Riddles

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.” 

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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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Kith And Kin 20-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, the next day at school was awkward. I kept wanting to talk to Tomas, but had no idea how to start with all that. I needed to ask about Maki, clearly. Tomas was my best chance to actually find out what was going on with that situation, yet the whole thing was just… so complicated. Seriously, even if Tomas had no connection to the Ministry and didn’t know anything about them, which I was seriously doubting, how was I supposed to press him for information about his new boyfriend without looking like I was jealous or something? 

And yes, being mistaken as being jealous was basically at the bottom of the list of priorities, but still. I couldn’t just start pressing Tomas for answers without likely looking at least somewhat suspicious. I had to be careful and delicate about the whole thing. Which wasn’t helped by the fact that every time I started to think about going up to the boy and talking to him, a lump formed in my throat and I felt like I was going to throw up. Not really because of the new boyfriend thing, but because of my increasing thoughts that he was somehow involved in the Ministry stuff. It sucked, but I couldn’t make my brain shut up with its paranoia that Tomas had only been dating me to keep an eye on me or something. Just the thought that any part of our relationship had been a product of my parents’ meddling was awful. 

To that end, it wasn’t until I was walking out of school at the end of the day and I saw him ahead of me that I finally actually did something. Taking a deep breath, I picked up the pace to move alongside the boy. He glanced my way and smiled, making my heart clench in on itself. “Hey there, Cassie,” Tomas greeted me with a completely unfair wink. “Fancy meeting you here.” 

Snorting, I replied, “Yeah, I know, it’s weird, huh?” It wasn’t the best segue, but I continued with, “And let me guess, you’re running off to spend time with your mysterious new boyfriend?” 

The words made Tomas almost double over, snorting with amusement. “Dude, Maki is a lot of things, but mysterious? Nah, he’s basically an open book.” Glancing my way once more, he slyly added, “But then, you probably know a lot about him, after getting ice cream over there.” 

“You know about that?!” I blurted unthinkingly, before flushing deeply. “I mean, of course you do. Dad’s kinda–and he was–and we were–” My blush was even worse. “I swear I didn’t know who he was when Dad said we should go there. I wasn’t trying to check up on your–I mean I wasn’t–I mean–” 

Snickering at my reaction, Tomas patted my back. “Easy, easy there. I know, but it was worth seeing your expression. God, Cass, at some point you’re gonna have to get more of a poker face. You gotta figure out how to hide things a little better, you know?” 

The fact that I managed to keep a mostly straight face in response to that proved him wrong. Well, not exactly a straight face. I covered my reaction by exaggeratedly rolling my eyes and giving him a goofy expression. Was it cheating to deliberately have such an over-the-top reaction that there was no way to pick out the subtleties of it? Whatever, it was enough to hide how I really felt, and that was what mattered. “Yeah,” I managed, “I’ll get right on that. Maybe my dad can show me how he bluffs people at work.” Despite everything, I made sure to keep an eye on the boy’s expression when I mentioned my father’s work. But either he didn’t know anything, or he was really good at the poker face thing he had just been talking about. Whatever it was, he didn’t give any reaction that I could read. 

“Anyway, Maki’s cool,” he went on with a shrug. “We really should hang out sometime when he’s not at work. I think you’d like him.” His voice softened a little as he rubbed the back of his neck a bit awkwardly. “But, you know, if that’s too–I mean…” 

“Sounds good,” I made myself say. No matter how I felt about it, having this open invitation to talk directly to the boy again and possibly find out more about what was going on with his (or her/their) situation with the Ministry was too important to pass up. My family would have no reason to wonder why I was spending time with Maki if it came through Tomas. “We’ll hang out sometime. I’ll umm… yeah, just lemme know. I’ve got stuff to do today, so I suppose you’re free to spend time with your boyfriend by yourself.” With those teasing words, I nudged his shoulder. By that point, we had reached the front of the school and I saw Jefferson there with the car. “Text me about it!” 

Tomas agreed casually, as I started heading off. Before I could reach Jefferson, however, someone else fell into step beside me. It was that new girl, Dani. She was already speaking casually. “Heard you like skating. Actually, I heard you’re pretty good at it.”  

“Huh? Oh, yeah.” My head bobbed quickly. “I guess. I do it enough, anyway. Why?” 

She offered me a shrug. “Oh, you know, I’m just trying to put something together. A bunch of us are hanging out at that skatepark on Grand River sometime this weekend. Still working out the details. But somebody said if I want to get a lot of people there, you’re the one to talk to.” 

That made me stop and blink at her. “People don’t care where I go,” I replied with confusion. “Why would me being there have anything to do with how many people show up?” 

Dani shrugged. “I dunno, babe. I think it has something to do with people wanting to see what crazy stunts they can get you to do or something. Whatever, the point is, it could be pretty cool. I’m ahh, not a bad skater myself. Be kinda fun to see what Miss Rich Girl can really do.” 

Snorting despite myself, I replied, “Yeah, maybe. Give me a text whenever you figure out when it’s actually supposed to be, and I’ll see what’s going on.” I gave her the number of my regular phone, before waving as I headed off to join Jefferson at the car. 

“Was that something important?” he asked once I got in the back. 

“Just an invitation to hang out sometime, I guess,” I replied with a shrug, leaning back in the seat. “Sorry for taking a couple minutes, I should’ve told her I’d talk later.” 

There was a brief moment of silence from the front seat, before Jefferson turned a bit to face me. He wasn’t an especially tall man. Actually, everything about him was unassuming. He had a very plain, pale face, thin glasses, and average cut dark blond hair. He didn’t stand out in a crowd. Hell, he barely stood out all by himself. 

“Miss Evans,” he began after that brief pause, “I am aware of my reputation for preferring punctuality. It is one I encourage. But I do not fault you a moment after school to speak with your peers. Time is allotted for that before we pick up Miss Amor. There is a marked difference between lagging behind in the morning and being late for school than there is in taking a few minutes to speak with your… friends when classes are over. Do not… feel that you must apologize for that. It is never my intention to force you to abandon all social niceties to placate my desire for haste.” 

That was all he said. And honestly, it might have been the most words I’d heard him say in a single go the entire time I’d known him. I was still sitting there in silent surprise as he turned back around and began to pull the car away from the curb. I had no idea what to say to that. Finally, I managed a somewhat weak and awkward, “Thanks.” 

From there, we picked up Izzy and headed home. It had been tempting to simply say that we didn’t need a ride so I could go straight to working on that whole tunnel thing finally, but I didn’t want to give my parents any reason whatsoever to think anything was up. They had just gotten home the day before, so I was going to play things as cool as possible. We would go home, make an appearance for my mother, and then make our exit with an excuse about hanging out somewhere. That was the best way to handle this, no matter how much I just wanted to jump into it. 

On the way, I talked to Izzy about completely innocuous things. Mostly about how her school stuff was going. Apparently, she was settling into classes pretty well. She said that she’d already made some friends there, which didn’t really surprise me considering how cool she was. It was just too bad her mother didn’t give her the chance to show her that. 

With effort, I pushed that thought out of my head and focused on keeping things casual. Even disregarding the whole secrecy thing, pretty much the last thing Izzy needed was me bringing up her mother right then. Or any time, really.

Soon, we made it home, and the two of us were met at the front door by my mother. She’d had snacks prepared by the kitchen and wanted to sit with us out in one of the gardens. There, she talked to both of us about how our days went, and her own as well. At least, as much as she was actually willing to tell us. Obviously, she didn’t get into any of the Ministry stuff. Though I had to admit, that would have been a good way of completely shocking me into giving something away if she ever wanted to. As far as Tomas’s earlier mention of poker faces went, I definitely wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face through my mother just randomly starting to talk about this stuff. 

Actually, that was something to think about. At some point, my parents probably were going to want to start telling me about this stuff. I wasn’t sure when, but it would happen. And what was I going to do when they did? How was I going to react? How was I going to pretend that I didn’t know what they were talking about? How much could I think about any of that without making my reaction seem rehearsed? Would it be a long time from now? God, would it be soon? How much of the whole Paintball situation would have changed by then? 

Of course, I had to force myself to focus mainly on actually carrying on a real conversation so my mother didn’t get suspicious. Thankfully, she was a busy woman and couldn’t sit with us for too long. We were only out there for about twenty minutes or so before she got a call and had to excuse herself. Which left Izzy and me sitting together out at the table, surrounded by gorgeous and exotic flowers, with a small fountain burbling away next to us. 

Clearing my throat, I glanced to her. Just in case Mom had anything nearby that might overhear us, I simply said, “Hey, you wanna go hang out at the mall?” 

“Sure,” she replied easily, pushing herself up. “We could probably get food there too, huh?” 

Making a show of snickering, again just in case, I nodded. “Yeah, we can do that. Come on.” I was already pulling my phone from my pocket to text the kitchen staff so they’d know not to worry about dinner for the two of us, then I ordered an Uber. 

Soon, we were close to the alley that led to Wren’s shop. The two of us found an isolated area to change into our costumes out of sight, and then quickly made our way to the store itself. It was really Izzy’s first time there, but we had both agreed that the time had come to stop tiptoeing around this whole thing. I’d called ahead to make sure Wren was okay with me bringing Raindrop. Given the loud squeal of excitement that came through the phone, I was assuming she was fine with it. 

Someone was waiting for us by the back door as we approached. Seeing her, I immediately reflexively took a step back, only to belatedly realize it was Alloy. She wore a new set of armor made out of her black and purple marbles. This one had a purple base body-suit-like structure that ran from her toes all the way up over her head in a ski-mask sort of thing. It was fairly thin. Meanwhile, the black marble had turned into armored plating around her chest, knees, hands, and across her face. 

“Wha–oh, jeeze, hey, warn me next time you’re dressed up in something new,” I managed after that initial reaction. Beside me, Raindrop had tensed up as well, only to turn slightly to blink at me. 

Alloy, for her part, made a chastised sound and stammered, “Ahh, sorry. Sorry, I forgot I wasn’t–I mean I was–I mean… sorry.” Seeing the other girl with me, she quickly stepped forward and extended her hand. “Hi again! I mean, hey. Nice to see you without the, you know, whole life and death Scion situation going on.” Belatedly, she seemed to realize just how different she looked in her new armor and stammered a quick, “Oh, it’s me! It’s Peeeaaaaayntball’s assistant. Partner. Friend. Sidekick. Alloy. I’m still Alloy, just a new costume. I like to switch it up.” In a quieter voice, she half-hissed, “I have your action figure.” 

