With all the work I’ve had to do amid the launch of Zeus Is Dead, it feels like it’s been months since I’ve been able to get any real work done on writing my current work-in-progress, the third and final installment of my sci-fi series The New Aeneid Cycle, tentatively titled A Dragon at the Gate. Yet this weekend I’m finally plunging back into it.
My first step: reacquaint myself with the characters and what I’ve written so far. I’m in the midst of re-reading the eleven chapters I’ve written thus far, and as I read Chapter Four it occurred to me that I could share an excerpt with all of you.
Keep in mind, this is only an early draft, so watch for typos and an awkward sentence or two amid this unedited glimpse.
Big things are going to happen in this book, folks…
A Dragon at the Gate
Dahlia Miller opened the door, walked into the blackness, and closed it behind her. A whisper of the late-September chill outside made its presence known. The faint sliver of city light that sliced through the curtains only accentuated the room’s otherwise total darkness. Dahlia leaned her back against the door, drew a deep breath, and smiled, savoring.
“Lights,” she said finally.
On command, the two table lamps and her kitchen’s overhead came to life in a rapid, artificial sunrise. She peeled herself off the door and floated to her bedroom on a wave of accomplishment. Damn, she loved days like this!
She was fumbling to remove her heels before getting even halfway in the bedroom door. Her saltwater reef tank cast a bluish white glow across the walls. The bedroom was cramped, but it was enough. It was home.
Dahlia sat down in her dress at the edge of the bed, a few feet from the tank. Anemones wafted and grasped in the water in a patient quest for food. A tiny sea cucumber detached from the glass and floated along the artificial current to the other side of the tank. Her two wrasse fish, Alfonse and Lorenzo, danced like flickers of flame among the corals, and a pistol shrimp named Capone scrambled back into hiding.
“Hey, gang. Guess what I did?” Dahlia removed her other shoe and began to massage her sole. “No one? Hello?” Yeah, so she was talking to fish. She didn’t usually, but success—and the glasses of wine in her—had her giddy. “You’re looking at the woman who saved the Frankford Women’s Shelter!”
Alfonse appeared focused on his dance. The anemones continued to waft, oblivious. Lorenzo, however, darted up to the top of the tank on the side closest to her, stopped, and pooped.
Dahlia sniggered. “Fine, be that way.” All right, so fish didn’t know the northeastern Philadelphia shelter from a hole in the ground. She made for her closet, eager to trade the long black dress she’d worn to the fund-raiser for something more comfortable. A few minutes later the dress was back on its hanger and she was barefoot in a pair of black sweats. She grabbed her favorite red t-shirt from off of the floor, slipped it over her head, and, after a few moments at the tank to watch the feather duster worm slide back into its tube, trotted out of the bedroom again.
Dahlia had spent most of the fund-raiser pleading the shelter’s case to various local businesspeople whom she’d thought might turn a compassionate eye to it. Adrenaline had sufficed for nourishment, but now her stomach growled for attention. She grabbed a can of soup and the last of an overpriced baguette teetering on the edge of going stale and set to turning it into something edible.
If hunger hadn’t made her so impatient she’d have ordered in. She deserved a little celebration, after all. Saving the shelter was her first major success for the Agents of Aeneas since her recruitment. That shelter helped over three dozen battered women and children each week to get back on their feet and find ways to fend for themselves.
Beyond that, it was the type of victory it was that made it feel fantastic. So much of what the Agents of Aeneas did felt like subterfuge and misdirection: secretly redirecting funds to worthy causes via computer trickery, working agents into positions of power to better guide policy decisions, or engineering back doors for fellow agents in need like the AoA work-arounds at airport security. It was all for the cause—and the cause was a worthy one—but her efforts tonight were a straightforward appeal to the humanity of ordinary people.
