Author Archives: warpcordova

About warpcordova

Born in Orange, California, author Jason Cordova has written books ranging from the fantastical realms of fantasy to the militaristic side of science fiction. His latest should be out soon. Really. You should probably buy it. Check Amazon . Demand it at your local store. Pay for his kitten kibble.

Open Crazy Month

Work threw a monkey wrench into my plans for today’s post, plus my research into the benefits of forming an LLC as a writer is incomplete, which leads me to…

This has been a crazy month. How are you holding up?

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Motivation

My turn came around quicker than expected this month. Bear with me as I’ve been battling this bizarre cold/flu/strep thing for the past week. I really don’t have anything today to talk about (boo! bad form!) so I’ll open up with a question:

Who motivates you?

For me, it varies. I can look back throughout my life and point to a number of people who said “Jason, you suck. You’ll never be a writer.” Which was fair, since my grasp of English was/is atrocious and I didn’t even understand the basics of story telling. In fact, I could say that being a writer was something I never considered past the age of 7. I was going to be:

  1. A professional baseball player
  2. A professional videogamer
  3. A scientist
  4. A teacher

Now, I actually managed two of those, and almost managed a third. Which is cool, I guess. But none of these scream “He’s going to be a writer one day!”

So who motivates me? Well, I’ll start off at the very beginning. Mr. Rawls, a blind 8th grade teacher at Sierra Vista Middle School. He was the one who continued to say “You are so good at lying about your homework you should write a book” despite my repeated assurances that my homework had been turned in. I figured out later that he would notch a corner of every paper as it was turned in so that he could tell who had turned it in on time and who had completed it during class.

It was a little nudge, nothing major at the time. More like the planting of a small acorn nut by a squirrel who had forgotten where he buried it. Incidental, and almost forgotten, until…

Max. My foster dad bought me every book I ever asked for. He had no issues with me buying and reading books. Didn’t matter. I was a huge fantasy junkie at the time so if I saw a Dragonlance-related novel I had to have it. So he bought it. To this day I would say that he helped feed the creative spark that would turn into a full-on writer (though again, at this point baseball was looking like a sure thing, so there was no writer looming on the horizon yet).

So who motivates you?

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Lost in the Sauce

Within every group there is a clique. With every clique lies the potential for an echo chamber. This, in a way, is a perfect way to get completely lost in the sauce.

I’d never heard of this phrase before I started working at my current job. Indeed, the opportunity (or need, really) to hang out with teens and hear the new slang was something I really could do without. I mean, who really wants to deal with whiny, petulant, complaining, self-absorbed, and entitled little turds?

…dear God, did I just really…?

Wow. 

Talk about unspoken comparisons and parallels.

Anyway, I watch these kids (who are mostly kids who have been placed at my work by parents as a “last chance” sort of situation) try to integrate with the local kids at the public schools here. It’s always amusing to see them, all confident and brazed in their knowledge, come back from public school on their first day, befuddled and dazed, wondering where the hell did all these rednecks come from and why they are viewed as curiosities. It’s hard to explain to these kids, who come from cities such as Philadelphia and New York, that country life is different than anything else they have ever done or will do in their lives. They were “lost in the sauce” but eventually they would either adapt or go home.

In a way, this is the current state of publishing. The advent of ebooks and the strong growth of indie sales, combined with the implosion of brick-and-mortars thanks to reckless business decisions by Barnes & Noble and Borders, has left the Big 5 in an absolute state of shock. It would be amusing to watch if I didn’t have friends who are currently contracted and/or published through said Big 5 and are terrified about their futures.

I, along with the others here at MGC, try to reassure these poor, frightened souls. I mean, it’s not every day someone comes along and punishes you for the mistakes made by others 10-15 years ago. They grasp at any chance of hope, which allows some more predatory publishers to string them along for long periods of time while they shuffle things around and try to make other things work at the house. Eventually the poor author is left to wither and die without any support, or they get fed up and start their own urban resistance and rebel against the abject tyranny  of their supposed god-kings.

Damn, what was in that coffee?

*peers into now-empty cup*

Mental note: get more of that brand.

One of the dangers of cliques (I’ll get back to the urban uprising in a moment, promise) is that the echo chamber can form one hell of a sheeple mindset. To bay and scream as a group should one of them get hurt or afraid. To yell and complain when someone feels wronged. To hide and bow their heads in servitude when someone comes along in a higher position on the food chain. It’s a herd mentality, which nowadays can also mean lost in the sauce.

Publishing has not always been like this and it’s allowed the formation of big publishing houses who used to treat writers with respect to now belittle them. This is a relatively new sales strategy in the Big 5, though. Traditionally publishing houses try to treat their writers with at least some respect and show decorum in order for the writer to continue to choose them to publish their novels. I mean, if I’m a grocery store and people like a particular brand and flavor of coffee, I’m not going to piss off the supplier of said coffee because then I won’t be able to sell it anymore after the supplier decides to go to my competitor instead because I am a bellicose asshat. That’s just bad business right there.

But with the Big 5 having a virtual monopoly on brick-and-mortar stores right now (yes, that’s what it is, don’t even try to deny it), they know that they can substitute any author with a new flavor. They think “Yeah, it’s not as good as so-and-so, but the plebes will drink it.” Sometimes they do, but more often they don’t. Then the publisher cuts established midlisters from their rosters while hiring more editors and bemoaning the age of digital piracy and the lost sales because of ebooks.

