Yet the hero’s reception Evan is expecting never happens. Before he even gets the chance to say hello, Evan is bundled away to The Academy, an institution derisively called The School for Sidekicks by its students. Forced to take classes like Banter Basics and Combat with Dinnerware, while being assigned as an ‘apprentice’ to Foxman – a Mask widely considered a has-been — Evan starts to worry that he’ll never be able to save the day…
#Chapter 1 MaskerAde#
“Call me…Captain Commanding!” I shouted as I launched myself into the air.
“Whatever, Evan.” Glen rolled his eyes, but I pretended not to notice.
“That’s just my secret identity,” I replied, returning to the ground where Glen was having his wire rig connections double checked. “It’s not the real me.”
Well, actually it was. Evan Quick, mild mannered and utterly ordinary kid, that’s me. But not today. Today was my thirteenth birthday, and for the next two hours, with the help of the game room at MaskerAde Pizzeria I was about to become Captain Commanding, the world’s greatest hero.
The MaskerAde game technician moved on from Glen to check Jamal’s rig, and I jumped into the air again, using the movie style flying rig to do a double backflip before I landed. On the big curved screen in front of us my Captain Commanding avatar did the same—pretty awesome!
“You’re really good at that,” said Maria—the fourth member of our little group, and my neighbor from across the alley.
I grinned. “I practice a lot. “The home rig doesn’t let you jump as high, or do more than a single flip, but that one gets you a killer knockout kick in Masks Vs. Hoods if you can manage it.”
“I wish my parents would buy me the fly rig for my GameDevice,” said Jamal. “But we live in an apartment, and they say management won’t let them mount it to the rafters. Weak.”
The technician finished up with Maria. “You kids are good to go.” She looked at me. “Your parents paid for two hours. I’ll hit the buzzer and give you a ten minute warning when your time’s almost up. Till then, have fun.”
Glen grinned. “Start with Masks Vs. Hoods, me and Jamal against you two?”
“Sure.” I nodded and stepped back into my quadrant.
Unlike a home GameDevice setup, MaskerAde had a full circle green screen that allowed them to really put you inside the experience. They also had their flight rigs hooked up to pivoting overhead arms that let you move around a lot more than the fixed home version. Add in a fancier version of the regular 3D goggles and earpiece set and you were pretty much inside the world of the game.
I did a quick run through of some of the Captain’s best moves, and watched my avatar do the same. After that I slammed back a MaskerAde energy drink—MaskerAde was nearly as big a franchise as Captain Commanding. Then, I dropped the can in the hamper. I was ready to rumble. I clenched my fists and bowed to the center of the circle. In response, the avatar moved over and settled around me. For the next two hours, I was going to be Captain Commanding!
Then I heard Jamal whisper, “Why does he get to be Captain Commanding?”
Glen hissed back, “Because it’s his birthday party, knucklehead.”
That brought me down a little, mostly because it reminded me Jamal wasn’t really my friend. I mean, we were on the same track team and all, but I just wasn’t one of the jocks. Not in the same way Glen and Jamal were. Sure, I worked my butt off in track and with the weights. But that was because what I wanted more than anything in the world was to be a real Mask, with powers and everything—not because I liked working out.
Actually, none of the others were real friends. Glen was the one track jock who went beyond tolerating me into something almost like being friends—when we were at meets or if my parents were buying MaskerAde pizza and the game room, anyway. Jamal was just part of the package if you invited Glen anywhere. And Maria, well, she was my neighbor—just kind of there—and you needed four players to get the most out of renting the game room.
I pushed all that aside. Not having friends wasn’t the worst thing in the world. No, that was Spartanicus—the Captain’s arch enemy. That, and not having my own powers. Well, not normally anyway. But now the game activated, and Glen turned into Spartanicus, and right here, right now, I was going to kick his butt! Beside me Maria turned into Flareup and we charged Spartanicus and Jamal—who was playing as SteamPunk.
After a couple of bouts of free-for-all, we paused and slammed another round of MaskerAde, then switched to scenario play—my favorite.
We started with the very first appearance of Spartanicus. I was flying over Heropolis alone—Maria would come in later with this one, after I got tagged out. I saw a green flash below as the back wall of the City Mutual Bank exploded outward, pivoted in the air, and blinked left-right-left-left to order the flying rig to let me land.
