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.

Robots Make Damned Expensive Janitors

From Year 5601, available on 2 September 2020:

“Imagine a task so mundane that only a robot could do it: say, swabbing a deck. Now, assume that in order to do it efficiently you need a conscious brain. You’ll only do the one thing, but it requires a conscious touch.”

I wrinkled my forehead. “You’re smarter than me. I can’t picture that.”

She smiled. “You flirt a lot. Did you know that?”

I did not know that, but it made me stop frowning.

She slid closer to me on her lavender couch and pressed her soft feet against my leg. My right hand grabbed them before my brain even knew they were there. My brain liked it, so I sat still while she resumed talking. “Let’s say that this is deck thirty, the captain’s deck, in the gold chambers. Now, the captain won’t abide just having a robot wash his deck and assume it’s gotten all the dirty bits. The captain will demand that there is no debris, no missed spots, and everything is uniform and up to specs.”

“Any good android could do that, and a robot can too. I’ve seen them do some particularly intricate tasks in the food-service industry.”

“That is true, but this robot has to be able to reach under furniture and reach up into the crevices of the wall to kill those damnable spiders.” She shuddered at the thought. It made me squeeze her soft feet. Kumiko paused, looked at my hand, and smiled again.

I felt myself flush. “Gods, I do flirt a lot.”

“It’s okay. I’m liking it.” She let her smile grow to a grin. “You’re my color, remember?”

“I remember.” We looked at each other long enough to make me uncomfortable, so I changed the subject back to our discussion. “So, what I think you’re saying is that we would need a robot that can do intricate scans, make independent decisions based on that analysis, be nimble and maneuverable, and reach anywhere from floor level to the tops of ten-to-twenty-foot ceilings.” She nodded. “Sounds like a damned expensive robot.”

“Or, you can give a human the barest amount of credits to live on and ell will do that for you. Then you can use that damned expensive robot to do a couple of intricate jobs that humans used to do.”

“Gods, we’ve trained our bots to replace us, but only in the good jobs, not the shitty ones.”

Excerpt: Opening Chapter of Hard As Roxx

To purchase a copy of Hard As Roxx, click on smarturl.it/HardAsRoxx

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.

Announcing the Aligned Worlds™ Sci-Fi Series

Experts say you shouldn’t write the second book in a series until you know if readers will like the first one. I wrote six. After eighteen solid months of writing, I created a bold new sci-fi series that I’ve decided to announce now. Introducing the Aligned Worlds™ future fiction series.

This is a new genre of sci-fi, one I’m calling Future Fiction. It’s not as dry as hard sci-fi, not obsessed with starships and war like space opera. This is scifi for the rest of us: fun, sexy, and innovative. Remember when reading science fiction was fun? Well, it is again.

Aligned Worlds Series.jpg

There are elements of epic sci-fi, fantasy fiction, utopian and dystopian sci-fi, space opera, cyberpunk, and literary fiction all woven together seamlessly. Put simply, these books are my best work ever. These are character-driven books featuring unique leading characters that span human  and non-human organics, artificial life forms (androids, robots, Artificial Intelligence system) and other characters that don’t fit easily in categories. I have always believed that great sci-fi is only as interesting as their characters and worlds in which they are found. That is why I’ve spent a great deal of time in world-building, creating believable societies full of amazing beings that you will identify with.

Take a successful future fiction story and transplant it on 21st-century Earth. If it doesn’t still work, it’s not a good story. These stories would work in any setting. But I’m hoping you love the ones I created.

Each of the novels in the Aligned Worlds™ series  is an independent story, meaning you can read them in any order. However, they will be released roughly in the order I have intended they be read. Some of the books (Bohemian Stars, Twenty Million Billion Leagues from Detroit, Stars Aligned) feature and ensemble cast that appears in more than one book. Others (Year 5601, If a Robot Play the Blues) are one-off novels that stand completely separately. (Although there may be cameo appearances.) Importantly, there are no cliff-hangers here. You need not have read any prior book to understand the one you’re reading.

