roald shook his head. “My hands are just fine, but my knee won’t stop moving. See?” He gestured as his leg bounced erratically. “Seriously, it’s like I’m exhausted, but I sort of feel like I want to run a marathon. I could close my eyes and fall asleep right here, or my brain could keep me up all night. My body’s ready to fall apart, but…” 

“It’s adrenaline,” Paige advised him. “That’ll wear off. You’ll want to get back home and in your bed before that happens. Otherwise you really might end up sleeping in an alley. And that’s not as fun as it sounds, believe me.” 

With a nod, Peyton put in, “Yeah, and speaking of sleeping in an alley, if I don’t get home, my mom is really gonna freak out.” She looked over at Murphy and Roald. “I’ll give you guys a ride if you want.”

They agreed with that, and we arranged to meet and talk about things the next day. Then those three headed off together, while I focused on Sierra and Paige. “Well,” I started, “at least we stopped that whole thing. I mean, sure, that evil chick is still running around out there trying to impress the Scions, but this whole thing could’ve been a hell of a lot worse.”  

The two of them exchanged glances before Sierra spoke up. “Yeah, it sure could’ve.” Turning back toward me, she added, “Which is why we decided something on the way back here.”

“You decided something?” I asked while looking back-and-forth between them. “I didn’t think you guys even said a single word to each other that whole drive.” 

“We didn’t have to physically talk,” Paige informed me. “Remember, we have Wi-Fi. We set up our own private chat server and talked there. We can add you guys in, so you can join the chat room on your phone or computer. That way, we can all stay in contact.” 

“Wait hold on,” I interrupted, “is that whole ‘we have Wi-Fi’ thing a joke? Because I’m pretty sure that’s not the most secure thing for you guys to be talking about private stuff on. Especially if it was Wi-Fi inside a government van.” 

“Yes and no,” Sierra informed me. “It’s not a joke because we really can connect to Wi-Fi if we want to. But we also have our own private network. Trust me when I say, it’s secure. The version we were using in the van is short-range, line of sight communication. The signal went from me to her and back again. On top of that, it’s all encrypted. They’d have to literally be one of us to understand it. We’ll have to fix up your devices so they can connect to it, and when you do, you won’t exactly find a bunch of fun websites. But at least we’ll all be able to use our little chat room to stay in contact.” 

“Okay, right, cool.” Nodding slowly, I murmured, “So you’ve got this secure little chat room for just the two of you, and you’re gonna let us into your clubhouse so we can all keep up with each other in a way that doesn’t involve normal texting.” 

Paige straightened while looking down the alley as she confirmed, “That’s about the size of it. Obviously, when you guys use it, you’ll be going through the regular internet. But it’ll still be secure. A hell of a lot more secure than ordinary phone texting, anyway. Add that into using phones your parents don’t know about and that’s about as safe as we can be. We’ll make sure the program we add to your stuff looks like something innocent, and wipes anything incriminating if anyone pokes at it.”

“Right, sounds good to me,” I managed. Hell if I knew anything about the details. If they said it would be safe, I believed them. Which was an odd feeling coming from the whole Paige direction. But I shoved that thought out of my mind and asked, “So, what was this decision you guys were talking about before we got off on that little tangent?” 

Once more, the two of them exchanged glances before turning back to me. Paige started, “Like you said, that situation could’ve gone a lot worse. And there’s going to be more like it. Jennica is still out there. She’s trying to hook up with the Scions, who don’t really like you very much. So they won’t like any of us very much. To say nothing of all the other bad guys out there.”

“Including our father,” Sierra put in. “We still have to get Irelyn and that Trivial chick out of there.” 

“Exactly,” Paige agreed. “But if we’re– that is if you’re all going to survive all that, you need real training. Or you’re just gonna die.” 

“Don’t get us wrong,” Sierra put in, “with your powers, you’re pretty awesome. And, you know, it’s obvious you’ve had a little self-defense practice. You know how to punch someone. But you need more than that. A lot more. And so do the others. I just started to like you guys a little bit, so I’d rather not watch you get murdered. You’re all a lot more fragile than we are. And we can’t exactly go shoving the lot of you into more biolem orbs and bodies… yet.” 

“So,” Paige finished while I was giving Sierra a double-take, “we’re going to start teaching all of you how to fight. Really fight, I mean. We’re going to train you so that you’re not completely helpless without your powers.” 

Sierra coughed. “Well, let’s be honest, you’d still be in pretty bad shape without any power. I mean, come on, look at us, you and me. We’re like five foot nothing and, what, a hundred pounds? If I didn’t have enhanced biolem-strength, I’m not completely sure my foot wouldn’t snap off if I kicked a ball.”  

Grimacing, I retorted, “It’s not that bad. But yeah, you’ve got a point. I mean, about us needing to train. Do you really think you two can help with that?” 

Paige gestured pointedly. “We might as well put what Pittman programmed into us to good use. And the very best use I can think of for it is teaching all of you how to survive long enough to kick his ass and get Irelyn and Trivial off that island.” With a shrug, she added, “Besides,  with the way you make a habit of pissing people off in this city, you need all the survival training you can get. And so does anyone who’s planning on spending time with you.” 

My mouth opened as I raised a finger, before pausing. “I… yeah, okay, that’s fair. So, sure, that sounds like a plan to me. Or a goal, at least. If you guys want to designate yourselves our official trainers or whatever, feel free. You’re right about us needing all the help we can get. Seems like everything out there is getting more dangerous, not less. And you’re not the only ones who don’t want to see anything happen to anyone else in this team now that we just started to–uh, be a team.” 

“We’ll work something up,” Paige informed me. “But right now, you should get some rest. Do you want help getting home?” 

My head shook. “No, that’s cool. I’ll be fine. You guys head back to the shop.” She had been staying there with Sierra, even though they were both mobile and in separate bodies now. 

“Actually,” the girl who was my doppelganger under that mask informed me, “we’re gonna head to the Banners’ house, considering no one’s there right now. Not even any staff. And since the Ministry already interrogated Paige–” 

That made me do an almost violent double-take, while reflexively painting half a dozen question marks across my chest and helmet. “I’m sorry, the Ministry did what?” 

Sierra gave a look toward Paige, her voice reproachful. “I thought you said you were going to tell her.”

“I was,” Paige confirmed, “but then we got a little busy. The zombie baseball apocalypse was distracting.” Looking at me, she insisted, “It wasn’t a big deal. One of their agents talked to me earlier today, before we met up for all this. He wanted to know where I’ve been, and if I knew anything about Irelyn’s disappearance. I told him my dad was paranoid about something and took my mother and me on a bunch of increasingly stupid retreats. And I said that I finally convinced him to let me come home so I could go back to school, but when I got here, Irelyn had already left to go find us. I don’t know where they are now, and I don’t know where she is either.” 

Absorbing all that quietly, I finally asked the most important question, “Do you think he believed you?” 

Paige considered, though I was absolutely certain it was something she’d already thought about a lot. “If I didn’t, I would have brought it up sooner. They’re covering their bases. They know I was adopted by the Banners, and that I disappeared with them, then two of the local Star-Touched, one of whom happens to be the daughter the Banners bought me to replace after she pissed them off, disappeared too. Between that and me knowing about the Ministry, I would’ve thought something was wrong if they didn’t have a discussion with me. Mostly they wanted to know if Aaron Banners knew anything about them. So I told them I was pretty sure that’s not why he’s paranoid, and that he said something about business competitors and maybe Japan, or China or something. I kept it vague enough.” 

“Besides,” Sierra put in, “they’ve got other things to worry about right now.” 

“Right, our break-in secret is conveniently distracting them from peering too hard at our other secrets.” Snorting at that, I added, “Speaking of which, we need to decide what gang to hit next as our other-selves. Err, our other-other-selves. You know what I mean. If we’re gonna keep up the facade about there being some other group out there robbing them, we need to do it again.” 

“We’ll workshop that,” Paige agreed before flatly adding, “later. Right now, you really need to sleep. You’re swaying a lot more than you think you are right now.” 

She had a point, as much as I hated to admit it. It felt like there were still a dozen things I should be doing right then, but I really was incredibly tired after everything that had happened. So, with a heavy sigh, I nodded. “Fine, fine, I’ll head home and get some sleep. Just promise me that you guys are going to be careful.” 

Sierra coughed again and smirked at me after taking the mask off. “I’m not gonna get caught by your parents, trust me. It’s all cool, twin.” Her head tilted as she looked at Paige, then back to me. “Have you guys ever thought about how weird it is that I’m technically the twin of both of you in different ways?” 

Staring right back at her, I replied dryly, “Believe me, it’s come to mind.”

With that, I left the two of them and began to race-paint my way across the city. The chaos had thoroughly died down by the time we got back here in the van, as the gangs had all gone back to their own respective corners to lick their wounds and reassess their current situations. So, I had the city pretty much to myself. It was after curfew, and the emergency services were busy cleaning up various messes, or just recuperating themselves. I saw a few faces in windows waving or calling out greetings at me as I passed, so I waved back. One guy leaned out a nearby window entirely and shouted my name. Well, my Touched name anyway. When I stopped and looked, he waved a baseball bat while cupping his other hand against his mouth to shout, “Could you sign this!? Come on, I wanna give it to my kid!”

Well, what was I supposed to say to that? I launched myself that way and planted my knees against the wall next to his window after landing. “Hey there! What’s your name? And your kid’s name?” 

The man, a blonde guy in his forties with a neatly trimmed beard, beamed cheerfully. “Name’s Kyle. My son’s name is Edgar. Yeah, I know, but it was his mom‘s choice. She named him after her great uncle. Tried to go with Eddie, but the kid insists it’s Edgar. He’s nine. Just starting Little League.” 

Taking the bat as he offered it to me, I touched the side and instantly inscribed the words, ‘Hey Edgar, hope you smash a homerun so hard the bat breaks and I have to sign another one – Paintball.’ It took up most of the length of one side. 

Grinning as he saw what I had written, Kyle thanked me profusely and asked if I minded if he took a quick picture so he could prove it was real to his son. I agreed, and he leaned back in the window while holding the phone up so he could take a picture of us together. 

With that done, I gave him a thumbs up before launching myself away from the wall once more. As I was flying through the air, he called after me, “Oh, shit, thanks for what your new team did at that ballgame! I meant to say that!” 

Laughing, I turned over in the air to wave at him, using yellow paint to slow myself for that long. Then I landed on a lamppost and immediately used blue to hurl myself upward once more. The adrenaline was running low. I needed to get home, fall into my bed, and just die for awhile. 

Which, of course, was the thought that I had just as another figure caught my eye. This one was waving too, as I launched myself over another building. But it was waving from the roof, rather than from a window. And that wasn’t the only odd thing about it. The waiting figure wore a nice suit that looked like it belonged at one of those fancy millionaire dinner parties my parents liked to go to. It definitely wasn’t the suit of a man who would normally have been standing on top of an old used tire shop. Oh, then there was the fact that the man wasn’t a man at all. It was a bear. A literal bear, as in the furry animal, stood on its hind legs, wearing a perfectly tailored suit, waving at me. 

Okay, either I had been dosed with something, I was even more tired than I thought I was, to the point of being delirious, or that was a TONI. Wait, a bear in a suit. I’d thought I saw a bear in a suit back at the stadium! Wait a minute, was this… was this someone new? I wasn’t sure. I’d definitely never heard of a bear TONI in Detroit. But either way, it certainly got my attention. Especially since it meant I hadn’t been seeing things back when all that was going on. 

So, making sure I had enough paint on me to protect myself and get out of there if something went wrong, I used a shot of red to yank myself down that way. Landing smoothly, I straightened up and stared at the bear. Yeah, nothing had changed. From up close, that suit looked even more expensive. I’d seen a lot of fancy clothing in my time, even if I didn’t tend to wear much of it myself. I’d been in the sort of stores where these suits were sold, and I knew this one was top of the line. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had its own Touched-Tech enhancements for protection. Those expensive ones tended to have bullet-proofing and even fire-protection, that sort of thing. 

And this wasn’t just any bear. He was enormous, standing what had to be nine feet tall and impressively built, a fact that was apparent even under that suit. He looked like he could take my head off with a casual swat. 

After looking the bear up and down briefly, I hesitantly started by raising my hand in a wave. “Uh, hello? Did I… did I see you earlier? Back at the stadium. I thought I saw… but then…” 

“Ah, good evening, Paintball,” the bear replied. His voice seemed to literally come from him, rather than an electric translator. Which wasn’t always the case. Some TONIs could speak normally, others couldn’t. “Do you mind if we call you that?” 

“Uh, to be honest, I’m still not sure I’m conscious right now and didn’t just plow into a building to give myself a concussion,” I informed him with a shrug. “But sure, I guess. If this is real, you should probably call me the same thing as everyone else.” 

The bear smiled, and it took me a moment to realize that he was trying to reassure me rather than be intimidating. Those teeth were very sharp. “Don’t worry, “ he rumbled politely, “you’re not in a coma and you’re not dreaming. Or hallucinating. And yes, to answer your question, we were at the stadium earlier, attempting to provide what aid we could given the circumstances. I am called Fisher. We are Minister Gray.” 

Okay, that made me do a double-take. “Wait, Minister? As in–” 

“Part of the Ministry, yes,” came the response, while he held up both paws. “But please, relax yourself, we are not here with any ill-intention. Rather, we wish to offer our thanks for your aid in maintaining relative peace within the city.”

Regardless of his words, I reflexively took a step back and glanced around. “Okay, you keep saying we, but I only see one of you. Wait, sorry, are you–” 

“We are not plural,” the bear informed me. “Not in the way you are thinking, anyway. But–ah, it is a bit complicated. Please, this is not a threat or an attack, though it will be a bit of a surprise.” 

Even as I opened my mouth to question that, there was a sudden burst of smoke right where the bear was, along with a glowing pyramid shape right in the center. I jumped backwards and brought my hands up despite his warning, but the smoke cleared to reveal that the bear was gone. Then a voice spoke up sharply. “Hey, down here.” 

My gaze lowered promptly, until I saw a raccoon. Just like the bear, he was in a clearly-tailored suit. And yes, it looked completely goddamn adorable. The bear had been intimidating, but seeing this little raccoon in a suit made me want to pick him up and squeeze him. 

“Don’t even think about it, kid,” the raccoon snapped, clearly interpreting my body language. “No hugging me, no picking me up. The name’s Price. Like my partner was saying, we’re Minister Gray. The short version is we Touched together, now we share space and take turns being on the outside. You don’t get to know any more than that.” 

This was a lot for me to take in. My mouth opened and shut a couple times as I fought to work my way through the confusion before I managed, “Wait, you were at the–I mean of course you were at the stadium too, but Alloy saw you!” 

“She sure did,” Price the Raccoon retorted, “cuz I wanted her to. How else were you supposed to find those hostages in time?” 

Absorbing that, I fumbled for a response before landing on, “You guys are part of the Ministry?” Yeah, it was dumb, but I had to say something

“That’s right, and we came to thank you for putting aside any differences of opinion you might have with us. Getting that girl to call for help was the right thing to do,” he informed me. “The situation back at that ballpark could’ve been an outright massacre. But you accepted help from people others would call villains, and you requested help from us. That showed both initiative and forward thinking. It shows we might need to reevaluate a few things about you.” 

“I uhh… well, thanks, I guess.” What the hell was I supposed to say to that? “But you could’ve sent that message with someone who wouldn’t attract this much attention. Don’t take this the wrong way, but something tells me you’re not just here to say thank you. I don’t think you would’ve revealed yourself if that was it.” 

The raccoon smiled, showing his own teeth. “Well, no, not exactly. But that was at the top of the list. We also hear you’ve experienced a bit of a break-in from a set of masked… intruders. We’d like you to tell us exactly what happened, in detail.” 

“Oh, uh, right.” We had mentioned that to Glitch, of course, as part of maintaining our cover and making it look like Avant-Guard and the black-masked people who broke into the Ministry were different people. “That might take awhile.” 

“It’s quite alright,” came the response. “We’ve got all the time in the world.” 

“And we’re not going anywhere until we hear that story.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Enkindle 23-10 (Summus Proelium)

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“She’s crazy, right?” Murphy asked a short while later, as we all sat on a roof together far away from that pizza shop and any of Braintrust. “Paintball, that lady’s gotta be loco in the heado.” 

“Did you just say loco in the heado?” Paige (or Poise now as she was still in-costume) echoed, head tilting that way as she dropped down with her back to a brick chimney.

Sierra (Style) stood on the opposite side of the roof, arms folded. The way her red leather coat flapped a bit in the breeze while that matching tactical combat helmet was framed against the city skyline behind her made the girl look cooler than I ever could. It must’ve been the way she stood. Even that was cool.  “You know the Spanish word for brain is cerebro, right?” 

After dropping her offer, Glitch had simply handed over a card with a phone number on it and told us to call her with an answer in a couple days. Of course, I had promptly painted the number from the card onto my arm and then tossed the card into the nearest trash can. No way was I going to risk carrying around something that the literal leader of a bunch of Tech-Touched villains had given me. Maybe it had a tracker in it, or a recorder, or maybe it was completely innocent. Either way, I wasn’t going to take that chance. Especially not for a phone number.

Alloy did a quick double-take at Style’s words. “Wait, really? You mean the cool name that Professor X dude gave his super telepathy machine in the comics was literally just the Spanish word for brain? That seems kind of lame. I thought they made up a cool word based off cerebrum.”

“I mean, they did make up a cool word based off cerebrum,” Roald pointed out. “It’s just that the ‘they’ in this case is the ancient Spanish people.”  

Murphy threw her hands up, making a noise of disbelief. “The point, people!” She turned to me. “That crazy lady back there can’t actually be serious with this. She can’t think that’ll work.” 

I offered a clueless shrug. “I don’t think she’s crazy. Not like that. She knows how to use Tech-Touched. And, obviously, how to make a profit off them. Probably because–hold on. Trev?” 

Before saying anything else, I turned to Trevithick. She was standing by herself, clearly deep in thought. When I addressed her, she jolted a little, looking my way before realizing what I was getting at. “Oh! Oh, right, yeah. Hang on a sec.” From a slot in her belt, she pulled a small pen-shaped device, taking a moment to wave it over all of us like security at the airport used to do before they upgraded the system to simply alert if you were carrying any weapons anywhere inside the building itself. They didn’t rely on metal detectors anymore. The system was a lot more advanced, and the scanners were hidden throughout the airport.

