S.L. Huang’s ROOT OF UNITY is the latest in the Cas Russell series ( Russell’s Attic Series) and it is nearly a nonstop adrenaline bang-up car-wreck of an amazing ride. The TL;DR is BUY THIS BOOK AND THE REST AND READ THEM IN A SINGLE GO.
Fresh from her adventures in Book 2 ( HALF LIFE) Cas finds her morality-map fraying at the edges, and her usual coping methods are collapsing around her, at the worst possible time. The third book in the series sees her lethal brand of math-fu joining forces with a hacker named Checker, and a former private investigator named Arthur to find a kidnapping victim, and apparently the answer to a math problem that would change the world forever.
The stakes are higher for everyone this time, with Cas’s calculus martial arts ratcheting up even as she personally begins to fall apart. Expect no easy answers, and the slow simmering build-up to the Twist is presented excellently. Huang’s prose disappears behind the story, which is by turns hilarious (“He’s fine. He had a building fall on him.”) tragic and always action-packed. As someone who HATES math (I have dyscalculia) I love how the story presents mathematical ideas in a way that a total non-numbers type can follow, and the plot never slows down for it.
Cassandra Russell is an excellent heroine, a woman of color who is bad ass, not beautiful, competent, not cute, and would likely hold her own against James Bond and Indiana Jones. Huang’s a rising talent in the sci-fi world, and I would not be surprised to see her books optioned in Hollywood soon.
S.L. Huang’s book is tightly written, and is a perfect example of a compelling page-turner. I read it in two sittings, in the middle of the night and as soon as I woke up the next morning. 6 out of five stars.
HEXOMANCY hits all my sweet spots for good crunchy urban fantasy fiction, with laugh out loud snark-studded dialogue, just the right amount of nostalgic callbacks to things geeks of all genre-spheres will love, and crisply paced prose that moves the story forward at downhill-on-black-ice-slope’s pace. Action in good measure, humor throughout the book and a hell of a genre-shaking gut punch twist at the end that literally left me in tears. Very very few really good books can make me laugh, yell, and cry out loud anymore and Michael R. Underwood’s HEXOMANCY does all of that in a tightly tailored read that epitomizes compelling page-turner.
If there are any flaws in the book, there are only three I can think of that stand out, none egregious. I wish in certain places there were more dialogue-tag identifiers to see who is speaking. Other than that, my complaints are silly; I want the book to be longer so I can really sink my teeth into the lives of the supporting characters, and 2.) I wish wish wish this book was available in print so I could share it with my technophobic friends.
Michael R. Underwood’s HEXOMANCY is a clever spin on the world of geek-infused urban fantasy, a fun thrill ride to the end, even as it toys with my emotions. I hated characters, I loved characters, I loved characters that I hated minutes prior. This book is an excellent choice for any reader who wants a snappy story with a cheerfully smart protagonist and her party of adventurers.
I highly recommend you buy this book STAT and read it with your favorite cup of coffee, magical D20, and pizza at the ready.
Now if you’ll excuse me I’ll go pester the author for more books like this.
This poem made it to the last round of inkscrawl submissions, but I badgered the editor repeatedly into rejecting it so I could post it here for you so that you can hate it.
Every once in awhile there comes a writer whose prose is so elegant, they change the river of literature in their wake and leave an indelible fingerprint on the landscape of the reader’s imagination. Such rare treasures are often buried deep in the sea of good-to-mediocre, their diamond presentation just waiting for the right time, the right hands. Thankfully, at last I can say that Miss Claire Monserrat Jackson is such a jewel. You’ve the hands, dear reader, and the time is right now.
Some who want everything for nothing will complain that the serial is too short for its price, and although I agree with the former I vehemently argue against the latter. For the price of a cuppa, you get a tiny puzzle box world so intricate and detailed and layered with meaning that it might well take multiple readings to see all the carefully crafted gear work moments of confusing perfection. Monserrat Jackson’s prose weaves its way through mythology and history in a dance that’s familiar, yet eldritch and alien giving you a dystopian afterworld gilded with gods and myths of the past wrapped up in passages that yearn for Sam Spade’s office.
Claire Monserrat Jackson’s heart beats on the page, the blood in the words and the ink, and the work is better for it. Our protagonist is a woman of color (and song!) and from what I can guess, at least a little more than Queer in the LGBTQIA sense. Which, frankly, in a world with too many white male heroes, is a giant relief. People want diversity in speculative fiction, and Miss Monserrat Jackson serves it up on a plate of caviar prose. Make no mistake, she’s a genre breaker, delivering such a svelte story so impressively drenched with just the perfect detail to leave you in the moment of that world.
If I haven’t impressed this upon you yet let me scream it from the roof tops. Blood Ties: Part One is an amazing masterpiece of urban punk noir, and you should buy it yesterday.
Some notes: Although I was given access to an advance copy, I purchased mine, and was not paid or otherwise coerced to do this review. She's just that good.
Work in Progress from the sequel to Guns Of Penance:
(Which is free August 18th ONLY)
"Ceras frowned, and popped the passenger door of her car open for her lover. The scissor door slid up towards the sky and the front of her Spyker C9 Aileron, and Ceras frowned as she saw a helicopter swing sharply back towards them two city blocks away.
“Jenna!” Ceras called out as her hand went for the gun clipped to the magnetic holster on the dashboard.
Jenna’s face slid from anger to wide eyed confusion just as the helicopter finished the turn and started firing from guns mounted on the right side of the aircraft. The eerily familiar pop-chopping sound of the heli’s guns spilt the air apart as rounds exploded in the street sending chunks of asphalt and clouds of dirt skyward.
Jenna started to turn but then felt a chill down her back and a cold bead of sweat slip down her temple, tracing the line of her cheekbones. Something in the air shifted, the sort of thing that makes hair on the back of the neck rise, the way it feels just before a lightning storm in the summer, or an earthquake about to happen.
