Club_anyone_cover_final

Lou Agresta is a novelist, game designer, and dinosaur lover. Denied a career in paleontology by the forces of evil, he decided to become a writer. Since then, Lou has authored, edited, and developed over a million words for the adventure game industry. His work includes the five time Ennie-nominated Razor Coast as well as Heart of the Razor, its award-winning companion volume. Club Anyone is Lou's first novel.

A martial arts enthusiast and a fan of Nordic dotwork tattooing, Lou lives in the Hudson Valley with two cats, his girlfriend, and (part time) two children.

You can learn more about what Lou is up to by visiting www.agrestasaurus.com or from his irreverent blog Words Like Bullets at www.agrestasaurus.com/words-like-bullets.

Club Anyone by Lou Agresta

In an age of augmented reality, love is found in the most dangerous places. Stranded on Mars, megacorp programmer Derek Tobbit drowns his sorrows in augmented reality sex, only to have his drug-fueled midlife crisis hijacked by a conspiracy that threatens the solar system. It will take all his hacker skill, the friendship of a rogue AI, and the redemptive power of an impossible love to save them.

 

REVIEWS

  • "I love sci fi and dystopian genre books and Club Anyone falls squarely in both. Such a bleak future world where greed, lust and the most vile aspects of human nature are on display so raw. Add the memorable, vulnerable and gripping characters to this well developed and believable setting, and it's a winning formula. The book is like watching a train wreck of personal tragedy played out, a story as old as time — betrayal, love, lust, addiction, sorrow...great novel."

    – Amazon Review
  • "Sorrow exists."
    "So notes the strangely philosophical AI taxi, Aygee, as he shuttles Derek Tobbit to his new corporate office on Mars, and the tone is set for what proves to be an exciting, engaging, smart, heart-wrenching, yet also heart-warming yarn crafted by Lou Agresta in his debut novel Club Anyone."

    – Amazon Review
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

ENCYCLOPEDIA BRASILIA

The Chute

From the Encyclopedia Brasilia

(redirected from Nanotube Orbital Mining, LLP)

(see also TRIC Core Refinery, the Hoop, the Slide)

(external objects: orbit to ground smelting industry)

The Chute is the solar system's largest asteroid smelting operation, built and maintained by a joint venture between Central Belorussian Steel (CBS) and Red Planet Industries (RPI). Established in 2085, this joint venture, called Nanotube Orbital Mining LLP (NOM), is headquartered on TRIC City, Mars.

As of 14 January 2090 Red Planet Industries owns 54.4% of the shares in NOM and controls operations through its Chute Control subsidiary, located in downtown TRIC City. As of 14 January 2090 NOM's market capitalization was UCCR 2.11 quintillion, making it the solar system's 8th most valuable company by market value.

Volume The NOM joint venture is the largest producer of raw materials and rare minerals in the solar system, responsible for over 494.24 trillion tonnes during FY 2089-2090 and earning a revenue of UCCR 954.35 quadrillion from the sale of …

Unique Technology Quantum entangled anchors, first scaled to support the stress of orbital mining by RPI in 2080 (UN,UC patent 3,893,933,127 pending), maintain the Chute in geostationary orbit. The Chute employs nanotube rails to catch and loop incoming asteroids through controlled re-entry. This orbit-to-ground smelting technology utilizes a NOM proprietary, CGA patented Advanced Magnetic Centrifuge to spin off valuable minerals …

Waste Disposal The Chute fires industrial waste into a trench within the Valles Marineris canyon system. The location, known locally as the "Shot Hole" is 2.25 km deep and sits a mere 100 km from the base of the TRIC City colony. The decision to locate the disposal site so close to population centers remains controversial …

* * *

It hangs in the butterscotch sky like the work of indifferent gods, an impossible gossamer structure perfectly poised between heaven and Mars. Silent. Haunting. It glitters above the endless rust sands, a colossal and pellucid sugar cone plucked from some Titan's dream.

The Chute.

Humanity's mightiest feat of engineering. A nanotube straw stretched and twisted round into a titanic funnel. Its descending curves gleam in the rising sun, a gold splash across a matte-gray dawn.

With the snap of ignition, a spark flares atop the cone's mouth. A marble of flame appears, teeters, then rolls slowly. It gains speed, grows brighter than the sun, spins down the funnel, faster and hotter. It stretches into a snake of fire corkscrewing through the firmament, a long Chinese dragon ablaze. The whole cone glows like an antique bulb in its wake.

