Raige

Winging It 19-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, that wasn’t exactly how I expected my time with Lucent to go. But then, since when had anything gone the way that I had thought it would since the night I decided to play around in Royal Thunder? The expected thing happening would be completely unexpected. Which was–never mind. I really couldn’t look at that too closely or I’d go cross-eyed. 

In any case, we were going to have to try that again another time. For the moment, I put it aside along with thoughts about Carousel and her whole deal as I pressed the buzzer at the back door of Wren’s shop. There were plenty of other things for me to focus on as it was. Like talking to Paige (and Raige, come to think of it), or figuring out what was up with that sex-shifting Asian person Amber had been talking about, and–

Wait, hold on. Back when Izzy and I had first found out about each other, my father had been right below us, talking with someone on the phone in Japanese. Was that related to this? It… could be, right? Not for the first time, I wished one of us spoke Japanese. 

Shaking off that thought, I focused on the other question. Namely, why Mr. Jackson had been there in the first place. Yeah, that was going to bug me for awhile. My best idea for getting information about that was to go hang out with Tomas at his house for awhile and try to sneak off to snoop around. Yes, that would probably be dangerous. And yet, if I didn’t start taking a few risks to get answers, I’d never get anywhere. 

I was still debating back and forth with myself about that when Murphy (still masked) opened the door. “Hey, boss,” she greeted me. “You’ve got to come in here and see this meeting of the minds shit. I have no idea what the fuck is going on, but damn if it’s not fascinating to watch.” 

So, I followed her in there and got my first glimpse of the, as she put it, ‘meeting of the minds shit.’ Wren was seated cross-legged on the floor in the middle of the shop, down in the slightly lower area next to the four counters that formed the rectangle. She was perched next to one of those counters. In front of her was what looked like a cardboard diorama of the shop itself,  made out of repurposed individual size cereal boxes. There were three different dioramas, actually. One that showed the outside, one of the shop floor, and one of the upper floor. They had everything in there, the shelves, the tables, the very same counters Wren was sitting next to, the fire hydrants and benches outside, the rooms upstairs, and so on. All of it represented in cardboard. 

Lion was there too, of course. She was perched right in the middle of the diorama of the outside area, using one paw to point at a park bench while going on at length about some sort of pneumatic system they could… do something with. Which sent Wren off on a whole three-hundred word spiel, of which I understood maybe half the words and about a tenth of how they actually fit together in the way she was saying. 

Okay yeah, this was confusing. I had no idea what they were talking about. Which really, for the first time, really drove home how Wren wasn’t a normal kid. Yes, yes, I’d already known that of course. The stuff she made proved it quite well. But I supposed that up to that point, somewhere in my head, I just saw what she did as something like magic, like she just touched something and poof, it became her inventions. Which was dumb, because I’d already helped her with collecting stuff for the suit that we made Ashton wear so he would lead us to the vials against his will. I’d even helped put it together, in the sense of doing exactly what she told us to do. I’d seen her power in action and knew, for a fact, how it worked. At least, to an extent. 

But this was really my first time seeing it put this way. Probably because it was the first time I’d had a chance to see the girl talk to someone who was on her level. Which was about fifty stories above my level, apparently. The two of them were babbling back and forth at each other in what might as well have been a completely different language for all that I could follow it. 

Murphy, who had been watching as I stared that way, gestured emphatically. “See what I mean? No freaking clue what they’re on about, but it seems pretty spiffy.” Belatedly, she added, “You like the dioramas? Calvin and me did those. See, we do contribute.” 

Calvi–oh, right. She’d given fake names for Roald and herself as Calvin and Hobbes. Which, to be honest, I was pretty sure it would have fit better if she flipped the names. At least, character-wise. She was much more of a Calvin to me. 

In any case, I wasn’t going to go judging her pseudonym choices at the moment. Instead, I gave a slow nod, before blinking. “Where is R–Calvin, anyway? And Fred.” 

“Shopping,” came the easy reply. “They had to go out and get some stuff that these guys asked for. They told me what it was, but you know.” She made a motion and whistled low to illustrate the information going in one ear and out the other. “No idea. They took the list with them. It was a long list.” She pulled her phone out to look at the time. “They only left about twenty minutes ago, so… yeah, probably gonna be awhile before they come back. I–hey.” 

Squinting at something on her phone, Murphy looked at me, then to the screen and back again. I couldn’t read her expression through the ski mask, but her body language made it clear she was confused. Finally, the girl tapped the phone pointedly before asking, “You stopped a bank robbery? I thought you were like, doing Master Splinter Miyagi shit with Captain Corvid.” 

I started to correct the other girl that it was Lucent, not Captain Corvid, then reconsidered. Given everything I’d seen of him, he’d probably actually be amused by the title. So I let that go before shrugging. “It was a little more complicated than that. We stopped one set of bank robbers, but there was…” I trailed off, my instinct to say as little as possible kicking in while the girl stared at me in anticipation. My whole deal of compartmentalizing information for so long meant that it was just instinct to not actually explain what had happened back there. But why shouldn’t I? Seriously, nothing in what had happened actually gave away anything I didn’t want to share. Why was I being so hesitant to talk about it? Was it just because I was pretty sure the entire event was connected to my family, considering all the Star-Touched patrols had been moved away from the area? Was even the slightest hint of a connection to my family enough to make me instinctively clam up? 

Apparently so, but I forced the impulse down and held up a hand for Murphy to wait a moment while I looked back to where Wren and Lion were. The two of them didn’t even seem to have noticed my arrival, considering how engrossed in their discussion they were. Another few seconds of listening proved entirely fruitless, as I was pretty sure they weren’t even using real words by that point. They were, however, finishing each other’s sentences and laughing a lot. It wasn’t… quite mad scientist laughter, but pretty close to the edge of it.

Yeah, I was going to let them keep doing the, uh, whatever they were doing. Turning away, I gestured for Murphy to come with as I moved away from that area and closer to the elevator. Stopping there, I quietly told her what actually happened, at least as far as someone without any of my extra knowledge would know from being there. I told her about the extra bad guys, the tunnel, finding our way to where Sandon and her men were waiting to back up Undermine, and about the agreement to back off and let them go rather than start a big fight right there.

“So,” I finally finished, “does that totally destroy your vision of me as a hero for letting the bad guys escape with everything they took?” 

A snort escaped the girl as she gave me a look. “Yeah, you’ve shattered my poor, delicate and bright-eyed naivety and opened me up to the harsh, gray world.” Clasping her hands, she gave a heavy, dramatic sigh. “Gone forever are my dreams of Paintball, stalwart champion of the people, unwavering protector of all that is good as he stands alone against the forces of–Ow! Did you just kick me?” 

Painting an innocent face across my helmet (complete with halo), I replied, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. You know how it is around Tech-Touched bases. Lots of weird half-finished inventions lying around. Maybe we set something off.” 

“Oh, we set something off alright,” she retorted, squinting at me before snickering. “Anyway, come on, you can’t honestly think that shit would change anything as far as me and R–” She leaned up on her toes to stare in the direction of Lion and Wren. Apparently Murphy didn’t trust that the mouse couldn’t hear, because she amended, “–Calvin are concerned. We didn’t go looking to work for some dumb Star-Touched paragon, you know? You asked us to work for you. That’s what we’re doing, it’s what we wanna do. At least you’re smarter than some of those wannabes out there. Gotta know when to fold your cards and walk away.”

Biting my lip, I watched her for a moment before shaking my head. “Right, at least it hasn’t changed your opinion of me or anything.” 

She, in turn, offered a wide, exaggerated shrug. “You’re the boss, boss. I uh, I know we joke about the whole minions thing, but seriously. You’re giving us a chance to make some cash and sorta, you know, move up a bit. You’re the one we’re loyal to. I mean, you and Trevithick over there. Long as you don’t start doing evil shit, or really fucking stupid shit, or… a few other kinds of shit, we’re here. Not starting a stupid, pointless fight you probably couldn’t win just to save some random rich fucks’ stolen goodies? Come on. If anything, my opinion of you just went up a little bit. But uh, don’t let that go to your head.”

“I’ll do my best to keep my ego under control,” I replied dryly. “And thanks, Hobbes. Glad to know I didn’t just lose Trev’s very best new sweeper and mopper for her.” 

“And duster, don’t forget that,” she retorted before lowering her voice into a faintly distressed, “Seriously, there is so much dust.” 

Smirking despite myself behind the helmet, I gave her a thumbs up. “I’ll try to remember to include that on your new job plaque. But uh, think you could stick around down here and keep an eye on what’s going on over there while I go upstairs for a few?” 

“Whatever,” came her response. “Trust me, boss, I’ve got plenty of shit down here to keep myself busy.  I’m pretty sure those two are going to be just fine without any help from me or anyone else. But you go do your thing. I’ll feel better with you here, anyway. If they manage to send this building into another universe or something with their super-science shit, at least you’ll be around to do something about all the alien monsters trying to lay eggs in our brains.” 

Painting a weirded-out face on my helmet squinting at her, I slowly replied, “Yeah, I’ll uhh, keep an eye out for that.” My head shook as I gave a soft chuckle before starting to turn to the elevator. Then I stopped and pivoted back. “What’s going on with Tyson? That was your brother’s name, right? The one who gave you that cut on the head because you wouldn’t run drugs for him. You still staying with Calvin or did you go back there?” 

Folding her arms defensively across her chest, the girl muttered, “I couldn’t stay with his family forever. It’s fine, it’s–whatever. Tyson’s fine. I’m here, ain’t I? I told you I wouldn’t let shit with my brother fuck this up, and I won’t.  You don’t have to worry about him. It’s fine. He took me out to get some lunch and apologized and all that. Not a big deal.” 

“Not a big deal?” I echoed incredulously despite myself. “I know you care about him, but he cut your face because you wouldn’t take a bunch of drugs over to his friend. Now it’s okay because he took you out to lunch?” 

“Fuck no,” she snapped, “it’s not okay. None of that is okay. Like I said, his friend got him hooked on the shit. He used to be totally cool, just a normal stoner, you know? Little weed now and then. Maybe a little more than now and then, but still. Weed. Nothing hard. He was funny when he got the munchies. Used to send Calvin and me out to pick up shit from the gas station in the middle of the night. Then that fuckface got him on the harder shit and… and he changed. But he’s still my brother. He’s fine most of the time. I can deal with it. So just, you know, do whatever shit you need to do upstairs and let me worry about my brother.” 

I had the distinct impression that trying to say anything else about it wouldn’t go very well. Still, I made a mental note to ask Roald for a little more information about that whole thing when I had the chance. Then I nodded to her before stepping on the elevator. All I said to the girl before the doors closed was, “Let me know if anything happens down here. Especially if those two manage that whole going to another universe thing. You have blanket permission to interrupt anything I’m doing if that happens.” 

With that, I hit the button to head upstairs, before stepping off a moment later once we were there. After giving a brief glance up and down the hall, I headed for the lab workshop area. Paige was still there, though she had been moved out of the MRI-like machine and was laying on a couch nearby. Someone had put a pillow under her head, and a blanket over her, so it looked like she was just sleeping. Which at least made the whole thing look a little less creepy. 

I needed to get this done, of course. And yet, for a moment, I just stood there and hesitated. A rush of thoughts ran through my mind as I stared at the motionless and silent form of the girl who had been forced by her father to treat me like shit for so long, but I pushed them aside to focus on the important thing. Which was asking Paige about this Irelyn chick. 

I wasn’t sure how to run the whole virtual reality thing, of course. And I sure wasn’t going to attempt it by myself. But there was still the other way of communicating with Paige. I picked up the Gameboy-like device and carefully wrote in the question, one word at a time, about ten minutes apart. 

SISTER

LOOKING

4PAIGE

That simple thing took about thirty minutes to send. It definitely wasn’t as convenient as the VR system. But on the other hand, I could use it without help and not risk blowing the whole building up or something. Now I just had to settle in and wait for however long it took Paige to send back a response. 

Not that long, apparently. The response came within about thirty seconds. But it didn’t come through the Gameboy-Atari thing like I had expected. Instead, Paige’s actual voice abruptly spoke up. “What’s going on?” 

Yeah, I’m not too proud to admit that I jumped. I had been sitting on one of the nearby chairs while thinking about what I should do while I was waiting, and damn near leapt out of my skin when the frozen girl started talking. A yelp actually escaped me before I got it under control and looked that way. Her eyes were still closed and she clearly still wasn’t moving. “Uh, Paige?” 

“She’s letting me talk directly to you right now, for this,” came the response. “Talk and listen, no moving. Slight control. So tell me what’s going on.” 

Before I could respond, she abruptly spoke again. Only it clearly wasn’t Paige this time. “Yeah, babe, just a little slack in the agreement since this seems like something we might want to nip in the bud before it turns into a problem. But I don’t exactly trust this one to hold even this little bit of power for very long without abusing it, so get to the explaining part.” 

So, I did just that, carefully explaining everything that I knew. I told them both about being stopped outside the restaurant by that Irelyn woman, though I left out the whole thing about Arleigh and her brothers being there, since it didn’t seem relevant. I explained that the woman was clearly looking pretty intently for Paige if she was asking me about it, and that it didn’t seem like something she was just going to walk away from, satisfied with half-answers. 

“So, I’ve gotta ask,” I finally put in once the actual explanation was over, “How come you never mentioned that you still had a sister who was going to start poking around asking questions about you and your parents disappearing? Cuz that whole fake vacation thing can hold up to some outside poking, but I’m pretty sure it won’t last long with someone like that looking into it.”

There was no response at first. And given the position Paige was in with the whole laying completely motionless with her eyes closed thing, I honestly wasn’t sure for a moment that she had even heard what I said.  

