So, first apologies. I am way behind on Small Town Heroes, for which I am very, very sorry. All I can say is a lot of things have been happening, but I have also let myself get distracted, and finally STH has undergone more serious plot-changes than any book so far. How serious? A title change is a good clue…
That said, I hope to still have the book out late this summer. It looks like 2014 is a one-book year.
Now, as to the cool art above, that is one sample of the work of an amazing artist I have had the good fortune to contract for the character art in Wearing the Cape: the Roleplaying Game. You can check out his stuff here and buy a print of this piece here.
Jamal has been a very lucky find, and I eagerly await seeing his vision of every one of the Sentinels.
More on the WtC: the RPG front, playtesting has proceeded apace and once I finish up Small Town Heroes I will be more than ready to do the second rulebook draft and solicit a new round of playtesters. I would like for some of these to be people who have never played a RPG before! To put it simply, a rulebook can often be understandable to a RPG veteran but make no sense to a newby who has never made up a character sheet or rolled dice with deadly intent. I want WtC: the RPG to be as destructively playtested as possible before it goes to printing.
And now by way of apology, here is chapter two; feel free to comment.
Small Town Heroes
Everybody dreams, unless something has happened to leave them with damaged parietal lobes. Some people never remember their dreams, and others are natural lucid dreamers, oneironauts. I’m a vivid dreamer with high recall, which sometimes creates more awkwardness than I need. But once upon a time, no matter how weird or embarrassingly blushworthy my dream life occasionally got, I could at least say it was All In My Head. Not anymore.
I hadn’t experienced a Kitsune dream since the end of the Villains Inc. mess, but last night’s had the same undreamlike quality, as crystal-clear as any waking memory. That made it Important, but the fox had snuck into my dreams just before morning light and I had stuff to do. I found a notebook and quickly wrote out everything I could remember, details like the eagle-in-a star design on the burning town’s water tower. After two minutes of tapping my pen and blanking on more details, I gulped down a couple of energy bars from my go-bag, washed them down with bottled water, and got moving.
The latest storm front had moved on, which made a morning flyover of my search grid easier. Not that I expected to find any more holdouts after this many days of flooding, but I hadn’t expected to meet the Carletons and Stewarts last night, either. With the rain past, the predawn gloom actually made it easier for my infrared sight to pick up on the glowing lights of body heat, but the only people I spotted in my area of responsibility were emergency crews who were supposed to be there. I waved.
“Good morning, Astra,” Blackstone greeted me through Dispatch. His power-set wasn’t really useful for this kind of emergency, so he’d remained at the Dome. “Shell tells me that Powerteam has decamped from Cairo. How do things look to you this fine day?”
I smiled but kept the laugh out of my voice as I reported in. Decamped was a polite way of putting it; I imagined that they got yanked out of Cairo so fast that they left a vacuum behind them. By the time we finished patching the hole the adrenalin of the fight had worn off, and Spinner had been too shaken by his experience as a fashion accessory to stay pissy at being ordered around (Ozma’s victims tended to find their memory of contentedly snuggling her head disturbing), but I hadn’t been interested in speaking with him beyond stuff like “Do it here” so I still had no idea why FEMA had even let them into the operation zone. Now my day was brighter just knowing I wouldn’t have to deal with them again.
“Can you give me a report of last night?” Blackstone asked when I finished.
Frowning, I looked for a place to land. Sure I could talk and fly at the same time (if I couldn’t, Shell would have gotten me killed long ago) but I was supposed to be flying a patrol and if I had to think then I might miss something. An abandoned and half-drowned farmhouse offered a convenient roof for me to touch down on, and I absently tucked my cape under me to sit.
“Sir? Is there a reason it can’t wait for the after-action report?” Something was obviously going on; team regs didn’t require a report until we’d stood down from the current emergency. His pause wasn’t reassuring.
“Humor an old man, my dear.”
Okay… I started with spotting the tiny glowing drake and kept the commentary out; Blackstone liked facts first, then impressions. He was silent when I finished and I watched the sun rise to throw a bar of gold across the water. Then he said the last thing I could have expected.
“Thank you, Astra. And now please return to Cairo. The Young Sentinels are being recalled.”
“That’s just bullshit!” Tsuris’ response was typical. Crash’s easygoing shrug was too. Blackstone had left the announcement to me, but Ozma didn’t seem too surprised. Grendel simply nodded—he didn’t talk much, but didn’t miss much either. Shell had stayed remarkably silent and out of sight.
