Thank you, Kickstarter backers!

Last summer, I ran a Kickstarter project to raise money to create an audiobook of my anthology, Aurora in Four Voices. The Kickstarter was successful, and thanks to 121 generous backers, Aurora in Four Voices is now available as an audiobook. You can find it on Audible.com here.

I’m so grateful to all the backers, and I’d like to thank each and every one of you. All the backers who provided a name are listed here. Anyone who pledged $5 or more could also include a short message with their name, and those are included here as well.

Cat Rambo

slothbear

Jakub Narębski

Neil Davies

Ultimate YA

J McCormick

Jeff – “No need to thank me. I am thrilled to have done my small part.”

Billee Stallings – “I continue to look forward to more great reads from you.”

Gracie McKeever – “Thanks for the opportunity to participate in this wonderful endeavor!”

Legends of the Maya – Traveling Family Arena Show – “Thrill to the myth and drama of the ancient Maya kingdom of Tikal.”

Randall Miyashiro – “These stories seem to get even better as I reread them!”

IronHorse – “from your purpose, may you never tarry, and from your message, yes, voices carry . . .”

Donna Andrews – “Congratulations, Catherine!”

Frank Tuttle – “Keep up the good work Catherine!”

Tom Martin – “Glad this got funded!”

sanjay vankudre – “Catherine Asaro books are the best Sci fiction I have read. I wish we continue to receive more gems from her in Skolian saga in all forms, novels and short stories”

Jo Lindsay Walton – “I am not the ballet dancer, I’m the ballet dancer’s cat. Still I’ll sit here dancing ballet till we find out where she’s at.”

Jack Heckel – “Congrats from Once Upon a Rhyme!”

Mary-Theresa Hussey

Mike Cowper – “Come to InConJunction, Indy’s premiere science fiction convention, every July 4th weekend. www.inconjunction.org”

Linda Warner – “So happy to help!”

Robert Killheffer – “Great way to get an audio version made! Happy to support!”

Storycasting.com – “Glad to help with project money.”

Tasha Turner – “Social networking is about building people up NOT tearing them down ― Tasha Turner http://tasha-turner.com”

Rosie – “please keep writing more books!”

Jim Greetham – “Ever since I found “Primary Inversion” in the ’90s I’ve been a big fan of Catherine’s writing. Looking forward to “Aurora in Four Voices”.”

Lacey Ward

T. J. Wooldridge – “T.J. Wooldridge, author of THE KELPIE and SILENT STARSONG”

Bri O’Reilly – “I love Catherine Asaro’s work so much that my fantasy baseball team is The Ruby Dynasty. Happy to support this project and can’t wait to see what she does next!”

Al Gonzalez – “Congrats Catherine!”

M. Edward (Ed) Borasky

Jill Alters – “I’m happy to have been able to participate in this.”

David Brin – “It’s a wonderful era when readers can step up and ensure their own access to brilliant works!”

August von Orth – “Happy to help a fellow scientist/writer!”

Kathryn Anderson – “I’m glad to have contribued to the funding of this project.”

Rev G – “Life is like a bag of sugar free hard candy. Lotsa suckers with good taste.”

Iphigenie – “Glad to have helped, from one daring dreamer to another”

Paula S. Jordan – “Honoring Susan (Aly) Parsons and her thirty-plus years leadership of her science fiction and fantasy writers group, with love and gratitude”

Marla Bracken – “Keep writing!”

Sally Lyon – “Congratulations Catherine on your success. I am so happy for you and for everyone who will read Aurora.”

Carl Garrett – “Go Catherine!”

Diana Dru Botsford

Carolyn Ives Gilman

Steve Ames – “love your work. thank you.”

Isabo Kelly – “I can’t wait for this audiobook! Thanks, Catherine, for your excellent stories!”

Paul Franco – “Go Bruins! ;o)”

Kelly Taylor – “Very excited to be part of this project!”

Lee Thompson – “Yay!”

Beth Barany – “Congrats to kickass Catherine on her audiobook release!”

Brook and Julia West – “Short fantasy & SF ebooks from Callihoo Publishing, by Tinney S. Heath, Beverly Stuart, Brook West, & Julia H. West. http://callihoo.com”

Pamela L. Johnson

Leigh Saunders – “Way to go, Catherine!”

M Findlay-Olynyk – “Loved your work for years!”

John G. McDaid – “Looking forward to listening to this!”

Mary Turzillo – “Can’t wait to read this great book!”

Miguelina Perez – “Congrats on your endeavor. Can’t wait to see the finished product.”

Kathy Zehender – “Catherine, I wish you the best of luck in your further writing adventures!”

Jay Manifold – “Thank you for the opportunity to be of assistance.”

Brenda cooper – “I hope this succeeds wildly!”

Tsana Dolichva – “This message is intentionally left blank.”

Kerry Dustin – “I’m happy to have helped out. I look forward to more stories in the future.”

Dena Guerry – “The Skolian saga is so awesome and I’m so happy you are writing stories.”

Angie & David Boyter – “We’re looking forward to listening!”

@voxel – “I’m clapping my finger cymbals together in argent anticipation of Aurora”

Kevin Kelleher – “Woohoo!”

John Devenny

Kelly Jensen

Gautier Mancuso

Nancy DiMauro Greene – “I’m so excited to have helped make Auror in Four Voices a reality!”

summervillain – “Been reading since ’96/Primary Inversion & happy to support this effort”

Laura

Renee Fourman – “Sometimes you meet the right person or character when everything else goes wrong in your life.”

Lizzie Newell – “What a delight to have Aurora in Four Voices available in audio.”

Jill Archer – “Best wishes, Catherine Asaro!”

Connie Suttle – “Looking forward to this!”

Mehul Patel – “Soz rocks”

Jens

Ed Biggs – “Readers of science fiction are better prepared for any future. Thanks!”

Donna Maree Hanson – “It was really great to be a part of this Kickstarter, particularly after meeting Catherine at RT Convention in New Orleans.”

Jim Crider – “Happy to help make this happen!”

Cindy Shuts – “Books are magic!”

Darrel Conway – “Thanks!”

Coach Duff & Ayomide Kemp-Harris – “Where Greatness is possible, Excellence is not enough! Coach Duff”

Dragon Mom – “Looking forward to the finished project, it has been my pleasure to help fund your dream.”

ThatBlairGuy

Scott Early – “Is worth the wait. Wish more could have joined us.”

Cliff Winnig – “It’s nice to see this Renaissance in audio…and in indie publishing!”

Diane Turnshek – “Happy that Catherine Asaro was an author guest at Alpha, the SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers, alpha.spellcaster.org.”

Robert Paul Toy – “Another gem for my library!”

Daniel Abrams – “Looking forward the hearing this!”

Brian, Sarah, and Josh Williams – “Shiny!”

Sharan Volin – “Congratulations on this Kickstarter getting funded! I’m really glad it worked out.”

Adam – “Good luck!”

Catherine Cannizzo – “Thanks for writing such wonderful books! You’re my favorite author.”

Zach Bertram – “We did it!”

Todd V. Ehrenfels – “Special Thanks to the Science Fiction Society of Northern New Jersey (www.sfsnnj.com)”

Dan Balkwill – “Soz rules!”

Walt Bryan – “Hope everyone enjoys this as much as I will.”

Enrico Barisione – “Remember people, Professor Doctor Catherine Asaro rock!”

Mark O’Green – “SIGMA FTW”

Deborah – “Looking forward to more stories!”

Duane – “I look forward to reading more of Catherine’s stories.”

Tim Oey – “Help our world: treat kids kindly, be a good role model, live in the moment, help your neighbor, pay attention, and promote peace. Thanks!”

Aurora in Four Voices Kickstarter

MajorBhaajan02SmI’m excited to announce that my Kickstarter project is now live! I’m hoping to raise funds to record my anthology Aurora in Four Voices as an audiobook.  I’ve been fortunate to find a fantastic narrator, Sylvia Roldán Dohi. You can hear a sample of her narration in the Kickstarter video, and be sure to check out her impressive bio further down on the Kickstarter page. Sylvia has already begun recording, but there are significant expenses to editing and producing the audiobook, and I’m hoping to raise enough funds through Kickstarter to finish it.

Please consider pledging to back the project. Every little bit helps, and you can pledge as little as $1. If you can pledge a little more, I have some fun rewards for you. As with all projects on Kickstarter, your pledged amount will only be billed if my project meets its goal. If the project doesn’t meet the goal, then all pledges are canceled, and I receive nothing.

If you can’t pledge now, you can click the “Remind Me” star on the project page, and Kickstarter will send you a reminder 48 hours before the end of the project.

Whether or not you pledge, please help me spread the word by sharing or retweeting. Thanks!

Here’s a link to the project. Be sure to watch the Kickstarter video to hear the excellent audiobook sample!

Photo credit: shutterstock.com, Pavels Rumme, Image ID: 118770559

Lightning Strike, Chapter II

Chapter II, Blue Lace

 

I opened my eyes to a sunlit room. It looked the same as always, with my TV table in the middle of the room and my bed against the wall to the right. Across the room, beyond the TV, the “kitchen” was no more than a narrow counter with space behind it for a stove and refrigerator. A barred window above the sink let sunlight sift through the gauzy blue curtains I had sewn.

My mother’s dress hung above the bed, a wedding huipil she had never worn, a white dress she had woven with cotton, lace, and downy white feathers, embroidered with flowers in blue, red, and gold thread around the square neckline. It was gorgeous. Not only did it cover the peeling paint on the wall, but it also reminded me of Chiapas whenever I was homesick and lonely.

I rubbed my eyes and peered at my watch. 9:00 a.m. That meant I had seven hours until my shift at the Blue Knight. Exhausted, I changed into a white nightgown that came to my knees and crawled into bed.

