Derek Dorn

Friends and Enemies 8-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Izzy didn’t wake up again, and the two of us slept through the rest of the night. We slept so well, in fact, that I was almost late for my ride to school. This time, however, Jania didn’t wake me up with the vacuum. Instead, she gently touched my arm and woke me carefully to avoid bothering Izzy. I quietly slipped out of bed, whispered a thank you and made sure she had seen the note about the glass in the other room, then made my way to the bathroom to get cleaned up. When I left (after grabbing the bag with my costume from its hiding place and slipping it into my backpack), the kid was still asleep. I hoped she’d stay that way for a bit. She deserved the rest.  

In any case, I made it to school. Which was good, because I was pretty sure that if I’d abandoned Amber and Jae right when we were supposed to give our projects, I’d never hear the end of it. Well, from Amber anyway. Jae would probably just look silently disappointed with me, the thought of which somehow seemed worse than anything Amber could possibly say. 

But I made it, and we presented our report on Laura Cereta, one of the first known feminist and humanist writers in the world from way back in the fourteen hundreds. Amber and I did most of the talking, but Jae filled in her part too. After the main report, the three of us took a few questions (mostly from Mr. Dorn, though a couple other students were actually interested enough to ask something) to prove we knew the material. When we were done, he said he’d let us know what our grade was tomorrow, mentioning that he was quite impressed. Then he moved on to the next group. And that was that, our whole project was over and done with. 

“Hey,” Amber muttered on the way back to our desks. “Don’t be a stranger just cuz the project’s over, got it? Seeing that movie last night was pretty awesome.” Going briefly silent with a tilted head as she took her seat, the girl belatedly added, “Oops. Guess that kinda sounds like I just want you to hang out with us for the benefits, huh?” She looked to me. “Seriously, come hang out at my place some time. It’s not a mansion, but hey. We could still have fun. Right, Jae?”

The other girl nodded, and I gave them both a thumbs up. “Sure, no worries. We’ll hang out.” It would be kind of weird, considering I hadn’t really… just gone over to a friend’s house like that since long before this whole Touched thing. Oh, sure, I had friends at school. But they were friends at school. I hung out in groups now and then, went to some parties, that kind of thing. I wasn’t a hermit. But somehow, having a close friend that I confided in and all that had felt… wrong? Dangerous. Something. I couldn’t explain it. All I knew was that whenever I started along the path of making a close friend, something in the back of my head would always tell me it was a bad idea. It made me feel… guilty, like I was betraying someone. Which was dumb. What the hell did I have to feel guilty about? Who could I possibly be betraying? 

Oh well, that whole feeling had kind of faded since I found that orb and all this started happening. Probably because I had a lot more to worry about now than some stupid paranoid thoughts that I couldn’t even actually explain to myself. There were real problems, real reasons for paranoia and to be worried about someone close to me getting hurt. I no longer needed some half-formed vague notions about ‘betraying’ someone by making a new close friend. Which, I supposed, was one thing to be grateful for. Maybe I’d send my parents a greeting card reading, ‘Thanks for being evil supervillains, at least now I’m paranoid for a reason.’  

Yeah, that probably wouldn’t go over well. But like with most of my thoughts and fantasies about the various ways I might present the fact that I knew the truth to my family, the thought of their faces in those first few seconds was almost worth it. Sort of. Until I actually stopped to think about it. Then all I could figure was that it would go one of two ways. First, they’d be angry, they’d show me their… evil side. And the thought of that was enough to make me want to die. 

The other option was that they’d be ashamed, sad that I had found out. And… and part of me didn’t want to experience that either. But another part of me did. One part of me wanted to shove it in their faces and scream that I knew they were monsters. 

But they weren’t monsters. They were my family. They were my mom, my dad, my brother. I wanted to scream at them and I wanted to hug them. I wanted them to be good, God damn it. I wanted to throw everything I knew about what they were doing right in their faces, and I also wanted to hide it, bury it deep down. I wanted to forget it, I wanted to scream it from the rooftops. I wanted to deal with it, I wanted it to disappear. I wanted to wake up in the morning and find out everything about my parents being evil was just a bad dream. 

Would I still want that if it meant giving up my powers? I loved my powers. But… but my family. Would I erase my whole identity as Paintball if it meant not just forgetting that my family were a bunch of supervillains, but actually erase that fact and make them normal people instead, the way I used to think they were? Would I choose to become normal if it would make them normal? 

