So, this was just great. Now we were being attacked by a bunch of computer program defense systems that looked like my teachers and other staff from school, all of them trying to defend Paige because they thought we were enemies. And we were going to have to tear our way through them to get to her. Yeah, I was pretty sure a therapist would have a field day with this.
Even as the group was rushing toward us, I caught a glimpse of That-A-Way grabbing hold of Mars Bar before they both vanished, reappearing behind the mob that was ahead of us. It took the lizard-bear only a second to adjust, turn back the other way, and fall on the crowd from behind with a terrifying roar that shook all the lockers and windows around us.
Meanwhile, Alloy was standing there, making a noise of awe as she stared between the spot where Way and Mars Bar had been, and where they were now. “Oh, man,” she muttered, “that’s so–”
“Alloy!” I blurted toward my new partner, “help them hold those guys off!”
“O-oh, right.” Sounding guilty, the girl quickly made the marbles that weren’t part of her armor join together to create the scoop from a bulldozer, large enough to cover the entire hallway. It slammed forward into the crowd to stop them at the same time as Mars Bar crashed into them from behind. Yeah, it sounded nasty over there. And that was even before counting the fact that those things were still letting out those horrific screams, which echoed through the hall as a sort of background accompaniment to Mars Bar’s roars.
Unfortunately, that still left the mob that had come through the doors behind us for Pack, Riddles, and me to deal with. Quickly, as they came rushing in, I shot green, purple, and orange paint at the La Casa Touched, then activated it for her before putting blue under my feet to launch myself up in a flip over their heads. I intended to land behind them, but one of the security programs (it looked like my quite elderly and quite overweight ninth grade English teacher) leapt into my path, so I slammed into her. Which seemed to hurt me more than it did her, being a program and all.
I used to like Mrs. Moderane. She was one of my favorite teachers freshman year. But those fond memories started having a bit of trouble when she came down on top of me as we landed on the floor, then punched me in the stomach. At the last second, I managed to paint my helmet orange (still unsure of exactly how well this program ‘translated our powers into virtual reality’), but even with that, the blow was enough to make me grunt. God damn it, these things were strong.
Putting purple arrows across both arms, I grabbed both of Mrs. Moderane’s shoulders and then jerked myself backwards as hard as I could before planting my knees in her stomach while simultaneously heaving with both hands to send her flying over my head and into the wall. In the same motion, I kept rolling backwards to move into a crouched position just in time to see one of the janitors and a security guard rushing me with these big, jagged machetes. My hands snapped up to shoot red paint that way… only to miss the two entirely and send both blobs of paint past both of them to hit a couple lockers against the opposite wall. Wait, what th–
A loud bang suddenly filled the air, as Pack came out of nowhere to slam the metal door she’d ripped off a locker into the head of the security guard who was rushing at me. She hit him with enough force to bend the door in half while also basically caving in the entire backside of his head. There was very little blood, all things considered, it mostly just seemed to pop like a balloon before the entire body vanished. The janitor spun that way just in time for her to snap the bent locker door back into his face, sending him crashing to the floor in a heap.
“Would you keep moving, Ball?!” the girl snapped at me before throwing the by-now totally crumpled hunk of metal at the legs of another charging teacher. “They’re not real, stop playing nice and just make sure they stay down! We don’t have time for this, remember?!”
As if to punctuate her owner’s words, Riddles let out a shrill battle cry as she flew overhead, tore a bat out of the hands of another virtual teacher, and sent it flying into the face of one of the office secretaries. Which was only a distraction before the lizard-eagle was right in her face as well, tearing at the woman’s eyes with talons and beak alike.
Okay, yeah, they were right. We didn’t have time for any of this. Paige could lose her ongoing battle against her other self any minute, and we’d already stretched this out long enough. I just–I was used to hitting things I aimed for. Missing completely when they were right in front of me was… kind of new. But I couldn’t worry about that right now. I had to focus on this.