Sleep, real sleep this time, settled over me like a quilt stitched from the clouds.

 

 

The sound of a dog barking outside woke me up. The clock on my TV table said it was two in the afternoon. I went to wash my face, and the bathroom mirror gave me a sobering reflection. I looked ten years older, with a bruise on my cheek where Nug had hit me. Maybe that was why Nug was aging so fast, because his ugly lifestyle had squeezed out his vitality.

He was right, though, the bastard. I was afraid to go to the police. My family had come to America in 1981, so we were eligible for amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Unfortunately, neither my mother nor Manuel understood English well enough to keep our file up to date. I was trying to straighten it out, but since I was underage and without a legal guardian, I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I didn’t understand all the bureaucracy, and I feared if I made waves, they would put me in foster care or pack me off to Chiapas where I had no family or prospects. Only a few more months and I would be eighteen. Just keep trying, I thought. You can do it. I would save money for college, get legal, and have a real life without Nug killing my dreams with his fists or his body.

Right now, though, I had to get ready for work. I changed into one of my uniforms for the restaurant. They all looked the same, a blue laced-up bodice, a blue mini-skirt with fluffy white underskirts, and stiletto heels. I didn’t much like the style, but the colors and cloth were pretty. I knew the only reason they gave me the job was because I looked good in their waitress outfit. Maybe they even knew I was underage. I just made sure I did my job well, never made waves, and smiled at the patrons, who gave me good tips. It didn’t hurt, either, that I was better at math than any of the other waitresses.

When I was ready to leave, I opened the apartment door—and almost jumped back inside.

Althor was outside, asleep.

He was sitting against the wall by the door, his knees drawn up to his chest, his head resting on them as if he were an overworked bodyguard who had given in to exhaustion. Seeing him in the light, I realized his hair wasn’t blond after all. The sun had streaked it gold, but underneath it was red, almost purple. It reminded me of the merlot wine we served at the restaurant. Even stranger, the color looked real, not like he had dyed his hair.

He was older than I had first thought, too, well into his thirties. The previous night I had assumed he was Anglo, but now I had no idea what to think. His skin had a metallic tint, like bronze or gold. It was subtle, so I hadn’t noticed before, but with the sunlight from the window down the hall slanting across his arms, the tint became more visible.

I knelt next to him. “Althor?”

He opened his eyes and blinked at me, groggy and slow.

What the—? I knew he had eyes; I had seen them last night. But when his lashes lifted, they uncovered nothing but a gold shimmer. No pupils, no irises, no whites, no nothing. Just gold.

¡Ay, carumba!” I said. “I don’t believe it.”

His forehead creased and he looked around the hall for whatever it was that I didn’t believe. As he searched, that gold rolled up from his eyes like a retracting eyelid. Underneath, he had normal eyes. Almost normal. They were an unusual color, like grapes that grow in big, juicy clusters. I had heard about people with violet eyes, but I’d assumed it meant dark blue. I had never imagined the color could be so vivid.

Althor stretched out his legs and rubbed his eyes as if they were perfectly normal. He said, “It is late,” and his voice resonated on “late” with a deep note, like the bass on a piano.

“You stayed out here all night?” I asked.

He massaged the back of his neck, working at the muscles, which surely had to ache given the way he had been sleeping. “The idea seemed like a good one.”

I could hardly believe he had done that for me. “Are you all right? What happened to your eyes?”

He blinked at me. “My eyes?”

“The gold.”

He shrugged. “The inner lids are like my grandfather’s. He had—I am not sure what is the English word. Differences from birth.”

Differences? Did he mean birth defects? I winced, hoping I hadn’t offended him.

“Your day is so short,” he said, yawning. “I need to reset my internal clock.”

“It’s spring. The days are long.” I rubbed my finger along his biceps. The gold didn’t come off.

He watched me touch him, his look turning sleepy. Bedroom eyes, my friend Rosa would say. Taking my hand, he curled his fingers around mine. “I was worried about you.”

“I’m okay.” I squeezed his fingers and said what I should have told him before. “Thank you for last night. I don’t want to think what would’ve happened if you hadn’t helped me.”

He lifted my hand and pressed his lips against my knuckles, his teeth just barely touching the skin, not kissing exactly, more like biting. It was strange. But nice. I couldn’t believe he was out here, though. I didn’t know any other guy who would guard my door all night.

“You were watching over me,” I said. “Protecting a girl you don’t hardly know.”

“Why do you call yourself a girl?” Althor started to reach for me, then paused. When I didn’t object, he pulled me into a hug. I held him tight, my cheek against his ear, his curls tickling my nose. Closing my eyes, I willed that moment to last forever, as if I could preserve it in amber and take it wherever I went, to bring out for comfort whenever the loneliness became too much

After a moment, I pulled back my head. “I have to go to work. If I’m late, I’ll lose my job.”

“Can I walk you there?” he asked.

I laughed, that kind of soft embarrassed sound you make when a person you want to like you acts as if he does. “Okay.”

“I am sorry about last night. I should have asked then.”

“I wanted you to.”

“You did?” His teeth flashed in a smile. “I keep thinking, ‘She will say something.’ But nothing. So I believed you had not the interest.” He hesitated. “I think, though, that your customs here are not like ours. That expectations for women and men are different than what I am used to.”

I had no idea how to answer that.

 

 

We came out of the building into afternoon sunshine. For a moment Althor’s face blanked. Then he came back to normal. “It is fourteen hours since I first meet you.”

I hadn’t realized that much time had passed. “Is that a problem?”

“No.” He paused. “It is fine.”

I could tell it wasn’t fine. His tension created a pale mist around him. Yet despite that, he meant to stick around. It seemed a good sign.

As we walked along, an old Ford rumbled along Miner Street. Althor spun around as the car went by us and walked backward, staring until the Ford disappeared around a corner. Then he swung back around to me. “Amazing! Another car, even more vintage.”

Vintage? Then I realized he meant a classic car. How I knew, I wasn’t sure. I must have overheard Jake, my ex-boyfriend, use the word. He was the best mechanic around here and seriously into old cars. English was his second language, after Spanish, but when it came to cars, he knew more than anyone else in either language.

I also noticed another oddness about Althor. Just a moment ago, his hands had been free, but now he held a gold box with rounded edges. Where had that come from? His clothes had no pockets, at least none I could see. Although the box resembled his transcom, it was different than what he had showed me last night. Yet even as I watched, this new box was changing color and becoming less rounded.

“Is that your transcom?” I asked.

He glanced at his hand. “Oh. Yes.” The box’s panels flickered, red, gold, blue.

“My friend Josh makes gadgets like that,” I said. “Radios and stuff.”

“I doubt he make a transcom.”

“Are you still looking for signals?”

“No. I check my Jag.” Althor paused. “I am check my Jag.” He squinted at me. “I checking my Jag?”

I smiled. “I am checking my Jag.”

His face blanked as if he were a machine. “Yes, that clarifies the syntax. I will set it as the correct grammatical construction. I am checking my Jag.”

What the blazes? On those last sentences, his had spoken in perfect English.

His expression returned to normal and he continued in his heavy accent as if nothing had happened. “I don’t use English much. It takes a while to reintegrate the programs.”

“You mean, on your plane?” That made no sense, but it didn’t sound any stranger than anything else he just said.

“My plane?”

“You said you were a pilot.”

“It’s not an airplane. It is a ship for space.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. He looked so serious. “Oh, Althor. If you really have a space ship, how is it up there while you’re here?”

“I sent it back up.”

“How?”

He lifted his transcom. “With this.”

“How can that box make a ship take off?”

“The hull acts as an antenna.” He spoke casually, as if his words were perfectly normal. “It receives transcom signals on a narrow bandwidth and sends them to the onboard web system.”

Oooookay. Though I had to admit, it made sense in a bizarre sort of way. Not that I was any expert on space ship antennas. “And that box is flying your ship right now?”

“No. The Jag flies itself.” He glanced around at the street with its potholes and broken manhole covers. “I think it is more safe in orbit than down here.”

That seemed unlikely, especially if his ship had no pilot. Not that I really believed he had a ship. “It’s not safe up there, either, you know. The military will find it.”

He shook his head. “It has a *****”

“A what?”

He paused, thinking. “I believe the word translates as ‘shroud.’ The shroud, it polarizes a film on the hull of my ship. So the hull, it becomes a surface that reflects nothing. The shroud also projects false readings to fool devices. And its evasion programs monitor space around the ship, making it change course to avoid objects—” He broke off, staring past me, his mouth opening.

I turned to look, wondering what could be even more bizarre than what he had just told me. We had come around the corner into view of San Carlos Boulevard, an ordinary street, though bigger than most, with a lot of traffic, and also stores that lined both sides of the road. Everything looked normal.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“The cars.” He motioned at San Carlos as if he had found a pot of gold. “I’ve never seen so many in good running condition before. This is why the air smells bad, isn’t it?”

No kidding. Who would have figured that smog would get him so worked up. “It gets even worse later in the day.” I missed the clean mountain air of Nabenchauk.

“Your trees have no ****?” he asked.

“No what?”

He paused, flipping into machine mode and then back to normal. “Filters. Engineered molecules that sift pollutants out of the air and convert them to nontoxic chemicals.”

“Well, no.” What a great thought. “It sounds like a cool idea, though.”

Up ahead, a bus pulled into a stop on San Carlos. My bus. Damn! If I missed it, I would be late to work. I broke into a run, and Althor strode easily at my side. We reached the stop just as the bus was pulling away from the curb. When I banged on the side of the bus, the driver gave us an annoyed glance, then relaxed when he saw me. He halted the bus and even smiled as he opened the door. It was a relief; not all the drivers would let you on after they left the stop. This guy was one of the nice ones, and he often drove this route, so he knew me.

