Three Wild Cards in a row make a FULL HOUSE! Well, kind of. For brand-new publishing house Marcher Lord Press
I regret that I haven't had a chance to read this novel, but the first chapter and introduction have set my expectations on red alert. All three of the christening book releases are at the top of my wish list. Remember, if you purchase any of them on opening day, October first, you are entered for some great prizes from Marcher Lord Press.
and her book:
Marcher Lord Press (October 1, 2008)
Marcher Lord Press officially launches on October 1: http://www.marcherlordpress.com/Launch.htm
They will be giving away amazing bonus gifts to everyone who purchases Marcher Lord Press novels on opening day.
Whether you're a voracious reader, an up-and-coming novelist, or you're just buying this for your teenage son who won't read anything but fantasy, these bonus goodies will be treasures you'll love.
But remember, these bonuses are good only for those who order books on Day 1.
R. E. Bartlett was born in the South Island of New Zealand. She now lives in the North Island, not far from a dormant volcano. Over the years her pets have included a hyperactive Dobermann, a loudmouth Siamese cat, a silly goat, and a wacky duck, but she pays little attention to what is said about pets being like their owners.
Visit the author's website.
The Personifid Invasion, R. E. Bartlett, Marcher Lord Press, October 2008, 350 pages, $12.99
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
The life ebbed from her body and she found herself drifting.
For an instant, she was touched by the warmth and heard it calling to her. But that passed and she was wrenched from the warmth by an all-pervading chill. She twisted and turned to evade the coldness, but it did no good.
Sharp stabbing needles pierced her being, freezing fingers that trapped her and held her down. She tried to scream, but her voice was silent. Unable to see, she was thrust into a dark space and felt herself slowly unfurling, a heaviness coming over her limbs. Her eyes opened and she was blinded by white light.
“Transference complete,” said a voice, sharp and new to her ears. “Please remain as still as possible while ascertaining security of placement.”
She had no trouble obeying—she could not move. The heaviness clung to her, the coldness smothered her. Breath, where was her breath? She did not feel alive, could not be alive.
The blur of white surrounding her melded into a distinct shape and a tinge of color over at her left. She squinted, trying to make out what it was. Lines of cloth and flesh became clear. It was herself, she knew it was, lying there against the snow.
At first, she vaguely wondered if she was looking into a mirror. But the angle was all wrong. The eyes in the mirror did not look back at her, but stared vacantly upward. She was riveted by the sight, but felt no emotion, just a peculiar awareness of distance.
So this was death.
But where was she? And what held her down so that she could not move? She shivered convulsively.
“Placement secured,” came the voice again, a pleasant feminine voice with no breath behind it. “You are now free to move.”
She began to realize where she was. She was not out in the snow. She was inside, encompassed by a curved white dome. And her body lay on a white padded shelf beside her.
“Please raise your right hand,” the fem voice said.
She did. Slowly, shakily. The body on the shelf did not mirror her movement.
“Please stand up.”
She tried, but could not at first. Why had she not felt that she was already sitting? She looked down at her seat. Slightly reclined, thin steel spokes on both sides held her in a spider-like grasp. They retracted at the sound of the fem voice telling her to stand. She eased her legs over the side of the seat, slim legs clothed in white trousers.
“Please state your name.”
She did, the words forming awkwardly on her lips. The cool numbness in her mouth was not warmed by her speech. She looked again at her body lying there on the padded shelf, the eyes inalterably fixed. A terrible sense of loss filled her. This was not right. She should not be here.
A hissing sound drew her attention. She turned and saw a yellow line burning into the white curved wall. The line angled smoothly around and connected with itself, becoming a complete rectangle.
“Please exit this chamber.”
The rectangle lifted away and light flooded in. She raised her hands to shield her eyes. She had thought it bright inside the chamber, but this was new, was alive. When she lowered her hands, a silhouette stood before her. She squinted, trying again to focus.
“You’re fine,” a man said.
This was not like the other voice. This one had breath behind it. She could see him only faintly as her eyes adjusted to the light of the laboratory.
He reached for her hand. “You will forget this, don’t worry. Choosing not to record any memory of this was a good decision. When we get you out of the lab and into Recovery you won’t remember being in here. Your new brain will begin recording memory soon.” She thought she saw him smiling at her. “And now you have a brand new body.”
“What about—?” she began to say, as he led her from the chamber.
“That’s not you,” he said. “Just think of it as your old shell. You’ve traded up to something better.”
She could not think of it as that. The emotion was beginning to spread throughout her consciousness. She had lost herself.
“We will dispose of it as you requested,” he said. “There’s no need to see it again.”
“It’s mine,” she said, and fumbled as she tried to remove her hand from his and turn back to the chamber opening. “It’s me.”
“No,” he said, taking a firmer grip of her hand and drawing her away.
