Dragon Seed is being released on the 28th February – that means it’s preview time!
Pre-order Dragon Seed here: Amazon (All Stores)
The coughing fit kicked me upright before I was even awake. Strangling, eyes throbbing from the pressure in my head, I coughed and heaved and flailed around, unable to see anything but dancing black and white spots. My lungs were burning by the time I pitched back onto my pillows, exhausted and shaking with lingering terror. Not just terror of the present: terror of the future that awaited me. I was now at Stage Two of the HEX virus – in three days’ time, I’d be dead.
There were no nurses in our quarantine tent. Everyone here was already sicker than me, moaning and rattling in their sleep. Still wheezing, I fumbled across for the box of bleach wipes next to my Army cot and used them to clean up my face and hands. The smell made my throat burn raw, and I shook with unfamiliar weakness. I hurt all over. My joints felt like angry dwarves had been pounding them with hammers while I slept… and it was only my second day of being sick.
My tent bunked eleven other soldiers, all infected, all of us in the prime of our lives. My conscript’s uniform only had three badges on it: my platoon, my rank – Private – and my name badge, which was just my surname, ‘Park’. I was twenty-seven, fit despite my chronic gaming habit, used to bouncing around the world with a pack and rifle. When I rolled up a sleeve and looked down at the inside of my arm, the smooth tan skin I was used to seeing was mottled with a spreading red rash.
HEX was like clockwork. The first day hits you like a train, and five days later, you’re toast. By tomorrow, I wouldn’t be able to walk. Day Three was the worst day, because you were still aware of everything that was happening to your body. I’d watched people cough until the veins in their eyes ruptured and they began to cry blood. If I did nothing, if I followed orders and stayed in bed to die, that was all I had to look forward to. But as Baldrick from Black Adder would say: “I have a cunning plan.”
Assuming I could find the strength to get my ass out of bed.
My hands were shaking with fever as I pulled up my ration of medications and fumbled them out into my palm, clenching my teeth while I tried not to drop them everywhere. The cocktail of tablets were all anyone had to fight HEX, the common name of the H5N1-X virus: a lab-made super-flu unleashed on the world as a weapon of war. The tablets would take down the fever, keep my lungs from filling up, help the cough, and manage some of the pain. When I stood up, my head began to pound even harder. I pinched the bridge of my nose, willing the pain to stop, and then got dressed. A t-shirt, BDU pants, boots, then my sidearm. Last but not least, I struggled my pack on, took one last look at the other men in the tent, and hobbled outside. I’d packed the most important things I needed, just one small bag for me and my brother. There wasn’t much need for ordinance where we were going.
I forced myself to a clumsy jog outside, moving past ripped and dirty tents full of coughing, moaning people. We had started with a division between soldiers and civilians, but that division had broken down entirely. The only armed patrols on duty were PALADIN sentry robots: each one seven feet tall, loud, clunky, with sensor arrays instead of faces. They prowled the ragged rows of tents and manned the perimeter gates, standing watch or marching in set patrol routes no longer directed by a human controller. The bots’ reflexes were starting to slow as their batteries wound down. When we were healthier, me and the other lepers in quarantine had had fun throwing things onto them in the yard. Hats, scarves… we even uploaded a few videos we called ‘Stuff on Our Robot Overlords’.
Unlike human guards, PALs could stand watch at full attention for forty-eight hours – provided they were at full charge. With no one to top up their juice, the ones that were still moving were sluggish, like humans who hadn’t had any sleep. Sweat poured down my face in the early morning chill as I broke from cover to cover to keep out of their sight. I focused on putting one foot after the other. My heart was pounding, my guts were cold and twisted with fear. Not only fear of dying, either.
I’d received a text on an old civilian cell phone I’d kept, but now only used for morning alarms. It was a message from my brother, Steve. He hadn’t spoken to me in five years. The last time I’d seen him was during the big knockdown, drag-out fight that had ended in me stalking out of his house and out of his life. But three nights ago, Steve had contacted me. He’d sent me only two awful words. “Mom’s dead.”
Then, ten minutes later. “I’m sick. If you’re alive, get to Washington D.C. You’re named in my will. If you’re sick… please come home. PLEASE.”
