So, the edits of Wearing the Cape have been returned to me, and I’m going through them this week to prepare the final draft of the Wearing the Cape special edition (the above illustration will be on the cover, although the titling might be a bit different). The special edition will also include six illustrations provided by one of the excellent artists who contributed to the gamebook’s amazing look, so the result is going to be real pretty.
On other news, I haven’t been letting all the writing for the sourcebooks and other projects get in the way of working on Recursion, the next book in the Wearing the Cape series. So I just thought that I’d toss the first chapter of it up here tonight for you to get a first look at.
Marion G. Harmon
Second only to the Event itself, the Big One was the single biggest society-changing event in early 21st Century US history. Before the Big One, we’d been mostly trusting of our breakthroughs. Sure, there were some bad ones, but the good guys seemed totally up to the job of keeping them mostly in check. Then Temblor proved that all it took was one with the power in the right place to bring suffering and hardship to millions. After that, we looked at our breakthroughs different—even the good ones.
Astra, Notes from a Life.
My hands were shaking, an internal micro-tremor but I’d learned how to ride it. I left them folded, relaxed in my lap. It wouldn’t be obvious, and if I kept my breathing even and deep then it wouldn’t move up into my diaphragm and voice.
“And, how are you?” Dr. Mendel’s pen tapped a metronome beat on her notepad. She recorded our sessions, so I’d always supposed the pad was for insights or think about later stuff. Or a prop.
I smiled and nodded, making sure my head bobbed slowly instead of spastically, stepped down hard on a leg-jiggling rebellion in my right knee before she could see it, and kept from fiddling with the skirt of my black Astra uniform. “Things still ache a little when I move a lot.”
I’d healed fast. Just over a month since the Whittier Base Attack, with Chakra’s help I’d healed the millions of breaks and micro-fractures in my bones from using myself as a missile against Seif-al-Dinn. I hadn’t peed blood in weeks, and Dr. Beth had pronounced me fully recovered from all my organ and soft-tissue damage. It was still safer to talk about the physical stuff, admit to a weakness that wasn’t Dr. Mendel’s concern.
She looked interested anyway. “Can you be more descriptive?”
“It’s like when I push myself past my limits in my exercise program. Just, achy.” I wondered if this was what early-onset arthritis felt like—especially the ache that had decided to be concentrate in my left shoulder sometime list week. I hadn’t messed my shoulder up any more than the rest of me—was it psychosomatic? I wasn’t about to say that, and anyway all my tests had come back clean.
She nodded, made a note. “Does it hurt worse when you train?”
“No, it actually feels better.” It did, even when I took hits sparring. And I’d been doing a lot of that this past week, part of my game plan leading up to today. Breathe.
Her gaze drifted to the old-fashioned calendar she kept on her office wall. “It’s been three weeks since the state funeral, and you were on your feet for that. What’s your official physical readiness state?”
“I’m cleared for field duty.” She had to know that, it was certainly in my accessible file.
“So you’re just waiting on a clean psych-eval.”
My diaphragm clenched, but my nod was enough for her and I counted to relax. Her eyes dropped to my hands, and I realized I’d clenched them, too.
Tap, tap, tap. “And what are you afraid of?”
You. I couldn’t say that, either, even if my teeth were going to start rattling if I let the tremors climb my arms. I was heading for a 4.5 on the freak-out scale, it was just a question of when. “Clowns. They still scare me.” And why had my mind gone to that old shiver?
She smiled and made another note, shifted in her chair to uncross and re-cross her legs, settled in. “Dreams?”
“I’m getting a full night’s sleep.” I hadn’t had the fighting-in-Hell or the watching-my-own-funeral dreams in a week. I’d had both on rotation in the first nights after the state funeral, both woke me in cold shivering sweats, but the funeral dream was the worst—fighting in Hell wasn’t fun but at the funeral I got to watch how it hit my family.
Regardless, both had gone away. My sleep patterns had changed so fast I suspected Chakra was doing something without telling me. I wasn’t going to ask.
Dr. Mendell made another note in her book. “Then let’s talk about what’s going on with you, now.”
My nails bit my palms.
“So? Did you pass?”
Shelly floated beside me in the sky—when I’d checked out of the Dome I’d headed for the cloudline that hung low and heavy today, dropping more snow on the streets. Her t-shirt said Say No To Evil.
Half the time I had no idea what they meant.
