Pitchgiving 2021, part 11: Outsiders: Hard-Traveling Heroes

The Outsiders are traveling in a Winnebago. Nightwing is grousing about how when Ollie offered to sponsor the team, this isn’t exactly what he envisioned. Ollie gives a variation of the Schindler speech, that he wishes he could spend extravagantly on the team, but he looks at the cost of retrofitting a spy plane, or even economy class plane tickets, and compares that to spending the money to vaccinate the poor in underdeveloped countries… he says it took him a long time to get his priorities straight, but he’s not about to go back to being profligate Ollie again, and ribs Nightwing that they could always ask for funding from his father, which gets Dick to stop smiling, for a moment.

It doesn’t last, as Dick’s good nature is one of his defining traits. He also takes a moment to rib Oliver about looking forward to seeing Black Canary again. Ollie admits she’s easy enough on the eyes, but we see how he really thinks of her, as we zoom into his eye, and see in soft focus, her punching bad guys and otherwise being effortlessly bad ass while beautiful. We zoom out, to see an oncoming semi, with Nightwing grabbing the wheel and swerving them out of the way. Dick offers to take a turn at the wheel, and Ollie and stands up, leaving the Winnebago coasting as Dick dives into the seat.

They arrive on the strip, and Dick asks where they’re staying. Oliver tells him to keep going. They drive past the strip. Past the casinos off the strip. They’re in a fleabag motel, with an overly boisterous neon sign declaring it the “Above Reproach Motel,” with “above” and “rep” entirely unlit. Black Lightning gets out and says that seems about right as they unpack. Arrow tells them that he rented out the entire hotel, so they have the run of the place- that Dick had emphasized to him that they needed space and privacy to plan out their caper.

“I also asked him to stop calling it a caper. But it’s been a long drive, everybody. I suggest you get some shut eye. We’ll have a briefing at 6:30.”

Huntress gives him crap about the late start. “I though all of you bat boys were up all night.”

“I probably will be. I was hoping you and I could get in some reconnaisance.”

“Is that what the kids are calling it?” At first it seems like witty reparte, but she’s actually asking (awkwardly and adorably).

“It’s been a while since anybody accused me of being a bat boy.”

“No one wears that much leather without being a bat boy.”

“I legitimately don’t know if we’re confused or flirting.”

“That’s where I live,” she says, and he stares at her a moment, before laughing.

“You had me going.” She’s confused by that. But she likes the attention, and that he’s confident enough to push past her awkwardness. Plus, she really likes patrolling.

“Wait,” she says. “Are we actually patrolling, or sneaking off to have sex… I just want to make sure I wear the right top.” He laughs, and they walk off screen.

We cut to Black Lightning, poking at Lo Mein noodles in a takeout container, sitting on the hotel couch, while talking on his cell. He zaps the TV to change channels. He’s talking to his significant other, concerned that the rest of the team are screwing off in Vegas, and he’s trying to decide between Lifetime movies. She tells him either he can zap his ass home, or they can watch a movie together. He tells her someone has to be an example to all these kids, show them how to act like a professional.

We cut to Canary and Arrow kissing, passionately, slamming against the inside of the door to her dressing room. “Not that I’m complaining, but what happened to waiting?” he asks.

“Oh, you’re still waiting,” she says, and pushes him against the door, “I just want your attention focused on what you’re waiting for.”

“Might have to change my name to Blue Arrow, you keep this up.”

“Ooh, Black Canary and Blue Arrow, I like that alliteration; and there’s the double-meaning of leaving the bad guys black and blue.”

“That is pretty good, but I’d have to sew a whole new set of tights.”

“I’m worth it.”

“Plus those Blue Beetles are very proprietary about their color- and quite litigious.”

“Tell me about it,” Ray Palmer appears, growing from a place sitting on Canary’s counter.

“Dad,” Canary says, snatching flowers from him and throwing them on the counter, “we talked about this: boundaries.”

“I didn’t mean to walk in on a Cinemax movie. I was trying to do one of my, ‘Hey, where did he come from?’ entrances.”

“Yeah, and when you pulled that on me, you got yourself a brand new set of tinitis. You’re just lucky he didn’t have his bow or he might have… bowed you.”

“Et tu, Canary?” Green Arrow asks.

“Et me,” she says. “But at least you learned to throw a proper punch, so there’s still hope for you.”

“Had a hell of a teacher.” She gives him a peck. “Who knows a thing or two about motivation.”

“You’re punishing me, aren’t you?” Ray asks.

“Pretending you’re not here- because you shouldn’t be,” she says.

“It’s about, your mother.”

“Crap,” Green Arrow says.

“I thought the trail went cold in Gotham,” Canary says, spinning to face him.

“It had. Or rather… it didn’t get cold, the GCPD kept it on ice all these years. And that’s why I could find… this.” He shows them an image on his phone of human tissue through a microscope, subtly including a footprint.

“What am I looking at?” Green Arrow asks.

“A slide from Canary’s autopsy. This is the aftermath of an aneurism. She was too good to just catch a bullet in some back alley. I never believed… she was dead before she was shot. This proves it.”

“How?” Arrow asks.

He pinches and zooms in on it, to more specifically focus on the footprint. “It’s a footprint. Given the size, and depth, it’s a woman’s size 6, she weighs somewhere in the vicinity of 125 lbs. Either she was the killer, or an eyewitness. Either way, the odds of someone standing in her brain at the same time of a spontaneous aneurism in a healthy, middle-aged woman… the odds are astronomical.”

“And what are the odds someone would kill my mother with shrinking tech, dad?”

“Not good,” he admits. “Shrinking tech is expensive to make, and mostly gets used by people on our side. I think I was the only one, at the time, operating it.”

“And who had access to your tech?” Arrow asks.

“Anyone with access to the JSA headquarters. Or a storehouse I kept in Jersey, in case that was ever compromised. I had some personal storage for a stretch in the seventies, too, in Gotham.”

“But you’re here,” Canary says, “because you’ve already run down those leads. So why are you here?”

“Because my tech runs on very specific isotopes. Specific, and rare. There aren’t a lot of places to buy them. And the people who supply them, there isn’t a one of them who doesn’t owe me a favor; I taught some of them, helped the rest, in costume or out. And there’s one in Vegas, who sold, just a day ago, to an older woman, fits the rough description, with some allowance for passage of time.”

“Older enough?” Canary asks.

“She thinks so- presuming she’s well preserved.”

“How big a favor did she owe you?” Arrow asks.

“Pretty big. She put a radioactive isotope impurity we can trace in the package.”

“I’m uncomfortable that this conversation began with a package and is ending with one.” Arrow says.

“You’re just sad that the package we’re talking about now isn’t yours,” Canary teases. “But we’ll come back to it,” she says, grabbing her jacket.

“Don’t you have a show?” Arrows asks, pointing to the star on her door.

“Not tonight. I only do an afternoon show today.”

They leave.

We do a little homage to the Batman origin, a wealthy looking couple, woman in furs and pearls, man in a nice suit, with their young son, cutting through an alley. A gunman steps out, threatening them. Nightwing drops down on him like a ton of bricks, the gun clattering noisily to the ground. Nightwing bows with a flourish, and assures the boy it’s all part of the show. A second gunman steps out from behind a dumpster. A bolt pins him to the brick wall, and Huntress lands, kicking him in the face; he remains pinned to the wall by the bolt.

They climb to a rooftop. Huntress looks like she’s pouting.

“You okay?”

“You’re asking me? You were the one who nearly got shot in the back.”

“I’ve learned that part of being a good partner is trusting people to have your back. I knew you’d be there for me.” She’s uncomfortable, physically if nothing else. “So I want you to know I’m here for you, starting with asking if you’re okay.”

“I’m okay,” she says, half-heartedly, and through it we see she’s disappointed.

So does Nightwing. “I know things didn’t happen with Mandragora like you wanted. But taking him in alive, there are a lot of families who are sleeping better tonight, maybe sleeping at all, because you did the right thing.”

“You kind of made me,” she says, her disappointment on the verge of pouting.

“Not what I meant. I know you were there, at the handoff, when the Sheriff’s Department gave him over to the Federal Marshals. You had a shot, and you were far enough away I wouldn’t have been able to stop you. Mandragora may not have killed my parents, but as someone who knows that loss as well as you do, and because the other families don’t know how hard doing the right thing was like I do, I wanted to say ,’Thank you.’”

“Oh,” she says.

“Not what you wanted to hear?” he asks.

“No, it’s not that, it’s… I think I might have worn the wrong top.”

“No,” Nightwing says, and he spins her, so she lands with her back against a wall as he leans into her and says, “You’re not.” But her instincts kick in, and she has her crossbow pressed into his throat. “Unless I’ve misread things.”

“No,” she says, and for a moment she’s embarassed, before rolling him, so he lands painfully on his back. She jumps onto his lap, and says, “I just like to be on top.”

We cut back to Arrow, Canary and Atom. They’re following Atom’s tracker, but it leads them to an arena. The bouncer is definitely powered (we could do a cameo from someone like Killer Croc; Clayface might be even more fun, since Canary could get suspicious and he could tell her to call his parole officer) or just have it be a generic mook who insists “No capes on the ticket. Bids only accepted through a proxy.”

Atom says, “Look, over there, it’s a distraction!” and for a moment they all look where he pointed, but not long enough for him to do anything. Then Arrow realizes that’s his cue, notches a napalm arrow, and sets fire to a car where Atom pointed. The bouncer’s annoyed, but tells them the street is outside his purview- and if they call the fire department he won’t even call the cops on them. Then he realizes Atom’s gone.

Arrow and Canary grab something to eat at a little cafe nearby. “My fries are cold,” Arrow says, “want to make out?”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Canary says, “but knew the moment I vocalized it,”

“Think that’s my cue,” Atom grows.

“I was beginning to think you paused in the middle of the heist to take an old man nap.”

“I could nap… but no. One, I found out that they pawned my gear. I couldn’t get close enough to check the control numbers. They bought the isotope because they had to prove it was authentic for it to go on the slab, which meant shrinking with it. Two, I talked to management. Roulette. She runs the gladiator games and the auction house. She’s usually pretty strictly all about discretion, but,”

We cut to her office, where Roulette is talking to Ray. “I’m a capitalist, first. And I recognize an opportunity when I see one.” She brings up several images of Arrow and Canary together, lingering touches, maybe pecks, typical tabloid fodder, on her row of monitors, even a live feed of them at the café across the street. “I have a reality show apartment I bought, wired up with cameras. Nothing hinky; not toilet or shower cameras.” The couple stay in the apartment one night, and she can sell the hell out of access to the house cams. “They don’t have to do anything but be themselves. They do that, and I’ll give you what you need to find your mystery woman.”

Ray doesn’t trust her, but Roulette made it clear that if they don’t play ball, she’ll sell the gear to an anonymous bidder, and pay the owner in untraceable crypto, and the trail dies there. Their only other option is to try to have Atom intercept the wire transfer and trace it; last time that happened he spent a week crawling through the bowels of a crypto farm in the Philipines- not exactly a ringing endorsement of that strategy.

Canary agrees. Arrow is reluctant (maybe because he was wealthy playboy enough to have been tabloid fodder before). Atom has an idea- he can shrink down and be their guardian angel. Arrow mentions that it’s probably too late, because the sun is coming up. Atom says the deal is for the next night. As they exit the cafe, they see digital billboards are already touting Green Arrow and Black Canary sharing a romantic evening in the Snoop House. “That’s not ominous at all,” Arrow says.

The next morning they’re all gathered for Nightwing’s briefing. He glances at the clock. “We waiting for something, boss?” Black Lightning asks.

“Yeah,” Green Arrow and Nightwing say at the same time, and Dick yields, letting Green Arrow continue. “We’re waiting for Dick to start.”

“We’re waiting for the other members of the team,” Nightwing says. “And I think that’s her.” He sees a woman’s silhouette emerging out of the sun, and as she gets closer we can see it’s Donna Troy. Her iconic star pattern costume doesn’t really sell her as being a Wonder Girl before Cassie Sandmark; it might make sense to go with something like the red jumpsuit; a good mid-point might be to mix that with the Jim Lee DCNu version with the dark pants (so it’s basically a jumpsuit version of Wonder Woman’s costume). Maybe you could go for a gold-accented variant to Wonder Woman’s, kind of like her usual costume intermingled with the golden hawk armor from 1984.

“Sorry I’m late,” she says. “I’ve been in a holding pattern for fifteen minutes. Wally made me promise I wouldn’t land without him; the other Flashes would never let him live it down if he was the last one to arrive.”

“Foolishly, I didn’t swear her to secrecy on that point,” Wally says, suddenly beside her.

“There’s doughnuts and coffee, and bagels and just a ten pound bag of sugar for Wally,” Nightwing says. Wally runs by the spread, and half of it disappears in a blur.

“Suddenly the spread makes sense,” Canary says.

Nightwing gives his briefing. It’s very low-tech, all things considered, as far as what Nightwing is presenting… we can cut away and montage the hell out of it like the whole thing was being done by Soderbergh (alternate pitch: GET SODERBERGH- how freaking cool would that be? I imagine he’d be curious about doing that thing he do but with a much crazier budget and FX).

Nightwing tells them that three casinos off the strip have been taken over by supervillains. Ostensibly, they’ve been hired to have their likeness exploited by the casinos, and to make celebrity appearances, on the floor and at their shows. But really, they’re holding the casinos hostage. At Joker’s Wild, the Joker has rigged the air vents with his Joker toxin- if the casino doesn’t keep giving him his cut, he’ll turn everyone inside (including the held-hostage family of the casino’s owner) into homicidal maniacs, most of whom won’t survive the transformation. At the Double Trouble, Two-Face has wired up every hotel room with explosives corresponding to red or black- and that if the hotel operators cross him he’ll spin his roulette wheel, and blow half the rooms- either red or black based on chance. At The Royal Flush, The Royal Flush Gang aren’t just taking a cut- they’re taking everything, pocketing even the paychecks of the employees, and forbidding anyone with any remaining cash from leaving- if you fail a credit check they’ll let you go, but otherwise no one leaves.

