So this time I’m just four months behind schedule. Well that sucked. The good news: with a complete draft out to the beta-readers, the 7th book of the Wearing the Cape series should be out in electronic format within a couple of weeks and available in print a week or so after that. (BTW, the above isn’t the final cover; the artist redid the piece in a more realistic style I think everyone’s going to love.)
This also means that I will be able to return my full attention to completing the sourcebooks for the Wearing the Cape RPG project, hopefully finished in just another month or two. I’m sure many are looking forward to that as well. As an effort to earn your forgiveness, I’m going to put up excerpts here as the days go by so you can see what’s coming. And I’ll start with Chapter 1 through 5 of Recursion.
“The head of the FBI/DSA unit tasked with tracking Mirth has issued a statement confirming Mirth’s involvement in Tuesday’s supervillain heist. The First Bank of Chicago’s has not released a statement, but the take is estimated to be as least three million dollars. Mirth had previously been believed retired, with two years since his last reported heist. Like Mirth’s previous heists, the robbery of First Chicago was without fatalities, although one bank guard remains in intensive care. As always, anyone with any information that might lead to Mirth’s arrest is encouraged to call the FBI’s Chicago office hotline. The million-dollar reward offered for information leading to Mirth’s capture remains unclaimed.”
Chicago Daily News
My hands shook, an internal micro-tremor I’d learned to ride. I left them folded, relaxed in my lap where it wouldn’t be obvious. 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, 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.”
It was safer to talk about the physical stuff, admit to a weakness that wasn’t Dr. Mendel’s concern. And I wasn’t lying; I’d healed fast. It had been just over a month since the Whittier Base Attack, and 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.
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.” Especially the ache that had decided to concentrate in my left shoulder sometime last week. I hadn’t messed my shoulder up any more than the rest of me—was it psychosomatic? I wasn’t about to ask that, and anyway all my tests had come back clean.
She nodded, made a note. “Does it hurt worse when you train?”
Breathe. You can do this. “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, too, part of my new resolve and game plan leading up to today.
Dr. Mendel’s gaze drifted to the old-fashioned calendar she kept on the wall of the office she used when doing sessions in the Dome. “It’s been a month since the state funeral, and you were on your feet for that. What’s your official readiness state?”
“I’m physically 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 I’d been waiting for her to get to the point and counted to relax. Her eyes dropped to my hands, and I realized I’d clenched them, too. Drat. “Yes.”
She nodded, lips pursing, when I didn’t go on. 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 relaxed a little. A very little. “I’m getting a full night’s sleep again.” I hadn’t had the fighting-in-Hell or the watching-my-own-funeral dreams in a week. I’d had both on rotation after the state funeral, waking in shaking cold sweats, but the funeral dream was the worst. Fighting in Hell wasn’t fun, but at the funeral I had to watch how my death hit my family.
Regardless, both had gone away. My sleep patterns had changed so fast I was pretty sure Chakra had done something without telling me. I wasn’t going to ask.
She made another note in her book. “Then let’s talk about what’s going on with you, now. How are you handling the whole ‘Atlas affair’ media storm?”
My nails bit my palms.
“So? Did you pass?”
Shell floated beside me in the sky. Checking out of the Dome, I’d headed straight for the cloudline that hung low and heavy today, dropping more fluffy snow on the streets. Her shirt had changed again; this time it said Say No to Evil.
Half the time I had no idea what her t-shirt prose 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 mostly worked out my privacy spaces. Now she only appeared “in the virtual flesh” when we were alone—when you’re trying hard to make everyone believe that you’re okay; having your eyes track to someone who wasn’t there doesn’t help at all.
Dr. Mendel didn’t know about Shell. 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 origin-chasing our freshman year? She’s come back as a 22nd Century quantum-copy ghost. Only I can hear and see her, because of a neural link the Teatime Anarchist grew in my head without me knowing. Yes, I took candy from a stranger. Why do you ask?
“And are you okay?” I’d been quiet too long and now Shell searched my face. Yeah, I was her obsession.
But was I okay? Was I really ready for this, could I do it again?
“Yes.” I made the smile a real one, drew in a shaky breath. “Maybe?” A lot of that okay-ness was because of Shell. Through all the physical rehab, the shakes and the near panic-attacks, everyone had helped me put myself back together, but Shell had helped me survive. And now 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. My smile was genuine. I didn’t have to pretend anymore, really, except at certain moments. Even the Bees, my merry band of stalkers, had relaxed their Hope Watch a bit the last few days, and they knew the full story about me and Atlas. “So, is it quiet?”
“It’s pretty dead. 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 what’s left of the Brotherhood and Sanguinary Boys, no professional villains trying anything in town. Not a good time for it—everyone’s at a state of heightened readiness because, Mirth.”
“Okay.” Dead was good. Dr. Mendell had signed off, provisionally, and though I wasn’t on the official duty roster until Blackstone did the same I was clear for outside activities. I could fly a few circuits, low enough that people saw me, and call it a day.
“Astra,” Dispatch buzzed in my ear. “Confirm availability.”
Or not. “Dispatch, I confirm availability.” The regulation response rolled off my tongue as I watched Shell’s eyes widen—obviously “reading” my orders. Ready or not, here it comes. . .
“There is a reported superhuman homicide on South State Street and 27th, Dearborn Homes. Blackstone has approved you for Superhuman Crimes Liaison.”
I was already dropping through the falling snow. “Tell Blackstone I’m on it.”
SCL duty had been something mostly handled by Atlas—John—before. He could fly out to a reported superhuman crime scene, stand around with the detectives on-site and look good for the press, and be useful to the forensic investigators. I had no idea how useful I’d be, but I understood the “show the flag” part of it. 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 the people around you—Dealing with The Public 101.
Calm. I could fake that. Shell faded out as I descended, giving me a “Good luck!” and two thumbs up as I touched grass outside the police perimeter on the side of the park staked out by the press, close enough for them to get a good look but not fire questions.
The past few weeks had taught me to avoid the press without seeming to avoid them.
The young officer closest waved me past the yellow crime-scene tape, her breath puffing in the air as she called out. “Astra! Detective Fisher said you should go right over!”
The police perimeter enclosed a stretch of grass in the center of the park. High winds over the past few days had cleared the frozen turf of snow, and they’d erected a sort of tent to cover something against the thickening snowfall trying to bury it all again. I caught the smell of it before I saw it, cooked and carbonized meat overpowering the cold scent of snow, and my stomach twisted. A detective standing beside the tent beckoned me over.
“Detective Fisher.” He held out his hand and we shook.
“Astra. It’s nice to meet you.” I winced at my automatic and stupidly out of place response.
“Duh, like he doesn’t know you.” Okay, Shell wasn’t good at staying out completely.
The detective’s lips 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 lights they’d set up under the tent to banish the shadows of the gray day—in fact I carefully didn’t look at them. I also breathed as shallowly as I could. Nobody else seemed bothered by the smell. Darned super-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,” Shell whispered.
With the detective watching me, I opened my mouth before gulping and ducking back out of the tent.
Smooth, Hope. Real smooth. Focusing on Chakra’s breath-control technique, I managed to not double over and vomit up my lunch, getting the shakes 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. 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— Him? Her?”
“We don’t know, yet. Or age, either. Can you tell me anything?”
“What—how did nobody see what happened?”
“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—what was left of it—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 was fun to watch people watch me. I was a little disappointing in person. For one thing, I was shorter than the actress playing me on Sentinels’ new season, and not as pretty. That was normal—Megan once expressed her willingness to sleep with literally the entire show’s cast, guys too. She hadn’t been serious, but I was pretty sure the actresses who played Chakra and The Harlequin really were on her I’d Do Them list.
