Trivial

Interlude 22B – Meanwhile On Breakwater (Summus Proelium)

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The drone passing over the island known as Breakwater was silent, while its physical appearance was masked by the thick clouds. Clouds which threatened rain, but had not amounted to more than a few drops just yet. Yet before the day was out, it would certainly become a deluge. Being an island in the middle of the ocean, rain was not exactly an uncommon occurrence. Its inhabitants had long-since learned to recognize the signs that a particularly strong storm was coming and seek shelter. From their various caves, holes, and more man-made shelters, these people who would have been (and once were) considered some of the most dangerous supervillains in the world would watch the rain when it came. For most, it was a welcome sight each time, as it meant they would have more fresh water collecting in the various tarps and bins they had set up for such a purpose. More water meant they could be more active, and even meant they could eat more food. Digesting food properly required water. When there was less water, even when they had food, it was dangerous to eat. They would dehydrate faster if they ate food without having enough water. Having as much as possible was important, and it wasn’t always possible to get to the island’s main river, or the various smaller streams that led off from it. 

There were three ready-sources of potable water on the island, if someone didn’t want to go through the process of making the sea water drinkable. One was the river that ran through the center of the island. But the river, and the streams leading off from it, were often dangerous. Even if one avoided passing through claimed territory, there were those who hunted one another along its banks. After all, the people of this island had not been sentenced here for their ability to be nice to one another and get along. While the island was thirty-six miles long and sixteen miles wide, the river was only about nine miles in length, originating just north of the center, and angling southwest. Those nine miles were heavily protected either by various established and fortified camps of prisoners who had agreed to work together under the often dictatorial fist of their strongest and/or most dangerous member, or by rogue loners who ambushed anyone foolish enough to come into their view and look vulnerable. They had been removed from society for being monsters who killed, tortured, and destroyed lives. They didn’t all stop and become better people simply because their only possible targets were others like them. 

The second source of decent water was the rain, like that which would soon be pouring heavily onto the island, ensuring that even those who stayed far from the dangerous river would survive. Even if they had to slurp from the heavy leaves the rain left soaked through, they could keep going. 

And the last real source was the supply drops, where large crates of not only water, but also food, medicine, and even entertainment were sent to the island. There were two different kinds of these drops. The first sent the supplies to the same location every time, regular drops that could be depended on. Like the easily-defensible spots of the river, the areas each of these drops were made had almost immediately become encircled and fiercely defended by the largest gangs of Breakwater prisoners. Though ‘largest’ wasn’t saying much, given no gang on Breakwater had more than twenty members. They simply could not get along beyond that. Larger groups inevitably broke apart as their personalities clashed. 

In any case, these smaller groups sometimes did work out. They formed camps around where these drops were. The boundaries of these camps constantly fluctuated, as the various gangs fought to bring and keep as many of the steady supply drops within their territory as possible. Especially any supply drop within a near enough distance to the river for a gang to control both. Those were the single most dangerous parts of the island, as small-scale wars often broke out for control of them. A lot of blood had been shed in the name of holding onto the most coveted areas.

But the second type of drop was far more interesting in some ways. Rather than being sent to the same location every time, these drops were random. The crates would simply be sent down first, then have their locations broadcast over the island’s speaker system so that everyone would know where to go find them. 

Why did they do that? Because the people behind the island enjoyed mixing things up and seeing their prisoners fight one another. Which was why the crates with the most entertainment and extras beyond the bare necessities were often these random drops. The people behind Breakwater had long-since found that the island’s inhabitants would fight the hardest for these extras. The prisoners saw water and basic food as possible to get in other places. They had fish, they had animals, they had ways of feeding themselves and drinking, even if it wasn’t the best and wasn’t easy. Books, though? Pillows and blankets? Batteries for their music devices and new music itself? Even cards and board games, and other ways of making the days go by. Those were what worked best to encourage the prisoners to go out and run into one another. They were what the people would most often fight and even sometimes kill for. So those were what was often put into the randomized drops. Even then, they often weren’t really random. They were deliberately chosen in ways that would push so-called interesting groups or individuals together in order to create intriguing or exciting situations. 

After all, it was important that the prisoners entertain their eternal watchers. 

“You’re sending out a drop now, in this weather?” 

The question came not from one of the island’s prisoners, and not even from the island itself. Rather, it came from a man standing in the hatchway of a small room located on a large military ship several miles away. His dark blond hair was cut short on the sides, though the top was a bit of a mop of curls. At a glance, he would have been guessed to be in his late thirties.

Meanwhile, the man he was addressing appeared to be ten years younger, with black hair that was worn somewhat long, just past his ears. This one sat at a console, watching several monitors in front of him as the drone he had launched passed over the island they and those like them were charged with watching over. 

“I’m sending those Stars a little help,” the man at the console replied. “They’ve survived this long, it’s about time they got something.” 

From the doorway, the other man made a noise in the back of his throat. “You know what the orders were, Colin.”

“Yeah,” Colin confirmed. “They can’t get off the island because finding out people can be sent there would make everyone paranoid. And because this is our biggest ratings boost since this whole show started. I get it, Lyle.”

“Do you?” Lyle stepped into the room, shaking his head. “All three of the Earths that we broadcast this Vile Island reality shit to have reported record numbers. Having those two on that island with all those people looking for them is gold to the Board. They are seeing cartoonish levels of dollar signs, my man. Before this happened, they were talking about doing some other big stunts to spice things up. I even heard a couple of them talking about possibly letting the people on this world watch the show.” 

Colin gave him a brief, disbelieving look. “This world? There’s no way that would fly. We’d get shut down so fast the Boards’ heads would spin if the people of this world knew the ultimate island prison was a goddamn supervillain Truman Show mixed with one of those battle royale flicks. Has the Board lost their minds, or did they just forget that that’s the whole damn reason we broadcast to other worlds? Worlds where they know no version of Baldur exists so they can’t rat us out to this version, I might add. If they’re so paranoid about being caught they won’t even broadcast to a world where another version of Baldur exists, how the fuck were they going to broadcast it here?” 

“You got me, man,” Lyle replied with a shrug. “All I know is they were talking about it. But since those two showed up, it’s all about them. They want to see more. They want the prisoners to keep chasing them, keep fighting them. And it’s not just views. People have been betting on this shit. On how long they last, on which of them will die first, how many they’ll take out with them, whether they’ll find a way off, all of it. And since the Board owns all of the official betting sites, they take a cut. I think they’re getting visions of Scrooge McDuck’s money bin. So trust me, if anything threatens that, they’ll come down on us like a hammer the size of this ship. If they even get a whiff that we’re about to fuck up their bottom line, they will shove the fist of God up our asses and rip our colons out the hard way.” 

“Relax,” Colin retorted, “I’m not threatening their bottom line. Everything in the drop is kosher.  Nothing in there that isn’t approved by the Board themselves. You know how hard it is to sneak something new into those crates. Everything has to be approved sixteen different times. All I did was give them some extra supplies to keep going, and send it near their last known location.” 

Lyle watched him for a moment. “Let me guess,” he slowly put in while tugging a chair out to sit next to the other man at the console, “you’re not announcing the drop over the PA.” 

“Rules are rules,” Colin pointed out, “I have to announce it. Except I always get the grid mixed up. Is this area six-eleven or eleven-six? Oh well, I suppose if it turns out to be the wrong announcement, I can always correct it later.”  

“After all the prisoners are sent in the wrong direction,” Lyle murmured with a very faint smirk. “So those girls you like can get everything out of it and move on.” 

Colin turned back to the monitors then, watching as the drone targeted the area for its drop. “Maybe I can’t help those two get off the island, or tell anyone what’s going on so they can get them out of there. But I can damn sure give them a little bit of a fighting chance to keep going. Especially after they’ve made it this far on their own. You got a problem with that?” 

There was a very brief pause before Lyle offered him a sly smile. “Nah. I’ve got money riding on them getting out of this.” 

******

Irelyn Banners had not had a very good week, to say the least. Since the moment she and Trivial had ended up on this island, they had been fighting to survive. The best of the people here wanted to kill them. The worst… well, she’d rather not focus on that. There were cannibals and truly horrific monsters among the Breakwater inhabitants. Being evil was a requirement to be sentenced to this place. The population was one hundred percent hardened supervillains. 

Or rather, ninety-nine point nine percent. She and Trivial had thrown off that perfect score slightly. 

The two of them had been moving around a lot, staying away from the gangs as much as possible. As confident as she was in her own abilities, and Hazel’s, they couldn’t stand up to all of these monsters at once. And if there was one thing that gave the assholes reason to work together, it was hunting for a common enemy. So, Irelyn and Hazel kept moving, finding various safe places to stay for a day at the most before moving on. 

At first, Irelyn had not expected to be on the island that long. Surely as soon as someone behind the multitude of cameras watching the place saw who they were, there would be an extraction. But as the hours and days went on, she very soon realized that there would be no help coming. The people behind those cameras didn’t want to admit what had happened. If they let the public know that a couple of Star-Touched had been sent by some third party to this place, there would be panic about others being sent there. Or about people who were supposed to be here being transported off of it. There would be a huge mess for the people in charge, a potential shake-up of the whole system. 

So, Irelyn and Hazel were on their own. How they were going to get off this place was… a question for later. Right now, they were focused on surviving. And on hoping that their teammates would raise enough of a fuss for a real investigation into their whereabouts to happen. 

She still cursed the fact that she had dropped her phone back when they first arrived. They’d run into trouble almost immediately after realizing where they were, and in the ensuing fight, she’d lost the cell. Now it was who the hell knew where. Not that it would’ve helped that much anyway, given this island very obviously had no cell service, and no way to charge it. As evidenced by Hazel’s phone. But still, it would have been nice. 

Just what the hell was going on that whoever was behind Paige’s… entire situation had ended up transporting them to Breakwater? Irelyn had no idea, but she knew who did. That Albert Elcott guy, the one who had posed as the agent who had processed Paige’s adoption, and two others that same year. The man who had built the portal machine that transported himself as well as Irelyn and Hazel to this island to begin with. He had answers. If they could find him, if they could get him to talk, they would find out the truth. 

Unfortunately, finding him was hard when they couldn’t even go anywhere without being hunted by the assortment of psychopaths who had been forced to make this island their home. The two of them were working on that. Right now, their best plan was to find a way to make it look as though they had either died or been taken off the island so that the search for them would fade. Once they didn’t have so many people scouring this place for them, they could start their own search for Albert. He was here somewhere on the island. And whoever he had been trying to help get off the island with that teleporter would have the real answers. If they found Albert, they would find the truth about what was going on with Paige. 

But first, they had to survive. Which had led them here. At one point this had been a decent-sized stream, if not a full on river. But other prisoners had diverted the water with a dam in order to direct it to their own base years ago. Now it was a dry creek bed, about twelve feet across and two or three feet deep, like a ditch running through the ground for two miles or so. Sitting in the center of that creek bed right then was the latest cargo drop, a bright red metal crate six feet across on all sides. The parachute it had used to land safely lay nearby, connected via an assortment of cords. 

The intercom had lied. Though she had only been here a short time, Irelyn had quickly realized how the grid system worked, and where they were. Whoever was doing the announcement of the drop had inverted the numbers. Whether that was intentional or no–it was intentional. She had to believe that. The fact that the drop had come practically right on top of them, yet the gangs who would have been after it were sent in a completely wrong direction couldn’t have been a coincidence. The people in charge may have decided not to help them get off that island, but someone out there was deliberately sending them supplies. 

Unfortunately, it still wouldn’t be as simple as just walking up and taking them. They weren’t the only ones who had noticed the actual physical drop. Even as Irelyn crouched on the outstretched limb of a tree that hung over the dry creek bed, she could see two men approaching the crate. One was about six and a half feet tall, wearing a pair of ratty old jeans that were falling apart and a black tank top. The exposed parts of his brown skin were covered in dozens of small, crescent shaped white markings that ran across his upper chest, down his arms, across his face, and so forth. The other man was a few inches under six feet, with short blond hair and clothes roughly similar to his companion. They approached the crate, keeping a wary eye out for anyone trying to intercept their prize. 

It was now or never. Waiting until the two men had their attention focused on opening the crate, Irelyn (or Flea as she was in-costume) gathered herself before leaping that way. From her crouched position a good thirty feet away, she lunged straight to the men in a single bound. The taller man spun that way, but her foot collided with his chest and sent him flying backward six or seven feet before he fell to his back and skidded through the dirt even further. 

“Haha, two for one!” the man’s partner crowed while pivoting to face her. His hands began to glow brightly red. “We get a supply drop all to ourselves and a tasty treat to play with.” Even as he said that, a pair of red rings of energy shot out from his extended hands, flying straight at Flea.

Meanwhile, behind her, the man she had knocked down was picking himself up as his hand literally ripped one of the white crescent shapes from his own skin. As it was pried up, the mark transformed into a fully three dimensional shape, extending and growing into what amounted to a boomerang. Just as his partner let loose with those two ring blasts, the second man hurled that boomerang. Rather than fly straight at her however, the thing took off like a miniature drone of its own, flying up and to one side as tiny yet very dangerous and rapid laser blasts shot from it. 

With a snap of one hand, Flea sent a sword flying up and to the side, cutting through the ‘drone’ and sending it crashing to the ground. At the same time, she gave what was for her a very slight hop, carrying herself six feet to one side as the rings of energy shot through the space she had been in a moment earlier. The man fired several more times in rapid succession, but Flea was never where he expected her to be. Her quick hops carried her back and forth as he grew increasingly frustrated, firing those rings faster and faster. 

Then, as quickly as if a switch had been flicked, the man passed out. He collapsed abruptly, hitting the ground already snoring. Through those rapid few seconds, Flea had been using her stamina draining power, until he was so tired within even that brief amount of time that he literally fell unconscious while standing up and actively fighting. His body hit the ground and he started to snore. 

