“This is taking forever!”
That’s Shell inside my head. I’ve overrun my self-imposed writer deadlines before, but never like this. I find myself constantly apologizing to her (again in my head, because out loud would be weird), and to all of you patiently (or impatiently) waiting. I haven’t put up a blog-post since July because I kept telling myself I was about to hit that part of writing where the major issues of the new story have been ironed out, the sailing is smooth, the winds at my back, and completion is just weeks away.
In other words, I wanted to put it off until I had great news.
Well, now I’ve got great news.
Completion is just weeks away. Possibly as few as two.
So, why has it taken so long this year to get my once-a-year Astra story finished?
Some of the big factors are personal, but the two professional factors are 1) the book’s POV-shift, and 2) the direction Astra’s story is going. First, I had written all of the previous books (except chapters of Team-Ups and Crossovers) in tight First Person POV. That is to say, the stories are told by Astra, as her own lived experience. This makes for a comparatively simple story, relatively easy to handle plot-wise. Young Sentinels was written First Person POV from multiple POVs (Astra, Grendel, Megaton), and it took a bit longer. I should have remembered that. Repercussions is written in Third Person limited POV. While Astra’s remains the principle POV, just about every other major character and quite a few minor characters have their own scenes. Why? I wanted to try and widen the perspective on events significantly beyond just Astra’s pair of eyes. I like the way it’s turned out, but I’ve been essentially learning a new writing style as I go. Mastering new styles is hard.
As to the events themselves!
I’ve “hinted” at big changes. That’s not a tease; from the beginning I’ve had plans for both Astra and the Post-Event World. Pursuing those plans, I intentionally set each story from 3 to 6 months apart, with things happening between the action. Rather than a string of superhero stories that can stand alone and don’t really affect the MC (Astra) much, I’ve pushed her story along from 18-year old newbie sidekick to 21-year old veteran team leader. I’ve introduced dozens of characters, groups, etc., enough to need glossaries; don’t worry, there will be one with Repercussions.
Well, you can consider Wearing the Cape 1-8 as Stage I; Repercussions ends some things and begins some things. It is a game-changer, thus the name. And that’s scary. I’ve been struggling to get some things into the story that need to be there. I hope everyone appreciates the directions that things take, but I know some of you won’t. I may lose some readers. I hope that most of you decide that the wait has been worth it.
So, to recap: Repercussions will be out soon, and much will change. With publication just weeks away, I’m going to break with my plans and start you off now. So here’s all of Chapter 2–not the final-final-final-polish draft, but absent only the last grammar-punctuation editing pass. Call it the ARC (Advance Reader Copy). Enjoy.
Repercussions Chapter Two
Ann-Marie Corrigan, aka Astra’s Mother and she often whimsically considered putting that on her business cards, looked up from her quarterly Foundation financial report. Across the desk Susan twitched, glancing out the window. “Ma’am?”
“I felt it, Susan.” Something had shaken the building. Had she heard something?
“You can’t go in there!” Her thick office door didn’t block out her office admin’s yell before it opened and Shelly poked her head in.
“Well he’s new,” she said. “Hi, Susan, Mrs. C. We need to go right now.”
Ann-Marie stood even as she hit the panic button on her watch. “You’re not Shelly.”
“No, Shelly’s in Littleton, and I’m not one of Shell’s Galatea-shells either but you know that ’cause all of them look older than this! I looked like this just a minute ago.” She snapped the fingers of her hand not holding a business case and grew a foot to become the tall and rather handsome black accountant who’d moved into the private office down the hall. “Wearing Shelly got me past your front receptionist.”
Ann-Marie blinked. “Kitsune?”
“Got it in one Mrs. C. The Dome’s gone silent and something’s happening outside, so right this way and bring everyone with you.”
“Wait. Show me, first.”
The man sighed, set down the case, and shrank to a large white fox with seven bushy tails spread out like a peacock’s fan. Winking at an open-mouthed Susan, he returned to his accountant shape. “Ahem. Please, follow me.”
“Come along, Susan.” If he wasn’t Kitsune, Hope’s team could follow her watch. “Everyone!” she shouted, stepping out of her office. “We’re leaving and following Mr. Daniels! Leave everything and move!” Heads poked out of open offices and she counted as her people scrambled. Four, five, seven, Frederica’s out sick today. . . Headcount met, she matched action to words by stepping along close behind her daughter’s secret husband, heels clicking on the tiled floor.
