#FirstChapterFriday | Degree of Resistance (plus a sneak peek at the sequel)
Hello, bubulas! I’m celebrating my first #FirstChapterFriday by sharing the first chapter in my new sci-fi romance novel Degree of Resistance (Pacifica Rising 1). Leave a comment below to win a free copy of Degree AND a sneak peek at Chapter 1 of the next book in the Pacifica Rising saga, Uncertainty Principle.
Peter Ballardie liked to work on paper. He knew it was terribly old-fashioned, not to mention wasteful of increasingly rare natural resources. But tablets, even the more advanced ones that were hair-thin and could be folded with a single swiped command, didn’t provide the same tactile satisfaction as writing or sketching on a sheet of paper. And he did recycle whatever didn’t wind up in his notes, so that was all right.
Besides, he was sixty-three. He was allowed a few quirks, considering everything else he’d achieved in his life.
He rested a hand now on the pages scattered across his work table as he gazed up at his security chief. “And you’re sure Ms. Drake recognized him?”
“Positive, sir.” Ade Montgomery pulled out his own tablet, a heavy-duty model, and tapped the screen. A holoprojector on the wall came to life, displaying a small enclosure illuminated in night vision green. Four people stood in the enclosure, all of them dressed incongruously in nineteenth century clothing. He tapped again, and the figures began to move.
Ballardie watched the scene, wishing the resolution was good enough to view pupillary reaction. When it finished, he had Montgomery play it again at half speed. “Did you notice the microsecond of hesitation?” he said, fascinated. “You would think the programming would be hardened after this long. I wonder if there’s some sort of collective hardware attrition that increases the possibility of failure—”
The security chief gave him a pained look. “Sir.”
It wasn’t the first time Montgomery had been required to shoot down his flights of fancy. “Forgive me, Ade. Scientists can’t resist playing with new data.” Ballardie returned his attention to the holo, propping his chin on a hand as he studied the image of a man who was supposedly dead. “This is going to interfere with our plans.”
“That may be the understatement of the century, sir.”
“Mm. What’s the likelihood that Ms. Drake will contact Ms. Contreras with this information?”
“Almost guaranteed. The question is, what will Ms. Contreras do with it?”
He thought of the resourceful young woman he’d admired for so long. “Oh, I think she’ll go after him, don’t you? We’ll need to bump up our schedule and approach her now. We can wrap Captain Drake’s retrieval in with Lilith’s, make it a quid pro quo offer.”
The security chief didn’t sigh, but his body language implied it. “I still think we should send one of our people after Lilith.”
Ballardie reached for a pencil, twiddling it idly. Montgomery had been his chief of security for over sixteen years. He’d come to appreciate the man’s professional paranoia, but it could be a bit much at times. “If all goes well, Ms. Contreras will be one of our people soon,” he pointed out.
“You hope, sir, I prefer to work in sureties.”
Now that was pure Montgomery. “Have some faith in me, please. There’s method to my madness,” Ballardie said wryly. “And have Lilith keep a closer eye on Ms. Contreras and Ms. Drake. If there’s any unusual attention from Pacifica towards either of them, alert me immediately. We may have to move at a moment’s notice.”
“Yes, sir.” Montgomery turned to go, then paused. “If I may ask, how badly does it impact Rubicon if Ms. Contreras doesn’t join us?”
It was rare that the humorless man handed him such a perfect straight line. “We’ll cross that river when we come to it. Carry on.”
Evie Contreras sat on a chair in the exam room, waiting for the medical tests going on behind the white silky curtain to be over. The doctor’s office catered exclusively to Shareholders, so the room was luxurious in the extreme. Both walls and ceiling were real-def screens that could be programmed to show anything from elegant wallpaper to panoramic live-action nature scenes, all at the touch of a control. The non-skid tile flooring was designed to resemble wood parquet, and the few pieces of furniture—two chairs, a secretary that served as a repository for medical implements, and a small chaise lounge/exam table that could be raised and lowered via foot pedal, were both beautiful and practical for the small space. The sounds of a string quartet played over unseen speakers.
The only less than luxurious thing in the room was Evie. She had taken pains to look like a generic personal assistant today; good quality jacket, blouse, and slacks in light tones that flattered her tan skin, minimal makeup, dark hair pulled back and neatly clubbed at the nape of her neck, shoes with enough of a heel to give her some height. Attractive, but lacking the outstanding beauty that came with access to superior plastic surgeons, dentists, and stylists. In other words, eminently forgettable to anyone in the Shareholder class.
Which was fine with her. Being able to fade into the background was useful camouflage. For example, it would allow her to hack the doctor’s office records and collect the latest medical data about her employer.
The hacking itself would be ridiculously easy. She already knew from previous trips that each exam room had a tablet with minimal encryption. All she had to do was wait until the doctor was in mid-exam, then slip out of the room.
