Excerpt: Opening Chapter of Hard As Roxx

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Up There, Somewhere

05 May 2137—6:57 a.m. Central Africasian time.

The desert is a damned desolate place for a woman on a motorcycle and a baby in the sidecar, but it suited Roxx. She’d read somewhere that the Sahara used to be hard dirt and scrub brush, but by the time she and her daughters reached it, humans had already sucked the life from it like a thirsty cat at the throat of a limp rat. Gone were the pockets of drying grass, low trees, and brush that fed the indigenous wildlife. In their place were fluffy sheets of dirty dust, covering a hundred years’ worth of desert flotsam. She’d been riding in dark silence for hours, in part to let the girls sleep and part because there was no way to be sure the area was as abandoned as it appeared. The thing about predators is that you never see the good ones. Maybe you’ll catch a whiff if you’re lucky enough to be downwind of their attack or skilled enough to recognize the setup.

I best be skilled. My luck is shite.

She’d stumbled across a trio of them two days prior when her group was emerging from the tattered remnants of the Congolese jungle. Roxx had gotten careless, and the men came out of nowhere, cutting Roxx off with their battered pick-up truck and ancient rifles. They made the mistake of aiming a gun and sexual remarks at Jazz, her ten-year-old daughter. She still wore their blood on her boots as a reminder to be more vigilant. Jazz made her abandon their heads to the scavengers, but Roxx would have remembered the lesson better had she kept them.

For endless miles, the Sahara’s low hills scraped along the indigo night, rising and falling beside her like silent, subterranean giants beneath an endless ocean of sand. Jazz called them sand whales—smooth, silent, and deadly. It was all very lovely unless you kept in mind something dangerous could be lurking behind each dune. There were no street lights, but Roxx’s day/night glasses picked up enough residual starlight to allow her to keep the bikes dark. Their pattern of movements would have been the perfect symphony of hushed obscurity except for one thing: Roxx never was any damn good at being discrete. A six-hour ride through the mind-bending boredom of the desert night had become more than she could bear in silence. With silence came memories, and with memories came the realization that she and her daughters might never live long enough to reach any place even approaching safety.

So, fighting sleep and tedium, she called upon one of her demigods, the Lord thy Pavarotti, and at a sacred seven seconds past the seventh hour of the seventh day since their escape, she flipped the switch on her Indian’s dual speaker array and lit the crimson hell out of the quiet morning air. She rode there for a time, sailing through her desert dawn with her god singing “Nessun Dorma.” Hers was a gentle deity and never minded when she sang with him each dawn—always translated into English by her language implants —Puccini’s words, directed to her baby.

None shall sleep! None shall sleep! Even you, O Princess, in your cold bedroom, watch the stars that tremble with love and with hope!

As could have been predicted—were she the sort to bother making predictions—within seconds a single point of light emerged from a dune behind her with the wind whispering the sounds of a gruff engine’s growl above her bike’s operatic roar. The light was a half-mile back and closing fast. Roxx accelerated. Beside her, the two companion bikes matched her movements. Her trio of vehicles and the pursuers continued racing through the dunes for a full minute. Without slowing, she reached forward, pulled her rifle from its vertical holster next to the front wheel, turned, and squeezed off a single shot. The warm air carried the sound of breaking glass as the desert returned to darkness. Seconds later, the din of the engine behind her stopped. The winds carried the faint smells of food-derived organic fuel mixed in with human sweat.

Roxx pulled her scarf down, freeing her nose and mouth, and waited.

Stay stopped, mate. You only get the one warning.

Over her pounding heart, Pavarotti sang, and she sang aloud with him. “Set, stars! At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!” She wondered how long she’d been crying.

It’s never bloody dawn in Africa.

Lit by starlight, Roxx could just make out the dim figures of two men pushing a motorcycle up and over a sand dune. She doubted they’d be back. Roxx restarted her bike, and the two clones hummed into action with her. The long road ahead took a gentle slope upward, twisting and rising above a high dune. Roxx followed it upward, accelerating her bike to north of eighty miles per hour. She powered over the rise, going airborne for no other reason than because she could, and she was Roxx. Even before the bike touched down, she was breathless, exhilarated for a second before remembering the baby was with her. Shit. Beside her, safely ensconced in her covered sidecar, Jessi slept on as though she’d been floating on clouds.

It’s not like she can fall out. Besides, you can’t be safe all the time.

