“I’m telling you guys, I really don’t think this is necessary at all.” As the tall, red-haired woman said those words, she was striding out of an elevator into the below-ground parking garage of one of the local news stations, flanked on both sides and followed by several figures. “Don’t you have better things to do? Actually, scratch that. I’m a reporter. I know you have better things to do. So, why don’t you go ahead and focus on one of those other things. I’ll be fine. The report went out over the air days ago.”
“Sorry, Ms. Iverson.” The apology came from the man on her left. He was a fairly short guy at just a hair over five foot five. In his late twenties, the Latino figure who wore somewhat baggy, loose-fitting gray pants that allowed him to move quite well, with a sleeveless black shirt that had a faded gray Ten Towers logo (a ten-pointed star around the skyline of the city they were a part of, Detroit in this case) on the front, spiked wristbands, combat boots, and a bandana-like mask that left the lower half of his face, and his long dark hair, uncovered. “With the threat on your life, we have orders to escort you straight to the Plaza.”
The Plaza, in this case, was their term for the headquarters of Ten Towers in Detroit, where the main three towers themselves were located. It was also a thought that made Jolene Iverson grimace, head shaking. “Come on, Stick. I get threats all the time. All reporters do. Especially the ones who talk about Touched stuff. That’s why we use these.” She pointedly withdrew a small black box that fit within the palm of her hand, with a single silver button on it. To demonstrate, she pushed her thumb against that button and stopped walking. As she did so, there was a shimmer of energy in the air, and the woman abruptly looked quite different. Her long red hair had shortened and turned blond. Various features of her face had shifted around, eye shape widening slightly, nose turning up and narrowing, skin color itself darkening just a bit as though she had much more of a tan, and so forth. Within a few seconds, she looked like a completely different person other than the specific height. “Tell me exactly how someone who saw this person give a report about the identities of Pencil and Cup is going to be mistaken for–” She hit the button again, returning to her normal appearance. “–this person? The entire point of using the Incogniter and false names is so that none of those psychopaths out there know what the people reporting on them actually look like. At least, that’s how it was sold to me.”
“That’s the general idea,” Stick confirmed, watchful eyes glancing around as they stood in the parking garage. “But when there’s a specific threat, we have to take it seriously. Our boss told us the intel they picked up was detailed enough that there is a concern for your safety. So she told us to come here and escort you straight to the plaza while she and Skip check out the source. Once they determine whether the threat is real or not, they’ll decide how soon you can leave.” With a shrug, he added, “It’s in your contract. Your station is a subsidiary of Ten Towers. When there’s a threat like this, we have to deal with it. And you have to let us.”
“Yeah,” the person on her right-hand side put in. “Believe me, Caishen would be super-pissed if we let you go off on your own. And quite frankly, she’s scarier than you are.”
Glancing that way, Jolene took in the male form. Well, male for the moment anyway. Ephemera wore a costume that was just as simple as Stick’s, amounting to red pants with matching shoes, a white turtleneck, and a white ski mask with red trim. A belt around their waist held two pistols, a knife, and a collapsible baton.
Jolene exhaled. A part of her still wanted to argue, but there was little point. They were right. Ten Towers held ultimate authority over the station she worked for, and if Caishen said there was a real threat, nothing Jolene could say would change anyone’s mind. Finally, she settled on, “Okay, fine. I get it. Believe me, if there’s actually a threat, I have no desire to face it myself.” She put the Incogniter back in her pocket. “But do we really need five of you?” Turning a bit, she gestured to the three figures who had been trailing behind. “Five Touched just to protect me?”
“It’s not so much to protect you as it is to catch them,” came the casual reply from one of those figures. He was a decidedly taller man than Stick, standing about six foot two. None of his skin was exposed, as he wore long black pants, heavy boots, a dark blue shirt under a white trench coat, and a blue helmet that had no visible visor. Instead, the front was covered by the white insignia of a crosshair. Jolene had absolutely no idea how he saw out of that thing.
“Linesight,” Stick chastised slightly with a look that way.