I put my fare in the coin collector, then glanced back. Althor had followed me and was standing there watching with curiosity. If I hadn’t known him, though, I would have only seen how he loomed, towering, unsmiling, his bare arms bulging with muscles, the metal on his wrist guards glinting. When the driver glanced at Althor, his smile vanished and his hands tightened on the steering wheel.

I spoke to Althor in a low voice. “Do you have the fare?”

“Fare?” He tilted his head. “What do you mean?”

The driver spoke curtly. “Either he pays up or he leaves.”

“It’s no problem,” I said quickly. I paid for Althor, then took his arm and tugged him down the aisle before the driver could kick him off the bus.

The driver closed the door and pulled into the street. Everyone stared as Althor and I made our way down the crowded aisle. No seats were empty, so we stood near the back, holding onto the overhead bar while the bus bumped down the street. Althor gazed out the window, his fascination with the view making faint arcs of light around us, like translucent gold arrows looping through the bus.

After a while, when he had taken his fill of the sights, he turned to me. “What did you put in that machine at the front?”

“It’s called money,” I said dryly. “I take it you don’t have any.”

“Coins? Good gods, no.” He didn’t seem the least embarrassed by his impoverished state. “That is what those metal disks were? Actual coins?”

I gave him my most unimpressed look, the one I saved for guys who called me “girlie” when I was waiting tables. “Yeah, real honest-to-goodness coins.” So okay, he wasn’t the dream date. I didn’t mind sometimes paying my own way; obviously he wasn’t any richer than the rest of us. Even so. I had no intention of always picking up the bill. That didn’t seem to fit him, though. Maybe I was naïve, but Althor didn’t strike me as the deadbeat type.

We fell silent after that, and Althor went back to gazing at the city as we rolled along the hazy, sunlit streets of Los Angeles. Potholes cratered the baked asphalt and the bus rattled along, making it difficult to talk. That was fine with me; I didn’t want Althor to start in about space ships where people could overhear. He was no longer holding the transcom, though I had no idea where he had stowed the box, given the close fit of his clothes.

I was on time for work, thank goodness; we reached the Blue Knight restaurant at about ten to four. Out in the front, a blue and white striped canopy snapped in a crisp breeze. Robert, the doorman, stood at his post by the main entrance all decked out in his snazzy blue uniform with its gold buttons and ironed trousers. He was doing his best to look snootily aloof, which didn’t work so well given that he was such a good-natured guy. The restaurant owners tried to make the place upscale, and they almost succeeded. It was still a bar and grille, nothing compared to the high rent places uptown, but fancier than most around here. I especially liked weekend nights, when a blues trio played in the bar, a piano guy, a dude with one of those huge upright basses, and a drummer who always wore sunglasses. They filled the smoky air with tunes from another era, and time when women wore long, slinky dresses instead of fluffy mini-skirts, and men in zoot suits carried trumpets instead of sub-machine guns.

I waved to Robert, and he waved back with a boyish grin, then remembered himself and straightened up, tugging his uniform jacket into place, doing his futile best to look snobbish. I took Althor around to the back entrance.

We went in the back door. It smelled good inside the building, like fresh soap and old leather from the seats out in the main room. Right away we ran into Brad Steinham, the manager, a big Anglo guy wearing darks slacks and a wrinkled white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He was helping the bartender carry boxes of what looked like cans and jars. They were clearing out one of the back storerooms, moving all the boxes into a different storeroom on the right.

“Hey, Brad,” I said.

He glanced up, started to smile, then saw Althor and scowled.

“You okay?” he asked me, as abrupt as usual. “You look tired.”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” I gave him my most reassuring smile. “This is my friend, Althor.” To Althor, I said, “This is Brad. He runs the place.”

Brad put down the box he was carrying and straightened up, looking over the giant I had brought into his restaurant. Althor nodded to him, sizing up Brad while Brad sized him up. And Brad was sizing him up, literally. He might as well have come right out and asked Althor how much he could bench-press.

Glancing at me, Brad motioned at the box he had put on the floor. “We sprung some leaks in two of the storerooms. Have to move everything before it rains tomorrow.” He looked at Althor again and Althor looked back.

“You want a job?” Brad asked him. “My bartender has been moving the boxes, but I need him at the bar. You help us clean out the storerooms, I’ll pay you five bucks an hour.”

Althor blinked at him. “You are requesting that I provide manual labor for a wage?”

I almost groaned. Did he always talk like that?

Fortunately Brad just said, “That’s right.” He tilted his head at me. “Tina’ll be here eight hours. You work that long and I’ll pay you forty dollars.”

“All right,” Althor said. “What do I do?”

Huh. I wouldn’t have expected Althor to agree so easily to such a grind of a job.

Brad pointed to the storeroom where we could see the bartender heaving up a box. “Follow him. He’ll show you.”

Althor went into the room and spoke to the bartender, a dark-haired guy dressed a blue vest and grey trousers. The bartender nodded toward a stack of boxes, his face red as he struggled to pick up one from his own stack. Althor went where he pointed and easily hefted up two boxes, moving like a well-oiled machine. He carried them over to the other guy with no sign of strain and stood waiting for the bartender to show him where to go.

“Good Lord,” Brad muttered. “Where do you find these hulks?” He turned to me. “No way can we finish both those storerooms tonight. If he works out with no problems, I can maybe give him a few more hours tomorrow.”

“You’re a prince, Brad.” I hesitated. “Are you still thinking, too, about hiring Mario fulltime?” It had been a week since the last time I had asked him about Mario.

It was a moment before Brad answered. “I don’t know.”

“You said he did a good job that night he filled in for your bouncer.”

“We’ll see.”

I couldn’t let it go. “He’s a hard worker. Really. He’d do right by your restaurant.” Mario needed a job. He was trying so hard to turn around his life. His expertise was in fixing up old cars. He and my old boyfriend Jake loved working their magic on broken down wrecks; that was what made them such good friends. But none of the garages around here had any openings, a least not for him.

Brad blew out a gust of air. “Tina, he’s got a rap sheet a mile long. Possession of a dangerous weapon. Carrying a concealed firearm. Assault with a deadly weapon. Felony battery. Attempted murder, for Christ’s sake.”

I knew how it looked. Most of the charges had come from a fight that went down between VSC and Nug’s gang after my cousin Manuel died. The cops had busted Mario for carrying a Mac-10 machine pistol. They hit him hard for the gun because they couldn’t make the attempted murder charge stick. They also wanted Mario and Nug off the street before the fighting went out of control. Both Mario and Nug had served time at Soledad, but no one had gone to jail for Manuel’s death. The police never found enough evidence to make an arrest. Except I knew Nug had killed him. We all knew. I hoped Nug rotted in some dark place that made hell look like a party.

“They dropped the worst charges,” I said. “Mario’s done his time for the rest.”

Brad spoke awkwardly. “I’ll think about it.”

I could guess what think about it meant. He wasn’t going to offer Mario a job either, just like everyone else had turned down Mario’s applications. How wasMariosupposed to “rehabilitate” himself when no one would give him a chance? He was smart, strong, and loyal, and he worked hard. Yeah, he was the head of VSC, but that meant he was being a leader. A good leader. The other guys looked up to him and a lot of girls wanted him, not only because he was the big man in this part of town, but also because he treated people well and never beat on his woman. All that employers saw when they looked at him, though, was his hardened face, the tats on his arms, his worn-out clothes, and the knife scar on his cheek.

Brad motioned at Althor, who was walking with the bartender to the other storeroom. “How does your friend get his skin to glint like that?”

“I don’t know.” Right now, I wasn’t feeling charitable enough toward Brad to say more.

“And purple hair.” Brad shook his head as he walked away. “Sometimes I can’t figure what you kids call style.”

I watched Althor carry two more boxes out of the storeroom. “Kid” was hardly accurate. He was a grown man well out of his youth. For once I was glad that when I was tired, I looked older than my age. If Althor knew I was only seventeen, he might change his mind about hanging with me. Not that I had any family left who would come after him. Nug had seen to that when he murdered my last living kin.

 

 

At midnight, I found Althor in one of the leaky but now empty storerooms. He and Brad were sitting on the floor with two of the other waitresses, Sami and Delia, the four of them drinking coffee and eating jellyrolls from Winchell’s. Brad was actually beaming, wonder of all wonders, and Tami and Delia were flirting with Althor. My Althor.

“Hi.” I stood awkwardly in the doorway, torn between being uncertain about Althor and wanting to shove Tami and Delia away from him.

“Hey.” Brad grinned at me. “Look at this!” He spread his arms, indicating the empty room. “Althor finished both storerooms.”

“That’s great,” I said.

Althor remained silent as Tami snuggled up to his side, her long blond hair falling across his arm. He wasn’t paying attention to her, but for all I knew, that meant zip. She was older than me and as pretty as one of those girls in Nug’s lingerie catalogue. Maybe Althor wanted me to get lost.

Whatever he thought, he just stood up. “Have you finished?” he asked me.

I nodded, trying to act nonchalant. “Sí, estoy acabada.” Then, flustered, realizing I’d answered in Spanish instead of English, I added, “I’m done.”

Althor barely said good-bye to the others as he left. He didn’t say much while we waited at the bus stop, either. Maybe he was irked at me for interrupting their party. Either that, or he was tired. Come to think of it, after clearing out two storerooms in one night, he was probably exhausted.

The bus pulled up and Althor followed my lead. He tried to pay with a twenty dollar bill Brad must have given him, but the bus driver just stared at him. So I pushed the money back at Althor and paid for him myself. After we sat toward the back of the bus, he put his arm over my shoulders and pulled me against his side. I rested my head against him, relieved finally to relax.

