Whamline

Exhibition 25-06 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

It would’ve been nice if I could have called a time-out for a few minutes so I could explain everything that was going on, including the new power tricks I had figured out, to my newly-arrived friends. But something told me the bad guys here weren’t exactly likely to accept something like that. Especially not with the Minority people still in the middle of fighting those other two. To say nothing of how many random mooks they had helping them. Thanks to the flurry of chaotic motion, water, random bits of flying glass, and flailing energy coils, I couldn’t see how Fragile, Whamline, Wobble, Raindrop, and That-A-Way’s fight against Banneret and the goons helping her was going. And it was completely impossible to have any idea of what was going on with Carousel and Syndicate with Fogwalker. 

Unfortunately, we couldn’t check on them any more than we could call a time-out. Poise, Style, Calvin, Hobbes, Alloy, and I had our own immediate problem, in the form of Theory and Praxis, and their own thugs. I’d taken several of them down, and Alloy knocked down more with her arrival. But more were showing up, and they did not look happy. 

That wind blast from Praxis had knocked all of us flying, scattering our group across the grass. And even as I scrambled back to my feet, my eyes caught sight of the woman holding one hand out toward where Poise, Hobbes, and I were, while the other was pointed more toward the other three. My mouth opened to blurt a warning, just before twin blasts of wind tore into us. I tried to brace myself, but it didn’t help. Once again, we were picked up and thrown, tumbling end over end under the sustained barrage of wind. On the way, while I was crashing and rolling along the grass, I tried to shoot a bit of red paint toward the woman. Honestly, the mere fact that I could aim at her in the midst of that was pretty crazy. Unfortunately, it didn’t help. My paint was caught by her wind and tossed aside, scattering into useless droplets across the grass behind me. 

Okay, so I couldn’t shoot her with paint. But I could use it on myself. While the wind continued to throw me, I focused on making red paint appear on my hands and knees, then put more of it directly under me on the ground and activated all of it. The paint yanked me down and held me in place against the force of that rushing hurricane-like air. Thanks to the visor of my helmet, I was able to look that way without the wind tearing into my eyes. I could see Praxis focusing even more of her power on me, trying to force me to go flying again. But my paint held firm. To one side, I could see Alloy shielding herself, Calvin, and Style with a low wall made out of a couple of her marbles. Poise and Hobbes, meanwhile, were crouched behind a heavy tree. Even that was bowing sideways against the force of the wind. Most of the leaves were gone, and even a few branches had snapped off to fly away along the grass. I was afraid the whole thing was going to be torn out of the ground any second. 

Fortunately, Praxis’s power didn’t last forever. After those thirty seconds (which honestly seemed like a hell of a lot longer than that in the heat of the moment), the wind died down. She immediately shifted back to Theory, with his lab coat and goggles. Which we would’ve taken advantage of, but the instant that happened, a handful of those armed thugs took up position in front of him and opened fire with an assortment of guns. It happened so smoothly that I was pretty sure they had training and practice with jumping in to cover their boss while he took the time to set up new plans and powers for his partner. Which made sense. Of course they would’ve compensated for that sort of weakness. 

Seeing those goons jumping into position with their weapons raised, I quickly triggered an orange bullseye symbol across my chest, just before those first few bullets hit my arm and shoulder. It stung a bit, but I ignored that and scrambled to my feet. The others were protected by Alloy’s wall and that tree. But we still had to move quickly. Any second now, Theory was going to finish making his ‘plan’ and bring Praxis back out with a new power. The wind had been bad enough, I really didn’t want to think about what other dangerous shit she might come out with now that they were even more pissed off and had seen how we could defend against that wind. I had a feeling that whatever they came out with next would be even more dangerous, and very different.

To stop that, I planted blue under my feet and launched myself forward and up while shouting, “Rebound!” toward Alloy. 

Thanks to all the talks we’d had, she immediately knew what to do, positioning one of her marbles in a flat, wall-like shape in the air above me. It was angled just a bit toward the group of bad guys. Just before hitting it, I sent a new shot of blue that way while inverting myself in the air. My feet hit that spot, and the blue circle launched me off it like I was a ping-pong ball, sending me straight toward the gathered group. They were still trying to adjust to my rapid movements, most of their shots flying past me. 

The plan was for me to crash into Theory and take him down before he could bring out Praxis with new powers. Unfortunately, just before I would’ve hit the man with that flying tackle after rebounding off the marble wall, one of his minions threw himself in the way. I collided with that guy instead, and we went tumbling head over heels. I could hear him yelp and curse in pain. 

Seriously, these guys were both trained enough to immediately cover their bosses weakness, and loyal enough to throw some selves into the path of my flying body? How much were they being paid? Would it seem weird if I asked this guy if I could top it? 

While those thoughts were flying through my mind, I activated a purple unicorn shape on my arm before slamming my elbow into this guy’s face. His head snapped down into the ground, leaving him dazed for the moment. 

Meanwhile, from the corner of one eye, I could see Style driving her foot into the back of one guy‘s knee from behind while he was focused on me. Her hand caught the back of his neck as he started to stumble, and slammed his head forward into another guy’s temple as that one spun to see what was going on. Beside her, Calvin quickly dropped down next to the two fallen figures and snapped a pair of handcuffs on each of them to keep their hands trapped behind their backs. 

