Updates and Musings


Atlas Close-Up

First, good news! The alpha-draft of Small Town Heroes is finished and off to my readers. Since I rewrite as I go along, there will be some changes after I get all the comments in but no major ones. Which means even with final rewrites and edits I am still on schedule for a September 30th release date (I had hoped to have the cover to show you here, but will post it soon). So for all my frustrated readers–I am so, so sorry and I feel your impatience. The wait will be over soon.

Second, I’ve been taking a break from the book for a couple of days to decompress while waiting for comments from my alpha-readers, and that gave me time to think about other things. One thing I should share is some good news/bad news: the bad news is I have decided to drop the project to make Wearing the Cape: the Roleplaying Game using Margaret Weis Productions’ Cortex Plus game system. Which is a shame: I spent quite a bit of time over the last year mastering the Cortex Plus system and put together a trial-balloon “rulebook” for some willing playtesters so that I could field-test a few rules modifications and see how Astra’s world looked as the background for a tabletop RPG, and a dedicated band of playtesters devoted some good evenings and weekends to testing it out for me.

However, due to miscommunications (mostly on my part), I misunderstood the nature of the Cortex Plus Licensing Program: I cannot make a stand-alone game using their system. For awhile I thought I might be content to wait MWP’s release of their forthcoming Heroic Roleplaying corebook and then release a WtC sourcebook for it with the company’s blessing. However, they have not made any representations concerning the release-date of Heroic Roleplaying other than “by the end of the first quarter next year if not sooner.” And even those representations are not set in stone; nothing official has appeared on their site.

So: in the interest of not wasting all the work done so far (I have a great artist and a graphic designer, and of course the background pages for the Post-Event world are mostly done), I have decided to proceed with the project using the Open Game License system Fate. It was a close look at another RPG property, The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, that convinced me the Fate system could do the job handily. The good news is that that is what will occupy my time the last quarter of ’14. And even the playtesting done on the Cortex Plus WtC will not go to waste: after MWP finally releases Heroic Roleplaying, I can and will produce a WtC sourcebook for it.

So now I’ve been entertaining myself with dreaming up Hero Aspects for the game: Aspects are a huge part of Fate (and BTW, if you’ve never played a Fate game but are curious, you can download Fate Core for free and with its producer’s blessing at DrivethruRPG.com). Looking on TV Tropes for inspiration, I have come up with: The Paragon, The Anti-Hero, The Action Hero, The Driven Hero, The Company Hero, The Celebrity Hero, and The Reluctant Hero. Thinking about it, the Post-Event World has a lot of Company Heroes and Celebrity Heroes, something you don’t see too often in the comic books (Booster Gold is the only one I can think of off the top of my head, although I’m sure there are more).

So that’s all for now. Everyone have a great September, I promise to post the cover as soon as I get the finished piece, and trust that I am counting the days!



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Problem Fixed.

Okay, I think this is it: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Wearing-the-Cape/337250462961380

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Finally Getting With New Media!

FacebookI have finally gotten with the program and created a Facebook page for the Wearing the Cape series! (Click on above picture for the link.) I will be posting updates and art there, as well as related links. Feel free to post comments there, and even heckle me now and again: from now until I finish the draft of Small Town Heroes, I will be posting my daily word-count progress. This should be interesting.



For some reason nobody can access my page but me yet. Working on it.

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Plagiarism Addendum

Addendum Note: Since writing the previous post I have been following the internet-shadow of this incident. Mullins (the plagiarist) has deleted her Facebook account and her pages have been removed from Amazon and Goodreads. In short, she is not getting away with this. A part of me feels sorry for her; she may be a desperate person, with real need for money, who thought she could make a quick buck using a “forgotten” work (published 20 years ago and no longer owned by a publishing house). I would have more sympathy if she had bitten the bullet and fessed up when discovered, rather than resorting to vicious attacks. Carpet-bombing the author’s own Amazon reviews with 1-star reviews is a nasty tactic that makes an author like me–dependent on Amazon ratings for my sales–shudder and want bloody retribution. Alerted, Amazon deleted the attack-reviews–but if you want to do something else for the author, she is offering her plagiarized book, A Bid For Love free on Amazon now; if it’s your kind of thing (it’s categorized as Christian Romance), download it, read it, and giver her an honest review. As for Mullins, I hope she will make amends, be able to learn from this, and move on–perhaps even write again, this time for herself (she must have some talent, or she couldn’t have carried off even a plagiarism). 

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Updates, Comments

Ajax, Small

“Go Medieval? I’ll go Homeric on your ass!”