“I think so.” I didn’t ask if she’d watched; it had been more than a month since she’d come back from the dead as my own personal quantum-ghost, and we’d worked out my privacy spaces.
Shelly only appeared “in the virtual flesh” when we were alone. I was trying hard enough to make everyone believe that I was okay—having my eyes track to someone who wasn’t there wouldn’t help at all. Thankfully, my oldest BF seemed content with being a voice in my head when we were in company. She also had “privacy protocols” that covered things like my appointment with Dr. Mendell.
Dr. Mendell didn’t know about Shelly.
Nobody did, other than me, Jacky, and Blackstone.
I mean, really, how did I explain it? Hey, you know my best friend who killed herself breakthrough-chasing our freshman year? She’s come back as a 22nd Century quantum-copy ghost in the machine. Only I can hear and see her, because of a neural link grown in my head by the Teatime Anarchist without me knowing. Yes, I took candy from a stranger.
I so wanted to tell at least my parents, but my BF had sworn me to secrecy even with them. I had no idea why, and my new BF couldn’t help with that. Jacky had disappeared just days after the funeral, and all Blackstone would really say was she was fine but taking care of DSA business. What the Department of Superhuman Affairs needed Artemis for, I had no idea either; only Blackstone’s repeated assurance that she wasn’t in any trouble kept me from obsessing over it in the moments when I wasn’t…
“And are you okay?” Shelly searched my face. Yeah, I was her obsession.
Worth it. “I think so.” I smiled, drew in a shaky breath. “Maybe?”
Shelly was so worth it, worth all the physical rehab, the shakes and the near panic-attacks. (They weren’t coming up in training, or even sparring, but they happened often enough that I was pretty sure I had a touch of PTSD.)
She gave me the eye, finally sighing dramatically. “Which is it? You think so, or maybe?”
“Yes? It’s not like before, Shell. I know I’ll live.” And I would. I forced my smile to be genuine. I didn’t have to pretend, really, except at certain moments. Even the Bees, my merry band of stalkers, had relaxed their Hope Watch a bit—and they knew the full story about me and Atlas. “So, is it quiet?”
“It’s pretty dead.” Shelly’d hacked into the Dispatch system in the first week—she’d had to so we could have these conversations while I was wired to Dispatch. She just edited my side of our conversations out of what Dispatch heard, and of course they couldn’t hear what she said through our quantum-neural link. “The South Side Guardians handled a bad accident this afternoon, routine stuff. Street-villain activity has been down all week, some kind of truce between the Brotherhood and Sanguinary Boys, no professional villains trying anything in town.”
“Okay.” Dead was good. Dr. Mendell had signed off, and though I wasn’t on the official duty roster until Blackstone did the same I was clear for outside activity. I could fly a few circuits, low enough that people saw me, and call it a night.
“Astra,” Dispatch said in my ear. “Confirm availability.”
Or not. “Dispatch, I confirm availability.” The regulation response rolled off my tongue as I watched Shelly’s eyes widen—obviously “reading” my orders.
“There is a reported superhuman homicide on South State Street and 27th, Dearborn Homes. Blackstone has approved you for Superhuman Crimes Liaison.”
My gut clenched, but I was already dropping through the falling snow. “Tell Blackstone I’m on it.”
SCL duty had been something mostly handled by John—Atlas—before. He could fly out to a reported superhuman crime scene, stand around with the detectives on-scene and look good for the press, and also be useful to the forensic investigators—super-duper senses were forensically handy, especially where superhuman crimes left non-standard traces.
At least that’s what I’d been told. I had no idea how useful I’d be, but I understood the “show the flag” part of it. Half of superheroing was appearances, and I was Anne Marie Corrigan’s daughter—I’d always known how important appearances were to doing good.
I could have touched down in under a minute, but I slowed as I came over the scene. There’d be civilians, twitchy officers, possibly news cameras, and landing fast and hard was never a good idea if you weren’t responding to a live incident. If you looked un-calm, you un-calmed those around you—Dealing With The Public 101, according to John and his brother Alex.
Calm. I could fake that. Shelly faded out as I landed with a “Good luck!” and two thumbs up. I touched grass outside the police perimeter, on the side of the park staked out by the press but not close enough for them to immediately engage me. The young officer closest waved me through, her breath puffing in the air as she called my name.
“Astra! Detective Fisher said you should go right over!”
