Raige

Dig In 22-15 (Summus Proelium)

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“Ohhhh no. Oh no, no, no. Nope, no.” Those words and more filled the air, sounding dull with shock and disbelief. It took me a moment to realize that I was the one saying them, even as I took several reflexive steps back. My head was shaking almost violently. In between words, I was making a disbelieving, distressed sound in the back of my throat. It sounded vaguely like a low whine, and also possibly like an airplane plummeting toward the ground. Which was probably a pretty decent metaphor when it came to what my brain was doing at that moment. 

Amber and Izzy were just staring in shocked silence, their body language making it clear that they had no idea how to respond to what we were looking at. Not that I would have heard it if they did say something, most likely. Not through the ringing in my ears that seemed to get louder the longer I stood there and stared at… at… me. Not me. Raige. Raige who now looked like me. Like a version of me who was wearing a simple gray sweatsuit. What–how was that–why would–what– My brain kept looping back in on itself. Every time I thought I was ready to say something besides no, it came right back around to that same blank, confused denial. I had absolutely no idea how to react to this, inwardly or outwardly. 

Clearing my–her throat, Raige spoke up with my voice again while looking straight at me (with my eyes). “So, I completely understand that this is probably a lot to take in. You know, us being new twins and all. But hey, we accomplished the mission. I have an orb and a body.”  

“A bo–you have my body!” I found myself blurting, a flush rising to my face under the mask. “You look like me. I mean it, you look identical to me. I mean–what–how–what?” It was all I could do to stop those last few words from turning into another inarticulate whine.  

“It’s the only body we can find,” Paige gently put in. “The only biolem that was still sitting around waiting for our father to do something with.”  

Amber was the first to finally find her voice after that. “Why… the hell would your father have a biolem who looks like Cassidy?” She demanded in a hissed tone. “What was he playing at?” 

“He was probably planning on replacing her.” That was Izzy, speaking quietly as she looked back and forth between the updated Raige and me. “You know, embed a fake as a spy. Or maybe he thought they might work with him if he offered to download your brain into a biolem and make you immortal? Or–” Her head shook as she managed a weak, “I dunno. I dunno, it’s just—obviously a replacement, right? Or, I mean–” 

“I get it,” I put in. My voice sounded a bit hollow even through the changer. Really, was it ironic that Raige sounded more like me right now than I did? Because this was just… I had no idea how to… or what was… ugh. My brain was looping back in on itself again, which wasn’t helpful. 

“I don’t know for sure,” Paige hesitantly offered, “but I think she’s right.” Her head nodded toward Izzy. “I think one of his plans involved either replacing Cassidy or offering to make you and your family part of… the system in exchange for funding at one point. This was like a proof of concept or something. He had DNA samples from somewhere. I swear I don’t know where he got them. But they were in there, in that machine that was holding this… body. They grew it just like this, and it’s been sitting there growing and being groomed this whole time with no–uh, brain or personality. Just an empty body.” 

“From DNA,” I found myself murmuring, barely resisting the urge to scream it. “He had my DNA. That’s how he–how this thing looks like me still. Even though he must have built it a while ago. Wait, you said it aged normally? Did he just create it at–I guess that makes…” I trailed off before I could finish saying that it made sense, because none of this made sense to me. I felt like I was in the middle of a crazy fever dream or something. 

“He would have created the body at the age you were when he built it,” Paige slowly remarked. “So it makes sense that it would be the same age you are now. It’s just been sitting here, being automatically cared for just in case he decided to come back to it or… something. Once he gave up on working with your parents, he probably kept it around in case there was an opportunity to… to replace you.” She spoke the last few words quietly, wincing.  

Putting both hands against my forehead, I breathed in and out a few times. Hearing that Pittman had been planning to replace me with a copy, who would probably have ended up doing terrible things to my family, was a lot to take in. Even considering the fact that it was coming from a guy who had already demonstrably planned to kill me. I was starting to think that I didn’t come out ahead in very many of Pittman’s plans. It was almost like he had some sort of grudge against me personally instead of just my family. Was he pissed because I had made friends with Paige? Was that it? I had no idea, but this whole thing was starting to feel personal.  

Shaking that off, I raised myself before taking a few steps that way. Leaning in close to stare into my duplicate body’s eyes, I slowly scanned down my–her face, taking in every possible detail. It was me. Well, obviously a bit different with the longer, undyed hair, but still me. Staring into the face was like looking into a mirror. Every bit of her was just me. She was me, from top to bottom. 

“It was lying facedown in the machine,” Paige informed us. “And Raige was… excited. We didn’t really look at it until after she was plugged in. I knew there was something familiar, but–” She cut herself off, sighing a little. “Like she said, we know it’s a lot to take in. But–” 

“It’s my body,” Raige interrupted. “The only one there is, the only one we’ve got. So it’s the one we have to use. Unless you’re going to try to go back on the deal.” Her tone turned slightly dangerous, though still mostly understanding, as she squinted at me. As my own eyes squinted at me. “You know, the one where I help in exchange for this? Because if this is too much and you’d rather go back to the old status quo where I fight every single one of you…” It wasn’t quite a threat. Well, It might have sounded like that to an outside observer, but I could hear the worry and frustration in her voice, the fear. She was afraid that we would stab her in the back just like Pittman had. Because of course she was. That was how her father had treated her, how he’d treated both her and Paige. So why wouldn’t she assume the worst from other people? 

Taking a breath before letting it out, I shook my head firmly. “No one’s saying anything like that. Just–just give me a second.” I had to move away from her, taking a few steps the other way before turning my back to my new duplicate body. My hands covered my face and I gave a long, slow exhale. A lot to take in? That was basically the understatement of the century. I hadn’t even begun to start thinking my way through all of the ramifications of this, let alone the simple question of what we were going to do with having someone who looked just like me. Not just in the wider city, but simply around everyone else on the team who didn’t know who I was. 

Actually, that was probably the best question of all. Taking another breath, I turned back that way. “What are we going to say to the others? They’ll want to know if we found a new body for Raige, and I’m pretty sure they’ll be a bit interested in seeing it.” 

The girl in question was still squinting at me. Which, again, was weird to see coming from what was essentially myself. “Does that mean you’re not gonna start a big fuss over it?  You’re going to let me keep the body?” 

My mouth opened to say something, before I paused and held up a hand to take a moment. I had to think about my next words briefly. “I… that was the deal. You would get a body of your own. I didn’t question it when we thought it would look like Paige, or like some random person. It wouldn’t be fair to—it’s weird, yeah. Totally fucking weird. No question about that. But no matter what it looks like, it’s your body, not mine. It’s my appearance, my face, my–it makes me feel funny. But I’m not going to say you can’t use it, just because it looks like me. But bear with me a little bit, okay? It’s a lot to deal with. I can’t–oh jeez, it really looks like me. You. You really look like me.” I was looking it–her up and down once more. It was still surprising, no matter how many times I closed my eyes, told myself what I was going to see, then opened them again. Some part of me kept thinking that it would look different the next time I opened up my eyes. But it never did. She always looked identical to me. That wasn’t going to change. I just had to deal with that and move on. Which meant figuring out what to do about it as far as everyone else was concerned. 

Amber stepped closer as well, hesitantly lifting a hand to touch the long hair of my duplicate. “Damn,” she murmured, “They really got down to the smallest detail, didn’t they? I mean, of your–yeah.” 

Grimacing visibly, Raige brushed the other girl’s arm away from her. “As much as I love everyone complimenting Bastard Dad’s work, we should probably get down to business. Cuz if Cass over there is really gonna let this go without raising a fuss, then she’s right. We probably do need to explain why I look like this.”   

She was right, of course, we did need to explain that. A part of me was wondering just what the odds were that we would’ve just happened to only come here with the people who already knew my identity. If Peyton had come with us, or Pack? Yeah, this whole thing would be even more awkward. 

“I could tell them the truth,” I murmured under my breath, barely able to put voice to the thought. “I could tell them who I really am, and we could explain… you know, all of it. They already know about the Ministry and all that. It’s just one more step or two for the rest of it.” 

“Pretty big steps,” Amber pointed out. “Are you really ready to tell Pack, Wren, Fred, Peyton, Murphy, and Roald who you really are and what your connection to all this is?” 

“You mean do I trust Pack to keep it to herself?” I replied flatly, meeting her gaze. “I mean, she is a thief in the long run. She still works for Blackjack, who is still linked to my parents. She works for him, and he works for them. Well, maybe not for, but you know. He follows instructions. He pays his taxes. He just–” Stopping myself, I sighed. “That is the real question, isn’t it? Not to mention Fred. Sure, he’s really learned a lot, but he screwed up once and nearly got Blackjack’s daughter killed for it. He’s grown, but do we know for sure he’d never make a mistake like that again? Not even a mistake like that, necessarily. Do we trust them to never use my identity for their own ends, or to even mess up and accidentally reveal it?”

After getting all that out, I gave a heavy sigh before focusing on Amber once more. “They already know about the Ministry, and about what we know. They know we were the ones who broke into that base tonight. We’re already all in this together. And if they wanted, or just messed up, we’d already be completely screwed. I trusted them this far. I trusted them with it this far. I’ve taken this many steps out over the ledge, and now I feel like one of those cartoon characters who’ll fall if I look down and see how far up I am. So you tell me, do you trust Pack not to give up my identity to her boss?” 

There was only the slightest hesitation as Amber ran the question through her mind before giving a short nod. “I… I know she likes you. I mean, she thinks you’re a lot different than you are, but she still likes you. And I don’t think she would reveal your secret to anyone. Not for money or anything else. She talks a big game about being a bad guy, and sure, she still steals stuff. But she’s loyal to her friends. She’s loyal to Blackjack because he’s helped her out so much, and I think she’d be loyal to you too. So yeah, I think you can trust her with this.” 

Before I could say anything to that, Raige cleared her throat. “Sure, that’s sweet and all. Very touching. But you know you might not have to, right?” As we all looked at her, she rolled her eyes. Which gave me a good idea of what it looked like when I did that. “Yeah, I look like her. But you people do know that disguises exist, right? Fuck, I already have long hair instead of having it short on one side. Give me some blonde hair dye, some colored contacts, some glasses, let me dress differently, whatever. And that’s before you get into the Touched-Tech stuff that could change my appearance even more drastically. Sure, it’s not exactly sitting on the shelves of Wal-Mart, but it’s not impossible to get either. They don’t have to know we look identical now, that’s all I’m saying. Trust your buddies or don’t, but you don’t need to let me looking like this force you into making a decision before you’re ready, that’s all.” 

Glancing away for a moment as thoughts ran through my mind, I finally gave a nod and looked back that way. “You’re right, there are ways to disguise you. Besides, it’s not like my picture is all over the news constantly. Between the media’s disappointment that I don’t take after my mom, and my parents protecting me, most of the general public can’t instantly pick me out of a crowd. Add in a few changes like different hair and all that stuff and… yeah, I guess it would work. Hell, it’s not like any of them have any reason to know what the real me looks like anyway. I’ve never met them as myself.” 

While everyone else exchanged looks, I went on. “The point is, maybe it is time to tell the others the truth about me. But Raige is right,  it’s probably a bad idea to let something like this force us– force me into it. I’m going to tell them. I want to tell them all of it, the full truth. They’ve definitely earned it. But I want to do it because I decided it was the right time and place, not because I didn’t have any choice. I just–I want to tell them when it’s right. Soon. But maybe all separately. Peyton first. She’s earned that, she’s supposed to be my–my partner and all that. My–I need to tell her. And I will.” 

Realizing I was rambling a bit, I coughed. “Anyway, we should focus on this right now.” My hands gestured toward Raige. “We need to make her look different before we go back to Wren’s. Who, for the record, is probably already wondering what’s going on with us.”

“Um, it’s not like there’s a store open right now,” Amber pointed out. “It’s the middle of the night and there’s a curfew. So how are we supposed to find hair dye and stuff like that at this hour?” She hesitated very slightly before adding a weak, “We’re not gonna steal it, are we?” 

“If we did break in somewhere,” I replied, “we’d be subtle about it and we’d leave money. I know it’s not perfect, but…” With a heavy sigh, I shook my head. “Lots of ways it’s not perfect. But what choice do we have? You’re right, there’s no stores open that we can use.”

“We don’t have to steal anything.” That was Izzy. “And we don’t have to buy it.” She reached into her bag, pulling out, of all things, three bottles of hair dye in various shades, and several different styles of glasses. She also had three different tee-shirts in varying sizes, and a few different pairs of pants, also different sizes. When everyone stared at her, she squirmed under the attention. “I um, I didn’t know if the body we found would have clothes, or what it would look like. I just thought if it looked–I mean if she looked too noticeable or if we needed to change her appearance for some reason. Or– I mean it’s not like I didn’t have plenty of money for it. So I just–”

“Izzy, you’re a genius,” I interrupted. “A straight-up genius. I can’t believe none of the rest of us even thought about that. Of course disguising the body was a good idea, no matter what it looked like.” 

“Yeah, she’s brilliant and all. Congratulations,” Raige put in. “Now can we get down to business, please? Because I’d like to take this body for a spin, not stand here all day talking about it. I don’t know if you’ve all forgotten or something but this is my first time having a physical body all to myself, without somebody backseat walking.” She added that with a pointed glance toward Paige. “Need to run around the block, do some flips, get in a fistfight, really put this body through its paces.” 

Grimacing at her choice of words, I managed a weak, “Please don’t get into a fistfight anytime soon, okay? Not just because–well… that looks like me and it’d be weird, but also because we’re trying not to attract attention.”  

I was treated to the sight and sound of what looked like my own body scoffing at me. Raige waved a hand dismissively. “Yeah, yeah, no running off and punching the first person I see. It was a figure of speech, or whatever. The point is, I just want to get it out there and test this body for real. You don’t know what it’s like being all cooped up and having to share what little control you have with someone else.” 

“Gee, thanks,” Paige mumbled before focusing. “She’s right though. I mean, about all of it. She deserves to stretch her legs, even just a little bit. Not to mention, we don’t know how long we might have before someone in the Ministry thinks to start checking these places. Sure, it’s not super-likely anytime soon, but we probably shouldn’t push our luck. So can we get started?” 