In any case, this wasn’t a metal detector either. After Wren had scanned all of us, she clicked her little device a couple times before shaking her head. “Nothing new. No hidden trackers.” 

The device was actually part of her ongoing attempt to get a proper working teleporter. It was meant to scan someone from head to toe to get a one-hundred percent accurate and detailed picture of their body and clothing. It wouldn’t show her their face under a mask or anything like that, just give her a microscopically-detailed… map, essentially, of their current form. Every bump in their shoes, every lace, every imperfection in armor, every button in a shirt, every tiny crack in a glass watch face, the exact contours of a pair of tiny diamond earrings, everything. It scanned and stored a perfect map of your body and clothes together. And since we’d had her scan us just before meeting with Glitch, it would have told her if absolutely anything had been added to us in that time, as the before and after pictures would have been different. 

Not that I really expected the woman to try to get away with putting a bug on one of us, but again, I wasn’t going to take any chances. Just like with the card. Maybe I was getting to be a little better about sharing with my team, but Glitch definitely wasn’t part of that. 

Once I was as sure as I could be that it was safe, I continued my thought. “She knows how to make a very good profit because she has to give part of it to my parents. I don’t think she would’ve suggested this if she didn’t think it was possible.” Pausing, I looked back to Wren. “Which, I guess makes the question, do you think it’s possible?”

She didn’t answer at first, seeming to be lost in thought again. Finally, after we all watched her for a few seconds, she looked at me. “Um, I think so. I mean, it wouldn’t be easy. And I need to look at her prototypes more.” She nodded to the other corner of the roof, where she’d left the bag with the gloves in it. Gloves which we had also obviously gone over with a fine-tooth comb for any bugs. But I expected something to be on them even less than I expected something to be on one of us. Glitch wasn’t stupid. She’d have to know that we would have our own Tech-Touched scour every millimeter of those things. Spying on us like that wasn’t worth the risk. Well, okay, it actually was. It was totally worth the risk. The stuff they could have found out about what we knew… The idea was terrifying. But she didn’t know that. 

Wren continued. “I could only do that with help. But she offered help. But she’s a bad guy. But the things she wants me to do would really help people. But she’d probably find a way to use it for bad things too, even if I do put safeties in it. But people use good things for bad stuff all the time, and it doesn’t erase the good stuff those things do. But if someone hurts people with it, that’ll be my fault. But if we don’t give her what she wants, she might ask for something worse, or start a fight. And I don’t want you guys to get hurt. But–” 

“Wren.” I stepped over that way, putting my hands on her shoulders. “It’s okay. Whatever you decide to do, we’re with you. I mean, I’m with you.” Frowning to myself for the presumption, I turned to look over my shoulder.

“Oh, of course we’re with her!” Murphy blurted. “Come on, man, what do you take us for?” 

“Right,” Paige confirmed. “It’s her choice. Whatever she decides to do about it. We could try to negotiate a single payoff, but something tells me that once Glitch gets an idea in her head about how to make an ongoing profit, it’s not easy to make her give that up. Something like this would be revolutionary. And she’s even offering to let you keep seventy percent. Which should tell you something. She thinks it’s worth so much that she can profit enough off thirty percent, even counting what she has to give to the Ministry.” 

“To your parents,” Alloy put in, with a glance my way. “Which is still really fuuudging weird to think about, for the record.” She caught herself with the curse, giving Wren a sidelong look before turning back to me. “So I guess, in a way, you’d be benefiting from some of that thirty percent too.” 

Grimacing behind my helmet, I shook my head. “I mean at this point it’s like emptying a few dozen dump trucks of water into Lake Erie. Yeah, it’s a lot of water when it’s in the trucks, but once you empty them into the lake, you never–” Stopping short, I blanched, raising my gaze to find Wren, Peyton, Murphy, and Roald staring at me. Paige and Sierra were looking away. “Uhh heh… hehe… I guess I was sorta, kinda just talking about dump trucks full of money not being a big deal.” 

“Because you already have a Lake Erie of money,” Peyton noted. “Yeah.”

I shook my head. “My parents have a Lake Erie of money. I’ve benefited from it, sure. But it’s theirs.” 

“So it’s a lake of money you can swim in,” Murphy replied while moving over to plop herself on the edge of a metal air conditioning duct running along the roof next to me. “The point is, Alloy’s right, that’s weird to think about.” She squinted at me curiously. “What is it like, being one of the richest teenagers in the country?” 

Coughing, I shook my head. “Let’s not get into that. I just–I just don’t want you guys to think of me that way. I’m still just Paintball.” 

I couldn’t see Murphy’s face behind the ski mask, but her body language said she wanted to say something about that. She stopped herself, however, and just replied, “So, Glitch thinks this idea is such a winner that she can get all the moolah she wants and what she has to pay the Ministry off just thirty percent? Kinda weird that she didn’t try for fifty-fifty, isn’t it?” 

“She probably assumes that by offering seventy percent to us, she’ll look magnanimous.” That was Poise, bringing her legs up to her chest as she continued to sit against the brick chimney. “We’re more likely to think she’s being nice.” 

“And,” Sierra added, “that if we think at all about the money, we’ll have dollar signs in our eyes. With, of course, the added benefit that this is all for saving lives.” 

Murphy was looking down at her phone. I saw her google the definition of magnanimous before muttering, “I knew it.” Then she put it away and gestured along with what Sierra had been saying. “Yeah, she offered the big life saving invention idea so it wouldn’t make us feel like we were giving her weapons or anything she could, you know, use to hurt people.” 

“Except she still could,” Wren pointed out flatly while shifting her weight and fidgeting uncertainly. “Even if the stuff itself isn’t turned bad, you said it yourself. She’d still make money off it. A lot of money. And then she’d use that money to hurt people.” 

“Or maybe she’d retire,” I pointed out before wincing. “Yeah, probably not. But it’s okay, Wren. You think about it and whatever you decide, we’ll go with. If we need to come up with a plan to make her back off and–” 

“No.” Wren’s head shook quickly. “No, I don’t wanna make anybody fight those guys. I mean, they’re bad guys so you’re gonna have to and all that, sure. What I mean is, I don’t wanna make it, umm… personal or anything. You–I mean we already have umm, you know, enough to do.” She focused on Paige and Sierra. “We’ve gotta save your sister! And Flea and Trivial too!” She took a deep breath, letting it out before slowly continuing. “I’ll do it. I’ll help build those things. But only after I work on the thing to help track Breakwater!” 

“We’ll tell her you’ve got projects you need to finish before you get started on anything else,” I agreed. “She can’t possibly object too much to that. She has to know that Tech-Touched have their own things to do, and she just sprang this on you.” Thinking about that briefly, I gave a decisive nod. “Yeah, we’ll just tell her that we’ll work on that but she has to wait a couple weeks.” Belatedly, I focused on the girl herself. “Err, I say we. We’ll help, any way we can. But it’s up to you. Do you want to try that?” 

She didn’t answer at first, going silent again for a few seconds before murmuring, “I said I wouldn’t build anything for supervillains. But… I guess this isn’t actually for them? She’s gonna get money out of it, but we were gonna give them money anyway. I…” She squirmed on her feet, making a cute little uncertain noise in the back of her throat before finally nodding. “Okay, okay. I’ll figure out how to work on it. Um, you know, after we do the other thing.” 

Obviously, I felt a pang of regret and annoyance at myself for not being able to simply tell Glitch to go shove it. But the others were right, there was so much going on already that we really couldn’t deal with a straight up fight on our own against Braintrust. After all, they hadn’t gotten a reputation for driving other Tech-Touched either out of the city or under their heel for nothing. If we were going to fight them, it was going to need to involve all of us and our full attention. And at the moment, the majority of that attention had to be focused on saving Irelyn and Trivial. Not to mention figuring out what the hell was going on with Luciano. Our plates were absolutely full. Picking a fight with Braintrust just wasn’t in the cards, and we all knew it. 

“We’ll wait though,” I finally spoke up after all of us had gone quiet for a few seconds following Wren’s decision. “She gave us a couple days, and I’d rather stretch that out as long as possible. Then we’ll tell her you need time to open up enough of your project space to work on something new.” 

“You should start with a month,” Paige put in. “Let her negotiate you down to a couple weeks or so. It’ll make her feel like she won something even though it’s what you wanted in the first place.” 

I was already nodding that way. “Right, yeah, good plan. Uh, but I guess in the meantime, we really don’t have anything we can–” 

And that was when Wren’s phone rang. It was a bright chirping sound, like a bird singing. No, it was literally a bird singing. I realized that belatedly, as the girl tugged it out of her costume and held the thing to her ear. “Hi, Uncle Fred! Sorry, I know I said we’d call as soon as we were done so you could come pick us up, but we were still talking about–huh? Oh. Wait, what?” 

She was quiet for a few seconds, clearly listening as the man said something on the other end. The rest of us looked at one another and shrugged until Wren quickly blurted, “Really?! I knew that was a good idea! Oh, uh, tell the others, Uncle Fred.” With that, she put him on speaker phone and held it out so we could hear. 

There was a brief pause before the man cleared his throat on the other end. “Uh, well, I was just sitting here and the scanner the kid set up to monitor police and emergency traffic for certain words or phrases popped up with a bunch of stuff going on about a zombie and fire, right here in town.” 

Well, that sure made me straighten up. I was on my feet in an instant, my eyes widening behind the helmet and mask. “Wait, what? Here in town? You mean Luciano…” I trailed off, grimacing. “He made it here already.” 

“Yeah, but it’s a little confusing,” came the response over the phone. “There’s a bunch of different conflicting reports about where he is, what he’s doing, that sort of thing. Guy moves fast, and he’s just… causing a bunch of bullsh-crap chaos everywhere he goes.” 

I thought about that for a moment. “If he’s pissed at the Ministry, maybe he wants to cause that chaos. Maybe that’s the point. They try to keep things as neat and orderly as possible. They have their rules. If he’s going against that, maybe his whole point is to cause a lot of terror and confusion.” 

“Well he’s sure managing that,” Fred replied. “There’s reports coming in from all over the city. But as soon as someone gets there, he’s gone already. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. He attacked a real estate office on the north side of town, then a Wendy’s about six blocks east five minutes later, then a bookstore five miles south ten minutes later. It was quiet for fifteen minutes, then he hit an art gallery just two blocks east of the bookstore. Now it’s been quiet again for–wait, hang on.” 

We were put on hold for a few more seconds while my mind reeled. What the hell? Well, I knew what the hell. I’d said what the hell. He was causing a bunch of chaos with no pattern, almost certainly as a way of getting back at the Ministry. But they weren’t the ones who were really going to be suffering. It was the people he was targeting, the people whose misery he was throwing in the Ministry’s faces. 

Fuck. Fuck, we had to stop this. 

My mouth opened to say something to that effect, when Fred came back on the line. “There’s another one. He’s hitting a convenience store about–hang on… a mile north of where you are.” 

He gave the address, and I was already turning. “I’m on my way.” My foot rose, then I froze. “I mean…” Pausing, I looked back to the others. “I don’t wanna say–” 

“Oh, shut up,” Sierra blurted. “Of course we’ve got your back. Don’t be an idiot.” 

“Now hang on there,” Fred started, “I don’t want–” 

“Sorry, Uncle Fred, gotta be a superhero!” With that, Wren clicked off the phone and faced us. “So c’mon, what’re we waiting for? Let’s go kick his butt.” 

There wasn’t time to have a whole discussion about it right then and there. Not considering Luciano could disappear again any minute. So, I shot a spray of green paint from both hands, covering everyone as much as I could before pivoting back to the edge of the roof. “Okay then.

“Let’s go stop a zombie.” 

******

“Ahhhh!” Murphy yelled out while hitting the blue paint I had shot in front of her. It propelled the girl across the gap between the building rooftops we had been running across. It wasn’t the first or longest gap I’d shot her and the others over, nor was it the widest. But she screamed every time, as did Roald. I was pretty sure hers was about seventy-five percent joy and twenty-five percent terror, while Roald’s was closer to fifty-fifty. Either way, they insisted on continuing along with it. 

Roald hit the paint a second later, even as Murphy was landing on the far building, the orange paint I’d given her helping the girl avoid breaking any bones in the process. Meanwhile, Paige and Sierra hit the second blue puddle I’d put down, one after the other. They both launched themselves that way, rolling as they hit the far roof before popping right back to their feet. 

Rather than using either puddle, I just made blue paint appear on the bottom of my boots as I hit the edge of the roof, launching myself that way. Above me and to one side, Wren was flying with her dragonfly-like wings, while Alloy flew on her hoverboard above and to the other side. Both of them were calling out which way we should go to reach good jumping points to get from roof to roof. Beyond that, we were following my directions. Or rather, the directions the helmet was giving me when I used the map function Wren had provided in the heads-up display. It showed me just how to get to the spot where Luciano was supposedly still causing trouble, if what Fred had said when Wren checked in with him a moment earlier was right. 

There we were, running and jumping from roof to roof, using blue, green, and red paint as much as I could manage just so we could get there as fast as possible, praying we weren’t too late. Poise and Style being full of… poise and style. They were doing this as though they’d done it their entire lives, like Olympic-level athletes. Hell, they barely needed the paint boosts, which really helped given how fast I would’ve run out if I had to use it for everyone. Calvin and Hobbes, meanwhile, clearly weren’t nearly as skilled. But they were doing their best, and they weren’t bad. Probably from a lifetime of running through dangerous neighborhoods and away from people who saw them as easy marks. Their method of getting around was just a bit less polished. 

With Trevithick flying along one side of me and Alloy along the other, we brought up the rear so I could hit people and spots with paint whenever needed. Wren and Peyton both helped with that, calling down to me to point out the right spots. It worked pretty well, once we got the system down a couple buildings in. By this point, we were basically a well-oiled machine with it. 

Once I joined them on that roof, my skates skidded to a stop. This was it. On the other side of this building was the parking lot connecting to the convenience store. I could hear screaming, along with a weird guttural howling sound. Oh, and fire. I heard fire too. 

Together, we raced to the far side of the roof, ready to jump down there and stop this guy. Then we all stopped short. Because we saw the guy. Except it wasn’t the guy. That is, it wasn’t Luciano. Standing down there in the middle of the parking lot, in front of a couple cowering civilians who were trying to take cover behind a bench in front of the store, was a man who looked nothing like Luciano. He was white, for one thing. He looked like a random beach bum, with long blonde hair, tanned skin, board shorts, and no shirt. Which gave us a good view of the dozen holes in his chest and stomach. Some were only partial holes, while others ran all the way through, showing daylight on the other side. It was like he’d been hit with a shotgun blast of pellets. 

It wasn’t Luciano. But he was still clearly dead, still had obvious death-wounds, and was still moving despite that. Oh, and he had the same fire power, given the way his teeth were visibly glowing. To say nothing of the way he grabbed the bench the people were cowering behind and made it start melting. He wasn’t Luciano, but he was in the same condition.

So… who the fuck was this? 

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Enkindle 23-07 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There will be a very long commissioned interlude for Heretical Edge posted a bit later today, outside of the normal schedule. This is today’s normal chapter.

Needless to say, there were some surprised looks when I pulled the mask off and dropped it onto the nearby table. Surprised looks from everyone, really, though for different reasons. Sierra and Paige looked surprised that I had actually done it, while the other five were clearly shocked at what they actually saw. Not instantly, of course. There was confusion first, about what the hell I was doing or what my point was. Then I could see as they realized what they were looking at. 

“Wait–” Roald started. His gaze snapped from me over to Sierra and back again, mouth opening and shutting. He was clearly trying to put the whole thing together, though his brain seemed to have short-circuited somewhat. Which was fair, given the circumstances. 

The others weren’t faring any better, for the most part. Murphy kept pointing at Sierra and then back to me while making confused noises in the back of her throat. It was part-choke, part-whine, and part-stammer. Fred was just gaping silently, and Peyton had actually sat down heavily in the chair behind her with an audible thunk followed by a squeak as the force of her falling into it slid the chair backward along the floor. 

Wren was the first to actually find her voice, wings carrying her up near the ceiling in her sudden excitement and confusion. She hovered there, calling down, “Paintball! You’re Sierra! Wait, no, the other way! Sierra, you’re Paintball! Wait, wait–” 

Sierra gave a very slight smirk, gesturing idly with one hand. “No, you pretty much nailed it. This body was built from Paintball’s DNA. Not that our dad knows that. I mean, he doesn’t know she’s Paintball.”

“She?!” That word was what Murphy jumped on, grabbing it like a drowning person being thrown a lifeline. She was pointing at me once more. “You’re a she! You’re she! She’s–you–not he, she, that’s a she, you’re–that is–I don’t–girl! Girl!” It was like that word was all she could manage to keep repeating. 

Looking down at the floor for a moment as I fought back a deep blush, I finally cleared my throat. “I uhh, yeah, That’s about the size of it. Yes–wait.” My voice was still that of a boy, which really confused everything. So, I reached up and took the Bluetooth device out of my ear, hitting the button to turn it off before speaking again with my normal voice while fidgeting with the device in my hand. “Yes, I’m a girl. Yeah, I’ve been lying to everyone about that. Well, almost everyone. I–” Squirming a bit uncomfortably as they all stared at me, I muttered, “I’m sorry.” 

“You mean you’ve been a girl this whole time?!” Peyton blurted, her eyes widening dramatically. She pushed herself back up from the same chair she had just dropped into. 

“Well I didn’t just change,” I managed reflexively before flushing even more. “I mean yes, this is me. This is who I’ve always been. It was easier to hide my identity by pretending to be a boy.” Even as I said those words, the awkwardness felt worse. Not just because I was telling them about how much I had lied, but also because this was me as myself rather than hiding behind the identity of Paintball. I hadn’t fully realized up until that point how much the mask and helmet had allowed me to pretend to be another person. Which was really weird given the actual situation. The anonymity of being Paintball rather than Cassidy really had affected me more than I thought. Revealing myself like this, talking to them as myself rather than through the mask, helmet, and voice changer made me feel a lot more vulnerable. Especially because it was happening all at once. I was exposing myself to all five of them, rather than having separate discussions the way I’d planned originally. This whole thing was a lot. 