As I dropped toward the pavement, I tried to really be the Captain experiencing it for the first time, to pretend that I hadn’t seen the historical vids of this scene a hundred times. Of course, in the real world, the Captain had arrived in the Commanding Car, but that wasn’t nearly as cool as flying in—and stop thinking so much Evan! Just enjoy the moment!
“What’s happening, citizen?” I asked one of the civilians knocked over by the blast. “Can I help?”
There was another green flash, and my wire rig yanked me sideways to simulate being hit by the beam. I landed hard on my butt, but turned it into a backward roll, jumping high into the air when I got my feet back under me. I got my first look at Spartanicus then. A big man, he had scars on his face and a sort of leather gladiator’s outfit. He stood in the hole in the bank’s wall with a sword in one hand and a small round shield in the other.
I blinked three times and lasers shot from my eyes. Spartanicus moved with impossible speed, interposing his shield and redirecting the beams so they hit me in the feet. That tipped me forward and I balled up both fists, flying straight at Spartanicus. The scar in the center of his forehead ripped open, exposing a green jewel and a blast of energy hit me full in the face.
The indicator in the corner of my goggles blinked a red warning to tell me I’d taken a big hit, but I ignored it, just as Captain Commanding had all those years ago. I had to protect the civilians injured by the original blast, whatever the cost. Spartanicus put up his shield again, and I flipped over in the air so that I slammed into it feet first. The game stuttered a bit as I changed what had happened. I actually knocked Glen out of his avatar for a moment. But it caught up a second later as the image blinked over to cover him up again.
He bounced back to his feet a moment later and came at me, but I did the double backflip kick move smashing him into the shattered bank vault door. I pretty much cleaned the floor with him for a little while after that. Which isn’t how it went in real life. But, while I’m not much of a jock, I know everything there is to know about the Captain and how to make the best use of his powers in Masks Vs. Hoods.
In fact, I was pretty much on my way to rewriting Mask history by taking down Spartanicus for good, when a deadly ninja throwing-gear hit me square in the face, and my rig dragged me backwards into the bank tellers’ desk. The display told me I was KO’d and had a five second timeout.
I wanted to shout Unfair! SteamPunk hadn’t even gotten his powers yet when this fight happened. But it was a four player game, and they had to bring the others in somehow. Fine. I gritted my teeth and held still while Spartanicus and SteamPunk did a completely out-of-character victory chest bump. They were just turning to come at me again, when a gigantic blast of blue energy tumbled them both sideways.
That was mostly accurate. Foxman had saved Captain Commanding at the bank that day, but Maria insisted on playing the girl version of the Foxman armor, and that messed with my head. The helmet and mask were right, with the classic Foxman grin, and so was the metal tail which still somehow contrived to look fluffy, but the rest was plain wrong. Not that anyone cared much about a has-been like Foxman anymore.
But, I was a giant Mask nerd, and the girl armor made my inner purist itch almost as much as the arrival of SteamPunk with his throwing-gears and aether rays. I’m not sure if it was better or worse that she’d chosen to crossplay Foxman—who at least had been there—than if it would have been if she’d played one of the many girl Masks that hadn’t. But then my timeout was done, and I forgot about everything but being Captain Commanding and beating the heck out of Spartanicus.
We took a five minute break to catch our breaths after that round, and to have another MaskerAde each—the stuff was awesome! Then we moved to another scenario. This one played out at the Colonel Cuddlebear factory where they make all those custom Masked-animal plushies. Of course, Colonel Cuddlebear isn’t a real Mask. Sure, she’s got some pretty buff powers, but she hardly ever uses them for anything but marketing. She had messed up the Fluffinator pretty good when he tried to animate the Cuddlebear plushies to take over Heropolis, but that hardly counted. It was mostly in defense of her brand. And seriously, “Cuddlebear?” Please.
Jamal played the Fluffinator and Maria switched to Cuddlebear while Glen and I stayed the same. Captain Commanding hadn’t really been there, and neither had Spartanicus, but there was something about punching a six foot stuffed bunny into a cloud of white fluff that made me forget to be grumpy about the inaccuracy.
