Monday, December 29, 2014 6 comments

Blink: Superhero Summer Camp, episode 2

Blink’s earlier adventures:

Blink
Blink’s First Adventure | 2 | 3 | 4

Superhero Summer Camp (this one): 1



This is really happening, Stevie thought, as the Heromobile turned onto an overgrown lane, barely visible from the highway, marked PRIVATE DRIVE. Ahead of them, two trees blocking the road lifted up enough for them to slip underneath.

Captain Heroic glanced up at the rearview mirror and saw Stevie watching. “That was the first line of passive defense,” he said. “There’s also a fence that runs around the grounds, but you can’t see it from the road. Here’s the blowout strip.” They drove over what looked like a narrow drain grate running across the pavement. Brush and rocks lined both sides of the road, making the whole thing feel closed in. “Active defenses come next. Fortunately, we’re expected, so you won’t see those in action.”

“Active?” Stevie unbuckled his seatbelt and joined Skyscraper City’s first and oldest superhero up front.

“Yeah. Passive defenses are there to slow you down or block your way. Keeps honest people honest, you might say. The active defenses are laser blinders, dazzlers, sonic squealers. Fair warning kind of stuff. If you’re not invited and get past those, then the deadly force kicks in. Mines, guns, that kind of thing.”

“Has it ever been used?”

“Oh, nah. Professor Zero likes to say the best deterrent is one that never has to be used. There’s cameras all along the way as well, on the road and on either side. I’m told some of the local high school kids think the spot in front of the trees is a great place to make out. If they knew there was video… well, it’s reviewed and archived. Every once in a while, one of those kids grows up to be a politician, you know.” The Captain grinned. “So don’t bring your girlfriend down here.”

“Yeah.” Like that’s ever gonna happen, Stevie thought.

The road curved off to the left, but the Heromobile rolled on across the dirt, straight toward a huge rock. “Uh…” Stevie warned, then threw his hands onto the dashboard, bracing for impact.

Captain Heroic laughed, and the Heromobile went through the rock. Lights flared on in front of them, guiding them down a tunnel. “That was a hologram. The road goes to that building you’ve seen on TV,” he explained. “We call it the conference center. It’s a facade, and the only part of the operation the public ever sees. We have press briefings and meetings with local and national authorities there, is all. And the tours, of course. The real work all happens inside this little mountain.”

“Wow.” Stevie stole a glance behind him. The other passengers were totally wrapped up in their own worlds, missing out on all this. Maybe they had seen it before. Ms. Ma probably had, anyway. Well, okay, a tunnel wasn’t all that exciting, but seeing all this in person and getting explanations was way better than just looking around after the fact and seeing you had arrived.

A light flashed up ahead, and Captain Heroic slowed down. The Heromobile emerged into what looked like a tiny city parking garage. Most of the slots were occupied by golf carts, but a few slots were open and Captain Heroic parked in one. “Here we are,” he said over his shoulder. “Your escorts should be here by the time you grab your stuff.” He gave Stevie a lopsided smile. “I’m your escort. Since we’ve already worked together on one job, the Professor figured that you’d be more comfortable with someone you know.”

Ma Ling had already opened the side door and shouldered her bag; Stevie’s mom had bigger purses than that. Sarika put her iPad in a case, then skipped around to the back of the van. She hoisted a backpack nearly as big as herself onto her shoulders with a grunt. “Okay, I’m ready,” she said, leaning forward for balance. She’s a lot stronger than she looks, Stevie thought, with some admiration.

Stevie waited for Ms. Ling to exit, then slid his pack out from under the seat. It contained mostly clothes, and a couple of books in case they didn’t have the ones he was reading. He gave Captain Heroic a nod, then looked at the approaching escorts. Ma Ling’s escort was some dude in a rentacop outfit, but he did a double-take at the young girl sent for Sarika. Nowhere near as gorgeous as Sarika, but there weren’t any girls in his school who were. Still, what were the chances of two girls around his age being here? The other girl in turn gave him a puzzled scowl, then led Sarika to a golf cart and drove off.

“This one,” said Captain Heroic, and Stevie shook himself. He tossed his bag in the back of the golf cart and took the shotgun seat. “Welcome to Zero Point, by the way. Ever thought you’d get a chance to see this?”