It was clearly Raindrop’s turn to blush, though it was hidden behind her reflective mask. “Uh, hi.” She accepted the other girl’s hand and shook it somewhat awkwardly, as if uncertain how to go about this whole thing in meeting another Touched who was also apparently a super-fan. “I’m umm, uh, glad you’re okay.” 

Shaking my head at the two of them, I looked to Alloy and quietly asked, “How’s Hobbes doing?” 

She gave a heavy sigh and offered a weak shrug. “She’s still with Calvin and his family. They’re taking care of funeral arrangements and… and all that. Or trying to. Do you have any idea how expensive something like that is if you don’t want them to just dig a hole in the woods somewhere and drop them in? Seriously, it’s like ten thousand dollars. They’re setting up a crowdfunding thing, but you know, who really cares enough about him to help with that? People don’t even know him. All they know is–” She stopped, clenching her fists. From behind her, the other marbles rose up into view, contorting themselves into boxing gloves as though they wanted to hit something too. “Never mind. People suck. It all sucks. There’s some other fundraising going on and they’ll get part of it, I just–I wanna do more, but I can’t. I can’t do anything. I can’t help her. I can’t help any of them.”

Reaching out, I put my hand on her shoulder and squeezed it. “People will help,” I insisted. “Don’t worry, they’ll get the money they need for the funeral.” Even if I had to make sure it happened myself. I couldn’t do much to help Murphy with her pain and loss, but I could damn sure get the money for the funeral and all that. 

Izzy and I exchanged brief knowing looks, just before another figure appeared nearby. It was That-A-Way. She popped into view near the wall before turning to us. “Hey. I guess I’m not late, huh?” 

My head shook. “Nope, you’re right on time. And you definitely beat–” 

Before I could finish that sentence, a loud squawk interrupted. We all looked over to see Riddles fly down from above, landing on a nearby dumpster. She squawked at us again, clearly informing everyone that we should wait.

We didn’t have to wait long. Within the next thirty seconds, a van came into view through the alley. It rolled to a stop, before Pack stepped out. She had her lizard backpack with her. “Fancy seeing you guys again. Think we can avoid a running gunfight with the Scions this time?” As she spoke, Riddles flew down to land on the backpack itself, perching there while giving a watchful look all around. 

“Let’s hope so,” I muttered. “We’ve got enough to deal with. Now come on, let’s get in there.” With a look around at the rest of the group, I exhaled before reaching out to grab the door. One by one, the other four filed inside before I brought up the rear and let the door close behind me. 

We had been in the shop for approximately two and a half seconds before a loud squeal of excitement filled the air. Wren–or Trevithick, as she was in the same costume she’d worn when Lion had visited, the black bodysuit with bright pink armored panels over her arms, legs, and chest, with a black helmet and pink visor. Her rapidly-moving dragonfly wings were buzzing as she flew straight down from the ceiling to land right in front of Raindrop, talking a mile a minute. “Ohhh you’re here you’re really here I can’t believe you’re really here and you made it and it’s really you and you’re so cool I watched you on the news forever well really only a few times cuz the news is boring but you’re not boring you’re awesome and I saw you fight that mean Janus guy and the other guy with the big hammer but you said I don’t think so and made it float away and you hit him with a tidal wave and I have a hat with your name on it but I couldn’t find it and Uncle Fred said it might be at the other shop but we didn’t have time to go over there and I have a backpack too and that’s over there and it’s got your picture on it that’s why I said I had a backpack and I made a birthday cake I mean Uncle Fred did but I helped and it had all the Minority on it and you were my favorite piece and–” 

Coughing, I quickly stepped in and put a hand on the brilliant little girl’s shoulder. “She’s pretty awesome, yeah. You both are. Raindrop, this is the awesome Trevithick. Trevithick, this is the awesome Raindrop. It’s about time we all started working together to deal with the real problems around here. Which means getting everyone on the same page. Almost everyone else is already. Just uhh…” I hesitated, then looked to Wren. “Where’s Fred? I need to talk to both of you about something important. That’s why we’re all here together. It’s why I brought Raindrop too.” 

“Did someone say–oh.” That was Fred himself, coming out of the doorway leading to the stairs. As he saw everyone, the man came up short. I saw his Adam’s apple bob as he gulped before stepping forward. “Ah, well, I guess it’s ahh, yeah. You’re all here.” 

Introducing Raindrop to him, and vice versa, I gestured. “Would you and Trevithick mind sitting down?” After a brief hesitation to gather myself, I added, “There’s some really important stuff we need to talk about. Secret stuff that you need to know. It’s time.” 

Fred and Alloy gathered a few chairs and everyone took a seat. Everyone except me, anyway. For my part, I stood in front of them and let out a long breath before focusing on Fred himself. “I don’t mean to single you out. I’m sorry for that, for this. But I have to, right now, in front of everyone. You know what you did before was a mistake. But what I’m about to tell you and Trevithick is a lot bigger than anything else. It’s… it’s big, and you could f–screw over all of us, everyone, if you wanted to after I tell you about it.” 

Fred, for his part, was quiet for a moment. He saw everyone looking at him, but didn’t react. He stared at the floor, then shifted his weight to meet my gaze. “I’m not that guy anymore.” His voice was firm. “I–I did–what I did before, trying to get money the cheap way, the illegal way, that’s not–I won’t do that again. I don’t know how to promise that any better than–than just saying it. I give you my word, I swear. I won’t screw you over.” 

I had to believe him. If this whole thing was going to go on, he needed to know the truth. They both did. We needed Wren’s help going forward. Which meant getting everyone on as close to the same page as possible. Scary as the whole prospect was, it was time. The encounter with Simon and that whole situation had convinced me of that much. 

So, after taking one more deep breath to brace myself, I launched into the whole thing. The others piped up now and then to give their own perspective, but mostly it was me. I explained what the Ministry was, and how much control they really had over everything. And I explained how that related to what had happened to Murphy’s brother and those other people who had died. 

By the time I was done, Fred had stood up and was pacing back and forth, listening while covering his face with his hands. Once in a while, he muttered something about how much sense that all made. But mostly he was quiet. 

Wren, meanwhile, absorbed it all in silence, aside from shifting a bit in her seat now and then or asking a clarifying question. She seemed far more mature in those moments than her actual age and appearance would have suggested. 

Finally, in the end, she asked, “What… what are we gonna do about it?” 

“What are we going to do?” I echoed, glancing to the others. “We have a plan. I mean, not a full plan. But a start. We have an idea of how to get into one of the Ministry’s bases, to get more information. That’s where we’re going to get our friend upstairs the info we need to find her a new body. And it’s where we’re going to find out as much as we can about how they operate and any more of their secrets we can get a hold of. That much we can do. But if we’re going ahead with this, if we’re actually going to go up against the Ministry, we… I need help. We all do. I know it’s a lot to put on you, Trevithick.” 

“Wren.” She pulled off the helmet, facing the others. “I’m Wren. And… and yeah. Yes. I wanna help.” With that declaration, she straightened up, fists clenched. “They hurt Hobbes. If… if you think you can find out where that bad guy went by breaking into their secret base, then I’m gonna help.”  

Giving one short nod, I replied, “And you, Fred?” 

He, in turn, continued to face away from me for a few seconds before turning to face us. “I can’t do much. Just watch over Wren there, really. Maybe drive a car if you need it. Be an innocuous face. Fetch things. But if that helps–whatever you need. I’m… I’m in. I’m in for whatever this is, wherever it goes.” 

“Good,” I managed after a moment. 

“Then let’s talk about what we need to get this tunnel started.” 

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Kith And Kin 20-04 (Summus Proelium)

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I didn’t start immediately. Mostly because I figured this whole story would be told to Roald anyway, so it was probably for the best that I just tell him at the same time. Besides, Murphy was obviously still broken up, barely keeping herself in any shape to listen. She needed her best friend. So, I gave the boy a call and asked him to meet us right here. Yeah, it was maybe a little risky to not move away from the spot where we’d fought Simon and Luciano, but I was pretty sure neither of them had any intention of coming back here anytime soon. 

We did hear sirens approaching, and I checked to see that they were headed into the lot over by the laundromat. I  probably needed to go over there and explain what happened, or at least some of it. But I wasn’t going to leave Murphy alone right now. Not in the state that she was in. While waiting for Roald to show up, I took a seat next to her once more and put an arm around the girl again. She was sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest, head lowered as her shoulders shook. Her eyes were closed, and she didn’t say anything during the time we were sitting there. She just cried mostly silently to herself. She didn’t return the half-embrace, but nor did she pull away from me. It was clear that she was too lost in her grief to want to talk, and I had no idea what to say anyway. So, the two of us sat in silence. Which really told me all I needed to know about how broken Murphy was right then, given she hadn’t really pushed hard for me to immediately explain what the hell I had just been talking about. 

Simon. God damn it, Simon. Why did you have to help that guy escape? He was a murdering piece of shit, and you knew that. Even as the angry thoughts flashed through my mind, I knew the answer. He helped the guy escape because Luciano paid for protection. This was the Ministry. They helped bad guys get away with crimes if they paid their taxes. And the people left behind with no justice were like Murphy. My family helped those pieces of shit get away, and people like this girl in tears next to me were just expected to suck it up. The thought was making me angrier by the second, and I had to close my eyes to let out a long breath so I could keep it under control. I had to keep it under control if I was actually going to explain the situation to these two. And I had to tell them now. After what had just happened, I couldn’t keep it away from them anymore. There was no way. Murphy deserved to know the truth. And if this situation was going to continue at all, they both deserved to know what the Ministry really was. 

It didn’t take long for Roald to show up. And he wasn’t alone. Apparently at some point in the intervening time, he had managed to get hold of Alloy, and she snuck out of her own home. The two of them came flying in on one of the marble hoverboards, landing nearby. Immediately, Roald went to sit on the other side of Murphy, and I let her go so she could lean on him. 