Before she could move there was a searing pain in her calf and right arm, as if wasps the size of baseballs punched holes through her body with 9 mm stingers. A microsecond later the pop-pop of gunshots rang out, and as she fells the pain blossomed from tiny sparks in an ocean of darkness into a raging ball of fire, like two small stars burning as bright as if the sun had taken up residence in her body. We are all made of stars, she thought in a crazy moment that made no sense.
Then her head hit the pavement."
-Blades Of Lucifer
I am sooooo tired of pretending I am ok. Listen, here it is. The spinal stenosis is bad. The infection that put me in the hospital 3 times is back. I'm bleeding pretty much every day. I have ratchety hole filled teeth. Essential meds I need are running out and I don't know how to get more since my Doctor has decided he's no longer my Doctor. So that means the anxiety is up. Which means it's harder to do basic tasks. The depression—emotional dampening field is in full effect. Basically the only emotions I have access to now are dread, anger, and sadness. The writing, the art, all of it feels beyond my grasp right now.
"Hug your son,"
"Hang in there,"
"You have my prayers,"
There, I said the words for you, so please don't say them back to me. Hugging my son does NOTHING, except maybe increase my sense of dread that I am failing him in ways I can't even perceive, and consequently, increase my shame and self-hate at being a failed mom. And don't get me started on "Hang in there." What am I hanging with exactly? My hands? My neck? Everything hurts and I feel like I'm choking to death. Got it.
Look, I'm sorry. Well wishes allow people to express the fact that they empathize with me, and were I not so exhausted and tired of literally being so sick and tired I'd offer my sincere thanks, but right now all I can really do is withdraw and try my best to be polite without downright lying to anyone.
I am now in the eating peanut butter sandwiches and ramen phase of my career as a writer. The muses are back, but only for fanfiction. Ideas are percolating but ideas don't get new doctors to help fight recurring cellulitis infections, or help me solve the gap between my rent (rising) and my income (flat zero.) Not to mention surgical funding for other treatments Medicare just hates to cover ( even though they say they will,) and $ for meds.
In other me-news (???) I found myself involved in Twitter's #TheWorstPartOfDepressionIs hashtag recently, and at first my tweets were kind of "meh," but by the final few I was bawling my eyes out.
#TheWorstPartOfDepressionIs everyone's like "Stop being lazy and faking it." As if I'd choose this hell for fun.
#TheWorstPartOfDepressionIs holding your son who is asking you why are you crying, & hating yourself because you can't stop-or feel joy.
#TheWorstPartOfDepressionIs hating yourself because you can't feel joy for your family whom you love, & seeing their disappointment
#TheWorstPartOfDepressionIs not feeling anything but sad, angry, and self hating anymore because of chemicals in the brain.
#TheWorstPartOfDepressionIs being powerless to stop it from wrecking your marriage the resentment your spouse has because she needs you.
#TheWorstPartOfDepressionIs trying meds, therapy & hospitalization & seeing it all fail when insurance runs out & you can't afford it.
#TheWorstPartOfDepressionIs suicide is illegal but no one will help you endure the day after day hell of living-yet demand you not give up
#TheWorstPartOfDepressionIs living with it for 30+ years, people can't or won't help you & you have to "chin up." w/o begging for help
#TheWorstPartOfDepressionIs putting on a brave face, saying "I'm fine" when asked, staying awake at night in terror & crying in secret
#TheWorstPartOfDepressionIs knowing that if I kill myself someone will say, "Why didn't she say something, someone should have helped."
#TheWorstPartOfDepressionIs the absolute worst is getting up and TRYING for my son in the hopes he doesn't get depressed either.
#TheWorstPartOfDepressionIs trying to explain to a 4 year old boy why mommy is sad all the time, & the shame I feel for having to.
#TheWorstPartOfDepressionIs watching people trying to console you with words or gestures & feeling empty because no one votes for change.
#TheWorstPartOfDepressionIs not having the guts to tell people their hugs and words of consolation are like the goggles, they do nothing.
#TheWorstPartOfDepressionIs eating to feel better & people say "why are you so fat, loser?" & then you feel bad so you eat even more.
"She turned from the mirror, and looked at me with crackling, dark eyes.
'There are twenty-three knives in the kitchen,' she said. "Eighteen lengths of cord or wire in the living room. Seven industrial strength cleaning agents under the sink. Nine different bottles of pills over my desk.
'And zero methods of dealing with the pain.' Memet turned to the mirror and laughed, bitterly. I said nothing, afraid.
'In this country,' she continued, 'suicide is illegal.'
'People go on and on about how they don't want you to die, about what a mistake that would be, but for the person on the brink to hear you say 'please get help,' the question is, from who? What help? Therapy, hospitalization, daily life assistance, these options are realistically only available for the wealthy.
"'Think of your son, your family, your friends. You dying will hurt them forever.'" Her tone mocked my earlier pleas. I opened my mouth to reply, but she stared at me with dead-fish eyes and spoke over my unwhispered words.
"So you're saying that I should remain, when I'm physically disabled and dysfunctionally mentally ill, and be a burden on them they are not equipped to handle? That's a twisted kind of cruelty, even for you."
This is from the sequel to Guns Of Penance, which will be on sale at $0.99 for the next ten or so hours ONLY before going back to its normal price.
"Without thinking, leaping like an animal, Stacey grabbed the rocket, listening to the beeping noise, and ran back the way she came. She leaped up onto the hood of her car and saw the last attacker frantically loading another rocket into the tube.
Stacey stood on the hood of her car, all six foot six inches of her lean muscle mass trembling with rage, rocket in one hand, rifle in the other. Her arm burned with the agony of the rocket’s weight and the wound.
She yelled, screamed, roared with a shaking fury and hurled the rocket back with all her strength at the woman just as the other woman looked up at the scream.
Stacey raised the Barrett M107 as the rocket sailed up in a tumbling arc. She aimed, and fired.
The rocket, while not set to explode until a certain range, was not itself armor proof, and each of the six inch long .50 caliber BMG shells were designed to shoot down aircraft, proving themselves more than capable of piercing the rocket’s casing.
The rocket exploded mid air and knocked Stacey off the hood of her car, but not before she saw the other woman also go down, and she was close enough to hear a single scream."
