Wren Donovan

Enkindle 23-10 (Summus Proelium)

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“She’s crazy, right?” Murphy asked a short while later, as we all sat on a roof together far away from that pizza shop and any of Braintrust. “Paintball, that lady’s gotta be loco in the heado.” 

“Did you just say loco in the heado?” Paige (or Poise now as she was still in-costume) echoed, head tilting that way as she dropped down with her back to a brick chimney.

Sierra (Style) stood on the opposite side of the roof, arms folded. The way her red leather coat flapped a bit in the breeze while that matching tactical combat helmet was framed against the city skyline behind her made the girl look cooler than I ever could. It must’ve been the way she stood. Even that was cool.  “You know the Spanish word for brain is cerebro, right?” 

After dropping her offer, Glitch had simply handed over a card with a phone number on it and told us to call her with an answer in a couple days. Of course, I had promptly painted the number from the card onto my arm and then tossed the card into the nearest trash can. No way was I going to risk carrying around something that the literal leader of a bunch of Tech-Touched villains had given me. Maybe it had a tracker in it, or a recorder, or maybe it was completely innocent. Either way, I wasn’t going to take that chance. Especially not for a phone number.

Alloy did a quick double-take at Style’s words. “Wait, really? You mean the cool name that Professor X dude gave his super telepathy machine in the comics was literally just the Spanish word for brain? That seems kind of lame. I thought they made up a cool word based off cerebrum.”

“I mean, they did make up a cool word based off cerebrum,” Roald pointed out. “It’s just that the ‘they’ in this case is the ancient Spanish people.”  

Murphy threw her hands up, making a noise of disbelief. “The point, people!” She turned to me. “That crazy lady back there can’t actually be serious with this. She can’t think that’ll work.” 

I offered a clueless shrug. “I don’t think she’s crazy. Not like that. She knows how to use Tech-Touched. And, obviously, how to make a profit off them. Probably because–hold on. Trev?” 

Before saying anything else, I turned to Trevithick. She was standing by herself, clearly deep in thought. When I addressed her, she jolted a little, looking my way before realizing what I was getting at. “Oh! Oh, right, yeah. Hang on a sec.” From a slot in her belt, she pulled a small pen-shaped device, taking a moment to wave it over all of us like security at the airport used to do before they upgraded the system to simply alert if you were carrying any weapons anywhere inside the building itself. They didn’t rely on metal detectors anymore. The system was a lot more advanced, and the scanners were hidden throughout the airport.

In any case, this wasn’t a metal detector either. After Wren had scanned all of us, she clicked her little device a couple times before shaking her head. “Nothing new. No hidden trackers.” 

The device was actually part of her ongoing attempt to get a proper working teleporter. It was meant to scan someone from head to toe to get a one-hundred percent accurate and detailed picture of their body and clothing. It wouldn’t show her their face under a mask or anything like that, just give her a microscopically-detailed… map, essentially, of their current form. Every bump in their shoes, every lace, every imperfection in armor, every button in a shirt, every tiny crack in a glass watch face, the exact contours of a pair of tiny diamond earrings, everything. It scanned and stored a perfect map of your body and clothes together. And since we’d had her scan us just before meeting with Glitch, it would have told her if absolutely anything had been added to us in that time, as the before and after pictures would have been different. 

Not that I really expected the woman to try to get away with putting a bug on one of us, but again, I wasn’t going to take any chances. Just like with the card. Maybe I was getting to be a little better about sharing with my team, but Glitch definitely wasn’t part of that. 

Once I was as sure as I could be that it was safe, I continued my thought. “She knows how to make a very good profit because she has to give part of it to my parents. I don’t think she would’ve suggested this if she didn’t think it was possible.” Pausing, I looked back to Wren. “Which, I guess makes the question, do you think it’s possible?”

She didn’t answer at first, seeming to be lost in thought again. Finally, after we all watched her for a few seconds, she looked at me. “Um, I think so. I mean, it wouldn’t be easy. And I need to look at her prototypes more.” She nodded to the other corner of the roof, where she’d left the bag with the gloves in it. Gloves which we had also obviously gone over with a fine-tooth comb for any bugs. But I expected something to be on them even less than I expected something to be on one of us. Glitch wasn’t stupid. She’d have to know that we would have our own Tech-Touched scour every millimeter of those things. Spying on us like that wasn’t worth the risk. Well, okay, it actually was. It was totally worth the risk. The stuff they could have found out about what we knew… The idea was terrifying. But she didn’t know that. 

Wren continued. “I could only do that with help. But she offered help. But she’s a bad guy. But the things she wants me to do would really help people. But she’d probably find a way to use it for bad things too, even if I do put safeties in it. But people use good things for bad stuff all the time, and it doesn’t erase the good stuff those things do. But if someone hurts people with it, that’ll be my fault. But if we don’t give her what she wants, she might ask for something worse, or start a fight. And I don’t want you guys to get hurt. But–” 

“Wren.” I stepped over that way, putting my hands on her shoulders. “It’s okay. Whatever you decide to do, we’re with you. I mean, I’m with you.” Frowning to myself for the presumption, I turned to look over my shoulder.

“Oh, of course we’re with her!” Murphy blurted. “Come on, man, what do you take us for?” 

“Right,” Paige confirmed. “It’s her choice. Whatever she decides to do about it. We could try to negotiate a single payoff, but something tells me that once Glitch gets an idea in her head about how to make an ongoing profit, it’s not easy to make her give that up. Something like this would be revolutionary. And she’s even offering to let you keep seventy percent. Which should tell you something. She thinks it’s worth so much that she can profit enough off thirty percent, even counting what she has to give to the Ministry.” 

“To your parents,” Alloy put in, with a glance my way. “Which is still really fuuudging weird to think about, for the record.” She caught herself with the curse, giving Wren a sidelong look before turning back to me. “So I guess, in a way, you’d be benefiting from some of that thirty percent too.” 

Grimacing behind my helmet, I shook my head. “I mean at this point it’s like emptying a few dozen dump trucks of water into Lake Erie. Yeah, it’s a lot of water when it’s in the trucks, but once you empty them into the lake, you never–” Stopping short, I blanched, raising my gaze to find Wren, Peyton, Murphy, and Roald staring at me. Paige and Sierra were looking away. “Uhh heh… hehe… I guess I was sorta, kinda just talking about dump trucks full of money not being a big deal.” 

“Because you already have a Lake Erie of money,” Peyton noted. “Yeah.”

I shook my head. “My parents have a Lake Erie of money. I’ve benefited from it, sure. But it’s theirs.” 

“So it’s a lake of money you can swim in,” Murphy replied while moving over to plop herself on the edge of a metal air conditioning duct running along the roof next to me. “The point is, Alloy’s right, that’s weird to think about.” She squinted at me curiously. “What is it like, being one of the richest teenagers in the country?” 

Coughing, I shook my head. “Let’s not get into that. I just–I just don’t want you guys to think of me that way. I’m still just Paintball.” 

I couldn’t see Murphy’s face behind the ski mask, but her body language said she wanted to say something about that. She stopped herself, however, and just replied, “So, Glitch thinks this idea is such a winner that she can get all the moolah she wants and what she has to pay the Ministry off just thirty percent? Kinda weird that she didn’t try for fifty-fifty, isn’t it?” 

“She probably assumes that by offering seventy percent to us, she’ll look magnanimous.” That was Poise, bringing her legs up to her chest as she continued to sit against the brick chimney. “We’re more likely to think she’s being nice.” 

“And,” Sierra added, “that if we think at all about the money, we’ll have dollar signs in our eyes. With, of course, the added benefit that this is all for saving lives.” 

Murphy was looking down at her phone. I saw her google the definition of magnanimous before muttering, “I knew it.” Then she put it away and gestured along with what Sierra had been saying. “Yeah, she offered the big life saving invention idea so it wouldn’t make us feel like we were giving her weapons or anything she could, you know, use to hurt people.” 

“Except she still could,” Wren pointed out flatly while shifting her weight and fidgeting uncertainly. “Even if the stuff itself isn’t turned bad, you said it yourself. She’d still make money off it. A lot of money. And then she’d use that money to hurt people.” 

“Or maybe she’d retire,” I pointed out before wincing. “Yeah, probably not. But it’s okay, Wren. You think about it and whatever you decide, we’ll go with. If we need to come up with a plan to make her back off and–” 

“No.” Wren’s head shook quickly. “No, I don’t wanna make anybody fight those guys. I mean, they’re bad guys so you’re gonna have to and all that, sure. What I mean is, I don’t wanna make it, umm… personal or anything. You–I mean we already have umm, you know, enough to do.” She focused on Paige and Sierra. “We’ve gotta save your sister! And Flea and Trivial too!” She took a deep breath, letting it out before slowly continuing. “I’ll do it. I’ll help build those things. But only after I work on the thing to help track Breakwater!” 

“We’ll tell her you’ve got projects you need to finish before you get started on anything else,” I agreed. “She can’t possibly object too much to that. She has to know that Tech-Touched have their own things to do, and she just sprang this on you.” Thinking about that briefly, I gave a decisive nod. “Yeah, we’ll just tell her that we’ll work on that but she has to wait a couple weeks.” Belatedly, I focused on the girl herself. “Err, I say we. We’ll help, any way we can. But it’s up to you. Do you want to try that?” 

She didn’t answer at first, going silent again for a few seconds before murmuring, “I said I wouldn’t build anything for supervillains. But… I guess this isn’t actually for them? She’s gonna get money out of it, but we were gonna give them money anyway. I…” She squirmed on her feet, making a cute little uncertain noise in the back of her throat before finally nodding. “Okay, okay. I’ll figure out how to work on it. Um, you know, after we do the other thing.” 

Obviously, I felt a pang of regret and annoyance at myself for not being able to simply tell Glitch to go shove it. But the others were right, there was so much going on already that we really couldn’t deal with a straight up fight on our own against Braintrust. After all, they hadn’t gotten a reputation for driving other Tech-Touched either out of the city or under their heel for nothing. If we were going to fight them, it was going to need to involve all of us and our full attention. And at the moment, the majority of that attention had to be focused on saving Irelyn and Trivial. Not to mention figuring out what the hell was going on with Luciano. Our plates were absolutely full. Picking a fight with Braintrust just wasn’t in the cards, and we all knew it. 

“We’ll wait though,” I finally spoke up after all of us had gone quiet for a few seconds following Wren’s decision. “She gave us a couple days, and I’d rather stretch that out as long as possible. Then we’ll tell her you need time to open up enough of your project space to work on something new.” 

“You should start with a month,” Paige put in. “Let her negotiate you down to a couple weeks or so. It’ll make her feel like she won something even though it’s what you wanted in the first place.” 

I was already nodding that way. “Right, yeah, good plan. Uh, but I guess in the meantime, we really don’t have anything we can–” 

And that was when Wren’s phone rang. It was a bright chirping sound, like a bird singing. No, it was literally a bird singing. I realized that belatedly, as the girl tugged it out of her costume and held the thing to her ear. “Hi, Uncle Fred! Sorry, I know I said we’d call as soon as we were done so you could come pick us up, but we were still talking about–huh? Oh. Wait, what?” 

She was quiet for a few seconds, clearly listening as the man said something on the other end. The rest of us looked at one another and shrugged until Wren quickly blurted, “Really?! I knew that was a good idea! Oh, uh, tell the others, Uncle Fred.” With that, she put him on speaker phone and held it out so we could hear. 

There was a brief pause before the man cleared his throat on the other end. “Uh, well, I was just sitting here and the scanner the kid set up to monitor police and emergency traffic for certain words or phrases popped up with a bunch of stuff going on about a zombie and fire, right here in town.” 

Well, that sure made me straighten up. I was on my feet in an instant, my eyes widening behind the helmet and mask. “Wait, what? Here in town? You mean Luciano…” I trailed off, grimacing. “He made it here already.” 

“Yeah, but it’s a little confusing,” came the response over the phone. “There’s a bunch of different conflicting reports about where he is, what he’s doing, that sort of thing. Guy moves fast, and he’s just… causing a bunch of bullsh-crap chaos everywhere he goes.” 

I thought about that for a moment. “If he’s pissed at the Ministry, maybe he wants to cause that chaos. Maybe that’s the point. They try to keep things as neat and orderly as possible. They have their rules. If he’s going against that, maybe his whole point is to cause a lot of terror and confusion.” 

“Well he’s sure managing that,” Fred replied. “There’s reports coming in from all over the city. But as soon as someone gets there, he’s gone already. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. He attacked a real estate office on the north side of town, then a Wendy’s about six blocks east five minutes later, then a bookstore five miles south ten minutes later. It was quiet for fifteen minutes, then he hit an art gallery just two blocks east of the bookstore. Now it’s been quiet again for–wait, hang on.” 

We were put on hold for a few more seconds while my mind reeled. What the hell? Well, I knew what the hell. I’d said what the hell. He was causing a bunch of chaos with no pattern, almost certainly as a way of getting back at the Ministry. But they weren’t the ones who were really going to be suffering. It was the people he was targeting, the people whose misery he was throwing in the Ministry’s faces. 

Fuck. Fuck, we had to stop this. 

My mouth opened to say something to that effect, when Fred came back on the line. “There’s another one. He’s hitting a convenience store about–hang on… a mile north of where you are.” 

He gave the address, and I was already turning. “I’m on my way.” My foot rose, then I froze. “I mean…” Pausing, I looked back to the others. “I don’t wanna say–” 

“Oh, shut up,” Sierra blurted. “Of course we’ve got your back. Don’t be an idiot.” 

“Now hang on there,” Fred started, “I don’t want–” 

“Sorry, Uncle Fred, gotta be a superhero!” With that, Wren clicked off the phone and faced us. “So c’mon, what’re we waiting for? Let’s go kick his butt.” 

There wasn’t time to have a whole discussion about it right then and there. Not considering Luciano could disappear again any minute. So, I shot a spray of green paint from both hands, covering everyone as much as I could before pivoting back to the edge of the roof. “Okay then.

“Let’s go stop a zombie.” 

******

“Ahhhh!” Murphy yelled out while hitting the blue paint I had shot in front of her. It propelled the girl across the gap between the building rooftops we had been running across. It wasn’t the first or longest gap I’d shot her and the others over, nor was it the widest. But she screamed every time, as did Roald. I was pretty sure hers was about seventy-five percent joy and twenty-five percent terror, while Roald’s was closer to fifty-fifty. Either way, they insisted on continuing along with it. 

Roald hit the paint a second later, even as Murphy was landing on the far building, the orange paint I’d given her helping the girl avoid breaking any bones in the process. Meanwhile, Paige and Sierra hit the second blue puddle I’d put down, one after the other. They both launched themselves that way, rolling as they hit the far roof before popping right back to their feet. 

Rather than using either puddle, I just made blue paint appear on the bottom of my boots as I hit the edge of the roof, launching myself that way. Above me and to one side, Wren was flying with her dragonfly-like wings, while Alloy flew on her hoverboard above and to the other side. Both of them were calling out which way we should go to reach good jumping points to get from roof to roof. Beyond that, we were following my directions. Or rather, the directions the helmet was giving me when I used the map function Wren had provided in the heads-up display. It showed me just how to get to the spot where Luciano was supposedly still causing trouble, if what Fred had said when Wren checked in with him a moment earlier was right. 

There we were, running and jumping from roof to roof, using blue, green, and red paint as much as I could manage just so we could get there as fast as possible, praying we weren’t too late. Poise and Style being full of… poise and style. They were doing this as though they’d done it their entire lives, like Olympic-level athletes. Hell, they barely needed the paint boosts, which really helped given how fast I would’ve run out if I had to use it for everyone. Calvin and Hobbes, meanwhile, clearly weren’t nearly as skilled. But they were doing their best, and they weren’t bad. Probably from a lifetime of running through dangerous neighborhoods and away from people who saw them as easy marks. Their method of getting around was just a bit less polished. 

With Trevithick flying along one side of me and Alloy along the other, we brought up the rear so I could hit people and spots with paint whenever needed. Wren and Peyton both helped with that, calling down to me to point out the right spots. It worked pretty well, once we got the system down a couple buildings in. By this point, we were basically a well-oiled machine with it. 

Once I joined them on that roof, my skates skidded to a stop. This was it. On the other side of this building was the parking lot connecting to the convenience store. I could hear screaming, along with a weird guttural howling sound. Oh, and fire. I heard fire too. 

Together, we raced to the far side of the roof, ready to jump down there and stop this guy. Then we all stopped short. Because we saw the guy. Except it wasn’t the guy. That is, it wasn’t Luciano. Standing down there in the middle of the parking lot, in front of a couple cowering civilians who were trying to take cover behind a bench in front of the store, was a man who looked nothing like Luciano. He was white, for one thing. He looked like a random beach bum, with long blonde hair, tanned skin, board shorts, and no shirt. Which gave us a good view of the dozen holes in his chest and stomach. Some were only partial holes, while others ran all the way through, showing daylight on the other side. It was like he’d been hit with a shotgun blast of pellets. 

It wasn’t Luciano. But he was still clearly dead, still had obvious death-wounds, and was still moving despite that. Oh, and he had the same fire power, given the way his teeth were visibly glowing. To say nothing of the way he grabbed the bench the people were cowering behind and made it start melting. He wasn’t Luciano, but he was in the same condition.

So… who the fuck was this? 

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Enkindle 23-08 (Summus Proelium)

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My parents had really freaked out about the invasion of their base. How did I know that? Because the next morning, Tuesday, my mother informed Izzy and I while we were eating breakfast that there would not be a family dinner that night. Considering we’d even had it for the most part while they were out of town and only able to appear via video chat, that was pretty big. Though, of course, she didn’t tell us why. She just said that something had come up at the office and they were going to be very busy with that. 

So yeah, canceling family dinner was a big deal. I did my best to seem genuinely surprised and curious in a normal way without looking like I was pushing to see what sort of answer she would come up with. I had to make my reaction come off as completely clueless, yet with the right balance of teenaged not caring that much but being accustomed to the dinners happening. 

Honestly, I really shouldn’t have bothered. My mother was so distracted that I don’t think she heard half of what I said. She just accepted that I was mildly curious about what was going on, gave me some excuse about being busy, then went back to talking on the phone using what was obviously careful language to avoid saying anything dangerous in front of me. I was pretty sure I could have said something like, ‘hope you catch the people who broke into your mall base and stole everything that wasn’t nailed down,’ and there would only be like a twenty percent chance of her actually processing what I was saying properly. 

But, of course, tempting as that was, I resisted the urge. Mom left after giving both Izzy and me a hug, promising to make it up to us later. Then she was out the door and on her way downtown. I exchanged a look with the younger girl beside me, but neither of us said anything about it. Well, actually we did. But we kept our comments limited to what we would have said if we didn’t know the truth. I was absolutely certain that anything we said in here would be heard by someone we didn’t want to hear it. So we played our role as clueless teenagers. 

We also wouldn’t be getting a ride from Jefferson that morning. He was fully occupied helping my parents out, which had to be doing a number on his dislike of schedule changes. And that all by itself told me how big of a deal this was for them. This whole situation was obviously all hands on deck. It made me feel anxious for the fact that we couldn’t eavesdrop on what they were saying. I had no idea how much information they actually had right now, or what they would be able to find out over the next few days. I was pretty sure we hadn’t left anything that could expose us, but not knowing for sure what they were doing made me nervous. 

It was sort of like the opposite of the situation we’d been in before. They’d had no idea we were even a thing, let alone what we were planning. Now they did know about us, at least in general terms, and we had no way of finding out how much they would be able to figure out. It was our turn to not know what they were planning. 

But, we were just going to have to suck that up and move on. We had other things to deal with right now. Mainly the fact that we were supposed to go out as a group later tonight and meet with Glitch. I had no idea how that was going to go, and it was making me nervous. But I knew it was the right thing. The others finally knew the truth about me, and we could work together properly. It was the right time for us to make an appearance as a team. Doing so by meeting with Glitch and letting her know what we were going to do about the whole Tech-Touched tax thing was just… well, as good of a moment as any. 

I had also told Izzy and Amber late the night before about what happened, both with the Luciano thing and later at the shop. They knew about the zombie-man, and that the others were aware of my identity and all that. Though I promised them I hadn’t given away their own identities. I wasn’t sure exactly how long those could remain secret if they kept working with our fledgling group, but it was up to them to decide what to do about it. 

In any case, both Izzy and Amber thought I’d done the right thing by telling the others who I was, given how much trust they’d earned. We were in this whole thing together now. We were a team, and they had deserved to know the truth about me and my connection to the Ministry. 

Eventually, the two of us finished our breakfast. I’d already called for an Uber, and it pulled up outside the house as we made our way there. We weren’t going to be skipping school today. Distracted as my parents were, I really didn’t want to give them any reason whatsoever to think something might be up with me. Sure, connecting the base invasion with me skipping school would be a huge stretch, but still. We needed them not focused on us at all. Thus, not giving them any reason to even think about us. 

