Category Archives: Degree of Resistance
A few nights ago I saw a post by Jimmi Simpson on Twitter about his first day on Westworld S2, which promptly gave me a collywobble attack (some background — those of you who read Degree of Resistance may have noticed to whom the book is dedicated. Because I thought it might give him some nice egoboo, I contacted the gentleman and asked if he wanted a print copy. He graciously agreed. He recently pinged me to tell me that he received it and planned on reading it. My thought process upon hearing this went something like: “Wait, what? He’s not going to just stick it on a shelf somewhere? I didn’t want him to feel obligated to read it — oh, God. The sex scenes. I’m an idiot. WHY DID I SEND HIM THE BOOK? Oh, God, oh, God, he’s going to think I’m an illiterate perv…” Hence the collywobbles). As I know where my dedicatee is, I idly wondered if it would be too extreme to fly out to the set, find out where he’s staying, bribe a hotel maid to let me into his room, and steal back the book before he can read it.
(Yes, I know I’m nuts, but at least I’m productively nuts. Moving on…)
And then I thought, “Oh, hey, wait. That would make a freaking hilarious romcom plot.” Which resulted in my drunken Muse swanning into town and burping out a story about a tech writer in LA who sidelines as a romance novelist. After her wannabe screenwriter boyfriend breaks up with her, she gets totally loaded with her BFF and inadvertently sends a smoking hot romance inspired by her current actor crush to said actor. When he DMs her a few days later to tell her he’s received the book and plans on reading it, she’s horrified (because unlike me, she had inebriation as an excuse and hadn’t realized until the DM what she’d done) and decides to get the book back no matter what. “No matter what” includes drafting her BFF for a panicked trip to New Mexico, a long-suffering hotel maid, a sarcastic director, a man-eating actress who’s determined to get the actor in bed, and a hastily thrown together cover story BY THE ACTOR where the writer has to pretend to be the actor’s girlfriend in order to dissuade M-EA from her goal. Oh, and there may be a weekend trip to Vail and an inebriated swordfight somewhere in there. And hijinks ensue!
I told it to Ramón this morning. He said, “You realize that’s not a book, petal. It’s a movie.” Now he’s muttering about Kickstarter and Con Man, and I’ve got Karen Gillan, Tom Mison, Kat Dennings, Nathan Fillion, and Martin Freeman in my head running lines. Whee!
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).
Do you like sci fi romance? Do you have a hankering for a new Kindle Fire? Then do I have a contest for you!
BookSweeps is holding an awesome giveaway where you can win my book Degree of Resistance, plus books from authors like Evangeline Anderson and Cara Bristol, as well as a new Kindle Fire. This giveaway ends on May 1, so make sure you hurry and enter here — bit.ly/sfr-apr-17. Good luck!
Just found out that Degree of Resistance, Empress of Storms and Palace of Scoundrels have all been requested for review at Manic Readers, so hopefully that will generate some positive reviews and sales. The funny thing is that Empress still sells at least one copy almost every day, so that book definitely has legs. If I can get Palace and Degree to that stage, I’ll be the happiest smut writer this side of the Red River.
As if that wasn’t enough, I also had a wee epiphany this morning about the title of Pacifica Rising 2. The working (and probably permanent) title will be Uncertainty Principle, which refers to at least three different situations in the plot. Trust me, it’ll make sense once you read it. I’m finishing up the outlining now, and I’ll write it in April with a goal of a late May release. And yes, I’ll be doing a marathon follow-along here in the vein of 83K or Bust.
In other writing news, I’m thisclose to finishing the expanded shifter short story Shifter Woods: Howl which has now become a novella, bless its furry heart. Look for that to be released next week. Once I finish the companion piece Shifter Woods: Roar, I’ll combine them for a print version.
And while this has nothing to do with me, I was absolutely freaking delighted this morning to read that the lovely and talented Louis Herthum (aka he who inspired me to write Degree) has been signed as a regular cast member for the second season of Westworld. Considering that his character Peter Abernathy is now a walking thumb drive carrying 30 years of R&D on the androids, the writers can do some hella awesome stuff with that — Delos wants him for that R&D info and are willing to kill to get it, other companies want him for the same reason, and the androids want him because he carries the history of their race. Can’t wait!
