*breathes into paper bag*
Below I’ve got all of chapter one for you–and of course, another look at the awesome cover by the amazing and talented Jenny at Seedlings Design Studio. The book was up on Netgalley for a full month and her design didn’t get a single down vote.
At the moment, Failsafe is a standalone novel, though several early reviewers have asked if there’ll be a sequel and the answer is…There could be. I have a plot outline for a second book to make this a duology so if you love the story and want it, let me know!
There is only one rule: Never leave the settlement
Nobody remembers when human civilization fell to the living computer known as the Interspace. Trapped within its massive expanse, what remains of humanity struggles to survive. There are no maps to the outer grids, and drones patrol the network. Escape is impossible.
Except seventeen-year-old Sol can access the network’s secrets in her dreams. The information comes at a physical cost, but with food and medical shortages threatening her community, it’s a small price to pay for survival. The supply runs are also the best way to prove she can still contribute, especially after her recent epilepsy diagnosis took away the role she’d been training for.
When a grave mistake alerts the drones to her trespassing, Sol finds herself running for her life. She never expects to encounter Echo, a stranger who may hold the key to humanity’s freedom.
Together, Sol and Echo will attempt to reach the central core of the Interspace and shut down the system. To survive the journey, they will need to evade drones, signal towers, and a dangerous enemy known only as the Override. Even with Sol’s access to the network and Echo’s incredible abilities, they may still fail. The Interspace is always watching, and if they’re discovered, it will mean the final extermination of all mankind.
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Copyright 2018 Anela Deen – Fine Fables Press
All rights reserved
If the world hadn’t ended generations ago, the broken stabilizer on my hoverbike wouldn’t have been a life or death problem. Sure, I’d gotten myself in this jam through a delightful combo of pride and stupidity, but it still didn’t seem fair.
The back-half of the bike sagged to the ground under the faulty stabilizer and I crouched beside it, examining the cracked casing along the cylinder with a deepening sense of dread. The tools dangling at my waist wouldn’t save me this time. I spotted the problem immediately—towing too much weight in the container hooked to the other end. What was I thinking? I’d let my excitement over finding that cache of supplies and foodstuffs override all engineering sense. As if the settlements’ desperation could convince an inanimate object to hold out longer than it had the capacity to do. Idiot me.
Solution-based thinking, Sol. Come on, girl, you can do this.
Right. As if my plucky optimism would fix the thing.
A string of profanity my mother would have been shocked her seventeen-year-old daughter had knowledge of stampeded through my thoughts. Not a peep slipped past my lips. Not out here in the network where the Interspace’s drones terminated any human they found.
I scrubbed shaking hands over my face as I considered my options, careful not to bump the cortical node affixed to my right temple. Wouldn’t want to add more flavor to this craptastic situation by throwing off its alignment and aggravating my condition. Halfway back to my home settlement, I’d marooned myself in grid one-thirty. Towering structures of dark metal and blinking circuitry surrounded, power conduits as tall as the skyscrapers in the cities of the Time Before. They reached toward the decking and interconnect bridges of the higher levels, and somewhere beyond that, the roof that sealed us all inside with the machine. Cables neatly embedded in the deck crisscrossed the broad rail paths I traversed like roots in a cybernetic forest.
The mind-numbing maze of the Interspace defied memorization, even for a photographic memory like mine. My dreams of the network—or visions since they were as accurate as holding a map—displayed the innards of a horizonless superstructure too immense to fully absorb. The solution? Narrowing my focus to the only grid that mattered; the one containing the twelve separate human settlements. Still massive, but doable.
I coaxed the memory of this area forward. Had there been somewhere I could hide until the drones completed their circuit and moved on? The gear didn’t matter. They wouldn’t pay attention to that. After three months of doing these supply runs, I had their directive figured out: Patrol the area, scan for life signs, and extinguish any found. This meant I had to get my pulse out of their way. On the other side of the rail path, I spotted a recessed panel on a circuit tower with an access door to a maintenance alcove large enough to slip behind. That would do perfectly.