Besides, after the insanity of the past couple of days, and what was coming up soon, I needed the break of just going to school and being normal for a few hours. Was it weird that I saw sitting in class listening to teachers and doing work as a break from my extracurriculars? Yeah, probably. But hey, I’d never claimed to be normal. 

I was dropped off at my school first, and I made sure the driver was paid with a substantial tip before sending him on to drop off Izzy at her own school. Then I turned to face the school itself and took a deep breath. Time to go inside and pretend to be a completely normal teenager for a few hours. 

“You’re not fooling anyone, you know.” 

The words made me turn abruptly, just in time to see that Dani girl approach from the direction of the student parking lot. Blinking a couple times, I found my voice finally. “Eh, what?” 

Stopping there, she raised an eyebrow at me before gesturing at the departing Uber. “You really think people will buy this whole ‘oh I have to be driven around in a normal car like everyone else, I totally don’t have a personal private rocket ship and teleportation technology I can use to go anywhere I want’ business?” She winked then, giving a pointed and overly dramatic sigh. “I mean, it’s either believe that you have access to all that and are trying to hide it, or that you actually are stuck driving around in a wheeled car like the rest of us schlubs.” 

A very tiny smirk found its way to my face as I offered a shrug. “I mean, when it comes down to it, whether I have to use a normal car to hide my vast technological sci-fi toys or don’t have access to that at all, the end-result is the same, isn’t it?” 

Dani, in turn, shook her head. “It’s not the same at all. If you had access to that stuff, you could cruise around in a spaceship on your off days. I mean, for all we know, you’re out there flying to new planets and hobnobbing with alien diplomats on the weekend.” 

Dramatically raising my finger to my lips, I gave her a sharp, “Shhh. If everyone hears about that, they’ll all want a ride to Alpha Centauri. Believe me, political relations are already tenuous enough without adding a bunch of extra galavanting teenagers who want to cruise the galaxy.” 

With a laugh, the other girl retorted, “Oh yeah, and everything I’ve heard about you makes you the perfect diplomatic representative for humanity. No way would you ever do something dramatic on a dare that made the aliens panic.” 

“I’ll have you know, I am on my best behavior whenever I’m on an alien world.” With a grin, I added, “That’s why I act up around here, to get it out of my system.” 

“Oh, is that why?” Amber put in while joining us. “Sorry, what was that about aliens?” 

With a shrug, Dani replied, “Just working out exactly what our local richest teenager in the state likes to do in her off-hours.” 

Amber looked me over as though appraising for a moment. “Last time I checked, it was a lot of putting herself in physical peril, right? Skiing down death-trap mountains, skating off skyscrapers downtown, bungee jumping into the Grand Canyon?” 

“Sometimes all in the same day!” I chirped with a broad smile. “Play your cards right and maybe I’ll bring both of you along sometime. We might even take the rocket ship.” 

Dani gave me a thumbs up. “Sounds good, just let me know when and where. Hope I get to wrestle an alien.” With that, she glanced at her phone and said something about needing to talk to someone before class. Then she headed off, leaving me standing there with Amber.  

“You good?” the other girl asked after we watched her walk away. 

Nodding a little, I replied, “Yeah, I’m okay. Still kind of coming to terms with the fact that the others know the truth now. Like… it kind of freaks me out a bit, you know?” 

“You mean because now there’s five extra people who know exactly who you are and who your parents are?” Amber put in before exhaling. “Yeah, that’s pretty big. You’ve been keeping this secret for a long time now. I mean, relatively speaking for how big it is and how much you’ve been doing. And now it’s sort of out of your hands. You can’t control what they do with it. If they fuck up and give away your secret, you can’t undo it. You just… have to trust them. It’s scary, huh?” 

Swallowing hard, I murmured, “Absolutely terrifying. The more people who know about me, the bigger chance of this getting out. You’re right, I can’t control them. I can’t be there every minute of every day. I have no idea what they’re doing right now. I mean, I trust them, or I wouldn’t have told them the truth. It was the right thing to do. But still, it just… it’s a lot. And I keep having waking daymares about one of them saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and…” I shuddered. 

Her hand patted me on the back. “Don’t worry, I get it. Believe me, I know it’s a big deal. But you’re right, it was the right thing to do. If you guys are going to be a real team and work together, they needed to know what they were dealing with. The whole story. Especially if Luciano’s turned into some superpowered zombie monster. That seems like a problem that’s gonna get worse before it gets better.” 

“Well, Paige was supposed to be siccing the Ministry on him,” I pointed out quietly, glancing around to make sure no one was anywhere nearby. “Which could kind of be a two birds with one stone situation if it distracts them from focusing on us. But I guess we’ll see what happens.” 

“Yeah,” Amber agreed, “You could say the same thing about this whole situation. We just have to see how it goes. But whatever happens, just remember you’re not alone. You’ve got people you can trust.”  

Nodding slowly, I took a breath before starting to head for the building. There was no sense in being late to class. “Sure,” I murmured on the way. “I just hope that we can find a way to help Trivial and Flea.

“Because as much danger as we might be in right now, I’m pretty sure they’re in a lot worse.” 

******

School that day passed through a time distortion that made it simultaneously take forever and yet finish in the blink of an eye. While I was sitting in every class, I couldn’t stop looking at the clock, which seemed frozen every time I glanced that way. Given what I had to do that evening, I was anxious to be done with all this. But when the final bell rang and it was time to leave, it somehow felt like I’d barely spent any time there at all. Brains were weird sometimes.

I was at my locker when Dani approached alongside San Francisco. The latter spoke up. “Yo, we’re gonna go catch a movie, you wanna come? It’s that special fifteen year anniversary release of Duskrunners. You know they’re counting ticket sales to decide if they’re finally gonna do a second one.”

“Yeah,” Dani put in, “I haven’t seen it yet, but San here keeps saying I should’ve been there at the first release.” 

Raising an eyebrow, I pointed out, “San wasn’t there at the first release. Or if he was, he wouldn’t remember. He would’ve been two.” 

“All the more reason for us to go to this one and get the movie the sequel it deserves,” San insisted. “Come on, I promise, seeing that movie on the big screen is gonna blow your mind. When I went the first time–” 

“First time?” I interrupted. “You mean you already went to see it in the theater?” 

“Opening night, dude,” he retorted. “It’s been out since last Friday, and I’ve seen it three times. Today’s lucky number four. Even with the curfew, which didn’t make that easy. But I need reinforcements, just in case my tickets aren’t getting the job done. Plus, you know, maybe if you really like the movie, you can poke your dad about throwing some funding toward the sequel.” He waggled his eyebrows at me pointedly. 

Snorting despite myself, I gestured. “I’ve sorta got plans today, but I promise I’ll look at my calendar and see when I can get free for a couple hours.” I wouldn’t have minded going to see a movie that day, especially one San was so excited about. But I’d already promised Wren that I would come by and talk some more about funding for the shop, some toys she wanted to try out, and how that night was going to go when we went to talk to Glitch. She was pretty nervous about the whole thing, understandably. 

“Gotta make it at least three hours,” San informed me. “Gonna need extra time after the movie so we can talk all about the tie-in comics and books and about what’s canon and not canon. It gets a little confusing sometimes.”

“Can’t wait,” I dryly replied before glancing toward Dani. She had been watching me curiously the whole time. “Maybe you can help him narrow down how to explain this stuff to a clueless newcomer. Or just tell me to run if it’s impossible.” 

With a visible smirk, the other girl shrugged. “Hey, if it’s impossible and I have to sit through it, I’d be more likely to tie you down so you have to suffer too. Sure you’re too busy today though? Cuz I could do with some reinforcements. And if there were two of us, we could tie him down if it gets too bad.” 

Snickering a little after giving San a look as though I was considering the ‘tying him up’ part, I finally shook my head. “Like I said, sorry. I’ll try to get some free time soon so we can see just how cool this fifteen-year-old movie actually is and how much it holds up. But hey, let me know how it goes. At the very least, so I’ll know if I need to cut and run whenever I see San here again.” 

“Pfft.” Dani gave me a pointed look. “Trust me, babe, even if it’s terrible, I’m definitely going to talk it up just so you can suffer as much as me.” 

San made a sharp harumphing sound, straightening as he looked back and forth between both of us. “I’m telling you guys, it’s not gonna be bad. It’s awesome, and you’re both gonna love it whenever you get to see it.” Muttering something under his breath about how he still couldn’t believe that we hadn’t seen it at any point in the past fifteen years, he shook that off before gesturing toward the nearby doors. “But if we’re gonna get there in time to get decent seats and snacks, we gotta go.” 

With an added promise (or threat) to make sure I made it to the movie next time, Dani headed out with him. I watched them go, then turned back to my locker while my head shook with amusement. At some point I really was going to have to go see that. San wasn’t the type of person to just let that go. And the last thing I wanted was for him to start wondering why I was so busy all the time. And hey, if I did like it, maybe I really could push my parents toward helping to fund a sequel. 

After all, if they were going to profit so much off a criminal enterprise, they could at least make people happy with it. 

*****

“Speaking of profiting off a criminal enterprise,” I muttered under my breath awhile later, once I’d made it to Wren’s shop. 

“What?” the girl herself asked, popping up from behind a counter where she had been digging through a pile of what looked like random junk. 

Coughing, I shook my head. “Nothing, never mind. I just–I’m glad I get to help get this place running properly.” I had my helmet and mask off since everything was closed up, which was a really odd feeling. Standing here with my face exposed while the rest of me was in costume, it felt… well, it almost felt like I was naked, honestly. It was weird and uncomfortable. I felt exposed. Which was the point, really. Everyone here knew who I really was. I just… wasn’t accustomed to that. 

Coming down the stairs with an armload of supplies, Paige flatly put in, “We don’t have to get this place running to pay Glitch, you know. Cassidy and I can both help with that. In more than one way.” 

Wren, however, shook her head. Her chin was set stubbornly. “If she wants money from me, it’s gonna be from my stuff. I mean–uhh…” She paused, frowning uncertainly. “I guess you’re already paying to help get us off the ground and all, but that’s… uhh, different? I think… somehow. Sorta.” 

“Don’t worry,” I assured her, “we get it. And you won’t have to give them stuff forever. We’re gonna deal with the whole thing eventually. Just… probably not a good idea to make too many enemies right now. Especially not when they obviously know about the shop.” Saying that made me shift a little uncomfortably. 

Then I looked over at Paige, trying to change the subject for a moment while we still could. “Did you get to talk to the Ministry about Luciano?” 

“Yeah,” she confirmed. “I mean, I left an anonymous message about him, and the stuff you guys saw. I don’t know how seriously they’ll take it, but hopefully they’ll at least look into it.” 

A grimace found its way to my face. “Yeah, well, we’ll see. Maybe when they start getting other reports about him, they’ll do something. Cuz I kinda doubt he’s the type to lay low and not draw attention to himself. But you know that ‘drawing attention’ thing is probably gonna involve hurting people. Or… or killing them.”

“I’m working on something to trap him too!” Wren quickly put in. “Something he can’t burn his way out of, or whatever he did to escape from the dumpster.” She frowned thoughtfully. “You said he didn’t burn out of that one, right?”  

“Yup.” The memory made me frown as well. “Still have no idea how he managed that, unless he got teleportation powers too. Which is patently unfair. And speaking of an unfair situation,” I looked back to Paige once more. “What about school? Are they uhh, bringing up stuff about your parents being gone?” 

Paige started to shake her head, but it was Sierra who answered, on her way down the stairs behind the other girl. “As far as the school and his company’s concerned, Mr. and Mrs. Banners are on an extended retreat still. They’ve called in a few times to let people know they’re still alive, thanks to voice changers and Paigey baby’s memories of how he talks to people.” 

“Don’t call me Paigey baby,” the other girl retorted, before focusing on me. “But yeah, like she said, everyone still thinks the Banners are just being eccentric rich people on safari or whatever. The company’s still making money without his help, so there’s not too much concern yet. But that won’t last forever. And… I do want to find out what happened to them. Even if they did buy me to replace the daughter they threw out. Plus we have to get Irelyn off that island. Not to mention Flea and Trivial.” 

She was saying it that way in front of Wren rather than give away that Flea was Irelyn, I knew. It was a trick that only worked because everyone thought Flea herself was Asian, and Trivial hadn’t been in the city long enough. Not to mention she was too young. Those were the only reasons the others hadn’t figured out that Irelyn was one of those two. 

And yeah, it felt awkward and kind of bad to lie like that still. But again, it wasn’t our place to expose Irelyn’s identity. I just hoped that when and if it came up later, the others would understand. They’d been more than understanding so far. 

“We will,” I found myself assuring her after that moment of silence. “We’ll find out what happened to all the Banners. I mean, we’ve still got that blackmailing the Breakwater people plan, right?” 

Wren’s head bobbed rapidly. “Uh huh! I’m building the thing to track where the island is so you can tell them to get them off it or else.” She paused briefly. “Uh, does that make us sound like the bad guys?” 

Smiling a bit, I reached out to squeeze her shoulder. “Don’t worry, we are definitely still the good guys around here. They’re the ones not getting a couple superheroes off their prison island because they don’t want bad publicity. I promise, we’re still solidly on the right side of this.

“And speaking of being on the right side of things, let’s finish putting this stuff together so we can go pay a gang of supervillains to leave us alone.” 

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Enkindle 23-07 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There will be a very long commissioned interlude for Heretical Edge posted a bit later today, outside of the normal schedule. This is today’s normal chapter.

Needless to say, there were some surprised looks when I pulled the mask off and dropped it onto the nearby table. Surprised looks from everyone, really, though for different reasons. Sierra and Paige looked surprised that I had actually done it, while the other five were clearly shocked at what they actually saw. Not instantly, of course. There was confusion first, about what the hell I was doing or what my point was. Then I could see as they realized what they were looking at. 

“Wait–” Roald started. His gaze snapped from me over to Sierra and back again, mouth opening and shutting. He was clearly trying to put the whole thing together, though his brain seemed to have short-circuited somewhat. Which was fair, given the circumstances. 

The others weren’t faring any better, for the most part. Murphy kept pointing at Sierra and then back to me while making confused noises in the back of her throat. It was part-choke, part-whine, and part-stammer. Fred was just gaping silently, and Peyton had actually sat down heavily in the chair behind her with an audible thunk followed by a squeak as the force of her falling into it slid the chair backward along the floor. 

Wren was the first to actually find her voice, wings carrying her up near the ceiling in her sudden excitement and confusion. She hovered there, calling down, “Paintball! You’re Sierra! Wait, no, the other way! Sierra, you’re Paintball! Wait, wait–” 

Sierra gave a very slight smirk, gesturing idly with one hand. “No, you pretty much nailed it. This body was built from Paintball’s DNA. Not that our dad knows that. I mean, he doesn’t know she’s Paintball.”

“She?!” That word was what Murphy jumped on, grabbing it like a drowning person being thrown a lifeline. She was pointing at me once more. “You’re a she! You’re she! She’s–you–not he, she, that’s a she, you’re–that is–I don’t–girl! Girl!” It was like that word was all she could manage to keep repeating. 

Looking down at the floor for a moment as I fought back a deep blush, I finally cleared my throat. “I uhh, yeah, That’s about the size of it. Yes–wait.” My voice was still that of a boy, which really confused everything. So, I reached up and took the Bluetooth device out of my ear, hitting the button to turn it off before speaking again with my normal voice while fidgeting with the device in my hand. “Yes, I’m a girl. Yeah, I’ve been lying to everyone about that. Well, almost everyone. I–” Squirming a bit uncomfortably as they all stared at me, I muttered, “I’m sorry.” 

“You mean you’ve been a girl this whole time?!” Peyton blurted, her eyes widening dramatically. She pushed herself back up from the same chair she had just dropped into. 

“Well I didn’t just change,” I managed reflexively before flushing even more. “I mean yes, this is me. This is who I’ve always been. It was easier to hide my identity by pretending to be a boy.” Even as I said those words, the awkwardness felt worse. Not just because I was telling them about how much I had lied, but also because this was me as myself rather than hiding behind the identity of Paintball. I hadn’t fully realized up until that point how much the mask and helmet had allowed me to pretend to be another person. Which was really weird given the actual situation. The anonymity of being Paintball rather than Cassidy really had affected me more than I thought. Revealing myself like this, talking to them as myself rather than through the mask, helmet, and voice changer made me feel a lot more vulnerable. Especially because it was happening all at once. I was exposing myself to all five of them, rather than having separate discussions the way I’d planned originally. This whole thing was a lot. 

But if I thought it was a lot for me, it had to be pretty heavy for them too. And they didn’t even know the half of it yet. If they thought their minds were blown now…

Clearing my throat, I straightened up to look at all of them. They had fallen silent for the moment, just staring at me while absorbing what I’d said. So, I continued. “Like I said, I pretended to be a boy because it’s easier to hide my identity that way. Especially because it means I can pretend to be younger than I really am. And it’s important that I hide who I am. I mean, even more important than it would be for most people.” 

“Who are you?” That was Peyton, sputtering a bit as she added, “I mean, why would Paige and Sierra’s dad have a special body made that looks like you?! He didn’t make it because you’re Paintball, they said he doesn’t even know that you’re Paintball. And besides, it would have been made a long time ago, right? So the only reason he’d make a body that looks like you is if he had some kind of history with you before, but what kind of history could it be? I mean, who are you to him? Who are you at all? What–wait–” 

She started to continue along those lines, while the others began to sputter questions too, making things difficult to keep track of. It was starting to spiral. But I held up both hands to hold them off. “It’s okay, guys, I’m going to explain, I promise. Maybe I should’ve explained the whole thing before, but… but I was nervous. I mean–sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I lied to you guys for so long. But there’s a reason I’m so… I’m sorry. Just let me explain, please?” 

They all stared at me for another moment before Peyton showed up from her chair and nodded. Her voice cracked just a little. “It’s okay, Paintball. Or… or whoever you are. You can tell us the truth. We’re listening.” 

Her words were met with an assortment of nods from the others, even Paige and Sierra, who were staying in the background and being quiet through most of this. I’d actually gotten through the initial bombshell of showing my face and revealing that I was a girl, and now they were ready for me to actually explain the situation. Which, of course, would involve several more bombshells. But whatever, there was no turning back now, so here went nothing. And given the situation, I decided that I might as well start with a big one 

“My name is Cassidy,” I informed them, my own voice faltering just a bit before I forced myself to continue. “Cassidy Evans.” 

Yeah, that sure got a reaction. Everyone did even have more of a double-take than they had when I first revealed my face. Fred managed an incredulous, “Cassidy Evans? As in the daughter of–was in the–I pointed a gun at Cassidy Evans?!” His voice rose to an almost amusing shrill shriek with that exclamation. I could see and hear the reaction across his face and in his words. “You’re like, the richest, most important kid in town and I just–and I was–oh God.” It was his turn to sit down heavily in the nearest chair, clearly playing through what could have happened in his head. “If I shot you, if you–if your parents–” It sounded like he was about to be sick, his face pale.  

“It’s okay,” I assured him. “You didn’t know. I mean– wait, what am I saying, of course it wasn’t okay. You were kind of being a jerk at the time. But whatever, my point is this doesn’t make it worse. Or it does, but not for the reason you–never mind. You’re right though, it would’ve been bad if you shot me and my parents found out, because–” 

“It’s them, isn’t it?” That was Peyton. “They’re the ones behind this whole Ministry thing. They’re the ones in charge. That’s how you know for a fact that it isn’t Caishen, and why you’ve been so obsessed with hiding your identity. That’s why it’s so important that everyone thinks you’re a boy, a younger boy even. Because if anyone would recognize you as a girl, it’s your parents. And you really don’t want them to, because they’re the ones you’re trying to stop.”  

Taking a deep breath, I nodded that way. “Yeah, you pretty much nailed it. I found out the truth about my family the same time I got my powers, a couple months ago.” 

From there, I went on to explain the situation from the start. They all fell silent and watched while I started with hiding inside the car that night. Well, mostly silent. They did have a bit of an exclamation when I mentioned that I was hiding in one of the cars in our garage. But that quieted down soon enough, mostly because they wanted to hear the whole story. 

So, I told them. I explained about what I’d seen that night, about Touching the orb, getting my powers and using them accidentally for the first time, about hiding under the dumpster, hearing my brother, then eavesdropping on my mother and him at home, going out that first night in my makeshift costume and finding out my dad was Silversmith, and so on. I told them about the whole thing, the full story about what I had been through over the last couple of months. It was a lot to get through, especially given the way they were staring at me. 

I did leave out a couple of things, of course. I didn’t tell them about Raindrop being Izzy and living with me, or about That-A-Way being Amber. Those weren’t my secrets to tell, so I had to leave them out. Those two weren’t here to say it was okay. If they wanted to reveal themselves later, that was up to them. I wasn’t going to force the issue. This was enough for now. 