Because I'm crazy, I'm temporarily dropping the price of my first book's Kindle version to .99 cents USD. I can't discount the paperback version any further than it is, because I don't print it (CreateSpace does.) But now you can pick up the book for less than the cost of a 36oz bottle of soda-pop! So Yay!
Reviewers are calling my book
"a delicious page turner," "a cracker, a gripping read from front to back," "raw, carnal and gritty"
So yes what are you waiting for?
Go get Guns of Penance from Amazon Here!
Go get Guns of Penance from Smashwords Here!
You can still buy the paperback version, though not as heavily discounted, here
This is an excerpt from the upcoming novel ESC:AI, set in the same universe as Guns of Penance, but focusing on Asia and a bit farther on the timeline.
Rei watched the scene repeating itself over and over for awhile, then walked away stumbling at first but quickly regaining her self composure. heading in a vaguely northern direction. The city in this place felt familiar, like a blended copy of Tokyo, Osaka, even Neo-Beijing. It was as if the metropolises had been scanned and then merged together as a single entity. She spotted an exact duplicate of the Naihaiden building from the Meiji Jingu Shrine in the middle of a park across from a replica of the brick and stone pagoda of the Cishou Temple. She watched as several people approached a prayer collection table in front of the Naihaiden-copy. They paused, tossed a coin through the dark black wooden slats of the collection table, bowed, clapped their hands twice, and prayed. Just beyond the park was a building that looked like the Mori building from Roppongi hills merged with the Tsutenkaku Tower that rose from the building’s center. It was ungainly, but looked utterly natural.
It was all fake. But it felt more real than the Realm ever did. Still, Rei thought, if it was the game world, and it followed Realm rules... She swiped her hand, palm out in front of her, as if opening an invisible sliding door. The Realm’s user interface menu appeared, and she selected the Map option.
The Realm universe map appeared, floating as a large glowing web of light in front of her, her vision darkening slightly to better see the map’s features. The city she was in was called Godtown, and it existed where the human starter player city should have been. As she studied the map it shifted slightly, following her gaze and revealing more detail that scrolled into view. None of the cities that she remembered from the original Realm game were here, instead either replaced by strange city names or gone altogether. Fire City...Cannonsville Starcliff, Redwater.... all of these names were alien to her. Except one.
White City. That was place where she was last logged in to the real Realm game and the location of the campaign where she had her the Kurimoto’s seizure that put her in the hospital. She grabbed the node of light next to the name of the city. The familiar sensation of a thousand small coins sliding down her body was interrupted by a strong lurching sensation, and she stood at the teleport point of White City, or what was left of it.
The White City, a large opulent non-player metropolis (modeled after a Neo Rome set a thousand years in the future) was once a beautiful mixture of ivory marble, white Corinthian columns, brushed aluminum and perma-glass facades lit with open flame that poured like water through spiraling tubes inside the perma-glass walls. Once a bustling economic center for players who crafted in game items for other players, the White City was swarmed with non-player Machine battalions during the last game expansion. Repeated battles had turned the city into a vast apocalyptic no man’s land. Perma-glass, (despite its name) had been smashed into perhaps millions of shards, marble walls had been scorched, crushed, and bombed to pieces. Cars and other vehicles had been crushed under collapsing buildings, and the buildings themselves had either been bombed, slagged by molten cannon fire, or just smashed from robotic fighter unit combat. Not one of the cities famous columns remained standing. It was impossible to see the streets without the aide of the AugReal map lines and names.
Few of the original buildings remained standing in the city, and what rubble did remain was piled little more than 5 meters high. Rei looked at the wasteland of the Machine Faction’s aggressive campaign, and sighed. In a month or so, the city would slowly begin to rebuild itself, and the players who lived in the city would return some time after that, salvaging their wares, or making them anew from the raw piles of rubble that remained. In truth, Rei thought as she stood their, for players high enough in skill to salvage the city, the place was a gold mine of free resources that might be hard to gather otherwise.
But for now, with fires still smoldering and squads of Machine Stalker units standing guard a few hundred meters from each other the White City was clearly off limits to non-combat players.
Rei stood near the teleportation site quietly and looked at the numbers of enemy non-player units. Judging by the sheer amount of battalions the Machine faction had here they must have a full legion of at least five thousand Machine fighters in the city proper alone. If that was the case it meant the Machine faction had beaten all the player groups who tried to retake the city, which was a huge embarrassment for the player groups and human players in general.
It might be that human players were simply waiting for the inevitable reset of the game’s servers, which would remove the Machine Faction’s present military successes and allow players to rebuild their resources before the Machines returned to mount another assault.
That was one aspect of the Realm game that Rei always hated. Yes, she understood why portions of the game reset themselves to prevent various areas from becoming too hard to ever play, but it ruined the sense of realism and any real consequence from the game. Secretly she wished the Machines would be able to stay and turn the White City into a Machine operated super-fortress. It might upset new players and power-gamer groups, but it would certainly shake things up.
She swiped her hand in that “opening a sliding door” gesture. The UI menu returned with a flash, and Rei navigated her way to the Equipment and Weapons section. She didn’t really think she stood a chance at surviving combat here, but since the teleportation center was destroyed she’d need a vehicle to make any hope of an escape. Her trusty WSR Mark III Weapons Platform tank did get a decent speed considering the amount of missiles and Ion cannons it had aboard. If she could upload it here, eject all the weapons to save weight drag, and drive like hell she just might be able to get out of the city far enough to lose pursuers.
When the Weapons and Equipment menu loaded, Rei’s mouth dropped. Her WSR Mark III was gone, as were all her other siege weapons. Where they had been was now filled to the brim with non-player weapons usually only reserved for Game Monitor staff. She had complete access to weapons, equipment and armor that was strictly for use by Omegicom employees in order to deal with players who were breaking rules and harassing other players, or in rare cases, when high level non-player characters were glitching and attacking cities or other safe zones. It didn’t happen often, but there were cases of higher level players attacking lower level monsters, luring them to a low level player area, and then either logging out or leaving via personal teleports. Normally the monster would leave the area when its primary target did, but not always.
