Patreon Snippets 29B (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 29th edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month receives at least five hundred words they can eventually 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.

What do some of the other Star-Touched in the city think of Avant-Guard?

“Okay, yes, you can call it a wild conspiracy theory if you want, that’s fair.” The person speaking was a thin black man who stood almost six feet, four inches tall. To most of the outside world, he was known as Skin-Head, a member of the state-level Spartans team of Star-Touched. Though at the moment he wasn’t wearing his costume, so he looked like any other black man enjoying a cup of coffee while sitting on a bench in the middle of the park early in the morning. Right now, he was simply Michael Edwards, an incredibly bland name for a man who preferred not to stand out in any way when he wasn’t actively in costume, even if his height made that difficult.

Nor did his companion, a blonde woman in her mid-twenties with pale skin and a rather athletic build, immediately give away her own identity as Versed. As a civilian, she was simply Aubree Dayson. Though she might have worn ordinary, unassuming clothing like him, their similarities didn’t extend as far as drink choices. She chose tea rather than coffee, sipping from the cup while watching a couple joggers go past in the distance. “Call it a wild conspiracy?” the woman echoed while shaking her head. “You mean the part where you think Paintball and his new group might be up to something nefarious? Why on Earth would anyone call that a wild conspiracy?”

“Okay,” the man immediately pointed out, “I’m not saying they’re bad. Hell, they could be, it’s possible, but that’s not what I’m saying. All I mean is that they keep ending up being in the right place at the exact right time, so maybe they know something they’re not sharing, or they have an information source they’re keeping secret. Maybe they have contacts in the gangs who are helping them out. Like this whole thing at the courthouse. What were the odds that they would just happen to go in right then for interviews and still be there when this whole thing went down? You know, the ‘whole thing’ that happened to involve the very same people they helped fight at the park in the first place just a couple days earlier.” He grimaced, taking another gulp of his coffee. “Come on, you have to admit, it’s a little hard to see that and believe that it’s a complete coincidence. Especially–”

“Especially given we know Paintball works with people like Pack when it’s convenient,” Aubree finished for him. “Yeah, I know, I get that. So you’re saying you think they might have friends in other gangs, like the one that literally just moved to town, and that these friends completely gave away their entire scheme to Avant-Guard?”

Michael shook his head. “Maybe not with those guys, the ones who just got here, but they’re not the only ones who’re part of this new gang, remember? Devil’s Due, Janus, and Juice all took some of their own men with them when they left the Easy Eights. Maybe Paintball or one of his buddies had a friend in that group.”

Aubree was quiet for a moment before responding. “And you think if they do have someone in one of those gangs who was feeding them information about that attack, they might’ve chosen to go there and be in the right place at the right time so they could get the glory rather than share that info with the rest of us.”

Michael held up both hands. “Not saying that it’s definite. But if they did, It’d be pretty screwed up, wouldn’t it?”

Heaving a long sigh, the woman nodded. “If it was true, it’d be really fucked up, yes. But it’s not. Sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence. And just because they have contacts with one or two other gangs doesn’t mean they have any with those guys. That’s a bit of a reach, man. Especially when you think about what any of those Fells would do to anyone who was helping out Paintball. I mean seriously, you saw how much all those guys hate him. And considering what happened over the last couple days, the newcomers are probably just as pissed at Avant-Guard as the old ones. And I don’t think Paintball’s the type of person to allow a little kid like Lightning Bug end up in danger or let all those guards die just for glory.” She grimaced somewhat to herself. “Sometimes the simplest answer is the right one. And the simplest answer to this situation is that they just happened to be there. It was a coincidence.”

As she was saying that, a frisbee came flying in to land nearby. Seeing a couple girls come after it, Aubrey bent down to pick up the frisbee, holding it for a moment to allow her power to give her a decent level of skill with the thing. Then she sent it flying back that way, waving as one of them caught it. Which was enough for one of them to call out that she should join them since she seemed pretty good, and her boyfriend was welcome to come too.

“See that?” Aubrey pointed out in a quiet voice as she turned to face the man himself. “You’re not my boyfriend, but they made assumptions because we happen to be sitting together. If you don’t know the whole story about a situation, you can make some big mistakes if you assume things. Especially if you assume the worst.”

Michael chuckled softly despite himself, pushing off the bench. “Yeah, sure, I get it. It’s not like I think we should go out and arrest them or anything. It just might be worth keeping our eyes open and paying a bit more attention to what they’re doing, just in case.”

The two of them stopped talking about that for a bit, while going over to introduce themselves to the frisbee players. Though Michael introduced himself as Carl, while Aubree was Lena. And they did nothing to correct the assumption that they were romantically involved. Quite the opposite, really, given they referred to one another as their fiance, and had the rings to back that up. Which was all nonsense, given the two would never actually be together that way. Michael/Skin-Head played for the wrong team, and Aubree/Versed wasn’t even involved in the sport, having realized she was asexual and aromantic around the same time that she’d Touched.

