Peyton Favors

Interlude 15A – Peyton Favors (Summus Proelium)

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A/N- For those who missed the commissioned interlude posted Saturday, there… was a commissioned interlude posted Saturday focusing on Lion! You can find that right here

“Heeeey Mom, this is my hourly check-in to prove I didn’t get kidnapped again. The password is ocelot. Or wait, was that yesterday? No. No, I swear, this isn’t a cry for help. No, no one’s making me say that. I swear, I thought the password was ocelot. What–ostrich! We should’ve gone with ocelot, they’re cooler. No, Mom, still not a secret code for you to call the police.” 

Throughout her conversation with her mother, Peyton Favors strolled through one of Detroit’s outdoor shopping malls, idly checking storefronts to see if anything looked good enough to step inside. The fifteen-year-old redhead checked her own image in the reflection of one window, turning her head this way and that as she studiously watched for any zits that might’ve snuck their way in. Her hands were full of shopping bags, the entire conversation being had through a bluetooth earpiece. Her eyes rolled exaggeratedly at her own reflection as she carefully replied, “Mom, I need you to listen very carefully to the words that are coming out of my mouth. No secret codes, no one has a gun to my head. I have not been kidnapped. Mitchell is gone, the creep got what he deserved. Yes, I know Paintball can’t be around to save me all the time. Believe me, I’m just trying to find something cute for Tanya’s party this weekend. And maybe a couple other things.” She glanced down at the full bags in her hands and made a face at her reflection. “No one is bothering me. I promise, I am absolutely and completely safe. I love you. You’re even more paranoid than Grandma, which is saying something, but I still love you. Bye!” 

Reaching up to hit the button, disconnecting the call, Peyton took the earpiece out and put it in her pocket with a shake of her head. “Urgh, you’d think she was the one thrown into the back of a car by a fucking pedo piece of–” She shook that off abruptly. Dr. Corners, the therapist she’d already seen a couple times since that whole thing went down, had said something about how her mother was overcompensating for not being able to help at all during the kidnapping itself by trying way too hard now. The whole calling in every hour, checking everything she did, using codewords to say whether someone was holding her against her will, it was crazy. Peyton wasn’t sure how much longer she could deal with it. Half the time she was afraid that she would say the wrong thing on a call and her mother would end up sending a SWAT team after her. 

Hell, there’d already been that one bit a few days earlier when Peyton had been at the theater. She’d made the mistake of hissing into the phone that she ‘couldn’t talk now’ before turning it off. They’d only been fifteen minutes into the show when security came barging in and the house lights came on. That had been just about one of the most mortifying moments of her life. Especially considering she’d been that close to telling Sarah Conrad that she thought she was cute. Now that was definitely ruined, after those guards had made it clear whose mother called them in. 

Sigh. Being into both guys and girls was supposed to make it easier to find someone to date. But between the guy she had liked online turning out to be some much older creepy kidnapping pedo loser, and looking like a fucking paranoid freak family in front of Sarah, maybe she was just doomed from the get-go. Byron was ace and he didn’t seem to have any problems with his own relationships. Or maybe he was just a lot better at hiding it and looking like they were fine.

“I don’t care what Mom says,” Peyton informed her own reflection in the window, “it is not easier being a fifteen-year-old. And you know, it’s kinda fucked up that she says that practically in the same breath as the one she uses to give me all these rules because she’s so paranoid that I’m going to somehow magically end up in danger again. Like, we live in Detroit, not the middle of–” 

In mid-sentence, Peyton was abruptly interrupted by the sound of a roaring engine, followed by a loud crash. Spinning that way with a yelp, she stared, mouth agape. 

The outdoor shopping center she had been meandering through was shaped like a large U, with the doors into various shops spaced all along both sides of the curved shape. The middle of the U was essentially a large patio full of stands to buy snacks, sunglasses, cell phones, or even get massages. There was a fountain toward the front of the shopping area, with a statue of some old man holding an umbrella just beside it. 

That statue was the source of the loud crash. Or rather, the enormous pick-up truck that had just slammed into said statue, knocking it over. And it wasn’t alone. Three more huge trucks had come roaring up to block basically the whole road along the front of the shopping center. The backs of all four vehicles were full of thugs wearing a lot of leather and chains, holding bats, pipes, knives, and a few guns. All were hollering and whooping as they leapt from the trucks, landing right in front of dozens of shoppers paralyzed by surprise and confusion. 

“You know the drill, boys!” The voice came from the direction of the truck that had knocked over the statue, as the passenger door opened and a heavyset figure emerged. He was a large black man, standing about six and a half feet tall and very wide. His only concessions to a ‘costume’ of any kind were the sleek-looking blue metal helmet he wore, and a pair of matching metal gauntlets. Beyond that he wore simple street clothes. 

Juice. It was Juice, one of the lieutenants of the Easy Eights. Which were who all these other guys were. The guys who were already spreading out, grabbing people who started trying to run. As the screaming started, the man called over it, “Gather ‘em and shut ‘em up! Torch every building in this fucking lot!” To punctuate his words, the man extended his hands out to both sides and sent a blinding blast of electricity in either direction to slam into a couple storefronts with a loud, terrifying bang. “I want the whole fucking place burned to the ground! Move!” 

Almost as if he had been speaking directly to her, Peyton reacted to that last word. The bags dropped from her hands, even as one of the Easy Eight soldiers approached with his baseball bat raised threateningly. He was saying something, but Peyton didn’t hear. She was too busy pivoting. A scream tore its way from her own throat as she ran, sprinting away from that spot, away from the man who had approached her, away from the Fell-Touched Juice. Away from all of it, screaming the entire time. She ran, not even knowing where she was going. No plan, nothing. 