The whole office lined up behind him like little chicks, Kitsune led them down the hall to the emergency stairwell doors and stopped. “I’m going first, ma’am, please keep everyone behind you and stay one floor above me. If anything starts with me, take everyone off the stairs on your floor and head for the other stairwell. If you hear anything above you, use your judgement.” He didn’t wait for her answer before pushing the door open and heading down. She scrambled to catch up, considering losing her two-inch heels.
Starting twenty floors above the street, they’d only gone down five when the fire alarms went off. Kitsune sped up and they followed until, gasping and short of breath, she heard the echoing clang of the street exit onto Jackson—and the pop! pop! pop! of unmistakable gunfire. Everyone on the stairs piled up behind her before Kitsune called for them to hurry.
He stood in the open exit, using the solid metal door to shield himself. “Something’s coming up the street,” he said, looking far too calm, “but it looks like the building’s on fire and you’re not staying.” Reaching into his briefcase, he extracted a pistol and passed it to her. “Whoever’s coming hasn’t crossed State Street yet, so I want you to head for the Dome.” He gave her a reassuring smile. “Please hurry, I’ll follow as soon as I can. I know you know how to use this, don’t let anyone slow you down.”
Heart thundering in her chest, Ann-Marie checked the gun’s safety. “Let’s go everybody. To the Dome.” Leading the way out and down the street, staying close to the building, she stopped to send everyone ahead as she counted them one last time. Kitsune nodded to her, briefcase on the pavement and a new, strange gun in his hand. Then he was Shelly. “I’ll catch up, Mrs. C! Go.” Climbing onto the roof of a blocked taxi, she fired a shot down the street, a snapping beam of light that hurt Ann-Marie’s eyes. Ejecting a glowing cartridge from the gun, the girl reloaded and jumped down to head west through the stalled traffic and fleeing pedestrians.
As a new ripple-fire of shots echoed down the canyons of the Loop, Ann-Marie turned and ran.
Detective Max Fisher saw the truck only because he’d stepped into the 1st Precinct’s vehicle park to sneak a vape. Dragging vaporized nicotine deep into his lungs and shivering in the chill morning air, he watched it stop directly in front of the gates, angled so its long body blocked entry. When the driver jumped out and sprinted away, Fisher barely had time for “Oh shi—” before the hammering blast ended his world.
His world started up again with shockwaves still bouncing off the brick wall behind him as glass rained down. “—it!” Since he couldn’t see anything but metal in front of him the explosion must have bounced his broken corpse off the wall and down behind the dumpster and despite the barrier he curled into a fetal position—an instinctive but useless reaction as more blasts ripped through the vehicle park, gas tanks ruptured or cooking off in the fireball, killing him a second time.
“Shit!” Back again he rolled fast, ignoring the shattered glass lying everywhere in favor of putting his burning clothes out. Fire hurt. Coming to his knees, he gave the destroyed vehicle park a single sweep and decided nobody but him was walking away from there.
Pulling himself up, Max ducked for the blast-scorched doors. The warped left door refused to cooperate, but he managed to force the right door open. Inside emergency lights cut the darkness into manageable pools, but people were actually moving. Moving, shouting, crying, calling out to each other too loudly, half-deafened by the blast and stunned by the overpressure shockwave that had blown the windows inward. The fire alarm’s spiking wail didn’t help either. Heading down the hall and through the detective’s room to his desk, he almost tripped over Jenny. “Kid! Are you alright?”
“Fisher?” She climbed to her feet to lean on his desk. “What—what’s happened?”
“Truck bomb outside the lot. Big one.” He opened a drawer and pulled out a fresh shirt, shrugging off the shredded rags hanging on him. “Help me look for people this side of the building.”
“Nobody’s answering. Not dispatch, not 911.”
“Nobody—” Pulling out his cell—miraculously whole as he was—he tried himself. Busy signals? What the fu—
“It’s a TDS—telephony-denial-of-service,” Jennifer explained, still sounding stunned but damn if she wasn’t sighting in on what mattered. “A systems attack.”
