“Where are you going?”
Hearing that voice as she strode across the main room of the pawnshop in her brand new body, the girl known as Raige paused and let out a long, low sigh. Then she smiled, because sighing was yet another thing she could now do with her own body. The last few hours, since they had come back to this shop and everyone else had left, had been full of those moments. Everything she did, every sound she made, was brand new. Bending her arm or fingers a certain way, raising her leg, winking, scratching her head, turning in a circle, hopping on one foot, everything and anything she did was completely new and completely hers. This was her body, one she didn’t have to share with anyone. Even if it did happen to look like Cassidy Evans if she was blonde and had glasses, it was still Raige. Or…
“Should I keep the name Raige?” she mused aloud while turning to look at Paige, who had been the one to address her from the stairs on the other side of the room. “I mean, if I want to blend in, Raige might not work for that. Plus, it’s not me. It’s not my name. It’s a combination of your name and our… original self’s. Roxanne and Paige. I guess we could’ve gone with Poxanne or Poxxy, huh?”
Paige was silent for a moment before giving a short nod. “Whatever name you want to go by, that’s what we’ll use. It’s all up to you. But like I said, where are you going?”
“I waited for curfew to be over,” Raige (for now) replied casually. “Which was really hard, I’ll have you know. Do you have any idea how much I want to be out there walking around? There’s so much stuff to see, so many people to talk to and things to hear. Ohh and taste. I’ve been waiting to taste things for so long. Soda, pizza, broccoli, steak, brussel sprouts, bread, chocolate–I’ve heard good things about chocolate. I mean, sure, I have the basic memories of tasting things from your head, and from that prick bastard’s programming. But that’s not the same thing as tasting it with my own mouth.” She gestured that way with one hand idly. “The point is, this is a brand new body, my body, and I have a lot of things I need to do with it.”
“You’re right,” Paige agreed, “We do have a lot of things to do, like figure out how to save Irelyn and Trivial. And what to do with all that other stuff we took from the Ministry. And you still look like–” She turned a bit, looking around as though to make sure no one was around to overhear. Not that there was much chance of that, given how early it still was. The two of them might have had plenty of energy, particularly considering how long Paige’s body had been resting, and the fact that Raige’s had effectively been asleep for literally years. But Wren and Fred didn’t have that luxury, and they had been up for a long time. It would be several hours before either of them started moving. Still, it didn’t hurt to check. Only once she was confident they were alone did Paige continue. “You still look like Cassidy, at least somewhat.”
“And that’s another thing I’m gonna take care of while I’m out,” Raige informed her sister. “I figure I can get some of that self-tanning stuff to make my skin a little darker, and colored contacts too. Between the hair change, the glasses, and that stuff, I won’t exactly look totally different, but it’ll help. So you see, I’m thinking ahead.” She tapped her temple before waving. “I’d invite you to come with, but weren’t you going to go to school today? You know, since everyone’s wondering where you are.”
Paige was quiet for a moment, running that through her head before she sighed softly. “You’re not planning on disappearing, are you? Tell me you’re not just going to go out in the world and vanish so we never see you again.”
Mouth quirking just a bit in a sly smile, Raige replied, “Are you saying you’d be worried about me? Or that you like having me around? Or that you need my help.” One hand waved around in front of her own new face. “Or maybe you’re just afraid that I’ll get in trouble while looking like this.”
“All of the above,” Paige informed her. “I’m worried about all that. And we definitely need you if we’re going to stop… Benjamin.” She was clearly making an effort not to say ‘father.’ “You said you cared about Irelyn, after everything you saw in my–our memories.”
Raige nodded idly. “I do, and I’m definitely gonna help. Not just because of the caring thing, but also because fuck Benny. He’s a piece of shit traitor and he’ll get what’s coming to him. So yeah, I’ll be there to help with that. But the genius kid’s asleep, and you and everyone else are going to be busy all day going to school. Which leaves me, and I refuse to be cooped up in here that whole time waiting for you people to tell me I’m allowed to do something. I’ve been cooped up and trapped my entire existence, first in the computer, then inside that bullet, then inside you. We’ve spent weeks just lying there. And while I do think you’re better company now than I thought before, I need more than that. This is my body now, and I’m going to go out and have some fun. I’ll be careful, sort of, but I’m not just going to sit around like your wind-up toy. I’m not going back in the box. And if you try to make me, then we might have a problem.”