She did not have the strength to resist. She walked with him, her legs moving stiffly as though she waded through water. Shapes around her began to take on a new definition. Color bled and washed over each particle.
“Where are we going?”
“To Recovery,” he said. “You’ll be well looked after there. You’ll remember none of this.”
* * *
Sometime later she came to. She was seated comfortably, a blanket over her knees, soft music playing. It was with some shock she found she was not breathing.
Words floated through her mind in disjointed phrases. She tried to hear them, tried to make sense of the babbling incoherence.
A chill inside her shifted and writhed. Something apart from her.
Manic laughter pressed around the edge of her consciousness, but it did not seem to belong to her.
Her brain felt cluttered, struggling as though learning a new language. Most of the words flitted by without sense.
Sevig Empire Receptions
Light filtered through the windowed dome ceiling, playing over the dozens of citizens in the hall below. The impression of blue sky was just that. In reality, this sector of Receptions was down on the fourth floor of the Sevig Empire building, the massive skyscraper that was a production hub of Earth’s personifids.
Sliding strips carried some citizens across the dark marble floor to advertising displays while others milled around under their own foot power. A gleaming black desk extended in a wide arc across the hall, giving a sense of stability in the bustling atmosphere. Fifteen people, a mix of real and artificial, sat behind it. The light was particularly focused onto them, turning their ice-blue uniforms into a silken brilliance.
Aphra knew her neatly-coiffed blond hair shone in this light and her grey-blue eyes seemed paler than their actual color. She forced a smile at the client who stood opposite her. He had appeared too quickly—just when she was about to request her work computer for something to ease the tension headache behind her eyes.
“We do have a space free,” she said, echoing her computer’s voice in her ear. “If you’re ready, we can take you now.”
The client’s close-set green eyes brightened with excitement, and he shook his fist in the air—a gawky move that emphasized his skinny body. Although he faced Aphra his gaze was concentrated on the space in front of her. “Sugar, I’m doing it! I really am!” He looked at Aphra. “How long will it take?”
“The actual transference process is very quick,” she said without having to think about it, “but Recovery will keep you for at least an hour.”
“I’ll be out of here in an hour,” he said, his gaze shifting again.
Aphra knew he was talking to “Sugar” on a hovering com-screen that he had not the courtesy to make visible to others.
She snatched a glance at her own display screen—a circular sliver of luminosity angled against her area of the black desk—while maintaining the smile that felt as set as an android’s. The display was unhelpful—the tiny clock counting down her work shift was not nearly as far on as she would have liked. She took a deep breath, steadied the imperceptible trembling in her hands, and touched the sensor pad requesting an attendant.
“You won’t recognize me, Sugar. Yeah. I’ll wear a green rose or something. See you there!” The client grinned at Aphra. “I’m ready. Let’s do it!”
Aphra directed his gaze to a side door across the hall. A man in a white coat emerged from it and walked briskly towards them. “If you will just follow your attendant,” she said, “he will take you from here and guide you through the transference. Congratulations on choosing a new life.”
She had barely got the words out before the client turned and headed over to the attendant. Aphra’s smile disappeared and her shoulders sagged. “George, I need—”
“One moment,” said the soft voice of her work computer. “You have an incoming virtual link-in.”
Aphra sighed. The smile resumed its position. “Welcome to Sevig Empire,” she said to the image of the fem who appeared in front of her. “How may I help you today?”
A nervous, self-conscious expression flickered across the fem’s smooth face, a hint of pink suffusing her high cheekbones. “Hi, I’m wanting an information pack, please.”
Aphra’s eyebrows shot up. “Information?”
The fem smiled sheepishly. “I know, I know. By now you’d think I should have heard everything about becoming a personifid. It’s just… Well…”
“It’s perfectly all right,” Aphra said. “We still get the occasional request for information. If you feel you need more time to confirm your decision, we at Sevig Empire support you. We can provide as much information as you need to be sure in your decision to choose a better life.”
The fem looked a little closer at Aphra. “You…you’re not one, are you?”
The smile did not falter, but her voice came out brighter than she intended. “No, not yet.” She glanced down at her screen and touched her way through various menus. Information packs… Where was that section? She backed out of the security menu and into another. The screen blurred as the throb behind her eyes worsened. Weariness began to settle in a heavy cloak over her body. Hold on, she told herself. Not now.
“What kind of information would you like?” Aphra’s question cued George to search more quickly than she was able to. His results came rapidly to her ear. “We have several packs,” Aphra said to the fem. “There’s a general overview of the transference process itself; a guide to tailoring your own appearance; a guarantee for length of life; comparison charts for the different personifid models available.” She stopped for breath, her finger leaning on the pause strip to tell George to wait until she was ready to continue reeling off his instructions.
The fem looked apologetic and awkward. “I guess I was thinking more along the lines of religious implications. I…just… It’s confusing, really… You hear so many different things about that.”