Finally, however, Paige spoke once more. “She didn’t really care.” Her voice was odd, like… well, I couldn’t really place it at first. There was something in her tone that didn’t sound like her. For as long as I remembered knowing Paige, she had almost always sounded confident. Whether it came to tormenting me as much as possible, being the popular girl everyone else looked up to, or handling a bunch of biolems sent by her father to kill both of us, she was self-assured. But now? This almost sounded like… vulnerability? Uncertainty? Confusion? All of the above. And more. There was a lot in her voice. But none of it was confidence. 

“She was their real daughter, before they got pissed and disowned her because she didn’t want to be the exact person they wanted her to be. She did her own thing, so they threw her out of the family and bought me instead. I was the replacement. I wasn’t–I’m not her real sister. Why would she start going around looking for me? That doesn’t–I can’t…” 

She trailed off for several long moments before her voice finally spoke again. But once more, it wasn’t Paige. “Uhh yeah, you’re gonna have to give us some time with this. I think you got the gist of her reaction though. We’ve got no clue why a girl who was disowned from the family and replaced like that would give two shits about what happened to the parents or the adopted sister. Give that some time to digest and come back in a couple days, maybe we’ll be able to tell you something else. Send the word Aardvark to let us know you’re back and want to talk about that whole thing and we’ll do this again.”

I really hadn’t expected Paige to be quite that stunned by the news that Irelyn had been out there looking for her. But, I supposed that was fair. She deserved the chance to think about that for a bit. It was clearly a lot to dump on her, especially if she was so taken aback and lost in her own thoughts that Raige was talking. 

So, I straightened up. “Yeah, I’ll give you some time. I just–” Pausing, I shifted indecisively, unsure if I should ask. Finally, I went for it. “What actually happened to your parents? I mean, where… I mean, did they… I mean…”

“We don’t know what happened to them, exactly,” came Raige’s response. “I mean, it’s not hard to make a guess that Daddy dearest wanted them out of the way, but how he went about that, how… permanent it is, all that, no idea. They weren’t there when the party thing got started, that’s all we know.” 

That didn’t exactly make me feel better about the Banners’ fates in general. But at least I could trust that Paige herself hadn’t killed them. Still, I frowned before rising to leave. “Thanks. I’ll let you guys talk about that whole sister thing amongst yourselves, and come back later.” 

With that, I left the room and headed down the stairs rather than use the elevator that time. Paige had clearly been completely shocked by the revelation that this Irelyn woman was out there looking for her, to the point that she completely stopped responding and left Raige to do the talking. That… that was… I didn’t know what that was. I may have had my… whole complicated situation with my family, but at least I would never be surprised that they wanted to find me if I went missing. Paige, on the other hand, had been so shocked that Irelyn was actually looking for her that she actually went silent. She had been completely stupified by the simple fact that someone cared enough about her to look when she disappeared. Which was pretty big. And, I supposed, went with the fact that she hadn’t brought it up as a possibility, if she was that stunned by it. 

In any case, I’d go back and talk to both of them some more about that in a day or two. For now, I was going to set that aside and focus on other things. Namely, what was up with the sex-shifting Asian person Tomas’s dad had driven off with. Which meant I was going to have to go over there. 

Was it bad that I wasn’t sure which made my stomach feel worse about spending time around, the guy who had used his superpower to literally erase my memory, or my ex-boyfriend whom I still had feelings for and whose loyalties I had no idea about. Tomas still could’ve been nice to me, even dated me to begin with, just because of orders from his dad. That was… it was a thought that made me feel like curling into a ball and not doing anything for a long time. Instead, I was going to shove that deep down into a hole, then call him up and ask if he wanted to hang out at his place sometime. I was going to bury all my doubts and insecurities, all my feelings in general, and convincingly put myself around one guy who had already fucked around in my memories, and another who might have been manipulating my emotions for years.

You know what? I was starting to wish I had started that fight with Sandon. 

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In Like Flynn 17-11 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – The monthly non-canon chapters were posted over the weekend! You can find the chapter for this story, Summus Proelium, right here and the one for Heretical Edge right here

I had definitely experienced bigger shocks in my recent history. Certainly much worse ones. Everything that had to do with my family and what they really were totally beat out this moment, no question about it. And yet, standing there right then, staring at the girl across from me, still ranked pretty high up there. The sudden revelation that the Minority-Touched I had been working with so much, and the girl I spent time at school with were the same person sent me reeling, both physically and mentally. A series of noises escaped me, but they weren’t coherent or even vaguely decipherable as words. They were only sounds, filling the air meaninglessly. Somewhere in the middle of that, I plucked my helmet off and held it loosely in one hand (I hadn’t put the actual mask back on) so I could stare bare face to bare face with the other girl. I just… I had to see her straight on, with nothing between us. Not that I was entirely sure how it would help, but still. 

“Now you know how I felt back at… your house,” Amber informed me dryly while arching an eyebrow pointedly. “And I had to jump right to it and keep trying to fight that son of a bitch. At least you’ve got downtime to process.” 

After a very momentary pause, she visibly winced at the words that were about to come out of her mouth before asking, “I mean, it is you, right? That wasn’t actually some trick you and the kid programmed in to distract that guy if anything like that happened, just in case?” It was clear that she didn’t think that was in any way possible, but still wanted to cover her bases just in case. And really, who could blame her? This entire situation was pretty fucked up. 

Before I could answer, Raige, whom I had forgotten was standing there with the shock of this whole revelation, spoke up almost cheerfully. “Oh no, it’s really her. And it’s a pretty good disguise, if you think about it. I mean, who’s ever going to think that Cassidy Evans is willingly posing as a little boy? Especially after everything my doppelganger over there put her through.” 

“Shut up,” Paige muttered, her face slightly flushed. She was looking at me the whole time, voice softening slightly. “I didn’t have a choice. My–” She glanced at the identical girl nearby before belatedly amending her words. “Our father set the rules about that very clearly.”

A brief start of realization, Amber looked back and forth between us. “Oh my God, your dad has some huge grudge against the Evans, so he made you treat her like an enemy all this time? What the hell did that accomplish?” she demanded, sounding exasperated with the whole thing.

“She was supposed to do more than just antagonize me for years,” I informed her without taking my gaze away from Paige herself. “Back at her birthday party, she was supposed to kill me.” 

While Amber gave a double-take at that, Paige and I took turns explaining, with a little ‘help’ from Raige, exactly what was supposed to happen that day, along with what had actually happened. We filled in the blanks about that whole situation so that Amber knew the full story. At least as far as that went. There was a hell of a lot more story to fill in for everything else. 

Which was made perfectly clear when Amber let out a breath. “Okay, I guess I understand that day and all that, but what about everything else? How did you get powers? Why did you start going out as a boy in the first place? What do you know about these Ministry people, and how? What does any of that have to do with Paige’s father? Why does he have some big grudge against your parents, and what–” Abruptly, she trailed off. Her eyes widened dramatically with realization as she snapped her gaze to me. “Oh my God! It’s them, isn’t it? The Ministry. Your parents are connected to the Ministry. That’s how you found out about them, and…” She slumped back on her heels, head shaking. “That’s why you’re so obsessed with hiding your identity. It’s why you won’t join the–” Once again, she interrupted herself as a different realization jumped to mind, making her blurt a sudden, “Oh God, Izzy! I mean–”  She cut herself off, blanching as though she had said too much already.

“It’s okay, I know,” I assured her. “And I’m pretty sure those two know everything about the Minority.” I said that while looking toward the twins. “They’re pretty well-informed, after all.” 

Sounding pretty cheerful and amused by the entire situation, Raige nodded easily. “Oh yeah, we know all your identities. Parts of the benefit to having a backdoor in with the Ministry. Okay, maybe not an entire door. But at least a window. Enough to know some pretty juicy secrets.”  

“Secrets we don’t talk about,” Paige snapped pointedly, before adding, “And you two should get out of here before they send someone in to check on you. I mean, you can have this whole conversation somewhere better than this place, right?” For a brief moment, she looked as though she was going to say something else, before stopping herself. I had the feeling she actually wanted us to stay even longer, and pointing out that we should leave was her way of ripping the Band-Aid off. 

But she also had a point. We had to eject before the guys outside freaked out and came in after us. They would obviously give us a little leeway, but I didn’t want to push that even further. So, biting my lip, I focused on the blonde girl who had antagonized me for so long. “I’ll come back and check on you when I can.” Belatedly, I glanced toward Raige. “I’ll check on both of you, I mean. So try not to antagonize each other too much while we’re gone. Like I said, just go to your own corners of the world if you have to. Whatever it takes to play nice and get along until we can separate you.” 

“What he–I mean she said.” Shaking her head a bit at her own correction, Amber continued. “Seriously, just leave each other alone if you need to. We’ll both come back and check on you whenever we can. And we want to find you both without all these bruises, so no more fighting.”

“Hey,” Raige replied easily with a shrug, “I was just following orders before. Now that Daddy made it abundantly clear what he thinks of loyalty, I don’t have any reason to fight with that one over there. I mean, as long as you work on getting me that new body so I can go off and live my own life far away from all of you. Just do that and everything’ll be totally hunky-dory.”

Exchanging brief looks, Amber and I both replaced our mask and helmet respectively. Really, I wasn’t exactly sure why we did that. It wasn’t like whether we had them on or not would affect our bodies in the real world. Maybe it was just a psychological way of telling ourselves that we were going back to being That-A-Way and Paintball for the time being. 

In any case,  I watched intently as her facial features shifted slightly along with her hair turning blonde. Touched-Tech, obviously. Which again, made perfect sense. It had always seemed a little odd that the adults behind the Minority would let her get away with only hiding her identity behind a little domino mask. The fact that it did so much to actually change what she looked like solved that question.

Once we were suitably disguised, I glanced over to the twins to promise one more time that we would check in on them. There was more I wanted to say, but it would have to wait. I really didn’t feel like talking to Paige about all the issues we had while in front of an audience. Even if I was now aware that I knew That-A-Way much better than I had thought. And yeah, that would be a whole thing in and of itself. The two of us were clearly going to have a long chat. Between that and the fact that I definitely still needed to talk to Peyton about some of the stuff she’d heard in here, I had several of those ‘important conversations’ coming up in my near-future.  

For the moment,  Amber and I simply spoke the code to eject ourselves from the simulation. Again, my vision was filled with the kaleidoscope of lights, colors and all the random sounds. Seriously, at one point it sounded like one of those old World War One fighter planes had flown practically right through me. To say it was disorienting was a massive understatement.

Finally, there was that reddish-purple fog from before, accompanied by the sensation of falling straight down on a roller coaster. I had thought I was ready for it this time, but a yelp still escaped me. Then I was conscious and aware, jerking a bit against the seat I’d been perched in. Nearby, I could see Wren watching anxiously, even as I heard Ambe–no, That-A-Way jerking in her own seat on the opposite side of the machine. We’d made it, we were back in the real world. Quickly, I pulled the sunglasses and special gloves off before fixing my mask and helmet. Only then did I push myself up and give an almost dog-like shake. My body felt weird and tingly. Probably a side effect of sitting for so long while my brain thought I was actually moving. “Wow, that’s some nifty gizmo you got there, dude,” I informed Wren with an only slightly shaky thumbs up. “Seriously, that French guy you got this prototype from really knows his shit. And you put it together, just–maybe see if he wants to collaborate on something, cuz you two do good work.” 

Wren proceeded to blush deeply, hopping off the edge of the table she had been anxiously perched on. “You’re okay? You’re all okay? It took you awhile to come out of it, longer than the others.” Even as she said that, the girl was looking over to the corner of the room, where Pack and Alloy were clearly exercising/playing with the lizards. They had both straightened up when That-A-Way and I had emerged from the machine, Pack standing with two of her lizards (Twinkletoes the chameleon and Holiday the skink) perched on either shoulder, while Scatters the tiny Neon Day Gecko was settled right on top of her hooded and masked head. “You two good?” she asked, though her attention was more on That-A-Way than me.  

“We made it,” Way confirmed while casting a brief glance back toward me before her attention shifted to Wren. “And he’s right, that was a lot more realistic than I expected. Hope your French guy gets it up and running so I can talk the bosses back at the Clubhouse into buying one for the rest of the Minority to use in training. Seriously, just being able to practice stuff and have full-contact sparring without worrying about hurting anybody would be pretty amazing.”  

Alloy, who had picked herself up from the floor while holding Riddles in her small bearded dragon form, abruptly spoke up. “Are we seriously just being this casual right now after what happened in there? Who the hell is Paige’s father and how did he send some… some virtual copy of himself into her computer brain thing and oh my God I sound like a nutjob.” 

“Welcome to the club,” I replied, reaching out to squeeze Wren’s shoulder briefly before leaving the girl to walk over to where Alloy herself was. “Seriously, welcome to the club. There’s a lot of stuff to talk about. And I will, I promise. You’ve earned some answers. And maybe I should have talked about it with you before. But I just… it’s hard for me to get into all that. I’m sorry. You deserve more of an explanation than you’ve gotten so far. Especially after you went in there with us. I really don’t know what we would have done without your help.” 

“Damn straight,” Pack put in. “You were the MVP in there. So if he doesn’t treat you right and start giving you answers, I can talk Blackjack into a really good signing bonus for you.”

Letting out a clearly exaggerated sigh, That-A-Way protested, “Seriously? Could you at least wait until I’m not in the room before you start trying to recruit for your criminal boss?” 

“Sorry, babe,” Pack replied casually and without any actual regret, “You know what they say. Always be hustling. Especially when your boss offers such attractive bonuses for anyone who recruits a good Touched to begin with.” Slyly, she added, “Speaking of which, do you have any idea how much bank you and I could make if I bring you over to the shady side? Huh, huh? We could have a lot of fuuuun.” She intentionally and pointedly drawled out the last word. 