All of which was to say, they didn’t have any interest in each other that way. But the two frisbee playing girls, and the rest of their group, didn’t know that. They simply made assumptions that the two Star-Touched were more than willing to take advantage of. Neither Aubree nor Michael felt the slightest twinge about lying to these people, considering the whole frisbee group belonged to one of the currently loyal Easy Eight factions. None were important to the gang in any way beyond being what amounted to quite low-level thugs, but one of them was the sibling, cousin, or friend of Pivotal, and that guy had some pretty… well, pivotal information about the disappearance of the son of a friend of Aubree’s. As far as the authorities were concerned, the son had run away on his own, but her friend didn’t believe that, so Aubree didn’t either. She was convinced Pivotal knew something about it, but couldn’t get official resources to go after him. Not on this, anyway. Michael had agreed to help her with this undercover bit, especially if it gave them the opportunity to potentially grab an important Fell-Touched right out from under Deicide while she was still reeling from losing three others to betrayal. And, of course, because he wanted to help his friend and teammate.

In any case, their attempts to infiltrate that area of the gang so they could find out what really happened to Aubree’s friend’s son weren’t going to pay off immediately. This was simply their first contact, and as far as that went, the meeting had gone pretty well. They played some frisbee in the park and talked a bit, giving just enough information about their fake lives to make the two of them seem like potentially decent recruits. The next part would come soon enough. As important as the whole situation was, if they pushed too hard too quickly, they wouldn’t get anything at all. So, they had to play it at least somewhat cool. Deicide had to be hungry for new recruits, but coming on too strong or seeming too good to be true was bound to get the wrong sort of attention. They just wanted to look like a couple of potentially good nobodies to help fill out the gang’s diminished ranks.

Following that little ‘incidental’ meeting (Aubree had watched the group play frisbee in that area twice before and the disc had ended up near that bench at some point both times), the two of them took a ride in Michael’s car, watching to see if they were tailed. Neither expected to be at this early stage, but you never knew for sure. Not where these gangs were concerned.

Only once they were as certain as they could be that no one was following them did Aubree shift the conversation back to what they had been talking about before. “Okay, so let’s go through what we know about Avant-Guard. Starting with the guy in charge. He put them together.”

“Paintball showed up first, that’s for sure,” Michael agreed. “And I think it’s safe to say he was by himself for the first bit, through most of that whole search for Blackjack’s missing vials. Didn’t have anyone else in the field with him, anyway. And going by the reports the Minority filed when he showed up to save that guy who was kidnapped by Janus, he wasn’t interested in working with anyone else or joining up officially.”

“If I recall correctly,” Aubree noted, “they said he seemed nice enough, but standoffish. A couple said he might’ve been nervous about something. But that could’ve just been because he was new. Though even that’s a bit iffy.”

Michael shook his head, scoffing while pulling the car to a stop at the red light. “Don’t tell me you put any stock in that ‘he’s a Touched from out of the city who came here and that’s how he learned so quickly’ nonsense. The kid’s just good at what he does. Or lucky. Both, probably.”

“I think both is a safe assumption given everything we’ve seen,” Aubree agreed, leaning back in the seat to watch the pedestrians passing by. “I’m just saying, even if he’s not another Touched in disguise or whatever, maybe he’s had some training we don’t know about. He is pretty good when it comes to getting around with that paint. Unless he’s one of those Touched with the something extra up here.” She gestured toward her head. “You know, like that whole thing with your skin just automatically hardening exactly as much as you need to deal with any impact if you know it’s coming. Even if you don’t consciously know how hard the impact is gonna be. Or That-A-Way knowing which direction she’s moving.”

“You think Paintball has some sort of extra super-training power?” Michael paused, considering that while accelerating away from the stoplight. “Gotta be honest, I’m gonna stick with the kid just being good and lucky. I think he got thrown into the deep end with all this stuff and he’s been doing the best he can to keep his head above water. He’s learning by doing.”

“Oh, pull into the drive-thru here,” Aubree insisted, pointing toward a donut bakery. “These guys have the best Boston Cream you’ll ever have in your life.”

“Given we’re not in Boston, I doubt that,” Michael retorted. “But I might be willing to give them ‘best in Detroit’ as second prize. Maybe best in Michigan.”

“Boston snob,” Aubree shot back, smirking a little bit before adding, “Okay, so going with the theory that he’s just good and lucky, do you think Paintball is totally a good guy on the up and up? He does seem pretty willing to work with some villains now and then. And he’s pretty chummy with Pack from what we’ve seen.”

Michael pulled into line behind another car, drumming his fingers along the steering wheel thoughtfully. “There’s different sorts of bad guys. From everything I’ve seen, Paintball knows what side he’s on when it really comes down to it. Sure, he works with Pack, but considering they were trying to save her boss’s kid, can we really blame him for that? It’s not even like the kid’s just excusing all low-level crime, because he’s helped stop random muggings, thefts, vandalism, all sorts of minor shit out there.”

