Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Blackjack Messiah (broken down in the parts we've already uploaded) is up!

Hey all, Ben here! I did things - finally - and posted mass version.
It's still on this page, and no, I couldn't link or post PDF files here, but it's more complete than the scattershot segments so far. And there's a link at the end, leading you to the next file.
The link to part one is below. There are 5 up already, of 7 or 8 total - so we're close to finishing the book.
This link only works if you're a patron of ours. If you want a free sample of Blackjack Messiah, try this link:
Do you folks think I should add links at the beginning leading you back to the previous file? I didn't think it was necessary, but if you guys want that, it won't be a big deal.
Anyway, we're ramping up the Blackjack experience and now, if you're new to our Patreon page, all you have to do is start at the front page and start reading. There's a link just below the picture of Blackjack and Apogee.
Oh, and I commissioned a new artist on a sample cover for book 4. I'm not sure what it'll look like, but I'm excited to be heading in a new, more serious, direction with our cover art.
As soon as I have a real sample to show you guys, I'll post it here.
Okay, last week I did a list of things and I got a bunch of stuff done. This week's already halfway done, but I'm going to try another, abbreviated list. It's a motivational tool, people.
1. Cross post this onto Facebook, Twitter and the blog.
2. Write 3 Trevor Kane scenes:
  • Bingo kata scenes
  • 2nd part of Bingo talks to Shun and Zilin (was Jian, Lian, Mei Ling)
  • Trevor and Adam talk Thursday night (the night before the match/finale) about the negotiations with the other clans.
3. Write outline to the Finale of Trevor.
Okay, that's the sweet spot of stuff to do. At least to start the week.
Alright, I gave you guys a lot of stuff to read - now let's do this!
Ben out!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Blackjack Beatdown, 060418 (all of it, this time)

If it’s Monday, it’s time for a new Blackjack Beatdown!
Ben here, and glad to be with you. This week we’re doing a more traditional Beatdown with the pictures and categories and all the fun stuff. Oh, and there’s also some information on what’s happening with the new Blackjack series. I’m so excited about that one that I’m letting the cat out of the bag early and letting you know what the plan is now.
But I'm still in my anti-writing funk and it's killing me. I sit down and nothing happens. Screw bookstores, seriously. You were my only hope and you let me down. I'm self-sabotaging, auto procrastinating, and ten other forms of self-flagellation resulting in my lowest 2 month word output since I started writing. 
I blame society.
Anyway, on with the Beatdown!
Where my progress on (INSERT BOOK TITLE HERE)?
Trevor - On hold for the moment. I admit I kind of hit a wall. Putting on the shelf for a few days.
Blackjack Elseworlds - Worked on it a little, including some stuff I’m including later on in the Beatdown. Got a good idea for an overarching bad guy and for his ultimate goal. Good times!
Sunset Rollins - WTF is this? Something that’s nagging at me. I’m working on an outline today. This one’s gonna be fun as hell.
Where I wish I was:
Talkeetna, Alaska. I wrote it as the home of our lead character in Patriots & Tyrants for a reason - to visit it at some point to do "research." It's the same logic for placing the story of Trevor Kane in San Francisco - I need to go back there for a week to do some scouting.
It's for work, right? You guys believe me...
Anyway, I'm dying to hit Alaska, to see it, to be there. To do what?
What I watched on TV last week?
Brooklyn 99. Yes, everyone told me. Repeatedly. But I'm an idiot. I admit it. Now it's our binge target. Forget you, Lucifer, we're hooked.
Need to finish The Expanse and Jessica Jones 2...
What's causing some of my writing problems?
Here she is, the main reason I'm procrastinating. I know, some of you will argue that it's the other way around - I'm procrastinating and finding reasons to sabotage my writing. If you think that's true, just look at her. Look at those eyes. 
I might write some Brigitte fan fiction - 50 Shades- style.
What I watched again yesterday?
Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Seriously great film, isn't it? If you disagree, maybe you don't have all the daddy issues I do. Get with it.
It may be my favorite MCU film so far, with the original GOTG coming in second. My rankings aren't worth shit, though. Just my personal opinions.
Favorite Quote of the Week
This is more regarding my current state of affairs (writing constipated) than any sort of political statement. I really need to get out of this funk.
Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it.
Edmund Burke
Funniest shit I've seen for days:
I was jonesing for...
