For everyone out there who is wondering what is going on:
1.) Book 5 continues apace. A fairly recent development is that I have temporarily shelved the Japan-trip storyline–I still want to do it, but I have also realized that now is not the time for it in Astra’s continuing story. So the working title for Book 5 is Small Town Heroes. But rest assured that while all this has slowed my momentum a bit, I know where I’m going. Really.
2.) My playtesters are not playtesting fast enough for me, but WtC: the RPG is a project I am moving carefully on. My personal deadline being the end of the year, we all have time to get it right. I want to be able to move to Phase 2 (playtesting by gamers who have never previously played with Cortex Plus) by the middle of the year. Meanwhile, some of the superheroes designed using the WtC:RPG rules look amazing.
3.) Wearingthecape.com is now almost completely up and looking good. The cover of Wearing the Cape is available for purchase through Zazzle (just follow the link), in whatever size poster you like–the $31 price tag is for the largest poster size. The other two covers and the Astra character print should be up and available in the next day or so.
And for everyone who has been impatiently awaiting the further adventures of Astra and Company, here is the current draft of Small Town Heroes Chapter One.
You’d think I could have a “normal” superhero career. After all, I might be strong but my powers are as common as dirt. But noooo, apparently I’m a Chosen One, like the Teatime Anarchist hung a glowing neon sign on me for all inscrutable meddlers to see. It makes life way too exciting.
From the journal of Hope Corrigan.
We were doing everything we could, and Mother Nature was still kicking our butts. The high winds, blowing hard enough to weaponize the sleeting rain, kept rescue copters out of the sky unless aerokinetics like Tsuris and Jetstream flew with them to carve out zones of still air. The Ohio River was doing its best to drown Cairo, Mound City, and Paduca, and trying to help the Mississippi laugh at the spillways and floodways to submerge Wickliff and points south. Even Riptide couldn’t stop that much water; the best he could do was protect rescue boats and find desperate floaters.
Three weeks of heavy rains dumped into the Mississippi and Ohio watersheds, and we were dealing with more destruction than any supervillain had ever caused with the sole exception of Temblor.
“Astra, is your load stable?” Lei Zi asked through Dispatch. She knew it couldn’t be the wind slowing me down.
“Yes — affirmative,” I responded absently. The US Army engineers had done a good job on the hitches, and I’d turned the 10-ton concrete barrier so it sliced into the wind as I flew. I’d slowed because— There it was again. The pitch-black night and nearly horizontal rain cut even my super-duper vision down to less than thirty feet, but a twinkling flash of red light teased the edge of my sight. No-one was supposed to be down there.
I slowed again and dropped lower, so tired I couldn’t be sure of what I was seeing. The stacked-up storm fronts that had been soaking seven states had put the whole region on alert as aquifers filled and rivers rose. Three states had begun evacuating low ground last week and the flooded ground beneath me, north of Cairo, was supposed to be clear.
There. A sudden wind shift opened a hole in the rain curtain and brought me another red flash. It moved, flying below me and pulling away now that it had my attention. Lower, I could see the drowned fields where the Mississippi had thrown out a new ribbon across the lower ground, creating a temporary floodway. Someone would get to that, but right now we — the Young Sentinels — were trying to save Cairo.
“Astra, Grendel is ready for the next levee section.”
We’d been working on it since early this morning, me flying in the sections as Grendel prepared the foundation — mostly by hammering iron rods down into the collapsed earth levee to anchor the sections as they arrived. But the light below me was bobbing and weaving, trying to keep my attention like Lassie telling me Timmy had fallen down the well and I couldn’t just ignore it.
“I’m minutes out. Investigating signals north of town.”
“… Understood. Be quick.” She didn’t sound happy, but possible civilians in the evacuation zone took precedence over a town that had been completely evacuated two days ago.