By that point, I managed to roll backwards off of the guy who had thrown himself between Theory and me. My foot lashed out to catch his chin as he started to blearily lift his head, putting him back down for the moment. 

Now that I was up and facing the other way, I could see Poise step smoothly between two guys while catching their extended arms as they aimed their weapons my way. Before they could react, she swung their captured arms around so the pistols in their hands slammed into one another’s faces hard enough to make them stagger backward. The guns fell, and Poise caught them in mid-drop, pivoting while firing one shot from each into the two men’s feet. In the exact same motion, as she continued pivoting, her foot came up to kick each of them in the face, one after the other, while they started to collapse from being shot in the foot. 

In the span of about two seconds, these guys had both gone from pointing their weapons at me, to having their arms grabbed, guns slammed into each other’s face, shot in the feet, and then kicked in the face in the exact same spot their own guns had hit. Needless to say, they both hit the ground and didn’t seem that interested in getting back up. 

Alloy and Hobbes were also doing something, but I didn’t have the chance to see what it was. After all, I was still standing in the middle of a large group of bad guys, who were reacting to my arrival by taking quick aim. They weren’t quite aware of what was going on to the guys on the outskirts, and it would take another couple seconds for the others to reach me. Seconds I wouldn’t have before these guys opened fire. 

Luckily, I had a plan for that. I just hoped it would actually work. Even as I was taking in what Paige was doing, I had been painting a new symbol across my chest, of a sword stretching from my waist up to my neck. At the same time, my hands snapped out to send a thin spray of paint at the semi-circle of thugs in front of me. They all recoiled reflexively, likely expecting to be yanked together or sent flying. But this time, it wasn’t red or blue. Each of them was hit, much to their probable confusion, by a tiny bit of the orange paint. It wasn’t much at all, just a thin line across each of them. They were clearly confused, yet didn’t waste time trying to figure it out. Instead, they opened fire. 

And that was their big mistake, because by that point, I had activated the paint I had put on my torso in that sword shape. The blade itself was orange, while the handle was pink. Praying that this would actually work, I had fed the pink power into the orange before immediately canceling it.

Normally, when I canceled the pink paint early, it made the spot that it was affecting very bouncy. Unfortunately, it only affected the actual spot it was touching, unlike the rest of my paints, which affected a larger area. Like, in this case, the orange paint, which would protect my entire body. But if I could use my newfound ability to combine my paint into new effects…

It worked. The temporary bounciness from the early-canceled pink paint fed into the protection from the orange. As these guys opened fire, their bullets rebounded off me much faster than they would’ve with just the orange protection. They went flying back the way they’d come. And since these guys were directly in their path, they ended up basically shooting themselves. 

That, of course, was why I had hit them with orange paint, so I wouldn’t turn into a killer. I didn’t give them enough to completely protect them, just enough that the bullets wouldn’t slaughter them. It was still obviously like being hit by dozens of baseballs or whatever. Enough that the assembled group in front of me hit the ground, cursing and groaning in pain. They had no idea what had just happened, only that they started to shoot me, and had suddenly been hit by a bunch of stinging pellets that would leave pretty solid bruises and possibly even a few broken bones. But hey, at least I didn’t let them actually take the full damage from being shot?  

I didn’t have time to think too much about that. I was already pivoting to catch sight of Theory so I could take him down. Unfortunately, just as my eyes fell on him, his form shifted again. Now he was gone and Praxis was back, with that same dark blue bodysuit and mask with white chestplate, boots, and eye lenses. Her powers, however, were obviously very different. A fact that was made rather obvious as she extended her arm, with electricity coiling around her finger. She sent it flying toward me, while I flinched reflexively. Thankfully, while the bouncy part of the canceled pink paint had gone away, the actual orange was still active. So I wasn’t completely destroyed by that shot of lightning. It still shocked me a bit, yet I was able to throw myself that way through the crackling line of electricity. 

“Hey!” I blurted while catching her extended wrist. I’d already activated a couple purple dagger shapes along my legs for added strength so I could yank her off balance. “Didn’t you know I already fought an electricity guy a few minutes ago?! You’re supposed to vary things up so the audience doesn’t get bored!” 

She was still trying to shock me, even as I kept hold of her arm. I could feel the electricity pouring into me, making my body spasm and jerk a bit out of my control. But, through sheer force of will, I kept my hands on her while rearing back to kick the woman in the stomach. I just had to hit her hard enough to make her stop trying to electrocute me before my protection wore off. 

Unfortunately, her new powers apparently weren’t limited only to shooting electricity. Just as my foot passed through the spot she had been in, the woman vanished with a burst of lightning and clap of thunder. I stumbled off balance, hearing another burst of thunder a short distance away, somewhere behind me. 

Pivoting quickly, I saw her appear behind Alloy, hitting the girl with a quick shot of electricity that knocked her to the ground, twitching and crying out. 

Poise was right there, already taking aim with one of the pistols she had stripped from those guys. Before she could fire, another burst of electricity shot from the other woman’s finger. Thankfully, Paige managed to throw herself into a sideways roll, letting it go right over her head. Belatedly, I realized that she had been acting as a distraction, giving Style a chance to hit the woman from the side. But just as she would have crashed into her, another lightning bolt appeared and Praxis was gone, leaving Sierra to crash into the ground where she had been an instant earlier. 