But if I thought it was a lot for me, it had to be pretty heavy for them too. And they didn’t even know the half of it yet. If they thought their minds were blown now…

Clearing my throat, I straightened up to look at all of them. They had fallen silent for the moment, just staring at me while absorbing what I’d said. So, I continued. “Like I said, I pretended to be a boy because it’s easier to hide my identity that way. Especially because it means I can pretend to be younger than I really am. And it’s important that I hide who I am. I mean, even more important than it would be for most people.” 

“Who are you?” That was Peyton, sputtering a bit as she added, “I mean, why would Paige and Sierra’s dad have a special body made that looks like you?! He didn’t make it because you’re Paintball, they said he doesn’t even know that you’re Paintball. And besides, it would have been made a long time ago, right? So the only reason he’d make a body that looks like you is if he had some kind of history with you before, but what kind of history could it be? I mean, who are you to him? Who are you at all? What–wait–” 

She started to continue along those lines, while the others began to sputter questions too, making things difficult to keep track of. It was starting to spiral. But I held up both hands to hold them off. “It’s okay, guys, I’m going to explain, I promise. Maybe I should’ve explained the whole thing before, but… but I was nervous. I mean–sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I lied to you guys for so long. But there’s a reason I’m so… I’m sorry. Just let me explain, please?” 

They all stared at me for another moment before Peyton showed up from her chair and nodded. Her voice cracked just a little. “It’s okay, Paintball. Or… or whoever you are. You can tell us the truth. We’re listening.” 

Her words were met with an assortment of nods from the others, even Paige and Sierra, who were staying in the background and being quiet through most of this. I’d actually gotten through the initial bombshell of showing my face and revealing that I was a girl, and now they were ready for me to actually explain the situation. Which, of course, would involve several more bombshells. But whatever, there was no turning back now, so here went nothing. And given the situation, I decided that I might as well start with a big one 

“My name is Cassidy,” I informed them, my own voice faltering just a bit before I forced myself to continue. “Cassidy Evans.” 

Yeah, that sure got a reaction. Everyone did even have more of a double-take than they had when I first revealed my face. Fred managed an incredulous, “Cassidy Evans? As in the daughter of–was in the–I pointed a gun at Cassidy Evans?!” His voice rose to an almost amusing shrill shriek with that exclamation. I could see and hear the reaction across his face and in his words. “You’re like, the richest, most important kid in town and I just–and I was–oh God.” It was his turn to sit down heavily in the nearest chair, clearly playing through what could have happened in his head. “If I shot you, if you–if your parents–” It sounded like he was about to be sick, his face pale.  

“It’s okay,” I assured him. “You didn’t know. I mean– wait, what am I saying, of course it wasn’t okay. You were kind of being a jerk at the time. But whatever, my point is this doesn’t make it worse. Or it does, but not for the reason you–never mind. You’re right though, it would’ve been bad if you shot me and my parents found out, because–” 

“It’s them, isn’t it?” That was Peyton. “They’re the ones behind this whole Ministry thing. They’re the ones in charge. That’s how you know for a fact that it isn’t Caishen, and why you’ve been so obsessed with hiding your identity. That’s why it’s so important that everyone thinks you’re a boy, a younger boy even. Because if anyone would recognize you as a girl, it’s your parents. And you really don’t want them to, because they’re the ones you’re trying to stop.”  

Taking a deep breath, I nodded that way. “Yeah, you pretty much nailed it. I found out the truth about my family the same time I got my powers, a couple months ago.” 

From there, I went on to explain the situation from the start. They all fell silent and watched while I started with hiding inside the car that night. Well, mostly silent. They did have a bit of an exclamation when I mentioned that I was hiding in one of the cars in our garage. But that quieted down soon enough, mostly because they wanted to hear the whole story. 

So, I told them. I explained about what I’d seen that night, about Touching the orb, getting my powers and using them accidentally for the first time, about hiding under the dumpster, hearing my brother, then eavesdropping on my mother and him at home, going out that first night in my makeshift costume and finding out my dad was Silversmith, and so on. I told them about the whole thing, the full story about what I had been through over the last couple of months. It was a lot to get through, especially given the way they were staring at me. 

I did leave out a couple of things, of course. I didn’t tell them about Raindrop being Izzy and living with me, or about That-A-Way being Amber. Those weren’t my secrets to tell, so I had to leave them out. Those two weren’t here to say it was okay. If they wanted to reveal themselves later, that was up to them. I wasn’t going to force the issue. This was enough for now. 

Once I had finished explaining everything that I could, including the whole bit about my history with Paige, who Anthony was and what had happened to my memory, and so on, I finally took a drink from the can of soda that Paige had offered me partway through that. “So,” I announced hesitantly after swallowing hard, “that’s the truth. That’s who I am and why I’ve been lying. Like I said, I had to hide my identity from my parents. They’ve got people everywhere, and I didn’t know who to trust. I still don’t, really. Except for you guys. You guys have earned that. So have Way and Raindrop, but they already know who I am.” 

“They do?” Murphy managed. “They already–wait so you know who they are?” 

Grimacing a little, I hesitated before nodding. “But I can’t tell you, because–” 

“That’s okay,” Peyton immediately put in. “Don’t uhh, don’t worry. We get it. Right?” She pointedly looked to the others, who all agreed. “You don’t have to expose their secrets just because you’re telling us yours. You–you’re really…” She rocked back on her heels, head shaking. “Holy shit, Paintball, this is pretty big.” 

Wren, who had come down from the ceiling by then, landed near me. She was biting her lip as she looked me up and down before starting hesitantly. “But… you’re still Paintball, right?” 

My head bobbed quickly as I met her gaze. “Yes. Yes, of course it’s still me. I’m still me. I’ve always been me, just a different me than you thought. Sort of different. I’m just older and a different gender than you thought, that’s all. The rest of it is still just me.” 

“That’s all?” Peyton echoed. “That’s a pretty big difference. I mean, in some ways.” She grimaced a little, taking a breath. “Sorry, I don’t–I’m not saying it’s–yeah. I get it. I think we all get why you lied about that even after you told us the other stuff. It’s a pretty big thing to get into. And you already dropped some pretty major bombs before.”

Murphy nodded. “Yeah, for sure. We totally get why you did it, but it’s still a lot to take in, you know? Like, I’ve been thinking of you one way this entire time, and the truth is completely different. You’re older than we are. You’re a girl. You–it’s–fuck, dude. Like I said, it’s a lot.” 

Everyone was quiet for a moment before Roald spoke up. “Plus, you’re not just a girl and older, you’re Cassidy Evans. The Cassidy Evans. Which, for the record, you don’t look anything like I expected. When people talk about Cassidy Evans, I always picture like, you know…” He trailed off before turning to gesture toward Paige without saying anything. 

Swallowing, I did my best not to make too much of a face. “Yeah, I get that a lot, trust me. My mom said I should take it as a good thing in some ways. The fact that people don’t really know what I look like means I don’t get mobbed out on the street. I guess she sort of has a point.”  

“Wait, hold on, are you sure that is what you look like?” That was Murphy, straightening up suddenly as she stared at me intently. “You said your family has a way of putting illusions over people, right? Are you sure they’re not doing it to you so that you and everyone else see this?” 

My mouth opened and shut a couple times before shaking my head. “First, I don’t think it works that way. I’m pretty sure the people that have illusions on them are using some sort of Touched-Tech for it, and I don’t have anything like that on me. If they were casting a hologram over me or something, I think it would have to come from something I had with me all the time. It’s not like I have a bracelet or something that I’m always wearing. And if it was somehow projecting the effect from somewhere to everywhere I go, they would have figured out who I really was by now.” 

“Plus the idea of them having some sort of machine that can project illusions over people anywhere in the city, and even out of the city, is pretty goddamn terrifying,” Peyton noted. “So personally, I’d rather believe they’re not quite that ridiculously powerful.”  

“Yeah, that too,” I agreed. Taking a breath, I started to say something else, before Sierra spoke up first. 

“Anyway, there’s definitely no illusion going on with her, because that one knew her five years ago.” She gestured to Paige. “And there hasn’t been a real change.” Turning back to me, she offered a shrug. “Sorry, not to be insulting or anything. I mean, you’ve gotten a bit bigger and all. And you–” 

Flushing deeply, I quickly cut her off. “I get it, yeah. I haven’t changed.” To the others, I added, “That was my second point. Not the Paige thing, but the whole bit about me from the past. There are pictures and videos of me throughout the whole time I’ve been growing up and there’s never a big shift in what I look like. Even if they had the ability to do something like that, I don’t think they’d carry it on for this long. That would just be cruel, and my parents are a lot of things, maybe even sometimes cruel to other people, but not to me. And yeah, I know how that sounds. I really do. But seriously. They’re not complete monsters. This whole thing would be–it’d be easier if they were. They’ve done a lot of bad things, but they’ve also done a lot of good things. My dad is literally Silversmith. He’s saved a lot of people.” 

“And he’s let a lot of other people get hurt and die,” Murphy pointed out. Her voice didn’t really sound accusatory, however. If anything, she sounded sympathetic. “Believe me, I know what it’s like to have a family member who does bad things sometimes but also does a lot of good.” 

Oh. Right, yeah she would understand that, wouldn’t she? It was a reminder that made me flinch a bit before I found my voice. “About that–” 

“I know,” she interrupted. “Your parents are the ones who made the call to help that piece of shit escape the city in the first place.” Her face twisted a bit as she clearly went through an assortment of emotions as far as that was concerned. “Trust me, I’ve been thinking about that this whole time. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. But I’m pretty sure they’re also the one who had him end up in the garbage. Probably cuz he made too much noise for them or something. You know, they stuck to the letter of their deal to get him out of the city and then shot him in the head or something. But he survived somehow and got powers. Or just managed to live with a bullet in the head long enough for one of those orbs to find him. And really, who could’ve predicted that?” 

Despite her words, I could still see anger in her expression and hear it in her voice. It was mostly undirected anger. She wanted Luciano dead, and the people who had helped him escape justice were the same ones who had apparently tried to make that happen. Yet they had failed at that, and now he was more dangerous than ever. Yeah, I could see how that entire situation would give her very conflicted feelings. If my family had just left it alone and let us take him in… fuck. yeah. She wasn’t the only one who had conflicted feelings.  

“We still don’t even know why he went nuts and started this whole thing in the first place,” Peyton pointed out. “Like you said, he started freaking out and causing trouble before he even had to get out of the city. That’s why he had to–” 

“Oscuro,” I blurted. “The cop from the other day outside the laundromat, he told me Luciano owed money to Oscuro. I guess maybe having Cuélebre breathing down your neck could motivate someone to go after all that money.” 

“What’re you gonna do about him?” Fred asked after we had all gone silent for a few seconds considering that realization. “Luciano that is, not Cuélebre. I mean, they’re both–” He stopped, shaking his head. “Point is, he’s still out there and he’s gonna keep hurting people, right? So what’re… uhh, we gonna do? Not that this whole thing about Paintball isn’t fascinating and all, trust me. I’m pretty freaked out myself. But seriously, he’s still out there.”

Everyone looked at me for a moment, and I hesitated while an assortment of thoughts ran through my head. Eventually, I exhaled before starting with, “First, I think we should let the Ministry know what happened, at least as much as we can without giving ourselves away. They don’t want him to be a problem any more than we do. If we’re right about them being the ones who tried to kill him, then they’ll want him stopped too. And they have a lot more resources than we do.” 

“Do you want to stop your family?” Murphy asked, her eyes on me. “Sorry, not to totally change the subject–for very long I mean, but really. Do you want to break up the Ministry?” 

Once again, my mouth opened and shut. I closed my eyes and grimaced a little before opening them as I looked at her. “I don’t know exactly what I want. That’s the biggest problem here, at least from my end. I know I don’t want things to stay the way they are. Yes, my family has done some good things, but they’ve also done some bad things. I believe they think they’re making the city better by only allowing some crime and all that. But… but they’re also making it worse in other ways. It’s like–” Cutting myself off, I tried to put my thoughts into words. “They might be stopping the city from being as bad as it could be, but they’re also stopping it from being as good as it could be. They’re keeping it static. People are still suffering. There’s still homeless, still people being shot and dying in the street, there’s still… there’s still stuff we could fix. I don’t believe there can be a place where there’s absolutely no crime and no suffering at all, but I sure as hell believe it can be better than this. I believe that the Ministry puts profit first, even if they also do some good. And I want to change that. But I can’t as long as it exists the way it does right now. I want to make things better.” 

The others were silent for a moment after I finished saying that, until Wren finally grabbed both of my hands and squeezed them. “We’re all gonna help! We’re gonna help make things better, right?” 

That was met with mixed agreement, before Paige made a point of clearing her throat. “I can… I can contact the Ministry. Anonymously, I mean. I have a phone number for them. I can give them a quick rundown of what happened so they can start looking for him before he… hopefully before he hurts too many people.” 

“Before he kills too many people, she means,” Sierra put in. “And yeah, probably best that you keep it anonymous, because I don’t think they’d listen to the group that just broke into their base.”

“Probably not,” I agreed. 

I started to say something else about that, but was interrupted as the phone in the store rang. Everyone looked that way as Fred grimaced and muttered an apology before answering it. He listened for a second, then looked over and held the phone out to me. “It’s for you, Paintball.” 

I started to take it, only to quickly turn the voice changer back on at a pointed nudge from Paige. Making sure it was working, I took the phone and answered, “Who is this?” 

“Fabulist,” came the response from a male voice. “You know why I’m calling.” 

“Glitch wants an answer about the Touched-Tech tax thing,” I guessed. 

“Exactly,” he confirmed. “It’s been a lot longer than two weeks, since we got a little… busy. But she’s ready now. And she wants to talk in person again. She’ll meet you at the old pizza place where you met before. You know where that is?” 

Thinking about that briefly, I replied, “Yeah, I remember where it is. We’ll be there. When?” 

“Tomorrow evening,” was the answer. “Make it around this time. And don’t make us wait for too long.” 

He hung up then, so I did the same. Everyone was staring at me as I explained what that was. 

“So you’re going?” Paige asked. 

“We are,” I confirmed, looking over the others. “We’re all finally on the same page. No pun intended.” I added that with a glance toward the blonde girl before continuing. “You guys know the truth. You know what’s really going on. So I’m not going to this meeting alone. If you–if you’re still with me, I think we should go as a team. All of us together, finally.

“Time for everyone to meet the full Avant-Guard.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Enkindle 23-06 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

So, we had a lot to talk about on the drive back to Detroit. Part of me wanted to stay and keep looking through that apartment, or even hunt for Luciano himself. But it was too dangerous. Not just because the man could ambush us again, but also because I was pretty sure the distant sirens we heard were thanks to someone calling the cops about the disturbance. No way did we want to stick around and try to explain what was going on, especially given I wasn’t dressed up like Paintball. It would raise far too many questions. And potentially expose too much to my parents. Overall, being found there by the authorities was a terrible idea in general. 

Not that we were able to come up with many answers on the ride. After telling Fred about what had happened, he was even more freaked out and confused than we had been. And that was a pretty high bar to start with. None of us understood exactly what all that had been about, aside from guessing that Luciano had Touched. But what the fuck kind of Touch had it been? He was dead, like, he had a bullet hole in the center of his forehead. But he was still moving around and acting like it didn’t bother him. Plus, he regenerated from everything we did, was incredibly strong and pretty fast, and he gave off that heat. Especially from his glowing teeth. It just–the whole thing was–he had powers. That much was clear. But the rest of it, the fact that he seemed to be a living, mobile corpse? That was new. And incredibly fucked up. 

Once we got back to the pawn shop, we talked to Wren and Paige about it too. And that didn’t help either. Paige beat herself up a bit about not coming with us, but Sierra and I both told her to knock it off. We’d gotten out of there just fine. Well, relatively speaking. 

Then there was Peyton, who had apparently snuck out of her room and came back to the shop to wait for us once her mother got home from the hospital and went to bed. Hearing our story, she clearly felt even worse than Paige did that she hadn’t come with. “I’m sorry, guys. I should’ve–” 

“You shouldn’t have done anything different,” I insisted. “Your mom needed your help. What about her friend, is she–” 

“She’s fine,” Peyton replied immediately. “I mean, she’ll be okay. She just tripped on the steps and broke her leg. Nothing nefarious or, uh, Touched-related.” Even as she said that, I could tell that some part of her mind had been entertaining the paranoid notion that the Ministry had somehow attacked her mother’s friend to get at her. Obviously they wouldn’t need to be that circumspect about it. If they knew she was involved with the break-in at their base, they would have been a lot more direct than breaking her mother’s friend’s leg. Still, I couldn’t blame her for having the thought. Hell, I had too, for just a very brief second before dismissing it. 

“Well that’s good,” Roald started, before visibly blanching. “I mean, not good that your mom’s friend broke her leg. Just–” He winced, gesturing a little with both hands as though trying to explain with sign language what his mouth couldn’t put into words. “You know what I mean.” 

Peyton gave a very slight, almost imperceptible smirk. “I know.” She nudged him. “It’s cool. You guys are the ones who ended up almost dying out there. I should apologize to you.” 

“Nobody should apologize to anybody,” I immediately put in, before amending, “I mean, there’s a lot of people who need to apologize–nobody here needs to apologize about going or not going anywhere. We all did what we needed to do. And we got out of there without losing any people or any limbs. It wasn’t pretty, but we made it.” 

“So what do you think happened to Luciano?” That was Wren. She was hovering several feet off the floor, wings beating the air rapidly like a dragonfly while ‘sitting’ cross-legged. “Did he really turn into a zombie?”

“There’s no such thing as zombies,” Paige informed her simply. 

“Says the walking artificial biological construct puppeted by a robot ball that’s been stuffed with a copy of a girl’s brain,” Sierra pointed out with a snort. She was squinting that way, which was still weird to see coming from my own face now that she’d taken the mask off. It was like staring into a mirror. Or a photograph, given I wasn’t making that expression at the moment. Except she had blonde hair and–it was weird. It was just plain weird, even now that I’d had a whole day to get used to it. 

Okay, yeah, it was just possible that this would take longer than one day to actually ‘get used to.’ 

“And yeah,” Sierra continued, “that applies to me too. I’m just saying, weirder things than zombies have happened in this world. And nobody knows what exactly those orbs are capable of. Err, the Summus Proelium orbs, not our orbs.” 

