Syndicate

Equal And Opposite 21-10 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Equal And Opposite 21-08 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Equal And Opposite 21-07 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Equal And Opposite 21-06 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But boy, was it tempting. 

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Commissioned Interlude 10 – Minority Guys (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – The following is a commissioned interlude, not part of the normal schedule. There was ALSO another chapter focusing on Jae and the Chambers twins posted earlier. If you have not read that yet, you can see it by clicking right here

Laki Sefo/Wobblef

Present Day

The repetitive sound of a basketball hitting pavement filled the park early in the morning. A tall, lone figure was backlit by the rising sun as it came across the horizon. In the crisp air, he dribbled the ball between his legs and back again before rising up to shoot from the three-point line. The ball swished smoothly through the net before falling directly into the hands of a man who had approached from the sidelines. 

“Looking good, Laki,” the curly-haired blond man announced while turning the ball over in his hands. Thirty years earlier, Harris Mauter had been on his way to the NBA, before twisting his knee his last year of university. He’d taken to coaching basketball first for college before his own bitterness at his situation had seen him demoted to high school. There, he’d found his calling and become relatively stable and happy. Or rather, normally happy. Aside from when one of his most-promising young athletes went and threw their whole career away for nothing. 

It was that very athlete the man was staring at just then. Laki Sefo. Just sixteen years old, yet he stood six feet, seven inches tall. And unlike many youths who grew tall early, Laki wasn’t thin. He was well-built, and often passed for being an adult. Hell, the Samoan boy had been passing as an adult for a couple years. And the boy had talent. Incredible talent. At fifteen and only a sophomore the year before, he had led his public high school team to be state champions.

And then he quit. It happened shortly after the party to celebrate their final win. The boy, who was set to cruise on through two more years of high school before being snatched up on a full scholarship to any university he wanted ahead of an inevitable NBA career, had quit the sport entirely. No reason given, no injury, nothing. He still played like a champion, but he just… refused to. 

Catching the ball as the man tossed it to him, Laki quietly replied, “Thanks, Coach.” 

“Coach?” Harris tilted his head curiously. “I’m sorry, am I your coach? Was this entire past year a bad dream and you didn’t throw away everything for no reason?” 

Grimacing a little, Laki spun the ball around in his hands before shaking his head. “Sorry, Coach.” 

Harris paused, taking a breath before gesturing. “Look, kid, I drive by here every morning. And I see you out here a lot. Even watched you play a couple pick-up games. You’re just as good as you used to be. Maybe better. You say the word and you can come right back. Everything forgiven, same spot again. I mean, technically you’d have to try out and earn it, but we both know that’s not a problem.” 

Laki was quiet for a moment, still holding the ball. He knew just how badly the man wanted him to say yes. He knew… he knew how badly he wanted to say yes. He loved basketball as much as he loved anything else. And yet, in the end, the boy simply shook his head. His voice was soft as he repeated his last words. “Sorry, Coach. I… need to get to work.”  

With that, he turned and began to walk away, while Harris stared after him in disbelief. The man called out a question about where he was working, and that they both knew he still loved basketball, but Laki didn’t respond to either. He didn’t want to lie to the man. Not after already disappointing him. And he couldn’t tell him the truth about where he was working. He couldn’t tell him the truth about why he had quit the team.

He couldn’t tell him what had really happened, the night of the championship game. 

********

One Year Earlier

Lying on his back on the cement in his own backyard (well, his family’s backyard), fifteen-year-old (and already six-foot three) Laki held one hand out toward the basketball hoop attached to a metal post. A series of vibrations shot from his outstretched finger, carefully calculated to carry the ball through the air, directing it somewhat precariously toward and finally through the hoop. As the ball fell, he sent a stronger vibration that way, making it bounce the ball off the nearby garage wall and back toward him so he could catch the thing without getting up.

“Damn, dude,” another boy, standing closer to the gate leading out of the backyard, shook his head. He wasn’t nearly as tall as Laki, standing only five feet, seven inches. His blond hair was  fashioned into a faux-hawk, and he had a ready smile. “That shit’s cool, every time I see it.” Stepping over, he looked down at the other boy (Laki lying on his back was basically the only time he would be able to look down to see him). “Still can’t believe you got that lucky. Come on, your life is already perfect. You’ve got like, a hundred million dollar NBA career ahead of you and you find one of those orbs? So now you’re a superstar basketball player and you have actual superpowers. Save some for the rest of us, huh?” 

Chuckling easily, Laki pushed himself to his feet. “Sorry, Ken. Like I said, it just showed up while I was waiting for the bus. I didn’t exactly call for it. But tell you what, next time, I’ll make sure to ask the orb to stick around so you can touch it too.” 

With a snort, Ken retorted, “See, you joke, but I wouldn’t put it past you to find a second orb to get even more powers. That sounds just like you.” Checking his phone then, he added, “I gotta run. But I’ll be there tonight. You’re gonna win, right?” 

Laki, in turn, offered a broad smile and wink. “Can’t predict the future, dude. Grand Rapids has a pretty good team.” He let that sit in the air for a moment before laughing. “But yeah, we’re gonna smoke ‘em.” 

The boys exchanged high fives before Laki watched his friend head out the gate. Still antsy, unable to make himself sit still for the hour it would take before it was time to head out for the game, the tall boy decided to go for a jog. He could listen to music, clear his head, and get himself in the right frame of mind. 

Almost fifty minutes later, he was on his way back home after completing a nice loop. Earbuds blasting one of his favorite songs, Laki jogged down the street several blocks from his house. He would be home in a minute, and would have just enough time to grab a lift from his dad to the school. In that moment, the boy was mostly lost in his own world, thinking about how the game was going to go. And about how great it would feel for his team to be state champions.  

He was not so lost in thought, however, that he didn’t notice another boy approaching from the side, crossing the street with his hand raised. Slowing, Laki looked that way. He sort of recognized the boy as someone from school, and around the neighborhood, but they had never really interacted. 

“Uh, hey, Laki. Uh, hi.” The boy, black with a buzz cut and an oversized football jersey, started awkwardly. “I mean, you’re Laki. Of course you are. I just–um, my name’s Joe. Joe Pallamarti. We don’t-uhh, know each other or anything. I mean, you probably don’t know anything about me. But I live right down the street, we go to the same school, and–” 

“Hey, sorry, really cool to see you, Joe.” Giving the boy a casual smile, Laki started to move past him. “I gotta head out so I can get to the game. You gonna be there?” 

“Wa-wait!” Joe called out, face heavily flushed. “Look, I–fuck, fuck. I need your help, man.” 

His words made the taller boy blink, slowing a bit. “Uh, what? You okay?” 

Joe folded his arms against his stomach, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “Look, I–I was there, okay? I saw you touch that Orb the other day. I saw what you–I mean– I wasn’t gonna say anything. I’m not gonna say anything. Not to anybody. Never, ever. Not a fucking word. But I–I need your help. And I can’t think of anyone else to talk to about it.” 

Eyes widening through that, Laki gave a quick shake of his head. “What–hey, I don’t know what you’re talking about. But if you think you can latch on and blackmail–” 

“No!” Joe hurriedly insisted. “No, no, that’s not what–I swear, I won’t tell anyone. That’s not what this is–I’m explaining it wrong. Listen, I just need–” 

Laki put a finger against the boy’s chest, pushing him back. “Whatever kind of game you think you’re playing, I don’t want anything to do with it. If you try to fuck me over, you’ll regret it.” 

“No, I swear!” Joe’s voice was desperate. “It’s not about–I need… look, there’s this guy, he keeps harassing my sister. She told him off but he won’t listen and–and I’m afraid he’s gonna come back. I just want you to tell him to back off, that’s all. I mean, look–you’re huge. And with your–” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “With your powers, if you wore a mask or something, you could put the fear of God into him, you know? You could make him leave her alone.” 

Opening his mouth, Laki hesitated. “I don’t–that’s not… why don’t you call the cops?” 

“Don’t you think I tried?” Joe insisted. “They don’t listen. He hasn’t done anything, so they just said they can’t step in. Just–I know he’s going to come back today. Any minute now. If we could run over there, it’ll just take a–” 

“Whoa, whoa, now?” Laki’s head shook. “Hey, sorry. Look, maybe I can come help you out later, but not right now. Are you crazy? It’s the last game tonight, the championship. You know, that thing everyone at school is talking about.” 

“But if you–” Joe started. 

“Later,” Laki interrupted. “Seriously, come by after the game. We’ll go over and find that guy you were talking about. Make him lay off your sister. But I gotta go right now. I’ll see you then, dude.” 

As he started jogging back to his house, the other boy stood where he was, calling after him, “What if he shows up?!” 

“It’ll be fine!” Laki called back, already putting it out of his mind. He had other things to focus on. Couldn’t let his coach down. Couldn’t let his team down. Couldn’t let the scouts who would definitely be there that night down. 

Time to show how good he really was.

*****

Much later that evening, Laki was high off the adrenaline of leading his team through the championship. They won. They were indisputably the best team in the state, no question about it. He had been on fire all night long. It was the best game of his high school career. Those college scouts were damn sure to be calling. Things couldn’t get any better. 

Stepping out of the car after his friends dropped him off, the boy was about to head inside when flashing lights down the street caught his attention. Turning that way, he saw several police cars and an ambulance outside of a house in the distance. The sight made him frown, walking that way before he knew what he was doing. 

There was a small crowd of neighbors gathered around the house, held back by police crime scene tape. Ken was already there, glancing over as the other boy approached. “What a fucking nightmare, huh? I mean, uh, congrats and all. But…” He turned back to look at the house in the distance. “Fuck.” 

Laki was frowning even more. “What’s going on?” 

“You don’t know?” Ken grimaced. “Sorry to bring you down on your big night.” He nodded to the house. “That’s Joe Pallamarti’s house. You don’t know him, but he goes–”

“To our school,” Laki finished. “I know him. Why–what happened?” 

Ken shrugged. “Some guy his sister was dating or something. Sounds like she dumped him, so he came over, broke his way into the house, and uhh, things got ugly. Joe tried to get in the way, but uhh, he and his sister both got shot. They didn’t make it.” 

“Didn’t–” Laki reeled backward, eyes wide. “Wha-what the fuck do you mean, didn’t make it? He was just–he was–I–” He doubled over a little, voice hoarse. Bile filled his throat. “I should’ve… I should’ve…”

“Hey, hey, man, ease up.” Ken reached out, putting a hand on his friend’s arm. “It’s fucked up, but come on. You didn’t even know them, man. You were at the game, you didn’t know anything about it. You weren’t here.

“There’s nothing you could’ve done, right?” 

**********

Damarko Myers/Syndicate

Present Day

Standing in front of what would look from the outside like a completely mundane tool shed in an out-of-the-way alley, Damarko Myers stood facing himselves. Or perhaps it was more accurate to say all four of him stood facing themselves.

Being a single person with four different bodies and separate minds was complicated. Two years earlier, there had been only one of him. Then the tall (though not nearly as tall as Wobble), dark-skinned and wiry boy had Touched. First there had been two more of him, though only one of the group could be solid at any given time. They had called themselves Trilogy. But six months later a fourth version had appeared, so their name had become Syndicate. Individually, they went by animal names to differentiate amongst themselves. Rabbit, Colt, Puma, and Armadillo.

In their insubstantial form, the various versions of Damarko could choose whether they were visible to everyone (though with a blueish-gray ghostlike appearance), or only to each other (including whichever of them was solid at the time). At the moment, they were only visible to one another. So, anyone who might have happened to look down that alley would see what appeared to be a lone Damarko, dressed in jeans and a long open flannel shirt over a black tee, tapping his fist three times against his other palm before showing one or two fingers to… apparently no one. That repeated a few quick times before he pumped his fist in the air, and then immediately vanished, only to reappear a few feet away. 

No, he didn’t teleport. That version (Rabbit) simply became insubstantial, while Colt turned solid. Snapping his fingers, Colt insisted, “Someday I’m going to figure out what my tell is, then I’ll win one of those games.” 

“Sure, buddy,” Rabbit retorted with a grin. “But until then, you get toilet duty.” 

“I dunno what you’re grinning about,” Colt shot back, “Trash duty isn’t that much better.” 

“Sure seems better to me,” Rabbit replied, shrugging. “But maybe that’s cuz the trash doesn’t go out for another three hours, and the restroom’s right now.” 

They, and the other two, continued to tease one another about what chores they had been saddled with that evening while turning to move toward the nearby shed. Colt, as the solid one, reached out to press his hand against the seemingly blank wall next to the door. As he did so, his palm activated the button, which activated the pinhole camera a couple feet higher. The camera was basically invisible. He only knew where to look in order to see the tiny hole it was looking through thanks to being told exactly where it was. The thing scanned his eyes, and there was a brief pause before the door clicked, allowing him to open it. 

