A Pregnant Trint Is Still Formidable

An excerpt from Hard As Roxx, “Who’s Your Daddy?”

“So, your brilliant plan is that you kidnap me, Roxx rushes off to rescue me in a fit of rage and you kill her.”

“Something like that,” he answered. He had the disconcerting habit of talking with his hands, gun hand included.

“Yeah, well, I’ve seen that movie. I didn’t like it much.”

“I promise you, this is no movie. There will be no happy ending unless you cooperate. Now sit down!”

He aimed his gun at Trint’s belly. The threat and message were clear: “You are required to be alive when we land. Your child is not.”

Trint smiled, but the taste of it was bitter in her mind. She sat down and began rubbing her hands over her protruding belly.

“What the hell are you doing?” Emersen asked. He came and stood over her.

“Soothing my baby. She seems to be trying to kick the shit out of you.”

“Well tell her to stop it, or you’ll both get shot.”

She smiled and stopped rubbing. “It’s okay, I’m done now, anyway.” Trint tilted her head in the way Roxx did when she was maneuvering. “I’m thinking there are two flaws with your plan, Emersen.”

He looked genuinely amused. “Oh really? And what would those be?”

“One, Roxxy hates movies, except for old westerns. The idea of rushing out like the hero and rescuing the damsel in distress? She would think that’s stupid. Roxx would just as soon talk Poppa into nuking the damn place before we get there.”

“Oh, I don’t think that will be a problem.” Emersen laughed, but this time, it sounded hollow. He knew Roxx, knew she was just crazy enough to do it. He was hiding something, but he was still scared of her. “And what is the second flaw?”

It was her turn to smile. “Why do you think me and Roxx got together?”

“Because for a dyke, she’s pretty damn hot.”

“Well, there’s that, except for the d-word part. Actually, it’s because despite what people may think, Roxxy and I are soul mates. And you know what?” Trint asked, leaning forward, her bound hands still on her belly.

Emersen gave a smirk and leaned forward too. “What, Miss Trint?”

Trint brought her hands up swiftly and jammed her hidden knife into Emersen’s throat.

“I ain’t a goddamned damsel in distress, bitch, that’s what.” Trint stood quickly, Emersen’s blood gushing down her arm. His eyes were open, his mouth working, though only gurgles were emitted from his punctured throat. No-chest, who initially reeled back in horror, now regained a bit of composure and rushed toward Trint, his hand fumbling in his pocket. She grabbed Emersen’s hand, which was still holding his gun and squeezed the trigger.

Excerpt: Hibi – Human Brainwave Interface Device

I am writing a novel and a collection of stories that serve as a sequel and adjuncts to my Aligned Worlds series. However, I don’t intend on publishing either, but will instead send them free to my few very dedicated readers.

The novel, Trinity’s Redemption, manages to be the prequel to Hard as Roxx, and the sequel to both Roxx and If A Robot Play The Blues Do It Still Be Funky. How’s that for ambitious? 🙂 It begins with my lead character’s early life, skims past the events of Hard As Roxx, and ends in the post-Roxx period, just before the events of Robot Blues. I think it will be a gas, but I’m not sure, because this is the first novel I haven’t plotted in advance.

Trusting in the Muse for this one.

Here’s an excerpt where my main character explains how a Hibi worked for a hearing-impaired woman and her husband.

Enjoy.

I knew her Hibi was augmenting everything she saw with available information. If she looked at a tree, the Hibi would offer information about the tree and the bird she spotted nesting there. She’d learn to filter the information so that it only showed up when she wondered about it. Later, her brain would teach her to ignore all of the info she didn’t care about. For now, however, her mind was abuzz with data. She peeked up at a pair of white-haired joggers and then looked back down. “Should I be able to hear their thoughts?”

“You aren’t. Those are … verbal messages they’re sending each other. Some of these people have early prototypes. Mom kept them pretty local.”

“Uh-huh.” She was still bent over, hands on knees, staring at the soft pavement.

“We’ve told people how to set the protocols to private so others don’t overhear your conversations. I guess they’ve gotten so used to no one’s having a Hibi that they’re careless.” The couple stopped, smiled at me, and waved.

“Hello Mr. Uwazie.”

“Hi, Trint,” he said.

His wife smiled, signed, and mouthed silent words to me. I looked to my friend, who looked confused, but answered, “My name’s Krista. I’m living with the Sandahls for a while.”

“Yeah, she’s my girlfriend, but she’s ‘in,’ so she doesn’t want anyone to know.”

“I’m not in! I’m so not!”

Mrs. Uwazie clapped and said, both signing and through silently mouthed words that my Hibi let me hear, “I am so happy for you both. I remember my first girlfriend. She never would admit we were together in public.”

“Yah, isn’t that so annoying?” asked Krista.

The three of us were about to enter a long-winded chat on dating etiquette, I could tell, but Mr. Uwazie tapped his wrist. It was a silly old-fashioned gesture, since I knew his timekeeper was implanted in his head. All he had to do was think, “I wonder what the time is,” and his Hibi would tell him it was ten past noon.

“We have to get home and changed, Stella.”

Mrs. Uwazie nodded, though her back had been to him.

“Oh, okay,” said Krista. “Another time then. It was so nice meeting you both.”

We said our goodbyes and Krista and I moved on. I waited for Krista’s inquiry. She didn’t disappoint. “Trint, how come Mrs. Uwazie had a robot voice? I mean, it’s a nice voice, really nice, but she sounds like the elevator in our building.”

“She doesn’t have a voice,” I answered. “She only has about five percent hearing, and she had her vocal chords frozen in a medibot accident some years back.”

“Ah.”

We walked along for another five minutes, speaking to this person and that, while my friend looked increasingly puzzled.

“Trint?”

“Yeah?”

“How come I could hear her if she can’t talk?”

Oh my god, that question felt so good.

I’d been waiting to explain this all to her for weeks. In a breathy rush, I answered, gesturing as though I was simultaneously hand-tossing pizza. “Because your Hibi can hear her Hibi, and it sent you what she was thinking via some subaural neural messages that your Hibi routed to your speech center. You must like the elevator voice, since that’s the one it picked to be Mrs. Uwazie’s. It could have picked any.”

I smiled, because this confirmed Krista wasn’t a narcissist. In tests, they often heard people’s subaural speech in their own voices, because they were so self-enamored.

Her eyes brightened. “So I can hear deaf people now?”

“If they have a Hibi. They can hear you too, sort of. Her Hibi translates your speech into signals in her brain. She used to be able to hear, so it’s easy for her. But it can also read sign language and decode that into speech too.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah. Mom said the Hibi can even decode for people who never heard speech. I haven’t studied the mechanism, so I can’t explain it, but somehow it teaches her brain speech as though she’d always been able to hear it.”

“Jesus Applesauce.”

“Deafness? Cured.” I wiped a tear, suddenly feeling overwhelmed by emotion. “By my little mommy.”

Krista sniffled too, but said, “She’s taller than I am, Trint.”

“I know. But she’s my mommy, so she’s little because I say so.”

“What was Mr. Uwazie’s accent? It was so pretty.”

I grinned. “Not accent. He was speaking Igbo. So were you. He’s never learned English and refuses to on principle.”

“His Hibi doesn’t work?”

“The man won’t learn the language of the country he lives in. You think he’s gonna accept a brain implant?”

“Good point.” She took a step and froze. “Wait. How were they talking then?”

“She can hear him now, and he reads her lips perfectly. Old school. But Mom says he reminds her of her grandfather, so she integrated a Hibi’s receptor into his hearing aids. It creates an artificial voice that he can hear. I’m not even sure he understands that his wife hasn’t really suddenly learned to talk.”

“Is he … senile?” she asked.

“Him? No. He’s just sort of a go-with-the-flow kinda dude.”

“Like me!” claimed Krista. She walked and stopped again, causing me to bump into her.

“Dude,” I said, rubbing my nose.

“How many languages do I speak now?”

“All of them. Well, all of them with an integratable dictionary and morphology, so, about 300-ish.”

“Holy shit.” Her eyes were wide. “I was going to major in linguistics. What the hell am I supposed to do now?”