I grabbed my pack and quick-stepped it toward my hiding place. The rubber boots quieted my steps, the threadbare fabric of my patchwork trousers hissing between my legs. I shivered, having forgotten to grab my jacket off the bike, but I wasn’t going back for it. The network always held a chill. Leithan, my community’s physician, and a talented engineer, taught me that even small electronic devices exuded heat while activated. Too much and things malfunctioned. For a machine as massive as the Interspace, whose network compound might well encompass the entire world at this point, the brisk environmental levels made sense but they bugged me all the same. I wondered if the mechanical sentience behind the Interspace could feel the temperature too, if the chilly air kept its sprockets and gears comfy while the remains of humanity withered in their designated settlements.
I set the thought aside. Anger and fear made you reckless. Besides, if my mysterious dreams of the network meant one thing for sure, it was the Interspace didn’t control everything. Too bad I still hadn’t figured out where the dreams came from or how and why only I got them. Yet another topic to ponder later.
I’d nearly crossed the wide swath of the rail paths when a shiver that had nothing to do with the chilly air went down my back. My gaze went to the silent towers surrounding me, my skin prickling with the sensation of being watched. Oh good. Paranoia. Drones did the watching for the Interspace, and if they knew I was here, they’d be on me in a flash. Humans were prohibited from wandering around the network. Rule number one of the Armistice my ancestors established with the machine and an edict I violated every time I did these runs. But what choice did we have? The Interspace had stopped delivering the supplies we needed to survive months ago.
I did a quick check of the countdown on my wrist patch. Plenty of time to get hidden. The situation wasn’t ideal but still manageable. I had no idea know how I would haul the supplies home without my bike. I’d figure something out. Everything would be—
Behind me, the puff and grind of failing machinery cut through my thoughts. I swung around. The front stabilizer on my bike gave out with a death-wheeze, and the whole contraption crashed to the ground with a deafening bang.
Sun, stars, and sky, I’d forgotten to power it down.
Above that terrible realization came the high-pitched whine of drones speeding this direction. I whirled and sprinted for all I was worth, the panic so sharp in my gut it was as if I’d swallowed shards of glass. A shrill alert went up, echoing across the network. They’d spotted me. I groaned, a scared, pleading sound. It’d be impossible to get away now. I might as well stand there and wait to be incinerated.
Instead, I threw myself behind the access door and slammed it shut. In the darkness, I crawled into the far corner and curled into a ball. The space was only a few meters deep, and that flimsy panel wouldn’t stop them. Crushing futility made me ill inside.
Gears whirred and screeched as the drones came in close. Laser bolts punched holes in the door and seared the wall over my head. Terror locked the screams in my throat and I tucked my head under my arms. The shine of their sleek oblong shapes and the red light of their targeting eye glared in at me.
This was all my fault. My parents hadn’t wanted me to do this alone. Here, at the end, I could admit I’d been trying to prove something. To my family and to everyone else. It wasn’t only about ferrying goods between the settlements. I’d wanted them to see I wasn’t just a glitchy brain. I wasn’t defective, no matter how many murmurs and stares said otherwise. Now I would never see home again. I was so stupid. And so dead.
The force of the next bolt blew the access door open so hard it smacked the inner wall and banged shut again. Mostly destroyed, it hung off its hinges. Red beams focused on my huddled form. I squeezed my eyes shut. Nothing noble came to me for my last thought, only a prayer I wouldn’t feel it.
A thunderous explosion shook the plating under me. My eyes snapped open. Beyond the drones, flames erupted, coiling and curling with black smoke. They turned, clacking and trilling, and for a wondrous moment, I thought they’d take off and forget my execution. Two departed to investigate. The third turned back to me.
What admirable delegators.
This time I didn’t try to hide. If this was the moment of my death, I wouldn’t face it cowering in a sad little ball. I sat up and stared right back at the thing.
“Go on then.” I spread my shaking arms, teeth chattering.
Its targeting beam painted my chest. The hum of a charged weapon reached my ears. I realized it hadn’t come from the drone a split second before an amber beam streaked in from the side and ripped through the machine’s body. Circuits blew from its bulk like brain matter and it clunked to the ground. The red eye flickered and went out.
Dazed, I stared at the incomprehensible sight, then lurched back in alarm when a figure sped past the door. Tall. Dark clad. What the—Was that a human being? I didn’t get a better glimpse before the dark shape disappeared in the direction of the explosion.
The explosion. Where the drones went. I wrangled the broken door open, kicked away the remains of the destroyed drone, and crawled out. Smoke hazed the air, acrid in the back of my throat. I edged my way alongside the rail path, a circuit tower at my back. The drones remained airborne, swooping left and right over the pocket of flames, dragging tendrils of smoke with them like snagged curtains. They fired toward the ground, but their targeting systems hadn’t locked on, the beams spread wide searching. The fire must have distorted my rescuer’s heat signature.
