Here they are, the first two chapters of Hard Reset, in which we are introduced to the book’s two main characters, Cat and Cadence.
Hard Reset is a speculative fiction novel set in the near future, and is a standalone sequel to my previous novel The Anomaly Problem.
Preorders for the Hard Reset ebook are live. Links are here.
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Hard Reset – Preview
The utopian dream was over.
Chilliness stung her shins as she hurriedly splashed through another puddle, still halfway between the bus stop and her office. No one on the bus or on the street had seemed terribly worried about that morning’s news, but Cat had known with a sickening certainty, as soon as she’d read the headlines, that war was coming, or more bombs, or maybe worse, and it would all be gone, everything she loved, burned up and blown away.
And things had been going so well, she thought as she shoved through her building’s front door, stepping from cold dampness into arid warmth. Crossing the lobby, she closed her umbrella, letting it drip on to the ancient tile floor. She paused at the elevator, closing her eyes and trying a little pranayama to slow her heart, one hand on her stomach, one slow, deep inhale, a long, slow exhale. After hurrying to get ready and skipping breakfast, something she’d regret later, she’d power-walked to work, trying to limit her time in the pouring rain. And maybe she wanted to get herself somewhere familiar, around familiar faces, to help distract her from the news.
She opened her eyes and slapped the elevator call button.
The war hadn’t come after they bombed Chicago, and she knew, in the more rational sectors of her brain, it wouldn’t come after that morning’s news about the terror threat. And anyway, there were always whispers of terror, rumors that Anomaly had some diabolical plan in motion. It kept people scared, and that had been the point, because scared people did stupid things, made them vote for the wrong leaders or cash in their retirement and join one of those cults she’d read about, the ones that believed the end of the world was approaching and, rather than preaching repentance, encouraged their followers to live like tomorrow would never arrive. Killing sprees or drug binges, she figured, or junk food and orgies, all the guilt-free pleasures of a classic sci-fi utopia, but likely without the matching uniforms. She had her own utopia, her life with Liz, their home, their time together. And some ultra-violent terrorist organization wanted to take it all away, rip the foundation out from under their feet and replace it with their own version of America, whatever that was, while another ultra-violent, government-funded organization worked to stop them, at any cost.
She shook her head. “Motherfuckers.”
The elevator door squeaked open and she stepped in, pressing the button for the sixth floor. She took her phone out of her pocket, woke it up, navigated to one of her usual newsstreams, watched it refresh, and saw new stories under the same trending category that had greeted her when she woke up that morning: “BREAKING: Homeland Security Closes Airspace.” She scrolled through quickly, but it was still too early for real answers.
She put the phone away and listened to the rattle of the elevator as it ascended, rocking on the balls of her feet and tapping her wet umbrella on the peeling vinyl floor. Taking another deep breath, she pulled her phone out again to check the time. Somehow, after the hurried morning and the quick walk, she wasn’t early by much.
The elevator stopped and she got out, walking past the other tenants’ offices to her own place of employment. RESTORING BALANCE NEW ORLEANS was neatly painted on the frosted glass window set into the heavy wooden door. An anemic bell rang as she pushed the door open.
Inside, in the office’s waiting area, she put her dripping umbrella in the corner, dropped her bag down next to it, and hung her coat on one of the bronze hooks near the front door. She headed for the kitchen, a small room with a stainless-steel dorm-style refrigerator, a microwave on an old particleboard stand, and a round lunch table.
Riley, one of the other therapists, was sitting at the table, drinking coffee, her feet wrapped in an oversize heating pad. Riley was in her forties and wore a colorful, form-fitting tank-top and yoga tights. Her blond hair was always in a high ponytail, secured with a wide band of colorful elastic. She did a style of massage called Ashiatsu, done barefoot while standing on the table with the client. Cat didn’t have the grace to try that.
“Hey,” Riley said. She was staring at her phone and didn’t look up.