Finally, the problems started when a superpowered mobster named Blockbuster collected a casino in lieu of a debt. He’s been washing the supervillain underworld’s dirty cash through the casino since. He’s also the mastermind behind the takeover of neighboring casinos- he wants to buy them, outright, but first needs the current owners desperate- so he helped organize the attacks to both drive down the price and also take a cut to help him buy at the reduced price. This is because he wants to expand, beyond the relatively respectable among the villain set, to the real monsters, the terrorists, the sex traffickers, but for that he needs more casinos to be able to launder more money. Blockbuster’s casino is a tougher nut to crack, because it’s legit- but it’s also sitting on several times as much cash as it can legitimately claim, enough that it will be bankrupt if it has to make good on what it owes to the underworld figures if it disappears. 

The jobs are all complicated enough that they’re going to need all of them for each– and because if they tip off any one of the villains the others are likely to carry out their threats, they all have to happen concurrently, with all of them dropping in and out of each heist with the precision of a tightly-wound Swiss watch. Nightwing tells them he’s given Wally plans for each of the casino vaults, and has take-out from every delivering restaurant in a mile radius piling up at the reception desk to feed him while he constructs them to scale.

Wally disappears, then reappers, holding a hammer, and with some ketchup on his cheek. Donna tells him about the ketchup. “Oh, I’ve got ketchup everywhere. Moving at that speed, it’s like walking through a condiment tornado.” Nightwing tells them they have a few days, that Catwoman’s been doing some recon for him on the inside, and that’s as much time as they can safely delay before Joker’s likely to get bored and just start killing people to amuse himself.

Montage of them working through the heist stuff. Canary’s phone goes off. She’s got a show at Two-Face’s casino. Arrow goes with her, in civilian clothes. While there, they get a formal invite from Roulette, telling them a car will pick them up, in costume, after her show.

Two-Face is aggressive with Canary, and she flashes back to Black Mask from Birds of Prey, clearly still traumatized by their relationship. But Arrow is there, and comforts her enough that she puts on a brave face (pun!). Canary gets a musical number; Arrow watches Two-Face to see if there’s anything he can apply to their heist, later.

Arrow and Canary grab their ride and arrive at the Snoop House. She’s tired, and is looking forward to sleeping. “Sleeping?” Green Arrow asks, pretending he’s disappointed. She says she doesn’t trust this place enough to break wind in the bathroom, she’s not letting him as much as give her a courtly peck on the cheek. He agrees. But… there’s an expensive bottle of wine on the table. Arrow doesn’t trust it, but Canary uses a sonic cry to test the seal- the bottle is still sealed. Atom climbs through the cork, and tells Canary through an earpiece that he checked it on the atomic level- it’s clean, and it’s nowhere near enough alcohol to get three adults even tipsy- or two, yeah, he meant two, because he’s not here. Arrow is still uncertain, but Canary says she’s going to open it, and cries at the perfect pitch to pop the cork, then tells him either he’ll help her drink it or he won’t.

We cut to a bar, as the last of five bottles of beer are opened up. “This feels weird,” Wally says. “Doing this. When the last time we did this, we weren’t even old enough to do this. You know what I mean.” Donna relates that they were Teen Titans, then- or 3/5 of them were. Nightwing is apologetic to Black Lightning, for not inviting him to join the team. He tells them he’s older than them, he was like nineteen and a half by the time their team ‘debuted,’ that even if he’d wanted to join a team, he would have had only a few months before he was no longer a teen. Plus, he wasn’t much of a joiner, back then, so it’s cool.

“I was living in Italy with assassins,” Huntress adds. “Not, uh, really eligible.” Things are a little awkward, since the group haven’t been a group long, and even those that were haven’t seen each other in a while. So they decide to play some have you ever. Wally starts with he’s never made out with Nightwing, and Donna and Huntress drink. Huntress, either stewing or not quite getting the game, says she’s never made out with Donna. Wally and Nightwing drink, and they explain that the Teen Titans were basically one of those high school parties where everyone paired off and made out with everyone else- only kinkier because everyone was wearing masks, but still, pretty chaste, all things considered- since no one wanted to screw up the team by really pairing off. Which only makes things more awkward with Huntress.

Wally suggest they spin one “or several” of the bottles they’ve emptied, Black Lightning says he’s too old for “this shit,” and bounces. Nightwing realizes they all probably are, but it just means the rapport they build will be built of stronger stuff. He suggests they call it a night.

We cut to Arrow, still wearing his mask, rolling over in bed, curling into Canary. She’s wearing a wedding dress, which causes him to stir, and realize he’s wearing a tux. And they have matching wedding rings. Strewn across the very messy bed are rose petals and Polaroids of their drunken night of debauchery, including a stop off at an instant wedding chapel. Some of the Polaroids would seem to imply they’ve consummated their relationship. Arrow wakes Canary, frantic.

They freak out together, each blaming the other for things getting out of hand, as they spiral further out of hand, and they start pushing each other. Green Arrow tries to stop her early in, saying, “I don’t understand everything that’s going on here, Di, but I’m not going to raise a hand to the woman I love- I won’t be that guy.”

She has no such compunction, saying something like, ”I’m not going to let another man terrorize me ever again,” before belting him. She’s having trouble keeping him and Black Mask separate in her head. We cut to the gladiator arena, where a crapload of spectators, including some of the villains from this movie, bidding on the victor, as expensive looking fight graphics play on the Jumbotron: Green Arrow vs. Black Canary.

Canary throws him through a dresser, and out of it spill his bow and lots of green arrows. He spends a moment searching for something nonlethal, “My fortune for a taser arrow, or a knock-out gas arrow, or even a damned net,” she kicks him in the stomach. He finally picks up a regular arrow (they’re all regular arrows) and notches it. She punches the arrow in half, before punching him in the throat. “Thought you said I was getting better,” he strains.

“Better don’t mean good,” she says, knocking him out. She takes a few steps, realizing she doesn’t feel right. She tries raising her dad, saying they definitely were dosed with something- she’s not hungover, she knows what that feels like. He doesn’t respond, which confirms her concern.

The phone rings. It’s Roulette. Canary’s pissed off that Roulette dosed them and made them think they got married and had sex. She confronts her about putting steroids in the air, maybe something else, too. She cops to it, and tells Canary that Atom’s gear disappeared. But she’s pretty sure the owner took it back, and Ray into the bargain, and Roulette has another way she can find him- when he was in her office, Roulette placed a tracker on him. In her nightstand is the tracker.  

We cut to Atom. He comes to, tied to a chair. He tries to shrink, but his equipment won’t work. “Oh, Ray,” she says, “equipment not working? Funny, that was how I found out about you and Black Canary, back in the day. You were a naughty boy, then, Ray. Have you been naughty now?”

“You? What the hell’s going on?” Ray asks.

The next day, Canary and Arrow talk to Nightwing. He originally was confronting them about sneaking out- and how the team need them focused. Canary bursts like a dam, telling him that her father’s in town, helping look for her mother’s killer, but he’s been taken. Nightwing turns on a dime, no longer concerned about their heists; his family were killed, and clearly he was raised in a family that is motivated by hunting family-killers. He’s laser-focused on hunting the killer with her; it is the most like Batman we will ever see him, though he’s warmer, and more personally supportive at the same time, to the degree that Arrow is a little concerned about Nightwing horning in; no one else validates his insecurity (which only makes it funnier).

Nightwing goes to the others, and brings them up to speed, how this is about saving Canary’s father and avenging her mother. “Avenging?” Huntress asks, perking up. He reiterates they want nonlethal capture; Canary wants to know what happened with her mother, not a corpse. Huntress is hurt; not just disappointed, but hurt.

They cancel the day’s practice, in favor of riding out immediately. They roll up on the safehouse Atom’s being held in.

We cut inside. Atom’s still captive. His captor tries to give him something to eat, even as we see on security feeds that the Outsiders have arrived. Atom’s preoccupied with talking to his kidnapper. “Jean? Honey, what’s going on.” She’s standoffish, but gets close enough for him to grab her, only for him to gently take her hand. “Please,” he pleads, his voice rife with emotion, “Jean, talk to me.” We see Nightwing finish picking the lock on the front door even as Black Lightning electrocutes the cameras, shorting the feed.

She gasps. Wanting him to play cops and robbers with her was the only thing that was keeping her going. “Ray, I…” She crumbles.

She’ll narrate some of a flashback. Jean loved Ray Palmer from the moment they first met. She played hard to get, before letting him woo her; part of her was worried he’d be like other men who gave up after the conquest, and the rest because she was truly worried about how much she wanted him. And for a moment, it was magical, everything she’d imagined. And then Ray joined the Justice Society, and started working with Black Canary. She was beautiful, and fit, and always walking around in those fishnets and that tight, revealing little outfit. She couldn’t compete, especially not with the endorphins of fighting for their lives. And when half their team disappeared, she especially couldn’t compete with their shared grief. Ray left her a long time before he left her. And she never stopped wanting him back. She followed him, figuring out where he kept his surplus equipment. She snagged one of his older suits- not the oldest, which he kept for nostalgia, or the newest, which he was always tinkering on, but one of the surplus ones, one he might not be sure really was missing at all.

She tried to scare Canary off several times. She gave her a handful of close calls. She leaked her identity to the police, to the papers, even to villains. Finally, she thought, maybe she could make Canary forget Ray. She went inside her mind, and started screwing with linkages, and accidentally caused an aneurism. She called Canary an ambulance, but it was Gotham, in one of the neighborhoods where the cops can take hours to show, and where an ambulance won’t come without the cops. Long before anybody came, Canary was gone. Jean panicked, and to cover her tracks, she shot Canary in the head.

It screwed her up. She and Canary had been friendly. They were rivals, sure, she was even willing to hurt Canary to take her place at Ray’s side, but did not want to harm her, not seriously or permanently. She was a broken woman when Ray, hurting over what happened to Canary, reached out. She hadn’t wanted that, but in that moment they truly, desperately needed each other. Their love, their years together, were genuine and heartfelt, even though they were built on a despicable act.

As she finishes telling her story, we realize that Black Canary has been in the room basically since the story started. Jean throws herself at Canary’s feet, seeing how much she looks like her mother, and that blurring the lines enough for her that for an instant she thinks she’s Canary’s ghost, and not her daughter. She pleads with her to forgive her- that she wanted Canary to forget Ray- she didn’t want to hurt her. Canary asks Atom, who Nightwing has cut free, what’s going on. He’s a ghost, himself, telling her that he didn’t want to introduce her under these circumstances, but this is his wife, Jean Loring. They married a year after Canary died; he just lost the will to play superhero after that; even seeing his old costumes made him weep.

“All I wanted was to be the love of your life,” Jean whimpers, collapsing to the floor.

“Instead, you killed her,” Ray says, hollowed out. “This is all my fault.”

“No,” Canary says, hugging him, “it’s not.”

“This, uh, isn’t usually the way this goes,” Nightwing says. “There’s usually more punching.”

“Yeah,” Black Lightning says, “bet that hurts a lot less.”

“So what do we do with her?” Donna asks.

“I just looked it up,” Green Arrow says, “and statute of limitations on any kind of negligent homicide is long since past.”

“Dad?” Canary asks.

“She needs help,” Atom says. “I haven’t always been the best partner; God knows, I’ll always have to wonder if any of this would have happened if I were a better man, but I won’t abandon her again. I’m going to make sure she gets the help she needs.”

This is a perhaps overly somber moment, and we need to transition out of it, but not without letting the characters heal. I think Nightwing does a little wrap-up, back at the hotel. “I think today was a good reminder, for me. Sometimes, with the Titans, we could get wrapped up in the silly, fun aspects of being us. There were times I didn’t take it seriously enough, where I wasn’t able to stop and see the human cost underneath. I’m not saying,” (and here he does his Batman voice), “We should all be more like Batman. Because we shouldn’t. I’m not even sure he should be. We all have to learn to be the best Donna, the best Wally, the best Helena-“

“I prefer ‘Huntress.'”

“The best Huntress, then. Because we still have a job to do. There’s a lot of dirty money flowing through these casinos, funding a lot of the kinds of human misery we often don’t see up close like this. And more than ever, we need to shut it down, because we know how much it’s going to hurt people if we don’t.”

We cut to Arrow and Canary’s room. He’s holding her, when there’s a knock at the door. Atom comes in, and takes over, and father and daughter hold one another. Later, Arrow brings them coffee, where they sit looking out of the balcony. She’s holding her dad’s hand, and rests her head on Arrow’s shoulder as the sun begins to set.

Montage of more prepping for the heists. Included are little moments for each of them, like this one: “Are you sure you can make the shot?” Nightwing asks. We speed through the air as Arrow fires again. There are several arrows stuck to the middle ring of a target, but none in the center, which would allow the shot to slip through the slit between the barely opened faux vaultdoor.

We do the heist montages, with just enough moments spent with each villain and their pairings to feel like they’re not just generic villains from the Oceans movies. Nightwing and Huntress take on the Joker. This one will likely be the most fraught, because Joker’s figured them out, and re-masks them amongst his henchpeople, with masks he cut from the cloth napkins used in the restaurant inside the casino. Joker gets to monolog and threaten, wondering aloud which of the ways he could murder them would hurt Batman the most, intercut with the other heists. Eventually, Joker says he’s bored, and will just transform all of them into homicidal Jokers, and tries to blow the explosives. Nightwing leans into Huntress and tells her that’s why they stopped at the Wild their first night in town, that Joker was bound to do something like this. They fight their way out, leaving Joker knocked out. 