Aphra’s smile faltered. She tucked an imagined stray wisp of hair behind her ear and made a conscious effort to focus. Her screen swiftly changed, responding to the fem’s concerns.
“We have the relevant information for you here,” Aphra said. “I’m sure you’ll find there’s nothing to worry about. All major religions support your spiritual transition into a personifid body.”
George’s words again. They seemed to work. The fem’s features relaxed into a smile.
“Thank you,” she said.
Her acceptance was immediately recognized by George. He transferred the information pack and the fem linked out.
Aphra bowed her head, her shoulders trembling. Another glance at the clock. There was too much time. She could not do it, could not last out the work shift. “Home,” she whispered. “Home, now.”
“Terminating virtual link,” said the clear fem voice of her household computer.
The bright activity of Sevig Empire Receptions faded into the shadowy quiet of Aphra’s apartment.
The living room window was dimmed, dulling the neon lights of the city skyscrapers to a pleasant haze. Shadows shifted behind the ornaments on the living room walls as the evening traffic flew past the window. Peppi, Aphra’s little fluffy ginger dog, was busily mangling a plastic toy in the middle of the floor. Shredded pieces scattered in yellow and blue blobs on the grey carpeting, only to evaporate as soon as the household computer detected them.
Aphra exhaled with relief and leaned back into the couch cushions. She was sitting cross-legged in her pyjamas, her hair in loose waves down around her shoulders.
“You have a message from Sevig Empire,” said the household computer.
Aphra groaned and lay down. It was all right. It was expected. Get it over with. She brushed her hair out of her eyes and looked up. “Go ahead.”
A hovering screen appeared over her, casting a pool of warm light down onto the couch. The artificial representation of a gold-haired fem smiled at Aphra, her wide lips strikingly orange.
“Hello, Aphra Vessey. We at Sevig Empire expect more from our employees than you are currently offering. We do not like virtual link-ins to our place of work in Min City. Min City is the social city. We expect our employees in Min City to embrace this way of life and to be physically present. After all, if our loyal clientele make the effort to do this then we should respond in kind. Aphra, you have linked-in virtually too many times this month. Please make use of our employee discount for luminires and come here physically.”
She shook her head. “No. I c-can’t. I need a break.”
The fem hovered silently for a moment, her smile fixed. Then she resumed her cheerful chatter. “Aphra, you are under investigation. You have not completed your work shifts satisfactorily as of late.”
She gulped for breath, willing herself to keep calm. “No, you don’t understand. I’m trying. It’s just that—”
“May I remind you that Sevig Empire, Min City, will soon require all of its employees to be personifids. Min City now has complete acceptance for personifids and we believe you would best represent Sevig Empire by being a part of the new and better life we offer. Thank you for your time.”
The smiling face phased out from the hovering screen. It was replaced by fleeting scenes of a fem who looked remarkably like Aphra, crying on a couch that looked remarkably like her own, before striding purposefully through a busy city walkway. Music played beneath the soothing voice-over. “Life Enhancers bring balance and control to your emotions. Why not—”
“Turn it off!” Aphra cried and buried her face.
The hovering screen and its personalized advertisement vanished, extinguishing the light that had shone over her. She closed her eyes and hugged herself hard as misery choked up through her chest. Peppi jumped up onto the couch, whining and snuffling as she nudged Aphra’s elbow. Aphra took Peppi in her arms as racking sobs began to shake her whole frame.
It seemed no more than an instant before the household computer spoke again. “Incoming call from Antha.”
Aphra sucked in a breath and tried to steady herself. “G-go ahead.”
The hovering screen reappeared, her brother’s face inside it. His usual lazy grin was missing. His stubbly face appeared tired and his long wavy light brown hair was swept back from his face. Aphra could not see much of his surroundings, but a glimpse of the black headrest behind him told her he was in one of his sky cars.
“Hey, look at you,” he said in his slow drawl. “You knew I was about to call, is that it? The emotion got so much that it gushed out all over the place?”
She wiped the tears from her face and managed a feeble smile. “You’re so right.”
“I know I am. I always am. Emotions, you gotta love them.”
She frowned. “No, I don’t. What do you want?”
He grinned at her. “Nice. No, hi big brother, how are you? No, did you kick the butt of that bounty you’ve been tracking? Did he puke up his innards all over the interior of your favorite sky car?” His grey-blue eyes sparkled with amusement. “Why, yes, thanks for asking.”
“You got him?”
“Sure I did. I always do. Now I can buy you that pony you always wanted.”
She giggled. The emotion set off another wave of tears. She turned her head, pulling Peppi closer to herself. The screen moved neatly, enabling her to continue looking straight at Antha.
He leaned in, a pretense look of concern on his face. “Easy now,” he said. “Steady. Are you ready now? I’ve got some news.”
She sniffed and blinked, her fingers deep into Peppi’s fur as the little dog licked the tears from her cheek. “You’ve got another bounty to chase after and this one will pay for my new apartment?”
