K. Ceres Wright

Cover Reveal for Greenshift by Heidi Ruby Miller

by , on
Jun 24, 2013

To celebrate the cover reveal for Greenshift, the e-book will be temporarily 99 cents at Amazon!


A tale set within the world of Ambasadora.

Mari’s rare eye color makes her a pariah within Upper Caste society, which is why she prefers plants to people…except David, the former Armadan captain who shuttles scientists around on a refurbished pleasure cruiser.

But someone else is interested in Mari and her distinctive look–an obsessed psychopath who tortures and murders women for pleasure.

When the killer chooses Mari as his next victim, the soldier inside David comes alive, but it is Mari who must fight for her own life and prove she isn’t as fragile as the flowers she nurtures.

Greenshift by Heidi Ruby Miller

Cover Art by Bradley Sharp

Foreword by Dana Marton

Space Opera/Science Fiction Romance paperback coming from Dog Star Books in August 2013

Excerpt from Cog

by , on
Jun 17, 2013

Chapter 1

 

Perim Nestor stood watch over Arlington from a curved window office in

the American Hologram building. A scrim of clouds obscured most of the

evening sky as commuters headed home, yet a roseate sunset tinged the

underside of the grey, offering hope of a sunny tomorrow. Reflections from

the streets below, clotted with the red of brake lights, danced merrily on

nearby buildings.

 

Perim abandoned his watch and took up residence against a credenza along

the opposite wall, arms folded, jaw clenched, waiting for the coming storm. He

did not have to wait long.

 

“You’re joking, right?”

 

William Ryder stretched the skin between his eyebrows with his thumb and

index finger, then formed a fist and slammed it on the table in front of him. He

stood up, hunching over the edge of his father’s cherry wood desk. The owner

sat on the opposite side, glaring. Light from a squat, burnished pewter lamp

threw up blurry shadows on the metal paneling.

 

“Right?”

 

“Wills, sit down!” The stentorian voice of Geren Ryder echoed in the large

office. The bones of his face set like ice, holdovers of the Last Glacial Maximum.

Salt-and-pepper hair framed a mahogany canvas.

 

His son was a mirror image, only more muscular, with the coloring of

polished sepia.

 

Perim Nestor remained silent. However spartan the office, it reflected

more than the green and brown décor. It reflected the multi-trillion-dollar

company that Geren Ryder had built from scratch. And he was used to

being listened to.

 

Wills sat down, but the tenseness remained. He hovered on the edge of

the chair, ready to spring. Geren continued, his voice now measured and calm.

 

“I didn’t know Perim was my son until last week. After I confirmed it, I’ve

been…coming to grips with the implications.”

 

“Confirmed?” Wills said. “So it’s been confirmed that you whored around

on my mother. As if I hadn’t already known. And what do you expect me to do?

Jump up and say, ‘I’ve always wanted a brother’? Shed heartfelt tears and give

him a slap on the back?”

 

Silence. The ether froze, like hanging mist on a December morning. Perim

drew up his lips and met the flinty stare Wills leveled at him. He couldn’t blame

the man. Heir apparent to a wireless hologram empire and presto change-o…a

long-lost older brother appears.

 

“Does Nicholle know?” Wills said, eyes still riveted on Perim.

 

“No. She’s busy recreating the Prado in Anacostia. I didn’t want to distract

her. It’s her first full-scale exhibit,” Geren said.

 

Wills relaxed somewhat, straightening and placing his arm on the desk.

Mrs. Arthur Knowles and her Two Sons looked on the proceedings from the

wall behind Geren. In the painting, Mrs. Knowles was sitting on a couch,

one son clinging to her as his hand rested on a book. The other son lay

wrong-way on the couch, barefoot, his hand on his chin, as if contemplating

some mischief.

 

“I don’t want anything material…no money, no stock. I just want

acknowledgment,” Perim said.

 

“Acknowledgment!” Wills sprang from his seat. “And why do I have a hard

time believing that? On the eve of my father announcing his retirement from

American Hologram, you just happen to show up.”

 

Wills approached Perim, jabbing a finger in the air between them.

 

“I’ve dealt with drug dealers, pimps, and CEOs, and I know bullshit when I

hear it. It’s all the same. You want something. Something like American Hologram.”

 

Perim straightened. “I head my own accounting firm. What would I need

with your company?”

 

“Why settle for a little power, when you can have a lot?”

 

“Is that your life’s motto?” Perim stole a glance at Geren. “In that case,

you’d better watch your back, Father.”

 

Too late, Perim noticed the oncoming blur of flesh, the carpet rising to

meet the side of his face. His next view was of a sideways Potomac River

through the curve of the picture window. The reflection of neon pinks and

blues undulated in the invisible waves and careened like a slow-motion merrygo-

round. Wills’ feet left his field of vision. Wind chimes whispered as he

exited through the magfield.

 

“I should have told you he boxed in college,” Geren said, matter-of-factly.

 

“No shit,” Perim said, only it came out sounding like, “Oh ih.” His head

spun, mental function a whirlpool. He edged up on one elbow, then leaned

against the credenza and slid upright. The room slowed.

 

“You’ll come to work for me. I’ll make you a vice president, but you’ll have

to prove your mettle,” Geren said. “Especially to Wills. He can be a hothead,

but he respects skill.”

 

“I have my own—”

 

“Company, yes. That has a quick ratio of point seven eight. How long do

you expect to stay in business running those numbers?” Geren arose and began

packing a briefcase that lay open on the desk.

 

Perim pulled himself to standing, gripping the credenza. “We just scored a

large contract with the defense department.” He rubbed his jaw, hoping there

would be no bruise.

 

Geren guffawed. “If you call forty million a large contract. Look, it’s

settled. I just sent in the approval. Let your second run the company

and you report here first thing in the morning. But…we will wait on

the acknowledgement until after I announce my retirement.” He closed

the case and hefted it off the desk. “Come prepared to learn. See you

tomorrow.”

 

Wind chimes echoed again as Geren disappeared through the doorway.

Perim smiled to himself. This is going better than expected.

 

******

 

Perim’s new office smelled faintly of antiseptic, as if it had just been cleaned

the previous night. And perhaps it had. He hadn’t gathered much information

about his father in the short time he’d known him, but he g that he was, above

all, a man of action. Perim sat in the leather chair behind his desk and whirled

around once. A blurry view of downtown Arlington whizzed by.

 

A woman appeared in the middle of the room and eyed him suspiciously.

He jumped slightly, then realization caught up. A hologram. He cleared his

throat and pulled up to the desk.

 

“Yes?” he said.

 

“I am Jamie 3.5. If you like, I can appear in male form.”

 

“Ah, no. You’re fine as is,” Perim said. She was not beautiful, which would

have been a distraction. In fact, she had rather a square chin, he thought, and

closely-set eyes. “I assume you’re everyone’s assistant?”

 

“Correct.”

 

Perim waved his hand in a circular motion. “What, ah, what are you running

on?”

 

“Quantum computer, Cognition 1.5.”

 

“Huh, I see. Okay, then, what do you have for me?”

 

“For your schedule today, you have a ten o’clock and a four o’clock with

Geren Ryder. Also, would you like me to order lunch for you, or will you be

eating out?”

 

Perim leaned back in his chair, fingers intertwined behind his head. “I will

be eating out. And no need to make reservations. Thank you, Jamie.”

 

“You’re welcome.” Jamie stood stock still, her eyes looking past him, blank

for a few seconds. Then she focused on him.

 

“I have updated data. Geren Ryder would like to move your ten o’clock to

nine thirty, as an unexpected meeting came up,” she said.

 

“All right. Let’s see that’s in…five minutes,” he said, his gaze shuttling to his

periphery. “I’ll be there.”

 

“I’ll inform Mr. Ryder.”

 

She disappeared.

 

Perim wondered what Geren would say. After 35 years of non-acknowledgment—

claiming he didn’t know—what would he have to say?

 

He arose and made his way to Geren’s office, following the directory he’d

tapped up. Geren’s door was a wide gothic arch whose magfield displayed a

red wooden door beneath a bloom of crosses bottony in stained glass. A bit

pretentious, Perim thought, but he’d seen worse. The previous night, the

magfield held no decorative motif, just the wind chime sound effect.

He stepped through into the Spartan green and brown office from the

night before. Not to his surprise, Wills stood in front of the picture window,

his fists jangling change in his pockets as he rocked smoothly on his toes and

back. Nervous energy bound tight. Geren sat at his desk, thumbing through

financials. He looked up at Perim’s entrance.