Dropping till the wall section beneath me skimmed over the flooded fields, I followed the dancing red light. Could I see wings on it? It certainly moved like a bird working hard to fight through the wind. One minute, two, and I spotted the house. A solid building with no trimmings, it looked ready to shrug off tornadoes. Someone had circled it with a sandbag berm, but the sandbags were just a ring in the water now and the low-slung house sat half submerged.
And the roof was crowded, lit up to my infrared sight.
“You’re kidding, right?” Shell popped in to float beside me, rain sleeting through her virtual projection onto my mind’s eye. “They skipped evacuation to stay here with kids?”
Five adults, seven children, and, yes a dog and a cat in a carrier, huddled together under a tarp between storm lanterns.
I slowed, made sure of my load. “Who are they?”
Shell’s abstraction lasted less than a second.
“Based on head count, property and tax records, and the AR-15s and military gear, I’m betting they’re the Carletons and their neighbors down the road, the Stewarts. County sheriff’s report says they wouldn’t believe the government if it told them Sunday was coming.”
I sighed. “Paladins?”
“Nope, just part of a local citizen’s militia.”
That was something, anyway. Maybe I wouldn’t get shot at. I brought us down, dropping the concrete barrier beside the edge of the roof, which caused a few screams; it must have looked like the piece of emergency levee had just flown out of the night to sit down by their house.
I landed on top of it, which put me at roof level. I was probably a more reassuring sight. Half the reason for the colorful costume was so that bystanders would recognize and trust you in any situation (the other half was marketing), and Andrew was experimenting with textured and reflective fabrics. I’d left my armor at home to try out the patterned blue and white one-piece unitard outfit he’d come up with, and even in the storm my star crest glowed like a traffic reflector in the light of the lamps. Of course none of them could see Shell, standing beside me completely unbothered by the storm. She saw no need to cater to reality, so the gusts didn’t stir her wild red hair and the drowning rain didn’t so much as spot her green tank top (which read If you can read this t-shirt you are freaking amazing).
“Hi,” I said.
Shell rolled her eyes. “Great heroic entrance. Way to make a memory.”
“I’m not here to sign autographs, Shell,” I whispered, raised my voice. “Does anyone need a lift? And who does the dragon belong to?”
The shining red “bird” I’d followed turned out to be a fist-sized ruby dragon. It had stopped fighting the storm to perch on a tow-headed boy’s shoulder, and he couldn’t take his eyes off it even to look at me.
“It’s —” Shell started.
One of the moms stepped up, pushing back her hood. She was soaked from boots to waist, and even with the heavy jacket her teeth were chattering.
“It just appeared. Circled the kids and then went away.”
To do its Lassie thing, obviously. I nodded.
“It came and found me. I’m headed to Cairo. It’s evacuated but still dry, and we’re raising the levees to keep it that way. I can give you a ride.” I threw the offer out there, doing my best not to give off any suspicious I’m From The Government And I’m Here To Help You vibes.
They decided fast: Mom One simply told her husband she was taking the kids before they died of hypothermia, and Mom Two seconded her. The men, however paranoid they might have been, caved. Fortunately they had plenty of rope — they’d planned on tying everybody together and escaping on inflatable river rafts if the water covered the roof. I distributed them on top of the barrier and they tied themselves to the hitches. A moment to balance the load, and I got us out of there. The tiny jeweled dragon flapped around anxiously until we lifted off, circled me twice, then disappeared into the night.
Headed for Cairo.
I focused on bringing us around till Shell’s own glowing virtual targeting caret pointed ahead of us again. Straddling the levee section beneath me, my passengers looked too cold and tired to be terrified — or maybe straddling a concrete barrier two feet wide at the top and steady as a flying mountain was reassuring.
“Shell?” I whispered. “Dragon?”
“Actually it’s a drake.” She floated along on her back, and she was giggling.
“Drake — Shell!”
“Okay, okay. It’s got to be one of Kindrake’s pets. And if she’s in Cairo…”
I still wasn’t getting it, but aside from some Army engineers, weren’t we the only ones in town?
