Good news for everyone who has been impatiently waiting; I have this week finished my first draft of Young Sentinels! Since I tend to rewrite as I write, I do not anticipate many changes between now and the final draft, which means that a release date in August is not unthinkable. I apologize to everyone who has been impatiently waiting.
None more so than I. Sometimes I’ve felt like Snoopy–blocked beyond those first few glorious lines–and now that YS is substantially complete I am revisiting my writing method. There must be a better way to do this, and I need to be more professional about it.
Since we’re looking at another month till publication, as an apology I bring you Chapter Three. For me it was one of the “vision” chapters, setting up not one but two character arcs, and it was fun to write since it gave me my first chance to show Astra from an outside point of view. If you haven’t read Chapters 1 and 2 already, go here.
“Life is unfair. I know that. Born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I have a dead older sister I was too young to remember, childhood cancer I remember too well—seventh grade was not fun—lost my BFF to terminal stupidity… But my breakthrough was a good thing. I was able to use it to save people. I got cool, helpful powers. The public loved me, mostly. Lots of breakthroughs aren’t so lucky.”
Astra, Notes From A Life.
“It happens more often than you think.”
Blackstone looked old—well, older. Thanks to iron discipline and Chakra’s help (a regimen of aerobic exercise and tantric magic, don’t ask) the white haired old magician and ex-marine could run a marathon and hold his own in mixed martial arts, but his age showed when he was tired. Or sad. Like the night in the chapel when he’d held me while I cried like a child.
I’d dropped Malcolm Scott in the infirmary for the Dr. Beth Treatment; just a look at his head and foot and a physical—our team doctor wasn’t asking for any power demonstrations yet. Now Blackstone, Chakra, and I sat in Blackstone’s office and watched Dr. Beth run him through his tests. Early news footage of the accident scene—the smashed bus and the ring of emergency vehicles—filled a second screen and showed glimpses of Watchman and Seven, who Lei Zi had sent over to the school. Hersey High. The rest of the field team remained out at the airport.
On Dr. Beth’s table, the kid had taken off his scraped and soiled varsity jacket. Average looks, brown hair, brown eyes. He was pretty big, overweight but in a fit way, decent muscles under the fat. I guessed linebacker or wrestler.
Chakra looked up from the screens, brow furrowed. “What happens more often?”
“Deadly breakthroughs.” Blackstone sat back and closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Many breakthroughs come from trauma inflicted by other people, and the reaction is often extreme. Look at Safire—a nice enough stripper going to business school until her abusive boyfriend nearly beat her to death and she broke through as a B Class Atlas-type. She killed him with one punch before she knew what she could do.”
“Jamal—” I said before I could stop myself. I’d stripped off my filthy mask and wig and washed my face, but hadn’t changed before quietly joining them.
He nodded. “Crash, indeed. Fortunately you and Rush stopped him from doing anything unforgivably permanent to the young gangstas who attacked him.”
Chakra watched Dr. Beth poke and prod our new problem. “Poor kid,” she said, echoing my own not happy inside-voice. “What will happen to him now?”
“Legally? Nothing. Sometimes it’s hard to prove whether a breakthrough-related death was intentional or not, but in this case the death of the bus driver was clearly accidental. Mentally?”
Oh yeah. This was going to mess up the kid’s head in so many ways. I must have given something away; ever-alert, Blackstone looked up at me, a bit of the twinkle back in his eye.
“Could you take this one, my dear? Young Mr. Scott’s parents are on their way, but Dr. Beth will be done with his poking and prodding soon, and we don’t want the boy left alone too long. Heaven knows, he could work himself back up and start blowing holes in the Dome. And Chakra and I are rather…fragile.”
I opened my mouth to protest, closed it as Blackstone’s point sank in. How sensitive was the kid’s trigger? Would any normal person who upset him now end up drippy paste on pieces of wall? Dr. Beth was insane just being in the same room with the unexploded boy without knowing what could set him off.
Jeez, calm down, he hasn’t blown anyone else up yet. Shelly wasn’t in my head anymore, but I could still hear her sarcastic response.
I nodded, wishing Seven were here. “Okay. How long have I got?”
Blackstone focused on the screen, where Doctor Beth had the boy’s shirt off. “I would guess you have perhaps ten more minutes before the good doctor is finished.”
And Dr. Beth’s friendly talk could calm anybody down, giving me just enough time to change. I ran.
“Want to hear all about him?” Shelly whispered in my ear as soon as the door closed behind me. I didn’t answer until I was safe in the elevator.
“Tell me you didn’t hack the school’s student files.”
“Hey, it’s a good cause.”
“No, it’s not. It’s curiosity and we’ll know soon enough the legal way. We’ve talked about this.” Boy had we ever, and she wasn’t listening and one of these days…
I wanted to bang my head against the wall, but even Dome elevators could be fragile. Hindsight is always perfect; you’ve had time to think about the decisions you made, maybe more information than you had then, enough time for horrible realizations.
