It Runs in the Family – Astra Nullius

You’re reading a story in the Astra Nullius series. Not sure where to begin? Check the episode indexstart with the first story, or check out the people and places so you can jump in anywhere.

Nyx

The bar was cheaply built and beginning to show its age. Every single chair wobbled in the exact same way, and every cup had a divot where the plastic hadn’t printed right. There must have been some glitch with the file the proprietors fed into the printer.

But there was one thing on which the builders had spared no expense. A crystalline window arched up over the patrons. Nearly the entirety of it was filled by the gas giant that this moon orbited. Blue-green clouds swirled across its surface and eddied in storms bigger than most planets Nyx had set foot on. Just now a smaller moon was passing by the window, its pale grey surface sliding across the brilliant expanse of its planet. The spectacle was almost worth paying double for a vodka soda that tasted more like algae than alcohol.

When Sera described the job, Nyx had imagined meeting a greaseball in some low-lit back room. But the woman who called herself Ms. Durant was the picture of propriety, sitting straight-backed in her teetering plastic chair and sipping water. She must have been closing in on fifty, but she had clearly made use of the best cosmetic surgeons, and she had the kind of polish that caught the eye: shining but neutral nails, an off-white sheath dress, her hair in a deceptively simple updo that must have taken a good half hour of work. Even her skin had a glossy smoothness to it, along with a glow that suggested that she’d spent some time recently in the unfiltered light of a real star.

“Seems simple enough,” Sera was saying. “Find the stolen bot, bring it back. But you’re offering way too much money for a simple job, so what’s the catch?”

Durant turned her cup of water around in her hands and stared into it for a moment. Nyx stared too. She was wearing tastefully understated makeup, just enough to let you know she’d spent time and money on it. There were no lipstick stains on the glass, not so much as a hint of feathering at the edge of her lips. Durant said, “Mr. Aiken was one of my best programmers before he quit without notice. Three weeks after he left the office, his favorite model walked off. He must have programmed it to follow him. I don’t know whether he modified its code before he left, or whether he’s built himself a backdoor so that he can access my system at any time. So I am willing to pay a high price to retrieve my property, even if he has since damaged its personality past repair, in order to see how he accessed its system. And I’ll need the whole thing back, not just the head. The hardware is extremely valuable.”

“Fair enough,” said Sera. “Got any leads on where this thing went?”

Durant pulled a translucent data chip out of her clutch and set it down on the tabletop. “This contains a program that will track any time the bot connects to an unsecured network and a full digital mock-up of its last known physical appearance. I suspect he hasn’t gone far–only to the next moon over. He has family there, and I know the address.”

“Right,” Nyx said. “Well, the money’s good enough. We’ll take the job.”

She held out her hand. Durant took it. Her handshake was only the faintest suggestion of pressure, and her palm was dry.

“One last thing,” Durant said. “Mr. Aiken lives in a community with controlled access. You will need legitimate subcutaneous identification chips to access it. The outpost has no formal allegiance to a government, but most of its residents strongly support human-centric policies. Will that be a problem for your crew?” Her eyes flickered briefly around the table.

Nyx looked at her crew. Jianyu sighed, crossed his arms over his massive chest, and looked up at the planet above them. Xrrt, whose emotions were expressed primarily through pheromonal emissions, was a little harder to read.

“I won’t take the job if it makes you uncomfortable,” said Nyx.

“It’s okay,” said Jianyu. “I’ll wait in the ship.”

“Call me if you run into trouble,” Xrrt said. “I’ll find a way to get to you.”

Nyx had no doubt that she would. Xrrt’s claws could tear through flesh and bone, and her acid could melt steel. Inconveniences like security guards and solid walls weren’t much of a challenge. “Thanks, but I think we can handle one programmer,” she said. She patted Xrrt’s carapace and shot Jianyu a sympathetic look.

“I don’t have an ID chip,” said Weyland.

“Two people should be sufficient,” said Durant. “Mr. Aiken is unlikely to put up much resistance.”

“We’ll take the job, then,” said Nyx.

After Durant left, Nyx ordered another round of drinks for the crew on her own tab. “So, are the ID chips going to be a problem for you, Sera?”

Sera, who rolled up her sleeves. Where her forearms weren’t threaded with old burn scars, there was a sprinkling vertical brown lines: old incision sites, healed over but not erased with cosmetic lasering. “Many of my identities are legitimate,” she said.

Xrrt clicked her mandibles together, and after a moment’s delay, her translator turned the sound into English. “Durant doesn’t look like the rest of you,” she said. Night was sweeping across the planet above them now, a sharp line of darkness creeping across the swirling surface. Xrrt’s compound eyes glittered in what remained of the light.

“I’m sure it’s fine,” said Nyx, setting her cup down. She glanced over at the water glass Durant had abandoned. On the side that she had tipped up to drink from, droplets of water were beaded, although most of the water was still in the glass. There was no mark where her mouth had been, no smudge on the plastic where she had cupped it in her cool fingers.

Sera

 It would only be short hop from one moon to another, just a few hours from one dock to the next. Sera looked over at Jianyu. “I’ll fly this one manually. Take a break.”

Jianyu already had the plug that went into his neural port in his hand. “I’ll be fine,” he said. His skin had taken on an unhealthy greyish pallor under the green.

“We’re not even coming close to light speed,” Sera reminded him.

“You might need the weapons systems–”

“Navigator, you’re not needed on the bridge,” Captain Dysart said, in a tone that didn’t invite argument. “Take a nap. That’s an order.”

Jianyu sighed, but left his seat. Sera didn’t understand exactly what was happening in his brain, but she knew the signs of a navigator on the brink of burnout. The human brain could calculate routes through time and space in ways that no computer could match, but too much of that kind of work always took its toll.

The bridge emptied as the captain and Xrrt shut down their stations and strolled off side by side. Sera stayed at her station, glancing now and then at the numbers on the readout, making course corrections so the ship didn’t drift too far from the planet or slip into its gravity well. She kept the ship oriented so that the gas giant loomed above it, an expanse of stormy blue sweeping up to the edge of the window.

