QSFer Angel Martinez has a new MM sci-fi book out, Variant Configurations book 2: From the Noblest Motives.
The Fredamine Project was just the beginning. Shadow dealings and conspiracies regarding variants intertwine until Damien and his cohorts can no longer tell who the bad guys are.
Several months have passed since Blaze and the infamous Variant activist Shudder McKenzie helped Damien rescue the captives of the sinister Fredamine Project. Professionally, everything’s great. He’s back to working with Damien again and they have a new lead on the three kids who are still missing. Personally, not so much. Blaze has made his peace with Shudder, though nothing between them has even been easy, but his relationship with Damien has taken several steps back. Blaze no longer has any idea where he stands. Adding to the tense atmosphere are the anti-Variant members of legislature who have been slowly gaining popular approval, and the cryptic messages Damien receives from an unknown source.
Shudder’s back to his old haunts and his old tricks, trying to raise public awareness of imperiled Variant rights—such as the draconic Horace Act that strips due process during Variant trials—and to rescue Variant kids in trouble. His almost mythical luck runs out though when he’s arrested for murder only three days after the passage of the Horace Act and a whirlwind trial and sentencing lands him in the most notorious maximum security facility for Variants—San Judas Tadeo.
With too many conspirators on both sides of the aisle, Damien, Blaze and Shudder no longer know whom to trust. Peeling through the layers of deceit and half-truths puts them on shakier ground with every discovery and in greater danger than ever before.
Variant Configurations takes place in a future Earth where humanity is reclaiming its spot in a gradually healing world. This book contains mentions of past abuse, action-adventure style mayhem, and the sparks of a slow burn, series-spanning relationship.
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The sun allowed a brief appearance the next morning, already wearing a sari of thick clouds. By the time they’d packed up after breakfast and were back in the cab, the clouds blanketed the sky completely, overburdened and dark. Blaze turned the headlights on as the first tentative drops hit the windshield.
Rain started hammering down not two minutes later. If they’d been following a dirt road or a physical trail, Blaze might have worried about any traces being washed away, but the rain had nothing to do with Damien’s ability to track life trails. He gripped the steering wheel in grim determination as Damien guided them through the increasingly terrible visibility.
His confidence in Damien’s abilities didn’t prevent near collisions with stands of brush or large rocks suddenly looming out of the downpour, though. The obstacles forced him to drive slowly and take the truck up a few feet to try to avoid the worst of it. By noon, his hands were shaking.
“Five degrees to the left,” Damien murmured before he glanced over. “Are you all right? Should we stop?”
“Ha.” Blaze rolled both hands over the wheel. “That’s supposed to be my line. I’m okay for now.”
“You’ll say? If you need to?” Damien fiddled with the hem of his T-shirt, giving away his growing anxiety.
“Yeah, yeah, Mom. I’ll let you know.”
Blaze had just convinced his shoulders to come down from around his ears when Damien bolted forward in his seat. “Stop! Blaze, stop!”
“Fuck!” His heart trying to leap out his throat, Blaze slammed the truck to a stop, the maglev calipers squealing. “What is it?”
Damien had already bailed out, though, boots splashing over the muddy ground, soaked to the bone before he’d gone four steps. Grumbling, Blaze secured the truck and plodded out after him, hoping the sudden stop didn’t mean that the kids had died. Unlikely, since Damien became uneasy and ill well before coming to the end of a trail like that.
“Talk to me,” Blaze called out, even his words battered and left ragged by the drenching rain.
A few yards ahead, Damien had halted, turning in a slow circle. Then he stood frozen, head cocked as if listening, and began to pace off an ever-widening square around that central point. Still silent, he strode past Blaze, back to the truck, hands held wide, fingers spread. From the truck, he started along his initial path again, this time one slow step at a time.
Blaze could only wait now, unwilling to ruin Damien’s concentration.
When Damien reached the spot where he’d been turning in circles, he stopped again, dragged his shirt off over his head and spread his arms. Head thrown back, he might have been surrendering to the torrential rain, but Blaze knew better. Damien was searching, trying to feel his way along the life trails four kids had left. From the corded muscles in his neck and shoulders, it wasn’t going well.
Slowly, Blaze made his way over, wiping the rain out of his eyes every couple of steps. He stopped behind Damien’s right shoulder—his accustomed place. Damien would know he was there, even deep in concentration. His voice barely above a murmur, unsure if his words could be heard over the rain, Blaze whispered, “Damien? What the hell’s wrong?”
Damien gasped, his eyes flying open as he whirled around. Instinctively, Blaze braced, but those dark eyes were sane enough, just anguished and confused. “They’re gone.”
“They’re… dead? All of them?”
“No.” Damien shook his head violently, water flying from his hair. “No. Gone. The trails… end. Just… How can that be?”
You’re asking me? Blaze’s shoes filled up with water while he tried to think of possibilities. “This never happened before?”
“Could a helicopter have picked them up? If they leave the ground, does the trail end?”
Damien squinted at him. “No. Altitude doesn’t change anything.” Then he blew out a breath, shaking his head more slowly. “Maybe if they left the atmosphere?”
