We’re two weeks out from release of The Ancient Girl in the Autopod, so it’s time for the first chapter.
And this time, you do get the whole first chapter, as this is the first full novel in the series.
EXCERPT FROM THE ANCIENT GIRL IN THE AUTOPOD
COPYRIGHT © CAMERON COOPER 2022
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
At first, I figured taking the kid to meet Georgina was what started the flaming ball rolling. Doc Lowry, who came into it with the autopod thing, would say it was then. That’s because, like humans, our sense of place in history is subjective and very short term—even mine, and I’m supposed to know better.
Georgina was entertaining a potential client, the official representative of a business contemplating setting up in Georgina’s Town. Most of the time I skip the political fawning, which suited Georgina just fine, even though she keeps inviting me.
Must have shocked the hell out of her when I accepted this invitation, although she didn’t try to cross-examine me and find out why. Maybe she should have.
I took Ninety-Nine with me, because he’d been my assistant longer than all but one of the ninety-eight who’d gone before him and was still showing up for work. Plus, he was a painfully ignorant human. And he’d never met Georgina despite living in her town for two years.
Ninety-Nine showed up with his copper features glowing with cleanliness, his jacket formal, his dark golden hair standing up in serried spikes, like he was going on a date.
“It’s just dinner,” I growled as we headed for Georgina’s building.
“With Georgina Ashby.” Ninety-Nine actually skipped a couple of steps.
I rolled my eyes, but shut up. He’d get over it quick enough.
Georgina’s building was close to Guisy Oakmint’s casino, but the proximity was purely one of distance. Stepping into Georgina’s building was to step into history.
Make that a distorted representation of history, because history had never been as tranquil and relaxing as Georgina’s home.
She’d researched styles of housing through human history and come up with an eclectic group of design ideas, then spent a year haranguing builders into constructing it. She’d picked prime land under the dome, with a view of the spaceport outside the dome. Every day, she could watch Abbatangelo’s blue sun rise over the spaceport, and at night, watch ships and shuttles draw glowing curves in the dark sky.
Not that she watched the view all that often. She had a widow’s walk on the front roof that she could use if she was in the mood to watch the world go by, but mostly, she was too damn busy.
After nearly five hundred years, Georgina Ashby knew how to keep herself occupied.
Ninety-Nine’s eyes widened as we stepped into the front courtyard, which was the smallest of the three courtyards that made up the interior of the building. There was only a small bubbling fountain here, the pool filled with goldfish and lotus plants.
“The fountain masks sounds from the street,” I told Ninety-Nine.
We moved under the arch into the second courtyard. A waist-high firepit burned with low flames. The walls of the courtyard were hung with plants, turning the walls into verdant barriers. Standing at ninety degrees to the first arch was the second, this one more elaborate and vine draped. The arch led through the front of the house into the third and largest courtyard beyond. Georgina herself stood at the top of the two steps up into the house.
“The archives say a servant was supposed to stand by the fire and greet guests and take their muddy shoes,” Georgina had explained to me when I’d first arrived on Abbatangelo. “But I’ll be damned if I’ll have someone doing something I can do myself. Besides, it never rains in my town.”
Ninety-Nine gulped when he spotted Georgina, which was a common reaction, and one that puzzles me. Georgina was ordinary to look at. She was tall for a woman, which just meant her designers had a thing for tall women. She had short hair cut in a blunt bob that might once have been golden but was now silver-white. Her face was almost completely unlined, though.
She tended to view the world through narrowed green eyes. She was doing it with Ninety-Nine right now. “This is the nodoc you told me about, Jovan?” Her voice was a low, pleasant contralto, with a burr in it. She held out her arms as I stepped up into the house.
I bent and kissed both her cheeks. “Ninety-Nine,” I supplied.
“Hyland Sinagra, ma’am,” Ninety-Nine added, still standing on the stones of the courtyard.
Georgina almost laughed. Her brow lifted. “My, how polite of you.”
Ninety-Nine blushed. “S…sorry.”