“What?” The other man offered a shrug. “I didn’t say we wanted anything bad to happen to her. But she’s right, all of us being here would be overkill to protect a single person from some vague threat. We’re here just in case there’s a chance to catch any of the Scions, and you know it. She knows it. We all know it. She reported on Cup and Pencil’s real identities. Even if those two are laying low, any other Scions could be out there looking to impress their bosses by making an example out of her. That’s why we’re here, and why Caishen and Skip took a whole contingent of Towers security to check out the apartment they traced that phone call to. It’s common sense. Ain’t that right, Bungle?”
Beside him, a young woman gave a quick, hurried nod. Her costume consisted of a black bodysuit with purple highlights along the legs and arms, along with the Ten Towers logo, also in purple, across the front. She also wore purple gloves and boots, along with a cape that was black on the outside and purple on the inside, with a connected matching hood that rose up over her head. Under the hood, her head was encased in a black helmet with a large purple visor, which covered the entirety of her face from chin to just above her eyes. The visor appeared to be made of glass, but was actually quite durable to the point of being bulletproof.
As the woman known to the public as Bunglebotch put it, considering how goofy and uncoordinated her power made her look, the very least she could do was have a cool costume. Besides, she found it infinitely more amusing to show up to a place and make people think they were about to see something incredibly cool and inspiring before, in her own words, ‘drastically disappointing them.’
Yet despite her self-disparaging words, Bunglebotch loved her Touched gift. It was a power which allowed her to accomplish essentially any physical task any human being was capable of with enough training and skill. But doing so would always appear to be a completely uncoordinated, comical accident. She could perform incredible athletic stunts of hand to hand combat, acrobatics, sharpshooting, piloting, parkour, and more, yet anyone watching her do so would swear she was about to kill herself simply by taking a step. Watching her in action was akin to viewing an old slapstick-style movie, or even cartoon. She would constantly appear to be tripping, sliding, slipping, stumbling, accidentally yanking down curtains, and more in the course of a simple chase. But no matter how uncoordinated her actions seemed to be, they always accomplished her task and left her relatively unharmed.
The gift extended beyond uncoordinated-looking-yet-incredible physical prowess as well. Simply by focusing on a single person, Bungle could force that person to comically fail at any physical task they were attempting to accomplish at the time, regardless of how trivial it was. Including simply taking a step, sitting down in a chair, or tearing a sheet of paper in half. That last one she had demonstrated to great effect on a particularly annoying middle management type who annoyed her one day. He ended up giving himself a fat lip.
“Uh huh, uh huh,” Bungle agreed with Linesight. “No offense, Miss Iverson, but yeah. We’re definitely supposed to try to catch at least one of those Scions. The boss-lady thinks they might try something stupid because they’re so pissed off right now. You’re a visible target for them to take their anger out on, you know? Even if you do have that disguise thing, which is super-duper cool by the way, they might still figure out who you are. You know, by having an inside person or something. But if they do try something, we’re here.”
“And the Minority kid?” Jolene asked, focusing on the fifth and final person who had been accompanying her as he stood a bit back from the others. “What’s he doing here?”
“Oh, Whamline?” Stick waved a hand. “He’s here for a ridealong.” A ridealong, as it was called, was simply when one of the younger Star-Touched would accompany an adult team, both for some on-the-job training, and to see how they got along with the team. And, of course, how the team got along with them. It helped everyone involved decide where the young Touched should go once they were of age. “Technically it wasn’t supposed to be until next week, but he has a… thing?”
“School project,” Whamline replied with a shrug before adding a bit apologetically, “I’ve been getting behind a little bit, and they don’t like that.” With a low whistle, he added, “They really don’t like it.”
“I remember school,” Bungle noted. “School sucked.” As Linesight nudged her pointedly, she gestured defensively. “What? I’m pretty sure he knows that already. I mean, come on, he already said he was behind.” The continued pointed stare made her protest, “What’d I say?”
Clearing his throat, Stick spoke up. “Okay, speaking of ridealong, I think we can set a good example by keeping our attention on the task at hand.” With that, he looked at Jolene. “Whamline, Linesight, and I will be with you in our van over here. In the back, please.”