The night of the omega operation, I’d asked Shell to hack a military system, to redirect a missile, and now the US military knew that someone could dance through their most vital defense systems and play with their hardware—which made her a Threat To National Security. To make it worse, she wasn’t a person, not legally. If she kept exposing herself, if they traced the hack to her…even if the ACLU had three cases of Verne-science augmented animals and one unique car working their ways through the federal courts, Shell had no rights.
Some nights I woke up in cold sweats from a nightmare that they’d come to take her away and there was nothing I could do about it but go full supervillain. It was my fault, and I had to fix it.
One problem at a time.
“Later, Shell. Now I have to go poke a boy and see if he explodes.”
The doc gave me a lollypop and an epad displaying directions, and nudged me out the door. Which was really weird, cutting me loose in the middle of Sentinel central. I just followed the map, trying not to think too much; the parentals would be here soon and Mom would be freaking out. No idea what Dad would be doing—he’d hated the wrestling thing since it “distracted” from my studying to make something of myself. What he’d think about this… I ran fingers through my hair, winced at the goose-egg the doc had promised wasn’t a concussion.
Testing the ankle brace the doc had fitted me with, I limped back past Laconic Bob in the lobby. He’d said four words when Astra introduced us, two were my name, and he didn’t add to them now. Turning a corner, I went through a door and walked onto a movie set.
Okay, not a movie set—but I’d seen it in The Sentinels I, II, III, IV, and V. I’d been directed to the Assembly Room. Huge oak table, check. Sentinels ‘S’ engraved above their motto—“We stand ready.” in fancy Latin—check. Huge screens, ceiling-mounted projectors, check. The I Love Me wall full of pictures and news clippings was new, or at least not in the shows. Looking closer, they even had a black-framed cover of Time Magazine’s special Funeral Edition. Right…
“Morbid, isn’t it?”
I spun around and nearly tripped as my ankle screamed and heat and pressure shot through me, leaving me lightheaded. The tiny blonde standing behind me smiled.
“You didn’t blow anything up, so that’s good.”
She wore dark blue cargo pants and a tight white athletic shirt with Astra’s star symbol on it in sparkly silver. Platinum blonde hair pulled back in a short ponytail framed a freshly scrubbed face. I went cold, like I’d fallen in ice water.
“Are you freaking crazy? I could have—”
“Gone off? I know.” She hopped up to dangle her legs off the edge of the conference table. “That’s why I’m here—I’m tougher than a bus. How’s the bump?”
“You’re tougher—wait—you’re Astra?” Her smile widened while I tried to make it work in my head. I hadn’t believed the tabloids, but she couldn’t be legal, let alone a full-on superhero; Tiffany had more going on under her shirt than she did, and… Sure, stare at her chest, moron—great way to make an impression.
She actually laughed, and my face burned.
“My bust is mostly in my costumes,” she said with an easy shrug. “For superheroes there’s a certain look that’s expected…and wow is this conversation familiar. FYI, I turned nineteen last spring, which makes me totally the opposite of jailbait.”
The burn deepened. “Shit— I mean, sorry…”
She actually looked sympathetic, not disgusted like she smelled dog crap on my shoe or something, and that just made it worse. She wasn’t supermodel-stunning or anything, but she was cute and confidant, the kind of girl who wouldn’t have given me a second look last year.
When I didn’t add to my stupid she waved it away. “Moving on, may I call you Mal?” Her easy smile disappeared and she looked older, all the teasing gone. “We need to talk. About your accident.”
Five minutes later I wanted to kill myself.
She’d sat me down and sunk into a chair beside me, tucked her sneakered feet up, and walked me back through the steps that led to my launching screaming into the sky. The smashed bus. The blood.
“The driver, he’s…”
“Dead.” She watched me carefully, eyes wet but steady. “He probably didn’t even have time to realize what happened.”
The hot pressure was back, swelling beneath my skin. I couldn’t breathe. “I think, I think I’m going to be sick.” Instead of recoiling, she scooted forward and put a hand on my knee.
“Nothing— Nothing I say right now is going to help,” she said earnestly. “But your breakthrough saved you, protected you, and you didn’t mean to hurt him. It was a thing, it’s awful, it happens sometimes, and it’s absolutely not your fault.”
“The hell it’s not!” I was on fire.
Her grip tightened, a soft vise. “No, it’s not. But it’s a debt. You owe a life, so save a life. It won’t make up for it, but we all have debts we can’t repay.”
“Start with yourself and work outward.” Letting go, she sat back but kept her eyes on me. “So, are you going to…” She mimed an explosion.
I realized what she’d done and almost hurled for real. “You just tried to, to—”
“Twice,” she agreed. “I meant to sneak up on you, too. Did you know your body temperature spiked both times?” Her smile came back, tentatively. “So I’m pretty sure you’re safe to stand next to, at least while you’re here. And we’ll help you figure it out so what happened today won’t happen again. Promise.”