“Too many orbs,” Peyton complained. “Couldn’t your dad have made your computer selves out of, I dunno, pyramid shapes?” 

“Sure, we’ll add that to the list of reasons we need to smack the shit out of him,” Sierra replied. “It’s already a long list, but I’m not gonna object to another excuse to put my fist through his teeth.”

Clearing my throat, I looked toward Wren. “We don’t know what happened to Luciano. My only guess is that he somehow Touched right as he was dying, and it kept him alive. I know-um, people can survive being shot in the head. Maybe whoever thought they killed him dumped the body and he managed to stay alive long enough for an orb to show up and it… the powers it gave him are keeping him functional? I don’t know why it’s healing everything except that bullet hole, but maybe it considers that to be the normal state of his body or something.” 

“But who killed him?” Roald hesitantly asked, sounding even more confused than I felt. “Or tried to, I mean. Was it the Ministry? Why would they go to all the trouble of getting him out of town, just to turn around and execute him?” 

“Maybe they wanted to follow the letter of their agreement,” Paige pointed out. “He paid them to get him out of town, so they did. Then they killed him for making a mess of things and attracting attention. Think about it, they rely on keeping things quiet and calm. Things already aren’t quiet and calm, but he made it worse. He went out and started shooting a bunch of people, and something tells me he didn’t have their permission for that. They were probably a little annoyed. Especially since he wasn’t supposed to know anything about them.” 

That made me blink. “He wasn’t supposed to know about them?” 

“Yeah, it was in there.” She nodded toward one of the hard drives. “Luciano was never on their actual payroll. One of their other… agents gave him the number to call if he was in trouble. From the notes someone added to it, the leaders weren’t happy about that. Sounds like the cop who gave him the number was supposed to get a talking to about it.” 

Absorbing that, I rocked back on my heels thoughtfully. “So Luciano wasn’t even supposed to know about them. But some cop he knew gave him the number and he called for help getting out of town. They gave him the price, and he paid it. But why was he so desperate to get that money in the first place? I mean, think about it. What’s the order of events here? He went nuts trying to collect money and that got him in trouble so he had to leave town. But he used the money he collected while going nuts to pay for his passage. So why’d he need to get it in the first place? What happened to make him decide he had to blow up his whole life here, collect everything he was owed in one night, piss off the whole city, and bounce?” 

“You mean something had to have happened before he went nuts and started shooting people,” Murphy put in, her voice sounding thick with emotion. “Before he shot my brother.”

Grimacing despite myself, I nodded. “Exactly. What happened to make him decide he had to go that far? He pissed everyone off and had to skip town because of all the commotion he made. But what made him decide he had to make that commotion to begin with? Obviously he decided he had to leave town before all that. Trying to collect what everyone owed him, and shooting the people who didn’t pay up, was about getting as much money as he could in one day. So what made him so desperate to get out of town in the first place?” 

“If the Ministry knows,” Paige replied, “it wasn’t in any of the notes that we stole. At least not that I can find. From the sound of things, they were barely aware of him until he called for assistance. But we do know that he made the call before he started going around shooting people. He called them, they named their price for getting him out, and then he got the money they asked for by… by doing all that.” 

“Why didn’t he just leave the normal way?” Fred demanded. The man was staring at us in disbelief and confusion. “I mean, the whole reason he had to get the Ministry to help him escape in the first place was because of all the heat on him. But he only had that heat because of what he did to get the money to pay the Ministry to get him out–what?” 

My mouth opened, then shut as I frowned. “Yeah, you’re right. That doesn’t make sense. There had to be some reason besides the chaos he made that night for why he had to get out of town fast and couldn’t just leave the normal way. Maybe he had some other people watching him, or… something? I dunno. But there had to be something, and apparently the Ministry didn’t know about it. Yet it was enough to make him that desperate to leave.” 

“Maybe we need to look into that too,” Paige murmured thoughtfully. “There has to be a reason, and it might be related to his situation now. Or maybe it’ll tell us what he’s planning to do. If he’s got power now, if he can’t be killed, he might show up in town to find whoever made him so desperate to leave in the first place. You know, for revenge.” 

Sierra glanced to me, her voice flat. “Or he might want revenge against the Ministry themselves. If they were the ones responsible for his–his not-death, or whatever.” She made a face, sighing heavily. “This whole thing is confusing. Too bad we couldn’t get answers out of Luciano himself.” 

“We can,” Murphy put in sharply, “as soon as we find that piece–” She hesitated, glancing toward Wren. 

“That piece of shit,” Wren herself promptly put in. “It’s okay. I’m not a baby, and he’s earned being called a bad word. Right, Uncle Fred?” 

With a faint cough, Fred himself hesitated only slightly before shrugging. “Yeah, sure. No soap for anyone’s mouth. Let’s just try not to make too much of a habit out of it.” Even as the man said that, I could see the look of disbelief crossing his face. Clearly, he didn’t consider himself the sort of person to make a big deal out of cursing. At least, not until he had found himself in the position of caretaker for a little girl like Wren. 

Peyton spoke up after we had all exchanged glances. “We have to find the guy and trap him somehow, but then what? And how do we trap him to begin with? You said he melted through everything you tried to hold him with, and even once you put the dumpster on him, he just…” 

“He disappeared,” Roald finished flatly. “No hole in the dumpster, or the ground, or anything. He just vanished.” 

“Which means he’ll be even harder to trap than if he just had the burning power,” I confirmed. “We don’t even know how he disappeared. Can he teleport? Or–or whatever. I dunno. We don’t know anything about it. Which is just fantastic, really. Because we didn’t already have enough problems with the whole burning living zombie who regenerates from everything you throw at him part. He’s gotta be Houdini too.” 

“Don’t forget about how he killed more people when he ripped their throats out,” Sierra noted, hoisting herself up to perch on the edge of one of the counters. “I mean he was already a murderer before, but still. There’s a difference between shooting someone with a gun and… that.” She grimaced just a bit at the thought. 

Murphy straightened a little, her voice quiet. “Either way, they end up dead. He’s killed a lot of people, including my brother. So we have to catch him somehow. We have to stop him.”

“Maybe we should tell the Ministry,” Peyton mused. When everyone looked at her, she shrugged. “What? I don’t mean we walk up, tell them who we are, and ask for help. I mean anonymously. If they’re the ones who had him executed–or tried to, he’ll be after them too. So they should want to put a stop to him. He knows too much and he’s too dangerous. Plus, they’ve got a lot more resources than we do, obviously. Why not point them at him and let those people deal with it? Like Roald was saying about telling them about the whole Pittman situation.” 

I felt funny about that suggestion, for several reasons. But I shook it off and replied, “I’m not sure how we get the information to them quietly, without letting them know who we are or how we found out. An anonymous tip, but to where? Wait, there’s probably phone numbers in those notes we stole, right?” 

“Plenty of them,” Paige confirmed. “Shouldn’t be hard to make an anonymous call. Just have to decide what exactly to tell them.” 

“And while we’re at it, we should tell the actual authorities too,” I pointed out. “Again, anonymously. We can let them know what we saw him do, what he’s capable of, as much as possible without giving away our actual identities. I don’t want him to take the whole city by surprise. I mean… they won’t have a lot of reason to believe we aren’t lunatics making stuff up, but still. We have to say something about it.” 

Paige gave a heavy sigh. “It wouldn’t be a problem if we’d been able to put him down in the first place. I–I’m sorry I wasn’t there.” 

“I was,” Sierra reminded her. “And trust me, you wouldn’t have been able to do that much more than I did.” 

With a wince, Paige replied, “I wasn’t trying to say that I could–I just–I’m sorry I wasn’t there. If anything had happened to you, or Paintball, or any of you–” 

“It would’ve happened to you too,” Sierra finished firmly. “You wouldn’t have been any better prepared to face that guy, believe me. Besides,” she added while munching on a cookie that Wren had been holding out to her, “your job was to go through those hard drives. We did our part–okay we didn’t exactly solve the issue, but still. What’d you find out?” 

Paige hesitated, making it clear that she thought we should keep talking about the Luciano thing. But it was equally clear that we couldn’t really do anything about it right then. And the other stuff was important too. So, she exhaled and gave a short nod. “Right, yeah there was interesting stuff. A lot of it we’ll have to take a little bit at a time, like names and accounting numbers. There’s a list of people in the government who pay or do favors for them, but it’s not clear just how much those people know. Most of them are really… compartmentalized. Like a terrorist cell. They only know their immediate supervisor, and usually they have no idea just how big the whole thing is. They all think the organization is a lot smaller than the whole city. Hell, a lot of them just think they’re giving information, money, or whatever to a single guy who happens to have something over on them. Blackmail, a paycheck, whatever. 

“For most of these people, it’s not like they go clock in every day and get a paycheck from ‘The Ministry.’ They do their ordinary jobs, I mean, some not so ordinary, but still. They do their jobs as a policeman, or an accountant in the mayor’s office, or as a guard in the prison, or whatever. Then a phone rings and a voice tells them to do something. Which they do, and then they get an envelope with some money in it. And then they don’t hear from the voice until they need to do something else. That’s the biggest part of the Ministry, just low-level… contractors, for lack of a better term. They do a job they’re told to do, and get paid for that moment. And most of them don’t even know what that piece amounts to. They’re a small part of the puzzle. Open a door at the right time, lock a gate at the wrong time, pass a list of names along, names they sometimes don’t know anything about. They don’t have the full puzzle, so they can’t figure out what’s actually going on. Some are being blackmailed or threatened to make them stay in line and accept their money quietly. Others are just in it willingly. Either way, they don’t know the full extent of any of it.”

With that, Paige perched herself against the nearby counter, shaking her head. “However the Ministry set this up, they managed to keep almost every piece of the organization separate and mostly clueless about the others.” She glanced to me briefly, our eyes meeting before she went on. “The ones they don’t trust are watched over by ones they trust slightly more, and so on up the ranks. Everyone is watching each other, and they never know which of their superiors or even subordinates are part of it, or being paid to keep an eye on them. Sometimes the Ministry pays one of them to keep an eye on someone who isn’t connected to the organization at all, just to confuse them and make them question whether that person knows something.” 

“That sounds like it could get really fu–freaking complicated,” Murphy pointed out, correcting herself with a glance toward Wren while shaking her head. “How do they keep track of everything?” 

“They do have people who know the truth, or most of it,” Paige replied. “It’s just that the full organization is mostly made up of people who only know little bits and pieces. The leaders are really careful about how much information gets out there.” 

Roald cleared his throat, speaking up hesitantly. “Uh, what about those leaders? Is there anything about them? Like… who they are? That’s probably pretty important information.” 

Murphy was nodding rapidly. “Hey, yeah. Who runs this group? They’ve gotta be important. Like, the police commissioner or one of the Star-Touched leaders. Oh, what about Caishen? She’s all about making money off Touched stuff. Hell, Ten Towers would be the perfect organization, right? They’re already, like… you know, set up for all that. They’re an established group of super-rich companies, they have the infrastructure, the contacts, she has reason to go into all those places without raising anyone’s suspicion, she can go back and forth between the corporate world, the government people, and even the cops without anyone batting an eye.” Even as she spoke, the girl’s words started getting louder and faster as she grew more and more into the idea. “That’s gotta be it, right? That’s how they–” 

“It’s not her,” I quickly put in, not wanting her to go barking too far up that particular tree. Fred, Wren, Peyton, and Roald had all started to look pretty convinced through that, while Sierra and Paige had glanced toward me. 

“What?” Murphy blinked, before frowning slightly. “How do you know it’s not her?” 

I froze, my mouth opening while no actual sound came out. I had been planning to–okay I had been trying to plan how to talk to them all separately, Peyton first. But this… “You guys all–you’ve done more than I ever could have expected. And some of you almost died tonight thanks to whatever Luciano is now. I–you helped break into the Ministry base, you’ve kept that secret, you–you’ve done more than enough. More than you should’ve had to do before I told you the truth.”

“The truth about what?” Peyton asked, glancing from me to Murphy and Roald, then back again. 

No more stalling. No more excuses. It was… it was past time. “The truth about me,” I replied, straightening up as I reached for the ski mask I was still wearing. “About who I really am. 

“And about my parents.” 

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Enkindle 23-03 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Hey guys, the non-canon for this story was posted over the weekend and can be read by everyone now right here!

For the next hour or so, we worked our way through searching the stuff we had taken from the Ministry base. Amber (as That-A-Way of course) showed up to help out while on a break from patrol duties, and was immediately recruited to scan through a pile of papers. The more the merrier. Or at least, the more the less this mind-numbing job of reading what often looked like gibberish would drag on. 

There was something that appeared to be a key for the code that was written on those papers and the vials, but I wasn’t able to decipher it with a brief once-over. So, I passed it over to Paige, who said she would figure it out and decode what was written on them, but it would take awhile. 

Beyond that, we found some interesting things. First and possibly foremost, there was a ledger that showed how up to date on their payments various gangs were. Not just the Detroit ones, but practically all of the organizations throughout the entire state. Nearly every Fell-Touched group (aside from a couple like the Scions) and even most of the non-Touched gangs were represented in the ledger. If you were a criminal group of more than one person (and even some who were solo), you paid taxes to the Ministry. 

But it went further than that. Because obviously having that many people know about the Ministry would make it impossible to keep even a little bit secret. So the vast majority of criminals who paid their fees had no idea that it was part of a larger organization. The Ministry had lieutenants who acted as though they were the boss of an area, unconnected to anyone else. They made people who acted in their territory pay tribute, then secretly passed everything but their own salary to the higher-ups. And for the most part, even the lieutenants didn’t know how wide-reaching the whole thing was. They were all divided into smaller cells who didn’t know anything about the other groups, and didn’t know that a number of their rivals in an area were actually also working for the Ministry. Some of the lieutenants were gang bosses, while others were actually their right-hand people who were secretly keeping the Ministry up-to-date on what was going on. The operation encompassed the entire state of Michigan, and we had all these names and the explanations of what they were doing. 

It wasn’t all in one spot, of course. It wasn’t like all of this information was conveniently written out for us. We had to piece it together between the ledger and several other pieces, including on a few of the hard drives, which were heavily encrypted and password protected. We would have been shit out of luck if we hadn’t had Paige and Sierra. They were able to use the…wires that extended from their fingers to plug into the hard drives and access them directly. 

As expected, there were none of my family’s real names written down anywhere. Not even in the secret encoded parts of the computers. Which made me slightly relieved, a reaction which instantly made me feel guilty. This was wrong, it was all wrong. It was going to blow up in my face somehow, I just knew it. But right now, I just had to focus on this stuff.  

Murphy was shaking her head, muttering about how none of this would help find Luciano, when she abruptly paused. From the corner of my eye, I saw the girl quickly shuffle back through a few other pages she had been looking at before elbowing Roald beside her. She asked him where something else they had been looking at a moment earlier was, and he dug through a discarded pile before handing it to her. She had two papers, one in each hand, and was looking back and forth between them. “Hey… hey I think I got something about that piece of shit.” 

We all turned our attention that way, as she explained. “Okay so on this page they’re talking about something called Plan Z. I think it’s a group or a person or something. It says Plan Z couldn’t be called on for this other thing they needed, so they should send Squire. Then this other page with the same date mentions that this safe house is ‘now available’ because ‘L’ has been taken by Z and won’t be needing it anymore. That’s right after Luciano got away. Whoever or whatever Plan Z is, they probably escorted this L, Luciano, away from that safehouse and out of Ministry territory.”  

Taking that in, I frowned thoughtfully. “There’s a few other bits in here about a Plan Z. I thought it was like… an actual plan, but you’re right, it sounds more like a person or a group. Maybe a set of Touched they use? I dunno. Sending a group to escort Luciano seems like overkill, but then again, maybe they were nervous about us finding him again.” My shoulders raised in a slight shrug. “Does it say anything about where that Plan Z might’ve taken him?  I doubt he stayed there, but it might give us a place to start from.” 

“Maybe not there, but it does here.” That was Peyton, waving a hand with a small notebook clutched in it. “It’s like a memo or a reminder note or something in the margin. I didn’t think it was important at first, but the page right before it has the same date as those ones, and the memo says, ‘Z pick-up’ and then an address in Pontiac.” 

Right, Pontiac was a city about twenty miles north of Detroit. I absorbed that information. It made sense as a place to take Luciano. Far enough away to be clear of the city without taking up too much of their time.

Pack, who had been sitting at the far end of the table we were all gathered around, made a thoughtful noise in the back of her throat. “So, whoever these Plan Z people are, it sounds like they needed to be picked up after taking Luciano somewhere. Maybe they gave him the vehicle?” She ran two fingers along the top of Tuesday’s head as the gecko sat perched beside the papers she had been looking through, before turning her attention elsewhere. “What do you think, Sierra? Pretty interesting stuff, but then, you must be tired of just sitting around. Being trapped for all that time in a body with someone else, and now you’re completely free. But here you are just playing with paperwork. Don’t you want to get out there and have some fun?” 

“Please don’t try to recruit her into your villain gang until she at least has time to stretch her legs a bit,” Amber idly requested from where she was sitting basically right next to the La Casa Touched. She didn’t bother to look up from the files she had been scanning. “As far as having a body goes, she’s not even one day old.” 

As for Sierra herself, she offered a shrug. “Yeah, I wanna get out there. But there’s gonna be this nagging voice in the back of my head if I don’t help find Irelyn and those two Touched girls and get them off that island. And believe me, after everything we went through to get me this body, the last thing I want is another nagging voice in my head. I just got the old one to be external.” She gave a quick glance over toward Paige before adding, “So, the sooner we save those three, the sooner I can move on and figure out what my real life is going to be.” 

Clearing my throat a bit, I looked toward the stairs. Wren was up in her main lab, working on that tracer device that was supposed to tell us where exactly Breakwater was. I still wasn’t absolutely sure we would go with the plan to blackmail the people in charge into helping Flea and Trivial, but knowing where the island was would at least be a good place to start from. 

“Well, until we have something else to work with,” I announced, “I think we should check out that address that you guys found. Maybe Luciano isn’t there. I mean, he probably isn’t. But there could be something to tell us where else to look. He might’ve left a clue or something.” 

Murphy was nodding rapidly, shoving herself up from the table so firmly she nearly knocked over the stool she had been sitting on. “Fuck yeah, let’s get out there. I can’t take looking at another piece of paper right now or I’ll scream.”

