Escape to the year 2050 by reading the first three chapters from Bluescreen by Dan Wells – a new sci-fi noir thriller! Los Angeles in 2050 is a city of open doors, as long as you have the right connections. That connection is a djinni—a smart device implanted right in a person’s head. In a world where virtually everyone is online twenty-four hours a day, this connection is like oxygen—and a world like that presents plenty of opportunities for someone who knows how to manipulate it.
Start reading the first three chapters below!
“Quicksand’s down.” Sahara’s voiced hissed across Marisa’s comm. “Fang, too. I made it out of the fight but only barely.”
“They got Anja in a double blitz,” said Marisa, crouching behind the lip of a shattered skylight. “I tried to save her but I was doing recon on the other side of the roof; I couldn’t make it back in time.” The battle had moved past her for the moment, distant gunfire echoing through the shattered ruins of the old industrial complex. The bulk of the fighting was down on ground level, leaving her hidden but desperate on the top of an old factory, gasping for breath. She checked her rifle: a long, black Saber-6 that fired pulses of microwave energy. There were only two charges left.
“Protecting Anja is your job,” said Sahara harshly. “You were supposed to have her back. Now you and I are the only ones left.”
Marisa winced. “I know, I’m sorry. I lost track of the battle, and you told me to recon the other side of the roof—”
“I also told you bring cameras on this run,” Sahara snapped. “They could have reconned for you, and you could have stayed with your Sniper. Don’t blame me when you— Damn, they found me.” Sharp staccato gunfire crackled through Marisa’s headset from two directions: the distant pops from the actual battle, and the louder, closer barks transmitted directly from Sahara’s comm. Marisa muted the sound and checked her visor display, watching Sahara’s embattled icon move across the wireframe map of the factory complex. She had a small group of bots to back her up, maybe six or seven, but there was a wave of enemies swarming toward her, and more icons popped up on Marisa’s display as Sahara identified them: two, three, four . . .
“You’ve got all five enemy agents on you,” said Marisa.
“Then get off your ass and help me!” roared Sahara.
Marisa jumped up and sprinted across the rooftop, her black bodysuit nearly invisible in the starlight—though with all five of the enemy focused on Sahara, Marisa had little fear of being spotted now. There were guard drones on the rooftops with her, but her optic armor made her undetectable to their sensors—they wouldn’t bother her unless she bothered them first. As she ran, she cataloged her assets, racking her brain for any advantage that might help save Sahara and salvage the mission. Sahara’s words still stung: it was Marisa’s job to protect Anja, and that made it Marisa’s fault that Anja was dead. Sahara had told her to bring cam drones, but she’d insisted on trying a new loadout for this run. She should have stuck with what she knew. The drone kit would have given her not only cameras but gun drones, mobile weapon turrets she could have locked onto Anja, sniping anything that got too close. Those same guns could be down there right now saving Sahara, too.
Marisa shook her head. It didn’t do her any good to whine about it now. She’d brought what she’d brought, and she’d have to make do. She couldn’t win the battle, but maybe she could . . . what? She had nothing that would be useful in a firefight: a stealth kit, and some new tech, just released, that she’d wanted to try out: force projectors. It had been fun using the gloves to knock enemy agents off the top of the factory, but what now? Even if she could get to the battle in time, the projectors didn’t have the range to hit anything on the ground from up here, and she didn’t have the armor to get in close. And a couple of force wave shoves weren’t going to save the day in a five-on-two gunfight anyway.
She leaped over a short gap between buildings and kept running. Her visor showed her the specs of her new gloves, detailing exactly what they could generate: a force wave to knock people back, a force wall that could block a door or an alley, and a force field she could throw out as a temporary defense. It was crowd control and protection—all things that might have saved Anja, if Marisa hadn’t left her, but wouldn’t provide enough to help Sahara now that she was cornered and outnumbered. The enemy agents were going to kill her, and with most of Sahara’s defensive turrets already destroyed, they’d roll right through the factory to Marisa’s base and destroy it. The mission was lost, and the Cherry Dogs were dead.
Sahara’s voice screamed across the comm, using Marisa’s call sign instead of her name, “Heartbeat, help me!” Hearing her name refocused Marisa on the task at hand—she was an Agent, and she had a job to do; dead or not, her team was counting on her. She would have to improvise.
She checked her visor again, zeroing in on the scene of the battle, and angled toward the corner of the roof. The ledge gave a perfect view of the ground below, which made it an ideal sniping spot; it was guarded by one of the biggest attack drones in the complex, a massive Mark-IX, but Marisa slipped past it in her optic armor and dropped to one knee, leveling her rifle and looking through the scope. Sahara was pinned down in a dead-end alcove, kneeling behind a heavy cement wall—probably the corner of an old fusion reactor. She only had a few bots left, crouched in the rubble and firing blindly at the enemy swarm. The five enemy agents had taken up positions in the street, surrounded by their own army of bots, using old delivery trucks as cover and concentrating their fire on Sahara’s position. It was a perfect kill zone.
“I’m right over you,” Marisa whispered.
“Do you have a shot?”
“Not a great one.” She looked up at the Mark-IX towering over her—a humanoid model bristling with blades and armor and a belt-fed chain gun on its shoulder. “I’ve got two charges in the rifle, but I’m right underneath an attack drone. As soon as I take the first shot he’ll spot me, so I’m not going to get a second.”
“Then make it count,” said Sahara grimly.
Marisa nodded, scanning her targets and drawing a careful bead on the enemy Sniper. She breathed carefully, calculating the angle, aiming just a little high to account for the distance—
—and then she got an idea.
“Heartbeat, are you going to shoot or not?”
Marisa backed up, slinging the rifle over her shoulder and looking more closely at the attack drone. “You’ve got the laser kit, right?”
“Of course: I actually brought what I was supposed to.”
Marisa held in a sigh. “Can you paint a target for me?”
Sahara was growing more frustrated. “Can’t you pick your own target? How many times have you practiced with that rifle?”
“I’m not using the rifle,” said Marisa. She planted her feet wide, bending her knees and bracing herself against the coming shock wave. She raised her hands, palms forward, keeping her eyes on the drone.
“What are you doing?”
Marisa turned on the projectors, building up a charge. “Just paint me a target, right in the middle of their group.”
Sahara grumbled, but her icon moved on the wireframe map, and a moment later a pillar of light shot up from the center of the factory floor. “That’s the enemy General,” said Sahara. “The rest of his team is within ten feet of him, but one bullet isn’t going to be able to take them all out.”
“That’s why I’m not using bullets. Now stay out of sight.” Marisa moved slightly to the left, putting the attack drone in a direct line between her and the pillar of light. “Catch this, chango.”
She fired the force projectors with all the juice they had, a blast that would have sent a human target flying across the map. The drone, far bigger and heavier, flew backward only a little before it started to fall, arcing perfectly down toward the enemy General. The drone’s AI was basic: if it saw something that wasn’t a fellow drone, it killed it. Marisa’s attack had dropped the stealth mode on her armor, and the drone swiveled its gun toward her as it fell, sending a stream of bright white tracers buzzing toward her through the night; she was too close to avoid them, and staggered back as the rounds slammed into her armor. Then the Mark-IX landed, right in the center of the firefight, and with Marisa out of sight it swiveled again, acquired new targets, loosed a devastating hail of fire on the enemy agents.
“Great Holy Hand Grenades,” said Sahara. “Can you even do that?”
“Probably not a second time,” said Marisa, dragging herself to the edge and looking down at the chaos. The chain gun burst had nearly killed her, and she blinked to activate a healing pack. “They always patch the good toys as soon as we exploit them.”
“Respawned,” said Anja. “Quicksand and Fang are right behind me.”
“Just in time,” said Sahara. “Let’s hit them fast, before they recover. Tap into the drone and focus fire on its targets. Go!”
Marisa watched as Sahara and her soldiers popped up from behind their cover, firing forward at the enemy while the attack drone rampaged through their battle line. Marisa lined up her rifle and fired its last two shots, dropping the enemy Sniper as he fled from the Mark-IX, and then she watched as her respawned teammates caught up and decimated the rest of the enemy team. Marisa blinked on the comm.
“Sorry I got you killed, Anja.”
“Are you kidding?” Anja was flitting around the field with her jump pack, picking off stragglers while Sahara and the others mowed through the center of the enemy bots. “If we hadn’t been desperate, we never would have got to see that drone launch move. You come up with that?”
Marisa grinned. “Surprised?”
“Expect to see it all over the net by the weekend,” said Quicksand. “Another viral Cherry Dogs vid.”
“And another kit nerfed,” said Fang. “I was looking forward to trying the Force Projectors, but noooo. They’ll nerf the hell out of it now. It’s like Marisa specializes in breaking the game balance.”
“It’s what we do,” said Anja. “When all else fails, play crazy.”
A new wave of bots arrived to reinforce them, and together they finished off the drone and pushed forward to the enemy base. It had been a close game, and the enemy towers were already destroyed, so with all five enemy agents dead, the Cherry Dogs had an open lane to blaze in and pour all their damage onto the last few turrets. The enemy team respawned right as Marisa reached the base, but it was too late: the turrets went down, and the vault exploded.