She waved it away. “Politeness is social grease. Too many folks don’t use near enough of it, which makes socializing painful…and why I built these damn walls. You gonna step inside, Ninety-Nine Hyland Sinagra?”
His blush deepened. He stepped up into the “house”, although this section had no walls to speak of. Just a roof over a well-polished floor, which held up rugs and easy chairs and small tables.
The silence was almost complete.
The other side of the house was open to the primary courtyard, which was stuffed full of plants. It was here that Georgina spent a great deal of her spare time. The garden never looked the same as it did on previous visits. She liked to grow Earth-original plants and the light from the blue sun was supplemented with yellow sun spectrum lights bathing the courtyard, making the greens really green. None of what she grew was for eating, but purely for its beauty and the challenge of making it grow this far away from Earth. Blooms of all colors and shapes were the theme of the garden, but despite the range, the garden wasn’t a hodgepodge.
“I parked Carman in the sitting room with the good scotch,” Georgina told us over her shoulder as she stepped down into the courtyard and picked a path through the garden that would take us to the other side of the four-sided house.
Ninety-Nine’s head swiveled as we traversed the garden. He leaned toward me. “There are no walls!”
Which was true. The whole house faced the courtyard and had no walls hiding the view. Which mean we could see the inside of bedrooms, bathrooms, even the fully functional kitchen, Georgina’s office, the library, and the dining room. Georgina always seated everyone on the far side of the long table, so they could gaze upon the garden while they ate. She said the view enhanced digestion. I couldn’t argue with her on that.
The little sitting room beside the dining room held precisely one guest. She turned to us as we all stepped up into the sitting room, a polite smile on her face. She was nearly as tall as me, with high cheek bones, red lips, and a simple black dress that outlined everything in a very agreeable way. Her hair was black, and curled into near ringlets beneath her ears, which was an adorable note amongst the I-mean-business attire. The dress showed off her legs from high up the thigh down to her toes. They were quite likely the best legs I’d ever seen.
Ninety-Nine flushed a deep red when she looked at him and cleared his throat.
I knew what he meant. I had to remind myself she was the official representative of…and I couldn’t remember the name.
“Keran Carman,” Georgina said. “This is Ptolemy Lane, the town’s peacekeeper, and Hyland Sinagra, his assistant.” She turned to me and Ninety-Nine. “Keran works with Memsoul and is exploring the possibilities of expanding the outlet here in town.”
Which was why I was here.
Keran Carman smiled at both of us and asked polite questions while Georgina arranged drinks for us. Ninety-Nine took apple juice. I never passed up an opportunity to drink Georgina’s scotch because it was the real thing—direct from Scotland on Earth. She said she only had a dozen barrels left of the one hundred she’d managed to export. One day, I’d get that story out of her. As no one else in the fringes could serve the real thing, the story would be worth hearing.
Georgina handed us our glasses and said to Ninety-Nine; “The granddaughter of Kamara Quixada married a Sinagra.”
Ninety-Nine looked pleased, as if Georgina had remembered her manners. “My great-grandmother.”
Both Keran and I stared at Ninety-Nine in surprise. Even out here in the fringes, we’d heard of the Quixada dynasty, founded by Kamara Quixada with a fortune that rivalled the economies of the few still-independent countries on Earth. The Quixadas had managed to overcome their meekness and dominate the last capitalist enclaves of the twenty-third century. All of them.
Georgina didn’t look surprised. She just nodded. “Dinner is ready. Come along.”
Keran Carman directed conversation over dinner. She neatly avoided business, which suited me for the moment. I’d caught her quick sideways glances at me, and plied myself to being charming. I had no objections to a playmate for whatever nights she was in Georgina’s Town. My bed had been empty for too long.
Over dessert, though, Georgina got down to business and Keran didn’t object, which reminded me of why I was there. That took some of the shine off the evening.
Ninety-Nine had stammered a few answers to Keran’s polite questions over dinner. I expected him to shut up and listen now, but he must have been inspired by Keran’s attention over the meal, for he interrupted Keran as she was highlighting Memsoul’s attributes with a question of his own. “I don’t understand why you’re talking about a new outlet in GT, ma’am. We already have one. Do you mean a second outlet?”
