So yeah, between the troops on the ground, who were still picking themselves up after being slammed together multiple times, and the ones who were approaching at a run, I had plenty of problems to deal with. To say nothing of the guys coming from behind, whom Pack and Way were hopefully handling. Please be handling them, because I couldn’t spare time to look.
Instead, I immediately launched myself in a blue-assisted leap toward the troops I had knocked down. My hands shot a line of red to two different guys while I sailed over all of their heads. Flipping over in the air, I landed smoothly on my feet while facing their backs. In the next instant, I activated the red paint on those two guys, as well as what I had put on my gloves. The two of them were yanked toward me, but the other guys were in the way, still picking themselves up. They all collided together once more before hitting the ground in a newly-tangled heap.
The next thing I knew, two of Alloy’s marbles came flying in, reshaping themselves to look like spears as they stabbed down through the mass of bodies repeatedly. With each thrust, one of the virtual soldiers vanished. Which helped them start to extract themselves, but it was too late. The marble-spears were very quick at stabbing, like pistons in a machine slamming up and down repeatedly, mechanically, taking out a different guy with each downward motion.
Not that I had much time to see more than a moment of it. The second I saw that Alloy had that in hand, I was already spinning toward the troops who had come running in as reinforcements. But they weren’t taking aim at me. They weren’t paying any attention to me at all, actually. Alloy was in their path, quickly reshaping one of her other marbles into a shield. But even as a brief panicked thought came that they were focusing on the one whose spears were killing their companions, they rushed right through and over her as well. One, then another slammed into her, followed by a third. But they weren’t attacking, they were practically acting like she wasn’t even there. She was a speed bump, whom they slammed into and knocked to the ground before continuing on past. Peyton was left yelping and curling into a ball before one of her marbles turned into a cocoon of sorts to cover her as the troops stampeded over her.
And what, pray tell, were these guys so focused on? The answer came to me even as I put green lightning bolts across my legs and took off in a sprint. Paige. They didn’t give a shit about us. These–these guys weren’t like the ones we’d fought earlier. They weren’t making even the slightest token effort to blend into the actual surroundings. They were–they weren’t guarding Paige, they were attacking her. Because of the other Paige? But if she could do that this whole time, if she could call up an army to attack the original, why wait until now to do it?
Actually, come to think of it, why were they bothering to attack her? What would that sort of thing do? The two Paiges had been fighting for days now without any result. Would these guys hurting her help the other one take over and control the body? Was that how it worked?
Those thoughts flashed through my mind even as I ran two, three, four steps at a diagonal angle to put myself in line with the lead guy, the one who was already raising his rifle to take aim at one of the Paiges, both of whom were being pinned to the ground under each of Mars Bars’ front paws. But just as I was about to interject myself, something hit me from the side. Or rather, someone. A random soldier had crashed into me, swinging his rifle to collide with the side of my helmet hard enough to knock me to the ground with the guy on top of me. Instantly, I painted my arms purple and jerked myself free, catching hold of the fake soldier by the neck and twisting hard. I felt something there crack as I started to hurl the man away from me, but he vanished. In my panic about what would happen to Paige while I was distracted, I’d actually ‘killed’ him. It. The computer program. It wasn’t real. I didn’t kill anyone.
Those thoughts ran through my head even as I rolled to one knee, trying desperately to be quick enough to fling myself in the path of the lead soldier. But it wasn’t necessary, because Mars Bar was still there. Before the soldier could fire, the enormous iguana-bear lunged forward, raising one of those same frying pan paws to lash out. He didn’t just knock the rifle out of the man’s hand, he knocked the man himself to the ground with so much force the guy actually vanished in a few sparks of light. An instant later, the second guy who took aim met the same fate as the first, as Mars Bar threw himself into the middle of the group, snapping with his teeth and swinging both front limbs. He was a wild dervish of devastation, utterly destroying every soldier he came in contact with. They shot at him, but none of their bullets seemed to do much more than annoy the bear. Which just made him kill them even harder, his sustained roar filling the air.
