The Bat and the Cat

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Heroes Without Borders

Doctors Without Borders

Wow, a second “serious” blog post in just one week! This one’s inspired by what’s going on right now (Ukraine, of course). I’m not about to try and predict how all of this will end, but only ask that you pray for Ukraine as its people suffer in the crucible of war.

But I said “inspired by,” not “about.” It got me thinking about the geopolitical situation of the Post-Event World; those who’ve read the expanded world background in Barlow’s Guide to Superheroes know I took both a sympathetic and wary view of New Russia. I made it much more democratic and liberal than pre-Event Russia, but I also noted the potential seeds of international conflict; Ethnic Russian nationalism. “Father Lukin” is no Vladimir Putin, but . . .

And of course I hinted at that conflict in the events unfolding in Kazakhstan, which brings me to thoughts about Joyeuse Guard’s future among those events and what follows them.

I’m still plotting that out, but now’s as good a time as any to clarify what JG isn’t. They aren’t peacekeepers. I mention this due to a review that was forwarded to me. It was a mostly positive review, but the reader made one comment;

I will say I did have one complaint about the book where Astra does a talk about how it was not her position to prevent people from being driven off their lands via conquest. This is, bluntly, ridiculous because forced displacement is a war crime and defined as one of the forms of genocide. It is something that peace-keeping forces are SUPPOSED to prevent and Astra comes off as not only immoral but outright wrong here.”

In Kazakhstan, Joyeuse Guard was acting as members of Heroes Without Borders. HWB is a super-powered adjunct to Doctors Without Borders, Medecins Sans Frontieres.

About its mission MSF says;

“MSF offers assistance to people based solely on need, irrespective of race, religion, gender, or political affiliation. We give priority to those in the most serious and immediate danger. Wherever we go, we make sure that people in the communities where we’re working understand that MSF’s commitment to independence, impartiality, and neutrality means that we will provide assistance to anyone who needs it. We run radio campaigns and hold meetings with everyone from government ministers to local warlords, community elders to women’s groups.

Gaining their acceptance is key to our being able to work in difficult environments such as Afghanistan or Democratic Republic of Congo.

As a partner in that mission Heroes Without Borders operates in disaster zones around the world. In places with “political insecurity” it aids MSF by establishing safe-havens from which medicine and food can be dispensed and to which refugees can go for safety from the conflict around them. As Astra put it;

“HWB doesn’t fight wars. It has a mandate only to aid and protect civilians caught in them. We have eyes on the town—if we see an attack on civilians, we can stop it. But all Kokshetau’s Kazakh residents are here now, so there won’t be one.”

HWB capes, by their corporate charter, don’t intervene in conflicts. They aren’t military capes and they aren’t mercenaries, and although JG is now officially a “private military organization” their contract with HWB is strictly base security. Otherwise, Heroes Without Borders couldn’t function at all in situations like Kazakhstan’s; it would be seen by one side or the other as an adversarial force. Even in the midst on an ongoing genocide, HWB can’t intervene beyond protecting non-combatants they find in immediate danger and they can’t go looking for fights. (Getting word of an atrocity-in-progress and moving in to stop it is a legal grey area since they are neither military nor law enforcement, but governments tend to look the other way when this happens.)

So, what does this mean in an unfolding situation like Ukraine’s?

Well, if there’s mass breakdown of the economy and food and medicine is short, HWB can mobilize to set up distribution bases. Only non-military supplies would be distributed, and none to the combatants. If large movements of refugees are created, HWB can use its bases to house them and even bring in transportation to move them out of the combat zones. HWB capes would not engage Russian units, but could stand them off if HWB bases or convoys are threatened. Observers from both sides are invited to insure that HWB is not giving military aid to either side. (Well, this last bit really depends upon how scrupulous the sides are about observing the laws of war; HWB doesn’t invite terrorists and war-criminals over to check out their operations. Certainly neither the Russian nor Kazakh “militias” were getting a close look at Kokshetau Base.)

It really is all about maintaining political neutrality, without which they would simply find themselves another group of peacekeepers, with one side of every conflict treating them as combatants and their bases as legitimate military targets.

And Joyeuse Guard has no interest in being peacekeepers. This may mean interesting things for their future, with a widening war in Eurasia. Or not. But I really wish that life would stop imitating my art.

Pray for Ukraine. And possibly donate to Medecins Sans Frontieres; they are the worthiest of causes.

MGH

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Rambling On

I love geeky-clever shirts.

It’s now four-thirty in the morning. Two-thirty Las Vegas time, but I’m in Pensacola. I’m wide awake because my roommate had to get up and get out to catch his flight home. I was awake anyway, I do that around two to three in the morning. I’m not an insomniac; I’ll be asleep again in awhile.

But in these wee hours I was thinking about life, the universe, and everything. Actually I was thinking about a young woman who came to Bard’s Tower yesterday to let me know that she’d picked up Wearing the Cape at last year’s con and how much she’d enjoyed it. She also told me that what I did to Hope in the book really hit her hard but in a good way. She herself had been working through some tough events recently, and seeing Hope just keep moving forward really effected her.

I smiled and thanked her for telling me that, and that was that. A small part of her day and con experience. And this morning I’m thinking about it.

It’s a very odd thing, when this happens. It doesn’t happen often. I didn’t deliberately write Wearing the Cape or its sequels to touch and inspire, but apparently it’s happened more than once. An Afghanistan vet wrote to let me know that he’d found himself in a very bad place and discovering Hope and her stories was a life saver, that with the first book he was hooked on a new outlook on life. His family loved me for it and he wanted to thank me.

And so I find myself praying for people I’ve never known and never meant to touch. It’s a very odd feeling. I could get all philosophical about this, but honestly? At four-thirty in the morning I feel like sort of a fraud. And I remind myself that I’m not the inspiration, Hope is. And since Hope is an amalgamation of many things, not least of which is my parents and their attitude and ideals and Way as best they passed it to me, that’s something I completely understand. What inspires me inspires others, we’re all on the same road.

Well now it’s 3:00am Vegas time, and I’m going back to sleep.

Take care, everybody.

MGH

(It’s daylight and I’ve reread this. Still makes sense. Y’all be good now.)

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Non-Writing Stuff, and a Sneak-Peek.

Hello Everyone! I’ve got no major news at this time, but thought I’d drop a post telling you what’s going on right now.

Two big things this month: first, I’m in a 5-book giveaway with some excellent authors, most of whom I’ve met through the convention circuit. It’s happening this week, so if any of you would like to take a chance on winning a signed Wearing the Cape #1, plus four other signed books from some very good writers in very different genres, go for it. Click on the link below the image, I’ll wait.

http://davidjohnbutler.com/giveaways/february-2022-five-book-giveaway-2/?fbclid=IwAR0MjUhWhSzAlekQ5SqH_A2t1mL6pgY0kSJBIgnJ72Dbfp4R__hDT1IdZRk

All done? Good. For myself, the “big thing” this month is the first convention of the season, launching in Pensacola, Florida. Pensacon is a smaller convention, but I love going back every year because they do it right and treat all of their guests like VIPs; it doesn’t matter if you’re a famous actor or a b-list author like my humble self, the people who put on the show make you feel welcome and appreciated. This year I’ll be sharing the booth with two excellent writer/artists, Richard and Wendy Pini, the creators of Elf Quest. And others, of course, but R&W are the ones I’ll be trying not to geek out over; Elf Quest appeared while I was still in high school and had a huge impact on my writerly imagination even back then.

And speaking of writing, I am making progress on Capes, enough that I thought I’d share a teaser with you.

_______________________________________________________

CAPES

Chapter One/Scene One

Living through the Chicago Attack destroyed his life and afterwards he wished—well, not that he hadn’t survived, but that he’d come through it with just a bullet hole or two instead of a superpower. Gunshot wounds healed, right?

His day had already been bad enough, coming to work to find the office flooded with agents wearing FBI jackets, being asked to show ID—they’d been willing to buy that he was indeed Kingston Scott Parks, college grad and new-hire at Polestar Survey Group—and relieved of his work laptop before being shown the door. He’d found himself on the corner of Jackson and Wacker when the semitrailers pulled up at the light.

Three long ones, they took up all of eastbound Jackson’s lanes when they stopped, and they didn’t move when the light changed. Instead, Kingston heard the clang of metal doors opening. Trying to make sense out of that, deciding whether to cross or not, he heard the first stuttering pops of gunfire. Pop-pop-pop.

Kingston hadn’t always lived in the better parts of Chicago and knew the sound well even if it was wrong—too fast and too loud even accounting for echo off the buildings around them—and he ducked before thinking about it. The pedestrian-safety bollard posts on the curb and the heavy City Sanitation trashcan gave him cover as he twisted to figure out where the shots were coming from. When a business-suited guy to his right yelled and pointed, he risked bobbing up.

Soldiers filled the spaces between the semis, freaky soldiers with green and gangrenous skin, popping off random shots with the rifles in their hands—the ripping too-loud-to-be-pistol-shots he’d heard.

Shitshitshitshitshit! Clutching his slack messenger bag, he gathered himself to follow the now-running guy in a bolt up Wacker—until the man dropped in a staccato of gunfire and burst of red. Shit! He tried to become one with the sidewalk.

Above his head the cascade of stuttering fire shattered windows up and down from the intersection, and he was trapped. The bollards, trashcan, and intersection traffic-light pole gave him line-of-sight cover, but rising dread froze his thoughts with the thud of advancing boots under the shots and screams. The cover wouldn’t last; nothing between him and the green soldiers was more than waist high and all around was open ground.

Kingston forced his eyes away from the still body on the sidewalk. Glass fell like rain, but there were no sharp snaps of bullets hitting steel bollards; they weren’t shooting at him. Yet. Okay, so where could he go?

The park across the street was no cover, even assuming he could make it across. Scramble down Jackson? The bollards stretched down the street and they’d give some cover—but that way lay a lot of the shattering windows and that was the way they were pointed.  

Up Wacker, then. Kingston’s eyes fixed on a heavy curbside trash hauler maybe ninety feet up the road, the kind of construction garbage hauler companies dropped at sites and then picked up and carted away when full. Behind that . . . he could think about that when he got there.

And he wasn’t going to get there—business-suit guy had tried that and now there was no time, the shots were getting closer.

He was going to die.