The sound of a loud curse from the man who had been approaching spurred Peyton to run even faster. She heard other people shouting, heard a couple terrifyingly loud bangs. Gunshots? She didn’t know, she didn’t know! Just run, that was all she could do. Just run. 

Racing past several stores, the girl glanced to the side. In the reflection of the windows, she saw herself. But she also saw the man behind her. He was so close! Oh God, oh god, he was so–he was lunging! 

Seeing the man make that leap, Peyton threw herself to the right, through the open doorway of a storefront. She landed hard on the floor, even as the man who had been chasing her landed on his stomach right where she would have been. His gaze snapped toward her as she lay on her side, and the man snarled while raising that bat. Reflexively, Peyton kicked out, hitting the door where it was propped open and sending it slamming closed just as the hurled bat crashed into the wood with a terrifying bang. 

Laying there on her side, Peyton hyperventilated as she stared at the door. It was only for a second, but that single second felt like an eternity. She heard the man cursing, could see through the window in the door as he started picking himself up. Up. He was getting up. 

Get the fuck up! 

Grabbing the side of the nearby counter, Peyton used it to haul herself up. She could see the man running toward her, toward the door. He was right there, right there. But just beside the door was a bookshelf stuffed with magazines. Even as a surge of terror raced through her, the fifteen-year-old lunged that way, shoving it hard. The shelf fell about halfway over before hitting the opposite wall of the doorway, wedging itself in tight just as the man kicked the door. But the bookshelf held, for the moment at least. 

A screamed threat from the guy as he hit the door again reminded Peyton that she couldn’t just stand there. The shelf was already starting to move under the repeated furious blows. Any second, the man with the bat was going to break in, and she was pretty sure he wasn’t happy with her. He would–he would–he had the bat–he was–

She ran. Pivoting away, Peyton fled through the shop, tears of terror almost blinding her, to the point that she tripped over the edge of another counter, landing hard on her stomach with a yelp. Behind her, she heard a loud crash as the bookshelf was nearly knocked clear out of the doorway. From the sound of multiple voices, he had been joined by more people, all of them working together to shove the door open. There were a couple shouted threats about what they would do if she didn’t stop, punctuated by the sound of a metal pipe hitting the wall. 

Fueled entirely by panic, the girl scrambled back to her feet and kept going. She didn’t dare look back, instead practically diving to the left where, thanks to hours spent wandering through these stores, she knew there was a set of stairs just beside the employee counter. 

The stairs were narrow and steep, but Peyton hardly noticed. Hearing the sound of the men behind her finally managing to breach the shop, their angry shouts growing even louder only spurred her to get up the steps faster. Taking them several at a time, using the railing and wall to boost herself, she struggled not to sob. Crying wasn’t going to do anything. Paintball wouldn’t sit there and cry about it. Sure, he had superpowers and all, but still. He’d actually do something, and he was like… a little kid. Okay, maybe just a couple years younger than Peyton, yet the point remained. He threw himself into life-threatening danger all the time. He’d done so to save her. If he could do that, she could keep running instead of cowering on the stairs blubbering. She wasn’t going to reward Paintball taking the effort to save her from that fucking creep by letting herself be… be whatever these creeps were planning, especially now that they were pissed off. He’d saved her before, but he wasn’t here now. She had to save herself. Somehow.

Only once the girl reached the top of the stairs (she’d always wondered where they actually went) did she realize the problem. Where the fuck was she supposed to go now? She was standing in some kind of storage area, full of boxes and crates for the books that were actually on display below as well as some promotional material, lines of other shelves, and a few old mannequins for some reason. There were windows, but they were all blocked by metal bars. 

She only froze for a brief moment, thoughts of how stupid she was to come up here flooding her mind, before the sound of the men reaching the stairs below spurred Peyton to move. Rushed by blind terror, she fled past the row of mannequins and several stacks of books, throwing herself into one of the corners between two different crates. Huddled there, the girl drew herself back as tight as possible into that small space and prayed something would happen to interrupt the men. Or maybe they’d spread themselves out too much and she could bolt for the stairs to escape? Please, please, she just wanted to go home. 

Home. In a rush, she reached for her phone, only to find her pocket empty. A memory flashed through her head of falling flat on her face downstairs. Her phone and the bluetooth had obviously fallen out then, and she’d been in too much of a panic to actually notice. Fuck, fuck! 

By that point, the men had reached the top of the stairs. There was a moment of quiet murmuring as they clearly had a brief discussion about what to do, before one of the men called, “Hey kid! Look, no one’s gonna do anything rash, aight? We’re just burning down these shops cuz the Niners make a bunch of money out of ‘em. Ain’t got nothing to do with you. Come out, we’ll take you to the rest of the braindead civvies out there, and you can just sit until the cops show up to hold your hand, take your temperature, and give you a nice cup of hot chocolate. What do you say? Come on out, no hard feelings. But ahh, if we have to come in there and drag you out, I can’t promise nothing.” There was a heavy thump of something like a bat or pipe hitting a nearby crate as though to punctuate his words. “Let’s make this easy.” 

It was tempting. Oh God was it ever tempting. But Peyton hesitated. Ducking her head as low as possible, she peeked out and looked, praying that she wasn’t about to be face-to-face with one of the attackers. She saw three men standing right in front of the stairs. The guy who had chased her initially was facing the man who had spoken, hissing something angrily into his ear. That man gave him a short nod, and the guy with the bat started to silently move through the open room, bat raised as he carefully searched. 

“We’ll give you thirty seconds to think about it!’ The man who had been talking, still by the stairs with the other guy, called. “Then we’re coming in there and you won’t like it!” 