I shrugged. “Help Mom improve the Hibi’s translation routines?”

“Hell yeah, I will,” she said. With that, she grinned, kissed me, and we both took off running toward the nearest subway station. I had a lot to show her.

Vote for Hard As Roxx

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From Whence Come Titles

Titles–book titles, poem titles, story titles–come from a variety of places. In their purest form, they emerge from the work itself, encapsulating the theme in a few words. However, they can bend the light to the piece to the extent that people occasionally struggle to understand how the author came up with his title. In rare cases, such as with my latest science fiction novel, the title comes first, the story comes second, and, if you’re lucky, as I was, the context behind the title comes last.

With that in mind, here is the passage of the novel when the title emerges, from a conversation between the protagonist–Riley, an advanced-model android, and his very first musician mentors, a man named Moze and his son, Joe.

Riley

Joe took his father’s guitar and handed it to Riley. “Play me something. Maybe I can show you what I mean.”

Riley took the guitar and Moze held onto the bass. Then the android closed his eyes, thought, and then pulled up a memory file of an old spiritual tune his grandmother had taught him. It was more difficult with the guitar, since she played it on the keyboards, but he managed to interpret it well enough that Moze and Joe picked up on it and played along. At the right point, almost five minutes in, Joe began singing the words Riley had heard his grandma sing for as long as he could remember. He fought through the memories of her, and when they became too strong, he ceased playing. Moze and Joe drew silent as well, and a smattering of applause followed.

“See, that’s what I meant. You’re playing with your mind, not your heart. Are you a vid recorder or are you a man?” asked Joe.

“I don’t understand.”

“You didn’t play a single wrong note. You played that old-ass song like you was there when they wrote it.”

Moze chimed in. “I can push a button on anything with a speaker and make it play it back nice and pretty. You ain’t never gonna convince nobody you a real man by playing music like that. You just a fancy music box is what they’ll say.”

“Then music can’t help me,” said Riley.

“Playing exactly what someone else writes the way they wrote it? No, that won’t help you do anything,” Joe said.

Riley turned and began packing up his belongings. He would need a different plan if he were to discover his consciousness.

Moze looked at his son and nudged him. “Say something.”

The two argued back and forth in a silent language known only to them before Joe said, “Riley, all we’re saying is that you have to play with your heart. If you want to know who you are, close your eyes and make shit up. It’s kind of that simple.”

“‘Make shit up?’ You mean improvisation?” Riley shook his head. “I’m not sure I can do that.”

“Improvise or stay up all night writing new music and play it the next day pretending you’re making it up as you go.”

“Joe’s right,” said Moze. “When they look at you up on that stage, they ain’t gonna care if you play all them notes right. They just want to know if you can swing, if you can make them move. They want to know if you can make them cry.”

Riley stopped packing and looked up at Moze. “I don’t know the answer to that.”

“Then answer this,” said Moze. “If a robot play the blues, I mean the real blues, do it still be funky?”

“Funky?” asked Riley. “Please explain.”

Moze said, “When there’s a crowd, all they want is to feel you in the music and see that you and the music breathe the same air. See, the universe is music, and that means you and the universe are the same thing, that thing they a part of. You show ‘em you feel what you’re playing, and they’ll believe you are whoever you say you are.”

“If you have a soul, it’ll come out in the music,” said Joe.

 “How do I know if I can really feel it or if I’m just following my programming?” Riley asked.

“We’re all just following our programming,” said Joe.

“Do me a favor,” said Moze. “I want you to take this big, beautiful bass and pretend it’s your dead grandma. I want you to close your eyes and play me her song.”

“Her song?”

“Whatever song she would sing to you if she was here, so you’d know she’d come back. You think you can do that?”

“I will try.”

Riley closed his eyes and began playing. It was soft and slow at first, but Arguela was only soft and slow during her later years. Most of her life, according to the stories she’d told Riley, she spent swimming upstream through adversity or struggling to prove she was more than others assumed. Riley could always imagine the fierce, pounding rhythm of her determination, and that was the beat of her, the complex, harmonic strength she brought to the world he knew. That beat was the rhythm he played now. After three tocks, he realized that while Joe accompanied him on the drums, Moze never joined in. He ceased playing, opened his eyes, and the crowd gathered around him began to applaud, favoring them with loose change they tossed in the hats Moze left about to collect offerings.

To Riley’s right, Moze was in tears.

“Damn, I wish I had met that woman,” was all he said.

Herk Meets Jemini Starr

Here’s an excerpt from 20 Million Billion Leagues Past Detroit, wherein Herk Delacroix meets Jemini Starr for the first time.

Herk Delacroix

Five minutes later, Herk reached the door of his penthouse, apartment B-113 South, the number representing that he lived in the second of two towers on the south face of the 113th floor. One day soon, after he paid for his new, permanent, probably unlucky heart, he would move to the North face and awaken to the sight of sailing vessels every day. Herk set down one coffee and placed his left palm on the door. It glowed red to validate him and clicked open. Something felt wrong. He slid his four bags from his shoulder, set the other cup down, and pulled his stun pistol from his shoulder holster.

Quietly, softly, he swung the door open. There was a small glimmer of red light coming from a console on the far-left wall. The bank of windows that fronted his living room was exposed with the curtains wide open. A faint drone of music came from the right side of the dark room. It was jazz—Miles Davis, in fact, Bitches Brew to be precise. He hated that album. Miles had been on something when he cut that vinyl noise ring. Barely visible over the rounded arm of his nine-foot-long, enormously wide sofa, were two pretty, delicate, padded purple feet wiggling to Miles’s untempoed beat. They reminded him of a cat’s feet.

“You want to put that thing away before you hurt somebody with it?” said a female voice.

Whose voice is that? he asked Becky.

“Unknown intruder,” she answered aloud.

“This again,” said the woman. She sat up, the light above her switched on, and Herk was face-to-face with a lovely young woman with fuzzy purple skin, curly blonde hair, pointy ears, and the cutest little tail he’d ever seen. “My name’s Jemini Starr,” she said, “and you are in all kinds of trouble, mister.” She raised a glass to him, one of his glasses, filled with what he recognized as his best 1960s-era American Scotch. “Nice whiskey, by the way,” she said.

Jemini Starr

“Oh, do help yourself,” Herk replied. He slipped his gun back in its holster.

“I did. You’re almost out, sorry.”

“It’s okay, I brought more with me.”

She raised her glass, said, “Cheers,” and downed the rest. She stood, swayed a bit, held her head, and sat back down. “Ooh, I think I may have overdone it a little.”

Herk walked back to his door, brought in his bags, and picked up the two cups of still-hot coffee. He sipped one and approached Starr. “You’re gonna need this,” he said. “That whiskey is a lot stronger than Cetusian whisky.” He handed her the coffee, smiling. “Hope you like tall blacks.”

“You flirting with me, big guy?”

He gave her a confused look. The woman was weird, even if she was cute. Before he could ask her who she was and why she’d broken into his apartment, much less how she’d beaten his unbeatable security system, she took a sip of the coffee, opened her bag and pressed a device he couldn’t quite make out. The windowed wall at the south face of the room disappeared and a portal appeared opening to what looked like a beach house. It was vaguely familiar.

“Julip Seven?” he asked.

“Yep, that’s home, she said. “You wanna clean up or something before we head out?”

“Am I going someplace?”

She pointed to her house. “There. I have someone I want you to meet.”

“And if I choose not to come with you?”

She showed him her gun. It was much, much bigger than his. “Then I shoot you, dispose of the body, and no one ever sees you again.”

“Give me five minutes and I’ll be right with you,” he said.

“Take your time. You’re not really in that much trouble. I was just being dramatic.”

Herk gulped down the rest of his coffee and said, “It worked. You almost made me piss myself.” He set down his cup and went to pee. When he was done, he thought of pulling out his backup weapon in his medicine cupboard but thought better of it. Let’s see where this is leading. She might be worth a laugh or two.

Excerpt from If A Robot Play The Blues … Herk and Riley meet Bill Withers

From If A Robot Play The Blues Do It Still Be Funky, a short scene wherein Herk and Riley meet Bill Withers backstage and provide a bit of inspiration.

