Raindrop

Dig In 22-10 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Interesting. Leave one alive to answer questions.” 

And then the gunfire started. 

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Dig In 22-09 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dig In 22-08 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice for us,” Paige confirmed. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dig In 22-04 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – The non-canon for this story was posted over the weekend and can be read by everyone right here

As it turned out, the new curfew did not actually extend to recognized Star-Touched, no matter our age. Which was convenient for Alloy and me, yet made things a bit more complicated for Murphy and Roald. We didn’t want to risk the two of them getting too much attention, especially not this close to when we were going to make the actual… incursion. It really would have been crappy luck to have them get in trouble with the cops right before we were about to go into the Ministry base. And crappy luck was absolutely something we didn’t need to be flirting with right now. There were already enough potential problems without adding even more. 

To that end, we made sure the two of them went home early that night. They weren’t very happy about it, especially not Murphy. She wanted to be there to help with the last finishing touches on the tunnel, given how much getting into that base meant to her. But I managed to convince her that it was better for them to avoid attention right now and be ready to use the tunnel on Sunday night than it was to finish the basic work now. After all, if we were going to pull this off, we couldn’t afford to give the Ministry any advance warning. I had no doubt that they would get reports of literally any situation within a certain radius of the mall. And if they heard about the sister someone who was murdered by a guy they helped escape being picked up for hanging around near their secret base after curfew? That might just draw their attention. Even if they didn’t figure out any specifics, it was still too much of a risk. And the last thing this whole situation needed was more risks. 

After making sure the two of them made it on the last bus back to their apartment, and sending Alloy home to get some sleep as well given how much she had been yawning, I took a circuitous route back around to the construction site. I had to make absolutely sure there was no one following or watching me. Again, avoiding last minute screw-ups. Once I was eventually convinced that it was safe, I got back to the room where our tunnel entrance was. Wren and Fred had both just left as well to avoid any unwanted attention. Which left a few of Pack’s lizards on lookout duty. Twinkletoes was invisible near the edge of the building, making a low groaning sound of greeting when I approached. The groaning turned to what sounded a lot like a purr when I reached up to scratch under his chin. Which, of course, meant that I had to scratch behind Riddles’ head when the eagle-lizard made a harumphing noise from the windowsill nearby.

Quietly telling the two of them to keep watching for any intruders, I made my way inside and over to the hole. Below, I could hear the others talking in low voices, so they clearly weren’t too far away. 

Sure enough, as I made my way down the ladder, I found Pack, Raindrop, and That-A-Way all near the entrance in that widened area we had set up. We had brought some chairs down there to sit in, and there were lights strung all the way around it, connected to a heavy-duty (but silent) generator. Those same lights continued down the tunnel so we could see what we were doing. 

“All good?” Way asked as I stepped off the ladder. “Your buddies there weren’t happy about leaving.” 

“No, they weren’t,” I agreed. “But they’ll be okay. They get it. The whole thing is just really sensitive right now, you know how it is.” My gaze passed over them before I added, “For everyone. But how does it look? Are we good?” 

Pack spoke up, idly waving a small tablet computer. “Scanner’s clear so far.” 

The scanner, as she called it, was a device that Wren had set up. The lights that were strung along the tunnel weren’t just lights. They included sensors that would detect digging in the area. Essentially letting us know if anyone was getting close to our tunnel with one of their own. They also did some other stuff, including acting as countermeasures for anyone taking scans of the ground from up above. There were plenty of different sorts of detectors that could have told anyone using them that there was a large tunnel below their feet. Wren’s devices essentially moved those scans over to a safe (aka still dirt-filled) section of ground so they wouldn’t pick up anything we didn’t want them to. 

That wasn’t the only way the girl had helped either. The tunnel itself was very winding, going down and then up and then twisting, all to avoid any underground pipes and wires, or anything else whose damage or disturbance would have immediately alerted someone that we were there. Wren had another scanner device that penetrated the ground ahead of us, letting our group know exactly where it was safe to dig. As a result, the tunnel was a lot less of a direct line to the mall than we’d originally planned, yet avoiding calling down a maintenance crew leading to cops felt worth it. To say nothing of what would happen if my parents received word that there was anything hinky going on near their secret base. Again, I was pretty damn sure they paid attention to stuff like that. 

So, it was thanks to Wren that this tunnel had any actual hope of succeeding. If we’d been doing this blind, I doubted we would’ve gotten this far. Or at least, we’d have had a lot more problems doing it. And it would have taken a lot longer. All in all, she was the tunnel MVP. 

Not that Izzy fell far behind. With her making huge piles of dirt weightless so they could easily float out of the tunnel, it was kind of a race between the two of them for which was more indispensable. Maybe they could share the trophy when this was over. 

Pushing those thoughts out of my head, I looked to the others and painted a smiley face across the front of my helmet. “So, you guys ready to do one last walk-through before Sunday? You know, just to make sure everything looks right.”

I could hear the amusement in Pack’s voice as she retorted, “You sure you don’t want to go with Hobbes’ plan to have someone sleep in the tunnel until then?”  

Wincing inwardly at the thought of how Murphy would react to that considering I’d vetoed the thought earlier, I shook my head. “Like I said when she brought it up, I’d rather the tunnel get discovered and all our work end up useless than have someone here to get caught along with it. If they find it through the tunnel, having someone here won’t help anything. We’ve got Trevithick’s scanners to let us know if someone shows up. Other than that, having someone stay here would just be more risk. If they find the empty tunnel, all they’ll know is that someone was digging toward their base. Our work will be fucked, but that’s it. But if they find someone here, they can get a hell of a lot more information.”

Pack gave me a long look, shaking her head. “You’re pretty good at this subterfuge stuff for a thirteen-year-old kid. You sure you didn’t grow up with spy parents or something? Your dad James Bond?” She was teasing, but it was clear that she was also curious. 

Coughing, I managed to shake my head and play it off. “Just watch a lot of movies, I guess. Seriously, it’s no big deal. We’ll come back on Sunday and get in there.” 

“And hopefully find something useful,” Izzy put in quietly. “Or several useful things.” 

“Damn straight,” Pack agreed with a nod that way. “Personally, I’m leaning towards the sort of useful that can make sure I’m not getting ripped off in this whole system.” 

Rolling her eyes, Way muttered something amounting to god forbid she just want to do the right thing and fix the system. 

“Hey, babe,” Pack informed her, “I do want to fix the system. But I just happened to think it’s a little more broken than you do, so breaking it down and working outside the system makes more sense to me than making myself a slave to it. Besides, I can make a profit for myself and be successful while still wanting to make the whole thing better for everyone else, you know?” 

Amber met her gaze, carefully asking, “How does stealing from people and breaking things in the city make it better? How does taking part in a gang war that scares people so much they have to set up a curfew like this help fix the system?” 

For a moment, the other girl didn’t respond. It looked as though she was considering how to answer. Finally, she straightened up. “I’m not saying I’m perfect. I can be selfish, sure. And I’m loyal to a guy who isn’t exactly a paragon of justice himself, to say the least. But like I said before, we have our standards. Even if they don’t match yours, they still exist. And…” She paused, shifting on her feet. “And maybe we do break some stuff and steal, but I promise, people who live in our territory don’t exactly suffer. Blackjack wants his… the people who live near us to be loyal. Or at least he doesn’t want to give them reason to snitch or spy. Some gang leaders handle that through fear. And sure, there’s a little bit of that. Just the way the system works. But for the most part, we take care of the Prevs who live around us. Me wanting to profit and succeed in this world doesn’t mean I want a bunch of innocent people to suffer.” 

I could tell that Amber was thinking about that for a minute. This whole thing where she clearly liked Pack while still not being sure about her ethics or whatever was really doing a number on her. I was pretty sure that her dad being killed by some carjacker on a random joyride had really… colored her perception of ‘non-serious crimes’ or whatever one might call it. As had finding out about the whole Ministry situation and her growing worry that they had done something to allow her father’s killer to escape justice. Which, to be fair, wasn’t exactly dissuaded by the fact that now we had literally seen them help Murphy’s brother’s killer escape. It made that whole thing seem even more plausible. 

So, all in all, Amber clearly had to reevaluate a lot of things lately. I was pretty sure that was actually why she was repeatedly pushing Pack about all that, because the things the other girl said made enough sense to Amber that she was reflexively pushing back against them, thanks to how much her entire worldview was being shaken.

And if nothing else, I definitely understood what it was like for one’s worldview to shake.

Finally Amber spoke up. “I know you’re probably tired of me bringing it up. I know you’re tired of defending yourself. You…  you can make your own choices. I just…” She hesitated, clearly considering her words for a moment before finishing with a quiet, “I just feel like it’s really easy to do things that you think aren’t going to hurt anybody. Like rob a bank or steal a car and go on a joyride.” She managed to keep her voice relatively steady at that point. If I hadn’t already known the truth, I might not have caught the emotion there. “But there can be unintended consequences. People can get hurt or even die. It doesn’t mean you meant for it to happen, just… it happens all the time. Someone goes out, does something they think is just for fun and not a big deal, and then they hurt someone, or even kill them. Sometimes you can hurt people, or worse, even when you don’t mean to. And I don’t want you to go through something like that. You’re my– you’re a friend. I don’t want you to take on that sort of guilt, because no matter what you say, I know you’d feel guilty if you hurt someone like that. I’ve been out there, Pack. I’ve seen the survivors of that sort of situation. I’ve seen how they react, the hate they can have for the people responsible for hurting them, even if they weren’t a target. Even if it was an accident. The… the hate that those people feel, I don’t want anybody to feel that way about you. I don’t want to tell you how to live your life or what choices to make. I just want you to never be in that position. I know, maybe that’s dumb.” 

Pack seemed to consider that for a moment before shaking her head. “It’s not dumb, babe. I get it. But you’re right, they’re my choices. All I can say is, I’ll be careful. And if I do ever hurt someone like that, if I ever killed someone, I’d…” She trailed off before shaking her head. “I dunno what I’d do. I can’t predict the future. But I’ll tell you one thing. If that happened, I’d be glad to have someone like you around to help give me some direction and advice. And the kids over there.” She nodded toward Izzy and me. “Who, you know, are probably really hoping we shut up soon.” 

Fighting down the reaction at being called a kid, I made myself shrug. “Don’t worry about it. I just…  yeah, don’t worry about it. You guys can keep talking if you want. I’m gonna walk the tunnel one more time before Sunday, just to make myself feel a little less paranoid.” Pausing, I amended, “You know, before I inevitably end up coming back here tomorrow and walking it ‘one more time’ again.” My hand rubbed the back of my neck self-consciously. “But hey, if I’m lucky, it’ll only be those two times.” Another pause, then my head dropped a bit as I mumbled, “It’ll probably be more than those two times.” 

Izzy reached up to pat my back, her voice quiet yet still somewhat teasing. “But that’s still a no on the sleeping here plan?” 

Blushing under the helmet and mask, I huffed a bit. “I might be paranoid, but I’m not changing my mind about that being a bad idea. Anyway, anyone who wants to embrace the paranoia and walk with me, you’re totally welcome.” With that, I stepped past the others to the tunnel entrance and started to move down it. 

As planned, the tunnel was six feet high. None of us were that tall, so we could technically have gotten away with making it smaller. But we didn’t want to give them any help in narrowing down who we were, so six feet it was. It was also just wide enough for all of us to walk down it single-file with some elbow-room on both sides, or two at a time if we turned sideways and got close. The lights strung along the ceiling gave off just enough of a glow that we weren’t walking completely in darkness, making the whole tunnel pretty creepy. We had used a bit of that concrete from the bags that were piled up on the pallet to cover the hole in the floor of the room above, along with a wooden frame that Fred put together, to build a cement archway around the entrance to the tunnel itself, and in a few more places along the way, in order to brace it.  

Pack and Way (Izzy stayed behind to cover up the hole in the floor if anyone came by) followed as I moved through the winding, twisting tunnel. It went down repeatedly, gradually getting lower and lower through most of its length as we had been working to avoid running into pipes or anything else. Even with Wren’s device letting us know where they were, going deeper had been the best strategy for that.  Even so, the tunnel still wasn’t very straight. Among other things, we had been avoiding what the scanner pointed out as being ‘loose soil’, places where digging might have caused a cave-in despite our precautions. 

Above our heads, cars were passing by on the street. We were deep enough that I could barely hear the rumble, like some sort of dragon or other monster slumbering far away in a cavern. Which only added to the general air of creepiness, of course.  

It was a long tunnel, crossing the entire distance from the motel construction area, passing under the street, and through most of the parking lot of the mall itself. We had been incredibly careful as soon as we’d gotten that far, using Wren’s scanner to show us views of the ground for twenty feet ahead of us at a time before very cautiously maneuvering our way closer to the main building. 

If we had been doing this the old-fashioned way, we almost certainly would have taken months to get this far. But more importantly, we would have been caught. The sort of heavy digging and drilling that would have been necessary would have set off all sorts of seismic activity alerts that I was sure my parents had. Thankfully, with the pink paint, we barely had to pull at the dirt and rock to get it out of there. We weren’t making any more seismic activity than the cars passing by overhead. Probably less. Sure, it would have been faster to combine the pink paint and some heavy-duty equipment. But again, we were trying not to get caught. 

All in all, it had been a lot of long, hard, quiet work. But now we had managed to get the tunnel as close as we could. As I finally finished picking my way through that long, winding underground path, I found myself at the end of it. This spot, which we had widened out a bit more, similar to the entrance area, was where Wren’s scanner had detected metal walls ahead. Twenty feet ahead and fifteen feet down, to be exact. From what the scanner could determine, it was the very corner edge of a wall. It couldn’t tell us much more than that, but it did know what the wall was made out of, and it was far too heavy-duty to be some normal basement room. Not to mention being too deep. Yeah, this was definitely the place. Unless my family was sharing secret underground lair space with some other group. 

Everything seemed fine still, after several minutes of checking the scanner and putting my hand uselessly against the dirt wall. We weren’t going to dig any closer to the base until we were ready to go in, given how easy it would be for them to find the tunnel if it was right up against the wall. Twenty feet away and fifteen feet up was probably still too close for comfort, but that’s where we were. Sunday night we would dig the rest of the way in, get through the wall, and… and then hope that there was useful stuff in the place. 

“We won’t have time to look through everything,” Way pointed out from behind me. “It’s gonna have to be a grab and run. Just get everything we can see, throw it all in bags, and get out again before they bring in reinforcements. We can look through it for anything useful later.” 