 

“Ah, there you are,” Geren said.

 

Wills spun in Perim’s direction, his gaze like a shot from a splinter blaster.

 

“Geren. Wills.”

 

“Getting acclimated?” Geren said, thumbing close the company statements.

 

“Yes. Jamie 3.5 has…” Perim nodded. “…been most helpful.”

 

Geren cut a glance at Wills. Tension radiated from him like a bride the day

before the wedding with no reception hall.

 

“Sit or stand, it makes no difference,” Geren said, seemingly exasperated.

 

Wills’ gaze tracked back to the picture window and he continued rocking, as if

ignoring the both of them. Perim crossed his arms and leaned against the wall next

to the magfield. It opaqued, solidifying to a dark grey, denying entrance to passersby.

“I’ll get straight to the point,” Geren said. “I have made Perim a vice

president of AmHo. He will report to you, Wills…”

 

Wills momentarily stopped rocking, tensed the fists in his pocket, then

resumed.

 

“…and I’m counting on you to be fair-minded. His birthright is not of his making.

Now, as for succession, since we are family owned and managed, Wills is next in line,

then my daughter, Nicholle. Although I’m sure she wouldn’t want the job. You will be

on a six-month trial, Perim. After which, if you have performed satisfactorily, you will be

added as third in the line of succession.That is my decision. Any questions?”

 

Perim waited for Wills to lodge a protest, but none came.

 

“And on what criteria will my performance be based?” Perim said.

 

Geren waved a hand, as if the criteria were common knowledge. “Oh,

ability to manage people, knowledge of the industry, ability to spot trends and

leverage them, the usual. I’m sure Wills can work with HR to come up with

some performance standards and go over them with you.”

 

Wills grunted. Perim couldn’t tell if it meant yes or no.

 

“Wills!” Geren said.

 

Wills turned to face Geren, his expression blank. “I’ll meet with him

tomorrow.” A slight smile. The kind painted on clowns. Perim shivered.

 

“Is that it?” Perim said. He lifted off the wall and stood, hands in pockets.

 

“You’ll be assigned a bodyguard,” Geren said.

 

“Already got one. And I trust him.”

 

“Very well, just give his information to the security department. And don’t

forget our four o’clock.”

 

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Perim said, trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

Failed. The magfield turned transparent and he left, glad to shake off the tension

that had built in the room.

 

He bee-lined for his office, opaqued the door, and sat in the middle of the

semi-circular couch at the darkened end of the office.

 

He brought up his node and scanned the day’s news. One article caught

his eye: “Two American Hologram subscribers were found unconscious at their

homes while cogged in. Anomalies were found in their systems…” Drugs. “…

and both remain in a comatose state.” The company had issued a statement

saying that wireless hologram is completely safe and that they would work with

the authorities to determine what had transpired.

 

Interesting.

 

Perim bounced around on his own node, then the company’s, looking

for its own anomalies. He tested the limits of his access—Startup folder, yes;

Registry folder, no—which confirmed what he had expected. He pinched the

skin behind his ears and squeezed out a BackdoorRTY.3 sepsis, then uploaded

it to his node. He programmed it to remain in place for twenty-four hours, then

transfer to the company node and conduct its own investigation.

 

His door chimed and Perim hurriedly closed down his node. It faded

into the air before him. He tapped thumb and pinky once, and the magfield

switched from dull grey to a school of freshwater fish.

 

Wills stepped through and Perim rose to meet him. Wills paused, eyeing

Perim as if sizing him up for a suit fitting. The skin on Perim’s neck began

to itch.

 

“I’ll need to map your brain for executive access to Cognition,” Wills said.

He held up a small, black device. “Won’t take long.”

“Is this necessary?” Perim said.

 

The clown smile again. “Afraid so.”

 

“Very well.”

 

Perim allowed him to place the device on his forehead, which hummed

softly, then pinged after about twenty seconds. Wills recovered the device,

scanned the results, and nodded.

 

“Good scan. Ah, is eleven o’clock good for tomorrow?”

 

Perim nodded. “My schedule’s free, so far.”

 

“Great. See you then.”

 

At that, Wills turned and left.

 

*****

 

Perim checked the time in his periphery—3:30. Tiredness stole over his body

and mind from attending meetings, talking to employees, glad-handing fellow

managers, and reading corporate documents. He edged back in his seat and

activated the massage feature. Warmth suffused his neck and back as vibrating

kneading balls wended their way up and down his spine. Muscle tightness

alerted them to a need, and they lingered in the middle of his back, where

tension had knotted. He allowed himself to close his eyes, relax, and fall into

the chair’s embrace.

 

“Emergency meeting called. Please attend. Room 718.”

 

Perim jerked upright. Jamie 3.5 stood before him with a newly acquired

halo of orange that blinked staccato.

 

“What’s going on?” he said, hands gripping the arm rests.

 

She merely repeated the previous message. Perim groaned and turned off

the massage.

 

“This had better be good.”

 

*****

 

The conference room was filled with managers Perim had met earlier in the day,

and one or two he hadn’t. The meeting was being led by Chris Kappert, head of

IT. His face expressed pure shock. Some managers next to Perim were bandying

about the words, ‘ambulance’ and ‘embezzle.’

 

The hell is going on?

 

Chris finally spoke, his voice cracked and emotion-laden.

 

“If I could have your attention, please.”

 

The room instantly fell quiet.

 

“I’m afraid I have some rather bad news. Geren Ryder has fallen ill and was

taken by ambulance to Washington District Hospital. I will be going over there

myself shortly to get more information. As of now, we don’t have any idea what

is wrong, but rest assured that he is in capable hands.

 

“In another matter, which may be related, William Ryder is currently missing.

He is not answering cogs and has not been seen in the building since 10:30 this

morning. There is also…a substantial sum missing from the cash accounts.”

Murmurs rose until Chris put up a hand for quiet.

 

“There may be an explanation for all of this, but as of now, if you are

contacted by William Ryder, please refer the call to HR. His node has been

locked, and if he asks anyone for access to corporate documents, as I said, alert

HR immediately. I’m afraid that’s all the news I have for now. I will keep you

updated through the executive node as soon as I find out anything else.”

 

“Who’s going to run the company?”

 

The question came from a woman in the back. She had spiky red hair and

a morgue-like pallor.

 

“As you know, we are family owned and managed, which makes Nicholle

Ryder the present head of company.”

 

A small collection of groans rose up.

 

“I will approach her about taking the position, but if she refuses, then it

would fall to the Board of Directors to appoint someone.”

 

Perim’s jaw tightened, but he kept his peace. He should be next in line, but

he wasn’t on the list. Not yet. But with Geren and Wills out of the picture—an

interesting turn of events—he made an urgent note to consult with an attorney.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

An orange sun hung low in the sky, beneath long bands of dark clouds,

as if the sky were winking one last time before the sun sank beneath the

undulating waters of the Anacostia River. Flecks of black dotted the scene—

birds catching dinner by the dying light. Their cries were carried along

the wind, then faded as the air currents shifted. The light gleamed on

the marble of the Prado’s Ionic columns that fronted long rows of paned

windows. Statues ensconced in their rectangular recesses stood guard next

to barred archways.

 

Nicholle Ryder stood out front, waving her hand as if creating the scene

by magic.

 

“No, the columns by the front door are Doric, not Ionic. You’ll have to

reprogram,” she said.

 

Haedn Gupta jabbed a finger in the air, keeping a list on his node.

When Nicholle’s father agreed to sponsor the Prado recreation, he lent her

Haedn from American Hologram’s optics department, who at first denigrated

the project every chance he got. After their display of a partial beta version at

a kindergarten, however, he became an ardent supporter. The excited way the

children reacted to works of art they normally would have shrugged at had

drawn him in…had drawn them all in.

 

“We had to make some adjustments to account for a more narrow staging

area, so just go through the museum and make a note of what needs changing

and we’ll do everything at once,” he said. “And this time, you’re getting a cut-off

date, Ms. Perfectionist.”

 

“So you say, Haedn, so you say. What about David?” Nicholle said as they strode

through the front door. “Tell me his backside is as beautiful as the day it was sculpted.”

Haranguing the Gallery of the Accademia di Belle Arti had finally resulted

in the holographic rights to the statue, David—a feat she wouldn’t let her boss

forget. She had even beat out the Louvre.