“Yeah, okay. ‘Cause kids come across space-capable rockets in the desert all the time.” Blaze took in the scrub and brush around them. “Even if they did, which would be ridiculous, since nobody makes the damn things anymore, we’d see crushed plants. Maybe burn marks. Something.”
Still shaking his head, Damien began to pace a fretful, uneven circle while the rain decided it was time to escalate hostilities. The downpour came in needle-hard drops, and Blaze couldn’t be sure some of it wasn’t hail. He snagged Damien’s arm on the next pass and marched him back to the truck.
“Come on, Twitch. We’re not getting any answers standing out here, and I think we’re wet enough.”
Back in the truck, Blaze turned on the heat and the defogger because if he was cold? Damien, chronically underfed and with a hyped-up metabolism when he was tracking, was probably close to hypothermia.
“It doesn’t—” Damien’s teeth chattered so hard he broke off, his jaw clenched in obvious frustration.
There had been a time when Blaze would’ve reached over to wrap him up tight without thinking. Even if Damien used him as a bulwark at night to keep the nightmares at bay, that didn’t mean they were back to that point. No pushing. Just no. Instead, Blaze reached behind the seat for a blanket to drape over Damien. He could still show he cared without invading Damien’s personal space when he was upset.
“I’m gonna drive a starburst pattern away from the end of the trails and back, okay?” Blaze kicked the maglev back on, half an eye still on Damien. “See if you pick up anything.”
Curled up under his blanket, eyes shadowed and distracted, Damien made a noise that could have been agreement or fuck you. Hard to say. Either way, Damien kept his attention forward as Blaze drove back and forth in his search pattern. No flinch, no twitch betrayed he’d picked up anything.
“Nothing,” Damien finally murmured when they reached the start again.
They spent the next few days crawling along the heading the trails had taken before they’d ended so abruptly, stopping every half mile and getting out to cast around for any signs. Again and again, nothing. Unless someone had invented a matter transporter or a gate had opened up to some other dimension, it made no damn sense.
The evening of the fourth day, Blaze called a halt. “This isn’t getting us any-fucking-where. Ready to head back?”
Damien stared at him for a few long seconds, and Blaze wasn’t sure his words had gotten through until Damien shivered and shook his head. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“I know, Twitch. But wandering in the wilderness getting you worn out and frustrated won’t solve it.” Blaze cringed as soon as he said it. He knew better.
“I’m fine.” Damien’s eyes went hard, his chin tipped up in unconscious defiance.
“Maybe you are.” Blaze rubbed at the spot on his chest where a bullet had nearly been the end of him. He hadn’t meant to be manipulative. It just twinged some days. But Damien caught the movement and his gaze softened to concern, possibly laced with guilt.
“Blaze… You should’ve said.” Damien turned him and pushed him toward the truck. “We’ll go. Maybe Dr. Parma has some idea.”
At least it stopped raining for the drive back, not that it helped the awkward silence during the day and the careful distance at night.
I thought we were doing all right. I screwed something up, or something made him skittery again. Half a step forward, two steps back again, just like it was when we first met.
Not quite like that, of course. Now they had history together— conversations and things they’d each done that rattled around in Damien’s brain. He got stuck on odd things sometimes. Blaze knew that.
They were nearing Salt Lake City when Damien started fiddling with the truck’s media unit, picking up clear broadcast signals again. Blaze left him to it until part of a name jerked him out of his thoughts.
“Wait. Go back.”
Brows furrowed, Damien tapped back to the last signal, a news broadcast, and his tiny gasp confirmed what Blaze had feared. There on the viewer was Shudder, his blond halo of curls unmistakable. But this was far from the cheerful, irrepressible man they both knew. Shudder walked between uniformed guards, his hands secured in some sort of sheath cuffs, his head down and his motions awkward.
“Turn the sound up,” Blaze whispered, his heart banging on his sternum.
—apprehended not thirty minutes ago. Once again, you’re watching a live Channel QXP exclusive as Shudder McKenzie, the infamous variant terrorist, is being taken into federal custody on suspicion of murdering Science Minister Sheila Tapper. As we shared with you in the last hour, Minister Tapper’s body was found beneath the remains of a collapsed wall on the outskirts of New Chicago.
“Oh shit. Shuds, you didn’t,” Blaze murmured as they watched Shudder being shoved into the back of an armored van. He was drugged. That’s why his movements looked wrong, like a puppet with tangled strings.
Damien reached over and gripped Blaze’s hand, his gaze never leaving the screen. “He didn’t. He never would.”
“Yeah.” No matter how many times Blaze had called Shudder a reckless idiot, he was too good at what he did to cause an accident like that and too kindhearted to murder in cold blood. Blaze stomped on the accelerator. “We really need to get to Dr. Parma. Right fucking now.”
Angel Martinez is the pen name of a writer of several genres who writes both kinds of queer fiction – Science Fiction and Fantasy. (What? There are others?) Currently living part time in the hectic sprawl of northern Delaware, (and full time inside the author’s head) Angel has one husband, one son, at least one cat at any given time, a changing variety of other furred and scaled companions, a love of all things beautiful and a terrible addiction to the consumption of both knowledge and chocolate.