Centuries after the Fold, civilization is fragile. Holding it together is Naion, a city on the brink…
Intelligence Officer Adasha Denali is adept at solving problems, words her weapon of choice. When an operation to retrieve a bioweapon goes horribly wrong, it sparks a diplomatic crisis, and she must hunt down those responsible before Naion is thrown into chaos.
Digging through a network of deception, Adasha runs headlong into corporate mercenaries, a disavowed spy, and Neon Nik, a washed-up hacker with revolutionary tech in his pocket.
Once a legend, Nik wades through life struggling to pay off circling loan sharks. That is, until a family friend is murdered and he inherits a stolen prototype. With a vortex of hired killers on his heels, he's got a decision to make: sell out or risk everything to regain what he lost. And perhaps save his city in the process.
"This intricate, big-data blast delivers a thrilling ride for cyberpunk SF fans."– Kirkus Reviews
"From fantastic world-building, an intriguing cast, imaginative sci-fi elements, to great action ... you'll feel right at home if you're a fan of Blade Runner and Snow Crash..."– Reedsy Discovery Review
"An evolutionary step beyond Gibson..."– Steve Moore, author of The Chaos Chronicles and The Last Humans
"The story premise and concept give the plot more than enough depth for an imaginative story and character development. The world-building is as immersive as it can be in terms of technology enabling people to ... find new ways to live and eat: who can resist vitamin-infused potato crisps? However, human flaws don't change and greed still rules."– Readers’ Favorite Review
October.05 – Nik
NIK SMILED AND the building smiled back, its façade all black teeth angles and white gum signage held together with cables and fat tendrils of epoxy. Poetry curled along the bulging geometry, hand-painted in dead Persian. He'd never bothered to have his software translate it. In an age of information bloat, ignorance was a proactive sport.
Above the entryway a single word blazed in white neon: HALE.
Two store fronts down, a woman rested against the shell of a mutilated cleaning bot. The glow of her cig warmed her blank expression. Another dark figure pissed into a gap between buildings.
A rare moment of tranquility in this stretch of his existence.
Hands in his pockets, Nik rolled his too small shoulders in his too big jacket. Soft with age, the leather made no sound. Canopy environmental systems kept temperatures chilly or warm but never quite comfortable. He coughed and thought about clearing his throat onto the sidewalk, decided not to—didn't want to waste the residue of his last Cinnamon Fire—and crossed the street to Hale. Underfoot, a trampled stew of discard formed the menu of some future archaeological buffet.
The air inside hinted at decomposing animals in heating ducts. Ironic considering this was the Canopy's premier breather bar, where patrons sucked down spiked air cocktails. People said the smell was a gimmick to push product, and Tender was the kind of clever asshole who'd do something like that.
Voices pressed on his tympanic implants. He felt more than heard the bar's low music. On the right was a sheikh mezzanine, floors and walls covered in pre-Fold Armenian rug reprints and enough kitsch to open a pawnshop. To the left, the bar wore industrial grunge like an ill-fitting dinner jacket.
Nik surveyed the thick Friday evening crowd. His customized nimph blasted data-noise onto his overlay, parsing the occupants by physical characteristics, visible implants, social media stats, rep scores, and myriad other definers he didn't need but liked having.
"Hey, Neon Nik." A gaggle of university students lounged in the concavity of Hale's swollen front wall, snorting a fog of Osmotic Preamble. The one who'd spoken was Bobby Yang, a guy he jousted with in solar eclipse lightcross. The immersion game had stolen many nights over the last few years and made him a bit of money in the process.
"You get the o-clock working yet?" Bobby asked.
"Yup. Mostly. Will use it the next time your grandma rotates in." Bobby's grandmother was a lightcross grandmaster.
"Won't help. You'll still fall."
"Fall up," Nik said.
Bobby laughed in disagreement. Nik threw him a wave and moved through the bar's raised center. Catfish masks on roller tracks dangled from trusses overhead. Scroungers, hustlers, and other gregarious types enjoyed the freedom of movement this setup provided.
Truly, a place for all types. Including the clone couple in his favorite booth. They were life partners whose commitment ran so deep they'd been remodeled to mirror each other. It would have been romantic if it weren't so self-serving.
You're just jealous. Probably.
The other booths were also occupied, so Nik rerouted toward the bar, colonized by manual workers with job-specific augments.
The counter was a banana-shaped piece of hull salvaged from a cargo ship. It bore a name and number, made nearly illegible by the elements, spilt liquor, and tired elbows. Tender hovered at the opposite end, pouring for another customer. The lack of self-serve taps spoke to Tender's retro-stubbornness. Nik avoided old-fashioned nostalgia; his memories had long ago fermented into bittersweet emotions.
Misreading a psychological need, Nik's nimph accessed the music library stored on his puck—the personal cluster that was his home on the Nebula—and offered up a crash-rap tune, a pick-me-up from more confident times.
