A Scip Or A Star?
rating: +16+x

Tears streaming down her face, and her heart throbbing in her ears, Lexi raced down the darkened allies, pushing her body as hard as she could. She had no goal other than escape, and her flight had taken her into a decaying and dangerous part of the city. It wasn’t safe here, she knew that, but there was at least a chance she could be safe from them.

She pushed on the door to an old, abandoned office building. To her relief, no one cared enough about the eyesore to lock it up. Closing and barricading every door behind her, she climbed to the top floor and shut herself into what might have been a conference room half a century ago.

Exhausted, she plopped to the floor. Hugging her knees to her chest, she wept at the hopelessness of her situation. Her pursuers would have drones, thermal vision, all the best toys. They didn’t believe in giving their prey a sporting chance. She couldn’t hide here forever. Hell, she probably couldn’t even hide for the rest of the night.

Come sunup, she’d be in their custody. They’d lock her up, experiment on her, torture her, kill her, maybe use her as a weapon, she wasn’t sure. All she knew was that she would never see anyone she cared about again, never live the life she wanted, never again be free.

All because she was an anomaly.

“It’s not fair. It’s not fair,” she sobbed bitterly to herself.

“I know exactly how you feel.”

Lexi screamed at the sound of the stranger’s voice. She kicked herself into a corner for defence, her eyes rapidly scanning the room for the intruder. She saw that the voice belonged to a large man, standing aloofly inside one of the bay windows.

Like Peter Pan.

“It’s alright kid, I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, gently stepping down to the floor. His clothes were oddly old-fashioned, like something from the turn of the twentieth century, not something any of her pursuers were likely to wear.

Also, his face was upside-down. That was probably important too.

“Who are you?” Lexi asked between panicked breaths.

“Call me Manny,” the Man with the Upside-Down Face replied with a slight tip of his hat. His cordial demeanor calmed Lexi down just enough for her to realize that it was anatomically impossible for someone to survive with an upside-down face.

“You’re…you’re anomalous?” she asked.

“Now why would such a nice young girl use so joyless and clinical a term when there are a plethora of far more colourful descriptors for a Freak such as myself?” Manny asked.

“That’s what we’re called, isn’t it? That’s what I read online anyway. That’s how they found me, I think. I googled the wrong words one time too many and I got flagged. I was stupid, thinking incognito mode would protect me from anything! They’ve been spying on me for days, at least. They were waiting until I was home alone to take me, but I climbed out my window into a tree and into the neighbour’s yard then ran like hell. I don’t know if I lost them or not, but even if I did they’ll just find me again.”

“Not if you’re somewhere that can’t be found,” the Man with the Upside-Down Face said with a frown smile. Lexi looked up at him, trying to temper her hope with skepticism.

“What are you even doing here?”

“Scouting for talent, which does tend to take me to some odd places. You know about the Serpent’s Hand, right?”

“Some of the people I spoke with online said they were Serpent’s Hand,” she nodded.

“Well, I have some contacts in the Serpent’s Hand who watch the watchers. They let me know when some poor Freak is about to be snatched away from their home and family and locked away for the rest of their lives for having sparkly eyes. If I can, I get to them first, and I offer them something better.”

“What?”

“Ever heard of Herman Fuller’s Circus of the Disquieting?

“A circus!” Lexi scoffed. “How is that any better? How is being a sideshow freak any better than being in Area 51?”

“For starters, I’m not going to force you to come, or force you to stay. You’ll be free. The Circus is a sanctuary, run for Freaks by Freaks. Sure, your sleeping compartment will be smaller than one of their containment cells, but we’re not going to lock you in there. When you’re not performing or training you can do as you please. No testing, no termination, no fighting someone else’s war. You’ll be free, you’ll be safe, and if you give it a shot you might even be happy.”

“How can a circus possibly be safe, especially from them? What’s stopping them from finding you?”

“All our shows are one day only. No one sees us arrive, and no one sees us leave. The bedazzling lights shield us from unfriendly eyes while drawing in eager customers by the thousands! Music and spun sugar fogs their minds so that any wonders they behold seem nought more than a dream or illusion. If any of the powers that be do get a whiff of us and try to shut us down, I always know, and we vanish before they can even reach the ticket booth. I’ve been doing this for a long time Lexi, longer than they’ve been around even. No one’s caught old Manny yet.”

She squinted up at him discerningly, trying to decide if there was any truth to what he was
saying.

“If I did join this Circus, I’d be a performer? I’d be an anomalous act?”

“There’s that word again. You know why they call us anomalous? Because they don’t want us to think we’re special. They give you a number, call you ‘it’, and describe your magical, miraculous endowments as if they were taking your blood pressure. And they take special care never to call our gifts ‘powers’ lest we start thinking of ourselves as superheroes.
“So tell me Lexi, what’s your power?”

With a hesitant sigh, Lexi reached into her coat pocket and pulled out an hourglass. Holding it upright in her left palm, she pointed at it with her right index finger. The sand shot up from the bottom half to the top and started swirling around. It coalesced into the form of a ballerina, twirling in a pirouette until she let it fall inert.