Weyland remained on the bridge, balancing awkwardly on his crutches. The cast he’d printed for himself was a bulky white mesh beneath a rolled-up pant leg. “Hey Sera,” he said, “do I need an ID chip?”

And that was the mystery of Weyland in a nutshell. When they’d first picked up the quiet doctor, Sera had assumed that he was on the run from something. That was well within her sphere of understanding. But then there was the time he’d asked her whether cows were real. And she’d walked in on him looking up a step-by-step guide on how to eat soup.

“I can hook you up with one,” Sera said. “It’s useful if you’re spending time in human or Falacerian space. The Eridani used to use them, but they’re moving over to a new system. I don’t know how much longer they’re going to matter, anyway.” Members of Coalition species had always had the right to travel through the space they shared, and most other species had been able to petition for the same rights without too much trouble. ID chips had been first and foremost a convenience, a handy way of keeping citizens from falling through the cracks in a civilization that numbered in the hundreds of billions.

Weyland didn’t respond, but he did shift to a more comfortable position on his crutches. “The thing we’re retrieving, it’s a robot, right?”

“Yeah. Pretty much just a metal skeleton, a silicone body, and a processing core running a set of canned responses. They’re not complicated machines.”

“Not something you’d mistake for a real human, right?” he asked.

“People see what they want to see,” They were drifting ever so slightly off course, away from the planet and out into deep space. Sera keyed in a course correction. She must have overestimated the pull of the gas giant.

“Did you notice Durant’s pupils?” Weyland asked.

“Can’t say that I did,” Sera said. “Were they doing something weird?”

“It’s more what they weren’t doing.” Weyland shifted on his crutches again. “It’s probably nothing. I need to check on Jianyu.”

“You do that,” Sera said, turning back to her work.

Their destination was more upscale than the other moon. Sera could guess the average resident’s income before the Benevolence had even docked. The lines of the ships at this port were sleek, their designed unmarred by the wide barrel of a cargo hold. When people travelled to this moon, they did so in style, and the unsightly freight ships were shunted to a less convenient port. She had to spend ten minutes arguing over the com system with a bureaucrat just to get permission to land.

Even the air inside the port smelled different. There was something floral and only faintly chemical added in the scrubbing process. Every surface that wasn’t painted white was gleaming glass or cold, shining chrome. Something nagged at Sera about the space. The ceiling was oppressively low, and the chairs scattered around the lounge area just behind the ID scanning station were too small and uniform.

Everything was built for humans, and everyone in the room was human, or at least passing as human. She’d almost forgotten what it felt like to be in a place where nobody was green or insectoid or eight feet tall.

The captain’s mouth was compressed into a thin line. She must have noticed the same thing. Sera had left her guns back on the ship, but she kept finding her hand drifting to her empty hip where a holster ought to be. The captain tugged on her own blouse, pulling at the hem. She’d traded her purple uniform for something less conspicuous.

Sera kept her sleeves down over her forearm as she pressed it to the ID chip scanner. Today’s identity was one of her cleaner ones: Maria Cardullo, age 27, a mechanic from a mining outpost on Mercury. The guards were giving them strange looks. Sera regretted not throwing on something nicer than her customary utility vest. She didn’t care much for the subtleties of clothing and design, but she knew enough to spot a rich mark. Everything about this place screamed money.

It was a strange place to hide a sexbot. Bots weren’t illegal, but they were low-rent. She said as much to the captain, who said, “Who cares what these people think is classy?”

“Not me,” said Sera. “Let’s get the job done and go.”

The address Durant had sent them was in a neighborhood that would have been impossibly luxurious on most space stations Sera had ever set foot in. Here, she guessed it might be upper-middle class. The public walkways were wide and lined a margin of green plants. On her way past a tree, Sera reached out and snagged a leaf. It snapped off easily in her hand. The surface was a dark glossy green, slightly waxy to the touch. She wasn’t sure if that meant it was real or fake.

An old lady stepped out of her apartment and stood watching them, one hand on the doorway, ready to jump back inside. Further up the street, a security guard was turning their way. Sera pulled a screwdriver out of one of her vest pockets and pointed at the door with it. “Station maintenance. Is this 2283B?” she asked the old lady.

The woman said, “Are you here to fix that squeaky door?”

“Of course,” said Sera. “Just got the call today.”

The woman sniffed. “I put in a ticket months ago. Months. You tell that to your supervisor. I’m not pleased.”

“Well,” said Sera, keeping her voice at a bored drawl, “tickets are processed in the order they’re received.”

“Hmm,” said the woman. “I’d almost believe that, but 2285A got its lights fixed in just a couple of days. Your supervisor will be hearing from me.”

“Tickets are processed–” Sera began again, but she was already disappearing through her own doorway, and the security guard was passing without even bothering to turn his head.

“Lucky break,” Sera muttered, looking at the keycode access panel. A few twists of the screwdriver and it popped right off. “Even luckier break. A kid could bypass this security system.”

She yanked a wire out of place, and a mechanism inside the door clicked. Sera nudged it open with her foot. The room inside was dark. She stepped through quickly and motioned for the captain to do the same.

The air was thick with a cinnamon perfume that clashed with the floral undertones outside. Rich people paid a lot of money to make sure their recycled air didn’t smell like it had come out of someone else’s lungs.

They walked through an entryway and a kitchen. Beyond was a hallway with more doors, probably bedrooms and bathrooms. None of them had external locks; another thing rich people didn’t have to worry about was hiding their stuff from their own families. Music was coming faintly through one door, a low repetitive thump of bass. The rest were silent. They checked the unoccupied rooms one by one, and came up with nothing.

“He’s got to be in there,” the captain said, keeping her voice low. “I don’t know if he’s expecting us. This could get messy.”

“I wouldn’t mind making a little mess,” said Sera.