“Cherry Dogs win!” The voice-over rolled through the factory, and the bots broke into their dance animation as triumphant music filled the comm. Marisa cheered, stretched her neck, and blinked out of the simulation. The factory disappeared, and she floated in nothingness for a second before the stat room materialized around her: a wide, round room full of benches and ringed with consoles, the walls covered with data from the battle. Marisa was still in her Overworld avatar: a skintight stealth suit—far skinnier than she was in real life—made of sleek black leather, with thin tracings of metal gadgets and exoskeleton. A basic design, but she was proud of it. The other team, Salted Batteries, was already in the lobby, laughing in shock at the sudden turn that lost them the game. That was a good sign. Not everybody could laugh off a loss like that. Sahara blinked in just as Marisa did, and strode forward to shake hands with the enemy General.
“Good game, guys,” she said. She was also in her avatar, though it was mostly just a digital copy of herself, maintaining her branding as a vidcaster; she didn’t even use a call sign, just her real name. The avatar matched Sahara’s dark brown skin to perfection, and wore a rich, red dress so tight she’d barely be able to walk if this wasn’t a video game. She smiled. “I really thought you had us there.”
“So did I,” said the General. His call sign was Tr0nik. They were all still in their game avatars as well, so Marisa didn’t know what he really looked like; his voice was male, and his accent Chinese, with the stilted vocabulary that marked him as learning most of his English on the net. “We didn’t think about giant killer robots falling out of the sky.”
“Hong Kong,” said Fang, blinking in to whisper in Marisa’s ear.
“How can you tell?”
“How can you tell when an American’s from Boston?” she asked. “He sounds like it. You need to practice your Chinese.” Fang was a Chinese native, living somewhere in Beijing; Marisa had never met her or Quicksand in real life, but they were some of her closest friends in the world.
“I know, I know,” said Marisa. Her mom was always telling her to study her Chinese, too. Marisa put on a smile and stepped forward to shake Tr0nik’s hand. “Good game.”
“Great game,” he said happily, and the rest of the team crowded around to offer similar congratulations. “That was a good tactic, to throw the Mark-IX. Have you done that before?”
“That was spur of the moment,” said Sahara, reinserting herself as the center of attention. She put her hand on Marisa’s back, smiling broadly. “Nobody thinks on their feet like the Cherry Dogs.”
“Play crazy!” said one of the other Salted Batteries. Anja’s catchphrase had been gaining notoriety almost as fast as their team had.
“You guys did a great job, and this was a great match,” said Sahara. She talked like she was in a beauty pageant. “Thanks for the game; we need the practice.”
“You’d better believe we want a rematch,” said Tr0nik. “Friend request sent.”
“Received and approved,” said Sahara with a smile. “Now: I hate to play and run, but we’ve got to go over these stats and get ready for the next one. Big tournament coming up.”
“Us too,” said Tr0nik. “Play crazy!”
“Play crazy!” Sahara smiled again, the perfect ambassador, and one by one the Cherry Dogs blinked out to their private lobby. Out of the public eye, Sahara’s cheerful persona dropped, and she rolled her eyes. “Play crazy. We almost lost that stupid game playing crazy.”
“I’m sorry I left Anja,” said Marisa. “I’m so used to playing with the cam drones, I just wasn’t keeping an eye on the map without them, and the other team got behind me.”
“With Fang and me down you couldn’t have done anything anyway,” said Quicksand. Her real name was Jaya, and she lived in Mumbai, but her English was flawless—better, Marisa admitted, than her own pocho blend of American and Mexican.
“I know we don’t have a real coach yet,” said Sahara, “but I do my best, and I told you to bring those . . .” Her voice trailed off, and her eyes had the slightly vacant look of someone watching a separate video feed. Marisa braced herself for another chastising tirade—Sahara was her best friend, but she could get angry when they played this sloppy. After a long pause Sahara shook her head. “You know what? Don’t worry about it. Yes, there was some bad play, and that win was way too lucky to rely on in a real match, but wow.” She smiled, and Marisa couldn’t help but smile with her. “There’s going to be replays of that drone launch all over the net for weeks, and in a practice game like this that’s worth more than a win.” She put a hand on Marisa’s shoulder, her eyes refocusing on her face. “And we have plenty of time to practice before the tourney, so don’t beat yourself up.”
Marisa cringed at the reminder, and couldn’t help feeling bad all over again.
“You up for another match?” asked Fang. “We ought to play with the Force Projectors a little more before word gets around, see what else they can do that no one’s thought of yet.”
“What time is it over there?” asked Marisa. “Like, one in the morning?”
“Sleep is for the weak,” said Fang. “Let’s do this.”
“It’s only half ten here,” said Jaya. “I can do another game or two tonight.”
“Only two?” asked Fang. “Weeeeeeak.”
“Ten a.m. in LA,” said Jaya. “Sahara, you and Marisa and Anja should be good for a few more hours of practice at least, right?”
“I haven’t slept since yesterday,” said Anja. She shrugged. “No sense sleeping now.”
“No. No more practice today,” said Sahara. “We’ve got to leverage this drone launch clip if we want to really get the word out.” She was growing audibly excited. “We haven’t had a really great exploit since Mari min-maxed the avatar builder, and that’s what put us on the map in the first place; something like this could take our reputation into the major leagues. I’ve got to spend a few hours at least cutting good angles out of the replay and submitting this to broadcasters.”
“Tomorrow, then,” said Fang. “Or tonight, depending on your time zone. I’ll run a few solo games with the new kit and see if I can get some good footage for you.”
“I’ll join you,” said Jaya. “Maybe we can play catch with a Mark-III.”
The two of them blinked out, and Marisa looked at Anja and Sahara. “I’ll see you around, then. The restaurant’ll be opening soon, see you there?”
“If I get a chance,” said Sahara. “I’ll ping you.”
“You ladies can come to my place,” said Anja. “Pool’s installed now.”
“A pool party at a mansion in Brentwood,” said Sahara with a smile. “That’ll play great on the feed.” She raised her eyebrows mischievously. “Let’s do it. Eight o’clock. Wear something revealing.”
Marisa faked a smile. “Anything for eyeballs?”
“Anything for eyeballs,” said Sahara. “See you tonight. Cherry Dogs forever.”
“Cherry Dogs forever,” said Marisa. Sahara blinked away, and Marisa stared for a moment at the spot she used to be in.
“I’ve got something great for the eyeballs,” said Anja. “You’re going to love it.”
“It’s the internet, Anja; they’ve seen boobs before.”
“Nothing that biological,” said Anja, and grinned wickedly. “See you tonight.”
“Tonight,” said Marisa. Anja blinked away, and a few seconds later Marisa did the same. She opened her eyes in her bedroom, cluttered and cramped, lying flat on her bed. Above her on the ceiling was an Overworld poster, the limited edition she’d bought at last year’s regional championship; it made the transition easier, she thought, to see a piece of that world as she entered the real one. She rubbed her eyes and sat up, looking around at the unfolded laundry and scraps of half-built computer equipment scattered haphazardly around the room.
She reached back for the cord, lightly touching the jack where it plugged into her skull. She never felt anything physical when she disconnected it—not even a tug, now that she’d upgraded her djinni to the Ganika 7. The new cord only connected with a weak magnetic link, so it could pull away freely if someone knocked it.
Even without a physical sensation, though, she always seemed to feel something else, something . . . psychological, she supposed. She yanked gently on the cord and it came away, severing her hard line to the net.
The real world. She hadn’t been here in a while.
The colors were so much duller.
Marisa Carneseca blinked, calling up her mail list. The djinni implanted in her head switched modes smoothly, projecting the words on her Ganika-brand corneas so that they seemed to float in the air in front of her, filling the room with dimly glowing letters. The icon for her spam folder was red and pulsing, and she dumped it without even bothering to look at what was inside. Her inbox showed two emails from her mother and five from Overworld—most of those probably ads, but there might be a few from Cherry Dog fans. She’d look through them later. Two emails from Olaya, the house computer; Marisa opened the folder and saw two repeats of the same passive demand for laundry access. She sighed and looked around; it had been a while, she had to admit. She saw a half bottle of Lift on the nightstand, and took a long drink.
She’d met a cute boy at a club a couple of nights ago, but his djinni had been so filled with adware she hadn’t accepted his ID link; instead she’d written it down, like in the old days, and the paper was buried somewhere in this pile of clothes—she couldn’t let the drone in until she’d checked all her pockets.
She blinked the house folder closed and scrolled down, rolling some of the stiffness out of her shoulders as she did. Her neck was pulling on the left again, where her natural muscles connected to her Jeon prosthetic. She lifted the artificial arm, splaying the fingers in front of her—it was her seventeenth birthday present, just a few months old. Obviously mechanical, but slender and elegant. Definitely a step up from the old SuperYu.
At the bottom of the mail list was a message from Bao, reminding her to ping him when she finished practice. She blinked on his number—no ID, because he didn’t have a djinni, just an old-style handheld phone with an old-style number. It made her laugh every time, like he was her abuela. She kept the video turned off while she stood up and looked around for pants.
