One job. I had one job. Keep Paige safe from the army of guys–well, sort of guys– who were about to come through that vault door. Simple to say, maybe not so simple to actually do. Paige was frozen behind me, unable to move and apparently blind and deaf to what was going on out here. If anyone actually got to her, she would be utterly defenseless. A stray shot, anyone who happened to get past me even for a moment, anything like that could leave her hurt or dead.
I couldn’t let that happen. So, maybe the trick was not to let these guys even make it into the vault at all. With that thought, I used green paint for speed, sprinting at the door even as it was opening. Right when there was enough space for the biolem in the lead to start to step in, I used blue paint to launch myself that way, crashing into him with enough force to send him half-flailing backwards into two of his companions. All three hit the nearby wall, while I stumbled for a step or two before catching myself. With no one pushing it, the vault door stayed where it was, partly open with a hole in the middle where Paige and I had used pink paint to break our way in.
“Sorry guys,” I blurted quickly while reaching back, grabbing the handle of the door, and yanking it firmly shut behind me, “bank’s closed for the day. You’ll just have to come back during regular business hours. And you might wanna come early. Otherwise the old ladies’ll be here, and trust me, you do not want to get caught behind one of them counting out pennies and nickels so they can get to the store for that new milk sale everyone’s all hyped about.”
Yeah, apparently they didn’t think that was funny. Nor did the four guys who were just coming around the corner of that L-shaped hall to join them, guns raised. Seven nearly identical guys (they were dressed the same and had slightly different face and hair features, but it all blended together), all of them apparently these unthinking, unfeeling biolems whose only purpose was to follow orders. And those orders, in that moment, were to get into that vault and stop Paige.
The only obstacle standing between them and fulfilling those orders was me. And their way of removing that obstacle was to point their guns and immediately open fire. No negotiation. No demands or arguments. Nothing like that. Once they saw that I was in the way, all seven of them simply snapped their weapons up and started shooting without even looking at each other.
But I was ready. They might not have thought my joke was funny, but talking had still served its actual purpose of giving me time to make sure my paint was all filled up. Before the biolems had even started to raise their weapons, I was already activating the orange hand with middle finger raised that I had painted onto my chest, while the blue paint on the bottom of my shoes launched me up toward the ceiling. Shots rebounded off me, hard enough to sting. Whatever actual weapons these guys were using, they were really strong. And the guys were really good shots. Even with my quick launch upward, I was still hit half a dozen times before I even managed to invert myself. The shots hurt, but I didn’t care. Once I managed to flip myself over, my feet hit the ceiling and the blue paint on my shoes kicked in once more, launching me down and forward to crash bodily into the biolem who had been running for the hole I’d left in the door.
I collided hard enough with the guy to slam him into the ground and nearly knock the wind out of myself. I would’ve pancaked if it wasn’t for the still-active orange paint. The guy himself was knocked flat on his back, the gun sliding away. Not that the loss of his gun or the impact of me colliding with him and of his back colliding with the ground actually affected the biolem that much. His hands suddenly grabbed my throat, holding tight as he stared at me impassively. Meanwhile, two of the guys ran past on either side toward the door, while the remaining four took aim at me with those guns that stung me even through my orange paint from further away.
Just before the four guys surrounding me opened fire, I painted my entire back, including the rear of the helmet, pink and then immediately dismissed the effect. In the next instant, the bullets from the guns hit… and ricocheted off. I was using that trick where cancelling my pink paint early left the affected object super-bouncy. Between that and the last couple seconds of my orange paint, I was left unharmed (Well, relatively. It still stung pretty bad and I would have welts), while my makeshift costume repelled the bullets away from me.
Yeah, it was a trick I wouldn’t use in most situations, because I had no way of stopping the bullets from hitting and killing someone. But as had been thoroughly demonstrated to me, these biolems weren’t thinking, feeling beings. They were basically robots without any free will or personality. They were as close to mindless as you could get while still following orders.