Nodding, I murmured, “Yeah, no time for subtlety. Not when we know the sort of resources they probably have. We get in, split up to grab everything in sight. Especially hard drives. Grab all the papers, discs, hard drives, and whatever else we can find, then get the hell out. We don’t want to be in there any longer than absolutely necessary.” 

“Preaching to the choir, buddy,” Pack informed me with clearly put-on casualness. I could tell she was as nervous about all this as I felt. Well, maybe not as nervous. But still. “Get in, grab stuff, get out,” she continued. “And we compare notes about what we got once it’s all safe and we’re not in imminent danger of being disappeared by some super black ops team.” 

There was a bit more discussion about specifics, but eventually we made our way back out of the tunnel and rejoined Izzy, Riddles, and Twinkletoes in the room above. A bit of last-minute discussion followed before everyone split up. Way and Raindrop had their own actual patrol route to do before they ended up drawing attention for taking too long. 

Once they were gone, I looked over to where Pack was standing next to Scatters. The once-tiny lizard had grown into a full reindeer form. She could glow in the dark, but Pack wasn’t having her do that at the moment for obvious reasons. 

“Well, Paintboy,” she started while shifting the backpack (it was still linked to the cage with her other little friends) on her shoulders as she swung a leg up over the deer-lizard and into the saddle she had placed on her, “guess I’ll see you Sunday when we do this thing. Till then, keep it real.” 

With that, she gave a low whistle, and Scatters was gone. Seriously, she jumped thirty feet up and forward from a standing position to land on the roof of a bulldozer, then bounced off that to jump twice more in rapid succession, moving just as far each time. With those quick jumps, she landed against the side of a building, running along it with Pack clinging to her until she reached the roof. 

“Wow,” I murmured, shaking my head in disbelief at the sight. That looked amazing. Someday, I was going to convince Pack to let me give it a shot. 

I was about to head out when my phone buzzed. No, not my phone. Not even my Touched phone. It was the phone I’d taken from Wren’s, the one we’d used to call Irelyn. Blinking down at the unknown name and number, I frowned briefly before realizing that it could be Irelyn. Quickly, I hit the button on my voice changer to make it sound like a random guy, then answered. “Hello?”

“Paige Banners, please,” came a male voice. 

“Uh, sorry, who is this?” Was this a friend of Irelyn’s? Someone else trying to track her down using the number she’d called the woman with? 

There was a brief pause, then the voice came back flatly. “Give Paige the phone. 

“This is her father.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Equal And Opposite 21-10 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Oookay, so my dad, as Silversmith, wanted to talk to me. This was fine. This was good. This was okay. This was… was–oh boy. Yeah, I had no idea how this was going to go. But I couldn’t exactly refuse without causing even more suspicion than he might already have. And given who he was, I couldn’t even pretend that there was an emergency that I had to go take care of. I had no reasonable way to get out of having this conversation right now, much as I might’ve wanted to. And what really sucked was that if I hadn’t known the truth, I would have been incredibly psyched to have a conversation with Silversmith. But then, if I didn’t know the truth, a lot of things would’ve been different. And not for the better, tempting as it might’ve been to think otherwise sometimes. Knowing the truth was the right way to go in the long run. 

For a brief moment, I even wondered if this was really my father or not. But the thought vanished as fast as it had appeared. Of course this was my dad. They wouldn’t leave something like this to a minion or body double or whatever. Now that the speeches and all that were over, he’d probably excused himself from the table. Hell, for all I knew, that Eric Abbot guy was aware of the whole story. Actually, I was willing to bet he was part of the Ministry, if not a full on Touched himself. He clearly knew the truth. So yeah, this was definitely the real Silversmith. Which meant it was really my dad.  

Somehow, I managed to keep all the confusion and uncertainty out of my voice as I offered a shrug that I hoped was convincing. “Uh, sure, I guess.” Glancing to the others, I gestured for them to go ahead. “I’ll catch up with you guys in a minute.”

From the very brief look that Amber gave me, it was clear she wasn’t sure about leaving me alone. But it disappeared just as quickly, and she kept a straight face while calling for the others to keep up. Like it didn’t matter at all. Because we had to pretend it didn’t, or it really would. 

So, they kept going while I turned back the other way with a bright, “You wanted to talk?” Inwardly, I was telling myself that there was nothing to worry about. My father wasn’t going to try anything right now in the middle of a huge group of people. 

Of course, the moment I had that thought, Dad immediately announced, “Let’s take a little walk to someplace a bit more private, hmm?” His hand gestured around us at all the people. “Fun as it can be, it’s kind of hard to hear yourself think sometimes in a place like this, you know?” His voice was casual, but I could tell he was paying attention to everything I did. 

“Sure,” I made myself respond. I couldn’t let him hear any hesitation or fear in my voice. Well, he could pick up some nervousness. That was to be expected. It’d be weird if I wasn’t nervous. But it couldn’t be–yeah. I had to be careful with this whole thing. It could blow up in my face so easily. Saying the wrong thing, or even giving the wrong reaction, could make this go so very wrong. 

It was a thought that I had to push out of my mind while following after my father as he led me through the crowd. My heart was trying to beat its way out of my chest, and I was doing my level best to breathe in and out as normally as possible in order to stay calm. Well, sort of calm. 

Thankfully, no one else was paying much attention to us, so I didn’t have to worry about someone else getting involved or being a distraction. Aside, of course, from the few people who complimented our costumes. No one actually thought we were the real deal. Why would they? Walking around an event like this was basically the perfect disguise. Which made me wonder how many real Touched were hanging out here. Hell, I already knew that there were at least two Fell-Touched disguised as different Touched in this place, and I was willing to bet there were probably others. I just had to hope that none of them were planning to cause trouble. 

Or maybe not hope that. Maybe actually hope the opposite. If there was trouble right now, I wouldn’t have to talk to my father about… whatever it was he wanted to talk about. If someone started a distraction, I could be saved from this whole thing. But no. No, I couldn’t let myself hope that something went wrong here, no matter how convenient it might be for me. The rest of these people didn’t deserve that. 

So, forcibly shoving the thought out of my head, I focused on my father just as he pushed open a semi-hidden door ahead of us and gestured for me to go through. This was my last chance. If I didn’t want to be alone in a private place with him, I had to do something now. And then live with the consequences. Yet which would be worse, the consequences of showing him that I knew more than I was supposed to by refusing to be alone with him, or of walking into that private place and… dealing with whatever came next? 

In the end, the only real choice (and it wasn’t a choice at all) was to go with door number two. Taking a deep breath as silently as possible, I stepped through the door, my senses keenly alert for anything out of the ordinary. I had, of course, been covering the inside of my costume with as much paint as I could manage this entire time. There were various-colored shapes all over me, though out of sight so my father wouldn’t know I was prepping. If things did go down right now, I was about as ready as I could be. 

The door turned out to lead to a small hallway with another door to the left before continuing straight ahead to another that was marked emergency exit. There wasn’t much room here, but I was able to walk most of the way to the exit before turning back, putting about six or seven feet of distance between myself and my father as he closed the other door behind him. Then, we were left alone in that much quieter space. The soundproofing was still incredibly good here, to the point that I could have believed we were the only ones in the building. Despite the fact that there were thousands of people just a few feet away, it felt like I was completely alone with my father, cut off from any outside interference. Which was a prospect that really shouldn’t have scared me as much as it did. 

And yet, here we were. I had no other excuses, nothing to stop me from having this face to face with my dad. Standing there, I made myself sound as casual as I possibly could, praying that my voice wouldn’t crack as I spoke up. “So, you wanted to talk? Please say you’re gonna let me borrow the Silvercruiser. Wait, you do really have one of those, right? I know they have a toy of it, but I’ve never been completely sure if that’s a real thing or not.” 

I could hear the amusement in my father’s (altered) voice. “A silver hovercycle that can turn invisible? Of course I have one of those. I mean, I’m not going to get into whether the toy or the real thing came first, but still.” I could tell he was smiling at me. “Those companies have pretty good ideas sometimes.” 

Oh boy were there a lot of things I wanted to say to that. But I pushed most of them aside and simply replied, “Maybe I can get some of them to push the idea of a Paint Buggy. You know, big four-wheeler thing with wide tires and this tank full of paint on the back that you can spray with a hose from the gunner position. If I can make it popular enough as a toy by the time I get my drivers license-err, how do they handle finding out if you can drive in your costumed identity without giving away your identity?” 

Something curious, my father asked, “Is that a legitimate question? I mean, do you really want to know?” 

Well, now I really did. So I gave a quick nod. “Wait, you mean there’s a real answer?” 

“Of course there is,” he assured me. “Believe me, you’re far from the first person to have that thought. It came up a long time ago, and they worked out a system for it, which allows them to verify that a Touched is drive-legal without exposing who they really are.” 

“Okay,” I admitted, “now I’m really curious. How can they manage something like that? And, you know, how secure is it really?” Not that I had any intention of following through, because no matter how secure the system was, I didn’t trust my family not to have some way of gaming it to work out peoples’ identities. Still, I was curious to hear what they’d done to make enough people believe it was safe. It had to be something pretty good. 

“Actually,” Dad informed me, “it’s an international system. Started down in California, if I remember right. And I usually do.” That bit was said with clear charismatic teasing amusement, and I made myself chuckle to avoid making the whole situation worse than it already was. Dad continued after giving me time to react. “In any case, if you look at the back of a driver’s license, you’ll find what looks like a serial number. It’s twelve digits. When you get your license, that number is added to a special international registry, and the only information it gets is the fact that you are legal to drive, along with any restrictions. At any point, you can go to a secure website and input that number on your license. It’ll send back a three word code. Something like Bear Sofa Clock, or Headphones Chocolate Paper. That’s all you need to remember.” 

“I get it,” I put in. “So if cops want to find out if you’re legal to drive, you give them your three word code. They put the code in the computer and it tells them whether you’re legal to drive or not.” 

“That’s right,” he confirmed. “The authorities don’t get the numbers from your three-word code, so they can’t check your actual identification. All they get is a ‘yeah, this is a licensed driver.’ And sure, it’s not a perfect system. There’s ways to game it, such as a licensed driver letting someone who isn’t use their code. But, you know, if you’re a Star-Touched, or at least a Sell-Touched trying to make nice, the hope is that you’ll play by the rules. Besides, once you have a code associated with you, if someone else uses the same one, it sends up red flags. Then you’ll have some questions to answer.” 

Offering a shrug, I replied, “Well, I’ll keep that in mind whenever it comes up. You know, if I actually survive this whole thing long enough for it to matter.” That last bit came out before I could even think about what I was saying, and I immediately regretted it. But it wasn’t like I could take it back. I was just glad that my father couldn’t see my face. 

Of course, I had something else to focus on almost immediately, as he lifted his head slightly to regard me. “Yes, well, as it happens, you surviving is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about.”  

Do not react, I immediately practically shouted at myself. Do not react to that, do not give him any sense of fear or nervousness. Do not show anything. It took everything I had not to recoil or give anything away through my body language.  

Instead, I made myself tilt my head curiously. “Should I be worried that the leader of the Conservators wants to talk to me about whether I’m going to survive or not?” My voice was even, as I managed, if barely, to keep it from cracking. It had to sound like I was still totally casual about the whole situation. Even if, in reality, I was double-checking that every spare concealed surface had some form of paint on it. Okay, quadruple-checking.

Dad simply chuckled, head shaking. “That depends on how well you react to a, well, let’s call it a gentle reprimand.” He pushed on before I could react. “I know, I know, you don’t work for me, or for any of us. I get that, believe me. It may be hard to believe, but I understand the lure of working by yourself in situations like this. So yes, I know you aren’t working for me and I don’t have real authority over you. But Raindrop and That-A-Way are, and it seems that they’ve been doing a bit of… extracurricular work with you.” 

For a split-second, I had a positively terrified thought that he knew about the tunnel. I very nearly reacted badly. But, at the last possible second, I caught myself with the realization. He wasn’t talking about the tunnel or any of that. “You mean the whole thing with the Scions,” I managed, staring up at him. “You’re… you’re upset that they were involved with… with exposing Cup.” Saying that made my heart slow down a bit, so it no longer felt like I was going to need a quick trip to the hospital. Well, not just yet anyway. The jury was out on how well I’d feel once this conversation was over. 

My father nodded once. “I’m afraid so. We just need to have a quick little talk. As I said, I know you’re not subject to our rules. But believe it or not, we still care about what happens to you. And, well, Raindrop and That-A-Way are part of the Minority.” His voice softened slightly, as he clearly tried to keep what he was saying from sounding too much like a dressing down (while still maintaining its seriousness). “Finding out Cup’s real identity was a huge thing. Congratulations on that. But going by yourselves, not telling any adult what was going on, talking those two into leaving their team behind…” He was clearly staring intently at me from behind that silver helmet. “Tell me you have some idea of how dangerous that was.” 

Swallowing hard, I made myself nod. “I know, trust me. It was–if we hadn’t–it could’ve gone really bad. I mean, we didn’t know she was–” 

“I know,” Dad cut me off. “You had no idea who she really was. But you were still investigating something that you knew could set the Scions off if they found out about it. And you all went out without having real backup. If you had taken a couple adults with you, or even just–” He hesitated before sighing. “We could have captured Cup instead of just exposing her identity. We lost that opportunity, and she escaped.” 

Unfortunately, he had a point, and that realization made me flinch a bit visibly. Taking a deep breath, I hesitantly replied, “You’re right. If we’d had more backup, maybe we could have captured her. But…” Now I really hesitated. Did I really want to say this? “But as often as the Scions have found out when someone was coming after them, as much as it seems like they have inside information, do you really think it’s impossible that they might have gotten wind of what we were doing if more people knew about it?” 

Dad was almost deathly silent for a moment, regarding me intently before speaking very carefully. “Are you accusing one of our Star-Touched of being a traitor who works for the Scions?” His voice sounded as though it could have cut through glass. 

Hurriedly, I shook my head. “No. No, I’m not saying that at all. But you have a lot of support personnel. You know as well as I do that the moment some official thing went down the line about talking to a witness who might know something about the Scions, there’d be a whole bunch of red tape to go through. And every bit of red tape is another person who could spill the beans. For all we know, if we let it be an official operation, it could’ve turned into a trap against us. They could’ve put a bomb in the apartment and killed everyone the moment we went in. Or… or something. The point is, the more people who knew about it, the bigger chance of it blowing up in our faces. Uh, no offense or anything.”  

