Sacred Band. The golden age of heroes is decades past. The government could not condone vigilantism and now metahumans are just citizens, albeit citizens with incredible talent, who are assisted in achieving normal lives (including finding good fits for their talents employment-wise) by a federal agency.
Rusty may have been a kid during that glorious age but he remembers his idol, Sentinel, saving lives and righting wrongs until he was outed in an incredible scandal that forced him into isolation. When a gay friend of Rusty living in the Ukraine goes missing, Rusty is forced to acknowledge that while the world's governments claim that super teams are outdated and replaced by legal law enforcement, there are simply some places where the law doesn't protect everyone–so he manages to find and recruit Sentinel to help him find his friend.
But the disappearance of the friend is merely one move in a terrible plot against queer youth. A team of supers may be old-fashioned, but this may be a battle requiring some incredible reinforcements.
"Queer superhero story" is enough to get me to pick up a book, but Sacred Band goes far deeper into both the superhero genre and its exploration of the queer community, to create a story with profound resonance for queer readers. Carriker never stints on action, but between the effective and well-written action scenes are moments of quieter power. That this is a debut novel makes it even more impressive—you'll be eager for his next book, too. – Melissa Scott
"Before you know it, Sacred Band builds a new reality around you - rich, detailed, with a seductive, immersive vernacular, it crosses the globe with confident, queer themes in a world of new media, new magic, and new metahumans."– Steve Orlando, author of Midnighter, Justice League America, and other DC greats
"In this thoughtful take on comic book tropes, queerness and superpowers intersect....Everything comes together to create a real page-turning adventure in a setting that begs for further exploration."– Publishers Weekly, starred review
"The alchemy between the characters' chemistry, the story's action, and the world's pressing—and sometimes painful—similarities to our own make the book nearly impossible to put down."– Kirkus Reviews, starred review
Dusty wind blew over Rusty as the train whipped past him, thundering the earth with its length of cargo cars. He coughed and pulled his dust mask up over his mouth and nose. Shutting his eyes tightly, he yanked the welder's goggles he wore on his forehead down over his eyes, struggling for a moment with the tight rubbery strap. By the time he got them put in place enough to open his eyes, the last of the cars was roaring past him.
He sighed and looked down the track at its rapidly diminishing shape, now a block of vague silhouette in a nimbus of dusty light. In a few heartbeats it was gone, and he was left in the dark once more. Rusty buttoned up his pea green bridge coat. He suspected he'd be glad for its warmth before the night was out.
Truth be told, he'd tried this trick before. Though a fair-sized city, downtown Portland quickly emptied of people at night, at least in the area around the university. The streetcars had tracks all over the place there, embedded railing that let him practice this little trick. His own research into electromagnetism had wandered – as such things do on Wikipedia – on to an article on "mag-lev" trains. Crazy-fast bullet trains and the possibilities for their future.
The concept was simple: the train is suspended above the track itself, held in place by electrically generated magnetic fields. The magnetic field also provides forward motion, in essence providing both lift and thrust, allowing the train to run both more smoothly and quietly than typical wheel-and-axle mechanisms. He stepped up onto the track's raised bed, and then positioned himself over one of the rails, straddling it.
Cautiously, he extended his awareness to the earth's magnetic fields, and homed in on the thin line that was the track's presence in that field, distorting and attracting it subtly the way most ferrous constructions did. He pulled that awareness back, "zooming out" and examining the line up and down the length of it. He quickly found the train that had just passed him, a warping bullet along the thin line of the track, and then searched in the other direction as well. The next train along the track was maybe a half hour away and heading in his direction.
All right, then. Awareness shifted effortlessly into control, and he reached out to seize up the coruscating power that covered the whole world. With a bit of effort, he aligned his own body to that power and rose up, wobbling slightly as he fine-tuned his control, until he was hovering steadily above the track. Though in theory he didn't need them, the big steel bracers and steel-toe boots he wore eased the transition, giving him something to hold onto while he get everything lined up just right. Taking a deep breath, he focused his mind as he cinched the backpack shoulder straps and buckled the strap around his waist.
He crouched then, like a runner at the starting line, waiting for the pistol shot. With a thought, he shifted the polarity of the field around him subtly, going from "vaguely levitating" to "being forced away from the track." His heart leapt into his throat as the magnetic field reacted, and pushed him away from the earth slightly while shoving him forward at about a running pace. He checked the fit of dust mask and goggles, and then poured on the teslas. He shotgunned away down the track, carefully riding its subtle turns and shifts in grade.
Rusty grinned like a madman beneath his mask.
It was a trip of just over a thousand miles from Portland to the Hoover Dam in Nevada, although the train tracks didn't exactly take direct routes. He figured it would take him about four hours or so to get there.
