This week I looked up from what I was doing and realized the last update was FOUR MONTHS AGO! Now that’s just excessive. Yes, we all had a very strange year and things aren’t back to normal yet. Yes I ran into real problems with Book 9, being as it’s kind of an epilogue and launch into the next phase of the New Heroic Age. (Call it WtC Phase 2. Or not.) But that’s no excuse!
Book Nine of the Wearing the Cape series, working title Future Days, is now officially Joyeuse Guard. Cover-art above. I will be trying my hardest to have it out by the end of this first quarter. I have a couple of other projects in the fire, including an idea for my first non-WtC book ever (Bite Me: Big Easy Nights doesn’t count), but all of that must wait on Book 9. I promise to post more often in 2021 as well, and be more active on the WtC Facebook page. I hope you all have a better year this year, and meanwhile, here’s another section of the first part of Joyeuse Guard: remember, last time we left Mal unconscious in the street.
<Well, this is a fine mess.>
Mal blinked, or thought he did since he wasn’t actually seeing anything. Huh?
<Go back to sleep—it’s the drugs talking.>
* * * * * * * * * * *
The need to vomit finally pulled him out of the clouds, the rolling nausea sharper than any other feeling. Damn drugs. Shattering an arm in three places in middle school had taught him more than he wanted to know about his idiosyncratic reaction to opioids. What did I break this time?
“Hey,” Shell said. “You awake? Does it hurt? I can give you more stuff.”
Forcing his eyes open, he stared at the lights above him. Not my room. “What did I break?” His mouth moved funny and it came out slurry—for a moment he wasn’t sure he’d said anything. Turning his head, he didn’t see Shell. Or anyone. “What happened? Where are you?”
“I’m everywhere, mwa-ha-ha. Duh.” Shell’s voice came from an intercom beside his bed. “Your condition’s stable and you’re all hooked up. I’m monitoring your vitals and I can have a trauma team on top of you in thirty seconds. Or a nurse, but they’re all kinds of busy at the moment. So, do you hurt?”
Shit. If Shell couldn’t even have one of her Galatea shells with him, whatever happened was still happening. Or the cleanup was. He blinked. Blinked again. “What?”
“I said, ‘Do you hurt?’”
“Not enough for more drugs.” There was still a weird lag between what he said in his head and what came out. Not his normal drug reaction, and he enunciated every word. “It gets counterproductive.”
“Yeah, I read your medical history. Maybe Chakra can come by later, magic the edge off if she has any juice left.”
“I think she got me earlier.” He vaguely recalled a semi-lucid moment when his head had felt . . . fuller than just with himself.
“Nope, she’s busy too. What do you remember?”
He sighed. So it had been that kind of hit. “The beach. Wish Tiff had been there. Um. Ozma and Brian and—” —Shell’s gynoid shell lying in the sand. Gut-churning flight. Smoke, invasion, Big Ugly Dude— “Now that was freaky.”
“Big Ugly Dude.” The big sucker hadn’t exactly looked nice—black armor didn’t give anybody that kind of vibe—but what gave him the skin-crawling conviction that if the dude’s helmet had come off he’d have been looking at the skull of a putrid rotting corpse? The memory of adrenalin-muted revulsion made his gut churn harder. Imagination, gotta be. After all the half-desiccated green zombies walking around had primed him, right?
“You’re drifting, but that’s enough. Look down.”
“Right. Oh, yeah.”
The shape of his legs under the sheet ended with a small tent at the knees. It looked like a magician’s trick, one Blackstone might perform on stage. “Doesn’t hurt. Why can’t I move them?”
“They strapped you down under there so you wouldn’t thrash without anyone here to stop you. You can unbuckle everything yourself, but for that you’ve got to be, you know, lucid, and I can hit you with more nighty-night stuff before you ever get that far.”
“So, what? They put tourniquets on them?” He felt as detached from his emotions as he was from his legs.
“Oh, hell no. Rush rushed a specialist in from across town before you’d even got to the ER and you’ve already been through surgery. That was hours ago and now you’re at the drain and maintain stage.”
