Walking the Tokaido: A Kickstarter Story.

Marihito-WIP

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.

tokaido_by_naiiade-d5j83tl

 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.

Oops.

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.

-M.G.Harmon

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.

-M.G.Harmon

 

 

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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!

-M.G.Harmon

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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.

“Tired?”

“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.”

“Shell…”

“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?”

“No…”

“Tell him. Tell him now.”

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A Winter War

Captain-America-The-Winter-Soldier-Poster-6Heroes against profiling.

I know I’ve already talked about the new Captain America movie, but I just caught an excellent article on Law and the Multiverse. It discusses Operation Insight, the initiative that Alexander Pierce *cough* Hydra spearheaded within SHIELD and Nick Fury–perhaps tired of the “long twilight struggle–approved. Because, really, Operation Insight and the “pacifying action” planned by Hydra to create a peaceful world was about two things: the morality of profiling and preemptive strikes.

To quote Law and the Multiverse:

“All Pierce wanted was peace on earth for 7 billion people, in exchange for one third of one percent of the population. That is all. In medical terms, it is laser hair removal. As the miniscule means to such a glorious end, it is easy to see how Hydra persuaded so many people to stand behind Project Insight, to set the targets, and even pull the trigger.

“In any genocide, giving the horrific act a proper name that followers can rally around is very important. Hitler called the Holocaust the final solution; other names for mass murders have included cleansing, purging, and even a great leap forward. Such was the case with Project Insight. Calling it Insight made it feel pragmatic and enlightened.

“Another common thread in each of these events was the same as we mentioned above, an insidious campaign to demonize and dehumanize a specific group. By getting everyone to agree that the identified group was a detriment and threat to civilized society, profiling was an easy sell. Racial, cultural, ethnic, and even idealistic profiling preceded each of the above events.”

So is the movie a blanket indictment of profiling?  More of a cautionary tale.

The problem that a lot of people have when they talk about profiling is they confuse the observation with the action. The truth is that we all engage in profiling; the first impression we get of anybody is a quick visual, auditory, possibly even olfactory impression. Our minds immediately sort and classify, “profiling” the person who stands before us. It narrows our menu of immediate responses, at least until we gain more information. “You have only one opportunity to make a first impression.”

Of course if you rely only on first impressions, allow it to skew you subsequent observations, or profile people according to completely irrelevant criteria and sort them into invidious stereotypes…you may be a bigot, and you’re certainly being stupid.

Can government ethically profile? Well, yes–but depending on how and when.

For example, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have limited manpower and monetary resources. When they are information-gathering (possibly the most exhaustive and costly part of what they do), it makes sense to pay closer attention to groups who have a history of the kinds of behavior they are looking for.

They can ethically do this so long as they do not take the next step based only upon profiling. For example, the FBI may single out known members of crime families for observation since they are known to engage in racketeering and other forms of organized crime. But they cannot get a warrant to search Vinnie’s home simply because he’s Vinnie, and if they harass Vinnie then he has cause to sue.

The big debate about Stop and Frisk is whether it is being done appropriately, based on suspicious behavior, or based on pure profiling, because the suspect is a suspicious person. In the hands of badly trained or just bigoted police officers, this can easily degenerate to harassing or arresting citizens for Walking While Black.

One interesting twist on the profiling issue–and coincidentally on the data-mining issue–is that advancing technology is both aggravating these problems and creating solutions.

Imagine if all cops wore Google Glasses with face-identification software. A lot of the Stop and Frisk issues would disappear if police on the street could easily identify a suspect and determine whether or not he had a criminal record. Of course this simply creates a more refined layer of profiling. But on the other hand, if everybody else were also wearing Google Glasses (including the individual stopped and frisked), the incidence of improper Stop and Frisk actions would drop through the floor; instead of your-word-against-his complaints, you would have a video and audio record of the police officer’s actions.

Who watches the watchers? We the people. Police internal affairs departments are already pushing to make police officers wear their own cameras for just this reason–and abuse of authority would be even more strongly deterred by civilian recording.

A similar situation is happening inside government; emails have become the preferred method of departmental and inter-office communication, and this leaves an almost ineradicable electronic footprint. The scandal of the IRS’ targeting (profiling with invidious criteria) of conservative non-profit organizations and donors, would never have been verified as it has if it weren’t for the electronic trail. Memos, reports, directives, notes, all electronic, are creating “transparency” in government beyond what any law could do, and the Freedom of Information Act enables citizens to watch what their elected leaders and their appointees are doing.

Exciting times.

Which is actually a massive digression from what Law and the Multiverse went into. Read it; it is strong food for deep thought.

-George

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Being Gwen Stacy.

Gwen StacyIf you don’t know what happens next, go away and come back when you do.

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I hope that wasn’t too annoying, but who knows, I might have had a reader who didn’t know that Peter Parker’s first love was Gwen Stacy and that it ended badly. Maybe. Probably not, but stranger things have happened. So, on to my thoughts on Spider Man 2.