“Hang on,” I interrupted, biting my lip before stepping back over there. I had to look at myself again. My hands rose to settle on my–her shoulders, as I simply stared, taking it all in. It was still so weird to see my own body standing there like that. It made a funny feeling rise up in my stomach. Not revulsion or disgust or anything bad like that. Just… a funny feeling. It was hard to describe. Standing there, I looked myself–no, I looked Raige up and down once more. This was the biolem body that would have taken my place in my family, that would have secretly spied on my parents and probably ended up doing something horrible. Actually, probably more than one horrible thing. It was–yeah, it was a lot to take in, to say the least. It was going to take a lot more time than these few seconds for me to adjust to the idea that there was someone who looked identical to me, even if we were going to make her look slightly different now. This was a pretty huge thing. 

So, after a moment of that, I released my new twin and stepped away. “Okay, let’s get to it. Let’s make a version of you who looks at least somewhat different than me.” 

We got to work on that pretty quick. The hair dye was one of the new kinds that sprayed in, only affecting hair even if you got it on something else. Well, it affected other things, but it was really easy to wipe off if that thing wasn’t hair. Raige chose the blonde color, and soon there was what amounted to a blonde me standing there in front of us. She changed out of the sweatsuit, switching it for a simple red tee-shirt and jeans that mostly fit, then searched through the glasses until she managed to find a pair she didn’t completely hate. They were thin metal frames. 

“So, how do I look?” she finally asked while standing in front of us. 

“Let’s just say we definitely need to do more to change you before anyone who actually knows me sees you,” I managed with a hesitant shrug. “But… you know, pretty good other than that.” 

“Great.” Giving us all a thumbs up, Raige started to walk around us toward the ladder. “Now let’s get the hell out of here. Like I said, gotta take this puppy for a test drive.” 

Paige glanced to me, hesitating before asking, “Are you really okay?” 

“I’m not sure yet,” I admitted, “but she’s right, we do need to go. 

“If you think it’d be awkward to run into my family after breaking into one of their secret bases, imagine doing it while one of us looks like a Hannah Montana version of their daughter.” 

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Dig In 22-14 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so we weren’t quite done for the night yet. At least, some of us weren’t. Pack, Alloy, Murphy, and Roald might’ve gone home, but Amber, Izzy, and I were still going to go along with Paige and Raige to check out those secret labs. Part of me felt a little worried about going out again this soon, but it really was the best time. The Ministry would be occupied trying to figure out what the hell had just happened to them and who was responsible. They certainly wouldn’t be reinforcing these other places. Not yet, anyway. They might have been talking about refurbishing Pittman’s labs for other things, but I was pretty sure that that would be one of the furthest things from their minds right now. Later, of course, it would become a problem. Especially once they decided that they needed to put a heavier security on all of their properties. It would become a hell of a lot harder to get in those places and take what we needed then. That was why we needed to go tonight, while they were still reeling and distracted. 

I was telling myself all of that while putting the hated stuffed bra back on along with the suit itself. Seriously, I did not like doing this. But if we went in there as ourselves and found out too late that the Ministry had put up cameras, we would be screwed. I was going to go ahead and assume my parents could look at their mall base being invaded and then Pittman’s old labs being searched a couple hours later and put two and two together. 

So, we were suited up once more as we crouched in an alley across the street from what looked like an old dive bar that hadn’t been open for ages. It was sandwiched between a pawn shop and a tiny Chinese restaurant. From what we had been able to put together, the last time the bar was open was over ten years earlier. Pittman had bought it and used the place as one of his smaller labs. Which, given there was an entire basement area beneath the shop, made it possible that there was a hidden area somewhere in there that my family’s people hadn’t found. 

Sure, it wasn’t likely that we’d get super-lucky with the first place we checked. Hell, there was a good chance that we wouldn’t find anything at all in any of these places. The Ministry had to have gone over them pretty thoroughly. But we had to try, and trying meant starting somewhere. So, this seemed like as good of an option as any. 

The area we were in wasn’t exactly the best part of town, to put it mildly. Even with the curfew, there were still some people out walking in small groups. Probably because the cops didn’t patrol here that often. The place wasn’t rich enough to have constant security, and it wasn’t right in the middle of disputed gang territory. Not those sort of gangs anyway. There were just a lot of poor people around, and homeless, and… yeah. It wasn’t a good neighborhood. 

Still, eventually the way was clear. There was no one in sight at the moment, after a couple very clearly drunk guys managed to find their keys and stumble into an apartment a few doors down. We exchanged glances before collectively nodding. With one more quick glance around to make sure no one was looking, we darted from the alley and crossed the street to the doorway of the old bar. Paige was in front, and she ignored the visible deadbolt, instead turning to what looked like one of those intercom systems on the front of apartment buildings where you hit the button to contact one of the places inside so they could buzz you in. Despite being for a single place, there were about twenty buttons spread across the thing, all of them unlabeled. Paige didn’t hesitate at all, her fingers dancing across the console to put in the eight digit code. There was an immediate corresponding beep, and then a click as the door opened. She gave the rest of us a brief look, her expression unreadable under the mask. With a muttered reminder to be careful, she opened the door the rest of the way, and we all slipped inside. 

Yeah, this had definitely been a bar at one point, though it was clear that almost everything of value had been taken out of it. The only things left were the booths along one side and the bar itself. The shelves were bare, there were no tables or chairs, and I could see a spot where there had clearly been a jukebox at one point. It was all gone now. It had been emptied out, either by Pittman himself, or the Ministry, or people who managed to break in somehow before the place was secured. Whatever it was, that didn’t matter. We didn’t care about any of that stuff. We were there for far more important things than a jukebox or some random alcohol. 

Quickly, we scanned the room, but couldn’t see any cameras. It was possible the Ministry didn’t have any set up here yet, given they would have taken out everything they could find in this place and didn’t have any reason to keep it under constant surveillance. Not this long after Pittman had been sent to Breakwater. As far as they would be concerned, he had no way of getting out of there, so why spend the effort and resources to watch over his random properties constantly years after he had been dealt with? They were talking about converting his spaces to new labs, but until that happened, they probably didn’t care too much. Not yet, anyway. Which, again, was why we needed to do this right now.

It didn’t take long to find the door to the basement, and we carefully descended the cement stairs while keeping our eyes open for cameras or traps. But the place was empty. We got down there to find a wide-open space, like an unfinished basement in a house. It was all cement, with a heavy sink in one corner, and clear markings where there had once been equipment. But now all of it was gone. There was nothing in here. At least, not that we could easily see. 

“We should spread out,” Amber murmured, “check for any hidden doors or anything.” 

Raige, who had apparently taken control of Paige’s body in that moment, snarled, “If we have to check the quick way by knocking down some of these walls, so be it.”  

We scoured every wall, even going over the floor for trapdoors. And yes, we put a couple small holes in the walls where there might be something. We even found one promising bit, a hidden space in one corner. But it turned out to just be the size of a closet (one in a normal house, not mine), and held little more than some random science equipment and tools, like scalpels and flasks. There might have been something useful within that stuff, but it wasn’t what we were looking for. We took some of it in a bag, looking around the place for another minute or so, then made our way out. This was our first try, and it was basically a bust. Which wasn’t surprising or anything, but still. A part of me had hoped that we would get lucky. 

At least we had several more options to go. So, we made our way out, returned to the alley, and headed for the next spot. All these labs were close enough together, in this part of town, that we could get there by moving through alleys, keeping our heads down, and watching out for anyone. Which meant I didn’t have to keep changing back into my Paintball costume to play lookout. Pittman had probably intentionally kept his places close enough to quickly move back and forth between. Far enough apart that they all wouldn’t be found if one was (if you didn’t have the addresses already), but close enough that he could walk to any of them within about fifteen minutes.  

Or maybe I was overthinking it, and he chose these places because it was an area he could afford to buy property in, and set up a shop without attracting a lot of attention. 

The second place we checked looked like it had once been a clothing shop. There were still metal racks sitting around, but that was about it. We didn’t even find any secret rooms in that one, no matter how much we searched. It was even more of a dead end than the first place. 

The third place we checked, on the other hand, didn’t look like it had been anything of note before. It was just a smallish, one-story building sitting in one corner of a parking lot near a much larger pharmacy and medical supply center, the sort of place you would drive past your entire life without really noticing. At most, you might idly wonder what the place was as you drove past, then forget about it immediately as soon as you turned the corner. The building was just there, amounting to little more than scenery in the neighborhood. 

After once more taking the time to make sure the coast was clear, we made our way over there and into the building, using the code to unlock the door. Inside, the place was a maze of small offices, with a waiting room out front. It looked like this had once been a doctor’s office or something. Which made sense given the nearby pharmacy. And it was obvious why setting up in a place like this would be good for someone like Pittman, who would need ready access to a lot of medical stuff in order to build his bodies. This place was looking somewhat promising. But on the other hand, it also meant that the Ministry would have gone over everything very thoroughly too. We still had to get lucky and hope that they hadn’t taken everything useful in here. 

A search through the main floor revealed little of consequence. A few empty pill bottles, some dusty medical tools that hadn’t been taken lying here or there, that sort of thing. Most of it was picked clean by one group or another. But just as I was starting to think this would be a dead end as well, Raige kicked open a supply closet, and a thorough search revealed a trapdoor in the floor under the carpet. The four of us (five, actually, given Paige and Raige both counted) exchanged looks. Then I went first, struggling very slightly with my fake chest (and yes, I did mutter and curse the entire time about it) before climbing down the ladder to the room below. 

Upon arriving in the room below, the place was filled with a steady humming sound. It was also pitch-dark. But I was able to run my hand along the nearby wall and find a light switch, which I flipped up. As I did so, a long row of overhead lights began to turn on one after another, starting almost directly above me and leading down the length of what turned out to be a room roughly the size of a basketball court. 

As the others joined me, we could immediately tell that this place was different. It was readily apparent that the Ministry had not found that secret door. It reminded me a little bit of Wren’s lab for the fact that there were tables along the room full of tools and random bits of machinery. But there were also large floor to ceiling freezers all along both walls to either side of us. Those were the source of the humming sound that filled the room. As I looked at them, I could see a clipboard hanging next to each door. With a glance to the others, I walked toward the nearest and carefully pulled the board up to look at it. There were notes there, listing what appeared to be names, dates, ethnicities, diseases, and causes of death. There were two dates actually. One generally between fifteen and forty years earlier than the second. 

I wasn’t dumb. I knew what this was. My eyes selected to the freezer then to the clipboard and I grimaced while stepping away. “Bodies,” I announced. “He’s got dead bodies in all these freezers. Or parts of them, I don’t know. Either way, it looks like this is the place where he was doing a lot of his dissection to figure out how to make new bodies or whatever.” 

Sounding a bit sick, Izzy weakly noted, “I guess that means we’re in the right place? I mean… not really the right place, but…” She trailed off, shaking her head. 

“Yeah, doesn’t feel like a place we really want to be,” I agreed, “But it’s probably the best shot we’ve got. So let’s look around.” Even as I said that, my eyes were widening. “We’ve gotta check all these freezers, don’t we?” 

“Check the clipboards,” Paige advised, already moving to the opposite side of the room to start working her way down the line there. See if you can find any that don’t sound like a person who was alive before.” 

“We’ll work on that,” Amber put in before nudging Izzy. “You should check the tables for anything useful. We still need one of those orbs.” 

We all knew what she was doing, making it so Izzy didn’t have to go down the row of freezers and potentially have to open some of them to check inside. And I was glad for that. Izzy had been through more than enough emotional turmoil tonight. She didn’t need to deal with… that. I wasn’t exactly thrilled about doing it myself, obviously, but still. She deserved a break. 

So, we searched down at the line of freezers on either side. Unfortunately, none of the clipboards said anything about a newly built body or anything like that. They all listed birth and death dates as well as causes. Some of them had the information crossed off in red ink, followed by a third date and either a checkmark or the word ‘disposed.’ My best guess was that that meant he had either used that body or discarded it. 

This whole situation was incredibly morbid, to say the least. And I was desperately hoping that we wouldn’t have to actually open the freezers. But I was starting to worry that we wouldn’t have another choice. We couldn’t risk walking away from this place without checking if there was the slightest chance he had simply stuffed one of his prototype biolem bodies inside one of them. And it was looking more and more like we wouldn’t find one conveniently labeled as such. 

We started with the freezers that were labeled as the bodies having been used, of course. Amber and I both stood in front of one, looking at the clipboard announcing that the body had been ‘disposed’ about six years earlier. Exchanging glances, the two of us sighed heavily together, then reached out to grab the heavy metal bar on the door. Neither of us wanted to do it alone. With a pair of grunts, we hauled the door open, bracing ourselves for… 

Nothing. There was nothing in that freezer, just as the clipboard had promised. Well, almost nothing. The space within the freezer was basically coffin-sized (which just made the whole thing even worse, and the walls were covered in blood and… and probably other body stuff that I really didn’t want to think about. It also smelled so bad that I instantly recoiled and gagged against the mask, barely keeping my stomach under control. Amber was in much the same boat, but managed to shove the door shut first. 

“Don’t you–ugh, love being a superhero?” she asked while half-doubled over and clearly doing her level best not to lose her dinner. 

Grimacing, I gave a short nod, breathing heavily. “Yeah, it’s fantastic. Nothing but glory and sunshine for this job.” Even as I said that, my eyes were scanning the row of freezers. Oh god. If an empty one smelled that bad, how was it going to be when we had to open one with an actual dead body in it? The freezers–damn it, this was not my idea of a good time. 

Unlike Amber and me, Paige–no wait, that was Raige– was on the other side of the room opening one door after another, looking inside before muttering a curse, and moving on. Somehow that made me feel worse, like I was making such a big deal out of this while she was just fine with it. She was looking for a body she could use, a body she could live in. And here I was just being a baby about smelling some–okay yeah it was still awful. But still. 

Before I could think too much more about that, Izzy abruptly called out from the far end of the room where she had been sorting through a pile of stuff in a large crate there. “Hey! Hey, I think I–look.” She turned as the rest of us looked that way, holding up something in one hand. It was a small metal ball about–oh. 

