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 , , , , | 8 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 what I call The Syllogism:

  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

Joyeuse Guard!

This week I looked up from what I was doing and realized the last update was FOUR MONTHS AGO! Now that’s just excessive. Yes, we all had a very strange year and things aren’t back to normal yet. Yes I ran into real problems with Book 9, being as it’s kind of an epilogue and launch into the next phase of the New Heroic Age. (Call it WtC Phase 2. Or not.) But that’s no excuse!

So.

Book Nine of the Wearing the Cape series, working title Future Days, is now officially Joyeuse Guard. Cover-art above. I will be trying my hardest to have it out by the end of this first quarter. I have a couple of other projects in the fire, including an idea for my first non-WtC book ever (Bite Me: Big Easy Nights doesn’t count), but all of that must wait on Book 9. I promise to post more often in 2021 as well, and be more active on the WtC Facebook page. I hope you all have a better year this year, and meanwhile, here’s another section of the first part of Joyeuse Guard: remember, last time we left Mal unconscious in the street.

___________________________________________________________

<Well, this is a fine mess.>

Mal blinked, or thought he did since he wasn’t actually seeing anything. Huh?

<Go back to sleep—it’s the drugs talking.>

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?

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.>

——————————————————————–

That’s it for now! Feel free to comment on any of the above, or on anything else!

MGH

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 19 Comments

The Direct End of Government

Not many people remember that Patrick Henry, the fiery American patriot and founder who famously declared “Give me liberty, or give me death!” opposed the United States Constitution which replaced the Articles of Confederacy. He believed it gave too many powers to the proposed government and in particular to its Chief Executive. A revolutionary who’d risked all for independence, he didn’t want what he saw as another king, and he believed the new Constitution a threat to American liberties. Ironically, decades later during the Civil War he was claimed by both northern abolitionists and southern secessionists.

Of such complicated characters is history made, but I bring Patrick up because I wonder what he would think of our current constitutional crisis.

I should put “constitutional crisis” in quotes, because it’s not a legal crisis. Yet. But as a student of history it disturbs me that two of our fundamental institutions are experiencing deep legitimacy crises right now. The Electoral College is under attack because under the right circumstances it can choose as our Chief Executive Officer and Commander in Chief a candidate who fails to achieve a majority of the popular vote–an undemocratic result. The Supreme Court is under attack because it’s perceived as an autocratic and therefor undemocratic body in the process of being captured by one of our two major political parties. There is strong support among those who feel that the Electoral College is thoroughly anti-democratic and the Supreme Court is becoming the tool of . . . regressive actors . . . and that Something Must Be Done. Let’s look at each from Patrick’s perspective.

The Electoral College

As currently structured, the Electoral College was intended to check the national influence of the most populous states (the claim that it was constructed to protect slavery in the southern states is a base canard; it got more support in the North than the South during the convention and ratification debates). The EC was originally intended to be a kind of elite debating society–under the Constitution, electors are chosen by the states and the electors were to choose the President–but it became a kind of rubber stamp institution where the electors swear to choose the candidate who wins their constituent’s popular vote. A not-so-trivial legal constitutional battle is now being fought over the question of whether electors must give their vote to the candidate most popular with their constituents. But a larger legitimacy crisis now looms over the entire Electoral College. It pops up every time the EC elects as President a candidate who came in second with the national popular vote.

So what would Patrick Henry think of this?

He’d totally back the legitimacy of the Electoral College, especially when it goes against the popular vote.

What? Really?

Absolutely. Of all the things he worried about with the new Constitution, the leverage the EC gave to the smaller states wasn’t one of them. Quite the opposite. Since he was critical of even the limited powers granted the proposed US President at the time, it made sense that any candidate for that office should enjoy the widest popularity possible, among Mainers as much as Virginians or New Yorkers. At the time of the ratification debates Virginia had 10x the population of Kentucky, and the Electoral College would force presidential candidates to pay attention to the smaller states and not simply act as the Chief Executive of the Big States of America.