“Hey.” Cat took a ceramic mug from a shelf on the microwave stand and carried it to the tiny bathroom off the waiting area, where she filled it with water from the sink. Back in the kitchen, she set the mug in the ancient microwave. She turned it on, causing the lights to dim. Listening to the ominous hum from the guts of the microwave, she imagined her mug being bombarded with gamma rays, imagined her own chromosomes being scrambled. The thing had to be beyond its intended lifespan. Budget appliances were being made exclusively from plastic and had been for years, but their museum-grade microwave was clad in dented white sheet metal.
She went into the bathroom and closed the door, then sat on the toilet and untied her boots and pulled them off. Standing, and making sure her socks didn’t get wet, she pulled her rain-soaked jeans off. Underneath, she wore black tights with full-color images from the old Hubble telescope printed on them. She hung her jeans on the towel rack, then patted the bottoms of her tights with paper towels. She left her boots on the floor under her jeans and stepped into the plastic slippers she kept at the office. Her coat had kept her T-shirt dry. It was from the merch table at the Becca Marx show she and Liz had gone to the previous summer, black cotton with Becca and her guitar on the front and the tour dates on the back. That had been a great show, she remembered. And it was a pretty good shirt, too.
She checked her hair in the mirror. Still wet, but from the morning’s shower and not from the rain. It was short enough that it didn’t need much tinkering. She ran her hands through it, slicking it back, knowing it’d stay that way when it dried. Or close enough, anyway.
Her phone chimed. She fished it out of her jeans.
A message from Liz:
Just got out of a partner meeting. Saw the news. It’ll be okay, promise. xo
Cat smiled. Liz knew.
Liz would have been one of the unworried people on the bus, the ones that could easily go about their day without letting the news turn their stomachs to acid. The bombing in Chicago had triggered sadness and outrage in Liz, but it hadn’t lasted, not like it had for Cat. And the capture of that Goddard woman hadn’t done much to calm her mind, but she’d noticed that most people took it as a sign that they were safe again, that the government was on top of it. Cat wasn’t so sure. Eve Goddard was just one person. Anomaly was huge. They were everywhere.
In the kitchen, the microwave beeped, a shrill, broken sound from the aging electronics. She pulled the mug out, holding it between both her hands, warming them. One of her instructors used to say that a massage therapist with cold hands is a massage therapist with no clients. After her morning walk in the rain, she knew her hands were less-than-ideal for bodywork.
She sat at the table across from Riley, who was still staring at her phone with a pleasant half-smile on her face. Another of the unworried, Cat thought as she clutched her warm mug. She was pretty sure her first client was due in fifteen minutes. Setting the mug down, she brought her schedule up on her phone to double-check.
Her client had canceled. She’d been afraid of that, afraid that the news was going to put people off the idea of a relaxing massage. She herself couldn’t imagine getting a massage with her body as knotted up with anxiety as it was. Massage could do a lot, but it’d be a tall order to ask a bodyworker to cut through that kind of tension.
She shook her head. She needed to work, needed to be busy. She’d heard other massage therapists say that their mind wandered during a session, but Cat had always found herself focused, thinking about nothing but muscles and blood flow and her own technique. It was the only thing she’d ever done in her life that worked like that. And on that morning, she would’ve been truly grateful for the opportunity.
Of course, she had no idea why her client had actually canceled. It could’ve been anything. Unexpected meeting, sudden illness, kidnapped by aliens. She hoped there were no more cancellations.
Riley looked up from her phone. “You see the news?”
“Sure did,” Cat said.
“My sister and her kids are stuck in San Francisco.”
“Sucks.” Cat had never been to San Francisco, but from what she’d heard, it wasn’t a bad place to be stuck.
The front door opened. From the kitchen, Cat watched as Riley’s first client, Mr. Roberts, stepped in and took his coat off.
Riley stood, bending to pick up the heating pad. Cat held the mug and listened as Riley exchanged pleasantries with Mr. Roberts in the waiting room. Soon, they were in one of the treatment rooms, behind a heavy, closed door, leaving Cat in silence. She wondered what she should do until her next scheduled appointment, assuming the client showed up.