The fire snake slams face-first into the narrow tip at the cone's base, but its inferno tail keeps on, piling back into a white-hot marble, and winks out. Pause, brief as breath. THRUM! A plasmic teardrop flashes from the cone's bottom tip with the suddenness of a slap.

A burning bead streaks to the ground and vanishes beyond the sands. THRUMP! Incandescence ignites the horizon end to end. The vibration rides through sixty miles of Martian bedrock, hits the base of the cliff on which TRIC City perches, careens thirty stories up Primary Stanchion 3, and THUMs in the soles of my travel-weary feet.

Again.

And again.

Breathtaking. But I imagine I'll grow tired of the itchy buzz in my soles.

more coffee sir

A bioroid stood behind me. I hadn't heard it knock. It wore a powder-blue, one-piece jumpsuit with a white NOM patch on the shoulder. Its mouse-brown hair was parted to one side. It looked more ready for a morning jog than work at Chute Control, but the bioroid's raised hands offered me a steaming mug of synth.

The loam of fresh roast wafted to the ceiling. Correction. It offered me coffee. Real coffee. For that I could forgive its fashion sense.

I took the fine china cup, gingerly. Its pattern of pale roses warmed my hands as I closed my eyes and inhaled. I sipped. So good.

"Is there coffee every day here?" I asked

no sir

at RED PLANET INDUSTRIES

employees receive free coffee

the first day of employment only

subsequently they receive

synth

I nodded. Of course. Typical corp. The first taste is free. It was the same with the new MedReg in my TAP. I needed an upgrade to handle Mars's oxygen-weak atmosphere and lighter gravity. Red Planet happily advanced me the Earth-side surgical fees at a competitive rate. A corp is a corp. Hard to hate a predator for taking prey.

My new office was nice, though. An AlluClear desk grown straight from the floor with a built-in ChitChat conferencer to help my TAP with large meetings.

Spacious. My view through the massive, curved windows was magnificent. What I'd expect so flush to the dome near the front of the stanchion. Not too shabby for a middle-class kid from Earth.

At the moment, my luggage cluttered the office. Delays at Luna Central landed us late, and I'd headed straight here. I hadn't even TAPped home and couldn't wait to tell the kids all about my trip on one of Intrasolar's big cruise liners. They were excited. In the meantime, maybe the bioroid could help with my things?

I waved at it, standing quietly in a corner by my door. "You, what are you called? What's your regular job here?" I might rate a corner office, but I doubted Red Planet assigned me my own bioroid assistant.

this unit's designation is

red planet industries model mnq

identification number 996154

others refer to this unit as ALFRED

this unit manages nano couplers

91338 through 99338

this unit has been reassigned

to assist you

It was mine, at least for a little while. They'd probably take him back eventually. Bioroids were valuable. "Well hello then, Alfred. Have my bags delivered to my new place, please. I rented a LiveGood from the corp so human resources should have the address."

hello supervisor

DEREK TOBBIT

luggage delivery

is an acceptable request

The bioroid bowed, then closed its eyes. It was TAPping instructions about my luggage.

I returned to the view of the Martian desert outside my window and inhaled the precious coffee a second time.

The vibratory THUM of the Chute spread through the rusted crags and gullies of Mars into everything. Even this far above the Melas Chasma, the impact reverberations hit my drink and set circles radiating like raindrops striking a pond. I sipped again.

Ambrosia.

At the limits of vision out by the Chute, bioroids flitted like tiny wasps around a nest. They serviced the massive refinery, monitoring its stability, making micro adjustments that kept it firing on target.

In my view hyper objects flickered to life across the TRIC City skies, nearly blocking my sight. That was annoying. Advertisements kept penetrating my TAP filters. I needed to adjust them again to keep my uncluttered view of Mars.

"When can I meet my boss?" I asked without turning. But the little bioroid had left, likely to see about my luggage.

Bioroids are human clones grown without specific pieces of the central nervous system. AI's replace what's missing. Bioroids make economic sense when you own mountains of leftover, human-shaped equipment; war surplus for example. Warlords hunger to buy up weapons, including special bioroids somebody's military designed to kill people.

Now interplanetary construction, that's another for example. No one wants to throw away vacuum welders, heavy multi-tools, or a few hundred suits of CBS 796 Powered Mining Armor, but packing that stuff back to Earth is prohibitively expensive. Especially when the equipment that builds a mine or a dome is the same equipment used to work and maintain it.