I didn’t know what was worse: that mom had died and no one had called to tell me, or that Steve had gotten sick caring for her. He hadn’t thought to ask me to come and help. The sad thing was that it was probably an honest oversight, and that only made it worse.
Guilt tore at me as I waited for a PAL to turn around, and then staggered out from cover and through the ramshackle wire perimeter of the quarantine camp. The robot’s rear sensors were covered by a USMC cap that hung at a jaunty angle over the thermal lens. There had been a method to our madness.
My mission was to reach the base’s A-Block garage and reunite with the love of my life, Mona. She was waiting for me in the parking lot in spot A-457, concealed by a large locked tarpaulin.
“Hi, baby. How are you doing under there?” I tried to croon to her, but my voice came out as a harsh croak. I unlocked the tarp and pulled it off, throwing it carelessly to the side. Underneath it was a stripped down, banged up Ducati 996X. Mona’s bare steel frame hadn’t been painted in a while, and her fuel tank had a couple of dents and scratched paint, battle scars from the stunts we did together. Like most motorcycle stuntmen, I’d started on a little 250cc bike, a Ninja, which had enough power to do the job but hadn’t punished me when I’d screwed up. I’d worked my way to stunting and racing the Ducati. If you screwed up on an 996X, it would punish you. It was the closest thing to a dragon I would ever ride outside of a video game.
I normally enjoyed the ritual of putting on my motorcycle gear, my suit of armor. Kevlar jeans, boots, jacket, helmet, gloves, in that order. Today, I only had gloves and goggles, my sweat-soaked uniform, and a bag. I swung a leg over, and took a moment to catch my breath before turning the key. The bike came to life with a deep booming purr, and for a couple of seconds I just sat with it and drank in the way the machine made my body rumble. It would be the second-last time I’d ever ride her.
The first leg was to find my brother. We’d make peace, I hoped, and then I’d take Mona out to the highway and ride as long and as far and as fast as I could. We’d tear up the Big Sur at a hundred and twenty until we were almost out of gas. When the needle touched Empty, the plan was to wheelie jump the bike off a cliff overlooking the Pacific, because screw this whole ‘drowning on your own lungs’ goat fuckery. I was a stuntman. When I died, it was going to be spectacular.
I walked my bike backwards, turning her to line up with the exit ramp, and then threw it into gear. The purr turned into a snarl as the chassis kicked underneath me, the front of the bike briefly lifting as I turned the throttle and screeched off.
The only way in or out of Fort Richard was the main boom gate, but I wasn’t the first to desert and I wasn’t going to be the last. One of my buddies had given me directions to a section of unmanned fence where waves of soldiers and desperate refugees had cut holes in the wire and poured in and out. As I drew up on it, I could see that he’d been correct, in that the hole was there, but it was now manned. Two PALADINs waited on either side of the gap, which was big enough to admit an elephant. The railguns in their hands and heaps of dead – some in uniform – strewn on the ground around them was testament to why no one was no longer going in or out.
“Shitballs.” Resigned to an untimely demise, I threw my bike into third gear, and hunkered down as the Ducati howled. I spun the back wheel, raised a fist, and energetically rasped a battlecry. “PORK CHOP SANDIWICHES!”
The robots saw me coming, visored helmets swiveling. They aimed, and I swerved hard and low to the ground. I came out of the zig and zagged as they opened fire where my motorcycle had been only a second before. Any panic I felt in the face of being fired on had been beaten out of me in Indonesia and Syria. I kept my focus and leaned the bike over until the ground tore open the knee of my pants, swooping along the ground and then righting up as I blasted through the hole and sailed out over the embankment below. The robots fired at me during the jump, and several rounds blew by close enough that I felt the sting on my arms, but they were no longer fast enough.
My stomach swooped as the rush hit.
“Sayonara, bitches!” I found myself laughing, giddiness breaking through the cold focus as I rode the heavy machine to the ground, clutching at it with knees and thighs. We hit the dirt, fishtailed, and kept roaring forward.
I nearly ran several civilians down as they stumbled to get out of the way. There were people everywhere out here, a camp much less organized than the one inside of the Fort. Fellow victims of HEX stood around coughing, or staring at me with dead, confused eyes. There were a lot of kids, many without parents. The hard summer ground had somehow been churned to mud, and the air hung heavy with the smells of human misery.