“Hungry,” she said, and stood to pick through the cabinet under the microwave, looking for junk food.
Through the open windows, Cadence heard the uneven engine and bad exhaust of Harsh’s big Cadillac approaching. The thing was ancient, a huge, natural gas-converted dinosaur that Harsh managed to keep looking pretty good, though he never did anything about the engine. Light flickered on the window frame as the car skidded violently to a stop in front of her trailer. The engine coughed and went silent.
She sat up, listening and trying to guess the time. There was a bit of orange in the sky through the filthy windows. Nearly dawn. The Cadillac’s door opened, triggering a string of low, fast electronic chimes. Footsteps shuffled in the gravel. The gate in front of his place opened, but didn’t close. More shuffling footsteps, and his trailer’s door slammed shut. The chimes apparently weren’t stopping anytime soon.
“Goddamn.” She threw the blanket on the floor and stood. At the window, she pushed a torn section of dirty screen aside. The breeze carried in the rotten-fish stench of the Sea, tinged with the smell of bonfires. Harsh’s place was across the street, a square plot of gravel and dirt with a double-wide trailer, a garage made of concrete block with a dented, dirty door, and a rusty, collapsed garden shed, all behind a ten-foot-high chain-link fence with a mostly-intact strand of barbed wire along the top.
Every light in his trailer was on. He’d left his gate open. He never did that. The Cadillac was parked crookedly on the street, the door open and the interior lights on, behind the little Toyota that Cadence used for her runs. Harsh didn’t mind keeping the Toyota on the street because, according to him, no one would want it. The Cadillac, however, always went in the garage, safe and secure.
“Shit.” She slid her feet into her boots and left her trailer. Outside, there was muffled, pounding music in every direction, from every corner of Bombay Beach. Sparks rose into the sky from a bonfire a couple blocks away. Echoing pops in the distance could’ve been fireworks or gunshots. There was a sort of path that ran behind her trailer and the other trailers and houses on her street, connecting one popular party spot to another a block away. There was a group of men and women back there, yelling at each other in a mix of English and Spanish.
Ahead, the car was still chiming away. She crossed the street and looked inside. There were streaks of blood on the door and the leather driver’s seat. Careful not to touch the blood, she reached inside and took the key out of the ignition. The chiming stopped. She shut the door and walked through the open gate.
In the light from the fancy round fixture next to the front door, she could see more blood, a few wet dribbles on the patch of dirt in front of the single concrete step.
Cadence stepped over the blood on the ground and reached forward, tapping on the door. “Harsh?” She tapped again, then tried the knob, finding it unlocked and slippery with blood. She pushed the door open. “You in here?”
“Yeah.” Harsh’s voice, low and shaky.
Cadence stepped inside. His trailer was laid out like hers, but the rooms were bigger and cleaner. The living room had gray carpet, a nice L-shaped couch, a big TV, and shelves full of books. The kitchen had shiny appliances and marble countertops. Fake marble, he’d once told her, like he was embarrassed or something.
She liked it there. It smelled better and had air conditioning.
“Could use some help,” Harsh said, stepping out from the bathroom. He was shirtless, smooth, brown skin over wiry muscle. A trail of blood ran down his chest from his nose and from a slash above his left eyebrow. His eyes and forehead and upper lip were dark and swollen.
“Fuck, man.” She stepped closer, reaching to help steady him. Something was on his chest, up near his shoulder. Some kind of symbol the size of her hand, like a capital C with a cross through it, in pale, puffy lines. The skin was red all around it. “The fuck is that?” she asked him.
“There’s a kit in here,” he said. He swayed, hanging on to the door frame.
“Maybe you should sit.” Cadence took his arm and helped him to the kitchen table. He sat down hard in the chair. “What happened?”
“You need the kit.”
He was holding his breath. “First aid kit,” he said, coughing the words out. He clenched his teeth, kept his eyes shut. “In there. Somewhere. The bathroom.”