“Blackstone didn’t say why, but with the levees secure FEMA can handle things with a quick drop-by from another assigned CAI team. Since over half our senior team strength is down here too, it’s a good idea for us to go home anyway. Regardless,” I shut down Tsuris with a glare, “our ride is on its way so we need to be lifting in fifteen.”
Blackstone hadn’t explained, just let me know our pickup was coming, and I didn’t ask Shell. Months of weekly packing drill meant that we had our kits and go-bags closed up and stowed on our field pallet before our ride had time to arrive and circle Cairo more than once. Crash, Grendel, and Ozma climbed on and clipped themselves down, and I attached myself to the lift harness and took us up and away. We climbed smoothly and with Tsuris flying alongside to stabilize the pallet, even the cargo plane’s turbulence didn’t rock us as we slid into the open bay. The loadmaster guided us in and I dropped us inside the painted yellow lines with barely a bump. Rush unclipped to lock the pallet down before the bay doors had even closed. The load-light went green, and we were safely in.
Touching down, I unhitched with another sigh.
“Kick back, everybody,” I said needlessly. We had nothing to do until we reached Chicago—then we’d reverse the drill and be home in the Dome. Heading forward to the passenger section, I took a seat and relaxed. Shell popped in to virtually take the seat beside me. She wasn’t smiling, and the levity of last night was gone.
“Do you want to hear what’s going on?”
Yes. “Can I do anything about it?”
“Then nope. Could you do something else?” My notebook was back in my go-bag, but she could access and replay the Teatime Anarchist’ implanted sensory-net package “download” of me writing in it if I gave her permission. I did and her eyes widened as she processed it.
“No freaking way! Kitsune’s back?”
“I don’t know.” I closed my eyes and leaned back. “It might have been just a dream. I really, really hope it was, but I’m going to ask Chakra to check me out.”
Shell went quiet for a minute.
“No agencies admit to catching up to him, at least the files I have legit access to don’t have a whisper. Do you think I should…” She made the offer tentatively, and I opened my eyes with a smile. The fact that she even asked approval to perform cyber hackery was serious progress.
“No. If he is back, then it’s up to Blackstone to tell us if there’s anything we need to know. But thanks.”
“So what do we do now?”
“Can you find the town? If it’s a real place, looking for that water tower might help you find it.”
“Did it look at all like a military base?”
I gave it serious consideration, shook my head. “But Midwest, maybe? The kind of place with one stoplight you find in the middle of hundreds of miles of cornfield? Not that I saw any corn, but it’s spring.”
“If the town burning—and disappearing—is happening now.” She laced the qualifying statement with doubt.
“Yeah…” I closed my eyes again. Last year’s Kitsune dreams—all two of them—had never been literal, but nothing as mundane as buildings had shown up in them, either. I wanted to shrug it off, but as different as it had been from the others, it still had that same realer-than-real clarity. And although I’d felt no sense of alarm while I’d been in the dream, a weight was growing, cold and heavy in my chest. Not quite panic but close, a growing gut-certainty of looming awfulness. What I’d seen was real.
With no more from me to go on, Shell faded out (she’d added a nice whispery sound effect and a feel like a puff of cool mist on my skin). Off to play the Ghost in the Machine, she’d shake the data-built foundations of cyberspace. If an image even remotely matching what I’d seen existed she’d find it.
Why did I know that wouldn’t be a good thing?
We could have landed at the airport, but doing a loaded drop was always good practice and the pallet had to come home anyway for repacking. We bailed out high over Chicago. With the load blocking my line of sight, Tsuris guided me down for a perfect insertion through the Dome’s bay doors where Shell welcomed us wearing her new Shellbot shell.
“Off the clock, everybody,” I said as Crash, Ozma, and Grendel unclipped. “Don’t leave the Dome. Five hours, then we inventory and repack the pallet and go-bags.” Some CAI teams let their staff pack their kits. Not ours, especially since Lei Zi had taken over as field leader—when we went away from Chicago we had to know that we had everything we needed.
Crash saluted and everybody else just nodded; we all knew the system. I stayed to watch the bay doors close above us, and Shell and I headed downstairs. She didn’t say anything in the elevator or the hallway, waiting for my apartment door to close behind us before she opened her mouth.