As she’d hoped, the exam room next door was empty. She closed the door and pulled out a specialized pin drive, the most expensive thing she owned, from its slender fitting on her necklace. The drive plugged into the exam room tablet, and a holographic keyboard appeared on the desk. She skimmed through her various breaker apps, selecting one that would easily crack the security protocols around the office’s records database.
Within seconds she had root level access and was downloading the data being collected next door. If she wanted, she could have stolen the records of every patient ever seen by the office, but she had no interest in which Shareholder was on ED drugs or had been scheduled for yet another round of plastic surgery.
Besides, she’d already grabbed those records three years ago when she first started working for Madam Lin Song as a personal assistant/apprentice. There were two ways to receive high-level technical training in the Pacifica Protectorate. One way was for a student to enroll at a recognized educational institution and complete sufficient coursework to earn a degree. This also cost a great deal of money, something Evie didn’t have.
The other way, less official but also far less expensive, was based on an apprenticeship system. Minutes after meeting Madam Song for the first time, Evie had accompanied the Shareholder to a doctor’s appointment as part of a complicated audition where Song would evaluate her skills in the field of cybersecurity by having her hack the office’s medical records.
After delivering the records to Song, Evie had sat there while Song critiqued her choice of breaker apps, commenting that it was abysmally slow and that she expected Evie to boost its penetration strength. Evie had accepted the critique thoughtfully. The next day she left Song’s tax records on the Shareholder’s tablet. Her apprenticeship contract was finalized that afternoon.
A blinking light indicated that the download had finished. Evie disconnected the drive and slid it back into its fitting before returning to the occupied exam room. The privacy curtain was still drawn and she could hear Song’s sharp voice murmuring behind it. Just enough time to check messages.
She slid her own tablet out of her purse and opened Weave, clicking on the message facility. The top one was from a user she recognized from her favorite maker node:
Hey @EV, I’m doing a refurb on a Jimmie 6 and I’m having a hard time finding pneumatic shoulder muscle units that haven’t fallen apart. This is a refurb, not a refit and I don’t want to go with synthetic muscle if I don’t have to. I’m in SoPac and can travel—help?!?
She typed in the dates and times of various roboscrap meets in the southern part of the protectorate, suggesting a few reliable vendors who could scan and print new components (more costly than refurbishing an existing unit, but sometimes it was the only way to get what you needed), and others who sold faulty units and should be avoided at all costs. She sent it off with a wish for happy making.
The next message read:
@EV, thanks so much for checking my design. You’re right, I needed an extra wait state before reading the word into the comparator. Once I did that it worked straight away! You’re smooth!
That one she saved to her ego-boo file, the one she read when she couldn’t get a new design working or Song was being particularly bitchy that day. To people in the makerverse, that teeming world of DIY tech geniuses, she was @EV, the go-to answer person for everything from glitchy robotics to how to make a programmable chip do what it was supposed to do. Her avatar was the main character from an ancient web comic about mechanical geniuses running amok in Europe; it amused her that other makers imagined her as a buxom green-eyed blonde with glasses.
But that was on social media, or sOSH. In regular life she was Evie Contreras, Employee. Firmly at the bottom of the protectorate’s social hierarchy, along with the rest of the busy worker bees that kept the place running. Above the humming mass of Employees was Management, then Engineering, a fact that annoyed Managers to no end. At the top were the Shareholders, the hyper-rich elite who had taken the abandoned rubble of three former states on the West Coast and formed the Pacifica Protectorate, one of the most technologically advanced nation-states on the face of the planet. Pacifica prided itself on its creation of a “perfect society,” a technocratic utopia where everyone had a purpose and even the lowest Employee had somewhere safe to live, clean water to drink, and healthy food to eat.
Which was true enough, she thought. It was keeping your Employee status that was the challenge.
The privacy curtain shivered as someone brushed against it. Evie shut down her tablet, sliding it back into her purse and assuming her PA camouflage again. The rest of her messages from the makerverse would have to wait.
The curtain drew back and the doctor, a short, gray-haired woman wearing purple-tinted SmartSpex, fussed around the table and its occupant. “I appreciate your concerns, madam,” she said, “but it really would be better for you if you didn’t wear your exosuit quite so much.”
“So you’ve said on numerous occasions, Dr. Leaf.” The slender Korean woman stretched out on the exam table was preternaturally still, draped with the same sheet that Evie had laid over her at the beginning of the exam. “And yet I haven’t shown any signs of mental instability yet.”
“Which is a relief,” Dr. Leaf agreed, “but right now I’m more concerned with the physical aspects of the exosuit. Your pressure points still show significant signs of inflammation, and if you continue to wear your suit as much as you have I’m afraid the skin will start breaking down—”
“At which point you can apply pads and plasts. In the meantime, I intend to continue wearing my suit as long as I choose. Now, if you’re quite finished, I would like to get dressed.” Lin Song kept her focus on the ceiling, as if acknowledging the doctor’s presence was too tedious for words.
Dr. Leaf glanced over her shoulder at Evie, thin mouth pursing in disapproval. Evie gave her a polite smile that said nothing.
