Flash: F is for First and Foremost

Photo 16440074 | Tin Can String © Alexstar | Dreamstime.com

 

“The trackers on your phone. You don’t think your phone isn’t buggy?” I asked.

Cage’s bedtime voice rumbled from the cell beside my ear. “Enlighten me.”

“Sure thing shadow boy.” He asked for mansplaining, I can give him mansplaining. I stuffed my third pillow under my back and retucked the blankets against the winter chill. “First you got the basic GPS tracking which is necessary for cell phone pinging and has the benefit of helping with maps and finding services so most people just leave that on. Downside of that is companies ping cell phones, gathering meta data to sell things. Once I drove through Ohio and then next week a highway restaurant asked if I wanted to drop by. I was back in the Carolinas by then. All phones have this general privacy infringement, it is the cost of cells. With me so far?”

“Yes.”

“And, as television shows indicate, cell towers keep track of cell phones in their area. That is how they instantly connect phone calls even when you are traveling. You text, phone, or use a service, you are tracked. But you got a government-issued cell phone.”

“I do,” growled through the line. My toes curled. I could live inside his voice.

“Right, so you got all the basics of tracking everyone has, plus whatever Uncle Sam drops into his toys, and if I had the responsibility of keeping track of supers, I would load up everything I could. The phone would have an additional tracker, likely hardened against electrical bursts and other acts of quirks. I would also put in a repeater on all email messages and texts sent through the phone. Monitor website and social activities. Nearly all that is already built into phones today so you can pull up text threads excreta. And, of course, I would record all phone messages.”

“Of course.” The statement carried a question mark about the level of my paranoia, but there was a reason why I never registered.

“Yes, I would also put tracers in all the shoes because while someone might forget their phone, few people leave buildings barefoot. Your bosses likely line some basics into the uniforms including heartbeat monitoring, although those likely would need to be replaced often after battles between damage to the uniforms and energy powers.”

He chuckled darkly. “They are replacing my uniform right now. Gremlin’s mech suit shredded it.”

“Exactly. But even with the constant replacement, I would make sure the uniforms also have cameras, for the same reason police are required to have them. To protect citizens and the blue. Well, the supers in this case. Not all of this is just to keep you on a leash. Although that is high on the list. They also are gathering scientific information figuring out how our powers work.”

“And how to neutralize them.”

“Exactly, not everyone is going to march into a regional headquarters and sign up. A lot of people don’t trust governments. And people who run to the not-nice side of things never do.” My fingers start playing with my fur blanket, but I grip them into a fist. Nope, not another random whatever. It hasn’t even been twenty-four hours. “Not all of it is big brother government. Some of the monitoring is beneficial just like why they monitor firemen, police, and military – easier to direct in an emergency, keep track of your health, find you if something bad happens, do post action reviews, all of that. But,” I sighed, rubbing between my eyes with one hand,  “first and foremost it’s all about tagging and tracing supers.”

“Paranoid much?”

“Tell me I’m wrong.”

He made a grunt-like sound, then asked, “Are you wrong?”

“Can’t say for certain, but…” I paused, turning things over through my gut. I don’t have precog or meta level knowledge some supers can claim. Still, just living as a human being in America who grew up during the Cold War gave me insight to just how controlling toxic my government can be. “I’m certain.”

“Yeah.”

Cage made some uncomfortable sounds on the other end and I wince in sympathy. Doc Peterson did some damage.

“So how are you stopping the tracing?”

“How do my powers work? Isn’t that a bit personal?”

“Um, well…”

“Kidding. My quirk,” I giggle at the term, remembering the pure joy my niblings had explaining me all the lore of the anime, “is connections. Creating them or breaking them. If you looked at the symbol I drew, the doodle is two tin cans with a string looping between them.”

“Fuck,” he grunted in surprise. “You’re right.” comes more quietly, like he pulled the phone away to look at the symbol.

“Of course I am. Just repeat after me, Vector is always right.”

He dropped his voice into his lowest register. “Vector is always right.”

“Oh. You’re good.”

“Except when I’m very bad.” The hero chuckled.

“Put a bookmark there. We are still on our first date.”

“Are we? We are, aren’t we.” After clearing his throat and raising his voice out of the bedroom levels, to my curled toes disappointment, he asked, “Where were we? Vector is always right … symbol of tin can. Ah, how does that symbol work?”