Meanwhile, the sword that she had tossed to cut through the small drone had been caught in midair, as Trivial appeared. Turning invisible for three seconds and teleporting one foot at a time might not have sounded like much, but it added up to a lot very quickly when she was coming up from behind the crescent-marked man. Especially when her ability to float several inches off the ground meant he never heard her footsteps. She had run up to a spot almost directly behind him, then turned invisible, taking a few more steps past the man before teleporting that single foot at the last moment to grab the sword. By the time he actually saw her, Trivial had spun back that way, putting the blade right up to his throat. “Touch another of those crescents and I’ll carve a new one that you can’t rip off.” 

The man glowered that way, though he didn’t move. “You think you stand a chance on this island? You should give up now and ask for protection. Or maybe beg for it. Yeah, I like that idea. How about the two of you… sorta… tell me how… far… the dragon… kicked the… ehhhh….”

Trailing off like that after starting to speak exhaustion-inspired randomness, the man’s eyes rolled into the back of his head as he collapsed not far from where his partner had fallen. 

“I do like when they rant or monologue,” Irelyn noted. “Makes it so much easier to put them to sleep. And it makes them say funny shit like that when it kicks in.” Glancing to the other woman, she added, “Are we good?” 

“We’re good,” Hazel confirmed. “Just help me pull them up next to each other.” 

So they did, putting the two men side by side. Hazel knelt between them, putting one hand on each man’s forehead. “Remember, I only get to erase one minute worth of memory per person, per day, and I forget everything that happened in that minute too.” With that, she focused, then abruptly sank back with a gasp. “What–wha?” Her gaze snapped around quickly before realizing where she was, and the two unconscious figures lying on either side of her. “Oh. I guess we won?” 

“We won,” the other woman confirmed. “And within the sixty seconds too, so if we move these guys somewhere else before they wake up, they won’t have any memory of seeing us, or what happened here.” 

The two of them were interrupted by the sound of slow clapping. As their eyes snapped toward the source, a heavy-set pale-skinned man with long red hair and eyes that were jet black with no visible whites stepped into view from the treeline. “Oh, excellent. Excellent indeed. Now I don’t have to share.” 

As Irelyn took a step that way, he held up one hand. “Bup bup. I assure you, I have seen more than sixty seconds of this situation. And even had I not, a word from me and every person on this island hears my voice. You come toward me, and I will ensure they all know where you are.” With those words, the man rubbed his hands together as his eyes turned from black to white, and both women felt the uncomfortable sensation as though their own hands were rubbing together. When he touched his neck while his eyes remained white, they felt a hand on their own necks. Not only could the man share his voice with the entire island, he could make anyone he wanted to within his line of sight experience the exact sensations either he himself, or anyone else within the same area, experienced. 

“Now,” the man continued. “We can come to an arrangement of course, one that does not necessitate that I share my bounty with anyone else.” 

“You’re not getting a damn thing,” Trivial informed him. 

Her words made the man chuckle low, his eyes shifting back from white to black as he ceased focusing on his power for the moment. “No? Because from where I’m standing, you both have very few choices. You could take me prisoner, but I’m too far away right now for your little sleepy power to work, so you’d have to get to me before I can speak the words that would summon every nasty fiend on this island right here. I promise, you can’t fight all of them. And even if you did manage to take me prisoner, I’d get the word out eventually. It seems to me your only chance is to do what you’re told, or try to kill me. But you’re just a couple of superheroes, you’re too good and pure and perfectly innocent to do what–”

In mid-sentence, the man was abruptly cut off. As was his head, which went tumbling off into the bushes. He’d never had a single moment of warning before Flea, in one instantaneous lunge, had put herself right in front of him, slicing through his neck in a blindingly-quick slash. 

“I carry swords for fuck’s sake,” she informed his body as it fell one way, his head rolling off in a different direction. “Did you think I don’t know how to be lethal if I have to?” She looked down at his fallen form, murmuring, “You know who that was?” 

Hazel nodded. “Sharealike. He kidnapped four girls and three boys over a two year period before he was imprisoned here. Most of them didn’t survive. The one who did is going to be traumatized for the rest of her life. Then he killed another thirteen people in one mass terror attack at a grocery store. When the police searched his apartment, they found his girlfriend. The one he killed when she tried to call the cops after she found out who he really was, just before the grocery store incident.” 

“Yup,” Flea confirmed. “So if his fucking ghost thinks I’m going to lose any sleep over him being dead,  he can think again.” 

With that, she gave a sharp flick of the blade and sent the blood away before looking over to her companion. “Are we clear?” 

Cocking her head to the side, Hazel listened with her slightly enhanced senses. She wasn’t exactly able to hear a fly land on a leaf, but it was the best they had. After a moment, she nodded. “I think so, but we should hurry up and get away from this place. Those flipped coordinates are only gonna confuse people for so long.” 

“Right,” Irelyn agreed, hopping away from the body, back toward the crate. “Let’s see what we’ve got in here. 

“And hope it gives us what we need to hole up until this heat dies down, so we can go find Albert and smack some fucking answers out of him.” 

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Patreon Snippets 25 (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 25th edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Summus Proelium-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Paige and Sierra

The sound of bladed skates sliding across ice was joined by that of a hockey stick tapping the puck back and forth a few times as it was brought forward. Then a loud crack filled the air, followed by a solid whoomph as the puck was sent flying into the net just over twenty feet away. Almost all of the lights were off, leaving the ice rink only dimly lit. There was only one person out there. 

Well, two now. 

“Good shot.” As she said those words, Paige glided across the ice from the entrance onto the rink, joining her… sister (the fact that she was using a body that looked like Cassidy was confusing on multiple levels as far as that went) in front of the remaining pucks that had been lined up across from the goal. “But then, I suppose it would be.” 

“Pittman did program us to be good at all sorts of physical stuff,” Sierra agreed without looking up. She raised the stick, judged the distance and angle, then whacked the next puck hard. It bounced off the inside of the left post and ricocheted into the net. “And don’t you still have that whole school thing going on right now? Playing hooky your first day back seems like a bad idea. Were you that paranoid about what I was doing?” 

Paige addressed the latter point first. “Free period. Which you knew when you let me know where you were going to be. And I wasn’t talking about him.” As she spoke, the girl held her hand out for the stick. 

Sierra considered that before taking her next shot. After watching the puck hit the net dead center, she handed the stick over. “You’re talking about Irelyn.” She paused briefly, then added, “About how she brought you here and tried to teach you how to skate, and how to play hockey. Just because you mentioned liking those Mighty Ducks movies.”

“Us,” Paige corrected while lining up her own shot. With another loud track, the next puck was sent into the net. “You have all my memories of those times.” 

Shaking her head, Sierra pushed off and glided around in a slow circle along the ice. “Not really the same thing, babe. I wasn’t really there. It was more like reading a book or watching a movie for me. A movie I’ve completely memorized, but still. I wasn’t actually there experiencing it.” Another pause, then, “I mean, I wasn’t here, I guess. The point is, it’s not a real memory for me. It’s just something that was uploaded when I got… eh, shot into you, literally.” 

“Is that why you’re here?” Paige asked curiously, even as she lined up the next shot and sent the puck flying that way. “Trying to get some sort of personal context for that memory you inherited? Also, considering this place isn’t even supposed to open for another hour today, how much did you bribe the guy to let you in?” While asking that, she held the stick out that way. 

“Fifty bucks for half an hour,” Sierra replied. “Why, did you want me to get a receipt so I could pay you back?” Her hand took the offered stick as she teased Paige, quickly and efficiently lining up another shot so it would bounce back and forth between the front two posts a couple times with a loud ringing sound before going in the net. 

Snorting, the other girl shook her head. “Trust me, there’s a lot more where that came from. Too much, really. And considering the source, I don’t really care what happens to it. I just wanted to make sure you got your money’s worth. You know, since you don’t exactly have a lot of experience with buying stuff.” 

Sierra gave an exaggerated gasp. “Ohh is that why the waitress looked so happy when I handed her two thousand bucks for my meal? The bill probably said twenty dollars, but I just got so confused with the period before the zeroes for the coin amount.” 

“You’re hilarious,” Paige retorted flatly. “But uhh, Sierra, huh?” 

“Sierra Nevada,” the girl confirmed. “First name, last name. If anyone asks, my parents were eccentric. Which, if you ask me, is a step up from the truth.” That time, she pushed off and did a couple slow skating circles before taking another shot. “A pretty fucking huge step up.” 

Rather than respond to that immediately, Paige was quiet for a few seconds. And when she did respond, it wasn’t directly to that. Instead, she asked, “You remember when we… when I was sitting over there, the first time Irelyn brought us to this place?” Her hand gestured over to the bench behind the entrance gate, where people would sit and tie their skates on. 

“She thought you were nervous about being out on the ice,” Sierra murmured, her own gaze moving that way. “She gave that whole pep talk about trying new things and not worrying about being laughed at.” She glanced away with a small frown. “You were only partly listening. Mostly you were worried about looking too good on the ice. You had to hide all that perfect balance, aim, enhanced strength, and everything else that Pittman programmed into us, so you’d actually look like a normal kid skating for the first time. She thought you were afraid of skating and looking bad, but you were really afraid you wouldn’t look bad enough.” 

Paige was quiet once more, her gaze locked onto that bench in the distance as she played that memory out a few times. “You’re right, especially about the part where I wasn’t really paying attention to her. But then, why would I? As far as I knew, she didn’t really care about me being here anyway. I thought she was just going through the motions, doing what was expected of her as the ‘older sister.’ She was already literally disowned, I guess maybe I thought… I dunno, I thought she was just doing that because I might bring her back into the family once her dad was gone or… something.” Saying it out loud like that made her grimace. “Or looking better for her mother. Or for the public. Whatever, I don’t know. I just never considered it as… I never thought she was…”

Sierra’s skate lightly kicked the front of hers, making her look that way. “Never thought she was doing all that stuff because she really wanted to spend time with you? Never thought she really, genuinely wanted to get to know you?” 

“Never occurred to me,” Paige confirmed in a soft voice, wincing inwardly. “I always thought she was playing the role or making an angle for something in the future. And since I never expected to actually have a future in that family, I ignored it. I ignored her. Or, I mean, I ignored the overtures she made. I played the role like I thought she was playing it and… and just assumed she didn’t care beyond that. Back when we were stuck on the couch, when I heard about the Banners disappearing, I thought she might look into that. I thought she might look for them. You know, because they’re important people. And they’re her parents, even if they did disown her. Either way, I thought she might look for them. But me? Why would she look for me?” She turned a bit, her gaze moving from the bench across the way over to where Sierra was quietly watching her. “Why would she look for me?” There was urgency to her repeated question, her voice rising slightly. 

“Because she wasn’t going through the motions,” Sierra informed her flatly. “She wasn’t faking anything, wasn’t pretending. All that stuff she was doing, or trying to do, it wasn’t an attempt to look good, or convince you to bring her back into the family, or anything like that. It was about you. It was about her wanting it to spend time with you. Because she cared about you, dipshit. She was trying to treat you like a real sister. And now she’s looking for you like a real sister.” 

Paige thought about that for a moment, turning away to gaze into the distance without actually seeing anything in front of her. Her focus was directed inward, playing through memories with a different point of view. She thought of everything Irelyn had said to her in the past, everything she’d done, all the times she had invited Paige out to eat, or to an event, or just to spend time together. And she thought of all the times she had used any excuse to get out of it. 

“Fuck,” she finally muttered. 

“Yeah, pretty much,” Sierra agreed. “And now she’s out there in trouble because she wouldn’t stop looking for you. Well, for you and for the parents who disowned her in the first place. Even after we sent her on a wild goose chase, she somehow managed to track something all the way to one of Pittman’s actual labs. Or one of his biolems found her. Or–fuck, I don’t even know. We sent her to Florida, the other side of the fucking country. How the hell did she manage to get anywhere near anything important to Pittman? How’d she manage to end up on Breakwater, for fuck’s sake?” 

Paige took in a breath before letting it out. “I guess we’ll have to ask her, once we get her away from that place. Once we….” She trailed off, words turning into a heavy sigh. 

“Once we actually have a plan for how to do that,” Sierra finished for her. “You know that’s easier said than done, right? This is Breakwater we’re talking about, not just some random prison. The whole point is that it’s supposed to be impossible to get anyone out of there. It–”

“I know!” Paige blurted. “I know it’s going to be hard. Hell, I know it’s going to be practically impossible. But we have to. I mean I have to. I’m not gonna make–I mean–” She blanched, folding her arms as she stood there on her skates. “I’m not gonna force anyone else into anything stupid. But I have to get Irelyn off that island. Her and Trivial too. They were trying to help me. They–she… Irelyn’s there because I sent her on a wild goose chase, and then she actually found real danger. Now she’s a Star-Touched in literally the worst possible place on the planet for her to be. They both are. It’s my fault they’re there, and I have to help them. I have to help her.”

“And then what?” Sierra asked. “I mean, not to completely skip past the impossible part of getting them off that island, but assuming we manage that, what will you do next?”

After a brief pause, Paige admitted, “I don’t know. Honestly, I have no idea. I know I want to talk to her. I want to ask… why. You know, why she actually cared so much, why she tried so hard to find me, and why she wanted to get to know me. I want to ask her why it mattered to her. She was already gone from the family when I was ‘adopted.’ They kicked her out, disowned her, then took me in. I was her replacement. Why wouldn’t she be angry about that? Why wasn’t she angry? Why did she want to know me? Why did… just… why?” She had unfolded her arms by that point, putting her hands up against her forehead. “I don’t understand.” 