Right, thirty seconds. They were totally giving her time to think about it. That’s why the pissed off guy with the bat was already searching. It was a distraction. They wanted her to think she had time to breathe, while that guy made his way through. And when he found her, he’d–he’d…

For just a moment, Peyton’s eyes closed. A shudder of panic ran through her as the tears came. What was she supposed to do? What could she–

Something was in front of her face. Nearly screaming as she opened her eyes, expecting to find the bat pressed to her nose, Peyton instead found herself staring at a small, glowing orb, about the size of a softball. It was blue, with hypnotically glowing hieroglyphics moving across it randomly. 

Oh. 

Oh, that was neat. 

Completely forgetting her entire situation, the girl slowly reached out. Her hand grasped the ball, and she felt… peaceful. She felt like she was safe. 

She wasn’t in the store. She wasn’t… anywhere, really. Peyton stood in some kind of completely empty space. Instead of a floor, there was gray dirt under her feet. It was impossible to make out any details, thanks to the fog that filled the whole area. Not that there seemed to be much to see anyway. It was all just a flat gray wasteland filled with that fog. 

Spinning in a circle, she saw images appear in the fog. She saw herself at the computer, flirting with someone she had thought was her own age. She saw her own look of disgust upon realizing the truth, saw the way she’d cut it off with the pedo fuck. She saw the moment she was kidnapped and thrown into the back of that car by Mitchell and his idiot friends, as well as the moment Paintball had saved her. She saw the intervention by those Braintrust people. She saw all of that, before the images shifted to show her today. It showed her shopping, fleeing, running up to this very point with the men chasing her. 

Finally, the images in the fog shifted to showing her the orb. The very orb she had touched to find herself here. And as that orb filled her vision, a woman’s voice spoke. 

“Summus Proelium.” 

Instantly, the vision vanished. Peyton was suddenly back in the shop. The orb had disappeared, but her open hand wasn’t empty. Instead, six small metal marbles filled her palm. They were sleek and featureless, each a different color. Gold, silver, bronze, purple, black, and white. They felt warm to the touch. 

“Hey!” The furious voice snapped her attention upward, just in time to see the man with the bat standing over her. “I got the bitch! C’mere, you little–” 

The silver marble suddenly flew out of her hand, slamming into the man’s chest. There was a sudden shockwave that knocked over the nearby shelves and crates, as the guy was sent flying a good ten feet to crash against a pile of books with a scream. 

Scrambling to her feet, Peyton saw the man lying there in a heap, groaning. The other two men had been taken completely by surprise, but were already moving her way with a pair of shouts. One–one had a gun. The guy who had been talking pulled out a gun! 

The marbles reacted to her terror immediately. All five that were still in her hand flew out of it. But instead of flying at the men themselves, they surrounded Peyton. The gold and black ones smacked into her chest and began to meld together before expanding. Suddenly, they weren’t marbles anymore. They grew and shaped themselves into a golden chestplate with black highlights, which then expanded down into black armor with gold highlights across her legs and up over her arms.  

Meanwhile, the white marble flew up to her face, seeming to stare at her for an instant before it opened up, expanding like a mouth to swallow her as she screamed. 

No. It didn’t swallow her. It turned itself into a sleek, pristine white helmet, covering her face and head but leaving her eyes exposed. 

All of that happened in the span of a couple seconds. Suddenly, her entire body was encased in armor created by three of the six marbles. The three remaining, purple, silver and bronze, hovered in front of her as though waiting. 

The two guys who had been running at her suddenly stopped, stumbling over their own feet as curses of confusion escaped them. Before she could react, the man with the gun fired a shot. Peyton screamed, stumbling backward… even as the bullet ricocheted harmlessly off the armor. It didn’t feel like anything. 

For an instant, she stared down at the spot of her chest where the bullet had struck, then her gaze snapped up to the source of it. The remaining marbles reacted to her impulse. The bronze transformed itself into a bat not unlike the one she’d nearly been hit with, flying out to crash into the stomach of the man with the gun, then slammed down into his back to knock him to the floor. Simultaneously, the silver marble transformed into a rope, lashing itself around the other man before hurtling him through the air to slam into the first guy who had been knocked through the air just as he started to get up. 

Which left the purple marble. That one transformed into a long, flowing cloth, which lashed out the length of the room to catch all three men in a wide arc, before hurling them bodily into the far wall together with a collection of screams. 

The rope shifted slightly to become a whip as it flew into Peyton’s left hand, while the bat found its way into her right. Finally, the purple cloth–cloak, she realized, affixed itself to her shoulders. Peyton was left standing there over the three men as they groaned in pain and confusion, muttering half-conscious curses. 

“Oh my God,” she whimpered, standing in the newly formed armor with the two weapons in either hand. “Oh my God, oh fuck, oh god. What do I do now?” 

“Well, ain’t this a surprise!” The sudden voice snapped the newly-Touched girl’s gaze toward the stairs, where Juice stood. The huge man could barely fit, but didn’t seem to care about the damage he’d done getting up there. His gaze was centered on her. “Thought this was gonna be a boring cakewalk, but looks like I get to have a little excitement after all.” 

“Wait!” the girl found herself blurting in a panic, “I didn’t–” 

He didn’t wait. Instead, the man used a blast of lightning that slammed into Peyton. It… it didn’t kill her. It hurt, that was for sure. But not nearly as much as it should have. 

Unfortunately, it still served to distract the girl, and before she knew it, the big guy was right in front of her. He hauled her off the ground, snarling. “Pretty tough, eh bitch? Let’s see how tough.” Suddenly, he was spinning, much more graceful than he should have been at his size. Before she knew what was happening, Peyton found herself hurled toward one of the bar-covered windows. She struck it with enough force to break through, flying out into open air. 