Of course, he had no way of accounting for the vast network of trains that used the same tracks he did. His magnetic awareness allowed him to sense oncoming trains in more than enough time to drop off the tracks somewhere to let them pass. But that was usually an interruption of no more than a few minutes, minutes that he came to be grateful for.
The attention and balance it took to ride the rails reminded him of being a kid, walking across the thin bench tops of the seats outside the library where he used to wait for his parents to come pick him up. He was never in any real danger of falling off – it just took a certain degree of constant minute shifting to stay in balance, and attention to the path itself that proved fairly exhausting.
No, he'd simply hadn't thought to account for trains that were traveling in the same direction as he was. It wasn't like he could dart around them or anything – for the most part, there was just one track out there. That meant basically throttling back his speed and having to run at significantly slower than he was capable.
Which was frustrating as hell, generally speaking.
Though he'd originally figured he'd be there by midnight or so, dawn was greying the eastern sky by the time he arrived in Boulder City, Nevada, just down I-93 from the dam. He slowed as he saw the lights of the town ahead, finally skidding to a halt in a cloud of dust. The next train was about fifteen minutes away or so, but he still hurried off the track and onto the road nearby, frankly thrilled to be done with rail-riding for a while.
He shook himself on the side of the road, kicking up dirt. Waving the particulates of most of California from in front of his face, Rusty pushed his goggles up onto his forehead and lowered his mask. He took a few moments to breathe the chill pre-dawn air, and reached into his coat pocket. Thumbing the power on, he started walking. A few minutes later, the screen still hadn't lit up.
"What the hell?" Rusty swore to himself. Cautiously extending his awareness to the rectangle of electronics in his hand, he confirmed what he was afraid of: fried. Normally, just shutting off his phone was enough to keep from emping it. Of course, he almost never used his power to the extent that was necessary for his transportation out here, or for nearly as sustained a length of time.
"Fuck." Idly, he wondered if he could find a phone that included Faraday shielding. He had his doubts, really – he didn't seem to remember that among the options offered by any of the major cell providers.
Fortunately, the walk into town was relatively short, though it took him a couple of tries before finding a place that was open – in this case, a mom-and-pop roadside gas station called simply DOUGETT'S GAS. He stripped off mask and goggles, stowing them in his pack, unbuttoned a couple of buttons in his coat and beat the hell out of his front, trying to get as much rail-dust off of it as he could before walking in. The kid behind the counter was cute, in a redneck kind of way, and Rusty smiled as he approached him.
"Do I need a key to use the bathroom"?
"Uh…well, you need to buy something," the cashier said, reaching up to remove the earbud from his ear. He had shaggy brown hair, and eyes just the color of hazel that Rusty really liked. He wore a ribbed sleeveless undershirt under the open short-sleeved button-up that had definitely seen better days. On the plus side, it showed off some ink down one of his arms. Definitely cute; definitely redneck.
"I promise," Rusty said, crossing his heart. "I just really need to use the bathroom first."
"Sure, man. Here you go." He slid an old wooden ruler, its length worn and somewhat splintered, with a key attached to one end of it. Rusty thanked him and exited the store again, wandering around to the side of the building.
Rattling the door open, he flicked on the light and got a good look at himself in the streaked mirror. Well, no wonder the dude inside had given him the eye, and not in a good way. He basically did a great impersonation as an extra from a post-apocalyptic movie or something. Dust (and other things, he thought, shuddering) caked his red hair, turning it into a dusty dun, a color that extended down most of the front of his face and body.
"Great," he sighed, and stripped off his shirt. His bladder demanded he tend to it first, and he did so with a sigh. There's only so long you can piss out in the dark wilderness beside train tracks before you start to basically feel like a feral hobo.
The water that came from the sink didn't smell like anything he'd want to drink, but it got most of the dust off his face well enough. He dipped his head under the faucet a couple of times, and scrubbed out as much of the dust-to-mud from it that he could. It was a good thing he kept his hair mostly short.
Unzipping his backpack, he hauled a clean shirt out of it. He wanted to wait until he'd gotten the chance to get an actual shower before changing completely, but there was no way he was going to his meeting wearing a shirt this caked in dust and bugs. He rubbed his hair as dry as it could get with a handful of rough brown paper towels, and stepped back to regard the mirror.
Well, it would have to do.
"Hey, man. Thanks for…" The bell over the door rang as he walked back in, twirling the ruler-and-key. The man in front of the counter whirled and pointed a pistol at him with a shaking hand.
"No, no! Look, look…it's right here!" The cute kid behind the counter was frantically shoving money from the register into a plastic bag, as the man between them looked with panic in his eyes between them, swinging the gun in his hand in big, exaggerated arcs as though he could somehow keep them both covered at the same time.