 

“Take a look for yourself.” He gestured toward the towering statue to his

right. “I put him just inside the front door, to keep anyone in line distracted,”

Haedn said. “People are less prone to frustration if they’re not bored.”

 

Nicholle nodded approvingly as she traversed around the statue, admiring

the finely sculpted figure. Hair curled about his face, brow folded in tense

anticipation. She came to a halt halfway around.

 

“I always took you for an ass…woman.” Reya Connors, assistant extraordinaire,

came up beside Nicholle, punching the air with her finger. Blonde hair tied

back with a scarf, 5’3” frame draped with a grey herringbone suit. Matching

pumps. A model of efficiency.

 

“You’re as funny as a Blue Period work,” Nicholle said. She stood back to

admire the view. “It looks so life-like,” Nicholle said.

 

“I don’t know. David’s not exactly well-endowed. Perhaps Michelangelo

didn’t want to linger there too long.”

 

Talking to Reya was like talking to middle school boys. Eventually the

conversation came around to sex or genitalia.

 

“Are you diagnosing Michelangelo with penis envy?”

 

“I’m just an executive assistant. What would I know?”

 

“We could make it bigger,” Nicholle said.

 

Reya chuckled. “Yeah. Wait—what? I was joking. The purists would

have our head on a pike. Not to mention the Gallery of the Accademia. The

contract states—”

 

“Yes, yes, exact likeness and all that, but controversy means longer lines.

And it’s not a violation if it’s a malfunction. Haedn! Add four inches to the

front,” Nicholle said. She would deal with the fallout later.

 

“Hold on. Cog from Seppotia,” Reya said. She walked toward an alcove

and spoke in low tones.

 

Haedn’s concentrated focus melted into a look of consternation. Then his

face darkened to the color of an aged cabernet and he began to sputter and

shake. “What? The statue of David is a masterpiece. No one—”

 

“We’ll get more publicity, which means longer lines. The longer the lines,

the more money,” Nicholle said. “Which means a bonus for you.”

 

Haedn’s mouth hung open and his eyes rolled upward and froze in their

orbit, like the top car on a Ferris wheel. Then he reanimated, looking around

for anyone within earshot.

 

“For one day,” he said in a loud whisper. “That’s it!”

 

Nicholle gave him thumbs up. Haedn had a wife with expensive tastes and

twins on the way. He had probably been up all night trying to figure out a way

to afford Quattrocellini cribs and strollers.

 

Reya returned, hands on hips with a laser-beam gaze, which always meant

bad news. Nicholle braced herself.

 

“Seppotia from the Guggenheim rejected our offer for the holographic

rights to Kandinsky’s Accompanied Contrast. I told her she could lick my cat’s

balls,” Reya said. Efficiency by Vassar, mouth by U.S. Navy.

Nicholle closed her eyes and rubbed flat the sudden grooves on her forehead.

 

“Tell me you didn’t say that.”

 

“Well, not exactly. But I was in projection mode.”

 

That must have been an eyeful, Nicholle thought. Nicholle had had words

with Seppotia before—civil, yet underscored with mutual hatred. The words,

‘luddite,’ and ‘artistic purity,’ were bandied between them.

 

“Reya, I know Seppotia can be difficult, but she’s leaving next month, and

after she’s gone, we’re still going to have to deal with the Guggenheim. Try and

be civil.”

 

Reya gave her a stony look but stayed silent.

 

“Come on. Let’s check out the Yebedor oils,” Nicholle said. She walked

around to the statue’s front and collected a perturbed Haedn. They walked

through the Renaissance, crossed the Enlightenment and Victorian Ages, and

entered the Contemporary Age. Abstract oils, originally two-dimensional, hung

suspended in air in distended form. Statues moved twenty degrees clockwise,

then returned to their original pose. Museum workers moved in and out among

the art, setting up ladders, installing diodes, calculating algorithms.

 

The oil paintings of Tre Yebedor occupied a room off of the Contemporary

one, filled with blazing colors, hazy curves, and effervescent lines. The collection

contained twenty oils.

 

“No, no. The arrangement is all wrong,” Nicholle said. “I want them in

chronological order.” She pointed to the paintings in the order they should go.

Reya punched and dragged the air, moving the oils into the specified order.

Chris Kappert. The name glowed orange in Nicholle’s periphery, signaling

an incoming cog.

 

“Chris Kappert? I haven’t talked to him in a year. Hold on, Reya,” Nicholle

said. She tapped her ring finger twice against her thumb, answering the cog.

Chris’s transparent image hovered in front of her.

 

“Yes?” she said. He had changed his look. A year ago, he had dreadlocks

and sported wrinkled shirts. Now he wore closely cropped dark hair and a navy

suit. Green eyes ringed in hazel reflected a world-weariness that was not often

seen in men his age.

 

“Hello, Nicholle. Nice to see you again. Unfortunately, I’m afraid I have

bad news. Your father has fallen ill and has been taken to a hospital.”

 

Her arm froze in mid-sweep. Chris’s voice dissolved into a clanging

dissonance in her mind, blending with the hammering of the museum workers.

The oranges and blues of abstract art morphed into a blurred, whirling landscape

where gravity did not fasten.

 

No, it can’t be.

 

“Wha—What…did you say?”

 

“Your father’s been taken to the hospital. He’s in Washington District

hospital. I’m there now in the nanosurgery waiting area,” Chris said.

 

Only Nicholle heard him, but Reya rushed over and helped her onto a bench.

 

“Are you all right?” Reya said.

 

“He’s not dying, is he?”

 

“Who?” Reya said. Nicholle squeezed her arm to silence her.

 

“I don’t know yet. The doctor hasn’t come out to talk. And, we have issues

to discuss. Try to get here as soon as you can,” Chris said.

 

“We don’t have a thing to discuss other than my father.” She tapped her

ring finger twice against her thumb and Chris faded to black.

 

*****

 

Nicholle skirted past an elderly couple and bounded up the green marble

steps of Washington District hospital. She reached the top, ran through the

magfield—emblazoned with the blue-and-yellow seal of the hospital—and

butted her way past startled patients. She tapped open a directory, which

unfolded before her in a holographic display of green and black. She sprinted

toward the elevator.

 

“Nanosurgery, nano…third floor.” Nicholle repeated the finger taps and

the directory faded. She slipped between the closing elevator doors and almost

ran into a stout woman wearing a turban. The overhead speaker sounded,

“Please step away from the doors.”

 

“Third floor,” she said. The 3 lit up in response. She stood just inside the

door, tapping her foot. C’mon, c’mon. I can’t believe they brought him to a public

hospital.

 

Her attention was diverted by a holo-ad moving across the wall in front

of her. Two pictures streamed by, side by side, one of a woman in a bed, tubes

running from her arms and legs to bags of liquid hung on tall racks, the other of

a woman walking down the street, smiling. Beneath the ad scrolled the words:

From this…to this. Medinites®. Changing the Way You Heal.

 

Insipid elevator music played overhead, homogenized versions of last year’s

songs, threatening to send her over the edge of impatience.

 

She rocketed out of the elevator when the doors opened and sped down the

hall toward the surgery wing. A large, blonde woman sat behind a desk, greeting

visitors, and looked up expectantly as Nicholle approached.

 

“Can I help you?” she said.

 

Nicholle ignored her and strode through the magfield, which was decorated

with a waterfall scene, and into the waiting room.

 

Chris sat on a settee by a large window that faced the Ministry for

Purlieu Security. The slowly shifting blues of the walls and the muted greens

and beiges of the carpeting were designed to calm edgy relatives, but had

no effect on her.

 

“Where is he? What happened?” Nicholle stopped in the middle of the

waiting room floor, demanding answers.

 

Chris walked over to her. His grey eyes held a warmth that Nicholle had

never witnessed, and his somber countenance reflected a concern she didn’t

think he possessed.

 

“He’s still in surgery. As for what happened, he was walking down the

hall when he suddenly collapsed. No warning sign of chest pain or headache.

Nothing. He just collapsed,” Chris said.

 

“What did the doctors say?”

 

“They haven’t spoken to me yet. But the nurse said the surgeon should be

out in a little while.”

 

“Where’s Wills?”

 

“Your brother…is on his way.”

 

“So what do we do? Just wait?”

 

“That’s all we can do. Have a seat.”

 

Nicholle threw her purse in a green chair by the window and sat down.