“Gotcha. Arm up.” Fisher opened his upper drawer and pulled out his backup piece and spare clips, slipped the clips in his pockets and strapped the backup to his ankle. As an afterthought he checked his primary. It had come through everything okay, and he nodded. “Let’s go. Head for the front.” If someone was assaulting the precinct, they wouldn’t come in through the burning hell they’d made of the back.
They wove through the halls, guns out but down and not answering questions. The lobby, brighter with all its windows, had filled with shaken but alert troopers getting shouted at by the desk sergeant. And no signs of action, impending or otherwise. Fisher tried his cell again. Still nothing. “Jenny, doors.” She nodded and they headed for the glass entryway doors, stepping sideways like they were moving into a potential hot-zone. Sergeant Acharya took note and started shouting again for attention. Uniforms turned to see, came up behind them as he and Jenny went through the doors and turned to cover opposite zones.
Feet in the street, confusion, no visible threat. Okay. Fisher stepped back inside. “Where’s the captain?”
“Michigan Avenue!” Acharya told him. “They’re not answering!”
“Right. Send a car, tell them somebody parked a truck bomb out back. Help everyone we can, but get everyone able armed up. With the TDS, this is more than just a bomb attack.”
“You think this is— Damn.” She started pointing and yelling instructions, and Fisher waved to Jenny and headed back outside to find a ride of his own. “Kennedy!” He grabbed the patrolman closest. “Are you parked on the street?” The kid pointed with his thumb. “Great. My wheels were out back, so let’s go.”
“North. Downtown. This is probably bigger than here. We’re sending a unit south, so we’re going to look north.”
Kennedy lit his siren as they pulled out, weaving between cars that had stopped in the street as stunned Chicagoans stopped to watch the smoke and flames from the back of the building. “Look!” Jenny pointed south as they hit the intersection. A pillar of smoke rose into the sky south of them too, the direction of headquarters. Kennedy swerved to skid them into a right turn.
“No!” Fisher shouted. “There are plenty of us down there. There!” Turning their heads to look behind, Kennedy and Jenny saw what he saw—a third cloud rising from somewhere in the Loop. Kennedy swore and pulled a U-turn, bouncing over the curb as they turned into the northbound lanes.
They didn’t make it past Roosevelt. Traffic ahead stood at full stop, and as Fisher stepped out of the car the ratcheting sound of automatic fire echoed down the street.
“Kennedy, get you and Jenny back to the precinct. Tell everyone the fight’s here.”
“Move it, Jen. I’ll be here when you all move up.” He slammed the door and headed north between stopped cars, scanning the sky. Where are the capes? “Go south!” He yelled at everybody close. “Go south!”
A lightning-storm erupted between towers up the Loop. There they are.
“Forget about the fires!” Lei-Zi yelled. The dispatch network was still down, leaving them with just the emergency open channel and no real time intelligence. In electro-static hover over the Magnificent Mile, she discharged another arcing sweep of lightning at the arson-drones still in the air. Too many had found targets, and rooftop fires blossomed around her. “We can evacuate the towers if we can secure the streets!”
Below her, Watchman swept through a concentration of attackers, whatever they were—Infantry-armed green zombies, wŏ de mā!—and took a hit from a round that threw him into the building. “Rush! Work on the launchers! They’re targeting flyers!” Heavily armored and low-slung gun platforms, basically mini-tanks—she’d never seen anything like them.
Rush’s red blur bounced off one and it blew up. A second went up, a third as the speedster emptied his arsenal of limpet-charges, sticking them to the thing’s vulnerable points. “Moreofthese mushrooms arecomingupJackson!” The zombies ignored the fireballs even as the blasts lit a squad or two of them on fire. Lei Zi surveyed the zone.
“Open a way into the park and keep it open this time! Evac through the park!”
Waterspouts erupted as Riptide popped hydrants like bottle tops to make water cannons, sweeping zombie clusters away as Variforce kept zombie and mushroom-tank fire off both of them with his layered fields. The zombies laid full-auto fire on any visible targets, spending ammo like it was infinite, but the mushrooms were more selective with their heavy shots. They couldn’t touch The Harlequin as she bounced between and through zombie clusters, the concentrated zombie-fire she attracted bouncing off her rubberized body. Explosions further west rattled tower windows and Lei Zi swore again. How many assaults were they facing? “Rush! Check west! Tell me what’s out there!”
