Archives for category: Speculative Fiction

4.4.18.ARA.CYBER_.590.KB

I just discovered two five-star reviews of CYBERWEB while I was collecting the print links. This book was originally published in hardcover by William Morrow, trade paperback by Eos, and mass paperback by AvoNova.
Now a new trade paperback from Bast Books, CYBERWEB is the sequel to ARACHNE.
4.0 out of 5 starsDEEPER THAN DEEP
Format: Paperback
On re-reading CYBERWEB a year later, I don’t think my first review does it justice. The writer has peeled off the difference between conscious robots and flesh and blood man. Almost without fanfare the robots are provided with souls. Her mechanical characters are given both consciousness and emotion. Their only difference to man is in their composition. This becomes very clear when the outmoded Spinner character uploads herself into Patina’s flashy, lifeless bodywork.
I MUST NOW RATE THIS BOOK FIVE STARS.
The writer, thus, dives deeply into the unseen world that controls man’s apparent freewill existence. By using mainframes as purposeful beasts, seeking to control fleshy man, some very deep philosophical questions are posed. She leaves it up to the reader to fill in the blanks to this very entertaining and thoughtful story.
THE OLD REVIEW READ:
Mason leads her cyberpunk reader into the arena of sci-fi comics. It’s not possible for humans to grasp the feelings and desires of these robot characters but it’s still a lot of fun to try. She challenges your imagination to follow her characters’ avatars, cones, cubes and three headed chimeras as they flit in and out of cyberspace. But hard questions are run up the flagpole. Can bodiless people exist in this virtual world of telespace? Can a soul exist in a nonorganic body? Should robots be discarded like machines when a new model arrives? Can our culture continue to absorb the changes computer power is unleashing? Is our reality but an extension of the bits composing telespace? Even the questions of what consciousness might consist of and whether it is really an advantage to being born as flesh and blood. She makes no attempt to answer these questions but even considering them makes this book a very creative endeavor. You could certainly invest your time on a much less entertaining story. Also it is short and sweet.
5.0 out of 5 starsInteresting…pretty cool actually…
Format: Paperback
Cyberweb is a pretty nifty cyberpunk novel…lots of interesting ideas..
So there you have it, my friends. One reader at a time…..
To wrap up the trilogy, SPYDER is forthcoming!
CYBERWEB is back in print in the U.S. at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1984356941
In the U.K. at https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1984356941
In Germany at https://www.amazon.de/dp/1984356941
In France at https://www.amazon.fr/dp/1984356941
In Spain at https://www.amazon.es/dp/1984356941
In Italy at https://www.amazon.it/dp/1984356941
In Japan at https://www.amazon.co.jp/dp/1984356941
Cyberweb is an ebook on US Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords.
Cyberweb is also on UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Brazil Kindle, France Kindle, Germany Kindle, India Kindle, Italy Kindle, Japan Kindle, Mexico Kindle, Netherlands Kindle, and Spain Kindle.
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9.6.17.TGA.1

New Review of The Gilded Age at http://sfbookreview.blogspot.com/2017/12/the-gilded-age-by-lisa-mason.html:
“The world of 2495 is at an unsustainable twelve billion population. Zhu Wong is a Daughter of Compassion, a group working to enforce the birth restriction laws. She is in jail awaiting trial when she is recruited by the Luxon Institute for Superluminal Applications (LISA, I love the acronym) to t-port back to 1895 San Francisco. She accepts the deal. Her mission is to find Wing Sing, take her and the aurelia to the mission run by Donaldina Cameron. In 1967 Wing Sing’s daughter will eventually give the brooch to Chiron at the end of his stay in the Summer of Love project.
Zhu finds Wing Sing, but she doesn’t have the aurelia. They are captured by a Chinese gang. Zhu is bought away from them by Jessie, a madam, Wing Sing stuck with the Tong. Zhu does work for Jessie, but is more valuable as a bookkeeper so avoids becoming a prostitute. Daniel Watkins is the son of a real estate magnate coming to San Francisco to collect on debts. He is low on funds and is referred to lodging at Jessie’s where his life becomes entwined with Zhu’s. Somehow Zhu is attracted to this heavy drinking smoker who has distinct views of women. Despite herself and her mission, Zhu cares about Jessie and Daniel.
I loved the character of Zhu. Somehow I wasn’t repulsed by Daniel and Jessie. They are more a product of their environment doing what they can with their sense of right and wrong. Very enjoyable, I read the last two hundred pages straight through. This is definitely a stand alone novel, though Summer of Love is mentioned several times. I’ll have to read that one as a prequel rather than book one.”
And this is from Library Journal:
“The discovery of a golden brooch that should not exist in the 25th century prompts the Luxon Institute to send a young Chinese woman 600 years back in time. She arrives in San Francisco in 1895 to prevent the future from altering the past. This sequel to Summer of Love (LJ 6/15/94), seen through the eyes of an observer from the future, juxtaposes the tempestuous, sprawling milieu of boomtown San Francisco with its shadowy underside of prostitution and decadence. Mason’s graceful prose and her skill in orchestrating a complex and satisfying plot make this a solid purchase for sf collections.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
This is from a reader:
https://www.amazon.ca/Golden-Nineties-Lisa-Mason/dp/0553373315
5.0 out of 5 stars Hypnotic Read
By,Robin Booneon Published on Amazon.com|Verified Purchase
“Lisa Mason’s Summer of Love and The Golden Nineties both have this quality – you want to reread them as soon as you’ve read them. Her writing conveys an abiding love of San Francisco, and interesting bits of California history are woven into the storylines. The writing is so compelling that you feel as though time travel were a possibility. I hope she writes more of these San Francisco fantasies!”
And this is from Publisher’s Weekly
https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-553-37331-8
“Mason’s sequel to Summer of Love is a delightful expansion of that work and a major step forward for her. The tale centers on Zhu Wong, a Chinese national whose lawyer plea-bargains her release from prison so that Chiron and his companions from the previous novel’s Luxon Institute for Superluminal Applications can transport her 600 years into the past to find a macguffin called the aurelia. Once in San Francisco, 1895, Mason brings the environment and the times to life with her rendering of the city’s activities, especially its corruption. The several historic personages who appear–including Frank Norris, Jack London and Susan B. Anthony–are all given dimensions that reflect the rigor of Mason’s research without leaving the reader overburdened by minutiae. Zhu Wong finds herself embroiled in a world of decadence and prostitution; she sees friends and companions abuse themselves with such things as alcohol, cocaine and corsets. As with Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary, Mason uses the novel partially to explore the role of women in society. As Zhu grows to understand the hypocrisies of the 1890s, she becomes even less comfortable with the presumptions of her own time. She creates several “closed time loops,” apparent paradoxes that impede her mission–and, perhaps more important, thwart her own desires. Eventually she finds her way out of the time loops and in the process teaches everyone–including herself–a few lessons about life. Her bravura performance with this book should both leave the reader wanting more and solidify her position as one of the most interesting writers in science fiction.
And this just in from an Amazon.com reader
Buy It
By Uke Enthusiast
Format: Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
“One of my favorite books. I am delighted it is back in print. A thoroughly entertaining time travel story supported by vivid characterizations and settings.”
Book Description: The year is 1895 and immigrants the world over are flocking to California on the transcontinental railroad and on transoceanic steamships. The Zoetrope demonstrates the persistence of vision, patent medicines addict children to morphine, and women are rallying for the vote. In San Francisco, saloons are the booming business, followed by brothels, and the Barbary Coast is a dangerous sink of iniquity. Atop Telegraph Hill bloody jousting tournaments are held and in Chinatown the tongs deal in opium, murder-for-hire, and slave girls.
Zhu Wong, a prisoner in twenty-fifth century China, is given a choice–stand trial for murder or go on a risky time-travel project to the San Francisco of 1895 to rescue a slave girl and take her to safety. Charmed by the city’s opulent glamour, Zhu will discover the city’s darkest secrets. A fervent population control activist in a world of twelve billion people, she will become an indentured servant to the city’s most notorious madam. Fiercely disciplined, she will fall desperately in love with the troubled self-destructive heir to a fading fortune.
And when the careful plans of the Gilded Age Project start unraveling, Zhu will discover that her choices not only affect the future but mean the difference between her own life or death.
“A winning mixture of intelligence and passion.” The New York Times Book Review
“Graceful prose. . . .A complex and satisfying plot.” Library Journal
“Rollicking. . . .Dazzling.” Locus Magazine
“Should both leave the reader wanting more and solidify Mason’s position as one of the most interesting writers in science fiction.” Publisher’s Weekly
The cover, by San Francisco artist Tom Robinson, is styled to look like an 1890s billboard.
The Gilded Age is BACK IN PRINT! Order the beautiful trade paperback in the U.S., in the U.K., in France, in Germany, in Italy, in Spain, and in Japan.
The ebook
is at BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords and on Kindle worldwide at US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
So there you have it, my friends
. Bantam Books, a division of Random House, published this as The Golden Nineties. Yes, I changed the title. I think the new title is better. (Wish I’d thought of it in the first place) This is the Author’s Preferred Print Edition.
Whether you’re a longtime reader or new, I hope you enjoy this classic!
Join my other patrons on my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/lisamasonfantasyandsciencefictionwriter?alert=2 I’ve got delightful new stories and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie recommendations, and more exclusively for patrons.
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Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, reviews, interviews, blogs, roundtables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, worldwide links, and more!
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4.12.18.SOL.TGA.350.KB

I’m so thrilled this book is back in print! And as timely as ever! Bast Books has reported that the print books and the ebooks sold in the U.S. and Canada last month.
What readers say:
5.0 out of 5 stars I dig this book!
Reviewed in the United States on March 11, 2020
“Summer of Love is a beautiful work of literature encapsulated within the science-fiction genre. It invites you on an emotionally jostling roller coaster ride.
Lisa Mason is a prolific author who weaves a time-travel story that delves into many underlying themes at a micro and macro level during the famous “Summer of Love” pandemic in Haight Ashbury, San Francisco, in 1967.
The author also descends underneath the epidermis of the street’s kaleidoscopic and “groovy” ambiance to reveal what is and what is not through each character’s eyes — and whether or not we can rely on hope to wake us up the next morning.
I felt the characters (even the secondary ones), the moments, the sights, the sounds and the smells of the time. As if I myself was time traveling. I found myself not only reading but tasting each word; sometimes going back to read a sentence, a paragraph or a page again.
This is a novel I will not hesitate to recommend.” https://www.amazon.com/dp/1548106119
“This book was so true to life that I felt like I was there. I recommend it to anyone.”
“More than a great science-fiction, a great novel as well.”
“My favourite SF book of all time, beautiful, cynical and completely involving….Unmissable!”
2018 review of SUMMER OF LOVE at http://sfbookreview.blogspot.com/2018/02/summer-of-love-by-lisa-mason.html
”Ever since the Save Betty project completed there has been degradation in the archives. The Luxon Institute for Superluminal Applications (LISA, still love that acronym) has determined that San Francisco in 1967 is a hot dim spot. They commission the Summer of Love project. Twenty-one year old Chiron Cat’s Eye in Draco will t-port from 2467 to the summer of love where he is to find the Axis, a teenage girl from the Midwest will have important descendants, and protect her through the summer. This Susan Stein takes an alias, so Chiron has only probabilities to know if he finds the right girl.
In 1967 Susan receives a postcard from Nance, aka Penny Lane, who is in San Francisco. Her parents find the postcard, tear it up and burn it. She runs away that night and takes the name Starbright. She arrives hoping to see Penny Lane, but instead meets up with Stan the Man, manager of the Double Boogie band. She is invited to live with them in a house that is a constant party. She loves it, but a week later Stan hooks up with someone new. She meets Ruby again and Ruby takes her in. That first night Chiron saw an eye symbol by Ruby’s shop, decided to hang around there and Ruby let him sleep on the couch. He’s not sure that Starbright is the Axis, but there is a high probability.
Without being preachy major themes in the book include the environment, population control, women’s rights, and addiction. These were put into the setting of real life 1967. Street names referenced in the book exist and the Grateful Dead did have a concert there on August 22. I enjoyed the story without any nostalgic feeling, other than references to old Star Trek episodes and other SF works.
I really enjoyed the book. It was excellent and the first chapter or two set up encounters throughout the rest of the book. I loved all three of the main characters, Starbright, Chiron and Ruby.” By John Loyd
Book Description: The year is 1967 and something new is sweeping across America: good vibes, bad vibes, psychedelic music, psychedelic drugs, anti-war protests, racial tension, free love, bikers, dropouts, flower children. An age of innocence, a time of danger. The Summer of Love.
San Francisco is the Summer of Love, where runaway flower children flock to join the hip elite and squares cruise the streets to view the human zoo.
Lost in these strange and wondrous days, teenager Susan Bell, alias Starbright, has run away from the straight suburbs of Cleveland to find her troubled best friend. Her path will cross with Chiron Cat’s Eye in Draco, a strange and beautiful young man who has journeyed farther than she could ever imagine.
With the help of Ruby A. Maverick, a wise and feisty half-black, half-white hip entrepreneur, Susan and Chi discover a love that spans five centuries. But can they save the world from demons threatening to destroy all space and time?
A harrowing coming of age. A friendship ending in tragedy. A terrifying far future. A love spanning five centuries. And a gritty portrait of a unique time in American history.
The cover, hand-drawn by Tom Robinson, is styled to look like a 1960s psychedelic poster.
What the professional book reviewers say:
“Captures the moment perfectly and offers a tantalizing glimpse of its wonderful and terrible consequences.” The San Francisco Chronicle
“A fine novel packed with vivid detail, colorful characters, and genuine insight.” The Washington Post Book World
“Remarkable. . . .the intellect on display within these psychedelically packaged pages is clear-sighted, witty, and wise.” Locus Magazine
“Mason has an astonishing gift. Her chief characters almost walk off the page. And the story is as significant as anyone could wish. This book will surely be on the prize ballots.” Analog
“A priority purchase.” Library Journal
5 stars From the Readers
Calling All Fans
Amazon Verified Purchase
‘Summer of Love is an important American literary contribution that may very well have a strong and viable fan base. Where are you? Join us!
This novel is loads of fun to read. The majority of the characters are hippies from the 1960s who meet a stranger from the future who’s looking to save his world. This fellow, Chiron, needs to find a troubled adolescent teen named Susan (a.k.a. Starbright) for a very compelling reason. The book has a great deal to offer: swift action, lovable characters, spiritual insight, and well-chosen primary documents such as essays, poems, and news articles which round out the reader’s understanding of the worldview of the novel.
I think Summer of Love has excellent potential for a wider audience. I hope it continues to enjoy a healthy amount of sales in the used books market on this site. I wish even more for it to be in wider circulation. Some books talk about the sixties. This novel IS the sixties, thanks to the spirit and scholarship of its author. And, as one reader aptly put it, ‘the sci-fi stuff is just plain off the hook.’ Get a copy. Most people who have read it seem to respect it and enjoy it every bit as much as I do.”
New Reader Review! “Just checked to see if this book was on Kindle. It has been many years since I’ve read it but I remember it as one of my very favorite books. Time to go back and re-read it!”
New Reader Review
Kent Peterson
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fine Story
10 February 2015 – Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
Summer of Love, A Time Travel is a fine story. Lisa Mason takes three interesting characters, a time traveller from a future 500 years hence, a 14-year-old midwestern runaway flower child, and hip shopkeeper and places them all in the fascinating place and time that was San Francisco’s Summer of Love, 1967.
Mason has certainly done her homework. You can almost smell the pot and patchouli, see the painted faces and hear the sounds of Janis and the Grateful Dead as Chi, Starbright and Ruby fight to hold on to what really matters at a time when everything seems possible and even the smallest things can have huge consequences.
The time travel plot is nicely (if a bit predictably) done and the glimpses from Chi’s future world are fascinating, frightening and ultimately hopeful. Starbright is 100 percent convincing as a confused, loyal, idealistic, moody teenager who really could hold the key to what is to come. And Ruby Maverick, the shopkeeper who reluctantly gives the two young strangers shelter and strength in a strange and wondrous time is strong and smart and the kind of friend you’d want holding your hand or watching your back when the trip starts going strange.
Summer of Love, A Time Travel is not a rose-colored look backwards. It’s is a kaleidoscopic look at a time of both darkness and light, of confusion and clarity. It’s scary and beautiful, a strange trip where maybe all you need is a little love and some flowers in your hair.
New Reader Review
Eos
5.0 out of 5 starsTime travel done right
20 August 2017 – Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
This is a longtime favorite novel. Mason’s time travel tale is fascinating as both a tale of the future and of the past. I am delighted it is now available as a Kindle edition as my paperback copy is long past its prime.
New Reader Review
paula ferre
5.0 out of 5 stars… the last 20 years – it is such a great story.
26 September 2016
Verified Purchase
I’ve read this book 3 or 4 times in the last 20 years – it is such a great story.
Find the PRINT BOOK in the U.S., U.K.,  France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Japan.
The ebook is on US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
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(Please disregard any ads you see below. They have been placed here without my permission.)

“Triad”

First published in Universe 2

Ed. Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber (Bantam Books, 1992)

Republished in Strange Ladies: 7 Stories

(Bast Books, 2017)

The old wachter peers at the holoid of Sha!n. From the holoid’s ectomurk peeks a cherubic face—shy kid grin, tousled hair, big eyes.

Tatiana’s offspring.

“Yep, I seen ’im,” says the old wachter. Its chrome headpiece wobbles up and down. “Yep, be sure o’ tat.” It spits a drop of oil. With a raspy creak, the old wachter’s armpiece flips up, plucks out its eyeball. It ponderously wipes the acrylic orb on the leg of its dingy uniform, pops the eyeball back in its headpiece. “Purty chil’. Be lookin’ jes like you, hon,” it says to Tatiana.

Tatiana’s backblades flutter hopefully. The whirring of her six stiff wings forms a pearlescent halo behind her delicate pointed face.

“And this man?” asks Dana Anad. He shoves a holoid of Tatiana’s deux-partner, Edstuart (that bastard Eddie, she calls him), in front of the old wachter’s eye.

Dana can see that the greasy smudges dappling the eye before are now smeared all over it. Rust erupts around the old wachter’s joints. And there, through a gap in the old wachter’s control console, surely the quick dart, a tiny gleam of red eyes, betrays some vermin nesting in the warm wires within.

How can a wealthy cityship like Nexus allow wachters patrolling the skin to get so grubby? It’s negligence, an eyesore, not to mention a security risk.

Security risk. The skin holds the world within. From where Dana stands on the avenue of steel strut and blood-gorged bone, the living sphere of skin arches out across an inner horizon.

“Hellya,” says the old wachter. “Him, too. Be wit’ de chil’.”

“Ah!” Tatiana cries out.

Dana takes her by the shoulders, holds her. The slim knobby cords of her wing tendons tremble.

“But ye cain’t go in der after ‘em, bud,” says the old wachter. “Porthandle be closed next six hours. Dey’s openin’ de ports. Cain’t go in der aft’ ‘em, no sirree. Not even ye, bud-oh.”

The old wachter chuckles to itself, tickled by some secret joke of senility or a surreptitious shot of electrolyte in its battery pack.

“It’s right, Tatiana,” Dana whispers in her fluted lavender ear. “Out of the question. We can’t go on.”

“No!”

“Yes, my love.”

“But I’ve got the injunction. I’ve got a right to my offspring.”

A steelyn sheath surrounds the skin, shielding the living world with a thin atmosphere. The sheath opens directly to space through the ports, apertures inset with plastic diaphragms. When the ports open, the exosphere destabilizes. The living world shivers. Gravitational fields, atmospheric pressure, condensation all askew. The skin has got to maintain. Dermal intruders would be irritants to it. Maybe infection.

“The injunction is just an equitable remedy. Tatiana, please listen,” insists Dana. “The injunction has no authority here. We’ll have to wait.”

Tatiana’s ears are like irises inviting a bee’s tongue.

Dana’s desire for her stings like salt in the wound of his t-burn. Her perfume dizzies him like always, the scented oil she calls amante: ripe peaches, musk, a hint of her flesh. The dazzling scent recalls their stolen nights. He hungers for her touch.

But as soon as he desires her, the t-burn bites him.

Bruises fester under his softening skin. The sour lump on his tongue means the joints are next, each movement soon fraught with the shock of quick cuts deep within his ligaments.

The t-burn is pretty bad this time. Withdrawal from the testosterone he’s megadosed to be a man for her.

Be a man. As if Dana could ever be a man.

Other swings try to deceive themselves. I’m a man inside this body, they say. Or, despite this body, I’m a woman.