That time, she reappeared near Hobbes and tried to grab her, hands crackling with power. But Hobbes reacted faster, hand already extended toward Calvin as she snapped her fingers and activated the suit’s teleportation power. It was Praxis’s turn to have her plans foiled by someone vanishing right in front of her. 

Before anyone else could move, a voice shouted over the sound of fighting, “Praxis!” It was… Fogwalker, who was, as promised, a lynx. A gray-furred lynx with black spots, with some sort of metal collar around its neck. The animal was perched just on the very edge of the cloud of fog he had created. Fog that Carousel and Syndicate were apparently still trapped in. 

“Time to go!” the lynx TONI called toward Praxis. When he spoke again, the voice was clearly coming from the collar itself. Apparently he wasn’t one of those that could speak normally. It always seemed weird that some ended up with the power to talk and others didn’t. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to wonder about that too much, as Fogwalker added, “Target’s near the west exit!” 

Without a word of question or protest, Praxis vanished in another burst of lightning. A couple more followed as she appeared next to Fogwalker before disappearing with him. Then she did the same with Banneret, who was still fighting the others. Her time with that power had to be about to run out, but it didn’t happen before all three of them were gone.

The fog vanished almost immediately, and I could see all four Syndicates alongside Carousel, staggering suddenly as they could finally see where they were. Meanwhile, Whamline, Wobble, Raindrop, and That-A-Way were spinning around to look for where their own opponent had gone. They were also moving slowly and clumsily, practically falling over as though they were very thoroughly drunk. That was obviously thanks to the assortment of those small, flag-like marks over their bodies, courtesy of Banneret. The weapons she had taken over with more of her markings had all hit the ground together the instant she disappeared.

“Hey, what the fuck?!” That was Whamline, almost falling over as the marking slowing him down vanished and he went back to normal speed. “Where’d that bitch go?!” Belatedly, he glanced toward Raindrop and Fragile before sheepishly amending, “Sorry, I mean, what happened?” 

One of the Syndicates managed to orient himself and look back and forth between our group and the rest of their team. “Everybody okay?” 

Alloy, picking herself up from the ground after being hit by that electrical blast, grunted, “Fine, just peachy. Wait, is it over?” 

My head shook quickly. “No!” I shouted despite myself. “They’re still after Inessa Sidorov! And they found her by the west exit!” I was already trying to orient myself that way to start running, even though I wasn’t sure what good it would do. Not with that group being able to teleport. Yet even as that thought filled my mind, I saw the other group. Or rather, Fogwalker and Theory. The two of them were running past a nearby basketball court. They hadn’t teleported all the way to their target after all. Apparently Praxis’s teleportation had been strictly line of sight, and now it would take time for Theory to give his partner another transportation power. Time that we could hopefully take advantage of. Where Banneret was, I had no idea. But there wasn’t time to think about that. Not when Theory could finish charging up new powers for Praxis any moment. 

“There!” I was pointing while starting to move. “We’ve gotta stop them before they can teleport again!” 

The others were already moving to follow me, our combined teams starting to chase after the departing trio. But, of course, there were still the remaining Prev goons, who had pulled themselves together and were moving to intercept us. Worse, now we knew where Banneret was. Namely, right there in the middle of the assorted thugs, several of whom she had already applied boosting powers to. 

“We don’t have time for this!” one of the Syndicates blurted, before looking at me. “Take your team and go, stop those two! We’ll handle these guys.” 

So, we split up. Alloy created another board for our team to hop on top of, before it flew open over the heads of Banneret and her minions. They tried to aim up at us, but the Minority hit them from below, taking their attention and giving us the chance to fly after the other two. 

“Why the hell are they so obsessed with going after this skater chick anyway?!” Murphy shouted from her crouched position as she clung to the handle Peyton had created for us. 

My head shook quickly. “Dude, I’ve got no idea!

“But something tells me we really don’t want it to happen!”

Previous Chapter

Exhibition 25-05 (Summus Proelium)

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No answers about why these guys were after Inessa, or where she had disappeared to, presented themselves as Amber, Izzy, and I raced across the park together. Apparently the other main source of fighting was going on near a small baseball field that had been built in the past couple years. There had been a Little League game going on, and the thought of those kids being traumatized and attacked by a bunch of gang members really pissed me off. Seriously, what were these assholes trying to accomplish? Had my family actually approved this? That didn’t make sense. Why would they let something like this happen, no matter how much money was paid? Attacking a Little League game? What the fuck was up with that? 

On the way, I realized that my call with Eits had been disconnected. A surprisingly painful flash of worry shot through me then, but a quick glance at my phone revealed a text from him promising to contact me as soon as he could. He said something about Pack showing up and how they had to do something now that I had Raindrop and That-A-Way for help. And he wished us luck.

It was taking us a minute to get over there. This wasn’t a small park, to say the least. But it did give me a chance to get filled in on what was going on, and what we were running into.

Beyond this whole situation, there had apparently been a flare-up of fighting between some of the Easy Eights (or the Fantastic Fives or whatever they were calling themselves now) and Oscuro near one of the old malls. Neither Deicide or Cuélebre were involved, but things were still pretty heavy, which was what some of the other Star-Touched were dealing with. 

