Wren Donovan

In Like Flynn 17-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so now we had a fancy new team name, thanks to Peyton. I was just hoping we’d get a chance for the name to actually matter before something terrible happened to us. A nagging part of me was convinced that giving ourselves a name was going to curse this whole thing. Meanwhile, another part was telling me I was being stupid and selfish for even involving people in my problems like this. What if something happened to them? How was I going to feel? 

Eesh, maybe they were right about that whole brooding thing. It was just possible that my Touched powers had come with an additional ‘gift’ of being very, very pessimistic sometimes.

With effort, I pushed those thoughts out of my head. Yes, this could be pretty dangerous, for more than one reason. And yes, it was risky to involve other people in what could lead to a confrontation with my family eventually. But it wasn’t like I could just shove them out again. I couldn’t tell them to go away or whatever. It wouldn’t work like that. They were here, and I really needed them. I couldn’t do this by myself. I was just going to have to deal with the risk. 

Besides, I didn’t want to do this by myself. Scary as it was to trust others, even with only a small part of what was actually going on, I needed them. Not just physically. I needed their skill and power, yes. But it was more than that. I needed to know there was someone else I could depend on, even if it was only for bits and pieces of the truth. Hard as it was to admit, I really didn’t want to be alone in this. Having Izzy around to talk to had shown me how important that was.

Working as quickly as we could, our little group did everything we had to over the next short while to get the virtual reality system ready to go. We basically acted as several extra sets of arms and legs for Wren, letting the girl tell us everything she needed to get the thing done. 

For a while, I thought we’d never finish. But, eventually we were all standing around what still looked like a complicated MRI machine. Wren had just tightened one last bolt on the side before stepping back to drop the wrench onto a table and brush her hands off with a note of finality. 

After a moment of all of us standing there looking at the thing, happy to be done working on it, Peyton raised her hand. “I’ve got a question. This thing sorta looks like it’s for one person to lay in. Maybe two if you squeeze and get pretty friendly. How are all of us going to use it, exactly?”

I had actually been wondering the same thing in myself, and turned toward Wren before raising my arms in a shrug. “She’s got a point there. Please tell me we don’t need to build another one of these for all of us. I’m pretty sure we don’t have that kind of time.” 

Giggling to herself, Wren shook her head. “Nope! You’re not laying inside the thing, she is.” With that, she gestured toward Paige. “She lays inside it, her computer links to the VR system, and you guys wear these.” With that, the girl turned to the nearby table before picking up a cardboard box, holding it out to us. We all leaned forward, only to find… sunglasses and gloves. Yeah. All of them had various bits of wires and other clearly technical stuff attached. The sunglasses even had what looked like short antennae glued along one side of the frame. And the lenses were bright, solid green. Meanwhile, the gloves had little microchip-like things attached to the end of each finger. 

Wren quickly explained, while we were staring at the contents of the box. “All you gotta do is put the glasses and gloves on, then sit down by the machine there, see? You’ll get linked into the computer and, as long as it’s on, you’ll see and hear and move in there instead of here.  Whenever you tell your body to move, you’ll actually tell your avatar thing in the computer to move instead.” 

That-A-Way spoke then. “Three questions. First, do we have a way to cancel out of it if we need to? You know, in case there’s an emergency. Second, how much of what happens in there are we going to actually feel? And third, what’s the deal with using our powers? I mean, am I going to impulsively try to teleport and all of a sudden the real me is off on the other side of the room in a pile of boxes? Oh, and come to think of it, question three-b, how am I going to use different parts of my power if my body is simply facing one direction? And what about her lizards?”

Wren quickly explained. “Oh, well, first you just use the code ‘Falling Star’ to jump out of the system. And for the second thing, you really aren’t physically experiencing any of it, but the computer will sorta… give you feeling impressions up to a certain point. You’ll feel things, but you can’t die from it or actually be injured or anything. If you get hurt enough to ‘die,’ you’ll just wake up out here and have to go back in from the start and make your way to where you were again.” 

Once that much was explained, Pack put in, “You said we could use some mental approximation of our powers or whatever, right?” 

Wren’s head bobbed quickly. “Uh huh. It’s sort of hard to explain. But the computer looks at what your brain thinks it’s capable of and basically copies back into the system. If you were going into a world I made, I could make you like Superman! But… but you’re not. You’re going into another world, and I don’t have any control over it. Or at least, not very much. The best I can do is make sure you have what your own brains think your powers are.” She fidgeted a bit, starting to apologize for not being able to do more than that. 

“Don’t you dare,” I quickly interrupted, raising a finger to point at the girl. “Wren, after everything you’ve done– just don’t apologize. You pull all this together in one day. That’s amazing. Seriously, you’ve done enough. More than enough. Just let us handle the rest of it, okay?” 

Blushing at that, Wren stammered an agreement. Then she quickly moved on to show a couple tiny animal collars, explaining that putting them on a couple of the lizards would link them to Pack and let her take them into the simulation as well, just like they were really there. They would see and experience things the same way we did. Which, to be fair, was probably going to confuse the hell out of them. I just hoped Pack could make sure they understood well enough. 

“Who’re you taking in with you?” That was Way, looking at the girl in question curiously. “I mean, if you can only take two lizards, which two is it gonna be? They’re all pretty helpful.” 

“Tell me about it,” Pack muttered, her gaze focused over into the corner of the lab, where her assortment of reptiles were all spread out across the floor, curiously investigating their surroundings. “I think… Mars Bar for muscle and Riddles for utility. She can fly and let us know what she sees. Might make finding this chick and her evil twin easier, wherever we end up.” 

That said, she turned to look at Wren once more. “But you’ve gotta make sure the rest of them are cool, okay, kid? They’re gonna be confused, so you keep them happy while we’re busy.” 

Wren promised she’d make sure the rest of the lizards were okay, while part of me wondered exactly how much of Pack’s request had been for the lizards’ benefit, and how much had been for Wren herself. She was definitely going to feel pretty anxious as she waited for the rest of us to get through this whole thing. Anxious because she ‘couldn’t help,’ even though she had already helped more than enough. Getting her to keep the lizards entertained and distracted would also entertain and distract her. It was a distraction for both sides. Pack was pretty good at that sort of thing. Which made me briefly wonder if she had any younger siblings she had to distract like that.

But there wasn’t time to focus on that for long. Because Wren was running through one final checklist. She sounded like mission control for a space launch or something, intently and seriously checking over every part of the system. She didn’t spend long on it, only a couple seconds for each bit, just to make sure everything was still running smoothly. She even had us speak several sentences into a microphone, which would help translate our voices into the virtual world so we would sound right. Which was a real load off my back, since I’d been wondering how I was going to deal with the whole voice changer thing if it turned out to be an issue. 

Once she was satisfied, Wren gestured toward the motionless blonde girl on the table. “Can umm, you guys move her over to the machine?” 

Between the four of us each taking part of Paige’s body, Pack, Way, Alloy, and I managed to shift her as gently as possible over to the MRI-like machine. We laid her in place, before Wren hit a button and the thing retracted to take her inside. From there, the kid-genius picked up what looked like a small ipad and started fiddling with it. With each brush of her finger across the screen, the machine we had put Paige into gave what I hoped was an affirmative beep. The last thing we needed right now was for something to go wrong with the system. 

Okay, so I could think of a lot worse things than that, particularly revolving around one of the Fell-Touched teams like the Scions or Oscuro suddenly attacking. But that was (thankfully) pretty unlikely. Something going wrong with the device Wren had built in a day really could happen. 

Fortunately, the machine itself seemed fine. It gave happy beeps with each check Wren made, before she finally turned to us and gave a thumbs up. Her voice was nervous. “O-okay. I think it’s ready. I mean it is ready. She’s plugged into the system and it’s reading her computer. They’re completely linked. The computer says it’s all green lights. I mean, maybe a couple very faint yellow ones, but it’s still okay. Definitely okay. We are on the positive side of the line!”

Part of me wanted to ask what the yellow lights were, but I was pretty sure knowing wouldn’t help. This was the best we were going to get. And Paige didn’t have time for us to wait for everything to be completely perfect. So, looking to the other three, I asked, “We ready to do this?” 

Apparently we were, or at least as close as we were going to get. Sure, there was a lot more I’d like to do to be ready for this, but we didn’t have the time or resources. Paige was in trouble right now. We had to get in there and help her while we still could. So, the four of us arranged ourselves in chairs around the machine. Two on each side. I sat next to Alloy, lifting the front of my helmet to slip the sunglasses on through the holes in the ski mask. Then I exchanged my own gloves for the new ones and looked over to the girl beside me. She looked back and gave a thumbs up. 

“You guys ready over there?” That-A-Way called after a moment. “Cuz we have two lizards over here who are very confused about why they’re suddenly wearing collars. So we should probably get this show on the road. You know, so they can be even more confused.”  

“They’ll be fine,” Pack insisted. “Just make sure you hold Riddles carefully. Sometimes she forgets she’s not in bird form and tries to fly off things.”

Wren quickly assured us that as the machine kicked in, all commands to move that our (and the lizards’) brains sent our bodies would be translated into the virtual world instead. At least until we gave the Falling Star code. She also belatedly mentioned that we could yank each other out of the system in case of an emergency by saying that person’s Touched name in between the ‘falling’ and ‘star’ part of the name. 

“Okay, okay, right.” Wren sounded just as nervous as I felt. “Um, one more thing you should probably know. It won’t just be the virus duplicate thing you have to fight. You guys are technically sort of invaders in that system, so whatever defenses her computer has will probably try to kick you out. Especially if she’s not really in full control of it. I’m not sure how it’ll show itself, but umm, just be careful. It’ll probably look like soldiers or guards or something. Whatever fits with the scene they’re playing out you know? The defenses will try to fit in.” 

Well, that sounded fun. On the other side of the machine, Pack spoke up. “So hope this chick and her evil twin aren’t playing out some kind of Star Wars shit full of super battle droids, got it.” 

“Personally, I’m gonna close my eyes and really push for a Willy Wonka scenario,” That-A-Way put in. “I could dropkick half a dozen Oompa-Loompas when they start singing. Creepy shits.”

Yeah, we were definitely trying to keep our minds off what we were actually going to run into. Whatever it was, I had the distinct feeling it wouldn’t be as easy as drop-kicking Oompa-Loompas. But hey, maybe we’d get lucky. 

Yeah, I didn’t believe it either.   

In any case, after running one more, possibly paranoid check, Wren took a breath “Okay, alright. Um, you guys ready?” 

We confirmed that, as I shifted in the chair a bit. It wasn’t some random folding chair. The thing was a recliner that was actually fairly comfortable. Not as good as the chairs at home, of course, but at least I wouldn’t fall out of it the moment my body went limp. Or whatever was supposed to happen once I was in the system. 

Once she was satisfied, Wren looked over to the other side of the room, where Fred was standing next to a computer. She started alternating between typing stuff on a little iPad, and calling out things for him to type into his own keyboard. Behind me, I heard a gradually rising whirring sound as the MRI-like machine that we had put Paige into came to life. There was power in the air, enough that it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Oh boy, this was about to get really–

A sudden bright light blinded me, before quickly changing to a swirling pattern of colors that shifted through the entire rainbow multiple times. It wasn’t flashing or anything, just drifting, sort of like a slow kaleidoscope. I could hear the sound of dogs barking, then the sound of ocean waves, then an airplane, people talking in hushed tones, and more. It was cycling through all these random sounds that made no logical sense. Nearby, I heard another sound that I belatedly realized was Alloy muttering under her breath about not wanting to be drugged. 

Finally, the swirling colors turned into a reddish-purple fog and I had the distinct sensation of going down the drop on a roller coaster. A startled yelp escaped me, joined by three others, just as the falling sensation stopped and the fog vanished. 

I was standing in the hallway of my school. I mean, I wasn’t. I was sitting back in that room next to the machine. I knew that. Logically I knew that. But my brain was absolutely convinced at that moment that I was standing here. It looked exactly identical to one of the side corridors near the science classrooms. It even smelled right, for God’s sake. I wasn’t even sure how that part was possible, but it was. No matter what my conscious brain said, I really felt like I was standing in that hallway, as if we had been teleported there. God, this was so weird. I’d expected it to be weird, but anticipation was nothing compared to the real thing.  

Quickly, I raised my hands to my face and looked down to check. Sure enough, I was still in my costume. It had translated perfectly into the system. I had the gloves, the suit, even the helmet. Everything felt fine. Hell, the gloves were mine rather than the ones I actually had on for this, and the front of my helmet was down despite being up in the real world. Convenient.  

“Wha–” Nearby, That-A-Way was looking around. She too was in her normal costume, just the way she should’ve been. “Why are we at–in a… a school?” I could see the slight frown of confusion as she squinted at one of the classroom doors. “That’s what this place is, right?” 

Stepping from behind me to move into view, Alloy slowly shrugged. “Definitely ain’t my school. No graffiti, the lockers are way too big, everything smells clean and rich instead of like piss, sweat, and broken spirits.” 

“It’s the school for rich cunts,” Pack put in before adding, “I mean, it’s gotta be, right? Look around, tuition for this place must be fucking absurd. I bet these spoiled fucks only get world-touring, chart-topping bands to play their fucking dances.” Which totally wasn’t fair, considering the headliner of our last dance had only been like… ninth on the charts. 

In any case, even as Pack said that, Riddles and Mars Bar moved into view, sniffing around their owner’s feet before looking around. I could feel the confusion coming off of them as they adjusted to the fact that their poor lizard brains convinced them that they were somewhere completely new.  

“You guys hear anything?” Pack asked, while focusing on growing each of her pets into their larger, more capable forms. I really hoped that, like our movements, the lizard transformations weren’t translating back into the real world. Then again, we’d probably find out real quick if the iguana on the girl’s lap had suddenly turned into a full-sized grizzly bear with scales.  

“Nope,” Alloy was saying after we all took a moment to focus. “I don’t hear a damn thing. Is that weird? I mean, shouldn’t we hear them fighting or something? I thought they were supposed to be fighting.”

“Maybe they’re stalking each other,” I pointed out quietly. If they were sneaking around, it was probably a bad idea for us to make a lot of noise. Looking up and down the hallway uncertainly, I frowned in thought. Part of me wanted to call out to get Paige’s attention, but that was almost certainly a bad idea. We needed a better handle on what was going on in here before we just started shouting out for attention. Considering she had some sort of evil duplicate and we still weren’t sure how we were supposed to tell the difference between them if she decided to play that game. Seriously, what did an ‘evil Paige’ look like, after the years and years the real version had spent deliberately tormenting me (under her father’s orders, but still). It was really weird to think of the girl who had insulted and bullied you for years having an evil twin. 

No, we definitely needed to be quiet and go through this whole thing carefully. With any luck, maybe we could find our way to where they were and eavesdrop long enough to know which was which.

Unfortunately, of course, I wasn’t that lucky. And we definitely weren’t going to get much of a chance for the whole sneaking thing. Because even as I had that thought, several figures emerged from the classroom doors ahead of us. It was a mixture of teachers and school staff, even a few of the security guards and janitors. I recognized most of them. But they weren’t smiling at me the way they normally did. No, they looked pretty angry. Not to mention violent. Soon, a crowd of over a dozen had formed up to block our path forward. 

“Uhh, guys?” Alloy spoke up, and I looked back that way to see a similar group had come through the door leading to the outside. We were penned in on both sides. Worse, the assembled figures began to produce various weapons. Knives, bats, chains, and so on. This definitely wasn’t something we could talk our way through. 

“Trevithick was right about the security measures,” I muttered. “They’re definitely not happy to see us.” 

“Right, well, these guys we can rip apart, right?” Pack put in quickly, as the groups on both sides started to advance. “They’re just computer programs or whatever.” 

My head gave a quick nod. “Yeah, no need to play nice. Just get through them. And fast. We have to find Paige.” 

Either my saying her name was some kind of signal, or it was just a coincidence of timing. Either way, the moment I got those words out, a collective, horrific scream tore its way out of the throats of the people advancing on us and filled the air like some sort of terrible alarm. They all did it, shrieking like banshees. 

And with that, they attacked. 

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In Like Flynn 17-03 (Summus Proelium)

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It wasn’t that hard to convince That-A-Way to come meet us. Apparently, she had to beg off from doing some kind of school project with somebody, but didn’t really mind that much. In fact, going by her texts, the girl almost seemed grateful for the excuse. Especially when I told her I was with Pack and that this was something important that had to be done within the next few hours. Obviously, she had questions, but the girl held them until she got to the tire shop where we had both gone back to wait for her. It was close enough to Wren’s shop for this. 

Patient as she might have been over the phone, Way definitely wanted the whole story as soon as she showed up. Looking back and forth between the two of us as we all stood on that roof, she insisted that we tell her everything that was going on and what kind of emergency this actually was before anything else happened and before she would agree to go anywhere.  

So, I gave her the quick version, explaining what our Tech-Touched friend had found out about Paige’s apparently increasingly desperate situation, and how we were going to try to deal with it to at least buy ourselves time so we wouldn’t end up with the virus duplicate taking over and turning her into Evil Paige. Way made a few noises of confusion and surprise as I went through all the VR stuff, but mostly remained quiet until I was finally done explaining the whole thing.

Once I was finished, the blonde girl slumped back a bit and seemed to be lost in thought for a few long moments. She was clearly going over all of that in her head before eventually straightening up. “Wow. You really do get into some really crazy stuff, you know that?”  

With a cough at her words, I shook my head. “Trust me, you really don’t know the half of it.” 

She, of course, gave me a look while flatly pointing out, “And whose fault is that, exactly?” 

Shifting uncomfortably, I waved that off. “Anyway, like I said, we’ve got an extra slot for someone to help us go in there and help that girl. If you’re interested. But we have to do it tonight. Like, in a couple hours, so if you’ve got something else you can’t get out of… I mean, it’s short notice.” 

Snorting, That-A-Way drawled, “Totally smooth change of subject there, Paintball. How do you do it?” That point made, she firmly added, “And yeah, I’m totally in. Absolutely. If you two are going into some kind of Tron world to save Paige from turning into psycho evil crazy Paige, then I’m going too. No way am I letting both of you have that kind of adventure without me.” 

Before I could say anything, Pack spoke up first. “Technically, it wouldn’t be the two of us anyway.” Her gaze moved over to me as she slyly added, “Not with Paintball’s new sidekick.” 

Well, that definitely got Way’s attention. Her gaze snapped from Pack back to me, staring a bit. “You mean it’s true then? You really did recruit that girl you were with? Why? Who is she? Do you trust her? Have you told her about this Ministry thing? Have you told her what we’re doing at the mall? What else does she know? How long have you known her? How many times–” 

Quickly, I interrupted. “I haven’t known her very long. And no, I haven’t told her anything about the Ministry. But she kind of already figured out that there was a good reason not to join the Minority, because I keep refusing to even though I’m obviously fine with working with you guys.”

“Yeah, who could’ve seen that coming?” With that flat retort, Way shook her head before continuing. “So, are you going to tell her the truth about all that? I mean, if she’s signed up to be your sidekick or partner or whatever, she’s probably going to figure out there’s something bigger going on eventually. That, or something horrible is going to happen to her because she doesn’t know the truth and you’ll feel like a gigantic piece of shit for not warning her about it. Do you really want that? Do you want to put this girl in danger because you wouldn’t tell her the truth?” 

Wincing, I shook my head. “I’m gonna tell–okay I think I’m gonna tell her the truth. Just not–not yet. I want to build up to it first. More to the point, I want to get to know her first, see how she reacts to things, you know? I just need to get to know her more before we jump into the deep end with all the Ministry stuff. I mean, that’s a lot to shove onto a brand new Touched.” Glancing down, I muttered under my breath, “Seriously, it’s a lot.” 

From the corner of my eye, I saw Way’s mouth open as though she was going to say something. But she stopped herself. I had the feeling she was going to bring up my not telling them the whole story and keeping important things to myself again, then thought better of it.  

Of course, Pack chose that moment to speak up with, “Don’t worry, once you guys get through taking down Pencil and the Scions, you’ll definitely know her really well.” 

What?!” Yeah, unsurprisingly, Way had a bit of a reaction to that. Her eyes behind that domino mask were wide as she pointed at me. “Dude, what is she talking about? You are not going after Pencil or the Scions and you’re definitely not doing it with this brand new girl. What the hell?” 