I despise cliff-hangers. They’re mostly an excuse for sloppy writing and plotting.

So, what, you may ask, is “future fiction?” It is broad-ranging fiction that includes what we’ve come to call sci-fi, but de-emphasizes the science element in favor of world-and-character building. I focus more on building interesting plots and surprising twists than spending whole chapters explaining precisely how space-time travel works, or how  intergalactic propulsion systems correspond to simple and quantum physics. I’m guessing readers care more about what happens during and after the “jump” than how many clicks wide the jump gate they passed through was.

Ever flown through space in a jaunty convertible? Ever wanted to? Turn on your imaginations and read these books.

Make no bones about it, however. This isn’t “soft” science fiction either. The books are full of aliens, androids, over a dozen worlds, advanced technology, magic tech, sex, war, and rock and roll. You will understand how things work; we just won’t obsess over them. There are flights of fancy, moments of turmoil, with laughter and tears abounding. This isn’t about science. It’s about fiction.

According to MasterClass’s post on science fiction literature, “the classic elements of a science fiction novel include:

  • Time travel
  • Teleportation
  • Mind control, telepathy, and telekinesis
  • Aliens, extraterrestrial lifeforms, and mutants
  • Space travel and exploration
  • Interplanetary warfare
  • Parallel universes
  • Fictional worlds
  • Alternative histories
  • Speculative technology
  • Super-intelligent computers and robots”

I’ve combined these elements in a complex new universe with elements of fantasy and cyberpunk to form future fiction, which emphasizes what life might be like in the distant future. Importantly, individual story lines are most important that the technology or world-building that surrounds it. Instead, my stories create believable worlds with robust enough detail that you can suspend belief and focus on the characters.

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Future Fiction comprises the best of Speculative Fiction in a cohesive, integrated manner

Let’s you and I, together, make future fiction a literary staple. We begin our journey on 2 September 2020, with the formal release of Year 5601. Interested parties can pre-order a version for Kindle software now, on Amazon.

I’d love to tell you which writer’s books these are like, but I honestly can’t think of any. Instead, I can share that I was inspired by John Varley, Robert Silverberg, Douglas Adams, and Robert Heinlein, although I’m crap at remembering what I’ve read and I never read fiction when I’m writing. So inspired doesn’t mean “copied.” It might not even mean “vaguely similar to.”

If you’re interested in a bit more about each book, a brief blurb follows below.

Year 5601 (September 2020)

Year 5601 FINAL

After 5600 years in space, a young woman is tasked with vetting a planet that might, finally be a home for the thousands of people on her GenShip. More certain is her growing fear that her ship’s captain might be insane.

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 AI 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: Mya and her small group of friends are beginning to believe that their captain has no intention of letting them land there.

Bohemian Stars (December 2020)

Bohemian Stars v2

A group of six talented musicians travel through space-time to the distant future to either save the galaxy from interplanetary war, or have the most fun anyone’s ever while had failing to do so.

Four people from Earth, all of them in dire straits, are pulled through space-time portals to a world thousands of years and half a galaxy distant. There’s Tariq, running for his life in 1935 Mississippi; Estelle, busking her way into deep trouble in 2018’s Venice, Italy; Danika, caught in a violent uprising in 2014’s Ukraine; and Hoshiko, who’s just not like the other girls in 2068’s Tokyo. Once through their portal, they meet experienced “traveler” Jemini Starr, who despite her youthful appearance, is over a century old and Mirajia, an emotionally free, mysterious, endlessly talented alien. Together, the group will either form the most kick-ass band the galaxy has ever seen, or save it from interplanetary war. It is epic science fiction at its best, full of alien worlds, space-time travel, interplanetary war, as well as sex, love and rock and roll.

