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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Changeling: Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Kip Miles watched Ms. Hunter enter the classroom with only mild curiosity. Even though he looked perfectly average in the mirror, with brown skin, brown eyes and black hair, it was a dirty family secret that he was far too intelligent. He learned things faster than his classmates in school, enjoyed reading complicated books from old, far too sophisticated authors, and made startling connections between what looked like to his parents completely unrelated things. They were all the symptoms of that peculiar mental illness, the egghead complex, that could get anyone excoriated by the public and virtually unemployable if corporations ever found out. His mother had once begged him to be just a bit dumber, and offered him an endless supply of pot to smoke. Pot was good at reducing intelligence, which in his case would be medically beneficial. But Kip had refused. He hated the smell of pot, and it made his eyes water even when others smoked it in the same room. He couldn't imagine smoking the awful things every day for the rest of his life. But he had to admit his intelligence was a major disability. While everyone else had made plenty of friends, started sleeping around regularly with each other, and genuinely enjoyed the challenge of the course work they were given in school, Kip found everyone and everything tedious. He was sixteen years old, and algebra just wasn't enough. Nor was learning yet again that Columbus was the most evil man who ever lived, except for Hitler, who was even more evil, every year in history. "Many millions of innocent people died because of Hitler and Christopher Columbus. Therefore, everything they believed were the worst possible beliefs, precisely because they believed them. Case closed." Kip was fine with hating Columbus and Hitler alongside everyone else. He deplored the deaths of millions like anyone else. But he wished he could learn something, anything else during a new school year. He had understood Columbus and Hitler were evil by age five, and he really hadn't needed any further proof of the issue since then. As for algebra, he had mastered that by age ten. Intelligence really was a curse. He counted the minutes until he could escape school every day, while everyone else giggled and made out in the hallways between class. The world of dumb people was just so much happier.
"Today I have an announcement," the immaculately dressed Ms. Hunter stood before her podium, adjusting her glasses and taking out her written down speech to read from. Kip slouched back in his chair, putting his feet into the cage that held textbooks in the chair in front of him, and waited. It would probably be something about a field trip to a farm where they could watch 'life in the real world,' and people who did what 'really mattered.' Schools loved mocking any intellectual pursuits, making sure everyone knew that farming was good enough for anyone. It was arrogant to consider anything more valuable than food. And arrogance was the worst crime of all. Kip had no reason to argue with the school about it, obviously food mattered more than anything else, and thus farmers were the most valuable workers imaginable. It was just so boring to literally watch plants grow. Field trips were the worst. Most of the other students paired off and sneaked into the woods. But Kip, even at sixteen, was still a virgin. He hated field trips.
"Due to certain uncivil reactionary retrogrades in our community, the government has been forced to take further action in the interests of world peace and equality. Henceforth all marriages will be arranged by the state, serving the public interest. No longer will individuals be allowed to flaunt their arrogant selfishness by refusing to fit in with the system, which is the only hope of producing a truly just and harmonious world. There is only one race, the human race, and it is time certain recalcitrants learned this fact once and for all.” Ms. Hunter gave a polite cough, staring daggers at the girl in the back row, who spent every day looking out the window, her fist under her chin, with a cold, distant aura that kept everyone from talking to her. Unprecedentedly, she had refused every single boy’s offer to no-fault sex. Kip blushed to remember those cold, despising eyes narrow as she had rejected him. It wasn’t considered polite for a girl to turn down a boy’s offer, because it made a girl sound arrogant, like she was too good to make love with just anyone. Most girls would rather die than be considered arrogant. But Autumn was shameless. She didn’t care what people thought. That was only half the problem.
