Some cut INSIGNIA series scenes + preorder giveaway news

First order of business: if anyone has preordered my November 1st release, THE DIABOLIC, send me proof along with your mailing address at for some cool goodies, most pictured below. Will discuss this more soon.

preorder diabolic

Now, onto the cut scenes…

None of these scenes made it to VORTEX or CATALYST, but I’m posting them here for those of you who’d like to read them. The first three scenes are from VORTEX, the last from CATALYST.

Scene number one from VORTEX:

I planned on bringing in Frayne in VORTEX, not CATALYST, so the book originally launched with Tom going off on his own over vacation, never realizing the military’s lost his GPS signal, and all the problems that result. That beginning (a full 11k!) can be read in the charity anthology, ALTERED PERCEPTIONS.

altered cover

In this scene, Blackburn is here to retrieve him. They are not pleased to see each other.

Now, a note on Tom: As you may have noticed, Tom Raines is not emotionally self-aware. At all. After the census device incident, he is afraid of Blackburn, but he’s totally unable to accept that, and scornful of any aspect of himself that might feel that way. He thus responds to Blackburn with more bravado and insolence than ever, to convince both Blackburn and to convince himself that he feels no fear at all.

Just as in the published version, this theme doesn’t fully resolve until Vengerov materializes as a much deadlier threat and a painful reality check, making Blackburn a far lesser evil by comparison.

This scene became a brief scuffle in the Calisthenics Arena.

On a last note: Blackburn has opinions about Neil. It never makes it into the books, but he does, and this scene has just the tiniest hint of that.

Tom slouched down in his seat and glared out the window, fists clenched so hard they throbbed, as Blackburn kept talking, “… unbelievable, even for you, Raines. What has been emphasized since day one at the Spire? What?”

“I don’t know,” Tom sighed. “What?”

Blackburn’s dangerous gaze swung his way. “The value of that neural processor. Strategically. Financially. People died developing that technology. Spies have been clapped in dank, dark holes for trying to plunder the secrets of that computer in your head. Innocent civilians right now are living lives of indefinite detention under armed guard somewhere, purely because they noticed the wrong thing, stumbled across the wrong piece of intelligence, or worked on the wrong project—all for that tech in your brain. I have told you again and again that the entire reason you’re learning programming – the entire reason – is to enable you to defend yourself against the many, many people who’d gleefully cut into your skull and extract it. And what do you do with that knowledge? You went hitchhiking.”

“I get it.”

“Do you? See, I figure if a kid actually gets that his life is a valuable commodity in severe danger of being taken from him, he doesn’t ditch his military escort, drop off the grid and go hitchhiking across the country like an idiot.”

“I didn’t try to drop off the grid,” Tom protested, despite his determination not to engage the guy who’d tried to rip his mind apart in a conversation. He couldn’t help it. “And I didn’t even hitchhike the whole way. I hopped a train.”

“Ah, criminal trespass, too. Real great case you’re making for yourself here, Raines.”

Tom shut his mouth, realizing that was what he’d admitted to.

Blackburn shook his head, disgusted. “Anything could’ve happened to you, you realize. We wouldn’t have known. No one would’ve helped you.”

“I didn’t need anyone’s help. I can look out for myself.”

“Is that so?” Blackburn held up two fingers. “This is a gun, Raines. You just got in my vehicle, and lo and behold, I point this at your head. What do you do?”

Tom smirked. “I patiently explain to you that your fingers aren’t a gun.”

Blackburn whacked him across the back of his head hard enough to jolt his vision. “What do you do?” he repeated.

“I’d grab the wheel, yank it, and crash the car.”

“And I pull the trigger and splatter your brains on the windshield.”

“No, wait. Okay, I’d wait for you to get distracted, or I’d fake a distraction first.” Tom thought it over quickly. “Yeah, that’s what I’d do, then I’d yank the wheel to crash the car, and while that distracted you, I’d get your gun. Then– bang. You’d be the dead guy.”

Blackburn seemed amused. “I won’t point out all the holes in that plan, Raines. Suffice it to say, you would never, ever get a gun from me.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” Tom pointed out. “This is all talk. I’ve got no way to prove you wrong.”