Giving the other girl a quick recharge of purple and orange, I launched myself upward, renewing my own purple arms before spinning toward a heavyset old man in a plaid shirt. He was wielding a chain, which he tried to swing around my throat while still giving that horrible scream that just would not stop. They were all doing that. Yeah, it was obviously an alarm to call more of them or whatever, but seriously, we got the point. Everyone got the point. Knock it off already.
My hands managed to catch the weapon as it swung at me, forcefully tearing it out of his hands even as I reflexively blurted, “Don’t you hate it when someone yanks your chain?”
Not only did the virtual computer simulation program not laugh at my joke, it responded by simply creating a new one in its hand, then swung it at me even harder.
Catching the new chain against my arm as well, I quickly jerked on it to yank the figure closer while simultaneously lashing out with a kick. “Ah, you’re prob–aaaaahhh!” That last part, interrupting what was going to be a fantastic follow-up to my joke before, came as the damn thing caught my leg and spun to throw me toward the other lockers. I barely managed to flip over in the air and send a shot of blue that way, which helped me rebound off the metal doors (caving them in partway) before crashing into the guy. We both hit the ground, but I managed to wrap the chain around his throat tightly, jerking a bit on it. A purple lion face appeared on my chest for additional strength. For an instant, I hesitated. Video game. It’s just a video game, I told myself.
With that, I jerked as hard as I could at the tightly twisted chain around the figure’s neck. There was a nasty crack, and the body under me vanished. I… killed him. It. I killed the–
Shoving that thought out of my mind, I hurled myself into a sideways roll just as a machete came down into the space where I had just been. My 10th grade social studies teacher was there, snarling and screaming (do not ask me how he managed both at the same time) with the knife buried halfway into the floor.
Planting my hand against the floor for leverage, I used that to shove myself up, blurting, “Just a thought–” My foot lashed out, kicking hard into the man’s face. “Sneaking up on someone works better–” As his head snapped backward from the blow, the foot I’d used to kick him the first time hit the floor and I rose on that single leg while simultaneously twisting around to plant my other foot in his face as well, hard enough to send him skidding backward down the hall. “If you’re not fucking screaming the whole time!”
“Paintball, up!” Alloy called from behind, over the sound of the continued wailing.
My gaze snapped that way, just in time to see what looked like a thin blade the width of the hallway come flying our way. With a grunt, I grabbed Pack, launching both of us toward the ceiling with one more puddle of blue under our feet. We flipped over in the air and I planted my boots (Wren had included their gravity-flipping in this, thankfully) against the ceiling while holding Pack’s hand as she dangled under me. Or above me, as far as my boots were concerned.
Below us, Alloy’s blade uhh… yeah, it cut through about half of those guys right around the waist. It went straight down the middle of the corridor, moving really quickly as soon as Pack and I were out of the way. Some of the computer programs managed to duck under or jump over it, but she cut a good number in half. Again, there was very little blood. They just vanished.
Dropping Pack to the floor, I pushed off, flipping over to land next to her. The remaining ‘faculty’ were starting to close ranks, but before either of us could do anything, That-A-Way called out. “Come on! Let’s go!” She, Alloy, and Mars Bar had cleared the path. We could get out of here.
So, that was exactly what we did. Spinning on our heels, Pack and I raced over to meet up with Alloy, before all three of us ran to the other two, with Riddles soaring along just above our heads.
Ahead of us, two doors on either side of the hall tried to open to admit more staff into the hall to block us. But before the doors could fully open, Alloy sent two of her marbles that way, each transforming into what amounted to a crowbar to slam into the doors with enough force to slam them shut once more. The transformed marbles stayed in place while we ran onward, giving us time to get past before flying in to join up with their owner once more.
“Dude,” Way blurted, “those things are awesome! You are welcome to join in on these ‘do whatever insane thing Paintball drags us into’ jobs any time you want!”