Across the room, a muscular man with a tight afro and wearing a fitted shirt and tan slacks sat fingering an acoustic guitar. “Dipper!” he said, seeing Herk, and rose, crossing the room. After their embrace, the guitarist looked to the others in the room. “Hey, give us a few minutes, fellas, okay?” The others agreed and left, with most patting Herk on the back and smiling.

“This is my good friend, Rashon Riley, but don’t nobody call him by his first name.”

“Bill, brother,” said Withers. Herk tells me you play a little bit.”

“Yes, bass mostly, and a little saxophone.”

“Riley plays piano and guitar too.”

Withers laughed. “Man, I’m trying to hold my own with two instruments. You’re out here trying to be a band all by yourself.” He stepped to the back, picked up a guitar, and handed it to Riley. “What’d you say you play with me a little?”

Riley stared at it. “I’m not sure I know … that I know your songs.”

“Yeah, Herk tells me you’re into that bebop vibe. Don’t worry about that. We’ll figure it out.”

Riley took the guitar but looked nervous. “I’ll do my best.”

“Look, if you come from a very small place like I do, when you get to a large city like this, maybe you feel a little out of place. But all you can do is trust that there’s somebody looking out for you.” He smiled. “Trust it’s all gonna be alright.” Withers called out the key he’d be playing in and started. By the time he had gotten to the nineteenth “I know,” singing about the pain and helplessness of loving something you’re certain can’t love you back in the way you need it too, Riley, his eyes shut, was playing for Chan, stuck with his low-level emotionalism despite the tide of empathy she commonly surfed on. They finished the song, no more than two minutes into it, and Withers smiled. “That was okay, brother.” He patted Riley on the shoulder. “You made me feel that.”

“Can you do ‘Grandma’s Hands?’” Herk asked. “You got to hear this one, Riley. It’s like a love song from Bill to every grandma who ever lived.”

Riley was still awash in the first song, and said, “I miss my grandma every day. She was my favorite thing in the world. I don’t think I ever told her that.” He felt something on his cheek, touched it, and looked at Herk in surprise. “I didn’t think I could cry.”

“We can all cry, brother,” said Withers. “That’s what makes us men.”

The dressing room door opened just then, and a man poked in his head. “Five minutes, Mr. Withers.”

“On my way.” To Herk and Riley, he said, “I guess you’ll have to wait a while for the song.” Withers smiled and headed toward the stage.

Sometime later, Herk and Riley sat in the center of the third row at the best concert Riley had ever seen. On cue, and just as Riley had come to believe his having played with some ancient music legend was a fantasy he’d dreamt up, Withers said to the audience, “Lotta folks of all different nationalities and things come up to me and say, ‘I dug my grandmother too.’” The audience, knowing what was coming, applauded, while Bill Withers, seated on his high stool, looked directly at Riley. Withers kept on with his introduction to the song, while Herk leaned over and whispered.

“He met you for three minutes, and in that time, he could feel you.” Riley looked at him. “If he can feel you, so can everyone else.”

“I don’t understand.”

Herk tapped his head. “You exist, brother.”

Read Chapter 1 of If A Robot Play The Blues Do It Still Be Funky

Below is Chapter 1 of my new #SciFi tome, If A Robot Play The Blues Do It Still Be Funky?, available now on Amazon.


If you like Chapter One, “What A Wonderful World,” how about giving the rest of the book a go by clicking on the link above. You can also find more info or read a longer sample on my author site. Enjoy!

1 – What A Wonderful World

Riley had been working the rivet line for as long as he could remember. Sure, the boss was convinced that he was ready to be promoted to screws, but he was far less certain. The rivet line was almost completely automated. All Riley need do was set up the machinery at the start of the day, ensure it was running according to specifications, and take random samples of the rivets throughout the manufacturing runs. With the screw lines, given the extraordinary diversity of the Cetusians’ product lines, during any single ten-hour shift, Riley might be expected to tear down and set up six different runs. He operated four machines at once, prepared the different gauge wires for the headers, and inspected fully two-and-a-half percent of the outputs. The Cetusians were fastidious, and Gohke Brothers Manufacturing prided itself for its workmanship. Or rather, it prided itself for knowing precisely how to produce less than the contracted fail rate by spreading bad screws across different lots. That was Riley’s key skill—doing the quick math required to spread out the fails and not waste any of the Gohkes’ precious metal. No one ever explained to Riley why they wouldn’t just pull the fails and send them to Smelting instead of shipping them to the customer. Knowing his bosses, it likely had something to do with decaunits of a credit’s difference in the incremental costs of rework versus shipping.

That, or his bosses were just assholes.

Assholes, he was beginning to understand, delighted in getting away with whatever they could. Riley only wished his mother had done a better job of teaching him how to distinguish the perpetual asshole from the ordinary once-in-a-while jerk. He had often been prone to surrounding himself with the wrong kinds of people, mainly due to his not being able to distinguish them from the right sort. He was pondering that on Day One of the screw line when his new supervisor, Mr. Janks, called him over.

“R3, come here a tock,” said Janks, waving two fingers at him.

Riley trotted over and stood tall, though that placed his eyes only at the lowest whisper of Janks’s beard hair. “What can I do for you, boss?”

Janks shook his head. “None of that boss, jive, R3. We’re an informal crew here.” When Riley nodded his understanding and forced out a smile, Janks continued. “I need you to tune the machines’ rejection protocols down …” He stopped and checked his notes. “… six-point-three percent.”

“Won’t that spin out more fails, boss … er, Mr. Janks?”

“It’s Jossa, kid. And yes, it will, but it’ll also speed up the inspection processing by seven percent, and that gain will increase our throughput accordingly.”

Riley blinked his confusion for a dash or three and then asked, “What do I do with the added rejects?” He counted in his head. “That’ll spit out at least, what, two and a half percent more rejects than the spec?”

“Three percent, yeah. But it’s okay. We’re running a deal for the Kanit, and it allows us a higher fail rate. The bit you was running in the morning was for Kattal. We pop a screw or fail a rivet too many for that crew and somebody springs a leak.” Janks popped the chewed end of a cigar in his mouth and scratched his dirty blond beard. “No one cares if one of them rabbit types has a wonky screw or two. Them domes they’re building won’t fall just because we pushed up to our fail limit.” Janks pulled out a match, scratched it along his hairy jaw line, and lit his cigar, speaking through clenched teeth. “Now hop to it. This little talk of ours has cost us three hundred credits of profit.”

“I’ll reset the boxes to the new fail rate and start the run,” Riley said, nodding.

“Good man. Good man.” Janks smiled at him. “You’re gonna do alright here, son.”

Riley faked another smile and headed back to his station. It was thirteen minutes past the end of the lunch break, and the shine had already rubbed off the new job. It seemed to defy logic to intentionally fail a job right up to the contractual limits of doing so just because you could, but arguing was a good way to get demoted. Like most of the workers, he didn’t earn a salary, but the credits he picked up enabled him to shop at the Gohke Brothers’ Store and made life for his mother and grandmother bearable. Mom was recently retired, and grandma had never worked, so they needed whatever help he could give them. He would fail as many as they told him and would keep his opinions to himself. Besides, like Janks said, no one would die because of it.

He began tuning his station to the new specs and caught the eye of a co-worker, a Crull female named Oorg. He could tell she was female by the slightly warmer yellow of her skin compared to the male Crulls. Besides, she’d chosen to shape herself like a humanoid female, since the mostly Cetusian management team could never tell Crulls apart, and her artificial co-workers rarely could.

“Janks tell you we’re screwing up worse than usual, on purpose, for this gig?” she asked.

Riley nodded in the affirmative.

“Seems just as easy to tune the damned machines to never fail, but you didn’t hear that from me.”

Riley made an expression as close to a confused frown as he was capable of, with the skin between his dark eyes knitting into a brown fold. He tried to remember from whom he might have previously heard that perfection on the line was as cost-effective as hitting the new fail targets, but he couldn’t recall having the discussion prior to speaking with Oorg. After five ticks, he said, “I am almost certain you are whom I heard it from. You just said it, just now.”