Apparently not. Sometime during my last flight out someone else (it had to be an Atlas-type or transport-level telekinetic or teleporter) had dropped a passenger frame in the middle of Cairo. Not much more than a steel storage container with seats inside, it had been dropped off in the school bus parking lot kitty-corner to the brick First Presbyterian Church and across the street from the newer City of God In Christ chapel. Guard and Army Corps of Engineers were using the chapel as a relief base, and before heading for the levee I landed the barrier in front and unloaded my shivering passengers so they could run inside.
“Glad you could make it,” Grendel said when I finally set my load down beside him. The water swirled less than a foot below our exposed and sunken stretch of earth wall. This was the last section needed for the collapsed earth levee, then we could sandbag the cracks and call it a night — or at least a few hours.
Grendel didn’t look any fresher than I felt; he’d been shoring up sections as I flew, laying pallets of sandbags, generally putting it all together under the guidance of the engineers. He’d stripped down to shorts and bulked up for raw strength, and looked like a gray and hunchbacked Mr. Universe with fangs. His obsessively styled dreadlocks dripped rainwater down knotted shoulders and arms and off his huge pecks. He could lift more than I could in this configuration, but if he wasn’t careful his feet sank into the waterlogged earth.
As tired as he was, he didn’t sound unhappy, just curious.
“I followed a dragon. Were you okay?”
A stoic shrug. “Just wondering if I should grow gills.” He could, too. I perched on the barrier for a breather and watched as he pounded ten-foot pylons into the earth behind it.
FEMA had moved fast when the flood warnings got serious. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had streamlined its response system after the California quake last January, tying participating Crisis Aid and Intervention teams across the country into a fast-response network and organizing CAI capes with emergency-appropriate powers into specialized teams. What had been a mad scramble after the quake had turned into a much smoother mobilization this time around.
For all the good it did. The problem with floodwater is it has to go somewhere, and obviously staying in the river God had made for it was just boring. Beyond the levee I couldn’t see the river, just an expanse of water that rolled away into the night.
Shell popped back in beside me, looking disgusted. “It’s Powerteam.”
“Not good? You think?”
“Every hand helps, Shell.”
Her smirk gave her opinion of that, and I couldn’t say she was wrong. I really should have remembered. Kindrake had been big—a child supercelebrity not much older than Shell and me, her breakthrough had manifested her obsession with the Rainbow Drakes, the cute little spectrum-colored flying lizards of the kid’s cartoon. The producers of the show had rolled with it, given Kindrake her own live-action series showcasing her adorable pets, but that was years ago and Kindrake and her drakes weren’t so cute anymore. And she was running with Powerteam?
A sigh escaped before I could catch it.
“I know, right?” Shell snickered. “Kindrake brought them and their film crew in on that passenger frame.”
“How— Never mind.”
Grendel finished pounding the brace in and I pushed myself to my feet. Rising I felt heavy, dense, not the leaf on the wind I usually was when I flew. We locked grips, my hold barely halfway round his wrists while his huge hands swallowed my forearms, and I flew us back into town. We’d practiced the move in the months since the Green Man Attack, had it down till a tiny squeeze from me and he’d let go so I could throw him at the target of my choice—three hundred pounds of incoming Grendel was a great opening to any fight. Tonight we just both wanted to get out of the rain.
We weren’t the only ones; Crash, Tsuris, and Ozma had arrived sometime between my last two flights, and were talking with FEMA engineers by the coffeepot, away from Powerteam. The Carletons and the Stewarts had camped on the other side of the recreation hall, wrapped in blankets, the parents between their kids and the heroes while the kids kept trying to see what was going on.
Because there was a show. The production crew was big enough that each member of Powerteam had his own camera-jockey, and they were earning their paychecks filming the drama.