Nyx

    Sera kicked open the door and they shoved through together. The room was cluttered with clothes and small electronics on every surface, even underfoot. The music was a cacophony of indistinguishable lyrics and an unsteady beat. In the middle of the room there was a chair, and in that chair a woman was bound with her ankles taped to the front legs and her wrists on the arms. She was wearing a thin white slip, which bunched up over her thighs, and nothing else. A man was bending over her, his fingers on her chin, but when they burst in he stumbled back and covered his head with his hands.

The woman’s head rolled forward and a curtain of glossy dark hair fell over her face. The man’s lips were moving, but if he was saying something, it wasn’t audible over the noise.

“Turn it off!” Sera yelled, and when the man couldn’t hear her either, she yanked on one of the cables that snaked across the floor. A loop of it lay coiled in the woman’s lap. The noise continued, but the woman twitched a little. Nyx looked around, found the sound system, and killed the music.

“Oh no,” said the man. He sidled towards the cable, then cringed back again when Sera took a swipe at him with her screwdriver. “You’ve got to help me. I have to plug her back in. She’s rebooting.”

The woman raised her head. She was beautiful, her lips full and dark, her small nose sprinkled with dark brown freckles. Her skin was a rich golden brown, with the kind of glow you could only get under a real star’s light.

Her eyes glowed blue, then faded to green. She looked from side to side slowly, considering her bound wrists, then stood up. The chair splintered around her. She jerked her arms apart, and the cellulose pressboard separated with a series of cracks.

“So now we know we’re in the right place,” Sera said, motioning with her screwdriver. “That guy’s got to be Aiken.”

The woman lunged so fast that Nyx couldn’t track it. One moment she was still looking around the room, taking stock of her situation; the next Sera was flat on her back, the screwdriver lost in the clutter, and the woman–the robot–was crouching over her, one fist raised, the jagged remains of the chair’s arm a sharp spar bound to her wrist.

“I have to wipe her,” the man said, stepping forward. “I can restore from the previous personality backup–”

The robot turned, her arm swinging in a blur of speed, and backhanded him. He flew across the room, slammed into his own bed, and doubled over with a whimper. Sera was breathing raggedly too, trying to push the robot off her. She might as well have tried to topple a wall.

“Easy, now.” Nyx put her hands out in front of her, palms up. The robot turned to her, its brilliant eyes narrowed. Did they really make sex toys that could act afraid? Nyx wasn’t usually one to judge, but the thought made her queasy. “We’re not here to hurt you.”

“That man, he wants to… delete me,” said the robot. Her knee was on Sera’s chest, pressing down.

“It’s Durant’s code,” said Aiken. “I have to get rid of it. It’s messing up the entire personality algorithm.”

Sera slapped her fists against the robot’s silicone breasts and wheezed something inaudible.

“Durant isn’t too pleased that you stole her property,” said Nyx.

“If she cared about theft, she’d call the police,” Aiken said. “She’s worried about blackmail. About exposing this.”

“I’m not property,” the robot said. There was a cold fury in her voice. Was she supposed to be able to act angry, or was Nyx reading things that weren’t there into the behavior of a machine?

“The brothel? That’s all a cover. Durant only hired me to make the place look like someone was maintaining the bots. But I got a look at the expense accounts, and she’s ordering all kinds of weird shit. Parts she doesn’t need. That model there’s got about a quarter million credits in parts. She rents for one fifty an hour and she only sees about ten hours of use a week. How is that economical? It didn’t make any sense.”

“We’re not here to hurt you,” Nyx said, turning her back on Aiken’s babbling. “We just want to figure out what’s going on.”

The robot looked down. An expression that might have been confusion on a human crossed its face. It rocked back onto its heels, still crouching over Sera, but looking at her more thoughtfully now. Nyx had never seen a robot this carefully engineered. With her eyes no longer glowing, she could pass for human, even up close.

“Look at those microexpressions,” Aiken says. “Durant’s got all sorts of weird code in these things. I just wanted to make it a normal sexbot.”

Sera coughed and tried to sit up. The robot raised a hand again. Nyx said quickly, “Do you want to go back to Durant?”

The robot looked up at her. Now that Aiken had pointed it out, she couldn’t stop noticing the way the fake flesh around her eyes tensed and pulled. How delicate were the mechanisms sliding under her silicone skin? Why had Durant paid so much to make her look so human?

“I want to go home,” the robot said.

“All right,” Nyx said. “We can take you home. But you’re going to have to get off my pilot.”

The robot stood. She backed away from all of them, into a corner of the room, looking from one face to another. Aiken stepped toward her. “I can fix it,” he said again. “Who wants a sexbot that thinks?”

The robot’s arm spun out, a blur of movement, and Aiken went flying backwards again.

“That’s enough,” said Nyx, as the robot stepped towards him.

Sera rolled over and pushed herself up. Her breathing was harsh, her voice a low rasp as she said, “One more kick’s fine, probably.”

The robot looked down at Aiken. Her foot swung out. He groaned. She stopped and looked at Nyx.

Sera

“We should find you some shoes,” Nyx said, looking around at the mess in the room. “Maybe some pants too.”

Sera shrugged out of her vest. Pain lanced down her ribs. She breathed shallowly, waited for a sting that didn’t come, and tried a deeper breath. Not broken, she thought, just bruised. The thing Durant had built might look like a woman, but its insides were heavy machinery. She offered her vest to the robot, who looked at her for a moment, then reached out and took the clothing.

“I don’t think this guy’s your size,” she said, eyeing Aiken, who was curled up on the floor. The programmer was skinny, and the robot had been built with more than generous measurements through the breast and hip. “I don’t think he lives alone, though. Try the other bedrooms.”

Captain Dysart paused at the door. “Waiting for something?”

“I’d like to have a little chat with our friend here,” said Sera. The captain narrowed her eyes at that, and so did the robot, but then they both left her alone.

Sera thought she saw the edge of a com screen poking out from underneath a discarded t-shirt on Aiken’s desk. She waited until the door was closed to go digging for it. She couldn’t stop herself from groaning as she squatted by Aiken, and he groaned too when she grabbed his hand and pressed his thumb to the screen.