“What… what happened?” Alloy asked tensely while I stood up. “Did you…” 

“He got away,” I murmured under my breath. Nope, the anger I felt about that whole situation hadn’t dissipated at all in the time we’d been waiting. Saying those words still made me want to turn around and punch a hole in the nearby wall, without help from the pink paint. And scream. I really felt like screaming. But I kept it together. I had to. 

Alloy reeled back a bit from the news, even though she had to be expecting it. I supposed she’d been hoping for the best. Her head shook. “Is there any way we could still find him? I mean if we start right now, we could–” 

“He knows something.” That was Murphy. She had pushed herself to her feet as well, pointing at me. “He knows something about what happened. He said he’d explain. There was some guy here, and Luciano said he’d paid for help. He was a Sell-Touched or… or something. But he wasn’t–he helped that fucker–” Her voice broke at that point, even as Roald caught her arm to steady her. “That guy helped that fucker get away. Paintball said he knew what was going on. He said he’d explain what is really going on in this city. Whatever that means.” 

“You’re ready to tell them the truth?” Peyton asked quietly, rocking back a bit on her heels. She sounded surprised. 

“What–you know something about it?” Roald looked to the girl, then back to me. “What’s going on?” 

Now all three of them were looking at me expectantly. Peyton because she knew what was coming, and the other two because they didn’t. Oh boy, I really had to get into this again. I had to tell Murphy and Roald the truth. Or at least, part of it. I knew what was the right thing to do. It was the only thing to do. But that didn’t make it any easier to start talking. A part of me was screaming that I was opening up too much already. Izzy and Amber knew the whole truth, all of it. To say nothing of Paige and Raige. And Peyton knew about the Ministry. The secret was spreading too much. And now I was going to talk about the Ministry part with these two? A whole parade of ‘what ifs’ went through my mind in those long few seconds.

Finally, I forced all of it down and focused on Murphy. I thought about how I would feel if I was in her situation and had no idea what had just happened. That was all it took. With those thoughts in mind, I exhaled and then started to talk. 

Over the next few minutes, I explained what the Ministry was, and how they operated. I talked about how they had infiltrated every single Touched group in the city to one extent or another, as well as all law enforcement, the courts, everyone in power. 

“It’s not everyone, it’s not even necessarily people like the mayor or anything like that,” I explained. “It could just be, say, the mayor’s secretary or something. Someone who can get information in and out, that sort of thing. They have ins everywhere, on both sides. And like I said, the bad guys pay them for permission to operate in the city. Like this whole gang war that’s going on right now, they paid for permission to do that. Both sides, I think. I mean, I’m not sure on how that works exactly, but I’m pretty sure the Ministry is refereeing the whole thing. Or whatever. The point is, they’re the ones in charge of the city.” I looked to Murphy. “That’s what Luciano meant before. He made his payments, so they stepped in and helped him escape when he got in trouble.” 

“Believe me,” Peyton put in, “I was pretty freaked out too. It might be a little hard to believe at f–” 

“They helped that piece of shit get away?” That was Murphy, interrupting as she stared at me. Her voice cracked just a little. “You’re saying he paid them some cash and now they’re gonna help him get away with it? What part of that is supposed to be hard to believe? He has money and he spends it to get away with everything, even murder. That’s not hard to believe, it’s just every other fucking day.” Her voice practically oozed bitterness. 

My mouth opened to tell her that I understood, but I stopped myself just in time. Because I really didn’t understand. That would have been one of the worst possible things I could ever say. I would never really understand what it was like to live like these guys did. And I sure as hell didn’t understand what it was like to have my brother killed right in front of me. So I didn’t say that. Instead, I took a deep breath before starting with, “He’s not getting away. Not forever. We’ll find him, I swear. Whatever it takes, we will find that fucker and bring him down.” 

“And how are we supposed to do that?” Roald was the one asking that time. “You said these Ministry guys basically control, or like, influence every group in the city, right? Including the cops. So how are we supposed to find out where he is? And even if we find him, how are we supposed to get anyone to arrest him? You know, without immediately ‘losing’ him and all the evidence or whatever.” 

“Maybe he shouldn’t get to go to prison,” Murphy retorted a bit sharply. “Maybe that’s a privilege he threw away when he killed a bunch of people. You know, people like my brother.” For the most part, there was pure rage in her voice. But at the last bit, when she said the word brother, it broke a little bit. The grief was tearing her up. 

It would have been pointless to start an argument right then with her about what we would do with the guy. So, instead, I simply answered both of them with, “We’ll figure out how to handle him when we get a bit closer to that. As for finding him, we need to figure out where the Ministry sent him. We need to get a look at their files. And as it happens, we’re actually working on a way to get into one of their bases already.” Quickly and succinctly, I explained the bit about the secret base under the mall.

By the time I was done, Murphy was nodding, her mouth very tight. Her hand had caught hold of Roald’s arm, squeezing firm enough that I saw him wince just a little. She could barely speak through the emotions she was holding back. “We’ll find him. We’ll find him? You won’t let him get away?” There was a clear desperation to her voice. She needed me to promise her that. 

“Yes,” I replied firmly, meeting her gaze. “I swear, Murphy. I promise on… on everything. We’ll find him. We’ll track him down. He is not going to get away. We won’t let him.” 

She held my gaze for a long few seconds after that, our eyes locking even though she was looking at me through the helmet visor. I saw her throat move as she swallowed a few times, struggling to speak. Finally, she managed a weak, barely audible, “Okay.” 

That was it. She didn’t say anything else after that. She didn’t need to. She had my promise, and I was going to keep it. Instead of speaking, the girl turned away and clutched her stomach, falling back to her knees there on the pavement. Her whole body shook heavily once, a full-on shudder before I heard the tears start again.

Roald was right there, crouching beside her as he said something too quiet for me to hear. Peyton, meanwhile, looked back and forth between us, clearly torn about what she should be doing.

“Stay here with them,” I told her. “Actually, when you can, you guys should probably leave, just in case someone comes back to check this place out. But just be with them. I need to go over there and tell the cops… you know, some of it.” I still wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to say, but I knew I needed to explain at least part of what had happened. Even if it did make me feel like I was abandoning Murphy. But the truth was, she had Roald. He could help her more than I could. And I was pretty sure she had even bonded with Peyton a good bit already. 

Either way, what she had needed from me was the promise that the man who killed her brother wouldn’t get away. I’d given her that, and planned on following through. 

But in the meantime, there was nothing I could do for the girl, as much as I wanted to. I needed to leave her alone for now. No, not alone. I needed to leave her with the people who could actually be there for her. 

Shaking off that thought, I told Peyton to text me with updates and let me know what was going on. And to tell me where they ended up going so I could meet them later. Then I pivoted and used red paint to yank myself up to the nearby roof. 

Time to go find out how much the cops knew. 

*******

The answer, as it turned out, was both a lot and a little. They knew who had been in that laundromat and what he had been up to the rest of the night. But they weren’t sure what had gone down at the building itself. Their best guess, one of the uniformed guys told me, was that one of the other small gangs had gotten pissed and came after Luciano and his people in retaliation for one of his hits that night. Which, I supposed, was fairly close to the truth. And better than the full thing, given I really didn’t want them to know anything about Murphy. 

The only actual witnesses they had were a couple members of the gang themselves who hadn’t managed to flee before the authorities showed up. Apparently they were telling a story about being ambushed by several armed and masked figures, saying nothing about her being a teenager. I wasn’t sure whether they genuinely believed that, given how quickly Murphy had been moving around, or if they were lying to save their pride. Either way, it was another thing that protected the girl. 

I’d had a little time while crossing the street and listening to what they said happened to figure out what to say. I didn’t want to outright lie, but then again, I had no idea how much of what I said would go straight to the Ministry. Or how much they would share with Luciano, given what good terms they were on with him, considering the man paid his bills and all.  And the absolute last thing I wanted to do was say anything that would lead back to Murphy. 

So, what I ended up telling them was that I had seen some sort of confrontation between Luciano’s group and another going down, and one of my associates, whose identity I had to keep secret, had gone to get a closer look. Unfortunately, ‘he’ (another layer of protection for Murphy) had been seen and all hell broke loose. From there, I mostly told the rest of the story, except I didn’t mention anything about Simon or the Ministry, of course. I told them that we followed Luciano through the tunnel, tussled with him ‘and one of his men’ at the far end of it, and then they got away. 

The police officer taking my statement didn’t really question any of it. I had the feeling this was all just commonplace for him. Especially right now with the whole gang war going on. Sure enough, he finally sighed and shook his head. “You see, this is what happens when we get these big gangs going to war with each other. They call in debts from the smaller gangs, make threats, and these guys get desperate enough to do shit like multiple hits in one night.” 

That made me do a double-take. “Wait, you mean this guy was getting money to pay somebody else.” 

The cop, a slender Latino guy with a thin mustache and narrow eyes, who had introduced himself as Officer Sandro, nodded. “Pretty much. In this case, seems like Luciano owed Oscuro a bunch of cash. Think of these guys as like a uhh… subsidiary of that bigger gang. He owed Cuélebre a bunch of cash, and since this war is pretty expensive, Cuélebre called in the debt. Seems he made quite an impression on Luciano,  because the guy went around calling in every tab he had. Made a big show of it too. Shot some people who didn’t owe him as much, just to make sure the ones who owed him a lot got the message.” 

That made me reel back on my heels, bile in my throat. Fuck, Luciano wasn’t even that interested in the money that Murphy’s brother had owed him. He was using the guy to send a message to the bigger fish. God… damn it. How was I supposed to tell the girl that? She deserved to know the whole truth, but this was going to destroy her even more. Her brother’s debt and death wasn’t even a big deal to Luciano, aside from a means of intimidating other people. 

One thing was for sure, I was even more determined than ever to bring that piece of shit down. I didn’t care how much protection he paid for from my family, he was going to get what was coming to him. 

In any case, I thanked Officer Sandro and promised to let the authorities know if I found out anything else about Luciano or his group. Sandro, in turn, told me that I should have my ‘associate’ submit a report. They could be covered by the Touched anonymity thing too, but they still needed to explain what had happened from their point of view. That was going to be more complicated, obviously. And include a lot more half-truths or outright lies in order to protect Murphy’s identity. Because no way was I going to expose who she was to my family, or their organization. That was just asking for a lot more trouble. 