With a loud crack, Sierra sent the last puck into the net. “Speaking as someone with a unique perspective, considering I have all those memories but it wasn’t me experiencing them, maybe she was trying to be what she wished she had.” She pushed off and started to skate over to the goal while adding, “I mean, when she was younger. She knows exactly what growing up in that family was like, how demanding her parents are. She went through it and she didn’t have anyone to talk to. Maybe she was trying to be the sister she wished she had. And maybe she kept trying so you’d always know she was there if you needed someone. Even when you barely paid attention, she still–you know, wanted to be in your memory. Just in case you ever opened up.”

Paige didn’t respond to that at first. She ran the words through her head a few times along with her own memories. Memories that she knew the other girl was running through as well. Finally, she repeated her earlier, “Fuck.” That was followed by an enthusiastic, “Damn it, damn it! She gives a shit. She really, genuinely gives a shit. And we just–I’m sorry, I mean I just wrote it off like she was playing a role. Maybe because that’s what I was doing all the time. I don’t know. But like I said, I have to get her out of there. And then tell her the truth. At least about myself. I have to tell her about me, and why all of that happened. She deserves that much. Deserves to know what was really going on, what her parents wanted, what my–yeah. And if she’s repulsed by that, if she wants nothing to do with me once she knows what I really am, then… then fine. But she needs to know.”

“Let’s focus on getting her out of there,” Sierra replied, while giving the pucks one light smack after another with the stick to send them out of the net and back that way. “We can worry about the details about what we’re going to tell her once she’s not trapped on an island full of the worst supervillains who have ever been imprisoned.” 

“We?” Paige echoed, glancing that way curiously. 

Sierra opened her mouth, then hesitated. “I mean, yeah that might get kinda complicated.” She glanced down at herself with a slight grimace. “She knows Cassidy. So this…” Her hand gestured up toward her face. “This might not work. So yeah, maybe you should talk to her yourself. But fuck it, I’m still gonna help get her off that damn island.” 

Paige nodded slowly in agreement. “That’s the part that matters right now. We can figure out the rest of it later.” She bit her lip, a guilty flush crossing the girl’s face. “Maybe you can help me come up with an idea of how to start making up for sending her on the wild goose chase that landed her and Trivial on Breakwater to begin with.” That tone of disbelief that such a thing had actually happened was still apparent in her voice. 

For a few long, silent seconds, the two of them stared at one another. Finally, Sierra broke that silence with a quiet, “She brought you here. She taught you how to skate and play hockey. Or tried to, anyway. She did all that stuff, because she really… she actually cared.” 

“She went looking for me because she cares,” Paige put in, her own voice equally soft. “She turned a total wild goose chase all the way down in Florida into a one-way trip to Breakwater just because she wouldn’t give up trying to find me. And the parents who disowned her. She did all that because she really cares about me. She was trying. She was really, genuinely trying, and I just–” Cutting herself off, the blonde girl sighed heavily once more. “Can I see that?” Raising her hand, she held it out and waited until Sierra had silently passed her the stick. Then she lined up a shot on one of the pucks, staring down at it intently for a long moment of contemplation. “When she’s off that island, I’m gonna bring her back here.” She paused, then looked over. “We. We’ll bring her back here.” 

“We?” Sierra raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that complicated?” 

“We’ll get you a better disguise or something, I dunno.” Paige shrugged. “What I do know is that you have my memories. You’re part of this too. If… if you want to be.” She waited until the other girl gave a slow nod before continuing. “We’ll figure it out. But whatever we have to do, whatever happens, we’re bringing her back to this place.” 

With that, she raised the stick and snapped it down. The puck was sent flying not into the net, but off the left bar. It rebounded backwards through the air, before Paige smacked it with the stick once more, swinging the thing like a bat. The puck was sent forward to bounce off the right bar, coming back toward her. Once again, she smacked it that way, making it rebound off the top bar that time. From there, it flipped up, end over end through the air before coming down neatly on the fat end of the hockey stick that Paige was holding out sideways. 

“And maybe we’ll be the ones teaching her some stuff next time.”

*********

Aftermath Of A Joyride (Continuing the NON-CANON storyline from chapters here, here, and here)

Most of the general public would have been disappointed to see the utter mundanity of the room that the collective leaders and second-in-commands of the various Star-Touched groups of Detroit were meeting in. Most anyone, upon hearing that such an important and powerful people were gathering together to make big decisions, would almost certainly have pictured a grand room with walls of solid steel, high-tech displays along every wall, a massive table in the center of the room projecting a holographic map of the city and surrounded by chairs with each Star-Touched’s name and symbol emblazoned across the back, and possibly even more amazing things. 

In truth, however, they met in an average conference room on the third floor of a local police precinct. The smell of old coffee and stale donuts filled the room, which itself consisted of a heavily-cracked linoleum floor, wooden walls that had seen better days, and a tiled ceiling that probably needed to be replaced soon. It was furnished simply by a couple wooden tables and an assortment of metal folding chairs, as well as an old podium near the front, next to an actual chalkboard.

Silversmith was standing at the front by that podium. Beside him was a plainclothes police detective who was murmuring a bit in his ear, while Flea stood on the opposite side, flipping through messages on her phone. Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the room, Brumal and Trivial from the state-sponsored team known as the Spartans, Caishen and Skip from Ten Towers, and Hallowed and Lucent from the Seraphs were scattered and engaged in their own private conversations with one another, or looking through their own phones. 

Finally, Trivial looked up from the file she had been glancing through and cleared her throat until Silversmith looked at her. Once he did, she asked, “So are we going to get this show on the road or what?” Straightening up in her costume consisting of purple scalemail armor, a black hooded cloak, tan pants, and a purple helmet with black visor, she gestured toward the nearby (somewhat stained) window. “You know, before the bad guys out there get the idea that we’re all off the streets and start acting like kids whose parents went out of town for the weekend.” 

Beside her, Brumal (also wearing her own standard costume of blue and white camo, a tactical combat helmet with an interwoven mesh covering the rest of her face, and bright blue lenses over the eyes) gave a short nod. “She’s right. Blunt, but right. If we’re going to discuss the situation, we should get into it.” 

“You mean discuss Joyride,” Flea put in. The futuristic ninja/samurai-clad woman put her phone away while adding, “And what exactly we’re going to do about her.” 

“Ahem, what are we planning on doing?” That was Lucent, perched atop the edge of a lamp on one of the tables. “Thus far, the girl has not overtly harmed anyone. In point of fact, she has aided us by exposing a quite… negative influence within our own Minority team.” 

“Whamline,” Silversmith muttered, giving a nod toward the plainclothes man nearby. “Detective Lanner here was just filling me in on what they’ve found so far. Apparently they have enough evidence to officially charge the boy with a few different murder counts, now that they started digging. More might be coming, we’re not sure yet. I won’t give into the details right here, but I’m having him send the files to each of you.” He paused before continuing. “But of course, we’re not here to talk about Whamline. This is about Joyride herself.” 

Skip, wearing her blue-black bodysuit with a short-sleeved white robe including a hood over her hair and a black cloth mask over the bottom half of her face, spoke up in her typical calm, nearly-emotionless voice. “She exposed the boy as the dangerous psychotic that he is. In our book, that makes her more of an ally than a threat.”

Beside her, the woman in black boots, dark gold pants with black lines running down them, purple scalemail armor covered by a gold leather coat, and a black metal helmet with purple lenses shook her head. She was Caishen, Skip’s own older sister and team leader. “She also decided that Lightning Bug is her archenemy,” she pointed out quietly. Her voice was very slightly strained as she added, “And Bug is very excited about that fact.” 

Silversmith took a breath before gently pointing out, “She doesn’t seem to have any intention of harming your daughter, considering she… summoned you to help the girl rather than leave her alone out there after their… confrontation.” Though his face was sealed behind that metal armor, they could hear the smile in his voice. Everyone in the room had seen the recording of the ‘fight’ between Lightning Bug and Joyride, and how little actual danger either had been in. It was far more of an imaginative play-fight than anything else. 

Hallowed, in his bright golden armor and metallic wings, spoke up while folding his arms across his broad chest. “Can we talk about that whole ‘summoned her’ bit? Because that’s what concerns me. It sounds like this little kid managed to teleport the leader of a Star-Touched team all the way from one side of the city to the other with a snap of her fingers. She didn’t have time to set something special up at the time, so she must have had that in place already. Does that mean she could teleport anyone anywhere? Could she hit a button right now and teleport all of us in this room to Kansas? Or worse if she ever decides to be more violent? So far she hasn’t really hurt anyone, but she obviously could. She has that teleportation tech, and the…” He paused as though unable to believe what he was saying. “The giant robot dinosaur.” 

“Toto,” Lucent put in. “She called it Toto.” 

“Yes, Toto,” Brumal flatly confirmed, head shaking. “The girl has run circles around everyone who encountered her, stolen anything she wants, and demonstrated the ability to transport other people at will, as well as use a giant robotic dinosaur as a direct threat. If she intended to do real harm, we would be in trouble.” 

“But that’s the point, isn’t it?” Trivial put in. “She obviously doesn’t intend to do real harm. She’s been really gentle with everything she’s done, considering what she’s capable of. And she sent Lightning Bug’s mother to pick her up. It’s obvious that she’s intentionally holding back. She wins, but she doesn’t hurt anyone. And like we were just talking about, she exposed a murderer inside the Minority.”

“She would be an incredible asset on our side,” Silversmith pointed out, his tone curious. “If we could somehow convince her to stop stealing things, can you imagine the amount of help she’d bring to the city? Just being able to transport our people anywhere they needed to be instantly, as soon as trouble came up, all by itself, would completely revolutionize our work here in Detroit.” 

Hallowed shook his head. “Except she’s never shown any interest in helping us. Not beyond exposing Whamline or making sure Lightning Bug wasn’t left by herself with those criminals. She’s been pretty clear that her motivation is to steal things.” 

“She steals from the rich, from corporations and wealth-hoarders,” Trivial pointed out. “Should we really give that much of a shit?” 

Coughing, Caishen replied mildly, “Those corporations are a large part of why Detroit has progressed as much as we have in the past twenty years. If they begin to see the city as not safe enough, they will take their business elsewhere. We cannot have her running completely amok and doing whatever she wants.” She paused briefly, before adding, “That said, my daughter likes her. And is very… enthusiastic when it comes to the idea of being her archrival. And I do believe she does not mean to harm anyone.”

Lucent straightened up on his perch. “Thus, what we have before us is the question of what to do about a young girl who is clearly physically capable of much worse harm than she has ever engaged in. She intentionally holds back, while using the bare minimum force necessary for her to achieve her… goal of stealing from what she considers acceptable targets. What do we intend to do about that, precisely? We have proven inadequate at stopping the girl thus far, and I believe that escalating force to the level required to capture and detain her would cause more of a problem than it would solve. I, for one, would prefer to convince her to curtail her criminal efforts in exchange for compensation leading toward mutual benefit.”

“You mean you want to pay her not to steal things,” Brumal put in, giving the TONI bird a long look. “Would she be a salaried employee, or would we simply do it on a contract-basis? Say, find a list of places we would prefer her not to steal from and pay a flat fee for each?” 

“Your sarcasm is noted,” Silversmith informed her. “And yet, with some adjustments, is that such a bad idea? Surely the companies involved would be willing to pay for such… insurance against being directly attacked, and if such funds were pooled, it would be enough to pay this girl under what we could refer to as a mercenary contract for protection. Shift her from a Fell-Touched to a Sell-Touched and pay her for security against threats to these locations. We wouldn’t technically be paying her not to steal from them, we would be paying her a ‘security fee’ to… protect those locations. Including targets she herself might have hit. Those would appear to be our two options. We either escalate force beyond what she herself has demonstrated to reach a level of being able to potentially contain her, or we make an offer to cease her criminal efforts and attempt to eventually negotiate that into actual cooperation.”

“A vote then?” Lucent suggested. “A raised hand–or wing as the case may be, if you prefer escalating force against a newly-emerged juvenile Tech-Touched who has made a clear effort to avoid harming anyone.” He glanced pointedly around the room, waiting until no one had raised any hand. “Ahem, and a raised hand or wing if you prefer attempting the diplomatic approach.” 

Silversmith raised his own hand, then watched as the others all did the same, including Lucent with one of his wings. Then he smiled behind the helmet. “Okay then, now let’s get into specifics. We’ll contact each of the companies who have expressed concern and see what they’re willing to offer.” 

“Ah, how do we pass that offer onto the girl herself?” Trivial asked. “I don’t think she left her number lying around.” 

Caishen spoke flatly. “Something tells me that won’t be a problem. It won’t be long before Joyride makes a spectacle of herself again.

“And personally, I find myself… disturbingly curious to see what happens when she does.” 

*********

During The Ministry Base Incursion 

The short, unassuming man stood just a hair over five foot seven, and would have been considered very slightly underweight. His short brown hair and hazel eyes were incredibly average, and he wore glasses with thin metal frames, as well as a simple suit of moderate worth and fit. Not too expensive, yet not too cheap. His job was to blend in. He was known as Alcazar, the word for a Spanish fortress or castle. One of the top lieutenants within the Ministry, his job was to attend to the security and protection of their various facilities throughout the state of Michigan. 

At that particular moment, Alcazar was sitting at his desk in an office in downtown Detroit. It was very late at night, but that was normal for him. His typical schedule found the man sleeping during the day, as most of his work was done at night. Night was when people tended to attempt to cause problems. He would sleep from roughly eight in the morning until early to mid afternoon, then spend time with his family until seven or so before making his way to one of his offices to start his actual job. It was a little after midnight just then, and he was looking forward to the next day (or later that day, rather), when he would cut his sleep short in order to visit his youngest son’s school to watch the boy perform in a play. Eleven-year-old Karl was incredibly excited about his part, even if it wasn’t a leading role. It was still important, and he had extracted a firm promise from his father (who he believed to be an architect) about being there. 