Standing up, I hesitated. “We need to be quiet and stealthy about it. Whatever that address is, I don’t know if it’s a Ministry place or just somewhere they took Luciano and dropped him off. But whatever it is, if we show up and make a spectacle of ourselves, it’s going to get back to the Ministry. And I’m pretty sure they could put two and two together, considering those files were just stolen from their base yesterday. If the place looks like it’s guarded or whatever, we have to wait. And we don’t let them see us.” 

Paige started to rise, and I focused that way, shaking my head. “You should stay here. Keep working on those harddrives and see if there’s anything else we can use. This isn’t gonna be a fight, we’re just checking the place out and looking around if it seems clear. We need to be subtle right now.” 

“Paintball, subtle?” Pack snorted and gave me a look. “If I asked you to define that word, would you be able to?”  

Flushing a bit under the helmet and mask, I huffed at the girl. “I can be subtle when I want to be, I promise. I was subtle in that base last night.” Before she could say anything, I hurriedly amended, “I mean I was subtle about who I was and my power and—you know what I mean.” Now I was really blushing. “Look, the point is, we’ll just head over there and check the place out.” 

“Uh huh,” Pack gave me a long look. “And how are you going to get there, exactly? You know, to the city twenty miles north of Detroit. Without attracting attention.”

My mouth opened, then I paused before tilting my head. A muttered curse escaped me while Pack snickered. 

“I can’t drive,” Way hesitantly pointed out. “I’ve gotta get back to patrol pretty soon, or they’ll start to wonder where I am. Which we really don’t want.” 

Pack nodded. “And I’ve got–uhh, let’s just call them plans and leave it at that. Gotta do my real job, or the boss might wonder what else I’ve been doing with my time. Which, as Rose over there said, we don’t want.” 

“Yeah,” Way muttered, “wouldn’t want you to get kicked out of your job as a thief.” 

“I could drive,” Sierra idly noted. “I mean, I’d need a car for it, but I could drive.” She offered a somewhat feral smile then, which was weird to see on a face that was so like my own. It made a funny feeling form in my stomach before I pushed it down as she continued. “And hey, if I need to acquire a car for it–” 

“We’re not stealing a car,” I interrupted. This whole situation was already precarious enough without adding something like that in. It wasn’t likely that she would get caught, of course. And even less likely that she would stay caught, but still. The image of Sierra, in a body that looked like a blonde me, getting taken to the police station was just… no. No, we couldn’t risk anything like that. 

“Besides,” Murphy pointed out, “That body looks like you’re younger than we are. That body’s, what, fourteen?” 

“Oh, I dunno,” Pack put in casually, “appearances can be deceiving. Some people look older than they are, other people look younger. You can’t really go off first impression these days.” 

Murphy shrugged at that. “Whatever, the point is any cop who saw her driving would definitely pull you over to check, stolen car or not. She’d stand out. And I thought the whole point of this trip was to blend in and not attract attention.” 

I nodded quickly. “She’s right, we need to be subtle. That means not stealing any cars and not having someone drive who would make the cops do a double-take. So all of us who are wearing masks are out.” 

While we were all looking at each other and trying to figure out where to go from there, Fred grunted. “I’ll drive. Whatever, it’s just a quick recon thing, right? The kid’s gonna be busy upstairs for awhile, and if she needs something, you can take care of it.” He nodded toward Paige before turning his attention to me. “You want subtle, can’t get much more subtle than an old sedan. Long as that’s not a big fancy neighborhood, it’ll fit in just fine. Plus, I’ve got that bakery ID, so I can be out after curfew. Trouble is, I can only take a few of you. We can say you’re helping with loading stuff into the bakery trucks for some extra cash since the place is shorthanded.” 

“Well, Pack and Way are out,” I noted. “Raindrop isn’t here. So I’ll go with Alloy, Hobbes, and Calvin.” I nodded toward Murphy and Roald. “We’ll check it out, see what we can find.” 

“I’ll go with you.” That was Sierra. “Like I said, I really need to get out of here and stretch my legs. Besides, this way if something goes wrong, you’ll have some back-up.” She gave Paige a look. “It’s my turn to be out there. You can keep scanning the hard drives.” 

For a moment, I thought Paige was going to object. But she paused before exhaling. “Be careful.” Her gaze moved over the rest of us as she added, “All of you. Just don’t get involved in some big thing. If there’s trouble, get the hell out of there and come back. Like you said, we don’t want the Ministry to know that you’re involved. This whole house of cards will come down pretty damn quick if they get too many pieces of the puzzle.” 

Amber looked a bit guilty about the fact that she wasn’t going to be able to go with us. Focusing on me, she urged, “She’s right about being careful out there, okay? We caused a big scene last night. The Ministry is going to be on guard and itching for some payback after the bloody nose we gave them. They can’t cover everything, and they won’t know what we were looking for since we grabbed everything we could. But still, just… watch yourselves and don’t attract a bunch of attention. And if something goes wrong, call. I’d rather make an excuse for–I’d rather ditch and figure out how to explain it later so I can come help than have you guys end up in even worse trouble.” 

“We’ll be careful,” I promised. “We’re just going to check the place out and see if there’s anything to find that might tell us where that guy went. From those papers, it sounds like the Ministry took him from their safehouse to that spot. I’m pretty sure that means they just dropped him off, probably in a place he chose. Which would mean they don’t really have any ties to it. But either way, we’ll watch our backs.” Reaching out, I squeezed her shoulder. “But you watch yourself too, okay? Don’t get so distracted worrying about what we’re doing that you get yourself in trouble. There’s still a gang war going on out there.”

Pack made a noise in the back of her throat, before quietly excusing herself. She said something about coming back to check in on what we found later, before heading out to do her… whatever it was La Casa was doing. That whole situation was becoming more complicated by the day, especially given how much I could tell she and Amber liked each other. But it wasn’t my place to say anything. 

Instead, I focused on getting ready to go. With some reluctance, I changed into the other suit, complete with the raised shoes and fake chest. I didn’t want to, but if it came to it, better to be spotted by the Ministry looking like this than as Paintball. There was no sense in taking the risk, even if we weren’t planning on making a big scene. Or so I told myself repeatedly while putting the other suit on in the bathroom before going out to join the others. 

Peyton, Murphy, and Roald wore the same suits as last night as well, while Sierra simply had a ski mask. I had conflicting thoughts about her going out like that. But then again, I had conflicting thoughts about everything involving her. Including the fact that she was wearing a tummy-baring shirt and somehow pulling it off better than I could have even though the body she was using was literally identical to mine. 

So yeah, conflicting thoughts all around. Still, if we got caught and her mask was removed, we… it would be a whole thing anyway. If we got caught to the point that she lost the mask, I would lose mine too. And then we’d really have a situation. 

For the moment, however, I put all of that aside and tried not to focus on the terrible what-ifs. Instead, I headed out to the back lot where Fred’s car was. Unfortunately, just as we were about to head out, Peyton got a call from her mother. Apparently they had a sick friend, and her mother needed her to watch that friend’s kids while she took the woman to the hospital. She obviously felt bad about ducking out, but I assured her it was understandable and that we would be fine. After all, we were just going to poke around, it wouldn’t be that bad. 

She still looked doubtful, but stepped back while I got in the back of the sedan with Murphy and Roald. Sierra got in the front passenger side, not bothering with the mask just yet. 

Starting the car, Fred glanced in the back at us. “Don’t worry, those back windows might look clear, but…” He reached out, hitting something on the dash. “Now they’re tinted from the outside. Nobody can see you back there.” With a proud smile, he tapped the steering wheel. “She might look like an old jalopy, but Wren’s done a lot of tinkering. We get in a chase, whoever’s after us will be in for a big surprise.” 

“Let’s hope there’s no opportunity for you to prove that,” I put in. “At least, not today. But good to know.” 

“Just don’t let Paintball drive if you get into a chase,” Peyton pleaded while standing just outside the car, staring at us as though she was about to change her mind about going to help her mother.

Making a scoffing sound in the back of my throat, I primly pointed out, “I got us out of the last chase pretty well.” 

“You also got my stomach out of my lower torso pretty well,” Peyton shot back. “I’m pretty sure it still hasn’t settled properly.” 

Another huff escaped me. “Wimp. I could totally have driven crazier than that. I took it easy on you.” 

From the front seat, Fred gruffly informed us that he would be the one driving today. And with that, we all waved to Peyton and the others before pulling out onto the street. 

“Now,” our driver announced, “you all might want to sit back and relax for a few minutes, cuz if we’re trying to avoid attention, that means following the speed limit. And I guarantee, there’s gonna be traffic.”

He was right, of course. There was plenty of traffic from people heading home to get back before curfew hit. And just getting out of work in general. Pontiac had grown as well, alongside Detroit as it acted as a suburb for people to live in while working here in the city. At last count, the place had a population of about a hundred and fifty thousand or so. And part of me thought that the entirety of that was on the freeway with us. It made me want to jump out and find my own way to the city. Which would have been a terrible mistake, but still. 

It took over an hour and a half for us to drive the twenty miles from Detroit to Pontiac, which would have been worse if I hadn’t fallen asleep leaning against the window. When the car abruptly stopped, I jolted awake, suddenly feeling panicked about where I was and what was going on. 

“It’s cool,” Murphy assured me. From the sound of the yawn that came with her words, she had actually fallen asleep too. “We’re here.” 

“That’s right,” Fred confirmed, raising his hand to point across the street from where he had parked. “That’s the address. It’s number 3C.”  

I looked that way with the others and we immediately spotted an apartment building with what looked like some sort of memorial out front. There were flowers, wreaths, candles, and similar stuff all stacked up next to the stairs. 

“What…” I frowned. “What is that?” 

“I’ll check it out,” Sierra announced. And before I could say anything, she had the door open and was walking across the street to look at the memorial. There were a couple people standing nearby, and she said something to them before listening to their response. The whole time, I sat with my hands clenched tightly, praying nothing went wrong. 

A minute later, Sierra came back and got in. “It’s a memorial alright,” she announced. “Apparently a couple teenagers were killed by someone the day after that Luciano creep was supposed to have been dropped off. From what the one witness who survived said, they were poking around the dumpster back behind the building and someone attacked them. They ahh, they said it was a monster. Actually they said zombie. He came out of the garbage and screamed at them. The girl got away but her friends were… they weren’t as lucky. Apparently the monster bit them. Ripped their throats out with–” She stopped, grimacing. “It was bad, that’s the point. Real bad. And from the description the girl gave…” 

“Luciano?” I asked, before grimacing when she gave a silent nod. “Fuck. Okay wait, so…. the Ministry brought Luciano here… and the next day a few teenagers found him in the garbage, and when they disturbed him, he attacked and murdered a couple of them? By ripping their throats out with his teeth? And they said he was like a zombie? What–what does…

“What the fuck does that mean?”  

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Enkindle 23-02 (Summus Proelium)

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To my relief, the others did not immediately recognize the newly-dubbed Sierra as looking like me. The real me, that was. In the back of my mind, I sent a silent thanks that I had never really been a focus of paparazzi or whatever. I didn’t know how much of that was the fact that I didn’t fit what they would want to show as a daughter of Elena Evans, and how much was my parents keeping me sheltered from it. But either way, it helped me out right now. I could only imagine what sort of explanations we would have had to give otherwise. 

Maybe the truth. I was going to tell them the truth anyway, so why not now? It was a question I couldn’t quite answer, even to myself. 

Murphy, Roald, and Peyton were all circling Sierra, looking her up and down. Peyton gave a low whistle. “Damn, you really do look completely–I mean…” She looked back and forth between her and Paige. “I guess saying you look real is pretty bad, isn’t it? Cuz, like, you are real.”

Paige snorted at that. “Yeah, we’re real. Flesh and blood body, just like you. Well, not just like.” 

“More like a new and improved us,” Murphy murmured, before flushing a bit. “I mean, I didn’t–” She seemed to squirm a little bit as though embarrassed. “You both look great, but what I meant was the whole strength and speed stuff. Wait, do you have that same–you know.” She gestured a bit vaguely toward Sierra. “Improvements, I mean. Are you like a super-soldier like Paige?” 

A very slight smirk crossed the other girl’s face. And yes, seeing a look like that on my own face was still weird. The whole thing was weird. Every time I looked at her, I had another startling moment of realizing I was staring at my own face. It threw me off, to say the least. That smirk stayed as she inclined her chin a bit. “Like her? I’m pretty sure I could kick her ass.” 

Paige started to respond to that, and I quickly spoke up. “Why don’t we save finding that out for later? I’m just glad Rai–I mean Sierra has a body now, so we can move on to the next problem.” 

Roald made a noise deep in his throat, folding his arms across his chest before hesitantly asking, “You mean we don’t get to just be glad we got out of that whole thing alive and relax for awhile? She um, she has a body now, and it’s gonna take awhile to look through all that stuff, right? You don’t… you don’t want to go out and do something like that again already…”

Murphy’s hand slapped his back. “I think what he means is, we just did a lot of pissing some really powerful people off. And while all of that was fun, and they have that and a hell of a lot more coming–” Her face twisted a bit as thoughts of her brother clearly filled her mind briefly before she pushed them away. “–we probably don’t wanna push too hard, too fast. They’re gonna be on guard now. Even more on guard than usual. They’re gonna be watching for us. So maybe we should chill out.”

“He didn’t mean anything to do with the Ministry,” Paige informed them with a glance my way. “This is about my–our father.” The correction came as she met Sierra’s gaze briefly. “And the fact that he’s got…” She hesitated slightly, clearly deciding how much to actually say before starting over. “The fact that he’s got two Star-Touched trapped on that prison island with him. With them. With all those prisoners.” 

That made everyone else besides Sierra and me do a double-take. It was almost funny. Wren flew right up in the air, wings lifting her into a hovering motion so she was several feet off the ground. “Wait, wait, what?! He’s got Star-Touched on Breakwater?” 

“How did that happen?” Peyton demanded. “And how do you know about it?” 

Paige took a breath before explaining, “The Banners–the people who adopted… who bought me, they have an older daughter, a real daughter, who was estranged from them. When they went missing–err, when we went missing, she started looking for them. I guess Trivial was a friend of hers, because she convinced her to help look. Trivial got Flea, from the Conservators, to help too. When we found out that there were Star-Touched looking for me, we were afraid they’d tip off the Ministry. Or even that they were Ministry. So we made them think I was in Florida. You know, using a phone that made it look like that was where I was calling from.” 

Wren abruptly spoke up. “You were calling the umm, Trivial with that?” 

“Not at first,” Paige replied. “But when I wouldn’t tell Irelyn where I was, she uhh, thought making me talk to a Star-Touched would help. Obviously it didn’t change anything, but they kept trying.” 

This was all uncomfortable, obviously. I didn’t like the idea of lying to these guys. But then again, it was about protecting Irelyn’s secret identity. Awkward as the whole situation was, it would have been even worse to go blabbing that when it wasn’t our secret to tell. There was no simple answer here. We could either betray their trust by lying about the whole Irelyn/Flea situation, or betray Irelyn by exposing her identity to a lot of people she didn’t know anything about. I just had to hope that if this came out in the future, they would understand why we hadn’t told them the truth. Actually, I had to hope that they were cool with an awful lot of ‘not the whole truth.’  

I shook those thoughts off while Paige finished with a simple, “We thought it’d be safe enough down there, that they couldn’t get in trouble that far away from what was actually going on.” 

“You also sent them away from the city when this whole gang war is going on,” Roald pointed out. He didn’t exactly sound completely recriminating, but he didn’t not sound that way either. It was somewhere in the middle. “They could have done a lot of good here for people.” 

Wincing visibly, Paige nodded. “You’re right. We didn’t think they’d be gone for this long, honest. We assumed they’d go down for a few days and then come back. We didn’t expect anything like this.”  

“Stupid us, apparently,” Sierra put in. “Cuz they managed to get Pittman’s attention somehow and he had them… uh, we dunno what or how exactly, but they ended up on Breakwater. He has the phone they were using to communicate with Paige. Irelyn gave them the number. I guess she thought they might have more luck convincing her to tell them where she was.”

Peyton was looking back and forth between all of us, marbles orbiting agitatedly around her head while she was clearly thinking intently. “Okay, so this Banners woman was looking for you and her missing parents and she got a couple of Star-Touched involved. Does she know they ended up on Breakwater?” 

“We’re pretty sure she’s there too,” I found myself saying, picturing the hole I was digging getting deeper with each word. Though technically that was the absolute literal truth. We were pretty sure Irelyn was there. “Flea and Trivial went with her as back-up and now…” I grimaced. Fuck, it was so easy for this to go wrong and fall apart. The moment they didn’t see Irelyn with Flea and Trivial, it was–fuck. That was a problem to figure out later. We were doing the best we could not to give away her secret identity, but that could only go so far. 

“So there’s a Prev trapped on that island too?” Murphy blurted. “How’re they keeping her safe?” 

Paige shifted her weight a little, her tone flat. “She’s fully capable. Her father was training her to take over his security division before they had a falling out. She’s had more– she can take care of herself in a fight. With those two backing her up–or her backing them up–whatever, she can help.” 

I really almost had to admire Paige’s ability to lie in that moment. She really sounded like she was sticking up for Irelyn being able to keep up with a couple Star-Touched, as if offended by the insinuation that she would drag them down. 

Peyton started to say something else before stopping as a noise of confusion escaped her. “Wait, hold the phone, why isn’t this all over the news? If there were a couple heroes and some ordinary person trapped on that place, wouldn’t it be front-page material? We’d be seeing it on television, there’d be top pinned posts about it on Sphere, on Reddit, everywhere. And trust me, it’s not there. No one’s talking about anything like this. Not even rumors.” 

Grimacing behind my helmet, I shifted my weight uncomfortably before nodding. “That’s why we think they’re keeping it secret. The people on Breakwater, I mean. I don’t think they want anyone to know that there’s even a chance of good people ending up there. Because if people knew it was possible for someone to be transported onto Breakwater–” 

“They’d realize there must be a way to transport off of it,” Murphy finished, sounding disgusted. “And we can’t have that. Gotta keep up the fucking illusion of perfect security so there’s not mass panic in the streets or whatever the fuck they’re scared of. Even if it means abandoning those three–wait, do you think they’ve told the people here? Do you think their teammates know what happened to them? I guess they wouldn’t tell anyone that Irelyn chick knows, but the other two?” 