Blackburn eyed him speculatively as they circled around towards an array of private planes. He halted the car near a waiting jet, then reached into the back seat to grab his bundle of Air Force fatigues.

“Anyway, none of this would even be an issue, sir,” Tom said. He watched Blackburn sifting through his bundle—the fatigues, the woolen socks, the belt. “There’s one simple reason I’ve never had to face situations like that: I don’t get in a car if a person gives me a bad feeling.”

“And you can tell at one single glance.”

“Yeah, I can. I follow my gut, and it’s pretty dead on. My dad taught me to do that.”

Tom reached out to shove his door open, but something happened—a cord of black passed before his eyes, and he felt something tighten around his throat. A thrill of adrenaline shot through him and he reached up to pull the cord from his skin, but a ferocious tug yanked it impossibly tighter and then dragged him over to the driver’s seat, crushing him against Blackburn’s shoulder.

“Get off me!” Tom shouted, pulling at the belt around his throat, his legs kicking at the window. But a yank at the belt tightened it, dimming his vision long enough for a heavy arm to anchor around his body, and a large hand to seize his wrists and pin them against his chest.

Then the belt eased up, but Tom roared out and thrashed at the grip. He couldn’t throw Blackburn off, though. He tried hunching down and kicking back as far as his leg would go, but Blackburn hoisted him up using the belt, forcing him to sit up unnaturally straight just to breathe.

Tom finally went still, choking in ragged breaths, his heart busting at his ribcage. “What are you doing?” he demanded.

“You said it yourself. If we’re not in that situation, we’ll never know how it would’ve turned out. So let’s role-play this: a psychopath picks up hitchhiker. How do you, hitchhiker, stop me, psychopath, from choking you to death? Show me by doing.”

Tom hadn’t ever considered this scenario, with some belt looped around his throat. He gritted his teeth and gave another furious twist, but Blackburn planted a knee against his back and tugged with that belt again, forcing him into an awkward arch. He leaned his head back as far as he could; it was the only way he could breathe properly.

“Stop—this isn’t funny!”

“I’m not playing around here, Raines. Fight me off, and do it quickly, or I’ll strangle you.”

Even though Tom was pretty sure he wouldn’t do that, the memory of the Census Chamber blared vividly in his brain—the memory of Blackburn pledging to tear his mind apart if he needed to. The belt wasn’t getting tighter now, but Tom couldn’t help thinking that maybe, just maybe, it actually was.

“I think you’d better let me go,” Tom said, his voice shaking. “See, I vividly remember something from a few weeks ago, too: seeing this one Air Force officer looking so scared – and the blood draining out of his face – at the very idea of me going to Joseph Vengerov and telling him all about what I could do with machines… Remember that, sir?”

Blackburn just shifted in his seat, getting more comfortable. “Let’s get this blackmail situation straight, Raines: your leverage over me is the equivalent of a hydrogen bomb. You only get to drop it once, and once you do, there’s no going back. You and I both know you’re not dropping it because I’ve hurt your pride.”

Tom drew a breath and let it out, his teeth grinding together. It was true.

“I want to make a point, and believe it or not, it’s for your own good. Are you ready to hear it?” After a moment, “I’ll need a verbal reply, Raines.”


“See, I look at your father, and I see a man who’s physically intimidating. He’s got some weight to him. He looks like he could punch me, and actually hurt me. I would think twice about crossing him. This brings me to you. You don’t come across as a threat. You’re unarmed, you’re alone, you don’t look particularly strong… If I saw you standing alone by the side of the road, I’d see you as an easy target. And right here, right now, haven’t you proven me correct?”

Tom gave a ferocious tug at his arms, and almost freed them this time—but a sharp, warning tug and a momentary constriction around his neck made him go still out of sheer, blinding instinct.

“Tell me, Raines,” Blackburn went on, “what stops me from tightening this belt until you’re unconscious or dead?”

Tom’s hands were going numb in his grip. He didn’t want to say it.

“Answer me.”

“Nothing,” Tom muttered.

