Right, so now we had a fancy new team name, thanks to Peyton. I was just hoping we’d get a chance for the name to actually matter before something terrible happened to us. A nagging part of me was convinced that giving ourselves a name was going to curse this whole thing. Meanwhile, another part was telling me I was being stupid and selfish for even involving people in my problems like this. What if something happened to them? How was I going to feel?
Eesh, maybe they were right about that whole brooding thing. It was just possible that my Touched powers had come with an additional ‘gift’ of being very, very pessimistic sometimes.
With effort, I pushed those thoughts out of my head. Yes, this could be pretty dangerous, for more than one reason. And yes, it was risky to involve other people in what could lead to a confrontation with my family eventually. But it wasn’t like I could just shove them out again. I couldn’t tell them to go away or whatever. It wouldn’t work like that. They were here, and I really needed them. I couldn’t do this by myself. I was just going to have to deal with the risk.
Besides, I didn’t want to do this by myself. Scary as it was to trust others, even with only a small part of what was actually going on, I needed them. Not just physically. I needed their skill and power, yes. But it was more than that. I needed to know there was someone else I could depend on, even if it was only for bits and pieces of the truth. Hard as it was to admit, I really didn’t want to be alone in this. Having Izzy around to talk to had shown me how important that was.
Working as quickly as we could, our little group did everything we had to over the next short while to get the virtual reality system ready to go. We basically acted as several extra sets of arms and legs for Wren, letting the girl tell us everything she needed to get the thing done.
For a while, I thought we’d never finish. But, eventually we were all standing around what still looked like a complicated MRI machine. Wren had just tightened one last bolt on the side before stepping back to drop the wrench onto a table and brush her hands off with a note of finality.
After a moment of all of us standing there looking at the thing, happy to be done working on it, Peyton raised her hand. “I’ve got a question. This thing sorta looks like it’s for one person to lay in. Maybe two if you squeeze and get pretty friendly. How are all of us going to use it, exactly?”
I had actually been wondering the same thing in myself, and turned toward Wren before raising my arms in a shrug. “She’s got a point there. Please tell me we don’t need to build another one of these for all of us. I’m pretty sure we don’t have that kind of time.”
Giggling to herself, Wren shook her head. “Nope! You’re not laying inside the thing, she is.” With that, she gestured toward Paige. “She lays inside it, her computer links to the VR system, and you guys wear these.” With that, the girl turned to the nearby table before picking up a cardboard box, holding it out to us. We all leaned forward, only to find… sunglasses and gloves. Yeah. All of them had various bits of wires and other clearly technical stuff attached. The sunglasses even had what looked like short antennae glued along one side of the frame. And the lenses were bright, solid green. Meanwhile, the gloves had little microchip-like things attached to the end of each finger.
Wren quickly explained, while we were staring at the contents of the box. “All you gotta do is put the glasses and gloves on, then sit down by the machine there, see? You’ll get linked into the computer and, as long as it’s on, you’ll see and hear and move in there instead of here. Whenever you tell your body to move, you’ll actually tell your avatar thing in the computer to move instead.”
That-A-Way spoke then. “Three questions. First, do we have a way to cancel out of it if we need to? You know, in case there’s an emergency. Second, how much of what happens in there are we going to actually feel? And third, what’s the deal with using our powers? I mean, am I going to impulsively try to teleport and all of a sudden the real me is off on the other side of the room in a pile of boxes? Oh, and come to think of it, question three-b, how am I going to use different parts of my power if my body is simply facing one direction? And what about her lizards?”
Wren quickly explained. “Oh, well, first you just use the code ‘Falling Star’ to jump out of the system. And for the second thing, you really aren’t physically experiencing any of it, but the computer will sorta… give you feeling impressions up to a certain point. You’ll feel things, but you can’t die from it or actually be injured or anything. If you get hurt enough to ‘die,’ you’ll just wake up out here and have to go back in from the start and make your way to where you were again.”
Once that much was explained, Pack put in, “You said we could use some mental approximation of our powers or whatever, right?”