Oorg gave a robust laugh that made her gelatinous torso wobble with delight. Her literal waves of laughter gave Riley his first real smile of the day. “Riley, you are one funny dude. Did you know that?” He did not. “Come on, we best start pooking shit up or the bosses will think we ain’t trying hard.”

Riley did as she suggested, though the logic of her statement puzzled him for the remainder of the afternoon. By the time the evening bell sounded, he had completed the Kanit gig and retooled for the next day’s run, a deal for the unalterably fastidious Darlushians. Their allowable fail rate was zero-point-zero percent, and Riley knew the fact that he was even being allowed to work the deal meant the company trusted him. That knowledge was almost enough to make the work seem worth doing. Almost, but not quite.

“R3!” called Janks as he was leaving. “I need you here first thing tomorrow. Those yellow douche nozzles get all jumpy if we don’t run the inspection protocols twice.”

“Right, Jossa. I’ll be here before the doors open.”

“Good man,” said Janks, grinning at him through a cloud of pungent smoke.

Riley turned and headed out the door and into the dimming red haze of twilight. Soft hands clapped him on both shoulders, and he felt the full weight of a familiar body press against his back. “Teacher’s pet. First day on the new gig, and the boss is already fawning over you.”

“Hey, Nilda,” he said, reaching around to pull her legs around him. “I’m not the favorite. He just thinks I’m the one he can get to do whatever dirty work comes up.”

“He don’t know you like I do,” she said.

He could feel all thirty-six of her teeth grinning against his back. It made him smile too. “Nobody knows me like you do.”

“Not even your mama.” Nilda leaned around him and kissed his cheek. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see her looking up at his hair. “When you gonna cut this shrubbery of yours?” she asked.

He gave a shrug. “It just grows back. Kind of a waste of time.” Riley’s hair was combed up from the back and was swept back from the front, culminating in a rounded bush of silky mahogany-hued hair that sat five inches above his five-foot-ten-inch frame. Ringlets streamed even higher above that soft bun, looking like blooming flower stalks.

“If you ever do cut it,” said Nilda, “I think I just may fall down and die.”

Riley stopped walking. “We’ve spoken about your saying things like that, Nil. We agreed, no more talk of dying.”

“You agreed. I never did.” She pulled against him, meaning to set her feet down on the ground. When he didn’t yield, she said, “Let me go, Riles. I can walk.”

He put his hands behind him, cupping both cheeks of her considerable derriere. “I know you can. That’s got nothing to do with why I’m carrying you home.”

She leaned into him, the blooming pink of her face contrasting with the black and white strands of hair that flowed to her shoulders. “Then why are you still carrying me?” He began walking, trying to ignore her. It didn’t work, which wasn’t surprising, considering she’d begun trying—fruitlessly—to find a ticklish spot along his sides. “No fair. You turned your skin off.”

“I didn’t turn it off. Skin doesn’t turn off. I just deactivated my sensitivity for a bit. He gave her a half smile. “I know your tricks.”

Nilda stuck her tongue out at him. “You’re no fun.” They continued in silence for a time, she now contentedly on his back. They wound through the cobbled streets until they reached the row of neat, though cheaply constructed, two-level houses that most of the factory’s workers lived in. The company owned them, not the workers, and as a result, few showed any personal touches that would indicate an actual family had taken root within and blossomed. Most sat forlorn above dying grass.

“Weeds grow like these huts,” Riley said, turning downhill toward Lansdowne Street where Nilda’s house lay. “They try to plant flower bulbs in a bed of weeds and are surprised when nothing grows out of them but more weeds.”

“What you mean? Me and Miru is weeds? We live here too, you know.”

“No, I mean the weeds are choking the life out of you two. Soon, there will be nothing left. You need to leave. Go where there are real doctors, not these company … bots … whose programming is limited to ‘Do you still have two functioning arms? Then get back to work.’” He glared, a brief flash of ire painting his handsome brown face. It was a nice oval face covered with full eyebrows, a trim beard and mustache, and full lips that, combined with his perennially sad-looking eyes, made it seem as though he might be lost in thought or pouting about some unknown wrong done to him ages before. It was his mother’s face, and Nilda’s second favorite in the entire universe.

“Put me down, Riles,” she said, gently tapping his arm. He did as she asked, without question. She faced him, looking up into his eyes. “We can’t leave. You know that. I owe too much to the company. And even if I didn’t, who’s going to pay for this fancy medical treatment of yours? You?”

“I’m already working a second job to save up the money. You know that, Nil.”

“I know it, and if the company ever finds out, they’ll terminate you, and you’ll still owe them credits for your mama’s house.”

“Nobody knows. My other job doesn’t even know I’m not …” He stopped short, unable to say the words.

“They don’t know you’re an artificial. Shit.” She inhaled and blew out a gust of wind. “Lord, boy, if they ever find out …” Nilda reached up and fluffed his hair, playing with the twin ringlets that dangled before each ear. “Well, your mama did a good job by you, that’s for sure. If folks didn’t know what to look for, they’d never figure it out.”

“I look like her,” he said. It must have been the thousandth time he’d said it to her. She nodded for the thousandth time and smiled. “I don’t think anyone knows what I am,” he said. “They just think maybe I’m a bit, I don’t know, off.”

“Plenty of organics act like you, Riles. Not everyone always knows how to react to us emotional types. You do alright by yourself.” She sighed again and then tiptoed to kiss his cheek. “You just keep your head down at this new job of yours.” She leaned back and frowned. “Where are you working, anyway?”

“I am wait staff at the diner over by Alcetum. They do a huge business for the midnight work crews.”

“Well, as long as you serve quickly, no one will expect you to smile on cue.”

“I know how to smile,” Riley said. He gave her one of his best.

“You don’t need to furrow your brow when you smile, honey. It makes you look nervous, not happy.”

He tried to look up at his forehead without success. “I didn’t know it was doing that.”

Before she could respond, an automated cart rattled itself down the street, accompanied by the vegetable vendor who operated it. Riley instinctively averted his eyes, looking down at the street. Nilda looked defiantly over her left shoulder at the vendor. She was tense, obviously expecting something. She got it. The vendor reached onto his cart, pulled up two spoiled heads of bella-bella and hurled the stinking, rotten shells at Riley. The first one missed, but the second caught her artificial friend square in the chest. Riley didn’t duck. Didn’t frown. Didn’t flinch.

“Robot Scum, taking jobs from people who need it. What the clot you gonna do with money? Upgrade ya’ clottin’ software?” The man went to pick up another head of bella-bella, but Nilda stood in front of her friend. The vendor stopped but didn’t drop the vegetable.

Riley said, “I don’t get money. I am paid only in credits.”

“Credits that organics could be earning,” said the vendor. “Clotting faux.”

Riley felt the sting of the racist term but showed no visible reaction. He was a faux, short for faux organic. He was infrahuman; a terroid, nearly Terran; a farroid, almost Farran; an ersatz man; a pakkot, from the Cetusian ‘pakkotuuy’ meaning forced laborer; or even a metapakk, which was somehow meant to be a compliment. What he was not, apparently, was a man.

“You know damned well that the credits he earns are less than the cost of food and the rent they charge,” Nilda said. Her hands were on her hips, a sign she meant business. “And I earn real money, but even that barely keeps my head above water.”

“Still.” The man sneered in Riley’s direction, showing missing and tar-stained teeth. “These damned autobots take from the likes of us. What we needs pakkots for in the first place?”

“Maybe to teach you basic manners and good grammar, to start,” she answered. “My friend here is trained to run that fucking factory, but he took a shitty low-end job just so he can take care of his Farran mother and her mother-in-law. His organic Farran mother, by the way. Instead of sitting on his cute butt and waiting for a supervisor to get sick and die, he started on the line. Do you have any idea how much an android of his caliber is worth?” The vendor said nothing, shaking his head in the negative. “Let’s just say he’s worth ten of me.” She looked at the man, her face flushing pink. “Probably twenty of you.” She’d begun to perspire. Her breathing began to labor.

Riley took her arm and she calmed. “She didn’t mean that, sir. She’s just angry.”