So…August is halfway over and fall is around the corner. The good news is that the first draft of Small Town Heroes is just about finished, and since I do a lot of editing and reworking as I go, alpha-reading, rewriting, editing, and beta-reading should take no more than a month. I am looking forward to having STH done, and I think it may turn out to be my best book yet.

In other news, Jamal Campbell continues to turn out fantastic art for Wearing the Cape: the Role-Playing Game! (See above.) There is some news on the WtC:RPG front; when it is finished it will not be a stand-alone game. Now that they have released Firefly: the Role-Playing Game, Margaret Wies Productions will hopefully be turning their attention to producing the basic books for Cortex Plus Action, Drama, Fantasy, and Heroic, and if all goes well then WtC:RPG will be a sourcebook for use with Cortex Plus Heroic (with extra and variant rules to fit the system into Astra’s “realistic” superhero world).

One advantage to doing it this way will be that players will have a larger pallet of rules and material to draw on to tailor WtC:RPG to fit their style of play as well. (And yes, more playtesting will be required before the end!)

Plagiarists, Honey, and Ants. 

On a completely different topic, I’ve been thinking of creative punishments for plagiarists. Why? I have recently learned of a situation in which a self-publishing “writer” blatantly plagiarized a very nice author’s novel (as in, copied the plot, characters, whole scenes, etc). When the author found out through reviewers the writer had solicited, the “writer” started shit-slinging attacks and spinning like a political speechwriter. The author, who is not a big name, is seeking legal recourse for this attack on her. You can read more about the story here, and even donate to her legal fund here. Every little bit helps.

And this is important; in the days where being an author meant having a publisher, authors were at least protected from this kind of crap by a publisher’s lawyers–who could be relied upon to sue the pants off plagiarists to protect their employer’s intellectual property. But for self-published authors like me, and for authors like Rachel who publish with small houses; plagiarism is going to become more and more of a problem and a huge nightmare. Helping Rachel get justice and nail this guy’s head to a wall to display as a warning to others is just a smart thing to do. She probably won’t be able to get much more than a cease-and-desist, and since the “writer” she’s fighting is self-published she likely won’t get any damages out of it, but she deserves all the support she can get.

Addendum Note: Since writing this post I have been following the internet-shadow of this incident. Mullins (the plagiarist) has deleted her Facebook account and her pages have been removed from Amazon and Goodreads. In short, she is not getting away with this. A part of me feels sorry for her; she may be a desperate person, with real need for money, who thought she could make a quick buck using a “forgotten” work (published 20 years ago and no longer owned by a publishing house). I would have more sympathy if she had bitten the bullet and fessed up when discovered, rather than resorting to vicious attacks. Carpet-bombing the author’s own Amazon reviews with 1-star reviews is an nasty tactic that makes an author like me–dependent on Amazon ratings for my sales–shudder and want bloody retribution. If you want to do something else for the author, you can get her plagiarized book here for free now; if it’s your kind of thing, download it, read it, and giver her an honest review. As for Mullins, I hope she will make amends, be able to learn from this, and move on–perhaps even write again, this time for herself (she must have some talent, or she couldn’t have carried off even a plagiarism). 

Movie Reviews.

Just kidding, unfortunately. I’d love to dive into Guardians of the Galaxy, but I just don’t have time. But to sum up: go see Guardians of the Galaxy. As for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles…it’s worth a matinee ticket, but its wasted potential left me hugely disappointed.

Everyone enjoy their August.


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Walking the Tokaido: A Kickstarter Story.


I love the internet. Not only does it make my life possible (an indie-author could not have supported himself with his writing even ten years ago), but it leads me into the most interesting adventures and places. This is the story of one of them.

Last year on my way north I stopped in Dragon’s Keep in Provo, UT. Dragon’s keep is probably the best game store in the entire state, maybe the best game store between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coast. Browsing the shelves, a family game caught my eye: Tokaido. Its pristine white box and Japanese theme grabbed my attention, especially since I knew what the Tokaido was: the coastal road that stretched from Kyoto to Edo. With its shrines, hot springs, inns and beautiful natural sites, the two-week journey became a popular tourism route during the peaceful 17th century. It was popular with all classes of Japanese, especially the rising middle class of the period, and it was said that you could meet anyone and see anything upon the Tokaido.


 So I picked it up and found it to be a truly fun family game, made beautiful by the art of Naïade (you can see more of his wonderful art by clicking on the picture).

