Hello all – I’m furiously editing away on Captivate, the sequel to Manipulate. It’s slow going, as I’m busy with a few other things right now, but I thought I’d post a teaser chapter to help you wait! 🙂 This may not be the final version of this chapter – I usually go back and tweak the first chapter after I’m ALL DONE editing the rest of it – but this is what I have now!
The Spo space station could be seen from the surface of the Earth, if you were careful enough to look at the right time of night in the right direction. And if you did, and you waved, and the space station saw you (via satellite, of course), it would wink.
Only a few people knew about this, but word was getting around, and more than a hundred people had now waited on their roof or their front lawn and watched the blip of light sail across the sky – and (wondering if their friends were only having a good laugh at them) they’d waved.
And Akemi, who among other things now had the honor of being the space station, winked her lights in recognition.
She may have been forever exiled from Earth and from her own body (she was part of an alien computer now, hence all the space for satellite feeds), but anyone who took the trouble to look up and wave at her, received a cheery wink in appreciation.
Sadly, the secret of her existence was still so little known that no eyes were turned towards her when she streaked across the sky for the final time, blazing with enemy fire.
Chapter 1 – Akemi
The escape pods burst out of her skin like boils, and smoke roiled through her halls, blinding her view from the cameras.
She frantically monitored water systems and airlocks, trying to isolate the fire from the few people still aboard; but so much of the space station was burning! Most of the station’s protections were automatic, so there was little she could do but watch and wait. The station’s heat censors (which usually would tell her where people were located, by body heat) were overloaded with fire, and told her nothing. The video monitors were obscured by smoke, so all she had were the escape pod records of how many aliens and people were aboard each pod as they blasted off. So far there were 21 of 22 pods away, and nearly 150 souls accounted for. But the souls she cared the most about, her sister Nat and Nat’s boyfriend, Sam, were still on the space station.
She knew because she had a direct link to their iGlasses, and from the tiny camera embedded in the frame she could see that they were both still stumbling through the smoke filled halls.
She couldn’t see much else, but she knew they were getting near the engine room, where the computer that housed her brain was located. Occasionally she caught a glimpse of Nat’s ashy face when Sam glanced at her, but that was all she could see. Now she heard Sam’s hacking cough over the whine of warping plastic and the wail of alarms.
ARE YOU BREATHING THROUGH YOUR SHIRT? STAY LOW. She put the words in the iGlasses’ heads up display. They transparently overlaid Sam’s vision.
“I know, I am low,” he said. But she saw him crouch lower still and put a hand on Nat’s back to push her lower as well. “We’re almost there. Don’t let the last pod go,” he added.
Akemi wouldn’t. Half her attention was on that last escape pod. There were four people on board already, she wasn’t sure who, and they were pounding on the release button. It was like a fingernail on a chalkboard – release, release, release – pinging each time they whacked the button. But the pod wasn’t going anywhere yet, she’d put an override hold on it. Whoever was inside surely thought it was broken, and must be panicking.
Unfortunately there wasn’t a computer display in the pod, so Akemi couldn’t explain to them why it wasn’t responding. She felt bad for their undoubted terror, but there were two more people to get on that escape pod (three counting her), and there was no way she was letting it go without them. And, not to be selfish, but she didn’t want to die here either.
Just then Sam and Nat’s glasses cleared, and Akemi got a better view. They were at the engine room. They stumbled across the room to the biobank, the portion of the computer that connected to the biological operating system (in this case, her brain). It had a small door, like a microwave oven, and Sam jerked it open.
WAIT WAIT! Akemi shouted into his glasses. When you take me out I’ll be disconnected from you.
I’ll leave the hold on the escape pod, but you have to know how to release it…
Akemi told them both exactly what command to use, once they reached the escape capsule.
THAT’S IT. HOPE THIS WORKS…
And everything went softly black, like a smothering pillow. Like liquid smoke.
Akemi slowly became aware again, like a computer rebooting without enough RAM to hold its whole operating system.
So for a moment she merely thought…
Earth orbit, she finally thought groggily. The space station would eject us in stable earth orbit, roughly half way between Earth and the moon’s orbit.
“Akemi, can you hear me?” Nat’s voice.
“Is she responding to you?” Sam’s voice. “I’m not getting anything.”
“- and why in hell you had the gall to hold my escape pod? I could have you court marshaled for risking the lives of everyone on this pod, and yourselves too, just to retrieve a computer –” An angry voice.
“Oh, shut up.” That was Sam again.
It’s laright. Alright. I’m here.
Akemi sent the message to their display.
“Akemi, please respond if you hear us.” Nat was starting to sound frantic.
Can’t you see this? I’m fien. Fine.
From the camera on Nat’s glasses, Akemi could see Sam fiddling with a large black sphere the size of a basketball. There were thin power cords running from it to the capsule’s rudimentary computer system. Sam held up the sphere to look on the bottom, running his fingers over several small inlets there.
“It doesn’t look damaged,” he said.
Her brain was in there. For all intents and purposes, that black ball was her. Unbelievably creepy. She knew it, of course, but being joined with a ship or space station was one thing. Seeing the tiny container holding the remains of her real body…
YOU CAN’T SEE MY OWRDS? WORDS?
But Akemi was realizing what was wrong. The capsule computer was almost nonexistent. It could hold them in a stable orbit until it got within proximity of a Spo ship. Then the capsule computer would automatically slave itself to the ship, which would handle docking and extraction of passengers.