“Oh.” Althor suddenly sat up. “I forgot.” He pulled two bills out from under his belt and gave them to me. “Here.”

Startled, I looked at the two twenties he had pushed into my hand. “Why are you giving them to me?”

He settled back in his seat with his arm around me again. “I’ve no idea what I would do with them.”

“You don’t know what to do with money?” That was a first.

He spoke drowsily. “In abstract, I suppose. I never carry any.”

“I can’t take this.” I tried to give him back the bills. “It’s your pay. You earned it.”

“I don’t need it. Really.”

“How do you support yourself?”

“Salary, family…” He yawned as his voice trailed off. “How about you keep them for me?”

I hesitated. “Okay. Just until you need it.”

Althor rested his cheek against the top of my head, wrapping his arms around me as if he were a boy going to sleep with his favorite stuffed animal. I almost laughed at the unlikely image. My eyes soon drooped closed, and I drowsed next to him.

I woke up in time to ring for our stop. Althor followed me out the back door, rubbing his eyes. Instead of trying to walk down the narrow steps on the bus, he just jumped over them, down to the street. We headed to my apartment in silence. At first I thought he was bored, that he was walking me home only because he felt obligated. I was so busy feeling self-conscious that it took a while for his mood to register. Finally it soaked into my mind that he felt clumsy too. It was odd; he seemed so confident, uncaring of what people thought of him. Except with me. Why?

As we walked up Miner Street, Althor grunted and massaged the small of his back.

“I can’t believe you moved all those boxes in one night,” I said. “You must be sore.”

“That’s what that man Brad said, too.” He gave a wry smile. “Ragnar would say the hard work is good for me.”

“Who?”

“Ragnar. Admiral Ragnar Bloodmark. A family friend.” His face relaxed. “He’s been my mentor since I was a small boy. Like a second father.”

It was impossible for me to imagine having even one father, let alone two. “You’re lucky.”

“He could never replace my father. But he means a lot to me.”

“Is your father a pilot, too?” Hey, his father could be an interstellar king. That would fit with Josh’s games. It was harder and harder to believe, though, that Althor was playing a game.

“A pilot?” Althor laughed good-naturedly. “No, he is a bard.”

“A singer?”

“That’s right. He has a spectacular voice.” His mood turned pensive. “My father and Ragnar, they don’t have much liking for each other. They are opposites. Ragnar understood when I wanted to be a Jagernaut. He is a military man. My father, all he sees is that I might die.”

I spoke softly. “That’s because he loves you.” I wished I could say the same about my nonexistent father.

Althor brushed his hand over my hair, and I picked up a lovely sense, as if he wanted to make contact in some way he couldn’t define himself, to touch me with a drop of the love his family had given him. I caught his fingers and kissed his knuckles the way he had kissed mine earlier today. As I let his hand go, his pleased surprise shimmered in the air around him.

Although we were silent after that, it was comfortable, neither of us feeling the need to talk. Eventually he started playing with his transcom. Once again, it appeared out of nowhere, As he worked, his good mood vanished.

After a few moments, I said, “What’s wrong?”

“The Jag,” he muttered, intent on his work. “It has problems.”

 

The rest of Lighting Strike, Book I, is available for download for Kindle, Nook, and iTunes.

Lightning Strike, Chapter I

Eclairs

Chapter I, Night Thunder

lllll

I felt the city tonight. Although Los Angeles never fully slept, it was quiet, wrapped in its own thoughts. Drowsing. Waiting for a jolt to wake it up.

Joshua met me when I finished my shift at the restaurant, and we walked to the bus stop together. It had drizzled earlier and a slick film covered the street, reflecting the lights in blurred smears of oily water. Above us a few stars managed to outshine the city lights and pollution, valiant in their efforts to overcome the amber glow that tinted the darkened sky. Sparse traffic flowed by like sleek animals gliding through the night, intent on their own purposes.

I could see Joshua’s good mood. It spread out from him in a faint rose-colored mist that shifted with vague shapes, the form of unspoken words. I was used to seeing people’s emotions, but with him it was even more vivid than with everyone else. He affected all my senses. His calm mood sounded like waves on a beach, smelled like seaweed, tasted like salt. The effect faded with distance; it would only last until he moved away from me. I never told him, of course. I never told anyone. I didn’t want to sound crazy.

We sat on the bench at the bus stop and he put his arm around my shoulders, not like a boyfriend, which he had never been, but like the best friend I had known for six years, since 1981, the year that Jamaica became the fifty-first state and the Hollywood sign burned down in the hills above LA. Tousled yellow hair fell over his forehead and brushed the wire rims of his glasses. He was my opposite in so many ways, his curls sun-bright compared to my straight black hair. His eyes had always seemed like bits of sky to me, blue and clear where mine were dark brown, the color of loam deep in a forest.

A harsh jab punctured the bubble of our mood. I had no idea where the emotion came from, only that it cut like a knife.

“Tina, look.” Joshua pointed across the street.

A red sports car was turning off San Carlos Boulevard into a side street. “What about it?”

“That was Nug driving.”

I didn’t want to hear Nug’s name. “He can drive down the street if he wants.”

“He was watching us.” Joshua glanced in the other direction and his face relaxed. “The bus is coming.”

Following his gaze, I saw the old bus lumbering toward us. Good. The farther it took us from Nug, the better. As we stood up, the bus pulled into our stop. I boarded and paid, then turned to look at Joshua. Standing by the bench, he waved good-bye, his hand disappearing from sight when the driver closed the door.

As the bus headed off into the night, I sat in one of its many empty seats and leaned my head against the window. The few other passengers seemed lost in their thoughts as they slouched in other seats. I wondered if they were going home to their families, to a world they understood. As hard as I had tried to fit in here, Los Angeles had always felt alien to me.

I had grown up in the Zinacanteco village of Nabenchauk, the Lake of the Lightning, on the Chiapas plateau of southern Mexico. I missed its cool evergreen forests, its bone-dry winters and rainy summers. My earliest memories were of my mother, kneeling barefoot at her metate, grinding maize in the muted hours that came before dawn, when the air felt as clear as the clang of a bell. She was a traditional woman of the Maya who followed the baz’i or “true way” of life—so how, at age fourteen, had she ended up getting pregnant by an artist from Mexico City? It went against every grain of her life. He had visited Nabenchauk only to paint our village, and he had left within a few weeks. I had never met him, my father, that unknown and long vanished artist.

When I was eight, my aunt and uncle died in one of the earthquakes that hit the highlands, leaving behind my cousin, their eleven-year-old son Manuel. My mother took him into her care as she mourned the death of her brother. The heart-parching loss also decided her; after years of struggling with the decision, she went to search for my father, taking Manuel and me with her. We left Nabenchauk and rode along the Pan American Highway to Mexico City, what I had though then must surely be a golden paradise at the edge of the universe. The glamour soon became tarnished in the gritty realities of life. We never found my father, though my mother searched for years, following one dead end after another, until we finally ended up here in the city of sleepless, fallen angels.

Tonight the bus rumbled to the stop on San Carlos Boulevard a few blocks from where I lived. The drugstore on the corner was closed and deserted. I shivered, uneasy. I had hoped Mario and his men would be hanging out there so I could ask one of them to walk me home. Los Vatos de la Calle San Carlos, or just VSC; people called them a gang, with Mario as their leader, but to me they were like family. My cousin Manuel had died two years ago, and since then VSC had looked out for me. I could still hear Mario jiving with my cousin: Oye, vato, let’s go the show. And Manuel: Chale homes. I want to go cruising and check out some firme rucas. The memory stabbed like a knife, and I pushed away the grief, unable to face that emptiness.

No one was around the drugstore, but the Stop-And-Go down the block was open. I could go there and call Mario. I would probably have to wake him up, though, if he wasn’t here, and I knew he’d been getting up early, trying to find a job. The last thing he needed was for me to drag him out of bed at one in the morning. It’s only a few blocks, I thought. You can go alone. I knew the neighborhood and everyone knew me.

I headed down a side street. Old buildings lined the road, tenements and weathered houses hulking in the night, shuttered and closed. Most of the street lamps were dark, but a few made pools of light on the sidewalk like isolated havens in a dark sea. Cracks jagged through the cement as if they were bolts of lightening frozen into the concrete and overgrown with grass. Debris lay scattered everywhere, chunks of rock, plaster, newspapers, candy wrappings, empty cigarette boxes. Somewhere curtains thwapped in the breeze. A tattered bag from some fast-food place blew along the street, then caught up against a building. The smell of damp paper tickled my nose.

When my mother had first brought us to LA, we’d lived in a suburb, a run-down one, sure, but it had been okay. Although we hadn’t had much, she gave us a good home and more than enough love. After her death, Manuel and I had moved here to East LA, where we could better afford the rent.

As I walked home, an odd sensation bothered me. A . . . trickle? It ran over my arms as if it were the runoff from a torrent of air rushing by in a nearby cañón. Warm air. It felt pleasant. But that “canyon,” it was in my mind, not the city. I was sensing someone—

There.

He stood about a block away, facing away from me, a tall man with short curly hair, blond maybe. He was tall, about six-foot-four. One of the only working streetlamps on this stretch of road was a few feet behind where I stood, so as soon as he turned he would see me. Not good. I didn’t recognize him. I should leave—but what he was doing was so odd, I paused and watched.

He had a box that hummed and glittered with red, gold, and silver lights. He was holding it in front of his body as he turned in a circle. From the way he was dressed, I would have expected him to be hanging out, having a brew with his homies instead of playing with gadgets. When Manuel had run with VSC, he had dressed that way, a black t-shirt and jeans tucked into his boots. Except this guy had on a vest, not a t-shirt, and his clothes looked more like leather than cotton and denim. Too dull for leather, maybe, but I couldn’t tell from so far away.