How would this look to Patrick, today? As of the 2010 Census, our most heavily populated US State (California, pop. 37 million) has 67x the population of our least populous state (Wyoming, pop. 550 thousand). Trump won the popular vote, and therefor the electors, of 30 of our 50 states. He lost the popular contest in California by 4,269,978 votes, accounting for all of the 2,868,691 votes by which he lost the “national” popularity contest. As one commentator noted, as an illustration of what this meant, you could imagine the 2016 results with Trump keeping every state he won, while adding a 1-vote victory margin “in every state Clinton won except just five states: California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York. That would subtract 2,636,017 votes from Clinton’s total, which would still give her a 232,642-vote majority of total votes. So, Trump would have won 45 states and the District of Columbia representing 74 percent of Americans, which would give him a 413-125 Electoral Vote win. Yet, under the California popular vote model, Clinton would still have won the presidency by 232,642 votes.”

To rephrase that, in 2016, under a single National Majority method for electing our presidents, Hillary Clinton could have lost in every state she won but California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York (total pop. around 83 million), and she would have won the election. Think about that for a moment; she could have been President of a United States in which a majority of voters in 45 states voted against her. That might still make sense, if we had a unitary national government. But we don’t; we have a national federal government which shares power with sovereign state governments, and in which the powers of our federal government are, in theory, limited.

It concerned Patrick Henry that a strong national government could ignore the majority will of the smaller states, or even most of the states if the largest states formed a political coalition. He would not have been a fan of Donald Trump, who is far from a Small-Government Conservative, but he’d be one of the first to defend the EC, which forces candidates to stump widely as well as deeply, focusing on more than a handful of states. Want a revolution? Create a national electoral system in which our most powerful political figure can be chosen by the popular majorities of just five states. If One Man One Vote meant an end to the EC and domination by a small coalition of states, Patrick Henry would be first in line with “Give me liberty, or give me death!”

The Supreme Court

Nobody really saw Marbury v Madison coming. With one decision, Chief Justice John Marshall established the justices of the US Supreme Court as high priests with the power to interpret the meaning of our holy writ–the sections and amendments of the Constitution–and to invalidate any action or subsequently passed law that violated the sacred national contract. It put teeth into the declaration that “Congress shall make no law . . . “

Because Supreme Court Justices aren’t robots, angels, or Vulcans, every court since has rendered its unappealable decisions based on reason, precedent, ideology, prejudice, partisanship, and often accepted “truths” of their time that turn out to be horribly untrue later. Patrick Henry would not have been surprised. I have no idea if he would have approved.

What he did approve of was the degree of separation between the federal administration (elected and appointed, its composition changing with each election), and the federal courts (whose members’ appointments are essentially for life). While the power to fill judicial seats was a reward for winning elections–the party winning the Presidency and a Senate majority filling the seats to their advantage–the fact that turnover was slow meant that a party would need to hold power for a significant period of time to tilt the judiciary in favor of their politics. The downside, of course, was that a party, on achieving majority control of the executive and legislative branches, would find itself opposed by the judicial branch for years in areas where its policies conflicted with current judicial interpretations. The judicial branch remains the branch most resistant to swift change, the branch least likely to bend to currently popular political doctrines.

Since the Supreme Court is supreme in its domain, it’s been fought over ever since, its seats the ultimate prize for winning elections. One way we’ve kept the never-ending War of The Seats from turning into a scorched-earth total war is the filibuster. It was used to require 60 votes to bring a Supreme Court nominee to a vote in the Senate. Since neither party tended to hold a 60+ Senate majority for long, this gave both parties leverage to stop judicial nominees from taking up lifetime appointments. Neither party liked the filibuster when it worked against them, but both parties understood the compromises also protected them when they were out of power.

Then a Democratic Senate majority ended the filibuster rule for lower federal court seats so a simple majority could vote on the nomination. After that the next Republican majority ended the filibuster rule for all federal judiciary nominees, including the Supreme Court.

And now it’s total political war, baby!

Seriously. It’s still seldom that either party has a filibuster-proof majority (60+ seats) in the Senate, which means if anything is to get done then some bipartisanship is required to get support from “across the aisle.” Where once both parties could usually block a Supreme Court nominee that they perceived as too extreme (in the wrong direction of course, since obviously it’s impossible to be too extreme in the right direction), even when out of power, now neither party has any legal way to block an unacceptable nominee if the majority party votes as a block to approve the nomination.

The result is the absolute vitriol of the last Supreme Court appointment. The Democrats wouldn’t have resorted to character-assassination in a last-minute attempt to derail the nomination if a filibuster would have served. And now there’s no way for the Democrats to stop the Republican-majority Senate from voting to confirm a replacement for Ginsberg before the 2020 Election.