Does this sound as crazy to you as it does me?

Now, a few of my publishers who distribute through the Big 5 are freaking awesome and take good care of the authors in their stable because they understand business. They know that if they take care of their supplier, then said supplier will continue to produce more word crack. Fans will be happy and everyone wins. On top of that, everyone gets paid and there is no accounting magic involved.

So will the masses rise up and rebel against their tyrannical dictators who are cruel and harsh masters? Will they find their way out of the sauce and back to the light?

One thing’s for certain: I’m not lost in the sauce.

Not anymore, at least.

Promo time: Jason Cordova was a 2015 finalist for the John W Campbell Award for Best New Author. What does that mean? Nothing, quite frankly. However, he has quite a few novels and short stories out in print right now, and his latest novel, “Wraithkin”, is available over at Amazon. You should buy it. Be the trend setter. Be the hero you were meant to be. Click the picture below and BE THE HERO.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000035_00045]

 

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Delayed

Today’s post is a little delayed. I’ve had physical therapy this morning and I have to take the cats to the vet this afternoon. Hopefully will have it up around 4 or 5PM. Until then, try not to break anything that we can duct tape back together.

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Small Press Co-Authoring Madness

Since we’re here, let me regale you with tales of old…

As many of the established readers of this site know, I’m still fairly new to the business. This coming November I’ll be celebrating 7 years since my first novel was published. Part of my highly exaggerated “charm” is that I have no clue as to the little nods and winks in science fiction that bigger names understand. I don’t get the geek humor a lot (I’m not of you, but adopted) and I don’t even understand why there are cliques in fandom now (outside of the obvious psychological need to exclude people when oneself was excluded from social functions many years ago, but that’s a different essay).

So believe me when I am surprised when people mock me when I say I’ve published the majority of my work with small press publishers. I don’t quite grasp their looks of horror when I share how many co-authors I’ve worked with over the years. I am, as they say, naive to the horror stories of small press and co-authors.

Don’t misunderstand, neither is all roses and cash all the time (God, I wish it were!). No, it takes a dedicated focus to succeed at either. To succeed at both takes a certain level of crazy that… uh… gets you invited to… er… write for the Mad Genius Club.

Son of a…

I first approached a big publisher back in 2005 with my completed novel “Corruptor”. It was a decent first novel that needed an editor’s touch (still does) but fit into the (at the time) needs of the growing YA/Teen subgenre. However, nobody would touch it and the book ended up being contracted with Twilight Times, a small press I had heard about through a friend. It was a lengthy book that didn’t fit into the “mold” at the time. You see, this was when urban fantasy was really taking off and people were saying that it would be the death of science fiction, so nobody was taking anything like what I had written except small houses. Unless I had werewolves falling in love with humans while battling vampires and vice versa, I did not have what they wanted.

While I have had troubles with one or two of the small houses I’ve worked with, all in all it has been a collection of very pleasant experiences. I don’t have the issue of being the sole person responsible for editing and publishing my books, as I could have had if I had gone indie. I’m still responsible for marketing myself, but the publisher usually has ideas that can help. They also design the cover art, something that I suck at, and often get truly commissioned art for the cover and nothing recycled (“Corruptor” and “Wraithkin” come to mind). The other added benefit of working with a small press publisher is that, unlike some of the bigger houses, you get paid far more often at rates that are comparable to that of going indie. It’s part of the reason I haven’t truly gone indie yet: I like writing, but I hate everything else that publishers can take care of for the writer.

As for working with co-authors… well, I can only say that I have had great success with finding them and working together with them. Everyone knows the insanity in a novel when Chris and I work together, and I have had great financial success with Eric. I worked with another co-author, though, who almost soured me on the prospect of writing with others back before I had “Corruptor” contracted. That was partly my fault, since I bought into the “hype” and ignored a lot of the lack of substance he brought to the partnership. Plus, he was a bigger name than I was, so it probably worked out for the best.

Why, you ask? Well, because working with a co-author is harder to make work than a typical marriage.

It is hard to write a book with someone. It takes more than setting your ego aside. It takes a full commitment to the relationship to make it work (oh wow, total marriage comparison). Both authors have to know the limitations of their collaborator, and be receptive to ideas that you might not initially think would work. You have to listen, and not simply wait for them to quit speaking so you can say a rebuttal piece. Active listening is key here, people.  For example…

When Chris and I wrote “Kraken Mare”, we pretty much rewrote the entire book (I’d completed about 35,0000 words before I called in for some help). Even though there was a lot of insanity (and by a lot, I mean immeasurable amounts here… crazy giggling while talking and plotting/writing) we realized that we worked well together. We would easily feed off one another, hound each other when needed, and come up with ideas that the other would never have thought of, and pop culture references that one of us might have missed. It was fun, enjoyable, and we’re planning on more projects in the future once our free time reappears.

All in all, you have to be more than a little crazy to do either. To do both, well, you have to be certifiable Mad Genius. 🙂

And now your promotional news. Jason has a book out right now that you should buy. For a measly $3.99 you too can pick up your copy of the latest, Wraithkin, from Theogony Books. If you have KU then it’s free! Pick up a copy and leave a review.

