Ten days. I had ten–wait, no, it was the day after I’d found Ashton, and Blackjack would absolutely count that as a full one. Nine. I had nine days to get answers out of the guy about where the rest of the vials were, before La Casa took their turn with him. And what was I doing right now? What was I doing during a time when the clock was ticking so audibly right in the back of my head, when every minute counted?
I was sitting at lunch, struggling my way through my chemistry homework in between taking bites of food. Not that I was a bad student or anything. I did decent in most of my classes. But I’d been a bit preoccupied lately, and if I let my grades slip too much, my parents were going to notice. I had to get this done and turned in before the end of the day. It was already late, but I’d told the teacher that I left it in the library and she’d given me that long to get it to her.
I’d gone to my dress fitting the night before. After everything that had happened with catching Ashton and meeting Pack, going to a simple, mundane thing like that had been pretty disorienting. I’d barely had time to take a quick shower before the appointment, which had actually made me a few minutes late. But I’d figured that was better than showing up smelling like… well, smelling like I’d just chased a guy halfway across town in a full body suit.
In any case, I’d made it and gotten the fitting for my dress, which would be ready for the ball. Now I just had to focus on my homework. I really needed to get it done, since I was pretty sure the teacher wasn’t going to give me any more time. Besides, I wouldn’t have been able to do it after school even if she allowed it. I had to go see what I could do to help Wren build her truth-device. And, well, also check on that La Casa lizard girl to make sure she wasn’t trying anything. Not that I really expected her to, but paranoia was a powerful drug.
Speaking of my increasingly rampant paranoia, it wasn’t exactly helped as a voice somewhere behind me abruptly announced, loudly and clearly, “Paintball.” I jerked a bit, twisting in my seat to look over my shoulder despite myself. Which, honestly, was really fucking stupid.
But it wasn’t someone trying to prove who I was. Instead, at the next table over, there were a group of guys and a couple girls. One of the boys was the one talking, both completely unaware of my reaction. “Yeah, it’s definitely Paintball, dude. That’s what the little guy goes by. He’s the one who was out there being chased all over the city by that Cuélebre son of a bitch.”
“I saw that, man!” another guy abruptly put in, taking a bite of pizza before continuing with a wild wave of his hand. “That kid was like, flip-jumping all over the place, with dragon dude right behind him. I was waiting for the bus and they went right over our heads. The little guy went through the alley and Cuélebre just kinda went… through the alley.” He made a crashing noise to illustrate his meaning. “I was so pissed that I couldn’t get my phone out before they were gone. You know how many views you can get for that kind of shit up close? That could like, launch my channel.”
“Hey,” one of the girls at their table put in after taking a long drink of her iced tea, “just be glad you weren’t Paintball. I mean, powers or not, some scrawny twelve-year-old boy being chased by Cuélebre in full on pissed off mode? I hope the little guy’s okay.”
Okay, ouch. Sure, she was being empathetic and all, but still, I felt a little indignant. Fourteen year old boy, maybe. But twelve? That was pushing it. I wasn’t that small, people. The fact that it made my disguise even more effective crossed my mind, but I still felt like grumbling to myself.
The guys at the other table went on to talk about how cool the whole Paintball and Cuélebre thing had been. Which helped salve my ego about the whole twelve-year-old boy thing, while simultaneously making me remember the unholy terror I’d felt while the chase was actually happening. It was easy to sit here and think, ‘wow, that was badass.’ But thinking about being in that moment, mostly what I recalled was trying very hard not to piss myself in the middle of it.
Before I could listen to much more, there was a squeak of the chair nearby as Amber sat down, accompanied by Jae. “Hey,” the brunette girl started when I looked that way, “how’s it going? You ready for tonight?” As she spoke, Amber started pouring ranch dressing over her fries.
“Tonight?” I echoed blankly. How would they have any idea about my plans for the night? I was just going to help Wren with anything she needed for that truth machine and then–oh, shit. Wait.
Jae spoke up quietly, confirming just as the realization came to me, “Library.”
Right. Right, shit. We’d planned on going to one of the main city libraries to do some more work on that project this evening. Apparently it was one of the few times during the week that Jae and Amber weren’t busy with one thing or another, so I couldn’t just put them off. As much as I really needed to help Wren with her work, I had class stuff to do too.
Geez, being a superhero and a student at the same time was already complicated enough. How did people with actual important day jobs deal with it? Because this was pretty exhausting.