First let me say that I enjoyed the movie. Garfield is Peter Parker and Stone is Gwen Stacy, two of the best casting choices in recent Hollywood history. Also, the movie nails Spiderman perfectly; early on we are treated to a plutonium-heist/car chase full of the witty banter and jokes Spiderman is known for, showing us a wall-crawler who has become comfortable with his role. The cops love him, most of the public thinks he’s the Amazing Spiderman, he’s found his groove–at least when the mask is on.

Mask off, not so much; he and Gwen are together but he’s haunted by the ghost of Captain Stacy–to whom you may recall he made a promise to Stay Away From Gwen (for her protection, of course). So also early on in the movie, he breaks up with her. Of course it doesn’t stick. We know how it ends.

Again, I was able to turn off my writer-brain and enjoy the show. But it could have been so much better.

Why? Because although the movie was about Peter and Gwen you could hardly tell because of Everything Else. Follow along with me here.

amazing-spider-man-emma-stone-andrew-garfield-gwen-stacySuperhero comics’ cutest doomed relationship.

Joking aside, I don’t think that anybody walked into the movie theater not knowing how the story was going to end. The tragedy of Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy is so much a part of the Spiderman mythology that viewers have a much better chance of not knowing that Macbeth dies at the end of the play with his name on it. Which means that everything in the movie was a prologue to that tragic moment, everything afterward an epilogue. But it wasn’t. Which is sad, because they got it right in Spiderman 1.

Spiderman 1 was about Peter getting bit by a spider, yes, but also about Uncle Ben’s death and how it affected all of Peter’s choices, and the beginning of Peter and Gwen’s story; the arc of the movie carried everything along with those three points. It had focus.

Spiderman 2 could have been just as focused. Instead it suffered hugely from three major problems that distracted from the core story.

1.) Too much was going on. The movie opens with a flashback to the day that Peter’s parents left him with Ben and May, revealing that they were going into hiding (not news) and it went bad (news, but not in any way related to the plot). This whole plot-thread seemed to exist to add an unneeded layer of angst for Peter and reveal that the gene-spliced spider that bit Peter actually had Parker DNA in it. And even that bit of information wasn’t vital to the plot.

On top of the Dr. Parker business, the movie introduced Electro; which of course required a separate origin-arc. Electro was pretty cool, even if his whole “The world ignored me, now I’m going to make it pay attention.” motivation was cliched. But it was Too Much; every second of Electro screen time detracted from the introduction of the important villain… The Goblin.

2.) By whom I mean Harry Osborne, of course. Wasting time on Electro completely shorted the Peter/Harry arc. In the reboot, we never heard about Harry because shortly after Peter’s parents disappeared Harry got shipped off to boarding school and the two formerly inseparable boys were separated. This is completely believable, in light of Peter’s father being Oscorp’s top scientist and close friends with Harry’s dad.

Absent Electro, the movie (140+ minutes long) would have had plenty of time to actually build a believable and heartfelt relationship between Peter and Harry before it all goes bad. As it is, we are given no time to invest emotionally in Harry before he descends to ranting and cackling; we never buy Peter’s conflict over deciding not to help Harry either (learning that Oscorp had intended to weaponize his father’s research made a poor motivation even more poorly explored). Just as the first movie’s relationship arcs were Peter/Ben and Peter/Gwen, the second movie’s relationship arcs should have been Peter/Harry and Peter/Gwen, but there was no time for any of this. Which brings us to problem three.

3.) Gwen Stacy must die. I loved the new Gwen. Marvel/Hollywood did a marvelous job of updating her into a strong female character. If anything, she is smarter than Peter–certainly she played a pivotal role in both movies instead of being a mere Damsel in Distress. This movie should have been about the natural changes in her and Peter’s relationships as they graduate and she gets the Oxford scholarship; all by itself, this would have presented Peter with the question of whether he should stay and be Spiderman or go to England with Gwen.

Instead, with the clock ticking down to Gwen’s fateful end, we are presented with a retread of their relationship conflict from the previous movie–a ship that had already sailed. The do-over burned large blocks of valuable movie time that could have given us heartwarming scenes allowing us to experience their relationship (you know, when they weren’t fighting each other or saving the city). As it was, we never really got a chance to see them being good for each other; in the end, I was underwhelmed by her death and detached from Peter’s loss.

What would I have done differently?

First reduce Electro to an already-there villain who Spiderman fights once to give us a good action scene and showcase E’s powers before he is sprung by the Goblin (and maybe display Peter’s concern for Gwen’s safety).  Reduce the Dr. Parker thread so we can devote more time to Peter and Gwen (and drop the whole “We can’t be together.” fight). Use the freed up time to give us more Peter/Gwen and beef up Harry Osborn’s role tremendously.

Yes, this covers ground already gone over in the Toby McGuire movies, but cutting Harry’s arc to next to nothing deprived us of a beautiful possibility: Harry renews his friendship with Peter, even strikes up a surprising (and platonic) friendship with Gwen, showing us his own humanity (maybe he pulled some family strings to get her into the running for the Oxford scholarship, thus precipitating that relationship crisis). Then he finds out that Peter has research notes that might be able to help him but won’t, even figures out he’s Spiderman. Desperate, he injects himself with the spider-venom, mutates, and his anger at Peter turns into insane hatred. He attacks Peter as Spiderman, kills Gwen Stacy, and then regains his sanity.