 

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50 Lashes With A Wet Noodle

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!” –Hamlet, Scene 5, Act 1

I hate when I see another reboot come on the television or a movie release. It reeks of desperation, of a complete and utter lack of imagination. It has that slick and greasy feel to it, like when the doctor uses too much petroleum jelly during an ultrasound. The public knows that it is laziness, the studio knows that it’s laziness, and even the director knows that it’s laziness. The only people under the delusion that it is not lazy writing seems to be the producers and the actors.

According to Amazon, there are currently over 3,000,000 book series over there and something like 10,000,000 individual books available for sale. Within that there could be as many as 3 different interpretations of any said novel, so 30 million potential movies.

So what do we, the paying populace, get from the land of Hollywood? A reboot. An 8th sequel. A prequel that isn’t but it really is but nobody wants to say anything so hush hush.

I can’t believe that we’re out of ideas. I’ve been to Amazon, read unknown authors, and seen ideas that I have never seen before. If me, with my limited book buying budget and reading time, can find new and intriguing ideas in fiction, why can’t a movie producer? Why can’t a star with guaranteed drawing power pull a novel out of nowhere and turn it into a movie?

I can already hear people running to the comments and screaming “They do that, you twit! And they turn into flops!” And while I understand your argument, I believe that what constitutes a blockbuster has changed over the past 20 years. Because despite what we want to think, the United States is no longer the target market for any movie producer.

Look at it this way: did we really need a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie? Misty Massey has an excellent fantasy series based on pirates (Mad Kestrel) which would translate to movies amazingly. Yet we got another PotC movie. Why? Not because it made any money in the U.S. (production costs- $300 million; domestic gross- $309 million) but because it made money overseas (worldwide gross- $963 million). And the world market loves them some reboots.

So does this mean that we’re cursed to see nothing but reboots and sequels? Welllll…. I’m not going to say “no” because I see what Marvel is putting out over the next four years and yeah, that’s a ton of sequels. I also think that we’re going to see a Fast and Furious 28: Dom’s Nursing Home Adventures. Hey, if they can wring money out of an intellectual property like that, more power to them, right?

Ehhh….

This is where me not being a “pure” capitalist rears its ugly head, because I love originality. I do enjoy sequels, don’t get me wrong. Reboots? Meh. Prequels? F*ck you, George Lucas.

Ahem. Pardon me.

But not all reboots and whatnot suck completely, and not all original ideas make money, so I’ll try not to generalize here.

Possibly the best movie I’ve seen recently was Kubo and the Two Strings. It was the perfect movie for someone like me: good story, original idea, good pacing, great accompanying music.

The one thing that it didn’t do, however, was make any money. Domestically it lost something like $20 million. And since studios are out to make money (despite what we tend to think), “failures” like Kubo make them gun-shy about trying new and original ideas. The same thing happened to John Carter. 

So it’s back to reboots and unwanted sequels, of prequels that reek of desperation and a lack of hope. Of tired old tropes being thrown out there, and more unwanted movies with Christopher Mintz-Plasse.

So alas, poor Yorick the muse, struck down by 50 lashes with a wet noodle because there is no more imagination in the minds of those who seek to entertain us in media.

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I originally had this long and detailed essay about fellow SF author John Ringo, complete with graphs and images, but then I was called in to work and ran out of time. So I was at a quandary: talk about other authors, or promote myself shamelessly?

So you probably know where this is going…

The following is the opening chapter of Wraithkin, my latest novel and first in a new series called The Kin Wars Saga from Theogony Books. I’m super excited about the series as a whole and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it. If you enjoyed the sample, here is the link to purchase it. Don’t forget to leave a review.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000035_00045]

Wraithkin

Book One

Jason Cordova

Wraith –

  1. An apparition of a living person that appears as a portent just before that person’s death;
  2. The ghost of a dead person;
  3. Something insubstantial.

Kin

  1. A group of persons descended from a common ancestor or constituting a family, clan, tribe, or race;
  2. Someone or something of the same or similar kind: philosophy and its kin, theology.

 

Prologue

Andrew

The lifeless body of his fellow agent on the bed was the final clue that confirmed the undercover operation was thoroughly busted.

“Crap,” Agent Andrew Espinoza, Dominion Intelligence Bureau, said as he stepped fully into the dimly lit room and carefully made his way to the filthy bed in which his fellow agent lay. He turned away from the ruined body of his friend and scanned the room for any sign of danger. Seeing none, he quickly walked back out of the room to where the slaves he had rescued earlier were waiting.

“Okay, let’s keep quiet now,” he reminded them. “I’ll go first, and you follow me. I don’t think there are any more slavers in the warehouse. Understand?”

They all nodded. He offered them a smile of confidence, though he had lied. He knew there was one more slaver in the warehouse, hiding near the side exit they were about to use. He had a plan to deal with that person, however. First he had to get them to safety.

He led the way, his pistol up and ready as he guided the women through the dank and musty halls of the old, rundown building. It had been abandoned years before, and the slaver ring had managed to get it for a song. In fact, they had even qualified for a tax-exempt purchase due to the condition of the neighborhood around it. The local constable had wanted the property sold, and the slaver ring had stepped in and offered him a cut if he gave it to them. The constable had readily agreed, and the slavers had turned the warehouse into the processing plant for the sex slaves they sold throughout the Dominion. Andrew knew all this because he had been the one to help set up the purchase in the first place.