The Filibuster Rule isn’t coming back for judicial nominations; neither party will reinstate such a limit on their power while they’re the majority. That means where the War of The Seats used to fill our judiciary with a healthy share of judicial moderates (a judicial moderate being a judge neither party is completely happy with), both parties will now be exclusively filling those seats with their own judicial activists. The stakes are now higher than ever.

And the current makeup of the Supreme Court? It’s about to tip towards the judicial textualists, which to Democrats is the same as “right-wing.” (It’s really not, but hey, nuance.) And it will stay there for quite awhile, since the younger justices will now mostly be textualists. The Republicans have played by the rules in their long campaign to move the court, and though you can argue they’ve played ugly, politics has never been pretty. But the outcome of this election may very well be a complete Democratic sweep of the White House and both houses of Congress, right after the court tips to become “constitutionally conservative.”

This brings up the second crisis.

The US Constitution does not dictate how many justices will sit on the Supreme Court. That was established by federal law, which means a Democrat-controlled Congress could blow up the Filibuster completely and change that law by simple majority vote. They could then “pack the court” with politically progressive nominees, as many as they want. Franklin Delano Roosevelt threatened the Supreme Court with this, once, but there’s an obvious reason why no Congress has ever done it; there is no constitutional limit to such a move.

If the Democrats change the law and pack the court with their preferred judges, when Republicans regain the majority again (and they will), there will be nothing to keep them from changing the law again to bring in more of their preferred judges, or to reduce the number of seats as the older, progressive judges, retire or die in their seats. The Supreme Court has never been truly unpolitical, but it’s always been an independent branch. These kinds of shenanigans would fatally compromise the judicial independence that Patrick Henry and the other founders saw as a vital check on executive and legislative power.

So, what happens now?

To be honest, I have no idea, but let me point out some possible roads.

Road 1: Donald Trump wins reelection, with both an Electoral College
and popular-vote victory.

At this point the polls are so unreliable that I wouldn’t be surprised by this outcome. If it happens, the simmering constitutional crises won’t boil over, at least for now. There might be riots, and if there are then gun shops everywhere will do even brisker 2nd Am. business (they have had a very good summer).

Road 2: Donald Trump wins reelection, again with an incontestable Electoral College victory but not a popular-vote victory.

More likely than Road 1, and more dangerous. Riots are almost certain, and a majority of the country will be confirmed in their hatred for the EC. Resistance will kick into a higher gear, with half the country refusing to accept Trump as a legitimately sitting Chief Executive. Ironically, this will be a worse outcome for both parties as the Left moves further left, further alienating the Moderate Middle and further radicalizing the Far Right in response.

Road 3: Donald Trump wins/loses reelection by a contestable voter margin in swing states.

The darkest road. If the voting is this close, the country will go into recount-and-litigation mode. It will be Bush v. Gore writ large, playing out across several states at once and certain to be decided by a Supreme Court that Democrats are convinced the Republicans have stolen. The Supreme Court’s legitimacy will be at an all-time low at the moment it needs to be rock-solid.

Road 4: Donald Trump loses his bid for reelection by an incontestable margin, Biden winning the Electoral College and popular vote.

With the Big States tilting Democrat, it’s mathematically impossible for Biden to win the national popularity contest and lose in the Electoral College. No riots, but almost as perilous an outcome for the Supreme Court, which if the Democrats also take the Senate must now face a vengeful party.

Constitutionally, none of these roads look good. If we come through all this intact, I hope that everybody realizes how close a thing this has become and we begin to take steps. This is probably wildly optimistic of me, but if even a little bipartisan sanity bubbles up from all this, there are some possibilities for compromise. The most important move to make would be to constitutionally regularize the Supreme Court. I suggest an Amendment.

The Supreme Court shall be comprised of 9 justices, the sitting justice with the most seniority being retired every 2 years if no other vacancies have occurred in that period, vacating the seat on the fourth Friday of that year.

As to the Electoral College, there is no constitutional fix short of an additional amendment, and since there’s no way the smaller states will go along with it chances of success are slim to none. But I think all the hating on the EC is really a symptom of unitary nationalism. Unitary nationalists are populists who pretty much want to ditch federalism (on paper, our current system), reducing states to mere administrative appendages of a unitary national government (ironically, something many “conservatives” would approve of if they remained the majority party). Patrick Henry’s nightmare. But if that’s your thing, have at it. Go ahead, I’ll respect you as long as you’re honest about it.

