They Promised Me The Gun Wasn't Loaded

They Promised Me The Gun Wasn't Loaded

by James Alan Gardner


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Award-winning author James Alan Gardner returns to the superheroic fantasy world of All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault with They Promised Me The Gun Wasn't Loaded.

Only days have passed since a freak accident granted four college students superhuman powers. Now Jools and her friends (who haven’t even picked out a name for their superhero team yet) get caught up in the hunt for a Mad Genius’s misplaced super-weapon.

But when Jools falls in with a modern-day Robin Hood and his band of super-powered Merry Men, she finds it hard to sort out the Good Guys from the Bad Guys—and to figure out which side she truly belongs on.

Especially since nobody knows exactly what the Gun does . . . .

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780765398789
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 11/06/2018
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 681,022
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.79(d)

About the Author

JAMES ALAN GARDNER has twice won the Aurora Award from the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association, as well as the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for short fiction, and the Asimov’s Reader's Choice Award. His previous books include All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault and several novels in the League of Peoples universe. He lives in Ontario.

Read an Excerpt


Deimatic Behavior

I'M THE SMARTEST ACTUAL human on the planet.

Also the strongest. And the fastest.

But despite my best efforts, I'm not the drunkest. This stupid airplane hasn't stocked enough booze to do the job.

It doesn't help that I'm competing for alcohol with three Darklings up in first class. My hearing is (of course) the best a human's can be, and I can hear quite clearly that they're having a drinking contest.

I saw the Darklings when I got on the plane: a vampire, a werewolf, and a demon one-off whose hide is a patchwork of human skin, mammal fur, bird feathers, and insect chitin. That's only what I could see on her face and hands; under her Armani, she likely has an entire zoo's worth of integument. Fish scales. Tortoise shell. Jelly from Cnidaria. Maybe tree bark and vegetable rinds, too. Even stuff from extraterrestrials.

I should ask if she'd let me examine her — I need a project for Biology 399. But she'd likely tell me to go to hell. I've never met a Darkling who wasn't a mean drunk.

All three Darklings sound like drunken assholes. They're loud enough that even the normal people around me can hear them. At this moment, the Darklings are hassling the cute guy who's playing air host for first class.

On major flights like New York to London, the airlines know that first-class attendants will have to deal with obnoxious Darklings, so every attendant gets an amulet or psi-shield to defend against magical mind-stomps. But gadgets like that are ungodly expensive; on pissy little runs like this one from Edmonton toWaterloo, the staff are expected to resist through sheer force of will.

Yeah, right. Even back here in sub-sub-economy, I can feel the Darklings flaring their Shadows. Every passenger on the plane is staggered by the effect — faces pale, hands trembling. A couple folks are puking into their barf bags.

The first-class air host is probably hyperventilating into an oxygen mask. But I can't tell for sure — the curtain is drawn between the first-class cabin and ours. Still, it pisses me off.

Oh, look, I'm up on my feet.

I'm not immune to the force of Darkling Shadows, but being a superpowered Spark, I have a dollop of mental resistance. On a scale from zero to shitting myself, walking toward the Darklings matches what I felt when my academic adviser told me I was close to flunking out. Or maybe more like before a hockey game, when our team is up against strong opposition. I just tell myself that fear won't improve my game, so I go on offense.

Like I'm doing now.

I force myself forward rather than running back to the bathrooms — partly because a crowd is already stampeding to bathroom-land, but mostly cuz I'm a heroine, fighting fuckery wherever I find it.

Also I'm half-drunk and making bad choices. So there's that.

I push through the curtains and enter first class. It's empty except for attendant-dude and the three Darklings. Two other seats have a lived-in look, with their TVs displaying a business channel and with hastily discarded copies of the Financial Post covering damp spots on the upholstery. The occupants of those seats are nowhere in sight — probably locked in the up-front washrooms.

Good. It means I don't need to worry about bystanders. I just have to figure out what I'm going to do.

Aw, fuck this, I'm drunk. I'll wing it.

"Yo!" I say. "What's holding up my drinks?"

The Darklings turn their eyes toward me: vampire red, werewolf green, and the demon's one-brown–one-composite. The werewolf is already furry. Thank you, baby Jesus. Actually seeing a werewolf change is enough to make your bladder crawl out of your panties. If that part is done, the worst is over.