“Right now your phone and mine are connected like two cans with a string. We aren’t going through cell towers, no energy is being used. Your voice to my ear.” I swirl my finger in a circle, connecting beginning to end. My power adds a bit to the existing symbol. “Your battery isn’t being drained.”

I hear another “Really” and picture him pulling the phone away from his ear. “What do you know?” More clearly he says, “That’s cool.”

“I added a cloud of matching parenthesis around the outside so no one else will hear what you or I am saying either through bugs or eavesdropping. Always close your parenthesis so words don’t fall out.”

“Fuck, my apartment is bugged isn’t it?”

“What do you think?”

“I am much more naïve than I thought I was.”

(words 1,007; first published 4/7/2024)

Hold Me Against the Dark series

  1. I want you beside me… (12/31/2023)
  2. Someone who cares if you come home (3/31/2024)
  3. F is for First and Foremost (4/7/2024)

Spin-offs

  1. Bridesmaid (6/30/2024)

Flash 2000: Someone who cares if you come home

Image from the Internet Hive Mind (original art pointed to an Amazon product, but it has been discontinued)

“Are you sure you don’t want stitches Cage?” Miracle Worker waved the large bandage over the wound, fanning the disinfectant she just sprayed to get it dry enough the adhesive would stick around the abrasion larger than both of her hands side by side, the dark circles under her eyes a testament to why she had switched from her superpowers to her medical training. The Gray Gremlin hadn’t come quietly, and the acquisition team had received a beating during the retrieval.

No civilians injured and minimal property damage, all of which had been owned by the unregistered Rarus, so a successful mission as far as their government bean counters were concerned.

Cage’s dark half rose up from behind the hero to examine the lacerations clawed into his host’s shoulders by the Gremlin’s mech suit, then shook his head before returning to his normal position attached to Cage opposite the light. “No, I should be good to heal them in a few days. But cover them up to prevent infection doc.”

“Don’t do anything to pull at them until they have closed.” She removed the protection off the adhesive and applied the bandage to the left arm Cage had skidded on after being tossed across the icy parking lot. “Two days at least, three would be better.”

“If you can get the universe to agree not to have any more Emergents and the admin keep me benched, I won’t have any problems.”

She laughed bitterly at the joke. “I might be able to order around the universe, but the board still hadn’t created the medical leave forms I have requested six zillion times.”

Cage knew it was on her Outlook program to send a request for all the medical needs once every four days, and it looks like she was wearing down before the governing board of normals. They must figure since Miracle Worker was available, actual planning for the medical needs of the supers in the Mid-Atlantic Region, or, really, anywhere since healer variations seemed to be the second most common form of super after basic physical enhancements like strength and agility and so all the regions had some healer coverage, was unnecessary. But the truth was the healers still hadn’t recovered for the COVID death watches. So many Emerged during the height of the pandemic to watch patient after patient die in cytokine storms. Physical trauma healers like Miracle Workers never stood a chance, and micro-specialists leaned more toward bacterial than viral invaders. People like GreenBread can stop pneumonia, but not the flu and certainly not COVID.

If the Rarus Asset Oversight Department and related Regional Boards didn’t get their heads out of their asses, the healers would figure out a way to leave America in droves despite Rarus travel restrictions. Doctor and nurses couldn’t keep up, even after a personal choice and years of training, how did they expect random adults who won the genetic lottery do any better?

“Well, if you can put a word in with the universe, I would appreciate it.”  Cage reached for his bright orange Malhalt armor jacket, but the healer jerked it away.

“No. Nothing tonight. Sleep sitting up, a soft blanket is you must have something cover you, and let your back, shoulders, and arm heal. Your uniform is half torn to shreds, you can get a new one in the morning.”

“Come on, Miracle.” He managed to keep the whine out of his voice but it was a near thing. “Don’t make me go through headquarters without a shirt.”

“Mighty Dude is already in bed. You should be fine.” She eyed his chest. “Besides under all the other bandages your scar is barely visible. And some girls like scars.”

“It’s the South.”