And yet, even then, I still felt guilty about hearing the bullets rebound off me to hit them. But I’d promised Paige I would keep them off her, and I was damn sure going to keep that promise.
To that end, I painted my gloves purple and grabbed hold of the hands that were currently trying to choke me, prying his grip off my throat before, with what was probably literally the last second of orange paint left, slamming my helmeted head down into his face. Biological robot or not, that was enough to make him go limp briefly, and I quickly launched myself into a backward roll to get away from him.
Three of the other four guys around me weren’t down yet. They were bleeding from various holes, and one guy was on the ground, unmoving. But they weren’t down. My attention, however, was on the two other biolems who were almost to the vault door. Quickly, even as I rolled, my hand snapped out to fire a spray of red that caught them both. Activating it made the two slam into one another, slowing them down briefly while I was still coming back to my feet.
“Clearly,” I blurted out loud as the three still-standing figures pivoted toward me to fire again, “we all need a lesson on what–” The three men opened fire, while I painted a pair of orange star-shapes on either arm and flung myself at the nearest guy. With shots rebounding off me (adding to the horrible bruises I was going to have when this was over, if I wasn’t just dead), I caught hold of the guy’s extended arm. The strength boost from the purple paint was still there, allowing me to shove the arm around so that his next shot hit one of the guys by the door in the back while he was still picking himself up. A second later, I extended the purple paint over my entire torso, raising my strength enough to easily hurl the guy over my shoulder to crash into the other biolem by the door.
In the next instant, two more shots hit my back with so much force despite my protective paint they still made me stumble forward with a yelp. Oww, oww! Fuck, oww!
No. Don’t stop. Don’t think about the pain. I couldn’t afford to. If I stopped, if I slowed down, they would get through the door. And if they got to Paige, if I failed Paige after promising I would protect her…
I wouldn’t fail.
“A lesson on what closed means!” I quickly shouted at them. “That’s what you need!”
Pivoting, I let the two men behind see that I’d actually stripped their buddy’s gun out of his hand before I threw him. I had a gun. A gun. What the fuck kind of superhero used a gun? Especially when I was trying to be better than my parents. Especially when–
It didn’t matter. They weren’t real people. With the gun in my hand, I pointed it at the nearest of the two guys and pulled the trigger.
I missed by about a mile. Oh, and I wasn’t ready for the kickback of the gun, so it leapt out of my hand and clattered across the floor away from me. Fantastic.
It did, however, make the two standing biolems, and the one who was picking himself off the ground, pause for just a moment. Which was totally my intention, yup.
Fuck it, stick with what worked. Pointing my free hands, I hit the two standing guys with red paint, then pivoted and shot more red at two of the guys by the vault. Activating the paint, I brought the ones over there flying backward, yanking them off their feet to come crashing into their companions.
Which left one guy by the door, the one I had made the other biolem shoot. He was picking himself up, heedless of the bullet wound in his side as he moved for the hole in the vault. God damn it, these things had one-track minds.
A spray of yellow slowed the guy down, while green sped me up. Just as I reached him, the purple paint was about to wear off. But it stuck around long enough for me to catch hold of the guy by his arm and waist, lifting him off his feet and driving him toward the door he was so interested in.
Put them down hard, Paige had said. The only way to stop them was to end them. They weren’t alive. They weren’t really alive. They weren’t people. They weren’t–
I pulled back, just a little. It was reflex. My intention had been to slam the biolem’s head into the door hard enough to make the skull split open like a melon. But at the last second, I pulled back slightly. It still hit hard, but not as much as I intended. Even being told that these things weren’t real, even being told that they weren’t actual people with feelings, that they were little more than mindless machines, I still just… reflexively held back.
Still, the thing’s head collided with the door hard enough to put him on the ground, bleeding profusely. I had to hope that was enough for now. Had to, because the others had already picked themselves up and were rushing my way.
Paige was right. I had to put them down, had to put aside my squeamishness and make sure they stayed down. It was the only way. Otherwise, they would just keep coming no matter what, would just keep trying to get past or through me to… to stop her.