Be the wind. First rule of surviving a villain attack—and if ranked green soldiers didn’t just scream supervillain nothing did—was run. If you weren’t already a target, keeping low and running like hell out of the zone tripled your odds of survival. Fist clenched around his bag strap, he breathed in, out, in, heart racing as he focused like a laser on the steel safe haven just up the street. His vision greyed and narrowed as he gathered himself and lunged from cover—

And crashed off the side of the trash carrier at an angle.

What.

His head rang from the impact and his knees felt their meeting with the sidewalk, but he wasn’t lying beside the suit. Rolling to his feet he ducked instinctively as bullets thwacked off the steel barrier between him and death, scrambling again. Ducking around to the other side of the carrier, he took off running.

Halfway to Adams Street some kind of firebomb went off overhead and Kingston’s world went weird again, smacking him into the back of a car half onto the sidewalk ahead of him. Around him, commuters abandoned their cars to run.

Where are the capes?

 A bloorpy explosion as he scrambled up made him turn to watch an eruption of pink foam fill half the intersection behind him, trapping green shooters in it as it fast-set. A red blur stopped beside him and Rush helped him to his feet. “Get to Adams and then head for the lake!” the speedster said before blurring away again. Staggering, Kingston made it to the corner where cars on the westbound street had stopped and more drivers were exiting their cars and running east. Why hadn’t they just kept going?

An explosion west across the river told him why and he ran. He could run faster than most of the out-of-shape morning commuters, especially since every few steps his world blinked and he found himself yards ahead as he covered the blocks between him and Michigan Avenue and the parks. Twice uneven ground at the end of a blink sent him sprawling on concrete but he rolled to his feet and kept running. In front of the Art Institute, lungs burning, heart bursting in his chest, he stopped and dithered.

North? South?

South was Jackson and marching green soldiers. North took him to Monroe where he crossed the tracks and finally slowed down.

And had time for any thought but running.

Shit. His cell wouldn’t make connection—just sat in his hand with September’s name over the red receiver icon as dots marched across the bottom. Staring back at the smoke rising over the towers of the Loop he tried to remember his roomy and best mate’s schedule was. She had a morning appointment. Where? Where where where? Distant shots and electric discharge had him moving on again, too blown to even jog, and then something made him look up.

High above the Dome south of him the next generation of Sentinels, Astra and her squad and a big-ass dragon, were descending over the park, peeling away to dive into the Loop.

Yay, freaking cavalry’s here.

He was a Chi-Towner—he knew the drill; get out of the way while the capes fight the villains or whatever freaky shit some villain’s unleashed, wait for the public alert announcing the All Clear before going back. But was September somewhere in the Loop? If she was anywhere close to the action, he could expect her to head right for it, camera ready. Maybe I canIWhat did I do?

What he’d just done hit Kingston like a ton of bricks. The air left his lungs, not a good idea considering how out of breath he already was, and he had to bend and grab his stinging aching knees for balance as the world turned fuzzy. Straightening, he was half-surprised to find himself in the same spot.

Because he’d . . . blinked and the world moved. Repeatedly. He was alive, and yeah he felt like he’d taken a beating but that was from the concrete, meeting it repeatedly. And the steel side of a trash carrier. And the back of a car. He wasn’t lying on a sidewalk bleeding out because he’d . . .

I teleported. Jumped. That’s what they call it, right?

But that was a breakthrough thing, a superhuman thing, and he wasn’t—

You weren’t, his inner fact-checker snarked. But who is until they are?

_______________________________________________________

Kingston’s a different kind of hero from my usual; he’s much more Everyman than Hope or Jacky, and he’s not going to hear a clarion call to wear the cape just because he had a breakthrough–he’s never even punched someone in anger before (well, not since fifth grade). He’s no hero, and the only thing that can induce him to wear an identity-concealing mask and adopt a codename is a paycheck. Fighting? Are you kidding? His power is most useful for bugging out. And no, he’s not going to have any kind of Peter Parker moment that changes all that.

This is going to be fun.

Take care, everyone.

MGH

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Always a Hero

Did not see that coming.

So I finally saw Spider-Man: No Way Home (waited to catch it with a friend), and then spent some time thinking about it.

SPOILER ALERT. I’m going to assume, as late as I was, that anyone reading this who hasn’t seen it isn’t planning on catching it in the theater.

First, let me unburden myself of the one real complaint I have about this movie; Dr. Strange.

Really? I mean really? I understand why Peter asked Strange to cast a spell altering the memories of everyone on Earth to make them forget he was Spider-Man (and altering reality to some degree in the process, considering the spell had to also erase the video evidence that had been dropped on the net and downloaded a jillion times). But for Strange to say, “Okay, I’ve got a handy spell that could potentially break reality, but I’m the GOAT and I can handle it,” is . . . simply insane.

But moving on, since this decision had to be made to give us the fantastic movie we got . . .

NWH was amazing. I don’t know if Tom Holland has more Spider-Man movies in him, but I hope so. I love the current cinematic continuity for our friendly neighborhood wall-crawler. NWH accomplished something I’d thought impossible, or next to impossible; it was a work of pure fan-service, while at the same time giving us a compelling movie. This was one of the rare times that I wished a Marvel movie could have been longer. Why? I wanted flashback scenes for both McGuire-Spidey and Garfield-Spidey, showing just a bit of what they went through getting drawn into a strange New York City. Wouldn’t it have been cool to have seen McGuire-Spidey kissing his MJ and swinging out to patrol the city before getting sucked into an inter-reality vortex? And Garfield-Spidey stumbling up to a kiosk and reading a Times Magazine headliner about the outed Spider-Man, complete with comparisons between him and the Avengers. The what?

I’ll bet fanfic-writers are already busy fanficking these scenes . . .

A certain death in the movie was very jarring (I’ll avoid one spoiler), but I thought the meeting of the Spider-Men was incredibly satisfying. Mostly because the framework of their meeting was essentially a redemption-arc for one villain I’d felt great empathy for (Doc Oc) and secondarily for McGuire-Spidey and Garfield-Spidey; both of them got to make saves that . . . didn’t change anything in their timelines, but nonetheless addressed their own failures and regrets. Having Garfield-Spidey catch a falling MJ and save her was deeply satisfying.

I didn’t enjoy all of the Spider-Man movies produced with McGuire/Garfield, but both had turned in memorable and relatable performances as the wall-crawler and so it was cool for Marvel to write their realities into the multiverse and give them some closure.

But the movie inspired a meditation on Spider-Man as a hero, and why he is so enduringly popular. I mean, serious, eight movies in less than two decades? McGuire swung onto the silver screen in 2002, and the franchise survived the wreckage of his Spider-Man 3 and Garfield’s Spider-Man 2. What is it about Spider-Man?

Thinking about this inspired me to drop an informal survey on the Wearing the Cape Facebook page asking responders to name their favorite cinematic superheroes. Here were the results:

Captain America: 4
Black Panther: 3
Spiderman: 3
Superman: 3
Shazam: 1
Thor: 1
Batman: 1
Iron Man: 1
Quicksilver: 1
Scarlet Witch: 1
Daredevil: 1
Hancock: 1
Kickass: 1
The Tick: 1

I wish I could have gotten more replies, but it was enough to establish a theory; the best-loved superheroes are superhumans who have always been heroes.

Cap led the list, because Marvel understood him so well and showed him to us, from the beginning, as a man who–even when his body limited his ability to act–instinctively acted heroically to the point of self-sacrifice. (I mean come on, throwing yourself on what you think is a live grenade to save a bunch of mooks who’ve done nothing but rib you and dunk on you since you joined their squad? Really?) Spider-Man and Superman, from the beginning of their stories, unselfishly used their powers to help other. There was no question. (Well, in the beginning Peter acts unheroically with his new powers, but he gets over that very quickly, and shifts into serve-and-protect mode rather than dark avenger mode, for which we give him props.) T’Challa practically exuded nobility.

The other superheroes on the list can be described as flawed heroes. (Well, I’m not sure about The Tick.) They learned and earned their heroism. Arguably this makes them more human and relatable, and yet . . . they didn’t hit the top of the list.

Which is not to say that any of the Top 4 are perfect heroes; all of them make mistakes in the course of their stories. But they’re instinctive heroes, and I think this may explain their popularity. To bring it home, it may explain why so many readers like Astra. I didn’t do it intentionally; really I just didn’t want to give her a stereotypical “growth-arc” where she goes from being self-centered (which most of us are) to self-sacrificing due to some kind of Uncle Ben experience. I wanted her instinctive reaction to gaining super-powers to be to wear the cape (even if she was a bit “Oh man, now I’ve got to go be a superhero.”) so I could get on with her story. Looking back on it, making her fear for others the trigger to her breakthrough was genius. (If I can lightly pat my own back.)

And I think it’s this quality of heroism that explains how I’ve managed to put out nine Wearing the Cape books, each well received (as of this post, Joyeuse Guard has more Amazon reviews than all the rest except Book 1). Hope Corrigan is a Steve Rogers or Clark Kent. She was raised with that sort of moral compass, so when she got the call she went with very little complaining. And for all of the modern trend of deconstructing heroes, that resonates with us.

Which makes it cool that in all three Spider-Man incarnations (more if we include Into the Spider-Verse) we see the same thing. Come what may, Peter Parker is always a hero.

MGH

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Merry Christmas, and Updates.

Here we are again, at my favorite time of year.

In case you haven’t noticed, between the part the season played in Book 1 and my own stab at a Christmas Carol short story, I love Christmas. I hope you do to. Family traditions include watching just about every version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol there is (not every version–Jim Carey’s take on the story has been erased from my memory, and I’ve yet to re-watch Scrooged). And you can bet in my house the tree goes up at Advent and doesn’t come down until Epiphany. I love seeing all of the Christmas traditions practiced throughout the world. To paraphrase Dickens, I try and fill my heart with the spirit of Christmas, and keep it with me all year long. I’m not always successful, but I try.

So, merry Christmas! I hope, especially after the trials of the past couple of years (some of those trials still ongoing), everyone can have a wonderful holiday season. Whether or not you believe in and celebrate the birth of Emmanuel, God with us, I hope you find joy and comfort in the beauty and heart of the season, and share it with your friends and loved ones.