I could actually hear Dad snort quietly before he responded. “I suppose I can see where you’re coming from. You’re a very suspicious person, aren’t you?” His gaze seemed to bore right through me. “I don’t suppose there’s any particular reason for that you might want to get into?”

I was silent for a second, before he gently prodded, “If there’s any problems at home or anything. You know, any reason why you don’t tend to trust other people very much.” 

Yeah, he wanted to see if there was any chance I would talk to him about the Ministry. And, come to think of it, probably also wanted to test my reaction to find out if I knew about his connection to them. That’s what this entire conversation was about, at least in part. 

My head shook. “I guess I just prefer going my own way. Helps avoid that red tape I was talking about.” Belatedly, I added, “But I know it was dumb to go out there by ourselves when the Scions were involved. Even if we didn’t expect to run into them, especially like that. I promise, we–I’ll be more careful.” 

Dad seemed to regard me in silence for a few brief seconds before clearing his throat. “Good to know. And in the future, if you ever want to get help without going through all the official channels, feel free to call me. Believe it or not, I do know how to keep a secret.” He was extending his hand with a card in it. A card that had his name and a phone number on it. “This will get through to my cell any time of the day. If you need help, with anything at all, just ask.” 

After a very brief hesitation, I took the card and held it tightly. Somehow, I managed to make my voice sound casual. “Thanks. I mean, thank you, sir. I uhh, I’ll keep it in mind. You–you’ve always been my favorite hero, you know.” That time, my voice shook. But that was okay, it made sense for it to do so, even if he didn’t know the reason. 

I could hear the smile in my father’s voice. “Well, thanks. Glad to know an old fogey can still inspire the new generation. And like I said, you call that number any time you need anything. Now go on.” He opened the door and gestured for me to head through. “Have fun with the others. 

“Who knows, maybe they’ll be better than me at convincing you and your partner to join up with the team.” 

So, I thanked him again and went through the door, forcing myself not to look back. When I eventually made my way through the crowd to find the others, I saw that they had been joined by Syndicate, Whamline, and Wobble. All of them were in front of the entrance to the phase room, clearly waiting. When Raindrop saw me, she said something to the others and everyone turned my way. That-A-Way spoke up. “Hey, Paintball. Everything okay?” She was clearly trying to keep her voice casual and even to avoid sounding nervous about that whole thing, but I could see just how tense she was. Not to mention how tense Izzy and Peyton were too. 

“It was about the Scion situation, wasn’t it?” Wobble put in, a bit knowingly. “That’s why he wanted to talk to you.” 

Syndicate spoke up before I could respond. “Yeah, the boss wasn’t too rough on you about that whole thing, was he? I mean, yeah, we weren’t happy about finding out that you all went off and nearly got killed without telling us what was going on, but you still managed to find out who they really are. That’s more than, well, anyone else has been able to do.” 

“Couldn’t be that bad,” Whamline pointed out. “Not like he could assign the dude toilet duty or anything. He doesn’t work for him.” Pausing, he added, “You know, I’m starting to see the benefit of going solo.” 

Snorting despite myself, I waved both hands. “It’s fine, I’m fine. Silversmith just wanted to have a little talk about being careful, that’s all. We’re all good.” 

Clearly knowing that I didn’t want to get into all that right then, Izzy announced, “We let another group go ahead so we could wait for you.” Her eyes found mine as she added, “If you still wanna do it?” 

“Sure thing,” I agreed easily. “No way am I missing out on this. Then again, everyone keeps talking about how cool it is, like walking through solid objects is gonna change everything.

“But personally, I think it’s just a phase.” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-09 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Two quick things! First, there was a non-canon for this story posted yesterday for EVERYONE to read, focused on Joyride vs the Minority, right here. And second, if you only read this story rather than Heretical Edge, there is an important note in my comment at the end of this chapter concerning updates to Patreon bonuses and goals. If you do support these stories or have any interest whatsoever in doing so to help ensure they are as good as they can possibly be (and help get every reader even more of those stories), it would be fantastic if you could read that comment after you finish the chapter. If you do read Heretical Edge and have already seen that comment/update, there’s nothing new there.

So, that Andy guy and I stepped away to a small hallway just outside the main room. It led to some offices or something, and while we could still hear people going nuts through the closed door, it was at least quiet enough that we could talk without shouting to make ourselves heard. For a few minutes, I talked to him about having a Tech-Touched friend who was looking to get into selling stuff and how we wanted to make sure she wasn’t giving away her location that easily. He made it clear that he had a pipeline of people who could move the stuff and sell it if it was any good, including himself. So, I told him I’d talk to Trevithick and set up a meeting if she wanted to, or just continue to be the go-between if she didn’t. He seemed pretty stoked about either option, to be honest. Especially when I asked for his phone number and an address where I could maybe find him later. He fumbled a bit, but eventually gave me a card with a business office listed on it, quickly letting me know that he shared it with a couple other people but all I had to do was ask for him and someone would track him down. Or call the number on the back, day or night. He stressed that part, making it clear I could call him any time I wanted. 

After promising that I would be in touch, and that he should be ready to move product as soon as Trevithick had something done, I made my way back out onto the main floor while stowing the card he had given me. Alloy was waiting by the door, apparently preferring to let me handle that part while she simply watched more of the convention. Which was fair, given how much there was to see. 

When I emerged, she glanced my way and tilted her head curiously. “So how’d it go, Mr. Businessman? Are we gonna be rich and powerful?” 

“Well, you’ve got the powerful part down already,” I pointed out. “As for rich, let’s hope for successful to start out. Gotta build contacts, make it clear we can deliver what we promise, that sort of thing. Being Touched will help somewhat, but if you screw up early on or overhype it, people’ll just end up turning on you as fast as they turned to you. Better if we build a solid ground network and improve it from there. This guy’s got his own contacts, if we can get some stuff into his hands and let him sell it, we’ll have a better chance at laying a foundation that–what?” I blinked that way, realizing she had been staring at me intently for most of that. 

Quickly, Alloy shook her head. “Uh, nothing. I mean, you’re just really into this stuff. You know a lot about it for a–you know, middle schooler. No offense. Err, I guess that would be more offensive to everyone else. You just–never mind.” 

Blushing a little bit despite myself, and glad that I had the helmet to cover it, I shrugged helplessly. “It’s really not a big deal. I just read a few paragraphs out of a book in the library. You know, after we talked about doing something like this with Trev the other day.” What else was I supposed to say, that I had heard my father talking about business stuff and what sort of problems startups ran into since I was a little kid sitting on his knee? And then I’d just follow up by telling her exactly who my father was. That would sure go over well. 

Okay, I thought that sarcastically in my head, but really, I did need to tell her the truth at some point. Just not right at the moment. There was way too much to deal with as it was. I wasn’t ready to get into that whole thing, even if it would help the whole feeling of awkwardness around her thinking I was a kid. 

Yes, yes, there were several good reasons to tell her everything. Another large one being that she deserved to know if we were going to work together. Soon, I told myself. It would have to be soon. Even if I couldn’t make myself get into it right now, it would come up eventually. It had to. And better that it be on my own terms. Just… yeah. 

Shaking all that off, I gestured for her to come with me. “Where’d the other three go?” 

Stepping up beside me, she raised a hand to point. “That Fragile girl– boy that’s a weird way to phrase it–she wanted to check out something called a dimensional-phase room. Which, for the record, sounds completely amazing, and we are so going over there. You’re lucky I lost the paper rock scissors game for who had to stay and wait for you.” 

I pointedly adopted an exaggerated huffy voice. “And here I thought you were just being a loyal partner.” 

“Partner shmartner,” she shot back, “did you hear what I said about dimensional-phase room? Sorry, but if it comes down to a choice between you and one of those, you’re gonna lose.” She seemed to consider those words briefly before amending, “I mean, unless it’s a villainous dimensional-phase room. Then… well, how villainous are we talking, on a scale from say, rob an ATM to murdering innocent children… a four and under, you’d probably lose out too.” 

Before I could even start to try to respond to that, someone dressed like Boulderdash began to approach us. It was a pretty good costume too, with clear effort put into small foam rocks over most of the body, and a big shell over the back that was probably fiberglass or something. For the head, they had a black and gray ski mask to match the rest of the body, with painted goggles to mimic his large eyes. They were a little bit short for the real thing, but still. 

The Boulderdash person slipped through the crowd, walking up before stopping right there in front of us. Their voice was muffled. “Here to see all your adoring fans, huh?” 

Confused, I exchanged a glance with Alloy before turning back that way. “Uhh, do we–” 

Before I could say anything else, ‘Boulderdash’ reached up to the shell on their back, opening a little slot on it so I could see a familiar face peering out at me. A familiar lizard face. It was Mars Bar. I swore he smiled as soon as he saw me, giving me an iguana grin. 

“Wha–” Giving a quick double-take at that, I snapped my attention back to the figure herself while demanding, “What the hell are you doing?” 

In a voice that was still muffled yet suddenly recognizable, Pack teased, “Well, I had to wear a costume that allowed me to get my little buddies in. You really think I’m going to come here and not let them see all this cool stuff? They’d never forgive me.” 

Giving the girl a look, I retorted, “Believe it or not, it’s not the lizards’ presence here I’m concerned about. I mean, okay it is, but they’re only here because you are so why are you–what’s–are you guys–” 

“He’s freaking out, isn’t he?” That particular question came from Lucent. Or rather, a giant version of him, a person in a raven costume, who stepped over to join us. “I told you he’d freak out.” 

“If you’re one of her lizards that she’s somehow given full speech capability to, I swear to God,” I managed, shooting a look back and forth between them before the voice struck me. “Wait, Broadway?!” I hissed that name, of course, not that it was strictly necessary. It wasn’t like anyone was eavesdropping. Actually, I was pretty sure I could have screamed, ‘Two real life members of La Casa are right here’ and no one would’ve heard me or paid attention. Not with how nuts and loud everything was around us. 

“Aww, he recognized me!” Broadway was clearly beaming under her costume, shooting a look toward her criminal teammate. “Wait, did he get me faster than he got you? Does that mean he likes me more?” 

“Dude.” It was Alloy’s turn to hiss at me. “How many members of La Casa are you friends with?” 

Once again, I was glad that my costume choices left my flushed face undetectable. Yes, that was clearly the biggest benefit, rather than stopping anyone from knowing who I was in the first place. With that filling my mind, I coughed. “We’re not exactly–I mean– that is…” Okay, I gave up on that, turning to face the other two. “Wait, are we about to have a problem?” I said that while trying very hard not to pointedly look at the several cameras around the room. I had no doubt that there was some advanced security in here including audio. Not that they would necessarily just happen to be paying attention to us, but still. 

Pack, however, shook her head as she interpreted my meaning. “Don’t worry, we’ve got it under control. Some of their surveillance equipment is just having a little bit of a hiccup now and then. Nothing too dramatic, just enough to make sure they can’t hear us. Or a few other places, just so it’s harder to narrow down where it’s coming from.” 

“Their surveillance is having issues and they’re not like, evacuating the building?” Alloy questioned. She too seemed to barely resist the urge to literally look at the cameras. 

“Like she said,” Broadway put in, “it’s just audio. And maybe a bit with not allowing them to zoom in, blurring a few cameras here and there, that sort of thing. They’re not gonna evacuate the building for that. Especially when they can stand right there and see that nothing’s going wrong. Besides, with all the amateur Touched-Tech all over the place in here, they’ve gotta expect it.” 

“On that note,” I questioned, “What’re you guys doing here?” 

“He keeps asking me that,” Pack informed Broadway in a clearly put-on confused tone. “It’s like he thinks we’re not supposed to want to go to places and have fun or something.” 

“Okay, I think my question is, are you here to have fun or here to have fun?” I managed with a somewhat weak voice. “I mean, you did just point out that there’s lots of… toys around here.”  

“Pshh, now he thinks we’re here to rob the place.” Pack was clearly rolling her eyes. “Honestly, if we were, we wouldn’t announce ourselves to a couple Boy Scouts. I mean–” She looked toward Alloy and gestured. “Not Boy–you know what I mean.” 

“They let girls in now anyway,” Alloy informed her with a shrug. “And what are you doing here if you’re not being nefarious? Which, for the record, is a very fun word.” 

“Having fun, without the nefarious part,” Broadway replied a bit primly. “And yeah, totally a fun word. But seriously, dude, look around. We’re not like, supervillains twenty-four/seven/fifty-two. We have time off.” With that, she gestured around us. “This place is sweet. We came in to have fun. Sweet, innocent, totally legal fun.”

“Sweet, innocent, totally legal fun that requires you to use security jamming tech?” I pointed out. 

Broadway, in turn, giggled. “We’re not using it all the time. We just have it in case things go wrong and we need to skedaddle, you know? And in this case, to come over and say hi without being eavesdropped on. And without you guys getting in trouble for not immediately starting in on the whole ‘halt evil-doers’ business. So slow your roll. Or, you know, whatever the right term would be.” That last part came in a distracted tone as her head (still covered in the raven mask) turned to follow a large man dressed up as The Hyperborean, a seven-foot-tall muscular guy made of ice who wore bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and sunglasses. This guy didn’t quite match the real Hyperborean in height or muscle, but it was pretty close. And the costume he wore over himself resembled ice pretty well. 

“See, now she’s distracted.” Shaking her head, Pack nudged her partner. “Like she said, we’re here to have fun, not cause trouble. Scout’s honor. And as your partner there said, we can actually join them now, so it’s all kosher. I mean, I’m not Jewish either, but you get the point.”

Before I could find my voice to respond to that, That-A-Way approached with Raindrop and Fragile, the three of them holding several light green balls. The (currently) blonde girl was already speaking. “Okay, so they let us take a couple extra–uh?” She had just noticed the other two. 

Clearing my throat, I nudged Peyton and slipped a twenty dollar bill in her hand. “Hey, there’s souvenir hats over there, why don’t you take our new friend to get one?” 

“Super-subtle, I don’t suspect anything weird at all,” Fragile announced, giving me a thumbs-up before pivoting on her heel to walk that way with Alloy. 

“Aww, man, that’s a great costume,” Pack abruptly announced, giving Way a pointed look. “You look just like the real Way, only even more attractive and smart.” 

“Uhh,” Way managed to repeat her previous noise. 