A quick spray of blue paint along the floor launched all five incoming figures straight up into the ceiling before they could shoot again. Before they hit the ground, I was there. With renewed purple arms and orange legs, I caught hold of one guy by the back of his head, slamming his face hard down into my rising knee. Then I grabbed the waistband of his pants, leaving a red handprint there as I hurled the guy as hard I could against the far wall. He slammed into that wall while I used a quick spray of red that hit three more of these guys and sent them flying after him.
One more guy was on the floor at my feet, starting to pick himself up. Before he could, however, I slammed my foot, still empowered by my purple paint, down as hard as I could manage into the man’s back. He was knocked prone before I kicked him, just as hard, in the side, sending him flying wildly into the nearby wall.
The guy I’d run headfirst into the vault door was starting to pick himself up. God damn it, Paige was right. They wouldn’t stay down. Whatever I did, they wouldn’t stay down. I had to kill– destroy them. It was the only way, but… but…
Not real. They weren’t real. Grimacing behind the helmet, I used the last of my purple strength to catch the guy by the back of his neck, yanking him away from the hole before slamming my fist into his stomach. The impact knocked him down. But he got right back up. The guys I’d sent flying to the far wall were picking themselves back up. Everyone was getting up. They would keep getting back up as long as I didn’t just finish them. Break them. Put them down.
So why was it so hard? Intellectually, I knew they weren’t real people. They didn’t feel things, didn’t think things. They were machines who followed the orders of a psychopath who wanted me and my whole family dead. Finishing them wasn’t like killing a person, it was like… breaking a machine. Right?
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t make myself–
Then I saw it, motion from the corner of my eye. The biolem I had kicked into the wall had managed to crawl around behind me. He was leaning up at the hole, gun in hand as he pointed it that way. Pointed it at Paige.
He was going to shoot Paige.
The scream tore its way out of my throat, even as I flung myself that way. In mid-lunge, my costume changed color entirely. The legs, torso, helmet, and arms turned purple, with green highlights, shoes, and gloves. An orange bolt of lightning appeared on my chest, with a matching one over my back. Before I’d even reached the man in my lunge, I’d covered my entire makeshift costume with those colors, and activated all at once.
An instant before the biolem would have fired, one of my hands caught the arm holding the gun while the other caught the back of his neck. In the same motion, I ripped the hand sideways, making his shot into the room go wide, while also shoving forward on the back of his neck to slam his head into the side of the vault door.
His arm snapped. I felt it snap. With purple covering as much of my body as it was, I nearly ripped his entire arm off. It definitely broke. And not just in one place. I could feel the arm rip out of its socket with several loud cracks. Meanwhile, his forehead basically caved in from being slammed so hard into the solid steel vault door. If he was human, the man almost certainly would’ve been killed by that. Or at least left pretty braindead.
But I wasn’t thinking about that. All I was thinking was that I had to stop these guys, had to put them down for good. Just like I’d promised Paige. My dithering about, my hesitation and reluctance, had nearly gotten her killed, even after everything I’d said.
No more hesitation. With the suddenly limp body of the figure I had just attacked in my hands, I pivoted and hurled him at the others even as they tried to cross the space between us. While his body was still flying sideways through the air at them, I chased after it, running straight at them with the green paint still boosting my speed. Only a couple seconds had passed since I activated all of it.
As hard and fast as I had hurled that biolem, it caught two of the five guys straight on, hitting them with enough force that the pair were knocked down. The other three were already shooting at me, but I wasn’t paying attention to the sting of the bullets. Not right then. My boosted speed put me right in front of them, as I caught one of their extended wrists and snapped it hard to the side. Snap being the appropriate word, as the wrist broke like a twig.
In the same motion, I lashed out with a foot, kicking the biolem beside this one with so much force, he was hurled several feet back and into the air, crashing into the wall once more. Pivoting while maintaining my grip on the broken wrist of the one I had caught hold of, I yanked him off his feet and violently slammed his head into the face of the last still-standing guy. It was like a headbutt, only using someone else’s head. Which seemed a lot safer all around.