An amber beam sliced through the smoky veil and impaled one of the drones. It quivered, electrical bolts sizzling across its length. It split in half and dropped to the ground. The other zeroed in on the point of origin, sending a barrage of focused bolts toward the ground. My shoulders slumped. No one could have evaded those shots. I should get out of here and find another hiding spot in the distraction. That drone would sweep the area in a minute.
Yet…it didn’t seem right to run off. Someone had risked their life for mine. What if they were injured? I had to help somehow. Whoever this person was, they’d come equipped with a powerful weapon. Maybe if I diverted the last drone’s attention, it would give the stranger the opening they needed.
I dug my slingshot out of my pack and readied a bolt in the pocket. As I drew back the cord and fixed the drone between the prongs, I had trouble believing I meant to do this. The slingshot was enough to stand up to a Wraith—an exiled human condemned to death in the network—but not a drone.
“This is really dumb,” I whispered and released the bolt.
It ricocheted off its armored hide with an adorable plinking sound. Instantly, it whirled my direction. And there I stood, completely in the open. My survival instincts were absolute junk today. Nothing stirred between the flames. Of course not. The machines always won.
It glided away from the fire, targeting beam honed in on me. The slingshot fell from my hand. A shape blurred through the swirling smoke and a man catapulted from the ground onto the back of the drone. My jaw dropped open. He held on as the thing swiveled and bucked, thighs clamping on the smooth, metallic surface. His arms rose above his head, a glowing amber blade in his hands. He drove into the machine. It whirred and screamed, careening in a downward spiral. The man slid off and landed nimbly in a crouch, the glowing blade swept out to one side. The drone collided with the ground in a burst of sparks and metal shards.
I stood there, plastered against the tower wall, unable to absorb what had just happened. No one could move like that. Backlit by smoke and flames, my rescuer seemed like a figure out of a mythic tale of heroes from the Time Before. He stood slowly, the amber blade retracting into a black cylinder with a hand grip on one end. He didn’t appear to have another weapon. Did that thing have multiple functions? Dressed all in black, it was the only thing he carried but for items he had strapped, stored, or clipped to his body.
He secured his weapon to his side, turned, and looked right at me. My shoulders stiffened, fear still flush in my adrenaline-soaked system. If he’d wanted to hurt me he could have left me to my fate, right? My heart picked up speed anyway as he strode toward me.
Broad shouldered, lean muscle flexing beneath the dark clothes, he cut an imposing figure. He looked unlike anyone from the settlements, a fact which had me gaping in outright astonishment. With so few humans left, our bloodlines had mixed and remixed over generations, resulting in mostly everyone possessing the same thick brown locks, prominent brown eyes, and copper skin.
Black, tousled hair fluttered over the stranger’s brow, his skin a tawny-beige with deep-set eyes shaped like teardrops. Although his face remained expressionless, intensity burned in the dark green gaze he leveled at me. He called out no greeting as he approached. In other circumstances, I might have thought his angular face handsome but his demeanor intimidated me.
I put my hand over the laser cutter on my tool belt, ready to pull it free and defend myself if necessary. He’d saved me, yes, but that didn’t mean I could trust him. His gaze flicked to the cutter in my white-knuckled grip, then back to me.
“What is our current network location?” The quiet voice had a slight gravel to it as if he didn’t use it often.
I blinked up at him. “Our location? This is block one-thirty.”
“Which sector? Which grid?”
Was he serious? There was only one sector and grid for the human settlements. I rattled it off to him, then fidgeted under his relentless stare before I realized he wasn’t looking at me but through me. Puzzling over the information I’d given him?
His gaze refocused. “I seek grid one, block one, alpha sector.”
“The ICCS? The Interspace Central Command Space?”
It was my turn to stare. “Are you…asking for directions?”
My brow furrowed incredulously. “No one knows where that is. Buried someplace deep in the network where no human has ever been since the End War.” He continued to watch me. I shifted uncomfortably. Did he expect me to say more? “Uh, thank you. For saving me. I don’t know why you did it, but I’m grateful to not be a pile of ash right now. I’m Soleil, by the way. Sol for short.”