Watching the gaggle of media, Detective Fisher actually laughed. 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. After the past few weeks, 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 focused on covering the body and obvious ground zero but hadn’t 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 uniformed crime scene tech poked his head out of the tent, trotting 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 turf and the wind, you’re not likely to find anything else, but we’ll do a couple of circuits and then it’s coffee and donuts time.”
Blackstone greeted me in Dispatch, standing by David’s central manager’s station. He’d probably watched everything through my mask-cam.
“I think that went well.” He gave me a genuine smile and a stiff nod. Nearly six weeks after he’d almost died, even with Chakra helping his recovery he still did most things stiffly. “What did your friend have to say about it?”
“Shell 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. As for Shell . . .
After wrapping his head around the idea of a 22nd Century quantum-ghost cybernetically linked to my cortex, courtesy of the Teatime Anarchist, Blackstone had 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 questions I hadn’t been asking. I need a list.
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.”
I laughed. “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.
New members? When had that happened?
I’d learned last fall 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 beside us already.
“So, who are they?” I really hadn’t been paying attention to anything, focused on keeping my head down and fighting through the black cloud 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. She’d appeared beside him 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. Shell faded out when the doors opened, starting from the feet up until her ears vanished. Laconic Bob waved us past his desk and, always the gentleman, Blackstone let me precede him into the Assembly Room.
Blackstone and I were obviously the last ones to arrive, and the room held more of us than it had since Whittier Base.
Chakra sat beside Blackstone’s empty chair, and the chair on the other side—the one that had been Atlas’s—was taken 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, sporting a new Verne-tech prosthetic hand and fully cleared 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 assured me Rush had been recruited by Euphoria thinking he’d been on the side of the angels, but his grabbing the Teatime Anarchist had still led to my capture and brief torture—and to me killing two people, 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 antidepressants? A band-aid for now?)
I shook it off. The other recently empty seats were also occupied. Riptide sat on Rush’s right, looking uncomfortable in a new leather duster coat. He gave me a twisty smile and I waved back, happy to see him. Beside him a lean man in a badly creased lab coat, hair all ratty black locks, slumped in his seat. Eyes on his epad, he paid no attention to the room. Beside him sat—
“Seven!” I darted for the empty chair beside him and stopped before I pulled it out, realizing I’d just rudely ignored the girl—young woman really—who’d be on my other side. I guessed her to be twenty, or not much older than that. A redhead like Shell 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 and inclined towards her, shaking her hand. “I’d ask, but I think Blackstone wants to introduce everyone?” I tried to place her smell. I still had the crime scene in my sense-memory, but whatever musk she wore, subtle enough I was sure no one without super-duper senses could smell it, was chasing that memory out. It wasn’t a perfume I knew, and oddly, it made me relax.
Blackstone took his own seat and began. “Thank you for waiting, everyone, I see that Willis kept everybody 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 us all over. He smiled at what he saw.
“This is an important day for the team. Astra has at last been cleared for field duty, and has already taken her first turn with assisting Superhuman Crimes. She acquitted herself admirably.” He stopped for the applause while I blushed. So I hadn’t lost my lunch at the scene. Yay.
“She fills a hole in our shared patrol roster, and gives us added fast-response capability with our current ‘Mirth Watch’. Additionally, as you can all see we’re filling some other holes today.” His smile slipped into seriousness. “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 “—is Lei Zi. Her codename means Mother of Storms in Mandarin, 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 at him as a laugh went around 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 an even wider smile. If I’d been Shell I’d have given him a wink and thumbs-up, but I at least caught his eye and he smiled back, sitting a bit less stiffly. Riptide might look the total image of a street-tough villain who’d gotten prosperous enough to get fancy with his fashion, but I’d seen his soft gooey center in southern California and here; he’d do great with us.
“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 at Whittier Base. You’ve been on our team since L.A.” The man relaxed even more, nodding back. Score one for Blackstone.
“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 epad. “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.”
Another 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 as Blackstone smiled at the girl beside me. 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 I think you’ll find I’m very useful.” In a blink a fox sat on the table in front of her chair. A large white fox with seven tails.
“Holy crap,” Shell whispered in my ear.
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 smashed southern California, we’d been mostly trusting of our breakthroughs. Sure, there were bad ones, but the good guys seemed totally up to the job of keeping them in check. Then Temblor proved that all it took was one with the right power in the wrong place to bring suffering and hardship to millions. After that, we looked at our breakthroughs differently—even the good ones.
Astra, Notes from a Life.
“Seven’s fans are going to be shipping them as soon as they see her,” Shell laughed, virtually sprawled out on my sheets. “Not going to happen, Seven doesn’t play where he works.”
“He could get serious about her.” I stepped out of the bathroom, still toweling my hair dry in preparation for bed.
The meeting had ended without the one on one matches that had marked my own get-to-know-us welcome to the Sentinels. Obviously, Blackstone didn’t feel the need for the same lesson; the newcomers weren’t new, not to their powers. Instead he moved on to how Riptide would be coordinating with the Coast Guard and other action items, finishing before we could violate his twenty-minute rule. After that we got to enjoy the tasty spread Willis had prepared for the occasion.
I’d found myself in a conversational three-way with Seven and Kitsune. He’d exerted himself to charm both of us, and a charming Seven was pretty irresistible (his blond ex-boy band looks and sincere interest had certainly made me a bit weak kneed before I’d realized I was all-in for Atlas). Not as weak kneed as Seven’s old teammate Baldur had—his pure male perfection had caused a few near riots among female fans—but any girl Seven took a friendly interest in couldn’t help but warm under it.
Kitsune hadn’t. Not that she hadn’t noticed, or been insulted. She’d just been . . . amused, her gaze sliding to mine as she lightly flirted back at him.
Shell rolled over, frowning thoughtfully. She’d changed for bed already, following our evolving custom of treating the evening like our old sleepovers until it was time for me to turn out the lights. “Do you think so? He’s known for avoiding anything close to serious—they fall for him too easy, and then it gets messy.”
“Call me a romantic.” I ran fingers through my damp hair. I needed to get it cut soon, before it started getting awkward under my uniform wig.
“You—” she reached over her head to poke my bare leg and I felt it through my neural link, “—just think that everyone should be matched up. Like it’s unnatural not to be.”
“Hey!” I dropped to the bed. “Just because Dad and Mom make it hard to imagine anything else.”
“True, that.” She propped herself up on an elbow. “Your parents are such a team it’s scary.”
And they were. The slight crack in their unified front that my decision to wear the cape had created was long gone. Even the media revelation of my “affair” with Atlas hadn’t divided them, though if he’d survived . . .
We were going to be a team, too.
“Look at us,” Shell said when I didn’t respond. “Lying in bed talking about boys. Feels so high school.”
“So let’s talk about someone else.” I grabbed my pillow, beat it into shape. “What do you think of Rei?” Kitsune had offered that up as a non-codename name. No last name, which made me wonder if she was one of those breakthroughs who chose not just a superhero identity but a whole new civilian identity as well.
“Is she Rei?” Shell weirdly followed my thoughts. “Since she can go human-to-fox, is she even a she? She could be a big guy named Steve.”
I threw my spare pillow through her, groaned as she rolled her eyes.
“That was dumb,” she snarked. “Would have been a good head-shot, but still dumb. Just saying, that’s probably not her real face. If she keeps to the Japanese myths, she could be more a fox who pretends to be human. Gender optional, wouldn’t matter who she’d been before her breakthrough.”
“So what do you—” The Dispatch alarm shrilled and I fumbled for my earbud. Dispatch rattled my teeth the instant I switched it on. “Superhuman altercation, corner of Grand and Ashland! Go!”