Rusty knew that face. He'd seen more than his fair share of tweakers in the scene during his day. And this wasn't party-til-you-drop tweaking, either. This was pissed-off-fuck-the-world tweak-face.
"Who the fuck are you?!" the trembling robber shouted, spittle flying. The guy seemed to be in his early-forties, though he was probably younger. Rusty grimaced as the dude showed off the nasty teeth in his meth-mouth.
"Hey, shit. No trouble, man." Rusty said.
"Your wallet! Now!"
"Sure thing, man." He reached for his dusty pants pocket. The meth-head's focus was on him, and the kid behind the counter subtly began to crouch, reaching for something under the counter. Rusty tried to shake his head, calling him off, but the cashier was only watching the robber.
The same could not be said, however, for said robber. Seeing Rusty's shake of the head, he whirled on the kid behind the counter and saw him reaching for something.
"No!" Rusty shouted as the man started to squeeze on the trigger…and then hell erupted.
Later, he'd have a vague recollection of the network of metal in the ceiling of the place, and magnetically reaching out for them in his panic. In the moment, though, there weren't decisions, so much as instincts. With a simple act of will, faster by degrees than even the simple physical act of pulling a trigger, Rusty filled those old metal beams with raw teslas, twisting the fuck out of their polarity until they were basically supermagnets.
Shit across the store leapt for the ceiling. Doors on the freezers swung open, trying to swing upward, while those metal shelves not bolted to the ground tumbled across the distance from floor to ceiling, spraying packaged food and bottles of soda everywhere. The cashier shrieked as a hundred different little pieces of metal bullshit behind the counter – from bottle openers to cheap mobile phones to the entire fucking register – fell upwards as though someone had reversed gravity in the room.
The gunman shrieked in terror and pain as the tightly-gripped pistol was wrenched from his grasp, the metal guard scraping the hell out of his knuckles on the way out of his hands. Likewise, the shotgun the cashier was reaching for under the counter smacked into the lip of the counter and then flipped up towards the ceiling.
For a moment, they all stood there, staring upward as a store-full of metal objects hung trembling on the ceiling, then their eyes focused on Rusty. He smiled as the lights in the building flickered under the magnetic assault.
That did it.
The tweaker bolted for the door, tearing ass for the car idling in the parking lot. It didn't take much multitasking to reach out and slam the doors shut on his car, sealing them to the frame the way he'd stuck half the shit in the store to the ceiling here. The tweaker wailed piteously as he tugged on the door handle to his car. With a glance back at the building where they stood, he took off at an awkward, panicked run, disappearing down the road that led into the rest of town, by now painted with the colors of the dawn.
"Holy. Shit." Rusty turned to the guy behind the counter. This was the moment of truth, generally speaking. When someone realizes that there's someone in their midst who is one of the Changed, there's no telling what their reaction is going to be.
Fortunately, the cashier was young, and like most people of Rusty's generation, had grown up in a world whose media was obsessed with superpowered folk.
"That was awesome!" Adrenaline and the after-effects of terror for his life mixed with wonder, and the guy practically leapt over the counter to high-five him. Rusty chuckled and slapped his hand with a grin.
Lights flashed into the parking lot as a sheriff's deputy car screeched to a halt in the parking lot. On the road behind it, another car swerved away from the turn-in and sped up, heading down the road where the sheriff had obviously seen the dude running away from the crime scene.
"Oh. I hit the button when that dude first came in here," the cashier said. Rusty sighed, and then knelt, putting his hands behind his neck.
"Wait, what are you…"
"Just get on your knees, and put your hands on your neck, man," Rusty said as two deputies rushed into the store, pistols at the ready. They'd obviously seen the mess in the store – it was hard to miss a couple hundred pounds of metal sticking to the ceiling even from the parking lot – and were following their training.
Since the advent of the Originals, the Department of Transformed Persons Affairs had taken great pains to train law enforcement on every level in TPT: Transformed Persons Tactical training. Generally speaking, it meant that this had already been called into the DTPA's central database, a clearinghouse with twenty-four hour access to law enforcement officials on every level across the country. The database provided details about the Changed who were registered with the DTPA, particularly as many details of the functions and weaknesses of their powers as the Department's scientists managed to measure and confirm.
From what Rusty knew, these yokels had already broken the first rule of TPT: Do Not Engage. Generally speaking, even local law enforcement were supposed to wait for a SWAT or equivalent back-up. They probably had an ass-chewing coming to them, so the least he could do was make their lives easier.
"Get down!" one of them barked. "Hands behind your head!" The cashier, blinking in confusion, complied quickly, faced for the second time in less than a half hour with firearms pointed in his direction.