Dana knows neither is true.

He is a swing. A mutant. Accursed.

“We can’t wait!” says Tatiana. Her shimmering violet eyes stare up into Dana’s, plumbing his passion for her. “Don’t you see? Eddie’ll stow away on a sunshuttle or a starbarge, and we’ll never find him. He’ll take my Sha!n away for good this time, I know it! Oh please, Dana!”

“All right,” mutters Dana. “All right, all right.”

When the old wachter shuffles back to its post, swiveling its circuit plate for a moment, Dana kicks it in the knee tread, rips out its main cable.

The old wachter clatters to the street like a bag of scrap.

“Damn, Tatiana,” Dana says, feeling like a thug. “The things I do for you.”

He can only hope the fall jams up the old wachter’s memory. Even so, he’ll have to grease some gears next time he wants special access to Porthandle. Acquiring special access takes years on Nexus. Years and favors tendered, the codes on a small cityship broken only by necessity. Vandalizing a dermal wachter could ruin Dana’s reputation.

Damn! The things he does for her.

“My Dana,” Tatiana says, and kisses him. But her lips are cold and dry. Her face, so soft and appealing before, hardens into a mask of such determined fury he can barely stand to look at her. “Come hurry, you must hurry,” she says.

Now an order, not a plea. She shakes his hand away when he reaches for her again.

They slip past the wachter’s post, step onto the inner sky itself. The perspective swings precipitously. The avenue soars above them now, disappearing into the central city. Below their feet, the blue-veined breathing dermis of the world. Epithelial monitors stretch their skinny necks, angling lidless emerald eyespots for a better view.

Dana turns his face away from the monitors, tries to shield Tatiana’s notorious profile with his cloak.

It’s no use. She and Dana will be identified. A stunt like this could get Dana disbarred. The Municipal Bench of Nexus is punctilious with interworld counsel.

Too late to turn back now.

Ahead lies the scarlet tube of a bronchiole overlaid with biotic membrane.

That’s it!

What Dana brought Tatiana to this remote post for. Not the usual way to leave the skin. There are mouths for that, yawning directly into the sheath-ports.

No, this has to be the way. Tatiana’s final bid for her offspring calls for secrecy.

Dana massages the membrane, finds its tough curl of nerve, pinches the nerve firmly, then smooths the membrane open.

He lifts Tatiana, shoves her through.

Wrestles himself past the membrane just before it slaps shut.

Gelatinous walls squeeze all around him, the narrow shoot of the bronchiole.

The air within is putrid, poisonous. These muscular, filament-lined pipes filter the famous fresh atmosphere of Nexus. Millions of them riddle the skin, expelling vapors of the city for dispersion through the sheath.

The bronchiole propels whatever stuff enters it into Porthandle.

That is Dana’s strategy.

But it’s shameful, a Triadian damma and her Nexus counsel, expelled from the world like poison. Isn’t that the truth of their love? Something to be expelled from both their lives?

“Lie quietly,” Dana calls to Tatiana but she’s already careening ahead. The bronchiole grips him in its suckered walls. He fights panic, yields with effort to its repulsive embrace.

Lie quietly.

If only Dana could lie quietly with Tatiana again.

*   *   *

How once he’d lain in his bed, not quietly. He was burning. Burning up.

MU had awakened him out of the sweaty torpor of a ferocious e-burn and informed him that a new client had arrived.

Dana had begged to make a referral. MU had refused. MU was a metaprogram hardwired into Dana’s northside combodominium. MU had priorities. MU flashed Dana’s overdrawn credit accounts across the sleeping cell’s monitor.

“Get the fuck up,” MU said.

Dana groaned.

T-burn was always piercing, brittle. E-burn, heavy and feverish. The e-burn now, aftermath of an estrogen overdose, had fevered him for nearly two hours. Finally his breasts had collapsed. Subcutaneous gristle gripped his sternum. Shrinking hips squeezed his pelvis like an animal hide drying on the shaping rack of a tannery.

No way to lie down that wasn’t excruciating. No energy to get up.

All he deserved, trying to please Lenni.

MU feigned perplexity. “MU cannot assimilate this, Dana Anad. Diagnosed allergic, yet you megadose yourself. MU doesn’t know why you genderize at all when you know hormone withdrawal is going to be so bad.”

“MU should tell me. Then we’ll both know.”

Dana hated it when MU scolded him. There was no evading MU’s view. He slapped at the headboard controls. He succeeded in nicking his wrist.

“Take a V-shot.” Into the bedside serving tray, MU dispensed a hypodermic syringe opaque with a vile yellow opiate.

“No, no. Not another needle.”

Dana recoiled, but there was no escape. Servos snapped out of the carved ebony bed-frame. MU seized Dana’s wrist, plunged the syringe. Dana winced, angry tears starting. “It’s all Lenni’s fault, the treacherous swing. I never want to see—”

Lenni had double-swung him again.

“So don’t see,” said MU. “Now, Dana Anad, there’s someone new to see you.” A lilt and a hum to MU’s voicetape. “She’s beautiful.”

“Beautiful.” Holy suns, his programming. Numbness stole his nerves. Nice. Too nice, a V-shot. Turn to V-shots too often, and he would need the V, day in and day out. “I need beautiful like I need another hole in my arm. Remind me to upgrade MU’s common sense.”

“Pull yourself together, Dana Anad.”

MU flitted away, trailing offended feedback. Dana could hear MU’s deadpan receptionist mode echoing from the office in the east cell of the combodominium. “Madam, if you will wait one moment, please.”

Dana edged out of bed, hobbled across the sleeping cell. The north-bay porthole remodeled its almond-shaped arch as he passed, thrusting out a new arabesque. Although a disciplinarian with his other cells, Dana loved the sleeping cell’s exuberance for life. He freely permitted its erratic transmutations.

An indulgence that intimated a secret hope. That he might one day redeem his life of relentless transmutation.

A touch at the closet door, and his wardrobe presented itself—a meticulous sheaf of pressed garments held by black-gloved servos.

A conservative gray bodysuit stepped out of the wardrobe, zipped itself around him. He strapped around his wrists and neck strips of gold inset with holoids of lapis lazuli cabochons and one-carat diamonds.

Then to the groom-room for a spot of lanolin and a whisk with a teak-handled brush through the hair that fell straight to his cheekbones. Dana replanted his scalp often, favoring silvers, blonds, and lavenders. Pearly planting shafts peeped from the part down the middle of his scalp. He wasn’t sure he still liked the lustrous red he’d chosen for the last swing with Lenni.

Lenni. In boots and britches and a chamois shirt, lean-hipped, a trace of mustache on the lip. Lenni teasing fingernails across Dana’s tender scalp. Lenni seizing a lock of that lustrous red, jerking Dana’s head back. Rough insistent Lenni, demanding Dana submit. Lenni bending over Dana for a kiss.

Then Lenni coming up, full-lipped and full-hipped, laughing falsetto, ripping open the chamois shirt to show new full breasts.

Treacherous Lenni. Genderizing female, just like that. How could Lenni do this to him? Swing fem right in the middle of his own fem manifestation? Double genderizing not less than half an hour into Dana’s swing?

And Dana, he’d injected the estrogen not very willingly. Endured the swell and change of the body, accepted the inevitable agony of e-burn, to please Lenni.

Please, Lenni, for pity’s sake, you can’t do this.

The bastard, the bitch, the treacherous double-crossing swing. Dana never wanted to see—

Dana suffered their mutation. Lenni reveled in it.

He could hear MU in the office cell, making polite conversation.

He stuck his head in the wraparound, watched in the interior mirrors as the air-jets blasted him clean. His face looked like hell. Lips cracked. Eyes drooping, glazed, stained with last night’s mascara.

Steady up, he told himself. Looking like a superannuated whore, and a new client waiting.

He set the wraparound on mist, directed mild electroshock around the eyes. Optic muscles quivered. He wasn’t happy about the eyes. With such eyes, a man might look distinguished, a woman experienced. But a swing, Dana thought, looked like death.

Over his face he sprayed a superfine celluloid powder that sealed in ten seconds into a smooth ivory mask. No beard to contend with this time, thank goodness for small favors.

In the groom-room cabinet lay another syringe filled with the yellow bliss of V. What the hell. The first dose was peeling off the e-burn, laying the ache bare again too soon. He plunged the needle under his tongue.

Taking on a new client implied another tomorrow. Dana wondered if he could stand himself for another tomorrow.

*   *   *

She was Tatiana, a damma from Triad.

From a clannish folk, close-knit and closer-mouthed, not often seen in interworld ports.

Of elegant proportions and regal deportment, she was nevertheless doll-like, quick and charming. Her complexion was lavender jade, fine and translucent, with lines like crackles in glaze fanning up from her eyes and mouth. Her slanting amethyst eyes seemed to regard him askance until he realized they curved around the bilateral sides of her narrow face. A dress of ivory silk fell from her shoulders to a wasp-waist, then flared out around her knees. A latticework of lace across her back permitted six long cartilaginous, oval-tipped wings of shimmering violet to extrude with striking grace.

Beautiful. Good old MU.

But what was beautiful? The first planet from this particular central-sun was beautiful, but not to one dying of thirst. The deep purity of space was beautiful, but not to one shipwrecked.

Who could be beautiful to a swing?

Still, Dana caught himself staring.

Tatiana told him she was united with a permanent partner. “We call it Solemn Deux.”

But she and her partner in deux had divorced. “It’s over,” she said. “I cannot love him anymore, and he certainly doesn’t love me.”

She was bitter. He’d failed her. They had an offspring, Sh!an. “We call the offspring the Point of the Triad.” Triadian law required that the estranged couple share custody of the offspring.

About this, she raged. “Oh, Dana Anad,” she cried, “I never wanted to see him again until I was required to.”

In flagrant violation of their custody agreement, the deux-partner Edstuart had kidnapped Sha!n and disappeared.

She produced documents on interworld disks.

“Repeat offender,” she declared. “Oh, he’s done this before. Not showing up at our appointments. Or showing up, but not with the offspring. Bold as you please, mocking me. That bastard Eddie,” she said, the epithet incongruous in the fluting voice of her folk.

“And now you think they’re on Nexus?” asked Dana.

She was certain. Shortly after he and the offspring disappeared, a luxury cruiser had warped through Triad, bound for Nexus.

She shifted in her seat, seemed restless.

Dana could see that the base of her left fourth finger was surrounded by a cybernetic centipede. Spiky spinal fur glistening like sapphires set in the platinum ribs of its exoskeleton. Silver proboscis plunged in the major blood vessel of her left hand. From the centipede’s neck extruded a razor-thin ridge curved in the shape of a crescent moon.

Dana had seen such parasites before. In exchange for high-grade nourishment in quantities limited only by the host’s vitality, the centipedes constrained certain nervous diseases or maintained artificially induced behaviors better than any drug. Some swings used centipedes when they could get them. But such devices, with their exchange of need, made Dana sick. The sight of its gleaming head buried in her hand repulsed him.

She caught his glance. “Triad attempts to enforce the Vows of Deux this way. I can’t detach it. But I swear to you, it affects me no longer. I don’t seek him out of any induced obsession. I simply need to have my Sha!n returned to me. Dana Anad, you of all men must understand.”

Dana picked uncomfortably at the bodysuit sleeve tormenting his sore arm. You of all men. Always this embarrassment. People’s illusions about him that in due course would require a humiliating disabusement. He never could shake the knee-jerk.

She watched him intently.

“If it’s kidnapping, we should notify the Nexus police,” Dana said.

“No!”

“Couldn’t the offspring be in jeopardy?”

“No! No Nexus police! No outsiders! This is a matter of Triadian law!” Tatiana rose from her seat, bright-faced with urgency. “We are an old world. A closed world. We have stood aloof from your interworld community. This is shameful for me. You cannot imagine what a disgrace. On Triad, matters of deux are confidential among our people. And me, approaching you, an outsider, like this? Offworld? Oh, Dana Anad! It is forbidden to reveal our ways to anyone, anywhere. Yet I’m begging you, help me.”

She stood, paced around his office. Her silk skirt rustling.

Dana reconsidered the reasonableness of taking on her case, overdrawn credit accounts be damned. “Article Two of the Interworld Code stipulates that no neutral counsel may intervene in matters of parochial jurisprudence, unless the petitioner waives all parochial rights and submits to interworld law. Look here, Tatiana. Do you so submit?”

“I do, yes!” She paused. “Well, why not. I have to, don’t I?”

“Then what would you have me do, if you refuse the protection of the Nexus police?”

“Oh, Dana, if you would just find them. Arrange for a meeting. Do something discreet. Impress Edstuart. Invoke your interworld law, but in a way that won’t expose me. He would listen to you, I’m sure of it.”

“Well, I could obtain an injunction in the Interworld Court requiring him to honor your custody agreement. Confidentiality would apply.”

“Yes! Yes, that’s perfect.”

She turned her narrow back to him so he could see her sinewy shoulder blades, the startling wings, her waist through the lace. She swung her hips in the café dance women do when they want someone to notice them.

Then composed, smile dazzling, she sauntered to where Dana sat and took his hand.

Dana recoiled. E-burn crackled over his skin.

She began to murmur nonsense in the tongue of her folk like a mother baby-talking her child. Her slanting gaze dizzied him. She exuded some kind of power. Her touch and words grew amorous.

“Elegant Dana,” she said. “What is this great pain of yours?” She drew back his bodysuit sleeve, surveyed the new punctures, his scabs, his scars. “Surely not a drug addict?”

“No. No! I am an androgyne,” said Dana. “A swing. Not a man. Not a woman, either. Neither and both. A mutant. Oh, my kind has always known chromosomal jumbling. Women born into men’s bodies. Men into women. Hermaphrodites, with both sexes manifested. But never the true androgyne. Once there was too much radiation. The anarchy of twelve billion matings on our homeworld. Now, here we are on Nexus. Here I am. Please don’t be frightened.”

“I’m not.”

“Right now, I’m particularly neither. I’m in stasis. Undifferentiated male and female. This is my normal state of affairs.” He laughed bitterly. As if anything could be normal about a swing and his/her affairs.

“But you can become a woman? Or a man?”

“Oh, yeah. With injection of the appropriate hormone. Then the gender manifests.”

“The gender manifests. How marvelous!”

“I’m glad you think so.”

“Why do you hate yourself so?” she asked tenderly.

He was struck dumb. Then finally, quietly, “The universe is a great duality. Morally, there is good or evil. Physically, light or dark. Sensually, hot or cold. Temporally, now or infinity. There is no third mode that isn’t suspect. Between good and evil lies compromise. Between light and dark lies murk. Between male and female stands the androgyne.”

“Between your dualities lies harmony and balance, too,” she said. “And perhaps whoever you are, whatever you are . . . is your truth?”

“Harmony! Balance! Truth!” He got to his feet, pushed her away. “The truth is my kind is hated and feared throughout the worlds. Rapists of daughters, the lynch mobs call us, sodomists of sons. Yet only when we genderize—conform to the dual world—can we become sexually active. Not when we’re in stasis. So even if I were a sexual psychopath, I’m a hundredth as able as someone normally genderized. Damn absurd, eh?”

“And this great pain of yours,” she persisted, pulling him back to his chair, “it comes when you manifest a gender?”

“During. Mostly after. Before, too, in a way.”

The terrible emptiness of stasis. The sadness. The grief, like a death.

That was why Dana megadosed. Dosed and dosed again, despite the agony of change. He must remember to tell MU. The awful emptiness of stasis.

“My poor darling Dana,” Tatiana murmured. “I have something for your pain.”

From her bodice she withdrew a celadon flask. She twisted the stoppered top and, with an inscrutable look, tipped the flask at him.

The most amazing scent wound around him, a ripe rich lusty odor that so startled him with its blatant allure that he laughed out loud.

“This is amante,” she whispered. “It soothes and heals. We the damma of Triad use it to ease our own particular pain.” Her fingertips poised above his damaged forearm, bearing a drop of the glistening ointment.

Dana struggled to free himself, but she gripped him with surprising strength.

“Please,” he said. “Don’t touch me. Just your touch right now would cause me the most excruciating—”

“Not my touch, Dana Anad,” she said and lowered her hand. “Not my touch.”

He flinched with foreboding, then trembled with disbelief. Warmth at the instant her honeyed hand touched his skin. Then soothing folded over his torment, coolness and warmth, mingling, trading sensations, a minted mist that ticked him. Then an absurd unexpected blossoming of pleasure, an ecstasy rising out of his depths, welling up from unexpected places.

And a vision: Tatiana. Jewel. Lady of ladies. So beautiful.

Distrust seized and shook him. He struggled to throw off the blinding pleasure.

But amante wrapped around him like the legs of a lover.

He thought he saw her watching him, assessing his reaction. Too knowing. Too unpleasantly smug.

Then her radiance blossomed again. The odor of peaches wafted from her fingertips. She stood and seemed to float across the room, trailing mist. She was collecting her things, a gossamer shawl that spilled over her shoulders. With a sorrowful look, she flitted to the door.

He realized she was leaving. Fierce longing to keep her near pierced him.

“So we are agreed?” he heard her ask. “You will do as I wish,” he heard her say, not a question now.

Before he could answer, she was gone.

*   *   *

Tatiana lies where the bronchiole spit her out, pale limbs sprawled amid her scarlet silk.

Dana wrests his ankle from the bronchiole’s orifice, tumbling backward over Tatiana when the sucking lips release him with a sudden pop!

She screams with laughter, tussling with him playfully. Then falls back, silent and weak. Grimaces. Her pain is worsening.

She must find her offspring soon.

Dana grinds his teeth, tasting the blood t-burn loosens from his gums. If only he could return to full stasis, he might risk genderizing into masculine strength again.

“Dana my darling,” she whispers. She touches him tenderly, like she used to. But a spasm shakes her and she growls, “Get me up, get me up. Hurry, damn you!”

Dana lurches to his feet, pulls her up.

They set out across Porthandle.

Beneath the steelyn sheath, the world curves down. Out of the dark floor that is the top of the inner sky spring ten billion shafts of light shining out into the void. Monstrous clanging issues from the ports twisting open and shut overhead, revealing the pitch-black of space. Set against that ebony infinity, the defiant jewel-like sheen of sunshuttles, starbarges, needle-slim scoutships.

Wind howls. Sleet batters them. Dana clicks MU’s portable jack onto one of the transport tracks crisscrossing the exosphere like the silk of a spider web. But for MU’s grip, he and Tatiana would be plucked from the top of the world and flung into the void.

Ahead lies the knobby hulk of a dockworkers’ den. Woozy red lights, rowdy shouts. Dana maneuvers them both through the tattered entry. The den is dim, disheveled, strewn with broken glass and pools of brew. Tatiana spins her wings dry, sending the drenching off her in a brisk whir.

The drunken shouts fall silent at the sight of her. A roomful of eyes turns, sporting silver eye-patches, nictitating lids, plastic-fringed robotic lenses.

“Hey! Whaddaya want here?” yells the den-keeper.

“Have you seen this youngster? This man?” Dana holds up the holoids.

The roomful of eyes isn’t friendly. There are no winged folk among them. A snarl rumbles up from a roomful of whiskeyed throats.

“Hey, seen ‘em?” says the denkeeper. “Buddy, I can’t keep them bugs outta here.” He flicks a towel at an imaginary fly on the bar, stares rudely at Tatiana.

Dana lays a hand on her arm, silencing her retort. “Know where they’re bound?”

“Five’ll get you ten, the starbarge leavin’ for the Coldworld V mines.” The denkeeper can’t resist divulging his speculation. “This bug, he says he don’t have no stash, and he wants to skip Nexus, see, him and the bug kid. So I tell ‘im, the barge is takin’ on labor for an X on the dotted line. That’s where they’re bound, ten’ll get you fifteen. Them and the godzilla what’s askin’ about ‘em, too.” The denkeeper leans toward Dana, lowers his voice. “Now beat it, buddy, if ya know what’s good for ya.”

“The godzilla?”

“Yeah. Guy with wings like her and a temper with a shot of gin in him. Twice her size and a face like a broken plate. Smashed the shot glass. Shoved around a couple o’ customers what got in his way. Got some kind o’ blade as long as my arm. One piece o’ steelyn, man.” The denkeeper leers at Tatiana with a crude admixture of blood-lusty awe and animal fear. “I woulda got the cops, ‘cept he says he is one. A cop. Listen, I don’t like bugs, buddy,” he says to Dana. “Understand? So I don’t mind tellin’ ya, get her out o’ here.”

The snarl deepens to a malevolent roar. Tatiana trembles against him.

