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Picacio Cover, New Lead for Postsingular

I just got the great cover for the Monkeybrains Second Edition of my novel The Hollow Earth. Cover art by John Picacio, long may he wave. Thanks to Chris Roberson for putting this together.

I’m working on the revisions to my novel Postsingular for Tor. For today’s text, I’ll drop in some of an opening scene I wrote, the prelude to a grisly model-rocket accident that warps the character of Jeff Luty enough to make him the novel’s chief villain.

The fotos are from Santa Cruz yesterday, Sylvia and I were at Four Mile Beach and then at Natural Bridges with my niece Nicole.

[Begin excerpt]

Two boys walked down the beach, deep in conversation. Seventeen-year-old Jeff Luty was carrying a carbon-fiber pipe-rocket. His best friend Carlos Tucker was carrying the launch rod and a bottle of champagne. Gangly Jeff was a head taller than Carlos.

“We’re unobservable now,” said Jeff, looking back down the sand. It was twilight of a clear New Year’s Day in Stinson Beach, California. Jeff’s mother had rented a cheap cottage to get out of their cramped South San Francisco apartment for the holiday, and Carlos had come along. Jeff’s mother didn’t like it when the boys fired off their home-made rockets; so Jeff had promised her that he and Carlos wouldn’t bring one. But of course they had.

“A flying dinosaur,” said Carlos with his ready grin. “Your program says it’ll go how high? Tell me again, Jeff. I love hearing it.”

“A mile,” said Jeff, hefting the heavy gadget. “Equals one thousand six hundred and nine point three four four meters. That’s why we measured out the fuel in milligrams.”

“As if this beast is gonna act like your computer simulation,” laughed Carlos, patting the thick rocket’s side. “Yeek!” The rocket’s tip was a streamlined plastic cone with a few thousand home-grown nanochips inside. The rocket’s sides were adorned with fanciful sheet-metal fins and a narrow metal pipe that served as a launch lug. Carlos had painted the rocket to resemble a pterodactyl, complete with claws, folded wings, and a toothy bill.

“We’re lucky we didn’t blow up your mom’s house when we were casting the motor,” said Jeff. “Over a kilogram of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and powdered magnesium metal mixed into epoxy binder, whoah.” He hefted the rocket, peering into the rear at the glittering, rubbery fuel. The carbon-fiber tube was stuffed like a sausage-casing.

“Here’s to Lu-Tuck Space Tech!” said Carlos, peeling the foil off the champagne cork. He’d lifted one of the bottles that Jeff’s mother had been using to make mimosas for herself and her boyfriend and Jeff’s older sisters all day.

“Lu-Tuck forever,” exulted Jeff. That was their projected name for the company they dreamed of starting. “It’ll be awesome to track our nanochips across the sky. Each one of them has a global-positioning unit and a broadcast antenna.”

“They do so much,” marveled Carlos.

“And I grew them like yeast,” said Jeff. “In the right environment these cute little guys can self-assemble. If you know the dark secrets of robobiohackery, that is. And you have the knack.” Jeff waggled his long, knobby fingers. His nails were all bitten to the quick.

“And you’re totally sure they’re not gonna start reproducing themselves in the air?” said Carlos, working his thumbs against the champagne cork. “We don’t want Lu-Tuck turning the world into rainbow goo.”

“That won’t happen yet,” said Jeff and giggled. “Dammit.”

“You’re sick,” said Carlos, meaning this as praise. The cork popped loose, arcing high across the beach to meet its racing shadow.

It was Carlos’s turn to giggle as the foam gushed over his hands. He took a swig and offered the bottle to Jeff. Jeff waved him off, intent on his inner vision.

“I see an astronomically large cloud of self-reproducing nanobots in orbit around the sun,” said Jeff. “They’ll feed on space dust and solar energy and carry out calculations too vast for earthbound machines.”

“So that’s what self-reproducing nanomachines are good for,” said Carlos.

“I’m gonna call them nants,” said Jeff. “You like that?”

“Beautiful,” said Carlos, jamming the launch rod into the sand a few meters above the water line. “I claim this kingdom for the nants.”

Jeff slid the rocket down over the launch rod, threading the rod through the five-inch tube glued to the rocket’s side. He stuck an igniter wire into the molded engine, secured the wire with wadding, and attached the wire’s loose ends to a battery-powered controller.