*cranks up sound system and puts on “Eye of the Tiger”*
*warms up with some push-ups, finger exercises, and shadow boxing*
That whine you hear in the background is me kicking the promo machine into fifth gear for both Palace of Scoundrels and Degree of Resistance. Ain’t nobody gonna do this for me but myself (and frankly I’m tired of sitting here wondering what the hell is going on), so I’m actively hunting down reviewers and utilizing opportunities to get the books in front of said reviewers. By the end of April, I want to see a significant upswing in sales because dammit, these books are good and readers will love them.
My, it’s only Tuesday and already I’m having a productive week. On the minus side, I got turned down by an agent and BookBub (whomp whomp). It happens, no biggie, and I’ll just keep trying until one or both work out.
On the plus side, I’m thisclose to getting Most Malicious Murder off to the betas, and I now have a frigging GREAT idea for Pacifica Rising 2 that I will start outlining tomorrow (today is already taken up with crits for my writing group, the last bit of the tax paperwork, and mailing out bills). Also, a print copy of Degree of Resistance will soon be in the hands of the lovely and talented man who helped to inspire it, which … well, frankly, is giving me the heebie-jeebies. Writing a romance story complete with sex scenes is just part of the job to me by now, so I sometimes forget that what I see as normal and no big deal might not come across that way to other people. Especially if they know that they helped inspire a story that includes some fairly explicit love scenes.
I did add a cover letter that explained the contents and said it would be totally fine with me if he just smiled at the egoboo and stuck it on a shelf somewhere, and actually reading it was not required. If he does read it … well, let’s just hope I don’t get a DM starting off with, “What the HELL, Nic…”
It occurred to me earlier today that I’ve been working professionally in the writing dodge (and by professionally I mean people have given me money in exchange for my words) for about twenty-two years, now. My writing career can legally drink, if not rent a car. Which is probably for the best, if you think about it.
So while I may bitch and moan about sales at times, in retrospect I’m actually pretty happy with where I’ve gotten to at this point. Between my SF and romance names (by the way, you all DO know that I write science fiction and urban fantasy as Melanie Fletcher, right?) I have seven full-length novels, three novellas, two novelettes, and twenty-six short stories to my credit. That’s not bad at all, especially since I’ll be bringing out at least another three novels this year as well as more novellas and short stories.
And not only have I been publishing, but I’ve been gifted with a fiercely devoted band of readers (you know who you are, and you are all in the will), plus I’ve been getting critical attention for my work. Night Owl Reviews just did an interview with me, and the lovely and talented Cynthia Sax will also have an interview on Degree of Resistance up on her website soon. So, yeah, I’ve actually done pretty well in my career so far (take that, Imposter Syndrome!).
Fabulous, I hear you say, but why are you babbling at us about this? Well, 1) because I can, and 2) it helps to work out what I’m going to do next. This year I’ve decided to concentrate on leveling up to the next professional step; namely, increasing my readership, shooting for a USA Today bestseller list slot, and maybe even winning an award or two (although I’m reminded of the fact that Sir Terry Pratchett, he of the insanely successful and brilliant Discworld series, never won anything until late in his career. People rarely take humor with the seriousness it deserves. But I digress). And the best way to do all that is to keep writing, keep publishing, and keep entertaining folks, which, yeah, just twist my arm already.
Did I mention that you’re all cruel but beautiful, and I love you oodles for reading my stuff? Because I do.
Degree of Resistance has now been out for a shade over a week, and the bulk of my wonderful ARC readers have left reviews (thank you all, *mwah*). I have requests out to a slew of reviewers, advertising going on at various locations, and I’m in the process of getting my media pack out to various bloggers who are kind enough to host my stuff.
And so far … yeah, the sales are perhaps a touch disappointing. The folks who have read the book so far say it’s hella good (and these people have no reason to blow smoke up my ass. If I’d produced something crappy, they would’ve told me). So what that confirms is that my marketing plan is not optimal and I have to come up with a better method of getting Evie and Ben’s story out in front of readers who love smokin’ cyborg romance.