Still, the troops barely seemed to notice. They certainly weren’t worried about fighting back very much. Instead, they scattered around, all of them focused solely on getting around Alloy’s wall so they could take aim at one of the Paiges. That–did that answer who the real one was? The thought that the mystery had so suddenly and easily been solved was accompanied by a mix of confusion and panic about what would happen if they actually killed her. If that was even possible. All I really knew was that I really didn’t want to find out.
The Paige who was sitting there, right in plain sight, was a sitting duck. Both of them were being pinned to the ground by a bar that extended from the wall. Clearly Alloy hadn’t wanted them to try to kill each other while we were distracted. Unfortunately, right now the only thing it was doing was keeping the original Paige trapped and unable to move while the guards took aim. Two of them had managed to evade the wrath of Mars Bar and get around the wall, one on either side. Even as I saw them taking aim, I was already back on my feet, painting most of my chest purple for strength as I flung myself at the nearest one. His gun was aimed down at the Paige on the right, but I managed to catch hold of him by the waist and arm, yanking his aim out of the way just as he pulled the trigger. The shot went off into the distance, while I picked the man up with a grunt before hurling him over to crash into the other soldier, who was aiming at… the other Paige? Yes, confusing as it was, both of these guys were clearly aiming at different Paiges.
Did… did that mean the other Paige wasn’t controlling them? If she was, there was no way she’d have one of them try to shoot her, right? That didn’t even make sense. They wanted to kill the original Paige so the new one could take over. That was the entire reason she and they were here. So why the hell would they be targeting both of them? Just what the fuck was going on? Because I was clearly missing something.
Missing more than one thing, apparently, since a shout from Alloy abruptly warned me about another three guys who were trying to attack Paige–correction, trying to attack both Paiges. Yeah, now that I was watching for it, it was obvious. These soldiers were clearly aiming at each of them. My new partner dealt with the one furthest away from me by literally diving into him after launching herself off the board she had created. She and the guy went down in a heap.
Which left me with a couple seconds left of purple paint. I used those two seconds to lunge over and grab the outstretched arm of the nearest soldier with one hand before slapping my hand against his chest to leave a spot of blue there. With that, I twisted to hurl him as hard as I could into the other. But just before they hit, I managed to quickly shoot another blob of blue paint, this time onto the chest of the second guy. Somehow, I restrained myself from doing a victory dance when I actually hit my damn target for once. Granted, it wasn’t exactly where I was aiming, but it was still on him and that was good enough. When the pair collided, they were sent rocketing in opposite directions.
And yet, that wasn’t all of them. Mars Bar was dealing with the worst, and he was clearly super-motivated and angry. His owner wanted him to guard the Paiges and he was damned sure going to do that while she was busy. That was one angry lizard-bear.
“What’re they doing?!” Alloy was right beside me. I could hear the panic in her voice as her gaze darted around. The wall she had formed broke itself down so that all four marbles that weren’t part of her armor could orbit her head. “Which one are they trying to kill?!”
“Both of them!” I blurted while quickly snapping my gaze over to where the Paiges had both been released. But… but they weren’t moving. Like, at all. Despite the fact that there was supposedly nothing holding them in place anymore, and the huge lizard-bear was no longer looming over them, the two were still lying there, staring off into the distance toward the house.
We weren’t under immediate assault for the moment, but I had no doubt that more were on their way. A quick (and frantic) glance over my shoulder showed that Pack and That-A-Way had things over there pretty well in hand, thankfully. They were dealing with the last of the troops coming from that direction, at least for the moment.