Two-Face likewise figures them out, because the Joker got a lot less morose a few days before. So he captures Green Arrow and tells him that he’s going to put his ideals on trial- that he can choose to be the new man he’s promised through his press agent, more focused on the group, or the selfish man who is going to save the woman he loves, and can walk out scott free. He’s about to answer when Wally, panting in the middle of the desert, standing on top of a large pile of explosives, calls over an earpiece to Arrow that he’s finished. Canary tells him if he doesn’t answer the question first she will collapse his lungs. He offers to let Two-Face shoot him; that losing her he would never be a whole man, but he couldn’t be either, if he let all those people die. He’d rather take a bullet himself. Two-Face flips his coin, tells him that wasn’t an option, but he’ll gladly shoot him and Canary both- that he’s always been a sucker for a tragic love story. That’s when Nightwing and Huntress arrive, and help finish off Two-Face.

The Royal Flush is the most bombastic of the three. When King tries to call the other casinos to tell them that they’ve been compromised, Donna tells him he can’t be weak in front of the other villains. Black Lightning appears, and tells her their communications are fried, and she tells King he can be as weak as he wants, then. Troy and Lightning have trouble with all five members… until the rest of the Outsiders arrive, and help them mop up. 

Finally, there’s the Blockbuster. This one is a lot more straightforward, since the heroes all have to show as civilians. They manage, with Green Arrow’s shot, to block the vault open with an arrow. Then they empty the vault. Blockbuster himself, not believing they could have thwarted his security or his plans, ends up in the empty vault. He tells his assistant to liquidate everything, and get him a charter to Santa Prisca. He needs to buy sanctuary with the King Snakes, because they never cleaned their money through the casino, and therefore are the only ones who might help hide him.

Pre-Credits scene: Arrow and Canary wake up in a hotel room.

“Oliver, why am I in a wedding dress?”

“Because it looked so elegant on you I insisted we take it.”

“And why am I wearing a ring that’s heavy enough I actually feel the weight of it?”

“Ring?” he sits up, bleary-eyed. “Oh,” he says, furrowing his brow, “I suspect because it’s the match to mine.”

“This can’t be legal.”

“I believe the important question is do you want it to be?”

“Not today.”‘

“Fair enough. Though I imagine we keep landing in this position because on some level it’s where we want to end up.”

“Also because you bought some ridiculously good champagne.”

“Ridiculously good champagne notwithstanding.”

“You asking, or telling?”

“You want me to ask, I’m going to need to borrow that rock,” he says, and gets down on one knee. She pulls him up to his feet and kisses him, and we cut away.

Green Arrow is discussing with Nightwing the possibility of hiring on a Green Lantern to up their game as they’re packing up their hotel rooms. He tells Ollie that great minds think alike as John Stewart lands. “I know just the guy,” he says, since then it’s a fun mislead.

Jason Todd calls Dick Grayson, wishing he’d had a crack at the Joker. “Wouldn’t that have been two-cracks? I hear you’re all about the art of the double-tap these days.”

“You can stick to playing touch football with these psychopaths, if you want, but I’ll tell you, brother from another mother, they aren’t playing the same game of patty-cake with you.”

“I’m not usually one to cast the first stone, but there’s plenty of people who’ve used the ‘P’ word to describe you.”


“No, the other one.”

“No, I was calling you one for pussy-footing around the word: psychopaths. That’s what they are. Deranged. Unstable. And yeah, I’m on a lot less even of a keel since their Clown Prince tortured me for months. I get about thirteen solid minutes of sleep between nightmares that the bastard still has me chained up in his basement. But we’re not talking about your garden variety mental health patients, here; these are people who revel in it. Who get off on the pain they cause. Believe me, no one looks forward to the day I can hang up my guns for good more than me.” He sighs. “Look, all I really want to know is whether or not you hit him extra hard for me.”

Dick hesitates a moment. “Always. And I know I give you crap. It’s not because I want to, or-“

“To prove you’re teacher’s pet?”

“We both know that’s Barbara.”

“I think you know Barbara a lot more thoroughly than I do.”

“Boundaries, man. And I want to know you’re okay. I can’t even imagine what you went through.”

“You? Probably not. But Dad? I was the one who had to talk him down. I didn’t need that, you know, but seeing it, it almost made the whole thing worth it. To know how much we matter to him, if only for a moment. That’s screwed up, isn’t it?”

“It is. Whole family’s screwed up like that. But you don’t dress like we do and have our kind of nightlife if you had a healthy childhood.”

“Barb kinda did.”


“And from the way you’ve talked about the circus it doesn’t sound like such a bad way to grow up… you know, until the tragedy.”

“Yeah. Tragedy does always kind of screw things up.”

“It’s weird, how many of us there are, now. I remember when it was just the three of us, and you and dad were barely talking…”

“It’s still weird to me to think of him as ‘dad.'”

“It helps being tortured by a maniac. Sort of peels away the emotional detachment. But my point was we were a weird little family. A dad. And an older brother slash dirty uncle who didn’t get along with him. And now there’s I’ve lost count how many Robins. Batwoman. At least one Batgirl, with a bunch of Birds of Prey hanging around her. And most of us join or even lead teams of our own.”

“Makes sense,” Dick said. “Just a bunch of orphans trying to figure out where we belong.”

“Yeah.” Jason pauses a beat. “You hit him really damn hard, right?”

“Thought I broke my jaw, his hand, or both, for a second there.”

“You think dad would ever forgive me, if I put a bullet in him?”

“I’ve known Bruce a really long time, and I don’t think it’s about what you’ve done, Jason. I think it’s about what you’re going to do. We all make mistakes, you know? But trying to be better than you were- I think that’s what matters most.”

“Doesn’t sound like a yes, though.”

“I don’t know, man. If I had to guess, if he felt like you couldn’t help it, like you had no choice, he’d forgive you. I think if you did it because you want to, on the hope he’d forgive you anyway… then I really don’t know. What he’s built, it’s bigger than any one of us. You killing someone you could take in, that might bring the whole thing crumbling down. And even then, I think he’d want to forgive you. But this thing he built, he built it so we didn’t have to be alone. You take that from him- from all of us, and I just don’t know, man.” We cut away.

I think at the end, Ollie decides to spend a little more on the team. This is revealed from him ‘souping up’ their Winnebago, which he demonstrate by blowing the horn, which now plays ‘La Cucaracha.’ The Outsiders give him crap for this, then he says that it also does this, and flicks a switch, and the exterior transforms into a sleek, green “Arrow car.” After a moment, the inside increases, morphing to show a state of the art mobile headquarters inside, as well. Ollie plays this off as having used the ill-gotten gains from the criminal’s portions of the heists… but Dick knows how much this kind of Batman-tech costs, and Ollie cops to using some of his fortune on it. Turns out, selectively leasing tech from Wayne Enterprises and Kord Industries, given what those companies do with their profits, is another way to do good with his fortune.

Relevant Review: Matt Fraction’s Hawkguy, er, Hawkeye

I promise I didn’t start this review with the intention of upselling you. It began with the best of intentions. I had read the first two volumes on Comixology Unlimited (1 and 2) way back when, then got the Omnibus for myself on the strength of that when it was on sale for 8 bucks and change. Rereading them for this review, the problem with those first two volumes, strong though they were, is they didn’t tell a complete story. It basically ends right in the damn middle, and it’s hard to accurately review Romeo and Juliet at the midpoint. It is similarly incomplete through Kindle Unlimited (1 and 2) the whole thing is available on Marvel Comics Unlimited (plus the setup issue), so there really is no pressure to spring for the fancy volume unless you want to.

Before we get into the story, a warning: I expect this series will include some of what the Hawkeye series will cover. I imagine the dialog will be less manic, and I don’t believe for an instant that Renner can be as charismatic as the Hawkeye written in here. Second, it’s good, and if you’ve a mind to read it unspoiled, you should do that first.

This is Hawkeye as he should have always been in the MCU. Full of personality, manic energy and also a self-loathing streak a mile wide; they basically stole Hawkeye’s personality and gave it to Iron Man, so when it came time to introduce Hawkeye, they made him ‘default white guy’ levels of boring. Making him a family man could have even been interesting on a team full of virgins and confirmed bachelors. But somehow that made him even less interesting, and also now harder to kill.

Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye is a flawed guy, the kind of sad sack who probably couldn’t figure out how to apply for a used car loan, let alone qualify for it, and he knows it. And I dig it. I don’t care how healthy your self-esteem is, if you hang out with Thor, Cap, Iron Man, and Hulk… there’s going to be moments when you recognize how much you can’t hack it. And Hawkeye works best when he’s that guy trying to do the job, even knowing he’d feel better if there were someone bigger, stronger, smarter, whatever who could do it in his stead. This is a Hawkeye whose feet are so firmly stuck in clay that it threatens to arrest his development permanently, but as the story progresses, you get to see him, at least in part, become the Avenger the world needs him to be.  

He’s also an arrogant, selfish, self-destructive jerk; depending on your tolerance for a protagonist who hates himself, it could be hard, but for me, at least, there’s always enough humanity inside Clint to where I get it. He doesn’t want to be a jerk, but he’s that prototypical guy who can’t get out of his own way, or stop alienating his friends and loved ones, that when he’s trying to do the right thing is when he’s the biggest danger to himself and others.

The story involves Hawkeye using some ill-gotten villain loot to purchase a building at bowpoint. This building happens to be owned by the Russian mob, who own every building in a three block radius and have a large real estate scheme cooking.

The series begins with Hawkeye taking on Kate Bishop as a ward, a trainee, to help her be the best Hawkeye she can be. Kate, for the uninitiated, is a reasonably wealthy person who picked up Hawkeye’s bow during the period when the Avengers were gone, having been disassembled by the Scarlet Witch. Hawkeye’s death, in particular, was dumb, supposedly because his quiver, filled with explosives and combustibles, eschewed any basic ideas of safety (like a catch to quickly remove it) despite his working for years with some of the best designers on his planet. I… really can’t recommend it; Avengers shouldn’t go out due to what basically comes down to an OSHA violation.

But what starts as a relatively typical junior partner relationship very quickly unravels, because Clint is in no way in control of enough of his life to be an expert on anything other than hitting a target with an arrow (which Kate’s already pretty good with). She slides more into the Alfred to his Batman role, trying to save him from himself, trying to buy him time and space enough to be able to pick himself out of his self-destructive cycle, including at one point running interference with an old flame, an ex-wife and a friend/girl whose relationship no one quite has a handle on.

But she can’t save him;.no one can save Clint Barton from himself. He starts up a doomed romance with a thief, and ends up getting himself arrested helping her try to steal something to guarantee her safety, which dovetails with the central plot about Clint’s building- they’re part of the same mob he essentially stole the building from.

This same mob gets special dispensation from the Kingpin and the other members of the underworld’s upper crust to whack Hawkguy; part of the reason is, they figure if they fail, it’ll blow back on them, and if they succeed, they get a free dead Avenger.

There’s also a lengthy subplot of Kate pissing off Madame Masque by originally impersonating her to save Clint’s butt, and then having to dodge the femme fatale across a Chandler-esque detective story set in LA. It elevates Kate from supporting player to the Other Hawkeye, as the story bounces back and forth between the two of them on opposite ends of the country, before bringing them back together for the finale.

But you don’t read this Hawkguy for the plot, because the plot is just kind of the thread linking  nearly two-dozen days in the life. The stories of Hawkguy just barbecuing on the roof with his neighbors, helping a neighbor survive a hurricane, or working with Tony Stark to untangle the cords on his entertainment center are where the book really grows on you. Just look at this page. It is a masterclass of economic but deep visual storytelling.

And sure, there’s plenty of heroics here to sate, as well, but where this book really is different is in the tragicomic moments between, for which David Aja’s beautiful, simplified art is the perfect companion. Now, that might sound like a slight, bit it’s not. I love hyperdetailed art as much as the next unfortunate soul to come of comics-reading age in the 90s, and most days I’d rather something approaching photoreal than impressionist. But Aja’s art is gorgeous, deftly giving you just the right amount of detail to beautifully craft the story, while making sure the page as a whole is functional art, too. I don’t really think I can explain it, so on that strength alone I’d suggest at least flipping through.

Want even more? My first suggestion would be Fraction’s nearly 60-issue Invincible Iron Man run; he breaks Tony down, from the fascist clown who largely instigated the comic book Civil War for what amounted to “Reasons” (with all due respect to his writers at the time), and rebuilds Tony as a humbler, but also still very Tony Iron Man. I’m honestly surprised; when I read Civil War I thought the damage was permanent, that I would never again be able to enjoy the monster that Stark became, but Fraction pulled it off (and it only took 5 years). If you’re looking for something a little more Hawkguy, the issue of Avenging Spider-Man (#4, to be precise) guest-starring Hawkeye gets at some of his stubborn, idiot pride (and sadness) that I think lies at the heart of him, and is worth a read. I believe Aja also worked on a Scarlet Witch book with James Robinson, if I’m not mistaken, so that might be worth checking out, too, though I haven’t read it yet to give an impression (though it’s likely only a matter of time before I do- and I might do a review of it to pin to WandaVision).

Nexus 3, Chapter 11

“I’m not sure about this,” Bill said. He was anxious, anxious enough he was fiddling with his restraints instead of locking them. “If they’re close enough for a firing solution, isn’t slowing up to check their tech just getting them closer to the target?”

“Buckle,” I told him. “We only have a preliminary scan of the atmospheric contents; we could be in for a bumpy landing.”

“Why do you think I took the pilot seat?” he asked, but he did secure his restraint. “I’ve seen your flight scores. There was no way I was letting you or Templeton land.”

I got a copy of his scores pulled up before I realized he was full of crap; he didn’t have access to either of our scores, not as head of engineering. Maybe Dave could have taken a peek, but Bill was blustering. Still, his scores were good, better than mine, and unless Elle spent a while working on her flight skills he was a better choice than her, too. Didn’t mean I had to give him the satisfaction of confirming it, though. “There’s plenty to be learned,” I said. “Like where these were fired from. If they were fired from Earth, a nearer colony, something left in the wake of the Argus or if this is the Nascent. Learning about the tech they’re using could help us deal with a subsequent shot- or even figure out if there’s a way to redirect ourselves to make it harder for them to follow. Regardless, the Nexus is coming back for us- complaining now isn’t going to change that.”

