Okay. Okay. So, what was my current situation? Well, I was inside a grocery store with a few random customers and employees. Pack and her lizards were outside, working on shifting into a more combat-capable force. Also outside were a combined force of Oscuro and Ninety-Niners, who had apparently banded together in an attempt to hurt Blackjack and the rest of La Casa. Meanwhile, the bulk of the La Casa people were under attack by more of those combined forces to keep them busy. Which would also undoubtedly draw the attention of any authorities and Star-Touched who were out to keep them busy as well, so the guys here would have… privacy.
I’d just finished my terse explanation to That-A-Way and was waiting for her to say something when the line suddenly went dead. Blinking at it, I saw there was no signal. Someone out there was using a jammer, just like the Scion people had back during the party. What the hell, did they start handing out those things as prizes in cereal boxes or something?
Abruptly, the phone buzzed in my hand with a call coming through, despite having no signal. It surprised me so much that I almost dropped the damn thing, and actually gasped. The ID on the screen said it was Wren, so I answered it. “Wren? How are you calling me, there’s–”
“No signal, I know,” she interrupted. “I had to use the signal booster I built into the suit Ashton’s wearing. It’ll only work within a few feet, so don’t get too far away yet, okay? Plus I’m not sure how long it’ll last before that jammer overloads it. Are you…”
“I’m fine, so far,” I replied, looking to Ashton himself. He was standing there, looking torn between fear and delight. Fear at what might happen to him, of course (particularly given the fact he was frozen), along with delight because he thought we wouldn’t get away with the last vial now. “But those guys are gonna start coming inside any minute, as soon as they’ve got this place surrounded. And call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure they’re not here to pick up milk and bread.”
“Crap, crap, crap!” Wren blurted. “I should’ve put that teleport marker on the suit so I could pull you guys out! I meant to, I did, but I was so excited that it was done, and we wanted to get–”
“It’s okay, Wren,” I interrupted while dragging Ashton with me toward the end of the aisle. I peeked out. The front of the store looked clear. None of the bad guys had come in yet. But I kept watching. I needed to get out there, but first things first. “What about the car? Can you, I dunno, use any kind of security feature to keep those guys out of it, just in case? One of the vials is still in there.”
“I can drive the car out with remote control,” she quickly informed me. “But I’m not–”
“Do it. Take the car and the vial out of here, Wren. Keep it safe. Pack and I can handle this and keep these guys busy until That-A-Way brings reinforcements. We’ve got it, I promise. But I have to go now. There’s other people in this store, and those guys are gonna break in any second. We’ll deal with this. You focus on getting that car out of here with the vial, okay?”
Reluctantly, she agreed, making me promise to be careful. I did so before disconnecting, hoping that everything I’d just said wouldn’t end up being wrong. Because despite all my assurances to try to keep the other girl calm, I had no idea what was going to happen here. Pack and her friends were still outside, and there was no way of knowing how long it would take That-A-Way to get anyone here. For the moment, Ashton and I were basically alone in this building, aside from all the innocent people those guys would plow through in order to get to us.
Just as I tucked the phone and vial deep in my pocket, zipping it shut, one of the store employees came into view. “Uh, hey, something’s going on outside.”
And here it went. Glancing to Ashton, I hesitated before dragging him back a few feet down the aisle out of sight. Then I simply told him, “Hang out here.” As if he had a choice, given the suit wouldn’t let him move. But at least I didn’t have to worry about him running off. The suit worked as well for that as stay-down cuffs would have.
Quickly turning to the store guy, I walked that way while asking, “Those guys outside, the gangs, what’re they doing now?” Reaching the end of the aisle, I peeked toward the front doors once more. Nothing. Aside from several customers and employees standing there staring out at something.
His head shook quickly. “Nothing, not yet. They’re just standing out there, but they’ve got guns and… and there’s Touched with them. But there’s two different gangs, and they’re not fighting.”