Technically, the other three versions of him were intangible and capable of going through the door before it opened. But the place had a lot of security against that sort of intrusion. Which they knew from past experience. If they did try to go straight in, it would have set off about a dozen different alarms, called in aid from various authorities, and just been a complete mess. Besides, simply going into the building like that wouldn’t actually accomplish anything anyway. So, they waited before heading in with their solid brother. 

The shed’s interior didn’t look any different than it should have. It appeared to be a completely empty small building. But, as the door shut, the Touched-Tech built by the Ten Towers Touched known as Switchshift went to work. A moment later, there was an audible ding, and Colt reached back to open the door once more. Rather than admitting them to the same alley they had just left, the quartet emerged into a wide, circular room with a desk to one side, a pair of double doors straight ahead with an enormous clock above them, and an elevator to the left. 

“Syndicate.” Smiling warmly, the blonde woman in her forties who sat behind the desk rose and emerged from behind it. “Or should I say… Colt… Armadillo… Rabbit… and Puma.” With each pronouncement, she pointed to one of the boys in particular. 

All four of them stared at her. The intangible trio had made themselves visible in those blue-gray ghostly forms just to test her (for about the thousandth time), and were still surprised by the results. Armadillo shook his head. “You know, someday we’re going to figure out how you do that, Ms. Esters.” 

His words made the woman smile. “Just like I told you before, I have triplets. You get pretty good at telling them apart with enough practice.” Her hand gestured back to the desk, where a framed photograph of the woman with her husband and the identical ten-year-olds was visible. “So, who’s doing what tonight, boys? I’ve got a porcelain ticket, an emerald ticket, tile ticket, and fuzzy ticket.”

Puma spoke up. “You know, no matter what cute names you give them, it’s still restroom cleaning, trash collection, kitchen clean-up, and vacuuming the clubhouse.” 

“Sure sounds like you’re the one with toilet duty,” she teased him with a raised eyebrow. 

“Nope,” Rabbit put in. “He’s in the kitchen. Colt’s the one cleaning the toilet. I’ve got trash. And uh, Armadillo gets to play with the vacuum.” 

“Well then.” Turning, Ms. Esters stepped over to a cupboard behind her desk and returned with a bucket, mop, and other cleaning supplies, which she handed over to Colt. In the bucket was also a box of large trash bags for Rabbit to use when the time came. To Puma, the woman added, “When you clean up that kitchen, don’t forget to really get into the inside of that microwave. Those hot pockets make a real mess. And you boys let me know if you need any help.” 

“I guess that means there’s no reports?” Colt sounded a bit hopeful. Anything to get him out of focusing on the bathroom. 

His words drew a sly, knowing smirk from the woman. “Nothing just yet, but you know how it’s been lately. Something could come in any minute.” Before he could smile, she added, “Which means you should get in there and scrub that toilet now, while you’ve got the chance.” Her voice turned to a stage-whisper. “Believe me when I say, it needs it. And you know the rules about cleaning the Clubhouse.” 

The Clubhouse was the term for the areas of the Minority Headquarters where the actual team members hung out, trained, played games, ate food, and generally stayed while they were on-duty but not patrolling or responding to a situation. The Minority Headquarters itself technically consisted of two other floors full of support personnel and office workers. It took a surprising number of people to run this team of teenage superheroes. There were two private practice lawyers and their assorted paralegals for dealing with civil cases and legal questions that arose, a handful of police officers who worked directly with the team and were assigned to the building, three people whose job it was to scour the internet for anything that could possibly either make the Minority look bad or potentially expose their identities, at least four full-time accountants, and a couple of technicians down in the lab picking through new toys that were either sent in from other Tech-Touched who wanted to help, or scavenged from crime scenes. In most cases, the latter were sent to bigger labs such as those used by the Conservators. But they did have a small place here. 

Beyond all that, there were even more people working in the various offices. Even a couple of public relations people to help keep their team looking good in the eyes of the rest of the city. To say nothing of all the special investigators they had. All in all, it was a very busy building. And those people had plenty of their own support personnel, employees who kept the building clean, delivered their mail throughout the offices, and so forth. All except for the Clubhouse itself. The area where the teenagers hung out. There was a very firm rule that it was up to the members of the Minority themselves to clean their area. They cleaned up their kitchen, their bathroom, took out their trash, vacuumed their own carpet, and so forth. Some might have said that they already did a lot of work putting their powers toward helping people, but the people who had instituted that rule wanted to make sure the teenagers didn’t end up thinking they were above everyone by having what amounted to servants clean up their hangout every week. They still got plenty of benefits, including a salary and a lot of free food (always good for growing teenagers). But cleaning up their own messes was non-negotiable.

Together, the four identical figures thanked the woman and turned to head for the elevator. The double doors straight ahead from the entrance they had come through would have led them to the office area where everyone else worked. Those doors were securely locked, and monitored by Ms. Esters or one of the other two who took turns at that desk, to stop anyone who didn’t have clearance from accidentally seeing the Minority members unmasked or fully in civilian clothes. She, and the other two, were essentially their… minders. And tutors when the occasion called for it. They stayed upstairs for the most part, leaving the Minority teens to carry on as they wished so long as they followed the rules. 

Syndicate didn’t head for the doors, however. They turned and walked to the elevator. Unlike the normal ones inside the main office, this one only went down to one area, the Clubhouse. 

Once they were on the elevator and the doors had closed behind them, the Damarkos glanced at one another. Puma spoke first. “She still reminds me of–” 

“–Alice,” Armadillo finished. All four nodded together, their expressions identical not only in physical appearance, but also in the pain that passed through them. 

The elevator doors had opened by then, but none of them moved. It didn’t feel right to do so. Not yet. Not until they had all lowered their heads, staring at their own feet for several long seconds as the memory washed over them.

Alice Mcgregor. Four years earlier, she had been the then-singular Damarko’s piano teacher. Between the ages of ten and thirteen, he had visited her house twice a week to take lessons and practice. He wasn’t an expert or anything, but he had gotten pretty good. Mostly because Alice was a good teacher. 

Then she was killed. Not at her house or anything. She had been mugged and murdered at a bus stop late at night. Damarko’s parents didn’t tell him the truth about it at first, of course. He’d had to read the details online. Something he still regretted doing. Worse, they never caught her killer. It was just a random attack. 

It was the memory of Alice’s killer escaping justice that had helped prompt Damarko to join the Minority when he eventually found an orb and Touched two years after that event. The Touching part itself wasn’t traumatic or anything. He had simply been playing lasertag with some friends, huddled behind cover, when an orb showed up right in front of his gun. He thought it was part of the room at first, a new special effect or something. But then he reached out to touch it and… well, things had never been the same. 

The point was, remembering reading about the savage murder of his old piano teacher, a nice woman who had given him chocolate and peppermint candy, two years before that moment had convinced all of the Damarkos to head straight to the Minority and sign up to help however they could. And now here they were. 

Raising their gazes to look at one another, the four gave an assortment of firm, silent nods. Their promise to help anyone they could reestablished, they turned to walk out into the Clubhouse, Colt dragging the mop and bucket with them. 

It was time to go to work. 

*****

Jerry Meuster/Whamline

A Little Over One Year Ago

Throwing open the door to his bedroom with a slam, the red-haired teenager rushed inside, already cursing. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Rather than anger, his tone was one of fear and desperation. He quickly began to yank his jacket off while kicking the door shut behind him. In a frantic rush that ended up being far less efficient than if he had taken his time, and nearly made him fall over repeatedly, the boy stripped himself down to being completely naked. 

Still cursing the whole time, tears in his eyes, he grabbed all the clothes and threw them into an old duffel bag. His shaking hands zipped it up, before he cursed even more emphatically and unzipped it to yank all his possessions out of the pockets. Then he zipped it back up, and stood while grabbing the bag. The boy was halfway back to his door before remembering that he was naked. Throwing the bag down, he raced to put on new clothes.

Once he was actually dressed, Jerry Meuster went to grab the bag once more before jerking with a yelp as his cell phone buzzed and vibrated from the pile of stuff on the floor. Staring at it as though the thing was a hissing snake, he hesitated before gulping as he grabbed the phone and checked the caller ID. A relieved sigh at what he saw escaped the boy before he answered. 

“Yeah? No, I’m not fucking kidding! It was an accident, asshole! I was just fucking around, the dude wasn’t even supposed to–yeah. Of course not, how fucking stupid do you think I am? But I’ve gotta get rid of the clothes, right? You know, for like, evidence and shit. No, I didn’t throw it away. I’ve gotta–yeah. Fuck, fuck. Just meet me out by the school. I don’t know, it seems like the right place. Whatever, just fucking meet me there! And bring some gasoline!”  

Clicking the phone off, he gave one more look around the room before racing back out, letting the door slam behind him once more. A shout came in from the far side of the house about not slamming things, but he ignored it for the moment. There were more important things for him to focus on. Like not ending up in prison. 

*****

Jogging across the school parking lot several minutes later with the duffle bag on his shoulder, Jerry approached another boy who was standing there waiting for him. The second boy was slightly taller, a Latino teenager with long dark hair. He turned as Jerry approached, jolting a bit. “Fuck, you scared the shit out of me. That’s the clothes?”

Shaking the bag on his shoulder, the other boy gave a quick nod. “Well, I didn’t leave them at home. Did you bring the fucking gas, Jorge?” 

“Over there.” Jorge nodded to a red gas can, sitting next to a large metal trash container that was chained to the ground. “You sure you need to burn them? I mean, you didn’t like… get blood on you or anything, did you?” 

Giving the other boy a sharp look, Jerry retorted, “I’m not taking any chances. You think I want to end up in prison just because some guy was too fucking stupid to live? I was just screwing around, having a little fun. He’s the one who–” Cutting himself off, he made a growling sound in the back of his throat before walking over to dump the contents of the bag, and then the bag itself, into the large trash barrel. That done, he stooped to pick up the gas can and began to empty it over the clothes. Once they were all thoroughly doused, the boy held his hand out. “Gimme your lighter.” 

After a brief hesitation, Jorge stepped over that way and passed him the flip lighter from his pocket. “Be careful with it, I–” 

Taking the thing, Jerry simply flipped it open to get a small flame and then tossed it into the can. Immediately, there was a whoosh as the contents went up. 

“–like that lighter,” Jorge finished, staring at the tall flames. “Damn it.” 

“No evidence,” Jerry insisted, watching the fire burn. “We watch this for awhile until we’re sure it’s all gone, then we’ll put it out. Gardener’s still got the hose attached to the school over there. We make sure it’s all destroyed. Can’t have anything tying me back there.” 

The two of them stood there silently for a few minutes of silence, both lost in thought. Finally, Jorge spoke in a soft voice. “Kinda feel shitty about that guy, huh?” 

Jerry didn’t respond for a moment, his eyes locked onto the flames. His eyes closed, head tilting a bit before he quietly replied, “Yeah, shitty. That guy shouldn’t have been out there. Shouldn’t’ve… fuck. It’s all so fucked up, you know? Why the fuck did he have to be there?” 

Jorge opened his mouth to say something, then seemed to think better of it and remained silent. His eyes moved back and forth between the flaming barrel and the other boy, a thoughtful look crossing his face before his gaze rose toward the sky. 

“We clean this up,” Jerry finally announced after another few minutes had passed, “and then we never talk about it again. You understand? Once we’re done with this, it never happened. We don’t talk about it, we don’t write anything about it, we do nothing about it. It’s over. We erase it with the fire, right?” 

After a moment of silence that made Jerry move his gaze from the barrel over to his friend, Jorge finally gave a short nod, his own voice barely audible against the crackle of the flames. “Right. We erase it and walk away. 

“It’s over.” 

*******

“Three weeks, man!” Jerry snapped. “We burned those fucking clothes three weeks ago. It was over, remember? It was over! We said we weren’t going to talk about it again, so why the fuck did you bring it up?” 

The two boys were standing in an alley several blocks from the diner that Jerry’s family ran, late into the evening. It was almost midnight, as they stared at one another, expressions barely visible through the light of the distant streetlamps. 

“Why?” Jorge echoed. “You know why! You know what they found!” 

Rolling his eyes, Jerry’s head shook. “And I’m telling you, they can’t trace it back to me. I didn’t leave any evidence in there, okay? Nothing they can use. I wiped the whole thing off. Even if they got some fabric or whatever, we burned my clothes, remember? They’ve got nothing. We’re fine!” 

Turning away, Jorge groaned, putting his hands to his face. “I never should have gotten involved. I never should have showed you how to do any of that. I should’ve–fuck, fuck, fuck!” 

“Hey!” Jerry reached out, grabbing the other boy’s shoulder. “Just calm down. It was an accident, okay? It was an accident and it’s over. Nobody knows I was there, and nobody knows you had any involvement at all. We’re cool. We’re safe. It’s all good.” 