Once I had finished explaining everything that I could, including the whole bit about my history with Paige, who Anthony was and what had happened to my memory, and so on, I finally took a drink from the can of soda that Paige had offered me partway through that. “So,” I announced hesitantly after swallowing hard, “that’s the truth. That’s who I am and why I’ve been lying. Like I said, I had to hide my identity from my parents. They’ve got people everywhere, and I didn’t know who to trust. I still don’t, really. Except for you guys. You guys have earned that. So have Way and Raindrop, but they already know who I am.” 

“They do?” Murphy managed. “They already–wait so you know who they are?” 

Grimacing a little, I hesitated before nodding. “But I can’t tell you, because–” 

“That’s okay,” Peyton immediately put in. “Don’t uhh, don’t worry. We get it. Right?” She pointedly looked to the others, who all agreed. “You don’t have to expose their secrets just because you’re telling us yours. You–you’re really…” She rocked back on her heels, head shaking. “Holy shit, Paintball, this is pretty big.” 

Wren, who had come down from the ceiling by then, landed near me. She was biting her lip as she looked me up and down before starting hesitantly. “But… you’re still Paintball, right?” 

My head bobbed quickly as I met her gaze. “Yes. Yes, of course it’s still me. I’m still me. I’ve always been me, just a different me than you thought. Sort of different. I’m just older and a different gender than you thought, that’s all. The rest of it is still just me.” 

“That’s all?” Peyton echoed. “That’s a pretty big difference. I mean, in some ways.” She grimaced a little, taking a breath. “Sorry, I don’t–I’m not saying it’s–yeah. I get it. I think we all get why you lied about that even after you told us the other stuff. It’s a pretty big thing to get into. And you already dropped some pretty major bombs before.”

Murphy nodded. “Yeah, for sure. We totally get why you did it, but it’s still a lot to take in, you know? Like, I’ve been thinking of you one way this entire time, and the truth is completely different. You’re older than we are. You’re a girl. You–it’s–fuck, dude. Like I said, it’s a lot.” 

Everyone was quiet for a moment before Roald spoke up. “Plus, you’re not just a girl and older, you’re Cassidy Evans. The Cassidy Evans. Which, for the record, you don’t look anything like I expected. When people talk about Cassidy Evans, I always picture like, you know…” He trailed off before turning to gesture toward Paige without saying anything. 

Swallowing, I did my best not to make too much of a face. “Yeah, I get that a lot, trust me. My mom said I should take it as a good thing in some ways. The fact that people don’t really know what I look like means I don’t get mobbed out on the street. I guess she sort of has a point.”  

“Wait, hold on, are you sure that is what you look like?” That was Murphy, straightening up suddenly as she stared at me intently. “You said your family has a way of putting illusions over people, right? Are you sure they’re not doing it to you so that you and everyone else see this?” 

My mouth opened and shut a couple times before shaking my head. “First, I don’t think it works that way. I’m pretty sure the people that have illusions on them are using some sort of Touched-Tech for it, and I don’t have anything like that on me. If they were casting a hologram over me or something, I think it would have to come from something I had with me all the time. It’s not like I have a bracelet or something that I’m always wearing. And if it was somehow projecting the effect from somewhere to everywhere I go, they would have figured out who I really was by now.” 

“Plus the idea of them having some sort of machine that can project illusions over people anywhere in the city, and even out of the city, is pretty goddamn terrifying,” Peyton noted. “So personally, I’d rather believe they’re not quite that ridiculously powerful.”  

“Yeah, that too,” I agreed. Taking a breath, I started to say something else, before Sierra spoke up first. 

“Anyway, there’s definitely no illusion going on with her, because that one knew her five years ago.” She gestured to Paige. “And there hasn’t been a real change.” Turning back to me, she offered a shrug. “Sorry, not to be insulting or anything. I mean, you’ve gotten a bit bigger and all. And you–” 

Flushing deeply, I quickly cut her off. “I get it, yeah. I haven’t changed.” To the others, I added, “That was my second point. Not the Paige thing, but the whole bit about me from the past. There are pictures and videos of me throughout the whole time I’ve been growing up and there’s never a big shift in what I look like. Even if they had the ability to do something like that, I don’t think they’d carry it on for this long. That would just be cruel, and my parents are a lot of things, maybe even sometimes cruel to other people, but not to me. And yeah, I know how that sounds. I really do. But seriously. They’re not complete monsters. This whole thing would be–it’d be easier if they were. They’ve done a lot of bad things, but they’ve also done a lot of good things. My dad is literally Silversmith. He’s saved a lot of people.” 

“And he’s let a lot of other people get hurt and die,” Murphy pointed out. Her voice didn’t really sound accusatory, however. If anything, she sounded sympathetic. “Believe me, I know what it’s like to have a family member who does bad things sometimes but also does a lot of good.” 

Oh. Right, yeah she would understand that, wouldn’t she? It was a reminder that made me flinch a bit before I found my voice. “About that–” 

“I know,” she interrupted. “Your parents are the ones who made the call to help that piece of shit escape the city in the first place.” Her face twisted a bit as she clearly went through an assortment of emotions as far as that was concerned. “Trust me, I’ve been thinking about that this whole time. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. But I’m pretty sure they’re also the one who had him end up in the garbage. Probably cuz he made too much noise for them or something. You know, they stuck to the letter of their deal to get him out of the city and then shot him in the head or something. But he survived somehow and got powers. Or just managed to live with a bullet in the head long enough for one of those orbs to find him. And really, who could’ve predicted that?” 

Despite her words, I could still see anger in her expression and hear it in her voice. It was mostly undirected anger. She wanted Luciano dead, and the people who had helped him escape justice were the same ones who had apparently tried to make that happen. Yet they had failed at that, and now he was more dangerous than ever. Yeah, I could see how that entire situation would give her very conflicted feelings. If my family had just left it alone and let us take him in… fuck. yeah. She wasn’t the only one who had conflicted feelings.  

“We still don’t even know why he went nuts and started this whole thing in the first place,” Peyton pointed out. “Like you said, he started freaking out and causing trouble before he even had to get out of the city. That’s why he had to–” 

“Oscuro,” I blurted. “The cop from the other day outside the laundromat, he told me Luciano owed money to Oscuro. I guess maybe having Cuélebre breathing down your neck could motivate someone to go after all that money.” 

“What’re you gonna do about him?” Fred asked after we had all gone silent for a few seconds considering that realization. “Luciano that is, not Cuélebre. I mean, they’re both–” He stopped, shaking his head. “Point is, he’s still out there and he’s gonna keep hurting people, right? So what’re… uhh, we gonna do? Not that this whole thing about Paintball isn’t fascinating and all, trust me. I’m pretty freaked out myself. But seriously, he’s still out there.”

Everyone looked at me for a moment, and I hesitated while an assortment of thoughts ran through my head. Eventually, I exhaled before starting with, “First, I think we should let the Ministry know what happened, at least as much as we can without giving ourselves away. They don’t want him to be a problem any more than we do. If we’re right about them being the ones who tried to kill him, then they’ll want him stopped too. And they have a lot more resources than we do.” 

“Do you want to stop your family?” Murphy asked, her eyes on me. “Sorry, not to totally change the subject–for very long I mean, but really. Do you want to break up the Ministry?” 

Once again, my mouth opened and shut. I closed my eyes and grimaced a little before opening them as I looked at her. “I don’t know exactly what I want. That’s the biggest problem here, at least from my end. I know I don’t want things to stay the way they are. Yes, my family has done some good things, but they’ve also done some bad things. I believe they think they’re making the city better by only allowing some crime and all that. But… but they’re also making it worse in other ways. It’s like–” Cutting myself off, I tried to put my thoughts into words. “They might be stopping the city from being as bad as it could be, but they’re also stopping it from being as good as it could be. They’re keeping it static. People are still suffering. There’s still homeless, still people being shot and dying in the street, there’s still… there’s still stuff we could fix. I don’t believe there can be a place where there’s absolutely no crime and no suffering at all, but I sure as hell believe it can be better than this. I believe that the Ministry puts profit first, even if they also do some good. And I want to change that. But I can’t as long as it exists the way it does right now. I want to make things better.” 

The others were silent for a moment after I finished saying that, until Wren finally grabbed both of my hands and squeezed them. “We’re all gonna help! We’re gonna help make things better, right?” 

That was met with mixed agreement, before Paige made a point of clearing her throat. “I can… I can contact the Ministry. Anonymously, I mean. I have a phone number for them. I can give them a quick rundown of what happened so they can start looking for him before he… hopefully before he hurts too many people.” 

“Before he kills too many people, she means,” Sierra put in. “And yeah, probably best that you keep it anonymous, because I don’t think they’d listen to the group that just broke into their base.”

“Probably not,” I agreed. 

I started to say something else about that, but was interrupted as the phone in the store rang. Everyone looked that way as Fred grimaced and muttered an apology before answering it. He listened for a second, then looked over and held the phone out to me. “It’s for you, Paintball.” 

I started to take it, only to quickly turn the voice changer back on at a pointed nudge from Paige. Making sure it was working, I took the phone and answered, “Who is this?” 

“Fabulist,” came the response from a male voice. “You know why I’m calling.” 

“Glitch wants an answer about the Touched-Tech tax thing,” I guessed. 

“Exactly,” he confirmed. “It’s been a lot longer than two weeks, since we got a little… busy. But she’s ready now. And she wants to talk in person again. She’ll meet you at the old pizza place where you met before. You know where that is?” 

Thinking about that briefly, I replied, “Yeah, I remember where it is. We’ll be there. When?” 

“Tomorrow evening,” was the answer. “Make it around this time. And don’t make us wait for too long.” 

He hung up then, so I did the same. Everyone was staring at me as I explained what that was. 

“So you’re going?” Paige asked. 

“We are,” I confirmed, looking over the others. “We’re all finally on the same page. No pun intended.” I added that with a glance toward the blonde girl before continuing. “You guys know the truth. You know what’s really going on. So I’m not going to this meeting alone. If you–if you’re still with me, I think we should go as a team. All of us together, finally.

“Time for everyone to meet the full Avant-Guard.” 

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Enkindle 23-06 (Summus Proelium)

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So, we had a lot to talk about on the drive back to Detroit. Part of me wanted to stay and keep looking through that apartment, or even hunt for Luciano himself. But it was too dangerous. Not just because the man could ambush us again, but also because I was pretty sure the distant sirens we heard were thanks to someone calling the cops about the disturbance. No way did we want to stick around and try to explain what was going on, especially given I wasn’t dressed up like Paintball. It would raise far too many questions. And potentially expose too much to my parents. Overall, being found there by the authorities was a terrible idea in general. 

Not that we were able to come up with many answers on the ride. After telling Fred about what had happened, he was even more freaked out and confused than we had been. And that was a pretty high bar to start with. None of us understood exactly what all that had been about, aside from guessing that Luciano had Touched. But what the fuck kind of Touch had it been? He was dead, like, he had a bullet hole in the center of his forehead. But he was still moving around and acting like it didn’t bother him. Plus, he regenerated from everything we did, was incredibly strong and pretty fast, and he gave off that heat. Especially from his glowing teeth. It just–the whole thing was–he had powers. That much was clear. But the rest of it, the fact that he seemed to be a living, mobile corpse? That was new. And incredibly fucked up. 

Once we got back to the pawn shop, we talked to Wren and Paige about it too. And that didn’t help either. Paige beat herself up a bit about not coming with us, but Sierra and I both told her to knock it off. We’d gotten out of there just fine. Well, relatively speaking. 

Then there was Peyton, who had apparently snuck out of her room and came back to the shop to wait for us once her mother got home from the hospital and went to bed. Hearing our story, she clearly felt even worse than Paige did that she hadn’t come with. “I’m sorry, guys. I should’ve–” 

“You shouldn’t have done anything different,” I insisted. “Your mom needed your help. What about her friend, is she–” 

“She’s fine,” Peyton replied immediately. “I mean, she’ll be okay. She just tripped on the steps and broke her leg. Nothing nefarious or, uh, Touched-related.” Even as she said that, I could tell that some part of her mind had been entertaining the paranoid notion that the Ministry had somehow attacked her mother’s friend to get at her. Obviously they wouldn’t need to be that circumspect about it. If they knew she was involved with the break-in at their base, they would have been a lot more direct than breaking her mother’s friend’s leg. Still, I couldn’t blame her for having the thought. Hell, I had too, for just a very brief second before dismissing it. 

“Well that’s good,” Roald started, before visibly blanching. “I mean, not good that your mom’s friend broke her leg. Just–” He winced, gesturing a little with both hands as though trying to explain with sign language what his mouth couldn’t put into words. “You know what I mean.” 

Peyton gave a very slight, almost imperceptible smirk. “I know.” She nudged him. “It’s cool. You guys are the ones who ended up almost dying out there. I should apologize to you.” 

“Nobody should apologize to anybody,” I immediately put in, before amending, “I mean, there’s a lot of people who need to apologize–nobody here needs to apologize about going or not going anywhere. We all did what we needed to do. And we got out of there without losing any people or any limbs. It wasn’t pretty, but we made it.” 

“So what do you think happened to Luciano?” That was Wren. She was hovering several feet off the floor, wings beating the air rapidly like a dragonfly while ‘sitting’ cross-legged. “Did he really turn into a zombie?”

“There’s no such thing as zombies,” Paige informed her simply. 

“Says the walking artificial biological construct puppeted by a robot ball that’s been stuffed with a copy of a girl’s brain,” Sierra pointed out with a snort. She was squinting that way, which was still weird to see coming from my own face now that she’d taken the mask off. It was like staring into a mirror. Or a photograph, given I wasn’t making that expression at the moment. Except she had blonde hair and–it was weird. It was just plain weird, even now that I’d had a whole day to get used to it. 

Okay, yeah, it was just possible that this would take longer than one day to actually ‘get used to.’ 

“And yeah,” Sierra continued, “that applies to me too. I’m just saying, weirder things than zombies have happened in this world. And nobody knows what exactly those orbs are capable of. Err, the Summus Proelium orbs, not our orbs.” 

“Too many orbs,” Peyton complained. “Couldn’t your dad have made your computer selves out of, I dunno, pyramid shapes?” 

“Sure, we’ll add that to the list of reasons we need to smack the shit out of him,” Sierra replied. “It’s already a long list, but I’m not gonna object to another excuse to put my fist through his teeth.”

Clearing my throat, I looked toward Wren. “We don’t know what happened to Luciano. My only guess is that he somehow Touched right as he was dying, and it kept him alive. I know-um, people can survive being shot in the head. Maybe whoever thought they killed him dumped the body and he managed to stay alive long enough for an orb to show up and it… the powers it gave him are keeping him functional? I don’t know why it’s healing everything except that bullet hole, but maybe it considers that to be the normal state of his body or something.” 

“But who killed him?” Roald hesitantly asked, sounding even more confused than I felt. “Or tried to, I mean. Was it the Ministry? Why would they go to all the trouble of getting him out of town, just to turn around and execute him?” 

“Maybe they wanted to follow the letter of their agreement,” Paige pointed out. “He paid them to get him out of town, so they did. Then they killed him for making a mess of things and attracting attention. Think about it, they rely on keeping things quiet and calm. Things already aren’t quiet and calm, but he made it worse. He went out and started shooting a bunch of people, and something tells me he didn’t have their permission for that. They were probably a little annoyed. Especially since he wasn’t supposed to know anything about them.” 

That made me blink. “He wasn’t supposed to know about them?” 

“Yeah, it was in there.” She nodded toward one of the hard drives. “Luciano was never on their actual payroll. One of their other… agents gave him the number to call if he was in trouble. From the notes someone added to it, the leaders weren’t happy about that. Sounds like the cop who gave him the number was supposed to get a talking to about it.” 

Absorbing that, I rocked back on my heels thoughtfully. “So Luciano wasn’t even supposed to know about them. But some cop he knew gave him the number and he called for help getting out of town. They gave him the price, and he paid it. But why was he so desperate to get that money in the first place? I mean, think about it. What’s the order of events here? He went nuts trying to collect money and that got him in trouble so he had to leave town. But he used the money he collected while going nuts to pay for his passage. So why’d he need to get it in the first place? What happened to make him decide he had to blow up his whole life here, collect everything he was owed in one night, piss off the whole city, and bounce?” 

“You mean something had to have happened before he went nuts and started shooting people,” Murphy put in, her voice sounding thick with emotion. “Before he shot my brother.”

Grimacing despite myself, I nodded. “Exactly. What happened to make him decide he had to go that far? He pissed everyone off and had to skip town because of all the commotion he made. But what made him decide he had to make that commotion to begin with? Obviously he decided he had to leave town before all that. Trying to collect what everyone owed him, and shooting the people who didn’t pay up, was about getting as much money as he could in one day. So what made him so desperate to get out of town in the first place?” 

“If the Ministry knows,” Paige replied, “it wasn’t in any of the notes that we stole. At least not that I can find. From the sound of things, they were barely aware of him until he called for assistance. But we do know that he made the call before he started going around shooting people. He called them, they named their price for getting him out, and then he got the money they asked for by… by doing all that.” 

“Why didn’t he just leave the normal way?” Fred demanded. The man was staring at us in disbelief and confusion. “I mean, the whole reason he had to get the Ministry to help him escape in the first place was because of all the heat on him. But he only had that heat because of what he did to get the money to pay the Ministry to get him out–what?” 

My mouth opened, then shut as I frowned. “Yeah, you’re right. That doesn’t make sense. There had to be some reason besides the chaos he made that night for why he had to get out of town fast and couldn’t just leave the normal way. Maybe he had some other people watching him, or… something? I dunno. But there had to be something, and apparently the Ministry didn’t know about it. Yet it was enough to make him that desperate to leave.” 

“Maybe we need to look into that too,” Paige murmured thoughtfully. “There has to be a reason, and it might be related to his situation now. Or maybe it’ll tell us what he’s planning to do. If he’s got power now, if he can’t be killed, he might show up in town to find whoever made him so desperate to leave in the first place. You know, for revenge.” 

Sierra glanced to me, her voice flat. “Or he might want revenge against the Ministry themselves. If they were the ones responsible for his–his not-death, or whatever.” She made a face, sighing heavily. “This whole thing is confusing. Too bad we couldn’t get answers out of Luciano himself.” 

“We can,” Murphy put in sharply, “as soon as we find that piece–” She hesitated, glancing toward Wren. 

“That piece of shit,” Wren herself promptly put in. “It’s okay. I’m not a baby, and he’s earned being called a bad word. Right, Uncle Fred?” 

With a faint cough, Fred himself hesitated only slightly before shrugging. “Yeah, sure. No soap for anyone’s mouth. Let’s just try not to make too much of a habit out of it.” Even as the man said that, I could see the look of disbelief crossing his face. Clearly, he didn’t consider himself the sort of person to make a big deal out of cursing. At least, not until he had found himself in the position of caretaker for a little girl like Wren. 

Peyton spoke up after we had all exchanged glances. “We have to find the guy and trap him somehow, but then what? And how do we trap him to begin with? You said he melted through everything you tried to hold him with, and even once you put the dumpster on him, he just…” 

“He disappeared,” Roald finished flatly. “No hole in the dumpster, or the ground, or anything. He just vanished.” 

“Which means he’ll be even harder to trap than if he just had the burning power,” I confirmed. “We don’t even know how he disappeared. Can he teleport? Or–or whatever. I dunno. We don’t know anything about it. Which is just fantastic, really. Because we didn’t already have enough problems with the whole burning living zombie who regenerates from everything you throw at him part. He’s gotta be Houdini too.” 

“Don’t forget about how he killed more people when he ripped their throats out,” Sierra noted, hoisting herself up to perch on the edge of one of the counters. “I mean he was already a murderer before, but still. There’s a difference between shooting someone with a gun and… that.” She grimaced just a bit at the thought. 

Murphy straightened a little, her voice quiet. “Either way, they end up dead. He’s killed a lot of people, including my brother. So we have to catch him somehow. We have to stop him.”

“Maybe we should tell the Ministry,” Peyton mused. When everyone looked at her, she shrugged. “What? I don’t mean we walk up, tell them who we are, and ask for help. I mean anonymously. If they’re the ones who had him executed–or tried to, he’ll be after them too. So they should want to put a stop to him. He knows too much and he’s too dangerous. Plus, they’ve got a lot more resources than we do, obviously. Why not point them at him and let those people deal with it? Like Roald was saying about telling them about the whole Pittman situation.” 

I felt funny about that suggestion, for several reasons. But I shook it off and replied, “I’m not sure how we get the information to them quietly, without letting them know who we are or how we found out. An anonymous tip, but to where? Wait, there’s probably phone numbers in those notes we stole, right?” 

“Plenty of them,” Paige confirmed. “Shouldn’t be hard to make an anonymous call. Just have to decide what exactly to tell them.” 