Bao didn’t answer for almost thirty seconds. “Hey, Mari.”
“Hey. You in school?”
“Took me a minute to get out of class.”
Marisa smiled, sifting through a pile of old clothes. “If you’d get a djinni like a normal person you wouldn’t have to get out of class.”
“I need the break anyway. You’re done with practice already?”
Marisa examined a shirt, but discarded it. Too wrinkly. “Sahara ended it early on account of me being a genius.”
“I saw her post. Apparently you’ve broken the game again.”
“She’s already posted?” Marisa smiled.
“Just a sentence, says there’s a big video coming later. What’d you do, another costume exploit?”
“Powerset exploit,” said Marisa, finding a pair of black jeans and pulling them on as she talked. “Though I’m not even sure it’s an exploit, just a lucky play. For all I know they wanted us to start throwing the sentry drones around.”
“Throwing drones? This I’ve got to see.”
Marisa split her vision, calling up the live feed from Sahara’s vidcast. Sahara was sitting at her immaculate desk, the camera nuli watching from over her shoulder as her fingers flew across the touch screen, editing and sculpting the replay into a highlight video. She was wearing yoga pants and a T-shirt, her thick hair pulled up in a ponytail—a far cry from her evening gown avatar, but still impossibly adorable. Marisa shook her head. “How does she always look so good? We’ve been plugged in and lying down for three hours, and asleep all night before that, and she looks like she just got her hair done.”
“I’m sure you look great,” said Bao.
Marisa looked down at her own oversized nightshirt, and glanced at the mirror with a pained grimace. “I look like I’m hiding from the government.” Her dark brown hair was a squirrel’s nest of knots and tangles; the tips were dyed red, about four inches deep, which looked pretty cool when it was straight, but now it only added to the wispy chaos. She ran her hand through it, trying to smooth it down, and winced as she hit a snarl. She gave up for the moment and started hunting for a clean shirt. “You know what I think it is?” she told Bao. “I think she does it all before we practice. Nobody gets that cute, just-rolled-out-of-bed look by just . . . rolling out of bed.”
“You coming to school today?” asked Bao.
Marisa shrugged. “Probably not. I can do most of it online, and the rest of it . . . technically also online.”
“You can’t just hack all your grades.”
“Sure I can,” said Marisa with a grin, “unless you’re saying I shouldn’t just hack all my grades, in which case you might have a point.” She found a black blouse, fancier than she needed but the only presentable thing in the room. She really needed to let the laundry nuli in here. “You hungry?”
“I could eat.”
Marisa blinked back to Olaya while she buttoned her shirt, looking at her family list: her parents were both at the restaurant, and her three younger siblings were all at school. Or at least they were checked in at school; Marisa had learned how to spoof the GPS on her djinni when she was thirteen, and her siblings might have figured out the same trick. None of them really seemed like the type, though. Sandro, maybe—he was a genius with hardware, but he’d never dare to actually do it.
Marisa finished with her clothes and looked at the bottle of Lift. “I haven’t had anything today but a few sips of soda. Meet me for an early lunch?”
“Give me twenty minutes,” said Bao.
“I’ll need at least that long to wrestle with this hair before giving up and shaving it off.”
“Your mom’d kill you.”
“My dad’d kill me first.”
“Thirty minutes, then,” said Bao. “Saint Johnny?”
“Exactamente,” said Marisa. “See you there.” She ended the call and attacked her hair again, with a brush this time, grumbling curse words in three languages as she pulled on the knots. She slipped her feet into a pair of flats as she brushed, and took a last look at the room. Did she need anything else? The boy’s ID from the club was somewhere in this mess, if she could remember which pants she’d been wearing. Or had she been wearing a skirt? She tried to recall, and realized she couldn’t even think of the boy’s name. She shrugged and opened the door, laughing as the Arora laundry nuli burst in and started picking up clothes, rushing from pile to pile like an overstimulated robot puppy. She didn’t need the boy’s ID anyway. If he didn’t even know how to keep adware off his djinni, how interesting could he really be?
The wheeled nuli almost looked like it could think for itself: picking up each shirt and bra and pair of tights, considering it, and sorting it efficiently into one of several onboard baskets. But it was all an illusion of efficient programming. Each piece of clothing in the house was marked with an RF chip, and it was these the drone was reading; they carried instructions on exactly how to wash the clothes, how to fold them, and where to put them away. It was a good system, when it worked. Last year their cat, Tigre, had clawed a sweater to pieces, getting the tiny RF chip stuck in her fur. They didn’t have a cat anymore.
Marisa worked on her hair for another five minutes, linking her djinni to the bathroom mirror so she could read the Overworld forums in HD. People were already talking about the drone launch, including a video clip the Salted Batteries had posted, but it was still a relatively minor story. Much bigger news was the regional championship that had just wrapped in Oceana, with Xx_Scorcho_xX taking the cup. No surprise there. Apparently Flankers were ruling the meta, which Fang had been saying for a couple of weeks now, so that was something to think about. The American championships were coming up in just two weeks, but the Cherry Dogs weren’t on that level yet; someday, she told herself, but not yet. They had, however, landed a slot in the Jackrabbit Tourney, a kind of minor-league invitational showcase. If they did well there, they’d have a shot at a major tournament in the second half of the year. Marisa scanned through the Oceana tourney results until her hair was more or less fit for public display, and then blinked the forum back from the mirror to her djinni so she could read while she walked.
The hallway smelled like fresh tortillas and cigarette smoke, a combination of fair and foul so familiar Marisa couldn’t help but smile. It was her abuela, who hadn’t appeared on the house computer because she didn’t have a djinni; that was just as well, Marisa supposed, because she never left the house. They always knew exactly where she was: cooking in the kitchen. Marisa longed to slip in and grab a hot tortilla, fresh off the griddle, but she knew her abue would slap her with a chore or three if she saw her. Marisa slid out the back door instead—the old woman could barely see, and her hearing was worse. Marisa got away clean and stepped outside.
Los Angeles in 2050 was a hectic blend of past and future; it was one of the last great centers of business left in the US, and usually more interested in building new things than refurbishing old ones. The roads teemed with autocabs and rolling lounges, with a crisscross web of maglev trains and hypertubes bringing commuters in from all over the country. Steel and concrete and biowall buildings covered the hills and valleys like a carpet, bristling with solar trees that glittered green and black across the rooftops. Above them all the sky was thick with nulis, buzzing through the air in a million directions, so that the entire city looked like a hive of polymer bees in every possible shape and size.
Marisa lived in El Mirador, a midsize barrio that baked in the hot sun just east of downtown—not rich like Anja’s neighborhood, but not destitute, either. Vast swaths of LA were practically shantytowns these days, but Mirador was holding on.
One of the reasons for Mirador’s tenacity zoomed past on the road, a dark phantom in Marisa’s peripheral vision: the distinctive black outline of a Dynasty Falcon. Don Francisco Maldonado was the richest man in Mirador, and he helped keep the peace with his small army of private enforcers in Dynasty autocars. With most police work handled by remote drone, the Maldonado enforcers were almost as fast as, and certainly more attentive than, the actual law—though even the law was in Maldonado’s pocket, thanks to his eldest son working for the local precinct. The Falcon didn’t slow down as it passed Marisa, but she knew the man inside was giving her a long, hard look. There was no one in the world Don Francisco hated more than her father.
Marisa rubbed her prosthetic arm and kept walking.
Her family’s restaurant was barely a mile from their house, and an easy walk even in the scorching heat. Up until two years ago they’d lived behind the restaurant in a connected apartment, but her father had scrimped and saved and moved them to their new house the instant he could afford it. Sahara had moved in to the old apartment soon after; she’d never said why she left her parents’ place, and Marisa had never asked. Marisa’s parents hadn’t pried either, and Marisa figured they saw it as an opportunity to be a good influence on their daughter’s friend. Sahara paid her bills and kept her grades up, so it all worked out. Marisa didn’t imagine Sahara would make it to lunch, being too busy with the video and her various media contacts, but that was just as well. Sahara’s life was a twenty-four-hour vidcast, and Marisa wanted more time with her hair before the entire internet saw her in it.
Marisa’s djinni pinged with a call from her mom; she blinked to answer. “Hey, Mami.”
“Oye, chulita. Olaya told me you left; are you going to school?”
“I’m about halfway to you, actually. You got chilaquiles?”
“For breakfast? Ay, muchacha, this is why you don’t have a boyfriend. Who wants to kiss that breath?”
Marisa rolled her eyes. “Ay, Mami . . .”
“You’ll get your homework done online?”
“I’ll tell Papi to start some chilaquiles. What does Bao want?”
“How’d you know Bao was coming?”
“I’m your mother, Marisita. I know everything.”
“Then you know better than I do what he wants,” said Marisa with a laugh. “See you in a few.” She closed the call and waited at a busy corner, watching the autocars weave through traffic in their intricate hive mind dance.
