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•Publisher: The Parliament House

•Author: Taylor Simonds

•Book Title: Collateral Damage

Power. Courage. Invincibility. The marks of a true hero.

Meg Sawyer has none of these things.

Meg has never stopped a moving bus with her bare hands, been bitten by a radioactive
insect, or done anything moderately resembling saving the world. She doesn’t have to. She’s a background citizen, a nobody, one of the swarms of faceless civilians of Lunar City–where genetically enhanced superhumans straight out of the comics have thwarted
evil for years.

For as long as the Supers have existed, Meg has had one goal: to not become a
casualty in their near-daily battles for justice. And for the last seventeen years, she’s managed to do just that. Sure, her minimum-wage job at the local coffee shop isn’t great, she can’t even leave her apartment without loading herself up with protective
gear, and her car was just hijacked to throw at a supervillain (again), but she’s not dead yet.

But when Meg accidentally finds one of the city’s perfect, invincible protectors
murdered under extremely suspicious circumstances, her whole “innocent bystander” strategy falls apart. After being coerced by his determined girlfriend into a mission to help prevent the deaths of the remaining Supers, Meg finds herself forced into the foreground
of a story she never wanted to be part of—one that challenges everything she thought she knew about both her city and herself.

Collateral Damage Chapter 1

Arnold is dead.

It’s not my fault. Let’s get that clear. These kinds of things usually aren’t, but that doesn’t change the unavoidable fact that he’s super, super dead.

I wish I could say Arnold’s dead-ness is unexpected, but the truth is, I’m impressed he even survived this long.

My last car only made it six months.

To be fair, he’s not technically dead yet, but he’s definitely going to be in a few minutes. Maybe it’s fatalistic to write this off as an inevitability, but I’ve lived in Lunar City long enough to know when it’s someone’s—or something’s, in this case—final day.

In this case, it’s the police scanner duct-taped to my dashboard that sets off the feeling of impending doom—but even before it starts blaring, I can already tell something’s wrong. The desperate hope that maybe the hordes of people running hysterically down the street toward my car are participating in some kind of 5K only lasts a few moments before, with a pavement-rattling eruption, the tidal wave of dark smoke starts rolling in behind them. This, as you’d imagine, shuts my original theory down pretty quickly.

As if the stampeding herd isn’t enough of an indicator, the police scanner suddenly lets out a static-laced crackle that quickly gives way to a garbled, warped version of the authoritative shouting I’ve come to expect from it. I prod the finicky device until the muffled noise turns into something that sounds like “two casualties,” “East Seventh Avenue,” and “SuperVariants have engaged,” and that’s enough for me.

“Absolutely not,” I mutter, yanking the steering wheel to the left and dodging across the traffic down a side road. “Not today.”

This turns out to be one of my worse ideas, because the side road is already occupied by one of the Supers.

SuperVariant Three, if we’re being specific.

I would accuse the Lunar City Police Department of misinformation (East Seventh, right? Did the scanner not just say he was on East Seventh?), but I’m not really supposed to have a scanner, so there’s no one to complain to.

My tires screech as I hit the brakes, just feet away from the standstill traffic blocking the road, the owners having abandoned their cars in favor of running. And there, about six cars ahead of me, boots firmly planted on the hood like it’s some kind of pedestal, is SuperVariant Three. The morning sun glistens off the gray leather supersuit he’s wearing like it’s a second skin, his famously perfect blue-black hair positioned in its trademark coil over his forehead.

“Everybody out of the streets!” he’s ordering, a gloved hand cupped around his chiseled jaw. “Get to someplace safe! You need to—”

A piercing scream grabs both of our attention. It’s impossible to tell who it came from, but it’s clearly someone out of the cluster on the sidewalk—one of the dozen or so heads gaping upward in terror at a massive billboard groaning on its hinges, a light breeze away from crashing down to the street below.

“Oh, no,” I whisper, and then Three and I both move at the same time.

I’m not worried about the people underneath the billboard. I’m worried about me. Because I’ve seen Three in action before, and I know his MO.

In the few seconds that it takes me to lunge for my backpack—an unwieldy black monstrosity jangling with a color-coded assortment of safety gear all firmly labeled please return to Meg Sawyer—and smash a thumb into the release on my seatbelt, the billboard has wrenched free with a fantastic howl. I can see Three flying toward it in a gray blur.