She wasn’t naïve. Without their technology, the AoA could not survive. Their crowning achievement, the secret network architecture known as the “UnderNet”, allowed global communication on a well-hidden ghosted infrastructure lurking beneath the Internet. Partially built on something the Illuminati created during the Internet’s early days when it was just for government functions and inter-university research exchange, the AoA had made their own additions after the Illuminati had crumbled and the AoA rose from its ashes. Dahlia didn’t know the specifics; it wasn’t her area. Yet it was vital.
Even so, part of the pride swelling her heart, beyond what she’d done to aid the shelter’s work, came from knowing that such an accomplishment would mean a lot to those in the AoA who favored the organization’s humanitarian goals. The Exodus Project—focused on finding a way to escape what the Earth had become before humanity succumbed to its own self-destructive patterns—received much focus lately with the developments on the Moon and the buried alien ship codenamed Paragon. Yes, that was important, but wasn’t trying to do what they could for people now more important? If the AoA could parley the craft’s technology into a viable way to build their own interstellar craft, would they just abandon everyone else?
The question used to be academic; the AoA had geared most of its efforts toward steering humanity as a whole back on course, even if some considered it merely a delaying action. Now, each day brought the Exodus Project one step closer to completion. Where the AoA once worked in harmony, things were becoming increasingly factionalized.
Yet they would work it out. They always had. Dahlia had spoken to Arbiter Szendroi himself on the matter just last week. He’d seen the problem, too. He would help the AoA guide itself toward a solution. After all, wasn’t the desire for harmony what brought the Agents of Aeneas together in the first place?
Her palm hummed three times in rapid succession; it startled her so much she nearly dropped the soup taking it out of the microwave. The humming repeated: her implanted AoA chip. The code meant an emergency meeting, all agents called.
Dahlia set the soup down, tugged a bite off of the bread, and went for her tablet computer, unable to keep a grin from her face despite the uncertainty of the meeting’s cause. Good news or bad—hopefully good—it meant the opportunity to try out her new wet-link. Just because she cared about humanity didn’t mean she hated technology, after all. It had its place.
It could even be fun.
Dahlia sifted through the clutter on what served as her dining room table, snatched up the cable she needed, and dashed for the comfort of her bedroom. The thought of experiencing the online world inside her mind was at once frightening and alluring. Better understanding, a more immersive simulation, and the ability to project her presence into a virtual meeting far more effectively. It had taken her months to get up the nerve to get the wet-link installed.
Dahlia plugged the cable into her tablet and waited for the software to initialize. “Come on, come on,” she grinned. Did it always take this long? She batted her fingertips on the back of the tablet. “Hurry up you—”
-Program initialized. Establish neural link.-
Her first time. Dahlia lay back, slid the cover from the port behind her ear, and plugged the cable into her mind. Reality fell away in a dizzying exuberance, becoming a distant sensation as Dahlia plunged herself into the UnderNet. The AoA’s virtual meeting hall formed around her.
It was even more real than she’d imagined. Her fellows were joining her one by one in the shadowed cloud that surrounded the AoA Council. The majority attended via wet-link, others via the old fashioned screen-and-microphone interface. How long before they all used the wet-link?
Not all of the Council had yet arrived. One, she knew, had gone to Paragon and was therefore too far away to attend at all. There was a little time before the meeting began. Still marveling, Dahlia floated about to mingle.
Five minutes later, seeming perplexed, Arbiter Szendroi called the meeting to order.
Five seconds after that, fire lanced through Dahlia’s mind. She doubled over in a shriek, barely aware of her fellows doing the same.
In Dahlia’s bedroom, the two wrasse fish continued their dance, oblivious to the trickle of blood from Dahlia’s ears and the cease of her breathing.
Did you notice that one of the last things Dahlia did was to put on a red shirt? (Ain’t I a stinker?)
If you’re unfamiliar with The New Aeneid Cycle, check out the first two novels: A Shadow in the Flames and A Memory in the Black, both of which will soon be republished in paperback and ebook by Booktrope!