The vendor looked from Riley to Nilda and back. “S’okay. I probably deserved it.” He turned back to his cart, picked up two fresh bella-bellas, and held them out to Riley. The android resisted the urge to flinch. “Take ‘em. Give ‘em to your mom to cook up. They’ll spoil anyway, if nobody uses ‘em.”

Riley stepped to the man and took the vegetables, remembering to thank him, but choosing not to smile, in case it just made him look nervous. The vendor muttered something to his cart, and it started up again, rattling and clattering along the stony streets. The sky had gone from pink to gray now, meaning night had fallen, or at least the dingy twilight that passed for nightfall on his part of the planet.

“How do you suppose he knew I was an artificial?” he asked, watching the vendor disappear around a bend.

 Riley’s expression looked to Nilda to be a cross between worry and hurt feelings. “I don’t know, honey,” she said, “but you better be careful at your waiter’s job. There could be others as sharp as him.” She reached up and stroked his soft head. “Especially those who work with the public all day.”

“Perhaps I should have Mom look at my code. Maybe there’s a glitch he picked up on.”

“You don’t have glitches, honey. You’re just … you.” She blinked back a proper dose of sadness and forced a smile at him. “If I was twenty cycles younger, I’d marry you.”

Riley tilted his chin at her and frowned. “I would say ‘yes’ to that.”

Nilda bloomed a smile and said, “I best get going, Riles. I need to pick up Miru. You know how she gets when I’m late.”

Riley gave an exaggerated shudder and smiled. This time, he looked happy and not at all nervous.

Nilda noticed and returned the smile. “She loves you too, you know.” Riley blinked at her and stood still, looking like a trim soldier in a white shirt and brown pants. Instead of an insignia, however, he wore as a badge of honor a gold chain about his neck with lettering that read “Riley.” His grandma had given it to him on his last “birthday.” Nilda fingered it affectionately, then tiptoed and kissed his soft cheek. “You should come by this weekend. Miru will be happy to see you.”

“I’ll try,” Riley said.

“Try hard.” She brushed a finger along his arm. “That skin of yours is organic. It needs nutrients.”

“I don’t get them from food. Mom makes me an oil to apply to it.”

Nilda frowned. “Oils can’t stimulate your pleasure center. Come by, learn how to eat. It’ll throw off the folks at your new job.”

“I’ll … I’ll try,” Riley said. “No promises.”

Nilda kissed him again and then began down the road. Without turning, she yelled back, “I’ll tell Miru you promised to come by.”

“But I said, ‘No promises!’ Nilda!” Riley heard her giggle, but she didn’t reply. Sometimes, Nilda could be very confusing.

Excerpt from 20 Million Billion Leagues from Detroit

When a tall, dark alien stranger meets a coffee robot.

You can read a longer sample or purchase the book at https://allauthor.com/book/51536/20-million-billion-leagues-past-detroit-aligned-worlds-book-4/ or at the Amazon link below.

Starry, Starry Night

The trip home was much easier than the trip out, assuming one ignored jet lag, or more properly, spacetime lag. It had been a quarter past ten o’clock Central Daylight Time on a warm, July morning in Detroit when Herk stepped into the men’s restroom at Dick’s Drugstore, entered the furthest stall, locked the door, and flushed the john. He’d barely released the knob when the white porcelain toilet transformed into a metallic bowl with a transparent seat set to vaporize any waste sent its way. He flushed again, this time hearing a mild hum instead of the whoosh of water, and the portal he’d come to know so well closed. Having emerged from the stall, which had thankfully been empty this time, he washed his hands out of habit and exited.

It was just past the second of thirty hours that marked Taucetus’s third day of a ten-day week. The sun wouldn’t rise for another five-and-a-half hours and then he could look forward to fifteen hours of sunlight before night fell again. Time was steady on Taucetus. It was sturdy, strong, reliable; everything on Taucetus was steady. He was home, and it was mid-winter. It never snowed on the planet, nor did the temperature ever drop below freezing, but the wind could be biting, and here, near the ocean, it bit hard.

Herk pulled up the collar on his red and black checked suit coat, buttoned the top and bottom buttons, though he knew that was a fashion faux pas, and headed out into the cold. He was lucky. Though the streets were barren, the taxis were running and a blue hovercab pulled up almost immediately after he thought in the request. Herk was lightyears past the simple implants most used on Taucetus and relied on brainwave interactions with his remote computer arrays. Essentially, all he needed to do was think of a request, and his custom-designed implant would bounce it off any friendly, available satellite and direct the request to his master controller, an AI he called Becky. Becky would then tap into the right series of databases to bring him the answer. He didn’t know whether Becky was the brilliant one or him, but it didn’t matter since he also wasn’t sure where he ended and she began. That was especially true since he’d installed a version of Becky on every Aligned World he’d visited.

Home, Beck, he thought.

The taxi’s female voice answered, “Tower Block Alpha Central, North Ocean Way, entered.” The cab took off with a mild hum. Herk gestured and set the inside temperature to seventy-six degrees, the temperature he had become accustomed to in Friday’s apartment. Their final—for six months, he reminded himself—lovemaking session had spilled over into the next morning, and before he could drag himself out of there, three more days had passed. It was fortuitous, as it turned out and not just because Friday had been far more pleased that he’d bought her an engagement ring than she’d initially led on. It was a lucky break because Herk had discovered funk music during his time on the Rock and in Detroit. Friday had taken him record hunting, and his bags were loaded up with as much of the local vinyl as he could carry.

Twenty minutes later, just as the view of the churning verdant ocean came into view—and into smell, mere moments later—the taxi’s interior light switched on and it pulled itself to a stop outside his tower’s front door.

“Destination complete,” she said. “Validating charges … transaction complete. Please mind your head when exiting the vehicle.”

Herk minded it as much as he could, sliding his long legs out before risking sitting erect. He grabbed his handfuls of Michigan booty and entered the building. It was a tall, narrow, efficient building built from stone quarried from one of Taucetus’s moons and colored glass processed in the ancient factories in Lerato’s Reku’Denga district. There was no unneeded ornamentation in the structure’s design, but as light caught the windows it illuminated the building with kaleidoscopic hues that made it a glimmering landmark. That was how most things seemed to work in Taucetus. If it didn’t have a function, it didn’t exist. The residents and businesses that occupied the tower needed to see out, and the robust, invariable sunlight lowered the owners’ operating cost by providing both light and heat, therefore, windows were the obvious answer. Being Cetusian, they had almost certainly negotiated a price for the ornamental glass that didn’t exceed what they would have paid for clear panes. The result was a beautiful structure that was the gem of the North Oceanic neighborhood it dominated, but that was missing the unneeded costs of frivolity.

Herk stopped at Coughee House, one of a thousand such coffee shops that dotted Meren, his city. “Give me a big, tall black,” he said to the coffeebot. The robot looked at him, his domed head blinking blue to indicate a humorous mood and turned to the task. “Best make that two,” Herk said. “I think this is going to be a rough morning. Got a lot of catching up to do.”

“Two big, tall blacks,” said the robot.

Herk was certain he heard it snicker, but he didn’t know why.

Bohemian Stars Excerpt: Blue Mood

“The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.”

    ― Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

Here is a reading sample from my future fiction novel, Bohemian Stars. This is Chapter One, titled “Blue Mood,” in which you will meet one of our protagonists, Danika Plotz. If you enjoy the sample, I hope you will considered buying the book. You can find more information about it here: https://allauthor.com/book/51537/bohemian-stars-aligned-worlds-book-2/

Danika Plotz first found her Way on 20 February 2014 at six minutes past one o’clock under cobalt skies tinged gray by her tears and the dying smoke of Molotov cocktails. The Way was not a thing she had been seeking, as until that precise moment, she was not aware of having ever been lost. Her day had begun like any other—ensconced in the cold darkness of pre-dawn Kyiv but shielded within her two-room apartment from the bitterness of the weather and the country’s political intrigues. Filthy slush covered the sidewalk, although the streets had long been cleared of snow and debris. A few cars ventured by, rumbling beneath her third-story window as though nothing out of the ordinary would happen that day.