Giving Pack a quick, pointed look (which she ignored), I sighed before launching into an explanation of the situation. I told the girl about the whole favor thing, and that we weren’t actually going after the Scions themselves, but a living witness from Pencil’s early days who might possibly have some kind of secret important insight about that piece of shit that would give Deicide an edge over him. With, of course, the added note that pointing her at the Scions was a hell of a lot safer than us having anything to do with trying to take them down. 

By the time I was done, Way had sat down and picked up Holiday (in her little skink form) to hold in one hand while gently rubbing the back of the lizard’s head with the other. She was watching me dubiously. “Do you really think it’s going to be that simple? You’re just going to track this girl down and get her to tell you some secret about how to stop Pencil, a secret she hasn’t told anybody else yet because she’s so scared of him? She’ll just tell you because you, what, ask nicely? Then you’re going to give that secret to one of the leaders of a Fell-Gang and she’s going to deal with him? And if this whole thing works, there won’t be any terrible consequences and nothing will go wrong?” 

With a long sigh, I shook my head. “I don’t know how it’s gonna go. Probably not that smoothly. But it’s the favor Deicide called in. A favor I definitely owe her. And quite frankly, she could have asked for something a hell of a lot worse than that. We all want Pencil to be stopped. If this works, great! If not, at least we tried. I’m paying back the favor by trying to help stop Pencil from killing more people. Like I said, Deicide could’ve tried to get me to do something a lot worse.” 

“Besides,” Pack put in, “I already told him to pull me in as soon as they get anywhere with it. He’s right, Deicide earned that favor. But she did it by helping save my boss’s kid. So I’m not letting him and his new sidekick run off by themselves and get hurt trying to pay her back for it.”

That-A-Way let out an audible breath, her voice dark. “Believe it or not, finding out that you’re getting involved in this whole thing doesn’t actually make me feel that much better. In fact, it kinda makes me feel even worse, because I really don’t feel like letting the girl I–” In mid-sentence, she stopped herself, clearly adjusting her words. “–the girl I’m pretty sure isn’t that bad make herself a target of that psycho piece of shit too!”   

Pack and I exchanged brief looks before the La Casa girl cleared her throat. “Sure, right. Well, the… girl you’re pretty sure isn’t that bad is already a target for Pencil. So are you. And so is our little buddy here.” She gestured toward me. “Sooner or later, he’s going to get around to targeting us to get back for what we put him and Cup through. So, you know, it seems to me that we ought to take this chance to get someone as strong as Deicide to maybe take him out. If that means we do a little digging and hopefully find an actual weakness no one else knows about so she can actually do something useful, so be it. Better than just sitting around waiting to see what his revenge for that night up at the cabin is gonna be.” 

It looked like Way wanted to argue with that for a brief moment. Then she exhaled and sank back a bit. Her finger gently traced along the body of the tiny skink before she found her voice. “Yeah, okay, I get it. You’ve both got a point. But don’t–don’t go running into life and death shit without getting help, okay? If anything happens–actually, scratch that. Anytime you’re doing anything that has to do with this… plan, tell me. Make sure I know where you’re going and what you’re doing. If you don’t keep checking in, I’ll be there. Just consider me your back-up. But that means you have to keep me updated. Got it?” From the tone of her voice, she wasn’t going to accept any arguments. 

“Sure,” I immediately answered, giving her a thumbs up. “Like we’re gonna argue against you having our backs? Fat chance, Pencil’s a piece of shit, but he’s a scary piece of shit.” 

“What he said,” Pack muttered, gesturing toward me. “I mean, if this thing works out perfectly we won’t get anywhere near him or any of the Scions. But I think we all know how unlikely that is. Nothing ever works out perfectly. Besides,” she added slyly with a look toward Way, “I could definitely think of worse people to have watching my backside out there.” 

Making a disconcerted noise in the back of her throat, Way pointedly looked at me. “What do we need to do to get ready for this? And, wait a minute, how are we going to do anything in there? I don’t know about you two, but I’m pretty reliant on my powers. I mean, yeah, I’ve had self-defense training, duh. But do you really think we can do enough in that place to help? Hell, you’re taking some brand new girl in there too and I doubt she’s had special training or experience. Unless you somehow managed to recruit a teenage ninja master commando.”

Briefly thinking about Peyton wearing a ninja commando outfit with a big rifle and a sword strapped to her back, I coughed before shaking my head quickly. “Not exactly, but Wren says we should be able to use at least some form of our powers in there. It has something to do with the system reading what we’re capable of, or something like that. I dunno, it’s complicated. The point is, we shouldn’t be completely helpless. Except…” Trailing off, I looked to Pack and frowned as a thought occurred to me. “I’m not exactly sure how you’re going to use your power. I mean, will she spawn in lizards for you or something? What’s the deal there.”

Before responding to that, Pack glanced to Way and informed her, “Wren’s the name of our friendly little tech kid.” 

“Kid?” the other girl quickly put in as she looked from Pack over to me and back, rising to her feet with Holiday still in her hand. “Hold up. You mean this Trevithick you’ve been talking about-”  

“That’s a long story too,” I muttered. “Yeah, she’s a kid. A genius kid, but a kid. Don’t worry, you’ll meet her soon. She said she’s cool with it. Apparently, she has this crazy idea that if I somehow get in trouble or something, having you to call for help would be a good idea.”  

Giving me an intense stare, Way flatly retorted, “Gee, what on Earth could ever have made her think she needed to plan for that ridiculous eventuality? You’re always so careful and definitely never take on more than you can handle. I mean, you’re practically the avatar of caution.”  

Flushing at her words behind the helmet, I waved both hands. “Yeah yeah, I get it. You’re hilarious. Anyway, we don’t have a lot of choice right now. If we wanna save this Paige girl, we have to get in there. And the only way we’re gonna get in there to save her is with Wren’s help. Believe me, I wouldn’t–I’d be dead without her. Several times over. I’ve made it this far because of you guys, and her. Yeah, she’s a kid. But she knows what she’s doing.” 

After a brief pause, Way gave a slow nod. “Right, well, I guess it could be worse. I mean, I go out in the field with Raindrop and she’s saved me a hell of a lot more than once. And this kid isn’t going out to fight or anything, she’s just building stuff.” With that, her gaze snapped over to stare me down intently, “She’s not going into the field, right?” 

My head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, of course not. She’s support. And she’s really good at that. Hell, her being really good is the only reason we even know about Paige being in trouble, let alone have any chance of doing anything about it. Seriously, Wren’s building a virtual reality system and patching it into Paige’s computer core in like twenty-four hours. She’s pretty amazing.”

“He’s right,” Pack agreed before pushing on. “Anyway, as far as being helpless in there goes, the kid already said she could patch exactly two of my little friends with me. Something to do with technical limitations or whatever. Point is, she can wire in two of my buddies so they’re linked to me in there, just like in the real world. I just uhh…” She trailed off, looking from Holiday on Way’s hand over to the backpack cage where the rest of the lizards were. “I have to choose which two to take in there.” I could hear the grimace in her voice. “Really wish we knew more about what it was like so I knew who I should take with me.” 

Shrugging, I pointed out, “I guess we could head over there and see if Wren needs any help. Maybe she’ll know more about what we’re dealing with.” Glancing to Way, I added, “And you can meet her. You know, if you don’t have anything better to do right now.” 

She, in turn, gave a short nod. “Trust me, I cleared my schedule for this. Paige sounds like our best chance of finding out more about the Ministry. I mean, we’ve got the mall thing, but that’s going to take a while. Plus, it’d be better if we knew what Paige knows before going in there.” 

So, keeping an eye out for anyone watching, the three of us carefully made our way through those alleys to reach the shop. We took the same route Pack and I had before, and I noticed the homeless guy from earlier was gone. Briefly, I wondered if he had just moved to a different spot, or if he had already taken the offer to start working for La Casa. Not that I could blame him if he had. The dude was living on the streets. Getting safety and resources from Blackjack and his people was probably pretty tempting. 

In any case, we made it back to the shop, where Pack and I introduced That-A-Way to Fred and Wren. To my surprise, Fred immediately copped to what he had done to make the whole Ashton thing worse with that tool to break into the bank vault. For a moment, Way looked like she wanted to say something about how stupid that was, but she saw the look on his face and let it go. He already knew just how bad it had been. 

Besides, by that point, Wren had already jumped in to start asking her a million questions about her power, her costume, and everything else. The kid looked even more worn out than she had earlier, making it clear just how much effort getting this thing done in time was taking. But at that moment, she really didn’t seem to care that much. The exhaustion fell from her eyes as she excitedly pressed Way to answer all her many, many questions about how the Minority worked. 

It was only a few minutes of that before the kid quickly shook her head. “Sorry, sorry, sorry. Gotta get the machine done. Getting there. Almost there. Really close. It’ll be done in time, I promise.” That last bit was directed toward me. “I’ll get it done.” 

Quickly, I spoke up in as reassuring a tone as I could manage. “Wren, it’s okay. You’re okay. I know. You’ll get it done. Just don’t kill yourself over it. And tell us how we can help, okay?” 

So, for the next hour or so, the three of us kept moving through the shop, carrying stuff up to Wren, holding things for her, passing the kid whatever tool she needed, and generally being as useful as we could. 

We also used that time to ask her about what we were going to be walking into. Unfortunately, Wren didn’t know much. Mostly because she hadn’t wanted to interrupt or distract Paige from defending herself against that invader. The best she could tell us was that the area we were entering kept changing appearance. Sometimes it was an open city street, sometimes it was a mall, a forest, the roof of a building, a huge mansion, a library, whatever. It changed all the time. So we couldn’t exactly plan on what kind of surroundings would be there. 

Eventually, the three of us were downstairs sorting through a couple of shelves when the buzzer at the backdoor rang. It was Peyton, covered by the armor she’d used yesterday, the purple and silver Power Rangers-like bodysuit with the ‘helmet’ that was purple on top across her head and silver across her throat and lower half of her face, leaving her eyes and nose exposed. 

The girl looked surprised to see That-A-Way when we let her in. She was also slightly surprised to see Pack, but at least I had already told her we would be working with the La Casa girl. There was a quick back-and-forth of introductions and explanations as I informed Peyton that we could trust That-A-Way with this. 

“Alloy, huh?” Pack put in as soon as that was done. She looked the other girl up and down curiously. “Cool name. Guess it fits with the whole melding your marbles together to turn into things.” 

Alloy, for her part, looked a little uncertain as to how she should react to the supervillain complimenting her name choice. In the end, she offered a little shrug. “Uh, thanks, I guess.”

“Hey,” Way put in, “I’m just glad you don’t have yet another P name.” 

Peyton, of course, practically choked, head snapping that way. “What?” 

“You know,” Way continued, “We’ve got Pack and Paintball.” She gestured between the two of us in question. “And the girl we’re supposed to be helping is named Paige. Too many P names. It’s becoming a thing.” 

Clearly glad that most of her face was covered to hide her expression, Peyton nodded slowly. “Right, good thing.” 

“Hey,” Pack suddenly put in, “speaking of names, what exactly are you two gonna call your little team-up thing? Hell, pretty sure you should count Trevithick too, so what’re you all gonna call yourselves? Every group’s gotta have a name, especially if there’s two of you out in the field.” 

“Batman, Robin, Batgirl, and the rest of that group didn’t have a team name,” I pointed out. “I mean, besides Bat-family. Hey, you could be–” 

“We’re not being Paint-family,” Peyton immediately interrupted. “And definitely not the Ball-family. Forget it.” 

That, of course, was the cue for Wren to come down the stairs, blurting, “Are we choosing a team name?! We’ve gotta choose a team name, right?” 

Groaning, I shook my head. “Is this really the best use of our time right now?” Another part of me was really resistant to the idea of making this whole team-up thing official in any capacity. It was dangerous, it was reckless, it could backfire with–

“I have an idea.” That was Alloy, hesitantly speaking up. “I mean, it might be a little silly, but I was thinking about Paintball’s powers, and mine, and the way Trevithick makes brand new things. And I sorta… I sorta came up with a suggestion?” She squirmed uncomfortably, kicking her foot against the floor. 

Not wanting to discourage her despite my trepidation, I nodded. “Okay, whatcha got?” 

So, she told us, and explained the spelling. Once she had it out, all of us exchanged looks. Pack shrugged. “I’ve heard worse. I mean, it ain’t my team, but I wouldn’t mind jumping under the banner now and then whenever you need a guest star.” 

Wren was bobbing her head rapidly, of course, gushing about how cool it was. 

“Yeah, it’s definitely cool,” Way agreed, looking to me. “What do you think?” 

“Let’s see how it looks,” I murmured, raising both hands before using my paint to spray the name across the wall in red with black outline. Once it was there, all of us stared at it. 

“I like it,” I finally agreed despite the worry I felt. “Good job, Alloy.” 

After we’d all taken in the name that we would apparently be using, Way turned from the wall. “Well, should we get busy? From what you guys said, time is sorta of the essence.” 

She was right, of course. So, we all got back to work, finishing up the last things that needed to be done before we would be able to jump into virtual reality to save Paige. Hopefully. 

In the background, meanwhile, the name of my brand new team remained in bold red letters across the wall. 

Avant-Guard.

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In Like Flynn 17-02 (Summus Proelium)

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For those who read Heretical Edge, there was a commissioned interlude posted yesterday. If you missed that, you can read it right here

So yeah, Pack obviously had a lot of things to say about the whole thing with this Amanda girl. Mostly centered around how many ways it could either be a trap or backfire on us. She went on about how stupid it would be to intentionally piss off Pencil and make myself and my new friend an even bigger target for him then we were now. I had made him angry already, first by screwing up his plan at the Children’s Hospital so that he didn’t do nearly as much damage as he meant to, and then by escaping up at the cabin. Not to mention the fact that I had actually hurt Cup. Yeah, obviously he didn’t need an excuse to target me. And yet, here I was, about to poke my nose into his business again. Pack had more than a few loud opinions on that idea.  

In the end, all I could say was that at least we weren’t actually going anywhere near the man himself. And, I pointed out that someone had to put a stop to him. The longer he went on being able to torture and kill people, the longer his list of innocent victims would get. Even if I didn’t have a chance in hell of confronting him directly and winning, the least I could do was contribute to bringing him down by finding Amanda Sanvers and trying to convince her to tell Deicide about any actual weaknesses Pencil might have so that she could actually do something about it. 

“I’m not stupid. I know it’s dangerous. But he has to be stopped. And I do owe Deicide for that vial. The vial that saved your boss’s daughter. She came through with it and asked for a favor. She could have asked for a much harder favor than this. Okay, maybe this isn’t exactly easy, but it’s not bad or wrong. I don’t have a moral issue with stopping Pencil and the Scions. This might be hard and dangerous, but it’s still a good thing to do. And I’m going to do it. Or try, at least.” 

Through all of that, I could tell Pack was staring at me intently. She seemed to be weighing something back and forth in her head for a silent moment before giving a long, audible sigh. “Right, fine. But don’t go digging too far into finding this chick without me, got it?” When I started to object, she interrupted. “No, you’re right. You got into this favor to help save the boss’s kid. You saved her life, and now Deicide wants you to pay that back by possibly pissing off that psycho? You’re not doing that alone. Or even with some girl who’s had her powers for like half an hour. I’m not saying I’ll fight that son of a bitch, I’m not stupid either. But me and my buddies here can help everyone get away if shit goes south. If you’re doing this, I’m gonna be there to make sure you don’t go too far with it. Fuck, I owe you that much for the vial thing. Plus, you know…” She trailed off, kicking the roof with her foot before muttering, “I don’t exactly hate you. And the list of people like that isn’t long, so I’d rather not have to deal with that fucking freak getting his hands on you. Not to mention how Way would react if she found out I just let you… yeah. So, that’s it. If you’re doing this, I’m going with you. No arguing about it, capisce?” 

Snorting despite myself, I gave a short nod. Behind the helmet, I was smiling a bit. “So, my takeaway from all that is that you like me. You really like me!” 

A low growl escaped the girl. “Don’t make me change my mind, kid. This still all seems pretty stupid. But if you insist, I’m gonna make sure you don’t go too stupid with it.” 

“Not going too stupid, got it.” Giving her a thumbs up, I added, “But hey, at least we don’t have to worry about that for a while. I mean, that’s the problem behind door number two. We’ve got a whole other problem behind door number one we have to deal with first. Isn’t that great?”

Pack didn’t sound incredibly enthused, for some reason. “You know the whole ‘door number one or door number two’ bit is supposed to imply you pick one or the other? It’s supposed to be a choice, not a thing where you dive headfirst into both of them whenever you want.” 

“Meh.” I shrugged. “I always was a little selfish. Gotta have all the doors for myself. But hey, you’ll be there too.” I adopted a teasing tone once more. “Because you liiiiiike me. Because we’re super-good friends and you won’t let anything happen to me. Because we–”

She shut me up with a kick to the shin that made me yelp, then pointedly replied, “So, are we gonna find out if Wren’s got another slot we can slide Way into before we call her in, or what?” 

Giving her a thumbs up while using my other hand to rub my leg, I nodded. “Sure, sure. Let’s head over there and see what she can do. The more friends we can pull into this whole Tron adventure, the merrier.” Grimacing then, I added, “I can’t believe I’m saying that with a straight face. This is all super-weird, right?”

Snorting at me, Pack plucked Riddles off her shoulder where the bearded dragon had crawled. “Yeah, definitely super-weird. But you know, that’s pretty much par for the course as far as you’re concerned, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not like you ever do anything the normal way.” 

Opening my mouth to argue, I ended up hesitating before coughing. “Okay, fair. I guess I really don’t. But whatever, come on, let’s go talk to our kid-genius inventor friend about letting the Minority superhero chick we’re both friends with come along on the trip to go into the cyborg-girl’s brain so we can save her from the evil duplicate virus her supervillain psycho father installed before she gets erased.” 

So, the two of us collected the lizards, put them back in the backpack-cage thing, then headed down and made our way through the maze of back alleys toward Wren’s shop. We passed a confused homeless guy on the way as he poked his head up from his sleeping bag next to a dumpster, and I gave him a twenty dollar bill before heading on. Pack watched me do that, seemed to consider for a moment, then sighed and passed him a twenty as well before whispering something in his ear. 

“What’d you say to that guy?” I asked once we had moved out of the man’s earshot. 

“Hmm?” Pack glanced toward me, then looked over her shoulder that way. “Oh, I just told him if he wants an easy lookout job that pays really well, he should call the number on the money I gave him. Blackjack’s always looking to recruit the unfortunate. Even if they don’t have any powers or skills, you’d be surprised how much information they can get for you. Plus, like I said, they can play lookouts really well. No one pays attention to them. Get enough on your side, and you have a whole spy network working for you. Just takes a little cash here and there. Which is something Blackjack has to spare.” 

My mouth opened and shut a couple times before I sighed. “You know, I genuinely have no idea how I’m supposed to feel about that. At least he’s giving them money, I guess?” 

“Money they’re earning,” Pack clarified pointedly with a raised finger. “That’s the big part. Plus, some of them do enough to get promoted into the actual gang instead of just being street-eyes. All depends on how much work they do, and how good they are at it. There’s actually a decent amount of ex-military types on the streets.” 

I was still processing that as we made our way up to the back door of the shop and rang the bell. There was about a twenty second pause before the door was pulled open by Fred, who looked a little distracted and disheveled. “Come in, then. You can help carry some shit upstairs.” With that, he gestured to two milk crates on the floor that had random bits of equipment piled up in them. It looked like he had been pulling pieces off the shelves and shoving them in there. 

“Everything okay?” I asked while stepping in and moving to pick up one of the crates. Beside me, Pack did the same while the lizards chirped and squeaked from the backpack. 

Fred was taking a long drink from a bottle of water before wiping off his forehead. “Yeah. I mean as good as it can be. Just busy. Wren’s been working all day on getting this VR thing up and running, and it’s… look, she’s working really hard, so take it easy on the kid, okay?” 