Marion G. Harmon

(Quick Update: Joyeuse Guard will be updated soon after Christmas, with a proper Table of Contents in the front and some fixes on spelling errors that got by us. If you’ve spotted a few errors in your reading, sorry! (And if you want to share the ones you caught with us, please do!) When the fix is complete, I’ll be posting a note alerting everyone. And then on to the new year!)

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A Hero is . . . Coded?

He’s a superhero, I tell you!

(Warning: This post contains serious spoilers for anyone who has not seen Free Guy. If you haven’t seen it, SEE IT. If you have, then carry on.)

Thanks, everyone. I have been . . . concerned that Joyeuse Guard’s tardiness (a year late!) would affect its reception, but it’s been meeting milestone after milestone. High Amazon rating, #1 New Superhero Novel (briefly), first 1,000 sold in five days, and now 100+ reviews. So I’m breathing much easier while working to make 2022 much more productive. But of course all work and no play makes Jack crazy, so . . .

So I was watching Free Guy for the second time with a friend I won’t name because that would be name-dropping, and I realized something; Guy is a superhero.

This came as something of a shock since I’m a bit of a superhero snob. In the way that Frenchmen are adamant about champagne only being champagne if it’s produced in the Champagne wine region of France under the rules that demand specific vineyard practices, sourcing of grapes exclusively from designated vineyards etc. etc., I’m adamant about who is and is not a superhero. It’s a hill I’m willing to to die on. I’ll go down arguing that V is a superhero while Punisher is not, for example (Punisher is a supervillain).

And I should have spotted it. The movie poster alone screams “superhero” in the campiest way. But I commented on it on my Wearing the Cape Facebook page, and readers started speculating about his superpowers, so I’m going to elaborate here.

First, Guy has no superpowers.

Wait, what?

Really. I just thought that needed to be said. Guy is a superhero, but he has no special powers; everyone else in his world can do exactly what he does. Well . . . this isn’t entirely true. Players can’t stay in the game to grind grind grind the way he did (it’s commented by Real World fans that he leveled up extraordinarily fast). But still, he played by the same rules as Players, could die just like their in-game characters did, etc. Guy isn’t even a superhero in the mold of Batman, since Bruce Wayne’s wealth gives him a “cheat” (all those wonderful gadgets) and his natural talents plus insane levels of practice and training make him “super-competent.” While Guy levels up to an impressive degree, he isn’t superhuman by the scale of Free City, and his gadgets are gadgets any player can acquire for their arsenal/inventory.

So how is Guy a superhero?

Superhero: A heroic character with a selfless, pro-social mission; with superpowers–extraordinary abilities, advanced technology, or highly developed physical, mental, or mystical skills; who has a superhero identity embodied in a codename and iconic costume, which typically express his biography, character, powers, or origin (transformation from ordinary person to superhero); and who is generically distinct, i.e. can be distinguished from characters of related genres (fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc.) by a preponderance of generic conventions. Often superheroes have dual identities, the ordinary on of which is a closely guarded secret.” (From Superhero: The Secret Origin of A Genre, by Peter Coogan.)

I highly recommend Mr. Coogan’s book to anyone interested in superheroes as literary types, but the above definition may leave you scratching your head. What mission? What powers? What superheroic identity?

Guy’s Mission.

This bit’s simple; help Molotov Girl. But interestingly it’s a mission none of his Real World fans knew about. The pro-social mission they saw was Help the NPCs. This became an incredibly attractive mission to his fans. Why? Because they all knew Free City was a fantasy; In Real Life they were the NPCs, victims of forces over which they had no control. Now you can argue that Guy was just doing it to level up, and he was. This brings us to his superpower, but before I go there I’ll point out that Guy’s mission evolves to, in fact, literally become Save Everyone; he sets out to save all the NPC’s whose existence depends on Free City. But he was a superhero even before that.

Guy’s Superpower

So what is Guy’s superpower? A superpower, literally, is a power not possessed by others. Yes superhuman strength is a superpower, but sheer excellence of ability can be a superpower in that we see the excellence in action and are awed by it. Guy unintentionally creates his own superpower in his quest to level up without victimizing the NPCs of Free City. In doing so he displays an ability (to win) without doing what all the Players in Free City normally had to do to win; he leveled up purely by grinding along in Player vs. Player (PvP) mode. This was not just leveling up in an astonishingly short time but leveling up in the hardest way possible. The Players witnessing this saw this as a superpower although they couldn’t define what that power was. Superhuman levels of determination?

Guy’s Superheroic Identity

Now here’s where it gets truly subversive. The above elements, Mission and Power, are needed to make a superhero, but not sufficient. Characters with missions and powers exist in every other fantasy/sci-fi genre and aren’t superheroes.

Guy unintentionally created his own superheroic identity, or rather, his fans created it for him from their misunderstanding of what he was. In the land of Free City, Players crafted their avatars (skins) to be . . . “heroes,” embodiments of the human physical ideal, costumed like action heroes, outlandish heroic names, and so forth. And the Players not only saw Guy “saving the day” for the NPCs and taking on PCs who, well, behaved like the villains in Free City, but he did it with a skin that looked like a mundane NPC. The “NPC skin” became his superheroic identity, a pure statement of his perceived pro-social mission. He became Blue Shirt Guy. The LOL thing about this is the superheroic identity of Blue Shirt Guy hid nothing; there was no secret identity (assumed Anonymous Player) behind it. And Guy never had an “I’m Blue Shirt Guy!” moment; he was never even aware of his superheroic identity that was inspiring Players and viewers in the Real World.

So, pro-social mission, superpower, superheroic identity, Guy had them all. I’m sure other viewers realized this much sooner than I did (I’m slow like that, sometimes). People like myself and Mr. Coogan tend to overthink things; the movie unironically broadcast the judgement that Guy was a superhero with the interviews of fans it clipped in, including the interviewed Japanese kid wearing the Blue Shirt Guy costume just in case you didn’t get it (and yes, I’ve seen the BSG costume at conventions now).

It’s wonderful. A new superhero was born and I didn’t even spot it.

MGH

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So, About Everything . . .

Better late than never.

I didn’t even post about THIS. Blog updating is a habit I dropped out of, for which I apologize. So! A few things have happened, obviously. The convention trips ended last month with a guest spot at Grand Rapids Comic Con, which was a lot of fun (I’ve never been to Michigan). This year was a good convention year; although I only went to a few I was able to see friends I hadn’t seen since 2019. Also, conventions get me out of my cave and remind me there are actually real people who read what I write. Your comments on the WtC Facebook page help, but face-to-face contact is what we’re evolved for; it’ll be a few hundred millennia before we’ve adapted to getting dopamine-delivering social contact off of remote interfaces.

Some words on Joyeuse Guard.

First, once again, I apologize for how long it took. This one really beat me up. Unlike all but Book I, it was a process-book rather than a problem-book. There was no overarching conflict driving the plot(s). Rather, Book 9, which takes place over the course of nearly a year, became one huge Epilogue to Book 8, which told the story of a crisis that lasted less than a week and left Astra and company with a New Situation to navigate. The main reason for the format it took was Oz.

Ozma and Oz is a classic example of a character and their story getting away from you. Back in Book III, Young Sentinels, I had decided to use the common superhero-comics trope of the Obligatory Magical Hero. Just about every superhero team seems to have one. The Justice League? Zatanna. The Avengers? Wanda. The Teen Titans? Raven. Etc. So, a magic-user with a mysterious past and questionable (at least mysterious) ethics or goals? My first sketched character had been an annoying witch whose magic would drive Wiccans and Harry Potter fans up the wall; a magical system no deeper than what you see in Saturday morning cartoons, no understanding of her own power beyond “It’s magic!” It was horrible. Be glad you never met her. She rode a broom, had a black cat, etc.

Then came Ozma. I was also looking to fill another comic-book trope; the import-character from another fiction. They’re rare since they typically have to be in the Public Domain, but they’re fun when they happen, and I wanted to bring one in as a way of starting to build my superhero world’s “multiverse”–again a huge comic-book trope. Looking back, I think the choice was inspired, but I had no idea what a headache she would become.

The problem I had created for myself was I’d established a strong secondary character whose Big Goal was at best tangentially related to everything else going on with Hope. And since I’d committed to having each book move things along so my characters grew (close to four years have now passed since a freeway overpass got dropped on Hope), I needed to advance Ozma’s campaign to retake the Emerald Throne while telling the story of Astra and the Young Sentinels/Joyeuse Guard. I did manage to shoehorn in two big advances for Ozma, with The Oz Job in Team-Ups and Crossovers and the use of Oz’s special properties to solve one of the crisis in Repercussions, but I realized that constantly arranging things so that recurring use of Oz to advance plot arcs in the main story lines would feel contrived at best. And there was no way I could have made one of the WtC books purely about the Oz Campaign. The Troll Champion and the Stone Man of Oz and The Trickster and the Nome King of Oz were my desperate escape from my dilemma.

And they were a lot of fun. I hope you enjoyed them.

For the rest of the stories . . .

From the moment I decided on doing another “anthology” book, I’d intended A Christmas Carol to be the second or third story in. A few readers have had a problem with that, for which I apologize, but I didn’t want a recurrence of the Omega Night problem. Characters and events in a book series should never refer back to events that happened in a side-story that series readers may not be aware of; seriously, since writing Repercussions I’ve gotten occasional more than one comment indicating the reader hadn’t read that little piece of flash-fiction. I’m going to work on a new “edition” of Villains Inc. that includes it as a bonus story at the back, but that won’t fix the existing problem. So A Christmas Carol went in.

Repossessed was pure fun, a challenge to myself. I hope everyone enjoyed Mal and Shell thwarting a villain without anyone else even knowing about it.

She Wears the Cape was written to give the readers a look at the new Joyeuse Guard a few months after the Chicago Attack, but in the spirit of never doing just one thing I took the opportunity to introduce a new character (Azma), have fun, showcase a few more capes sprung from the fertile imaginations of others (Sam/Childe, Gulliver, Imperator, etc.). And I found myself getting geopolitical. Didn’t start out that way, just happened. And of course I’m going to use what I built there later.

Deadly Dubrovnik Days. What can I say? 1) Getting to use Daydream was a treat and I hope I portrayed his use of his power as his creator intended. 2) At last I got to tie up the dangling loose end of Ibrahim Darvish and Atifa/Mistress Jenia.