Get out of the way, get out of the way, get out of the way—

I tumble out of the car and lunge for the sidewalk just as Three reaches the falling metal. There’s a weird moment of optimism where I wonder if maybe today, he’ll be different; maybe today, he’ll just catch it and gently put it down on the ground like a normal, rational human. No show of power, no flashy stunts.

But then he raises his fist and decks the absolute hell out of it.

I have just enough time to snatch the closest thing I can grab off my backpack—which turns out to be a safety helmet, thank god, and not something completely useless for the situation, like a Band-Aid or hand sanitizer—and jam it on my head before the billboard’s trajectory is walloped away from the paralyzed citizens and toward the small army of abandoned cars lining the road.

I’ll give Three this: the guy’s got a future career in bowling if he ever wants it.

There’s something weirdly satisfying about watching the ripple of cars get smashed to pieces. It’s like when you line up a chain of dominos and push one over. The not-satisfying thing is the knowledge that the billboard on its own would never have been able to cause this much damage, but I guess you can turn anything into a missile if you super-punch it hard enough.

The rippling of the first few cars is the only thing I see, however, because that’s when I dive behind the closest tree, cover my organs with my backpack, and clamp my eyes and mouth shut against the impending cloud of dust and debris. The last thing I need today is to get impaled by flying shrapnel.

The next few moments are underscored by a soundtrack I know very well—the sound of metal screeching as it wrenches apart, glass shattering, steel pounding into the sidewalk. When the noise gets replaced by silence, followed by the clamor of breathless, relieved sobs of gratitude that can only mean the people on the other side of the street have suddenly realized they’re not dead, I know it’s safe enough to open my eyes and peer around the corner.

As expected, SuperVariant Three is not looking in horror at the destruction he’s just caused to eight different vehicles (including my poor, useless Arnold, which is now a blackened, charred mess with a sliced-off roof and an eruption of smoke pouring out of the engine). No, he’s floating above the awestruck crowd, beaming down at them. I can’t make out any of what they’re all saying to him—probably something along the lines of “I love you” or “sign my face” or “let me name my children after you”—but his proud, confident voice carries.

“Not a problem,” he’s saying. “Just doing my duty.”

My mouth falls open. Not a problem? I have a problem. I have several problems. I’m about to step off the sidewalk to march over and tell him so, but then there’s a near-intangible blur of orange light accompanied by a gust of wind that rips past me so quickly, my helmet clatters to the ground and my choppy red hair blows over my eyes. “Watch it!” I yell, shaking my bangs back into place.

“Hey, Three!” The blur zig-zags through the maze of destroyed cars and slams to a stop near Three and his fawning fans, coming into focus as a tall figure with a sleek wave of black hair, coated in a dull orange neoprene bodysuit. SuperVariant Four. Take a guess what his thing is.

“Quit flirting; One needs backup.” Four stands still long enough to get the words out before he readjusts his opaque goggles and runs up the side of a building, disappearing in another orange flash over the top.

“I do not!” an unseen voice screams in outrage, and then, oh, what a surprise, another Super. A deep purple blotch in the distance that I recognize immediately as SuperVariant One, asymmetrical cape trailing behind her, rockets out from over the building Four has just disappeared behind. I vaguely wonder where SuperVariant Two is in all this. If I had invisibility powers, I probably wouldn’t show up to these shenanigans at all. No one would even know

SuperVariant One executes a sharp swivel in midair that makes her thick, dark braid snap like a whip, and yells, “I can handle this!” She makes a claw shape with her hands, reaches toward the ground, and scoops upward. In response, a car parked at the end of the street rises languidly into the air. She uncurls her right hand into a flat palm and presses it forward, sending the car catapulting over her head and toward some unseen enemy

“Oh, no,” I moan, and instinctively try to shield Arnold behind my body, even though he’s pretty much a lost cause as a vehicle at this point. “It never works!” I yell up at her. “Throw something else!”

She doesn’t even look my way. Before I can say anything else, her left hand is thrown out in that claw shape again, and Arnold is hurtling through the air to join the other car. The thing that’s been antagonizing the Supers has come into view from behind the building, and I can see the polished gleam of an eight-story-tall robot, with some human operating it from inside its transparent head. A robot. Not for the first time, I feel myself filled with irritation rather than terror at the threat of the day. I mean, come on, guys. How did someone build a giant robot in this city without anyone noticing? If someone’s getting eight hundred tons of metal delivered to their house, that needs to be a red flag.

The robot doesn’t even turn its head as its right arm swings up and blocks my car with the earsplitting clang of metal on metal, sending it careening back toward the pavement in a shower of sparks.