“On it!” From somewhere I’d recently gotten the idea of speed-dressing drills. That meant laying out a complete outfit, ready and all unzipped, and I was dressed, zipped, and moving out in thirty seconds, tugging on my mask as I listened to the Dispatch brief.
“Superhuman of unknown class, tentative identification Projector-Type, in an altercation with a crowd of normals. 9-1-1 reports blows exchanged, shots fired.”
“Who’s on it?” I flew down the hall and through the Dispatch-opened exit hatch. The reason most of the doors in the Dome were Star Trek-style was to open the way for flyers and speedsters to exit quickly in response to a situation—the same principle as a firehouse’s firepole.
“Rush has been tasked with disarming any brandishing civilians or removing them from direct contact.”
“Confirmed, Rush and I have the scene.” I exited the outer hatch and climbed into the sky. That left me to deal with the projector. Throwing an Atlas or Ajax-Type at a projector of unknown character and strength was standard operating procedure—we could probably handle it. “Blackstone?”
“Yes, my dear?”
“Can Chakra engage the scene through me or Rush? Her presence may be helpful if the crowd flashes over into panic.”
“An excellent idea.” He sounded pleased and surprised. “You’ll also encounter SaFire. She’s on duty tonight.”
“SaFire on scene, understood.” So Dispatch was being cautious—SaFire was an Atlas-Type too, which meant she could handle most things as well as I could, but she was mostly trained as a medical first-responder. Also there was a significant difference between B and A Class when it came to the hits we could take.
The arc of my flight took me most of the way there while Blackstone talked and I dropped into the scene, whispering “Shell? Give me room?”
She popped in beside me, still in her sleep-shorts, smile wide and thumbs up. “No distractions, got it.” And she was gone.
I touched down on Grand, on a stretch of the street not in the best neighborhood. It looked like they’d opened the boarded-up building across the street from St. Columbkille’s for a rally. The closest streetlights were out, not that the dark hindered me—I could still read the event posters and gang tags on the lampposts. SaFire waited for me in the street, keeping her eyes on the building. Her purple hair and strappy neon purple-pink bodysuit didn’t go with the huge EMT bag slung over her shoulder.
“Hi, Astra.” She smiled at me though her forehead remained creased with concentration. “No shooting now, Rush just went in to recon—”
Standing closest, she caught Rush as he came crashing through the boarded-up business front windows. He turned in air, still speeding, so her catch was more of an easy hook as he flew by us.
“Slow down!” She let go of him. “What kind of force?”
I wanted to know, too. What could catch Rush while speeding?
He dropped fully into Realtime, flexing his taser gloves like he wanted a second try at someone. “Don’t know. He’s got everyone and everything pushed up against the meeting room walls. Folding chairs, the podium, all of it. I went for a quick takedown and hit whatever field he’s projecting.”
“It’s gravity,” Shell whispered in my ear. “Look at the windows.” Where the plyboards over the windows had been removed by Rush’s passing, the edges of dangling broken glass hung outward at an angle. “And Rush wasn’t hit by a one-shot burst of force that blew him through the window—he’d be in pieces. He fell. He was accelerating. We’re looking at a gravikinetic.”
I went cold and felt my palms start to sweat. “Sir,” I repeated for Blackstone. “I think we’re dealing with a gravikinetic! Strong enough to repel Rush. Sir, the building—”
“Understood. Can you see him?”
Good question, obviously for both me and SaFire. The streetlights weren’t the only lights out. It looked like a localized blackout now, with no light inside the old building, but my super-duper vision showed me a roomful of human shapes shining in the infrared end of the light spectrum. Along with one small spot of heat that lay away from everyone. I assumed that had to be a hot gun barrel. “Yes sir. Only one person is standing inside.” Beside me, SaFire nodded agreement.
“That’s him,” Rush confirmed. “There’s already people hurt in there—I could try and rush again, but . . .”
“You’d be trying to run straight up at him against a gravity field of possibly multiple gees, understood. Did he appear open to talking?”
“He was just yelling at everyone when I dropped in, boss.”
He still was, and it wasn’t pretty. This could go south fast. I swallowed. “Sir, I need to do a hard extraction. If the building . . .”
Buildings were built to stand against only one vector of gravity, down. The situation Rush described, and we could see, meant the gravikinetic was projecting an area-field with himself as the center. If down was suddenly all directions outward from him, and it got any stronger, walls were going to buckle and . . . the rules of engagement in a civilian environment echoed in my head. Do no escalate. Stop any escalation. Neutralize civilian risks as quickly as possible.
Blackstone’s hesitation didn’t last—he was probably seeing the same awful vision I was. “Go. Try and be gentle, but don’t sacrifice speed. Rush, SaFire, when she goes in—”
“Get everyone out, got it boss.” Rush grinned. “With you, Little A. Power and speed, fists and feet.”
“Right. Okay.” I took a steadying breath, tried to see what I could in the darkness behind my target, flew up and back to get some room, and accelerated.
From the broken windows to my target inside was less than thirty feet, and I barely felt the push of his field as I “tackled” him in a spinning grapple that put me ahead of him, still accelerating. My up-arcing flight took us across the open ground floor room and out through the back wall as my brain catalogued sensations for my notice only after they happened. Bones cracking under my hit, more breaking where I couldn’t completely shield him going through the wall. We climbed into the sky. “Stand down! Stand down!” I practically screamed in his ear, with absolutely no effect on his struggles.
“Shit, he’s on something,” Shell stated the obvious.
“No, really?” He had to be, to ignore the hits he’d just taken. Then he reversed his field and punched it hard, nearly tearing out of my grasp as his weight multiplied by a factor of at least ten and his screaming climbed to almost a whistling pitch.
“It’s killing him!” Shell’s panic matched mine as I dove for the ground to try and bleed off some of the relative gee-force crushing him against my hold. That wasn’t a solution for more than a couple seconds and I turned us into a curve as the ground rushed up. What could I do? If I let him go, he’d plummet to the ground at multi-gee speeds, if I held on then his own weight would kill him—he had to weigh hundreds of pounds under the gees he was putting on himself trying to get free of me and I had to stop him now.
Wrapping my left arm around his neck so the inside of my bent arm gave his throat space, I closed my hold like a vise on the sides of his neck and his carotid arteries. Hypoxia blacked him out in seconds and he went limp in my arms as I dropped us gently to the ground and released him.
“Rush! Sandman Patch!” I called without looking up. Rush smacked a patch onto the back of his neck in a blur, and then I spent a horrible moment making sure he resumed breathing as I got him fully horizontal with a little movement of his limbs and spine as I could. The sedative-load of the patch would keep him out and not killing himself in panic. If there were no bad drug interactions.
Rush stopped speeding. “What happened?”
I remembered to breathe for myself. “He’s on something. I broke him hitting him— The wall and he still— He fought me, he wouldn’t stop.” I got a little focus back, blinked. I hadn’t been paying any attention to our landing zone and now we were on a completely different street. “The building. Is everyone—”
Rush laughed. “You didn’t hear it go down? I got everybody out and we’re in rescue mode now. Come on!”
Nodding I stood, light-headed but shaking only a little as Rush disappeared in a blur. “Wagon ETA?” I queried, voice surprisingly steady. I could already hear the sirens.
“Minutes,” Blackstone confirmed. “Then you have permission to leave him and assist Rush and SaFire with civilian casualties. Good job.”
The ambulance arrived with the special CPD paddy wagon, freeing me to return to the scene of the action. Rush dropped emergency blankets and collapsible stretchers beside me when I dropped into the parking lot he’d pulled all the victims out to. SaFire worked with her bag full of gear, monitoring the ones she didn’t want moved until help and better tools arrived to keep them stable and move them more safely. We barely exchanged two words, even bent over the same bystanders as she checked their securing straps before I flew them away. Only two bystanders required fast-lift to waiting ERs, and then I was able to go more slowly with the rest. I didn’t realize I was still in what I called my mental Action Zone until I made my last airlift and flew back to the Dome.