To that end, the lovely and talented Cecilia Tan (my first editor and now my cherished colleague) was kind enough to spend an hour on Skype with me on Thursday going over various battle plans and ways to promote DoR. Some of them, I must admit, had simply never occurred to me but seem obvious in retrospect (e.g. find ways to write blogs posts that will appeal to girl geek-slanted publications such as The Daily Dot and io9, since a significant proportion of my SFR-loving readers will be found there). Others will require careful use of SEO terms to boost exposure, creative use of graphics, or just plain throwing money at the problem. As I am a poor but honest writer who is still paying off the costs of Wild Wicked Weekend (Tl;dr I had a frigging ball and sold more books than last year) I’m hoping to keep this last method down to a minimum, at least until the end of the month. I still want to try submitting Empress of Storms to BookBub, but I need to save up for that as well, plus I have to wait until I’m past the 90 day limit on sales prices (since it was on sale along with Palace of Scoundrels in December, that should take effect later this month).
So goes the life of a modern hybrid author. Still the best job I’ve ever had, though.
Hello, folks! My new cyborg romance Degree of Resistance (Pacifica Rising 1) is now available on Amazon and other online retailers of fine SF romance, and I want to share a scene here that, to me, encapsulates the relationship between my main characters, bless their hard little heads.
Some backstory: the year is 2048, the United States has fallen and the Pacifica Protectorate is the most powerful nation-state on the West Coast. Evie Contreras is a freelance cybertech who lost the love of her life, Ben Drake, twelve years ago. When she finds out that Ben is still alive and has been turned into a cyborg soldier by the protectorate, she rescues him with the help of a shadowy resistance group known as Rubicon. In return, Rubicon wants Evie to go back to the Pacifica Protectorate and retrieve a hidden AI for them. Needless to say, Ben is not happy about this.
Enjoy, and make sure to hit the list after the teaser to see other great SF romance at the SFR Brigade Showcase!
A perfect society hiding a terrible secret. An innocent man forced into cyborg slavery. A woman determined to set him free.
Freelance tech Evie Contreras is part of the Employee class of the Pacifica Protectorate, the “perfect society” that rose on the West Coast after the breakup of the United States. But Evie knows all about Pacifica’s festering core and the secrets that keep it in power. And when she discovers that her fiancé has been turned into a cyborg slave by a sadistic protectorate officer, she will risk everything to rescue him.
Evie opened the control box wired to the pressure tank that took water from the Burgess well. A set of dusty but functional solar cells sat on a pole fastened to the tank, and insulated wiring led from the cells to the control box. “Okay, the well is definitely not dry and the battery is pulling juice from the cells, so it’s got to be a failure in the pump,” she said, rooting around in the bag of borrowed tools next to her.
Ben crouched down next to her, making sure he was in between her and any potential restart of the McBride/Burgess water war. “Think you can fix it?”
She gave him an “are you kidding” glance, then returned her attention to the dusty innards of the control box. She leaned closer, nose wrinkling. “Ew.”
Grimacing, she reached into the box and pulled out a small, stiff body. “I think it’s a deep-fried lizard. Can they chew on wires?”
He gingerly accepted the small corpse. The arid air had done a fine job of natural mummification on it. “Not as much. It might’ve peed on something, though.”
“Yay.” She peered deeper into the box. “Yeah, I think you’re right—looks like a contact got corroded. I can fix that.”
As she got to work, Ben kept an ear cocked to the radio clipped to his jacket pocket. After giving them a royal chewing out for taking an unauthorized beer break, J.C. was overseeing the repair of the War Wagon while a chastised Vince and company drove the bartered food and the wounded security officer back to the base in the Bandit. Rob had volunteered to stay behind as backup, and Evie’s presence had been requested at J.C.’s side once she was finished with the well pump.
He watched her frown in concentration at the control box. “There, that should work. I already primed the pump so—” She flipped a switch and the pressure tank rumbled before settling down to a satisfied gurgling. “Damn, I’m good.”