"Identify yourselves," came the order from the same deputy, a broad-shouldered man with dark, squinty eyes and a dusting of facial scruff. The other deputy, a thin man without much chin to speak of, skirted the edges of the store's real estate, doing his best to avoid being underneath any particularly heavy chunks of metal still adhered to the ceiling.
"Sam…Sam Waller," the cashier stuttered. "Jesus, Jim, what's…"
"Shut it, Sam," Deputy Jim snapped, turning his weapon wholly on Rusty. "You. Identify."
"TP-009813, DTPA Code: Gauss," Rusty said, enunciating carefully like he'd been taught.
"Not your Jolly Pirate nickname, junior," the other deputy sneered. "The one on your ID."
For a moment, Rusty panicked. "Uh…sir…my real name…I don't…"
"Shut it, Miller," Deputy Jim said. "Were you not paying attention during the last Department refresher? We're not allowed to ask for their real names. What was that number again, kid?"
The deputy related this information into the radio speaker at his shoulder, careful not to take his pistol off of Rusty. Thank God one of these guys was up to snuff on his code. The Department of Transformed Persons Affairs long ago established the right to allow Echoes who'd registered with the Department to use only code-names, even in legal situations.
In the first decade of transformed persons, publicly revealing that someone had superpowers was often a recipe for invasion of their privacy at best, and violence at worst. All sorts of people hated transformed persons, and even more thought they'd find a good way to make use of an outed super's powers, often in less-than-legal ways. Some people (particularly law enforcement) resented that supers had federally-mandated identity protection, but it really was for the best all the way around.
As the deputy communicated back and forth with his dispatch – who was undoubtedly also in communication with the DTPA – Rusty glanced at Sam and shrugged.
"It's a glamorous life," he whispered with a rueful grin.
"Quiet, you two," said Deputy Jim, though his voice had lost the hard edge. The other deputy returned quickly, to report that there was no one else in the store. Deputy Jim ordered Sam to his feet, and out of the store. It was another few minutes before the chatter on the radio back and forth ceased, and the cops gave the all clear.
"Can I stand up now?"
"Yeah," Deputy Jim said, though there was some clear hesitation in his voice. "Go ahead."
"Thanks," Rusty said. Through the window outside, Sam was all worked up, nearly yelling at the confused older couple who stood beside him, and the deputy who was doing his best to be patient.
"So…can you do something about this?" The deputy nodded upward, taking off his cap.
"Well, I can, but it's probably going to make a mess. I mean, I'm not entirely sure where everything goes. It won't fall, though. Just…set down." The cop wandered over to where the robber had been standing and glanceded upward at the pistol. Reaching over the counter, he hauled a plastic bag out and shook it open, then stood beneath the pistol, bag open and ready to snare it.
"Go ahead," he said, face turned upward.
Rusty closed his eyes, and found the metal in the ceiling. Gently, he unraveled the artificial magnetic field he'd infused them with, slowly letting up on it so that the objects in the shop lowered themselves from the ceiling. Everyone outside the shop simply watched, eyes wide.
Once he'd snared the gun in the bag, the cop glanced over at Rusty. "Magnetism, huh?"
"Yes, sir." He didn't really know what else to say. The DTPA would have given him the run-down on his abilities. The cop tied the bag off, and then slipped his cap back on his balding head, and gave him an appraising look. After a minute, he spoke.
"Not a damned thing we could have done against you, is there?"
Fuck. He hated this kind of thing. He knew that it was smart. He knew that given the number of suddenly superpowered assholes out there who'd decided to use their power for shitty, selfish reasons, it only made sense that law enforcement had to think first of how to respond to a situation involving someone with powers in terms of quickest take-down.
It still made him queasy to think that every cop he met who knew about him was trying to figure out the best way to kick his ass, if not flat-out kill him.
"Not true. Your guns wouldn't have done much good, and depending on my environment, I could have made it hell for you. But if you get the drop on me with baton or bare fist, I'm just any other guy."
The thought seemed to make Deputy Jim content, and he waved Rusty out the door.
Right into a very indignant Sam Waller.
"That was total bullshit, Jim! This guy kept us from being shot by that piece of shit tweaker!" The deputy rolled his eyes, and squared his stance, jaw tightening.
Rusty intervened. "Hey, Sam – it's cool, man. He did the right thing. He had no idea what was happening, and a guy with powers is always a higher security priority than even the tweakingest tweaker with a gun. It's cool."
Sam was incredulous. "You're okay with all that?"
"Dude. I've been trained to expect it, just like him. With great power comes great government oversight, man." Rusty grinned, trying to defuse the situation. Though, if he had to be honest, having the cute young cashier coming to his defense, in such an indignant, pissed-off way? It did make him feel a bit better about it. He knew he wasn't allowed to be pissed off by the treatment. They'd drilled that into him at the DTPA. It just did him good to have someone be horked off by it on his behalf.