“That’s kind of my point,” Aubree replied easily. “If he’s stopping those crimes but working with Pack, doesn’t that mean he’s picking and choosing which bad guys to go after?”

Michael snorted at that. “As if we don’t pick and choose to focus on the real threats, and even give ‘useful bad guys’ a pass now and then. I don’t know how you can–” He stopped then, squinting sidelong at her. “You’re playing devil’s advocate, aren’t you?”

She grinned in return. “Just seeing where you’re sitting. But anyway, enough about him. He’s a good kid, maybe makes some mistakes, but gets lucky. What about the rest of that group?”

“Well the only one we know for sure goes into the field and has powers is the marble girl,” Michael replied, before falling silent as they pulled up to the intercom to place their order. Only once they had pulled away from it and he could roll up his window again did the man continue that thought. “Alloy–which to tell you the truth, makes me think Silversmith might have something to do with her. You think he’s got any kids he might be giving some field time away from dear old dad’s reputation?”

Aubrey considered that for a few seconds while they picked up their donuts from the window and began to drive away. It wasn’t until she’d chewed and swallowed the first delicious bite that she finally spoke again. “Considering everything we’ve heard about him, and seen for ourselves, if any Star-Touched in the city was going to have a secret kid he sent out in the field and pretended not to know, it’s probably him. I mean, it would explain their powers being relatively similar, right? Sometimes kids inherit powers that are mutations from the parents instead of Touching for themselves. If her version of his power just happened to manifest like that–or if she’s pretending it did…”

“You mean if the whole marble thing is made up to throw people off?” Michael reached out to take one of the donuts from the box for himself, chewing thoughtfully for the next few seconds. “I suppose it’s possible she could just create stuff out of nothing like he does, or maybe she’s more limited in the amount she can use, and uses the marbles to avoid comparisons with her dad. If he is her dad. Or uncle, he could be her uncle. And it would explain some of their resources and training, if Silversmith’s secretly helping out even just a little bit. Hell, it seems like Paintball didn’t start getting all this extra help until Alloy showed up anyway, and then suddenly he’s got a whole team with him? You know, I think we might be onto something.”

“Right?” Aubrey gave a quick nod. “Like, we know Paintball had some sort of Techy working with him before. It’s that little girl with the wings who showed up at that one zombie fight. She had to be the one who made that automated suit they stuffed whatshisface into so he’d lead them to those vials. But now she’s got all those suits and special guns and stuff to outfit the whole team with? Four new people, all with their own equipment. The resources for that sort of start-up has to come from somewhere. Silversmith would have the sort of contacts it takes for that.”

“That’s a fair point,” Michael agreed. “And from what I’ve heard from others on the Conservators, he hasn’t really been pushing very hard to try to recruit any of them. That would fit with her being his kid that he’s trying to let have some experience of her own without being connected to him. Or maybe she insisted.” Tapping the steering wheel thoughtfully again, he added, “If that’s true, do you think he had this in mind from the beginning? I mean, as soon as Paintball started showing up. He might have been waiting to have someone his daughter could work with before letting her go out in the field.

Aubrey considered while eating another doughnut. In the end, she nodded. “You know, I think that sounds right. He probably waited until that–what was her name–Trevor something? The tech chick. He waited until she and Paintball were established so he could see how good they’d be at partnering with his kid and then offered support.”

“Trevithick,” Michael informed her. “The guy who invented the steam train or whatever. So what about the other four? Do you think they’re just Alloy’s friends he’s been helping train and outfit or something?”

Aubrey offered a shrug. “I mean, that would make sense too, wouldn’t it? It fits with the timing and all. Especially if he offered resources to Trevithick, and people for her to outfit and test her inventions with. I don’t think– hang on.” She frowned, looking out of the passenger window at a few men who seemed to be forcing a woman and her daughter into an alley nearby. “Looks like trouble.”

Michael nodded in agreement while pulling the car to a stop along the curb. The touch of a button on his side made both of their seats drop back to put the pair into a lying-down position as the automated system in the heavily-modified vehicle quickly dressed the pair in their costumes within a few seconds. Michael’s was easy enough. Most of his skin was exposed, leaving the man wearing simple, baggy black shorts and tennis shoes, along with a metal band around his face which covered the area from his mouth up to his eyes and had a pair of black lenses.

Aubrey, meanwhile, wore skin-tight dark green pants and a black long-sleeved shirt, along with black gloves and boots, and a green bandana mask over the top half of her face. Her eyes were also covered by a pair of dark goggles. Her appearance, specifically the way she tended to play it up and flirt with people, was another layer of protection. Her civilian self had less than zero interest in such things, so she was less likely to be identified.