 

“How’s work?” Chris said.

 

“Fine.” She wished the waiting room had soundproof partitions. Worrying

over her father was stressful enough without having to tolerate Chris, as well.

 

“Just fine? I heard you were working on a new exhibit. I know you love

creating art displays.”

 

She made no reply, but Chris pressed on.

 

“In fact, I was thinking of coming down—”

 

“Can you quit with the small talk? I’m not in the mood.”

 

Chris shrugged. “Have it your way.”

 

Nicholle saw movement in her periphery. A woman’s head emerged from

the magfield to surgery. The head remained suspended in a sea of white, soon

joined by the rest of the body, adorned in a maroon anti-contaminant suit.

Nicholle jumped from her chair and rushed toward the doctor, just stopping

short of bowling her over. She fought the urge to take the doctor by the shoulders

and shake the answers out.

 

“How is he?” Nicholle said.

 

The doctor drew up her thin lips until they practically disappeared.

A shot of pain burned in Nicholle’s chest. The background noise of the

hospital faded to a distant droning and her mind clouded over. It’s worse than I

thought. God, don’t let him die, don’t let him die.

 

“I’m Doctor Lars, head of nanosurgery. Mr. Ryder is in a coma. We’ve

administered fluids, vitamins, and pralaxinine, and programmed his medical

nanites to stimulate the cerebrum, which rules consciousness. So far there’s

been no reaction, but it may take some time. All we can do is wait for now and

see what happens.”

 

“How long do we have to wait?” Nicholle said. “Can I see him?”

 

“I don’t know how long it will be before he regains consciousness. And,

unfortunately, I’m afraid you cannot see him at the moment. Rest assured, we’re

doing all we can.” She paused. “You are the next of kin?”

 

“Yes, I’m his daughter, Nicholle Ryder.”

 

“I just want to inform you that your father has a living will that stipulates if

he remains in a coma longer than five days, he is to undergo medinite-assisted

euthanasia.”

 

“What? Are you insane? I’m not allowing that. I don’t care what the will

says. Do you know who he is?”

 

“I’m well aware of his identity, Ms. Ryder, but that doesn’t change matters.

Living wills have to be respected, whether they be of presidents of companies or

janitors.” Dr. Lars adopted a smug look. “As I said, we’re doing all we can. I suggest

you all go home and get some rest. We’ll call as soon as anything changes.” With

that, Dr. Lars walked back through the magfield, disappearing into a sea of white.

 

Stunned. At both the doctor’s disrespect and the time limit. Five days.

The euthanasists had gone too far. The laws they had pushed through

Congress were supposed to be for those who couldn’t afford health care, to

cut down on suffering. But they had gotten weak-willed officials to kowtow

to their demands, and now they were all paying the price. “I don’t believe

this. What the hell? Euthanasia? Did you know about this?” She leveled a

gaze at Chris.

 

“Me? I knew nothing about your father’s will.”

 

“Oh, c’mon. You were up to your elbows in my father’s business. You knew

everything he did, from what he had for lunch to what color tie he would wear

the next day.”

 

“Jealous of that?”

 

Nicholle’s hand landed hard on Chris’s cheek. Heads jerked in their

direction. Her hand smarted, but she refused to flinch. She’d wanted to do that

for a long time. Chris kept his head to the side for a few seconds, then eased it

back around. Nicholle turned away.

 

“Euthanasia.” Hot tears spilled down her cheeks and onto her sweater. The

muted greens and beiges of the waiting room coalesced into a blur. A knot cinched

her throat. Chris came over and took her by the shoulders as he led her to the settee.

Her tears dried, her medinites tending to her body’s crisis. A sense of calm

enshrouded her and the fog began to lift from her thoughts. But she wanted to

grieve. Let the tears come.

 

“Why isn’t Wills here yet?” Nicholle said. “He needs to be here.” Next

to her father, Wills was the only person she had left in her immediate family.

Their mother had been killed in a plane crash when she was two. After that,

she had lived with the fear of losing her father, the reason Nicholle had tried

to stay up late, waiting for him to come home from work when she was little.

She’d always fallen asleep before he got home, though. Wills had always gone

to bed on time, on the dot.

 

Chris sat next to Nicholle. He took her hand in his and spoke in a soft

voice.

 

“There’s something you need to know about Wills. And I’m sorry to be the

one to have to tell you this at such a time.”

 

“About Wills? What are you talking about? Is he all right?” She grabbed his

arm, digging her nails into his suit jacket. Her heart began to pound again. If

something had happened to him, too…

 

“I’m sure he’s fine.”

 

“What do you mean you’re sure he’s fine? You said he was on his way. What

are you talking about?”

 

“We haven’t seen Wills since ten thirty this morning. And there’s a large

amount of money missing from the company. Fifty billion dollars. All calls to

him are diverted to an answering service.”

 

“What? Fifty billion?” Nicholle said. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

 

“We were hoping it wasn’t what we thought. When was the last time you

saw him?”

 

“About a week ago. We took the scramjet to Mexico for Jera’s wedding.”

 

“How did he seem?”

 

Nicholle fought hard to think back to the trip…past recent events, past

worry, doubt, and guilt. He’d been more quiet than usual, but, nothing out of

the ordinary. In classic Wills style, he had managed to inform her of various

esoteric facts. They rattled around in the back of her consciousness—Nazi SS

officers had their blood type tattooed on their left armpit; the only rock that

floats is pumice; Pierre Picaud inspired The Count of Monte Cristo.

 

“I need a drink,” she said. She left her node address on the hospital’s ‘Notify

Immediately’ list. They’d cog her if anything changed, at least that’s what the

doctor said. Dr. Lars would probably activate the euthanasia process tonight if

given the chance.

 

“A drink?” Chris said. “I don’t thi—”

 

“I don’t want to hear it.” She snatched up her purse and headed out the

magfield. The closest bar was Malabo’s, one block over. Chris caught up and

escorted her, silent, though one glance told her he was holding back a spew of

disapproval. Fine. The last person’s approval she wanted was his.

 

She cogged Wills the whole way there, hoping he would answer and say it

was all just a joke. But he didn’t pick up.

 

*****

 

Malabo’s typified the encroaching African-Chinese subculture—walls adorned

with large wildlife batiks, flanked by Chinese tiger paintings. The blend was

almost seamless, one of the reasons she kept coming back.

 

“Whiskey shot, double,” she said. She took a seat at the end of the bar,

facing the door. Old habit. The bartender smacked a double shot glass on the

counter and filled it with the golden liquid. She cogged the cost, tapping her

thumb on her temple, then downed the glass. She had almost forgotten the

burn. Closed her eyes and relished the remembrance.

 

Chris cleared his throat. She ignored him until the last of the burn faded.

 

“So why do you want to know how Wills seemed? If you’re asking whether

he told me he planned on stealing company money and leaving town, then no.

He didn’t,” she said. “So what do you want from me, Chris?” He must have

wanted something, otherwise he wouldn’t have spent so much time with her,

especially in a bar.

 

“In addition to current…incidents, it’s not yet widely known, but

American Hologram is about to be audited by Innerworld Revenue. We’ve

sold off some assets to keep the ratios up and managed to keep it out of the

media so far. But it’s going to hit when we file the quarterly reports. And

when it does, I think we’ll get less of a negative impact from our subscribers

if there’s some family continuity.”

 

“Continuity? What are you talking about? You want me to take over

the company?”

 

Two small dents cleft between his eyebrows, alerting her to the gravity of

the situation.

 

“Yes, at least for a little while.”

 

“Well, well. So now you want me? Will it be for longer than three weeks

this time?”

 

“I know you’re not bringing up the internship issue,” Chris said. He averted

his gaze, toward the window. The dents deepened.

 

“If there’s one thing I learned from that, it’s that people rarely change. If ever.”

 

“You were in over your head and you knew it.”

 

“I needed help, not a push out the door.”

 

“You were kissing your father’s ass too much to worry about what you wanted.”

 

“That coming from the expert on kissing my father’s ass.”

 

The warmth in his eyes at the hospital had dissipated like alcohol in blue

flame. “You found a job you loved. Why are you blaming me for that?”

 

“It was the way you did it. You enjoyed it. Like some sadistic pervert.”

 

The bartender glanced over and sucked his tooth. A warning. Chris ignored it.

 

“Bullshit. The longer it dragged out, the harder it would’ve been. You

wanted to wait around, let your father tell you what and who you should be. I

knew that job wasn’t you.”

