QSFer LJ LaBarthe has a new sci fi book out:
It is the year 2275, and though some consider Earth a paradise, for most people on the planet or her outer-world colonies, it’s anything but.
Dex is a Boxie—a genetically engineered human created for the sole purpose of caring for wealthy bio-humans. His best and only friend is an AI cat named Manx, a secret Dex keeps from all around him. While he knows little about his sexuality, he’s attracted to Song.
Song designs ships that traverse deep space and has created the first fully sentient vessel called Fa’a. When he hears of a plot to capture Fa’a for nefarious purposes, Song flees Earth with a small band of misfits. Meanwhile, Dex’s fear of losing Manx drives him to take the cat and escape on a transport.
Song and Dex are brought together by chance. Just as their relationship blossoms from cautious and shy to romantic and erotic, new dangers threaten to destroy not only their love but also Fa’a, their friends, Manx, and all they care about.
THE LIGHTCYCLE was old, but it was in good condition. The thrum of the solar-powered cells was a soft burr in Dex’s ears as he leaned into the force of the wind. The sound of his heart pounding seemed to be a rapid staccato of fear, a reminder that what he was doing was illegal and if he got caught, he’d be done for. He glanced at the time and date unit, which read July 23, 2275. 01:32 AEST.
Cuddled against his chest, his AI cat, Manx, gave him a gentle head-butt. Dex wasn’t supposed to have Manx, but he’d kept the AI. Now, he reflected back on their situation. New laws ordered all personal property with an artificial intelligence level of sentient being must be handed into the local police for deactivation. Dex had hidden Manx, and Manx knew to keep silent and small when the box that was Dex’s apartment was being searched. Those searches had only occurred once a year; now it was every month. The Australasian Authority had a long reach and its searches and influence in the region had intensified, like other Authorities around the world.
Pulling himself back to the present, Dex watched the road. The highway was a thin, narrow ribbon coasting over the outback. He hoped he’d charged the bike enough for it to get him to the exit ramp in Darwin. It would take him around an hour to reach it; he traveled at the absolute limit one could on long-distance freeways. Giant billboards peppered the edges of the road, advertising items to make life better, advising good citizens to be mindful of the Boxies—people like Dex—and report any strange or potentially illegal behavior.
In between those were the ones instructing the good folk of Earth to report any sightings of the terrorist named Chen Lau Song.
Those signs were written in blood-red font, a huge photograph of Song on one side and a list of his crimes beneath the giant “WARNING.” Terrorism was listed as number one, in the form of designing and stealing a ship that could attack Earth and destroy cities, towns, islands, even a country like Australia or Indonesia. Theft was listed too, almost as an afterthought it seemed, as the text on the signs and billboards seemed to lavish extravagant descriptions of a laundry list of terrorist-related activities that Song had participated in. It wasn’t enough that he had such a violent ship that could wreak so much havoc and destruction; he had access to poison gasses and could murder thousands of citizens in their sleep. Most of all, he was in contact with the criminal society of the planet of M’Jaffa, and that alone should advise the good, law-abiding people of Earth and her territories just what kind of an evil, hateful man Chen Lau Song was.
Dex tried to avoid looking at those signs. He didn’t think that Song was a terrorist; if anything, he was a freedom fighter, a symbol of hope for everyone like Dex himself. But the United International Authority of Humanity had decreed him to be a terrorist, and so everyone was on the lookout for the man, to apprehend him or report his whereabouts and collect the reward that was being offered.
That wasn’t the real reason that Dex avoided looking at those signs. They showed enormous, hi-res photos of Song, and Dex thought the man was gorgeous. With his short-cropped black hair that stuck up in spikes, his tanned skin, and his piercing dark eyes, Song was everything that Dex found attractive in a man. It was the smirk that crossed Song’s full lips that made him irresistible. The photos showed Song with his arms crossed over his chest, dressed all in black, his pose speaking louder than words that Song knew his own genius, was fully aware of his own abilities and confident that no one could be better than him. Dex found that confidence attractive too, because all his life, he had lived in the shadows, not wanting to draw any attention to himself at all.