MGH

Note: whether you disagree with me or with others who disagree in the comments, please keep it civil. I’ve never had to moderate a comment-thread on one of my posts, and I don’t want to start now. Whatever your political convictions, we’re all citizens engaging in dialogue here.

Posted in The Radical Moderate | Tagged | 101 Comments

She’s Killing Me

Ever lose a day to something you totally shouldn’t have done and not regret it at all? Yeah, I thought so. In this case it’s NOT MY FAULT. I totally blame Alexi and Melinda.

Just so you know, Alexi is a crazy Spaniard (Andalusian, actually) from Queens. If you attend many Comic-Cons you’ve probably seen him stalking the dealer hall floor looking for victims. He’s the compact mustachioed d’Artagnan who hands you a book with a twinkle in his eye and a “You’re going to love this.”

Seriously, he’s the owner of Bards Tower, a traveling bookstore that follows the cons to get authors in front of their fans and introduce them to new ones, and he loves every sci-fi/fantasy genre there is. Except vampires, which is ironic. He’s the reason you’ve seen me in places like Hartford and Pensacola, and despite the fact that I didn’t see him at the seven cons that just didn’t happen this year, we’ve kept in touch; among other things we both love analyzing What Went Wrong with certain popular franchises. That and talking superheroes.

And he’s still introducing unsuspecting people to great books. Yesterday he reached out to me with a “You know, Melinda just re-released a fantastic book of hers, This Case is Gonna Kill Me. Heard of it?”

Yes, re-released. It may shock you to hear that books don’t just explode or disappear on their merits; publisher decisions (covers, titles, series names, amount of marketing, etc.) have a huge effect on how well a book will sell. Sometimes a fantastic piece of writing appears with poor packaging and thin marketing, and rises to the heights it deserves because enough readers love it enough to do what Alexi does–push it to an unsuspecting friend with a “You’re going to love this.” But there are so many good books out there, and more often than not, a good or even great book that’s poorly marketed will just disappear.

This Case is Gonna Kill Me was originally published under the pen-name of Phillipa Bornikova (because apparently a New York Times best-selling sci-fi writer writing fantasy is . . . bad?), with a deceptive cover (the protagonist isn’t a blonde action-girl, she’s a tiny new-minted attorney with midnight hair) and a crappy series name (yes, our little lawyer’s name is Linnet Ellery, but does The Linnet Ellery Series grab you?).

So the series didn’t find its wings. Shocker. But Melinda, and that’s Melinda Snodgrass of Wild Cards fame (also a writer for Star Trek: TNG back in the day), got the publication rights to the series back and found a new small publisher that knew a good story when it saw it and knew what to do with it. So, re-published under her own name, with a new and descriptive cover, and a catchy new series name. Also some minor scene rewrites here and there, because every author that ever published regrets that one scene or that one line of dialogue once they’ve given their baby into the hands of the publishing house.

And Alexi pushed it at me with a twinkle in his eye. “You should recommend this to your Artemis fans.”

I was skeptical. It was a vampire book. Yes, I’ve written a vampire book, but I wrote it as a writer who doesn’t like most vampire fiction. Just read Bite Me’s opening line. (Mind you I don’t hate vampires, per se, I just hate how most fang-fiction stories handle them.) But Alexi knew this, and I trusted Alexi. I said “I’ll check it out, pass it along if I think it’s worth it.” Not that Melinda ever writes anything bad, just, you know, it was a vampire book. I half-expected to read the first few chapters and put it down. Well, I put it down.

When I hit The End after midnight.

Linnet is not a vampire. She’s a lawyer, which on some days she thinks might arguably be worse. There is no vampire love-interest. Vampires are bastards.

There are also werewolves and fay. They’re bastards, too.

Warning: I give the book an R rating; it’s not full of sex and violence, but what there is is fairly graphic (I seem to recall the word viscera used once), so, FYI.

If you’re okay with that, I’ll just say it reads like a John Grisham story in the world of Supernatural. You’re going to love this.

MGH

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 13 Comments

Long Overdue Update.

If you look close . . . you can’t see me (I’m taking the picture.)