I'm assuming, of course, that the Darklings won't actually fight me. That's a reasonable assumption: the Dark are as rich as fuck, so they don't like getting their hair mussed. Usually, they pay other people to do their rough tough dirty work. Besides, these Darklings probably own stock in this airline, so they won't want to cause costly damage. On the other hand, they may be drunker than me, if only because first-class passengers get all their hooch for free.

After a moment of silently staring at me and wondering, "Who the fuck is this bitch?" all three Darklings amp their Shadows in an attempt to turn my brain into pudding. In Bio 370, we called this deimatic behavior: attempting to intimidate other creatures by physical displays, like cobras flaring their hoods or poison frogs inflating their butt cheeks. Most normal humans would collapse under the psychological onslaught. However, it's common knowledge that alcohol makes some people immune to Darkling Shadows. I won't endanger my secret identity if I pretend not to feel their mental mugging.

More interestingly, the hottie air attendant doesn't seem too crushed either. His skin is a perfect black — I mean really black, and also perfect, making me want to rub my face all over his body — so the guy will never go pale, no matter how frightened he gets. But despite being here at ground zero of the Darkling auras, Mr. Dude only looks a bit shaky. He hasn't even retreated behind his coffee cart.

Maybe the airline did give the guy a defensive talisman. Or maybe he's the one-in-a-million human with natural resistance to magic. Or maybe, like me, he's just numbed himself with C2H6O, which makes perfect sense if you know you're going to spend a three-hour flight rubbing elbows with the Dark.

"Miss," the attendant says, "please return to your seat."

I say, "I will, but not empty-handed." I'm surprised the words come out anywhere near intelligible — the Darklings are still trying to make my brain cells shrivel.

With every passing moment, retreat gets more attractive. I came up here because I thought the Darklings were making waves without adult supervision. Now that I see Mr. Hottie isn't jabbering in panic, I'm okay with letting him deal with the situation. It's his job, after all; and while I happen to be the most tactful, diplomatic human on the planet, and therefore a better smoother-overer of Darkling jackassery than Mr. Air Host Cutie Dude, I'm also hella respectful and would never undermine his authority by trying to do his work for him. I'm also not so completely in the bag as to ignore the chance that me and the Darklings are gonna brawl if diplomacy fails. Since a three-onone Darkling-slash-superhero fight is a bad idea at thirty thousand feet, I'm prepared to retire graciously without further ado.

As soon as I get another shot of Captain Morgan.

Or Smirnoff.

Or Johnny Walker whatever-color-is-cheapest.

"I'll have what they're having," I say to Cutie Boots. I point to the row of single-shot bottles in front of the Darklings. "They have way, way more than they'll ever need. Consider this redistribution: down with r, up with g, one for you and three for me. Or else I'll just drink these three job creators under the table and prove that a real human's tolerance for alcohol poisoning beats candy-ass magic every time."

The three drunks stare at me for a long, long moment. Then the demon with the patchwork skin gives me the Morpheus Matrix hand gesture. Come on, little girl; show us what you got.

"You want to join the contest?" the demon asks. She sets an unopened bottle on the seat tray in front of her. "We'll deal you in."

"About fucking time," I say. I plop myself in the big comfy chair at the end of their row. "Hi," I tell them, "I'm Jools."

* * *

AN HOUR LATER, WE begin our descent into the Region of Waterloo International Airport. The airport is only "international" by the skin of its teeth — once a day, there's a round-trip to Chicago, and most weekends, you can catch a flight to Cancun if you're sick of imported tequila. Otherwise, the airport's traffic stays exclusively in Canada, mostly between Waterloo and Ottawa or Alberta.

I'm okay with that. My family lives in Edmonton, and I went to see them for Christmas. Ten days of R&R with my father and four snoopy sisters. Fortunately, their questions were all "Do you have an actual boyfriend yet?" rather than "Have you accidentally acquired superpowers?"

So I didn't spend my vacation telling lies. Still, I'm glad it's finally January, and I'm coming home to Waterloo.

Weird to say it straight out like that. But yes, Waterloo feels like home. And when you're as drunk as I am, everything you feel is the absolute truth.