“Cover me!” I blurted toward Alloy, before darting over to where the two Paiges were. Dropping to my knees between them, I tried to grab one by the arm to pull her up. “Come on! We’ve gotta go!” But she didn’t move, and I couldn’t budge her myself. She was locked to the ground, as if she had been welded there. I had no more luck with the other Paige. Even giving myself a little bit of purple for help didn’t accomplish anything, and I was afraid of what would happen if I pulled even harder. Both of them were simply staring off into the distance. They didn’t move, didn’t speak, they didn’t do anything other than lay there with their heads up, gazes locked onto nothing. They weren’t even blinking, or showing any acknowledgement that I was there. Did someone turn them off or something? What the hell was going on? Snapping my head up, I looked around desperately, searching for an answer. But there was nothing. Mars Bar was bellowing a challenge toward several more troops, who started to open fire at him. Quickly, I shot a line of orange paint to help the big bear out. The bullets, which hadn’t been doing too much to him before, did even less now. I could almost hear the smile in Mars Bar’s heavy growl as he rocked from side to side, then took off running at the group as fast as he could. It was like he knew he only had a limited time of being invulnerable and wanted to get as much out of it as possible.
Meanwhile, I still didn’t know what the hell was going on with the Paiges or why they were just laying there, frozen against the ground. Desperate confusion, I turned my head to look the same way the two of them were staring. I even dropped down to see it from their angle. The house, they were just looking at the house. This was dumb, they’d just been frozen like that. There was nothing to see, nothing t–wait. I was looking that way, there was a flash of blue light from one of the upper windows. Squinting closer, I saw the light flash again. There was a… a camera or something there. A device. There was some kind of device sitting there, aimed down directly at the two Paiges. Was that thing the reason they were frozen? That had it to be it, right? The two of them had detected the thing powering up or whatever, and looked that way reflexively just in time to be frozen. Right, that was it. At least, I hoped it was, because I didn’t have any other ideas. And we weren’t exactly drowning in time here.
With that in mind, I snapped my head over to blurt toward Alloy. “Keep these guys safe! I’ll be right back!” With that, I was already painting my legs green and sprinting toward the house. Raising an arm, I shot a line of red towards the side of the window in question. Of course, it was far enough away that what I actually hit was several feet to the side of the window. But at least it was close enough to yank me that way. I didn’t have time to fret again about why I suddenly could barely hit the broadside of a barn. Instead, I focused my gaze on the window as I was sent flying that way. The device was more visible now. It basically looked like a telescope, with some extra features attached. The window itself was closed, so apparently it only needed line of sight with the target. Which–well, I could deal with that. In mid-flight, I sent a blob of black paint that way, covering the window entirely just before I hit the wall a few feet away. The gravity-tech in my boots kept me stuck perfectly, crouched against the wall like it was a floor.
A second later, the sound of shattering glass filled the air as a fist punched through the window from the inside. Someone was in there with the device, and they didn’t like its line of sight being blocked. Good, I should introduce myself. Because if they didn’t want the device covered, I was clearly on the right track.
On the other hand, I had no doubt that whoever it was already knew I was there and was waiting for me to show myself again. After all, I hadn’t exactly been subtle in my approach. They were probably ready and waiting for me to poke my head in. So, I didn’t. Instead, I planted one hand against the wall next to the window and painted a pink circle about a foot across. Kneeling there against the wall, I painted my fist purple and punched into that pink circle as hard as I could. It popped right out, and I withdrew my fist in time to see a man on the other side next to the telescope-thing. Sure enough, he was standing there with a shotgun raised, just waiting for me to show myself. Before he could react and adjust his aim, I shot a blob of red against him while my other hand shot an identical blob out into the yard. Activating both sent him flying through the already broken window, where he crashed down onto the grass.
With the way clear, I swung myself in through the window and landed next to the weird device. After briefly staring at it, I shrugged and grabbed the thing in both hands. I still had enough strength boost left to bend it until the thing snapped under the pressure, breaking in half. Then I tossed it aside and quickly looked back the way I had come.
It worked. A moment after the thing was broken, I could see both Paiges jerk as if they had been physically shocked. An instant later, they were back on their feet, spinning toward each other just as Alloy quickly put herself between them, with her marbles forming into two shields and two swords. There were no other bad guys in sight. In the distance, I could see Pack and That-A-Way running to join the others, while Mars Bar lumbered back while looking very satisfied with himself.