“I hoped I’d get to take the tour some day,” Stevie replied. “I guess that’s a big fake-out, though.”

Captain Heroic laughed. “You’re handling this better than some rookies do, so far. And all of them were a lot older than you.”

“Cool. Who was Sarika’s escort?”

“Oh, Nixi?” He pronounced it Nikki. “She’s Professor Zero’s niece. She’s some kind of wizard with computers, so I guess you could say this is a summer job for her. Maybe they sent her so Sarika would have an escort she can relate to.”

“Why are they here? Ms. Ma and Sarika, I mean.”

“Truth be told, I don’t know. You’ll find out pretty quickly, this is a huge operation. I’m not sure even the Professor knows what all goes on here in his own name, even if he gives the whole thing some general direction. It’s like a big corporation, or a government outfit—you’ll find out there’s not much difference, sooner or later—everyone’s working on a different piece of the pie, and it all comes together. Somehow.” Captain Heroic stole a glance at his young passenger. “By the way, I figured you’d be asking me a lot more about Sarika.”

Stevie blushed. “She’s okay. More than okay. I—I don’t know, really.” He had this idea that Sarika’s parents had already arranged a marriage to some guy she had never met, but it was a dumb racist jerk thing to think. He didn’t think he was racist—Lashaun was his best friend, after all—and it embarrassed him to have such a thought.

“Yeah, just remember we’re not here to find you a girlfriend. This is work, even if it isn’t the kind of job you’d expect. In some ways, it’ll be worse than a job. They’re going to get personal with you, and I mean seriously personal. We all have weaknesses, and they’re going to pry into your brain to figure out what yours is. If you know what your weak spots are, you can work on them. By the time you go home, Professor Zero will know more about you than your mother does.”

“Ha. She doesn’t know about the Blink thing, to begin with.”

“Yeah. That’s one of the things that has the Professor worried. He wants to figure out why you manifested so early, and how it’s going to affect you. It’s an awfully big secret to be keeping from your parents.”

“If he has any ideas,” said Stevie, “I’m all ears.”

“Chances are, he’ll recommend you lie low until you get out on your own. No missions, no patrols, just be yourself until you can be Blink without a mom to worry about.” He pulled the cart to a stop. “Well, here we are.”

Stevie just stared at the man standing in front of the cart. Long brown hair, streaked with gray and pulled back in a tail, round wireframe glasses, unruly beard—a face he had seen on TV many times, but now he was seeing Professor Zero for real.

Monday, December 22, 2014 9 comments

Blink: Superhero Summer Camp, episode 1

Let’s get this story started! But if you’ve just teleported in, you can click over to Blink’s earlier adventures:

Blink
Blink’s First Adventure | 2 | 3 | 4



“Mom!” Stevie Winkler shouted from the front porch. “They’re here!”

“All right, honey, I’m coming,” Mom replied, and hustled out to join her son. “Bye.” She hugged him, with some hesitation for a change. “Have a good time. I expect you to write.”

“I will,” said Stevie, shouldering his pack, already looking at the van with the Lake Walnut Grove Summer Camp markings emblazoned on the side. “It might be email, though. The info packet said they have a computer lab and everything.”

“Communing with nature by day, surfing the web by night?” Mom gave him that joshing look of hers. “Sounds like you won’t be getting much sleep.”

“I’ll be fine, Mom.” Stevie hugged her one more time, then shouldered his bag. It had taken a lot of willpower to not just pop out to the van and be gone in the first place. “At least you can get some stuff done without me underfoot all the time.”

“Seriously, Stevie? You aren’t underfoot much, if at all. But maybe I’ll get a little time on the computer, at least until you get back.”

“Ha. Maybe you can get a new computer while I’m gone.” He grinned. “Bye, Mom. I’ll miss you. Try to have some fun, okay?”

Mom nodded, and gave him a little nudge that said it was finally okay for him to burst out the door and run for the van. The side door opened when he was halfway down the short sidewalk, and he jumped in and slid his pack under the seat.

“She finally let you go?” Captain Heroic asked from the driver’s seat.

“Yeah.” This was the Heromobile, wearing a skin that Stevie (aka Blink) thought might be custom for this one job. He looked around, and realized that there were other passengers already here. “Oh. Hi,” he said, with some embarrassment.