Then she dropped. With a scream, the girl fell all the way to the ground in the middle of the open shopping center, landing hard on her chest. The bat and whip dropped from her hands, reforming to their normal marble shapes. 

A terrifyingly loud crash, followed by a thud made her spin over into a half-sitting position, staring as Juice straightened up from his own landing. There was a hole in the wall where he’d leapt through. 

“Still ticking, huh?” A low, dangerous chuckle escaped the man. Electricity played over his fist as he slammed it into his palm. “Good.

“Let’s have some fun.” 

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Fault 10-02 (Summus Proelium)

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So, there I was. Standing in an alley facing twelve men with Tech-Touched guns, my hand held by the teen girl that I’d been rescuing from what I thought were normal (if well-armed) kidnappers. The space was wider than a typical alley given it opened up into the space behind these buildings. But the part where the men were standing was still narrow enough that they were all bunched up. Actually, bunched up as they were, maybe I could get some blue paint at their feet and really throw off–

“Don’t do it, Paintball.” That voice came from behind me, and I spun quickly, putting myself beside the girl with my right side mostly facing the group of armed men so I could keep track of what they were doing out of the corner of my eye. To my left as I glanced that way, I saw a single figure. He stood about seven feet tall, but that was deceptive, because his legs and arms were both very clearly artificial. They looked like the limbs from the endoskeleton of the T-800 Terminator from the Schwarzenegger movies. He’d replaced his limbs with robotic prosthetics.  

While the man’s metal arms and legs were exposed, his torso was covered in black armor sculpted to his muscular body (or at least made to look like his body was muscular) with the insignia of an F slightly in front of a W on the upper left portion of the chest, both letters looking like they were made out of girders. Given they were kind of silver against a black background, you had to squint a bit to make them out. Finally, his face was covered by a black helmet with three glowing red dots on the front, two where his eyes would be and one where his mouth would be. 

I knew this guy. Well, not personally, of course. But he was called Framework. His whole deal was attaching Tech-Touched devices and weapons to his body and deploying them as needed. When he was in battle, he tended to appear in any of several full-on personal mech suits, which ranged in size from basically what he was now, all the way up to his full twenty-foot tall version.

Oh yeah, he was also one of the Fell-touched of Braintrust, the Tech-Touched gang. Which made sense, considering a bunch of their minions were currently blocking my exit from the alley. 

“Gee,” I started quickly while glancing back and forth between the assortment of troops and the Fell-Touched man himself, “are times really so hard for you Tech villains that you have to resort to using a whole army to kidnap one girl? I bet there’s an online training course you can take to learn how to be competent villains and get all the way up to robbing banks in no time if you try.”

Shockingly, that was apparently the wrong thing to say, as all the men to my right abruptly raised their weapons with a collective sound of annoyance and anger (though I swore at least one guy snickered a little bit before it was quickly cut off at a look from his companions) at the insult.  

Thankfully, Framework raised his voice. “Stop.” He looked to the troops sharply, waiting until they relented before turning his attention back to me. “We didn’t come to start a brawl with you, Paintball, though we’ll finish one if we need to. We came to get our property back, that’s all.”

Feeling offended on behalf of the girl who was still tightly clinging to my hand, I glanced to her with what I hoped was a reassuring look despite the blank visor of my helmet before snapping at the man. “Yeah, you know what? Maybe if you keep calling the girl you were trying to kidnap your property, I’ll just go ahead and jump right into that brawl you were just talking about.”  

There was a very brief pause as Framework’s head tilted. The red dots on his helmet dulled, flickering briefly before flashing a couple times as the sound of what I belatedly realized was a chuckle came. “No,” he replied flatly. “I wasn’t talking about the girl. We don’t even know who she is. Take her, return her to her school, do whatever you like. We came for that.” He raised a hand, pointing at the ground to one side. Looking there, I saw the Tech gun I’d tossed out of the car. 

Blinking a couple times, I tried to catch up. “Um. Excuse me? You brought a bunch of armed men to grab the gun just because I threw i–wait, no.” Turning, I pointed at the guy who was still in the car and hadn’t moved to get out. “Them. That guy and his friends. You were after them because they weren’t with you, and they had a gun that–that they stole from you, right?” 

Framework inclined his head, regarding me while those lights flickered a bit once more. Then he gave a short nod. “Smart boy. Like I said, we’re not here for the girl. We don’t care about her. We’re here for our property. It was taken from us and we’re taking it back. Stand aside from that and we’ll have no issues. This time, anyway.” He added the last bit after a momentary, pointed pause. “Any future conflict can be saved for just that. The future.”   

I thought about it for a second, but honestly… yeah, I couldn’t see any real point to insisting on a fight right now. Not for something like this. I wasn’t arrogant enough to think I could easily take on a whole group of Tech-armed soldiers who could have had any number of tricks, and a Fell-Touched guy whose entire deal was bringing mech suits into play. Pushing for a fight just to stop them from taking one of their guns back? That actually seemed pretty stupid, honestly. Especially with this innocent girl standing right next to me who would end up in the crossfire.  

So, I slowly nodded. “Fine, take your gun and leave. We’ll save the fighting thing for later.” 

Without moving from where he was standing, Framework gave a short nod to one of the men. That guy stepped forward carefully, leaning down to grab the gun from the ground. As it was stowed away, he asked his boss, “What about him?” He was looking toward the guy still inside the car. 

“He stays here,” I quickly put in. “You can take your gun, but the guy stays. He’ll go to jail for kidnapping… ummm…” Trailing off, I glanced toward the red-haired girl beside me. 