“And while we’re at it, we should tell the actual authorities too,” I pointed out. “Again, anonymously. We can let them know what we saw him do, what he’s capable of, as much as possible without giving away our actual identities. I don’t want him to take the whole city by surprise. I mean… they won’t have a lot of reason to believe we aren’t lunatics making stuff up, but still. We have to say something about it.” 

Paige gave a heavy sigh. “It wouldn’t be a problem if we’d been able to put him down in the first place. I–I’m sorry I wasn’t there.” 

“I was,” Sierra reminded her. “And trust me, you wouldn’t have been able to do that much more than I did.” 

With a wince, Paige replied, “I wasn’t trying to say that I could–I just–I’m sorry I wasn’t there. If anything had happened to you, or Paintball, or any of you–” 

“It would’ve happened to you too,” Sierra finished firmly. “You wouldn’t have been any better prepared to face that guy, believe me. Besides,” she added while munching on a cookie that Wren had been holding out to her, “your job was to go through those hard drives. We did our part–okay we didn’t exactly solve the issue, but still. What’d you find out?” 

Paige hesitated, making it clear that she thought we should keep talking about the Luciano thing. But it was equally clear that we couldn’t really do anything about it right then. And the other stuff was important too. So, she exhaled and gave a short nod. “Right, yeah there was interesting stuff. A lot of it we’ll have to take a little bit at a time, like names and accounting numbers. There’s a list of people in the government who pay or do favors for them, but it’s not clear just how much those people know. Most of them are really… compartmentalized. Like a terrorist cell. They only know their immediate supervisor, and usually they have no idea just how big the whole thing is. They all think the organization is a lot smaller than the whole city. Hell, a lot of them just think they’re giving information, money, or whatever to a single guy who happens to have something over on them. Blackmail, a paycheck, whatever. 

“For most of these people, it’s not like they go clock in every day and get a paycheck from ‘The Ministry.’ They do their ordinary jobs, I mean, some not so ordinary, but still. They do their jobs as a policeman, or an accountant in the mayor’s office, or as a guard in the prison, or whatever. Then a phone rings and a voice tells them to do something. Which they do, and then they get an envelope with some money in it. And then they don’t hear from the voice until they need to do something else. That’s the biggest part of the Ministry, just low-level… contractors, for lack of a better term. They do a job they’re told to do, and get paid for that moment. And most of them don’t even know what that piece amounts to. They’re a small part of the puzzle. Open a door at the right time, lock a gate at the wrong time, pass a list of names along, names they sometimes don’t know anything about. They don’t have the full puzzle, so they can’t figure out what’s actually going on. Some are being blackmailed or threatened to make them stay in line and accept their money quietly. Others are just in it willingly. Either way, they don’t know the full extent of any of it.”

With that, Paige perched herself against the nearby counter, shaking her head. “However the Ministry set this up, they managed to keep almost every piece of the organization separate and mostly clueless about the others.” She glanced to me briefly, our eyes meeting before she went on. “The ones they don’t trust are watched over by ones they trust slightly more, and so on up the ranks. Everyone is watching each other, and they never know which of their superiors or even subordinates are part of it, or being paid to keep an eye on them. Sometimes the Ministry pays one of them to keep an eye on someone who isn’t connected to the organization at all, just to confuse them and make them question whether that person knows something.” 

“That sounds like it could get really fu–freaking complicated,” Murphy pointed out, correcting herself with a glance toward Wren while shaking her head. “How do they keep track of everything?” 

“They do have people who know the truth, or most of it,” Paige replied. “It’s just that the full organization is mostly made up of people who only know little bits and pieces. The leaders are really careful about how much information gets out there.” 

Roald cleared his throat, speaking up hesitantly. “Uh, what about those leaders? Is there anything about them? Like… who they are? That’s probably pretty important information.” 

Murphy was nodding rapidly. “Hey, yeah. Who runs this group? They’ve gotta be important. Like, the police commissioner or one of the Star-Touched leaders. Oh, what about Caishen? She’s all about making money off Touched stuff. Hell, Ten Towers would be the perfect organization, right? They’re already, like… you know, set up for all that. They’re an established group of super-rich companies, they have the infrastructure, the contacts, she has reason to go into all those places without raising anyone’s suspicion, she can go back and forth between the corporate world, the government people, and even the cops without anyone batting an eye.” Even as she spoke, the girl’s words started getting louder and faster as she grew more and more into the idea. “That’s gotta be it, right? That’s how they–” 

“It’s not her,” I quickly put in, not wanting her to go barking too far up that particular tree. Fred, Wren, Peyton, and Roald had all started to look pretty convinced through that, while Sierra and Paige had glanced toward me. 

“What?” Murphy blinked, before frowning slightly. “How do you know it’s not her?” 

I froze, my mouth opening while no actual sound came out. I had been planning to–okay I had been trying to plan how to talk to them all separately, Peyton first. But this… “You guys all–you’ve done more than I ever could have expected. And some of you almost died tonight thanks to whatever Luciano is now. I–you helped break into the Ministry base, you’ve kept that secret, you–you’ve done more than enough. More than you should’ve had to do before I told you the truth.”

“The truth about what?” Peyton asked, glancing from me to Murphy and Roald, then back again. 

No more stalling. No more excuses. It was… it was past time. “The truth about me,” I replied, straightening up as I reached for the ski mask I was still wearing. “About who I really am. 

“And about my parents.” 

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Enkindle 23-03 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Hey guys, the non-canon for this story was posted over the weekend and can be read by everyone now right here!

For the next hour or so, we worked our way through searching the stuff we had taken from the Ministry base. Amber (as That-A-Way of course) showed up to help out while on a break from patrol duties, and was immediately recruited to scan through a pile of papers. The more the merrier. Or at least, the more the less this mind-numbing job of reading what often looked like gibberish would drag on. 

There was something that appeared to be a key for the code that was written on those papers and the vials, but I wasn’t able to decipher it with a brief once-over. So, I passed it over to Paige, who said she would figure it out and decode what was written on them, but it would take awhile. 

Beyond that, we found some interesting things. First and possibly foremost, there was a ledger that showed how up to date on their payments various gangs were. Not just the Detroit ones, but practically all of the organizations throughout the entire state. Nearly every Fell-Touched group (aside from a couple like the Scions) and even most of the non-Touched gangs were represented in the ledger. If you were a criminal group of more than one person (and even some who were solo), you paid taxes to the Ministry. 

But it went further than that. Because obviously having that many people know about the Ministry would make it impossible to keep even a little bit secret. So the vast majority of criminals who paid their fees had no idea that it was part of a larger organization. The Ministry had lieutenants who acted as though they were the boss of an area, unconnected to anyone else. They made people who acted in their territory pay tribute, then secretly passed everything but their own salary to the higher-ups. And for the most part, even the lieutenants didn’t know how wide-reaching the whole thing was. They were all divided into smaller cells who didn’t know anything about the other groups, and didn’t know that a number of their rivals in an area were actually also working for the Ministry. Some of the lieutenants were gang bosses, while others were actually their right-hand people who were secretly keeping the Ministry up-to-date on what was going on. The operation encompassed the entire state of Michigan, and we had all these names and the explanations of what they were doing. 

It wasn’t all in one spot, of course. It wasn’t like all of this information was conveniently written out for us. We had to piece it together between the ledger and several other pieces, including on a few of the hard drives, which were heavily encrypted and password protected. We would have been shit out of luck if we hadn’t had Paige and Sierra. They were able to use the…wires that extended from their fingers to plug into the hard drives and access them directly. 

As expected, there were none of my family’s real names written down anywhere. Not even in the secret encoded parts of the computers. Which made me slightly relieved, a reaction which instantly made me feel guilty. This was wrong, it was all wrong. It was going to blow up in my face somehow, I just knew it. But right now, I just had to focus on this stuff.  

Murphy was shaking her head, muttering about how none of this would help find Luciano, when she abruptly paused. From the corner of my eye, I saw the girl quickly shuffle back through a few other pages she had been looking at before elbowing Roald beside her. She asked him where something else they had been looking at a moment earlier was, and he dug through a discarded pile before handing it to her. She had two papers, one in each hand, and was looking back and forth between them. “Hey… hey I think I got something about that piece of shit.” 

We all turned our attention that way, as she explained. “Okay so on this page they’re talking about something called Plan Z. I think it’s a group or a person or something. It says Plan Z couldn’t be called on for this other thing they needed, so they should send Squire. Then this other page with the same date mentions that this safe house is ‘now available’ because ‘L’ has been taken by Z and won’t be needing it anymore. That’s right after Luciano got away. Whoever or whatever Plan Z is, they probably escorted this L, Luciano, away from that safehouse and out of Ministry territory.”  

Taking that in, I frowned thoughtfully. “There’s a few other bits in here about a Plan Z. I thought it was like… an actual plan, but you’re right, it sounds more like a person or a group. Maybe a set of Touched they use? I dunno. Sending a group to escort Luciano seems like overkill, but then again, maybe they were nervous about us finding him again.” My shoulders raised in a slight shrug. “Does it say anything about where that Plan Z might’ve taken him?  I doubt he stayed there, but it might give us a place to start from.” 

“Maybe not there, but it does here.” That was Peyton, waving a hand with a small notebook clutched in it. “It’s like a memo or a reminder note or something in the margin. I didn’t think it was important at first, but the page right before it has the same date as those ones, and the memo says, ‘Z pick-up’ and then an address in Pontiac.” 

Right, Pontiac was a city about twenty miles north of Detroit. I absorbed that information. It made sense as a place to take Luciano. Far enough away to be clear of the city without taking up too much of their time.

Pack, who had been sitting at the far end of the table we were all gathered around, made a thoughtful noise in the back of her throat. “So, whoever these Plan Z people are, it sounds like they needed to be picked up after taking Luciano somewhere. Maybe they gave him the vehicle?” She ran two fingers along the top of Tuesday’s head as the gecko sat perched beside the papers she had been looking through, before turning her attention elsewhere. “What do you think, Sierra? Pretty interesting stuff, but then, you must be tired of just sitting around. Being trapped for all that time in a body with someone else, and now you’re completely free. But here you are just playing with paperwork. Don’t you want to get out there and have some fun?” 

“Please don’t try to recruit her into your villain gang until she at least has time to stretch her legs a bit,” Amber idly requested from where she was sitting basically right next to the La Casa Touched. She didn’t bother to look up from the files she had been scanning. “As far as having a body goes, she’s not even one day old.” 

As for Sierra herself, she offered a shrug. “Yeah, I wanna get out there. But there’s gonna be this nagging voice in the back of my head if I don’t help find Irelyn and those two Touched girls and get them off that island. And believe me, after everything we went through to get me this body, the last thing I want is another nagging voice in my head. I just got the old one to be external.” She gave a quick glance over toward Paige before adding, “So, the sooner we save those three, the sooner I can move on and figure out what my real life is going to be.” 

Clearing my throat a bit, I looked toward the stairs. Wren was up in her main lab, working on that tracer device that was supposed to tell us where exactly Breakwater was. I still wasn’t absolutely sure we would go with the plan to blackmail the people in charge into helping Flea and Trivial, but knowing where the island was would at least be a good place to start from. 

“Well, until we have something else to work with,” I announced, “I think we should check out that address that you guys found. Maybe Luciano isn’t there. I mean, he probably isn’t. But there could be something to tell us where else to look. He might’ve left a clue or something.” 

Murphy was nodding rapidly, shoving herself up from the table so firmly she nearly knocked over the stool she had been sitting on. “Fuck yeah, let’s get out there. I can’t take looking at another piece of paper right now or I’ll scream.”

Standing up, I hesitated. “We need to be quiet and stealthy about it. Whatever that address is, I don’t know if it’s a Ministry place or just somewhere they took Luciano and dropped him off. But whatever it is, if we show up and make a spectacle of ourselves, it’s going to get back to the Ministry. And I’m pretty sure they could put two and two together, considering those files were just stolen from their base yesterday. If the place looks like it’s guarded or whatever, we have to wait. And we don’t let them see us.” 

Paige started to rise, and I focused that way, shaking my head. “You should stay here. Keep working on those harddrives and see if there’s anything else we can use. This isn’t gonna be a fight, we’re just checking the place out and looking around if it seems clear. We need to be subtle right now.” 

“Paintball, subtle?” Pack snorted and gave me a look. “If I asked you to define that word, would you be able to?”  

Flushing a bit under the helmet and mask, I huffed at the girl. “I can be subtle when I want to be, I promise. I was subtle in that base last night.” Before she could say anything, I hurriedly amended, “I mean I was subtle about who I was and my power and—you know what I mean.” Now I was really blushing. “Look, the point is, we’ll just head over there and check the place out.” 

“Uh huh,” Pack gave me a long look. “And how are you going to get there, exactly? You know, to the city twenty miles north of Detroit. Without attracting attention.”

My mouth opened, then I paused before tilting my head. A muttered curse escaped me while Pack snickered. 

“I can’t drive,” Way hesitantly pointed out. “I’ve gotta get back to patrol pretty soon, or they’ll start to wonder where I am. Which we really don’t want.” 

Pack nodded. “And I’ve got–uhh, let’s just call them plans and leave it at that. Gotta do my real job, or the boss might wonder what else I’ve been doing with my time. Which, as Rose over there said, we don’t want.” 

“Yeah,” Way muttered, “wouldn’t want you to get kicked out of your job as a thief.” 

“I could drive,” Sierra idly noted. “I mean, I’d need a car for it, but I could drive.” She offered a somewhat feral smile then, which was weird to see on a face that was so like my own. It made a funny feeling form in my stomach before I pushed it down as she continued. “And hey, if I need to acquire a car for it–” 

“We’re not stealing a car,” I interrupted. This whole situation was already precarious enough without adding something like that in. It wasn’t likely that she would get caught, of course. And even less likely that she would stay caught, but still. The image of Sierra, in a body that looked like a blonde me, getting taken to the police station was just… no. No, we couldn’t risk anything like that. 

“Besides,” Murphy pointed out, “That body looks like you’re younger than we are. That body’s, what, fourteen?” 

“Oh, I dunno,” Pack put in casually, “appearances can be deceiving. Some people look older than they are, other people look younger. You can’t really go off first impression these days.” 

Murphy shrugged at that. “Whatever, the point is any cop who saw her driving would definitely pull you over to check, stolen car or not. She’d stand out. And I thought the whole point of this trip was to blend in and not attract attention.” 

I nodded quickly. “She’s right, we need to be subtle. That means not stealing any cars and not having someone drive who would make the cops do a double-take. So all of us who are wearing masks are out.” 

While we were all looking at each other and trying to figure out where to go from there, Fred grunted. “I’ll drive. Whatever, it’s just a quick recon thing, right? The kid’s gonna be busy upstairs for awhile, and if she needs something, you can take care of it.” He nodded toward Paige before turning his attention to me. “You want subtle, can’t get much more subtle than an old sedan. Long as that’s not a big fancy neighborhood, it’ll fit in just fine. Plus, I’ve got that bakery ID, so I can be out after curfew. Trouble is, I can only take a few of you. We can say you’re helping with loading stuff into the bakery trucks for some extra cash since the place is shorthanded.” 

“Well, Pack and Way are out,” I noted. “Raindrop isn’t here. So I’ll go with Alloy, Hobbes, and Calvin.” I nodded toward Murphy and Roald. “We’ll check it out, see what we can find.” 

“I’ll go with you.” That was Sierra. “Like I said, I really need to get out of here and stretch my legs. Besides, this way if something goes wrong, you’ll have some back-up.” She gave Paige a look. “It’s my turn to be out there. You can keep scanning the hard drives.” 

For a moment, I thought Paige was going to object. But she paused before exhaling. “Be careful.” Her gaze moved over the rest of us as she added, “All of you. Just don’t get involved in some big thing. If there’s trouble, get the hell out of there and come back. Like you said, we don’t want the Ministry to know that you’re involved. This whole house of cards will come down pretty damn quick if they get too many pieces of the puzzle.” 

Amber looked a bit guilty about the fact that she wasn’t going to be able to go with us. Focusing on me, she urged, “She’s right about being careful out there, okay? We caused a big scene last night. The Ministry is going to be on guard and itching for some payback after the bloody nose we gave them. They can’t cover everything, and they won’t know what we were looking for since we grabbed everything we could. But still, just… watch yourselves and don’t attract a bunch of attention. And if something goes wrong, call. I’d rather make an excuse for–I’d rather ditch and figure out how to explain it later so I can come help than have you guys end up in even worse trouble.” 

“We’ll be careful,” I promised. “We’re just going to check the place out and see if there’s anything to find that might tell us where that guy went. From those papers, it sounds like the Ministry took him from their safehouse to that spot. I’m pretty sure that means they just dropped him off, probably in a place he chose. Which would mean they don’t really have any ties to it. But either way, we’ll watch our backs.” Reaching out, I squeezed her shoulder. “But you watch yourself too, okay? Don’t get so distracted worrying about what we’re doing that you get yourself in trouble. There’s still a gang war going on out there.”

Pack made a noise in the back of her throat, before quietly excusing herself. She said something about coming back to check in on what we found later, before heading out to do her… whatever it was La Casa was doing. That whole situation was becoming more complicated by the day, especially given how much I could tell she and Amber liked each other. But it wasn’t my place to say anything. 

Instead, I focused on getting ready to go. With some reluctance, I changed into the other suit, complete with the raised shoes and fake chest. I didn’t want to, but if it came to it, better to be spotted by the Ministry looking like this than as Paintball. There was no sense in taking the risk, even if we weren’t planning on making a big scene. Or so I told myself repeatedly while putting the other suit on in the bathroom before going out to join the others. 

Peyton, Murphy, and Roald wore the same suits as last night as well, while Sierra simply had a ski mask. I had conflicting thoughts about her going out like that. But then again, I had conflicting thoughts about everything involving her. Including the fact that she was wearing a tummy-baring shirt and somehow pulling it off better than I could have even though the body she was using was literally identical to mine. 

So yeah, conflicting thoughts all around. Still, if we got caught and her mask was removed, we… it would be a whole thing anyway. If we got caught to the point that she lost the mask, I would lose mine too. And then we’d really have a situation. 

For the moment, however, I put all of that aside and tried not to focus on the terrible what-ifs. Instead, I headed out to the back lot where Fred’s car was. Unfortunately, just as we were about to head out, Peyton got a call from her mother. Apparently they had a sick friend, and her mother needed her to watch that friend’s kids while she took the woman to the hospital. She obviously felt bad about ducking out, but I assured her it was understandable and that we would be fine. After all, we were just going to poke around, it wouldn’t be that bad. 

She still looked doubtful, but stepped back while I got in the back of the sedan with Murphy and Roald. Sierra got in the front passenger side, not bothering with the mask just yet. 

Starting the car, Fred glanced in the back at us. “Don’t worry, those back windows might look clear, but…” He reached out, hitting something on the dash. “Now they’re tinted from the outside. Nobody can see you back there.” With a proud smile, he tapped the steering wheel. “She might look like an old jalopy, but Wren’s done a lot of tinkering. We get in a chase, whoever’s after us will be in for a big surprise.” 

“Let’s hope there’s no opportunity for you to prove that,” I put in. “At least, not today. But good to know.” 

“Just don’t let Paintball drive if you get into a chase,” Peyton pleaded while standing just outside the car, staring at us as though she was about to change her mind about going to help her mother.

Making a scoffing sound in the back of my throat, I primly pointed out, “I got us out of the last chase pretty well.” 

“You also got my stomach out of my lower torso pretty well,” Peyton shot back. “I’m pretty sure it still hasn’t settled properly.” 

Another huff escaped me. “Wimp. I could totally have driven crazier than that. I took it easy on you.” 

From the front seat, Fred gruffly informed us that he would be the one driving today. And with that, we all waved to Peyton and the others before pulling out onto the street. 

“Now,” our driver announced, “you all might want to sit back and relax for a few minutes, cuz if we’re trying to avoid attention, that means following the speed limit. And I guarantee, there’s gonna be traffic.”

He was right, of course. There was plenty of traffic from people heading home to get back before curfew hit. And just getting out of work in general. Pontiac had grown as well, alongside Detroit as it acted as a suburb for people to live in while working here in the city. At last count, the place had a population of about a hundred and fifty thousand or so. And part of me thought that the entirety of that was on the freeway with us. It made me want to jump out and find my own way to the city. Which would have been a terrible mistake, but still. 

It took over an hour and a half for us to drive the twenty miles from Detroit to Pontiac, which would have been worse if I hadn’t fallen asleep leaning against the window. When the car abruptly stopped, I jolted awake, suddenly feeling panicked about where I was and what was going on. 

“It’s cool,” Murphy assured me. From the sound of the yawn that came with her words, she had actually fallen asleep too. “We’re here.” 

“That’s right,” Fred confirmed, raising his hand to point across the street from where he had parked. “That’s the address. It’s number 3C.”  

I looked that way with the others and we immediately spotted an apartment building with what looked like some sort of memorial out front. There were flowers, wreaths, candles, and similar stuff all stacked up next to the stairs. 