“Thatta boy, Raines, you get it now. Nothing stops me. I can do anything I want to you right now because by the time you’re in this position,” he tugged lightly on the belt for emphasis, “it’s too late. There is nothing you can do to save yourself anymore. All your choices in this matter have already been made, and they were probably made that moment you decided to get into my car and put yourself at my mercy. That bad gut feeling you talked about? It only has to be wrong once.”

He loosened the belt off Tom’s neck, and thrust Tom back into his seat. Tom yanked the belt off over his head and threw it away from him, his heart pounding wildly. His hand flew up to rub at the stinging skin of his throat. “That could happen anywhere. Someone can just shoot you when you’re walking down the street. At some point, it’s bad luck, or… or fate.”

“Wrong again.” Blackburn retrieved his belt and wound it around his wrist, then set about gathering up his fatigues under his arm. “‘Bad luck’ is getting attacked by a bear while you’re hiking down a trail. ‘Stupidity’ is camping out next to the primary water source in grizzly country, having a barbecue, and then wondering why a bear came and attacked you. If something had happened to you out there, it wouldn’t have been due to bad luck, it would’ve been due to you overestimating yourself and underestimating the dangers of your environment.”

“You’re the paranoid schizophrenic here. Ever think you’ve got a slightly skewed perspective on the ‘dangers of the environment’? I told you, I am careful.”

“No, you are lucky.” Blackburn jerked open his door and slid on his sunglasses. “This is Survival 101 in a nutshell, Raines: if you set yourself up to be victimized, you raise the odds that you will be. That’s what your father should have taught you.”


VORTEX scene number two: the original Armory scene from VORTEX, with Tom, Vik and Wyatt deciding to mess around with exosuits on their own. A tense situation results.

I reconsidered this one, because though I take liberties with credulity in many aspects of the Insigniaverse, exosuits are very dangerous. They’re dangerous enough, I can’t see Blackburn letting the kids near them without his supervision.

The again, in the published version, this becomes Vik urging Tom to stick his head in a cannon, so… Not sure if I improved the realism there…

This scene also played into the theme of fear poorly handled. Tom nearly lost lost everything in INSIGNIA, with one authority figure behind it (Blackburn) and another authority figure (Marsh) utterly powerless to stop it. Rather than look inward and admit how profoundly terrifying that entire situation was, Tom turns outward, seeking to prove himself utterly fearless and invincible.

Tom decided he liked superhuman strength. As soon as he’d hooked the exosuit’s prong into his neural access port, he started running, and the world hurtled past him, each muscle twitch amplified by a factor of forty-two.

Effortlessly, he leaped ten feet in the air, then twenty feet. He ran by Wyatt and Vik in their exosuits and lifted up one in each arm, laughing at the way Wyatt threatened to use her own superhuman strength to make him put them down.

Tom set them back down, and found that they weren’t having as easy a time of it. Vik taking very awkward steps, moving his arms jerkily like he was trying to do the robot dance. Wyatt was doing some strange, Godzilla-esque walk where she lifted her heels to waist level before each painful-looking move forward

“Just move like you always do,” Tom told them.

“I’m trying to,” Vik shot back.

“This isn’t as easy as you make it look,” Wyatt said, still Godzilla walking.

Tom headed off alone, and mastered doing a series of flips across the Calisthenics Arena. It was easy. He thought it, and it happened. He did a swan dive of sorts down the chasm between the third floor and the first, and landed on his feet. Then hoisted himself up the climbing wall with just his arms and used them to propel him up into the air so he plopped easily to the ground next to them again.

He saw Vik still doing something that looked like a robot dance several yards away, and bounded over to him. “Let’s arm-wrestle in these. Winner takes on Wyatt.”

Wyatt’s eyes shot wide open. “That’s a really bad idea!”

But Vik gave a nod. “Okay, give me a second to lift my arm up…”

“You guys shouldn’t—” And then Wyatt yelped out. Her exosuit was moving, seemingly on its own. One hand clamped on Tom’s metal collar piece, one on Vik’s, and then seconds later, she’d hoisted them both up in the air, their feet dangling towards the ground.

“What are you doing?” Vik cried.