“Yes, madam,” the doctor muttered. “But let me know if there’s any further tenderness or degradation of the pressure points.”
Song didn’t reply, her dismissal hanging in the air like bitter smoke. Dr. Leaf nodded jerkily and left.
Evie took that as her cue to rise, gathering up the collection of nanofabric and slender carbon rods that had been deposited on the chair next to hers. She knew from experience not to say anything as she helped the Shareholder don her exosuit, sliding limp arms and legs through corresponding sleeves and leggings, guiding nerveless fingers into the intricate gloves. The process was routine by now; within ten minutes she was snugging the high collar around the other woman’s neck, pressing the activation studs into corresponding depressions at the base of Song’s skull.
Song shivered as her motor neurons made contact with the suit and took control. Her hands spread out for a moment before clenching into fists. From this point until Evie took the suit off again, Song’s movements would be preternaturally smooth, controlled by microprocessors linking her brain to the suit’s servomotors. It was the only way Song could move independently, thanks to the complete C3 spinal injury she had suffered years ago. “Did you get the data?”
“Yes, madam. I’ll add it to your records when we get back to the compound.”
“Good. I hate these visits.” Song levered herself into a sitting position. “For what I pay, she should be making house calls.”
“We’ve made repeated requests.” Evie turned away to get her employer’s clothing. Today Song had chosen a modern take on the classic Korean hanbok, a slimmed down silhouette in refined shades of emerald green and cream. “She claims she needs the equipment here to do a proper scan.”
Song snorted as she slid on a silk chemise. “My family developed that equipment. I can have everything she needs installed in my rooms within two hours.”
Evie shook out the green chima skirt and held it open while Song stepped into it. “I suspect Dr. Leaf enjoys having you be seen coming to her office for your exams.” She fastened the skirt’s waistband ties before reaching for the cream jeogori jacket with its deep purple coat strings and white collar. “Physicians can be territorial when it comes to their star patients. Plus, coming to the office demonstrates your independence.”
That earned her a softer snort. “I suppose you’re right. Still, it’s tiresome.” Song donned the cream jacket, finishing it with a pair of elegantly embroidered gold cuffs. The last touch was a pair of white kid gloves that hid the fine carbon struts and joints of the exosuit gloves. “For the next exam, I want her to come to the house. No excuses.”
“Yes, madam.” Evie waited until her employer slid nanofabric-encased feet into custom shoes, then grabbed her purse and followed her out of the exam room, trying to think of ways she could persuade Dr. Leaf to come to the compound. A vid shoot for the local gossip node was a possibility; the little doctor seemed to be hungry for attention. A protectorate-wide piece on her treating Song might persuade her to make a house call.
After a brief stop at the front desk to collect Song’s bodyguard, a tall slab of a man named Pang, they headed out to the waiting limo. Pang held up a hand for them to remain in the building’s entrance, pulling out a sensor wand and walking around the vehicle as he performed his usual security check. Evie took up point position in front of Song, eyeing the street for potential trouble. In the past, desperate people who had been fired or faced banishment from the protectorate had been known to attack Shareholders. The protectorate had responded by legalizing on-the-spot execution by Law Enforcement Officers, or LEOs. The frequency of attacks had dropped sharply after that, but they still happened once in a while if the attacker was desperate or suicidal enough.
Once Pang was satisfied with his check he escorted Song to the limo’s rear door and helped her into the seat. Evie followed, leaning in. “Back or front, madam?”
Long fingers flickered dismissal. “Front.”
Evie straightened and the door closed. Pang had already climbed into the front seat. She slid in after him, grateful that Song hadn’t insisted on her riding in back. Quite apart from the fact that the Shareholder was never in the best of moods right after a doctor’s visit, Evie still needed to finish up some scheduling work for the coming week.
The limo rolled off with a soft purr, merging into the automated traffic. Dr. Leaf’s office was in one of the professional areas of Redding, rows of elegant stone and steel frontages that hid expensive medical, dental, and plastic surgery boutiques. In previous years Evie wouldn’t have dreamed of being allowed inside such an office. Employees used local block clinics and public hospitals, not rarified medical chateaus with real-def walls and antique furniture. But taking a position as Song’s personal assistant/apprentice had broadened her horizons in a number of ways.
She glanced down at the FitBand around her left wrist. 4:37 PM glowed at her. More than enough time to get back to Song’s compound, finish syncing the new schedule with the house majordomo, get Song sorted for the evening, then head across town for Allyson’s birthday party. Her adopted daughter’s present was already wrapped and in her bag.
She turned. “Yes, madam?”
Song was giving her a thoughtful look. “The servomotors in the lower left leg feel a bit slow. See to it once I’m in bed.”
Evie’s heart sank. Dealing with the exosuit’s nanoservos was painstaking work. “I was leaving for a few hours this evening, madam,” she said cautiously. “My daughter’s birthday party is today. It’s in your schedule—you cleared it last week.”
“Ah.” There was a long, drawn out pause as Song took out her slimline tablet and perused it. “So I did. Well, then, you can work on my suit when you get back.”