“All good?” Jorge made a face, pulling his shoulder away before turning to look at his friend. “Dude, you fucking killed a guy. How is that all good?” 

“It was an accident!” Jerry snapped, voice rising to a near-shout before catching himself. “It’s like I said, total and complete accident. I didn’t know he was there, okay? I didn’t mean to hurt him. I didn’t–fuck. I didn’t mean for any of that to happen. But I’m not going down for it just because he was in the way. So calm down. They don’t have anything tying me to that. All we have to do is keep our heads down and not say anything. This’ll blow over. Hell, it’s already blowing over. They’ve got more important things to focus on.”

Jorge fell silent, clearly choosing over his words before looking up once more. “Listen, if they do track you down, it’s gonna be really bad. Straight up murder charges or whatever, cuz you ran and you hid it. But if you, you know, negotiate with them and get it down to accidental manslaughter or–” 

“Why the fuck would I say anything to them?” Jerry demanded. “Like I said, they’ve got nothing. They can’t find me. They can’t track me down. They don’t even know who the fuck I am. I don’t need to negotiate them down from murder to manslaughter, because they can’t get me for either of them! They don’t know who I am!” 

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Jorge stammered. “I’m just saying, if we talk to them about how it was an accident, and like–” 

“We?” Jerry interrupted once more. He took a step that way, eyes narrowing. “The fuck do you mean ‘we?’ You mean me? It’s my fucking ass on the line, dude. You’re my friend, right? So we don’t say anything to them, right? Because that’s the way we make this go away, right?” 

Jorge took a deep breath before exhaling. “Right.” Turning away to stare at the brick wall once more, he added, “Maybe we can send something to his family. Like, anonymousl—” 

In mid-sentence, the boy gave a sudden grunt of surprise and pain, jerking violently. 

“Shhh.” Jerry held a hand clamped over the boy’s mouth, shoving the knife deeper into his back before bringing it out to stab again, then a third time. “Shhh. I told you. I fucking told you to drop it. I told you not to bring it up again! Now you’re talking about sending shit to his family? You wouldn’t let it go, would you? You wouldn’t–” He brought the knife back out and then stabbed it in again one last time. “–let it go!” 

Stepping back, he let the body fall to the ground, panting as he stared down at it. The knife was still buried in the boy’s back, and he reached down while taking out a handkerchief to wipe off the handle. Once that was done, he looked around the empty alley quickly before stepping back to fumble with his phone until it was out of his pocket. His fingers dialed 911, and Jerry stammered, “Pl-please, come quick. Please, my friend–it’s my friend, we were mugged and–and they stabbed him. They stabbed him in the back—he–he’s not breathing! Please, come quick! Please!” 

In mid-plea, the boy saw something out of the corner of his eye. Ignoring the operator’s requests to stay on the line, he disconnected and turned his head. 

An orb. A glowing orb was floating right next to him, as though staring at the body on the ground. Seeing it, everything else seemed to wash away. Slowly, he raised his hand and reached out toward the orb. 

Soon, Jerry Meuster would have his own superpowers. He would choose to join the Minority, as everyone there would believe the orb had come to him in the wake of witnessing his friend’s murder. Which, of course, was technically true. He would even have a pretty good time playing superhero for awhile, much to his own surprise. 

Although his surprise at how much he enjoyed being a member of the Minority was nothing compared to when he found out just who one of his teammates was. After all, in all of his planning how could he possibly have expected to find himself working side by side with Amber O’Connell…

The daughter of the man Jerry had hit and killed while joyriding in a stolen car.  

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Eits

With a polite ding, the elevator doors opened, and Ryder Towling (the name the boy publicly known as Eits had taken for himself after his transition) stepped out onto the third floor of the apartment building. Or rather, staggered out, considering how full his arms were. The brown-haired boy had several grocery bags hooked over each of his somewhat gangly limbs, and was clutching a few of what looked like long cardboard tubes with caps on either end to his chest. The keys to the building that he’d used to get in were clutched between his teeth.

Unlike when he appeared in his La Casa costume, the civilian Ryder didn’t dress to wow people. Or to attract attention at all. At the moment, he wore simple faded gray jeans, tennis shoes, a burgundy tee shirt, and a brown leather jacket. Between that and his habit of watching the ground or his phone while walking, and his unremarkable drab brown hair that was a couple weeks late for a trim to tame it back to some working order, he blended right into most crowds.

Shuffling awkwardly down the hall while doing his level best not to drop anything, Ryder nodded politely to old Mrs. Jansen when she came trundling out of her own apartment. He shook his head when she asked if he needed help. Not that it wouldn’t have been nice given how overloaded he was (but who wanted to make more than one trip all the way back to the car?), but there really wasn’t much the nice elderly lady could do. She used a walker to get around as it was.

Waiting until Mrs. Jansen had made it to the elevator and stepped on, the boy turned back to the door of his own apartment. A thought summoned one of his mites, which jumped into the security keypad there and a moment later there was a confirming beep as the door clicked open just far enough for Ryder to push it the rest of the way with his foot and step through.

Finally, he was inside, and nudged the door shut with his heel. Once it clicked and he heard the affirming beep of the lock, the boy dismissed the mite in the control panel before heading through the narrow entranceway. To the left was his bathroom, his bedroom was straight ahead, and the living room and kitchen were to the right. That last was the way he went, yet just before he would have made it to the dining table in the living room and been safe, his feet seemed to tangle up in themselves. With a startled yelp, the boy pitched forward, falling to the floor while sending his groceries and the long tubes he was carrying scattering everywhere. 

“Well,” Ryder mumbled while squinting at the mess from where he lay, “that’s just typical.” 

Groaning, he picked himself up and began picking up the keys that had fallen from his mouth before moving on to the food items. Over the next few minutes, the boy restocked his fridge and put things away. As he did so, moving from spot to spot to pick up everything, he thought about how much easier Paintball would’ve had it. He could just stand in front of the fridge and shoot red paint at anything he needed to pull to himself. 

No, not himself. Herself. She. Yeah. Ryder had trained himself not to think or say anything about Paintball actually being a girl in front of anyone else. He’d promised, after all. He’d sworn to Paintball that he’d keep her secret, and that was a promise he wouldn’t break. Especially not by being a complete idiot and blurting out the wrong pronoun at the wrong time. It was safer for the whole situation if he just made himself think of Paintball as a boy as much as possible. 

But she wasn’t. She was a girl. And more than that, she was actually older than everyone thought. All those people who thought Paintball was like a thirteen-year-old boy, when she was actually, as the girl herself had put it ‘closer to college than middle school.’ She’d had a sixteenth birthday, at least. She’d mentioned that much, about how her family had celebrated that she’d finally made it to five feet in height that day.

Paintball was a girl around Ryder’s age. Maybe a bit younger. Either way, that was a hell of a lot different than anyone else thought. Which had to help keep her secret identity. Yet it was more than that. The desperation he’d heard and seen in the girl when she thought he might blow her secret, it was… there was… something big. A lot bigger than just keeping her superheroing secret from her parents or whatever. She had been scared, terrified. 

But why? What had her so upset? Was she afraid of a specific person? Was she hiding from something bad she’d done in the past? What if people in some other city knew the kind of powers she used but didn’t realize it was her because she was pretending to be a boy now? 

Yeah, that was a rabbit hole of paranoia that Ryder had gone down a few times. He’d had to talk himself out of actively looking up people who might have similar powers to what Paintball had, telling himself that it would be violating her trust. Digging into what could be her past, trying to figure out what her big secret was… it was tempting. The whole situation was so confusing. But it was a bad idea. It would be a betrayal of someone who deserved better. 

And yet, he couldn’t help but think what she might need was help. And would she ever ask for it? Whatever was wrong, whatever or whoever had her so terrified about even her sex being discovered, was clearly bad enough that she needed more help than she was getting. 

That was the situation he was stuck in. He knew Paintball was in some kind of trouble or had some secret traumatic backstory, but he couldn’t actually help her. Because digging into her past or trying to uncover her identity would be betraying her, and just a real shit thing to do in general. Yet just leaving it alone and hoping she got the help she needed when the time came? Was that the right thing to do? What was the right thing to do, damn it? 

He had no idea. Hell, he’d even briefly considered checking with that Squire guy. Simon. He’d gone by Ryder first, which was where the new Ryder had taken his name from. Oh, and Squire. He was known by that moniker too. But his real name was Simon, and Simon had given Ryder a card he could use to potentially call if he got in trouble. After saving him from trouble the first time.

If anyone could help Paintball with whatever problem she had, it was Simon and the people he worked for. Ryder didn’t know a lot about that whole situation, only that they were really important. And powerful, given Simon had apparently hidden his real appearance behind an illusion. They were connected, and Simon himself had already saved Ryder once. 

But no. That would definitely be violating Paintball’s trust. Maybe he could bring it up to her, mention a guy called Squire who might be able to help with any… problems she had? Would that be the best approach? 

Ryder’s thoughts were interrupted by a ringing phone, and he quickly grabbed it from his pocket, answering with a, “It’s Ryder.” 

“Hey, kid.” It was Grace. Or rather, Cardsharp. Her voice was all business. “You get those hotel blueprints yet? We’ve gotta get a move on if we’re gonna pull this off.”

“Oh, oh!” Shifting his thoughts away from Paintball for the time being (not like he could do anything about that whole situation now anyway), Ryder quickly moved to grab the long tubes from the floor. Uncapping one, he spread the large rolled up blueprint out over his table, weighing down the corners with a couple books. “Yeah, I’ve got them right here.” 

“Good,” came the response. “I’m on my way to your place. You want me to pick up some Chinese or something? This is probably gonna be a long night. We need to make sure this whole operation goes off without a hitch.” 

“Sure, sure, yeah, that sounds good. You know what I like. See you soon. We’ll figure it out.” After exchanging last pleasantries, Ryder disconnected, staring at the blueprints in front of him. Yet his mind wasn’t quite focused the way it was supposed to be. Despite his attempt to push Paintball out of his mind, the girl and her situation was still stubbornly there, right at the corner of his thoughts. 

What the hell was going on with her? Who was she, really? And why was it so hard for him to push the girl out of his thoughts? 

*******

Pack and That-A-Way While Paintball Was In The Warehouse With Paige

The sound of gunfire filled the air as That-A-Way ran along the six-foot-high concrete wall that surrounded the car lot where members of La Casa and the Ninety-Niners had started brawling. Moving to the east as she was, the very few bullets that hit her (these Ninety-Niner chumps weren’t the greatest shots to begin with, let alone in the dark) simply bounced off. All three men kept shooting, none getting the point that it wasn’t working. Which was good, considering the entire reason Way had shown herself like that was to present a tempting, distracting target. 

Finally, at the very end of the wall before one of the lot entrances, That-A-Way pivoted to her right, facing the men. Which meant she was now facing south. Her intangibility kicked in, making the bullets simply pass through her while she blew the men a kiss, right before Whamline, who had taken that time to get into position, grabbed the trio with his energy cords and hurled them away to crash into the side of an SUV with ‘shockingly low price’ stickers all over it. 

Distraction successfully accomplished, the (currently blonde thanks to her Touched-Tech mask) girl threw herself backward off the wall, dropping to the other side just as a crossbow bolt struck the part where she had been standing. The moment the bolt hit where her feet had been, a six-foot-wide section of the wall simply burst apart. It didn’t explode in the typical sense. Rather, the wall broke apart into hundreds if not thousands of tiny inch or two inch wide chunks, expanding into a large debris cloud that was perfectly orb-shaped. The pieces of wall held there for a few seconds, then all fell to the ground.

Scatterking. That was the work of Scatterking, one of the Ninety-Niners. Way could see him even as the six-foot-wide section of wall was destroyed. He was a younger Touched from the look of him, her own age or even younger. He wore a black bodysuit with a green trenchcoat over it and a silver metal helmet-mask thing with a crown shape on top to go with the ‘king’ motif. The lower half of his face was exposed while the top half was hidden under a white visor attached to the helmet crown. He carried a pistol-crossbow and a rapier, either of which he could channel his power into. It was a power that allowed him to charge inanimate objects so that, if they struck something, the other thing would blow apart into little chunks and hover there in an orb-cloud the way she’d just seen. 

If the thing he affected that way was a non-living object, he could choose to either put it back together as if nothing had happened, or let the whole thing fall apart and remain destroyed, as he had with the wall. If the thing he affected was a living object, he couldn’t leave it broken. The person or animal would return to their normal, uninjured shape after a few seconds. But, from what That-A-Way had read and heard, the experience was horrifically painful and traumatic. Not fun at all. Definitely not anything she wanted to experience. Especially considering his power apparently even worked on intangible and invulnerable things. 