Then the drop hit me. I’d broken a man. Badly. In the moment, with bodies already on the ground and the chance of the next second producing more, I hadn’t even thought about it. But fly-tackling a normal at my speed . . . I might as well have hit him with my car, and I’d known that. A lot of my training with Ajax had been learning how much force the not-invulnerable people around me could safely take.
But, sixty-two bystanders.
I barely noticed the walk from the flight bay to my rooms. Shell stayed quiet, and my only interaction with Blackstone was him telling me I’d been stood down and I could file my after-action report in the morning after we found out what it had all been about.
Not a great first day back.
“Everything that lives, dies, and there is no fairness in life. We know that, all of us, as soon as we know what death is. Faith is the belief that there is something more. That beyond death there is something else. Justice for the wicked. Forgiveness for the penitent. Love for the forsaken. Reunion with all our dead. This is not mere wishful thinking, but an instinct born in each of us. We know there must be something more. This is why the good news of God, when we understand it, strikes us so powerfully. Therefore, we cannot set our hearts against each other, for God has set His heart on us.”
I woke with an easy sigh, again from a sleep with no nightmares and not what I’d been expecting after yesterday. Better than that, this time my dream had been a memory of the memorial service we’d held at the Dome. Which should have been bad, but wasn’t. This time the smothering dark that rose to choke every memory of that day just wasn’t there, and without it my dream-self had focused on Father Nolan’s words. I didn’t remember anything after that little bit, but the rest of the night I’d felt . . . warm.
And I still did, especially the part of me that was my right thigh. I raised up on my elbows and looked down.
A very large, very warm seven tailed white fox slept nose-under-tails beside me, rumbling gently.
I poked her. “Oh my gosh, you are not Graymalkin. How did you get in here, anyway?”
Kitsune opened her eyes and yawned, stretched, and jumped down to exit the bedroom, her tails floating behind her like a short furry peacock’s fan. I heard my apartment door slide open and closed as she left my suite of rooms.
“Now that’s weird,” Shell said.
Giving a sharp shriek, I nearly levitated out of bed. She sat right by my pillow.
“How many times do I have to say it? Don’t pop in like that! Knock! Whistle! Put a freaking bell on!”
She just laughed. Today her t-shirt said So, that happened . . .
“Adrenaline for breakfast is good for you. Besides, if she didn’t just freak you out . . .”
I pushed my hair out of my eyes. “So, what was that?”
“Foxes are social animals. She doesn’t like sleeping alone?”
“Really? That’s what you’ve got?”
My cell chimed. Grabbing it up I read How R U? It was Megan.
I grinned, and texted back a smiley face with Your turn?
Don’t fight it, sister.
LOL. I’m okay. LTR.
My cell didn’t buzz, so I’d passed Megan’s morning check—there’d be no call. My grin stayed on, even when Shell cocked her eyebrow.
“You heard me. I’m okay. Later.”
“Maaaaybe,” she said slowly. “Look at the time.”
I did. “Shoot!” The mystery of my new sometimes-furry teammate had to wait; a quick check told me that I was on the Base Reserve Roster today, but I still dressed fast for the Day Briefing.
Regardless of our status on the day’s roster, Blackstone always had us attend the Day Briefing in costume—a redundant rule in my case since we often hosted visitors and I didn’t leave the Dome’s Residence Level without my mask. Today our visitors were Detective Fisher and a . . . Texas Ranger?
Kitsune arrived before I did, meeting my raised eyebrow with an unreadable smile before she turned back to her conversation with Quin. Distracted, I took a seat between Seven and Rush and studied Fisher’s partner instead. He sat easy but straight, his white cowboy hat set on the table in front of him, and even sitting down he looked long and lean, stretched out and weathered by the sun. His neatly creased tan button-down shirt was mostly hidden by a tailored body armor vest complete with shoulder guards with star-and-crescent crests on them. The detective slouched in his chair beside him, wearing the same rumpled suit I’d seen him in yesterday. Physically, they looked a lot alike; their sartorial choices and body language made them look like the hilariously mismatched pair in a buddy-cop movie.
Blackstone opened the meeting and caught us up on the details of last night; the event on Ashland had been a small late-night rally supporting the national post-Big One debate: the National Public Safety Act. The bill pushing total registration and monitoring of all breakthroughs and even “secure supervision” of marginal ones was gaining traction with a lot of people, and Humanity First members had been only about half the audience last night.
Not that everyone there had been there as a booster of the bill; our gravikinetic had gotten in a shouting match with the speaker, Debra Gardner, a local organizer who according to Blackstone liked to write long editorials about the “superhuman threat.” Things had gone south from there, and of course the whole thing was still under review.
Then Blackstone turned the meeting over to Lei Zi and she caught us up on the big event of the morning; we watched video of New York City’s SPAT—Superhuman Powers and Tactics—teams fighting a Godzilla that came out of the Atlantic just before their sunrise. They’d managed to stop it in Lower Manhattan, but its EMP field and plasma-jet had done a lot of damage, almost as much as the one that hit Tokyo two weeks ago. Godzillas. Really.
“Is plural for Godzilla godzillas, or godzilla?” Shell whispered in my ear. “You know, like sheep?”
I slapped a hand over my mouth before my bark of laughter could escape and mortally embarrass me. And she saw, darn it, I knew our new field leader saw. It so didn’t help. I was going to find a way to kill me a quantum-ghost.
Lei Zi ended her presentation with news that we would be doing close analysis of the Tokyo and New York attacks and work on tactics and drills to counter any Godzilla that waded ashore in the Great Lakes. Then Blackstone took back the meeting to introduce the ranger.
“I’m sure you’ll welcome Agent Elijah Quinn, codename Ambrosius. Ambrosius is with the Texas Department of Safety Superhuman Response Division. That’s a mouthful, so the Texas media just calls them the White Hats. Ambrosius joins us to assist with Detective Fisher’s case. Agent?”
Ambrosius stood up. He went a long way up.
“Thank you, sir. Everyone. Call me Eli if you don’t want to use the media-moniker.” He nodded to Blackstone and the Assembly Room’s big screen brought up a split-screen picture of a man. The face didn’t exactly scream supervillain; his most prominent features were a pair of aggressive black eyebrows and a moustache that looked like it was their mama. The second picture showed an altered image with a little eyebrow-trimming and no mustache on a tanned but completely forgettable face.
“That’s Douglas Barnett, a very bad man. He’s from Arizona, and a suspect in several killings in Texas over the last couple of years. Those are just the one’s we’re pretty sure about. He’s classed as a high-powered pyrokinetic, though really he’s a thermokinetic and not a fire-starter per se. What he does is transfer thermal energy from the local environment into his target. Yesterday’s killing in your Dearborn projects exactly matches his power-signature, and when the DSA passed us Detective Fisher’s report I hopped on a plane.”
The image included a notice of Barnett’s issued General Warrant. A bad man for sure. A breakthrough with lethal powers like his, who failed to voluntarily surrender, could only expect a General Warrant; permission for anyone strong enough to stop him to bring him in, dead or alive.
“What’s his thing?” Seven asked.
“Money, mostly,” Ambrosius said. “He’s smart, but unstable—he’s got a burning rage fired by a deep persecution complex. Former associates claim he likes to get drunk and blame whoever’s handy whether it’s the feds, the Mexican federales, the cartels, local bike gangs, anybody who doesn’t give him respect. He’s stayed ahead of us for two years down south, hopping back and forth across the Mexican border, but Chicago isn’t Doug’s home territory so he may be easier to find. If it’s him then I don’t know what he’s doing up here, but we’re willing to devote money and man-hours to taking this shot at chasing him down.”