“Yes, you are.”
She squinted at him, patches of color blooming in her cheeks. He didn’t think it was because of the blustery wind. “Thanks. We better get back to the War Wagon.”
He got up and gave her a hand, hanging onto it once she was on her feet. She didn’t try to pull away, which was reassuring. “I’m sorry about punching the wall in your office,” he said. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
The corner of her mouth quirked. “I think you were justified.”
“I don’t, but thanks for that.” He stared at the hollows between the hills of her knuckles, the elegant strength of the hand. He never wanted to let it go. “I just hate the thought of you going back to Pacifica without me.”
The wind drove strands of dark hair across her face, curtaining it. “I know, but I don’t have a choice. Ballardie and I are the only ones who know how to shut down Lilith’s server. He can’t go so it has to be me. But I’m going to have Mark, Rob, and Lisa backing me up, and they’re all armed and extremely psycho. I’ll be fine.”
Ben wanted to smile at her description of the security officers. “Baby, you could head in there with a cyborg army at your back and I’d still worry.”
She snorted. “Is there anything I could say that would make you feel better?”
“Not really.” He brushed the hair away from her face. “I guess … I’m feeling useless right now because I can’t protect you, and I’m scared I’m going to lose you again, and if that happens…” He didn’t want to think about the yawning abyss that would become the brief remainder of his life in that case.
Those lovely russet eyes softened. “I understand about being scared,” she said, cupping his cheek. “That’s how I felt every time you went on deployment. I never knew if you were going to be in danger or not. All I could do was wait and pray that you came home.”
“Shit.” He pressed into the warmth of her hand, memorizing how she felt against his skin. “If this is how you felt, I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about. It’s part of loving a soldier. I knew that going in.” Her thumb stroked his cheekbone. “But I also knew if there was any way for you to come back, you’d take it. And you proved me right. You survived twelve years under Camden, and you came back to me. So I’m telling you right now that I’m coming back to you, and I’m bringing Ally with me.”
He leaned down, pressing his forehead against hers. “You better. I don’t think I can live without you.”
“Same here. Twelve years was long enough.” Her lips quirked. “And as for you being useless, may I remind you that you just walked into a strange town alone, convinced an armed man to let you into his bar, singlehandedly negotiated a ceasefire between two crazy people, rescued a bunch of our guys in the process, and you didn’t fire a single shot or spill a drop of blood doing it. You’re about as far from useless as it’s physically possible to be.”
He considered what she’d said. Viewed in that light, it was kind of impressive. “I was just doing my job,” he said, self-conscious.
“That’s what heroes always say.”
“You think I’m a hero?”
Her smile was blinding. “Well, you’ve always been my hero.”
Christ, he loved her. He pulled her into his arms, resting his cheek on top of her head. “I don’t know what I did to deserve you,” he murmured, “but damn, I’m glad I did it.”
“So am I.” She leaned back and kissed him, her lips cool and soft. “And I know this is kind of pointless to say to a hero, but try not to worry about me. The thing is—”
She shifted, her hands moving. He suddenly found himself on the cold ground, right arm straight up behind him with his hand flexed in a wrist lock and her foot braced under his shoulder blade. “—I’m not exactly what you’d call helpless.”
He huffed out a rueful laugh. He could break the lock with his augmented strength, but not without hurting her. And if he was honest with himself he was damned impressed that she’d put him on the ground so neatly. “Someone’s been practicing.”
“Yup. Rob’s pretty damn good at hand-to-hand, and I still remember everything you and Tio Christo taught me.” Her voice dropped. “I’m coming back, Ben. And I’m bringing our daughter with me. You’re not going to lose either of us ever again.”
The grip around his wrist disappeared. He rolled onto his back, staring up at the most beautiful mouth in the world. Upside down, he wasn’t sure if she was smiling or frowning.
She planted her hands on her hips. “You believe me, right?”
He grinned. “My momma didn’t raise stupid children, ma’am. I believe you.”
“Good.” She toed at the dust. “Now get up. I’m freezing my ass off out here and I want to go home.”
Home. That sounded like a fine idea.
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