Still, I promised to see what I could do and then took my leave. I walked away from the cop cars and was about to text Peyton, when a sharp whistle caught my attention. Looking that way, I saw a familiar figure standing in a nearby alley, half-shrouded in shadows. Pack. She was waving one arm, beckoning me over. 

So, after glancing around to make sure no one was looking, I jogged that way. As soon as I approached, Pack stepped back further out of sight. But I could see Riddles perched on the top of the fire escape, keeping an eye on things. 

“Paintball,” Pack started once I entered the alley. “What the hell is going on?” 

“You wanna know what’s going on?” I caught myself, forcing the anger down. Lashing out wouldn’t accomplish anything. Instead, I took a deep breath and let it out before explaining from the top. I told her about what happened to Murphy and Roald earlier on the bus, then about Tyson being murdered, and finally everything that went down over at the laundromat. Finally, I pointed out, “So I guess what I’m saying is that this big war your boss is pushing made Cuélebre call in debts, which made Luciano call in debts, which got people killed. Including my friend’s brother.” 

Pack rocked backward a bit. Her hand moved to touch the side of Twinkletoes, the only other lizard she had out of their backpack cage and transformed other than Riddles. She processed that, exhaling before focusing on me. “It’s more complicated than that, and you know it. They tried to get Blackjack’s daughter killed. She’s a little kid, Paintball. She didn’t deserve to suffer, and those guys were all fine with letting her die if it would hurt her dad. It’s fucked up that your friend’s brother was killed. Seriously, I’m sorry. I–it’s… “ She sighed, head shaking. “I really am sorry. But Cuélebre kills people all the time. So do his lieutenants and other underlings. You can think we’re all the same, but Blackjack doesn’t target families like that. And he sure as hell doesn’t do drive-by shootings on civilians. We have standards.” 

“I know it’s not directly your fault, or his,” I replied slowly. “I just–this war is hurting people. And it seems like it’s just getting worse by the day. Not to mention, now the Ministry is helping that piece of shit get away with everything, just because he paid his taxes for them.” 

“So what are we going to do about it?” Pack asked. 

Catching that she had said ‘we,’ I gave her a brief look while she stared at me, before nodding once in appreciation. “Same plan as before. We need to find out where they took that fucker.  Which means getting into their files in the base under the mall. Now Calvin and Hobbes are in on it. So they’ll be helping with the tunnel.” 

“Sounds good to me,” she replied easily. “You ready to get started on that…” Checking her phone for the time to find that it was well-past midnight, she finished, “Later today?” 

The question made me realize I really couldn’t, so my head shook. “I can’t today. I have… commitments.” Namely, my parents were going to be home and they would want me around. “Besides, Hobbes is going to need some time. I don’t–tomorrow. We’ll start on the tunnel tomorrow.” 

“I’ll be there,” Pack replied. “Just give me a ring when we’re meeting up. And Paintball, whatever happens, I’m all-in for taking this Luciano fucker down when it comes to it.” 

“Good,” I murmured. 

“Between all of us, we’ll make sure this son of a bitch gets what’s coming to him.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

In Like Flynn 17-11 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In Like Flynn 17-07 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In Like Flynn 17-06 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In Like Flynn 17-05 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – The non-canon chapters for this story and for Heretical Edge were posted over the weekend. You can find the SP chapter here and the HE chapter here

So, this was just great. Now we were being attacked by a bunch of computer program defense systems that looked like my teachers and other staff from school, all of them trying to defend Paige because they thought we were enemies. And we were going to have to tear our way through them to get to her. Yeah, I was pretty sure a therapist would have a field day with this. 

Even as the group was rushing toward us, I caught a glimpse of That-A-Way grabbing hold of Mars Bar before they both vanished, reappearing behind the mob that was ahead of us. It took the lizard-bear only a second to adjust, turn back the other way, and fall on the crowd from behind with a terrifying roar that shook all the lockers and windows around us. 

Meanwhile, Alloy was standing there, making a noise of awe as she stared between the spot where Way and Mars Bar had been, and where they were now. “Oh, man,” she muttered, “that’s so–” 

“Alloy!” I blurted toward my new partner, “help them hold those guys off!” 

“O-oh, right.” Sounding guilty, the girl quickly made the marbles that weren’t part of her armor join together to create the scoop from a bulldozer, large enough to cover the entire hallway. It slammed forward into the crowd to stop them at the same time as Mars Bar crashed into them from behind. Yeah, it sounded nasty over there. And that was even before counting the fact that those things were still letting out those horrific screams, which echoed through the hall as a sort of background accompaniment to Mars Bar’s roars.

Unfortunately, that still left the mob that had come through the doors behind us for Pack, Riddles, and me to deal with. Quickly, as they came rushing in, I shot green, purple, and orange paint at the La Casa Touched, then activated it for her before putting blue under my feet to launch myself up in a flip over their heads. I intended to land behind them, but one of the security programs (it looked like my quite elderly and quite overweight ninth grade English teacher) leapt into my path, so I slammed into her. Which seemed to hurt me more than it did her, being a program and all. 

I used to like Mrs. Moderane. She was one of my favorite teachers freshman year. But those fond memories started having a bit of trouble when she came down on top of me as we landed on the floor, then punched me in the stomach. At the last second, I managed to paint my helmet orange (still unsure of exactly how well this program ‘translated our powers into virtual reality’), but even with that, the blow was enough to make me grunt. God damn it, these things were strong.

Putting purple arrows across both arms, I grabbed both of Mrs. Moderane’s shoulders and then jerked myself backwards as hard as I could before planting my knees in her stomach while simultaneously heaving with both hands to send her flying over my head and into the wall. In the same motion, I kept rolling backwards to move into a crouched position just in time to see one of the janitors and a security guard rushing me with these big, jagged machetes. My hands snapped up to shoot red paint that way… only to miss the two entirely and send both blobs of paint past both of them to hit a couple lockers against the opposite wall. Wait, what th–

A loud bang suddenly filled the air, as Pack came out of nowhere to slam the metal door she’d ripped off a locker into the head of the security guard who was rushing at me. She hit him with enough force to bend the door in half while also basically caving in the entire backside of his head. There was very little blood, all things considered, it mostly just seemed to pop like a balloon before the entire body vanished. The janitor spun that way just in time for her to snap the bent locker door back into his face, sending him crashing to the floor in a heap. 

“Would you keep moving, Ball?!” the girl snapped at me before throwing the by-now totally crumpled hunk of metal at the legs of another charging teacher. “They’re not real, stop playing nice and just make sure they stay down! We don’t have time for this, remember?!” 

As if to punctuate her owner’s words, Riddles let out a shrill battle cry as she flew overhead, tore a bat out of the hands of another virtual teacher, and sent it flying into the face of one of the office secretaries. Which was only a distraction before the lizard-eagle was right in her face as well, tearing at the woman’s eyes with talons and beak alike. 

Okay, yeah, they were right. We didn’t have time for any of this. Paige could lose her ongoing battle against her other self any minute, and we’d already stretched this out long enough. I just–I was used to hitting things I aimed for. Missing completely when they were right in front of me was… kind of new. But I couldn’t worry about that right now. I had to focus on this. 

Giving the other girl a quick recharge of purple and orange, I launched myself upward, renewing my own purple arms before spinning toward a heavyset old man in a plaid shirt. He was wielding a chain, which he tried to swing around my throat while still giving that horrible scream that just would not stop. They were all doing that. Yeah, it was obviously an alarm to call more of them or whatever, but seriously, we got the point. Everyone got the point. Knock it off already. 

My hands managed to catch the weapon as it swung at me, forcefully tearing it out of his hands even as I reflexively blurted, “Don’t you hate it when someone yanks your chain?” 

Not only did the virtual computer simulation program not laugh at my joke, it responded by simply creating a new one in its hand, then swung it at me even harder. 

Catching the new chain against my arm as well, I quickly jerked on it to yank the figure closer while simultaneously lashing out with a kick. “Ah, you’re prob–aaaaahhh!” That last part, interrupting what was going to be a fantastic follow-up to my joke before, came as the damn thing caught my leg and spun to throw me toward the other lockers. I barely managed to flip over in the air and send a shot of blue that way, which helped me rebound off the metal doors (caving them in partway) before crashing into the guy. We both hit the ground, but I managed to wrap the chain around his throat tightly, jerking a bit on it. A purple lion face appeared on my chest for additional strength. For an instant, I hesitated. Video game. It’s just a video game, I told myself. 

With that, I jerked as hard as I could at the tightly twisted chain around the figure’s neck. There was a nasty crack, and the body under me vanished. I… killed him. It. I killed the–

Shoving that thought out of my mind, I hurled myself into a sideways roll just as a machete came down into the space where I had just been. My 10th grade social studies teacher was there, snarling and screaming (do not ask me how he managed both at the same time) with the knife buried halfway into the floor. 

Planting my hand against the floor for leverage, I used that to shove myself up, blurting, “Just a thought–” My foot lashed out, kicking hard into the man’s face. “Sneaking up on someone works better–” As his head snapped backward from the blow, the foot I’d used to kick him the first time hit the floor and I rose on that single leg while simultaneously twisting around to plant my other foot in his face as well, hard enough to send him skidding backward down the hall. “If you’re not fucking screaming the whole time!” 

“Paintball, up!” Alloy called from behind, over the sound of the continued wailing.

My gaze snapped that way, just in time to see what looked like a thin blade the width of the hallway come flying our way. With a grunt, I grabbed Pack, launching both of us toward the ceiling with one more puddle of blue under our feet. We flipped over in the air and I planted my boots (Wren had included their gravity-flipping in this, thankfully) against the ceiling while holding Pack’s hand as she dangled under me. Or above me, as far as my boots were concerned.

Below us, Alloy’s blade uhh… yeah, it cut through about half of those guys right around the waist. It went straight down the middle of the corridor, moving really quickly as soon as Pack and I were out of the way. Some of the computer programs managed to duck under or jump over it, but she cut a good number in half. Again, there was very little blood. They just vanished. 

Dropping Pack to the floor, I pushed off, flipping over to land next to her. The remaining ‘faculty’ were starting to close ranks, but before either of us could do anything, That-A-Way called out. “Come on! Let’s go!” She, Alloy, and Mars Bar had cleared the path. We could get out of here. 