Fuck. I was supposed to be able to answer that question, wasn’t I? What… what would I choose? Gun to my head, one way or the other, which would I choose? Which would I choose? 

“Cassie?” A voice interrupted my internal musing. Class was over, and Amber was standing there, looking at me curiously. “You okay? You looked kinda… lost for a minute there.” 

Clearing my throat, I nodded quickly while picking myself up and grabbing my bag. “Yeah, I’m good. Thanks. And hey, glad I got teamed up with you for the project. It’s… it was fun.” 

On my way out, Mr. Dorn spoke up. “Cassidy, please wait a second, would you?” 

So, I did. Waving to Amber and Jae, I stood by the man’s desk and watched curiously as he adjusted and stacked the papers he’d taken from everyone who presented today, then put them into a folder in his satchel. Zipping it shut, he finally looked up toward me. “It sounds as though you, Jae, and Amber are getting along beyond just doing the project together?” 

“Uh.” Blinking, I nodded. “Yes, sir, they’re cool. Jae knows a lot if you give her time to talk.” 

“Yes, she does,” he agreed with a small smile. “Most people don’t, though. Most people–” He cut himself off and just shook his head. “Not a good idea to dwell on that kind of thing. The point is, I’m glad it worked out. Jae…” He paused, seeming to consider his words. “Jae needs more friends she can count on. People who can be there for her. And you–” Again, he seemed to stop short, changing whatever he had been about to say. “Eh, never mind. I’m rambling because I’m hungry, see?” With a little smile, he gestured to me. “Go ahead–oh, you’re ahhh… friends with Tomas Jackson, yeah?” When I nodded, he continued. “Great, could you make sure to remind him that he needs to show up here after school for that exam he and I were talking about?” 

I agreed before heading out. Sure enough, I saw Tomas at lunch, and told him what Mr. Dorn had said. He, in turn, reminded me that I was supposed to go to his family’s place for dinner that night. Which was going to be interesting. I hadn’t spent a lot of time with Tomas’s family back when we were dating, but I’d spent enough to know that his father was a lot different from Tomas himself. His mother, on the other hand, was more like her son. Much more laid back than her husband. Kent Jackson had always given me the creeps for… well, reasons I couldn’t explain. He was polite enough, for the most part. He was well-spoken, he never said or did anything bad to me. Nonetheless, every time I saw the man, a weird feeling went up my spine. 

But I was just going to have to get over that, or at least shove it down while going to this dinner. Because Tomas would be pretty disappointed if I didn’t show up. Besides, his father didn’t deserve the kind of apprehension I’d felt toward him. Now that I knew my own parents were evil supervillains, I really had to let go of that old imaginary paranoia. 

I’d go to this dinner with my old boyfriend and have a good time. I would not let weird, unfounded feelings ruin that. 

******

The house the Jacksons were living in right now was the same one they’d lived in before. It was probably owned by the British government or something and given to their diplomats. The house itself was fairly large, I supposed, for a normal home. It was three stories, but still much smaller than my family’s place, more… cozy. There was a wrought iron fence all the way around the property, with a clearly armed guard just inside the gate. A couple more guards patrolled the grounds, while a fourth guy was barely visible on the roof. 

That might have seemed excessive to some, but this place was basically right near the edge of Sherwood territory. Sherwood, the Fell-Gang that was obsessed with nature, plants, wild animals, that kind of thing. Most of them hated technology, advancement, industrialization, anything like that. They didn’t hold much territory in the city from what I’d seen, but what they did have was guarded obsessively. From what I’d seen in the news, they basically had spies all over their area in the form of animals and random plants. You never knew what kind of information the grass, trees, flowers, even weeds were sending back to the Sherwood people. To say nothing of random squirrels, mice, birds… yeah. 

Not only did Sherwood violently attack any outside gangs who dared set foot in what they considered their space, but cops and Star-Touched had to be careful too. Sherwood didn’t openly attack them quite as much, but you didn’t want to be on your own if they were feeling particularly annoyed. Especially not after dark. And the people who lived there were basically always aware that what they were saying could be spied on through any plants within earshot. Not only that, but cutting plants out of your life was apparently not allowed either. You had to have a full, well-cared for lawn, flowers, the works. One of the reports I’d watched on the news a few months back had said that every once in awhile, residents would receive some kind of plant on their doorstep and were expected to put it in their house and take care of it. 