“Yeah, cuz we’re a more popular target right now,” I muttered, before looking back to him. “Look, grab those people there, and anyone else you can find, somewhere safe to hide for awhile, like the manager’s office or something. Lock the doors and stay there until the cops come. Go!”
It must’ve been the costume or something, but the guy actually listened. He ran off toward the front, saying something to those people, who quickly followed him. Meanwhile, I looked down at myself, summoning more drawings in various colors to the suit. Over the next brief handful of seconds, the images appeared. Images of two guys fighting with swords across my torso, with mountains in the background and a bird flying through the sky overhead. A coiled snake wrapped around a spear decorated my left leg, while a man with a javelin riding a motorcycle took up the right one. My arms were covered in multicolored flames and lightning bolts. Every image had multiple colors involved, multiple paints I could activate when the time came. An entire involved mural of images stretching across my suit.
By that point, I had walked all the way to the front of the store, where the civilians had been watching from. Sure enough, through the doors I could see a bunch of vehicles out in the lot, blocking the way through. Dozens of gang members stood out there, mostly normal guys armed with guns, but with several Touched mixed in. When the group saw me, they stiffened a bit and a few said something to one another. A couple brought their guns up. Other than that, none of them moved or tried to come after me. They seemed to be waiting for something, or someone.
Pack was probably lying low for the moment, waiting for a good chance to show herself. Letting out a breath, I took a few slow steps that way, watching the guys outside as they stared at me. The door whooshed open when I was close enough, and I stopped there, lifting my chin while watching for anyone who looked like they were about to shoot. My heart was trying to beat its way out of my chest, and I had to focus for a moment to stop my voice from shaking too much.
“Hey guys, you think you could have your tailgate party somewhere else? I don’t think this store really appreciates you blocking their entrance that much. Kinda scares off the customers.”
Two figures stepped forward, one guy and one girl. The man was instantly recognizable with his red trench coat and welding mask. Coverfire, the guy who had come to Wren’s place before. The woman was another obvious Touched that I recognized from news reports. She wore a costume that consisted of a gray bodysuit with black armor panels and a black metal mask covering the bottom half of her face. She was part of the Ninety-Niners, named Ringside. As I understood it, she was a super-strong and tough Touched (A Brawn-Touched, as Flea had taught me) with a twist. Basically, her power allowed her to summon these glowing red rings and throw them. If they hit a person, they would be teleported close to Ringside herself, and both she and the target would be surrounded by a domed forcefield cage of sorts. Within the forcefield cage, Ringside’s own strength depended on how much of their own powers she allowed her opponent to have. She could weaken their powers, remove them, or leave them the same. The weaker or more non-existent they were, the less strength she had. If she left them with all their powers, she would stay at full-strength too, and for her, that was enough to bench press a small car. But even with people who were much stronger than she was, locking them in the ‘ring’ with her and cancelling all their powers meant they couldn’t rely on any of it.
Ringside was part of the Ninety-Niners. So I supposed these two were representing each of their groups. Two groups that, as far as I knew, didn’t exactly get along all that well. Unfortunately, I probably wasn’t lucky enough for them to start fighting each other right now.
“Seems to me you keep ending up in this kind of situation,” Coverfire informed me flatly, his voice somewhat muffled by the welder’s mask. “Should we bother telling you to surrender?”
“I’d do it if I was you, kid,” Ringside put in. “Otherwise, soon as the bosses show up, you’ll wish you had. Cuz I don’t think their leader’s gonna be in the mood to play around.”
Their bosses. That’s why these guys hadn’t charged in yet. They were waiting for their respective leaders to arrive. Hell, the gangs probably didn’t trust each other enough to start something without Cuélebre and Sandon (the Ninety-Niner leader) around. Though I had no doubt that if I tried to leave, they’d get over that really quick. For the moment, they were content to stand out there and just make sure I didn’t go anywhere. But when their leaders showed up…
Swallowing at the thought of just how pissed off Cuélebre was at me, I forced myself to reply, “You know, if it’s milk you guys are after, I’m pretty sure they’re having a great sale at the place just three blocks down. But you better hurry before it’s all gone. You know how crazy everyone in this town gets over milk sales.” The fuck was I even talking about?