“What…” I frowned. “What is that?” 

“I’ll check it out,” Sierra announced. And before I could say anything, she had the door open and was walking across the street to look at the memorial. There were a couple people standing nearby, and she said something to them before listening to their response. The whole time, I sat with my hands clenched tightly, praying nothing went wrong. 

A minute later, Sierra came back and got in. “It’s a memorial alright,” she announced. “Apparently a couple teenagers were killed by someone the day after that Luciano creep was supposed to have been dropped off. From what the one witness who survived said, they were poking around the dumpster back behind the building and someone attacked them. They ahh, they said it was a monster. Actually they said zombie. He came out of the garbage and screamed at them. The girl got away but her friends were… they weren’t as lucky. Apparently the monster bit them. Ripped their throats out with–” She stopped, grimacing. “It was bad, that’s the point. Real bad. And from the description the girl gave…” 

“Luciano?” I asked, before grimacing when she gave a silent nod. “Fuck. Okay wait, so…. the Ministry brought Luciano here… and the next day a few teenagers found him in the garbage, and when they disturbed him, he attacked and murdered a couple of them? By ripping their throats out with his teeth? And they said he was like a zombie? What–what does…

“What the fuck does that mean?”  

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Enkindle 23-02 (Summus Proelium)

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To my relief, the others did not immediately recognize the newly-dubbed Sierra as looking like me. The real me, that was. In the back of my mind, I sent a silent thanks that I had never really been a focus of paparazzi or whatever. I didn’t know how much of that was the fact that I didn’t fit what they would want to show as a daughter of Elena Evans, and how much was my parents keeping me sheltered from it. But either way, it helped me out right now. I could only imagine what sort of explanations we would have had to give otherwise. 

Maybe the truth. I was going to tell them the truth anyway, so why not now? It was a question I couldn’t quite answer, even to myself. th

Murphy, Roald, and Peyton were all circling Sierra, looking her up and down. Peyton gave a low whistle. “Damn, you really do look completely–I mean…” She looked back and forth between her and Paige. “I guess saying you look real is pretty bad, isn’t it? Cuz, like, you are real.”

Paige snorted at that. “Yeah, we’re real. Flesh and blood body, just like you. Well, not just like.” 

“More like a new and improved us,” Murphy murmured, before flushing a bit. “I mean, I didn’t–” She seemed to squirm a little bit as though embarrassed. “You both look great, but what I meant was the whole strength and speed stuff. Wait, do you have that same–you know.” She gestured a bit vaguely toward Sierra. “Improvements, I mean. Are you like a super-soldier like Paige?” 

A very slight smirk crossed the other girl’s face. And yes, seeing a look like that on my own face was still weird. The whole thing was weird. Every time I looked at her, I had another startling moment of realizing I was staring at my own face. It threw me off, to say the least. That smirk stayed as she inclined her chin a bit. “Like her? I’m pretty sure I could kick her ass.” 

Paige started to respond to that, and I quickly spoke up. “Why don’t we save finding that out for later? I’m just glad Rai–I mean Sierra has a body now, so we can move on to the next problem.” 

Roald made a noise deep in his throat, folding his arms across his chest before hesitantly asking, “You mean we don’t get to just be glad we got out of that whole thing alive and relax for awhile? She um, she has a body now, and it’s gonna take awhile to look through all that stuff, right? You don’t… you don’t want to go out and do something like that again already…”

Murphy’s hand slapped his back. “I think what he means is, we just did a lot of pissing some really powerful people off. And while all of that was fun, and they have that and a hell of a lot more coming–” Her face twisted a bit as thoughts of her brother clearly filled her mind briefly before she pushed them away. “–we probably don’t wanna push too hard, too fast. They’re gonna be on guard now. Even more on guard than usual. They’re gonna be watching for us. So maybe we should chill out.”

“He didn’t mean anything to do with the Ministry,” Paige informed them with a glance my way. “This is about my–our father.” The correction came as she met Sierra’s gaze briefly. “And the fact that he’s got…” She hesitated slightly, clearly deciding how much to actually say before starting over. “The fact that he’s got two Star-Touched trapped on that prison island with him. With them. With all those prisoners.” 

That made everyone else besides Sierra and me do a double-take. It was almost funny. Wren flew right up in the air, wings lifting her into a hovering motion so she was several feet off the ground. “Wait, wait, what?! He’s got Star-Touched on Breakwater?” 

“How did that happen?” Peyton demanded. “And how do you know about it?” 

Paige took a breath before explaining, “The Banners–the people who adopted… who bought me, they have an older daughter, a real daughter, who was estranged from them. When they went missing–err, when we went missing, she started looking for them. I guess Trivial was a friend of hers, because she convinced her to help look. Trivial got Flea, from the Conservators, to help too. When we found out that there were Star-Touched looking for me, we were afraid they’d tip off the Ministry. Or even that they were Ministry. So we made them think I was in Florida. You know, using a phone that made it look like that was where I was calling from.” 

Wren abruptly spoke up. “You were calling the umm, Trivial with that?” 

“Not at first,” Paige replied. “But when I wouldn’t tell Irelyn where I was, she uhh, thought making me talk to a Star-Touched would help. Obviously it didn’t change anything, but they kept trying.” 

This was all uncomfortable, obviously. I didn’t like the idea of lying to these guys. But then again, it was about protecting Irelyn’s secret identity. Awkward as the whole situation was, it would have been even worse to go blabbing that when it wasn’t our secret to tell. There was no simple answer here. We could either betray their trust by lying about the whole Irelyn/Flea situation, or betray Irelyn by exposing her identity to a lot of people she didn’t know anything about. I just had to hope that if this came out in the future, they would understand why we hadn’t told them the truth. Actually, I had to hope that they were cool with an awful lot of ‘not the whole truth.’  

I shook those thoughts off while Paige finished with a simple, “We thought it’d be safe enough down there, that they couldn’t get in trouble that far away from what was actually going on.” 

“You also sent them away from the city when this whole gang war is going on,” Roald pointed out. He didn’t exactly sound completely recriminating, but he didn’t not sound that way either. It was somewhere in the middle. “They could have done a lot of good here for people.” 

Wincing visibly, Paige nodded. “You’re right. We didn’t think they’d be gone for this long, honest. We assumed they’d go down for a few days and then come back. We didn’t expect anything like this.”  

“Stupid us, apparently,” Sierra put in. “Cuz they managed to get Pittman’s attention somehow and he had them… uh, we dunno what or how exactly, but they ended up on Breakwater. He has the phone they were using to communicate with Paige. Irelyn gave them the number. I guess she thought they might have more luck convincing her to tell them where she was.”

Peyton was looking back and forth between all of us, marbles orbiting agitatedly around her head while she was clearly thinking intently. “Okay, so this Banners woman was looking for you and her missing parents and she got a couple of Star-Touched involved. Does she know they ended up on Breakwater?” 

“We’re pretty sure she’s there too,” I found myself saying, picturing the hole I was digging getting deeper with each word. Though technically that was the absolute literal truth. We were pretty sure Irelyn was there. “Flea and Trivial went with her as back-up and now…” I grimaced. Fuck, it was so easy for this to go wrong and fall apart. The moment they didn’t see Irelyn with Flea and Trivial, it was–fuck. That was a problem to figure out later. We were doing the best we could not to give away her secret identity, but that could only go so far. 

“So there’s a Prev trapped on that island too?” Murphy blurted. “How’re they keeping her safe?” 

Paige shifted her weight a little, her tone flat. “She’s fully capable. Her father was training her to take over his security division before they had a falling out. She’s had more– she can take care of herself in a fight. With those two backing her up–or her backing them up–whatever, she can help.” 

I really almost had to admire Paige’s ability to lie in that moment. She really sounded like she was sticking up for Irelyn being able to keep up with a couple Star-Touched, as if offended by the insinuation that she would drag them down. 

Peyton started to say something else before stopping as a noise of confusion escaped her. “Wait, hold the phone, why isn’t this all over the news? If there were a couple heroes and some ordinary person trapped on that place, wouldn’t it be front-page material? We’d be seeing it on television, there’d be top pinned posts about it on Sphere, on Reddit, everywhere. And trust me, it’s not there. No one’s talking about anything like this. Not even rumors.” 

Grimacing behind my helmet, I shifted my weight uncomfortably before nodding. “That’s why we think they’re keeping it secret. The people on Breakwater, I mean. I don’t think they want anyone to know that there’s even a chance of good people ending up there. Because if people knew it was possible for someone to be transported onto Breakwater–” 

“They’d realize there must be a way to transport off of it,” Murphy finished, sounding disgusted. “And we can’t have that. Gotta keep up the fucking illusion of perfect security so there’s not mass panic in the streets or whatever the fuck they’re scared of. Even if it means abandoning those three–wait, do you think they’ve told the people here? Do you think their teammates know what happened to them? I guess they wouldn’t tell anyone that Irelyn chick knows, but the other two?” 

My head shook. “I don’t think the people in charge of that place would be able to keep it a secret if the Star-Touched here knew about it.” Pausing to consider, I added, “I mean, maybe one or two know, like the leaders? But I don’t… I don’t think even them. Honestly, I’m pretty sure that if even the Ministry knew about it, they’d be doing something to get the word out. Remember, their whole thing depends on balance. It’s not just about giving the villains a free ride. They need to have the power on the good side to shut down anyone who steps out of line. Losing two really good Star-Touched at any point, but especially right now, isn’t exactly conducive to that.”

“Besides,” Sierra put in, “Pittman’s their enemy. They’d want to get the word out and put a stop to it just to make sure that there was no chance of him getting off that place.” 

Peyton was nodding slowly, her voice thoughtful. “I mean, that’s a good point, right? Like, there’s no reason they’d be helping to keep this secret. Safe to say they don’t know anything about it.” 

Roald snorted. “Yeah, well, maybe we should tell them so they can do our work for us.” 

My mouth opened, before I stopped and grimaced behind the helmet. “I know you meant that sarcastically, but part of me wants to know if that’s something we could do. I mean, think about it. They’ve got a hell of a lot more resources than we do. And like we said, they’ve got every reason to want to shut him down and save Flea and Trivial.” 

“Has Irelyn been reported missing?” Peyton asked, her golden helmet tilting my way. “I mean, I doubt she took this much time off work. Her–wait, what does she do for work?” 

Paige was the one who answered. “She’s a security consultant for a few different tech companies. Trains their staff, works with a couple mercenary groups, that sort of thing. Freelance, so she doesn’t have anyone to report to. They might’ve noticed she hasn’t been answering calls, but what are they gonna say? Hell, they’d probably think she’s on some assignment for a different company.” 

Clearing my throat, I quickly spoke up. “The point is, it’s pretty doubtful that either the people she works with, or Flea and Trivial’s teammates, know how bad their situation is. Maybe they’ve noticed them missing, but even then it’s not like they’d jump straight to ‘they’re trapped on Breakwater,’ you know? No matter what they think happened, they’re probably keeping it quiet to avoid a panic.” 

“They might be blaming the Scions,” Roald pointed out with an audible grimace. “Maybe they think those guys grabbed them and are planning some big event.” 

“Please don’t even give me any reason to picture that,” Alloy groaned. “Cuz now I’m just wondering what those guys are actually planning for their big revenge come-back.” 

My head shook quickly. “Let’s not think about that right now. We’ve got enough problems to deal with. We just need to focus on how we get those people off of Breakwater.”

“Maybe you should let the Ministry know,” Fred put in. He was sitting over in the corner with a copy of the newspaper and a cup of coffee, shrugging when we looked at him. “Like you said, they’ve got the resources you–we don’t, right? And they’d want to convince the authorities to get those three out of there. You get them to put pressure in the right places, maybe the people in charge of the island just step in and pull them out. Could be that easy.” He paused, frowning at his cup. “Yeah, I know, it sounded wrong as soon as I heard it.” 

“I’m not sure how we can let them know what’s going on without becoming even more of a target ourselves,” I carefully murmured, thinking about it for a moment. “Or how we could get them to believe it. I mean, maybe we could get them to think that the people who hit them last night worked for him and lead them to it that way? But I don’t know how we could do that, exactly. It seems pretty… easy to screw up.” 

Wren was practically vibrating as fast as her wings while hovering in the air. “I think I can find out where the island is.” When everyone looked at her, she quickly added, “When you use the phone to talk to that mean guy. I think I can build something to track the signal to the source. Would that help? I mean, um, if you know exactly where the island is, maybe you could trade that to the people in charge and say something like, ‘you wanna keep that whole location a secret, so maybe you should get our friends out and it’ll stay that way.’”

That made me stare even more, my mouth opening and shutting a couple times. Of all the people who might have suggested literally blackmailing the authorities into getting Flea and Trivial off that island, I never would have expected it to be Wren. 

Apparently everyone else was just as surprised, because the girl found the whole group staring at her. Slowly, she lowered herself back to the floor, wings continuing to beat for a few more seconds before slowly fluttering to a stop. “What?” she asked weakly, looking back and forth between all of us. “Was it a bad idea?” 

I was the first to answer, my head shaking quickly. “No, not a bad idea. A surprising one for sure, and definitely a dangerous one too. Blackmailing the government into doing what we want them to do, even if it’s the right thing, could get a target put on our backs. Especially with something as big as the location of their super-inescapable prison.”

Paige spoke slowly. “He’s right about that. Believe me, just trying to force them to do what we want in the first place would be enough to make them look at us in a, let’s say not favorable light. Add in the part where it involves the secret location of the supervillain prison that every government in the Armistice alliance uses and…” She grimaced a bit. 

“But it’s still a good idea,” Sierra put in flatly. Her tone has made it clear that she was practically daring us to disagree, which would obviously mean coming up with a better plan of our own. “Think about it, it’s not like we can get over there ourselves. Even once we know where the island is, that place is so well defended that we’d get blown to smithereens before we got anywhere near it. Unless the kid’s ready to upgrade the odds of her teleportation system from a fifty percent chance of successfully moving a few blocks to a one hundred percent chance of moving all the way across the continent and over the ocean.” 

Wren visibly blanched at that, head shaking slowly. “Um, I’d rather risk blackmailing the government. Wait, does that make us bad guys?” 

“We’re saving a couple Star-Touched, and another good woman, from real bad guys,” Peyton reminded her. “That gives us a little wiggle room on the good or evil chart, doesn’t it?” 

“Yes,” I confirmed. “A little wiggle room. But let’s be careful with that, because I’m pretty sure we’ve been wiggling a fair bit already. Um. Wren, maybe you could work on creating that tracking system so we can call Pittman and get his location? Then we can decide what to do from there. I mean, it’s not like having the location automatically means we have to blackmail the government people, right? If anyone else can come up with a better plan, feel free.” 

“One that helps Trivial, Flea, and Irelyn as soon as possible,” Paige put in. “They might be good at what they do, but they’re stuck out there on an island full of the worst of the worst. Nobody’s good enough to survive in that place forever. And it’s our fault that they’re stuck out there to begin with.” 

A nagging voice in the back of my head was saying that everyone trying to think of a better solution might have more luck if they knew the full, correct situation. They were operating under the assumption that Flea and Irelyn were two separate people. That could very easily come back to bite us in the ass. But again, until we had permission from the woman herself, we couldn’t just go around blabbing her identity to everyone here. We were doing the best we could with a shitty situation. 

Wren was nodding almost frantically. “I’ll work on it. I’ll build it. I mean, I’ve got the design in my head already, but we might need to get a few things. They’ve probably got blockers–I mean they’ve definitely got blockers. Things to stop stuff like exactly what we’re gonna do. But I think I know how to get past them. I–uhh, gotta draw!” Even as she finished saying that, Fred was handing over a tablet with a stylus, and she quickly moved to a corner of the room to start sketching designs. 

After watching her for a second, I turned back to the others. “Well, that’ll keep her busy for a while. I guess there’s nothing else we can do for those three right now, so maybe we should start going over the stuff we found? Sorry, I mean the stuff we stole. Wren says the tracking stuff is all gone, right, Fred?” 

“Yeah, it’s all taken care of,” he confirmed. “The kid promises that everything over there is safe.” He gestured to a table on the other side of the room, where our bags were spread out. “There were a lot of trackers on it, but we got rid of them. Nobody’s gonna find that stuff here.” 

So, we all went over to find our own bags and started to sort through what we had stolen. First, I took those vials from the front pocket and unwrapped them from the towel before frowning thoughtfully. There were five vials in total, one blue, two purple, one brownish-black, and one a bright amber. There were labels on the vials, but it wasn’t like they had easy-to-understand names and explanations. Each label had four numbers and three letters on it. Such as, on the blue one, 9F2X7P0. The two purple ones looked identical, and the codes on them were close but not the same. One was 8D1J4N1 and the other was 8D1J4N8. Did that mean they came from the same batch? I had no idea. And I certainly wasn’t going to do anything stupid like uncork them and smell or touch the stuff without having a better idea of what it was. 

Hopefully there would be information in the files we’d taken, something we could use to decode the labels. For the moment, I carefully set them aside on the folded towel and turned my attention to the assortment of papers I had yanked off the wall back in that place. They had been taped up near the vials, so maybe they had something I could use? 

Unfortunately, the papers were no help. At least, not yet. They had the same sort of code written on them. Until we found the key for it, we still couldn’t decipher what any of it meant.

While I was focused on that, Pack arrived at the back door. Fred let her in, and she came with her lizards all over her shoulders, arms, and head. “I tell you, these guys must’ve been pretty upset about being left behind, because–what?” She had stopped in mid-sentence, staring at Sierra, who had just looked up. “What the hell are– err… oh.” Seeming to catch herself abruptly, the masked girl pointed. “That’s the body you found for Raige?” 

“Sierra now,” the girl in question corrected. “Sierra Nevada.” 

“Sierra Nevada,” Pack echoed thoughtfully, still staring at her. I couldn’t read her expression through that completely blank mask, but she sounded… odd. “Well, it’s good to meet you, Sierra. 

“Very good to meet you indeed.” 

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Dig In 22-13 (Summus Proelium)

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So, we made our way back to the shop. We were careful, of course. First, Peyton and I took the time to each find a private area to change into our actual costumes. Amber had grabbed the bag with the costumes in it just before teleporting us out of the van. Naturally, the most important part of that point was that I was able to take the damn bra thing off. I resisted the urge to hurl it as far as I could, but only barely. I really hoped that nothing would come up in the future forcing me to wear it.  

Now I was back in my costume and far more comfortable. I was the right height, the right… shape, and everything felt a hell of a lot better, even if we weren’t out of the woods yet. I was just plain happier like this. 

Alloy and I basically just had to do the exact same thing we had done to get to the motel in the first place, only in reverse. Now we were heading back to the shop, and it was even more crucial that the others not be seen. It would have been bad enough to deal with cops or other Touched seeing them dressed up like that before. Now… now it would be a lot worse. 

Thankfully, the Ministry was still busy scouring the lake and area along the shore for us. I had no doubt that the search would widen soon enough, but we would be safe in the shop by then, and everyone would be out of the incriminating suits. Or so I kept telling myself throughout the entire very tense affair of oh-so-slowly working our way through the city. We couldn’t afford a single screw-up now. We had to get back there and get rid of all the evidence before anyone, particularly anyone who might work for or talk to the Ministry, saw us. 

Yeah, it was a bit nerve-wracking. But, despite having several near heart attacks on the way there and time and space doing their level best to stretch the whole thing out into an eternity, we finally made it. We were back in the alley behind the shop, and as far as we could tell, no one had seen us. It probably would have been impossible, or at least a lot harder, to do it that way before the curfew was put in place, so I did have to thank the authorities for that. Maybe I would send them a nice card or something. 

Fred opened the back door, giving us a nod. “We had cameras set up the last couple blocks, watching you. There’s no one on your tail. Come on.” He stepped aside then, holding the door for us to go in while his eyes carefully and suspiciously scanned the alley despite his own words. Apparently after the mistake he had made with that whole Ashton situation, he was being a lot more careful in general. Or maybe my paranoia was rubbing off on the people around me. Either way, I wasn’t going to object. He was Wren’s guardian, and there would be people who wanted to use her skills for their own ends. 

Speaking of which, I was going to have to give Glitch an answer about that whole situation soon. She had said she would send someone in two weeks, but it had been longer than that without a word. I assumed that had something to do with the whole war escalating thing. Maybe they were busy helping my parents work out nasty new toys to play with or something. Whatever the case, I knew that it was only a temporary delay. Soon enough, she would send someone to get our answer about what Wren was going to do. We’d talked about it of course, and… well, I just hoped we knew what we were doing. 