Raige was there in a second, literally shoving one of the other tables out of the way and sending a small pile of tools crashing to the floor in the process. “Wait, is that–holy fuck, kid, I could kiss you right now.” Even as she said that, the girl was taking the orb from Izzy’s hand. “This is–this is it. I mean it’s not perfect, it’s not the most advanced version, but I can definitely use it.” 

Amber and I arrived then, looking at the thing. Just like the one I had seen back in the warehouse when Paige cut open that biolem’s head, the orb was baseball-sized and had a series of various-colored flashing lights along it. I could see a collection of short, maybe three-inch wires sticking out of the bottom, which probably extended when the orb was… inserted. I remembered the other one had had those wires leading down through the body to control various parts. 

“So you can use that?” Amber asked, giving the thing a long look. 

Shifting just a bit as she stared down at it, Raige gave a short nod. “Yeah, get me a body to plug it into and we’re in business. But this is a great start, pipsqueak.” She reached out to give Izzy a light punch in the shoulder. 

“Probably shouldn’t call her that.” That was Paige, clearly. “I think she’s earned a better name than pipsqueak.” Even as she said that, the girl was clearly examining the ball in her hand. 

“It’s a term of affection,” Raige announced. “Anyway, this looks like the start of home sweet home. Now let’s find an actual–” 

“Hey, look at this.” Amber, who had stepped away to the other side of the table where Izzy had found the orb, put her hand against the wall. “This bit here looks a little–” Her hand pushed hard against that bit of wall, and it abruptly shoved inward. Hidden door. There was a hidden door in this already-hidden room. Whatever was in there, Pittman definitely didn’t want anyone to find it.

One by one, we slipped through that hidden door, and found ourselves in a much smaller room. This one was barely large enough for the four of us to stand in along with the large metal tube taking up most of the space. It was about four feet across and six feet high, and had a large computer console next to it that seemed to be displaying a bunch of information that I couldn’t even keep track of. But the gist I got from it was that this might be exactly what we were looking for. 

Sure enough, Paige smiled. “This is it. This is what we need.” 

Her face shifted then, as Raige spoke. “Could uhh, could the rest of you wait outside for a minute, huh?” I could tell she felt a little awkward, which was strange to see coming from her. “This bit’s a little personal. Like changing clothes.” 

Amber, Izzy, and I exchanged glances before collectively shrugging. Then we moved back to the larger room, stepping away while talking a bit to each other about what was going on. Not that we had very productive things to say. We were all exhausted by this point. All I wanted to do was go back home and sleep. Especially knowing that I was going to have to get up in a few hours and go to school if I didn’t want my parents to suspect anything. And now it was even more crucial that they didn’t. 

Eventually, Paige stepped out of the room. She grimaced a bit when we looked that way. 

“You okay?” Amber asked. “I mean, are you… you?” 

“I’m me. Just me,” Paige confirmed. “We made the transfer, but uh, we’ve got a umm, maybe a slight… uncomfortable… a uhh, issue with–” 

“Fuck it, I’ll show ‘em!” A voice called from in the room. Something about it made me blink. Something very famili–

And then Raige stepped into view in her new body. Only she didn’t look like Paige. And she certainly didn’t look like any random person. 

The hair was different, long on both sides rather than short on one, and without the dyed tips. But other than that, her new body… was me. 

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Dig In 22-13 (Summus Proelium)

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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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Dig In 22-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so dressing up like this felt as weird as I thought it would. With the raised boots, I was standing several inches taller than I was accustomed to. That was enough to throw me off all on its own, even though I had been practicing with them for awhile in preparation for this. Despite the hours spent walking and running in these, it still felt weird to see things from this high up. 

And, quite frankly, the fact that I could refer to five feet, four inches as ‘this high up’ was more than a little depressing. To say nothing about how much of a difference that padded bra made against my chest. I actually looked like a girl my real age now, if not older. Which was just… Yeah, I was going to try not to think about it too much. Which, I suppose, made the fact that I had plenty of other things to focus on right then a good thing. There would be time later to dwell on the fact that I had never filled out a set of clothes as well as I was right then, and almost certainly never would. Or I could just shove it onto my brain shelf and pretend I didn’t notice it. 

Pack whistled as we all met up inside the main room above the tunnel. Her eyes (hidden as they were behind the lenses in her own mask) were on me as she clapped a couple times. “I hate to tell you this, babe, but you might’ve missed your calling with that Y chromosome. You’re looking great that way.” 

What was I supposed to say to that? How was I supposed to react? She didn’t know what she was really saying. I knew that. Deep down, I knew that Pack had absolutely no idea how hard this was, or what her words really meant. She had no idea how long I had spent wishing that I really did look like this, and especially didn’t know how much the things she was saying stung. She was just joking around. She thought she was teasing an actual boy about how well he could pull off looking like a girl. I just–I had to shove all that out of my mind and try to react from that point of view. 

“I guess I should just be glad you’re not the jealous type,” I found myself retorting, with no idea of how I pulled the words out or made them sound so casual.  

Pack, in turn, snorted. “Please, in the alternate universe where you’re actually a girl, I’m sure I’ve already taken you under my wing to teach you everything I know.” 

Amber made a noise in the back of her throat from the corner of the room where she had been talking quietly to Izzy, both in their own suits. “Everything you know about lizards or about being a thief? Because I’m not sure how either of those would help Paintball, no matter what sex he is.” 

“Oh, you’d be surprised how many relevant things I could teach,” Pack shot back. “Maybe I’ll show you someday, babe.” 

From the opposite corner where he and Murphy had been, Roald spoke up a bit hesitantly. “Um, personally I’m just glad I’m not the only guy in the group.” The poor, clueless boy gave me a nod and a somewhat weak thumbs up. “Right?” 

Yet again, I somehow dug deep and found a casual response, returning the thumbs up. “Uh, sure, yeah. How’re those suits fitting?” 

Shifting a bit, Murphy rubbed at her leg, then at one of the lenses across her eyes. “Not as cool as ours, and I miss the teleport thing. But I guess they’re good enough for this.” 

Murphy and Roald weren’t wearing the prototype suits that Wren had put together for them. There had been some discussion both ways for that, but in the end, they had decided they wanted to eventually be able to use them for more than just this. And we knew that if they used the suits through this little mission and then appeared publicly as part of Avant-Guard, the Ministry would almost certainly be able to put two and two together. So, they were wearing a couple more of the other suits that Wren had traded for. 

Alloy offered them a shrug. “Hey, I feel weird not wearing a suit made from my own marbles. And I’m pretty sure they’re jealous.” She glanced down to the pocket where she was keeping them out of sight. 

When I glanced to the doorway where she was standing, Paige spoke up. “Does anyone have any questions about what we’re about to do?” 

Pack, in turn, replied, “I mean, to tell you the truth, I’ve got a ton of questions when it comes to you and how your whole… everything works. Especially with two of you in that head. But for this? Nah, I think we’ve all got the gist. We tunnel through the last bit of dirt we’ve got left, break into the base, grab everything that isn’t nailed down, and get out of there before we end up in the middle of a battle we can’t get out of. In and out, quick as we can. You can’t get a lot simpler than that. I mean, obviously it would be better if we had the actual blueprints for this place so we could plan out who runs where, or even build a full scale mock-up and practice. But I guess we’ve gotta be satisfied with what we’ve got.” 

“You know an awful lot about how to get away with robbing a place,” Alloy noted. “How would y-ohh yeah.” 

Coughing, I nodded. “She’s not wrong. It would be cool if we had the blueprints. But yeah, we don’t have time for that. Unless someone here spontaneously manifested the power to make that a thing?” I injected my words with a note of optimism and hopefulness while looking around. “No? Damn.” 

“Okay, I’ve just gotta say,” Murphy put in, “It is kinda weird to see you look like that, while sounding like… well, you.” Her hands gestured to encompass my whole form. “You sound like Paintball, but you look, uhh… yeah.” Coughing a bit self-consciously, the girl shrugged. “It’s weird.” 

“You think it’s weird from your end?” I retorted. “Try being on this end of it.” Boy did she not even know the half of what that meant.  In the background, I could see Izzy and Amber stifling their reactions. 

“She’s right though,” Paige put in while stepping up beside me. “At least about one thing. Your voice does seem odd coming out of this look. So maybe we should turn on the things.” 

Right, the things. I had ‘come up with’ the idea of all of us using voice changers, just to make sure that our voices wouldn’t be recorded in there. We all had essentially the same set-up that I always had under the masks. Now, we turned them on, and I waited a moment before speaking in a voice that was robotic and vaguely feminine. “We good?” 

“We’re good,” That-A-Way agreed in a quite similar voice before looking at me. “But even with these, maybe you shouldn’t do much talking in there. You know, just to be on the safe side. You know, because Paintball talks a lot and if you don’t, it’ll make them even less likely to connect you to Paintball.”  

Shifting a little, I gave a slow nod. “Right, yeah, I guess I do have a tendency to talk a little bit.” As everyone else exchanged pointed looks, I felt a blush cross my face under the mask. “Okay, okay, a lot. I talk a lot. I get it. I’ll be so quiet in there they’ll never know it’s me. Hell, maybe I’ll be so quiet you forget I’m supposed to be with you and leave me in there. And then they’ll find me and this whole thing will blow up in our faces. See what being quiet leads to?” 

None of them seemed convinced by my hypothetical for some reason, and we exchanged just a few more words. We were all nervous about what we were about to do, that much was clear. But eventually, we can’t put it off any longer. One by one, we grabbed the buckets that were waiting for us, then descended the ladder and began to enter the tunnel. Pack made a comment about how she had promised to bring her lizards back a souvenir of some kind to make up for not bringing them in with her. Which, I was pretty sure, was her way of playing off how nervous and out of her element she felt about that fact. 

Although, to be entirely fair, I was pretty sure she had at least one of her lizards in the pocket of the jacket she had put on over the suit. At least, if I was her, I would have. 

Eventually, we all crowded into the slightly widened spot where the tunnel ended. It looked mostly the same as it had the other night when I was here, save for a single addition that Fred and Pack had put in while the rest of us were busy. Namely, a thick canvas tarp across the ceiling. It was secured by metal spikes in the four corners of the ‘room.’ Between the strength of the tarp and the spikes, Wren had assured us it would hold at least most of the dirt we would be pulling out of the rest of this tunnel. There was an anchor rope next to the thing keeping it all in a place. Once it was full of dirt, if we cut that rope, the whole thing would almost instantly collapse and fill this open space. It wasn’t quite like collapsing the entire tunnel behind us, but it was something. Once we got out of there, we would drop the tarp and they would have to dig through at least this much room to find the rest of the tunnel. It gave us a little bit more of an edge. And we needed all of the edges we could get.  

Twenty feet ahead and fifteen feet down, the metal wall marking the edge of the Ministry base waited. We hadn’t wanted to get any closer until we were ready to go in, just in case. But now was the time. No more waiting. We were going to dig through the last few yards, angling downward, and get inside. Which was a thought that made my heart pound so hard I thought it might jump out of my chest. But hey, at least I had some extra padding there now to keep it in place. 

Yeah, okay, it was vaguely possible that I was feeling weird about this whole situation. Still, I pushed that away and began to use pink paint on the dirt and rocks ahead of us. The others immediately used their hand shovels to pry away the painted bits, dumping them in buckets that we had brought before Raindrop floated the buckets up onto that tarp, being careful to spread the dirt and rocks out to avoid putting too much weight on one spot at a time. This was the most important part of the entire thing. After all the time and effort we had put into this, the last thing we wanted was to screw up now. We were all working as quietly as possible, each of us in our own little world. It was incredibly unlikely that our voices would have carried anywhere near the base, but still. It felt wrong to be chatting, so we didn’t. We just worked as silently and efficiently as possible. After all the pink-paint digging we’d done over the past weeks, we didn’t have to talk, or even think very much. We were basically experts at the whole thing.  

In what honestly felt like no time at all, given how nervous I was about the next stage, the tunnel was finished. Finished for good this time. We were there. We had dug downward enough that the metal wall was right in front of us, now fully revealed. On the other side of it was the Ministry base. And, with any luck, a whole lot of answers about my family’s business. 

I’d had a momentary thought of how bad it would be if there were any pictures or anything inside the base that would give away my parents’ identities. But I dismissed the thought just as quickly. There was absolutely no way that my family would be that sloppy. They hadn’t kept this whole thing a secret for this long by being stupid enough to have pictures of themselves lying around their hidden base. Mom had smacked Simon with a shoe for bringing it home when it was connected to their unknown witness (me). If Dad suggested leaving pictures of themselves around their criminal empire base, she’d probably hit him with a shoe store

Besides, would it be that bad if I was forced into explaining the whole situation to the others? Amber and Izzy already knew. Not to mention Paige and Raige. By leaving the others out, I was creating a divide. Someday soon, I was going to have to do something about that. If I didn’t, it was almost certain that the whole thing would bite me in the ass. I knew that, I acknowledged it. But it just… it wasn’t the right time. I’d only just told them about the Ministry itself. Getting into my own family’s involvement was… yeah. I would get into it. I would tell them. Just not yet. 

Shaking those thoughts off, I turned to the others while putting my hand against the metal wall. Still remaining silent, I simply looked at each of them. They were spread out a bit through the open chamber, and when I met their gazes, they all gave me a thumbs up, a nod, or some other sign. Paige, in particular, gave me a dual thumbs up. One for herself and one for Raige. They were ready. We all were. It was time to do this.

To that end, I painted the wall in front of us pink. Then I stepped out of the way as Pack and Way moved forward with another toy from Wren. This looked like a handful of batteries strapped to some silly putty. Like a bomb. It looked like a bomb. But according to the girl who had created it, the device would send a strong concussive blast forward, like a shaped charge or whatever. The battery-powered putty thing was attached to the middle of the pink-covered wall, and I activated the paint just before Amber hit the button to trigger Wren’s ‘explosive.’ 

Instantly, the chunk of wall was blown inward, creating an opening. Before the changes tonight, Amber was supposed to be the first one through. But Paige had insisted that she should go first, given the skills she had. And after what I had seen her do in her father’s factory, I couldn’t exactly argue with that. Now that she was participating, there was no question that she was the best one to be in the lead. If there was anyone on the other side of that opening, Paige could deal with them. And if she couldn’t, well, the rest of us were probably screwed in this situation.