Before I could defend myself from that total slander and point out this wasn’t my fault, the four of us (six counting both lizards) reached an intersection in the school hallway. To our right was the hall leading to the library and media room. Straight ahead was a wall full of academic trophies and a couple doors that would lead into the history section of the school. And to our left was the front hallway leading to the main offices, with an open section about halfway down on the right side of that left hall that would take us to the cafeteria and the main gymnasium. A set of stairs leading to the second floor was in the corner of this intersection, near the hall to the front offices.
“Where’re we going?” Alloy demanded, spinning in a circle. “Uhh, and can we decide pretty quick?” She was looking back the way we had come, where more of those security programs were coming fast. And I swore some of them were the same people we’d already put down. So either the computer was spawning people with the same faces, or the program itself was respawning after being put down. But really, was there a functional difference?
Dammit, where were we supposed to go? Where would Paige be fighting her evil duplicate? How were we supposed to guess something like that? I had no idea, and time was of the essence. Worse, there were suddenly more fake faculty coming down the stairs toward us.
No, wait. they weren’t coming down the stairs. They were standing halfway up, blocking the stairs. And suddenly, I knew which direction Paige was in. Raising a hand, I pointed that way while blurting, “We wanna go whichever way those guys don’t want us to go!”
Several things happened in very quick succession then. Pack sent Mars Bar to slow down the guys coming up from behind us. Riddles, meanwhile, flew up to harass the guys on the stairs. And left must’ve been the direction of Way’s superspeed, because her form blurred before she was suddenly up there on the steps in time to catch hold of the arm of one guy who was swinging a bat at the lizard-hawk, pitching him over the edge to crash down to the floor below, where Pack herself took his own bat and slammed it into his face so hard the program fizzled and vanished.
Meanwhile, I ran forward, using blue paint on my shoes to launch myself up and forward. In mid-flight, I extended both hands and sprayed a wide burst of red at the remaining guards. Then I activated it, making all six of them slam together in a tangled jumble of limbs just before I landed on the edge of the railing. At least, I meant to land on the railing, but I overshot a bit and ended up crashing into the opposite wall with a grunt.
Okay, I was starting to think there was something wrong with me, my powers, or both in this place. It was all just… off for some reason. I didn’t feel as coordinated as I should. There was something missing. Nothing felt right. It just… my powers were all here, my paints were doing what they were supposed to, but somehow it was wrong. Something was different or missing.
Thankfully, Alloy (who had, once more, been standing flatfooted watching this for a moment) snapped out of it and took advantage of me tangling all six guys together by hitting them with a big shovel made out of two of her marbles to knock all of them down the stairs before the paint expired.
That-A-Way caught my arm, pulling me away from the wall I’d crashed into. Her voice was clearly concerned. “Paintball, are you okay? You seem–”
“I’m fine,” I quickly blurted, just as Alloy’s shovel-formed marbles reshaped themselves into a board to lift her past the just-then separating heap of computer troops to reach us. “Just… orienting.”
Ignoring the other girl’s look, I raised my voice to shout, “Pack, hitch a ride!” With that, I pointed both hands. But rather than shooting the girl herself as she stood in the middle of the intersection down there, I fired purple and green paint toward Mars Bar, who was busy smacking around several of those fake faculty members. And again, I missed with one of the shots. The purple paint blob hit a wall, and I had to quickly adjust to shoot a second blob.
“Dude,” I heard Alloy mutter toward Way, “have you ever seen him miss?”
Ignoring that, I quickly activated the paints on Mars Bar while shouting, “Come on!”
Pack didn’t need me to say it twice. She gave a quick whistle, and the big bear-lizard spun around, dropping onto all fours before charging that way. That green paint on him, he really charged. He was a runaway truck, screaming its way across the polished floor. Pack barely had time to leap on, half dragging herself up and over his back before he continued in a headlong rush. The guys at the bottom of the stairs where Alloy had pushed them didn’t even know what hit them before Mars Bar barreled through with enough force to make all six explode.
