October 15, 2018

Preview of In the Lurch



The paperback version of In the Lurch is now live on Amazon! This means that I should have copies for Four State Comic-Con this weekend—provided that printing and shipping don’t take too long. So for those of you who can’t wait for the ebook launch on November 6th, you can order the paperback now!



For those of you waiting for the ebook to come out (or if you want to read a sample before you buy it), here’s a preview of the first chapter of In the Lurch!




1

LOUD MUSIC FILLED Leona’s ears as flashing lights darted through the dark, hazy room. She squeezed between the gyrating bodies, making it back to where she had left her best friend on the dance floor. Her head felt a little dizzy, making her suspect that she had drank a bit too much. But a moment later, the feeling passed and she was back on the floor, dancing among the swaying bodies.

“Thank God you came back!” Ava yelled over the pumping music. “I was starting to think you had pooped out on me.” She was a head taller than Leona, resembling a svelte giant in her high heels. Her long red hair flowed outward as she did an off-balance twirl. Her dancing had become less coordinated and graceful as the night wore on. But it was only 1 am—the night was young, and they had plenty of time to keep partying.

Leona flashed her a wide grin. “I only get to turn twenty-two once.” Leona looked nothing like her friend, with her olive skin, dark brown hair, and more curves than muscle tone. Although she thought Ava was the more beautiful one of the pair, she envied her friend’s cool confidence the most.

Ava grasped Leona’s shoulder, pulling her closer so she could be heard over the roaring party. “It’s too bad you didn’t invite any boys.” Ava’s blue eyes fixed on Leona’s face, communicating her clear disapproval.

Leona stepped back and dramatically rolled her eyes. “Who needs them?”

Ava laughed. “Don’t you crave affection from a hot-blooded man?”

“Why?” Leona shrugged her shoulders. “Robots can seriously do everything.”

Ava grasped Leona’s hand. “I’m not talking about a vibrator. A robot can’t give you a deep, personal connection.” She held her other hand in a first over her heart.

Leona shook her head. Ava was always graphically explicit whenever she described her romantic connections with others, and there was nothing deep or personal about those encounters. Placing a hand next to her mouth, Leona shouted, “Bellabot!”

Within seconds, a robot whizzed up to the pair. “How can I be of service?” Although the companion bot had a head which housed a pair of optics and two limbs, those were its only similarity with a human. The machine had a smooth, white plastic exterior, a black circle on the front of its head containing a camera, and several flashing lights.

Giving her friend a mischievous grin, she said to the robot, “Bellabot, do you think I need a man?”

Bellabot turned from Leona to Ava and back. “Negative. There is no requirement for a human male.”

Ava crossed her arms. “Seriously, Leona, you need to stop talking to your companion bot like it’s a person. It doesn’t even look like a person.”

In fact, aside from her and Ava, all of the people at Leona’s party were robots. They were all modeled to look like humans, with smooth rubbery skin, carefully styled wigs, trendy clothing, and optic pairs in shades of blue and brown. All of them were styled to be physically attractive and programmed to be excellent dancers. Leona called this set of bots her ‘party crew.’ If she ever felt lonely, she could just power up the sound system in the club room and summon her bots, making her feel like she was surrounded by fun-loving people.

For her birthday, however, she had also invited Ava, her only real friend. “Finding a companion isn’t nearly as hard as you think it is,” Ava said. “I bet Bellabot could put a query on the network and find a willing participant to come over right now. It’s not like you can have sex with a robot.”

“Actually—”

Bellabot interjected, “There is a prototype for a lover robot which is reportedly quite skilled in giving pleasure. Would you like me to send you a blueprint so that you can have one manufactured?”

“Oh my God.” Ava gripped Leona by the shoulders. “Don’t tell me you have one!”

Leona could feel the heat rising in her cheeks. She had been curious and had one made, but hadn’t yet had the guts to actually use it. It looked like a tall, handsome man with a deep voice and mop of black hair, but his vacant-looking eyes were a bit unnerving. She had kept him in her bedroom, sitting next to her vanity, hoping that having him in there would get her used to his presence. Instead, he was just really creepy, and she had ordered him to find a spot to stay in storage.

Ava gasped. “You do! I need to see it!”

“No. Look, I thought it was a weird idea, so I commissioned one just to see what they’re like. I never had any intentions of using the damn thing.”

Ava raised her brows. “Well then, maybe I can take it for a spin. Come on! Let’s check it out.”

Leona let out a sharp breath. “Fine. Bellabot, suspend party.” Within a couple seconds the music died, the robots stopped dancing, the flashing lights quit, and the house lights came up, making the club room return to an ordinary space. “Send Jon to my bedroom.”

“Yes.” A few lights flashed on Bellabot’s head as she communicated over the network with the lover robot.

“You gave him a name?” Ava giggled again.

“It’s his model name,” Leona hissed.

Bellabot’s feminine-sounding voice interrupted them. “Would you like me to begin cleaning up while you are occupied?” Ava gave another snort of laughter.