While that last guy stumbled, blood spurting from his nose and mouth, I kept my grip on the one I was holding. He was starting to struggle, but my foot abruptly connected with the side of his knee so hard, his leg almost snapped in half. Before he could fall, however, I grabbed the back of his neck and slammed his head again into the face of the one that was still reeling from the first time I’d done that. Then I released him, but before either could recover, I kicked the guy I’d been holding in the back with everything I could manage. The force launched him and the other guy into the concrete wall, noticeably cracking it before they both fell motionless to the floor.
Quickly, I turned back toward the one I’d kicked into the opposite wall a second earlier. He’d recovered, of course. So had the two who had been hit by their flying companion. Those ones were picking themselves up, but I had a moment. A moment I used by shooting a quick bit of red into the face of the guy who had just peeled himself off the wall, matching it with red on my glove. Activating that yanked the biolem straight to me, as my fist collided with his face hard enough to cave that in. Seriously, there was blood and… and pieces of shattered bone or something all over my glove. I wasn’t just strong like this, I was really god damn strong.
The guy whose face I had just caved in with a single punch (well, sort of a punch) hit the ground, and I kicked him hard, sending his body sliding across the floor to trip up one of the two guys who had picked themselves up just then as he started to run toward the hole. He fell flat on his back, while I launched myself to collide with the other guy.
Paint was running out. It had to be. Everything I’d done in just the short ten seconds I had for all this power. But I could finish this. I had to finish it. My momentum carried me into the standing guy, taking him to the ground with me on top of him. Before he could recover, I clasped my fists together and slammed them down into his face once, twice, three times.
Ow. Ow, that last one hurt. My paint was gone. The power ran out. I was perched on top of a motionless body.
But I wasn’t done. That last guy, the one I had tripped up by kicking that body at him. He was back on his feet, heading for the hole. Quickly, I snapped my hand up to shoot red paint at him.
Nothing. I was out of paint. I was out. I was out! And he was about to get to the hole.
Without thinking, my hand grabbed one of the guns off the floor. I snapped it up. Do or die time.
No, do or Paige died.
Gripping the gun with both hands and bracing myself for the kickback this time, I fired. Not once, not even twice. I emptied the magazine into the man, firing over and over again into his back. I barely noticed as the man fell, barely noticed the sound of the semi-silenced bangs becoming simple clicks as ammo ran out. I just kept pulling the trigger several more times after that.
Then the gun fell from my grip as I sat there, half-slumped over the body of one biolem, with the body of another lying about a foot from the hole with maybe a half dozen bullets in his back.
Silence filled the air. Silence, that was, aside from my ragged, panting breaths. I felt like I was going to die. Felt like I almost wanted to, after those few seconds of hell. After what I… after what I…
No, I didn’t kill anyone. They weren’t real. They were basically machines. Biological machines, but machines. They were… they weren’t…
“Paintball.” It was Paige. She was back. Somehow, she’d extricated herself from the hole and was crouched in front of me before I’d even noticed. Fuck, how out of it was I?
“We need to go, right now.” With that, she offered me her hand, pulling me to my feet.
“Did you do it?” I quickly asked. “Did you shut down the brain thing?”
She gave a quick nod, already pulling me by the hand while starting to run back the way we’d come. “The self-destruct is on. This whole place is going up. We’ve gotta go, now.”
Unfortunately, her saying that was apparently the cue for a steel door to suddenly slam down out of the ceiling right in front of us before we could get out of the cement corridor. It was accompanied by the echoing sound of more steel doors slamming shut all through the building.
“My dad,” Paige managed, voice sounding hollow. “He can’t shut down the self-destruct from where he is, but he can put the building on lockdown. He’s shutting us in.
“If he can’t stop the building from blowing up, he’s going to make sure we go down with it.”