“Southern belles really like scars.” Red Chains injected from his elevated position in a hospital bed, with his newly healed rib cage and reinflated lung thanks to Miracle’s magic hands. He would be staying the night for observation since his primary and secondary powers didn’t include any healing abilities of his own.

“You should know Chain.” Cage responded.

“And you shouldn’t collect any more. You are hot enough.” Miracle walked over to the acquisition’s team restraint specialist, before glancing one last time to where Cage filled the doorway for her small nursing ward. “You too. Get yourself someone to distract you from all this. Someone who cares if you come home.”

***

Once back in their quarters, Shadow detached fully, gaining a glowing mouth and eyes while remaining silent. Sound only traveled from him while on the Dark Side; most of the time Cage and he were limited to a combination of charades and lip reading. He could hear just fine, just not speak. But he always had plenty to say.

Sliding around the room, he settled on the bed, gaining substance in the deeper shadows of the poorly lit room, while Cage dragged himself to his gaming recliner. His glowing smirk made Cage bark, “What?”

Shadow tapped his left inner arm, where a gray symbol showed up slightly lighter than the surrounding dark flesh.

“Shit, that’s still there?” Cage twisted his bandaged arm to look at the inner flat area. A matching symbol glowed on his arm, about the same level of gray, but against his Caucasian skin looking dark. “How did Miracle not notice?”

Shadow rolled his eyes and stood up. He had spent most of the fight inside Cage, so had received no injuries of his own and his host had opted not to transfer any. Going over, he touched Cage, attaching himself to his host as a true shadow and the symbol disappeared from the both of them.

“That’s impressive.” Shadow became his own being again, and Cage frowned at his arm as the symbol reappeared. “How the fuck did Pa-ah-Vector do that?”

Shadow shrugged, then held his left hand to his head with his thumb extended to his ear and his pinky extended to his bright mouth.

“I am not going to call her, it’s after three in the morning.”

Shadow shifted, throwing out a hip and putting his fists on the edges of his form, his glowing mouth downturned with sass, head tilted at an angle like he was leaning forward if he wasn’t basically two dimensional on the Light Side.

“You’re kidding me.”

Shadow crossed his arms.

“Dude, she has to be an unregistered.” Another body motion on his superpower-with-agency’s part gave a very definite if rather vulgar answer. “I know you don’t care. You don’t ever give a shit about rules and regulations. But–”

Cage’s dark half waved his arms around, his hands become undefined, making Cage stop talking, before the shadow form slid across to where their backup equipment was stored and pulled out their secondary, or was it tertiary phone, Cage didn’t remember replacing it after helping the North Atlantic Region squash Ringmaster. Shadow drew the device to the Dark Side, turning the orange trimmed phone grayscale, and threw it at him.

Only Cage’s increased reflexes kept it from hitting him in the face when it popped back to his present reality. “Fuck.” The hero leaned back in his chair, after dropping the phone in his lap, he shifted his Taco Cat fuzzy blanket higher, moaning a soft, “Ouch. Moved too fast.”

Fisting his right hand, Shadow held it high on his chest and brought it around in a circle twice.

“Yeah, well, don’t do that shit.”

The dark creature slinked to reattached to Cage, settling inside the host body. Cage felt the apology sink into his bones, but also the determination. His other half was intrigued by the woman who had helped them at the party. Her deep blue pupils shading to green centers looking up at them saying “Call me tonight, I want to know you are safe.” left an impression. Shadow retrieved another memory, this one of Miracle saying find someone who cares if you come home.

Loneliness dragged Cage toward depression. Yes, he had someone who shared his body, but Shadow wasn’t really another person. He was a manifestation of Cage’s power, a strange, unique manifestation capable of independent action which drove the scientists completely nuts because no theory of how powers worked when adding id-driven aspects like Shadow. Cage wasn’t the only one with a power-with-agency, but they were rare and his was the strongest on record.

“I’m in a lonely for one person kind-of mood,” he picked up the cell phone with his left hand and held the button down until the boot-up screen lit. “Think she will forgive me for calling her at four o’clock on a Saturday morning?”

His self-center id-driven Shadow sent calming emotions forward, smoothing the tatter hurts of injury and having no one but a few coworkers in his life who tolerated him and several who didn’t. Tears leaked as he waited for the chimes of the cell phone activation to cycle through.