Each storefront she passed read Marisa’s ID from her djinni, checked it against her commerce profile, and filled its window with personalized ads. Most people would be getting pop-ups directly to their djinni, but Marisa had firewalled those out years ago. The last thing she needed was a two-for-one hairstyling coupon blocking her vision. The wide front window of a clothing store pulled a picture of Marisa from somewhere on the net, shopped their latest sundress onto her, and displayed it in HD for the entire street to see: On Sale! Only ¥20/$123! She stopped to look and the 3D image rotated; Marisa was pretty sure the automated photo alteration had slimmed her waist a bit as well, just to make the dress look more appealing. Clever, but rude. She considered hacking in through their Wi-Fi and displaying some incendiary political figure in the same dress, just for revenge, but laughed and walked away. It wasn’t worth the time.
The family’s restaurant was called San Juanito, named for the Mexican logging town where her father had lived as a boy. It was still early for lunch, not quite eleven, but the lights were on and the ad board was already grabbing the IDs of passersby to offer them the daily specials. It read Marisa’s as soon as she got close, identified her as a regular, and greeted her by name.
“Welcome back to San Juanito, Marisa Carneseca! Would you like a free horchata today?”
She walked inside, and caught her mother halfway to a table, a tray of waters balanced carefully on her hand. “Buenos días, Mami.” She kissed her on the cheek. “Is Bao here yet?”
“Table twelve.” Guadalupe de Carneseca was a tall, broad woman, fair-skinned, and with her hair dyed a faint reddish blond. “How was practice?”
“Better every game. Just you today?”
“Everyone else is in school,” said her mother, “unless you want to put on an apron and help wait tables.”
Marisa stuck out her tongue and made a gagging noise. Her mom used the kids as cheap waitstaff when she could, and Marisa hated it. “Just buy a nuli already—you’re, like, the only restaurant in the world that still uses live waiters.”
“And our customers appreciate the personal touch,” said her mother. “Go sit down. I’ll be there in a bit.” She bustled off, delivering waters to a table in the back, and Marisa tried to remember which was table twelve. Even this early, the restaurant was filling up, and Bao was just skilled enough—and just mischievous enough—to be impossible to find in a crowd. A handy skill when you fed your family by picking tourists’ pockets in downtown Hollywood. After a moment she gave up, checked the diagram on the restaurant computer, and walked straight to him.
“Well done,” said Bao with a grin. He was half-Chinese and half-Russian, and looked just enough like each to blend perfectly into either crowd. He was wearing all black, like Marisa, but whereas her clothes were designed to be noticed, his were designed to disappear. If he didn’t catch you with his deep, piercing eyes, you might never notice him at all.
“I cheated,” said Marisa.
She took a drink of water, the ice so cold that the glass was drenched in condensation. The shock in her mouth made her shiver. “You didn’t get caught leaving school?”
“You insult me.”
“I never understand how you do that. Security’s so tight in that place; it’s like a prison.”
“Their digital security is tight,” said Bao. “Try to walk through any door in that building with an implant and fifty different security guards will know about it instantly. But when you’re the only kid in school without a djinni, they tend to forget that sometimes plain old eyes are better.”
Marisa nodded, taking another sip of ice water. How many times had they had this conversation? “Seriously: what kind of weirdo doesn’t have a djinni? That’s like not having . . . feet.”
“Some people don’t have feet.”
“Not by choice. A djinni is a phone, a computer, a scanner, a credit card, it’s my . . . key to my house. It’s everything. You and my abue are the only ones left in LA without one.”
“I’ve never felt the lack.”
“It will change your life, Bao, I’m serious.”
“Speaking of,” he said, “you see the news?”
Marisa nodded. “Scorcher won the Oceana Regional.”
“No, the real news. The Foundation is protesting the new Ganika Tech plant they’re building in Westminster.”
“I suppose we should have seen that coming. The biggest djinni company in the world and a militant anticybernetics group? It’s like a match made in heaven.”
“Not so much a ‘group’ as a ‘terrorist organization,’” said Bao. “And they’re right here in LA. This doesn’t freak you out?”
“It’s all the way down in Westminster,” said Marisa, and held up a finger. “Note that this is not me being cavalier about them blowing people up just because they’re far away. I sincerely hope that they don’t, and that, if they do, they get caught. But I reserve the right not to be shocked when terrorists commit acts of terror. That’s exactly what they want; that’s like playing their side of a lane.”
“I’m going to guess that’s an Overworld metaphor.”
“Exacto. If we let the Foundation dictate the terms of—”
“Hold up,” said Bao quickly, his voice low, and Marisa could tell instantly that something was wrong. “That looks like trouble.”
Marisa followed his gaze back over her shoulder toward the front of the restaurant, seeing three young men in long, untucked dress shirts, their hair pulled back in tight ponytails. Two of them had bionic arms, Detroit Steel by the ostentatious look of them, one on the left side and one on the right. The third man, standing between them, was almost impossibly skinny, his face covered in ornate, skull-like tattoos.
“La Sesenta,” said Marisa, identifying the gangsters immediately. La Sesenta was Mirador’s resident street gang, and seeing them here was even more trouble than Bao suspected. “Mierda.”
“You recognize any of them?”
“The skinny one’s called Calaca,” Marisa whispered. “He’s pretty high up in the gang.” The three cholos were standing in the entryway, surveying the restaurant like they were thinking about buying it. The look sent shivers down her spine.
“No gangs allowed,” said Guadalupe loudly, bustling fearlessly toward them from the side room. Marisa felt her heart skip a beat at her mother’s brazen disregard for the danger; the other customers had noticed the cholos now as well, and a nervous wave rippled through the restaurant. “No gang colors, no weapons. We don’t want any trouble here.”
“Si, señora,” said Calaca. He smiled, and half his teeth were steel. “That’s exactly why we’re here—we don’t want any trouble either.” His accent was thick, but his diction was almost humorously overeducated. “The problem is, the man you rely on to keep you out of trouble is doing a very poor job, as our presence here might indicate.”
“What’s he talking about?” whispered Bao.
“My parents pay protection money to the Maldonados,” Marisa whispered back.
“Everybody does,” said Marisa. “It’s the only reason this neighborhood isn’t a smoking crater run by these chundos.” Marisa stood up. “I gotta go talk my mom down before she gets herself shot.”
“Sit,” said her father sternly, appearing behind Marisa as he stormed out from the kitchen.
Carlo Magno was shorter than his wife, and wider—not fat, but thick and muscled. He must have been chopping meat, for his apron was streaked with blood; he looked fierce and imposing, but Marisa was grateful he’d left the knife in the kitchen. He pushed her firmly back into her chair without breaking stride, and stormed toward the gangsters with fire in his eyes. “Get out of my restaurant!”
Marisa linked to the police and sent a message pleading for help.
“As I’ve explained to your woman,” said Calaca, “we’re only here to—”
“I’ve called the Maldonados,” said Carlo Magno.
“That seems like a very poor decision on your part,” said Calaca. “They don’t like us very much, and my associates don’t like them. If the enforcers show up and start making unreasonable demands, one side might—and I say might, because it is very uncertain—open fire on the other, and with your fine establishment caught in the middle that will—and this time I say will, because if we get to this point it will be an inescapable outcome—be very bad for your business.”
“We pay them for protection,” said Marisa’s father fiercely, “and they pay you to stay away from us.”
“They ‘pay’ us,” said Calaca, looking at the thugs behind him. He turned back to Carlo Magno. “You’ll have to excuse my English, as it’s only a second language. Pay is the present tense, implying that the Maldonados currently, on an ongoing basis, pay us money to leave you alone. Is that what you’re saying? Because I suspect the past progressive tense: they used to pay us to leave you alone. The brutal truth, which your statement did not allow for, is that they are not paying us anymore, which means that you’re not being protected anymore, which is why my friends and I have come here today to magnanimously offer to pick up the slack where the Maldonados have dropped it—”
“Did my son put you up to this?” Marisa’s father demanded.
“Is he talking about Sandro?” whispered Bao.
“No,” said Marisa, shushing him with her hand. “I’ll tell you later.” She could barely breathe, watching the showdown, praying the police would come soon to scare them off. She glanced quickly at the other customers, seeing the fear etched into their faces. If the cholos weren’t blocking the door, the customers would have already run.
“You mean Chuy?” asked Calaca. “He’s a good man, but if you think he calls the shots in La Sesenta you have a poor understanding of his role—he occupies more of a clerical position—”
“Are you trying to impress me by praising him?” Carlo Magno stepped forward, glaring at the gangsters. “He means less to me than you do, and if you or him or anybody else in your gang comes in here again, I’ll give you a beating like you haven’t seen since your own mothers put—”
The two bionic thugs pulled guns from under their shirts—massive silver pistols with magnetic accelerators blinking ominously in the barrels. Marisa stood, taking half a step toward the confrontation before Bao caught her and held her back. “It’s too dangerous,” he whispered.
“They’re going to kill them,” Marisa hissed.
“Just stay cool,” said Bao. “They’re only trying to scare us, not hurt us.”
The front door opened, and a pair of Maldonado’s enforcers stepped in; they saw the drawn weapons, but stayed calm.
“Calaca,” said the first enforcer. “Is there a problem?”