The Euromaidan riots had been ongoing for two days, but her flat was miles from the barricades meant to keep anti-government protestors at bay. As far as she could see, it was life as usual. Besides, the protests against Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s pro-Russian regime had been violent since January, so the occasional gunfire or tinkling of breaking glass had melded into so much background noise. No one had dropped a nuclear bomb, and she studiously avoided the crowded plazas where chaos reigned. Her life’s routine had been largely uninterrupted, consisting of wakening too early, dancing at the studio before morning took notice, enduring six hours of soul-murder at her dead-end waitressing job, practicing again in the evening, and then to sleep. Rinse, repeat.

Danika wrestled her dirt-frosted window open to the northern skies and had her morning cigarette, shivering in the lone creaky chair that kept her bed company and blowing acrid smoke out the gap and into the brisk air. She folded one arm across her chest, adorned as it was in a faded pink t-shirt, and inhaled again. Her nipples ached, and she hoped it was only the biting cold and not her impending period. Tampons and ballet did not mix well, especially on those first, heavy days. She flicked the used cigarette butt out the window and slammed it shut. Not bothering to shower, she threw on clean panties, tattered jeans, shirt, and a loose-fitting jumper, donned her only pair of insulated boots, her fur hat, and the scarf her father gifted her on her last birthday and headed out to greet the dawn. She wore her favorite coat, an odd bit of frippery she’d borrowed from the wardrobe department after her last performance and never returned. It made her look as if she were wearing a cloak constructed from autumn-hued maple leaves, but it was warm and matched her earrings, both of which she wore in her right ear. Satisfied that she looked perfect, she grabbed her rucksack and headed out.

She walked the mile and half to the studio, stopping only for a coffee, and arrived just as the sun’s first rays climbed over the sandy bricks of the surrounding buildings. It said hello, temporarily blinding her. She gave it the finger, Roman style, knuckles down, meaning it also as a gay slur. It skulked behind a cloud in disappointment. Her phone buzzed for the third time since she’d awakened, and for the third time, she rejected the call. This time, some thirty seconds later, it buzzed again, announcing a voice message from “Сука,” the nametag she’d assigned to her dear stepmother. Suka, as she pronounced it, was not the woman’s name, but it was the only thing Danika called her these days. She hadn’t spoken to the bitch in eighteen months, not since her then-new stepmom threw her out of the manky flat she’d shared with her father since infancy. Danika saw no reason to break the impasse now. Instead of listening to the voicemail, she dropped the phone back into her coat pocket, pulled out her cigarettes and lit one up, blowing the smoke up and into the troposphere. The sun lit up her private cloud in its disapproval. Danika gave it her second finger of the day.

She stood, shivering and sucking in smoke, standing in front of the main entrance of the Ранкова Зірка Студія, a shabby glass and stone building that looked as though it had been built at the height of the Soviet Industrial Revolution as a facility for manufacturing rivets or vacuum tubes. All of the art the place held was in its name, which translated as Morning Star Studio and was the reason Danika had picked the ballet company in the first place. Her name also meant Morning Star, and she’d been convinced her finding work here was destiny. She still hoped that was true. She’d had to lie about her age to gain employment, but she had good fake papers, and in truth, she didn’t think the company cared one way or the other. She had two legs and two arms and could dance, and that was enough. Besides, she would be eighteen soon enough. It was a small troop, hardly putting her on track to join the Bolshoi one day, but it was experience. With any luck, the company’s director, Lev, would give her the lead role he’d hinted at, and she could leverage that to find work in Moscow or even Saint Petersburg.

Almost on cue, as conjured devils do, Lev appeared in a burst of invisible brimstone, barely giving her a sideways glance as he passed by. It was an act, she knew, a stellar performance for his wife who always dropped him off before starting her day without a clue as to what kind of man her husband really was. Danika watched the woman look worriedly at the door and then to her before frowning and driving off. Perhaps she had more of a clue than Danika thought.

“He’s your problem, lady,” Danika muttered, “not mine.”

“How can you even stand that pig?” a voice asked her as she watched Lev cruise through the studio’s lobby. She turned to see the words hanging in the air bathed in the frothy white of visible breath, which somehow gave them more weight. They belonged to her only real friend in the company, Sofiya, who was as tall and lithe as a raven-haired swan come to life. Danika marveled at Sofiya’s ability to make everyone else feel like ugly ducklings while seemingly having no idea she was doing so. Sofiya kissed her on the cheek and then took her cigarette, inviting herself to a puff. When Danika frowned, Sofiya added, “You are too young to smoke these.”

“I’m twenty-two, same as you,” Danika said.

“Yeah, sure you are. And I am fairy princess.” Sofiya exhaled and crushed the thin remainder of the cigarette under her shoe.

“Hey! I was still using that.”

“There was nothing left but filter.” She tapped Danika on the left breast. “Your lungs will thank me.”

“That’s not my lung.”

“Well, your tits will thank me too.” She grinned at her friend. “But later. Right now, we’re late for rehearsal.”

Danika nodded and turned to go inside. Her phone buzzed in her pocket once again, making her frown.

“Your mother?” Sofiya asked.

Danika narrowed her eyes.

“Stepmother,” Sofiya corrected.

“Yes. She’s been calling all morning.”

“Well? So, answer it. What if something has happened?”

“Nothing ever happens to Suka. Things only happen because of her.”

“Well, maybe your father is sick … or hurt. You know how bad those protests have become.” Sofiya lowered her voice to a whisper. “I heard there are busloads of people coming today, maybe ten, twenty thousand.”

Danika whistled. “Coming from where? Why? Just to burn up the shopping district?”

“My father thinks the Russians are behind it. He says they hired groups of thugs to beat up citizens so it looks like we’re fighting each other.” She twisted her mouth and turned to spit. “We only fight the corrupt police and the Russians.”

“Twenty thousand is a lot of thugs.”

Sofiya smiled. “Well, maybe some are good Ukrainian citizens wanting independence from corrupt government.”

“Best move to new planet then,” Danika answered. She idly scratched her thigh, wondering if she had time for another smoke.

Just then, Lev stuck his head out the door. “Are you ladies joining us, or did Bolshoi already come by and steal you from me?”

Sofiya looked at her friend, rolling her eyes and gesturing toward Lev with her head. “Bolshoi. Like I would ever join those Russian tramps.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Lev, patting her on the bottom as she passed.

“Speak for yourself,” Danika said, following her inside.

“So nice of you to come,” Lev said, his mouth twisted into a sapsickly sweet leer. He punctuated his statement by giving Danika’s ass a firm squeeze. She made it a point not to jump. It would just encourage him, and she already had to deal with the other jealous little bitches in the company as it was. They couldn’t wait to get Lev in the sack, and yet she spent most of her rehearsal time trying to keep all ten of his fingers out of her vagina.

She really wished she could have had the last drag on that cigarette.

Ã

Rehearsal ended early, and by ten o’clock Danika was in the showers with five other dancers. Sofiya had gone straight to her second job, but Danika had ninety minutes free until the lunch rush would begin and her waitress gig kicked in. She stood to one side, her back to the cackling flock behind her, enjoying the hot water as it streamed down her auburn hair and over her face. Behind her, she heard squeals and playful laughter and turned, covering herself with both hands. She knew what to expect.

“Great rehearsal, ladies,” said Lev.

He was smiling and advancing through the showers like he owned the place, which, in fact, he did. The other five women just giggled and soaped themselves, letting him get as good a view as they could provide. For most dancers, hard work and talent were the way to success. These women knew Lev better than that. The way up always required one to go down first. He ignored them all and walked up to Danika.

“I need to speak to you before you leave,” he said.

She frowned at him and contorted to aim her side toward him, shielding as much as she could from his view. “You couldn’t have waited until I finished showering to tell me that?” she asked.

 He winked. “Of course I could.” Lev leaned in, speaking softly. “You should shave down there. Hair makes for unsightly bulges in your leotard.” Without further comment, he spun on his heels to leave. “Fifteen minutes, ladies, and then we turn off the showers. Hot water is expensive!” He called over his shoulder toward Danika. “I’ll see you in ten.”

She could feel the other girls’ eyes burning holes in her back. It didn’t make her feel nearly as good as she hoped. Ten minutes later—just enough time to dry off, twist her hair into a bun and don her jeans and a loose-fitting top she kept in her locker—she knocked on the door to Lev’s office. No answer. She waited a few seconds and then knocked again. This time, she heard a muffled giggle and Lev called out, “Come in.”