Alcazar had made arrangements to leave the office a bit early that day, getting home by five or so just to have enough sleep so he could enjoy the play and then take his wife out to lunch. That would be in another few hours, and he needed to get all the work he could done by then. Sitting at his desk, he flipped through a folder while typing an email to one of their contractors, arranging for a new shipment of steel beams for Project Carpenter. Very few people in the Ministry were aware of the colony of Touched Termites that had been brought into the city, but he was one of those few. And he worked directly with their spokesman (spokesbug?) in gathering the proper resources, providing them what they asked for. Which, in this case, was more steel for the termites to melt down with their fog-breath and then convert into a larger amount of the stuff for building purposes. Specifically, for building the structures within the city that the Ministry was contracting them to build. 

In the midst of his work on that, his nearby cell phone, sitting silently on the desk next to a pile of folders, abruptly went off. It rang audibly rather than buzz, which meant that it was coming from one of the few numbers he had programmed into the phone to bypass his normal silent mode. And that would only happen if this was an emergency. 

A slight frown found its way to the man’s face as he reached out to answer the phone with a simple, “What happened?” 

The words he heard made the man immediately stand, almost knocking his chair over in the process. “What? Right now? How many? Lock down. Get everyone there. Alpha level priority. Have you contacted White and Gold? Do it, right now. Interrupt the play.” Even as he spoke, Alcazar was plucking a separate phone from his pocket, rapidly texting one of his contacts. “Are they still in the building? Then lock down the entire area. Get a chopper in the air. Who’s close? Yes, move that one over. Find the spot where they started from and be there to meet them when they evac. Do everything you can to hold them in that building until I get there, but be prepared to track them if they escape.”

Taking the phone away from his ear, he held the second one up to the opposite side and spoke. “Yellowbrick, I need a walkway. Yes, there.” He waited for a moment then before getting the go-ahead. Once that came, the man opened the door of his office. Beyond was what appeared to be a black void and an amber-colored path leading out into nothingness. Without missing a beat, he walked straight out onto the path. As always when doing this, the void itself felt cold, though not to the point of being a problem. It was like a chilly wind that made one hunch in on themselves a bit. Or typically did. In the current situation, he barely noticed. 

Striding quickly along the bridge through that void, the man made it precisely thirty feet. It was always thirty feet, no matter what the actual distance between the two connected doorways happened to be. Whether Yellowbrick was creating a path between two doors in the same building, from one building to another in the same city, or between two different continents, the bridge through the void was always precisely thirty feet. The void itself seemed to go on much further, as did the bridge. It extended off seemingly endlessly. But after walking that thirty feet (and only after walking, it wasn’t visible before), a new doorway appeared in front of the man. It was the door into one of the supply closets within the Ministry’s base under the local mall, and he didn’t break stride at all before reaching out to grab the knob and pull it open as he stepped through. From an outsider’s point of view, it would have looked as though he was simply stepping out of the closet, as they wouldn’t see the void and bridge behind him. Yellowbrick’s paths were only visible and accessible to people she wanted them to be visible and accessible to.

The very instant he was in the base (stepping into one of the secondary labs where an unconscious Ministry security guard lay on the floor next to an overturned chair), Alcazar activated his power. He had no idea whether the intruders were still inside or not, but there wasn’t time to waste finding out. As soon as he focused on his gift, the man could see the effects. The small lab around him shifted, the floor, walls, and ceiling turning somewhat fuzzy and wobbling like jello for a brief moment before completely transforming. The floor became beaten and cracked old wood, while the walls and ceiling were made of intricately carved stone. The door behind him, leading into the closet, became an ancient wooden type with a metal latch. The view through that half-open door revealed not the closet it was supposed to be or Yellowbrick’s void, but a set of stone stairs leading down. 

The stairs would go nowhere. Or, more to the point, they would go everywhere. They would lead to a corridor, or another room, which itself would lead to more corridors and more rooms. That, in essence, was Alcazar’s power. While he was using it, the structure he designated (the Ministry base, in this situation) would physically transform into the interior of a medieval castle or fortress. Not a specific one and never the exact same. More importantly, space itself was twisted and expanded within his affected area. Even if he only used it on a single room, the resulting castle interior would appear to stretch on forever. Every hall would lead to a new room, every new room to a new hall. No matter how far one walked, no matter how many doors they went through, there would be more and more in front of them. Eventually, they would loop back around to where they started. You could walk straight for a solid mile of corridors and rooms, go up six different flights of stairs at six different locations, then pass through a final door and find yourself right back where you had started from, height differences be damned. 

Alcazar and those he designated were the only ones who could properly navigate and leave the affected area. Now, if the intruders were still inside, they would be trapped. There would be no escape. And they would be answering questions very soon. 

The moment his power clicked into place, Alcazar walked through the opposite door, which would have led into the main hall adjacent to the stairs leading out of the base. Now it was about twice as wide as it should have been, which was right. There was also a hole in the wall near the base of the stairs, which was wrong. As soon as he saw that hole, Alcazar strode that way. It had to have been there before his power took effect. The hole wasn’t a normal part of the structure, so his power hadn’t taken it into account. It had built around it. 

Looking into the hole, he saw several of their security people attempting to dig through what had apparently been a cave-in about twenty feet in and upward. Undoubtedly intentional by the intruders to block pursuit. 

“Hold,” he ordered, before sticking his hand through the hole to touch the dirt. This tunnel wasn’t great for him. His power worked best on established buildings. With a bit of extra effort, he could affect something like this, but only within the immediate area he could see. Still, it would help somewhat. As his hand touched the dirt wall, the man released his focus on the rest of the base. Behind him, it reverted back to its normal condition (aside from the hole). Meanwhile, this area of the tunnel became another castle corridor. The area the guards were trying to dig through was transformed into a full-sized room. The dirt and rocks from the cave-in were still there, but the room was large enough for them to simply move around all of it. About ten feet past that room, the effect of his power faded and it became ordinary dirt once more. 

“Go,” he ordered the men. “Catch up with them if you can.” That was all he said, all he needed to say. Before the words had even finished leaving his mouth, the men were off and sprinting. 

Turning away from the hole, Alcazar took one of the phones from his pocket as it buzzed. “Yeah. Bring the chopper in from the east, sweep across the mall lot just in case they popped up there, but I think they started from further back.” He paused briefly, then grimaced. “The construction site across the street, where they’re building the hotel. It’s been shut down for awhile. Focus there. Send the call to get our people over there right now.” 

Without another word, he disconnected the call. At nearly the exact same instant, the phone rang in his hand. Rang, not buzzed. A single word was displayed on the screen. No number, just a name. White. Minister White. She’d gotten the message, apparently. 

“Yes, ma’am,” Alcazar answered. “Yes, I’m here. They’ve already left. The troops are in pursuit, through a tunnel leading to what I believe is the motel construction site. Yes, we have a police helicopter diverting there right now, eta twenty seconds. I have people loading up in a few of our cars to head them off above ground as well. Absolutely. We’ll have a full sitrep for you when you get here. I have no idea what they took, I was about to look into it. Yes, ma’am.” 

That was the end of the call, so he disconnected before looking back the way he had come. Unconscious figures littered the hall, and the rooms around him. Whoever this was, whoever had broken into the Ministry’s base, they had come in here for something. But what? 

More importantly, who the hell were they? This attack came out of nowhere. The Ministry was… well, not quite totally peaceful. But they were secure. Every Fell-Touched gang in the city either worked directly for them, or paid tribute to them and had enough informants within who would rat out anything like this. Well, almost every Fell-Touched gang. There were the Scions, but this wasn’t their style. Leaving everyone alive? They’d never do that. 

So again, who in this city had taken the time and care to secretly tunnel into the Ministry base, steal things while leaving everyone alive, and then leave? Whatever the answer, whoever they were, Alcazar was certain of one thing.

They were just getting started. 

*********

Sterling and Elena 

Standing on the edge of the road where the group who had invaded the Ministry base had gone sliding out of control and into the water beyond, Sterling Evans watched divers attempting to search the submerged wreck for anything useful. Raising his gaze toward the sky, he saw two helicopters combing the banks in either direction, their spotlights scouring for a sign that the intruders had come ashore. More of the Ministry’s people were searching surrounding neighborhoods, talking to potential witnesses, digging through anything and everything they could find. 

There wouldn’t be much. He knew that. This hit was too well-coordinated, too perfect. This wasn’t an amateur outfit. They knew what they were doing, and had the training, equipment, and skill to pull it off without getting caught. How long had they been working in secret, building that tunnel leading straight to the mall? Weeks? Months? They had gone completely undetected, despite the security measures the Ministry had in place. Which meant they had been quiet, somehow digging that entire tunnel without making any more vibrations than cars passing overhead. And that implied powerful Touched-Tech, a surprise considering the Ministry themselves owned the only purely Touched-Tech group in the city, as well as the company responsible for transporting it safely. If such machines had been delivered or ordered here, he would have heard about it. 

This raised… many questions. 

Stepping up beside him, Elena watched the water in silence for a moment. The two of them, to everyone else in the area, would look quite different than they appeared to themselves. Thanks to Elena’s gift, others would see him as a bald man who resembled Principal Strickland from Back To The Future, while Elena had made herself a near dead-ringer for the character of Marion Ravenwood in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. 

After standing there with him in contemplative silence as they watched their people work for several moments, Elena quietly spoke. “It was an excellent play, at least.” 

She was right, of course. The play had been excellent. At least, as much as they’d seen of it. The lead had been one he’d kept an eye on from back when he was still barely more than a background player, and Sterling’s early faith that the man had strong potential had not been misplaced. Through his life, even as a near-nameless accountant for the Russo mafia under his now-wife’s father, Sterling had had a way of predicting potential. To him, potential was a combination of natural talent, drive, and a bit of luck. The first two were what he looked for when it came to investments. Luck was something he could manufacture for them. A word in the ear of a basketball recruiter to visit a certain high school to see a student who would have gone unnoticed, leading to a starring role on an NCAA drive to a state championship, a moderate donation to the science lab of a university in order to ensure that a brilliant geneticist had the funding they needed to continue the research that had eventually led to saving many lives. Those and far more examples, many as subtle as bringing the right two people together at the right time, had allowed his life to progress to what it now was. 

Sterling knew he was lucky. He had no doubt about that. His brilliant, beautiful wife, his strong son, amazing daughter, and now potentially a second daughter whom he was coming to care about as much as his own biological children. A life as charmed as his had taken a lot of work and sacrifice to reach this point, but it was all worth it. As close as they had come to losing it several times, particularly when it came to Elena’s father, and yet they had come through on top. 

Whatever it took, he would protect his family. He would continue to build this empire, would continue to strengthen and solidify it. When the time came, he wanted his children, all three if Izzy agreed to be adopted, to have the best possible foundation. He would, at some point, pass the keys to this kingdom to the three of them. And then he would see just how far they could take it. As solid as the Ministry was, as strong as it had become, he had no doubt that his children could take it further. They were who he built all of it for. Together, his family would create a legacy that would shape the state of Michigan, and far beyond, for a long time to come. 

Bah, he was getting ahead of himself. And perhaps swelling too much with pride for his family. It was far too easy to let his thoughts and hopes run away, like a poor child being dragged along by an overly-excited dog on a leash. He sounded arrogant to his own thoughts, which wasn’t his intention. He simply… wanted his family to build something truly lasting, something that could be passed down through their generations. As more and more superpowers emerged, as the world grew into this new era, things would change quickly. 

The truth was, Sterling Evans believed that it would not be long (relatively speaking) before states across the country, and even countries across the world, began to break up into smaller territories. Kingdoms of a sort, smaller areas protected by powerful Touched. The militaries and governments themselves simply could not keep up with so many random citizens gaining often incredibly destructive powers. There was no test they had to take, no money to be paid, no qualification in wealth, race, gender, orientation, or any other thing that had previously been used to prevent one group or another from gaining power. It could happen to anyone anywhere. 

Thus, Sterling believed that the old rules of society, of government power, would gradually break down as more and more people who would previously have been considered ‘nobodies’ or ‘inconsequential’ gained true power. He believed that the government’s power would fail, and far more localized fiefdoms, of a sort, would rise. That was the entire point of the Ministry. That was their endgame, to have this structure in place so that when the inevitable collapse of government came, they would still be there in its place. They would keep Detroit, and Michigan beyond, safe and prosperous. 

And that goal was why he would not allow whoever this group was, whatever their intentions might have been, to escape judgment and punishment. If other groups, other organizations, saw that the Ministry could be hit like that, they would become emboldened. An example had to be made. They would be found, dealt with, and everyone would see that the status quo would be maintained. 

Whoever was behind this attack would find themselves regretting it, Sterling promised himself. Whatever their endgame, whoever they were, wherever they had come from, he would make an example of them. Every gang, every snake now poking their heads out with interest at the news that the Ministry had been attacked, would see what became of such people. 

With a nod to Elena, Sterling took the phone from his pocket, hitting the number to contact Alcazar back in the base itself. “Talk to all of our people in every gang. Find out who knows something about this. Shake the bushes, kick the trash cans, call in favors, make every threat we need to make. Do everything you can until five o’clock, then go home. Yes, Alcazar, I don’t want to hear it. Go home at five, that’s an order. Your son needs you at that play tomorrow. Karl’s been looking forward to you being there too much for you to put it off. Do the work, then go home. We have plenty of people to keep searching while you’re busy. Delegate, it’s the only way to survive in this business. And tell Karl I said hi.” 

He paused then before nodding slightly. “Yes. Yes, I do think our people will find something. There is someone in this city who knows the truth. There is a weak link somewhere, a link connected to the people responsible for this. 

“And when we find that weak link, we’ll snap the chain in half.” 