“In the van?” Jolene started to protest. “But my car’s right there. What about–” She stopped then, as a flash nearby drew her attention to Ephemera. Or at least, where Ephemera had been. Their body had abruptly disintegrated to ashes, blowing away in the wind. A foot or so to the side, their new body had appeared. A body which looked completely identical to Jolene in every way. It was like looking into a mirror.
Ephemera’s power was, on the surface, somewhat similar to that of Baldur, leader of Armistice and the strongest Touched in the world. But where Baldur’s power allowed them to shift their own body through various differently-powered versions of themselves and thus come up with practically any gift they needed, Ephemera was far more limited… at least as far as powers went. With a thought, they were capable of making their current body disintegrate. At which point, they would reappear in a new body, which could be any age, sex, gender, and appearance they wished. Which included creating a new costume/set of clothes, though the materials for that would disintegrate once removed. Rather than having any powers they wanted, they could simply infuse the new body with any set of skills possessed by any person they had spent at least one hour with in the past. They often shifted rapidly throughout any given situation, going from an innocent-looking child who could walk through a crowded street without drawing attention, to a man with computer hacking skills to break into a secure building, to a woman with intense combat training to fight their way through that building. And so on. They could last within a single body for twenty-four hours, but very seldom went longer than an hour or so without changing. As they had to put it, staying in the same body with the same skills for too long made them feel antsy.
“Okay,” the reporter slowly murmured as her head shook. “No offense, but that’s really creepy.”
“Sorry,” they replied. “I’ll be taking your car and playing human target.”
Bunglebotch was already moving to the front passenger’s side. “Yeah, and I get to play bodyguard. Don’t worry, we’ve done this before. You’d be surprised how many fancypants executives get their underoos in a twist and need us to run interference.”
Before Jolene could (somewhat reluctantly) move to the unmarked van instead of her car, Linesight put a hand up to stop her, staring intently at a pair of glasses in his hand for a moment before nodding in satisfaction. “It’s set.” With that, he handed them to her.
Realizing what the man had done, Jolene gave a soft gasp. Linesight’s power allowed him to mark up to four different spots, including moving objects. Any person who looked at that spot or object, who wasn’t included within a list of mental exceptions the man set at the time that he marked them, would be hit by a powerful concussive beam for as long as they looked at it.
“Keep the glasses on until we get to the plaza,” he instructed. “They’re only a last-second defense, but if shit actually goes down, you’ll be glad you have them, believe me. And if worst comes to worst and you lose them…” He held up a coin, intently staring at that as well for a moment before passing it to her. “Put that in your pocket. If you’re in real trouble, wait for an opening, then hold that up and use it to get away.”
Stick spoke up then. “We don’t expect to run into that much trouble, if any. But in this line of work, it’s better to be overly prepared.” To Whamline, he added, “You should probably make a note of that yourself. Always be prepared.”
Whamline, for his part, gave a thumbs up. “Be prepared, got it. Like that song from the Lion King.”
“Sure,” Bunglebotch replied from the side of the car. “Except for basically every word in it, and the fact that it’s sung by a villain. But sure, just like that.”
“Still a good song,” Whamline murmured with a shrug, humming it to himself a bit as he moved to get in the back of the van.
Jolene followed suit, with Stick getting in the back with the two of them. Linesight took the driver’s seat, and they waited for Ephemera and Bunglebotch to pull out of the lot ahead of them before following suit a moment later. It would only be about a ten minute drive, and the woman found herself leaning back in the seat to look out the heavily tinted, and no doubt bulletproof, window as they progressed. She had actually driven this same route multiple times, going from the station to Ten Towers for interviews or the like. Despite her outward dismissal of the threat to her life, the woman was a bit nervous. Especially once they left the safety of the news station’s parking garage. And yet, as they drove most of the route with no apparent issues, the anxiety that had started to rise up in her stomach quickly began to fade. In another couple of minutes, they would be at Ten Towers Plaza, and she could thank them for the help before finding someone in charge to insist she be given some space to do her work in for as long as this protection detail was supposed to last. Come to think of it, she needed to call Mrs. Morson, who lived in the apartment next door, and ask her to take poor Jitters the cat over to her place and feed him. He had to be yowling at the door by now, confused about why Jolene hadn’t–
“Eph, on your left!” Linesight’s voice suddenly bellowed a warning to Ephemera in the car ahead.
