Steel Defender – Chapter 2

Steel Defender is Book 2 in the Rusted Wasteland seriesClick here to buy. I’m excited to share Block’s next adventure!

Chapter 2

Block followed Nova outside into the daylight, adjusting his visual sensors to account for the bright rays that slowly warmed the surrounding forest. The school stood in a grassy clearing, and in the woods, among a shelter of trees, the camp’s occupants sheltered in tents. There were a few camper vans and small trailers that housed families with children, elderly, and sick people who needed more warmth than a nylon tent and sleeping bags could provide. The treetops provided coverage in case aerial drones passed over. One of the Hemlock engineers had figured out how to broadcast a jamming signal which effectively cast a dead zone around the camp. Any drones surveying the countryside would bypass the area. The camp had been spared from attacks by Mach X’s forces.

It was morning, and a few people surrounded small campfires. They cooked food or heated up water to wash clothes and fill the makeshift showers. Every able-bodied person at Hemlock had a job. Life at the camp differed from The Drake. There, humans had experienced every convenience—electricity, instant hot water, hundreds of channels of entertainment television, phones, and gadgets. But after the Uprising, life had changed drastically. Millions of lives had been lost in the fighting. Mach X’s forces had overtaken the large cities, leaving people to scramble for refuge. Hemlock was just one of many human survivor camps across the former U.S. Shane’s military background meant he could assemble and train fighters to defend themselves.

There were no luxuries at camp. The elementary school had no power. Water was heated by fire. A few scavenged generators fed the equipment they used: offline computers and radios to communicate with other human rebel camps.

Gone were the connected devices that hooked everyone up to MachNet, the communications network that had been created by Mach X and later manipulated to lock humans out and topple their infrastructure. People now communicated via walkie-talkie devices. “Good, old-fashioned tech,” Nova called it.

Block was the only robot intelligence at camp, and Shane only tolerated him because Nova insisted on it. Block would have been scrapped for his metal and Central Processing Unit if Shane had his way.

Nova and Block discreetly traveled a winding side path that veered away from the main gathering area where most people were cooking and going about their daily chores. After a minute, they ended up behind Helen’s trailer.

“Stay here.” Nova rounded the corner and rapped on the front door. After half a minute, she appeared and jerked her head. “Come on. Quickly.”

Block followed her up two small steps into the camper trailer where Helen and Wally lived. Nova shut the door behind them.

Helen sat beside Wally on the bed. The little girl was just over a year old and had changed in the scant two months since Block had last seen her.

Her face lit up when she saw him. “Bock!” she said and reached out her arms.

But Block hesitated. He glanced at Nova, waiting for permission. If he angered Nova, he was in trouble.

“Go on,” she said, nodding slightly.

“Hello, Helen,” he said.

Helen smoothed back her wavy red hair and arched a lone, dark eyebrow. She lifted Wally down to the floor, which caused the toddler to squeal, “Wheeee!” Dressed in a yellow T-shirt and pink pants, her plump little legs wobbled as she raced over, stumbled, then crawled to Block and wrapped her arms around his leg, pulling herself up to stand.

“Hello, little Wally.” Block bent over to peer at her.

“Bock, bock.” She giggled.

Helen fidgeted, seeming nervous.

“We’ll be gone in just a few minutes,” Nova said. “He just really wanted to see her.”

“Sure,” Helen said, but she kept her eyes glued on Wally.

Nova tugged the shade and glanced out the window.

Block gently peeled Wally’s arms from his leg and lowered himself down to kneel on the floor. The hydraulics behind his knees let out a small hiss.

Wally bobbed up and down, then leaned into his chest for a closer hug. Block wrapped his arms around her, noting her weight had increased by 2.3 pounds. He still accessed the log he’d kept of her weight, height and fecal matter from when they had traveled together. He supposed he didn’t really need to keep Wally’s log, but he enjoyed reviewing it from time to time.

“Ba wub you,” Wally said.

“Wow, she really wants to talk,” Nova said.

“What does that mean? What’s wub?” Block asked.

“Love,” Nova said, enunciating. “Little ones can’t pronounce words as well, so you have to try to decipher.”

Wally loved him? Nobody had ever said that to Block before. He didn’t even know how to respond. Nothing in his etiquette modules or housekeeping programming had ever trained him for such an event.