And a Wedding, Take Two. Rule 1 of writing weddings into superhero stories. Make sure the villains can’t show up. But they will anyway. Or Something Else will go wrong. This is not an inviolable trope, but I lampshaded it hard anyway. Hope everyone enjoyed it.

SO! What does the future hold?

“Always changing, is the future.” (Yoda said it, but I stole it for the TA.)

I’m committed to writing two WtC books next year. Book 10 in the mainline series, but also a new non-series book, Capes. Quick teaser; a young man named Kingston James Parks gets his breakthrough and it’s . . . underwhelming? He’s a teleporter, max range thirty yards, and he must be able to see or picture his arrival spot well enough to picture himself in it. He’s limited to whatever he can physically carry. Also he’s never been in a fight in his life. A D Class breakthrough with a power not exactly geared to flamboyant heroics, what kind of cape-career can he even have? A sticky question, because he desperately needs to get one.

Capes is intended to shine a light on the world of street-level capes.

I have other projects of course, but Capes and Book 10 are the top priorities. So closing out, I hope you all enjoy/enjoyed Joyeuse Guard (comments/feedback always welcome and I’d love to hear what your favorite stories were). And have a merry Christmas!

MGH

Posted in Wearing the Cape | Tagged , , , | 35 Comments

Updates and Those Word Things

A motley parcel of rogues.


I’m back! Pensacon was a blast, and I’m looking forward to several more cons this year as things begin to spool up again now that the vaccination rollouts have allowed us to come out of our holes and take off our masks to interact with each other like human beings again. I got to share a booth with Melinda Snodgrass, Peter David, and Dan Wells among other great writers. But enough about the show! What you really want to hear about is Book 9. I don’t blame you. So, here we go.

Future Days, now officially titled Joyeuse Guard, is late. Sooo late. And this isn’t news to anybody. I hope in a few weeks to be able to announce a publication date, but in the meantime, as an apology, below is the remainder of the first short story in the book, Repossession.

So why is the book so late? Several reasons. First, 2020. Yeah . . . that was an interesting year. But second, Repercussions closed out what I like to think of as Astra’s first big character arc. In Wearing the Cape, she became a sidekick and junior member of the Sentinels. In Repercussions, now a veteran cape, she exited the Sentinels to found her own team. The Post-Event world itself is likewise stepping into a new era. All this means that Book 9 is something of a relaunch, albeit one built on everything that’s come before, and many a night I have found myself staring at my monitor with an expression that has to be somewhere near Munch’s The Scream.

So Joyeuse Guard has turned into a different kind of book. First, it’s closer to Wearing the Cape and Team-Ups & Crossovers than it is to the rest of the series. There’s no single “problem” that confronts the team from beginning to end, it takes place over close to a year, and it’s been divided into a series of short stories, some longer than others. WtC: A Christmas Carol was one of those stories told out of order, published because I knew it was going to take awhile to get the rest finished (although I had no idea how long). But there is a light at the end of the long, long tunnel. After that I intend to get back on my track of a single WtC book per year, plus hopefully an additional non-WtC title or two. We shall see. Meanwhile, here is Repossession in its entirety. There will be another round of grammar edits on it before the Book 9 release, but it’s the bridging story that opens Book 9.

Repossession

Mal slipped and got a mouthful of Lake Peppas’ warm water as his head went under. Digging his feet into the sand, he pushed up and grabbed Ellie around the waist, lifting her laughing off her feet and dunking her in turn as her tiny rainbow drakes darted around his head. She sputtered as he brought her up, hair covering her face.

“Hey hey hey! I need to breath!”

“Then stop laughing! It’s—” He yelped and went under again as Megan took him out at the knees. Letting go of Ellie, he grabbed for the other girl but she pushed away and then Julie landed on his back, double-teaming him with her girlfriend. He came up again to see Jamal, holding the beachball and laughing at him. “Hey! If it’s boys against girls, then save my ass!”

The kid showed his tactical smarts by bouncing the ball off Mal’s head and Julie let go to lunge for it. Free of her weight, he wrapped his arms around Megan’s legs and heaved to easily lift and toss the shrieking Bee away. The Sentinels’ physical training regimen was really paying off. “Tiff would love it here!”

“You’re just bummed she’s not here to check out your abs,” Jamal taunted. “You can’t show off for your girl.”

Megan came up spitting water. “You’re going down, pretty-boy!”

“Julie’s got the ball,” Jamal pointed out as she spun. “You’re on defense now.”

“Then try it—hey! No fair no pow—!”

Jamal blurred in stutters, on Megan’s left before she could blink and fingers tickling sensitive ribs to turn her protest into a shriek before he stuttered again and held the ball. “Gotta balance your numerical advantage, ladies! I won’t speed while I’m it, don’t need to!” Spinning, he pushed away through the water, all three outraged girls splashing after him—and disappeared beneath a pile of avenging drakes.Mal laughed so hard he had to brace himself as Jamal speed-swam from under the leather winged mass so fast he breached the lake surface like a dolphin. “You might want to rethink that, buddy!”

“So not cool,” Jamal gasped when he came up again, and Mal laughed harder when the beachball bobbed up in the middle of the rainbow scrum of drakes, Ellie’s little critters hissing happily as they swarmed each other for it.

“Anybody want to get the ball?” Julie asked.

“Nope.” Mal shook his head. “I think they’ve won.”

Ellie shrugged sheepishly, straightening her purple suit. “Sorry, they really don’t— What’s going on? When did Ozma and Brian get back?”

Everyone turned to look, and Mal’s gut tightened. What was Shelly doing on the beach in her office clothes? The girl had been planning to join their Littleton Vacation the instant her last Ouroboros meeting got out, but she’d have changed first, right? “I’ll be right back, guys.” He started wading in, and after a moment the rest followed.

Hope turned towards them before he hit the shore, calling out “Everyone!” Jamal blinked away to stop beside her as Mal picked up his feet to splash the last few yards to the sand, Ellie right behind him.

“In uniform, now! We’re going home!”

“Shit!” He twisted his changing ring and his swim trunks disappeared between one step and the next, replaced by his armored jumpsuit and helmet as he broke into a run. Beside him Ellie slipped and recovering her footing, his supporting hand on her elbow as she did the same, swapped her swimsuit for her new articulated armor Kindrake costume. Beachball forgotten, her polychromatic flock of flying lizards caught up to swirl around her, settling on her as they skidded to a stop in the forming circle. Pushing a drake-wing out of his face, Mal got a look at the group standing by the beach blankets.

What? Hope and Jacky stood in uniform beside Shelly, who was holding Cat-Shell—who’d gone to Oz with Ozma and Brian—all of them standing protectively over Shell’s sprawled gynoid cybershell.

What the hell?

Ignoring them, Hope gave Cat-Shell a quick ear rub. “Shell will be safe, I promise. Take care of everyone while we’re gone?”

Shelly nodded, stepping back and clutching her furry twin tighter as Hope beckoned them in. Everybody linked up, Mal clasping Ellie’s right hand and Jacky’s left even as he groaned. With the pouch of Travel Dust in Ozma’s hand, he knew what was coming. A couple of the drakes settled on his forearm, jostling for room, and when Hope looked around the circle and gave Ozma a nod, he closed his eyes against the blast of wind that caught them up and whirled them away.

Shitshitshitshitshitshitshitshit! He kept his eyes shut, swallowing repeatedly as the air buffeted them, throwing him about and yanking on his hold to the girls. He hated flying under anyone’s power but his own; it always flashed him back to his first, triggered flight when he hadn’t been in control and one-hundred percent positive he was going to die.

On combined family vacation last year, Tif had teased him gently for his nerves as their plane had made a controlled, easy taken off—which had been fine, she’d been holding his hand and stroking the short hairs on his arm, a great distraction—but Tif wasn’t there now and nothing said Not In Control like spinning through the “sky” propelled by Ozma’s teleporting Travel Dust!

The magic whirlwind felt like it went on forever. When it let them go, he opened his eyes to find himself looking down at the Dome and—

What. The. HELL?

Chicago burned below them. Fires filled the air with smoke between lit towers in the Loop, and to the south and west Mal could see at least a half-dozen rising white columns. Streams of fleeing people crossed Michigan Avenue into the open spaces of the parks. Letting go of Artemis and Kindrake he lit off, using just enough kick to slow his descent and let everyone else fall away from him before opening up on the thrust once he had enough room to avoid toasting anybody, as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing.

Com-check!” Astra called. “Ast—”

Astra, report!” Lei-Zi cut in on their single team channel.

Full team present, directly above the Dome and closing fast!

Open channel, Young Sentinels com-check!

They sounded off in order as Mal rocketed down Michigan Avenue, and then Lei-Zi fired orders. “Keep Jackson east of Michigan Avenue clear! Evacuate bystanders through the parks with Seven as overwatch! Multiple threats with standoff capability!”  He could see the weird little tanks she described as Astra started calling shots. “Megaton take the mini-tanks first, Kindrake drop east of Michigan and protect bystanders, Ozma provide cover! Go!

Targets. Now that he could handle.

Dropping almost to street-level for cover, Mal strafed the line of mini-tanks pushing up Jackson like something out of an invasion movie. Broad hot blasts to toast video and ultrasonic targeting sensors—there was no way he could blast through their armor without slowing enough to get pot-shotted himself. Twisting into a tight turn up State Street, he used the buildings as cover for his turnaround, looking for targets spilling north and south of Jackson to encircle the line the Sentinels held to keep the way open for evacuating bystanders.

A ripple of automatic fire echoed off the towers as some of the creepy-ass soldiers tried to bring him down but they moved way too slow and had no concept of leading their shots. Zombie soldiers? Really? Mal walked his blasts through them between mini-tanks. They ignored it but burned nicely.

At least we’ve got

Astra’s inarticulate yell cut through the open channel and a ringing hit loud enough to filter over their coms. Mal went into an evasive, jinxing climb while trying to get eyes on her.  Where? Where? Without Shell feeding them tactical intel they were freaking blind. “Astra! Where are you?”

Another yell answered, another crashing impact, more crashes, and then Astra came flying out of a business tower in a shower of glass—not flying, falling ahead of a hulking figure in black armor, flying above them on massive boot-jets and swinging a ridiculously huge sword. What. The. HELL?