“We have no problems with anything,” said Calaca, not taking his eyes off of Marisa’s father. “No problems or worries of any kind. But Señor Carneseca has certain issues with the quality of the protection he’s been receiving lately. We were only showing him our weapons, in case he wants to arm himself similarly, as is his constitutional right in this great nation.” He signaled with his finger, and the Sesenta thugs put their guns back under their shirts. Calaca turned around to face the enforcers. “If, on the other hand, you want to have a discussion with him and his mujer about how the quality of their protection might improve through other means, that could save us all a great deal of trouble.”
The lead enforcer looked as if he was about explode, but he said nothing. Calaca gave a satisfied grin. “Señor, señora.” He nodded politely to Marisa’s parents, then shot a lecherous grin at Marisa. “Señorita.”
Marisa’s father stepped forward, his fists clenched, but Calaca and the two thugs stepped around the enforcers and out the door. The entire restaurant seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, and more than a few patrons started hurriedly gathering their things to leave. Marisa pulled away from Bao and stormed toward the enforcers.
“Do you want to explain that?” Carlo Magno demanded.
“We’re sorry we couldn’t get here sooner,” said the lead enforcer.
“It shouldn’t have happened at all,” said Marisa. “They said you’re not paying them off anymore?”
The enforcer sighed. “You’ll have to talk to Don Francisco.”
“What’s going on with our money?” asked Guadalupe.
“You’ll have to talk to Don Francisco,” said the enforcer again. “We don’t know any more than you do, but this is not the first business this has happened to today. I’m sorry.” They turned and left, followed by a stream of terrified customers.
“Don’t leave now,” Guadalupe called desperately to the fleeing patrons. “They’ve left!”
“We’ve gotta talk to the Maldonados,” said Marisa. “We can’t let this—”
“You stay away from them,” said Carlo Magno firmly, “and you stay away from this, too—from the enforcers, from La Sesenta, from all of it. And you go back to school, now.”
“School, are you kidding? We need to—”
“You need to go to school and stay out of this!” he shouted.
Marisa stepped back, shocked at the heat of his outburst. His face softened when he saw her fear, and he shook his head sadly.
She stepped forward to hug him. “I love you, Papi.”
“I love you, too, Mari.” He hugged her tightly. “I love you, too. I don’t know what’s going on, but . . . I won’t lose you like I lost Chuy. Promise me you’ll be careful.”
Marisa nodded. “I promise.”
That evening, Sahara Cowan stepped out of her front door like a movie star, flanked by a pair of cam nulis hovering in the air around her—one in front to get a good shot of her face, and one on the side to catch Marisa in the background. Marisa had helped her program the AI that guided their camera angles; Sahara could control them with her djinni, but most of the time the algorithm was surprisingly good at capturing the best shots on its own. The small pink bow glued to the lead nuli identified it as Camilla, and its mustached companion was Cameron. Of course Sahara had named them.
Sahara strutted toward them like a runway model, and Marisa clapped politely.
“Gorgeous,” she said.
“Thanks.” Sahara twirled, showing off her dress: a short, layered skirt, almost like flower petals reaching down around her thighs, coming together at a tight waist only partially connected to a broad-shouldered top that left most of her midriff bare. No cleavage, but it hugged her curves enticingly. The whole thing was some kind of tie-dyed pattern, dark purples and bright yellows, probably hiding whatever shocking string bikini she had on underneath it, prepared for a dramatic reveal at the pool. Sahara’s hair was curled into thick tendrils that bounced slightly as she moved, and Marisa couldn’t help but envy the look.
“Sounds like I missed some excitement earlier,” said Sahara.
Marisa glanced at the nulis dryly; privacy was a joke around Sahara, and there were certain parts of this conversation she didn’t want to have in front of the entire internet. Sahara’s vidcast wasn’t world-renowned or anything, but it was still popular enough to get Sahara—and sometimes Marisa—recognized on an LA street. Marisa said nothing, and Sahara didn’t press any further.
“You look amazing,” said Sahara. “We going clubbing after?”
Marisa smiled. “Who knows? I came prepared for anything.” She’d worn one of her favorite clubbing outfits—a dark green dress with a knee-length skirt, a high neck, and long sleeves extending halfway past her elbows. It glittered faintly in the early phase of the sunset, and would sparkle like crazy under the multicolored lights of a good dance floor. The subtle green was a great complement to her dark skin, and the red tips in her hair made a perfect accent. She’d always used to wear a glove on her left hand as well, covering the clumsy SuperYu prosthetic, but her new Jeon looked so good that she loved showing it off—faintly tan, with light blue highlights, like water over sand. She could even make the blue parts glow. In a dance club especially, it always turned heads. She smiled back at Sahara conspiratorially. “Remember the guy from the other night?”
“With the ID on the paper?”
“I lost the paper.” Marisa shrugged helplessly, as if there was nothing she could do. “Obviously I don’t want to go clubbing, but how else am I going to meet another guy?”
Bao appeared beside them, emerging like a ghost from the early twilight. “You never know where we might appear.”
“Stop doing that,” said Sahara, putting her hand on her chest in mock anger. “Can’t you just walk up to someone like a normal person?”
“It’s my gift to your audience,” said Bao, pointing to Cameron. “Twenty bucks says at least one of them saw me before you did; it’s a whole thing on the forums.”
“So, did you call us an autocab?” asked Marisa.
“Tonight we travel in style,” said Sahara, subtly avoiding Marisa’s eyes. “I figured since we’re all going to the same party, we may as well get a ride. . . .”
Marisa’s jaw fell open. “You didn’t.”
“Obviously she invited him,” said Sahara, “so don’t blame me for that. All I did was ask him for a ride. Have you seen his car?”
Bao looked at each girl in turn, filling in the unspoken gaps in the conversation. “Omar’s coming?”
Marisa stuck out her tongue. “I think I just remembered about seventy-eight different things I have to do at home.”
“If you didn’t want Anja to start dating a Mirador boy, you shouldn’t have kept bringing her here,” said Sahara. “Just be grateful she’s dating one with a Futura.”
“Are you kidding me?” asked Marisa. “This is Omar Maldonado, Sahara. As in, the people who practically shook down my parents for protection money not seven hours ago. He only has a Futura because his father’s a crime boss.” She looked right at Cameron, pointing dramatically. “Go ahead and sue me for libel, chundo, I dare you.”
“Slander,” said Bao, glancing at the nuli. “You can’t sue her for libel unless she writes it down.”
“Let me log in to the forums then,” said Marisa, blinking one open, but Sahara spoke in her most soothing voice.
“Whatever his father’s done,” said Sahara, “Omar’s our friend.”
“Exactly,” said Bao. “I like Omar.”
“I like him too,” said Marisa. “The boy is charming, but do you trust him?”
Neither answered immediately, and Marisa laughed in triumph.
“Regardless,” said Sahara, “now that Anja’s dating him, we see him almost every day.”
“And it’s problematic every day,” said Marisa. “I was hoping tonight could be the one night we wouldn’t have to deal with it—especially after what happened this morning. If my father ever found out I was hanging around with Omar, it would melt his processor; ojalá he doesn’t watch your feed.”
“And as if on cue,” said Bao, looking down the street as a jet-black autocar rolled slowly to the curb. The Dynasty Falcons that the Maldonado enforcers drove were rugged muscle cars designed for utility and intimidation; Don Maldonado’s youngest son, however, had a Futura Noble, designed purely for showing off how expensive it was. Marisa couldn’t even see the outline of the door until it slid open silently, exposing the familiar thump of nortec music from within.
“Ladies and gentleman,” said Omar smoothly. “Your carriage has arrived.”
“Gorgeous!” Sahara’s nulis swirled around, catching the best views of the luxury autocar as Sahara climbed in. The interior was more of a lounge than a car: lush seats around a central table, with a well-stocked bar against the far wall. The ceiling danced with abstract holograms, pulsing in time with the music.
Bao stepped in, but Marisa hung back on the sidewalk. Omar, seeming to sense her hesitation, stepped smoothly out of the Futura. He was tall and dark, clean-shaven and fiendishly handsome. Tonight he wore white slacks and a white tuxedo vest over a deep purple shirt and matching purple tie. The lack of jacket made him look like he’d just come from a fancy gala, through with the important stuff and ready to party; the calculated casualness of it made Marisa fume.
“Marisa,” he said, bowing his head slightly in respect. “I heard about what happened today at your family’s restaurant. I’m deeply sorry.”
Marisa wanted to throw the apology back in his face, demanding to know what his family was trying to pull, but Bao was right: even if Omar’s father was behind the gangster’s veiled threats, Omar himself was probably blameless. He was barely eighteen years old.
“Come on, Mari,” said Sahara. “It’ll be fun.”
Marisa thought a moment, holding in the sigh she so desperately wanted to release. She could slap the boy and storm off in a rage—give Sahara’s viewers something to talk about for days—but that seemed so harsh, and Omar didn’t deserve harsh. At least, not yet. No one in their group was completely innocent, legally speaking. Bao was an accomplished pickpocket, and Marisa had raided more private databases than she cared to admit. If it turned out that Omar had a hand in what was happening to her family, she’d hurt him in ways he’d never see coming, but for now . . . well, for now the Futura Noble looked inviting as hell. Her dress fit perfectly, her hair looked great, and she was out on the town with her friends. Why let their fathers’ feud spoil the fun?