“BOLOs have been sent to all patrol officers and the Guardian teams,” Blackstone added, “and Eli’s been assigned to Detective Fisher’s team for as long as he’s here. We’re also giving them Kitsune to assist the investigation in any way she can. With everything going on, now isn’t the time for a new villain to start dropping bodies around Chicago.”
Heads nodded around the table.
“Astra, see me in my office? And that’s it everyone. Let’s make this a good day.”
“Godzilla drills,” Rush muttered beside me as the meeting broke up. “Paranoid, much? Chicago’s a fresh-water port, we’re a thousand miles from the coast!”
I shrugged. “Maybe, but it’s an opportunity for her to see how we train together. And for us to get a feel for her leadership style.”
He looked me up and down. “Who are you, and what have you done with Little A?”
“I buried her in the backyard,” I returned and he choked. Seven just laughed as I I left them. Blackstone never waited around—he had a destination and he’d expect to see me there soonest.
Blackstone had adopted an almost grandfatherly role with me, since the night of the funerals when he held me as I fell apart, but only Chakra brought out his real, eye-twinkling smiles much anymore and today wasn’t a twinkling day. When I got to his office he closed the door behind me, waving me to a chair without a word.
I loved his cozy office and its vaudeville dressing room vibe, walls covered with vintage show posters of the original Blackstone the Magician, shelves full of books on stage magic and serious awards won against the best performers of the years before the Event. Any other time I would have taken a moment or two to just luxuriate in its opulent mystique.
He didn’t leave me wondering why I was here. “The gravikinetic you met last night died around five o’clock this morning. Hope?”
My ears started buzzing and all the blood had drained from my face, leaving me cold. I had to look white as snow. I swallowed twice, nodded. “Cause of death?” Me.
“There’s no way to be certain. The mask-cam recording of the action gives us three sources of trauma—when you hard-tackled him, when you took him with you through the wall, and when he crushed himself trying to escape. The drugs in his system complicated the trauma center’s attempts to stabilize him. I’m told that he flatlined three times before they finally called it.”
I nodded. Of course I nodded, hands folded in my lap where they’d be safe. “Anytime there’s a death . . .”
“The cape involved is placed on modified duty pending the completion of an investigation, yes. That’s why I took you off the patrol roster.” He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Hope, I know you wanted to be on our Mirth Watch, and you’re not to blame. You—and Shell—read the situation quickly and correctly. I gave approval for your response. And while it’s impossible to say with confidence what might have happened with a gentler approach, no civilians died last night. Thanks to you, there were no innocent victims. I want you to remember that, with everything that’s going to happen.”
I didn’t ask what was going to happen. It would be a circus. “Who was he?”
“Benjamin Trent. No criminal record, only one surviving family member, a known breakthrough who just . . . drifted. Longshoreman, stevedore. He used his gravity control for off-the-books work, lived in fleebag transient housing, drank, fought with his fists, and bought pain killers bought off the street.”
“An opioid addict?”
“Apparently. No evidence of how he originally got on them.”
“He doesn’t sound like someone who was a threat to anybody, why—”
Blackstone held up a hand. “Don’t. The media will be all over that question, and speculate endlessly unless we find out more than we already know. And they’ll ask why you had to go in hard. We’ll tell them that Rush couldn’t get in to evacuate anybody as long as the gravity field remained to make him fall sideways, and that the field threatened the structural integrity of the building. You couldn’t have simply tried to render Mr. Trent unconscious on the spot, since we had no knowledge of the upper limits of his power—he could have brought the whole building down in one panicked burst, with Rush still locked out.”
He sighed. “And nobody who is already inclined to think ill of you will buy any of that. Somebody will write that you panicked, that we’re covering for you. A few people will believe it, and they’ll be very loud about it.”
I took my hands from my lap and sat on them, my pulse thundering in my ears. “How bad is it going to get for the team?”
“We’ll survive. What we’re not going to do is hide you away in the Dome. That will make it look worse. You’re off patrol until the panel review and investigation is finished—and until you pass a fresh psych-eval—but you’re still on Dome Watch for emergencies and we’ll get you back out there as soon as we can.” He grimaced, looked apologetic. “You may have contact with the press—Quin won’t want you to duck all on-the-street encounters with them—but she’ll help you prep for them. . . .”
Given the opportunity to say something, I had nothing.
“Will you be up for it? We can always keep you here, or even send you away for training. . . .”
Hearing him offer me an out broke my paralysis.
“No.” I shook my head, breathed. “I’ll be fine, really. And I’ll say what Quin wants me to say.”
He studied me for a long moment. He did that a lot, these days. “Thank you. And we need you out there. The team— Well, having you back makes it better. And,” he gave me a smile, the first genuine one I’d seen today, “you’ll have help.”
“Your new Dispatch wingman. Shell?”
“Ta-daaaah!” Shell appeared in an open-armed showman’s pose behind Blackstone’s desk. See what you’ve won! Of course her t-shirt said Wingman, and she wore one of the security lanyards all the non-cape Dome staff but Willis wore.
Blackstone obviously had his earbud in—he smiled at the screen of his epad, looked back up at me.
“The selling point on this has been Shell’s ability to provide fast real-time analysis of events, her quick identification of our breakthrough’s power last night being the perfect example. And—” He coughed. “And there is her access to certain files we don’t talk about. Her cover will be as a very smart, but socially isolated, off-site operator. She has all the protocols down, and I think this is also the perfect means to allow her to begin building a track record of cooperation and trust that will be important when dealing with the justly paranoid Powers That Be.”
I didn’t know what to say; it was everything we’d hoped for and a bit more. Shell wasn’t a person, not in the eyes of the law. If the location of her “home,” somewhere in a hidden 22nd Century computer that maintained the Future Files and her quantum-ghost matrix, was known then the government would have seized it long ago. They’d be studying and maybe dismantling her in a lab somewhere. But someday the laws would change, and now when they did Shell would have years of living and working with the Sentinels.
If I could keep her out of trouble and on the straight and narrow. That was a big if.
Blackstone let me go after going over the rest of my day’s schedule with me, which amounted to an appointment time in the afternoon to see Dr. Mendel again before heading off to classes at U of C, where I could further reassure the Bees that I was okay.
I went back downstairs to work out and think.
“Last night’s incident, which nearly ended in tragedy for multiple attendees, shows why the National Public Safety Act is so important. Law enforcement knew about this guy. They knew he was a drug addict, he was unstable and could kill with his power. So why wasn’t he in an institution or at least restricted?”
Hard Talk Radio Show caller.
The big steel spring backed strike-plate I used as a punching bag rang. I had the Residence Level gym to myself, and had changed into shorts and a t-shirt so I could sweat.
Quick left-right jabs, eyes on the attached force meter to tell me how many joules of force each punch measured out, warmed the plate.
I was alone—nobody else wanted to be here without ear protection when I really worked my frustrations out on the plate and I’d sent Shell away (whatever that meant, exactly, with our connection). I’d said I had to think, she’d huffed but given me my space. She still knew when I just couldn’t share, one thing that hadn’t changed in our relationship.
I read the force meter, winced, stopped to blow on my stinging knuckles. The strike-plate glowed dull orange in my infrared vision, warmed by force-to-heat transfer. Deep breaths.
I’d killed a man. Not intentionally, but knowingly. I’d known I was at least going to hurt him. Bad.
I’d known. Not about him, but I’d known I would kill people. Ajax had spelled it out in a lecture during one of my first training sessions.