The other half was the color of her eyes. They were blue. Blue eyes at this day and age were impossible. But there she sat. She had blue eyes, an impossibility after centuries of indiscriminate racial mixing. She had blonde hair, another impossibility after centuries of indiscriminate racial mixing. And she had alabaster skin, a third impossibility after centuries of indiscriminate racial mixing. She was a child of impossibility. A child of those people. Racists who thought their physical features were better than anyone else’s. And even though it wasn’t fair to condemn children for the sins of their parents, she didn’t even have the common courtesy to get a deep tan from the freely available public tanning booths, that could have made her skin at least halfway decent. She could have dyed her hair a proper black, like everyone else’s. She could have worn contacts. But instead she sat, her long blonde hair cascading over her shoulders and down her neck, her fair skin so clear veins were visible snaking through her arms, and her bright blue eyes glowing with scornful defiance, like a raptor searching for prey, refusing to look away from anyone who tried to confront her. Maybe her parents made her keep the looks she was born with. In that case, what choice did she have? Autumn Brewnell wasn’t necessarily a racist. She could hate her own body and be the first victim of her parent’s reactionary primitiveness, but be unable to escape their parental authority when it came to her appearance. Kip wanted to think the best of her, so long as he could.
This was because, no matter how much Kip internally condemned her, he was fascinated by the girl in the back row. Autumn rarely spoke. When groups of students gathered to pull her hair and mock her for being arrogant, racist, eggheaded and the product of incest, the only possible way she could still have fair skin and blue eyes, she never replied. She just stared at her classmates with a bored detachment, waiting for the litany of insults to end. She had cried out in pain when one particularly resentful girl had torn out a lock of her hair. But then she had recovered, simply staring at the girl, as if to ask whether she was now satisfied. That translucent porcelain face, that practically revealed her bones underneath, never, ever revealed what she truly thought or felt. Kip wanted to know the answer to that one mystery more than anything else in his life. She was the single not boring entity in school. The single not boring existence he had ever come across in his life. Therefore, so long as Kip could find an excuse for her, he would forgive Autumn Brewnell anything. Even that she turned him down. Even that she turned him down knowing he hadn’t asked anyone else in class -- an honor any other girl should have, would have fallen for. Instincts were instincts after all. Even if no one wanted to be thought of as special, every girl wanted to be considered special by their lover. It was one of the only chances to be unique in life. Kip was sure it would work, that he would succeed where the others had failed. But she had seemed even angrier and more contemptuous of him than anyone else. Like he had disappointed her. Why? He never insulted her or pulled any pranks on her. He didn’t hold her parents’ racism against her and treat her unfairly for sins she never did. It wasn’t fair.
“Furthermore, there are disturbing reports of eggheads who cling to their intelligence as a sign of superiority over their brethren. This dangerous activity must be eliminated once and for all. Everyone knows intelligent people are pied pipers, who use their forked tongues to convince real people who do real things and stick to solid, common sense all sorts of heresies and scandalous falsehoods. Recently, an egghead was overheard to say that “all things weren’t equal, take for instance the bugs and people, surely we could admit one was better than the other.” The class gasped. Better was a forbidden word. A vulgar word. A word that meant you could never be employed for life. Better was like the other word. That word couldn’t even be thought, much less spoken. Kip didn’t let his mind dwell on it too long.
“It would be fine if these reactionaries were simply wrong, a tolerant society can allow some measure of foolishness. But they insist on marrying only other intelligent people like themselves, no matter how high we raise the financial penalties and taxes on these families. Even forcing these families to wear blue ovals at all times to let people know they were eggheads who wouldn’t mix with the rest of us hasn’t been enough to deter their deviancy. And using this intelligence, they insist on persuading others, through their sneaky fraudulent tactics they call logic and reason, when everyone knows common sense is the only proper method of argument, to join in their deviancy. This destabilizing force has to end, or the world will never be able to fully embrace the joys of normalcy.” Ms. Hunter took a drink of water and then continued.