So, she went through the hole, followed closely by Amber, then Pack. I went fourth, with the others right behind me. I hadn’t heard any gunfire or struggling yet, so I supposed there hadn’t been–

There was an unconscious figure on the ground at Paige’s feet. She had clearly just dragged the person, who wore a white lab coat over casual clothes, away from the hole as I stepped through into what turned out to be a pristine white corridor at the bottom of a long set of stairs that almost certainly led up to the entrance I had seen before. The corridor itself went on for about another ten feet to the right before curving left, and there was a door almost straight across from the hole we had made. Meanwhile, a camera poking out of the ceiling right where the hall curved basically proved we had already been seen. Yeah, this was going to have to be quick. Not that that was exactly news. 

And speaking of being quick, there was that unconscious person. I seriously had not heard a single thing. Paige knocked them out–wait, were they… yes, I could see the person’s chest moving up and down. They were alive. She knocked them out without me hearing it, even though I was only a few feet behind her. That was just–wow. 

No time to be amazed, though. With that camera up there and proof that there were at least some people still in this base, we had to move. Immediately, Amber, Izzy, and Pack ran to the door that was right there. The two older girls went through first, already unslinging their backpacks so they could start shoving things inside.

Meanwhile, I ran alongside Paige, with Alloy, Murphy and Roald bringing up the rear. The five of us passed just under the camera, which had shifted to follow us. But I grabbed the electrified baton that Amber had provided, snapping it out to its full extension as we ran under the camera before jumping to lash out with it. The blow took the camera full on the lens, shattering it. They still knew we were here, but at least they couldn’t actively track us with that camera. 

We turned the corner, seeing a whole long corridor ahead of us with doors on both sides, leading to a set of swinging double-doors at the end, like in a hospital. Or a laboratory, I supposed. Either way, there was clearly a lot to search down here. And we didn’t have much time. 

“Split up,” Paige announced in her own altered voice. She pointed to the nearby door, then to Alloy, Murphy, and Roald. “You three grab everything in there. All of it. Scream if you see anyone. Come on.” That last bit was to me, as she grabbed my arm before heading down the hall toward those double doors. 

To the left, one of the doors opened as we neared it. Paige lunged ahead of me, but it was just Pack coming through. Apparently the room they had gone into over in the first corridor connected through to this one. Her bag was clearly about half-full of stuff, and we barely exchanged looks before she went straight across to the room across the hall. Izzy and Amber were behind her, both of them splitting up to take a different room. 

Thus far we hadn’t seen any people other than the one that Paige had knocked out. Maybe that guy was the only one here. Wouldn’t that be–nope, I wasn’t even going to consider it. 

Instead, I focused on running alongside Paige as the two of us full-on sprinted to those double-doors. And boy did it feel weird to run with all this… weight on the front of my chest. Yeah, yeah, it wasn’t really that much. But it still threw me off. It still felt awkward and–blah. It was different. I felt off-balance, probably not helped by the thought of exactly what I was wearing. There was a not-insubstantial part of me that wanted to rip it off. 

Just as we reached the doors, my hope that there was no one else here ended up being dashed, as two figures stepped into view. These were no scientists, however. They were clearly security guards, wearing dark blue uniforms with a couple submachine guns in their hands. Yes, these were literal submachine guns, not pistols or whatever. These guys weren’t playing around. 

Fortunately, we wouldn’t have to find out if they were planning to shoot us with them. The instant those doors started opening, I activated a bit of the hidden green and purple paint on myself and Paige. The two of us hit the two guards much sooner than they expected, ripping the guns out of their hands before tossing them aside. I caught hold of my own guard, yanking him around bodily by the wrist with my enhanced strength while he yelped in surprise. In the next second, I had him shoved hard up against the wall while shoving the taser baton into his back. 

I’d heard plenty of times that tasers didn’t generally work like they did in the movies. It wasn’t like you got hit once and fell unconscious. But the ones that Amber had provided came from the police and were Touched-Tech. They did knock you out, assuming you weren’t protected in some way. Taking a direct hit from a baton like that could put you down for a few minutes. And a few minutes was all we needed. 

As my guy dropped, I snapped my gaze to the side. Paige had already dealt with hers and was moving through the swinging doors. So I went right behind her, hearing the others behind us tearing apart their own rooms. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see what the room on the other side of those double doors looked like. It was pitch black as we went through. I couldn’t see six inches in front of my face. But I did hear a voice abruptly speak loudly, the sound echoing through what sounded like a large space. 

“Interesting. Leave one alive to answer questions.” 

And then the gunfire started. 

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Dig In 22-09 (Summus Proelium)

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So there we were, all gathered in the main area of Wren’s pawn shop. There was Alloy, Pack, That-A-Way, Raindrop, Roald, Murphy, Paige/Raige as a last-minute addition, and me. Wren and Fred were here too, of course. But they would be staying at the shop, ready to go with our ‘everything’s fucked’ emergency escape plan if it came down to it. Unfortunately, that basically amounted to Wren using a half-finished cobbled-together teleporter that she wasn’t confident in. We would all be carrying the markers that were supposed to allow it to grab and move us to a safe location. But again, it was unfinished. Wren had given me a few details about what could have gone wrong the one time she teleported me, back when I had been chased by Cuélebre, and I was seriously still debating on whether it would have been safer to stick with fighting him. Suffice to say, we really didn’t want to have to try this one until she decided it was one hundred percent safe. But we didn’t have time to wait for that, especially not now. 

“So ahh, maybe I should have brought this up when you came up with your genius plan,” Raige (obviously) announced after introductions had officially been made back and forth to everyone, “but how exactly are you planning on making it so they don’t realize a bunch of kids and teens just screwed them over?” Her hand gestured toward Raindrop and then to me, before she nodded to Murphy and Roald. “Like those two over there, or those two there. I mean, none of us actually look like full-grown adults, but seriously. Having a few people who look that young feels like a bit more information than you want them to have. Especially when their computers can compare the heights of probably all their top suspects, and something tells me Paintball might fall somewhere on that list given the history you have with them. Just saying.” 

Before the rest of us could respond to that, Murphy asked, “Okay, sorry, I just need to ask. Is the person talking now the super-scary but ultra-hot cyborg girl, or the ultra-scary and ultra-hot cyborg girl?” 

There was a brief pause as their head tilted before Raige spoke again. “Paige would like you to know she’s offended that you don’t find her ultra-scary too, and that if you knew her better, you’d understand that’s a terrible way of differentiating us. You could say nice one or mean one, but that’s not exactly accurate either. Let’s stick with names, hmm? That seems easy enough.” 

“Sure,” I confirmed. “Totally simple to just stick with names. So, to answer your question, Raige… ahh, Wren, you got the things?” 

With a broad grin, Wren held up a pair of boots. “Yup! Err, I’ve got these ones.” She tossed them to me before gesturing. “Uncle Fred?”

He, in turn, reached down to pick up a cardboard box and carried it over to the middle of the room. “They’ve got lifts in ‘em,” the man explained to Raige (and Paige). “Just enough to add about four inches of height for all these guys. They’ve been practicing with them for awhile.” 

“We had the same thought you did,” I murmured while holding the boots against my chest. “It’s not the perfect solution, but it should at least confuse things a bit. If they don’t see anyone my–err, you know, Paintball’s height in this group, and I don’t use my powers in a way they can see, it’ll really muddy the waters about who attacked their base. Which means we really need to get in and out without too many problems so I don’t have to use my powers in an obvious way.”

That said, I hesitated before adding, “And speaking of not using my powers in an obvious way…” Reaching into the backpack on the table in front of me, I started pulling out tee-shirts and tossing them to the others. “You all need to wear these under the rest of your clothes when we go in there.” Every shirt had an assortment of colored shapes across them. Several of each type. There were orange suns, green leaves, and purple mushrooms. Three different colors, three different shapes, all arranged in three rows across the front and three across the back. I had taken the time to prep the shirts ahead of time while sitting at home.
“I’ve been practicing,” I noted, mostly for Paige and Raige’s benefit. “As long as I know one of my bits of paint is there, and exactly what it looks like, I can activate it through other clothes when I’m looking at it. Not through a wall or anything, but still. It’s something. These are all completely the same. So I can look and remember exactly what the orange sun looks like to make all of you temporarily really tough, or strong, or fast. Or all three at once. Probably that last one. I can do it six times for each of you, and they last about ten seconds each time. That’s sixty full seconds for all of us to have full boosts without me obviously using my powers.” 

“And you won’t have to use them constantly!” Wren quickly put in. “There’s the suits too. Err, I mean, okay, I couldn’t give all of you suits as cool as the prototypes Hobbes and Calvin have. But we do have the normal ones.” 

“Normal, she says.” Fred huffed a bit. “They ain’t just boring old mundane suits. Kid traded the design for those wings of hers to some Tech-Touched in Texas for a shipment of these. Just got ‘em in yesterday. They’re supposed to adjust to your body size and all that. They’ll cushion any impact you take. Won’t make a bullet feel like a love tap, but it’ll make it survivable. Probably. From what the guy said, it’ll still feel like getting kicked pretty hard, so you don’t want to stand there and dare them to shoot you.” 

“Cushion impact, but no teleporting,” Wren put in. “And the cushion bit isn’t as protective as the total momentum-stop on the suits Calvin and Hobbes have. But, uhh, it actually works constantly instead of draining a bunch of power every time, so…” Her face twisted a little bit guiltily and self-consciously 

“Sounds amazing, kid,” Pack put in. “Can’t believe you gave your wing designs to some other tech, but I guess you got your money’s worth. Err, you know what I mean. Your blueprint’s worth? Whatever.” 

Way spoke up then. “So we have the lift shoes to throw off our height, the colored shirts from Paintball so he can give us temporary boosts, and these suits you were talking about for some extra protection. Plus these.” From her own bag, she produced several batons with tasers on the end, along with a couple gun versions. “Police-issue. I… borrowed them from one of the deployment trucks when they sent it in for repairs after Suckshot yanked it off the road.” Before Pack could say whatever she had obviously been about to, the girl pointedly added, “And I want them all back when we’re done. So try not to drop them or anything. Just… just be careful, okay? Everyone be careful in general.”  

“Good advice,” Raige noted casually. “And I guess it’s not bad as far as hiding your identities goes. Not perfect, but eh. You don’t exactly have the time, resources, or ruthlessness you need to make it perfect. And I don’t want to sit around waiting for my new body until you get every single duck in a row. So we’ll go with the ducks you’ve got. But hey, at least you’ll have one of us with you. And believe me when I say that’s quite the upgrade.” 

I quickly spoke up. “She’s not wrong. And we can use all the help we can get. Which–are we forgetting anything?” 

“Not exactly forgetting,” Pack put in, “But circling back to that whole hiding who we are thing, I did have another thought. Especially when it comes to you.” She focused my way. 

“Me?” Blinking a couple times at that, I glanced to the others, who all shrugged, before looking back to her. “What about me?” 

“I was thinking about it, and I came up with the perfect plan,” Pack informed me with no small amount of pride. She paused briefly to let the anticipation grow, before dramatically announcing, “You should pretend to be a girl.” 

Okay, well, apparently it was not quite yet possible for me to literally die of shock. Although I did audibly choke and stumble a little, my eyes widening dramatically behind the helmet as I stared that way in total bewilderment. “I–wha–not–what–tha–yo-I-wha–” 

Quickly, That-A-Way moved over to slap my back a couple times, laughing pretty convincingly. “Whoa, hey there. No one’s questioning your manliness, buddy. I know how you guys are sensitive about that sort of thing.” She hit my back again, harder that time, while clearing her throat a bit pointedly. “You okay?” 

Thank God I had Amber in my corner to help cover. It gave me a second to collect myself. And with her help, my reaction made it look like a teen boy who didn’t like the idea of pretending to be a girl, instead of the truth, which… was a hell of a lot more complicated.

The point was, I absorbed the nuclear bomb that Pack had set off in the room and came out  relatively unscathed. Coughing once, I managed to look that way and found my voice. “Sorry, did you say I should pretend to be a girl? I don’t even–what would that–huh?” Right, totally smooth recovery. But again, at least she had suggested something that my fake teen boy-self reacting that way to made complete sense.  

With a snort of amusement that seemed to prove she really did buy that reasoning, Pack replied, “Look, I know it’s not going to be your most favorite thing ever, but being a girl isn’t the worst thing in the world, dude. I’m just saying, if everyone who sees you in there, or on video, thinks you’re a girl, there’s no way they’ll connect that you to Paintball, you know? Which means they’ll be even less likely to connect it to the rest of us.” 

Oh boy was there a lot that came to mind when she said that. Even when I filtered out all the curse words and stammering in my head, there was still a fair amount. A glance toward Raindrop revealed the girl standing completely still, not giving anything away. Nor were Raige or Amber, thankfully. All of them kept my secret perfectly. Probably better than I was. So, I pushed down my initial thoughts and simply asked, “Um, how exactly do you think we should do that? Err, if we did. I don’t think we can just put a skirt on the outside of one of these suits, so unless you’ve got a better–”  

“I have a better thing than that,” Pack interrupted. With that, she reached into her own bag and pulled something out before tossing it to me. 

It was a bra. I realized that even as I caught the thing in both hands. But more than that, the cups of the bra were stuffed, or padded, or whatever. It was clearly made so a guy could wear the bra and look like he had breasts. 

“This… this is…” I stared down at the thing in my hand, trying to find words. My stomach was rolling. There was absolutely no way that Pack could have known what a sensitive issue, in more than one way, this whole thing was. She didn’t know that I really was a girl pretending to be a boy, and she definitely didn’t know how sensitive I was about the fact that I didn’t exactly fill out a dress the way most guys wanted. Again, I wasn’t flat or anything. But well, this stuffed bra definitely had me beat rather handily. Which was a bit depressing all on its own. Again though, Pack didn’t know anything about that. She was just trying to help by offering what was, to her, a pretty good idea about concealing my identity. She wasn’t mocking me, she wasn’t messing with me, she wasn’t intentionally pushing my buttons. She was helping. 

Knowing all that helped me shove my reactions down. This was about hiding who I was, and whether I was really a girl or a boy wasn’t the point. There was absolutely no one way that my parents or anyone who worked for them would look at someone wearing this fucking thing and think it was either Paintball or their daughter. Pack was right, this was the best way to go.