Rather than have a battle area reload command that would reset all the monsters, the developers of the game gave the Game Monitors super powered weapons that would destroy any non-player character with a single attack. The weapons and armor also had the added benefit of looking very sleek, dark and imposing, which was a useful look to have when dealing with wayward players caught harassing others.
Rei remembered stories in the early days of the Realm where Game Monitors would come under attack from Player Killers by the dozens, and simply stand there chatting and laughing at the players whose attacks did no damage. When the players’ weapons were depleted or damaged beyond repairs, the Game Monitors might use the attack called a Gentle Sneeze on the player. The attack looked exactly like a simple sneeze, but the effects were devastating, killing the player’s avatar instantly. Most of the time when this happened the Game Monitor would resurrect the player for free—it went against good customer service otherwise.
It was also rumored that in the most severe cases, or where clearly illegal activity was taking place, a Game Monitor could simply delete a player’s avatar and account forever, essentially banning them from the game, though these occurrences happened so rarely they bordered on the edge of mythical legend.
And now she had access to all that power.
She couldn’t help herself. She equipped sets of body armor, one after the other, just to see what she looked like in them. She settled on a form fitting white cuirass made of the rarest Realm metal, polyceramium. It was trimmed with white eagle feathers and ivory bone buttons with lace. It came with matching gauntlets, greaves, pauldrons and polyceramium leggings with with leather straps up her calves and inner thighs. It even came with the Wings of Godstone, large angelic hawk’s wings that warped into a feather cape when not in use. There were two weapons available, the Tremor Mallus, which was an elegant needle of a rifle, and the long slender silver colored blade, the Black Xifos.
A cursory check of her player stats while wearing the armor simple said “Dev Mode Enabled” in the hit points, energy, ammo, and mana fields. She equipped the rifle and walked towards the nearest trio of Machine Stalker tanks. They looked like absurdly tall crabs with mushrooms for bodies and cannon tube eyestalks.
The Machines swiveled to face her as she approached, and the lead Stalker took a few tentative steps forward, extending a slender wire in her direction. A detection scanner. For a few seconds she held her breath, never having been this close to a Machine squad before. The detection wire trembled a moment, and Rei waited for the shrill attack alarm that normally followed it, but the Stalker simply withdrew the wire into itself, and turned back.
Of course. If she had been given the power of a Game Monitor, then her avatar’s level and faction would make her immune from the non-players like Machine Stalkers.
She grinned. In a moment of absolute childishness Rei aimed the rifle at the Stalker and fired.
Tremendously oversized bolts of white, orange, and red lightning leaped from the rifle barrel and arced across the gap to the trio of Stalkers. All three exploded instantly in a shower of light and debris, the burnt out husks tumbling down to the rubble in the street.
From the first draft sequel to Guns of Penance.
Somewhere in the wealthier part of the South Pacific, a tall shirtless dark skinned man, his body scarred by bullets, blades, and teeth stood on the marbled rooftop deck of his penthouse. He was watching the North American newsfeed on the wall. The large screen showed images of police helicopters in front of a massive spider-like war machine, a tank the size of a high rise apartment complex, spouting lightning bolts and flame. It was like something out of that god damned War of the Worlds movie, the man thought.
The moment he saw the mammoth mobile rail gun platform on the screen in the New Cal megalopolis, he knew that its target was the Wall that he had built his fortune on. The Wall had been his crowning achievement, a towering eighty foot high steel and concrete barricade that divided the irradiated poor from the pure, healthy rich of what remained of ruins of the United States of America. It had been his wall, his plan to keep the streets of what many named Corporate America safe as the rest of the country slid into madness.
Below is the latest scene from the novel I'm currently writing, a continuation of the story previewed at the end of Guns Of Penance, which you can buy here.
As it is first draft stuff, expect grammar wangleness and plot whathattery that may be changed or removed entirely from The Crystalline Prisoner.
"Teeth ripped me from the dream. I awoke in the memory screaming as the man’s jaws bit into my shoulder. I kicked at him, and as he fell backwards he jabbed at me with the butt of his vapor cannon, the synthwood stock of his gun splintering as it smacked my head. Then there was a reactor pipe in my hands, as if it materialized from nothingness, and unblinking, I sprayed the man with it, watching the white light dissolve him before he could even scream.
"I was in a war zone. Other men and women like him were shooting at me, and the sky boiled with blood and fire, gouts of scarlet smoke splashing over the people shooting holes in each other. For a moment I just stood there, before a voice in my head urged me to advance, to keep firing the reactor pipe, to silence the rebels who threatened the safety of the planet’s terraforming project.
I choked on the smell of burning flesh, coughing as the smoke stung my eyes, but then I was overcome with a nearly instinctual urge to stand, target a man using a crude projectile rifle, and turn half of his body to ash, even as his compatriots shot me in the chest.
Bullets, bits of metal, gas propelled, sank into my skin, my flesh. They burned there a moment, and as I stood, my body flexed in some alien way, and repulsed them. Child’s play, this war. It didn’t matter. The voice in my head buzzed on, directing me to shoot the men and women as they stood futilely against me, or turned to flee, or tried to sacrifice themselves to blow me up.
The voice in my head was like the pressure of some terrible migraine, and I moved almost involuntarily. . ."
I submitted this to Tor magazine, and wisely, they declined it. But here it is, in all its messy gory glory for you to read.
Midnight is filled with freezing synthetic rain. It splatters the greasy city streets like trillions of icy needles, the kind of angry driving rain that can make you think the weather itself hates you and wants you dead. Anyone smarter than you is inside, nestled in their grid beds somewhere, dreaming of electric Santa Clauses bring joy to the white world tomorrow. Well, almost everyone is inside. Except you and the dead guy whose head you’re holding. Surprisingly heavy for such a skinny fellow.
You? You’re just a woman who thinks about herself in the second person because you hate talking to Nons and there is no one else to talk to besides you, talking to yourself. Who doesn’t hate talking to Nons, really? Perfect skin, shiny polysteel SUVs, epidermis-deep thought patterns, habitual grooves left by the hoof marks of the mindlessly blissful types who’ve “got it together.” Nons have nothing to do with you, and you return the favor. With prejudice.