 

“And since when did you become the expert on me?” She strained her voice

to keep from yelling. “My relationship with my father is none of your business.”

 

“You know what? We can sit here all day going round and round.

 

Meanwhile, your father’s in a coma and the company’s about to tank. I’m asking

you, on your father’s behalf, to step in and help save what he started. If we go

down, thousands of people will lose their jobs. Now either you’re in or you’re

not. Your choice.”

 

Nicholle swallowed, hard. “You’ve changed from the happy-go-lucky techru

you were a year ago.”

 

“I grew up,” he said.

 

Feeling suffocated, Nicholle got up and pushed past him. She walked to the

bar front and leaned against the window, pressing the side of her forehead on the

cool glass. It had started to rain and beads of water snaked down the pane, leaving

thin trails. Cars crowded the airways, signaling the beginning of rush hour.

Everything was hitting close to home, her father, her brother, the family

company. The last thing she wanted to do was take on more responsibility in

her state of mind. She walked back and paced in front of the antique jukebox.

Sometimes she couldn’t help but wonder where she would be if she had

stayed on the streets. If her brother hadn’t given her the ultimatum that he

would clean out her accounts if she didn’t sober up and come home.

 

The old feelings surfaced: fear, revulsion, guilt. Fear of dying in a cold

back alley with no one finding her body for weeks afterward. Revulsion at her

addiction, at her perceived weakness at not being able to ‘just say no.’ Guilt at

having left, without warning, those whom she’d befriended. Even Tuma.

She remembered feeming pakz and skeemz when she used to get high. The

pakz delivered a more visceral feeling, the direct rush of drugs injected into the

blood stream by medinites. You still saw reality, but you didn’t care. Yet, there

was that needling prick in the back of your mind, reminding you that your

reality was what you were going to have to deal with when you came back.

Skeemz, on the other hand, stimulated the imagination beyond one’s

natural ability, creating a feeling of frenzied euphoria. Your reality would wait

forever. Seemed as if the programmers discovered new and different ways each

week to simulate an endorphin rush. Customized programs cost more, but

offered to change the way you perceived your world.

 

I wonder how I’d perceive all of this on skeemz?

 

She sidled back to the bar, arms crossed. “I’m a curator at a holographic

museum. No one is going to take me seriously,” she said.

 

“I’ll handle senior management and the auditors,” Chris said. “You just

look like you’re in charge. That should be easy. You’ve acted before.”

 

She squeezed her thumb until the medinites lowered the barriers. The flush

of the whiskey warmed her, and a gleeful disposition eased across her mind. It’d

been a long time.

 

Responsibility, duty…what did it really get you in life? Boredom. But her

father needed her. She’d disappointed him before; she wasn’t about to do it

again. She released her thumb and the flush subsided. Duty called.

 

“I’ll do it,” she said.

 

“Good. I’ll tell the employees and assign you a bodyguard.”

 

“Bodyguard?”

 

“Standard issue for a corporate executive. I’ll send him over this evening.

You two can meet and set up a schedule.”

 

“But—”

 

Chris tapped Nicholle on the side of her shoulder with a fist. “Thanks,

Nicholle. See you later.”

 

Nicholle’s stomach coiled into a knot as she watched Chris rush out the

door. What did she know about running a wireless hologram service provider?

Her company internship had been an admitted—never to Chris—disaster. But

she wouldn’t need to know anything. Chris would do all the work. Right?

She pulled out a cigarette and tapped the end on the edge of the counter.

It lit up. She liked her nicotine the old-fashioned way. She sat down at the bar

and crossed her arms, mashing her thumb under her elbow. The flush returned.

Welcome home.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

Walking into Riklo Castor’s office was like walking into a gamer shop—a new

feature every day. Today’s works of art were a holo of Taliesin West, Dogs Playing

Poker, and The Thinker. The building and dogs stood off to the side, while the

statue sat in the middle of the room. Nicholle stepped through The Thinker.

Riklo didn’t know much about art, although he pretended he did. Nicholle let

him have his fantasy.

 

Riklo looked up when she approached his desk. He wore last year’s look

of slicked-back hair and a skinny tie. As he was tall and wiry, the tie made him

look thinner.

 

“Nicholle. Good. I just cogged Henri at the Louvre. We’re still in the

running but they won’t make a decision until next week. Now as far as the

Prado is concerned—”

 

“Riklo, I have to leave,” she said.

 

“For where, the Louvre? The personal touch. Good thinking.” He shook a

finger in her direction.

 

“No, the job. I have to leave the job.”

 

He gave her a double take.

 

“What are you talking about? Did you get a better offer from another

museum? I’ll match it. Plus a bonus.” He stood up, boring his knuckles into

the exposed wood from underneath a scattered hodgepodge of wi-papers. “You

can’t leave me now. We have an exhibit coming up that I’m hoping will raise

money from the patrons. Especially Mr. Garampo.”

 

A 2D Diego Rivera print hung on the far wall. The Flower Vendor looked at her

and Riklo with interest as she sold another batch of calla lilies to a girl in pigtails.

 

“My father’s in a coma,” Nicholle said. She sat down and leaned her head

back on the chair, browsing the orange and blue bas relief ceiling tile, amazed

that she was still coherent after leaving the hospital. The events of the day had

left her unable to think beyond basic daily functions.

 

“A coma? Fema,” he cursed. “I’m sorry, Nick. I didn’t know,” Riklo said.

 

“How’d it happen?” He sat down in the leather chair and folded his hands

across the desk, like a first-grader waiting for recess.

 

“The doctors don’t know. They can’t say when he’ll come out of it.” She

neglected to mention the living will stipulation. It was enough of a nightmare.

She didn’t want to relive it. “The head of IT asked me to take over as acting

president, for the time being, until my brother gets back from out of town.” If

he gets back.

 

“Can you handle that, with everything going on?” He sounded condescending,

as if eager to hear a no in reply.

 

“It’s not about me anymore. If I don’t go, the company may lose more jobs

than if I do go. Believe me, I wouldn’t leave if I didn’t think I had to.”

 

Riklo may have had no sense of art, but he was a decent boss. He’d been

given the job by his father, who owned the museum, so it wasn’t as if he would

be fired if he didn’t meet the bottom line.

 

“It’ll be a lot of stress, crazy clients, dumb employees, inept management.”

 

One side of Riklo’s mouth turned down. “Look, I’ll just give you family leave. If

it doesn’t take longer than six months, your job will be here when you return.”

 

It made more sense than quitting. “Thanks, Riklo. I really appreciate that.

I’ll hand my files over to Reya,” Nicholle said. She smiled at him, then left.

 

*****

 

Reya wasn’t in her office and Nicholle didn’t feel like cogging, so she uploaded

her instructions on the upcoming Yebedor exhibit and saved it to Reya’s node.

Nicholle was sorry she would miss opening night. The exhibit was a social

commentary piece illustrating the growing divide between the classes. She had

studied Yebedor in college and admired his work. When she lived on the street,

the meaning behind the paintings became clear. Funny that—a revelation

through a pakz-induced high in which all the world’s issues were solved in a

moment’s thought. And then with soberness came crushing reality.

 

The transition to corporate life would unsettle her, she knew. Remembrances

of boring meetings, angry shareholders, and disgruntled employees flitted across

her mind. She forced the thoughts from her head.

 

This time it will be different.

 

Riiight.

 

She was going to pack her things, but decided to leave them. She’d be back.

Small though it was, her office held a lot of good memories—like the time

Reya had bought Riklo a blow-up doll and was waving it around in the hallway

while his father looked on, furious, from the conference room. Nicholle hadn’t

known Mr. Castor could curse like that. But they’d all had a good laugh after he

left. Then there was the time they landed the rights to the drawings in Chauvet

Cave. They’d celebrated for days after.

 

“I shall return,” she said to herself. Grabbed her Quatrocellini bag and

headed out. Her heels on marble echoed in the long, empty hallway. The Artists

Hallway. Holos of painters, sculptors, and architects lined up on either side,

watching as employees came and went.

 

Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait at 28, hung at the end of the corridor, one of

Nicholle’s favorites. She paused for a last look.

 

It’s not the last time. Keep telling yourself that.

 

His eyes seemed sadder than usual—or was it her imagination?

 

“See you, Al. I still think you’re hot.”