Now, though, he was wishing he had chosen another locale.

He stopped the following slaves as he came to the opening which led into one of the warehouse’s spacious storage areas. Beyond that lay their final destination, and he was dreading the confrontation with the last slaver. He checked his gun and grunted in surprise as he saw he had two fewer rounds left than he had thought. He shook his head and charged the pistol.

“Stay here and wait for my signal,” he told the rescued slaves. They nodded in unison.

He took a deep, calming breath. No matter what happened, he had to get the slaves to safety. He owed them that much. His sworn duty was to protect the Dominion from people like the slavers, and someone along the way had failed these poor women. He exhaled slowly, crossed himself and prayed to God, the Emperor and any other person who may be paying attention.

He swung into the open and charged into the room, his footsteps loud on the concrete flooring. He had his gun up as he ducked behind a small, empty crate. He peeked over the top and snarled: he had been hoping against hope the slaver was facing the other direction.

Apparently Murphy is still a stronger presence in my life than God, he thought as he locked eyes with the last slaver. The woman’s eyes widened in recognition and shock, and he knew he would only have one chance before she killed them all.

He dove to the right of the crate and rolled, letting his momentum drag him out of the slaver’s immediate line of fire. He struggled to his feet as her gun swung up and began to track him, but he was already moving, sprinting back to the left while closing in on her. She fired twice, both shots ricocheting off the floor and embedding themselves into the wall behind him.

Andrew skid to a stop and took careful aim. It was a race, the slaver bringing her gun around as his own came to bear upon her. The muzzles of both guns flashed simultaneously, and Andrew grunted as pain flared in his shoulder.

A second shot punched him in the gut and he fell, shocked the woman had managed to get him. He lifted his head and saw that while he had hit her, her wound wasn’t nearly as bad as his. He had merely clipped her collarbone and, while it would smart, it was in no way fatal. She took aim on him and smiled coldly.

Andrew swiftly brought his gun up with his working arm and fired one final time. The round struck true, burrowing itself right between the slaver’s eyes. She fell backwards and lay still, dead. He groaned and dropped the gun, pain blossoming in his stomach. He rolled onto his back and stared at the old warehouse’s ceiling.

That sucked, he groused. He closed his eyes and let out a long, painful breath.

“Terminate simulation,” a cold voice barked, and suddenly the warehouse, slaver and all the slaves disappeared. The pain in Andrew’s arm and stomach vanished, leaving him with only a trace amount of phantom pain from where he had been “shot”. The dull, throbbing pain in his knee from when he had dove earlier did not, though. He groaned slightly as he remembered he was not about to die, and opened his eyes.

The harsh, sharp face of Anji Kürze, the local section chief of the Dominion Intelligence Bureau, was looking down at him, her graying hair pulled back tightly. Her eyes were cold, though he knew from long experience the look was not meant for him. She wore no garish makeup or jewelry, and her suit was perfectly pressed. It was her natural look, one she had taken great pride in cultivating over the years.

Andrew knew that she was a kind woman at heart, but didn’t dare say anything lest he ruins the image she had so carefully cultivated. He shifted his gaze slightly. Next to her stood the man who wanted to end Andrew’s career so very badly.

“She killed you that time, agent,” Chief Kürze pointed out. Needlessly, in Andrew’s opinion.

“It doesn’t matter how many times we run through it,” Andrew said, a hint of exasperation creeping into his voice as he picked himself off the ground. He shot the man next to his chief a calculated look. “That was the twelfth run. I actually made it into the main warehouse this time before I got gunned down, and that was with us cheating on the sim and knowing where everyone was when the raid started!”

“I’m inclined to agree with the agent,” the station chief said with a pinched look about her. She rubbed her eyes tiredly. “The question whether Agent Buckley could have been saved without compromising the undercover identity of Agent Espinoza has been answered definitively. I find no fault in Espinoza’s actions, and recommend no marks go into his permanent duty record at this time.”

“Ma’am!” Senior Agent Vijay Tendulkar protested loudly and threw his hands into the air. “He could have gone back at the midway point, before he engaged the two guards outside the slave pen. The evidence is there. We can see it!”

“You are seeing ghosts, Agent Tendulkar,” the chief growled in a low, dangerous voice. “Agent Buckley was a damn fine agent, but there was no way we could have achieved what we did if Agent Espinoza had grabbed him first or even midway through the raid. Forty-six hostages and an interstellar sex slave ring brought down in exchange for the unknown whereabouts of one agent? As callous as I may sound, Vijay, that’s a price I’m willing to pay. It’s unfortunate Agent Buckley died, and I hate losing any agents at all, but it was in no way any fault of Agent Espinoza’s. The Bureau will agree with me on this one, and that’s the last I want to hear about it. Is that understood, agent?”

“Yes ma’am,” Vijay sighed. The chief nodded.

“It’s been six months, Vijay,” she said in a soothing tone. “Let it go. Agent Espinoza, I believe you have some accrued time off coming up. I suggest you take all of it, because I fear your next assignment is going to take away any free time you might have thought you had for the next few years or so.”