Still, you really should get out of the fucking synth-rain before it dumps enough infected ice on you to kill you. Or, you know, before Amp traces your damp ass and ventilates it with a few thousand rounds of Kemi. Sharded is a bad way to go, and there are no save points in The Real, remember?
Amp? Who is Amp?
Every rejack loads up new memories, new lives still popping and flitting about from neuron to dying neuron. Amp was your dealer. Correction, Amp was this rejack victim’s dealer. Poor Amp. He’s not gonna get payment from this one any more.
Rejacking in through the wet wall is easy enough. There’s the weird shock of merging your personality with the memories and after-image, (the echo) of the other person’s mind, body and soul, but the actual technique is easy enough. One second you’re on the street in downtown Fucksville, Nowhere holding a still-warm wifi broadcasting corpse, the next you’re data stitching yourself a nice light bridge to Somewhere Else, fast as you can. Shame that you have to thump people to rejack. That’s not cool at all, but pity isn’t part of the plan. Survival is, and ever since the day you stopped having a name and a life, survival has been priority one.
Things where going pretty well until that shit went down in Busan, right? You were skimming data apace to make a few billion won, solving problems and taking names and helping orphans and shit like that until one day, things just went white out. Supernova snow storm. Disconnected from server-mind. Blammo.
That was the day you got disconnected from you. Either you died or you didn’t, but damn if it didn’t feel like it. Your body is probably a stinky corpse somewhere, because when you finally got your shit together to go looking for it, it was gone. Duh. You’ve had to rejack a lot of people just to get this far. Five corpses. Including the two bastards you just left in the Synth-rain, in the alleyway of the GS25 convenience store.
Still, it was your body. You liked it. Maybe it wasn’t grade A Hollywood sim-flesh, but it certainly wasn’t skeezer like the poor bastard you just booted back into the Net through. Fair’s fair, your organs were worth at least a few thousand. A Kemi-free body like that? Maybe even ten grand.
Your stomach’s grumbling.
Being hungry when you’re out of body is a weird song to sing, kiddo. But yeah, a steaming cuppa soba noodle strings would be good right about now. The Net sprawls before you like warm spots of air in a cold night. Each website burns with hits, vibrates electric with pokes, radiates warmth from likes and retweets. Porn sites are the warmest, but hello, it’s porn. As you drift there in the dark between the bright spots of heat, you wonder what the fuck you’re going to do now. There is no sense of seeing the Net. Not for you. It’s just warmth and cold.
Sometimes the data is freezing. Other times it feels like sun on the sand on Kailua in August. That soft as silk feeling of tiny micro pearls, warm beneath your toes, unless you dug down to where the water seeped in, and cooled the sand into clumpy handfuls perfect for ruined sandcastles.
Shake that brainpan. You haven’t been to Hawaii since you were little, so how did that memory replay in HD like that? Forget it, you have work to do. Pushing your way towards the warmth of the news sites feels like crawling back from the bathroom at three A.M. into a bed with a heavy comforter at night. You can’t see anything, but you know where you are. It’s muscle memory. Only, logically, it shouldn’t be. Pushing towards the news sections about reported murders and kidnappings, through an endless cocoon bed, none of this is logical. Yet here you are. You run your hands over the spheres of heat, and stories form from the warmth, piles of molten text become discernible words as you run your hands over them, like a strange sort of Braille paragraph.
Of the new corpses reported recovered in the last week, there’s no females. Which means you’re either bodiless because your internal organs are now on the black net being sold to the highest bidder, or your rotting corpse was taken away by crazies and never reported as missing. Or, (and this last possibility is one you cling to despite vanishingly small odds) your body is alive in some charity ward hospital, just another anonymous Jane Coma Doe.
Hospital records are hard to get to. Not because they are hidden behind layers and layers of the latest technology in security barrier firewalls. No, that would be a joke, given the state of the healthcare information industry right now. More than likely the records are still paper only, filed away in an outdated metal cabinet on a basement shelf, or if they are on a computer the records are likely stored in an ancient, overloaded database that always seems like it could collapse at any moment.
But it’s not like you have many choices. Parsing the web search of the closest likely hospitals takes seconds, even in the suffocating darkness, but figuring out how to access the databases are different. Websites give hints and clues about who is in charge, and a little cross referencing on deep web search engines like PIPL allow you to trace those names to the person behind them, including email addresses, cell numbers, even home addresses. The hard part is deciding who to rejack. You could go tunneling into the minds of every hospital director in a twenty mile radius on the list of likely places, but that’s condemning a lot of innocent-ish people to die just to try find your body, and even if that weren’t morally repulsive to you, it’d be harder and harder after the fifth person connected to the net falls over dead while searching the morgues and the coma wards. Did you just say morally repulsive? Ha! Who knew you’d be so funny as a disembodied electric consciousness?
Still, it’s not like you can just call up your ex and say, “Hi, can you please do me a favor and help me find which hospital my body is in?” Yeah, that’d go over really well. Considering how you and she left things the last time you saw each other...
Stop that. You have work to do. Yes, you miss the feel of her cool, soft, small arms wrapped around your neck. You missed it the day she left you, and you miss it now. You miss the dumb arguments about whose turn it was to clean the bathroom. Her body next to yours in bed at four A.M. even on days when you both hated each other. But she’s gone now. And you? You’re really really gone. And you need to stop thinking about her, get your brain back, and find your meatshell. Or at least find out what happened to it. So stop dodging the question.
You have to figure out who to kill.
That’s the unfortunate part of this mess. Yes, rejacking meth-heads and child molesters is frighteningly easy, but those unsavory types are unlikely to have access to the information you want. When you weigh the complex nature of who is likely to have the information you need you’re left with hospital administrators, head nurses, and doctors. If you restrain yourself by moral boundaries like “criminals deserve to die more than innocent(-ish) people” you then need to decide just who is more or less worthy to live or die. Things get tangled into an impossible knot.