“It was the wisdom of our forefathers to realize equality could only ever be realized in a world where marriage served the public interest, and was no longer bound to the chains of private prejudice. For centuries we have tried to use subsidies, awards, persuasion, fines, any voluntary measure we could think of to bring our last vestige of retrogades into the light of day, to banish their awful arrogance and allow them back into human fellowship. We regret to say that they have refused all of our advances, all of our offers, and like cave men insist on living in the past. Well the past is past. Since voluntary measures aren’t enough, and since world peace must happen, and peace will never happen until humans have full and mutual respect for one another, and respect is best proven by mixing of the genes, the only way we can be sure people honestly respect their fellow man, whoever he or she might be, as an equally worthy half of their children’s DNA, the world government has enacted a new law: The Defense of Equality Act. Until every last retrograde has been mixed and remixed, until every last holdout in our society has been blended into a perfect mediocrity, marriage will no longer be subject to choice. Henceforth, everyone’s partners in life will be decided by lottery, the only objective manner of choosing. The future belongs to fairness, not discrimination, and we will take whatever measures are necessary to combat this social poison, this cancer in our midst.” Ms. Hunter finished her speech.
“By lottery?” Julie, a girl in the first row gasped. “But I love Jack. We’d already agreed to marry at eighteen!”
“Don’t blame the government, Julie.” Ms. Hunter said compassionately. “These sorts of freedoms were preserved for centuries, in the hopes the government could peacefully integrate society. They were only forced to this extreme because of certain people. I think you know who is to blame, Julie. I think everyone here knows who is to blame for forcing the government to this extreme.”
The entire class turned to look at blonde haired, blue eyed, white skinned Autumn Brewnell. Julie Lasquelle had a face contorted with hatred. She knew full well who was to blame.
“Freedom must be practiced with responsibility. When children do not show enough responsibility to be trusted to do what is right, their freedom must be taken away, and measures have to be enforced directly. Because of certain people who didn‘t treat their freedom responsibly, we must all lose our freedom. No, the government can’t be blamed when selfish people go their own way. This is all the fault of the retrogrades. Everything has been the fault of the discriminators since the dawn of history. Isn’t that right, class?”
“Yes, Ms. Hunter.” Kip quickly agreed with everyone else. Everyone but Autumn Brewnell, whose nose was flaring, her eyes narrowed, her forehead wrinkled, and her hands balled into fists. Kip stared at her in amazement. She had always agreed in the past. You had to agree with the teacher every time she pointed that out. It was detention otherwise. Detention, and a mark on your permanent record. What was Autumn doing? Kip silently willed her to speak up, quickly, and save herself.
“Isn’t that right, Ms. Brewnell?” Ms. Hunter asked insipidly, a delighted smile breaking out on her face. Finally, finally, divine justice was being visited on this holier-than-thou-trollop. Finally Ms. Brewnell was cracking.
Autumn shot up from her chair, pushing her desk forward in her haste. Her hair flashed behind her in a sinuous wave back and forth. Kip could see her pulse in her throat. Impossibly, her face became a shade of scarlet, as if her skin were that of a chameleon’s instead of a human’s decent brown. Autumn put both of her fists on her desk, leaning forward with a look of pure hatred, no, killing intent, at her teacher. The arc her back made was like a snake in motion.
“I will never marry against my will.” Autumn Brewnell said, her voice shaking with emotions Kip couldn’t begin to fathom. “This means war.”
Kip didn’t know what he was looking at anymore. This girl with hair of molten sunlight, this falcon who flew just by standing, was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. She stood like a queen commanding armies, defying her teacher, the class, the law, the world, and everyone’s opinions of her, a living testament to her hatred of the system. And with her invisible legions, queen of her invisible kingdom, she had just declared war on the rest of mankind. Impossible. Is she insane? How could a lone individual declare war? She was going to get arrested!
“Now you’ve said it, Ms. Brewnell.” Ms. Hunter cackled and clapped in triumphant glee. “I knew you were a racist like your filthy parents, but I never thought you’d name yourself a terrorist. You must know all conversations in the classroom are recorded. I’m afraid this is the end for you.” Ms. Hunter hit a button, connecting her to the principal’s office.
“Hello, this is Ms. Hunter, from class 2-b. I’m afraid we have a disciplinary problem. Would you mind summoning the security staff?” The security staff patrolled every modern school, police with full powers, after the incidents of schoolyard fights had markedly increased over the decades. As people became more normal and average, schools had become increasingly impossible to administer, until the new disciplinary measures had been put in place. Now everyone knew to toe the line, or else. The chaos of the past was long past.