Before the Paiges could launch themselves at each other, Alloy or no Alloy, I red-painted myself that way and landed right next to my new teammate (And God was that ever still a weird thing to think). The second my feet touched the ground, I raised both hands. “Wait! Just wait a minute. I don’t know what’s going on here, but you guys were both being attacked by those people.”
“Yeah,” Alloy put in, “Why don’t both of you just wait a minute before you try to kill each other.” As she said that, the two enormous swords lowered and moved forward, tips pointing close to each Paige as though warning them not to start attacking. I wasn’t sure how much good that would do if either of them really wanted to go for it, but they didn’t move for the moment.
The other two girls had reached us by that point, and I saw that Riddles wasn’t there. Catching my gaze, Pack flatly announced, “I sent her out. She was hurt.” Even as she said that, the girl was walking over to embrace Mars Bar tightly, while he made deep growly noises that sounded like he was comforting her. Obviously, Riddles being hurt wasn’t real, but it had still affected her.
Meanwhile, Way moved closer and looked from me to the Paiges and back again. Her voice was terse. “Those guys weren’t the same as the ones before.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “And there’ll probably be more pretty soon.” That said, I turned to the identical pair myself. “Look, like I just said, those guys were trying to kill both of you. I don’t even know if it’s possible to kill you in here, what they were trying to accomplish, or who sent them. I mean, I have a pretty good idea on that last part, I’m just not sure how or why. Point is, they didn’t care which one of you was the original and which wasn’t. They were going to kill you both. So, whichever one of you is the intruder–”
Abruptly, one of the Paiges (the one with green paint on) simply turned away from the large sword that was still hovering there, pointed at her, and faced us. “That would be me,” she announced, like she was telling us the weather. As we stared at her, she nodded. “Yeah, I’m the new one. Our dad sent me in here to take over, because that one fucked up.”
“You wanna see a fuck-up, you–” The Paige with blue paint–the real Paige apparently, started to lunge around the sword. But Pack and That-A-Way each caught one of her arms.
“Wait, wait, hold on!” I quickly blurted, stepping that way. “Paige… and uhh, Not-Paige, it was your dad, right? He sent those soldier guys in here uhh, somehow.”
“They came with her,” Paige informed us in a flat voice, glaring toward her duplicate. “They’re a failsafe for the failsafe. She was supposed to take over, but as soon as it looked like that might not happen, the second failsafe triggered. Now they want to wipe both of us out completely.”
“Yeah, that about sums it up,” Not Paige agreed. “Dad said he trusted me. He said I was the perfect version of his daughter. Apparently, he was full of shit.”
“Oh, there’s a real shocker,” Paige muttered darkly.
The two of them glared at each other briefly before Not Paige snapped her gaze to me. Her gaze was calculating, clearly trying to decide exactly what to say. Finally, she gave a slight, humorless smile. A predatory smile. It was the same sort of expression I’d seen so many times when Paige was about to say something horrible and insulting to me.
Rather than an insult, however, Not Paige simply announced, “I told you who I was as a gesture of good will. Cuz suddenly, I don’t really care as much about what Dad wanted. Funny how that works. He programmed those things to kill me as soon as I took too long. And since they were already here, I’m pretty sure they would’ve jumped in the second he thought they needed to anyway. So fuck him. I mean, I don’t give a shit about any of you people either, but fuck him in particular right now. I–”
Abruptly, both Paige and her duplicate turned, their gazes snapping over to stare into the distance.
“What?” Way demanded after a moment of silence. “What’s going on?”
Paige answered. “It was a distraction. The rest of his troops are going for the core. That’s why they haven’t attacked again. They’re trying to get to the core and shut me down.”
“Shut us down,” the other girl snapped. “And if they do that, you’ll never get us started up again. We’ll be a fucking lead paperweight. They’ll wipe both of us out of existence. Like a bullet to the back of the head. For a normal person, I mean.
“So what the fuck are we standing around waiting for?”