Not that knowing that made it that much easier to resist throwing the thing into the nearest trash can as fast as I could, but it still helped. So I bit my lip and looked up again. Everyone was watching me. I could tell they were all curious about what I was going to say. Izzy, Raige, and Amber for one reason, and Murphy, Roald, Pack, Wren, and Fred for basically the complete opposite reason. They were all waiting to see what I would do. 

I wanted to say no. I wanted to dismiss the idea and say that it wasn’t necessary. After all, I would already be wearing completely different clothes, covering my face, not using my powers in any way that the Ministry would see, and even changing my height. I wanted to tell Pack that wearing this, that ‘pretending’ to be a girl was overkill. But the fact was, there was no such thing as overkill when it came to hiding our identities. My parents and the people who worked for them could not have any clues about who we really were. We had to throw them off as much as we could, because if they started coming after us directly, we would have no chance of winning. Not right now, at least. We needed more information, more details about their capabilities, their weaknesses, their–everything, all of it. Which was the whole reason we were breaking into the base so we could take enough stuff to hopefully know more. But to do that, to get away with it, I needed to be willing to do something that made my entire insides want to shrivel up and blow away in the wind. I couldn’t be selfish right now. I had to go with the hard choice. 

So, with a heavy sigh, I found myself nodding reluctantly. My voice sounded just a little hollow with the first word before I cleared my throat. “Okay–I guess you’ve got a point. As long as it means they don’t have any reason to suspect me, this has gotta be worth it.” 

While Amber gave me an understanding look, Pack pulled another stuffed bra from her bag. “I ahh, got one for the other pipsqueak over there too.” Her head nodded toward Raindrop. “Figured it’s not quite as big of a deal as it is for Paintball since you, you know, actually are a girl. But still, you’re not exactly–making you look different is better.” 

Izzy was clearly reluctant (even if not nearly as reluctant as me), but she finally agreed to the plan too. The bra that Pack gave her was just enough to make the fact that she was female more obvious even on-camera through the suits that we would be wearing. 

Actually, this whole thing was almost a good thing for another reason. I had been planning on wearing a jacket or a vest over my infiltration suit to hide the fact that–well, again, I wasn’t completely flat. Usually the coveralls I wore as the base of my costume were loose enough in that particular area to hide that. But I was going to have to cover it with a jacket when wearing these suits. Except now I didn’t have to. So… yay? 

In any case, the actual new suits turned out to basically look like a cross between a thief and a ninja. There was a basic layer of a black bodysuit that looked like a top and bottom set of pajamas, along with a vest that cinched across the chest for added protection (which probably would have covered my not-a-boyness well enough already), and what looked like a ski mask with black goggle-like lenses over the eyes. There was extra hidden padding in there to protect our heads. Finally, there were deceptively thin-looking gloves that were still quite protective and would hide our fingerprints. Between all that and the raised boots, we would look decidedly different than we usually did. Which, of course, was the point.  

The others changed in the shop, giving me a chance to see what the suits looked like, but Alloy and I stayed in our usual costumes. Given how sensitive this whole thing was, everyone getting caught by the authorities out in the streets dressed up like thieves or ninjas or whatever would kind of screw our entire night (and probably a lot more than that). Fortunately, we had a plan for that, even with the curfew in place. The plan was named Amber. Or That-A-Way. Wren’s shop was just south enough from the mall that she could teleport the group a bit at a time, from one roof to the next. The group, that was, aside from Wren and Fred, who would be staying at the shop, and Alloy and me, who had our own part to play. That was why the two of us were in full-costume instead of the suits, scouting ahead to make sure the way was clear. We texted back and forth to That-A-Way to let her know when it was safe to bring everyone over to the next spot, rather than shouting or using any lights or anything. Any cops or Star-Touched who saw us didn’t say or do anything about it, other than to wave and thank us for the help now and then. We would make sure each spot was safe, and then Amber teleported herself and the rest of the group there, disguised in those dark suits. 

There was a quick, relatively minor situation when Alloy and I actually saw a crime we had to intervene in. Some guy in a simple stocking mask was trying to loot an old pet grooming place. Yeah, I had no idea what he was hoping to find, but the dude was rearing back to throw a cinder block through the window and had an empty backpack with him. I managed to red-paint the block just as he went to hurl it that way, yanking it to a red spot on the street behind him. Then Alloy trapped him in a marble cylinder, until I got down there. He took a swing at me as soon as Alloy released the circular cage, but I used a bit of purple paint across my back to yank him by the arm over to a light post and used a ziptie to secure him to it while he shouted and threatened me. Then I used the Doephone app to contact the authorities to let them know where to pick him up and what his crime was. 

Shortly after that, Alloy and I returned to our planned spot and I let Amber know it was safe. Almost immediately, she appeared nearby with Pack, Izzy, Murphy, Roald, and Paige (she was the one in control right now) all touching her arms or hands. 

As soon as they appeared, everyone looked to me for an explanation about the delay. So I gave a quick rundown, before adding that we needed to get out of there before cops showed up to grab that guy. Not that they could see us from down there, but still. There were helicopters here and there in the sky with their spotlights passing over buildings. We needed to move on. 

So, we did. Bit by bit we made our way to the motel site, and took a minute to make sure it looked safe. No one was around, Wren’s sensors hadn’t picked up anything out of the ordinary around our tunnel, and the nearest patrols didn’t seem to be anywhere near this spot. The coast was clear.

The others headed for the main room while Alloy and I split up so we could go change. But first, I looked to Paige and hesitated. “Your… it feels different to see you standing up and moving around.” 

Paige (or Raige) was the only person here who didn’t have one of the special suits to wear. Wren, of course, hadn’t expected them to be part of this, so she didn’t get a suit for them. Instead, they were wearing a simple pair of jeans, a dark long-sleeved shirt, and a normal ski-mask. The mask itself was pulled up so it was barely covering their hair, acting more like a normal hat at the moment. Both of them had insisted that it was fine that they didn’t have a protective suit. After all, they already had their own advantages. Plus I had at least been able to paint another tee-shirt for her, like the ones the others had. 

“Feels different from this side too,” Paige informed me quietly before pausing. “Raige wants me to say that what she’d like to feel is how different it is to move around in her own damn body, so would we pick up the pace, please. I added the please.” 

Smirking just a little despite myself, I shook my head. “Don’t worry, Raige. We’re on it.” Still, I paused once more before adding, “Do you really think Flea and Trivial are trapped on that island?” 

“It’s the only answer that makes sense,” she pointed out. “Like you said, if Benjamin or his people had them, he’d know more about who Trivial is. But if they were free, they would’ve come back by now. Somehow… somehow they must’ve ended up there. Probably another one of his escape plans. I just–even if he doesn’t have them, that doesn’t mean they’re safe. They’re running around on an island full of the worst supervillains in the world. And that’s the optimistic scenario.” 

Grimacing, I took a second to find my voice. She was right, that was… it was bad. We had to get Raige a body so they could both act independently and then figure out what to do about it. Even if that meant sending messages to somebody about two Star-Touched being trapped on that island. Which raised the question of why people didn’t know about that already, or what–it raised a lot of questions. And I didn’t like any of the hypothetical answers. 

Forcing those thoughts down, I managed a weak, “We’ll figure out what’s going on. We’ll… we’ll find them. Right after we do this part.” 

Paige held up her fist, and I only hesitated for a second before bumping mine against it. I wanted to say something else, but nothing came out. Instead, I heaved a sigh, looked down at the stuffed bra in my hand, and headed for the room where I was going to change. 

If we didn’t get something useful out of this when all was said and done, no amount of being disguised would matter. Because I was probably going to scream so loud my parents would be able to identify my voice from the other side of town. 

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Dig In 22-08 (Summus Proelium)

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So clearly my parents had incredible timing. Just when we really needed to focus on what we were going to be trying to do that night, they dropped that bombshell on Izzy, asking if she would allow them to adopt her. Which sent the girl into an emotional tailspin for many different, equally valid reasons. Even after everything her mother had done, she still loved her and missed her. Some part of her still hoped to work things out, at least in some way. Which was something I could definitely understand, given my entire situation and how hard it was for me to see my parents as being capable of the stuff I knew they were capable of. 

In any case, I stayed with her while she talked a bit more about her mother. Not just about reading Charlotte’s Web, but other stuff too. She wasn’t in denial about the whole situation. She did tell me some bad things, and I could hear the anger and frustration in her voice. It was obvious that the girl wasn’t under any delusions about what sort of person her mother really was. Not anymore. Still, there were plenty of moments that she looked back on fondly, even if tears kept filling her eyes whenever she thought about them. 

My parents came by around eight-thirty in the evening to ask if we were certain that we didn’t want to go with them to the play. Yeah, they were going to see the opening performance of some new production that was supposed to be pretty huge. The guy behind it was being eccentric about the start-time and insisted that it begin precisely at eleven pm, rather than the standard eight. I had no idea if that was actually important for anything in the play, or if he just thought making a demand like that would make his play stand out. Whatever the answer, that was another reason for why we had chosen tonight to make our move. The play was a big enough deal that the media was covering people who showed up, so my parents would actually be there. Between the play itself and all the schmoozing my parents would need to do afterward, I was pretty sure they weren’t planning on going anywhere near the base tonight. And they were taking Simon with them, which was another bonus. Obviously, the base wouldn’t be completely unprotected or anything. At least I was pretty sure it wouldn’t. It would be pretty surprising if the place was empty. But either way, my family wouldn’t be there. Though it was almost certain that they would get a call very shortly after our arrival. I had a feeling my parents wouldn’t be sitting there through the entire play once that happened. But with any luck, by the time they got to the base, we would be long-gone with everything we could grab. And with a bit more luck, at least one thing within all the stuff we managed to grab would actually be useful. Particularly the address of Pittman’s secret labs that Raige had said was in that place.  

Needless to say, we politely declined the invitation to go with them, and I gave my parents a hug. Izzy looked uncertain, but stayed where she was on the bed while giving a hesitant wave. Mom and Dad seemed happy to see us sitting and talking together, and they tugged me aside to talk in private in the hallway for a moment. 

“Cassidy,” Mom started, “I know this whole thing was a lot to spring on you. On both of you. Your father and I… we thought about talking to you first. But we wanted Izzy to feel like this was about her. It’s her choice, she–she deserves to have that focus. And with as much as the two of you have been getting along, it was… perhaps we–” 

“It’s okay,” I interrupted. “You’re right, we have been getting along. I like Izzy. I mean–” Boy there was a lot I wanted to say, but keeping it simple and short was probably the best way to go. “You’re right, you didn’t need to ask my permission to ask Izzy if she wants to… to stay. She’s not a pet dog or whatever. It’s about what she wants. It should be about–it should be about what makes her comfortable and… and making her know she’s wanted. You didn’t need to ask my permission.” 

My parents glanced at one another, then each embraced me once more. Dad lifted me from the floor, crushing me against his chest. “That’s my girl,” he murmured proudly before setting me back down. “Aww, now see, you went and messed up my suit.” 

“Naturally,” Mom retorted as her eyes rolled. “She’s the one who messed it up.” Giving me a look, she added, “He just wanted to be able to blame it on you rather than on the way he’ll be slouching in the theater.” 

“Eh,” I replied with a shrug, “I guess I can take that hit.” Without another word, I reached out and started rubbing my hands over the jacket and shirt as though deliberately mussing it up. 

Dad swatted me away lightly, but laughed. “See, told you she was my real hero.” he announced while winking at me. “I can always count on her to come through in the end.” 

With a few more words about staying with Izzy for the evening and seeing how she felt about things, the two of them headed out. Sure, it was still early as far as the play went, which wouldn’t start for a couple more hours. But if there was one thing I’d learned about this sort of thing by growing up in my family, it was that people stood around talking for about as long as the play itself, if not even longer. There was a reason I’d decided long before I knew anything about the whole Ministry thing that I didn’t want to have anything to do with going to those events. 

After standing at the front door long enough to make sure they had left, I said good night to a couple of the staff who were standing around. It took everything I had not to run upstairs, considering I wanted the staff to have no idea that anything was going on. And thus have no reason to tell my parents that I seemed to be up to something. Once all this went down, and I wanted my parents to think that Izzy and I had been here asleep, or at least just hanging out, the whole time. So, I made a trip through the kitchen to grab a couple cold drinks before meandering upstairs. I didn’t go as far as whistling innocently, of course. That might have been a little over-the-top and suspicious. But I did basically everything up to that.  

Izzy was still sitting on the bed, looking at the back of that book. When I came in, however, she  stood up and waited until I closed the door before speaking. “Did um, did they leave?” While saying that, she set the book down and stood a little taller, clearly trying to show that she was ready for this. Which I had my doubts about, but who was I to tell her not to go? It wasn’t like I was any better when it came to being emotionally compromised. 

“Yeah,” I confirmed. And speaking of being emotionally compromised, “So I guess we should get over to the shop before Mr. Pittman calls.” 

Izzy made a face at that. “Do we have to call him mister? I don’t think he’s really earned that sort of courtesy or whatever. Can we call him Jerkface Pittman? Or Stankbutt Pittman.” 

Despite myself and this entire situation, I found myself snickering at that. “Stankbutt Pittman, huh? Yeah, I think the twins might be good with that.” Pausing then, I frowned. “Is twins the right word?” 

“Close enough,” she agreed with a tiny smile, before swallowing hard. Her gaze met mine. “We should go. I need umm, I need a distraction, please.” She sounded almost desperate then, clearly needing to take her mind off the whole family situation. Which, again, I could completely understand. 

So, I gave her a quick nod. “Yeah, let me just grab my stuff.” 

After grabbing her backpack, the other girl was right behind me as we slipped out into the empty hall, looked around briefly, and headed for my own room. There, I took my own bag out of its hiding place under the heavy mirror and floor in the closet and slipped it onto my shoulders. Then the two of us waited at the balcony for an opening before heading out. With Izzy’s help, we floated right over the wall, landing silently on the other side out of sight of the cameras before heading off through the darkness. We went a pretty fair distance through the wooded area before cutting across to the sidewalk, not wanting to let anyone passing by see us at this hour. At the very edge of the treeline, the two of us watched the empty street for a minute to make sure it was clear. In the distance, we could see the guard shack where the obviously sleepy guy sitting at his chair was doing his level best to stay awake with coffee. Which was a bad sign for how his night was going to go, considering it was just barely after nine o’clock. Or maybe it was fine for him. I doubted my parents would allow any part of the gang war to take place this close to their house, so the guard at the gate for getting into the neighborhood (as much as it could be considered a neighborhood given how far apart the houses were) probably wouldn’t have anything to do. His job was to make sure that cars going in and out were allowed to be there, and given the whole curfew situation, he probably wasn’t getting many of those. 