Broadway, in that raven costume, was looking after the departing Fragile as she noted, “Hey if she’s hanging out with you, she must be that new chick, right? That was a nice entrance she had up there. Should’ve seen the look on those rich fucks’ faces. It was a hoot.” 

“Uhhhhhhhh!” Way’s gaze snapped to me, her eyes wide. 

“God damn it,” I muttered before waving my hands back and forth. My voice was as low as it could be while still being audible to them. “It’s Pack and Broadway.” 

Even as I finished saying that, Pack was opening up the little slot in her costume shell. That time, it was Tuesday the Gecko who was looking out at us, joined quickly by Scatters the Neon Day Gecko. Both of them seemed to brighten when they saw Way, who had turned that wide-eyed stare at them. 

“You–what–how–why–” Her brain was clearly stuck, as she couldn’t put a full sentence together and had resorted to simply pointing. 

“They’re not here to cause trouble,” I finally put in while shaking my head. “I mean, obviously they’re here to cause us some mental trouble, and having a lot of fun with it, but other than that…” 

Looking back and forth between them as she processed all of that, Amber opened and shut her mouth a couple times before focusing on Pack. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” She hissed those words while her eyes darted toward Broadway a couple times. 

The other girl agreed, and they stepped out of the way. Which left me standing there with Raindrop on one side and Broadway on the other. Which was just the most comfortable and excellent position to be in. But at least–nope, I wasn’t even going to think about hypothetical ways it could get more uncomfortable. That just seemed like a recipe for disaster. 

While all those thoughts were running through my head, Broadway gave Raindrop a thumbs up. “Hey, while we’ve got the chance, great job the other day with that whole dropping the tarp from that hardware store on us? I swear, you almost got me.” 

“Um, are you… complimenting me for almost arresting you?” Izzy sounded understandably confused. 

“I mean, sure?” Broadway shrugged as much as the bird costume allowed her to. “We do illegal stuff, you try to stop us. If you manage it, good for you. It’s not personal, dude. And like I said, it was a cool move. I’ll be ready for it next time, but you uhh, you keep me on my toes. It’s cool.”

Izzy clearly had no idea how to respond to that, but eventually settled on a weak, “Um, thanks.” Then she thought about it for another moment before adding, “I uh, I don’t suppose you’d like to give me some advice?” 

“To catch me, my friends, or bad guys I don’t care about?” Broadway shot back with clear amusement. “Because something tells me the last one would still lead to the first two. Unless you want to hand over a written statement that you’ll never try to catch me again. And, quite frankly, I like the whole cat and mouse thing, so not even then. But, I’ll tell you one thing. I don’t know what happened to you recently, but you’re a hell of a lot cooler than you used to be. I mean, you’re more confident, you look like you stick up for yourself more, you’re even answering questions on the news sometimes. You used to be this quiet little wallflower who always looked like you were afraid the person who was asking you questions was gonna hit you with the microphone. I mean, I don’t ahh, I’m not trying to be insulting or whatever. I don’t mean it in a bad way. I mean, I do, but only in the sense that you’re not like that–and it’s fine to be like that if you’re not comfortable with–fuck.” 

For a brief handful of seconds, she was quiet, as though considering her words. Then she gave a short, decisive nod. “What I mean is, whatever changed in your life recently to make you more confident, it’s a good thing. You’re a lot more fun this way, and a lot harder to get away from. So whoever or whatever was making you all meek and stuff before, I’m glad you’re in a better situation now.” She paused, clearly ran those words over in her head, and then nodded once more. “That’s it.” 

I almost said something, but decided it was a bad idea. Not only because I wasn’t supposed to have that close of a relationship with Raindrop, but also because she could speak for herself just fine. Which, come to think of it, was Broadway’s entire point. 

So, I stayed quiet. Izzy, however, straightened up a bit. “Thanks, I um, I guess. But just so you know, I’m still going to try to catch you, even if you are nice to me.”  

“If I thought anything less, I wouldn’t have said anything,” the other girl informed her casually. “And who knows, you keep pulling out tricks like that tarp and you might just do it.” She didn’t sound worried about the possibility, yet it wasn’t as though she was dismissing it entirely or being insulting. She simply wasn’t worried about what would happen if she was caught. 

By that point, Pack and Way had finished their conversation and came back. Amber cleared her throat. “Let’s just say, you guys… don’t start anything and we’ll all just pretend we don’t know anything about each other.” She gave a quick glance toward the girl in her Boulderdash costume before adding, “Please don’t make me regret trusting you when you say you’re not here to do anything bad.”

“Promise,” Pack solemnly replied. “We are absolutely here for casual fun and nothing else. Legal casual fun,” she added quickly after giving that a second of thought. “You know what they say. Be gay, do crime. And you’re already halfway there.” With what was very clearly a wink that was hidden behind her costume, she took Broadway by the hand and they started off. 

Shortly after that, Alloy and Fragile approached once more. The latter had a quite snazzy-looking red top hat, which she was practicing flipping around in her hands, along her arms, and up to her head. She was surprisingly good at it. Once they arrived, she looked to me and brightly announced, “If you have any more friends around here that you don’t want me to hear you talk to, they’re selling these really cool belts at the booth next to the hat one.” 

Flushing a little, I mumbled something about keeping that in mind, before thanking her for playing along. Then I added, “What’s with those things you guys came back with, anyway?” My hands gestured to the light green balls she, Amber, and Izzy still had. 

“They’re for the phase room,” Amber explained. “They’ve got a lot of people waiting to go in, so they do it by colored balls. When these light up, it’s our turn. We got a couple for you guys too.” She passed them over toward Peyton and me. “Seriously, we’ve gotta try it. It’s all set up like a normal living room and kitchen, but they can phase you while you’re in there. You know, make you intangible. So you can walk around and wave your hands through stuff.” 

For a brief second, I just stared at her. “Dude, you can already do that by yourself. Why do you need to wait around and go in a special room for it?” 

“Pfft, I can do that while going one direction,” she retorted. “I always wondered what it’d be like to be able to use my power anywhere I wanted. Believe me, if they had a ‘teleport room’ or a ‘be super fast’ room, I’d try those too.” 

By that point, it was time to go over to where those guys were taking the photograph of all the people dressed up like Alloy and me. I felt a little weird about actually being in the picture, but then, it was also pretty fun to think that nobody there knew. 

It also turned out the guy who thought he could get the real us to sign the photo once it was blown up to giant-size was Richard Mornes, the guy from Ten Towers who was in charge of coordinating with law enforcement, recruiting people from the Minority, that sort of thing. I wasn’t sure if he recognized me while we were doing the picture, but as soon as one of the other Paintballs asked if he was sure he could get me to sign it, the man glanced my way. His eyebrow rose before he replied, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure he’ll be interested.” 

Shortly after we were done with that, the balls lit up. As soon as she saw that, Fragile seemed to light up herself. “Oooh, come on, come on, let’s go check out the phasing room!” 

Before we could head that way, however, my attention was drawn to one side, as none other than Silversmith approached. Okay, to be fair, there had been like fourteen Silversmiths, all varying levels of believable. But something told me this was the real thing. This was really my dad. 

“Ahem, sorry for interrupting,” he spoke while I did my best not to react to his presence. “I’ll let you guys get right back to enjoying the rest of the convention down here in just a second.” 

“Uh, so, there’s nothing wrong?” Amber asked, obviously worried about the whole Pack and Broadway situation. 

“Nope,” my father confirmed. “Nothing at all. Actually, you guys can go ahead.” His attention turned from her, sliding over the others and settling on me. 

“Paintball, you mind having a little chat for a minute?” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Boy was going downstairs a real shift. The difference between the rich people party on the upper floor, and what we walked into down there was like night and day. Alloy and I had followed the Minority people down some private stairway and to a door that was apparently in an unused corner of the room. As soon as that door opened, we were assaulted by a mix of light and sound. The whole place was lit up by hundreds of slightly too bright tube lights hanging from the ceiling of this enormous warehouse-like space. From what I had heard on the way down, there were booths filling almost every square inch of the place, and thousands of people making their way through to see exhibits, buy merchandise, and all the rest of that sort of thing. 

And yet hearing about it was nothing compared to literally hearing it. The place was a madhouse. I felt physically assaulted by the noise as soon as we opened that door. Thousands of people all talking at once, hundreds shouting for attention or trying to sell things, dozens of buzzers, alerts, whistles, chimes, and other noises. To say nothing of the like three different songs I could hear just from the entranceway coming from different areas. Someone was playing a guitar, another person appeared to be repeatedly breaking windows or something, somewhere off in the distance what sounded like a car alarm was going off, and a couple hundred feet to our right, a bunch of people were doing what sounded like incredibly loud tribal chants. 

“Yup,” Syndicate noted while slowly looking around from the doorway (having to raise his voice to a near shout even though he was right next to us), “pretty much the same as last year.” After a brief pause, he added, in an even louder voice, “Actually, I think they’re a little quieter this year!” 

The spot we were in was behind several large booths, blocking people from seeing us. There was a narrow pathway to the left and right leading to areas we could join the crowd and, apparently, blend in. According to the others, there were so many people in costumes here that we wouldn’t stand out at all unless we used our powers. They strongly advised not doing that, unless we really wanted to be mobbed and never be able to move anywhere. Which was a warning that had made Peyton push her remaining floating marbles into a ‘pocket’ in her armor for the time being. 

Fragile, the brand new glass-form Minority girl, leaned closer to peer out that way. Her voice was tentative. “This… this is quieter?” Realizing only a couple of us had heard her, she repeated it a bit louder. 

“Compared to last year, yeah!” That-A-Way confirmed with a glance my way. “If we all stick together, we’ll stand out more and people might wonder if we’re not cosplaying!” she called over the somehow even louder noise. “We should split up so we don’t attract attention!” Her head shook a bit. “Believe me, it might sound fun to have all those people know you’re the real deal, but it’s not!” 

“It doesn’t sound fun at all!” Peyton informed her, wincing a little. “I don’t need that kind of attention, thanks.” The latter bit was added a bit more quietly, so only I could hear her. 

After a moment of thought, Syndicate decided, “I’ll take a walk with Wham and Wobble. Way, Rain, think you guys can show your friends and the new girl around, uhhh…” Trailing off, he took a second glance at the glass figure as though only just remembering an important point. “Oh, you uhh, people aren’t gonna know you yet, but they will know that’s not a costume. How did–” 

“It’s okay,” Fragile assured him. Extending a hand, she showed us a small circular device, the size and shape of a coin, in her palm. It was red with a blue dot in the center. Once we’d all seen it, she closed her hand around it tightly. A moment later, there was a brief flash of light and suddenly a very different figure was standing there. She looked like an ordinary person with pale skin, long red hair, and green eyes. 

“An Incogniter?” Whamline put in, sounding curious. “I’ve never seen one like that. They’re usually bigger.” 

The ‘Incogniter’ was apparently really good at its job, because it even showed Fragile blush. I had no idea how it managed something like that. She looked down, kicking the floor lightly before giving a short nod. “Silversmith gave it to me so I could… um, be normal in public.” 

“That’s not what you really look like though, is it?” Syndicate asked, giving a brief look toward Alloy and me. “I mean, not that everyone here can’t be trusted or anything, but–” 

“What the boss means,” Whamline put in casually, “is that just in case we do get outed and people in here figure out we’re the real deal, it’s probably better if they don’t immediately associate your real appearance with the brand new Minority member, you know?” 

Fragile, in turn, quickly shook her head. “Oh, no, it’s not the real me. Just a random thing. Um, there’s a random mode and a few set things, like… what I really look like. I mean, what I looked like before. I mean–” She cut herself off and offered a shrug. “It’s safe.” 

“Oh, good to know, I guess.” For some reason, Syndicate looked a little uncertain. Well, his body language did. The red hard-shell mask he wore covered all of his face up to just a bit before his hair. Either way, it only lasted for a moment before he shook it off. “Just be careful, okay? I’m pretty sure those things won’t protect you from someone feeling that there’s something different about you if they bump into you too much. People are pretty distracted and all, but still.” He offered her a thumbs up. “Wouldn’t want you to get knocked down and shatter again. It was cool–uhh, terrifying but also cool upstairs. Down here might be hard to explain. And it’d definitely make the Incogniter earn its keep.” 

Fragile promised to be careful before we split up, which led to Amber and Izzy leading Alloy, the new girl, and me to the right and out toward one of the openings between booths. Finally, we could see the actual people instead of just hearing them. And if things had been loud and overwhelming before, actually being out where we could see the crowd was even more so. It was insane. There were lines leading out from every booth, and even more people moving between them, just shuffling along taking a look at everything on display. About half were in some sort of costume, be it an original creation or an established Touched. Actually, come to think of it, I was pretty sure I recognized some of the costumes as Touched from other states, so maybe there were no original costumes. In any case, we wouldn’t stand out. 

Seeing all those people made me shake my head. “Okay seriously, how have I never heard of this?!” I called over the sound of the crowd, which was even louder now. “How did I not know it was a thing?!” 

Alloy glanced to me. “Maybe it’s a big fight club! You know, you don’t talk–never mind.”

“You don’t go on the SPHERE forum very much, do you?!” Amber called while leaning in a bit for us to hear. “This is sort of their annual fuck you to the people upstairs! See, they know that the rich bigwigs have their meeting on this night, and they’re not allowed up there, so a few years ago a few of them got the bright idea to rent out the rest of the hotel where the conference was happening and throw a really huge party to screw with them. Some sponsors found out what they were doing and sent some tee shirts and toys to buy, and it escalated from there. Now the VIPs upstairs do their business in the upper floor of this convention center and the little people fill up the rest of the space with all this stuff. What started as a thread on the forums to bitch about rich people not letting everyone into their private parties evolved into… this.” 

“Giving a bunch of rich people even more money,” Peyton noted flatly. “You know a lot of what the mob here are spending goes straight into the pockets of the people they started this whole thing to protest against, right?!” 

Amber gave a ‘what can you do’ shrug. “They still have fun! But that’s probably why you haven’t heard of it. Not talking about it in public is kind of part of the… game or whatever. It’s like an inside joke that you don’t talk about it. They give it a codename on the SPHERE forum, so if you don’t spend a lot of time there you probably don’t recognize it. There was a pinned thread for ‘fishing trip.’ 

“I saw that!” Peyton confirmed. “But I uhh, don’t like fishing!” She squinted. “Damn, that’s sneaky.”