So, that was exactly what we did. Spinning on our heels, Pack and I raced over to meet up with Alloy, before all three of us ran to the other two, with Riddles soaring along just above our heads.

Ahead of us, two doors on either side of the hall tried to open to admit more staff into the hall to block us. But before the doors could fully open, Alloy sent two of her marbles that way, each transforming into what amounted to a crowbar to slam into the doors with enough force to slam them shut once more. The transformed marbles stayed in place while we ran onward, giving us time to get past before flying in to join up with their owner once more. 

“Dude,” Way blurted, “those things are awesome! You are welcome to join in on these ‘do whatever insane thing Paintball drags us into’ jobs any time you want!” 

Before I could defend myself from that total slander and point out this wasn’t my fault, the four of us (six counting both lizards) reached an intersection in the school hallway. To our right was the hall leading to the library and media room. Straight ahead was a wall full of academic trophies and a couple doors that would lead into the history section of the school. And to our left was the front hallway leading to the main offices, with an open section about halfway down on the right side of that left hall that would take us to the cafeteria and the main gymnasium. A set of stairs leading to the second floor was in the corner of this intersection, near the hall to the front offices. 

“Where’re we going?” Alloy demanded, spinning in a circle. “Uhh, and can we decide pretty quick?” She was looking back the way we had come, where more of those security programs were coming fast. And I swore some of them were the same people we’d already put down. So either the computer was spawning people with the same faces, or the program itself was respawning after being put down. But really, was there a functional difference?  

Dammit, where were we supposed to go? Where would Paige be fighting her evil duplicate? How were we supposed to guess something like that? I had no idea, and time was of the essence. Worse, there were suddenly more fake faculty coming down the stairs toward us. 

No, wait. they weren’t coming down the stairs. They were standing halfway up, blocking the stairs. And suddenly, I knew which direction Paige was in. Raising a hand, I pointed that way while blurting, “We wanna go whichever way those guys don’t want us to go!” 

Several things happened in very quick succession then. Pack sent Mars Bar to slow down the guys coming up from behind us. Riddles, meanwhile, flew up to harass the guys on the stairs. And left must’ve been the direction of Way’s superspeed, because her form blurred before she was suddenly up there on the steps in time to catch hold of the arm of one guy who was swinging a bat at the lizard-hawk, pitching him over the edge to crash down to the floor below, where Pack herself took his own bat and slammed it into his face so hard the program fizzled and vanished. 

Meanwhile, I ran forward, using blue paint on my shoes to launch myself up and forward. In mid-flight, I extended both hands and sprayed a wide burst of red at the remaining guards. Then I activated it, making all six of them slam together in a tangled jumble of limbs just before I landed on the edge of the railing. At least, I meant to land on the railing, but I overshot a bit and ended up crashing into the opposite wall with a grunt. 

Okay, I was starting to think there was something wrong with me, my powers, or both in this place. It was all just… off for some reason. I didn’t feel as coordinated as I should. There was something missing. Nothing felt right. It just… my powers were all here, my paints were doing what they were supposed to, but somehow it was wrong. Something was different or missing. 

Thankfully, Alloy (who had, once more, been standing flatfooted watching this for a moment) snapped out of it and took advantage of me tangling all six guys together by hitting them with a big shovel made out of two of her marbles to knock all of them down the stairs before the paint expired. 

That-A-Way caught my arm, pulling me away from the wall I’d crashed into. Her voice was clearly concerned. “Paintball, are you okay? You seem–” 

“I’m fine,” I quickly blurted, just as Alloy’s shovel-formed marbles reshaped themselves into a board to lift her past the just-then separating heap of computer troops to reach us. “Just… orienting.” 

Ignoring the other girl’s look, I raised my voice to shout, “Pack, hitch a ride!” With that, I pointed both hands. But rather than shooting the girl herself as she stood in the middle of the intersection down there, I fired purple and green paint toward Mars Bar, who was busy smacking around several of those fake faculty members. And again, I missed with one of the shots. The purple paint blob hit a wall, and I had to quickly adjust to shoot a second blob. 

“Dude,” I heard Alloy mutter toward Way, “have you ever seen him miss?” 

Ignoring that, I quickly activated the paints on Mars Bar while shouting, “Come on!” 

Pack didn’t need me to say it twice. She gave a quick whistle, and the big bear-lizard spun around, dropping onto all fours before charging that way. That green paint on him, he really charged. He was a runaway truck, screaming its way across the polished floor. Pack barely had time to leap on, half dragging herself up and over his back before he continued in a headlong rush. The guys at the bottom of the stairs where Alloy had pushed them didn’t even know what hit them before Mars Bar barreled through with enough force to make all six explode.

These stairs weren’t specifically built for something like a giant lizard-bear, but they were built to look impressive to a bunch of spoiled rich teenagers who did ridiculous, dangerous stuff all the time. So, they held. But I was still pretty sure sticking around here for long would’ve been a bad idea even if we weren’t already in a rush for plenty of other reasons. And I wasn’t even going to wonder if the stairs here had the same structural integrity as the ones in the real world. That was just way too complicated for me to think about right then. 

Before the computer could summon more things to block our path, we all went charging up the stairs. Pack stayed on her pet’s back, while the rest of us ran. I thought about using green to speed us up, but decided it was probably best to hold off. After all, we had no idea what we were running into. Okay, I did know where we were running. At the top of these stairs would be another intersection, similar to the one we had left below us, except with a big glass window looking into the second floor of the library. 

At least, that was what we were supposed to see. But we didn’t. Instead, all of us reached the top of the stairs and emerged into a small wooden structure that smelled awful. Alloy, Way, and I stopped short in confusion just long enough for Mars Bar to crash into us from behind, sending us stumbling through the nearby doors and out into… sunlight? The fuck? 

Yeah, we were standing outside, in broad daylight just outside of a barn, which we had climbed the stairs in the school to reach. The barn sitting in the middle of this obvious farm. There were cows in a nearby pasture listlessly mooing, a silo nearby, the farmhouse itself in the distance, another paddock with horses, and so on. It was an honest to God farm. 

Wait, hold on. I knew this farm. We had taken a school trip out here in middle school. Yeah, this was the farm we’d visited on that first school trip after I met Paige. Err, re-met Paige, I supposed. She hadn’t exactly been nice up to that point, but it was here on the farm when things had really turned bad. Or rather, when she had really turned up the mean. She and her new friends had made up a whole song about me being a cowboy. Specifically, Hopalong Cassidy. Yeah. Which might sound cute, but it wasn’t. It was very much not cute. I didn’t exactly have great memories about this place. 

“Okay,” Alloy was saying while the marbles hovered around her, “for the record, there’s no more stairs in that barn. They disappeared after we all went through. And speaking of, uhhh, all this, either that rich kid school is even more absurd than I thought, or–” 

“The program shifted,” I put in, looking around quickly. “Everything changed to a new location. The–a farm, I guess?” I’d been about to say the name of the farm (which was burned into my mind, as much as I might’ve wanted to forget), but that felt like a bad idea for my secrets. Yeah, other schools might visit this place too, but still. 

“Paintball.” That was Pack, looking at me. “You sure you’re cool? You uhh, seemed like… a little off back there.” 

“I’m off?” Flushing a little, I mumbled, “Yeah, I know. I just– it’s weird in here. Doesn’t it feel weird to you guys? Like, isn’t it screwing with your powers a little bit?”

All three of them looked to one another for a silent moment before turning back to me and offering a collection of shrugs. 

“Great, so it’s just me.” I started to mutter something about that being just typical before shaking it off. Instead, I looked around, focusing on the reason we were here. I’d just have to deal with whatever was wrong with me as we went. And hope I didn’t screw things up for everyone. “Well, I don’t see that girl we’re supposed to be helping. In fact, I don’t see anyone. So how are we supposed to find her now?” 

“We could always ask those guys,” Pack dryly remarked. Her attention was centered off in the distance, where a group of ranch hands were riding closer on horses. 

“Something tells me they’re not gonna be any more helpful than the teachers back there were,” Way retorted. “Especially since–down!” That last bit came as the assortment of farm people all produced a mixture of rifles and pistols, taking aim. 

Yeah, we all hit the dirt. I sent a burst of orange from both hands to hit the other five (yes, I included Riddles and Mars Bar, of course) while putting more on myself, just before several of the bullets struck home. The paint saved us. And a second later, Alloy managed to combine her marbles into a low wall to give us cover, while more bullets ricocheted off as the hail of gunfire continued. 

“Okay!” I shouted over the unending barrage as we all huddled behind that conjured wall, “you know what?! 

“This might be jumping to conclusions a bit, but I’m really starting to feel like this computer might not want us around!” 

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In Like Flynn 17-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so now we had a fancy new team name, thanks to Peyton. I was just hoping we’d get a chance for the name to actually matter before something terrible happened to us. A nagging part of me was convinced that giving ourselves a name was going to curse this whole thing. Meanwhile, another part was telling me I was being stupid and selfish for even involving people in my problems like this. What if something happened to them? How was I going to feel? 

Eesh, maybe they were right about that whole brooding thing. It was just possible that my Touched powers had come with an additional ‘gift’ of being very, very pessimistic sometimes.

With effort, I pushed those thoughts out of my head. Yes, this could be pretty dangerous, for more than one reason. And yes, it was risky to involve other people in what could lead to a confrontation with my family eventually. But it wasn’t like I could just shove them out again. I couldn’t tell them to go away or whatever. It wouldn’t work like that. They were here, and I really needed them. I couldn’t do this by myself. I was just going to have to deal with the risk. 

Besides, I didn’t want to do this by myself. Scary as it was to trust others, even with only a small part of what was actually going on, I needed them. Not just physically. I needed their skill and power, yes. But it was more than that. I needed to know there was someone else I could depend on, even if it was only for bits and pieces of the truth. Hard as it was to admit, I really didn’t want to be alone in this. Having Izzy around to talk to had shown me how important that was.

Working as quickly as we could, our little group did everything we had to over the next short while to get the virtual reality system ready to go. We basically acted as several extra sets of arms and legs for Wren, letting the girl tell us everything she needed to get the thing done. 