And here is the lost opportunity at the end of the movie: we already knew that Gwen Stacy was going to die, and that it would devastate Peter but he wouldn’t stop being Spiderman. But what if it also devastated Harry? The final scene might have been, after spending six months standing over Gwen’s grave and then coming out of retirement to pound the Rhino, Peter visiting Harry in prison on one of Harry’s good days. To forgive him.

That would have been a final scene worth seeing, a step forward for Peter–forgiving his friend and by doing that coming full circle, accepting that he should forgive himself for his part in Uncle Ben’s death. Camera fade, The End.

And that’s why it was a fun movie but not a great movie. Better luck next time.

 

 

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A Fire In The Mind

FireflyRPG-Cover-lgTime for some thrillin’ heroics.

This is my second review in a month, which is something of a record for me lately, but I had to give the Firefly Roleplaying Game a mention. Disclaimer: I don’t play RPGs these days, and haven’t for quite a few years. Alright, basically not since college (lack of hours and a gaming group, really). However, I still buy RPG rulebooks–they are an excellent source of detail and often contain quite a bit of serious discussion on things writers are interested in–like motives, pacing, character development, which guns do more damage… As mentioned before, I used GURPS Supers as a primer when creating the Post-Event setting of my Wearing the Cape series. Which brings me to the Firefly RPG. Am I now writing a wild-west space opera? No. But I am using Cortex Plus–the game system the Firefly RPG is built on. This made for a very good excuse.

First, some background. I encountered Firefly when the series originally premiered, and managed to catch most of the episodes that aired despite the studio’s completely messed-up scheduling. The idea of a wild-west space opera was ridiculous, but Joss Whedon sold it by embracing it and playing it dead-straight serious (a lesson I learned for my own books: if you want the reader to take your story and characters seriously, you’ve got to commit).

And as a history-buff with an unused master’s degree, I instantly recognized what Joss was doing; ignore the sci-fi trappings, and he was telling a story of an America that never was, one with an alternate history.

“What?” you may ask. It’s simple; imagine US history without the Louisiana Purchase–which, along with the later Mexican War, gave the US everything west of the Mississippi. If instead the Louisiana Purchase territory remained a European possession, one almost completely neglected, it would still have been settled by a bunch on land-hungry Yanks–but not under US jurisdiction.

So imagine instead a bunch of state-sized territories that eventually announce their own independence from France, Mexico, and whoever else officially owned the land at the time. Being a bunch of pioneers, cowboys, miners, roughnecks, and generally independent sorts, they have no interest in joining the US (a lot of them moved west to get away from it)–and eventually the US decides that it needs to bring peace and civilization to the truly Wild West beyond its western boarder. And there we have the Alliance vs. the Browncoats.

Naturally the US would win, but it would be a bitter fight and the US government would then be faced with a vast territory it could only police lightly, focusing on core cities. With the primary source of Law and Order being the hated federals, the Wild West would have been much more wild, probably for much longer. They would have been interesting times; maybe I should write a book…

Piào liàng, it sure was shiny. Lit a fire in the minds of a lot of folk, which explains why there was such a fuss when the suits shut it down. It was a dream as real as anything we’d seen, because it was a dream from our own sort-of-past; it connected with the cultural and historical zeitgeist of a legion of self-proclaimed Browncoats. Thus the movie, the comics, the market for all things Firefly that just wouldn’t die. And I have got me some of that.

Serenity_left_behind

Which finally brings us to the Firefly RPG. As mentioned elsewhere, Margaret Weiss Productions has displayed an absolute gift for converting fiction properties into games for the fans (Smallville, Leverage, and last year Marvel Heroic Roleplaying). They do it by starting with a very basic core concept (Traits and Dice Pools) and then customizing like crazy to get the exact feel of the stories, characters, and settings they bring to the fans. No two Cortex Plus games are alike. I wanted to see how well MWP managed to translate The ‘Verse into a tabletop roleplaying game, and what it could teach me.

And? Zāo gāo, I need to find me a gaming group. Now. The system is modular, logical, and stays out of the way while you engage in thrillin’ heroics–and is simple enough that different gaming groups can tailor all sorts of house-rules to make it just right for them. And talk about a fire in your mind; the book itself provides so much information about The ‘Verse you start dreaming about it all over again. I recommend it to non-gaming Firefly fans as well as long-time gamers. You can purchase the PDF at Drive-Thru RPG and be breaking atmo’ in a week with your own stories or the stories MWP is providing for you.

So now I have a very high bar to clear if Wearing the Cape: the RPG is going to be anything other than a disappointment. Game on.

Meanwhile, find a crew, find a job, and keep flying.

-M.G.Harmon

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Movie Review-The Winter Soldier.

