Friday, October 5, 2018

Excerpt From New Series: Zero

For those interested, I'm still grinding on Kid Sensation #6.  In the meantime, in keeping with a request for excerpts from other series that I have in the works, here's a short one from a "zombie apocalypse" story I've been working on (working title: Zero).  As always, the usual caveats apply (mainly that this hasn't been proofed):


The men looked hard and dangerous, like they’d been in enough scrapes to know how to handle themselves. Zero knew the look and the type. He was on treacherous ground here. (It also didn’t help that he had just narrowly escaped being lunch for a troop of zombs. He was exhausted by the ordeal, and it showed.)
“That’s far enough,” Zero said, rifle at the ready. “Grab your gear, turn around and go. You’re not welcome here.”
Two of the men looked at the third (obviously the leader), who seemed to be sizing up the situation. Zero knew what the man was thinking, as clearly as if he could read his mind: there was only one of him – visibly beat and weary – and three of them.
“Just hold on” the leader said. “We’re not looking for trouble. We just thought there might be something we could use around this place.”
“There’s nothing for you here,  Zero replied.  Move on.”
“We’re not looking for a handout,” the man said, holding his hands up in a non-threatening gesture. “We’d be interested in trading.” The man kept talking – saying something about taking some things out of his bag – but Zero had essentially tuned him out, wasn’t listening any more. Instead, he was watching the men, their hands, their feet.
As the leader talked, thinking he had Zero’s attention, the other two slowly, craftily tried to step away and fan out. One of them, the younger one, seemed more surefooted, shifty. Obviously sensing an opportunity, his right hand lazily drifted towards the gun at his waist. 
     Zero shot him in the eye. The man’s head exploded like a watermelon stuffed with dynamite.
The leader stopped speaking, struck dumb as gore splattered him and his friend’s nigh-headless body slid to the ground.
“What the hell!” shrieked the fat one. “You just killed him! Didn’t even fire a warning shot!
Zero almost laughed. Warning shots were like dodo birds – extinct (along with the people who used them). The current philosophy was that it a person merited a warning shot, then you probably needed to plant a slug in them. Why waste a bullet?

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Patreon and Thoughts on Leaving the Day Job

Someone recently asked in one of the blog comments what it would take for me to leave the day job.  In another comment, someone suggested that I look into Patreon, noting that some authors on the site are earning $5K per month.

First of all, it's incredibly flattering that someone who's not me thinks enough of my writing that they'd want me to do it full-time. I honestly can't imagine much higher praise than that. In addition, it's pretty much a given that whenever I do leave the day job, "Full-Time Writer" is going to be the next thing added to my résumé.  That said, I'm not sure if something like Patreon would work for me, but first it might be worthwhile to talk a little about the site.

In ye olden days, many notable artists had patrons - wealthy individuals whose support allowed said artists to work on their craft rather than toil at manual labor.  Everyone from Shakespeare to Leonardo da Vinci to Michaelangelo had patrons, and it was that patronage that allowed for the creation of some of the greatest masterpieces of art and literature.  Patreon continues that tradition by allowing everyday folks to become patrons and support the artist(s) of their choice via monthly contributions, which can be as low as $1.  That's it in a nutshell, but makes me think there are probably two basic questions that potential patrons are likely to drill down on when deciding who to support:

1)   What's the ask in terms of dollars (and is it reasonable)?
2)   Is this particular artist worth it?

There may be other questions that arise as well, but I tend to think those are the big ones that would apply to my own situation, as detailed below.

What's the ask (and is it reasonable)?

As noted above, I'm not sure that Patreon would work for me.  For starters, I would have to ask for an amount that is several multiples of the $5K mentioned in the blog comment. Frankly speaking, I earn pretty good scratch from the day job (although - like most employees - I still consider myself underpaid).  More to the point, I actually love what I do.  The problem is that the job has become incredibly demanding lately in terms of time, leaving me less opportunities to write.  Case in point, my boss calls me about 8 o'clock at night a few weeks back - a time when most people are at home relaxing after a hard day's work, but here's my scenario:

Me:  Hello?
Boss: Where are you?
Me: At the office.
Boss: Is so-and-so with you?
Me: We're all here.
Boss: Are you working on thus-and-so?
Me:  Yes - what do you want?
Boss:  Tell so-and-so to call me.  I need to talk to them about something.
Me: Will do.

Now, in all honesty I have to say that my boss is a pretty good guy and I like him, and this is not what work has been like for the bulk of my tenure. It does, however, provide some insight into just how busy I've been of late.  Unfortunately, work shows very little sign of letting up in that regard, so I'm way off the pace in terms of my writing productivity (e.g., I should have finished the next Kid Sensation book months ago). If I were to try to reclaim that time by leaving the day job, I'd naturally have to replace my current income. Needless to say, it would be a significant ask - it looks almost obscene when I put it on paper - and supporters on a site like Patreon might turned off by that.  

I mean, let's face it:  I'm not a starving artist.  I'm not not working three jobs for minimum wage and trying to squeeze in writing on the side.  I'm not sneaking in and out of my own apartment through a window in an effort to dodge my landlord.  I'm not parking my car in my neighbor's garage to avoid having it repossessed. I don't have a pantry full of Ramen Noodles that I'm eating for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

But that's not say I haven't been there.  There was a time when I was broke and hungry, and spent my last dollar on a loaf of bread - not because it made for a great meal, but simply because it was filling and would keep my stomach from growling like a grizzly someone had just poked with a sharp stick.  And when that loaf was gone, I tore apart the place where I was living looking for something to eat, and the only thing I found was a pack of coffee grounds.  And guess what?  I ate 'em...  So yeah, I've been there.

It goes without saying, however, that I'm long way from those days. And given my rumeneration from the day job, I can't shake the feeling that potential patrons would look askance at any request from me for support, although obviously my situation is a little different.  Basically, I can't say something like, "When I get $1500 per month I'll quit the 3rd job and write a short story per month, and when I reach $3000 per month I'll quit the second job and write even more..."  I've only got the one day job (although these days I'm seemingly putting in enough hours for two), so that's the number I've got to match.  So, in a certain sense, it's go big or go home.  

In short, bearing all the facts in mind, I think my ask could be construed as reasonable.

Is this particular artist worth it?

I like to think my work is good, but I'm not a media darling by any stretch.  The NY Times isn't screaming for the public to buy my next book.  I haven't been nominated for a bunch of Hugos, Nebulas and similar awards that apply to scifi/fantasy books like mine.  I don't have a mob of publishers beating down my door trying to sign me to a book deal.  (Okay, I have been approached before, but that's a different story.)  