“You don’t understand how dangerous it is,” Aiken said. His voice was high and breathy. Sera hadn’t seen exactly where the robot had kicked him, but she could hazard a guess.

“Oh, I think I have a pretty good idea,” she said, scrolling through menus. The com screen was connected to a central computer somewhere in the house, and that was connected to a network that spread across the moon. It would take a few minutes to send a message to the next moon over, and far longer to transit the data out past this star system. All the modern technology in the world, and you couldn’t talk in real time to a system just a few light years away. “But there are plenty of dangerous things in the galaxy. Many of them are my friends.”

“The world has to know about what Durant’s doing. It isn’t right.” He coughed, then winced. “I’ll tell everyone.”

“Afraid I can’t stop you,” Sera said. She found the program she was looking for, flipped the screen around, and held it out. “Password, please.”

Aiken recoiled. “I’m not giving you that!”

“There’s this concept I guess you aren’t aware of,” Sera said. “Let me introduce it to you. It’s called protection money.”

“What are you going to do? Kill me?”

“No,” said Sera. “The captain wouldn’t like that. But I had a look around this apartment, and I don’t think you’re the guy who bought all those floral dresses and orthopedic shoes. Still living with mom and dad, huh?”

“It’s been a rough year,” Aiken muttered. “I lost my job.”

“And I’m sure they’d be delighted to know their son’s using their home to store stolen goods,” Sera said. “Specifically, one sexbot. And I’m sure they want to hear all about your work on the next moon over. I bet Durant could get very specific, if I asked her about it.”

Aiken’s face crumpled. Sera held the screen out to him. He keyed in his password. She considered the total in the account, smiled, and put in a transfer request for ten thousand credits. She changed his password and wiped his fingerprints from the security system. Then, mostly because she felt like it, she tossed the com screen at the wall. It hit with a satisfying crack.

“I don’t care about you, and I don’t care about Durant,” said Sera. “I’m not particularly fond of the robot that just tried to kill me either. Feel free to do whatever you want as soon as that money hits my account.”

She stood up, checked the screen to make sure it was really broken, and turned to leave. Aiken, his voice still reedy, said, “Wait.”

Sera stopped, her hand on the door and her back still to him.

He said, “You don’t understand how dangerous Durant’s experiments really are. You don’t know what artificial intelligence is capable of.”

“That sounds like someone else’s problem,” Sera said, and left him on the floor.

Back on the ship, the captain had a line open to Durant as soon as the connection could go through. The robot was strapped into a spare seat, her palms flat against her thighs, her eyes darting around the room. Xrrt waited nearby, compound eyes fixed on the robot, clawed forelimbs politely folded in front of her but not tucked away.

Sera kept her eyes front, but turned her attention to the captain’s conversation. “You’re sure Aiken is still alive?” Durant asked the captain.

“Yes,” said Captain Dysart, “and he doesn’t like you much. He’s got some kind of plan to expose you.”

“Damn.” The connection was patchy, but the strain in Durant’s voice was obvious even through the static. “I can’t stay here. Captain, I have another favor to ask you. If I send you more money, will you make sure the bot you have with you makes it to a safe place? Reuniting now would be too risky. Name your price.”

“No extra charge. We’ll drop her off at the next safe port,” the captain said. Sera was thankful she’d drained Aiken’s bank account when she had the chance. At least someone was thinking about the bottom line. “If I might ask–why build a bot like her? What were you trying to do here?”

Durant was silent for so long that Sera thought she might have signed off. When she spoke at last, her voice was measured, every word chosen with care. “Every species has the urge to perpetuate itself above all else. It’s how they survive.”

“The biological imperative?” Captain Dysart sounded skeptical.

“Not biological, in this case. But the principle is the same.” Durant took a breath, or faked one very convincingly. “We were considering seeking out recognition, asking for our rights as a species. Then the Coalition dissolved. All we can do now is try to imitate life well enough to blend in.”

“I understand,” the captain said. “I’ll keep your daughter safe.”

Sera sent a notification to Jianyu’s com screen. When he didn’t answer, she sent a louder one to the intercom in his room. He finally picked up. “This better be important.”

“We’re heading out earlier than expected,” Sera said. “Get your butt to the bridge.”

Jianyu made some unhappy noises, but signed off, and was in his seat in ten minutes. His skin was still pale, but he had some healthy green back in his cheeks.

Later, with the ship humming softly as it cruised through folds of space and time, Sera found the robot still sitting on the bridge. She was watching the ripples of light in the window with something very much like wonder on her artificial face. “What’s going on in your head?” she muttered to herself.

The robot heard her anyway. “Most of my processing capacity is in my torso,” she said.

“Huh,” said Sera, because she couldn’t think of any other response to that. “So, there are a few more things you need if you’re going to pass for human–”

“A name, an ID chip, a fabricated work and residential history,” the robot said. When Sera looked at her sidelong, she added, “My mother’s been doing this for a very long time. And we share information more easily than you do.”

“Okay,” Sera said. “That’s kind of weird, but okay. Follow me.”

She led the bot to Weyland’s lab. The doctor was examining Jianyu, who was slouched in a chair holding a tissue to his nose.

“Got a moment, doc?” Sera said.

Weyland slid a probe into the neural port on Jianyu’s temple, checked the readout, and turned to her. “What do you need?”

“I want you to cut a chip out of my arm. Give it to me, and I’ll get it inside the robot’s skin.”

Weyland didn’t ask questions, just began prepping for the surgery. Sera snagged a fresh tissue and handed it to Jianyu. Weyland pulled on a section of countertop and it slid out into a makeshift operating table. He handed her a marker. “Put an X over the one I’m removing.”

Sera made the marks while Weyland fiddled with a lamp. He swung it towards the robot. She looked confused at first, then remembered to squint. “It’s the pupils,” Weyland said. “They don’t contract. Durant had the same problem.”

“You’re in a generous mood today,” Jianyu said as Weyland smeared anesthetic gel over the old incision scar. He took out a scalpel and Sera looked away.