“You’re a weapon, Hope. Like me. Like Atlas. If you wear the cape, sooner or later you’ll be fighting someone who can’t take the hits we can, who you’ve got to stop hard anyway. For all the good that you’ll do, you’re going to hurt some people. You’re going to kill them.”
And Benjamin Trent wasn’t the first. He wasn’t even the second or third—I was pretty sure that those spots went to Ripper and Volt. Before that was the kill I was famous for now, Seif-al-Dinn, and maybe one or two other Ring terrorists in the chaos of the attack. I wasn’t even sure of my number of kills.
“And until you kill someone, you won’t know if your head’s going to be right with it.”
Well, I still didn’t know.
The strike-plate glowed yellow under my hammer blows—still light invisible to everyone else, but too hot for an unpowered person to touch without protection.
The force meter flashed a stress warning and I collapsed against the plate, breathing hard. If I broke it, it would come out of my luxurious pay. Putting my back to it, I slid to the floor.
“Damn it!” I pounded the plate with the back of my head. “Shell, you can come out now.”
“‘Damn it?’” She sat beside me in her own workout clothes. “Pretty salty language from you, missy.”
“So tell Mom. Oh, wait, you can’t.” I let my head fall back. “Sorry, that was— Sorry.”
She didn’t say anything, which from Shell meant I’d hurt her but she’d forgive. I touched her hand, or put my hand where hers rested on the floor, trusting that her own virtual feedback program would interpret it as touch for her.
“Does it make me a terrible person, that what I’m really upset about isn’t that I killed someone last night?”
I sniffed, wiped my nose. The breathing and punching had kept all weepy tears at bay, but my nose was more honest. “Really.” Why wasn’t I a complete wreck? I didn’t know, maybe it’d hit me all at once later and I’d just absolutely lose it.
“So what’s got you freaked?”
“Besides not being freaked? It’s what Blackstone said—people who already think bad of me are just going to use this as one more thing.” I’d made this worse, with everything else. Blackstone hadn’t tried to soften it, and I appreciated that, and it sucked.
I’d been the hero, in the Whittier Base Attack. The one who flew President Touches Clouds to safety, the one who killed the Califate terrorist who’d slaughtered Atlas, Ajax, and who knew how many US soldiers.
Then news got out of my stupid, vain, shopping expedition to Forever 21 and Victoria’s Secret, right in the middle of earthquake-wrecked L.A., before flying off with Atlas for those two days of mandated R&R late in the post-quake cleanup.
I really hadn’t thought enough about the newsies still pushing the angle that I was really a minor, so the story blew us up two ways. One camp posthumously smeared Atlas with statutory rape. And even people who took my word that, yes, I was eighteen and a college first-year in my private identity, looked at our nine-year age difference, at Atlas’ playboy reputation, and bought into the narrative of an abused mentor-pupil relationship. He’d taken advantage of my innocence. Or I’d seduced him. Or both; I was a Lolita and he was a predator. It seemed like hardly anyone believed that nothing happened.
Of course that was the public. Family was different. Mom had believed me from the start, and Dad came around eventually.
It wasn’t that Mom had a special faith in me, at least I didn’t think I’d earned more trust than most kids got from their parents. It was that Mom had had the mortifying Sex Talk with me when I “became a young woman.” She hadn’t hit the medical side of it much (though she did check off all those screamingly embarrassing boxes first). Nope, after making sure I knew what I needed to know to Do the Deed “safely,” she catechized me on the Church’s teachings, and then informed me that a lot of people saw just about everything to do with sex differently than the Church did.
And she really hit everything, from pre-marital sex (all flavors from hooking up to intimate relationships and living together) to lesbian sex.
And Mom had explained that, in their heads, everyone lived in their own country when it came to sexual morality. They usually inherited the map of their country from their parents, for them it represented The Way Things Were, good and bad, and covered a lot more than just sex.
She’d finished up by getting my commitment to the Church’s map—No Premarital Sex—and made me promise that, if I ever decided to change my map for any reason, I’d see her first for a refresher on the medical side of it. And she’d given me my Saint Agnes medal to wear. Since I’d never seen her for the refresher and still wore the medal, to her that meant she could trust my word about me and Atlas.
But almost nobody who didn’t know me as Hope believed that those two days of our getaway had been nothing more than kisses and cuddles, so I’d blown up both our reputations. They’d even drawn comparisons between us and Burnout’s skeevy underage-groupie action. Eeww. I wanted to shower every time I thought about it.
And then I’d opened my mouth to a reporter over the National Public Safety Act debates. The words fascist and dumb had been the kindest part of my statement. That had alienated the half of the country who thought that increased monitoring of breakthroughs was a good idea after one of them had destroyed southern California.
Could I explain to anyone that the Dark Anarchist’s endgame with the California Quake was the National Public Safety Act? The first steps to a near-totalitarian government? No, I couldn’t. Even if I could, Quin had made me swear to respond to all future political questions with “no comment,” and our public relations people had downplayed my comment by oh so subtly alluding to my youth and inexperience.
That had been strike two, leaving a lot fewer fans in my corner than I’d had right after the funeral. And the ones I still had didn’t have the highest opinion of my maturity and professionalism, which meant plenty of people would listen to doubts about my actions last night. And they’d doubt Blackstone’s judgement in fielding me.
“It’ll blow over, you know.” Shell put her hand on top of mine when I didn’t go on. “Get a few big saves under your belt, and, well, look at Rush.” I sputtered as she laughed.
“Rush? You want me to follow Rush’s public strategy?”
“Well you want them to treat you like an adult . . .”
I fell into hysterical giggles myself. “So, bury my scandal under one even more outrageous? Should I make Blackstone the next target for my seductive wiles?”
“Hey, you know Chakra’d be okay with it. She’d teach you technique.”
I shuddered, still giggling. “Heads would explode, literally explode, if Quin let us float a story like that.”
“It would bury the whole teen ingénue thing.”
I shook my head, wiped away laughter tears.
“Thanks, I’ll pass. But I do know at least one thing I can do right now. It’s not much, but it’ll help.”
“You’re my Dispatch wingman now—check my schedule with Andrew. I need a wardrobe upgrade, the sooner the better.”
The morning news-and-commentary cycle turned into the predicted bloody grindhouse. Talking heads used the near tragedy of the “attack on a gathering of concerned citizens” as more evidence that the National Public Safety Act, or something like it, was urgently needed. Other talking heads focused on the fact that someone had shot at Mr. Trent—nobody knew the full sequence of events yet, but it looked like an off-duty cop had fired the shot after Mr. Trent had pushed someone with his power. That’s when he’d lost it and pinned everyone to the walls by making them the floor.
And naturally, the talking heads asking whether a normal suspect with a gun would have been treated just as fatally, questioned my actions.
That lit up my cell with texts from the Bees: RUOK? from Julie, pizza & icecream! from Annabeth, and an obscene comment on the worth of Monday morning quarterbackers from Megan. Mom just texted LVU.
I responded privately where nobody would hear me sniffling, and then folded up the drama and trauma I labeled Mr. Trent, put it in a box in my head, and closed the lid. Of all the comments, Megan’s was the most bracing one, echoing one of her own pet phrases. Deal with your own crap, not everyone else’s. The crapshow (not quite the word Megan used) belonged to someone else now, and beyond the few things I could do about it, it wasn’t my stinking mess to deal with.
I looked forward to seeing the Bees at school, maybe getting that promised Pizza and Ice Cream Night tonight after classes.
And then the explosion on 37th and Racine derailed my day.
Not all states use the CAI (Crisis Aid and Intervention) model of superteams as certified and government-paid but independent contractors. And some states or cities use CAIs on one level but not another. New York State allows local CAI teams, but New York City depends on its SPAT (Super Powers and Tactics) squads; uniformed superhuman police officers. Texas has its CAI city teams, but supports the towns and counties too small to host local teams with the uniformed White Hats of its Superhuman Response Division. The White Hats also provide support when local teams find themselves up against stuff too big for them to handle. Needless to say, rivalries over jurisdiction and credit make relations between locals and White Hats interesting.