Paige’s head shook. “We don’t–we won’t have a problem. I’m not trying to force you to stay in a box. It’s just–you’re right, you haven’t been out in the world by yourself. You have my memories and your programming, but that’s different from being out on your own. I just–fuck, I’m worried about you, okay? Just be careful, please? Here.” She reached into her pocket, tugging out a roll of twenty dollar bills, which she passed that way. “Don’t steal shit. Try not to attract a lot of attention. And if you get lost–”
“I can’t get lost, we both have internal GPS,” Raige reminded her with a smirk. “Besides, I took one of these.” She held up one of the special cell phones from Wren’s lab, the ones that couldn’t be tracked. “Don’t worry, Mother Hen, I’ll call if I need anything. Now breathe and focus on your own shit. Wait, focus on my shit one more time. You never answered the question about changing my name.
“What do you think of Rassidy?”
They hadn’t come to a conclusion on that name thing by the time the currently-still-named Raige left the shop. She knew Paige was still fretting over what she was going to do out in the big city by herself, which was almost amusing. Despite their initial meeting, particularly the part where they had tried to kill each other for so long (which, okay, was mostly Raige’s doing), she had grown fond of her sort-of twin over all that time.
Was twin even the right word now? After all, she was currently more of a Cassidy twin. And it was unlikely that they would find another body she could use. Hell, she wasn’t even sure she would want to if the option came up. It had only been a few hours, but this one was already starting to feel comfortable. It was shorter than the first body, but she could work with that. It would help make people underestimate her. And that could be incredibly useful.
Walking out of the alley behind the shop, she made her way to the sidewalk and slowly looked around. The street in front of Wren’s place wasn’t exactly incredibly busy yet, not this early. But there were people walking around here and there, and cars were passing by on their way to work. The sun was up and bright, and Raige tilted her head back, spreading her arms out to let its warmth wash over her. A long, content sigh escaped her. This was what she had been waiting for, this was what she had been missing. Being outside, completely free and able to do her own thing. She hadn’t even technically done anything other than walk outside yet, but this was still the best day of her life. She could do anything right now. This was completely different than being inside the holographic mental projection mind space that she had been sharing with Paige. She couldn’t control this world. She couldn’t shift it around however she wanted. And that, more than anything, excited the girl. There could be surprises out here, new adventures, even danger. Oh, she hoped there was danger. She could have a lot of fun with danger.
A sudden ringing bell and a shout of, “Hey, get out of the way!” filled the air. Reflexively, Raige pivoted aside, even as a bike messenger went sailing past right where she had just been standing. The annoyed rider called back over his shoulder, “Watch what you’re doing, dumbshit!”
Clenching her fist, the girl took a step that way, her eyes scanning at the ground for something to throw after him. But she stopped herself. No, she had promised to be good and not attract attention. Assaulting a bike messenger in broad daylight directly in front of Wren’s shop just because he was a bit rude to her probably didn’t fall within the line of not attracting attention.
So, grumbling a little to herself, she turned the other way. Food. She could have some real food now, her own food. She could find out what this body liked to eat, how its tastes went.
That prospect thoroughly distracted her from the annoyance about that guy on the bike, and she set off walking down the sidewalk. She had no idea where she was going, or what sort of food she was looking for. But that was basically the best part. She didn’t have a plan, and she wasn’t doing something anyone told her to. She was just walking. If she chose, she could turn around and go back the other way, or simply turn the corner to go right at this intersection.
She went left instead. No real reason, she just made a last-second decision. Crossing the street, the girl smiled brightly and chose to skip a few times along the asphalt. Just to see what it was like. Once she made it to the other sidewalk, she did a cartwheel. Yet again, solely because she could. Other people nearby looked at her a bit curiously, but she ignored them. They weren’t important. Her new freedom was important, and she was going to enjoy it. Anyone who didn’t like that could go jump in a river. She’d gladly help them do so if they tried to say anything about what she could or couldn’t do. Come to think of it, if that rude messenger came by again, she wouldn’t mind temporarily relieving him of his bike so she could see how it felt to ride one.
