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Authors: Kelly McCullough

School for Sidekicks

 

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For Laura, for love, forever

 

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 Versus 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 Versus 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 3-D 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 way Glen and Jamal were. Sure, I worked my butt off in track and with the weights. But that was because I wanted—more than anything in the world—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 archenemy. 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. I 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 this scene for the first time, pretending that I hadn't seen the historical vids 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 wore 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 my 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 Versus 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 backward into the bank teller's 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 that 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 time-out 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 seriously 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 Masks Versus Hoods 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.”

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