See These Bones is launching next Tuesday! I’ve been counting down to the November 5th release date by sharing chapters from the book. In Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, we learned a bit about our protagonist and his not-so-stellar childhood. In Chapter 3, and Chapter 4, Damian and the mysterious Mr. Grey left Bakersfield to head south through the post-Break wasteland. Chapter 5 explains where they are headed and why.
We’d traveled through another few miles of dust and dirt, the temperature rising steadily with the sun, before I finally replied.
“I don’t know what you’ve heard about me, but all I do is see ghosts. Just one ghost, really. If you’re looking for armies, I’m not your Crow.”
“Not yet. With time and instruction… we will see.”
I flinched as the car dodged a house-sized tumbleweed. “Are you saying the government has some sort of secret training facility for people like me?”
The Finder’s smile flickered again. “It trains more than just Crows, and there is nothing at all secret about it.”
I swallowed past the dry lump in my throat. “You mean the Academy.”
“The Academy of fucking Superheroes.”
“Fucking is not a part of the curriculum, but college-age men and women in close proximity with one another… I suspect it does occur, yes.”
That was the closest thing to a joke I’d heard from Mr. Grey all day, but I wasn’t in the mood for humor. “The Academy doesn’t accept Crows!”
“Did not,” he corrected me. “You may be the first.”
“We will find that out soon enough.”
“And if I say to hell with the Academy?”
The man’s eyes glittered again like copper pennies. He took both hands off the wheel and, for the second time, let our vehicle coast to a halt in the middle of the desolate freeway. The engine coughed, sputtered, and faded into silence.
“That would be… short-sighted.” As I opened my mouth to demonstrate just how short-sighted I could be, he spoke again. “You have yet to answer my question.”
“Who is it that you see in the backseat?”
I shrugged. “My mom.”
“Ah.” His voice remained mild. “Elora Jameson. Dead at thirty-two, at the hands of her husband, David. Your father.”
“Don’t talk about my parents.” I felt my hands bunch into fists, knuckles cracking.
“I have little interest in your progenitors, given their respective fates. If anyone should pay them heed, it is you.” Those copper eyes drifted down to my fists, and the empty smile widened.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The sins of the father, passed down to the son, repeated through history in an ever-spinning cycle of tragedy. How many decades before madness consumes you as it did him?” He nodded to Mom’s ghost as if he could see her. “How many decades before your mother has company by your own hand?”
Mom met my gaze with a cheery smile and absolutely no recognition. I turned to look out the window, where a hundred miles of desolation stared back at me through bleak and empty eyes. “Everyone knows what happens to Crows.”
“Untrained ones, yes. Poor, mad bastards like the father you do not wish to speak of.”
I swallowed a second time. “Are you saying that training could keep me sane?”
He shrugged. “Power cannot be controlled through ignorance. No Crow has ever attended the Academy, but if its instructors can teach a Weather Witch to harness the lightning or a Shifter to hold their second form…”
“Then they might teach me how to keep from going nuts.” I felt the first crack appear in my shell of well-honed pessimism. Since I was nine, I’d known my fate, known there was fuck-all I could do to stop it. It was hard to believe that there might be an alternative.
“However, if you prefer not to attend…” The Finder reached past me to push the passenger door open, letting in a blast of heat. “You are free to leave.”
“We’re in the middle of the desert,” I reminded him.
“I’d die before I could make it to either Bakersfield or Los Angeles.”
He shrugged again. “Every decision has its consequences.”
I pulled the door shut before the hot air could cook my exposed skin. “Yeah. I think I’ll go to the Academy.”
“That choice will have consequences of its own,” he warned.
I rolled my eyes and sank back into the uncomfortable seat as we began to move. No wonder everyone hated the government.
* * *
A half hour later, we encountered the first signs of life since leaving Bakersfield; a collection of sun-weathered, rust-covered buildings, huddled like hungry beggars around the cracked ribbon of highway. The Finder pulled our car onto a side street, driving past a handful of houses before coming to a stop in a parking lot. The building that bordered the lot was twice the size of its neighbors. A fresh coat of paint was busy peeling away from aluminum siding, and both front windows remained intact.
“This doesn’t look like Los Angeles.”
“Because it is not.” He nodded to the mountains that rose above us just to the south. “The City of Angels lies beyond those hills. But this is a stop we must make first.” He slipped out of the car and headed for the building.
With a shrug, I followed. If the place was on the grid, it might have air conditioning. And water. And hopefully some food. We were several hours past lunch, and I was already regretting not having swiped some of Mama Rawlins’ synth-rations before we left.