Heat crawled up his limbs, even the parts no longer there, fight-or-flight ready to release. “Surgery? Then where are—Variforce said—”
“Um. You were blasting when they . . . separated, so you kind of toasted them a bit. Also, they were shredded more in the last explosions. But Vulcan says he can make you new ones! Won’t even show at the beach! He did say making a pair that works around you power might be a problem, though.”
“Might be a—” Mal’s breath came fast, heat building in his core. “Shell, I need—”
“More? You got it.” A box above his head beeped and it might have been psychosomatic but Mal could feel coolness and calm spread up his arm from the needle-site as he relaxed. Whatever was going on outside, there was one more reason for him to wake up alone. It was safer for everyone.
“S’all right. Sorry about the nausea.”
“It’s better than panic and blowing shit up.” He closed his eyes. “So, prosthetics, huh? Does my family know yet?”
“We’ve been holding off on telling anybody anything besides you’re in no danger until we can get them in here.”
“Thanks. Dad’s halfway across the country right now and Mom—”
“Yeah.” Shell didn’t need to elaborate; they both knew his Humanity First-following mother wouldn’t cross the street for him, let alone fly back from where she’d run to with his sister. And he sure as hell didn’t want Sydney to hear about this. Not until he could see his little sis and show her he was alright.
<That’s going to be awhile.>
He frowned. Again the weird disjoint in his head. “So, what happened?”
“We stopped them, and everyone’s alive. There were more—different—attacks around the country, including the coasts. Your family’s fine there, too. I promise.”
“Okay. Got it. Everybody’s okay.” His eyes sagged and he forced them open. “Hit me with it. What happened after?”
So she told him, right up to the point where she basically took over Northwestern Memorial’s security to make sure nobody tried to “roll up and kick anyone while they’re down” and volunteered for remote-nursing.
Then she fed him more drugs until the world went away again.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Mal decided Tiff could use some drugs herself; she had an anxiety attack.
“Breathe,” he said desperately. He couldn’t see her face—she’d folded up in the chair, dropping her forehead to her knees—but he imagined she was ghost pale. She’d stepped in the room, managing to keep her eyes on his face for all of a minute, even laying a kiss on him, before they’d drifted lower. Her fixed smile had disappeared and she’d dropped into the chair and started hyperventilating. “Breathe, Tiff. I’m fine, okay?”
His dad had handled it better, had even managed to laugh at Mal’s “I’ll walk it off,” line. He imagined Hope was probably having as much fun with her parents right about now.
“Your— Your—” Her words fought through whining hiccups.
“Yeah, I sort of hoped you wouldn’t notice.”
“That’s not funny!”
At least the hiccups stopped. She straightened up and Mal would take red-faced furious over white-faced any day. “Just so you know, this isn’t how I wanted to lose weight. Hey. Aw, no.” She didn’t wobble again but her big brown eyes widened in appalled shock and she started tearing up. “I’m sorry, Tiff. Too soon?”
<No kidding,> his pesky new Inner Voice replied.
“Way to go, Dan Juan,” Shell snarked from the intercom. “Hey Tiff, he’s really not this stupid, I swear. He’s on the good drugs. I told you, he’ll still be able to dance. We can even make him taller. You’ll be able to wear heels.”
Tiff slapped her hand over a choking laugh, rolling her expressive eyes. Mal loved those eyes.
And Shell had told them. She’d told him twice, playing omnipresent nurse since he’d woken up. The painkillers really were the good stuff. Whatever they’d switched him to had calmed his nausea, and he kept having to look down at his truncated shape under the sheet to believe it.
All he really felt was a ghost of warmth and pressure, but she’d assured him that they’d been able to save his muscles, bones, and nerves down to the knees. They’d even been able to preserve the ligaments so they could achieve “maximum distil stabilization,” whatever that meant, and installed the latest joint-sockets so that Vulcan would be able to just slot in the cybernetic legs he was already customizing as soon as the stumps healed.
He’d be faster, stronger. He could join Rush and Watchman in the cyborg club. (He’d laughed when Shell had reminded him of Watchman’s own unnoticeable Verne-tech leg—maybe there was a curse on Sentinels? No, Watchman had gotten that in the Army.)
Beside him Tiff inhaled and sniffed, wiping tears. “I’m sorry, it’s just that, well, you know.”