One fist directly on the button nose, and POOF the world’s biggest dandelion down explosion. It was so much fun that we all forgot about hitting each other for a while as we went after the army of plushies. Flip, kick, POOF! Jump, spin, laser eyes, and FIZZ! flaming, exploding dandelion. Pure, joyous destruction, and we unlocked Cuddlebear for full play, so Maria stayed in that role when we moved back to straight up Mask Vs. Hood for our last couple rounds.
Mom and dad were waiting for us at the table with the pizza already ordered when we got out.
“And another round of MaskerAde,” said my mother, “because I’m a saint and I don’t want the sugar crash to hit till you’re all home.”
There wasn’t much to do after that except eat and take everyone home. We didn’t really have a lot to talk about outside of the game. I mentioned that none of them were what you’d call real friends, right? Maybe I’d better explain.
I’m smart enough to do well in my classes without busting my butt, but I’m not that into academics, and I don’t hang around with the brains and the grinds. The athletes tolerate me because I do bust my butt there, but they’re not my natural crowd either. The geeks are probably closest to being my people, because a lot of them are pretty Mask crazy too. But my—by their standards—wholly unnatural association with the jocks makes me a little too suspect.
It’s weird, really. All the books and vids about school paint everyone as being in or out. Either you’re popular and everyone loves you even if you’re mostly a jerk. Or, you’re not popular and you get shoved into lockers. Nobody tells stories about kids like me who slide through school with no real connections and no real enemies. Kids who are just there.
Sometimes it makes me feel like I don’t exist, like I’m a ghost. That’s how my teachers treat me, too, like furniture. Mom says it’s because I don’t cause enough trouble for them to worry about me, and I don’t brain it up enough to be a pet. Whatever the reason, I’m not really close to any of the other kids, and I’m okay with that.
#Chapter 2 Camp Commanding#
My alarm went off at nine, like it does every day in summer—my mom doesn’t want me to get too out of touch with getting up in the morning. I stared at the little beeping devil and willed it to turn off like I did every day ever. Nothing. So I willed it to blow up, catch fire, fly out my window, and turn into a frog, each in turn.
It just kept beeping.
So, no mental powers. Also, I felt like I’d been run over by a bus. I decided to blame it on drinking most of a case of MaskerAde the day before. I smacked my alarm to make it shut up, and moved on to the next big test—rolling out of bed…and not catching myself.
It’s tougher than you might think.
I hit the floor hard and banged my nose. It hurt.
So, no flight, and no invulnerability.
Grabbing the leg of my bed, I lifted. No super strength either. Also, no laser eyes, no power jewels sliding around under my skin, no hurricane breath, and no stretching my arms and legs like taffy.
All around, a disappointing morning. Oh, and did I mention that I felt like burned toast? Because I really, really did. Still, I had things I was supposed to do, so I dragged myself off to the bathroom for a shower and all the other stupid morning things that people without powers had to do. Maybe my mom would let me go back to bed afterward if fell asleep in my oatmeal.
Whatever happened next, I was going to have another super-boring entry in my hero’s log. Super-boring appears to be my only real power.
“Evan Quick, Hero’s log, May the 25th, and…no. I just can’t do this. I’m not twelve anymore, and I am never going to be a Mask. Get over yourself, Evan.”
With a sigh I flicked off the camera on my phone and reached for the button to trash the video. It was always kind of a stupid dream, and my thirteenth birthday was as good a reason to admit that as any. No one knew what gave people super powers. Not these days, and there was never going to be another hero bomb. I was out of luck.
When my phone offered me the option to “select all” of the videos in my hero’s log folder, I stabbed the button with my thumb. It really was time to give up. Past time.
No real Mask could possibly feel as wrecked as I did right then. If a sugar crash could take me out like this, what hope did I really have? I clicked ‘yes’ and there was a dream dead. Thirteen for twenty-four whole hours and a complete failure already. Nothing to look forward to except high school, a boring degree in college, and years of drudgery afterward. I might as well plan on majoring in accounting like my dad and get it over with.
I fell back on the bed and stared at the poster of Captain Commanding on the wall above. It was life sized. The big man wore a red, white, and blue uniform and had one arm out like it was resting on your shoulders. I’d always done my hero’s log sitting in front of it so it would look like we were friends or something. Kind of pathetic, no?
“Evan, honey, are you ready?” My mother called up the stairs. “We need to leave for Camp Commanding soon.”
“I’ll be down in a minute, mom.”