I couldn’t even imagine living under that kind of oppression and insanity, and my parents were literal supervillains. The officials and Star-Touched teams had tried to root them out (hah), but it was hard when every plant in the general area was basically spying and playing lookout. 

Thankfully, as far as I knew, the spying plants only worked within a certain radius of the Sherwood territory. That’s why they kept their claimed area relatively small, because they couldn’t expand that far without losing their main advantage that helped them keep everyone in line. They’d tried to expand now and then through various means, but got swatted back through a combined effort from the authorities and Star-Touched teams before they could take root (okay, I was sorry for that one). 

So yeah, I didn’t blame the Jacksons for having visible security. From what I remembered based on the other times I’d visited, the whole area surrounding Sherwood space also had an actual organization whose job it was to go out and kill any plant that tried to reach its way out of Sherwood territory, as well as sensors to check for root systems below the ground. It was a whole thing. 

I was planning on taking a quick trip over to check in on Wren once this dinner thing was over, so I brought the bag with my costume along. But there was no way I was going to take it into the house. Not when someone might look inside. So, I hid it on the roof of a nearby fast food place, tucked out of sight, before making my way to the actual house in question. 

The guard at the gate actually recognized me. His name was Joel, and he grinned when I approached. “Well, hey there, Miss Evans. Good to see Tomas didn’t turn into a complete idiot while he was gone and jumped right back into finding the best girl he ever brought home.” 

Feeling a deep blush spread across my face, I shook my head. “We’re not together or anything like that, Joel. His parents just wanted me to come to dinner.”

Giving me a look that was clearly doubtful while nodding unconvincingly, the man replied, “Sure thing. Whatever you say. Come on in.” He pressed his thumb against the scanner nearby and the gate opened, letting me through. More quietly, he added, “Good to see you again. Have a nice evening in there. Smells pretty good, I think they’ve been going overboard for you. Which,” he added slyly, “is clearly just because Tomas’s… parents want to make a good impression.” 

Yeah, that blush of mine definitely got worse. Mumbling something under my breath that even I didn’t follow, I headed up to the front door. It opened before I even got in there, and Tomas himself greeted me with a smile. 

“Hey, Cass,” he started, stepping back while holding the door. “Come on in, Mum and Dad are just handling a few last minute things, but they wanted me to go ahead and show you to the dining room.” He had dressed up somewhat, in black slacks and a dark red polo shirt that was just… unfair. It was unfair how good he looked. Which, of course, did absolutely nothing to help my blush. 

“Um, thanks.” Forcing the words out, I stepped through the door into the front hallway. Soft music was playing from somewhere. It was a classical music piece. Erik Satie’s “Trois Gymnopedies”, if I remembered correctly. It was one of Tomas’s parents’ favorite pieces. I wasn’t really that into classical music, but I could definitely understand liking it from time to time. This one was… soothing. It made me think of laying on a cloud somewhere. Hearing it, all I wanted to do was relax, like the tension in my muscles instantly eased and the weight on my shoulders lifted a bit, just from hearing it. 

Shaking off that feeling, I followed Tomas to the dining room. We talked for a few minutes there until his parents arrived together. His mother, Millicent (she went by Milli or Mills) Jackson was the first to step over to me. She was a tall, elegant-looking blonde whose regal bearing and gaze reminded me of my mother in some ways. But she was actually a lot different. Tomas had gotten his affinity for British punk music from her. She also tended to tell some pretty raunchy jokes when she was with just Tomas and me. However, she could also present herself just as formally as my mother did when she actually wanted to. 

“Cassidy,” the woman greeted me with an endearing smile. “It’s so good to see you again. How are you?” 

“Oh, um, I’m good, Mrs. Jackson,” I replied, only for her to quickly correct me. 

“It’s Mills, you know that. Let’s not act like strangers, hmm?” 

It was Tomas’s father’s turn then, and the man stepped my way. As always, I felt… reluctant to look at him. I couldn’t explain why, even to myself. He was normal-looking, a kind of pale guy with brownish-blond hair and dark green eyes. He’d been dressed formally every time I’d seen him, and this was no exception. There was literally nothing about him that should have been intimidating. 