For a while, I thought we’d never finish. But, eventually we were all standing around what still looked like a complicated MRI machine. Wren had just tightened one last bolt on the side before stepping back to drop the wrench onto a table and brush her hands off with a note of finality. 

After a moment of all of us standing there looking at the thing, happy to be done working on it, Peyton raised her hand. “I’ve got a question. This thing sorta looks like it’s for one person to lay in. Maybe two if you squeeze and get pretty friendly. How are all of us going to use it, exactly?”

I had actually been wondering the same thing in myself, and turned toward Wren before raising my arms in a shrug. “She’s got a point there. Please tell me we don’t need to build another one of these for all of us. I’m pretty sure we don’t have that kind of time.” 

Giggling to herself, Wren shook her head. “Nope! You’re not laying inside the thing, she is.” With that, she gestured toward Paige. “She lays inside it, her computer links to the VR system, and you guys wear these.” With that, the girl turned to the nearby table before picking up a cardboard box, holding it out to us. We all leaned forward, only to find… sunglasses and gloves. Yeah. All of them had various bits of wires and other clearly technical stuff attached. The sunglasses even had what looked like short antennae glued along one side of the frame. And the lenses were bright, solid green. Meanwhile, the gloves had little microchip-like things attached to the end of each finger. 

Wren quickly explained, while we were staring at the contents of the box. “All you gotta do is put the glasses and gloves on, then sit down by the machine there, see? You’ll get linked into the computer and, as long as it’s on, you’ll see and hear and move in there instead of here.  Whenever you tell your body to move, you’ll actually tell your avatar thing in the computer to move instead.” 

That-A-Way spoke then. “Three questions. First, do we have a way to cancel out of it if we need to? You know, in case there’s an emergency. Second, how much of what happens in there are we going to actually feel? And third, what’s the deal with using our powers? I mean, am I going to impulsively try to teleport and all of a sudden the real me is off on the other side of the room in a pile of boxes? Oh, and come to think of it, question three-b, how am I going to use different parts of my power if my body is simply facing one direction? And what about her lizards?”

Wren quickly explained. “Oh, well, first you just use the code ‘Falling Star’ to jump out of the system. And for the second thing, you really aren’t physically experiencing any of it, but the computer will sorta… give you feeling impressions up to a certain point. You’ll feel things, but you can’t die from it or actually be injured or anything. If you get hurt enough to ‘die,’ you’ll just wake up out here and have to go back in from the start and make your way to where you were again.” 

Once that much was explained, Pack put in, “You said we could use some mental approximation of our powers or whatever, right?” 

Wren’s head bobbed quickly. “Uh huh. It’s sort of hard to explain. But the computer looks at what your brain thinks it’s capable of and basically copies back into the system. If you were going into a world I made, I could make you like Superman! But… but you’re not. You’re going into another world, and I don’t have any control over it. Or at least, not very much. The best I can do is make sure you have what your own brains think your powers are.” She fidgeted a bit, starting to apologize for not being able to do more than that. 

“Don’t you dare,” I quickly interrupted, raising a finger to point at the girl. “Wren, after everything you’ve done– just don’t apologize. You pull all this together in one day. That’s amazing. Seriously, you’ve done enough. More than enough. Just let us handle the rest of it, okay?” 

Blushing at that, Wren stammered an agreement. Then she quickly moved on to show a couple tiny animal collars, explaining that putting them on a couple of the lizards would link them to Pack and let her take them into the simulation as well, just like they were really there. They would see and experience things the same way we did. Which, to be fair, was probably going to confuse the hell out of them. I just hoped Pack could make sure they understood well enough. 

“Who’re you taking in with you?” That was Way, looking at the girl in question curiously. “I mean, if you can only take two lizards, which two is it gonna be? They’re all pretty helpful.” 

“Tell me about it,” Pack muttered, her gaze focused over into the corner of the lab, where her assortment of reptiles were all spread out across the floor, curiously investigating their surroundings. “I think… Mars Bar for muscle and Riddles for utility. She can fly and let us know what she sees. Might make finding this chick and her evil twin easier, wherever we end up.” 

That said, she turned to look at Wren once more. “But you’ve gotta make sure the rest of them are cool, okay, kid? They’re gonna be confused, so you keep them happy while we’re busy.” 

Wren promised she’d make sure the rest of the lizards were okay, while part of me wondered exactly how much of Pack’s request had been for the lizards’ benefit, and how much had been for Wren herself. She was definitely going to feel pretty anxious as she waited for the rest of us to get through this whole thing. Anxious because she ‘couldn’t help,’ even though she had already helped more than enough. Getting her to keep the lizards entertained and distracted would also entertain and distract her. It was a distraction for both sides. Pack was pretty good at that sort of thing. Which made me briefly wonder if she had any younger siblings she had to distract like that.

But there wasn’t time to focus on that for long. Because Wren was running through one final checklist. She sounded like mission control for a space launch or something, intently and seriously checking over every part of the system. She didn’t spend long on it, only a couple seconds for each bit, just to make sure everything was still running smoothly. She even had us speak several sentences into a microphone, which would help translate our voices into the virtual world so we would sound right. Which was a real load off my back, since I’d been wondering how I was going to deal with the whole voice changer thing if it turned out to be an issue. 

Once she was satisfied, Wren gestured toward the motionless blonde girl on the table. “Can umm, you guys move her over to the machine?” 

Between the four of us each taking part of Paige’s body, Pack, Way, Alloy, and I managed to shift her as gently as possible over to the MRI-like machine. We laid her in place, before Wren hit a button and the thing retracted to take her inside. From there, the kid-genius picked up what looked like a small ipad and started fiddling with it. With each brush of her finger across the screen, the machine we had put Paige into gave what I hoped was an affirmative beep. The last thing we needed right now was for something to go wrong with the system. 

Okay, so I could think of a lot worse things than that, particularly revolving around one of the Fell-Touched teams like the Scions or Oscuro suddenly attacking. But that was (thankfully) pretty unlikely. Something going wrong with the device Wren had built in a day really could happen. 

Fortunately, the machine itself seemed fine. It gave happy beeps with each check Wren made, before she finally turned to us and gave a thumbs up. Her voice was nervous. “O-okay. I think it’s ready. I mean it is ready. She’s plugged into the system and it’s reading her computer. They’re completely linked. The computer says it’s all green lights. I mean, maybe a couple very faint yellow ones, but it’s still okay. Definitely okay. We are on the positive side of the line!”

Part of me wanted to ask what the yellow lights were, but I was pretty sure knowing wouldn’t help. This was the best we were going to get. And Paige didn’t have time for us to wait for everything to be completely perfect. So, looking to the other three, I asked, “We ready to do this?” 

Apparently we were, or at least as close as we were going to get. Sure, there was a lot more I’d like to do to be ready for this, but we didn’t have the time or resources. Paige was in trouble right now. We had to get in there and help her while we still could. So, the four of us arranged ourselves in chairs around the machine. Two on each side. I sat next to Alloy, lifting the front of my helmet to slip the sunglasses on through the holes in the ski mask. Then I exchanged my own gloves for the new ones and looked over to the girl beside me. She looked back and gave a thumbs up. 

“You guys ready over there?” That-A-Way called after a moment. “Cuz we have two lizards over here who are very confused about why they’re suddenly wearing collars. So we should probably get this show on the road. You know, so they can be even more confused.”  

“They’ll be fine,” Pack insisted. “Just make sure you hold Riddles carefully. Sometimes she forgets she’s not in bird form and tries to fly off things.”

Wren quickly assured us that as the machine kicked in, all commands to move that our (and the lizards’) brains sent our bodies would be translated into the virtual world instead. At least until we gave the Falling Star code. She also belatedly mentioned that we could yank each other out of the system in case of an emergency by saying that person’s Touched name in between the ‘falling’ and ‘star’ part of the name. 

“Okay, okay, right.” Wren sounded just as nervous as I felt. “Um, one more thing you should probably know. It won’t just be the virus duplicate thing you have to fight. You guys are technically sort of invaders in that system, so whatever defenses her computer has will probably try to kick you out. Especially if she’s not really in full control of it. I’m not sure how it’ll show itself, but umm, just be careful. It’ll probably look like soldiers or guards or something. Whatever fits with the scene they’re playing out you know? The defenses will try to fit in.” 

Well, that sounded fun. On the other side of the machine, Pack spoke up. “So hope this chick and her evil twin aren’t playing out some kind of Star Wars shit full of super battle droids, got it.” 

“Personally, I’m gonna close my eyes and really push for a Willy Wonka scenario,” That-A-Way put in. “I could dropkick half a dozen Oompa-Loompas when they start singing. Creepy shits.”

Yeah, we were definitely trying to keep our minds off what we were actually going to run into. Whatever it was, I had the distinct feeling it wouldn’t be as easy as drop-kicking Oompa-Loompas. But hey, maybe we’d get lucky. 

Yeah, I didn’t believe it either.   

In any case, after running one more, possibly paranoid check, Wren took a breath “Okay, alright. Um, you guys ready?” 

We confirmed that, as I shifted in the chair a bit. It wasn’t some random folding chair. The thing was a recliner that was actually fairly comfortable. Not as good as the chairs at home, of course, but at least I wouldn’t fall out of it the moment my body went limp. Or whatever was supposed to happen once I was in the system. 

Once she was satisfied, Wren looked over to the other side of the room, where Fred was standing next to a computer. She started alternating between typing stuff on a little iPad, and calling out things for him to type into his own keyboard. Behind me, I heard a gradually rising whirring sound as the MRI-like machine that we had put Paige into came to life. There was power in the air, enough that it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Oh boy, this was about to get really–

A sudden bright light blinded me, before quickly changing to a swirling pattern of colors that shifted through the entire rainbow multiple times. It wasn’t flashing or anything, just drifting, sort of like a slow kaleidoscope. I could hear the sound of dogs barking, then the sound of ocean waves, then an airplane, people talking in hushed tones, and more. It was cycling through all these random sounds that made no logical sense. Nearby, I heard another sound that I belatedly realized was Alloy muttering under her breath about not wanting to be drugged. 