“Say you didn’t mean it.” Graham Momba suggested to Autumn, suddenly. “Apologize, quickly! You’re just overwrought. No one’s blaming you. Please just say you were joking and didn’t mean it.” Kip’s hopes soared. Way to go, Graham! Why didn’t I think of that?
Autumn Brewnell just turned her icy blue eyes to Graham and stared. Eventually Graham’s hopeful face melted into consternation, and then his eyes slinked away from her. Stupid girl! Just because we all know you meant it doesn’t mean you can’t apologize! It’s all right to pretend to believe things you don’t for the sake of social harmony! He was only trying to help! This is why no one likes you!
“I’m afraid Ms. Brewnell is an unsalvageable retrograde, Mr. Momba. There’s no point wasting any pity on her. Trash like her are the cause of everything wrong with this world, aren’t they, class?” Ms. Hunter grinned triumphantly at her helpless student.
“Yes, Ms. Hunter.” Kip immediately replied alongside the rest of the class, feeling sick to his stomach. You had to answer yes to that question. It went on your permanent record.
Cops started pouring into the classroom. Ms. Hunter pointed at her quarry and the men leaped at Autumn. She made no move to resist, but they tackled her to the ground anyway, holding her arms so she couldn’t brace her fall. Autumn let out a squeal of pain, and a brief look of panic surrounded her face before she could mask it again with her traditional scornful defiance. They tied her wrists together behind her back, yanked her neck by pulling the back of her hair, and with coarse laughter at the bruises appearing so well against her pale skin pushed her out the classroom door.
Kip Miles realized he was never going to see Autumn again.

Kip Miles estimated it would take fifteen minutes or so for the principal to assess the gravity of Autumn's offense, and another fifteen minutes or so for police from outside to drive to school, pick her up, and take her away. Though the accused had all sorts of rights, this was an open and shut case. The girl had clearly announced a plot to commit treason against the state, in front of everyone, in front of a video camera. The trial would be short and simple. Though the death penalty had been banned long ago, there was no probation for enemies of the state. Autumn was sixteen years old, but that was old enough to be tried as an adult in the case of serious crimes, which included all political offenses. The laws had no mercy for her type. Neither did juries, or judges. Autumn was essentially dead to the outside world. Odds were her parents and siblings would be arrested too, and their home searched for evidence of a conspiracy to commit treason, now that Autumn had alerted the government to the threat. Guilt by association was a classic deterrent to political offenders, but it was also almost always accurate. People didn't come to aberrant conclusions in vacuums. They always had some sort of support network that secretly agreed with them, to one extent or another. Tracing treason through that network was the quickest and easiest way to net all the culprits in one sweep. Just like antibiotics had to be taken so thoroughly that nothing survived, or else the disease would simply reassert itself in greater strength later, political dissidents had to be traced back to their roots, and those roots had to be uprooted permanently, or the problem would simply reemerge in the next generation.
Kip understood the logic. Ordinarily, he would have agreed with it. But he wasn't in an ordinary state of mind. He had been transfixed by Autumn's pose, her eyes, her fury, and that flowing blonde hair, until he couldn't tell up from down anymore. All he knew was this: Autumn was beautiful. He wanted to see her again. He didn't want her to disappear. He wanted to know the mysteries behind that pale detached mask of a face she wore. Who was she? Why did she act so differently from everyone else? What did she think about when she stared out the window? She was the only thing he hadn't understood instantly in his life, and then been bored to death repeating day and night every year at home, at church and at school.
One of the curses of intelligence was a heightened sense of curiosity. It made you think about things you shouldn't, and want to know things that only caused trouble. He didn't like his curiosity, he hadn't meant to become fascinated by this exotic looking creature from a zoo or an old history book, but even so curiosity possessed him. He couldn't get rid of it. If Kip just let Autumn disappear, without ever getting her to answer his questions, he would regret that decision forever. It would dominate the rest of his life. He had condemned her as filth and trash, alongside all of his classmates, before she was taken away. If he left things at that, that would be her last memory of him in her life. He didn't want that to be the last impression he left on her. He didn't want that to be the final verdict when it came to what he thought of himself. If he didn't apologize to her for that, he would know himself a coward for the rest of his life. Some things were worse than death. The loathing he felt for himself every second he sat at this desk, knowing Autumn's time was running out, was one of them. He had to do something.