She could see the smile curving his lips as the boy paused before sprinting toward her. He loosed another shot from his crossbow before drawing the rapier. That time, however, the bolt didn’t get anywhere near her. It wasn’t intended to. Halfway to the girl, it suddenly exploded in a burst of bright light that made Way reel with a yelp. The bolt was a flash-bomb, a distraction, so the boy himself could close the distance with his rapier.

Not being able to see didn’t mean she couldn’t use her powers, of course. Yet even before Way could focus on that, she heard a roar, followed by a squeal and a thud. She had already thrown herself to the side by the time her vision cleared, allowing her to see Scatterking lying on his side with a certain reptilian cat-like figure perched on his back, still growling at the boy. 

“Holiday!” she blurted unthinkingly. It was her, the panther-lizard pinning the Ninety-Niner Touched to the ground. But if she was there, that had to mean–

“Hey there, babe!” Pack was there, but off to the side. She was sitting in the driver’s seat of one of the pick-up trucks that were part of the sale lot, dangling keys from her fingers. The rest of her lizards were all in the back. “If you don’t quit playing with the mean boy, I might think you don’t want to arrest me anymore.” With that, she started the truck and, with a roar of the engine, pulled away. Holiday abandoned Scatterking with one last swat to the back of his head, then ran to catch up, jumping into the back with her companions. 

Immediately, Way popped back to her feet. She took one last look toward Scatterking, but two of the Syndicates were already there, one waving for her to go after the truck. 

So, she did. Pivoting back, the girl saw the truck off in the distance. It was still traveling north and within sight, despite having every opportunity to turn down a different street. Which meant she could teleport straight to it, and she did so without a moment’s hesitation, landing just inside the front cab in the passenger seat. 

“Took you long enough,” Pack remarked casually. “I was starting to think I’d have to circle the block and come back.” 

“What–what are you doing?!” Amber blurted, turning in the seat to stare that way. Not that it helped, considering the other girl’s face was completely covered by a full, featureless black mask with no holes. “I thought we were gonna lay low while we look into this–” She hissed the word, “–Ministry thing. And now you’re part of a fucking gang war in the middle of the streets?” 

Pack didn’t answer at first. Instead, she pulled the truck off the road and into a parking garage, taking the little receipt that popped out marking what time she’d arrived before driving to an empty spot in the back. Only then did she turn to face the Minority girl. 

Even when she’d snapped the demand a moment earlier, Amber had expected Pack to make some sort of dismissive, casual retort. She still expected it. But those words didn’t come. Instead, the other girl spoke quietly. “My boss is at war with the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro. I can’t exactly refuse to participate. He found out they were making a move against one of the car lots he owns through shell companies, we had to retaliate.” 

“Wha–you mean…” Amber turned, looking in the back of the truck where Holiday and the other transformed lizards were eagerly watching her. “He owns it. Blackjack owns that car lot.” 

“Distantly, sure,” Pack confirmed, gesturing. “Don’t worry, I’m not taking the truck anywhere else. You can tell them you chased me off away from here, so they can recover it, take the truck back to the lot, sell it, and Blackjack can earn even more totally legitimate money.” 

“Oh, my God.” With a groan, Amber put her face in her hands. “I can’t believe this shit. And I can’t even tell anyone, because how would I know? Plus, even if I could explain how I knew, it wouldn’t matter, because your boss and the Ministry are peas in a pod anyway, so it wouldn’t go anywhere. Silversmith would just erase any evidence, dismiss anything I said, or worse.” 

Pack started to say something, then glanced into the back and made a sound that was half-curse and half-growl. “Down!” She was talking to both Amber and her lizards, as a handful of Ninety-Niner thugs had apparently followed them to the garage and were rapidly approaching, firing shots at the truck. 

As both girls ducked, Pack looked over to That-A-Way. “Wanna help me deal with these guys, Rose?” 

There was a brief pause before Amber reached out to grab the other girl’s arm. “Yeah,” she muttered darkly. 

“I’d love to hit someone right now.” 

*******

A short time later, the two of them were finally alone again. Well, alone aside from Pack’s collection of friends. This time on the roof of the parking garage, with the lizards spread out behind them. 

“Well!” Pack declared as she shook her hand out. There was blood on her glove from where she had punched one of the men in there who dared threaten Tuesday. “That was exhilarating. Guess we’re done now. Unless…” Her tone turned a bit mischievous and pointed. “You think you and me should wrestle.” 

“You and I,” Amber immediately corrected without thinking.

“Well, if you insist,” Pack teased, stepping that way before catching both of Amber’s hands as the other girl raised them, palms out as though to stop her. Interlacing their fingers, the black-masked girl seemed to stare intently at Amber from only a foot away, their hands locked. “Don’t worry,” she murmured in a low voice, “we’ll only wrestle when you ask for it.” 

“I… I…” Feeling her face turn red and knowing that most of hers was visible (though altered a bit) beneath the domino mask, Amber finally extracted her hands and turned away to take her phone out to look at it. “I have to check with my team and–fuck!” 

Head cocking to the side, Pack remarked, “Either I was really wrong about how boring being part of the Minority would be, or–” 

“Paintball,” Amber blurted, pivoting back. “He sent a bunch of messages about needing help while we were busy.” 

“What?” Pack produced her own phone to look at. “… Fuck.” 

“I’ve gotta go, I can’t–if the team wonders where–” 

“Go,” Pack gave her a push. “If they ask, just tell them you chased me that far. Get there. I’ll make sure things are cool and come after. Hurry.” 

Amber hesitated only for another second, then cursed again and pivoted, sprinting away before immediately teleporting. The actual destination was more to the west than north, so she’d have to use superspeed to get most of the way there. 

Watching the other girl disappear, Pack glanced to her lizards, who sat there expectantly, then started to run. “Well guys, we better get over there. 

“And see what kind of trouble Paintball’s managed to get himself into this time.” 

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Interlude 12B – Raindrop (Summus Proelium)

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The first time that Izzy Amor had worn her official Minority costume, she had felt like a little kid playing dress-up. Largely because that was essentially what she had been. Eleven years old at the time, she’d had her powers for only a little over a week. A week since the night she had climbed out her window and onto the roof of their condo in the middle of the night to escape the sound of her mother’s tryst with some man she had never met. Izzy had been wishing for the chance to find her real father. Instead, she found one of the Summus Proelium orbs hovering there. In a daze, feeling like the whole thing was a dream, she had touched the orb. 

The week that followed had passed in a rush. Her mother had negotiated everything about Izzy’s joining the Minority. The rules stated that, young as she was, she had to have specific parental approval to join the team in the field. Usually, people under fourteen, even after being approved to be part of the team, did not participate in field exercises. They focused on training. 

But Izzy’s mother had believed that her daughter would only make a name for herself in order to join one of the good teams if she got started right away. She’d wanted Izzy to stand out, the same way an enthusiastic parent might push their kid too hard to make a name for themselves in their chosen sport in order to attract colleges and pro teams. So, she had signed contracts approving Izzy’s deployment into the field under controlled circumstances. Even with contracts, Izzy still couldn’t go out in costume by herself, of course. You had to be at least sixteen to do solo patrols, and even then you had to earn (and request) the privilege. 

In any case, Izzy had been eleven years old and approved, thanks to her mother, for supervised, team-centered field work. After several days of adjustments and tests, her costume had fit perfectly, yet somehow still felt too big for her. Standing in front of the cameras in that dark blue bodysuit with silver armor panels, a white cloak and hood, and a mirrored faceplate that completely obscured her appearance, Izzy had felt like a fraud. She’d felt as though any minute, one of the reporters was going to laugh at the idea of eleven-year-old Izzy Amor being some kind of hero. The fact they didn’t actually know her name or anything about her hadn’t helped calm her nerves. She had been a little kid playing dress-up with a costume that, by itself, had been more expensive than basically everything she had ever owned all put together. 

She’d gone out with the team over those few months, growing slightly more comfortable with what she could do. The others had helped a lot, keeping her calm, making her feel like part of the team despite her uncertainty and misgivings. Her power was helpful not only in combat situations, but for a lot of other uses. She could put out fires, could lift heavy objects off or away from people by getting them wet and then making them float. She could even help stop some entire fights in their tracks just by bringing an intense torrential downpour of cold water. A lot of the time, people who were soaking wet from heavy rain that kept getting in their eyes stopped wanting to fight. It was especially useful for breaking up random brawls on the street between Prev gang members. 

The point was, doing all that made Izzy feel useful. She had still felt as though she didn’t really belong in the expensive, incredibly cool-looking costume she’d been given. After all, she hadn’t done anything to earn her powers. She’d just gone up to hide on the roof away from the sound of her mother having sex with some random guy. The orb came to her and suddenly she had powers she had done nothing to earn. Powers she was pretty sure she didn’t actually deserve. 

But deserve them or not, she’d had them. And, for those few months (during which she had turned twelve years old), she’d gradually started to feel like she might be able to actually be a real part of something. She’d started to feel attached to the team… to her team. She’d even felt as though she might be able to make her mother proud of her, might be able to give her mom the better life that Izzy knew she wanted. Things were looking up. 

Then… then her mother had sold her to Oscuro. Her mother had sold her, had taken money in exchange for her, knowing that Izzy was going to be hurt. Worse than hurt, tortured. Her madre had sold Izzy to be tortured and trained, forced to do bad things for bad people just so she could have money. And not even that much money. The ultimate, indescribable act of betrayal, and her mother had done it for half a million dollars. Five hundred thousand for selling her daughter. 

Now, weeks later, here she was, a guest at the Evans’ obscenely spacious and well-adorned house. Playing video games with their daughter, eating at their kitchen table, sleeping in a bed that, like her Minority costume, was clearly worth more than anything else she had ever owned.  

And again, just like her powers, Izzy had done nothing to earn it. She didn’t deserve any of this, didn’t deserve to be treated like one of Mr. and Mrs. Evans’ children. She was just… Izzy. Why should she be in this virtual palace, being treated like some kind of… of important person? 

She didn’t. She didn’t deserve that. Which was part of what convinced Izzy that she had to go back out again as Raindrop. She didn’t deserve this kind of life at all, but maybe she could at least give some of it back by helping people again. Even if the thought of dressing up in that suit and playing hero made her feel even more like she was just pretending. She could still try. She could put the suit on, go out, and try to help as many people as possible. And if she did that enough, maybe someday she wouldn’t feel like such a fraud. 

That day wasn’t now, however. Izzy stood in costume, staring at herself in the mirror. She was in the bedroom she’d been allowed to use in the Evans’ house. Cassidy was at school, and Simon was off on some kind of family business. Still, the house was busy enough that Izzy had locked the door and stuck a chair up under the knob, just to be on the safe side. The blinds and curtains were also drawn across the windows. She was definitely alone, watching herself in costume while thoughts of her mother ran through her head. The mirrored faceplate stopped Izzy from seeing her own expression, but she already knew what it looked like. Small, pale, nervously biting her lip, her dark hair a mess. Eyes that perpetually looked too wide and too wet. Not brave. Not strong. Not heroic. Just Izzy. 

Abruptly, Izzy’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a knock at the door. She jumped, gasping reflexively as her gaze snapped that way in time to hear Mr. Evans call, “Izzy, you okay?” 

Finally breathing (a bit too rapidly), Izzy pulled the hood down and reached behind her head to undo the straps of the face plate, pulling that off as well as she blurted, “Sorry, Mr. Evans! Umm, uhh, is it just you?” The question came out awkwardly, making her flush a bit at the sound of her own voice.

There was a brief pause before the man answered, “Yeah, Izzy, it’s just me. Is everything alright?” 

Stepping over, Izzy undid the lock, pulling the chair away from the door before opening it for him. Both Mr. Evans and his wife knew all about her Touched identity. It was part of them allowing her to stay with them, as they’d had to know what they were getting into. But Silversmith had assured her that he trusted the Evanses and that she would be safe with them. 

Now, she stepped away from the door, in full costume save for the faceplate and hood, the former of which was held under one arm. She was also flushed from embarrassment. “Sorry, Mr. Evans,” she repeated, “I just didn’t want one of your… umm, people to walk in.” 

The man held a hand up to stop her, while stepping through. He closed the door behind him after checking the hall. “It’s okay, Izzy, I promise. You’re fine. Superhero or not, you’re entitled to your privacy, kid, believe me.” He paused before offering her a small smile that she supposed many would have found handsome and charming. “So, you’re about ready to go out there again, huh?” 

Even more self-conscious, she shrugged at the question while ducking her gaze. But something made her take a deep breath before looking back to meet his eyes. “Yes, sir,” she informed the man as steadily as she could. “I’m ready.” 

********

“Wham, Rain, the truck!” Syndicate (Or one of him, anyway) shouted a couple hours later, as his fist slammed into the side of a tatted-up Easy Eights gang member, knocking the guy staggering backward. The Prev lashed out with his knife, but that version of Syndicate turned insubstantial, allowing the blade to pass harmlessly through him. 