My head shook. “I don’t think the people in charge of that place would be able to keep it a secret if the Star-Touched here knew about it.” Pausing to consider, I added, “I mean, maybe one or two know, like the leaders? But I don’t… I don’t think even them. Honestly, I’m pretty sure that if even the Ministry knew about it, they’d be doing something to get the word out. Remember, their whole thing depends on balance. It’s not just about giving the villains a free ride. They need to have the power on the good side to shut down anyone who steps out of line. Losing two really good Star-Touched at any point, but especially right now, isn’t exactly conducive to that.”

“Besides,” Sierra put in, “Pittman’s their enemy. They’d want to get the word out and put a stop to it just to make sure that there was no chance of him getting off that place.” 

Peyton was nodding slowly, her voice thoughtful. “I mean, that’s a good point, right? Like, there’s no reason they’d be helping to keep this secret. Safe to say they don’t know anything about it.” 

Roald snorted. “Yeah, well, maybe we should tell them so they can do our work for us.” 

My mouth opened, before I stopped and grimaced behind the helmet. “I know you meant that sarcastically, but part of me wants to know if that’s something we could do. I mean, think about it. They’ve got a hell of a lot more resources than we do. And like we said, they’ve got every reason to want to shut him down and save Flea and Trivial.” 

“Has Irelyn been reported missing?” Peyton asked, her golden helmet tilting my way. “I mean, I doubt she took this much time off work. Her–wait, what does she do for work?” 

Paige was the one who answered. “She’s a security consultant for a few different tech companies. Trains their staff, works with a couple mercenary groups, that sort of thing. Freelance, so she doesn’t have anyone to report to. They might’ve noticed she hasn’t been answering calls, but what are they gonna say? Hell, they’d probably think she’s on some assignment for a different company.” 

Clearing my throat, I quickly spoke up. “The point is, it’s pretty doubtful that either the people she works with, or Flea and Trivial’s teammates, know how bad their situation is. Maybe they’ve noticed them missing, but even then it’s not like they’d jump straight to ‘they’re trapped on Breakwater,’ you know? No matter what they think happened, they’re probably keeping it quiet to avoid a panic.” 

“They might be blaming the Scions,” Roald pointed out with an audible grimace. “Maybe they think those guys grabbed them and are planning some big event.” 

“Please don’t even give me any reason to picture that,” Alloy groaned. “Cuz now I’m just wondering what those guys are actually planning for their big revenge come-back.” 

My head shook quickly. “Let’s not think about that right now. We’ve got enough problems to deal with. We just need to focus on how we get those people off of Breakwater.”

“Maybe you should let the Ministry know,” Fred put in. He was sitting over in the corner with a copy of the newspaper and a cup of coffee, shrugging when we looked at him. “Like you said, they’ve got the resources you–we don’t, right? And they’d want to convince the authorities to get those three out of there. You get them to put pressure in the right places, maybe the people in charge of the island just step in and pull them out. Could be that easy.” He paused, frowning at his cup. “Yeah, I know, it sounded wrong as soon as I heard it.” 

“I’m not sure how we can let them know what’s going on without becoming even more of a target ourselves,” I carefully murmured, thinking about it for a moment. “Or how we could get them to believe it. I mean, maybe we could get them to think that the people who hit them last night worked for him and lead them to it that way? But I don’t know how we could do that, exactly. It seems pretty… easy to screw up.” 

Wren was practically vibrating as fast as her wings while hovering in the air. “I think I can find out where the island is.” When everyone looked at her, she quickly added, “When you use the phone to talk to that mean guy. I think I can build something to track the signal to the source. Would that help? I mean, um, if you know exactly where the island is, maybe you could trade that to the people in charge and say something like, ‘you wanna keep that whole location a secret, so maybe you should get our friends out and it’ll stay that way.’”

That made me stare even more, my mouth opening and shutting a couple times. Of all the people who might have suggested literally blackmailing the authorities into getting Flea and Trivial off that island, I never would have expected it to be Wren. 

Apparently everyone else was just as surprised, because the girl found the whole group staring at her. Slowly, she lowered herself back to the floor, wings continuing to beat for a few more seconds before slowly fluttering to a stop. “What?” she asked weakly, looking back and forth between all of us. “Was it a bad idea?” 

I was the first to answer, my head shaking quickly. “No, not a bad idea. A surprising one for sure, and definitely a dangerous one too. Blackmailing the government into doing what we want them to do, even if it’s the right thing, could get a target put on our backs. Especially with something as big as the location of their super-inescapable prison.”

Paige spoke slowly. “He’s right about that. Believe me, just trying to force them to do what we want in the first place would be enough to make them look at us in a, let’s say not favorable light. Add in the part where it involves the secret location of the supervillain prison that every government in the Armistice alliance uses and…” She grimaced a bit. 

“But it’s still a good idea,” Sierra put in flatly. Her tone has made it clear that she was practically daring us to disagree, which would obviously mean coming up with a better plan of our own. “Think about it, it’s not like we can get over there ourselves. Even once we know where the island is, that place is so well defended that we’d get blown to smithereens before we got anywhere near it. Unless the kid’s ready to upgrade the odds of her teleportation system from a fifty percent chance of successfully moving a few blocks to a one hundred percent chance of moving all the way across the continent and over the ocean.” 

Wren visibly blanched at that, head shaking slowly. “Um, I’d rather risk blackmailing the government. Wait, does that make us bad guys?” 

“We’re saving a couple Star-Touched, and another good woman, from real bad guys,” Peyton reminded her. “That gives us a little wiggle room on the good or evil chart, doesn’t it?” 

“Yes,” I confirmed. “A little wiggle room. But let’s be careful with that, because I’m pretty sure we’ve been wiggling a fair bit already. Um. Wren, maybe you could work on creating that tracking system so we can call Pittman and get his location? Then we can decide what to do from there. I mean, it’s not like having the location automatically means we have to blackmail the government people, right? If anyone else can come up with a better plan, feel free.” 

“One that helps Trivial, Flea, and Irelyn as soon as possible,” Paige put in. “They might be good at what they do, but they’re stuck out there on an island full of the worst of the worst. Nobody’s good enough to survive in that place forever. And it’s our fault that they’re stuck out there to begin with.” 

A nagging voice in the back of my head was saying that everyone trying to think of a better solution might have more luck if they knew the full, correct situation. They were operating under the assumption that Flea and Irelyn were two separate people. That could very easily come back to bite us in the ass. But again, until we had permission from the woman herself, we couldn’t just go around blabbing her identity to everyone here. We were doing the best we could with a shitty situation. 

Wren was nodding almost frantically. “I’ll work on it. I’ll build it. I mean, I’ve got the design in my head already, but we might need to get a few things. They’ve probably got blockers–I mean they’ve definitely got blockers. Things to stop stuff like exactly what we’re gonna do. But I think I know how to get past them. I–uhh, gotta draw!” Even as she finished saying that, Fred was handing over a tablet with a stylus, and she quickly moved to a corner of the room to start sketching designs. 

After watching her for a second, I turned back to the others. “Well, that’ll keep her busy for a while. I guess there’s nothing else we can do for those three right now, so maybe we should start going over the stuff we found? Sorry, I mean the stuff we stole. Wren says the tracking stuff is all gone, right, Fred?” 

“Yeah, it’s all taken care of,” he confirmed. “The kid promises that everything over there is safe.” He gestured to a table on the other side of the room, where our bags were spread out. “There were a lot of trackers on it, but we got rid of them. Nobody’s gonna find that stuff here.” 

So, we all went over to find our own bags and started to sort through what we had stolen. First, I took those vials from the front pocket and unwrapped them from the towel before frowning thoughtfully. There were five vials in total, one blue, two purple, one brownish-black, and one a bright amber. There were labels on the vials, but it wasn’t like they had easy-to-understand names and explanations. Each label had four numbers and three letters on it. Such as, on the blue one, 9F2X7P0. The two purple ones looked identical, and the codes on them were close but not the same. One was 8D1J4N1 and the other was 8D1J4N8. Did that mean they came from the same batch? I had no idea. And I certainly wasn’t going to do anything stupid like uncork them and smell or touch the stuff without having a better idea of what it was. 

Hopefully there would be information in the files we’d taken, something we could use to decode the labels. For the moment, I carefully set them aside on the folded towel and turned my attention to the assortment of papers I had yanked off the wall back in that place. They had been taped up near the vials, so maybe they had something I could use? 

Unfortunately, the papers were no help. At least, not yet. They had the same sort of code written on them. Until we found the key for it, we still couldn’t decipher what any of it meant.

While I was focused on that, Pack arrived at the back door. Fred let her in, and she came with her lizards all over her shoulders, arms, and head. “I tell you, these guys must’ve been pretty upset about being left behind, because–what?” She had stopped in mid-sentence, staring at Sierra, who had just looked up. “What the hell are– err… oh.” Seeming to catch herself abruptly, the masked girl pointed. “That’s the body you found for Raige?” 

“Sierra now,” the girl in question corrected. “Sierra Nevada.” 

“Sierra Nevada,” Pack echoed thoughtfully, still staring at her. I couldn’t read her expression through that completely blank mask, but she sounded… odd. “Well, it’s good to meet you, Sierra. 

“Very good to meet you indeed.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Dig In 22-13 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

So, we made our way back to the shop. We were careful, of course. First, Peyton and I took the time to each find a private area to change into our actual costumes. Amber had grabbed the bag with the costumes in it just before teleporting us out of the van. Naturally, the most important part of that point was that I was able to take the damn bra thing off. I resisted the urge to hurl it as far as I could, but only barely. I really hoped that nothing would come up in the future forcing me to wear it.  

Now I was back in my costume and far more comfortable. I was the right height, the right… shape, and everything felt a hell of a lot better, even if we weren’t out of the woods yet. I was just plain happier like this. 

Alloy and I basically just had to do the exact same thing we had done to get to the motel in the first place, only in reverse. Now we were heading back to the shop, and it was even more crucial that the others not be seen. It would have been bad enough to deal with cops or other Touched seeing them dressed up like that before. Now… now it would be a lot worse. 

Thankfully, the Ministry was still busy scouring the lake and area along the shore for us. I had no doubt that the search would widen soon enough, but we would be safe in the shop by then, and everyone would be out of the incriminating suits. Or so I kept telling myself throughout the entire very tense affair of oh-so-slowly working our way through the city. We couldn’t afford a single screw-up now. We had to get back there and get rid of all the evidence before anyone, particularly anyone who might work for or talk to the Ministry, saw us. 

Yeah, it was a bit nerve-wracking. But, despite having several near heart attacks on the way there and time and space doing their level best to stretch the whole thing out into an eternity, we finally made it. We were back in the alley behind the shop, and as far as we could tell, no one had seen us. It probably would have been impossible, or at least a lot harder, to do it that way before the curfew was put in place, so I did have to thank the authorities for that. Maybe I would send them a nice card or something. 

Fred opened the back door, giving us a nod. “We had cameras set up the last couple blocks, watching you. There’s no one on your tail. Come on.” He stepped aside then, holding the door for us to go in while his eyes carefully and suspiciously scanned the alley despite his own words. Apparently after the mistake he had made with that whole Ashton situation, he was being a lot more careful in general. Or maybe my paranoia was rubbing off on the people around me. Either way, I wasn’t going to object. He was Wren’s guardian, and there would be people who wanted to use her skills for their own ends. 

Speaking of which, I was going to have to give Glitch an answer about that whole situation soon. She had said she would send someone in two weeks, but it had been longer than that without a word. I assumed that had something to do with the whole war escalating thing. Maybe they were busy helping my parents work out nasty new toys to play with or something. Whatever the case, I knew that it was only a temporary delay. Soon enough, she would send someone to get our answer about what Wren was going to do. We’d talked about it of course, and… well, I just hoped we knew what we were doing. 

But right now, I had to focus on this particular situation. We all slipped through the doorway, before Fred closed it after us. I felt a sudden rush of relief wash over me in that moment. Tension that I hadn’t even realized I was holding in myself rushed out in a heavy sigh. We were safe. Well, maybe not completely safe from everything. The Ministry would be looking for whoever had stolen from them. They would be turning over every stone they could, and would go over that van with a fine-toothed comb. Thankfully, there was nothing for them to find. The van wasn’t registered to any of us, or connected to us in any way. Pack had stolen it from a place that rented them out for people to move furniture, and none of us had touched anything in it with our bare hands. We didn’t touch anything and we didn’t leave anything. They wouldn’t find any leads there. 

So, they would look, but they wouldn’t find us. Not right now, anyway. We had time. We had space to breathe and think. And to find out what we’d actually taken from them. 

Of course, first we all had to survive an attack of a completely different kind. The moment we came into the main shop area, I was suddenly hit straight on by a (literal) flying tackle-hug as Wren zoomed across the open space on her wings to crash into me. “You made it!” 

Staggering backward, I laughed. It was a laugh of relief, which felt really good right then. So did the hug itself, actually. I closed my arms around the girl and nodded. “Yup, we sure did. In and out just like that.” Even as I said those words, my voice cracked a little. I still couldn’t believe it had worked. And despite the fact that most of me was celebrating, there was a small but not insignificant part of me that was convinced that Ministry bad guys were about to crash through the windows while my brother and dad blew the door down and came storming in. It was… not a fun thing to imagine. 

Wren didn’t hug me for long, quickly moving on to the others. As she did, I stepped back and glanced toward Fred. “Good driving back there,” I informed him quietly. “Looked like a real wipeout. I’m sure they’ll have their suspicions, maybe even enough to be sure once they investigate and don’t find us anywhere. But still, you sold it in that moment.” 

Folding his arms, the man gave a short, thoughtful nod. “That’s the important part, isn’t it?” he mused. “If they don’t know exactly what happened, it’ll slow down their search. Even if they know you intentionally went into the water, they’ll look for diving equipment and extend the search area to find places further along where you could’ve come up. It’ll confuse them, muddy the waters, so to speak.” He gave a soft grunt of amusement at his own joke. 

“Every little bit helps,” I confirmed before letting out a breath. “Thanks for being around to help with all this. We definitely couldn’t do it without you. I mean, certainly not without Wren, but you too. I…” Biting my lip behind the mask and helmet, I hesitated briefly, wondering if I was overstepping. “I know you… you’ve felt shitty about what happened before.” 

“It was a stupid mistake,” he replied flatly, not looking at me. “I should’ve paid more attention to what that idiot wanted to do with that stuff, to exactly what he was going to steal. He just said he was going to rob a bank and–shit.” Shaking his head, he muttered something I didn’t catch under his breath. Then he sighed heavily. “Sorry I treated you the way I did when you showed up. You know, with the whole pointing a gun at you thing. That was out of line. It was–I’m glad you found us. Glad you… did all that.” 

I knew what he was saying. He was horrified at the very thought that he might have been even indirectly responsible for the death of a child. If we hadn’t found those vials and gotten them back to Blackjack in time… yeah, I didn’t really want to think about it either. I’d never met his daughter, but no kid deserved to die. Especially like that. 

I was spared from having to find some way of responding to that when Pack abruptly spoke up. “Okay, well, it’s been real fun basking in the glory of pulling something like that off, but can we get the next part of this show on the road?” She had all of her lizards out on the counter and was brushing her fingers over them tenderly, clearly apologizing for leaving them behind. 

Paige cleared her throat, straightening up with a slight grimace that told me she and Raige were having their own discussion inside her head. “Yeah, we, for two, would like to see what we pulled out of that place and if it was anything useful.” 

Her face shifted just a bit before Raige added, “And it had damn well better be after all that.” 

Of course, we couldn’t just open up the bags and dig through them just yet. There was way too big of a chance that the Ministry had put tracking devices on their hard drives. Right now, the special bags that Wren had provided were bouncing any potential signal all over the country.  But we weren’t going to take the risk of pulling anything out until there was no chance of us being tracked back here. Which meant that Wren had to take the bags into a specially prepared large metal crate she already had set up in a corner of the room. It was just large enough for her to sit inside with her tools and the stuff we’d grabbed, and did basically the same thing as the bags themselves while giving her room to work. Which meant the rest of us stood around and talked about what we had just done while she got busy. Anxious as we were to see what we had managed to grab, none of us wanted to take any risks. We had gotten through this so far without giving away who we were, and this was no time to start getting reckless. Slow and steady, one bit at a time. We’d done our part, now it was time for Wren to do hers. 

Okay, that wasn’t even in the least bit accurate. Wren had done more than her part so far. As I’d said to Fred, we would have been pretty screwed without her the entire way through this. The very thought of having to try to get into that place by myself, or even just without her, was basically inconceivable. I… maybe could have done it. At least, I could have dug the tunnel, but damn would it have taken a lot more time. Making everything pink and digging it out like that myself, I probably would have taken another month just to get there. Let alone having to go in alone. I either would’ve gotten caught, or I would’ve had to use my powers openly. Which would’ve let my parents know that Paintball was onto them, and that would have been a whole other–yeah. If I didn’t have these guys here to help, all of them, I would have been screwed. 

Those thoughts and more were running through my head as the others were loudly discussing just how crazy everything in that base had been. Murphy, Roald, and Peyton were going on about the guy they’d had to fight inside one of the other rooms, while the latter girl’s marbles spun wildly around her head. They were clearly as worked up and excited as she was, and possibly feeling a little agitated about the fact that they hadn’t been able to help in that place. If they could feel agitated, I still wasn’t sure how that whole thing worked. But in either case, whether it was the marbles or Peyton’s own subconscious, they were definitely energetic now, spinning around her head like a colorful halo or something. 

Glancing at her phone, Pack gave a soft grunt of annoyance. “Fuck. I gotta go. Getting a bit late and I’ve got a meeting with the boss before school in the morning.” 

“A meeting?” Amber’s gaze moved that way, clearly worried. And possibly curious. 

With an audible snort, Pack gestured casually. “Don’t worry, babe, the meeting was scheduled yesterday. Just a thing with me and a couple others about a job we need to do this week. A crime job.” She was clearly teasing the other girl. “But I promise, it’s the fun sort of crime.” 

Sighing, Amber waved a hand around the room. “You realize you’re talking about doing crime in a room full of Star-Touched, right? You’re literally admitting that you’re planning to do something illegal and expect us not to do anything about it.” 