The currently hologram-covered Fragile spoke up. “I’ve read about it a lot! I never got to go though, cuz…” She trailed off before fidgeting. “Cuz my dad thought it was too dangerous.” 

Amber gave a quick nod. “The people can be a little wild, but they’re usually pretty nice. At least they were last year. I–” She blinked over at us as though doing a quick headcount. “I’m the only one here right now who’s actually been to this thing before. Weird.” 

Right, because Syndicate had walked off the other way with Whamline and Wobble. I certainly had never heard of this thing before. Which still struck me as a little odd, considering I would have thought I’d have heard of it at school. But maybe it just wasn’t that big there, or… something. After all, Peyton didn’t know about it either. Huh. 

Shaking that off, I looked around at all the people that were here. God, it was so insane. There were dozens and dozens of costumed figures just within my line of sight. They were dressed up like any number of well-established Touched from all over the place. Not to mention the people selling stuff. Straight across from where we were standing, a booth was selling this special silly string that would blow apart into confetti a few seconds after being sprayed, which would subsequently dissolve into nothing. Next to that was a booth where they were selling multi-colored candles that made music as they burned. 

Then, I saw it. Or rather, him. Some guy dressed up like me–err, like Paintball. He was about six inches taller than me, but other than that it was a pretty good likeness. He had the overall costume just right, and even a matching helmet. He also had a mix of random color splotches and actual designs across it, like a red horse over one shoulder and a purple sword across the chest. 

Yeah, I had thought that I was prepared for something like this, but seeing someone dressed up like me was more surprising than I’d expected. For a second, I just stood there, staring that way. A mix of emotions and thoughts were running through my mind. This was–it was–oh. Someone was actually dressed like me, imitating me, making themselves look like–pretending to be–oh. 

A hand found its way to my elbow, and I saw Izzy looking at me. I couldn’t read her expression through the mirrored faceplate, but I could tell she was concerned. Her voice was just loud enough for me to hear over the commotion all around us. “Are you okay?” 

I gave a quick glance toward Fragile, but the hologram-covered girl wasn’t paying any attention to us. She was looking up and down the aisle, expression filled with delight as she kept blurting out for us to see one thing or another. Seriously, it was like seeing a little kid at the circus or something. Everywhere she turned, the girl found something new to gawk at and point toward. Actually, it was kind of adorable, weirdly. Watching her like that, I had the strangest feeling she didn’t get out much. Maybe she was pretty sheltered. Which made her being allowed to join the Minority a bit… odd. But then, she had demonstrated that she could be shattered into pieces and then just reform, so maybe that helped. 

Finally, I gave Izzy a quick nod and a thumbs up. I wasn’t sure how much I meant it, given the rush of emotions that seeing someone dressed up as me was actually instilling, but still. I wasn’t going to let all that confusion bring me down, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let it affect everyone else. Forcing a bit of brightness into my voice, I replied, “Just feels a little weird, that’s all.” 

“Tell me about it,” she replied, looking past me. Her voice sounded a little strained. 

Turning, I saw another person cosplaying. This one was dressed up as her. Except–uhh, well, it was a version of her that was about six years older and much more developed. Seeing that made me do a double-take, eyes widening a bit behind the helmet. “Oh, uhh, wow.” 

Making a noise in the back of her throat, Izzy managed a weak, “Uh huh.” 

The whole thing was so much to take in. We started walking, keeping together as a group while trying to see everything we could, and it was just… a lot. There were more people dressed up like us, including several in Alloy-like armor, which really threw Peyton for a loop despite hearing about it ahead of time from Lucent. Apparently she hadn’t really believed him, because now she kept rambling about how she’d barely done anything and only just started so why would anyone have a costume of her already and so on and so forth. I could tell she was just as delighted as she was confused, continually looking that way while Amber informed her (with more than a little amusement) that it didn’t take people long to put together costumes when they put their minds to it. Especially when those costumes were either super easy (like mine) or very visually neat (like Alloy). 

“Besides,” I put in as we all stood next to a booth selling funnel cakes shaped like various Touched, “like Lucent said, you have multiple sets of armor, so if they don’t like one of your looks, they can always just use a different one.” 

Amber was nodding. “Yeah, and think of the merchandising. You could have a whole group of action figures just made up of the different versions of your armor you’ve used.” 

Snorting, Peyton waved that off at first. “Yeah, sure, like people would actually make action fig–what?” She gave a double-take, staring at That-A-Way. “What’re you–” 

“Come on.” Amber nodded for the rest of us to follow before starting to head through the crowd once more. “There’s some more you should see.”  

We all exchanged glances, before Izzy reached out to gently catch Fragile by the elbow to get her attention as the other girl had been distractedly watching a guy dressed up as Big Top (a circus-themed Star-Touched from Chicago) juggling while riding a unicycle around in a circle. Once she was with us once more, the four of us headed off after Way. 

“Hey!” Someone else dressed up like–well, me waved as he passed. The guy looked more like a version of me who had been hitting the gym pretty regularly. “Nice one, dude.” He gave me a thumbs up. “You almost look perfect. Helmet’s a little off though. The visor part should be wider, and the gloves are all wrong. But hey, super-close.” 

Having no idea how to react to that, I belatedly managed a weak, “Uhh, thanks, I tried to go as authentic as possible.” 

My taller, athletic male duplicate cheerfully replied, “Solid effort, dude. And hey, you even brought the sidekick.” His focus shifted briefly to Alloy with an approving nod. “If you guys get a chance, you should stop by the photo booth over there in like an hour.” He waved to the far side of the room. “We’re gonna get everyone dressed up like those two.” His hand gestured to encompass Alloy and me. “You know, take a big group photo and blow it up. One of the guys around here thinks he can get the real Paintball and Alloy to sign it. Wouldn’t that be wild?” 

Coughing despite myself, I gave a quick nod while thanking the fact that I didn’t have to try to keep a straight face. “Sure does, totally wild. We’ll try to be there.” 

As he headed off, I found myself looking at Alloy with a mumbled, “Pretty crazy, huh?” 

She, in turn, looked me up and down a bit before dryly retorting, “Do I know you? I mean, you can’t be my partner. Your gloves are wrong and the visor isn’t wide enough.” 

“Ha ha, hilarious.” Rolling my eyes, I pivoted back to where Amber was waiting. “What’d you wanna show us?” 

“This,” she replied before extending a hand. I had just enough time to see some sort of oversized glove of her own before a stream of liquid shot at me. No, not liquid. Paint. There was a button on the palm of the glove she had put on, and when she pressed it, blue paint shot out in a stream before hitting my chest. 

“What th–” Blinking down, I stared at the splotch of blue. 

“Don’t worry, it washes out,” Amber informed me, before pulling the glove off. “Right, Andy?” 

The man she was talking to was a few inches over six feet tall, though pretty scrawny. He had a long graying-blond beard and a nearly bald head. When Amber addressed him, the man gave a little nod. “That’s right. Don’t even need to scrub very hard, it’ll come right out with no stain. And it’s non-toxic. See?” He held up his own hand with one of the gloves on and squirted the stuff right into his own mouth. Which was… sure something. 

Grimacing after that, he admitted, “Doesn’t taste great. But it’s not poisonous. Believe me, that was our big thing if we’re gonna let kids run around with these. It had to be easy to clean up, and it couldn’t hurt them if they swallowed it.” 

“Uh, we?” I blinked at that, feeling slightly confused and overwhelmed by all this. 

Turning, the man gestured up at a sign hanging over his booth that read ‘Andy And Patsy’s Toy Box.’ After giving us a chance to read it, he added, “Lots of people in this line of work get a bit uppity when you call them toys, but we know what we’re doing. And we try to aim a bit lower with a lot of our stuff. That’s our rules, everything we put out has to be safe for a kid to play with. I mean, within reason, you know? We’ve got our toddler-line, but for the most part it’s about eight and up. Nice outfit by the way. Looks almost perfect, except–” 

“I know, visor’s too small and the gloves aren’t right.” Getting that out, I extended a hand toward Amber before checking out the glove as she handed it to me. “How’d you put this together?” 

“Check just inside the opening, under the little flap there.” Andy advised. I did, and found a half dozen slots holding tiny vials with different colored liquid inside. The vials were only about the size of somewhat large pills. As I was looking at them, he explained, “There’s only enough liquid in each of those vials for one spray unless you hook them up to this.” He showed us a small water bottle-like device with a clear plastic tube attached. “If you hook this onto your belt and run the tube up under your shirt and through your sleeve, you can attach it to the base of the glove right there, where the vials are hooked in. Then when you push the button on the palm, it’ll pull water up through the tube, color it with whatever vial you’ve got it set to, and shoot for as long as you have water and anything left in the vial to color it. Pretty neat, huh?” 

My mouth opened and shut a bit before I gave a slow nod, staring at the glove in my hand. “Really neat.” Shaking off the confused feelings, I looked up once more and continued. “Seriously, that’s cool.” 

The man beamed with delight. “I just wish I could get hold of the guy himself so I could make these things be certified.” 

“Certified?” I echoed. “Oh, that’s where the Touched it’s umm, based on or whatever signs off on it, right?” 

His head bobbed. “Yeah, see, these things can be bootleg, which means no one’s approved them. Most people won’t buy bootleg, and you can get in trouble. They can be registered, which means the authorities know about it and they’ve passed safety inspections and all that, which means some of the proceeds go toward the Fund.” 

The Fund, of course, was money that went toward rebuilding places and people damaged by Touched battles, especially Collision Points. Every country who had a member within Armistice contributed to it through taxes (especially those on Touched merchandise) among other things. 

Andy was still talking. “And those who get the actual Touched in person to approve it have the stuff certified.” 

“Which means that Touched gets a percentage of the proceeds too,” Amber informed us. “Usually like fifteen percent, same as the Fund gets. We Minority people have ten percent go to our college fund and get to keep five as part of our salary.” 

Andy started to nod, before giving a double-take. “Wait, we Minority people? Hang on–are you–wait–” He was starting to realize. 

“It’s pretty loud in here,” I put in. “Why don’t we take a little walk, Andy? I’ve got a friend who’s really into building some neat stuff.

“And I’m pretty sure she would love to get some advice from you on how to sell it.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Equal And Opposite 21-07 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Dad’s speech didn’t go on for very long. Which made sense, he was kind of an expert at reading a room and knowing just how much to talk. This audience consisted of a bunch of people who were all important in their own rights, and were also waiting to eat. If he had gone on too much, he would’ve annoyed them. So, he just propped up their egos a bit with a few words about how special they were and how wonderful it was that they gave so much back to the city. And, of course, a bit about how vital the Seraph’s work was when it came to protecting the hospitals. Soothe the sense of self-importance the rich people in this place had by talking about how the city was only doing as well as it was because of them, and then make it clear (in a subtle, encouraging way) that the Seraphs and other Star-Touched teams were largely responsible for keeping the city safe so the investments these people put into it could pan out.

He said all that in very few words, while somehow making it sound and look as though he was talking to each person individually. He didn’t call anyone by name, but he met people’s gazes and gave that… that special smile that made it seem like he knew everything about you, like you were both sharing some sort of private moment even though there were plenty of other people around. The room was full of men and women who were accustomed to being the most important people around, yet my father’s speech, short as it was, made them feel it in a totally different way. And he did it while actually being the richest person in the room himself. 

I had seen my father’s speeches before, but never exactly like this. Not from this perspective, and not… not knowing what I knew. It made the whole thing even more impressive somehow. My father wasn’t just obscenely rich, he was also one of the most powerful Touched in the country and ran an organization that controlled all crime in one of that country’s biggest cities. He was, inarguably, the most powerful man in the room. But no one would know that just from listening to the way he spoke just then. He made everyone else seem important without putting anyone down. He built people up, he–yeah. No wonder my dad was such a successful businessman.

In any case, the point was that he didn’t talk for too long. Soon, there were waiters going around asking what people wanted to eat, while the band started up in the background. A few couples started to dance, but mostly people got ready for food. Especially at this table. Not that we saw very much of each other. As the waiters began to spread out and take people’s orders, privacy screens rose around us. There was the main privacy screen, a square that rose up around the table blocking any of the other people from seeing us, while remaining transparent from our side so that we could see others. Then there were also the individual privacy screens that rose up around each of our spots so we couldn’t see each other and could eat without giving away our identities. They were like the ones back at Caishen’s place, extending back a bit off the table on either side. You could put the screen back down if you wanted to, or combine them so that the people immediately surrounding you who knew your identity already were included. Obviously, I left mine up. Then again, I also didn’t remove the mask entirely. I just slid the front of the helmet up and pulled the mask high enough to uncover my mouth so I could eat. 

Call me paranoid, but I wasn’t going to take that sort of risk around here. Not with my parents and undoubtedly plenty of their minions in the room. And that wasn’t even counting anyone else who might have interest in finding out people’s real identities. 

Beside me, Peyton didn’t totally uncover herself either. She looked around a bit and considered, before simply reshaping the helmet around her face so that her mouth could be seen. Then she leaned closer to me while whispering, “They aren’t gonna serve food with like fifteen different forks and then tar and feather us for not knowing which one goes with the salad, are they?” 

“Oh, don’t worry,” Dynamic spoke up from where she was sitting, hidden behind her own screen, “we’ve been going to plenty more of these than you and we still don’t know which fork goes with what. But the secret is, they’re all too afraid of us to actually speak up and say anything about it.” 

Clearing her throat a bit, Brumal put in, “I believe the more important thing is that they can’t see how you’re eating, so there’s no complaint to make. But either way, don’t worry about it.” Her voice softened slightly, as I saw just enough of the top of her head to know that she was looking toward Alloy and me. “No one who matters is going to give you a hard time about what utensils you use.” 

“And if they try,” Amber put in, “just tell them where to shove it.” 

“Please don’t tell the financial backers to shove anything into any place,” Brumal pleaded, her head turning to give a look toward That-A-Way. “They are not that hard to ignore without causing a scene, believe me.” 

By that point, the waitress had arrived at our table (standing far enough back that she wouldn’t be able to see anyone’s face over the screens) and listed what was available. She proceeded to take everyone’s order, and even spent a minute explaining what different foods were past the fancy names for the benefit of the others. And technically mine too, since I wasn’t supposed to know what they were either. I tried to play as clueless as possible, asking easy questions. 

Once everything was ordered and the waitress had stepped away, the conversation turned toward the gang war. It seemed like everyone sitting there had a particular story to tell about something bad that had happened through it. They had saved plenty of people, of course. But there were others who had died or at least been injured, had their property destroyed, and so on. Every Touched sitting at that table had a story about watching someone lose, if not their life, then things that mattered deeply to them. 