My head bobbed quickly, and I started to ask if she was okay, but Pack beat me to it. “How’s she doing with all this? Gotta be a lot of pressure on the girl, even for someone with a techy brain that big. You made her get some sleep last night, right?” There was a firm tone to her voice that reminded me just how much Pack cared about Wren too, after the time they’d spent together. She definitely didn’t like the idea of the kid stressing herself out over this whole thing. Which was fair, even if I was worried about what was going on with Paige. I was worried about Wren too. The kid was taking a lot onto her plate, with trying to put her dad’s store back in business, designing things we could actually build and sell, upgrading my equipment, and trying to help with the Paige situation. She’d even apparently gone as far as building that whole communication thing just to check on Paige herself, found out there was something wrong, and reached out to her Tech-Touched friend in France to find a solution she could jury-rig. It was a lot for anybody, let alone a nine-year-old who should be focusing on having fun. Part of me wished I could just tell the kid to forget about the whole thing and focus on her shop. But, of course, I couldn’t do that because it would mean hanging Paige out to dry.

Fred had already nodded by the time I worked through all that in my head. “You’re damn right I made the kid go to sleep. Wasn’t easy either, she was bound and determined to work through the night, but I nipped that in the bud. So yeah, she slept, otherwise she wouldn’t be conscious right now. But she’s still working her butt off on this whole thing, so take it easy with anything you ask about, got it?” His gaze moved back and forth between the two of us. 

Pack and I exchanged glances before nodding. That time, I found my voice first. “Yeah, we do… we do need to ask her about something as far as this VR thing goes, but we’ll take it easy. Trust me, Fred, we don’t wanna pile anything else onto her. She’s done enough with all this.” 

His gaze seemed to bore straight into and even through me. “So you’re not about to ask her to try to fix that orb thing anyway, even after everything she said about not being able to do it?” 

Okay, that one definitely took me by surprise. Giving a double-take despite myself, I couldn’t find my voice for a second. “Wha–no! No, I swear, that’s not why we’re here. I mean, she said she couldn’t do it, that’s–I get it. Trust me, Fred, we are not about to try to talk her into working on the orb. I know it’s more than she can handle. I didn’t–” Oh. He thought I’d brought Pack for backup in talking the poor kid into taking on that job too. No wonder he was making a point of talking to us like this, especially after Wren had outright refused to work on Paige the first time. And now he thought we were here to pressure her into taking it up, just because it was an emergency and–oh. Now I definitely understood what his whole deal was. 

“He’s right,” Pack put in, clearly having gone through the same thought process. “We’re not here to talk the kid into doing stuff she already said she couldn’t do. We just think we might need more help if we’re going into this… computer world thing, so we were wondering if she could make enough links or helmets or whatever it is for us to bring That-A-Way over.” 

Quickly, I added, “And, you know, ask if she’s cool with That-A-Way knowing where the shop is and all that. I mean, she knows a good bit already. Some of it anyway. But it’s a pretty big step to have Way over here. Especially since she always knows what direction she’s facing, so putting a bag over her head to drive her to the shop wouldn’t really do that much. She’d probably still be able to figure out where we were going and all that.” 

Without missing a beat, Fred pointed out, “We could teleport her directly here, you know. Her knowing what direction she’s facing wouldn’t tell her the exact location if she was teleported in from somewhere else, right? It’d just take time to calibrate for her and all, as the kid would say.” 

Oh, right. Pausing to consider that, I slowly nodded. “We’ll ask Wren what she wants to do. Either way, having masks around for you or anyone who wants one would probably be a good idea, just to, you know, be on the safe side.” 

Fred looked like he was going to say something to that, before shaking it off. “Right, yeah. Well, if that’s what you need, go ahead and carry those crates up to the kid. And let me know if I need to start calibrating that teleport marker. Kid made me learn how to do it in case there was an emergency or whatever, and God knows she’s got enough to work on today as it is.” 

Yeah, Fred had definitely changed since I first met him. Or had he? His whole thing when he had gone against Wren’s rules and made the deal with Ashton had been to get money to take care of her and to pay the bills for her parents’ hospital and funeral stuff. Yeah, he’d definitely done something bad, but he hadn’t known how bad at the time. He had just wanted better for himself and his niece, and that wasn’t exactly the worst crime in the world. And now he was still trying to take care of her, just without going too far. He’d learned from his mistake, but he was still the same guy, for the most part. 

“You okay over there?” Pack asked as the two of us walked to the stairs with the crates.

Heading up first, I nodded quickly. “Yeah, sorry. Just been thinking a lot. You know, about everything. It’s just–” I sighed. “There’s a lot going on.” 

Snorting, Pack nodded while starting up after me. She had left the bag with her lizards inside on one of the counters downstairs with strict orders for them to stay put, eat their food, and relax. Aside from Twinkletoes, who was perched on her shoulder, curiously watching everything. “A lot going on, right. And yet, here you are, taking on more responsibility day after day after day.” 

Wincing, I shook my head. “Hey, I told you, it’s not my fault. I owed Deicide for the–yeah.” 

“I know, I get it,” she muttered, reaching up to scratch under Twinkletoes’s chin affectionately. The way she brought him with just as we were going up the stairs, I had the feeling Pack didn’t like to go anywhere without at least one of them. Which, again, made me curious about how she went to school. Did she go to school, or was it just like some kind of tutoring situation in La Casa? And why did I keep wondering about it? Seriously, it was none of my business. I had no idea why the question kept popping into my head. Like I didn’t already have enough to worry about and focus on? 

By that point, we had reached the top of the stairs and moved through the hallway there to get to the lab where Wren was working on what I swore looked like a large, makeshift MRI machine that was taking up a decent portion of one corner. The kid had the side of the machine open and was lying on one of those little wheeled carts that mechanics use, buried up to her waist in the wire-filled guts of the machine. We could both hear the girl talking to herself, or rather, to the machine. She was mumbling about making the thing work whether it wanted to or not. 

Exchanging a brief look with the girl next to me, I stepped that way. “Uh, hey, Wren. You need any help down there? Got some stuff for you.” I shook the crate in my hand a little demonstrably.   

Hearing my voice, the girl slid out, blurting, “Paintball!” She saw the other girl then and added a quick, “Pack! And Twinkletoes!” Hurriedly, she climbed into her feet, almost slipping on the wheeled cart before managing to catch herself. “Hi! Oh, you can put that stuff right there on the floor, I’ve gotta dig through it and find the right stuff. Do you know if Uncle Fred found the–” And then she said something so ridiculously technical that she might as well have been speaking in a completely foreign language. Or even an alien language. Hell, for all I knew, she was talking in complete gibberish and that entire sentence was just the girl screwing with us to see if we had any clue what she was going on about. And from the sound that Pack made in the background, I was pretty sure she didn’t have the slightest idea what any of that meant either.  

After a moment, I found my voice. “Uh, sorry he didn’t say anything about that. But it seemed like he found what you sent him for? So maybe it’s in there. If you want some help digging through it…” Oh, really? Where was I going to go with that, genius? I had no idea what any of what she was asking about looked like, so how exactly was I going to help her find it? 

Thankfully, Wren politely declined, saying she’d look through it later. Then she frowned slightly, looking back and forth between us while holding Twinkletoes (the chameleon had been quickly handed over to her and was quite thoroughly enjoying the attention). Curiously, the girl asked, “You guys aren’t here to do the thing yet, are you? Cuz I–I’m really sorry but it’s not ready yet. I’ve been trying and I swear I’ll get it working, but I had to sleep cuz Uncle Fred said I couldn’t–” 

Quickly, I interrupted. “No, no, it’s okay. We’re not here for that.” With that, I explained why we were there, asking how the girl felt about bringing That-A-Way over, how secret she wanted us to make it, and whether she thought there would be a way of bringing one more person into the VR thing. But I made it perfectly clear that if adding someone else was too much to get ready in time, she absolutely shouldn’t worry about it, and that it was just a thought we’d had about getting more help in there.

Thankfully (because I really thought we were going to need all the help we could get), Wren immediately agreed. According to her, once she had the actual system working, it wouldn’t be too hard to create an additional link-in for it. Especially since she had apparently been planning on making another one ‘just in case’ anyway. It was intended to be just in case one of the regular link-ins didn’t work properly, but assuming everything did work, there would be an extra one for That-A-Way.

“And you want us to go the blindfold, teleportation route?” Pack put in curiously. “Cuz if so, I think Paintball should do it. Just cuz someone from La Casa putting a bag over a superhero’s head and teleporting them to a secret location kiiiinda has a weird feeling to it.” 

Wren, however, shook her head. “Nuh uh, you can bring her here. She’s a superhero! She’s a good guy–errr, girl. An’ besides, if you guys trust her, I trust her.” Belatedly, she added, “Besides, if bad stuff happens, it’s probably a good idea to have someone like her know where we are, right?” 

“Uh, good point,” I agreed, giving her a thumbs up before looking over to Pack. “So, what do you say? 

“Shall we go find out if That-A-Way wants to play Tron with us?” 

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Patreon Snippets 20 (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 20th edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers.

Murphy and Roald

“What do you think she’s like?” Roald asked Murphy as the two of them trotted up the last short distance to the pawn shop that Paintball had directed them to before taking off to deal with those Easy Eight people. “I mean, if she’s working with Paintball, she must be pretty cool, right?” 

Shrugging, Murphy looked up at the sign above the door as they approached. “Wren’s Nest. Looks like this is the place. So I guess we’re about to find out if she’s cool, or just some boring old rich chick who likes to build things.” She made a face then as a shudder ran through her. The two moved away from the front door to head around the back the way Paintball had said they should. “God, I hope she doesn’t smell funny. I’m not sure how much I can work for some old chick if she smells funny.”  

“It’s a real job,” Roald reminded her. “Paintball, he… he gave us a chance. He’s giving us a chance. C’mon, Murph. We can work for someone who smells funny, just get that chapstick stuff that smells really good and put it under your nose. Just remember, we’re not working for some smelly old woman, we’re working for a superhero.” Belatedly, he added, “Um, and don’t tell her she smells funny, okay? Even if she does. Cuz–” 

“That was one time, Roo!” Murphy shot back, holding up a finger. “One time. And that woman smelled like she walked through the perfume aisle at the store and dumped every single bottle they had on herself. There was a little girl on that bus who was crying because of that smell. She couldn’t breathe. Nobody could breathe. That woman was a danger to everyone. I’m pretty sure the driver was practically blind from the fumes! I did everyone a favor.” 

Snorting, Roald nodded slowly before pointing out, “Sure, right. It was bad. I’m just pretty sure there was a better way to handle it than dumping your water bottle out over her and asking if she was aware that chemical weapons are a war crime.”  

With an audible snicker, Murphy lifted her chin. “Hey, it got the point across, didn’t it? She got off the bus at the next stop. And I’m pretty sure she took it easy on the perfume after that. I really did a service to everyone she ever meets in the future. Sometimes you have to go with the direct approach. Tough love.” As she said that, they had reached the back door, and the girl put a hand out to ring the buzzer there. 

“Yeah, well,” Roald replied, “at least you don’t have a water bottle this time.” 

Spinning on him at that, Murphy pointed. “That’s why you wouldn’t let me stop to get a drink, you–”

She was interrupted then, as the door abruptly swung open to reveal a six-foot tall, roughly fifty-year-old man with dark slicked back hair and a pronounced potbelly that was at odds with the rest of his quite thin body. “You know, if you kids are trying to play Ding Dong Ditch, you forgot the ditch part.” When he spoke, the two could smell cigarettes. 

“Oh God,” Murphy managed, “are you Wren? I swear, he said she, right?” She looked to Roald. 

Squinting at them, the man grunted after a second. “Hold up, you’re those kids Paintball was gonna bring over.” He leaned out the doorway then, looking both ways before turning his attention back to them. “So, where is he?” 

“Uhh… he had to go fight some bad guys,” Roald hesitantly replied. “Easy Eights, they were driving by in a truck and um, and it looked like something bad was about to happen. So he sent us here, uhh, Mr. Wren, sir.” 

“What?” the man blinked that way, then laughed. “Hell naw. Name’s Fred, not Wren. C’mon, I’ll introduce you.” He stepped back then, holding the door as he waited for them to enter. 

For a brief moment, the two teenagers looked at one another, silently communicating. Finally, they shrugged and stepped in before looking around. Murphy gave a low whistle. “Wow. This place looks awesome. Look at all the shit you’ve got around here. Holy crap, is that a real record player? Like, that thing’s real and not just some fake with an MP3 player built into it or something, right?” She was already moving that way to squint at the thing on the shelf. 

“Uh huh!” A new voice piped up from right in front of Murphy, as a small blonde girl popped into view from where she had been bent down behind the shelf. She had an armful of random objects that she’d clearly just picked up. 

Murphy, of course, yelped and stumbled backward while cursing. “Shit, shit, fuck, what, what?” 

“Sorry!” the younger girl blurted before turning to carefully put the stuff she had collected into a nearby box. “You just sounded really excited about the record player. It’s a Pioneer PL-55X. Classic.” 

Roald, who had come up to Murphy’s side, blinked at the kid. “Oh, uhh, hey. That’s cool. So, is this your… mom’s shop? Your grandmother’s?” 

“Well,” the girl frowned thoughtfully. “It was my dad’s, but… but my parents died.” She went quiet then, before shaking off those feelings. “Now it’s mine.” 

“Yours?” Murphy managed a bit weakly, as the truth began to dawn on both of them. 

“Oh! I’m dumb. Sorry, hi.” With that, the younger girl extended her hand with a bright smile. “I’m Wren!” 

That, of course, left the two teenagers staring at her, then at each other, then back at her again. Roald was the first to find his voice. “Wren the… second, right? You live here with your… grandmother and…” He looked back to Fred. “And him.” 

“That’s Uncle Fred,” Wren informed them. “And nope, it’s just us. Me and Uncle Fred. We help Paintball! And now you get to help us help Paintball. Isn’t that great?” 

In a dull, flat voice, Murphy agreed, “Totally fantastic. He just uhh, he didn’t exactly mention that…” 

“He didn’t tell them you were a kid,” Fred grunted from where he was standing by the door. The man sounded amused by the whole situation. “Probably wanted to see their faces or something. His loss.” 

“So–so wait, wait.” Murphy was clearly still reeling from the whole thing. “This is real? Like, really real? It’s not a joke? You–you’re the Tech-Touched Paintball wants us to help around this place?” 

Scrunching up her face a bit, Wren hesitantly asked, “Is… is something wrong?” 

Once more, the two teenagers exchanged looks before turning back to her. Roald shook his head. “You know what? Nope. Nothing’s wrong. We’re good. You’re like, this really cool Tech-Touched, right? You can really build things?” 

“Can we see some of it?” Murphy put in then, her eagerness totally eclipsing the uncertainty she felt about apparently working for a child. 

The worried, uncertain look on Wren’s face faded quickly, and she brightened. “Sure! C’mon, I’ve got some really great stuff.

“If you think the record player’s cool, wait till you see the machine that makes people really, really slow. Or the teleporter, or–” Abruptly, she hit something on her sleeve, and a pair of dragonfly-like wings sprang out, as she lifted off the ground. “Or these!” 

“You know what, Roald?” Murphy managed, staring up at the hovering, giggling girl, “I don’t care if she’s a kid, a toddler, or an old lady. Even one that smelled. 

“This is gonna be an awesome job.” 

********

Peyton

“Hey, Mom. Yeah, I’m good. What’s up with you? What? Whaaaat? Are you serious? Fell-Touched? Like, real bad guys? What? No, no, I wasn’t there. Nope, I was at McDonalds. I was walking home. I was at the bus stop. I was grabbing a sandwich from the store. I was behind the mall buying a bagful of drugs to sell at school. You should see the profit margin on that shit.” 

As she walked across the back parking lot behind the apartment building where she lived, Peyton Favors slowed, grimacing. “Yeah, probably not that last one.” Opening her cupped hands where the assortment of colored marbles quivered and pulsed excitedly, she asked, “What do you guys think? Which excuse is Mom gonna buy?” 

The marbles floated up off her hand, spinning around in circles rapidly before bouncing off each other. Which wasn’t exactly helpful for making up the right thing to say, even if it was cute. Plus, they were going to attract attention. So Peyton quickly pulled them back and pushed the marbles into her pockets. “Just be quiet for a little bit, okay? I can’t explain you to Mom. She just… she wouldn’t understand. She wouldn’t understand any of this.” Muttering that last bit to herself, the girl took a deep breath and then jogged across the parking lot. “Time to face the music.” 

She still hadn’t settled on exactly which excuse to use by the time she had gone in the back entrance and used the elevator to reach the ninth floor, where the apartment she and her mother lived in actually was. There, she headed down the hall, and was just about to use her key to unlock the apartment itself when the door suddenly swung open. 

Automatically, Peyton began to launch into her recited speech. “Hey, Mom. Yeah, I’m good. What–” 

If her mother noticed that the girl had accidentally started responding to questions she hadn’t even been asked yet, she didn’t show it at all. Instead, the short, red-haired (just like her daughter) and almost abnormally skinny woman grabbed Peyton by both arms and pulled her into the living room, then hugged her so tight the girl thought she might’ve cracked a rib. “Oh my God, you’re home! I was just talking to the police, they told me you weren’t one of the hostages down there and I told them how fucking incompetent they were and–” 

“Mom! Mom, what–” Taking a deep breath to prepare herself for what was coming while her mother was holding her so tight, Peyton managed to extricate herself. “What are you talking about? You called the cops because I was a little late? What hostages? What? Mom, what happened? What did you say to them?” She did her best to look completely baffled and lost about the whole situation, hoping her mother wouldn’t see through it. 

Then she met her mother’s frantic gaze and had to suppress the urge to react. Oh boy, this was hard. It wasn’t like Peyton enjoyed lying to her mother. As much as she might have bristled against the woman’s overprotectiveness lately, she really did love her. Seriously, it had been the two of them basically on their own for as long as she could remember. Lying to her mother right now was hard. But she knew what would happen if she didn’t. Her mom would overreact. She would try to stop her from doing anything dangerous. After Peyton’s dad left, they just… she kind of lost her mind at the thought of losing her daughter too. 

Peyton understood that. She really, truly did. But she couldn’t let that stop her. She had these marbles, these powers, for a reason. She had to use them to help people. Someday, she would be able to explain it to her mother, once she proved that she was a real hero. She would establish herself–her Touched self, as a bonafide, genuine hero. Then she would show her mother who she really was. Once her mother saw what she could do, how she could help people… maybe she would understand? 

Pushing all those thoughts down, she focused on looking as confused as possible while her mother went on about the attack at the shopping center. Through it all, Peyton continued to insist that she hadn’t been there, that she went earlier but had been gone by the time any of that went on. She claimed she was eating with a few people from school that she’d run into. Thankfully, any doubts her mother might’ve had were forced to contend with the fact that Peyton was right there in front of her and that the cops had told her she wasn’t with the group of hostages. 

Of course, Peyton had to explain why she hadn’t answered any calls or texts from her mother. Thankfully, she had an excuse ready for that. Namely, her phone was dead. Mostly thanks to the special app she had downloaded and run to make sure it had been completely drained by the time she got home, but still.

Finally convinced that her daughter was fine after all, and had never been in any actual danger, Suzanne Favors gave a long sigh before looking over to her own phone. “Okay, I guess I’ve got a police lieutenant to apologize to. Let me get that done and then I’ll make you some–oh, you’re not hungry.” 

Peyton started to object that she was starving, only to catch herself. Fuck. She’d said that she was eating with those people from school. Right, damn it. She was going to have to grab some food later. Eating now would just make her mother suspicious again. “Yeah,” she murmured, “couldn’t eat another bite. I uhh, I’m gonna go to my room.” 

Her mom hugged her once more with a sigh of relief, before Peyton headed off with a sigh of her own. But hers was not one of relief. She heard her mother starting to apologize on the phone, hesitating before looking over her shoulder to see the woman standing with her back to her. For a moment, Peyton just stood there, staring for a moment while listening to that. Her voice, when she spoke, was a barely audible whisper. “Sorry, Mom.” 

Yeah, it was probably a good thing she wasn’t trying to eat anything right now. 

She probably wouldn’t be able to keep it down anyway. 

**********

Cavalcade

Technically, the woman who drove her Range Rover through the gates of the storage facility somewhere in the middle of Detroit, a mile or so away from downtown, was known to the world at large as Cavalcade. But no one would have recognized her now. Her hair in that public identity as a Sell-Touched was long, flowing, and black. The woman who was parking her vehicle near the building that served as the main office had short blonde hair styled in a pixie cut. She also wore thick-rimmed glasses. And yes, she was aware that she was leaning into that trope, but the truth was she actually needed them. The goggles she wore in costume weren’t just for show, after all. They had prescription lenses. 