“Shell?” I whispered. The reality show’s team lineup changed fast and wasn’t something I’d ever followed—Kindrake was the only one I recognized, and I only recognized her because of her rainbow swarm of drakes; the raven black hair, deep shadowed eyes, and purple and black goth-cape outfit was totally new to me.
“Spinner.” Shell pointed at the skinny blond boy yelling the loudest. “Team leader. He generates and controls strands of indestructible silver threads, can spin them into entangling traps, barriers, cocoons, armor, really anything until they melt like yesterday’s promises. According to the tabloids, he makes a lot of those, too.”
Her virtual finger targeted a shorter boy, standing quiet and arms folded but smirking. “Boomer. He’s a B Class Ajax-type with the added boost of explosive punches.” A finger-twitch, to the worried-looking kid by Boomer. “Spaz. Low-level teleporter. He ‘blinks’ in a fight, in and out, likes to use stunners, flash-bangs, whatever will take someone down.” She dropped her hand. “The other looming Ajax-type backing up Kindrake is Slamazon.”
Looming was right; “Slamazon” had to be at least seven feet tall, and what Mom would describe as Junoesque and Tsuris would cheerfully call stacked.
“B or A-Class, all of them except Spaz,” Shell finished. “The show doesn’t stint.”
Grendel had ignored my distraction to head for the coffee. Even if the only one besides me who could see Shell’s virtual presence was Ozma—and that was only when she wore her Seeing Specs—the team all knew the voices in my head were real. Ozma watched me now with arched eyebrow, obviously wondering what I was going to do about the drama.
“—they were our rescue!” Spinner shouted in Kindrake’s face.
Kindrake wasn’t backing down. “Flame went for the closest help! They were freezing!” Behind her, Glamazon folded her arms and scowled, and my super-duper hearing picked up a low but rising hum rising from Boomer. What was going on?
Grendel looked over at the blanket-wrapped rescuees, and changed course to position himself between them and Powerteam. They couldn’t be…
They could. Slamazon easily reached over Kindrake to shove Spinner back.
I put a smile on and crossed the room fast. “Hi! When did you guys arrive?”
People facing off usually have to work themselves up to a fight, with lots of posturing and escalating verbal confrontation until both sides know neither is backing down and it’s time to commence. I hoped to short-circuit that.
So Spinner whipped around, focusing his lip-curling sneer on me.
“And here’s the Girl Scout. Come to tell us to move on?”
Shell talked fast. “They didn’t get FEMA clearance to join the effort until tonight. Not much emergency training or mission-specific powers, so they got sent down here.”
Where they couldn’t do much to mess things up. Great.
I kept the smile on. “Everyone’s welcome to help, and the town isn’t safe yet. We should—”
“What? Pitch sandbags? We didn’t come all this way to do grunt-work, and now you’re dogging our saves.”
“That’s not—” Kindrake tried to interject as Boomer moved up behind Spinner.
“Shut up! You’re in this, too! Miss Kiddie-Show Star, coming on like you can teach us all about cape-work.” The background hum rose in pitch.
I put out my hands. “I think we all need to—” Boomer swung and the concussive power released from his fist lit up my world.
When you’re clocked hard you don’t feel it, or what happens in the next few seconds, really—your shaken brain-stem isn’t letting any information into your head until it clears. Hearing Shell yelling at me to “get up!” wasn’t unwelcome, and after months of fight-club style training with Watchman and Grendel I bounced back to full wakiness pretty quick. And tasted rain. I was back outside.
Boomer had blasted me through the wall.
We’d just wrecked a church.
“Hope!” Shell gasped when I sat up. “Get back in there! It’s on!”
Instead, they joined me, Boomer first. He widened the hole on the way out, arriving in a rain of bricks. Whoever had ejected him had practically aimed him at me and I took full advantage, catching him as he skidded on his knees to kick him behind the ear. Ajax-type or not, he dropped without a sound. Watchman would be proud.