 

She walked out into the night. Tall trees silhouetted against the moonlit

sky hunched over the edge of the parking lot, as if hunting prey. Her car’s

proximity sensors unlocked the door and turned on the engine. The door

swung up as she approached.

 

“Good evening, Nicholle,” the car’s smooth baritone voice said.

 

“Evening, Max,” she replied.

 

“Will you be driving tonight?”

 

“Nope, it’s all yours. Been a rough day.”

 

“Destination?”

 

She hesitated. Guilt had nagged at the back of her mind since the drink in

Malabo’s. She’d officially fallen off the wagon, but given the circumstances, she

thought it understandable. Not that she was making excuses…

 

No, that’s exactly what you’re doing.

 

“Where’s the next, closest twelve-step meeting?” she said.

 

“1725 Rhode Island.”

 

“A.A.?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Take me there.”

 

*****

 

A host of cars huddled under the dome of St. Matthew’s Cathedral, testament

to the number of those come to call. Nicholle had remembered her first twelve step

meeting—had expected to see nothing but barely recovering, recently high

addicts who’d been forced into treatment by well-meaning relatives. Instead,

she’d found people from all walks of life, in various stages of recovery. Some a

few days sober, others decades. And they’d all welcomed her. It had felt like a

familial embrace, one that she’d never had.

 

Max rolled to a stop and opened the door. Nicholle climbed out and pulled

up her coat against the night chill. A few stragglers were wending their way

around to a side entrance, and she hurried to fall in behind.

 

Technically, she was an addict, not an alcoholic, since her drug of choice

was pakz. She drank, but not to the point of drunkenness. She’d relied on the

pakz to take her over the edge. Way over.

 

“Hey,” she said to the two stragglers. “Is this open or closed?”

 

Closed meetingswere for A.A. members only, or for those who had a

drinking problem and wanted to stop. Open meetings were available to anyone.

She’d faked it before, just to get into a meeting she felt she needed. Replaced

“pakz” with “alcohol.”

 

The man on the left, dressed in a thin leather jacket and tight jeans with a

chain that ran from the back pocket to his belt, spoke first, albeit briefly.

 

“Closed.”

 

The woman on the right came across as more sociable. She wore a brown

patchwork velvet skirt that fell to the floor and a green sweater. She had a tangle

of brown curls with blonde highlights that framed a narrow face.

 

“First time?”

 

“First time here, not first at a meeting,” Nicholle said.

 

“Well, welcome. My name’s Daria. This here’s Jim.”

 

Jim said nothing, but opened the door to the church and waved them in.

Nicholle let Daria take the lead, and they wound up in a small room of women.

Jim had veered off, presumably to join a men’s group. Nicholle eased into a

chair as she nodded greetings to the others. She tapped her thumb against her

index finger three times, cogging out. The small group sat at desks formed in a

rectangle. Nicholle figured the room was used for Bible study.

 

A chubby woman with short, copper-colored hair, sporting a tattoo of praying

hands on her left forearm led the meeting. After reading the A.A. Preamble and

leading the Serenity prayer, she opened the floor. Counterclockwise. Which

meant Nicholle was third in line.

 

Nicholle listened to people’s personal tales of loss and recovery. When it

was her turn, she crossed one leg over the other at the ankle and took hold at

the juncture.

 

“Hi, I’m Nicholle.”

 

“Hi, Nicholle,” everyone said.

 

“I, ah…became an alcoholic a little over two years ago. My mother died

when I was two and my father was rarely home, so it was mostly me and my

older brother growing up.

 

“So, about two years ago I went to work for my father in the family

business…only it didn’t work out. I didn’t quite fit in, since I was the

‘artiste’ in the family.” She paused. “I never quite fit in. Anyway, after I

was, in effect, fired from an internship, I hit the party scene, drinking and

pakzing my way through D.C. and Maryland. I hooked up with a leader

of a skeemz gang and cribbed in, did what I could to earn my keep. But I

was drinking more than I was making, so I stole money from him to keep

myself boozed and pakzed up. I knew he’d find out eventually, and I called

my brother for money.

 

“He said he would give it to me only if I came in for treatment that he could

monitor. I was desperate, so I agreed. Only I haven’t seen the gang leader since.

Which means I…haven’t lived up to Step 9 of the program, but something tells

me…I may have the chance to reconcile that.”

 

Her gaze shuttled around the room until it landed on Daria. She had that

Mother Earth aura and she looked at Nicholle with the same intensity she

probably gave a mushroom burger.

 

Nicholle spoke on. “This afternoon, I found out my father fell ill, with

only five days to live. So I went to a bar and had a drink. I have to admit, it felt

good, relieved a bit of the stress. But it’s good that I felt guilty enough to come

tonight, cuz a couple years ago, I would have thought nothing of it. Anyway,

thanks for letting me share.”

 

The group thanked her for sharing.

 

*****

 

After she made her farewells, she trotted across the parking lot and climbed into

warm leather.

 

“Home.”

 

Nicholle sat, numb, behind the wheel as it crossed the 14th Street Bridge.

The car continued on autopilot through the streets of Southwest D.C., snaking

past tony shops and bars that spilled forth moneyed clientele. The bouquet

of culinary creations of four-star restaurants wafted through the air vent, but

it failed to stir her senses. Her gaze swept over the reflections of buildings

undulating in the waters of the Potomac River.

 

Flashes of light illuminated the interior of the car driving under the street

lamps. Flashes of memory illuminated her thoughts.

 

Nicholle tapped her index finger three times against her thumb. Prismatic

colors spiraled around her, then whipped into a tight coil, bringing the scent of

fresh flowers. The standard greeting sounded in her ears, “Welcome to Cognition.”

 

“Play Tekirna Maro,” Nicholle said. Tekirna’s voice flooded the car, and

Nicholle’s senses filled with the smell of vanilla and the sights of purple and

orange lights.

 

She checked her father’s status on the hospital node, but it only blinked

“Status Unchanged” in bright blue. She sank down into the seat and closed her

eyes, all the way home.

 

Arriving at the programmed destination, the car slid under the garage door,

eased into a designated parking space, and shut off. Nicholle exited and headed

for the nearby transport tube.

 

As she rode along the horizontal track to her condo, her incoming cog light

flashed purple. Call from Tyla Porreaux. Nicholle tapped to answer the call,

voice only, and Tyla’s chattering instantly filled Nicholle’s head.

 

“There you are. I swear, you need to stay spiraled in, you luddite. We still

on for dinner?”

 

“Listen. I really need to talk to you. Can you and Keala come over now?”

 

“Sure thing, pachika.” Tyla’s voice mirrored instant concern. “You okay?”

 

“I’m not sure.”

 

“Oh, hon. Look, we’ll be right over. See you in five.”

 

Nicholle terminated the call just as the building’s retinal scan confirmed

her identity and the doors to the tube opened. Nicholle stepped into her great

room, heels clacking on the oak flooring. Strode past the baby grand piano and

round the corner to her bedroom suite. She threw her purse on the chair to the

right of the door. The walls were painted crimson, accented by an open-scroll

ceiling medallion. The bed stood on a dais against the far wall, draped in gauzy

mesh from a canopy. Beaded pillows spilled from the bed onto the floor.

Nicholle kicked off her navy Quatrocellini shoes, doffed her suit, and threw

it at the feet of the laundrobot. Its single arm with two extensions bent to pick

up the outfit for deposit into the ultrasonic cleaner.

 

She pulled on her favorite sweatsuit. The magfield chime rang and she

hurried out to the living room as the butlyr stood aside to let the guests enter.

Tyla and Keala whirled into the room, chattering, rustling bags, and clanking

bottles. Tyla had narrow almond-shaped eyes and wavy amber tresses that

complemented her café au lait complextion. Keala had a wide-eyed innocent

look that made her seem younger than her twenty-six years.

 

“What’s wrong?” Tyla said. “You didn’t sound good at all when I cogged.”

 

“Hey, guys. Just put the stuff in the kitchen,” Nicholle said. “I don’t feel like

cooking. Maybe we can order something.”

 

“No, no. As much as we paid for this steak, I’m cooking it. Consider me

your chef for the night,” Keala said.

 

They gathered in the kitchen over ginger ale and cheese and crackers. Keala

fired up the grill and seasoned down the steaks. The flames reflected off the red

aluminum tiles, lending an intimate feel to the spacious room. Nicholle told

them about her father, Wills leaving, and Chris’s request. As she told the story,

it resonated as someone else’s, or as some cheap skeemz one could buy off the

street for a pack of cigs.