But he intimidated me, and I had no idea why. 

“Indeed,” the man spoke easily, his voice sending a shiver down my spine. “we’re all glad you’re here. I trust your parents are doing well? They always had such excellent stories.” 

“Yeah, I… I don’t know enough about their stories, sir,” I managed. “But they’re doing fine.” 

“Excellent,” Mr. Jackson murmured before extending a hand to me. “And how is school going?” 

Glancing at his hand, I started to reach for it. But Tomas spoke up first, blurting, “Okay, okay, we get it. Come on, Cassidy’s great. Can we eat before she starves to death? I’m pretty sure that’s not good etiquette.” 

Chuckling, Mills waved me to a seat, leaning in to whisper something to her husband. I caught a bit that sounded like she was telling him not to be so stiff. 

So, we sat and ate dinner. It was pretty great. When it was over, Tomas and I went up to his room to talk. His mother made it clear that if she found the door closed, she’d take it off the hinges for good, which turned my face bright red. 

We talked and just sort of hung out for about an hour. Tomas was lying in his beanbag chair strumming his guitar while I sat against his dresser. Eventually, I realized the strumming had stopped, as had Tomas’s voice. Blinking over that way, I saw his chest rise and fall, head turned to the side with his eyes closed. He was asleep. 

Shit. Picking myself up off the floor, I hesitated briefly before quietly making my way out of the room. I’d tell his parents I was leaving, then head out. 

Making my way down from the third floor to the second, I glanced around curiously. I didn’t just want to take off without saying anything. So, seeing a light coming from under the door of the room I knew was Mr. Jackson’s office, I headed that way. I was about to knock, when a loud voice from inside brought me up short. 

“Yes, Sterling, I know.” 

My father? Why was Kent Jackson talking to my father? Frowning, I hesitated, looking up and down the hall before listening. 

“I’m just saying she was snooping around, that’s it,” Mr. Jackson continued, making me stare with wide eyes at the door. Me? Was he talking about me? 

“Yeah, she’s in the back of the van now, still unconscious. She’ll be out for awhile.” 

Right, so… not me. But… a girl was unconscious in a van? That didn’t sound great. And why was Mr. Jackson talking to my dad about that? Was… wait… that wasn’t right, the Jacksons couldn’t be part of–

“Yeah,” Kent’s voice replied to something my father had apparently said over the phone. “Yeah, I’ll take care of it. 

“My power may not work on the girl, but a trip to a quiet little pier and a bullet in the back of the head should do the trick.” 

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Becoming 2-04 (Summus Proelium)

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A little bit of toast bounced off my forehead. When that failed to get a reaction, it was followed by an orange wedge.

“You know,” Simon remarked from the other side of the kitchen island where the two of us were  eating (supposedly, in my case, as I hadn’t actually touched my food), “if you keep not reacting, I might just transfer my entire breakfast over to your side.” Squinting then, he leaned closer and whispered, “That’s your plan, isn’t it? Just stare mindlessly until I give you all my food.” He straightened, flashing me a knowing (and probably charming, to others) smile. “I see riiight through you, Booster. You might think you’re cunning, but you can’t keep secrets from me.”

I swear, it took every ounce of self-control I could dredge out of the pits of my soul not to look him right in the eyes and say, “Wanna bet?” Although, thinking on it, that kind of would have proved his point to begin with. Huh.  

In any case, I kept quiet, staring down at my own plate of food without touching it. Not that I wasn’t hungry. I was. After finally getting home so late that everyone else had already gone to sleep, including Simon, I’d had just enough energy to crawl into my own bed and pass out. Now I was famished. But every time I thought about eating anything on my plate, I just ended up thinking about how it had been paid for. The thought of shoveling blood-money food into my mouth made me want to throw up, regardless of how hungry I may have been. I knew it was stupid. The food was already bought. And what was I going to do, starve myself? That would accomplish nothing. Even so, I just couldn’t make myself get past it that easily.

And yet, I also couldn’t let Simon know anything was wrong. So I took a drink of my juice before mumbling, “I guess you caught me.”

Caught me? Okay, I really needed to think about what I was saying before blurting out things like that. Saying those words made me blink up at him. Luckily, he wasn’t even looking at me. His eyes were on his phone, as he texted something while muttering, “Like I said, can’t get anything past me. At least, not without getting up pretty early in the morning. And from all that yawning, I’m pretty sure getting up earlier isn’t really in the cards for you.”