At the same time, a second version of the boy, on the opposite side of their opponent, turned solid and lashed out with a kick to the small of the man’s back. He was knocked forward just as the two Syndicates swapped solidity once more so the first could strip the knife from the stumbling man’s hand, tossing it aside. In that second, a third Syndicate took a running leap, turning solid in mid-lunge (as the other two turned ghost-like) in time to crash into the man and take him to the ground. 

Of course, despite her own self-assurances that she was prepared to back out on the streets, Izzy was still under sixteen. Which meant she still had to go out with a group. No solo patrolling. And that was just fine with her. Ready as she might’ve been to ease back into this whole thing and work to earn the things she’d been given (including her powers), Izzy didn’t want to do it alone. A part of her was still afraid of what would happen if she ran into any of the Oscuro people, people who had been ready and willing to abduct her right out of her own home. According to Silversmith, who had visited the Evanses shortly after her arrival there, Cuélebre and most of the gang had been unaware of what Handler was doing. He was, supposedly, working on his own. But that didn’t change much for Izzy, even if it was true. The emotions that came whenever she thought about those people… she was afraid of what she felt in those moments. 

But here, now? She was with her team, all of them. They had all wanted to come out for her first night back on the job. Which was apparently a good thing, as the six of them had managed to stumble across some kind of Easy Eights job. A group of Prev thugs, led by two Fell-Touched known as Juice and Pivotal, had been loading some kind of shipment out of a warehouse and into a couple semi trucks. A night watchman had managed to call out an alert, and Raindrop’s team was close enough to intercede. 

They had shown up in time to catch the gang right before they’d been about to pull out. Now, Carousel, Wobble, and That-A-Way were busy with Juice (a very heavy-set black guy wearing a silver, entirely featureless and smooth helmet that covered his whole head and a black tank top that showed off his arms with their stormcloud and lightning bolt tattoos whose powers allowed him to control electricity and granted him incredible strength), near one of the trucks. 

The other truck, as Syndicate had just pointed out, was rapidly speeding through the lot. It had just turned the corner around the nearest warehouse building when Izzy snapped her gaze that way. Out of sight. 

But not for long. Even as Izzy saw the taillights of the truck disappear, Whamline jogged to her, extending a hand. “Ready, kid?” he blurted, clearly ready to abort and go after the truck by himself if she declined. Because everyone here, all night, had been treating her with child-gloves, acting like she might break the moment anything bad happened. Even Syndicate had very obviously almost declined this whole situation the moment he heard it involved an actual Fell-Gang with powers. Not to mention the fact that, now that they were in the midst of it, the team had been going out of their way to make sure Izzy didn’t even get close to any bad guys. They were trying to help, she knew, surrounding her with as much protection as possible after what happened (they were aware that her mother had tried to sell her to Oscuro), but it wasn’t helpful. She wanted to prove, at least to herself, that she belonged here, not act like a little kid going bowling with the stupid rubber things in the gutters. 

Now, in this moment, Syndicate and Whamline were offering her that chance. In the midst of combat, seeing that truck about to get away, they had both either forgotten or dismissed the whole ‘keep Raindrop away from the action.’ They were giving her a chance to contribute. 

She took it, grabbing Whamline’s hand before he could change his mind. The instant she did so, the older boy extended his other hand, shooting off one of his energy-coils, which caught hold of the roof of the nearby warehouse. A second later, they were being yanked up toward it. 

They’d done this before, mostly in training, but part of Izzy was nervous about actually pulling it off in the field like this. Still, she shoved those doubts away and focused. An orb of water appeared in the air in front of them, soaking the two as they passed through it. And the second they were wet, she cancelled the effects of gravity on them, blurting, “Now!” 

Whamline’s coil disappeared, no longer yanking them toward the roof. Yet, thanks to the lack of gravity, the pair were still hurling up and forwards. Their momentum carried them clear over the roof, passing above the warehouse and to the other side just in time to see the semi-truck below heading for the street. 

There it was. Seeing it down there, Izzy focused on increasing the effect of gravity on herself and her teammate. They dropped like a pair of heavy stones, crashing straight down while she restrained the urge to scream. Trust. Trust herself. She had to trust herself and her partner. 

Whamline sent out two coils as they dropped, which latched onto the back of the truck and hauled them both that way. They were still dropping so fast Izzy’s stomach felt like it was somewhere up around her throat. Still, she waited, waited…

Just in time, at the last possible second before it would have been too late, she cancelled and then reversed the effect of gravity on them. Momentum carried the pair forward, until the reversed gravity worked to negate it. Izzy had practiced this enough that, while there was a slightly painful jerk, it wasn’t too bad. The reversed gravity and Whamline’s coils worked together to catch them almost like a parachute, just as the two landed on top of the speeding truck. 

“You got this?!” Whamline called, using one arm to hold onto Izzy while the other maintained one of his coils to hold them against the truck. 

“Got it!” she confirmed. All her fears, nerves, and everything else seemed to wash away as she focused on her power. Ahead of the speeding truck, a ball of water appeared. It began as an orb that was only a few feet across, but very quickly grew larger. By the time the truck hit it, unable to stop, the ‘bubble’ was almost as large as the truck itself. 

Izzy and Whamline threw themselves flat against the roof of the trailer, just as the truck crashed through the water. The instant it did and soaked itself, Izzy threw every bit of her power into cancelling its gravity. 

It worked. The truck floated up off the ground, leaving the engine screaming and tires spinning uselessly. They couldn’t go anywhere. 

Strong as her power might’ve been, it took effort to make it work over something as big as a truck. More effort than Izzy was capable of keeping up for long. Still, she didn’t have to keep it going. A couple seconds after making the truck lift a few feet off the ground, she increased gravity on the cab part alone. The trailer continued floating, while the truck itself slammed downward, hitting the pavement with enough force to crumple the hood and front-end and shatter the windshield. The truck definitely wasn’t going anywhere anymore. 

The doors of the truck were thrown open, as two figures launched themselves out of either side. One was a random thug with a gun, who landed on his side on the ground, already pointing his pistol up toward them. But Whamline was on top of that, one of his coils smacking the weapon out of the man’s hand while another lifted him up and threw him out of the way. 

The man who dove out of the driver’s side of the truck, however, was Pivotal, a small, thin guy in a green bodysuit with white highlights and a white ski mask. His power allowed him to designate any point of any non-living object as a pivot and make more of that object rotate or revolve around that point. Which he used right then by making a section of the ground rotate upward even as he jumped from the truck, landing on that vertically twisted bit of pavement. 

Izzy sent a geyser of water at the man, but he backflipped away from his raised platform while simultaneously making a larger section pivot upward to block the spray of water. At the same moment, the truck split in half under herself and Whamline as Pivotal obviously designated the spot beneath their feet as a pivot point and bent the trailer to the side away from them. 

They fell, but Izzy lowered gravity, allowing the pair to land lightly, facing the large section of pavement (it was about nine feet high and six feet wide) blocking them from Pivotal. 

Whamline threw three quickly summoned energy coils at the raised ground, making them explode to send a shower of debris in every direction. Izzy was already sending a new wave of water that way, just in time to catch…

Nothing. The area behind the raised ground was empty. No one was there. Pivotal had disappeared. 

“The ground,” Izzy realized a second after she and Whamline had stood there in confusion. She pointed. “He lifted the ground out of the way to get down under it. Now he’s tunnelling… somewhere. He just umm, he just has to rotate sections of ground out of his way, see?” 

“He’s running,” Whamline muttered, looking in every direction. “Shit–I mean…” He coughed, turning in a circle. “Guess you don’t really think about ‘power to rotate things’ being that impressive, but…”

That-A-Way appeared beside them, teleporting into view before looking around. “What–Juice took off, what about you guys?” 

“Ours got away too,” Izzy admitted, folding her arms across her chest while adding an explanation of how Pivotal had escaped. 

“Well, we got most of the Prev thugs.” That was one of the Syndicates, approaching while still in his ghost-form. “And stopped them from escaping with the trucks. The Fell-Touched might’ve escaped, but they didn’t get what they were after. Which… what were they–” 

“Guns,” Carousel called, approaching with a shrunken object revolving around her. She sent it forward and let it resume its full size as an open crate that landed on the ground between them. “Guns by the tons.” 

She was right, Izzy realized. The crate was full of firearms. And all the crates that had fallen out of the split-open trailer nearby also had weapons in them. Guns, shields, ammunition, grenades of all sorts, explosives…

“God damn,” That-A-Way muttered, “what the hell is all this for?” 

“They’re prepping for a war,” Carousel noted, “but to even what score?” 

Syndicate swallowed hard, speaking up. “Let’s call it in and get people here to clean the place up before those guys come back with reinforcements to get all this stuff. But I think you’re right, Carousel. 

“The Easy Eights are getting ready for war.”

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Showdown 7-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Citing exhaustion after everything that had happened, which wasn’t exactly a stretch, I let Eits drive me back to the store where all that fighting had happened. The two of us sat in that car, staying quiet for the first part of the drive before he looked to me. “You believe me when I say I won’t tell anybody about you, right?”

I shrugged a bit. “I don’t really have much of a choice, do I? My black paint only lasts ten seconds, and I can’t exactly follow you around constantly reapplying it just to keep you quiet.”

He gave me a brief look, coughing once. “Why do I feel like you actually considered that for a second back there?”

Flushing under the mask, I retorted, “I was panicking, sue me. My identity is kind of sensitive.” With that, I turned a bit to stare at him. “So when you promise you won’t tell anybody, you really have to not tell anybody. I mean it. Not even Pack. Nobody. Don’t even write it down. It could… it could get both of us in deep trouble.”

Because I was pretty sure if my parents found out who I was and even suspected that I knew about them, they’d work to shut up anyone else who might know. That included anyone who had found out any hints of my identity. They wouldn’t take chances.

Eits looked uncertain for a moment, but finally nodded. “I’m not sure what you mean by that, but I think I’ll just take your word for it. Like I said, I’m not going to tell anybody about you. And I won’t write it down or anything. I’ll even try not to dream about it if that helps. No promises on that front though, subconscious Eits kind of has a mind of his own.”

Another moment of silence passed before he offered, “I guess we both know more about each other than we intended, huh? Funny how that works when you’re not even trying.”

I nodded. “I haven’t done anything to try to find out who you are from that whole baseball thing. Now, I guess we both sort of have power over each other. We don’t look into each other‘s pasts or identities, right?”

“Right,” he agreed readily. “Just… I swear this isn’t me trying to pry, but when you talk about how dangerous it would be if anybody found out who you were, it doesn’t sound like you’re talking in general. You’re afraid of someone specific. So, I just want to ask… are you okay? Sorry, you don’t have to talk about it. I just… yeah, if you need anything or whatever…”

Blinking in a bit of a surprise, I quickly shook my head. “I’m okay. I mean, you’re not wrong about it being dangerous, but it’ll be fine.” Pausing, I added a somewhat awkward, “Thanks. But you know what? This is going to make having to come after you once we’re on opposite sides again really awkward.”

He shrugged. “Like we said, you have ways of finding out who I am if I go too far looking into you, or give away any of your secrets. Besides, I am fully prepared to cool my heels in a cell if you grab me doing something bad. It’s not like Blackjack won’t get me out.” 

He paused then, head tilting. “Err, did that sound like I was taunting you? Cuz I wasn’t trying to taunt you. It’s just… uhh, yeah. La Casa look after their own. Blackjack has these strict rules about how much force we’re allowed to use if we’re actually caught, depending on by who, the situation, and everything else. The point is, we play nice and spend a little time in jail if we have to until the others resolve the situation.”

“So what you’re saying is,” I started slowly, “you’re not going to start screaming about me being a girl the second I catch you breaking into someone’s system and lock you down for the cops.”

He gave me a serious look then. “Like I said, your secret is safe with me. I’m not gonna tell anybody. I mean, I wouldn’t exactly be happy about it, but I trust Blackjack. Besides, if you catch me breaking in somewhere, I deserve to be caught.”

Snorting at that, I retorted, “Pretty big words for someone who had to call me for help to get him off a roof, dude.”

He was clearly blushing a little while waving that off with his hand. “A crazy fluke. Totally not gonna happen again.” Sobering a bit then, the boy looked to me once more. “You and me, we’re good. I know the risks of what I’m doing, and I’m ready for the consequences if they come. You catch me fair and square, I’m not gonna say anything. I swear. But you do have to catch me first.”

Hesitating, I took a breath before pointing out, “You could always just stop being a bad guy. Seriously, you seem really cool. It’d be a lot easier to avoid any problems if you weren’t stealing things anymore.”