“Lights night. Wake-up at eight.” The room darken to pure blackness, which he could still see in, especially with the glowing screen where logo after logo appeared. He was so tired and his eyes drifted close. An image of a clawed mech hand slashed at his face, startling Cage awake with a rush of adrenaline. “Fuck Shadow, can you not?” A blacker than the darkness arm separated from his right arm to pull his chin toward his chest. Cage blinked looking down as the symbol he had seen on his arm appeared on the screen. “What do I do now? Hit send?” Getting no answer from the asshole who shared his brain, Cage hit the green button, then, because of the bandages wrapping his arm making it impossible to lift the phone to his ear, he hit speaker phone.

“Hello?” came a sleepy moan.

“Sorry, did I wake you?” Cage asked the device, her voice doing strange things to his heart rate. Or maybe it was Shadow’s heart rate.

“No, well, yes,” He heard bedsheet move, then her voice became much louder, like she had tucked the phone beside her head. “But no. When you transferred the symbol to your phone I woke up. I lost track of your vitals.”

“You were, you were monitoring me?” Shadow took over control of Cage’s right arm to lift the device and place it in a secure spot higher up on the host’s body, and for once Cage didn’t fight for control.

“Hmm.” Came the sleepy reply. “Just making sure you stayed alive, nothing big.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why would you do that?”

“I could.” Vector didn’t continue right away but her sentence ended with a heaviness indicating more words would follow.

He pictured her moving, snuggling deeper in the covers. Cage wondered if she slept in a long nightgown or pajamas or maybe some ex-boyfriend’s oversized t-shirt against the cold December night air.

“After, you know, meeting, I felt responsible for how we… And I wanted to … I’m glad you called. Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” He lied.

“Good. Doc Peterson looked really tough in that robot suit.”

“You saw that?”

“Um, remember that big wide window overlooking the parking lot? Everyone at the party got a front row seat. It wasn’t like anyone was leaving until you guys were done.”

He chuckled. “So you saw him wipe the floor with me.”

“Your face did not make the best snow plow, but it did help us when we left. Most of the lot was cleared of snow.” Her voice softened and deepened, making his toes curl in a pleasant way. “Really, are you okay?”

“Not really, but I will be.” He rotated the gaming chair controls to move it back until gravity put pressure on the back wounds, then he edged it up. It was as comfortable as he was going to get tonight. “One aspect of my quirks allow for quick healing. Give me a few days and I will be right as rain.”

“Quirks? So you are a My Hero Academia fan?”

“Oh my god, you actually know the anime?”

“Not really, but one set of niblings – nieces and nephews – adore them, so I, as a dutiful aunt, have listened to them talk endlessly, and even read their fanfic of their favorite heroes.”

“You, you have read fanfic?”

She laughed sleepily. “Wrote some too, but the My Hero stuff has only been what twelve- and thirteen- year-olds will write so nothing really spectacular.”

“So what fanfic have you written?”

A mumbled word come over the phone.

“What?”

“Supernatural. Specifically Dean-Castiel. Some Les Miserable and Avengers, but I started with the Wheel of Time.”

“What’s your tag?”

“Oh no you don’t. Don’t you dare!” Vector sounded much more awake.

“Ah, so you write THAT type of fanfic.”

“I do not, and even if I did, which I don’t—”

“You so do.”

“Ugh, alright. I do.” She inhaled deeply, “but I suck at it.”

“Because you don’t have much experience writing or,” Cage smiled and dropped his voice, “you don’t have much inspiration.”

“Oh god, you can talk to me in that voice forever. Just to let you know.”

“Anddddd… Vector my sweet?”

“I um, right, what was the question? Inspiration. I haven’t had much in the way of lovers but I read a lot. Which means I can fake a lot of things. Still choreography is tough.”

“What does dancing have to do with it?”

“Choreography is about writing fight scenes and love scene. Keeping track of the characters, the number of characters, where they are, what they are doing, what they are … armed … with.”

Cage chuckled, and the new lower position placed pressure below the shoulder blades. “Ow, don’t do that.”

“Sorry, sorry. Should we be even talking?”

“Yes, absolutely we should. But now that you know I’m safe, do I get a real number this time so I can call you back tomorrow after we both get the sleep we need?”