Thankfully, none of those things are a big deal to me.  What's really important is that readers like my work, and I feel incredibly blessed by the fact that they seem to, as expressed in both reviews and sales.  Thus, going on the theory that a picture is worth a thousand words, I'll simply highlight those areas with the following, which relate to Coronation - the last book published in my Kid Sensation series:

(Ranked #2 between A.G. Riddle and Stephen King - it doesn't get much better than this.)

(Okay, I admit it:  I love the little "Best Seller" ribbon Amazon puts on these.)

(I also managed to sell 10,000 audiobooks in a little over two years)

And, while it isn't exactly a picture, here was Coronation's best ranking:

Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #256 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)

And my author corresponding author ranking:

Amazon Author Rankbeta 

And going back a little farther in time, here's when I first broke into a Top 100 authors category, coming in at #98 - just ahead of Ernest Cline and no-name Patterson guy.

Unfortunately, if you look today, my rankings are no longer what they were.  That, of course, is a function of not having released a new book in a while due to time constraints (which is basically the problem).  Nevertheless, in all modesty and reflecting on the above, I believe I can continue to be comercially successful as an author.  And, as I've noted many times, I actually write pretty fast.  (My hope is produce a novel every two months whenever I decide to pursue writing full-time.)

In retrospect, I like to think there are some patrons out there who would consider me worth supporting.  Still the ask is huge, and I detest the optics when I see the number on paper.  But it is what it is.  (And the idea of writing full-time has enormous appeal, so maybe Patreon is an option I should pursue regardless.)  Who knows?  I'll noodle on it some more, talk to the wife - pray about it - and see what happens. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Excerpt From New Series: The Seventh Shade

In one of my prior comments, I mentioned the other series I'd been working on and that I might publish excerpts from them. A reader asked when some of those excerpts might be forthcoming, so here's one from an urban fantasy I've been drafting (working title: The Seventh Shade).  As with my other excerpts, the usual caveats still apply (ie, this isn't fully fleshed out, hasn't been proofed, etc.):


The house suddenly trilled, letting out a noise that most would interpret as some kind of creak or groan. It had recognized me, and I interpreted the sound it made as one of almost extreme bliss. Like everyone else, the house had probably assumed that I was long dead (or gone forever).
I smiled as Lucia and I walked up to the front steps, then laid a hand on the wall next to the front door.
“Yes, I’m alive,” I said, grinning. “And it’s great to be back.”
The house trilled again in excitement.
Simply put, the house was a vivo domus, a living domicile. There were other houses that were alive, but most of them were either cursed, haunted, or demonically possessed. In one manner or another, the bulk of them were sinister and wicked. My family’s manse was the only one I’d ever heard of that was benevolent.
I reached for the doorknob, only to have the house creak ominously as I touched it, indicating that there was danger inside.
I glanced back towards the various campfires. From the tracks on the ground, there had been scores of werewolves here last night. There could be dozens on the other side of the door.
Doesn’t matter, I decided. Even if there were a hundred lycanthropes inside, I didn’t have to fight them all.  I only had to beat one:  the alpha.  With that thought, I opened the door and stepped inside, with Lucia right on my heels..
We found ourselves in the foyer. As I closed the door behind us, the first thing I noticed was the smell. Here, in an enclosed environment, the stench of urine – and other pungent odors – was much stronger than outside. As before, Lucia announced her displeasure with an audible hiss.
I took a moment to get my bearings. Needless to say, the layout of the place really hadn’t changed. However, the interior of the house had suffered abuse that matched or exceeded the neglect I’d seen outside. Furniture and chairs lay upended or smashed, stair railings had been ripped off, the carpet in a nearby room was soiled beyond repair, and there was trash everywhere. In short, the place looked like a dump.
Not even the house itself had escaped damage, as chunks of plaster had been gouged out of the walls in various places – most notably in the form of three parallel lines that I recognized as claw marks. Seeing my home marred like this angered me far more than anything else I’d seen. Catching the sound of voices coming from the living room, I marched intently in that direction, smoldering with rage.
There were seven of them in the room when I entered – six males and one female.  They were in human form but completely naked, as werewolves tend to do when left to their own devices. One was in a corner, urinating; the others were on their haunches in a circle, heads and hands jerking in an odd fashion such that it took me a moment to realize what was happening: they were feeding. None of them immediately took note of my presence.
There was a three-legged stool lying on its side near my feet.  I picked it up and then angrily flung it at the fellow pissing in my living room. It struck him on the calf of his left leg, sweeping the limb out from under him. Off-balance, he toppled over backwards, arms flailing. His head hit the floor with an audible thunk, like a coconut falling onto a concrete sidewalk. He lay there and didn’t move.
The sound of their companion hitting the floor brought all the other werewolves to their feet. They glanced at their friend, and then – finally noticing me – turned in my direction.
“Get out of my house,” I said firmly.
There was silence for a moment as a couple of the lycanthropes exchanged glances.
“Wh-what?” asked the female, a gorgeous but wild-haired blonde, after a few seconds.
“This is my place,” I stressed. “My home. You don’t belong here. Get out.”
As I was speaking, I had noticed the nostrils of several of the werewolves flare. I smiled internally, understanding that they must be confused. Looking at me, they likely saw someone they thought was human, but my scent probably befuddled them. Back in the nether realms, seems like there was always something chasing you in order to eat you, enslave you, sacrifice you, or worse. You learn to camouflage your smell. Thus, the group in front of me probably wasn’t sure what to make of me. Then Lucia hissed and momentarily drew their attention.
The largest of the group – a big guy about six-six in height and built like a weightlifter – suddenly shifted his gaze back to me and smiled. He had obviously picked up my companion’s scent and assumed her smell was masking my own (which wasn’t too far from the truth).
“Listen,” said the big guy, whom I pegged as the alpha, “I don’t know who you are, but this place belongs to us. Now normally, you’d get ripped to shreds walking into the wolf’s den, but I’m still feeling buzzed from our party last night. Plus, I think it’s entertaining that you knocked Nick” – he gestured towards the unconscious fellow – “on his ass, so I’m going to give you a chance. Turn around and leave, then run as fast as you can. And maybe, just maybe, you can get away before we catch you.”
The big fellow’s companions snickered, and I could see in their eyes how elated they were at the thought of hunting fresh prey.
“I’m not going to be run out of my own house,” I stated.
The alpha laughed. “Your house? Dude, we’ve lived here for fucking years and had full run of the place. Marked it as our territory. Carved our names in the floorboards. Taken dumps in the hallway.  Does it sound like this place belongs to anybody else?”
Completely livid, I clenched my fists. “You need to leave. Now.”
The alpha grunted I exasperation. “Man, you are really fucking up my mood, and I’m trying to be a nice guy here – give you a chance.”
“To hell with that,” said the blonde. “Fuck him up, Bone.”
“Yeah,” chimed in one of the other werewolves. “Tear him to pieces.” The rest of their friends murmured in agreement.
“Don’t try it, Bone,” I advised as I saw the alpha debating. “It’s piss-poor advice.”
Bone stepped towards me, but put a hand out when his companions attempted to follow, effectively telling them to stay back.
“I’ve got this,” he said over his shoulder, then turned to me. “Man, I don’t know if you’re drunk, or addled, or just plain stupid, but a minute from now when I’m ripping your arm out of its socket, you’ll be wishing you’d run when you had the chance.”
A moment later he arched his back, and a weird popping noise began to reverberate in the room. I recognized the sound as bones and tissue realigning themselves, sinew and muscle being reconfigured as Bone began to morph into his wolf form.
I quickly muttered a hex under my breath as hair began to sprout from his body. A moment later, Bone’s metamorphosis seemed to grind to a halt, but well before he had fully transformed. The result was something that was a little difficult to take in with a single glance.
Bone’s back was now large and hunched, full of muscle and obviously heavy. His hands had expanded in size, becoming hefty but lacking any claws. One of his legs had become digitigrade, the ankle extending up like that of a canine until it gave the appearance of a backwards knee; the other had just been starting to transform, but was still identifiably human for the most part. On his face, his mouth and nose had just begun extending into a muzzle. However, the lower jaw was noticeably longer than the upper, and his teeth had not fully reshaped into canines.
All in all, he looked like the failed genetic experiment of a mad scientist.
Bone let out a groan of confusion. “Wha rih ru ru ru rhee?”
His eyes went big as saucers and he put a hand up to his throat as he realized that the words coming from his malformed mouth were barely recognizable.
I smiled, noting that he was asking, What did you do to me?
Basically, I had used a spell to slow down his metamorphosis (but I wasn’t telling him that). He was still transforming, but at a much slower rate that what was normal. More to the point, in his current state, he really wasn’t designed for combat – a fact that I took full advantage of.
With one wolfhound leg and one that was still pretty much human, Bone lacked balance to a large extent. Planting my left foot, I then lashed out with my right, kicking him solidly on the side of his human knee.  The leg buckled, and he went down, yelping in pain.
Bone instinctively reached out his hands to catch himself as he fell. He did an adequate job of it, but a second after he hit the floor, I stomped down hard on the forearm of one of his outstretched hands.  I was rewarded with the sound of bone cracking and my adversary howling, then pulling the arm in and cradling it to his body.
I detached the tendril from my hip and extended the weapon, making it long like a staff. I then swung it forcefully at Bone’s side, like a golfer trying to drive a ball three hundred yards.  He didn’t go that far, but he did end up flying across the room, smacking against a wall and then dropping down to the floor.
Still furious, I marched towards him, the tendril now glowing in my hand with a crimson light. The other werewolves, recognizing that they were out of their depth, maintained their human forms and stepped lithely out of my way. (They'd obviously seen what I'd done to their leader when he tried to "wolf out," and none of them seemed eager to experience it firsthand.) When I reached Bone, I raised the tendril over my head, ready to cave his skull in. Whining in distress like an injured pup, the alpha raised his good hand in supplication, basically asking for mercy. As he did so, I saw white bone sticking out of his side, and I realized my last swing with the tendril had broken some ribs.
I hesitated, unsure of what to do. I was already in a bad mood, and these werewolves had pissed me off further with the mistreatment of family home. Moreover, they probably would have killed me if given the chance.  However, it just didn’t feel right to continue beating the stuffing out of this guy when he was clearly out of the fight.
I lowered the hand holding the tendril, but still held it threateningly. “For the last time, I’m telling you: get out of my house.”
The other werewolves, seeing an opportunity, rushed to their fallen leader and began helping him up while I took a few steps back. Once on his feet, Bone coughed once, spitting up blood. He really was in bad shape. Still, he gave me a steady look and then nodded, indicating that he understood what I’d said. His people then began helping him to the door.
“One more thing,” I said, causing the group to stop and look at me as a whole. “Don’t get any cute ideas about coming back here and getting revenge. If I see any of you around, if you piss within a mile of this house, if you so much as howl at the moon in a canyon and the echo reaches me, I’m going to decorate this whole fucking place with wolf pelts. Understand?”
Still looking at me, Bone nodded again. A moment later, his people resumed shuffling him towards the door. A short time later, I was alone in the house.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