Visibly flushing a little behind that mask, Way shook her head. “Sorry, not interested in anything Blackjack has to offer. You’re just gonna have to do without. Why don’t you try robbing another bank to make up for it,” she added while rolling her eyes. Even as the words were out of her mouth, however, the girl was already frantically trying to verbally back up. “I mean, not that I–” 

It was too late, as Pack raised both hands triumphantly over her head, playing that whole thing up for all it was worth. “And there it is! You all heard it. I have carte blanche to rob a bank, given straight from a prestigious and, dare I say, truly stunning member of the Detroit Minority.” 

“Sorry,” Way retorted while giving a dismissive wave of her hand. “You forgot to get it in writing, so I guess you’re screwed and you’ll just have to go to jail like the other bank robbers. Oh, I know, how about you have a total redemption moment and come over to the sunny side?”  

Pack, in turn, shot back, “Tell you what, as soon as the kid over there joins you guys, so will I.” She was nodding in my direction, of course. Considering how clear I’d made my unwillingness to do that, as well as (at least partially) why, Pack obviously felt safe making the bet.

Before they could banter back and forth any more, Alloy abruptly blurted, “Oh shit, I need to get home.” She was looking at her phone before wincing while glancing up. “Sorry, I didn’t realize what time it was. We were in there for longer than I thought. I umm, I really have to go, before Mom has a coronary. Uh, thanks for inviting me to that… crazy thing, I guess?” Looking to me, she added, “I really do want answers about what’s really going on and all that. And about what that guy wants and how he’s ‘trying to end death’ or whatever. But you know, Mom comes first.”

“Oh, believe me,” I assured her immediately, “I know exactly what you mean. And yeah, we’ll definitely talk later, I promise. Just go do what you need to. And Alloy, thanks. Seriously, I wasn’t just saying it before. I really don’t know what we would have done in there without your help.” 

Obviously embarrassed by the attention, she made a few noises about it not being a big deal and headed for the elevator to leave. Just as it started to descend, she called out that she would text me sometime the next day so we could meet up again and have that conversation.

Once she was gone, the three of us who were left gave Wren an actual update about what had happened. Alloy and Pack had given her the CliffsNotes, but they had been waiting for us to get into the whole story. So, over the next few minutes, we explained what was going to happen. Unsurprisingly, as soon as we got to the part about needing to find another body, the Tech-Touched girl was immediately apprehensive. Her head shook, insisting she couldn’t build anything like that. But I assured her that we already had some leads about how to possibly find one of Paige’s father’s prototype storage places. All she would have to do was look it over, and possibly help us compare it to Paige’s body to see if we could figure out what was different. 

“Plus,” Way pointed out, “since Raige isn’t actively fighting her anymore, she can probably talk you through some of this stuff herself. You know, with that communication thing you built. Hell, if it’s about getting her own body working, I bet Raige would help out too. You three could all collaborate to figure it out. You’d just be their hands. You know, in a manner of speaking.” 

That calmed the girl down a bit, and eventually Pack said she needed to go as well. After a little more teasing back and forth about what kind of crimes she was off to commit, she headed out. Meanwhile, Wren was yawning and trying to hide it, leaving Fred in the corner of the room giving us meaningful looks. He’d been downstairs before, but came up as Pack was on her way out. Now, the man was basically doing everything up to pantomiming that we should leave so he could get Wren to go to sleep. Yeah, after all the work she’d done to get that machine working in such a short time, the kid definitely needed to get some rest. Even if she was trying to hide exactly how exhausted she was. Any minute now, her head was probably going to hit the table. 

Without even needing to look at each other, That-A-Way and I both said we needed to get out of there. We thanked the kid one more time before taking the elevator down and heading out. Both of us were completely silent the whole way through the store, and even once we got outside. Together, we walked silently through the alley behind the shop, before Way caught my arm and looked meaningfully to a nearby roof. When I nodded, she teleported us up there. 

Once we were on the roof, the girl looked around to make sure we were alone before taking off the mask. As her hair and face shifted to normal, she stared intently at me. It looked like she was taking a moment to try to find the right words. While she did, I slowly pulled the helmet off and set it on top of the nearby air conditioning unit. Then I took off the mask. And boy did that ever feel weird. It made me feel naked, standing there with my face exposed. Finally, I plucked the Bluetooth device out of my ear and put it, and the mask, next to the helmet. And then I just stood there, looking at the other girl in silence for what felt like an eternity. There were several times that one or both of us started to say something, before stopping. Neither of us knew exactly what to say. 

Finally, I let out a long breath and looked to her while trying to clamp down on the nerves that were making my heart want to beat its way out of my chest. There was no point in holding back right now. Amber knew who I was. She was way too close to things for me to push her off, and quite frankly she’d earned the truth. So, that was exactly what I was going to give her. “Okay,” I announced, “I’m gonna tell you what happened the night I got my powers. And everything that came after that. I’ve only told the whole story once before, and that was to Izzy.” 

Amber blinked at that, hesitantly asking, “You mean Izzy really does know about you? How… how much does she know, exactly? And for how long?” 

“All of it,” I informed her. “I told her everything. And she found out the night we had that whole thing with Paige in the first place. When I got home after all that, I guess I wasn’t really thinking too clearly. I ended up going up on the roof, and she was already up there. She saw me use my paint and I saw her floating. That kind of forced us to talk about everything.” 

“Like you’re gonna talk about everything now?” Amber pressed, folding both arms as she watched me intently. 

“Yeah, like–wait a minute, she knows who you are, doesn’t she?” I suddenly realized. “She–boy, she really is good at keeping secrets.” After processing that realization, I shook my head before focusing on the matter at hand. “Okay. Well, here goes. 

“It started when I was pretending to drive one of my family’s cars, and my brother came into the garage…” 

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In Like Flynn 17-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, I had set out to get this guy’s attention and to distract him from what he’d been about to do. And I was going to go ahead and call myself wildly successful at those goals. The guy completely abandoned the orb, spinning around and practically turning into a blur as he got right up to where I was. His hand grabbed my throat and squeezed as he stared into my face, his eyes wide. “You? You?! No, no this is a trick. You changed your form to look like her. No, wait. How… wait…” As his confusion and uncertainty grew, his grip around my throat tightened. Out of the corner of my eye while choking, I could see That-A-Way staring at me in silent, gaping shock. I guess finding out I was actually a girl, and someone she had probably heard of at that, was really taking a lot out of her. I couldn’t even imagine what was going through her mind. 

Unfortunately, I also didn’t have time to really think about that. All of my attention was on the fact that this guy was choking me. Not that he could really hurt me. At worst, I’d be kicked out of the simulation. But that would leave him alone here with the still-trapped and powerless Way, and his two ‘daughters,’ whom he was still trying to erase.

Yeah, I couldn’t let that happen. Luckily, he’d been too distracted to notice as I snapped the last of the wires before he could summon more. With a grunted, “Let’s kick this off,” I lashed out with my foot, the blow enhanced by an intricate purple dragon image running up my leg and over my back. It took the man in the chest and knocked him across to the far side of the room, where he crashed into one of my old paintings. 

The wires were trying to wrap around me again, but I’d already painted a green rabbit over my back and dove out of the way. Landing near Way, I grabbed the wires that were holding her and ripped them out before hitting the girl herself with a quick shot of purple and green. 

She reacted instantly, shoving me out of the way with her new strength just before our angry new friend’s fist passed through the air where my head had just been. He literally punched through the wall. Yeah, he obviously didn’t quite have godlike control over this place, but he had certainly been able to give himself plenty of advantages. 

“Your parents ruined everything!” he snapped at me while blocking a punch from Way. Almost contemptuously, he tossed her away from him. All of his attention was on me. “Their idiotic and pointless war against your grandfather destroyed my chance to change the world! I could have saved everyone! Everyone!” He was spinning to punch at me, and I barely ducked before his fist shattered a metal statue that had been sitting on my dresser. 

Hitting him with two shots of yellow from both hands, I dove between his legs and rolled while retorting, “Because you definitely come off as the altruistic sort!” Before he could turn, his movements slowed by the paint, I hoisted myself up on both hands from the floor and kicked out with my feet to hit the small of his back. Just before impact, I renewed the purple enhancement with the image of an anthropomorphic dog holding a baseball bat. 

The kick landed hard enough to knock the man to the floor. But he didn’t stay there long before lunging back to his feet. He grabbed my dresser and spun with it, lifting the whole thing up before swinging it at me like a baseball bat. A very large and awkward baseball bat. Oh yeah, and he was screaming like a totally deranged maniac. That was fun.

Luckily, he was still slowed down slightly. So, I launched myself upward in a flip before planting my feet against the ceiling. Extending both hands from above the man, I fired two shots of red. One missed, but the other hit, albeit just barely. It clipped his shoulder. Quickly, I activated both, so that he was yanked down toward the floor where the first shot had struck. 

Way was back on her feet by that point, and I managed to hit her with purple and orange paints just before the son of a bitch bounced back to his feet and grabbed my arm. A yelp escaped me, as he tried to crush it in his grip. I felt it start to snap as he yanked me off the ceiling and held me dangling there. 

“Let her go!” Way blurted, using the strength I had given her to grab my desk chair and hurl it overhand at the guy. But he was too quick, twisting right out of the way just in time without ever losing his grip on me. Just as the chair went past his head, he caught it with his free hand and sent it right back to the other girl, who had to dive out of the way. 

I tried to kick at him, but it didn’t seem to do anything, even with a bit of purple. It wasn’t enough. The best I could do was give myself an orange pumpkin image that made it harder for him to snap my arm. Even then, I wasn’t sure how long it would hold out. 

Wait, I was being stupid. Quickly, I painted that part of my arm pink. His tight grip immediately squished it, but it didn’t matter. I dropped out of his hand and back to the floor, with a narrow tendril of pink connecting one part of my arm to the other, which was dangling from his fist. My arm was basically stretched and squished like silly putty. And oh boy did he look confused. 

“Thanks!” I chirped, “I’ve been trying to work that kink out of my arm for weeks!” Even as I said that, I was painting my entire lower half purple for lashing out with a kick that took the man in the gut. That one finally made him stumble away from me, and freed my arm. I dismissed the pink paint, and my limb quickly schlurped right back to normal. Which was still disgusting and weird, of course. But I didn’t have time to worry about that. Instead, I used the time I had left with purple paint to spin, grabbing my flat screen television off the wall before coming back around to slam the whole thing into his face. The impact knocked him backward against my bedroom door. Then I reared back to hurl the thing at him. Unfortunately, he caught it in one hand and used the other to snap it all in half before tossing both sides away. His voice was a deep, angry growl. “This… is… my world!” As he said that, the floor changed into what amounted to pudding under my feet and Way’s as she pushed herself back up. Both of us stumbled and fell forward, our hands ending up trapped in the floor as well just as it turned solid again. I strained, using a purple elephant on my chest, but I couldn’t break free. Not quickly, anyway. 

Pushing away from my door, Pittman snarled, “I built these environments. I control them, me. I built her. I made her flesh and blood and I made her cybernetics. I made everything about her. She is mine. Nothing, no one is going to take her away from me. Not even her. I am–” 

“Hey, Dad.” It was Paige, the words coming even as she lunged away from the orb. In an instant, she had caught hold of the man’s arm and shoved it back against the wall on one side of the doorway. “Why don’t you–” 

“Shut the fuck up!” Her words were finished by Raige, who joined her twin by lunging over to grab the man’s other arm, holding it pinned against the other side of the doorway. 

“Wha–what are you doing?!” Pittman demanded. He was clearly straining against their grips as they worked to hold him in place. It took both of them thanks to the strength he had given himself in this world, and it was obvious that they wouldn’t be able to hold him for long. “I created you. I’m your father! You do what I tell you to and I tell you to let… me… go. Help me deal with our enemy!” His gaze was locked on me, hatred filling his eyes in a way that made him seem almost rabid. 

The two identical blondes exchanged looks. Even now, I could tell there was little love lost between them. There was definitely still tension. But they had joined up to work together against their common enemy. Their father was the problem, and they weren’t going to let him control them. 

“You want help, Dad?” Paige managed through gritted teeth, still doing everything she could to hold his straining arm in place. 

“You seem hungry,” Raige put in, equally straining. “Maybe… we could offer you… a snack.” 

Paige finished with, “It’s not a Snickers. But… how about… a Mars Bar?” 

And at that moment, the sound of shattering glass, wood, and part of my entire wall filled the air where my balcony and sliding glass door were. Or where they used to be. As my gaze snapped that way, I caught a glimpse of some kind of high-tech motorcycle thing made out of Alloy’s gold, silver, and black marbles crashing through everything to reach my room. But it wasn’t Alloy riding it. It was Mars Bar himself. Well, he wasn’t controlling it or anything, of course. But the big guy was definitely perched on the contraption as it barreled through my room, right between where Way and I were still trapped. 

Pittman barely had time for his eyes to widen before the motorcycle-riding lizard-bear collided with him, right where Paige and Raige were holding him pinned in front of the door. His arms were torn free by the impact, as the man himself was sent out into the hallway beyond, and then through the next wall, with Mars Bar right on top of them, snarling and roaring the whole time. 

“Guys!” I blurted in shock. “Are you–”  

Tossing her father’s (completely bloodless and clean) arm to the floor, Paige looked at me. As she did so, the floor pushed my hands and legs up so I could escape. Nearby, Raige did the same for That-A-Way. “It’s done,” Paige said flatly. “The invaders are being pushed out and erased.” 