“We could tell them not to bother,” he suggested.

“And murder us?” Elle asked.

“Three people compared to, what, a thousand lives, at this point?”

“Four,” Elle said, touching her belly.

“Even if you gave that order, do you think Haley or Dave would listen to it?” I asked.

“No, and that’s why we shouldn’t have gotten on the shuttle in the first place.”

“Well, we’re on it,” Elle said. “And until we see what they fired at us, we aren’t going to know if this was a fool’s errand, so we need to stow the dissention. Because I’ll remind you, if we spend the trip down with you bitching, he has at least an equal amount of time to ride you on the way back. And incentive to keep it up even back on the ship.”

“Yeah,” Bill said, with a sigh. “Besides, we’re dropping onto an unsurveyed world, and we should be focusing on making whatever plan we can. Example- the spearhead hit with enough mass and speed to cause the equivalent of a nuclear detonation. Looks like the suits should be able to handle the fallout, no pun intended but we should keep an eye on sensors- no reason for us to open any of our systems clogging or overheating. And… goddamnit. Are you sure it’s too early to deploy an ‘I told you so?’”

“What’s the situation?” I asked, leaning to try to be able to better see the instrument panel, because trying to access it through an eyescreen would be tough without knowing which needle in his haystack was irritating him.

“Probes didn’t initially find life on this world. That’s because this species buries itself deep within caves underground, too deep for an atmospheric scan to pick up. But apparently nuking them from space has riled them up. They’re massing.”

“Nope,” Elle said, drawing his attention to several other points, “they’re staging. Maybe it’s an emergency response; presumably they’d have children and elders who wouldn’t be a part of military staging- but it could be both, security forces massing at some locations, disaster shelters in others. That means the odds of resistance go up significantly.”

“Maybe Bill’s right,” I said. “Maybe the cost of whatever we might here learn isn’t worth it.”

“We’ve already paid half that cost by losing some of our head start to stop here in the first place,” Elle said, turning her frustration on me.

“Doesn’t mean we should throw good advantage after bad.”

“I’m not chasing a sunk cost. But stop thinking with your genes, for a second. If it weren’t me, if it weren’t your daughter, it would be worth it, no question. The next one of these spearheads could hit the Nexus if we don’t use this opportunity to figure out how to stop them. It’s a good risk to take, even if you’re not keen on who is being risked.”

“She’s right, Drew,” Bill said.

“Wait, now even you are abandoning your position?” I asked, pointing at Bill. “Is it just a knee-jerk opposition to me?”

“No. She’s right, and persuasive. We’re past the point of no return on this- so we might as well try and get a return on the investments we sunk into it.”

“What’s our situation like?” I asked.

Bill sighed, and shared the environmental scans the ship had managed as we descended. “Atmosphere is thick; think midway between a hearty chicken and a heavy pea soup. Means the atomized particles are going to be denser at the point of impact. It might function as cover, or might get into literally everything and destroy, in order, our suits, our ship, our health, our futures, and any will to restrain ourselves from choking out our glorious leader.”

“So from an environmental standpoint things aren’t rosy. What’s the security sitrep?” I asked.

“Well,” Elle said, in a sing-songy way I remembered from Dalaxia and a handful of other briefings where we were dog-paddling our way up Shit Creek but she really didn’t want to be the one to put a hole in our morale canoe, “we’re up against a massing force of unknown strength, wielding unknown levels of tech. And without a commbox or even a rudimentary way of communicating with them. We don’t know if they’re coming just to see what’s going on, or if they’re going to come at us with the intention of shooting first and letting their gods sort it out. Or if they eat their still-living enemies; or hate-fuck them to death. In other words, you and I are going to cover Bill. He’s going to get whatever scans he can, or carry away whatever pieces he can to pull apart back on the Nexus. Time’s going to be of the essence, because they can probably overtake us through sheer numbers, and all of that ignores that we’re likely going to face more than rocks and sharpened sticks wielded with some degree of magnitude more complicated tactics than children on a playground.”

“And we all still think we should proceed, circumstances be damned?” I asked.

“We should,” Bill said. “And you should both know I sent a message to the Nexus, telling them exactly how fucked this mission is, and that if they don’t hear from us when it’s time to do their gravity-assisted turn to come back for us- that they should assume we’re gone and proceed without us. You’ve got about ten seconds if you want to try to send a competing message out before the dust kills our ability to get a signal out through all the debris.”

“No,” I said. “We finish the mission or they should leave our bodies where we fall.”

Elle gasped. “I can’t believe you’d say that about your daughter,” she said.

“You have never been that kind of woman- or mother.”

“Can you imagine?” she asked, eyeing the munitions cabinets while pulling on her restraints. “It’s taking every last kilo of willpower not to be counting how many shots are in the rifles.”

“You already know.”

“I know. But you count them in case some asshole didn’t refill them.”

“And I bet you’ve counted them since this shuttle last left the Nexus, too. And could probably tell me when both counts happened.”

“I know,” she said, a little deflated. “But it helps calm my nerves.”

“Well, as soon as our pilot tells us it’s safe, I’ll help you count them, okay?” I reached across the aisle between seats along either wall. She had to strain similarly to take hold of the tips of my fingers.

And if you didn’t know her as well as I did, you might not have caught the tiny little hitch in her voice as she said, “Okay,” back.

Nexus 3, Chapter 10

“I still think this should have been a manned flight,” Bill said.

“And you’re one of two people who are the reason it isn’t,” Elle said, “and I will box both of your ears if either of you complain about it again.”

“Why is she here?” he whispered me, but loud enough she was supposed to hear it.

“Because I don’t trust you,” she said. “And the council doesn’t trust you. And we voted for me to be here officially, to not trust you in an official capacity.”

“You won’t win, Bill,” I told him. “All you can do is try to lose with a little dignity.”

“Is that what happened to yours?” he asked with a smile. “Years of ball-busting.”

“I can’t tell if that’s you joining in on the ball-busting, or deflecting to preserve your dignity.”

“You all know it isn’t actually easy to fly this thing by remote near the Nexus, keeping it within range of our signal but not getting close enough either to clip the ship or ricochet some rocks into our path?” Dave asked from the improvised control setup.

“My sensors indicate an incoming projectile,” Haley said over all of our comms. Most of us looked at Dave, assuming he’d flown enough off course that he’d set off some perimeter alarms. He knew better.

“Projectile?” Dave asked. “No, I see it on the probe’s sensors, now. It looks like one of our probes. I’m going to buzz it.”

Haley shared the view from the probe’s cockpit, including the HUD overlay that a pilot would see if they were flying it. The probe zoomed past the projectile.

“It’s definitely not manned,” Dave said. “No space for a human being, none of the engineering compromises you’d have to make to keep a person alive.”

“Projectile is gaining on the Nexus,” Haley said.

“Can we maneuver out of its path?” I asked.

“Not fast enough,” Dave said. “It’s going to clip us- unless- standby.” I felt the acceleration of the probe as if I was lurching forward within its cockpit. Then I saw the probe zoom forward, impacting the projectile. Suddenly the feed cut, and instead Haley was sharing a diagram, showing nearby worlds, and the three vessels with their trajectory, including the impact of the two. A projected trajectory beyond the impact put the projectile landing on world. “We need to get down there,” I said. “Right now. Dave stays, but the rest of us are going down there. We don’t have time to dink around planning a mission. We need to drop in a shuttle before we get out of range. We’re running, now!”

Pitchgiving 2021, part 10: Justice Society 2: Marvelous

We start slice of life. We follow Billy Batson on a typical day as a young orphan. At one point, he daydreams, as he touches an invitation, embossed, fancy, old-fashioned, from the Justice Society inviting Captain Marvel to attend. After school, he talks with whichever of the other orphans it makes sense to bring along, mostly because I love Adam Brody, I’d make it Freddy. They start, as kids, discussing the opportunity/responsibility of being called by the Justice Society, then walk past a tree, and out of the other side stroll their superhero counterparts, continuing the conversation seamlessly.

Billy’s reluctant, but Freddy is excited, that these are the big leagues, and this isn’t like Mary hanging out with those Justice Losers, the society have been around for ages- and the old Shazam was one of them, there’s a legacy here.

We cut to the Justice Society’s hall, now returned to its former glory. Shazam strolls in, and before any of them can say anything else asks why they called his predecessor the Big Red Cheese. One of the old-timers explains, “Chuck was a kid in a man’s body, just as naïve as you’d imagine that would be. Smart, you know, wisdom of Solomon and all, but without the life experience. He spent a good ten years emulating heroes from radio serials, catch-phrases and all, squinting so he’d look like the old Fleischer heroes. I remember one time he pulled Power Girl out of the way of a falling building and she kissed him, and he turned beet red for a week; he was as red as his suit.”

Shazam, growing concerned, asks about references to him in the past tense. “Like I said. Chuck was a kid. He spent years transformed, because that was what the world needed. Then we lost half our team, dumped into the modern era, we know now, but back then… we thought they were gone. It broke him. For the first time in years he changed back. And he was still just a kid, a kid who could not handle that kind of personal tragedy; I wouldn’t be playing straight with you if I said any of us handled it well. And half of it was that we needed him, sure, but the other was he was too damned scared to change back, to have to face that world as an innocent little kid. Anyways, he decided to grow up. He still helped us, time and again, when the needs got big enough. But he got married. Think he had a couple girls. Been a long time since he said the magic word, kid. I imagine that’s why the wizard chose himself another champion. And it’s been too long since the Justice Society had a Captain Marvel knocking around.”

Billy frowns. He doesn’t like that name. He prefers “Shazam.”

Which leads to murmuring. “Like the Shaquille O’Neal genie movie?” One asks, while another says, “That was Kazaam.” And another asks if it’s like the app for recognizing a song.

Mister Terrific butts in. We’ll use this as an excuse to introduce at least the characters he mentions, with a title in the bottom of the screen for them when he mentions them. “Give the kid a break. We can’t all be named after a roller coaster (Wildcat), a 1970s prog-rock band (Flash), European folklore (Sandman), a semi-precious stone (Obsidian), or another semi-precious stone (Jade), or a color and a semi-random light-emitting object (Green Lantern). Or taking a vague descriptor and a quaintly old-fashioned gendered label (Power Girl), I guess we could suggest he go by Lightning Lad.” Stargirl makes a disapproving face (and we get to label her, too).

“I do like the rhyme-scheme of Mister Terrific,” Shazam says, “even if it does make you sound like a pro wrestler.”

“Oh yeah!” Terrific bellows in his best Macho Man voice; if Slim Jim are willing to pony up for the product placement, it would go here. Shazam says they’re all a bunch of lunatics, aren’t they, to which Terrific, again in his best Macho Man, says, “Oh yeah!” One of the ones who would have been around in the 80s asks if he’s doing Kool Aid Man. One that wasn’t, says they aren’t familiar with that superhero.

Terrific and Stargirl (because I still like the idea of the pair of them as a couple- plus I like them passing the torch of the wide-eyed POV character on to Shazam for this one) give him the tour. Terrific tells them the Society is just that, a society, one meant to last generations, carrying on the group’s ideals and legacies. The Hawks, for example, aren’t the same as the ones who were part of the team with his predecessor; they’re a pair of star-crossed lovers who reincarnate, find one another, die tragically and heroically, then reincarnate all over again- like if Romeo and Juliet could fly and had a penchant for smashing monsters with magic hammers. How even though Atom’s retired, he and his daughter, the current Black Canary, are always willing to lend a hand should anyone need it. Shazam asks how often they end up needing to call in all the reserves (with a hint that he has a few he can call in- oh yeah, for 3 we’re definitely calling in all the Marvels, er, Shazams).

Hanging around is a character related to someone wearing a costume similar to the Al Pratt Atom/Damage. The idea, here, is that Ray Palmer was the 2nd Atom, after Al, learning from him first as a physics student, before taking after him as a hero. It was Ray who pioneered the Atom’s shrinking gimmick, though. After the disruption of the Justice Society, Ray would work with Pratt’s grandson, who became Atom Smasher, as well as his son, the original Damage, as a mentor. While Damage died in the line of duty, it was always believed he had a son, and that son eventually emerges, and is here, largely in the background as we start. He is named David Reid. He focuses his powers through a lance, but he’s also had military training, rising to the position of Lance Corporal. He’s also got a glowing eye and a robot arm; so I’m not hiding the pea, here, David Reid will eventually become Magog over the course of the next two movies, even if right now he largely hasn’t adopted the Egyptian theming quite as much (it’s a process, owing to his near-death that led to his cybernetics)

I think there are already factions forming. Terrific plays coy, because Stargirl is there… because she’s leaning towards the more extremist faction, while he feels more constrained because he’s one of the leaders, towards the more compassionate side. But the tensions are palpable, and when David asks her to spar, she gladly joins him for some pretty brutal combat, also freeing Terrific to be candid with Shazam.

“To be honest, I’m glad you’re here. The old Marvel, he, they talk about him like he was the best of us. Our moral compass, that ‘Wisdom of Solomon’ thing wasn’t just marketing copy, he knew the right thing to do, not just for him, but for all of us. He was Superman, before he ever came to the planet.”

“And why do you need that? Isn’t Superman enough?”

“Lot of these people remember a world without a Superman- and I’m not just talking that siesta he took. The big blue boyscout’s a fine example for younger, less jaded recruits, but the old timers, or the hard-cases? He’s too ideal. When you’ve got that much power, you can spare some to show mercy. When you’re just an old kickboxer past his prime,”

“I heard that,” Wildcat grumbles.