So what have I been up to? Oh, you know. This and that. A little while back I attended Pensacon (the Pensacola Comic-Con), or as I’ve come to call it, The Last Con. Seriously; I was supposed to go to Emerald City Con a couple of weeks later, but Covid canceled that one . . . and then the one in Kansas City . . . and you get the idea.

I’ve been to several cons, now, and my experience as a con guest has been varied, but I can absolutely say that Connecticon (Hartford) and Pensacon both treated us authors like VIPs. At Pensacon I shared the booth with some great authors. You can see Jodi Lynn Nye and Phil Foglio up there. Jim Butcher was there, but didn’t make it into the shot. I will happily return to Pensacola. Phil and I became con-buddies; mostly because we were both interested in checking out the local food (we discovered an amazing hole-in-the-wall pasta place better than a 4-star restaurant). Both of us were scheduled to fly out the next day on the flight to Dallas. We went to check out the beach (one week pre-Spring Break) and dip our feet in the Gulf, ignored each other like two cats while we hung out in the hotel lobby doing our own creative thing before heading to the airport. Phil’s described what happened next. As eloquently as only an artist can.

Yeah. . . At least they comped him the hotel. I just got rerouted to Miami.

Then of course Covid set in and my lifestyle . . . hardly changed at all. It’s like I’ve been training for this all of my life.

So! Updates on the important stuff: my work!

WtC: Grrl Power. All the text work on this was completed in the spring; the hangup is the art. Dave indicated an interest in doing profile images for all of the character files, and some have been completed. Since it’s the last item from the Kickstarter, I may wind up doing a text-release for everyone who backed for it, followed by a fully formatted release once the art comes through. We’ll see. Meanwhile, all the RPG work has resulted in . . .

Super Powered Fate. This is almost complete. It’s a PDF supplement for tabletop RPG gamers who want to use Fate Condensed as the rulebook for their superhero campaigns, and it should be out next month.

Future Days. Book 9 of the series has been slow going. Since it needs to deal with the aftermath of Repercussions it’s going to be more like Wearing the Cape in structure than most of the rest of the books. Repercussions took place over a handful of days, one hit after another; Future Days will take place over more than half a year. However, like Book 8, it will be told from different POVs though still mostly Astra’s. It begins with Megaton’s experience, where Book 8 began, but goes beyond Book 8 before the third chapter. For everyone patiently waiting, I’ve decided to drop a teaser here.

————————————————————————–

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.

———————————————————————–

That’s all for now, hope so see you sooner than you think!

MGH

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I Need Beautiful Words

Waverly

I wanted to be a poet.

Some of my earliest memories are of my father reading to us from his collection of books. Verses, humorous and nonsensical, rhythmic and livening, melodic and moving. A lot of them were “moral verses” that poured lessons and inspiration into our young ears. Love. Bravery. Faith. Perseverance. Wonderment. And fun.

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night

   Sailed off in a wooden shoe,—

Sailed on a river of crystal light

   Into a sea of dew.

“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”

   The old moon asked the three.

“We have come to fish for the herring-fish

   That live in this beautiful sea.”

 

The light stuff prepared us for the more serious journeys later.

 

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

 

Verses that rhymed and marched along to meter were going out of style long before I was taught to appreciate the stuff, with the result that my interest in modern poetry has been minimal at best; but I encountered 20th Century gems in the oddest places. Like fantasy literature.

 

Through Rohan over fen and field where the long grass grows

The West Wind comes walking, and about the walls it goes.

“What news from the West, O wandering wind, do you bring to me tonight?

Have you seen Boromir the Tall by moon or by starlight?”

“I saw him ride over seven streams, over waters wide and grey.

I saw him walk in empty lands until he passed away

Into the shadows of the North, I saw him then no more.

The North Wind may have heard the horn of the son of Denethor.”

“O Boromir! From the high walls westward I looked afar

But you came not from the empty lands where no men are.”

 

(Note: I loved the Lord of the Rings movies, and the absence of even a few lines of the Lament of Boromir was one of my few true disappointments.)

I forgive Rudyard Kipling a lot because he created not just memorable and real characters but stirring verse. For one of the funniest poems of all time, I dare you to read A Code of Morals (but before you do, learn about how the British military used heliographs for signaling). MacDonough’s Song gets deadly serious, and The American Rebellion gets very thoughtful about war.

The  snow lies thick on Valley Forge,

  The ice on the Delaware,  

But the poor dead soldiers of King George

  They neither know nor care.