The perimeter enclosed a stretch of grass in the center of the park. High winds over the past few days had cleared the turf of snow, and the police had erected a sort of tent to cover something against the thickening snowfall trying to bury it all again. I thanked the officer, took a breath, and headed over.
I caught the smell of it before I saw it, cooked and carbonized meat over the scent of snow, and my stomach twisted. A detective standing beside the tent waved me over.
“Detective Fisher.” He held out his hand and we shook.
“Astra. It’s nice to meet you.” I winced at the automatic and stupidly out of place response.
“Duh, like he doesn’t know you.” Okay, Shelly wasn’t good at staying out completely.
The detective’s mouth twitched. “Likewise. Wish it was better circumstances.” He held the covering up so I could duck inside, his lean height making it easy. Brushing snow off his rumpled suit, he followed me in.
I didn’t need the portable arc lights they’d set up under the tent to banish the shadows of the gray day. I carefully didn’t look at the lights, and breathed as shallowly as I could. Nobody else seemed bothered. Darn super-duper senses.
“About half an hour ago someone saw a flash in the park and reported it. Uniforms arrived to find this and covered it with a tarp from their cruiser before calling it in.”
This was a circle of scorched and baked ground, with a lump of something else fused into it. My nose told me the lump had been a person. Something had almost completely carbonized the body, with only a trace of oxygen-driven combustion to burn some of the flesh and fat for the revoltingly mouth-watering barbeque smell while turning the rest into a kind of vaguely man-shaped charcoal briquet.
“Now that’s just. . . ick.”
With the detective watching me, I opened my mouth before gulping and ducking back out of the tent.
Focusing on Chakra’s breath-control technique, I managed to not double over and vomit up my lunch and got the shaking under control before the tent flap rustled behind me.
“Do you need a minute?” He kept his voice low, though his long face showed more mordant humor than concern.
“I’m fine, thank you.” Another meaningless and out of place courtesy.
“No, you’re not. But nobody really is at a homicide scene. What did you see?”
It couldn’t have looked that bad to them—just a fused lump on the baked ground. “Smelled. I smelled it.” I inhaled deeply, focusing on the smell of snow. “Whatever did that cooked a bit of— Him? Her?”
“We don’t know, yet. Or age, either. Can you tell me anything?”
“I’ll try. What—how did nobody see more?”
“Look around.” He waved a hand.
Right. We were standing in the middle of the Dearborn projects, public housing towers on all sides. Things had gotten better here in the last few years as the city had made a major renovation and law-enforcement push in Dearborn Homes, but it was still gang turf and most residents wouldn’t talk to the police if they’d seen anything. From Blackstone’s briefings I knew the Brotherhood had a foothold here.
And hardly anyone would have been out on this gray cold day, anyway. Even now, with officers and cars on the grounds and a gaggle of press, only a few residents were showing themselves to watch the scene.
Most of them were watching me.
Sometimes it’s interesting to watch people watch me. I’m a little disappointing; for one thing I’m shorter than the actress playing me on Sentinels’ new season. I’m also not as pretty, but that’s normal—Megan once expressed her willingness to sleep with literally the entire show’s cast, guys too. She wasn’t serious, but I was pretty sure the actresses who played Chakra and The Harlequin really were on her Would-Do List.
Beside me Detective Fisher actually laughed, watching the media-gaggle. Just a little ha, under his breath, but his unconcerned amusement braced me; he was treating me like an adult, and not someone who needed special care. It was refreshing.
“Did anybody get shot?” I could smell a hint of gunpowder, too. Faint but sharp in the cold air.
“Nobody reported anything.”
“Wait.” I sniffed, made myself ignore the barbeque smell. There… I took a few steps, remembered every police-procedural show I’d ever seen, and elevated myself to float along, feet carefully off the ground. Behind me the detective grunted approvingly as I sniffed again, looking around. With all the blowing snow, they’d have focused on covering the body and obvious ground zero, wouldn’t have searched the frozen ground. And there it was. “Right here, detective.”
Detective Fisher stepped over to look. “I’ll be damned. Hey! Send somebody out here with a bag!” At his yell a uniform crime scene tech poked his head out of the tent, trotted over to follow orders. “Good work, kid.”
“Just call me Old Yeller.” Wow, I’d been useful.
“Can you smell anything else? Want to look around? The news team probably has all the pictures they need, but…”
“Sure.” I made myself nod. “That’s why I’m here.” I looked around. How could I quarter the ground and not miss anything?
