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An astute, socially relevant tale, set in a world that readers will happily get lost in. —Kirkus Reviews 02/14/2017

Matiasz (End Time) has crafted a world that’s a hotbed of political intrigues and ideologies, where war simmers on the horizon. —Publishers Weekly 02/10/2017

(Matiasz) extends current trends ingeniously to provide a context for characters winning their individual illuminations and liberations. —Iven Lourie, Inner Journeys

[H]ighly professional but intelligent, a rare combination in fiction. —Small Press Review





  • Chapter Two

    The Red Havana burned out sometime after Becky Wiley recognized the outline of an armored truck on the gestalt sensor sweep. She chewed on the dead cigar stump as she carefully studied the computer-enhanced image. The truck appeared to be a Ford P-750, 2018 model, half buried in the gutted ‘burbs past the gray zone, well into No Man’s Land. Nicknamed “the gray tortoise,” the P-750 was encased in layered plasteel armor, which would be worth plenty even if empty.

    It looked too damned easy.

    She locked her skyring, Kalinda, into the casual flight arc that would eventually take her back to the location of the potential salvage. Becky returned her attention to early evening landscapes beneath the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains, watching them through Kalinda’s smart cockpit cyglass. The mountain peaks were steeped in sunset hues.

    She sat lanky in her steel-blue flight suit and black tactical boots, with a strong jaw, sharp nose, and short-waved, red-black hair. Her green-gray eyes were half shut as she checked the sensor array once again. No IRs in the area, but that could be camouflage.

    It was probably a trap.

    “What’s your take on it, Kali?”

    “Five to one, baby,” the ring’s AI said, her words a verbal sneer.

    “One in five,” Becky mused. “Fire a shuriken on approach.”

    She heard her mother’s chastising pack-a-day voice as she relit the Red Havana with a safety match and puffed it into life. The cigar’s fierce red glow limned the smoke as the cloud layered with the cool blues, greens, and yellows of Kalinda’s instrumentation. The spooky light of sensory screens on scan mode ghosted the cockpit’s dark interior.

    Outside and at a distance, the threatening darkness of No Man’s Land frayed into the gray zone’s spotty light. Illuminated suburban clumps and strings quickly congealed into the patchwork remnants of southern California’s leading metropolis. Nucity L.A.’s glinting, gaudy arcology rose over this sprawl almost a kilometer into the brooding evening, far behind Becky’s right shoulder like a defiant, completed tower of Babel surrounded by animated mega- advertisements. The lights from Lemuria West smudged green and gold across the hazy ocean horizon beneath trails of muddy sunset.

    It took thirteen minutes, twenty-three seconds by Kalinda’s clock for them to swing back over the target.

    “You and I both know it’s probably an ambush, Kali,” Becky said.

    “But if the shuriken bounces, we take it.”

    “If it’s a trap, they’re IR-screened,” Kalinda pointed out. “I’ll have to respond on sound and motion.”

    “Let’s just hope they don’t outgun us.” Becky took another long puff on her dwindling cigar, confident despite the admonition.

    “Quarter VR?” Kalinda asked, suggesting the percentage of surveillance the AI should provide for Becky while she worked.

    “Sure,” she said. “And Kali, we’re far enough downrange…”

    “Got it.” Kali was now keyed to respond with maximum lethal force.

    The supersonic shuriken bounced off of certified plasteel armor, or something equally as hard, so Becky took Kalinda down on a spiral. The bandits in the suburban ruins, one crew at least, jumped the gun. They fired an Arrow missile, which was easily dodged by the skyring. Kalinda zeroed in on them and laid down a withering initial barrage. Three empty houses nearby immediately ignited amid bright billows of startled parrots.

    The ambushers were pinned down by the time the skyring settled over the armored truck. Becky dressed in full cylink body armor before exiting the ring through the safety hatch. She noted the Brink’s logos on the vehicle’s exposed surfaces as she used an industrial laser to carve up the plasteel like butter. Kalinda covered her with demanding, deadly fire.

    Becky watched the battle, projected in virtual reality on the left side of her combat goggles, as she worked. Two berserkers, one a tall black woman with an orange mohawk, fell beneath the skyring’s automatic lasers before they could throw their grenades. A green-haired white hoodlum, wearing nothing except neon war paint, collapsed while still swinging a plastique boomerang when one of Kali’s razor bolas took out his legs. The boomerang’s blue-white explosion took out three additional outlaws. Two leather-clad street gangsters bounded in on green exoskeletal RooFrames and were transformed into screaming, colliding pincushions under Kali’s hail of venomous nanodarts. Silent in order to avoid disturbing Becky’s concentration while she worked, Kalinda snarled “Bitch!” as the AI chased a racing Nukizer mounted with a Northrop Grumman cannon firing short bursts at the skyring. Kali finally hit the vehicle with a laser bolt to the fuel tank, causing it to burst into a satisfying ball of flame.

