Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Three, Part Two

Notes: Ta-daaa! A new part to the story, a little more about Cas's past, and some uncomfortable revelations for everyone.

Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Three, Part Two

***


Chapter Twenty-Three, Part Two



Flames licked their way through the apartment, spreading along the walls like a quick-moving rash. Cas turned back to the door, but he already knew it was hopeless. It had been completely consumed—but these were supposed to be flame-retardant materials. Why were they so susceptible to this fire, then?

Because Christala had planned it that way. Whether it was driven by chemicals or by a biological compound or somehow by her own spiteful love of destruction, this fire was a force that Cas couldn’t fight. His best option was to flee, then.

He ran into the next room of the apartment, where there was window that he could still get at. He tugged at it, checking for locks—nothing, but it didn’t budge. He smashed a stool against it next, hammering with phage-increased strength, but it still refused to yield. She’d sealed it somehow, closed it permanently—of course she had. She’d known he would come and investigate, and this was all part of the trap.

He couldn’t use the door or windows to get out, and there were no other exits he could see—no large ventilation or piping. It was time to use his last, and least favorite, option then—waiting it out. Cas stumbled, coughing, into the bathroom adjacent to the bed, and prayed that the water still ran in here even if the fire suppression system was cut off. A single slap of his hand woke the AI, and a moment later cold water began to fall from a cheap half-ceiling unit to the low ceramic tub beneath it.

His heart pounding, Cas soaked the single small tower he found in the pouring water, then wrapped it around his head. He braced against the wall and kicked at the old-fashioned tank toilet until it dislodged, pouring more water across the floor toward the shut door, which was already browning at the edges. He stayed low to the ground, pulling as much of his body into the spray of the water as possible, and settled in to do the thing he hated most of all—relying on someone else to save him.

Cas stared at the door, willing it to open, to reveal anything other than fire. This couldn’t be the end. Dying ignobly in Christala’s fucking bathroom, driven there like an eel farmer drove their crops out of their holes and into buckets…this couldn’t be the end of his story. He had risked so much, he had already lost so much, and there was so much more that he didn’t want to lose…
I want to stay with them. He barely knew them, his family, but he wanted to go back to them. He 
wanted to coax a smile out of Shar and teach Lilah how to make a spoon disappear. He wanted to see his husband and hold him and tell him how sorry he was that he wasn’t who or what he should be. He wanted his brother.

Cas coughed, and wrapped the cloth more securely around his mouth and nose as smoke began to infiltrate the room. He didn’t want to think about Beren, but how could he not, at a time like this?

The last time they’d talked, Beren had been so afraid. “Where can I go?” he’d asked, sounding helpless over the communicator. “Where can I go so that you’ll find me?”

“Don’t worry about me.” It had been so hard to breathe, to force air through his abused lungs. Cas had been pretty sure he was dying back then. If only. “Find a safe place and wait it out—Imperians are coming, they’ll break it up.”

“I’m not going anywhere without you!”

“Beren…”

“I won’t, Cas! You’re all I have!”

Except that hadn’t been right, because he’d had his life, then. By the time Cas found him, nearly a week later, little better than a walking corpse himself, his brother had been dead for days. His flesh had already become soft, discolored—and his eyes had been missing. So was his throat.

It hurt to weep when you were burned inside and out, crisped by superheated air after being too close to an explosion. His phage had been overworked, devastated just keeping him alive, and if he’d been as good as his instructor always hoped he would be, Cas would have compartmentalized, pushing the horror of his brother’s death into the back of his mind until he was recovered enough to feel it without making himself worse. But he wasn’t that good. He’d broken down, wept so hard he passed out, and it had been hours before he, to his dismay, woke up again.

His new family wasn’t really his, not to keep, but Cas needed to see them again. He needed to explain…he needed to…

The shower stopped working, overwhelmed by the fire. The door was gone, and so was most of the wall, and the fire was inches away from eating him alive, and Case shut his eyes and thought of Beren.