“I didn’t mean to do that… I didn’t mean to…” Wyatt gasped, panic blazing on her face.

Vik began to kick and wave her arms.

“Don’t move! One kick, and you’ll kill me!” Wyatt gasped.

“Oh. Oh no.” Vik grew deathly pale. He looked afraid to move.

Tom fought back the urge to laugh. “Guys, relax. Wyatt, just put us down.”

“N-no. I can’t. What if I put you down too hard? What if I crush you?”

“You won’t,” Tom assured her as Vik warned her, “Don’t move an inch. Please.”

Wyatt and Vik’s faces both blazed with panic.

“Don’t squeeze,” Vik gasped.

“Don’t even say that word. I might do it without meaning to!” she wailed.

“Guys, seriously, relax!” Tom urged them.

They both looked at him like he was crazy. “Relax?” Wyatt hissed. “Tom, I could have crushed both your skulls! I still might! These things are too strong. This was a stupid idea.”

“Okay. Okay. We need to get these off.” Vik was breathing rapidly. “Tom, hate to say it, but you seem to be good at this.”

“Yeah, I am. Let me fix this.” Tom looked down at Wyatt’s exosuit-augmented hand where it was gripping the metallic collarbone over his, then he pried her fingers off one-by-one.

His feet clanked to the ground, and Vik and Wyatt both flinched.

“Piece of cake,” Tom assured them. “Now Vik, I’ll get you down.”

His friends seemed to be holding their breath as he circled around them, trying to figure out the best way to extract Vik from her grasp…

“My God.”

The voice made Tom jump, and Wyatt and Vik cry out. But when Tom turned, it was just Yuri, all sweaty from the jog he’d been taking, staring at them from the entrance to the Calisthenics Arena. He drew towards them.

“Wyatt, Vikram, you have finally come to this?” Yuri said, aghast.

Tom realized something: Yuri couldn’t see the exosuits. All he saw was Wyatt dangling Vik from the neck with a single arm.

“Yuri, this isn’t…” Tom stopped, realizing he couldn’t explain that one of Wyatt and Vik’s usual arguments hadn’t actually come to blows. Yuri was still a plebe, so he probably couldn’t see the exosuits; they were likely edited out of his awareness along with anything else to do with the Armory. So he tried, “Vik made Wyatt really, really mad.”

He reached up and managed to pry Wyatt’s fingers open, sending Vik clanging down to the ground. Vik took a stumbling step back out of reach of Wyatt and her exosuit.

Wyatt looked too nervous to move or speak, and just kept staring at her metal-enmeshed hand, suspended mid-air. “Yes. Yes, I was enraged beyond reason. So enraged I am afraid to move right now.” Her wide eyes moved to Tom’s.

Tom got the message, and reached behind her to yank the prong out of her brain stem access port. The suit immediately unclasped her and expanded to its natural size and width.

“Wyatt was teaching me a lesson about respecting women,” Vik told Yuri, his arms folded at his sides, moving strangely like he was still doing a robot dance. “And now I have learned it.”

Yuri just watched the way he was standing there, doing a strange, quasi-robot dance.

Wyatt stepped out of her suit shakily, looking like she’d just gotten to dry land for the first time after being stranded at sea. She half-staggered over to Yuri, and pulled him around so he wasn’t looking at Tom and Vik—giving them a chance to unsuit Vik.

“How was your…” She fell silent and went utterly rigid when Yuri pulled her into a warm embrace. “… um, vacation?”

“Wonderful.” He kissed her forehead, then pulled back, awe flooding his face. “Wyatt, you are very, very strong.” He looked her over, and Tom swore, he suddenly seemed more attracted to her than ever. He groped Wyatt’s bicep wonderingly as she distracted him, as she led him away—leaving Tom and Vik to return the exosuits back to the armory.

“These are awesome,” Tom exulted. It was easy carrying the first two back as long as he wore his.

His own suit proved difficult: he and Vik both struggled to hoist it onto its rack. When they stepped back, they were breathless and sweaty.

“I can’t wait to use these again, man.”

“Tom, we almost died.” Vik spoke flatly, staring at the suits.

Tom laughed. “No, we didn’t.”