Even worse, it sounded like Jennica had chosen now to make a nuisance of herself as well. She was in one of the police precinct stations, using her control-gems to force several of the cops to attack the others. So my dad and a couple others had to go do something about that. What made it worse was that they apparently had no idea how many of the cops in the station had been affected, or where Jennica herself was at the moment. 

The point was, between those situations and the usual crime around the city, it was taking time for more people to show up here. Which, come to think of it, maybe that was the problem? Maybe my parents expected the hero types to show up and drive these guys off pretty quickly, before there was any real danger, but then this other stuff happened. Hang on, was that the problem? I was completely positive that Jennica didn’t clear any of her criminal activities with the Ministry, so they wouldn’t have known about her plans. And from what Amber and Izzy were saying in those few moments while we were running together, the gang fight by the mall had erupted naturally, just when a few members from each side ran into each other and started a shoving, cursing match. That had escalated into a full brawl including Touched. So yeah, I was definitely willing to bet that this was the only situation that had specific Ministry approval, and likely only because they were supposed to be interrupted and driven off or whatever. 

All those thoughts flashed through my mind in a couple seconds, even as I looked toward the baseball field. Right now, all I could see was a bunch of indistinct shapes, but they were getting larger and more clear with each step. “Tell me what we’re dealing with!” I blurted that with a glance toward Amber. I knew Janus and Juice, along with that Devil’s Due guy, had joined up with a brand new gang from out of town. Well, technically they had been recruited by Cuélebre and then traded to this new gang in exchange for their own Latino Touched. But either way, I had no idea who these other people were. 

Speaking quickly, Amber explained, “Banneret looks like a mix between a medieval knight and a biker! Any inanimate object she touches she can put a mark on that makes that object do what she wants. Any living animal she puts the mark on gets a boost if they’re on her side and a penalty if they’re not. Stronger, weaker, faster, slower, all of it!”  

Izzy explained the next one, “Fogwalker’s a lynx TONI. He makes these clouds that’re like air for his friends, but really thick and hard to move in for other people, like Jello! It’s like moving underwater! I mean, what that’s like for most people.” She added the last bit a little sheepishly. 

Finally, Amber put in, “Theory and Praxis are the last one!” She saw my glance and gestured while we continued running. “They’re like Janus! Two people sharing one body, only there’s just one of them physically present at a time. They shift back and forth!” 

Like Fisher and Price, I realized, though I wouldn’t say that out loud. Not out here right now. 

Amber continued. “Theory’s the guy. When he’s out, he’s planning. He’ll look at a situation, figure out what he wants Praxis to do, then switch with her!” 

“And what can she do?” I called, eyes scanning ahead of us. We were definitely running into a mess. That much was clear. I could see a bunch of people on the ground, though they didn’t look dead. It was like they had hit the ground and were staying there to avoid drawing attention or getting hit. There were also what looked like gang members, armed with a mix of shotguns, pistols, and more melee-oriented weapons, running from group to group. I was pretty sure they were checking their faces. Were they looking for Inessa? 

“Anything!” Amber answered, making my eyes glance that way. Her head was nodding. “Within reason! I mean, within Touched reason! If Theory wants her to lift a bus and throw it, she can do that. If he wants her to fly up to the top of a building, she can do that! If he wants her to teleport, she can do that too! She gets powers based on what he plans, and his plans can only last something like thirty seconds or so before they have to switch back again. Once he’s out, he has to focus and plan out what happens next! The more power he wants to give her, the longer it takes. That’s when they’re vulnerable!” 

“Could he just say, ‘I want you to punch that Abyssal and kill it in one hit’ and give her the power to do that?!” I demanded. “Cuz I gotta tell you, I’m gonna be really pissed off if that’s a thing they could do!” 

“The power isn’t unlimited!” Amber called back. “She can get ‘shot put a tank’ strong, not ‘punch out an Abyssal’ strong! And she can’t just snap her fingers and kill people or anything. We don’t know what sort of limits there are, only that she’s only got about thirty seconds per ‘plan’ and she can’t become a god or anything.” 

Right, well, that was good to know. I would’ve hated to try to go fight someone who could turn into a god. That didn’t exactly sound like my idea of a good time. Then again, even with their so-called ‘limitations,’ I was pretty sure this wouldn’t be easy. 

By that point, I could see Whamline, Wobble, and that new Fragile girl. They were facing off with what had to be Banneret. She really did look like a cross between a knight and a biker, with black leather over most of her body, a gleaming silver chestplate, leg and arm guards, and a helmet that looked like both those things at once. It had sort of a medieval design, but was shaped like a motorcycle helmet. The visor was painted on the front to look like a knight’s helmet visor, but was clearly transparent from the inside. She had half a dozen guns, and twice that many knives, all spinning around her, along with a bunch of other random objects that she had clearly taken over. It was all the three Minority members could do to keep up with her. Fragile was using a bunch of glass shards to intercept the incoming knives, or hit the guns to knock them off course. Between that and Whamline’s coils plus Wobble’s vibration waves, the three of them were barely able to avoid being torn apart.

I couldn’t see Fogwalker the lynx, but I could definitely tell where he was. There was a thick reddish-gray… well fog over on the infield, stretching about from home plate to just a bit past second base, and covering first as well. I could just barely make out third. Whatever was going on inside that fog, we couldn’t see it. But I was willing to bet that that was where at least some of the Syndicates were. Three of them could be intangible at a time. That had to help with moving through that fog, right?  