Thinking about my cousin brought me back to my senses. I backed away, intending to be gone before this guy saw me. But it was too late. He stopped turning and looked up from his box, right at me. At first he just stood there, staring, his mouth slightly open as if I was the big surprise. Then he started toward me, his long legs devouring the space that separated us.

That’s it, I thought and spun around to run.

“Espérate,” he called. “Habla conmigo.”

What the—? I turned back, why I didn’t know. I thought he had said Wait, talk to me, but he had such a heavy accent, I couldn’t be sure. His voice sounded strange, too. On habla it had rumbled with a deep note, like a low tone on a piano. Even stranger was his effect on my heightened senses. The warmth I had felt earlier felt stronger, flowing over my skin, a river instead of a trickle.

He stopped and stayed put, watching me. I watched him back, ready to bolt if he came closer.

He tried again. “Preguntar mi tu decir.”

Well that made no sense. “¿Que?” I asked.

“Me siento,” he said. “Yo español mal.”

He Spanish bad? No kidding. “How about English?” I asked. He looked like a gringo.

“Yes.” Relief flickered across his face. “My English, it is much better.”

It was indeed, though he still had a strong accent, one I didn’t recognize. On the word, “much,” his voice had made that strange sound again, like a piano note.

“What do you want?” I asked.

He held out his palms as if to show he had no weapons. It meant squat. He could have a knife or a gun hidden anywhere. And he had that strange box in his hand.

“Lost,” he said. “Help can me find you?”

I squinted at him. “What?”

He paused, his face blanking. It was odd, like the screen on a computer clearing. Then his expression came back to normal. “Can you help me?” he asked. “I am lost.”

He wanted directions out here, in the middle of the night. How weird. “Where are you going?”

“Washington, originally.”

Not good. Nug and his men hung around Washington’s liquor store. They dressed in black like this guy, and he had on those wrist guards a few of them wore, like they thought they were some kind of barbarian warriors. He looked older than most of Nug’s gang, but not all of them. Some of those guys had aged out of petty crimes and graduated to the big time. They did serious hurt to people.

I backed up a step. “You’re a long way from Washington’s.”

“Yes.” He tilted his head as if he were listening to something I couldn’t hear. And then of all things, he said, “I decide it is better if I not come down in a continental capital.”

Seriously? Washington, D.C., as in the capital of the country? Maybe he was zoned out on crack. He didn’t sound wasted, though. His speech wasn’t slurred or wandering, just strange.

Okay, I thought, curious despite my better judgment. “What’s in Washington?”

“A reception.”

“You mean like a party?”

He paused, then said, “Yes, that is an appropriate word.”

I couldn’t help but smile. “You’re going to a fancy party dressed like that?”

“This is my duty uniform.” He said it with a perfectly straight face. “My dress uniform is on the ship.”

Hah, hah. Funny. I hadn’t heard of anyone like him hanging around here, and surely I would have known about someone this bizarre. “What’s your name?”

He was watching me with an unsettling focus, like I was the odd one rather than him. “I am Althor.”

Althor. It sounded like a nickname. Nug’s men all took one, though most were a lot less creative about it. “You mean like Thor? The guy with the hammer?”

“I am sorry, but I not know to whom you refer.”

Whom? I hadn’t known people actually existed who used that word. I had no idea if he was dangerous or not, but I had to admit, I hadn’t met anyone this interesting in ages. Like maybe never. I motioned at his box. “What is that?”

“Transcom,” he said.

“What does it do?”

“It transmit and receive waves. Right now I scan radio signals.” He came closer, lifting the box so I could see it better. Startled, I backed away. As I stepped into the halo from the streetlamp, he stopped and stared as if he had just seen me. I suppose he had in a sense, given I had only now moved into the light.

“Gods,” he said. “You are incredibly beautiful.”

Normally that would’ve been nice. But not now, not with me alone and out here in the middle of the night. I kept backing up. The drugstore wasn’t far.

“Don’t go.” Althor started toward me again.

As soon as he moved in my direction, I spun around and hurried away. I’d never have thought I could move so fast in the stiletto heels of my waitress uniform, but it was amazing what you could do when you were scared.

“Wait,” he called.

I hesitated, turning back, slowing to a stop. Why? Something about him was familiar, but I had no idea what. I felt his emotions far more than I ever had from anyone else. They flowed across me like a river of warmth with tendrils of mist curling into the night. His presence felt—good. Strong. So I stayed, poised and ready to run, watching him warily.

Althor made the one choice that would keep me from bolting. He backed away. He kept moving until he was standing in the light from the only working other lamp on this street. I could see him better now. His eyes were dark, black or brown, though it was hard to be sure. He had fair skin and curly hair that, as far as I could tell, was the same color as the bronze bracelet my mother had given me before she died. And that wasn’t all. El hombre es chulo. The guy was hot. Just because he was good-looking, though, that didn’t mean he was okay.

“You run with Nug?” I asked.

He tilted his head. “Who?”

“Nug. You know.”

“I do not know.”

“You must’ve seen him around. Tall guy. Anglo. Blue eyes. Buzz hair.”

“I do not know this man.” He considered me. “My uniform—you not recognize it?”

“I’ve never seen no uniform like that.” I winced. “Any uniform.” I hated it when I forgot English grammar didn’t allow double negatives. Such an annoying language, not allowing you that extra negative to make your point.

Althor didn’t seem to notice, though, probably because his English was even worse than mine. “I am a ****” he said.

I blinked. “A what?”

He repeated the word and it still sounded like gibberish.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Literally I think it translate as ‘Jagernaut Secondary.’”

“What’s a Jagernaut Secondary?”

“Similar to what you call naval captain.” He thought for a moment. “Actually, I think Secondary comes closer to the rank in your air force. Major, maybe.”

Yeah, sure. “You’re a soldier?” And I was a space alien.

“I am pilot. ISC Tactical Fighter Wing.”

Okay, that sounded cool. But still. “What’s ISC?”

“Imperial Space Command.”

Space Command, huh? That was certainly a step up from Washington’s drugstore. This guy had to be blitzed. Either that, or he actually thought I was dumb enough to believe him.

“Sure,” I said. “De lengua me como un taco.” No one actually said that any more, in this day and age, but a teacher had once told me the phrase and I loved it.

Althor squinted at me and his face blanked again. A moment later he came back to normal. Bewildered, he said, “You’ll eat a taco if it’s beef tongue?”

I couldn’t help but smile. The literal translation did sound pretty strange. “It means, ‘Yeah, right, tell me another one.’”

He seemed more curious than offended. “Does that mean you think I make this up?”

“Well, you know, I don’t run into that many fighter pilots on my way home from work.”

Althor smiled. “I guess not.”

His smile caught me by surprise. No cruelty showed in it, no malice or anger. Nor was it a false smile or the too easy expression of someone who had never had reason to cry. His smile had history, complicated history. It was beautiful.

I thawed a bit. “So how come you’re in LA?”

He considered me as if trying to decide whether or not I was a threat. I mean, really? Five-foot-two me in my waitress outfit, fluffy miniskirt and all. When he answered, the oddest thought came to me: he had just gone through extensive calculations in his analysis of whether or not to trust me. Close on the heels of that thought came another. Calculations? Analysis? I never thought that way. Sure, I had always liked math, unlike most of my friends, but for a moment it had felt as if I were thinking someone else’s thoughts.

“I am in the wrong place,” Althor said. “Actually, it looks like the wrong time. According to my ship, the date here is what I expect. But everything is too much different.” He pointed to the streetlight. “For one thing, I never know this, that Los Angeles has such antique lamps.”

I peered at the light. It was the same as most everywhere in LA: a bronze-hued pole with scalloped sides. It ended in a large, ornate hook that curled upward. Hanging from the hook was a glass lamp shaped like the bell on a Spanish mission. Books about Los Angeles always showed them.

“They’re called angel bells,” I said.

“Angel bells? They are beautiful. But I never hear of this before.”

“You really must be new. They’re as famous as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.”

Althor frowned. “I have studied American history. If these bells are famous, I would know.”

“Maybe whoever taught you history didn’t know LA that well.” More likely, if he was like the other guys in Nug’s gang, he had slept through history class or never showed up at all.

“My ‘teacher’ is a neural chip,” he said. “It has no record of these bell-lamps.” He glanced around, taking in the debris-strewn street, broken windows, and crumbling buildings. “You live here?”

I didn’t like him asking where I lived.

After a moment, when I didn’t answer, he said, “Why do you live in a place like this?”

I stiffened. This was home. Yeah, it wasn’t much, but it meant a lot to me. My voice turned icy. “Because I do.”

He jerked as if my anger had struck him. “My sorry. I meant no offense.”

His reaction was so odd, I forgot to be angry. Actually, his response wasn’t odd, and that made it strange. He reacted the same way I did if someone’s emotions hit me too hard. He backed off, easing up on the person he had hurt.

Less defensive now, I said, “Where are you from?”

“Parthonia, originally.”

“Par-what?”

“Parthonia. The seat of the Skolian government.”

“I’ve never heard of it.”

Althor spoke wryly. “After everything else I find here, or not find, I am not surprised.” He went to the nearest building and sat on its steps, planting his booted feet wide on the cracked sidewalk. “Everything here is wrong,” he said, poking at his box. “I find only radio transmissions.”

It was cool the way his box flashed with lights. As he tapped its faces, they glowed in different colors. He turned over his arm and pressed the box against his wrist guard. That was when I realized his guard wasn’t all leather. Glowing wires crisscrossed parts of it, and other parts glinted like metal.