“You think?” I stripped off my mask and wig, running fingers through my much shorter and lighter-shaded bobbed hair. I kept stripping. The new costume bodysuit covered me from neck to toes in layered Vulcan-created fabric styled by Andrew. The new stuff wasn’t just enormously damage-resistant, it wicked sweat and oils away from my skin into its layers and shed dirt and field stains away like nobody’s business, but I still wanted a shower so bad I could taste it. Especially since I’d been in a fight and even been knocked out for a second. Dr. Beth was going to want to poke me.
Shell sat on my bed and watched, wincing at the bruises that came into sight. The twist of sympathy in her lips looked totally natural—Vulcan had done a great job again.
“How’s the new Shell-shell?” I asked before she could open her mouth.
She wiggled her new eyebrows, stuck out her tongue and curled it. “Feels real, and there’s no signal loss as long as I stay close to the Dome. The Galatea shell can go farther since it doesn’t require as much signal load to drive. I still couldn’t have gone with you guys.”
“I know, I’m useful riding along through Dispatch. It’s not like I’ll be risking myself with the Galatea shell.”
Shell didn’t remember almost dying in the last Green Man attack or the months since she’d completely downloaded herself into the last Galatea, but she’d learned from her downloaded self’s experiences anyway; she wasn’t going to expose herself to direct harm again. Not that I’d let her—she’d only won my approval the last time by lying to me, letting me believe that she’d been uploading a running backup of herself into memory. The future quantum-tech to Verne-tech interface hadn’t worked that way, and the first I’d known about that was when I’d almost lost her.
I had lost her in a way; the Shelly who’d downloaded herself, spent months as Shelly-Galatea, befriended Crash and fought beside me, was flesh-and-blood now and living with her mother in Springfield. The Shelly sitting cross-legged on my bed was Shelly 3.0 and she knew it. She insisted we all call her ‘Shell’, not just as a nickname anymore, and now she’d styled her hair as short as my own shoulder-length bob and colored it black as Artemis’ raven locks. She’d also “aged” herself a bit, and looked like her chronological age of 20 instead of the 16 years she’d experienced.
Shell and Shelly, one a quantum-ghost and wingman and the other a high school freshman who texted and video-chatted a lot. Neither talked about the other much. Shelly still hadn’t used the bio-seed she’d taken with her to establish a neural link with Shell and I didn’t know why.
Shell read my look and stuck out her tongue again, an attitude display instead of a demonstration of Vulcan’s craftsmanship. She hopped up and followed me into the bathroom.
“So, do you want to hear about Powerteam now?”
I turned on the water and stepped in, yelling over the heavenly waterfall-spray of five showerheads. “How are they even real?”
I could hear her snickering.
“Their reality show format is built on tryouts and training. Crisis Aid and Intervention Certification is the official reward for those who make the team, but it’s really an excuse for vicious competition in the selection phase and soap opera drama in their headquarters-slash-communal residence. They’re a parody of a real team, but they don’t have to answer to a city or county that pays their bills so they can get away with it.”
I lathered my hair, trying to wrap my mind around what that had to be like; just thinking about the awful dynamics made me slightly queasy. It had to be like getting out of bed and jumping into a ripe cesspool every day.
“Okay, so how did they end up here? In Cairo I mean.”
“They have to do something besides train and scripted bickering. Usually they pursue specifically vetted General Warrants, but they also handle emergency relief. They’re not bad at it. Last night…”
She trailed off, but I knew that tone.
“Shell? Who did you hack?”
“Just their studio files after the fight. They were hardly protected at all.”
I bent my head to rinse so I wouldn’t have to say anything.
“Spinner’s been team leader for two years and they’re forcing him to move on,” she said through the spray. “The studio broadly scripted an argument built on whatever excuse the team could find, and he was supposed to get in a fight with Slamazon and maybe Kindrake. It would be a ‘character turning’ inflexion point for him, he’d realize he was out of control, resign, go off to China to gaze at his navel and discover himself, maybe come back in a year or two to join a real CAI team or an older reality team. He didn’t want to go, but the producers are ready to just terminate his contract if he doesn’t follow the script.”
“The fight was planned?”
“Improvised with guidelines.”
“That’s just—” I couldn’t think of a word bad enough, at least not one I could say. I finished up fast and grabbed the towel Shell handed to me. Blackstone’s decision to pull us out this morning, fuzzy before, now made horrible sense.
“What’s the rush?” Shell asked as I toweled my hair hard, looking for clothes.
“Does Blackstone know what you know about the script?”
“Tell him. Tell him now.”