“What, you’re moving from the shoe-box?” His face grew serious. “No, that’s not it. I’ve found her.”
At first she thought he was talking about another bounty, but the look in his eye told her which her he meant. She sat up a little. “That’s great.” She wondered at the seriousness of his expression. “But…?”
He nodded. “Yeah, it’s not all good news. She’s in San Edhem.”
He groaned. “I should have known you’d be like that. The city of San Edhem is bad news. Don’t tell me you don’t know that.”
She shrugged and sat up all the way. The screen adjusted its position accordingly. “I’ve never been there.”
“And that’s the way it’s going to stay. The place is swarming with interterrestrials. You’re not going to set foot in the place if I have anything to do with it.”
She grinned at him. “I’m beginning to think you’re taking this newfound big brotherly protectiveness too far.”
His eyes softened as he looked at her. She felt her emotions quiet under his gaze. Nobody had looked at her like that for a long time.“Well,” he said with a shrug, “you need taking care of. You’re an idiot.”
Her mouth dropped open and she threw a pillow through the hovering screen.
“See? I told you,” he said. “Now, listen. This is really not good, Aphra. We’ve finally found some trace of Ashley and all fingers point to San Edhem. Her imprint is definitely registered there.”
“Well, that’s great! Have you called her?”
“I tried, but there was no access available. Then I tried leaving a message, but San Edhem’s city communications wouldn’t even allow that. It’s nuts if you ask me. What’s the use of having a stupid imprint if I can’t even contact her through it?”
Aphra frowned at that. It did not make much sense to her, either. An identity imprint should be connected into the resident city’s computers, enabling the bearer of the imprint to be contacted. Whatever a person’s security preferences might be, a caller ought to at least be able to leave a message requesting contact.
She looked at Antha. “What are we going to do? I can get time off work to come with you to San Edhem if you’re planning to go there. I want to be there when we first make contact with her.” Maybe the Sevig regulators would not like her taking more time off, but this was important.
Antha rolled his eyes. “Interterrestrials, Aphra! Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
She shook her head. “I’ve never met one before so I don’t know what they’re like.”
“Surely you’ve heard of them?”
“Of course, but so many conflicting stories I don’t know which to believe.”
“Well, I’m telling you they’re dangerous and I don’t want you going near them. If anyone has to go into San Edhem and find Ashley, it’s me, not you. You’re unprotected.”
It was her turn to groan. “Here we go again, you and your Follower drivel.”
Antha let out a heavy sigh and regarded her steadily for a moment. Aphra waited for him to lose his temper, but he yawned and leaned his head back against the headrest.
“Man,” he said, “this business about having younger sisters to take care of all of a sudden… Phew, it makes me want to run away and join the circus.”
“You’re a circus all on your own.”
“Woo! A quick comeback. You must be feeling better.”
She shrugged and grimaced. “Did you find out anything else about Ashley?”
“Just her age, her parents, where she lives, the usual guff—enough to be pretty sure it’s our little sister. That info was hard enough to wangle out of San Edhem City’s computers, but I had help with that.”
Gun would have helped. Aphra hoped no trace of a blush showed on her face as she thought of him.
“Anyway, I’m on my way to you now,” Antha said. “I figure we’ll go on over to Bob’s place and hash this thing out, try to figure out what we should do.”
She nodded. “Okay.”
“There’s one more thing,” he said. “Ashley’s registered as being a personifid.”
A funny, confused twinge curled inside her. “Oh. Well, I guess we shouldn’t have assumed she’d still be like us.”
He looked critically at her through the screen. “This isn’t happy news. It complicates things. I’ll see you soon. Bye.”
“Disconnected,” Aphra’s computer said. The hovering screen disappeared.
Aphra sat there wondering what Antha could have meant. The confusion dizzied her and set off another round of crying.
Aphra hugged Peppi to her chest, trying to calm herself as the sobs welled up. Peppi squirmed and wriggled around to reach Aphra’s cheek. The little dog’s warm tongue swept against Aphra’s face, desperately scooping up all her tears.
“Datricius is here.”
Aphra jumped at the sound of her computer’s voice. “What?”
“Your friend Datricius is here. Do you want me to tell him you’re not well and to come back later?”
She shook her head and rubbed her eyes, involuntarily letting out another sob. “He’s s-seen me like this before. Let him in.”
Her apartment door slid silently open. She looked up from the couch and smiled bleakly at the man who stood there. His tall, muscular build was framed in her doorway, and for an instant he looked like a Greek god from myth, his silken pale gold hair gleaming as it framed his strong bronze-tinted face. A face that swiftly assumed a sympathetic expression as he saw her sitting there—the corners of his mouth turned downward, the eyebrows raised in a silent question.