I moved closer to watch. “I’ve never seen wrist guards like that before.”

“They have a new web architecture,” Althor spoke absently, intent on his box. One of its panels turned green. “At least I can reach my Jag.”

“Is that your car?” It seemed unlikely. He didn’t look like someone who could afford those dream wheels.

He kept on working on his box. “My star fighter.”

“Oh. Right.” Maybe he was an actor rehearsing for a movie. More likely his brain had lost a few bolts. Oddly, though, nothing about him tripped my mental alarms, and my intuition about people was usually solid. “Maybe you’re looking for the wrong signal.”

He made a frustrated noise. “I check radio wave, microwave, optical, UV, X-ray, neutrino channels, everything. Nothing is right.”

“Why come here to check?” I doubted East L.A. slums were high on the list of places for lost star fighter pilots to hang out looking for help.

“The Jag is doing the orbital scans,” he muttered.

“I mean, why did you come to this street?”

Althor stopped poking his box and looked up at me. “I—well, I don’t know.” After a pause, he said, “It seemed right. I am not sure why.”

That sounded the way I felt when his river of moods trickled over me. “What are you looking for?”

“Something to make sense.” He motioned at the deserted street. “This city, it looks like it is the wrong century. The date that my ship gives is correct, but this Earth, it is like no Earth I know.”

Wait a minute! I knew what was going on. “You go to Caltech, right? My friend Josh is a freshman there. He told me about those games you guys play. That’s what you’re doing, isn’t it? Role-playing.”

“Caltech?” He squinted at me. “This means California Institute of Technology, yes?”

“I guess so. Josh never calls it that.” Now that I thought about it, if Althor came from Caltech, what was he doing all the way out here in East LA, alone, in the middle of the night? Besides, he looked more like the guys who had terrorized Joshua in high school. One time, Nug and his creeps had cornered Joshua behind the gym. They tied his hands behind his back and lined up in front of him with their Uzis like a firing squad. The assholes had thought it was funny. Joshua had been so freaked, he hadn’t come back to school for a week. He had been afraid to tell anyone besides me, but I told they guys in VSC and after that they looked out for him because he was my friend.

“I’ve heard of Caltech,” Althor said. “I never went there, though. I graduated from DMA.”

“What’s DMA?” I asked.

“A military academy.”

Sure, right. Though I had to admit, loved the thought of Nug’s gang trapped in a military school. Boot camp would be even better. I could just see a drill sergeant yelling in their faces.

Althor, however, was serious. He wanted me to believe he had gone to a military academy. Maybe it was his dream. I understood that. Ever since I had graduated last year, I had wanted to go to college. I had no money for tuition, but I was saving. And dreaming.

During my junior year in high school, one of my teachers got excited when she saw the record of my test scores and grades. She said I was “gifted,” that I had options for college, like scholarships. I had been thrilled, thinking maybe, just maybe, I could make something of my life.

Then Nug’s gang had murdered Manuel and I had fallen apart. We all had. In school, the guys had stalked the halls, ready to explode, black armbands on their hardened biceps. School officials tried to have grief sessions for us, but we never went. We trusted no one except each other. Manuel had been my only blood family since my mother’s death, so VSC became my people, surrounding me in the halls and classrooms. No one else dared come near me in those first days. I hadn’t even realized I had missed the PSAT testing date until weeks later. At that point, I no longer cared. Life sucked and I was tired. If not for Mario, his sister Rosa, and the rest of VSC, God only knew what I’d have done. I might not be alive now.

I spoke gently. “It doesn’t matter to me if you don’t have a fancy degree. Just never give up your dreams.”

“I do have degree,” he said. “It’s in inversion engineering.”

He said it with such a straight face, I couldn’t resist teasing. “Perversion engineering. Sounds exciting.”

He reddened, like he thought he had made some embarrassing mistake in English. “Inversion.”

I liked the way he cared what I thought he had said. “So you’re supposed to go to a party?”

“It is a reception at the White House for my mother.”

“The White House, huh? She must be important.”

“She is mathematician. But that was long ago. For many years she had been ****”

Although his English was improving, his accent still puzzled me. “I didn’t get that last word.”

His face blanked. Now that I was more tuned to him, I felt the change in his mind. He turned metallic. Then his human warmth returned, eddying around us and softening the banks of my barricaded emotions.

“Key,” Althor said. “She is a Key. This is the closest translation I find.”

That didn’t sound like any of Joshua’s games. Their characters were usually Ultimate Lords of Destruction or whatever. And I mean, seriously, who had their mother as a player?

“What does she do?” I asked.

“Sits in Assembly. She is liaison between the Assembly and the mesh networks.”

“Oh.” I had expected something more flamboyant, like sorceress or queen. Then again, maybe “liaison” was code. “Does that mean she’s a warrior queen?” I grinned. “That make you a prince? If I kiss you, will you turn into a frog?”

A sleepy smile spread across his face. “Maybe you should find out.”

I flushed. I had only meant it as a joke—well, okay, maybe flirting a little. But I wasn’t coming on to him and now he thought I was. Why did I keep lowering my guard? After only a few minutes he was affecting me more than people I had known for years.

Althor could have reacted a lot of ways to my joke, and most would have had me backing off. Instead he held out his transcom as if he were a vaquero, a cowboy offering sugar to a skittish horse. “Want to see how it works?”

Ho! Clever man. One reason Joshua and I had become friends, despite all our differences, was because we both liked gadgets. He enjoyed making them and I liked to figure out how they worked.

So I didn’t back away. Instead I said, “Okay.” But I kept my distance.

Althor brushed his finger over the box and a panel turned silver. “This put it in acoustic mode.” He showed me the other side of the box, which somehow had turned into a small membrane.

“Say something,” Althor suggested.

“Hola, cajita.” I said.

The transcom answered with my voice. “Hola, cajita.”

I laughed, delighted to hear his transcom call itself a little box. “How did it do that?”

“Your voice, it makes longitudinal waves in atmosphere.” Althor lifted the box. “This reproduces them.” He tapped a code onto one of its panels and a note rang out. “That is frequency 552 hertz.” He played another note. “What frequency? Can you say?”

“Almost the same as the first,” I said. “A little higher.”

“You have a good ear. It is 564 hertz.” He had the box make a third note. “This one?”

“Same as the last.” It didn’t sound exactly the same, though. “I think.”

“Not quite. It’s 558 hertz.” He pressed several panels and a tone came again, but this time it vibrated like a trilling bird with a whistle in its throat.

“Hey! That’s cool.” I grinned at him. “I know what you’re doing. Making beats. Me and Josh read about it in school when we took physics.” I had needed special permission to take AP Physics because the guidance counselors had put Josh and me on different tracks, him in college prep and me in the vocational program. But I talked them into letting me take the AP class. “Your box is singing those two notes at the same time, so they sound like they’re vibrating.”

He smiled his sleepy smile, seeming far more interested in my excited reaction than in the box. “Do you know what is the beat frequency?”

Well, of course. “Twelve hertz. And I can figure out the pitch of the beating note. It’s that last one you played, the average of the first two, 558 hertz.”

“That’s right.” Althor nodded as if it were perfectly normal for me to know all this buzz on beats, which raised my opinion of him by a big notch. He touched another panel and flute music floated out into the night as sweet as the down under an owl’s wings.

“Pretty,” I said.

“Want to try the transcom?” He pulled the box off his wrist and held it out to me.

Did Los Angeles have smog? Yeah, I wanted to play.

As I reached for the box, Althor shifted so his arm moved back in his lap, making me step closer to reach the transcom. Like an idiot, I stumbled over his foot and fell across his lap. He caught me, sliding his arm around my waist.

¡Maldito! Mortified, I grabbed the transcom and backed away from him.

“If you come over here,” he invited, “I show you how it works.”

I stayed put, keeping my distance. He was sitting on the third step of the stairs, his feet far apart on the sidewalk and his big elbows resting on his knees. Bits of plaster lay scattered around his feet, probably fallen from the building during the last thunderstorm. Given his looks and smooth style, he could probably have women scattered all around him, too, if he wanted,

Except he wasn’t really smooth, at least not in that oily way a player talked when he knew girls thought he was hot and he wanted to get laid. Althor seemed like a nice guy. Sure, he had the moves, but underneath he was more like Joshua’s techie friends than the slick guys who came on to me in the restaurant. I mean, really, who used physics as a pick-up line? Even weirder, who would have guessed it would work so well.

Another plus for Althor: he didn’t push. When I backed away from him, holding the transcom, he stayed where he was, which reassured me more than anything else he might have tried. So after a few moments, I cautiously approached and sat on the other side of the steps, as far from him as possible, with about two feet of concrete separating us.

Althor reached over and touched a silver square on the box. The little panel turned gold.

I leaned away from him. “What are you doing?”

He sat back, giving me space. “I make it in electromagnetic mode.”

“What does that do?”

“Right now, an antenna it creates.” He swept out his arm, his gesture taking in the street, the buildings, even the sky. “Everywhere.”

“I don’t see anything.”

“It uses the buildings.” He dropped his arm onto the stairs between us, his fingers brushing my thigh. “And the effect, it is enhanced by changes in local air density.”

I moved my leg away from his fingers. “I don’t feel nothing.”

“You can’t feel it.” Althor said. “Besides,” he murmured. “There are better things to feel.”

Whoa. His mood was a sensuous river, reminding me of the predawn coolness in Nabenchauk, those early mornings when I would sneak off for a swim by myself instead of preparing my loom for weaving like I was supposed to. I had known a secret curve in the lake hidden by fir-draped mountains. The mist hung over the water in veils, blue and shadowed, mysterious, impossible to ignore. That was what Althor felt like now. It was so distracting, I dropped the transcom. The box slid out of my hands, skittering under my fingers, and clunked onto the step by the spike heel of my shoe, its panels glowing like gemstones in a river.