Of course, there was also always the question of how involved he was with my family’s business. Was he really half-asleep, or was that a front? Did he know exactly what was going on? It just made sense that my parents would have the gate guard to their neighborhood have at least some idea of the situation, didn’t it? Or maybe they—

Shaking that off with some effort, I took a step back (literally) into the woods once more as Izzy and I changed into our costumes in the darkness. We shoved our normal clothes into the bags, then continued on our way, following the treeline to get as far away from that neighborhood as possible. In no way, shape, or form did I want anyone to see Paintball and Raindrop emerging from the same neighborhood we lived in. That was just entirely too dangerous. 

Eventually, we managed to walk far enough away from the gate that we both figured it was safe. So Izzy made us both weightless while I used paint to yank us from rooftop to rooftop. We were still careful to avoid people following us, but that was easy enough at this point. It wasn’t like there were many cars on the street or anything. Still some, particularly police cruisers here or there. But for the most part, things were quiet. 

Everyone else was waiting in Wren’s shop, but I just took the time for a few quick greetings before heading upstairs. It was getting close to the time that Pittman was supposed to call, and I didn’t want to screw that up. Not with what could be on the line. So, I asked the others to wait a few minutes and jogged up there. I was still dreading the conversation that was about to happen, given we had no idea what the situation with Irelyn/Flea was. Not to mention the fact that just thinking about Irelyn and Flea being the same person still made my head spin.  

Paige’s body was sitting up on the couch when I got up there. She and Raige were obviously waiting for me. When I came into the room, they exhaled sharply before Raige noted, “About time. Cutting it a little close, weren’t you?” 

Before I could respond at all, the same mouth and voice spoke, but it was clearly Paige that time. “Stop it. She’s here, that’s what matters.” Her eyes found me. “He hasn’t called back?” 

My head shook. “No, he hasn’t called. We still have time.” There were a few other things I wanted to say, but I couldn’t find the right words. I could tell she was worried about Irelyn too. Actually, given Raige’s reaction, it seemed like they both were. Which raised some interesting questions about what sort of feelings and memories the other girl had, but this probably wasn’t the right time to get into all that. I wasn’t sure when the right time would be, but it definitely wasn’t when we were about to take a call from their psychotic father to find out what he wanted in exchange for not hurting their adopted sister. 

Of course, thinking about ‘adopted sister’ put my brain in another spin for that whole Izzy situation. But again, not the right time to think about it. I was going to have to shove that in a box and deal with it later too. Boy, this shelf in my brain was getting a bit full. At this rate, I was going to have to take some of the things out of their boxes and deal with them. 

Or build another brain shelf. Yeah, that sounded more likely. 

Shaking that off for the moment, I focused. “Okay, real quick. I don’t think we should say anything about Raige.” Before they could respond, I pushed on. “I mean, he didn’t say anything, so I don’t think he knows. As far as he’s aware, she’s been erased. I don’t know if that’ll ever be a relevant advantage, but it feels stupid to give him information that he doesn’t already have, you know? Maybe someday him not knowing that Raige exists will be important.” 

There was a brief pause while they clearly considered that. Then Raige agreed. “Sure, I can go with that. Fucker tried to kill me, might as well let him think he succeeded. Then it’ll be a nice surprise when I punch the back of his head in.” Another pause, then, “I mean, nice for me anyway.” 

“Nice for us,” Paige confirmed. 

Before I could say anything else, the special phone buzzed in my pocket. I jumped a bit even though I had been expecting that. Plucking it out, I looked at the unknown name and number briefly before exhaling. Then I put the phone to my ear and answered, making sure to use the same voice changer setting I’d had a couple nights earlier. “Hey again.” Boy was it hard to make my voice sound even somewhat nonchalant. Somehow, I managed it. Maybe it was all the practice I’d had over these past couple months. 

There was a brief pause before the same man spoke. “Give the phone to Paige, now.” Again, this guy was obviously accustomed to people hopping to follow his every command the moment he said it. Which seemed a little odd coming from someone who was living on a prison island full of other psychotic supervillains, but I had no idea how things worked over there. Plus he was obviously used to working with his automatons and other things he could program and control.

But I wasn’t one of those. Giving a quick glance toward Paige, I shook my head. “No, sir, I don’t think I’ll do that.” 

Again, there was a pause as though he couldn’t comprehend the words and was playing them back in his head in total disbelief. When he spoke again, his voice was even more dangerous. “This is not the time to be playing games, whoever you are. Give the phone to my daughter.” 

Steeling myself a little, helped by how annoyed I was by his demanding tone (not to mention the fact that he’d tried to have me killed by a girl who should have been my friend), I once more denied him. “You can repeat yourself as much as you want, but I’m still not giving her the phone. She’s right here. If you want to talk to her, I’ll tell her anything you want to pass along. The thing is, I’m pretty sure you probably still have some secret commands that even she doesn’t know about. So in the interest of fairness, I’ll just give her the gist of whatever you want to say to her, and she can respond. If you want, you can ask something that only she’d know the answer to, just to make sure she’s really here.” 

From the sound of the heavy sigh that escaped the man, I was pretty sure it was taking all he had not to curse me out and spit out a bunch of threats. A glance toward Paige showed the girl watching me with a mixture of curiosity and worry, but she didn’t say anything. And boy was it a weird feeling to look at the girl who had been such a royal bitch to me for so long and worry about how she was feeling. 

Finally, Pittman spoke. “Tell her to say… what color her carpet was in our first primary lab, in her bedroom.” 

Blinking at that, I finally shrugged and muted the phone before looking at Paige to pass along the question. 

“It’s a trick question,” she immediately replied. “There was no carpet in my first bedroom.” 

“Yeah,” Raige agreed darkly, “motherfucker put us in a room with linoleum on the floor.” Belatedly, she added, “That was white.” 

Making a face, I unmuted the phone. “White,” I replied, letting that hang for just a second before adding, “But it wasn’t carpet. It was linoleum. Which, for the record, makes you an even shittier father than I expected. And that bar was already pretty low, so congratulations on managing to limbo under it.”

“You think you can judge–” Pittman started to snarl before catching himself. “I don’t care what you think. I care about progressing the human race. Now tell Paige that she needs to get back in line and do her job, or the superheroes, including her sister, who ended up on this island thanks to her will pay the price.” 

My mouth opened to echo the word ‘superheroes,’ only to catch myself. Muting the phone, I stared at it for a second before murmuring, “He says Flea’s there on the island.” 

“Fuck!” one of them blurted before slamming Paige’s hand into the side of the couch. “Stupid piece of shit! I knew that whole thing was a bad idea, I knew it was–I knew–fuck!” 

“Just–wait.” Quickly, I interrupted before they could go on. “He said superheroes, as in plural. Who would Irelyn take with her? Who else is–?” Even as I said that, my fingers were snapping. “Trivial. It’s Trivial. She’s the other one who hasn’t been around lately. The news was talking about that earlier, about how she’s been on some sort of vacation or something. I was mostly thinking about how her timing sucked with Flea being gone too.” 

“He… he has Irelyn and Trivial,” Paige murmured. “We have t–” 

“Hang on.” Holding my hand up to stop her, I thought quickly for a couple frantic seconds. Then I hit the button again and spoke to Pittman. “Put them on the line. If you want something from Paige, we need to know Flea and Slider are both safe.” 

Another sigh escaped the man. “They are fine, for now. Unless Paige fails to do as she has been told. Then they both die. Put her on the phone.” 

My finger hit the mute button again, and I looked back to Paige and Raige. “He doesn’t have them. He has her phone, but not them. Trivial’s only been here in the city for less than a year. And she was in Nebraska before. He doesn’t know who she is. He didn’t know the name was wrong. And he refused to put them on the phone.” 

“He could not know who she is and still have her,” Paige pointed out slowly. 

My head shook. “I don’t think so. If he had her, he seems like the type to dig into who she actually is so he’d know how to keep her contained, you know? If he doesn’t even know her name, I don’t think he knows anything else about her. Just that she exists.” Then I thought of something else. “Besides, think about it. If he had two different heroes’ lives to bargain with, do you really think he’d waste time trying to tell you to do the same job you were doing before? Seems to me like he’d be bargaining with someone who has more actual power than you. Hell, he could call out to a news station and threaten to kill two Star-Touched. But either way, he’d know what her name was, because he’d be talking about her with the outside world. He would’ve gotten as far as knowing her name.” 

“If he doesn’t have them, but has Irelyn’s phone… what does that mean?” Paige murmured. 

“It means he’s fucking with us,” Raige answered. “Still thinks he can make us–err, you dance under his strings. They must be on the island, but not… he doesn’t have them. Maybe they dropped the phone or–whatever the fuck, all that matters is he doesn’t have them.” 

We talked for another moment before I unmuted the phone. “Pittman?” I dropped the mister, as Izzy had suggested before. “Paige has something to say to you.” With that, I hit the button to make it so he could hear her voice but she couldn’t hear his. 

“Hey, Father,” she announced flatly. “I just wanted you to know that you should probably get to work on giving yourself a robot dick. Because when Flea finds you, she’s going to cut the real one off. We’ll call back and leave a message when we have something to say to you.” 

With that, I disconnected the call. Which had to piss him off, but that was what we were going for. We had other things to worry about right now. He didn’t have Irelyn or Trivial, that was what mattered. 

“Okay,” I announced, “I’m going to head out for that tunnel thing so we can get Raige a new body and go from there.” 

“Close,” Paige replied, “but I’m going too. Or we are.” 

“What?” I blinked at that. “What do you–” 

“We’re sharing the body for this,” she informed me, already pushing herself to a standing position. “If Irelyn is stuck on that island somehow, who… who the fuck knows how, but either way, if she and Trivial are stuck there, we need to get on with this.” 

“So yeah, we’ll share it for now, for this,” Raige put in. “We’ll take turns. So I can get my own body, then we can figure out how we’re going to get those two the fuck out of that prison.” 

“Well… in that case, what are we waiting for?” I slowly replied. “Speaking of bodies, let’s go tell the others we’ve got another one coming along for this mission.

“God knows we can use all the help we can get.”  

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Dig In 22-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Okay, apparently my heart was in decent shape. Because I managed to avoid going into cardiac arrest the second I heard the man on the phone say those words. Though it was a pretty near thing. My stomach flipped over and I spun around to look out into the darkness as though he had been standing right behind me, even if that was ridiculous. A thousand thoughts and questions were screaming through my head. 

I knew who it was immediately. When he said he was Paige’s father, he wasn’t Mr. Banners. Not the way he said it, not–no. This was Pittman. Benjamin Pittman. I knew his voice from that time inside Paige’s head, facing his digital doppelganger. It was him. 

What the hell? How did he get the phone number? How was he talking to me right now? Was he still on Breakwater? Did he do something to Irelyn? How? Was it one of his goons? Had they somehow found out that the woman was looking for Paige and took her? Was she alive? Was she okay? Fuck, fuck! How–what? Paige and Raige were both going to lose their minds, lose… lose everything. We had sent Irelyn down to Florida and now somehow Benjamin Pittman had the phone number we had been using to call her? There was no way that was a coincidence. It couldn’t be. Something was really wrong. And when those two found out, they were going to–

“I’m waiting,” the man snapped, his voice interrupting my panicked rush of thoughts. Clearly, this was a man who was accustomed to people immediately jumping to answer his questions and follow his orders. Probably because so many of the people he worked with were mindless drones he had built. “Give the phone to my daughter, whoever you are. Unless you think she would prefer to never learn just how I acquired this number.” 

Grimacing for a brief moment, I tried to force down the panic so I could respond without sounding completely out of my depth. I was, of course, but I didn’t want to sound like it. “Sorry, she’s not exactly here right now. You want me to have her call you back? Is this a good number to reach you at, or is there a Breakwater switchboard that we need to go through?” How I managed to get those words out and make them sound at all casual (and even snarky) while my heart was trying to beat its way out of my chest was completely beyond me. There was obviously something really screwed up in my head. 

From the way the man on the other end of the line paused, I could tell he was taking a second to figure out how to respond to that. And probably smothering outrage that I wasn’t immediately hopping to follow his every whim. When he finally spoke again, his voice had a forced, brittle calmness that wasn’t at all convincing. “I have very little time on this call, for reasons you obviously know. Take the phone to my daughter and make sure she has it Sunday evening at ten pm your time. I will call back then, and she had better answer. Otherwise, there will be consequences she does not want to bear. Do you understand me, boy?” 

Well, what was I supposed to say to that? I didn’t dare mouth off to him too much, not when his men here in the States could possibly be holding Irelyn hostage. A rush of almost staggering guilt at the thought of what we had accidentally sent the helpless woman into ran through me, even as I swallowed hard before responding. “Sunday night at ten. Got it. She’ll have the phone then.” 

“Good,” came the snapped response. “See that she does.” 

With that, the line went dead. He disconnected without another word. I was left standing there in the darkness of the construction site with the phone held to my ear in silence for a long moment before slowly lowering it. Although my mouth was silent, my brain definitely wasn’t. Fuck, fuck, fuck! What was I supposed to do now? It was late, and I had no idea if Fred and Wren were even still awake, or if they had gone straight to bed. Could I disturb them just to get inside so I could talk to Paige and Raige? Would going there right this second to tell them what was going on be a good idea? We couldn’t do anything about it right now anyway. But how angry would they be if I waited hours before telling them? Even if they couldn’t actually do anything about it, they probably wouldn’t like not being told. And yet… and yet… would it be worse to not tell them yet, or to go straight to the shop and wake up everyone there just to let Raige and Paige know that there was this huge problem they were completely incapable of doing anything about right then? 