“I’m a sand bender. Not even an earth bender, a sand bender. I can’t move whole rocks, just grains, I don’t know why. Maybe fluidity. And it’s harmless! They want to lock me up forever because I can control sand with my mind. Fricking sand! ‘Coarse, irritating, gets everywhere’, sure, but the worst I could do is throw it in somebody’s eyes! It’s horseshit! Absolute, fucking horseshit!”

Lexi buried her face in her palms and screamed, trying her best to choke back her sobs. When she looked back up at the Man with the Upside-Down Face, he saw he was smiling at her.

“That’s an X-man power if I ever saw one. The Essie P wouldn’t like you one bit. How much sand can you move?”

“Once, when I was at my aunt’s cottage on Lake Michigan, I sneaked out at night when no one was around to see how much sand I could bend. I made a pillar about 16 feet tall, a few feet wide, shaped it into a totem pole. If I wasn’t scared to death of someone seeing me, I could probably do more.”

“Tell me if you like this for an act: We’ll call you Sandstorm, perfect name for an X-man! We’ll set you up with piles of fluorescent sand, all different colours, and deck you out in fluorescent make-up and body paint. To music, under a strobing black light, you bend the sand into living sculptures, dancing and playing and sparing around the ring!”

“…I wouldn’t be in just body paint, right?”

“The Big Top show’s family friendly, your outfit will be PG-13 at the most.”

“You actually do make it sound kind of fantastic. If I could put on a show like that, I’d be…”

“You’d be a star! Freaks don’t belong locked up in tiny little rooms in giant secret facilities, hidden away so as not to upset all the decent folk’s fragile sensibilities. We belong on stage, making people laugh and scream and puke! At our Circus, people will admire your gifts, not fear them. The audience will be amazed and astounded by your performance, and you’d be surrounded by hundreds of people in the same boat as you, who know what it’s like to be a Freak. The Circus is a family, and family sticks together.”

“What about my real family? My friends? I’ll never see them again.”

“That’s hard to say for sure. Essie won’t keep spying on your folks forever; not an efficient expenditure of resources. Once they’ve lost interest you might be able to pop in back home every now and then. We’d even let you send them letters; old-fashioned, hand-written, untraceable letters. They’ll know you’re alive, and safe, and free, which is a hell of a lot better than being duped into thinking you’re dead or getting pumped so full of amnestics they forget you ever existed.”

Lexi gave him a resigned nod.

“If I do join your circus, I’ll be taken care of? I’m not going to be starved or passed around like a piece of meat?”

“I’ve never tolerated any physical or sexual abuse against my Freaks,” he assured her. “The cookhouse serves three meals a day and you’re free to help yourself, plus you’ll start off at a thousand Fuller Fun-bucks a month.”

“…Fuller Fun-bucks?”

“We’re off the grid. Scrip’s the best we can do,” he replied matter-of-factly. Both their heads shot up at the sound of a car pulling up outside. “Well Lexi, if we stay here any longer we're going to run into a Mobile Task Force. You can let them drag you off kicking and screaming and become a scip, or you can come with me, and become a star! What’s it going to be?”

Lexi knew she had no reason to trust this strange man, but ironically it was the fact that he was so strange that made her want to trust him. He was an anomaly, like her, the first other anomalous person she had ever met in real life. She knew he could be lying, but she also knew she had no hope of evading her pursuers on her own. The offer of sanctuary was not one she could ignore.

“It’s for Freaks, by Freaks? You promise?”

“By the scattered parts of the Broken God, I swear it,” he nodded. Sighing reluctantly, she rose to her feet.

“Deal,” she said, shaking his hand. “But they're already outside! How do we even get to your Circus?”

Manny smiled, walked over to the door she had come through. When he opened it, the hallway was gone, replaced by bright white lights and smoke, as well as the faint sound of calliope music. Lexi slowly walked over to the anomalous door, staring at it dumbly at first, but then with childlike wonder. For the first time that night she felt genuine joy, and her mouth broke into a wide grin.

“How?” she murmured.

“Magic,” was his reply. “After you.”

She nodded, and realized she was no longer afraid but excited. Out of all the horrible fates that could have befallen a Freak like her, working for a magical Circus wasn’t half-bad.

Once she was through the Door, Manny pulled out a walkie-talkie from his pocket.

"The girl's on board, thanks for your help Masky," he said quietly to it.

"Thank god. I don't know what the Foundation does to Freaks it finds impersonating its agents, but I bet it ain't good," Mr. Mask radioed back.

"That's why it's best for all involved that we both forget this ever happened."

"I'm with you there. But, just so that there's no confusion, Icky doesn't know you're kidnapping kids again, does she?"

"I didn't kidnap her, I just helped her realize that she isn't safe on her own and that she's better off with us."

"Whatever you got to tell yourself, man. I just can't help but notice you never 'rescue' any Freaks who aren't likely to draw in the crowds. See ya in the Library."

"Yeah, see you then." Manny released the talk button and discretely stashed the walkie-talkie away in his pocket. With a penitent sigh, he followed his latest recruit back to the Circus.

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