Captain-America-The-Winter-Soldier-Poster-6

I have been waiting for this since the first Captain America movie, half-certain I would be disappointed. After all, Thor: The Dark World was better than Thor, but Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3 were both a step down from Iron Man (though still good). And Captain America himself is a hard character to pull off; he is the Marvel Universe’s heroic paragon, matched in idealism only by DC’s Superman. So, did Captain America: The Winter Soldier succeed? In a word, yes. In fact I think it’s the best Marvel solo movie to date.

WARNING, HUGE SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT.

(If you have any intention of seeing it, go. I’ll be here when you get back.)

Where the first CA movie was a war-movie, The Winter Soldier is more of a Tom Clancy military thriller. Steve Rogers is working for S.H.I.E.L.D. but is less and less happy about it. This is in direct contrast to Natasha (the Black Widow); since she knows she’s working for the Good Guys, she is content to follow orders and let her boss worry about the morality of her mission parameters. When Director Fury shows Steve the BIG HAMMER that he is preparing, one that will allow preemptive strikes of surgical precision against any developing threat to world peace, Steve is even less sure that he’s on the side of the angels.

Worse, it is quickly revealed that Something Is Afoot. Director Fury smells something rotten and tells the wrong people about it. Admittedly, he had no choice if he was going to delay the launch of the BIG HAMMER until he found out what was going on. He is betrayed, and assassinated by the Winter Soldier (Steve’s old friend Bucky), but not before delivering a critical piece of the puzzle to Steve and telling him “Trust no-one.”

Of course Steve has to trust somebody, especially after a S.H.I.E.L.D. strike-team tries to take him out in the middle of the Triskelon and he goes on the run, and since Natasha ends up holding the puzzle-piece he decides to trust her. The two of them follow the breadcrumbs to a secret base that looks like it might have been the very first S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, and there they find an incredibly old and huge computer system. It turns out that the system is still operative, it contains an AI copy of the mad scientist who worked for the Red Skull in the first movie (the US recruited a bunch of German scientists at the end of WWII in real history, so, sure why not?), BUT, it turns out that our German scientist/AI is secretly working for…Hydra!

“Cut one head off, and two shall take its place!” Was nobody paying attention? At this point the writers very cleverly gave our nefarious AI the perfect excuse for a ranting, hold-nothing-back, supervillain monologue; it can’t stop Cap and Natasha physically, but it can keep them distracted by its horrific revelations (as S.H.I.E.L.D. grew, Hydra cells grew inside it, responsible for machinations triggering much of the world’s current political instability, and now it is ready to come out into the light by seizing control of the BIG HAMMER and bringing order and peace to the world for the low, low cost of 20,000,000 lives). “Bwa ha ha! And by the way, I’ve been monologuing to keep you here long enough for the recently launched cruise missile to arrive. Goodbye Mr. Bond–I mean Captain America!”

Beautiful. I took notes.

So now you’ve got the setup; Cap, Natasha, and Falcon (didn’t I mention him?), along with help from an unexpected quarter, must break into the Triskelon and sabotage Hydra’s scheme to bring peace to the world through irresistible firepower. And of course Cap has to fight the Winter Soldier. Stuff blows up gloriously, much ass is kicked, Cap gives a great speech, etc. I laughed, I cried, I made it part of me.

And Now The Political Commentary.

Kidding. Not much here to say. Hollywood and Marvel actually managed to make a movie about espionage and black-ops that doesn’t paint the USA as the bad guy. It was more than a little on-the-nose in its use of data-mining for domestic surveillance and long-distance remotely targeted Kill Weapons as tools of assassination (drones, anybody?). It also asks you to consider the morality of a policy of preemptive strikes (briefly–this is an action movie after all). But what really struck me as interesting was what the movie showed us about Captain America.

The Soul of a Superhero

One mistake a lot of people make when they talk about Cap’s difference of opinion with Fury, is that they are not taking the time period Cap slept through into account. When Cap went to sleep the world was still locked into WWII, so he missed the whole bit about the US becoming “the world’s policeman.” Most people get this, but for some reason they forget what else he missed; because of that, they think Cap should be uncomfortable with seeing the US in the Supercop role.

But why should he be? Steve Rogers grew up in an America that considered itself the guardian of liberty. Most Americans of his time believed that America was a shining city on a hill, that whatever its flaws its living example of freedom and democracy put it in the vanguard of social and political progress (as opposed to those evil communists who tried to build a better world by killing millions of their own citizens).

More importantly, Steve also slept through the Vietnam War, through the Kennedy Assassination, through Watergate, through the Peace Movement. He slept through the period where the US learned the limits of its power to spread peace and democracy abroad. He slept through the period which taught Americans to distrust their own leaders and “the system.” He woke up just in time to protect the US from another attack.

This is why Steve finds himself so out of step. He is not uncomfortable with the US as the world’s single greatest military power, nor is he uncomfortable with military interventions (he would have been first on the ground in situations like Kuwait and likely Bosnia). Fighting for freedom abroad on behalf of the underdog is what he has been bred to do. He is not comfortable with a world of espionage, lies, and black-ops in peacetime; for him, war has rules and is fought on battlefields against enemies in uniforms.

