Versed

Equal And Opposite 21-07 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Equal And Opposite 21-06 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But boy, was it tempting. 

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Interlude 16A – Spartans (Summus Proelium)

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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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