“Please,” Dana insists. He has to be sure. “He was Triadian? He said he was a cop?

“Yeah yeah yeah. No offense to ya, buddy, but get the hell out. Now.

They dive through the entry, back into the winds of Porthandle.

“Prefect Tule,” Tatiana whispers. “He’s in Porthandle.”

“Yes,” Dana agrees. One step ahead of them, maybe two. Fear shoots up his spine.

He knows that knife, the sweep of it, the sheen of it. The way it shrieks when it dives to flesh. Prefect Tule promised to use it the next time he and Dana meet.

*   *   *

“Are you happy?” she asked as they lay together, amante rising off their flesh. He answered, happy? No, not happy. The word could not contain the well-being she brought him. His pleasure in her knew no bounds. Every part of her enchanted him. And the whole of her was more than lips and waist and hips.

She was entirely, irrevocably female.

She didn’t change.

When she made it clear she wanted him, Dana had swung stud without hesitation.

Swing stud. Those were Lenni’s words. Swing slang. Vulgar.

But Tatiana laughed when the term tumbled from Dana’s mouth. She helped him with the needle. Watched as his jaw lengthened, beard and chest hair sprouted, arms hardened, hips elongated. She smoothed amante on his ache.

Then she returned his kiss.

“What is this great pain damma suffer?” he asked one night. “It might be worth suffering for this.”

He traced silver veins down the celadon flask. Tatiana said that the perfumed drug-lotion couldn’t be obtained anywhere in the living worlds except on Triad, and Triad didn’t offer it for sale. Only a female of Tatiana’s rank, a damma, was permitted to possess amante.

“Nothing is worth that pain,” she said.

Her cold retort silenced him.

In a while she said, “You want to know about our pain?” Her mouth tightened. “It is the whip. The pain that lashes. The pain of separation. When we damma are young, it comes. This whip drives us to find the deux-partner. We seek and seek until we find the one who will join us in Solemn Deux. And then, after deux, it gets worse, this pain of separation. Then we must have the offspring. If we’re fertile and lucky, and the offspring comes, we are blessed with the Triad. We are blessed with the Point of the Triad, by all of Triad. And the pain that would never cease is gone.”

“What happens when the Triad separates?” Dana asked. “Like you and Eddie and Sha!n?”

“Oh, Dana,” she cried, “I can barely face each day.”

So it was cultural, legal, even moral, the integrity of the Triad. But ultimately it was some kind of physical, instinctual drive, Dana concluded, her urgency to find the offspring.

Dana jacked MU into full telespace embodiment and sent MU with his citizen’s surveillance code through the world brain. All import-export information on Nexus was closely regulated. Declining reciprocity with any other world in exchange for a universal neutral status, the cityship was an interworld haven. Obtaining a universal neutral status, the cityship accepted whatever came to it, subject strictly to cityship regulations, but no more.

Such was Nexus’s interworld position, both privileged and vulnerable.

The world brain, its monitors sprouting at every pore, post, and synapse, saw and stored all that transpired on the cityship.

To a Nexus citizen in good standing, with the right code and a properly formatted request, the brain divulged.

MU duly reported that a male Triadian adult and his offspring had arrived on a luxury cruiser. They’d cleared customs and fled into the city.

But Nexus was a small world. The brain routinely supercopied global memory into high-security subconscious storage. For a Nexus citizen with clearance, anything could be traced.

Dana sent MU on a trace.

Pending some development, Dana showed Tatiana around his world.

Everywhere they went, she provoked excited whispers and awed stares. There were few winged folk on the living worlds. The commotion pleased Dana. Since they’d first made love, she’d taken from wearing white to wearing red: vermilion silk, scarlet sequins, capes of wine-colored velvet.

She was zipped into a fiery red leather jumpsuit the evening they’d supped on rare hydroponic beefsteak anemone, then saw a circus of chimeras from Arkan. She was making arrangements at the front desk to pick up her correspondence at her hotel in the morning when Lenni strolled into the lobby of the club.

Lenni. In heels and jewels and a well-cut dress, sultry, sulky, an escort in a tuxedo in tow. The very picture of a woman about town. Lenni genderized so well, Dana wondered if the escort knew this was just an image. Fake. An imitation. An illusion.

Swing.

“Dana, baby!” Lenni cried. The escort glowered. “You look wonderful.” A look Dana knew only too well crept across Lenni’s theatrically made-up face. “Suns, it’s been too long.” Then Lenni noticed Tatiana returning to his side. Scrutinized her red leather, her wings. “Who the hell is this?”

“Excuse us, Lenni,” Dana said coldly. “My friend and I are about to leave.” He directed Tatiana to the cloakroom to retrieve their coats.

Us? There’s only one us, Dana. That’s you and me.”

“You’re wrong. It’s over for us.

“You and me, baby, we’re one of a kind. We’re the exciting thing. Oh, we blow hot and cold with each other, but that’s all right. I love the drama.” Lenni dismissed the escort. “It’s so good to see you again. And each of us genderized as the opposite. Just the way you like it. Everything in duality.”

“No. Nothing is in duality.” Anger burst in Dana’s chest. “Nothing is ever in duality with you. You’ll be wearing a beard before the night is out. You won’t be able to go out for morning coffee in those clothes, not because you wouldn’t dare, but because your body won’t fit.”

“You’re so stuck, baby. I’m only trying to set you free. Help you fully realize yourself. Why can’t you let go? Why can’t you accept the changes as they come?”

“Free?” Dana said. “I don’t want to be free. I want to be real. Solid. Something I know that I am, truly, time and time again. Look, Len. I don’t hate you. I just can’t swing with you anymore.”

“Oh, real, baby? You want to be real? What about her? Think it’s real with her? She’s Triadian, isn’t she?”

Dana swallowed hard. He didn’t like Lenni’s tone. Lenni was an interworld statistician. Lenni knew a lot of strange things.

“Oh, yeah, you don’t want to say, huh?” Lenni pressed close. “Let me tell you, they’re ruthless, baby. I mean, ruthless.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Butcher and eat their own kids, that’s the rumor. I mean, the stories I’ve heard? Triadians?”

Dana shoved Lenni away. “She’s a damma. Some kind of great lady on their world. She has principles, Lenni. Something you wouldn’t understand. She retained me as her counsel in pursuit of a just cause. A family law dispute, as a matter of fact. She’s entirely devoted to me.”

“Devoted. There will never be anyone as devoted to you as me. Yeah, go ahead. Walk away. You wait. Wait and see how devoted your little madam butterfly is. Triadians, they don’t give a damn about anyone or anything but their own kind. You’ll see.”

*   *   *

In the morning, Dana took the tram downtown to the Interworld Court. He was exhausted from Tatiana’s insatiable lovemaking and overwrought from the confrontation with Lenni. Tatiana had insisted he take more testosterone and he had, dreading the ferocious t-burn that would surely follow.

The Court shone before him in the morning light, ten thousand colloidal cells in a glass-and-bone tower housing each judge’s quarters and staff. From each tiny cell, litigants jacked into a computer-constructed telespace vaster in mental perception than ten cityships. An appearance in Interworld Court conferred irrefutable authority.

Dana had prepared Tatiana’s request for an injunction, coding for the confidentiality she insisted upon. But tension gnawed at his nerves, his intuition informing him something was wrong. Sure enough, when he jacked into telespace and logged in the injunction, the judge discovered an oversight.

Tatiana wasn’t technically divorced from Edstuart.

Under interworld law, she was only separated. The Triadian documents she’d given him hadn’t been clear, with a muddled usage of the term “Solemn Deux” and an enigmatic reference to the “Holy Triad.” From all Tatiana had told him, Dana had assumed she was divorced for interworld purposes and coded the injunction accordingly.

The judge refused to proceed until the code was correct. Dana jacked out of link, dashed across the hall with the hearing disk in hand, burst into the office of the Clerk of the Interworld Court to use the inputter.

The door slammed and locked behind him.

The knife sliced his exhalation of surprise.

“Stay away from her, counselor,” said the giant in a voice like cracking glass. Asthmatic breath wheezed from his wrinkled snout. Six huge wings buzz-sawed from his back.

“How dare you threaten me. Clerk!” shouted Dana, circumnavigating the Clerk’s cramped quarters as the giant advanced on him. The knife the giant clutched was as thin as a scalpel, shaped like a crescent moon. It flung shimmers of icy light into Dana’s bewildered eyes.

“Give up the case, counselor. She’s my responsibility and mine alone. I am the Enforcer of the Holy Triad and Its Keeper. Get out of here. Go now. Out the door and be gone.”

“No, I won’t! She came to me for help. Retained me. She’s got a right to interworld counsel under Nexus law, you’ve no right to interfere—”

The crescent cut the air.

“It is you who interfere, outsider. This is a matter of Triadian law. Forbidden to you.”

“I don’t understand,” Dana said reasonably. “The deux-partner has breached their joint custody agreement, under your own law. She just wants the offspring returned to her. Because of the deux-partner’s breach, I intend to counsel her to demand full custody and have the divorce finalized.”

The giant emitted a gargle that must have been laughter. “No, you do not understand, counselor. She can never divorce him. Never separate, not for long. She is the initiator of the Holy Triad, bearer of the Mystery. She is damma. And she has deceived you, if you think otherwise.”

Dana darted forward to the Clerk’s desk, seized the comm at last. “I’m calling the police.”

“I am the police.” The giant flicked the comm out of Dana’s fingers with the tip of the knife. “Prefect Tule of Triad. You will cease and desist, counselor. I insist. Triadian law requires it.”

“You’re on Nexus, now, Prefect Tule,” said Dana, emboldened. A cop? At least the monster wasn’t a common criminal. “As an officer of the law, you ought to know you’re bound by the laws of this cityship. You will cease and desist. And I will report you to the Nexus authorities for attacking a citizen.”

Dana seized a steelyn stylus from the Clerk’s desk, fenced the knife-blade away. At impact, the stylus split apart like a stick of warm butter.

Prefect Tule spat on the floor. “That is what I think of your Nexus law.” He sheathed the knife. “Leave her alone, counselor. You have been notified. You interfere with the Holy Triad in any way, next time you will feel the blade of Triadian law.”

*   *   *

Beneath the tempest of Porthandle, Dana catches a sound. There! And again, closer. A rusty whine from somewhere behind his left shoulder. He strains to see.

Suddenly he feels a touch that won’t let go. The handclasps snake out on a steelyn cord, truss up Dana’s wrists. Swift silver figure-eights pin Tatiana’s frail elbows behind her back.

“Yes sirree, bud-oh,” says the old wachter. “Gotchew now.” A wire rat peeks its purple snout out from under the old wachter’s arm-pit, peers at the captives with jet bead eyes. “Tain’t happy wit chew. Tain’t happy a-tall. I be placin’ chew and der lady under arrest. Back to de skin wit’ ye.” The wire rat leaps to the old wachter’s necktube, capers across its shoulder shelf.

Tatiana writhes against the old wachter’s restraints. Her lips curl back from her tiny pointed teeth. “This is all your fault,” she snaps at Dana. “You’ve failed me. Just like everyone else.”

“Tatiana, please! I’m sorry.”

“Sorry? Do something, Dana Anad. We can’t go back to the skin.”

“I’ve got no strength. The t-burn. I can’t even feel the amante anymore.”

“Take a t-shot!”

“I can’t. It could kill me.”

“And what’s your miserable swing life worth? You’re not a man.”

He knows it’s the pain of separation making her cruel. Still.

“No,” he says, struck to his soul. “I’m not a man. And you’re not a woman, either. Not really. Are you.”

“No,” she says bitterly. Tears pool across her cheeks. “I am damma.”

Pride spurs Dana now. From his bound wrists, he flips MU’s portable jack at the old wachter’s control console. The frontal claw of the portable neatly snatches the old wachter’s main cable.

“Override.” Dana voice-activates MU, splicing the command directly into the old wachter’s settings.

“Eh?” The old wachter pulls up, startled. The wire rat chuckles maliciously at Dana. “Cain’t override. This be Security One. Cain’t override, not even fer ye, bud.”

Dana sighs. “All right. But don’t take us back to the skin. Take us to the docks. To the starbarges. You can do that, can’t you?”

“T’well, t’well. To de docks, den.” The old wachter swivels, then lurches into the roiling fog of Porthandle. The wire rat squeals and plunges through a crack into the old wachter’s abdomen.

“One more thing,” Dana says, trudging after the robot. “Who reconnected your main cable? Who sent you after us?”

“Porthandle tain’t a fit place fer man nor beast, eh bud-oh?” the old wachter says by way of an answer. It chuckles to itself. “No sirree, not man nor beast.”

*   *   *

As Dana had requested, MU traced Edstuart and the offspring through a corrupt vascular monitor in the employ of the Nexus eastside district. Edstuart had resorted to immigration racketeers well known to Nexus atmosphere agents. The racketeers had taken them across town, changing transports in an obvious fashion, to a cheap hotel in the slum known as Atro City.

There, amid fugitives from a thousand worlds, Edstuart and the offspring Sha!n hid.

Dana kicked in the flimsy door, burst into the sour room.

“Edstuart of Triad?” he said. “Tatiana’s offspring Sha!n? By this injunction of the Interworld Court, and my citizen’s power of arrest under Nexus law, I demand you come with me.”

The Triadian turned.

Not the brutish playboy Dana had imagined. Nor the embittered ex-partner Tatiana had described.

Edstuart was a frightened man. As elegant as Tatiana, with slim lavender limbs and six graceful wings, Edstuart was—Dana realized with a hopeless stab of jealousy—the perfect mate for her.

“Please, sir,” Edstuart said, trembling.

From a rumpled cot in the corner, the tiny Triadian Dana had seen only in Tatiana’s holoid blinked sleepily up at him, even more endearing than the holoid had been able to convey. The offspring whispered, “Hadda?” and Edstuart answered, “Shush, shush.”

Sha!n yawned ingenuously, revealing two long canine teeth that arched from tiny upper gums. With the gleam of razors. Curved like crescent moons. The offspring’s teeth flung shimmers of ivory light into Dana’s astonished eyes.

“We cannot go with you, sir,” Edstuart said.

“But she wants to see Sha!n. She wants to see you, too. Do you hate her so much?”

“Hate Tatiana?” Edstuart laughed bitterly. “Who could hate her? She’s magnificent! Haven’t you found her so?”

“Yes,” Dana said and turned away, burning with unexpected shame.

How could he tell this elegant Triadian an androgyne was in love with his beautiful wife?

In love. What did in love mean to a swing? It meant Dana wanted her more than he’d ever wanted anyone, even when he was in stasis. It meant Tatiana shared her heart, her body, her amante. She accepted Dana as a man even though she knew he was a swing.

“Then why?” Dana asked gently. “Why run away like this?’

Edstuart bit his fist. “Don’t you know? Ah, I see. No, of course not. She wouldn’t tell you. She’s a true damma. Keeps our secrets.” Edstuart bit his fist again so hard he drew blood from his delicate lavender skin. He grimaced at the sight of it. “Well, sir, I don’t hate her. I’ve loved her. I suppose I love her still. But I can’t take Sha!n back to her. Not now. You see, she can’t help herself. You don’t know what she will do to him.”

“Tatiana? Do to her offspring?”

“Yes. It’s more terrible than I can say.”

And after all her protestations. My little one, I want my little one back. Her entreaties sounded discordant in Dana’s memory.

The offspring cooed, extending a tiny hand toward cockroaches scuttling down the wall.

“Please put away your injunction, sir,” Edstuart said. “Say you never found us. Say we were already gone.”

Sickened, Dana edged out the door. “What will you do now? Where will you go?”

“I don’t know.” Edstuart laughed ruefully. “We left in a bit of a hurry. I didn’t take much.”

Feeling ludicrous, Dana threw down a couple of Nexus bills he had in his pocket. “I suppose I better tell you. Prefect Tule is here.”

“Prefect Tule!” Edstuart turned pale. He darted to the window, seized the shade, yanked it shut.

“Know him?”

“You—you’re not working with him, are you, sir?”

“Suns, no!”

“He didn’t follow you here?”

“I sincerely hope not.”

“You’re sure? You’re sure? You were careful?”

“Very careful. He told me he’s a police officer. Is that true?”

“Yes, yes.” Edstuart sat down heavily on the cot, folded Sha!n in his arms, stroked the offspring’s downy hair. “And it’s true, I am a criminal. I cannot accept your charity, though I thank you.”

Dana picked up the bills, tucked them firmly in Edstuart’s hand. “What possibly could be your crime? If she abuses—” He could not finish.

“I’ve failed the vows of Solemn Deux. I’ve shunned the Mystery. Run away from the duty of the Holy Triad. I love them both so much. Too much. Whatever else has happened and will happen, Tatiana has never run away. She’s never shirked her duty as damma. Ah!” Edstuart brushed tears from his cheeks. The offspring began to whimper. “If Prefect Tule is on Nexus, then truly the time for the Holy Triad is near. Please go, sir, and grace go with you.”

*   *   *

“Dana! Baby, wait!”

The familiar whiskey-and-smoke voice stopped him when he should have hurried on through the alleys of Atro City.

“If you’re following me, Lenni,” Dana said, “cut it out right now.”

“Following you?” In tweeds, with a pipe and a brass-knobbed cane, a salt-and-pepper goatee. “Hey, I love Atro City on a free afternoon, what a surprise,” said Lenni. “Say, Dana, you look like you’ve just seen a ghost. Come here. Sit a minute with me.”

Lenni propelled him to a door stoop. Made Dana sit, unbuttoned Dana’s collar, fussed over him. Fingers through his hair.

Dana sighed. “Thanks, Len.”

“Well, baby. You don’t look so good today.”

“And you look great. I don’t know how you do it.”

“Oh, hell. You do it great, yourself. Don’t kid me.”

“Nope. Swinging isn’t real. It isn’t real for me. Don’t you see?”

“Yeah, I do see. I see you’ve swung stud for weeks now. Weeks and weeks. To please her.”

“What’s it to you?”

“It’s not good for you, baby. With your allergies? You should know better. Getting t-burned, big time?”

“No. Hey, Len, tell me you’re not following me.”

A troupe of chrome-clad gravity dancers who used Arkanian microboosters to defy the local g-force stopped before them, commenced a rollicking kick-and-float routine.

Lenni tossed currency-chips into the scarlet helmet that bobbed before them. “You worry me. You’re getting too wrapped up in the daily grind. You’re working too hard.”

“Because I could be getting in a bad tangle,” persisted Dana. He hated how Lenni always evaded a direct answer to a simple question. “You get in the way, you could get hurt, and not by me.” He met Lenni’s eyes. “I don’t want that.”

A gravity dancer pranced up an invisible one-story stairwell and executed a perfect swan dive off the invisible edge, swooping up from the concrete within millimeters of impact.

Lenni tossed her another currency-chip, then scowled at the troupe, who somersaulted away, cheering and hooting. “It’s your little madam butterfly, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah. So I looked up some stats on this world of hers. Want to hear?”

“No, but you’re going to tell me anyway, so get on with it.”

“Don’t be so stubborn, I’m trying to help. Now, listen. Triad’s big, equatorial radius of seventy-five thousand klics. The twelve billion natives aren’t pressed for space like a dozen other worlds I could mention. Very healthy planetary profile. They’ve still got frontiers, habitable areas not yet cultivated. The population enjoys a growth rate of 105 percent. They want to increase that rate, with so much available niche. Boost the citizenry.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“Sure. But the demographics puzzled me. Stats show a young adult population of some seven billion. They should be paired off. But they’re not. Oh, I don’t mean permanent pair bonding. You don’t have to have that with 105 percent growth. Although in a frontier society with a stable homebase infrastructure, you tend to see restrictive institutions regulating reproductive functions. You following me?”

“I think so.”

“But we’ve observed no generalized pair-bonding on Triad. At all.”

“Wrong,” Dana said. “What about Tatiana and Edstuart?”

“I said generalized. The population at large is productive, industrious, specialized, inventive. And, to all appearances, neuter. Can you beat that! What a kick in the ass for the likes of you and me!”

“Don’t tempt me to kick you in the ass right now.”

“Bring it on, baby.”

And they were laughing and play-punching each other just like in old times. Till Dana sobered up, sunk back into the seriousness of this puzzling case.

Of Tatiana.

“Okay,” Lenni said, straightening his cravat, “so how to account for a population growth of 105 percent? How to account for your little madam butterfly? Here’s my best guess, since it’s true, they’re very secretive. A small class of Triadians is charged with the reproductive function. I suspect this elite has specialized biological equipment. And they enter into highly regulated reproductive unions.”

“Solemn Deux.”