Keran gave him a warm smile, with not a hint of impatience in it. “The clinic currently in Georgina’s Town is a deposit branch. We’re considering a full service outlet. A one-stop shop, so to speak.”
“Which I, for one, would appreciate,” Georgina said.
Keran nodded. “As you don’t leave Abbatangelo, it was one of the factors that made us think of expanding here. Part of my research while I am here is to determine how many others in your town are reluctant to leave, who might appreciate our full range of services right here in town.”
“Oh, I’m not reluctant to leave,” Georgina said. “I can’t leave.”
Keran raised her brow. “I was not aware of that.”
“Bullshit,” Georgina said, her voice rasping. “You did your research before you came here. You already knew I don’t leave town. If you’re worth your salt at all, you know why, too. I’m nearly five hundred years old. My skeleton can’t survive more than a gee anymore.”
Keran dropped the modest, polite mask. “We knew that, yes,” she said.
“Is there anything in your proposal that isn’t just a sop to my vanity and convenience, then?” Georgina asked.
She did like to shoot straight.
Keran answered smoothly. “Any benefits you gain will, of course, be useful to everyone in Georgina’s Town. Our full clinic will save many of your residents from having to travel off-world, not just you.”
Ninety-Nine frowned. As a human, he’d never had to think about memory back-ups. This was all new to him.
“Not just backups of data,” I told him. “Restoration, too, which is a more complicated procedure and requires a full garage—”
Keran winced. “We call them medical suites,” she said quickly.
“We can offer more than just restoration at our clinics,” she went on. “Maintenance and repairs, overhauls and updates. Everything a serial might need to stay in tip-top shape. A one-stop-shop, as I said.”
“I know a mechanic who might resent the competition,” I told her, thinking of Doc Lowry. He was one of only three mechanics in town.
Keran’s smile grew broader. “No one need fear competition.” Her tone was silky-smooth from practice. “There is room for everyone in the fringes.”
I sat back. “But you have no competition when it comes to data back-up,” I pointed out. “It’s a highly specialized service. Or so I presume from the prices you charge.”
“We provide a red carpet service. Our prices reflect that.”
“You provide the only service. You charge what you do, because you can. Most of my salary goes to Memsoul.”
Keran’s smile grew brittle. “As you yourself said, we offer a highly specialized service that required considerable up-front investment. We have a right to recoup those expenses.”
“You’re gouging,” I said flatly.
Keran’s smile froze in place.
Ninety-Nine looked alarmed, as if I was sacrificing his pet cat.
Georgina cleared her throat. “Jovan, this is an exploratory conversation, not a cross-examination.”
“So let’s explore,” I said. “A friend of mine, not so long ago, built a business proposal for a back-up facility that could charge everyone by the standard month—a small fee that everyone with a job could afford. I saw her research and the figures. She didn’t have it wrong. So if she could figure out a model like that, why couldn’t Memsoul?”
Keran pushed her chair back and turned it so she was facing me. She’d stopped smiling. Challenge confronted.
“There is not enough margin in a monthly subscription model to pay for the costly extras we provide. Restoration alone—”
“Restoration for when you have people over a barrel, desperate to get their memories back, and can charge like a wounded brontosaurus,” I intervened.
Keran breathed deeply.
My glanced fell upon her shapely knee. From this close, I realized it wasn’t quite as enticing as I had first thought. The skin above the knee was wrinkled. And I could see fine grey strands among her dark hair, too.
“Memory back-up should be available for everyone,” I finished. “Not just for the few who can barely afford it.”
“Then start your own clinic,” Keran snapped. “No one is stopping you.”
No one said anything for a long sixty seconds.
Keran pushed her scotch glass away and got to her feet. “Georgina, perhaps we should continue our discussion tomorrow. I am suddenly very tired—a taxing journey here, I imagine.”