It's simply easier to grow stacks of organs into people shape and stick robot bits in their heads. Next you plop your locally grown, low-cost bioroids inside your leftover equipment. Voila! You've optimized corporate resources you already own.

Efficient.

Those Chute bioroids out there were my charges, and it was past time I got to work. To start, I TAPped the personnel records of my staff. My TAP kept the words translucent so I could continue to appreciate the desert vista. Funny, the gnat-like cloud of bioroids at the Chute seemed less dense then ten minutes before.

Were they switching shifts or just paused for feeding?

Uh oh. I didn't like the look of this. According to the data scrolling past, errors were on the rise. Small stuff: bioroids trying twice to open a flitter door or spilling .004% more refined minerals than an hour ago.

Three months ago an enterprising employee—I scanned the floating hyperobject report for her name—Jessica Maknamura noticed patterns like these and brought them to upper management's attention. Surprisingly, my new boss accepted the problem for genuine. She even added a commendation to Maknamura's human resources jacket—without a promotion or other meaningful reward.

Typical corp.

Instead, Nanotube Orbital Mining used what should have been Jessica's pay increase to subsidize bringing in the solar system's foremost analyst of bioroid behavior.

Me.

I was the go-to guy for telling the difference between statistical anomaly and bioroids about to go rogue. At a glance, Jessica's concerns had been justified. The Chute's bioroids were behaving oddly. I'd formed my opinion in transit from Earth. It was a when, not an if, these minor errors grew into failures with real price tags in life and property.

And now I was seeing it realtime.

Once again, I squinted through a thickening spread of glowing advertisements. Clothes, magcars, restaurants, stores. This was getting ridiculous. My filters should be holding these advertisements at bay.

With a thought I summoned my TAP dashboard, complete with big dials, thick gauges, brass fittings, and vacuum tubes. I prefer to skin my interfaces antique with lots of steam and unnecessary flickering lights.

A few quick changes thinned the mirages permitted to clutter my field of view. I allowed restaurants and magcab ads, in case I decided to eat out later.

Now I could see better.

I stopped, mug halfway to my lips. Something was wrong out there. And that's when a connect hit my TAP. These words appeared:

DEREK TOBBIT

connect request incoming

origin EARTH

this connect wishes to charge

itself to RPI transfer number—

It rattled off the digits to my Red Planet employee account.

do you accept this connect

"Reject." Not now. It was Crystal from home. I'd have to connect back later.

The Chute was still live. I could still feel and hear it. The number of bioroids should remain the same.

Its cloacal tip punctured the clouded sky like the muzzle of a titanic gun thrusting from its own smoke. Lines of fire streaked through the roiling dark. They no longer seemed distant dragons searing the heavens, but more the meteors they were, guided to dissipation by modern technology.

THRUM flames spat from the end, the flaming waste of orbital mining slugged below the horizon in a flash like lightning striking behind a hill. THRUMP shadows danced across the red Martian sand. A delay, lightning to thunder. THUM the vibration reached my feet.

There didn't seem enough bioroids left to monitor drift on the orbital entanglement. How could the Chute smelt with no one to steady its aim?

Shit!

The thin china mug fell from my hand and shattered hot luxury across my ankles. I ignored it and bolted from my office, yelling before I reached the hall. "The Chute is bare!"

Everyone stared at me. For a moment. Then someone's assistant turned back to a stack of papers and resumed shuffling. A nearby executive tsked at me. Others lay in their cubes, not present at all, focused on TAP data only they could see.

No one knew me, and anyone who knew what they were talking about used the codes. I TAPped the NOM manual. I didn't know the codes. Where were the codes?

Fire anything—a bullet, an arrow, a stone—and the farther the shot, the more the tiniest misalignment at the start ends the shot off target. From Mars orbit to the deepest pit of the Valles Marineris was the longest shot around. How soon before the quantum anchors drifted a micro out of true, and the next plasmatic meteor smashed through the dome into TRIC City, killing thousands?

Found it.

"Code 7, Code 7!"

And the office exploded—into stillness.

Not everything runs off the TAP, so some people dropped the papers in their hands and bolted for their desks, but most froze in their chairs or even flopped to the floor as if fainting. Mugs of synth flew and papers floated like pillow feathers. Standing, sitting, or collapsed, employees drowned themselves in a hyper reality torrent of data. Eyes rolled into heads as code-champions rode their hyper object steeds to cyber battle.