Sure you can tune the scales of judgement to the picometer level and start weighing the misdeeds of white collar criminals, developing a complex pro and con point system that assigns life of death to an individual based on who was stealing office supplies or diverting funds to their own bank accounts, but at that point the question that bubbles to the surface is: Who the hell gave you the right to make that judgement call? You made your living hacking through digital iron and stealing secrets from corporate and political fortresses filled with corruption, but you were still stealing.
And in a few cases, killing. Even before needing to rejack, you went out of your way to take matters in your own hands, when the perpetually ineffective justice system of your country let known murderers go free because they couldn’t guarantee a sure fire prosecutorial victory. What were the words you used? “Do what had to be done.”
And here you are, fingers threading through the text files of warm Braille-like code, looking for the names of the most likely people who can help you get back to your body, and whom you don’t mind killing to do that. Doing what you have to do, right? Of course you are. Explain that to the horrible feeling in the back of your mind.
Suddenly a string of Braille code twitches under your fingers, and the bell rings clear. Someone does have something you might use after all. He’s not a high level hospital administrator, but as a pharmacist he has access to patients’ records. And it appears he’s under investigation for possibly selling pharmaceuticals under the table--according to the Human Resources Department file note on why he was suspended from work last week.
It takes a few more tugs of Braille text strings to find local news clippings on him, and an hour or so more of using old connections to the police department servers via an inter-agency request to pull up the relevant data. Following up on his bank records shows a man in near constant debt, despite the case files record of larger and larger amounts of drugs going missing. Gambling? Maybe. If he had gotten in deep with the local Kkangpe gangs (literally translated to “thug”) then it’d make sense that they were tapping him for drugs to supply them with. Still, being hawked by the Korean version of the Yakuza didn’t exactly mean he was exactly a killer worthy of death.
But the pharmacist has made a little name for himself as being a brutal debt collector when his addicts couldn’t pay up. According to one file in the investigation he had followed a woman home, demanded she pay, and when she refused him, he cut off a finger. This of course, was after beating the woman for awhile.
He did the same thing to a young male college student. Both the college student and the woman refused to file charges or even make a report to the police on their own. “A dog bit it off,” the woman had said.
“And the bruises?” the nurse had asked. Hard to explain that.
You lean back into the claustrophobic darkness of the net to think about this, but instead of that cold choking feeling you get when you pull away from the bright white hot data you suddenly find yourself splashing backwards into a deep pool of water. The sky overhead is that beautiful blue hydrangea color, and the clouds look like Everest sized mountains of popcorn kernels stopped mid explosion, piled high atop one another.
You’ve never been one for nostalgia, but then again you’ve never had an out of body experience before, either. That scene of you floating in the water with the thick puffy clouds far overhead is a memory that seems like a star from a distant galaxy now, visible to you only as a smudge of light in the night sky.
The next thing you know you’re pushing yourself through the darkness of the net, towards his workplace, looking for access codes to his neural connector port. Stealing his access keys is easy enough, that was kindergarten work even when you did have a flesh mainframe. Now you just have to wait until he logs on somewhere.
If he does. If.
A large bloom of heat reaches you from a distance. That’s him, his access codes lighting your hands up like someone handing you a charcoal briquette straight from the fire. You tug the searing hot piles of Braille and within seconds you swim through his access defense barriers, and suddenly you can see what he sees. He’s logged into some low rent virtual reality sim chat room, his clunky generic avatar sporting the minimum number of details to be allowed to res into existence in this dingy universe. It’s a simulation of a cafe in Paris, or at least as many stereotypes of a Paris Cafe as the virtual world’s programmers could fit in. A woman sits across from him in a black bikini top and a miniskirt. Her hair coils about her head like Medusa dreads held at bay with chopsticks.
“Here, take my card. It has my new number.” the woman is saying. The man takes the card in his hands. Cotton card stock, fancy.
Cigarette smoke fills his nostrils, and yours too. He’s chain smoking, just putting the pack of Airirang cigarettes in his/your breast pocket with shaking fingers when you rejack him. The murder is instant, as gentle as someone sitting down in a recliner. You “sit down” in his mind, and he’s gone before he even knows what happens.
You take the cigarette out of your mouth and crush it on the table. “Time’s up,” you say to the woman. She blinks but can’t say anything before you log out. You wake up in an internet cafe, Gangnam Style techno remix pulsing in the background. Incense burns the back of your senses. A few linkheads, those mindless net addicts are sprawled on a couch across from you, playing Starcraft II. They look like corpses in front of a bank of LCD screens, a shrine of pixels, a heaven of Zerg alien swarms piling on top of Terran Marines, blood and guts everywhere. You just murdered a man and life goes on, such as it is.
You’re moving him out the door, checking his wallet for clues. Several thousand won banknotes, not a bad bit of liquidity for a man in debt. A list of telephone numbers, the hospital ID and pass card to his pharmacy offices. Three photographs. Him and a woman, then a picture of a boy, and another of a little girl. Also, a used ticket book for a Tokyo “soap land” sex shop. Pictures of a family next to the coupon book for his favorite brothel, huh? There’s a Hanaro transit card, and a basic check at a terminal at the entrance to the cafe shows enough in the account to get you to where you need to go on the subways. You file everything back into his wallet as you leave the cafe, glancing in a mirror overcrowded by karaoke fliers to see a middle aged man, too thin, bags under the eyes, balding. Everything about this guy says he’s soft core when it comes to violently beating people.
Something about the pharmacist doesn’t feel right. For a tough guy, there’s too much nervousness in his blood stream There’s too much conveniently damning evidence against him. You need to ponder this more, you tell yourself. He hasn’t been formally charged yet, but there’s maybe hours ticking away until he is. So, you have a little time. Very little time.
The sunlight burns his/your retinas, and for a moment you inhale the Busan air with a desperation born of hunger to be back in the living world. Smog never tasted so good. A group of kids see you as you walk towards the subway line, teenage boys who look like they practice the art of being tough guys after class but haven’t mastered it yet. They slap each other on the arms and chest and quickly take off running away from you. You’re not quite sure you hear it right when one of them shouts out.
“Holy shit, it’s Amp! Go!”