The Beastgrip thingie for the phone. That was for the production side. I got one. It's awesome. More on that later in the week but a quick note, though:
We're delaying all talk of production. I reserve the right to change my mind 27 times before the day is through.
But, for financial reasons, and other reasons, we're putting it on hold. I'll explain more in a VLOG I'm planning.
Amazing art of the week:
This guy's art makes me want to write something. Not sure what, but something. Trevor, that's it! It makes me want to write more Trevor.
Start another one in June? I did do 2,700 words for a gap scene I needed for Blackjack. That was 6/1. Since? NOTHING. I hate the world.
But maybe let's do something less ambitious, less intrusive. Time for a new goal:
1,500 words a day. Can we do that? We'll see. It starts today with a Trevor scene I need to finish and an outline I want to start (Sunset).
Second funniest shit I've seen all week:

WTF is Blackjack Elseworlds going to be about?
One of the things that helps crystallize any story, when you're starting, is a one/two sentence breakdown of what the story is about. I started on that. This doesn't tell what the story's about - I'm working on it - but it gives an idea of the concept. It's also a good write up for the Amazon page.
I hope you enjoy:
Blackjack is many things; a brute, an antihero, a libertine and scoundrel, but for a short while there, he was the one thing we loved most about him, A VILLAIN. Yes, we’re going back in time, pretending that the second and third book never happened - Hell, we’re wiping the slate clean on 90% of the first book.
Does that matter?
This is Blackjack as he should have been, Blackjack unleashed.
The most fearsome supervillain of all time returns in an all-new story!
Follow your favorite supervillain in a story that asks a simple question, “What if?” What if Blackjack had never met Apogee? What if he’d never joined the Impossibles? What if he’d never made the turn to good?
WARNING: “Blackjack Elseworlds” contains nudity, gratuitous sex and violence, bad language, dismemberment and body parts used as weapons, snarky dialogue, dirty law enforcement, excessive magic, Deus ex Machina gone wrong, mind controlled orgies, partial cannibalism, organized mayhem, deplorables and disposables, guns and knives, homeless piano players, Tantric sex, various rampages, city-wide panic, and more super villains than you can shake a stick at.
Okay, so that's the idea. A louder, more irreverent, more adult version of the same character, assuming that he went a little bit off course during the events of the first book.
Anyway, that's it for the Beatdown. I hope you guys have a great week, and I'll see you soon.

Blackjack Messiah, Part One

If you're a Blackjack Patreon Patron, move along! This is shameless promotion, a plug for those that haven't gotten a chance to read the fourth Blackjack book, Messiah.
Patrons of this site are getting this on a weekly basis, and they're already two months into the story.
Don't you want to be a Blackjack Patron?

Blackjack Messiah
by Ben Bequer and Joshua Hoade

Point Nemo doesn’t exist on any map. Located in the South Pacific, 2,600 kilometers from the nearest land mass, and surrounded by 26 million square kilometers of open ocean, it’s considered the most remote place on Earth. If you happen to be there, you’re wading in water that is close to freezing, and the closest humans are orbiting 400 kilometers over the surface of the Earth in the International Space Station. 
I approached in a small boat that navigated based on a waypoint triangulated from satellite photos and star charts. It felt very old school but for the autopilot that made course corrections while I ran numbers on engine output. I built them from scratch in the engineering wing of Superdynamic’s Tower of Babel, along with the rest of the boat. Designed to be quiet and powerful, I was surprised to discover a way to make them nearly undetectable. Superdynamic damn near squeed when I showed him the models. Well, ok, he showed me two equations I had overlooked, then worked the kinks out with me, but I could tell how excited he was in the gentle way he corrected me. 
“Ahoy captain,” Apogee said over comms. She was trailing me on The Cicada, Superdynamic’s flagship, now in its umpteenth version. Cloaked in ten different ways, we decided to keep the ship at a high cruising altitude just in case. She wasn’t alone. At least a hundred other heroes had joined us on the mission. Superdynamic’s team, Battle, was the spearhead of a group everyone was calling Task Force One. 
“I’m sending some more data to you.” 
“I’ll log it with the rest,” she said. “If you could take a break from your nerd exercise, our readings say you should be able to see it.”
