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Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Excerpt: Vagabonder by R.T. Coleman + giveaway

by R.T. Coleman
Science Fiction/Fantasy
Publisher: Aurelia Leo
Humans have always feared Caen’s kind.

Survivors of a mysterious virus, Ruĝa Morto, that killed 80% of Earth’s population two centuries ago, they have endured enslavement as Neurologically Compromised Individuals, or NiCIes, owned by OnyxCorp. Now, in 2261, Caen begins a perilous journey to seek the Vagabonders, the original moon colonists, whom many believe hold the key to freeing his people.

He knows he is hunted. He expects death at every turn.

But he doesn’t anticipate meeting Dr. Ligeia Obumbwe, a human biogeneticist desperate to protect her brother Finn, yet another victim of the endemic virus. When OnyxCorp promises to keep Finn safe in exchange for her work in their lunar lab, she accepts despite her increasing unease regarding the Corporation’s motives.

Ligeia and Caen become unlikely partners in a dangerous quest to reach the Vine, the space elevator that is the first step in their journey to the moon.

What they find along the way could help them bring OnyxCorp to its knees…or destroy everything they love.

Chapter 3
I wander through Montevideo’s broken industrial district for an hour before I find the next station, a warehouse several blocks from the canal’s edge. Headquarters for Lee Chou. Montevideo was once a thriving metropolis, even after Ruĝa Morto, but now, ruined by rising sea levels and neglect, it’s practically abandoned. Every building looks the same: Corrugated siding, graffiti, warnings against trespassing, Closed by OnyxCorp Authority in a variety of languages and symbols. As I pick my way through the crumbling streets and refuse, I notice a few stubborn residents peeking from makeshift doors and windows in rusting cargo containers. I give one or two a nod, prompting them to disappear without a word.

Every Dua child knows the name Lee Chou. Tales about unfortunate Dua children have the same moral: Always obey Authority, or Chou will take you. Follow the curfew, or Chou will get you. Never upset a human, or Chou will snatch you up. Chou’s reputation as a smuggler and ruthless killer is fueled by his association with OnyxCorp, which has relied for decades on his services. The remnants of outdoor enclosures surrounded by chain-link fencing are scattered throughout the district. Those enclosures are empty now, but over the decades they’ve confined thousands of Dua, bound for workstations across the globe, on the Vine, on the moon.

Why would Mama send me here, straight to the boogeyman’s lair? I can’t begin to guess. You will find Lee Chou in Montevideo. Then you will know what to do next. Typically cryptic, but it’s the only thing I have to go on if I’m to make my way to the Vine.

This building is much like the others, save for a bright green door and the human male perched on a metal chair to the door’s left. The back of his bald head rests against the building’s metal siding, and his arms hang loosely at his sides. A weapon of some kind lies across his lap. His face is leathered by UV exposure. He lets out a rumbling snore as I approach.

Unimpressive so far, but I’m not keen on startling him and getting blasted with whatever weapon he has. I stop several meters away and clear my throat. Nothing. I take a few more steps forward and kick a piece of metal siding lying on the ground as hard as I can, sending it sailing into a pile of similar metal debris.

The man leaps, knocks the chair over, and sends the weapon flying to land at my feet. I bend, retrieve the weapon, and rise.

“I’m here to see Chou.”

The man shifts from his left foot to his right. “Now, listen, man. I don’t want any trouble.” His voice is a whisper, and when he glances nervously back toward the green door for a third time, I realize why.

“You were asleep on the job.” I switch the weight of the weapon to my left hand and let it hang, barrel down.

“Frank?” A voice comes from a speaker hanging above the green door. I glance up, noticing the imager. I wave at it with my right hand.

The man, the Frank in question, takes a step toward me. “Look here, NiCIe—” He cuts off when he sees my expression. “No offense, man, just…give me back the gun.”

“Frank!” The voice is loud and sharp enough this time to echo through the alley. “Get your ass to the comm!”

Frank gives me a grave look and backs away toward the door. Without taking his eyes from me, he reaches out, fumbles for several seconds, and finally manages to locate the comm panel next to the green door. “Uh, hi. Everything’s ok—”

“Like hell.”