In addition to the different hair and the glasses, she wore a pair of slightly loose jeans and a somewhat too-large shirt and jacket that helped to play down and conceal rather than emphasize her voluptuous figure. The opposite of her Touched-Self’s red bodysuit. 

No, it was quite clear from both a glance and further inspection that this woman and the mercenary known as Cavalcade were very different. By design, of course. Being someone who worked for the highest bidder on either side of the legal line tended to also make you enemies on both sides of that line. Even when you lived by your own code, kept things professional, and refused to either rat out criminals who employed you or work with total psychopaths like the Scions, there were still those who would love to make life hell for a poor mercenary who was just trying to get along. 

Okay, ‘poor’ was a very bad descriptor for her in almost every way. But still. 

Stepping out of the Range Rover before crossing the short distance to the main office on a pair of simple, functional tennis shoes, the much-less outrageous and attention-getting woman tugged open the door before poking her head in. “Morning!” she called toward the desk that took up about half of the room in this small office. 

“Miss Mclean?” the dark-haired young woman, practically a kid really (she was still in college, after all) rose from the seat. “Is everything okay?” 

Brianna Mclean. That was what people (generally) knew her as whenever she wasn’t being Cavalcade. It wasn’t the name she had been born with, of course. She’d left that behind at least two identities ago. But Brianna Mclean worked. 

“Oh, absotively!” Brianna confirmed with a smile, still standing in the doorway. “I just wanted to let you know I got your request for next week off, and you go right ahead. We’ll get people to cover your shifts, you focus on studying for that test, Jessie.” 

Brightening, Jessie thanked her, and Brianna gave the girl a quick thumbs up before stepping out again. There, she had done her job as the owner of this place. Time for a little fun. 

She left her vehicle where it was. It wouldn’t surprise anyone, since her apartment was actually connected to the lot itself. She often left her vehicle at random places on the property. 

However, rather than walk toward that small building, barely a stone’s throw away from the door into the main office, Brianna turned the opposite way and began to stroll through the parking lot, past dozens of storage sheds where random people kept their random junk. 

Walking to a specific storage unit, Brianna hummed to herself while reaching out to open the nearby keypad. Thumbing in the code, she waited until it gave a confirming beep, then looked straight at the tiny lens on top, waiting for it to scan her face. As it did, there was one more beep, followed by a ding. The ding was from the woman’s phone in her pocket, where she would have just gotten an alert that the door had been accessed. Even if someone managed to copy her face and get her code (and know to come here in the first place), she would get the alert that they were there. 

Taking the phone from her pocket, Brianna entered the six digit code there that would prevent the place she was about to enter from engaging security measures. Then she reached down, hauled the door up, stepped inside, and let the door roll back down behind her. 

The storage room looked like any other, on the surface. There were boxes stacked up that had various clothes and books, a pair of skis, a rundown chair, and some paintings in the corner that weren’t worth more than twenty to thirty bucks a piece. Walking around all that, Brianna moved to the back corner of the room. Taking her phone out, she pressed a button, and, with a low grinding noise, a small section of the floor there slid away to reveal a set of stairs leading down. 

She descended, letting the hidden trapdoor slide shut behind her before continuing on to emerge into what turned out to be an enormous penthouse condo that took up a large portion of the underground area beneath the storage facility lot. The place would have been right at home functioning as the imperial suite in a five star hotel. 

This was Brianna’s real home. She spent enough time in her supposed apartment at the edge of the lot to make it look as though she lived there, and it was where her official residence was. But this was where her money went. This was where she relaxed. She had everything she needed here, far from prying eyes and legal entanglements. 

With a smile, the woman glanced around the luxurious living room that her hidden tunnel opened up into. Her gaze passed over the ‘windows’ along the opposite wall, which were actually video screens showing a view of the skyline over Tokyo at the moment. 

“Lana,” she addressed her personal assistant computer. “Dim the lights to half, run a hot bath in the master whirlpool, and put last night’s Pistons game on the screen in there, starting from the second quarter when I had to leave.” 

“Yes, Brianna,” came the soft response. 

As the lights dimmed and she heard the distant sound of basketball and running water, Brianna sighed in appreciation. Then she walked that way, stripping down as she went. 

Even the Evans couldn’t have it much better than this. 

*********

The following takes place a short time in the future from the current regular chapters

Right, I couldn’t avoid it anymore without drawing attention. Even though I was still dealing with everything that happened (and was still happening) with Paige, there was something important I had to do. Okay, there are a lot of things I had to do, but this one jumped to the top of the list. I had to go to court. Well, I had to go to the courthouse and give my depositions for everything official that had happened since I started this whole Star-Touched thing. Every bad guy that got arrested because of me, every official police case I had any involvement in, all of that. 

First, I’d gone through that same unremarkable building a block away from the courthouse That-A-Way had directed me to so I could turn in those papers about holding Ashton prisoner before. I’d even been escorted through to the tunnel that led to the courthouse itself by my old pal, Officer Metts. 

And now, here I was, sitting in one of the so-called deposition rooms. As Flea had promised, the room consisted of a long table. The judge sat at one end, the court stenographer at the other end. I sat in the middle on one side, while a couple empty chairs sat opposite me, and one just a little bit down from where I was sitting. 

The judge, an old, entirely bald black man with the last name of Pamure, gently asked, “Do you know how this is supposed to work?” 

Swallowing back the nerves that I felt, I nodded. “Those folders next to you are all the cases that I have something to do with. You’ll go through each case one at a time, call in the lawyers for both sides. The defendant lawyer sits over there, the prosecuting attorney sits over here on this side. They each get to ask questions about everything in the case, just like they would in court. The stuff I say gets recorded by her, and by that.” I nodded toward the stenographer, then to the camera up in the corner of the room. “We do that for every case, then move on.” 

Judge Pamure confirmed, “Yes, pretty much. We also like to move these things along as quickly as possible, because there’s a lot to go through every month. You, it’s been more than a month, but we let newbies slide a little bit. Not like the system doesn’t have enough to deal with anyway.” He cleared his throat then. “Anyway, that’s the gist. You don’t have to answer any questions about your identity, your personal life, anything you feel uncomfortable with. We’ll zip through the questions from both sides, you just tell the truth about what happened–you’ll be sworn in before we start, and we’ll all get out of here. Okay, you’ll get out of here. I’ll move to the next Touched in line. So, you ready?” 

After I confirmed that I was, the judge had the first pair of lawyers brought in by the bailiff–who happened to be the same man who subsequently had me put my hand on a copy of the state constitution and swear to tell the truth. I did, of course, and everyone settled in for the first set of questions, from the prosecuting attorney. 

Ashton. This was all about Ashton. I should’ve figured they’d start with this one. Bit by bit, question by question, I established everything safe for them to know about what had happened, why we held him prisoner for a short time, what we’d done to get back the vials that he had stolen and why, and so on. 

Ashton’s lawyer, of course, had her own questions. But honestly, she didn’t seem all that invested. Oh, she did her job. She pushed back on a few things I said, just enough for the judge to calmly tell her to back off at least once. But she didn’t really seem completely devoted. Probably because she was a public defender. She did her job well enough to be counted, but Ashton wasn’t an important case to her. He was just a number. I also had the feeling that some of those questions had come from Ashton himself, thinking he was going to trip me up. A few I saw her cross off with a pen without even reading them. So those ones must’ve been real doozies. 

Eventually, it was done. Both lawyers said they had no more questions. But instead of leaving, they both shuffled some papers around, and suddenly we were talking about a different case, a random mugging I’d stopped weeks back. It took me a bit by surprise before I recovered. Right, of course the same lawyers would work different cases. They were going to run through every case that involved the same attorney(s) while they were already here. 

Yeah, this was going to take awhile. But at least I only had to do it once a month. So, I pushed my thoughts away from worrying about that whole… Paige thing and focused on answering questions. 

If nothing else, trying to answer all these questions without saying the wrong thing was a pretty good distraction from everything else going on in my life.

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Building Connections 16-12 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

I was already spinning on my heel to walk to the nearby door before stopping myself as I realized that I didn’t have any idea where I was going or what to do. Holding my arms tightly against my chest, I spun back that way. “Except I don’t know how to do that. How are we supposed to save Paige right now? How are we supposed to do anything right now? We don’t even have anyone lined up to fix the computer orb thing yet! We don’t–wait.” Realization came to me as I blink at the younger girl. “You went out to get a bunch of stuff. What were you–” 

Wren quickly nodded. “It’s okay, Paintball! I mean it’s not okay. It’s really scary. But I didn’t just call you with problems. I’ve got solutions too! I mean sorta maybe solutions, I mean help for–”  Cutting herself off, she took a deep breath and let it out before starting once more. “We still gotta  find someone to fix the little orb-computer thingie, but I think we can help the good Paige stop the bad Paige. You know, send her reinforcements so she doesn’t get taken over or erased or anything. It’s not perfect, but it’ll, you know, buy her some time? If it works. I think it’ll work. I have to adjust some stuff, but it should work. I mean, if the first part works like it’s supposed to, like he said it should, then I can adjust the second part and make it… work?” Clearly realizing she was babbling and repeating herself, Wren trailed off and shrugged helplessly, adding a very quiet, “I think, maybe.” 

Forcing myself to calm down from the rush of panic, I took a step that way. “You mean you have a plan?” I tried to keep my voice as steady as possible. Inwardly, I was screaming at myself. Of course Paige’s father would have some kind of fail-safe to overwrite her or whatever. That just made sense, especially since I knew he’d managed to hit her with that virus in the first place. Stupid, stupid. Why did I take so long trying to find someone who could fix her? Telling myself it had only been a few days didn’t help. The guilt kept welling up in me no matter what I thought. 

“What do you mean you have to adjust something? Who is this ‘he’ you’re talking about? Did you really already find someone that could help? Are you sure it’s someone we can trust with this? Who is this guy, where did he come from, what does he do? How did you find him so fast?”  

Wren, for her part, held up both hands for me to slow down too. Waiting for quiet, the kid finally started to explain. “Okay, so, this guy isn’t actually someone I talked to about this. He doesn’t even live anywhere near here. He’s in France. He’s a Tech-Touched in France. Anyway, we started talking about our toys–err, our inventions, and he told me about this machine he made.  They’re going to start selling it over there soon. He’s gonna make a lot of money! It–” Clearly catching herself from going too far off-subject, Wren quickly reeled it in. “Sorry, I mean the point is, when he told me about it, I thought it could help. But only if I make a second part that moves the first part over to where we need it cuz his invention is just a video game thing and that’s really cool and all, but it doesn’t help with Paige. But if we can move it over to where she is, then–” 

It was my turn to hold up both hands. “Hold on, hold on. Okay, one thing at a time. What did he make that’s supposed to help with Paige? You said something about it being a video game?” 

Wren’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh! Paintball, he made this really cool virtual reality thing. You put it on and it like, projects your consciousness into the game. I mean, not really. You’re really sitting right there with the machine wired up to you. But your brain thinks you’re in the game. You can see things and interact with things and move them around and it’s all super real to you and to the machine. You can change things in the machine, in the game.” 

She stopped, staring excitedly at me while I processed that. Rocking back on my heels, I managed, “You’re saying he made a virtual reality game that plugs you into the machine.” Thinking about that, I gasped. “And you want to use that to plug me into Paige’s computer core? That’s what you’re trying to adjust. You don’t want to put me into some random virtual reality game, you want to put me into Paige’s computer so I can help her deal with this duplicate.”

Again, Wren’s head bobbed quickly. “Yes! I talked to my friend in France and he said he could help. I mean, I didn’t tell him the whole story, just that it was really, super, incredibly important, life and death important. He trusts me, cuz we’re friends and I promised I wouldn’t make money off his thing. He said he’d send the list of stuff I need and the blueprints to make a prototype version of his thing. It won’t be as good or as stable or anything, but it’ll work for this, we think. I just have to fix it so that instead of going into a game, it moves you over into Paige’s computer.” 

Okay, this was all a lot to take in on short notice. Especially considering I hadn’t even known that she had a friend in France. But I supposed that made sense. Of course Tech-Touched talked to each other and compared notes. The internet made that super-easy to do. 

Still, it was a lot to deal with. Seriously, virtual reality stuff? She wanted to plug my brain or whatever into Paige’s computer so I could go in there and help her deal with this crazy duplicate virus before it took over. What the hell kind of psychotic Tron-crazy shit was this? Seriously? I’d done some of that VR stuff before, of course. It came with the territory of having rich parents who liked to spoil you by throwing all the newest special toys your way. I’d been in full-scale simulations, some better than others. But it was still weird to think of something like this being used this way. Full-scale virtual reality outside of just putting a helmet on your head and faking it wasn’t exactly common. Mostly it was limited to a few very specific demonstrations. And I had no idea if this French guy’s version was any good, especially if it was basically being cobbled together to work with however Paige’s system worked. Two systems I didn’t know at all being taped onto one another by one little kid, who wasn’t even the person who originally made either of them. This was a whole new level of crazy desperation, wasn’t it? 

But I had to push all those confused thoughts aside and focus on the main situation, the main problem. Paige. Whatever happened next, we had to help Paige. So, I simply reached out and put my hands on Wren’s shoulders, squeezing a bit. “Do you really think this can work?” I asked quietly, yet intently. There were so many questions I had beyond that. Especially when it came to who this guy in France was, whose name I didn’t even know. But we didn’t have the months (at least) that it would take for me to decide that I trusted him myself. I was going to have to go solely off what Wren thought. I trusted her with this. I had to. 

Clearly realizing just how important my question was, Wren met my gaze with a look of maturity that far outweighed her years. Her voice was quiet, yet firm. “Yes, Paintball. It can work. It won’t be super-stable, and you’ll have to be really quick about it. And it would be better if you had someone with you. Someone else who could fight with you. I don’t want to send you in there by yourself. Maybe you could get Pack, or that new girl you just brought back today? Or both! Both would be better, a lot better.” 

“Alloy?” I blinked at the suggestion, glancing towards the elevator down to where we had left her and the others. “I don’t know if we should involve anyone else in something like this. It’s–” 

“It’s dangerous!” Wren interrupted, blurting the words loudly as she stared at me. “It’s super-dangerous! I mean yeah, if you get hurt or whatever in there, I don’t think it’ll actually hurt you out here. It’s not like that old Matrix movie or whatever. It doesn’t work like that, cuz that’s silly. It would be a really bad game if it did. But if you get knocked out, you won’t be able to go back in very fast. It’ll take awhile to get back to where you were, you know? And in that time, maybe Paige will lose. Maybe she’ll be taken over and erased! That could happen! She sounded really scared in that message, Paintball. So this evil virus duplicate thing is probably really strong. So if you go in by yourself and you lose, then you wouldn’t have actually helped her. I think… I think you need to trust someone else to go in with you. More than one, if you can. You know, because it’s dumb to take risks like that when it comes to actually helping someone you care about, right?” 

Fuck. Yeah, she had a point. As much as I hated the idea of involving other people in this, I was pretty sure I didn’t have much of a choice if I really wanted to save Paige. If I went in there by myself, I’d probably just end up getting my butt kicked. I needed to take others for back-up, and there really wasn’t anyone I could trust with it beyond those two she had already suggested. Pack and Peyton. If they’d even go at all. I couldn’t be sure they’d agree to the plan, after all. 

“Actually, wait,” I suddenly blurted as a thought occurred. “That reminds me. We can’t even use our powers in that place, can we? Which would make all of us pretty helpless if we’re supposed to be saving Paige. I mean, it’s like a virtual reality thing–or wait, do we get like… all the powers because it’s virtual reality? You can just cheat code everything if it comes down to it, right? How does that work, exactly?” 

Wren, however, shook her head. “Not exactly,” the kid hesitantly answered before quickly pushing on. “I mean, we’re not exactly putting you in a place we made up, you know? You’ve gotta go inside the place her computer made, in her like.. computer mind or whatever.” She was poking the floor with her foot uncomfortably, clearly upset about not having better news. “I can build my friend’s virtual reality thing, but it’s like… sorta duct taped to Paige’s thing to make it work and I can’t change too much and I definitely can’t mess with what’s going on inside Paige’s mind cuz that’s not really what my thing is and it’s not what this is and I’m really sorry, but–” 

“It’s okay, it’s alright,” I quickly interrupted, holding up both hands. “Thanks, Wren, I know you’re doing your b–hell, you’re doing better than your best. You went totally above and beyond, dude. You got help from some guy in France to figure this out and to give us a chance to save Paige. That’s amazing, you’re seriously–you’re great. I didn’t mean to make it seem like you should be doing more. I was just–yeah. Sorry, dude. Whatever we can do for her, anything at all, really.” 

After managing to get all that out, I waited for a second before adding, “Okay, so we can’t have cheat codes to go in there, because you can’t control what happens inside Paige’s computer. You’re just like–like her thing is the game server and all you can do is hack us a couple player accounts?” I had no idea how accurate that was, but it seemed like the best comparison. 

Thankfully, Wren seemed to get it, already nodding. “Uh huh, uh huh! Like that. The server will only accept you if you go in as yourself. Like, I can change your clothes or whatever, but it accepts the umm… the you in your head. The way you umm… see yourself, pretty much? Which, um, I think should mean you can use your powers in there, cuz they’re a part of you.”

“Well hey, that’s something, at least.” Giving the girl a thumbs up, I looked past her to where Paige was. “Okay, so how long do we have before you can put all this stuff you’ve got together? Cuz I’m pretty sure we don’t have umm… okay, I’m pretty sure Paige doesn’t have a lot of time.” 

Following my gaze, the kid immediately made a sound in the back of her throat that sounded like a half-yelp, half-gasp. “Oh! Yeah, I can–I mean it’s still gonna take time to put all this together, and I’ve gotta do a lot of it myself cuz only I can understand the instructions. I mean, I don’t–it’s not like you’re stupid or anything, it’s just got a lot of really specific technical stuff and if we mess up putting it together it could break and if it breaks we have to spend a lot more time fixing it and finding the hard-to-get parts and if that happens we might not have time to save this Paige girl so I really don’t wanna have to do it all over again, not cuz you’re dumb or anything, just cuz–” 

“Got it, I get it.” Once more, I held up my hands for her to stop. “Trust me, it’s okay. Do it right. If there are ways I can help, let me know. But, how long do you think it’ll take you to put it together the right way? You know, making sure it’ll work the way it’s supposed to and all.”  

Wren looked hesitant for a moment, clearly nervous about the job she had taken on. But, in the end, she straightened a bit before firmly replying, “Tomorrow evening. I–I can have it done by tomorrow evening, I promise. I–I’m sorry it can’t be done before then. I wanted t–I know it’s dangerous. I know she’s in trouble, but if I try to go any faster, I might mess up, and if I mess up-” 

“If you mess up, we don’t get another shot at this,” I finished for her gently. “At least not in time to actually save Paige before that virus takes over. I get it, really. It’s okay, Wren. Do it right the first time. Take however long you need. I mean, try to hurry and all, but don’t rush too much, okay?” 

She agreed, and I asked if there was anything I could do to help without getting in the way. Unfortunately, there wasn’t. She said she really just had to focus on it and asked, as politely as she could, for me to go away and come back tomorrow. And for me to bring Peyton back so she could talk to ‘the cool marble girl’ again when she wasn’t so distracted. 

So, I asked one last thing. “Did you send another message to Paige? You know, to let her know that we got her message and we’re working on it?” 

Offering me a very faint smile, Wren nodded. “Uh huh, I sent a message so she’d know she wasn’t talking to nobody. But… I think it’d make her feel better if you sent a message too. Like I said, it’ll take a long time for her to get it, but you can type the message into the thing there and tell her you’re working on it. Like I said, it’ll only send one or two words every fifteen minutes. But you can type whatever you want and just let it go. I won’t… uhh, disturb it, I promise.” 

Oh, right. Slowly, I stepped over to where the Gameboy/Atari thing was and picked up the little handheld part. Looking at the screen, I could see where you moved the cursor around to select letters for the input. Okay then, here went nothing. 

And for a moment, ‘nothing’ was exactly what went. Seriously, what the hell was I supposed to say to let Paige know that I had her message and that I was working on it? What would actually make her feel better or whatever? 

In the end, after thinking about it for a minute, I carefully typed a short message into the device. 