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Interlude 21A – An Unexpected Detour (Summus Proelium)

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“Thanks a lot, keep the tip.” With those words, Irelyn Banners (dressed as a civilian rather than as her costumed identity of Flea) stepped back into the fairly cramped motel room with a box of piping hot pizza. Kicking the door shut behind her, the brunette woman with her hair kept in a loose ponytail held the treat up in one hand so her companion could see it. “Here we go, the real dinner of champions.”  

From the other side of the room, Hazel Ruthers (better known to the public as Trivial) raised an eyebrow. Outside of her own costume, Hazel had straight black hair that fell only a couple inches above her shoulders, with fairly dark skin to indicate her mixed-race status. She had a two-liter bottle of soda in one hand and was using it to fill a couple of plastic cups provided by the motel. “Could we really be considered champions when ordering pizza is basically the height of what we’ve been able to accomplish the entire time we’ve been down here? I don’t want to say we’re bad at our jobs or anything, but we’ve been here for days and have nothing to show for it. At this point, after all the people we’ve talked to, I’m not convinced your sister even exists, let alone that she’s ever been here. Are you sure she wasn’t just the result of some manic and incredibly elaborate fever dream you had?” 

Snorting at the question, Irelyn set the pizza down on the nearby bed (one of two in the room they were sharing) before grabbing a paper plate. “You do realize that you’ve met her before, right?” She was already loading up the plate with several pieces, which she handed over that way. “Multiple times, actually. We went and got lunch together a few months ago.” 

“Maybe we were both having elaborate fever dreams,” Hazel retorted while taking the offered plate. She traded it by handing over a cup of soda before taking a seat on the end of her own bed. “I can’t rule that out. But come on, seriously, if your sister was anywhere around here, someone we talked to would have seen her. We’ve got nothing. I mean, nothing here anyway. Maybe she made that call and left immediately? Or maybe she found a way to bounce the signal. All you’ve got that says she was here is that phone call Bryson tracked down to this place, right? It could be faked.” 

Heaving a sigh, Irelyn took the cup and sat down to get her own plate of pizza. “By that standard, the whole thing could have been faked. Even her being the one talking. God knows, Dad has pissed off enough powerful people. I wouldn’t put it past some of them to–but they don’t know what I am. She was clearly stopping me from exposing my identity to whoever was sitting there listening, and–” Cutting herself off, she blanched. “Yeah, maybe they were threatening her or something. I don’t know. I was hoping we’d get some easy answers just by tracking her down, but you’re right. She’s obviously not here. Unless she’s a lot better at hiding than I think she is, someone around here would’ve seen her.” 

Scooting over to the edge of her bed, Hazel spoke gently. “Well, there is some good news about all that, you know?” She took a bite of the pizza, waiting for the other woman to look toward her expectantly before explaining. “If they went through all the trouble of making a phone call or whatever to send you down here, it means your family is probably still alive. I mean, if they were just gonna… umm, you know, just gonna kill them, they wouldn’t go through all that to distract you. They wanted you distracted and out of the way, and sending you all the way down here to Florida probably means it’s something elaborate and time-consuming. And the more time-consuming it is, the better chance your family is still okay.” Having said all that, she visibly grimaced. “I know that’s not exactly the best news in the universe, but–” 

“But it’s something,” Irelyn agreed, her voice coming with another heavy sigh. “I know what you mean. Obviously they had a reason to distract me. There’s no point in sending me on a wild goose chase if they were just going to kill them and dump the bodies. There’s… something else going on. Something I don’t know anything about, that’s just–fuck. I don’t know.” She set the plate down before throwing up her hands helplessly. “If this really is a dead-end, then I’ve got nothing. At least with that phone call I had a lead. But if she’s not here, if my parents and sister aren’t–I mean… they could be anywhere.” 

“Hey now.” Reaching out, Hazel put a hand on the other woman’s arm. “I don’t come bearing only problems, I’ve also got solutions.” Belatedly, she amended, “Okay, maybe not exactly solutions. But at least clues, or hints, or… another idea. I’ve got something we can check.” 

Irelyn arched an eyebrow that way. “You’ve been looking into other things too, haven’t you?” 

“Well, the same thing, your missing family,” Hazel pointed out. “Just different avenues for finding them. I mean–okay so I started looking into where your sister came from. You know, where your family adopted her from. I know, you think this is all about your dad pissing someone off, but I figured it might be a good idea to look at your sister’s past too, since you weren’t. Sorry if that was, like, overstepping or whatever. I just, you know, thought it was worth it.”  

“You don’t need to apologize, Hazel,” Irelyn assured her. “I was laser-focused on it being some guy from my dad’s business. If that’s wrong–well then it’s wrong. But are you saying you actually found out something about Paige?” The very thought that this whole situation could have come from her adopted sister’s past instead of someone that their father had pissed off was enough to make her reel inwardly. But she wasn’t going to dismiss the prospect. Not now that they had already spent all this time looking for Paige here in Florida to no avail. She was ready to pursue any lead at all, as long as it actually led somewhere.

Hazel hesitated before giving a very slight nod. “Yes and no. I mean, I found out some stuff, including a lot of dead ends. Like, for example, the group your dad adopted her from doesn’t exist. They never existed.”  

That made Irelyn do a quick double-take. “Wait, what do you mean they never existed?” 

“I mean that group was never a real adoption agency,” Hazel informed her. “As far as I can tell, the agent your father worked with to secure the adoption isn’t real. Well, obviously he’s real, but the name is fake. The name of the group is fake, and even–” She grimaced while passing on the news. “Even the name of the doctor who supposedly delivered Paige as a baby is fake. It’s all fake, Irelyn. There is no such doctor who ever worked in that hospital. There was no adoption agency by that name, no doctor, no nothing. The agent never did any adoptions before that one. As far as I can tell, every single name on the official records about where Paige came from, aside from that one adoption agent, is completely made up. The rest of them aren’t real people. The judge, the lawyers, all of them. They don’t exist. Or at least, they used fake identities for this whole thing. Which itself is pretty fucked up, you know?” 

By the time she finished all that, Irelyn was staring at her, having completely forgotten about the pizza. “You’re telling me that almost everyone behind my sister’s adoption and–and her entire life before we got her was completely made up? How is that even possible? I mean, why would–did my Dad–of course he knew.” Her head shook rapidly. “He had to know. Maybe he went through some illegal channels to adopt her. But why? Why would he need to do that? It’s not like there aren’t plenty of perfectly legal adoption services out there. I don’t–oh my God.” Her eyes had widened dramatically. “You think my father had Paige kidnapped from someone?” The very thought was enough to make her physically recoil. Irelyn had plenty of problems with her father, but she’d always seen him as generally a decent person, for what he was. And if not decent, at least not the type to have a child kidnapped like that. She had plenty of issues with the man, but he wasn’t that sort of person, was he? The fact that she had to seriously ask herself that made bile rise in her throat. She felt physically ill. “You think he had her kidnapped and… and got some schmuck adoption agent to make it look legitimate? But wait, why would he do that? If the rest of the identities are fake, what was the point of having a legitimate adoption agent?”

There was a brief pause before the other woman answered. “I don’t think this person was a legitimate adoption agent, Irelyn. Like I said, he never did any adoptions before that one, before Paige. He’s a real person, but there’s no record of him ever existing before Paige’s adoption. And the agency he was supposed to work for doesn’t exist, it never has. So this guy came out of nowhere, no background, no real history. I think he was mostly used to make the adoption look good for anyone your parents talked to. You know, so their friends or business people could see a real live person discussing the adoption with them.” 

Irelyn was still visibly reeling from all that. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times before she managed a weak, “But… but would my parents really…” 

“I don’t know,” Hazel hesitantly replied. “I don’t know enough to say what your father knew about the situation or–but I mean, obviously he had to know some of it. There’s no way he didn’t realize that a lot of this information was bogus. He’s not an idiot. He’s a lot of things, sure, but not that stupid. He had to know that the adoption agency wasn’t real. Maybe he thought there was a legitimate reason, or… I don’t know. Maybe there was a legitimate reason, Irelyn. We don’t know enough to say for sure. All we can say is that all that information is fake.” 

Absorbing all of that, Irelyn shook her head. “So, basically, all we know is that we don’t know anything. We’re right back to where we started from. If none of that information is real, then… then we’ve got nothing to go off of. Which means if this is about Paige’s own history instead of something my dad did, they could be literally anywhere.” 

Hazel offered a very slight smile while rubbing a hand over the back of her neck. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got nothing, exactly. I umm, I might’ve asked Bryson to check for anything he could find about those names. You know, whether they ever popped up again in relation to adoptions or anything like that. Especially the agent, the only guy who actually existed, even if everything about him was fake.” 

Irelyn’s gaze was intense as she stared that way. “Please tell me he actually found something useful.” She needed some actual good news.

Hazel, thankfully, gave her a nod. “Yeah, he found something. Turns out that guy, ahh Albert Elcott, he did two more adoptions that same year. It’s definitely the same guy too, not just the name. The signature matches the one on your paperwork. Both of the other adoptions were in Salt Lake City.” 

Taking a moment to process that, Irelyn slowly replied, “Salt Lake City? Does that have any sort of relevance?” 

“Not exactly,” came the response, “But get this. Those three adoptions, Paige and the other two, were the last–the only ones this guy ever did, before he retired… at age thirty-four.”  

Irelyn gave a double-take at that, squinting. “He retired at thirty-four?” 

With a nod, Hazel explained, “Apparently he ‘inherited’ a small fortune from some dead great-aunt or something. Enough to buy a big house in some small town south of Salt Lake and live without working for the rest of his life. I mean, he’s not in some giant mansion or anything, but he’s comfortable. And it gets more interesting than that.” 

“More interesting?” Irelyn shifted a bit on the bed. “I dunno, it’s already pretty up there.” 

Smirking a bit, Hazel continued. “Those other two adoptions he did, the birth parents’ signatures are different names, but they’re all in the same handwriting. At least, according to the experts Bryson asked. Two different experts looked at the handwriting and they said all six signatures from all six different birth parents for the three kids were written by the same person. They were trying to disguise it, but these guys were pretty sure.” 

That… was a lot. Irelyn had to take another minute to think her way through it. “Okay, so what we know is that the agency my parents worked with to adopt Paige was fake. The agent who worked with them obviously changed his identity before then, because there are no records of him anywhere before that. The doctors and nurses back at the hospital who originally delivered Paige as a baby don’t exist. Her birth parents don’t exist. And the one person in this entire situation, besides Paige, who does actually exist, the agent who facilitated the adoption, bought a house and retired that same year after two more adoptions. And all three of the adoptions were signed off by the same person posing as all six birth parents.” 

“Yeah, that pretty much sums it up,” Hazel confirmed. “It’s all pretty weird, huh?” 

“Pretty weird…” Irelyn echoed a bit blankly, gazing off into the distance. “Yeah, I’d say so. But you know what we’re gonna do now?”

“Go see this guy in Utah?” Hazel guessed. 

“Go see this guy in Utah,” Irelyn confirmed. “So what’s the name of this town he lives in, anyway?” 

*******

“Actually, it’s pronounced Tooele,” the friendly waiter who had been serving Hazel and Irelyn lunch politely informed them. “Too-ill-uh. Too-ill-uh, not tool or toollie. Yeah, I know how it looks, but here we are.” 

“Damn,” Hazel lamented. “I guess neither of us wins that bet. Thanks though. And hey, this is a nice place.” 

Beaming, the man thanked them for stopping by, gave the pair a last refill of iced tea, then stepped away to handle a couple newly arriving customers. Which left the two women to look at one another in silence for a moment. 

Irelyn spoke first, keeping her voice low despite the fact there was no one nearby the back corner booth they had requested. “So, this town has about forty thousand people. You know how big Detroit is right now? Two point five million people.” 

“I think it’s cozy,” Hazel noted, glancing around. “I mean, I’d get bored pretty quick, but it’d be a nice place to visit sometimes. I can see why our strange friend decided to retire here. That money he got probably wouldn’t give him a very nice life for long in a place like Detroit. It’s too expensive. But here?” She gestured around. “Cost of living can’t be that high. It’s quiet, peaceful, people probably leave him alone.” 

“Something tells me it’s not just that,” Irelyn flatly replied. “Come on, I’ll tell you about it on the way.” She took a final gulp of her iced tea before getting up to leave, tossing a twenty dollar bill on the table for a tip on the way out. It had been good food, and good service. 

Once they were outside the so-named Chubby’s Cafe, the pair headed for their rented car. Irelyn drove, checking the GPS on her phone before heading for the house their target lived in. They had thought about showing the picture they’d taken off his (quite barren and ignored) Facebook page to the waiter in there, but given the size of the town, they didn’t want to accidentally tip the man off ahead of time. This seemed like the sort of place where a lot of people knew one another. 

“So, what’s got you suspicious now?” Hazel asked. “I mean, besides this entire thing.”  

“You know how this Albert Elcott guy bought a fair-sized house to retire?” Irelyn started. “Well, see, I took a look at the property records around him, and it turns out he owns the houses on either side too. They’re owned through a shell company, and he has people going in and out every year. Different renters, probably paid off to keep quiet about anything he’s doing. Or, you know, anything they hear.”

Giving a low whistle, Hazel shook her head. “So you think he’s up to something else after all, besides just living the good life.” 

Irelyn confirmed, “Yeah, I definitely think there’s a reason he doesn’t want real neighbors who might snoop in on what he’s doing in that house. Owning those other two homes gives him a buffer to do whatever he wants without prying eyes. And there’s more than that. I found several deliveries of… pretty high tech stuff. He tried to split it up with different companies, months or even years apart, even having it delivered to one of those other two houses sometimes. But trust me, whatever he’s doing, it involves building something pretty advanced. And now I really want to know what it is.” 