    Kalinda was programmed with the experience of thousands of chess and Go masters, as well as hundreds of military strategists and tacticians, so Becky knew the AI could handle these bozos. Easily. Her job was the salvage.

    Becky noticed a few small, old-style security cases tumbled together in the truck’s large, exposed cargo compartment. She managed to scoop them into the ring’s lift before she finished slicing up the plasteel. By the time she raised her booty into the bay, the surrounding blocks of abandoned tract homes were ablaze and the surviving ambushers were on the run.

    “Looks like they got three or four salvors before we came along,” Becky said, examining Kalinda’s record of the battle on the flight home. “There was stripped wreckage stashed everywhere around the Brink’s. They were using it for bait, just like I figured.”

    “They won’t be bringing down any more,” Kali said. “Their overconfidence was a help. Fiery the angels fell.”

    “You implying they almost took us down?” she asked. She reached for another Red Havana from the case next to her flight sling and felt the ache of sore shoulder muscles.

    “If it weren’t for some of your modifications, we’d be their salvage now.” Kali’s tone was neutral.

    Becky thought about it as she stared out of Kalinda’s smart canopy into the night. Kali flew a low, evasive course back home to Mother Colony. No running lights. Brilliant white and blue maglev railways veined the northwestern horizon. She struck another safety match to light the second cigar. Several LAPD battle units shot away from the nucity’s serrated gold and silver crown, only now responding to their firefight with the ambushers.

    “They had decent firepower,” Becky acknowledged, puffing meditatively. “Sonics. Plastique. Percussives…”

    Kali came to the bottom line.

    “They also had an x-ray pulse cannon mounted on a Jeep. And they knew enough about my design to do some damage. I hit them hard after their premature attack, but they fired the cannon four times before I knocked it out. Three times dead on my engine casings, the fourth dead on my AI core. Luckily, they didn’t realize you had monoplated those crucial components. Otherwise, those punk-ass bandits might have tried taking potshots to bring us down— dangerous considering how compact I am.”

    Becky had fallen in love with Kalinda’s tight Hummingbird line of skyrings, depending upon them for her life in the Amazon water wars. She’d decided on salvage and repossession after military service and bought a govsurp bird six years ago. High performance plastics, graphene and carbon cubed, silicon carbide, maraging steel, a spectrum of metaglass—she had acquired materials that had strength, toughness, and flexibility, but were simultaneously lightweight, heat resistant, and potentially cyber smart. Kalinda emerged as she rebuilt the skyring from top to bottom, inside and out, on a couple of interest- free GI loans.

    Although Kalinda had originally been designed to accommodate four crew members with room for two passengers, Becky had sharply reduced operations space to two plus one. She’d installed the latest compact super-alloy Euro propulsion units, upgrading to Mach III just last year. And she’d spared no expense in obtaining the most advanced miniaturized weapons hardware available, whether military, corporate, or black market. Consequently there had been ample cargo storage for the plasteel, the security cases, and more.

    Becky had put in a standalone AI to bring the craft entirely under her command. And she hadn’t used just any AI for Kali’s brain. Her ring was equipped with the same type of AI employed frontline by the Pentagon, a Morrigan configurationintegrated with a basic Badb/Macha security architecture employing a Nemain data structure. A Unix-derived Khattiya operating system handled the hardware, and in turn, was informed by a comprehensive software library of tactics and strategy. To this she’d added that hard-as-nails voice stolen from Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Lt. Ellen Ripley in a series of 20th- century sci-fi alien monster films.

    Kali was now the lean, high-tech fighting machine that the Hummingbird skyrings should have been, back when they were prowling what was left of Brazil’s smoking green jungles a decade ago. Becky’s salvage work was just as dangerous, even discounting urban legends like the killer ahuizotl houses.

    She launched a string of blue smoke rings into the cabin’s murky atmosphere, suddenly aware she’d been up since dawn.

    “All right, we buy upgrades with this haul.”

    “You should make a nice personal profit from the plasmetal,” Kalinda chimed. “Even after my improvements.”

    Becky smiled, her mind quickly calculating markets and sales. “That’ll go toward vacation time. Costa Rica, here I come.”

  • Becky Wiley



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