Wally pulled away, looked at Block, then curled one hand into a chubby fist. She knocked on his chest plate. “Knock, ock,” she said.

“That’s my torso. Tor-so,” he enunciated for her edification.

Nova burst out laughing. “You’re supposed to say, ‘Who’s there?’”

Block was not computing. “Who is supposed to say that? Me?” He looked at Wally. “Who’s there?”

“My kack, bye-ba.” He didn’t understand one word of what she was saying.

Helen came over and crouched, smoothing back wisps of light brown hair sticking up from Wally’s head. “We’re just starting to learn knock-knock jokes.”

“Knock knock?” Block said. He would have to research the strange human expression later. Then he remembered the little gift he had for Wally. He opened his thigh compartment and removed the odd-looking square with the many colored tiles. “I have something for you.” He hid the cube inside his palms and then offered it to Wally.

She squealed and tried to open his palms with her soft, tiny little fingers. After five seconds, Block relented and revealed the object.

Wally stared at the cube, then grinned, looking up at Block.

“A Rubik’s Cube!” Nova said. “I haven’t seen one of those in ages. Where did you find it?”

“In the school,” Block said. “I was cleaning out an old desk and happened across it. I thought Wally might like it.”

“How does it work?” Helen asked.

“See, all the colors are scattered,” Nova said while Wally grabbed the cube, shook it, and pointed at the tiles. “You’re supposed to move all the same colors onto one side, on each side. It’s actually really hard.”

Wally furrowed her brows and studied the cube. She continued to poke at the tiles.

“She really seems to like it, Block. Good job,” Nova said.

“Thank you. I’ll try to find more little presents.”

The trailer sank a few inches as someone climbed the stairs, then banged on the door. “Nova? Are you in there?”

It was Shane.

END OF EXCERPT

If you haven’t read Book 1 yet, here is the link to buy Steel Guardian.

Click here to read Steel Defender (Book 2).

*Heads up – the links on this page are Amazon affiliate links, meaning if you choose to buy my book, I earn a small commission. It costs you nothing extra and it helps out this independent author. 

Steel Defender – Chapter 1

Steel Defender is Book 2 in the Rusted Wasteland series.  I’m excited to share Block’s next adventure with you! Click here to start reading.

Chapter 1

Block enjoyed a gritty, grimy baseboard. The point where floor met wall collected the most dust and filth, especially when the dirt-encrusted boots of soldiers were constantly stomping around. Black sediment collected in the crevices and cracks—remnants of shoe grease, soil, glass bits, and sharp pebbles. Though baseboards were often overlooked, Block made sure to keep them clean. He ran the edge of his mop along the corridor in the neglected former elementary school that now served as Hemlock’s command station.

Block tried his best to keep the olive green linoleum floors polished, but it was tough. Nova had told him to stay out of their way—out of everybody’s way—which was challenging because men and women came in and out of the gymnasium at all times of the day. At first, the human soldiers had been frightened of Block’s presence, recoiling from him or casting narrow-eyed looks while muttering slurs. They called him things like rust bucket, scrapper, and sheetmetal. Those were the nicer names.

Until one day Nova gathered them all together and told them Block was a friendly robot, that she vouched for him, and that he’d saved her life. Nova was Shane’s girlfriend, so they looked up to her. They had to. Shane was in charge of the Hemlock survivor camp.

The soldiers were actually soldiers-in-training, people who had survived the SoldierBot raids on cities. Any women and men in decent shape between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five trained for combat and defense. There was no choice after the AI Uprising.

The troops relaxed a bit after her speech. They stared Block down and smirked. The name calling didn’t stop, but they were less obvious about it. And then, after a few weeks of such treatment, they’d let their guard down and just ignored him. That was fine with Block. He didn’t like to be the center of attention anyway.

Sunlight filtered in and cast a speckled glare on a yellowing concrete wall. Dust motes drifted through the air, rendered brilliant in the sunbeam’s arc.

“That won’t do.” He whipped out his vacuum extension—a long hose through which he sucked in particles that fed into his microbial fuel cell chamber. There, his digestive enzymes devoured dirt, grime, oils, and petroleum, fueling his mechanical body. Block strolled forward, still unsteady on his modified feet. He’d lost his original sole, heel, and ankle parts three months ago when Cybel Venatrix had fired upon his legs. That had been the second worst day of his life.