PAINTBALLC

WE’VE

GOT

PLAN

STAY

STRONG

COMING

PROMISE

Yeah, it was a little silly or whatever. I really didn’t know what else to say in a brief message. As it was, it would take a few hours for Paige to get that entire thing. I just had to say my name first so she’d know who was talking, and add a C at the end which she would hopefully understand to mean ‘Cassidy’ so she would be certain it was me. As for the rest… yeah. It was the best I could do without saying too much. The last thing I wanted was for a message I sent to Paige to end up exposing who I really was to anyone else who read it. I just… hoped it was enough to help her keep going long enough for us to get in there. 

And speaking of us getting in there, I took a breath and turned back to the younger girl. “I guess I should ask the others if they’re free to help go into virtual reality land tomorrow.” Oh boy, this was going to be a fun couple conversations. 

“Good luck!” Wren was smiling distractedly, her mind clearly focused on the work she still had to do. “I’ll do my part, I promise.” With that, she saluted, then turned her back to me, put her phone up on the table, and called that French friend of hers for help. The last thing I heard while heading back downstairs was the sound of a teenage male talking in heavily accented English, happily greeting Wren by name and asking if she had everything. 

Right, time to leave the tech people to do their thing, while I did mine. Which… huh, was asking Peyton to help me save Paige in virtual reality more or less crazy than asking her to help me scour the city to find a witness who could potentially take down Pencil? 

She sure picked one hell of a time to decide to jump on Team Paintball. 

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Building Connections 16-11 (Summus Proelium)

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On the way through the back alleys to the shop, I explained who Trevithick was (as well as what the name meant). It was all stuff I’d meant to tell her as we were making our way through the city, but then our little race thing happened and well, here we were. So, I just filled her in with the brief SparkNotes version. As we approached the back door, I mentioned that the kid was pretty young, and asked if she would have a problem working with someone like that. 

I clearly hadn’t thought that question through entirely, because Peyton looked at me pointedly and asked, “Young like you? Because I’m pretty good with that. I don’t think I get to judge what a kid can do after one saved my life like… twice within the same month, dude.” 

Burying my annoyance at being seen as a kid again beneath the much more useful fact that my disguise was stopping anyone from suspecting who I really was, especially my parents, I nodded once. “Younger than me.” It was the literal truth, after all. Wren really was younger than me.  I just wasn’t specific about how much younger. “She’s a kid. But she’s a genius Tech-Touched.” 

That said, I reached up to hit the buzzer. But before I could, the back door was flung open, and Murphy stood there, looking back and forth between the two of us for a moment before seeming to realize who Peyton was. “Ohhh, it’s marble girl. You changed your armor.” With that, she looked the other girl up and down briefly as though judging it. “I like this one better.” 

Peyton, in turn, stared at her briefly before turning to me. “She’s not younger than you.” 

Exactly how many times was I going to be tempted to blow my cover within a five minute span? Seriously, I was starting to think this was just gonna be a thing going forward. Exhaling, I shook my head and gestured between them. “This is Murphy, she’s… helping. It’s a long story.” 

“He caught me and my friend, Roald, after we broke into a gas station to steal food, and told us we could be his minions and help out around here or whatever instead of going to jail,” Murphy promptly summed up. Then she looked at me and added, “It’s really not that long of a story.”  

Peyton, meanwhile, had turned to look at me with obvious incredulity. “Wait, you have minions?”

Before I could respond to that, Murphy put in (with a voice that was basically the most cheerful I had ever heard her sound), “Just for now. But I think if we do a good job, he might upgrade us to henchpeople.” That, of course, was accompanied by the girl raising both hands to show her crossed fingers. “I’m pretty sure that’s when we get the matching uniforms.” 

Shaking my head, I gestured for the girl to step back so we could come in. Once the door was closed behind us, I asked, “So where’s Trevithick? Upstairs?” 

“Who?” Murphy blinked at me before remembering. “Oh, right. Nah, she had to run out. Took Fred and Roald and made me stay to watch the shop. Something about needing to grab important supplies or whatever.” Her hand gestured my way. “Kid said she was gonna text you an update.” 

“Text me an–” As I echoed those words, my hand was taking the phone from my pocket, and I blanched a little behind the helmet. I had a message from Wren, alright. Sure enough, it was all about how she had to go grab a few super-important things and that she would explain everything about what was going on once they got back. “Oh, well okay then. I guess we’ll wait here for them.” 

As I finished saying that, Murphy had already shrugged and moved back to a corner of the main shop floor where she had apparently been sweeping and mopping. From the look of it, she was actually doing a pretty good job. Okay, a very good job. Better than I could have, considering I’d basically almost never done anything like that except for the times when I was a kid trying to help the maids. Actually, I remembered that being kind of fun. But even now, I knew the reason it felt ‘fun’ to me at the time was because I could stop any time I wanted to. It didn’t depend on doing that to live or put food in my mouth. If I had to do it every day, as much as the people who worked in our house or at my school had to? Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t enjoy it as much. It was a thought that made me shift a little uncomfortably. Yet Murphy seemed pretty fine with what she was doing. It made me wonder how much cleaning she ended up doing at home. Which also made me think about her brother. Part of me wanted to ask how that was going and if he’d stopped being pissed at her about not running those drugs over to his friend. But I was pretty sure that would be pushing a bit even if we were alone, let alone with Peyton here. 

So, I decided that conversation could wait. Meanwhile, Peyton herself had started to walk around the shop floor, picking up and examining various things from the shelves. “Wow,” she murmured quietly while turning an old miner’s helmet over in her hands, “they’re actually selling all this random junk?  

Wincing, I stepped over that way. “Don’t let the kid hear you calling it junk. This was her dad’s store, she’s pretty protective of it. And right now I think a lot of it is just a way of having basically any random thing she needs at any point when she starts building stuff.” 

A noise of regret escaped the other girl, as she turned to me while shaking her head. “I–sorry. I didn’t mean to just–ugh. I didn’t mean it like that. I wasn’t trying to like–insult her family’s shop or anything. I was just… yeah, sometimes I don’t think before I speak.” She muttered the last words before giving a heavy sigh. 

“It’s okay,” I assured her before reaching out to squeeze the girl’s arm. “Seriously, don’t worry about it. All this stuff is a lot to get used to. Believe me, I know.” And boy was that a severe understatement. A lot to get used to? Wait until she learned the real truth about the city–no, stop it. I couldn’t tell her the full truth about the city. Except she was already helping, and she was going to push that help as far as helping me find the girl who might be able to take Pencil down. Even if the idea was to stay completely away from that piece of shit and never directly involve ourselves with him, there was no definite one hundred percent certainty that we wouldn’t see him. And she was still here, still willingly putting herself in danger. Didn’t I owe her the–fuck. Would this question ever end up getting me anywhere except for more uncertain and confused?

“Dude.” Peyton, who I belatedly realized had been staring at me for the past few seconds while I went through all that in my head yet again, spoke up hesitantly. “Are you okay?” 

“It’s fine,” Murphy called from where she was still working. “He just does that sometimes. I think he likes brooding or something. That or he’s listening to podcasts in that helmet and gets distracted.” 

Flushing a bit behind the aforementioned helmet, I shook my head. “It’s not brooding or podcasts. I just–never mind. I was just thinking.” 

“Hey, speaking of just thinking,” Murphy called out again, “what do you call yourself, anyway? I mean, we can’t just stick with ‘that marble girl’ all the time, right?” 

It was Peyton’s turn to blush, slightly visible through the space that left part of her face around her eyes uncovered. “Uhh, we sort of went over some ideas, but I’m not sure. It’s really hard to come up with a good one that doesn’t sound stupid or overly dramatic or… whatever.”

“Oh, I know all about that too,” I muttered mostly to myself before gesturing. “Well, while we’re waiting, why don’t we go over the list? You wanna help, Murphy?” 

She, in turn, looked at the mop in her hand for a moment before setting it aside to step over where we were. Shoving her hands in her back pockets, the brown-skinned girl rocked back on her heels before asking, “What sorta options are you working with?” 

So, Peyton and I tugged a couple random stools over and slid one over to Murphy before starting to go over all the potential names. The three of us went back and forth for awhile about the ones that sounded good, why they were good, the ones that probably wouldn’t work, and so on. 

We went over all that for a good ten minutes. Finally, Peyton said she had some favorites, especially after talking to the two of us, but she wanted to think about it some more before deciding, and maybe ask the others what they thought. Which was pretty good timing, considering it was only a couple minutes after that before Wren showed up with Fred and Roald. 

“Wow,” Peyton murmured very quietly in my direction as the trio arrived with armfulls of paper grocery bags, “you weren’t kidding about her being young. But she’s really that good?” 

“She’s really that good,” I confirmed before stepping that way to take a bag from Wren. It was heavier than it looked, geez. The bag was completely filled with what looked like half of an average-sized store’s electronics department. Peyton was already doing the same for Fred. “Hey guys, look who I brought back. It’s… uhh, she doesn’t actually have a name yet. So TBD. But TBD, this is Wren or Trevithick, her uncle Fred, and Roald.” 

That was followed by both Fred and Roald shaking the girl’s hand, the latter commenting that her armor looked different this time. Peyton then explained how that worked with her marbles. Both of them seemed a little awkward and uncertain in a way that almost seemed kind of cute. Especially when Murphy inserted herself and all three of them went back and forth about different types of armor and weapons she might be able to make with the various marbles. 

For her part, Wren waited until all the bags were put down and was quietly respectful of letting the other three talk for about ten more seconds before flinging herself that way with an added boost from her flight pack wings (the pack was on under her jacket and it projected the wings through a couple almost-invisible slits in the back) to cross the distance before landing directly in front of her. “Hi! I’m Wren, like he said! You are so cool, I watched the videos of you fighting those bad guys like eighteen times! When you hit Juice with the battering ram and then threw him with the gloves, that was so awesome! You were like, ‘don’t you touch him!’ then wham! Did you really just get your powers? You totally kicked his butt before he even knew what was happening!” 

Peyton, looking more than a little taken aback by the enthusiasm, managed a little giggle. “Uhh, thanks. Just beginner’s luck, really. I think he was more focused on being mad at Paintball, so he wasn’t paying any attention to me.” 

“He was definitely distracted,” I agreed, “but that doesn’t take away from the fact that most people wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of that distraction the way you did. Seriously, she’s right, you were awesome back there. I would’ve been screwed without your help.” Blanching a little, I added, “Still don’t know why they keep calling you my ‘sidekick’ though. I mean, I haven’t even been doing this for two whole months yet.” 

Wow, saying that part out loud made me think about just how much had happened in the past six-ish weeks. The vials, finding out about my family, being taken by Pencil, the whole situation with him and the rest of the Scions at the hospital, the Paige thing… Just how damn busy was I

While I was focused on that, Peyton had started to explain her whole naming situation and the various ideas she was working off of. Roald, Wren, and Fred gave their own opinions and went back and forth for awhile, until Peyton finally held up both hands. “Okay, okay. I’ve got it, I think. The name I’m gonna go with is…” She took a breath, letting it out before finishing. “Alloy.” Even after she said it, the girl looked uncertain. “I mean, is that good? I think– never mind. Sorry. I’m terrible at making decisions! I even like boys and girls cuz throwing out half my options is bullshit!” With that cry, she waved both hands vaguely. 

It was Fred who spoke up. “Hey, why don’t you uhh, close your eyes for a second.”

Looking a little confused and uncertain, the girl did so with a quiet, “Um, okay.”  

Clearing his throat, Fred spoke up loudly. “Alloy, Paintball needs your help, get out there!” After a pause, he asked, “So, did that sound right? I mean, the name, did it sound like something you’d like to be called?” 

Peyton opened her eyes. I had the feeling she was smiling behind the mask. “Uh huh. That’s it. That’s the right name. Thanks, uhh, Mr. Donovan.” 

“Fred’s fine,” the man insisted, looking self-conscious as he rubbed his head. “I just know sometimes it helps to hear the name from someone else. It’s how…” He paused briefly before continuing in a softer, more subdued tone. “It’s how I helped Wren’s folks choose her name.” 

Well, that was sobering. I still wasn’t sure about the whole story there, other than the fact that her mother and father had died in the hospital after racking up quite the medical bill. Which was the whole thing that led to Fred selling that device to Ashton so he could steal the vials in the first place. Not that Fred had known what his plan was at the time.

Of course, thinking about that reminded me of why we had come here today to begin with. “Um, Wren? You said you had something really important to talk about. What’s wrong? And, uhh, does it have anything to do with the fact that you just went on a huge shopping spree? All this stuff looks pretty intense.” I said that while gingerly reaching into one of the bags and picking up what appeared to be a circuit board with seven different colored wires leading out of it and a large computer power supply attached to one side.  

Immediately, Wren looked guilty about her distraction. “Oh, uhh, yeah. I should probably talk to you upstairs about it.” She winced, shifting back and forth on her feet, clearly anxious. 

I had the feeling Peyton really wanted to ask what was going on. Instead, she gestured to the others. “Hey, you wanna see how I raced Paintball to get over here? I could show you outside, if y–hold on!” Tugging her buzzing phone out, she blurted, “Everybody be quiet, or sound like shoppers!” Then she was answering it, talking to her mother, who was checking in again. After a moment, she muted her phone, grabbed Murphy by the arm, and hissed at her to pretend to be someone named Dana coming up to say they had to check out some sale somewhere.  

Looking to Wren while that was going on, I whispered, “Are you okay?” 

“Wha–oh.” Her head bobbed quickly. “Uh huh. It’s not about me. It’s–it’s about Paige.” 

Of course it was. I’d figured it had to be as soon as whatever the problem was didn’t turn out to have anything to do with bad guys at the shop, her or Fred’s health, and involved her going out to buy a bunch of things on an emergency shopping trip. Much as I might’ve loved to hope this whole thing was just a kid overreacting to some brand new idea she had about an invention that she wanted to show off, I knew Wren better than that. And I knew my luck better than that. 

So, while Peyton (or Alloy now) took the others out back to show off the whole hoverboard thing, I went with Wren upstairs. The two of us took the elevator, the younger girl being oddly quiet and subdued all the way. Finally, once the door opened and we stepped out into the hall, she turned to face me. “Okay, see, I felt really bad that I couldn’t help wake up your friend. So I thought maybe if I could at least find a way to communicate with her, it might help. You know, connect with her umm, mind or whatever?” She was fidgeting nervously or self-consciously. 

“Did… did you manage to communicate with her?” No, that didn’t make sense. Why would her succeeding at something like that make Wren so… like this? It certainly wouldn’t be an emergency. 

Sure enough, the blonde girl shook her head quickly. “No–I mean yes, I mean sort of. Hang on–c’mere.” Pivoting, she grabbed my hand and led me into the lab where Paige was lying comfortably (I hoped) on a padded table. There was a wheeled cart nearby with some electronic equipment stacked up on it. Wren picked up what looked like the drum and tubing part of a stethoscope that led into what I swore was part of an ancient Atari video game system with an original Gameboy attached to it via a series of wires. Yeah, it was a whole confusing thing.

“This,” Wren told me while holding up the end of the stethoscope, “sends electronic messages and receives them at close range. It–okay it gets complicated. The short version is that you’re supposed to be able to put it on Paige close to where her CPU thing is, then it’ll send a message to her. Then she can send a message back. Or, you know, whatever tiny part of her is still conscious. They have to be simple messages, and slow. Like one or two words every fifteen minutes. It’s like talking to her in her dreams.” 

“I’m guessing the big emergency isn’t that it didn’t work?” I asked hesitantly, staring at the thing in her hand, then back to Paige. 

“No,” she confirmed quietly. “It worked. I sent a message asking, ‘Can you hear?’ and she sent back, umm, well it took awhile to get all of it, but…” 

Rather than finish, she simply picked up the Gameboy and turned it so I could see the screen. Written across it were eleven words in succession, one under the next, all in capital letters. 

HELP

DAD

VIRUS

SECOND

ME

COPY

TRYING

ERASE

REPLACE

KILL

HELP

PLEASE

Reading all that through, I took a second to process it before my eyes widened. “Her dad made a virus that’s like a copy and it’s trying to replace her. I–we don’t have any more time to try to come up with the perfect plan or find the perfect people to help. We don’t have time for any of that.

“We have to start saving Paige right now.”

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Building Connections 16-04 And Patreon Snippets 19B (Summus Proelium)

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So, after a very quick detour to grab the girl’s phone from where she had apparently dropped it, I helped her get away from that scene. She was freaking out about needing to go home before her mother found out what she was involved in, but waited at least long enough for me to give her my number to stay in contact. There was a moment after that where it looked like she was going to say something important. She looked at me and I saw uncertainty in her eyes, visible through the helmet. But in the end, she just shook her head and promised to text eventually. 

Then, with the sound of sirens still filling the air as more Emergency Services arrived, she took off running out of the alley we were in. For a moment, I stood there and watched her leave before shaking my head. What was I going to do when she did call? Should I point her toward the Minority?  What if she asked what I thought of them? What was I supposed to say to that? I didn’t even know this girl at all. I couldn’t just start telling her about the Ministry and all that shit. Even if she was a good person, which I didn’t really know at all (though risking her life to help those hostages was a really good indicator, to be fair), I still didn’t know how she might react to the actual truth. I had no idea how good she was at keeping a secret, especially not one that huge. Or if she would even want to. For all I knew, she would see the Ministry as a great thing and immediately side with them. I really had no idea what would happen if I told her the truth. 

Right, sigh. So, at the moment I had absolutely no idea what to do about the girl. Which was an ongoing theme. Hopefully, I would think of something useful and stop being so indecisive before she called. But for now, I needed to put it aside and focus on other things. Important things, like-

“So, who’s the chick with the sweet armor?” 

Taken completely by surprise when the voice behind me suddenly spoke up, I spun that way to see a different armored figure standing over by the nearby dumpster. Of course, I immediately recognized her. “Broadway?” I found myself blurting the La Casa Touched’s name. Suddenly, I couldn’t decide if this was a good thing or a bad thing. I wasn’t exactly as close with her as I was with Pack, and the lizard-controlling girl didn’t seem to be anywhere nearby. I didn’t know Broadway at all, though the fact that she had helped save me from Pencil was about a million points in her favor. So I wasn’t exactly on my guard. But I wasn’t relaxed either. 

She, in turn, actually giggled at my reaction, taking a moment before speaking again. A moment which gave me time to take her in a bit more fully. As always, Broadway wore dark-purple armor with white speaker system vents all over it. Her helmet was the same color purple, with three vertical speaker vents where the girl’s ears would be, angled forward. There was a wide V-shaped visor over the face part of the helmet, where a series of bright, multi-colored lines bounced back and forth in rhythm with the words whenever she actually spoke. 

“You know her name?” the girl asked, making those lines dance with her words. “Tell me she’s got a name–wait, no, if she doesn’t it’ll be cool to come up with a good La Casa name for her.” 

Squinting at her, I shook my head. “She’s not joining La Casa, or any other gang. She just helped stop your allies from holding hostages over there, you know.” I gestured back toward the shopping center with those words. “And hey, speaking of which, since I was just fighting them, shouldn’t you be like… swearing vengeance or starting some kind of brawl or whatever?” 

“Meh,” she replied with a dismissive wave of her hand, sounding fairly bored. “Whatever. I mean, Easy Eights and us, we’re basically allies in the sense that… Churchill and Stalin were allies? The slightly lesser asshole of the bigger asshole is my asshole. Or something like that.” 

“You know, Stalin killed an awful lot of people before he was done,” I pointed out flatly. 

“True,” the girl agreed, head tilting just a little as she looked at me. “The point is, I wouldn’t say we’re exactly friends. And personally, I definitely don’t care what you did to stop them from whatever the hell that was. I’m more in this whole thing for the fun, the rush, you know? Not taking hostages and hurting people.” 

For a moment, I just stared at her. “You really think your boss doesn’t hurt people just like these guys were? Cuz I’ve got news for you, he definitely takes hostages too. He steals from innocent people, and innocent people get hurt because of things he does. Just because he’s more–I dunno, classy and cool about it doesn’t make him some upstanding figure or anything.”  