Ordinary Dust (December 2020)

Ordinary Dust 1.0

On a planet where nothing matters as much as status, a twenty-five year-old woman who has always been treated like “ordinary dust” by her family, bonds with her fourteen-year-old nephew and tries to carve a life for herself. When they are both forced to leave home, traveling to distant planets, they will find their idyllic lives will never be the same again. Full of adventure, romance, and suspense, Ordinary Dust is half literary fiction romance and half science fiction crime thriller. Join Eleanora and Finn as they grow up and make their ways on worlds full of alien races, adventure, and tragedy. You’ll end up at the edge of your seat, reading about characters and worlds you will never forget.

Twenty Million Billion Years Past Detroit (December 2020)

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A tall, dark, alien stranger from the far side of the moon leaves 1970s Detroit to lead a team to investigate twin planets that orbit a distant star. Both of the planets share the same orbit, but miraculously, never collide. There is something odd going on with those planets, and Herk Delacroix’s team, cruising in the starship Dolomite, needs to learn what it is before its too late. A fun romp through the galaxy with appearances by characters you’ll have come to know and love from the prior Aligned Worlds™ novels, as well as whole new set of imaginative characters. It’s a wild adventure that marries advanced science and magic in a way that’s never been done before.

Stars Aligned (December 2020)

Stars Aligned Cover v.1.0

A team travels to distant star system to discover the dangerous secrets of the alien species there. There is evidence the planets themselves might be in danger, and the worlds’ residents are too busy squabbling over technology and magical tech to do what’s required for their own survival. Jemini Starr and Herk Delacroix return to lead the way, bringing a team back to the twin planets of Juvaan and Baache, among others. They have to convince the residents of the planets to cooperate before a burgeoning star ignites and givens new meaning to the word sunburn. You’ll love the ride, the humor, and the tense adventure. Strap in and enjoy future fiction at its finest.

If a Robot Play the Blues Do It Still Be Funky? (December 2020)

If A Robot Play the Blues - Concept

An android named Riley breaks free from the cycle of abuse artificials are subjected to and begins a journey to prove his own personhood. He attempts to prove his consciousness through music and along the way discovers that a soul comes with a dark price. Riley wants to make his own way in the universe. His chosen field of battle is jazz, and his weapon, the double bass. He meets up with Monk, a four-thumbed pianist, and together, they start on a path only the jazz greats from Earth’s music heydays have ever seen. There’s more at stake than music, however. Riley’s people back home are in trouble, and only by proving his own worth can he help them. If A Robot Play The Blues is a science fiction adventure like none other, starring a human-like android lead you’ll never forget.

Year 5601 – Excerpt

By way of introduction, here are the opening paragraphs of my new novel, Year 5601, available for preorder now on Amazon, and widely available on 2 September 2020.

Hello, dearest reader.

The cramped cubby that holds my desk opens to the expanse of the entire universe, the single factor that makes life at work bearable. Each day, if a period of time with no sun can be called a day, I sit at my monitoring station sending out coded messages to beings that I long ago became certain do not exist. I am Communications Officer Mya Landric, a professional psychotic whispering hallucinations to space phantasms in the vain, paranoid hopes that they are watching me and will reply. I would much rather be doing almost anything else, but when one’s aptitude light is barely in the green range, one doesn’t get to choose. Someone—organic or inorganic—decided my key strengths were listening to static and talking to myself, and so here I am, doing both things, although I am pretending that my talking is taking the form of a journal that I will share with god knows whom.

We have been monitoring the universe for millennia, ever since Year 1552, a period of 4,048 years. In that time, we only received a single response—a cry of desperation from a shattered ship full of refugees that my ship, my home, the Generation Ship Rebibe, answered. That was during the year 5107, under the helm of the glorious Mavis Davis. Captain Davis rescued the refugees but was disheartened to learn that they neither remembered where they were from or even how long they had been adrift.