In theory nothing should have been out there. No land mass, no people, just water and fish, but an island of black rock grew larger as I approached. The boat’s computer could have run an analysis, found out how deep it went, the kind of rock, but I didn’t need all that shit. The castle rising out the middle of the island was pretty much the only information that mattered. 
See, as fun as it was to field test my boat, this was really a whale hunt. The whale in question was Primal, most recently the dictator of Madagascar. According to the people who worked in his “government,” he left because people were not worth the trouble. That’s a direct quote. He was an old school super, cut from the same cloth as Retcon and Global, but he wasn’t one of the Original Seven, which meant he was only a demi-god. He had some kind of pyroclasmic power that he had used to create the island and all of the structures on it. 
Tossing aside my heavy coat, I changed the waypoint in the boat’s navigation suite. I shifted my feet to keep my balance as I stepped out of the small cabin as the boat swayed to follow its new nav point. The prow was almost facing away from the island when I engaged my rocket boots. I let the thrust carry me high so I could take in the totality of Primal’s island. It was the size of a football stadium, and made from what looked like a single contiguous piece of rock. I couldn’t help but compare his castle to the one I had built no long ago. What was it with villains and castles?
I stayed high for another reason, I wanted to be seen. Primal wasn’t alone. The island was intended as some sort of supers haven, catering mostly to the criminal types. We had no idea how many had taken the offer, but it was enough to worry the shot callers in the hero community. They wanted a preemptive strike. Orbital bombardment, or the old hit hard and fast, count the bodies later strategy. I felt like Frodo watching the different factions fight over how best to rid themselves of the One Ring. My plan was the only one that didn’t end in a bloodbath. Superdynamic smiled when he heard it. 
We had sent a message, but didn’t want any surprises. I fell forward into the island, letting my boots slow me on approach and it didn’t take long for Primal to arrange a welcoming committee. A dozen or so fliers made their way to me. I kept my trajectory, slow and looping, arms wide open. “Here we go,” I said.
“Don’t let them talk you into changing sides,” Apogee said with a laugh, then got serious. “We’re right here, babe.”
My rig had an integrated computer tied into Superdynamic’s system that allowed me to target and ID most of the incoming supers. Small popup boxes flashed into view just above my eyeline. Of the bunch, only one packed a punch strong enough for me to feel. He went by Flamestrike and he was more than capable of vaporizing me. From what the files were telling me, he was a headcase who liked hurting people. He had been jacked into the Utopia mind prison, along with Primal, and me. The three of us, along with at least a thousand others, escaped at the same time, when a madman named Zundergrub destroyed the place trying to kill me. I still had to convince people that wasn’t my fault. 
“Look who it is,” said a woman the computer identified as Shadowflank. She was a Class-C nobody. I could pluck her out of the air and beat two of the others to death with her corpse before any of them could react. I had no white flag, no olive branch. The only thing that kept them from attacking me on sight was my rep. “They’ve sent us their lapdog.”
“Blackjack,” Flamestrike said. He was bad. I mean as a human, he was awful. His warm, throaty voice was harsh and exaggerated. 
“I come with terms,” I said. 
I sensed a crackle in the air, the urge to get violent. I soaked it up and it felt like waking up from a long, restful sleep. I ignored the idiots as they did their mental gymnastics. This part of the plan relied on a mixed bag of psychos choosing self preservation over ego and whatever other voices whispered in their ear. They were each running a calculation, deciding if it was worth the risk. The formulas were different based on who you were dealing with. 
For the heroes, bless their stupid hearts, laying out for strangers was part of the contract. They actively looked to martyr themselves. I had my own experience with that and it generally ended up with me needing replacement organs. The villains generally wanted different things, but in almost every instance, what they really wanted was freedom. Mostly, freedom from the rules. Within that there was a level of pragmatism that I admired. 
The question on each of their minds, with the possible exception of Flamestrike, was, “Which one of us is going to die?” From what the little boxes were telling me, the answer was probably most of them. I hadn’t been in a scrape for months, and my blood was singing for it. They knew it, too. They also knew that restraint wasn’t my strong suit. Oh, sure, have your fun and banter a little, but throw a punch and I’ll rip your fucking head off. See, I was doing my own trigonometry, and if my math was right, no less than eight of these people were a breath away from feeding fish at the bottom of the South Pacific. 
“We should frag him,” Shadowflank said. I made a mental note, classifying her either crazy or stupid. 