Puta. Evie donned a pleasant expression while she worked out the time issues in her head. An hour to Mama and Papa’s, two hours there, an hour back, and then at least two hours fixing the suit. She wouldn’t get to sleep until well after midnight. But she was damned if she was missing Ally’s eighteenth birthday party. “Of course, madam.”
Song’s attention returned to her tablet. “That’s all.”
The pearlescent partition glided up, sealing the Shareholder in the back of the limo. Still maintaining her calm smile in case the old bitch was watching, Evie went back to work on the schedule.
It was early evening when Evie stepped around a chattering family of five to get out of the maglev light rail car that served as part of Redding’s public transport system. The MLR station was just as clean as the one in Song’s neighborhood, but the much higher percentage of holographic ads, the numerous kiosks selling water, food to go, and cheap electronic goods, and the sheer crush of people getting in and out of cars identified the surrounding neighborhood of Pinewood as an Employee enclave.
City planners had always intended for Pinewood to be an Employee community, placing it on the northern edge of the city and near the Musk maglev line so that those who didn’t live at their employers’ residences could get to work quickly. As a result, the curved edge of the complex dome that covered the city was lower here, and an acoustic fluke reflected noise from the rest of Redding down onto the homes below. Even at night, a constant low susurrus permeated the area like a party that could never be located, only heard.
Apart from that quirk, Pinewood was a pleasant enough place to live, clean and decorated in Redding’s signature forest colors. Taking in a breath of the warm air spiced from the food kiosks and the bustling bodies around her, Evie left the station, hurrying past two blocks of lookalike townhouses before turning in towards a specific door.
It opened before she had a chance to touch the palm lock. A beaming woman stepped out, opening her arms.
“You’re late, mija.”
Evie hugged her mother. “Sorry, Mama. I had to get Madam Song settled.” She savored the warmth of Isabella Contreras’s arms and the familiar smell of masa, tomatoes, and sausage that came through the doorway behind her. “I left a message.”
“Yes, Tia Juanita gave it to me.” Her mother’s silver-shot hair was up in an immaculate chignon as always, and her warm mahogany eyes missed nothing as she studied Evie. Decades ago Isabella had been an engineering student at CalTech, and her habit of analyzing everything had never left her. “That woman doesn’t know how lucky she is, having someone like you work for her.”
It was a familiar refrain, and Evie answered in kind. “It’s a job, and a good one. I can’t complain.”
“I know—you never complain.” Isabella patted her shoulder. “Well, if it helps, your papa made tamales.”
Evie grinned. That explained the smell of masa. “You were supposed to make Ally’s favorites. She’s the birthday girl.”
“It was her idea. Besides, she loves tamales, too.” Isabella nudged the front door open and more of that delicious scent wafted out. “Come on, everybody’s waiting.”
Evie followed her mother inside. Everybody was Papa, Ally, and Tia Juanita, the android housekeeper who took care of the cleaning and shopping so that Mama could work as a stylist for Managers and Papa could sell high-quality Mexican cuisine from his food truck. Years ago, it would have included Uncle Christo and her brother Martin as well. But Christo, Papa’s younger brother and a captain with the Pacifica Protectorate Defense Forces, had died during a skirmish with raiders. And Martin—
Evie pushed the thought away. A mechanic with artistic inclinations, Martin had been a free spirit who chose exile rather than live according to what he thought was the stifling Pacifica hierarchy. He had left for the wastelands east of the protectorate long ago. All she could do was say a prayer for him every night, and hope he was still alive.
The thought that came after that one was harder to dismiss. The third absence in the house, the one that still caused her heart to ache even after twelve years, was Christo’s best friend, Ally’s father, and Evie’s first employer, the man she used to call El Capitan Gringo because of his dark blond hair and twinkling blue eyes. In return he would tease her about being named after an orbital maneuver. She never admitted it but she loved the fact that he knew what an EVA was. He was also the one who first started calling her Evie, and the nickname had stuck.
Captain Benjamin Drake, Pacifica Protectorate Defense Forces, Third Division. The man who had bought her books about space flight as a kid, and made her heart beat faster as an adult. The man who had asked her to marry him once she finished college and became an accredited engineer. The man whose unexpected death had changed everything.
She sent a silent thought upwards: I hope you can see Ally, honey. You’d be so proud of our girl.
She didn’t add that she loved him. Wherever he was, he already knew that.
“Mija!” Her entrance into the cramped but immaculate kitchen meant another hug, this time from Luis Contreras. The barrel-chested man gave her a kiss on the temple for good measure. “I was starting to think you weren’t coming.”
“There’s no way I was missing tonight, Papa.” Her stomach rumbled, reminding her that lunch had been a long time ago. In automatic response he grabbed a still-warm tortilla and used it to scoop up some kind of shredded meat from the bowls of food he was preparing, adding chopped vegetables and crumbly white cheese before folding the tortilla over and handing it to her.