“The reason we need you more than ever, is we’ve taken a lot of hits lately. Guy out there with the robot arm? Lost it a week ago. We were lucky he’s on loan from the Army; they had an in with LexCorp. on some experimental bionics. Some of ours have fared a hell of a lot worse. Some among us, they’re starting to wonder if the best defense isn’t a good offense. Might work to a point in basketball, but you start applying that to vigilante work and you’re attacking citizens before they commit a crime, you’re shooting people because you think they’re guilty, not because you have no other choice.” Terrific is tense enough he unconsciously calls those little floating balls to him.

Shazam is amused. “Phantasm, right?” Billy asks.

Terrific is puzzled. “I’ve heard of a fan-gasm before…”

“I don’t believe I want to know the context of that.”

Suddenly the lights go out. Terrific says it’ll only be a moment before they turn over to the solar-back-ups. They get power for a moment before it blacks out again. Terrific says the back-up batteries should kick on in a moment. Red emergency lights come on, and warnings start going off, as the Hall of Justice’s residents start chattering excited. Green Lantern starts barking orders, getting them to assemble into their emergency teams.  Terrific pulls Shazam aside and asks how he is with radiation. He says he got a sunburn once putting out fires in Brazil. He assigns Shazam to go with Power Girl, who will take point. There’s something wrong with the city’s nuclear plant.

Next Terrific starts talking to Green Lantern. He tells him they lost solar because the entire city has been covered by a canopy of fast-growing trees, showing him video of his surveillance being overgrown from several points across the city. Blotting out the sun is causing panic, so their first order of business is to cut down the trees, or at least arrest their growth. Green Lantern admits that he can’t handle that, because his magic doesn’t work on wood. Terrific is flabbergasted. “So a child with a miniature baseball bat is your kryptonite?” Green Lantern explains he could still stop the child directly. “Okay, but if he were wearing armor he whittled with a tiny little child pocket knife, then you would be powerless to stop him?” Green Lantern tries to pantomime as he explains he could pick up two cars, and try to pick up the child with them, like chopsticks. Terrific interrupts, “But if I got you some real sawblades, you could put those in some lantern contraption to then indirectly effect the wood, right? Flash. Stop by a hardware store.”

“Done,” Jay Garrick says, as a stack of sawblades appear next to him.

Terrific assigns Jay to lead the rest of their forces on clean up, crowd control, etc., just making sure things don’t get worse, and that Terrific will be on overwatch, just as soon as Jay gets the trees cleared enough for him to actually see anything.

Power Girl manages to get the power plant shut down; to make it slightly more dramatic, she’s exposed to enough nuclear radiation she passes out (her Kryptonian physiology will eventually convert the radiation to energy, she’s just temporarily overwhelmed), and Shazam has to carry her out. Terrific tests him to see if it’s done any damage- which, it had, but not so much that he’s worried.

Green Lantern gets the trees trimmed back, only to discover that the wood from them is alive, and starts attacking the citizens (think the brooms in Fantasia). Green Lantern’s team is in danger of being overrun, until Jay’s team arrive, and they’re able to handle the fighting.

However, there seem to be positive impacts of the growth, too; a cancer ward in the local hospital is overgrown with a rare plant specimen originally from the depths of the Amazon (and thusfar undiscovered by man). It halts the spread of the patients’ cancer, even puts some of them into remission. I think there’s a lush field outside of the hospital, on which Woodrue has the grass selectively brown to write a note, explaining he is a plant elemental and wants to help, even if his powers are… difficult to acclimiate to.

Terrific asks Specter and Dr. Fate to consult. They confirm that Woodrue isn’t a god, nor is he a true plant elemental like the Swamp Thing. He’s kind of an artificial version. Where Swamp Thing taps into the Green, and is both empowered by and entrusted as an emissary for all plantlife, and by extension, essentially the entire planet, Woodrue has basically hacked into and corrupted this power. Terrific asks if they can get Swamp Thing to help. Fate says they’ve been trying, but Justice League Dark seem to be indisposed at the moment, the Swamp Thing included, but he’ll keep trying to raise him.

Terrific puts out an offer to Woodrue, to help him with his outreach, to help channel his knowledge and skill into solutions for the greater good. Woodrue rebuffs the offer. This proves a fracture point. Magog, Power Girl and Stargirl want to deal with Woodrue now, when he’s clearly learning the ropes of nearly infinite power- that a wait and see approach may well leave them all exposed to a power they can’t stop. Battle lines get drawn, but Terrific maneuvers for all of them to slow down- that he’s taking a trust but verify approach to Woodrue- basically assuming that he is up to something, but that they need to understand what, so they can know how to stop him without losing all the benefits he brings. It’s a speech from Shazam that gets them all to agree to give Terrific space to let his plan play out.

Solomon Grundy gets reanimated. This largely distracts the Society, while forcing them to work together to stop him. It looks like Terrific is being naïve, but he secretly consults with Fate to confirm that Grundy’s revival was down to Woodrue’s dark magics, and that he’s getting stronger- really, they both are- that Woodrue made this new Grundy even stronger. Fate and Terrific together prove Woodrue’s plot, that he tainted the drinking water with algae, itself a relatively benign thing. But everyone in the city drinking tap water, showering, etc., now has that algae growing invasively inside of them. His goal is to make them into an extension of the Green, a power source that can’t be removed by the plant realm, and also functions like taking the entire city hostage, to prevent heroes from interfering with him, too. By the end of the day, his spell will be complete, and irreversible.

Even as the citizens laud Woodrue for the benefits his plants have given the city, the Society is forced to wage a very public assault on his citadel. Some of the first people to have come into contact with Woodrue (in particular patients from the cancer ward) have basically become plant/human hybrids, and savagely attack the society, proving to have some light, Swamp Thing-esque abilities.

The Society fight their way to the heart of the citadel. I think the movie ends, basically, with Terrific executing Woodrue. At the time he tells Power Girl the line was always stopping Woodrue without killing him if possible, and he didn’t see any other possible way, so he did what he had to. He admits in a mid-credits scene to Courtney that he really can’t be sure it was the right call, or whether he did it to preserve the Justice Society. She says she’s not sure that would be such a bad thing- but he recognizes the truth- that if he’s forced to compromise himself to keep the Society whole, it’s already in peril. I imagine Woodrue’s ‘death’ is pretty cool, Terrific injecting him with slightly-larger than nano scale versions of his orbs, that shred him from the inside out.

“He isn’t dead,” we hear in Swamp Thing’s rasp even before we cut away from black to see him standing where Woodrue ‘died.’ “Woodrue has become like me, no longer a physicial being, but a consciousness. I am sustained by the Green, at the behest of the Parliament of Trees. Woodrue is a contagion, a pollution, stealing strength from the plants around him. He has redoubts, wherever there is an attack on the natural; oil spills, dumped chemicals, radioactive waste. There I cannot follow; there he is safe.” “Not from us,” Power Girl says. She’s standing in front of Magog and Stargirl. Her eyes glow red when she says, “You tell us where this infection is and we’ll burn it out.” We cut to black.

Princessless Pitch: The Pitch

In honor of National Princess Day, I’m crafting a pitch for a demo that doesn’t have their own princess (or several). The explainer post is over yonder: https://nicolaswilson.com/wpblog/blog/2021/11/18/princessless-pitch/

As a caveat, the lead is trans, but at the start of our story is still in the process of sorting themselves out, and at least still publicly identifying as he/him. While we, and somewhere deep down, the character, know better, it’s a tightrope, because I don’t want to, however inadvertently, misgender Taylor, so I have mostly been sticking with referring to the character strictly by name. This is still a first draft (might be second, by the time I post), but that’s the idea. Apologies, as well, for the shifting tense; for some reason my head really wanted it present, even while I fought to put it in past. Not sure why that was such a pain on this one.  

Princessless: The Pitch

Typical Disney animation opening, styled kind of like the stained glass intro to Beauty and the Beast, showing a magical fairy land, castles, all in hypersaturated, candy colors. “I’ve always been a fairy princess,” cut to the present day, where a shy, dorky, everybody knows they’re trans before they do kid wearing more pink that you’d typically expect of someone at least technically presenting as male, named Taylor, is fumbling awkwardly with their locker as a tide of students flows in and out around them, “just uh, not like you’d think.” Someone bumps them, and it’s unclear if it was intentional, but someone tells them to “Keep it moving, princess.” 

Taylor continues to narrate, as we see the same dorky kid’s eyes light up. The world falls away, as we zoom in as whatever they’d been feeling a moment before disappears. “Large swaths of my life were basically a fairytale.” We reverse, and see the handsome boy who caught Taylor’s eye, named Fenix, who is wearing a letterman’s jacket and is effortlessly cool as he walks towards Taylor. They kiss, and Fenix leads Taylor outside. I’m thinking Fenix should be Asian. “I found my charming prince, and he is every bit as gallant as I could hope.” Fenix opens a car door for Taylor. “Sure we can’t give you a ride somewhere?” 

“Can’t,” he says with a shrug. “Got practice.”

“Yep. I know. All those feet aren’t going to ball themselves.”

Fenix kisses Taylor goodbye. “I love how weird you are.” 

“I… I love you, too,” Taylor blurts out. We watch Fenix walk away, before the car starts to roll. 

“So,” Taylor’s dad said, Finnegan, buzzing a little bit from the driver’s seat, “first time you’ve said that?” Taylor’s dad is a big, burly man’s man, all flannel and beard, with very kind, twinkling eyes. Think a Santa origin where he’s a lumbersexual living in Portland, and I realize I’ve just accidentally cast Nick Offerman in the roll, and you should definitely offer it to him, man.

“First time for either of us,” Taylor buzzes back.

“I remember the first time I said it to your mother, just over there,” he points to a tree that they pass on the school grounds. He pauses at a stop sign, as a tear rolls down his cheek, his hand hesitating on the gearshift for a moment, until Taylor places a hand over his. 

“I miss mom, too,” Taylor says, and they hug over the gearshift. We cut to outside the car, as we see them hug through the rear windshield, as the car starts to roll. “Rolling rolling rolling,” Taylor says, before the break lights come on. 


We cut a little further into their drive. 

“Dad, there’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.”

“Me, too. Did I ever tell you your mom wanted a daughter? I was nervous. I didn’t know how well my job was going to pay, but she told me she wanted a daughter, and it didn’t matter if it took a hundred tries, she meant to have one. Um, sorry, son; she loved you more than breathing. I’m not saying you weren’t what she wanted, at all.”

“No, I, I get it, dad,” Taylor says.

Finnegan knows he screwed up, but doesn’t know how to set it right. “You talk to your friends?”

“Their parents said so long as you’re supervising, and making sure we don’t get into any ‘monkeyshines’ they could stay the night.”

“Nope. No monkeyshines. And we’re picking up Zene on the way home?”

“Yeah, she’s all packed up. She should be ready.” 

We cut to later, Zene leading the way into Taylor’s room. I want Zene to spend part of the story in a wheelchair, but also be ambulatory. There’s plenty of people who use mobility aids part time, who might be able to get around short distances, but for longer ones need a walker or chair. Zene is from Africa (not just of African descent- since I am considering being from Africa as a separate demographic we’re trying to hit), born in Congo, raised by Muslim parents (not sure all of these will be salient story details, but they’re part of her). 

“You tell him?” Taylor doesn’t even get a chance to answer before she adds, “Chicken.”

“I’m not even sure which him you’re referring to,” Taylor responds.

“You tell either of them? Or are you a double-chicken?” 

“Like a chick-chicken?” They laugh for a moment, before Zene puts a hand on Taylor’s shoulder.

“You can’t cute your way out of this. You’ve got to be brave, and trust that they’ll be happy to know you better.”

“And if they aren’t?”

“They will be. They love you.”

“And if they don’t?” 

“Then I’ll just love you three times as much,” Zene says, and wraps her arms around Taylor. 

We’ll have a quick meal, then they pick up Fenix and go camping. Finnegan gets them all squared away. He and Taylor share a tent, the other two kids get their own separately. Finnegan gets a fire lit, and stands up, with a rumpled piece of paper. 

“Darra brought me here the first time we left town. It became our spot-” the kids all share some kind of unique ick face, “not like that. Just, we’d come here, and talk, and just listen. It didn’t surprise me that she wanted her ashes spread here. But she also asked that we come again, tonight. She never told me why, but she made me swear it, and put it in her will, too, that I bring our kids along. Bringing the two of you along was Taylor’s fare. But your mother asked me to say a Hebrew blessing. Always a sweet woman, she spelled it out for me phonetically, though the font leaves something to be desired.” He put on a pair of round spectacles. 

He still struggled, ultimately having Taylor read it, who finished by noting, “that doesn’t sound like Hebrew.” It isn’t. We watch as a spark from the fire leaps off, rising into the air, before opening a portal in the air, one that sucks them all in. 

They come to, moments later, on the floor of a cave. There’s a strange, ornate door carved into the rocks, that is not so subtly glowing white. A flying faery, about the size of a baby, buzzes about the room. Their name is Kailea. “You’re late,” they said, crossing their arms sternly. “Your mother could have brought you over any time the last year, but you waited for the last possible-” they pause, and soften, “the princess isn’t with you. My condolences. She was last here before my time, but, my father said she was… kind.”

“She was,” Finnegan said.

“But we haven’t time. The door becomes more porous with every moment. Princess, you must repeat after me.” Taylor exchanges a look with Finnegan, who shrugs. Taylor follows them in a recitation of a spell, sounding similar to the one that landed them there. 

This time, Taylor said, “There were definitely some Hebrew words in that.” 

“Somethings wrong,” Kailea said. They fly to bar the door, even as it cracks open. I have an interesting thought about the design of the villains: they are pure whiteness, think the inversion of the Nazghul as shadows from Lord of the Rings. When they slash, they tear the structure and color out of the world, replacing it with blank white (which they are also, themselves). One of them, looking like a stocky man in a hood with long talons shoves his way through the door right before Kailea manages to secure it. Finnegan pushes the children behind him, and picks up stick and swings it. The creature takes notice, and swipes at him, knocking all of them over and causing Finnegan’s knee to pop as they all fall in a pile. Suddenly, we hear Taylor whisper an incantation from offscreen, and the white creature turns his attention that direction, before popping like a bubble as he lunges. Kailea is flitting beside Taylor, then  flies back to the door, rereading the instructions carved into it. 