“Oh, you can do something about it,” the other girl slyly replied. “Feel free to show up whenever you get the call and try to stop us. It’d be fun to play cops and robbers. Maybe one of us can tie the oth–” 

With an almost violent cough and vigorous clearing of her throat, Amber interrupted. “Didn’t you say you had to go? Meeting, school, all that?” 

Pack was clearly grinning behind that full face-covering mask as she gave a thumbs up. “Yup. But remember, I get to see the information you guys pull out of that stuff too. Don’t cheat me on this. I earned it.” 

We all promised to keep her informed about what we found, before the girl headed out with her lizards. Once she was gone, Murphy and Roald noted that they really should get home too. Obviously they couldn’t go by themselves, not with the curfew up. So Fred took them in his sedan, where they would hide under some blankets. He had an ID that identified him as a delivery driver for a local bakery, and if anyone stopped him he would just say that he was on his way to work a bit early to fill in. Assuming they called the place, the supervisor there was a friend of Fred’s and would cover for him. We’d thought about using that cover to get everyone to the motel earlier, but dismissed it both because we didn’t want anyone to take note of Fred being anywhere near the motel right before that whole thing went down, and because hiding all of us was a lot harder than just hiding Murphy and Roald. 

Finally, Peyton reluctantly admitted that she should probably start heading back home too, given her mother would freak out if she didn’t wake up in time to go to school. And besides, she had a test in the morning. So, after also making us promise to let her know what we found, she took off. 

Which left me there with Izzy, Amber, and Paige/Raige while we all waited for Wren to get done identifying and disabling the tracking devices. We talked a bit more, and had a snack of chips and cookies while watching the news for any word about what had happened. The only mention was something about a gang-related car chase that had ended with one of the cars involved driving into the lake. Of course, they identified the chopper as being part of the police force. And hell, for all we knew it really was. I would not have been at the least bit surprised to hear that it was an actual police helicopter that had been chasing us with that light. It gave them the perfect cover, anyway. And it wasn’t like my family having those sort of contacts and resources would be surprising. 

Eventually, Fred returned and whistled long and low while shaking his head as he saw what we were watching. “These people really have their fingers dug into fucking everything in this city, don’t they? They didn’t have any warning that you were going to be in there, and they still just snapped their fingers and summoned up a helicopter to chase after you. And just like that, it was a police chopper. Now they get to control the whole damn narrative. It’s just that quick, that easy. They say the word and the media reports what they’re told to.” 

“Helps when they have people in the police and the media,” I pointed out quietly. “Plus, we didn’t exactly give the news much of a reason to doubt that story. It makes sense that what happened right there would be a gang fight. And that it would disappear pretty quick. I mean, look at what’s happening in the rest of the city. As far as everyone else is concerned, it was just one more little event. Barely even worth reporting on, in the grand scheme of things.” 

Fred has started to say something, but before he could, the crate slid open and Wren emerged.  Her always-wild blond hair was sticking out in even more directions than normal, and she gave herself a shake, almost like a dog. Then she flashed us a broad smile and held up a plastic bag full of what looked like the remains of several small computer chips. They had been smashed into lots of tiny pieces. “All good now,” she informed brightly. “They can’t track these things anymore, and the last signal they got made it look like they were in Oklahoma. And there weren’t any tracking devices on the filters or papers, just the hard drives. It’s safe to look at the stuff now. Oooh, cookies!” With that, her wings extended and she literally flew over to the counter to grab a chocolate chip treat in each hand before smooshing them together into her mouth. “Mmmphh. Ur ruv oorrkiesh.” 

“Wren, don’t talk with your mouth full,” Fred advised. “And try to stick to one cookie at a time, kid.” Even as he said that, the man was shaking his head as he poured a glass of milk for her and handed it over, smiling as she drank greedily. “Good job though.” 

Reaching down to pick up the bag of broken tracking devices she had dropped in her rush, I examined it and smiled. “Definitely a good job. I’m pretty sure the Ministry is pissed off right now.” I had to pause then, imagining my parents being angry. It made me feel weird in my stomach, but I shook that off. Now really wasn’t the time to focus on that. We had to look through that stuff. It was getting pretty late, but still. I couldn’t leave yet. Not when we knew that Irelyn and Trivial were in some sort of horrible danger. There wasn’t time to waste. 

So, Amber, Izzy, and I took the papers and split them up to look through while Paige plugged herself into one hard drive after another. There was a lot of information here, too much to really take in with the time we had. Mostly we were just looking for the addresses of Pittman’s labs at the moment. There would be time later to take a full inventory of all the information once we had dealt with the most pressing matter. 

So, I was simply scanning through pages, looking for certain words like Pittman himself, or laboratory, or robots, biolems, anything about biological experimentation, and so on. I saw several things that made me want to go back and read more, but not right at the moment. Pittman. I had to focus on Pittman. 

Finally, after a few minutes of that, Amber abruptly spoke up. “Hang on, wait, I think I’ve got something.” As we all turned it to look that way, she held up a stapled-together stack of papers, flipped to somewhere in the middle. “Right here, it looks like an inventory of places where they could set up a lab to work on something called Project Carpenter, whatever that is.” 

“At least it’s not Project Owl,” I murmured before adding, “I take it the list has some interesting places?” 

“You could say that,” she replied before pointing to one part of the page. “This part here, there’s four addresses and  it says, ‘Acquired from B.P. Equipment on-site, inventory needed.’ B.P. That could be–” 

“Benjamin Pittman,” Paige interrupted. “That would make sense. We’ve got something here too. It’s not the addresses, but I think it’s codes to get through the doors. They changed the locks, obviously.” 

“You guys aren’t going out there now, are you?” That was Fred, frowning. “It’s already late.” 

“And as soon as they find out what we stole,” I pointed out, “they’ll start locking things down. They might not know exactly what we were after, but I don’t want to take that chance.” Belatedly, I grimaced to myself. “I mean, I don’t want to speak for any of you–” 

“No,” Amber interrupted, “you’re right, we need to get over there while we can. They’ll be busy scouring that base and van for any clues, or trying to track us by the lake.” 

The others nodded in agreement, Raige taking the time to point out that Irelyn needed help right now. So, I exhaled. “Right, okay then. Hope you guys don’t mind putting those suits back on just in case there are cameras in those places. 

“Looks like we’ve got one more job to do tonight.”  

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Dig In 22-12 (Summus Proelium)

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The tunnel was louder now than it had ever been in its entire existence. Heavy panting filled it, along with the sound of running footsteps as we raced, single-file, away from the sound of angry guards who had found their pursuit blocked. 

“Go, run, just keep running!” Amber blurted after giving a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure we were coming. “They’ll be right behind us.” 

She was right. I would have loved to say that we were through the hard part now, but I wasn’t that naive. We may have gotten out of the base itself with our hides (and identities) intact, but we were far from home free. Until we were out of this tunnel, miles away from this place, and positive that we weren’t being actively chased, everything could still go completely wrong. It wasn’t like my family’s people would just collectively shrug at the pile of dirt in their way and give up. This wasn’t a video game where the enemy would stop tracking you and go back to normal behavior after the mildest of obstacles. They knew we had been inside the secret base. They knew there was a tunnel here. They knew we were still running through it. And soon they would know where the other end was. There was no doubt of that. They would already be scouting it out. The only real question was whether we would escape before they closed the net. And there was nothing I could do about how quickly they managed that.

On the other hand, I could do something about our own speed. Now that we were out of sight from any cameras or onlookers, there was nothing stopping me from using my paint. So that was exactly what I did. Aiming quickly as we ran, I shot a stream of green paint until it had hit everyone, including Paige behind me. Then I activated it, boosting our speed as much as I could. 

God, it felt so claustrophobic down here all of a sudden. More than it ever had while we were digging it. Was that just the adrenaline and panic from the situation? I felt trapped in this tunnel, knowing that the Ministry people were no doubt already spreading out to find it from above, or to find the other end. They would be working out where it was, and the motel site wouldn’t exactly be hard to guess. We just had to beat them there. Which was not a given, considering the resources they had. Hell, I wouldn’t have been the least-bit surprised to find out that they had a helicopter up there scouring the area already. That might’ve seemed ridiculous in some cases, but this was my parents and the Ministry. They definitely had the resources to get something in the air that fast if they really wanted to. And the intruder alarm in one of their secret bases going off would definitely make them want to. 

The tunnel didn’t just seem tighter, more suffocating, it felt longer too. I could have sworn I had walked out of it faster than we were running. Was there some spatial distortion effect going on? Did my parents have that much power? Were they capable of pointing something at the tunnel to bend space so we could never get out of it? No. No, they didn’t. That was ridiculous. I knew that already. We’d barely started running. It wasn’t any longer. And yet, even knowing that, I couldn’t shut the panicked thought out of my head. Nor could I stop imagining us getting to the end of the tunnel and climbing up, only to find both of my parents and a horde of their people sitting there waiting for us. Every step we took, part of me screamed that this was taking too long. We were too slow. We were too fucking slow!

Wren and Fred were on standby, of course. If we had to, we could use Wren’s emergency teleporter, or even just have Amber teleport with us. But we really didn’t want to do either of those if we could help it. Wren’s especially, given how nervous the girl was about putting it into action. That was only for if we were completely fucked and about to be captured, or worse. Amber’s was slightly more useful right now, but we wanted to avoid using that too. Mostly because we wanted the Ministry to see how we had escaped and not start wondering if teleportation had been involved. Sure, it was unlikely that that would necessarily lead them directly to Wren or Amber, but still. Every little bit of misdirection was important. If they could follow our trail all the way through the tunnel and see how we had driven away, they would be even less likely to glance in directions we didn’t want them to glance in.  

The real trick was to give them enough of a trail to follow without getting caught. Because quite frankly, I really didn’t want to end up getting memory-wiped by my parents today. Or any day, really. Once was enough. Not that I even knew for sure that it had only been–

Oh thank God, we were there. The others had already reached the open area at the head of the tunnel, with Paige and me right behind them. Even as the two of us emerged, Pack was already climbing the ladder with her borrowed stun gun raised, just in case. Her head and upper-body disappeared through the opening, and I found myself holding my breath for what felt like an eternity before she called, “We’re clear!” 

With that, she hauled herself up and out. Meanwhile, I pointed, painting a bit of blue right at the base of the ladder before activating it. Alloy stepped there first, tucking her arms to her sides as she was sent flying up just enough to reach the top rung and pull herself out the rest of the way. One by one, the others followed suit, stepping to the paint and bouncing up. We weren’t taking the time to climb the ten feet to the room above. A quick bounce on blue paint did the trick. 

Technically we could have used Amber’s teleportation from this spot since we knew they weren’t here yet and could track us this far, but again, we wanted them to see exactly how we had escaped and that it had nothing to do with teleportation. 

It was just possible we were being too paranoid about that, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that letting my family have the slightest hint that we had used teleportation to escape was a bad idea. Especially considering how obsessively they would be scouring this place. For all we knew, they had some way of detecting that. How I had no idea, and yet… yeah, this was just safer in the long run. Assuming our luck (and planning) held out a bit longer. 

While the others made their way up, I glanced back the way we had come, just in case our not-so-friendly pursuers had managed to get through the dirt we blocked them with. Nothing. I couldn’t hear a thing from down there. Either they weren’t trying to dig through, or–whatever, everyone else was gone. Which meant it was my turn to go. And that, of course, was when I heard it. Two its, really. First, the sound of men in the tunnel. They were coming. Worse, there was the distinctive heavy thwump thwump thwump of helicopter blades. Not only were our pursuers coming up the tunnel, they were above us in the air. Which meant I had to get the hell out of here. 

The blue paint was gone, and I didn’t want to take the chance that the guys coming up the tunnel would see it before I could make the spot disappear. So I simply coated the inside of my suit with green paint to speed myself up and climbed as fast as possible. I took the ladder two rungs at a time, practically flying up it while blurting, “They’re coming through!” 

As soon as I was out, the others shoved the pallet with the cement bags on it back into place. Again, anything to slow these guys down. We just wanted them to know how we had escaped, not handcuff ourselves to their guns. 

Knowing that wouldn’t stop them forever, or even for that long most likely, none of us exchanged another word. We just ran straight out of the room and into the construction lot. The helicopter was high above, its spotlight at the far end of the construction site. They didn’t know exactly which room we would be coming out of (or even that this was the right place for sure), and were apparently right in the midst of flipping around for another pass. Even as we all glanced that way, the chopper’s spotlight was swinging back along the grounds, looking for us. 

It hadn’t been that long. Despite my panic, I was certain that it had only been a few minutes or so since we set off that alarm by going into the base. Everything, everything that happened in there had been incredibly quick. And yet, just as expected, my family’s people already had a helicopter in the air right above the construction site. They had narrowed it down that quickly, had gotten the chopper in the air and searching already. It was crazy. An expected and unsurprising crazy, yes, but still crazy. 

Naturally, our escape plan didn’t end at the motel. We had known that the Ministry would be right behind us, and were pretty confident they would have helicopter support. It wasn’t fantastic, but we’d planned for it. 

To that end, we all ran across the construction site, racing all-out toward a pitch-black corner near a big mound of dirt. Next to that mound, a dark brown tarp covered the next stage of our escape. It wouldn’t have hidden the thing from anyone standing down here with light, but from above a helicopter doing a quick sweep looking for running people would’ve missed it. At least, that had been the idea, and it seemed to have worked, given the chopper wasn’t focusing its light that way.

Oh, but it was focusing on us. Yeah, it hadn’t taken long for someone up there to notice us. Before we were halfway to the tarp, the spotlight swung our way, and suddenly it was like I was back on stage during the seventh-grade play. Only I was pretty sure the consequences to freezing up right now would be worse than a little embarrassment and polite chuckles from parents who didn’t want to be there to begin with.  

Thankfully, the spotlight had barely made it over to us before we darted out of its sight, with the dirt pile blocking most of the chopper’s view. It was still in the midst of swinging around though, so that advantage would only last for a couple seconds. Worse, I could see headlights approaching from the mall parking lot, cutting straight across the street in the process. The engines were loud and angry, like violent hornets whose nest had been disturbed. 

Without missing a beat, we all crouched, grabbed a piece of the tarp, and yanked it off the van that was waiting there. Pack went to get in, but Paige–no, it was Raige– beat her there while taking the key from her hand with a quick promise that she could drive faster. Pack hesitated only a split-second before realizing that arguing about it was a bad idea. Instead, she dove in the back right after Murphy and Roald got in, Alloy right behind them with me bringing up the rear. Amber was in front with Raige. Izzy was already in the back too, so I grabbed the door and yanked it shut while shouting, “Let’s go, let’s go!” 

“We’re going!” Raige shot back. She had already started the van and was flooring the gas while twisting the wheel to pull sharply away from the mound of dirt that had helped hide the vehicle. But she didn’t head for the road, where we could already see three different cars hauling ass to get up here while the helicopter’s spotlight resettled on us. Instead, Raige floored the gas to send the van heading straight for a small dirt ramp we had built at the edge of the lot. It wasn’t the ‘get air’ sort of ramp, awesome as that would’ve been. No, I had shown a truly remarkable amount of restraint if I did say so myself, and only put together a high enough ramp to let the van drive up and over the curb to the dirt and weeds beyond. Just like that, we were plummeting down the hill toward the road, while the helicopter kept pace, the light making sure we couldn’t disappear on them. 

At least, not yet. 

Raige wasn’t content in just driving straight down the hill. Instead, she started snapping the wheel from one side to the other, making the van jerk violently in the process. Right after she started doing that, the rear window shattered as a bullet hit it. A bullet that narrowly missed all of us and embedded itself in one of the seats while we reflexively screamed and dropped lower. 

“Stay down!” Raige snapped, spinning the wheel hard to the right and then back again. She was giving the sniper up in the chopper as hard a time as possible, but we had to get off this hill. Between the chopper with the gunman above us, and the guys in the cars right behind (they were just crossing our ramp), this whole situation could spiral out of control in seconds. 

“You people better be holding on back there!” Raige informed us through gritted teeth. “Cuz here we… go!” On that ‘go,’ the van hit an inclined bit of ground and launched itself. Seriously, that time we really did catch air, flying for what sure felt like several glorious seconds before coming down hard on the actual road. Really, the only bad part about it (besides the fact that we were in a chase for our lives) was that the stupid stuffed bra thing on my chest bounced up to smack me in the face as I looked down. Because everything I was dealing with right then wasn’t enough, I also had to be literally physically assaulted by the reminder that I wasn’t especially well-endowed. 

As soon as we were on the street, Raige floored the gas and we took off, speeding around a couple oncoming cars in the process. As the van angled toward a side street, we picked up several tails coming up fast, and that helicopter was still right above us. The gunman up there  had tried a couple more shots, apparently aiming for the wheels. But Raige wasn’t giving him the benefit of keeping the van steady, jerking the wheel wildly so he couldn’t get a clear shot. 

“Think we’ve got their attention?!” Amber called back while gripping the bar above the front passenger seat window. 

Murphy, ducked down low with Roald, shouted, “I don’t think we’re gonna get a better audience than this, boss! At least not without its own problems!” 

She was right. We had several cars on our tail and the helicopter above us taking shots. This wasn’t going to get any better than it was, and it had the potential to get a hell of a lot worse. We wanted Ministry people to see what happened, not actually catch or stop us. So, I grabbed my phone and hit the speed dial button. 

“Doctor?” It was Wren, using the code we’d established to make sure it wasn’t someone else using my phone after we had all been captured. 

“All I have is patience,” I replied with the counter code. 

Wren sounded somewhat relieved, but not all the way. There was still a bit of apprehension in her voice as she asked, “Option A… o-or Option F?” 

F for fail, as in we had to use the emergency teleporter. Grimacing a bit, I shook my head. “Option A.” 

Sounding considerably happier, Wren quickly replied, “Oh! Okay, got it. Good, good. Aaaand, there.” 

Abruptly, the van jerked a bit for a reason entirely unrelated to Raige’s driving. Really unrelated, given her hands were off the wheel. It continued to weave back and forth across the road, but now it was Fred in control, from all the way back at the shop. He was remote-controlling it using a small camera on the dash and one of Wren’s toys plugged into the electrical system. 

With Fred in control of the van and all our pursuers coming up fast, Raige abandoned the driver’s seat and clambered into the back with the rest of us. She was joined quickly by Amber, and we all huddled in close together. 

“How close are we?” I asked into the phone. 