“Where’re the goddamned Sentinels?” Jack Frost ducked around the edge of the burning car to touch concrete and send more sheets of snot-slick hoarfrost down the street towards the oncoming mold-covered zombie soldiers. The ugly things had mostly run out of ammo, but were still silently coming on and they completely freaked him out.
K-Strike stood in the open, away from where Jack had taken shelter. He’d drawn most of the zombies’ fire, his k-field stealing the kinetic energy from the bullets before they could touch him. He’d blown through his own ammunition pouches of steel bearings, and now he swept up another handful of the spent rounds lying all around him, throwing them back with power-imparted velocity. “You see the smoke over the Loop? They’ve got their hands full!”
The zombies pretty much ignored the return fire—one went down when a round shattered its knee—but K-Strike kept them focused on him as they advanced, slipping and sliding on the ice-covered street. SaFire landed on another of the freaking mini-tanks, crushing its gun barrel. Damn if she wasn’t kicking the crap out of those things.
Jack nearly wet himself when pop-pop-pops of semiauto-fire started up behind them. Unhit, he twisted to see a squad of uniforms moving between cars towards their position. They advanced under good fire-control discipline, behind shields and targeting the closest zombies. Yes! We’ve got them now! Even normal people had a hard enough time staying upright when Jack frosted a street; the puke-ugly things in front of them weren’t zombie movie shamblers, but hits from high-velocity rounds and shotgun slugs knocked them down to pile up the ones coming behind them. Jack grinned savagely. We’ve got this! We’ve got—
Then the car bombs spaced up and down the street blew.
Lei-Zi saw the explosions and then Rush was shouting in her earbud. “CarbombstheWestSideGuardiansaredown! K-Strikeout—SaFireinjured theothers fallingback.”
“Check every car in our battlespace!”
“Done!” Red spray-painted X’s appeared on five cars below her along Jackson, down the middle of the zone.
“Turtle! Turtle now!” Lei Zi gave everyone two breaths, then walked her lightning strikes from car to car. Four of them blew like vehicles hit by megajoules of electricity, one of them like a bomb, taking out a zombie swarm and shattering windows on both sides of the street. “The zombies are thinning! Take them down! Clear the buildings!”
The whirlwind vortex of Travel Dust cleared, leaving them freefalling high in Chicago’s sky and Hope got her first look at the city. Dear sweet mother of God! Fires burning across the city, the biggest of them leaping from tower rooftops in the Loop. At least the Dome looks intact.
“Shell? Shell?” Still no answer in her head, but then she hadn’t really expected one. She whispered a quick prayer of thanks for her inspiration to ask Ozma, after their trip to Japan, to provide Changing Rings for every Young Sentinel if she could; now their team transformation had shaved who knew how many minutes off their arm-and-respond time.
Over the wind of their fall came the weird slapping sound of Kindrake’s mini-drakes merging to make one big rainbow dragon below her, its wings biting air as it rose beneath Kindrake, Ozma, and Crash. Hope released her grip on Ozma’s hand as the three settled in, keeping her reciprocal grip on Grendel as Megaton lit off to jet away from them and circle downward. Artemis just let go of Megaton to freefall alone; with Ozma’s enchantments on her hooded uniform, she could dance into mist under the brightest sunlight.
“Com-check!” Hope shouted as she angled downward. “Ast—”
“Astra, report!” Lei-Zi’s response startled her into a wobble.
“Full team present, directly above the Dome and closing fast!”
“Open channel, Young Sentinels com-check!” came the reply. The team sounded off in coms order, all on the open channel, and Lei Zi fired orders. “Keep Jackson east of Michigan Avenue clear! Evacuate bystanders through the parks where Seven has overwatch! Multiple threats with standoff capability!” She described the mushrooms, what sounded like remote piloted mini-tanks, and Hope picked out the threats, throwing herself and Grendel at them.
“Megaton take the mini-tanks first, Kindrake drop east of Michigan and protect bystanders, Ozma provide cover! Go!” She matched her words by releasing Grendel at the bottom of her dive, dropping him onto the closest mini-tank as she flew on to smash into the next one up the street, flipping it over before climbing into a turn that took her through chemical-smelling smoke and down Jackson Boulevard, smashing through clusters of—zombies? What the hell?