I was guessing Carousel was in there too, because I couldn’t see her either. But I could see the person who had to be Theory. He was black, and his costume made him look like a scientist, basically. He had a long white lab coat that was just a bit thicker than it should’ve been, making me figure it was armored in some way. Beyond that, he wore heavy combat boots, cargo pants with a lot of pockets (all of which had random tools, notebooks, and other stuff sticking out of them), and a gray and black checkerboard-pattern plaid shirt. His head was bald, and he wore heavy green-tinted goggles over his eyes and a fairly large portion of his face. 

For a second, I couldn’t tell what he was doing. Not from this distance. Then I realized. He was talking on the phone. His focus was on that, as he turned in a circle while gesturing wildly. It looked like he was yelling on the phone. Whatever was happening here, it wasn’t going perfectly. Probably because they still hadn’t found Inessa. 

And seriously, why the fuck did they all want to find Inessa?!

Whatever the reason, an answer wasn’t coming immediately. Especially since Theory noticed us. I could almost see his double-take and the way he cursed, still holding the phone. Then he shouted, and I barely caught the word ‘those guys’ while he gestured our way. 

The thugs who had been going around from civilian to civilian all looked up, before focusing on us. Which meant the good news was that those people weren’t going to be harassed for a bit (or anymore at all, hopefully). The bad news was that now we had trouble, of the ‘lift their guns and start pointing them at us’ variety. 

“You guys go!” I blurted, activating the green and orange paint I had put on Raindrop and That-A-Way while we were running over here. “Help the others with Banneret! I’ll do something about our new friends!” Even as I said that, my eyes were scanning for Alloy or any of the others. The last text I’d gotten said they were coming and would be here soon. I just hoped it was soon enough

There were seven Prev thugs coming our way. Or rather, my way, once Izzy and Amber took off running toward Banneret and the others. Two of the approaching guys had shotguns, one had a long chain with some sort of blade attached to the end, another had a simple knife, two more had bats, and the last one had a pistol. That last guy was already lining up a shot, but I trusted the orange barbells I just activated on both of my arms to protect me from that. Not that I was going to be sitting idle anyway. Even as he was taking aim and starting to pull the trigger, I sent a shot of red paint that way while activating a bit of blue under my feet to send myself upwards. As the red paint hit his chest, I activated a bit of matching red on the bottom of one of my shoes. I was yanked that way in a Kung Fu-style wirework thirty-foot long jump kick that ended with me colliding with the man foot-first. He hit the ground, having only been able to let off a couple shots, which rebounded off my costume like hurled pebbles. 

At the same time, I put both hands out to either side, hitting the two baseball bats that the nearest guys had with red paint. They were already in mid-swing, but the paint yanked them toward one another rather than into the back of my head. The bats slammed into each other, and before the guys could actually let go, I took advantage of them being right next to each other by slapping the ground at their feet to make a blue circle. And this time I tried something else. Thinking about how I’d mixed white and green as well as red and green, I tried something similar here. First I made a quick empty circle of yellow, then I filled it in with blue and sort of… focused on both being connected. Then I activated them at the same time. 

It worked. The two men were launched into the air, but after they reached the first few feet off the ground, their flight slowed dramatically. They were still flying upward, but it was in slow motion. And more than that, they were flying higher than they normally would have. Like twice as high, actually. The entire effect was slowed down but also extended dramatically. It took them longer to reach the normal height, they went up twice as high anyway so that was even longer, and then they had to come back down. Which was also slowed. 

Well, at least they wouldn’t hurt themselves when they landed. And that little show even worked to distract the other guys here. While they looked that way reflexively, I hit the nearby shotgun with a bit of pink right around the middle of the barrel, while simultaneously activating a set of green wings on my back. With that burst of speed, I reached up to twist the barrel around so he couldn’t fire the gun. Not unless he was very stupid, anyway. Unlike when I used the pink paint on living targets, inanimate objects stayed the way I left them. 

Boy, between this and using the pink paint on that lamp post earlier, I really was turning into a cartoon, wasn’t I? 

The man cursed at me and dropped his weapon while trying to grab my arm. At the same time, the other shotgun guy was trying to slam the butt of that weapon into the side of my helmet. I supposed he didn’t feel great about trying to actually shoot me with it while I was so close to his buddies. Which, of course, was one of my main reasons for closing the distance the way I had. 

So one guy trying to grab my arm and the other trying to hit me with the butt of his shotgun. I certainly wasn’t going to let either of those things happen. Fortunately, I still had the green speed, so I was able to snap my arm out of the first guy’s grasping fingers before using a set of purple dart images across my leg to boost my strength enough to grab his wrist and twist it. He cried out and stumbled, before my foot collided with his knee, making him collapse fully. 

Oh, and the other guy, the one who had been trying to smack me from the side? I did something special for him. First, I made an orange smiley face appear on my helmet, right where he was aiming. The orange face had a blue mouth for a smile, along with blue sunglasses. Blue with orange. I focused on the former feeding into the latter.

In this case, when the butt of the gun hit that paint, I expected to be protected while the man was knocked away. But that wasn’t what happened. Instead, the instant the impact happened, I was fine, but the man himself jerked his head a little with a yelp of surprise, turning to look behind him. It was like someone had smacked him in the– Wait. Oh. 