“You didn’t make plans, did you?” Amber asked, squinting at me. “I mean, I guess if we really–”
“No, no.” My head shook. “No, I’ll be there, no worries. I’ve just got things to do after, but I can work out the scheduling. No big deal.” I offered her a slight smile, trying to make it sound like it wasn’t important before looking over toward Jae so I could change the subject. “Hey, you’re pretty good at science, right? Little help?” I turned the homework page around and pointed to the number I was stuck on. “I can’t figure out where I’m supposed to look for this.”
Looking at the page, the pale girl nodded before getting up. She moved around to my side of the table, sitting beside me while adjusting the book. I watched as her fingers flipped pages back to an earlier chapter to show me what I’d forgotten. It was actually pretty simple, I’d just spaced on one little thing from the last section that made it clear. Which was probably a consequence of skimming too much while trying to blow through the homework so I could get out to the streets.
“Thanks, Jae,” I murmured quietly, skimming the page she’d pointed out. “You’re seriously a lifesaver. I dunno how long it would’ve taken me to remember this part by myself. I might have to borrow your brain some more just to get this whole thing done in time.”
“Oh, she’s definitely a lifesaver,” Amber agreed, popping a fry into her mouth with a small smile before continuing. “I can’t tell you how many times she’s made sure I didn’t miss an assignment.” Winking at the girl in question, she added, “But I suppose I can share.”
With Jae and Amber’s help, I managed to get the rest of the worksheet done before lunch was over. So I’d be able to run that down and turn it in, which solved one of my problems. Then I’d just have to get to the public library and work with them for a couple hours before going to check in with Wren. But hey, at least Mom and Dad were going to be ‘gone’ for the next few days, so even though it was Tuesday, I didn’t have family dinner to worry about. That was a plus.
So I’d hit the library, then deal with the Ashton thing. One situation at a time. Nine days. I had nine days to figure this out and get the rest of those medicine vials out of him.
Eight and a half.
The trip to the library took a couple hours. I tried not to seem like I was rushing or anything. But honestly, Jae and Amber seemed fairly eager to get out of there too. They didn’t try to hang around after we’d done what we needed to. Which suited me just fine, though I did wonder where they were going.
I also wondered if they were dating, considering Amber didn’t exactly keep her preference for girls quiet or anything. But I was pretty sure Jae was straight, though I supposed that was more a feeling, since I’d never seen her actually date anyone. Unless she and Amber were dating, in which case–
Right, it was none of my business. Moving on. I made my way to the bookstore where Wren’s secondary lab (and, I supposed, her new home) was. As I approached the door, it opened and I went right through to join the others in the basement.
Pack was still there, obviously. And it looked like the two of them had had quite the evening. There were blankets and pillows scattered around, along with food carry-out bags and a handful of empty soda cans. A partially-finished Monopoly game was sitting on one of the tables, with a couple other board games nearby. And there were pages and pages of half-done blueprints and design ideas, most scribbled out or with various reasons why they wouldn’t work written over them in red marker. Some had bits missing that were cut or torn out, and there was a larger page, clearly haphazardly taped together from those pages, in the middle of the main table.
Pack was sitting over on the floor with her collection of lizards all over her. She was feeding them, looking up as I came in. “The kid’s a real genius, you know. Knows her stuff.”
“Is that a ‘wow, I’m impressed,’” I asked as neutrally as possible, “or a ‘I could really get in good with my boss if I told him to really go after recruiting this kid before someone else snatches her up?’” New to all of this though I might’ve been, I knew just how valuable a good Tech-Touched was to these gangs. Let alone one as young and impressionable as Wren was.
Her response was to lift her head a little. I couldn’t see her expression, but there was an obvious smirk in her voice. “Relax, man. I’m not hardcore or anything. I just joined La Casa a few months ago because they offered me better training, equipment, and help. I mean, it took me a week before I stopped saying ‘the La Casa.’ They really don’t like that.” There was a pause before she admitted in a quieter voice, “Sometimes I still say it like that, just to tick some of them off.”
Okay, was it wrong that I kind of liked this girl? Because, well… yeah. Shaking that thought off, I focused on replying with a simple, “I’ll try to remember the etiquette for that. And got it, you aren’t some obsessed fanatic or anything. Good to know. Remains to be seen if that’s the truth, but still.” Giving her a thumbs up, I added, “So you guys look like you’ve been busy.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Pack muttered, gesturing toward Wren. “The kid kept changing the plans for this suit thing over and over. I think we went through about twenty-seven different blueprints.”
“The others wouldn’t have worked,” Wren herself piped up after taking a gulp from a glass of what looked like orange juice. “Or they would’ve taken too long, or needed more than we could get, or–” Stopping, her head shook. “The point is, this should work.” As she spoke, the girl brushed some crumbs and food wrappers off that taped-up collection of different pages, holding it up for me to see a design not too-unlike the one she had shown me yesterday, with notes all over it, individual components scrawled in, and things like power sources and specific wiring details written along the side.