“Understood, ma’am,” Andrew nodded and hid his smile. He hadn’t seen his family in a long time, and he was eagerly looking forward to spending the holidays with them on his home planet. If not for the senior agent, he would have been gone weeks ago.

Such is the life of a Deeb, he thought as he walked out of the simulator and into the locker room.

 

 

 

Chapter One

Gabriel

The weathered farmhouse sat atop the small hill, overlooking Soldier’s Retreat like a sentry protecting the innocents in his charge. The air was chilly, the late fall weather rapidly changing into winter as Belleza Sutil’s orbital tilt moved the valley away from its sun. Clouds rolled overhead, shielding the valley from the dwindling sunlight; what little light remained cast long shadows throughout the valley. A rising, misting fog began to partially obscure the valley the farmhouse stood over, offering some semblance of privacy in the quiet and secluded dale.

Lights were on inside the large home, decorative lights as the valley and planet as a whole prepared for the seasonal festivities. Smoke rose lazily from the top of the home’s weathered stone chimney, drifting off to the east as gusts of wind passed through the valley. Firebugs danced throughout the valley, most of the miniscule insects gathered in the small grove behind the farmhouse, their incandescent lighting flashing a brief yet brilliant call for mates. Bats, imported more than a millennium before, swooped through the darkening sky to hunt the firebugs. Throughout the valley, the circle of life continued unabated as it had since time immemorial.

Inside the house, a large family gathered to celebrate All Gallow’s Eve, the empirical holiday of the Dominion of Man. In the midst of this joyous family sat a solitary young man. His hands were sweaty and his gaze was nervously flitting across the room, seeking each time the face of his love. She would catch his gaze, offer a tentative smile and continue talking to his mother.

Each smile caused his heart to leap, every small look was worth more to him than a pile of diamonds. He loved her with all his heart, and always would. He knew this with every single ounce of his being.

So what was stopping him from asking her the most important question of all?

A child tottered into the room, precariously balanced as he moved around the furniture, looking for someone he knew. The child spotted a familiar face and squealed happily, stumbling forward. The young man smiled and reached for his nephew.

“How’s my little guy doing?” Gabriel asked as he picked up the squirming child. The boy giggled as Gabriel turned him upside down for a moment before righting him. “Oops. Forgot which end is up. Don’t tell your father, but I like you more than him.”

“I heard that,” Gabriel’s oldest brother called out. Gabriel smiled as Kevin, the eldest Espinoza sibling, stuck his head through the doorway.

“You were supposed to.”

“So did you ask her yet?”

“No,” Gabriel admitted, his voice sheepish. Kevin snorted.

“Coward.”

“No, I’m going to…” Gabriel’s voice trailed off with a shrug of his large shoulders. “Soon.”

“Right.”

“I am!”

“Right.”

“What?” Andrew asked as he slid past his brother and into the room. Gabriel rolled his eyes. “You guys arguing about who is smarter again?”

“We were debating what it’s like being the least loved,” Kevin answered. “Then we figured you’d show up and tell us what it’s like.”

“Ooh, that hurt,” Andrew said as he dramatically grabbed his chest. “Being the middle child is horrible, and it doth pain this heart of mine to hear the sheer arrogance of the lesser siblings attempting to taunt the indomitable me.”

“Wait… what?” Gabriel asked. He passed his nephew off to Kevin, who poked his nose into his son’s cheek. The boy giggled and tried to squirm out of his grasp.

“See?” Kevin smiled. “You may be mom’s baby, but you’re still the stupid one.”

“Have you asked her yet?” Andrew queried, nodding to where Gabriel’s longtime girlfriend was talking to their mother.

“I’m going to!”

“If you don’t, I will,” Andrew teased. “She’s gorgeous, and since you’re my younger brother, I figure I’ve got a five percent chance at her saying yes, genetically speaking. Since, you know, I’m the older, more experienced one who happens to not have kids or a wife yet.”

“And the worlds of man rejoiced,” Kevin said with a straight face. Gabriel laughed.

“Okay, I’m going to do it,” he announced and stood up.

“What, right now?” Kevin asked, shock and surprise in his voice.

“Yeah, why not?” Gabriel looked at him.

“She’s talking to Mom!” Andrew stated. “You’ll never get a moment of peace if you do it in front of her.”

“You won’t even get to ask,” Kevin amended. “Mom’ll ask you about your plans, then hers, next thing you know it’s time for her to leave and you still haven’t asked her yet.”

“Crap.”

“Right. If I were you, I’d get her out on the patio,” Andrew suggested. “Kevin hides in the bushes, then pops out and scares the hell out of her when you get down on one knee.”

“Dack!” Gabriel coughed, trying and failing not to laugh. “Can’t Kevin just record it or something so we can capture stills from it later?”

“You are not my brother,” Andrew sniffed and walked from the room. A moment later Gabriel heard him begin talking to their mother. “So tell me about Delores’ new dog, Mom.”

“What a champ, taking one for the team like that,” Kevin said, a mournful look on his face. He pulled a small device from his pocket and showed it to his youngest brother. “There goes a brave man. I got the digi. Now go ask her. I’ll try to stay inconspicuous.”

“Thanks,” Gabriel said with heartfelt gratitude. He wandered into the other room where he spotted Sophie smiling in amusement. Her blue eyes twinkled in the bright lights. He motioned for her to follow him and she did, drink in hand.