Omar offered his hand, and she let him guide her into the autocar. Marisa sat by Bao—the seats were even more comfortable than they looked—and Omar stepped in and settled across from her, next to Sahara. Cameron and Camilla were perched on opposite sides of the ceiling, catching perfect views of all four faces. Marisa had seen Omar’s car but never ridden in it; in a neighborhood like Mirador, where most people couldn’t afford a car at all, it was a shocking display of opulence.
“I miss anything good on your show?” asked Omar, pointing at the drones.
“Marisa called you a chundo,” said Bao. “I don’t know what it means, but she sounded angry when she said it.”
Marisa faked a smile. “Thanks, Bao.”
“After what happened at the restaurant, I’m glad to hear that’s all she said,” replied Omar. “But I really don’t want to think about any of my dad’s business crap tonight. Let’s go have some fun. Pedro! Close the door and take us to Anja’s house.” The door closed just as silently as it had opened, and the autocar pulled into the street with an almost eager purr from the engine.
“You have the most expensive car in Mirador,” said Sahara, “and you call it Pedro?”
“Pedro’s a powerful name,” said Omar. “Pedro was the first apostle.”
Bao smiled. “So now the first apostle’s driving you around. This went from self-effacing to a power trip in, like, one second.”
Omar laughed. “Honestly? I named it Pedro because that’s what my grandfather called his first car, some tiny little Ford, like a Festiva I think. He drove that thing everywhere; that’s how the family fortune started, hauling newspapers through some little pueblo in Texas.”
“He was a paperboy?” asked Sahara, laughing gleefully at the idea. “When was this, a hundred years ago? I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a paper newspaper.”
“The last one closed distribution ten years ago,” said Marisa, calling up the search on her djinni. “In Idaho, of all places. Most of them closed ten or twenty years before that, but some small towns just really wanted to keep the tradition alive, I guess?”
“As long as you’re looking stuff up,” said Bao, “how long has it been since anyone had to drive their own car? Was the Festiva the last one?”
Marisa caught Omar’s eye, an unintentional moment of shared . . . what? Experience? Pain?
Bao didn’t know what he was asking.
“You can actually still engage manual drive on cars today,” said Omar. Marisa was surprised he didn’t change the subject. “You could probably drive this one if you had a license.”
“People still have licenses?” asked Sahara. “I mean, obviously motorcycles, but cars, too?” She looked around in obvious enthusiasm. “Where’s the . . . handles? Or joystick? How do we do it?”
“I really don’t recommend it,” said Omar. “Cars can drive themselves more efficiently and more safely than any human operator.” He recited the line as if he were reading a marketing report, and for all Marisa knew that’s exactly what he was doing through his djinni. That, or he’d memorized all the reasons why his own personal tragedy should never have happened. “Since the move to autocars thirty years ago, fuel economy’s increased a hundredfold, and traffic jams and collisions have dropped virtually to zero.”
“I’ve heard about car accidents,” said Sahara. “I just always figured they were due to autodrive malfunctions.”
“Sometimes they are,” said Omar. “Other times it’s people, thinking they’re . . . I don’t know. Something. Smarter than a computer.”
“Have you ever tried it?” asked Sahara, still oblivious to the tension slowly mounting in the car.
“What are we going to eat tonight?” asked Bao, abruptly trying to change the subject. “Order in, or pick something up on the way?”
Had he noticed something in Marisa’s face? She blinked her djinni over to Sahara’s vidcast, watching herself as she sat in the plush leather seats of the rolling party lounge. She looked haunted. She glanced at Omar again, wondering what he was feeling. If he was feeling anything. The silence dragged on, until finally Marisa stretched her robotic left arm across the table.
“Yes,” said Marisa calmly, “sometimes people still drive their own cars.”
Sahara raised her eyebrow. “That’s how you lost your arm?”
Marisa nodded, tapping her fake fingers on the table. “I was two years old.”
Bao’s voice was soft. “Who was driving?”
“My mother,” said Omar. “She died.”
“Whoa,” said Sahara, glancing almost involuntarily at the cam nulis to make sure they were catching this. Marisa could tell she was concerned—there was a good friend buried under all that media savvy—but sometimes Sahara’s vidcasting obsession made Marisa want to grind her teeth in frustration. Sahara looked back at her intently. “You never told me this.”
Marisa shrugged, bothered more by Sahara’s attitude than by the story itself. She wiggled her fingers and watched the metal and ceramic joints as they moved up and down in sequence. “It’s not a secret, it’s just . . . not the kind of thing that comes up in conversation.”
“Why were you in a car with Omar’s mom?” asked Sahara.
“We don’t know,” said Marisa.
“Why did she shut off the autodrive?”
“We don’t know,” said Omar.
“Why was . . . ?” Sahara trailed off. “Well. I guess we don’t know. But that certainly sheds some light on the family feud.”
Marisa laughed dryly. “Does it?”
“I was in the car, too,” said Omar impassively. “And my brother Jacinto; he got the worst of it, after my mother. He’s more bionic at this point than human.”
“I had no idea,” said Sahara.
Omar shrugged. “That’s because he hasn’t left our house in seven years.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Sahara.
“Don’t be,” said Omar, and shook his head dismissively. “There’s nothing keeping him in there but his own insecurities. Or laziness, I suppose. And I was fine—completely unscathed.” He looked up suddenly, the old charm back in his face, and flashed Marisa a wide, devilish grin. It was like he’d turned the pain off with a switch. “Just like always, right?”
Sahara and Bao were too shocked, or too polite, to press any further, and Omar’s abrupt change of attitude signaled the end of the discussion. He poured them each a glass of Lift, calling for an official beginning to the night’s festivities, and asked what they wanted to eat. Marisa suggested her favorite noodle place downtown, and Omar laughed but ordered some anyway, buying way too much because it was so “cheap.” Marisa couldn’t help but feel a surge of anger—she had saved all week just to be able to afford a dinner out, but to him the money was meaningless. She looked out the window, watching the city roll past: slums and shantytowns and decadent resorts. A few minutes later the delivery nuli arrived, bringing the hot white noodle boxes directly to the car as they drove. Omar insisted on paying, linking to the nuli’s credit reader with barely a glance.
Anja lived in Brentwood with her father—not just the rich part of town, but the rich part of the rich part of town. Her father was a chief executive with Abendroth, a German nuli company that was still competing evenly with the Chinese. The nuli that brought their noodles was probably an Abendroth, Marisa realized, and the thought made her laugh. The Futura Noble carried them up the winding streets to the higher hillsides, and they watched out the windows as the trees opened up and the city stretched out before them—an endless field of buildings and lights and nulis, as far as the eye could see.
The autocar pulled to a stop in front of Anja’s house, about twenty yards from a similar vehicle—not a Noble, Marisa thought, as it was far too small, but still some kind of Futura. Omar would know, but she didn’t want to ask him. She snapped an image with her djinni and ran it through an image search: the car was a Daimyo, a two-seater Futura built for speed. Very expensive.
Omar frowned. “Did Anja invite someone I didn’t know about?”
“Do you have to know about everyone she invites?” asked Marisa. She stepped out of the car just in time to see a young man walking away from Anja’s door; he wore a simple pair of gray slacks and a red silk shirt, with the cuffs folded back to reveal a turbulent pattern on the underside of the fabric. Marisa guessed he was about twenty years old, probably Indian, and shockingly good looking. Sahara stepped out behind her and nudged Marisa slyly.
“Weren’t you looking to pick somebody up tonight?”
Marisa was thinking the same thing, but the opportunity had appeared so suddenly, and in such an unexpected place, that she couldn’t think of anything to say. The boy looked her way and smiled in a way that made her toes curl, but walked straight to his car, not even pausing as he said, “Have fun tonight.” His accent was close enough to Jaya’s that Marisa confirmed her earlier guess about his Indian heritage. In town for business, maybe? Or another child of an executive, like Anja. She couldn’t seem to form any words, and managed only to blink a quick photo before he dropped into his car and drove away.
“Thank heaven I got that on camera,” said Sahara, barely stifling her laughter. “Marisa Carneseca, Queen High Flirt of Flirtania, completely tongue-tied by the hottie in the silk shirt. Let’s play that clip again.” She paused, her eyes making tiny movements across her djinni interface. “Oh yeah.” She laughed again, and Marisa rolled her eyes, grabbing her purse and walking toward Anja’s door.
“He looked like a blowhole,” said Marisa. “Another rich kid spending daddy’s money while the rest of LA starves to death.”
“Kind of like Anja?” whispered Sahara.
Marisa grimaced. “Anja’s different.”
Marisa struggled to find an answer.
“What was he doing here?” Omar mumbled behind them, slowly standing up as the Daimyo turned a corner and disappeared.
“Jealous, Omar?” asked Bao.
“Ándale, gringos!” shouted Anja from her doorway. The waifish blonde was dressed eclectically, as usual: instead of a club dress she wore a pair of slim vinyl pants, black with a dark blue stripe on each leg and bright metal rivets running down each side; her shirt was gray and loose and sleeveless, an almost shapeless bag that somehow worked perfectly to accentuate the figure it looked like it was hiding. Her boots were patent leather, with platforms at least two inches high. She wore two metal chains around her neck, but whatever was hanging from them was tucked inside her shirt.