Strangely—and Block had thought about this many times—it had also been the second best day of his life because Wally and Nova had been kept safe. Alive. That a day could be both awful and joyful didn’t compute in his logic module. He couldn’t explain it, and there were no other robots around to discuss it with.

He walked down the narrow corridor, noting the sagging ceiling tiles—very grimy! He added them to his cleaning checklist for later. Extending the mouth of the vacuum before him, he sucked in dust, weaving the hose back and forth as if conducting an orchestra. The floating specks first spread, then clustered together as if finding protection in staying close to one another. Block was like a dust predator, sucking them in, feasting on them.

He supposed there was something interesting in this chain of events. A lot of skin particles fell off of humans—over a million cells every day. He sucked in their leavings and used the human bits to feed himself. Nothing was wasted. He was helping, in his way, even if nobody realized it.

A gruff voice came from behind. “Move it.”

Block had stepped into the middle of the hallway, lost in the frenzy of dust collection. He spun quickly and was nearly knocked over as Shane brushed past him.

If Block could physically cringe, he would have. Shane was the one person Nova had especially warned him to steer clear of. Block backed against the wall, pointing his vacuum tube down. He even turned the suction off.

Nova walked a few feet behind Shane and lingered after he kept going. She held a thermos in her hand from which little wisps of steam rose. “Hey, Block,” she said, half smiling.

“Hi. I tried to stay out of his way, but he came upon me so fast.”

“I know. He’s just…” She sighed, arched her head back, then rolled it around on her neck. Block had only seen her do that when she was exhausted.

“Are you having trouble sleeping again?”

She nodded.

“You could come by this evening, and I’ll help if you would like.” When he’d worked at The Drake hotel in Chicago, Block had learned to manipulate certain pressure points that helped people relax. He hadn’t been allowed to practice on the hotel guests, but he’d helped the human employees often. Twice before, he’d helped Nova fall asleep by pressing points on her spine and neck.

She looked sideways in the direction Shane had gone. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea right now.” She sipped her hot drink and strode toward the gymnasium.

“Okay.” Block tucked away his vacuum hose, grasped the handle of the broom, and started pushing it along the baseboard edges. Then he stopped, remembering something. “Nova?”

She turned back.

In his second to lowest voice setting, barely audible, he asked, “May I visit?”

She frowned. “Also not a good idea.” She moved closer, confiding in him. “Shane’s been in a foul mood. Things aren’t going well. Now isn’t a great time.”

“I see.”

Block had only visited Wally twice in the five months he’d been at the Hemlock camp in Colorado. The child was in good care. That much he knew. She lived with a woman named Helen who had lost her young son in the fighting between AI and humans. But Shane didn’t like Block to have any interaction with Wally. Nova had explained that, according to Shane, a robot and human relationship was unnatural. Shane—and most humans—harbored resentment and fear against robots since the supercomputer Mach X had overtaken the world’s computer systems, caused the AI Uprising, and declared war on humans.

The humans had reason to be suspicious. After the Uprising, many robots had become unpredictable. He’d witnessed SoldierBots execute his former boss and fifty hotel guests.

Still, not all robots were dangerous.

Block hung his head and pushed the mop a few inches. He stepped forward, his cobbled-together soles awkwardly clanking against the linoleum. Nova had welded them herself from scavenged metal from rust-speckled pupil desks, claiming they were temporary until they could find stronger material.

A tattered old bulletin board hung on the wall. The red construction paper background had faded to a dull pink. Most of the children’s decorations had been torn down, but one remained: a child’s handprint, stamped in yellow paint. Block paused and stared at it, then reached out his hand and placed his steel digits on top. His was much larger than the small child’s print, of course.

He wished there were more tiny humans around. They weren’t as frightened of him as the adults.

“Jesus,” Nova said behind him.

He began mopping, but she came over and touched his arm. “Five minutes,” she whispered. “But we have to be quick and avoid anyone seeing us.”

Five minutes with Wally didn’t seem like much at all, but he could play back the memory as often as he wanted. Maybe if he was quiet and polite, Nova could finally convince Shane to let him spend time with Wally. Humans changed their views on occasion. It was rare, but it happened.

But would Shane ever believe that robots and humans could be friends?

END OF EXCERPT

If you haven’t read Book 1 yet, here is the link to buy Steel Guardian.