“Bu we could have. We could have died.”

“Yeah, but we didn’t.” Tom clapped his back, his brain soaring with the possibilities ahead of them. “That’s all that matters.”

But Vik didn’t return his grin.

Vortex Scene Three:
Expanding on the Tom-is-afraid-of-Blackburn theme, as mentioned with scene one. Also, Blackburn is fully aware he’s traumatized a teenager, and much as Tom can aggravate him, he isn’t proud of that. But being Blackburn, he isn’t comforting: he just orders him away.

It was cool to give Nigel a mention, but I decided to avoid this just in case I wanted to bring him back at some point in book three. Never did, but here you go.

This scene turned to Tom freaking out without realizing he’s freaking out as they wait to have their memories from the Jupiter incident recorded, with the same Tom and Blackburn dynamic at play.

The door to the Census Chamber slid open and Lieutenant Blackburn walked in.

Tom sprang to his feet so quickly, it was like he’d been lit on fire. Blackburn looked him up and down across the shadowy expanse of the room. “On Scutwork Duty, Raines?”

Tom was suddenly feeling like every nerve was electrified under his skin. He wanted to be anywhere else. “Yes, sir.”

“Carry on.”

Tom hastily resumed disinfecting the chair, and tried to ignore Blackburn as he set about opening something, metal clinking metal, the Census Device powering up—but it was like turning his back on a nuclear explosion. Finally, Tom reared up to his feet, damp rag gripped tightly in hand, needed to see what he was doing.

His eyes locked on the metal container Blackburn was hooking wires into, and a profile flashed before his eyes:

Name: Nigel Harrison
Rank: USIF- Grade V Upper, Machiavelli Division
Origin: Cambridge, England
Accomplishments: Winner of the International Linguistics Olympiad,
Member of the British Association for Computational Linguistics
IP: 2053:db7:lj71::262:ll3:6e8
Security Status: Top Secret LANDLOCK-5

Tom just stared. And stared. He felt suddenly like he couldn’t breathe. “What’s in there?”

Blackburn slanted him a long, assessing look over the open lid of the box. “A neural processor.”

“Nigel’s neural processor.”

“Your point?”

Tom felt like there was something very heavy and leaden inside him. “You’re working on Nigel’s processor.” The realization swept over him like a cold draft. Nigel had his processor for years. They couldn’t just yank a processor out of someone’s brain once they’d had it too long.

Not without killing them.

“You took it out,” Tom said, aghast. “You guys did that.”

“What did you expect?” Blackburn said quietly. “He committed treason, he tried to commit mass murder, and worst of all, he was a nobody, Raines. He wasn’t related to anyone important, and he didn’t have a powerful friend—not like your buddy, Yuri, with his connection to Joseph Vengerov… Of course the military reclaimed its property from him.”

Tom opened and closed his mouth. “So he… How did it happen?” He’d never known someone who’d died before. “Did it take a while for him to croak, or how did he…”

“Raines, I questioned him with the census device and verified that he really was a traitor. Then I washed my hands of him and the NSA took over. I didn’t follow up. I got this processor back a few weeks later.”

“So you’re going to wipe it clean and stuck it in someone else.”

“Probably not this time. The hardware’s defective,” Blackburn said, turning his attention back to the processor again. Tom remembered it vaguely, Nigel complaining about the way it misfired at random, giving him this superficial, irritating facial twitch. “Maybe I can fix it, but maybe I can’t—and then I’ll just harvest the functional parts in case I need to repair any of you down the road.”

Tom’s thoughts veered into the morbid. “How long did he hold out in here?” He gestured up to the census device.

“That’s not any of your business, Raines.”

But Tom couldn’t really hear him. He gazed up at the Census Device, transfixed, wondering just how long Nigel had been culled before they were done, before they grew sure he’d proven himself completely guilty… How many days he’d been trapped in here, tied to that chair… If he’d gone insane before he died, if he’d screamed or gone incontinent or started crying or if he’d wished he’d never come to the Spire, or if he ever…

“I need to work in here, Raines,” Blackburn cut in abruptly, breaking his spell, “I’ll contact Private Getty about sending someone else tomorrow. Get out of my sight.”