He had to rescue Autumn Brewnell.
Kip Miles raised his hand.
"Yes, Mr. Miles?" Ms. Hunter asked politely. Kip had never caused trouble in class, and so Ms. Hunter had never caused him any trouble in turn. But all of a sudden he hated the woman. He hated her more than he had ever hated anyone in his life. Kip tried to keep the feelings away from his face and voice.
"Sorry, but may I be excused to the restroom?" Kip asked politely.
"Of course, Mr. Miles, take a five minute pass and be quick about it." Ms. Hunter proceeded to forget about him and return to instructing the class, yet again, about the differences between verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs. Most of the class seemed confused and still didn't get it. Kip had understood the terms the moment they had been defined. When he was six. He was happy to leave this class behind.
Kip was leaving his whole life behind. But he found that he didn't mind that much either. He had never connected with his parents. They had been ashamed of him all his life, because of all of his eggheaded tendencies. They had wrung their hands and wondered aloud how he could possibly be their son, upstanding salt of the Earth common sense folk that they were, right at the middle of the pack. He had apologized to them multiple times as a child, telling them he had never meant to be eggheaded and he wished he wasn't, but that it just happened against his will. But eggheaded was eggheaded. His parents, just like society, had never forgiven him for it. There wasn't anything to return home to. In fact, Kip Miles had never had a life in the first place. This was the first time he had ever done anything because he wanted to, instead of because someone else had told him to do it that way. This was the beginning of his life.
Don't fool yourself, Kip thought wryly. This is also the end of your life. But oh well. It would be a splendid five seconds or so. If those last five seconds of his life were sublime enough, because he could finally be proud of himself for living them. . .then it was lifetime enough. It was lifetime enough to apologize, too. Five seconds was enough time to make a lot of important decisions. For some people, even with five years, or fifty, they still wouldn't have enough time to make even one. That was the difference between courage and cowardice.
Kip walked through the hallway in a daze, letting his memory guide him, not even looking at his surroundings. He needed a weapon. A baseball bat from the equipment storage room would serve. He kicked the locked door until it broke off its hinges. His body had always been fitter and stronger than others. He tried not to let it show in gym class or as a child during recess. Athleticism was a type of arrogance. But he was glad of his strength now. Kip felt like he was a spirit watching his own body move from outside. Who knew he could kick down a door so easily? Who knew he could break into the principal's room with a baseball bat? But here he was, doing it, and his mind drawing a curious blank when it should have been screaming and screeching in panic and doubt. His mind was as clean as a mountain stream. He felt everything and nothing. He was ready to kill and die for a girl who had done nothing but insult and despise him. Well, it wasn't any more foolish than Agamemnon, who had launched a thousand ships to retrieve an adulteress, and sacrificed his own daughter to the gods to make sure his voyage succeeded. If he recalled correctly, Helen had had blonde hair too. Maybe all blondes were witches. That could explain what he was doing. He was definitely bewitched.
Kip Miles took an opaque sack used to carry basketballs and stuck in his bat. Video cameras would alarm people too soon if he walked through the school hallways weapon bared. He slung the sack and two others, each carrying their own sports equipment, over his shoulder and walked nonchalantly out of the shed. Hopefully if he was interrupted or observed by any of the hallway security, they would assume he was on some designated errand, to be carrying so many bags. Kip knew confidence while carrying something heavy was generally a pass to walk anywhere in the adult world.
It had been eight minutes since Autumn had been dragged through the classroom door. Kip kept his stride from speeding up. There was still plenty of time. No one would see him coming. Security would be lax. There would be two guards at most. The first wouldn't know what hit him. The second? Well, he was stronger than most people. He'd handle the second somehow. They would have the key to her handcuffs, unless she was still just bound by a plastic strip. Those could be cut easily enough. Everything was still fine.