Now isn’t that weird? Suddenly you go from being the dealer’s client to being the dealer himself, and from what you can tell he’s not the type of guy to inspire fear of the devil in a bunch of after school bullies. The pharmacy ID has a home address for you, and there are keys in the thin wrinkled nylon jacket pocket. You stop by a convenience store for some ramen cups and a beer, and an hour later you are sitting in his apartment.
Shelves full of white plastic pharmacy boxes are everywhere, each box filled with pills. A rainbow of all the prescription drugs anyone could want, you think to yourself. Junk food wrappers on the floor, and the whole place smells like a cigarette factory exploded and burned down inside. You pop the lid on the cup of noodles and put it in the microwave, drinking the beer standing in the tiny kitchen as you wait.
The computer he uses to access the Net is an older cheap model flatscreen iMac, minimal security or capacity. You almost expect it to have a 56k modem. It does have a neural net connector port cable, at least. You log back into the net, and browse the data on the whining hard drive, the cooling fan sounding like a turbo prop barnstormer plane from eighty years ago.
First things first you tell yourself, and that means checking to see if he still has home access to the hospitals he worked with. If that’s shut off, all this is for nothing. The login request seems to take forever, and you keep waiting for the jolt of dread that an “Account Locked” message would bring, but at last you have access to all the scheduling systems for the hospital patients and their drug deliveries.
You perform a blood type check first, filtering out anyone who isn’t Japanese, female, early thirties, and a certain weight and height. Three possible results. Narrowing the search down to Busan, and you have found yourself, or at least your body. Comatose Jane Doe, in the Dong A University Hospital’s neural trauma ward. Jackpot. You check the man’s bedroom, and under the pillow is a Daewoo DP-51 9 mm handgun, with a full magazine. A stack of two hundred 10,000 won banknotes neatly taped in a bank envelope is beneath the gun. His cellphone in hand, you’re out the door, back into the fading sunlight. The gun feels heavy in a coat pocket, but no one seems to notice it. Then you’re on the subway, just a tired man in his fifties with a gun in his pocket. You take out the cellphone, and start reading his email while the train glides to its subterranean destination across the city.
Lawsuits dominate the majority of his emails to and from a lawyer, and you browse those quickly, happy to read the words on the screen even if that’s slower than feeling through lines of cyber-Braille typography.
Court records show that the man is divorced from a wife of ten years, and that he had two children. One child was killed in car accident several years ago, a hit and run that despite the large number of CCTV cameras around the scene, was never recorded or solved as a criminal case.
“Shit” you mutter under your breath.
The surviving child lives with her mother in Japan. The mother works full time as a corporate branch manager for a Tokyo office of a Korean investment bank. The girl is in a hospital, in the same coma she’s been in since the car accident that killed her brother. A series of treatments were recently authorized to try to bring her back. Expensive treatments.
He was going to make the final payment today, according to the last email in the Sent Messages folder. Was that the woman he was meeting with in the Paris Cafe simulation? You call up the card the woman had given to him in the sim cafe through his email client. Turns out her name matches the name of the owner of the soapland brothel listed on the ticket book in his wallet. A quick web search also shows her as being a partner in that same Korean investment bank where the mother worked. Great. Fucking shit.
You flip the cell phone over and remove the battery, and then the sliver of the micro SIM card underneath. The next stop, that one goes into the trash and you replace it at a street corner vendor’s Kyocera SIM card before hoping back onto the train to the hospital. It takes five minutes to reset the SIM cards access signal and generate a new one from your cell network. It would be a faster hack online or with even a netbook, but you have to admit cracking it with a hiptop smartphone is pretty damned cool for a dead woman in a dealer’s aging body.
Don’t say dead, you tell yourself. Not yet.
The phone pings with the accepted signal response code, and within a few minutes you’re browsing your home network in Japan. Looks like someone else has been browsing it too. Maybe the person or group involved with your disconnection. You can deal with that later, you tell yourself. You transfer the brothel owner’s phone number to your home system and make the call.
“Who is this?” says a voice.
“It’s me.” you say, hoping that the person recognizes the voice and doesn’t decide to do a security check.
“Oh. Hi.You know, I went through a lot of trouble to set that meeting up today-” the voice says. You interrupt her.
“Right, I know, I’m sorry, something bad came up and I had to leave before it could get back to you. My apologies.”
“Fucking Christ, Hong, this line is secure right? You know I can’t talk to you exposed like this.” she says.
“Check the line. I promise you it’s secure. I’ll hang up and call you back from the same number if-”
She interrupts you. “No, no. You wouldn’t lie about this. So why did you call me now? Why aren’t we setting up another meeting?”
You sigh and lean back in the seat of the subway train, the hard plastic edge biting into your shoulder. “I wish I could. But things went south during our meeting. As it turns out, I’ll have to make the final payment and say goodbye after that.”
“Goodbye?! Why? Dammit Hong what happened to you?” Her voice is frantic now. She sounds scared.
“I just, have some things I need to take care of to do this for her. To make sure that it gets done, and doesn’t get back to her. Or you.” You say, playing the card.
Her voice quavers. “Jesus Hong, what the hell did you do?”
“What I had to.” Somehow saying that fits nicely with you, and you’d like to think, with the man desperate to help his daughter. The line is quiet for a few seconds.
“I understand.” She says this, and the image of her lips against your/his neck flares out from the middle of nowhere from the dead man’s memory. That was the night she complained about you/him having the hip bones of a girl.
“Can I email you the account number where the rest is coming from?” you say, unnerved by the unbidden memories.
“The rest?” she says, “Yeah, sure. Please, be safe.” She sounds pretty brave, almost nonchalant.
“Goodbye, Lili.” And with that you hang up. You need a drink. Not him, not Amp, or Hong, or whoever he is. You do. Afterwards, if there’s time. You send the the account number to her email over the phone’s secure connection to your office in Tokyo, then wait. The amount requested for the final payment is ridiculously small, and you authorize your bank to transfer that amount, and then to send two billion won a month later. Some for the girl, some for Lili. You yank the sim card from the phone and trash it at the nearest stop for the hospital, catching a cab the rest of the way.