Vector sighed. “No, but you should be able to call me on that phone whenever you want. I should be the first programmed name. This way the tracers you have on the phone can’t backtrack to me.”

“The what now?”

(words 2,360, first published 1/14/2024)

 

Hold Me Against the Dark series

  1. I want you beside me… (12/31/2023)
  2. Someone who cares if you come home (3/31/2024)
  3. F is for First and Foremost (4/7/2024)

Spin-offs

  1. Bridesmaid (6/30/2024)

Book Review: Infamous Heart

Amazon Cover

Infamous Heart (Men of Vanguard, Book 1) by Ryder O’Malley

BOOK BLURB ON AMAZON

Glorifying superheroes is my job, being seduced by one is a perk.

One day, I was a mild-mannered designer for a premiere superhero magazine. Turned down for a promotion yet again, I let loose years of repressed anger. That’s how I got fired. Lesson learned. Now my career is as successful as my love life. But it’s hard being upset when I storm out of the office and into the huskular man of my dreams.

Sebastian is successful, confident, and the way he fills out those pants, it’s basically a crime. Working as the art director for a rival magazine, I beg for him to look at my… ahem, portfolio. But in this city, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a supervillain and, for reasons I can’t fathom, this one wants me dead. They were about to ruin my date. Thankfully, Sebastian has gifts of his own.

Now, I’m trying to get the job of my dreams, while I figure out how to be a sidekick to a superhero. Oh yeah, and not get myself killed.

Infamous Heart is a M/M, heart-felt adventure with an HEA and no cliffhangers. It features snark and sex, but not always in that order. This is book one in the Heroes of Vanguard series.

 

MY REVIEW

More M-M romance than the superhero prose genre, which makes sense as the Main Character (MC) is human. When the romance does turn steamy, it is not “closed doors”.

Note the MC is an artist from his heart-of-hearts to his layout-designer job, with all the hubris-insecurity mix that goes with creating arts. Some reviewers have found this off-putting, but I thought it was one of the most real aspects of the story. From the “I will save him and the world” hubris to the “someone didn’t talk or text to me for one hour and the world has ended and I’m unloved so I will destroy years of work” insecurity. It’s a wild, exhausting ride knowing creatives. (Yes, I’ve had to console friends after they destroyed notebooks by fire because they went through an insecurity phase.)

Flash 2000: Hold Me Against the Dark – Part 1: I want you beside me…

Image from the Internet Hive Mind

I tuck my graying hair behind my ear as I watch the holiday party. Come on, dive in, I tell myself. It’s why you are here. Mingle, mingle, mingle, during the jingle, jingle, jingle. Everyone looks like they are having a grand time – so much noise and people. There’s no need to wallow in the lonely looking on from the outside like a kid pressing their nose against the candy shop window. Dive in girl, you got this.

Instead, I press my back more firmly against the wall, willing my fingers to peel back from the red plastic cup to keep it from cracking. My forcibly relaxed fingers start rubbing the ridges on the cup in a widening circular pattern, then spiraling back in before starting the pattern again. Sometimes I hate being an introvert.

I close my eyes against the colors and sounds invading my senses. Behind my lids red throbs with the music. I reach out feeling all the people, a mass of happy and sad, excitement and exhaustion. Some are here for duty and some to avoid it. I know everyone but I’ve been careful to keep them from knowing me. None of these people are really my people. I am just an imposter, an extra hand when needed.

The part of me that wants people, well, not people, but a person, a someone, my someone, reaches out, out, yearning. As far as it can stretch it’s leash secured within an empty hole within, an emptiness hungering to be filled with someone else’s laughter and affection while I provide them the same comforts.

Holiday season is rough when you’re single. You think after forty-five years on this planet I would be used to it.

I almost cry from the ache.

Among the white energies out there past my closed lids could be my someone. I smile at the thought, then frown at the false hope. At my age, it is a dream. But… maybe… there could be someone beyond the party, in the city lights twinkling above the snow-topped buildings on the other side of the parking lot visible through the windows.

Stop lying to yourself. I chastise myself in annoyance. You are old, single, and alone. Not everyone gets a happily ever after and that is fine. Be happy for the rest of your family. You got cousins and nieces and nephews and friends. Well, no friends local, but friends. Get it together. Today isn’t going to be any different than the other hundred thousand times you wanted … to be wanted. I try to pull my yearning to heel so I can get on with why I dragged myself to this corporate function.