“So you wanna go in like this, or suit up?” Hazel’s question came as she glanced out the window at the houses around them. “You think this town even has any Touched?” 

“Not on the record they don’t,” Irelyn replied. “The nearest Touched teams are up in Salt Lake, thirty miles north. And they’re mostly still dealing with the fallout from that Collision Point between Hollow and Grote. Pretty sure they wouldn’t be down here. Which is another reason this place is probably good for whatever that Elcott guy’s working on.” She paused to consider then before adding, “Let’s suit up. It’s a little risky, but I don’t want to take the chance of letting this guy get away just because we couldn’t go all out to catch him.” 

So, the two of them parked the car in an alley they found near the neighborhood in question, changing into their costumes before driving the rest of the way. It was barely afternoon in the middle of the week, so they didn’t expect many people to be around. Still, rather than park in front of the house, they stopped a few doors down. The neighborhood itself looked like any suburban street, with perfectly maintained green lawns, lush bushes and trees, everything neatly arranged and quiet. The place felt eerie and strange to Irelyn, for all its complete bland normality. 

Still, there was nothing else to do beyond walk up to the door and get some answers. So, that was what they did. The two stepped out, glanced around once more, and then strode that way. There was no one in sight, but they wanted to get into that house before someone happened to glance outside and raise questions. 

“We just gonna knock on the door?” Hazel (or Trivial when in costume) asked, her eyes scanning carefully for any threats. 

Irelyn considered, even as they got to the chain link fence surrounding the property. “You know, I think we’ll go right inside, and–” Abruptly, she stopped talking, as the door of the house opened. They saw a brief glimpse of the man that they were after, a short and wiry figure with stringy black hair and a ruddy complexion. But as soon as he saw them, the man’s eyes widened dramatically and he abruptly jumped back inside and slammed the door. 

“Hard way it is, then!” Flea snapped, hopping right over the fence and all the way to the porch in a single motion. Her foot reared back before kicking the door off its hinges. It was reinforced, but that didn’t matter when it came to her leg-strength. The door snapped open and fell to the floor with a loud clatter in the small entranceway. She heard footsteps running down some stairs to her left, and sprinted that way, passing through the short corridor to find an open door to the basement. 

With Trivial right behind her, Flea pursued their quarry, calling out, “Albert, stop! We need to talk to you! We’re not here to–” 

She cut herself off, as they had reached the bottom of the stairs. The basement was unfinished, a simple cement floor and walls, totally open save for a complicated-looking machine in the middle. It was about ten feet wide, reaching almost to the ceiling, consisting of a wild assortment of pipes, sheets of metal, glowing lights, tubes with various liquids in them, spinning wheels, and more. 

“What… the hell?” Trivial managed, her gaze moving from the weird machine to the man himself. “Hey! We need to talk to you!” 

“No, no, no, no, you can’t be here. It was ready, it was finally ready, why are you here?!” Albert demanded. He was standing in front of the machine, head shaking violently. “I did everything he said. I did everything right. How did you–why would you–no, no! You can’t be here!” 

“Albert, hang on.” Irelyn held a hand up cautiously. “Who are you talking about? We’re not here to hurt you. Do you know who we are?” 

The man wrapped his arms around himself with a slightly crazed giggle. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. I did my part. I did what I was supposed to do. I was always Plan B. Just Plan B. But then I was Plan A. I was supposed to have more time, and then I didn’t, but I still fixed it. I followed all his instructions and I made it work! It needs more tests. I was supposed to test it. One more month. One more month to perfect it, just to make sure. But you had to come. You had to fuck it all up and come! So oh well, no more tests. No more perfection. We have to do it now.” 

“Albert, get away from that–” Irelyn started. But before she could say more, the man abruptly snapped his hand out, smacking a button on the side of the machine. She and Trivial both launched themselves that way, but their vision was overtaken by a blinding flash of light even as a sense of weightlessness filled them. It felt like they were floating for a few seconds, before the light faded and the ground rushed up under them. They both fell onto dirt, grass, and pebbles. 

With a grunt, Irelyn looked up just in time to see that Albert guy vanish through the trees. Trees? Yes, there was a forest around them. They had… teleported? Frowning, she lunged to her feet. 

Trivial was right behind her, blurting, “Where the hell are we?” 

“I dunno, but he does,” Flea replied. She was already rushing toward the trees where Albert had disappeared. Only to stop short a few seconds later, as she came through them and found herself on the edge of a cliff. There was no sign of Albert, but far below was a rocky beach next to a tumultuous ocean. On that beach was an assortment of people all gathered around several fires, apparently cooking food. Some had very obvious physical changes, such as visible spikes, horns, one who looked like an eight foot tall living tree, and another who was more like an anthropomorphic caterpillar. 

“Wait, are those… are those Touched down there?” Trivial demanded, staring that way. 

“Yes,” Flea confirmed, her throat suddenly dry. “I know where we are. Trivial, we… we’re both dressed up as well-known Star-Touched. 

“And we’re standing on Breakwater.” 

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Patreon Snippets 23 (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 23rd edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Summus Proelium-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Shortly Before 20-06

He was definitely being watched. Ryder Towling knew that much even as he stepped out of his car, parked in front of the Fosters’ house. Of course, he could have said as much before ever coming into Sherwood territory. Everyone knew how the gang operated. Feeling eyes on him as he closed his door and walked around to open the back was hardly surprising. It took a lot of effort for him to resist the urge to look around. The hair on the back of his neck stood up as he grabbed his satchel from the backseat, hoisted it over his shoulder, and closed the door. 

Yes, there were definitely plenty of eyes on him. Which was why he had to be very careful not to let anyone know the real reason he was here. Or anything about his other identity. Something told him that if the Sherwood people found out that he had any connection to another gang, let alone that he was Eits, someone who primarily used their hated technology, they wouldn’t be too happy. He might not even get a chance to explain the situation. 

And even if he did get that chance, what would he say? Was he supposed to tell them that he had been repaying a favor to a secret organization that had helped him… become who he really was inside, and had actually kept information they probably didn’t want him to have? Information which revealed that Cup and Pencil were desperately trying to find someone who had been adopted years earlier. Someone who now lived in Sherwood territory, in this house. Errol Fosters. 

The Fosters themselves shouldn’t even have been living in this area. The family was rich specifically thanks to a business involving transporting technology. Ryder had no idea how they managed to convince the Sherwood people to leave them alone. It was one of many questions he had about this whole situation. Some of which he might even be able to get answers to. 

As he walked away from his car and approached the front door, the boy asked himself for about the thousandth time why he didn’t just go to Blackjack, explain everything he knew, and ask for help. Seriously, what was he doing here? He wasn’t a fighter. He was a behind-the-scenes sort of guy. And he sure as hell wasn’t some sort of secret agent James Bond type. If he ran into trouble here, deep in another gang’s territory, what was he going to do?

It was stupid. Not asking for help was stupid, the whole thing was stupid. Yet something made him stop every time he thought about going to Blackjack. He had no idea what that whole situation was, how close his boss was to the people who had helped him. For fuck’s sake, they had helped him, so he didn’t even know for certain why he wasn’t going straight to them with this, or just letting them handle it. He just… he couldn’t explain it. He owed them so much, but he wasn’t blind to possible problems. 

He needed to find out more about what was going on, why the Scions wanted to find this kid so much, why his family was living here of all places given what they did for a living, what–all of it. He just had to be careful and find out as much as possible before he made any real decisions. Because once he told anyone about what he knew, there would be no going back. 

With that thought firmly in mind, the boy reached out to push the doorbell. Here went nothing. If this whole thing went wrong, he was totally going to tell himself that he had said so. 

He only had to wait a few seconds after pressing the button for the bell before hearing the sound of several deadbolts and chains being unlocked. Finally, the door was pulled open, and he found himself looking at a beautiful, tall blonde girl who was probably incredibly popular at her school. She wasn’t exactly his type, but he could tell at a glance that the girl was accustomed to being ogled. More than accustomed, she expected it, pausing there with the door open and a knowing smirk on her face. “Hey there,” she greeted him, looking the boy up and down. “Arleigh Fosters. You my new college prep buddy?” 

Yes, this was how he had decided to get into the house and find out more about Errol. Searching through posts from the family online, he had found out that they were looking for a tutor, and a little bit of electronic trickery thanks to his little Mites meant that he was given the job. He still wasn’t sure how he was going to go from working with the girl to learning exactly what was going on with Errol, but at least this gave him a foot in the door. He had even gone through the trouble of making some fake business cards for his supposed services, as well as giving himself a mixture of reviews online. Most good, a few middling based on personality differences, even a couple bad ones. He’d wanted it to look as realistic as possible. 

“Ryder Towling,” he confirmed, extending a hand reflexively even while berating himself for the gesture inwardly. “It’s uhh, nice to meet you.” 

Gazing briefly at his hand as though trying to decide how to react, Arleigh finally offered a very faint, somewhat amused smile before reaching out to gently squeeze it. She didn’t exactly shake his hand as much as… grasp the back of it briefly, but at least she didn’t leave him hanging entirely. 

With that, she pivoted and beckoned. “Come on in. Dad’s back in his office, and my little brother hasn’t gotten home yet. My big brother… who the fuck cares, he’s not here, that’s what matters. Are you hungry? Carol’s probably still in the kitchen.” Without waiting for a response, she raised her voice to call, “Carol, bring some snacks up to my room! Something fun!” 

“Ah, it’s okay, I–” Stopping himself from objecting too much, Ryder shifted his focus to the other thing the girl had said. “Your room? I mean, you want to go up there to study?” 

Giving him a light, clearly teasing glance, Arleigh replied, “Don’t worry, we’ll leave the door open. For now.” With that, she pivoted, flicking her hair over her shoulder as she walked to the nearby stairs and began to ascend. The way she walked made it clear that she wanted him to watch her. This was a girl accustomed to having everyone in a room be attracted to her. More than that, she encouraged it. Which… was kind of cool for her, actually. He wasn’t interested, at least not beyond the obvious biological sense. But still, he wasn’t going to fault her for owning it. She seemed, well, certainly not modest in any sense of the word, but sociable enough so far. 

Shaking off those thoughts, he followed her up the stairs. Spending several long seconds trying to think of a casual way to bring it up, he finally settled on a simple, “So you’ve got two brothers, huh?” 

“That’s right,” the girl replied without looking back. “One younger, one older.” She paused by an open door and gestured. “That’s Errol’s room. My little brother. He should be home soon, but you know, if he bugs us too much I’ll just throw shit at him until he leaves. It’s usually not hard to make him fuck off. Micah’s the one that’s the real pain in the ass.” 

They had reached what was obviously her bedroom by that point, as the door was shut and had a big whiteboard hung on it with the words, ‘Stay The Fuck Out Micah’ written on it. Before opening the door, Arleigh spoke clearly. “Xanah, disable the alarm on my door, code Eulogy Kermit Piggy Grover.” 

After a brief pause, a female voice coming from a nearby speaker acknowledged, “Alarm disabled, Miss Fosters. Have a pleasant afternoon.” 

“You put an alarm on your door?” Ryder asked, raising an eyebrow. 

With a snort, the girl pulled it open. “Like I said, Micah’s a pain in the ass. And I mean that with a capital P and A. I can’t give him any opening.” 

This all felt… like a very awkward and strange house to live in. But Ryder pushed those thoughts aside for the moment, following the girl into her quite large bedroom. He was pretty sure the place was bigger than his whole apartment, actually. She had her own bathroom, accessible only through this room, with what looked like a full whirlpool tub inside, and a separate enclosed shower. The bed itself, on the opposite side of the room from the entrance to the bathroom, was big enough for about six people to sleep on, yet it didn’t even take up half the room. 

Looking around briefly, he finally stepped over to where the desk with her computer was. There were already a couple chairs there. “But you ahh, you don’t think your other brother’s such a pain?” 

Shrugging, Arleigh replied, “He’s little, I can kick his ass. I mean, I can kick Micah’s ass too, sometimes. It just–” She stopped, seeming to consider her words once more before simply finishing with, “Micah can go fuck himself. Errol’s not bad. Annoying sometimes, but… you know, not a big deal.”

Looking to a picture on the wall, Ryder stepped that way. “This them?” He focused on the younger boy in the photo, who looked nothing like the other two. He was little and scrawny, with glasses and a very awkward appearance. 

“Yeah, that’s my brothers,” Arleigh confirmed with a dismissive roll of her eyes. “But come on, you’re not here to tutor them, remember? Micah’s already in college and Errol’s like, really smart anyway. He’ll be fine.” 

Turning away from the picture, Ryder started to step over that way, when a sight through the nearby window made him pause. “Someone just pulled in.” 

“What?” Arleigh jumped to her feet, moving next to him to look out. “If Micah’s back already, I swear–oh. Hey, that’s Cassidy.” 

“Uh, Cassidy?” Ryder looked again. There was a small girl behind the wheel of the car. From that distance, she looked pretty, in a way much more understated than Arleigh’s in-your-face hotness. Her hair was cut short on one side and long on the other, with pink-tinted bangs. Standing at the window, he found himself staring intently that way before noticing the older man sitting next to her, and the two kids in the backseat. Including a very familiar sight. The boy whose picture he had just been looking at, and who was the very reason he was here. 

“Cassidy Evans, she’s the one driving, next to her dad,” Arleigh announced, already pivoting to head for the door. “And that’s Errol in the back. Come on, let’s say hi. We can get to the tutoring thing in a minute.” 

Well, that was strange. She was really eager to run downstairs and greet this Cassidy. Even as he followed her, Ryder asked himself why that would be. Did she have a crush on the girl or something? 