In the end, I decided that waiting was the best choice. Again, no one could do anything about it right now. It was the middle of the night in Detroit, Irelyn hadn’t answered the phone any of the other times we called, and now that crazy fuck had this number. That was all I knew, and it was impossible to actually do anything about it now. Not to mention the fact that tomorrow and the next day were already going to be busy with all the stuff I had lined up as it was. 

So, already feeling guilty about my decision, I started to head for home. I would sleep a few hours, give time for Wren and Fred to wake up, then go over there and… and let Paige and Raige know what was going on. It definitely wasn’t a conversation that I was looking forward to, but they needed to know. We could decide what to do about it from there, though I was pretty sure it would be limited to waiting for their father to call. Which was just super-fantastic. 

Clearly, I hadn’t already had enough shit going on this weekend. I needed even more than all this to avoid total boredom. Maybe I’d get lucky, and end up getting kidnapped by another gang leader for a face to face. Cuélebre hated me, right? And he had to be in a bad mood with everything that was going on over there. He could definitely show up right now and punch me in the face. I wouldn’t even be that surprised.  

Okay, I was going to stop thinking about that and tempting fate, no matter how sarcastic my mental voice was. It was time to go home and sleep, or try to, before anything else happened.  

But hey, at least spending time with Tomas and Maki wouldn’t be the most anxious part of my day anymore. 

********

The second Izzy and I were up later that morning, I made sure she knew I had something important to talk about. The two of us were on our way out the front door to take a car service ride before nine o’clock, and yet both of my parents were already gone. From what one of the maids said, they had left by seven, despite the fact that my dad wasn’t home until almost three. 

Yeah, they were obviously busy too. But I couldn’t think too much about what all that was about. Probably just more stuff involving the gang war, yet… no, Cassidy. I had to shove that out of my mind. I had enough to deal with right in front of me. My plate was full, so no reaching across to grab something else to pile it on even more. Whatever was going on with my family’s business could wait. It would have to wait, no matter how paranoid my brain got about the possibilities. 

Having the driver drop us off by a small diner, the two of us grabbed some breakfast sandwiches to go, and ate while we walked down the street. Keeping my voice low despite the fact that there was no one around, I told the younger girl exactly what had happened in the middle of the night right after I’d split off from her and the others. 

Needless to say, she was pretty freaked out upon learning about that call too. And she was just as worried about Irelyn and guilty about what we had sent the woman into. The two of us walked in silence for a minute once I’d finished explaining the situation, but a quick glance that way showed me how Izzy’s expression was twisting pensively. With a visible cringe, she finally announced, “They’re going to be really upset.” 

My own grimace immediately matched hers. “Tell me about it. I wish I had a solution or more information to give–hang on.” Producing the phone from my pocket, I considered it for a second before looking at the other girl. “Should I try calling Irelyn again? I mean, maybe Paige’s dad was just bluffing when he implied that he had her. He could have just gotten the number without having her, somehow. Or maybe whoever has her actual phone will pick up.” 

“Unless he has the phone,” Izzy pointed out flatly. 

“How would he–” In mid-sentence, I stopped. “Okay, I was going to ask how he could have gotten the phone, but obviously he has ways of calling out, even if he’s limited on when and for how long. Maybe he had a way of having the phone sent to him on the island. Or… or…” I trailed off, looking at the phone in my hand. Before I could change my mind, I tried calling Irelyn once more. No answer, of course. Unsurprising though still disappointing. A part of me had been desperately hoping that she would find me and reveal that Benjamin Pittman really had been bluffing. 

But of course, we weren’t that lucky. After trying once more to no avail, I put the phone away, shoving it deep in my pocket while shaking my head. “I don’t know what to do about it. I just–fuck. God damn it. This whole thing is just so screwed up, you know?” 

With a slight nod, the other girl reached out to touch my arm. “We need to go over there. You need to tell them what’s going on. Even if they can’t do anything about it right now, they need to know. They deserve to know.” 

She was right, of course. Letting out a long breath, I nodded. “Yeah, let’s get changed and go that way. 

“I just hope Irelyn’s okay. Because if she’s not, I don’t think anything, not even being on a secret island thousands of miles out in the ocean, is going to stop those two from going after their dad.” 

*******

Izzy didn’t end up accompanying me all the way to the shop. Not because she didn’t want to, but there was a call from one of the officials back at the Minority base, asking for her to come in to help out with something. She couldn’t exactly defer without drawing questions, so with a promise to check in later, she took another Uber that way. Or rather, to one of the secret entrances to the Minority base. Which was still freaking cool to hear about. The fact that they had doors scattered all over the city that would all transport them to the base–or rather, the clubhouse as they called it– was awesome. And I would’ve been even more enthused about learning more about how that worked if my focus wasn’t on Irelyn, and what I had to tell Paige and Raige about all that. 

So, bracing myself for what I had to say, I changed into my costume before making my way to Wren’s shop where she and Fred were waiting. They were barely up when I arrived, and even that only because I’d called ahead. The two of them had just gotten dressed and were staring at me blearily as I handed the bag of food over as a peace offering. “Sorry, guys. It’s really important.” 

With that, I gave them a brief version of what happened the night before, telling the two about the phone call and my worries about what was now going on with Irelyn. Needless to say, it immediately woke them up even more than the scent of sausage and bacon had. Both of them had a lot of questions. Unfortunately, they were the same questions that I already had, so they wouldn’t be getting any answers from me. Not immediately, anyway. Telling them I had to go upstairs and talk to the others, I left the two with the breakfast I brought over and went up, dreading the conversation that I was about to have. 

Needless to say, Paige and Raige  were both confused as to why I was back so soon. They immediately asked if Irelyn had called, which made me wince. I thought my reaction was subtle, but Paige’s eyes immediately narrowed. She was half-sitting up, her back slumped against the corner of the couch. “What is it? What happened?” 

Right, there would be no beating around the bush for this. They needed to know the whole truth. So, taking a deep breath, I quietly told them exactly what had happened from the moment the phone had buzzed in my pocket. I told them exactly what I had said and what he said. And what he implied. 

Before I knew what was happening, Paige’s body was on its feet. She–or rather they– jerked upward and lashed out with a punch toward the nearby wall, hitting hard enough to put a slight dent in it despite the fact that I was pretty sure it was reinforced. At the same time, they (and it was definitely both of them) blurted, “I’ll kill him!” 

Only then did the two of them seem to realize what had just happened. Paige had a look of  confusion and surprise, just before her entire body collapsed. One leg went one way, her arm flailed out, and her head sort of jerked a little. It was like they were both trying to control the body and it wasn’t working. Not when they weren’t completely in sync.  

Quickly moving that way, I took a knee. “Are you guys okay? Look, he’s going to call back Sunday. Like I said, he wants you to be here to answer the phone. Well, Paige anyway. He didn’t say anything about Raige. I guess he doesn’t know what happened there, or if–I dunno. But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know you’re around. He definitely doesn’t know the whole situation.” 

I was obviously rambling a little bit, so I cut myself off and simply helped them turn over. I could see the anger and frustration on their face. What they really wanted to do in that moment was somehow teleport to that island and beat their father’s face until there was nothing but a puddle of unrecognizable mushy liquid left. 

Finally, Raige spoke first. “Either he has Irelyn or some of his people do. Which…” She trailed off, then added, “We need to say it.” 

The same mouth spoke then, but it was obviously Paige. “It’s not our place to expose that.” 

“But it’s relevant, Paige,” came the response from Raige. “You know it’s relevant. She deserves to know the whole story. If she doesn’t, and something happens to Irelyn because she didn’t know…” 

“I’m the she, right?” I quickly cut in, frowning in confusion. “What exactly should I know? What’s going on? Is there something you haven’t told me about this whole thing?” 

There was a long pause as Paige clearly considered and debated internally. Actually, she was probably literally debating with Raige inside their head. Whatever this was about, it was big enough that she was still resisting the idea of talking about it. Finally, her eyes shifted to focus on me, her voice quiet. “Help us get over to the couch. Then I… then we can talk.” 

Okay, now I was very confused. But I shook that off and did as she asked, helping them get the body up and over to sit down once more. Dropping next to them, I squinted. “Now are you going to tell me what all that was about? What do I not know about what’s going on? Because if there’s something big, I should probably know about it before we try to  plan anything.” Inside, I was trying to think of what Paige could possibly have been holding back. I was trying not to be paranoid and understand that she had a reason to keep quiet about whatever it was, but a part of me was angry at the thought that she had been keeping more secrets. Truthfully, I was pretty sure most of it was my lingering hang-ups and personal feelings about the past few years of dealing with the way Paige had been forced to act. But knowing that didn’t make it go away. 

There was another momentary pause before Paige answered. “I want you to know that your secret is safe with me. I wouldn’t tell anyone who you really are or… or any of that unless it was an absolute emergency and… and telling people like Alloy your real identity was the only way to save you.” As she spoke, her gaze met mine intently. “I promise, I take keeping secrets like that seriously. I would only tell someone if it was completely necessary.” 

My head shook slowly. “Okay, I guess I’m glad you–wait.” Yes, I had been slow on the uptake, probably because of how distracted I was about everything going on. But even I wasn’t that slow. It came crashing into my head as I gave a sharp double-take, my eyes widening. “Wait, wait a second. Are you saying–are you–is Irelyn a–” Abruptly, I shoved myself to my feet, spinning on my heel to stare down at them as my mouth worked a few times in total disbelief. “Who?” The word came blurting its way out after a few false starts and sputters. “You’re saying Irelyn is Touched? Who is she? Is she Star or Fell? Wait, is she Deicide? Is she Brumal? Is–” I was trying to sort through all my mental images of female Touched in the city who could possibly match her description, or at least get close to it.

Then it occurred to me. One Touched who hadn’t been seen in the city for these past couple weeks who could possibly fit. “Trivial,” I blurted. “She–no, fuck. She can’t be Trivial. Trivial only came over from the Nebraska Minority last year. She–” I frowned, realizing who the other person who had been missing for awhile was. “Wait…” 

“Yeah,” Paige confirmed flatly, her gaze meeting mine. “You got it.” 

Okay, now I was reeling again. “Irelyn is Flea? But she looks–I mean she’s not…” Trailing off in the midst of pointing out that the woman’s eyes looked Asian through the mask, I remembered the way Amber’s costume turned her hair from black to blonde and as part of that, shifted her facial features slightly to look different than her normal self. “Oh. But that still, um, feels a little wrong?” It wasn’t quite blackface or–but it wasn’t great. Yeah, not great. But it did help keep her identity secret. 

“She doesn’t alter her face,” Paige informed me as though reading my mind. “Her grandmother’s Japanese, but she mostly takes after her father. If you block everything else and only see her eyes, you can see the resemblance. Anyway, she’s been doing that since she was on the Minority. From back in the old days, you know, when Touched were first becoming a thing.” 

She was right, I remembered. Flea had been one of the earliest Touched in the city, and definitely the youngest as far as I was aware. At least the youngest who had joined a team and actively done anything. She wasn’t quite there at the start, but it was only a couple years into things, back when they were still working out the details in the system. Flea had been a little kid back then. It was part of why she used the name Flea. She was tiny and jumped around a lot. Between that and her health/stamina draining power, Flea fit. She just kept the name as she grew up. Probably because it meant a lot to her by that point. 

“Keeping identities secret was harder back then,” Paige informed me. “They didn’t have the system and rules that exist now, so they had to be very careful, especially with Irelyn being as young as she was. Her parents wanted her to–they wanted to profit off what she could do, the way parents of a child actor or model can. But they needed her identity to stay secret, so they came up with that. No one would even look twice at Irelyn Banners because they’d be looking for an Asian girl.” 

My mouth opened and shut a couple times before I grimaced. “That makes sense. And if she is part-Asian it’s not nearly as… Anyway, I guess the point is she’s… she’s Flea. Wait, we talked to her! I talked to her, repeatedly! We told her about the whole Cup situation. We–she was–the whole time I–” 

“Yup,” Raige (don’t ask how I knew it was her) confirmed. “That was her. And now she’s in trouble.” 

I had no idea what to do with this new information. My mind was spinning. “I–if he knows she’s–oh. How does he–but how did–if she’s–” Yup, definitely spinning. “What do we do?” 

“Answer the phone when he calls Sunday,” Paige answered.

“And you guys get me a body,” Raige added.  

“So both of us can go rip him apart limb from limb.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Dig In 22-03 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

“Cassidy. Psst, Cassidy. Hey–” 

A very small ball of wadded up paper bounced off my neck, making my eyes snap open as I sat up and looked around. What–where? Oh, class. I was in class. School. Somehow, I had closed my eyes for what felt like a blink only to end up completely falling asleep. At least we had a substitute today, which meant everyone was watching a movie. The room was dark, an old classic film from the late nineties I’d seen seventeen times was playing on the projector screen, and everyone was being quiet to avoid drawing the substitute’s attention. No wonder I’d fallen asleep. 

My back ached a little where I had twisted it wrong, and I had to grimace while looking around blearily for a moment before my eyes fell on the person who had thrown the paper. “Tomas?” I whispered under my breath, glancing toward the back of the room where I could see the substitute reading something on his phone. He wasn’t really paying attention. That was how subs worked, most of the time. They didn’t care as long as we weren’t too obvious about the fact that we weren’t watching the movie, or doing the worksheet, or whatever they had given out to keep us busy for the class period. Very seldom did they actually try to teach the class. 

Tomas was sitting in the aisle across from me, turned completely to face my way. “Are you okay?” he whispered. “You seemed pretty out of it right there.” 

Out of it? Well yeah, I supposed I was. It had been another week since that event with Angel Dust, meaning it had been two weeks since the dinner party and convention. Specifically, it was Friday, May 8th. And if the first week following the party had been busy, this past one had made it look positively docile. The gang war was getting even worse, particularly now that it looked like the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro were starting to splinter a bit. Some of their people were getting into fights between themselves, which just emboldened La Casa and the Easy Eights to hit them harder. Territory was changing hands by the day, and it was all the authorities could do to try to keep up and stop the situation from completely spiraling out of control.