Astra didn’t hit the street; pulling out of her fall, weaponless, she threw herself upward with a scream to smack into her attacker. Calling out their location, Mal pulled himself around in a g-pushing turn that made his vision gray out as she reeled from another hit and fell again to smash off an abandoned truck and hit the street hard. Big-and-ugly dropped after her, sword raised, and Mal hit him.

He’d dialed his blast for pure punch to throw him away from her and the hit blew big-and-ugly into the side of a till-now undamaged building. That felt good, but the mystery-villain didn’t even drop his weapon.

Okay, we go big then.

Putting himself between big-and-ugly and Astra, Mal drew the heat roaring through him into his center, maintaining only enough blast to stay in the air to stoke the burning pressure at his core as the armored villain shook himself free of the broken wall and came on like a flying freight train.

That’s it, ugly, come to daddy. Wait . . . wait . . . now!

Mal gave a shout, letting go with a point-blank blast of mixed heat and punch that blinded him before they crashed together. Smashing impact lower down radiated through his body and ripped his breath away as he hit the street beside Astra. The impact drove the air from his lungs as he reached for her, scrabbling to grab hold and blast them away.

Sudden pressure over his whole body told him Variforce had arrived to cover them with his fields and then his hair stood up beneath his helmet as a cracking explosion of electricity arced past him. Yes! Eat lightning and like it, ugly!    

Mal thought Lei Zi’s blast didn’t do anything until the big armored sucker seemed to stagger in air—maybe she’d fried it’s boot-jet’s guidance systems? Then he vanished.

Crap, armored flying teleporting hulks. Not fair. Mal tried to sit up but golden fields weighed him down, tightening around his legs, and then Variforce was beside him.

“Don’t move, kid!” the older cape needlessly instructed him. “Help’s on the way!”

“I’m fine.” His head hurt and his legs throbbed hotly but he’d hit the street pretty hard and his bodysuit’s armor could only do so much but he was fine. “How’s Astra?”

“She’s out and you’re not fine. You’re— Just stay still, I’ve got you.”

“What are you talking about?” Mal managed to lever himself up on his elbows. “Oh. Shit.”

His legs were missing at the knee. Both of them, and he stared at the stumps like they were a magician’s trick. “Doesn’t hurt.”

“Adrenalin, shock, what’s missing can’t hurt. I’ve seen it before and I’ve got your legs too, you’ll be fine. We’ll get tourniquets around you and then we’ll move—”

Blasts rocked the street and the world went black.

* * * * * * * * * * *

<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.>

Oh, okay.

* * * * * * * * * * *

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.”

What?

“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?

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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.

“Thanks.”

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.”

“Yeah.”

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.”

<Fantastic.>

* * * * * * * * * * *

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.”

“Do we—”

“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, oneThat 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.

<Jacky?>

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?>

No!

<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.>

* * * * * * * * * * *

Inside Voice went silent after that, leaving Mal to stare at the ceiling in the dimly lit hospital room. He was possessed. Shit. Shit. Just . . . shit. Back to thought-spinning, he wondered if Inside Voice was sitting there listening to him.  Maybe? They’d acted like they couldn’t hear him unless he was practically subvocalizing. But— No, they hadn’t taken control until he’d been about to draw Chakra’s attention to his head. He’d gotten half of it out before they’d grabbed his vocal cords and used him like a ventriloquist’s dummy. So, probably his deeper thoughts were safe.

Could he take the chance? He looked over at Tiff. She’d rolled over on her cot, hair spilling out in a tangled golden mop. Hell no.

Tiff would be gone in the morning since Chakra’d cleared her. He could suggest she stick with her mom and little sis. That was one of the things they’d bonded over, annoying younger sisters.

But getting Tiff out of the way didn’t really change the game; there were still too many bystanders. Northwestern’s Superhuman Medicine Section was built to be modular and robust, so if he started blasting here he wouldn’t bring the whole place down—reinforced and armored inside walls would limit the damage he could do, protect a lot of people—but protecting a lot wasn’t protecting all.

He wasn’t sure which room he was in, but he knew enough of the layout to know there were at least three adjacent rooms and a hall and nurse’s station that couldn’t be locked down to isolate him.

And if Inside Voice was determined, nothing in Northwestern could contain him like a specially designed hard cell would; he could blast his way out into the larger areas. If he triggered a fight, they could take a lot of innocent people down with them.

Shit. Shit. Shit. He looked towards the foot of his bed when the door opened. I’m not going to do anything, he thought when the morning nurse came in. You drive.

They did. When the nurse saw Mal was awake, he asked about the pain and didn’t change anything when Inside Voice told him he was doing alright. The nurse made sure he knew how to adjust the dosage within the parameters the programmed into the dispenser, let him know to call if it wasn’t enough, and left. Five minutes later Tiff woke up and “Mal” let her know about Chakra’s visit, that she was cleared, and suggested she go home. Inside Voice pulled back at that—he could feel them release control. <Your turn. Nothing funny.>

Mal grabbed his girl for a kiss—the kind of PG-rating grope-and-smooch he could always lay on her in public and get a laugh. “Tell Dad I’m good. I’ll call but I know they’re not letting him back in here until all this is over and he’ll believe you more than me.”

“I will. Love my monkey.”

“Ook ook. Now git.”

“Be good.” A last quick smooch and she left. Watching the door close behind her hurt. Okay, you said you’d be on your way in “no time.” What’ve I got to do to speed that up?

<Get us out of here. Which with your injuries isn’t happening today. Not tomorrow, either. Perhaps in a week or so.>

Have experience with this sort of thing?

<Before I died, and after.>

Not even going to ask. I can guarantee that when they let me check out of here they’re taking me straight to the Dome. Round the clock monitoring, Vulcan-upgraded infirmary, perfect for recovery and rehab. If you think security’s tight here, you’re in for a treat there. Also Chakra will get back around to me once she’s not busy saving everyone else and then you’ll be busted. And that’s if she beats Dr. Mendel to it.

<Dr. Mendel?>

The team shrink. Any time one of us is hurt or hurts someone else we get head-shrunk first thing. Lots of “How are you doing, how’s this and that?” questions and she’s been asking me that stuff for the last two years. She’s good.

<. . . I see. So, you’re telling me this to demonstrate that my best window for departing undetected closes when you check out.>

Abso-freaking-lutely. So again, what have I got to do to speed that up?

 <. . . I need to think about it.>

Think hard.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Apparently thinking hard took a while; Mal felt Inside Voice let go and accessed his smartphone to catch up on the news. It was grim as hell. He deliberately avoided the secured Dome updates and stuck to the public access stuff. He also didn’t call for Shell, but she patched in and linked him to the morning’s emergency meeting at the Dome.

That didn’t cheer him up at all.

A rabies plague. Shit. At least the declaration of an Omega Event gave him an opening—when Blackstone announced activation of the Bugout List, evacuating all capes’ families from the city, he got Tiff’s family added to the list. But the meeting ended with nothing but questions. How long until the alert would be lifted? How long would area-decontamination take? How many more people were going to die? No answers when everyone signed off. And I’m stuck here.

<That happens.>

Was I too loud?

<You practically muttered under your breath.>

Right. So have you thought long enough?

<I won’t compromise my ride.>

What?

Could he hear mental grumbling? He felt an impatience he was pretty sure wasn’t his.

<The text I sent earlier was to my partner. I have a . . . compatriot who is my normal ride. While I of course don’t exist as a person of record, they very much do. If my existence becomes generally known and my freedom is threatened then I can simply leave them, but we’ve been together for some years and I would consider that regrettable. So would they.>

Wait, his puppeteer had a voluntary doll? That was so wrong. How does this affect you getting out of my head?

< . . . I see I’m going to be forced to share much more than I’d like.>

Oh goody. Can we start with a name? I can’t keep thinking of you as Inside Voice.

<Why not? Call me Corvid.>

Corvid? As in ravens? Crows?

<Also rooks, jackdaws, jays, magpies, treepies, choughs, and nutcrackers, yes. It’s a worthy super-villain name, I think, and since I’ve never used it before it won’t lay any breadcrumbs.>

So you’re a super-villain.

<I make a very good living creating terminal events that look like anything but paid assassinations, so yes. Are you comfortable? I suspect I have a higher pain tolerance than you, and would rather avoid a higher dosage, but we could take a little.>

Mal shifted. You could kill me with that dispenser, right?

<Quite easily. I do know how to override it.>

Then thanks, but I’ll pass. So you were sharing?

<Quite right. My breakthrough was triggered by a rather unusual trauma. I was the victim of a serial killer. As I was dying, he himself passed out via inebriation. With the death of my brain, I took his unconscious one. This was unacceptable so I killed him at the first opportunity, and of course found another ride. The process is involuntary. If I lose connection with a brain, then I’m pulled to others close by. Unfortunately, I can’t properly anchor in a conscious brain. Even a simply sleeping brain will resist complete connection, so control is difficult, a constant struggle I never win for long. Once anchored in a deeply unconscious brain, however, I’m immovable and in the pilot’s seat. My new ride’s usual driver is relegated to the copilot role.>

So you were riding someone who died in the fighting in the Loop?

<Yes. I don’t recommend death by shooting, but I bled out fairly quickly. Counting my blessings, it did complete my current job.>

And me?

<Yours was the closest unconscious mind, and that was all I knew at the time. In my in-between state all I see of the world around me is other minds and I can’t tell anything about them. I can’t be very choosy. The longer I stay in that state the more difficult it becomes to think. I rather suspect I could die that way, lacking a mind to anchor to.>

So picking me was an accident.

<Yes. Not the most convenient jump I’ve made.>

Why do I need to be conscious for you to leave?

<Because it takes concentration and I think with your brain. I can’t think with your unconscious brain any more than you can.> Mal could have sworn he heard a Shelly-like “Duh!” attached to the thought. Or at least the emotion. <And before you ask, no. You sleep and I sleep.>  

So your preferred ride needs to be close? And you need my cooperation as you leave.

<Or some way of rendering you incapable of drawing attention. And of course I don’t want my ride observed.>

And here we are, surrounded by cameras and security doors.

<Indeed. Guards too, I’m sure. Ideas?>

. . . I need to think about it.