Unfortunately, a glance around revealed no sign of him, or any other bicycle, so she simply started walking once more. A young couple were passing her going the other way, and she promptly met their gazes with a bright, “Fun to be out walking with our own feet today, isn’t it?”
For some reason the two seemed freaked out by that and didn’t respond, instead putting their heads down as they hurried past. Which seemed rude, but oh well. She didn’t have the time nor inclination to waste worrying about two people she didn’t know anything about. There was far too much to do, far too much to experience.
Speaking of experiencing things, right ahead of her was a corner diner. Spotting the sign, the girl smiled. Food. It was time to experience real food, not someone else’s memories, or the fake sensation from the virtual world she had shared with Paige.
As she approached, there was another brand new sensation. The scent of food filled her nose, and the girl almost tipped over sideways. Her mouth fell open in surprise. Smelling things in virtual reality hadn’t felt anything like this. And experiencing memories second hand? Forget it. That was absolutely nothing compared to standing outside this diner and smelling the food within. Her existence had been fairly short, and her experience with an actual body of her own even shorter (counted in a handful of hours), but she could safely say that this was the most amazing moment of her life so far.
On the other hand, if standing out here smelling the food was such a good experience, how amazing would–Even as that thought filled her mind, she quickly stepped that way. Her hand found the handle for the door and she stepped inside. Now the scent was even more overwhelming. She stood just inside, tilting her head back to let the experience wash over her. She could smell dozens of different plates of food, hear people talking from all sides, the clink of glasses, of dishes being moved around, the sizzle of stuff cooking back in the kitchen, all of it. She felt all of it, standing there with her head tilted back and her arms spread. For those few moments, she let it all wash over her and just… absorbed everything.
“Yo, kid, you okay?” A tired-looking woman with frizzy red hair and a waitress uniform stood a few feet away, eyeing her with a mixture of concern and obvious nervousness. It was clear that the last thing she wanted was to deal with someone who was about to pass out or throw up on her floor. “If you need some he–”
“Food,” the girl interrupted. “I need food. I’m very hungry, feels like I haven’t eaten in… ever.” Saying those words made her give a broad smile, even if the tired waitress didn’t get the joke.
Eh, it was pretty funny though, wasn’t it? She thought those words inwardly, before pausing for a moment. No response. Right… right, of course there wasn’t. Paige wasn’t here. They weren’t sharing a body anymore, so they couldn’t communicate like that. Which was… good. It was good, of course. She had her own body now. If she wanted to talk to Paige, or anyone else, she would just track them down and do that. Or use the phone she had borrowed. She didn’t need to have the other girl inside her head, spying on all her thoughts and just–this was better. So much fucking better.
The waitress had given her a brief scan, before striking as she turned to lead the girl to a booth in the corner. Setting a menu down, she asked, “Get you anything to drink?”
“Yes,” the girl immediately answered. “I would like coffee, and orange juice, and iced tea, and… chocolate milk.”
Squinting at her, the woman asked, “You got… other people coming? Hang on, if this is some sort of YouTube prank, I don’t–”
“It’s not a prank, and they’re for me.” Reaching into her pocket, the girl produced the roll of twenties, passing one of them to the woman immediately. “I know I can be odd, and I might say more weird things. But that’s for you right now. If you bear with me, I’ll give you another one just for you after I’m done. And I’ll pay for the food. It’s not a dine and dash, or a dumb joke. Please just bring me coffee, orange juice, iced tea, and chocolate milk. In small glasses? I want to taste all of them.”
The waitress waited a moment, clearly considering her indecisively before taking the money with a nod. “You got it, kid. Coming right up. You ain’t the weirdest customer I’ve had around here, not by a long shot.”
Through the next half hour or so, the girl tasted a little bit of everything she could. She judged the orange juice as acceptable, coffee as delicious with and without sugar, chocolate milk as bad, and iced tea as almost as good as coffee. Foodwise, normal pancakes without syrup were fair, adding each different flavor syrup or jam made them better, bacon was amazing, sausage was almost as good, and of the multiple kinds of eggs she tried, all were adequate but sunny-side up was the best. She liked dipping the toast and sausage into the bright yellow yolk.