But right now, I had to focus on this particular situation. We all slipped through the doorway, before Fred closed it after us. I felt a sudden rush of relief wash over me in that moment. Tension that I hadn’t even realized I was holding in myself rushed out in a heavy sigh. We were safe. Well, maybe not completely safe from everything. The Ministry would be looking for whoever had stolen from them. They would be turning over every stone they could, and would go over that van with a fine-toothed comb. Thankfully, there was nothing for them to find. The van wasn’t registered to any of us, or connected to us in any way. Pack had stolen it from a place that rented them out for people to move furniture, and none of us had touched anything in it with our bare hands. We didn’t touch anything and we didn’t leave anything. They wouldn’t find any leads there. 

So, they would look, but they wouldn’t find us. Not right now, anyway. We had time. We had space to breathe and think. And to find out what we’d actually taken from them. 

Of course, first we all had to survive an attack of a completely different kind. The moment we came into the main shop area, I was suddenly hit straight on by a (literal) flying tackle-hug as Wren zoomed across the open space on her wings to crash into me. “You made it!” 

Staggering backward, I laughed. It was a laugh of relief, which felt really good right then. So did the hug itself, actually. I closed my arms around the girl and nodded. “Yup, we sure did. In and out just like that.” Even as I said those words, my voice cracked a little. I still couldn’t believe it had worked. And despite the fact that most of me was celebrating, there was a small but not insignificant part of me that was convinced that Ministry bad guys were about to crash through the windows while my brother and dad blew the door down and came storming in. It was… not a fun thing to imagine. 

Wren didn’t hug me for long, quickly moving on to the others. As she did, I stepped back and glanced toward Fred. “Good driving back there,” I informed him quietly. “Looked like a real wipeout. I’m sure they’ll have their suspicions, maybe even enough to be sure once they investigate and don’t find us anywhere. But still, you sold it in that moment.” 

Folding his arms, the man gave a short, thoughtful nod. “That’s the important part, isn’t it?” he mused. “If they don’t know exactly what happened, it’ll slow down their search. Even if they know you intentionally went into the water, they’ll look for diving equipment and extend the search area to find places further along where you could’ve come up. It’ll confuse them, muddy the waters, so to speak.” He gave a soft grunt of amusement at his own joke. 

“Every little bit helps,” I confirmed before letting out a breath. “Thanks for being around to help with all this. We definitely couldn’t do it without you. I mean, certainly not without Wren, but you too. I…” Biting my lip behind the mask and helmet, I hesitated briefly, wondering if I was overstepping. “I know you… you’ve felt shitty about what happened before.” 

“It was a stupid mistake,” he replied flatly, not looking at me. “I should’ve paid more attention to what that idiot wanted to do with that stuff, to exactly what he was going to steal. He just said he was going to rob a bank and–shit.” Shaking his head, he muttered something I didn’t catch under his breath. Then he sighed heavily. “Sorry I treated you the way I did when you showed up. You know, with the whole pointing a gun at you thing. That was out of line. It was–I’m glad you found us. Glad you… did all that.” 

I knew what he was saying. He was horrified at the very thought that he might have been even indirectly responsible for the death of a child. If we hadn’t found those vials and gotten them back to Blackjack in time… yeah, I didn’t really want to think about it either. I’d never met his daughter, but no kid deserved to die. Especially like that. 

I was spared from having to find some way of responding to that when Pack abruptly spoke up. “Okay, well, it’s been real fun basking in the glory of pulling something like that off, but can we get the next part of this show on the road?” She had all of her lizards out on the counter and was brushing her fingers over them tenderly, clearly apologizing for leaving them behind. 

Paige cleared her throat, straightening up with a slight grimace that told me she and Raige were having their own discussion inside her head. “Yeah, we, for two, would like to see what we pulled out of that place and if it was anything useful.” 

Her face shifted just a bit before Raige added, “And it had damn well better be after all that.” 

Of course, we couldn’t just open up the bags and dig through them just yet. There was way too big of a chance that the Ministry had put tracking devices on their hard drives. Right now, the special bags that Wren had provided were bouncing any potential signal all over the country.  But we weren’t going to take the risk of pulling anything out until there was no chance of us being tracked back here. Which meant that Wren had to take the bags into a specially prepared large metal crate she already had set up in a corner of the room. It was just large enough for her to sit inside with her tools and the stuff we’d grabbed, and did basically the same thing as the bags themselves while giving her room to work. Which meant the rest of us stood around and talked about what we had just done while she got busy. Anxious as we were to see what we had managed to grab, none of us wanted to take any risks. We had gotten through this so far without giving away who we were, and this was no time to start getting reckless. Slow and steady, one bit at a time. We’d done our part, now it was time for Wren to do hers. 

Okay, that wasn’t even in the least bit accurate. Wren had done more than her part so far. As I’d said to Fred, we would have been pretty screwed without her the entire way through this. The very thought of having to try to get into that place by myself, or even just without her, was basically inconceivable. I… maybe could have done it. At least, I could have dug the tunnel, but damn would it have taken a lot more time. Making everything pink and digging it out like that myself, I probably would have taken another month just to get there. Let alone having to go in alone. I either would’ve gotten caught, or I would’ve had to use my powers openly. Which would’ve let my parents know that Paintball was onto them, and that would have been a whole other–yeah. If I didn’t have these guys here to help, all of them, I would have been screwed. 

Those thoughts and more were running through my head as the others were loudly discussing just how crazy everything in that base had been. Murphy, Roald, and Peyton were going on about the guy they’d had to fight inside one of the other rooms, while the latter girl’s marbles spun wildly around her head. They were clearly as worked up and excited as she was, and possibly feeling a little agitated about the fact that they hadn’t been able to help in that place. If they could feel agitated, I still wasn’t sure how that whole thing worked. But in either case, whether it was the marbles or Peyton’s own subconscious, they were definitely energetic now, spinning around her head like a colorful halo or something. 

Glancing at her phone, Pack gave a soft grunt of annoyance. “Fuck. I gotta go. Getting a bit late and I’ve got a meeting with the boss before school in the morning.” 

“A meeting?” Amber’s gaze moved that way, clearly worried. And possibly curious. 

With an audible snort, Pack gestured casually. “Don’t worry, babe, the meeting was scheduled yesterday. Just a thing with me and a couple others about a job we need to do this week. A crime job.” She was clearly teasing the other girl. “But I promise, it’s the fun sort of crime.” 

Sighing, Amber waved a hand around the room. “You realize you’re talking about doing crime in a room full of Star-Touched, right? You’re literally admitting that you’re planning to do something illegal and expect us not to do anything about it.” 

“Oh, you can do something about it,” the other girl slyly replied. “Feel free to show up whenever you get the call and try to stop us. It’d be fun to play cops and robbers. Maybe one of us can tie the oth–” 

With an almost violent cough and vigorous clearing of her throat, Amber interrupted. “Didn’t you say you had to go? Meeting, school, all that?” 

Pack was clearly grinning behind that full face-covering mask as she gave a thumbs up. “Yup. But remember, I get to see the information you guys pull out of that stuff too. Don’t cheat me on this. I earned it.” 

We all promised to keep her informed about what we found, before the girl headed out with her lizards. Once she was gone, Murphy and Roald noted that they really should get home too. Obviously they couldn’t go by themselves, not with the curfew up. So Fred took them in his sedan, where they would hide under some blankets. He had an ID that identified him as a delivery driver for a local bakery, and if anyone stopped him he would just say that he was on his way to work a bit early to fill in. Assuming they called the place, the supervisor there was a friend of Fred’s and would cover for him. We’d thought about using that cover to get everyone to the motel earlier, but dismissed it both because we didn’t want anyone to take note of Fred being anywhere near the motel right before that whole thing went down, and because hiding all of us was a lot harder than just hiding Murphy and Roald. 

Finally, Peyton reluctantly admitted that she should probably start heading back home too, given her mother would freak out if she didn’t wake up in time to go to school. And besides, she had a test in the morning. So, after also making us promise to let her know what we found, she took off. 

Which left me there with Izzy, Amber, and Paige/Raige while we all waited for Wren to get done identifying and disabling the tracking devices. We talked a bit more, and had a snack of chips and cookies while watching the news for any word about what had happened. The only mention was something about a gang-related car chase that had ended with one of the cars involved driving into the lake. Of course, they identified the chopper as being part of the police force. And hell, for all we knew it really was. I would not have been at the least bit surprised to hear that it was an actual police helicopter that had been chasing us with that light. It gave them the perfect cover, anyway. And it wasn’t like my family having those sort of contacts and resources would be surprising. 

Eventually, Fred returned and whistled long and low while shaking his head as he saw what we were watching. “These people really have their fingers dug into fucking everything in this city, don’t they? They didn’t have any warning that you were going to be in there, and they still just snapped their fingers and summoned up a helicopter to chase after you. And just like that, it was a police chopper. Now they get to control the whole damn narrative. It’s just that quick, that easy. They say the word and the media reports what they’re told to.” 

“Helps when they have people in the police and the media,” I pointed out quietly. “Plus, we didn’t exactly give the news much of a reason to doubt that story. It makes sense that what happened right there would be a gang fight. And that it would disappear pretty quick. I mean, look at what’s happening in the rest of the city. As far as everyone else is concerned, it was just one more little event. Barely even worth reporting on, in the grand scheme of things.” 

Fred has started to say something, but before he could, the crate slid open and Wren emerged.  Her always-wild blond hair was sticking out in even more directions than normal, and she gave herself a shake, almost like a dog. Then she flashed us a broad smile and held up a plastic bag full of what looked like the remains of several small computer chips. They had been smashed into lots of tiny pieces. “All good now,” she informed brightly. “They can’t track these things anymore, and the last signal they got made it look like they were in Oklahoma. And there weren’t any tracking devices on the filters or papers, just the hard drives. It’s safe to look at the stuff now. Oooh, cookies!” With that, her wings extended and she literally flew over to the counter to grab a chocolate chip treat in each hand before smooshing them together into her mouth. “Mmmphh. Ur ruv oorrkiesh.” 

“Wren, don’t talk with your mouth full,” Fred advised. “And try to stick to one cookie at a time, kid.” Even as he said that, the man was shaking his head as he poured a glass of milk for her and handed it over, smiling as she drank greedily. “Good job though.” 

Reaching down to pick up the bag of broken tracking devices she had dropped in her rush, I examined it and smiled. “Definitely a good job. I’m pretty sure the Ministry is pissed off right now.” I had to pause then, imagining my parents being angry. It made me feel weird in my stomach, but I shook that off. Now really wasn’t the time to focus on that. We had to look through that stuff. It was getting pretty late, but still. I couldn’t leave yet. Not when we knew that Irelyn and Trivial were in some sort of horrible danger. There wasn’t time to waste. 

So, Amber, Izzy, and I took the papers and split them up to look through while Paige plugged herself into one hard drive after another. There was a lot of information here, too much to really take in with the time we had. Mostly we were just looking for the addresses of Pittman’s labs at the moment. There would be time later to take a full inventory of all the information once we had dealt with the most pressing matter. 

So, I was simply scanning through pages, looking for certain words like Pittman himself, or laboratory, or robots, biolems, anything about biological experimentation, and so on. I saw several things that made me want to go back and read more, but not right at the moment. Pittman. I had to focus on Pittman. 

Finally, after a few minutes of that, Amber abruptly spoke up. “Hang on, wait, I think I’ve got something.” As we all turned it to look that way, she held up a stapled-together stack of papers, flipped to somewhere in the middle. “Right here, it looks like an inventory of places where they could set up a lab to work on something called Project Carpenter, whatever that is.” 

“At least it’s not Project Owl,” I murmured before adding, “I take it the list has some interesting places?” 

“You could say that,” she replied before pointing to one part of the page. “This part here, there’s four addresses and  it says, ‘Acquired from B.P. Equipment on-site, inventory needed.’ B.P. That could be–” 

“Benjamin Pittman,” Paige interrupted. “That would make sense. We’ve got something here too. It’s not the addresses, but I think it’s codes to get through the doors. They changed the locks, obviously.” 

“You guys aren’t going out there now, are you?” That was Fred, frowning. “It’s already late.” 

“And as soon as they find out what we stole,” I pointed out, “they’ll start locking things down. They might not know exactly what we were after, but I don’t want to take that chance.” Belatedly, I grimaced to myself. “I mean, I don’t want to speak for any of you–” 

“No,” Amber interrupted, “you’re right, we need to get over there while we can. They’ll be busy scouring that base and van for any clues, or trying to track us by the lake.” 

The others nodded in agreement, Raige taking the time to point out that Irelyn needed help right now. So, I exhaled. “Right, okay then. Hope you guys don’t mind putting those suits back on just in case there are cameras in those places. 

“Looks like we’ve got one more job to do tonight.”  

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Dig In 22-12 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The tunnel was louder now than it had ever been in its entire existence. Heavy panting filled it, along with the sound of running footsteps as we raced, single-file, away from the sound of angry guards who had found their pursuit blocked. 

“Go, run, just keep running!” Amber blurted after giving a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure we were coming. “They’ll be right behind us.” 

She was right. I would have loved to say that we were through the hard part now, but I wasn’t that naive. We may have gotten out of the base itself with our hides (and identities) intact, but we were far from home free. Until we were out of this tunnel, miles away from this place, and positive that we weren’t being actively chased, everything could still go completely wrong. It wasn’t like my family’s people would just collectively shrug at the pile of dirt in their way and give up. This wasn’t a video game where the enemy would stop tracking you and go back to normal behavior after the mildest of obstacles. They knew we had been inside the secret base. They knew there was a tunnel here. They knew we were still running through it. And soon they would know where the other end was. There was no doubt of that. They would already be scouting it out. The only real question was whether we would escape before they closed the net. And there was nothing I could do about how quickly they managed that.

On the other hand, I could do something about our own speed. Now that we were out of sight from any cameras or onlookers, there was nothing stopping me from using my paint. So that was exactly what I did. Aiming quickly as we ran, I shot a stream of green paint until it had hit everyone, including Paige behind me. Then I activated it, boosting our speed as much as I could. 

God, it felt so claustrophobic down here all of a sudden. More than it ever had while we were digging it. Was that just the adrenaline and panic from the situation? I felt trapped in this tunnel, knowing that the Ministry people were no doubt already spreading out to find it from above, or to find the other end. They would be working out where it was, and the motel site wouldn’t exactly be hard to guess. We just had to beat them there. Which was not a given, considering the resources they had. Hell, I wouldn’t have been the least-bit surprised to find out that they had a helicopter up there scouring the area already. That might’ve seemed ridiculous in some cases, but this was my parents and the Ministry. They definitely had the resources to get something in the air that fast if they really wanted to. And the intruder alarm in one of their secret bases going off would definitely make them want to. 

The tunnel didn’t just seem tighter, more suffocating, it felt longer too. I could have sworn I had walked out of it faster than we were running. Was there some spatial distortion effect going on? Did my parents have that much power? Were they capable of pointing something at the tunnel to bend space so we could never get out of it? No. No, they didn’t. That was ridiculous. I knew that already. We’d barely started running. It wasn’t any longer. And yet, even knowing that, I couldn’t shut the panicked thought out of my head. Nor could I stop imagining us getting to the end of the tunnel and climbing up, only to find both of my parents and a horde of their people sitting there waiting for us. Every step we took, part of me screamed that this was taking too long. We were too slow. We were too fucking slow!

Wren and Fred were on standby, of course. If we had to, we could use Wren’s emergency teleporter, or even just have Amber teleport with us. But we really didn’t want to do either of those if we could help it. Wren’s especially, given how nervous the girl was about putting it into action. That was only for if we were completely fucked and about to be captured, or worse. Amber’s was slightly more useful right now, but we wanted to avoid using that too. Mostly because we wanted the Ministry to see how we had escaped and not start wondering if teleportation had been involved. Sure, it was unlikely that that would necessarily lead them directly to Wren or Amber, but still. Every little bit of misdirection was important. If they could follow our trail all the way through the tunnel and see how we had driven away, they would be even less likely to glance in directions we didn’t want them to glance in.  

The real trick was to give them enough of a trail to follow without getting caught. Because quite frankly, I really didn’t want to end up getting memory-wiped by my parents today. Or any day, really. Once was enough. Not that I even knew for sure that it had only been–

Oh thank God, we were there. The others had already reached the open area at the head of the tunnel, with Paige and me right behind them. Even as the two of us emerged, Pack was already climbing the ladder with her borrowed stun gun raised, just in case. Her head and upper-body disappeared through the opening, and I found myself holding my breath for what felt like an eternity before she called, “We’re clear!” 

With that, she hauled herself up and out. Meanwhile, I pointed, painting a bit of blue right at the base of the ladder before activating it. Alloy stepped there first, tucking her arms to her sides as she was sent flying up just enough to reach the top rung and pull herself out the rest of the way. One by one, the others followed suit, stepping to the paint and bouncing up. We weren’t taking the time to climb the ten feet to the room above. A quick bounce on blue paint did the trick. 

Technically we could have used Amber’s teleportation from this spot since we knew they weren’t here yet and could track us this far, but again, we wanted them to see exactly how we had escaped and that it had nothing to do with teleportation. 

It was just possible we were being too paranoid about that, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that letting my family have the slightest hint that we had used teleportation to escape was a bad idea. Especially considering how obsessively they would be scouring this place. For all we knew, they had some way of detecting that. How I had no idea, and yet… yeah, this was just safer in the long run. Assuming our luck (and planning) held out a bit longer. 

While the others made their way up, I glanced back the way we had come, just in case our not-so-friendly pursuers had managed to get through the dirt we blocked them with. Nothing. I couldn’t hear a thing from down there. Either they weren’t trying to dig through, or–whatever, everyone else was gone. Which meant it was my turn to go. And that, of course, was when I heard it. Two its, really. First, the sound of men in the tunnel. They were coming. Worse, there was the distinctive heavy thwump thwump thwump of helicopter blades. Not only were our pursuers coming up the tunnel, they were above us in the air. Which meant I had to get the hell out of here. 

The blue paint was gone, and I didn’t want to take the chance that the guys coming up the tunnel would see it before I could make the spot disappear. So I simply coated the inside of my suit with green paint to speed myself up and climbed as fast as possible. I took the ladder two rungs at a time, practically flying up it while blurting, “They’re coming through!” 

As soon as I was out, the others shoved the pallet with the cement bags on it back into place. Again, anything to slow these guys down. We just wanted them to know how we had escaped, not handcuff ourselves to their guns. 

Knowing that wouldn’t stop them forever, or even for that long most likely, none of us exchanged another word. We just ran straight out of the room and into the construction lot. The helicopter was high above, its spotlight at the far end of the construction site. They didn’t know exactly which room we would be coming out of (or even that this was the right place for sure), and were apparently right in the midst of flipping around for another pass. Even as we all glanced that way, the chopper’s spotlight was swinging back along the grounds, looking for us. 

It hadn’t been that long. Despite my panic, I was certain that it had only been a few minutes or so since we set off that alarm by going into the base. Everything, everything that happened in there had been incredibly quick. And yet, just as expected, my family’s people already had a helicopter in the air right above the construction site. They had narrowed it down that quickly, had gotten the chopper in the air and searching already. It was crazy. An expected and unsurprising crazy, yes, but still crazy. 

Naturally, our escape plan didn’t end at the motel. We had known that the Ministry would be right behind us, and were pretty confident they would have helicopter support. It wasn’t fantastic, but we’d planned for it. 

To that end, we all ran across the construction site, racing all-out toward a pitch-black corner near a big mound of dirt. Next to that mound, a dark brown tarp covered the next stage of our escape. It wouldn’t have hidden the thing from anyone standing down here with light, but from above a helicopter doing a quick sweep looking for running people would’ve missed it. At least, that had been the idea, and it seemed to have worked, given the chopper wasn’t focusing its light that way.

Oh, but it was focusing on us. Yeah, it hadn’t taken long for someone up there to notice us. Before we were halfway to the tarp, the spotlight swung our way, and suddenly it was like I was back on stage during the seventh-grade play. Only I was pretty sure the consequences to freezing up right now would be worse than a little embarrassment and polite chuckles from parents who didn’t want to be there to begin with.  

Thankfully, the spotlight had barely made it over to us before we darted out of its sight, with the dirt pile blocking most of the chopper’s view. It was still in the midst of swinging around though, so that advantage would only last for a couple seconds. Worse, I could see headlights approaching from the mall parking lot, cutting straight across the street in the process. The engines were loud and angry, like violent hornets whose nest had been disturbed. 

Without missing a beat, we all crouched, grabbed a piece of the tarp, and yanked it off the van that was waiting there. Pack went to get in, but Paige–no, it was Raige– beat her there while taking the key from her hand with a quick promise that she could drive faster. Pack hesitated only a split-second before realizing that arguing about it was a bad idea. Instead, she dove in the back right after Murphy and Roald got in, Alloy right behind them with me bringing up the rear. Amber was in front with Raige. Izzy was already in the back too, so I grabbed the door and yanked it shut while shouting, “Let’s go, let’s go!” 