“Yes, that sounds like a good idea,” Georgina replied. “Later in the afternoon, after you have got a good night’s sleep.”
Keran turned to me. “Good night, Ptolemy Lane.” Then to Ninety-Nine, “And Hyland Sinagra.”
Ninety-Nine got to his feet. “But it’s still early…”
She walked away without answering, rounding the table and stepping down into the garden, which was lit with footlights showing where the paths were, now the sun had set. As she was wearing black, she quickly melded with the night.
“Well….” Georgina said, drawing out the word. “That was interesting.”
I finished my scotch. I had a feeling I wouldn’t be offered another one tonight.
“Having a Memsoul outlet here would bring in an enormous amount of revenue for the town,” Georgina said. She wasn’t using her lecturing tone, though.
I shook my head. “Having a back-up service everyone could use would serve everyone, not just the town.”
Georgina’s eyes narrowed down to slits. “When did you get so interested in politics, hmm?”
I concentrated on the taste of the last mouthful of scotch.
“Shouldn’t everyone be able to back themselves up?” Ninety-Nine asked.
“The way nodocs can?” Georgina whipped back.
He pressed his lips together. That stung.
“Humans don’t need to back-up,” I told her. “In their utopia, one life is all they need.”
Ninety-Nine looked at me gratefully, even though I hadn’t been defending him.
Georgina swore softly and reached for the carafe of scotch and refilled her glass. “This isn’t like you, Jovan. You need to get your head on straight.”
She had a minor point, but I couldn’t resist jumping on the inconsistencies. “It’s okay for you to play politics, but I have to stay out of them?”
Georgina considered me with sharp scrutiny. Then she laughed. “You might be right. I just remembered something.”
I raised a brow.
“Someone else who plays politics. Someone you know. Memsoul is owned by Etriedes Industries.”
Sourness gripped my throat. I knew what was coming. “So? Etriedes Industries controls dozens of companies.”
“And Deniel Harlow controls Etriedes Industries,” Georgina finished.
“I know that,” I said, as evenly as I could while my teeth ground together.
“Memsoul is one of the biggest subsidiaries of Etriedes Industries,” Georgina said. “Deniel probably takes a personal interest in their policies.”
I stared at my empty glass.
“You both know Deniel Harlow?” Ninety-Nine asked.
“Oh, Deniel and us…we go back a long way,” Georgina assured him.
That brought a flash of memory to me. Deniel sitting with a whisky glass in his hand, the mechanical fingers tapping against the glass in musical notes, while he thought through some conversational point or another. The grey streak in the center of his forehead showed up brightly in the blue light the bar had been using to illuminate the room. Then Deniel touched his silver forefinger to his brow, while still holding the glass, making the ice tinkle—not nearly as musically as his fingers against the glass. “I have it…” And he went on to annihilate the logic of whatever the hell we had been talking about. I can’t remember what the conversation was about, but I remember that moment very well.
Who said only nodocs have selective memories?
Georgina gave another of her throaty laughs. “Deniel probably earns billions in salary and bonuses from the grateful shareholders. Where did you go wrong, Jovan?”
I gave up and sat back. Georgina wanted her pound of flesh for me ruining her dinner. Fair enough. “I came to work for you,” I told her. “You don’t pay billions or bonuses.”
“You’d get a big head, if I did.” And she laughed even harder while Ninety-Nine looked from me to her and back, trying to figure out if he should be amused or not.
That’s the problem with employers; they muck up your priorities. I’d forgotten that in the 25,937 days I’d worked for Georgina, for all that time, our priorities had matched.
Serials can’t feel emotions as humans do.
Or so Ptolemy Jovan Lane has always insisted. Yet when he learns that an old friend, Marija, might still be alive, he leaves an unsolved murder behind him in order to dash across the fringes to find her, bringing his human assistant, Ninety-Nine, with him.
His intention is purely to learn the truth, but his impetuous mission goes swiftly and spectacularly awry, leaving Ninety-Nine and him cut off and at the mercy of an enemy Jovan didn’t know he had.
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