I shield my head with my arm as my car crashes and rolls, coming to a smoking stop a few yards away from me, then look back up dejectedly. The Supers are already gone, leading the robot farther down the street.

“You’re fine, right Arnold?” I yell at my car.

It erupts into flames.

Okay. I’ll just walk to work.

I reach around for the metal rod clipped magnetically to the side of my backpack and press a button. It instantly lengthens and expands into a titanium umbrella, riddled with minor dents and scratches. A bowling ball-size crater dips into the left side, giving the whole umbrella an uneven, sagging look. A burn mark from who knows what (I want to say maybe lasers) is just below that. It’s been through a lot, but it still works, I think. I mean, I’m not dead yet.

I raise it above my head and start walking.

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1. Q: Tell us about your writing process and the way you brainstorm story ideas.

A: I don’t know if two books is enough to supply a scientifically justifiable pattern, but pretending it is, here’s the process:

    1) A book premise and ending drop themselves into my head fully formed. I know who my characters are and where they’re going and I have no idea how they’re going to get there.

    2) I pants. I write without an outline. It is bad. “The first draft is telling the story to yourself!” I scream at myself as I write many, many bad words that I know I will delete later.

    3) Somewhere around the 40,000-word mark, I realize that I have made a crucial error in developing one of my lead characters. That personality isn’t right at all. I have to fix it. Wait, I need to change the opening scene to match the characterization I actually want them to have. Wait, none of these characters are right. This worldbuilding is so half-baked. This would make a much better inciting incident. What am I doing?

    4) I move all 40,000 words to a file labeled “WIP Dumping Grounds” and start over from scratch.

    5) I do this three more times until I have 40,000 words I don’t hate and then I finish the book, still screaming

2. Q: When you develop characters do you already know who they are before you begin writing or do you let them develop as you go?

A: I have to know who my characters are before I start writing, or the story will never get written—I’m the world’s worst pantser, so all I ever know going into a book is who my book is about and where they’re trying to get to. For COLLATERAL DAMAGE I had a set of references for each character to use as a template for if I got stuck (Meg was Mia Thermopolis x Veronica Sawyer x Darcy Lewis x Haruhi Fujioka, for example, mixed with a few friends I know in real life). I feel like if I can understand my characters on as many levels as possible—what they want, what they fear, what they’re trying to accomplish, who or what raised them, how they connect to others, how they talk and move—they’ll become as familiar to me as real people. And if I let them act like real people, they’ll naturally make choices that create the plot

3. Q: Where is your favorite place to write?

A: DISNEY WORLD RESORTS. I’m so lucky that I live so close to them. I work from home as an editor most of the time and if I had to stay in my bedroom all day I’d go crazy, so my favorite thing to do is go work at one of the themed hotels. It makes me feel like I’m on vacation, and it’s so easy to be inspired when every aspect of the Disney brand relies so heavily on thematic storytelling. My top three spots are Beach Club, which makes me feel like I’m on a cruise ship, Wilderness Lodge, which makes me feel like I’m on a writing retreat in the woods, and the Grand Floridian, which is just fancy.

4. Q: Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find

A: Yes! COLLATERAL DAMAGE is a play on the superhero genre, which I’m a huge fan of, so there are Easter eggs and references all over the place. No real names or exact details are used, of course, but they’re clear enough for a potential fellow nerd to be like “Wait, this feels like Spider-Man. That’s a Flash joke. That thing covered in gemstones they just walked past in the vault is totally the Infinity Gauntlet.” Stuff like that.

5. Q: Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?

A: I prefer each book to stand on its own! One of my favorite concepts is “leave the reader wanting more, not needing more.” I’m an advocate for letting books work on their own as a self-contained unit; I don’t like it when a story ends with all of its ends still loose. I shouldn’t have to buy another book to know how the first book’s conflict wraps up! I think of it as a TV series—you know how each season typically has a central theme, antagonist, character arc, collection of new characters, etc.? By the end of the season, almost everything that has been presented should have reached a conclusion—but then the last episode will hit you with a tease that there’s more to come, like the camera shift to the looming Upside-Down after the school dance scene at the end of Stranger Things. I prefer books in a series to work in the same way—when a reader picks up a book, they’re being invited on a journey, and it’s unfair to the reader to cut that journey short. Without giving anything away from the end of COLLATERAL DAMAGE, there is definitely room for a sequel eventually because it’s superheroes, but I don’t think anyone would feel confused or infuriated if this was the only book in this world that ever got written. I like to put bows on things!

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