Steve remains certain of what is right, but he is not certain that his side is playing by the rules anymore. Of course he may also recognize that nobody else is, either, but he still doesn’t fight that way. He is, as Natasha said, “A terrible liar.” And this is part of what makes Cap so effective; in the end, the Good Guys win as much because of Cap’s sincerity and ability to inspire as because of his mad fighting skills. It’s what makes him a hero.

 

 

 

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Updates and First Chapter (The first one’s free…)

Astra-CloseI keep resolving to post more….

For everyone out there who is wondering what is going on:

1.) Book 5 continues apace. A fairly recent development is that I have temporarily shelved the Japan-trip storyline–I still want to do it, but I have also realized that now is not the time for it in Astra’s continuing story. So the working title for Book 5 is Small Town Heroes. But rest assured that while all this has slowed my momentum a bit, I know where I’m going. Really.

2.) My playtesters are not playtesting fast enough for me, but WtC: the RPG is a project I am moving carefully on. My personal deadline being the end of the year, we all have time to get it right. I want to be able to move to Phase 2 (playtesting by gamers who have never previously played with Cortex Plus) by the middle of the year. Meanwhile, some of the superheroes designed using the WtC:RPG rules look amazing.

3.) Wearingthecape.com is now almost completely up and looking good. The cover of Wearing the Cape is available for purchase through Zazzle (just follow the link), in whatever size poster you like–the $31 price tag is for the largest poster size. The other two covers and the Astra character print should be up and available in the next day or so.

And for everyone who has been impatiently awaiting the further adventures of Astra and Company, here is the current draft of Small Town Heroes Chapter One.

Chapter One

You’d think I could have a “normal” superhero career. After all, I might be strong but my powers are as common as dirt. But noooo, apparently I’m a Chosen One, like the Teatime Anarchist hung a glowing neon sign on me for all inscrutable meddlers to see. It makes life way too exciting.

From the journal of Hope Corrigan.

We were doing everything we could, and Mother Nature was still kicking our butts. The high winds, blowing hard enough to weaponize the sleeting rain, kept rescue copters out of the sky unless aerokinetics like Tsuris and Jetstream flew with them to carve out zones of still air. The Ohio River was doing its best to drown Cairo, Mound City, and Paduca, and trying to help the Mississippi laugh at the spillways and floodways to submerge Wickliff and points south.  Even Riptide couldn’t stop that much water; the best he could do was protect rescue boats and find desperate floaters.

Three weeks of heavy rains dumped into the Mississippi and Ohio watersheds, and we were dealing with more destruction than any supervillain had ever caused with the sole exception of Temblor.

Astra, is your load stable? Lei Zi asked through Dispatch. She knew it couldn’t be the wind slowing me down.

“Yes — affirmative,” I responded absently. The US Army engineers had done a good job on the hitches, and I’d turned the 10-ton concrete barrier so it sliced into the wind as I flew. I’d slowed because— There it was again. The pitch-black night and nearly horizontal rain cut even my super-duper vision down to less than thirty feet, but a twinkling flash of red light teased the edge of my sight. No-one was supposed to be down there.

I slowed again and dropped lower, so tired I couldn’t be sure of what I was seeing. The stacked-up storm fronts that had been soaking seven states had put the whole region on alert as aquifers filled and rivers rose. Three states had begun evacuating low ground last week and the flooded ground beneath me, north of Cairo, was supposed to be clear.

There. A sudden wind shift opened a hole in the rain curtain and brought me another red flash.  It moved, flying below me and pulling away now that it had my attention. Lower, I could see the drowned fields where the Mississippi had thrown out a new ribbon across the lower ground, creating a temporary floodway. Someone would get to that, but right now we — the Young Sentinels — were trying to save Cairo.

Astra, Grendel is ready for the next levee section.”

We’d been working on it since early this morning, me flying in the sections as Grendel prepared the foundation — mostly by hammering iron rods down into the collapsed earth levee to anchor the sections as they arrived. But the light below me was bobbing and weaving, trying to keep my attention like Lassie telling me Timmy had fallen down the well and I couldn’t just ignore it.

“I’m minutes out. Investigating signals north of town.”

“… Understood. Be quick.” She didn’t sound happy, but possible civilians in the evacuation zone took precedence over a town that had been completely evacuated two days ago.

Dropping till the wall section beneath me skimmed over the flooded fields, I followed the dancing red light. Could I see wings on it? It certainly moved like a bird working hard to fight through the wind. One minute, two, and I spotted the house. A solid building with no trimmings, it looked ready to shrug off tornadoes. Someone had circled it with a sandbag berm, but the sandbags were just a ring in the water now and the low-slung house sat half submerged.

And the roof was crowded, lit up to my infrared sight.

“You’re kidding, right?” Shell popped in to float beside me, rain sleeting through her virtual projection onto my mind’s eye. “They skipped evacuation to stay here with kids?”

Five adults, seven children, and, yes a dog and a cat in a carrier, huddled together under a tarp between storm lanterns.