Clusters were need and fantasy built with machine-language molecules, contained within the digital nonspace of the Nebula. Everything in nothing…
It's just a tool, Nik told himself once again in a mantra of distance. Too much of that good thing had eaten him alive behind its smile.
He played the song and listened to its syncopated poetry while tracing infinity on the bar until Tender noticed him. The owner and part-time operator's mobile chair walked him over on spider legs. He'd lost his own in the distant past and said he preferred the chair to prostheses while at work.
"Nik, I rarely see you here this early." Tender's left eye was a green-flecked silver, the right a silver-flecked green, housed in a face with blotches of smooth, lattice-grown skin. "Recycled again so soon?"
"I thought your job was to commiserate, not kick me in the balls."
"Gotta get my exercise somehow."
"I'm waiting for a couple of new, sort-of coworkers," Nik explained. "I'll buy them a drink, ingratiate myself."
"Ingratiation?" Tender raised his brow in exaggerated surprise. "Also new."
"Trying something different."
"Then try Hale's newest concoct while you wait."
Nik shook his head. "I'm good with the cheap, normal, cheap stuff."
"The drink is in its test phase, so it's priced the same as the swill for now."
"Then by all means." Nik swiped a go-card across the payment strip running the length of the bar. The strip blinked a red BALANCE: 0.
Tender stopped. "I said 'discount,' not 'free.'"
"Free is the best discount," Nik countered, though he was already rooting through his many pockets. Candy wrappers, displacement connectors, a tube of painkillers, and finally the edge of another go-card. He tried this one. Green light.
Tender brought out a sealed glass from the cold-store. It looked to be half-filled with a solid chunk of ice. When he tore off the seal, it reverted to a liquid state.
"Water's expensive, I know," Nik said, "but not what I need."
Tender chose a bottle from the shelf behind him and set its dual nozzles on the rim of the glass. Two white liquids dribbled out. They combined on the way down to form purple droplets that hung suspended in the tonic.
As he worked, the graft muscles on his right arm quivered and bulged. Their lumpy, moonscape texture was a sign of deterioration. His hand remained steady though thanks to an implanted wristband that soothed frazzled nerves. An algae-green liquid, so translucent it was almost clear, oozed out from the points of insertion and dripped into the drink.
Hale was the most popular breather bar in the Canopy not for Tender's witty banter, but for what he put in the drinks and in the air: a semi-legal chem, a nanotwitch, vaporized snake venom, something. Rumors painted Tender as a former biochemical engineer injured in an accident.
Nik motioned to Tender's wrist. "Is that your secret ingredient? Biolube?"
"It is edible. And probably less toxic than what you're about to drink." He put the concoction in front of Nik. "Now, in one go."
Nik downed it, taste buds exploding in fiery sweetness as the purple drops hit his tongue. Vapor billowed into his sinuses and through every cell membrane until it rose above him, carrying his consciousness to a plane of improbabilities and blissful energy states.
Whatever swam in those tears burned away most of the dour thoughts accumulated in the twenty-nine years since his birth.
"What is … this?" Nik managed to squeeze out.
"No name yet. Tears of a Lady, I'm thinking."
"When that woman gets sad, we get happy."
Tender moved off to take care of another customer. The chatter from patrons was a jingle in Nik's ear, his barstool a cloud soft enough to satisfy a royal ass. The rust on the walls morphed into tranquil fields of saffron. Everything was big and fluffy and welcoming.
Azier and Ye'nah should be here soon. Nik would definitely recommend this drink. It was a friend-maker. Friends were flotation devices. As a Nebula reengineer, he'd drowned in the NSSC's social hierarchy. Everyone at the Nebula Safety and Stability Commission was so wired to their cliques...
The Lady Tears banished these unproductive thoughts as they emerged.
Conversations spiked suddenly then dropped to a low buzzing like faulty 'tronics. Two people had entered Hale, their matching suits a brilliant forever-white.
They projected their identification through the Nebula and onto the overlays of those so equipped. Civil Protection and Compliance Agency: Criminal Investigation Directorate appeared in text above them. Agent Turig. Agent Rosh.
Rosh—androgynous and stylus-thin—remained next to the entrance. Turig drifted in, a dancer on ice. The unnatural matte black of his skin absorbed all light that hit it, creating a dark void above his collar. A telescoping lens protruded from each eye socket and moved independently as he scanned the patrons.
Everyone watched. Direct attention was part Canopy defiance, part curiosity.
A living statue, Nik thought through the miasma of drink. When did they come out with that model? Certainly new since he'd left government employment.
Turig stopped in the middle of the hushed bar. Breather machinery and muted street noise played in the background. Nik lolled his head to it.
The agent swiveled toward him.
His nimph converted Turig's subvocal speech into auditory nerve signals, which he perceived as if spoken. Accompanying text assaulted his view. Capca authority was overriding standard privacy protections. A show of force.
Nik remained seated. He recognized each word, but his mind couldn't hold them together; they sprouted wings to soar and lips full of song.
Turig stepped so close Nik had to crane his neck back to maintain eye-to-lens contact.