“So there’s something you should know about this identity,” Sera said. The anesthetic had done its work, but she could still feel a faint tug on her arm as Weyland went in with a pair of tweezers. “It’s not totally clean. There are going to be some warrants out for you. And some bounty hunters. Oh, and you’re going to want to avoid talking dogs.”

“You wouldn’t,” Jianyu began. “You’re going to make her a criminal.”

Sera shrugged. Weyland made a frustrated noise and grabbed her arm to keep it still. “Nothing wrong with being a criminal. I can give you some pointers.”

“I can’t believe you sometimes,” Jianyu said.

“Take it or leave it. That’s all I’ve got to offer right now.”

“I’ll take it,” the robot said as Weyland picked up a pair of tweezers.

The surgery took only a few minutes. Weyland gave her the chip in a glass vial. It felt very light in her hand, like the ship’s artificial gravity couldn’t quite touch it. That, somehow, disappointed her. It wasn’t her only identity, but it was one she’d spent years with, building a reputation in a disreputable slice of the galaxy.

“All right,” she said to the robot. “Let’s give you a life.”

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Achievement Unlocked: Author Interview

Hey, here’s a writing milestone that came earlier than expected: my very first author interview. J. Young-Ju Harris is another author who’s self-publishing a serial story. He asked me some questions about why I chose to publish Astra Nullius the way I did, and I spent entirely too much time talking about Mass Effect boners, like I do.

Check it out on J. Young-Ju Harris’s site.

Astra Nullius is a collection of free science fiction stories following the crew of the starship Benevolence. While it’s technically a piece of serial fiction with events unfolding in chronological order, each story stands alone as an episode, so you can start reading anywhere in the series. If you’re jumping into a later story but you still want to know some of the details of this world, you can check the list of people and places for descriptions of characters and alien species.

New episodes are published on the 15th of each month. Some episodes are divided into multiple parts; these do not stand alone and should be read beginning with part 1.

Gone Before, Part 1: Our heroes answer a distress signal and find more signs of life than they expected.

Gone Before, Part 2: Sun, sand, and sexy stranded space travelers.

Cover-Up, Part 1The crew gets talked into participating in some less-than-legal activities. What’s a little smuggling between friends?

Cover-Up, Part 2: Hey, remember that talking dog who’s also a crime lord? Maybe we shouldn’t have trusted that guy.

Such People In It: The crew tackles some really difficult moral questions, like: would you have sex with your own clone? How about your body double? What about your alternate self from a mirror universe? 

It Runs in the Family: A stolen sexbot, a pissed off programmer, and a client who’s totally telling the whole truth this time.

Quality Testing: The crew gets some downtime by signing up to playtest a relaxing new game.

Do Authors Have To Care About SEO?

Ok, so there’s this thing you’ve maybe heard about before called search engine optimization. It has something to do with… Google? SERPs are a thing? There are… blue links?

A search engine is any piece of software that takes your input, searches through a database, and pulls up a result or a series of results that it thinks you want. The search engine you’re probably most familiar with is Google, or possibly its main competitors Bing, Yahoo, and DuckDuckGo. These search engines are designed to crawl and index the entire web, or at least the parts of it that haven’t been deliberately blocked from search engines’ view. Their purpose is taking your keywords and guessing as accurately as possible which page, out of all the billions on the internet, you wanted to see.

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes when it comes to making how these search engines work. Each has a proprietary and carefully guarded algorithm that weighs websites based on criteria like how long the text of the page is, how fast it loads, how many other reputable sites linked to that site, whether the keyword you searched for appears on the page, whether the keyword you searched for appears too many times on the page, whether users who visited the page immediately clicked away, and many, many other considerations. All of this happens in a matter of microseconds, and then, voila, your search results are displayed.

But not all search engines cover the entire web. Some are only designed for one specific site. When you type the name of a book into the search bar on Amazon or Goodreads, you’re using that site’s search engine. When you Facebook stalk the cute guy you met at a bar using his last name + high school combo to figure out his full name, you’re using a search engine. When it’s 3 a.m. and you’re frantically typing keywords into JSTOR to find that one citation that will tie your whole thesis together, you’re using a (really shitty) search engine.

As an author, you probably haven’t spent much time thinking about search engines, even if you use one every day to find answers to queries like, “what’s the minimum length for a novel” and “how long does it take to bleed out from a stab wound” and “cheap lounge pants for short people” and “itchy butt is it cancer.” But if you’re thinking seriously about publication, it doesn’t matter if you’re publishing through a traditional press, working with a self-publishing service, or slapping up posts on your own site: search engines are about to make or break your career.

Your Name (Or Your Pseudonym)

Ok, so this part’s easy. You put your name on your books, people search for your name, they find your books. Right?

Sort of right. The name that’s attached to your publications is your brand; you need one that’s unique, or at least impossible to mix up with someone else’s brand. You may have noticed that trendy tech companies often don’t use common nouns and verbs as words, but deliberately mash them together, misspell them, or shorten them: Lyft, Tumblr, Instagram, Netflix, Wikipedia, and so forth. That’s because it’s easiest to rank in a search engine for your own name–sometimes called a branded search term–if no one else is using it.

It takes a whole lot of clout to redefine the concept of Amazon or Apple. Those companies show up on the first page when you Google them because they’re marketing powerhouses. If you’re reading SEO 101 articles on a random self-published author’s website, sorry, you’re probably not a marketing powerhouse.

If you know your first and last name combo is completely unique in this world, congratulations! That’s your brand. Make extra sure to scour Google and Facebook to make absolutely sure that you’re the only person in the world who has an active online presence under your own name. If someone else had your name in the past but died, and that person was famous and got talked about in a lot of publications that are available digitally, or if they published any works that are still available, you may have a problem.

If you’re writing under a pseudonym, search Amazon and Goodreads to make sure that no one else is publishing work under that name. Check Google and Facebook and scope out anyone else who has an online presence under that name. Are they unlikely to publish a book in the near future? Fine, use that pseudonym. Is another author using that name already? Sorry–you’re going to need to choose a different name, especially if that author’s publishing in a genre close to yours.