Just as Jolene’s gaze snapped that way to look through the front windshield, she saw a heavy pickup truck driving alongside her car swerve sideways in an attempt to ram into it. But Ephemera reacted too quickly, slowing the car and twisting it just out of reach as the truck went skidding past. Immediately, one of the men in the truck twisted to point a gun out the back window, opening fire. Yet he had only fired one or two shots before two pale blue beams of energy lashed out from the side of Jolene’s car, slamming into the gunman and knocking him backward out of the truck, where he rolled and sprawled along the road.
Linesight, Jolene realized that the Touched ahead of her had marked her car right then, even as another pair of beams lashed out toward a second gunman in the truck. Unfortunately, the vehicle swerved that time, and they missed.
By that point, Ephemera had stopped the car, while Bunglebotch hopped out. As the truck spun around to come back to them, Bungle focused on him. Abruptly, the driver completely failed at the task of driving, sending the truck into a wild spin that ended with a violent slam into the nearby guard rail.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it, as men were already clambering out of the truck. Worse, there was another truck full of them coming up fast from behind the van. They all wore normal clothing, but everyone knew why they were here. Whether they were officially members of the Scions or just wannabes, they were there to impress Pencil and Cup by making an example of the reporter who had exposed their identities over the air.
With the van stopped, Stick yanked the side door open, reaching down to grab a tire iron from the floor before hurling it out ahead of the oncoming truck. In mid-air, the man used his power to make things he touched stay where they were put no matter what force was exerted on them. The tire iron abruptly froze, just as the truck’s front left tire slammed into it. Instantly, the tire was demolished from hitting the immobile object at that speed, and the truck went spinning wildly out of control.
Hopping out of the van, Stick shouted back to Linesight. “Get Iverson to the Plaza, go!” Then he produced an extendable metal staff from his belt, snapped it out to full length, and ran toward the second truck.
Without wasting another second, Linesight hit the gas, accelerating around the stopped vehicles while shouting, “You two get down back there. Stay down! Whamline, cover her!”
Obliging immediately, the Minority hero quickly apologized before pushing Jolene to the floor as he crouched beside her in the narrow space between seats. “Don’t worry, Miss,” he assured her in a tense voice, “we’re almost there.”
He was right, she knew. They were less than a minute away from the Ten Towers headquarters. In another few seconds, they’d be safe. Part of her was still reeling from the fact that she had actually been attacked. There had been so many false alarms and fake threats over the years that a group of people actually, truly trying to kill her was–
Something hit the truck. Or… or exploded the truck. All she knew was that there was a sudden deafening boom, her vision went blindingly white, and she had the sensation of the van flying. Or falling. Something hit the side of her head, then the back of her head. Spinning. The van was flipping over and over, crashing along the ground. Then everything went dark.
Seconds, or possibly minutes later, the woman blinked her eyes open blearily. She was lying on the sidewalk somewhere beyond the van, where she had been thrown. The vehicle itself was on its side, the slumped figure of Linesight barely visible through the shattered windshield. Not that she could make out any details. Her vision was still fuzzy, fading in and out.
She did, however, see the figure walking purposefully toward her. Immediately, she shifted so they would face the glasses Linesight had marked. Unfortunately, only then did the woman realize the glasses were actually gone, having flown off her face at some point in all of that.
The blurry figure was right in front of her, even as she remembered the coin in her pocket. With fumbling fingers, she yanked it out and held the coin up.
Nothing happened. No, did it–did it only work if Linesight was conscious? What–
Finally, her eyes focused on the figure who had been standing over her. “Wait… oh.” It was so hard to talk. Something was wrong with her throat, and her stomach had twisted itself into knots. “You… help…”
“Sorry,” came the flat response, even as the figure raised their hand. A pistol was gripped in it, aimed that way. “But I did this whole thing to impress Cup, and I can’t stop now.”
With that, the figure pulled the trigger, and Jolene Iverson would never think of anything else again.
“I mean, come on, can you blame me?” Whamline finished while lowering the gun. “She’s so hot.”