“Geez, you two are eloquent. Tiffany, he really is going to be fine. Rehab will be a bitch, but he’s not in pain now and it’s not like the old days where we would have just given him a peg leg. It could have been a lot worse, and this is likely Mal’s last fight anyway—he’s hanging up the cape for engineering school, remember?”
“Yeah, Tiff.” Mal fought the grin and lost. “I’m walking away from it all.”
This time her choking laugh came from her gut. She hugged herself tight, but her smile was genuine. “I’m holding you to that. You need to be my boyfriend on campus this fall, that’s the deal.” Mal’s grin widened.
Then the alarm sounded. Tiff clapped her hands to her ears and even Mal winced. Cut off, it was followed by “Biohazard alert. Biohazard alert. All medical personnel in the Superhuman Medicine Section are to shelter in place and await instructions. The section is sealed. Biohazard alert. Biohazard alert.”
“I hope it’s the biggest wrong call I’ve ever made,” Shell said. “Rush went berserk a little earlier—he’s contained now—and physical factors point to a possible biological vector. It may be nothing, and if it’s biological it’s probably not contagious. Probably.”
Mal’s thoughts slid like boots on ice. “What was the vector? The attack?”
“Maybe something in it? I could be wrong.”
“But if you’re not, I was in the same environment. Could I be infected? Could I be contagious?”
Tiff’s eyes went wide as saucers.
“Probably not yet. But Tiffany? You guys were all smoochy-face a minute ago so I’m afraid you’re checked into Hotel Northwest Memorial until we know. Pull up a chair.”
* * * * * * * * * * *
Mal woke with a start, brain resetting to tell him where he was again as he realized he was breathing hard, heat in his bones.
“Shhh,” Chakra whispered. “You don’t want to wake her up.”
Right. Relaxing and looking over, in the hospital room’s dim light he could see the rise and fall of Tiff’s chest under her blanket, golden hair peeking out of the top. The cot they’d brought in for her to sleep on was barely long enough for her lanky form and couldn’t be very comfortable, but she snored quietly. They’d talked for what seemed like hours. He’d texted his dad, she’d texted her family, they’d all called back, everybody got to worry while pretending not to, and when she started to droop the hospital had provided what it could so she could sleep chez Northwest.
“There’s a confirmed virus,” Chakra said softly. I’ve verified what it looks like with Rush and Crash’s chakric auras and just came in to check you two.”
“No. You’re both completely clean.”
“Are they going to be okay?”
“I won’t let them be anything else.” She sounded exhausted. “And you’re fine.”
“Except being a lot shorter now.”
“Scamp.” She ruffled his hair. “Your chakras are a mess, especially your higher ones. If I didn’t need every drop of kundalini power I’ve got I’d see what’s going on.”
“Besides the delimbing, the blood loss, the surgery, and the drugs?”
She chuckled. “Yes, besides that. I’ll be there for your rehab, I promise. And I’ve got to go.”
“I get that.” Mal shifted. He wasn’t restrained anymore, and the painkillers and the wrapping meant moving didn’t shoot agony up his truncated limbs or anything, but he still felt off, out of sync with himself. “When you get a chance, could you—” his vocal cords froze, took over. “—check Tiff again?”
“I’ll check everyone again. But you’re both clean, I promise. Goodnight.”
Mal didn’t say anything else—he couldn’t—and she left with a soft click of the door.
What the hell? What the hell? He swallowed, swallowed again, pushed himself up to a sitting position. Not a sound came out of his mouth, and when he tried to reach for the call button his hand stayed by his thigh.
<Don’t panic.> Inside-voice didn’t sound panicked at all.
The hell I’m not going to— Okay, two inside voices just wasn’t right. Tiff! Tiff! The words didn’t even rise to subvocalization, staying inside his skull and now his breathing was slowing, deepening, the total opposite of what his head was doing.
<I was a little worried Chakra would spot me. Would have been bad luck for you, though.>
What the hell?
<I’m a demon and you’re possessed, congratulations. I’m going to spin your head around and spew gallons of green pea soup in three, two, one— That was a joke.>
You’re in my head!