Right, feeding blue into orange didn’t simply make it repel an object and protect the thing it was on. It protected the thing while also rebounding some of the damage back into the person responsible for it? I was guessing that the amount of damage returned had to do with how much blue I included. Either way, orange paint protected from damage, and blue-infused orange paint sent a portion of that damage back. 

Well, that was sure something. But I didn’t have time to focus on that now. Even as the guy turned his head away from me to see what had popped him, I was lashing out with my elbow into his stomach. It made him double over, before I caught the collar of his shirt and shoved him forward so he crashed into the guy whose leg I had kicked out from under him. They both went down in a tangled heap.

Before I could focus on the others, one of Alloy’s marbles flew in and transformed into a long, wide bar to slam into them. As I went down, my gaze snapped over and up. Sure enough, the girl herself was there, along with Style and Poise on one side of the long, wide board three of her marbles had turned into, and Calvin and Hobbes on the other side. 

They landed next to me, with Peyton asking, “Hey, are we late?”

In that moment, I caught a glimpse of Theory in his mad scientist getup walking our way. In the mid-step, his body transformed. No, he didn’t transform. He switched places with his partner. Now we were facing a woman in a form-fitting dark blue bodysuit that had a white chest plate and white boots. Her face was covered by a blue mask that covered her entire head, with white lenses over her eyes. 

Just as I took that in, the woman extended her hand and a blast of powerful wind erupted from her palm. It caught our entire group, picking us up and throwing us a good ten or fifteen feet. 

As we hit the ground and rolled, I called, ”Nope, I’d say you’re right on time!”

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Equal And Opposite 21-10 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Equal And Opposite 21-08 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Equal And Opposite 21-07 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Equal And Opposite 21-06 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But boy, was it tempting. 

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Interlude 20A – Jolene Iverson (Summus Proelium)

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“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.” 

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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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New Deals 13-07 (Summus Proelium)

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It wasn’t a mistake, apparently. My name was written out and everything. Paige was inviting me to her birthday party. Or her (adopted) parents were making her. Or this was some kind of elaborate trap. Actually, the fact that I genuinely wasn’t sure if it was a standard mean girl school teenage bullshit trap or something more nefarious involving her supervillain father (not that I had any room to judge as far as that went) kind of said something about how my life was. 

So which was it? Assuming this whole thing was intentional, was Paige playing her bitchy shtick again, waiting for me to either come so she could pull something or not come so she could tell everyone what a snob I was? Or was it something worse she and her father had cooked up?

Complicating everything, of course, was the fact that I’d found out we used to be friends. Which was still something that I couldn’t wrap my head around, no matter how many times I thought about it. Paige Banners and I were friends at some point? The same girl who had been… who had made so much of my school life… who had… how were we friends? Why was she apparently so different now? It couldn’t just be memory loss, right? What was going on? 

In any case, two days (really a day and a half) after getting the invitation, I still didn’t know exactly what that was all about. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much of a choice about going. Apparently Paige’s family (or the people who had apparently adopted her?) had also sent the invitation to my parents, making it an official sort of thing, and my mother had said that I needed to put in an appearance to avoid upsetting the Banners. It was a rich people thing. My family was rich, the Banners were rich, we had to play nice in some respects. I didn’t have to stay for long, but I had to at least show up. 

In any case, now it was Friday, which meant two things. First, we were supposed to have dinner with that reporter guy who was up from Los Angeles. And second, I was going out that night to meet with those two from before, Murphy and Roald. I actually had a plan for that bit, at least. I’d talked with Wren and she said she could use their help putting some stuff together. Extra hands and all that. 

So, that at least was something I could start them on. Honestly, I was just glad I’d come up with an answer to one of the questions I’d been thinking about the past couple days, even if it was the simplest one. As for the whole birthday thing and the wider Paige situation… yeah, I had nothing. My brain kept saying that at least I could use this chance to find out more. It was the best opportunity I’d been offered to get close to Paige (a thought that would have made me dry heave not long ago) without it being obvious that I was investigating her. She’d invited me, after all, whatever the reason. I could use that, maybe. 

To distract myself from all those confusing thoughts (as well as the fact that I had every reason to be suspicious about this party), I was taking a trip through the city as Paintball about an hour after school. Not really looking for anything in particular, just running and skating through the rooftops and across buildings to clear my head. I was going to have to head home for dinner eventually, but that wouldn’t be for another couple hours. We weren’t eating until seven, which gave me plenty of time to take a good run and hopefully get my brain on straight before it twisted itself into knots. 

Yeah, clearing my mind was obviously going super-well, given how much I was still thinking about that whole thing. Urgh. Giving my head a hard shake, I focused on where I actually was. The answer, in that case, was ‘skating along the very edge of a roof, using green paint for speed as I raced toward the far end.’ The building was a good twenty stories high, leaving the view immediately to my left fairly… precarious, to say the least. I ignored that, staring straight ahead as the wheels of my skates glided easily along the roof. The green paint meant I was ‘gliding’ at about forty miles an hour, so the far end was coming up pretty fast. That steep drop loomed. 