He didn’t reply or offer his name. Officially weird. Had he been expelled from his settlement? It didn’t happen often and usually only for a capital crime. He seemed a tad too well provisioned to be a Wraith, however, and um—my gaze flitted over his solid form—too healthy as well. If he was out here looking for the flipping ICCS, he’d obviously lost his mind. Did he think he was going to stroll in there and singlehandedly deactivate the system that’d ruthlessly overrun the world countless years ago? Even if he’d bested those three drones, it seemed a good bet anywhere near the central core would be crawling with them. And speaking of drones…
“Hey, it’s probably a good idea to get moving while we can. Only three drones were assigned to sweep this area today but I’m sure they sent off an alert to the ones a few grids over.”
It would take several hours for them to get here and I’d need all that time to cross the remaining distance.
His keen gaze sharpened. “How do you know this?”
Oh, right. How would I explain why I knew such oddly specific details about drone locations? Definitely wasn’t about to reveal my network dreams to a stranger.
“Er, just a guess.” Smooth.
“I observed you leave the path before the drones arrived. You knew they were coming. How?”
So someone had been watching.
Slowly, casual-like, I bent to retrieve my slingshot. “I had a gut feeling?”
“A gut feeling.” The hint of a question there.
“Yeah, you know, sixth sense. Instinct. That kind of thing.” I took a step away. He followed.
“Your pulse is elevated and your cortisol levels indicate increased stress. You’re lying.”
“Well, I did almost die a couple of times there. Everything’s elevated right now. Just look at my hair.”
Something was off about this guy. His speech held no inflection. Between the impossible physical feats he’d just performed and his now eerie stillness, it didn’t take a genius to see he wasn’t entirely human even if he looked it. The sooner I put distance between us, the better.
Inching away, I said, “It sounds like we’re headed different directions, so I’ll just be on my way. Again, thanks for the help.”
I moved off at a stately trot—no, this didn’t count as running—and slowed as I recalled the supplies I’d abandoned by my bike. Crud. I couldn’t leave those behind. Too many people were counting on them.
A hand clamped around my arm. “Stop.”
Startled, I didn’t think. I whipped around and swung a fist with my free hand as hard as I could. I aimed for the guy’s jaw but he anticipated this and leaned back. My knuckles missed his face entirely and hit his shoulder with a wet smack. Something spattered my cheek. I flinched, then gaped at my blood coated fingers. That wasn’t mine. My gaze found the wound on his shoulder, the bleeding soaked into his dark clothes.
“Oh. Oh no.” Impulsively, I pressed my hand to it. “You’re hit. You were hit.”
Not that one could tell by the way he stood there. No hint of pain creased his face. He tilted his head to look at my hand on him.
“The injury is negligible.”
“Are you crazy? You’ll bleed to death if this isn’t tended.”
“You will tell me how you became aware of the drone maintenance schedule.”
“The what? Are you a robot or something? Doesn’t this hurt?”
His jaw twitched. “I am not a robot.”
“Who are you then?”
“Is—That’s your name?”
Totally did not make him seem less robotic.
“Can’t you feel there’s a hole in your shoulder? Where did you come from anyway?”
“Answer my question.”
Okay, a change of tactic was called for here. I had to get myself and the supplies back to my home settlement on the other side of this block before more drones showed up. Somehow, I had to convince this idiot to come with me and be treated for a laser wound. I didn’t know precisely what he was but he couldn’t be a tool of the Interspace if he had no idea how to reach the central core. He hadn’t even known where he was. Besides, he’d saved my life. I owed him.
“I have a better idea. You come with me to my settlement and I’ll tell you how I knew where the drones would be.”
His green eyes cooled. “You will tell me now.”
His grip on my arm was firm but not painful. As much as I didn’t appreciate being grabbed, my instincts said he wouldn’t hurt me.
“A compromise then. I’ll answer one question here on the condition that any others have to wait until we get to safety.” He stared at me blank-faced and didn’t reply. “You know, a non-robot would see the benefit of compromise in this situation.”
Did his eyebrow twitch ever so slightly? He released me.
“Very well. Tell me how—“
“I knew because I saw it. I saw the schematics for this grid and the schedule the drones would follow. I saw the access codes of the other settlements for entry and departure. I can see everything. Every detail.”
And each time I did, I risked my life.
End of Excerpt
Release Date: Sunday, May 20th
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