“That’s the suit we’re going with?” I asked curiously.
She nodded quickly. “Uh huh. It’ll work, I know it will.” Smiling at the taped together sheets before glancing up to me, she added, “But we need some things.”
“Name it,” I replied, “we’ll pick up whatever you need to build this thing.”
“I could name it,” she carefully informed me, sounding like she was trying very hard not to be insulting. “But you probably wouldn’t remember half the names. So I wrote it down, with details!” Scrounging around the table a bit, she came out with a smaller notebook, one that would fit in a pocket. “See, I wrote all the pieces down on different pages. These ones are easy to get and not too expensive. These ones are available but kind of expensive. And…” She flipped to the last page, with only one item listed. “This one isn’t really available for sale anywhere. It’s sort of an experimental piece of medical equipment. I’m pretty sure Seraph Hills has a few of them.”
“The university?” I asked, thinking. “That place is pretty upscale.” It was, in fact, one of the best medical schools in the entire country, having been built only about twelve years ago, but had rapidly become what amounted to the foremost training center for doctors and medical professionals in a Touched world. It was also very well protected with its own private security team, many of whom were actually Touched themselves. Understandable, considering a lot of the research that went on in there. Not to mention all the equipment that Tech-Touched donated to keep the place as state of the art as possible.
“Isn’t there any other way we can make it work?” Pack put in with a visible wince. “I mean, I’m not exactly super-eager to run up against Seraphs, you know?” Seraphs, of course, were the name of that private security team, a mixture of well-trained and equipped Prevs (humans without powers/non-Touched) and people who did have powers. Their entire job was to keep the hospitals and medical schools they were attached to safe from attack. And they were very good at their jobs. There was a reason the Seraph-protected hospitals were safe ground. It was an enforced neutral zone. Any hospital that got attacked had Seraphs protecting it, delaying the attackers while basically every decent Touched in the area would swarm in to provide reinforcement. No one bothered Seraph places and got away with it.
Wren hesitated. “Yes and no? I could maybe build something that would work, but it wouldn’t be as good with the stuff we’ve got, and it’d take a lot longer to get done than ten days.”
“Eight and a half,” I murmured under my breath before heaving a sigh. “And I’m pretty sure those Seraph guys won’t exactly be super-eager to share their tech, even if we ask nicely.”
Pack shrugged. “I guess I could tell Blackjack he needs to send some people to pick up that stuff. He could probably mount a quick smash and grab just to get it and run.”
“And probably hurt innocent people who are just doing their jobs?” I pointed out. “Not to mention potentially breaking a bunch of stuff that those med students need to learn to use so they can help people. And if anyone died in that ‘smash and grab’ just because your boss isn’t exactly in the mood to play nice?” My head shook. “No, I don’t want to ask Blackjack to do anything like that.”
That blank black mask turned a bit to stare at me. “So what do you suggest?” she asked, while reaching up to scratch one of the lizards on her shoulder. “How do we get the last thing on that list without stealing it, if it’d take the kid there too long to build a working facsimile herself?”
That… was a good question. I hesitated, sighing inwardly as I tried to think. “I’ll work on it. Let you know what I come up with. Right now, let’s worry about the stuff on the first two lists. Stuff that’s easy and cheap, and stuff that’s more expensive.”
“I can take care of the expensive stuff,” Pack put in. “I didn’t see anything on there that me and my friends couldn’t grab.” She gave me an obvious look. “You know, after the stores are closed so no one gets hurt.”
“We don’t need to steal anything,” I insisted. “I…” Then I paused. How much could I say here without giving too much away. I glanced at the second list. The stuff on it probably wasn’t too expensive. Not for someone whose allowance was in the thousands per week and who hadn’t exactly spent all that much of it in her life. “I’ll handle the second list. You deal with the first. I–here.” Turning away from them, I unzipped the front of my costume, reaching in to find my wallet. There, I fidgeted with it a bit before coming out with a handful of twenty dollar bills, then zipped up the suit again and turned back to hold the cash out toward Pack. “Use this, get whatever you can on the first list. And pay for it.”
There was a brief pause as the girl stared at the money in my hand before snatching it. She gave a low whistle. “You came prepared, kid. Sure thing, I’ll get the stuff, and I’ll even play nice the whole time. But you know, at some point we’re gonna have to figure out what to do about that last thing.”
With a soft sigh, I replied, “Trust me, I know. Let’s just worry about the first two for now, huh? And hope that one of us thinks of something helpful before we get to that one.”
Because getting into a fight with the Seraphs for stealing from a medical university probably wouldn’t do wonders for my budding superhero career.