“I’ve told you before,” said Marisa. Up close she could see Anja’s fake eye—not a cybernetic enhancement, like Marisa’s, but a full replacement, just different enough to freak you out if you weren’t expecting it. And Anja loved getting close to people who weren’t expecting it. Marisa gave her a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek. “You’re completely misusing that word.”
“You’re a fourth-generation American, gringo,” said Anja, shaking her head sadly. “It’s time to face the truth.”
“Second-generation on my father’s side. That still counts as Mexican.”
“Whatever. Get in here already. Willkommen a mi casa.”
Marisa stepped into the opulent foyer, trying not to feel overwhelmed by the profound sense of wealth. Sahara and the boys followed her in; Anja wrapped herself around Omar and tried to pull him into a kiss, but he politely pecked her on the cheek and nodded to Anja’s father on the couch in the living room.
“Good evening, Mr. Litz.”
The man looked up, surveyed them, and nodded curtly before turning back to his tablet; he wasn’t rude, Marisa knew, just very . . . efficient. Anja laughed and grabbed Omar’s face.
“He doesn’t care, baby, come on; give it up.”
Omar gave her a longer kiss this time, full on the mouth, and Marisa turned away with a faux gag. “This is going to be a wonderful night,” she said, “I can tell already.”
“Let’s head out back,” said Bao, holding up the noodle boxes and gesturing toward the wide picture windows at the other end of the room. Beyond them was the back patio, the pool glowing blue in the fading light, and beyond that an intoxicating view of LA. Marisa followed him out, finding the side table already stocked with drinks—most of them alcoholic, as Mr. Litz never seemed to care what his daughter drank—and an array of snacks, mostly Chinese and Korean. Marisa picked through the bottles until she found a Lift, preferring caffeine to alcohol, and popped off the bottle cap on the corner of the table. Bao tried to do the same, and Marisa let him fail a few times before laughing, taking the bottle from his hands, and expertly levering off the cap.
“Thanks,” said Bao, taking a swig. “I’m glad we got my inevitable emasculation out of the way early tonight.” They walked around the pool and sat down, sipping softly from their bottles and staring out over the city.
“This house,” mused Bao, “all by itself, is worth more than . . . any given house you can point to down there. I mean honestly, right? Pick a point of light down there in the valley and the odds are this house is worth at least twice what that one is.”
“So I could pick two points of light,” said Marisa.
“Okay, you just made this more interesting,” said Bao. “Two is definitely too low, now that I’m really thinking about it. Taken as a unit of currency—one average lifestyle per light in the city—how many lights is this house worth? I think we’re talking double digits.”
Marisa looked out, watching the city come to bright, electric life as the sky faded to a deep blue-black. The color of Anja’s pants, she thought, and the rivets on the sides were the stars. “Are we averaging everything together?” she asked. “The high-rises and the beach homes and the shantytowns?”
“All of it,” said Bao. “From Bel Air to . . . well, as far as the eye can see, I guess. Mexico.”
The city of Los Angeles had grown wildly over the decades, urbanizing every scrap of land until the street lights and pavement stretched in an unbroken tide from the beach to Moreno Valley, from Santa Clarita to the southern fringes of Tijuana. If you ignored the US-Mexican border—and most people did—the city was bigger than some entire states. Marisa didn’t know who made the official measurements, but some of the crazier clubs had held a party when LA passed Connecticut in landmass.
A party, she realized, that most of the city’s residents couldn’t even afford to attend.
“This house was bought with nuli money,” she said softly. “Abendroth makes industrial nulis—shipping, manufacturing, construction. If you’ve lost your job to a nuli in the last five years, you’ve probably lost it to an Abendroth. Maybe a Zhang.” She twirled her finger in a spiral, encompassing the entire property in one abstract gesture. “So not only is this house worth, what, twenty lights? Forty? It’s personally responsible for putting half of them out of work.”
“And here we sit,” said Bao. She waited for more, but he only watched the city.
Marisa tried to pick out the tiny light of her parents’ restaurant. She couldn’t be sure she could even see it from here.
“There you are,” said Anja. Marisa put on her happiest face, hoping her friends could work their magic and raise her out of this sudden emotional slump. Anja sat down on the grass in front of her, heedless of stains on her designer pants; Marisa could just barely see a tattoo on her back, peeking above the hem of her shirt—a wing of some kind, but Marisa couldn’t tell what exactly. Anja changed it almost every day. Dangling past it was a djinni cable, a slim white cord plugged into her headjack and braided in with her hair. Most people kept their djinni port empty and discreet, only inserting a cable when they needed to, but Anja liked the statement. She peeled open a box of noodles. “You want to see the new toys?”
“Is this the eye-catching mystery you promised me?” asked Marisa.
“Part one of two,” said Anja, “though eye-catching is not necessarily the best word.” Anja held up her right hand, displaying a flexible metal mesh across her palm, like a fingerless glove. “It’s an EM field calibrated to interface with the sensory feeds on a Ganika 4 djinni. The settings are controlled on the back: one click for vision signals, one more for hearing, one more to turn it off.” She demonstrated by pressing a touch sensor on the back of the glove, though it made no visible change. “I made it yesterday.”
“How can you tell it’s on?”
“I can feel when the field goes on and off, it’s like a tingle in my hand. I might add a light, but I like the look now—very stealthy, no one knows that it can do anything.”
“So it interfaces with the sensory feeds and . . . ?”
“Turns them off,” said Anja with a smile. “If they have a Ganika 4, and if they haven’t changed the factory settings. I had to sacrifice variability for speed, but I’m still refining it. Check this out . . . Omar!”
Bao cast a sidelong glance at Marisa. “Omar has a Ganika 4.”
Omar arrived with a drink in hand. “I am at your command, Anyita.”
Anja set down her noodles, jumped up, and put her right hand on Omar’s cheek. “Boom.”
“What?” asked Omar.
“He can’t hear a thing,” said Anja, grinning wildly at the others. “Djinnis tap into your brain’s sensory centers, which is how they can do things like the VR in Overworld—they tell you you’re seeing a city, hearing gunfire, or whatever. This little beauty simply tells you that you’re not hearing anything.”
“Damn it, Anja, what did you do to me?” Omar was roaring now, and Marisa couldn’t help but laugh. “Mari, are you in on this too? What’s going on?”
Anja looked over Marisa’s shoulder, back at the house, and Marisa turned to see Sahara still talking to Anja’s father, giving Cameron and Camilla a lengthy tour of the house. Even a dramatic bikini reveal could wait, it seemed, in the face of such a poshly furnished home.
“No word about this when Sahara comes out,” said Anja. “Not that I want to hide it from her or anything. I just don’t want the whole internet to know, you know?”
“Smart,” said Marisa. Anja spent a lot of time on darknets, delving into body hacks most people knew nothing about. Getting an idea like this perception-denier into the mainstream could be dangerous, and a showcase appearance on Sahara’s vidcast would be the first step to a potentially massive audience.
“Anja,” said Omar, his voice impassive. “I want you to fix this now, please.” Marisa wondered if his anger was really gone, or if he was simply very good at hiding it.
“Lie down,” said Anja, clicking off her EM glove and guiding Omar to a nearby chaise. “There you go, this’ll just take me a minute.”
“You can’t reverse it with another touch?” asked Bao.
“Turning the settings back on is way more complicated,” said Anja, trying to wrangle Omar into the chair. “I can do a full reboot of the sensory package, which takes forever, or I can just tweak the settings if he’ll freaking hold still.” She finally got him down, then reached up into her hair and pulled out one end of her cord, plugging it into the headjack on the back of Omar’s skull. Anja’s eyes began moving across an interface only she could see, and Marisa leaned forward.
“While his hearing’s still out,” said Marisa, “I have to ask you: how serious is this thing with Omar?”
“I told you,” said Anja, her eyes twitching, “I can just tweak the settings and he’s as good as new.”
“No,” said Marisa, “I mean this relationship. Is this long term?”
Anja laughed. “I hope not.”
“You don’t like him?”
“Of course I like him, I just don’t want to make this into something it isn’t. Just because I’m eating lo mein tonight doesn’t mean I want to eat lo mein every night.”
Anja laughed again. “Come on, Marisa, you fall in love with half the boys you meet, and then the next day you’re over them and ready to fall in love with someone else. I do the same thing, just . . . without the illusions.” She refocused her eyes on her djinni interface. “All I’m saying is, you gotta keep your options open. There’s too many things on the menu to just order the same one every time, right? And you never know what your favorite is until you’ve tried them all.”
“That could be a very dangerous life philosophy,” said Marisa.
“Play crazy,” said Anja. She blinked, and Omar sat up suddenly, rubbing his ears.
“Ándale, flaca, what did you do to me?”
“She was demonstrating why I don’t have a djinni,” said Bao, and pointed to Anja’s right hand. “Just stay away from that glove thingy and you’ll be fine.”
“Pobre Omarcito,” said Marisa.