Mal got only silence and a frisson of dark amusement back. Okay, he was definitely feeling emotions that weren’t his own. Mind-body feedback? A warning to keep himself in check, anyway; if he could feel Corvid’s emotions even a little, Corvid could probably feel him at least as well.

Damn it, how did he get stuck in a hostage negotiation? Because that was really what this was. Everyone around him was an unknowing hostage, and he had to help a super-assassin escape undetected or they’d take a bunch of innocent people down with them.

No pressure.

Dammit, he was supposed to be out of the game.

* * * * * * * * * * *

When his nurse freshened the bandages on his stumps and took care of more embarrassing things, Corvid remarked drily that it was best to just ignore being tugged, positioned, and touched and think about something else. They recommended Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, and Mal could hear it in his head despite not remembering anything about it himself other than the opening tuh-tuh-tuh-TUH.

Fantastic. A supervillain assassin was helping him cope with body embarrassment.

“Alone” again, he lay back, aches rising from more than just his stumps. He’d hit the street hard, and his breakthrough might have made him more physically resilient, but it was still a good thing body armor and a helmet had always been part of his costume.

He wasn’t alone for long; five minutes after the nurse left, Crash stuck his head in. “Bro. Receiving visitors? Shell said you’re all nice and tidy.”

Mal waved him in. “Shell? Who else is still here?”

Riptide and Watchman are lurking about waiting to be released,” she answered from the intercom. “Want me to tell them the party’s here?

“Why not? Can you smuggle anything in past our wardens?”

How’s pizza? I can free up a Galatea to do delivery.”

“Make one Hawaiian,” Crash spoke up.

Bleah. Isn’t hospital food bad enough? Two pies, I’m on it.”

<Be very careful,> Corvid warned and Mal would have jumped if the assassin had let him.

I’m on this. I want to see something. He forced himself to relax. No good making the twitchy assassin twitchier.

Watchman and Riptide showed up before the pizza. Watchman wore sweatpants, leaving the carbon-fiber binding and brace covering his torso bare under the hospital robe. Riptide was back in his leather duster despite the bulky bandage on the side of his neck. The ex-street villain thumped Mal’s arm, the one not intubated with the drug feed. “Hey, mocoso. They giving you a souped-up chair?”

Vulcan’s building him a new set of legs with Dance Dance Revolution software,” Shell quipped. “Don’t want our boy falling on his face at prom.”

“No way,” Mal groaned. “You’d hack it and totally Saturday Night Fever me.”

Hey, it’d be an improvement—I’ve watched Grendel and Crash try to teach you moves and you’re the total white-boys-can’t-dance stereotype.”

Watchman ignored the byplay, turning the room TV on to Chicago News Channel to watch. The pizza arrived and was slain, their empty cardboard shells disposed of before Hope walked in on a breaking situation update.

“. . . The CDC has yet to release estimates of how many are so far known to be infected, but has assured the public that outside of the restricted zones infection by the virus can be avoided using precautions equivalent to those taken to avoid common STDs. Chicagoans who have not been contacted and who believe they may be infected are encouraged to call their local police hotline for information—”

Mal turned off the sound and dropped the remote before trying a dance joke on her. It didn’t go over well, and she had a hard time looking at him—a flinching glance at his legs, then eyes over his head. Which gave him plenty of time to check her over, and his gut clenched.

He’d only gotten a glimpse of her crumpled on the street, too busy trying to keep Big Ugly off her, but her half-mask had been knocked away, bright blood covering her face. He might have seen naked bone. He knew that Atlas-Types recovered fast, but even after two days what he could see of her injuries made him wince. When she removed her new helmet-mask to show it off to everyone bruises extending from her hairline to her jaw covered nearly half her face, the black-and-purple hematomas looking less like battle trophies than the result of a beating.

 And she was going back out there still half-broke. For a rabies plague? What the hell?

Her banter with the rest of the room slid around him as she fudged the fact that she was kinda-sorta back on duty—overriding Watchman’s protests—and when she made brief eye contact with him again she looked . . . guilty? Ashamed? She slipped away before he got a chance to find out what she was thinking, and after she left the party broke up, Crash being the last to leave.

“Chin up, soldier,” Crash told him. “That’s what my mom used to say, anyway, and I’m sure Watchman here agrees. Anyway Rush says Vulcan’s prosthetics are the shit, you’ll be able to outrun everyone but me. Probably not going to raise your dance game, though.”

“As long as I can still kick your ass.” They fist-bumped and then Mal was finally alone again. Well, as alone as he was going to get.

<So, did you see what you wanted to see?>

Yup. Shell used one of the Galateas to deliver the pizza. That’s your window.

<What are you talking about?>

My turn to share. “Shell” is an AI, a fully sentient artificial intelligence. Like you she’s a legal non-person.

<. . . And?>

She’s like a goddess of the internet, a cyber-ghost, hacker supreme. If I get her to sign off on it, she can get your regular ride in here and out without anybody seeing or leaving any security footprint.

<But then she’d know.>

Yeah, but if I set it up right, she wouldn’t know know. She explained it to me once. She’s got governing privacy protocols built in that tag every “memory” she makes. She can code requested memories for deletion, selective amnesia arranged before the fact—even after the fact if I have a private conversation with her and then tell her to delete the memory.

<. . . You’re serious.>

Serious. She’s got a shit-ton of inhibiting protocols designed to keep her from seizing full control of the internet and ruling us all as The Invincible Digital Overlord. Ultimate power, tight parameters. She’s already got standing instructions to give private time between Tiff and me the memory-hole treatment.

<And how would you secure her help?>

I’ll just let her know I need to meet with somebody. Privately, untraceably. That’s all this would be, right? Your ride comes in, hangs here for what, five minutes, leaves? No monitoring, no record. So, I’ve been meaning to ask, where’s the monologue?

<The what?>

The monologue. I’m a cape. You’re a villain. I’m at your mercy, bwa ha ha. Why aren’t you spilling the dirty deets, gloating about how evil you are and how you’ll never be caught?

<Because I’m not an absolute idiot. My existence isn’t a complete secret, so I don’t need to kill you, but why should I tell you anything for you to blab later?>

Yeah, in the movies that never made much sense to me. Lazy writing, I guess. Anyway, that’s my offer. It’s the only thing I can think of, and it’s got to be soon. Before things return to “normal” around here. No pressure.

<. . . I’ll consider it. While I’ve become fairly cavalier about death, some things do remain distasteful. I’ve found that it’s not what you do, or why you do it, but who you do it to that really matters.>

* * * * * * * * * * *

Shell never let him be alone for very long. Doctors would leave and she’d give him some time before popping in virtually on the TV or his pad, chatting through the hospital intercom system, even dropping by a few times in a Galatea shell. She was with him when someone attacked the CDC base to wipe out the rabies-vaccine stockpile, fed him the Dispatch updates as it happened. And she told him when Rush died.

Easy! Easy! Do you need—”

“No,” Mal ground out. The pain medication he was on was doing shit for his emotional control and sick, blood-boiling rage twisted his gut, burning under his skin as he breathed and held it in. It helped that nobody was in the room with him; if he lost it completely all he’d do is scorch the walls and fry a paycheck’s worth of medical equipment.

A stinking virus. Only Shell’s reassurance that Crash looked like he was going to make it let Mal hold it in.

“Shell. Privacy?” I am the fire. I am the fire. I am the fire.

Okay. . .” Even over the com she sounded dubious. “Call if you need anything.”

“Thanks.” I am the fire. I am the fire. I am the fire.   

<What are you muttering?>

I am the fire. I am the fire. “A mantra. Shut up.”

I am the fire. The heat and pressure eased, flowing away to wherever it came from. I am the fire. “Chakra taught me to do it, active meditation and biofeedback.”

<And does this happen often?>

“Not anymore. I don’t get that angry, I can feel it coming and ground myself, cool off.”

<Never have children.>

“Huh?”

<Never mind. And nobody’s come to see why you almost lit the bed on fire?>

“I asked Shell for privacy.”

 <So?>

Mal fingered his heated sheets, drier-hot and almost uncomfortable. “So she’s monitoring the room on autopilot. This is the listen-but-don’t-hear I told you about. You think she wouldn’t be back in here in a second if she heard me talking to myself like this? If she wants to come back, she’ll clear her throat or something, get my permission.” He shut up and let Corvid chew on that for a minute. “She doesn’t have complete control like this at the Dome. Security’s on a government system over there, it’s got redundancies.”

< . . . Alright. What do you need to do?>

“Just trust me. You want out, I want you out, let me talk and blow us up if you feel like it after. Please?”

<Talk.>

I am the fire. I am the fire. He didn’t say it under his breath this time, just let the words flow. I am the fire. “Shell?”

Yes?

He’d known she’d answer, but he still relaxed minutely. “Got a request. I need to have a private conversation with someone. Soon? And I mean private. I need you to get them in here to see me and back out with nobody knowing about it. Nobody. Soon.”

Easy.” No pause at all, but then she could think a million times faster than anybody when she wanted to. “There’s just five security cameras and three access doors between you and outside. I need to clear two guard points but that’s doable. I can just substitute two Galateas for the hospital’s own security and keep them on autopilot. Why?

“I can’t tell you. Just, lives are at stake.”

Lives are at stake. And you discovered that from your bed? Is it about Rush?

“No comment.”

She threw in a bit of delay this time, probably to make him sweat after she reviewed every nano-second of security recordings, texts, and any other bit of non-private digital data from his stay so far. He knew it’s what he’d do.

Okay,” she said after what felt like forever. “But if you’re not going to give me anything else then the privacy window’s going to have a safety lock. I trust you, but I’d be stupid to blindly trust whoever you’re meeting.

“So, what’s the lock?”

All security data gets stored under privacy until the window closes. If everything’s not one hundred percent okeydokey and hunky dory when I look back in after your guest is gone then I read everything and respond as necessary approximately one picosecond later. But if everything’s okay when I look in then nobody, not you, not God himself will be able to recover anything from the window.”

The band around Mal’s chest loosened. “I think that’ll work. Set it up as soon as you can, thanks.”

No worries, pretty boy. I gotta keep you around for Tiff. Later.

“And the later means we’re alone again.” He felt like a well-boiled noodle, utterly limp.

<That’s it?>

“That’s it. She’ll arrange a way for your ride to walk in, let us know how to coordinate it. And you can go.” He almost held his breath, trying to feel what Corvid was thinking. Nothing.