He looked up then, smirking a little. “What time did you finally get to bed, anyway?”

“Well, what do we have here?” The deep baritone of my father’s voice suddenly and unexpectedly speaking up from the  doorway behind me meant I was spared from answering Simon’s question. But it also made my body jerk upright, just before Dad’s hand came down on my shoulder. Then he was there, hand squeezing my shoulder as he kissed the top of my head. “Why, I’m pretty sure it’s my little oompa loompas.”

Trying not to let Simon see the reaction on my face was hard. The only thing I could think of to cover it up was to grab the orange piece he’d thrown at me and stuff it into my mouth. That at least gave my face something to do. And spared me from responding for a second or two.

“She’s sulking for some reason,” Simon informed Dad. “I think it’s about a boy. Or a girl.” He winked at me. “Did we ever decide where you fall on that scale?”

At least they were giving me other reasons to be mortified by them beyond the fact that they were murderous monsters whose money was tainted by the blood of innocent people.

Swallowing the orange in my mouth, I forced out a weak, “I better meet Jefferson before he gets all antsy about being late. You know how he is about his schedule.”

Dad ruffled my hair affectionately, his tone light. “Have fun at school, babygirl. But not too much fun, I’ve got a lot of meetings today. Can’t really be pulled out of them to talk to your principal about whatever stunt you think is funny. Have a non-authority-intervention amount of fun.”

Somehow, I managed to give him a thumbs up while slipping out of my seat. I even hugged him. Yeah, it was a one-armed awkward sort of half-hug, but I was counting it. Then I grabbed my bag and retreated from the room, while Simon called after me, “Does this mean you don’t want your bacon!?”

I went back, grabbed it off my plate, and left again. Yes, my entire family was a bunch of murdering psychopaths, and I still didn’t know what to do about that. But bacon was bacon.

*******

“Alright, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to a new day!” Mr. Dorn, my European history teacher, announced while coming into the room and crossing to his desk. He was a short, squat man who basically looked like a slightly taller body double for Danny DeVito. But he was also incredibly enthusiastic about teaching, and about history. It was pretty infectious, even for those who didn’t care that much.

Yeah, I was in class. Part of me had wanted to skip out again to go practice with my power. But that felt like a bad idea, especially after Jania had already intercepted one call from the school. Missing two in a row might make them actually step in for something more than a phone call. So I was here, trying not to think about what kind of things my family was probably doing in the meantime.

Laying his briefcase on the desk, Mr. Dorn continued, “I see we’re all here except for Tommy B. Let’s hope he feels better soon, or that he enjoys his day off. Either way, he’s going to be sorry that he missed today. Because it’s now March, which means that it’s time for us to start…” As he was talking, the man clicked open his briefcase, reaching inside before pulling out a sheet of paper while triumphantly finishing with, “Term projects!”

A series of groans met his words, and the man repeated the sound right back at us. “Yeah, yeah, it’s horrible, I know. But you just wait, because this project has a twist. Are you ready for it? That’s right, it’s a group project. Each of you will work with two other people to write a six page paper, which you will present to the class in three weeks. You will have fifteen minutes of each class period for those three weeks to work on it in here, but you will also need to work out of class if you expect to get an A.”

One of the other students raised her hand. “A project on what, Mr. Dorn? What’re we supposed to be writing about?”

“Very good question, Amber,” Mr. Dorn replied with a smile. “The answer is… whoever you want. I want each group to pick one person from the entire history of Europe and write about how their existence and actions shaped the world as we know it. I want you to write this in a way that explains how things would have been different without that person. There are people throughout history who have changed the entire direction of this world. I want you to write about them.”

One of the boys raised his hand then. “Like King Arthur?”

Mr. Dorn coughed, shaking his head. “Sorry, Ben. Real people only. Fun as it might be to pretend, King Arthur was never a real person. Let’s stick with historical figures.”

Another boy asked, after being called on, “Can we pick our own groups?”

Again, Mr. Dorn shook his head. “Sorry. For some reason, people tend to turn these things into either popularity contests, or a fight over who gets the genius. You’ve all been randomly assigned two partners. Right here.” He shook the paper he’d taken from his briefcase earlier. “First, we have…  Menna Blaese, Cole Whitney, and Evan Guthrie.” He nodded to each student in turn, letting them react to being put together before continuing on to the next trio. There were thirty-three people in the class, which meant eleven groups. One of whom would only have two today, with Tommy B absent.