“Take it easy, Tara,” said a guy called Redline. Another minor leaguer, he hovered close enough that I could tell they were more than friends. “That dude’s dangerous.”
“I’ll speak only to Primal,” I said with a sly grin. I didn’t really want to fight, but they would pounce if they saw weakness.
“We should frag him,” Shadowflank said. “Flamestrike, we can take this fucking loser. Rip his spine out, and the rest of those pansies will shit themselves.”
A couple of the others were arraying themselves around Shadowflank in a loose formation. Redline drifted away from her closer to Flamestrike, the only vote that really mattered. He was about to speak, but Flamestrike cut him off with a gesture.
“You’re from the Task Force?” Flamestrike said. His voice was so forced, so terrible, it was hard to keep a straight face. I held it together and nodded. “Okay, follow us,” he said and turned away, leading me toward the island. He wasn’t afraid of me. He wasn’t projecting his nerves like the others. Maybe if Primal had the same attitude, this thing could come to a friendly conclusion. If not…things were going to get nasty. I leaned forward and throttled my rocket boots, my Asskickers, and followed Flamestrike. The other supers surrounded me, like buzzing pests, all the way there.
A group of people waited for me on a platform jutting out of the main castle. I thought about hitting the ground hard, cratering the pretty tiles and scattering the onlookers, but that was for a person trying to look strong from a position of weakness. I didn’t need that shit. I landed softly, a cloud of debris wafting around me, and without waiting for my escort, walked towards the group. There were a dozen supers standing there, flooding my targeting computer, but I ignored the readouts, because standing in the middle of the bunch was Primal.
Compared to the bright spandex and leather of the supers accompanying him, he was thoroughly unassuming. Primal wore a thick, black wool coat to protect against the chill and the elements. His face was dark, lined with scars like some topographical map, and he wore his gray hair short and scraggly. A shade over six feet, with squared shoulders, he seemed to hunch, as if trying to disappear amongst the peacock supers surrounding him. And he would have, if not for the blue glow of his eyes. They were tiny, deep set in that scarred face, like portals to another dimension.
“That’s enough, Blackjack,” one super said, stepping in my way. I took one last step, so we were close, inches apart. He was bigger than me, with a blue and white costume that sported a long, flowing cape. The readout in my goggles read, “Father Superior,” but I didn’t bother with the rest of the information it was giving me, nor did I even care to let my brain scramble for whatever vestiges of data I had stored.  
I looked past him at Primal, and the old guy seemed content to let it play out. It was prison logic, I had to prove myself by breaking one of his big guys over my knee. I let my eyes focus on the foppish prick, a scowl parading across my face. “Pretty little outfit,” I said, surprised by the charged energy in my voice.
The villain didn’t react, but in the back of his eyes, way back there, farther than even he could tell, I saw fear. He was trying to impress people, but it was time for everyone to learn that this was my show. I lowered my voice until the natural baritone became husky. “You know, last time a guy got in my face like this? I bit his cheek off.”
I could tell by the minute shift in Father Superior’s posture that he did know, or he knew enough. A hundred supers had come to kill me in the Australian outback. I was the only one to walk away from that fight, but thanks to the sociopath A.I., Mr Haha, it had been broadcast worldwide. The footage was banned on most respectable social media sites, but there were plenty of pirated copies. Bootlegs of it sold like crazy at conventions. 
“I’m hungry.” I leaned in, sniffing at his face, and he took a full step back. Behind him, fists clenched and more than one anima banner flickered to life. “I come with a message, Primal,” I said, staring at Father Superior. “But there’s a meatbag standing in my way. I assume you’re trying to test me or something...”
The guy turned back to Primal, who said nothing. Did nothing.
His mistake.
My left hand shot out, getting a grip around Father Superior’s throat. I lifted him high and squeezed. I felt the flesh tense in my grasp, his breath pinched down to thin whistle. He squirmed wildly, batting at my arms and kicking at me with little effect. I could feel movement around me, heat and static building around me as the villains readied to kill me. I didn’t bother with the others, devoting all of my attention to Father Superior’s face as it went from light tanned and handsome to distended and purple.
“Blackjack, enough!” Primal finally said. 
“I agree. I came with a message. Either listen to me, or fight…either way, fuck you and your little fuckboys.”