I followed.

The instant I TAPped the subnetwork a curtain of data subsumed me, but I saw the problem. Someone was gattling inane commands at all the NOM bioroids over the SRSOC—the Short Range System Override Channel.

We build multiple control layers into bioroid communications as a security failsafe. If something damages a bioroid's language parser or a virus infects the software, we need a way to pull the plug. That's especially important if you hand your bioroids guns or toxic waste or, I don't know, a mining operation that fires molten planetoids into a trench near your city?

Tell a bioroid to lift its arms, and it hears with its ears. That's the top layer. Software in the middle parses your words into code, sends it to the muscles that lift the arms—a lower layer—and the arms lift.

The top layer anyone can use, because the language parsing software does the heavy lifting. Talking directly to an arm requires fluency in "arm control" language, a lingua more abstruse than ordinary programming.

Commands in "arm control" override spoken commands, because lower layers are closer to the organics. If you speak the words "lift your arms" at the same time I send the command "don't move" through the SRSOC—pronounced sir sock—sub channel in arm-speak, the bioroid's arm won't move. I'm working at the lowest possible layer, closer to the arm than you, in a language more "wetware" than yours.

Someone was flooding the SRSOC sub channel of the Chute's bioroids with innocuous "arm language" commands like "sweep the floor" and "do sit-ups." Definitely not "maintain the Chute's quantum entangled geostationary orbit." And whoever it was fired off thousands of low-level commands simultaneously at machine gun speeds.

Impossible.

Legions of Chute Control employees, myself included, froze and scanned hyper reality in our TAPs. We hammered every reachable SRSOC channel, desperate to wrest them back and block the flood of purposeless instructions. We needed to free the bioroids from their paralysis and put them on job before the Chute drifted.

It was like that game where you smack something back into a hole, but it pops out of another hole. We stormed the SRSOC, established bridgeheads, and slowed the degradation.

But too little, too late.

Without canceling the attack at its source, we couldn't return enough bioroids to work before those flaming space-bullets micro-inched off target and destroyed us all.

The only question now was how many people would die?

Commands continued to flood the bioroid's SRSOCs at an inhuman rate. For every two we whacked down, another one popped up. Inhuman. Not human. Of course! Someone wasn't doing this.

Something was.

Suspicion bloomed like a tumor in my chest, I bolted for the Lift. The culprit wanted an Ampule to escape.

This wasn't an attack. It was a diversion.

I reached the Lift winded, my new MedReg not yet acclimated to Mars, and I found … nothing. A quiet lobby, nearly empty. No one stopped me entering security. A few employees stood frozen like sculpture, blank-eyed and oblivious. The crisis commanded all hands on deck.

My shoulders slumped. I turned to head back. I'd been so cert—

An arm like a steel collar snapped around my neck and choked the air from me. A cold breath tickled my ear. "Irony exists," the rogue bioroid said. I struggled, clawed at its fingers, but it held the headlock like living handcuffs. Then it shook me, once. The cartilage in my neck squeaked. I saw spots and nearly blacked out.

"Stop," it said.

I stopped struggling. It released some air, and I could breathe again. Dizziness receded, and the spots faded. I gulped like I'd been sprinting in the Andes as the bioroid frog-marched me to the Lift. I pried at its arm the whole way, but it was useless. I could only stumble along. I'd do better hammering my head against the TRIC City dome.

We halted. The bioroid's dry lips snagged my earlobe and worried it like chewing gum, then it bit me. Hard. Blood trickled down my neck.

"Call Ampule or

I snap

neck

use other."

All AIs speak like drunken Haiku machines, but this one was different. I nodded compliance and TAPped an Ampule for the lower lobby. Had I never heard an AI appreciate irony before?

A sudden flash of insight: the pattern of inconsequential errors Jessica reported wasn't an increasing failure rate among all bioroids. It was this one bioroid testing its boundaries, practicing today's attack.

Training.

Then I arrived, an expert from mother planet hired to hunt anomalies back to their sources, and it panicked. It ran for the Lift but no Ampule came, because it wasn't an employee. It wasn't on the TAP network. So it hid behind a door like a cornered animal, peering through the crack terrified and unsure, until the appearance of the very person it most feared—the hunter from Earth—reminded its proto-mind that only real people summon Ampules. Swallowing terror, it popped out and slapped a chokehold on me.