The hospital of the university is a huge twenty-eight billion won gesture of modern luxury, and it strikes you as more of a posh shopping center inside a sleek airport as you walk through the lobby. There’s actually an older woman playing a grand piano in the corner next to the espresso bar. Thankfully the hospital’s stairwells are less pretentious, and once past the first floor the showy nature of the place gives way to the familiar chemical smell of an efficient place to be sick, heal, or die. You take out your hospital ID card and wear it by the lanyard around your neck, but the people who pass you on the stairwell don’t even bother to look at you. Sweat beads at the back of your neck under the hairline, but you smile and nod to everyone who glances your way.
A security guard at the nurses station of the neural trauma unit takes the card, swipes it through the reader and hands you a visitor sticker before turning back to his game of Angry Birds on his phone. You say goodbye to him anyway, and he waves at you like you weren’t really there anymore. Around the corner your check the patient status whiteboard, quickly scanning the names. There, in room 921, is Jane Doe. NAME UNKNOWN. Dr Park Dae Hyun.
“Hong?” a woman asks you from behind. You turn and smile. You don’t recognize her, but she knows you, and her face tells you that she isn’t expecting to see you here. “What are you doing here?” She looks nervous, and suddenly the weight of the gun in your jacket pocket feels immense. Smile, dammit.
“Oh hey, long time no see. I came here to see if I could talk to Doctor Park about my case.” you say, rubbing the back of your head, smiling as though you’d been caught.
“You mean the investigatio-” she asks, but you shake your head, interrupting her.
“That’s pretty much out of my hands. No, I wanted to talk to him about my daughter’s situation before, well you know.” She frowns at this, but nods. “I’ll go tell him your here. Wait right here, ok?”
You nod, “Sure, sure,” then wait for her to turn the corner before you start walking down the hallway. Room 914, 916, 917, 919, there! Just at the corner.
“Hong?” the girl calls out. You take the gun out of your hand as you open the door to 921, just as she screams.
“Stop him! Call the police!” That voice must be Doctor Park.
The electronic lock on the door will hold for a few minutes, but you shoot it anyway. You push a chair in front of the door, then another, just before turning to the patient in the bed.
“Well,” you say, looking at the huddled shape connected to the pulse/ox monitor, the ventilator mask and the various wires around the head, “I certainly do look like shit.” You move quickly over to the woman/yourself and turn her/your head to the side, looking for the neural port. Sure enough, it’s there, and the Sensemit brand med machine neural cable snakes out from her/your neck.
“Christ I look fat,” you say, laughing nervously as you connect a secondary port cable to your/Hong’s neck. By the sounds of it there are people banging at the door, and suddenly there’s a loud alarm going off. You plug in to the system, and throw the gun on the floor.
You rejack into yourself, just as the sound of an explosion slips past your/his mind. Then you fall away into darkness.
The sky is so blue.
Geez, what’s with these month plus gaps in between blog posts, Mari?
I’ve been recovering from my hospital stay, dealing with food poisoning and stomach flu nearly back to back to back, and dealing with mental illness processing as well. As one does. The good news is reading books is an amazing antidote to some of the above listed problems and I’ve been snapping up books by Ann Aguirre, (Sirantha Jax) Rachel Bach (Paradox Series,) Jim C. Hines Magic Ex Libris series, SL Huang’s Russell’s Attic series, the rest of the Legacy of Paksenarrion series by the beloved Elizabeth Moon, as well as rereading the first three Earth’s Children Books by Jean M. Auel.
Aside from that, I’ve been playing Final Fantasy XIV a fair bit, and well, writing my own stuff. My High Fantasy With Sci-Fi elements novel The Crystalline Prisoner sits at about twenty-two thousand words, and I have a semi secret pure smut/ erotica collection of short stories I’m working on at about nine thousand words.
Other books I have finished first drafts for are the Tokyo Area Novel (Title TBD), and the first two books in my space opera trilogy. I also have vague ideas about a sequel to my erotic-tinged book Guns of Penance, but I need to sit down and think about that a minute with you, dear reader:
Guns of Penance sold about ~45-50 copies, which means I spent more on creating and self-publishing it than I earned. It received 4-5 4 star average reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Marketing, as I’ve said before, is the hard part of writing, comparatively. Even big publisher house authors need to be fairly marketing smart to peddle them books.
So I have a question for you dear reader:
I’m pondering publishing my next book for free (ebook only,) and just leaving a donation tip jar on the download page where hey, if you liked it, you can toss a buck, euro, or yen my way. Is this a good idea, or should I stick to peddling it via amazon for $4 (13$ USD for paperback, they make $10 on the book) or what?
Please please please let me know in the comment section.
Over the month of February I spent almost two weeks in the hospital/ER for cellulitis of the lower right leg, and later for a superficial blood clot from on of my veins that just couldn't handle the constant IV antibiotics. But now I'm out, so huge thanks to the team at Swedish Medical Hospital in Denver Colorado and to Obamacare. ( Thanks Obama!)
I got to exercise on my new stationary recumbent bike for a mere five minutes and I feel good. And I feel relieved, because I'm still fighting depression based writers block (I haven't written in months) but I've taken a few steps to get back out in the sunlight and start living again.
I’m super upset that I can’t get past the writer’s block, though. Helping me over the hurdle is my love of books. I keep forgetting that the easiest way to chuck my depression to the bin is to read lots of new fiction. So I’ve been reading Jim C Hines Magic Ex Libris series, and SL Huang’s books Zero Sum Game and Half Life, starring Cas Russell. The Russell’s Attic series is sooo much in the same spirit of the characters I wanted for Guns of Penance I almost sat down and said, “Well I’m done now, Huang has this under control.” I found her via Jim C Hines blog. Read the blog, then definitely pick up both of her books at Amazon or your favorite indie shop.
In the meantime I shall be here, staring at the screen of The Crystalline Prisoner and the sequel to Guns of Penance, (which by the way has recently dropped in price!) wondering when the muses will reopen shop. Hopefully I can get back on track this week. Till then, stay healthy, happy and thanks for reading.