New Milestone: 10,000 Audiobooks Sold

Okay, so I haven't posted for a while - been waiting for something momentous to talk about.  It was supposed to be completion of the next book (Kid Sensation #6), but I haven't been able to wrap it up yet, despite my best intentions.  And then this happened this morning:

That's 10,003 audiobooks sold.  Obviously not a bad way to start the day.  Of course, I knew it was coming, and had been watching for a couple of days to see when I'd go over the 10K mark.  Needless to say, there are others who have done a lot better than me, but I feel blessed to have cleared that hurdle just a little more than 2 years after getting into audio. 

The weird thing about it is that, initially, I didn't even think about making audio versions of my books (and it was years before I actually did).  Now, of course, I'm incredibly thankful that I took the plunge.  (That's me taking my own advice - as stated in another post on this blog - and deciding to pursue all possible revenue streams.) The goal at this juncture is to get audio versions of all my work, but I'd really like for Kid Sensation #6 to be the next audiobook so I've held back on getting any more done.

For those interested, I will say that getting to 10,000 audiobooks was much more of a chore than doing so with ebooks.  For starters, there are few avenues for marketing audiobooks, so promotion opportuities are limited.  (If you're lucky, maybe you'll have a book selected as the Audible Deal of the Day.  Hasn't happened to me yet, but I keep hoping.)  I did get a book selected for a different Audible promotion last fall (Warden: Book 1), and it helped me move a few hundred copies.  For the most part, however, it's been difficult finding a way to get audiobooks in front of the right audience.  That being the case, I count myself fortunate to have obtained this level of sales.