“Why Omarcito?” asked Anja, unplugging the cord from his headjack. “Isn’t it just Omar? And for that matter, what’s flaca? I don’t speak Spanish, so I don’t know if I’m supposed to hit him or not when he calls me that.”
“Don’t even try it,” said Omar.
“Sorry,” said Marisa. “We’re Mexican; we have, like, seven nicknames for everything. You’re Anja, and you’re Anyita, which means ‘little Anja’ just like Omarcito means ‘little Omar.’ Flaca means ‘skinny girl,’ huera means ‘white girl,’ and loca means ‘crazy girl,’ so get used to that one because you’re probably going to hear it a lot.”
“I can handle skinny girl,” said Anja, giving Omar a kiss on the cheek. “Though obviously I’d prefer brilliant girl; let’s get our priorities straight.”
“Everyone in my family has at least three names,” said Marisa. “I’m Marisa, and Mari, and Marisita, and that’s not even counting all the little chulitas and morenas and things my mother calls me. My grandmother is abue, abuelita, and sometimes la Bruja when we know she can’t hear us. Patricia is Pati, Gabriela is Gabi, Sandro is Lechuga—don’t ask me where that came from—”
“What about Chuy?” asked Bao.
Marisa glared at him.
“Everybody knows that one,” said Anja. “It’s short for Chewbacca.”
“No,” said Bao, looking straight into Marisa’s glare without backing down. “She’s got a brother named Chuy; she mentioned him today at lunch. She told me she’d tell me later, and now is later.” He shrugged. “I’m curious.”
Marisa looked at Omar, who knew the whole story, but he said nothing. She sighed and looked back at Bao. “Chuy’s my older brother.”
“I thought you were the oldest.”
“We don’t talk about him much,” said Marisa.
“Because he’s a wookie,” said Anja.
“It’s not Chewie, it’s Chuy,” said Marisa. “It’s a nickname for Jesús.”
“Jesús as in Jesus?” Anja could barely contain her laughter. “So Jesus is a wookie?”
“Or Chewbacca was a cholo named Jesús,” said Omar, “and we just never knew it. Probably not, though, because they don’t make hairnets that big.”
Marisa shook her head, trying not to laugh. “My brother Chuy joined a gang called La Sesenta about six years ago, and my father disowned him. He won’t let him visit, he won’t let us talk to him; today at the restaurant was the first time I’ve heard him say Chuy’s name in . . . forever.”
“Your father carries a lot of grudges,” said Sahara. Marisa hadn’t noticed her come up, and wondered how much of the conversation Cameron and Camilla had recorded. She didn’t talk to Chuy often, but she knew he sometimes watched Sahara’s vidcast. She found Cameron, looked right at the lens, and blew a kiss. “I love you, Chuy.”
“You’re here!” said Anja, jumping to her feet to hug Sahara. “This is why I brought you all here tonight. Time for part two: check it out.” Anja pulled at the cheap metal chains around her neck, drawing a pair of small black headjack drives out of her shirt.
Marisa smirked, uncertain what the drives might hold. “Sensovids?”
“Better,” said Anja. “Sensovids trigger your neural pathways in little doses, making you smell things or feel things or whatever; it’s the same code I futzed with in Omar’s head a few minutes ago. But it’s only little bits to help tell a story—Bluescreen triggers them all at once, in one big rush.”
Sahara looked incredulous. “What’s the point of that?”
“The point is,” said Anja, “the buzz is amazeballs. I’ve got a bunch more inside—I had Saif bring one for everybody. Bao excluded, of course, because he’s a caveman.”
Bao nodded politely. “I’ll wait to get a djinni until after I finally figure out that ‘wheel’ contraption.”
“So, it’s a drug?” asked Marisa. “Like, a digital drug?”
Anja’s eyes lit up. “Fully digital, so there’s no medical side effects and no risk of addiction. It’s the best; I found it last night.”
“And that guy we saw leaving is your dealer?” asked Sahara.
“There’s still a medical impact, though,” said Marisa. “I mean, if it gives you a buzz that means it’s releasing endorphins—that’s a physiological response, not a digital one.”
“Everything awesome releases endorphins,” said Anja. “This isn’t any more dangerous than . . . skydiving, or having sex.”
“Both of which can be very dangerous,” said Marisa. “Are you seriously going to plug some random dude’s flash drive into your djinni? That . . . sounded a lot dirtier than I expected it to.”
“Do you realize how much malware they could store in that thing?” asked Sahara.
“Relax,” said Anja, “I’ve got my djinni wrapped in the thickest antiviral firewall digital security condom you can imagine. This morning a store tried to send me a coupon and their router caught fire—trust me, I’m protected. Here, I’ll show you.” She pulled her hair aside, exposing her headjack, and unplugged the cord she’d used earlier.
“Wait,” said Omar. “You—” He glanced at the house. “Your father will see.”
Anja furrowed her brow. “He saw me drinking your beer, too.”
“He’s asleep on the couch,” said Sahara. “Said he was going to nod off while we were out here talking.”
“Why are you so worried about my dad, anyway?” asked Anja.
“I want to know what it does,” said Marisa. “Before you use it. I’m just . . . I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“I’ve already done it twice,” said Anja. “That’s why I had to get Saif to bring me new ones.”
“Please just tell me what it does,” said Marisa.
“It bluescreens you,” said Anja, shooing Omar from his chaise and sitting down in his spot. “An overwhelming sensory rush, an unbelievable high, and then boom. Crash to desktop. Your djinni goes down and takes your brain with it for, like, ten minutes. It’s the best.”
“Hang on—” said Marisa, but Anja grinned and popped the drive into her headjack.
“Play crazy,” she said, and then her arms started to twitch. A wide, almost childish smile spread across her face, and her eyes rolled back before closing luxuriously. Anja started to hum, a long, sensual mmmmm, and her legs pressed together for just a moment before her whole head and torso started vibrating. Marisa jumped toward her, grabbing her by the arms and calling out in alarm, but in that moment Anja’s body spasmed one last time and went completely still.
“Anja.” Marisa shook her slightly, touching her cheek; Anja’s head lolled limply to the side. “Anja!”
“She’s out,” said Omar. He stared at her darkly. “Ten minutes or so, like she said.”
Sahara turned to him. “You’ve seen this before?”
Omar’s frowned deepened. “I’ve seen it around. It’s new.”
“And you let her use it?” asked Marisa.
“I’ve never even heard of it,” said Bao.
“It’s a rich-kid drug,” said Omar. “Just forget about it; she’ll be fine.”
Marisa checked Anja’s pulse, which seemed strong enough. “Is she gonna be okay?”
“She’ll be fine,” Omar insisted, “she’s just going to lie there and—”
Anja’s head straightened, and she sat up. Her eyes were unfocused, her expression blank, like she was in a trance. Marisa said her name again, but Anja only stood, turned toward the house, and started walking.
“What?” asked Sahara.
“She’s sleepwalking,” said Bao. “That’s . . . weird.”
Marisa turned to Omar. “Does that happen often?”
“How am I supposed to know?” he growled.
“She’s gonna fall in the pool,” said Sahara, jogging after her as quickly as she could in her heels, but Anja navigated the backyard flawlessly. Marisa shucked off her own heels and ran to catch up, the boys trailing behind, everyone burning with curiosity to see what the sleepwalker would do. Anja opened the door, walked inside, and pulled the second Bluescreen drive up out of her shirt. She yanked on it to snap the chain, all the while walking straight toward the couch and her napping father.
“She’s going to plug it into her dad,” said Sahara, covering her mouth in shocked disbelief. “That’s the funniest damn thing I’ve ever seen.”
Anja reached her father, turned his sleeping head, and lined up the drive with his headjack.
“Anja, don’t!” yelled Omar. The sleepwalking girl faltered, just for a second, and in that moment her father woke with a start.
“Nein?” he asked, looking at them in confusion. “What are you doing?”
Anja lunged for him again, but by now Omar had reached her, grabbing her wrist before she could plug him in.
“What is going on?” Anja’s father demanded, standing up with a frown. “What is wrong with Anja?”
“She’s been drugged,” said Omar. He wrested the Bluescreen from her hand and threw it to the other side of the room. “We need to get her to a bed; I don’t know how long this sleepwalking trip is going to last.”
“Drugs?” asked Mr. Litz. He looked at Marisa angrily. “You brought her drugs?”
“It was the guy who came right before us,” said Marisa. “We didn’t know anything about it.”
“I told her not to spend time with . . . street kids.” Mr. Litz spit the words out like they disgusted him. Anja collapsed again in Omar’s arms, her body going just as limp as the first time she’d crashed. Litz pointed at the door with a snarl. “Get out.”
“But we didn’t—”
“Get out!” Litz roared, and turned to Omar. “You, help me take her upstairs.”
“We can help,” said Marisa, but Bao pushed her gently toward the door.
“They can take care of her,” said Bao. “If we hang around, we’ll only start a fight; that’s not going to help anyone.”
“I’ll call us a cab home,” said Sahara, her voice somber. They walked to the front door and out into the yard, and Marisa watched over her shoulder as Litz and Omar carried Anja’s body upstairs.
She looked as lifeless as a doll.
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