Here’s the link to start Steel Defender (Book 2) now. 

Beyond the Galaxy Space Opera Anthology

Do you love space opera such as Firefly, Star Wars, and Battlestar Galactica? Well, I have a treat for you! I wrote a story for the new anthology Beyond the Galaxy.

Last September, I traveled to Seattle for an epic writer’s retreat hosted by J. Thorn and Zach Bohannon. For 2 days we hung out in a private room at the Museum of Pop Culture, and together, we built a sci-fi world in which we would each write our own story.

We built this incredible universe that has two warring alien entities: the Teku and the Krad. They arrive on Earth every 2,000 years to harvest people… You will have to read this entire email to find out what happens to us humans. (Spoiler alert, they are due for a 2020 arrival! Anything could happen in the next 6 months.) 👽

Out of that effort came Botched. It’s the first story in the anthology! Read on for an excerpt.

The book is available on Kindle Unlimited or you can buy the e-book or paperback. It’s 372 pages, so it’s a larger size book.

Proceeds from all sales go to Tech Bridge Girls, a nonprofit that excites, educates, and equips girls from low income communities with STEM programming that empowers girls to achieve economic mobility and better life chances.

When I was young, science and technology played a big role in my life and influenced much of my writing today. Helping girls learn more about science means a lot to me.

I’m proud to be featured with authors such as Lindsay Pogue, Heather Lee Dyer, Jay Key, Chris Yee, Tory Element, Christopher Wills, and more.

Here’s an excerpt from my story. I hope you enjoy it. If you feel like downloading or purchasing the book, thank you!

BOTCHED

by Cameron Coral

My titanium fingers tapped against the surface of the cockpit’s dashboard. I always got a case of nerves while waiting for the green light to signal the all-clear. The massive twenty-foot-high airlock doors were the only thing separating me and my shuttle from the vast emptiness of space.

My breath came in rapid spurts. I’d been waiting for five minutes. The clearance light stayed off.

What was the problem?

I glanced behind my pilot seat. Twelve passengers sat buckled into their jump seats inside the cabin. They were known as Botched—humans who were no longer useful. I was flying them to their new home on the surface of a nearby planet, Arae, where they would join the other humans already deposited there.

I turned back to the dashboard. The damn light still hadn’t turned on. My eyelid spasmed. A glitch? I’d go to the med lab when I returned, see if they could do something about my uncontrollable reflex. I was 70% Kevlar-titanium steel and 30% organic flesh. My people, the Krad, took the best parts from the humans, those traits that would help our evolution. We wanted human senses—taste, smell, and touch—to enhance our AI auditory and visual processing.

But now, odor was annoying me. I grabbed my tiny container of cinnamon oil and dabbed it below my nostrils to hide the smell of sweat and human gases coming from the cabin.

I sighed and glanced at the clearance light. Still dark. What in the name of Kradonovan the Mighty?

I grabbed the comm. “Control room, what’s causing this delay?”

Someone giggled on the other end, and laughter erupted from the cockpit’s speaker.

“Hey, what’s going on?”

A familiar, irritating voice replied. Gemini. “Hello, Mercuria. I just thought you’d like to sit for a while with your precious Botched. I know how much you love them.”

I clenched my jaw. He wasn’t supposed to be in the command room, but he’d probably charmed his way in, just to taunt me.

“Control room”—my voice trembled—“clear my shuttle for takeoff.” I disengaged the comm, not wanting to hear Gemini’s cackles. I would inform Supervisor Dex upon my return. Gemini was violating safety protocols.

I glanced behind me, and my gaze landed on a man in the first row. He watched me with curious eyes, a frown plastered on his face. Next to him, a woman pressed her hands together in front of her chest. Eyes closed, her lips moved in a soft chant.

I cleared my throat. “Sorry for the delay. We’ll be taking off shortly.”

Silence.

The humans were afraid of the Krad and they had good reason to be. Our kind had harvested them from their home planet thousands of years ago and had given them a new life aboard our fleet. Their species had a biomarker—a complex spiraled DNA sequence unique to anything we’d ever encountered before in the universe. Homo sapiens’ genetic mutations allowed us to harness bacteria that increased our lifespan by a full century.

Humans were pretty important to my people, so we took them and traveled with them everywhere we went. This might have been going on for at least a thousand years. Nobody really knew for sure.