As always, I'm grateful to readers (and now listeners!) for their support.  If you don't yet have an Audible account, you can get a free trial (and a free copy of one of my audiobooks) by clicking on any of the relevant links on my Books Page.  And for those waiting on KS6, I'm working on it and will try to get it out as soon as possible.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Another Excerpt From Kid Sensation #6

I promise, I'm working as fast as I can to get the next book out.  In the meantime, here's another excerpt:


With Myshtal promising not to foretell any more of the action, we went back to watching the movie. However, we’d only been watching a few minutes when the phone rang. There was a cordless extension in the theater room, and – knowing that Mom was working and that my grandparents were probably in bed – I teleported the phone into my hand.
I switched the phone on and gave a perfunctory “Hello.”
“Hey, handsome,” said a honeyed feminine voice on the other end of the line.
“Hey,” I replied as I came to my feet, smiling at hearing my girlfriend’s voice. I gestured to Myshtal that I needed to take this call, then began walking towards the door after she nodded in acknowledgement.
“What are you doing?” Electra asked.
“Thinking about you, of course.” I stepped out of the theater room and closed the door behind me.
“Good answer,” Electra said, giggling. As always, her laughter was intoxicating and infectious, making me chuckle along with her. “Seriously though, are you busy?”
“No – just watching a movie.”
“Feel like hanging out?”
“Is that a trick question?” I asked, causing her to laugh again. I had rarely, if ever, turned down a chance to spend time with her. “Should I pop by your house?”
“No, not tonight,” she said, causing me to frown in confusion. Why ask me to hang out if she really didn’t want to? Then she added, “Just buzz me in.”
“Huh?” I muttered, more confused than before.
“Buzz me in,” she repeated. “I’m at the gate.”
Smiling now, I pressed the digits on the phone that would cause the large, wrought-iron gate at the embassy entrance to open.
“Be there in a sec,” I said, barely waiting for Electra to acknowledge my statement before hanging up the phone and setting it on a nearby table.  I then teleported outside, to the bottom of a wide stoop which consisted of about a dozen set stone steps that led up the embassy’s front door.
It was a rather dark night; what little illumination there was came mostly from a couple of ornate post lights – one at each end at the foot of the stoop. Looking down the driveway, I saw a pair of headlights headed in my direction.  A few moments later, a car pulled to a stop in front of me, the engine turned off, and Electra got out.
She was dressed in jeans, black boots, gloves, and a hooded parka that neatly framed her face. Seeing her bundled up made me mindful of the fact that it was chilly outside and a stiff breeze was blowing. As was typical, Electra wasn’t wearing makeup, but she had an inherent, natural beauty that didn’t need to be enhanced by cosmetics.
We moved towards each other, both of us smiling, and then shared a short kiss as we met. Eyes twinkling, Electra moved closer and wrapped her arms around me as I embraced her as well.
“Well, this is disappointing,” she droned a second later. Rubbing her hands quickly up and down the sides of my torso, she added, “Come on – do your thing.”
I laughed, understanding what she meant. On cold days, when I haven’t dressed appropriately for the weather, I tend to compensate by raising my body temperature. On this particular, I had come outside without grabbing so much as a light jacket. However, I hadn’t been outside long enough for the cold to start to affect me. Nevertheless, I did as requested and raised my core body temperature.
That’s my guy,” Electra intoned, snuggling in close and placing her head against my chest. She had explained before that being next to me when I was like this was akin to cuddling next to a warm, cozy fire with a blizzard raging outside.  “You’re so nice and toasty that I could stay like this forever.”
She then looked up and gave me a kiss – this time longer and more lingering than before. When we separated, breathless, a few moments later, she smiled and then pulled in close to me again.
“You know,” I said, “You didn’t have to drive all the way over here. I would have been happy to come to you.”
“I know,” she admitted, “but I wanted to. You shouldn’t have to come to me all the time.”
I smiled but didn’t say anything, understanding what the meaning was behind her actions. In terms of spending time together, Electra had once equated dating me to having a rich boyfriend: sure, the guy could afford to pay every time they went out, but occasionally the girl wants to – if only to show the guy what he means to her.  That’s why she had chosen to drive and see me on a cold, dark night rather than have me come to her (which, frankly speaking would have been much easier).  Basically, it was a way of telling me I was worth it, and I loved her for it.
“So, how’d the mission go?” she asked, breaking my chain of thought. She also stepped back slightly as she posed the question, allowing us to see eye-to-eye.
“Uh…” I muttered. “It’s a bit of a mixed report, to be honest.”
I then telepathically shared with her the pertinent mission details. As expected, she groaned in disapproval at certain actions on my part. Upon finishing, I decided not to give her an opportunity to verbalize any criticisms.
“So,” I blurted out, “how was your shopping jaunt?”
“Nice try at changing the subject,” she said, making it understood that she knew what I was trying to do. “But it was fine. I think I found the perfect dress.”
“Oh? What does it look like?”
She laughed. “No, no, no, no. You’re going to have to wait until tomorrow. I want to see the look on your face when you first catch a glimpse of me in it.”
I frowned. “Well, how does telling what it looks like change that? I still won’t see you in it until tomorrow.”
“Because I want your complete reaction. I won’t get that if you have an idea of what to expect.”
I shook my head, nonplussed. “Smokey’s right. I really don’t understand women.”
Electra laughed at that. “Good. That’s the way I like it.”
I raised an eyebrow inquisitively. “You want me confused about women?”
She grinned. “No. I just don’t want you thinking you fully understand me, because the second that happens you’ll–”
Electra stopped abruptly as the sound of hinges creaking drew the attention of us both. Almost in unison, we separated and looked towards the top of the steps – to the front door of the embassy.  With light from the interior behind her, we watched in silence as Myshtal stepped out.
Almost immediately, there was tension in the air. More to the point, where there had been lighthearted mirth and amusement a moment before, I now felt a flurry of heated emotions coming from Electra that included resentment, spite, and annoyance (to name a few).
Myshtal wrapped her arms around herself against the cold. At that moment I noticed she appeared to be wearing something short, sheer and form-fitting. She obviously hadn’t dressed for the weather, which suggested she wouldn’t be out here long – something I considered a blessing.
“Hello, Electra,” Myshtal said, giving my girlfriend a congenial wave. “It’s nice to see you again.”
“Yeah – you, too,” Electra said flatly, although her tone suggested that it was anything but nice.
It was undoubtedly a cool reception on my girlfriend’s part, but about the best that could be hoped for under the circumstances. Ever since their initial meeting after I returned from Caeles – and had to tell Electra about my contracted nuptials – the relationship between the two had been nothing short of frosty.
“I’m sorry for intruding,” Myshtal said, turning to me, “but I just wanted to ask if you wanted me to pause the movie, Jim?”
I felt, rather than saw, Electra jerk her head in my direction. At the same time, a volcano of emotions erupted within her – mostly bitterness and displeasure, blanketed by layers of anger and frustration.
“Uh, no,” I said, purposely avoiding looking at Electra. “You can just let it play, or watch something else if you want.”
“Okay,” she said with a nod. “Goodnight, Electra.”
My girlfriend grunted something inaudible in response as Myshtal turned and headed back inside. A moment later the door closed.
“Is that what you were doing when I called?” she demanded. “Watching a movie, with her?”
“Yeah, we were watching a movie,” I said defensively.
She gave me a smoldering look. “So the two of you were having a date night?”
“What?!” I asked, flabbergasted. “No! It was just a movie!”
“Really? So who else was there?”
I cut my eyes away in impotent anger. I didn’t say anything, but I didn’t have to.
“That’s what I thought,” Electra said as she indignantly crossed her arms.
“That still doesn’t make it a date,” I stressed.
“And what about what she was wearing?”
“What about it?” I asked.
“It was practically lingerie!”
I frowned in concentration for a moment. I hadn’t really gotten a good look at what Myshtal was wearing when she came to the door.  I suppose it could have been a negligee…
“That’s not what she was wearing earlier,” I insisted, and it was true.  If memory served me correctly, she had previously been dressed in some kind of skirt-and-blouse combo.
“Oh?” Electra intoned, raising her eyebrows in faux surprise. “So you’re saying that for the movie, she decided to slip into something more comfortable?”
“That’s not what happened at all. You’re twisting the facts into something sordid.”
“Or maybe you’re just being blind to the truth,” she countered. “Can’t you see what’s going on here?”
“Yes, I can. And what I can confirm is that there’s absolutely nothing going on.”
She shook her head in disbelief. “You can’t be that naïve, Jim. She’s prancing around in front of you in a negligee – you think she’s doing that for her health?”
I let out an exasperated breath. “Even if what you’re suggesting is true – and I don’t believe it is, but even if it were – you can’t possibly think I’d be more interested in her than you.”
“In all honesty, I don’t know what to think any more,” she said softly. “You two could be doing anything, and I wouldn’t have a clue.”
I stared at her in dumbfounded amazement for a moment. “You’re kidding, right? Between my mom, Gramps, and my grandmother, we’ve got like a million chaperones – all of them psychic! There’s nothing going on in that house that they don’t know about or condone.”
Electra seemed to mull over my statement, then let out a long sigh and said, “Okay, but why does she even have to stay here, under the same roof as you?”
“Where else is she going to stay? She literally knows no one else on the planet.”
“Just check her into a hotel or something. Plus, I hear they’re fixing up a place for her at League HQ.”
“Come on, Electra. Only a handful of super teens have ever stayed at the League full-time. And with her limited experience with Earth culture, I can’t just stick her in a hotel – even a resort.  I promised to look after her.”
“Yeah,” Electra scoffed disdainfully. “Dressed like she was a moment ago, I imagine you’re doing a lot of looking – and not just after.”
I bit my tongue to avoid blurting out my instinctive response, which was to deny what was being implied.  Electra’s last statement was bait, and any denial on my part would lead to her asking a question along the lines of, “So you’re saying you’re not attracted to her?”  Having already been painfully hooked by that lure several times in the past few weeks, I wasn’t falling for it again.
“Look,” I said calmly, “in addition to everything else, Myshtal is a guest in my family’s home. Even if I was willing, they wouldn’t let me stick her away out of sight, any more than they’d let me do it to you if your positions were reversed. And in case you forgot, her great-great-grandmother rules an interstellar empire, and Myshtal is her favorite. You don’t think the queen’s having her watched? Having me watched?”
“There wouldn’t be any watching if you hadn’t gotten yourself into this mess,” she stated stonily. “Did you even try to say ‘No’ to this shotgun wedding?”
“We’ve been over this before. This was the deal I had to make to get home. Or would you prefer that I be stuck on Caeles for decades like my grandmother?”
“What I would prefer–”
“Shhh!” I hissed, putting a finger to her lips. She immediately went quiet.
I looked around warily.  Just as Electra had begun speaking, I had picked up an emotional spike from nearby – a mix of excitement and elation mingled with trepidation. Somebody was watching us. Acting on instinct, I stepped protectively in front of my girlfriend.
“What is it?” she whispered.
“We’ve got eyes on us,” I answered over my shoulder. 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Audible Romance Package: A Sharp Stick in the Eye