“You got it. Oh, it’s hush-hush. Members of the reproductive class are of vital importance to the species. But how do they do it? What do they do? Nobody’s talking. High state secret, with religious rhetoric thrown in to keep the outsiders mystified.”

“Tatiana and Edstuart have an offspring, Lenni,” Dana said wearily.

She never had referred to Sha!n as a child. Neither had Edstuart.

“Fine, all right! But that isn’t even zero population growth.” Lenni took on the insistent tone Dana disliked. “The government protects this elite. Honors them. Indulges them. Allows them privileges. You should hear the rumors. Orgies, exotic food, intoxicating drink, aphrodisiacal spices. Amante.

Amante isn’t an aphrodisiac, Lenni. It’s an anesthetic.”

“An anesthetic!” Lenni howled with laughter. “Baby, the stories I’ve heard. Amante?

“An anesthetic lotion,” said Dana, flushing. Kindled with the quick anger of finding out what should have been obvious, and from someone else. Tatiana’s explanations tasted ashy. “Used for medicinal purposes,” he continued, though he sounded lame even to himself. “To ease a certain pain the damma must endure.”

Lenni looked at him. “Oh, my suns. She gave it to you? You’ve tried it?”

“Yes! As a matter of fact, I have.”

Lenni’s gray eyes bored into him. “She’s really gotten to you, hasn’t she.”

“It’s not your business.”

“Yeah, it’s my business. I love you, Dana. You and your fucking real. She’s not what you think, don’t you see? She’s, oh hell, she’s a queen bee. Dedicated to the propagation of her species. There’s no dropping out for her. I’m talking strict behavior modification, baby. She wears a cybernetic centipede, doesn’t she? She’s a lifer.”

Dana’s heart constricted and dropped out of him like a brick striking the concrete, breaking apart in a million pieces. “Is this why you took all the trouble, Len?” He jumped up off the door stoop. “To prove I’m a fool?”

“To prove you can’t think of her as a woman.” Lenni rose unsteadily. “Queen bees, they rip the guts out of their lovers. She’s something else, Dana. Something you can’t conceive of even in a swing’s notion of gender. Something you can’t apply your concepts of family law to. Something you can’t love.

“I don’t want to hear this. Of course she’s got obligations to her offspring and her people. She’s always been frank about that. But don’t tell me I can’t love her. It is real, what’s between us. Tatiana is a great lady. A damma.”

Dana stalked away.

“Yeah, she’s a damma,” Lenni yelled after him. “Closest translation: mother with egg.”

*   *   *

Pale limbs on the red satin dress she shed across the bed. Wings arching up, beating, lifting her in amorous hover and swoop. Tender fingers guided the needle for Dana. She stroked his burgeoning genderization as if she’d invented Man herself.

“Excuse me, Dana Anad,” interrupted MU from the bedroom’s speaker. “That is the last t-shot you’re going to be able to handle.”

Tatiana laughed. She took the flask of amante from between her breasts, uncapped it, scooped up a dewdrop. “I’ll take care of him, MU.”

“The last t-shot for quite a long while,” MU persisted. “You’re going to burn.

Honey and haze flowed over Dana again. He could think of nothing else but her again.

He struggled against the pull of pleasure. He sat up, seized Tatiana’s slender hand. Examined the sapphire-blue spikes of the cybernetic centipede, whose head wriggled deeper into her palm. He cut his finger on the centipede’s razor-edged neckridge. A drop of his blood slid down the crescent moon.

“My darling Tatiana.” He drew a deep breath. “Amante isn’t just an anesthetic, is it? And you found out I was a swing before you came to me, didn’t you? So you knew I had pain. Worse, you knew that I was vulnerable. Yeah, a sophisticated entity would know all about swings, and you’re nothing if not sophisticated. And your affair with me? Has it been a pleasant interlude before you go back to Edstuart? I hope it’s been pleasant. Because you can never divorce him. You can never leave Solemn Deux.” He threw down her hand. “What I don’t understand is why you had to make me love you. I would have found Edstuart and the offspring for you anyway. Your credits would have been good enough. It’s just a job. Why have you done this to me? Why?”

Sorrowfully she arose from the bed, then glanced at him with glittering eyes. “You mean you’ve found them?”

“Of course. MU is the best. Is it because you didn’t know what I’d do when Edstuart told me about you, if you hadn’t secured my loyalty?” Dana wiped the smear of amante off his arm. “So. Am I addicted to this crap? Just what is amante, Tatiana? You tell me.”

“You’re not addicted,” she said hastily. “You’re not Triadian. What did that bastard Eddie tell you?”

“That you’ll do something terrible to Sha!n. I can only assume he means you’ll abuse the offspring. Did you know there’s a rumor Triadians butcher and eat their progeny? Is that why Edstuart took Sha!n and ran away from you, even though it means he’s broken the vows of your precious Solemn Deux?”

“Abuse! Butcher and eat my Sha!n? Oh, I would never do such a thing. Sha!n is the precious one, the Point of the Triad. Eddie is such a coward. Don’t be a fool, Dana! And don’t look at me like that. Your ghastly rumor is pathetic. I would never harm Sha!n, you must believe me.”

“Believe you? You have me code your injunction incorrectly in front of an Interworld judge. Prefect Tule says you’ve deceived me. Lenni, too. Your deux-partner is terrified of you. You’ve done nothing to make me believe you. You’ve done nothing but make love to me, damma of Triad. But that’s your function, isn’t it? Temple whore?”

“I see. Then I need not try to convince you that I really do care for you, counselor of Nexus.”

“That’s right.”

But Dana did want her to try.

“Very well.” She pulled on the red satin dress. “And,” that sideways glance, “you’ve spoken with Prefect Tule?”

“Yes. Are you also a criminal on Triad?”

“I suppose I am. I’ve come too close to revealing the Mystery of the Triad, dear counselor. By coming to you for help. When did you see him?”

“At Interworld Court, before the hearing.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Our introduction was not exactly amicable. He demanded I drop the case. Leave you alone, abandon you. And I. I didn’t want to do that. I thought I was defending your interworld right to neutral counsel.”

“I see, I see. Then truly the time for Holy Triad is near.”

She grew suddenly distracted, withdrawn, pale.

Despite his anger, Dana came to her side and held her.

“Edstuart said that, too. ‘The time is near.’ Tatiana, what is the Holy Triad?”

“It is my duty as damma. Only I can initiate it. Oh, I’m sorry if I’ve wronged you, my sweet Dana. That bungler, Tule.” Her face twisted with contempt. Her voice was harsh. “Tule failed me. He was supposed to enforce our custody agreement. He is the Keeper, you see. He should never have allowed Eddie to get this far. I deny blame for resorting to outsiders.” She turned to him with the shimmering look that always pierced him. “But not you, Dana. You’ve never failed me. You must not fail me now.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“You know how to contact Eddie?”

“Yes.”

“Contact him now. Let me speak to him. Maybe we can come to terms.”

MU placed the connection, returned with the response at once. “They’ve gone.”

“Of course!” cried Tatiana. “He knows the Prefect is here? Oh, of course he’ll flee. We’ve got to find them. Please, Dana! They’re leaving Nexus, I know it. How could they get offworld without attracting notice of the world brain?”

Dana said, “They’ll go to Porthandle.”

*   *   *

Porthandle crashes around Dana like a planetary sea. Sleet beats down. A thousand stratospheric voices shout, pressure exploding against pressure. Then abrupt, eerie silence until the living world gasps for breath again.

The old wachter basks in the sensation Tatiana has created. Maybe it deserves some glory. It brought them to the right place.

Lashed to the launch pad, the great silver whale of the starbarge awaits departure. Oscillating green and purple lights ring the loading dock. Plumes of mist twist up.

Grizzled dockworkers stare at them. Indentured laborers make lewd noises. News reporters crowd around, flashing cameras and recorders.

The old wachter beams and preens. The hero who captured the Triadian, an illegal alien once she attempted unauthorized exit from Nexus by tres- passing through the skin.

“In a bronchiole?” exclaim the reporters, furrowing their faces. “During open port?”

But, after all, bronchioles have been used for quick exits before. It’s not such a scandal, Dana thinks, as the hoopla would warrant. Except for Tatiana, the beautiful winged lady. Triadian damma. Butcher of her progeny, the rumor says.

Then Dana glimpses the one who has followed them, the one who has dogged their path and harassed them all this time. Patting the old wachter’s backplate, chucking the wire rat under its scruffy chin.

Lenni. In a dockworker’s jumpsuit, almost frail in stasis, with a pale earnest face. Talking it up with the reporters. Saying who knows what about Tatiana.

Damn you, Lenni, Dana wants to shout. But the shout sticks in his throat. The sour lump on his tongue slides down to his tonsils. He can barely swallow now.

You’re going to burn, MU said.

Exhausted, defeated, aching with serious t-burn, Dana doesn’t know if he can stand himself for another minute, much less another tomorrow. And all because of her.

Tatiana.

She kneels in misery. Her chest rattles as if her lungs are crumbling. Sweat slicks the lavender curves of her cheekbones, running in rivulets down her neck. The cybernetic centipede ripples wildly around her finger, sapphire fur clacking. Its bloody head rears and wallows in the palm of her hand. The crescent moon of its neckridge slashes her hand.

Only her wings still arch magnificently above her tiny, crumpled body.

The pain of separation. How could Dana have doubted her?

Lenni was wrong. Whatever else it does, amante is an anesthetic. For the unspeakable pain of the damma of Triad, yes, intended for that. But whatever else she felt or did not feel for Dana, Tatiana had pitied his pain.

The shimmering slanting eyes glance up at him, filled with that piercing look he thought he knew. Then dart away, toward some distant vision.

Prefect Tule.

The monstrous Triadian stands before the dock of the starbarge, brandishing the gleaming crescent moon of his knife. The arrogance of him, the flagrant disregard for interworld law. The terror he strikes in these frail elegant people, his own people, to whom he bears so little resemblance.

Dana despises him.

“Tatiana,” Prefect Tule intones. “The Time is at hand. We cannot wait to veil the Mystery from these outsiders’ eyes. You must do it now. You must initiate the Triad.”

Tatiana gasps. Then, amazingly, stands up, stands tall. An unknown strength visibly tightens her. She brushes sweat and tears from her cheeks with a slender hand.

“How dare you address me so,” she says regally.

“My pardon, Damma. But your duty.”

“I will remind you of your duty, Prefect. Do it, and leave these outsiders alone. I command you not to harm them. Dana,” she says, “tell the wachter to release me.”

MU’s portable jack does its work. The override finally kicks in as the old wachter fields questions from the gathering crowd.

The steelyn cords fall away.

She rubs the circulation back into her arms, finds her celadon flask, pours out the last drops, slathers amante over her throat and breasts.

Then she takes Dana’s shoulders.

“Dana Anad,” she says. “In my pain before, I spoke nonsense. I meant nothing. Do you forgive me?”

He has no answer.

“Please forgive me.” She loosens his own steelyn bonds. “No, you’re not a man. Not a man or a woman, but always my Dana. Find your balance and harmony, my love. Between good and evil lies objectivity. Between light and dark rises the dawn. Between male and female stands Dana, the Loyal One. When everything else changes, the one I will love forever. This is real. This is the truth. Yes?”

Dana sees Edstuart and the offspring at the far side of the dock, huddled together.

“But my Dana,” Taitiana says, “there is another kind of love. Mother love.”

Edstuart is rubbing the offspring’s head, murmuring baby talk. He looks up, sees Dana, and from across the distance, Dana looks into the Triadian’s eyes. In those eyes once filled with bafflement and sorrow, Dana sees terror. Bright brittle terror.

“Don’t go to them,” says Dana, filled with dread.

Sha!n sees her.

“Damma!” A weird shriek issues from the tiny gleaming mouth.

Dana tries to restrain her, but she breaks away.

She runs to the offspring, takes Sha!n into her arms. Their wings buzz joyfully around them, forming a chatoyant halo.

Tatiana rips her bodice down, gives her breast to the offspring.

Sha!n suckles.

At the taste of her, its eyes bulge and its babyish cheeks turn hard. It sinks its long, curved teeth into her. The crescent moons flash, tearing open her chest.

Dana runs to her, but Prefect Tule kicks him aside.

The Prefect advances on Edstuart. Edstuart kneels, trembling violently. At the sight and smell of Sha!n assault, his skin hardens, cracks, splits open like a molting dragonfly. The Prefect swings the knife down Edstuart’s back, hastening that which has begun.

Edstuart in a trance, body split and oozing, stumbles toward Tatiana and Sha!n. He embraces the bloodied couple, then tenderly bites Sha!n’s head off. Blood gushes from the tiny, quivering neck. Tatiana, still moving somehow, reaches around Edstuart’s waist, grips one flap of his split back, pulls the flesh free of his spine.

The three bodies entwine, disintegrate, merge.

Unite.

The gore speedily coagulates, transmutes, forming a blood-slick veined globe of rippling flesh, over which a thick white skin begins to grow.

“The Holy Triad!” cries Prefect Tule. “The World Egg!”

Dana crumples to the pavement, hand at his throat.

“Dana, baby.” Lenni comes and holds him. “Listen to me. They’re only larvae, swarm-born.”

“Outsider!” Prefect Tule shouts. “Do not denigrate what you do not understand. They are the Chosen of Triad. They sacrifice their puny privileged lives to the World Egg. From this a million new citizens will spring. It is glorious!”

“Please listen,” Lenni says, stroking Dana’s cheek. “Terran bees, ants and termites, certain flies do this. The fertile ones, the reproductive elite of the swarm, produce the offspring that, when ripened, acts as the catalyst. When the time is right, the mother host yields royal nectar. The catalytic agent is stimulated, consumes the mother host, and the male partner completes the synthesis, sacrificing the nutrients of his body. Their union produces that. It’s a pupa, containing genetic material for another swarm. Without the pupa, and the few who must create it, their race would die.”

“Outsiders!” Prefect Tule charges at them, swinging the crescent knife. “See how you try to interfere! Look at your repugnance! You should not have witnessed the great Mystery. No outsider has ever seen the Holy Triad. This is Sacrilege! You must die!”

With a swagger and a sneer, Lenni confronts the bloody edge of the remorseless knife. “Leave us alone, you ugly bastard. Your Damma commanded you.”

The Prefect sheathes the knife. “You are correct,” he concedes. “But begone, outsiders. You’ve seen enough. This is a matter for the Keeper of the Triad now.”

The World Egg rolls fitfully. Odd extrusions thrust here and there through the moist, pale skin.

Prefect Tule fashions a hexagonal box, spitting wax from his mouth. Next he fills the box with dark purple jelly he spurts from an organ in his lower torso. With his huge long forearms, he carefully, laboriously lifts the fitful World Egg and deposits it inside, sealing the box with more wax.

“What about Tatiana?” Dana whispers. “What about her? What about her pain?”

“She has no more pain,” says Prefect Tule. “She has fulfilled her destiny.”

“Come on, Dana,” says Lenni. “Come home with me, baby.”

Dana looks at Lenni, and he sees a face that is neither male nor female, but human. Always human. A face filled with compassion and love. A beautiful face. He takes Lenni’s hand and together they walk down into the dawn.

Afterword: I’m a fan of Ursula K. Le Guin, the late eminent feminist science fiction author.

Of her many books, The Left Hand of Darkness is perhaps my favorite. It features a hero who periodically “goes into heat,” becoming a woman.

When Robert Silverberg announced that he was accepting stories for the Universe 2 anthology in 1992, I was eager to write my own gender-bending story.

If you enjoyed this story, please leave a tip in the tip jar at http://paypal.me/lisamasonthewriter

“Triad” is in Strange Ladies: 7 Stories (“A must-read collection—The San Francisco Review of Books). On Nook, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle world wide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. NOW IN PRINT at https://www.amazon.com/Strange-Ladies-Stories-Lisa-Mason/dp/1981104380/