Here in the higher elevations, the sand dunes grew steeper, swept into low mountains by the harsh north winds. In another day or two she’d reach the coast, and if reports were accurate, the terrain there would have been scraped flat by the same winds, taking with it her cover. She’d need to find provisions before then. The final leg to the coast might prove to be a full-on run for safety. But the minutia could wait—the sight before her was magnificent. As far as she could see, crimson hues from the dawning sky painted the dunes into a churning, red ochre sea, the waves rising and falling in blood-tinged solitude. Only bits of blue at the cool fringes of the horizon reminded her that she and her girls were still motoring through North Africa instead of some forsaken Martian valley. Roxx imagined she would like Mars almost as much as she did this place. She’d never seen the desert, much less one the scale of the Sahara, but couldn’t have been more at home had she been born to it. It was quiet. It was unforgiving. It was hard, and it was beautiful. It was Roxx personified.

Even the sky here is red.

Her uncle had taught her that dusk’s brilliant colors weren’t the work of some universe-building supernatural force, but a lingering reminder of the faint, radioactive pollution that bent long light waves back to earth. It wasn’t glorious, he’d say, but rather a reminder to humans of what death they’d wrought. She didn’t care. Unc was wrong. It was glorious; the tears told her it was. A bloody Rembrandt, this guy, God.

After another twenty miles, she slowed, unable to distinguish one low hill from the next. They were somewhere south of the ends of the earth, but north of hell, so at least her daughters were safe. For now, that was enough. She glanced down, pushed a button, and the navigational readout on her modified 1940 Indian Chief displayed fourteen degrees, forty-three minutes north by fifteen degrees, eighteen minutes east. She was well into the Chadian desert. With one hand, she pulled a scarf across her mouth, shielding her nose and lips from the desert wind. Before her, on the hardened sand that passed for a road, long shadows clutched at the undulating dunes; deeper black and reddish hues painted the landscape ahead like a madman’s abstract. Since they’d reached the Sahara, they had seen few traces of life and fewer traces of man. She’d heard God was dead, killed in the 21st-century apocalypse that shattered society. Here, she guessed, must be where he would have asked to be buried. Roxx pulled the black Indian to a halt, and Jazz’s high-tech 2133 Rogue bike hummed to a silent stop behind her, as did the third bike in her party, driven by Roxx’s unwanted guest.

I let Jazz bring one toy, and she picks that kaking thing. She knows I don’t trust bots.

Robots were so pervasive the term had been shortened to a suffix: workerbots, medibots, nanobots, even sexbots. Roxx disliked them all and spat out the term bots like an ethnic slur. Still, even she recognized that the motorcycle bringing up the rear was an amazing piece of technology, especially considering it had been hand-built by her late uncle. Its driver, an elegantly crafted robot, was Jazz’s masterpiece assembled from specifications Unc left before his sudden death. Roxx assumed her daughter chose the bike and its mechanized driver as a means to feel closer to the old man. Having his prized work with them pained Roxx as much as it gave comfort to Jazz. However, the girl asked for little, and whatever small bit of peace she could give her during their escape, she would.

To Roxx’s right, in the Indian’s bullet-shaped sidecar, her baby still slept peacefully, with wisps of blond hair spilling from under her blanket. A giant teddy bear, aptly named Bear, sat a protective watch from the floor, his yellow polka-dot bow tie giving him an air of distinction. Roxx lowered the sidecar’s convertible top and smiled at the wafting scent of cornstarch she used to keep Jessi dry. Still beaming, she bent to kiss her baby’s forehead and stopped. Waves shook her, wracked her sides, her hands tremulous like the quaking earth, until she sank to her knees and grasped the edge of the sidecar for support. Jessi couldn’t die, she just couldn’t. She couldn’t let it. Roxx pressed her lips to the soft skin of her angel’s forehead and allowed herself to cry, dousing the baby in tears. After a moment, then another, she gathered what remained of her shattered resolve and turned to check on Jazz. Her older daughter had not stirred and was likely asleep as well, secure inside the automated bike.

“Another night with the girls safe.” She spoke as one might utter a prayer after waking. There was no relief in her words, however, no lessening of anxiety. “Another day of hiding from the whole kaking world.” Roxx slid her goggles down to her neck, and as she’d done often in the past week, watched her sleeping girls: Jessi, with fair skin, iceberg blue eyes, and hair like corn silk, and Jazz, with caramel skin, inquisitive eyes, and a too-wise-for-her-years demeanor. Both were innocent of any crime unless perfection were a crime. The girls were so beautiful it hurt to look at them.