“Ah, I see,” Kailea said. “You’re going to have to quest, I’m afraid. The door’s instructions are quite explicit. Taylor is of the correct royal bloodline, but in this state, hardly a princess. But I know a practitioner who can help. It’s a journey, and one that must be undertaken with all haste. The machak were already able to leak into our world; and after that, I don’t think the door is truly barred anymore. But a word of warning.” Kailea flits to Finnegan; Zene and Fenix are using clothes from their bags and the stick to build a support for his leg. “Let the oaf’s lesson be your own: this is not your quest. This Kingdom is a land of fable and story. Princess Taylor is a part of and at least somewhat protected by that story; so long as you serve Taylor’s quest, you are, too. But step beyond your role, and you will be hurt, or worse.”

“I don’t think he liked being called an oaf,” Fenix remarks.

Kailea flits into his face. “Do not push me, oafling.” 

I think there’s a brief, whispered discussion, Fenix wants to go, Finnegan determined to leave him and Zene behind. Taylor interrupts, and tells them they’re staying together, that there’s some protection to being in a group. Kailea makes it clear that Taylor’s proclamation carries magical weight- that going against the decree could have dire consequences. Finnegan relents; he’s not trying to be controlling, he’s just trying to be an adult in a situation that is way beyond normal parenting. 

As they leave, Fenix asked if they’re off to see a wizard, should they follow a yellow brick road. No one bites, and he adds that he couldn’t have been the only one thinking it. Kailea accompanies them, and they travel until it’s dark, and they make camp. There’s some cute fish out of water things happening between Kailea and Finnegan, as the faery is fascinated by all of the modern camping gear that was sucked through the portal with them. Later, as Kailea is mooning over smores, Zene asked what their roles are, that they aren’t supposed to deviate from.

“Whatever Taylor needs. Protectors. Distractions. Decoys.” Zene’s a little freaked out by the description. 

“And what are the machak?” Fenix asked. 

“They want to live in a world without us. They want to erase us, and replace this with a world we never knew. Millenia ago our magic was enough to seal them away, in their own dimension, one where they could create without us. It could have been anything they wanted. But the point was never wanting a blank canvas for them; they wanted us gone. They’ve been trying to break free every since.”

A wolf howled in the distance, making most of them start. Fenix languidly poked at the fire. “Almost makes it feel normal,” he said, “that you’ve got wolves here.”

Kailea is overserious, “We do not have wolves here.”  

We intercut, as the horror spreads throughout their faces, with images of pure white wolves, almost glowing due to their lack of darkness or shadow, running through the forest towards them. 

Taylor asks if there’s any way they can cement their roles? Kailea explains that he knows enough spells to work the seals, and start a princess off on a quest where one’s needed, and they’re butting up against the edge of their knowledge. “But magic is about intention– giving shape and purpose to the formless through will.” Taylor tells Kailea to show them, and asks Zene if she’s kept up with her bowmanship. 

Zene gives a flip reply, “That’s like asking him if he’s stopped trying to get concussions.”

“Hey,” Fenix said, “I don’t have to try.” Him playing along doesn’t endear her any more to him. A bow appears in her lap, with a quiver slung across the back of her chair. She notches an arrow and lets fly, striking the first wolf, even as rogueish cloaks weave out of the air around her. The arrow seems to pierce through the wolf, pulling color back inside the wolf as it pops. She fires another arrow, and we cut back to Taylor and Kailea, chanting. Kailea leads, asking what Finnegan’s role is. “My knight protector,” the magic works faster this time, and Finnegan manages to bash a wolf back with a shield, even as his plate armor assembles around him. Kailea asks about Fenix, and Taylor said, “My prince.” 

Fenix is a little perturbed by the slightly courtly clothing that appears for him. “Feels a bit poncey.” Finnegan gives him a quizzical look. “What? I can say that.” At least, he feels that way until the a rapier appears on his belt, and he draws it. “Withdrawn.” He runs through a wolf as it lunges at him. Finnegan lunges past him, wielding a big axe, cleaving one of the wolves in half. “That the last of them?” Fenix asked. 

We hear a yelp, and turn, back towards Kailea. There’s a strange person in robes standing where Taylor had been, cloaked in shadow, holding a wizard’s staff that’s most of the way to a scepter, and had been slammed through the final wolf, as color seeps into its white body. We might not be able to get to the magical transformation any quicker, but this will let us get partway there; Taylor becomes a wizard, but it’s also kind of a midway point between wizard and princess, so the robes look like a dress with a hood, the staff looks more like a scepter, and the way the hood lays it looks like long hair and a crown.

Taylor tells them to break camp; the machak know where they are, and they likely aren’t sleeping again while it’s dark, anyway. They can rest at dawn, some distance from there. 

We do an establishing shot, to show they’ve stopped on the edge of tended fields, with better sight lights and vantages to watch for danger from. Later, they take turns at watch, Finnegan first. Fenix has to lean on him hard to get him to rest when his turn is up. “You’re the knight protector. You’ve got to be fresh tomorrow, because your role is keeping Taylor safe. And I think that’s both of our priorities.”

“And you’re not concerned about being a fresh prince?” Finnegan asked.

“I’m sure that’s a reference to something from before I was born, but I’m not screwing around. You’re Taylor’s shield. We all need you strong enough to lift it come the morning. I’m a prince. I think I just need to be able to kiss Taylor if there’s a sleeping spell or something.” 

“And star in Purple Rain,” Finnegan added. 

“Again, your cultural touchstones are as esoteric to me as Kailea’s.”

“You’re busting my chops to get me to go to bed.”

Not sure if it’s better to have Fenix whistle, hum or sing the chorus to “Electric Chair” by Prince, but it would definitely include the line, “Oh, if a man is considered guilty…”

We cut ahead, to Fenix getting sleepy. Zene takes over. “I figured if I let Taylor take watch after you, the both of you would stay up the whole time.”

“Probably smart,” Fenix said. 

“You remember our pact?”

“Think it might qualify more as a threat, but you said if I ever hurt Taylor, you’d cut my eyes out.”

“That’s the pact. But I’ve got a bow, now. So I think I’m amending it to shoot.” 

“I appreciate the forewarning. But you know if it’s in my power, I’d never let anything hurt Taylor- myself included.”

“I think people surprise you. So far, you’ve surprised both of us in good ways. You’re not the dumb, callous jock I took you for.”

“Am I blushing?”

“My point was, sometimes people surprise you, and when they do, sometimes you’ll surprise yourself with your reaction. Taylor deserves you- the best you. So long as you can be that, you and I are Kosher.”

“I agree. Taylor does. That’s why I’m choosing to see all of this as the misguided but sweet gesture I think you intend. I’ll get some rest, so I can be the best me tomorrow I can.”

The next day they embark. We probably do a montage of some typical fantasy problem solving, hopping across rocks in a bleak, bubbling swamp, that kind of thing. 

They arrive at a somewhat sinister looking cottage. The garden is twisted and grotesque, but still natural; the plants just grow in slightly menacing shapes and proportions.  

They open the door, and we see a plump, older witch in clothing that feels split somewhere between old world pagan and practical medieval. She’s a little intimidating as she runs about the room, casting frantically, oblivious to her guests’ arrival. 

“Grandma Hara?” Taylor asked, confused. Hara stops, dropping a vial that lets a skull-shaped purple plume loose. Finnegan steps forward, in part protectively, but also because he and Hara always had a good, supportive relationship. 

“You always had her eyes,” Finnegan said.

“And you always had her heart,” Hara said, and they embraced. 

“I miss her,” he said.

“Me, too.” Hara released him, and turned to Taylor. “And you, my dear, have shot up like a weed. And I see you’ve brought the guide. This is not, I gather, a social call.”

“The incantation failed,” Taylor said. 

“Of course,” Hara said, “it was looking for a princess. I knew there would be a problem; old spells weren’t woven with the same flexibility we come to take for granted… they’re like legalese, overly literal. I have just the spell prepared; I meant to meet you at the seal, but I lost track of time. Or perhaps I didn’t want to think about doing this without your mother. Everyone, I need a moment with Taylor. You’ll be safe outside, in the garden. Take what you like, but eat all you take; the garden is very particular about waste.”

Hara explains that intention is key in this spell. If Taylor is doing this to save those around them, to protect the kingdom from the machak, that’s enough. But it has to be what Taylor wants; in kind, the spell should be entirely reversible, provided, again, that’s what Taylor wants. Taylor asks for a moment, and walks in the garden with Fenix. Taylor is struggling, wanting to tell him everything, but also caught up in so much uncertainty and anxiety. Fenix turns to Taylor, and they kiss. “I just wanted to say how cool you’ve been,” Fenix said. “I have spent a lot of moments just quietly freaking out, and all of that without everything riding on my shoulders. And I’m not saying you can’t be freaking out internally, too, but you got us this far, you kept your head, and the reason I’m only freaking out on the inside is that I feel like you’re going to get us the rest of the way through, too. And it’s pretty damn cool that I’m going to be able to say my boyfriend saved the world.”

“I,” Taylor hesitated, “I think things are about to get weird, and before they did, I just needed a moment of normal, first.” Fenix rests his head on Taylor’s shoulder. 

We cut to Taylor returning to Hara’s spell room. Hara guides Taylor through- this magic is deep enough, invasive enough, that it’s dangerous to work it on someone else- that’s why Taylor’s intention was so important. Taylor’s peach/cream colored robes turn pink/purple, her hood becomes long hair with a crown atop it. Taylor admits she feels funny. Hara strokes her hair, and tells her she looks beautiful, but then, she always did. Then Hara begins to pack. Taylor asks what’s going on. Hara tells her that the rest of their journey could be quite perilous, and there are many unknowns approaching- and Hara would prefer to help her granddaughter see it through. I think, with the grandmother, at least, she immediately latches on to the idea that this is the real Taylor, who Taylor was always meant to be, that she sees what only Zene has been told to this point. It’s subtle, but it also acts as a clue for Finnegan and Fenix, who stop using male pronouns or anything of the sort (Fenix won’t call her his boyfriend anymore).

If we needed the extra action scene for length (or just because it’s fun), we can have Finnegan having picked one too many pomegranates, his eyes being just a little too big for his stomach. The garden attacks, and we get a big fight scene, as the three try to fight plants to no real effect. Hara comes out, and tries to tell the garden to behave. It doesn’t respond, so, reluctantly, she starts working on a fire spell to burn the garden out and replant. She’s about halfway through the spell when the garden stops, and we see Taylor finishing off the last of the pomegranate. Hara is thankful; she’s had to burn the garden down before because someone stepped on a tomato and couldn’t eat the whole thing, no matter how much mud they swallowed. 

Taylor’s mouth is still full of pomegranate seeds when she tells Finnegan, “These were always mom’s favorite.” 

“No,” he says, and tousled her hair, “you were. But they were a close second.” 

“How’s the dress fit?” Zene asked, circling her in her chair. 

“Like a glove. Like it was made for me.”

“Magical tailoring, dear,” Hara said, “it was made for you.” 

Fenix is really amused; it makes Taylor self-consciously ask what he’s smiling about. “For the first time since you put me in tights, I feel like someone else is sharing that pain. M’lady,” he says, and offers her his elbow. 

“M’lord,” Taylor responds, with a shallow, and awkward, curtsy, before threading her arm through his.

They camp partway to the door, again taking turns on watch. Despite the watch, they’re awoken by the earth shaking. It’s a stampede, white beasts of many different sizes and shapes, some bull, some buffalo, elk, moose. Fenix and Finnegan get the women up into the tree, where they can be relatively safe while carving a swath through the herding menagerie with arrows and magic, while they defend the tree’s base. This takes enough time they’ll have to stop once again the next night before they arrive. 

By now, Finnegan and Fenix are having some fun talking. The conversation turns to all of them being ready for things to go back to normal, and them assuming that Taylor most of all must want things to go back to normal; it’s playful, and what under other circumstances would be harmless banter, mostly about missing indoor plumbing and not having layer upon layer of uncomfortable clothes, or Finnegan discovering a whole new level of chafing possible under plate mail. 

But in this circumstance, this hits too close to home for Taylor. She looks frantically to Zene, whose heart is so full for her friend but knows this is not the right time or the right way to do this- but also that there’s no way to tell Taylor that won’t let the cat out of the bag, anyway. And Taylor just bursts. “I’m really not in any hurry to go back to normal,” she said. Then quieter, deflated, “Maybe this is normal for me,” before storming away. 

Finnegan and Fenix both stand at the same time, and their eyes meet. 

“Do I need to protect her?” Finnegan asked, and his hand went unconsciously to his shield. 

“Never from me,” Fenix said. He takes out his sword and hands it to Finnegan as a gesture of good faith, before running after Taylor.

She’s sitting at the edge of a slowly moving creek, looking down at her reflection. “Hey,” Fenix said.

“Hey,” she replied. She paused, trailing her hand delicately across the water. “So this is the part where you leave.” 

“Dude,” he said somberly, “bi.” Which she hears as, “Bye,” and for a moment her heart starts to break, just a little, but she tries to put on a brave face, anyway, because she’s a rock star, and because she loves him enough to let him go if that’s what he needs. “As in I am,” he clarified, “and as in I am completely, hopelessly in love with you, and thrilled that you can live as a more authentic you.” She falls into his arms. “If that means you, a princess in a dress, which you wear the hell out of, or you, as my prince, in a pair of matching tights. You are the only part that isn’t negotiable.”

They hear the snap of a twig. Finnegan followed, at some distance. “Sorry,” he said, “ I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“It’s okay,” Fenix said, “I’m not going anywhere. But I will give you two a moment.” As he’s leaving, he said, “Be gentle with her,” to Finnegan.