Kip nodded politely to anyone he passed in the hall. The others barely saw him, having their own duties to attend to, and assuming Kip was following his. People didn't tend to be original in the modern day. They could be counted on to conform, because everyone was virtually identical in the first place. It should have worked for Kip too. But he had met Autumn. Normalcy was impossible now. Kip knocked on the door to the principal's office, sliding his bat out of his bag and holding it behind his back, while letting the rest of his luggage go. It was do or die. His stomach jumped up towards his throat, a strange numb tingling sensation twisting it into a knot. Nevermind. It's too late to stop now.
One of the guards opened the door in a careless motion, already turning away to look back at the woman he was assigned to restrain. Kip walked into the room, past the doorway, and swung the bat from behind his back all the way to his target's head in one fatal arc. The man's head made a cracking, smushing sound against his bat's wood. If he wasn't dead, he was out of the fight. Kip surveyed the rest of the room for his next opponent. There was only the principal, looking paralyzed with shock. Kip didn't hesitate. The spirit that was outside his body watched Kip walk up to the desk and swing his bat for the man's head. It cracked, and the man slumped into his chair. He hadn't even moved or yelled to sound the alarm. That was good. That gave him time.
"Are you okay?" Kip asked, finally turning to look at his Helen of Troy. His voice was shaking, which was odd, because he still felt perfectly calm. She didn't look any worse for wear than when he had last seen her. That felt like a lifetime ago. But it was probably only ten minutes. What did he expect, a guy with iron knuckles slugging her for the last ten minutes for no reason, with her not resisting her arrest at all? His brain wasn't working right anymore.
"I'm fine. You, however, are insane." Autumn Brewnell replied. Even though she said that, her eyes were different from before. The loathing she had always viewed him with was more muted. Her eyes were wider than normal, like they were trying to see what was in front of her, because she couldn't understand or recognize it as things stood.
Kip shrugged and checked her handcuffs. They were plastic. He searched the room for a pair of scissors, found them, and cut her free.
"I've come to rescue you." Kip explained.
"How?" Autumn asked, rubbing her wrists where the red marks had chafed and cut off her circulation.
"I don't know. I suppose we can threaten a motorist to get out of his car and drive away from there." Kip suggested.
"No one gets away in a car chase. They'll have hundreds of cars after you for this." Autumn replied.
"Me? This is your escape too." Kip protested.
"I haven't done anything to resist arrest yet. This is entirely your doing. If I sit here and wait, they can't accuse me of anything." Autumn looked at Kip levelly.
Kip's mouth fell open, staring at this inexplicable existence. "You can't be serious."
"I suppose I'm not." Autumn sighed. "You have forced my hand, Kip, and I will not thank you for it. If we're going to escape, you will walk behind me, and do exactly what I say. For now, don't ask any questions. You are hopelessly out of your depth right now." The way she said Kip made it clear she felt the name was somewhere between snail and slug.
"Do you have an idea where we can flee? Somewhere we can hide?" Kip asked.
"I said no questions." Autumn reminded him. She walked to the principal's desk and picked up his phone. She didn't seem to see the bloody mess a foot or two from her hand that had been their principle. Autumn dialed a number and waited for someone to pick up.
"Yes, mother? Did you hear the announcement?" Autumn said, her voice suddenly happier than Kip had ever heard in school. Tense, yes. Nervous, yes. But somehow freer. Like a bird that was finally allowed to fly again.
"I'm afraid I made a bit of a scene. I was arrested. Your place will probably be raided next. You might have an hour." Autumn explained.
"Yes mother, I'm sorry." Autumn said. But Kip thought she didn't sound very remorseful. "I just couldn't stand that creature anymore. That was my line in the sand."
Kip waited with increasing worry, standing outside any shooting lane from the door he had closed and locked. Eventually a guard would notice the video camera taping the scene of the carnage live. Or the police who had been called to pick up Autumn would arrive. The girl seemed to be having an ordinary conversation without a care in the world. But maybe that meant she had a plan. Maybe it meant she still had hope. In which case not interrupting her right now was a very good idea.