And just like that, the pair weren’t Michael and Aubree anymore. Not for this. Now they were Skin-Head and Versed. With a quick nod to one another, they popped their doors open and stepped out, starting to move toward the alley the other group had forced the woman and her child into. Within a few steps, Skin-Head raised his arm, extending the skin from it into a long tentacle shape all the way to the roof of the nearby building. It wrapped around an air conditioning unit up there, before pulling the man up that way.

Versed, meanwhile, unsnapped the sleek, futuristic-looking pistol from one of her legs, flipping the weapon over in the air smoothly before catching it. Her powers allowed her to understand how to use any object she touched, with the level of skill she had depending on how long she held the item, up to the level of a complete master. She could only retain mastery-level skill of up to five objects at a time, and guns were one of those five. That skill applied to anything that could be considered a gun, from the smallest pistol to enormous rifles and everything in between. And it applied to Touched-Tech versions of guns, including this one. It had a multitude of settings, from a concussive beam, to a heat ray, to a disorienting wide-spread blast, and many others. Considering all the various settings it had and the way each type of attack it produced changed its effective range, the way that attack behaved, and so forth, it would have been difficult for most people to use the pistol effectively. But Versed’s power-provided mastery of the weapon meant she always knew exactly which buttons to use to get the effect she wanted. As it did for literally any other gun she ever picked up, no matter how obtuse its designer made the use of it. Which included unlocking any special security measures they had included within it.

At that particular moment, she pressed a quick selection of the small buttons along one side of the gun, waiting until it gave an answering thrum of acknowledgment in her hand. Then the woman stepped around the corner, raising the weapon while clearly calling out, “This is the Spartans, everyone freeze!”

They didn’t, of course. The men whirled around and raised their own guns. But she had been ready for that. A simple pull of the trigger sent a red blast all the way down through the alley. It was wide enough to fill the entire space, and the moment it struck any object matching the physical description of a gun, knife, or other similar weapons that had been programmed into the thing, that item was instantly heated up to a painful degree, forcing the men to yelp and drop their weapons.

Disarmed as they were, they turned to flee down the alley, shoving the woman and her daughter aside. But they ended up running right into Skin-Head, who dropped down in front of them. One, clearly without even paying attention to who the person blocking their way was, threw a wild punch. He then proceeded to yelp in pain, stumbling a bit as he clutched his hand while the black man stood utterly unaffected. Well, not utterly. He did smile faintly. “Hey there,” the man greeted them.

“It’s about to be a very bad day for you.”

Soon enough, the situation was handled and the men were being taken away. Back in Michael’s car, the pair took a moment to collect themselves. Aubree glanced toward her teammate with a small smirk. “Well, that was fun. What were we talking about? Oh right, the other four members of Avant-Guard. Those first two, Calvin and Hobbes, they’re clearly not as well-trained as the other two, right?”

“Right,” Michael agreed. “I’m betting those two are Alloy’s friends, and the other two are people Silversmith brought in to protect them. They haven’t shown any powers, anyway. Maybe those other two, what was it, Poise and Style? Maybe they’re trainees from one of those rapid-response candidate programs. They pull from some of those private schools.”

Aubree considered that. “I guess that would make sense. Smith would have access to those records. Maybe he recruited a couple to come over and help out his kid. They start training pretty early, so it’d explain why they seem so young. Maybe we should check the records and see if anyone who matches those descriptions quit or has been preoccupied recently?”

With a slow nod, Michael began to pull the car away from the curb. “Maybe we should. Just to make sure Smith isn’t using resources he shouldn’t be.” As he spoke, the man used his left hand to type on the phone hidden from Aubree by his body. He sent a simple message.

Minister Gold – confirmed she doesn’t know the identities of anyone on AG. Planted theory about P&S being from training program. She’ll check into without leading back to Ministry. Will keep informed if she finds anything useful.


A look at the political side of what happened with Breakwater

Sitting in her office in the Russell Building (so-named for Senator Richard B. Russell, who had served for thirty-nine years from 1932 to 1971) in the Capitol complex, Senator Dana Lowery held a cell phone to her ear and snapped, “I don’t care how evasive they’re being. Find out the truth, no matter how many arms you have to twist. Remind those people of just how quickly their whole system will fall apart if the US pulls our support. If we’re not in, plenty of others will pull out too. And yes, that is absolutely on the table at this point.”

As she was speaking, the woman glanced toward her own reflection in the nearby window. She was young for a senator, a mere forty-one years of age. And thanks to a rigorous exercise and diet regimen, she appeared to be several years younger than that. Her hair was blonde and short, while she had skin that was darkened through a mixture of outdoor activities and artificial tanning. She looked damn good, if she did say so herself. Even if there were dark circles under her eyes right now. It was to be expected, considering everything that was happening. She had been on the phone with various people for several hours by this point. Between that and all the calls her assistants had been placing and taking, she was almost surprised they hadn’t burned out the cell tower already.