Instead of being enveloped by burning flames, though, instead he was suddenly plastered with a strange, cooling foam. It enveloped him completely, turning him into a sort of gelatinous grub. Cas couldn’t see through it—he could barely even move—but he felt a pair of stiff, robotic arms gather him up off the floor, and heard the humming of its machinery as it carried him out of the ruined apartment, safely coddled in his strange cocoon.

He heard human voices, then a crackle, and a moment later the goo melted off of him, practically evaporating. Cas was lying in an emergency medical transport, from the look of the equipment surrounding him. “Sir! Sir, are you all right?” A medic sat beside him, his eyes wide. “It’s going to be fine, you don’t have to talk yet. Just lie right there, I’ll check you over for damage.”

Cas figured he must look pretty bad if the guy didn’t expect him to talk. He felt all right, though—more than a little singed, and he’d inhaled too much smoke despite his best efforts, but the phage was working on that. He didn’t have any of his disguises anymore, and he didn’t care. “Everyone—else—okay?” he managed to choke out.

The young medic’s eyes went even wider. “Oh no, were there other people in the apartment with you? Dalon!” He left the transport and ran toward another cluster of people—firefighters and more emergency personnel.

Now was Cas’s chance. As reluctant as he was to move, he forced himself to his feet, grabbing one of the emergency blankets and wrapping it around himself as he slid out of the transport and away from the apartment complex. He needed to be deep in the shadows before the young man noticed he was missing.

He needed to get home.

They searched for him, he could hear it, but Cas knew how to hide even when he couldn’t use the phage. He walked, barefoot, shrinking down the alleys like a wraith, picking his way across the city back toward Rone’s palace. There was no chance he would make it within his deadline, he knew that. Rone might think he was dead, or he might have people out searching the streets for him now, to bring him in to face a prince’s justice. Rone might not know anything at all, other than that his husband was gone.

Whatever happened to Cas afterward, at least he would be able to tell Rone the truth to his face.

By the time he reached the tunnel, it was almost dawn, and his feet were bloody. His lungs were better, at least. Cas limped wearily toward Lilah’s room, wondering if he’d be able to sneak in. Would it even matter?

Had Rone even noticed he was gone?

There was his shriveled bit of skin, still doggedly hanging onto his implant. He reabsorbed it with effort, then gathered up his clothes and opened the door beyond. He crept inside, and—

“Who the hell are you?”

Lilah wasn’t there, but neither were Rone’s soldiers. It was just Rone, holding a gun on him as he stared at him, hard-eyed. “Where is Beren?” he demanded.

Cas couldn’t help it. He laughed.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Three, Part One

Notes: We're up and running with new story at last! Enjoy Cas getting a teeeeeny bit overconfident. Just a bit.

Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Three, Part One

***


Chapter Twenty-Three, Part One



Technology made people into idiots. Beautiful, glorious idiots.
Cas knew his ability was impressive, and he expected it to get him to Christala, aka Danie Yorque’s, apartment and back again. But he didn’t expect it to be so damn easy.
For one thing, despite the way his skin mimicked his surroundings, he couldn’t do anything about his mass. He might have the same coppery shine as the back of a transport bus, but still—he was a coppery person clinging to the back of a transport bus. From the back his disguise would be almost perfect, nothing to alarm a driver following them, but from the side…well, it wasn’t anywhere near perfect. He should have had to evade, switch transports over and over again, run from gaping people into the shadows and wait for his next attempt as he evaded their incredulous eyes.
Instead, they just…never looked up. Now that the grid was back up and running, everyone on the street was completely absorbed in their personal tech devices, whether it was an eyelet that slid down to obscure half of their view, a hologram that sprung from their wrist or the back of their hand, or for the old-school among them, a tablet. Cas felt both relieved and mildly put out. He’d worked at this, damn it, he’d expended a lot of time and effort to learn how to be as covert as an Old Earth chameleon, and here he could have probably accomplished the same trip in neon while wearing a sign on his back that said HIT ME.
You’re doing it for the sake of the monitoring equipment, then. It was worth it to confound the eyes in the sky that were watching him, that was for sure. He got to Danie Yorque’s building in a little over twenty minutes, faster than he’d expected, and jumped down from the back of the transport with a smooth roll across the manufactured ground. No issues at all.
Getting into the building was as simple as activating the AI at the door while wearing Shivani’s face and claiming that her ID was malfunctioning.
“Secondary identification measures activated. Voice identification: check. Facial recognition: check. Passcode?”
Mycena chlorophos,” Cas said with as much confidence as he could muster. After her rant about mushrooms and how they were her favorite things, and which in particular she adored, Cas was pretty sure he had this one right. Pretty sure wasn’t absolutely ecertain, though, so if it didn’t work he would need to—
“Accepted. Welcome home.” The locked door opened and Cas let himself inside, keeping Shivani’s face for the moment. It might grant him a moment or two of leniency if he ran into someone.
Getting into Danie’s apartment should be easier than getting into the building—it was a lower-income area, and all they relied on were very basic biometrics. Cas didn’t know how to be a perfect Danie, but he didn’t have to. Christala had been a good student when it came to the big stuff, but pretty poor when it came to the little details. She’d rarely bothered to practice changing her fingerprints, for example. It hadn’t mattered on Leelinge. Imperia was a different story, of course, and she’d have to have gotten better at it to be blending into an entirely new persona now, but with Danie, with someone who’d barely been here long enough to get settled before Christala ripped her life away, Cas figured it was just simpler for Christala to keep her own fingerprints and retool the lock to recognize them. One less thing for the phage to keep straight—besides, who remembered someone else’s fingerprints?
Cas did. He dredged the muscle memory of the shift up as he climbed the stairs, shaking his hand a few times as the phage clung and stung and generally objected, but finally took on the appearance of Christala’s right hand.
Her apartment was on the fourth floor, one of eight, and in one of the end-units. Cas stopped in front of it, said a silent prayer to no one, and pressed his hand to the reader.
It silhouetted his limb once…twice…was it going to work? Was he still within an acceptable level of uncertainty? Imperian scanners were so much more exact...
Click. He was in. Cas turned the knob, opened the door, and cautiously stepped into the front room. He activated his night vision and took in the scene.
Oh, Danie. Everything that had probably been important to her, heirlooms, the little pieces of home she’d been permitted to bring into her new life, were piled in a heap on a table in the corner. A worker’s tunic from home, a crystal flower, a fossil—the last two should have been in places of honor, curiosities from her former world that she could show her new friends. Only, her life had been cut too short to make any new friends. Everything else in the apartment was—
Cas peered at the walls. They seemed…odd. Not so much color-wise, although all the colors were muted in the dim apartment, which only had a few light strips running along the floor, but—the texture seemed wrong in places. On a hunch, he adjusted the optics of his vision to be more like the eaters back on Leelinge, and—ah, there. The textures were reflective now, too. And they were everywhere.
It was a map, he realized, some sort of map—but of what? The nodes weren’t places, and they were scattered all over the wall, clustered here and there and spread out elsewhere. Some of the nodes were bigger than others, and a few were huge, like suns surrounded by tiny orbiting planets, or a king in the midst of his court—
Oh. Oh, she’d made an influence map. A meticulous spreadsheet that only she could read, something resistant to oversight by Imperian technology. The largest dot, that was most likely the king, and in the cluster surrounding him was a small but brilliant node that could only be—
Her. She’d infiltrated the king’s inner circle somehow, or was going to very soon. She had positioned herself to act as a spy or assassin of the highest order, to potentially change the way this entire planet was run.
Suddenly, Cas felt very small.
This was about so much more than himself, even more than Beren, as much as he hated to admit it. This had suddenly become about the security of Imperia, about the security of Cas’s husband and children. Barely yours, he reminded himself, but that little bit was enough. He had to tell someone about this. He had to tell Rone. But how could he?
Distracted, Cas stepped forward to get a better look at the map. When he felt the floor depress more fully beneath his foot than it should have, he immediately threw himself deeper into the room as the wall behind him suddenly burst into flame. He heard an alarm go off, but no water flooded the apartment the way he knew the security system was supposed to.
Christala had set a trap, and he’d walked right into it.
 