In it you take the role of a traveler along the road. You might be an elderly priest, an artist, a courtier or geisha, or a merchant, messenger, orphan girl… Take your pick, each represented delightfully by Naïade’s art and each having a slightly different advantage. You and the other players travel from Kyoto to Edo, seeing the sights, picking up souvenirs, eating the great food, visiting the shrines and hot springs, and having interesting encounters along the road. At the end, he who had the best time wins (you keep track with points). It is a serenely competitive game, an easy way to spend an hour with family and friends.

It almost goes without saying that Tokaido has been a great success in the tabletop-games community, and has acquired a lot of fans. It had one expansion earlier this year, Crossroads, and released extra promotional cards at different events. So FunForge, the game’s producers, decided to go bigger and launched a Kickstarter campaign.

I heard about it when a brother-in-law emailed me the link; he knew I loved the game and one of the Kickstarter pledge levels gave you all the expansion stuff that came on top of the original game. He thought I might like to get the “extras.”

He had no idea what he’d done.

FunForge was looking for at least $40,000 to do a Collector’s Edition: basic game plus the expansion, the promotional cards, nicer pieces, a new set of alternate-art cards for the 16 traveler characters, and cute little miniatures for each traveler. That’s all they wanted to do, but have you ever seen Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? Well…

The trouble started almost immediately. I think they got concussed by all the money being thrown at them.

There is a thing in Kickstarter called Stretch Goals; it’s a way of encouraging pledgers to spread the word and encourage more pledgers. If a Stretch Goal is met, another piece of goodness is added to the basic product or some other cool gift is attached. In Tokaido’s case, it is likely that they’d had no idea how much money was going to come in early, and they scrambled to find cool Stretch Goals to keep the momentum going. Ad-libbing in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign is not a good idea, but their intentions were good. I was watching on the comments page, and for awhile there it looked like it would be a five-car pileup with no survivors.

Here’s what happened, at least from this bystander’s perspective.

One of the first new Stretch Goals they made was that they would paint those 16 cute traveler minies. All Samurai Pledges would get the painted ones. That was good.

Then they decided to create 16 Alternate Art traveler cards (more Naïade is always good), with 16 new minies to go with them. Each traveler character would have two art cards and two minies, both painted. Even better.

Then some genius, scrambling for another set of Stretch Goals just for Samurai Pledges and above, decided it would be a cool idea to also get an unpainted set of the minies (some people like to paint their own miniatures, after all). This sounded great, but after a few days went by someone at FunForge realized that the logistics of packing 64 minies with each game would be a nightmare. So they canceled that Stretch Goal.


During the time the Duplicate Set of minies was an available Stretch Goal, the number of pledgers had just about doubled, and they wanted those extra minies.

FunForge is a French company, but the majority of Tokaido fans are Americans (bigger market), and I’m pretty sure that the US nearly invaded France–at least if the anguished screams on the comments page were anything to go by.

To stave off the imminent invasion, FunForge scrambled to find a way to make it up to the Samurai Pledgers. In the interests of world peace, several of us offered constructive suggestions. I and a few others suggested that instead of just alternate-art cards for the travelers, Bauza (the game’s designer) should create 16 brand new travelers with new abilities to go with the new art.

FunForge grasped this suggestion desperately (who knows, they might have thought of it first while hiding in their safe-house), and Bauza also stood before the mob and promised a new game expansion exclusively to the Samurai Pledges. The day was saved, and the Kickstarter campaign thundered on to its glorious conclusion: $668,000 pledged to a game that needed only $40,000 to fund. Bigger board, nicer cards, new expansions, 35 travelers with beautifully painted minies! There were fireworks.

And here’s where my personal moment of madness and extravagance happened.

You see, there was one pledge level higher than Samurai: Shogun. Samurai Pledge ($115) got you the whole glorious set: Shogun Pledge ($950) also got your face on one of the alternate-art travelers, with a nice framed print signed by Naïade and Bauza.

Now, I like my face, but $950 to get it cropped onto a character that isn’t you? I think not. Then the Stretch Goals changed, from alternate-art to New and Original Travelers, and the Shogun Pledgers would get to describe their traveler characters… Fortunately for my bank balance, by that time 16 pledgers had already pledged Shogun; the temptation was no longer available.

So there I was, on the last day of the Kickstarter campaign, watching the money-storm (they raised nearly $200,000 on the last day) and reading the comments page, when suddenly a cry rang out! Someone had dropped his Shogun pledge! Immediate speculation began, one guy started crying because his girlfriend would kill him in his sleep if he bumped his pledge to Shogun and they couldn’t pay the rent, and…

Yup. I did it. Grabbed the last Shogun Pledge slot. I didn’t need that new computer, anyway.