How drunk am I? Well, I won the drinking game with the Darklings. Okay, technically I only beat the demon and the werewolf. I tied with Karthik the vampire, but that's still a moral victory. Vamp hearts don't beat and their fluids don't circulate, so when they drink, the liquor just sits in their stomach, immobile and chemically unreactive. Basically, vampires are undead wineskins: alcohol doesn't affect them, but it fills them up volumetrically. The cutoff point is when the booze rises all the way up their throats and reaches their epiglottis. Any more after that and it drains into their lungs, which burns like a son of a bitch even if vamps don't have to breathe. Turns out Karthik and I had identical fluid capacities, so the match was a wash.

That means I won. Toss-ups always go to the human, right?

As for Marie the werewolf and Iza the demon, they gave up the moment they tasted bile.

Tsk. Wusses.

Mark, the air-host dude, makes me go back to my seat when the pilot says, "Prepare for landing." Mark ought to have sent me packing an hour earlier, but he realized my sparkling presence had pacified the Darklings and kept them from scaring other passengers.

BTW, Mark asked for my Snapchat ID. Ka-ching! Of course I gave it to him. It'll be a novel experience to sleep with someone who has a job.

* * *

I'M JUST GETTING BACK to my seat when a voice speaks inside my head. "Hey, girl, you there?"

It's Grandfather. Not my personal grandfather, but the primal granddaddy of the human race: the first male Homo sapiens, born more than a hundred thousand years ago. At least that's what he claims. He might be a deluded old coot driven batshit by whatever glowing meteor gave him superpowers. Or he might be a wily old coot who uses the Grandfather persona to grease his way into your confidence. He makes you feel he's your favoritest relative; you can trust him with your wallet and your secrets.

I'm able to hear Grandfather's voice thanks to a communication ring I'm wearing. It's a telepathic doodad I got from a Spark known as Invie. "Invie" is short for "The Inventor"; what he invents are gadgets above and beyond physics. They're what we call "Cape Tech" because "Mad Genius crap that defies the laws of God" sounds judgy. Anyhoo, Invie divvies out comm rings to anybody he thinks suitably heroic, giving us a super chatroom where we can share info, call for help, and generally shoot the shit.

«What's up?» I ask. I wonder how I'm coming across. If I spoke to Grandfather with my actual mouth, my words would be a slur of drunken mumbles. But speaking straight from my brain has to come out more clearly, right?

Yeah, Jools, clear as fucking crystal.

Hope I didn't think that out loud.

«You got trouble,» Grandfather tells me. "Are you on a plane?»


«Then you're going to be arrested the moment you land.»

«Arrested? Why?»

«Don't know,» Grandfather says. «But Invie listens in on official comm chatter. The folks at Waterloo airport just went into a tizzy because a couple Mounties put the place on security alert.»

«Mounties? Weird.» The Royal Canadian Mounted Police operate differently in different parts of the country. Back in Alberta, they're the official provincial police — you see them all over. But Waterloo is in Ontario, and the province has its own separate police force. Mounties don't have much presence here, except to handle big-ticket stuff like drug trafficking and terrorism.

«I'll tell you what's weird,» Grandfather says. «We haven't heard anything about this on normal Mountie channels. Either they're using some new comm network that's off Invie's radar, or this isn't the real RCMP.»

«But what does this have to do with me?» I ask.

«These Mounties, or whoever, gave airport personnel the following description: twenty-one-year-old female, short brown hair, brown eyes, five-eleven, athletic, probably drunk ...»

«Did they actually say that, or are you editorializing?»

«I'm saying it sounds familiar,» Grandfather tells me. «And they gave the name Julietta Walsh.»

Well, shit. Apparently, Grandfather knows my real name. But I should have guessed he'd find out eventually — he saw me using powers before I got a proper costume, mask, and code name. There's a wonky pseudoscience effect that prevents people from connecting your Spark identity with your normal human ID, but it doesn't protect you if you do superstuff in your civvies. It might have been inevitable that Grandfather would figure out who I was, but I'm pissed off it happened so fast.

He says, «If it's any consolation, they aim to arrest your everyday self. Nothing in the message about you being super. So this may just be a follow-up on the lab explosion thing.»