After another minute or so on this particular call, Dana disconnected and tossed the phone onto the desk before leaning back to stretch her arms over her head with a long sigh. Of course this was the job she had dreamed of for so long, since she had been a small child. But some days she wondered if it would have been easier to just write a few books or something. Much less stressful anyway.

A knock came at her door then, before one of her assistants, a young but very enthusiastic girl named Cheryl, poked her head in. “Hey boss, Carl just called from upstairs. He says Deckert and Larson are onboard. But we still don’t have the numbers to make a serious push at withdrawing from the agreement with Breakwater. Even with two Stars and a civilian trapped over there, the optics for completely pulling out of that and having to deal with our own top threats are too bad.”

Rising from her desk, Dana shook her head. “That’s okay, we don’t really want to withdraw anyway. Sure, they lied to us and we absolutely need to slap their hands for that. But dropping out entirely? No one’s going to back that. Not when doing so would mean offering their own state up as a place to house these people. We just need enough voices to make those Breakwater assholes think it’s a real possibility, especially if they keep jerking us around like this. They need to think we won’t be the first ones to blink in this little game of chicken.” As she spoke, the woman grabbed her light blue jacket from the nearby hook. “Come on, we’ve got to pay a visit to Adkins.”

Cheryl made a face. “Speaking of assholes, he’s one of the biggest. And he smells like it too.”

Dana chuckled. “You’re not wrong, but let’s keep that inside this office. Ken Adkins may be a piece of shit, but he’s got power and he knows how to use it. I’d hate to lose my best aide because she gave that man reason to start complaining.”

Blushing under the compliment, Cheryl accompanied her boss out of the office, past the dozen other assistants who were busy working the phones, and out into the main hall. From there,they made their way down the hall to what looked like an elevator from the outside. Not so long ago, those doors really would have led to an elevator, and the two of them would have needed to take that down to the miniature ‘subway’ line that connected the Russell building to the actual Capitol. The train itself had actually been known as a ‘people mover,’ which was only a couple of cars long, and wasn’t enclosed. The whole thing looked more like a ride at a carnival or something, but it worked well enough to ferry members of Congress to various buildings. Or it had worked well enough, until the building was upgraded several years earlier.

Technically, the upgrade could have been done years before that even, but various complications and complaints had kept the new system from being implemented while people who didn’t trust Touched, or new technology, or who simply preferred things stayed the same, gradually lost power. But now, when Dana reached out to touch her thumb against the print reader, it didn’t immediately open into an elevator. Instead, part of the metal door slid aside to reveal a touchscreen with a menu on it, which included a list of all the possible places her clearance level allowed her to go. Ignoring her own apartments both here in DC and back home, as well as several close colleagues’ offices, her emergency bunker, and a few other locations throughout Capitol Hill and beyond, the woman instead touched the option for a spot on the second floor of the nearby Capitol that was nearest her actual destination. Immediately, the doors slid open, revealing the hallway they were aiming for. With a small smile of satisfaction at the convenience the new system allowed, Dana stepped through with her assistant. The doors closed behind them, waiting for the next person to need direct transport anywhere they were permitted to go. It really was so much better and more convenient than riding a tiny train.

It only took Dana a second to notice the person she had come up here looking for. As expected, the silver-haired man with wire-rimmed glasses and a slightly overweight figure was speaking with a reporter and cameraman in the hallway. Because why wouldn’t he be? Even from here, she could hear his firm declaration about how they were going to absolutely rescue the missing heroes and civilian from that terrible prison island, and that heads would roll for keeping this secret from the American people, and blah blah blah.

Taking a breath, she squeezed Cheryl’s shoulder to signal for her to stay back, then stepped up that way to put herself directly beside the camera-loving man. Her voice was the perfect mix of cheerful and somber, showing enthusiasm and optimism, but also carefully reserved outrage. “Senator Pichole is absolutely correct, and I am so glad that he and the rest of my colleagues across the aisle can work together with us on this issue. What matters now isn’t our petty politics, but bringing Flea, Trivial, and that poor woman they went to rescue home where they belong.”

There was a brief exchange with the reporter, who jumped on the opportunity to interview her as well, before both senators excused themselves and walked toward Pichole’s office. On the way, once they were far enough from the media people, Dana crooked a finger for Cheryl to join them while speaking up. “Shall I take it that this means you’re going to stop pussyfooting around and sign on to our measures?”

Herbert Pichole chuckled. “Your measures that technically do nothing of import, you mean? You may get the votes you need, if I sign on, to take it out of committee. But there is absolutely no way in hell you’ll get sixty votes in the full chamber. You won’t even get a majority. Name a single state whose people are going to willingly say, ‘sure, go ahead and bring all those murderous piece of shit super villains here to our state. We’d love for our tax money to go toward containing and feeding them.’”

While saying that, the man opened the door into his outer office area. Like Dana’s, there were a dozen or more people busy working the phones and computers to manage all the calls coming in. But this one was much grander and larger than hers. A product of his longer time serving in Congress. But not for long. She had her eyes on an office even grander than this one. Someday, this place would seem quaint.