Father Superior’s throat clicked against my palm, his eyes bulging out of the sockets. Primal held up a hand, and the others relented. They spoke in harsh murmurs as I dropped Father Superior who immediately vomited, then curled up next to it, breathing in harsh gasps.
“Superior…” I muttered, walking past him.
“That was my fault,” Primal said.
I nodded. Our relationship was starting off with a bang, not that I expected it to go smooth. Several of the others scowled at me, but Primal waved them off. “Lashwave, Le Kill, take him to the medical quarters. Have The Fates look to his wound.”
Two supers circled me and helped Superior off the ground. His neck was a bruised mess, like chopped meat before the grill. “Thought he was tougher,” I said apologetically.
Primal smiled, “Me too. Now let’s talk.”
Another man stepped in my way, “First he gets rid of all that gear.”
I stared at the guy. He was more muscle than brains, and liked having his hairy chest exposed. He dwarfed me, with biceps the size of pit bulls and chains wrapped around his waist and wrists. My computer ID’ed him as Praetorian, a Class-A tough who’d tussled with Epic a few times. From the broken nose and funny, uneven look of his jaw, the guy hadn’t done well.
“You’re welcome to try,” I said, but Primal was done with the bullshit.
“No, no,” he said, interceding between me and his man. “Let them monitor this, I don’t care much now.”
I gave Praetorian a wink and followed Primal, who walked away without me. Nobody followed. I hurried to catch up as Lashwave and Le Kill passed us, hurrying with Father Superior in their arms. “Cant…breathe…” he gasped, as they reached elevator. The doors opened, and I made a move to step in, but Primal held me up with a gesture, allowing the Lashwave and Le Kill to muscle Father Superior in. 
“I had to make sure it was you,” Primal said absentmindedly as the doors closed. “I’ve never seen you in person. I had to…well, it wasn’t my best idea.”
“And this place?” I gestured to the island. “This wasn’t that smart either. You didn’t think we’d find out about it?”
“Technology,” he said. “I’ve never kept up with new developments, with everything that’s happening. Others warned me, but I can be pretty obstinate. ‘It’s the remotest place in the world,’ I told them. What do I know, anyway. I was a geologist when the accident occurred, when I became what I am now. As you can imagine, I travelled the whole world – Africa, Asia, Australia – everywhere, really, and in my travels I heard of this place…and it always struck me as romantic, you know, a place so remote.”
“You might’ve gone underground,” I suggested.
He raised an eyebrow. “Maybe next time.”
“I’m sorry, Primal,” I said, serious for the first time. “This isn’t one you’re going to walk away from. I come with terms-”
“Not yet,” he said with a raised hand. “So you don’t have to repeat yourself.”
Just then the elevator doors slid open and we entered. The thing dropped with more speed than was probably safe. He was unaffected, but I felt the floor leaving my feet behind as I began to lift slightly off the ground. “Slower,” he said and the elevator obeyed, allowing me to land, but I could tell he wanted to say more. 
“It’s fine,” I said. “Where are we going?”
“What was Utopia for you?” he said. 
It was my turn to stammer. As a super felon who had been convicted for crimes against humanity, I had been sentenced to a lifetime in Utopia. A metahuman supermax built to keep monsters placid, the inmates were fed personalized virtual fantasies that were for all intents, real. I hadn’t thought of my experiences in the mind prison for a long time, but at his prompt, memories elbowed their way through the tension of the moment. Flying boats and swords and fun, man it had been so much fun! It had also been a horrible reflection of all the bad things nestled deep in me. I never talked about it, not even with Apogee.
Primal nodded into the gulf of my silence. “Silence is the most common answer to that question. Even the worst of the lost souls have trouble with it.”
“Why do you ask?”
“I’m glad they sent you. You can understand what it was like. An illusion, but so real. For me, Utopia, was, well, utopia. I managed to bring us all together. Obviously, there were far fewer of us than there are now, but the ones who were there lived in a world where we all worked for the common good. Retcon made peace with Valiant. Did you know they were best friends before the accident?”
The elevator had slowed to point where it felt like we were barely moving. I had nothing to add, so stayed silent, watching his mood darken in the deepening lines around his mouth and eyes. I was starting to worry. If I had Primal pegged right, every inch of this place was his to control. He could kill me right here with little effort. 