Barlow’s Guide to Superhumans.
Being able to fly means you always get there before the cops and the fire department, but the burning warehouse below us looked empty even of workers—a huge relief to me. I dropped Riptide (he could “fly” in his waterspout form but the February air would have frozen him solid) and dove into the smoke.
A quick fly-through revealed nobody to rescue today. “Dispatch, emergency medical services can stand down, firetrucks only.”
“Fire services only, understood. They’ll be onsite in three minutes.”
I smiled at the professional tenor of Shell’s Dispatch Voice while doubling my sweep of the flaming interior. The fire engulfed half the warehouse, the loading dock side. A quick check told me Riptide had the outer perimeter contained; he first dowsed the half-dozen burning semi-trailer rigs in the fenced warehouse lot to ensure the fires wouldn’t spread to neighboring businesses, turning his twin water-jets on the building as firetrucks roared into the lot and the men deployed.
“He’s not going to leave them anything to do.”
“In this weather? Hey, they’ll thank him.” Dowsing the whole building still took cooperation—even Riptide couldn’t pull that much water out of the air and I worked at breaking open burning interior spaces so the water could reach them. Whatever had been stored here, under the smoke and char the place smelled like a brewery.
By the time I’d finished I looked like a drowned chimney sweep, covered head to toe in black ash. Standing beside me in the icy slush of the lot as the boys drowned the smoking remains, Fire Captain Finnigan shook my hand. “Good to see you back, Astra. And I like the new guy.”
I grinned cheekily. Zero-fatality emergency work like this really was my favorite thing. “Challenge him at your next chili cookoff. His family’s Cal-Mex.” I looked around at the smoking building and charred skeletons of trailer rigs. Water ran everywhere, freezing into ice. “When the weather’s warmer, of course.” I could practically smell his chili.
“Thanks, we’ll do that. Did you see what started this?”
“I did.” Kitsune stood beside us.
I managed not to jump. “Where did you— Okay, who were you?”
She laughed, giving me a wink and smiling at the captain. “You’re catching on. I was the concerned citizen who called it in. And ‘till a second ago I was one of the hot firemen. I wanted a first look inside.”
Captain Finnigan didn’t look amused. “I thought I counted one too many. And you are?”
I made the introductions automatically. “Captain, meet Kitsune. She’s with us. Kitsune, Captain Finnigan.”
He shook her hand, looking her over. Her “costume”—tight jeans and red leather jacket and domino mask—didn’t scream cape so much as cape-groupie, but he took me at my word. “And you saw where it started?”
Her smile widened into an easy grin. “The open loading dock. And this is what started it.” Bending down, she picked a piece of melted glass off the ground, handed it to him.
He took it. “Glass.”
“And whatever was in it. There were a bunch of crates.” The mimed explosion of her spread hands said what happened to the crates.
And what was Kitsune doing here watching crates explode? The captain’s look asked the same question, but he just fell into step with me when I started walking.
Hopping up onto the ledge of the blown-up loading dock, I scanned the warehouse and then turned to eyeball the parking lot. Starting with the ground at my feet, I worked my way outward as Kitsune and the captain watched patiently.
“Shell?” I called. “Could you let Blackstone know Detective Fisher probably needs to see this?” I turned to my two followers. “Captain? Could you ask your men to clear the building? Riptide and I’ll keep an eye on things until the detective releases the scene.”
Captain Finnigan sighed and grabbed his walkie-talkie. “Okay boys, unless you see flames, everybody out!”
The detective’s arrival with several squad cars stirred the news crews I’d managed to somehow completely block out of my awareness, lurking outside the fence. Ambrosius rode with him, and the two of them joined Riptide, Kitsune, and me where I stood arms tightly folded on the loading dock.
I wasn’t freaking out. I was working very hard on that.
“Captain, everyone.” Fisher said. “So, what have you got for us?”
I pointed at the concrete lip we stood on. He bent down, ran a hand over the streaks of melted glass stuck there, looked up.
“Good catch, kid. Anything else?”
“Over here.” I led everyone further into the building, to a low section of scorched wall. “The white bits stuck there? Pieces of bone.” I hadn’t found anyone in the warehouse on my first search, living or dead—but I hadn’t been looking for really blown up pieces of people. “And there’s this.” Not far away, a piece of half-burned label stuck to the floor.
He nodded, looked around, pulled a cigarette and lit up. “What do you think happened?”
I shrugged. “Kitsune says the explosion was a large stack of crates. I think the pyrokinetic you’re looking for did it. I think he explosively heated a few crates of whiskey bottles. The explosion blew up the rest of the crates and set everything on fire.” There were unmelted fragments of glass everywhere, too, and the brewery smell had to be the unvaporized whiskey. I’d missed the smell of charred flesh, so familiar from yesterday, under the overwhelming smell of burned everything else. The victim, or victims, had to have been right on top of the whiskey, been ripped apart by flying glass and wood slivers, and whiskey-accelerant had nearly destroyed the evidence with fire.
So much for a day when nobody died.
The detective nodded but Ambrosius’ forehead wrinkled. “Barnett came all the way to Chicago to blow up booze?”
“Expensive booze. Macallan’s Twenty-Five Year Sherry Oak Highland Single Malt.” I recognized the half-burned label; one of Dad’s clients had gifted him with a bottle at the completion of a contract. “About two thousand dollars a bottle?” The client had let him know that, too.
“The warehouse is city property,” Shell told me through her Dispatch link. “Taken in a shipping company bankruptcy last year.”
“And Dispatch says the building is vacant. Or should have been.”
Now Ambrosius was nodding too. “So, smugglers. Got it. That could mean the kind of money Barnett would ask for a job.”
“Well . . .” I looked around again. “It might not be smugglers. Counterfeiters?”
Detective Fisher turned his attention back to me. “Go on.”
“Or it could be both. But counterfeiting luxury booze is big business. So maybe they divert fifty cases from a legitimate shipment, relabel the bottles here, and sell them under the table to high end whiskey wholesalers who charge restaurants and private buyers a ‘discounted’ price for off-the-books sales. Fifty crates? That would be close to a million dollars on the loading dock.”
The detective chuckled. “Fits. And whether or not that’s what this was, it gives me a reason to call in the Organized Crime Department. The OCD boys have a bigger budget for investigations. Phelps!” A lean, sour-faced man joined us. “Get with OCD, find out what they know about bootleggers who might have been using the building. And make sure the uniforms tape off the whole warehouse. We’re going over it with tweezers and little brushes.”
The new detective pulled out his phone and turned away.
“Thanks, Astra. I don’t know what we would have lost in the city cleanup otherwise. Anything else?”
I shook my head. “No, that’s it.”
“Then leave us Riptide? I want to see if he’s any good at pulling the water out of an area without disturbing it much.”
“Oh, that’ll work out well,” Shell laughed as I laughed at the thought of Riptide the ex-gang member, Detective Fisher, and Ambrosius working together. I stepped away to let him know.
Blackstone very carefully didn’t sound concerned, but he had to have been keeping tabs in Dispatch and he informed me he’d taken me off the roster for the rest of the day. The implication being that I was done until Dr. Mendel cleared me. Again.
That was more than okay with me. Between everything yesterday and now this I was beginning to wonder why I’d been in such a rush to get back into the field.
And what was Kitsune was doing here this morning? The part of me that had thought about it at all had assumed she was in Chicago checking out something for Japan’s Defensenet Intelligence, but how could that connect with Ambrosius’ pyrokinetic, and if she was looking for Barnett from the get-go wouldn’t she have said something?