What an impossible plight.

My eyes welled with unexpected sympathy. This brave bioroid would never understand why I couldn't allow it to escape. Explaining would be as useless as telling a dying pet about its cancer.

For a start, if I let it go they'd imprison me under the Omega Protocols, the Bio-Form Curtailment Act, or both. Probably toss in attempted theft of NOM property. Assuming the guards downstairs didn't shoot us.

Even if it escaped, this deluded half-formed thing could never blend in. They'd catch it eventually, but between now and then it'd hurt a lot of innocent people fighting to survive.

All on me if I let it get away.

The Ampule arrived. The Lift extruded a curved chamber, and the bioroid dragged me inside, still walking backwards. I couldn't let this happen, but I couldn't match the thing's strength either. Luckily, I knew something it didn't. I knew how they manufactured its head.

A shimmering door melted into place, and the bioroid took a final backwards step. At the last possible second I lurched forward and dragged my captor onto the balls of its feet. I jumped, and my heels hit the wall in front of me, knees to chest. In one smooth motion I slammed my legs straight and catapulted us backwards.

It locked one arm around my throat as we flew backwards. The other arm bear-hugged the air from me. We bounced off the rear of the Ampule together, and immediately I snapped the back of my head into its nose. Wham! Its skull slammed against a wall at precisely the right angle.

Click. Perf—

Gahk!

The enraged bioroid throttled me with both hands. It heaved me off my feet by the neck and slammed me to the right, then it tossed me like a toy against the left wall. Blood from a scalp wound dripped into my right eye. The room spun. The bioroid advanced.

I put out a useless hand, scrabbled for purchase, feet slipping in my own blood and nowhere to go. "No. Please …"

My attacker glared down at me, murder in every line of its face.

It was Alfred, the little coffee server who'd brought my morning mug. Snarling, Alfred grabbed my throat again and shoved me up the Ampule wall one-handed, until I dangled like a hanged man.

While Alfred choked me, I strained to glimpse the back of his head. There! The little panel I'd opened flapped to one side. My feet flicked against the wall, tapping and sliding, trying to stand. I needed air. I was blacking out again.

"Alfred … you … need me."

The grip on my neck eased marginally. Alfred cocked his head to the side in disbelief. He held me aloft, still kicking, but more by the jaw then the throat.

"You need me to …" cough "… through the lobby and out the front door."

It considered for an infinite second then dropped me. I anticipated that. I landed as best I could to one side, aiming for where the door would open. Maybe I could leap out low before the guards shot up the Ampule?

Alfred kicked me into the front corner then crouched down and placed his nose by my ear. Slowly he sniffed me, then slid his cheek back across mine until our noses touched. A long moment passed in uncomfortable intimacy.

Eyes locked on mine, Alfred stood and planted himself directly where the door would open. Then he turned to face the coming opening and slowly reached behind his head to close the access panel, but not before I saw his SRSOC name. The unique identifier, like a serial number, that distinguished this bioroid from all others on the subnetwork.

Alfred squared his shoulders and tucked in his chin. Eyes forward he said,

"I know

what you see seek I know

the pointless

effort stopping brings no joy

but I do

not prefer alone

as if then ever non

being was"

The bioroid's cryptic words cast light on the serious depth of its malfunction. I nodded agreement. Seemed safest.

"Right. No stopping." With a thought I TAPped the bioroid subnetwork. Among all the other unique IDs I found my coffee server's number, and I sent it a simple, anticlimactic command.

Stop.

And Alfred died.

We arrived, and the Ampule opened onto Red Deck. By the time they stormed the Lift I was cradling the dead bioroid in my lap and weeping softly. As expected, security jammed a hundred guns inside and shouted a lot.

For the record I only rocked the bioroid in my arms because I wanted a shield in case some trigger-happy goon fired into the Ampule.

* * *

Back in the office, a cheer erupted when I arrived. Sincere, spontaneous, and a little embarrassed. I'd been in the right place at the right time, and I had a specialist's knowledge. I didn't deserve this attention, though.

Someone slapped my back and called me a hero. I blushed and waved them off. When I first cried for attention no one heard me, now they wouldn't leave me alone. Eventually a senior manager sent a TAPcast. "Ok everyone, excitement's over—back to work!" What a relief.