“Yeah, that’s fair,” the girl easily agreed. “Never said we were great people or anything. But there’s like… levels of that shit. The people I work with try to avoid putting civilians in unnecessary danger, though scaring them’s a bit fun. We don’t go out of our way to kill and torture anybody, and most of the shit we take is insured stuff from businesses anyway. You don’t see me mugging old ladies on the street, do you? Hell no. You can call it petty justification or whatever, but the way I see it, capitalism is a fucking failure that just makes the rich get richer and stomps on the poor. Anything I can do to fuck with that system and have a little fun while I’m at it is fine with me.” She pointed to her own armored chest then. “I’m not a hero, never claimed to be anything of the sort. But I’ve got my own standards, and I stick with them. Blackjack, he’s got standards too. He keeps his word, he lets us refuse jobs that make us uncomfortable, he doesn’t intentionally go after innocent civilians or target people like that. And right now, he’s fighting a war to deal with people who tried to let his kid die. Gotta say, I’m totally onboard with that. You would be too, if you ever met the kid.”

“Of course I want the people who almost got Blackjack’s daughter killed to be brought to justice,” I pointed out. “Not just for that, but for everything else they’ve done too. But if your boss really wants them to pay, he could just work with…” Then I trailed off. He could work with who? The authorities? I knew the truth. The Ministry would only allow Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners to be brought to justice if it worked for their bottom line. They were allowing this war to happen, probably because doing so would keep Blackjack on their side. But that didn’t mean they’d just let the cops actually put them all away. I had a feeling that whatever came out of this war, my parents and their business would somehow end up in an even better position than before. 

Broadway, arms folded across her chest, had clearly noticed the way I trailed off. But she didn’t actually address it. Instead, the girl offered me a simple shrug. “It’s complicated. I chose my side and I stick with it. You, on the other hand, seem really confused about where you want to be. You won’t join the Minority or any of the other heroes, and you helped my boss get those vials. You’re even like… sort of friends with good ol’ Pack. But you won’t join us either. You’re right in the middle of this whole thing, you know? Whose side are you really on?” 

For a moment, I was silent. Then I let out a breath and looked back to her to reply firmly, “I’m on whatever side protects innocent people at the time. The rest of this, I don’t–I don’t know. Sometimes the Star-Touched are right, sometimes the Fell-Touched are. It’d help if–” Again, I stopped myself. Fuck. I couldn’t say ‘if the Ministry wasn’t a thing.’ Instead, I ended that with, “It’d help if it was actually simple. But it’s not.” 

Broadway pointed at me. “Hey, I’m pretty sure that’s the smartest thing I’ve heard you say. You’re right, it’s complicated. But just to be clear, I’m still a bad guy most of the time. And I’m okay with that. I steal some things, break other things, piss people off, and you know what? I have one hell of a fun time doing it. I think you could have a lot of fun too if you just let go a bit.” 

My eyes, hidden behind the helmet, narrowed. “Were you here trying to recruit me, or that new girl?” 

I could hear the grin in her voice. “Hey, whatever works. I wouldn’t mind getting a two-for-one deal.” She paused then, watching me for a moment before adding, “Does this mean you’re not giving me her number or name?” 

“I don’t have either,” I retorted honestly. “She’s brand–never mind. You know, we’re probably supposed to be fighting right now or something.” 

“You saying you wanna wrestle?” came her response with obvious amusement. “Sorry, buddy, I think I’m a little too old for you.” With that, she held out both hands to either side. “Actually, to be honest, I mostly came over to make sure you were okay. For Pack’s sake. She likes you. But not like that, don’t get any ideas. She’s more into That-A-Way, if you get my drift. Though that was less drifting and more plowing straight through the wall.” 

That-A-Way and Pack. They were–oh right. Blinking at that, I started to say something before catching myself. There was no reaction I could have that wouldn’t either just amuse her or give the girl way too much information. Instead, I just managed a slightly weak, “I’ll uhh, keep that in mind, thanks, I guess. But you’re still not gonna recruit that girl.” 

That earned me a thumbs up. “We’ll see, PB. It’ll be fun to find out where she ends up. And hey, glad to see those guys didn’t rough you up too bad. I’ll let Pack know you’re cool.” 

With that, she gave me a salute, then pointed up and over my head to the roof of the nearby building. The sound of a dog barking came from her armored gauntlet, as the girl vanished, teleporting along the soundwaves. 

Which left me standing there, belatedly realizing that one of the phones in my pocket had gone off a couple times already. Quickly, I took it out to check. It was the Touched phone, with messages from Wren wanting to know if everything was okay now since she’d been watching reports online about what was going on. There was an adorably rambling bit about how she didn’t want to send any message while I was busy fighting bad guys but now the news said the fight was over but wasn’t saying anything about me so was I really okay and what happened, etc. It was a pretty long run-on sentence which ended with, ‘PLZ CALL PLZ’ and then a series of hugging bear emojis. So yeah, pretty freaking adorable. 

Of course, how could I make her keep worrying? I had to let her and the others know I was okay. But first, I used red paint to pull myself up to the roof of another building (different from the one Broadway had used), looking around to make sure I was alone. Only once I was satisfied did I hit the button on the phone to connect with Wren’s, using the bluetooth in my ear rather than the actual phone itself for the conversation. 

“Paintball?!” came the blurted word after the phone had gone for like… half a ring. 

“Hey, kid,” I quickly confirmed. “Everything’s fine. I’m on my way. How’re my new friends doing?” 

There was a very brief pause at that before the girl’s voice returned, sounding just a little scolding. “They were really surprised when we met them.” 

Snorting despite myself at the thought of those two finding out just who their boss was, I admitted, “Yeah, I’m sorry I missed it. Anyway, things are good here. I’ll be at the store in just a few minutes. Everything okay besides that little surprise?” 

She confirmed that things were chill there, and I disconnected before heading off. Time to pick up the pace a bit. I still had about an hour before I needed to head home for family dinner, but still, I definitely wanted to at least say more than two words to the people who were supposed to be helping Wren. Especially now that they knew just who they were going to be working for. 

Again, I was really sad that I’d missed that reaction. 

In any case, I managed to make it back to Wren’s shop in record time, even with taking a short loop to make sure no one was following me. Then I moved to the back door and hit the buzzer to be let in. The moment I did, Wren was right there, wanting to know everything that had happened. Behind her, I saw Murphy and Roald watching the whole thing from next to one of the shelves full of random junk in the middle of the main pawnshop floor. It looked like they had already been set to work organizing things. Which was almost unfair, given how chaotic the whole shop was. It was definitely a job that would take awhile. 

So, for all three of their benefits (as well as Fred’s, as the man came downstairs just after the start), I explained everything that had happened, including meeting the new girl. It was during that part that Murphy finally piped up. “So that girl just got her powers because those fucks attacked the place she was shopping at?” 

Pausing, I shrugged. “That’s what it seems like, yeah. She definitely wasn’t used to them, that’s for sure. She didn’t have a name or anything. But she’s got my number, so hopefully she’ll call back.” 

“You gonna tell her to go to the Minority?” That was Roald, his voice sounding curious. Belatedly, I realized he was also curious about why I myself hadn’t gone there. Apparently everybody wanted to know that these days. Either way, it was a fairly clever way of getting around outright asking the obvious question, and I gave the boy a brief, appraising look. 

Before I could respond, however, Wren piped up. “You should tell her to join our team! We don’t need no Minority! She can be with us.” Giving me a dual thumbs-up, the girl added, “Besides, you said she was afraid of her mom finding out about it, right? If she goes to the Minority, they have to tell her parents. If she comes here, we don’t. Plus, we get another person on our team. See? Perfect plan.” 

“We have a team now?” I asked, watching the girl. 

“Well, it’s either a team or a gang,” Wren pointed out. “Team sounds better. I mean, you already have minions!” She flailed both hands randomly back toward the other two. 

“Oh my God, they’re not minions!” I insisted with a groan. 

Wren, of course, chose that moment to pivot back that way and demanded, “Guys, what are you?” 

That, of course, made Murphy and Roald look at each other. There was a moment of mostly-silent conversation with a few muttered words before both turned back and nodded, the girl speaking. “Yeah, we’re minions.” 

“Cool with that,” Roald confirmed. “Long as you don’t make us wear blue overalls and speak gibberish.” 

“And become weirdly associated with incredibly stupid antivax mothers on the internet,” Murphy added. 

“I’ll uhh, do my best not to let that happen,” I managed with a soft cough, shaking my head. “But seriously, you guys are just–I mean… I’m not gonna–look, you’re here to help and I appreciate that. Seriously. You’ll get paid just to work here in the store, not to go out and get in trouble.” 

“Whatever,” Murphy replied. “You want help, we can help. Better than stealing shit and going hungry. Or ending up in jail. Or dead.” 

“She means there’s a lot worse options than playing minio–assistants to a superhero,” Roald added. “We get paid here, we get to work without involving drugs or hurting people, it’s…” He paused, seeming to search for the right words before settling on, “It’s cool.” 

“Really cool,” Murphy put in. “If you need more than just some clean-up and shelf stocking, you let us know. Seriously, we don’t have like–you know, powers or anything, but we can do other things. Whatever you need. We–uhh…” She kicked the floor, suddenly looking self-conscious. “We wanna help.” 

“Okay, but… I’m still not gonna put you guys in any more danger than I have to,” I insisted. “I’m glad you’re here and willing to do stuff, but just… just focus on helping Wren.” 

We talked a little more, I promised to let them know if I needed more help and about what happened with the newly-Touched girl. Then it was about time to head home for dinner. But first, I went upstairs to see the still comatose Paige. 

Standing by the motionless figure, I hesitated, putting my hand in hers and squeezing it. “Sorry this is taking so long,” I murmured, unsure if she had any idea I was even there, let alone speaking. “But I swear, we’ll find the right person. I’ll find whatever we need to fix you and wake you up. Just hold on a bit longer, okay?” Then I snorted. “What do I mean, hold on? You’re just taking a little nap, right? You probably won’t even know any time has passed by the time we turn yo–by the time we wake you up.” 

Still, standing there, staring at the girl, I couldn’t help but feel like I was failing. She was counting on me and I was failing. It felt like there was a time limit, like… like there was some bomb counting down and if it hit zero, everything would… what, explode? 

I didn’t know. But one thing was for certain. We needed to help Paige and wake her up as soon as possible. Maybe then the awful feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach whenever I looked at her lying unconscious like that would go away. At the very least, it would be nice to scratch one damn thing off my to-do list. 

And hey, at least my whole encounter with the new girl and that conversation with Broadway were two more examples of how I was gradually building connections in this city. 

Wait a second.

Hold up. 

I was building connections… I had built more connections… made… connections.

That was it. I had an idea. 

I knew how we were going to break into that base under the mall.

Patreon Snippets 19B – Lightning Bug

“C’mon, c’mon guys, we gotta go to bed in a hour! That’s like–that’s a, that’s less than a movie. That’s like half a Frozen. They didna even make it to the ice castle in half a Frozen!”

The blurted, rushed words in the doorway of the brightly lit room heralded the arrival of what was quite possibly one of the strangest-looking Conga lines in anyone’s memory. At the head, and the one speaking, was the small, red-skinned five-year-old girl with long white hair, too-large compound blue eyes, and insect-like wings. Her arms were outstretched to hold onto a truly massive (relative to her size) bowl full of popcorn. The bowl was decorated with images of fairies flying through some trees, surrounded by various insects. It was known as the Bug Bowl, the closest thing they had to something that showed the girl and her friends, with the fairies standing in as images of Lightning Bug herself. Despite its size, the girl ate all of her snacks and treats out of it, along with some of her meals, even when they only filled a very small portion of the actual bowl. While her arms were full of the bowl, in one hand she also carried her ‘Bug Cup’, a bright blue sippy cup with a lid shaped like a ladybug. 

Behind the bowl and cup-bearing girl came the rest of their strange Conga line in the form of the five-and-a-half foot tall praying mantis named Simminin (Or Cinnamon), the three-foot-tall emerald-green beetle named Snugglebug, and then much smaller (but still relatively enormous) cat-sized and metallic purple-colored Orchid bee named Kenobee bringing up the rear.

The room they entered together was the entertainment room of the penthouse apartment where Bug and her mommy lived with Aunt Hana. The room had a massive flatscreen television that was hung up in the middle of the wall, surrounded by a big couch and several chairs. There were even several video game systems set up on the nearby shelf. But Bug and her companions ignored all of that, instead moving to the other corner of the room, where several fluffy cushions and a couple beanbag chairs lay haphazardly around a second television that was set close to the floor. A plastic table nearby held various half-finished crayon drawings, a few toys, and a computer pad covered by a shock-proof plastic shield with large, colorful designs. 

Plopping herself down on one of the bean bags while her trio of insect friends spread out to perch themselves around her on various cushions, Lightning Bug carefully settled the bowl in her lap and put the cup on the nearby table. Then she picked up the computer pad and tapped it a few times. As she did so, the screen of the nearby television popped on to display the YouTube homepage. From there, Bug typed in her search request very carefully, tongue poking out the side of her mouth as she painstakingly typed the right letters while sounding them out. Partway through, she turned a bit in her seat and called loudly toward the doorway. “Mommy, what’s the letter for T?! Tuh Tee Tuh Tee.” She giggled then, happily repeating the sounds to herself to the point that she nearly forgot what it was she was actually asking. 

A moment later, her mother appeared in the doorway. Out of her public-people costume, Bug’s mother was an Asian-American woman of mixed descent, with short, close-cropped black hair and a faint, barely visible scar across one side of her face, from her cheek, over her right eye, and up to her forehead. She held her phone in one hand, telling whoever was on the other end to hold a moment. “T, Buggy? Hold up the pointing finger.” As her daughter did so, holding up an index finger, she added, “Now put the other pointing finger on top.” A fond chuckle escaped the woman as the young girl put the tip of her other finger against the tip of the first, so they were pointing to each other. “Good try, other way, see? Sideways. There you go!” She smiled when the girl got it right. “Like that. You see it? The T looks like–yup, good job!” 

While her mother went back to the call, Bug finished typing in her search request, then scrolled her finger along the screen of the pad while watching the television until she found the video she wanted. It took a couple tries, but eventually she got it. “Oh, oh, this is a good one! It’s really funny.” With that promise to her trio of insect friends (all of whom were watching the screen with far more understanding and intelligence than should have been possible), she started to hit play, only to be stopped as Simminin bumped one claw gently against her arm, somehow managing to look beseechingly at her.

“Oh! Sorry, guys.” Quickly, the young girl reached into the big bowl in her lap. She began producing several smaller bowls that had been stacked up inside it. The first, which she set it down in front of Simminin herself, was full of small dead crickets. The second, placed in front of the cushion where Snugglebug had draped himself, had seeds, bits of leaves, pieces of dry fruit, and some honey mixed in. Finally, the bowl she put in front of Kenobee’s perched form held a sugar-nectar mix, which the bee immediately stuck his face up against to start slurping from. 

Now all her friends had their respective treats, Bug took a handful of popcorn out of the bowl for herself, then hit play on the computer pad while shoveling the snack into her own mouth. 

Immediately, a video about Paintball started up. She’d seen it before, of course, but this one was one of her absolute favorites. It was a combination of scenes from people’s phones and the news all about Mr. Ball jumping and flying through the air, and making bad guys look dumb. The music in the video came from one of the Super Mario Brothers games, and whoever made it put in the Mario jumping sound effect whenever Paintball bounced around, along with various ‘jump on an enemy’ sounds when bad guys were hit. It was funny every time, and Bug was quickly doubled over in the seat, laughing so much her mother poked her head in once or twice to make sure she was okay. 

For most of the hour she had before her bedtime, Lightning Bug watched more videos, alternately bouncing in her beanbag chair and hovering above it with her rapidly beating wings. The videos weren’t all about Paintball. Some of them were about Aunt Hana or Mommy. Or other people. But the Paintball ones were her favorites. There was just something about the colorful, bouncy Star-Touched that made for fun videos. Some of the videos were mean, like with the dumb guys who said Paintball should stop being selfish and join a team. She turned those ones off really quick. 

In the midst of watching another of the fun ones, Bug pointed. “Look!” she blurted, as though her insect trio’s eyes weren’t already firmly fixated on the screen, “it’s Mr. Lucent!” 

Sure enough, on that particular video, someone had captured the image of  Lucent the Touched-Raven perched on a lamppost as he watched Paintball jumping through the air in the distance. The video, taken from the high-up balcony of a hotel room, went on to show Lucent follow Paintball for a short distance, before diving away into an alley. From there, the video switched to showing various scenes of Paintball and Lucent each fighting criminals at different times (none of them together, but the video made it look like they were), while a song about fathers and sons played. 

Eventually, Bug’s time with the videos ended as her mother called that it was time for her bath. Finishing the last of the juice from her cup, the girl hit the button on the pad to turn off the TV before pushing herself up. “C’mon, you can help Mommy!” she announced while starting to leave. 

It was fun watching videos about Paintball. Bug really hoped she would visit again soon and make more pretty designs for her friends. 

He. She hoped he would visit again soon, Lightning Bug told herself sternly. He, he, he. She had to make herself think of Paintball as a he. 

After all, she wasn’t supposed to give away people’s secrets.

A/N: Do YOU have an idea of what Peyton’s Touched name should be? Just like when Cassidy got her name, I’m leaving it up to you guys to decide what it should be. Submit your suggestions either in the comments of this chapter OR via e-mail to ceruleanscrawling(at)gmail.com and a future chapter will list as many possibilities as I can out of what is given. After that chapter, I’ll list the possibilities again and everyone will be allowed to vote on them.

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Building Connections 16-01 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

“Hold up, wait just a second. Wait, so let me get this straight, you just came right out and asked for someone to help you fix a Touched-Tech robot-android thing on a public forum?” 

The incredulous words were from Pack, who stood in one corner of Wren’s upstairs lab at the shop, staring at me as if I’d just told her I was engaged to marry the Abyssal Typhon. 

It was Tuesday, April 14th, the next day after my interesting dinner with Caishen, Skip, Lightning Bug… and my parents. I’d spent some time after they left just hanging out with Bug, playing with her insect friends (and making them pretty, of course). Eventually, I’d promised to visit again soon and made my exit. Then I’d told Izzy all about what happened while we were safe in my room, which was… yeah. Just being able to tell someone else about the near-panic attack I’d had when I saw my parents there, and all the way through it, was basically a life saver. Or at least a sanity saver. 

Anyway, now it was the next day, shortly after school had let out. Pack and I had arrived at roughly the same time, which made me wonder how far away her school was. Did she even still go to school as a supervillain member of La Casa? Or was there like a… work-study program? 

Coughing while pushing that thought away, I held up both hands quickly, glancing off to the side where Wren was carefully running the new scanner she’d made over every inch of Paige, who lay motionless on a padded table. “Not exactly,” I corrected. “I’m not that stupid. Like I said, Lion told me about that secret code to privately hire Tech-Touched, so I’m just… feeling it out. I’m not giving any details yet. I’m seeing who bites and chatting with them a bit. Just, you know, feeling them out. It’s a potential option.” 

I couldn’t see her face, of course. But from her body language alone, I was pretty sure Pack wasn’t exactly convinced. A side glance toward her cage full of lizards sitting on a nearby equipment table showed that they seemed to be just as doubtful about the situation. Which, honestly, was a really weird impression to be getting from a group of reptiles to begin with.

With a sigh, Pack started to respond. “Look, I know I don’t need to tell you about the dangers of trusting anyone you talk to online and the whole stranger-danger, pedo–” She stopped, choking a bit before giving me what was clearly a sharp look. “I don’t have to tell you about that, right?” 

Squinting at her from behind the mask and helmet for a long, silent moment, I very slowly shook my head while keeping my voice even and flat. “I’ve had the discussion a few times before.” 

“Good, just… good.” Sounding almost insultingly relieved, Pack pushed on. “The point is, just because you think someone might sound trustworthy in a few internet conversations doesn’t mean they are. Don’t do anything crazy that you might regret, okay? It’s not like you’ll get a second chance if whoever you bring in here happens to blab about the whole situation.” 

“I’m not gonna do anything crazy,” I solemnly promised, raising my hand as though taking an oath. “I wouldn’t bring anyone in without seeing what you guys thought anyway. Not with something that important. Just–believe me, I won’t be stupid about it. But we have to do something, and soon.” With that, I glanced over to Wren again, who was still working.