Spraying blue paint at the very edge of the roof just in time, I activated it, crouching at the last second before I was launched up and forward with a loud scream of adrenaline. Fuck, fuck! Say whatever about the stress of my whole situation, but I loved this part of my powers. It was so incredibly freeing. I literally hurled myself out into open air twenty stories up. If I fell, if I fucked up, if my powers dropped for whatever reason, if I made any real mistake, the consequences would have been catastrophic. It was terrifying but also so… so amazing. I loved it. I loved my powers, and how I could use them. 

Flipping over high in the air, I twisted my body until my feet were pointed sideways toward the side of the building I was flying at. The momentum from my launch carried me clear across the street that was so far below, until I hit that wall. Instantly, the pace-skates that Wren had put together shifted gravity so that being sideways against that building was the same as being right-side up for me. I didn’t even slow down, ‘landing’ hard against the wall before immediately continuing to skate, that time along the wall. My skates made clickety-clack sounds as they passed through the grooves of the bricks, almost calming in a way. Especially if you didn’t think about how high up you were. It helped. All of this was helping me feel better. 

Before reaching the edge of that wall, I retracted my skates with a quick command and simply ran the last few steps while focusing on the purple stars I’d previously set up along my legs. Activating them for the strength boost, I threw myself sideways off the wall. At the same time, I turned my entire arm and hand bright pink and heaved it out as hard as I could while activating that paint as well. My arm, suddenly rubberized, actually stretched a good ten feet out to catch hold of the ledge of another building. Between the purple and pink paint, I was able to grab the ledge and swing myself over that way, letting out another loud whoop of joy at the rush. 

Releasing the ledge as I managed to swing myself over, I cancelled the pink paint so my arm snapped back to normal. Now I was diving through the air feet-first, at an angle toward the side of a much lower building, only a few stories tall. 

Pointing my hands that way, I shot a spray of pink paint, activating both that and the orange sun image I already had on my back. The instant before I would have hit the pink paint, I deactivated it, shifting the pink to its secondary effect of making the target very springy for those brief few seconds. Which was all the time I needed before my feet collided with the wall, visibly denting it inward a bit before it snapped back to the way it had been to launch me back up and toward the opposite side of the street. 

Flipping over through that, I hit the wall of another building a couple stories up and glanced down to see a few people taking pictures from below, or even waving. A few called, asking for autographs, or even for a ‘ride’ through the city.   

I waved back, crouching a bit to slap my hand against the wall. The logo I’d made up for ‘signing’ things back at the Ten Towers headquarters appeared. Black oval with ‘Paintball’ written in white cursive letters, along with a rainbow spray of all the other colors from one side to the other. I made the logo large enough to see before throwing myself back into a run once more. I’d let the people down there have some time to take pictures of the logo before dismissing it so some poor guy didn’t have to scrub it clean. 

Yeah, that stuff seemed pretty silly and even arrogant if I thought about it too much, but I’d heard about how important it was to keep a good public image. I really didn’t have it in me to drop down there and talk to people while I was still trying to clear my head. But I could, at least, give them that little logo thing to show I wasn’t ignoring them. Besides, playing things up like that was fun. And I had to admit, the cheers as I ran along the wall before using blue paint to launch myself up and away were pretty amazing to hear. 

Just as I landed on the edge of another roof, the Touched-business phone buzzed in my pocket. Glancing down to see the people gathering up under the logo I’d painted to take pictures, I pulled the phone out and glanced down. It was the number That-A-Way had given me. 

“Hey, you busy?!” she immediately blurted the second that I answered. It sounded like she was out of breath. “Cuz we could use a little help over here!” 

Well, that got my attention. Quickly straightening, I asked, “Help over where, with what?” Tempting as it was to add a snarky comment about how she better not be asking me to help her move, I restrained the impulse. This sounded serious. She was definitely in the middle of something big, given the shouts and other sounds I could vaguely hear in the background. 

There was a brief pause while That-A-Way clearly dealt with something else, before she responded. “Fox Theatre on Woodward! Near downtown. You know where–what the fuck am I saying–the baseball stadium! We’re at the baseball stadium! There’s some big fight going on between the–Rain, get down! Some big fight going on between the Niners and the Eights. They’ve got the big guns a couple blocks north, but we’re catching the edge of it and could use a little–” There was a sudden loud pair of gunshots that cut off her words, and my heart leapt into my stomach until her voice came back midway through a sentence, “–of shit! Paintball?” 

“I’m on my way!” I blurted quickly, wanting the other girl to focus on what she was doing. “I’ll be right there, I’m just–I’m coming, just a few minutes out!” With that, I dismissed the logo on the building nearby before running to the edge of the roof I was on, launching myself upward. Fox Theatre on Woodward. That was the same street where the library that I’d eavesdropped on Paige’s conversation with her father was on, but a couple miles further south. And That-A-Way was right, it was also directly next to Whitaker-Trammell Field, the massive domed baseball stadium (for the Detroit Tigers) my father had helped fund the creation of to replace the former Comerica Park about ten years earlier.

In any case, I really was only a few minutes away. At least the way I traveled. Staying atop the buildings, I raced toward the theater as quickly as possible. My skates seemed to barely touch down before I launched myself again, urging myself to fucking move already. It didn’t matter how fast I was going. It didn’t matter that I was hurtling myself recklessly through the air while barely paying attention to my surroundings. It felt too slow. Go, go, I had to get there. If something happened to That-A-Way, or any of the others, because I was too slow to help… I couldn’t let that happen. I had to get there right god damn now. 