Everyone filed back to work, except two men and a woman. The first of the two men extended a hand. He was a good-looking fellow, with the kind of rugged open face Crystal's friends drooled over. Sandy hair, blue eyes squinting with concern. He seemed a man who laughed. When he spoke, all his words rang melodic and clear, like a preacher.

"Rike Vantos. Senior Assistant Line Manager, NOM bioroids. You're the new boss."

That explained the gang. These were my new reports. I shook his hand. "Derek Tobbit, nice to meet you." I glanced at the other two.

"This here's Jessica. She's the smart one. And that's Greg, he likes to think he's the smart one." Greg was a heavy-set man, well over six feet with an untucked shirt and food stains above the right pocket. He glared and mumbled something I didn't catch. Rike winked. Jessica stepped forward and stuck out her hand.

"That was amazing work, Mr. Tobbit. I really want to know how you did it." Round-faced and short, Jessica sported a severe but stylish suit. Her TAP miraged an antique eye-correction technology called "glasses" onto her face, a grandmother thing from before the MedReg. According to Escape Velocity, Intrasolar's inflight TAPmag, they were all the rage on Mars this season.

"Call me Derek, please." We shook.

Rike smiled. "Well, Derek, now that we all know each other, how about lunch? You can tell us all about your magic touch over chow."

It was a good opportunity to get to know my subordinates. I could TAP and review their files while we walked.

"Sure, that sounds great."

We were on our way when words appeared, thick enough to block my view. On my TAP dashboard I adjusted the mirage translucency for all Red Planet connects.

"Hang on everyone. I've got incoming. You go ahead." They nodded.

DEREK TOBBIT

connect request incoming

origin EARTH

this connect wishes to charge

itself to RPI transfer number—

do you accept this connect

My family. Boy did I have a story to tell.

"Hang on everyone. I've got incoming from Earth. Have to take it. Meet you up there?"

Rike said, "Sure thing. 43rd"

"Great. Turn on your ping. I'll find you."

They headed out. I accepted the connect and returned back to my office but halted at the threshold. On the rug inside lay the china cup, pieces soaking in a damp beige puddle.

"Derek?"

I heard Crystal before I saw her. Lag from Earth. While I waited for the visuals to catch up, I leaned against the wall outside my door.

My TAP settings prioritize the physical, so eventually it grabbed a section of wall across the hall and transformed it into a vid screen above head height. Crystal appeared, thin brown hair bunned on her head like a puff of oversized popcorn. A few graying strands escaped the trap. She looked tired. Oblivious co-workers walked back and forth beneath her.

I spoke first. "Darling! You wouldn't believe what happened, today. I stopped a rogue. Day one. I already solved the problem they brought me here to solve. People applauded and everything. It was amazing!"

I really had saved the day. "This job is perfect. Given how it went today, we should be able to get you all here a lot sooner. This was a good move."

"That's great, Derek. I'm happy for you."

"And the flight out was fantastic too. You and the kids are going to love it. There was plenty to do on the ship, although there were some delays at Luna Prime. Be ready for that. Earthrise was amazing, but once you're on the liner you don't have to worry. Plenty to do like I said. Where are the kids? How are they? Are they asleep or can I talk to them?"

"The kids are fine. They're still awake." She glanced over her shoulder. "They miss you."

"I can't wait until you're all here. UC gov TAPped me that your visas cleared, now that I'm officially working. I know it's still early, but aren't you excited? Tell me you're excited."

"Derek." She took a deep breath. "We're not coming."

Everything froze. "What?" My vision tunneled, darkening around the edges until Crystal and I were the only two in the busy hall. "What did you say?"

"We're staying on Earth, Derek. I'm sorry, but once you left, that's how I knew."

Those words weren't possible. Outside sounds muffled, like I was drowning. I heard my heart THRUM THRUMP THUM beat in my chest like a timpani. She must have meant something else.

"Wait. What are you saying? You're taking a later flight?" Deep inside I knew that wasn't what she'd meant.

"We're not taking any flight." She looked behind and said, "Just a minute. Daddy and Mommy are talking." Then she turned back to me. "I'm divorcing you and keeping the kids. Here on Earth where they belong. You can't tell me you didn't see this coming."

I never saw this coming. "But—"

"The kids aren't on this connect but they're making a racket, so we can't talk long. I'm sorry about the timing, Derek, but no time would ever be right.

"I decided after you left, you deserved to know as soon as possible. The kids want to talk. Can you handle that? I know you're at work. We can talk later this afternoon. Or tonight. That'd be late tonight for you."