My fingers tap the mostly full punch cup once, twice, thrice. I feel the liquid moves back and forth in the cup, the vibrations of the music impacting the fluid’s movement

The want slips its leash, rushing out seeking, calling. Demanding.

Finding.

Found.

Oh no. My eyes blink open. I didn’t mean…

And the universe snaps into place. My drink sloshes as I rebalance. “Oh, f–.” I cut off the curse, a small amount of liquid spilling on the floor just in front of his heavy leather boots. He had been circling the room. “I’m sorry.”

He looks down my way in surprise. At five nine and nearly two hundred pounds, I’m not used to men overlooking me. I’m a big girl. But he had been concentrating on the crowd, clearly searching for someone. “My fault entirely.” A confused crinkle between his eyebrows makes my heart flip.

Don’t do this, I order the wayward muscle. It isn’t fair. “Not exactly.” I smile, as I scramble to come up with an excuse to offer of why something is my fault. “I’ve been hiding.”

“Someone as beautiful as you shouldn’t be hiding.” He turns sideways to the wall so he can look at me and continue to glance on and off at the crowd. He raises a hand over my head, to lean against the taupe-colored surface but doesn’t crowd.

I laugh at the flirt. I just climbed passed the five-oh birthday before Thanksgiving, but he was maybe a decade younger by my guess and I look on the young side, the gray hair only a recent addition. “Thanks. I just wasn’t….” I sigh, “I’m just feeling lonely.”

“In this crowd?” His shadow, cast by all the lights of the party beyond him, seems to take up more space, making our little corner of the room darker. Private.

“I’m just in the lonely in a crowd mood.” I shake my head, “No, that is wrong. I’m in a lonely for one person mood, I just don’t know who that person is.”

“Maybe it’s me? Jonathan. Jonathan.” He paused to lick his lips. “Bently. Jonathan Bently.”

“Pam. Pam Black.” I tap my name tag proclaiming me from FirstResources. “So which company are you with?” I ask since I didn’t recognize Jonathan and he was missing his badge, like about half the people here. The research triangle center held fifteen companies, a mix of startups, entrepreneur investments, and recently stock-oped steadies, which pool resources for their annual winter holiday and four-of-July parties. They do so much stealing of employees and trading of resources back and forth, on some levels the group is a big incestuous corporate family.

“Oh, um, BlasterBriefs.”

Taking a sip of my punch, I watch his ice blue eyes parse the crowd, though they kept stealing back to me. “The AI firm to create lawyer forms. A good group. Picked up a lot of new people in the last month after Doc Peterson purchased his options.”

“Yeah, I just got onboarded.” He smiled down at me.

No you didn’t. I thought rather loudly, but fortunately he wasn’t a telepath, not many supers were and of course normals not at all. I wasn’t a telepath either, but I could fake it in a pinch. Now he had me curious.

I closed my eyes a second, still close enough to the half-mediative state I had been in to do a quick check. Damn was he a bright one, at least a five on the hero scale, and also very dark. Possible villain and hero at the same time? I didn’t have time to do a full scan and it would be noticeable, and noticeable by people of his power level equal not good things to us lesser beings.

I open my eyes, then drink my fill of him and my punch. The super stood north of six foot enough he would need to bend down just a little to put his head on top of my head. His broad shoulders and muscular arms balanced a middle-age belly tucked behind his buttoned business jacket.

Super powers had only existed since COVID. Some people blamed the disease and others the vaccine, but best guess from the scientific community, including research by DNA and RNA Systems Development and Management within our own little triangle, is the super powers and the COVID impacts are unrelated by everything except emerging at the same time in an uneasy co-existence. Like Martin Luther King Jr and Anne Franks overlapping in time, if not space.

Most of those impacted still had bodies which had lived a lifetime. Hence my gray hair and his belly. The super gene or whatever it was, did slowly adjust the body toward idealization, the more power you are, the quicker it happens. The two strongest on the planet, Hero-man and Ing-shui, had instantly changed on December 11, 2020. I had dropped nearly fifty pounds in the last four years, finally able to successfully lose weight through diet and exercise after years of trying.