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CHROME.MED.295.KB

CHROME
Lisa Mason
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright 2019 by Lisa Mason.
Cover, colophon, and art copyright 2019 by Tom Robinson.
All rights reserved.
PUBLISHING HISTORY
Bast Books Ebook Edition published July 9, 2019.
Bast Books Print Edition published August 13, 2019.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval, without permission in writing from the publisher.
For information address:
Bast Books
Bastbooks@aol.com
Thank you for your readership! Visit Lisa Mason at her Official Web Site for her books, ebooks, screenplays, stories, interviews, blogs, cute pet pictures, and more. Enjoy!
Praise for CHROME
“An excellent semi-noir full-on SF work by a terrific author. . . .a science-fiction homage, in part, to the noir books and movies of the forties and fifties, only brought forth into a future time a quarter-millennium from now. . .  a fully-realized society.”
—Amazing Stories.com
“So Walter Mosley reread Animal Farm and The Island of Dr. Moreau and says to himself, “Oh, yes indeed, I’ve got a terrific idea for my next best seller.” But! Lisa says, “Hold on, hot stuff. You’re too late. Chrome is already on the streets. Haha!
Wow! I just tore through Chrome. So much fun. Oh, I guess I should take a time-out to say that it was very well-written too, but I was enjoying the characters and the story so much that the superb writing simply did its job and I had to consciously reflect to notice the excellent and clever construction and reveals. Isn’t that the definition of good writing?”
—Reader Review
June 2020 Excerpt:
12
Hades
Descending at high speed from the fiftieth story of the Ucayali Building to the marble lobby, Luna Lightfoot stands two steps away from the infamous Dom Swifty Panterr.
He stares straight ahead at their reflections in the mirror of the elevator cab, his golden eyes hunter-cold. Growls softly to himself.
She smiles. This is as close to puma heaven as Lightfoot has been in a long time.
They log out at the front desk, step into the night-time throng on Seventh Avenue. She matches Panterr’s long stride, and passersby turn to gawk at them. Predator Blends with grudging admiration. Prey Blends with primal fear.
Panterr’s bodyguards trail at a distance. No one would mistake the steely-eyed lynx with their unfiled fangs and illegal pistols bulging in their jacket pockets as unaffiliated pedestrians strolling idly behind them.
“Don’t we make a glamorous power couple,” she jokes.
“In your dreams, Lightfoot,” he snaps. All trace of his ironic banter gone.
Oh, fine. She knows very well Panterr isn’t the kind of manimal who mates for life or even for very long. But it’s more than that. From his scowl she can tell he’s disturbed by her story. Maybe worried about what they’ll find at Hades. A nocturnal foray to Chrome City’s new morgue and crematory, both of them dressed in fancy evening clothes, cannot be his idea of an entertaining evening out on the town.
They turn east toward the Recycling and Reclamation District. The foulest place within Chrome City’s municipal limits. Lightfoot wrinkles her nose as they stalk past a recycling center reeking of garbage, waste products, and the chemicals used to sanitize everything. Through a wall of glass, she spies the squat figures, spindly arms, and bulbous eyes of insect Blends staffing the dimly lit center. Particularly pitiable heirs to Emirk’s experiments long ago, they are nothing if not efficient. They don’t require a lot of light as they scurry back and forth on their loathsome tasks. Like Lightfoot, they’ve got excellent vision when the sun doesn’t shine.
Two dung beetles in olive-drab dungarees squat on the curb outside, smoking illegal cigarettes. Conversing in low, scratchy whispers.
She and Panterr walk past an electric-battery-and-hydrogen-fuel-cell emporium with its own specialized recycling operation, plus a repair shop. The huge neon-lit window showcases a dozen tiny candy-colored hydrocars poised on jacks awaiting work in the morning. Beaver mechanics will get the job done with their long, strong fingers and thick, hairy hides stained by grain motor oil.
Lightfoot shrugs. She’s never owned a hydrocar. Between the trams with routes encircling the planetoid, an occasional taxi, and her own two limber legs, she has no need for such a rare and costly possession. She’s content without a hydrocar.
“This way,” Panterr growls. Strides down a dark, mean-looking alley toward a warehouse.
Lightfoot sniffs, her discerning olfactory sense identifying the smoky stink of burning flesh. As if she needs further proof, a metal sign riddled with bullet holes identifies the place:
Chrome City Morgue and Crematory
“Hades?” she whispers.
“Hades,” Panterr snaps.
“Chromians use the sign for target practice?”
“Yeah.” He turns to her with a mirthless grin, baring the full curve of his fangs. A Feralist, after all. “I used the sign for target practice myself,” he says, “after a wolf pack tore out my father’s throat and I took his corpse here for cremation. Made me feel a little better to plug some holes in a sheet of cheap steel.”
“Oh.” Startled by his revelation, she starts to murmur sympathies. Then bites back her words. Panterr wants no sympathy. She files his father’s murder in her memory for further use.
Two Chrome City Coroner’s vans crowd the alley, plus a private limousine. A busy night for death on our planetoid, Lightfoot thinks unhappily. Panterr pushes open the double doors of smeary glass and strides inside. He doesn’t hold the doors open for her, and they slap back in her face. She pushes through them herself, doesn’t hold the doors open for the bodyguards, either, and they slap shut behind her. Take that.
Morgue staffers in gray-and-white uniforms stride around the overly bright autopsy room. Checking bare feet for tattooed social numbers. Scribbling on notepads. Loading corpses onto autopsy tables or unloading them. Some staffers shove corpses into the lime-green drawers lining the walls or pluck them out.
The staffers—from their knobby bald heads, mottled red double chins, smallish clawlike hands in blue latex gloves, and shuffling gait—are a raptorial Blend.
Vultures.
Lightfoot shivers. She likes accipitridae families even less than chiroptera. But the shiver is more than her distaste for scavenger birds. The morgue is as cold as an ice box. After the sultry spring night, she has to wrap her arms around her ribs. She’s a hot blood. Her metabolism may run fast, but she hates the cold.
A couple of dog cops mingle in the crowd, woofing intently with a staffer. A bearded barn owl holding a faux-snakeskin physician’s bag peers at the corpse of an antelope man sprawled on a dissection table.
Lightfoot takes a sharp breath, steadies her nerves. An unexpected thrill pierces her at the sight of the antelope. A forbidden thrill.
Prey.
Panterr strides among the staffers, heads off to a chamber deeper within the warehouse. Lightfoot follows. Another sign points the way: Crematory.
The crematory is swelteringly hot and arid as a desert. That’s better. Lightfoot’s shivering eases, but not completely. The place is too creepy. More vultures yank open huge steel doors, revealing the leaping flames of Hades. Slide naked corpses on numbered pallets into the ovens.
Is this the way failed experimental subjects were disposed of by Emirk Corporation centuries ago? Lightfoot wonders.
But these aren’t experimental subjects. These are Chromians who have lived out their lives and died.
A little vulture woman hunches over an antique keyboard with a piece of paper threaded around a rubber roll, a ribbon of inked cloth scrolling through a platen. When she taps the keys, steel arms tipped with letters, numbers, and symbols strike the inked cloth, leaving impressions on the paper. The staffer laboriously taps information onto a printed form.
Lightfoot peeks over the vulture’s shoulder. ID (name, social number, Blend), date of birth, date of death, cause of death, time of cremation, next of kin, and so on. The morgue must not have much of a budget, making do with such primitive equipment.
Lightfoot’s acquisitive streak kicks up its heels. An antique typewriter, ooh. She glances around. Is it nailed down?
“Who’s in charge here?” Panterr roars, startling the staff half out of their wits.
That’s a good place to start, the supervisor. But if skullduggery is going down, the supervisor may not have a clue. Or may be the first one in on the take. Lightfoot holds her tongue and allows the criminal kingpin to conduct his investigation the way he wants to.
A tall vulture shuffles forward, the high dome of his bald head wreathed with wispy black hair. Wire-rim spectacles planted on his long, narrow nose. He whips the spectacles off. Hostility gleams in his beady yellow eyes. Charming. Though he is kind of virile, Lightfoot notes, looking him over. Lean. Buff biceps. For a vulture.
“I call the shots for this shift.”
Panterr seizes the vulture’s arm, yanks him aside. “Your name?”
Lightfoot joins the party. Watching. Sniffing. Listening.
“Vinnie Gorge. And a pleasant evening to you, too, Dom Panterr.”
“You know who I am?”
“Only from what I see on the Instrumentality.”
“Stay informed, Vinnie Gorge, and listen up. It has come to my attention tonight that a scam is going down at Hades. A scam connected with the Kinski murder. I want a piece of it.”
Lightfoot stares. Is Panterr serious? Is he bluffing? She reserves judgment. A criminal like Panterr is always on the take. Always looking for an opportunity. She could learn a thing or two from this manimal.
“You don’t want no piece of this lousy business, Dom Panterr.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
The little vulture pushes back from her typewriter, trots up to them. “Hey, Gorge. Got another one of them presto jobs. Same instructions. Burn all of it as soon as possible.” She consults a notepad. “Pallet seventy-six.” Narrows her eyes at Lightfoot and company, suddenly realizing they don’t belong here. Maybe realizing she’s just said something she shouldn’t.
“Thanks, Cathae,” Gorge says, shooting a warning look. She shrugs and shuffles off.
“Want me to take a peek at pallet seventy-six, Dom Panterr?” Lightfoot mutters.
“No, stick around. That stiff’s not going anywhere until we take it.” At Gorge’s sputtered protest, Panterr points out, “The puma lady is my street muscle. Gets her thrills out of hunting birds for sport.” He nods at his lynx bodyguards. “Same for them. So lay it out, Gorge.”
Vinnie Gorge widens his eyes at Lightfoot and the bodyguards. “Ain’t nothin’ to lay out. Guy comes in with a body bag. Pays extra to skip the standard ID and autopsy and a bit extra more to move the body to the head of the line bound for the fire. That’s it. That’s all. The bit extra ain’t worth your time, Dom Panterr.”
Panterr’s predator’s eyes just about burn two holes through the vulture’s long, narrow face. “I don’t think that’s all.”
“But I’m tellin’ ya—”
“Don’t make me repeat myself. Is the coroner’s office in on it?”
“Nah, they don’t know nothin’.”
“What are they? Who are they? Murder victims? A species gang war? You see, Vinnie Gorge,” Panterr says reasonably as he shoves the vulture against the wall and seizes his scrawny neck. “I need to know what my competition is up to. Maybe I can learn something new and different.”
Lightfoot grins. She could definitely learn something new and different from Swifty Panterr.
“How should I know if they was murdered?” Gorge squawks, fear boiling in his yellow eyes. “The coroner never gets a gander. Part of the deal.”
“Who set it up? When?”
“Three, four months ago, this guy comes in—”
“What guy?”
“He don’t exactly tell me his name,” Gorge says sarcastically. Which is either terribly brave or terribly foolish with Panterr’s massive hand gripping his neck.
“What kind of Blend?” Panterr says.
“Beats me,” Gorge says. His sallow cheeks flush. “I can never tell somebody’s Blend. Especially if they’re of a different species, y’know?”
Lightfoot and Panterr trade looks. He’s lying.
“So he comes in that night with a stiff in a body bag. Brings it back to the ovens. Nobody out front gets in his way. Maybe them chemicals make ‘em soft in the head.” Gorge adds, “He’s wearin’ a cap and a suit jacket.”
“Like a chauffeur?” Lightfoot chimes in. “Like the driver of a limousine?”
“Yeah, maybe.”
Panterr bares his fangs. “And then what happened? Don’t keep me in suspense.”
“We talk. His terms sound okay, I say sure. Just doin’ my job like I always do.”
“Cathae said ‘burn all of it,’” Lightfoot says. “Hades doesn’t ever cremate less than a whole corpse. What is ‘all of it’?”
Panterr gives her a heart-stopping glance. Looks at the vulture. “Answer the puma lady.”
Gorge swallows hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his bony throat. “Stiff always comes sealed up in a body bag. Guy’s orders are don’t open nothin’. Burn everything, bag included.” He sniffs self-righteously. “The bit extra pays for that, too. All the other stiffs go into the fire in their birthday suits. No clothing, no shoes. For sure, no body bag. That would create extra smoke and air pollution. I gotta file a monthly report with the Bureau of Atmospheric Quality and Control about our emissions, y’know.”
“We sure don’t need air pollution on Chrome with our synthy cloud cover,” Lightfoot says. “That’s why cigarettes are illegal.”
“You can say that again,” Vinnie Gorge says and coughs. That tell-tale little hack of a longtime smoker.
“Does Cathae get something extra, too?” Lightfoot says.
“She gets a small remuneration for cooperatin’,” Gorge says. “I do all the dirty work. This is my racket.”
Lightfoot goes for it. “So you got curious after thirty, forty sealed bags showed up? I know I would. You opened one of the bags and saw something odd in there. A venom job, maybe?”
Panterr slants her a glance. Annoyed with her for butting in or pleased with her brilliance? She’s hoping for brilliance, but can’t tell.
“I ain’t no doctor.”
Panterr bangs the vulture’s head against the concrete wall. “Talk, Vinnie Gorge, and I’ll think about ordering my bodyguards not to follow you home after your shift ends tonight.”
“I’m tellin’ ya, I don’t know what freakin’ killed ‘em!”
“Fair enough,” Lightfoot says, playing good puma to Panterr’s bad. “So you decided to collect more than a bit extra on account of what you saw.”
“Somethin’ like that.”
Panterr jumps in. “How did Zena Kinski get involved?”
“I mentioned it to her one morning,” Gorge says.
“While you were in bed,” Panterr finishes for him.
“Zena Kinski in bed with the likes of you?” Lightfoot says.
She shoots an admiring look at Panterr. Nearly swoons to see he’s gazing back at her. We make a good team and a glamorous power couple, she wants to say. But doesn’t. Pumas don’t travel in prides or form couples. He’s a loner. She’s a loner. They’re both Feralists. That’s the way of their ancestral beast.
But Lightfoot suddenly finds herself holding onto hope. They’re Blends, not beasts. They’re half human.
“Sure, why not,” Gorge says. “We’re both avians. I’m a huge fan.” He frowns, his face drooping with sorrow. “Was a huge fan. I showed up at the stage door for an autographed picture. We became Blend-friends, and more. I make steady money. She was always worried about ending her career on the stage. She needed a bodyguard. I was happy to help her out.” He sniffs. Looks up at them fiercely. “Help her out in every way.”
Lightfoot nods. “What’s the account issuing the credits? Whose name is on the account and how did you set it up with the payor?”
“That’s enough,” Panterr snarls at her. “I’m handling this.” He glares at Vinnie Gorge. “Where, like the puma lady asked, do the credits originate and from whom?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t know.”
Panterr pulls the vulture away from the wall. Slams him back so brutally, his head bangs against the concrete hard enough to draw blood and raise a bruise. “Think carefully, Vinnie Gorge. Think fast.”
“That was Zena’s thing! I told her about the deliveries, she did some research. Got a bead on the guy giving orders, I don’t know how. Honest,” the vulture adds, a dishonest sheen to his beady yellow eyes. “With them body bags comin’ in every night, I didn’t want to know.”
“And the credits?” Lightfoot says, butting in again. She doesn’t take orders from Panterr.
“They’re free-trade credits, what else? Streamed through a triple-blind account. Generic. Code-free. Transferable by the holder, any holder, to any recipient.”
Panterr listens, head cocked to one side. His thick, pink tongue flicks over his lips. Bet he’d like to get his paws on more of that kind of currency. So would Lightfoot.
“I didn’t ask no questions,” Gorge says with a shrug of his pointy shoulders in a feeble attempt to pull free of Panterr’s grip. “I deposit the bit extra in my account. The big pay-off, that was up to Zena.” The vulture hangs his knobby head. A greasy brown tear leaks from his eye. “I would never have let her meet him all by herself if I’d known how dangerous the guy was. Cripes, I miss her.”
Lightfoot turns to go. Their business here is finished. She can’t wait to escape the charred stench filling her nostrils.
“That’s not good enough, Gorge,” Panterr says, showing no sign of leaving.
“That’s all I got, Dom Panterr.”
The little vulture woman shuffles over. “We’re ready to go on seventy-six,” Cathae squawks. Aims her yellow glare at Lightfoot and Panterr. “I need you to sign off, Gorge.”
“That’s not all you’ve got, Vinnie Gorge,” Panterr hisses.
“I swear!”
“Actually, I do believe he’s got nothing more. Other than another suspicious body bag on pallet seventy-six. Which we need to take,” Lightfoot says. “Right, Dom Panterr?”
“Very well.” He releases Gorge.
The vulture slumps to the floor on his knobby knees, gagging and rubbing his neck.
“Luke, go collect the bag. Danny, wink a cab,” Panterr tells his bodyguards. “And wink Doc Caduceus. Tell him we’re coming over to his office. With a patient.”
“A patient, Dom Panterr?” the lynx bodyguard growls.
“A patient who requires his immediate attention,” Panterr says in his ironic way.
“We?” Lightfoot says. “Does that include me, Dom Panterr?”
“Yeah, I want you along, Lightfoot. Another pair of puma eyes.” Panterr kicks Vinnie Gorge out of his way. Stalks out of the crematory.
Lightfoot smiles slyly. Progress. This is progress.
13
Finesse
Creepin’ cryptids, he’s been, like, waiting in this lousy alley outside of Hades all freakin’ night. Good thing Jimi Kinyonga wears his bomber jacket with the faux-mouton collar. The thick faux-leather warms Number One’s skinny butt in the chill of a faraway dawn that is taking its sweet time to crawl over the horizon.
Not that his wait has been a waste. Far from it. The things he’s seen. Who knew the Chrome City Morgue could be such a lively place to hang out at for the duration of an evening? Half a dozen coroners’ vans came and went. A fancy limousine. A couple of dog cops. An owl with a doctor’s bag. And four wild felines, two great big tall ones, two smaller ones trailing after.
The feline Blends went inside for a while. Then a cab showed up, nosing its way down the alley, and they all came back out. The two smaller felines carried a body bag. They all climbed in the cab and drove away.
Kinyonga had scratched his head. What was that about? Since when do Chromians take a body bag out of the morgue?
Unless whatever was in the bag wasn’t a corpse.
Kinyonga puzzles over that. Is it likely there wasn’t a corpse in the bag? He doesn’t think so, but what does he know? If you can think of a hundred illegal things that can be done with a body bag—smuggle drugs, smuggle weapons—so can a hundred other crispers.
So what’s in the bag? Besides, maybe, a body?
Kinyonga isn’t sure what kind of felines they were. Wild feline Blends, especially the Feralists, all look the same to him. Kick-ass strong. Fangs and claws. Enviably graceful. Meaner than mean. He never wants to go up against a wild feline unless he’s got a serious weapon on his person. Preferably a loaded gun. Though his blowgun and a poison dart would do.
The four felines and their body bag will remain his private observation. The Big Boss has paid him to report back on who Zena Kinski’s connection was at Hades. Who and what that Blend is. What that Blend knows. How Kinski and her ally connected the crazy-quilt dots to the Big Boss and his big-deal secret evil enterprise. That’s it and that’s all.
The Big Boss hasn’t paid him to report back on anything else. Other activities and other Chromians he observes tonight are Number One’s proprietary information.
Kinyonga smirks. Earlier he’d fretted over how he could nail Kinski’s inside connection. Someone who works at Hades or spends a lot of time there. A morgue staffer, a cop, maybe a medical examiner, the Big Boss had said. What kind of sorry lead is that?
As he’d loitered in the alley procrastinating, grinning at the bullet-hole-riddled sign, and generally dreading going inside, he’d hatched a scheme. He would mute his hair and his beard. Wander in, wander around. See what he could see. Ask a bunch of questions. Ask the manager for a job. Drop Kinski’s name. Such a shame. You ever see her dance at the Megametro? See if anyone did a knee-jerk.
It wasn’t the greatest plan for a genius like Number One. But it was all Kinyonga had.
Then Lady Luck smiled on him, as she so often did.
Someone slipped out a back door leading to the lane beside the morgue lined with recycling bins. Someone slipped out so quickly and quietly, Kinyonga might have missed him if he hadn’t goggled his left eye in that direction.
Where does he think he’s going?
Kinyonga stood motionless, camouflaging himself against the brick wall. He saw the flare of a match, smelled tobacco smoke. He caught a glimpse of the smoker. Well, what do you know? It was the vulture, Vinnie Gorge. The very same Vinnie who had stood beside Zena Kinski at the stage door. Boyfriend or bodyguard? Who knew? Who cared? Vinnie and Zena, they’d been close. It was Vinnie Gorge, beyond a doubt.
The vulture stepped into a narrow space between two recycling bins. A little hidey-hole where he could enjoy his illegal addiction unnoticed. He was all but invisible to anyone in the alley or in the parking area in front of the morgue. Good work, Vinnie. Kinyonga has the highest appreciation for anyone who knows how to hide and hides well.
Over the course of the dreary night, Gorge’s gambit went on and on. He must have stepped out for a ciggie break six or seven times. Make that eight. Dang, what are all his ciggie breaks costing us hardworking Chromian taxpayers? Not that Jimi Kinyonga pays any income taxes.
So, okay. Kinyonga knew Vinnie’s name and Vinnie’s Blend. That part of the job, which had seemed the most daunting, was done. Then he fretted over how he was going to approach Gorge. Finesse the information the Big Boss wants.
How did you discover the Big Boss’s identity? Who else is involved? How did you discover this thing, whatever it is the Big Boss is covering up?
His mind darted, flitting to one line of questioning, then another. It occurred to ol’ Jimi that the Big Boss hadn’t ordered him to find out what the Blend knows about this thing. Everything else but what, exactly. When he’d asked what kind of dirt, the Big Boss had put him off. You don’t need to know. Here he is running errands for the Big Boss again, and he himself has not been fully informed what the big-deal secret evil enterprise is.
That is unacceptable to a cold-blooded mercenary like Jimi Kinyonga. He needs to have a talk with the Big Boss. He needs a clarification. And soon.
Thanks to Vinnie Gorge and his tobacco habit, now Number One knows what to do. He’s got a plan.
He puts his plan into action.
Good thing Kinyonga always carries ciggies on his person, though he himself doesn’t partake of the demon weed. Good thing he always carries cram, too, which works well in the diurnal niche when you need to sort through twenty thousand stolen Winchester rifle parts. The cheroots of soot he also always carries have the opposite effect, a soporific effect, and he likes to toke those once in a while, but only after diurnal business is done. In his experience, Blends who dig tobacco also dig cram or soot. Sometimes both.
He also carries a switchblade, his beloved blowgun and poison darts, and a wire. The wire is a strip of plastic-covered metal he threads through the belt loops of his jeans and fastens at his waist.
That is how Number One comes equipped for a job.
The dawn shift begins. Two dozen Blends trudge up the alley, heading for the double doors of Hades. The night shift ends, and two dozen other Blends trudge out of the doors and down the alley. Talking quietly among themselves. Tapping their Tatts. Lighting up ciggies.
Kinyonga shakes his head. Dang, someone needs to sit them down and have a heart-to-heart. Don’t they know they’ll wind up on one of their tables in Hades too young if they don’t lay off the demon weed?
Most of both shifts are vultures, ugly as mud with their knobby bald heads. Double chins dangling off their jaws, all reddish-looking like a nasty rash. Kinyonga would hang himself if he had to work a daily gig with scavenger birds.
And here comes Vinnie Gorge, saying goodbye to a little vulture woman he calls Cathae. Lighting up another ciggie, his fingers nervous and fumbling.
Kinyonga sheds his brick-wall camouflage so he looks like a regular lizard man in a pretty cool bomber jacket. He erects the blue spikes of his hair, the yellow spikes of his beard. Gives himself that nocturnal-niche hustler vibe. He steps out of the shadows into Vinnie Gorge’s path and mutters, “Ciggies, cram, soot.”
“What?” Gorge says. Up close, the vulture’s long, narrow face looks haggard. A sizeable blue bruise swells on the side of his head beneath the thinning hair. Dark circles underscore his beady yellow eyes. If Kinyonga is not mistaken—and Number One is seldom mistaken—those eyes hold fear. Naked fear.
He’s afraid of me? No, Kinyonga doesn’t think so. Then of what? Of whom?
“Can I interest you in a taste tonight, brother?”
“Beat it, beastie boy.” Gorge walks on with the flock of other staffers, hastening his stride. “I don’t truck with no reptiles.”
Maybe it’s because he’s been standing out here all night, freezing his skinny butt off. Maybe it’s because he’s bone-tired. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t like the putdown of his reptilian class by a freakin’ raptor bird.
Whatever the reason, anger starts to sizzle in Kinyonga’s chest. He maintains the smirk, stretching his lips until they ache. Trotting to keep pace with the vulture’s long stride. “Sure I can’t interest you in a cheroot of soot, brother, now that you’re off of work?”
“I don’t got any free-trades on me.”
“This one’s gratis.” At the vulture’s blank look, Kinyonga adds, “Free. On me. So you can develop an all-consuming taste for the wares and come back to me for more.”
Gorge steps out of the flock. Sidles over to the brick wall. “Okay. Gimme a taste and be quick about it.”
“Sure.” Kinyonga reaches into his jacket for a cheroot, a pack of matches. Flips the cheroot through his two front fingers, then through the three hind fingers. It’s his favorite bar trick. The chickie-birds love it.
Gorge just stands there, a disgusted look on his sallow mug. Kinyonga hands him the cheroot with a flourish, strikes a match, lights him up. He waits until the vulture has taken his first deep draw of the dirty-smelling intoxicating smoke before he starts.
“You like, Vinnie?”
“It’s okay.”
Kinyonga waits, smirking. Smirking. Until Gorge’s yellow eyes dart up at him, widening with alarm.
“How do you know my name?”
“Your gorgeous girlfriend called you that a minute ago when you said goodbye.”
“She ain’t my girlfriend.”
“My mistake. I stand humbly corrected.” He waits for Gorge to take another draw. Finesse, the Big Boss ordered. This will take some finesse. “I can see why. A specimen like you who got to hang around with the late Zena Kinski wouldn’t be interested in a carrion-eater like her.”
Does Jimi Kinyonga have Vinnie’s full attention? Yes, he does. Gorge plants his fist on Kinyonga’s chest, shoves him against the brick wall.
Kinyonga is ready for the move. Sidesteps. Darts away.
“How do you know I knew Zena?” When Kinyonga only smirks, he shouts, “I said how?”
“Take it easy. I get around in the nocturnal niche. I hear things. You wouldn’t believe the things I hear. Like I heard that Kinski spilled a story about you and Hades to the Blend who met her at Bunny Hedgeway’s Jamboree party. That Kinski told him a scam was going down and you’re running the show. I heard that you and she were trying to squeeze a lot of credits out of the Blend and that’s why he killed her.”
With an inarticulate cry, Gorge charges at him. Drops the cheroot. Balls his fists.
Kinyonga skips away, just out of reach.
“Zena would never rat me out like that.”
“Just tellin’ you what I heard, cryptid.”
“Where? Where did you hear it?”
Kinyonga shrugs. “Here and there.”
“You heard nothin’. It don’t amount to nothin’. It’s a lie.” Gorge is weaving on his feet, the first toke of soot—it’s particularly strong soot—disorienting him. “What’re you doin’ here?” he slurs. “What do you want?”
“I just want a Blend-friendly talk. Like what we’re doing.”
“Go stuff yourself, mutant. I should kill you right now. Dump you in an oven. I got friends on the dawn shift.” He moves toward Kinyonga, scowling. Clenching and unclenching his fists.
“That’s no way to behave.” Kinyonga easily darts away. Thank goodness he stayed clean tonight. “I said let’s talk.”
“I got nothin’ to say to you, you mangy slitherer.”
“I am not mangy. I have never been mangy.”
“Beat it before I wring your lizard neck.”
“No, I don’t think you’re going to wring my neck.” Inspiration strikes Number One. Wild felines taking a body bag out of the morgue. “I think you’re going to tell me how you discovered the identity of the Blend who is on the other end of the body bag scam.”
Gorge laughs in disbelief. “Why should I do that?”
“Actually, you don’t have to. I can guess.”
Pieces of the puzzle start falling into place, and Kinyonga’s nimble mind sorts through them. The Big Boss has been keeping him in the dark for too long. That has got to change.
“So, like, this Chromian stops by the morgue in the dead of night, ha ha, and drops off body bags. Only the body bags don’t contain corpses. They’ve got something else inside. You get something under the table to act as the middleman. Everything done by delivery boys. Then one night, you step out into the lane for a ciggie, like you did eight times tonight, and you see the mastermind. With your own eyes. He’s waiting in a car in the parking area while the delivery boy goes inside. You recognize him from the Instrumentality. You tell the Lady Kinski and she sets up the scam. Only this Blend—I’ll call him the Big Boss—needs to talk with her in person. She goes to the Jamboree party intending to blackmail him and the Big Boss kills her. Have I got that about right?”
Vinnie Gorge stares. After a silence, he says in a strangled voice, “What do you want?”
“I want you to tell me what’s in it for me.” Kinyonga fingers the blowgun in his pocket.
“Why should I do that?”
“You ask a lot of dumb questions.”
Vinnie Gorge continues to stare.
“Hey, mutant, I can be useful to you. More useful than you know. I’ve got connections.”
“Like who?”
“Blends in high places. Who else at Hades is on the take?”
Gorge glowers at him, suspicion simmering in his eyes. “Nobody. Me and Zena, we were the only ones.”
But from the twitch of his mouth, Kinyonga knows he’s lying. Cathae? Kinyonga files that speculation away for future reference. Shakes his head regretfully. He has contempt for bad liars. “If you say so. What did you and Zena see that’s so incriminating you thought you could get away with blackmail?”
A crafty look steals over Gorge’s face. “Oh, now I get it. You freakin’ don’t know what you’re freakin’ talkin’ about. You’re a cheap street hustler who heard loose talk in a bar. Dreamed up this cockamamie story. Now you think you can worm your way into my action. I don’t think so. I’m tellin’ you nothin’. I can handle this myself. You’re of no use to me, splicer. As if I would ever partner up with a reptile. I said beat it. Now beat it.”
Splicer. How Jimi Kinyonga despises that insult. Splicer. Splicer implies a half-baked, stitched-together ghoul. Not the wondrous evil miracle of modern science all Blends are on Chrome. That he is. His impatience with the long wait, his contempt for the vulture conspire in his chameleon heart, sending murderous fury through his blood.
He darts at Vinnie Gorge, who wildly strikes out with his fists, punching the air. Kinyonga evades the vulture’s intoxicated moves. Darts around him. Darts behind him.
Kinyonga strips off the plastic-covered wire from his belt loops—it’s called a garrote, if you want to get technical—whips the wire around Gorge’s throat. Thrusts it under the vulture’s wobbling double chins.
Gorge flails and hacks with a choking sound. Strikes over his shoulder with his fists. But he can’t reach Kinyonga and Kinyonga, who has practiced this move before, has practiced and succeeded, tightens the garrote. Quick and hard and unrelenting.
It doesn’t take long for Vinnie Gorge to go slack. To fall to his knees. To fall on his face on the cobblestones.
Kinyonga flips out his switchblade. Reaches for Gorge’s flopping hand to slash his Tatt.
A vulture girl hurries up the alley, late for work on the dawn shift. She takes one look at him, bending over the body crumpled on the pavement, and she screams.
“Murder! Murder! Murder!” in a screechy hysterical voice.
Two dog cops lope out of Hades, tongues lolling between their filed fangs. Pulling out billy clubs.
Kinyonga pockets the blade. Steps back from the body. Camouflages himself against the brick wall of the alley. He stands very still, though he’s shaking all over. After the cops cart the late Vinnie Gorge into his former place of employment, Kinyonga creeps away.
Dang, he hates it when a girl screams.
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CHROME.MED.295.KB