I cannot imagine how excited and then how disappointed the Rebibe’s citizens must have been. We had been lost at cosmic sea, tirelessly looking for a new home since our launch on 1 January 2197, the date that marked the beginning of our 5,600 year voyage. The planners of the trip believed that the crew would find a habitable planet in “only” one to two thousand years. The first target, reached in 1552, proved to be too hot to sustain life, in contravention to all of our science. Universe one, humans zero. The second target, reached 500 years later, was effectively destroyed by an asteroid as we neared it. The universe, proving once more how big an asshole it is, allowed the Rebibe to get close enough that our citizens could almost see it with their naked eyes before blowing it all to hell. One day it was there, within clear sight of our sensors, and the next, only the remnants of a vibrant explosion and radiant energy remained. The Rebibe set out to parts unknown after that, with only a vague sense of where another star system with habitable worlds might be.

If you’ve never been to space, let me tell you—parts unknown is not a place you want to go.

Cover Reveal for My New Sci-Fi Adventure!

I am pleased to announce that my new science fiction adventure, entitled Year 5601, is now available for pre-order for users of Kindle software. It will be more widely available, including in paperback form on 2 September 2020.

For now, I just wanted to share the title and cover art, as well as a bit about the book. I think it’s my best work to date, with more to come. This is the first book of a series of independent novels that take place in my Aligned Worlds™ universe, and I think sci-fi fans of all types will enjoy them.

Click to Pre-Order Year 5601!

After 5600 years in space, a young woman is tasked with vetting a planet that might, finally be a home for the thousands of people on her GenShip. More certain is her growing fear that her ship’s captain might be psychotic.

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. Mya and her small group of friends are beginning to believe that perhaps their own Captain Bligh has no intention of letting them land there, and Mya most definitely does not wish to be the Rebibe’s Fletcher Christian.

Emotional, hopeful, and enthralling, this future fiction epic is the first novel in a series of epic adventures in the Aligned Worlds™ universe. Stay tuned for space-time travel, pointless wars, androids and robots, alien life forms, love, sex, and rock and roll, all on planets you’ll have to read about to believe. It’s going to be a wild ride, and Year 5601 takes you there with a roaring start.

If you love sci-fi, you’re gonna want to read these books!

Review: Dawn, by Octavia Butler

My rating: **** out of 5 stars.

It’s difficult to decide on a numerical rating for a book when you aren’t certain what you were supposed to feel about it. Have no doubt, Octavia Butler’s Dawn, the first volume of the re-titled Lilith’s Brood trilogy is a well-written piece of science fiction. Most who have read it would place it among the classics of sci-fi, and I wouldn’t argue with them based on how it was plotted and crafted. My problem is with the main characters.

You see, I hated all of them.

That by itself would normally send me permanently out of the book, were I not trying to learn something specific from the author. In this case, however, I suspect that maybe I was supposed to hate them all. Without spoiling the plot for those who haven’t read the books, Lilith, the protagonist, is among the few remaining humans who have been captured (they would say rescued) by the alien Oankali following a devastating nuclear war. Earth is effectively incapable of sustaining life, but the Oankali have decided to save the remaining human population. The catch is that the aliens only deal in what they call a trade: they will repopulate the Earth, but only doing so via a merging of their tentacle-creature DNA with humans.

The Oankali are immediately grotesque to Lilith, which is made clear via a bit of exaggerated prose showing the human’s fear and loathing. Eventually, however, she comes to trust at least one of them, Nikanj, with whom she forms a bond that includes what we are told is the alien’s form of sex. The problem is that Nikanj is never remotely likeable. His and his kind’s form of bonding is essentially chemical coercion combined with the humans’ having developed Stockholm Syndrome. Lilith is complicit and though the book reads as though we are supposed to be rooting for her and not those who oppose or want to harm her, I found myself agreeing with them at every point.

Now, were I to stop there, I would call this masterful. We see the story from her perspective, and though we try, we can’t love or agree with her. We are given the others’ viewpoints and embrace them. Except the others are horrid. One tries to rape Lilith. Others try to rape other females. So, I hate them even more than I hate her, but less than I hate the Oankali.