It was a symbiotic relationship. Krad fed and sheltered the humans, and in return, they supplied their biomass, which fed our ship’s harvester. But after so many years, a human’s biomarker—what we called their essence—dried up. When that happened, they were assigned Botched status, meaning they no longer served a purpose on our ship, the Aragonite.

In the cabin, a woman sobbed. It wasn’t unusual for some of the Botched to overreact. They were leaving the only life they had known—in the bowels of our ship—where they’d kept sleep quarters and communal areas. The humans governed themselves, preferring to keep their society closed. As long as they hooked into the tubes inside their sleep bunks and provided us with their daily biosamples, we were fine with that arrangement.

And yet, they still feared us. Other Krad were often cruel. If a few teenage Krad imbibed too much petrol fluid, their drunkenness would cause them to wander into the human zone and cause trouble.

Some of the humans trusted me because I was around more than the other Krad. I resided in a narrow room close to the shuttle dock. It made my job easier. Usually, my orders had me making shuttle runs to drop groups of Botched several times a week. Sometimes, there were only four people, but once, there had been twenty—my biggest load. There were only seats for sixteen on the shuttle, so that had been awkward. Mostly, I was isolated from other Krad, except for when I ventured to the upper levels to visit Supervisor Dex and eat in the food hall.

The green light flipped on. “Finally,” I muttered and engaged the thruster engines. The shuttle vibrated as the glider track rose and hooked in. The automated countdown began. I didn’t need the info, but it helped to prepare the humans.

“Ten, nine, eight,” said an automated feminine voice. I leaned back in my seat, bracing myself for the rush of entering the dark void of space.

“Seven, six…”

That part never got old.

“Five, four…”

In the back, a woman wailed.

“Three…”

It’ll be okay, I wanted to tell her. She sounded so scared.

“Two, one.”

The shuttle lurched forward, careening along the glider track. Our bodies pressed against our seats as the shuttle launched out of the narrow tunnel. In three seconds, we were clear of the Aragonite.

There was nothing but pitch-black space punctuated by distant stars. We lost gravity, and the passengers grew silent.

I let my arms float up and admired my silver and orange metal coating, my elegant titanium fingers. After a minute, I pressed the button to turn on the announcement system.

A familiar recorded message began to play, one I’d heard a thousand times by now. “Dear Humans, you’ll soon be arriving on Planet Arae. The shuttle carrying you will dock at a location called Base Point. You’ll each receive a pack containing water filtration tablets, protein packs, blankets, and other necessities. It is important that you seek shelter quickly as weather conditions on Arae change drastically at night.”

The computer’s voice had a warm, cheerful tone, meant to comfort.

“You should expect to encounter other humans who have been dropped off previously. However, the Krad have no idea if those humans are friendly. In fact, we don’t know the survivability conditions on the planet as the Krad have cut ties with the humans on Arae.”

I paused the recording and let that information sink in. This is where the Botched usually lost it. If they were going to cry or scream or shout profanities, this would be the point where it happened.

The chatter of human voices sounded behind me, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. People were talking over each other. I tilted my head and watched with my enhanced peripheral vision.

The man in front, the one with the calm, curious eyes, hushed the others. “Stay strong, we’re going down there and nothing can change that fact. We must stay strong and stay together. Just like I told you. Just like we rehearsed.”

I started the recording again.

“The Krad appreciate your service onboard our ship. Generations of Krad are grateful for your contributions. Please note, we will not be returning to retrieve you. Arae is your new home. Going forward, do not approach the shuttles or attempt contact. There will be turbulence as we enter the planet’s atmosphere. Please make sure your belt straps are buckled. Thank you and have a wonderful day.”

The entry into the planet’s atmosphere shook the vessel and rattled my calcium-tipped Kevlar teeth, along with the bits of hardware and ligaments that connected metal to tissue. I had to visit med lab and tighten up after about every third shuttle ride.

Usually, I let the shuttle’s AI handle the flying, but today, I felt like enabling the manual controls, so I lowered our altitude and soared through the clouds. As we flew 10,000 feet above sea level, I blinked in awe. Cerulean-blue sky and bright, clear sunshine from a nearby star stretched before me. The temperature gauge displayed 28° Celsius.

Conditions were prime for a drop.