“A guard pulled me out of the pod when all the machines shut down,” he said in a whisper. “He could have left me to die, but he made a choice. When I regained my strength, I tried to lay low, but the vision of my utopia clung like spider webs that I couldn’t brush off. I tried it in Madagascar, but the people…”
“Weren’t worth the effort,” I finished for him.
He shrugged. “It’s the truth. So now, I am trying it here, with our people.”
“How many people do you have here?”
He didn’t have to answer. The elevator stopped abruptly, the door opening to reveal a vast semi-circular chamber, designed with rows and rows of desks and chairs, like the security council of the UN or the U.S. House of Representatives. Sitting and facing me was a mob of villains, hundreds of them packed into chairs, or standing and waiting. Primal motioned me towards a podium that overlooked the whole room. A microphone sat on an adjustable stand. “Go ahead,” he said. “Tell them all.”
Boos met me at the podium, along with some feral growls and curses that may have actually been magical. I tapped the microphone and was rewarded with loud scratches. There was a wave of laughter at that, and I could tell they weren’t laughing with me. The podium was raised, looking down on a pit that was standing room only. There were a sea of faces down there, but I didn’t recognize most of them. The computer link was trying to keep up, but this many targets was the equivalent of a DDOS attack. Past them were five rows of chairs arrayed in concentric circles, each a half step higher than the one in front. Not a single seat was empty.   The row furthest from me was twenty or thirty feet high, giving the chamber a stadium-like feel, and amplifying every sound.
“Hello,” I said, immediately hating how passive my voice was. 
The villains jeered and sneered.
I’m not a talented public speaker. My voice is kind of deep and rough, and I lack what you would call stage presence. I’m more the guy that stands behind the guy doing the talking - looking menacing is sort of my speciality. But I had agreed to this, and here I was, with no way out but through.
“My name is Blackjack,” I said.
A massive figure stood from up in the front row of seats. Mottled green scales moved sinuously as he parted the small mob below, and a tail bobbed around as if it had its own mind. Slitted yellow eyes stared out from a snout.  My reticle identified him as Tooth, from the villain combo Tooth and Claw, though where his partner was, I couldn’t tell.
“He said his name is Bitchjack?”
The jibe was just stupid enough to elicit laughter from a crowd that was already predisposed to hate me. I was tempted to ignore it, but that could be seen as weakness. I scrolled fast through my intel scan and found a nugget that I couldn’t pass up. “You’re Tooth, right?”
He turned to me, drooling out of the side of his mouth, “That’s right, Bitchjack.”
“Didn’t Epic put you on your ass?”
The relevance escaped him for a moment, realization dawning with the widening of his slitted eyes. Not everyone knew my face, but anyone who knew my name knew I pancaked Epic. “You ain’t sh-”
“Sit down and shut up, stupid. The adults are trying to figure this thing out.” I waited two seconds then went on, ignoring him. “I come with word from Superdynamic and Task Force One.” Tooth was still standing, confused. “We are not unsympathetic to your situation, and have a potential solution that might work for most of you. Surrender to me, now, and you’ll have your sentences cut in half. I don’t think it can get better than that.”
I stared down at Tooth, who slinked back to his seat.
“Run and we’ll chase you. Fight and we’ll beat you. Surrender peacefully and we’ll be merciful.”
I felt something behind me and saw Primal inching forward. I took the unspoken cue, and gave him the podium. “You heard him. The offer is on the table and I gotta admit, it’s pretty good. If you’re tired of running, if you think enough is enough, then I suggest you take it. None of us will think any less of you.”
“Fuck that shit, I wanna fight!” Tooth said, and half the stadium erupted.
Primal waved him down, but my attention was drawn to a young woman sitting a few rows behind Tooth. She had pale skin, dark hair that she kept mostly hidden under a heavy cloak and the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. She was staring at me, but my targeting computer was giving me issues with her ID.
“Blackjack is right, the Task Force is formed from some of the most powerful supers on the planet. They’ve got many of the same heroes that put us away,” he gave Tooth a baleful stare. “We might have numbers on them - maybe five times over - but those supers are as strong as they come. Some of us have the bruises and scars to prove it, right?” He gestured to the side of his face, eliciting some laughter and chuckles from the crowd. 
Primal looked back at me, following my eye. A smile crossed his face. I couldn’t stop staring at her, even as all of her focus was on Primal. I began to think she was using a power on me. Looking away was like sliding my eyes across molasses, and a second later, they were back on her.