Wren’s head bobbed quickly. “Uh huh. It’s sort of hard to explain. But the computer looks at what your brain thinks it’s capable of and basically copies back into the system. If you were going into a world I made, I could make you like Superman! But… but you’re not. You’re going into another world, and I don’t have any control over it. Or at least, not very much. The best I can do is make sure you have what your own brains think your powers are.” She fidgeted a bit, starting to apologize for not being able to do more than that.
“Don’t you dare,” I quickly interrupted, raising a finger to point at the girl. “Wren, after everything you’ve done– just don’t apologize. You pull all this together in one day. That’s amazing. Seriously, you’ve done enough. More than enough. Just let us handle the rest of it, okay?”
Blushing at that, Wren stammered an agreement. Then she quickly moved on to show a couple tiny animal collars, explaining that putting them on a couple of the lizards would link them to Pack and let her take them into the simulation as well, just like they were really there. They would see and experience things the same way we did. Which, to be fair, was probably going to confuse the hell out of them. I just hoped Pack could make sure they understood well enough.
“Who’re you taking in with you?” That was Way, looking at the girl in question curiously. “I mean, if you can only take two lizards, which two is it gonna be? They’re all pretty helpful.”
“Tell me about it,” Pack muttered, her gaze focused over into the corner of the lab, where her assortment of reptiles were all spread out across the floor, curiously investigating their surroundings. “I think… Mars Bar for muscle and Riddles for utility. She can fly and let us know what she sees. Might make finding this chick and her evil twin easier, wherever we end up.”
That said, she turned to look at Wren once more. “But you’ve gotta make sure the rest of them are cool, okay, kid? They’re gonna be confused, so you keep them happy while we’re busy.”
Wren promised she’d make sure the rest of the lizards were okay, while part of me wondered exactly how much of Pack’s request had been for the lizards’ benefit, and how much had been for Wren herself. She was definitely going to feel pretty anxious as she waited for the rest of us to get through this whole thing. Anxious because she ‘couldn’t help,’ even though she had already helped more than enough. Getting her to keep the lizards entertained and distracted would also entertain and distract her. It was a distraction for both sides. Pack was pretty good at that sort of thing. Which made me briefly wonder if she had any younger siblings she had to distract like that.
But there wasn’t time to focus on that for long. Because Wren was running through one final checklist. She sounded like mission control for a space launch or something, intently and seriously checking over every part of the system. She didn’t spend long on it, only a couple seconds for each bit, just to make sure everything was still running smoothly. She even had us speak several sentences into a microphone, which would help translate our voices into the virtual world so we would sound right. Which was a real load off my back, since I’d been wondering how I was going to deal with the whole voice changer thing if it turned out to be an issue.
Once she was satisfied, Wren gestured toward the motionless blonde girl on the table. “Can umm, you guys move her over to the machine?”
Between the four of us each taking part of Paige’s body, Pack, Way, Alloy, and I managed to shift her as gently as possible over to the MRI-like machine. We laid her in place, before Wren hit a button and the thing retracted to take her inside. From there, the kid-genius picked up what looked like a small ipad and started fiddling with it. With each brush of her finger across the screen, the machine we had put Paige into gave what I hoped was an affirmative beep. The last thing we needed right now was for something to go wrong with the system.
Okay, so I could think of a lot worse things than that, particularly revolving around one of the Fell-Touched teams like the Scions or Oscuro suddenly attacking. But that was (thankfully) pretty unlikely. Something going wrong with the device Wren had built in a day really could happen.
Fortunately, the machine itself seemed fine. It gave happy beeps with each check Wren made, before she finally turned to us and gave a thumbs up. Her voice was nervous. “O-okay. I think it’s ready. I mean it is ready. She’s plugged into the system and it’s reading her computer. They’re completely linked. The computer says it’s all green lights. I mean, maybe a couple very faint yellow ones, but it’s still okay. Definitely okay. We are on the positive side of the line!”
Part of me wanted to ask what the yellow lights were, but I was pretty sure knowing wouldn’t help. This was the best we were going to get. And Paige didn’t have time for us to wait for everything to be completely perfect. So, looking to the other three, I asked, “We ready to do this?”