I slowed, made sure of my load. “Who are they?”

Shell’s abstraction lasted less than a second.

“Based on head count, property and tax records, and the AR-15s and military gear, I’m betting they’re the Carletons and their neighbors down the road, the Stewarts. County sheriff’s report says they wouldn’t believe the government if it told them Sunday was coming.”

I sighed. “Paladins?”

“Nope, just part of a local citizen’s militia.”

That was something, anyway. Maybe I wouldn’t get shot at. I brought us down, dropping the concrete barrier beside the edge of the roof, which caused a few screams; it must have looked like the piece of emergency levee had just flown out of the night to sit down by their house.

I landed on top of it, which put me at roof level. I was probably a more reassuring sight. Half the reason for the colorful costume was so that bystanders would recognize and trust you in any situation (the other half was marketing), and Andrew was experimenting with textured and reflective fabrics. I’d left my armor at home to try out the patterned blue and white one-piece unitard outfit  he’d come up with, and even in the storm my star crest glowed like a traffic reflector in the light of the lamps.  Of course none of them could see Shell, standing beside me completely unbothered by the storm. She saw no need to cater to reality, so the gusts didn’t stir her wild red hair and the drowning rain didn’t so much as spot her green tank top (which read If you can read this t-shirt you are freaking amazing).

“Hi,” I said.

Shell rolled her eyes. “Great heroic entrance. Way to make a memory.”

“I’m not here to sign autographs, Shell,” I whispered, raised my voice. “Does anyone need a lift? And who does the dragon belong to?”

The shining red “bird” I’d followed turned out to be a fist-sized ruby dragon. It had stopped fighting the storm to perch on a tow-headed boy’s shoulder, and he couldn’t take his eyes off it even to look at me.

“It’s —” Shell started.

“Shhh.”

One of the moms stepped up, pushing back her hood. She was soaked from boots to waist, and even with the heavy jacket her teeth were chattering.

“It just appeared. Circled the kids and then went away.”

To do its Lassie thing, obviously. I nodded.

“It came and found me. I’m headed to Cairo. It’s evacuated but still dry, and we’re raising the levees to keep it that way. I can give you a ride.” I threw the offer out there, doing my best not to give off any suspicious I’m From The Government And I’m Here To Help You vibes.

They decided fast: Mom One simply told her husband she was taking the kids before they died of hypothermia, and Mom Two seconded her. The men, however paranoid they might have been, caved. Fortunately they had plenty of rope — they’d planned on tying everybody together and escaping on inflatable river rafts if the water covered the roof.  I distributed them on top of the barrier and they tied themselves to the hitches. A moment to balance the load, and I got us out of there. The tiny jeweled dragon flapped around anxiously until we lifted off, circled me twice, then disappeared into the night.

Headed for Cairo.

I focused on bringing us around till Shell’s own glowing virtual targeting caret pointed ahead of us again. Straddling the levee section beneath me, my passengers looked too cold and tired to be terrified — or maybe straddling a concrete barrier two feet wide at the top and steady as a flying mountain was reassuring.

“Shell?” I whispered. “Dragon?”

“Actually it’s a drake.” She floated along on her back, and she was giggling.

“Drake — Shell!”

“Okay, okay. It’s got to be one of Kindrake’s pets. And if she’s in Cairo…”

I still wasn’t getting it, but aside from some Army engineers, weren’t we the only ones in town?

Apparently not.  Sometime during my last flight out someone else (it had to be an Atlas-type or transport-level telekinetic or teleporter) had dropped a passenger frame in the middle of Cairo. Not much more than a steel storage container with seats inside, it had been dropped off in the school bus parking lot kitty-corner to the brick First Presbyterian Church and across the street from the newer City of God In Christ chapel. Guard and Army Corps of Engineers were using the chapel as a relief base, and before heading for the levee I landed the barrier in front and unloaded my shivering passengers so they could run inside.

“Glad you could make it,” Grendel said when I finally set my load down beside him. The water swirled less than a foot below our exposed and sunken stretch of earth wall. This was the last section needed for the collapsed earth levee, then we could sandbag the cracks and call it a night — or at least a few hours.

Grendel didn’t look any fresher than I felt; he’d been shoring up sections as I flew, laying pallets of sandbags, generally putting it all together under the guidance of the engineers. He’d stripped down to shorts and bulked up for raw strength, and looked like a gray and hunchbacked Mr. Universe with fangs. His obsessively styled dreadlocks dripped rainwater down knotted shoulders and arms and off his huge pecks. He could lift more than I could in this configuration, but if he wasn’t careful his feet sank into the waterlogged earth.

As tired as he was, he didn’t sound unhappy, just curious.

“I followed a dragon. Were you okay?”

A stoic shrug. “Just wondering if I should grow gills.” He could, too. I perched on the barrier for a breather and watched as he pounded ten-foot pylons into the earth behind it.