A woman’s voice burst out of the box. “—fourth caller wins two free dinners at Mona’s Kitchen. So get your phone ready, folks.”

“!Oiga!” Flustered, I grabbed the transcom. My fingernail clicked another square and the woman’s voice cut off in midsentence, replaced by a man speaking an unfamiliar language. “Ah!” I jerked my finger away from the transcom. “What’s it doing?”

Althor was staring at where I held the transcom between my knees. It seemed to take a great deal of effort for him to shift his gaze to my face. “What?”

I reddened and pulled my knees together, holding the transcom on top of them. “The box. What happened?”

“It pick up radio waves.” He leaned in until his chest was against my shoulder, his hand braced behind me on the stairs. With his other hand, he touched the transcom and it went silent. Then he spoke next to my ear. “You haven’t told me your name.” His river of sensuality swirled around us, muddling my thoughts. I felt his moods more than I had with anyone else, even Joshua. With Althor it was so intense it would have bothered me if it had been harsh. But it was nice.

“Tina. I’m T-Tina.” I was talking too fast. “‘Akushtina Santis Pulivok.” I had no idea why I gave him my full name. People here always thought it was strange.

‘“Akushtina,” he murmured. “A beautiful name. For a beautiful woman.”

Ho! The surprise wasn’t so much that he thought my name was beautiful, though that was strange too; the glottal stop at the beginning of ‘Akushtina sounded harsh to most people who didn’t speak Tzotzil Mayan. But what really hit me was that he pronounced it right. This guy who could barely speak Spanish and wasn’t that much better in English, spoke my Mayan name perfectly.

Althor picked up a lock of my hair. “So long and soft and black.” He had a musky scent, like catnip. “Why are you out here alone?”

I tried to ignore his smell, but it was impossible. It was like he was giving off those chemicals I had read about, pheromones or something, targeted at me. I put my hand on his shoulder and pushed him away. “I was coming home from work. My brothers are expecting me.” He had no way to know I had no brothers. “They must be looking for me.”

Althor took the hint and stayed back. He tilted his head, like someone straining to catch a sound he could barely hear. “How do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Upload to me. Overwrite my thoughts. My internal mesh should be protected.”

I wondered if he ever talked like a normal person. “I have no idea what you mean.”

“I can’t think straight.” He paused, watching me as if for cues. Then he leaned in closer.

I stared at his lips. They looked full. Warm. He waited a moment more, and when I didn’t push him back, he put his arm around my waist. My awareness of him intensified, the textures of his emotions mixing with his actual touch until I couldn’t separate them. It was as if someone had painted a picture of us and then torn it in two, and now we were putting the halves back together. When he bent his head to kiss me, I slid my arms around his neck, acting before I had a chance to think that it was a lousy idea. Something here was right, something good, though anyone would say I was crazy to think that about this weird guy I had just met.

When it came to men, my cousin Manuel had been as strict with me as a father. No, he had been even worse, more like a priest. He had driven me crazy. I still had an idea what went on, though, enough to know Althor kissed differently than most guys. He flicked his tongue over my ear, the closed lids of my eyes, the tip of my nose. When he reached my lips, he kept one arm around my waist and held my head with his other hand, stroking my cheek with his thumb while we kissed.

It was a while before we separated. Finally he drew back and brushed my hair out of my face, watching me with an unexpected tenderness. “Where are your brothers?” he asked.

I looked at him, feeling the echo of his lips on my mouth. His scent was everywhere, like the fragrance of pine needles in a forest.

“Tina?” He touched my cheek. “Are you there?”

“¿Que?”

“Your brothers. Why they leave you to walk alone like this?”

“They don’t.” Which was true, seeing as I had no brothers. “I don’t usually come out this late.”

“Where are you going?”

“Home. Rosa usually gives me a ride, but her car is in the shop.” That brought me to my senses. No matter how good I felt with this guy, he was a stranger. I pushed away from him and stood up. “I should go.”

Althor blinked as if I had yanked him out of a dream. He rose to his feet next to me, moving more slowly, towering like an oak tree. “Already?”

“I have to work tomorrow.” What did I do now? I didn’t want to ask for his phone number. He might take it wrong. For all that he pretended he came from somewhere futuristic, this was really just dull ordinary 1987 Los Angeles. Some guys were okay with a woman asking for their number, but the way I had grown up, a girl never did that, not unless she was inviting a lot more than I intended. I wanted to—well, I wasn’t sure. See him more, the way you did with a guy you liked.

His gaze was intent. “Tina?”

“I thought maybe—” I paused, leaving him an opening.

“Yes?” He watched as if I were turning into water, clear and cool, running through his fingers.

“I—Nothing.” Stop being an idiot, I thought. He was probably way out of my league. Girls from the barrio didn’t have boyfriends like him. I had even begun to wonder if he really was some kind of military pilot.

“I have to go,” I said.

He started to speak, then stopped. “You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

Again he had that odd look, as if he were losing something. All he said was, “Adios, ‘Akushtina.”

“Adios.” Ask me to stay, I thought, shielding that hope even in my own mind, as if that could make his rejection easier to bear. He said nothing.

So I headed home, trying to ignore the feeling that I was making the stupidest mistake of my life. After I walked about half a block, I looked back. Althor was still standing there, watching. He pushed his hand through his hair, leaving it tousled. I hesitated, but he didn’t do anything else, so I turned away and crossed the street, then went around the corner. Once I thought I heard a footstep behind me, but when I glanced around, I saw no one.

I lived at the intersection of Miner and San Juan streets. As I came down San Juan, it was a relief to see the sagging stairs of my apartment house. Only three buildings and I would be home.

A pair of headlights flashed on across the street, coming from a parked car. A red car. No! I sped up, walking faster, practically running for my building.

The driver’s side of the car opened and Nug climbed out. Actually, Matt Kugelmann was his name. Tall and lanky, with lean muscles, he moved like a werewolf on the hunt, muscles rippling under his sleek hide as he stalked through the streets with feral grace. I had never used the word feral before, but it came to me now and it fit perfectly. His head was shaved, except on the very top where yellow hair stuck up like a scrub brush. Although he was only twenty-four, he looked older. His face had a hard cast to it, as if he had baked in a kiln too long. But what made him ugly was the way he looked at you, as if in his view of the universe you meant nothing.

That was why I hated him, because people mattered less to him than the garbage he sold. He had ordered his people to kill Manuel for stealing crack out of his car. Worse, Nug was the one who had sold Manuel his first hit, to “help” him deal with his grief over my mother’s death. And of course Nug had kept him supplied.

I wasn’t going to reach home in time. I tried to run, but I tripped in the spike heels of my waitress uniform and fell, landing in a heap of blue and white ruffles.

A hand slipped under my arm and I looked up into Nug’s face.

“Hey, Tina,” he said.

I stood up awkwardly, holding down my skirt, and stepped back, trying to free my arm. “Hi.”

Nug didn’t let go. “Just thought I’d make sure you got home okay.” He pulled me with him. “I’ll walk you the rest of the way.”

“I’m fine now.” I balked as we climbed the steps of my apartment building, and I managed to make him stop when we reached the landing. “Thanks, Nug. I’ll see you.”

He stepped closer. “Why are you in such a hurry?”

I backed up, into the wall of the building, wishing I could disappear. “Nug, go home, okay?”

“I saw you hugging Joshua at the bus stop.” He touched the tip of his finger to my cheek. “How come you hang out with that dweeb? He’s a loser.”

“Don’t call him that.”

“Why?” Nug sounded genuinely curious. “Why would you bother with him? He doesn’t even try to do you. I can’t believe it. He must like guys.”

I knew perfectly well Joshua liked women, especially tall ones with red hair. “I’m not his type. He likes brainy girls.”

Nug laughed and traced his finger down my neck. “You don’t need brains.” He leaned his head down as if he were going to kiss me. “You’re so fucking pretty.”

I tried to duck under his arm, but he pushed me against the wall. “You know what you look like in that outfit?” he said. “Those models in that clothes catalog I get.”

The thought of Nug ordering a clothes catalog was so bizarre, I almost laughed. “You mean like the Sears catalog?”

“Sears?” He smirked. “Hell, no. That place in Hollywood, I can’t remember the name. Freedman or Frederick’s or something. Man, those bitches are even hotter than the chicks in Hustler.”

“Nug, I have to go.”

“They got play clothes in there.” He reached under my skirt and snapped my garter belt. “Like these.”

I pushed his hand away. “Cut it out.”

“You wouldn’t believe what they got. I didn’t know real girls even wore that stuff.” He pushed my purse off my shoulder, and let it thunk to the ground while he pulled my arms over my head. He held my wrists against the wall. “Be nice to me, chiquitita. You don’t know what Big Daddy might have to do if his little girl is naughty.”

“Stop it!” I struggled to yank my arms away from him.

His voice hardened. “You gotta be nice to me.” He let go of my wrists. “See, I know stuff.”

I pulled down my arms. “Stuff?”

“Like you lied about your age to get that job.” His voice grated as if it were the rasp of a weaving stick over a backstrap loom. “Like your papers are faked and you ain’t here legal, baby. Like if you don’t do what I want, I’ll have to talk. You want to go back to taco land? What you gonna do there, Tina? Turn tricks in Tijuana?”

“Don’t say that!” I pushed him away, hating it when he talked about me that way.