Awkward. Here I was giving up my Mask dream on the same day Mom took me to get a season pass to Camp Commanding—the promised land for Mask nerds. This was the first year I was going to be allowed to go by myself. I should probably have told her to forget it, since all I really wanted to do was go back to sleep, but I didn’t want to let her down.
She and my dad had been indulging my Mask fantasies for ages. I’d never exhibited the tiniest sign of any kind of powers, but they were always willing to drive me to see the latest hero movies in megamax 3-D, or buy me tickets to Camp Commanding, or pick up a fresh box of Commanding Grahams for breakfast. Whatever, they were super-supportive—always telling me I could grow up to be anything I wanted, no matter how ridiculous.
Seriously? Both of them had super-supportive parents too, and look where they ended up. Dad’s an actuary, kind of the nerd king of accountants. Mom’s a professor at a big university where she teaches and does mathematical modeling of adhesives. That’s what they wanted to be when they grew up? I don’t think so.
Not when my grandparents include dad’s moms, the ballerina-turned-choreographer and her wife, the painter. My other grandmother is a chef, and her husband writes comics. They met when their parents’ communes had a joint event. With that much cool in the generation before my parents, what happened? Some kind of zombie math ray? Or maybe every generation of my family was less awesome than the last. If so, I was utterly doomed.
“Honey, we need to go now!”
“Be right there!” I sat up, flipped my worn old Captain Commanding bedspread into a rough semblance of a made bed and stumbled down the stairs. I was totally beat. Maybe I could catch a nap on one of the slower rides.
The parking lot had already soaked up a ton of sunlight, and opening the car door felt like opening an oven. Instant sweat monster. I paused before getting out, staring up at the fifty foot fiberglass statue of the Captain that towered over the entrance to Camp Commanding. Today, he looked like he was judging me for giving up on my Mask dream…
My mom poked me in the arm and said, “That’s it, no more MaskerAde for you, kiddo. You crash too hard the next day.”
I sighed and rolled my eyes, but she might have a point. I was tired and I felt weird.
“Honey, are you all right?” My mother was giving me the strangest look, and I realized I still hadn’t gotten out of the car.
“Mm-fine.” I started shuffling toward the entrance to the park.
My mother fell in beside me. “Oh my, have we hit the grunting phase of teen communication already? That came on rather suddenly.” She laughed. “I can roll with that. For the next—what, four years or so—grunt once for yes and twice for no, and I’ll slide all your meals under the door of your room.” She tilted her head to one side. “Or maybe you could learn to grunt in Morse code. That’d be adorable.”
I stuck my hands deep in my pockets and hunched my shoulders. It really wasn’t fair to have parents who were so intent on understanding and supporting you. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gotten yelled at. Not even when I yelled at them first—do you know how frustrating that is?
When I was three, they applauded when I had a giant grocery store meltdown, then rated it like an Olympic event. When I was ten, I had a fit about having to give them all my online passwords “for emergencies.” Afterward, they produced a plastic replica of an Academy Award with my name on it. Well, really, it was a Captain Commanding action figure spray painted gold, but how do a couple of math nerds even think of that? Seriously, it drives me crazy sometimes how cool they try to be.
Most of the other kids at school had normal parents—there, but kind of vaguely in the background. Mine kept forcing me to pay attention to them by giving my every word serious thought and listening all the time. Sure, they mocked me, but only when I was being ridiculous. Infuriating at the time, if only aggravating in retrospect.
I sighed and rolled my eyes again—this time at myself. One completely unfair side effect of having parents like mine is that it’s really hard to sustain a sulk. You get to thinking about what you’re doing, and then pretty soon you can’t help but laugh. Not that I would ever admit that to Mom.
“Yeah, Mom,” I glanced up. “What is it?”
“Have a good day.” She leaned in and gave me a quick peck on the cheek—gross.
“What?” We were only about a third of the way to the park’s entrance, and here she was half turned around to head back to the car already. Had she figured out I wasn’t really interested anymore? That would be a big relief, but… “Wait, aren’t you supposed to be buying me a ticket?” So confused.
She laughed and waved her phone at me. “Already did, online, last night. New feature this year.” She pressed a button on the screen. A half second later my phone binged at me. “Pass is on your phone now, wave it over the reader at the gate and you’re in. I only wanted to walk up with you for old time’s sake. But you look like you need some alone time, so I’m going to leave you here. Call if you need me to pick you up before park close.”
