The Supernaturalist, Chap. 8: But Wait, There’s More!

This is the one. The one we’ve been waiting for since Cosmo first escaped the orphanage and joined the Supernaturalists. After all the twists and turns in this adventure so far, it’s all about to come to a head. The gang has located the Parasites’ nest, and it just happens to be in the basement of Clarissa Frayne, the place that Cosmo spent most of his life trying to get away from. He does consider, briefly, not returning with Stefan to plant the EMP, but the thought doesn’t last long. After almost floating off through space for all eternity, he’s unquestionably one of the group now, no longer an outsider.

The two get inside Clarissa Frayne easily enough, and sneak down to the basement with no problem. For once, things are going their way. However, the tracking beads in Cosmo’s skin haven’t entirely shorted out, and his faint pattern alerts our favorite marshal, Redwood, that someone’s sneaking around. Someone who’s supposed to be dead, and who Redwood would love to catch. After the crash in the first chapter, he was demoted to security guard, which sees him watching CCTV for most of the day, alongside his idiot coworker.

We don’t know too much about Redwood, but we know that he’s not dumb, and is pretty sadistic. We also know that he’s probably married, as he mentions someone named “Agnes” a few times. Even though we don’t know anything about her, it’s probably a fair guess to say that he’s not as cruel to his wife as he is to the orphans. Redwood’s not a particularly deep character — really, just a one-shot villain, but I’ve suddenly found myself more intrigued by him than ever before, and it was this line that piqued my curiosity:

He needed to get back on the streets, where he had some real power.

By “the streets”, he means becoming a floor marshal again, and dealing with the orphans directly. It’s already been established that Redwood doesn’t think of the orphans as people, which isn’t all that surprising. My question is just why Redwood is so sadistic. I figure that he’s a monster to the orphans because they can’t fight back, at least, not without serious repercussions. He’s cowardly in that regard, no matter how tough and frightening he thinks he is. I just want to know why he’s wired this way, we he won’t pick on someone his own size. What does he get out of tormenting these orphans?

It’s a pretty pointless question to ask, especially at this point in the book. Like I just said, Redwood is a one-shot villain, whose point in the story is to menace Cosmo. That’s really all we need to know about him.

The mission is going smoothly, unlike every other mission prior, that something has to happen. From the three paragraphs I’ve just dedicated to Redwood, it won’t be any surprise when I tell you that, yep, Redwood shows up right after Cosmo and Stefan plant the EMP. The sleeping Parasites wake up when Redwood attempts to take Cosmo hostage, and ends up painfully smacking the butt of a lightning rod into him.There are thousands of them, and Stefan is left with no choice but to detonate the EMP, knocking out all the Parasites, and Redwood, for that matter. This is such a great scene: a massive amount of Parasites just got wiped out Redwood gets his comeuppance, and the power surge shorted out the tracking beads on the orphans, so they can escape from Clarissa Frayne without being traced. Cosmo and Stefan know that the EMP works, and they can finally do some real damage.

‘Time to go,’ said Cosmo. ‘Now or never.’

‘Now,’ decided the diminutive Fence, leading the no-sponsors into the night, like a modern-day Pied Piper.

Seeing the orphans escape, an effective way to fight the Parasites, and a bully getting what’s coming to him. There’s still some loose ends to tie up, but finally the characters – and the reader – can breathe easy and relax. There’s just one problem: that’s not the end of the book. It’s not even the end of the chapter.

Cosmo and Stefan aren’t able to savor their hard-won victory for long. That’s what kills me about this chapter. Just as soon as something goes right, and they finally getting the break they deserve, they get thrown through another loop, and then another. Three loops, in fact.

With books set in the not-too-distant future, characters usually gizmos which, at the time the book comes out, seem really cool and top of the line. However, after enough time goes by, real life technology is going to surpass whatever neat gadgets those characters have. Mona’s phone is a perfect example of this:

Mona’s phone was a pretty old one, without much in the way of technology. But it did have picture capabilities. Sixty seconds of video or a hundred stills.

The Supernaturalist came out in 2004, when cell phones were becoming more widespread. Reading this when I was fifteen, I would’ve been over the moon to have a Trak Phone, never mind one that can take pictures and video. Now, pictures and video come standard on even the simplest cell phones, and let me tell you — the phone I had in 2007 could take more than 60 seconds of video in one sitting. Saying that Mona’s phone was cheap let Colfer get away with it for a bit longer, but not in 2015. Funny, the small things that wear on my suspense of disbelief.