“Get settled in,” said Captain Heroic. “We can do introductions once we’re rolling.”

Stevie dropped into the middle seat, next to a skinny Chinese-looking dude in black, and buckled up. “Okay,” he said, and Captain Heroic drove away.

“Hello,” the dude nodded. He had a thick accent and a high, soft voice. “I am Ma Ling. You may call me Linda if you are more comfortable with that.”

“Oh, okay.” Stevie clamped down on his mouth. Saying sorry, I thought you were a guy was probably rude.

“I’m Sarika,” the girl in the back said. She was dark, but not black like his friend Lashaun, and her smile made her cute beyond belief. And...

Something important dawned on him. “You’re a Devi, right? Or your parents are?” He turned to Ma Ling. “And you’re one of the Masked Warriors?”

Sarika laughed, making him feel warm, and Ma Ling nodded. “I am going to help train some of the other heroes in close combat techniques,” said Ma—no, Ling—didn’t they put their first names last or something?

“Cool.” Stevie thought he should say something else, but could not think of anything. “How about you?” he asked Sarika.

“Kind of like what you’re doing,” she replied. She had a little accent, a kind of lilt that Stevie thought sounded cute. “I’m going to help with Professor Zero’s research.”

Jeez, he thought, do I like her or something? Not like she’s going to be interested. Then again, he did have a superpower. Maybe she would be.

“And you’ve both heard of Blink,” said Captain Heroic. “Here he is. The youngest person ever to manifest a superpower.”

“Amazing,” said Ma Ling. “The universe has something important for you to do, if you must shoulder your burden so soon.” She nodded once and turned away.

“You can really teleport yourself?” Sarika asked. “Can you carry anything with you?”

“Yeah,” Stevie replied, happy that Sarika was paying attention to him. “My clothes, obviously. Anything else I’m holding, too.”

“How big?”

“Well, I got Frank Crain away from the Blackuras, and he weighed a hundred and fifty.”

“That much?” Sarika looked confused for a moment. “Oh, you mean pounds.”

“Yeah.”

“How about distance?”

Stevie wondered how many questions she had, but decided that wasn’t important. She was talking to him. “I haven’t tried to find out, really. I always just pop to somewhere close.”

“Through walls?”

“Sure. I pop in and out of my bedroom all the time.”

After that, the questions trailed off, and they all spent the rest of the trip in their own shells. Ma Ling meditated, or maybe she was praying. Or taking a nap. Sarika occupied herself with an iPad, oblivious to Stevie’s mixed admiration and jealousy. Unable to handle the conflicting emotions, he turned around and watched out the window. The supers had already come through with finding Mom a better job, something with steady hours that paid better than Slaver-Mart, but it hadn’t made much of a difference in their situation so far. Mom was too obsessed with catching up on old bills to consider essentials like a new computer just yet. It wasn’t even worth thinking about getting an iPad.

A few more miles down the freeway, and Stevie’s thoughts drifted back to where they were going—Professor Zero’s compound. He had seen a few shots of the place on Channel Fourteen and HNN, but living there for six weeks (while Mom thought he was at some summer camp) was going to be awesome beyond belief. Professor Zero would try to figure out what limits his teleportation power had—that was part of what the supers had disguised as summer camp for him—but maybe it was going to be more than that, if Ms. Ma and Sarika were along for the ride. It was kind of stupid, thinking it was just going to be about him for the whole summer.

Too bad I can’t tell Chris and Lashaun about this. Or anyone else. Being a real superhero would make him the envy of his class. Just getting more than the visitor’s tour of Professor Zero’s place would do that. If he was stupid enough to let on, of course—that thing with Frank just proved giving out your secret identity was a dumb move. But Sarika asking him about how far he could teleport himself got him thinking. He had never given much thought to that before. He occupied himself with a daydream: Strapping on a backpack, he picked up Mom. A second later, they were on the beach. Then again, that wouldn’t pay for their hotel or anything. And letting Mom know what he could do just seemed like certain disaster…

The van shifted, and Stevie jerked awake. They had left the freeway, and Captain Heroic was turning. Ms. Ma was still meditating, and Sarika spared hardly a glance before diving back into whatever she was doing on her iPad. Stevie thought he knew which exit this was; Dad had taken him out here on one of his rare visitation days last summer, to the state park. He remembered that day—they hiked one of the trails and threw a Frisbee for a little while. It seemed like Dad had wanted to tell him something important, but couldn’t figure out how. He remembered wishing they had just gone to the nearby Dari-Freez for ice cream instead.