“Must be love.” Roxx wiped tears and mascara from her cheeks, turning again toward the rising sun. “Only love hurts this much.” She looked up at the sky and shouted. “How can I do this? How do you expect me to protect them against the whole goddamned world?” She was talking to that god bloke, but once again, he didn’t answer. Shrugging off her weakness like an unwanted cloak, Roxx folded her shaking hands across her chest and studied her bleak surroundings. “Good thing I’m bollocks at geography. If I knew how far away the desert was, I might never have tried to get here.” She scowled, shaking doubt from her mind. “We had no choice once the soldiers found out about Jessi. We had to run, even if the desert was as far away as the moon.”

 The phrase the soldiers used stuck in her mind: Post-term abortion. Jessi had been discovered and condemned to die. The soldiers admitted it in the end, and the flashes of news reports they’d picked up en route north confirmed it. Their words sickened her even more than if they’d just had the courage to call it an execution. Not only the baby, but Roxx would be killed too, and Jazz too, in case she carried whatever genetic flaw had allowed her mother to conceive a second child. They would be dissected and examined, and no one would dare protest. Governments would stop at nothing to ensure no one found out about the woman who successfully conceived a second child—at least not until all the rich people of the world had been cured of the genetic solution that limited women to one pregnancy. One Woman, One Child. That was the law. Humans, acting under the guise of bioterrorism, had usurped their gods and made it Nature’s law as well. No one was going to let a single mother from an impoverished part of Africa upend decades of peaceful oppression.

Roxx stood, her long, slim legs straddling her graceful motorcycle, watching as the morning sun kissed the desert awake. It was her morning ritual, watching the sunrise. She was looking for something here in the Sahara, but still didn’t know what.

The desert shows you nothing. You must find everything.

The old Tuareg saying had become her mantra. No morning prayers, only a firm restatement of the day’s agenda: survive another day. Flipping the day-night switch on her opaque glasses, she scanned 360 degrees to the horizon. There was only endless sand, a cool, distant sun, a few rusting hulls of grounded hovercraft, and stray tracks and scat from crossing camels herded by desert nomads. The abandoned machines meant they were nearing human populations. The nomads could be peaceful or most decidedly not. The machines were old and certainly not military grade; she doubted even Jazz could salvage useable parts. If there were people here, odds were they wouldn’t be better armed or trained than she was, and amateurs didn’t worry Roxx much.

Good. Me and soldiers don’t get on so well. To the northeast, shimmering in the early sun, were distant wisps of smoke. Must be another refugee town up there someplace. Maybe we can get a bit of food and some fresh water.

She sat down and started the Indian. Obediently, the two other bikes whispered to a start. Roxx flipped the scarf over her face.

Another step closer.

Closer to what, she didn’t know, but they had a chance. Her daughters could live and love, perhaps wed and have kids of their own. There was a future to be had, and she would find it for them or die trying. After a week of backwater towns, villages that had regressed seemingly to the eighteenth century, and roving bands of the desperate and dangerous, she had yet to find a safe haven for the girls. Here in the Sahara Wilderness District there was no real government and communities consisted of little more than glorified refugee camps until you reached the shores of the Mediterranean. Roxx heard stories of tremendous wealth on the coast and technology that few in her part of the world had ever seen.

Jazz would fit right in someplace like that.

The brilliant preteen likened their desert crossing to ancient mariners navigating the ocean to discover a new world. Hope crested before them like a silent wave, flowing against the grey ebb of hopelessness that had been their former home—the southern African district called Africasia. Roxx felt the promise that led them north as surely as she could feel the wind that carved ripples in the desert sand. At that moment, perhaps in response to her thoughts, the wind rose, and the Sahara’s ochre dust came alive, dancing mini-cyclonic ballets. It was an omen, Roxx decided, pointing them to freedom. The cloud of sand blew north and east, toward her grandmother’s home.

If the sand wants us to see Gran, that’s where we’ll go. Maybe Jazz is right. Maybe this bloke, God, ain’t dead yet. Maybe him and me can be mates. She smiled. It was a faint gesture that none, but her daughters, could have detected. The Tuareg were wrong about the desert.

Roxx accelerated and headed northeast after the sand cloud. The other bikes in the party resumed their places behind her. Following a sudden gust of wind was as good as any other course, she reasoned, and her grandmother was certain to give them at least a few days’ shelter. Roxx and her girls fled their home with no plan, except to survive. There’d been little to take. The clothes they wore. Some food. Weapons. Her late uncle’s prized bikes. Hope. She heard whispers of another life in the frozen north that used to be Europe—and remaining in her South Africasian home meant certain death. Even whispers of escape were enough, so she pointed their bikes up there, somewhere and began.

Roxanne Grail was never one to overthink a problem.