Finally, the swirling colors turned into a reddish-purple fog and I had the distinct sensation of going down the drop on a roller coaster. A startled yelp escaped me, joined by three others, just as the falling sensation stopped and the fog vanished. 

I was standing in the hallway of my school. I mean, I wasn’t. I was sitting back in that room next to the machine. I knew that. Logically I knew that. But my brain was absolutely convinced at that moment that I was standing here. It looked exactly identical to one of the side corridors near the science classrooms. It even smelled right, for God’s sake. I wasn’t even sure how that part was possible, but it was. No matter what my conscious brain said, I really felt like I was standing in that hallway, as if we had been teleported there. God, this was so weird. I’d expected it to be weird, but anticipation was nothing compared to the real thing.  

Quickly, I raised my hands to my face and looked down to check. Sure enough, I was still in my costume. It had translated perfectly into the system. I had the gloves, the suit, even the helmet. Everything felt fine. Hell, the gloves were mine rather than the ones I actually had on for this, and the front of my helmet was down despite being up in the real world. Convenient.  

“Wha–” Nearby, That-A-Way was looking around. She too was in her normal costume, just the way she should’ve been. “Why are we at–in a… a school?” I could see the slight frown of confusion as she squinted at one of the classroom doors. “That’s what this place is, right?” 

Stepping from behind me to move into view, Alloy slowly shrugged. “Definitely ain’t my school. No graffiti, the lockers are way too big, everything smells clean and rich instead of like piss, sweat, and broken spirits.” 

“It’s the school for rich cunts,” Pack put in before adding, “I mean, it’s gotta be, right? Look around, tuition for this place must be fucking absurd. I bet these spoiled fucks only get world-touring, chart-topping bands to play their fucking dances.” Which totally wasn’t fair, considering the headliner of our last dance had only been like… ninth on the charts. 

In any case, even as Pack said that, Riddles and Mars Bar moved into view, sniffing around their owner’s feet before looking around. I could feel the confusion coming off of them as they adjusted to the fact that their poor lizard brains convinced them that they were somewhere completely new.  

“You guys hear anything?” Pack asked, while focusing on growing each of her pets into their larger, more capable forms. I really hoped that, like our movements, the lizard transformations weren’t translating back into the real world. Then again, we’d probably find out real quick if the iguana on the girl’s lap had suddenly turned into a full-sized grizzly bear with scales.  

“Nope,” Alloy was saying after we all took a moment to focus. “I don’t hear a damn thing. Is that weird? I mean, shouldn’t we hear them fighting or something? I thought they were supposed to be fighting.”

“Maybe they’re stalking each other,” I pointed out quietly. If they were sneaking around, it was probably a bad idea for us to make a lot of noise. Looking up and down the hallway uncertainly, I frowned in thought. Part of me wanted to call out to get Paige’s attention, but that was almost certainly a bad idea. We needed a better handle on what was going on in here before we just started shouting out for attention. Considering she had some sort of evil duplicate and we still weren’t sure how we were supposed to tell the difference between them if she decided to play that game. Seriously, what did an ‘evil Paige’ look like, after the years and years the real version had spent deliberately tormenting me (under her father’s orders, but still). It was really weird to think of the girl who had insulted and bullied you for years having an evil twin. 

No, we definitely needed to be quiet and go through this whole thing carefully. With any luck, maybe we could find our way to where they were and eavesdrop long enough to know which was which.

Unfortunately, of course, I wasn’t that lucky. And we definitely weren’t going to get much of a chance for the whole sneaking thing. Because even as I had that thought, several figures emerged from the classroom doors ahead of us. It was a mixture of teachers and school staff, even a few of the security guards and janitors. I recognized most of them. But they weren’t smiling at me the way they normally did. No, they looked pretty angry. Not to mention violent. Soon, a crowd of over a dozen had formed up to block our path forward. 

“Uhh, guys?” Alloy spoke up, and I looked back that way to see a similar group had come through the door leading to the outside. We were penned in on both sides. Worse, the assembled figures began to produce various weapons. Knives, bats, chains, and so on. This definitely wasn’t something we could talk our way through. 

“Trevithick was right about the security measures,” I muttered. “They’re definitely not happy to see us.” 

“Right, well, these guys we can rip apart, right?” Pack put in quickly, as the groups on both sides started to advance. “They’re just computer programs or whatever.” 

My head gave a quick nod. “Yeah, no need to play nice. Just get through them. And fast. We have to find Paige.” 

Either my saying her name was some kind of signal, or it was just a coincidence of timing. Either way, the moment I got those words out, a collective, horrific scream tore its way out of the throats of the people advancing on us and filled the air like some sort of terrible alarm. They all did it, shrieking like banshees. 

And with that, they attacked. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

In Like Flynn 17-02 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

For those who read Heretical Edge, there was a commissioned interlude posted yesterday. If you missed that, you can read it right here

So yeah, Pack obviously had a lot of things to say about the whole thing with this Amanda girl. Mostly centered around how many ways it could either be a trap or backfire on us. She went on about how stupid it would be to intentionally piss off Pencil and make myself and my new friend an even bigger target for him then we were now. I had made him angry already, first by screwing up his plan at the Children’s Hospital so that he didn’t do nearly as much damage as he meant to, and then by escaping up at the cabin. Not to mention the fact that I had actually hurt Cup. Yeah, obviously he didn’t need an excuse to target me. And yet, here I was, about to poke my nose into his business again. Pack had more than a few loud opinions on that idea.  

In the end, all I could say was that at least we weren’t actually going anywhere near the man himself. And, I pointed out that someone had to put a stop to him. The longer he went on being able to torture and kill people, the longer his list of innocent victims would get. Even if I didn’t have a chance in hell of confronting him directly and winning, the least I could do was contribute to bringing him down by finding Amanda Sanvers and trying to convince her to tell Deicide about any actual weaknesses Pencil might have so that she could actually do something about it. 

“I’m not stupid. I know it’s dangerous. But he has to be stopped. And I do owe Deicide for that vial. The vial that saved your boss’s daughter. She came through with it and asked for a favor. She could have asked for a much harder favor than this. Okay, maybe this isn’t exactly easy, but it’s not bad or wrong. I don’t have a moral issue with stopping Pencil and the Scions. This might be hard and dangerous, but it’s still a good thing to do. And I’m going to do it. Or try, at least.” 

Through all of that, I could tell Pack was staring at me intently. She seemed to be weighing something back and forth in her head for a silent moment before giving a long, audible sigh. “Right, fine. But don’t go digging too far into finding this chick without me, got it?” When I started to object, she interrupted. “No, you’re right. You got into this favor to help save the boss’s kid. You saved her life, and now Deicide wants you to pay that back by possibly pissing off that psycho? You’re not doing that alone. Or even with some girl who’s had her powers for like half an hour. I’m not saying I’ll fight that son of a bitch, I’m not stupid either. But me and my buddies here can help everyone get away if shit goes south. If you’re doing this, I’m gonna be there to make sure you don’t go too far with it. Fuck, I owe you that much for the vial thing. Plus, you know…” She trailed off, kicking the roof with her foot before muttering, “I don’t exactly hate you. And the list of people like that isn’t long, so I’d rather not have to deal with that fucking freak getting his hands on you. Not to mention how Way would react if she found out I just let you… yeah. So, that’s it. If you’re doing this, I’m going with you. No arguing about it, capisce?” 

Snorting despite myself, I gave a short nod. Behind the helmet, I was smiling a bit. “So, my takeaway from all that is that you like me. You really like me!” 

A low growl escaped the girl. “Don’t make me change my mind, kid. This still all seems pretty stupid. But if you insist, I’m gonna make sure you don’t go too stupid with it.” 

“Not going too stupid, got it.” Giving her a thumbs up, I added, “But hey, at least we don’t have to worry about that for a while. I mean, that’s the problem behind door number two. We’ve got a whole other problem behind door number one we have to deal with first. Isn’t that great?”

Pack didn’t sound incredibly enthused, for some reason. “You know the whole ‘door number one or door number two’ bit is supposed to imply you pick one or the other? It’s supposed to be a choice, not a thing where you dive headfirst into both of them whenever you want.” 

“Meh.” I shrugged. “I always was a little selfish. Gotta have all the doors for myself. But hey, you’ll be there too.” I adopted a teasing tone once more. “Because you liiiiiike me. Because we’re super-good friends and you won’t let anything happen to me. Because we–”

She shut me up with a kick to the shin that made me yelp, then pointedly replied, “So, are we gonna find out if Wren’s got another slot we can slide Way into before we call her in, or what?” 

Giving her a thumbs up while using my other hand to rub my leg, I nodded. “Sure, sure. Let’s head over there and see what she can do. The more friends we can pull into this whole Tron adventure, the merrier.” Grimacing then, I added, “I can’t believe I’m saying that with a straight face. This is all super-weird, right?”

Snorting at me, Pack plucked Riddles off her shoulder where the bearded dragon had crawled. “Yeah, definitely super-weird. But you know, that’s pretty much par for the course as far as you’re concerned, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not like you ever do anything the normal way.” 

Opening my mouth to argue, I ended up hesitating before coughing. “Okay, fair. I guess I really don’t. But whatever, come on, let’s go talk to our kid-genius inventor friend about letting the Minority superhero chick we’re both friends with come along on the trip to go into the cyborg-girl’s brain so we can save her from the evil duplicate virus her supervillain psycho father installed before she gets erased.” 

So, the two of us collected the lizards, put them back in the backpack-cage thing, then headed down and made our way through the maze of back alleys toward Wren’s shop. We passed a confused homeless guy on the way as he poked his head up from his sleeping bag next to a dumpster, and I gave him a twenty dollar bill before heading on. Pack watched me do that, seemed to consider for a moment, then sighed and passed him a twenty as well before whispering something in his ear. 

“What’d you say to that guy?” I asked once we had moved out of the man’s earshot. 

“Hmm?” Pack glanced toward me, then looked over her shoulder that way. “Oh, I just told him if he wants an easy lookout job that pays really well, he should call the number on the money I gave him. Blackjack’s always looking to recruit the unfortunate. Even if they don’t have any powers or skills, you’d be surprised how much information they can get for you. Plus, like I said, they can play lookouts really well. No one pays attention to them. Get enough on your side, and you have a whole spy network working for you. Just takes a little cash here and there. Which is something Blackjack has to spare.” 