“The fuck are you even talking about?” Coverfire demanded.
“Language,” Ringside snapped primly. “There’s no need to be crude.” To me, she added, “Tell you what, you surrender to me and I’ll make sure that these goons and their psychotic master don’t tear you apart. I’ll even go one step further and promise that when we get what we want, you can go completely free. Scout’s honor.”
Growling angrily at that, Coverfire glared at her. “We have a deal, remember?”
She gave a short nod, dark eyes flicking to him as she calmly replied, “Our deal is to work together to hurt Blackjack and La Casa. Personally, I don’t have anything against this kid. Not yet, anyway. Besides, watching him make your boss chase him all over town for nothing was pretty funny.”
Coverfire flared up his force field briefly at that, but didn’t make a move toward her. I had an idea to maybe try saying something that could make them argue some more or even fight, but before I could, the automatic door suddenly closed between us. A second later, the metal security shield came down.
For a second, I just stared at it, wondering what the hell was going on. I could hear the guys shouting on the other side that some dinky little metal door wouldn’t stop them, just before a voice came over the intercom system.
“Paintball, get to the security office. Hurry, I’m pretty sure we don’t have much time.”
It was Eits. Oh God, it was Eits! Spinning on my heel, I ran back through the store, looking around until I saw a sign pointing to the employees area. Booking it that way, I saw Holiday pop her head out of a doorway and look at me, so I headed there.
Sure enough, Eits was there along with Pack and her animals. They were all in the rather large security office, and as soon as I entered, Eits turned from the computer screen to stare at me. “Whoa, you fancied up your costume. That’s a pretty cool— wait, that’s all your paint stuff, isn’t it?”
I stared at the boy. “How did you get here so fast? Hell, how did all of you get in the store?”
Pack answered. “I texted him as soon as we saw the bitch in the sky. We’re, uh, let’s just say we’re not too far away from his place.”
Eits gave a short nod. “I made it over here and messed with the lights on a couple cars in the back to distract the guys back there long enough for the lizard gang to deal with them so we could get in through the loading dock.”
Brightening at that, I asked, “Great, so we can get everyone out that way?”
He winced, gesturing to the nearby security screen where I could see a view of the back lot. It was full of bad guys. “Turns out they had reinforcements. A lot of them. We just managed to get inside. And now we’re stuck here with you.” As soon as he said it, the boy instantly began fumbling over his words, “I mean, not that being anywhere with you feels like being stuck, or like it sucks, or… I mean, that wasn’t—”
Raising a hand to stop him, I interrupted. “Believe me, dude, being offended is basically the last thing on my mind right now. What about all the customers and employees?”
“Manager’s office,” Pack replied. “They all locked themselves in there. It’s kind of cramped, but I don’t think they’ll go anywhere anytime soon.” She looked to me then. “What about That-A-Way? You were trying to call her, right? Tell me she’s got cavalry on the way.”
“I dunno,” I admitted. “We got cut off before she could say anything after I told her what was going on. Hopefully. But either way, it could take them some time to get here, especially if all those guys are really causing so much trouble in the city. And our friends right outside are just waiting for Cuélebre and Sandon to show up.”
Pack cursed. “Right, so the only reason they haven’t come in yet is because they’ve got two of the biggest of the big guns heading here to finish the job themselves. And we can’t go anywhere because they’re all standing guard. At least the car took off with the other vial. That had to be the kid, right?”
Confirming that, I exhaled. “So, we’re stuck in here, waiting to see who shows up first, our help or theirs. And call me crazy, but that’s not exactly a bet that I’m super eager to make. Not when losing means facing down a giant demon dragon thing with lightning powers.”
Pack shook her head. “Unless you’ve got a teleporter in your pocket no one bothered to tell me about, what else can we do? Make a run at them wherever there’s the least amount of Touched, break through the line, and run for it?”