“Well, uh, there’s a, a NiCIe out here—”

“I can see that. Goddamit, Frank. One job.” Frank glares at me reproachfully, and I shrug as I adjust the gun in both hands. “Bring him in.”

There’s a soft ping, and the bright green door swings open. Frank motions for me to follow him, stops just at the threshold. “Can I at least have my gun back?”

“Let’s see how this goes.”

Grumbling, he shuffles into the building. I follow him, ducking slightly to miss the lintel, and am plunged into sudden darkness.

A hand grabs my left arm and grapples with the weapon as I am pulled through the gloom. I can make out darkened figures, and as my eyes adjust, I see a narrow hallway ahead with a long series of closed doors on either side, a soft glow pooling beneath them. Ceiling lights blink and buzz, casting eerie shadows across the walls and floor. Frank gives a final jerk and lets out a frustrated grunt when he fails to dislodge the weapon.

“He has my gun, Raj,” he says.

“We know.” Another figure emerges from the gloom, a large human male, his face covered in a grizzly beard. He’s holding a weapon as well, leveling it steadily at my chest. “What you want, NiCIe?”

I hold my arms out at my sides, the shotgun firmly in my grip. “Here to see Chou.”

“He’s wacked out, Raj. Just walked right up, like the place belongs to him.”

“You wacked out, NiCIe?” Raj’s face glistens. He’s missing a front tooth.

“I don’t think so.” I nod to the gun in Raj’s beefy hands. “Why don’t we let Chou decide?”

Raj blinks, narrows his eyes. He lowers the gun slightly. “You’re different, that’s for sure.” He jerks his head toward the corridor. “Follow me. Don’t touch anything.”

“He has my gun, Raj.” Frank trots behind us as Raj escorts me down the corridor to a door at the far end.

“We know, Frank.” Raj clears his throat. “Stand there,” he says, indicating the wall across from the door. I back up as he puts his hand against a wall scanner. The door clicks open.

Sudden light tears through my eyes.

Frank, or maybe it was Raj, shoves me into the blinding room.

“Identify yourself!”

I blink rapidly as a human female comes into focus, short, not much taller than a Dua child. Her right hand holds a stunstic, pointed straight up at my head. On her left thigh is a holstered electristic; her hand hovers over its stock expectantly.

“Who are you?” The woman’s grey hair is pulled back in a sleek ponytail, and she pushes her lips together in a small, thin line. She runs her eyes up and down the length of my body, and their implants flash briefly as they catch the light.

“My name is Caen.”

“And just what the hell are you doing here, Caen?”

“I’m looking for Lee Chou.” She narrows her eyes and presses her wrinkled lips together in a frown. “Word is Chou can get me to Buenos Aires.”

She takes more careful aim with the stunstic. “The maglev can get you to Buenos Aires. The tunnel can get you to Buenos Aires. You don’t need Lee Chou to get to Buenos Aires.”

“Not without attracting Authority attention.”

Her hand moves to the electristic. “Who sent you here?”

I take a deep breath. “Lenore.”

A wave of confusion moves over her brown-skinned face. “Lenore?”

“My mother.” I swallow down the lump that’s suddenly formed in the back of my throat. “She says Lee Chou is the best forger in SoAm.” The room behind the woman comes into focus now. It is bright, airy even. Not at all what I would expect in this desolate place, in this crumbling building. “Is he here?”

The two henchmen behind me chuckle. The corners of the woman’s mouth turn up slightly, but she doesn’t lower the weapon. “Ah, yes, the infamous smuggler Chou, responsible for millions of NiCIe children disappearing from their beds and forced into slave labor. That Lee Chou? Why would your mother send you to O Diabo?”

“I’m wondering the same thing myself.” I try to smile.

The woman regards me for a few seconds more over the stunstic’s barrel. Slowly, she lowers her arm. “How is your mother, Lenore?”

“She’s dead.” I’m surprised to see shock and dismay pass over her face.

“So that’s why we haven’t heard from the Paysandú station,” Raj says quietly behind me.