He sounded honestly regretful while replying, “Sorry. I owe Blackjack, not to mention the rest of La Casa.  Without them, I’d… let’s just say I’d be in much worse shape.” Shrugging, he added, “Besides, I hate to tell you this, but stealing things is kind of a rush. Beating security systems, finding a way around the guards, even dealing with Star-Touched like you. Some of the other Fell take it way too seriously, or they’re just fucking monsters. Me, I just want to see if I can do it. And, like I said, I owe Blackjack more than I could ever describe.”

There was a lot I wanted to say to that, but I wasn’t sure how to phrase it. I also kind of wanted to ask the boy if he knew anything about a secret group who were paid by villains for the right to operate in the city. He was probably one of my best ways of getting more information about my family’s organization. But I couldn’t bring that up yet. I didn’t want to endanger him if he went looking for information, and I still wasn’t exactly positive about how much I should tell him anyway. I wouldn’t be able to unring that bell once I brought it up, and I was pretty sure he would be able to figure out that there was a connection between me talking about how dangerous it was if someone found out too much about me, and this random mysterious shadowy organization. He could put two and two together. 

So, I just stayed quiet as we pulled into the back lot behind the store. There were a lot of people there. Mainly I saw La Casa troops of both the Touched and Prev variety grouped up on one side, and the four Minority people on the other. There was obvious tension in the area, and I hoped things didn’t boil over. Quickly getting out of the car with a last look back toward Eits, I moved to Carousel and the others. “They’re not back yet?”

Syndicate (or the one of him who was standing there) spoke up. “No. According to those guys, this Jailtime asshole takes you into his own private prison and you have to find your way out.” He paused before muttering under his breath, “Way better get out of there.” 

Unable to help myself, I asked, “So where’s Raindrop? I figured she’d be with you guys, or at least show up by now.”

Syndicate quietly answered, “She’s… on vacation. She needed a break.”

Okay, there was definitely something more to that, but before I could think about it too much, Carousel looked to me. “Seems like you went many miles. Tell us you got the vials. All the danger this has fraught, it’d suck to be for naught.”

Wobble nodded, the huge guy looking to me. “She’s right,” he rumbled in a deep voice, “if we went through all this and those vials are still out there…”

“Almost,” I assured them. “We’ve got all but one of them. And that last one… well, it’s with Pack and That-A-Way.” Looking back to the spot where the two had disappeared, I quietly added, “So I guess that’s another reason to hope they make it out.”

Whamline spoke up. “You’re a pretty hard little guy to figure out, you know? You’re obviously trying to help people, but you’re also on friendly terms with villains like Blackjack and Pack. Not to mention that Eits guy. You’re not a villain, but you say you don’t want to join us either. So what’s the deal? Do we have cooties or something?”

Turning away from where he had been staring at the La Casa people, Syndicate agreed. “Yeah, we’ve been trying to figure out why you’re so adamant about staying on your own. I mean, you’ve seen how dangerous it is out there. Look at your helmet. That was Cuélebre, right? He nearly killed you. And let me guess, you still don’t want to join.”

Blanching a bit out their interrogation, I gave a quick shake of my head while holding the broken helmet tighter. “I’m sorry, guys. I’m just not a team player right now. You’re right, I’m not a bad guy. I just want to help people. But I have my own way of doing it. I don’t mind helping out, I just can’t join up with you.

“And I was helping Blackjack save his daughter. That’s it. I don’t agree with the guy or anything. I just don’t think his kid should pay for what Blackjack does. I get why Ashton is pissed at him. But he took it too far.”

The four of them exchanged looks, a silent conversation of some kind passing between them before Syndicate looked back to me. “I guess that’s fair enough for now. But we’ve still got a lot of questions. Sorry, I’m just pretty sure there’s still something more behind your whole situation than you’re saying.”

Inwardly, I blanched while trying not to show any reaction in my body language. How could I just tell them to leave well enough alone without piquing their curiosity even more? If I acted like it was a big deal and tried to warn them, they’d definitely dig deeper. And that could be really bad for everyone, considering my supervillain/hero father was basically their boss. 

So, I just did my best to shrug it off, deliberately changing the subject. “Are you guys gonna be okay after all this? I mean, you were technically fighting alongside La Casa tonight too.”

Carousel was the one who replied. “They’ll just have to let us explain. With that kind of danger, we couldn’t abstain.”

“What she said, only less rhymey,” Syndicate agreed. “At least for tonight, the truce was the best way to go. Two other gangs to fight, nobody’s going to blame us for not jumping straight into fighting La Casa too. And like you said, in this case it was about saving a little girl. Even if she was the daughter of a supervillain.”

Everyone stopped talking then, because the car with Blackjack himself had shown up. He stepped out of it, glanced over to us, and then said something to his men. After a brief back and forth, he approached, watching our reactions before speaking. “I owe all of you a debt of gratitude for what you’ve done tonight, and the risks you took to secure my daughter’s medicine.”

Wobble quickly asked, “Don’t suppose we could all trade in those debts of gratitude and get you to turn yourself in?” After a brief pause, he shrugged. “It was worth a shot.”

Chuckling in what sounded like genuine amusement, Blackjack nodded. “It certainly was. But no, I’m afraid tonight will not be the time you manage to talk a Fell-gang leader into surrendering. Given what I’ve seen of you all, however, I would hardly be surprised to see you manage it at some point. I’ll even wish you luck, given how my own organization could profit from such an event.”

He was still nervous. I could tell that much just from watching the man. He was trying to play things off, but there was a certain tenseness to him. Probably because he was so close to finally saving his daughter. There was only one vial left, and he could do absolutely nothing about getting it back. He just had to stand here and wait to see if… no, when Pack and That-A-Way got out of there. They had the last vial, and his daughter wouldn’t be safe until they were here. But he could do nothing to influence it and clearly felt completely helpless. I knew the feeling. 

Before anyone else could say anything, there was a rush of motion from above and to the side, I quickly looked that way with the others, just in time to see Flea come leaping down to land between the Minority Touched (as well as me) and Blackjack. She was joined a second later by another female figure in a purple and white skin tight suit with a helmet not too dissimilar from mine. Dynamic, the Conservator speedster who could temporarily drain the powers from people she ran past in order to create energy constructs. She came skidding to a stop beside the other woman, both of them standing with their attention fully centered on Blackjack. 

“Problem here?” Flea asked flatly, her voice full of warning. She had a sword in one hand, though she hadn’t actually raised it. The tip was pointed at the ground. But her intent was clear. 

Syndicate quickly spoke up. “It’s okay. Nothing’s changed since we reported in a few minutes ago. We’re still waiting for That-A-Way.”

Blackjack gave a slight nod. If he was at all intimidated or worried about the two adult Star-Touched, he gave no sign of it. I even saw him suddenly wave his hand back to motion for his own men to stay away. His voice was as calm as possible given the situation. “Your protege is correct. We have all held to a truce this evening to focus on more important matters. I hope that can be maintained through these last few minutes.”

Flea made a noise of curiosity. “Few minutes? The way I understood it, we have no way of knowing when our people will get out of that prison. Unless you’re privy to something the rest of us aren’t?”

She was trying to find out if his words had anything to do with his power, I realized. No one knew exactly how it worked, or how much information the guy could get. 

From the way he chuckled, the La Casa leader was just as aware of what she was doing. He bowed his head, seemingly in acknowledgment and approval of it before replying, “Let’s just say I have a certain level of optimism. Assuming our disagreements can wait until later?”

Dynamic spoke up, her voice bright and cheerful. “Oooh, by disagreements, you mean the fact that you’re a super villain who keeps robbing and hurting people and we’re supposed to take you to prison? Those disagreements?” She gave him a clearly embellished thumbs up. “Sure, we can wait to bring you to justice. It’s not like you’re suddenly going to disappear. Though, you know, that would probably be the best super villain move ever. Just completely vanish so no one ever finds you? I wonder if—” 

She stopped as Flea nudged her. I didn’t know a lot about Dynamic, except for the fact that she was the youngest member of the Conservators. She’d been part of the Minority only a year earlier. Not our Minority, but the one in the Utah/Wyoming area. On graduation, she’d been picked up by none other than Silversmith himself. 

Did that definitely make her one of the bad guys, or was I just being paranoid? Dad would obviously want good Star-Touched in the city, or he wouldn’t have anything to threaten people who didn’t pay up with. But was she just a good recruit to have, or actually part of the shadow organization? Having a loyal person on the Conservators besides himself, and one who could actually drain people’s powers at that, would be really useful for him.

“Paintball?” With a start, I realized that Flea had been trying to get my attention. When I looked that way, she gestured to the broken helmet in my hand. “Are you okay?”

“I…” Pausing, I swallowed before nodding. The brief memory flash of that lightning made my throat dry. I was really trying to focus on anything other than that. “I’m fine,” I claimed in a voice that I was proud to say was only shaking a little bit. “I just need a shower and a nap.”

With an audible giggle, Dynamic blurted, “Tell me about it, little dude. After all the shit that’s been going around tonight, I could use a spa day.” She didn’t seem nearly as tense as Flea was for standing in front of Blackjack. A sign that she was part of my parents’ organization after all, or just her personality? I wished I knew for sure. 

Belatedly, I looked to the two Conservator Star-Touched. “I… I saw Silversmith fighting Cuélebre. Is he–I mean, are they still–” God, how stupid was this? My dad was an actual secret supervillain and I was still worried about his safety. What was wrong with me? 

For her part, Flea simply offered me a short nod, clearly having no idea what was behind my question. “He’s fine. Cuélebre escaped, but I promise, Smith made him regret coming out tonight.” 

With that, she turned her attention to the La Casa leader. “It sounds like you treated these guys right.” She nodded to the Minority and me. “So thanks. Still, I have to say, this truce only lasts until you get that vial and get out of here. We see you again tonight, this whole thing is gonna go differently, got it?” 

Blackjack started to respond, but before he could say anything, there was a sudden flash of light nearby. Everyone’s eyes snapped there, as the light began to resolve into a figure. Or two figures. That-A-Way and Pack. The latter had all her lizards clinging to her arms and shoulders. 

As everyone stared, both girls staggered and stumbled a bit. They looked pretty haggard, worn out, and generally like they’d been through a lot. Finally, they looked up to find everyone watching. 

“Oh, hey, boss.” Pack’s words were light, though she was clearly barely able to keep standing. “Special delivery?”

Then she held up the final vial. The last one. She held it out, letting her employer take it from her with a somewhat shaking hand. Clutching it, he turned and nodded to someone. A moment later, Ashton was brought out and sent stumbling to me. 

It was over. Blackjack finally had what he needed to save his daughter. After all that, we’d actually pulled it off. 

And you know what, whether Dynamic was a secret bad guy or not, she was absolutely right about one thing. 

A spa day sounded really fucking good right about now.

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Showdown 7-06 (Summus Proelium)

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That saying ‘all hell broke loose’ didn’t apply here. Not because violence didn’t erupt, but because those words in that order utterly failed to really portray just how much violence erupted and just how quickly. Hell didn’t break loose, it was a meteor that suddenly and apocalyptically slammed into the Earth. Followed by several more meteors that came slamming in behind the first because they just couldn’t stand to miss all the fun.  

Honestly, the best analogy I had for it was one time when I had needed to ask Simon something a few years back. I’d gone into his room to find him lying on his bed with his headphones on. Next to the door was his wall-to-wall sound system, so I’d just reached out and hit a button with the headphone symbol on it. Pretty dumb, I know. It turned off the headphones, and suddenly the entire room had been flooded with screaming, earsplitting metal music. It had, with the touch of a button, shifted all that music from being pumped through his headphones to being pumped through the dozen different high-end speakers he had scattered throughout all of his rooms. My ears had practically been ringing for days after that little mistake. 

That’s what this was like. Not that it had been exactly peaceful before, but when the Ninety-Niner and Oscuro troops had surrounded Pack (and her pack), Eits, That-A-Way, Syndicate, Whamline, Wobble, Carousel, and me, the violence had at least paused. Mostly because we really hadn’t stood the slightest ghost of a chance in that position, against those kind of numbers. But now that Blackjack and more of La Casa had, in turn, surrounded the Oscuro and Ninety-Niners, everything just sort of exploded. Violently. 

For me, ‘violence exploded’ was pretty apt, considering basically the same instant everyone started fighting, just as I dropped my phone back in the pocket that hadn’t been cut open, something hit me. It was Cuélebre’s tail. I saw it coming from the corner of my eye, just in time to activate a bit of the orange within the image I’d painted across my costume. Even then, the tail still struck me with enough force that I was lifted clear off the ground and sent hurtling through the air with a belated scream. Flailing, I failed to actually right myself properly before colliding with a dumpster near the corner of the loading dock behind the store. The orange paint meant I didn’t end up with any broken bones (or worse), but I was still dazed, slumping to the asphalt with a low groan as my vision went a little blurry for a moment. 