She took a bite. Something deliciously crunchy, sour, and spicy exploded over her taste buds. “Mm. Is this a new recipe?”
Papa grinned with pride. “Yes, from Oaxaca.”
Oaxaca. She paused in mid-chew. “It isn’t chapuline, is it?”
One thick eyebrow went up. “Is it good?”
She considered what she’d been chewing. It did taste really good. “Yes.”
“Then it doesn’t matter, does it?”
She swallowed. Only her father could feed her grilled spiced grasshoppers and get away with it. “Where’s Ally?”
As if on cue, a blonde torpedo darted into the room. “Mom! You made it!” She threw herself at Evie and Luis, turning the hug into a group activity. Taking after her father, Allyson Drake-Contreras was two inches taller than Evie and dressed in the formal uniform of her au pair job. But wisps of light yellow hair were already drifting loose from her bun, and the high color in her cheeks made her look like the teenager she still was. “I was afraid the Wicked Witch of Redding was going to make you slave over hot code until midnight.”
Evie decided not to mention her post-visit duties. “No way I was going to miss this, sweetie.” She kissed her daughter’s cheek, giving her another hug. “Happy eighteenth birthday.”
“Thank you.” Ally pulled back a bit, angling her face so that Luis couldn’t see it, and mouthed check his foot.
Some of Evie’s happiness drained away. Maintaining a smile, she stepped away from their arms. “Since I’m here, Papa, how about you let me do a checkup on your foot?”
Luis shot Ally an et tu, Brute look, but the blonde girl gave him an angelic smile. “I’m fine, Eva. You sit down and let me finish dinner.”
“I can do that,” Ally said, nudging him towards Evie. “Let her check you out, Papa. It’ll only take a few minutes.”
Grumbling, Luis allowed himself to be herded off to the tiny room adjoining the kitchen that served as his office. He dropped into the desk chair, glowering at Evie as she pulled up a sturdy box and sat on it. “You don’t have to do this right now. I told you, I’m fine.”
She’d noticed the slight limp as he walked. “I’m sure, but I’ll feel better if you let me run a diagnostic.” She patted her thigh. “Please?”
Making an annoyed noise in the back of his throat, Luis hoisted his left leg and let it rest lightly on her knee. “You’re just like your mother.”
“I know. That’s why you love me.” Evie slid off the nonskid industrial shoe and black athletic sock, revealing a carbon composite prosthetic foot and lower leg. She slid out her pin drive and inserted it into the foot’s control port, tapping in a request for a download. “Any stiffness or problems with the joint?”
Luis shook his head. “You do good work, mija.”
“What about your leg?”
A dismissive noise. “It doesn’t hurt that much. Things are supposed to ache at my age.”
“Mm-hm.” She undid the velcro on the supporting bands and eased off the prosthetic, suppressing a wince at the inflamed spots she saw at the points where the leg’s sensor net interacted with flesh. The scarred skin over the end of the stump was red and slightly swollen as well. “Where’s your first aid kit?”
He grabbed a clear plastic box from his desk, handing it to her. “I figured you’d do this.”
Her father had been a talented chef working in one of Redding’s finest restaurants when he made the decision to quit, get a business loan, and start selling gourmet food truck cuisine to Employees and Managers at the technological parks that ringed the city. Things had been going well until five years ago when a speeding GoCar owned by the teenaged daughter of a Shareholder had plowed into him while he was unloading his truck, crushing his lower left leg against the truck’s bumper. The injury had been severe enough to require amputation at mid-calf. Legally it was judged an accident, and the teenager’s license had been suspended for six months. The Shareholder family had been kind enough to pay off Luis’s remaining debt on the truck and made sure he was provided with an artificial leg, a static piece of solid pink plastic that used elastic bands around the knee to hold it on.
A furious Evie, unable to punish the idiot girl who had almost killed her father, was determined to do better. She’d cut a deal with one of the local clinics; a medtech scanned Luis’s stump and surgically inserted nanotransmitters near his remaining nerves. Using the data from the scan, Evie built a custom-fitted leg attached to a foot with an articulated joint. The whole thing was controlled by sensors and servomotors similar to the ones she’d used in Song’s exosuit, and allowed her father to walk without the need for a cane. More importantly, it allowed him to keep working in his beloved food truck.
Ironically, however, he had the same problem as Song. Too much time using an external cybernetic prosthetic caused pressure sores and inflammation of the flesh where tiny electrical signals passed between organic nerve and inorganic sensor. It would have been easier for them and every other resident of Pacifica who needed new limbs or organs to receive permanent cybernetic implants, but those were illegal for a good reason. With no other options, Evie could only smear NSAID gel over her father’s pressure sores and the inflamed base of his stump, trying to think of ways to make the prosthetic easier to wear.
Her thoughts were interrupted by Luis’s hand covering her own. “I’ll be all right,” he rumbled. “Don’t worry about me.”
There was nothing she could do but nod. Thirty years on and he still did his best to protect her. “Tell you what. You let me worry about you, and I’ll let you worry about me,” she said. “Deal?”