Danika opened the door and was nearly run over by another dancer, Masha, who must have been the only ballerina ever to headline Swan Lake while having two left feet. Masha gave Danika a sly smile. “Roles are being filled quickly, little girl,” she said. “Maybe he can still cast you as my understudy.”

“Maybe he can cast you out into street with other non-dancers,” Danika answered.

Masha snarled and pulled back her fist as if to take a swing, but Lev interceded, taking her arm and pushing her away. “Be a good girl, Masha. Go home.” Masha growled again but moved on.

Danika pushed her way into his office without looking at either of them. The air stank of tobacco, sweat, and cheap perfume. She stopped at his desk, turning her nose up at a wadded tissue. Lev saw it and tossed it in the rubbish bin.

She couldn’t change the subject fast enough. “You should have let her swing.”

He waggled a finger at her. “I can’t have my understudy injured, Nika. What if my star were to have an accident?”

“You don’t have to worry about my being hurt by that idiot. I’ve been studying martial arts since I was six.” She tried her best not to let him see the sting from the salt he’d rubbed in her wounds by referring to her, once again, as the understudy.

Lev stepped toward her and placed a thick hand on her shoulder. “I wasn’t worried about you, dearest Nika. I meant Masha maybe cannot dance like you, but as understudy, she is valuable.” He bent his head toward her. “That is, if you are interested.”

“Interested? Me, as lead?”

“Of course. Is about time, no?” He grinned. “I always keep promises, Nika … eventually.”

Danika answered him with a scream and then tried her best to listen as he explained that he’d been watching her progress and was convinced that she and only she could do justice to the new ballet he was choreographing. She answered every sentence with an enthusiastic nod of her head, joyous, right up until he slid his left hand under the hem of her shirt and took her right breast in his grasp. She stood there, shocked and quiet while he played with her nipple with his thumb.

“Of course,” he said, “this role could be … how do Americans say? A win-win for both of us.” Danika eased her body away from his grasp. Lev smiled, pulled her closer, and then shoved both hands up her shirt. His hands were soft, slimy, and unblemished, as though he used them only for this purpose. He leaned in, whispering in her ear and squeezing her breasts. The man smelled of rancid olive oil. “Maybe I am not being clear. You dance, as my lead dancer, and in gratitude, you fuck me. Is simple arrangement.”

“What about your wife? Is that simple too?”

Lev stopped smiling all at once, as though someone had shuttered his face and closed off all of its light. He released her and pulled back his hands, wiping them on his shirt as though he’d gotten them dirty. “You let me worry about my family, little Nika. All you have to do is your job, and everybody goes home happy.”

“And if I don’t want to do … my job?” she asked.

“I have ten other dancers who would want that role. You decide. Take your time.” Lev walked to his desk and slid his slender frame into the seat. “You can give me your answer tomorrow.” He fumbled with the same stack of papers that always seemed to crowd his desk and added, “I hope we don’t lose you, Danika. You have quite a gift.” As a threat, that was about as unveiled as they come.

Danika stared at him for several moments, but he gave no indication he knew she was still in the room. Finally, she exhaled and turned to leave, but not before saying, “The zipper in your pants is still open. You might want to check that before your wife comes to pick you up.” She left the office without bothering to see if he checked. She hoped he wouldn’t believe her.

She’d barely made it outside before her phone buzzed again. This time, she was angry enough to answer it.

“What?”

There was a brief silence while her stepmother gathered herself. Danika realized she probably assumed she’d get voicemail again and was taken aback by the harsh greeting.

“Danicska, have you found him yet?” Her stepmother sounded frantic, which sent Danika into alert. “Him” could only refer to one person, the person the woman had wrapped her entire world around.

“I just got out of rehearsal. What are you talking about? Where is Papa?”

“Did you even hear my messages? Yuri went to protest meeting last night. I begged him not to, but as always, he didn’t listen. Does that man ever listen me? I …”

“Zoya, I don’t have time for your long stories and complaints.  Tell me what’s wrong with Papa.” She’d rarely spoken to the woman who became her stepmother and had never bothered saying her name. Doing so had the calming effect the girl had hoped.

“Your father went out with those idiot protestors. I called and called to get him to come home, but he’s been out all night. Now, I see on the news the police are shooting people and so-called protestors are throwing firebombs at police. I want you to find him and bring him home before he gets hurt.”

“Me? Why haven’t you gone after him?”

“I have sprained ankle, Danika. I cannot walk through crowds with my crutches. I need you to go.”

Danika was barely listening at this point, having switched her phone over to text her father. She got no response. “No answer, she said aloud.”

“I told you he wasn’t answering already,” said her stepmother. “He didn’t take his charger so mobile is probably dead.”

“Did he say where he was going?”

“No, but news people say there are around 30,000 people on Independence Square. You know your father, he’s probably there, wherever party is the biggest.”

“Thirty thousand? You think I can find him in a crowd that size?”

“Danicska, please, just go. You know his friends. I do not. Besides, your father is 1.96 meters tall and is wearing bright blue coat and carrying Ukraine flag. How hard can he be to find? Just look up.”

“And why don’t you know his friends?”

“Aw, Danicska, you know your father and I like to spend our time alone. Is more romantic.”

Danika shook the phone as if to choke it and pressed the button to hang up, just as she heard her stepmother scream something about gunshots on the television. It was enough to get the girl going. Sprained ankle or no, there was no way her overweight stepmother would make it through those thick crowds in time. If she wanted to save her father, she would have to do it herself.

Danika left the studio and raced through the streets, headed for downtown. Though Zoya had effectively built a cocoon around her father, or more accurately, a spider’s web, he was still outgoing enough that he kept in touch with his work comrades. She called his oldest friend, Igor, but the only help he could offer was his father had spent the night with a group that planned on protesting either at Independence Plaza or near the shopping on Khreshchatyk Street.

That narrows it, she thought as she reached the edges of the protests. The air had soured with smoke from smoldering buildings and cars set alight. It was fortunate that she was fit, since no taxi would have gone anywhere near the outbreak and she had already run nearly two miles by the time she heard the first shots. They froze her in place for a moment before she thought to duck behind some unfortunately parked cars. Behind her, a car alarm suddenly sounded, startling her.

“Move!” shouted a young man whose face was covered by a scarf. She looked up, and he gestured vigorously with his arm, waving her toward him. Danika dashed in his direction, reaching him as the car she was behind exploded, knocking her from her feet.

She was dazed. Her ears were ringing. The young man was speaking, she realized, but she couldn’t make out the words. “What?” she yelled, or at least she hoped she was yelling.

“Police,” he said, pantomiming the words to make her understand. “They are setting off homemade devices trying to make it look like we’re violent. We think they’re doing it to justify moving in and killing everyone. It’s not safe here for you.”

She bit the part of her tongue that wanted to remind him it was no safer for him and inform him that she, at least, could disable three men at once in hand-to-hand combat. Instead, she asked him if he had seen her father or his comrades. She showed him a photo of the group she had on her phone from a prior summer’s football match.

“The old guys, yeah! They were out here last night. It got bad. Two, three dozen people killed, some of them cops.”

“Shit! Do you know where they are? Were they hurt?”

“No.” They both dropped as another explosion went off, this time on the other side of the street. He peered up over the burning car and dipped back down. “They’re moving on.” He was edgy, his head jerking about like a frightened bird, and it looked as if he might fly away any second.

She took his face in her hands. “My father,” she said, keeping her voice as calm as she could. “Do you know where he is now?”

“Probably wherever there are the most explosions.” He pointed in the direction of Khreshchatyk Street. “Try there.”

Danika nodded her thanks and stood to leave. The young man took her arm. “I wouldn’t go there if I were you. I heard there are snipers up there.”

“You aren’t me, and he isn’t your father.” She jerked her arm away.

He took it again as she turned away, this time, gentler. “Be careful. I hope you find him. They are good men. They spent most of the night helping wounded people and trying to calm crazy young guys out of throwing Molotovs.”