This is a book with no one to root for. I finished it and admired her ability to tell the story, but in this case, the kindly (slave Massa) Nikanj is odious, and Lilith, playing Uncle Tom with no Cabin, is just as odious. Given the author’s cleverness, I have to assume that is what we are meant to leave with–that survival requires us to make bedfellows that leave no heroes in the end.

It is a clever device, I suppose. However, I knew well that lesson before I began the book. And make no mistake; I didn’t like the book, not one little bit. I hated all of the characters, and though I started book 2, I hated those characters even more. I gave up on it. Perhaps I’ll try book 3.

Maybe I wouldn’t have liked Ms. Butler in person. Maybe too much of the author is in the book. Or, maybe she was a bloody genius, and I was supposed to feel exactly what she made me feel.

With that expectation in hand, I gave the book 4.0 stars. But I don’t have to like it.

4.0 out of 5.0 stars, but not a book I’d recommend to non-pessimists.

First Paragraphs

I have been reading and thinking a lot about first novel paragraphs. In part it is because I am nearing the end of the first draft of my sixteenth manuscript. However, it is also because I have been curious at how the masters begin their greatest works. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no right way, except that they must introduce the story or main characters and they must capture the readers’ interest.

I think I’ve learned to do that along the way. Below are samples of my first paragraphs, these from the seven novels and one novelette I have published to date. Click on each image to enlarge.

Writing without Joy; Reading without Enjoyment

JOYless

I must admit, that even after having written twelve novels and three collections of short fiction, I do not understand what readers find to be enjoyable. As an example, I recently completed reading a collection of short fiction by an author I will not name. The collection has received thousands of reviews, both on Goodreads and Amazon, garnering around a 4.6 out of 5.0 average review. Importantly, NO ONE on Amazon gave this collection a 1-star review.

I will admit, the author writes brilliantly. His story lines are clever, on the surface. He is able to describe situations vividly, and he is well enough versed in human behavior that he can describe in detail the odd nuances of his off-kilter characters with accuracy and vigor. His story lines are also unique: “A couple adopts a depressed hedgehog.” The entire work is characterized (by some reviewers) as dark comedy.

But here’s my problem with it. I didn’t find the book tedious; I found it depressing. I read all eight stories, and I enjoyed none of them. In truth, I forced myself to finish it based more on principle than anything else. All of the endings were either depressing, or the entire story managed to suck the air from the room.

Do such authors write for depressed people? Are readers naturally depressive? Am I the oddball who doesn’t find reading about the broken lives of broken people as uplifting? I’m not sure how one is uplifted by downpressing books. I’m even more confused as to why one would want to read stories of misery, unless it is to prove there are people whose lives are shittier than your own.

These stories lack joy. Yes, when I write, some bad things happen to good people. But none of my books and few of my stories lack joy. That’s 4,425 pages in, if you’re keeping count, and I’ve managed to find joy in all of them. Life has its rhythm and balance. Times are good, they are bad, they are desperately bad, and rarely, indescribably brilliant.

Why not write about that? Why not demand to read about it?

This isn’t meant to be sour grapes. I’m not concerned about my own books’ readership, and I am hardly in want of money. I’m concerned about my own reading. Am I the last writer of stories that seek joy?

Gods, I hope not. I’m desperately sick of reading the Internet.

Selina Makes a Donation – From “The Holy Mother of Selina Sky”

Below is an excerpt from my personal favorite story, a novelette called “The Holy Mother of Selina Sky.” It is about a little girl who may or may not be touched by the Divine. I hope you enjoy it.