Datricius had the best control of an artificial body that Aphra had seen. All his facial expressions came smoothly, without any awkwardness, and his movements were easy. She would almost take him for a person if she had not worked at Sevig Empire for so long. She had learned to see into the eyes of both a person and a personifid and see the human soul clearly shown in the first but hidden in the latter.
Peppi let out a growl and began to shiver in Aphra’s lap. “It’s okay,” Aphra said quietly over the little dog’s head. “You know Datricius. It’s okay.”
“She still doesn’t like me,” Datricius said. His sympathetic expression abruptly altered so that his head tilted slightly, a neat furrow appeared between his eyebrows, and his lower lip protruded petulantly.
Aphra breathed in slowly, waiting to recover some control of herself, and the tight feeling in her chest eased somewhat. “It doesn’t matter what I try to do to get her over this thing she has about personifids, she still freaks out. It’s not you. Look, she doesn’t even like my left arm very much, just because it’s artificial.” She held her left hand in front of Peppi’s nose. Peppi’s lip curled involuntarily, then relaxed as she sniffed Aphra’s fingers. “She is improving with androids, though.”
Datricius smiled. “That’s no help to me. I’m too full of soul to be an android.”
Aphra felt another sob welling up inside her, choking up in her throat. She shut her eyes against it, but it was no good, she could not hold it in.
“I’ve come at a bad time,” Datricius said softly.
Aphra held her right hand out to him. “It’ll pass. W-wait.”
“You really should go back on the Life Enhancers, Aphra. This has been going on long enough. How many months has it been now?”
She doubled over, gasping and sobbing, the tears streaming down her face. She shakily raised both hands, seven fingers showing.
“Far too long,” he said. “It’s not right. You could be damaging yourself. I really feel you should go back on the Life Enhancers and gain some control over yourself again. I’ve only known you a short time, yet in that time I’ve seen you steadily deteriorate. I’m sure it will continue worsening if you don’t do something about it. I’m scared for you, Aphra.”
She sat up and took a deep breath, the sobs easing off. She leaned back against the couch cushions, breathing slowly in and out. Peppi continued to cringe and press back against her stomach while watching Datricius with big anxious eyes.
“I’m okay,” Aphra finally managed to say.
“I don’t think you are. I’m really worried about you.”
“If Antha can do it, so can I.”
“Did Antha have months and months of trouble like this?”
“No, but then I don’t think he took as many Life Enhancers as I did. I used to take Tranquility on a daily basis. I can’t expect to get over that right away.”
“Perhaps not, but is all this trouble worth it?”
She sighed. “I do wonder about that sometimes. Life was so much easier before. I miss feeling calm and in control! I feel like my emotions, or lack of them, are running my life right now, and it’s so difficult to get used to.”
He leaned against the wall and folded his arms, his posture sagging almost naturally. “It’s because they’re not your real emotions. They’re fragmented pieces of emotion that were kept in good order by the Enhancers. I’m afraid it’s too late for you to change. You’re too old to try and stop taking them now.”
“Old?” she exclaimed, grinning at him. “I’m only twenty-four!”
He smiled back at her. “I didn’t mean that. I meant that you’ve been taking the Enhancers for too many years.”
She tickled Peppi’s ears. “Well, it’s not all bad. There are some good things about being off them—some of the emotions I’m able to feel are good ones.”
Love. Love for her brother, the only family she knew, this she clung to. Love for her friends, those she had met at around the same time as she had found Antha. And now, Datricius. She had known him almost two months and could already feel love beginning to grow. The love of family, friendship and romance had become three distinct threads that wound strong ties inside her heart. It almost made up for the pain that some days seemed to grip every fiber of her being.
She looked at Datricius and mustered a smile. “What are you doing here, anyway?”
He sat next to her, causing Peppi to leap off her lap and run from the room.
“Just visiting my favorite fem. I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d see if you felt well enough to come out for dinner. Now that I see you, I don’t think you look very well at all.”
“You’re always in the neighborhood,” she teased. “And of course I’m well enough to go out. But I can’t. I’m expecting Antha. Do you want to wait and meet him?”
Datricius shook his head, a small smile on his perfect lips. “From all you’ve told me about him I don’t think that’s a good idea just yet.”
She was disappointed but tried not to show it. “He’s not that bad, honest. Sure, he’s a little protective of me, but he’s the best brother a fem could ask for.”
“‘I’m going to punch anyone who dates my sister,’” Datricius quoted. “Sounds more than just a little protective.”
“Anyone who hurts my sister,” Aphra said, and linked her arm in Datricius’.
He stood abruptly. “I’d better go. How about I take you out tomorrow instead?”
She stood and followed him to the door. “I’d like that.”
The door slid open and Datricius went out into the hallway. He turned and smiled at her, an affectionate smile this time, his sapphire personifid eyes blank.