Dana ignored that thought however, and walked with the man past all his own people to his own private office. Like the outer one, it was twice the size of hers. Motioning for Cheryl to wait out there, she stepped into that inner sanctum, and allowed the door to close behind her. Only then did she speak up. “Sure, you’re absolutely right. No senator is going to want to be the one who says ‘let’s put those people in our state.’ The fallout would be positively nuclear. But you know as well as I do that it won’t actually come to that. We just need to show a united front. United enough that Breakwater considers it a possibility. Maybe not that we’ll bring our criminals back here, but that we might go looking for other solutions. Solutions that don’t involve them.”

The man’s smile was unconvincing. However good, he might’ve been at convincing his voters that he was sincere, he either couldn’t convey that feeling to her, or he didn’t care enough to try. Either way, he simply replied, “And yet, it is your territory that would suffer the most embarrassment if this measure was to fall through, isn’t it? After all, you are serving the great state of Michigan, where the poor victims of this whole unfortunate situation are from. So it’s you who needs this more than me.”

Dana sighed and made an acquiescing motion with one hand. “Just get to the point. What do you want?”

So, he informed her. His support of the bill that would begin to strip support for Breakwater, which would fail or be withdrawn anyway as soon as the prison produced those three missing women, in exchange for pushing several companies to build their new Touched tech facilities in his own home state. Being the senator from Michigan, which had become the center of so much of that work over the past couple decades, Dana had a great deal of say over that sort of thing. As did her senior senator. But she suspected he already had that blowhard’s backing.

Either way, she agreed, and he promised to signal support at their next committee meeting that afternoon. Once it was done, Dana left with Cheryl, and as they were walking down the hall, she asked the girl, “Have they called yet?”

Cheryl nodded, holding up her phone. Dana took it and held the phone to her ear. “Yes, Minister White, we’re at the next step. Of course, ma’am. That’s what matters.

“After all, we’re all on the same side.”


Cassiel (Cassidy in Heretical Edge) continuing from previous noncanon. Seriously, if you haven’t read that non-canon and have at least a fair idea about Heretical Edge, you will probably be completely lost.

The air of the village was filled with smoke and flame, along with the sounds of people shouting, metal weapons clanging together, the thwocking of arrows striking wood and clanging off of shields, as well as the occasional high-pitched whine of a laser flying back and forth. Through the smoke-filled street of the medieval village, a small handful of weary soldiers, dressed in the armor of Camelot, retreated with an assortment of civilians. They were protecting the escape of the innocent villagers as best as they could in the face of an overwhelming force of attackers.

There were three soldiers, two armed with swords while the third held a laser rifle that had clearly seen better days and barely functioned. Pursuing them and their charges was a small army’s-worth of assailants of all shapes and sizes. There were a dozen humans or humanoids, just as many reptilian figures, a massive troll, and more. They were all better armed than the beleaguered trio of troops they were assaulting.

Retreating down the street, one soldier shouted for them to hold the line just a little bit longer and that reinforcements would be there soon. He sounded optimistic, yet even that was straining under the stress of what was happening. The man with the faulty laser rifle grimaced and wiped soot from his face before taking aim at the enormous troll’s eye. He triggered a blast that only made the thing recoil a bit with an angry bellow.

Unfortunately, a scream of despair went up from the group the trio of soldiers were escorting, as an equally large group of enemies came around the corner of the building in the distance down the street, cutting off their escape. The group was surrounded, and it didn’t look as though help would be arriving in time to spare them from a truly grisly fate.

Exchanging looks, the three soldiers ordered the civilians to gather in a circle and then they surrounded them as best as they could. If they were going to go down right here, it would be while they were fighting. There would be no surrender. The warlord who had assaulted this village with his army would never allow them to survive in the end anyway. Though he also wouldn’t make their ends quick. If captured, they would all wish for death long before it came. They braced themselves, even the civilians picking up what meager defenses they could between a few shovels, pitchforks, and even a club or two. They knew it was about to be all over, and braced themselves for a last stand, short as it would undoubtedly be.

Their attackers had all stopped as well, surrounding the paltry handful of troops. King Arthur’s own army was on the way, these three having been sent forward as scouts. But the king hadn’t expected such a large force to already be assaulting the village. Something had gone wrong, the warlord’s troops had moved far more quickly than they should have been able to. And they were better-armed than had been reported. They had an outside force assisting them, that much was clear.

Stretching itself up to its full height of twelve feet, the troll (itself no doubt strong and terrible enough to annihilate everyone present all on its lonesome) opened its mouth to laugh. Except what filled the air, echoing through the street around them in that moment was not the horrific, guttural chuckle of a massive beast, but the gleeful laughter of a young girl who happened to be in the middle of a truly exciting, death-defying stunt.