On my next day off, we were back in the art district. I tried not to be obvious as to my real destination, so I took Selina through the large park in the city’s central district. I rode my bike and pulled Selina in a fancy three-wheeled bike trailer that I could still push when needed. We’d found it second hand and were able to swap her bulkier stroller as an even trade. I figured losing the memory of the device she was in when her mother abandoned her was a good idea. At the edge of the park, we encountered a small family who’d obviously been living there. The two children were neat and as clean as one might expect to be while sleeping on a park bench. The mother and father were nearby, with the father holding a sign asking for help and the mother bagging clothes she’d just washed at a nearby Laundromat. Selina asked me why they had their clothes outside, and I did my best to explain homelessness to the three-year-old. I must have done an adequate job, since she climbed out of the stroller and begged me to “Help them, Mama.”
Normally, I don’t help people in the street as you end up just subsidizing their substance abuse problems. However, you could tell these people were different. Besides, I was well aware that were it not for Terri and her husband, Bradley, that could have been Selina and me. I checked my wallet. I had exactly $10 and wouldn’t have more until I was paid the following day. Even then, it wouldn’t be exactly a windfall.

“I can’t baby. Daddy doesn’t have much money.”

She just looked at me with her chin and lower lip poked out. So. Very. Stubborn. “Honey, I want to help, but I have to buy you food for tomorrow’s breakfast.” No dice. I sighed and capitulated. “Here, baby.” I handed her my last $10. “You give it to him.” It was from her, after all.

She took the bill and to my surprise marched right past the family, still holding the money. Never even looked at them. She strode purposefully across a short patch of grass and up the sidewalk for a full city block to a window-barred convenience store that looked like it might sell nothing but cigarettes, liquor, and guns. I was chasing behind her, once I got unstuck from the muddy grass, and caught up to her at the door of the store. “Honey, I thought you wanted to help the family,” I said.

“Need more money,” she said. The resolute look had not left her face.

“I don’t have any more, sweetie.”

Instead of answering, she began tugging at the door. After a couple of seconds, I pulled it open for her and we entered. I was wrong about the store’s inventory—they didn’t sell guns. Selina strode to the counter where an enormous, surly man in a porkpie hat sold Lottery tickets. Without so much as a word, she handed him the tenner. She gave no sign of being intimidated by his size. He took the bill, pulled off a $10 ticket, and handed it to her. She turned, still silent, and marched to the door. The man looked at me, but I just shrugged. By now, I was intrigued as to where this was headed, so I followed her. Back down the sidewalk she went, across the muddy grass, and to where the father still stood. For the first time, she smiled and handed him the lottery ticket. He looked at her, then to me.

“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s a gift from my daughter. She must think you look lucky.”

He gave a surprisingly genuine laugh. “I could use some of that. I got laid off six months ago and haven’t found work yet.”

I told him my coffee shop was looking for custodial help, if he didn’t mind getting a little dirty.
“I live in a park,” he answered. “I can do dirty.”

I scribbled the information on the back of his sign and Selina and I headed out, now poorer than the homeless family in the park. We got no more than thirty feet before I heard a man scream. I turned, and saw the father rush over to his wife. She screamed, looking frantic, and then he turned and headed directly toward us, waving the card in the air. I found myself backing up, fearful he was angry that the ticket was worthless. Selina was watching placidly.

“Mister!” the father said, breathless. I stood, awaiting the inevitable punishment for my good deed. The father reached me, followed closely behind by his family. “Here, you gotta take this back.” He handed me the ticket.

I looked at it, then at Selina, and grinned. I handed it back. “Nope. It was a gift.”

“But … it’s too much,” his wife said.

“Like I said, my daughter thought you looked lucky.” I winked at Selina who gave me one of her best grins. We left the family there, crying and hugging in the park, holding their $50,000 winning ticket. It wasn’t enough to make them rich, but it would surely make up for whatever income they’d lost. To my unending pleasure, the father, Antonio, showed up at the coffee house the next morning, neat as a pin, looking for work. We hired him on the spot. As for me, I finally understood my role as the Holy Mother of this special little girl … this amazing, spooky, little kid. I would be poor, but we would survive. Plus, I had Selina Sky. As far as I was concerned, that made me the richest man in the city.