<And now I’m going to ask why you’re not trying to stop me? You’re the hero, after all.>

“Yeah, well, I’m not a stupid hero.”

<Heh. Fair enough.>

* * * * * * * * * * *

Even with the ongoing escalation of prospective disaster, time crawled since Mal couldn’t do a damn thing about anything. The teleconferences just pounded the crisis in, and then he and Shell laughed like crazy people over the Oz Solution. Corvid provided a profanely scatological commentary on the insanity of saving thousands of people by turning them into objets d’art and express shipping them to fairyland, but what did an assassin know?

But the wake was excruciating. And scared Mal shitless.

“Nice bed,” Jamal said.

<Remember I’m here.>

 It wasn’t like he could forget. “Vulcan called it a preview.” Their resident Verne-type had whipped up a “bed” that was more like a reclining brace on wheels. Balanced on three small but broad motorized wheels, it snuggly gripped his legs and provided a shield in front so nobody could hit his stumps. In the up position it acted like a harness that almost had him standing, in the down position it felt like a luxurious pool recliner.  And of course it came with all the monitors or Northwestern never would have let him come back to the Dome for the wake. “How are you doing?” He hadn’t seen Jamal since they’d all heard, and the kid’s normally coffee skin looked starkly gray against his tight cornrows.

“Chakra says I’m clean of the virus. I’m—shit.” Mal watched him flicker, grabbing seconds or minutes of hypertime to calm down in.

“Yeah,” he said when the kid was still again. “I get that.”

“He stopped me.” Jamal looked around the room, eyes sliding away from the video wall showing Rush’s greatest hits, good, bad, and hilarious. “We were working our asses off, burning time like there wasn’t going to be a tomorrow and he made me take breaks, drop behind him while he—he got ahead of me. Chakra figures I was more than half a day behind him when he . . . when he showed symptoms.” He flickered again and there was a cup in his hands. “Chakra told me—she said Rush knew he was done, made her save her strength to pull me back.”

“God.”

“He had nothing to do with it.” He flickered again and the cup was empty.

Chakra looked their way as Shell recited poetry and Mal felt dipped in ice. She couldn’t read his chakra’s clearly from across the room, could she? She looked worse than Jamal, and Mal was grateful as a nightmare vision flashed behind his eyes, of her scanning him and just having time to realize something was wrong before Corvid blasted her to ash with his power.

It wouldn’t be just her—everyone but Variforce was there, other than Ozma and Grendel off in Oz. Astra sat talking with Blackstone and Riptide, and Watchman and The Harlequin were back to trading stories. Kindrake and Artemis brooded separately, looking dark and goth and ignoring how much they parodied each other while Vulcan stared into space and Chakra watched everybody. Corvid could take out half the team in one blast. “—Death is certain but its timing is iffy.”

“What?”

Mal swallowed. “Just something Rush said once. It was a joke. Dude, stop stealing time. How far off-cycle are you now?”

Elbows on knees, Jamal rubbed his face. “It’s after midnight for me.”

“Then let’s get out of here. Look, Hope’s leaving.” Their fearless leader, still looking like shit, said something to her table and exited with a nod to the two of them. She’d made the rounds of everybody when the “party” started but had wilted pretty fast. “Shell?”

She’ll be fine. How are you doing?

“I’m not, but no more drugs. I’m going to tuck our boy here away and get back to Northwestern.” He looked around one more time. Rush should have gotten more than this, a room full of wounded, exhausted friends waiting for the next hit to come. When it’s over. If it ends. He snorted. And could I be more pessimistic?  

His stumps ached.

“But can you keep up with me?” Jamal snarked, but he put his refilled cup down. Mal flipped the switch and went full-upright, leaving him taller than his drooping friend.

“I can if you don’t cheat. C’mon.”

The chair’s motors whined softly, softer than Jamal’s footsteps on the hall carpets. They stopped at his door and the speedster didn’t open it.

“It’s not fair.”

“I’ll never say it is. Get some sleep, shit’s still happening.”

When the door slid closed Mal turned his “robo-bed” around, back the way they came and to the elevators. The right one opened with a ding and he found himself sharing it with Shell’s social-face Galatea. The freckled redhead gynoid shell looked fresher than anyone at the party had. “Here to take me back?”

“A Bob could do it, but it’s as easy for me.”

“Awesome, ‘cause we have business. Privacy?”

She nodded. “Your visitor?” The elevator stopped but the doors didn’t open.

“Yup. It needs to happen tonight. I’ll be back here in a couple of days. It might be easier for you to do from here, but I don’t think they trust me enough to walk into the Dome.”

Shell smirked. “Yeah . . . I can see that.” She fished in a pocket and pulled out a cellphone and handed it to him. “I’ve got this. It’s loaded with a schematic of Northwestern. Whoever’s coming can unlock it with a swipe. They’ll see the floorplan and an icon for their position, another showing them where they have to be each step of the way, a bunch of blips showing the movements of everyone around them in realtime, and a countdown. I’ve got the security system sewn up, the doors will unlock ahead of them without alerting Northwestern’s security center. They’re stretched real thin—I only had to swap in one Galatea.”

He looked at the phone, passed it back. “A real Marauder’s Map. How do they get it?”

“I’m going to leave it under an outside bench in Smoking Corner. It’s accessible from the street, in a security-camera blind spot. You tell your friend where it is—I hope you have their cell number. They can just drop it in the trash when they leave, it’s going to brick itself when the window of opportunity closes anyway. There’s one thing. If they deviate even a little from the laid-out path, I’m alerted. Best I can do, I’m not going to trust your friend with the safety of the whole hospital. Take it or leave it.”

“We’ll take it.”

“Good. It’s linked to your cell, too, so you’ll know when they’re on their way.” With a ding the doors opened and she escorted him past the armored Bobs.

The ride back was quiet, Shell letting him rest with only a few pokes on how he was doing. He texted the number Corvid had given him with Shell’s instructions and timetable, and then used his cell to write messages for his own eyes.

Will that do?  

< . . . Send this to the number I gave you. Seven.>

Mal sent it and looked at the “3” that came back.

<Good. Send ‘four.’>

“Y” came back.

Awesome. What was that?

<The seven-three-four was a secret handshake. I send a number, they reply with the number needed to take it to ten, and then I reply with the number left if their number was subtracted from my first number. So they know it’s me and the “Y” was confirmation that they could do it.>

Just me knowing the number to text to wasn’t enough?

<If I’d sent a different reply they’d have known I was under duress or just telling them to get the hell out of town.>

“So who are you texting?” Shell asked from the front seat.

“Tiff. She sends her love.” He hit her number and did just that. She sent her love.

<Lucky boy.>

* * * * * * * * * * *

When his screen lit up Mal felt a real strong urge to pray. Hope did it all the time—it couldn’t hurt. “They’re on their way,” he said needlessly. It was completely needless; Shell hadn’t told him his phone would show the same Marauder’s Map as the dropped cell, and Corvid took over to hold their little window on the op in his hands.

Mal couldn’t even turn his head; with nobody left to fool, Corvid had given up all pretense that he wasn’t his meat-puppet.

<It looks like she’s done it. We’ll see.>

It was after eleven, and Shell had dropped her cell before ten. Corvid hadn’t done anything about it, let Mal sweat until finally sending off a single word of text: go.

The ride’s icon crept closer, past the first door and down a service hallway. <Remember. You’re going to have control as I extract myself. You’ll feel it with a tingling, you’ll probably twitch a bit, and then you’re in the pilot’s chair again.>

“And you’ll be out.”

<It’ll take a couple more minutes. I’ve planned for that.>

“How?”

<I don’t trust you to not be a damned hero. So my ride is going to take your phone away and strap you down first. Brought a nice ball gag and everything for the transition—when your friend looks in on you, she’ll find you nice and healthy and not going anywhere. Oh, and my ride’s leaving behind enough wired C-4 to blow up this whole wing. It’ll be triggered if there’s any interference or pursuit, they’ll probably think it was you until they do a chemical analysis.>

“That wasn’t the deal!”

<The deal’s the same if your A.I.-friend doesn’t get cute. You live, everybody lives. You have my word. Heh. Don’t heat up now, you’re in the home stretch.>

I am the fire. I am the fire. I am the fire.

<That’s it. Nice and calm.>

The icon crept closer, past the second door as Mal wondered which of the blips was Shell/Galatea, willing all of them to stay away from Corvid’s ride.

His door opened and Corvid set down the cell. “Took you long enough.”

“I stopped for dinner and a drink. You weren’t going anywhere.” The voice was tinny, computer modulated. The figure in the door wore a thick padded coat and pants that hid their form, made completely anonymous by a full-face helmet with reflecting visor. He, or she, put down their heavy backpack and stepped up to the bed with—sure enough—a bag full of cuffs and straps.

Mal would have sighed if he could. Corvid chuckled, holding his hands up, and a minute later Mal lay cuffed at his wrists and arms, straps pulling his upper arms toward each side of the bed so that he wouldn’t be able sit up. Corvid wet his lips and opened his mouth for the ball gag.

I am the fire. I am the fire.

Corvid’s ride had done it all wordlessly, and now Mal felt it, a growing feeling of connection, like everything he’d felt before had been filtered and at a distance he hadn’t realized was there. And his body hadn’t been fully responding to his emotions since he’d first woke up in the hospital.

I. Am. The. Fire!

He locked his eyes on the Backpack of Doom and fought his heat down, inward, away, counting the percussive beat of his heart in his chest.

“All done, boy.” Mal’s gaze snapped to Corvid’s faceless face. They stood different, though he couldn’t have said how. “Got to admit, I wasn’t sure this would work.” Confident hands reached around his head and removed the ball gag. “Wouldn’t want you friend freaking because you can’t talk to her when she looks in. Be a good boy and warn her about the C-4. It’s not trapped, only one way to detonate and I’ve got it.”

“No kidding.”

They left Mal’s cell on the bed by his hip, easing the door shut behind them.

Mal licked his lips and cleared his throat. His throat. “Shell.”

She replied before his tongue had moved off the –ell. “Well that’s premature. Your guest is still in the building.”

“Leave them alone, get here now. Run.” His eyes were back on the backpack. “There’s a bomb. Remote trigger. You need to get it to the strongest containment room in the wing.”

Right.”