In other words, she was lucky she could think at all, or receive anything from their iGlasses, but she certainly didn’t have the capacity to send data to them.
She was trapped.
Nat was running her hands over the cords, probably checking for breaks. “I don’t know. I don’t want to unplug and replug her more than I have to. It could cause errors.”
Angry voice again, “I don’t appreciate you mucking around with the controls! How do I know you won’t make our capsule spin into the sun?”
Sam and Nat both finally looked at the man, and Akemi saw that it was Senator Fontley – the newly elected representative of humanity to the Council. He took himself very seriously, and had already rubbed up badly against Sam and the Spo. He didn’t look very imposing at the moment, with his clothes thrown on in the middle of the night and his knees black with soot from crawling through the halls.
Sam rolled his eyes. “We can’t spin into the sun; it’s hundreds of thousands of miles away. If we spin into anything, it’ll be the moon.”
The Senator’s hand twitched, like it was just itching to slap someone. “Well then –”
“We won’t do that either,” Sam said firmly. His voice was still rough from the smoke. “This capsule couldn’t go off course if it tried. We’re trying to save our friend, so if you could kindly PIPE DOWN – “
“You watch your mouth. The Spo may think you’re an adult, but you’re not. This only proves my point…” He went on, but Sam and Nat had turned away from him.
There were three other Spo with them in the capsule. Akemi recognized one of them as a kind of handyman on the space station, the other two she didn’t know. That meant they were probably visiting the space station from the Spo planet and probably didn’t speak English.
Sam had come to the same conclusion. He spoke in Spo, briefly. “I apologize for delaying the capsule. It is our responsibility to preserve this computer. Our capsule should be retrieved as soon as possible.”
They flushed a neutral gray. “Acceptable,” said the oldest Spo. He gestured to Nat and the sphere. “Responsibility calls.”
Akemi tried to collect herself. She couldn’t send messages to Sam and Nat the way she usually could. How could she let them know she was here… and mostly error free?
Nat had taken off her glasses and was examining them.
Sam was fiddling with the ports in the wall of the capsule. “I think I should rewire her to this port. See this here? It should have at least half again as much capacity… I should have thought of that originally, but I didn’t. That might work.”
Akemi did not want him to rewire anything. Please, she thought, please, not all that nothingness again. But she had no way to tell him to leave it alone.
Almost all the equipment in the glasses was for input – she could monitor their temperature, their head and eye movement, speed (if they were in a car or something), and of course, see everything they saw. The only output, the only way she communicated, was with the data display.
Oh, she mentally kicked herself, except for the antitheft protocol. She could overheat the glasses so that they would burn whoever tried to wear them without permission.
Sam’s glasses were still on his face, so she focused on Nat, who was still holding hers in her hand. Normally Akemi’s output to the glasses was as easy as talking, but now she had to focus. Port 17… the capsule computer was so slow. She painfully made the connection to Nat’s glasses and sent the heating command.
Nat frowned and put her glasses back on her nose.
Even in Akemi’s weakened state she felt a flare of pride at the glasses she’d chosen. They were designer frames, each specifically chosen for Nat and Sam and wow, Nat’s made her look gorgeous. Smart and gorgeous.
“OW!” Nat flung her head forward and the glasses flew across the capsule. Akemi got a whirling view from that camera. Pants –ceiling – pants – ceiling – shoes.
“What happened? Are you alright?” Sam was bending over Nat whose hands covered her face.
“What is it?” the Senator said.
“Anke butte? Elsse butte!?” From the Spo.
Shoot shoot shoot! Akemi’d never tried the antitheft device before (which now seemed like a major oversight), and now she’d burned her sister.
Nat sat back, just touching her nose gingerly with her fingers. “It’s fine. Ow. Yeah, it’s okay.”
From the camera on Sam’s glasses, now very close to Nat’s face, she could see a ridge of red on the bridge of Nat’s nose, and two red ovals on each side. The skin around her eyes was tight and pink, like a bad sunburn, and the whites of her eyes were a little bloodshot.
Nat started to laugh with relief. “Seriously Akemi! Watch it. That might leave a mark.”
Sam took a second.
“Oh. Antitheft. Well, I guess we know she’s okay.” He laughed somewhat shakily (fading adrenaline) and put his arm around Nat, kissing her forehead. “That was unnerving. And very dramatic.”
“Akemi. I gather you can’t send data at the moment? No need to reply. We’ll get you all ship shape as soon as possible. I’ll have them bring a mobile unit to the capsule, and we’ll make sure you’re squared away with that one before unplugging you here.”
He leaned over and touched the edge of Nat’s glasses with his finger. “Just warm now.”
He handed them back to Nat who folded them up and slipped them in her shirt pocket. “No offense, Akemi,” she said. “My nose is a little sore.”
Sam looked at Senator Fontley, who was staring at them.
“She’s not alive anymore,” he said. “That’s a hunk of meat in that black ball. You can pretend otherwise, but it only shows that you deal better with wishes than reality.”
Nat caught her breath.
Sam glared at him. “I won’t say this again, and I only say it now because there are practically no witnesses – but you are the most close-minded, selfish, and arrogant human being I have ever met. And you have no idea what you’re talking about. As usual.” Sam took a deep breath. “However, as I’ve told you before, I’ll try not to undermine you during negotiations.”
The three Spo looked on with interest and one was flushed with a color of amusement. That one clearly spoke English, Akemi thought wryly.