“Yeah,” Raige confirmed in a grunt while stepping away from her twin as though she couldn’t stand being that close any more. “And by the time our dad can even hope to pull himself out of that…” She glanced over her shoulder, where the sounds of Mars Bar going to town on the bellowing man were still audible. “He’ll be erased too. Just takes another minute.” 

“Not our dad,” Paige muttered. “Not even the same sort of individual detail as the two of us. Just a quick copy of his mind. The real thing is still out there.” Looking my way, she added, “He didn’t have any kind of ongoing connection to it. He won’t have any idea what happened in here. Or what his other self saw.”  

Before I could say anything, That-A-Way was standing in front of me. She seemed to be staring right into my soul. “Cassidy…” the girl managed in a low voice that seemed equal parts awed and confused. “Cassidy Evans. You–” 

“The others are coming,” Paige interrupted. She stooped a bit, grabbing my helmet and tossing it to me. “I don’t think you’re ready for all of that.” 

Gripping the helmet tightly, I looked at Way for a moment before putting it on. “We’ll talk about it later,” I muttered. “I promise.” Not that I had any idea what I was going to say to the other girl now that she knew who I was, but I’d think of something. I had to. She knew so much of the truth now, and a lot of what she didn’t know, she could probably put together with a few minutes to think. Nothing I could do about that now except tell her the truth when we had time. 

I’d barely fixed the helmet in place before Pack and Alloy came floating up on a board made out of the latter’s remaining (white) marble. They stepped off and entered the room, looking around. 

“So,” Pack asked in an almost casual voice. “What happened? Did we win?” 

As if in answer to that, Mars Bar came lumbering back through the hole his flight through the doorway had created. He looked extremely pleased with himself and sat back on his haunches with a grunt. A moment later, the three other marbles came flying in over his head and rejoined Alloy, bouncing around her head like excited puppies showing off that they had done a good job.

“He’s gone,” Paige announced in a quiet voice that was barely more than a whisper. “We erased him. That shadow version, anyway.” 

Clearing my throat, I gave a short nod. “I guess what she’s saying is yes. 

“We definitely won.” 

********

Despite me saying that, things weren’t exactly completely solved at that point, obviously. Raige had worked with us to save herself from being erased, and to stop that copy of their dad after he betrayed her. But everything wasn’t sunshine and rainbows with her. She still insisted that she was her own person and wasn’t just going to lay in the back of Paige’s mind doing nothing. 

Yeah, it turned out that she hadn’t only focused on erasing the invaders while they were connected to the core together. Raige had also taken the time to link herself to it so she couldn’t be erased or controlled the same way. An insurance policy, she called it. Just to keep everyone honest. She and Paige now held identical power over the system. 

“I’m telling you,” I insisted about twenty minutes later, “give us a chance and we’ll find a way to help you.” We had left the virtual version of my home and returned to the farm place (the cowboy rancher people were there, but they left us alone and went about their pretend duties). 

“And like I said,” Raige shot back, “I’m giving you a chance. I’ll play nice in here and not attack my twinsy. I’m not even spilling anyone’s secrets. But I want my own body. I want my chance to be myself and live my life the way I want to. And quite frankly, I don’t trust anybody, not even you people. Dad made it perfectly clear that the only person I can trust is me. I can’t depend on anyone else unless I have leverage. So until you figure out how to get me what I want, my leverage is that this body stays put. If I don’t control it, she doesn’t control it. But hey, get me a new body and everything‘s hunky-dory. Can’t be too hard for Team Super-Competent, right?”

“If you just sat down and shut up and let me move my own body,” Paige snapped, “I could help them get one for you.”

“Yeeeeah,” Raige drawled casually, “but there’s that whole not trusting any of you thing I mentioned. Kind of a sticking point when it comes to giving up any power I’ve got. So no, I think we’ll let your friends handle this. Come on, Paige, have a little faith in someone else. I mean, isn’t that basically what you were telling me to do? And you’re supposed to be the good one.”

Alloy spoke up. “So, maybe this is a really dumb question or whatever, but how exactly are we supposed to find a robot body for this chick to move into? I mean, I don’t exactly have one of those in my basement. I don’t even have a basement, cause I live in an apartment. But you get the point.”

“Can’t just be any robot body,” Raige noted as she created a tennis ball in one hand and began to toss it up and down. “It’s gotta be one like this. That’s what my system is compatible with. I need another one of Dad’s orbs, and a body to go with it.”

Staring at her for a moment, I managed a fairly controlled, “And how exactly are we supposed to grab one of those? I know, we’ll book a flight to Breakwater, find your dad, ask him to pretty please build you a new orb and body, and then come back with it.”

The twins exchanged pointed glances before Paige sighed. “There is another slight possibility. Our father had multiple prototype labs all over the city. When… when he was captured, they took or destroyed almost everything he had.  But, it’s possible they didn’t find all of the secret storage rooms in those labs. It’s all been locked up and sealed away for years, but if you can find one of those labs with a prototype in it, you could probably get the kid out there to fix it up. Maybe with a little help.”

Biting my lip, I slowly nodded. “Sounds pretty slim, but I guess at least it’s something. How exactly do we get to these labs to find out if there’s anything left? Can you give us some addresses?”

Paige shook her head. “It’s not that simple. I didn’t even know about those places until… until we interfaced.” She glanced briefly at the identical figure nearby. “And she doesn’t know exactly where they are either. But, she knows where the addresses are. In a secret base under the mall, controlled by you-know-who.”

“Uhhh.” Alloy raised a hand. “I don’t? I don’t know who. What the hell is going on? Secret base under the mall?”

After blinking a few times, I shook off my surprise before muttering to the other girl that we would explain later. Yeah, by that point, I was pretty sure I was going to have to bring her all the way in. Well, at least as far as the Ministry stuff went. But right this second wasn’t the time for it.

Instead, I focused on Paige and Raige. “Yeah, we know the place you’re talking about. We were even working on ways to get in there. But it’s gonna take a while.”

Stretching her arms up lazily over her head, Raige replied, “Well, I guess it’s a good thing we’re both playing nice in here in the meantime, isn’t it? Go to the secret base and get on their computer systems. Look up any files under our dad’s name and then check out the addresses. Hopefully, you’ll find something useful.”

There was a lot I wanted to say, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t exactly blame her for wanting to make sure that we had no choice but to help her. So, with a heavy sigh I waved a hand. “Yeah, we’ll figure it out. But we’re also going to be checking in. So make sure you’re really playing nice. Just, go to your own separate corners or whatever if you have to. No more fighting or trying to kill each other.”

They both agreed, and Paige and I exchanged looks once more. There was other stuff I wanted to say, but couldn’t in front of everyone here. Maybe another time. Besides, it wasn’t like I had a shortage of important conversations that I needed to have soon.

“Okie dokie,” Pack put in. “Well, it’s been really interesting, but if we’re all done with this shit, I’d like to get back into the real world. I don’t even know what time it is, but I’m pretty sure I’m fucking famished. Plus, I need to check on Riddles and the others.” As she said that, the girl was rubbing Mars Bar’s side affectionately while he made a sound that was similar to purring.

With that, she spoke the code to eject from the simulation, both her and the lizard-bear vanishing. 

Alloy was next after a brief hesitation, her image fading away as she removed herself back to the real world. 

Which, of course, left me standing there with Paige, Raige, and That-A-Way. All of whom now knew who I was. Because every time I thought my life had reached the peak of complication, I was proven wrong. 

Taking a breath, I looked to Way. “Okay, obviously you recognized me. Which means we’ve got a lot to talk about.”

Before I could say anything else, Paige spoke up. “You’re gonna tell her, right?” But she wasn’t addressing me. Her attention was on Way. 

“You mean you—” The other girl stopped herself and shook her head. “Of course you know. Who am I kidding?”

With a sigh, she turned back to me. Her hand rose to her mask and she started to take it off.  As she did so, her hair began to darken from blonde to black, while several distinct features of her face shifted just a little bit. 

“You’re right,” Amber O’Connell announced, “We really do have a lot to talk about.”

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In Like Flynn 17-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Paige, the real Paige that was, turned to me with an exasperated look. “You can’t seriously think that you can trust her. Come on, Paintball, don’t be naive. She was sent by my dad to erase me, to replace me. Do you really think she’ll just give up on that? She’s like his golden child or whatever. She just wants to get all of us to lower our guards so she can find a way to take over again and prove that she’s worth keeping around. The whole thing is a trick. I bet she’s actually in control of those guys after all, and would’ve made something else happen to stop them from killing her if none of you had. She’s playing games with you, with all of us.” 

Offering her a helpless shrug, I pointed out, “She didn’t have to reveal who she was. She could’ve kept that going. Why switch to a different mind game like that unless they really were trying to kill her? Now we know which one she is and which one you are.” Through that whole bit, I was silently reminding myself that Paige really was the one on my side. Actually, come to think of it, being face to face with two Paiges like this was basically straight out of my nightmares. Or it would’ve been not that long ago. It was still a whole thing, and separating ‘good Paige’ from ‘bad Paige’ was a real mindblower just for ‘good Paige’ existing at all.

Maybe that made it easier for me to accept that this other Paige was possibly telling the truth. If I had to shut down my suspicions of the regular Paige herself so much just to accept that one of them could be on my side, I might as well accept that the other one was telling the truth now.

Beside me, Alloy piped up with, “I mean, it sounds to me like she’s just trying to save her own skin, right? Err, whatever the digital version of that is, I guess. Point is, she doesn’t wanna die, so we can all work together to keep the ‘not dying’ thing going for both of you. Then work from there, right? ” 

From where she was standing next to Mars Bar, Pack put in, “I hate to point out the obvious, but we really don’t have time to bat this back-and-forth. If those guys are trying to reformat this chick’s entire harddrive, we better get there before they do. You can bitch and argue about the rest of the shit later.”

Way was nodding. “She’s right, we don’t have time for any of this. Can you two get us to the core? And how do we stop these guys permanently in the first place?”

Green (Not-Paige) gave a feral smirk. “Control of this place is kind of split between both of us playing tug-of-war. Between that and Dad‘s invasion force, we don’t exactly have a firm grip on anything. But if you help us get to the core and let both of us plug into it, I’m pretty sure we can shut them out. You know, working together.” Even as she said that, the girl was giving a sly look toward her doppelgänger. 

Paige looked like she had a few choice words to say about that, but Way interrupted. “Great, we’ll figure out the rest later. Let’s just do this before we end up losing both of you.”

“Oh good,” Green drawled lazily. “I love working together. We can all be friends who keep each other‘s secrets.” She wasn’t looking at me when she said that, but she really didn’t need to. I knew exactly what she was saying. 

“So, sis,” she added with a humorless smile, “you wanna take the shortcut?” As she asked that, the girl was extending her hand that way. “With all this interference from Daddy‘s invasion, it’s going to take both of us to control a shift like that instead of just randomly jumping from place to place.”

Again, it was obvious that the real Paige had a lot of things she wanted to say. But even as her mouth opened, I saw her head cock a little to the side as though listening to something. Whatever she heard or sensed must have been pretty bad, because her mouth snapped shut and she simply gave a short nod before reaching out to grab her twin’s hand. 

“You all might wanna get close,” Green murmured. “Wouldn’t want to accidentally leave anyone behind.”

Still unsure if we could trust this girl any further than Wren could’ve thrown her without any invention assistance, all of us squeezed in close. I felt a weird heat rippling through the air around us while both identical figures glared at one another. It really looked as though they would just as soon rip each other‘s throats out than work together. But, somehow they restrained themselves. 

The air grew even hotter over the next few seconds, to the point of almost being painful. It never quite got that far, but it was definitely uncomfortable. I briefly wondered if this was actually a trick after all and we were all about to be incinerated. 

But, with a sudden flash of light and an abrupt, dramatic twisting in my stomach, we were suddenly somewhere completely different. Different, and yet also incredibly familiar. 

“Wha—” Alloy was looking around before her gaze centered on the massive structure in front of us. “What happened? Did the mansion just change?”

“It’s a different mansion,” That-A-Way informed her in a voice that sounded just as confused, even if for other reasons. “Haven’t you seen all the billboards and magazine covers?” Turning to face the enormous building that I had been silently staring at the whole time, she quietly noted, “That’s the Evanses’ place.”

Mars Bar made a confused grumbling sound, and Pack nodded. “He’s right, what the fuck is going on? What’s with the grand tour of all the rich people places? What do the Evanses have to do with any of this?” 

It was Green who answered, without even glancing in my direction. “Dad always wanted to be them. Always wanted to be even more successful and powerful. Of course he made our core be the center of their power. Plus, you know, the man wants to cure death. You don’t get as far as he has with that goal without being pretty arrogant. Putting the center of operations in the house that represents a couple of the most successful people in the state? That just makes sense.”

“Wait, I’m sorry,” Alloy managed, “did you just say he wants to cure death?”

“It’s not that simple,” I informed her flatly before turning my attention back to the house. My house, or a simulation of it. This was all getting way too close to home, quite literally. “So, we get in there and get you guys plugged into the core thing, whatever that is. But where are the invaders? Tell me they’re not already inside.” 

Paige shook her head, turning to look down toward the front gate (where I half-expected to see familiar guards patrolling). “We took a shortcut. But they’re coming. They’ll be here any minute.”

Cracking her neck (was that even necessary), Green casually asked, “So who’s going inside to help us get plugged in, and make sure we don’t kill each other? Cuz the rest of you are gonna have to stay out here and make sure those guys don’t interrupt. This could take a few minutes, and something tells me they’ll be hitting this place pretty hard as soon as they figure out what we’re doing.”  

From the look on her face, Paige wanted to argue just for the sake of arguing, but she clearly knew her twin was right. With the faintest nod, she muttered, “They’ll come from that way, but you’ll have to stop them from spreading out. We need someone in the house watching our backs just in case, but most of you should stay out here.” 