“Damn it!” He hit the side of the building with his fist, and flakes of old paint scattered around us. “Why don’t you say, ‘Yes, Nug. Whatever you want, Nug’? You always did whatever that shit cousin of yours told you to do, even going to Mass every Sunday. I mean, who freaking goes to church all the time? Well, he ain’t here to keep me off no more. He’s gone, he’s not coming back, and V-Fucking-SC can’t do shit.” He grabbed my shoulders and shook them. “I’m king around here, baby. So don’t play hard to get no more.”

“No!” I gasped with the force of his motion. “Stop it!”

“You listen to me.” He pushed me against the wall. “I’m done with your games. We’re going to do things my way from now on. You do what I want, when I want, starting tonight. You got it?”

It was like a waking nightmare, one that no pinch would end. I had nowhere to go, no haven, no safety. “Nug, don’t hurt me.” I knew he would, that he liked it that way, but I didn’t know what else to do. “Just let me go.”

“Shut up!” He slapped me across the face so hard, it slammed me into the wall. My head rang with pain.

Something yanked Nug away from me. One moment he was hitting me, the next I was free and stumbling forward. As I caught myself, I looked up to see a startled Nug facing off with another man.

Althor.

“What’s the matter with you?” Althor asked. “Can’t you feel how frightened she is?”

“Who the fuck are you?” Nug said.

I didn’t stick around to hear more. I ran inside the building and banged the door shut behind me. When I flipped the light switch nothing happened, so I ran down the hall in the dark, reaching for my keys—

No! My keys were in my purse, and my purse was outside on the landing.

I stopped, my heart thudding like the beats of a gourd drum. Then I went back to the door, walking soft, so very soft. Outside, I heard someone falling down the steps. Althor was bigger, but Nug was a better fighter than anyone else I knew. If I had to bet which one of them would win, I’d put my money on Nug, as much as I hated that idea.

A car door opened, followed by Nug saying, “You’re gonna wish you never screwed with me.” The door slammed and the engine started.

I hesitated. Nug wasn’t one to leave a fight, not unless he thought he would lose. But against one man? It made no sense. I nudged the door open a crack—but in the same moment someone on the other side pulled it open all the way.

“Tina?” Althor stood there framed in the rickety doorway. “Are you all right?”

It was too much. I backed up and tripped over some torn boxes on the floor. As I fell, I banged into the wall and dropped onto my knees. Pressing my fist against my mouth, I tried to stop shaking.

Althor came over and knelt in front of me. He started to reach for me, but when I stiffened, he dropped his arm. In the faint light trickling past the open door, his face looked strained, as if with pain, yet no cuts or bruises showed anywhere I could see.

“It’s all right,” Althor said. “He is gone.” He stood up slowly, taking care not to jostle me, and offered his hand.

I avoided his hand and stood up without touching him. Then I stepped away, deeper into the shadowed building.

“I don’t understand,” Althor said. “Why does your brother treat you like that?”

“M-my brother?”

“That was one of your brothers, yes?”

“No.” The thought of being related to Nug made me want to lose my dinner.

“Maybe that explains it.”

“Explains what?”

“Why he had no caring of your fear.”

“He likes people to be afraid of him.” I clenched my fist at my side. “It makes him feel big.”

Althor pushed his hand through his hair, and his arm shook, but it wasn’t from his own reactions. I felt what he felt: He wasn’t afraid of Nug, not at all. He was shaking from my emotions.

“How did you know I needed help?” I asked.

“I input it. Even from so far away.” His forehead creased. “Can you always broadcast such a strong signal?”

He was doing it again, saying those strange things, and I couldn’t take any more. I backed toward the stairs. “I’m not doing nothing.”

Althor looked around at the shadowed hallway, taking in the scarred walls, the peeling plaster, the tags spray-painted in dark colors. “Tina, you should go someplace safer than this.”

“Está bien. It’s fine.” I needed my purse, but I didn’t know how to reach the landing where it lay in a crumpled heap just visible behind the edge of the door. A large pilot was in the way. Fighter pilot. Right. I wanted to laugh, then cry. Mostly I wanted to be safe in my apartment.

Althor watched as if I were a puzzle that was breaking his heart. Then he went outside and got my purse. When he came back, he set it down in the hall in front of me and stepped aside, giving me plenty of space. I grabbed my purse and backed away from him, clutching the bag. Then I headed for the stairs at the other end of the hall, practically running. As I went up the steps, I looked back. Althor was still standing in the same place. He made no attempt to follow, just watched me leave. I turned the corner and lost sight of him.

On the second floor, moonlight was coming through a dirty window at this end of the hall. Junk cluttered the hallway floor and black patches showed on the walls where a fire had scorched them years ago. A baby cried somewhere, a wail that broke off into softer sobs. Upstairs a man and woman were yelling. The musty smell was worse up here, but I didn’t care. I was almost home.

I hurried to my door, which was halfway down the hall, and unlocked the top bolt, the bottom bolt, the police lock, and finally the door. As soon as I was inside, I locked it all back up. Then I sagged against the wood and started to shake. Once it started, I couldn’t stop. I sank down to the ground in the darkened room, collapsed against the door, shaking and shivering, too drained to move anymore.

Copyright © 2014, 1996 Catherine Asaro

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The Phoenix Code eBook release

The Phoenix Code eBook release

It’s official! My book, The Phoenix Code, is now available in an exclusive eBook release . This is a new, rewritten version of the book, as compared to the Bantam/Del Ry book that came out some years ago.

On Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/The-Phoenix-Code-Catherine-Asaro-ebook/dp/B00H907Q1A
On Nook: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/phoenix-code-catherine-asaro/1102793771?ean=2940149046553

It takes a bit longer to come up on iTunes, but it should appear sometime within the next 2-3 weeks.

If you’d like to read the first three chapters online for free, you can find them at the previous two entries in this blog:

Chapter I: http://catherineasaro.wordpress.com/2013/11/09/11/
Chapters II and II: http://catherineasaro.wordpress.com/2013/11/18/chapter-ii-of-the-phoenix-code/

Chapters II and III of The Phoenix Code

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II: The Everest Project

Megan hadn’t expected her security clearance to come through so fast. MindSim must have begun the paperwork in advance. That was certainly optimistic. Or maybe they were just covering all their bases. In any case, after a few weeks of negotiations, they flew her from Massachusetts to California for a tour of their labs.

She felt like a kid in a game arcade. Visiting MindSim was far better than the “hot times” her friends urged on her for fun, like parties or holovids. Invariably, her parents joined the chorus, with hints that she should include a fellow in the proceedings, son-in-law material, of course. Their lobbying drove her crazy. They were wonderful people and she loved them dearly, but she felt like running for the hills every time they got that grandparental gleam in their eyes.

Tony and Claire showed up in person to escort her through the snazziest labs. In one, spindly droids trundled around, navigating obstacle courses with remarkable agility. Megan spent half an hour putting them through their paces before her hosts enticed her to another lab. There she met an appliance that resembled a broom with wheels and detachable arms. The robot spoke at length about how it could move its fingers with more strength and dexterity than a human being.

They went for a walk with a two-legged robot that had a gait so smooth, it put to shame earlier versions that had jerked along like stereotypical machines. Her hosts also let her try a Vacubot. Its inventors deserved an award for their gift to humanity, a robot that could vacuum the house perfectly even as it called the nearest pizza joint to bring dinner for its humans.

“We also work on humanlike robots,” Tony said as they ushered her down another hall. “This next lab is where our people design the body.”

Megan’s pulse jumped. Humanlike was the current buzzword for androids. “Do you have one here?”

“Unfortunately, no.” Claire avoided her gaze. “This work is theoretical. Development would go on elsewhere.”

So. They didn’t want to talk about the actual state of their R&D. No surprise there. Industrial espionage in robotics was a thriving enterprise. MindSim wouldn’t make their results public until they had full patent protection and copyrights. She already had a preliminary security clearance with them, but they probably wanted to see her responses first before they decided how much more they wanted to reveal about the work.
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Chapter I of The Phoenix Code

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This is a rewritten version of the book, which will soon be available as an eBook. The segment I’ve given here is chapter I.

I

The Offer

People packed the auditorium. Every seat was filled and more listeners crammed the aisles. An unspoken question charged the room: were today’s speakers revealing a spectacular new future for the human race or the end of humanity’s reign as the ruling species on Earth?

This session was a diamond in the crown of IRTAC, the International Robotics Technology and Applications Conference in the year 2021, held at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. As chair of this session, Megan O’Flannery had chosen the speakers. She was sitting at a table on the right edge of the stage. At center stage, Arick Bjornsson had just finished his talk and now stood answering questions.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” Arick was saying. “Our machines are intelligent. They won’t surpass us today or tomorrow, but it is only a matter of time.”

Listening to him, Megan pondered her own conflict. Her work on artificial intelligence for androids—humanlike robots—usually inspired her to look to the future with optimism. Sometimes, though, she wondered if they were only creating ways to magnify the human capacity for destruction. She would soon face a decision that forced her to confront the issue: could she use the fruits of her intellect to create machines meant to kill?

The scientists in the audience today came in all sizes, shapes, and ages. Most wore casual clothes: jeans, shirts or blouses, jumpsuits. The conference chair, a distinguished man in a well-cut suit, was sitting only few rows away from the stage. Several men and women sat with him, other high-ranking officials in suits or military uniforms. Megan recognized them all—

Except for the fellow on the right.

The stranger had dark eyes and tousled black curls. He looked more like a rebel than a scientist; his faded jeans had raveled at the knees, his denim shirt was frayed, and a black leather jacket with metal studs lay haphazardly over his legs. But the gold watch on his wrist caught the light with prismatic glints that suggested diamonds were embedded around its face. As he listened to the talk, emotions played across his features: skepticism, interest, outrage, amusement. He glared and crossed his arms at one point. Later, he relaxed and nodded with approval. The dramatic flair of his face intrigued Megan.
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