She wanted to respond with a smile of her own, but felt drained and empty. She was sure her own eyes would show that her smile was false. She reached out and touched his arm briefly, a gesture that she hoped would assure him how she wanted to feel.
“Tomorrow then,” he said, and leaned over and kissed her.
She thought, as she always did when he kissed her, of Gun, and cursed herself. She drew back and forced a smile at Datricius. “Yes, tomorrow.”
“You think some more about going back on the Enhancers, Aphra. It’s plain to see you need them.”
He walked to the exit. The wide doorway slid open at his approach, and a cacophony of adverts throwing their audiocasts burst into the building.
Aphra wrinkled her nose—the apartment building’s computer systems were playing up again. They should be blocking that irritating noise. “You’ll have to meet my brother sometime,” she called. “There’s no avoiding it!”
A grin spread over Datricius’ handsome face as he walked out onto the narrow landing platform and stood, fourteen floors up, looking out at Min City’s array of skyscrapers lit brilliantly in the night. Advertising displays swirled from one image to the next, while others gave the impression of ants swarming up and around the sides of a building. Sky cars zoomed quietly around the buildings—darker blots against the vivid colors of the advertisements. Then Datricius moved away and the door shut, cutting out all the noise.
* * *
She knelt by the window, looking out over the mountainous city. The tawny blush of sunset shone in her eyes. Beautiful eyes, the merest hint of blue illuminating their crystalline perfection, set in a delicate golden face. Dark amethyst hair that sparkled in the light flowed down around her face, resting just below her slim shoulders. She clutched the windowsill with elegant, fine fingers as she watched the valley below.
The city was built into singular mountains that ranged like standing stones. Dwellings were cut deep inside. High-reaching buildings were set amidst the lush green swaths of trees and plants that ran through the shadowed valleys. Sky cars and hover-riders flitted like insects over the treetops, and glimpses of the glistening blue threads of rivers that wound around the feet of the buildings shone through the covering of leaves. All this she could see from her viewpoint high above.
None of the forest was real, she knew that as she knew her own body. It was a recreation of Earth of years gone by, before the air had become impure, before the cities needed to be encased in shields to protect citizens from the harmful rays of the sun.
She was partway up one of the more notorious mountains, there in one of the warrens. A distant rhythmic bassline drifted up through the passages behind her room, a deep pulsating that would soothe her back to senselessness if she was not careful.
From her window there seemed no end to the mountains and skyscrapers—she could not see beyond the city borders to the arid landscape she knew was there.
The crying had stopped, at least. She lifted her gaze to the sky, searching. Searching.
* * *
“Antha has arrived and is now waiting for you at your usual exit,” said Aphra’s household computer.
Aphra sat on the corner of her bed, her eyes half-closed as she idly stroked Peppi. It took her a few moments to react to her computer’s announcement. She looked across to the mirror on her bedroom wall. The face that looked back at her was as wan and tired as she expected. “Fix my hair.”
“What would you like?”
Aphra opened her mouth, about to request silver, then frowned. He might be there. “Short black.”
In an instant, her long blonde hair whisked upward as it shortened and altered to a neat black bob. She grimaced at herself in the mirror. The color never seemed to suit her. “Skin tone’s wrong. It’s too pale and pink.” She closed her eyes and waited. A soft silken touch, like that of a breath, swept across her face. The feeling was pleasant and she wanted to stretch out on the bed and relax into it, rather than go out for the evening.
“Warm olive adjustment,” said her computer.
Aphra looked critically at her reflection. “It’s too strong. Antha will laugh at me. Tone it down.” She closed her eyes again. The next time she looked she felt more satisfied. If Gun was going to be there, then she had made sure she looked the way he seemed to prefer.
“I want a sweater.”
“Best match for you today,” said the computer, as Aphra’s pyjama top changed color and form into a figure-hugging teal sweater.
“Fine,” she said. “Now give me my favorite skirt and boots. No jewelry.”
Her pyjama pants were immediately replaced with a straight black skirt that settled above the knee, and black boots that fully encased her feet but sent two criss-crossing spirals of celtic patterns up her legs to the hem of her skirt.
She smoothed her hair with a hand, took one last look in the mirror, and left the apartment, pausing to scoop Peppi up in her arms.
In the fourteenth floor hallway she hesitated before the wide doors that led outside. She flinched in anticipation as they slid open, but was relieved to find the advert noises had been blocked.
The only sound was of Antha’s sky car hovering alongside the landing platform. Deep thrumming came from it as it held position—Antha liked the sound of engine noise, though most citizens did not. The sky car was a low, sleek racing model with a brilliant red body decorated in yellow and orange flames sharply outlined in black. Aphra had grown used to the looks it drew in straight-laced Min City.
Her mirrored image in the sky car’s side slipped away as the door opened.
Antha leaned across the seats and looked up at her. “Move your big behind!”
She stuck her tongue out at him as she stepped into the sky car. A faint new sky car smell mingled with Antha’s musky scent—all traces of the puking bounty had been erased.