Pack hesitated, watching me for a moment before giving a very short nod. “We will, Paintball. Trust me, I know it’s easy to feel… you know, fucking anxious and shit about all this. But we’ll figure it out. You said yourself there’s no real rush. The girl’s fine over there, just sleeping. And honestly, if we were in a rush, I’d rather trust Eits to get in there and fix the damn orb thing.” She shrugged. “Even if that meant finding a way to get to it. You sure you can’t just pink paint it?” 

Grimacing slightly, I offered a hesitant shrug before admitting, “I dunno. I’ve never really pulled someone’s body, uhh… apart or open like that. It just stretches the body part out like taffy. And I’m afraid–I mean, what if it does actual damage? Like, the part that’s painted is protected, but what if I rip open her stomach or whatever and expose her inner… uhh… organs and that goes wrong? I’m pretty sure they have super sterile operating rooms for a reason. And like, a bajillion years of lessons about how to safely open someone up.” My face twisted a little at my own words. “Plus I’d have to keep reapplying the paint or the whole thing would just, umm, schloop back. And that’s if it works to begin with.” 

“Too bad you don’t have another biolem body to practice with,” Pack noted thoughtfully. 

Before either of us could pursue the thought any further, Wren called out, “Got it, I got it!” 

“You sure, kid?” Pack asked while immediately stepping over that way with me just behind her. 

Wren, who was perched on a stool with the scanner against Paige’s back as the other girl’s motionless body lay on her stomach, gave both of us a hurried nod of excitement. “Uh huh. I mean, unless she’s got some other metal orb thing in her body that’s connected to all her nerves and muscles and all for a completely unrelated reason.” Pausing as though considering that, she quickly shook her head, pointing to a point about midway down Paige’s back before hurriedly insisting. “It’s here. Right in there. Basically right between her lungs. You know, protected by the ribs.” 

Exchanging a look with Pack, I slowly nodded. “I mean, that makes sense. Her dad would want it to be safe. He put the others inside the skulls, but maybe he thought avoiding obvious headshot damage would be easier?” Shrugging, I added, “Anyway, great job, Wren. At least we know where it is now. And if it’s in her chest instead of her head, maybe it’ll be easier to get someone else involved without exposing her identity. I mean, we can mask her up pretty well, right? If it comes down to it, we can just hide her identity that way. They’d know there was a really good biological android… person, but not who she actually is.” 

It was Wren and Pack’s turn to exchange looks, before the latter shrugged. “Sure, it’s an idea.” 

For a moment, it looked like she was going to say something else, but a sudden chirp from my phone interrupted. Holding up a hand, I glanced at the phone. “Oh, hey, it’s time for me to go pick up my uhh…” 

“Your minions?” From the tone of her voice, Pack was incredibly amused by the whole situation. With a wave of both hands, she teased, “Time for the noble and incredibly valiant Star-Touched hero to go meet up with the older teenagers he press-ganged into being his loyal minions.” 

Boy was I glad the helmet meant she couldn’t see my blush. It really would’ve wrecked my rep. Or something. “They are not minions!” I blurted, my voice rising in an embarrassing squeak that Pack did an absolutely awful job of pretending not to laugh at. Hurried, I pushed on. “I mean they’re not–I’m not–they’re just… you know, helping out in exchange for not getting in trouble and then we’ll give them money if they keep helping and keeping everything we’re doing secret and oh my God they really are minions.” 

“Hey, it’s okay!” Wren piped up. “I’m sure you’ll treat your minions really good, right?” She started to say something else, then paused while looking at Pack. Something on her face made me glance that way too, before realizing what it was. The other girl was standing basically directly beside the painted banner on the wall that read, ‘We Never Work For Bad Guys.’

Pack, who turned a bit to see where we were looking, pivoted back and offered an exaggerated shrug. “Hey, I consider this more me working for you.” 

Wren, however, simply shook her head. “It just says we don’t work for bad guys. You’re not a bad guy. There’s bad guys and then there’s bad guys.” 

Coughing, the lizard-tamer gently pointed out, “Far be it from me to argue, kid, but I literally rob places. I mean, sure it’s fun to do some good stuff now and then, especially with you guys. And I’ve got my limits. Still, I ain’t gonna stop stealing shit. Most people would consider that being a bad guy. Pretty sure taking what doesn’t belong to you is part of the definition, actually.” 

“Uh huh.” Sounding entirely unconvinced, Wren pivoted to look at me. “Uncle Fred’s picking up a pizza! And some breadsticks and stuff! So you should bring them back so it’s still hot when they get here. Oh, and make sure they’re not lactose intolerant or gluten-free or anything,” she added sagely. 

“Speaking of which, have you told those guys about ahh… who they’ll be working for in this place?” Pack asked, making a vague token effort at keeping the amusement out of her voice. As she spoke, her hand fell on Wren’s shoulder, squeezing it. 

“Not yet,” I replied, already starting to head to the nearby window so I could head out. “I mean, I could’ve. 

“But why spoil the surprise?” 

*******

Reaching the roof above where I was supposed to meet Murphy and Roald, a few blocks from Wren’s shop, I was greeted with the sound of a basketball being dribbled, then bouncing off a rim. Peering over the edge, I saw the two in question playing on a nearby court attached to the small apartment complex this building was a part of. Yeah, it was definitely them. Roald the skinny, pale blond boy and Murphy (seriously, was that her first name?) the biracial girl with very short brown hair and a temper that was even shorter. 

Neither seemed to be particularly good at the game they were playing from the few moments I watched, but they were clearly having fun. And who was I to judge someone else’s basketball skills? I wasn’t exactly… uhhh insert good basketball player. Simon would know.

In any case, they missed a lot more baskets than they made, but neither of them seemed to care. Crouching there, staring at the two, I saw the way they just goofed off and acted like they were both hotshot stars, playing up for an imaginary crowd and trash-talking each other.

God, what was I doing here? Why was I involving them at all in any of this? I should just disappear, leave a message to let the two of them know everything was fine and they didn’t owe anything, and let them live in peace. Even if I wasn’t planning on involving them in any of the actual… bad stuff, just having any connection to me could put them in danger. They didn’t have any powers or anything. They were total civilian Prevs with their whole lives to deal with. 

Right, their whole lives. That was the problem. I’d promised the two of them jobs, a way to get out of the holes that were their lives if they put some effort into it. Sure, they were going to have to work off the cost of the damage they’d done before, but after that, working for a Tech-Touched could seriously change everything for them. If I snatched that away now, after saying I was going to give them a chance, I doubted they’d listen to ‘but it’s for your own good.’ I’d just be another asshole who didn’t give them a chance. 

Besides, I could still keep them out of the worst of it. Working with Wren wasn’t exactly being around me. And Wren had all those defenses she’d been working on, right? Right. Yeah, I just had to keep convincing myself that this wasn’t an awful, terrible, horrible idea that I was going to regret. 

Pushing on past all that, I straightened, took aim, and fired a shot of red paint at the ball while it was in midair. Holding out my own red glove, I activated the paint, summoning the ball to me just as it bounced off the edge of the big wooden board thing the rim was attached to. 

Murphy and Roald both pivoted, their eyes following the ball as it flew all the way up to the roof of the three story building I was on. While they watched, I overhand chucked it back the other way, hurling the ball as hard as I could in the vague direction of the basket. It sailed… nowhere near going in. But while the ball was still falling, I hit both it and the inner part of the rim with red paint, activating them with a thought. That sent the ball on a complete course correction, falling neatly through the net. 

“Whooo!” Leaping from the roof, I painted my feet orange to land comfortably on the pavement. “How many points is that? Like seven?” 

The other two exchanged looks, before Roald jogged over to get the ball. As he was doing that, Murphy approached. She still had the mark on her face from the sealant that the ambulance guys used, since it hadn’t been a week yet. 

Oh my God, it hadn’t been a week yet? What the fuck? Was it really only Tuesday when Paige’s birthday party had been Saturday? It felt like it had been a couple months at least. What the hell was happening to my life? 

While I was busy reeling from the shock of how time worked, Murphy gestured toward the ball that her friend was picking up and remarked, “How’d you do that?” 

“Uhh, you do know I used my power, right?” I was confused. “I’m pretty sure I wasn’t that sneaky.” 

While the girl rolled her eyes so hard I thought she might pass out, Roald approached and spoke up. “She means the paint part. You hit the ball in midair twice from all the way up on the roof. And you hit the inner part of the rim. Those are like… really good shots.” 

“Oh.” Blinking at the thought, I finally shrugged. “I dunno. Guess I’ve had practice aiming my paint lately. And if you think that’s impressive, you should see me navigate a forest in the middle of the night.” 

Right, I should probably try to figure out what was up with that at some point, huh? 

Poor Roald and Murphy, meanwhile, were just staring at each other in silence for a few seconds before both turned back to me. “Dude,” Murphy managed, “if you try to get us to follow you into a dark forest, I’m gonna have to peace out. I don’t do nature walks. Also, I’m pretty sure that’s how like half of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales start. You know, the original really psycho ones.”

“I promise to wait awhile before taking you to the Gingerbread House,” I solemnly replied before gesturing. “Anyway, you guys ready?”

“Sure, do we need these?” From her pocket, Murphy pulled out a ski mask. Probably the same one she’d been wearing that night when they tried to steal from the convenience shop.

“We weren’t sure how much you wanted us to hide,” Roald put in. 

“Depends,” I replied, “do you want to wear those the whole time you’re working for your new boss? I mean, it’s totally up to you and I’m pretty sure she could help you with more comfortable ones if you wanna keep your identities secret and all that. But you don’t have to. Like I said, up to you.” 

After a moment of thought and whispered conversation, Murphy shoved the mask away again and shrugged. “Whatever. I mean, you said we’re working for this chick, right? This shit is legit?” From the sound of her voice, she was at least half-expecting me to laugh in their faces and take off. Between that and the whole thing with her drug-addict brother giving her that cut on her face, I was getting the vague impression that Murphy didn’t have a lot of dependable people in her life. 

“As legit as we can make it,” I assured her. Briefly thinking about how both of them were going to react to finding out their boss was technically still young enough to get into the theater using kid prices, I smiled faintly. “I mean yeah. It’ll be real work and, as soon as you catch up with what you owe for your little escapade, you’ll make real money. From there, well, we’ll see what happens.” 

“Okay, sure, whatever. But how do we get there?” Murphy gave me a doubtful look. “And please don’t say we have to let you carry us or something. That’s just gonna be embarrassing for everyone involved.” 

Snorting at that, I shook my head and gave them the address and directions. “It’s just a couple blocks that way. You head there and wait by the backdoor. I’ll let you in and we’ll meet your new–” 

In mid-sentence, I cut myself off. Something had drifted past the corner of my eye, over by the building. My gaze snapped that way, and I thought I saw it right next to one of the bushes there. I could’ve sworn that it looked like one of those Summus Proelium orbs, but it was gone the instant I focused, so it must’ve just been my imagination. A trick of the light or something.

Either way, facing that direction meant I saw the trucks that went past. Several of them, in fact, all decked out with Easy Eight decals, men with weapons standing in the backs. I even caught a glimpse of Juice himself in one of the passenger seats. He was looking away from me, his attention on wherever they were going. But it was definitely him. 

A bunch of Easy Eight people heading down the street into what I was fairly certain was considered Ninety-Niner territory? Fuck. This wasn’t gonna end well. Or start and proceed well, come to think of it. It was gonna be bad all around. 

“Paintball?” That was Roald, drawing my attention. “What’s–” 

“Go to the address,” I blurted, already starting to move after the line of trucks. “Hit the bell on the back door, tell them who you are, and that I’ll be there soon. Just let them know that I’m going after some Easy Eights heading into Ninety-Niner territory.

“Looks like there’s not gonna be a ceasefire in the gangwar today after all.”

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Trust 15-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Once we were dropped off at the library, Izzy and I actually did go inside together. Partly so the driver would see it, and partly so we could keep talking (quietly of course) about what we were going to do. We wanted to make sure both of us were on the same page about what we supposedly did here, just in case my parents happened to ask about it later for any reason. 

The library was big enough that it was easy to get lost in, easy to avoid people and hide in a corner to quietly work. And by this point, both of us were pretty sure that Cuélebre’s people weren’t looking for her anymore, if they ever were. 

Yeah, given what I now knew about that situation, I was pretty sure my parents had put the full kibosh on that whole forced-recruiting thing. Oscuro was definitely one of the gangs they had a lot of control over, and with Izzy actually living with us… yeah, she was safe. Cuélebre’s group wasn’t going to violate my parents’ wishes just to try to grab her again. Particularly not in the public library. Hell, I doubted anyone from their side could pick her out of a crowd by now. Or at least, they wouldn’t be willing to admit they could if my parents ever asked. That was enough. 

So, with Izzy’s promise that she would sit in a private area, do her studying, and let me know if anything happened, I eventually left her there. Heading out one of the side doors of the library, I kept my eyes open, looking around for anyone my parents might’ve left to keep an eye on the place. But it looked pretty clear. They were probably about as confident as I was that Oscuro had backed off. If not more so. Honestly, I was pretty sure they’d been keeping up appearances for Izzy’s sake, given how odd it would have looked if they weren’t being super-careful with her. 

But things were clear now. So, I found an out-of-the-way roof to change into my costume, stowed my regular clothes in a bag out of sight, and took a running leap off the roof to head for Wren’s. With any luck, we’d be able to come up with something to help Paige. 

Actually, that was a good point. My parents hadn’t brought up anything about Paige. They hadn’t said a word about any possible disappearance, and I hadn’t seen word online. No one on social media was going on about it, or anything about her pare–her adopted parents. It was like nothing happened. Nothing involving Paige anyway. There was some about the warehouse that exploded, but not even much of that. Just that the authorities were looking into it and that there appeared to have been no one alive in the warehouse when it went up, which was… weird, given all the bodies Paige and I had left behind. 

And boy was that ever a disconcerting sentence to think. 

On the way to Wren’s, I thought about what had happened the night before. The Izzy part, specifically. God, she knew everything. I’d told her all of it. Well, pretty much. The major points. It would’ve taken a lot longer than we’d had for me to tell her absolutely everything that had happened since the night I’d stowed away in the back of that car. But the secrets, all the stuff I’d been keeping locked up tight inside my own brain for so long, she knew it. She knew who I was, what I was doing, what my parents were, all of it. She knew the truth. 

I felt… good. Okay, not fantastic. There was still so much I had to worry about. Still so many problems that I had no idea how to solve. Particularly Paige, right now. I didn’t know how we were going to fix her, who we could even talk to who might be able to fix what was wrong with her, let alone anyone we’d actually trust with that kind of access and secret. 

So yeah, I still had plenty of issues weighing on my brain. But the fact that I had finally actually talked about all of this stuff with someone helped. Seriously, it helped so much. Saying the words out loud, getting them out in the open, talking through how it all made me feel with Izzy? I felt better than I had in a long time, even with the whole Paige situation. It felt like I wasn’t alone anymore, like I had someone I could trust and… and rely on, even just a little bit. It was seriously amazing how much that helped. I really had slept better last night, despite everything going on with Paige and that entire mess, than I had in a very long time. 

Shaken out of those kind of musings as the phone buzzed in my pocket, I waited until I found a spot on another roof before taking it out. Glancing around to make sure I was clear and not about to be jumped or anything, I checked the ID. It was That-A-Way. 

“Hey, Way,” I answered immediately, stowing the phone and talking through the bluetooth as I took off running across the roof once more. “What’s going on?” 

There was a brief pause before the other girl answered. “You tell me.” She sounded tired, like she hadn’t gotten much sleep. “What happened? With Paige, I mean. Did you find out–did your Tech friend get anywhere with her? With–do we have any ideas?” 

Wincing at the sound of how stressed That-A-Way was, I quickly replied, “She can’t get through the body. I mean, we don’t even know if she could do anything with the orb part, but even if she could, she’s terrified of trying to even get to it. We need to find someone who can help with that, and I don’t even know where to start.” With a sigh, I added, “She said she could probably make a scanner or something that can find the orb. After that, we just need to get to it without… you know, doing too much damage. To it or to the body. I have no idea how we’re gonna do that, or even where to start with finding someone capable of it, let alone trustworthy.” 

Again, there was a moment of silence. Well, almost silence. I could hear the girl breathing, clearly lost in thought. Finally, she sighed audibly. “I’ll–I won’t ask around. I’ll quietly poke and see if anything comes up. Don’t worry, I’ll be careful. I’m not gonna…” She trailed off before simply finishing with a quiet, “I’m not gonna fuck up, promise. Just start with figuring out where the orb is and if she can get anything else. Images of it, how it’s doing, how much it’s connected to her, anything.” 

I nodded, then realized belatedly how useless that was. Flushing a bit under my helmet and mask, I spoke up quickly. “Right, yeah. Don’t draw any attention to the–hey wait a minute. Do you know why they’re saying there weren’t any bodies found at that place? I mean, we know they weren’t real people, but there were an awful lot of the things left there, and I didn’t see anything about that. They keep saying the place was empty except for equipment. Which… technically, but.” 

That time, I was pretty sure I heard That-A-Way mumble a curse before she replied in a dark voice. “I don’t know. I know I saw bodies there, but when I got back, they said there weren’t any. When I asked, they said it was the fire and the smoke playing tricks on me, that they went through the whole place and found nothing like that. No bodies, no remains, nothing.” 

Landing on the ledge attached to a billboard, I frowned. “So they knew. I mean, someone important figured out those weren’t normal bodies, and covered it up. But that would take a lot. They had to move any remains, make sure no one who wasn’t involved didn’t see it or shut them up, make sure no one got any pictures and the media didn’t find out…” My parents. That whole thing had to be my parents. The Ministry. Somehow, they’d pulled that off. The fact that they could do something like that at the drop of a hat just… yeah. Suddenly, I didn’t feel quite as rested as I had before answering the phone. And I also had a slightly better understanding of why That-A-Way sounded the way she did. God, the realization that they had that kind of power, knowing the amount she did about the Ministry? No wonder she was stressed. 

“Yeah,” came her quiet response, almost as though she could read my mind, “Someone important knew, and managed all that. So I’m pretty sure they’ll be interested in our little friend if they ever find out about her. You sure you trust the place you’ve got her now?” 

“Absolutely,” I replied immediately, before amending, “I mean, it’s the best place we’ve got. And I trust Trevithick. She’s not going to tell anybody. But do you have any idea if anyone has any way of linking Paige to that warehouse? No one’s said anything about her disappearing yet. Or her ‘parents.’ At least, it’s not online. And I’m pretty sure they kept their names off any ownership papers, so–”

“I don’t think they’ve connected her to it, or realized that she’s missing,” Way put in. “I went by her place, since we were supposed to–” She coughed. “Since my patrol went that way. But I didn’t see anything. It was all locked up. The gates were closed, no guards at the entrance, no response to the intercom.” 

“Did you check the place out any closer?” I hesitantly asked, curious as to how far the other girl had gone. 

“I didn’t have any legal reason to,” she pointedly informed me. “There was no sign of anything wrong other than the lack of guards, no one called for help, I didn’t have a warrant or any sign of immediate criminal activity or danger.” 

She held that for a few silent seconds before exhaling in a long sigh. “I took a quick peek. The place is shut down. There’s no one there. No bodies, no guards, no servants, no Banners family, nothing. It’s like everyone just got up and left last night after the–after everything that happened. They’re gone.” 

There was something about what she had been saying that tickled my brain, but I couldn’t work out what it was. Instead of dwelling too much, I replied, “Could be the Ministry, or could be Paige’s father’s people, if he still has any. Could be a lot of things.” Pausing briefly, I added, “Thanks for checking it out anyway, even if it wasn’t exactly by the book.” 

After a moment of silence, Way responded with, “Yeah, well, it didn’t really accomplish much, did it? We still don’t know anything about how or why they disappeared. And we still don’t know what to do about Paige. I don’t have some special doctor I can pull out who could do surgery to get to the orb, and I definitely don’t have any I’d trust completely with that. Not to mention, just getting to the orb is the easy part. Can Trevithick fix what happened to it? I mean, I don’t know a lot about Tech-Touched stuff, but I’m pretty sure it’s hard for someone who didn’t make something to beat out the person who actually made it. Paige’s dad designed that thing. It’s his power. So how do we find someone who can change what he did?” 

My mouth opened, then I paused, frowning thoughtfully as I took another couple jumps, getting close to the shop. “Maybe we don’t need a Tech-Touched. I mean, not for the reprogramming part. If Trevithick can just keep the orb running while…”

“While what?” Way put in. 