“We’re going!” Raige shot back. She had already started the van and was flooring the gas while twisting the wheel to pull sharply away from the mound of dirt that had helped hide the vehicle. But she didn’t head for the road, where we could already see three different cars hauling ass to get up here while the helicopter’s spotlight resettled on us. Instead, Raige floored the gas to send the van heading straight for a small dirt ramp we had built at the edge of the lot. It wasn’t the ‘get air’ sort of ramp, awesome as that would’ve been. No, I had shown a truly remarkable amount of restraint if I did say so myself, and only put together a high enough ramp to let the van drive up and over the curb to the dirt and weeds beyond. Just like that, we were plummeting down the hill toward the road, while the helicopter kept pace, the light making sure we couldn’t disappear on them. 

At least, not yet. 

Raige wasn’t content in just driving straight down the hill. Instead, she started snapping the wheel from one side to the other, making the van jerk violently in the process. Right after she started doing that, the rear window shattered as a bullet hit it. A bullet that narrowly missed all of us and embedded itself in one of the seats while we reflexively screamed and dropped lower. 

“Stay down!” Raige snapped, spinning the wheel hard to the right and then back again. She was giving the sniper up in the chopper as hard a time as possible, but we had to get off this hill. Between the chopper with the gunman above us, and the guys in the cars right behind (they were just crossing our ramp), this whole situation could spiral out of control in seconds. 

“You people better be holding on back there!” Raige informed us through gritted teeth. “Cuz here we… go!” On that ‘go,’ the van hit an inclined bit of ground and launched itself. Seriously, that time we really did catch air, flying for what sure felt like several glorious seconds before coming down hard on the actual road. Really, the only bad part about it (besides the fact that we were in a chase for our lives) was that the stupid stuffed bra thing on my chest bounced up to smack me in the face as I looked down. Because everything I was dealing with right then wasn’t enough, I also had to be literally physically assaulted by the reminder that I wasn’t especially well-endowed. 

As soon as we were on the street, Raige floored the gas and we took off, speeding around a couple oncoming cars in the process. As the van angled toward a side street, we picked up several tails coming up fast, and that helicopter was still right above us. The gunman up there  had tried a couple more shots, apparently aiming for the wheels. But Raige wasn’t giving him the benefit of keeping the van steady, jerking the wheel wildly so he couldn’t get a clear shot. 

“Think we’ve got their attention?!” Amber called back while gripping the bar above the front passenger seat window. 

Murphy, ducked down low with Roald, shouted, “I don’t think we’re gonna get a better audience than this, boss! At least not without its own problems!” 

She was right. We had several cars on our tail and the helicopter above us taking shots. This wasn’t going to get any better than it was, and it had the potential to get a hell of a lot worse. We wanted Ministry people to see what happened, not actually catch or stop us. So, I grabbed my phone and hit the speed dial button. 

“Doctor?” It was Wren, using the code we’d established to make sure it wasn’t someone else using my phone after we had all been captured. 

“All I have is patience,” I replied with the counter code. 

Wren sounded somewhat relieved, but not all the way. There was still a bit of apprehension in her voice as she asked, “Option A… o-or Option F?” 

F for fail, as in we had to use the emergency teleporter. Grimacing a bit, I shook my head. “Option A.” 

Sounding considerably happier, Wren quickly replied, “Oh! Okay, got it. Good, good. Aaaand, there.” 

Abruptly, the van jerked a bit for a reason entirely unrelated to Raige’s driving. Really unrelated, given her hands were off the wheel. It continued to weave back and forth across the road, but now it was Fred in control, from all the way back at the shop. He was remote-controlling it using a small camera on the dash and one of Wren’s toys plugged into the electrical system. 

With Fred in control of the van and all our pursuers coming up fast, Raige abandoned the driver’s seat and clambered into the back with the rest of us. She was joined quickly by Amber, and we all huddled in close together. 

“How close are we?” I asked into the phone. 

“Wait for it,” came Wren’s terse answer as she was clearly watching the map and comparing it to Fred’s driving. “Just a little more…” Even as she was saying that, I felt the van lurch a bit as one of the pursuing cars slammed into us from behind. And in that moment, the right rear tire was blown out, making the van start to violently lurch before the rims screamed in protest. We were bouncing along. 

“Now, tell her now!” Wren blurted. Even as she said that, the van started to spin-out, the tires (or what remained of them) screaming in protest.

“We’re there, do it!” I snapped immediately, while the world outside the deeply-tinted windows whirled wildly. 

Amber wasted no time. We all grabbed onto her as she crouched in the middle of the group, and then we were elsewhere. We all appeared on top of the roof of a building that we had scouted out earlier. Amber knew where it was, and how to teleport to it from the spot on the ground where the van had just been when Wren gave the word. She didn’t have to look, she just trusted that it was the right distance and angle, and poof, there we were. 

The instant we arrived, we all heard the scream of breaking metal. While we were still in there, the van had been hurtling straight toward a sharp corner, only to ‘miss’ and spin out. And the instant we teleported to safety, Fred sent the ‘out of control’ vehicle right through the guardrail that was supposed to stop vehicles from plummeting off the road to end up in the middle of Lake St. Clair. 

And that, of course, was exactly what we wanted. 

My head snapped up to look for the helicopter first. There it was, off in the distance several buildings away. They were fully focused on the remote-controlled van just as it went hurtling off the embankment at top-speed, literally catching air off the slight incline at the bottom before flying out to crash into the water. It sank out of sight immediately. 

The helicopter stayed in place over at the spot where the van had disappeared, while the cars took the longer way down there. I could almost hear my parents on the phone already, ordering divers to get into the water. Even now, a second spotlight had appeared from the chopper, scanning the water to look for anyone surfacing while the first stayed on that spot. They were watching for us. No doubt they would have even more people scouring every place where we could climb ashore, while the divers picked through the wreckage. 

It was okay, they wouldn’t find much. Wren would already have self-destructed the remote control and camera, and she had assured me that there would be nothing to find. In her words, it would turn into goo and wash away. 

So, they would find nothing in the van. Of course, they would realize we had escaped, but they wouldn’t know how exactly. And while they were wasting time searching down there, we were all the way over here. We were done. We were out. We… we…

“We made it.” That was Roald, sounding completely shocked by his own words. “We didn’t get caught.” 

“We did?” Alloy was patting herself down, just as surprised by the declaration. “We… we did.” 

“Let’s not celebrate too much until we get back to the shop in one piece,” Amber pointed out, her eyes on the chopper in the distance. “But yeah, looks like we actually pulled it off.” She glanced toward me, then over at Pack before adding, “They’re gonna be really pissed off now.” 

“We knew they would be,” I replied, resisting the urge to reach up under my suit to rip off the fake bra. I wanted the damn thing off, but now wasn’t the time. Instead, I glanced toward Raige, who was staring at the assorted backpacks full of the stuff we’d stolen. “Remember–” 

“I know, I know, don’t open the bags or the tracking device blockers the genius built into them won’t work,” she interrupted. “Don’t worry, I’m not a fucking idiot. We don’t get to look through the loot until we get them back to the shop and she okays everything as not being tracked. So come on then, let’s get back there and get on with this already. And I sure as fuck hope there’s something we can use somewhere in there, because I am done sharing a body.” 

“Trust me, Raige, I hope there is too,” I quietly replied, glancing out toward the hovering helicopter in the distance. “Because whatever happens next, I’m pretty sure we’re gonna want both of you up and moving.”

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Dig In 22-09 (Summus Proelium)

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So there we were, all gathered in the main area of Wren’s pawn shop. There was Alloy, Pack, That-A-Way, Raindrop, Roald, Murphy, Paige/Raige as a last-minute addition, and me. Wren and Fred were here too, of course. But they would be staying at the shop, ready to go with our ‘everything’s fucked’ emergency escape plan if it came down to it. Unfortunately, that basically amounted to Wren using a half-finished cobbled-together teleporter that she wasn’t confident in. We would all be carrying the markers that were supposed to allow it to grab and move us to a safe location. But again, it was unfinished. Wren had given me a few details about what could have gone wrong the one time she teleported me, back when I had been chased by Cuélebre, and I was seriously still debating on whether it would have been safer to stick with fighting him. Suffice to say, we really didn’t want to have to try this one until she decided it was one hundred percent safe. But we didn’t have time to wait for that, especially not now. 

“So ahh, maybe I should have brought this up when you came up with your genius plan,” Raige (obviously) announced after introductions had officially been made back and forth to everyone, “but how exactly are you planning on making it so they don’t realize a bunch of kids and teens just screwed them over?” Her hand gestured toward Raindrop and then to me, before she nodded to Murphy and Roald. “Like those two over there, or those two there. I mean, none of us actually look like full-grown adults, but seriously. Having a few people who look that young feels like a bit more information than you want them to have. Especially when their computers can compare the heights of probably all their top suspects, and something tells me Paintball might fall somewhere on that list given the history you have with them. Just saying.” 

Before the rest of us could respond to that, Murphy asked, “Okay, sorry, I just need to ask. Is the person talking now the super-scary but ultra-hot cyborg girl, or the ultra-scary and ultra-hot cyborg girl?” 

There was a brief pause as their head tilted before Raige spoke again. “Paige would like you to know she’s offended that you don’t find her ultra-scary too, and that if you knew her better, you’d understand that’s a terrible way of differentiating us. You could say nice one or mean one, but that’s not exactly accurate either. Let’s stick with names, hmm? That seems easy enough.” 

“Sure,” I confirmed. “Totally simple to just stick with names. So, to answer your question, Raige… ahh, Wren, you got the things?” 

With a broad grin, Wren held up a pair of boots. “Yup! Err, I’ve got these ones.” She tossed them to me before gesturing. “Uncle Fred?”

He, in turn, reached down to pick up a cardboard box and carried it over to the middle of the room. “They’ve got lifts in ‘em,” the man explained to Raige (and Paige). “Just enough to add about four inches of height for all these guys. They’ve been practicing with them for awhile.” 

“We had the same thought you did,” I murmured while holding the boots against my chest. “It’s not the perfect solution, but it should at least confuse things a bit. If they don’t see anyone my–err, you know, Paintball’s height in this group, and I don’t use my powers in a way they can see, it’ll really muddy the waters about who attacked their base. Which means we really need to get in and out without too many problems so I don’t have to use my powers in an obvious way.”

That said, I hesitated before adding, “And speaking of not using my powers in an obvious way…” Reaching into the backpack on the table in front of me, I started pulling out tee-shirts and tossing them to the others. “You all need to wear these under the rest of your clothes when we go in there.” Every shirt had an assortment of colored shapes across them. Several of each type. There were orange suns, green leaves, and purple mushrooms. Three different colors, three different shapes, all arranged in three rows across the front and three across the back. I had taken the time to prep the shirts ahead of time while sitting at home.
“I’ve been practicing,” I noted, mostly for Paige and Raige’s benefit. “As long as I know one of my bits of paint is there, and exactly what it looks like, I can activate it through other clothes when I’m looking at it. Not through a wall or anything, but still. It’s something. These are all completely the same. So I can look and remember exactly what the orange sun looks like to make all of you temporarily really tough, or strong, or fast. Or all three at once. Probably that last one. I can do it six times for each of you, and they last about ten seconds each time. That’s sixty full seconds for all of us to have full boosts without me obviously using my powers.” 

“And you won’t have to use them constantly!” Wren quickly put in. “There’s the suits too. Err, I mean, okay, I couldn’t give all of you suits as cool as the prototypes Hobbes and Calvin have. But we do have the normal ones.” 

“Normal, she says.” Fred huffed a bit. “They ain’t just boring old mundane suits. Kid traded the design for those wings of hers to some Tech-Touched in Texas for a shipment of these. Just got ‘em in yesterday. They’re supposed to adjust to your body size and all that. They’ll cushion any impact you take. Won’t make a bullet feel like a love tap, but it’ll make it survivable. Probably. From what the guy said, it’ll still feel like getting kicked pretty hard, so you don’t want to stand there and dare them to shoot you.” 

“Cushion impact, but no teleporting,” Wren put in. “And the cushion bit isn’t as protective as the total momentum-stop on the suits Calvin and Hobbes have. But, uhh, it actually works constantly instead of draining a bunch of power every time, so…” Her face twisted a little bit guiltily and self-consciously 

“Sounds amazing, kid,” Pack put in. “Can’t believe you gave your wing designs to some other tech, but I guess you got your money’s worth. Err, you know what I mean. Your blueprint’s worth? Whatever.” 

Way spoke up then. “So we have the lift shoes to throw off our height, the colored shirts from Paintball so he can give us temporary boosts, and these suits you were talking about for some extra protection. Plus these.” From her own bag, she produced several batons with tasers on the end, along with a couple gun versions. “Police-issue. I… borrowed them from one of the deployment trucks when they sent it in for repairs after Suckshot yanked it off the road.” Before Pack could say whatever she had obviously been about to, the girl pointedly added, “And I want them all back when we’re done. So try not to drop them or anything. Just… just be careful, okay? Everyone be careful in general.”  

“Good advice,” Raige noted casually. “And I guess it’s not bad as far as hiding your identities goes. Not perfect, but eh. You don’t exactly have the time, resources, or ruthlessness you need to make it perfect. And I don’t want to sit around waiting for my new body until you get every single duck in a row. So we’ll go with the ducks you’ve got. But hey, at least you’ll have one of us with you. And believe me when I say that’s quite the upgrade.” 

I quickly spoke up. “She’s not wrong. And we can use all the help we can get. Which–are we forgetting anything?” 

“Not exactly forgetting,” Pack put in, “But circling back to that whole hiding who we are thing, I did have another thought. Especially when it comes to you.” She focused my way. 

“Me?” Blinking a couple times at that, I glanced to the others, who all shrugged, before looking back to her. “What about me?” 

“I was thinking about it, and I came up with the perfect plan,” Pack informed me with no small amount of pride. She paused briefly to let the anticipation grow, before dramatically announcing, “You should pretend to be a girl.” 

Okay, well, apparently it was not quite yet possible for me to literally die of shock. Although I did audibly choke and stumble a little, my eyes widening dramatically behind the helmet as I stared that way in total bewilderment. “I–wha–not–what–tha–yo-I-wha–” 

Quickly, That-A-Way moved over to slap my back a couple times, laughing pretty convincingly. “Whoa, hey there. No one’s questioning your manliness, buddy. I know how you guys are sensitive about that sort of thing.” She hit my back again, harder that time, while clearing her throat a bit pointedly. “You okay?” 

Thank God I had Amber in my corner to help cover. It gave me a second to collect myself. And with her help, my reaction made it look like a teen boy who didn’t like the idea of pretending to be a girl, instead of the truth, which… was a hell of a lot more complicated.

The point was, I absorbed the nuclear bomb that Pack had set off in the room and came out  relatively unscathed. Coughing once, I managed to look that way and found my voice. “Sorry, did you say I should pretend to be a girl? I don’t even–what would that–huh?” Right, totally smooth recovery. But again, at least she had suggested something that my fake teen boy-self reacting that way to made complete sense.  

With a snort of amusement that seemed to prove she really did buy that reasoning, Pack replied, “Look, I know it’s not going to be your most favorite thing ever, but being a girl isn’t the worst thing in the world, dude. I’m just saying, if everyone who sees you in there, or on video, thinks you’re a girl, there’s no way they’ll connect that you to Paintball, you know? Which means they’ll be even less likely to connect it to the rest of us.” 

Oh boy was there a lot that came to mind when she said that. Even when I filtered out all the curse words and stammering in my head, there was still a fair amount. A glance toward Raindrop revealed the girl standing completely still, not giving anything away. Nor were Raige or Amber, thankfully. All of them kept my secret perfectly. Probably better than I was. So, I pushed down my initial thoughts and simply asked, “Um, how exactly do you think we should do that? Err, if we did. I don’t think we can just put a skirt on the outside of one of these suits, so unless you’ve got a better–”  

“I have a better thing than that,” Pack interrupted. With that, she reached into her own bag and pulled something out before tossing it to me. 

It was a bra. I realized that even as I caught the thing in both hands. But more than that, the cups of the bra were stuffed, or padded, or whatever. It was clearly made so a guy could wear the bra and look like he had breasts. 

“This… this is…” I stared down at the thing in my hand, trying to find words. My stomach was rolling. There was absolutely no way that Pack could have known what a sensitive issue, in more than one way, this whole thing was. She didn’t know that I really was a girl pretending to be a boy, and she definitely didn’t know how sensitive I was about the fact that I didn’t exactly fill out a dress the way most guys wanted. Again, I wasn’t flat or anything. But well, this stuffed bra definitely had me beat rather handily. Which was a bit depressing all on its own. Again though, Pack didn’t know anything about that. She was just trying to help by offering what was, to her, a pretty good idea about concealing my identity. She wasn’t mocking me, she wasn’t messing with me, she wasn’t intentionally pushing my buttons. She was helping. 

Knowing all that helped me shove my reactions down. This was about hiding who I was, and whether I was really a girl or a boy wasn’t the point. There was absolutely no one way that my parents or anyone who worked for them would look at someone wearing this fucking thing and think it was either Paintball or their daughter. Pack was right, this was the best way to go.

Not that knowing that made it that much easier to resist throwing the thing into the nearest trash can as fast as I could, but it still helped. So I bit my lip and looked up again. Everyone was watching me. I could tell they were all curious about what I was going to say. Izzy, Raige, and Amber for one reason, and Murphy, Roald, Pack, Wren, and Fred for basically the complete opposite reason. They were all waiting to see what I would do. 

I wanted to say no. I wanted to dismiss the idea and say that it wasn’t necessary. After all, I would already be wearing completely different clothes, covering my face, not using my powers in any way that the Ministry would see, and even changing my height. I wanted to tell Pack that wearing this, that ‘pretending’ to be a girl was overkill. But the fact was, there was no such thing as overkill when it came to hiding our identities. My parents and the people who worked for them could not have any clues about who we really were. We had to throw them off as much as we could, because if they started coming after us directly, we would have no chance of winning. Not right now, at least. We needed more information, more details about their capabilities, their weaknesses, their–everything, all of it. Which was the whole reason we were breaking into the base so we could take enough stuff to hopefully know more. But to do that, to get away with it, I needed to be willing to do something that made my entire insides want to shrivel up and blow away in the wind. I couldn’t be selfish right now. I had to go with the hard choice. 

So, with a heavy sigh, I found myself nodding reluctantly. My voice sounded just a little hollow with the first word before I cleared my throat. “Okay–I guess you’ve got a point. As long as it means they don’t have any reason to suspect me, this has gotta be worth it.” 

While Amber gave me an understanding look, Pack pulled another stuffed bra from her bag. “I ahh, got one for the other pipsqueak over there too.” Her head nodded toward Raindrop. “Figured it’s not quite as big of a deal as it is for Paintball since you, you know, actually are a girl. But still, you’re not exactly–making you look different is better.” 

Izzy was clearly reluctant (even if not nearly as reluctant as me), but she finally agreed to the plan too. The bra that Pack gave her was just enough to make the fact that she was female more obvious even on-camera through the suits that we would be wearing. 

Actually, this whole thing was almost a good thing for another reason. I had been planning on wearing a jacket or a vest over my infiltration suit to hide the fact that–well, again, I wasn’t completely flat. Usually the coveralls I wore as the base of my costume were loose enough in that particular area to hide that. But I was going to have to cover it with a jacket when wearing these suits. Except now I didn’t have to. So… yay? 

In any case, the actual new suits turned out to basically look like a cross between a thief and a ninja. There was a basic layer of a black bodysuit that looked like a top and bottom set of pajamas, along with a vest that cinched across the chest for added protection (which probably would have covered my not-a-boyness well enough already), and what looked like a ski mask with black goggle-like lenses over the eyes. There was extra hidden padding in there to protect our heads. Finally, there were deceptively thin-looking gloves that were still quite protective and would hide our fingerprints. Between all that and the raised boots, we would look decidedly different than we usually did. Which, of course, was the point.  

The others changed in the shop, giving me a chance to see what the suits looked like, but Alloy and I stayed in our usual costumes. Given how sensitive this whole thing was, everyone getting caught by the authorities out in the streets dressed up like thieves or ninjas or whatever would kind of screw our entire night (and probably a lot more than that). Fortunately, we had a plan for that, even with the curfew in place. The plan was named Amber. Or That-A-Way. Wren’s shop was just south enough from the mall that she could teleport the group a bit at a time, from one roof to the next. The group, that was, aside from Wren and Fred, who would be staying at the shop, and Alloy and me, who had our own part to play. That was why the two of us were in full-costume instead of the suits, scouting ahead to make sure the way was clear. We texted back and forth to That-A-Way to let her know when it was safe to bring everyone over to the next spot, rather than shouting or using any lights or anything. Any cops or Star-Touched who saw us didn’t say or do anything about it, other than to wave and thank us for the help now and then. We would make sure each spot was safe, and then Amber teleported herself and the rest of the group there, disguised in those dark suits. 