The detective read my mind. “Walk with me—well, bob along and look down. With the frozen ground and the wind, you’re not likely to find anything, but we’ll do a couple of circuits and then it’s coffee and donut time.”
“I think that went well,” Blackstone greeted me in Dispatch. He’d probably watched on live feed from the police cameras, and his smile was real as he gave me the nod. “What did your friend have to say about it?”
“Shelly kept the comments to a minimum.” I left it at that, knowing without looking that I had the covert attention of the Dispatch stations around us. Official first-day-back, I was very much an unknown quantity to everyone. To me, too.
So far, Blackstone was the only one besides Jacky I’d told about Shelly. After wrapping his head around the idea of a 22nd Century quantum-ghost cybernetically linked to my cortex, courtesy of the Teatime Anarchist, he’d asked me to keep it quiet while he investigated some possibilities. I had no idea what he was thinking or doing about it, and was kind of afraid to ask.
There were a lot of things I wasn’t asking.
He nodded again when I didn’t elaborate. “Good. I have an idea of what she can do with us. How would she feel about becoming your official Dispatch wingman?” His smile widened and his eyes twinkled, like he was contemplating some new grand illusion or bit of sleight-of-hand. “Please tell her I’d like to speak with her tonight.”
All I could do was blink. “I’m sure she just heard?”
“Splendid. Then let’s go downstairs, shall we? Our new teammates have arrived, and you remember what an event we turn welcoming meetings into.” The twinkle stayed in his eyes as he waved me forward. The magician had something up his sleeve.
I followed. I’d learned that the Sentinels ran on meetings. The morning Day Briefing. The after-action briefings. The media briefings. The intelligence briefings. Only major ones took more than twenty minutes, the way Blackstone ran them, but he assigned homework and prep work and only training took up more of my time. This would be the first welcoming meeting since we’d brought Jacky on, and that one had been a bit informal since she’d fought right beside us already.
“So, who are they?” I really hadn’t been paying attention to Blackstone’s vetting process, focused on keeping my head down and fighting through the black clouds that had just seemed to choke me until a week ago.
Blackstone held the elevator door for me. “That would be telling.”
I rolled my eyes. “Then don’t tell. It’s not like it’ll be an invisible white rabbit or something.”
He chuckled. “No, I couldn’t get Harvey. You remain the only one on the team with an invisible friend.”
“Shell!” I burst out laughing. Shelly had appeared beside Blackstone wearing a coat-and-tails tux like his and a pair of long twitching bunny ears. He smiled indulgently, eyes following mine and understanding without seeing.
“I’m glad she’s here.”
Which was still a wonder and a relief to me, considering the security implications he had to deal with. The doors opened and Shelly faded out, starting from the feet up until her ears vanished. Laconic Bob waved us past his desk. Always the gentleman, Blackstone let me precede him into the Assembly Room, where we were obviously the last ones to arrive.
The room was a lot fuller than it had been since Whittier Base.
Chakra sat beside Blackstone’s empty seat, the seat on the other side—the one that had been Atlas’s—being occupied by an Asian woman in a dark leather bodysuit. The Harlequin and Rush sat in their usual spots. Rush had gotten back a couple of weeks ago, with a new hand and full clearance by the DSA of his involvement with the Dark Anarchist; outside of our circle and Veritas’ investigating team, nobody knew about his getting recruited by DA’s network.
I still found it hard to forgive him. Blackstone had assured me Rush had been a patsy, recruited by Euphoria and thinking he’d been on the side of the angels, but his grabbing the Teatime Anarchist had led to my capture and brief torture—and me killing twice, up close and bloody. I could still feel the crunch of Volt’s chest caving in under my punch, see the life leave his face, though that image had faded into sepia like a lot of the horror of those January days. Again, since last week. I really was going to have to ask Chakra what she’d done for me. Would it last, or was it the psychic equivalent of anti-depressants? A band-aid for now?
I shook it off. The rest of the recently empty seats were filled, too. There was a guy in black-and-gold spandex I didn’t recognize, but Riptide sat beside him, looking uncomfortable in a new leather coat. He gave me a twisty smile and I waved back, glad to see him. Across the table a long, lean man in a rumpled lab coat with ratty black locks slumped in his chair, eyes on his epad and not really paying attention to the room. Beside him sat—
“Seven!” I darted for the empty chair beside him. Stopped before I pulled it out, realizing I was being rude. I’d ignored the girl—young woman actually—who’d be on my other side. I’d guess she was twenty? Not much older than that. A redhead like Shelly but at least half-Asian, she looked up at me with bright almond eyes, smiling as I hesitated.