 

“Oh, honey, are you okay?” Tyla said. She wrapped a hand around Nicholle’s

arm in support.

 

“Just kinda numb right now, you know?” Nicholle stared into the pale gold

of her ginger ale.

 

“I can’t imagine what it’s like. So your father might be—?” Keala said. She

broke it off and looked down at the steaks before spearing one and laying it on

the fire. It sizzled, sending up a tempting aroma.

 

Nicholle filled in the blank. “Euthanized.” It was hard for Nicholle to even

say the word. “I didn’t know he believed in that. I can’t imagine him doing that.”

 

“But it might be the best thing. No suffering,” Keala said.

 

Nicholle downed her soda. “That’s just it. I don’t know if he is suffering.

The doctors, apparently, don’t have a clue as to what happened.”

 

“I can’t believe Wills just took the money and left,” Tyla said. “Ass.”

 

“He wasn’t always that way,” Nicholle said defensively, to her surprise. Her

first memory was of her brother pushing her on a swing in the backyard when

she was two. He used to defend her from Anatol, the neighborhood bully, once

even getting a bloody nose for his troubles. As they grew, to help with their grief

over their mother, they had called each other every day from their respective

boarding schools. He used to tell her stories about their mother, so she would

not forget. When they were home, their father barely spoke to them. He would

creep into their room when he got home from the office to kiss them goodnight,

after they had gone to sleep. She knew this because he would sometimes leave a

piece of candy or some jewelry on her nightstand. Only when she grew up did

she realize her father was probably working through his own grief.

 

“Maybe my father’s lawyer would know something about his living will,”

Nicholle said. The idea just came to her. “Why didn’t I think of that before?”

 

“Yeah, but will he tell you anything?” Tyla said. “Confidentiality and all.”

 

“He’d better tell me something. And take care of this euthanasia business.”

 

The walls of her self-restraint buckled and swayed. Nicholle tapped open a

line and asked for Henroi Jebted, face scan enabled. Momentarily, the visage

of a man with salt-and-pepper hair in a dark grey suit appeared. He sat at a

desk cluttered with e-pads, poring over one in particular. His image sprang out,

sharper than reality. Upgraded diodes.

 

“Yes, what is it?” He didn’t deign to lift his head.

 

“Henroi, it’s Nicholle Ryder.”

 

His head jerked up, facial muscles flickered—surprise?—then slid into customary

placidness. “Nicholle. I was going to cog you. I’m so sorry about your father.”

 

“Henroi, did you know about his living will? What the hell? Five days?”

 

“Your father made his own wills, both his living will and his last will and

testament. The living will would only be viewed by his attending physicians.

I can, however, research precedents regarding the challenge of a living will.

Your father did not have a history of mental illness, so we can’t say that he was

mentally incapacitated.”

 

“I don’t care, Henroi. Do what you have to. I don’t want him euthanized.”

 

“I’ll see what I can do.”

 

“Do more than see,” Nicholle practically shouted. “And another thing,

Chris Kappert asked me to take over the company since Wills skipped town

with fifty billion.”

 

Henroi’s cheeks darkened, as if he was personally embarrassed over Wills’

behavior.

 

“Yes, Chris told me you would be heading up the company.” He cleared

his throat. “Since Wills’ behavior can be viewed as criminal, you will also be

in control of the entire Ryder estate. Minus, of course, the Foundation. Your

father and brother still own majority shares in the company, but will not be able

to exercise any rights without the Board’s permission. If Wills is exonerated,

then control will revert back to him. But I’m drawing up the papers now for

transfer to you.”

 

“I see,” Nicholle mumbled. Only it’s not supposed to be like this. Her father

and her brother were the responsible ones who took care of the family—well,

what was left of it. She was the aimless one, the screw-up.

 

“Fema,” she said.

 

“Is there, ah, something wrong?”

 

No time for introspection.

 

Henroi’s brows bridged, as if recreating Pangaea. “Has someone told you

about Perim Nestor?”

 

“Who?”

 

Henroi’s forehead slid back from his face, drawing up his eyebrows.

 

“Ah,” he said. “Well…” He cleared his throat again. “Your father…” He

slid her a furtive look. “…recently discovered he had a child out of wedlock

thirty-three years ago, Perim Nestor. Your father hired him and put him on a

six-month trial period, after which, if he performed satisfactorily, he would be

placed in the line of succession. Third, to be exact.”

 

Henroi’s words bounced in the timeframe between hearing and

comprehending, not quite completing the connection.

 

“Wait wait wait…what? My father had an illegitimate son, and hired him?

When was this? And no one told me?”

 

Rage crept into her voice. The astounding number of the day’s revelations

threatened to send her screaming to Sheppard Pratt, begging to be admitted.

The sound of Keala choking on a cracker broke through her conversation. Tyla

and Keala looked at her, slack-jawed. Nicholle made a rolling gesture she hoped

they interpreted as ‘I’ll tell you later.’

 

“He found out last week, confirmed yesterday. He told me he didn’t want

to bother you with it during your Prado exhibit,” Henroi said.

 

“Well, who is Perim Nestor? Where does he come from? What’s he

like? I mean good heavens…a new brother?” She slapped a palm across

her forehead.

 

The magfield chime rang again and the familiar whir of the butlyr followed.

 

“What now?” Nicholle said. “Hold on, Henroi.” She paused her call and

strode to the living room, half expecting a Quatrocellini purse delivery, but

then remembered she hadn’t authorized an entry. The butlyr semi-opaqued the

magfield to allow for speech.

 

“Who is it?” Nicholle said. A shadowy figure hovered just beyond the door.

 

“Talo Spyre. I’m your bodyguard. Sending up authorization now.”

 

Nicholle’s periphery blinked red, then green as authorization was

accepted. She allowed entry, and a tall man stepped through into the small

foyer. He sported the brash confidence of a Mars shuttle commander,

surveying the room as if ready to plant Old Glory between the cushions of

the chintz sofa. Black hair waved back, stark against pale skin and watery

blue eyes—a rugged handsomeness accented by a day’s worth of stubble.

His nanon suit iridesced subtly, taking environmental readings—from

room temperature to shifts in object proximity—feeding data directly to

the cortex. She’d seen the like on Tuma’s personal sentry. Whoever this man

was, he was top drawer.

 

He proffered a hand, closer to his body than social convention dictated,

as if drawing her into his space. She took the bait. He shined a perfect smile;

goosebumps rose on her flesh.

 

“Talo Spyre, at your service.”

 

Tyla and Keala emerged from the kitchen, grinning like kids over a broken

piñata. Nicholle introduced Talo and they all retreated to the living room. She

messaged Henroi and told him she would call him back.

 

Tyla and Keala squeezed Nicholle between them on the love seat; Talo sat

opposite on the chaise lounge.

 

“So…how long have you been…bodyguarding?” Nicholle said. She’d never

had a bodyguard before and found the idea ludicrous. But she didn’t want to

upset protocol. She had enough to worry over.

 

“Ten years,” Talo said. “Mostly for corporate executives.”

 

“So…what duties will you be performing?”

 

He sat on the edge of the lounge, leaning forward, as if relaxing in a chair

was a luxury rarely afforded. “I will plan routes, search rooms you’ll be in, check

the background of people with whom you’ll have contact, search your vehicle,

and escort you on your daily activities.”

 

“Is all this really necessary? I mean, it’s not like we’ve had issues at AmHo

where people have threatened lives. And excuse me, Mr. Spyre, I didn’t offer you

anything to drink.”

 

She fought her way from between Tyla and Keala and headed for the

kitchen. “Is ginger ale all right?” she called out behind her. “I also have tea,

coffee, water, and juice.” She grabbed a glass from the cabinet and stood at an

open refrigerator, waiting for a reply. None came.

 

Then two lason shots.

 

Goosebumps. Her mind raced, instincts leaching back from street days.

She pulled open the dish-towel drawer, reached at the back, and grabbed a

Semi. Footsteps. Blue heat crackled past her head and she fell back, prize

in hand. She pointed and fired blindly. She took out part of the wall, but

nothing else. A sliding sound, as of someone crawling on carpet, and she

lunged right and fired.

 

A scream. Got him! He rolled, groaning, but twisted an arm around. His

blast took out the Monet print on the wall, water lillies now a blackened hole.