The air had cooled down considerably and Gabriel began to wonder if his plan was such a smart one. Despite the lights from the house, the nighttime sky above was filled with stars. The planet’s two moons drifted far off to the northeast, both waning and reflecting little light onto the valley. The timing couldn’t be better.

Then what was stopping him?

“Hey sexy man,” Sophie said as she came out onto the porch. Gabriel looked back over his shoulder and smiled.

“Still not sure what you see in me,” he joked. She grinned.

“If you’re going to drag a girl out into the cold, I wonder sometimes too.”

“Sophie…” he stopped and looked down at his feet. What is wrong with me? he wondered. He tried again. “You know you’re my best friend, right?”

“Well, I hope so,” she said, her expression confused.

“And I love you…” he continued, flustered.

“Are you breaking up with me?” she asked, horrified. Gabriel began to frantically shake his head.

“What? No! God no! No way!”

“Okay, sorry, that just… phew. Okay, so what did you want to say?”

“Well…” he rubbed his face. “This was supposed to be easy.” He dropped to one knee. “I suck at romanticism.”

“Oh my God…”

“Sophie Cardenas, will you be with me now, and forever? Will you honor me by–”

“Oh my God, oh my God…”

“Sophie? Are you going to let me finish?”

“Sorry, go… oh my God!”

“–by becoming my wife?”

“Oh oh oh oh wow. Oh wow. Wow.”

“Is that a yes?”

“Huh? Oh, oh yes! Yes!” she pulled him to his feet and hugged him fiercely. In the house, loud cheering exploded suddenly as the entire family celebrated. Gabriel smiled and tried to reach into his pocket to retrieve the ring.

“Do you want your ring?” he asked her. She let go of him and he managed to open the small box.

“Oh… oh jeez. I think I’m going to cry,” she whispered as he slipped the ring onto her finger.

“It’s okay,” he said, unsure what to do next. He glanced back to the windows and saw Kevin standing there, digicam in hand, recording everything. The rest of the family was gathered as well, watching, smiling, waiting. “I didn’t think you’d say yes.”

“What? Really?” she laughed and threw her head back. “Never! I’ve been waiting for this since we were kids.”

He placed his hands on her hips and pulled her close.

“I love you,” he whispered into her ear as he leaned close. “Nothing in this universe can stop that.”

At that moment, for Gabriel Espinoza, life was perfect in every single way.

#

The first thing Gabriel noticed about the office was it was stiflingly hot, almost unbearable despite the relative warmth outside the building. The heat made his head swim and sucked all vestiges of energy from his being. It felt as though a vampire had taken his soul out through the pores in his skin. He mentally complained as he checked in with the receptionist at the front counter.

“Espinoza, Gabriel,” he told the receptionist as he placed his elbows upon the countertop. The heavyset woman ignored him as she continued to type away on her datapad. Gabriel waited patiently for two long minutes before she looked up from the datapad, a strange mixture of exhaustion and disgust on her face.

“Gene test?” she asked in the bored tone of someone who had asked the simple question too many times. Gabriel nodded quickly, a flush of embarrassment coming over him as he thought back to his earlier complaints. The woman’s eyes flicked to the digital screen positioned high on the wall to Gabriel’s right and frowned. “Take a chit and wait your turn.”

“Uh, thanks,” Gabriel replied but the woman had already focused her attention back to the book-sized datapad, rudely dismissing him. Raised to be polite, Gabriel did not comment upon the second-class citizen’s response. Gene tests were very common, dull and required by everyone who wanted to get married or have children in society. She probably gets thousands of people in here a week, he rationalized as he took a small blank chit from the dispenser and walked over to a chair opposite of the wall-mounted screen. The chit began to flash in his hand before the number four appeared. He glanced back at the receptionist, who had turned away from the counter. Meager wages, and carrying around the stigma of being what she was would make anybody grouchy, he rationalized. He decided not to mention her attitude to the doctors once his own testing was done. He sat down gingerly and looked around at the other occupants.

The room was mostly empty, which came as a surprise to the young man as he crossed his legs. A few men roughly his own age were holding chits with flashing red numbers in their hands, identical to the one he nervously clutched in his fingers. Each bore the same look of all Perfects on the planet of Belleza Sutil just before a gene test: aloof, jaded and a subtle fear hidden beneath their exterior. Gabriel knew the feeling all too well, though. He was hiding his own fear of failing the test, a test one could neither prepare for nor study for. Passing would mean fulfillment and happiness, a chance at a real life.

Failing… he shuddered. He did not want to consider the possibilities that came with a failed genetic test. It was a life no Perfect wanted to contemplate.

Nobody wanted to find out after their initial birth test that their genetics were mutated and impure, Gabriel thought as he looked down at the chit in his hand. The flashing number was nowhere near the number displayed on the digital screen on the wall, so he settled back into the uncomfortable chair and resumed looking at the other men who were awaiting their own tests. As usual, his mind began to wander as he discretely investigated each man seated in the room.

Each was dressed as conservatively as possible, their pressed and orderly clothing decorated in varying shades of dark blue and grey. Their shoes were nicely polished and each sported a recent haircut, as though their appearance would help the outcome from their gene test. The majority, Gabriel included, were freshly shaven. He smiled inwardly at the idea the gene test was susceptible to the appearance of the individual.