I've posted a couple of times on this blog about Kindle Unlimited - Amazon's all-you-can-read subscription program.  For authors, being in the program means you get paid by the number of pages subcribers read, and for most of my time in KU the pay rate has been around $.005 (roughly, half a cent per page). Being in KU also means that your books have to be exclusively on Amazon. (I abhor the exclusivity provision, but that's another story altogether.)  That said, I've been fairly satisfied having my books in KU.

Recently Amazon released a similar service for audiobooks.  Dubbed the "Audible Romance Package," it was supposed to be an audio version of KU: for a set price (ranging from $6.95 to $14.95 per month), listeners could  have access to a huge swath of romance audiobooks in an all-you-can-listen-to fashion.  That being the case, it appears that many romance authors signed up, as the program was advertised as having thousands of audiobooks.  It was certainly a logical move: although  - like with KU - authors were likely to make less on a per-minute basis than from a full sale, one could reasonably expect to reach more listeners and thereby gain more exposure.  And then came the initial payout, which was indeed a shocker: $0.0009556 per minute.

That's not a typo.  $0.0009556. Per. Minute.

To put that in perspective, if you had an audiobook in the program that was 10 hours long, you'd make about 57 cents if a subscriber listened to the entire thing.  (And about half that if you were doing a royalty split with a narrator.) Needless to say this kind of payout is not only ridiculously absurd but practially obscene - especially when you consider how expensive audiobooks are to produce.  You'd think that someone at Amazon would have looked at the numbers and said, "Whoa. Something is way off here." But that seemingly didn't happen, and once participating authors found out the rate, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

But in addition to the low payout, there was another effect: normal sales dropped.  Of course, this wasn't entirely unexpected.  Why would a listener buy an audiobook for, say, $20, when they can get it and thousands of others for only $14.95? In combination with the low payout, this turned into a double-whammy for participating authors.  (Although I don't want to be taken as an alarmist, I believe this also creates a problem which threatens the entire audiobook ecosystem, but I'll circle back to that later.)

As one might imagine, authors in the program have since been demanding that their books be removed from the Romance Package.  At that point, after the villagers had all grabbed torches and pitchforks, Amazon decided to issue additional bonuses, ranging - based on what I've read - from about $25 to $150.  For most authors, however, it doesn't appear to be nearly enough to make up for this particular debacle.

Plainly speaking, Amazon needs to fix this, and there are a couple of solutions that come to mind. First, if they're going to stick with compensating authors on a per-minute basis, they need to guarantee a minimum rate that is at least several multiples of the current payout.  So, if they were to commit to, say, four times the sharp-stick-in-the-eye that constituted the initial rate, a 10-hour book would earn $2.28.  That's quite likely less than what the author would get for an average sale, but  a passable tradeoff for getting more eyes and ears on one's work.