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Happy New Year, upcoming, and an excerpt!

Happy New Year, darlins!





I hope that whatever comes at you in 2019, you manage to live your life with grace and joy and fire and fury, in whatever proportions you need at the time. I'll be working toward that myself.

So, what's up with me lately? Well, firstly, I'm sorry to report there's still no new Mutable. It's been a hectic week--my husband is one of the govermnent employees impacted by the shutdown, so in addition to the craziness of the holidays there's that fun to deal with/plan for. And by fun, I mean it's a pure and unadulterated shitshow. There are absolutely no guarantees with this president when it comes to things like backpay during times like this, so it's stressful. At any rate, new story next week, excerpt of a novel I'm working on down below.

As for upcoming stuff, I've got two novels in the works for Dreamspinner Press. One is already contracted and due at the beginning of April, and involves art thieves and intercontinental chases and firefights and two gentlemen with very different goals falling for each other. The other one is the sequel to Off The Beaten Path, and is about--you guessed it--werewolves. Mostly. That's the one that gets the excerpt down below.

Other stuff...I finished the rough draft of my bugbear at the beginning of December, so I'll start revising it in January with the goal of participating in Pitch Wars this August. I've got some freelance editing contracts to work on. I've got Mutable to finish, and then the third story in The Train/The Tower to start here on the blog. I've got a coauthored book with L.A. Witt to finish. If I can squeeze in anything else that isn't ghostwriting I'll be amazed.

As for the rest of my little world, I've got my baby and my man and my family close by, so things are pretty good. I'm so in love with the little ball of gorgeous, coquettish manipulation that is my child, I can't even tell you ;)

Anyway, here. Have a little excerpt from On The Right Track, and once again, Happy New Year!

***



On the Right Track

Chapter One
 Davis POV

It was loud in the cockpit of the Cessna 185 Skywagon, louder than I remembered a small aircraft like this being. Heavy crosswinds made the yoke buck in my hands, and as I steadied our course for what felt like the fiftieth time in as many minutes, I wondered yet again why I’d decided to spend half my vacation flying up to the middle of Nowhere, Alaska.

My companion heaved a sigh, and I smiled to myself. At least I wasn’t doing it alone. Not that it would do to let him know I was happy about that. “Can you breathe any louder? I don’t think they heard you down there.” The little city of Kotzebue curved like an apostrophe into the sound, glowing with street lights even though, this far north, it never really got dark at this time of year.

My companion looked over at me, unamused, took in a deep breath, and exhaled loud enough to make the microphones on the headsets crackle. I winced. “Better?”

“Do you give Ward this kind of shit?”

“Ward doesn’t drag me to the Arctic Circle right before our wedding, so no, he gets a pass.” Henry Dormer, alpha of the La Garita werewolf pack and fiancĂ© to Ward Johannsen, my best friend, eyed me steadily. He was a big man, over six feet tall, with dark red hair and pale blue eyes that turned gold when he shifted into his wolf form. He was an intimidating guy, but only when he wanted to be. Right now, he wasn’t really trying…but then again, neither was I.

“I’m your commanding officer,” I reminded him.

“And we’re doing this op completely off the books, over your vacation, so you’re not Lieutenant Colonel Carlisle right now. You’re Davis, and I’m allowed to say that you kind of suck.”

He had a point, but still. “You agreed that this is worth checking out.”

“I know.” He sighed again. “I just wanted to be there to help with preparations for the wedding. With Sam so far along, Ward’s having to do a lot more than I’d like.”

“Ward taught freshmen college students physics for almost a decade, I think he knows a little about wrangling cats,” I said, checking my bearing. We were past Kotzebue now, and I adjusted to follow the coastline more carefully. Ten more miles and we’d hit Cape Krusenstein National Monument, and shortly thereafter, the coordinates of our white whale.

“Werewolves aren’t cats,” Henry muttered, but he didn’t follow it up, so I let myself fall back into thinking about what we might be getting ourselves into up here.