The fighting, of course, didn’t stop for me. Gunshots and more filled the air, even as I groggily lifted my head to stare in that direction, trying to blink the daze away. Two Ninety-Niner thugs with shotguns were hoisted off their feet, slammed into one another, and hurled away in opposite directions by a couple of Whamline’s coils. Those same coils exploded in front of Coverfire, the concussive force knocking him away from That-A-Way while he was still trying to grab her. An instant later, there was a sharp whistling sound and a narrow distortion in the air slammed into Whamline. It was Silbón, a guy from Oscuro with a dark wide-brimmed hat over a dark gray face mask that left his mouth exposed and ragged clothes. 

Silbón was joined by a couple Oscuro thugs firing guns. They were set upon by Twinkletoes and Holiday. One of the Syndicates was on the ground. Another was shot at several times, but the bullets went through his semi-translucent body. The guy who shot at him was hit by one of those electric shopping carts directed by one of Eits’ mites (going faster than I thought those carts were capable of), just before one of the La Casa troops dove into him, both thugs rolling across the ground as they each fought for leverage against the other. 

Violence. Fighting. More than I could possibly hope to follow. Double Down, Blackjack, Cardsharp, and another member of La Casa named Hardway (a guy who manipulated inertia and motion of himself or things around him) were fighting Cuélebre and Sandon. The latter wore a modernized suit of armor with a lion’s pelt over the back, its fake ‘head’ functioning as her helmet and mask. They were all fighting in a jumble of motion and violence. Everyone was. It was all blurred movements, gunshots, powers flying off, the roar of animals and screams of both anger and pain. By the time I dragged myself off the ground, half the people there were down for one reason or another. Some would be down for much longer than others, but either way, the violence was taking its toll. This was too many people with too many powers and weapons in too close of quarters. Even as I took a step that way, my eyes caught sight of Pack and That-A-Way, bumping up against each other just as a figure loomed up behind them. It was another teenager, though definitely not part of the Minority. He wore the completely cliche ‘inmate’ outfit of a black and white striped prison suit with a black burglar mask and one of those prisoner numbers written across the front of the striped shirt. I had… no idea what his powers were. But before either That-A-Way or Pack could react, his hands grabbed each of them by the shoulders and all three disappeared. The ‘prisoner’ guy as well as both girls vanished. 

No! No, no, no! Where were they?! What– then I realized that Pack’s creatures must have been linked to her or something, because all of them disappeared a second later too. Hopefully, whatever prisoner boy had been doing, he hadn’t planned on that. 

But I didn’t have time to think about it. I didn’t have time to think about anything. Suddenly, just as I saw the group vanish in front of my eyes, a guy grabbed me from behind. It was just some random Ninety-Niner thug. I smelled awful alcohol breath as he yanked me off my feet with an arm around my waist, his other hand groping down my side toward the unruined pocket as he snarled, “Okay, kid, where’s the other vials, huh?! Where are they?!” 

That was what it took. Up to that point, since the moment Cuélebre’s tail had knocked me thirty feet into the dumpster, everything had taken on a bit of a dreamlike quality. My ears had been ringing, and I’d just sort of been staring at all this fighting in a daze for the past few seconds, as if I wasn’t really there. It was like I was watching all of this on television rather than interacting with it. But this guy grabbing me, that was enough to snap me out of all that and make me remember that I was actually involved.

As the guy groped over my leg looking for my pocket, I quickly turned that part of my pants blue and activated it, sending his hand snapping up and back. At the same time, I drove my helmeted head backward into his face. The combination of both made him drop me with a yelp, and I turned while landing, sending a shot of red paint into his chest while my left glove turned red as well. Activating both yanked him toward me, just as my other hand turned purple and decked the guy. He hit the ground and didn’t move. 

Another guy was coming for me, but I painted my legs green and my feet purple, using that to leap up and over him, twisting in the air before coming down right on top of his shoulders. He collapsed under my weight, and as we both fell to the ground, I snapped my hand to the side, shooting a spray of yellow paint at a group of bad guys who were going after Wobble and Carousel. They suddenly slowed dramatically, giving those two a chance to deal with them while I rolled forward off the guy I had just dropped onto. 

Unfortunately, that put me right at the feet of the Oscuro Touched with the wide-brimmed hat. Silbón. His power involved whistling, of course. Basically, any time he was whistling, he was almost entirely immune to damage. He would absorb that damage, and could then expel it through a whistle. When he did, his whistle would take on the same traits as the damage he had absorbed. He could whistle to absorb bullets, whistle again to absorb lightning, and whistle a third time to absorb fire. After that, he could, at any point, use the kinetic force of the bullets, the electricity from the lightning, or the heat from the fire in his whistles. Using a damage type spent the charge of absorbing it, but he tended to have absorbed a lot. 

Just as I ended up basically half-sprawled in front of the man, staring up at his black mask under that wide hat, he pursed his lips. Eyes widening, I slapped my hand against his foot and put black paint there. 

No sound came. I’d muted him. He had a moment to somehow look surprised despite me only being able to see his lips before I twisted around and drove my foot up between his legs with a bit of purple-paint boost. Then he wasn’t interested in trying to whistle anymore. But I still kicked him a couple more times just to be sure. 

Scrambling back to my feet, I snapped my gaze over to the fighting. It was… uhh… wow. Chaotic. Still. A couple random thugs were coming for me, but I blue-launched myself up and back, flipping in the air to land on the edge of the metal awning over the loading bay. Activating a bit more orange meant that the bullets they shot up at me just made me stagger a bit before I managed to yank their guns away with a shot of red. Before they could react to that, I took a few steps back out of their line of sight, tossing the pistols away to either side. And then I sort of… doubled over and tried not to hyperventilate while hugging myself. The shouting and screaming coming from everywhere, being shot at, nearly being hit by Silbón, all of it just… just… it was too much. It was too fucking much. And what about Pack and That-A-Way?! Were they okay? What was going on? Where were they? What could I do? What–

Nothing. I couldn’t do anything for them, not at the moment. I just had to hope they were okay, and focus on what was going on right here, right now. I could do this. I had to do this. I couldn’t abandon them down there. I had to help get that vial back. 

That settled, I took a deep breath before running forward, using a mixture of purple and blue paint to launch myself into the air. Between the two, I was sent really high and really far. Sailing over the battlefield, I helped out the best way I could. Namely, I first used yellow paint to slow my own descent, then used all the time I had while passing over the fighting to hit bad guys with more yellow paint and good guys with a mixture of green, purple, and orange. Mostly green and orange, as I couldn’t expect them to suddenly know that they were strong. But being faster and tougher would help regardless. As would their opponents suddenly being much slower. 

It helped so much that, by the time I landed on the far side of the lot, dropping into a roll, most of the random Ninety-Niner and Oscuro Prevs were down. Between the four Syndicates, Wobble, Whamline, and the La Casa people, they dealt with their unpowered opponents neatly. Unfortunately, that didn’t solve the issue of the guys who did have powers. Especially Sandon and Cuélebre. And that situation had gotten worse, as I saw Hardway off on the far side of the field trapped inside Ringside’s bubble. The two of them were fighting sans any powers as Ringside had apparently elected to remove Hardway’s at the expense of her own, and both were really good at that. They would be busy for awhile. 

Meanwhile, the remaining three La Casa people were fighting the leadership of the two rival gangs. Blackjack’s power wasn’t exactly suited to straight up and prolonged confrontation, but he had Double Down and Cardsharp for that. And they were definitely earning their keep. 

As far as Sandon went, the Ninety-Niners’ leader had been around long enough that her powers were pretty well known. They revolved around bones. Yeah. Basically, touching a bone gave her access to all of that person’s strength and general toughness. If they were a Touched with enhanced strength, it gave her a portion of that as well. Of course, touching bones from multiple different people gave her each of their strength together. And the inside of her suit was apparently completely lined with little pieces of bone. She was one of the straight-up strongest people in the city just because whenever someone with super strength showed up, she made a point of hunting them down and taking a piece of bone from them if possible. Which was eeeuuuggh.  

So yeah, between Sandon and Cuélebre, there was a lot of strength on the bad guy’s side. Double Down’s ability to absorb any kinetic force that hit him and Cardsharp’s power to alter her own physical properties to make herself tougher helped deal with that somewhat, but they couldn’t actually hurt the bastards enough to put them down. The best they could do was let Double Down absorb enough kinetic force to send right back at the Oscuro and Ninety-Niner leaders, while Blackjack used his own power to watch for the right moment and target. I kept seeing him randomly using a pistol to shoot at Cuélebre’s tail for some reason. Then I noticed that every time the tail was struck, a bit of electricity shot off of it. Like it was fizzling. 

Was Cuélebre’s tail how he summoned lightning? And was Blackjack shooting it to disrupt his attempts to do so every time? Was that why he hadn’t just fried everyone already? 

Well, that and the fact that he didn’t know where the other vials were, beyond the one in his hand. That was probably why he wasn’t just throwing lightning around everywhere, beyond Blackjack stopping him from using calculated strikes. Hell, maybe that was why Blackjack was able to stop him, because it took more time for him to carefully aim or something. Enough time for Blackjack to hit that spot of his tail. 

Whatever the answer, I was just glad we weren’t fried. Because we already had enough problems. As I crouched there, trying to present as small a target as possible while watching for an opening in the midst of their busy fight, I saw it. The vial was still in Cuélebre’s hand while he was fighting. It was right there. 

Unfortunately, just as I prepared myself to try and take it from him with a careful application of red paint, there was another interruption. This one came in the form of a figure who appeared in the middle of their fight. He was a tall guy in a dark red hood and cloak over a white bodysuit with a collar that extended up over the lower half of his face. Longhaul. That was Longhaul. 

The second he appeared, the man used his power to send Blackjack, Double Down, and Cardsharp to the far side of the parking lot, while looking at his leader. “They found the car that took off, it’s on the far side of Campus Martius Park. Still no driver.” 

Wren. She was remote driving the thing to get it out of here. 

Sandon was already looking to Cuélebre, who smiled. He was looking right at me. He read my body language. “The vials. That’s where they are.” 

Blackjack was coming. So were the others. But Cuélebre bellowed a deafening, “Do it!” At the same time, his wings came slamming down, as he launched himself upward. 

And then a woman’s voice called, “Ladies and gentlemen!” At that, my eyes, as well as basically all of those attached to anyone on our side in the immediate area, snapped over to see a woman in a sexified version of a ringmaster’s outfit sitting there on a motorcycle. Where had she come from? It was Grandstand, Cuélebre’s second-in-command. Even as everyone looked that way, she smiled. “Follow the leader.” Then the motorcycle kicked into motion, peeling out and swerving around before tearing out of the lot. 

After her. We had to go after her. Everyone else was already rushing that way, leaping into action to catch up with the woman. But just as I went to follow, intent on using green and red paint to catch up and maybe stop her, a hand grabbed my arm and yanked me back. It was Eits. He shook me violently, yelling something about Cuélebre at me. But who cared about Cuélebre when–wait. 

Grandstand’s power faded a second later as Eits shook me violently once more. I snapped out of it in time to see everyone else disappearing as they took off after her. After the distraction. 

“Cuélebre!” Eits shouted at me. “He’s getting away, what do we do?!” 

“How did you–” Then I realized it was probably the fact that his focus had been split between his own mind and all of his mites. That had saved him from Grandstand’s power. And there wasn’t time to worry about it anyway. 

“Close your eyes,” I blurted, grabbing onto Eits. He had time to yelp before I launched both of us into the air through a combination of blue paint at our feet and a red paint yank at the nearby building. We went up and over the roof, while I informed the boy currently holding on for dear life, “There’s a demon trying to catch a car, and we’ve gotta catch him first.”

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Showdown 7-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Apparently the Minority communications worked despite the jammer. Probably because they were all within the same area the jammer was affecting or something. Either way, the Syndicate with us was able to talk with the rest of his team outside, including his other selves. They coordinated what was about to happen, doing so with what amounted to a thirty second explanation. And given that we were about to have Cuélebre and Sandon dropped on our heads, even that felt like too long. We needed to get the hell out of here right freaking now.

First, I had to go grab Ashton. Vaguely tempting as it might’ve been to leave him here, I wasn’t going to do that. Instead, I moved up to where I’d left him in the ice cream aisle. He was… uhh, yeah, definitely losing his mind. When he saw me, his wild eyes focused and he shouted something that was muffled by the currently transparent visor. 

“Let me guess,” I dryly replied, “you need to scratch your nose like a son of a bitch.” Even as I said it, my hand was pulling the remote out and I quickly hit a couple buttons on it that Wren had told me about. “There, you can move now. But before you try running away, there’s a couple things you should know. First, there’s a whole bunch of guys out there from two different gangs who would love to torture you if you can’t convince them that you don’t have what they want. Or just for fun, because you wasted their time. Not to mention the fact that one of those gangs is the one whose people you used to piss off La Casa in the first place. And second, you definitely can’t get that suit off without Wren’s help, which means that anytime I hit the recall button, you’ll come marching right back to me anyway. I’m not going to unmute you, because we really don’t have time for any more bullshit. But I’m not leaving you here either, so come on.”