"A good Samaritan decided to break me free. No, I don't understand it either. No, I don't know him. Yes, it's very strange. So now I need help getting away from here. What can you give me?" Autumn asked. Kip felt a little nervous that she was only using the singular tense for the last two sentences.
"Norn? On the corner of Chesterfield and 5th? Oh, thank you Mom! That would be perfect. Okay, I'll see you at the mill. Love you." Autumn hung up.
"Police!" A voice shouted from behind the door. And then without further ado they sprayed through the wooden door with a machine gun. Kip dodged back behind his book case, glad he had taken precautions. But if they were pinned down here, their life was going to be measured in seconds either way.
Autumn was standing, her hair flowing down to her waist, the gunfire creating a slight wind that swirled it back and forth, in the middle of the doorway.
"Get down!" Kip shouted, panic ripping through his guts.
"I told you already, didn't I? Get behind me. I can't protect you if I don't know your location." Autumn pointed to where he needed to stand imperiously. The door had shredded apart. Bullets were flying in a storm directly where Autumn was standing. Whatever miracle had preserved her so far couldn't possibly last another instant.
Autumn Brewnell wasn't hit. She wasn't afraid. A sea of bullets were piling up a few feet in front of her, making a clink clink clink as they scattered off the ground. All of their tips were deformed, as though by a violent impact. Then the guns went silent, because their barrels had been twisted like pretzels. Then the cursing police went silent, because their necks had just been twisted 180 degrees. Kip stared. He had gone mad. No, he was in complete control of his senses. The world had gone mad. The world had gone mad ever since this morning. Kip stood up and walked to where Autumn had pointed. He was willing to believe anything now.
"Follow me." Autumn walked out of the principal's office. Another barrage of machine gun fire caught her in a crossfire from both hallways. Police were running towards their location from all directions. Autumn stood like a rock against the crashing waves, carefully looked at her opponents one by one, and their necks snapped too, the heavily armored SWAT team fell like so many rag dolls from the gaze of a basilisk. A blue eyed basilisk. No, a blue eyed reaper of souls. Kip watched her as a grenade's explosion harmlessly stopped at an invisible line in the air, her hair streaming behind the toss of her head and turn of her shoulders, and could only think of one line. He was sure it was a quote, but God only knew from where.

The hallway, which had been a den of chaos, fell silent again. Everyone within sight was no longer moving. Autumn motioned Kip with her hand and started jogging towards the exit. At one intersection a hail of gunfire ambushed her from the side, but the bullets didn't hit her this time either. Kip was suddenly very glad he was following her closely. His baseball bat felt very, very useless. Autumn turned with that customary look of scorn on her face, her chin tilted slightly to the right of level, and fixed her gaze on the man who had thought he was clever. The firing stopped again. The rest of the hallway passages out of the school were clear. Whatever reinforcements the police had called for would be coming from places much further away now. They were free and clear. Autumn broke into a quick run. She didn't check to see if Kip was keeping up. He followed her, keeping his breathing even. It's not like a girl could outpace him. Even if this was practically a sprint. He could sprint for longer distances than most people could jog. Not that he had ever tested his ability against anyone else before. It was just one of those embarrassing things he never revealed, since he had never had to before.
"What is Norn?" Kip asked, finding air enough for the words even at their pace.
"I told you, no questions, Kip." Autumn turned her head sideways, so that her voice would carry behind her, the disgust she attached to his name very clear. Her blonde hair was streaming almost horizontally now with the wind, and her face had an elated smile. It looked monstrous on her. He had never even imagined her face could crease that way. Elated because they were running so fast? Because she had escaped from life in prison? Or because she had just killed so many men? Who, or what, was Autumn Brewnell? And why was she still so achingly beautiful to him?