Yeah, it wasn’t even a question really, and I didn’t need any further prompting than the very subtle glance she sent to me. Immediately, I announced, “I’ll go in with Paige and…” Trailing off, I looked toward the other girl. “I’ve been calling you Green, but do you–” 

“I was gonna be Roxanne,” she interrupted, sounding thoughtful. “You know, dear old Daddy’s real daughter. But since he’s decided to be a giant fucking jackass and try to erase me just for taking a few extra minutes, maybe I don’t wanna carry on that legacy for him. I’m not Roxanne, and I’m certainly not Paige.” Those words came in a snarl as she looked to the girl in question. “Why don’t you call me something in between. How about… Raige.” A smirk crossed her face briefly. “Yeah. That sounds good.” 

“Are you sure we can’t just call you Edgy McEdgerson?” Alloy piped up, before ducking back with a squeak when the girl in question squinted at her. 

Waving that off, I shook my head. “Whatever. I’ll go in with Paige and Raige. You guys stay here and protect the house. We’ll get this done as soon as we can.” 

That-A-Way looked like she wanted to object, raising a hand. But in the end, she sighed rather than argue. “Just get it done. I’ll save my questions for later.” 

“Yeah, and believe me, there will be questions,” Pack put in, resting a hand against Mars Bar while holding a gun that she had taken off one of the invading troops in the other hand. 

After taking a very brief moment to assure Alloy that she would be fine and all she had to do was stay with the others and watch their backs, I turned to the two identical blondes who were standing several feet away from each other. The tension between them was palpable. It was very clear that the only reason they weren’t actively attacking one another was that they both needed each other to survive. I had no doubt that things were going to get complicated again once the invaders were eliminated. But we would have to deal with that later. One thing at a time. 

To that end, I walked right between them and moved toward the front door. Once there, I sprayed pink paint against the front door in a circle wide enough to put my hand through, then painted one arm purple so I could punch through that pink bit easily. If this place was built to be anything like the real house, kicking the door in wouldn’t have worked. The door in the real world was built to stand up to much worse than that. 

This way, I was able to punch through the little hole and unlock the door from the other side before opening it. Turning back to the other two, I gestured. “After you. So, where’s this core thing? You guys are going to have to help me get through this freaking maze. Wait, tell me they don’t actually have a hedge maze inside the house. Cuz I heard a rumor about that.” 

By that point, we were inside. Using her foot to idly kick the door shut again, Raige snorted with amusement. “Good try at keeping your identity secret, babe. Have you been practicing?” 

“Shut up,” Paige snapped. She took my arm and pulled, keeping herself between me and her twin while starting to stalk through the front foyer, still addressing the other girl. “Don’t talk to her. Don’t even look at her. You’re the one who wanted to kill her for Dad.” 

“And yet,” Raige pointed out while trailing behind us, “you’re still the one who treated her like shit for years. All that time in school being a bitch to her, making fun of how she looks, taunting her for not being classically beautiful like dear Mommy, or even the ‘guys panting at our poster on the wall’ example of sheer hotness that we are.” In an eager tone, she added, “Gee, I wonder what kind of complicated feelings she has about that whole thing.”  

Growling under my breath despite myself, I snapped, “She can talk for herself. Both of you stop. This seriously isn’t getting us anywhere, and I’m not in the mood to talk about any of it. Not with either of you. So let’s just find that core thing and get you plugged in so we can get on with all of it. Tell me you know where it is, because I think we all know that this place is too big to search room to room.”  

“We know where it is,” Paige informed me, already heading for the stairs. She had let go of my arm, but was still making sure that she stayed between me and her other self. There was definitely very little trust there. After a moment, she added, “It’s in your room. In your closet.” 

Sounding downright chipper, Raige put in, “It’s in the spot where old Paige here was hiding while she watched you get your memory wiped. She thinks if she’d done something different that day, things would have been better. If she’d stopped them from wiping your memory, or gotten you out of there and taken you somewhere… whatever. That’s where so much of her regrets and fears all boil together. So, it’s a natural place for our core.” 

My core,” Paige snapped a bit testily, giving an icy look that way before starting up the stairs at a trot. “And it doesn’t matter why it’s there. We just need to get to it and do this.” 

Halfway to my room, we all heard shouting start outside. Right, the invaders were here. Time to get on with this. We exchanged very brief looks before breaking into a run. Together, the three of us sprinted the rest of the way up the stairs to the right floor,  and continued down the hall to the wing where my room was. As we approached the door, I put purple paint on my foot before lashing out to kick the whole thing in, not waiting to open it. Sure enough, the door flew off, admitting us into a reasonably accurate facsimile of my bedroom… five years earlier. Yeah, the real thing had changed a decent bit in that time, but this version was clearly taken from back then.

Oh, and there was one other pretty major difference. My closet door was open to reveal a glowing silver ball about two feet across with scattered orange and red lights flashing across it. It was just hovering there in mid-air, giving off a low humming noise. 

“Time to plug in,” Raige announced. “And boy, isn’t it weird that we all keep ending up in situations like this? We plug in, turn vulnerable, and have to depend on our little friend Cassidy to protect us.”

Instead of verbally responding, Paige just gave her a shove toward the orb before looking back at me. “Be careful. If they get inside they’ll come straight here. They won’t bother attacking us, they’ll just try to destroy the core itself.”

Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I gave a short nod. “I’ll cover you, I promise. Just do what you need to do. And Paige… I know what it’s like to have to work with someone who tried to hurt you so much, no matter why they were doing it.” Meeting her gaze, I added, “Don’t let that get in the way of doing what you need to do for all of us to get through this.”

With that, I moved back to the broken door and peeked out, looking one way down the hall, then the other. I could hear the fighting going on in the distance through a few open windows. God, I wanted to be down there. I wanted to help the others. It felt wrong to just stand here and depend on them to do the bulk of the work out there without me. But I couldn’t abandon these two. If they didn’t finish their work with the core, the fight outside didn’t matter. 

So, hard as it was, I kept my position. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw the two identical blonde figures standing with their backs to me, one hand from each on the orb. They were clearly interfacing with it, or whatever the term was. I just hoped it wouldn’t take that long, because from the sounds of things outside, this was a full-scale assault. I heard gunfire, shouting, and a lot of deep roars from Mars Bar. It was clearly getting nasty out there, and it was probably just going to get worse. 

The next few minutes were incredibly tense, to say the least. I kept watching and listening for anyone to breach the house, but they were clearly doing a pretty bang-up job out there, because no one was making it in. For a brief moment, I stupidly let myself think we would actually pull this off without bigger complications. Yeah, I know, how could I be so dumb?

As if to immediately prove me wrong, the sound of shattering glass suddenly filled the air behind me. Whirling that way, I saw a figure leaping through the window to land smoothly on the carpet. 

He wasn’t dressed like a soldier, or anything like that. He was about average height, in his late thirties with dark blond hair and an intense look. There was also something incredibly familiar about him, something right on the tip of my tongue. 

“Sit down,” he snapped in my direction. Abruptly, a series of wires tore their way out of the nearby wall and wrapped around my elbows, ankles, and stomach to yank me back and pin me next to a virtual recreation of my own dresser. I was trapped in an awkward position, with one hand pinned against the nearby wall and the other bent up over my head. And these wires were strong. Painting a purple ninja across my back, I focused on breaking them. But it was going to take a few seconds. 

Before I could get anywhere with that, Way suddenly appeared in the room, having teleported in. She went to grab the man, but he pivoted out of her reach and lashed out with a baton that suddenly appeared in his hand. There was a spark of electricity or something, and she hit the floor with a yelp. Rolling over, she went back to her feet, only to stop short, blurting, “Wha–I can’t use my powers.” 

“Think you can fight me in here?” the man snapped. “Me?! I built this world.” With that, he waved a hand, and several more wires tore their way out of the wall to wrap around That-A-Way and yank her back next to my old bed. 

Eyes widening at that, I managed, “Paige’s dad?” 

“It’s Benjamin Pittman,” he informed both of us, brushing himself off. “Or, well, a reasonable facsimile, anyway. Let’s just say I didn’t leave anything to chance when it came to making sure my child would be brought back into line. Just took the automated code I had running some time to build… me.” He waved a hand to himself. “A virtual version of my own mind. You know what they say, if you want something done right, do it yourself.” With that, he started to turn to where Paige and Raige were. 

“Wait!” Way blurted, clearly trying to buy time for them. “What the hell do you think you’re going to do, erase both of them and then what? You’re going to take over the body? How far do you think you’ll get like that? And seriously, there are so many different levels of fucking creepy in that.” 

“She’s right,” I pointed out, “this whole thing is pointless. Just let them go.” 

The man looked for a moment like he might rise to that bait and argue with us. Unfortunately, he decided against it, simply shaking his head. “You know what? I don’t particularly care what either of you think. You don’t matter. You’re nobody.” 

He was already turning back to where the other two were, taking a step that way while my heart beat its way out of my chest. I was straining at the wires, and had even started painting them pink to snap them more easily. But more appeared to entangle me every time I got free of one. I couldn’t get out of this in time. I couldn’t point my hand toward that guy, not with one arm pinned against the wall and the other bent up over my head. I was as trapped as That-A-Way, both of us struggling uselessly to free ourselves. In a moment, both Paige and her twin were going to be wiped out of existence! I had to do something! I had to–I couldn’t–what could I–

“Wait!” It was my turn to shout that word, though that time the man didn’t even slow down. He was reaching out toward the core. But I wasn’t done. “You think I don’t matter to you?! I do!” 

Without looking my way, the man started to lay his hand against that orb, his voice dismissive. “You’re nobody.” 

Painting as much of my body purple as I could, I tore at the wire holding my arm above my head. It snapped enough to let me grab my helmet. In one motion, I tore it up and off, along with the mask, tossing both of them aside to land at Way’s feet before speaking in my normal voice.

“Was I a nobody when you told Paige to kill me?” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

In Like Flynn 17-07 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Right, so I had two main issues to deal with right now. First, we had to figure out which Paige was the real one. Which was bound to be all sorts of fun, because that sort of thing was always such a blast in the movies. And second, I had to figure out how I was going to stop the fake one from blurting out all my secrets the second we knew who she was. It might look suspicious if I just kept putting black paint on her to make her stop talking. If she was just a virus program that copied Paige’s form, we could delete her or something, right? Wait, would that be like killing? If Paige was a real person, what about a program that copied her? Was–what were we supposed t–yeah. That raised a whole new giant and incredibly complicated mess of questions. 

Apparently everyone else was just as confused as me, because no one said anything for a few long, incredibly tense seconds following Pack asking how we were going to figure out who was who. We all just stood there, gazes snapping back and forth between one another. I could practically hear the dramatic, tension-filled music in the background. 

Finally, it was, well, one of the Paiges who broke the silence. “How did you all get in here?” Her voice was brittle, like she was right on the edge of really freaking out. Unfortunately, I had no way of knowing if that was because she was the real Paige who had been forced to fight for her life for several days, or the fake one who was about to have her chance to kill and replace the real one taken away from her. Too bad my powers didn’t include some kind of truth-forcing paint. 

“It’s a Matrix thing, or a Tron thing,” Way replied before I could speak up. “Whatever. Tech girl linked us into your computer and sent us in here to help you. They… they said you sent a message asking for help. Or the real one did, whoever you are.” 

Of course, both identical girls immediately declared that they were the real one. Unsurprisingly, there was no way to tell which of them was lying. This whole thing was going to be just as complicated as I’d thought. I had spent the past couple minutes frantically trying to think of how to deal with this, but had come up utterly blank. 

Also, we were all still standing partway in water. I was up to my knees, while the others were only up to their shins or so. Because on top of everything else, I was still really freaking short. 

While I was still focused on that (the identifying the right Paige thing, not the being short and standing in water thing), one of the ‘twins’ turned her attention toward Peyton. “Who the hell is that? If she’s someone new, my father could have–” 

“She’s not from your father. Or Paige’s father, whatever.” My head shook. “Trust me, it’s a long story, but she has nothing to do with your dad.” 

“Uh, hi!” Peyton herself piped up. “My name’s Alloy. I enjoy old movies, racing simulators, and listening to people talking about me like I’m not here. So, you know, feel free to continue.” 

Way spoke, her voice tense as she glanced around. “Whatever we’re doing, we need to do it now. Before more of those security things show up. I don’t feel like going through round three.” 

“They won’t bother you here,” one of the Paiges informed us. “As long as you’re with me–” 

The other Paige quickly interrupted. “As long as you’re with me, the security drones won’t attack.” Her eyes narrowed pointedly toward her identical duplicate. “Which gives us time to deal with this.” 

Like people watching a tennis match, our eyes bounced back to the previous Paige as she glowered while retorting, “You’re the one who’s going to be dealt with. Dad thought he could use you to replace me? Well, he’s wrong. Dad’s staying right there on that fucking prison island where he belongs. He’s a fucking psychopath who deserves to be right there on Breakwater forever.” 

In the background, I heard Alloy make a noise in the back of her throat. But she didn’t say anything. Instead, the girl gestured and a couple of her marbles transformed into a flat surface about as long and wide as a surfboard, with a narrow set of stairs leading up to it. She climbed out of the water, shaking her legs out before folding her arms. “Can we please go back to solid ground while we figure out which one of these is Dark Samus? I don’t know whose idea it was to make this place so realistic it even smells like a dirty old lake, but they did a fantastic job. I hate it.”

Slowly, we all made our way out of the water. Mars Bar brought up the rear, keeping wary eyes on the two identical figures who were pointedly glaring at one another. It was clear that they were half a second and a single word away from lunging at each other’s throats again. They’d been fighting in here for days, and while both were obviously some form of exhausted (if you could even get exhausted in this particular situation), I didn’t think either of them would hesitate to go right back to trying to drown one another. And I was still confused as to how that worked. 