“P-Peyton,” she provided, eyes wide as she kept staring at the assorted weapons around us. 

“Peyton,” I echoed with a nod. “He’ll go to jail for kidnapping Peyton. That’ll have to be enough.” 

Framework simply shrugged. “Is that really a fight you want to have right now? You’re really willing to throw down with all this over protecting a guy who kidnaps some innocent girl?”  

“I’m definitely not willing to just let you take justice into your own hands,” I retorted. “He’s here with me, he’s going to the authorities. The question is, are you willing to start a fight right now when other Touched could show up any second. Not to mention cops. I mean, the news chopper was–” As I said that, my eyes glanced up toward the sky, only to pause. There was no chopper in sight. Which was weird, because I was pretty sure they should’ve found us by now. 

“I wouldn’t worry about the authorities or anyone else showing up to start, or finish, any problems,” Framework informed me. “We’ve got nothing but privacy for the moment.” 

As he said it, the man looked pointedly toward one of the rooftops. I glanced that way, only to see another of the Braintrust Touched. This was a man with sleek silver body armor that had dozens of scenes from various TV shows and movies playing across its surface in a collage of random images. It was Fabulist, a guy whose inventions were able to create illusions, elaborate special effects, that kind of thing. He was clearly making sure that the news chopper didn’t find us. Hell, he’d probably created a whole separate chase scene for them to keep following. I was alone. 

Swallowing slightly, I straightened. “You’re still not taking him without a fight. I can’t just let you walk away with that guy. Not when I’ve got a good idea of just how he’ll be treated.” 

For a few seconds, I wasn’t sure how Framework was going to take that. He regarded me in silence before holding up one finger as though telling me to wait. His head turned and he spoke aloud, “Glitch, slight issue.” 

Glitch. That was the leader of Braintrust. As I understood it, she was able to identify problems or flaws in technology, even of the Tech-Touched variety. She could even improve them, basically allowing her to upgrade the work of everyone in her gang. Beyond that, she could also make specific technology within her vicinity fail to work, or install ‘glitches’ into it that would flare up now and then for awhile even after the tech was away from her. 

So yeah, there was a reason she got to be the leader of a group entirely focused around technology and inventions. I just hoped she was also the leader because she was capable of making rational decisions. 

While the man in front of me was having a murmured conversation with his boss, I turned slightly to look at Peyton. “Are you okay?” 

She was staring at the assembled group, who weren’t exactly pointing their guns at us, but hadn’t lowered them either. “Um.” Her voice was very tentative and uncertain. “I… I don’t know. I just wanna go home.” 

“Do you have any idea why those guys grabbed you?” The fact that they had used what was apparently a stolen Tech-Touched weapon made me doubt that it was a completely random abduction. And I was really hoping this wasn’t about to turn into a whole new mystery. I had enough of those. 

There was a brief pause before the girl explained, “I was chatting with this guy online. We really hit it off. He was funny and everything. Then I found out that he was using his little brother’s pictures. He was a lot older. So I broke it off and he got all upset. I never told him where I lived, but I guess he picked up on my school.”

Turning a bit, I stared at her. “Hold on, you’re saying this whole thing is because one of those idiots that was in the car catfished an underaged girl and his response to that being broken off was to steal a super gun and kidnap you in broad daylight and then have a high speed chase?!” My voice got louder and more incredulous by the word. “Which one was it, Larry, Curly, or Moe?”

Coughing quietly, the girl nodded toward the vehicle. “The… um, idiot that’s still in the car.” 

Before I could do more than give a sharp look that way, Framework cleared his throat for attention. When I turned to him, he announced, “Mmmkay, you can take the genius. We’ve had our pound of flesh.”

My mouth opened, but said genius blurted from the car, “What’s that supposed to mean?!”

Framework was all too happy to explain. “We found your address and torched your apartment.” To me, he added pointedly, “Made sure there were no living things in it and contained the burn to only that apartment. Also put up a nice sign letting his neighbors know that this whole thing was because he tried to diddle a fifteen year old. Including pictures of their chat transcripts. Oh, and we sent the same thing to his employer, family, and university. So, you know, we figure we’re even on the whole stealing our equipment issue.” After a brief pause, he asked flatly, “We good here?”

While I was still staring, Peyton leaned over and whispered, ”I’m not supposed to root for the bad guys. Help.”

Shaking my head, I muttered that I wasn’t doing any better on that (and not just from today) before meeting Framework’s gaze. “Yeah. We’re good.”

He held the look, then twirled his finger in a quick circular motion. “Pack it up! We’re gone!”

And just like that, he, the rest of the troops down on the ground, and Fabulist all left. They simply walked away. I stayed tense for another couple seconds while watching just in case. But they didn’t come back. 

Then a brief sound caught my attention. Turning quickly, I saw the man in the car starting to scramble out. Before he could get very far, however, Peyton stooped, picked a chunk of concrete off the ground, and smacked him in the face with it. It was an awkward swing that made it clear the girl had probably never thrown a punch in her life. But the sound of the smack was still satisfying. As was the man’s yelp as he fell back into the car and held his nose.

“Yeah, I’d stay there if I was you,” I informed him while taking out my phone to call the authorities. 

“Or don’t. I’m not averse to her hitting you a few more times.”

*******

Eventually, that was done with. Peyton was in the hands of the authorities, who could take her home. And her abductor (plus his buddies) were in custody.

So that was one problem dealt with. I thought to avert another possible one by contacting the Seraphs to let them know why I was late. Not that I actually needed to, considering the person on the phone just said that they saw the news. 

I was in the midst of my third task, calling Wren to fill her in and thank her, when a voice spoke up from the side of the roof where I was standing. “So who are they?”