The shuttle passed over a blue-green lake—the vast source of fresh water was why I’d picked out this location for the humans. Those who outgrew their usefulness to the Krad settled here and had been doing so for several decades as our ship orbited above. I spied the outcropping that stretched out from the shore and nudged the shuttle in that direction. After banking, I gently rested the shuttle onto the platform.

Then I powered down the thrusters, unbuckled from my seat, and rose to face the passengers.

A weird thing happened.

I don’t know why, but for some reason, I touched the energy weapon that rested in a holster at my left hip. I’d been flying these shuttle trips, dropping off Botched for six years now and had never drawn my gun even once.

A nervous little flutter happened inside my chest. My right eye twitched again. Please, don’t let me glitch.

Then I said—I always felt awkward about this part—“Does anybody have any questions?”

The humans regarded me with frowns. The man who was their leader unbuckled and stood to face me with narrowed eyes.

He didn’t say anything. Perhaps he hadn’t heard me.

“Do you have a question?” Then I remembered him. He lived near my sleep cube with his family.

“You’re a monster.” He clenched his fists and veins stood out on his temples, looking as if they would burst.

My hand went to my gun again. Weirdest thing. I didn’t even realize I was reaching for it. Must have been a glitch in my circuitry. I really needed a med lab visit.

The chanting woman next to him grabbed his arm. “Royne, no. Don’t endanger yourself.”

But Royne just kept staring at me with icy eyes. “What you’re doing is wrong. Your kind—the Krad—are enslaving our people, using us up, and then tossing us away like trash on this planet.”

I shook my head. “I don’t understand why you’re angry. You and the others are going free. You can live on this planet with other humans like you, away from Krad.”

The others rose from their seats. I entered the code to open the shuttle door and lower the ramp. As it descended, I waved at the people to file out.

But Royne stood in place, his gaze fixed on me. “And what kind of life is this? A planet that isn’t ours. A life we didn’t ask for, trapped here with no hope of ever finding our real home. Your people have hijacked the human species. You’ve destroyed us.”

I didn’t know what to say. A few of the people started filing off the shuttle.

The woman touched his arm. “Come on, Royne. I never want to see one of these creatures again.”

Still, he stared me down for another half-minute—it was intense—until an off-kilter smile crept across his face. “You’re right, Lana.” He pointed at me. “I never want to lay eyes on your ugly Krad face ever again.”

Then he and Lana walked off the shuttle.

As I lifted off, I breathed a sigh of relief to be rid of them. They should be thanking me. On other Krad ships, humans got shoved out of the airlock or jettisoned in pods onto dangerous planets.

I switched on autopilot for the ride back to the Aragonite.

As I tapped my fingers, I noticed my hands shaking.

END OF PREVIEW

Here’s the link to buy the book and support a charity!

Coded Red – Chapter 1 Sneak Peek

I’m so excited to drop Coded Red (Book 2 in the Cyborg Guardian Chronicles). Here’s a peek at Chapter 1…

Coded Red

The Soba Calais began its descent through Earth’s atmosphere. Strapped in my passenger seat, my cyborg cognition tracked every rattling nerve and bone in my body as the ship hurtled through the air at Mach 25—five times the speed of sound. The ship’s exterior was built of reinforced carbon-carbon composite, made to withstand temperatures in excess of 1,260 degrees Celsius on reentry.

The minutes ticked by before the vessel slowed and reached a cruising altitude. I gazed through the small portal window inside my cramped cabin. As we soared above the cloudscape, bulbous white clouds stretched below like a luminous sea.

I struggled against my restraints, but the Scyther had bound me tightly and left me alone. He was a robot, and when I’d studied him with my sensors, there had been no biological data readings—no heartbeat, no sweat. His heat output was that of a machine’s, and there were no biological components to the Scyther. His glowing red eyes bored into me whenever he looked my way.

My stomach rolled as the ship encountered a patch of turbulence. My cognition flashed: Elevation 29,000 feet above sea level and descending. I stopped trying to squirm out of my cuffs and gazed out the window. Had I been to Earth before? Someone had wiped all my memories around the same time NeuroDyne Corporation experimented on me and turned me into a cyborg as part of a highly classified project known as THARP, which was really code for the Cyborg Trials.