Next, they could pay authors a flat rate to be in the program - something akin to what happens in Prime Reading.  (For those unfamiliar with it, Prime Reading is another KU-like program that lets Amazon Prime members read as much as they want of selected books.)  So, instead of being paid on a per-minute basis, an author might get something like $500 for letting their audiobook be in the program for a limited amount of time. This would require that Amazon do a bit of curating, such that - like Prime Reading - authors are invited to participate rather than making it a free-for-all, but it would undoubtedly be more palatable than the publicity nightmare the program has turned into.

Another option would be to combine a payment-per-borrow with the rate-per-minute structure. Much as some salesman get paid on a salary-plus-commission basis, this would pay participating authors a set amount each time one of their audiobooks was listened to, plus a certain amount per minute.  Thus, our hypothetical author with a 10-hour audiobook might get, for instance, $2 each time his audiobook was borrowed, plus the 57 cents for a full listen-through.  This would result in a total payment of $2.57.  Again, that's probably lower than what would be earned with a sale, but probably enticing enough to get authors on board.

Basically, there are probably a lot of options Amazon could pursue to make this program workable.  It's also not difficult to see that this is probably a pilot program, paving the way for similar offerings in other genres: mysteries/thrillers, fantasy, sci-fi, etc. However, if they don't fix the payout, I see the damage extending well beyond what we've seen thus far, and here's why:

Audiobooks are typically much more expensive than ebooks to produce - thousands of dollars in many instances - which is why many authors forego releasing them altogether. Now, suppose an author spends $1000 to release a 10-hour audiobook and puts it in the Audible Romance package. Just to keep the numbers fairly nice and even, let's assume he gets an average royalty of $3.33 per sale. Thus, it would take about 300 sales to earn back his $1000 investment.  However, in the program, he only earns 57 cents per full listen-through, meaning it would take the equivalent of 1754 sales (1000 divided by .57) to earn back his $1000 - almost 6 times as many as it would take out of the program.  Naturally then, our hypothetical author may decide not to put his audiobook in the romance package.

But, as noted above, normal sales are falling off because Audible Romance subscribers are getting their fill with the program offerings.  Unless they are rabid fans of a particular author, they're not interested in paying additional money to listen to audiobooks that aren't part of their all-you-can-listen-to package. Thus, our hypothetical author is getting far fewer sales than anticipated.

Now our author has a dilemma: he can't make money in the program because of the low payout, and he can't make money out of the program because of the lack of sales. Bearing in mind the costs involved, the bloom starts to come off the rose with respect to producing audiobooks.  Of course, rather than paying upfront for an audio version, the author could agree to a royalty-split with the narrator (which would require splitting any royalties 50-50 with the narrator for 7 years). However, if the author can't make any money from releasing an audiobook, how is the narrator going to earn anything? (After all, 50% of nothing is still nothing.) So, narrators may understandably start refusing to do royalty-splits, meaning that even fewer authors will be creating audiobooks if they have to foot the total bill out of their own pocket.

At the end of the day, the program (in its current iteration) is likely to discourage authors from producing audiobooks - especially if it spreads to other genres.  Although Audible is not the only player in terms of audiobooks, they are the biggest and have the most market share, so when they introduce products like the Romance Package, it alters the entire landscape.  Ergo, while I'm not saying its the end of audiobooks, the new subscription service clearly disrupts the current ecosystem by making it substantially harder to be profitable in audio.  Personally, I've been able to do very well with audiobooks thus far, but authors with better sales than me are now wondering if its worth it continue producing audiobooks. That, to me, is a surefire indicator that this a very serious problem. Amazon needs to fix this asap.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Update and Excerpt from Kid Sensation #6

Happy New Year!  The time has truly flown by, because it feels like just yesterday that we were entering 2017.  Hopefully everyone had a wonderful holiday season and is ready to start the new year with a bang.

Getting right to the point, I know that many of my readers are anxiously awaiting the next Kid Sensation novel.  I really hate talking about progress and estimated completion dates because it always seems like doing so jinxes things.  That said, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I'm really close to finishing and hope to wrap it up by the end of January.  However, my publisher still has to work her magic on the manuscript afterwards, so that an actual release date probably won't be until February, at the earliest. (And that's not accounting for the time my formatting guy needs to do his thing.)

Anyway, I thought it might be worthwhile to publish an excerpt from the new book, with the usual caveats, of course (ie, my editor hasn't seen this yet, etc.):