"You're keeping up. Good. Then we're increasing our pace." Autumn informed him. She turned her head forward again, and suddenly she bolted ahead of him. Kip blinked. She was just a girl. Her leg muscles didn't look anything special. But she was an Olympic class runner. Before they had banned the Olympics a century ago, because it was a symbol of the ancient fascist elitism. A relic of the past, a sickening cult of the forbidden word. The word Kip couldn't even bring himself to think. But how else could you describe that speed? Kip released all of his limiters, every instinct he had taught himself to stay slow with. He was suddenly sprinting faster than he ever had, and it was still a race to catch up. He started gasping for air, his lungs pulling in more and more strength, letting the pounding of his legs find a stable rhythm. They were racing through city blocks, weaving their way through traffic, and all of a sudden Kip found himself smiling too. He had never run this fast. He had never thought someone else could run this fast, either. He felt drunk on his own pounding blood. His heart beat so hard it felt ready to leave his chest. Kip dropped his worthless baseball bat and pumped his arms to keep his balance, his hands like knife edges to cut the wind.
The world narrowed down to his next few steps, her streaming flying hair, her hips rolling back and forth, and the colors that came and went at the sides of his eyes. He was keeping up. And in four minutes, at a pace meant only for the shortest bursts, they were both at Chesterfield and 5th. She peeled out in a curve, slowing herself down with every step. He passed far in front of her before he could stop, clutching his knees and gasping for air. He hadn't made a fool of himself by losing to a girl, thank God. But if she had run even a tenth of a second faster. . .
"Get behind me. We're walking from here. Catch your breath and cool down." Autumn ordered.
"Walking?" Kip gasped in consternation between big gulping breaths for more air. Even so, he stepped back behind her, the only place she had guaranteed his safety.
"What part of 'no questions' do you not understand?" Autumn gave him an ugly glare.
"The necessity." Kip quipped. Autumn stared at him, like she was trying to make sense of an exotic lifeform, and then she started laughing. Her voice had that same carefree tone she never used during school. It was full and true and free. It made him smile without even knowing what the joke was.
"I suppose you're right, Kip." Autumn used her familiar drawled out pronunciation of his name. "It isn't necessary anymore. I suppose it's up to mother if we kill you. But if we don't kill you, now's as good a time to know the truth as any. We're walking the rest of the way from here. Just stay close behind me, and we should be fine. I'll answer any questions you like. Fire away."
"What is Norn?" Kip started, curiosity finally surging back to the fore of his mind, fiercer than any previous moment in his life.
"Norn's a girl who was sitting in a car that's long since driven off now. She's my friend." Autumn replied affably.
"Why are we safe now?" Kip tried to keep his questions orderly. He wanted to know everything.
"She telepathically wove a mask around us. Anyone who sees us, even through a video camera, will see an arranged fake identity. You could say it's a thought-mine. The police can't chase us anymore. As far as they're concerned, Autumn Brewnell and Kip Miles simply disappeared at Chesterfield and 5th." Autumn replied.
"Why didn't we die at school?" Kip asked.
"I wove a telekinetic barrier around us in a sphere," Autumn kept walking leisurely ahead of him, keeping her head halfway turned enough to talk without having to raise her voice.
"If you're this strong, did you have to kill anyone?" Kip asked.
"You heard me in the classroom. I didn't call the government a bunch of poopyheads. I declared war." Autumn's voice was unwavering.
"Are you really a racist?" Kip asked. He probably shouldn't be challenging a girl who killed without a second thought. But she had promised him the truth. And for some reason, he trusted her to fulfill her promises. Even though such a concept was entirely outdated. It was too judgmental to hold people to standards. Even ones they set themselves. Hypocrisy and lies were normal, after all. Avoiding them smacked of arrogance.
"No." Autumn answered.
Kip sighed a breath of relief. "So this is all just a misunderstanding, right? You're not against the system. You just want the freedom to marry the person of your choice. Like Julie!"
"Don't get me wrong, and don't lump me in with the likes of her. Racist implies I belong to a certain race, and the rest of you belong to another race, and I think my race is superior to yours, which is why I would oppose miscegenation. That's not true at all." Autumn smiled toothily at him, her blue eyes waiting for a desired reaction.
"I'm not a racist. I have nothing against miscegenation. I'm a speciesist. I'm opposed to bestiality." Autumn smiled sweetly. Kip knew he would never begin to understand this girl.

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