I’d woken up on Luna, the Moon’s domed colony, after being smuggled off Earth by a NeuroDyne rogue scientist and his sister. The scientist, Newt, had disappeared mysteriously after we arrived on Luna.

And on this Earthbound voyage, traveling farther away from Luna, Ryken talked in my ear.

“Diya, I hope you’re listening. I’m still here.”

I closed my eyes and allowed a half-smile to escape. Ryken was a Memory Stalker—a coder who had the capability to hack into memories uploaded into Cerulean, the online storage hub created by NeuroDyne. Ryken had helped me escape from the Scyther and researched clues about Newt’s disappearance. And now, he’d hacked into my EarthShine—the memory lens I wore in my right eye and controlled through a gemstone in my ear.

Ryken was brilliant, and for some reason, he was helping me even though I was a lost cause. The Scyther was probably returning me to NeuroDyne, where I would be killed or forced to undergo more experiments.

“Diya, say something. I’m trying to tune in frequencies and see if we can communicate two-way instead of just me talking to you.”

He paused and waited, but I bit my lip. Should I respond? Should I encourage him to talk to me and indulge his ridiculous dream that he could actually help me out of this situation?

“Diya?” His voice, so far away, sounded shaky.

“I’m… here.” My voice was raspy from disuse.

After a two-second delay, “Holy shit!” His voice erupted in my ear and I winced. “I hear you! I hear you!” He clapped.

“Okay, take it easy. When you shout, it’s loud as Mars. I can’t control the volume.”

“Sorry, sorry.” Now he practically whispered. “You don’t know how relieved I am to hear your voice. To know you’re okay.” My heart did a somersault. “When that Scyther took you away, I felt like a puddle of piss. I didn’t know how to stop him.”

“You couldn’t have. You said it yourself, the Scyther is unstoppable.”

He paused. “Where are you exactly?”

“I’m in a ship, alone at the moment. We’re cruising somewhere on Earth, still at high altitude.”

Elevation 25,000 feet above sea level.

The GPS tracking on your EarthShine shows you’re over the Atlantic Ocean, heading north.”

“Iceland.” I closed my eyes.

“NeuroDyne headquarters.”

“Was there ever any doubt? They want their stolen property back.”

“This is bullshit.” Something slammed in the background, likely his fist.

I laughed bitterly. “At least I’ll finally get some answers.”

Silence.

“You there?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“How are we managing to talk anyway?”

“NeuroDyne keeps the Cerulean servers in many locations, both on Earth and on Luna. They do this for security and contingency reasons. If one server farm goes down in Peru, it won’t bring down the entire array. I hacked into one of the servers on Luna with a little help from my friends and tapped into the comms link they use for bouncing data back and forth.”

“Impressive. Will we still be able to talk when this ship lands?”

“Yeah, even though we’re over 200,000 miles apart, we can talk. There’s just a little over one second delay from the time it takes the radio waves to propagate.”

“It just seems too good to be true that I’m hearing your voice like you’re right here.”

“Don’t give up.”

“If I can find a way out, I will.”

He sighed. “And when you get out, I’ll be waiting. I’m booking passage to Earth, so I can be closer and help you escape.”

I shook my head in frustration, even though he couldn’t see. “No! Don’t. If you get anywhere near NeuroDyne and they discover we’re communicating…” Plus, leaving Luna for the home planet was a super expensive trip with a long waiting list, thanks to the huge tourism influx.

“Be sure to hide the device—your earring. Make sure to protect it. They could figure it out.”

I said nothing.

After a while, he gulped. “I’ll be tracking your location. Thank Mars for the lost and found setting on the EarthShine devices.”

I chuckled. “Lost and found, huh?”

“Like you.” I knew from his voice he was grinning. “Don’t worry. I’ll get you back. You’re a Luna girl, not an Earthling.” His words morphed into a yawn.

“Have you slept?”

“Not really. I’ve been waiting to hear from you and know you’re all right.”

“Well, now you know, so you can sleep. You’re no good to anybody if you’re sleep deprived.”

He groaned. “To be honest, I do feel like shit.”

“I’m just sitting here in a room while this ship flies. It’s pointless for us to talk right now. Get some sleep and tune in later.”

“As much as I hate to say you’re right… Yeah, I need some sleep. But I’m setting my alarm, and I’ll be back in three hours.”

“You need more sleep than that.”