“Sorry,” I quickly apologized. “I just–I need to think about it. I’ve got a few thoughts, I just need time to figure out if they’ll work or not. I’ll let you know what’s going on as soon as I figure it out, promise.” 

“Paintball,” Way started before seeming to catch herself. She sighed then, insisting, “Yeah, let me know. I’ll look around, like I said. See if anyone pops out who could pull something like this off and then be quiet about it.” She sounded understandably doubtful about that possibility. “And be careful. I don’t think they know about Paige right now, but if they figure it out…” 

“Yeah, it’d be bad.” Grimacing, I stopped at the edge of the last roof, across from Wren’s place. “I’ll be careful, believe me. You too. Don’t get caught. Don’t–” 

Way interrupted. “Don’t give anything away, I won’t. But listen, I went for this run earlier and saw–I mean, do you know anything about this guy…” She trailed off then. 

“This guy?” I echoed. “What–” 

Once again, she cut me off. “Nothing, never mind. I’ll figure it out myself. Just gotta look into someone, but I can do that. You’ve got enough to deal with. Talk to you later, Paintball.” 

She disconnected, and I hesitated, wondering if there was anything better I could’ve said. But no. I was doing the best I could. We all were. That-A-Way was going through a lot. Seriously, I’d just told her that the girl I’d said could have information we needed about the Ministry was actually a–like a cyborg sort of. After that, and the whole warehouse thing, and figuring out that the Ministry could cover something like that up with no advance warning? No wonder she was obviously stressed. 

Shaking that off, I made my way down to the entrance into the shop, glanced around to make sure it was clear, then went inside. Or rather, tried to. The door was locked. 

“Um.” Blinking, I raised my hand to knock, only for the door to open seemingly on its own. For a second, a rush of fear and paranoid thoughts filled my head. What was going on? Slowly, I took a step inside, scanning the room intently. The place was mostly dark, the lights dimmed to the lowest setting. It didn’t look like anyone was in the actual store part. A thick knot of worry formed in my throat. If something was wrong, if something bad had happened because I–

“Sorry!” That was Wren, popping out of the elevator on the far side of the room and zooming over to me, using her flightpack thing to glide a few feet off the floor. “Security, we’re not letting anyone in right now. I mean, except you. And Pack. And–I mean no customers. Come on!” She grabbed my hand, pulling me the rest of the way inside just before the door shut once more behind us. I heard several clicks as various locks engaged. 

“Wren, is everything okay?” I asked, after giving a quick glance around. Things seemed just the way I’d left them aside from the lights being dimmed. 

“Huh? Oh, yeah, it’s fine!” Wren shrugged, hovering there at eye level with me thanks to the dragonfly-like wings from that harness she wore. “Uncle Fred and me just thought having customers right now might be a bad idea, cuz I’ve gotta focus. And cuz bad guys might sneak in. So we’re closed for now.” Belatedly, she amended, “I mean, we never really opened after the thing with bad guys coming in before, but we still had a few people come in. Now it’s all locked.” 

Her words made me wince. “Sorry. You’re just trying to get the shop on its feet again and I make you close the whole place down.” 

Wren’s eyes rolled. “You didn’t make us do anything, Paintball. You asked for help. That’s the right thing to do.” Her hand poked me in the middle of the visor on my helmet before she turned in the air. “Besides, I like figuring things out, and this is a big thing to figure out! Come on!” 

She flew ahead of me, while I followed at a trot. At least Wren seemed to be less overwhelmed than she had last night. Apparently the intervening hours had taken her from terrified of the very concept of being responsible for fixing Paige, to excited about solving the problem. 

Making it upstairs to where the girl’s real workshop was, I looked around. There. Paige was lying on a couch. It looked like she was sleeping, even though I knew better. 

“She hasn’t changed at all.” That was Fred, speaking up as he approached, pushing a wheeled cart laden with tools. “No movement, no sound, nothing. She just lays there. Body’s still working. She’s got a heartbeat, pulse, she’s breathing, all that. But there’s no active response. I can’t even tell if she can hear what we’re saying or not.”

Swallowing, I stepped that way, putting a hand on Paige’s face for a moment. God, my feelings about this whole thing were so confusing. I was angry, sad, confused, worried… fuck. It was too much. 

Finally, I shoved all that down and turned back to the other two, yet again glad that they couldn’t see my expression. “Any ideas? You seem… better about it, Wren.” 

“I still can’t do anything about the body,” she insisted firmly. “I’m not a doctor and I’ll break it. Errr, kill it–her. I don’t–I can’t–” A hint of that previous worry crept into her voice before she shook it off and pressed on. “But I’m making that scanner I told you about, the one that can find the orb so we know where it is, exactly. If we can find it, I think I can make something to umm… stabilize it? I can’t fix it, that’s programming stuff. But I can make sure it doesn’t go boom or anything else that creep might’ve put in it.” 

Smiling a bit behind the helmet, I nodded. “Thanks, Wren. For everything. I just–I guess we need two things. Two people. Someone who can open up the body to get to that orb once you find it, and someone who can do the programming part.” 

I had one idea about the latter. Eits. His Mites could probably get in there and help with the virus or whatever it was that Paige’s father had installed. But… but could I trust him that far? Could I risk involving him like that? Pack had already said he was very loyal to La Casa. 

And more importantly, even if I did stretch the trust far enough to involve Eits, who the hell could we trust to do the biological part? 

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Project Owl 14-09 (Summus Proelium)

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I was going to have to tell Pack something. Some of the truth, that was. She’d earned it. More than earned it. She and That-A-Way both had been there for me time after time. They knew about the Ministry and were still helping me. I owed them more than I was giving them. And at the very least, I owed them some explanation about what had happened tonight. 

But I also owed Paige. She trusted me. Trusted me to keep her safe and to find a way to fix her so she could wake up again. Wren was my best… my only idea of who might be able to deal with what had happened to her, but even that seemed like a long shot. Wren didn’t deal with… with whatever Paige was. What was I supposed to do? Who was I supposed to talk to? 

“Paintball? Earth to Paintball.” Pack’s voice interrupted my panicked and confused musings. “I said, what the fuck is going on? Who is this girl? Why’s she unconscious? What was she–” 

“Paige,” I interrupted, forcing myself to focus. “Paige Banners. And as to what’s going on, I… I can explain it, sort of. But wait until Way gets here. She deserves to hear it too, after what she…” I swallowed. “She saved my life. Our lives.” My hand gestured to the motionless blonde. “Once she gets here, after she’s done covering for us, I’ll explain everything that I can.” Everything I could, as opposed to everything. Because even now, I had to keep things to myself. 

Pack didn’t seem happy about waiting, but she didn’t push the issue too much. All she did was look past me to Paige for a moment before asking, “Doesn’t she need a doctor right now?”

“She needs a lot of things,” I murmured under my breath with a glance over my shoulder. Then my head shook. “But I don’t think any doctor can help. Trust me, it’s a long story, but there’s nothing we can do for her right this second. I… I don’t think she’ll get any worse, anyway.” 

“Any worse than… that.” Pack pointedly stared at the completely motionless girl who looked like she was sleeping. “Right. Look, I-I’m sorry I didn’t show up sooner.” There was guilt in her voice. “I was–fuck. I was busy with other things. Kind of in the middle of something and couldn’t get away. Couldn’t even check my phone. By the time things were clear enough for me to have some breathing room, you were already… shit. Just, I’m sorry I didn’t get there sooner.” 

“It’s not your fault,” I insisted, turning back to look at her. “I know you’ve got your own things. I’m just glad Way showed up when she did. I don’t… I don’t think we would’ve made it out if she wasn’t there.” 

“Yeah, she’s got some good timing,” the other girl agreed before glancing away. I couldn’t see her face through that full black mask that covered even her eyes and mouth, but I was pretty sure she wasn’t thinking about me or this situation just then.  

Her silence gave me a chance to look at Paige again. God damn it, what was I going to do? I’d promised I would find someone who could help her. Again, Wren seemed the best choice, yet even she probably wouldn’t know what she was doing with something this advanced. She didn’t work with… with cyborgs or… fuck, what was the right term? Biolem? Was Paige still a biolem like the others we’d faced, even though she was so much more advanced? 

“New look?” Pack finally asked after that moment of silence, nodding to my makeshift costume. “Going for something even cheaper-looking? Blackjack was already thinking of bribing you with a nice, cool new suit with all sorts of bells and whistles, you know. Go around like that and he may just give it to you out of pity.” 

Coughing, I gestured helplessly. “I didn’t have time to get back to my real costume. I had to make do with what I could scavenge real quick. And I don’t need a handout from Blackjack.” 

“Yeah, I told him you’ve got Trevithick to handle any costume upgrades,” she informed me with a very light chuckle. She had Tuesday on one shoulder and was lightly scratching him with her other hand. “I’m not sure that actually dissuaded him that much. He likes you, Paintball. I mean, that’s the impression I get anyway. Pretty sure he’d accept you in a heartbeat if you decided to switch sides.” 

“Does he like me?” I shot back. “Or did the Ministry tell him to put out feelers to find out if I could be pulled to that side? How much of what he does is him and how much is what he’s told to do? I already know he’s really connected to them. How much, I’m not sure. But still.” 

Yeah, I was probably still a little amped up after everything that had happened. Being ‘killed,’ however temporarily, waking up to find that video from Paige explaining all that and then saying she was going to kill herself. Racing across the city, fighting through the building, finding Paige, getting a few answers about what the hell she was and what her father was up to, fighting to keep her safe, fleeing with her through the building, and finally almost being blown up before That-A-Way saved us at basically the last second? 

It had been a bit of a day, to say the least.

Before too long, my phone buzzed. It was a message from That-A-Way, wanting to know where we were. So I gave her directions, and she showed up a few minutes later, skidding to a stop after super-speeding her way up to the parking lot. “Paintball, there’s bodies in that building!” she snapped abruptly. “What the hell was–” 

“They’re not real,” I quickly informed her. “I mean, they’re not–um, they’re not real people.” 

Yeah, Pack and Way exchanged obvious looks at that before turning back to me. Pack found her voice first. “Not real people? Come on, Paintball, I think you better explain now.” 

They were right. I needed to explain some of it, as much as I could. There was no way I was going to be able to help Paige without help. Besides, they’d more than earned an explanation. So, I carefully started to tell them what happened, starting with a… well, not quite a lie, but a very deliberately presented version of the truth. I told them that Paige had left me a message telling me that she was probably going to die because she was going after her father, who was the real threat. I told them about tracking her down, finding her in that building, and the whole biolem thing. I explained the part about her dad being a Tech-Touched and his plan, or what I understood of it. And about how Paige herself was apparently an incredibly advanced prototype version, who had to obey her father’s specific commands until she managed to turn on him. 

“But what does this have to do with–” Whatever Way had been about to say, she cut herself off, shaking her head. “I mean… are you sure she’s a umm…” Hesitating, the girl stepped over to where Paige’s motionless form was. “Are you sure she’s a r-robot? Or whatever she is.” It sounded like she was freaking out a bit. Which was pretty much completely fair. I was still freaking out too. 

“That’s what she said,” I murmured, “and I believe her at this point. After everything I saw in there… yeah. Paige Banners is–well, not a robot. She’s a biolem. Somewhere inside she’s got one of those little orb things with all her memories, personality, and everything else.” 

Way muttered a curse under her breath, staring in what looked like dull shock at the figure in the van. “Oh my God. But if she… if she was… and if…” Finally, the girl seemed to shake that off, focusing a bit to ask, “What’s wrong with her? Why isn’t she waking up?”

Exhaling, I explained what Paige had said, that her father’s last-second countermeasures had forced her to shut herself down and that I needed to find a tech genius who could actually help fix her. 

“A tech genius like Trevithick?” Pack put in before reconsidering. “Except this might be over the kid’s head.” 

That-A-Way gave a brief glance her way at that. I could tell she had a laundry list of her own questions, but saved them aside from one. “Can she do something about this?” 

“I don’t know. I hope so.” Sighing, I gestured to both of them. “I thought Paige Banners was some kind of threat, but she was just a victim. We have to help her, have to find someone who can fix whatever her father did. We’ll start with Trevithick, at least see what she can figure out. If she can’t do anything, I… I’ll go from there.”

“This is a lot, Paintball,” Way muttered at me while still staring at the (essentially) unconscious Paige. “Seriously, are you sure about all this? Because I don’t–I mean…” She gestured helplessly, clearly fighting for the right words before being reduced to repeating, “It’s a lot.”

“Believe me, I know.” Grimacing with that reply, I hesitated before adding, “If we can help this girl and wake her up, we can get more answers. She said that all the biolems her father had would be drawn to that building, but she could’ve been wrong. So we have to be careful. Between that and the way the Ministry is gonna look into the whole thing, especially once they find the remains of the equipment in there and realize the bodies aren’t normal people…” 

Pack spoke up then. “Right, getting this chick restarted is a pretty big priority. You said she knows a bunch of stuff about this Ministry thing anyway, so add another tally into reasons to wake her up. But can I just point out, if she’s a robot–err, okay, not a robot. If her brain and personality is all… tied into a computer, one that her father built, what’re the odds of him just being able to control her and make the girl into a killing machine with just a few words? One pointed at us. I mean, don’t programmers usually leave in backdoors and stuff like that?” 

“I know what you mean,” I confirmed quietly, heaving a sigh. “Believe me, I know. But Paige already turned against her father once. She–” I was about to say that she had rules-lawyered her way around leaving me dead, but caught myself. “She went after his entire organization here. Look what she did to the plant where he was manufacturing all these things. She’s not on his side and she’s already figured out ways to sabotage him. Now we have to help her. We find someone who can get into her programming and remove her father’s control so we can wake her up. I don’t know if that’ll be Trevithick or not, but someone. Not just because she can help with the Ministry, but because we owe it to her. I owe it to her.” 

Despite saying all that, I still realized that my feelings for Paige were complicated. I felt resentment, even anger about the past few years. Some bitter part of me wanted to know why she hadn’t found a way to violate her orders at least enough not to hit me in quite such an emotionally damaging place. If she was my friend, she should’ve known that making fun of my… of how I looked was one of the worst things she could’ve done, shouldn’t she? Had her father’s orders really made her hit me that personally when the entire point had simply been to establish conflict to make her eventually snapping and killing me believable? Did she really need to say the things she’d said? 

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t logical. But I still wasn’t sure how I felt about Paige, even after all these revelations. However, I did know that I owed her, and that if I was ever going to work my way through those feelings, it was going to have to be with Paige herself to get answers from. Besides, if I voiced any of my doubts about Paige’s personality, it would just lead to questions I couldn’t answer without revealing a lot more about myself. Too much about myself. 

“Right, so we take her to Trevithick,” Pack announced. “And try to figure out who else might help. You know what the obvious problem with that is, right?” 

I nodded. “Yeah, basically every Tech-Touched in the area reports to Braintrust, who report to the Ministry. So we’re kind of screwed that way. There has to be someone else, someone… I don’t know. I can’t think.” I sighed again, shaking my head. “It’s… been a long day.” 

“Tell me about it.” That-A-Way’s voice sounded almost as tired as I felt. “I have to get back to give reports before someone notices how long I’ve been gone. But I want to be kept in the loop about what’s going on with this, you two.” 

We both agreed to that, and she took off. Which left Pack and me looking at each other. “To Wren’s?” I offered. 

“To Wren’s,” she agreed, gesturing. “Let’s go. I’ll drive, since you look too wiped to get there your usual way.” 

“Yeah, I might leap into the side of a building,” I muttered before moving to climb in the van. “Let’s go see how much Wren can do with this.” 

*******

“Ummmmm, I can’t do anything with this.” The words came from Wren herself some time later, once Pack and I had brought Paige into her lab in the upstairs area of the old store. We’d set the seemingly sleeping blonde girl on a convenient couch. Then, to an increasingly shocked audience of two, had explained–well we’d explained some of it anyway, the parts about Paige being a biolem whose father wanted to do bad things while leaving details about the Ministry out of it.

 “I know it’s a lot,” I quickly assured the young Tech-Touched. “Believe me, but it’s just–” 

“No, I mean I can’t.” Her head was shaking, eyes wide. “That’s blood and flesh and a person! I don’t know anything about–I mean she’s–I make things go fast, things teleport, things fly. I can’t dig into a human living person! I’m not a doctor! It’s not–I don’t get a–I mean I’m not–”

Fred, who had been staring at both Pack and me like we’d sprouted new heads throughout this entire conversation, spoke up. “Even if the kid had any chance of working on the actual mechanical part, this orb thing you said is in that girl, getting to it without killing her… ahh, the biological part of her is still a big fu–freaking problem. You need a doctor for that. A really good one. You need someone who can work the tech side of things and someone to work the biology part. Probably at least two techs. Maybe Wren can help with some of it, but come on, this is too much to put on her.”

“I-if I mess up,” Wren tentatively pointed out, voice cracking as she stared at Paige. “I could… I could…” 

Wincing, I nodded. “I know. I just–you’re right. We just don’t know who else to take her to. But I’ll find someone. I’ll find some people who can help. Can she… uhh…” 

“She can stay.” Wren’s voice was firm as she gave a quick nod. “I mean, umm, maybe I can look at her? I could maybe make a scanner or something to try to find where the orb is, exactly, so we can find out more about it. But I won’t cut into her. I won’t go that far. I can’t.” 

Pack spoke up then. “Don’t worry, kid, it’s okay. No one blames you for not wanting to risk something like that. It’s not your job, not your… power.” She shrugged. “You keep the girl here for now, Paintball and I can both reach out in our own way to find someone who might help.” She glanced to me, clearly reading my apprehension. “There’s gotta be Tech-Touched mercenaries from somewhere outside the city who might be able to do something. Though it’d probably cost a pretty penny.”

“We’ll worry about cost later,” I insisted. “Focus on being careful. No drawing attention. Don’t give details. And don’t–” 

She interrupted. “Don’t ask Blackjack about it, I know. I’m not an idiot. I’ll be subtle, Paintball, trust me.”

We talked a bit more, all four of us. It was obvious that Wren felt incredibly guilty about her immediate and firm refusal, but I tried to assure her that neither of us blamed her and that it was okay. Better she have a solid grasp of what she couldn’t do, than go for it and end up doing irreparable damage, or even killing Paige for good. 

In the end, we settled on coming back to figure out more later. Paige would be staying here at the lab for the time being, where Wren would do what little she could while we found someone who knew what they were doing. 

All of which left me heading back home after changing out of the temporary costume and into a pair of jeans and tee-shirt that I bought from the very surprised clerk in a small tourist-trap shop. Exhausted as I was, getting new clothes and making it home took about all I had. The only thing I wanted to do was take a long, hot shower and then sleep for about a week. 

Naturally, I had to go in and apologize for taking off early from Paige’s party and abandoning Izzy. Except she wasn’t there for some reason. Neither was Dad, but he at least I understood. According to my mother, Simon had taken Izzy out for ice cream and a few things. She made it clear I wasn’t in trouble, that they knew my going to Paige’s had been hard and they appreciated the effort I put in. But she also made sure I knew that leaving Izzy with other people like that without clearing it with them first wasn’t acceptable. And that I needed to make sure Izzy was okay with a situation like that. 

I promised to be careful in the future. And it was pretty obvious that Mom didn’t know how connected Paige was to the situation at the warehouse, because she was entirely too casual about the whole thing. 

In the end, I made my way upstairs, took that shower, and fell asleep while wondering what was taking Izzy so long to get back from ice cream. 

Unfortunately, despite my thoughts about sleeping for a week, I barely managed a few hours before my racing mind woke me up. It was the middle of the night, and I just… my brain was too active. All that stuff about Paige, everything I’d learned, it was just… too much. I couldn’t relax. 

It also felt like I couldn’t breathe in here. I needed some air. Making my way to my balcony after pulling on some shorts to go with my long tee shirt, I glanced around to watch the cameras before turning to point at the roof above me. A quick shot of red paint hauled me up there, where I would lay back and watch the stars. 

At least, that was the idea. But that idea shattered like glass as I landed on the roof, after being pulled that way by my red paint, as a voice from above me blurted, “Cassidy?” 

Spinning, I stared upward at a visibly damp Izzy, who floated there, hovering in mid-air. Both of us stared at the other for a long few seconds before blurting out loud, our words matching each other’s. 

“It’s you!”

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