Which just goes to show you what interesting adventures can befall you on Tokaido Road. The wandering samurai poet at the top of this post? Me, mini-me soon to come. He/I will be traveling Tokaido road in more than 5,000 boxed sets of the Tokaido Collector’s Edition around the world–many more if FunForge decides to release the CE or the Shogun Pack travelers and other expansion for regular distribution once they finish the Kickstarter production-run (and I certainly would if I was them). I’ll probably also get chewed on by dogs and babies, but I try not to think about that.

So who knows? Perhaps someday soon you guys will be in a game store and see a big white box with cool Japanese-themed art, make an impulse-buy, and meet me on Tokaido Road.

(Disclaimer: should anyone from FunForge read this and take exception to the way I have portrayed events, I can only say that this is how the Kickstarter campaign looked to me. On the decision-making end, it might have looked very, very different. Kudos for pulling it together and making it all come out right in the end.)

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Wearing the Cape Q & A

Blackstone-smallThree guesses who this is, once again the latest character piece from the amazing Jamal Campbell. Just as a side-note, you have to love Jamal’s name; could it possibly be more American (Canadian)? Jamal means “handsome” in the original Arabic, and there is no more Scottish name than Campbell–look up the famous history of Clan Campbell sometime. Jamal, did you know you are entitled to wear the Campbell tartan?

So, on to the purpose of today’s post: News.

Small Town Heroes is going well if slower than I’d like (I have actually taken the step of ordering a Microsoft Surface Tablet so I can take it to the library every day in an attempt to cut out distractions and Get It Done). It is turning out to be the hardest storyline I’ve attempted yet, and I hope my readers will like the result enough to forgive the delays.

Wearing the Cape: the Roleplaying Game is still on track, so everyone interested in taking part in the second round of playtesting keep their eyes here; I estimate 30 days between Small Town Heroes’ publication date and the launch of Round 2.

In the meantime, I thought it might be a good idea to use this post as a Q & A; there is, of course, no such thing as stupid questions…no, there really is. But I promise not to mock anybody. More seriously, if anybody has any questions about the books, the game, favorite characters, etc., post them here. I’ll even provide background details not in the books yet so long as they aren’t spoilers. I will move all questions into the body of the post with my answers.


Questions/Answers (Thank you, everybody.)

Q1, will there be more of our Oz princess?

A1, yes.

Q2, Will you run the rpg on kickstarter? (I’d love to get it and all your paper books as a reward tier)

A2, I’m seriously considering it; it’s the only way to produce a good hard-backed rulebook. Otherwise, it will be available as a PDF (probably $19.99) and paperback rulebook (probably $45-$50).

Q3, Will there be any other major Female leads coming in to the story? (My sister wants to know, a big Wonder Woman fan)

A3, between Astra, Artemis, Shell/Shelly, and Ozma, I think the ladies are well-represented. Of course more characters of both sexes are introduced all the time.

Q4, Are the books (I’m assuming a long run of novels here, fingers crossed) ever going to delve into the nature and cause of the Event, or is that more a background/flavor thing in your view?

A4, No. The main reason is simply this; with the cause of the Event unknown, the people of the Post-Event world are free to assign it significance according to their worldview. Many people believe different things about the Event, and it motivates their actions. The reader is also free to assign his own significance to the Event.

Q5, How is it you write books that make grown men cry?

A5, It’s a gift. More seriously, I just create characters the reader can empathize with and want the best for, then put them through hell for every victory. Simple? Yes. Easy? No. True story: When I wrote Wearing the Cape, I felt so bad for Hope after Atlas’ death in the Whittier Base Attack that I gave her Shelly just so that she would have something good happen to her. In the first finished draft of WtC, Shelly had been nothing more than a part of Hope’s tragic back-story; I never intended her to reappear as the the cool quantum-ghost AI she turned into.

Q6, You had mentioned that things are going slower in Small Town Heroes. Is it something to do with the storyline itself?

It is more that the world-effects of this story are bigger, and it involves more of the wider world than the previous stories. It’s actual location has also shifted once.

Q7, You also mentioned something about that it was your most difficult storyline to date. Do you feel you have too little or too much going for the character(s)?

A7, See above.

Q8, Why are some powers listed by the name of the individual to exhibit them (i.e. Atlas-type) and others just under a category (speedster)?