The ship turned and banked as I waited for his reply.

“But what if something happens to you?”

“You’re not even on the same planet. There’s nothing you can do.”

Silence. For a long time.

Finally, he came back. “This fucking sucks. I’ll go to the police. I’ll take your story to the media.”

“Ryken, you’re delusional from lack of sleep.” I couldn’t believe I was trying to calm him down. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? “We’ll make plans after you’ve gotten rest. You’re no good to me this way.”

“Okay, Diya. I’ll log back in later to talk.”

“Got it.”

“I’ll talk to you soon.” And then he was gone, and the hollow pit in my stomach grew deeper.

The ship descended to 16,000 feet and through the clouds over a vast, silvery ocean that stretched out below. The luminescent blues of the high altitudes were gone, replaced by a dreary gray sky. The ship slowed and a land mass loomed. After another minute, a city came into view. It was Reykjavík, Iceland. My GPS told me so. Tall, spiraling towers rested next to a quaint seaside village that had been preserved for tourists and historians.

A man-made island rested a quarter mile from shore. On it stood a massive glass and steel structure in the shape of a cube. A massive neon sign glowed red: NeuroDyne.

The ship slowed and hovered over the building, which occupied the entire island. The sun was just beginning to set and cast red and orange streaks across the sky; panels on the structure’s face glowed like fireflies.

Through my window, I gazed at churning waves bashing against the sides of the island. There was no way on or off the land mass, I realized, as the Soba Calais landed on a platform on top of the ten-story building, unless you traveled by boat or air. NeuroDyne didn’t fuck around with security.

The humming of the thruster engines faded, and the door to my closet-sized cabin opened. The Scyther appeared, red eyes glowing, and unbuckled my restraints with his metal hands. There was no sign of the gun canister it had used to shoot me and threaten Ryken. It must’ve been retractable. He’d also had a blade earlier, and I wasn’t sure where that had gone either. If I was ever going to fight this machine, I needed more information about how he worked.

“Get up.” He stepped into the corridor. I rose, never taking my eyes from his. I followed him into the narrow corridor, and he pushed me toward an open-air hatch where I descended a long ramp that led outside. A gust of cool Earth air washed over my cheeks. I opened my mouth and sucked in natural air, not the recycled ventilation I’d been breathing on Luna and the ship. As fresh oxygen filled my lungs, droplets of misty seawater sprayed my face. Licking my lips, I tasted salt. As the wind tossed my locks, I fought the urge to wipe the hair from my eyes.

Ahead, an open door led inside the NeuroDyne building where a woman wearing a white lab coat stood. Beside her, a soldier carried a semi-automatic rifle.

As I marched along the platform, ocean spray whipping my skin, I glanced at the roof’s edge and imagined darting off the side and into the freezing ocean water. With my hands restrained, I would surely sink.

But now that I was a cyborg, would drowning even kill me?

What had I become?

Star Wars Rise of Skywalker

Last night I saw Star Wars Rise of Skywalker…here’s everything I liked and what could be better.

As a child of the 80s, I saw Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in the theater. I was seven when I watched ROTJ and as you can imagine, was obsessed with Ewoks. I mean, who wouldn’t be? That was also the movie where we met Jabba the Hut and Leah’s infamous gold bikini.

The new movies that came afterward were not my favorites. Let’s not discuss the name-that-shall-not-be-mentioned-that-begins-with-J-ends-with-S. And, no, it’s not JJ Abrams.

What I love about the final sequels & Rise of Skywalker:

  • Rey is a badass female heroine.
  • Kylo Ren is a nuanced, fascinating villain who I found myself secretly wanting to join the dark side for.
  • The effects are incredible (so much spaceship goodness).
  • Stormtroopers are people, too.
  • New robots that include BB8 and the little cone-head droid in Rise of Skywalker.
  • A sweet farewell to Leia. RIP Carrie Fisher.

    The movie hit a lot of nostalgic notes that a fan like me appreciated:
  • We got to say goodbye to our favorites: Luke, Leia, Han.
  • Went back to where it all started.
  • An epic Death Star fight scene among monster waves.
  • Lots of fantastic space battles.
  • Ewok cameo!

Was it perfect? No, but I’m going to leave all the nitpicking to critics and hardcore fans. I recently bought a BB8 mug that plays sounds. I love it so much!

BB8 mug