Forget it, that didn’t matter. Whatever her deal with the Evans girl was–wait, that Evans girl? The realization struck him suddenly, making the boy stop briefly. He had… never thought that–okay he hadn’t really put a lot of thought into what Sterling and Elena Evans’ daughter would look like, but from that brief glimpse he’d gotten, that wasn’t it. She… wow. 

Shaking that off, he told himself to focus on being pleasant and getting through this whole thing. Then he could try to push for more information about Errol, maybe even talk to the boy himself a bit if an opportunity presented itself. 

After all, he was here for answers, and he probably wouldn’t get any by focusing on Cassidy Evans. 

*************

Immediately After 20-09

As the video call from her adopted little sister ended, Irelyn found herself staring at the phone in her hand. A wide assortment of thoughts were running through her mind, many of them involving a lot of curse words. Of course, the very first thing she did was hit the button to call the girl back, ready to launch into a diatribe about what exactly Paige thought she was doing. Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, there was no response. The call went to an automatic voicemail after a few rings, and Irelyn left… not quite (anywhere near) the full list of things she wanted to say in that moment, but enough to make it clear that she needed Paige to call her back immediately. 

Not that she expected that to work, of course. Paige was incredibly stubborn when she wanted to be. So, Irelyn turned away from the grocery store she had been about to walk into, thoughts of preparing dinner that evening completely gone in the moment. She called a different number while striding toward her car, sticking the bluetooth device in her ear to talk as the person on the other end picked up. “Hazel? Yeah, listen, can you get hold of your brother for me? I need him to trace a phone number. Yes, I could go through the official system, but I don’t want to for this. And you both owe me for making those introductions. Yeah, you guys love it here and you know it. Right, here’s the number. Thanks, let me know what he comes up with.” 

Reading it off for the girl, Irelyn got into her car and started it up before realizing that she had no idea where she was driving. She had been in such a rush to move somewhere and feel like she was accomplishing something after that frustrating call from her sister that she had briefly forgotten that she had nowhere to move to just yet. 

Instead of pulling out and driving aimlessly, she took a moment to replay everything that had been said on the phone. Then she paused, a frown touching her face. Paige had stopped her from bringing up the fact that she was Touched, that she was a member of the Conservators. Irelyn had been about to remind the girl that she had experience with this sort of danger specifically because of that, but Paige had spoken up quickly to cut her off. 

Someone else was there with her. Someone had been with Paige and the other girl hadn’t wanted them to overhear Irelyn give away her secret identity. But who? And why hadn’t Paige said anything about someone else listening in? Why–was she captured? Was she being held prisoner? Fuck. Fuck, fuck. That made sense. Of course, that was why she had refused to say anything more. They probably heard about Irelyn asking around and had forced Paige to make that call, likely at gunpoint. This was all bad, so bad. Unless she was jumping to conclusions. It was possible, possible, that there had simply been someone there who wasn’t a threat, but whom Paige didn’t want to hear about Irelyn’s secret. She had to find out more. 

It wasn’t long before Hazel called back, her voice coming through the car’s speaker system that time. 

“Okay, Bryson says this thing’s coming from Florida. Down just a little north of Miami. You wanna tell us what this is all about? Or do we have to play twenty questions? Is it a person? I bet it’s a person. My second guess is animal.” 

Frowning inwardly, Irelyn muttered, “Florida, who do they know in Florida?” The answer, of course, was a lot of people. Her parents were rich and had contacts all over the place. But maybe the Miami part could narrow it down a little. Finally, she shook off those thoughts and focused on what the girl on the phone was saying. “I don’t know exactly. My parents and little sister disappeared a little while ago. And now Paige called me to say they were looking into one of Dad’s businesses, but they got in trouble somehow and she was going to get them out of it.” 

There was a brief pause at that before Hazel replied, “Uh, is your sister some sort of super-ninja secret agent or something? Wait, is she–” 

“She’s not Touched,” Irelyn assured her. “And she’s not–I mean she knows self-defense, Dad made sure of that. So did I. But she’s not–no. I don’t know what she’s thinking. But I have to find her, and our parents, before something terrible happens. There’s something going on around here, and I’m pretty sure Paige knows all about it. She’s the one I need to get answers from.” 

“Well, let Bryson keep working at this on our end,” Hazel tentatively replied. She sounded uncertain, yet curious. “He says there are a few weird things about that signal, like they were trying to mask it or something. But he’s pretty good with this stuff, so he can probably work it out eventually. I’ll make him keep digging a little deeper, let you know what we find out. If anything.” 

“Hazel Ruthers, you and your brother be careful,” Irelyn cautioned. 

“Ew, don’t use my full name, it makes you sound like my mother,” the girl on the other end retorted. “And the last thing I need is to be reminded of my mother. It ruins the mood.” 

Snorting, Irelyn shot back, “Right, right, sorry. Consider me chastised. And… do me a favor, keep all of this off the official record on your end too? Don’t take it to your boss just yet. I don’t know why, it just feels like the right thing to do. I’ve got a weird feeling about all this.” 

“You always have a weird feeling,” Hazel lightly teased before sobering a bit to add, “Seriously, we’ll keep it on the downlow, sure. It’s the least we can do. Well, that and help you find your family. Give Bry a little more time to pick through this thing and see what’s so weird about it, then we’ll get back to you.”

After agreeing with that, Irelyn disconnected before heaving a sigh. She still had no idea what to do about this. Well, she did. The call had come from Florida. She could go there and look around in person. Was that the right thing to do? There was a war going on right here in Detroit, yet her sister and parents… Fuck, what was the right call here? If something happened to her family because she stayed here, she wouldn’t be able to forgive herself. But on the other hand, if she left and this war kicked into even higher gear and people died because she wasn’t around…

Cursing once more under her breath, Irelyn reached out to hit the button on her dash to call Silversmith. Once he picked up several rings later, she tersely spoke, explaining a bit about the situation as succinctly as possible while trying to keep any emotion out of her voice. She didn’t want him to think she wasn’t being professional about this whole thing. Mostly she simply said that her parents and sister had gone off the grid and she needed to go check on them. 

Once she finished, there was a brief pause before the man replied, “I’m sorry to hear about your family, Flea. Of course you can take the time out to go down and look for them. I have a few contacts in the Conservators down there who can help out.” 

“What about the–” she started to bring up the gang war. 

“Don’t worry about us,” he assured her. “Finding your parents and your sister is the important thing right now. Make sure they’re safe. If I need to, I’ll call in some help up here to fill in for you. We’ll be fine, I promise. You head to the airport right–wait, no. I’m going to call in some favors and get you a rapid-transit. Head for–here.” He paused briefly before reading off an address. “Go there, I’ll have a teleporter meet you in twenty minutes or so. They’ll take you straight to Miami where you can meet with the Conservators and get the ball rolling to figure out where your parents and sister went.” 

Still taking a bit aback by the man’s quick reaction to all of this, Irelyn finally found her voice. “Right, thanks, Smith. I’ll get this done, find them, and get back here as soon as possible.” 

“Don’t worry about us,” the man insisted. “Take care of your family. And let me know if you need anything else while you’re down there. We’ll be ready to back you up if we need to. That’s what a team is for.”  

After hesitantly agreeing and thanking the man, Irelyn disconnected once more and began heading for the address. She set the car into autodrive before rolling her seat back to change into her costume. The whole time, a multitude of thoughts were running through her head about what she would find in Florida when she got there. What had her father gotten himself involved in now? And why was Paige so insistent on dealing with it herself? There was something incredibly suspicious about the whole situation, even if she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. 

Whatever this was, whatever was really going on, she was going to find out the truth. And then she and Paige were going to have a long talk about not running off on her own. 

Florida though? Really? Why the hell did it have to be Florida

A few minutes later, she pulled up in front of what looked like a disused warehouse. Parking her car, Irelyn stepped out, now fully-clad in her costume as she looked around. Catching a glimpse of a man waving toward her from the doorway, she strode that way. 

The man stood just under seven feet tall, heavily muscled under a black bodysuit with a silver cloak and hood. His face was covered by a dark red metal mask with holographic white numbers displayed across the front. Currently, the numbers simply read zero point zero zero. 

“Snapback?” Flea, now that she was in costume, asked. “He called you over from Chicago?” 

“I don’t mind,” came the surprisingly gentle and cheerful response given the man’s size and build. “Good luck finding your family though. You let me know if you need anything, yeah?” 

Agreeing, Flea reached out to take the man’s hand. Immediately, she felt the air twist around them. It was a disturbing sensation, making her stomach flip over. The view around her distorted to the point that it hurt to look at it, and she closed her eyes before the nausea would have taken over. 

And with a popping noise, they were abruptly standing elsewhere. As her eyes opened, she found herself still grasping the man’s hand, as they stood in the middle of an alley. The beach was visible in the distance, and the ocean beyond that. 

“Miami Conservator base is about two blocks north,” her ‘lift’ informed the woman. The zero point zero zero previously displayed across the front of his red metal mask had changed to one thousand, three hundred and ninety six. “Thought you might want to get your bearings a little bit before heading that way to check in. But ahh, this is a pretty big jump so you might want to let go before I snap you back with me.”

Snapback was well-named. Essentially, he was capable of transporting himself to any location he had a decent understanding of, no matter how far away. But he could only stay in that location for a limited time. The further the distance, the shorter his time there. When he released his grip on the second location, the man instantly returned to his starting point and gained a brief moment of total invulnerability, as well as a level of super strength depending on how far away he had transported and how long he held it for. Like a stretched rubber band. The strength and invulnerability only lasted a couple of seconds, but it allowed him to hit someone or something with utterly devastating force simply by making a jump to somewhere very far away, holding the teleport for a few seconds until he could stand it no longer, then transporting back and lashing out. He could smack ordinary people around incredibly effectively just by teleporting several miles away and then ‘snapping back’ to swat them. Even better, if he wanted to, the man could expend his temporary strength in a single concussive blast from his hands rather than a physical blow, if his target had moved. 

Alternatively, he could choose to ‘snap’ the connection entirely and stay in the location he had teleported to. Doing that would send a concussive wave out at both his starting and ending locations, though he could choose exactly how to divide that force, giving his starting location the brunt of it and the ending point only a minimal amount, vice versa, or anywhere in between. When he was making a long trip and trying to stay there, the man had to find starting and ending areas that wouldn’t be damaged in the process. 

Thanking the man for the lift, Flea watched him vanish with a rush of expanding air that made a popping sound, before turning. Florida. Time to go visit the local Convervators, and–

“So,” a voice abruptly interrupted. “We heading out?” 

Jumping a bit, Flea pivoted, finding herself facing a familiar figure in a costume consisting of what looked like purple scalemail body armor over her chest, a black hooded cloak, purple metal helmet with black visor, and tan pants over dark brown boots.

Hazel?” she blurted. “What the hell are you doing here? I just–I told you to help your brother look for–how did you–” 

“Hey, you’re not the only one who can call in teleport assistance when you need to,” the other girl retorted. “I’ve still got friends from my old Minority squad in Nebraska. And I had time-off to take. I told you, I wanna help. 

“And hey, don’t call me by my real name. It’s not Hazel Ruthers while we’re in costume. 

“It’s Trivial.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Interlude 16A – Spartans (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Despite a heavily clouded sky in the middle of a dark night, most of the streets of Detroit were brightly illuminated by various artificial lights. While not nearly as busy as a certain other American city that had full claim to the title of never sleeping, Detroit over the past twenty years had become well-known in its own way for remaining quite active at all times of the day. Many parts of the city never really stopped moving, the streets there always having some level of traffic. 

One such eternally-busy thoroughfare was known as Moores. It was a long, winding road that had been one of the first new additions a couple of decades earlier when the city began to expand. It had quickly become the main connection to at least half a dozen important manufacturing plants that had sprung up over the years once the previously abandoned automotive assembly plants were all taken up and put back to use. Moores linked a few of the more residential parts of the city with the new secondary industrial center, allowing thousands of workers every day to get to work. Accordingly, dozens of fast food, car repair, clothing, grocery and more shops had been built up along either side of it. Everything that those employees could possibly need at any point, visible along their drive to and from work in order to ensure that particular shop would spring into their mind anytime they needed that particular service. 

“Skin-Head, what do you see?” The terse question came from a woman crouched behind a half-broken wall in the middle of an alley somewhere around the middle of Moores. She wore dark blue and white camo, with a matching tactical combat helmet that had a thick, interwoven mesh covering any formerly exposed parts of her face, and bright blue lenses over her eyes. Mika Holt, also known as Brumal, leader of the state-level Star-Touched team called the Spartans. Unlike the Federal-level Conservators, the Spartans only held authority within the specific states they were assigned to (Michigan, in this case), and could not legally operate outside those borders. They could participate in Collision Points that took place in other states if they were able to get there in time, at least. But they couldn’t legally pursue their normal Star-Touched duties outside of their home state. That was the main difference between Spartans and Conservators. Or whatever each separate team called themselves. Spartans and Conservators were the default names, but some teams went with different titles depending on the area. 

At this particular moment, that didn’t exactly matter, considering Detroit was well within the Spartans’ jurisdiction.  Really, it was the center of their operation. There was more than enough happening here in the city to keep them plenty busy without worrying about traveling to other parts of the state where they did have authority, let alone going any further than that. No, Detroit kept them plenty busy all by itself. Especially right now, with the whole gang war situation that showed no signs of relenting. 

The subject of Brumal’s question was not crouched next to her behind that wall. Instead, she was speaking in the direction of a small, flickering blue-white flame on the ground nearby. Her voice carried through the flame to an identical one on the roof of the building next to her. The fire was cold rather than hot, leaving trails of ice everywhere the flames licked. When Brumal focused, she could cast not only her voice, but any of her senses through her cold-fire. 