Eventually, Mr. Dorn came to my name. “And now we have… Cassidy Evans with…” He pointed to the girl who had asked what we were supposed to write about. “Amber O’Connell and Jae Baek.”

Oh, wow. Jae Baek. She was an albino girl. An Asian albino. Which meant she kind of stood out. That was probably bad for her, considering she was also one of the shyest people I’d ever met. I didn’t think I’d heard her exchange more than a handful of words all semester that she didn’t have to say.

Amber, on the other hand, was pretty outgoing. She had black hair that was tied into a loose ponytail, and blue-green eyes that seemed to shift whether they were more blue or more green depending on the lighting. She’d also been a cheerleader for a long time, even back when I’d done it in junior high. We were on the same team for awhile. But she’d stuck with it for longer, only really stopping around winter break a year earlier.

We weren’t close or anything, but I did know that she’d quit the team about a month after her dad had been killed by a hit and run driver. Which was… understandable. She was better now, but for awhile there, even I knew that she’d been pretty messed up. Not coming to class, getting in trouble, lashing out at teachers. She’d nearly gotten herself kicked out entirely. But the school gave her some leeway, let her make up a few classes over the previous summer, and she stayed on track.

I also kind of suspected that these groupings weren’t completely random. Because as far as I knew, Amber was one of the few people that Jae actually seemed to interact much with. As shy and quiet as she was, it wouldn’t have surprised me to find out that Mr. Dorn had at least somewhat helped things along by making sure the two of them were put in a group together.

“Now that you’ve got your groups,” the man announced after listing the last set of names, “go ahead and get together to talk about your plans. I’ll give you all about fifteen minutes to either figure out who to start your project on, or, you know, when to get together and talk about it later. Oh, and don’t forget, first come first serve. Once your group knows who you want to write about, make sure to tell me, because we can’t have any repeats.”

Amber and I pulled chairs over to where Jae was, the former cheerleader waving to me. “Hey, Cass. Long time no work together. But hey, at least we don’t have to do the frog squats or reverse to high knee lunges this time.”

“You know you’re not fooling anybody,” I shot back to her. “You loved those exercises.”

She just grinned. “You’re right, I still do them. But they probably won’t help with this.” Looking to the girl we were sitting by, she asked, “So, Jae, got any thoughts about who we should write about?”

The pale, white-haired girl peeked up from her desk, looking to me briefly before answering. Her voice was quiet. “Maybe not an obvious one.”

“Right,” I agreed. “Mr. Dorn would probably like it better if it’s not someone he’s heard about over and over again every year. Someone a little more obscure, but still really important. Not like Churchill, or Columbus, or Napoleon, or… whoever. Someone important but different.

“Anyone got any ideas?”

*****

We didn’t. Not yet, anyway. We’d made plans to decide later. Each of us was supposed to come up with a few options and compare notes to pick one the next morning. We’d meet at breakfast in the cafeteria, which meant I’d have to ask Jefferson to drive me over half an hour early. He’d probably love that.

Actually, I genuinely didn’t know how he’d feel. It was different from his strict schedule, but it was also early. Hmm. Maybe his annoyance at the first and delight with the second would cancel each other out.

Either way, I’d texted him to let the man know that he didn’t have to pick me up after school ended, because I was getting a ride with friends. In reality, of course, I was busy with something else. A few things, actually. The first of which had involved making a trip to the nearest specialty electronics store to pick up a couple essentials.

With my new toys safely stowed away, it had been time to focus on the things that would take up the rest of the afternoon. Namely, practicing with my power and, with any luck at all, actually deciding on a name that I could use that didn’t sound dumb.

So far, I was having more luck with the former than the latter. I was back in that unfinished skating rink place again, where I’d set up targets along the wall by painting various sized circles in pink, since I still didn’t know what that color did. Using the circles as targets, I was alternately running and skating through the place while shooting different colors of paint, trying to hit the center of the circle as much as I could, with only a small amount of paint.