“Hi, Astra. I’m glad to finally meet you.”
“Oh—thank you. And you, too.” I sat down inclined towards her, shook her hand. “I’d ask, but I think Blackstone wants to introduce everyone?” What was her smell? I still had the crime scene in my sense-memory, but whatever musk she was wearing, subtle enough I was sure no one without super-duper senses was smelling it, was chasing that memory out. It wasn’t a perfume, and oddly, it made me relax.
“Thank you for waiting, everyone.” Blackstone took his own seat and began. “I see that Willis kept everyone topped up.” An arm from my left silently deposited a porcelain cup on its saucer beside my hand and I looked up to smile thanks at the Dome’s major-domo as the heavenly smell of his coffee filled my nose. I turned my attention back to the head of the table as Blackstone looked at each of us in passing. “This is an important day for the team. Astra has at last been cleared for field duty, and has already had her first turn with assisting Superhuman Crimes. She acquitted herself admirably.” He stopped for the applause while I flushed. I hadn’t lost my lunch. Yay.
“She fills a hole in our patrol roster, as well. Additionally, as you can all see we are filling some other holes today.” His smile slipped into seriousness. “As always, we can never truly replace our losses, but we fill our ranks and continue on. So. Most of you know each other, but I’ll do the introductions like a proper host. Beside me—” he nodded to the Asian woman on his left “—you see Lei Zi. Her name means Mother of Storms in Chinese, and I’m told is mythically appropriate. She is an A Class Electrokinetic, which provides us with more firepower, and more importantly, she has come to be the team’s new field leader. I know she’ll impress us all with her experience and professionalism.”
The smile she returned and then directed to the rest of the table was cool but open. “Thank you.”
“All of us old hands know Seven,” Blackstone nodded across the table. “He’s decided to take a break from making movies on the coast to bring the team his luck. And Riptide—” he turned to the now ex-street villain “—has completed his CAI certification sufficiently to join our ranks. I’m sure we’ll find his hydro-powers very useful here by the Great Lakes.”
I gave the bald and tattooed man a wide smile. If I’d been Shelly I’d have winked at him, but I at least caught his eye and he smiled back, sitting a bit less stiffly.
“Riptide,” Blackstone addressed him directly, “I’m throwing you upon Quin’s mercies for the next little while. Team training is important, but she’s going to be doing a full PR job on you. A lot of that will be reminding people that you stood with us, when everything went bad. You’ve been on our team since L.A.” The man relaxed even more, nodding back.
“Beside him, we have Variforce.” Blackstone turned his attention to the trim man in the black-and-gold spandex. “Veriforce is an A Class forcefield manipulator, come to us from the US Marshals Service. We have had some high-impact fights in civilian environments in the recent past, and Variforce will strengthen our ability to protect bystanders in the future.”
I eyed him. He looked as cool and professional as Lei Zi, and thinking about the damage to the zone trading shots and blows had inflicted in the Whittier Attack, I had to wonder why he hadn’t been on the team already. Maybe we were still learning what we really needed? Blackstone continued, recapturing my attention.
“We have also been lucky to acquire the services and residency of Vulcan.”
Under our focused attention, the guy in the lab coat looked up from his pad. “Hello.”
“Vulcan is an A Class Verne-Type, who specializes in fabricating anything material. He supplied Rush with his new cybernetic hand, and we’ve bribed him with facilities here and the opportunity to tackle interesting challenges and examine any ‘prizes’ we find on other Vernes we may need to deal with.”
A laugh went around the table, but Vulcan’s attention had already dropped back to his pad.
“And last, but certainly not least, we have a loaner from the Japanese government. An exchange-hero, if you will. This is Kitsune, a shapeshifter and a scamp.”
A shapeshifter? I blinked. Everyone else was bringing field strength or logistics support to the team, so what would a shapeshifter be doing with us? I could see the thought on a couple of other faces around the table.
“What does ‘Kitsune’ mean,” Rush asked.
She smiled at everyone, placing her hands on the table. “Kitsune means fox spirit.” And in a blink a fox sat on the table in front of her chair. A large white fox with seven tails. “And I think you’ll find I’m useful.”