A distorted face stretched across the agent's lenses. Burnt-toast brown hair stuck out in disarray. That's me! Nik grinned. "You are a stately statue, my friend." He held up his empty glass in cheers. "More people should call people 'friend,' then everyone would be super friendlierer."
Turig grabbed the back of his jacket and lifted. The glass fell to the bar and rolled away.
"Careful with the jacket," Nik said in a near-whisper. "Skytron blue. Pretty, right? Not sure about the name, though. I've never seen a real sky this color…" His legs flailed, trying to find the floor, but it kept swooping away.
"He's not quite in his well-mind," Tender said. "And he's drunk."
Nik broke out laughing.
He was moving now, his feet skipping off the floor. Eyes swept over Nik in warm applause. He held his chin high. This would do wonders for his reputation score, being picked up by a statue of the government, to receive an award no doubt. The statue's companion followed them outside.
Turig spoke. It sounded like, "He's a fox."
In his clumsy mental state, Nik fumbled at the Nebula to infoshake fox, alternative meanings. Mikel Johnz's silky baritone spoke the definitions, an option he'd bought to take the edge off bad news.
<A particularly clever individual, or a beautiful, sexually attractive one.> Obsolete slang, but he enjoyed the compliment. "Not bad-looking yourself," he said.
Nik's entourage hustled him through reverent crowds to an airdock. Its priority berth held an aerro as white as the agents' suits. Its oval contours matched a pill he used to take with lemon liqueur shots, though the angular trim and lift cowlings would make it tough to swallow. What was he doing here? He'd lost his train of thought.
A back door slid up and Rosh tossed him into the compartment. Nik let out a wheee as he flopped upside down.
Turig and Rosh inserted up front. The moment their doors closed, his data cloud evaporated. He'd lost the Nebula. The aerro must be bubbled, insulated from all unauthorized signals.
Silence was atrophy; cacophony was burnout. Nik's mind functioned in between, a machine powered by a fuel slowly warping him. A medical condition with mental side effects, Dr. Torizawa had explained. Or was it the other way around?
With no data input, his synapses grew thirsty and anxiety collected in the circuits, knocked away by waves of incoming Lady Tears.
Their aerro shot into the sky beneath the Canopy and Nik got bounced into a more-or-less sitting position, his face pressed against a window. Pleasant vertigo continued the spin. He rubbed his cheek on the cool glass. "Ahhh."
Arcology Inner Prime filled his eyes, rolling by like the surface of a planet. Oceans of light splashed against the dark crags of modern additions while valleys of the original structure gleamed in metallic variegation. And everywhere, movement: cable cars, elevators, mag-vac trains, drones. Nik's Kyubosh cornea/retina kit etched the scene in livid detail; he saw people gesticulating behind forty-meter windows and then they were moving fast and away. At a distance, the complexity tessellated before finally coalescing into the trunk of Inner Prime.
Naion's biggest arcology reached up in concave swoops over three and half kilometers tall. Lesser arcologies huddled around it, with more radiating out in an uneven spray. Aerial vehicles zipped among them while strings raced along the taller structures in lines of gyroscopic pearls, taking people to and from the subterranean districts.
Breath escaped Nik in a rush. "Can we go higher? I want to see the twinkling sun collectors. Twinkle twinkle little suns," he sang, "how are you so very fun…s?"
A breeze entered the rear compartment, and a sterile gust swept away the world's sparkle. He recognized it as a general detox. Lethargic complacency climbed onto his chest.
Nik peered at each agent, saw their masks of stern neutrality, and wished they could sip a little of the joy he'd just lost. Might make them more lenient. He slumped into his seat.
Their aerro finished its bank around Inner Prime and headed northeast, away from Capca HQ. To a field office, then.
With mounting sobriety came the ability to examine his situation. No Nebula connection and Capca white-suits in a bad mood didn't bode well for his survival. Whatever their reasons for grabbing him, they'd made a mistake. Hadn't the NSSC and Ministry of Communication overlords already punished him enough by destroying his rep score after they fired him? Every drug in him was legal, and borrowing money from shady people wasn't a crime. Not a big one, at least.
This was definitely a mistake. The mud of fear congealed into a monster of panic. Its sticky hands gripped his throat and made it hard to breathe. Relays in his brainware sent out calming electromagnetic pulses. They took the edge off, but just a little—extreme emotional manipulation could really mess you up.
Nik considered reminding them of Capca's fallibility; the news of Reiat Ekram stealing that girl had been playing on a loop for weeks. His predicament might be a smaller version of that. A baby gaffe.
They hadn't even told him what the problem was. If he knew, he could clear things up. Just ask, coward, his inner voice taunted.
"What crime?" Nik croaked.
Turig looked back, lenses twitching. "The murder of Daal Omande."
The words hit Nik like rocks. "Daal is dead?" Fond memories skimmed along the Lady Tears' receding edge: unbirthday presents and steady encouragement. "Who'd kill a priest?"
In Naion? City of benevolence and generosity? I can't imagine.
His inner voice could be a real jackass.