Chocolate pie was another thing she tried, and hated that as well. Both chocolate milk and chocolate pie tasted gross to her. So she tried ordinary milk just to check, and that was fine. So it was clearly the chocolate thing. But people were supposed to love chocolate, so… clearly they were the weird ones. That stuff was nasty.
After paying for her food (plus the promised extra tip) and leaving the diner, the girl found herself back out on the street once more, focused on something else. Her name. Did she want to continue to be Raige? She’d brought it up before, but really. For the entire time she had been in that diner, she hadn’t thought of herself as Raige. It didn’t really… feel like her anymore. Sure, she could be angry sometimes, but was that really the name she wanted to represent herself? Even if the idea had been that she was part Roxanne and part Paige, maybe she… needed a name that was just her. She wasn’t Roxanne or Paige. She was herself. It was like she had said to Paige, she needed her own name, one that didn’t tie her to either of them.
But the idea of calling herself Rassidy was still pretty funny.
Considering all that and musing over the possibilities, she picked a random direction and started to walk once more. She had experienced food (and smell) but there was still so much more out there. Plus, she needed to buy that stuff to help change her appearance a bit more.
Eventually, she found her way to a mall (not the same one their little group had raided the night before), and casually made her way through it, looking over the assortment of stores. She also bought a candy bar, tried it, and tossed the rest in a trash can. Yeah, chocolate was disgusting. One of the mall security guards approached while she was looking at a pair of shoes in a display window and asked if she was supposed to be in school. She, in turn, cheerfully informed the man that she was not in the school because she had been suspended for fighting with another girl. Which didn’t seem to make him feel much better about her being around the mall, but at least he backed off.
Eventually, she bought some new clothes, as well as the self-tanning spray and colored contacts. A trip to the restroom gave the girl a chance to apply all of it, and she also changed into some of those new clothes, a pair of designer white jeans and a tummy-baring black top, along with new sneakers. Checking her new look out in the mirror with those now blue eyes and long blonde hair, she smiled faintly. This was the new her, not just a blonde Cassidy Evans, even if the resemblance was still apparent. For one thing, Cassidy would never dress like this.
Satisfied with her new look for the moment, the girl turned to walk out. She was still musing over a possible name, one that really said who she was. It had to be a good one, because she didn’t want to keep changing it. Not Raige, not Roxanne, not Paige. One for her, one that said who she was. The only problem was… what could it be? She wanted one that actually fit her, one that felt like hers.
Turning her head slightly, she caught sight of a large picture on the wall just outside the restroom. It was a breathtaking image of snow-covered mountains that made her gasp. After a moment, she stepped that way and gently touched the picture. It was quite possibly the most beautiful view she had ever seen, a photograph taken high above those peaks. It made her feel as though she was flying over those gorgeous mountains. Right next to that photograph was another, this one of the same mountains but lower down. That second view was taken with a gorgeous lake framed in the center, while the mountains themselves towered over it in the background. Slowly, she raised both hands, touching each picture. For a moment, her fingers brushed over the images. There. She wanted to go there. She wanted to see those mountains, that lake. She wanted to be there. That… that was freedom.
Eventually, her gaze was drawn to a small caption explaining where the photographs had been taken. She leaned in close, reading that before moving her eyes back and forth between the pictures and the caption. These mountains were perfect. They wouldn’t be pushed around. They were free and strong. They were indomitable. They were everything she wanted to be.
The phone she had taken buzzed in her pocket, and she glanced at it before answering in an intentionally-deepened voice. “I’m sorry, whoever’s calling, the girl who had this was just dragged away by a SWAT team for killing some guy on a bicycle.”
“Very funny, Raige,” Paige flatly retorted. “I was just calling to make sure you’re okay.”
“Oh, I’m just dandy,” the girl replied evenly. “But it’s not Raige anymore.” She turned slightly to look back at the name of those beautiful mountains once more, another smile finding its way to her face.
“Call me Sierra. Sierra Nevada.”