“Now I know that some of you are itching for a good fight after many years on ice,” Primal said. “I understand completely and, frankly, I can’t blame you, but I want you to do me a personal favor and seriously consider the offer. While it might be fun to trade punches with the bastard that put you away, if only for old time’s sake, I’d appreciate if that’s your decision, it’s only the last resort.” He paused a second for dramatic effect, then dug his hands in his pockets. “Thank you for listening to me,” he said, stepping out of microphone range. “We’ll, that’s that.”
“Nice speech,” I said. “Motivates the more fearful ones to run or surrender. And gives the crazies reason to fight - maybe to cover your escape?”
“That girl you were looking at - what’s your interest?”
I had my face gear, goggles to cover my eyes, concealing me from him, but somehow I felt like I couldn’t lie to the guy. “I was trying to identify her.”
Primal nodded, “I figure this whole contraption is tied into their network - or however that works. They said to make you take it off, or to use jamming equipment…”
He looked back into the chamber to see it emptying out. A couple of them might fight, but to me they looked like the runners. I hoped most of them would just surrender. Some had only a few years left on their sentences, and their remaining jail time would be minimal. Others stayed at their seats, arguing and yelling. A few fights broke out. Those were the scrappers. Not much point of cutting multiple life sentences in half. I could empathize. I had multiple life sentences hanging over my head, too.
“Most will run,” Primal said, walking away. “But some will give it a go.” He stopped a few paces from me and gestured for me to follow. His leadership cadre joined us. There were two dozen of them. 
“And you?” I said.
He raised his eyebrows and shook his head, “I had this all figured out, my boy. This was meant to be a real haven for those that had no other option - super or not. A home for all the world’s homeless, regardless of reason.”
“Kind of like the French Foreign Legion?”
“Something like that. Well, as you can imagine, making something like that requires a great deal of effort and time. And while we had a large number of people respond, time became short thanks to your Task Force.”
“I’m sorry for that,” I said. The idea had a romantic novelty to it that seemed attractive even to me - a place where a person could start from scratch. I found my second chance with Apogee and Superdynamic. They saved my life and my soul. As I looked out over that audience, I saw plenty of people in the same jam that I had been in.
“I think it was doomed to failure long before that. See, I was sold on the idea of making this some sort of democratic utopian society,” he gestured to the figures that raced behind us. “And before you knew it we had factions…let’s see, there’s the Progress Group, who favor some sort of republican ideal, with an elected body - that chamber we were just at was their idea. There’s also the Brothers of Allah - you’d be surprised how many supers come from the Middle East. They actually want me to lead in an authoritarian fashion - after I renounce my former Baptist ways and embrace Islam.” He shuddered.
“Then there’s the Anarchists…I call them that but they have some sort of acronym that I can never remember. In any case, it’s been…interesting, to say the least. Especially for someone my age, someone not all that used to the fine art of politicking.”
We continued down a long hallway, decorated with wall to wall red plush rug and old tapestries like you’d find in some ancient medieval castle. The roof was high and arched, and ahead were a pair of brass-laced double doors and a pair of servants who opened them for us. 
“I’ve done my best here, you see, but I think this is the stuff of younger men. I know I don’t look it, Blackjack, but I’m eighty-two years old.”
He looked it. That and then some.
“I’m tired of fighting,” he said, walking into the massive chamber. Sitting in the middle of the room was a table with two dozen settings. The floor was polished marble, almost as if it was one huge piece that spanned the whole place, red with natural patterns that you’d get lost in if you stared for too long. The walls were draped with mirrors and tapestries and the roof was high and arched, the columns decorated with cherubs dancing and frolicking. If not for the harsh sea visible out the windows that surrounded us, it would be easy to think this place was a part of a Renaissance European castle.
We spilled into the room, following Primal to the table, but he didn’t take a seat, instead, standing against one of the ornate chairs. “Impressed?” he said, shaking his head at my awe. “It won’t last, my boy. Nothing ever does.”
“Listen, I don’t speak for the others, but I don’t see a reason why we can’t…”
He raised a hand, and I fell silent.  “I came here, eager to change everything,” he started. “Angry at my past…I wanted a new start.”
“If you know anything about me, you know I understand that.”