Seconds later Shell threw the door open and grabbed the pack without even looking at Mal and was gone, leaving him alone to stare at his phone. Corvid’s blip passed the last door, moving fast, and disappeared from the screen.

He watched the countdown. Three minutes later, the image blanked. A minute after that a text-message appeared.

Well done. There are more bombs. Don’t get cute.

Shell stepped back into the room, her face completely blank. “I dropped it down Emergency Disposal, if it blows it’s down thirty feet of armored shaft.” She stepped up and started unstrapping him. “Talk to me.”

Mal didn’t stop for half an hour, words felt so good.

“Right,” Shell said when he finished. “Be quiet now.” She sat down and shut down.

* * * * * * * * * * *

“Hey.”

 Mal woke up. Shell was moving again and watching him. “You know,” she said, “after this you’re going to need all the therapy.”

He knuckled the sleep out of his eyes. “What time is it?”

“Four hours later. I’ve been a busy little bee.”

“And?”

“I’m going to use a couple of Galateas to kick me in my own ass.” She laughed. “I should have seen something was wrong.”

“I’m glad you didn’t. It could have ended real bad.”

“There’s that. And they haven’t gotten away.”

“You actually caught them?”

“No.” She stood and stretched. “I found them. That part was easy. I didn’t lie to you about the setup, but there’s plenty of CPD street cameras out there. I also smeared the cellphone with a tracking agent—completely odorless but a chemical signature a Galatea can track like a bloodhound and that got on her hands. I got pics of her out of her helmet. Single white female, age around thirty, facial recognition said Corvid’s ride is Stephanie Tiller. Multiple prostitution arrests and hospital admissions that ended eight years ago. She’s from out of town but staying at a local hotel and I’ve got her current alias. And now the DSA has eyes on her. They’re tracking her credit cards, backtracking her paper-trail, all that stuff. Give them a day and they’ll know everywhere she’s been in the past half-decade.”

“And then what?”

“Then they send the telepaths in and lock Corvid down right where she is.”

“She?”

“Yeah. I didn’t have much to go on, but despite what TV would have you think serial killers really aren’t that common. I looked in all the police and FBI databases and found one that died eight years ago.” She smirked. “The feds hadn’t been able to catch him, only closed the case because he ‘committed suicide’ and they found his last victim, Alice Spengler, a sixty-eight year old divorcee, in the apartment with his body. Guess who he lived right above?”

Mal dropped his head back on the pillow. “Stephanie Tillman.”

“Yup. From her hospital record she was a regular alcohol and drug user back then. My guess? She was passed out in her apartment when Alice died for the second time upstairs.”

“And she became her willing ride? Just like that?”

“Probably not ‘just like that.’ But she couldn’t push her out. Alice looks like she was a real piece of work herself. Her ex-husband and kids had cut all contact with her decades ago, the state handled the cremation because nobody wanted to claim responsibility. But she got Stephanie off the drugs and out of the life, and their current occupation requires Steph’s active cooperation so. . .

“So . . . what?”

Shell ruffled his hair, laughing. “So you caught, well, caused to be caught, a known but unidentified supervillain assassin. The government telepaths are probably going to lock Corvid down inside Steph’s head—standard protocol for voluntary possessions—and then try them both for multiple murders.”

When Mal swatted her hand away she gave him a look. “You feel sorry for them. Don’t you.”

“Not— Okay, a little. Sound like neither of them had a good deal to start with.”

“You forget Alice wasn’t starting her life. She was finishing when she was horribly killed. I can’t say she’d had a good life, but she’s the one who alienated her whole family. Nobody deserves to die like she did, but she had a successful career she retired from, good skills. She could have gotten Stephany clean and gotten her through school or through licensing and gone on as she had before. A comfortable if middle-class life. They could have met someone, I don’t know. Alice had a second life and she decided being an assassin was a fantastic career move. And Steph went along with her. Maybe not in the beginning, but eventually. The mind-guys will sort that out.”

“They did keep their end of our deal.”

“They had to make a deal. If you’d been anywhere else Corvid could have ‘suicided’ and had her ride close by and ready to go—here you’re in the middle of the hospital with the highest security in the country, Stephanie couldn’t get close without your help. If Corvid had just taken her chances, she was surrounded by patients constantly in and out of drug-induced unconsciousness if not comas, and she knew it. She could easily have been drawn to possess someone less capable of rational thought than you and been stuck. They needed the deal, and we sewed it up tight.”

She scowled thoughtfully. “Maybe they’ll cut Steph a deal, but probably not—she did leave a bomb in a hospital. But you get some sleep, I’ve booked Doctor Mendell to come head-shrink you after the Sun comes up. Also, I’m taking this shell home to recharge.” She turned away, turned back. “Oh! Before you see it on the news in the morning, Brussels got hit an hour ago. Hope took us there, but don’t worry, everyone’s fine. Night!”

She closed the door on Mal’s shout and he scrambled for his cell, swiped it and stared at it bleary-eyed. When it didn’t come into focus, he dropped it. What. The. Hell? Dammit!

Not a flicker of heat lit his bones.

Dammit.

He closed his eyes.


Posted in Uncategorized, Wearing the Cape | Tagged , , , , | 33 Comments

The Wages of Fallacy

It’s been awhile since I last spouted off about political philosophy, but something recently reminded me and I remembered a Radical Moderate topic I wanted to bring up some time: the evils of fallacies. A quick recap of my Radical Moderate philosophy revolving around recognizing what I call The Syllogism when I see it at play:

  1. I am a rational/good human being.
  2. Because I am a rational/good human being, I believe X.
  3. If you do not believe X, you are either ignorant, stupid, or evil.
  4. Because you are ignorant, stupid, or evil, it is useless to debate with you and pointless to listen to you.

One of the easiest ways to prove #3 against someone is to hit them with an Appeal to Motive Fallacy.

The arguer using it challenges a thesis (in the above example the stated goals of the Pro-Life Movement) by calling into question the motives of its advocates, often with imputations of hypocrisy. It’s a special case of the Ad Hominem Circumstantial Argument, and is sometimes buttressed by the argument, “If they REALLY believed [ X ], then they would [ Y ].” Y is often the “correct” measure or action the arguer herself is in favor of.

To transpose another hot-button issue onto the above argument as a counter-example:

“Anti-gun people aren’t trying to end gun violence, they’re trying to legislate who can and can’t own and carry guns [MOTIVE]. Because liberal politicians and their families will always be able to pay for protection by people with guns [HYPOCRISY].”

“All anti-gun rhetoric does is keep poor people from being able to protect themselves from gun violence. That’s the goal [MOTIVE AGAIN], and if it wasn’t the goal they would spend their time and money on increased police presence in poor neighborhoods and an expanded prison system to keep society safe from violence.” [ARGUER-APPROVED MEASURE].

This is not the place to debate either abortion or gun-control (anybody debating either in the comments will be cordially deleted). My point is to show that this is an easy fallacy to fall into.

The charge of hypocrisy isn’t readily dismissed (political leaders and their wealthier backers can engage in “abortion tourism” and can hire bodyguards), but doesn’t automatically invalidate an argument or position. After all, a hypocrite might actually be pushing a good position. But in any case, my rule of thumb is to only allow a hypocrisy charge to stand if the person being specifically accused has shown their hypocrisy by their specific actions.

With or without charges of hypocrisy, the core of the fallacy is in the assigned motivating goal. That goal doesn’t have to be ridiculous, as both Lindy West’s and my counter-example is, but it does need to be plausible to The Believer. Its point is to allow the believer to comfortably live inside The Syllogism. But bonus points if it’s plausible to the neutral observer, because then the accused must devote time to explaining why it’s bullshit. After all, if those who don’t agree with you are nasty hypocrites who have evil intentions (perpetuating poverty or keeping people from protecting themselves), then you don’t need to engage them and can hate them to your heart’s content while banishing them from the public square or worse, because they deserve it.

It’s easy to spot an Appeal to Motive Fallacy when it’s made against a position you support. It’s much harder to spot the fallacy when it’s made against a position you disagree with, and even harder to spot if made against a position you hate with the heat of a thousand burning suns. You want to be able to ascribe a hateful motive to those who disagree with you.

The Appeal to Motive Fallacy doesn’t need to be made so formally; in fact most of the time it’s not. This set of tweets got posted on Facebook a while ago:

My less-than-temperate response was:

“Every Republican I know agrees with the principles of Be Decent, Kill Each Other Less, Save the Planet, and People Should Have Rights. Just like every Democrat I know believes in the principles of Free Speech, Free Press, Freedom of Religion, Right to Self Defense, Right to Due Process, etc. No Democrat I know looks at that list and goes, “F–k you, nah.”

Most Dems and most Repubs agree on all the basic principles of liberal democracy. They disagree only on the details, what those principles mean in practice. So Jill Filopovic’s tweet is what is known, in academic terms, as flaming bullshit. It’s not even a talking point because every self-satisfied Dem who looks at it goes “Yup, they’re monsters,” and every Repub who looks at it says ‘Cool beans, Goebbels. Great to know how you feel about us, and FYI I see Four. Fingers. Not five. Four.’

And as an independent who has close friends on both the left and right, I read it and say, ‘Do you need more lighter fluid? Because I could get you some.'”

Yes, I was somewhat aggravated.

And no, not because of the stupidity of the opinion; if stupidity per se upset me, I’d be at a perpetual boil. Or a hermit. Because people are stupid. All of us, sometimes especially the smartest, at least in matters touching on our biases.

But this particular type of stupidity hurts us, terribly. @libbybakalar is never going to have a constructive conversation with anybody who voted for Trump (half of all voters within a trivial margin) for any reason. Neither is @JillFilipovic going to constructively engage with “half the country.” And half the country hears this kind of crap slung at them and has zero motive to engage with them either. And the same of course holds true on the other side of the political divide; I don’t see this kind of stupid on my Facebook page coming from the right much, but only because most of my right-leaning Facebook friends tend to be more politically moderate. But I’m sure you can all provide examples of both Left Stupid and Right Stupid.

And in our public discourse, we reap the wages of fallacy.

MGH

(Note: again, arguments for or against the above-mentioned policies will be cordially removed. Links to more examples of the above fallacy, on the other hand, will be gleefully accepted.)

Posted in The Radical Moderate, Uncategorized | 25 Comments