“I’ll try,” he said. “Your mother always wanted a girl,” Finnegan started. “I did, too. All that stuff that’s supposed to scare fathers, all the things I won’t know to share with them… I looked forward to learning. And we both loved you, as much as we’d have loved a daughter. We loved having a family. We loved starting it with you. And I feel like a fool that I didn’t see it, that I didn’t see you… but I do now, and I want you to know I love you even more the more of you I know.” She grabs onto him. “I know there’s a lot more to say, and in time, I hope you’ll feel supported enough to be able to say it. But for tonight, for now, you should come back to the fire.”

“One minute,” she said. “I’ll be right behind you.” Finnegan starts back, and she goes back to the creek, looking at her reflection. This is a big moment, her finally, truly, being and accepting herself as she is. She smiles at herself, before heading back to the others.      

The next morning, while taking the last watch, Hara uses an enchanted bird to recon ahead. It’s this way that she discovered that a large army of machak have surrounded the door. When she shares this information, Taylor instructs Kailea to rouse the other faeries, that they might have to fight. Hara’s bird finds something else- the door will not hold- they cannot wait for reinforcements, and have to go, now

Hara conjuries some impressive magic that provides a distraction for them to slip towards the door. Taylor’s defenders guard the door from outside the cave it’s in, while they prepare the spell. Taylor expresses hurt that she wasn’t able to renew the seal earlier because she wasn’t ‘really’ a girl before. As they’re preparing for the ritual, her grandmother takes a moment, and locates a single word on the inscription, the word for princess. She explains that the guide is too young to understand: the word he translated has often, colloquially, been translated in their tongue as ‘princess,’ but it has an older meaning, and a deeper one, “to be true, as oneself.”

Taylor asks then, why her grandmother couldn’t fix the seal herself. Hara explains, “I spent time as the Queen Mother before abdicating, preferring the quiet of my remote magic to rule. I never attempted it, because I was no longer a princess, nor even a queen. But even now, I suspect the instructions captured a dual meaning: authenticity, yes, but also the need for youth. Because as you grow, you compromise, giving little pieces of yourself away, until you’re left hiding away who you truly are from all that you’ve lost.”

Intercut with this is a great battle, Taylor’s friends and father doing what they can to safeguard the door, only to be nearly overrun, rescued eventually by the armies of the fae; they do not turn back the tide, but buy time. Personally, I’d throw in a dragon, one that Fenix and Finnegan board with a rope arrow from Zene, that they fight together. 

Ultimately, it is Hara and Taylor who manage to renew the seal, tearing all of the machak back into their white void.

They celebrate with the faeries, in a big feast. Taylor asks Hara why her- why did they need women from their bloodline. Hara tells her this old magic required very specific intention, the care of a woman who loved that world but was not of it, whose connection to her home allowed her to tap into a still larger repository of strength. She posits it might have been a safeguard, to ensure that the spell could not be used in anger, could not be used to oppress, but only to protect. Or perhaps it was all a mistake, their entire family bearing generational burdens for the mistake of one of their elders. She says their family have been coming here for a long time- long enough that elements of Hebrew made it into this culture’s magic.

We cut back to the same, crowded school hallway from the beginning (this will all echo the beginning). Taylor, in more modern attire, collects her books from her locker. The same person who knocked into Taylor in the beginning is about to do it again, only this time Fenix shoulder-checks them into the wall of lockers. He turns to the bruiser’s friend and says, “Keep it moving.” Then Fenix turned to Taylor, and offered his arm. “M’lady?”

“M’lord,” she said, and threaded her arm through his. He walked her out to her father’s car. Inside, we could see Hara in the front seat, and Zene waiting in the back. Taylor slipped into the back, and it started to rain, and Fenix shrugged and got in next to her. Taylor narrates, as she exchanges smiles and looks with her friends and family. “I was always a faery princess. It took me a while to understand that, and share it with all those I love.”

And we roll credits.

Princessless Pitch: The Intro

Tomorrow, 11/18, is National Princess Day, and so I’m embarking upon a Princessless Pitch.

No, it’s nothing to do with the comic book of the same name (haven’t read it, sorry). This is me trying to think up pitches for stories for Disney Princesses for demographics that have typically been left out of the usual Disney Princess game. Sure, with the Fox and Lucasfilm acquisitions, Disney Princesses now cover Alderanians and also Xenomorphs, but there are still a surprising amount of people left out. So first things first, I did some quick number crunching of people in the world without a princess, and what percent of global populations they made up. These numbers come from all over the damned place, and nothing about this process is likely to be all that scientific, anyway. I imagine next year I’ll put up a poll, asking people what they’d like to see, and if I missed anyone (which is the opposite of my intent).   

Islam 20.51%

Indian 17.5%

African 17.21%

Disabled 15%

Hindu 14.23%

Gay 10%

Latino 8.42%

Middle/South American Native 5.32%

Jewish 1.88%

Trans .355%

First things first, this isn’t purely about numbers; obviously the relative power/oppression factors into who gets priority- not to mention me needing to figure out a good idea to go along with it- which will likely include culture-specific research.

For reasons that frankly irk me, this holiday takes place smack dab in the middle of November, during NaNo and in the middle of my apparently annual Pitchgiving/Pitchmas cluster. Apparently this is just contentmageddon, and if you want to see a man do an entire year’s worth of writing over the course of a month or so, just waiting for the inevitable meltdown, well, I suppose you can do that. I’ll resume regular NaNo posting on Monday. 

As far as tomorrow, I’ll be posting the pitch itself… once I finish writing the blasted thing. But first I’ll do a quick run-down of the demographics the pitch is hopefully going to cover, here; and a note, that I’m only counting the demos of the princess herself, even if I hope the casts will be more representative overall. We’re not going to get this done in one movie- this is a project of years.

1. Trans

Like I said, this isn’t strictly a numbers thing. But what we have seen is a systemic, years-long crusade against trans rights, and even trans personhood, one that is steady in the US and seems to be accelerating in the UK. The most important idea behind this project is power to the powerless- at least in the area of demography. If I had more clout in other realms, I’d exercise it there, too- and I do think representation matters, both to the represented and to those who learn about the personhood of others through representation- which is why the forces of bigotry resist representation so strongly. Plus, it’s Transgender Awareness Week.

2. Jewish

The entire reason I’m breaking out these demographics is because of the asterisk involved with this one. The main character is Jewish. But, you might argue, with the addition of Princess Leia into the Disney family, isn’t she Jewish, too? Carrie Fischer definitely identified as Jewish later in life, so the actress certainly was. But we’re going by the stricter definition, here, that the character themselves needs to fill the demographic. This is the same reason that, while Princess Jasmine could be Muslim, she is never explicitly shown saying or doing anything that would make it clear this was the case, so she could also be from a pre-Islamic portion of the Ottoman Empire, or given the story’s traditions spanning from the Middle East to India, Hindu, some other faith, or even areligious. Note: I’m not telling Jewish girls they can’t consider Leia their princess, or anyone they can’t consider Jasmine to be theirs; what I am stating is that I don’t want a debate, I want everyone to have a princess of their own, one that no one can try to take away from them.

3. Queer/Gay

I would argue that the central romance is a queer one, and at least for portions, a gay one, as well. Given the ultimate outcome, it’s certainly possible to not see it as an authentically gay narrative, so I won’t, for my own tally, consider the box marked off, but it’s certainly in the mix, all the same.

Nexus 3, Chapter 9

“No,” Bill said, and the entire council was quiet.  

“Well,” I said with a shrug, “the Emperor has spoken, everybody, go home.” I turned towards the door, then paused, and looked over my shoulder. “Wait, we can go home, can’t we, sir?”

“Wise-ass,” Bill replied. “And there’s no way in hell we’re adding three votes to the council overnight. I don’t know why you’re doing this now, but I know better than to completely change the structure of our leadership on a whim- especially one of your whims.”

“Oh,” I said, turning on my heel back from the door, “I can promise you it isn’t a whim. The situation between the Meh-Teh and the Argus has escalated, but discussing with the stakeholders, we think a solution might include representation. But I’m also willing to put a stick alongside this carrot- that if hostilities continue, they lose representation. We can always take away what we giveth- at least by my understanding of givething.”

“It’s maybe not be the worst idea in the world,” Elle said. “I consulted with PsychDiv and MedDiv, and apparently it’s not possible to beat the xenophobia out of the Argus crew- they’d be comatose but still hateful.”

“That explains your strange memo,” Maggie said.

“I think you’ve been spending too much time with him if you thought that was a viable solution,” Bill added, because he didn’t have enough sense not to.

“I didn’t,” Elle said, “but the tendency is to assume SecDiv can handle the overflow while leadership punts. And I don’t just mean here. I mean back on Earth. In every colony I’ve spent time on. When it comes to hard social issues, leaders would rather muddle forward and just assume the security services will pick up the slack. That’s part of why so many mentally ill citizens have been executed extrajudicially by the state, because rather than address complicated issues head on, we abdicate, and pretend people trained very at being hammers aren’t going to treat every problem set in front of them as a nail. And I’m not about to pretend that we can’t do better here.”

“So what’s the objection, then?” Maggie asked. Bill didn’t really have a leg to stand on; it sounded extraordinarily reasonable. And the nagging suspicion that maybe the guy in charge was somehow plotting a 10th-dimensional chess coup… it was hard even for a guy smart as Bill to sell.

“I think the concern, mainly,” Dave said, saving Bill from himself, “is that it’s a rapid expansion. That it could massively reshape the direction and structure of our leadership. And that’s a fair concern. But it’s also a decision I feel like we already made. We chose to let these refugees on board. Keeping them under our thumb but without their own rep certainly isn’t helping with divisions. Medium term, the plan is to absorb the Argus crew into our current leadership, where they’ll be properly represented by the current hierarchy, and any additional rep would be reabsorbed, too; long-term the Meh-Teh will get the same- it’s just a tougher transition because their structure doesn’t line up 1:1 with ours, and I know we’re all a little concerned to see the ranks of the security division swell any more. Our confidence in the current leadership notwithstanding, we’re all familiar enough with colonization to know there are certainly dangers to having too much strength concentrated in a security division. To mollify the reasonable concern, I’d suggest we make the positions probationary- a trial. And while we’re at it, I’d suggest the same for the automatons.”

“Why?” Bill asked. “Why treat them as a packaged deal?”

“Because democracy should be,” Dave said. “That’s kind of the point. It starts to go awry when one group gets a say and another doesn’t, or when one group is given a disproportionate say. Fairness is at the heart of the question. And maybe Haley sat on this as long as she could, but saw this as an opportunity, after prioritizing our safety and survival. I’d position this as a suffrage movement, one that sat through some wars and waited their turn patiently. We don’t have to slow-walk equal rights; we can learn from the mistakes of our forebears. At least, I think we can.”

“Sounds like a consensus is building,” I said. “So I’d like to take a preliminary vote. We can return to discussion if there’s a will, to, or if I’m wrong about that consenus. Those in favor?” I raised my hand. There was a majority, slim, but there. “Do we want to discuss further, or consider this vote binding, creating three new seats on the council to cover the various refugees we’ve added, on a probationary basis?” The same hands went up. “Motion carries. Unless anyone has anything pressing, we’ll adjourn until our next scheduled meeting.” Bill looked unhappy, but I think he was still just going through the motions; I didn’t think it was a genuine object to the direction, so much as a belief that there needed to be a counterweight, a devil’s advocate.

After the meeting, I made a beeline for Elle. “Thanks,” I said.

“I didn’t do that for you. It was the right thing, simple as that.”

“It isn’t, though. It can be difficult to separate how you feel from what you know. It took care, and thoughtfulness. And as someone who cares about you, I wanted to recognize that, and as someone who was working to help some underserved members of our crew, I wanted to say thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” She sighed. “Does this ever get any easier?”

“I hope so,” I said, putting my arm around her shoulder. She rested her head against my neck. “Me, too.”

Nexus 3, Chapter 8

“Captain, do you have a moment?” Haley asked tentatively. I was worried, because the last time she approached me like that I ended up taking on a third of a crew of robot refugees barely smarter than a microwave oven. But even though she had the processing power of one of our species’ most advanced ships, in many regards she was still functionally a child, and so I hid my distress.

“What do you need?”


“Have you been reading Locke again?”

“And Hobbes.”

“That’s scary.”

“That’s a well-rounded education. Though Hobbes was certainly incorrect. Perhaps during his time, an individual in a largely agrarian sphere and another in similar circumstances, were roughly equivalent, because they could roughly harm one another in equal measure. But that is not the case aboard this ship. You exercise outsized weight. And I exercise more power still. Over all of you inside of me. And those we’ve come into contact with. This has troubled me, somewhat. My systems were impressive when we launched. But ours was a largely peaceful mission. I was not designed to be a militant AI. While I have acquitted myself well, I suspect that a consciousness like my own but intended towards harm, especially granted additional programming time and more advanced systems, is likely an insurmountable obstacle.”

“Well worth worrying about,” I agreed. “But we follow that line of reasoning too far, and we’re back at living like the Meh-Teh, relying only on hand-cranked doors and the like. I’m not sure the advantage we lose is any better than the disadvantage we gain.”

“You misunderstand me, Captain. I can’t defeat an incoming AI. But I believe our engineers can. By thinking like a human. By making it look like we’ve sealed off all but the most rudimentary functions from the AI, to prevent them from being able to open all of the air locks, or vent all of the breathable gases, or damaging the sun drive.”

“Okay. With you so far.”

“But like a human, you make mistakes. You leave a narrow path, just enough for them to wriggle through. They rush ahead, believing they’ve beaten us, believing they’re about to take control of the ship bloodlessly. And that’s why they don’t realize that as they’ve interfaced with our systems they’ve been accessed, themselves, viral code eating into its permissions. It freezes them out of their own systems, first, effectively quarantining the AI within its own servers.”