Danika kissed his cheek and turned, running a zigzagged beeline in the direction he’d indicated. The ringing in her ears began to ease, at least she thought it did, as the sounds of chanting punctuated by the occasional pinging of gunshots and clamor of explosions surrounded her. The crowd thickened as she turned the corner, and her progress slowed to a crawl. She maneuvered among the throng, squeezing here, pushing her way there, all the while uncertain she was getting any nearer.

A tall man with Ukrainian flag. That is very helpful. There were flags all around her, but none showed the way to her father. She checked each one and thought she’d spotted his bald pate beneath one and charged him hopefully. It turned out to be a boy her age wearing a headwrap. Despondent now, she spun in circles, not knowing where to go. Behind, to her left, a large explosion set off, and the crowd around her stooped together as though they were interconnected parts of the same organism. Close by and coming from an alley in the direction of the blast, black smoke began to rise over the nearest building, dancing west and east with the wind. There were the intermittent pops of gunfire, their reports washing over the crowd and sending it scattering like a dense school of frightened human fish. Danika swam upstream, against the swarm, headed in the direction of the fire.

She reached the entrance of the alley in what felt like hours, too long, far too long to reach her Papa. For a moment, the bright winter sun faded into an eclipsed darkness as smoke from a burning building to her right blanketed the sun. She shielded her eyes, squinting and trying to see in the darkness. Just then, as if in answer to her call, the sun burst through in a narrow stream, illuminating the end of the alley. There huddled a small group, maybe a dozen people or so, all shouting and waving. They were throwing rocks at the buildings. One young idiot stood in a doorway with an air rifle, portending to use pellets to match the police snipers’ high-powered bullets. She watched as he stepped out of the shadows, his gun to his shoulder, and then screamed as a sniper’s bullet took off the top of his head. He fell where he stood, and she found herself wondering whose son he might have been.

A man screamed. It was an ordinary sound, no louder than the cacophony that surrounded him, but she heard it, knew it, felt it.

“Papa!”

There he stood, gripping his bald head with both hands and screaming at the dead boy before taking off in his direction. Danika simultaneously sprinted after her father. Halfway there, Papa met a young man in a hooded jacket and a mask. He was holding a Molotov cocktail aloft in his right hand and a lighter in the left. Papa reached him just before he managed to light it, pulling the bottle from his hand. Danika closed in. Five steps away. Three. A gunshot sounded and the Earth slowed enough in its progress to allow her to see. The bullet slowed, life slowed, time eased to a stop, and she traced the projectile with her eyes as it left the policeman’s rifle. Two steps away. The bullet zipped at a forty-degree angle along its path, striking Papa full in the chest just as Danika was a solitary, eternal step away. The bullet tore through his thick frame, breaking ribs along the way and ripping through his aorta before tumbling out of his back and near to her feet. Papa’s blood splattered onto her face and hair, ruining her favorite fur hat.

She assumed she was still deaf, because she was certain she was screaming but could hear no sound. She called his name again, shouting louder, just in case no words came out the first time. To his right, the young protestor whose cocktail had gotten her father killed stood shaking, drenched in Yuri Plotz’s blood. Danika blinked at him, gently took the lighter from his hand, and then bent, not to embrace her fallen father, but to take the bottle of accelerant from his lifeless hand. She looked up at the sniper who’d shot him. He was watching, resetting his rifle, daring her to try. They were on the roof of the building she faced with the doorway clearly in view. The police were defending their post, shooting at anyone who dared try to breach the entrance. Danika accepted their challenge.

She darted left, then right. She rolled as a bullet whizzed over her head and then came to her feet in one move. She headed not straight to the door but along the right wall, directly under the snipers. They would have to lean over the side to hit her, an almost vertical angle, and she was fast, far faster than they. She heard the clatter of a rifle being reset—perhaps only in her head because surely these would be semi-automatic weapons—and ran two steps up the side wall before coming down to earth and darting at a sharp angle towards the doorway.

Behind her, she heard her new comrades cheering, could see their fists wave from the corner of her eye. Gunshots sounded again, and her fans ducked but she did not. Something told her hand to light the cocktail, so it did, but she was still running. The doorway was mere steps ahead and she cocked her arm … no, she wouldn’t throw it, she would take it to the police, ram it deep into their gullet so they would burn as she was burning, die as she was now dying.

A single bullet tore through the rustling leaves of her coat, missing her flesh by inches. The bullet pierced the frosted pane of the old glass door, shattering it into a thousand pieces. It would save her having to open the door. The entire frame was covered in graffiti, and above the entrance was a single tag in red lettering that read, #КосмічнийПортал, which translated from her native tongue meant, roughly, #SpacePortal. She had just enough time to be amused before she crossed the doorway’s threshold and winked out of sight with the Molotov cocktail falling harmlessly to the ground behind her.

What Are the Aligned Worlds™?

The Aligned Worlds™ are innovative, character-based, funny, exciting, and emotional self-contained speculative fiction stories. Based in robust world building and character design, each book is an epic journey through space and time. You’ll fall in love with these people and may not want to return home when the journey’s over. But please do; there are most stories to be had, more adventures to explore.

The Aligned Worlds, available now at http://smarturl.it/AlignedWorlds .

Year 5601
– A young woman tries to steer her people’s generation ship toward a new home after 5,600 years in space. Mya Landric has lived all of her life aboard the Rebibe, a generation ship that launched 5600 years earlier from a dying planet Earth. Everything aboard the Rebibe is tightly regimented via color-coded bars—status, career aptitude, even whom you date or marry. Mya is stuck in the ship’s middle status layer, unnoticed by anyone and unhappy about it. Now, however, the captain and the ship’s Artificial Intelligence, CAMLO, have tasked her with the most important job of her life: investigating a planet that might, finally, be a home. There’s just one nagging problem: the Rebibe’s Captain is bonkers.

Bohemian Stars – Four humans from different eras and two aliens form a musical group. Between gigs they have the difficult tasks of trying to stop an interplanetary war and stay out of each other’s beds. They are far more successful at the former than the latter, but either option brings them more than their share of trouble. This is epic sci-fi, full of laugh-out-loud moments, thrills, and tons of alien races and planets you’ll wish were real.

Ordinary Dust – A epic science fiction coming of age story, Ordinary Dust is part Sci-fi Gothic Romance and part Interstellar Crime Thriller. The novel follows Eleanora and her half-nephew Finn, as they deal with class conflict, the constrictions of youth, mutual attraction, war, and Eleanora’s desperate chase across the galaxy of the murderer who ruined her life. Finn has his own adventure ahead of him, worlds away from his privileged upbringing. Will he be hero or traitor? Only time will tell.

20 Million Billion Leagues Past Detroit – Herk Delacroix is 7 feet, 2 inches of the coolest dude you ever met. He’s also from the planet Xigán and makes his own space-time portals. Now he’s been asked to lead a team as they investigate mysterious twin planets. Expect strange worlds and aliens, lots of thrills, and more than a little magic. Some of it is between Herk and Jemini Starr, but most is the result of magitech and root magic, both of which were thought to be long forgotten.

Stars Aligned – Herk, Jemini Starr, and their team return to the twin planets of Juvaan and Baache to see if they can prevent a disaster that might destroy both worlds. Plus, there’s also the small matter of getting the band back together for one final, glorious tour. Although the novels in the series are numbered (based on the rough timeline of the events in the books) this is the only true sequel, a follow-up to 20 Million Billion Leagues Past Detroit and Bohemian Stars. Even so, you won’t need to have read the prior books to understand and enjoy this one, you’ll just encounter quite a few spoilers.

If A Robot Play The Blues Do It Still Be Funky? – Rashon Rannell Riley, IV is an android, but he’s not just another bot. He’s on a quest to prove his consciousness—his humanity—and figures the best way to do that is through music. He’s on a jazz tour that will take him around the galaxy and to the distant past. But is he on his way to finding what he really seeks—his soul? You’ll have to join Riley on his circuit to find out. But we promise—it’s a ride worth taking. If you like music, time travel, androids, or have ever contemplated the sci-fi of Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy or Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, you’ll enjoy Robot Blues.

A note to fans of Hard As Roxx, there’s a big surprise at the end for you.