Now he laughed. “Mija, worrying about you is my job. It doesn’t stop just because you’re out of the house.” He pulled up her hand and kissed the back of it. “But since you are just like your mother and I know how she worries, it’s a deal.”
“Good.” She reached for the prosthetic. “We better go get some of those tamales before Ally eats them all.”
Luis chuckled. “I hid a batch. I know her, too.”
With an enthusiastic lungful of air, Ally leaned over and blew out all the candles on the birthday cake. Luis and Isabella cheered, clapping their hands as Evie took pictures on her tablet.
The young woman sat back, pleased with herself. “That’s getting harder each year,” she said. “I don’t know how you do it, Mom.”
“Smartass,” Evie said with a laugh. “Wait until you’re thirty.”
“Language,” Isabella chided. “All right, mija, now you get your presents.”
The one from them was a new tablet with full 3D projection capability and 8Tb of memory. Ally squealed and hugged them both. Tia Juanita glided forward, presenting “her” gift—a prepaid card to Ally’s favorite app store. Ally hugged the android as well, kissing her plastic cheek.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Isabella said, bringing out a small box wrapped with silver and blue paper. “This arrived for you today.”
Ally rolled her eyes as she took it, shaking it experimentally. “What do you think it is this year? I bet it’s another keychain.”
Evie smirked. “I kinda liked the multi tool she sent last year.”
“Oh, be nice,” Isabella fussed. “The general is a busy lady. It’s very kind of her to remember you two every year.”
“I doubt she’s the one remembering, Mama,” Evie said, watching Ally unwrap the small box. “That’s what her assistant is for.”
Discarding the paper, Ally opened the box and peered inside. Her dark blond brows rose. “Oh, wow.” She pulled out a sterling silver chain with a hammered pendant featuring the Defense Forces’s wave sigil picked out in black, blue, and white enamel. “This is seriously pretty.”
Evie bit her lip at the sight of the familiar symbol. Reaching out, she caught the pendant on the pad of a finger, studying it. The silversmithing was beautifully done, the kind of work that high-ranking officers could afford. It would also make her present seem like crap. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think Camden was trying to recruit you,” she said, trying for a joking tone.
“Yeah, not going to happen. I like being an au pair.” But Ally bent her head, fastening the chain around her neck. The pendant came to rest in the notch of her clavicle, gleaming softly in the overhead light. Her expression softened, and Evie knew she was thinking about her dad. “Still, it was nice of her.”
Evie decided not to comment on that. She had no idea if the family members of other dead soldiers got the same kind of personal attention from Defense Forces General Patricia Camden. Granted, Camden had been Ben’s commanding officer at the time of his death, and there seemed to be an element of personal responsibility playing into the yearly birthday gifts for both of them, a way of saying that Ben’s sacrifice was still remembered by the officer whose orders had sent him to his death. I’d be more than happy to skip the presents and have Ben back.
Squelching her annoyance at the general’s gift, Evie fished the little box out of her purse. “It’s nothing electronic, so don’t get your hopes up,” she warned as she handed it over.
“You mean you didn’t get me a Ringer? They’re just a couple thousand—” Ally lifted off the box top and gasped. “Oh, Mom. It’s beautiful!”
This time she lifted out a gold necklace with a pendant of the Cheshire Cat decorated with inexpensive but genuine pavé diamonds. “Put it on me?”
“But your pendant—”
“Take it off. I’ll wear it later.”
Hiding a smile, Evie did as ordered, dropping the silver pendant and chain in Ally’s palm and replacing it with her own gift. Both of them shared a deep and abiding love for Lewis Carroll’s books, and all of their birthday presents to each other had Wonderland or Looking Glass themes. Evie had stumbled across the necklace during a shopping expedition for Madam Song. It took her six months to save up for the piece, but seeing the pleasure on Ally’s face as she beamed at the little gold cat made it all worthwhile.
After they ate through a significant portion of the cake, Tia Juanita moved in to clear away the dishes while everyone else headed into the living room with coffee or soft drinks. Luis and Isabella took their usual chairs while Evie and Ally curled up together on the sofa. Since it was Ally’s birthday she got to pick the latest episode of her favorite telenovela, featuring a young journalist crusading against corruption in the SoCal Protectorate.
Luis made a masterful effort to stay awake, but by nine o’clock he was dozing. Isabella shooed him off to bed, then announced that she was heading there as well. “You two have a nice chat,” she said, kissing Ally first, then Evie. “It’s so good to have both my niñas home.”
“Love you, Mama,” Ally said, and Evie echoed her. Ally had only been six when she joined their family. It had seemed appropriate for her to call Evie’s parents Mama and Papa, and Evie hadn’t objected. It wasn’t until Ally was nine that she came home from school one day and announced that she was calling Evie “Mom.” “Because I love Mama and Papa, but you’re the one who adopted me so that makes you my mom, right?” the little girl had said.