Sure enough, there was the sign to the state park, but Captain Heroic turned the other way. Things would be different this year.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014 4 comments

Writing Wibbles: New Serial on the Way!

With Lost in Nightwalk done, I’ve turned to cleaning up Blink’s newest adventure. For a lark, I collected his earlier stories, and most of the other Skyscraper City stories, into an eBook for my mailing list members. (Not a member? Sign up quick!) Here’s a little blurb…

At age 13, Stevie Winkler is the youngest known super. Being able to teleport is cool, but keeping it a secret sucks. Professor Zero and some of Skyscraper City’s most famous superheroes are training him, but Blink finds the line between hero and villain isn’t always clear.

Blink has three goals as a teenage superhero: survive, keep Mom from finding out… and maybe get a girlfriend.

I’ve finished writing this adventure, and it’s going to run 20 episodes. This is a departure for me—before, I’d write the first few episodes and turn it loose. I was having so much trouble with the middle, though, that I thought I’d better finish the whole thing first.

Each episode will drop on Monday morning at 7am Eastern time (noon GMT). Having the entire thing done means I can focus on the next part. Update: if you want to catch up on Blink’s earlier adventures before this one starts:

Blink
Blink’s First Adventure

Comments on each episode are encouraged! Remember to check in each Monday to get the latest.

I want to thank Icy Sedgwick and Tony Noland, whose superhero stories inspired me to write my own. And special thanks to Catherine Russell, who beta-read this adventure and caught some issues. And +Angela Kulig, of course, for the cover art.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014 3 comments

Writing Wibbles: the Bloom Comes Off the Unlimited Rose

Back in July, I wrote about the new (at the time) Kindle Unlimited (KU) program. I said in part:

The per-borrow payout has been a [little] over $2 for months, now, slightly more than the royalty on a $3 eBook purchase. Amazon has offered a 30-day free trial, so I expect that August is going to push down that payout quite a bit (my guess: it will be around 50¢) despite Amazon increasing the fund by 66%. For some authors, the increased borrows will more than offset the depressed per-borrow payout. Others will hate it—perhaps enough to yank their books out of Select.

Amazon is walking a tightrope. At current payout levels, an average of four borrows per member per month (about one per week) will nearly wipe out the monthly subscription fee. But if the payout drops too far, authors will pull their most popular books, making the service much less attractive.

It’s interesting to see what I got wrong, and what little I got right. First off, the per-borrow payout never dropped to 50¢. It has gone down significantly, averaging $1.60 over the first few months, a bit lower more recently, and that has caused a lot of grief in some quarters. It didn’t affect me all that much personally—I only have one book in Select, Oddities, and it would get a borrow or two every other month. That changed little; November was the first month I got any borrows since KU started, but I got two. Woohoo. I also said things would be a little more clear by the end of September… it took a couple more months than that.

Okay, now to the last part, the part I got right: Amazon is walking a tightrope, and it’s wobbling. For some writers, including some top indie sellers, KU has been a disaster. The Bookseller blog, engaging in a little hyperbole, wonders if the honeymoon is over. H. M. Ward, a highly-popular romance writer, yanked her books out of KU saying, “I… lost approx 75% of my income [counting bonuses] … The number of borrows was higher than sales. They didn’t complement each other, as expected.” Top borrowees like Ward got “All-Star” bonuses on top of the monthly pot, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the plunge in sales. (The Bookseller claims that Howey “expected to pull most of his work out of [KU]” but did not furnish a link. You toss a potential bomb like that, you ought to cite it.) Anyway, there’s a lot of good info in this very long article. If you feel the urge to TL;DR out of it, skip to the bottom for some meaty stuff.

Meanwhile, I’ve been seeing reports on the KDP forums about “writers” who throw together what amount to sales pamphlets, upload them by the dozens, then borrow them through sock-puppet accounts. At $1.40 per borrow, they need only borrow eight of these junk “books” to recoup their KU subscription fee, and they often have fifty or more books on offer. And who knows how many sock puppet accounts they have going? Some forum members estimate that the scammers are pulling down the per-borrow payout by 30¢ or more.