Turning quickly, I saw the figure from before with the television shows playing all over his silver costume. Fabulist, the holograms and illusions Tech guy. “What? What do you want?” I snapped, suddenly wary. 

The man held up both hands, not that that made me feel any better. “Easy. We’re just curious where you’re getting your tech from.” Turning his arm a bit, he showed me a screen on it that appeared to be a series of meters. “We detect Touched-Tech. Scanner works even when you’re not actively using it or just when you’ve been around it recently. Makes it easier to track down our stuff. And you… you’ve been around very advanced stuff. We don’t know what. Just that it’s impressive. Cutting edge. But who makes it for you? It’s none of us.”

Wren. He wanted to know about Wren. Well, fuck that. Shaking my head, I replied, “Sorry, that’s on a need to know basis, and I don’t see any reason you need to know that.” Oh, please don’t let this turn into a fight now after I’d managed to avoid one with these guys just a few minutes earlier. 

Thankfully, the man simply considered me for a moment longer before offering a shrug. “We will find out in time. We are very interested in this tech.”

I started to reply that he could go ahead and be interested, but the man simply vanished in a cloud of smoke. Given his particular proficiency, I wondered if he had even actually been standing there at all.

Speaking of his proficiency, I quickly left the roof and made my way several blocks without saying or doing anything. Reaching a small park, I made my way into the outdoor restroom, locked the door, and stripped myself down. Then I spent ten minutes poring over the entire costume and helmet looking for any possible thing he could have stuck to it that could be a bug or something. I went over it with a fine tooth comb several times in my paranoia before then turning my attention to my phones. I carefully checked them as well, running virus checks and everything. Only then, after dressing once more, did I relax a little bit. As far as I could tell, I wasn’t bugged. I’d hoped not, considering as far as I knew, he never got near me. But given his powers and Touched Tech in general… yeah. I was being careful. 

But the tech gang knew about Wren. Or at least that she existed. And it probably wouldn’t take them long to find out more. I was going to have to warn her to be careful now that she had their interest. That whole thing could get really complicated really fast.

When I called, she wanted to know everything that happened from the moment the news chopper lost sight of us. Apparently the holograms had led them on a wild goose chase far from the actual confrontation. 

So, I explained everything, including how it was resolved and that they had detected her technology.

“Wren, you better make sure you focus on your defenses now,” I insisted. “You know how Braintrust is about recruiting. Make sure you’re safe.”

“I am, I will!” she chirped. “Don’t worry, Paintball, I’ve got lots of ideas. It’s gonna be great. Oh, and really safe, obviously. Those guys don’t get to tell me what to do, or what to build, or who to build it for, or anything! I don’t build for anybody but me! Um, and you! And people who buy stuff from me! But not bad guys! That’s the important part. No bad guys.”

Chuckling a little after extracting that promise for her to take care of herself, I thanked the kid a few more times for letting me know about the abduction. Assuring her that Peyton really was safe, I promised to come see her soon. Then I disconnected and exhaled. That was over. It had been a brief, though important distraction. But now I had to focus on the actual reason I was out here in the first place. 

Time to go see the Seraphs. And hope that I didn’t run into any more kidnapping victims along the way. 

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Fault 10-01 (Summus Proelium)

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Eits didn’t really find anything useful enough to share (other than letting me know he was still looking into it) over the next few days. Days that I spent doing things like practicing with my paint, getting accustomed to using my spiffy new wall-sticking shoes, and trying (failing) to figure out what the damn pink paint was used for. Aside from that last part, it went pretty well. I also spent some time helping Izzy get a new phone so she could call or text me. Or anyone else. 

So, I was doing okay on the whole practicing with the powers I knew about thing, still had no idea what was going on with the pink paint, was avoiding Tomas as much as possible without looking like I was avoiding him, and remained almost completely clueless about whatever the fuck was going on with Paige and her real father living on the inescapable prison island thing. 

The point was, pretty soon, it was Wednesday afternoon. I was going to visit the Seraph HQ in a few minutes. But first, I was determined to finish up at least one more of the pictures for the people who went to Amber’s party. She was waiting patiently for them, but I really needed to put a dent in the list. Not that that took too much time, considering how easy drawing suddenly was for me. But it took longer than it could have, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to use my actual paint on the pictures. No way would I risk leaving that kind of incriminating evidence about who I was. Instead, I had a pad that I was sketching the requested pictures in before inking them later. And coloring the ones for the people who requested and paid for that extra bit, eventually. 

So there was just one more I wanted to finish right now, a sketch of the guy in the picture (his name was Alan and he was a senior) doing a, ahem ‘sick flip’ on his skateboard off one of the castle-like towers of the Grand Army of the Republic building downtown (which was where I was now so I could draw it more effectively). Apparently he’d always wanted to do that but there was no way it would ever happen. So he paid for a drawing of it rather than do anything stupid like actually try. Which, well, kudos to him for thinking it through.

I was sitting cross-legged against the side of one of a nearby building’s brick chimneys. Yes, I was using my shoes to switch my gravity so that I could sit against the side of the chimney as though it was the ground, facing downward as I worked intently, drawing on the pad. With it in my lap, the pad seemed to be affected by the same change in gravity so it didn’t go flying away from me. Of course, I was in costume. Well, mostly. It was harder to draw with gloves, so I had those off as well as the helmet, with just the mask on underneath. I wasn’t sure exactly why I was drawing like this in costume rather than doing it at home or whatever, I just didn’t want to be home. Besides, I was heading to the Seraph base pretty soon. I just needed to finish this picture with a bit more detail on Alan himself as he came off the building. After all, what was the point of buying a picture of yourself doing something awesome if you couldn’t tell it was supposed to be you?