Cadence went to find it. She dug in the cabinet under the sink and found a white plastic box with a red cross on the lid. “This it?” she asked as she exited the bathroom.
“That’s it.” He looked up at her, wiping blood from his eye. “You know anything about this stuff?”
She put the kit on the table. “A little. I watched my friend patch up some people back in New York. Stab wounds, bullet wounds.” She looked at Harsh. “Most of them made it.” She dug through the kit, remembering the last time someone on their crew had gotten hurt, the way Eve had fought to save his life, the blood on her hands and forearms, the way she talked so calmly and quietly to him while she worked.
“Was your friend a doctor or something?” he asked.
“Not exactly.” Cadence never told Harsh that she knew Eve Goddard. He didn’t need to know he was working with a friend of Homeland Security’s most infamous detainee.
“This really hurts.” He touched his chest with a shaky hand.
“It’ll be okay.” The kit had most of the usual stuff. Bandages, iodine, tape, alcohol wipes. She picked up a white plastic envelope with green lettering on one side. “What’s this?” It said 2/0 NYLON on it.
“Suture kit.” He was gripping the edge of the table. Hard. He squeezed his eyes shut.
“Stitches.” Cadence had watched Eve use stitches before. She set the envelope aside. “So what is this thing?” she asked, looking at the thing on his chest.
He opened his right eye to look up at her, then closed it. “It’s a brand. It fucking hurts.”
“Like a bad fucking burn.” He pointed at the fridge. “Pour some cold water on it, please.”
She went to the fridge, opened it, and took out two clear bottles. At the table, she opened both and passed one to Harsh. “Drink.”
He took the bottle.
She poured water on the burn. She’d seen people get brands at tattoo shops, but they never looked like the thing on Harsh’s chest. It was swollen, the lines of the design blistered, the skin yellow. It looked charred in some places. The char washed away in the stream of water. “Does that help?” she asked, emptying the bottle.
He nodded, then drank some water.
“How’d this happen?” She tossed the empty bottle aside. “Who fucking did this?”
“Will you please just help me?” He looked up at her, both eyes wide. He was clearly in pain, but he was also piss-scared, more than usual.
She nodded, slowly. “Just take it easy.”
He closed his eyes. “Stop asking questions.”
She rooted through the kit again, looking for something to put on the burn. Some kind of cream, maybe. “Don’t know much about burns. I’ll let it dry, then cover it.”
She found antibiotic ointment, tape, and a paper envelope with gauze in it. She set those aside, then looked at the gash above his eye. “Gonna clean this out.”
She poured a bit of water over it, washing the blood away, then tore open an envelope of gauze. “This is gonna hurt.” She caught the sharp smell of the iodine as she opened the bottle and soaked a corner of the gauze in it. “Ready?” She dabbed at the cut with the gauze.
Harsh let out a squeak and kicked at the floor, then sat with his eyes closed for a few moments while he tried to catch his breath.
“This’ll definitely need stitches.” She reached for the suture kit. Water was pooling around Harsh’s chair, making the floor slippery.
“Can you do that?”
“Probably. Can’t be that hard.”
Harsh reached into his pocket for his phone. “We can maybe find a video.”
“Might be a good idea.” She wasn’t sure how much she remembered.
“Need ice,” he said. “For the swelling.”
“You have any?”
“No. You’ll need to get some. At Maxine’s.”
“Okay.” Maxine’s was a convenience store. They took her Mexican cash there. Cadence dabbed at the cut with a dry section of the gauze and looked down at the brand on his chest. “What’s it mean?”
“The brand,” she said. “The symbol.”
He didn’t answer.
“Okay. Whatever.” She walked over to the sink and washed her hands with the dish soap from the dispenser. “Asshole,” she said, under her breath. And then, for some reason, she felt bad about saying it.
“Better this way.” His eyes were closed again. “Better you don’t know.”
“Sure,” she said. She shut off the water and grabbed a towel. Poor guy. He didn’t deserve it, whatever had happened. One of their fun-loving neighbors, maybe.
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