Evie hadn’t been able to argue with her logic. As the living room door clicked shut she got up to get another drink. “Sweetie, do you want a refill?”
“No, thanks. But I need to talk to you about something.”
The younger woman’s hesitant tone stopped Evie in mid-stride. “What’s wrong?”
Ally’s lips paled as she nibbled at them. “Something happened last week. Something weird.”
Evie sat back down, alert now. Since graduating high school that spring Ally had been working as an au pair for an upwardly mobile Management family, the Perlmans. Evie had vetted them thoroughly and found no records of misconduct towards Employees from either of them. But it wasn’t impossible for such records, if they existed, to be erased, and Ally had grown up from an adorable child into a lovely young woman. “Did Mr. Perlman do something?”
Ally’s eyes widened and she shook her head. “No, nothing like that. Both of them are pretty nice—you know, for Managers—and I like the kids.” She touched her pendant, then took a deep breath. “The thing is, Mr. Perlman won this all-inclusive trip to the Gold Rush Adventure Park through his office. They thought it would be educational for the kids, so they took me along to keep an eye on them.”
Evie felt her eyebrows rise. The Adventure Parks operated by Prometheus Cybernetics were luxury theme resorts, each one featuring a famous period in history and staffed by humanoid androids and their living operators. Most Employees could never afford a pass to an Adventure Park unless they went along as entourage for a Manager, Engineer, or Shareholder. “Wow. So what was it like?”
Enthusiasm lit Ally’s face. “It was amazing. The introductory brochure said that the park was set up to duplicate San Francisco between 1849 and 1852, and it’s so detailed. There’s a wharf area with ships, and mining camps where you can pan for gold, or you can stay in the city zone and explore all the stuff there. It’s seriously authentic, too—you have to wear period clothes while you’re there and you can’t bring in outside electronics. Jack threw a fit when I told him he had to leave his GameMaster behind.” She plucked at her necklace again. “After the first day Mr. Perlman and Jack wanted to go panning for gold and ride horses, but Mrs. Perlman and Kathryn wanted to explore the city, so I stayed with them at the hotel. One evening Mrs. Perlman got a taste for something sweet. She’d seen these fancy boxes of chocolate in a general store near the hotel, so she sent me out to get some for her and something called sarsaparilla for Kathryn.”
Evie frowned. “I didn’t think chocolate was a thing during the Gold Rush.”
“Yeah, well, apparently Domenico Ghirardelli was actually in business at the time, so a general store that sold candy was okay.” Ally shrugged. “But plastic bags aren’t period, so I had to juggle this big box of mixed chocolates and two bottles of sarsaparilla while trying to get through the crowd. Then I saw this alleyway that I thought cut through to the street with the hotel.” She glanced away, lips pressed together tightly for a second. “So I went down it. I mean, it’s not like anything bad could happen in an Adventure Park, right?”
From the sound of it, that wasn’t totally accurate. “What happened?” Evie asked, concerned.
“The alley went through this little lot that butted onto the back of the buildings. There were a couple of lanterns bolted to the walls, but it was still pretty dark. I didn’t even see the two guys there until I ran into one of them.” Ally’s throat worked as she swallowed. “I don’t know if they were real and thought I was one of the droids, or if they were staff with some seriously messed-up programming. But they started asking all these creepy questions, like if I had a boyfriend, had I ever been kissed, that kind of stuff. I was really getting scared when suddenly this other guy came up from behind me and asked if they were bothering me. The first two guys tried to cut him off, but he flipped back his jacket and showed them this big gun he had in a belt holster.” She took in a shaky breath. “The guys took off after that. I turned around to thank him, and he stepped into the light from one of the lanterns. That’s when I saw his f-face.”
Her eyes turned glassy from unshed tears. “It was Dad, Mom. I swear to God, it was Dad.”
The emotional whiplash of going from protective maternal rage to old grief left Evie speechless for a moment. “Honey, that’s impossible,” she finally said, as gently as she could. “Your dad’s—”
“Dead. I know,” Ally interrupted. “I know he’s dead. But this man—this android, whatever he was—he looked like Dad, but not when he died. He looked like Dad would look now if he were still alive.”
That made no sense. “How do you know that?”
“I’ll show you.” Ally jumped up and dashed out of the room, coming back after a minute with an old photo that had been permasealed. She handed it to Evie. “Dad left me all these pictures of his family. This is my grandpa Drake when he was in his forties.”
The man was clearly Benjamin Drake’s father, judging by the facial resemblance and the old-fashioned clothes. “The man I saw looked just like Grandpa, only with a little beard,” Ally continued. “I think he was supposed to be a gambler or something.”
It was hard to ignore the fact that Ben would have been very handsome in his forties. “Well, your dad was a Defense Forces captain,” Evie temporized. “Maybe they use their appearance as templates for droids after they—after they’re gone.”
Ally shook her head. “You don’t understand. When I saw him, I said, ‘Daddy?’ I know it sounds stupid, but I couldn’t help it.” She leaned forward, pleading for belief. “Mom, he recognized me. He knew who I was.”