A8, Powers listed by name are named after prominent early superheroes, like Atlas. Some superhuman powers didn’t get uniquely associated with a specific superhero early on, however. In the case of speedsters there was more than one from the beginning, so the power-type was simply labeled “speedster-type.”

Q9, Are you planning to reveal all of the categories as well as examples for A-class, B-class (etc) of said categories at some point?

A9, I’m never going to make a comprehensive list of the different power-types, if that is what you are asking; for one thing, the possibilities are endless. However I may create a glossary of terms, including power types that have appeared in the books.

Q10, I noticed Megaton was not in the two released chapters. Will he be making a return appearance in Small Town Heroes?

A10, Yes. However, I have dropped back to using a single POV, which is Hope’s. And Hope spends most of the book away from Chicago… This means that the others will have less “screen-time” in this book.

Q11, Love the books Mr.Harmon, any idea how many there will be?

A11, Thank you. No idea, but expressed algebraically I would say 7+X=?. Some of them may be side-stories like Bite Me (possibly even a Bite Me sequel).

Q12, Has the Astra/Seven relationship been resolved (nothing more than friends, forget the damn kiss in Omega) or is that something that will be fleshed out further?

A12, I have to say that I do like Seven for Astra; his easygoing attitude makes a nice balance for her tendency to get too serious. However, Astra is only 19 (almost 20) after all, with a lot of growing left to do; for her, being “just friends” with a guy she is very much attracted to is progress. Is Seven still a prospect? Yes. So is Megaton and Grendel, and Astra might always meet someone else; I have never set her character development in stone, and until I see who she becomes I won’t know who she should be with.

Q13, Are any more short stories from this world forthcoming?

A 13, Maybe...

Q14, Ever come up with a great new character only to realize that you basically recreated some Marvel/DC character?

A 14, No. But I probably have without realizing it.

Q15, Are there any non-powered, unlicensed humans that try to act as superheroes – masked vigilantes, basically?

A15, Yes. You meet one (briefly) in Villains Inc.

Q16, You got some favorite superhero comics?

A16, I enjoy superhero comics that put a spin on the genre. Noble Causes. Astro City. Wildguard. Invincible Universe.

Q17, Will you ever revisit the flesh-and-blood Shelly? It has to be traumatic to have these great super powers only to have them disappear in an instant.

A17, Yes you will be seeing Shelly again, and yes, she does have some issues.

Q18, Will we find out what happened to the wreckers and co?

A18, Yes, although not right away.

Q19, I don’t think we saw any characters with religious beliefs directly informed by the Event? Am I forgetting/overlooking characters? It seems like interesting territory to explore beliefs that only make sense in a post-Event world.

A19, The Foundation of Awakened Theosophy in Young Sentinels is a post-Event cult inspired by the existence of breakthroughs.

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Wearing the Cape: The RPG, Astra

Astra Character SheetHello, all faithful and impatient readers! Nothing new to say about Small Town Heroes, other than it is coming along and I’m feeling very good about it (anything more would be spoilers). Still looking at a late-summer release date. Right now, I thought I’d take a quick break from writing to show everyone some of the fruits of the beta playtests of Wearing the Cape: The RPG.

So that’s Astra’s Hero File. Pretty, isn’t it? For anyone familiar with the Cortex Plus game system, it should tell you a lot. During the first playtest round we have experimented with multi-dice (no longer with us), using three character Attributes (Physical Ability, Mental Ability, Social Ability), seven Attributes (Strength, Stamina, Reflexes, Senses, Intelligence, Willpower, Presence), and finally five Attributes (Strength, Reflexes, Intelligence, Willpower, and Presence). We have also played with Distinctions, Skills, Specialty Assets (gear), and Resources.

None of the playtesting was done by me–I’ve been too busy writing–but a handful of enthusiastic groups have hugely changed the original concepts I threw together earlier in the year and the beta-test rounds are not yet over. Thank you everyone who has participated so far!

So the above pic is just a thank you to everyone who has helped out so far; in a few weeks we should have generic character sheets based on this design. The Big Rewrite that will launch Round 2 must still wait on the completion of Small Town Heroes, but things are moving along nicely.




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New Superhero Anthology

The Good FigntJust a quick note: The Good Fight, the first superhero anthology by the Pen and Cape Society (a co-op of self-publishing superhero authors, including yours truly), has just become available on Amazon.com for the low price of $0 dollars.

Omega Night was my contribution to the anthology (unfortunately too wrapped up in Small Town Heroes to write a new one), but if you love superhero stories–and why else would you be here–I’m sure you’ll get a kick out of these. As always, your mileage may vary, but there is some very fun work being done these days by writers who are in it for the love of the capes.