* * *
As we passed through the doorway, the blessed hum of central air conditioning greeted us like the whispers of a benevolent god. I heard the room’s other occupant before I saw him. He had his feet up on an oversized desk and his eyes were closed. His snores would have gotten him smothered in his sleep at the orphanage.
Mr. Grey made a beeline for the man, waited half a second to see if he would wake on his own, and then slammed an open palm against the desk’s surface. The loud crack of flesh against wood was almost immediately followed by a startled scream, and an even louder thud, as the stranger toppled backwards out of his chair. A few moments later, he scrambled to his feet, reaching to pick up a pair of glasses from the desk.
“Uhm…” He squinted at us both. “Can I help you folks?”
“We are here for testing,” the Finder told him evenly.
“Oh, right.” The other man nodded sagely. “I’m going to need you to fill out…” He rustled through a stack of papers. “…forms 36A, 57B and 99.” With a frown, he gave up his search and scanned the room. “Assuming I can find any of them.”
“That will not be necessary,” said Mr. Grey, leaning forward to flash the other man his identification. “The paperwork has been filed.”
“Alrighty then. Which of you is being tested today?”
Something like emotion leaked into Mr. Grey’s voice. Assuming irritation qualified as an emotion, anyway. “The boy.”
“Right. Right.” The other man looked over to me. “Well then, welcome to your testing. My name is Jeremy, and I’ll be your operator today. Are you familiar with the process?”
Since I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, I shook my head.
“Sweet, I get to give the speech.” Jeremy escorted us into the back room where two chairs—one of them slightly elevated and cushioned like an old barber’s seat—had been set up next to a machine the size of Mama Rawlins’ liquor cabinet. Atop that machine was a messy bundle of wires, each terminating in a white plastic pad. A set of bicycle handlebars had been grafted to the top of the machine and wrapped in copper wire. “Powers, you see,” he began with obvious excitement, “come in all shapes, flavors and sizes, from the smallest trickle of ability to… well, someone like Dr. Nowhere, I guess. What this device does is…”
“Measure my power levels,” I finished. The machine looked nothing like the gleaming devices I’d seen in hero-vids, but given that every Cape on those programs was both physically flawless and morally unassailable, I’d already suspected there were some serious liberties being taken with the truth.
The Finder’s comment back in the car suddenly made sense. The Academy only opened its doors to those few Powers ranked Category Three or above. A Four was a shoe-in. A Five? They were so rare as to almost not exist. And if I was a One or a Two, I could kiss admission—and my only shot at staying sane—goodbye.
“So you do know.” Jeremy looked disappointed for a moment, then shrugged. “Technically, it’s your power level potential, but close enough. Grab a seat and take off your shirt.”
I did as instructed, wadding my faded tee into a small ball and lowering myself into the indicated chair. The cracked vinyl cushioning made a rude noise beneath me.
I looked up to find Jeremy staring.
“That was the chair, not me.” I scowled.
“Huh? Oh, the noise? Yeah, it’s always like that.” He turned and busied himself with the machine for a moment, before tossing a glance back over one shoulder. “So uh… can I get you something to eat, maybe? Like a sandwich? Or twelve?”
I looked down at my all-too prominent ribs and flushed. A sandwich sounded great, but I’d be damned if I accepted it with a side order of pity. I shot the older man a glare. “I’m good. Let’s get on with this.”
“Sure thing.” Jeremy shrugged yet again, and began to sort through the bundle of wires. He slathered the plastic pads with some sort of cold, sticky gel and stuck them to my chest like mutated nipples. By the time, he was through, my torso was covered. “Grab the handles, please.”
I leaned forward, causing the chair to fart a second time, and took hold of the copper-wrapped bike handles.
“Do you have to plug it in or something?”
“These don’t work off garden-variety outlets.” Jeremy winked. “That’s what I’m here for.” He rubbed his palms together for a moment, as if trying to warm them, and then reached forward and touched both hands to the machine. Moments later, a low hum told me it was active.
“You’re a Spark?”
“Most testers are, for obvious reasons. And you are…” He paused, adjusted a couple of dials on his side of the box, and checked the readouts a second time. “Wait, you’re…”
“A Necromancer,” answered Mr. Grey mildly.
Jeremy mustered up a wan smile. “Never tested a Crow before. Alright now… keep a hold on the handles. This might tingle just a bit.”
The world erupted in light.