So intent was I on getting the boy’s face right, that the sudden sound and feel of my phone buzzing made me jerk in surprise. The pad fell a few feet to land on the roof below, and I quickly reached to my pocket. The call was coming in on my ‘work’ phone, so to speak. Taking a quick look to see who was calling, I said a few quick words aloud to make sure my voice changer was working right before answering. “Yo, Wr-I mean Trevithick. What’s up? Gotta say, these shoes–”  

Before I could say anything else, Wren quickly interrupted, sounding pretty wound up about something. “Paintball! Um, are you anywhere near MLK High? That place by Larned.”

“I know where it is,” I answered while hopping off the chimney to land lightly on the roof as I glanced over toward the nearby landmark building I’d been drawing a moment earlier. “I’m a couple miles away, by Grand River Avenue. Why, what’s going on? Are you okay?”   

“Oh! Oh, they might be going that way,” the young Tech-Touched blurted. “It’s on the news, there’s this red sedan, these two guys just grabbed a girl that was outside the school and now they’re driving down, umm… Uncle Fred, where–Lafayette. They’re coming your way on Lafayette but they might turn! The cops were chasing them, but they used a sonic cannon or something that blew one of the cars like a million miles away so they don’t dare get close. I think they’re trying to call in Touched for help but if the car gets out of sight they could disappear!” 

It took me a second to put that all together, but I was already using red paint to yank my helmet up. “Red sedan speeding everywhere running from cops and trying to hide, got it. On my way.” Thanking the girl and promising to call back, I disconnected while stowing the drawing pad in my nearby bag, hiding it out of sight, and slipping my gloves on. Then I took a running start, leaping off the building with a bit of blue paint to launch myself forward and up. Red yanked me toward the next building, and then my feet hit it, the shoes allowing me to run along the side without having to worry about putting more paint down to stay there. 

I’d been grateful for the shoes already, of course. But they meant more now than before. Thinking about some girl being grabbed by guys for… whatever reason made me push harder, using my mix of red, green, and blue paints to race along the sides and tops of buildings while scanning the road below. It didn’t take long to reach Lafayette, and I kept going that way. 

The kidnappers were using at least one Tech-Touched weapon. That didn’t necessarily mean they were Tech-Touched, just that they had access to it. A sonic based cannon was one of those things that popped up in the news now and then, often enough that I knew it was a black market thing. Hopefully, whoever these guys were, they’d just bought their weapon that way. 

But why would people with the kind of cash that it took to get and keep one of those things be grabbing some random high schooler? Unless she wasn’t random. Or unless they’d just found the weapon somewhere? Whatever, there were a lot of options and guessing would get me nowhere.

Of course, while I was running, my other phone went off. It was my actual Cassidy phone. I would’ve ignored it, except I’d already set the phone not to put any calls through that weren’t from my important contacts. Sure enough, when I took a second while running along a roof to unzip the pocket and glance at it, it was Mom on the phone. 

Pausing briefly, I weighed my choices. But in the end, I didn’t want to give them any reason to wonder about me. So I quickly deactivated my voice changer and answered the phone before starting to run again. “Hi, Mom!” I chirped, trying to sound normal. 

“Cassidy,” came the warm response, “I wanted–are you running?” 

I leapt from the roof of that building, windmilling through the air while replying, “Oh, uhhh, yeah. I–” My hand snapped out, shooting a bit of red that yanked me to another wall I could run along the side of. “You know, just trying to stay in shape. Beside’s, running’s fun. Sorry, I–” I flipped sideways off the edge of the building, landing on top of a signpost before using blue paint to launch myself up and forward, “–didn’t forget something, did I?” 

There was a brief pause before the answer came. “No, no, you did not forget anything, dear. As long as you’re okay?” 

“Yup!” I replied as cheerfully and simply as I could, doing my level best not to let her know that, at that exact moment, I was flying through the air as my red paint pulled me to another roof. “You know me, just can’t sit still for very long. What’s–umm, what’s up?” I nearly misjudged that particular landing, stumbling a little before catching myself. I really hoped this wasn’t going to be a long conversation. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t. Mom just wanted to ask me if I minded dressing up and going out for dinner the next night, since there was apparently some kind of award show at the country club that Dad needed to attend. I agreed, she made me promise not to run too much, and I disconnected the call (turning the voice changer back on, of course). Then I exhaled. Talking to my mother while doing all this… Paintball running and jumping stuff was nerve wracking. It felt like she could see me while I was talking, even though she couldn’t. Shaking that off, I focused on the task at hand. Namely, finding that car before they managed to completely disappear.

In the end, I didn’t actually have to look that hard to try to find the car. All I had to do was look for the news chopper in the sky. They seemed to be staying well back, probably to avoid getting nailed by that sonic cannon. But it gave me a general area to look in as soon as I saw the chopper hovering above one of the buildings about a mile from my starting point. And sure enough, as I landed against a billboard and stared intently toward the road, I saw it. The red sedan came screaming around a slow-moving semi, racing my way with a squeal of tires. 

Okay, right, I could do this. I could do it. There was an innocent girl in that car, I had to get her out of there, even if the idea of throwing myself at guys with access to at least one extremely dangerous Tech-Touched weapon made me want to whimper. I had to forget about how dangerous it was, forget about how easily a weapon like that could probably maim or kill me, and just… jump. 

I jumped, pushing off the wall into a backflip just as the car got close. They clearly hadn’t seen me yet, and I used just a touch of yellow paint to slow my fall right before the end, timing it just right. Which, again, was something I didn’t actually think about. It was kind of like when I’d been racing through the dark forest to get to Paige the other day. I’d just stopped thinking and knew where all the trees and bushes were, even in the darkness. Just like that, I didn’t stop to think about how to time my drop to coincide with the car’s passing, I just… knew how to do it. 