So yeah, things were getting pretty out of control. I was out there every day doing what I could to help out alongside Alloy. We’d put a bit of time in to show that we were around, then go to the construction site to work on the tunnel a bit. I felt bad about not putting in a full shift at both, and wished I had Syndicate’s power to be in two places at once. Well, four places in his case, which would be even better. To make up for that deficiency, I had been pushing myself as hard as I could, working in the tunnel and trying to help out in the streets. It meant I was exhausted every night, and probably wasn’t getting enough sleep. But I was okay. I had to be okay. 

Well, maybe the fact that I had fallen asleep in class would tend to disagree with that assessment. I would get a real nap in later. I had promised myself that I would sleep for a few hours right after school. The idea made me feel a hard stone of guilt in my stomach, but it couldn’t be helped. If I pushed things too much harder, I was going to screw up somehow. And I was pretty sure it would be a screw-up I couldn’t come back from.

Still, I obviously couldn’t tell Tomas all of that. So I settled on shrugging a little. “I guess I haven’t been sleeping very well. You know, just one of those things.” Yeah, that wasn’t very informative, but what else was I supposed to say? I couldn’t tell him the truth. There was no way for me to know just how much he was involved in the whole Ministry thing. As much as I didn’t want to think that he was that sort of person, I also didn’t want to believe my parents were those sort of people, and look how that had turned out. It was all a mess. Not being able to trust a guy I had cared so much about for so long was one of the worst feelings I’d ever experienced. 

Tomas raised an eyebrow, glancing back to the sub briefly before giving a teasing whisper, “Oh, right, it must be that terribly lumpy bed you’ve got. What on Earth were your parents thinking? Why, that thing is barely more than a camp cot. What did it cost, a mere twenty thousand dollars? You might as well be sleeping on the ground. On a pile of nails. Fresh from the furnace.”

Blushing despite myself, I rolled my eyes and retorted, “Yeah, yeah. I didn’t say the bed wasn’t comfortable, jerk.” My finger flicked a tiny piece of eraser off my desk, which bounced off the middle of his forehead, making the boy gasp softly. 

“Good shot,” he murmured, rubbing his temple. “Bet you couldn’t do that twice in a row.” 

Wait, was that part of my power, the whole accuracy thing I’d noted when it came to using my paint? Did it extend to–oh. Realizing belatedly that I actually might’ve been able to ‘do that twice in a row’ after all, I mumbled something about being lucky once in awhile, dismissing it in the hopes that he would do the same.

It worked. Partly because he had other things on his mind. Leaning over a little, he whispered, “You’re not worried about this weekend, are you?” 

This weekend? A rush of confusion, and more than a little paranoia, filled my mind. This weekend was when we thought we would be able to finish that tunnel and make our move. But how could he possibly know anything about–wait, no. He didn’t know anything about it. He wasn’t asking about the tunnel, obviously. This was about something completely different. Namely, the fact that I was supposed to hang out with him and Maki this weekend. Which was uncomfortable all on its own, but I had to do it if we were going to learn anything about Maki themself. Amber was completely sure that they were the person she had seen get picked up by Tomas’s father after shapeshifting to change sex. So yeah, there was definitely something going on there, and hanging out with them alongside Tomas was my best chance to find out what. 

Which did indeed mean that we were going to try to break into the Ministry base the day after I hung out with my ex-boyfriend and the person he was now dating. But hey, it could have been worse. We could’ve flipped those. Somehow, I was pretty sure that breaking into the base first and then hanging out with Tomas and Maki the next day would have been even harder to deal with. At least this way, I wouldn’t have some other distraction in the back of my mind while we were supposed to be focusing on getting through that tunnel. 

Okay, that was a lie. Of course I would still have distractions. But I could try to fool myself, damn it. And I could push most of them out of my head for awhile. Getting into that Ministry base was too important, and we had spent too much time and effort on the tunnel, to let myself screw it up by being too focused on the whole Tomas thing. This way, I could get through hanging out with them, find out whatever I could about Maki, and then shift my attention to where it needed to be. 

Yeah, sure, that would definitely work.

And speaking of focusing on things, I met the boy’s curious gaze before shaking my head. Somehow, I found a smile. “Nah, don’t–ahh, don’t worry about it. It’s fine. I mean sure, it’s gonna be a little awkward. But it’ll be fine. I mean, Maki seems cool. I’m glad you umm, I’m glad you’re with someone like that. I mean, they–” I almost said ‘they’ for Maki, which would’ve been bad considering I wasn’t supposed to know about that whole situation. Instead, I quickly corrected, “They always say, if your ex is gonna get with someone new, make sure you at least get some good ice cream out of the deal.” 

Tomas gave me a doubtful look at that, his eyebrow rising. “Who says that, exactly?” 

I gave him a put-on innocent look. “I mean, I’m sure I could pay somebody to say it for me. Maybe even a lot of somebodies. What do you think the going rate for getting this entire class to repeat those words just so I don’t sound completely ridiculous might be?” 

“Oh yeah, cuz you definitely don’t sound completely ridiculous already,” Tomas shot back with a chuckle. He opened his mouth to say something else, but the bell chimed first. Unlike movies and television shows I’d seen, our between classes bell wasn’t an obnoxious buzzer, it was a pleasant chime. 

Everyone else was already getting up to leave as I gathered my things and walked next to Tomas on our way to the door. “It’s cool, really. I’ll be there tomorrow. One o’clock, right?” We were going to get a late lunch and then see a movie, or something. 

Tomas started to confirm that, as Amber joined us. “One o’clock for wha–ohhh right, Tomas’s attempt to make his ex-girlfriend get along with his current boyfriend. You are a glutton for punishment, aren’t you?” 

Giving the other girl a shove, I retorted, “Be nice. Maki’s cool. We’re cool. It’s all cool. Believe it or not, this isn’t a sitcom or a soap opera. I am more than capable of getting along with both of them. It’s fine. It’s–you know, it’s fine.” 

The other two exchanged looks as we walked down the hall together. But whatever they might’ve said in response was cut off as another chime came. This one was not the bell for class, but the start of an announcement. 

“Good morning, students,” the pleasant voice of one of the school secretaries began. “As you are well-aware, the fighting and conflict between various Fell-Touched gangs in the city has been rising in the past couple of weeks. In order to gain some control over the situation, the police force, mayor’s office, and our local Star-Touched organizations have decided that it would be for the best to institute a curfew for the time being. It will be announced on the news and official city bulletin over the next few hours, but what you need to know is that every person who does not have official work-related business keeping them out should be off the streets by eight PM until further notice.” 

Needless to say, the announcement brought about a loud chorus of groans and boos directed toward the loudspeakers. Not that it accomplished much, but everyone made sure to let their annoyance be known. Even Tomas and Amber contributed, though the look the dark-haired girl gave me behind his back made it clear that she was simply trying to blend in with everyone else. 

Of course, the whole thing made me wonder if it was supposed to apply to Star-Touched, or if we were exempt or whatever. Well, clearly all Amber and Izzy had to do was whatever the leadership told them. Alloy and I might… eh, we’d just take it as it came. Worst case scenario, someone would try to tell us to go home. 

And if we couldn’t be out on the streets, we’d just make sure the tunnel was ready to go. 

As those thoughts worked their way through my mind, Tomas focused on me. “At least we already planned on making tomorrow an early one, huh?” 

Amber shook her head. “Personally, I still think hanging out with your ex and his new boyfriend is weird. I’m just saying. Hey, Jae.” 

That last bit, of course, came as the girl in question joined us. She was looking around at the people loudly complaining before shaking her head. Her voice was quiet. “It’s like they want to be in the middle of a Fell-Touched war.”  

“You know people like that,” Tomas put in with a shrug. “They think they’re invincible.” His eyes centered on me pointedly. “Isn’t that right, Miss Can’t Resist A Dare?” 

Huffing a bit, I retorted, “I’ll have you know, I am more than capable of resisting a dare. It’s just that I usually don’t want to. If it’s something I don’t want to do, I just don’t. For example, if someone dared me to give you a hug right now, I definitely wouldn’t do that. Because you’re a jerk.” The words came out primly as I lifted my chin and harumphed at him. 

Tomas snorted. “I bet if someone dared you to do a flip off the top of the school before crashing into me for a hug you’d do i–wait.” His face twisted a little as he reconsidered what he had been saying.” 

Grinning, I gave a quick nod along with a thumbs up. “You know what? Absolutely. If you want me to do a flip off the top of the school then crash into you for a hug, I will do that.” 

Jae and Amber snickered, before the latter spoke up. “Anyway, the point is, nobody thinks they’re going to be the ones who end up getting hurt. They all think it’s gonna happen to someone else and they’ll be fine. Which, I mean, yeah, it’s a pretty big city. But it’s also a pretty big gangwar.”

While the others were reacting to that, I glanced away at the crowd of students who were reluctantly starting to move to their next classes. Everyone was talking about how annoying and unfair having a curfew was, especially one that early. Amber was right, everyone just assumed the fighting in the streets wouldn’t affect them personally. But, of course, there wasn’t exactly a way for the city to tell the gangs to only fight where people weren’t.

Oh wait, maybe not the city themselves, but that should have been exactly what the Ministry could do. If they were really trying to keep damage to a minimum and were good at maintaining control, shouldn’t they just be able to tell the gangs to take their war outside of the city, or to places where people weren’t going to be? But no, they were fighting all over the place and people were getting hurt. Innocent people who had nothing to do with any of it. Businesses were being damaged, civilians were being injured, or worse. And the war just kept escalating. Now we were on a full curfew? What was next? How bad was this going to get before it was over? And did I actually want an answer to that question? 

Regardless, one thing was clear. This whole situation was going to get worse before it got better. The gangs weren’t going to stop fighting on their own. They were just going to keep escalating until one side faltered and the other could claim some sort of victory. 

But hey, maybe we would find something useful in the Ministry base this weekend, something we could use to convince the gangs to back off. Yeah, that didn’t sound very likely, to say the least. Yet I had to give myself something to hope for. 

On the other hand, maybe I should just stick to hoping that we got through the whole thing alive, in one piece, and without losing any of our secrets. 

*******

“Still nothing from Irelyn?” 

It was a few hours later, and I was at Wren’s shop, upstairs with Paige (and Raige) to check in. Her eyes were opened again, as they both took turns speaking through the same body. 

My head shook. “No. I definitely haven’t heard from her, and no one I’ve spoken to has either.” My face twisted a little into a grimace. “I even checked with Arleigh. Tried to make it sound casual, you know? Just asked if she ever saw that woman who accosted us outside the restaurant again. She hadn’t, but she did use that as an excuse to invite me out to dinner some night, any night. She’s free whenever and I should totally check out this awesome sci-fi-themed restaurant with her. And the worst part is, it actually does sound pretty cool. But if she ever finds out that I went without her, she’s going to be even more impossible.” I groaned a bit, slumping against the far corner of the same couch Paige’s body was lying on, down by her feet. “But hey, at least she’s not–” Cutting myself off, I frowned and tilted my head. “Uh, I was gonna say at least she’s not… well, you. This is weird.”

It was clearly Raige who spoke then, sounding amused by that whole thing. “I dunno. Seems pretty fun from where I’m sitting. Can’t wait to see how you two work this whole thing out once we get separate bodies. But in the meantime, what’s this about Irelyn not checking in again? It’s been weeks. She should’ve come back to kick the rocks around some more by now. Our distraction wasn’t that good.”  Her tone through that had gradually changed from amusement to what sounded like genuine concern, though masked somewhat by projected annoyance. “The fuck is taking so long? She’s a better detective than that. She must’ve figured out that you aren’t down there by now. Don’t tell me she gave up and decided to have a quick little vacation down there.”  

“Maybe we should call her again and find out,” Paige put in, her voice uncertain. “Unless she found something in Florida that she thinks has something to do with me, she wouldn’t leave the city for so long. Not with–” She stopped, going silent for a moment before finishing with a simple, “Not without getting any actual clues.” 

“You could call her,” I agreed. “It’s been a couple weeks and if she still hasn’t come back, maybe she did find something. I mean, something she thinks is about you. Or…” I trailed off, frowning. “I dunno. But yeah, you should call her again. You don’t think she got in trouble or something, do you?” The idea that we had sent some poor, practically defenseless woman down to Florida to poke around looking for her sister was starting to sound like a bad idea in my head. 

So, Raige gave Paige a little bit of control once more and she called Irelyn. Unfortunately, that didn’t lead to answers, or to making any of us feel better. There was no response. She tried six more times over the next half hour, all to no avail. Which only made Paige even more worried. And Raige clearly wasn’t doing much better as far as that went. 

“Fuck!” I wasn’t sure which of them said that, though ‘both’ was an option. “What happened to her? What the hell is going on? Why isn’t she answering?!” Her eyes snapped toward me. “She left thirty messages on the phone since the last time we talked to her, but all those calls ended a couple weeks ago. Since then there’s been nothing. No messages, no calls, nothing. Something’s wrong. She would have–she should have–it’s wrong. Something happened.”

What was I supposed to say to that? She wasn’t wrong. Something had obviously happened. The only question was how bad that something might be. “I don’t–maybe she’s asleep or–” I cut myself off at a hard glare from her. “Yeah, probably not. Seriously, we can’t freak out. Let me take the phone and I’ll keep trying to call her. Wren says it can’t be traced, and I believe her. I’ll just use my voice changer thing if–when she answers. I’ll find out what’s going on with her.”

“And if she doesn’t answer?” Paige demanded in a voice that was attempting to be flat, but I could still hear a bit of guilt within it. “What then?” 

I honestly had no idea. We couldn’t go search all of Florida for one woman. It would be impossible. “Sunday night we’re going into the Ministry base,” I reminded them both. “We’ll find that list of your dad’s secret labs and hope there’s a body for Raige in one of them. Once you’re both on your feet, we can go from there. We’ll get hold of her, you guys. Just… just one step at a time.” 

Paige slumped back on the couch, both her and Raige clearly lost in private conversation. I wasn’t sure how long that would take, so I rose, promised to come back later to check in or if anything happened, then started downstairs with the phone in one hand. 

Right, as if there wasn’t already enough pressure riding on this whole thing, now we had a missing woman to deal with. The weekend was gonna be quite… something. First I had to go hang out with my ex and his new boyfriend tomorrow just so I could spy on both of them, and then Sunday I had to break into the secret Ministry base so I could spy on my family.  

And I honestly had no idea which one I was looking forward to least. 

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