You can find it here. If you pick it up, give it a review!


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Updates, Cool Art, and Small Town Heroes Chapter Two.

Flying Lessons AVery cool art.

So, first apologies. I am way behind on Small Town Heroes, for which I am very, very sorry. All I can say is a lot of things have been happening, but I have also let myself get distracted, and finally STH has undergone more serious plot-changes than any book so far. How serious? A title change is a good clue…

That said, I hope to still have the book out late this summer. It looks like 2014 is a one-book year.

Now, as to the cool art above, that is one sample of the work of an amazing artist I have had the good fortune to contract for the character art in Wearing the Cape: the Roleplaying Game. You can check out his stuff here and buy a print of this piece here.

Jamal has been a very lucky find, and I eagerly await seeing his vision of every one of the Sentinels.

More on the WtC: the RPG front, playtesting has proceeded apace and once I finish up Small Town Heroes I will be more than ready to do the second rulebook draft and solicit a new round of playtesters. I would like for some of these to be people who have never played a RPG before! To put it simply, a rulebook can often be understandable to a RPG veteran but make no sense to a newby who has never made up a character sheet or rolled dice with deadly intent. I want WtC: the RPG to be as destructively playtested as possible before it goes to printing.

And now by way of apology, here is chapter two; feel free to comment.

Small Town Heroes

Chapter Two

Everybody dreams, unless something has happened to leave them with damaged parietal lobes. Some people never remember their dreams, and others are natural lucid dreamers, oneironauts. I’m a vivid dreamer with high recall, which sometimes creates more awkwardness than I need. But once upon a time, no matter how weird or embarrassingly blushworthy my dream life occasionally got, I could at least say it was All In My Head. Not anymore.

I hadn’t experienced a Kitsune dream since the end of the Villains Inc. mess, but last night’s had the same undreamlike quality, as crystal-clear as any waking memory. That made it Important, but the fox had snuck into my dreams just before morning light and I had stuff to do. I found a notebook and quickly wrote out everything I could remember, details like the eagle-in-a star design on the burning town’s water tower. After two minutes of tapping my pen and blanking on more details, I gulped down a couple of energy bars from my go-bag, washed them down with bottled water, and got moving.

The latest storm front had moved on, which made a morning flyover of my search grid easier. Not that I expected to find any more holdouts after this many days of flooding, but I hadn’t expected to meet the Carletons and Stewarts last night, either. With the rain past, the predawn gloom actually made it easier for my infrared sight to pick up on the glowing lights of body heat, but the only people I spotted in my area of responsibility were emergency crews who were supposed to be there. I waved.

Good morning, Astra,” Blackstone greeted me through Dispatch. His power-set wasn’t really useful for this kind of emergency, so he’d remained at the Dome. “Shell tells me that Powerteam has decamped from Cairo. How do things look to you this fine day?

I smiled but kept the laugh out of my voice as I reported in. Decamped was a polite way of putting it; I imagined that they got yanked out of Cairo so fast that they left a vacuum behind them. By the time we finished patching the hole the adrenalin of the fight had worn off, and Spinner had been too shaken by his experience as a fashion accessory to stay pissy at being ordered around (Ozma’s victims tended to find their memory of contentedly snuggling her head disturbing), but I hadn’t been interested in speaking with him beyond stuff like “Do it here” so I still had no idea why FEMA had even let them into the operation zone. Now my day was brighter just knowing I wouldn’t have to deal with them again.

Can you give me a report of last night?” Blackstone asked when I finished.

Frowning, I looked for a place to land. Sure I could talk and fly at the same time (if I couldn’t, Shell would have gotten me killed long ago) but I was supposed to be flying a patrol and if I had to think then I might miss something. An abandoned and half-drowned farmhouse offered a convenient roof for me to touch down on, and I absently tucked my cape under me to sit.

“Sir? Is there a reason it can’t wait for the after-action report?” Something was obviously going on; team regs didn’t require a report until we’d stood down from the current emergency. His pause wasn’t reassuring.

Humor an old man, my dear.”

Okay… I started with spotting the tiny glowing drake and kept the commentary out; Blackstone liked facts first, then impressions. He was silent when I finished and I watched the sun rise to throw a bar of gold across the water. Then he said the last thing I could have expected.

Thank you, Astra. And now please return to Cairo. The Young Sentinels are being recalled.”