 

Not though the earliest primrose break

  On the sunny side of the lane,

And scuffling rookeries awake

  Their England’ s spring again.

 

They will not stir when the drifts are gone,

  Or the ice melts out of the bay:

And the men that served with Washington

  Lie all as still as they.

 

They will not stir though the mayflower blows

  In the moist dark woods of pine,

And every rock-strewn pasture shows

  Mullein and columbine.

 

Each for his land, in a fair fight,

  Encountered, strove, and died,

And the kindly earth that knows no spite

  Covers them side by side.

 

Do I get too serious? Fact: I rarely am for that long.

 

Jenny kiss’d me when we met,

Jumping from the chair she sat in;

Time, you thief, who love to get

Sweets into your list, put that in!

Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,

Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,

Say I’m growing old, but add,

Jenny kiss’d me.

 

From here I could drift into some choice Shakespeare or Lewis Carroll, but I won’t. I wrote a few verses of my own back in high school and college, none of them good, most of them forgotten. In the Wearing the Cape books I not only can’t seem to refrain from dropping a few verses in as chapter-headers or references, I’ve even snuck some verses of my own in as in-setting lyrics and poetry.

Because I love beautiful words.

So, favorites? Does anyone have similar tastes? Or find their poetry elsewhere? (I’ll admit some song lyrics approach the beauty of poetry–some are poetry.) I’ll even read good blank verse. If it’s good.

MGH

 

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The Great Place

the-good-place

In 2016 I reviewed the premiering TV series, The Good Place. I have a weakness for oddball shows that don’t always do well (one of my favorite Best Canceled Series will always be Wonderfalls). So I worried that The Good Place would prove too outside-the-box for many viewers to appreciate and stick with. I also worried that the writers of the show itself would wander off into the woods and away from what it all appeared to be “really” about. I needent have worried; I watched the series final last night and the show stuck the landing.

So, what was it about, really?

My initial hot-take on the show had been: “I watched the premier last night, it was delightful, and I highly recommend that everyone catch it and judge for themselves. Especially since I have a strong suspicion that Eleanor and everyone else is being lied to. Something…benevolently sinister is afoot. Can something be benevolently sinister?”

The summation of the action, with the big reveal at the end of the first season (SPOILERS AHEAD), was “…human-loving Good Place architect, Michael, is a demon sent from Hell to run an experiment on the idea that humans are their own best torturers. He selectively chooses a group of four people who he decides are perfectly offset to torture one another and, in the beginning, it appears to work. Chidi tortures Eleanor with his indecisiveness, inflexibility, and scholarly disposition, likewise Eleanor tortures Chidi by constantly putting him in situations where he must make decisions or go against the very moral tenets he espouses. Tahani tortures Eleanor by continuously reinforcing her superiority, Jason tortures Tahani by being unable to return her incessant need for validation (as he is initially the silent Buddhist monk Jianyu), and for Jason the mere fact he is forced to pretend he is someone other than himself is torture in itself. Each character is designed to bring out what they hate most about each other and themselves, resulting in the new form of torture Michael is experimenting with.” (Wikipedia)

So, I nailed it–except that I thought that the TRUTH would turn out to be that Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jianyu were being lied to and were really in Purgatory–a sort of afterlife correctional facility designed to give them the opportunity to unlearn their mistakes and become better people. This turns out to be more than a little ironic.

The overarching theme of The Good Place turned out to be an exploration of ethics. What does it mean, to be good? The amazing thing about TGP was that it 1) never lost sight of its core theme, and 2) that it remained hilariously and cleverly written from beginning to end; the medicine of moral philosophy went down with the sweetener of sometimes hysterical laughter.

But as great as all that was, I think TGP turned into something more. A second theme that emerged in the 3rd and 4th seasons was the question of what an ethical universe would look like. This took the show from philosophy to theology.

To be clear, the show went out of its way to not address systems of religious belief: Christianity, Buddhism, etc. (thank the writers for that). It never tried to imagine the afterlife it presented in any way other than allegorically. It was agnostic. But every religion holds to some theological construction of cosmic justice, and every religion claims that the universe is, in fact, a morally ethical creation. For the last two seasons the show asked that very theological question; what would the afterlife look like in an ethically just universe?