“Wait for it,” came Wren’s terse answer as she was clearly watching the map and comparing it to Fred’s driving. “Just a little more…” Even as she was saying that, I felt the van lurch a bit as one of the pursuing cars slammed into us from behind. And in that moment, the right rear tire was blown out, making the van start to violently lurch before the rims screamed in protest. We were bouncing along. 

“Now, tell her now!” Wren blurted. Even as she said that, the van started to spin-out, the tires (or what remained of them) screaming in protest.

“We’re there, do it!” I snapped immediately, while the world outside the deeply-tinted windows whirled wildly. 

Amber wasted no time. We all grabbed onto her as she crouched in the middle of the group, and then we were elsewhere. We all appeared on top of the roof of a building that we had scouted out earlier. Amber knew where it was, and how to teleport to it from the spot on the ground where the van had just been when Wren gave the word. She didn’t have to look, she just trusted that it was the right distance and angle, and poof, there we were. 

The instant we arrived, we all heard the scream of breaking metal. While we were still in there, the van had been hurtling straight toward a sharp corner, only to ‘miss’ and spin out. And the instant we teleported to safety, Fred sent the ‘out of control’ vehicle right through the guardrail that was supposed to stop vehicles from plummeting off the road to end up in the middle of Lake St. Clair. 

And that, of course, was exactly what we wanted. 

My head snapped up to look for the helicopter first. There it was, off in the distance several buildings away. They were fully focused on the remote-controlled van just as it went hurtling off the embankment at top-speed, literally catching air off the slight incline at the bottom before flying out to crash into the water. It sank out of sight immediately. 

The helicopter stayed in place over at the spot where the van had disappeared, while the cars took the longer way down there. I could almost hear my parents on the phone already, ordering divers to get into the water. Even now, a second spotlight had appeared from the chopper, scanning the water to look for anyone surfacing while the first stayed on that spot. They were watching for us. No doubt they would have even more people scouring every place where we could climb ashore, while the divers picked through the wreckage. 

It was okay, they wouldn’t find much. Wren would already have self-destructed the remote control and camera, and she had assured me that there would be nothing to find. In her words, it would turn into goo and wash away. 

So, they would find nothing in the van. Of course, they would realize we had escaped, but they wouldn’t know how exactly. And while they were wasting time searching down there, we were all the way over here. We were done. We were out. We… we…

“We made it.” That was Roald, sounding completely shocked by his own words. “We didn’t get caught.” 

“We did?” Alloy was patting herself down, just as surprised by the declaration. “We… we did.” 

“Let’s not celebrate too much until we get back to the shop in one piece,” Amber pointed out, her eyes on the chopper in the distance. “But yeah, looks like we actually pulled it off.” She glanced toward me, then over at Pack before adding, “They’re gonna be really pissed off now.” 

“We knew they would be,” I replied, resisting the urge to reach up under my suit to rip off the fake bra. I wanted the damn thing off, but now wasn’t the time. Instead, I glanced toward Raige, who was staring at the assorted backpacks full of the stuff we’d stolen. “Remember–” 

“I know, I know, don’t open the bags or the tracking device blockers the genius built into them won’t work,” she interrupted. “Don’t worry, I’m not a fucking idiot. We don’t get to look through the loot until we get them back to the shop and she okays everything as not being tracked. So come on then, let’s get back there and get on with this already. And I sure as fuck hope there’s something we can use somewhere in there, because I am done sharing a body.” 

“Trust me, Raige, I hope there is too,” I quietly replied, glancing out toward the hovering helicopter in the distance. “Because whatever happens next, I’m pretty sure we’re gonna want both of you up and moving.”

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Dig In 22-11 (Summus Proelium)

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Even as the guns started, Paige was already yanking me to the floor with a snapped, “Table.” A second later, I heard a heavy thud as the table itself that she had dragged me behind was knocked over to create a shield. Which, honestly, I had no faith whatsoever that a table was going to block incoming bullets, but it seemed to do the job. At least if the sound of them rapidly ricocheting off the metal just a few inches from my head was any indication. 

Well, so much for doing this quickly and quietly! Now Paige and I were in a pitch-black room, crouched behind a metal table that was, thankfully, shielding us from the hail of gunfire from who the hell knew how many guards. A not-insubstantial part of me was terrified, as I put both hands over the back of my head and struggled not to scream or cry under the assault. These weren’t stun guns, and these guys clearly weren’t playing around. They were intent on killing at least one of us. As the man had said, they only needed one of us to answer questions. And I was pretty sure the idea was that whoever survived would be more willing to talk if they were faced with the dead body of their companion. 

For just a second, I thought about what would happen if I was the one who died. What if I was dead and my parents found my body? What would they do? How would they react? The morbid hypothetical filled my mind, making it hard to focus on anything else for a moment until I shoved it aside. Now really wasn’t the time to think about dying. 

Paige’s hand found my arm, as she hissed in my ear, “They’re circling, we need to move.” Thanks to the voice changer, it would be impossible to identify her if their recording equipment managed to pick up her words. But hearing her talk still made me flinch reflexively. 

Still, she was right, I knew immediately. If we just laid here and I surrendered to the terror that had overwhelmed me in that moment, it was all going to be over. Even if we didn’t die, we would be captured and my parents would find out the whole truth. Then they would either… wipe my memory or… something. I had no idea, and I really wasn’t in any hurry to find out. Nor did I want to find out what they would do to the others. I didn’t want to think about everyone’s memories being wiped, about them going back to having no idea what was really going on in this city. And that was the best possible scenario of what would happen if we were caught. 

“Can you see?” I found myself hissing under my breath. It was a good thing that the guns shooting at us were using some form of silencer. Or at least a quieter. The shots were loud, but not nearly as deafening as they would have been otherwise in this space. 

Wait, in this space. Now that I thought about it, I knew the exact dimensions of the room. It was forty-five feet wide at our end, shaped mostly like a half-circle with the curved side opposite us. The ceiling was basically twelve feet up, but also slightly concave. Wait, or convex. Which one meant curved upward slightly? Whatever, it was slightly curved to the point that the very middle of the ceiling was actually more like fourteen feet high. There were six long metal tables in the room just like this one, each arranged seemingly randomly, and adorned with tools, microscopes, computers, silver trays, stuff like that. Not to mention the eighteen swivel chairs and four wooden ones. There were objects all over the room, and I knew where they were. I knew the dimensions of the place and what was in it. Not the people, but at least the objects. Some of them, anyway. I knew stuff about the room, even though it had been pitch-black since we walked in and I had absolutely never seen it or been in here before. 

How did I know that stuff?! I had no idea. But I was absolutely certain it was right. The knowledge just jumped into my head in that instant, even as Paige hissed that she could, in fact, see. 

Okay, so Paige could see, and I could sense everything in the room for some reason. I’d have to figure out how later. Right now, all that mattered was getting out of this alive and uncaptured. I had no doubt that the others were on the other side of that door, waiting for an opening. They had to know that we were still alive in here, given that the gunfire hadn’t stopped. But they couldn’t come in to help, or they’d be in the middle of a shooting gallery. And even if these suits protected against the worst damage of being shot a couple times, I really didn’t think they could stand up against this level of incoming fire. 

We needed to give them an opening. And I knew just how to do that. At least, I hoped I did. 

To that end, I grabbed Paige’s arm and whispered, “Table run.” To demonstrate, I took her hand and pushed it against the underside of the table, then took the other and pushed it against one of the legs. 

She understood, immediately grabbing both spots as she started to lift the table from that side. Quickly, I activated a couple more green and purple paint spots on both of us, before grabbing the table myself. Together, the two of us rose, lifting the table with us as the gunfire continued to ricochet off it. Whatever this thing was made out of, it was strong enough to take a hell of a lot of abuse. I just hoped it stayed together long enough for us to do this. 

Together, clutching the table as a shield, Paige and I ran straight toward the men, who seemed to be firing even more frantically. They were also starting to split apart, if my judgment of where the shots were coming from was any indication. Given an extra second or two, they would have spread out far enough to shoot us from the side, where the table would be no protection. 

Thankfully, the table was quite long, and we weren’t going to give them that extra second. Just before the men would have been far enough apart to pose a real threat, Paige and I heaved the table at them, using the boosted strength to send it flying quite hard that way. The thing collided with the men. I couldn’t see them, but I could hear as they were struck by the thing and went down like an assortment of bowling pins. From the sound of things, a couple managed to dive out of the way. Including one who ended up going under the table in a roll that brought him right near the two of us. I could hear him right by my feet, as he started to push himself up. 

Before he could, and before I managed to react myself, Paige’s hand grabbed the man by the back of his neck and his arm. I heard his yelp, and her grunt, as she hauled him from the floor and literally threw the man to the other side of the room. 

She must have taken his gun too, because the next thing I knew, Paige was yanking me behind her while extending her other arm as the sound of gunfire exploded right there. She was shooting at the other men, even as her voice snapped, “New table six feet to your left and back two!” 

I knew that, of course. But she didn’t know that I knew it. Still, I was already moving, jumping at just the right time despite the pitch-blackness to throw myself that way and slide across the top of the table in question. I was pretty sure I could have cleared it normally, with my boosted strength, but between the unexpected weight on the front of my chest and these shoes, I didn’t trust myself to land properly. So I took it a bit easy. A handful of random tools, trays, and so on were knocked out of my way as I slid to the far side and off before shoving the table over with a grunt of effort. These things were heavy, even with my boosted strength. No wonder they were able to stand up to so much punishment. 

A second later, Paige was right beside me as she vaulted over the overturned table to land in a crouch on my left. “We’re on the opposite side of the room,” she hissed. “I hit three guys in the knees and two in the side. Enough to put them down for now. There’s ten left, including their leader. They’re spread out and regrouping.”

We couldn’t give them time to do that, of course. Hitting them now, while they were temporarily split up and disorganized, was our best shot to get out of this. Not to mention, there had to be reinforcements on their way right now. The longer this took, the more screwed we were going to be. 

Fortunately, we weren’t in here alone, and now we were on this side of the room, it would give Amber and the others an opening. We just had to let them know the opening existed before it was too late. This, right now, was our very best shot at dealing with these guys before things got a hell of a lot worse. 

With that in mind, I hissed, “Can you see the light switch?” 

Rather than answer immediately, Paige leaned up over the table and used her acquired gun to fire several shots. I could hear the men scrambling out of the way. Then she looked around briefly before ducking back with a grunted, “Found it. Twelve feet right. I can get there but need a distraction.” 

“You’ll have it,” I assured her. “On three. One, two, three.” 

On that third number, I activated the large orange and purple dragon I had been painting on the inside of my suit for the past couple seconds. At the same time, I activated a couple more orange and green spots on Paige, to give her a bit of a boost. Then I rose, grabbing the table we were using as cover. With the amount of paint I had given myself, I was able to lift it fairly easily. The guards clearly saw it, because they opened fire immediately. They had also gotten smart enough to aim for my feet and ankles as I lifted the table. But my hidden orange paint made those bullets bounce off the boots, before I went running toward the middle of the room and hurled the table to one side, in the direction I could hear the most gunfire coming from. There was another table immediately to the opposite side, and I, once again, threw myself in a slide across it. I misjudged the length of my own foot thanks to those shoes, hitting a computer monitor and knocking it off the table with a loud crash. 

Roughly, a hand grabbed my shoulder and I felt a fist slam into my face. Fortunately, it hurt that guy a lot more than it did me, thanks to my still-active paint. The man yelped in pain as I heard several of his fingers crack under the impact. In his case, it was like punching a brick wall. He instantly regretted it. And he also regretted being close to me, as I yanked my arm out of his grip before grabbing the front of his shirt. I could feel that he was wearing some sort of uniform and body armor. Which didn’t stop me from hoisting the man off his feet before I threw him as far as I could. As it turned out, the guard’s name was not Wilhelm, but he did give a pretty good scream anyway.

And in the next instant, the lights suddenly turned on. It was briefly blinding, but I was prepared for it while the others weren’t. I could immediately take in the room around us, which–well, looked identical to how my power had said it did. But now I could see the guards in their white and gray body armor all around. They had helmets with clear night-vision goggles attached. Unfortunately, they were clearly using the more advanced night-vision that instantly turned off when the lights came on, because none of them were screaming or tearing at the goggles. They recoiled slightly, but no worse than I had. Taken by surprise, yet not blinded. 

But we had a little more help. In the next second, even as everyone in here was still reacting to the lights coming on, the double doors at the other side swung open. Amber and Pack were right there, both with their borrowed stun guns raised. They each shot at two of the men in sight, sending them to the floor in a fit of spasms. 

A third guy was turning that way with his gun raised, but Murphy and Roald were right behind those two and managed to dive at the man together. They collided with him, taking the guy off his feet from the impact of being hit by both teenagers. The pair hit him with their batons, and he was out of the fight. And the fourth guy, who had been behind the door there, was taken down by Peyton as she drove her own baton hard into his stomach just as he took aim at the others. 

My paint was about to run out, but it wasn’t gone yet. So, I reached down to grab the fallen computer monitor that I had knocked over during my slide across the table. With a grunt, I turned and pitched it toward the nearest guy, while he was aiming toward the new arrivals. It took him in the side of the helmet, knocking him to the floor with a cry. 

At the same time, Izzy had appeared in the doorway with her own stun gun raised to take down yet another man on that side of the room. Three seconds into this since the lights had come on, and of the ten guys that Paige had said were still up and moving, I had thrown one into the wall and clocked another with the computer monitor, Amber, Pack, Peyton, and Izzy had each taken down one, and Murphy and Roald together took another. Seven down, which left three. 

No, not three, I realized. Two of the remaining guys were already down at Paige’s feet. How she had dealt with them, I have no idea. But they were definitely done. 

So there was one more left. And my eyes found him just as the man in question rose with his arms raised above his head. He looked basically like the others, aside from the fact that his body armor looked a little fancier and he had a radio held high in one of those raised hands. “I don’t know who you are or who you’re working for!” he called while scanning all of us. “But I promise that every single one of you is going to regret this pretty damn quick.” 

Reinforcements. They had reinforcements coming. We had already known that would happen, of course. But considering this guy was clearly the leader of their security down here, and he had the radio, I was going to assume he had already called for help. Which meant we were about to officially be out of time. If those reinforcements got here while we were still standing around, it was going to be a hell of a lot worse than this had been. 

Amber obviously knew that too, because she didn’t hesitate before lifting her own stun gun to fire a shot straight into the man’s chest. He recoiled and hit the floor, the radio falling away. Then she spoke sharply. “Turn your boosters to max, don’t worry about burning them out. Grab everything you can, then we’re gone.” 

Boosters to max. I knew what she was talking about. The paint. She was telling me to activate their speed paint so everyone could move faster, but doing it in a way that if anyone was watching the video of this later (like my parents), they would think that the speed came from enhancements on the suits or something. Either way, it would disguise the truth. 

I gave a quick glance around the room, focusing on each of them in turn to activate the paint. Not just their speed, but strength too. Then I ran to the nearest computer tower. The second I started moving, the others knew their own paint had been activated, so they ran too. There were computers all over the room, and we were already yanking them open to tear out the harddrives.  All around the room, computers were being ripped apart so we could get at what was inside. I was shoving the first drive in my bag even as I ran to the far wall, where there were a bunch of papers taped up. I couldn’t take the time to read what they said, not now. I just yanked them off the wall and shoved them in the bag, then grabbed a handful of vials of various liquids that were sitting on the nearby table, before doing the same for another handful in a fridge. It just looked like a bunch of colorful liquids inside glass vials. I had no idea what they were for or how we would figure it out, but they looked like they might be important, so I grabbed them. Unsure of how fragile they were, I grabbed a nearby towel to wrap them up in before stuffing them in the front pocket of the bag, apart from the rest of the stuff.

Next, I noticed a small room next to the fridge. There was a desk in there with another computer and a heavy filing cabinet. I managed to yank that harddrive just before my paint ran out, and I had to renew it once more so I could break the lock on the filing cabinet. 

Paige was right there, the two of us working together to grab everything from the drawers. We didn’t bother looking at what we were taking, we just yanked the folders and shoved them into our bags. Then we retreated from the room. Paige was shouting, “Move! Go, now! No time!” 

We went. Sprinting back the way we had come, we all raced for the entrance we had made. Whether we had anything useful or not, I had no idea. But we couldn’t push things any further than we already had. We would sort through it all later, once we were safe. 

Unfortunately, we weren’t homefree yet. As we raced down the hall back the way we’d come (past several other unconscious figures that the others had apparently dealt with), I could hear the door starting to open at the top of the stairs nearby. The real entrance. They were here and coming in. 

Paige heard it too. She still had the gun she’d taken from one of the guards back there slung over one shoulder. In one smooth motion, she pulled it free, aimed the weapon with one hand, and let loose that way. The hail of bullets all hit the door just as it was starting to open, making the person on the other side reflexively yank it shut once more. 

“Go!” she shouted at the rest of us while sending another couple shots that way to keep the people outside from coming through. Not that I expected it to hold them for long. 

We went. One by one, we all lunged through the opening and back into the tunnel. I was second-to-last, right behind Paige. “Come on!” I shouted back that way, standing just inside the tunnel entrance. 

Her gun clicked dry, just as the door at the top of the stairs opened. The gunfire from their side started up, and Paige threw herself through the hole with bullets hitting the ground right where she had been an instant earlier. Already, the men coming in were descending the stairs, their shots starting to come closer to us. Together, Paige and I exchanged a quick look, before racing to join the others. We ran through the open area, and I chanced a glance up. The canvas tarp was straining under the weight of the dirt and rocks piled up on it. 

We reached the far end of the open space, and Paige’s hand was already lashing out to grab the anchor rope. She yanked it hard while shoving me forward, diving after me. In the next instant, I heard a terrifying crash as all that stuff came crashing down. The ceiling in that area had been carved up high enough to allow so much dirt and rocks into the space that when it dropped, nearly that whole area in front of the entrance was blocked. I had no doubt they would force their way through, but it would take them a little time. Time that was incredibly important right now. 

Standing bunched up together in the tunnel, we all looked at one another. We could hear shouts from the other side of the dirt pile. They would be coming soon. They would also be spreading out and going up to find out where the tunnel was from above, or where the other end was. We didn’t have time to regroup, not just yet. 

So, with an assortment of nods, we turned back to the tunnel. And we started to run once more. 

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