My mouth opened and shut a couple times before I sighed. “You know, I genuinely have no idea how I’m supposed to feel about that. At least he’s giving them money, I guess?” 

“Money they’re earning,” Pack clarified pointedly with a raised finger. “That’s the big part. Plus, some of them do enough to get promoted into the actual gang instead of just being street-eyes. All depends on how much work they do, and how good they are at it. There’s actually a decent amount of ex-military types on the streets.” 

I was still processing that as we made our way up to the back door of the shop and rang the bell. There was about a twenty second pause before the door was pulled open by Fred, who looked a little distracted and disheveled. “Come in, then. You can help carry some shit upstairs.” With that, he gestured to two milk crates on the floor that had random bits of equipment piled up in them. It looked like he had been pulling pieces off the shelves and shoving them in there. 

“Everything okay?” I asked while stepping in and moving to pick up one of the crates. Beside me, Pack did the same while the lizards chirped and squeaked from the backpack. 

Fred was taking a long drink from a bottle of water before wiping off his forehead. “Yeah. I mean as good as it can be. Just busy. Wren’s been working all day on getting this VR thing up and running, and it’s… look, she’s working really hard, so take it easy on the kid, okay?” 

My head bobbed quickly, and I started to ask if she was okay, but Pack beat me to it. “How’s she doing with all this? Gotta be a lot of pressure on the girl, even for someone with a techy brain that big. You made her get some sleep last night, right?” There was a firm tone to her voice that reminded me just how much Pack cared about Wren too, after the time they’d spent together. She definitely didn’t like the idea of the kid stressing herself out over this whole thing. Which was fair, even if I was worried about what was going on with Paige. I was worried about Wren too. The kid was taking a lot onto her plate, with trying to put her dad’s store back in business, designing things we could actually build and sell, upgrading my equipment, and trying to help with the Paige situation. She’d even apparently gone as far as building that whole communication thing just to check on Paige herself, found out there was something wrong, and reached out to her Tech-Touched friend in France to find a solution she could jury-rig. It was a lot for anybody, let alone a nine-year-old who should be focusing on having fun. Part of me wished I could just tell the kid to forget about the whole thing and focus on her shop. But, of course, I couldn’t do that because it would mean hanging Paige out to dry.

Fred had already nodded by the time I worked through all that in my head. “You’re damn right I made the kid go to sleep. Wasn’t easy either, she was bound and determined to work through the night, but I nipped that in the bud. So yeah, she slept, otherwise she wouldn’t be conscious right now. But she’s still working her butt off on this whole thing, so take it easy with anything you ask about, got it?” His gaze moved back and forth between the two of us. 

Pack and I exchanged glances before nodding. That time, I found my voice first. “Yeah, we do… we do need to ask her about something as far as this VR thing goes, but we’ll take it easy. Trust me, Fred, we don’t wanna pile anything else onto her. She’s done enough with all this.” 

His gaze seemed to bore straight into and even through me. “So you’re not about to ask her to try to fix that orb thing anyway, even after everything she said about not being able to do it?” 

Okay, that one definitely took me by surprise. Giving a double-take despite myself, I couldn’t find my voice for a second. “Wha–no! No, I swear, that’s not why we’re here. I mean, she said she couldn’t do it, that’s–I get it. Trust me, Fred, we are not about to try to talk her into working on the orb. I know it’s more than she can handle. I didn’t–” Oh. He thought I’d brought Pack for backup in talking the poor kid into taking on that job too. No wonder he was making a point of talking to us like this, especially after Wren had outright refused to work on Paige the first time. And now he thought we were here to pressure her into taking it up, just because it was an emergency and–oh. Now I definitely understood what his whole deal was. 

“He’s right,” Pack put in, clearly having gone through the same thought process. “We’re not here to talk the kid into doing stuff she already said she couldn’t do. We just think we might need more help if we’re going into this… computer world thing, so we were wondering if she could make enough links or helmets or whatever it is for us to bring That-A-Way over.” 

Quickly, I added, “And, you know, ask if she’s cool with That-A-Way knowing where the shop is and all that. I mean, she knows a good bit already. Some of it anyway. But it’s a pretty big step to have Way over here. Especially since she always knows what direction she’s facing, so putting a bag over her head to drive her to the shop wouldn’t really do that much. She’d probably still be able to figure out where we were going and all that.” 

Without missing a beat, Fred pointed out, “We could teleport her directly here, you know. Her knowing what direction she’s facing wouldn’t tell her the exact location if she was teleported in from somewhere else, right? It’d just take time to calibrate for her and all, as the kid would say.” 

Oh, right. Pausing to consider that, I slowly nodded. “We’ll ask Wren what she wants to do. Either way, having masks around for you or anyone who wants one would probably be a good idea, just to, you know, be on the safe side.” 

Fred looked like he was going to say something to that, before shaking it off. “Right, yeah. Well, if that’s what you need, go ahead and carry those crates up to the kid. And let me know if I need to start calibrating that teleport marker. Kid made me learn how to do it in case there was an emergency or whatever, and God knows she’s got enough to work on today as it is.” 

Yeah, Fred had definitely changed since I first met him. Or had he? His whole thing when he had gone against Wren’s rules and made the deal with Ashton had been to get money to take care of her and to pay the bills for her parents’ hospital and funeral stuff. Yeah, he’d definitely done something bad, but he hadn’t known how bad at the time. He had just wanted better for himself and his niece, and that wasn’t exactly the worst crime in the world. And now he was still trying to take care of her, just without going too far. He’d learned from his mistake, but he was still the same guy, for the most part. 

“You okay over there?” Pack asked as the two of us walked to the stairs with the crates.

Heading up first, I nodded quickly. “Yeah, sorry. Just been thinking a lot. You know, about everything. It’s just–” I sighed. “There’s a lot going on.” 

Snorting, Pack nodded while starting up after me. She had left the bag with her lizards inside on one of the counters downstairs with strict orders for them to stay put, eat their food, and relax. Aside from Twinkletoes, who was perched on her shoulder, curiously watching everything. “A lot going on, right. And yet, here you are, taking on more responsibility day after day after day.” 

Wincing, I shook my head. “Hey, I told you, it’s not my fault. I owed Deicide for the–yeah.” 

“I know, I get it,” she muttered, reaching up to scratch under Twinkletoes’s chin affectionately. The way she brought him with just as we were going up the stairs, I had the feeling Pack didn’t like to go anywhere without at least one of them. Which, again, made me curious about how she went to school. Did she go to school, or was it just like some kind of tutoring situation in La Casa? And why did I keep wondering about it? Seriously, it was none of my business. I had no idea why the question kept popping into my head. Like I didn’t already have enough to worry about and focus on? 

By that point, we had reached the top of the stairs and moved through the hallway there to get to the lab where Wren was working on what I swore looked like a large, makeshift MRI machine that was taking up a decent portion of one corner. The kid had the side of the machine open and was lying on one of those little wheeled carts that mechanics use, buried up to her waist in the wire-filled guts of the machine. We could both hear the girl talking to herself, or rather, to the machine. She was mumbling about making the thing work whether it wanted to or not. 

Exchanging a brief look with the girl next to me, I stepped that way. “Uh, hey, Wren. You need any help down there? Got some stuff for you.” I shook the crate in my hand a little demonstrably.   

Hearing my voice, the girl slid out, blurting, “Paintball!” She saw the other girl then and added a quick, “Pack! And Twinkletoes!” Hurriedly, she climbed into her feet, almost slipping on the wheeled cart before managing to catch herself. “Hi! Oh, you can put that stuff right there on the floor, I’ve gotta dig through it and find the right stuff. Do you know if Uncle Fred found the–” And then she said something so ridiculously technical that she might as well have been speaking in a completely foreign language. Or even an alien language. Hell, for all I knew, she was talking in complete gibberish and that entire sentence was just the girl screwing with us to see if we had any clue what she was going on about. And from the sound that Pack made in the background, I was pretty sure she didn’t have the slightest idea what any of that meant either.  

After a moment, I found my voice. “Uh, sorry he didn’t say anything about that. But it seemed like he found what you sent him for? So maybe it’s in there. If you want some help digging through it…” Oh, really? Where was I going to go with that, genius? I had no idea what any of what she was asking about looked like, so how exactly was I going to help her find it? 

Thankfully, Wren politely declined, saying she’d look through it later. Then she frowned slightly, looking back and forth between us while holding Twinkletoes (the chameleon had been quickly handed over to her and was quite thoroughly enjoying the attention). Curiously, the girl asked, “You guys aren’t here to do the thing yet, are you? Cuz I–I’m really sorry but it’s not ready yet. I’ve been trying and I swear I’ll get it working, but I had to sleep cuz Uncle Fred said I couldn’t–” 

Quickly, I interrupted. “No, no, it’s okay. We’re not here for that.” With that, I explained why we were there, asking how the girl felt about bringing That-A-Way over, how secret she wanted us to make it, and whether she thought there would be a way of bringing one more person into the VR thing. But I made it perfectly clear that if adding someone else was too much to get ready in time, she absolutely shouldn’t worry about it, and that it was just a thought we’d had about getting more help in there.

Thankfully (because I really thought we were going to need all the help we could get), Wren immediately agreed. According to her, once she had the actual system working, it wouldn’t be too hard to create an additional link-in for it. Especially since she had apparently been planning on making another one ‘just in case’ anyway. It was intended to be just in case one of the regular link-ins didn’t work properly, but assuming everything did work, there would be an extra one for That-A-Way.

“And you want us to go the blindfold, teleportation route?” Pack put in curiously. “Cuz if so, I think Paintball should do it. Just cuz someone from La Casa putting a bag over a superhero’s head and teleporting them to a secret location kiiiinda has a weird feeling to it.” 

Wren, however, shook her head. “Nuh uh, you can bring her here. She’s a superhero! She’s a good guy–errr, girl. An’ besides, if you guys trust her, I trust her.” Belatedly, she added, “Besides, if bad stuff happens, it’s probably a good idea to have someone like her know where we are, right?” 

“Uh, good point,” I agreed, giving her a thumbs up before looking over to Pack. “So, what do you say? 

“Shall we go find out if That-A-Way wants to play Tron with us?” 

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