Doing so right then allowed her to see the person she was addressing. Skin-Head, a tall, skinny, black man (he personally found his chosen moniker irreverently amusing) in his mid-thirties, wore very little in the way of costume, specifically to avoid any conflicts with his power to manipulate, extend, and harden his skin. Mostly he wore a simple metal band around his face that covered from his mouth up to his eyes, complete with hard black lenses for vision protection, a pair of black baggy shorts, and tennis shoes. The rest of his body was completely exposed. Not that it left him vulnerable at all, given his skin was constantly hard as steel (yet incredibly flexible) and could temporarily become even harder if he chose to focus on that at any point. Exposed as he was, Skin-Head was one of the two safest members of the Spartans in any physical confrontation. 

Standing up on the roof, the man glanced toward the small flickering blue flame where he clearly knew Brumal was watching. “We’ve got nothing up here. Not yet, anyway. Unless the kid sees something?” With that, he looked over to that side, where the Minority member known as Whamline stood in his standard black and brown army camouflage costume. His face was covered by a ski mask, and he wore a pair of heavy gauntlets, which enhanced his strength and had a few other tricks within them to help supplement his own powers.

“Nope,” Whamline answered simply, his gaze still focused on the street below. “Looks quiet.” 

“Both of you keep your eyes open,” Brumal ordered before shifting her focus. Rather than seeing through the flame on that roof, she was now seeing through one across the street, behind a fast food restaurant where two other members of her team, Versed and Boulderdash, were waiting. Versed was a pale young woman in her mid-twenties, wearing dark green pants and a black long-sleeved shirt, both of which were skintight and quite suited to showing off the girl’s athletic form. She also wore black gloves and boots, with a green bandana-like mask over the top half of her face that left her blonde hair exposed in a ponytail, and a pair of dark goggles. Her powers allowed her to instantly know how to use any object as soon as she touched it, gradually growing those basic-level skills up to master-level the longer she kept hold of the object. Though she could only retain mastery of up to five objects at a time, gradually losing her skill with anything else the longer she went without touching that particular thing. 

Boulderdash, meanwhile, was one of those Touched who didn’t really need a costume, as his condition was very obvious. He couldn’t live a normal life, since he appeared to be entirely made of thick gray-black rock, with a very heavy turtle-like shell on his back. His own powers amounted to greatly enhanced strength and toughness (making him the other member of their team well-suited to a physical confrontation), along with the ability to roll himself into a ball surrounded by his shell. In that state, he was almost entirely invulnerable and could roll around at a speed of nearly a hundred and fifty miles per hour.

After checking in with those two briefly and ensuring there was nothing visible from their side of things, Brumal turned her attention to the ice-fire next to the last member of her team. This particular flame lay in the back of a moving semi-trailer truck which was making its way through Detroit at that very moment. As soon as she focused her vision through it, she could see a single figure in the back of that truck. This was her final teammate/subordinate, Trivial. The youngest member of the Detroit Spartans at barely nineteen, Trivial wore tan pants over dark brown boots, with dark purple scalemail-like body armor and a black hooded cloak. Beyond the cloak, her face was also covered by a purple metal helmet with a dark visor. Her own powers were quite extensive, yet also quite minor. She had many different abilities at an incredibly low strength. She could turn invisible, but only for a few seconds. She could teleport… a single foot at a time. She could hover… five inches off the ground. She could make things slightly warmer by staring intently at them. Her senses were very slightly increased. She could telekinetically move a single object weighing one pound or less that was within five feet. 

And so the list went on. A dozen or more quite common powers, but only very slight versions thereof. If her powers had been stronger, she could have been one of the most powerful beings on the planet. As it was, Trivial was well-named, and used her collection of minor powers quite effectively, particularly in close-combat. She had spent years using skill and versatility to compensate for a lack of all-out strength. It was that determination and hard work that had made her quite popular on her Nebraska-based Minority team. Popular enough that there had been a bit of a rush to recruit her once she graduated. In the end, Brumal had convinced the girl to come here to Detroit, where she had been for the past nine months. It was, as far as the Spartan leader was concerned, a perfect fit. The team had needed fresh blood, someone with drive to make them better. Not only did this girl do that, her assortment of minor powers allowed her to fill many different slots, even if she would never be the type of Touched who stopped an Abyssal or anything like that.  

“Trivial,” Brumal spoke through her cold flame, “street’s clear. Have you heard anything?” 

Glancing toward the flame, the youngest member of the team shook her head. “Nope, not a thing, boss. It’s been completely quiet. Haven’t heard a peep out of anybody since we started moving. Hell, I can barely hear the music the driver’s listening to. Dude’s not cranking it like most of ‘em do. Seriously, If I was any less professional, I might’ve fallen asleep back here.”

“Well, don’t do that,” Brumal instructed dryly. “Walk around a bit more if you need to. Just stay alert. The info we’ve got is good, trust me. Someone is coming after this shipment tonight, and we’re right around the spot they’re going to hit it at.”

“You got it, boss lady,” came the response. “And don’t worry, I’ve been in a lot more boring situations than this. Hell, did I ever tell you about that time I was supposed to walk all the way–”

“Save it for later, Trivial,” Brumal quickly put in. Good as the young girl was to have on the team, she was also a bit of a talker. Okay, a huge talker. She would babble on for hours if no one stopped her. And now that she had been stuck by herself in the back of a truck for so long, that urge was obviously boiling up inside her. Time to nip it in the bud before she really got going. 

After reminding the girl one more time and to keep her eyes open and be ready, Brumal returned her attention to her regular senses. Blinking away her cold-flame sight, she focused on the wall in front of her, listening to the moving cars on the street beyond. It had to be soon. Their contact had said the attack on the truck would be somewhere along this stretch of street. And she trusted that contact. Hell, she’d certainly paid enough money over the months to trust it. And yet, she’d expected to be able to see some sign of those supposed attackers setting up here long before the truck arrived. But there was nothing so far. Not a single hint of an ambush. Which wasn’t good. If they couldn’t figure out where the ambush was before it happened, the truck would be driving straight into it, and that was something she’d been trying to avoid. But if she told the driver to call it off and take a different route, there was no way they’d catch these guys. Could they still handle it if the truck was in the middle of things, or should she go ahead and play it safe, even if that meant losing this chance? And if she called off the truck, only for absolutely nothing to happen, she would look even more paranoid. As it was, the company already thought she was being overly cautious for having her whole team plus a member of the Minority waiting for what they thought was probably a hoax. 

The rise of Touched over the past couple of decades had done a lot to affect innate sexism in this sort of work, given that girl you were insulting could potentially burn a middle finger into your chest with her eyes. But it wasn’t gone entirely, and Mika was both a woman and Native American. It was still pretty easy for the fat cats at the top of these corporate ladders to dismiss her opinion or just think she was being hysterical. Which made it really tempting to just let them lose a truck or two here or there, but she refrained. After all, it wouldn’t really hurt those assholes that much. It’d hurt the normal guys.  

Damn it, what was the right call? Pull the truck off or let it keep going and risk an attack from any side when they still weren’t sure what was going on? She had two minutes to decide, if that.

One more round. She would check on everyone one last time, then decide which way to–

“Incoming!” That call came not through her fire, but over the communicators they all wore. It was from Skin-Head, up on the roof. “We’ve got three unmarked and tinted SUVs coming in fast from the north. They’re taking up every lane, forcing drivers off the road. Looks like they’ve got a couple with mounted grapples. This is it, boss, they’re gonna try to take the target off the road.”

As soon as that report came in, Brumal was already shifting her focus to a flickering flame she had left up on the edge of a different roof, pointed that way. Sure enough, she saw exactly what the man was talking about. Three very dark SUVs were driving straight toward them at high speed, taking up basically the entire road. They were even forcing oncoming traffic to veer off. The two on either side had those enormous mounted grapple hooks, clearly intended to shoot at the semi they were speeding toward. This wasn’t some minor operation, it was the real deal. 

Acting immediately, Brumal called through the flame in the truck for Trivial to have the driver stop, and to keep an eye on the road behind, just in case there was a pincer attack from that direction. Then she ordered the others to move on the SUVs, already vaulting her way over the half-broken wall in front of her and making the run out to the street beyond. A glance to the right showed her the truck just barely in view as it skidded to a stop with a loud scream of brakes protesting. Meanwhile, glancing to the left revealed the oncoming SUVs as they sped down the street straight toward her and the truck itself.  

From one side, she saw Boulderdash in his rock form, already racing ball-like along the side of the road straight toward the right-most vehicle. Meanwhile, Skin-Head and Whamline were dropping down on the one to the left from above. Just before they hit, Brumal sent a full wave of ice-flames up along the road. The cold-fire hit all three SUVs at the same time, instantly freezing the fronts of the vehicles solid and stopping them in place with a protesting squeal of metal. That single gesture was all it took to stop all three heavily armored SUVs in their tracks, which couldn’t have done wonders for the inhabitants. 

 An instant later, Boulderdash slammed full-on into the side of the truck to the left, shattering half the vehicle’s frozen front-end before transforming back to his humanoid shape in time to rip the door off and grab the driver. 

At the same time, Whamline and Skin-Head had dropped onto the hood of the left-most vehicle. The Minority kid used two of his energy coils to rip the door off the center truck, pulling the passenger out and tossing him down along the road. Meanwhile, Skin-Head had already thrown himself through the cracked windshield of the left-truck to deal with the guys in there. 

“Boss,” Trivial called through their comms, “You were right, got two more vans coming up from behind. ETA fifteen seconds. Driver wants to know what we’re doing.”  

Cursing under her breath, Brumal pivoted that way and  started to move. “Versed, with me. Trivial, tell the driver to stay right where he is. The truck’s safest there. We’re on the way.” 

As ordered, Versed came roaring out of the nearby alley on a motorcycle. Its loud motor filled the air just as she passed Brumal, slowing just enough to give the woman time to hop on the back before taking off once more at full-speed. Together, the two of them raced straight toward the waiting truck before splitting off to one side. As they passed the cab, both heard the driver shout out that he had a schedule to keep. Brumal’s eyes rolled, as she muttered, “Just hope you make it at all, dude.” 

By that point, their ride had made it past the truck. Those two vans that Trivial had reported were already there, turned sideways with the sliding doors in the midst of being hauled open to reveal two more mounted grapple guns inside. Grapples that were already being aimed toward the back doors of the truck. Just before they could fire, however, Brumal leapt from the skidding bike and sent a wave of frozen-fire into the air. The four-foot-long grappling hooks attached to the long chains were launched an instant later, but froze in mid-air as they hit Brumal’s flames. The cold fire progressed all the way down the chains to the mounted launchers, leaving the whole system frozen solid. 

Meanwhile, Versed had produced a pistol with one hand and used several quick shots to blow out the tires of both vans before hopping off the still-moving bike as it went sliding into the driver’s side door of the nearest van just in time to slam into it as the man within was trying to hop out. 

Glancing over her shoulder, Brumal saw Trivial at the back door of the semi, already dealing with one guy who had apparently made his way there. He had a pistol pointed at her, but just before he fired, the girl’s body seemed to flicker as she used her one-foot-at-a-time teleportation power to shift instantly to one side. He tried to adjust, but she vanished again. That time, it was her ‘three-second-invisibility’ power, but the man didn’t know that. He quickly spun around as though expecting her to appear behind him. Instead, Trivial reappeared right where she had been, lashing out with a kick that took the man in the back with enough force (her strength may have been only slightly enhanced, but it was still more than most people expected to come from a small waif of a girl like that) to knock him off the truck before he landed hard on his stomach on the ground.

“You good?!” the Spartan leader called that way. 

“Am now,” Trivial confirmed, hopping to the ground with a slight use of her hovering power to slow the drop. Before her opponent could pick himself up, she had already slipped a pair of stay-down cuffs on him. “But who the hell are these guys?” 

Turning back to the two vans, where more random troops were already slipping out, Brumal shook her head. “I dunno yet. 

“Let’s go ask them.” 

*******

Unfortunately, no real answers were forthcoming. Mostly because the men weren’t talking. A few of them managed to escape and disappeared off into the night, but the rest just… clammed up. They wouldn’t talk about what gang they worked for, or even admit that they had been trying to hijack the truck full of high tech supplies. They wouldn’t say anything at all. Once they were captured, the men simply remained completely silent. They didn’t even try to escape once the handcuffs were on them. It was kind of… weird, if Brumal was being honest. The whole situation was weird. She’d gotten the info about the attempted hijacking from one of her street contacts, but that person hadn’t known anything about who was actually doing the attack. Just that the word on the street had been that it would happen. 

And it had. These guys were well-equipped, well-trained, and clearly meant to grab the supplies out of the truck. Yet they didn’t appear to be working for any of the established gangs. And they didn’t have any Touched with them. So what was going on? 

Standing there at the edge of the street, watching as a small army worth of police poured over the unmarked, unlabeled SUVs and vans, Brumal slowly shook her head. “That’s not good.” 

“What’s not good, ma’am?” That was Whamline, approaching from one side. “I thought we did pretty great, to be honest. The truck and cargo are safe, no one was seriously hurt, and we caught most of the bad guys.” 

With a very short nod, Brumal agreed. “You’re right. That part’s good. But we still have no idea who sent these guys, or why. They’re well-trained, well-equipped, and they know to keep their mouths shut. I don’t think they match any known gang in town either. This isn’t the work of anyone we know. Which means we have a new player in town.” 

Whamline shrugged. “I mean, they don’t even have any Touched with them. So they can’t be that bad, right?” 

“Something tells me we haven’t seen even the slightest hint of what they’re capable of,” Brumal informed him. “This was some kind of test. A test of their men, or their equipment, or us. I’m not sure which. Maybe all of the above.” 

After a momentary hesitation, the boy slowly asked, “If it was a test, did they pass or fail?” 

“That’s what I’m worried about, kid,” Brumal quietly replied. “I have no idea. 

“But I’m pretty sure we’re going to find out at the worst possible time.”

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