Nicholle fired at his back. His arm thudded softly on the carpet. She stood still

for a moment, taking in the scene of a charred body lying on her dining room floor;

she slid down the wall, scarcely believing what transpired…like 2D film noir. Tyla!

 

“Tyla!”

 

She ran to the living room and took in the gruesome scene.

 

Too late.

 

Blackened heads lolled at odd angles, bodies slumped to the side. Tears welled

and streamed. She slid down the wall until she reached the floor and cried.

When the oppression of three dead bodies nearby became too much, she

cogged Chris. His face hovered before her, sporting a bored expression that

quickly changed to shock once he took in the scene.

 

“The hell happened to you?” he said.

 

Seething fury boiled up. “Your bodyguard tried to kill me! He killed Tyla

and Keala. What the fuck, Chris!”

 

Bewildered look this time. “What are you talking about? Are you okay?”

 

“I can’t believe you’re asking me if I’m okay when you just tried to have

me killed!”

 

“I didn’t try to kill you. The bodyguard was Perim’s choice. I told him I was

getting you one, and he said he’d handle it. What happened?”

 

“What happened?” she repeated, with a helping of sarcasm. But it was as if

her mind refused to relive recent events. Perhaps she was in shock and couldn’t

remember if she wanted. She closed her eyes. “I got off the phone with Henroi

to answer the door. The bodyguard came in, introduced himself, and we sat

down in the living room. I asked him about his duties, then I got up to go to

the kitchen to get him something to drink. And that’s when…”

 

Tears streamed again.

 

“Stay there. Don’t cog anyone. I’ll be right there.”

 

*****

 

She sat on her bed, wishing she had a pakz when the bell rang. Nicholle ran

to the door, checking authorization on the way. Opened the magfield, pulled

Chris inside, and opaqued it.

 

“Oh, my god,” he said. He surveyed the scene, holding a hand to his

mouth. The odor of burnt flesh had dissipated somewhat, but still pervaded

the room. Nicholle had never shot anyone before; bad odors were the last thing

she had expected.

 

“The hell do we do? Call the cops?” she said. The idea of calling the police

on oneself railed against her sensibilities as an ex-drug dealer. But she would do

it to keep from being charged with murder.

 

Chris still stood, running his hand over chin stubble.

 

“Chris!”

 

He jerked. “I don’t know, Nicholle,” he said, irritably. “I’ve never had to

handle burnt bodies before.”

 

“You’re acting like this is my fault.”

 

“Don’t be—Hold on. Cog from Jamie,” Chris said. He tapped open the

line. “Yes?…What? Wait, you can’t be serious. Hold on.” He turned to Nicholle.

“Turn on the HV.”

 

“What? You want to watch holovision, now?

 

“Jamie said Perim just announced that we stole twenty billion from the

company,” he said, motioning for the HV. It clicked on. Hovering before them

was a company photo of Chris in a navy suit next to one of Nicholle in an

orange gown attending the Fire and Ice Ball.

 

“In other news,” the newscaster’s voice droned, “American Hologram,

known as AmHo, has announced that its Vice President, Chris Kappert, and

company heiress, Nicholle Ryder, allegedly embezzled twenty billion dollars

from the corporation. Arlington County police are investigating…”

 

Nicholle’s body slacked and she collapsed on the couch. A lightheaded

consciousness encroached, leaving her disoriented and speechless. Her mind

reeled and surreality stole over the scene.

 

“I don’t believe this,” she whispered. “It can’t be happening.”

 

“Damnit,” Chris said. “First your father collapses, then your brother skips

town with company cash, Perim’s bodyguard kills your friends, and now this.

What the hell, Nicholle? We’ve got to go back to AmHo and clear our names.”

 

When she didn’t respond, Chris stalked over, snatched her up by the

shoulders, and shook her.

 

“Nicholle! We have to call Perim and clear this up.”

 

When she regained some semblance of coherency, something tightened in

the back of her mind—instincts honed from years past. From years of covering

my ass.

 

“Are you insane?” she said. “This Perim wants us out of the way. If we

return, he’ll just have us arrested. We need to go some place where we can find

out more about this guy. Who is he? Where’d he come from? What are his

weaknesses? In other words, we need to get the hell out of here.”

Online TV Interview – Dog Star Books

by , on
Jun 16, 2013

Skip forward to 22:05

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjnW0mYK4mw

Building Online Communities

by , on
Jun 7, 2013

Building Online Communities

Whether you’re a small startup or a Fortune 500 company, building an online community can expand your reach, build customer loyalty, and help members generate and share knowledge. But where do you start? These 10 tips should help:

1. Find out what people are saying.
Chances are that people are already talking about your company, product, or industry. Your mission is to find out where they’re talking (Facebook? Twitter? Forums?) and what they’re saying (Good? Bad? Both?). Use this information in building your online community to determine your target audience, help address concerns that interested parties have, and identify features your audience would want in an online community. There are established communities that you can customize, such as Ning (http://www.ning.com/what-is-ning/) and Yammer (https://www.yammer.com/).

2. Leverage variety.
You’ve done your research on where people are talking about your company or product, but what do those outlets look like? What are they doing? If a majority of the outlets don’t have video, then you provide video. If they make long posts, do a “tip of the day.” If they don’t feature interviews, line up the opportunity to sit down with a top influencer in your industry. Variety is the spice of online life.

3. Help your audience engage and share.
People who use social media usually post on various platforms. Even if they come to your community just to view it (lurkers), they will most likely click on a link that will allow them to re-post the content on their other sites. Adding a “Like” button will also allow your community members to express their opinion without having to take the time to type a response.

4. Ask questions.
Start some discussions by asking how your audience deals with particular challenges that they mention on your site. You may want to “tag” a particular poster who is usually very involved on the site to get the discussion rolling.

5. Give credit.
Hosting an online community involves more than just pushing a product or distributing information. It involves sharing. And sharing kudos is one thing most people can get behind. Post an article about the top newcomers in your industry or blog about what activities your posters are conducting. And don’t forget to tell the people you mention that their name is featured in an article or blog. You can believe that post will be shared across various platforms.

6. Create an award.
People like awards. You can create an Influencer of the Year award for your industry. Encourage your posters to place nominations based on achievement. You can even convene an awards committee to choose who will be selected. It’s a great way to get others involved and get them sharing news about the award. If you’re feeling really sociable, hold a live event and hand out awards personally.

7. Get your members to commit.
Identify a common goal that members would like to achieve. Break the activity into smaller steps and ask for volunteers. Announce small achievements to encourage others to get involved. You can award prizes once the goal has been achieved, such as promoting people to moderator status, or giving them advertising space for a month.

8. Get silly.
It’s not all about business all the time. Introduce a fun activity such as a picture caption contest, themed quizzes, or vacation plans thread. When people are more relaxed, they are more likely to comment on other areas of the site, and you may get some great ideas, even from the lurkers.

9. Cross-post community news.
As your members post news across platforms, you can do the same. Identify popular content on your site and share it on other sites. Provide links. You will most likely pick up new members this way by increasing your reach.

10. Track responses.
If you can quantify your activity, you can track it to easily see what works and what doesn’t. You can also use this information to discover which parts of the site don’t get used much. Mark those for less prominent placement or removal. How many people start a topic? Do more people reply to a particular poster? What days do the most people post? Answer these, and you’re well on your way to making lasting improvements.

These tips are just a start to building an online community. You will learn more from trial and error, from community members, and even from your competition. But keep an open mind and be willing to learn from anyone.

See you in the virtual!

by , on
Jun 5, 2013


THE REVELATIONS OF PRESTON BLACK BY JASON JACK MILLER

Coming June 2013 from Raw Dog Screaming Press

Cover Art by Brad Vetter

Preston and Katy face a new darkness….

Sometimes a battle between good and evil doesn’t look much like the ones they show in movies. The good guys don’t always wear white, and they don’t always walk away with the win.

And sometimes you’re better off with the devil you know.

The last time Preston went down to the crossroads, his best friend died and he nearly lost his brother. But Old Scratch doesn’t take kindly to fools, especially not those who come knocking at his front door. And before all is said and done, he’s going to teach Preston a thing or two about what it really means to sacrifice.

LINKS:
Read the first 100 pages of The Revelations of Preston Black – http://jasonjackmiller.blogspot.com/p/the-revelations-of-preston-black.html

Pre-order The Revelations of Preston Black at Raw Dog Screaming Press – http://www.rawdogscreaming.com/books/the-revelations-of-preston-black.html