These stairs weren’t specifically built for something like a giant lizard-bear, but they were built to look impressive to a bunch of spoiled rich teenagers who did ridiculous, dangerous stuff all the time. So, they held. But I was still pretty sure sticking around here for long would’ve been a bad idea even if we weren’t already in a rush for plenty of other reasons. And I wasn’t even going to wonder if the stairs here had the same structural integrity as the ones in the real world. That was just way too complicated for me to think about right then.
Before the computer could summon more things to block our path, we all went charging up the stairs. Pack stayed on her pet’s back, while the rest of us ran. I thought about using green to speed us up, but decided it was probably best to hold off. After all, we had no idea what we were running into. Okay, I did know where we were running. At the top of these stairs would be another intersection, similar to the one we had left below us, except with a big glass window looking into the second floor of the library.
At least, that was what we were supposed to see. But we didn’t. Instead, all of us reached the top of the stairs and emerged into a small wooden structure that smelled awful. Alloy, Way, and I stopped short in confusion just long enough for Mars Bar to crash into us from behind, sending us stumbling through the nearby doors and out into… sunlight? The fuck?
Yeah, we were standing outside, in broad daylight just outside of a barn, which we had climbed the stairs in the school to reach. The barn sitting in the middle of this obvious farm. There were cows in a nearby pasture listlessly mooing, a silo nearby, the farmhouse itself in the distance, another paddock with horses, and so on. It was an honest to God farm.
Wait, hold on. I knew this farm. We had taken a school trip out here in middle school. Yeah, this was the farm we’d visited on that first school trip after I met Paige. Err, re-met Paige, I supposed. She hadn’t exactly been nice up to that point, but it was here on the farm when things had really turned bad. Or rather, when she had really turned up the mean. She and her new friends had made up a whole song about me being a cowboy. Specifically, Hopalong Cassidy. Yeah. Which might sound cute, but it wasn’t. It was very much not cute. I didn’t exactly have great memories about this place.
“Okay,” Alloy was saying while the marbles hovered around her, “for the record, there’s no more stairs in that barn. They disappeared after we all went through. And speaking of, uhhh, all this, either that rich kid school is even more absurd than I thought, or–”
“The program shifted,” I put in, looking around quickly. “Everything changed to a new location. The–a farm, I guess?” I’d been about to say the name of the farm (which was burned into my mind, as much as I might’ve wanted to forget), but that felt like a bad idea for my secrets. Yeah, other schools might visit this place too, but still.
“Paintball.” That was Pack, looking at me. “You sure you’re cool? You uhh, seemed like… a little off back there.”
“I’m off?” Flushing a little, I mumbled, “Yeah, I know. I just– it’s weird in here. Doesn’t it feel weird to you guys? Like, isn’t it screwing with your powers a little bit?”
All three of them looked to one another for a silent moment before turning back to me and offering a collection of shrugs.
“Great, so it’s just me.” I started to mutter something about that being just typical before shaking it off. Instead, I looked around, focusing on the reason we were here. I’d just have to deal with whatever was wrong with me as we went. And hope I didn’t screw things up for everyone. “Well, I don’t see that girl we’re supposed to be helping. In fact, I don’t see anyone. So how are we supposed to find her now?”
“We could always ask those guys,” Pack dryly remarked. Her attention was centered off in the distance, where a group of ranch hands were riding closer on horses.
“Something tells me they’re not gonna be any more helpful than the teachers back there were,” Way retorted. “Especially since–down!” That last bit came as the assortment of farm people all produced a mixture of rifles and pistols, taking aim.
Yeah, we all hit the dirt. I sent a burst of orange from both hands to hit the other five (yes, I included Riddles and Mars Bar, of course) while putting more on myself, just before several of the bullets struck home. The paint saved us. And a second later, Alloy managed to combine her marbles into a low wall to give us cover, while more bullets ricocheted off as the hail of gunfire continued.
“Okay!” I shouted over the unending barrage as we all huddled behind that conjured wall, “you know what?!
“This might be jumping to conclusions a bit, but I’m really starting to feel like this computer might not want us around!”