“Hello Peepee,” Antha said as Peppi wriggled furiously in Aphra’s hands, eagerly trying to reach him.
“Don’t call her that,” Aphra said as the door slid shut.
She let go of Peppi and the little dog immediately bounded onto Antha’s lap, planted her forefeet on his chest and licked his chin.
“Quit slobbering, goober,” he said to Peppi, as he gave her a quick scratch then pushed her off and passed her back to Aphra. “Right, get moving, Jimbo.”
The sky car accelerated smoothly away from the landing platform and merged with the streams of traffic. Aphra sank into the cushy black front passenger seat, her fingers curling under one side to touch a sensor pad. It activated the footrest and armrests. They silently eased into position and she sighed and leaned back.
She looked over at Antha. “Have you called Birn and Lev to let them know we’re coming?”
“Yes, I left them a message.”
She yawned and tried not to pay much attention to the surrounding throng of the evening lights and sky cars. “Did you tell them about Ashley?”
“No, not yet.” He looked at her. “You sound like you’re going to fall asleep on me. No emotion now, huh? You’re in a drained phase?”
She nodded half-heartedly. “I sometimes think it’s better when I’m like this, not crying or feeling anything much.”
“It’s boring,” he said, settling back and closing his eyes. “You don’t laugh. Have you had any dinner?”
“Aphra,” he said languidly, opening one eye briefly to look at her, “do I need to admonish, chastise, and fraternize you? You should be looking after yourself better. Eating is one requirement of that, or so I hear.”
“Sure. And that’s why you’re looking off-color.” He grinned, his eyes still closed.
“Very funny,” she said. “I think I look good.”
“Black hair doesn’t suit you. Green is better.”
She glanced out her side window at a sky car that drew level with them. In its gleaming white body the flaming reflection of Antha’s sky car was conspicuous. It ducked down, a navy sky car moving up to take its place. The reflection slithered across that, too. “If it was up to you, you’d have me wearing pink with yellow spots.”
“Maybe. Listen, Kirk, order in Aphra’s favorite dinner.”
“Affirmative,” said the sky car computer in a high-speed voice. “Beans and onions it is!”
A purple plastic box materialized on the dashboard in front of Aphra, the white logo of her favorite restaurant blinking and spinning above it. She reached for the box, holding Peppi back with one hand.
“Open,” she said when she had the box on her knee and Peppi had been nudged over onto Antha’s lap.
The box unfolded with a flourish, resembling an open flower, a tangle of seafood pasta in the hollow center. An audiocast came from the box, a soft voice accompanied by music. “Thank you for choosing—”
“Shut it up,” Antha said.
The sound was immediately silenced by the sky car computer.
“That’s better. Don’t need to hear it yammering on and asking if you want a half a cow to go with it, or fifty serves of buttered sugar. Plus there’re probably subliminal messages in that music that’ll give me an irresistible urge to go and paint my feet blue.”
“You’re so silly,” Aphra said, picking up the tiny fork that lay on one of the flower’s petals. The handle of the fork extended as she touched it, and she began to eat.
He smirked. “And so handsome. Now, be a good sissy and tell me how your day has been. Did Fluffy from Research drop by and tell Sniffy that Snuffy is madly in love with Puffy?”
Aphra sighed. “Nothing like that happened, but I wish it had. I got in trouble for not finishing my work shift.”
“What kind of trouble?”
She prodded an oyster around the flower box. “I’m under investigation.”
“Investigation schmestigation. Don’t they know you’re not well? Blurp, give Aphra a security check.”
“Dagnabbit!” said the sky car computer’s slightly crazed voice. “She be tagged. I thinky Sevig Empire signature mebbe on this tag. Now squishing the tag.” The computer made a tiny explosive sound effect.
Antha stared at Peppi, a feigned expression of horror on his face. “Rat-dog, was that you?”
Aphra paused in mid-chew of her pasta. “Don’t call her that.”
“But it suits her and she likes it. Don’t you, Rat-dog.”
Peppi licked his hand and wagged her fluffy curly tail enthusiastically, creating a mini fan that wafted ginger hairs around the interior of the sky car.
“Traitor,” Aphra said softly.
Antha shut his eyes again, one hand covering Peppi’s head so that her pointed nose was just visible. “We need to get you some upgraded security on your home computer. Then you’ll be able know when good ole Sevig Empire’s watching you and get them to buzz off.”
“I can’t afford something like that.” She speared some more pasta with her fork. “Besides, what do I ever do that they could be interested in? Everytime I go out of Min City I’m with you. Your security is enough.”
“You shouldn’t work there anyway. Not after what Sevig did to you.”
Aphra swallowed. “What else can I do for a job?”
“Uh,” he grunted. “You’ll find something.”