“The problem is that there’s no such thing, Blackjack. It doesn’t exist. There’s this and there’s nothing else. And despite my best intentions, regardless of all my work, nothing we’ve done here is different…or better. It’s all the same, you see? All the same conflicts, come to follow us here that exist everywhere else. What does that tell you?”
I shook my head.
“To start fresh, you have to leave everything behind, Blackjack. God, I wish I could show you.” He turned to one of the group that followed us, an older guy - older even than Primal. “What does it read?”
The man held what amounted to a bulky smartphone in one hand and what looked like a tube of lipstick in the other. He waved the small tube in my general direction as I stepped away from the group, edging away until my back was closer to the wall. “What the fuck?”
“No, no,” Primal said. “This is just a…dear me, I don’t even know what it’s called.”
“It doesn’t have a formal name,” the older man said, chuckling. No data was coming up for the guy. “It’s like a Geiger counter-“
“Right,” Primal shot in with a sudden burst of youthful vigor. “It’s like a Geiger counter, but instead of testing radiation, it tests…well…radiation.” Lost again, he turned to the older man.
“It tests the emission of the same radiation that made the Original Seven,” he said, his attention mostly on the device. “As I feared, they’re using some of dampeners. I’d wager they’re built into his gauntlets.”
I clenched my fists. “If you think you’re going to…”
“No, please,” Primal pleaded. “He’s just testing. We’re just testing.”
“What’s this all about?”
He lowered his head and gave out a little snort, “Well, I’ve found a new way to look at things. A new point of view. A fresh start, Blackjack, for crying out loud. What have we been talking about here? That’s what this is all about.”
“And the castle, and all the people out there?”
Primal shrugged, “I told you, it was a failed experiment.”
“Yes, his gauntlets are suppressing the emissions, but I can still detect them, Primal. They’re there, undiminished. Superdynamic must have figured out a method to contain them.”
“How do you know about that?” I said. I knew the answer, of course, my little secret was nothing of the sort. A lot of people knew that I was changed from my encounter with the Lightbringers, the Godlike species that “made” the first supers. 
It was a long story, but the punchline was, I emitted energy like a nuclear reactor, energy that turned normal humans into supers, and supers into even more powerful supers. Superdynamic had devised a suppression device that was integrated into my gear, and the main devices were implanted in my huge gauntlets at the wrists. They sapped a little bit of my strength, and made me feel like I had a permanent fever, tired and sluggish, but they protected others from my emissions, and allowed me to live a normal life.
Geiger counter guy looked confused, waving the small tube just to the left of me. “That’s strange…”
“What is it?” Flamestrike said, standing near enough that I could feel ambient heat radiating from him, and a smell like burning kerosene.  Space cleared around him almost unconsciously. Only Primal seemed indifferent to how unsettling Flamestrike was. 
The old guy with the meta geiger counter audibly gulped. “Sorry, Flamestrike, but I’m getting duplicated readings.”
Flamestrike turned on me and heat wafted from around him in waves that reminded me of a Nevada highway during the summer. “Let’s get on with it, Primal.”
“We’ve been given a second chance, Blackjack,” Primal said. “We can change everything, we can show them all.” 
I breathed a deep sigh and shook my head. I should have known there was a game at the center of this. I used to laugh at how straightforward heroes were. I thought their simple good versus bad standards were stupid and naive. Then I found myself neck deep in dumb villain schemes. I learned that every person needed a set of ethics to live by, otherwise you were just an overpowered baby throwing tantrums. I’ve thrown a tantrum or two in my time.  
“All those years on the run,” Primal continued. “All that effort and pain for the slim chance to belong, and what have they given you? An outsider’s view of the banquet. We mean to give you the head table,” he said, motioning for the others to gather around me. Primal pulled back the head chair. The others came closer, one of them producing a pair heavy manacled power dampening cuffs.
My attention was diverted to the old man and his device as he kept scanning the area. Primal reached out and put his hand on my shoulder, “This isn’t a religion or a cult. It’s a new way for us to live, a new outlook on life, a new sense of belonging - something I know you’re searching for.”
“Oh dear,” the Geiger counter guy said, drawing my attention for a moment. He was standing beside me, waving his device to the area adjacent to me. “I think I figured it out.”
Crackling energy preceded an explosion of light and energy that knocked me and most of Primal’s entourage on our asses. When the flare dimmed, Apogee stood next to me. Yanking me to my feet, she said, “I waited as long as I could.”

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