Grendel followed him out in a charge that carried Slamazon with him and I breathed a sigh of relief; not that he was needed out here, but if he’d gone on the offense that meant that the civilians were safe—probably evacced by Crash.
“Shell?” I asked. She’d be getting everyone’s dispatch-cam feeds.
“Ozma used her scepter and magic belt to grow a forest from the wood of the rec room floor and Crash and Spaz are evacuating the bystanders behind it,” she reported. “Tsuris is fighting Spinner, burying the creep under his own weave, and—”
The final bit got cut off by the huge beast that dropped out of the night. That I hadn’t seen before, but it had to be Kindrake’s. The thing’s landing shook the parking lot, its rainbow-colored body making elephants look small as its wings covered us.
“Is it a fusion?” I asked needlessly; the rainbow-patched hide was a big hint. Well, now I know how she flew the passenger frame here. “Where’s Kindrake?” I spotted her before Shell replied, standing in the hole in the wall and pointing at Grendel and Slamazon. She shouted over the storm, and my heart sank as I lunged forward. The dragon’s head darted down, lizard-quick, and Grendel disappeared into its jaws.
“Now that’s something you don’t see every day,” Shell said, wide-eyed. I smacked into the beast’s side and it was like hitting a leather sack full of sand; it bellowed, slammed back against the passenger frame, and I hit it again before Slamazon hard-blocked me. Not braced, I flew backwards. Kindrake’s projection or not, the thing had a sense of self-preservation; it took to the air, the sweep of its wings adding to my tumble. Then the wind hit in a blasting roar. Tsuris.
The column of air wouldn’t have pushed me if I was braced for it, but I didn’t have a hundred foot wingspan for it to grab onto, and it caught the escaping beast—Great Drake?—like a helpless leaf, throwing it back down to crush through the parked FEMA vehicles and roll away into the night. It roared its frustration, getting some height only to get smacked down again, this time right into— No no no…
“Oh, shit!” Shell swore.
It hit the nearest wall of raised levee like a ton of—like tons of dragon. Then it exploded into rainbow confetti as Grendel ripped his way out of its stomach. Kindrake screamed in pain and collapsed behind me, caught by Ozma as she stepped through the holed wall wearing a new green fedora.
“Ozma!” I yelled. “If you’re wearing Spinner, I need him now!”
An hour later we’d patched the hole in the levee. It took all of the FEMA team’s reserve sandbags and countless yards of de-hatted Spinner’s threads, but we were able to use the temporary patch to buy time for me to fly more levee sections in and Cairo didn’t get more than a couple of inches of Mississippi floodwater before we finished. Six inches, tops, okay maybe a foot.
By then we were all bone-tired—even I could feel my thoughts drowning in cold black fatigue. Powerteam’s crew manager explained that Kindrake’s feedback-trauma would be fine by morning and that she’d be able to reconstruct Terraflore—nice name for a big rainbow-lizard, and I wondered what it meant—and fly the battered passenger-frame out of Cairo, so I ordered everyone to bed. Spinner yelled some more, until I let him know that, as the senior officer of the Illinois State Militia in an Emergency Zone (officially I’m a 1st lieutenant and nobody finds that funnier than me), I could arrest him for being a complete dumbass.
Half of Powerteam thought that would be a good idea, so the dumbass backed down. He even slapped a patch on the hole we’d made in the church. Ozma couldn’t turn the wall of trees she’d made back into the smooth wood floor it had been, there was enough open space left that we could set up cots and dividers so everyone, capes, rescuees, crews, and engineers, could get some sleep.
The warm grass felt like the memory of a summer day, and the stars above shown as bright as they only could without air or light pollution to dim their glory. The snow of petals from the blooming cherry tree danced across the hill in the warm night breeze, and the silver fox beside me sighed contentedly as I stroked its ears. Together we watched the town below us burn and vanish.
I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling, still smelling cherry blossoms.
Nuts. Not again.