She watched a distant group of gyrating skyscrapers moving in a slow dance amongst the other, static, buildings. “I might have to soon, anyway. They’re starting to say I’ll have to become a personifid if I want to keep working for them.”
She dug absently at her pasta. “You know…it used to be okay that the first face a client would see was that of a person—it seemed to make Sevig Empire more approachable—but now that doesn’t seem to be necessary.” She yawned and rubbed her eyes. “And it used to be that people would call making enquiries about personifids, but now I’m making appointments for personifid transferences all day long.”
“Don’t become a personifid,” Antha said.
“Of course I won’t,” she said, looking over at him.
He lay back with his eyes closed, his long legs up on the lower extension of his seat, his fingers clasped over Peppi as she lay on his chest.
The sky car began to decelerate as they approached Min City’s northern perimeter. Aphra saw the aboretum at the outer-rim. Citizens strolled across the grass, enjoying an evening ramble. Above the park, droves of sky cars jockeyed for position. Layer upon layer of traffic slowed despite the absence of buildings. Loop jets nudged through, the bullet-shaped passenger transports dwarfing the sky cars, pressing forward as though they owned the airspace. The glowing edge of Min City’s dome loomed before them.
The sky car suddenly dipped and Antha’s eyes popped open. “Have a care, Billy. Don’t be bucking wildly about in busy traffic.”
“Me so sorry,” said the sky car computer. “But you’d do the same thing if you had a hover-rider coming straight at your head.”
“All right, but if Aphra throws chunks, I’m holding you personally responsible.”
“As you wish, fatty.”
Min City’s North gateway soon came into view—thirty transparent tubes stacked together, appearing as one enormous circle dotted with lights. Half of the tubes were for incoming traffic, the other half for outgoing. Loop jets were just able to fit through—buffer shields within the tubes prevented any contact with the sides. Min City’s tubular gateways were the only openings in the city’s all encompassing shields. Any other attempt to fly through the shields was fatal.
Round steel stations encircled each end of the tubes, and high powered zips read the imprints of all occupants traveling through. In this way all imprints were logged in or out. Min City had not yet gone to the extreme of blocking the entry of unimprinted persons as had some cities, but there was talk of it happening soon. The usual security scans that searched for undesirables had been known to fail on occasion.
The sky car passed into the station and through the tube. They emerged on the outside of the dome, where the air was noxious. Once through the gateway the sky was no longer the clean, deep blue that resulted from the protection of the city shields. Rather it was dusky red, dotted with the starry lights of sky cars.
The sky car computer’s voice broke the silence. “Min City regulatory bigwigs want me to tell you that manual control is now yours if you want it, you dozy pillock. We’re out of Min City. You can crash if you want.”
Antha did not move from his position. “Huh.”
Aphra took a faded orange rubbery sleeve out of a glove compartment and pulled it on over her right wrist.
Antha cocked an eye at her. “Isn’t it time you stopped bothering with that? We’re masked, anyway.”
She smoothed the puckers out of the sleeve. “I want to make sure my imprint is totally blocked, just in case.”
“If Sevig was still alive he probably would have tracked you to Lev’s before now and sent his goons after her or Imogen. It’s been ages. He’s done nothing. Imogen’s gone to the moon or wherever now, so there’s no point watching you.”
She flexed her right hand, moving her wrist easily beneath the sleeve. “I’m not convinced he was discontinued.”
“You think the face they have prancing about the Sevig Empire adverts isn’t a False Artificial Representation? The rumors that he’s alive will keep going round and around until it can be proved conclusively that Sevig did or did not go kaboom. Let it go.”
She shook her head. “How do we know that tag I had wasn’t Sevig’s idea?”
“Too clumsy. Doesn’t show enough determination to follow you in a truly sneaky manner.”
She hesitated, looking at the sleeve. “Well, I guess I could try going without it.”
“‘Course you could. Hairball thinks so, too.”
She smiled at him, and leaned over to stroke Peppi behind the ear. Peppi stirred in her sleep, stretching out on Antha’s chest.
“You sound like you’re feeling better,” Antha said. “I told you you should eat, didn’t I?”
She stuffed the orange sleeve back into the glove compartment then settled back into her seat. “Yes, you were right again.”
He grunted and nodded. “Sometimes it’s tough being me and being right all the time. You want to watch a movie? I’m going to catch some sleep, not that there’s much time for that, but I need some. I had a long day.”
At his words his seat reclined until it was fully horizontal, extending to support his whole body.
Aphra looked out the windscreen to the desert landscape speeding along beneath them. There were jagged cracks in the dry crust where the Pacific Ocean had been long ago. Shadowed folds of rocks and enormous stretches of rugged, barren hills lay beneath the black tinge along the horizon that was beginning to spread upward bringing the night.
She never seemed to tire of the desert—a lonely beauty, marred only by other vehicles fleeting across the sky.
“No,” she said quietly. “I’m fine.”