FEMA had moved fast when the flood warnings got serious. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had streamlined its response system after the California quake last January, tying participating Crisis Aid and Intervention teams across the country into a fast-response network and organizing CAI capes with emergency-appropriate powers into specialized teams. What had been a mad scramble after the quake had turned into a much smoother mobilization this time around.

For all the good it did. The problem with floodwater is it has to go somewhere, and obviously staying in the river God had made for it was just boring. Beyond the levee I couldn’t see the river, just an expanse of water that rolled away into the night.

Shell popped back in beside me, looking disgusted. “It’s Powerteam.”

“Who?”

“Powerteam.“

“Oh. That’s…”

“Not good? You think?”

“Every hand helps, Shell.”

Her smirk gave her opinion of that, and I couldn’t say she was wrong. I really should have remembered. Kindrake had been big—a child supercelebrity not much older than Shell and me, her breakthrough had manifested her obsession with the Rainbow Drakes, the cute little spectrum-colored flying lizards of the kid’s cartoon. The producers of the show had rolled with it, given Kindrake her own live-action series showcasing her adorable pets, but that was years ago and Kindrake and her drakes weren’t so cute anymore. And she was running with Powerteam?

A sigh escaped before I could catch it.

“I know, right?” Shell snickered. “Kindrake brought them and their film crew in on that passenger frame.”

“How— Never mind.”

Grendel finished pounding the brace in and I pushed myself to my feet. Rising I felt heavy, dense, not the leaf on the wind I usually was when I flew.  We locked grips, my hold barely halfway round his wrists while his huge hands swallowed my forearms, and I flew us back into town. We’d practiced the move in the months since the Green Man Attack, had it down till a tiny squeeze from me and he’d let go so I could throw him at the target of my choice—three hundred pounds of incoming Grendel was a great opening to any fight. Tonight we just both wanted to get out of the rain.

We weren’t the only ones; Crash, Tsuris, and Ozma had arrived sometime between my last two flights, and were talking with FEMA engineers by the coffeepot, away from Powerteam. The Carletons and the Stewarts had camped on the other side of the recreation hall, wrapped in blankets, the parents between their kids and the heroes while the kids kept trying to see what was going on.

Because there was a show. The production crew was big enough that each member of Powerteam had his own camera-jockey, and they were earning their paychecks filming the drama.

“Shell?” I whispered. The reality show’s team lineup changed fast and wasn’t something I’d ever followed—Kindrake was the only one I recognized, and I only recognized her because of her rainbow swarm of drakes; the raven black hair, deep shadowed eyes, and purple and black goth-cape outfit was totally new to me.

“Spinner.” Shell pointed at the skinny blond boy yelling the loudest. “Team leader. He generates and controls strands of indestructible silver threads, can spin them into entangling traps, barriers, cocoons, armor, really anything until they melt like yesterday’s promises. According to the tabloids, he makes a lot of those, too.”

Her virtual finger targeted a shorter boy, standing quiet and arms folded but smirking. “Boomer. He’s a B Class Ajax-type with the added boost of explosive punches.” A finger-twitch, to the worried-looking kid by Boomer.  “Spaz. Low-level teleporter. He ‘blinks’ in a fight, in and out, likes to use stunners, flash-bangs, whatever will take someone down.” She dropped her hand. “The other looming Ajax-type backing up Kindrake is Slamazon.”

Looming was right; “Slamazon” had to be at least seven feet tall, and what Mom would describe as Junoesque and Tsuris would cheerfully call stacked.

“B or A-Class, all of them except Spaz,” Shell finished. “The show doesn’t stint.”

Grendel had ignored my distraction to head for the coffee. Even if the only one besides me who could see Shell’s virtual presence was Ozma—and that was only when she wore her Seeing Specs—the team all knew the voices in my head were real. Ozma watched me now with arched eyebrow, obviously wondering what I was going to do about the drama.

“—they were our rescue!” Spinner shouted in Kindrake’s face.

Kindrake wasn’t backing down. “Flame went for the closest help! They were freezing!” Behind her, Glamazon folded her arms and scowled, and my super-duper hearing picked up a low but rising hum rising from Boomer. What was going on?

Grendel looked over at the blanket-wrapped rescuees, and changed course to position himself between them and Powerteam. They couldn’t be…

They could. Slamazon easily reached over Kindrake to shove Spinner back.

Oh crap.

I put a smile on and crossed the room fast. “Hi! When did you guys arrive?”

People facing off usually have to work themselves up to a fight, with lots of posturing and escalating verbal confrontation until both sides know neither is backing down and it’s time to commence. I hoped to short-circuit that.

So Spinner whipped around, focusing his lip-curling sneer on me.

“And here’s the Girl Scout. Come to tell us to move on?”

What?

Shell talked fast. “They didn’t get FEMA clearance to join the effort until tonight. Not much emergency training or mission-specific powers, so they got sent down here.”

Where they couldn’t do much to mess things up. Great.

I kept the smile on. “Everyone’s welcome to help, and the town isn’t safe yet. We should—”

“What? Pitch sandbags? We didn’t come all this way to do grunt-work, and now you’re dogging our saves.”