The woman shakes her head as she cuts him a glance. “You’re Lenore’s Earth child?”

“I have a sister—” Then I realize what she’s just said. “Earth child?”

The woman closes the distance between us in a few steps. Her eye implants engage in soft flashes of light as she scans me up close. “Hm. Perhaps.” She steps back, holsters the stunstic on her right thigh. “It took my father years to develop his reputation for ruthless NiCIe hunting. A reputation that is supposed to keep nosy people from poking around here. Lee Chou is dead. I am now Lee Chou.” She waves at the two men. “I’ll take it from here.”

“He has my gun,” Frank says.

“So he does. You gonna take it from him?”

Frank gives me a seething glance.

“He’s bigger than I am,” he says sullenly.

“Raj, take Frank out to the yard and show him how to do his job. Again. You can have your gun back,” she says, “when Raj says you can. Out.”

“Come on, kid,” Raj says, tugging at Frank’s arm. Frank casts one more angry look my way before he disappears into the corridor outside.

“I’d appreciate your putting that away,” Chou says, indicating the weapon I’m still gripping in my left hand. “I doubt you’d need it anyway, right?”

I sling the weapon over my shoulder. Turning to face Chou, I clear my throat. “So, can you get me to the coast, undetected?”

She narrows her eyes. “I offer my services for the right price, and to the right people.”

“What’s your price?”

“I don’t think you’re the right people.”

“What’s your price?”

She places her hands on her hips. “Six thousand credits.”

“I’ll give you four.”

“For four, I can get you within five miles of the coast. I trust you can swim.”

“My mother implied there was a debt owed her.”

Chou reacts as if she’s been struck across the face. “There is,” she says slowly. “Why would you want to go to Buenos Aires? If you aren’t registered, you won’t be able to get work, or food, or shelter—”

“I need to get to the Vine.”

Chou scoffs. “I can’t get you to the space elevator. It’s out of the question.”

“But you know someone in Buenos Aires who can.”

She frowns. “I haven’t spoken to that asshole in four years.”

“But you do know the Captain.”

“Captain my ass,” she mumbles. “You’re better swimming to the Vine. His isn’t the most reliable station, you know.” She sighs, then motions for me to follow her to a small circular table piled with flexscreens. The room is spacious and neat, with wallscreens covering the room floor to ceiling, projecting scenes of old Earth. An old NutriPrint model stands in a corner next to a modified Re-Claimer, obviously a knock-off from a now-defunct OnyxCorp competitor. Chou picks up a flexscreen. As it comes to life, she clears a space on the table, puts it down, and stretches it by the corners until it is about a meter square.

“Captain Abebe was here last time I checked.” There’s a trace of bitter sarcasm in her voice. She points to an area southeast of the city labeled Ensenada. “Here isn’t anywhere anymore...Ensenada, La Plata, the’s all abandoned.” She pushes out with her fingers to zoom in. “I can get you here, the mouth of the Canal, but I won’t go further. You’ll have to make your way to this location on foot.” She touches a square on the grid that features dilapidated warehouses and housing units next to the Arroyo del Saladero; the location glows a soft orange. She touches the corner of the flexscreen, and it snaps into its original size. She hands it to me, and I roll it into a small cylinder, fitting it neatly inside an inner pocket of my tattered jacket. “The Corporation is everywhere over there, even in the abandoned sections. There are bound to be drones and maybe even an old Authority model for good measure. If you get past them, you must deal with Abebe, who trusts absolutely no one. Especially me.”

“Should I mention you at all?”

“I’d like to see the look on his face when he hears my name. That would be worth losing 6000 credits alone.”

About the Author

R. T. Coleman grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she nurtured a passion for reading and writing while nestled among blankets and pillows in her bedroom closet. Her love of science fiction was born when she saw Star Wars in the theater in 1977. Imagine her disappointment when she realized she could never actually be Princess Leia.

She lives in Springfield, Arkansas, with her partner Joe on their 25-acre farm, where she works as an instructional designer by day and a writer and editor by night. Vagabonder is her debut novel.

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