Peyton and I glanced toward one another. I had lowered the screen between the two of us, since I still had most of my face covered anyway. Our eyes met, and I could see how troubled she was. It probably reflected back from my own gaze to her. We were both thinking about the Ministry, and how they could stop this war if they really wanted to. And about Pack. Yes, she was right about the fact that she couldn’t do anything to stop the war, but she also helped participate in it. Even if she personally avoided hurting innocent people, how much did her teammates? How much–urgh. Between her and Eits, I felt very uncomfortable about the whole situation. Hell, even Broadway. From what I’d seen of the girl, I liked her. That was my biggest problem with this whole situation. So many of the people I would have thought I was adamantly against were more likable than they should have been. It was my problem with my family, with Blackjack and the rest of La Casa, even with Deicide. 

It was all just so complicated. If only they could all be more like Cuélebre. At least I could be pretty sure that he didn’t have some special backstory that would make me sympathize with him or anything. Although, now that I actually thought that, it would probably turn out that his entire criminal Empire was built up to take care of a hospital full of injured orphan puppies or something.

Okay, yeah, that wasn’t very likely. But still, I was starting to think that everyone had their own understandable reasons for being involved in bad stuff. Well, except for the Scions. I was pretty sure there was no amount of tragic backstory or mitigating circumstances that could come close to excusing the things they had done. 

By that point, the waitress was coming back with a tray of drinks. As she approached, the privacy shield extended up and over our heads making it totally cover the table so she couldn’t see anyone’s face. Which made me wonder briefly how she would put the drinks down without dropping them, but maybe there was some sort of… thing? Curious, I stood a bit and looked down. Sure enough, the table was visible. The screen specifically only scrambled the appearances of people within it. Looking at the table itself was a bit like looking through an actual window screen. A bit distorted, but still plenty visible. But when I looked over at Peyton, her face (with the helmet still covering most of it anyway) was incredibly blurry and smudged. 

“Is everything alright?” A familiar voice spoke up nearby, and my head snapped that way. Immediately, I realized two things. First, this was not the same waitress who had taken our order. The one who would come with the drinks was different. And second, I knew her. Actually, I knew her fairly well, considering I saw her practically every day. 

Christiana Diaz. The thin, young Latina woman who worked as one of Chef Claudio’s assistants. I’d recognize her anywhere, considering one of the things we had in common was our height. She was only an inch taller than my five foot zero. And that wasn’t the end of our similarities. Christiana had the same ‘look younger than she really was’ thing I did, given she was actually twenty-two but looked more like she was in her late teens. She wore her hair short on the sides with a mop of curls on top. 

So, I recognized her instantly. A rush of thoughts went through my mind, and it took basically everything I had not to blurt her name in surprise. Boy would that have been hard to explain. But somehow, I managed to shove the reaction down and simply put all my surprise into a gasp before giving a sharp exhale that turned into as much of a laugh as I could manage. “Oh! Damn, sorry. You uhh, you sure you’re not a ninja? You kinda snuck up there.” 

There was a very brief pause before Christiana giggled and shook her head. “No, no, sorry. It’s my fault. I keep saying I should put some little bells on this outfit.” With a wink, she added, “Can I help you with anything, sir?” 

The lower half of my face was exposed. She could see my mouth. Did she know my face well enough to recognize me from not? No, of course not. That was ridiculous. And yet, I almost couldn’t stop myself from reaching up to pull the mask down. That would have been even more suspicious, of course. But it was still almost impossibly tempting. 

Shoving that impulse down as hard as I could, I gave a quick shake of my head. “Nah, nah.  It’s all good. I was just seeing how the–you know, what the screen–what it looked like.” I was babbling, and I was saying too much. I needed to stop talking. The more things I said, the more likely she would figure out who I really was. I had to give her as little to work with as possible. So, my mouth snapped shut after saying all that. Then I reached out. “Oh, uh, I’ll take ours.” 

There was a brief pause before Christiana nodded, carefully turning the tray and extending it so I could take the glasses meant for Alloy and me. Mumbling a thanks, I sat down and gave my partner her drink. 

Peyton, of course, was staring at me. “Are you okay?” she asked in a whisper that was barely audible. “You seemed a little… uhh, not.” 

Taking a gulp of my drink, I quickly shook my head. “It’s fine, I’m fine. It’s just … different being in a place like this, you know?” 

That seemed to do the trick. The other girl achieved a sigh while nodding almost frantically. “Believe me, I know what you mean. It’s so weird being here with all these rich people who wouldn’t even notice if they ran over me in the street.” 

Amber made a noise in the back of her throat, and I winced at Peyton’s choice of words. But I couldn’t exactly explain why it was the wrong thing to say. Instead, I simply replied in a low voice, “Some of them would notice.” 

That started even more discussion around the table, centered around celebrities and rich people they had worked with, saved, or whatever. It was a mix of horror stories and nice ones, even a couple bits about celebrities who I thought would be real pains in the ass ending up actually sounding pretty cool. Which didn’t exactly prove they were nice to everyone, given who these people were, but still. 

Honestly, once I got past my surprise of being served by Christiana (she also brought our food), and the fact that my parents were on the other side of the room, it was… nice. I was able to just sit there and listen to more experienced Touched tell stories and exchange inside jokes. Sure, I didn’t get all their references, but they tried to explain it as much as they could. And even aside from that, it was just cool to sit and listen to these guys talk about fights they’d been in, people they had saved, villains they fought, it was… it was actually one of the first times I really felt like a part of this community.  

That wasn’t exactly a good thing, of course. I wasn’t a part of their community. I couldn’t be. I couldn’t trust all of them. For all I knew, half the people at this table worked for the Ministry in one way or another, even if they didn’t really know it. No matter how welcoming they seemed, I couldn’t let myself forget that fact. I could talk with them, even work with them, but I couldn’t entirely trust every single one of them. And that meant I couldn’t entirely trust any of the people here aside from Peyton. 

Well, and aside from Amber and Izzy, of course. They were a different story, and I was incredibly lucky that I had them as a connection to the Minority. For a brief moment, I tried to think of how this whole situation would have played out if I didn’t know who those two really were. It wasn’t a very fun thought. Actually, come to think of it, I might have been too paranoid to even come if I didn’t have those two helping. 

In any case, I was silent through most of the rest of the meal, content to simply sit there and listen as the others went on. And from the looks that Peyton gave me once in awhile,  she was enjoying herself too. We both sat there listening to the stories, feeling a bit like we had been given a backstage pass or something. Which was weird, given we were technically, like, one of the bands, to stretch the analogy. But still, it was just different somehow. Sitting here, listening to the far-more-experienced people trade war stories, made the whole thing more real. 

It helped that the food was pretty good. Or, if you listened to Peyton go on, it was completely amazing. She finished off her entire plate, and then a second one when Christiana came by to ask if anyone wanted more. It honestly just tasted like the food we had at home, but then, I supposed that made sense. If Christiana was here, maybe Claudio was too. He had, after all, been the head chef of a five star restaurant before my parents snatched him up. 

As dinner was winding down, we had another speech to sit through, but this one I didn’t mind too much. It was Radiant, standing right up there on stage to talk about how important Detroit and its Touched-Tech factories were to the nation at large, and how proud everyone here should be about how much the city had been turned around in the past couple of decades. It was no secret that Detroit hadn’t been in the best of shape before the whole Touched thing came around, but now we were one of the strongest, most economically sound cities in the country. Not to mention one of the fastest growing, to an absurd degree. The people who had come to the city and invested in that growth had a lot to do with that, and most of them were sitting in this room. Radiant basically told them to give themselves a pat on the back for that. 

At least, that’s how it started. And clearly it was where the rich people in the room expected it to stay. But before long, the woman shifted her focus a bit. She went from talking about these important, wealthy people giving so much to the city to talking about the city itself, and the people in it. And almost before anyone realized the subject had changed at all, suddenly Radiant was talking about how the people in the city were the ones who really changed it. The people here had benefited a lot, and their influx of money helped give the place the jumpstart it needed. But no amount of money-fueled jumpstarts would have accomplished anything if it wasn’t for the people who lived here, the ones out on the street doing the work every day. 

It was kind of amazing to sit there and watch, because it wasn’t that she insulted or demeaned the rich people in the room. No, she propped them up just fine. She gave them their dues. But she also pulled other people up, putting them on an equal level with the millionaires and billionaires (and even the Touched) in this room. She lifted everyone up, noting the importance of each contribution. She wasn’t denouncing the rich people while making some stand for the little guy. She had started by propping up the people in this room, making it that much harder for them to disagree or be offended when she brought the rest of the population up to the same level. 

Leaning a bit closer to Peyton without taking my eyes off the woman on stage, I whispered, “If I was the type of person to be interested in someone older than me, I might be in love.”

“Oh, believe me,” she replied in a hushed voice, also without looking away from Radiant, “you’re not the only one.”

With a chuckle, Wobble spoke up. “Sorry, you guys. We’re pretty sure she’s already spoken for.” 

Amber was nodding. “We’re not sure by who, but we’ve seen her with a wedding ring. So, you know, you’re kind of late for that train.” After a brief pause, she added, “And I don’t think you meet the age requirement.” 

After Peyton and I both made a show of snapping our fingers in disappointment, our attention turned back to the woman in question as we listened to the rest of her spiel. She made it clear through all of it that the people in this room needed to keep contributing to the overall benefit of the city if they wanted it to continue to thrive, pointing out the forces that were already trying to drag it down. She talked about how Star-Touched chose to use our powers to help people, and that those with resources like these people possessed had the same responsibility. And yet, it wasn’t like she was shaming them or anything. The way she phrased it made it sound as though she was proud of the opportunity these people had, going on a bit about how they could have everything they wanted while still contributing to raising the standard of living for everyone in the city. 

It was more than a little impressive, made even more so for how relatively short it was. She didn’t talk for very long before simply promising that she would be keeping an eye on things here to see how California could incorporate the incredible ideas that they came up with, and bring some of those ideas…. and the people involved, to projects in her own state. 

So there it was, the biggest crux of her speech. She wasn’t just praising these people for the work they could do here, she was essentially saying that she would be keeping an eye on the city and the people she liked would get her recommendation for all-new projects in California. How much money would that be worth? A lot, to say the least. Without actually shaming anyone, Radiant told these people that she expected them to look after the regular population, and that those who did would be rewarded with enormous new contracts. 

As she left the stage and the music picked up, we watched more couples move to the dance floor. Including my parents. I was focused on staring at them while trying not to look like I was staring at them, when Amber reached over to touch my hand through the privacy screen. “Hey,” she started, “you wanna go down with us to check out the convention floor? I’ve gotta see if there’s more people dressed up as you or Whamline. 

“And it better be you, or I owe him fifty bucks.” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-06 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, okay then. Apparently there was a new member of the Minority. A pretty young one from what I could see. As murmurs came up all around the room, I stared a bit more intently at the girl in question. She wasn’t hiding her face or anything, but then again, it probably would have been hard for someone to mistake her for some other girl made of glass. The detail was incredible, even from here. She looked like an ice sculpture that had been carved by the best in the world. Well, if ice sculptures were capable of looking around, her eyes clearly shifting to scan the crowd. Again, the parts that were ‘skin,’ like her face and exposed hands, were clear, like regular glass or ice. The parts that were supposed to be her clothes were like stained glass. It was a pretty neat effect, especially the fact that she was very clearly alive and moving around. For a brief moment, I found myself caught up in just staring.

“Another child.” The voice was a murmur just above my head, and I belatedly realized that it was Lucent, muttering those two words with what sounded a bit like disappointment. Or possibly dismay. He didn’t elaborate further, however. Instead, he gave my helmet a very slight peck for attention before adding, “If you will pardon me, I have a few people to speak with. Do enjoy the party and I hope to see you soon.” Giving a short look toward Hallowed, he launched himself off my head and flew over to another side of the room. His motions got some people’s attention, but when they realized who it was, they just turned back to their business. Well, their business of staring at this new Minority girl who had so dramatically introduced herself. 

After those few seconds had passed, Silversmith raised his hand for attention before speaking up once more. “As always, we are incredibly grateful every time we are blessed with another addition to our young team. One of my greatest honors in this life has always been to see the way the youngest among us can grow and become truly remarkable heroes, protecting the innocent and vulnerable. Having this opportunity to watch their growth, and guide them into the type of stalwart champions this world deserves, is truly one of the most gratifying and humbling aspects of this job. Each and every one of these Minority kids are very special. They put their time and gifts toward helping to protect this city. And they risk far more than they have to.”

He let that hang in the air for a moment before speaking again. “But, I’m sure you’ve all heard me ramble on long enough. Well, for now anyway. I promise, you’ll be hearing more later. So much it might make some out of you consider withholding the donations you’ve pledged until they give this job to one of the other team leaders we’re fortunate enough to have with us tonight.” 

Once the scattered chuckles to that had died down, he continued. “Our new friend here has made it clear, in more than one way, that she would like to introduce herself. So, why don’t I just give her the chance to do that.” Stepping aside, he raised one hand as though to gesture for her to go ahead. At the same time, he turned a bit to look out into the crowd, and I followed his gaze before finding my parents. Yes, including my father. They were both sitting at one of the tables near the front, along with Kent and Mills Jackson, Tomas’s parents. Oh, and that Eric Abbot guy I had been introduced to right before I’d gotten the call from Pack to tell me that Eits had been attacked for looking into the name I’d asked him about. He was there too, though he didn’t have anyone else with him. All five were sitting at the table, watching what was going on intently. 

Well, that clearly answered the question of whether my dad was really in the Silversmith armor, at least. Though I still wondered if he was projecting his voice to it somehow, or just having someone else speak for him. It really could’ve gone either way. 

The urge to interrupt them and cause a distraction, just to see if anything happened to the Silversmith on stage, was incredibly strong. But somehow I doubted I could get away with that without causing suspicion. Besides, they had almost certainly already planned for anything that might take my father’s attention off his other self. I’d risk exposing myself for no real benefit. 

By that point, the new girl, Fragile, had stepped up to take center-stage. As she did so, a small tornado of glass emerged from behind the nearby curtain, flying up in front of her before transforming into a podium, and a small set of stairs for her to step up to it. So she wasn’t just made of glass, she could also manipulate it, and turn it into new things. It wasn’t like the glass shards were just vaguely in the shape of a podium. She had literally transformed them into a solid structure. 