A cold feeling prickled along Evie’s spine. It was possible that someone had lifted the biometrics of a dead Defense Forces officer to reuse them for the physical form of an android, but what Ally was suggesting was impossible. “What did he say to you after that?”
“Nothing. He just took me back to the main street, told me to be careful, and walked off.” Her fists clenched in her lap. “I should have followed him. I should have made him talk to me.”
“Honey.” Evie put her hand over the younger woman’s white-knuckled one. “It wasn’t your dad. It couldn’t be. We got his ashes, remember?”
Ally pulled her hand away. “We got someone’s ashes. The Defense Forces could have lied to us, they could have kept him somewhere, used his brain—”
“No,” Evie cut in. She had to calm Ally down before this spiraled out of control. “That’s impossible. Maybe someone used your dad’s biometrics when they created that android, but you can’t put a human brain inside an android body. I know that for a fact.”
There was still hope in those blue eyes that resembled Ben’s. “I know, but maybe, I don’t know, they transferred his memories or something?”
Evie shook her head. “You can’t upload human memories to a machine intelligence processor. It doesn’t work that way.” God, she wished it did. “Whoever this—individual—was, it was just coincidence that he looked like your dad.”
She hated watching the hope drain out of Ally. “But he knew me,” the younger woman said. “I swear he knew who I was.”
“Oh, sweetie. I’m so sorry.” Evie pulled her into a hug, feeling the younger woman’s shoulders start to shake as she cried silently. It was clear what had happened; a stress reaction combined with a staff member who happened to resemble her father had made Ally see something that wasn’t there.
But she couldn’t tell Ally that. Her daughter’s heart had already been broken enough.
After making sure that Ally was tucked into her old bed for the night, Evie told Tia Juanita to lock up after her and took the MLR back to Song’s compound, still mulling over her daughter’s story. Her cybernetics training was a few years out of date, but she still knew what was and wasn’t possible with the technology. What she’d said was true; the individual Ally had seen at Gold Rush couldn’t be an android with Ben’s memories or some kind of cyborg. That was impossible.
The detail about how his appearance had aged, however, kept plucking at her. It was most likely pure coincidence, a case of finite facial combinations resulting in an unfortunate resemblance. Everyone had a doppelgänger somewhere; Ben’s just happened to be an android.
But it still struck her as odd. The maglev stopped at the station closest to the Song compound and she got off, musing about what it would take to hack into the park’s systems and see if she could locate Ally’s gambler. If she could figure out a way to turn it into an cybersecurity experiment and get Song’s blessing to use the house systems, all the better.
Still deep in thought, Evie passed a greenspace known as the Midway. The rim of the park had been designed to mimic an old-fashioned carnival, complete with booths featuring a variety of games, a robotic fortuneteller, vendors that sold popcorn and cotton candy, and rides for the children. During the day it was a favorite location for Employee nannies and their Shareholder charges, but at this time of night it was deserted.
She was almost past the fortuneteller’s booth when something flickered in the corner of her eye. Turning, she saw a small blue firefly light dancing over the booth’s window, blinking on and off. It didn’t appear to be a spark, more like a programmed light.
The booth itself was a wooden cabinet done in cheerfully garish tones of red and gold, with the words, “Madame Epiphany Tells Your Fortune!” painted on the top panel in an old-fashioned circus font. Inside the booth, a mechanical automaton had been done up as an exotic fortuneteller, complete with dark skin, ebony ringlets tumbling out of a spangled kerchief, and tarnished gold hoops in her ears. The cabinet’s builder had taken some care with painting Epiphany’s face, but years of sunlight had worn the colors down to faded pastel smears against the deep, rich base of her skin. Her umber eyes were the only thing about her that seemed real.
The dancing pinpoint light appeared again. Curious, Evie went closer until she could see it was a laser pointer sketching the words, “Get Your Fortune Told For Free!” across the glass. It had to be some kind of new advertising maneuver.
The big red button that would activate the machinery inside the case lit up, startling her. The laser message appeared again, strobing against the glass. One of the park keepers was going to catch hell for leaving this thing on overnight.
She glanced around at the empty park. Then again, it wasn’t like she got something for free very often. What the hell, why not?
Smirking at herself, she stepped up and pressed the button. “Okay, bruja,” she murmured, “tell me my damn fortune.”
The light disappeared as if it had heard her. Then it painted three words on the glass, and every drop of blood in Evie’s body turned to ice.
ALLY WASN’T WRONG.
The words disappeared, to be replaced by three new words:
WE’LL CONTACT YOU.
“Beautiful, fluid with whipsmart technology, and good to the core. Nicola M. Cameron has given us a fast-paced, heart-tugging cyber-romance that I couldn’t stop reading. A deeply satisfying book for fans of cyberpunk, science fiction, and romance alike.”
– Cecilia Tan, RT Award-winning author of Slow Surrender
Want to read the rest of the story? Purchase a copy here (Kindle).