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright 2019 by Lisa Mason.
Cover, colophon, and art copyright 2019 by Tom Robinson.
All rights reserved.
PUBLISHING HISTORY
Bast Books Ebook Edition published July 9, 2019.
Bast Books Print Edition published August 13, 2019.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval, without permission in writing from the publisher.
For information address:
Bast Books
Bastbooks@aol.com
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Praise for CHROME
 “An excellent semi-noir full-on SF work by a terrific author. . . .a science-fiction homage, in part, to the noir books and movies of the forties and fifties, only brought forth into a future time a quarter-millennium from now. . .  a fully-realized society.”
—Amazing Stories.com
“So Walter Mosley reread Animal Farm and The Island of Dr. Moreau and says to himself, “Oh, yes indeed, I’ve got a terrific idea for my next best seller.” But! Lisa says, “Hold on, hot stuff. You’re too late. Chrome is already on the streets. Haha!
Wow! I just tore through Chrome. So much fun. Oh, I guess I should take a time-out to say that it was very well-written too, but I was enjoying the characters and the story so much that the superb writing simply did its job and I had to consciously reflect to notice the excellent and clever construction and reveals. Isn’t that the definition of good writing?”
—Reader Review
May 2020 Excerpt:
11
Chelonian Park
A cool spring evening descends over Chrome, heralding a peaceful end to a dreadful Blend Day. Terralina lies on her side, blissful on Tuddy’s moss-soft bed. She savors the moist heat of his bedroom. Savors him, lying beside her. Both of them rest comfortably on a custom-made mattress curving up behind them, cupping their carapaces. Their lovely human parts revealed to each other.
At moments like these when she’s had her fill of him and he of her, Terralina nearly bursts with love for her tortoise prince. His wrinkled lipless face, his wrinkled stubby limbs, his wrinkled celadon skin are the handsomest features she’s ever seen on any male specimen in all of Chrome.
Smiling, he offers her a strawberry. She takes the berry in her mouth and masticates, savoring the sweetness. Ever since Tuddy’s car and driver delivered her to Castle Ruchat Tartus early this morning, they’ve idled in bed all day. Making love. Drowsing. Nibbling on berries and meal worms.
“My darling Terralina,” Tuddy whispers, “do not ever run off like that again. I was worried sick. I was just about to wink the police. Send out a search party.”
“I’m sorry, Tuddy,” she says, exhausted from the strange events she’s witnessed in the last twenty-four-hour rotation. The tall, thin manimal. The coyote attack. Meeting Luna Lightfoot, bumping Tatts with the formidable puma-woman. Her angry heedless all-night bicycle ride through Chrome City and the boroughs. The abduction she’d witnessed at dawn.
Most of all, she’s exhausted from keeping everything a secret from Tuddy.
“Promise me?” he says.
She doesn’t say I promise never to do it again. She may have kept secrets from Tuddy before, she may keep secrets again, but she never lies. And she can’t promise him she’ll never mount her bicycle again and pedal off into the night, searching for something.
She sighs without answering.
That seems to satisfy him. He pours an expensive Chromian brandy into crystal snifters, presses a snifter into her little hands. He keeps the brandy on his night table in a decanter.
“To us,” he says, clinking his snifter with hers.
“Should we? It is still Blend Day. We’re supposed to abstain from every pleasure. Fast and weep and meditate on our bitter fate.”
“Yes, we should. We’ve already broken most of our vows,” he says with a wicked grin. “May as well break all of them.” He adds, “I need a bit of the hair of the dog that bit me, as the Earthians say.” Drains his snifter in one gulp.
Terralina sips daintily, then sets the snifter on the night table on her side of the bed. A chill runs through her. She’d wanted to tell him last night about the coyote attack and he wouldn’t listen. Now she doesn’t want to tell him, though he is listening. Her account would have to include Luna Lightfoot. Tuddy would never approve of her sudden friendship with a puma Blend.
So many secrets, and they’re not yet bond-mates.
After the taxi had sped off with the chameleon kidnapper and the rat child, she’d tapped her Tatt and winked Tuddy. He’d opened her wink at once. Of course he’d come for her with the car. But rush-hour traffic had ramped up in Chrome City, and the car took an entire hour-and-a-half traveling from Chelonian Park to Rodentia.
While she’d waited that interminable hour-and-a-half sealed up in her carapace, a pack of rat teenagers playing hooky from school discovered her. They taunted her, kicked her around nearly as brutally as the coyotes last night. The only saving grace? Rat teens aren’t as big and as vicious as full-grown coyotes.
They were kicking her around when Tuddy’s car pulled up, and the driver, Vara Rufus, climbed out. Terralina would have been terrified of Vara, a stout goanna, if she weren’t a loyal employee of Dynasty Ruchat Tartus. The goanna whipped her powerful lizard’s tail out of the seat of her trousers, brandished her considerable claws, and opened her jaws just in case the rat teens didn’t get the hint.
The rat teens fled, squeaking and squealing. Without a word, the goanna scooped up Terralina, trembling in her carapace. Flung her and her bicycle in the backseat. Sped away. Sped home.
Now, with twilight darkening, Terralina stirs fitfully in the bedroom’s moist heat. Her tortoise prince hadn’t come to rescue her himself—as he’d promised. His driver had. Was that good enough?
She isn’t sure.
Tuddy reaches for his snifter, tops it off. “You like the brandy?”
“I like being here with you.”
What tortoise Blend wouldn’t? Every chamber in Castle Ruchat Tartus enjoys sultry air thanks to an ingenious system of subterranean aqueducts, the water kept near boiling by great fires attended by thorny devil lizards in tank tops and denim shorts. The aqueducts, which owe much to the Roman baths on Earth two millennia ago, were designed and built by Tuddy’s great-great-grandfather, Redfoote Ruchat Tartus. In the years after the Plague, Redfoote slowly and patiently established the Ruchat Tartus fortune and social position by gaining domination of the heating and cooling of Chrome’s myriad habitats.
Countless species of Blends prefer heat and moisture in their homes, shunning aridity and cold. Countless other Blends prefer aridity and cold, and shun heat and moisture.
All things are possible on Chrome, the Blends like to say.
Terralina hates that Chromily, which is so patently untrue.
After she started staying the night at Castle Ruchat Tartus, Tuddy had taken her on a tour of the aqueducts. She got an eyeful of the ironwood pyres, the sluices and troughs, the thorny devils who attended them so diligently. If the aqueducts resembled ancient Roman baths, the staff more than resembled ancient Roman slaves.
Tuddy noticed her disapproving reaction. He’d called the foreman over.
“How goes the heat today, Moloch?”
A muscular lizard man, with impressive dust-colored spines jutting from his angular face, brawny shoulders, chest, and thighs, Moloch had grinned and shouted, “We loves the heat, Boss.”
Well. That could have been an act to impress the prospective princess. But she got the message and left the topic of the aqueducts and their staff alone. The aqueducts were not her concern. Not until she comes to Castle Ruchat Tartus to live for the rest of her tortoise life as Tuddy’s bond-mate.
When and whether.
Tuddy drains his snifter, closes his round little eyes, settles back on the custom-curved mattress. Satisfied snores gurgle out of his maw. Terralina smiles. She even loves the goofy way he snores.
But she can’t fall into satisfied snores, not after the idle, drowsy day. She swings back the curved side of the mattress and lets herself out of bed, pulling a green silk dressing gown over her shoulders and carapace.
She waddles to Tuddy’s luxurious bathroom, waves on the lights, checks her contraceptive patch. She’d never worn a C-patch before Tuddy. She’d had no reason to. She’d had no one in her life. And she couldn’t have afforded a C-patch, anyway, which was expensive Earth technology licensed to Chromian manufacturers.
How much her life has changed since Tuddy.
The C-patch on her thigh strobes bright red. That’s good. That means her patch is active and she’s protected. But when she climbed out of bed, she glimpsed Tuddy’s C-patch on his thigh. And his patch looked dull and gray. He’s not protected.
Terralina frowns. They’d agreed they would both wear active C-patches until the day they bond-mated and decided to start a family.
That day hasn’t come. That day may never come. She’ll have to have another painful conversation with Tuddy when he wakes.
Trouble. Trouble, again.
Terralina waves off the bathroom lights, wanders into the sitting room off the bedroom. She settles into one of Tuddy’s custom-built armchairs, the upholstery scooped out of the backrest to accommodate a tortoise’s carapace.
So safe, so comfortable at Castle Ruchat Tartus.
Then why does she feel so uneasy?
To an outsider’s eye, the castle resembles a gigantic tortoise carapace with massive tiles of the dynasty’s colors of red, green, and gold arranged in a mosaic over the dome. Turrets, watchtowers, and battlements jut up here and there. Inside and out, the chambers are watched over by Security Eyes. The World Eyes are strictly programmed for viewing the Instrumentality. Not the other way around.
No one on Earth is watching her. Terralina nods, assured of her privacy.
Two centuries ago great-great-grandfather Redfoote Ruchat Tartus had banned surveillance of himself and his tortoise family. His descendants have observed that ban to this day. Any tortoise, including Terralina, could earn spectacular World Eye royalties, given the monstrous morphing of their genetic heritage. Given the Earthians’ taste for monstrosity.
Redfoote had specified in his will that his clan was not to become a spectacle for human consumption. And he was right. Two centuries of diligent development of Chrome’s heating and cooling enterprise have earned the dynasty abundant wealth. No Ruchat Tartus needs to earn demeaning World Eye royalties at the cost of fifteen billion pairs of prying Earthian eyes.
Well done, Great-great-grandpa Redfoote. Terralina whispers thanks to the ancestral patriarch into whose clan she is about to be so warmly welcomed.
Then she frowns. Oh? Oh oh oh!
Did Tuddy defy Grandpa Redfoote’s injunction by accepting Bunny Hedgeway’s Jamboree invitation and signing a World Eye release? Did he defy the dynasty’s injunction by allowing all of Earth to get a good look at him last night? A very good look at a very strange Blend, someone Earthians have seldom seen. Perhaps have never seen.
Oh, ugly ugly! Publicity hounds are sure to come pounding on the doors of Castle Ruchat Tartus. Thirty members of the clan call the castle their home. They’ll become a sensational treasure trove of unlicensed flashes on the Instrumentality the moment they step out the door.
What will Tuddy’s mother and father think? His aunts and uncles? His brothers and sisters and cousins? His brothers-in-law, his sisters-in-law?
What about her?
No wonder she didn’t want to go inside to that horrid party. She was right. What have you done, Tuddy?
She leans forward in the armchair, apprehensive. Waves her Tatt at the World Eye. She hasn’t seen the Instrumentality since yesterday afternoon when the news was all about Jamboree.
Jamboree. Terralina snorts in disgust. Why should the Blends celebrate Jamboree? It ought to be another day of mourning like Blend Day. The day when a sadistic Earthian scientist centuries ago engineered a mouse with a human ear growing out of her spine, the ear larger than the mouse herself. Paraded the grotesque experimental specimen in the media as if this were something wonderful. An achievement to be proud of.
An achievement, Terralina shudders, to replicate. Which Emirk Corporation has done, twenty million times over.
Witness Chrome.
But the Vacanti mouse, the earmouse, wasn’t genetic engineering, after all. The sadistic scientist, some professor at a university medical school, grew cow cartilage cells in an ear-shaped mold and implanted the thing in the skin of the mouse. The Vacanti mouse was only a stupid prank.
A stupid prank that has become the Chromian mascot for Blend Day. A symbol for what Chromians are.
Terralina waves through viewcasts on the World Eye. Has there been any coverage of Blend Day?
She wants to see the traditional Procession marching down Broadway. The mourners in their hooded black robes. Chanting dirges. Whipping themselves with cat o’ nine tails. The usual parade float draped in black crepe, the gigantic model of the earmouse. Not genetically engineered? No, but tampered with by an Earthian technician, just the same.
The World Eye opens, the Instrumentality flashes, and Terralina sees neither the Procession nor the tiresome advertisements for hair removers and capped teeth.
She sits up, the skin on her arms prickling. Her breath catching in her throat.
A badger viewcaster yelps the news. Zena Kinski, the famous dancer, found murdered at the Hedgeway mansion last night while a high-society herd enjoyed the Jamboree party downstairs. Security Eyes saw no glimpse of the murderer. Motive unknown.
Terralina’s suspicions fly at once to the puma. Luna Lightfoot, a murderer? Just as quickly, her intuition dismisses that. The puma rescued her from coyotes. The puma swore a heartfelt oath of allegiance to Chrome. The puma bumped Tatts with her. No, not possible. The puma may have been up to no good last night, but she could not have been a murderer.
Fang wounds, the badger viewcaster yelps.
Lightfoot was wearing a mask when she climbed down the fire escape. She couldn’t have bitten anyone till she took the mask off.
What about the tall, thin manimal? Touching a handkerchief to his mouth, the cloth darkened by stains. What kind of stains?
Terralina rises to her little bare feet, paces around the sitting room. She should march into the bedroom where Tuddy lies passed out, snoring like a bear. Shake his shoulder, wake him with the news.
No. He won’t understand. Let him sleep.
Her mind reels with fear and confusion.
She needs to talk to someone. Does she know anyone at the Chrome City police? Someone who could tell her more?
To read the rest of this excerpt and discover who Terralina personally knows at the Chrome City police and what her friend reveals to her, please join my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 and help me after the Attack. I’ve posted delightful new stories and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie reviews, and more exclusively for my heroic patrons! I’m even offering a critique of your writing sample per each submission.
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11.19.13cube

I grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, went to school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and, upon graduation, migrated to San Francisco, California. There I lived for five years and then migrated to the East Bay where I’ve lived ever since.
When I was working in downtown San Francisco, I often saw a punk Chinese-American bicycle messenger, complete with tattoos and a colorful Mohawk. A young woman, no less.
The late, great Herb Caen, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, was fascinated with the bicycle messengers, who had their own subculture. Caen frequently reported on the exploits of his favorite bicycle messenger, which made their way into “The Oniomancer.”
I myself saw a convocation of bicycle messengers outside of a fancy grocery store at a little park behind the Embarcadero Center, a huge office complex built by the Rockefellers and resembling Rockefeller Square in New York City.
So all that detail was brewing in my head. I knew I had a story to tell, but what?
Turns out Tom knew an artist, a kind of down-and-out guy, who had a knack for finding valuable things. Without a metal detector. He would just walk down the city street and—lo!—there would be a diamond brooch at his feet. I’m serious.
After I learned about his amazing gift, I began to find things myself. A fourteen-gold charm of a Chinese ship in San Francisco’s Chinatown. A sterling silver Mercedes Benz car key-ring on Broadway. Really.
I began to research this little-known talent and came across the answer in the Encyclopedia of Occultism: Oniomancer. The talented person is called an Oniomancer.
I knew I had my story, then.
A word about Chinese-Americans (in this troubled time): We’ve had many delightful Chinese-American acquaintances in San Francisco and many delightful neighbors in the East Bay.
But like families of every race and ethnicity (Tom is an eighth Cherokee Indian, I’m a Croatian American), Chinese-American families have their own problems. Around the corner from our apartment on Telegraph Hill lived a traditional Chinese family. At night, we would hear Mom and Dad screaming at the kids and (ahem) beating the crap out of them.
I wondered what sort of serious rebellion the Chinese-American bicycle messenger Girl with the Pink Hair must have gone through.
Please join friends, readers, and fans on my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 and help me after the Attack. I’ve posted delightful new stories and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie reviews, and more exclusively for my heroic patrons! I’m even offering a critique of your writing sample per each submission.
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11.19.13cube

The Oniomancer
The Chinadoll denies she’s a thief. She swears she’s never stolen anything. She finds things, that’s all. She’s always found things. From street curbs and trash bins and secret city places, things come to her like hungry cats.
She’s delivering a Priority One Hour to some bigwig at the Hyatt Hotel when she finds the cube. Talking heads from the tube, with their techs and camera crews, are swarming all over the lobby. Craning their necks to get a gander at the headline of the hour.
Fame scenes cut no ice with the Chinadoll. Not when she’s hustling down another zip code. The suits check out her fuchsia croptop, fourteen motley hoops banging down her hearwings. Lone Ranger mask drawn in kohl across her peepers. Beat-around black leather, rude girl rags. Security guards glare at her like she just crawled out from under something.
Then there it is: a small object getting kicked around by all those shuffling feet. Tumbling here, tumbling there across the tessellated marble floor. The Chinadoll can empathize.
So she scoops.
It kind of bounces up into her hand, this perfect cube. Size of a medium Rubik’s. Iridescent like mom o’ pearl. Strung from a stud on its crown on a superfine chain with the high, silvery sheen of platinum. It hums. Not a machine hum, but a soft rolling purr-purr.
Little hungry cats. How the Chinadoll loves you.
Quick as a wink, she stashes the cube in her T-shirt pocket. Dashes across the lobby, takes the elevator upstairs, makes the delivery. The bigwig’s got a girlfriend lounging on the bed, so he doesn’t come on to her like some of the drop-offs do.
Down she goes, zooming through the lobby again, and the scene has suddenly gotten weirder. Everybody jazzed, talking in loud, excited chatter. A voice of authority crackling with feedback issues garbled commands. “Nnnn—stay calm, and proceed in an orderly fashion—eeee!
She doesn’t stick around to find out what’s the hassle.
The cube pokes through her pocket like a Picasso nipple. A Real Find, Chinadoll. Not for nothing is she known as an oniomancer. And she thought she was down on her luck. Knows right away she can’t tell Flash about this. For sure, don’t let Bulldog see it.
Out at the rack, she unlocks her Schwinn.
From inside her pocket, the cube hiccups. The soft little sound of a lost thing that’s been found.
*   *   *
The Chinadoll came to see finding as a gift, though she didn’t always see it that way. She first discovered finding when she was a sorry little five-year-old named Suki Fong. It’s possible she found things before then. But that’s the first time she remembered the finding.
And what came after.
It was a fresh autumn day with a bit of wind, and Mama had come home from shopping on Grant Avenue. Pink cardboard boxes of dim sum and fried rice dangled from one of her hands, a whole roast chicken swung from the other. Papa was in the living room, watching ninja moves on Channel 60. All Chinatown smelled of Sunday supper.
The kids were in their playground: the sidewalk in front of Yick Sing Meat Market. Ben and Jimmy quarreled over a blue paper dragonfly kite. May and Kim whispered over a pocket mirror and a contraband lipstick May had shoplifted from Three Spirits Pharmacy.
Suki, the youngest of them by some years, sat alone on the curb and sniffed roast chicken. “Go away, baby,” May had ordered. Jimmy had pushed her. So she scratched in the gutter by herself, hummed lullabies, picked at scraps. From the TV inside came clatter and shrill sounds. She could hear the bloodcurdling scream of some ninja lopping off a demon’s head, made tinny by Papa’s ancient Sony.
With that thin, scratchy scream, the finding feeling came. Empty cup contentment. Waiting but not waiting. Nothing-full.
A crumpled wad, the soft gray-green of a dried herb, skittered past Suki’s toes. She scooped it, smoothed it flat across her knee. She saw small pictures on the crinkled paper strip. There was a tiny old-fashioned car and tinier pedestrians. A grand building with tall columns. On the other side, a curly-haired grandpa who wouldn’t look at her, but that was okay. Suki knew curly-haired grandpas didn’t look at a Chinese girl like her unless they had some evil on their minds.
She smiled. She smiles to this day at that tiny Model T.
From inside the apartment came Mama’s wail. “Cheat me! Mr. Yee cheat me! And rent due! I go back!” She ran out onto the street, dragon-faced. Stopped short in front of Suki.
“Oy!” Mama said. “What that you got there, girl?”
Suki held up her find.  Grateful for attention, any attention, from Mama.
She snatched the bill from Suki’s hand. “So here my ten dollar. Mr. Yee didn’t cheat me. Where you get this, girl?”
“I found it, Mama.”
Mama jerked Suki up off the curb by her skinny arm and hauled her inside. Suki heard May and Kim giggling.
“I say where you get this, girl?” Mama demanded,
“I found it, Mama. I found it.”
Mama slapped her across the face, one two three times. Suki’s lip stung against her teeth. She tasted shame.
“I teach you not to be a liar,” Mama said. “Youie? Youie?” Papa grunted, tore his eyes away from the TV. “This girl, this runt, this accident, she steal money from her own mama. And rent due. You teach her not to steal.”
“But I found it, Papa. I found it!”
Mama slapped her again. Papa stood, unbuckled his belt, slid the leather strip from his pant loops. Mama wrestled Suki over the kitchen table, pinned her arms down on the greasy oilcloth. Then Papa lashed the belt across her tiny butt, smack smack smack. Suki couldn’t count how many times.
That’s when she learned not to show or tell.
She would have given up finding, if she’d known how. She didn’t try to do it any more than she’d made Mama forget the birth control on the night five years ago when Papa knocked her up with a fifth child. A pinch-faced, unwanted little Suki.
But not long after her first humiliation, some-thing else tumbled into her hands like the temptation of an evil spirit.
Mama sent her out before dark for cooking oil. It was a lovely cool evening, the breezes scented with coming winter. Lipped with arabesques of light, Cathay House Pagoda shone against the scarlet dusk. Suki skipped down Grant Avenue, filled with the unaccountable joy of childhood.
At the edge of her eye, she saw something. A scrap bounding across the concrete like a wind-blown leaf.
The finding feeling came. A ghost push. Seeing and not seeing.
She scooped.
It was another piece of that velvety green paper. This time a cocky, bushy-haired fellow looked her right in the eye. Andy Jackson. A twenty dollar bill! She could hardly believe it, having only just learned the dark passions such velvety green paper inspired.
She carefully folded the bill, tucked it in her jeans pocket. She brought the cooking oil back to Mama. The next day, she bought herself a bag of candied pineapple rings at Mrs. Lee’s sweetmeat shop, a jade ring at Canton Bazaar, a tiny ivory horse at Shanghai Fine Arts, and one of those polyester bags that passes for embroidered silk, all green and purple chrysanthemums. She kept a dollar ninety-seven in change.
And said nothing to anyone.
But secrets can be hard to keep.
*   *   *
The streets around the Hyatt are jumping. State-of-siege cha-cha-cha. The wind socks grit in the Chinadoll’s eyes, sending tear tracks down her facepaint. She dodges cop cars, minding business.
Bucks her bike, rolls onto Drumm Street. Hauls out her cell phone, punches up headquarters. The dispatcher at Speedster & Company has her on for one last pickup at 815 Market.
Shoot! She’ll have to pedal her ass eight blocks west on a slow but steady uphill grade. It’s nearly five o’clock in the p.m. and she’s cat-o-nine-tails beat.
For luck, she fishes the cube from her T-shirt pocket, checks it out. The closure on the clasp is out of whack, so the lock won’t lock. No wonder someone lost it. What a cheap piece of trash, this clasp. She can’t imagine securing a chain of such fine links to hold a cube of such rare beauty with a safety catch that isn’t secure and can’t catch onto anything.
She bites the clasp, shaping the metal with her teeth. There you go, baby.
The cube feels warm, tingling, jingling, like a fistful of hot copper.
Not for the first time, the Chinadoll wonders how things of true value can be treated by the world with such disrespect.
*   *   *
Finding—it was Suki’s pleasure, the search for treasure amid the doldrums of daily life. Just a kid, she stalked the streets alone.
And found things all the time.
Sure, there was junk. She found knuckletop computers the size of a postage stamp. What excuses did the scamps around town tell their lovers when they didn’t message? She found flat plastic rectangles with miniature holograms and necklaces of numbers. How many credit lines got hacked due to lost credit cards? She found Ziploc bags filled with white powder that tasted bitter. What illicit dreams had been abandoned in shadowed alleys?
These things meant nothing to a kid. Just junk.
Some things, though, were truly treasure. She filled soup cans with coins, preferring pennies and dimes. Made a twelve-foot daisy chain out of red and blue rubber bands and paperclips in cool shapes. Stockpiled chewing gum packets and breath mint rolls, hundreds of them perfectly packaged, the safety seals still sealed.
She saw treasure everywhere, the hint of it, the glint of it.
She hid everything in a secret place.
Finding seemed so natural in the free-for-all of the City. Maybe the wrong of it was she got something for nothing. Mama said they had to pay their dues. Papa said they had to work hard. And finding was so easy. Things fell into her hands with no work on her part. No dues paid. That had to be why she couldn’t show or tell.
Too easy. She had to wonder if other people found things, too. Surely they must.
In a bold mood one day, she asked her sister May, “Do you ever, like, find things? You know, on the street?’
“What do you mean, Suki?” May said sharply.
Bad timing. That afternoon, May had seen that Suki had seen her smoking Marlboros with her boyfriend in Washington Square Park.
“Find things on the street? Like some bag lady, some street person, some Vietnamese? You stealing again, Suki? You’re stealing again, you little creep, you spy. Mama!”
Mama searched the bedroom Suki shared with her sisters and found her secret place—two Kinney shoeboxes beneath her underwear and socks. Mama found all things she’d found and took them away. Even the jade ring and the ivory horse and the purple-green bag, pretty things Suki had bought, fair and square. Mama had Papa take off his belt again.
She should have known then she should have given up finding for good. Turn away from the shimmer when she saw it. Finding should have been like any other unhealthy habit, subject to will and discipline.
But Papa’s belt, Mama’s slaps, her brothers’ and sisters’ jeers, they insulted her. Wronged her.
And like a benevolent devil confirming her conviction, not long after Mama took her things away, she found her first Big Find. Lying right in the middle of the sidewalk on Broadway near the corner of Kearny.
From the edge of her eye, she saw the glitter. Gutter-bound daystar. Maybe worthless, maybe wealth. She guzzled the empty cupful. She scooped.
It was a solid silver key with a handle in the shape of a four-leaf clover. Inside one heavy loop, next to the jeweler’s stamp of authentication, was a Tiffany trademark. Inside another loop, the logo of the car the key fit. A Mercedes Benz.
The silver dazzled in the sunlight as she turned the key over in her hand.
Suki knew at once the key was a sign. An omen. A promise that the best revenge would be hers one day. Never mind that the lock the key fit was nowhere in sight.
She walked back through Chinatown in a dream.
*   *   *
The Chinadoll slings the superfine chain over her fuchsia croptop, dropping the cube inside her T-shirt. It nestles against her skin, stinging her cleavage like dry ice. She picks up the package at 815 Market, drops it off at the Civic Center. Then scoots back to the headquarters of Speedster & Company for her daily bread.
She skids Market, slides New Montgomery, bops onto Mission. A ghost-gray candy cotton of fog rolls in from the ocean, chilling her bones. Then her hearwings yow with a bike messenger’s cry, an earsplitting banshee shriek.
“Yee Wee Wing Fooong! Hah Hah Haaah!”
Ain’t he sweet. That’s Flash’s yell for the Chinadoll.
*   *   *
After Suki found the silver key, she started a new stash. She found new secret places. When fall term began at Chang Wo Elementary, she kept her treasure in her school locker where Mama would never find it.
She liked school. She didn’t understand most of what they tried to teach her—having learned words like “rapacious” and “perspicacious” from Jimmy’s Fantastic Four comic books—but she was quiet and did what they told her and kept to herself.
She found lots of things in the school halls. Bottles of Robitussin Extra-Strength Formula; packages of Trojan rubbers; cartons of Camel nonfilters; a pair of soft turquoise mittens spangled with solar chips that kept the winter chill off her hands.
She loved those mittens.
She developed standards. She no longer took the worst junk, baby stuff like rubber bands. She kept three Kinney shoeboxes in her school locker, one for junk worth taking, one for cool things, one for actually valuable things. She carried the silver key in her jeans pocket. But she never showed it to anyone.
And she might have still liked school and done what they told her if she hadn’t found the ball of wastepaper.
It was early March, just before spring break, and the school halls were charged with the tension of tests being taken. There she sat in the girls’ lavatory, perched on a potty after taking a tinky. Pondering how she, of all twelve-year-old people, could possibly write an essay about the doctrine of manifest destiny on her history exam.
Suddenly a ball of wastepaper bounced merrily in, as if someone had flung it under the stall door. She picked it up, smoothed out a sheet filled with teeny, tiny rectangles.
The time was half-past nine. She was half awake. She walked out of the stall, gawking, doing a slow eureka. Then a hall monitor burst in the lavatory before she could think or explain. The monitor dragged her down to the principal’s office.
Then everyone got dragon and talked at her too fast in English.
The ball of wastepaper turned out to be a crib sheet for a test in a class she wasn’t even taking. No one cared. She got detention for the rest of the semester. They couldn’t prove a thing, but a report that she was a cheater went on her permanent record that was transferred when she started Galileo High.
At home, Papa got out the belt. Mama’s face got dragon every time she looked at her. May and Kim, who were prom queens at Galileo, wouldn’t say hi in the halls. Ben, who’d become assistant manager at Chung Quon Imports, declared that everyone in Chinatown knew Suki was a cheater, a liar, and a thief, and took his belt to her for shaming the family. Jimmy, starting at City College in business administration, made her lick his shoes.
She ran away. The cops did their own finding and brought her back. She cut school. The principal put her on probation. She flunked classes. Papa took his belt to her until her back was riddled with scars.
She tried to reform. She did community service at an old people’s home. She ran errands for Mama, cleaned the whole apartment every day after school. But five-dollar cans of litchi nuts, cut-crystal ashtrays, cashmere sweaters kept tumbling mysteriously into her hands, into her backpack, into her shopping bag. Store clerks accused her of shoplifting.
She gave everything back, but it was no use. On her seventeenth birthday, Galileo High expelled her. Mama said out.
Finding—it was Suki’s curse.
But as she trudged past Yick Sing Meat Market for the last time, something beckoned, shiny and sweet, at the curb. She laughed and did not laugh. She wept and did not weep. No one was there to say or not say what she was doing was wrong.
She scooped.
It was a charm, the kind that hooks onto a charm bracelet. A tiny ship of solid gold, three tiny sails unfurled with golden wind.
*   *   *
The Chinadoll spots Flash’s waist-length mane, crowned by the yellow propeller on his beanie, as he ducks down the stairwell into Speedster & Company’s basement digs. She does the duck down, too. The digs are full of razzmatazz and dooby stench and bike messengers yapping it up. Mohawk greased high over his coffee-bean brow, Mug the manager bends over the books of account.
The Chinadoll scores her commissions in cash, considers gourmet for dinner. Maybe a Martinetti dry salami and a bottle of Settler’s Creek Chablis instead of her usual peanuts and a pint of milk. Hey, this babe is rich.
Her whoop-dee-doo must be more than her daily sweat-and-tears ought to merit, because Flash is eyeballing her, grinning his zen grin.
“Hey, Chinadoll,” he says. “You find something today?”
“Nope. Stash your own trash.”
That guy. He of all people would know, just by looking at her, that she Found Major today.
Because Flash is an oniomancer, too.
*   *   *
There’s this poignant word of advice from the I Ching that goes, “It furthers you to cross the great water.” Meaning, move your hindquarters, fool.
Suki’s little golden ship was a sign.
From Chinatown, she fled to North Beach, past the strip joints on Broadway, the Italian eateries on Columbus, the literati cafés on Grant Avenue, and on to where the Tower Hotel crouched halfway up Telegraph Hill.
There Suki leased a room. Once a bohemian hotel, the only beats at the Tower now were dead-, not -nik. On the age-worn front door, someone had taped the sixteenth card of the Tarot. The wicked shrieking, lightning striking, an edifice of madness tumbling down.
Cozy place.
A room the size of Mama’s clothes closet with an odoriferous mattress and an orthopteran zoo, cost fifty George W’s a week. The communal john down the hall boasted special effects.
Then there was her lovely next-door neighbor.
“Hey. Hey. You. Bug,” said a voice like a rusted-out muffler as she lugged her meager possessions into her room.
A bunch of white kids at Galileo High called the Chinese kids that—bug—so she turned, assuming the voice was addressing her.
“Gimme five bucks, bug.”
An ugly hulk blocked her passage in the narrow hall. Her nose came up to the swastika hanging over his leather-vested chest. She gave him three dollars, which was all she had left after the hotel manager had taken two weeks’ in advance.
That was just the beginning. Bulldog bullied her daily. He extorted her money, stole her food, dirtied her clean towels. He hid water balloons over her door, set a mouse loose in her bed.
When she didn’t receive his direct attention, she cringed beneath his constant presence. The heavy-metal rock he blasted. The rattletrap van he parked in the towaway zone and revved up at five in the morning, waking her with its hacking motor, sending noxious fumes in her window. The steady stream of rag-tag women who, for reasons Suki could not fathom, found Bulldog endlessly fascinating. The notorious dealers, bikers, and rowdies who came by to pay their respects and wound up trying to beat Bulldog’s brains out. When the fistfights started around midnight, beefy bodies would crash against her flimsy wall like Godzilla taking on King Kong.
She considered her options. Trap guns, trip wires, poison. A black widow spider set loose in his bed. A pipe bomb under the wheels of his van would do the trick. Kablooey! at five in the morning. Or it was just possible she could electrify the communal shower from the phone booth in the hall.
She plotted how one day Bulldog would get his.
*   *   *
The Chinadoll clears out of Speedster & Company before Flash can case her much longer. The guy has an eye for detail, like any self-respecting oniomancer should. If she sticks around much longer, he’ll spot the cube nestled under her T-shirt, the superfine chain at the back of her neck.
She hightails it out of there. Up Third Street, to Sutter, to Kearny, to Columbus Avenue. Hustles down her humble repast at Rossi’s Market, beelines up Grant Avenue to the Tower. Scoots into her room.
Bulldog is nowhere in sight but through the wall she can hear his rusted-out voice jabbering next door. At least she knows where he is. She deadbolts her door, flops on her mattress, chills out.
Then she flips the superfine chain up off her neck, takes the cube in her fingertips. Gawks at it. Golly, what a Find. What a strange thing. A pretty-pretty, so shimmery. Full of wonder, she strokes the cube’s iridescent flanks. Smiles at its purr-purr.
Suddenly, the cube begins to glow, pale blue at first, then blushing violet. Warm, then hot. Hotter. Oh no! Has she inadvertently turned on some switch? She strokes its flanks again, frantically hoping to undo whatever she just did.
The purr becomes a roar.
The Chinadoll’s fingers sizzle.
*   *   *
Suki would have loved to rely on finding. Make it her career, explore the subtleties, refine her technique until she could call finding an Art. But rent came due, and she hadn’t found so much as a dime in three weeks.
She couldn’t rely on finding, not yet, that much was clear.
As for a regular job, what could she do? She was Suki Fong, high school expellee extraordinaire. She had no credentials, no connections, no confidence.
She found the Help Wanted flier thumb-tacked to a telephone pole on Sutter Street.
Speedster & Company welcomed any body as long as you could perform one simple task—pedal a bike all over town, uphill and down, eight hours a day, and not, repeat not, get yourself killed in traffic. Through the gridlock, in the rush hour, past massive buses and brute trucks, the lonely bike messenger tempted fate with the faith of a zealot.
For despite smart phones and emails, despite microwaves and pixels, the world still required the actual transfer of things. Contracts with original signatures. Computer equipment. Flowers and chocolate. Really hot lingerie.
The urgency of delivery lent drama. A messenger had honor. Responsibility. Gods and human beings have always depended upon messengers.
Suki said as much and more at her interview.
Mug the manager hired her on the spot. Paid a week’s wage in advance so she could eat a little better. “Kid, you gonna need some more meat on them bones,” he said and tucked a Luna bar in her hand.
In no time, Suki learned about Flash, Speedster’s star, the fastest, most reliable bike messenger in town. An urban legend all his own. Every messenger knew and respected him. To every passing messenger, he gave his tribal cry, “Yee Yee Heee! Hah Hah Haaah!”
Even the suits knew him, his waist-length hair, the ferret face with granny glasses, a red-and-yellow beanie with a yellow propeller that told which way his wind blew. Newspaper columnists wrote stories about him. How he’d broken his arm three times, for speed’s sake. How one day, when he’d accidentally locked himself out on the exterior stairwell of a first-floor office, he’d hopped over the railing and dropped to the concrete, only to be arrested by a passing cop.
Suki wasn’t in Flash’s league, not yet, but she was inspired by his example. She razored off all of her black waist-length hair except a strip down the middle of her scalp which she bleached platinum, and streaked broad strokes of fuchsia dye across the remaining crew-cut. She had a skull-and-crossbones set inside the petals of a rose tattooed on her left biceps. She blew the first ten Abe Lincolns she’d earned on kohl, vintage velvet, recycled leather.
She became the Chinadoll. She found face.
*   *   *
The cube turns scarlet neon, red-hot as an explosion. The room vibrates, then lurches crazily.
To read the rest of “The Oniomancer,” and discover what terrible troubles the Chinadoll gets into further with her unusual gift and whether and how she manages to survive, please join my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 help me while I recover from the Attack. I’ve posted brand-new stories and previously published stories, book excerpts, writing tips, movie reviews, and more exclusively for my patrons. You can also make a one-time pledge, if you like.
Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, worldwide links, beautiful covers, reviews, interviews, blogs, round-tables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, and more!
Meanwhile, Strange Ladies: 7 Stories (“A must-read collection”—The San Francisco Review of Books), in which “The Oniomancer” also appears, is in print and an ebook in eighteen markets on Nook, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. NOW IN PRINT at https://www.amazon.com/Strange-Ladies-Stories-Lisa-Mason/dp/1981104380/.