“That’s not—” Kindrake tried to interject as Boomer moved up behind Spinner.

“Shut up! You’re in this, too! Miss Kiddie-Show Star, coming on like you can teach us all about cape-work.” The background hum rose in pitch.

I put out my hands. “I think we all need to—” Boomer swung and the concussive power released from his fist lit up my world.

When you’re clocked hard you don’t feel it, or what happens in the next few seconds, really—your shaken brain-stem isn’t letting any information into your head until it clears. Hearing Shell yelling at me to “get up!” wasn’t unwelcome, and after months of fight-club style training with Watchman and Grendel I bounced back to full wakiness pretty quick. And tasted rain. I was back outside.

Boomer had blasted me through the wall.

We’d just wrecked a church.

“Hope!” Shell gasped when I sat up. “Get back in there! It’s on!”

 Instead, they joined me, Boomer first. He widened the hole on the way out, arriving in a rain of bricks. Whoever had ejected him had practically aimed him at me and I took full advantage, catching him as he skidded on his knees to kick him behind the ear. Ajax-type or not, he dropped without a sound.  Watchman would be proud.

Grendel followed him out in a charge that carried Slamazon with him and I breathed a sigh of relief; not that he was needed out here, but if he’d gone on the offense that meant that the civilians were safe—probably evacced by Crash.

“Shell?” I asked. She’d be getting everyone’s dispatch-cam feeds.

“Ozma used her scepter and magic belt to grow a forest from the wood of the rec room floor and Crash and Spaz are evacuating the bystanders behind it,” she reported. “Tsuris is fighting Spinner, burying the creep under his own weave, and—”

The final bit got cut off by the huge beast that dropped out of the night. That I hadn’t seen before, but it had to be Kindrake’s. The thing’s landing shook the parking lot, its rainbow-colored body making elephants look small as its wings covered us.

Wow.

“Is it a fusion?” I asked needlessly; the rainbow-patched hide was a big hint. Well, now I know how she flew the passenger frame here. “Where’s Kindrake?” I spotted her before Shell replied, standing in the hole in the wall and pointing at Grendel and Slamazon. She shouted over the storm, and my heart sank as I lunged forward. The dragon’s head darted down, lizard-quick, and Grendel disappeared into its jaws.

“Brian!”

“Now that’s something you don’t see every day,” Shell said, wide-eyed. I smacked into the beast’s side and it was like hitting a leather sack full of sand; it bellowed, slammed back against the passenger frame, and I hit it again before Slamazon hard-blocked me. Not braced, I flew backwards. Kindrake’s projection or not, the thing had a sense of self-preservation; it took to the air, the sweep of its wings adding to my tumble. Then the wind hit in a blasting roar. Tsuris.

The column of air wouldn’t have pushed me if I was braced for it, but I didn’t have a hundred foot wingspan for it to grab onto, and it caught the escaping beast—Great Drake?—like a helpless leaf, throwing it back down to crush through the parked FEMA vehicles and roll away into the night. It roared its frustration, getting some height only to get smacked down again, this time right into— No no no…

Oh, shit!” Shell swore.

It hit the nearest wall of raised levee like a ton of—like tons of dragon. Then it exploded into rainbow confetti as Grendel ripped his way out of its stomach. Kindrake screamed in pain and collapsed behind me, caught by Ozma as she stepped through the holed wall wearing a new green fedora.

“Ozma!” I yelled. “If you’re wearing Spinner, I need him now!”

—————————

An hour later we’d patched the hole in the levee. It took all of the FEMA team’s reserve sandbags and countless yards of de-hatted Spinner’s threads, but we were able to use the temporary patch to buy time for me to fly more levee sections in and Cairo didn’t get more than a couple of inches of Mississippi floodwater before we finished. Six inches, tops, okay maybe a foot.

By then we were all bone-tired—even I could feel my thoughts drowning in cold black fatigue. Powerteam’s crew manager explained that Kindrake’s feedback-trauma would be fine by morning and that she’d be able to reconstruct Terraflore—nice name for a big rainbow-lizard, and I wondered what it meant—and fly the battered passenger-frame out of Cairo, so I ordered everyone to bed. Spinner yelled some more, until I let him know that, as the senior officer of the Illinois State Militia in an Emergency Zone (officially I’m a 1st lieutenant and nobody finds that funnier than me), I could arrest him for being a complete dumbass.

Half of Powerteam thought that would be a good idea, so the dumbass backed down. He even slapped a patch on the hole we’d made in the church. Ozma couldn’t turn the wall of trees she’d made back into the smooth wood floor it had been, there was enough open space left that we could set up cots and dividers so everyone, capes, rescuees, crews, and engineers, could get some sleep.

The warm grass felt like the memory of a summer day, and the stars above shown as bright as they only could without air or light pollution to dim their glory. The snow of petals from the blooming cherry tree danced across the hill in the warm night breeze, and the silver fox beside me sighed contentedly as I stroked its ears. Together we watched the town below us burn and vanish.

I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling, still smelling cherry blossoms.

Nuts. Not again.  

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