That doesn't make me feel better. My three roommates and I got superpowers a few days before Christmas, thanks to a fiasco at the University of Waterloo. Lucky for us, the mess was mostly caused by a bunch of Darklings, so the Dark establishment hushed up the whole thing. In exchange for not being prosecuted, my friends and I signed nondisclosure agreements promising we'd never spill a word about what happened.

That was supposed to be it: everything finished, case closed, buhbye. But now I'm about to be arrested? What the living fuck?

«That's all I got,» Grandfather says. «Invie asked me to warn you so you don't do something stupid if you're caught by surprise.»

«Do something stupid? Moi?» But yeah, drunken me might react on impulse if I suddenly got armlocked by police. That would be bad.

Except now that I think about my being a reckless drunk, I'm not nearly so swiggered as I was. I still have a three-beer buzz on, but considering how much I drank with Karthik, Marie, and Iza, I should be a puddle of drool. I have the gift of super-healing, but it isn't supposed to handle alcohol; booze is the one toxic substance I can't shrug off. But apparently my gift of regeneration isn't all-or-nothing: it'll let me get moderately plastered while saving me from complete and utter collapse.

Good to know.

«Well, thanks for the heads-up,» I tell

Grandfather. «I'll be on my best behavior when the gendarmes put me in irons.»

«Don't be too meek and mild,» Grandfather says. «If you literally let them put you in irons, we might never see you again. I've heard of magical restraints that nullify superpowers. There's even some that blank out your brain and turn you into a zombie.»

«Noted,» I say. «If things get too fugly, I'll call on my besties for help.»

«You do that,» Grandfather says. «I'd hate to lose a granddaughter.»

I think, «I'd hate to be lost.» But he's already hung up.

* * *

THE PLANE LANDS SMOOTHLY. I've been on flights where the passengers applauded a safe landing, but our group is too chill for that. Instead, there's just a flurry of thumbs on phones despite the flight staff's warnings that the plane will go up in a fireball if anyone turns on an electronic device before we've come to a complete stop outside the terminal.

Me, I don't start texting. Or Facebooking. Or whatever it is that my fellow passengers have to do so fucking urgently. The only people I might want to contact are my roommates, and if necessary, I can telepath them through my comm ring.

But despite what I said to Grandfather, I refuse to tell my roomies I'm in trouble. They'd come running to save my ass, and that would really piss me off.

The others think I'm helpless, the weak link on the team. No, wait, it's more than that. They think I'm stupid.

My powers make me smarter than the three of them put together. But they still think of me as the clueless fuckup who failed every course last semester.

That was so ten days ago. Now I'm the Chuck Norris of human intelligence. The Richard Feynman. The Beyoncé. Maybe I'm not as hyperastronomically clever as one of those Sparks whose IQ is a superpower, but I'm equal to the smartest humans in history: Newton, Einstein, Mozart, and ...

Nah, I can't be bothered to make a culturally diverse gender-balanced list. But I could. Cuz I'm Just. That. Clever.

Me and Socrates are BFFs. Me and Confucius get together to discuss analects and shit.

Yet my friends still think I'll end up working at Mickey D's. Well, screw 'em; I won't call for help. Not yet, anyway.

And yes, I know this is a loser-girl move, purely because I've talked myself into a sulk. But I'm drunk and that's my excuse. Just like always.


Excerpted from "They Promised Me the Gun Wasn't Loaded"
by .
Copyright © 2018 James Alan Gardner.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. Deimatic Behavior,
2. Interspecies Competition,
3. Mutualism,
4. Fixed Action Patterns,
5. Punctuated Equilibrium,
6. Social Grooming,
7. Natural Habitat,
8. Adaptive Coloration,
9. Selective Pressures,
10. Pupation,
11. Courtship Display,
12. Alternative Ecosystems,
13. Migration,
14. Feeding Strategies,
15. Mechanisms of Fight or Flight,
16. Epigenetic Inhibition,
17. Junk DNA,
18. Ecdysis,
19. Territorial Aggression,
20. Immune Responses,
21. Potential Extinction Vectors,
22. Population Renewal,
Also by James Alan,
About the Author,

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