Mona uses her sub-par phone to capture a video of what appears to be Ditto helping a weakened Parasite, and then all hell breaks loose. Here’s Loop #1: Ditto is in league with the Parasites. Confronting him about this, Stefan suddenly falls through Loop #2: that Parasites take pain only, not life force.

This was another part where fifteen-year-old me wanted to throw the book down, because if it was true, then it was completely mind-blowing. The only reason I didn’t take a couple days off the book then was because I needed to see what happened next, which takes us to Loop #3.

Instead of having the happy ending they deserve, all four of them are captured by Myishi paralegals, and Colfer delivers another throw-away line that I would read an entire book about:

Abracadabra Street was no great challenge for a squadron that had broken into several foreign banks, two crime lords’ strongholds, and a private kindergarten.

Colfer, please make your next book all about high-tech brutes breaking into a kindergarten. Why a kindergarten? These are things I need to know.

The Supernaturalist Chap. 2: Welcome to the World of Tomorrow!

There must be something wrong with me, because I was a little disappointed that Cosmo got out of the orphanage so quickly. I’ve always liked “institution” settings, be it a school for wizards, or a training camp to turn you into a secret agent. On the other hand, if he didn’t get out at the end of the first chapter, I’m sure I’d be impatiently waiting for him to get out. You can only read about chemical tests for so long before it stops being interesting.

It’s the same with Cosmo’s recovery. He took some major damage when he fell off the rooftop and onto the generator, which Mona – the token girl – explains to Cosmo when he wakes up. He had to get his knee replaced, and his skull patched up with a “robotix plate” that Ditto happened to have around. Why the team medic had robotix plates that are used to armor assault tanks lying around is a question that never gets answered. Plus there were various stitches, bruises, and staples to deal with. Cosmo’s on painkillers and sleeping through the first couple pages of this chapter, but he still heals up from all that remarkably quickly. A lot of it is explained away in the technology used for healing, like a “plexi-cast” that reduces swelling and somehow (magic?) repaired Cosmo’s leg in something like twenty-four hours. He has trouble walking for a bit, but for the most part, the worst pain he feels is in his head. The rapid recovery shakes my suspension of disbelief a bit, because the only real explanation given is, “it’s the future!” Of course, if the rest of the book was just Cosmo lying in bed, it would be pretty boring. I just think that it should have taken him longer to heal up.

Even so, the action doesn’t let up when the three strangers – Stefan, Ditto, and an incredibly ill Mona – burst into the room. That’s one thing I always liked about this book. There’s no part in it that’s boring. Okay, it’s not all explosions and psychotic marshals, but even when it slows down, it’s interesting. When Cosmo wakes up for the first time, for example, Mona gives him a rundown of his injuries and exactly what Ditto had to do to patch him up. That might sound dull, but even the explanation of the technology used to patch him up is different, and it helps worldbuild.

Speaking of, there’s a lot of worldbuilding done in just the scene when Cosmo’s rescuers come in. I like that it’s not as direct in the first chapter, and has been done a bit more through dialogue. It’s not without its flaws, though:

‘Close the curtains!’ he shouted.

Cosmo pointed at the react-to-light control panel beside a window. ‘But the glass. Why don’t I just adjust…?’

‘Because the police birds see right through react-to-light. That’s why it comes with the building. Get it?’

It seems to me shutting the curtains would be a lot quicker.

For the most part, I think it’s a pretty good exchange, and gives you some good information about the world. I don’t think the dialogue sounds all that natural, though, especially considering the characters are in an emergency situation. I think it would make more sense for Cosmo to just do as he’s told here, but it is some good exposition.

It’s revealed that Mona is ill because she got hit with a technically non-lethal dart that law enforcement can use, though it’s only non-lethal as long as whoever gets hit by it sticks around long enough for the antidote. Cosmo comes to the rescue, as he’s able to recognize Mona’s symptoms, as those darts had been tested on the orphans at Clarissa Frayne.

I take it back. I’m glad Cosmo didn’t stick around the orphanage any longer than he did.

He remembers that when the “creeper slugs”, as they were called, were tested on the orphans, a moldy sandwich made one of them feel better. Ditto suddenly understands what’s going on, and explains it in technobabble.

“Of course. This is is a flora virus. Cellulose would shut it down.”

That’s another line I didn’t think twice about when I read this as a kid.  Now, I have to wonder how that even makes sense. Whatever, I’ll roll with it. With Cosmo’s knowledge and some chewed up flowers, the group saves Mona and sends her to her bunk to recover. Ditto and Stefan then take some time to properly introduce themselves, and their mission, to Cosmo.