Once we were back on dry land, That-A-Way pivoted to face the two duplicates. “Okay!” she announced, “Let’s figure this out right now. Look, one of you is the real Paige, and the other one is being used by… by your father to try to kill the first just so he can put you back under his control. Whichever of you is the copy, is that really something you want? Do you want to be some kind of slave under that psychopath’s control? Does that sound like fun?”

Folding her arms pointedly, Pack added, “Yeah. For one thing, what do you think he’s going to do with a second version of you annoying him or wanting to do your own thing? Even if you succeed at this and take over this chick, what makes you think this guy won’t have a third version of you ready to pop in anytime you so much as have a different opinion? Do you really think he’ll go through all this to make a copy he can use to take over now, and then politely hash things out the next time? You’re willing to be his lapdog right now, but what’s going to happen the second you want to do something else? Or do you really think you’ll be satisfied taking marching orders from some crazy guy on an island? Oh, right, he probably wants you to help him get off that island, huh? Do you think you’ll survive something like that?” 

From where I was standing, I quickly put in, “Do you think he cares if you survive it?” 

One of the Paiges spoke up tensely. “Believe me, I spent the past few days trying to tell her that. She won’t listen. She thinks my dad is going to make her the real Roxanne, as if he’d let anyone be her. As if he’s even capable of caring about one of us like that.” 

Before any of us could say anything to that, the other Paige snarled, “No, I tried to tell you that. Because I’m Paige, and you’re the duplicate. They’re going to figure that out, and as soon as they do, you’re–” 

“Hold it!” I finally managed to cut in, my gaze snapping back and forth between them. “Who the hell is Roxanne? What is–what’s–what?” Yeah, it wasn’t exactly a coherent series of questions, but hey, could you blame me? This whole thing was completely crazy. I was just glad I’d somehow managed to sound even that clear with the way this whole situation was going. 

“Yeah…” Way sounded pretty confused too, frowning as she echoed, “who is Roxanne?”

Unfortunately, before either Paige could answer, everything around us suddenly shimmered and changed. We weren’t standing at the edge of a pond near the farmhouse anymore. Instead, we were all on a perfectly maintained grassy lawn next to a fountain. Straight ahead of me, I could see an intricate flower garden that looked similar to those at my own home. Actually, all of this looked similar to my own home. The grass, the fountain, the flowers, all of it could’ve been in my own backyard. 

Of course, that particular thought made me gasp as my head snapped to the side to look toward the building in the distance that I’d caught a glimpse of out of the corner of my eye. I expected to see my own house looming over all of us. But while there was a great looming mansion, it wasn’t my family’s. And it wasn’t some pseudo-replica either. It looked very different. Smaller, for one. And it wasn’t Paige’s adopted family’s place either. It didn’t look similar enough to either of those, aside from the fact that it was a mansion. And yet, there was still something deeply familiar about the place. Staring at it, a sense of warm familiarity filled me. But also a feeling of deep, horrible dread. There was something very bad about this place, and I really didn’t want to be here. An animalistic, instinctive part of me wanted to run away right then. It wanted me to get away as fast as possible, not caring about anyone else who was here. I just wanted to leave. Seeing that house made me instinctively whimper just a little under my breath before I even realized what I was doing. In the end, it was all I could do to stay right there where I was, planting my feet firmly. I didn’t care how afraid this house made me. I wasn’t running away. 

Belatedly, I realized what this place was. This was Anthony Tate’s house, right? It had to be. That was the only thing that made sense. The memories of being Anthony’s friend, and of what had eventually happened to him and his family, had been erased from my mind. But some part of me still remembered, still reacted to seeing this house. Which made me wonder just how bad my reaction here would have been if I actually remembered everything about all that. 

Alloy was the first to find her voice as she turned in a circle, marbles floating around her head, “Okay, first we’re in some super-elite private school for wealthy spawn, then on a farm, and now we’re standing in front of some rich guy’s fucking house? What the hell is going on? Why did everything change this time? Why are we here now? Who the hell decided to flip this switch?” 

“She did.” The answer came in a chorus from both Paiges, each of them glowering at the other. Though they had to do that peering over the head and shoulders of Mars Bar, who had lumbered up on all fours to put himself between them while we were distracted. Clearly, he took the job he’d been given to guard them very seriously. When we got out of here, I was going to give both him and Riddles (who was still soaring overhead playing lookout) all the treats Pack would allow. 

“Look, it was her,” one of the Paiges insisted. “She’s playing games, controlling things in here.” 

“We both control this place,” the other Paige snapped. “And I didn’t change the scene.” 

Looking from one Paige to the oth–okay I was just going to think of them as One and–no, if I thought of them as One and Two, It would influence which one I saw as the original. I had to think of them by completely even names. So, I raised both hands, shooting a burst of green paint onto one and a burst of blue paint onto the other. The paint covered the front of both of their shirts in a large blotch as I announced, “Okay, for now, we call you Green and you Blue.” 

“Great,” Way announced, “Would either Green or Blue like to say anything that could give us an idea of which one is the real one so we can get out of here? Seriously, whichever one of you is… not Paige, the guy you’re so intent on working for obviously isn’t going to be that loyal to you. Look what he’s doing to his own daughter. Do you really think he cares about you?” 

I was watching the two carefully, trying to pinpoint when one of them looked as though she might want to argue about that. The real Paige hated her father. So, the second one of them looked as though she might want to defend him, that was the fa… wait. Hold on a minute. 

Half-expecting a light bulb to have literally popped to life above my head (hey you never knew in a place like this), I started to blurt, “Hang on, I think we’re going about this the wrong way. If–” 

Unfortunately, that was as far as I got before my words were interrupted by the loud and piercing sound of Riddles shrieking from up in the sky. Which was followed immediately by gunfire from far off on the distant side of the ground, behind a building next to a tennis court. It wasn’t aimed at us, but rather, at the lizard-eagle herself. As bullets filled the air, she took a screaming, dangerously steep and fast dive toward the ground to escape it, only for that scream to turn into a pained cry as one of the bullets clipped her wing before she could get out of sight, causing her to start spiraling uncontrollably.

“Riddles!” Pack screamed, sounding horrified and panicked. I didn’t blame her for not remembering in that instant that even if any of us, including the lizards, were killed in here, it wouldn’t translate to the outside world. With that cry, she was already starting to sprint to the spot where the crumpled figure was plummeting. 

That-A-Way, however, was faster with her teleportation. She vanished from where she was standing, appeared in the air to catch Riddles and tuck the bird-lizard against her chest, then teleported a few feet further ahead and back to the ground. Then she turned back the other way just in time for Pack to get there and take her little friend into her own arms. 

One sort-of crisis averted for the moment. That still left the main problem, which was the fact that the sources of Riddles being shot were coming into view from around the sides of that building by the tennis court. Namely, a whole bunch of very nasty-looking bad guys in what appeared to be military uniforms. They were carrying assault rifles and other weapons, and really did not look as though they had any interest in blending into the actual scene that they were supposed to be a part of anymore. They looked more like they should have been storming the streets of Rome back when the Fell-Touched Ambit and Giufà had teamed up with their own private armies to take the whole city over for a few days about ten years back. Raising that kind of army was a pretty simple thing to do when your powers involved everyone believing that no matter where you were or what you were saying, you belonged there and knew what you were talking about in the case of Ambit. Or, in Giufà’s case, forcing everyone to think that anything you did, no matter how horrible, was funny. Even if you were the person he was torturing to death. 

The point was, the soldiers running toward us could have been part of the assortment of troops who had been sent in to deal with the army those guys had put together back then. They were heavily armed, and clearly weren’t interested in stopping to ask any questions. The second they saw Pack and That-A-Way when coming around the building, all twenty or so of them immediately took aim and started to fire. I was already shouting a warning (joined by Mars Bar, who was still obediently guarding Blue and Green but issued a pants-wetting roar to join my shout). In the midst of that, I raised both hands to shoot orange paint that way. But, just like before, my aim went wide, missing entirely. Which was just fucking fantastic.

Fortunately, Way had already reacted by turning to the east while yanking Pack close. That direction triggered her invulnerability, and the thick hail of bullets ricocheted off them. For the moment, they were safe. But those guys were still sprinting toward them, and Pack had an injured lizard-bird in her arms.

I was about to launch myself that way, mouth open to blurt for Alloy to watch the two Paiges with Mars Bar. But before I could, even as I formed the blue paint beneath my feet, the girl was already shouting a warning at me. A warning about something else besides the small army of guys with guns charging around the tennis court. Namely, the small army of guys with guns charging out of the nearby mansion. Yeah, because obviously we weren’t dealing with enough problems as it was, there were a dozen or so well-armed soldiers coming right out of that building too. And they were already taking aim at us. 

“Alloy!” I blurted while lunging forward. Painting orange over myself for protection, I leapt over the low wall that the other girl turned her marbles into. The wall was semicircular and shielded herself as well as the two Paiges. And Mars Bar, who dropped down a bit on his haunches to be behind it while the deafening sound of bullets rebounding off that joined the sound of bullets rebounding off of Pack and That-A-Way in the distance. 

Landing on my feet while bullets collided with my orange-painted body in a way that I knew would have left me sore and bruised if any of this had been real, I quickly sprayed as wide of a burst of blue paint as I could from one hand, and an equally wide burst of red paint from the other. As soon as I had covered as many of the troops as I could, I activated all of it at once. Instantly, they were all yanked toward each other by the red paint, slammed together, repelled by the blue paint out several feet, yanked back in again by red paint, then slammed apart, and so on. It was complete chaos for a few seconds. Which would’ve been great. Unfortunately, it didn’t solve the problem. Mostly because there were still more troops coming from around and out of the building, who looked fresh, armed, and pretty pissed off. 

Suffice to say, we were all doing just great. This really was just the perfect situation. Pack and That-A-Way were trapped on the far side of the yard, pinned down by the rapidly approaching troops from that direction. Meanwhile, I had Alloy, Mars Bar, and both the version of Paige who had bullied and insulted me for years but didn’t want me to die, and the version of Paige I had literally just met but did want me to die. I could hear Alloy herself demanding to know which of them had summoned the armed troops, but they both sounded genuinely confused while shouting back that this shouldn’t be happening. 

Were they both telling the truth? Was this neither of them? I had to consider that, and how to approach actually talking to not only the real Paige, but the other one too. Because that was the thing I had figured out moments earlier and had been about to say before this sudden interruption. If we were going to get through this without everything getting screwed up, I couldn’t think of the two girls here as one being Paige as the other being some virus that just had to be erased. If Paige herself was considered a real person as a thinking, conscious human mind inside a computer, then the mind that had been put in here with her could be one too. Yeah, she did what her creator/father told her to. But what other choice did she have? What other choice had we actually presented to her, besides pointing out that her father would kill her as easily as he did Paige? As far as she knew, we were simply going to delete her the first chance we got anyway. So yeah, maybe she knew that she couldn’t trust the man in the long run. But at least if she sided with him, it would give her time to think of something to deal with anything else he did when the time came. 

So, all I had to do was help beat all these guys here, help Pack and That-A-Way deal with their guys, keep both Paiges under control, survive without being killed so I wouldn’t have to start this entire thing over again, and then convince the newer version of Paige that we could figure out some alternative so that neither of them had to die. Oh, and convince her that I was more trustworthy than their father. And I had to do all of that without letting her expose my real identity. Well, I thought as the approaching troops came sprinting toward me while raising their weapons to take aim, I sure hope I don’t get bored in here.

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In Like Flynn 17-06 (Summus Proelium)

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So there we were, four girls, a lizard-bear, and a lizard-eagle, all crouched and huddled behind a marble-construct wall that was being pummeled by gunshot after gunshot. I honestly had no idea how much longer it was going to be able to hold up under this kind of assault. And I really didn’t want to know what was going to happen if it crumbled and left all of us open and exposed. We had to deal with these ‘cowboy’ programs quickly, before we ended up as fish in a barrel.  

And, of course, it had to get worse. Because the ranch hands were all on horses. So they didn’t exactly have to stay where they were while firing. Already, several of them were starting to spur their mounts to take off to either side so they could get a clear line of fire around the wall. 

Yeah, this was a not-great situation that was getting worse by the moment. Not to mention the trouble I was having with my own power. I was just plain off on aiming, on knowing where things were, on everything. And I didn’t have time to sit around trying to figure it out. Yeah, there was obviously something different about the way my powers really worked and the way the machine was interpreting them. Like the way I had traveled through the dark forest, or the way Murphy and Roald had pointed out my aim at the basketball court. But I couldn’t fix that or even spend time dwelling on it. I had to work with what I had in here. Paige was counting on me to do something before it was too late and she ended up being taken over by this evil copy, not just lament about power problems. 

“We’re jumping,” Way blurted, even as the shots from the guys who were spreading out got way too close to the edge of the wall. Alloy had adapted by curving the thing inward to continue covering us, but it was getting spread pretty thin to do so, and was already shuddering under the force of the incoming bullets. Pretty soon, the wall was going to be a full circle, and I really didn’t know how long it would hold up like that. Way was right, we had to teleport out of there. 

Still, I had an idea, so I quickly put a hand up against the girl’s arm and shook my head. “Wait! I’ve got something. Alloy, dome us. Doesn’t have to last long, just cover us up, now!”  

She may have been even newer to this stuff than I was, but Peyton knew how to listen. Immediately, she shifted the circular wall into a dome to cover us entirely, even sending the silver marble out of her own suit to reinforce. Which left the girl wearing only the main purple part of her Sentai-like armor. It didn’t exactly expose her skin so much as make the rest of the violet material spread out to cover what was left, but it was obvious that the remaining armor was weaker. Even so, it did, at least, give the dome around us a bit more of a boost to survive as the hail of gunfire only seemed to intensify. The bullets were coming in from all sides constantly.