It was a work in progress, that was for sure. I was missing the center of even the bigger targets most of the time, and missing the smaller targets entirely if I was moving at any kind of speed when I shot my paint at them. Running was easier than skating, but either way it was hard to hit the targets without slowing down. Especially when I used the green speed boost paint on myself. Hitting a target at that point with anything less than a hurled gallon’s worth was basically an exercise in futility unless it came as utter blind luck.

I needed practice. A lot of it. But fine. I was willing to put in the work. One time after another, I raced from one end of the large open room to the other, shooting paint at targets on both sides, as well as some on the floor that I had set up. Shot of paint after shot of paint flew from my hands, while my earbuds blared heavy rock music in my ears. Again and again, I would check my progress, erase all the paint aside from my pink targets, then do it again. I took breaks only to let my paint recharge.

It was during those breaks that I thought about a possible name. That was… well, hard. I’d thought of several possibilities, and even painted some of them across wall just to see what they looked like. Some were… dumber than others.

Paintjob

Paint

Paintball

Brushstroke

Easel

Canvas

Palette

Artisan

Graffiti

Technicolor

Chroma/Chromatic

I’d already crossed out a few of those. Paintjob, Paint, and Brushstroke didn’t sound right. Neither did Easel, so it was crossed out as well.

But the others… I kind of liked both Canvas and Palette, for the same reason. I would be putting paint over myself a lot. Graffiti was good too, for the opposite reason. I’d be painting other things. Technicolor and Chroma or Chromatic sounded cool, but might be too complicated for a name. Artisan sounded pretentious.

In all, I just couldn’t decide. I kept wavering back and forth, and I probably needed to make a decision eventually. It would be pretty bad if I went out in costume again, only to hem and haw the second anyone asked what they were supposed to call me. It didn’t seem like it would be very heroic to be like, ‘here’s a few options, which one do you guys like best?’

Oh well. After two hours of practicing my aim (and getting gradually somewhat vaguely better toward the end), that was probably enough. I needed to get home and at least put in an appearance, since the last thing I wanted was for anyone to get too curious about where I was spending time.

But first, I needed to do something. Reaching into my bag, I took out the ski mask and helmet, pulling both on. Then I pushed the ski mask off my mouth, and shoved the front of the helmet up as well. Taking off my pace-skates next, I found the concealed button on the bottom of both and pressed them in together. Holding the buttons in, I spoke in a clear voice. “Cassidy Evans voice code addition.”

The skates beeped twice, and I quickly pulled the mask and helmet down. With my voice muffled by them, I spoke again. “Cassidy Evans voice code addition. Code to deploy: skate out now. Code to retract: skate in now.”

I tested it afterward. Sure enough, the skates responded, extending or retracting the wheels whenever I said the appropriate code.

That was good, but it was only part of things. I wasn’t going to rely entirely on the muffled effect of the mask and helmet to hide my identity, especially when it came to my family. They’d see through that so quick my head would spin.

I already knew that, though. That was why I’d made that trip to the electronics store. Digging into my bag, I took out what I’d bought: a tiny microphone attached to a piece that hooked over and onto an ear. The earpiece had a very small display on it with just a number and a slider. Moving the slider raised or lowered the number.

Holding up the earpiece, I turned it on and started moving the slider through the numbers that appeared on the tiny screen. Stopping on one, I held the little microphone close to my mouth and spoke clearly into it. “Test, this is a test. This is a big, old, fat test. It’s just a giant stinky test.”

It worked. My voice was shifted by the microphone to sound like an old woman. Flipping to another option on the box, I tried again and sounded like a little kid. Another option made me sound like Elmo from Sesame Street. Then it was an incredibly deep voice that sounded like it should have been coming from a guy with tree trunks for arms.

Then I found one that sounded right. It sounded like a guy who was maybe fourteen. That was it. That was exactly what I wanted. I slipped the earpiece on, then added the mask and helmet once more. The way it was designed, the small microphone part extended down under my ear, which prevented the helmet from digging into it too much.

Clearing my throat then, I switched my phone to record, then started. “Testing. New test. How’s about a test? One, two, three, four, five four three two one.”

Playing it back, I listened carefully. Yeah. Yeah, it worked. I definitely sounded different with that thing. It would work. I could add this voice to my pace-skates too. With that, no one would know I was a girl just by listening to me. And my family wouldn’t recognize my voice.

Which was good, because them not knowing that I knew about their real lives was basically the only advantage I had right now. And I was in no hurry to give that up.

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