And now the cut scene from CATALYST. It took me a while to figure out how Neil would learn of Tom’s neural processor. He can’t exactly just look inside his skull, after all.

My original plan: Tom ends up in a civilian hospital, and that’s how Neil learns. I really wanted Neil and Blackburn to meet. They are the two older male figures in Tom’s life, and they’re meant to be total polar opposites of each other– one an authoritarian control freak, one an irresponsible and reckless laissez-faire parent. They’re also two people who would totally loathe each other on principle.

Also, as I mentioned briefly, Blackburn has very strong opinions about Neil and has ever since the census device.

That said, I couldn’t quite capture the right interaction between them, and considering the misery Tom endures later in Catalyst, it didn’t feel right launching the book with Tom getting hurt. The poor kid goes through enough already. Plus, much as I enjoyed these two men meeting, it distracted from the storyline and everything else due to happen in CATALYST. I still had Frayne, the neural link, and Mezilo to fit in, so it was complicated enough already!

It was Blackburn.

“We received an automatic distress beacon from your neural processor. By the time our people arrived, you were already with the paramedics. There’s a whole team, but I came in first so I could check your hardware.”

“So is it really bad?” Tom leaned his pounding head back, reflecting on how messed up it was to feel relieved. Blackburn nearly ripped apart his mind with the census device; he’d killed Heather right in front of him, and Tom knew he had some nebulous intention to use what he could do with machines. Blackburn probably had terrible consequences planned for what he’d done to the skyboards…

Yet something in his gut relaxed, like a clenched fist loosening, just realizing Blackburn was there now. The worries about his situation slid away. Blackburn would deal with it, somehow, and he’d handle it. Tom knew he would.

“Nothing I can’t fix. You’re lucky.”

“Lucky,” Tom repeated. He lifted up his hands and studied his mangled, mechanized fingers. Neil had found him.

He must’ve seen them.

“Where’s my dad?” His voice slurred from his swollen jaw. “Did he see this?”

“Your fingers? I don’t know how he could have missed them. That’s not my worry. I’m more concerned about what your doctors have seen in your skull. I’ve been looking through here, trying to see your test results… An MRI, a CT, an EEG, any of them would show your processor. It looks like nothing’s been placed in the system.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means someone saw something that confused him, and he was smart enough not to upload it yet. Whether your father’s been asked about it or not… We’ll have to see.”

Tom thought of his father, of his dad finding out. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t. He wasn’t sure how Neil would react, but it wouldn’t be good.

“Your father stepped out a few minutes ago and that’s when I came in,” Blackburn went on. “I’ll try to avoid him, but if he sees me, we’re telling him I’m a neurosurgical resident who’s been brought in to evaluate you. You don’t know me. Understood?”

Tom nodded shakily, then winced when his head spiked with pain.

“So how’d you get in this mess, Raines? Wave some money in front of a mugger? Start a fight? How’d you make this one happen?”

“Hey, it wasn’t me this time.” The memory swirled in his head, hazy. “They just came after me. Didn’t even want money.”

Blackburn rubbed his palm over his mouth. “So who has a reason to harm you?” An edge crept into his voice. “Other than every security agency in the world… And a certain person with a schedule far too busy to keep cleaning up your messes.”

“There are a bunch of people who’d probably want me beaten up,” Tom confessed.

“Color me astonished.”

Tom glared at him half-heartedly.

“Let’s narrow it down. Names.” Blackburn twirled two fingers, gesturing for Tom to start listing them.

Tom sighed. “Well, there’s Karl Marsters, Nigel Harrison, Joseph Vengerov, Dalton Prestwick, the executive board of Dominion Agra, the senators at the Beringer Club the night I flooded it with sewage, and its owner, and this goon Hayden who worked there. There’s also Reuben Lloyd of Wyndham Harks, since I kind of humiliated him, plus a couple Epicenter execs who got mad at me when I threatened to blow them up. Oh, and Hank Bloombury of Matchett Reddy, ‘cause I got him brutalized by the cops and thrown in jail. I also chased him with a drone, but he doesn’t know that was me. I also insulted the Royal Family of…”

“Stop. Just stop.”