“I…what about dinner?” Or lunch, for that matter?
“Online pass comes with meals. Wave your phone over the reader. It’ll bill me.” She looked over the top of her glasses. “But don’t think that means you’re going to eat garbage. I picked the healthy meals option, and the system won’t let you buy anything that doesn’t have a green sticker on it. So, no MaskerAde, no chips, no candy. Not on my dime anyway. Love you.” Then she was walking away.
She glanced over her shoulder. “Yes.”
“Thanks…for giving me some space.”
She snorted. “You’re thirteen, you’re going to need a lot of it.”
Before I could think of anything sarcastic to say, she started walking again. Okay, they might drive me crazy, but my folks were kind of cool. As I got closer to the gates, I saw Glen and Jamal lining up ahead of me and ducked behind a handy adult so they wouldn’t see me. They played basketball too, and were with some of the guys from the team—not my people at all.
They spotted me anyway, and Manny, their semi-official leader—team captain—called out, “Hey, Quick, where’s your Dorkman suit?”
I winced inwardly, but knew better than to let it show. “It’s in the Dorkmobile, of course.”
My Dorkman suit was an acid green spandex running shirt and matching tights my parents had bought me for winter track. Most of the other runners on my track team went in for loose running pants and baggy shirts. The one time I wore spandex to a practice, they’d called me out for wearing a Dorkman suit. It had taken me three months and a couple of fights to get the track guys to stop ribbing me about it. Unfortunately, the basketball team hadn’t given up yet.
Manny made a big show of surprise. “What, you’re not going to wear it into the park? I’d think this is the perfect place for it.”
I shook my head sadly. “Dude, secret identity, duh!”
He smiled. “Good answer, Quick. You’re not so bad. A little weird, but all right. You thinking about trying out for basketball this year?”
“I might.” You couldn’t pay me enough, but I wasn’t about to say that to the team captain. “But you guys are really good, and the competition’s tough.” No harm in buttering him up a bit if it’d get me out of the hot seat.
It seemed to work, because they went back to joking amongst themselves and left me alone after that. That was all to the good. I’m actually pretty bad at athletics, especially for someone on the track team. I do it anyway because, well…I looked up at the giant sculpture of Captain Commanding—because of that.
Have you ever really wanted something? I mean really, deep down in your bones? So bad you would do practically anything to get it? That’s how I felt about being a Mask. I get picked last in any team sport, and I trip over my own feet if I’m not careful. But I’m still on track, and I lift weights with the real jocks every day of the school year.
It’s not because I like running or weightlifting. I hate running. Every single second that I’m out there putting one foot in front of the other I’m thinking, I hate this, I want to quit, I hate this, I want to quit, I hate…etc. Lifting weights is even worse. You’ve got all the work and none of the changing scenery to keep you from being bored out of your skull. But I still do it. Do you know why? Because the Captain works out every day, and because I have spent every day of the last ten years wanting to become a Mask so I could be just like Captain Commanding.
My dream would be utterly and completely pathetic if he didn’t make such a difference. He’s the most important Mask in the whole world. Sure, he can come off as a little full of himself, but the dude’s earned the right. He’s saved tens of thousands of lives. Personally.
That’s really what being a Mask is all about, at least for the true heroes—helping people. I hate how corny I sound when I think this kind of stuff, but it’s true. If I had super powers, I could be so much more than plain old me. I could do the kinds of things that would make the world a better place. I could make a difference!
But then I got up to the ticket reader, a life-sized fiberglass Captain Commanding, and I needed to head into the park. I waved my phone between his extended left hand and his face and his laser eyes scanned the code.
The Captain’s recorded voice boomed out, “Welcome to Camp Commanding! Do you have what it takes to be a Hero, …Evan…Quick?” My name came out in a stilted computer voice. That was new, a special feature for electronic season pass holders maybe. Creepy. I was about to move on when the voice spoke again. “Please follow in the Captain’s footsteps for your chance to prove yourself worthy, …Evan…Quick.”