It was an absurd idea, and yet Gabriel had cleaned himself up specifically for the test. He had purchased a new shirt and slacks with money saved up from odd jobs working on his family’s farm the previous three summers in a nervous anticipation leading up to the gene test. It had taken him over an hour, that very morning, to shower, shave and prepare himself for the test.

It should all be a formality anyway, he thought as a new number appeared on the screen. Every head in the room bowed down slightly to look at the number held in hand, and sheepish grins followed as men who had just looked at their chits glanced back up for the umpteenth time. Gabriel shook his head in embarrassment. He knew there was no way the number that appeared had been for him, and yet nerves drove him to look anyway.

One of the other men stood up suddenly and flashed Gabriel a nervous grin before walking to a small door leading further into the building. Gabriel watched the man’s back for a moment before he leaned forward and began to think back to statistics his father had recited to him that morning before he had left.

There had not been anyone born into his family with the incorrect genetic markers in over ten generations, dating back to the Time of Colonization, he recalled as he fingered the edge of the plastic chit he held in his hand. His family was filled with Perfects, those whose genetic makeup signified they were not susceptible to almost any inherent disease known to mankind. Cancer, cystic fibrosis and a recently mutated version of neurofibromatosis only belonged to those whose genetic markers were impure. Neither his parents nor his two older brothers had tested positive for genetic mutation, and Gabriel intended for it to stay that way. Even if the haircut and fresh shave did not help in the least.

Another number flashed onto the screen, and a thin man who looked the same age as Gabriel stood up. With a wary glance to the others waiting in the room, he walked to the door the previous man had entered moments before. The door opened and a woman in a nurse’s uniform led the thin man away into another part of the building. The door closed behind them with an ominous sounding click! Gabriel empathized for the man, yet found himself hoping his own number would never be called. Let them call someone else, he silently prayed.

“Absurd,” Gabriel muttered to himself as he looked back down at the chit in his hand. He was allowing his fears to get to him, something he did not allow too often. The last time I was this afraid, he thought as he looked down to find his hands shaking slightly, I was convinced that monsters lived under my bed. He mentally chided himself and willed his hands still as a new number appeared on the digital screen. He glanced down at the chit held tightly in his fingers and was surprised; his number matched to the one on the screen. He looked back up at the screen, where the numbers seemed to float off the display and swim before his eyes. He rechecked the number on the chit and shook his head. They still matched.

He looked around at the other men in the room, his expression dumbfounded as he stood slowly. For a terrifying instant he felt the urge to run, to bolt through the front door and out into the city. Nobody would know if he passed or failed. Nobody would have to know. He had passed the basic test as a three-yearold child, surely nothing had changed in the past twenty years.

The number on his chit continued to blink insistently as he stared at it numbly. Slowly, he walked to where the far door awaited, dread heightening with each ensuing footstep. He rubbed his nose with the plastic chit, scratching the skin painfully. He cast a glance at the others waiting for their numbers to appear.

“Guess it pays to make an appointment,” he tried joking as one of the doors opened. Though he had intended to put a good deal of humor into his tone, it came out flat, wrong. One of the other men offered him a weak smile in return, but that was all. No laughter, no broad smiles. The atmosphere in a funeral home is livelier than this, he thought as he reached the opened door. Gabriel shifted his focus onto the nurse standing in the doorway, her pretty face turned up in a small, humorless smile.

“Mr. Espinoza?” the nurse asked. Seeing Gabriel’s nod, she continued. “Right this way, sir. The test should only take fifteen minutes, and then you can go back to work if you want.”

“I called in for the day,” Gabriel replied as he followed the nurse through the doorway and down a sterile hallway. His footsteps echoed quietly in the tile-covered hall, and for the first time Gabriel felt a stabbing panic in his heart. He looked at the small, petite nurse in front of him and tried to allay his own fears. “Get many people nervous for the test?”

The nurse looked over her shoulder and smiled comfortingly at him.

“All the time,” she stated and turned left down another matching hallway. Gabriel had no idea how she kept track of which hallway she was traversing. “It’s a typical reaction to fear the unknown. I bet you’re also wondering what if the test results are faulty. Nothing to worry about or be ashamed to ask. We run three different versions, so we can spot and weed out the false-positives. With your indicated family history–” making a motion to the datapad in her hand, which Gabriel had not noticed before, “–we will triple-check the results, just in case. Don’t worry, Mr. Espinoza. Your history alone indicates you’ll be Perfect.”

Gabriel nodded, his heart hammering against the walls of his chest as they entered a small room. A plain, unadorned examination chair was situated in the middle of the room, surrounded by various medical devices he could only assume were for the testing process. The nurse motioned for him to sit in the chair as she set her datapad on one of the countertops lining the walls.

“Please have a seat,” she said as she tapped into her datapad. “I’ll take your vitals in a minute, then we can begin.”

Gabriel nodded and sat down heavily in the examination chair, and rested his hands on the armrests. His head relaxed against the soft padding behind him. He felt the chair beneath him mold and contort to better fit his frame. The tension began to ooze out of him slowly, though not completely. He half-closed his eyes and allowed the chair to help him calm down.