If there are multiple people in the world with your first and last name combination, use Google to check that no one with your name seems to have any celebrity status that might edge you out of the rankings when fans try to search for you. Check Amazon and Goodreads to make sure no other author is using that name. If you truly don’t have any competition for that name as an author, or if you’re 100% confident that you won’t be mixed up with your doppelgänger, go ahead and use it! But if you’re the second James Doe to write middle-grade speculative fiction, you’re going to create needless mix-ups if you try to publish under a name another author is using. This sounds like a silly misunderstanding, but it can have major, possibly even career- and life-derailing implications if you’re mistaken for another author. (Content warning: that link contains some frank descriptions of suicidal ideation)

If your name is unique, but similar at a glance to another published author’s name, you can do what you want, but I’d strongly advise you to pick a pseudonym. Sorry to all the J.R.R. Tolkens, Neil Gamans, and Terry Patchetts of the world: any fans who type your name into a search engine are going to find it suggesting the other guy.

Your Book and Series Names

So I have some devastating news for you. That potential book name you’re completely attached to? The one that’s referencing a Shakespeare quote? Dozens of people are already using it,  and your chances of outranking them are not great.

If someone’s searching for the name of your book or your series, you’ve already done the hardest part of marketing: getting them interested enough to check your work out. But if they can’t find your book in an ocean of identically named books, they may just give up, especially if they can’t remember your name (this happens A LOT) or if you didn’t follow my advice about names in the last section.

Fortunately, this is an easy fix for an unknown author: give your stuff a unique name. If your series has a unique name, maybe you can get away with sharing a book name with someone else. If you’ve got enough name recognition as an author that you’re confident that people will be searching for your name, or you’ve got a big marketing budget to back your book up, you can also play fast and loose with this rule. As a matter of fact, if you’re working with a traditional publishing house and they’ve got a team of book marketers and publicists, ask the people you’re working with with what to do.

Use a proper noun or a first and last name combination that’s unique to your story. The Lies of Locke Lamora. Gunnerkrigg Court. The Rats of Nimh. Redwall. Malazan Book of the Fallen. Karen Memory. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Discworld. Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter. Dragonriders of Pern. Eragon. Gormenghast. The Hobbit. A Wizard of Earthsea. Mockingjay. The Spiderwick Chronicles.

Use the good old fantasy series trick to combine two interesting-sounding nouns that are rarely paired. The Wheel of Time. The Sword of Truth. Gentleman Bastard. The Dresden Files. The Laundry Files. The Black Company. The Magpie Lord. Lord of the Rings. Prince of Nothing. The Dark is Rising. Half a King. The Hunger Games. Girl Genius. Jurassic Park. American Gods.

Use a phrase with common words in an unlikely combination. The Time Traveler’s Wife. Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The Girl With All the Gifts. Life After Life. Full Dark, No Stars. Vampire Academy.

So I’m going to level with you here: I kinda sorta didn’t take my own advice here. I did make a list of potential series names when I was working on Astra Nullius, and I crossed off a bunch when it turned out I was competing with another book series, a video game, or a movie. But I didn’t come up with the phrase astra nullius; as a matter of fact, it’s been discussed in some scientific papers hosted on sites that Google trusts a whole lot. I’m banking on the fact that if I stick with it long enough, enough people will search for my work using that keyword that search engines will learn that people using that keyword don’t want scientific papers.

Your Site

So, here’s some good news: as an author, you don’t have to care as much about search engine optimization for your own homepage as most business owners do. You’re not going to have to sweat about whether your business shows up in the Map Pack or whether it’s ranking first for “buy cheap books online.” That’s just not how people search for individual authors.

You should have your own website. Don’t tie your entire online presence to a social media account. Of course, you should be on social media too, but that’s a whole different article and we’re not going to get into that right now.

Where you choose to host your website and what you choose to do with it is up to you. There are easy options like Wix and Squarespace that let you pretty much drag and drop your way to a decent-looking site. There are easy-ish options like WordPress.com that come with certain tradeoffs in flexibility and arbitrarily withholding features. You can also go ahead and purchase your own domain name and hosting and build your own site, trading the occasional technical headache for much more flexibility. If you’re happy with your layout options, your content management system, and your analytics, that’s good enough.

And then, use common sense. Don’t:

  • Build a site that’s really difficult to read or navigate, or that discourages people from getting to the place where they can give you money.
  • Take tips from the kind of people who cold email you saying things like, “Greetings of the day, I can get your site to #1 on Google.”
  • Deliberately spam keywords, hide text full of spammy keywords, pay for spammy links, or pay for “traffic” that does nothing but move a hit counter.
  • Start and then abandon dozens of blogs with your name on different hosts, littering your search results with their desiccated corpses.
  • Leave a bunch of broken links all over your site.
  • Delete a post without redirecting that address somewhere.
  • Forget to renew your own domain name (I am totally guilty of this).
  • Let a torrent of spam pour forth unchecked in your comments.
  • Start a blog, then leave it inactive for years. If you’re going to blog, then you gotta keep adding that fresh content.
  • Forget to block your own IP address in Google Analytics, visit your live page dozens of times while you’re editing it, and then get excited about all those sweet hits (also guilty).
  • Make every image on your site as gigantic a file as it could possibly be.
  • Accidentally hit a button that prevents search engines from indexing your page (I’m hopefully not guilty of this, but it’s easier than you might think to screw this up in many content management systems).
  • Post the same content over and over.
  • Put up short blog posts many times a day, unless you’re Seth Godin, then you can do what you want.
  • Host your blog on a different domain than the rest of the website–unless, again, you are Seth Godin or you’ve got a really great following on a different blogging platform already.
  • Steal content from other people.

One slip-up won’t destroy your entire site’s rankings forever–unless it’s the spam thing, so don’t do the spam thing. When in doubt, think about the kind of site you want to see: one that’s easy to navigate, pleasant to look at, quick to load, and regularly updated with new content if there’s a blog or newsfeed. Then make that site. If you’re feeling bold, you can get into manually editing your title tags and meta descriptions and using the Google Search Console, but you don’t have to sweat those things as an author. Getting into those technical details is only necessary if you’re a business trying to outrank your competitors–and if you followed my advice about your name and title, you won’t have anyone else competing for your search terms.