What on Earth? I looked around and saw a series of footprints projected onto the sidewalk behind the fiberglass figure. The prints went in sequence, red print, white print, blue print, repeat. They led off to the left and around the spinning, twisting, blinking bulk of the Sparktopus. Most of the rides at Camp Commanding were themed around Hoods and their battles with the Captain. The Sparktopus had eight lightning throwing mechanical arms—a real monster.
I stood there half-looking at the prints for a long time, trying to decide whether to follow them. But then I finally figured, what else did I have to do?
They ended at a little building I didn’t remember ever seeing before. It was mostly masked by a hedge, so no real surprise there, I guess. A big glass door slid aside and a disembodied voice spoke from the ceiling, “Welcome, …Evan…Quick. This is your lucky day. Our records show that you turned thirteen yesterday. Is that correct?”
“Did you mean ‘yes,’ …Evan…Quick?”
“Thank you. Your recent birthday makes you eligible for a special Camp Commanding gift and a chance to win your very own Mask uniform. Please place your hand on the scanner.”
Say what you will about my chance of ever developing any powers, having my own uniform still sounded pretty cool to me. When a big arrow lit up on the wall and pointed to a small green screen with the outline of a right hand printed on it, I slapped my hand down. The screen hummed, and a line of light slowly slid from bottom to top. As it touched my hand, I felt a scratchy-tingly sensation, like someone was running an electrified metal scraper gently down my fingers and palm.
It didn’t quite hurt, but it was pretty uncomfortable. I wanted to jerk my hand away, but I couldn’t make my arm move at all. Before I had time to get too worked up about it though, the sensation stopped and I lifted my hand. My palm was bright pink.
A moment later, I heard a sharp clunk and then a sound like one of those giant gumball machines operating behind the wall in front of me. I noticed a little tiny door with a basket underneath the hand scanner just as a clear plastic capsule dropped out of it.
“Please take your prize, …Evan…Quick, and wait while we process your entry.” This was followed by the sort of stereotypical computer processing sounds you might hear in a cheap Mask movie.
I picked up the capsule, finding it surprisingly heavy. Inside was a ring with the golden ankh logo of the Office of Strategic Intelligence and Research, International Section inset into the red stone in the bezel. OSIRIS was the agency in charge of metahuman affairs. That was kind of a letdown, actually, since I already had an OSIRIS decoder ring. But I opened the capsule anyway—mostly because of the weight. I was quite surprised when the heavy metal loop fell into my hand—this wasn’t a cereal box extra. This felt every bit as substantial as my dad’s college ring.
I slipped it onto my ring finger, where it fit perfectly. Okay, that was pretty awesome, and it made me feel better about the creepy hand scanner. The computer processing noises suddenly stopped with a gentle chime.
“Congratulations…Evan…Quick, you have been randomly selected to win your very own Mask uniform made from real hero-grade materials. Please enter the booth for the full body measuring scan.”
A section of wall sank in and slid aside with a sharp hiss, revealing a round closet-like room lined with small red disks that reminded me of bicycle reflectors. It was more than a little intimidating. But, I looked at my new ring and thought about how cool it would to have a real Mask uniform even if I never got any powers. The Halloween opportunities alone would justify taking the chance. Still, as I passed through the door, I couldn’t help noticing how very thick and heavy it looked.
There were a pair of footprints printed on the floor. When I stepped into the prints, the door slid closed behind me. I was committed now. I heard the gumball machine noise again and looked around for another basket. This time, a little door popped open spitting out a set of dark swim-meet style goggles.
“Please put on the goggles, …Evan…Quick.”
They were so dark I could barely see, but I dutifully put them on. A few seconds later, I was glad I had. Every single disk in the room lit up like a steroidal sun lamp, bathing me in red light. Even with the goggles on I found my eyes watering. Before I had time to get too freaked out over that, I found something much better to freak out about.
Remember the tingly itchy sensation the hand scanner had given me? That! Everywhere, and stronger, and not only on the surface either. It felt like someone had wired a little tiny battery to every single cell in my body. Not painful, but not the least bit comfortable either.
It went on and on and on until I thought I was going to come apart. I wanted to curl into a ball, or scream, or…well, anything! But I couldn’t. I couldn’t move at all. The beams coming from the disks had me pinned as tight as any Hood who ever lost a battle to the Wrestleosaurus.
End of Excerpt
Chapter three may be found in the book School for Sidekicks out from Feiwel and Friends on Aug 4th 2015.