“Wow,” Alloy murmured beside me, “that’s pretty fucking cool.”  

Her words made Hallowed, who had apparently been just as caught up as the rest of us, start a bit. I was pretty sure he had briefly forgotten that we were there in the first place. With a quick glance our way, he whispered something about showing us where to sit, then gestured for us to follow him as he started to move. Alloy and I glanced at one another before following. Meanwhile, Fragile was talking into the microphone, her voice filling the room. “Hi, everybody! It’s so cool to see you guys, and be here! Seriously, you have no idea how awesome this is. I have superpowers, isn’t it neat?!” With those words, the glass podium reformed into the shape of a horse that she was perched on top of. “And now I get to make my own pony, so I can stop bugging my dad!” That made a few people chuckle, before she shook her head. “But you know what? Horses are kind of lame. Alligators are better.” And sure enough, the glass horse transformed into a large alligator underneath her, its head swinging back and forth as its mouth opened and shut repeatedly to reveal large dagger-like teeth. 

The display of her powers made everyone clap a bit. And by then, Hallowed had led Alloy and me through the room. We were seen and recognized by a few people, who gave us whispered greetings, or just waved, to avoid interrupting. We waved back, a bit awkwardly, while keeping up with our guide. 

Soon, we found the table we were being led to. It was on the far side of the room, up closer to the stage but half-hidden by the orchestra pit. I knew it was where we were going because there were a bunch of other Touched already there. Unlike most of the tables, this one wasn’t circular and meant for only a few people. Instead, it was one of the long, rectangular tables, large enough to hold like thirty people. The Minority (or at least everyone aside from Carousel) were seated at the table, as were most of the Conservators and Spartans. 

As we approached, I could see every member of the Minority, especially Raindrop and That-A-Way, staring very intently at the girl onstage. But they weren’t the only ones. The Conservators and Spartans were pretty focused that way too. Something told me this was as much of a surprise for the people here as it had been for everyone else. Which seemed a bit odd to me. Did my dad really just put this girl on the team without telling any of the other Star-Touched in town until just now? 

Not just odd, actually. Suspicious. But… she was just a kid. She couldn’t be working for the Ministry or–fuck, I was really getting paranoid about this. Or maybe I wasn’t paranoid enough. I seriously couldn’t tell. 

When she saw us approach, Izzy whispered something to Amber before nodding subtly toward a couple seats across from them. Amber openly gestured for us to come that way. So, Alloy and I did just that. We took a second to thank Hallowed for the invitation, before moving over there. I took the seat across from Amber, while Alloy sat next to me and across from Izzy. The seats on our opposite sides were both empty for the moment. The way the table was set up, the Minority people (and the rest of us) were at one end, while the Conservators were at the other end on the side the Minority were seated on, and the Spartans were at that end on the other side (the one Alloy and I were seated on). Well, three members of the Spartans were, anyway. Brumal, Skin-Head, and Versed were there, while the large, rock-formed Boulderdash with his big armadillo/turtle-like shell was seated on a special reinforced chair at the very end of the table. He wouldn’t fit sitting in a normal seat like the others. 

Meanwhile, the Conservators who were here consisted of Dynamic, Kriegspiel, RePete, and Bokor. Four members of the Spartans and four of the Conservators were attending this thing. Also Silversmith, of course, who was still standing back on the stage to watch that Fragile girl. Or at least, the person posing as Silversmith was. Or my father’s empty armor with a voice–never mind. It was complicated. 

Either way, as soon as we sat down, I met Amber’s gaze and gave a little wave. “Looks like you guys have a new teammate, huh?” 

It was Syndicate (or at least the one who was physically sitting here) who spoke up from his spot two down from That-A-Way. “I’d say good because we need the help, but she looks a little young.” He glanced down the table toward Raindrop before adding, “Uh, no offense.”  

Whamline, seated between him and Amber, reached around the girl beside him to pat Izzy on the back. “If she’s anything like our Raindrop, our team just got a huge upgrade. The kid’ll be saving our butts in no time.” 

Wobble, seated on the far side of Syndicate, looked toward Alloy and me. “I think what my teammates are trying to say is hi, glad you could make it. Sorry, I guess we’re just a little surprised by this whole thing.” He nodded toward the stage, where Silversmith was just stepping up by Fragile to put a hand on her shoulder and guide her down off the stage. And, as it happened, toward the rest of us. The audience was applauding, while several photographers took a few pictures. The same photographers noticed Alloy and me sitting with the Minority and snapped pictures our way too. Peyton immediately made a noise deep in her throat and turned away as though afraid of being recognized, before clearly remembering that her face was covered. I felt her embarrassment and put a hand on her arm before giving the girl a quick nod, trying to be encouraging. That was probably the right thing to do, wasn’t it?

By that point, Silversmith and Fragile had reached the table. He kept his hand on her shoulder, looking at the rest of us. “Ah, sorry for the little ambush about all this. It felt like a fun surprise at the time, but in hindsight, maybe we should have let you guys meet in private.” With a self-conscious cough (or at least a put-on one), he gestured. “Anyway, everybody, this is Fragile.” To the girl herself, he added, “Fragile, meet your new teammates. And the others you’ll be learning from.” One by one, he introduced everyone on all three teams by name, while guiding the girl around to sit next to Izzy. “I’ll let you guys all get acquainted. But don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other away from here. For now, just ahh, have a good time.” With that, he patted the glass-girl’s shoulder once before stepping away to go back up on stage, where one of the city’s politicians was already starting to give a speech of his own. 

Now I was getting a closer look at her face, and it was even more detailed than I had thought it was before. That really shouldn’t have surprised me, of course. Seriously, her body was literally made out of glass. Why wouldn’t it be detailed? It was her face. Still, it was kind of fascinating to see. Especially when she turned a bit to look straight at me and offered a bright smile. “Hi! You’re Paintball! You’re so cool. I was gonna ask to join your team, but I didn’t know if you were hiring or anything. Is hiring the right word? I dunno, but you’re not really open to new membership, and besides, my dad really wants me to be on the Minority, cuz he says they can keep an eye on me and make sure I don’t get in trouble. He said you have a habit of finding your way into trouble you shouldn’t be in, which is silly cuz I think the trouble really finds you. But I said that and he said that didn’t really change the point that you and trouble are really close and he wants me to be here instead, I mean on the team with–” 

In mid-sentence, she turned to look at Izzy sitting next to her, then leaned over to see the rest of the Minority watching her. “Hi, guys!” She gave a happy wave once more. “Sorry, that was probably pretty rude, huh? I didn’t mean I didn’t want to be on a team with you guys. I just meant that–uhh…” A slight red tint came over her clear glass face as she tried to find the right words.

“It’s okay,” Amber immediately assured her. “Trust me, we know how cool Paintball is. Maybe with you onboard, you can help us try to recruit him and his new partner over to the team.” She offered me a wink while saying it. Of course, Amber had to keep looking as though she was trying to get me to join. It would have been suspicious otherwise. And the last thing we wanted to do was make the Ministry at all suspicious about what she knew.

“Sorry,” I replied as casually as possible, “still just a lone wolf over here.” At a cough from Peyton, I shifted and amended, “Or a duo wolf. Dual wolves? Actually even that’s not true. We uhh–we’re a very small pack. A–never mind. Hey, look at it this way, being separate like this means that we can play back up for you guys. And vice-versa. Trust me, we’re gonna need your help a lot.” 

Syndicate focused on me. “Hey, that’s right. Way was saying that you came up with your own new team or something? Even had a name.”  

“Is that right?” The new voice was Dynamic, speaking up from further down the table. She had turned a bit to face us and was giving a little wave our way. “Hey there. Good to finally get to talk in person. I mean, after all the stuff you’ve been into, I feel like I should be asking for your autograph.” 

RePete, seated beside her, raised a hand as well. “Hey, me too. My niece would kill for a Paintball autograph, especially if it was a signed picture. Actually, I’m pretty sure she’d kill me for one, which makes me a little jealous, cuz I used to be her favorite.” 

Their words had attracted the attention of the rest of the adults down there, and now we had both the Conservators and Spartans looking at us. Which made me want to squirm a bit uncomfortably at all the attention. It was one thing to be out on the street showing off for crowds, in or out of costume. I was accustomed to doing crazy (even stupid) shit for the hell of it. But here, sitting at a table with a bunch of costumed heroes who were all looking at me like I was one of them? That was a lot to take. Beside me, I was pretty sure Peyton was feeling pretty much the same, if not worse. Probably worse. But I pushed the thought aside and embraced my role. Paintball wouldn’t be embarrassed here. 

“I’ll trade you any autographs you want, one for one,” I quickly found myself replying. “But believe me, I’m pretty sure yours is worth a lot more than mine. So really, I’m making out like a bandit.”  

That prompted a couple soft chuckles, and some actual official introductions were passed back and forth. The adults at the table were all pretty laid back, though Brumal remained a bit standoffish. Or maybe that was just my impression. She didn’t say very much and seemed distracted. But the rest of her teammates who were there made up for it. Skin-Head, Boulderdash, and Versed were all really friendly and quick to make jokes. Boulderdash in particular had a very distinctive roaring laugh that he had to muffle a few times when people from other tables shushed him because people on stage were still talking. 

And that was another thing. There were important people up there. Important as far as the city went. They were giving long speeches about donating money to the Seraphs and their related organizations, basically patting themselves and each other on the back for all the good they were doing. But no one at this table was actually paying any attention to them. We were all talking amongst ourselves (albeit in whispers) and basically ignoring that whole situation over there. It wasn’t what I had expected when we came here, but I wasn’t going to complain either. I would much rather talk to a bunch of Touched than listen to self-important rich blowhards. After all, I’d been doing the latter since… well, basically since I could talk. 

The others all wanted to know what was up with our supposed new name and all that too, so Alloy and I exchanged glances before I put my hand out onto the table. As they watched, I made the name appear there in bold red letters, just like I had on the wall of Wren’s shop. Avant-Guard

“Okay,” Versed announced while pointing to it. “That’s a cool name. You’re not accepting new members after all, are you?” She was clearly teasing, and grunted as Boulderdash nudged her. “What, I didn’t say I wouldn’t take you with me, big guy.” 

Snickering despite myself, I held up both hands. “Before any of you get eager about jumping over to this side, I should probably point out that we don’t exactly offer a salary or benefits.” 

Versed immediately made a show of grumbling. “Oh, well in that case, I think I’ll stick to this team.” She looked around, frowning. “Huh. I was going to tell the boss that he’s lucky, but he’s not here. As usual.” The last bit came in a muttered voice that made me blink that way. It sounded as though she was a little annoyed with Silversmith, which… huh. 

It also made me think of something else, and I quickly asked, “How come not everyone’s here? I mean, where’s Carousel? And uhh, Flea and Trivial. Are they around here somewhere?” I had noticed that both the Spartans and Conservators had a missing member earlier, and this felt like the best time to bring that up. 

“Flea had some personal business to take care of out of town,” Kriegspiel informed me. “She’s on leave for a few days. Not the best timing, but you know. Shit happens when it happens. Ah, sorry, stuff happens when it happens.” 

“I’ve heard the word before, it’s okay,” I assured him, before giving a double-take toward Raindrop and Fragile. “Oh. Right. I’m not the only one sitting here.” 

“I’ve heard it too,” Izzy put in, her voice dry.

“Anyway,” Brumal announced with a short clearing of her throat. “Trivial took a little time off as well, to help out with Flea’s situation. And I’m sure if they need anyone else, they will ask for it.” That was said in the direction of Skin-Head, who had started to say something. Clearly, that was a bit of a long-standing argument between the two of them.

“And Carousel just stayed home tonight,” Wobble informed me. “She needed the night off to spend with some friends who came in from out of town or something. So, you know, she’s just chilling out, playing games, while we’re stuck here watching…” He gestured up to the front. “This.” 

“I don’t know about you,” Amber corrected him, “but I haven’t been watching it for about twenty minutes now.” She looked down the table toward Fragile before adding, “And that was some entrance.” 

Giggling, the girl shifted in her seat. “Yeah? Sorry, I didn’t tell Silversmith about that, or my dad, or… anyone. I just thought it’d be cool to see everyone’s reactions.” 

“Well, it was definitely an exciting introduction,” Wobble confirmed. “I don’t think anyone will forget about it anytime soon.” 

And then it was time for yet another rich, important blowhard to talk. Specifically, my father. As the others continued to chatter, I noticed him get up from the table, give my mother a brief kiss, then start up to the stage. My eyes followed him, and I sat up a bit reflexively. 

There was a strong impulse to stand up and shout out questions about how he divided his attention between his regular business pursuits, leading the Conservators, and being the leader of the secret organization that ran all crime in the city. I didn’t do that, of course.

But boy, was it tempting. 

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Kith And Kin 20-10 (Summus Proelium)

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I was in for a bit of a surprise when I made it to the alley (really it was more of the space between one half-finished office building and an old self-service car wash that barely got any use) where I was supposed to be meeting Amber, Izzy, and the others. Two surprises, actually, named Murphy and Roald. They were both standing next to a dumpster with the others, and were the only two besides Fred not wearing any sort of mask. As I dropped down from the roof to land casually on my feet (thanks to orange soles), both looked up from the ground they had been intently staring at. No one had been talking, aside from Amber and Pack, who were in a whispered conversation until I arrived. 

Focusing on Murphy and Roald first, I stepped that way after catching myself. “Wha–you guys–” 

“Don’t say it,” Murphy interrupted. Her eyes were bloodshot and had dark circles under them, voice sounding hoarse and strained. “Don’t say we don’t need to be here.” She opened her mouth, then stopped as the only thing that escaped her was an almost keening sound for a moment before she caught herself. Visibly swallowing, she tried again. “I need to be here.” 

How was I supposed to argue with that? Instead, I simply asked, “No masks?” 

They both shrugged, Murphy asking, “What difference does it make? Not like they couldn’t figure out who we were if they actually put the slightest effort into it. If we’re gonna work at the pawn shop, they could all just… you know, walk in and shop there.” Belatedly, she added, a bit darkly, “Besides, what’s Pack over there gonna do, tell all her supervillain friends how to track us down and steal our three-dollar lamp and fifty-dollar television?” 