The group: Stefan, Mona, Ditto, and now Cosmo, call themselves the Supernaturalists. They have the ability to see strange blue creatures that no one else can, which they call Parasites. The Parasites are invisible to most people. After a lifetime of living under the smog in Satellite City and a near-death experience, some people, usually kids, are able to see Parasites.

‘The sight usually comes after a near-death experience, and I think what happened to you qualifies as a near-death experience.’

‘About as near as you can get,’ added Ditto, rapping the plate in Cosmo’s head.” 

Not cool, Ditto. That probably hurt.

The Parasites are aptly named, as they suck life force. They used to only go to people who were dying, but in the past year their population has exploded, and they’ll swoop down on almost anyone with an injury. The Supernaturalists have two weapons against them. First, Parasites don’t like water, and will avoid it as much as possible. Since they also feed on energy, the Supernaturalists shoot electricity at them with “lightning rods”. The charges are small enough that they wouldn’t injure a person, but it destroys parasites. From day to day, the Supernaturalists monitor disasters and rush to them to fight Parasites. This causes plenty of problems for the motley crew, because you can’t just expect to run into a dangerous situation, fire at apparently nothing, and not expect any consequences.

‘We observe Satellite sites, waiting for disasters.’ 

‘What, you hack the state police site?’ 

Ditto chuckled. ‘The state police site? No, thank you. We’re in too much of a hurry to wait around for the police. We hack the law firms.’

And that’s how you know it’s cyberpunk.

Now that we know who the enemies are, let’s look at the heroes of this story.

We’ll start with Ditto. He looks like a child, but is actually twenty-eight years old. Ditto’s a Bartolli Baby, part of a genetics experiment as an infant conducted to make super humans. Most of the babies had arrested physical development, but some, like Ditto, gained certain side-effects. Ditto is highly intelligent, and was a doctor before joining the Supernaturalists. His ability to see Parasites is another Bartolli side-effects. He also doesn’t shoot Parasites, but goes in as a medic to help people that have been injured during disasters.

I don’t know what it is–maybe too much time spent reading shojo manga–but I’ve always had a thing for angsty young men. Until I tried dating one, that is. Protip: leave your crushes on brooding guys and bad boys where they belong–in fiction.

Still, this description of Stefan sent my teenage hormones into overdrive:

He was a charismatic figure, about eighteen, with haunted features. His jet-black hair stood in unruly spikes, and a pink scar stretched from the corner of his mouth, giving the impression of an impish grin, an impression that did not match the pain in his eyes. Eyes that were probably blue, but to Cosmo seemed blacker than outer space. It was obvious that Stefan was the leader of this little group. It was in his nature. The way he slouched in his char, the way Ditto automatically turned to him…

It’s not exactly a stretch of the imagination to figure out what happened to Stefan: his mother died, and the Parasites had something to do with it. This is confirmed by the end of the chapter, when he goes to the crematorium to visit his mother’s ashes. We don’t have the full story yet, but it’s pretty obvious what happened. I don’t think Stefan really sees fighting Parasites as revenge on them for taking his mother, but rather, a way for him to protect others. It’s made clear right away that Stefan is the real leader in this group, even though he’s about ten years younger than Ditto.

Mona is, as TV Tropes would put it, the Wrench Wench. It’s a trope that I’ve seen more and more lately, but one I’ve always liked. She’s the group’s mechanic, and was involved in street gangs at some point before joining the Supernaturalists. And, without getting all Social Justice Warrior here, Mona is the only person of color in the group, and (if I recall correctly) of the main characters. This is something that I didn’t notice or even think about when I first read the book. I could talk about privilege or white washing or a number of topics, but there are plenty of other blogs dedicated to just that. I want to focus on the writing.

One of the reasons this caught my attention was that Mona was the only character whose race was described. I’m currently working on a story where the majority of the setting’s population are multi-racial, and I’m trying to find the best way to express this. I’m not great at describing characters’ physical appearances, and I’ve found describing skin tone challenging. I’ve read enough descriptions of characters with “caramel” or “cinnamon” skin, but I’ve also read enough complaints that terms like that exocticise POC. I’ve also noticed that if you don’t specify a race or skin tone, readers are likely to picture that character as White. Colfer just said that Mona is Latina, and left it there. I don’t think that’s a bad way of doing it.

But what do I know? I’m just a middle-class White girl who needs to check her privilege.