“Shell?” I whispered as I lifted away from the scene. “Could you reschedule my psych-eval?” I’d missed it in the fire-response.
“Sure.” Shell sounded subdued. “But good news, you’ve got an appointment right now with Andrew if you want it.”
That lifted my mood a bit. “I’ll take it. If he’ll let me grab a quick shower first?”
He could, I did, and half an hour later I walked into Andrew’s Designs. Andrew greeted me in his studio with a handshake, my own hand disappearing in his huge, muscular grip that went with the rest of his rugged triathlon-athlete’s body.
“So, what prompted the sudden need for another wardrobe change? Not that I’ll ever complain of that, it being my bread and butter and all.”
“Public relations. The whole kid-sidekick thing is kicking my butt and I need to pitch more adult. It’s also time to retire the black.” That last bit crystalized in my head as I said it. How could it not have occurred to me that wearing morning colors, more than a month after the funerals, was only feeding the tabloids ammunition?
“I can work with that.” Andrew’s smile widened and he gestured to the sofa. Retrieving a box and epad from a side table, he sat down next to me.
“The good news is that I’d worked up a ‘graduation costume’ for when you graduated from sidekick status. Quin helped.” He patted the box he’d set beside him. I laughed, giving him an eye-roll. Of course she had; the project would have been another perfect excuse for him to woo her.
“But before I show it to you, I’d like to show you another concept, one I worked up after reviewing the recent lines at the fall Paris show.”
He handed me his epad and I took it with a frown. Europe’s capes were more formally part of the EU’s security apparatus than American CAI teams were of our own law-enforcement agencies, but the Continental Guard still went all-in for the costumes. Led by France’s capes, they cut the edge of cape-fashion every year. I looked at the image he’d put on the screen.
Well, that’s new.
Departing from my original vested outfit, this costume would cover me head to toe. White tights covered what the leotard body didn’t, but the leotard’s legs had been cut so high in the hips that it made a V pointing right at my crotch; only the opaque tights saved it from salacious indecency.
“Ummm . . .”
“Turn the page.”
I flipped to the next image. “Oh, heck no.” The back view of the costume showed the high-cut legs turning into what was nearly a thong back.
“The cape will cover you most of the time.”
“Only most of the time? Andrew, I draw the line at any style that shows my butt as separate cheeks!”
“It’s a nice butt. You’re not a stick.”
“Cheeks, Andrew. No cheeks.” Just picturing wearing the costume in public made my face burn hot. “Why even go this way? What was Quin thinking?”
“Quin was thinking of maturing your look. The teen sidekick look worked for your introduction, but we assumed you wouldn’t want to stick with it.”
I looked at the first image again. It was certainly more dramatic. It accented my curves, too, which would help disrupt the narrative of some of the media—especially the tabloids—about my perceived immaturity. Maybe with a fix on the legs and butt . . . “Maybe. With changes.”
Andrew shrugged, the corner of his mouth twitching. “So now Quinn owes me dinner. This is what I came up with first.” He opened the box and slid it across to my lap.
A new mask sat on top, the same cut as my current half-mask but my original blue. Under it a white cape lay folded. It felt like satin although I could tell it was tougher, and it sported my eight-pointed star crest in blue. It also fell to hang shorter than my current black cape as I lifted it out. Under that. . .
“Another two-piece? Really?” I held up the surprisingly heavy top, way briefer than the vest had been, shaking my head. Andrew put up a staying hand.
“Try it on first, and I’ll explain.” His half-smile was gone. Now we were on serious ground, his ground.
I huffed, sighed, and stood. He’d gone through all the trouble to do this one up, the least I could do was give it a quick fashion-parade.
The same dressing screen waited for me in the corner, and one quick-change with minimal adjustment later I stepped out in front of the mirrors where Andrew joined me. He tugged on my shoulder buckles and fluffed the cape. “Now look at yourself.”
Okay . . . I took a breath and looked myself over.
The blue, midriff-baring top started at my sternum but covered me to my neck. Heavy buckles held my cape, and from the way they connected to the webbing layer of the top I could see the whole thing was also a harness I could use to strap me securely to something for hands-free flight. My previous costumes had all given me a bit of chest-enhancement, but this one took it a step further and my lack of height made the difference more dramatic than it really was. Definitely edging it into “false-advertising” territory, but Atlas’ costumes had padded his muscles and I could pad my bra, right? The shorts were thicker material than my vest-outfit bottoms had been, too, with loops for the heavy belt that topped them. Andrew had incorporated my holdout throwing disk in the big buckle. There was nothing wrong with the new bottom’s boy-short cut, and the waist wasn’t low, but. . .
When I rested my gloved hands on my bare stomach, Andrew tugged them down to my sides where I fiddled with the cape that ended just past the shorts’ leg-line.
“Tell me what you see.”
“Okay . . . Um.” It wasn’t immodest. It didn’t go for cleavage (like I had any), or draw attention to my lower half like the sketch Andrew had shown me. If it wasn’t a costume, I’d have no problem wearing it as a cover-up on the beach. It still felt . . .
Andrew sighed at my silence. “Look at what’s not there.”
Huh? I looked at myself again, starting with the new boots and working my way up. I stopped halfway and blinked. Oh. Wow.
“I’m . . .”
Superficially I looked like any other teen-idol superheroine, though the enhancement did make me look more my real age. But going back to bare limbs and now a bare midriff highlighted a detail I saw in the mirror every day now without thinking about it.
I’d gotten buff. Female-buff, yeah, but . . .
I’d always been physically fit. Even if I’d started it to prove I could be as tough as my sports-crazy brothers, field hockey had been my high school passion and I’d trained for it. And then the training regimen Dr. Beth had put me on in the fall had really started to develop my upper-body strength. Post-Whittier Base, my physical rehabilitation program had returned me to that training and I’d pushed it even further since physical exhaustion was a great way to not think. So the past months had given my shoulders, biceps, waist, and stomach some real definition, and though my outfits hadn’t exactly hidden the changes Andrew’s new costume showed clearly how far I’d come in little more than half a year.
I stroked my stomach, smile stretching into a grin at the subtle but solid six-pack I saw in the mirror, my abdominal muscles clearly distinct and separate from my obliques. There was nothing I’d ever be able to do about my lack of height, I’d always be pint-sized, but now I was looking at a girl who showed some muscle. Shoulders, arms, thighs, meeting her on the street I’d wonder if she was into kick-boxing or mixed martial arts. Cute-and-tough would be a good description.
“Andrew, you’re a genius.”
“I know. Also both pieces are reinforced, more than your old ones. Fireproof and a carbon-fiber mesh layer.” He chuckled. “Since the padding is as reinforced as the rest of it, it should even provide you a bit more protection up-top if someone uses your crest for a bullseye.”
I was grinning and nodding. This was it. Cute without being overtly sexual, and showing a side of me I really, really wanted people to see. Someone who’d seen a fight or two. Someone who had to be taken a little more seriously.
Out of the blue, a thought occurred to me. “Can you make an armor design to go with it? Something like Ajax’s?”
I left wearing my new costume, with Andrew’s promise to do up a few spares for me. While not a fashionista like Julie, I wasn’t immune to the boost imparted by shopping therapy and a New Look.
“So, what do you think, Shell?” She’d gone silent after we’d left the fire, and her restraint during my session with Andrew was totally unShell-like, a dam bound to burst any moment. When she appeared beside me I braced myself for a flood of commentary. I looked forward to it.
She floated there, arms folded tight, looking serious. Scared, even. My heart sank. “What is it?”
“Who are you?”
“Who are you, and what have you done with Hope?”
That’s all for now; stay tuned!