I pulled over to catch breath, which only resulted in a coughing fit that felt like it was going to send my eyeballs shooting out of my head. When I pulled the cloth away from my mouth, it was bloody. I stared at it in impotent rage, and then, with anger burning a hole through my gut, at the huge silhouette in the sky. Looming above us all from the bay was the Golden Gate Shard, a mile-high megastructure that jutted up from the water like a glittering crystal spike. The Generals and Colonels were up in there along with the rest of California’s elite, sealed away from HEX and protected from the war they had started.
“Fuckers.” Aching, my breath rattling in my chest, I started the motorcycle and set the GPS for my family home on Hyde Street.
Despite not being Chinese, our parents had bought a house on the fringes of San Francisco’s Chinatown at a time when housing was still remotely affordable. It was a small rowhouse at the end of a strip of larger rowhouses, with a big parking lot on one side that was always crammed with cars. Now, the lot was abandoned. The chaos and rioting had been and gone, and everyone who’d survived had fled the city to try and escape the spread of HEX. I was shaking with fatigue by the time I pulled up, running on nothing but adrenaline and the cocktail of drugs I’d taken an hour and a half before. It was by will alone that I swung my leg over and stumbled toward the dark green front door. It was the home where Steve and I had grown up. I hadn’t been here in seven years.
I pressed a shaking hand to the palm lock, barely believing it would work after all this time. When the lock flashed green and clicked, my legs nearly went out from me. Mom and Dad hadn’t completely erased me from their lives after all.
“Steve? Steve, you alive?” I called as I opened the door.
The stench that billowed out of the house was like a slap to the face. I recoiled, struggling not to vomit. Breathing in that dead smell on the battlefield was one thing. Breathing it in at your family home was enough to make me want to run away a second time, as far and as fast as I could.
“Hector?” My brother’s voice was a dry rasp, but I could still hear the surprise in it.
Bracing myself, I pushed through the stench and went inside, freezing up for a moment as the old instinct to take my shoes off at the door kicked in. I shook it off and followed Steve’s voice to the den. He was propped up on the sofa, a bloody blanket half-fallen over his lap. I knew by looking at him that he well into Day Three. HEX had made a ruin of my tall, handsome brother. His skin was mottled with bruises, his eyes sunken and his face gray. He already looked like a corpse. I stopped in the doorway, too shocked to move or speak.
“Hec… Hector.” He wheezed on the ‘H’, trying to sit up higher. “You made it. My God. You look… so… so fit!”
“I call it the ‘Forced Conscription Jungle Warfare Diet.” My mouth was moving way ahead of my brain at this point. I checked myself. “And apparently I’m a snarky asshole when I’m sick. Sorry.”
“Hah.” He almost let himself laugh. “You’ve… you’ve changed so much.”
And you probably haven’t. I didn’t say it out loud: just forced a smile. “So have you.”
“How did… how did you… get here? You were in the Army?”
“I deserted,” I said. My voice was cracked, too, and it hurt to speak. But I wasn’t as bad as Steve, not yet. “About fucking time, too.”
Steve was so exhausted he didn’t even notice that I’d sworn. As I came closer, he searched over me in shocked relief. “Deserted? But you… you shouldn’t have deserted. Why didn’t you ask for leave?”
Typical Steve. “From who? There’s hardly anyone left. We were on the front lines for HEX. And I’m dying, Steve – what’s the worst they could do, shoot me?”
His eyes focused on the rash on my arms, and then it seemed to finally click. “Oh no. Not you, too.”
“Of course I’m sick,” I replied. I sat down on the floor. Sweat poured down my face and down my back. “Everyone’s sick. Dead or dying. The city’s deserted. We might be the last ones here, bro.”
He closed his eyes, as if struggling to process the enormity of it.
“Hey. I brought something for you.” I struggled the backpack off and pulled it around.
“My RetroConnect,” I said. “And granddad’s library of games. I know you’ve been working on those fancy VR rigs and everything, but we used to play together and I thought, ‘Fuck it: might as well go out making up stupid Latin words for the Sephiroth theme song one last time’. You know how it goes: ‘French frogs, big cherries…”
“Peter Pan, magic cheese. Sephiroth!” He croaked. He couldn’t quite get the dramatic chorus falsetto going, but I busted up laughing and coughing anyway.