Eits grimaced. “I uhh, don’t think that’ll work. I’ve been watching these guys on the cameras and they are amped and ready to go. No way we break through one line before the rest dogpile on top. Not without some kind of distraction.”
Thinking quickly, I replied, “Then we distract them, by getting them to come in here after us.” They both stared at me like I’d lost my mind, while I pushed on. “We get them to come in before their leaders get here. We get them to break the line and try to catch us in the store. Then we get out, and we make sure they know we got out so they chase us and leave the people here alone.”
“Fantastic, as long as the random civilians will be safe while we’ve got half the members of two different gangs chasing us,” Pack muttered darkly. “If you don’t stop making me do heroic shit, I’m gonna get hives.”
Eits looked back and forth between us briefly before asking, “How do we get them to come in here and break their little line before their leaders show up? Cuz I don’t think we’ve got much time.”
I was about to confess that I wasn’t really sure, when a figure abruptly stepped through the nearby wall. Everyone spun that way, Pack snapping a new shotgun up while Eits also produced a pistol. The lizard creatures were up and moving too.
“Wait, wait!” I blurted, belatedly recognizing the figure. It was Syndicate, leader of the Minority. Or one of his four bodies, anyway.
He turned solid once it was clear no one was going to shoot him. Or maul him, in the case of the animals. His voice was tense. “Way said you needed help.” He glanced to Pack. “And that you helped at the hospital. She didn’t say anything about him though.”
“He’s helping and we need him,” I said flatly. “Are you guys really…”
He nodded. “We’re set up outside, just beyond the lot. Most of us, anyway.”
Pack asked, “Why isn’t That-A-Way popping in here? No offense, she’s just a lot nicer to look at than you. And, you know, she could just teleport us all right on out of here, problem solved.”
Syndicate shook his head. “She and the others came in from the wrong direction. This place is south of them, she can’t teleport, or use speed. She was going to try to work her way far enough around and down, but I told her to wait, because I wanted to see what was going on in here myself. And on the way in, I heard a couple of the guys out there saying that Cuélebre and Sandon should both be here in ten minutes. So, more explanations can come later. I also heard you talking just now about luring them in and then booking it. You think they’d break ranks if they thought the thing they were after was about to disappear? It’s those supersoldier vials, right? You’re trying to stop the war on the streets from getting worse by getting them back for Blackjack. I get it, whatever. The point is, we make them think they’re about to lose their chance. They didn’t see me when I came in, but if they saw another of me come running, especially if I pretended to say something in my comm about getting the vials…”
“They’d chase you in,” I realized.
He nodded. “I can have the other me come in through the front entrance. The others are around the back. Soon as the guys out front break ranks and chase the other me in, my team outside and everyone in here all hit the ones in the back from both sides and book it. With the guys out front already coming into the building, there’ll be confusion all over the place about what’s happening. At least for a few seconds. Should be enough chaos to get everyone to Way so she can teleport. Then we’ll be gone, and they won’t have any reason to stick around here, so the civvies’ll be safe.”
“I’m surprised you’re not insisting that we stand here and fight the bad guys,” Pack observed.
“Two gangs including their leaders are about to descend on this spot,” Syndicate reminded her. “Having a fight here would be stupid both for us, because they’re a lot stronger than the group we can put together, and for the civilians in this store who would be caught in the crossfire. The smartest thing to do is get the thing they want out of the store, make sure they know it’s not here anymore, and get away.”
Eits, who had been silent up to that point, raised a hand. “Uh, just one thing. Once we get out of here, we get to leave.” He gestured to himself, Pack, and the lizards.
“Yeah, don’t worry,” Syndicate assured him with a note of sarcasm, “I’m sure we’ll catch you another time. But right now, we don’t have much left before the situation gets a hell of a lot worse. So, are we doing it or what?”
Glancing to the others until they nodded, I turned back to the boy. “Okay then.
“Let’s do it.”