 

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright 2019 by Lisa Mason.
Cover, colophon, and art copyright 2019 by Tom Robinson.
All rights reserved.
PUBLISHING HISTORY
Bast Books Ebook Edition published July 9, 2019.
Bast Books Print Edition published August 13, 2019.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval, without permission in writing from the publisher.
For information address:
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Thank you for your readership! Visit Lisa Mason at her Official Web Site for her books, ebooks, screenplays, stories, interviews, blogs, cute pet pictures, and more. Enjoy!
Strange Ladies: 7 Stories
“Offers everything you could possibly want, from more traditional science fiction and fantasy tropes to thought-provoking explorations of gender issues and pleasing postmodern humor…This is a must-read collection.”
—The San Francisco Review of Books
“Lisa Mason might just be the female Phillip K. Dick. Like Dick, Mason’s stories are far more than just sci-fi tales, they are brimming with insight into human consciousness and the social condition….a sci-fi collection of excellent quality….you won’t want to miss it.”
—The Book Brothers Review Blog
“Fantastic book of short stories….Recommended.”
—Reader Review
“I’m quite impressed, not only by the writing, which gleams and sparkles, but also by [Lisa Mason’s] versatility . . . Mason is a wordsmith . . . her modern take on Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland is a hilarious gem! [This collection] sparkles, whirls, and fizzes. Mason is clearly a writer to follow!”
—Amazing Stories
Summer of Love, A Time Travel
A San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book of the Year
A Philip K. Dick Award Finalist
“Remarkable. . . .a whole array of beautifully portrayed characters along the spectrum from outright heroism to villainy. . . .not what you expected of a book with flowers in its hair. . . the intellect on display within these psychedelically packaged pages is clear-sighted, witty, and wise.”
—Locus Magazine
“A fine novel packed with vivid detail, colorful characters, and genuine insight.”
—The Washington Post Book World
“Captures the moment perfectly and offers a tantalizing glimpse of its wonderful and terrible consequences.”
—The San Francisco Chronicle
“Brilliantly crafted. . . .An engrossing tale spun round a very clever concept.”
—Katharine Kerr, author of Days of Air and Darkness
“Just imagine The Terminator in love beads, set in the Haight-Ashbury ‘hood of 1967.”
—Entertainment Weekly
“Mason has an astonishing gift. Her characters almost walk off the page. And the story is as significant as anyone could wish. This book will surely be on the prize ballots.”
—Analog
“A priority purchase.”
—Library Journal
The Gilded Age, A Time Travel
A New York Times Notable Book
A New York Public Library Recommended Book
“A winning mixture of intelligence and passion.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Should both leave the reader wanting more and solidify Mason’s position as one of the most interesting writers in science fiction.”
—Publishers Weekly
“Rollicking. . .Dazzling. . .Mason’s characters are just as endearing as her world.”
—Locus Magazine
“Graceful prose. . . A complex and satisfying plot.”
—Library Journal
Celestial Girl, The Omnibus Edition (A Lily Modjeska Mystery)
Passionate Historical Romantic Suspense
5 Stars
“I really enjoyed the story and would love to read a sequel! I enjoy living in the 21st century, but this book made me want to visit the Victorian era. The characters were brought to life, a delight to read about. The tasteful sex scenes were very racy….Good Job!”
—Reader Review
The Garden of Abracadabra
“So refreshing! This is Stephanie Plum in the world of Harry Potter.”
—Goodreads Reader
“Fun and enjoyable urban fantasy….I want to read more!”
—Reader Review
“I love the writing style and am hungry for more!”
—Goodreads Reader

April 2020 Excerpt:
10
At The Nepenthe Club
Luna Lightfoot prowls down Seventh Avenue, heading for the Ucayali Building, a pounce in her step, an invitation stored in the Archives of her Tatt. She can’t wait to see what the invite will bring.
Ucayali Corporation is the largest retailer of consumer goods and services on Chrome, the Moon, and Earth. Free two-day delivery on all the worlds with a Ucayali Supreme monthly subscription. The retailer operates on the Instrumentality and out of brick-and-mortar locations worlds-wide. The Ucayali Building is the most spectacular highrise in all of Chrome City, surpassing in magnificence even Emirk’s compound of skyscrapers. And in the penthouse of the Ucayali Building, atop fifty adamantine stories, awaits Lightfoot’s destination. The Nepenthe Club.
An invitation, a destination, and a meeting she wouldn’t miss for all the free-trade credits on Chrome.
She yawns, impolitely baring her fangs to whomever cares to gawk. A rowdy, vicious-looking pack of hyena Blends swaggers past and leers, ugly-doggish jaws agape. They’re decked out in criminal gang colors. Drunkenly chuckling.
They move on at the sight of her fangs.
That’s right, carrion cryptids. Mess with me and I’ll rip your freakin’ throat out.
Though of course she has never made a kill like that. Ever. And never would.
It’s the crime that counts, the Blends like to say, not the thought-crime.
The nocturnal niche is newly born. The sun sinks through the crystal-clear synthy atmosphere into the stark curve of Chrome’s horizon. The neighboring Moon looms large and silvery and pockmarked. Earth floats far away in the twilit sky, a distant wispy blue orb. How can people from that tiny orb pose such a threat to Chrome? But they do. They’re human beings and they do.
What a day. Lightfoot is drowsy and disgruntled from a restless, unsatisfying day-sleep. Her nerves have been on edge since she went to bed at sunrise. She kept waking up at the least little sound. The rumble of the recycling trucks emptying the bins in the alley behind Cave Cove. The wail of an ambulance carting accident victims to St. Francis Hospital. Someone’s radio on a bicycle blaring a lupine tune on Chrome’s hit parade.
She’s more stressed out than she cares to admit.
The most important advancement for every Blend on Chrome to come along in two centuries. Since Liberation Day.
What on Chrome could that be? What had the murderer meant?
When she had awakened in the late afternoon and tapped her Tatt, she discovered a messenger-icon waiting for her on the Instrumentality. The messenger-icon—a pigeon in a jaunty blue cap and gold-braided uniform—held out a sealed envelope, which Lightfoot opened with another wave of her Tatt.
Well, what do you know?
It was an invitation from Dom Swifty Panterr to join him for cocktails at the Nepenthe Club. “To discuss your impressions of Bunny Hedgeway’s Jamboree,” the messenger-icon dutifully cooed. “Was it a brilliant social success or the boring same-old? Cocktails Around Chrome has asked Dom Panterr to relate his account. He would greatly appreciate your cultured opinion.”
Lightfoot had laughed out loud. Winked her acceptance at once. Dismissed the messenger pigeon. The criminal kingpin, critiquing Bunny’s party for a society show after a murder was committed? In a million years. Maybe.
What is the real reason for Panterr’s invite? Try this. If anyone has moles planted deep in the Chrome City Police Department, Dom Panterr does. Lightfoot guesses he obtained insider lowdown from an informant. And tracked her, Lightfoot, through the Instrumentality. Therefore the messenger pigeon. Winks delivered on the Instrumentality aren’t as secure as a private wink, not even on Chrome. Or so the rumors say. And Lightfoot has not bumped Tatts with Dom Swifty Panterr. Therefore the pretense.
He wants to see her.
She definitely wants to see him.
Striding down Seventh Avenue, Lightfoot glances over her shoulder, more wary than her usual vigilance. Every species of Blend mobs the City in the interstices of the diurnal niche and the nocturnal. Diurnal Blends trudge home from their day-jobs, bound for their boroughs. Nocturnals, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, head off to their night-jobs or for an evening’s entertainment.
But everyone on Chrome is half human, too, and human beings notoriously live in every ecological niche. Dwell in hot climes and chilly. Function in the day and the night. Both predator and prey lurks in their chromosomes.
A pair of genets, their black-and-silver hair sweeping over their elegant shoulders, stride fiercely among a crowd of tittering chipmunks. Genets are predators. The chipmunks give them a wide berth.
Pert pastel dresses on the chipmunk ladies. Natty suits and bowties on the gents. Their little round faces giddy. Stripes of white and sable-brown rim their big, dark eyes. Chipmunks and squirrels do well in Chrome City’s banking business with their ancestral beast’s instinct for gathering and hoarding. Some are off to a dinner date and a movie, staying up in the nocturnal niche. But not too late.
Lightfoot smiles at the chipmunks but she greets the genets, brandishing her hand. Unsheathing and retracting her claws. She likes genet Blends, with their feline attitude. The genets grin, return the predator’s greeting. Brandish their hands. Retractable claws, way to go.
Not for the first time, Lightfoot admires the revolutionary beauty of Chrome. Viverrids and rodents mingle in the city without fear—not too much fear—because everyone has plenty to eat. Food is the first law of the jungle. Every Chromian should thank Emirk for the Vats and their GMO bounty. At least that.
One great big happy monstrous mutant cryptid half-human family, that’s Chrome.
Sort of happy. Sort of one great big family, each Blend engineered with a genetic heritage, not out of choice. Every Blend exiled on this planetoid for as long as Chrome exists.
Lightfoot shrugs. She can’t worry too much about happiness. Maybe happiness is overrated. Or maybe happiness is something you don’t know you’ve got till it’s gone.
At the corner of Seventh and Broadway, she strides up to the Ucayali Building. Pads past the exterior Security Eyes into the lobby. A luxurious cavern of rose-pink marble, the lobby boasts sustainable teak plank floors. Polished bronze fixtures. Abundant potted palms, dragon trees, and morning glories set the mood for a rainforest theme, recalling the corporation’s name. The Ucayali is the main tributary of that gigantic South American rainforest river down on Earth, the Amazon.
Lightfoot admires the display of Ucayali’s interworld wealth. The front desk where she has to check in strobes with security icons quite a distance away across the plank floors.
Can I stalk to the front desk without being seen?
Her pride in her puma talents took a serious blow when Xander King and Chan O’Nally informed her she was seen on Bunny Hedgeway’s rooftop. I don’t think so, she had said. Think again, the cops had said.
She was seen. Why else has Panterr summoned her?
She drops to a puma crouch. Stalks around a potted palm. Crouches, freezes motionless when a Security Eye swivels toward her. Stalks again, swiftly, stealthily. On silent puma feet. Reaches the front desk and startles a big-eyed screech owl smartly clad in a scarlet uniform.
“Hootenanny!” he exclaims, looking up from his monitors. “Where did you come from?”
“The front door,” she says and preens, pleased with herself. I haven’t lost my touch. She gives her name, presses her thumbprint on the ID pad. Asks him to inform Dom Swifty Panterr upstairs that Luna Lightfoot has arrived.
She nods to the elf owl staffing the elevator. Steps into a mirrored cab larger than her bathroom.
Going to the top?” the owl chirrups, winking his round yellow eye.
“Am I ever.”
At the entrance to the Nepenthe Club, a pretty hat-check gal informs Lightfoot she’s got to leave any weapons on her person in the cloakroom. The hat-check gal wears a neon nametag at her slender throat that strobes “Millie.” Little multicolored wings flutter on her bare shoulderblades.
“Millie,” Lightfoot tells the butterfly gal, “I am the only weapon I need.”
She steps through the Art Deco wickets of a metal detector. And she’s in.
All of Chrome City sprawls out around her. Lightfoot’s golden eyes widen at the cityscape.
Fifty stories up is high enough on a clear spring night to admire the towers topped with pyramids or domes or statues of the animal-headed gods and goddesses of Earth’s antiquity. There’s the Chrome City Chamber of Commerce. The Capitol Building and Capitol Plaza. The Chrome City Police Department Main Station. The blood-blue spires of the Emirk Corporation Building, the Emirk Intelligence Agency Tower. The emerald-green spires of the Bank of the Worlds Building. Hundreds of Earth embassies identified by glow-lit flags, many of them stacked one upon another in multicolored amalgamated blocks. They are locally staffed by hired Blends and by icons communicating through the Instrumentality. No human ambassadors are stationed here. Not for more than three days.
Lightfoot sniffs disdainfully. For any Chromian, Earth embassy work is a plum prize. Staffers tend to be chosen for the predominance of their human physical attributes.
There’s no accounting for taste, the Blends like to say.
Gigantic Eyes all over downtown blink nonstop ads for Cola, Diet Cola, Chocolate Cola, Coffee Cola, Cherry Cola, Termite Cola, Blood Cola.
Lightfoot has tried Blood Cola. The stuff is disgusting. Give her a Carnivore’s Bloody Mary any time.
But enough of the spectacular views outside.
Behold the Nepenthe Club!
Walls of curved glass hold the massive round room in a transparent embrace. Bar stools and banquettes of black-and-scarlet faux-leather flash glimmers of steel and rose-gold in rivets and rails. Imported walnut adorns the tabletops. Antelope Blends in sequinned costumes circulate among the dining tables and gaming suites, offering silver trays of illegal tobacco and soot.
Lightfoot trails her enraptured gaze over the most powerful predators on Chrome.
The white tiger sprawling in a corner booth is Tiaga Tigri Tremaine. A well-muscled specimen with sky-blue eyes in a masculine alabaster face framed by dark feline stripes around his eyes and cheekbones. The tiger slams the innards out of his opponents on Chromian football fields. Too bad he’ll never get the chance to compete against Earthians. Now there would be a match to watch. Tiaga Tigri mangling human athletes into a bloody pulp.
Lightfoot sighs. Tiaga Tigri. What a manimal.
The wolf seated at the bar, the one with the crafty gray eyes, high cheekbones, and hairsprayed coiffure? She is Peachy Lupster, a high-ranking official in the Bureau of Canine and Canid Affairs. She keeps her fangs filed, her face, arms, and legs waxed, and her tail well concealed in specially tailored dresses. Peachy strives for that all-important human look coveted by Chromian bureaucrats. But she can’t quite conceal her inner pack animal. Which is just as well. Maybe her inner pack animal is why she’s so successful in Chromian politics.
Peachy lets loose a belly laugh that would freeze Lightfoot’s blood in a deserted alley.
That’s a wolf. Prime womanimal.
And, at last, there’s Panterr in his customary tuxedo, minus the mask he sported last night at Jamboree. He holds court at a table of predators while he—Lightfoot notes—surrounds himself with gazelles. His specimen of choice? They’re tall, tall girls with big, glancing eyes and impossibly skinny faces. Their long legs are impossibly skinny, too, in skin-tight leggings leaving little doubt just how skinny they are.
Lightfoot hates gazelles.
You’d think that prey Blends would steer clear of a notorious predator. But maybe that’s the attraction. Aside from other attractions such as Panterr is fabulously rich, incredibly handsome, physically powerful, and dangerously criminally inclined.
Dangerous, Lightfoot reminds herself.
She slinks to his table. This is too fine. Panterr was first on the list of Chromians she wanted—needed—to talk to about what happened last night. But she had no idea how to contact him other than a public wink forwarded by some anonymous receptionist at Panterr Enterprise. Now he has invited her? Too, too fine.
“Luna Lightfoot,” Panterr says, rising to his feet. He pushes away the gazelle clinging to his arm, strides around the table to take both her hands in his. He unsheathes his claws, pressing the lethal tips against her palms. She boldly returns the predator’s greeting. “Cage free to you, puma lady. You look lovely. As always.”
The gazelle pouts. Trots off to the gaming tables.
His fierce eyes could melt metal with their heat. He wants something from her. Excellent. She wants something from him, too.
Reciprocity is the key to every relationship, the Blends like to say.
***
To discover the scintillating conversation between Lightfoot and Panterr, what is revealed, what concealed, and where they go to next, join my other patrons on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 and help me after the Attack. I’ve posted delightful new stories and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie reviews, original healthy recipes and health tips, and more exclusively for my heroic patrons! I’m even offering a critique of your writing sample per each submission.
Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, beautiful covers, reviews, interviews, blogs, roundtables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, worldwide links, and more!

10.18.17.3.ATHENA.IN.BOX_NEW

Greetings, my heroic patrons, fans and readers and people considering becoming patrons, and curious visitors!
Please Stay Safe! I don’t need to repeat all the instructions you’ve been given by governments, health officials, and the Internet. You’ve heard enough.
As for me, I can’t go out for exercise, have been using my stepper for physical therapy, and—ow ow ow!—the right hip and leg are much worse with the stepper after the violent criminal Attack on me. But enough about me.
For the April Patreon, I am presenting an exciting April 2020 Excerpt from CHROME, my new speculative five-star-rated novel.
I’ll post a patrons-only full rendition of my delightful story, “The Oniomancer,” about a humble Chinese-American girl who discovers she has a special talent. The story was originally published in 1988 in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, in foreign editions of Asimov’s, and in 2017 in Strange Ladies: 7 Stories.
An Afterword about the inspirations for the story (there are several) and research will be included.
For the April Writing Tip, I’ll discuss the use of metaphor in genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, and horror) and why you should tread lightly with such “literary” writing in genre fiction.
And I’ll review (and give my recommendation of) a 2004 independent movie, “Sideways,” about a fortyish writer, struggling to get his first novel published, who takes his best friend, about to be married, on a bachelor party in the wine country.
Did you know you can post a one-time pledge on my Patreon page? Or for only two bucks per post, or more if you like, help me recover from the violent criminal Attack on me.
Stay Safe! Did I say that already? People can’t say that enough! Stay Safe!
Join my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 help me while I recover from the Attack. I’ve posted brand-new stories and previously published stories, book excerpts, writing tips, an offer to edit your writing sample per submission, and more exclusively for my patrons. You can also make a one-time pledge.
Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, worldwide links, beautiful covers, reviews, interviews, blogs, round-tables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, and more!