I nodded. None of her words made sense.

"I haven't shared any details about … our plans changing." Our plans? "So don't bring it up." Crystal adjusted her TAP to present a view of our children's bedroom and two new connects joined ours. One per child.

Their room was small. Stand with your back to the entrance, and my daughter's bed covered the right wall. Her little brother's took the left. Reggie, always a ball of bedtime energy, bounced on his mattress. He wore his favorite PJs, covered in cowboys and cactuses. My daughter, older and more serious, stared earnestly, waiting for me to appear.

I breathed treacle. Saw through a soup of discordance. Everything slowed. My mind couldn't—wouldn't—wrap itself around the present moment.

"Daddy!" They were both so beautiful.

"Hey goofnuggets."

I didn't know how I looked to the kids—Crystal controlled the connects and she could mirage whatever she liked—but I saw all the familiar things.

The wooden beams of the house we bought, and the pale blue walls I painted when the room was still a nursery. Dana's ragged flop-eared rabbit she swore would be her friend forever. That mobile with the funny black and white shapes we never took down because they liked to fall asleep to its music. Even the alphabet we hung on the wall awoke memories in me that throbbed like bone cancer.

Never again, in my home, singing you a lullaby or tucking a favorite striped blanket around slender shoulders? Never again the scent of your room's aging paint heated by the summer sun.

It rushed at me all at once. A cascade of realization that paralyzed me.

She's stealing you. She's stealing this moment and every moment like it that we were supposed to share. Little Dana, she's stealing the view from your bed of your brother in his smaller bed.

Reggie, she's stealing my memories of you before I have them. The moments that I promised myself to collect your whole lives long, to carry and treasure into aging.

I will never live there again. She's going to take away my life with you and all my dreams for our future, and I'm too far away to stop her.

In the wake of understanding what Crystal had just unleashed, anger followed. Like a shark chasing chum in deep water.

Steal my children? Break my heart? I didn't deserve this. My nails gouged my palms. I kept a smile on my face, even though my knees shook. I strove to beam warmth and reassurance and love to my children missing me across a solar system.

"Daddy, are you crying?" Dana was a keen student of adult emotions.

"No, sweetie. I have a cold is all."

"You're crying."

"No, I'm not."

"Now you're lying."

Perceptive, frustrating little girl. "Daddy is fine, sweetie. Can you TAP me to your brother please?"

Reggie was new to his first TAP, the surgery still healing. When he picked up the connect, he didn't flip my point of view, like an adult would. Instead I saw what he saw. The view jumped and fidgeted like the whole world was a bouncy house.

"Reggie. Honey."

Giggle giggle.

"Sweetheart, flip the POV please."

Giggles and whispers. "Can't find me!" He thought he was hiding. When he finally spun the POV I said, "Gotcha!" He shrieked and collapsed laughing—and didn't hear my choked sobs.

"Hey, honey bun. I want to say—" I took a deep breath. Reasserted control of my voice.

He interrupted. "Goodnight, Daddy!"

And Reggie accidentally TAPped me to Crystal. She was talking to someone else, a man I'd never met, and clearly hadn't anticipated me joining her connect. One short glimpse of her startled brown eyes was enough to light the rage in my belly, like igniting gas in a furnace. But before I could say anything, she TAPped me back to Dana.

"Hi, Dad."

"Hey, sweetie. Something in my eye." I wiped furiously on my sleeve.

"Did you see it yet?"

"The Chute?" My voice wavered. "Sure, it's—"

"Dad! No. Not that boring work thing. The Dome. With the light show! What's it look like? Tell me? I want to dream about it."

"I haven't seen it at night yet, sweetie."

She pursed her lips, suddenly suspicious. "Are you still taking us to the parade?"

"Founder's Day? Of course, sweetie, of course." I'm lying. Not ever, but I am coming home and taking you away from her. Tears leaked from my eyes. I couldn't hold them inside.

Crystal grabbed the connect and dropped the kids, but didn't reappear herself. Instead I saw a black rectangle with audio from home.

"Okay, that's enough. Reggie under your covers. Dana, turn off the light. Derek, we have a lot to discuss. I'll connect after they're asleep." And she cut the connect.

I wanted to storm off and purchase a ticket on the next Intrasolar back to Earth, but I couldn't. We went into hock with RPI and spent our life savings on my ticket to Mars. Non-refundable.

She'd marooned me. And there was nothing I could do about it.