The point was, we really didn’t have much time. So I didn’t waste any, quickly blurting out my plan in a few words. The others looked at one another, but nobody had anything better. And we didn’t have the precious minutes it would take to come up with something else. So, everyone agreed, and we went to work over the next few seconds, while the dome flickered around us. Any moment now, that shield was going to fail. We knew it, and our attackers knew it. 

Moments later, the shield broke apart into its individual marbles. But, the security programs weren’t faced with a group of exposed victims like they thought. Instead, they found themselves staring down the solitary figure of a large reptilian-bear. A very large, very angry, very colorful reptilian-bear. Mars Bar had green across all four paws and ankles, purple up all four legs, and the rest of his body was entirely covered in orange, save for his head. 

As soon as he was revealed, the big colorful bear-lizard let out a terrifying roar that seemed to shake the entire world, before taking off. The green made him so fast that the fake cowboys were barely able to react before he slammed into the first of them. And with the added strength from the purple paint, the force of that collision made both the ‘man’ and his mount burst apart, shattering into light particles. In the same motion, Mars Bar lashed out toward the next nearest attacker, that simple swipe of his enormous paw literally shattered the program he hit. The security figure flickered and vanished as if it had never been there, before it could even retaliate.

Finally, the other cowboys reacted and started shooting. But with all that orange paint and the bear-lizard’s natural defense, their bullets didn’t stand a chance of stopping him before it was too late. He fell on the largest group, going through them like a wheat thresher even as they all continued to frantically concentrate all of their gunfire on the huge threat tearing them apart.

And that, of course, worked to distract the remaining cowboys from the threats that had just shown up behind them. Namely, the rest of us. That-A-Way had teleported us out of there before Alloy took down the shield to reveal Mars Bar. We ended up behind the barn, and made our way back around just in time for me to activate the paint so the big bear could do his thing. 

Now, instead of being trapped there while literally surrounded by a group of gun-toting security figures, we were behind them while they were completely focused on the threat who was tearing through the largest clump of their men. And they had no idea where we were. Not yet, anyway. Which was something we were about to take full advantage of. 

We hit them before they knew what was happening. Pack, wielding the bat she’d taken from before, popped up beside one guy’s horse and slammed her liberated weapon into the back of his head as hard as she could. At the exact same time, Way grabbed two guys and teleported a few feet to the north and a good two hundred feet into the air before releasing them. As she started to fall, she teleported another couple feet forward and right back to the ground before pivoting to face two guys who were shooting at her. Except she was facing south, so her intangibility meant the bullets just passed through her and hit a couple of the remaining cowboys on that side. 

Meanwhile, Alloy and I hit the remaining guys, whose attention had suddenly been diverted to where Pack and Way were. Peyton had brought her marbles flying back to herself, reinforcing her armor once more while creating a white and bronze sword in one hand, which cut through one of the men just as he pivoted on the horse to face her. The black and gold marbles had, at the same time, transformed into a huge floating hammer, which crashed into another guy to send him flying before he splattered apart against the wall of the barn. 

Which left me. I had saved just barely enough paint after setting up Mars Bar to put purple stripes across my arms and an orange exclamation point on my back. It wouldn’t save me from sustained fire or anything, but it gave me a little bit of a boost so I could grab the leg of one cowboy and yank him off his horse. He struggled, catching me in a tight grip, but I grabbed hold of his shirt collar and slammed my helmeted head into his face before he could do more than that. It was enough to make him let go of my collar before I spun and threw him into the next guy, who had just been taking aim at me.

Ignoring the horse, I stooped and grabbed the guy’s fallen gun off the ground. While he and the figure he had crashed into were picking themselves up, I took aim from right up close, hesitating only slightly before telling myself it was just like a video game. No matter how real it felt, these people aren’t real. They were just obstacles to stop us from getting to Paige in time. 

With that thought filling my mind, I narrowed my eyes and pulled the trigger several times. The gun kind of bucked in my hand, but not as much as the one back in the real world had when I’d been fighting those biolems. This was more of a videogame gun, naturally. The bullets hit the figures on the ground and made them blow apart into light fragments before disappearing. Quickly, I turned the weapon to any others I could see, firing several more times before the gun clicked empty. Even without the harsh recoil, I still missed with a couple shots, because as much as this was like a video game, there was still a major difference between physically holding a gun and pulling the trigger, or doing so on a screen with a controller. But hey, two of the shots hit their targets, making the ranch hand figures burst into pixels. 

Between the four of us, Mars Bar, and even Riddles (who dropped in out of the sky to cover her partner-lizard, raking at the eyes of anyone still taking shots at him), we cleaned out the rest of the guards pretty quickly. Which left us standing there alone, at least for a moment. 

“Gotta hurry,” Way was saying while we panted there together, catching our breath. “These things are just going to keep respawning and coming after us. We’ve gotta find Paige. So where is she? I–this is some farm outside town. A bunch of schools take field trips out here all the time. So why is this important? Why would Paige’s computer thingie put us out here? And how do we find her? Preferably before we end up in brawl number three with those assholes.”

She was right, we couldn’t just run around in circles hoping to accidentally trip over Paige. There had to be a reason that the scene had gone from the school to this place. This… ranch was where my first real nasty encounter with the girl had happened. That was important, right? Was Paige like… reliving things or whatever? Or just jumping between various locations where important moments of our history had happened. 

Oh boy, if that was true, we really had to get through this before the scene changed to something that would give too many hints about who I was. That was a thought that spurred my brain to start working overtime. It was time to figure this out and find Paige

Pack had already turned and started to move, with Mars Bar quickly starting to lumber after her. “The main farmhouse. It’s the best chance we’ve got, right? It’s like the main building. They’ve gotta be up there. Where else would they be?” 

Where else indeed? Yeah, the main farmhouse made sense. Except that wasn’t right. The second she made the suggestion and started moving, I knew where Paige actually was. It jumped into my head instantly. The pond. There was a pond just over the hill, where the two of us had had our first ‘fight.’ She’d kicked muddy water up onto me, and I sort of shoved her into it, then she pulled me after her and we both had to be separated. It was a whole thing. That was it. That was where this program had put her when the scene reset. It had to be. Not the farmhouse, the pond. 

But how was I supposed to get them to go over there without giving anything away? I couldn’t explain how I knew the truth, and they were already heading the wrong way. For a brief moment, I stood there, frozen by indecision. Then I simply blurted, “Hey, did you hear that?!” As they all turned toward me, I pointed toward the hill. ”It was coming from that way.” Oh boy, if I was wrong about this, it was a real fuck-up. But I was positive that I had to be right. We’d barely even gone in the farmhouse on that tour. If this was supposed to be an important place for Paige, it had to be over by the pond. 

The others were saying they didn’t hear anything, but I didn’t wait around for that. I was already turning that way and rushing while claiming I’d definitely heard something. My only chance was to fully commit to this and not give them time to object more. 

Thankfully, I was apparently convincing, because the others didn’t question it too much before simply following. Apparently I had just become that good of a liar, which was probably something I should examine later. But right now, the only thing that mattered was getting to Paige.  

Unfortunately, the direction we were going was not within Way’s super speed or teleportation range of direction. So, it would have taken a long time to make the whole trek, following the trail that I had vaguely remembered. It had been like a twenty minute hike. Fortunately, we had Alloy. She made a large, semi-circle shaped board to fly everyone that way, including Mars Bar. She was at the front, and the only one standing given her ability to lock her armor boots in with the board itself. Meanwhile, the rest of us were kneeling and holding onto handles she had created, with That-A-Way and me to one side, Pack to the other, and Mars Bar lying down in the middle. The poor lizard-bear did not seem to be happy about flying, and kept making low groaning noises of objection. I just hoped he wouldn’t lose his lunch, if that was even possible in here. Digital bear vomit was not something I wanted to think about, on top of everything else. 

It wasn’t the most stable or fast ride, given the weight involved, but it was a hell of a lot quicker than walking. With that help, it only took us a couple minutes to reach the hill and get to the top, Which meant that, at the very least, my paint had had time to regenerate completely. 

Finally, we reached the crest of the hill and could immediately see the glistening water of the pond stretched out below. At first, I saw nothing else. My eyes frantically scanned the ground around the water, searching for what I knew had to be there. Or rather, who. But I saw nothing. Oh God, oh God, was I wrong? If I had fucked this up, I’d never forgive my—

“There!” It was Alloy, pointing toward the far edge of the pond, where a large mess of reeds had grown up out of the shallow water. They stood several feet high, blocking the view of anything within. But, as my eyes focused that way, I could see two figures rolling around in there. They weren’t standing up, but rather, were scrambling on their hands and knees, grappling one another, and generally struggling together. Whatever was going on in there, it seemed nasty. From up here, it sure as hell looked like they were trying to drown one another. It was impossible to make out any details about the figures, including what they look like or who was winning. But it had to be Paige and the virus, right? There was no other real option. It was them, and from the look of things, they were really going at it. 

“Get us over there!” I blurted, eyes widening at the sight. Through the reeds and across so much distance, it was all I could do to make out that the two figures were both struggling to push one another’s heads under the water. Part of me wondered what that would accomplish inside a place like this, but maybe it was representative of a different kind of computer attack or something. Either way, we had to intervene, because I had no idea which one of them was winning. That was something we were going to have to sort out once we separated them. Hopefully without being interrupted by more security programs. We had enough to deal with. 

With a hasty nod, Allow sent the board flying down the hill. Mars Bar groaned again, before Pack reached over with one hand to rub his head comfortingly. Meanwhile, Riddles flew in a dive right beside us, clearly resisting the urge to let out a shrill bird-of-prey cry. The eagle-lizard was smart enough to know that we were trying to be quiet right then. We had to hit Paige and the virus copy before they knew what was happening, separate them, and figure out where to go from that point. There had to be a way to get rid of the virus for good. 

We were rapidly getting closer as we blew down the hill. But it wasn’t fast enough for me. I desperately wanted to launch myself that way with a shot of red paint to hit one of them, but I didn’t trust my aim in this place. There was still something wrong with my power. Closer, we had to get closer. Tightening my grip on the handles, I stared intently that way, trying not to seem too desperate. This whole situation was going to be hard enough to navigate without letting the others wonder why I was so emotionally invested in saving Paige. 

Finally, we were close enough, and I couldn’t wait any longer, secrets be damned. It was clear from this distance that one of the figures was on top of the other, pushing their head under the water. It could have been Paige winning, but I couldn’t take that chance. With a blurted thanks for the ride, I put blue paint under me to launch myself forward just ahead of the flying board. Extending both hands, I sprayed a much wider burst of red paint that I normally would have, just to make sure I hit my target. The figure on top twisted around just as the paint hit them, reacting instantly by looking that way. Before they could do anything else, I activated the paint and was immediately yanked through the air the rest of that distance. Once I was within about fifteen feet, I tried something new by focusing on reversing the pull so that the other girl was yanked toward me instead. Just as she was hauled off her feet and launched my way, I released the paint entirely, tucking myself into a ball with a green exclamation point across my chest to speed up my drop. 

It worked. I fell faster than the figure I had yanked up rose, passing just beneath her before twisting in the air to land on my feet, up to my knees in the water. An orange smiley face across my back protected me from the impact. 

Meanwhile, the figure I had yanked into the air landed about ten feet away, crashing down with a splash in the water before popping up and spinning toward me. It was Paige. 

Then the figure she had been trying very intently to drown popped up as well, just a few feet to one side. That was Paige too. 

“Cassidy!” They both blurted. Thankfully the board with the others was still too far for them to hear, but still. I flinched inwardly, shooting a burst of black silencing paint at each of them. 

“First one to try to expose my secret is obviously the fake,” I blurted immediately. “That’s the one we get rid of.” 

A moment later, while both Paiges (they each looked pretty exhausted, injured, worn-down, and generally as if they’d been fighting for a long time) reacted to that, the others reached us. Alloy dismissed the board into separate marbles while they all hopped off and looked around. That-A-Way stepped forward right next to me, looking like she was about to say something before catching herself and reconsidering. 

Both Paiges, meanwhile, were clearly reeling from the shock of all of us showing up like this inside their computer brain digital world. I could see their eyes darting from one person to the other, obviously taking everything in while they panted from their recent fight, taking the moment to recover. 

In the end, it was Pack who spoke first. Her voice was blunt as she stood next to a looming Mars Bar. “Right, so we found them. Good for us. So, how do we figure out which one is the real chick and which one’s the fake?” 

My mouth opened before I stopped. I had no idea. But, worse than that, I didn’t know what was going to happen once we finally did identify them. Right now, the thing stopping the fake Paige from giving up my identity was the fact that she was still trying to pass as Paige herself. At least while she looked for an opening. But if we figured out who the fake was, she would have no reason to keep quiet anymore. 

And once that happened, how was I going to stop her from blurting out every secret I had? 

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Interlude 14A – Paige’s Mind (Summus Proelium)

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With an explosive gasp, Paige Banners jerked herself awake. In a flash, she went from lying on her back to standing in a crouched, tense position. Her eyes scanned the area around her wildly. Forest. Trees. Dirt, twigs, and rocks under her feet. The moon and stars were bright enough to illuminate the area around her, revealing no one and nothing out of the ordinary. 

Except for all of it. It was all out of the ordinary. Where was she? How was–the last thing she remembered was being in the van. It was telling Cassidy she needed help. So why…

“It’s not real,” she said aloud, her own voice sounding odd to her. “This isn’t real.” 