Needless to say, the troll was confused, stopping short with his mouth open like that even as everyone present on both sides of the conflict stared at him. Briefly, the thought that the girlish laughter could possibly be coming from such an enormous creature filled the heads of everyone there.

At least, it did until the true source of the sound became apparent. Behind the troll and that part of the army came a tiny figure, riding what looked like a silver board that floated several feet off the ground. She appeared human, and a small one at that, standing only five feet in height without the height of the flying board counted. Her clothes were decidedly odd to most present, consisting of a simple skin-tight red bodysuit of sorts with gold trim. In one hand, she held a small cylinder-shaped device that looked sort of like a sword hilt with no blade, while the other hand clutched three small metal balls. The board seemed to fly under her mental direction, swerving around an overturned vegetable cart on her way straight to the now-gawking assortment of troops and civilians.

“Yo dudes!” the girl called out, voice ringing clearly through the sudden silence. “Why don’t you take a little break, you deserve it!” With that, the hand holding those three small metal balls snapped out, sending the orbs flying past the warlord’s troops before spreading out to land around the circle of terrified civilians and the three Camelot soldiers. Instantly, the balls opened up, working together to project a powerful forcefield around the group so they couldn’t be assaulted.

Of course, those now within the shield had their own terrified assumptions of why the newcomer had surrounded them in the impenetrable shield, believing that she was working with the warlord and had now trapped them. But those assumptions faltered under what came next.

“Well hey there!” the girl called out cheerfully while flipping off the board to land smoothly right in front of the group that included the troll, “You big strong creeps really wanna pick on somebody smaller than you?” She grinned, extending her hands to either side. As she did so, the suit she was wearing turned white before a series of elaborate drawings in various colors appeared all over it. They looked like what people in the future would call comic strips, a series of sketches depicting every member of the warlord’s army being beaten and killed in comedic ways that made them seem utterly incompetent. Her entire suit, front and back and from her neck to her toes was filled with the artwork. In that single instant, literal hours worth of comic strips covered every square inch of available space.

As they took all that in, she continued to smile broadly at them. “They don’t come much smaller than me. So go ahead and see what you can do.” Her smile darkened just a little bit as she stared at them through briefly serious eyes. “For real though, show me what you can do.”

There was a brief pause before a series of furious howls and screams filled the air. The troll was the first to move, stampeding forward to lash out with a kick of his massive foot that it would have sent the girl flying, her broken body left to slam into a wall some distance away. Would have, had it not been for the fact that the girl moved. Even as that huge and nasty foot was swinging through the air, she leapt, a blue spot appearing on the ground under her feet as she sprang good fifteen feet into the air. Her hand extended, before a spray of yellow liquid flew out to completely cover the troll. Suddenly, he found himself moving incredibly slowly, as though he was deep underwater. In that same moment, the girl threw the cylinder she’d been holding in her other hand. Halfway to its target, the cylinder suddenly hummed to life, a long laser blade extending from it to cut straight through the troll’s throat and out the other side, like a spear lancing through a sheet of paper.

A series of crossbow bolts went flying at the girl from the dozen or so troops who were quick enough to fire, but her board had flown up into the air right after her, and positioned itself to one side, allowing her to plant one foot and rebound off it. The bolts were left to fly harmlessly through the space where she had just been. As she flipped sideways, the girl held her hand out, a red circle appearing on her palm to match the red she left on the hilt of the laser sword. Suddenly, its flight forward halted, and it came spinning back the way it had come, moving sideways so that the blade cut cleanly through the troll’s already wounded throat. With a gurgling cry that was abruptly silenced, the head was completely severed, leaving the body to crash lifelessly to the ground while the girl caught the incoming sword with her extended hand.

The assembled troops were astonished, and suddenly much less confident than they had been only a moment earlier. Still, they descended upon the girl. Yet they stood no chance. As an orc-like figure, who stood almost half as tall as the troll had been, brought his wicked-looking hammer slamming down toward her, the girl’s torso and arms were suddenly bright purple mixed with green. She caught the descending hammer, ripping it from the creature’s grasp before he could recover from his surprise. A quick toss sent the weapon safely to one side just as the green-purple coloring vanished. In the next second, the energy blade from that laser sword cut the orc’s body in half, even as the girl smoothly ducked under the wild sword swing from another figure who had come up behind her. She flipped over backwards, her foot kicking her new attacker in the face. But the part of her foot that made contact had been painted blue and green, and that single touch from it sent the assailant flying right into her waiting silver board, which had righted itself in the air and turned to face them. Worse for the orc, the board had produced a series of spikes, forcing the flailing figure to impale himself on them.