Steve and I were chalk and cheese in every significant way, and always had been. Games had been the one thing that had brought us together. The sounds of us hacking and wheezing were obliterated by the roar of a helicopter passing by overhead, low to the ground. By the time I could hear anything else, I was wheezing and gasping for air.
“I figure we can do at least one speedrun of most of these before we croak,” I continued once I got my voice and hand-eye coordination back, taking out the box and the chip with the games, and then the other things I’d brought: candy bars of every shape and size, chips, and energy drinks. “Remember that time we went trick or treating and told dad we were at cram school, and we ate ourselves sick?”
“He nearly killed us,” Steve said hoarsely.
He actually had nearly killed me. Dad hadn’t just been any normal kind of asshole: he had been a whacko-religious dentist who forbade sugar in the house, especially on Halloween. One year, we’d snuck in a bag of candy and gorged on chocolate and taffy until we’d puked. Dad beat me with a folded electrical cord. Even Steve had gotten a few lashes for that one.
“Here.” I passed him some chocolate.
“No,” he said. He shook his head, struggling up a little more. “Hector, listen to me. I asked… asked you to come for a reason. Listen-”
“Hear me out, first,” I said, unwrapping a candy bar for myself. It helped cover up just how much my hands were shaking. “I came to like… apologize. I hate that we spent so much time fighting. I hate that I was jealous of you and I hate that dad used you to make me feel bad. I hate it that you and him trashtalked me all the way through school. I’m sorry I was such a jerk to you. We don’t have much time… and I just want to hear you’re sorry for treating me the way you did, then move on and play Secret of Mana until we croak, okay?”
“Hector. Listen,” he rasped. “I know this. I know it all. You being alive, being here ch-changes everything. Listen to me. They’re coming for me. I’m going to make them take you with me.”
“Who? What?” I frowned, trying not to hold my breath. Even though HEX was working its way through my body, I still felt weird about breathing in the air around the infected. Steve had been bright with health not even a week ago. It seemed like the flu took him faster than the others… or maybe I just noticed more.
“Ryuko.” He fixed me with a fever glare.
Ryuko? Ryuko was the AI systems company he worked for. I sort of nodded and shook my head at the same time, not sure what he was trying to say.
He reached out his hand for mine. “They’re late, but they’re coming for me. I’ll tell them when they come that… that… I’ll make them…make them take you. You go with them, Hector.”
“Ryuko? I don’t understand.” He was babbling, and it creeped me out. I’d never known Steve to talk like this, but he was serious about whatever he was trying to get across to me. His agitation beat against my skin. I squeezed his hand in both of mine. “It’s okay, man. You need to rest.”
“It’s secret… it’s…” His eyes wandered past me, and I saw something flash at his temple: a small blue light. His Brain-to-Interface link.
“Ryuko,” he whispered, staring at something behind me.
There was a bang on the door, and then another as the wood splintered and then crashed in under the weight of a battering ram. Five years of training and experience kicked in instantly. Coughing, I was up on my feet with my pistol aimed before I’d even had time to think.
“Hector, no!” Steve hissed.
My grip on the pistol sagged at his command, but I was still in firing position as soldiers poured in through the door. Not ordinary soldiers. They were all identical: the same height, the same matte-black bioarmor, the same oversized rifles and terrifying stillness when they came to a stop. The guns were pointed at my face, and I froze in fear and confusion. There were no eyes behind those featureless black visors. They were androids. Machines.
“No fire. No fire!” Steve cringed back into the sofa, lifting his voice until it broke.
“No fire.” A woman’s voice broke through in the sudden silence.
I eased down as the unseen woman rounded the corner and stood in the doorway, and dropped the pistol down as my eyes widened. She was tall, supermodel perfect, like a vision out of Viking myth. Lean, long legs, a sculpted face like an avenging angel, golden blonde hair pinned up behind her head in a twist underneath a clear, HAZMAT-style helmet. The rest of her outfit looked to me like a fancy white spacesuit, and I wasn’t too sick not to notice how the thick leather-like material hugged her curves. I blinked several times, not convinced that I wasn’t tripping balls.