The man in front of me likely had put on some height and picked up those wonderful arms. Black hair swished on top with just the beginnings of hair loss either side of his temple, barely tamed curls hiding the fact from most observers. Or was it the hair growing back? I threw out my previous estimate of his age. With supers you never knew, other than they were never children. Whatever we were didn’t kick in until after age twenty-five. A close-cut beard and trimmed mustache accent his checkbones, but it’s his voice that makes my legs tremble. I do love a low baritone and his is like hot fudge melting ice cream.

Should I? And I answer myself, Why not? It’s already too late. Stupid powers. I corrected myself and sent an internal thank you to whatever it was in my center. Most supers powers were under control after Emergence; mine seemed to have its own agenda and agency. Best not to anger it or abuse it.

I tuck my empty red plastic cup into some fake plant leaves beside me, I place my hand on his arm. “Would you like to dance?”

I feel his arm tense under my hand. He wasn’t used to people touching him. I step closer, away from the wall, causing him to stand up straight. His shadow moved differently from mine in a way inexplicable, even taking into account the disco-ball made from a plastic dinosaur covered in mirrored tiles shooting sparkles around the room.

Gotcha. I identified the super. He was one of the hero team assigned to our region. Cage had shadow powers along with enhanced strength, speed, and minor flight. Single according to publicity, openly trans – well, that could be awkward – I’ll need to figure out how I felt about that, about middle-tier in strength, like I already observed. I couldn’t remember his age, but a quick google search will fix that. Older, but not a huge age reversal I think.

And me an unknown and unregistered and wanting to stay that way.

He wasn’t here for me, based on that head swivel. In fact, he tried to bow out now. “I really, don’t know how to…”

I interrupted his excuse as the DJ announced a new song from Grasp Starlight. “They are starting a slow dance, it should be fine.”

His shadow grabbed his shoulder and merged into him, causing him to take a stutter-step. No one normal would notice, but I had used my powers to fix my eyes freeing myself from a lifetime of glasses so they picked up things others couldn’t. He stopped struggling once they were one. In fact, once we hit the dance floor, he put his arms around me without prompting as the lead singer for Grasp crooned over the speakers. “I want you beside me, but only when you aren’t there.”

I leaned into Jonathan, if that was his name, humming along with Be Mine For Never.

I closed my eyes as I rested against his chest. Surprise, his aura was non-existent, like Cage Hero Light and the shadow Villain Dark, canceled each other. Well, that would get him past a lot of sensor meant to pick up supers. Speaking of which, Doc Peterson’s Villain Dark aura had double in glow last week and was about forty feet toward the food tables. “By the way congratulations on being a new hire.” I whisper against his arm.

“What? Oh, thank you. I’ve been job hunting for a while.” His shoulder moved under my head as he shrugged. “The market has been crazy.”

“I understand. I mean look at me working for the temp agency for Better Ideas Corporate Triangle.” I smile into his chest, opening my eyes as the song wound down. “I just float from company to company here helping out as they have need. They all know me but no one will hire me.”

“Oh, that sounds like that sucks.” He frowned down as we walked off the stage.

“It does and it doesn’t.” I keep a hand on him guiding him toward the food. “I get to work everywhere, like for the past month I worked for the company that handles the security around here, helping with the background checks for everyone getting hired.” I squeezed his arm when he tensed. “Over my shoulder, in the red blazer with green Christmas tie.”

Jonathan stared at me, then his blue eyes turned black as they glanced over my shoulder. His nose flared before he refocused on my eyes. “I want your number.”

I turned left arm toward me and pushed up his sleeve a little. Against his skin, I drew a symbol with my finger slowly, dark shadow followed my finger a moment behind. I looked up sideways and winked once I finished the shape. “Hold your cell with this hand, and say ‘call Vector’.”

“Is Pam your name?” he whispered just loud enough over the crowd for me to hear.

“Is Jonathan yours, Cage?” I replied. His wrist jerked in my hand when I gave his hero name.

“No.”

“Then forget mine please, just to be fair, okay?”

“Vector?”

“I got a large extended family and don’t need people like,” I pause, tilting my head as I release his wrist, his eyes flick over my shoulder at my pause indicating he understood, “well, you know how people are. Call me tonight after? I want to know you are safe.”