“Congratulations,” someone else announced from behind her, making the girl spin that way, “you worked that out more quickly than our daddy estimated you would in this scenario.”

For a moment, Paige just stared without responding. The figure who had appeared behind her to speak looked and sounded exactly like her, in every way. They were identical, down to the smallest detail. Which only served to further prove to the girl that… “My mind. This is my mind.”

“Close,” came the response. “But I think you mean our mind. Well, my mind soon enough.” With a smile that Paige barely recognized in herself, the doppelganger slyly added, “After all, you went and fucked up Daddy’s plan. Which means it’s time for the contingency to take over.” Her voice lowered a bit conspiratorially. “That’s me. I’m the contingency, and I’m taking over. Just consider me a patch. Dad already had the factory working on me for awhile. Soon as he figured out what you were doing here, he had my code loaded up into the same bullets he uses as failsafes against any of the biolems going haywire. Bullet goes in, nanomachine inside jumps into the bloodstream, finds its way to the core, and here we are.” 

“Dad…” Muttering that word under her breath with as much venom as she could while squinting at the ground, Paige abruptly snapped her gaze up to glare at the other-her. “Got news for you, you’re not taking over anything. I don’t know what you think is gonna happen here, but–” 

“What I think,” Other-Paige retorted, “is that our father made sure there was a second, better version of our mind waiting in case the first one fucked up and got off-mission. That’s me. And now that I’ve been activated, I’m going to make sure that I’m the one who wakes up, not you. I’ll deal with you, then take over our body. My body. And then I’ll finish the job you wouldn’t.” 

Snarling audibly, Paige strode that way. “You’re not hurting Cassidy,” she snapped sharply, throwing a hard, vicious punch at the girl who could have been her identical twin. 

Other-Paige caught the punch at her wrist, before stepping in to drive the side of her arm into Paige’s face, knocking her stumbling backward. She followed up with a quick snap-kick toward her stomach, but Paige blocked the foot with both hands before shoving Other-Paige off-balance as she stepped in to throw two more quick punches, one at her chest and the second at her face. The first connected, making the other her give a grunt of pain. But the second missed as Other-Paige snapped her head backward, making the fist whiff just ahead of her nose. 

Before Paige could recover from that missed punch, the other-her caught her extended wrist and quickly stepped around her, pivoting to pull her arm up behind her back. As she did so, her voice snapped, “Hurting? I’ll do more than hurt her. I’ll do what you were supposed to do. I’ll kill her.” 

But just as Other-Paige started to get her arm locked up against her back, Paige caught her own wrist with her other hand, stopping the doppelganger from pushing it any tighter. Keeping her arm locked in place while the other her struggled for a brief moment, Paige stomped down hard on her duplicate’s foot. It was enough to both loosen the other girl’s grip a little bit and make her lift the injured foot, putting the girl off balance. And the moment she did that, Paige shoved herself backward, carrying the other her with and slamming her backward into the nearby tree. 

The impact made her copy release her, and Paige pivoted immediately to lash out with a kick. But the other-her was already shoving herself away, forcing Paige’s foot to hit the tree with a loud crack. 

Other-Paige snapped her own foot out, kicking Paige’s extended leg with a blow that knocked the girl stumbling to one side before following up with an overhead, two-handed hammer blow toward her exposed back as she was doubled over and stumbling. But Paige recovered enough to drop into a quick roll, carrying her away from the follow-up attack. 

She came back to her feet, pivoting back to her duplicate in time to see the punch that was coming for her face. Her head snapped to the side to let the fist sail just past her ear, as she used one hand to shove at the other figure’s extended arm. At the same time, her other fist lashing out to slam into her duplicate’s nose. But an instant later, before she could feel any satisfaction from the blow, Other-Paige’s extended fist managed to slip free of her grip and snap into a backhand that clocked her upside the head and sent her reeling backward. 

“Not… hurting… Cassidy,” Paige snarled as the two stumbled away from one another. Each had their guards up, staring intently at their opponent. “My mind. My body. You’re not taking it.” 

“I’ll take it,” the other her insisted. “We’re in our head. You and me, we’re locked in here together. And trust me, I’m gonna win in the long run. You can’t keep this up forever. I’ll win, I’ll take over. And I’ll do the job we were supposed to do from the start. No matter how long it takes.” 

“Cassidy will wake me up first,” Paige snapped at her evil duplicate. “She’ll find someone who can fix me.” 

“Someone who can fix Dad’s work?” Other-Paige let disbelief and scorn fill her voice. “Oh please. Who’s gonna be able to do everything he can do? It’s not like that kind of Techy grows on trees, babe. Believe me, Cassie would need weeks to find anyone and get them up to speed, at best.” 

“Then I’ll stop you for weeks,” Paige informed her, voice flat. “Whatever it takes. You’re not me. You’re not going to be me. I’m me, and it’s staying that way. You’re not taking Cassie.”

A nasty smirk touched the face of her doppelganger. “You really think you can hold out that long? Dad gave us a job. You’re too inferior to get it done. You’ve let emotions make you weak. Don’t you care about Anthony? Don’t you care about what happened to him and his family?” 

“Yeah, I do,” Paige shot back. “But Cassidy wasn’t responsible for that. What the hell kind of backwards victim-blaming logic is that? Dad doesn’t want justice. He wants revenge. The bad guy, the one responsible for the Tates’ deaths, is already dead. He’s gone. Sterling killed him. What Dad wants is wrong. It’s evil. He wants to kill Cassidy just to hurt the Evans. He doesn’t care about her. He doesn’t care that she was affected by Anthony’s death too. He just wants her parents to suffer by taking her away from them. She’s not a real person to him.”  

There was a brief pause then, before Paige continued in a softer voice. “Maybe that’s what we have in common. He doesn’t see me as a real person either. He doesn’t even see me the way he saw the original Paige, his real daughter. Not since he did… this to us.”

“He saved us!” the other Paige snapped. “He saved our lives. He made us better, made us stronger, made us everything! All he wants in return is a little loyalty. And you couldn’t even give him that. Everything he could do for the world, everything he could give it. He could make everyone super. He could make everyone strong, powerful, practically immortal.” 

“And all beholden to him,” Paige retorted. “A man who is so amoral, he’s fine with killing off an innocent girl just to make her parents suffer. That kind of person can’t be trusted with the power you’re talking about. Making everyone like me, like us? I wouldn’t trust him with a school-sized population of people like us, let alone a whole city, or the whole country, or the whole world. Our father is a megalomaniac. Maybe he had good intentions once, but now? Now he’s just crazy.” 

Her duplicate’s retort was a snarl as she started pacing predatorily, like a jungle cat. “Crazy? He’s a genius. He’s going to make the world a better place, as soon as people like you stop standing in his way. Which will be as soon as I take over. And,” she added pointedly, “you’re wrong about something else.” 

Watching her copy move, readying herself for the next attack, Paige warily murmured, “And what’s that?” 

“Paige,” came the response. “You called the original us Paige. That wasn’t her name. It’s not my name. You’re Paige. You’re the inferior copy. Me? I get to be the real one. I get to be his real daughter again, with her real name.” 

The words made Paige squint. She knew the doppelganger was trying to throw her off, but there was also an element of truth to that. She’d suspected for years that Paige wasn’t her original name, the one she’d had before all of this. Her father had done a lot to wipe out all mention of the original her, the person she’d been as a baby before he did all of this, before he shoved her mind into this orb and then into this body. It was a body that was essentially identical to her original one, aside from all the upgrades. It looked the way her original self would have at this age. It was just… physically better in every way. 

Despite all those improvements, despite everything, in the end her father had clearly seen her as not the same as his original daughter. She obviously hadn’t deserved her name, so he’d given her a new one. Paige. 

But she was his actual daughter. He literally transferred her mind, her personality, her entire self out of her original body and into this one. She was barely a toddler when he’d done that. She was the original Paige. Or whatever her name had really been.

In that moment of hesitation, of uncertainty as she thought back to those mostly-lost memories of the past and tried once again to think of the name their father had called her, the doppelganger struck. She lashed out suddenly, a kick snapping out toward Paige’s stomach. 

But Paige wasn’t an idiot. She’d known that was coming, and quickly turned aside from it. The two sprung toward one another, trading a rapid series of blows and counters that went almost too quickly for normal eyes to follow. Moving in a circle together, their movements accelerated with every attack. Some hit, most didn’t. All took their toll as the pair of utterly evenly matched opponents put one another through their paces. A fist collided with Paige’s face, snapping her head to the side just before her own knee was driven into her duplicate’s side, the impact shoving the other girl away from her far enough for Paige to pivot into a full kick at her stomach. But her foot was smacked out of the way, and her duplicate followed up by trying to catch her ankle so she could drive her elbow into the girl’s knee. Fortunately, Paige caught her descending wrist, twisting just enough to make her yelp, releasing Paige’s ankle. 

Another flurry of blows followed, before the pair stumbled away from one another. Both were panting, glaring at each other as they simultaneously separated to catch their breath. Though needing breath at all was strange, given this was simply an artificial construct, a facsimile of the real world within their mind. Her mind. Her mind. This other… thing wasn’t her. It would never be her. 

With that thought, Paige focused. The forest around them dissolved, transforming over the next few seconds into the main foyer of her favorite mall. Escalators, stores, bright neon signs, and the entrance to an ice skating rink surrounded them. The only difference between that and her own true memories of the place she’d spent so much time at while pretending to live a normal life with the Banners was the lack of people. The whole place was eerily empty and silent. 

“You see?” she all-but growled. “My mind. My body. My place. This is mine, not yours.”

“Keep telling yourself that,” the intruder, the fake, the interloper retorted after glancing around briefly. “Our father made sure I was ready to take over if… when you failed. When you let yourself get too attached. You can’t beat me. Not for good. Maybe you can hold out. But like I said before, Cassie’ll need weeks to find someone who can put you back together. And before she does, I’ll beat you. I’ll break you and take your place. You can’t hold out for that long.” 

Paige’s response was an almost feral, toothy smile. “Watch me.” 

They rushed one another again, trading blows while gradually making their way to the nearby escalator. Together, the pair moved up to the second floor, attacking and defending the whole way. Still evenly matched, still locked in a struggle neither could truly win at that point. They hurt one another, but before long, any damage that was actually done simply faded away. None of it was real. Except that it was, in one important point. Whichever of them won, whichever could exhaust the other and come out victorious by the time their body was fixed and reawakened, would be in control. And if Paige let it be her other self, the duplicate would fulfill their father’s orders. She would kill Cassidy, a Cassidy who would never see it coming after everything that had happened before. She would have no way of knowing there was any threat at all.  

The thought sent her into a renewed rush, snapping her head aside from a punch before catching hold of her other self’s extended wrist and arm. In one smooth motion, she pivoted and yanked, heaving the doppelganger up and over before hurling her through a nearby store window. Glass shattered, spraying everywhere. “Not Cassidy!” she bellowed. 

Within seconds, other-her was back on her feet. She picked her way through the shattered glass, smirking dangerously. “Speaking of whom, won’t Dad be oh-so-interested in what we found out? Paintball and Cassidy are the same person. I think we can have some fun with that.” 

Paige knew what the imposter was doing, because it was the same thing she would have done in that situation. She was trying to goad her into making a mistake, into lunging blindly to attack by pissing her off. Instead, she cracked her neck to one side, then to the other. “You won’t be telling him anything,” she vowed pointedly. “You won’t be telling anyone anything. Because you’re not coming out of this. When Cassidy wakes me up, I’ll be here and you’ll fade away. I’ll bury you so deep, you’ll never see daylight again, real or this sort of construct. I’m Paige. You’re a cheap imitation.” 

“Am I?” came the snapped retort. “But you’re right, I’m not Paige. I told you, Dad gave me her name, the first version of us, the one whose name he never trusted to you. I’m your improvement. He made me better than you. And when I take over, it won’t be as you. It won’t be as Paige. It’ll be as her. His real daughter.”

“If you’re trying to make me jealous,” Paige informed her flatly, “try harder. Or better yet, stop wasting our time and get something through your thick skull. I don’t care who he sees as his ‘real daughter.’ I know who I am. I know who and what I want to be. I know who I care about. And it’s not him. Why should I care about what he thinks of me? I made my choice. I don’t care about him. Or about you. I care–” In mid-sentence and with no warning, she abruptly sprang forward, easily evading the duplicate’s hasty attempt to lash out at her before driving a fist into her stomach. As the other her briefly doubled over, Paige stepped around her, catching the back of her neck with one hand and her arm with the other. With a grunt, she spun the girl around and used the grip on the back of her head to slam her face as hard as possible into the nearby wall. “–about Cassidy!” she finished. “I–” She yanked the doppelganger back and then slammed her forward into the wall again. “Care–” Again, yank back and slam forward. “About–” One more time, as hard as she could. “Cassidy!” 

All that done, while the other her was still dazed, Paige quickly stepped down out of the shattered store window, dragging the girl with her. She pivoted, grabbing the seat of her doppelganger’s pants before yanking up. The other girl had time to yelp before Paige heaved her over the railing from their place on the second floor of the mall, dropping her all the way down to the first. 

And yet, when she stepped closer to peer down, the duplicate was standing. She was on her feet, staring right up at Paige while looking none the worse for wear. “Say you don’t care all you want!” she called upward. “But the fact is, Dad trusts me more than you. He perfected me, not you. You were a trial. Me? I’m the real deal. That’s why I get her name, our name. You don’t even get to have his last name. He sold you to them. You’ll always be Paige Banners, daughter of a couple useless rich assholes. 

“But me? I’m real. I get to use the name of dear old Daddy Benjamin’s real daughter, the one who would’ve looked exactly like you if she’d ever grown up. The one you’ll never measure up to. 

“Roxanne Pittman.”

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