“That’s just bullshit!” Tsuris’ response was typical. Crash’s easygoing shrug was too. Blackstone had left the announcement to me, but Ozma didn’t seem too surprised. Grendel simply nodded—he didn’t talk much, but didn’t miss much either. Shell had stayed remarkably silent and out of sight.

I sighed.

“Blackstone didn’t say why, but with the levees secure FEMA can handle things with a quick drop-by from another assigned CAI team. Since over half our senior team strength is down here too, it’s a good idea for us to go home anyway. Regardless,” I shut down Tsuris with a glare, “our ride is on its way so we need to be lifting in fifteen.”

Blackstone hadn’t explained, just let me know our pickup was coming, and I didn’t ask Shell. Months of weekly packing drill meant that we had our kits and go-bags closed up and stowed on our field pallet before our ride had time to arrive and circle Cairo more than once. Crash, Grendel, and Ozma climbed on and clipped themselves down, and I attached myself to the lift harness and took us up and away. We climbed smoothly and with Tsuris flying alongside to stabilize the pallet, even the cargo plane’s turbulence didn’t rock us as we slid into the open bay. The loadmaster guided us in and I dropped us inside the painted yellow lines with barely a bump. Rush unclipped to lock the pallet down before the bay doors had even closed. The load-light went green, and we were safely in.

Touching down, I unhitched with another sigh.

“Kick back, everybody,” I said needlessly. We had nothing to do until we reached Chicago—then we’d reverse the drill and be home in the Dome. Heading forward to the passenger section, I took a seat and relaxed. Shell popped in to virtually take the seat beside me. She wasn’t smiling, and the levity of last night was gone.

“Do you want to hear what’s going on?”

Yes. “Can I do anything about it?”

“Not really.”

“Then nope. Could you do something else?” My notebook was back in my go-bag, but she could access and replay the Teatime Anarchist’ implanted sensory-net package “download” of me writing in it if I gave her permission. I did and her eyes widened as she processed it.
“No freaking way! Kitsune’s back?”

“I don’t know.” I closed my eyes and leaned back. “It might have been just a dream. I really, really hope it was, but I’m going to ask Chakra to check me out.”

Shell went quiet for a minute.

“No agencies admit to catching up to him, at least the files I have legit access to don’t have a whisper. Do you think I should…” She made the offer tentatively, and I opened my eyes with a smile. The fact that she even asked approval to perform cyber hackery was serious progress.

“No. If he is back, then it’s up to Blackstone to tell us if there’s anything we need to know. But thanks.”

“So what do we do now?”

“Can you find the town? If it’s a real place, looking for that water tower might help you find it.”

“Did it look at all like a military base?”

I gave it serious consideration, shook my head. “But Midwest, maybe? The kind of place with one stoplight you find in the middle of hundreds of miles of cornfield? Not that I saw any corn, but it’s spring.”

“If the town burning—and disappearing—is happening now.” She laced the qualifying statement with doubt.

“Yeah…” I closed my eyes again. Last year’s Kitsune dreams—all two of them—had never been literal, but nothing as mundane as buildings had shown up in them, either. I wanted to shrug it off, but as different as it had been from the others, it still had that same realer-than-real clarity. And although I’d felt no sense of alarm while I’d been in the dream, a weight was growing, cold and heavy in my chest. Not quite panic but close, a growing gut-certainty of looming awfulness. What I’d seen was real.

With no more from me to go on, Shell faded out (she’d added a nice whispery sound effect and a feel like a puff of cool mist on my skin). Off to play the Ghost in the Machine, she’d shake the data-built foundations of cyberspace. If an image even remotely matching what I’d seen existed she’d find it.

Why did I know that wouldn’t be a good thing?


We could have landed at the airport, but doing a loaded drop was always good practice and the pallet had to come home anyway for repacking. We bailed out high over Chicago. With the load blocking my line of sight, Tsuris guided me down for a perfect insertion through the Dome’s bay doors where Shell welcomed us wearing her new Shellbot shell.

“Off the clock, everybody,” I said as Crash, Ozma, and Grendel unclipped. “Don’t leave the Dome. Five hours, then we inventory and repack the pallet and go-bags.” Some CAI teams let their staff pack their kits. Not ours, especially since Lei Zi had taken over as field leader—when we went away from Chicago we had to know that we had everything we needed.

Crash saluted and everybody else just nodded; we all knew the system. I stayed to watch the bay doors close above us, and Shell and I headed downstairs. She didn’t say anything in the elevator or the hallway, waiting for my apartment door to close behind us before she opened her mouth.