There was the briefest of hesitations, before he seemed to deflate a little bit and moved to follow me. I led him to the back of the store quickly, while giving him a brief explanation of what we were going to do. If he had any input on the plan, his facial expression and body language didn’t really depict it. Not to mention the fact that after all the times that he had said he was fine with a little girl dying for his revenge, I wasn’t really interested in his strategy ideas anyway. 

The two of us reached the back storeroom, passing a bunch of heavily-laden shelves before finding the others. As soon as we came into view, Pack put a hand on Mars Bar and pointed to Ashton. “See him? He stays with you. If he tries to go anywhere else besides with you until I say otherwise, rip one of his arms off and try beating him with it.”

While the bearguana growled, Syndicate cleared his throat. “Can we avoid openly discussing criminal acts like torture for a little while? I know I said we’d catch you guys another time, but you really shouldn’t go out of your way to make me regret that. And who are you anyway?”

“He’s on vocal timeout,” I replied. “But this is Ashton Austin, the guy behind that bank robbery that you guys have all been looking for. When this is over, you can have him. So, you see? You’re not getting out of this totally empty-handed after all.”

He looked back-and-forth between us briefly before simply noting, “If we get out of it. And if we do, we’re gonna have a lot more questions for you.”

“If we do, I’ll see about answering them.” With that, I looked over to the nearby closed loading dock doors. “So, are we doing this, or what?”

Syndicate nodded. “Remember the plan. All we need to do is get everyone to That-A-Way and she’ll teleport us out of here. We don’t need to stay and fight. We don’t need to win anything. We just need to get out. And we need them to know we’re gone so they leave everyone in the store alone. We make a break for it, go through any forces we need to, and teleport away. That’s it.”

Eits gave him a thumbs up. “Yeah, trust me chief, some of us aren’t interested in fighting at all. Running away sounds pretty good.”

For a second, it looked as though Syndicate was going to say something about that, before he just shook his head and asked, “Anything else?”

I quickly spoke up. “Yeah, this.” Raising my hands, I shot some orange paint at everyone in turn, including the lizard creatures. Two at a time (one with each hand), I hit everyone with a circle of the paint. “There, as soon as I activate this, which I will once we get out there, you’ll be tougher for about ten seconds. Bulletproof tough. And here.” For good measure, I added a spot of green paint to everyone as well. “Now you’ll all be faster too. Again, just for ten seconds. You’ll be faster and tougher than they expect. Just use it to get to That-A-Way.”

“Dude,” Eits intoned in what sounded embarrassingly like awe. “Support classes kick ass.”

Flushing under the helmet, I shook my head. “It’s no big deal, really. If we had more time, I’d do more, but we’re sort of pressed right now.”

Syndicate looked like he might say something to that, but in the end he just snorted and used his com. “We good out there? Okay. Other me going on three, the rest of us hold until he’s got their attention at the front. One, two, three.”

Even knowing it was coming, I didn’t hear anything at first. I was listening for the reaction and there was nothing. Which made sense, we wouldn’t get anything overt until he made them think he was—

Aaaand the gunfire started. Suddenly we could hear all those guns coming from out front. It was like someone had unleashed a swarm of monsters from hell. And those monsters were really pissed off. 

“Wait,” Syndicate cautioned, holding up a hand. “Wait for it. Wait for them to really commit to it. He’s in the store. Now they’re trying to break through that security shield. They’re breaking it, and… and they’re in! They’re moving through the front! Go, go!” 

We went. Eits had control of the security system, and he instantly opened the sealed doors. As planned, he opened all of them, the big rolling doors on all of the loading docks, and the regular-sized doors as well. They all opened as one, and we booked it through the loading door furthest to the left. We weren’t going to take the time to go through one of the regular doors. This way, we could all flood out and run for it. Hopefully, that way this would be less of a shooting gallery for the guys facing us. 

The second the doors were up and we were moving, I hung back just enough to let the others get ahead of me, and activated the orange and green paint I had to put over everyone. Suddenly, we were all moving even faster than our fear and adrenaline had been managing to make us move already. Which, honestly, was saying something. 

It was safe to say that the guys out back were pretty surprised by our appearance. They had been looking around toward the sides at the sound of gunfire from the front, when we suddenly came pouring out of the now open door right in front of them. Only a few of the many who were there managed to start firing immediately. And for that, the orange paint did its job. I saw several of the others take a couple hits that did little more than sting them thanks to the paint. Mars Bar by himself, probably thanks to his size and sheer intimidation factor, was hit a good six or seven times in those first couple seconds. He barely reacted, aside from opening his mouth to give a loud, pants-wetting roar while slamming into three guys at once. They went flying like bowling pins, while a fourth guy tried to open up on the bear with a shotgun. But Mars simply snatched it out of his hand, crumbling the gun like it was made of tissue paper with one paw, before grabbing him in the other and sending the man flying a good twenty or thirty feet with a dispassionate shove that way. 

Holiday grabbed a guy’s leg and ran off with him, dragging the poor bastard along with her as he screamed. Two other guys tried to shoot at her, but Tuesday and Twinkletoes wrecked them pretty thoroughly on their way past. One was walloped in the back of the head by a nearly invisible gorilla-lizard, while the other took a small, yet really dangerous monkey-lizard fist to the privates. The former was left completely unconscious, while the latter just really wished that he was. 

The first thing I did upon emerging and taking all this in was shoot a spray of blue paint as wide as I could make it around the feet of the group in front of us. Activating it sent them flying in every direction with a collection of screams. Which worked nicely to clear the path of the guys that Mars hadn’t already trampled through. 

Ashton was just behind the bear, apparently having taken Pack’s warning to heart. Or maybe he really didn’t want to be left to deal with all the angry Ninety-Niners after he’d used them in his revenge scheme and figured being behind the giant beast was his best shot. Either way, he was sticking really close to Mars Bar. 

Two guys with guns popped up toward the right. Both were taken down by Syndicate with a quick flurry of motion that I couldn’t even follow that left them on the ground, disarmed. On the opposite side, a guy who popped up with a rifle raised was literally run over by a car that came screaming through the lot, accompanied by the familiar sound of one of Eits’ mites cackling. The car proceeded to spin around, hitting another guy with its tail end during the skid. 

Just ahead, on the far side of the small rear lot where they had been able to crouch out of sight, That-A-Way appeared with another Syndicate, Whamline, Wobble, and Carousel. Not Raindrop though. Maybe she had the night off. Those five, however, were right there, and the path to them was clear for the moment, thanks in large part to the blue paint flinging the vast majority of people out of the way. Unfortunately, just as they came into view and I had a second to think this might be easy after all, there was a blinding flash of light. It faded quickly, but what didn’t fade was the new group of combined Oscuro and Ninety-Niner troops that had suddenly appeared. Long Haul. That had to be Long Haul, the Ninety-Niner Touched teleporter. He’d just dumped a bunch more problems right in front of us. 

Get to That-A-Way. Get everyone to That-A-Way. That’s all we had to do. Two guys who had recovered from their paint-assisted trip were picking themselves and their guns up and turning our way. I sprayed blue again, this time at my own feet, to launch myself up and forward. Twisting in the air just as the pair finished rising and turning, I passed by over their heads. One arm pointed down and one pointed up and back, I sprayed red paint from both. The first hit both men, while the other hit the back of the store we’d just left. Activating it sent them flying up and toward it with a couple screams, just as I landed in a crouch behind where they had been. 

Only then did the green paint run out. And we were almost there. Eits was just reaching the spot where I was, while his mite-controlled car ran down yet another guy that was coming around the corner of the building. I hit him with another bit of green to help him keep moving. “Go, go!” I blurted, hitting as many of our side as I could with orange paint to keep them safe while scanning the lot. Ashton was right there with Mars Bar. The Syndicates who were out here were fine, working together to disable a couple more guys who didn’t even know what hit them. More people were shooting, but the orange paint was doing its job. It meant we could focus on moving instead of fighting. Move instead of fight, that was the entire point.

Most of the people Long Haul had sent in after us were dealing with the Minority. There was a rush of motion and fighting I couldn’t even follow. One of the new arrivals took deliberate aim at me, but I dropped to the ground just before he fired, throwing my hand out to send a shot of white paint onto his arm. Activating it to blind the guy, I used blue paint to launch myself that way, shifting purple onto my arms as I slammed into him to take the guy to the ground. A quick smack to the face knocked him out of the fight. 

But that was just one guy. What had started as a quick run to That-A-Way was quickly devolving into total chaos. I could see the girl herself, trying to help Wobble, Whamline, and Carousel.

Another flash of white announced the arrival of more bad guys. One was directly behind me, and I spun that way just in time to duck the bat he was swinging at my head. A quick shot of yellow at his chest, accompanied by activating part of the green I’d already prepared on the portrait across my uniform meant that he was suddenly a lot slower, while I was a lot faster. And, thanks to a bit of purple that I also activated, stronger. My hand snatched the bat from his grip in mid-swing, tearing it away from him while my foot lashed out to kick his leg. It was enough to make him start to stumble, before I drove the bat into his stomach and put him fully on the ground. 

Damn it, damn it, just get to That-A-Way! This shouldn’t be that hard, right? We’d cleared the way, we had the advantage of surprise and a distraction up front. All we had to do was get everyone across the parking lot to meet up with her and she could teleport us the hell away. And it was close. Pack and her animals were all-but there, crashing right into the back of the group of newcomers with Ashton on their heels. Eits was using his borrowed car as his own bodyguard to clear a path. We were almost there. Almost there! 

Which, of course, was the moment that something dropped from above. A lithe figure with great eagle-like wings slammed down behind That-A-Way. Yahui, the Oscuro woman who mixed and matched various animal parts. Apparently she’d decided to throw herself into the fight instead of just watching. 

In addition to the eagle wings, she also had a scorpion tail, which lashed out toward That-A-Way. But it went straight through the Minority girl, who was moving south and was therefore intangible. Unfortunately, that didn’t help Wobble, who was smacked by the tail moving sideways and thrown to the ground. And given he stood six and a half feet tall, that tail had to be pretty damn strong to knock him down that easily. Yahui tried to follow up by driving the blade of the tail down into him, but Wobble snapped his hand up and I saw a distortion in the air as he sent a wave of vibrations into the tail that knocked it out of the way. That was followed by two of Whamline’s energy ropes, which wrapped around her arms, flinging her into the air before exploding with a burst of kinetic energy that flung her senseless to the ground somewhere off on the other side of the lot. She was down. 

Carousel, meanwhile, had managed to disarm basically all the guys in our path, yanking the guns from their hands as she passed close to them. She also had two cars (miniaturized by her power) floating in orbit around her, which she sent flying at them. The cars regained their full size just in time to crash into the group, scattering everyone that remained. 

Clear, we were clear! 

“Go!” I blurted, sending a wide spray of red paint at all the bad guys I could see, before activating it so they were all slammed into one another, crashing into one big heap. Long Haul? Where was Long Haul? I hadn’t seen him at all, aside from the troops he kept sending in. But whatever, he didn’t matter, we just had to get the hell out of here. That’s all, we just had to go!

“Grab on!” That-A-Way was blurting. There, we were there. Everyone was there. We’d made it. The bad guys behind us were still picking themselves up, and we… everyone… yes, everyone was here, even Pack’s creatures. We all grabbed any part of each other we could, my left hand finding Eits’, while my right was grabbed by Ashton. The latter looked at me sharply, fear and relief in his eyes. I knew the feeling. But at least we were…

Nothing happened. That-A-Way was there, we were all holding onto each other and her, but… nothing happened. She frowned. “Wait, hold on. I–” 

“Did you truly think it would be that easy?” The voice. It was familiar. It was terrifyingly familiar. Cuélebre. He came floating down out of the air on his wings, gliding in to land with disconcerting grace considering his enormous fifteen-foot size. “Did you think I wouldn’t have prepared for a teleportation escape after the way you insulted and embarrassed me last time?” He made a tutting sound, while more of the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro troops, both of the Prev and Touched varieties, appeared on all sides of our suddenly surrounded group. 

Before I could move, before any of us could move, that bladed tail lashed out. I had time to yelp, just before it cut straight through my pocket. The vial and my phone fell out. I grabbed the latter, but the vial was caught on Cuélebre’s tail and smacked right into his waiting hand.

“No, no, no,” the giant demon taunted with the vial held gingerly between two massive fingers.  “You’re not leaving this time. We have too much to talk about.” 

“Talk about?” another voice echoed, and everyone spun in place to find Blackjack, surrounded by an assortment of his own people (Touched and Prevs alike). 

“I think we’re pretty much done talking.” 

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