I don’t see a viable way forward for KU, defined as something Amazon, top authors, and subscribers can agree upon. If Amazon adjusts the pot enough to bring the payout back up to $2 per borrow, they stand to lose money as avid readers grab one book after another. But if they don’t, and the most popular authors continue to jump ship, KU subscribers will drop out as well. Some of the “name” authors suggest changing KU so members subscribe to authors, which translates to auto-purchasing books as they come out. I can see where mischief could be made there, though.

On the other hand, authors with $1 or $2 books, or first-of-series titles that they might otherwise try to make free, could still benefit from KU. A $2 book (like Oddities) under the current system earns about 70¢ per purchase—and around twice that per borrow. Instead of making the first book of a series free, put it in KU and encourage people to check it out. The author still gets a payday, and a potential new fan who buys the other books.

The question is still the same: come spring, will there be enough books in KU—and the right kinds of books—to keep enough people interested in subscribing? Floor’s open, tell me what you think!

Friday, December 05, 2014 4 comments

War Games (“Lost in Nightwalk” excerpt) (#FridayFlash)

If you’ve been avoiding my post-launch giddiness… I can’t blame you. But Lost in Nightwalk is out, and I didn’t have a #FridayFlash put together, so why not excerpt something?



It’s out!
“Strike, forward march,” Firgar ordered. “We are now in hostile territory. Our torchlight gives us away, but all we can do for that is to be at the ready, aye?”

They reached the next intersection. “Here begins the test,” the Grand Commander whispered. “We’ll put two soldiers on each side, shields out, and dash across one by one.”

“Grand Commander,” said Sura, “with your permission. Mik and I had an idea last night, and it might be worth trying.”

“It was mostly Sura’s idea,” Mik added, “but we worked out the details together.” He explained what they had in mind.

Firgar chuckled. “Let’s try our try,” he said. “It hurts nothing if it doesn’t work.”

Soldiers lined up before the corner, and Bailar held the torches, as Mik and Sura shed their white cloaks. Away from the entrance, Nightwalk was equally cool in summer and winter. The cloaks were meant to protect them from bruising by the practice weapons, but they did keep their wearers warm. The apprentices waved their staffs, as Bailar had taught them to do in front of folk, and the cloaks drifted from them. Two torches joined the cloaks, and they floated into the intersection together. The apprentices made the torches move back and forth, as people would if they were deciding which way to go.

From their left came: thwock, thwock, the sound of two crossbows, and a practice bolt struck one of the cloaks. Bailar brought the False Dawn, lighting up the corridor, as two soldiers dived into the intersection and loosed their own crossbows. They rolled across, and two more soldiers did the same.

“Five!” one of them shouted. “Now three!” the other added. “No, two!”

“Charge!” Firgar and Narvin whooped a battle-cry and rushed the remaining defenders. Each threw a spear as they charged, then drew their practice swords. One of the spears found its mark, and the victim sat down. Three of the four mock casualties scrambled out of the way, as the last defender standing drew his own practice sword and tried to back away. It was over quickly.

Four of the defenders lined up against the wall. “What’s with him?” one of them asked, gesturing at the last man lying on the floor.

Bailar made his way down the hall, using the wall to keep his balance. He knelt next to the man, who gasped and sat up. “You died in your sleep,” Bailar explained. “I cut your throat.”

“Five to one,” one of the defenders said, shaking his head. “From what I’ve been hearing, that’s the best showing from your side yet.”

“Five to none, actually,” Narvin grinned. “Our mages floated empty cloaks into the intersection for you to shoot at.”

“Clever.”

“Hundred Thora is an excellent tactician,” said Firgar, “but Lady Sura descends from the finest tactician in Termag’s history.” He nodded to Sura, approaching with Mik and the rest of the strike.

The defenders looked at each other. “A girl planned that? Is that the Matriarchy girl, then?”

“Aye. She’ll make a fine warrior-mage, the first in centuries.”

“Good work,” the defenders’ leader said. “Perhaps we’ll have another round of this. Both sides can learn from its mistakes and successes.” They lifted torches and shuffled away.



Things get messy from here—get “Lost in Nightwalk” with Sura, Mik, and Bailar and find out just how messy!

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