“But I’ve got way more than that…”

“What in the hell is the matter with you? You’re fifteen. Fifteen.

Tom hadn’t even gotten into all the people he’d ripped off in video games over the years, much less his dad’s enemies.

“Only you, Raines,” Blackburn said wearily. His hand crept under his sleeve towards his forearm keyboard. “Now, you’re sure there’s no pain?”

“I said no,” Tom told him.

But Blackburn pressed on his forearm keyboard, and text flashed across Tom’s vision center: Datastream received: program anesthetic initiated.

“I said I don’t need…” Tom’s voice faded, wooziness creeping slow and sluggishly through his brain. The last of his pain receded into the hazy distance, shifting to a dull ache that seemed irrelevant to him somehow, enfolding him in a sense of total calm, total peace.

Tom felt like he was sinking into the mattress, drifting on calm waters. He was only vaguely aware of Blackburn’s hand on his shoulder.

“How are you feeling now?”

Tom remembered something Blackburn had said. “Hey, I’m not fifteen.”


“I’m sixteen.”

“That’s a very important point at this juncture. I think I dosed you a bit too high.”

“You know what tastes really good?” Tom said drowsily. “Peanut butter.”

“So tell me honestly: why did you destroy those skyboards?”

Tom registered dully that Blackburn hadn’t just felt a generous need to alleviate his pain, but the thought faded quickly. He hunted hazily for his misgivings, because he had this sense he shouldn’t talk about this. His brain felt like the pillow under his head, soft and squashy, and he found the words tripping over his tongue. “Vengerov knew about the Ghost already.”


“He knew. He heard us.”


“You. Me. Talking. Yuri heard and Vengerov was tapping into him.”

“He already knew,” Blackburn breathed. “That changes things.”

“He thought it was her,” Tom mumbled. “So I showed him it wasn’t.”

“You planted a target on your back, you little idiot.”

“Better than leaving it on hers.”

“Hers?” The hand tightened on his shoulder, intent. “Who? Who is she, then?”

But even now, even now, Tom knew not to answer that. Medusa was his secret. Only his.

“Tell me. I’ll find out one way or another.”

Tom said nothing.

Shadows shifted behind his eyelids as Blackburn reared to his feet from where he’d knelt. “You left your worst enemy off that list, Tom. Look no farther than yourself.”
* * *

Tom had no sense of time, so he wasn’t even aware of the moment Neil burst into the room. He cracked open his eyes and peered hazily at the two men after they were already facing off.

“… called in for a quick neurological consult with your son,” Blackburn was lying smoothly. “He looks to be recovering quite nicely. I’ll consult with his physician, and he’ll be able to answer any questions you have. Excuse me.”

“A Doctor, hmm?” Neil said, stepping in his way before Blackburn could slip from the room. He sounded mock impressed. “A neurologist, at that. Gotta have a decent salary… Why didn’t you ever get your face fixed right there?” He gestured to his own cheek, indicating the scars on Blackburn’s cheek.

Blackburn didn’t answer for several seconds, visibly thrown by the unexpected question. Tom blinked, trying to make sense of this because he knew his dad. Neil was going on the attack… for some reason.

“It’s minor scarring. How is this relevant—”

“Scarring. By fingernails, it looks like. Someone went to town on you.”

“In a sense.”

Tom tried to get his head on straight, tried to focus. He wasn’t sure what he’d missed while he was zoning out, but he knew Blackburn was meticulous, careful. He wouldn’t slip. But Tom’s dad was acting strange.

He was acting like he smelled a rat.

“I’m just gonna hazard a guess.” Neil rocked back on his heels, looking him over. “Ex-girl—no, ex-wife?”

Tom saw Blackburn’s wide shoulders tense like some alert animal’s. “Your point?”

Neil’s grin bared too many teeth to be friendly. “Yeah, there’s that special sort of rage you only get from an ex. And you strike me as the stolid, faithful type, so I’m guessing it wasn’t another woman. Bet it was about… Money? Or a kid?”

Blackburn’s mouth jerked.