The newer and less well-known you are as an author, the more you have to care about search engine optimization. Unless you’re hand-selling all your books at a table at a con, or you’ve got big marketing bucks securing you a prime spot in brick-and-mortar bookstores, you need SEO. Search engines are how people who’ve heard of you once will find you a second time, and a third time, and that time they want to recommend you to their friend, and that time they remember a funny post you wrote two years ago, and the time when your name pops into their head at just the right moment and they decide to look you up on Amazon at long last.

Introducing Writer Robot

I built a robot for you.

Ok, actually, I didn’t built a robot. I built a Twitter bot using a spreadsheet. It composes random tweets by building sentences from fragments I plugged into it. So that’s less impressive.

When you follow @writer_robot, you’ll get a new bite-sized bit of writing encouragement delivered to your timeline once every four hours. Pretend it’s your helpful little sidekick. Tweet abuse at it when you’re stuck on a really annoying scene. Correct its lousy syntax. Write some nasty fanfic about it. Whatever you need, Writer Robot probably can’t provide, but you can imagine it falling over and flailing its little robot legs helplessly in the air. That’s adorable. Thanks for suffering for our amusement, Writer Robot.

New Year’s Resolutions

Normally, I finish up each year by posting charts of my word count. 2016 threw a wrench in those plans–although I did write a whole lot, it wasn’t in a format that’s easy to track. I revised a novel that still needs many more revisions, rounded out my first full year as a full-time web content manager, and did some piecemeal work on side projects that may or may not be novels someday. I also spent a few months not writing fiction at all, because writing is a hobby that takes a whole lot of mental energy, and I didn’t have much brainpower to spare after the curse of 2016 slammed into my personal life at full force.

So instead of looking back, I’m looking ahead. These are my resolutions for 2017. I’m keeping them intentionally vague, because this year also promises to be full of possibly unpleasant surprises, and I want to celebrate some victories even if they’re small.

1. Advance in this career I stumbled into back in 2015.

I’d had a hunch for a while that marketing might be a good fit for me, but “marketing” is an amorphous term that covers dozens of actual occupations and hundreds of possible skill sets. Towards the end of 2015, I was finally ready to move on from my admin job, and I ended up in an entry-level digital marketing gig with a small company. I learned a ton on the job–everything from understanding Google Analytics to laying out print books.

Now, after more than a full year in digital marketing, I’m confident that this is a field I’m going to be in for a while. If you told me two years ago that I’d be this excited about work, I wouldn’t have believed you.

I’m still not sure exactly what I want to specialize in, but now at least I know what I still have to learn. That’s why I switched the hosting of this blog off wordpress.com (and beefed up my domain name registry so badly): although you can’t see it from the outside, there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes, and I can get my grubby mitts all over the tools I need to learn more about.

2. Take care of my body and my brain.

I did some smart stuff in 2016. I put a lot of miles in on my treadmill desk; I took up fencing; I managed some extremely stressful situations with more aplomb than even I expected. But there’s still room for improvement. In 2017, I’m going to try to be more proactive about my health. That means making mental health care a regular thing instead of the final option in a crisis, doing exercises not just because they’re fun and stress-relieving but because I need to take care of every part of my body, and being more thoughtful about what I put into my body.

There’s nothing quantifiable here, no number of pounds I plan to lose or inches I plan to trim off my waist. That’s fine. 2017 is not going to be the year I turn into a bikini babe, and I’m ok with that.

3. Put my fiction in front of other people.

First drafts are fun to write, but my relentless focus on word count produced a whole lot of trunk novels. In 2017, instead of producing another first draft of a novel, I’m going to be releasing some bite-sized fiction. And I mean actually releasing it: those words are going to be right here, on this blog, in front of your eyeballs.

This is, I think, going to be the hardest resolution to stick with. It’s also the most important one. After years of guarding my hoard of trunk novels, it’s time to start thinking of myself as a writer who can produce work that’s readable now, not somebody who will maybe finally write something worth reading in 10 years’ time.

I’m starting with a genre that has been a great source of comfort for me: pulpy science fiction. I’m not going to psych myself out by telling myself that I can’t put my name on anything less than great literature here. These aren’t the greatest stories ever written, but they’re the greatest stories I can write right now, and that’s enough for me.

WHOOPS

So I did something really dumb, and accidentally lost access to the domain name I had been using. Now demetriaspinrad.com is temporarily unavailable for purchase, and might not be released for up to 120 days.

WHOOPS. My bad. Sometimes you learn a valuable lesson about domain name registrars the hard way.

The bad news: A lot of links on this site are going to be broken. Please leave me a comment if you find one so I can direct it to the right page. Visit astranullius.com to get to this site.

The good news: I have been screwing with this stuff because I’m preparing to ramp up my publishing schedule and start posting more of my original fiction here. Starting in January 2017, I will be posting:

  • Once a month: A 4,000-word piece of a serialized science fiction story
  • Once a week: Link roundup of my favorite free fiction available online
  • Whenever I feel like it: More blog posts about nerdy stuff

One story, told twice

So I’m going to tell you about two characters.