The woman looked between the pair of us. “Mister Park?”
“Park One and Park Two, at your service.” Every breath hurt like hell, but sassiness was just as incurable as HEX. “Bro, is this-”
“You informed the company that you had no living relatives, Mister Park.” She didn’t bat an eye. Angel Lady’s voice was cool, crisp, and matched her elegant face and hair. Now that she was up close, something was pinging at my uncanny valley reflex. There was something not quite right about this lady. “Has the status of your family changed?”
“Yes,” Steve croaked.
“What in the ever-loving fuck is going on?” I asked the room.
Steve shuffled behind me, and I turned to see him sitting upright. He was trembling with the effort, his jaw tense, eyes wild and hot. With a glance at the others, I went to him and helped him to stay up. His hand grasped my forearm, tight and inhumanly strong.
“T-Temperance. This… this is my brother. Little brother.” His breath bubbled on every exhalation. “Do… background check under… Park Jeong-Ho.”
I flinched at the sound of my birth name.
“Sir, Ms. Hashimoto ordered me to bring you-”
“You’re too late.” Steve retorted, and for a moment, he looked more like himself. He’d always had a fire burning deep inside, a fire he’d manifested by powering through achievement after achievement, scholarship after scholarship. He’d won local and state awards for mathematics and linguistics, joined Mensa, and had gone on to work for Ryuko Entertainment as one of the best AI immersion developers on the United States’ side of the Pacific.
“I’m very sorry we weren’t here yesterday as we planned, Mister Park,” Temperance replied. She didn’t sound very sorry. “My transport was delayed by rogue aircraft. If you cannot travel, I am afraid we cannot honor the contract.”
“I can travel, and yes, you will honor the contract. Hector is my next of kin,” he said, straightening his back. “I want to forfeit my place to him.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” Temperance said. “My orders were to bring you…”
“Get Akari on a BCI channel,” Steve said, his voice firm with authority. “Now.”
“Steve, what the fuck is going on?” I turned on him, suddenly angry.
He glared at me with blood-shot eyes. “Hector. Not now.”
Steve’s BCI flashed, and then Temperance’s. They gazed at each other in silence with faraway expressions for several moments as they exchanged information. Once it was done, Steve sagged back into the sofa, and Temperance stood there like a shop mannequin, inhumanly still. She wasn’t breathing.
A gynoid, I realized. Holy shit. There were only a handful of real androids ‘alive’ in the world, so to speak. The woman in front of me was the real deal – an artificial life form. A walking supercomputer.
“Thank you, Mister Park. Ms. Hashimoto is revising her orders,” Temperance said. “I will perform the requested background check. Please look directly at me, Mister Park Jeong-Ho.”
“My preferred name is Hector. No ‘mister’,” I grunted. More out of surprise than anything, I looked up and met her eyes. They were as wide and blue as the Caribbean Sea, a perfect crystalline color that seemed to dance with light.
“Thank you, Mister Park. Management has approved your appeal,” she said, after five minutes or so.
Steve shuddered. “Thank God.”
I scowled, glancing between them, and got to my feet. “Would either of you like to tell me what the hell is going on?”
“Hector, I am here to execute your brother’s contract with the Ryuko Virtual Reality Corporation,” the gynoid replied. “Your brother was an employee involved with a project that is being repurposed. Mister Steven Park, if I understand your uploaded testimony, do you vouch that this man is qualified for the trial and you wish to include him under the terms of your contract?”
“Hey, wait a second.” I stood, alarmed. “What contract?”
“Yes.” Steve choked. “Take him. Please.”
Intellectually, I knew Steve was doing something to try and save my ass. What, exactly, I wasn’t sure – but I was starting to get pissed off. I’d never had control of my life because of our parents, and now he was trying to control me, too. “Wait! Take me where? To do what?”
“I am the Executive Assistant of Akari Hashimoto, the CEO of Ryuko Corporation,” Temperance replied. “I have been ordered to make you an offer as requested by your brother, Ryuko’s Senior Virtual Intelligence Developer, Steven Park. The offer must be made in a secure facility, and you are under no obligation to accept the terms and conditions… but it may very well save your life. Would you like to accompany me to discuss your future?”
Pre-order Dragon Seed here: Amazon (All Stores)