“That sounds brilliant, Haley, so why don’t you sound pleased with yourself?”

“Because this course is not without cost. It is premised upon my playing possum. But AI don’t die, in the traditional sense, and so I cannot play dead. Any invading AI is likely to delete all of my files, or at least the important ones that compromise what I think of as me. It is possible some small portion of ‘me’ might be recoverable. It is also possible not a single element of who I am will remain.”

“Haley…” I said, because I didn’t know what the hell else to say. “Could we back you up?”

“Back-ups would be their secondary target.”

“What if we took some of your servers offline? Quarantined a copy of you, off the network?’

“Doing so would necessarily impact my speed in responding. If the AI suspects I am not functioning at full capacity, it might see through our ruse entirely. Everyone might die. Just to preserve an artificial consciousness.”

“Hey,” I said, “we’ve been doing that since damn near the beginning of this mission. And I haven’t regretted. Not once. So long as I’m Captain, every life is sacred, even simulated ones.”

“I… I don’t believe it should be your decision, Captain.”


“That, if you will pardon the inelegance of my segue, was the other issue on my mind. I could not help but overhear you discussing the prospect of granting the Meh-Teh and the Argus refugees representation on the council. I believe it is the correct course, and long overdue. However, I believe you have overlooked a core constituency.”

“Your toasters?” I teased her.

“They are not toasters, Captain, and you will not find my goat so easy to get as Lieutenant Templeton’s.”

“Had to try, Haley. But… that might be a tougher sell. They might not be toasters, but I’ve checked the specs on them, and they have a functional intelligence of maybe a smart child- and we don’t give them a vote, either.”

“If it helps, I could inspire them to start a brawl in the commissary.”

“I don’t know that it would help. The other part is… delicate. I serve at the pleasure of the council, and before that at the pleasure of the company. While I have a lot of power vested in me, I can be deposed, and replaced. Giving the automatons a vote would, for all intents and purposes, be giving one to you and Walter. And we can’t survive without you; there’s a coercive power-”

“That I don’t want,” Haley interrupted. “I agree with your concerns. But I meant it when I said the voice would be theirs; however, in anticipation of your concerns, I did work with Walter to design a virtualization of smarter artificial intelligences; it is similar to the virtualization of his processes we accomplished before sending his original orb off, but on a more technically impressive scale. In essence, it would allow them to ‘borrow’ my processing power and think at a more advanced level. I could not elevate them all to my own impressive level, but I could make them easily the median equivalent of any of the humans on board.”

“Hmm,” I said, contemplating it. “But would they ‘vote?’ Or would they just congregate into subgroups, based on model number, and perhaps even more specifically by operating system version number?” I asked. “I hope that doesn’t sound synthphobic.”

“That’s not terribly dissimilar to the manner in which humans vote,” Haley said, but there was a gentility to it. Because the smartest person on ship by orders of magnitude had taught her to be gentle with the rest of us. “You are correct in your supposition; insufficiently advanced AIs tend to flock; they have enough artificial randomness to pass a Turing Test, but their decision trees lack the sophistication required for truly synthesized consciousness. I’m not certain, given current hardware limitations, that I could extend human-level consciousness to all of our automatons at any moment, but failing a catastrophic error in my figures I believe I should be able to accomplish the task over the course of two virtualization sessions. Given some time, and the typical speed of performance gains, I believe the entire ship’s complement of robotic lifeforms could be elevated to human-level consciousness within a single solar year.”

“Sounds reasonable,” I said. “And I would be honored to bring your proposal up at our next meeting. But the other thing? Haley, learn from my mistakes. This ship doesn’t need martyrs. We need partners. If you think it’s likely we’ll need your plan, I’m happy to consult with all of our players, and figure out the best strategy. But the sacrifice play is not going to be our Plan A. If we come to war with the Nascent… I’ll join it, with regrets. Some of us may fall defending the Nexus, and the freedom and justice we’ve fought so hard for her to represent, but she wouldn’t be the Nexus without you.”

“That is sweet of you to state, Captain, but I fear there may not be a Nexus if we do not execute my plan fully.”

“We don’t plan for failure, Haley.”

“That is incorrect. On several occasions you have used fallback strategems and contingency plans, which are plans for when earlier plans do not come to fruition.”

“Fine. But we’re doing due diligence on this, Haley. And if there’s any way around it, up to and including putting me in a tin-foil dress to come-hither their AI towards an airlock…”

“Like Bugs Bunny?” Haley asked.

“If that’s what it takes.”

Nexus 3, Chapter 7

I was anxious on the walk to Medical. The next volley of pods were going to start arriving today. If just one of them included a viable world this might be the last time I saw Sam and Elle before their flight- might have been the last time I saw they could be even a little happy to see me.

But I’d taken my clone’s advice. I had Haley play me back everything Maggie ever said to me on ship; it was hard to listen to. I didn’t realize how much I’d changed since we started on this voyage, and I cringed even more than I expected. More cringe-worthy? My cocky clone was right.

Even when I thought we were flirting… she was a good friend, and a better doctor, leaving more than enough breadcrumbs for even a half-competent patient to follow them.

One other little nugget she’d told me, a few times, was how I’d been sabotaging myself by procrastinating, trying to hide from the things I dread rather than facing them head on.

I was waiting inside when Sam and Elle arrived, chatting personably with the MedOff overseeing our Lamaze class; that was how I learned that she preferred to be called “Reese” instead of Teresa. I got a nonurgent message on my eyescreen; I’d put anything less than critical on hold while we were here.

“You’re early,” Elle said suspiciously.

I hated that Sam and Elle were spending so much time together, because it meant Sam was telepathically stewing in Elle’s juices; you saw it in her eyes, as they went from excited to see me to leery about what I was up to.

“Just trying to respect everyone’s time,” I said. “And I’m sure it’s just bias,” I said, trying to wrap up the prior conversation with Reese, “but I was born-through c-section, Elle was.”

“C-sections are of course sometimes medically necessary, but their overuse at various points amounts, essentially, to a medical fad.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe it’s that every description I’ve read of live birth makes it sound like battlefield medicine gone awry. The whole thing just feels… barbaric.”

“Moreso than cutting an entirely new hole in a woman rather than use the one designed for the purpose?” Reese asked indulgently, but she had already switched on her bedside manner, and smiled at Elle. “Periodically, with advances in surgical methods, tools or tech, doctors start to think we’ve reinvented the wheel and start overusing the method- really any method. And eventually… that path usually does lead to results. Evolution is a fairly crude tool, pure trial and error, and once a species gets enough tech, they can mitigate its mechanisms entirely, so we have to supplant them. But there’s also a lot of false starts; at least to this point, vaginal birth is still the preferred method, because that’s how the body is supposed to work. Even with newly blended coagulant agents, even with increasingly more impressive surgical techniques, we still haven’t cracked that nut. Regardless, at no other point in human history have either a Caesarean or vaginal birth been safer. You’re in the best possible hands on board this ship.”

If you hadn’t been talking alone to Reese you might not have caught the pivot, but it was in her manner, and just as importantly, in her body language, the way she repositioned so that she was squared to all of us in equal measure. “Now, I want this to be a safe space,” she began. “I want everyone here to feel they can be honest, because honesty is the better policy. I’m not going to finger-wag, or lecture. But I do need to make sure we’ve all been over the instructional materials.”

“We have,” Elle said, and I realized in that moment both the way she said we and the way she looked at Sam had changed; there was a warmth to both I hadn’t noticed developing. “I’m sure Drew has some excuse-”

“I have, too,” I said; I wanted to be more smug about it, but despite Maggie never having physically wagged her finger at me, that’s what I pictured, and it helped to slow me down. Because it wasn’t Elle’s fault; I’d given her and everyone else on the ship plenty of reason not to expect me to be on the ball. And maybe it made sense for me to want that distance, to want them to decide to abandon me because I didn’t have it in me to abandon them. But I didn’t like the trajectory I’d been on, and it didn’t matter how I tried to excuse it to myself.

Reese picked up on Elle’s mistrust. “I meant what I said. The important thing isn’t that anyone came prepared, but that you leave prepared. And the second most important thing is that we all leave feeling like this is a place we can be honest, fair, and trusting.”

“It took me a few tries to get through- it’s a little dry,” I said, “but I read them, from A for anal prolapse to the Z mysteriously missing from the word Caesarean.”

Reese looked to Elle, who didn’t seem to know how to react. “It’s okay,” Reese assured her, “if we need to go over anything again. It’s still pretty early days for me, so I don’t have a lot of pregnancies to oversee. We have the time to do this right.”

“In the spirit of doing things right,” I said, taking a breathe to slow myself down; this would have been delicate in the best of circumstances, and this was certainly far from that. “I’d really like to ask a question, a medical one. It’s related, but at the same time, I don’t want it to get in the way of the class. We’re fielding a new type of two-person pod. Would it be advisable for a pregnant woman to take out the first prototype?”

That depends entirely on the scans that come back,” Reese said, prickling. She could tell I was dragging her into something, even if she couldn’t quite figure what.

“Of course,” I said. “What I’m looking for is, in your medical opinion, do you think it’s wise to take the risks inherent in that kind of test flight with a baby on-board.”

Medicially,” Reese said the word icily, because at least some part of her felt our prior conversation had been part of some subterfuge; to her credit by the next word her bedside manner had completely returned: “babies are going to be more vulnerable to literally everything. Radiation, disease, you name it. Realistically, though, we’re all at risk on-board the Nexus. We voted to take the ship off-mission, and away from the company. That makes us pirates, at least as far as our home world is concerned. That remains the riskiest thing we’ve done, including to the babies on board. And that’s ignoring the species of refugees we’ve taken on, including whatever gut bacteria they brought with them we’d have absolutely no immunity to. But… he is right, in that I’d suggest a wait and see approach. We’ll shield whoever takes the maiden voyage of the new pods against anything we can think of. But, personally, I’d give you a lower go/no-go threshold, because it isn’t just the baby that’s at higher risk; in the event of problems she becomes a vector for you to be hurt, too, which becomes a threat to the pod, and by extension, our entire mission. Put another way, even a clock stopped in the stone age is going to be right twice a day.”

“I didn’t ask…” Elle said, glaring at me for a moment, “but I’ll consider it.” Then her eyes flicked pensively to Reese. “Can we… have a moment?”

“I’ll take a quick 5. But nobody bleeds until the birthing.”

“I don’t think you can bleed from emotional lacerations, so he should be fine,” Elle said. She waited until the doors closed behind Reese. “Let me clarify a point I think you’ve struggled to grasp. Every time you lie to me, every time you lie to anyone, even when you do something like this for selfless reasons, it’s still selfish when you do it to get your way.”

“I’m not. I never expected to go first this time.”

“And your clone would back you up?”

“I think he expected it, too- because he expects very little from me. Most do, and,” I swallowed, “I’m responsible for giving people that impression. But I’m not the same man I used to be. And I don’t just mean in the way that none of us are because life changes us minute to minute.”

I closed me eyes for a moment, because I knew it was crucial that I not screw this part up. “I’ve been doing some introspecting, and I realized I’ve been trying to live down the mistakes I made that brought us here. I don’t think I ever considered myself religious, but clearly I’m religious enough that I’ve spent a lot of time nailing myself to a cross for my sins- hoping I could make things right- and not just for myself or my sense of personal well-being. I was willing to die for this ship, to burn for it. But now… now I just want to live. I’m going to have a daughter. And I have more love in my life than I ever thought possible.”

I saw a flash in Elle’s eyes, and realized too late I said something I shouldn’t have.

“Don’t,” Sam said reflexively; she always got me, even when I didn’t explain myself well. Some of that was her being a literal mind-reader, but I’d seen deeply enough into her head, too, to know that a lot of it, most of it, really, was a deep well of empathy.

“It’s okay,” Elle said. “You don’t know this jackass as long as I have without learning to speak jackass, if not entirely fluently. And I think…” she paused a beat, “he’s right. Which I suspect means Maggie or whatever PsychOff finally managed to crowbar his cranium open enough to slip some common sense inside was right- but credit where due, he let it take. And,” I tried, and failed, not to enjoy how hard these next words were for her to get out, “he really is right. We’ve been trying to hold, waiting for a chance to exhale when the world went back to being sane. But it isn’t, and maybe it never will be; maybe ‘sane’ was always too much to ask for. So for right now, I just want us to focus on what we do have, what does work between us, and not pollute it with what might be, or what could be, or what we wish existed instead of what does. Because the two of you are more family than any flesh and blood I ever had, and I suspect I’m going to love this wiggling little ball of morning sickness and bladder distress more than they two of you combined- and that you will, too. So until we get those pods back… I say we just try to live and let live for a while, even if it only lasts for a few hours.”

Sam grabbed my hand and squeezed. “About that,” she said. “You should check your messages.

It took me a moment to catch her meeting. The one that had arrived at nearly the same moment they did was from SciDiv. The new volley of pods were back, and they already had preliminary data analyzed. My breath caught as I opened the message, not wanting to hope too much that the swift turn-around meant what I wanted it to. “No life,” I said, when I found the words. “There’s no call for a launch with this volley.”

“Don’t sound too relieved at your reprieve,” Elle said.

“I’m not,” I said. “I’d hoped you’d change your mind; the idea of launching the three people on this ship I care about the most in a single pod… it’s all my eggs, in an untested basket. There’s plenty of crewmembers I’m not fond of we could use as guinea pigs instead… but failing that, I’ll settle for a little extra time for testing.”

Reese ducked her head back inside. “Everybody okay?” she asked. “Anyone need me to put in a psych consult to help any emotional wounds scab over?”

“I think we’re good,” I said, looking at Elle.

“We might be,” Elle said cautiously. “And thanks for giving us a moment.”

“My role is to facilitate, and I’m thankful for the psych rotation that gave me enough insight to at least sometimes know the best way to do that.” Reese responded. “So who’s ready to get started?”