“Ah, it was a kid, wasn’t it?” Neil leered at him, malice snapping in his eyes. “Something pretty nasty must’ve happened, because I tell you, it’s tough using plain old fingernails to scar a face, since it’s so… what’s the word, Doctor? The way faces have a lot of blood.”


Animosity prickled thick on the air between them. Even in his current state, Tom knew this was taking a bad turn. If Neil was trying to get under Blackburn’s skin, there was a reason.

“Right, vascular. It’s hard scarring something so ‘vascular’ as the face. Your little lady must’ve had some grade-a hatred going on there over your kid.” Neil drew closer, dropping his voice. “And whatever it was about, I’m guessing it was your fault, and you know it. Otherwise you’d have gotten those scars fixed a long time ago.”

There was no mistaking the threat when Blackburn leaned over him. “What. Is. Your. Point?”

Neil reared back a step with a reckless laugh. “Oh, and now you’re getting defensive. Did I hit a sore point? Gee, I’m real sorry about that. I guess a father can get vicious when his kid’s involved.”

Blackburn’s lips curved into a smile like he’d just removed the safety tip of some sword. “Funny, and here, I was wondering what sort of father spends his time at his injured son’s bedside reeking of alcohol, delaying his treatment, and playing head games with his doctor. Then I solved the mystery myself, by realizing it’s the same man who lets his teenaged son wander outside at one in the morning because he just doesn’t give a damn about his own kid’s safety.”

Neil’s smile just broadened. He seemed to take a twisted delight in Blackburn’s contempt. “Let me act like a father, then, and consult your vast doctorly knowledge. Have you seen my boy’s MRI yet?”

“You’ll have to speak with his attending physician about that.”

“What, you’re a neurologist and you haven’t seen a picture of his brain? Isn’t that your job?”

“Results are still pending,” Blackburn said. “Excuse me—”

“Still pending?” There was a ring to Neil’s voice, his eyes gleaming like a cat that had just trapped a rodent.

Tom realized it then.

He knows… He knows…

“Dad…” Tom’s voice was hoarse, and he wasn’t sure he’d spoken loudly enough for them to hear them. He struggled to sit up.

“Funny, because I actually did talk to his attending physician,” Neil said, teeth bared. “A real doctor, and he said my boy already got his MRI. He got two, actually, because the first scan was so peculiar. That doctor spent a good half hour explaining to me every reason there was something questionable in my kid’s head, something very strange. It explained some things to me—like where my kid got an old scar on his head.”

Blackburn grew rigid, and Tom felt paralyzed.

“There’s a machine in his skull, and I think I know the bastards who’d cut open a kid’s head and stick it in there. I bet I even know how these people who messed with my kid’s brain would handle this situation—by sending someone in on the sly posing as a doctor so they could meddle right in front of my face. So, Jim Black or whoever you are, you’re gonna sit down, and you’re gonna explain just what you people did to my son! And then you’ll tell me about my boy’s hands. I wanna know who lopped off his fingers!”

“Dad,” Tom tried, his voice stronger, “You don’t understand. I can explain.”

“I’m not hearing any excuses from you, Tommy!” Neil roared, turning on him. “You’re just going to defend these people. You’ve been keeping this from me!”

“Fine.” Blackburn’s soft voice made Neil draw back a step, though Neil still gazed at him hatefully like he was about to rip him apart. “There’s an explanation.”

Neil gave a sarcastic wave for Blackburn to talk.

Blackburn drew a breath that rounded his cheeks, and then blew it out. He slipped his hand into his sleeve, where Tom knew his forearm keyboard was. “I didn’t want it to come to this, Mr. Raines.”

“Wait,” Tom said, realizing what was about to happen.

Then the door burst open and plainclothes soldiers poured through.

The ghosts of manuscripts past…

And yes, there were four, not three cut scenes. My mistake.

On reflection, I pretty much kept the same elements and themes and reordered them. The only thing I’m sorry to have omitted is the meeting of Blackburn and Neil, but it’s done now. Stay tuned for more about THE DIABOLIC!

  1. S.J. Kincaid, I’m from Mexico so i cant get the pre-order giveaway… 🙁

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