There was a quick, relatively minor situation when Alloy and I actually saw a crime we had to intervene in. Some guy in a simple stocking mask was trying to loot an old pet grooming place. Yeah, I had no idea what he was hoping to find, but the dude was rearing back to throw a cinder block through the window and had an empty backpack with him. I managed to red-paint the block just as he went to hurl it that way, yanking it to a red spot on the street behind him. Then Alloy trapped him in a marble cylinder, until I got down there. He took a swing at me as soon as Alloy released the circular cage, but I used a bit of purple paint across my back to yank him by the arm over to a light post and used a ziptie to secure him to it while he shouted and threatened me. Then I used the Doephone app to contact the authorities to let them know where to pick him up and what his crime was. 

Shortly after that, Alloy and I returned to our planned spot and I let Amber know it was safe. Almost immediately, she appeared nearby with Pack, Izzy, Murphy, Roald, and Paige (she was the one in control right now) all touching her arms or hands. 

As soon as they appeared, everyone looked to me for an explanation about the delay. So I gave a quick rundown, before adding that we needed to get out of there before cops showed up to grab that guy. Not that they could see us from down there, but still. There were helicopters here and there in the sky with their spotlights passing over buildings. We needed to move on. 

So, we did. Bit by bit we made our way to the motel site, and took a minute to make sure it looked safe. No one was around, Wren’s sensors hadn’t picked up anything out of the ordinary around our tunnel, and the nearest patrols didn’t seem to be anywhere near this spot. The coast was clear.

The others headed for the main room while Alloy and I split up so we could go change. But first, I looked to Paige and hesitated. “Your… it feels different to see you standing up and moving around.” 

Paige (or Raige) was the only person here who didn’t have one of the special suits to wear. Wren, of course, hadn’t expected them to be part of this, so she didn’t get a suit for them. Instead, they were wearing a simple pair of jeans, a dark long-sleeved shirt, and a normal ski-mask. The mask itself was pulled up so it was barely covering their hair, acting more like a normal hat at the moment. Both of them had insisted that it was fine that they didn’t have a protective suit. After all, they already had their own advantages. Plus I had at least been able to paint another tee-shirt for her, like the ones the others had. 

“Feels different from this side too,” Paige informed me quietly before pausing. “Raige wants me to say that what she’d like to feel is how different it is to move around in her own damn body, so would we pick up the pace, please. I added the please.” 

Smirking just a little despite myself, I shook my head. “Don’t worry, Raige. We’re on it.” Still, I paused once more before adding, “Do you really think Flea and Trivial are trapped on that island?” 

“It’s the only answer that makes sense,” she pointed out. “Like you said, if Benjamin or his people had them, he’d know more about who Trivial is. But if they were free, they would’ve come back by now. Somehow… somehow they must’ve ended up there. Probably another one of his escape plans. I just–even if he doesn’t have them, that doesn’t mean they’re safe. They’re running around on an island full of the worst supervillains in the world. And that’s the optimistic scenario.” 

Grimacing, I took a second to find my voice. She was right, that was… it was bad. We had to get Raige a body so they could both act independently and then figure out what to do about it. Even if that meant sending messages to somebody about two Star-Touched being trapped on that island. Which raised the question of why people didn’t know about that already, or what–it raised a lot of questions. And I didn’t like any of the hypothetical answers. 

Forcing those thoughts down, I managed a weak, “We’ll figure out what’s going on. We’ll… we’ll find them. Right after we do this part.” 

Paige held up her fist, and I only hesitated for a second before bumping mine against it. I wanted to say something else, but nothing came out. Instead, I heaved a sigh, looked down at the stuffed bra in my hand, and headed for the room where I was going to change. 

If we didn’t get something useful out of this when all was said and done, no amount of being disguised would matter. Because I was probably going to scream so loud my parents would be able to identify my voice from the other side of town. 

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Dig In 22-02 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, Angel Dust wasn’t exactly happy about being tricked into bringing me (and Alloy by extension) straight to the truck that had worked so hard to escape us in the first place. I saw her absorbing that realization for a moment before her shoulders straightened. There was a wave of annoyance coming off the woman, head tilting to glance over her shoulder toward Alloy, then back to me. Her voice was tight. “You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you, boy?” 

In reply, I shrugged. “It’s not about which of us is smarter. It’s about which one managed to trick the other this time. Look at the facts. That trailer is broken. You can’t get it back on the truck. You guys don’t have a chance to get out of here with all that stuff. You should cut your losses and walk away before more authorities show up.” Even after I said that, I was keeping an eye on the Prev thugs from the truck itself as they popped down and gave uncertain looks our way. They were clearly waiting to see what their Touched lieutenant chose to do about this whole thing, not willing to make the first move themselves. 

It was very clear that the woman didn’t want to walk away. What she wanted to do, no doubt, was teach me a lesson. I could see the rainbow-colored dust swirling around her as she took a moment to collect herself, clearly running through the pros and cons of keeping this fight going. But, in the end, her common sense won out over her annoyance. The dust that had been swirling around her like a swarm of angry hornets seemed to vanish into thin air before she spoke in a cool voice. “I suppose we’ll have to give this one to you, kid. But don’t think this is over. We need those supplies, and we’ll get them one way or another. And you…” I could feel her gaze staring at me hard from behind that bronze mask. “Get in the way again and next time I might have to smack you a little harder.” 

“Fair enough,” I managed, trying to sound casual about the whole thing. “Though I don’t suppose it would help to point out that you guys wouldn’t need these supplies so bad if you would just back off this entire gang war thing?” Pausing, I gave her a look before shrugging. “Worth a shot.” 

Surprisingly, Angel Dust gave an audible chuckle before bowing her head in acknowledgment. “Yeah, maybe so. But this is the world we live in. Gotta take it as it comes, not as you wish it would go. Which is the exact attitude that’s stopping me from grabbing you and keeping this whole fight going. You won this round. Next time, maybe it’ll be different. Hell, maybe next time you’ll be the one wishing you never met me.” 

With that, she gave a loud whistle while raising her hand to spin her finger around in the air. “Wrap it up!” Her words were clearly directed toward the uncertain goons waiting nearby for orders. “Let’s roll on out of here before we end up with even more interruptions.” Through all that, she hadn’t taken her gaze off me. And once her men began to retreat, she addressed me one more time. “It was a good trick, kid. You really had me going there. Even kept throwing paint at me so I couldn’t take the time to call ahead to check in. Too bad you didn’t come over to our side. We could’ve had a lot of fun together. But then, from what I’ve heard, you’re more likely to join La Casa if anything.” She considered that briefly before gesturing. “At least we would’ve been allies in this whole thing. That… that might’ve been fun. Now ahh, you and your sidekick might wanna dive out of the way.”

That was all the warning she gave us before a pair of nausea dust clouds went flying out in both directions. The clouds were thick, and came at me so fast I barely had time to throw myself backwards and to the ground in an awkward roll to get out of range. On the far side of the woman, I could hear Alloy curse and yelp as she barely escaped her own cloud. 

Once I finally picked myself up from the ground and managed to orient myself, I saw Alloy hovering up on her board a good fifteen feet in the air and further back than she had been. It looked like she had barely picked herself up too. The colored clouds were gone, and so was Angel Dust herself, and her men. They had all seemingly disappeared, leaving the two of us with the truck and trailer. 

“Well,” I muttered while walking that way and brushing the dirt off my costume, “that was fun.” 

“Sure, fun,” Alloy retorted as she landed, marbles spinning around her. “Tell you what, next time, you can take the puke dust to the face and I’ll chase her down. Deal?” 

Coughing, I offered a shrug. “Personally, I’d prefer it if neither of us had to throw up. That’s, you know, my ideal scenario.” Then I grimaced, adding, “Are you okay? It sounded pretty bad.” 

I could see the way she shuddered at the memory, head shaking. “Well, it wasn’t fun, I’ll tell you that much. But I’ll live. Besides, we won.” With that, she offered her fist to me. 

Bumping my own fist against hers, I nodded. “Yeah, we won. Though I’m pretty sure we also managed to make even more enemies in the process. Well, one more in particular. Angel Dust isn’t going to forget that. She might’ve been smart enough to walk away for now, and… you know, fairly gracious in losing. But she won’t forget it. Next time, she’s going to be a lot more careful. And a lot more intent on winning. So umm, let’s be careful and keep our eyes open, huh? I really don’t feel like being ambushed by her when she decides it’s a good time to prove a point.” 

Alloy agreed, just before both of us turned in time to see a small squad of police cars arriving. They were accompanied by a car with Ten Towers labeling on it, which stopped to allow two of their Touched to step out. The first was Stick, a short man (just five inches taller than me) wearing loose gray pants, a sleeveless black shirt with the faded gray Ten Towers logo, spiked wristbands, combat boots, and a dark bandana mask that covered the lower half of his face. His black hair was worn long, clear to his shoulders. Meanwhile, the other Touched who had just arrived was Bunglebotch. Her own costume looked a lot more professional (and expensive) than his, amounting to a form-fitting black bodysuit with purple highlights over the arms and legs, and a matching purple Ten Towers logo over the front. Her gloves and boots were purple too, and she had a cape with an attached hood that were each black on the outside and purple on the inside. She also wore a black helmet with a large purple visor that went all the way from her chin to just above her eyes. 

Yeah, that was the thing about Bunglebotch. Her costume made her look amazing, one of the coolest costumes in the city as far as I was concerned. But her power was… well, essentially she could do basically any physical action that a human being was capable of, but it would always look goofy, uncoordinated, and accidental. Like an old slapstick movie. Oh, and she could focus on anyone to make them screw up a physical action they were trying to do. It was a whole thing. She was one of the most physically gifted and coordinated Touched in the city, but no matter what she did, she would end up looking goofy and incompetent. Or, well, accidentally competent. I supposed that having one of the coolest-looking costumes in the city was her tradeoff for looking like such a clown whenever she did anything. 

Come to think of it, clown was probably the exact right term. Clowns were really good at being incredibly physically coordinated while making you think they were the exact opposite. Maybe that should’ve been her codename. But then she would’ve had to go with a very different physical look, because no way could someone use the name Clown and dress up the way she did.

In any case, the two Star-Touched approached us, standing there by the trailer, and started to ask what had happened. So, Alloy and I jumped into an explanation about how we had been patrolling together when we saw the Easy Eights goons holding the driver of the truck at gunpoint. We intervened, then Angel Dust had shown up. From there, I went on to talk about the chase that came after Alloy had been… briefly indisposed. She, in turn, talked about getting my message about where to go to find us. Then we summed up with how the whole thing had ended. 

Stick exchanged a brief look with Bumblebotch, before gesturing for her to go ahead and check the trailer. Then he turned back to us. “Sounds like you did good today. But I wouldn’t take what Dust said lightly. She’s not really one of the hardcore dangerous Fells out there, but she’s not a pushover either. She won’t come find your families and stab you in bed. But she very well might work out a plan to get one over on you in the field.”

I nodded once. “So what you’re saying is that she’s not a psychotic murderer, but she’s still going to want to hurt us within reason. And probably embarrass us. You know, pull out a win that makes herself look good. Restores her rep.” 

Bunglebotch called over while opening the back of the truck. “Yeah, that’s about right! She’s not a wannabe-Scion, but she’s still got an image to uphold. And you embarrassed her today.” Hauling herself up into the truck, she added, “But then, you guys seem pretty good at racking up enemies.” 

Grimacing, I offered a helpless shrug. “So I’ve been told. I guess she’ll have to get in line with everyone else.”

Stick spoke solemnly. “Just hope that that line doesn’t turn into a mob. And know that if you need it, you’ve got as much help as you want.” His hand reached out to settle on my shoulder, squeezing firmly while he glanced between Alloy and me. “You two may not be in any of our teams, But you’re still part of the community. If you need anything, just speak up, any time. You got that?”  

The two of us agreed and then stepped away while the Ten Towers Touched began to take inventory of the truck, and the cops secured the scene. There were some onlookers gathered by that point, though they were staying well enough back. I nudged the girl beside me and we went over there to interact with the crowd. Part of me thought that was weird and maybe self-indulgent. But on the other hand, a bigger part pointed out that I wanted the civilians to be more likely to believe me if things ever came to a head with this whole Ministry thing. If I avoided and ignored the crowds, the moment my family decided to start trying to shift the narrative against Paintball, it would be a lot more likely to work in their favor. But if I could make sure that the public liked our little group, it would be harder for my parents to make us look bad. 

Was that manipulative? Okay, maybe. But it felt like the sort of game that I had to play. It left something of a bad taste in my mouth when I thought about it that way, yet if I ignored it, things would end up being a lot worse. And besides, I really did enjoy talking to people as Paintball, showing off and goofing around–okay, I enjoyed showing off and goofing around as Cassidy too. So I wasn’t exactly suffering when it came to that. Still, I couldn’t shake that slightly awkward feeling at the back of my mind, even if I was getting pretty good at ignoring it. 

I also made a point of telling the people that we were part of a new team called Avant-Guard, even spraying the logo onto the nearby wall, as well as giving a few people who asked for it a version of the logo on their clothes. That proved to be pretty popular and even more people showed up asking for me to paint their shirts or jackets. Not all of them with our team name either. Some just wanted my name, or Alloy’s with an image of her marbles. One person asked if I could do a picture across the back of his jacket that amounted to myself on one side, the roof of a building below, and Cuélebre chasing me on the opposite side. Once I did and they saw how detailed it was, everyone wanted something like that. They all had different images in mind, and it took about twenty minutes for me to get through all of it in between talking to them and letting my paint recharge now and then. I let them know that it could be scrubbed off if they wanted to, but most of them said they would stop by the store to buy this spray stuff that was supposed to seal paint to fabric or something. I wasn’t sure about the details. All I knew was that they wanted to keep my images on their clothes, which was… wow. 

Finally, Alloy and I managed to extract ourselves. She had been entertaining other people by turning her marbles into various things, even allowing some of them to step up on the different shapes for brief rides up and down the street. She managed to hide it pretty well, but I could tell that she was even more overwhelmed than I was. 

So, once we got out of there and landed on a roof a couple streets over, I looked toward the girl and raised an eyebrow. Then I realized she wouldn’t see that, so I painted a face on the front of my helmet with a raised eyebrow there. “You doing okay?” 

Coughing, she gave me a look, retracting most of her helmet so I could see her face. “Am I doing okay? What about you? You uhh, you seemed right at home back there. You sure you’re not a celebrity or something in your real life? Oh my God, are you a child actor? Jason Highward?” 

The guess made me choke, shaking my head quickly. “I promise, I’m not the star of Bending Backwards. Or any other TV star,” I added quickly before she could say anything else. “I’m not a celebrity. I mean, my other self isn’t a celebrity. Not–” I was about to say ‘not really,’ but that felt like the wrong thing to say. So I just settled on, “Not as a civilian. I uhh, I guess I just like attention at school and it translates?” That was basically the truth, so I didn’t feel guilty about saying it. But then I felt guilty all over again for being relieved that I could manipulate the truth like that. It was… complicated, to say the least. 

From the look the other girl was giving me, I had a feeling she thought there was something else to what I was saying, and what I wasn’t saying. But she let it go and simply replied, “At least we managed to save that truck, huh? Even if we did end up making another enemy.” A slight frown crossed her face before she shook it off. “But then, I guess you don’t do this sort of stuff for long without banging heads with the bad guys.” 

“Yeah, that’s pretty easy in my experience,” I admitted. Then I changed the face that I had painted on the front of my helmet to make it smile. “But hey, it’s nice to have someone else to share the bullseye with.”  

Giving me a look, Peyton dryly replied, “Gee, thanks, boss. Glad to be able to help, I guess. And speaking of help, we should probably get over to the Nest.” 

The Nest was Wren’s Nest, of course. The pawn shop. I gave a quick nod. “Right, they’ve been waiting for us. Come on, let’s head over there. Though… you think we should stop and grab some pizza on the way?” 

“You mean bribe them with food so they’re not annoyed about waiting so long for us?” Peyton offered me a very faint, knowing smirk. “But while we’re at it, we better grab some cheesy bread too.” 

“Isn’t that your favorite?” I teased, already turning to walk to the edge of the roof. 

“What can I say?” she shot back. “I’m very annoyed at us and it’s going to take some strong bribery to make me forgive us.” 

********

Eventually, after taking a long route to make sure we weren’t being followed or observed, we made it back to the shop. As we went in the back door, Wren and Fred were already waiting, along with Murphy and Roald. When they saw us, the latter two let out audible sighs of relief, Roald speaking up, “We saw the bit on the news about you chasing Angel Dust.” 

“Yeah, are you okay?” Murphy demanded. “First it looked like she was chasing you, but then you were chasing her. It was weird. What the hell happened?” Glancing toward Wren, she amended. “Heck. What the heck happened?” 

For their part, Wren and Fred simply watched this, clearly just as curious as the other two but content to let them talk. Wren did hover upwards on her wings, basically bouncing excitedly in the air. I could tell that she had her own news to share, but was trying to be good. 

So, the two of us explained what had happened and how it ended. Including the bit about telling everyone about the team name and signing autographs/painting shirts. “Which means,” I finished up, “we should be getting the name out there pretty well by now. So I hope nobody really hated it after all, because it looks like it’s gonna stick.” 

“It’s a cool name!” Wren insisted. Finally unable to hold herself back any longer, she flew forward to hover right in front of us. “But guess what, guess what, guess what! They’re ready to test.” 

“The suits you’ve been working on?” I straightened up a bit. “You’re sure?” 

Murphy immediately piped up, “Seriously, we really get to try them?” 

Wren nodded toward both of us, her head snapping back and forth between Murphy and me. “Uh huh, huh huh! They’re pretty basic right now, but… Uncle Fred?” 

On that cue, the man reached behind himself and brought out two jumpsuits. They looked pretty simple, like mechanics coveralls. Not too dissimilar from my own costume, though these were black. At the wrists and ankles of the jumpsuits there were silver bands, along with a bit of visible circuitry on the inside of the jumpsuits.

As Fred held them out to Murphy and Roald, Wren urged the two to pull them on and zip them up, adding, “I promise I’ll make them look better and stuff in the final version. But I wanted to, you know, let you try them and make sure it worked.” 

“Make sure what worked?” I asked, watching as the pair slipped the jumpsuits on over their clothes. 

“Well, uhh, first, the kinetic decelerator,” she explained. “Uh, guys, take these.” She reached out to a table, taking two pairs of gloves before tossing them that way. “Put them on, then umm, put your hands together like this.” She pushed her hands flat together, like she was praying. 

Shrugging uncertainly, the other two did that. After a second or two, a very faintly audible hum could be heard, and I saw an outline of barely visible energy, like an aura around each of them. 

“Yay!” Wren cheered, then picked up a baseball from the nearby table full of junk. “Watch.” With that, she threw the ball as hard as she could at Roald’s head. The ball got most of the way there before there was a blue-green flash. Then the ball just sort of… stopped and fell to the floor. 

“It’s not a constant thing yet,” Wren explained. “It’d draw way too much power for the little batteries in the pockets. You have to activate it by putting your hands together like that, or by saying ‘shield me,’ and then it’ll work for about thirty seconds. Right now it’s got enough power for about fifteen of those before it has to be recharged. Plus about thirty jumps.” 

“Jumps?” Peyton echoed, sounding just as curious as I felt. 

“Remember that uhh, teleporter?” Wren asked, looking to me. “The one you used before. It was super-dangerous, like, lucky you made it one piece. So I took it apart. But I split it into two things and linked the–here.” Turning back to the other two, she urged, “Uh, Roald, snap your fingers and point at Murphy.” 

The boy did just that, snapping with the gloves. As he did so and pointed, there was a sudden flash, and he was abruptly standing right next to the girl. Both of them yelped, half-falling in surprise. 

Wren, however, cheered. “It worked! When one of you snaps and points at the other, you’ll teleport over to them. Or if you both snap and point at each other, you’ll switch places. You just have to be within line of sight. I umm, haven’t figured out how to make you teleport somewhere else safely yet. I have this idea for these discs, but… but they’re not ready.” 

“Duuuude, that’s amazing!” Murphy gave Roald a shove, telling him to run over to the far side of the shop. Once he was there, she snapped and pointed. With a flash of light, she was suddenly standing next to him. Both of them cheered and leapt up and down a few times. 

“I think they like it,” I murmured with a smile, before looking over at Wren. “You’re pretty amazing yourself, you know that?” 

Visibly blushing, the blonde girl squirmed while still hovering in the air. “I just wanna help.” 

“Oh believe me,” I assured her, “you are definitely helping.” Glancing back to Murphy and Roald, who were testing the ‘switch places’ teleport by snapping and pointing at each other, I added, “Without you, we all would’ve been screwed a long time ago. I couldn’t have saved Blackjack’s daughter without you, and we certainly wouldn’t have been able to help Paige. As for getting into the Ministry base? Yeah, we’d probably be screwed there.

“But with you, we might just have a shot at this whole thing.” 

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