Skidding off Variforce’s barriers, she cannonballed down the street and through more metal mushrooms. Pressure off the buildings on the north side of the boulevard, doors opened and a red blur passed her as Rush did a stop-and-go pass to hurry civilians out of the ground floors of the burning towers. A second blur joined him as Crash hit the street.
Please, please let Mom be in the park.
Feeling the absence of Shell’s running connections, updates, and virtual visuals of the action like an ache, Hope climbed for altitude and perspective on the fight.
Kindrake had landed behind them, her flock of flying lizards rising to sweep the sky over the park clear of drones, diving to deal with a few aggressive green zombies. The distinctive snap-snap of Artemis’ Vulcan-made guns echoed down the city canyon, and with Kindrake’s little friends and her new Vulcan-made dragon knight armor—and Seven’s added luck—they could protect Ozma from any physical threats long enough for the rest to get back if something broke through. Everything in hand for the moment, Hope dropped again to grab Grendel and loft him hard into the next cluster of green zombies, followed to come down on the closest mini-tank as its turret turned to track him and—
The wave of numbing cold felt so real she flashed back to her long-ago fight with Cryo. Spinning in air, she searched for the source even as her mind fought the dark weight crushing it. It’s not real. It’s not real! She wasn’t freezing solid, even as dread trapped her breath in her lungs and dimmed her sight. She barely saw the falling bulk above her that hammered her into the ground, barely felt the impact over the despairing fear that choked her.
Honed reflexes saved her, trained responses that made her move without thought. Rolling away while half-blindly swinging Malleus at whatever had smacked her down, she felt the shock of impact as one hundred pounds of titanium alloy rang off armor and mass. Thrown back by her hit, her attacker recovered and came on, faceless and monstrous in shiny black armor, swinging a massive sword Astra barely leaped over as it decapitated a lamppost.
Hope shook her head. Fight! Come on! Her target swept her desperate swing aside, rising to follow as she retreated for distance and she couldn’t think, could only feel the cold and the fear and hear voices rising in her head. “They glided past, they glided fast like travelers through a mist.”
Choking, she flew higher. “They mocked the moon in a rigadoon of delicate turn and twist.”
She barely got Malleus in front of her attacker’s swing, the impact forcing the battle-maul into her, throwing her helplessly back and through the windows of the office tower beside them. “With formal pace and loathsome grace the phantoms kept their tryst!” the words rang.
Stop! Shaking her head, she rose from the glass-strewn carpet and shattered office furniture, Malleus heavy in her grip. Stop! She barely saw her nemesis coming on like an aerial freight train.
“With mop and mow, we saw them go, slim shadows hand in hand.” The hit smashed her through flimsy interior walls and out into the open air again—had he really smacked her all the way through the building?
“About, about, in ghostly rout they trod a saraband, and the damned grotesques made arabesques, like wind upon the sand!”
Hope screamed, not caring that Malleus fell from her slackening grip as she turned her ballistic fall into a rising turn to strike back at the source of her fear as he cleared the building. Surprise let her come up under his weapon to wrap hands around his sword arm and drive her knee up into his armpit, his gargled scream a distant whisper in her ears.
“With the pirouettes of marionettes, they tripped on pointed tread”—a desperate twist to his slackened arm forced the huge sword from his hand—”with flutes of fear they filled the ear as their grisly masque they led”—his answering punch rang her skull—”and loud they sang and loud they sang they sang to wake the dead!”
The last thing Hope saw was an impossibly close sunrise behind the looming hulk that filled her darkening world, but the heat drove the cold away.
If you watch the Wearing the Cape Facebook page you’ll have seen the announcement of Team-Ups and Crossover’s audiobook pre-release! Huzza! Of course Tantor is contracted for the last two as well, including Repercussions when complete, so all of the current books but Bite Me: Big Easy Nights will be out on audio by the middle of next year.
Once Repercussions is out, I’m pushing hard to finish the last Kickstarter RPG project: The Archon Files. I hope to have that will be done by the end of November. I also hope to post here more.
Thank you for your patience.