“The National Association of Rocketry says we should back off seven hundred feet,” said Jeff, checking over their handiwork one last time.

“Bogus,” said Carlos. “I want to see our pterodactyl lumber into flight. We’ll get behind that dune right there and peek.”

“Affirmative,” said Jeff.

The boys settled onto the lee slope of a low dune and inched up until they could peer over the crest at the gaudy fat tube. Carlos dug a little hole to steady the champagne bottle. Jeff took out his cell phone. The launch program was idling on the screen, cycling through a series of clock and map displays.

“You can really see the jetliners on that blue map?” asked Carlos, his handsome face gilded by the setting sun.

“You bet. Good thing, too. We’ll squirt up our rocket when there’s a gap in the traffic. Like a bum scuttling across a freeway.”

“What’s the cluster of red dots on that next map?”

“Those are the nanochips in the rocket’s tip. At apogee, the nose-cone blows off and the dots scatter.”

“Awesome,” said Carlos. “The pterodactyl shoots his wad. Maybe we should track down some of those nanochips after they land.”

“We go visit some guy in the Sunset district, and we’re, like, congratulations, a Lu-Tuck nant is idling in your driveway!” said Jeff, his homely face wreathed in smiles.

“Gosh, Mr. Luty, can I drive it to work?” said Carlos, sounding like an earnest wage earner. “You got key?”

“Here comes a gap in the planes,” said Jeff.

“Go,” answered Carlos, his face calm and dreamy.

“T minus three minutes.”

Only now, damn, here came a woman jogging down the beach with a dog. And of course she had to stop by the rocket, look around, spot the boys. Jeff paused the countdown.

“What are you doing?” asked the woman, her voice as penetrating as a buzz-saw. “Do you have permission for this?”

“It’s just a little toy rocket-kit I got for Christmas,” called Carlos. “Totally legit, ma’am. No problem. Happy New Year.”

“Well—you two be careful,” said the woman. “Don’t set off that thing while I’m around. Hey, come here, Guster!” Her dog had lifted his leg to squirt pee onto the rocket’s side. Embarrassed now, the woman jogged off down the beach, her pony-tail bouncing.

“I recommend that you secure the integrity of the launch vehicle, Mr. Luty,” instructed Carlos in an officious tone.

“I’m not wiping off dog p*ss! I can smell it from here, see it dripping down? We’re sending that into the sky.”

“Resume countdown, Mr. Luty.”

“Batten down for Lu-Tuck Space Tech!” said Jeff, enjoying Carlos’s closeness. He looked up and down the long empty beach. The woman was a small streak in the distance. And now she deviated into a side path. “T minus one minute,” said Jeff, snugging the bottle into its hole. “Battle stations, Carlos.”

The boys backed down below the crest and lay side by side staring at Jeff’s little screen. The last ten seconds ticked off. And nothing happened.

“Sh*t,” said Carlos, raising his head to peer over the dune’s crest. “Do you think that dog—”

The blast was something Jeff felt more than heard. A hideous pressure on his ears. Shrapnel whizzed overhead; he could feel the violent rippling of the air. Carlos was lying face down, very still. Blood stained the sand, outlining Carlos’s head. For a second Jeff could think he was only seeing a shadow. But no.

Not sure if should roll his friend over, Jeff looked distractedly at the screen of his cell phone. How strange. The chaotic explosion must have sent a jet of nanomachines into Carlos’s face, for Jeff could see a ghostly form of his friend’s features on the little screen, a stippling of red dots. Carlos looked all right except for his — eye?

Jeff could hear sirens, still very far. Carlos didn’t seem to be breathing. Jeff went ahead and rolled Carlos over so he could give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Maybe the shock wave had knocked his breath out. Maybe that was all. Maybe everything was still retrievable. But no, the five-inch metal tube that served as launch lug had speared through Carlos’s right eye. Stuff was oozing from the barely protruding tip. And Carlos had definitely stopped breathing.

Jeff leaned over his beloved friend, pressing his mouth to Carlos’s blood-foamed lips, trying to breathe in life. He was still at it when his mother and sisters found him. The medics had to sedate him to make him to stop.

[End excerpt (it ends in tears)]

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