That had changed, though, Dex thought, when he’d acquired Manx and when the reports about Song had started. Oddly, those two events had been only three hours apart, almost like a pair of signposts that Dex’s life was going to change dramatically. Manx was Dex’s best and only friend, and he wasn’t about to give the AI up, not for anything. Even if it meant a personality wipe and being sent to work in the basement of the Box Towers, doing menial labor because he wouldn’t be able to do what he’d been bred and trained for any longer. He wasn’t giving Manx up because friends, Dex understood from discreet trawling of the Shadow Net, stood up for each other.
Song had done that, Dex had learned. There were reports that he’d saved others from unknown horrible fates and stood by them through all kinds of danger. Dex remembered how he had stared at the news report talking about how Chen Lau Song had designed and built the first ever one hundred percent organic and sentient deep-space vessel and then stolen it. He had been commissioned by the Authorities to build the ship, so that humans could expand out even further than they had already, moving beyond the borders of their own galaxy or star systems out into new ones, conquering and colonizing as they went. Whatever Song’s real motivations were, Dex had never discovered. Even the Shadow Net hadn’t any information on that. But there was a growing feeling that Song represented freedom, and for Boxies, freedom was something that was yearned for.
“Fucking Boxes,” Dex muttered to himself. Manx gave a quiet chirping meow of reply. Dex hated those buildings, hated the very nature of them. He had been bred in a lab, along with hundreds of thousands of others of his kind—human beings born not of a mother’s womb, but of an artificial one, a sperm and egg chosen and blended together in order to genetically manipulate the infant that would be born. Dex had been trained and programmed to be a deep-space vessel engineer, specifically working on computer systems that programed and operated the engines of those vast ships. He had also been trained to take care of them, to be the mechanic that fixed all manner of problems that evaded other humans or that computers couldn’t detect. Computers, after all, were not infallible.
Dex had known nothing except the Boxes—the tall, square towers that held apartments, dining halls, and offices—for thirty years. He had lived, worked, and slept in a cube of concrete, his only possessions being his clothes, his fold-top computer (modified by him to do more than it should), and a holo-TV. He had not known anything about friendship or companionship until his twenty-fifth birthday, when the boss of his station had given each worker a pet companion AI.
It had been a program devised by the Authorities to keep the Boxies happy. To give them something to go home to, to teach them basic empathy and compassion. The Emotions Authority had decided that Boxies didn’t know enough about those things, so they should be educated—newborns, toddlers, and infants could have that put into the education programs, but adolescents and adults had to be taught in more practical ways, and that meant the gifting of the pet AIs. Dex had been given Manx, a black and white domestic shorthair cat AI, and with the option to surrender a third of his take-home pay units, he had opted for the special telepathic chip add-on that allowed him and the AI to communicate via thoughts. It had seemed at the time to be a quiet whimsy, a novelty.
Now Dex was glad he’d done it. Manx had quickly made himself invaluable to Dex, and Dex, previously unfamiliar with the concept of love, had slowly begun to understand it. It had been Manx, who possessed access to the AI data center and the ability to download information from just about anywhere, who had taught Dex during their long conversations. Dex had listened, wide-eyed in astonishment, as Manx had patiently explained the different kinds of love and manifestations of that love. And it had been with Manx’s help that Dex had come to realize that his absolute lack of interest in the women in his Box Tower was because his interest lay elsewhere.
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L.J. LaBarthe is a French-Australian woman, who was born during the Witching Hour, just after midnight. From this auspicious beginning, she went on to write a prize-winning short story about Humpty Dumpty wearing an Aussie hat complete with corks dangling from it when she was six years old. From there, she wrote for her high school yearbook, her university newspaper, and, from her early teens to her twenties, produced a fanzine about the local punk rock music scene. She loves music of all kinds and was once a classical pianist; she loves languages and speaks French and English and a teeny-tiny smattering of Mandarin Chinese, which she hopes to relearn properly very soon. She enjoys TV, film, travel, cooking, eating out, abandoned places, urbex, history, and researching.
L.J. loves to read complicated plots and hopes to do complex plot lines justice in her own writing. She writes paranormal, historical, urban fantasy, and contemporary Australian stories, usually m/m romance and featuring m/m erotica. She has won a Rainbow Awards Honorable Mention and another award for Best Historical Gay Novel.
L.J. lives in the city of Adelaide, and is owned by her cat.