Apparently we were, or at least as close as we were going to get. Sure, there was a lot more I’d like to do to be ready for this, but we didn’t have the time or resources. Paige was in trouble right now. We had to get in there and help her while we still could. So, the four of us arranged ourselves in chairs around the machine. Two on each side. I sat next to Alloy, lifting the front of my helmet to slip the sunglasses on through the holes in the ski mask. Then I exchanged my own gloves for the new ones and looked over to the girl beside me. She looked back and gave a thumbs up.
“You guys ready over there?” That-A-Way called after a moment. “Cuz we have two lizards over here who are very confused about why they’re suddenly wearing collars. So we should probably get this show on the road. You know, so they can be even more confused.”
“They’ll be fine,” Pack insisted. “Just make sure you hold Riddles carefully. Sometimes she forgets she’s not in bird form and tries to fly off things.”
Wren quickly assured us that as the machine kicked in, all commands to move that our (and the lizards’) brains sent our bodies would be translated into the virtual world instead. At least until we gave the Falling Star code. She also belatedly mentioned that we could yank each other out of the system in case of an emergency by saying that person’s Touched name in between the ‘falling’ and ‘star’ part of the name.
“Okay, okay, right.” Wren sounded just as nervous as I felt. “Um, one more thing you should probably know. It won’t just be the virus duplicate thing you have to fight. You guys are technically sort of invaders in that system, so whatever defenses her computer has will probably try to kick you out. Especially if she’s not really in full control of it. I’m not sure how it’ll show itself, but umm, just be careful. It’ll probably look like soldiers or guards or something. Whatever fits with the scene they’re playing out you know? The defenses will try to fit in.”
Well, that sounded fun. On the other side of the machine, Pack spoke up. “So hope this chick and her evil twin aren’t playing out some kind of Star Wars shit full of super battle droids, got it.”
“Personally, I’m gonna close my eyes and really push for a Willy Wonka scenario,” That-A-Way put in. “I could dropkick half a dozen Oompa-Loompas when they start singing. Creepy shits.”
Yeah, we were definitely trying to keep our minds off what we were actually going to run into. Whatever it was, I had the distinct feeling it wouldn’t be as easy as drop-kicking Oompa-Loompas. But hey, maybe we’d get lucky.
Yeah, I didn’t believe it either.
In any case, after running one more, possibly paranoid check, Wren took a breath “Okay, alright. Um, you guys ready?”
We confirmed that, as I shifted in the chair a bit. It wasn’t some random folding chair. The thing was a recliner that was actually fairly comfortable. Not as good as the chairs at home, of course, but at least I wouldn’t fall out of it the moment my body went limp. Or whatever was supposed to happen once I was in the system.
Once she was satisfied, Wren looked over to the other side of the room, where Fred was standing next to a computer. She started alternating between typing stuff on a little iPad, and calling out things for him to type into his own keyboard. Behind me, I heard a gradually rising whirring sound as the MRI-like machine that we had put Paige into came to life. There was power in the air, enough that it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Oh boy, this was about to get really–
A sudden bright light blinded me, before quickly changing to a swirling pattern of colors that shifted through the entire rainbow multiple times. It wasn’t flashing or anything, just drifting, sort of like a slow kaleidoscope. I could hear the sound of dogs barking, then the sound of ocean waves, then an airplane, people talking in hushed tones, and more. It was cycling through all these random sounds that made no logical sense. Nearby, I heard another sound that I belatedly realized was Alloy muttering under her breath about not wanting to be drugged.
Finally, the swirling colors turned into a reddish-purple fog and I had the distinct sensation of going down the drop on a roller coaster. A startled yelp escaped me, joined by three others, just as the falling sensation stopped and the fog vanished.
I was standing in the hallway of my school. I mean, I wasn’t. I was sitting back in that room next to the machine. I knew that. Logically I knew that. But my brain was absolutely convinced at that moment that I was standing here. It looked exactly identical to one of the side corridors near the science classrooms. It even smelled right, for God’s sake. I wasn’t even sure how that part was possible, but it was. No matter what my conscious brain said, I really felt like I was standing in that hallway, as if we had been teleported there. God, this was so weird. I’d expected it to be weird, but anticipation was nothing compared to the real thing.