For her part, Pack offered a casual, “I asked Blackjack and he said the market for fifth-hand goods held together with duct tape and prayers dried up last week. So I guess their stuff is safe.” With a glance toward those two, she added a belated, “I mean, fuck. Sorry. I didn’t mean to make it sound like–I mean–” 

“Don’t worry about it.” That was Murphy, her voice flat. “I don’t care if you think our shit is shit. I care if you’re gonna help drag the secrets out of these motherfuckers so we can find the guy.” 

“That I can definitely do,” Pack agreed. “Luciano’s a worthless fuckbag. And he definitely doesn’t deserve to ride off into the sunset after that shit he pulled. I’m in for bringing him down.” Looking at me, she added, “And not for betraying people.” 

My head gave a quick nod. “I didn’t think you were. Just… wanted to make sure they were comfortable with this. It’s not just about you. It’s about showing their faces to everyone here.”  

Clearing his throat, Roald spoke up finally. “We couldn’t sit around the apartment anymore. My sister’s taking care of all the big picture stuff, so we just…” He trailed off, though it was obvious that he was going to say something about feeling useless. Instead, he finished with, “… decided it’d be a good thing for you guys to have people who can stand around and play lookout, or go over to the mall itself. And trying to do all that while constantly putting ski masks on whenever you guys come out or we go in was, you know, more trouble than it’s worth.” He offered a weak shrug. “We’re not important enough to disguise.” 

Oh boy was there ever a lot I wanted to say to that. But I wasn’t sure where to start, or what good it would do. Still, I felt like I needed to say something. It was just that everything that came to mind felt wrong, trite, or worse. In the end, all I managed to say was, “Any time you guys need to leave to… to focus on other things, do it. And if you need anything–” 

“I’ll tell you what we need,” Murphy put in. “We need to do something about those fuckers who let–who helped Luciano escape. And we need to find out where they sent him. Both of which we do by getting inside that fucking base. Which isn’t gonna happen by standing around here.” 

Alloy, standing behind the two with her arms folded tightly as though trying to restrain herself from doing… something (probably punching the nearest wall), spoke up. “Yeah, we all wanna contribute. See?” Her head nodded over to several of her marbles as they transformed into a shovel, a drill, and a pick-axe. “Even these guys. We’re raring to go.” 

Fred, who had instinctively put his hands over Wren’s… helmet where her ears would have been every time Murphy cursed, spoke up. “We’ll be heading back to the shop to get to work on the tech stuff. Okay, she’ll get to work on the tech stuff and I’ll hold stuff. But the kid wanted to be a part of this whole… thing.” He waved a hand around as though encompassing all of us. 

Bobbing her head quickly, Wren added, “It’s important! But don’t worry, I already have ideas about how to make some stuff to protect you guys. But seeing you together, it helps me, uhh, visualize, and visualizing is important.” With a heavy sigh, she mumbled, “I wish I could ask Lion for advice.” Even as she said that, however, the girl was already holding up both hands. “I won’t, I won’t, I swear. I won’t talk about it at all. I won’t say a word.” She mimed zipping her lips, running fingers across the front of the helmet. “I know how to keep secrets.” 

“We’re all gonna have to be the biggest secret-keepers in the world,” I pointed out, glancing around at everyone. “If we don’t want the Ministry to figure out what’s going on.” 

“He’s right,” That-A-Way agreed, before gesturing in the direction of the mall. “This isn’t a simple, quick thing. Even with help, it’s gonna take days, even weeks of digging to make this tunnel, considering we have to be so careful about doing it while also doing all the other stuff we have to do. We don’t rush. We don’t screw it up. Cuz we won’t get a second chance if they even get a hint about what we’re doing. As soon as they do, as soon as they even have a reason to start checking around, we’re screwed. Our main advantage here is them being complacent. So, as much as we all want to get to the part where we break through to the base, let’s try not to get in a rush and end up captured and exposed.” 

Pack grunted. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound like my idea of a good time. But I still don’t want to spend months doing this thing, and the longer we take the more chance of something going wrong anyway. So let’s get busy, huh?”  

“Well that’d be a completely new situation for me,” I muttered without thinking. As the others all looked at me, I found myself flushing under the helmet and mask. “You know, the ‘get busy’ thing. I mean. Because I’m always busy, and I have a to-do list the size of a–never mind.” Waving them off, I quickly changed the motion into urging them to move. “Let’s get insi–wait, Pack?” Before we all went running out into the open, I looked to her. Sure, the alley was only a short distance across what amounted to a dirt road (used for construction crews)  leading to the unfinished motel across from the mall, but still. There was always the slim chance that someone could be nearby, and given how close we were to that Ministry base, we were going to have to be really careful.

She, in turn, took a moment to lean out and look up at the sky before turning back to me. “Coast is clear. Riddles doesn’t see anything.” 

Taking the opportunity, we all ran across the dirt road, trying to be quick and low. It was only about a twenty yard dash to get from the alley to the cover of the construction site, which itself was down in what amounted to a pit lower than the level of the road. Once at the edge, there was a dirt slope we kind of half-slid down (aside from Alloy, who rode one of her marbles in board-form) about fifteen feet to the ground level. We could’ve followed the road around and into the lot, but that would have taken us into plain view of the nearby busy street, which would’ve defeated the purpose of being stealthy right then. 

Once we were all down and hidden from the back by the raised dirt, and from the front by the half-finished building itself, I spoke up. “Okay so most of the time when we come out here, we’ll make sure it’s after dark.” 

Way gave a quick nod, before focusing on me as she put in, “And never come out here alone, anybody. Sure, we all wanna get this done as soon as we can, but digging by yourself isn’t a good idea. You need at least one lookout.” 

Alloy raised a hand. “Hey, uhh, sorta speaking of lookout, how exactly are we gonna make sure no one finds this tunnel in the days or weeks it’s gonna take to dig far enough? I mean, sure, the construction isn’t active right now, but can we count on that lasting? And besides, there could be inspections, or just people who come up and screw around. If any of them find a big long tunnel leading toward the mall, they might, you know, say something.” 

“We’ll hide it,” I immediately answered. “We’re not gonna, like, start the tunnel right in the middle of the main office or whatever. We’ll find an out-of-the-way room, dig a hole down, and then cover it up whenever we’re done. We need to dig down first anyway to make sure we’re close to the level of the secret base itself. So we go down, widen it out a bit so we have some space to work with, then start tunneling over. And whenever we’re not digging, we’ll make sure it’s hidden.” 

By that point, we found our way to the building itself. The place was in varying stages of completion, with the main office and the nearest rooms to it being basically done except for paint and moving furniture in, while some of the rooms further away were little more than framework. We chose one of the near-completed rooms so we would be as hidden as possible. There was a wooden pallet just outside, and we looked around before finding a handful of heavy bags of cement mix. And Roald found a ratty old rug. That seemed like as good as anything for hiding the hole. Whenever we weren’t digging, we would put the rug over it, pull the pallet over top of that, then put the cement bags on top of the pallet. As long as we just did all that in a corner, it would hopefully stop anyone from finding our hole. At least accidentally. Assuming we could get this done before construction started again. If we didn’t, that was a whole new bag of worms. 

But we’d deal with that when and if the time came. For now, we had a plan. After finding the spot we wanted to start in, and gathering the stuff to cover the hole when it was made, we all met up once more in that room. 

Wren, hovering up off the floor on her dragonfly wings, was already cheerfully insisting, “This place is great! It’s perfect, you can dig down and over, you can see if anyone’s coming, but you’re out of the way.” 

“She’s right, you can see the main road from here,” Way was saying, as she stood over by a window (there was no glass in it) and pointed. “Right down that way is where the dirt road leading up here starts, so you should be able to see if any cars start heading this way.” 

“And over there,” Pack put in from the doorway, “You can see clear over the whole site. That way goes to the slope we came down, and that way is… pretty wide open.” She glanced to Murphy and Roald. “If one of you, or whoever’s standing guard, sits here by the door and the other sits over there by the charming and lovely That-A-Way’s window, you should be able to give us a heads-up if anyone heads this direction.” 

“Sure, whatever,” Murphy replied simply, glancing away from everyone as she muttered, “As long as we contribute. Standing guard, digging holes, kicking mother–” She caught herself, eyes shifting toward Wren before amending, “Kicking people who deserve it in the junk. Whatever.” 

“You’ll help,” I agreed. “You all will. You…” Hesitating, I swallowed, completely overwhelmed as I glanced around for a moment to take all this in. “Thanks, guys. I didn’t expect to have all this help when I came up with the plan before. It’s–you’re…thanks.” Yeah, it felt awkward. I had no idea how to say what I was feeling right then. Hell, I didn’t even know how to describe what I was feeling. Seeing these guys, realizing they were actually… helping, that they all wanted to do something about the Ministry (even if it was for varying reasons), it was big. It meant more than I could say. 

Thankfully, Izzy seemed to realize that I was floundering, and spoke up. “We should see how well the digging thing works. And the dirt plan.” 

“Dirt plan?” Roald echoed before giving a quick double-take. “Wait, what are you gonna do with all the dirt? I mean, you’re digging a tunnel all the way to the mall, that’s… a lot of dirt.” 

“Thankfully,” Amber replied, “we actually do have a plan for that part, like Raindrop said. We’ll put the dirt in buckets, then she’ll use water to make them weightless and float them up out of the hole to dump in one of the dirt piles that’s already out there from the construction work. Which means she’ll be focused on that, while Paintball has to be down there to do the whole pink thing.” 

“I can do both,” Alloy put in. “Whatever’s helpful. My little friends can be shovels, axes, buckets to carry dirt, and probably more things I can’t think of right now. And they can dig without anyone holding them.” 

My head was bobbing a bit. “I think the best thing for your friends to do, besides giving us a break on the digging sometimes, is to turn into scoops that can pull the dirt out of the way and carry it over to the buckets. And possibly even be buckets themselves. I mean, you and Raindrop can work out the specifics with each other. I’m pretty sure you can both carry out dirt and rocks faster than we can dig. We’ll figure out a system as we go.” 

“Yeah, and speaking of breaks and a system,” Pack noted, “we can trade off and on.” She glanced over to Murphy and Roald. “Me and Rose, we’ll switch back and forth with you minions between standing watch and doing the digging part. It’ll go faster that way. One pair gets tired of digging, the other pair switches in. If you think you’re good for that.” 

“I’m good for whatever helps find Luciano,” Murphy informed her. “I’ll dig twenty tunnels if that’s what it takes. Whatever. Let’s just get this show on the road.” 

Clearing his throat, Fred spoke up. “Yeah, I think that’s our cue. We’ll head back to the shop so the kid can get to work with her designs or whatever.”

Those two headed off, quickly followed by Pack, who went to get the van with the supplies she had picked up, and Amber, who went to get the supplies that she and Izzy had bought. Which left me standing in the half-finished motel room with Alloy, Raindrop, Murphy, and Roald. The four of us just looked at each other in silence for a moment, before I cleared my throat and moved over to the spot we had picked out for the hole. “Okay, so let’s see how this works. Here.” Extending my hand, I painted a pink circle onto the floor, about three feet wide. Then I stepped back and gestured for Alloy to go ahead. 

She, in turn, waved a couple of her marbles that way. They transformed into a pair of shovels, then shoved their way down into the pink floor. The effect of my paint extended down about ten inches, so they were able to easily pull up big pieces of the floor and some of the dirt beneath, all of it like… thick foam or playdough. Very easy to rip away in solid chunks. Well, solid chunks for about five more seconds, before it turned back into a mix of dirt and broken pieces of cement. 

“How often do you think you can do that before you have to take a break to recharge?” Raindrop asked, stepping over to look at the hole. “For the actual tunnel, I mean.” 

Without thinking about it, I crouched down to run my hand over the dirt. “If I’m only doing that, and say the tunnel is… let’s say six feet high and four feet wide… I’ll probably need to take about sixty seconds to refill around every… maybe fourth time? Depends on how quick we are about digging into it and pulling the dirt out of the way. Probably get more efficient as we go. You know, work out a rhythm. Maybe we can get to the point of timing our speed so I don’t have to actually stop completely.”

Roald spoke up, his voice curious. “How do you know how much paint you have?” 

“I–” My mouth opened, before I stopped, head tilting. “I didn’t used to. It was more of a whole, ‘shit I’ve used a lot of paint recently, I’m about to run out.’ But now I can just… sort of sense it a bit? I know when I’m low.  I guess I’ve just gotten better at estimating after using it for awhile?” 

“Powers get better as you use them,” Raindrop informed us. “Sometimes that comes as ‘make them stronger’ and sometimes it’s things like knowing how much paint you have. When I started, I couldn’t umm, I couldn’t summon water. I mean, I could pull it and move it and stuff, but I couldn’t summon it from somewhere else.”

“Is that what you do?” That was Alloy. “I always wondered why you weren’t like, solving people’s water problems all over the place. You don’t make it out of nothing?” 

Raindrop shook her head. “Nuh uh. It’s pulled from other water sources. We did a test awhile back. The water I… ‘make’ gets pulled from places like one of the lakes or rivers around here. Whichever one is closest. It’s like… it’s like I can sense water in the air, you know? Humidity, I guess. And I can umm… feel all the way through that humidity to big sources of water, and then I just… think about it and put the big sources of water where the humidity right in front of me is.” Frowning, she sighed. “I guess that doesn’t make sense. But I can’t think of a better way to explain it.”

“You did just fine,” I assured her. “I mean, it makes about as much sense as a lot of powers do. They get pretty weird. Teleporting water to yourself through the connection of humidity in the air is about as good of an explanation as any.” 

By that point, Roald spoke up from the window where he had been idly watching. “They’re coming.” 

He was right. A couple minutes later, both Pack’s van and a truck that Way had apparently borrowed from someone were parked close to the room, the backs opened up so we could all carry the tools, lights, chains, and other supplies inside. 

“Okay, I think we should focus on digging down and widening it out at the bottom enough to stick all this stuff down there,” I murmured. “You know, so we don’t just have all this sitting here in plain sight. I don’t think anyone will come through the area tonight, but just in case.” 

So, we got started on that. And as we did, I took another look out through the window. The mall was visible in the distance. From here, it looked like way too much distance. It was definitely too far for me to do this by myself. I never would’ve gotten anywhere near the place. 

But I wasn’t by myself. Not anymore. I had people I could talk to, people who knew varying amounts of the truth. I had Amber and Izzy, who knew all of it. And I had Pack, Murphy, Roald, Alloy, even Wren and Fred. I had all of them here to help. 

I had… friends. 

I had a team.

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