“No, I’ll be back down,” Leona insisted.

Even though the party had been at her house, Leona had taken a bit of effort to get made up for the evening. She wore a fitted, silver mini dress which was encrusted in rhinestones. Bellabot had worked over her tightly curled hair for an hour, styling it into soft waves. Then the bot had applied glitter specks to her olive skin and kohl liner around her brown eyes.

Ava had dressed up as well, but she always looked immaculate. Her skin also glistened, and her red hair was in loose waves. She looked lovely in jewel tones, and her royal blue dress for the evening brought out her pale eyes.

Ava made her way up the two flights of staircases and down the hall to the bedroom wing of the grand house. Leona tried not to look at all the beautifully staged photographs of her family members which smiled at her from their heavy gold frames lining the smooth concrete walls of the hallway. She felt like they were silently judging her for manufacturing the lover bot which was now waiting for her. Ava arrived in the dimly lit bedroom first, glaring at Jon as Leona entered.

“Shit, Leona. It looks like that Zorro guy in that movie. Did you do that on purpose?”

Leona could barely look up from her feet. She didn’t want to see the robot or the expression on her friend’s face. “No. That’s just the default aesthetic.” 

Not one to be shy, Ava approached the bot sitting on the end of Leona’s bed and ruffled its hair with her hand, then brushed her fingers down its cheek. It had the same rubbery skin as the other lifelike bots, which smelled strongly of the powder coating used to keep it feeling soft. “I wonder what kind of equipment it has.” She bit her lip and glanced at Leona, who at that moment wanted to be literally anywhere else. Leona’s mind raced, trying to come up with a reason to leave her room. She just wanted to go back to her party. Why did she have to tell Ava about this dumb robot? She never should have gotten him manufactured. Ava stood up straight and commanded, “Jon, take off your clothes.”

Suddenly coming to life, the robot stood up from his seat on the bed. “Your wish is my command, mi alma,” he said in an accented style, just like the character in the Zorro movie. He swept his white t-shirt off, then unbuckled his belt and slid down his jeans.

Underneath, he wore black briefs which strained against whatever  bulges lied underneath. “Undies, too, cupcake.”

Leona wanted to tell her friend to stop, but her curiosity about the love bot kept her quiet. “I love a woman who knows what she wants. You first.”

“Okay, I’ll play along.” Ava gripped the hem of her dress and pulled it up over her head.

Leona stood horrified in the doorway. “Ava! What are you doing? Just override his programming!”

Ava dropped her dress in a heap on the floor next to her feet. “It’s charming. And I want to see where this program goes, don’t you?”

Leona covered her face with her hands as Ava unclasped her bra and dropped it as well. “All right, lover boy. Your turn.”

“Of course, mi alma, but your lips look so soft. May I kiss you first?”

Ava smiled. “Sure, lay one on me.”

Leona’s eyes widened as Jon navigated his face directly in front of Ava’s in a motion that wasn’t entirely human looking before parting his lips and pressing them against hers. After what felt like forever, Ava finally pulled away.

She turned to Leona, a smirk on her face. “Not bad. Almost felt like kissing a real man.”

“Please, Ava, can we just go back to the party?”

Ava sighed. “Fine.” After getting redressed she turned back to the robot. “Do you know how to dance, Jon?”

“I could learn.”

“Great!” Ava flashed a huge grin at Jon, then Leona. “Get Bellabot to install a dancing program for you, then come join us at the party.”

“Your wish is my command, my queen.”

Ava went over to Leona and grasped her hand. Ava giggled, and Leona joined in with a nervous chuckle, as they briskly walked through the hall and down the stairs. Smiling at her friend, Ava said, “You look like you could use a shot.”

Leona nodded in agreement. “At least two.”

•   •   •

Roemell looked over at his sister’s swelling belly and felt a pang of sorrow. Jovelyn was getting close to her due date, and her body wasn’t taking the pregnancy well. Her frail frame looked like it could barely carry the extra weight of the growing baby, and sweat dripped down her delicate features and moistened her black hair.

“Just a little longer,” Roemell said. He pushed a hand through his hair, sweeping it out of his face. He had the same dark, straight hair as his sister, and now it was long enough to get in his eyes. They were walking along a dilapidated roadway. Although their path was paved, there were lots of potholes and cracks to trip them up. He assumed this was the public roadway, but wasn’t entirely sure. Jovelyn was already out of breath, and simply nodded in response.

They had been traveling since the beginning of her pregnancy, staying in shelters for as long as they could. He had hoped to find somewhere more permanent to live by now. As they kept walking to each new outpost of the western coast, Roemell’s body had become leaner and stronger while she had swelled and grown more and more tired. Both of their skin had darkened in the constant sun to a tan shade much deeper than he’d thought his complexion could reach.