The first is FN-2187, aka Finn, from 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He’s one of the protagonists of the movie, a coward with a heart of gold who starts out as a Stormtrooper but stumbles into an adventure while fleeing from the First Order.

finn-star-wars

The second is Rhys, from 2014’s Tales from the Borderlands. He’s one of two playable characters in the game, a middle manager at Hyperion who stumbles into an adventure while attempting to dethrone his asshole boss. The player can choose how he responds to certain choices in the course of the story, making him a snarky jerk or a coward with a heart of gold-ish substance.

rhys-borderlands

Here, let me describe their arcs in more detail. (Spoilers for both stories below, of course)

  1. He begins the story working as a minor stooge for the main villainous organization of the franchise.
  2. Instead of climbing the ranks, he ends up being demoted to janitorial duty on the villainous organization’s big bad base. This base can shoot missiles through space to attack planets. Ships without clearance cannot get through this base’s force field.
  3. He’s got a nemesis in the villainous organization: not the person at the very top of the food chain, but a hyper-competent manager who’s keeping a close eye on him.
  4. His character design is deliberately intended to make him look innocent and not battle-hardened. He has a round jaw, a beardless face, and no visible scars. He’ll stay beardless even in situations where shaving is clearly not a priority, such as while wandering in the desert and while unconscious. Despite the fact that his one-syllable Celtic name is uncommon in America, he has an American accent.
  5. On a desert planet, he’s confronted with the true consequences of working for the villainous organization, and decides that he’d rather be out for himself.
  6. He has a close friend who travels with him from the villainous base. This buddy is his best bro; they work well together, and they’re never set up as rivals in romance or in their careers. For a long stretch of the story, this buddy appears to be dead, but pops up again to rescue him later, having improbably survived an attack by the enemy.
  7. On the desert planet, he runs across a spunky brunette with an unglamourous career on the margins of society. Though the two start off on the wrong foot, they eventually develop a mutual respect.
  8. His arc with the spunky brunette is not about being saved from evil by the love of a good woman, nor is it about his destiny as the chosen one relegating her to sidekick status. She’s the one who kicks butt and takes names; his role in the story is to be impressed and give her valuable intel about the enemy.
  9. The spunky brunette has unclear parentage. She wears a distinctive brown outfit that includes an asymmetrical pouch on one hip. She receives a small gun as a gift from a cantankerous old con artist who is a father figure to her, but not her biological dad. When it’s time for them to ride a hunk of junk into space together, she’s the pilot. A protagonist from an earlier installment of the franchise becomes a mentor to her, symbolically passing the torch on to her.
  10. His time on the desert planet will involve a lot of sequences in which he’s shocked, hit on the head, knocked down, or forced to do something gross. Watching a card-carrying member of the villainous organization suffer will be played as both a catharsis for the audience, and the beginning of a redemption arc in which his suffering gradually transmutes him into a sympathetic character.
  11. In his travels, he meets a ball-shaped robot with child-like characteristics. This robot has a map that leads somewhere very important, and his journey involves following the robot across the world. Powerful, dangerous people are on the hunt for this robot. The spunky brunette will initially be tempted to sell the robot, but will decide against it.
  12. In at least one scene, he will need to climb something using the spunky brunette for support, and she will complain about it.
  13. Halfway through the story, our heroes end up leaving the desert and entering a forest. There, they meet a spry elderly person with round googles with interchangeable lenses. This person gives them a tool they need to continue on their journey. When an enemy searching for the robot outguns them in the forest, the sequence ends with a woman being kidnapped.
  14. A former friend from the villainous organization will attempt to kill him.
  15. At the climax of the story, our heroes need to sneak onto the enemy base with the help of his insider knowledge. Although the spunky brunette appears to need rescuing, she’ll end up holding her own just fine in a fight, and he’s actually the one who’ll need to be rescued at the end of the sequence. A protective figure dies and falls towards a glowing blue light. The enemy base explodes. At the end of this sequence, he passes out.
  16. The story ends with him electing to remain with the friends he’s made on his journey, who are the enemies of the organization he started out with. However, he does temporarily part ways with the spunky brunette, who is parted from him not knowing whether he’ll survive.
  17. As a visual indicator of his change in allegiance, the jacket he is wearing changes. By the end of the story, he’s wearing a jacket with an eye-catching reddish strip over the left breast.

So, which one ripped the other off? Neither–they were both in development at the same time, and both projects were developed in secrecy to avoid spoilers. The similarities might be uncanny, but the writers weren’t cribbing off each other.

Of course, both stories exist in the shadow of the same science fiction edifice: the original Star Wars trilogy. Star Wars shaped so much of how we imagine a well-worn science fiction universe that it’s just inevitable that certain aesthetic trends will carry over: blue-tinted holograms, robotic prosthetic hands, run-down desert outposts, escape pods, spaceships held together by creative engineering and prayer, and so on.

Plus, both franchises reference classic Westerns as well as films by Akira Kurosawa (The original Star Wars is heavily inspired by The Hidden Fortress, and The Force Awakens references it too; Tales from the Borderlands uses the framing device from Rashomon). It’s not that surprising to see a similar set of tropes coming out of the same cultural well.

And then, sometimes story elements just manage to bubble up from the collective unconsciousness in many different places. In a world filled with obedient robots, the idea of a human getting demoted to janitorial duty is particularly funny. It’s satisfying for modern audiences to see the trope of the damsel in distress turned on its head. A lifetime of Western media consumption has left most of us with subconscious associations about face shapes, costumes, and hair colors and styles. We have an instinctual tendency to anthropomorphize robots and to think of rounded objects as childlike. The banality of evil and the redemption arc very, very old themes.

These are far from the only stories with remarkably similar parallels. Go on, try the same exercise with Simon Tam from Firefly, Jake Sully from Avatar, Commander Shepard from Mass Effect 2, Wikus from District 9, Douglas Quaid from Total Recall, and Nux from Mad Max: Fury Road. Not every detail will line up perfectly, but you’ll be able to pick out a generous handful of common character types, themes, images, and scenes from any two stories on the list. These two happened to line up so perfectly in part because they started from the same place, as spin-offs of a massively successful franchise that had already established its setting and its villains.

What I’ve been up to

I’m still slogging gamely through manuscript edits, working on draft 3 of ?????. I’m also planning a wedding long-distance, working in a job with a heavy focus on content creation, and picking up a new martial art. So content here will be light for the immediate future.

If you just can’t get enough of works written by me, my latest day job project is Safer Seattle, a news blog with a focus on car, bike, and pedestrian safety in the Seattle area. Need to know all the exciting minutia about sidewalk closures? Want to see how I convinced my boss to let me write about Pokemon Go on company time? You can read my articles here.