None of the other troops fared any better. The girl moved through them as smoothly and efficiently as a talented farmer threshing wheat. Various colors appeared as necessary over her body and on the people she was fighting. Her laser sword thrummed through the air, severing arms, legs, and throats at will. The troops were slowed by yellow, sped when they didn’t wish to be by green, blinded by white flashes, left with their assaults accomplishing nothing under a suddenly orange-or-pink-painted target, or even with their damage being reflected back onto themselves with a mixture of orange and blue. They couldn’t lay a finger on the girl as she systematically took them apart and killed every last one of them. Throughout the fight, if it could be considered such, the girl laughed and mocked them, making it perfectly clear how much contempt she held for the troops who had been about to slaughter those innocent villagers and the handful of troops who had been desperately protecting them.

In the end, they all fell under her light blade, with some assistance from her board, which seemed to sprout blades and move under her entirely silent and unseen commands. Finally, none were left standing. Every last member of the army that had been sent to burn this village to the ground and kill everyone within it had instead been killed by this single girl. They had been meant to send a message to the people of this land, about the warlord’s insistence upon obedience to his rule. Instead, they themselves had become the message. One that would become increasingly clear as King Arthur’s people and allies gradually consolidated their control over the territory.

Once it was over, the girl paused to survey the area, making certain everything was clear. Then she turned to the people behind the forcefield barrier and whistled while hooking the hilt of the now-disabled laser sword onto her hip. As she did so, the shield finished and the orbs returned to her hand. She juggled them briefly before setting the orbs atop her waiting board, where they soon sank and vanished out of sight as though it was made of water. Then the girl held up both hands. “Hey you guys! Uh, I know this whole thing might be freaking you out a bit, but it’s okay.” She gestured to the fallen bodies that filled the street around them. “I promise, I’m here to help!”

“Who…” One of the troops, the one who had been armed with the nearly-dead laser rifle, took a hesitant step that way. “Who are you? You aren’t one of the king’s knights. Who sent you?” He was clearly grateful for her aid, yet wary of just how much power she had displayed. If she worked for one of the warlord’s rivals, they were hardly out of danger. “Where have you come from?”

“Oh boy, is that ever a long story we don’t have time for.” Snorting at her own response, the girl took a breath. “Look, the short version is, I’m Cassiel. And I’ve come to help escort you back to Arthur.” Even as those words left her mouth, she suddenly gave a loud laugh, an ecstatic grin crossing her face. “Arthur! As in King Arthur! How fucking cool is that? The actual King Arthur, magic sword and everything! I didn’t even know he was real. I didn’t–err…” Realizing what she was doing and who she was talking to, Cassiel abruptly flushed visibly. “Err, sorry. Trust me, if you had any idea where I came from, you’d totally understand.”

Visibly sobering as much as she could, the girl continued. “Anyway, yeah, King Arthur. Let’s just say my friends and I made a deal with him. They’re helping out in a few other places to get other villages evacuated and bring those people back to safety. Right now, we need to get moving ourselves, because there’s a bigger army coming this way. We need to get you back to where you’ll be safe, with the king. I mean, don’t get me wrong, all this was super-fun and all.” She gestured at the bodies around. “But I’m not completely certain I can protect you from the size of the real army that’s coming this way. So gather everything you need and let’s get going.” After a brief pause, she snapped her fingers. “Oh right, Arthur said I should tell you all the owl has left the aspen. Some sort of code phrase?”

Those words were finally enough to make the troops relax. Arthur would only have given that code to someone he trusted greatly. Between that and the display the girl had put on as she killed all the troops who had been about to slaughter them, they felt confident enough in believing she was there to help. So, they quickly began to follow her advice, running into the surrounding homes and buildings to collect everything they had left behind in their desperate and previously doomed attempt to escape.

While they were putting their provisions together as quickly as possible, one of the soldiers came closer. “You said your name is Cassiel,” he started carefully. “That sounds strangely like the sort of names of the enemies our king has spoken of. And your weapon–the magic you displayed…”

There was a brief pause before the girl gave him a small smile. “Don’t worry, we’re on the same side. It’s too complicated to get into right now, but my friends and I really did come to help your king.” She blushed a little bit, her demeanor totally at odds with the cool confidence she had displayed through the fight. “I mean come on, he’s King Arthur. No way I could ever be against him. He’s sort of a huge legend where I’m from.”

The guard smiled a bit in confusion. “I feel as though you have come from very far away, and yet our king has only begun to put his territory together. How could his legend have spread so quickly?”

“Like I said, it’s a long story,” Cassiel replied before reaching out to the hand on his arm. “Maybe I’ll be able to tell you about it someday, or at least part of it. But for the moment, let’s just focus on getting these people to safety. They’ve been through plenty as it is, and I really don’t think they want to be anywhere around here when the main part of that army shows up.” As the man started to turn to do that, she added, “Hey, what’s your name anyway?”

“Me?” The soldier glanced that way. “Oh, I’m nobody important, Lady Cassiel.

“They call me Bedivere.”

(This storyline continues in another separate noncanon found right here)

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Equal And Opposite 21-07 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Equal And Opposite 21-06 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But boy, was it tempting. 

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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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