He glanced over at her face and could see the pain just behind her muddy green eyes, the same color as his own. They needed to find a shelter and soon. He hated the idea of his sister having her baby on the road without any medical help. He wished he could take all of her discomfort away, but he was also angry at her for getting them into this mess. It was hard to stay mad at her while she was so clearly struggling.

“Oh!” she cried out.

He reached an arm around her slim shoulders. “Are you all right?”

“No,” she said, tears collecting at the corners of her eyes before slipping down her dirty cheeks. “I stubbed my toe in that pothole.”

He looked behind them to find the offending hole. The canvas shoes she wore had thin soles which barely protected her feet from the scorching heat of the ground. She needed new ones. So did he.

“Why don’t we rest for a moment?” She clutched his arm and hobbled as he led her to the side of the road. The stretch of road came right up to the oceans edge, while the other side was dry and quickly ascended to brush-covered mountains. There was no civilization here, old or new. But the road connected two communities of wealthy people, so they would reach more estates at some point—hopefully soon. He took off his backpack and set it on the ground, gesturing for her to have a seat.

She let out a heavy sigh. “You’re too good to me, Ro. I know we need to pick up the pace, but I’m just so tired. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” He gave her shoulders a squeeze. Jovelyn was eleven years older than him and had basically raised him. Neither of them had known their fathers, and their mother had spent all of her time trying to find work, leaving no time for her children.

Now, work just couldn’t be found. Roemell hated relying on charity, but he would gladly make an exception for his sister. Previously, they had been staying in a shelter in San Diego. Now that felt like a lifetime ago. Sometimes he would find himself longing to go back, even though he knew that wasn’t an option.

They had been traveling for seven months now. Occasionally, they passed by abandoned towns where they could stay in an actual building overnight, but most of the modest housing had been leveled to make room for more grand mansions and automated farms. They had only passed a few humble communities, but none would let the siblings join. Most districts had given the pair a few days worth of food, then kicked them out. No one could spare the resources required to feed three new mouths.

Roemell was sick of his nomadic lifestyle. All he wanted was the opportunity to work the earth to grow the things he needed and a place to call home where he could do as he pleased. But up until this point, nowhere had been kind to him. He had been evicted from every outpost, always on the hunt for somewhere he could stay for longer than a couple of weeks.

“Roemell, look out!” The edge of panic in Jovelyn’s voice could only mean one thing: robots. Even though killing was technically a crime, the government looked the other way when the responsible party was a machine and the victim a vagrant. Even though the bots had been designed to help people, Roemell would never trust one.

He ducked down, narrowly missing the probes shot from a taser that sailed over his head. Following the thin wires with his eyes, Roemell was able to locate the source of the shot. “This way!” he yelled, leading Jovelyn off the road into a nearby field. If he had learned anything in his twenty-four years, it was how to avoid security bots.

She hobbled the best she could behind the first row of plants, squatting beside a short tree. Roemell looked around, trying to find anything he could use against the robot.

Behind them was a row of cabbages, and he reached down and ripped one from the soil. He watched the bot closely while holding his breath as it discharged the first probe and reloaded the taser with a fresh projectile. If he wanted to disable the security bot instead of simply distracting it, he would need perfect timing.

The machine had the taser gun up and aimed just a second later. He sucked in a deep breath, then threw the cabbage head. It arced perfectly through the air, and the security bot shot it with the taser. Right after the probes sunk into the vegetable, the cabbage slammed into the robot’s neck. The voltage from the taser discharged into the plant and flowed into the android. As the cabbage exploded in a shower of green pieces, the security android made a loud popping sound before falling over on the ground, now a harmless pile of electronics.

Roemell sat down with a gasp and covered his face with his hands. His throw had been incredibly lucky.

“I think it was just the one,” he said, looking over at Jovelyn, who was concentrating on breathing slowly in and out. “More cramps?”

“Yeah.”

“Drink some water and stay here. I’ll check the android for anything useful.” He tossed her the canteen that had been clipped to his belt before walking over to the disabled robot.

“There might be more coming,” she said.

He nodded. “There will be. I’ll try to hurry.” But it was also a good sign. He knew at least one of these estates had a shelter. They only needed to stay somewhere long enough for Jovelyn to have her baby, and then they could move on.

He examined the bot for any parts which worth taking. The machine still looked menacing even as it lay on the ground. It had limbs, a trunk, and a head just like a person, but that’s where the similarities ended. Polished metal joints were visible between the plates of charcoal-gray Kevlar. Searching the bot, all he could find was the taser gun and a cartridge of five more disposable probes.

Tasers were excellent weapons against people and animals, but they were a poor choice against a machine. The probes relied on penetrating soft flesh in order to work and would bounce away harmlessly from a machine’s exterior. 

Seeing nothing worth carrying with them, Roemell returned to the row of trees and his sister. He hoisted his pack over his shoulder, then held out a hand to help Jovelyn stand back up. She handed him the canteen, and he took a small sip before securing it once again to his belt.

“Let’s get moving,” he said.

“Yes, let’s.”

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