(words 2,197; first published 1/9/2024)

Hold Me Against the Dark series

  1. I want you beside me… (12/31/2023)
  2. Someone who cares if you come home (3/31/2024)
  3. F is for First and Foremost (4/7/2024)

Spin-offs

  1. Bridesmaid (6/30/2024)

Geeking Science: Capturing Bubbles in CGI and other Black Matters

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Movie Poster from Internet Hive Mind

Photography has been a white person game for a long time. The film for photos and film was optimized for light skin. When computer special effects came around, CGI illumination of skin likewise concentrated on the melatonin levels found in the layers of Caucasian skin. CGI hair mimicked either clumped animal hair or straight Caucasian hair.

Time for change.

Quick background – really, lighting for film concentrated on making white people to look good. It’s hard to make someone look good when the tools aren’t even on your side. For example

“Shirley cards” used by film-makers to calibrate skin tones and light, only featured Caucasian models until well into the 70s (and only changed because of complaints from photographers trying to advertise chocolate or wood furniture).  (Latif, 2022)

During the creation of Shrek, animators discovered skin looked more real when created with layers of reflection.

If you shine a laser pointer on a wall you’ll see just a small spot of light. But shine it on your hand and you’ll see a blob of red light because the light is spread around,” said Stephen Marschner, a professor of computer graphics at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.  (Onion, 2005)

To get skin to look real, the CGI character models needed layers to the outer shell replicating light interaction with skin. The programmers in the early oughts (00s) tapped research in the medical community studying skin for cancer and to find the difference between young and old skin to create their algorithms. (Secondary Rabbit Hole: The medical community used light refraction to study the difference between old and young skin, by analyzing “the skin between the thumb and the first finger of 400 Caucasian women ranging in age from 10 to 70.” (Onion) – and some of the discoveries are really cool and will impact makeup and health for decades to come. Note the studies used to create the algorithms were from Caucasian subjects.)

Change was needed when Wakanda Forever wanted to do underwater scenes with people of color, both Mexico-born and African heritage. Not only did they need to redo algorithms to account for different melatonin amounts in different levels of the CGI character model layers, but also deal with the underwater light diffusion.

Then the Wakanda Forever programmers had to start all over with the CGI algorithms for hair. Aquaman came first, and those movie makers said that the CGI effects for hair were tough. (Failes, 2018) Unlike Aquaman, Wakanda Forever did a lot of wet shooting and discovered something. Curly and kinky hair captures air – bubbles happen. Not only does kinky hair flow different underwater, but if reproducing people who recently went underwater, air bubbles need to be taken into account.

The science of filmmaking is worth geeking about, especially as inclusion and representation pushes technology boundaries, even in the CGI algorithms. If you are interested in photograph or filmmaking or CGI animation, I highly recommend diving down this rabbit hole.

Also check out a third rabbit hole on the hair styles for Wakanda Forever (Cummings, 2022)).

Bibliography

Alter, Ethan. “How the ‘Wakanda Forever’ visual effects team evolved the way Black skin and hair are digitally replicated onscreen.” aol.com. 12/21/2022. https://www.aol.com/entertainment/wakanda-forever-visual-effects-team-213304735.html – last viewed 12/27/2022.

Cummings, Faith. “The Story Behind the Stunning Array of Hair Looks in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” Vogue. 11/21/2022. https://www.vogue.com/article/black-panther-wakanda-forever-hair-camille-friend – last viewed 12/27/2022.

Failes, Ian. “In ‘Aquaman,’ Underwater CG Hair Was Surprisingly One of the Toughest Effect.” Cartoon Brew. 12/30/2018. https://www.cartoonbrew.com/feature-film/in-aquaman-underwater-cg-hair-was-surprisingly-one-of-the-toughest-effects-167947.html – last viewed 12/27/2022.

Latif, Nadia. “It’s lit! How film finally learned to light black skin.” The Guardian. 9/21/2017. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/sep/21/its-lit-how-film-finally-learned-how-to-light-black-skin – last viewed 12/27/2022.

Onion, Amanda. “Shrek Animators, Dermatologists Share Beauty Secret.” ABCnews. 4/4/2005. https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/Health/story?id=609818&page=1 – last viewed 12/27/2022.