“You think?” I stripped off my mask and wig, running fingers through my much shorter and lighter-shaded bobbed hair. I kept stripping. The new costume bodysuit covered me from neck to toes in layered Vulcan-created fabric styled by Andrew. The new stuff wasn’t just enormously damage-resistant, it wicked sweat and oils away from my skin into its layers and shed dirt and field stains away like nobody’s business, but I still wanted a shower so bad I could taste it. Especially since I’d been in a fight and even been knocked out for a second. Dr. Beth was going to want to poke me.

Shell sat on my bed and watched, wincing at the bruises that came into sight. The twist of sympathy in her lips looked totally natural—Vulcan had done a great job again.

“How’s the new Shell-shell?” I asked before she could open her mouth.

She wiggled her new eyebrows, stuck out her tongue and curled it. “Feels real, and there’s no signal loss as long as I stay close to the Dome. The Galatea shell can go farther since it doesn’t require as much signal load to drive. I still couldn’t have gone with you guys.”


“I know, I’m useful riding along through Dispatch. It’s not like I’ll be risking myself with the Galatea shell.”

Shell didn’t remember almost dying in the last Green Man attack or the months since she’d completely downloaded herself into the last Galatea, but she’d learned from her downloaded self’s experiences anyway; she wasn’t going to expose herself to direct harm again. Not that I’d let her—she’d only won my approval the last time by lying to me, letting me believe that she’d been uploading a running backup of herself into memory. The future quantum-tech to Verne-tech interface hadn’t worked that way, and the first I’d known about that was when I’d almost lost her.

I had lost her in a way; the Shelly who’d downloaded herself, spent months as Shelly-Galatea, befriended Crash and fought beside me, was flesh-and-blood now and living with her mother in Springfield. The Shelly sitting cross-legged on my bed was Shelly 3.0 and she knew it. She insisted we all call her ‘Shell’, not just as a nickname anymore, and now she’d styled her hair as short as my own shoulder-length bob and colored it black as Artemis’ raven locks. She’d also “aged” herself a bit, and looked like her chronological age of 20 instead of the 16 years she’d experienced.

Shell and Shelly, one a quantum-ghost and wingman and the other a high school freshman who texted and video-chatted a lot. Neither talked about the other much. Shelly still hadn’t used the bio-seed she’d taken with her to establish a neural link with Shell and I didn’t know why.

Shell read my look and stuck out her tongue again, an attitude display instead of a demonstration of Vulcan’s craftsmanship. She hopped up and followed me into the bathroom.

“So, do you want to hear about Powerteam now?”

I turned on the water and stepped in, yelling over the heavenly waterfall-spray of five showerheads. “How are they even real?”

I could hear her snickering.

“Their reality show format is built on tryouts and training. Crisis Aid and Intervention Certification is the official reward for those who make the team, but it’s really an excuse for vicious competition in the selection phase and soap opera drama in their headquarters-slash-communal residence. They’re a parody of a real team, but they don’t have to answer to a city or county that pays their bills so they can get away with it.”

I lathered my hair, trying to wrap my mind around what that had to be like; just thinking about the awful dynamics made me slightly queasy. It had to be like getting out of bed and jumping into a ripe cesspool every day.

“Okay, so how did they end up here? In Cairo I mean.”

“They have to do something besides train and scripted bickering. Usually they pursue specifically vetted General Warrants, but they also handle emergency relief. They’re not bad at it. Last night…”

She trailed off, but I knew that tone.

“Shell? Who did you hack?”

“Just their studio files after the fight. They were hardly protected at all.”

I bent my head to rinse so I wouldn’t have to say anything.

“Spinner’s been team leader for two years and they’re forcing him to move on,” she said through the spray. “The studio broadly scripted an argument built on whatever excuse the team could find, and he was supposed to get in a fight with Slamazon and maybe Kindrake. It would be a ‘character turning’ inflexion point for him, he’d realize he was out of control, resign, go off to China to gaze at his navel and discover himself, maybe come back in a year or two to join a real CAI team or an older reality team. He didn’t want to go, but the producers are ready to just terminate his contract if he doesn’t follow the script.”

“The fight was planned?”

“Improvised with guidelines.”

“That’s just—” I couldn’t think of a word bad enough, at least not one I could say. I finished up fast and grabbed the towel Shell handed to me. Blackstone’s decision to pull us out this morning, fuzzy before, now made horrible sense.

“What’s the rush?” Shell asked as I toweled my hair hard, looking for clothes.

“Does Blackstone know what you know about the script?”


“Tell him. Tell him now.”

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