<And in the driver’s seat. Too bad you’re in no shape to be driven off the lot. Would have been so much easier. I’ll wait right here while you go through all the “This isn’t happening!” “It’s the drugs!” “I’m having a psychotic break!” stuff.>
It’s— You’re— Mal’s brain melted down, rebooted, aborted, crashed again, and finally decided to call it a day as he just sat there, occasionally trying to reach for that damn call button or yell for help. His hand never twitched, his mouth never opened. He couldn’t even feel resistance, any motion at all as he watched his vitals smooth out on the heart monitor, soothing, regular beeps. It was like his body’d become completely detached from anything going on in his head.
Eventually he ran through a set of twenty prime numbers, mentally listed what he’d had for lunch for the last week, calculated the number of ceiling tiles by length and width of the ceiling, then checked the result by laboriously counting them—freakily easy to do since he wasn’t freaking out physically. He adjusted his blankets and position. He could that, could probably do anything that didn’t draw attention.
At least not freaking physically had a plus side; no adrenalin rush fogging his head and sending him all jittery, no need to lock down the heat of his power. He’d been more wired when he woke up.
<So, you done?>
He supposed he was. Are you a psychic time-traveler? Me from the future?
<Points for imagination, young man. I most decidedly am not.>
Hey, it’s possible.
<Then your world is a good deal stranger than mine.>
What do you want?
<The same things as you, I imagine. Good coffee, at least.>
This is a hospital, the stuff here is crap. Jacky makes good coffee.
Artemis. Black bodysuit, hood, guns all over, scary beyond belief?
<Oh, yes. If she’s a fellow coffee snob I’d love to meet her. Safest not, however.>
Mal shifted his angle on the bed, letting his hand fall closer to the call button. I’d be happy to introduce you. So what do you want?
His hands folded themselves over his stomach.
<Nice abs, do you have a physical trainer? Also, naughty. No trying to attract attention.> He could swear he heard a mental sigh. <I suppose this is as good a moment as any to clarify a few things. I’m not controlling you from a distance, like a drone. I’m right in here with you. Now, the laws being what they are, just my being here in your head and taking control is felony assault, felony coercion, and kidnapping. At least it would be if I had my own body somewhere else and was considered a person. Since personhood recognition still has a lot of catching up to do, all I can expect if I’m found in your head is a fast exit at best. At worst, some Psi-Type or Merlin-Type or Verne-Type could find some way to contain and remove me and keep me indefinitely, a disembodied mind with no physical link to reality. I’d go insane very quickly. That will not happen. Which reminds me.>
His hands picked up his smartphone, unlocked it with his fingerprint, entered a phone number and a text—Megaton Northwestern—and sent. Thirty seconds later, his phone vibrated and Confirmed popped up.
<Excellent. Now, the next thing you need to understand is there are only two ways I’m exiting your brain. The easy way is voluntarily. It takes just a few minutes for me to fully decouple, as it were. Unfortunately we need to be conscious for that, and the process takes my hands off the steering wheel, so to speak. You would be in control again, creating a perilous window for me, so your cooperation is required. Lacking your cooperation, circumstances can be arranged to keep you from interfering. That could be dangerous for you or those around you.> His head turned towards Tiff. <Do you understand?>
Mal swallowed, a bolus of fear closing his throat. Yeah, I understand.
<Good. Because the hard way is much quicker, safer for me, but terminal for you.> His left hand heated, rising to cup the side of his head. <I’ve been observing your control of your power, young man, and though I’m sure I don’t understand its finer points I’m confident I can atomize your brain. Brain-death releases me quite quickly. Should you prove immune to your own power, well, then I’d be forced to get someone else to do it. There’s lots of strong capes around, but I’m fairly certain you don’t want to kill dozens of bystanders and have to be put down?>
<Excellent. And bravo for skipping the usual protestations. My least favorite is “You can’t do that!” Of course I can do that. More than good coffee, I very much want to live. Everyone else’s life is secondary to that goal, yours especially since you have a choice of outcomes in this situation. And since death has been a profitable business for me, I am quite experienced. >
I can’t let you hurt anybody.
<You can’t stop me. But you can make it unnecessary. Simply don’t create a situation I’ll have to shoot my way out of, and all will be well. I’ll be on my way in no time.>
That’s it for now! Feel free to comment on any of the above, or on anything else!