It worked. With the help of that bit of yellow, I landed perfectly in the middle of the passing car’s roof, falling slowly enough at that point that it only dented the thing in a bit. Sure, they really knew I was there by that point, but at least I didn’t just go right through the roof entirely or cave it in completely. Red paint yanked my hands down to stay on the car an instant later as it swerved hard to one side. Yeah, they definitely knew I was up there. So, without thinking about it, I painted the image of a man in purple armor holding an orange shield on my chest, activating the latter part.

Rolling quickly toward the passenger side, I popped my head down near the open window. “Hey, do you guys have any idea how fast you’re going?!” Using that moment, I took stock of the car’s occupants. Three guys and a girl. The only guy in front was the driver, with two guys in the back on either side of the clearly high school-aged girl. She looked maybe fourteen or fifteen, slim with short red hair. The guys all looked… well, normal. They weren’t wearing any kind of costumes or uniforms linking them to any of the Fell-gangs in town. Both the guys in the back had guns out. Not the sonic cannon, at least. They held regular handguns. 

Before they could react to my blurted words, I quickly pointed both hands (using a tiny bit of red on my chest to keep myself in place), hitting the girl with a pair of paint blobs. One was orange, and I activated it immediately, just in case this went south in the next few seconds. Hell, I didn’t know what these guys might do, but taking away their ability to just shoot and kill her that easily felt like a pretty solid idea right then.

As it turned out, it was me they wanted to shoot at. Both men in the backseat pointed their pistols my way, opening fire. They were silenced (the good Tech-Touched silencers that made the gunshots sound like soft coughs), but being quiet made them no less dangerous. I quickly jerked myself up despite the orange paint, not wanting to get hit at all if I could help it. They adjusted quickly and were already shooting up through the roof of the car as I used green paint to speed myself up, rolling backward to get off that spot while several bullets passed through it. 

Since I was near the back of the car, I slapped one hand down with red paint to keep myself in place. The driver was swerving all over the place, and I would’ve gone flying without that. As it was, my legs slid off the side, and one of the men clearly noticed because a shot hit one of them. The orange paint was still active, so it just stung a bit, but still. This wasn’t great. 

With a grunt, I jerked my legs back up onto the roof. Then I shot two more quick red blobs of paint ahead of us to the buildings on either side of the street. Another bullet from the assholes inside the car popped through the roof and rebounded off my shoulder. Which, ow. That was starting to hurt. I needed to handle this, right now. Especially before I ran out of paint. 

With that in mind, I activated the other paint blob I’d shot onto the girl a few seconds earlier. The non-orange one. It was white, and the car was suddenly filled with a blinding flash. As the people in there reacted, the car jerking to the side, I let myself slide right to the back window while activating the purple paint of the armored figure on my chest. Then I swung one leg back and drove my knee in through that rear windshield. The impact knocked a hole in the window, and I quickly threw myself in that way while everyone was still blinded and confused. Landing in the narrow space just above and behind the rear seat, I snapped my hands out to slap against the arms of either guy there. 

They reacted quickly despite being blinded, their guns pointing my way. But I was faster, activating the red paint I’d just slapped onto both of them. Linking them to the two spots of red I’d shot at the buildings we were now just barely passing, I sent both men flying out through the mostly-broken rear windshield with a pair of twin screams. 

But things weren’t exactly free and clear yet. The driver, who, despite being at least half-blinded by the white flash, still managed to flip the car’s autodrive on. That autodrive was now taking the car down an alley while the driver himself grabbed something and turned. The ‘something’ turned out to be a high-tech weapon that looked kind of like a futuristic silver and green sawed-off shotgun with oversized barrels. The sonic cannon, probably. 

Whatever it was, I did not want to get hit by it. To that end, I threw myself off the window area and into the backseat, landing basically in the kidnapped girl’s lap while lashing out with one foot. The purple paint was still active, so my kick actually broke the driver’s seat when it collided, knocking the man forward into the steering wheel just as he was trying to aim that weapon. It went off, the sound utterly fucking deafening in those close quarters. The blast blew the passenger side front door off, crumpling it up and sending it flying. Meanwhile, the collision of the man with the steering wheel took off the autodrive and the car suddenly veered in the other direction, slamming hard into the wall of the alley. The car stopped, I fell to the floor, the driver rebounded off the suddenly triggered airbag, and the kidnapped girl bounced off the back of the front passenger seat before her seatbelt yanked her back down. She might’ve been screaming. We all might’ve been screaming. But the deafening effect of that sonic cannon made it a moot point. 

Before the man could fire that damn thing again, I forced myself to pop up, snatching it out of his dazed hand. I threw the weapon out the shattered back window, then grabbed the girl’s hand. “Come on!” I shouted, though I was pretty sure she couldn’t hear me. I couldn’t hear me. But she had the basic idea anyway, squeezing my hand like it was a lifeline as I kicked one of the back doors open and pulled her out. It was time to get this girl out of there, before the driver recovered or either of those guys I’d sent flying caught up. 

Or not. Because as soon as the two of us emerged from the car, we found ourselves facing a whole group of maybe twelve men. And these guys didn’t look like the random criminals the ones in the car had seemed to be. All of them were wearing militaristic dark body armor and full face-covering helmets with white lab coats, and they were holding what looked kind of like submachine guns. But I was pretty sure those weapons did more than fire bullets. Because these weren’t ordinary thugs. They were troops who worked for Braintrust.

Well, I didn’t have to worry about one Tech-Touched gun anymore.

Because I was facing about a dozen of them instead. 

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