The irony was that in the end it envisioned an ethically just afterlife operating exactly as I’d imagined at the beginning of the show: it eventually recreated the “neighborhoods” as places of spiritual reform and improvement, where all who wound up in the Bad Place due to their actions in life could learn, grow, and eventually enter the Good Place.

And what is the Good Place? The show conceived it as an inversion of Jean Paul Sartre’s formulation “Hell is other people.” The Good Place is the place where our human relationships are restored and made whole. Heaven is other people, too.

Could it be true? Serious Christian writers have argued that it could be so, and I do personally believe that a God worth worshiping would require that it be so. I hope that it is so. In the meantime I do think that, true or not, we should act as if it were so.

MGH

Postscript: apropos to my declared love of oddball and probably short-lived shows, check out the Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist pilot. You’ll thank me, I promise.

 

 

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A Merry Christmas To All!

Carol Cover Small

I hope everyone has had a good 2019 and is now enjoying a warm holiday season. I don’t mean Las Vegas-warm, of course, although if you live in warmer climes like I do and consider this the perfect weather, God bless you. But I hope you have a Hallmark-style, heartwarming Christmas.

This is not so much a news update as a thank you to everyone who’s stayed with me for the ride that is the Wearing the Cape stories. Who knew a self-published novel (sold for $.99) in 2011 would result in a full-time writing career and all of the experiences that have come with it. I’m talking about the tremendous feedback and support, the travel to conventions to meet readers across the country (I’ve been to such exotic cities as Minneapolis, Indianapolis, San Diego, and Heartford, and next year I’m going to check out Seattle, Atlanta, and Orlando), and to meet fellow authors (this year I discovered a great steakhouse in Salt Lake City with Jodi Lynn Nye and Phil Foglio).

(Note: huge thank you to Alexi Vandenberg, the magician of Bard’s Tower who’s made it possible for me to ride the convention-circuit. If you attend any comic conventions anywhere next year, look for Bard’s Tower, buy a book, and talk to the author. If your local convention doesn’t host Bard’s Tower, then get them to.)

So, other than how late Repercussions turned out to be, I’ve been very happy with 2019. Also, it turns out I did one last little thing this year; I wrote the Wearing the Cape Christmas Episode.

Everyone who picked up Wearing the Cape: The Roleplaying Game and decided to spring for the little Christmas mini-adventure, Operation Pole Star, will already know the general plot: Santa Claus comes to town. With most of a year for me to think about it, the story has turned out slightly different than it does in the mini-adventure, but it’s the same spirit. And it fills yet another superhero-comic trope! The Christmas adventure where the heroes help or are helped by Santa.

Yes, this story is canon. No, it’s not a big story with Plot Implications for our heroes going forward. I hope you’ll find it funny, heartwarming, a holiday treat, but if you’re not into Christmas stories you can always skip it without worrying that you’ll miss something you’ll need to know for Book 9 and onward.

So sing some carols, eat good food, share some time with the people close to you and with people you’ve never met. Celebrate with readings of the sacred story—and with ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, White Christmas, It’s A Wonderful Life, and as many versions of A Christmas Carol as you can find (I love them all; every one of them has a song or a scene that stands out as a jewel). And if you curl up with this little story and find it an enjoyable addition to the season this year, thank you.

Merry Christmas.

MGH

 

 

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Here There Be Spoilers!

2019-11-01 Amazon Best Sellers Best Superhero Science Fiction

Thank you, everyone, who downloaded Repercussions on the first day! Thanks to all of you, Book 8 hit #3 on Amazon’s Superhero Science Fiction list. (Technically it was the #2 superhero book yesterday, because that book hogging the #1 slot ISN’T A SUPERHERO BOOK. In fact, the only other book in the Top 50 which seems to involve actual costumed-and-codenamed superheroes is the one in the #2 slot, Masked by Vengeance–which premiered on Halloween as well.

At least the Top 50 is no longer filled by vampire erotica.

So with that fun brag out of the way, the purpose of this post is to fill a need several readers have expressed: a place to ask questions, throw around theories, point out editing errors (yes, there are always a few), and just talk about Repercussions.

So have at it! I’m working hard on the Archon Files and maybe a Christmas surprise, and will see some of you in Minneapolis next week.

MGH

(Note: The price of talking about Repercussions on this post is an amazing Amazon review. I will be checking. 😉 )

Posted in Wearing the Cape | Tagged , , | 91 Comments