Actually, I really wasn’t paying that much actual attention to my surroundings. I was running along the side of buildings, jumping across billboards, popping my skates out to glide across the very edge of roofs, all while going way too fast to be judging all of this manually. It was like when I was navigating through those trees in the middle of the night. I just… knew where to go. 

Not something to worry about right then. Another example of my weird extra sense or whatever, but I didn’t have time to focus on it. The Minority. That-A-Way. I had to get there to help. Any other weirdness could wait until later. 

On the plus side, it didn’t actually take that long for me to get where I was going. And it took an even shorter amount of time for me to hear some of what was going on. There was gunfire, blaring horns and squealing tires from cars still trying to get away from being in the middle of it, screaming, and more. So much more. I was heading straight into a storm of chaos and violence. And, from the sound of what That-A-Way had said, this was just the edge of things. Just how bad was it further north, where the so-called ‘big guns’ were fighting? 

Pretty bad, clearly. But I had to focus on helping these guys. First, however, I had to see what was going on. My eyes scanned the street below frantically as I came to a stop at the edge of an office building across the street from the theater itself. Below me was the spot where the smaller Columbia street crossed Woodward. Columbia led straight through a couple large parking lots directly in front of the stadium. 

But baseball wasn’t the point. The real point were those two parking lots and the theater across Columbia street. There were people down there, spread all through the street, partially in the theater itself from the look of things, and in those parking lots. It was a mix of police, Prev gang members, Touched gang members, and the Minority. Not to mention a handful of civilians who were cowering on the ground, unable to get out of the line of fire. 

Judging from my quick look, what Way had said made sense. There were definitely two different gangs down there, a mix of Ninety-Niners and Easy Eights. It looked like some kind of massive fight had broken out, the cops intervened and were quickly outgunned, and now the Minority were trying to help. But they too were outnumbered. Luckily, the two gangs seemed more interested in fighting each other than in actually causing damage to the Star-Touched or police.

There. Janus (Uncle Friendly and Mister Harmful) were standing at the edge of the nearest parking lot. They’d made their hands and arms massive, and were currently using them to lash out at the nearby Whamline. But the Minority guy kept launching energy coils that exploded to knock the incoming hands out of the way. He couldn’t do more than that, fighting a defensive battle, because there were two civilians huddled on the ground right behind him. Whamline was covering them, repeatedly knocking Janus’ hands out of the way. But with every grasp, the conjoined men kept getting closer to getting hold of him. They were using the fact that Whamline had to protect the prone civilians against him, almost like they were playing a game. Like a cat with a mouse. They were wearing him down. 

Using one shot of blue paint to launch myself that way, then another on top of the traffic light in the middle of the intersection, I flipped over in the air before shooting a spray of pink toward the tall lamp post about ten feet away from Janus, coating it as much as possible. Just before crashing into that same post (activating a bit of orange on one arm to avoid knocking the wind out of myself), I cancelled the pink paint while blurting, “I know you’re into this villain thing, but–” My full body hit the post, bending it all the way over in half before I threw myself off it to the side. “–I really think you should see the light!” As I said those last words, the lamp post snapped all the way upright and then continued over in the opposite direction, like flicking one of those springy doorstop things. The top of the lamp literally slammed into the top of their joined heads. “Up close and personal-like,” I finished from my crouched position, watching the men reel backward. Or forward, in Uncle Friendly’s case. Not that he looked all that friendly right then. They both seemed fairly annoyed with me, even as the lamp post snapped back to its normal position. But hey, at least I had their attention. 

Green paint, green paint, green paint! Activating the wide emerald wings I’d put on my back, I used the enhanced speed to barely avoid the truck-sized fist that Janus basically launched at me. Hurling myself upward and over, I landed on his extended wrist as that hand shot by right under me, shooting yellow down at that to slow them just a little. At the same time, I threw myself in a sideways flip, hitting the underside of their other arm, which was raised slightly higher, running along that with my gravity-defying boots.  

A few steps in and Janus clearly knew where I was, as the arm lifted up before abruptly slamming toward the ground. They were trying to squish me like a fly. And they might’ve managed it, if I hadn’t used that shot of yellow to slow them slightly. As it was, I barely managed to toss myself at the ground and away from the descending arm, tucking into a forward roll that carried me just out of the way as it slammed into the ground so hard I nearly lost my balance. 

Fortunately, the fact that I’d managed to get their attention so well wasn’t all bad news. It also meant that Whamline was able to regroup. Mister Harmful shouted a cursed warning, but it was too late, as the Minority Touched sent out four quick energy coils, which wrapped around Janus by all four limbs before quickly hurling him out of the way and across to the far side of the lot. 

“Go help Way and Rain!” he blurted at me, pointing to the theater across the street. “They’re inside, with hostages! I’ve got these guys!” 

My head snapped that way. I could see where the doors of the theater had been broken down entirely. That-A-Way and Raindrop were in there with bad guys and innocent civilians, apparently. Without pausing to think at all, I threw myself into a sprint that way, ignoring the screamed threat from Mister Harmful. He didn’t matter. Neither did his conjoined partner. The only thing that mattered was getting to That-A-Way and Raindrop. 

And hoping I wasn’t too late. 

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Interlude 12B – Raindrop (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Easy Eights are getting ready for war.”

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