“Is the chair designed to help put a patient at ease?” he asked as his legs were raised ever-so-slightly to a more comfortable angle. He wiggled and felt the contours in the chair shift to match his gyrations. He smiled in spite of the situation. Sophie would love this thing, he thought, looking back towards the nurse. Then he chuckled silently, recalling that Sophie had already done her second test. She already had a chance to enjoy the chair.

“Very astute observation,” the nurse said pleasantly as she finished typing on the pad. She walked over to him and patted his shoulder as she pulled off a pressure cuff that was hanging from the chair. “Depending on how nervous they are, people usually just assume it’s their body adjusting to the situation. A logical, but incorrect, assumption. Arm out, please.” Gabriel obeyed and the nurse slapped the pressure cuff onto his muscular arm. After a few seconds the device beeped and the nurse glanced over at her datapad.

“Bad?” Gabriel asked, his nerves skyrocketing as the nurse frowned. She looked at him and shook her head.

“No, sorry,” she apologized. Gabriel let out a huge breath of relief. “I was thinking about what to make for dinner and couldn’t remember if I had put out the vegetables. Your blood pressure is perfect, Mr. Espinoza. Just as expected.”

Gabriel sat still as the nurse continued her routine checkup. Tonsils, temperature and his eyesight were all checked and verified, the nurse making quiet little noises as she saved each and every result onto her datapad. From there, Gabriel remembered as the examination began to wrap up, the pad would transfer all data to a central location where it could be sorted and categorized.

“Now for the final test,” she said as she reached down to a drawer cleverly hidden beneath the exam chair and pulled it open. She withdrew a small, syringe-like device that Gabriel had never seen before. Lacking a needle at the tip and featuring a small claw instead, he began to wonder what exactly they were planning to extract from him. She recognized his wary look from years of experience and offered him a warm smile. “This is just for portable results.”

“Huh?” Gabriel asked, thoroughly confused as he eyed the strange device. The claw looked back at him menacingly, promising him a silent and painful few minutes. “Portable what?”

“After I get a skin sample,” she began as she opened the miniature claw on the end of the device with a push of a button, “I’ll plug this into my pad. From there the test will run and take about two minutes for the results to get back to me. After that, the second and third tests will begin should there be an issue with the first. With me so far?”

“I think so,” Gabriel said with a nod. The nurse pressed the claw against his forearm and Gabriel blinked as he felt a small tickle as a miniscule patch of skin was removed. She pulled away after a moment and nodded.

“That was it,” she said as she plugged the opposite end of the device into her datapad. Gabriel looked down at his arm, where a faint black spot the size of an eyelash could be seen. He grunted, surprised.

“That’s all?” he asked as he flexed his hand. The arm still worked apparently. He looked at the nurse. “I expected more blood, maybe a little pain, even some screaming and orderlies to sedate me.”

The nurse giggled slightly as she watched the display of her pad intently.

“Lots of patients expect as much,” she explained as they both waited for the data to come back. “They actually get so worked up for it that when it happens, they think I’m joking or trying to trick them into missing the giant needle about to go into their spinal column. Some pass out. Then they go home a nervous wreck and disappointed.” Seeing Gabriel’s expression, she quickly added “There’s no hidden needle, by the way.”

“That’s… good to know,” he breathed as the pad chimed quietly. Gabriel looked at the small pad as the nurse began to read the notes to herself. He felt his stomach drop as his eyes tracked from the pad to her face. Something’s not right, he thought as her pleasant face slipped slightly as she continued to read the results on her datapad.

“Well, that’s why we run three confirmation tests,” she muttered blandly as she punched in a series of keys onto the pad.

“What… what happened?” he asked, his voice quiet. The nurse looked at him with a small frown.

“Just a minor glitch,” she said as she pocketed the datapad in her lab coat. “Like we said, with your genetic history it’s probably just a minor glitch, I’m sure. The final results will be back in a few hours. We have a waiting room supplied with drinks if you would like to wait here for the results. Or we can forward the final results to your home location, so you can view them in the privacy of your own home. If you do that, however, a doctor will want to speak with you no matter what the outcome. We want to refine our testing so we get less false positives and make this process as stress-free as possible. However, in the end it’s your decision, sir.”

“I’ll wait,” Gabriel said hoarsely as his throat began to slowly constrict. He felt as though he were being choked by some unseen force, some unknown entity determined to end his life. He was vaguely aware of the nurse touching his shoulder and tried to focus on her cool hand instead of the burning agony and fear which blossomed in his heart.

“More than likely, this is a false-positive Mr. Espinoza,” she repeated as she patted his shoulder comfortingly, though a bit hesitant. “You come from good genetic stock, after all. Your history proves this. The odds of you being a… well, one of them is virtually nonexistent.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel agreed, though with no emotion or even the slightest bit of conviction in his voice. He had heard the change of tone in her voice. One of them indeed, he thought.

“The waiting room is this way,” she said as she touched his arm lightly. Gabriel heaved himself out of the chair to follow the nurse out of the room. As he stood, however, he could not help but to notice that she had wiped her hand clean on her lab coat after touching his shoulder. As if he was dirty. As if he were one of them.

He shuddered slightly and followed the nurse out into the sterile hallway.

######

I hope you enjoyed the sample. This is probably going to be the only bit of shameless self-promotion I do over the next few months as I get back into the swing of things.

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