Despite having gone up against bad guys before, this was officially my first mission, the first one where my presence was actually sanctioned by the Alpha League. However, because of the individual we were about to face off with – Dream Machine – putting me (or someone like me) on the mission roster had almost been a foregone conclusion.
Technically, Dream Machine wasn’t a person. He had started off as an artificial intelligence – a set of complex computer programs designed to help people with dementia through direct interface with the human brain.
Initially, the project was considered a roaring success. Somehow, however, the AI not only outgrew its original programming but also became self-aware. Moreover, through its incipient work with those suffering from dementia, it had somehow developed to the ability to manipulate human perception.  In short, it could cause people to see hallucinations, among other things. Taking on the name Dream Machine (and a masculine persona), the AI had decided that it could best fulfill its original purpose of helping people by conquering humanity.  Thus, since escaping several years ago from the computer network where he was housed, Dream Machine had made world domination his top priority.
All of this flitted through my mind as we got closer to the elevator. Phasing through the roof, we found the interior of the elevator just as arenose and cobwebbed as the shaft we’d just left. Changing direction, I now moved us forward, taking us through the rusted-shut elevator doors.
The first thing I noticed when we emerged was light. Previously, we had been making our way through the subterranean tunnels and hallways in almost complete darkness. Now, however, there was a fair amount of illumination.
Glancing around, I saw that we were in a sizeable chamber that seemed to extend about a hundred feet ahead of us, as well as rise several stories in height. The light I had noticed apparently stemmed from two sources: electric bulbs that seemed to have been placed haphazardly throughout the place, and steel drums being used as burn barrels.
Much to my surprise, there were people scattered throughout the place – some old, some young, some alone, some with families.  I had no idea where they had come from or how they’d managed to find their way this far underground, but one look at their threadbare clothing, well-worn footwear, and the multitude of sleeping bags made it clear to me that they were homeless.
Picking up a minor twinge of surprise from Mouse, I leaned towards him and whispered, “They’re real.”
Mouse merely gave a solemn nod in response as he removed his goggles. Like me, he had clearly not expected to find people here, and my statement was an indication to him that these people actually existed, as opposed to being illusions fabricated by Dream Machine.
This was the real benefit of having me on this mission. Basically, Dream Machine’s illusions only appeared within the visible light spectrum. In other words, they only manifested within the range of the spectrum that was visible to the human eye. Ergo, people with normal vision were susceptible to the hallucinations he created, but someone like me – with my vision currently outside the visible light spectrum – couldn’t see them at all.  That meant I could tell what was real and what wasn’t. Moreover, my empathic abilities also served as a differentiator, since illusions don’t have emotions.
At the moment, I was picking up the usual emotions that one might expect from people dealing with homelessness: worry, fear, dread, and so on.  At the same time, however, I picked up on feelings of comfort, hope, friendliness, and the like. Basically, on an overall basis, it wasn’t much different that the sentiments I’d pick up from any random group of people. Thus, convinced that we were in no immediate danger, I placed Mouse and myself on the ground and made us substantial again. By that time, however, our presence had been noted.
Up to that point, there had been a multitude of conversations going on, but they quickly ground to a halt as those assembled became aware of strangers in their midst. Slowly, like the tide inexorably crashing on the shore, a wave of silence seemed to wash over those around us as all eyes turned in our direction.
I didn’t pick up on any indications of malice, but the sea of staring eyes made me wary.  Then, almost simultaneously (and so closely in unison that it might have been choreographed), everyone around us pointed towards the far end of the chamber, where another set of double doors was located. Quite plainly, they knew who we were (or at least why we were there).
Taking our cue, Mouse and I began heading towards the doors. As we walked, I couldn’t help but feel a slight bit of guilt as I noticed those around us huddling close to the burn barrels for warmth. Although we were on the verge of spring, it was still cold outside.  Assuming there was some kind of ventilation system down here – and there had to be for these people to get air (not to mention preventing the burn barrels from filling the place with smoke) – it was probably cold air that was coming in. Thus, while not as wintry as being on the streets, it was quite likely that it could get cold enough down here to get uncomfortable.
For Mouse and I, the League uniforms that we wore were not just well-insulated, but also loaded with so much technology that getting a chill was the last thing we had to worry about.  Needless to say, we hadn’t done anything wrong, but I felt guilty all the same about being warm and cozy.
In addition, I noticed that the space we were in wasn’t actually designed to be the huge chamber I initially took it to be. Upon closer inspection, I saw that Mouse and I were actually on the ground floor of what had been a multi-story facility of some sort. (In retrospect, I actually remembered floating past several floors as we had come down the elevator shaft.) From all indications, some portion of the structure had collapsed, leaving several rooms on multiple floors open and visible, thereby creating the semblance of a large space. Frankly speaking, it put me in mind of a wrecking ball that had smashed into the side of a building, leaving much of the interior exposed to the outside.
We were about a quarter of the way to the double doors when everyone – again, in synchronized fashion – dropped their hands. Presumably we knew which way to go at that juncture, so the chamber’s occupants (at least those on the same floor as us) busied themselves with hurriedly stepping out of our path, as if we had a disease they might catch. They still didn’t speak, however; they merely continued to watch us in stony silence.
We had almost reached the double doors when a young girl – about eight years old or so – dropped a doll she was holding as she stepped out of our path. I had just come abreast of her at the time, so I bent down to retrieve her plaything at the same time that the girl herself did. Our simultaneous action resulted in us almost bumping heads, but our comic timing was slightly off.  Thus, although we didn’t inadvertently head butt each other, her face did wind up close to my ear.
“Watch the shadows,” she hastily whispered, at the same time taking her doll (which I had reached first) from my hand.
I stood up, frowning slightly over what I’d just heard and trying to discern the meaning. I glanced at the girl, who had just been gripped firmly by the arm, pulled back, and shushed by a woman who presumably was her mother. Still pondering her words, I stepped forward to join Mouse, who was already at the doors (which appeared to be locked). My mentor looked at me expectantly. Knowing what he wanted, I phased the doors and we stepped through.
We now found ourselves in a spacious tunnel. The place was modestly lit with a few incandescent lights, which provided enough illumination that Mouse didn’t need his NVGs. A couple of darkened, recessed spaces in the tunnel walls indicated the presence of several corridors that presumably led to other areas.
“There,” Mouse said, pointing at what appeared to be a metal post with some blinking lights that stood in the middle of the tunnel. He ran towards it, with me right on his heels.
As we approached, I realized that the flashing lights were actually diodes on a small black box about the size of my palm. It was attached to the pole at a height of about four feet.  The pole itself was about nine feet tall and was not just in the middle of the tunnel, but also centered between two railway tracks.
“This is it,” Mouse said, pulling a thin cable from a pouch at his belt. “One of the computer hubs connected to Dream Machine.”
“That’s a computer?” I asked in surprise as Mouse used the cable to connect his tablet to a port on the black box.”
“Yeah,” Mouse assured me. “Why?”
I shrugged.  “I guess when I think ‘computer’ I envision things like a keyboard and monitor.”
“Dream Machine is an AI. He doesn’t need that kind of interface to interact with a computer program or software.”
“So why have lights down here?  He obviously doesn’t need those either.”
“That’s for our benefit - so we can see whatever he sends at us. Now get ready. Even with the distraction provided by the others, we can’t expect to go undetected.”