Quickly, I raised my hands to my face and looked down to check. Sure enough, I was still in my costume. It had translated perfectly into the system. I had the gloves, the suit, even the helmet. Everything felt fine. Hell, the gloves were mine rather than the ones I actually had on for this, and the front of my helmet was down despite being up in the real world. Convenient.
“Wha–” Nearby, That-A-Way was looking around. She too was in her normal costume, just the way she should’ve been. “Why are we at–in a… a school?” I could see the slight frown of confusion as she squinted at one of the classroom doors. “That’s what this place is, right?”
Stepping from behind me to move into view, Alloy slowly shrugged. “Definitely ain’t my school. No graffiti, the lockers are way too big, everything smells clean and rich instead of like piss, sweat, and broken spirits.”
“It’s the school for rich cunts,” Pack put in before adding, “I mean, it’s gotta be, right? Look around, tuition for this place must be fucking absurd. I bet these spoiled fucks only get world-touring, chart-topping bands to play their fucking dances.” Which totally wasn’t fair, considering the headliner of our last dance had only been like… ninth on the charts.
In any case, even as Pack said that, Riddles and Mars Bar moved into view, sniffing around their owner’s feet before looking around. I could feel the confusion coming off of them as they adjusted to the fact that their poor lizard brains convinced them that they were somewhere completely new.
“You guys hear anything?” Pack asked, while focusing on growing each of her pets into their larger, more capable forms. I really hoped that, like our movements, the lizard transformations weren’t translating back into the real world. Then again, we’d probably find out real quick if the iguana on the girl’s lap had suddenly turned into a full-sized grizzly bear with scales.
“Nope,” Alloy was saying after we all took a moment to focus. “I don’t hear a damn thing. Is that weird? I mean, shouldn’t we hear them fighting or something? I thought they were supposed to be fighting.”
“Maybe they’re stalking each other,” I pointed out quietly. If they were sneaking around, it was probably a bad idea for us to make a lot of noise. Looking up and down the hallway uncertainly, I frowned in thought. Part of me wanted to call out to get Paige’s attention, but that was almost certainly a bad idea. We needed a better handle on what was going on in here before we just started shouting out for attention. Considering she had some sort of evil duplicate and we still weren’t sure how we were supposed to tell the difference between them if she decided to play that game. Seriously, what did an ‘evil Paige’ look like, after the years and years the real version had spent deliberately tormenting me (under her father’s orders, but still). It was really weird to think of the girl who had insulted and bullied you for years having an evil twin.
No, we definitely needed to be quiet and go through this whole thing carefully. With any luck, maybe we could find our way to where they were and eavesdrop long enough to know which was which.
Unfortunately, of course, I wasn’t that lucky. And we definitely weren’t going to get much of a chance for the whole sneaking thing. Because even as I had that thought, several figures emerged from the classroom doors ahead of us. It was a mixture of teachers and school staff, even a few of the security guards and janitors. I recognized most of them. But they weren’t smiling at me the way they normally did. No, they looked pretty angry. Not to mention violent. Soon, a crowd of over a dozen had formed up to block our path forward.
“Uhh, guys?” Alloy spoke up, and I looked back that way to see a similar group had come through the door leading to the outside. We were penned in on both sides. Worse, the assembled figures began to produce various weapons. Knives, bats, chains, and so on. This definitely wasn’t something we could talk our way through.
“Trevithick was right about the security measures,” I muttered. “They’re definitely not happy to see us.”
“Right, well, these guys we can rip apart, right?” Pack put in quickly, as the groups on both sides started to advance. “They’re just computer programs or whatever.”
My head gave a quick nod. “Yeah, no need to play nice. Just get through them. And fast. We have to find Paige.”
Either my saying her name was some kind of signal, or it was just a coincidence of timing. Either way, the moment I got those words out, a collective, horrific scream tore its way out of the throats of the people advancing on us and filled the air like some sort of terrible alarm. They all did it, shrieking like banshees.
And with that, they attacked.