I nodded in agreement. Mouse’s last statement alluded to the fact that the two of us weren’t the only Alpha League contingent currently engaging with Dream Machine. Somewhere well above us and miles away, another team was making a direct assault on an isolated warehouse that had been identified as the AI’s main base of operations. With any luck, he’d be so preoccupied with the main team knocking down his front door that he wouldn’t pay close to attention to us slipping in the back.  In short, what Mouse and I were doing could be generally construed as a sneak attack on Dream Machine’s unprotected rear. 
What we were hoping to do, of course, was put a stop to the AI’s current machinations, which included uploading a malicious code to an orbiting communications satellite. Basically, in order to manipulate what a person was seeing or hearing, Dream Machine usually had to be in close proximity to the affected individual. However, if he could take control of the satellite in question (which is what the code was designed to do), it would give the AI a much broader reach – global in fact. In brief, he’d be able to influence the perception of almost anyone, anywhere on the planet. And if Mouse’s calculations were correct (which was usually the case), the upload would be complete in about fifteen minutes.
Needless to say, the easiest way to stop Dream Machine would have been to simply shut down the satellite.  Unfortunately, permission to do so hadn’t been forthcoming. Apparently the satellite in question had certain military applications, and making it go dark – even temporarily – would have compromised several sensitive operations. (The requisite bureaucratic decision makers had pretty much dismissed the suggestion out of hand.) Thus, we had been forced to employ our current stratagem.
I thought about all of this as Mouse went to work typing on his tablet. In addition to giving us access to Dream Machine’s systems, hubs like the one Mouse had connected his tablet to were used by the AI as an escape hatch – a means for him to make a quick getaway to the internet when necessary. Thus, we were not only hoping to use it to disrupt his current plans, but to also trap him but shutting down his exit route.
Without warning, I heard a noise like the growl of a large predator coming from somewhere nearby. Quickly, I spun around in a circle, trying to pinpoint the source of the sound, but couldn’t see anything. Moreover, I wasn’t picking up any emotional vibes from anything other than Mouse.
The growl sounded again – closer, and in a way that hinted at anger…or hunger.
“Polar bear,” Mouse announced in answer to my unasked question.
“Where?” I asked still looking around.
“Right in front of me,” Mouse stated, continuing to type without missing a beat. “Just took a swipe at my head with a massive paw.”
“I don’t see anything.”
“Good,” Mouse declared. “That’s the entire reason you’re here.”
I didn’t respond, but his words reminded me of why I had been included on this mission: my ability to see outside the visible light spectrum, which meant that I would be unaffected by any hallucinations that Dream Machine might employ.  Being able to separate fact from fantasy was absolutely critical at this juncture if we were going to stop him.
Unfortunately, although I wasn’t visually vulnerable to Dream Machine’s illusions, I was affected on an auditory level. In essence, I could still hear them, even though they weren’t visible to me. Thus, when I looked to where Mouse indicated the polar bear was located, I didn’t see anything other than mentor’s shadow cast against the wall.  With his fingers flying across the tablet as he typed, the image on the wall gave the impression of a mad composer trying to complete his magnus opus within the span of a few minutes.
After a few seconds, the sound of the growling polar bear melted away. It was replaced almost immediately, however, by an ominous creaking, followed by the sound of numerous heavy items thunderously striking the ground.
“Cave in,” Mouse said by way of explanation.
And so we continued for the next minute or two, with me hearing an odd new sound every few seconds, and Mouse identifying it for my benefit. It would almost have been a game of sorts, were the situation not so serious, because Dream Machine obviously knew we were here and was trying to run us off. But if this was the best the AI could do, we probably didn’t have much to worry about.
A deafening, animalistic roar suddenly sounded in front of me, catching me off guard.
“What was that?” I practically demanded.
“A dragon, by the looks of it,” Mouse replied.
“A dragon?” I repeated, unable to hide my surprise.
“Yeah – a fire-breathing one, at that.”
Okay, this I have to see, I thought. I cycled my vision back to the visible light spectrum, and sure enough – just as Mouse had said – there was an enormous, fire-breathing dragon right in front of us. It was winged and covered in gold-and-green scales, with a long, supple tail that whipped back-and-forth. As I watched, the creature’s nostrils flared and its diaphragm expanded; a moment later, its mouth opened and a stream of fire shot out, bathing me and Mouse in flames.
I had to give Dream Machine credit: his creation was beautiful and incredibly life-like. Even knowing that it wasn’t real, I still half-expected us to get burnt to a crisp. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, and when the flames died down the dragon was gone.
A moment later, however, I heard an odd clicking noise coming from overhead.  Looking up, I’m sure my eyes bulged as I saw a bloated, man-sized spider descending towards us on a silky line of webbing from its spinneret. Almost completely black and with mandibles clacking together spasmodically, it reached towards Mouse with long, spindly legs.  Unexpectedly, it lunged in an apparent attempt to bite my mentor’s head off. It was all I could do not to shout out a warning, but just before its fangs made contact, the spider disappeared.
Mouse gave me a quick sideways glance, but didn’t say anything. It was a sure bet that I’d given him some non-verbal cues that I’d switched my vision to the visible spectrum. (Plus he was no longer giving me a play-by-play overview of Dream Machine’s illusions, which suggested he knew that I could see them myself.)
A light suddenly began shining at the far end of the tunnel directly ahead of us. As I watched, it seemed to move closer towards us, like someone with a flashlight walking in our direction – except the light seemed to be held in a steady position. A moment, a noise like an airhorn reverberated through the tunnel.
No, not an airhorn, I thought.  A subway horn!
As if in confirmation of this, the rails on either side of us began to vibrate, and I heard the sound of a train car in motion – metal wheels grinding on metal tracks. Dream Machine’s latest illusion was headed right for us.
With the light shining in our faces, I wasn’t able to get a good look at the AI’s latest fabrication, although I imagined it was a full-length subway train. However, as it drew closer, the lights in the tunnel caused the train’s shadow to form on the wall, and I was a little disappointed to note that it was seemingly just a single subway car.
With klaxons going off in my head, the word leaped to the forefront of my brain – along with the dire warning of the little homeless girl. Thoughts racing, I reflected back on the illusions I had seen and suddenly realized that neither of them had cast shadows.  That meant…
I immediately – almost simultaneously – did three things:  I cycled my vision away from the visible spectrum; shouted a warning to Mouse that consisted solely of the word “Real!”; and phased the two of us.
The subway car – which was in no way an illusion – was almost on us at that point. The fact that he sent something real (and capable of causing us grievous harm) was a sure indicator that Dream Machine was no longer fooling around. He was intent on stopping us by any means necessary.
Thankfully, I had phased us in time for the subway car to pass through us harmlessly. Unfortunately, in my haste, I forgot to phase the metal post with the computer hub attached (although I had phased Mouse’s tablet). The train hit it at ramming speed, ripping the post up from the ground and dragging it along with it down the tracks. Mouse, who – to his credit – had never stopped working even when I’d shouted that the train was real, merely turned and watched as the post, now caught beneath the subway car’s wheels, spewed forth a bright shower of sparks. A moment later, accompanied by the squeal of grinding metal, the train derailed and crashed into the wall of the tunnel with a sound like a bomb going off. The tunnel shook for a moment, causing the lights to flicker briefly as dust came cascading down from the ceiling.
 A slight popping noise drew my attention to the floor, where I noticed some exposed wiring from several cables that had snapped when the post was dragged away.  The popping noise sounded again, in concert with a few sparks from the wiring.
“Please tell me that you stopped the upload,” I said as Mouse and I stepped back from what was obviously a live wire and I made the two of us solid again.
“Not enough time,” Mouse said solemnly.
I let out a sigh of disgust, furious with myself. I had failed miserably. The entire reason for me being here was my ability to differentiate reality from illusion, and I had allowed myself to get so distracted that it affected the mission.

“So, that’s it,” I said, feeling wretched. “Dream Machine wins.”

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