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Excerpt: Dealbreaker by L. X. Beckett

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L. X. Beckett’s Dealbreaker is the thrilling sci-fi sequel to Gamechanger, perfect for fans of Neuromancer and Star Trek.

Rubi Whiting has done the impossible. She has proved that humanity deserves a seat at the galactic table. Well, at least a shot at a seat. Having convinced the galactic governing body that mankind deserves a chance at fixing their own problems, Rubi has done her part to launch the planet into a new golden age of scientific discovery and technological revolution.

However, there are still those in the galactic community that think that humanity is too poisonous, too greedy, to be allowed in, and they will stop at nothing to sabotage a species determined to pull itself up.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Dealbreaker by L. X. Beckett, on sale 01/26/2021. 


Chapter 1

The event the Feral5 called their superversary was a Surprise party, meaning that everyone was cosplaying Royal British Navy personnel, and the simulated ship they were aboard was, literally, HMS Surprise. Looking around, Frankie Barnes could hardly see a meter of deck where she and Maud hadn’t had sex.

The anniversary party was an intimate affair—thirty or so of the pack’s collected in-laws and a selection of @CloseFriends. Their packmate Jermaine was up near the wheel, addressing their guests. He wasn’t overly keen on the original Master and Commander fandom, and so had dressed as a Chinese Fleet Admiral from the 2079 reboot of the franchise.

Jerm’s speech covered all the things you usually heard at such events: warm words about Maud and Frankie falling into a bigtime, full-on, hearts-and-flowers romance, about Maud making an enormous leap of faith by becoming Frankie’s primary and marrying into their unorthodox family bubble. “None of the Feral4 knew we were incomplete, not really, not until she joined us.”

All true . . . and the crowd was lapping it up.

Maud herself was turned out in the ragged naturalist’s gear of the Surprise doctor, complete with red-tinted hair and sideburns. The first time she’d seen this particular cosplay, Frankie had found the look compellingly sexy and thoroughly odd. Maud was about as far from a natural redhead as it got. She could have stepped right out of a historical sim set in the EastEuro steppes—one of those wildly popular pony-racing sims about the Mongol Derby, maybe—with her jet hair, sturdy limbs, and a round face.

As usual, she was visibly ill at ease about being the center of attention.

Frankie was about to beeline for her beloved when their other packmates fell into step on either side of her.

Ember Qaderi’s toon wore the half-starved body and the robes of a Persian prisoner of war, also from MC2079. As Frankie took this in, he attempted a clumsy, loose-limbed pirouette.

“You couldn’t chill about the old British Empire for one afternoon?” Frankie subbed.

“Colonization’s a freshly relevant issue in this day and age,” Ember said airily. “Besides, I had to balance out Babs.”

“Fair,” Frankie signed. Their feral fifth had wrapped her base avatar, a tortoiseshell cat, in full dress uniform as Admiral Nelson . . . or some cartoon femme version thereof.

As Jermaine’s speech built to its big finish, the three of them slid between the assembled partygoers, closing on Maud. Everyone raised their glasses and followed Jerm in a very royal round of shouting “Huzzah!”

Frankie offered an arm and Maud eased into her embrace, fitting snugly against her, two spaceships docking. Ember blew her a moji kiss, while Babs generated a purr that went down into the deck and came up as a vibration underfoot.

Contentment—bit of a rarity, that—suffused Frankie. This had been a good idea.

down to join them, catching Frankie and Ember by the hands, completing the family bubble while their gathered guests signed hearts, threw confetti and petals, and made Awww! noises.

“Hang in there,” Frankie subbed to Maud. “They’ll all swing by to throw a few congrats at our feet. And then . . .”

Maud gave her a lascivious grin.

“And then,” she agreed.

“Nice speech, Jerm,” Babs said. “You oughta go into soapboxing.”

“I’ve got as much job as I can handle, thanks.”

“He’s already overachieving,” Maud said, enunciating each word as precisely as if she were cutting diamonds. “If you want speeching, Babs, take it up yourself.”

“I’m on strike, remember?”

One of Jermaine’s fathers walked straight into this bit of banter. He’d disapproved of his son marrying into a bubble containing artificially intelligent beings, so the smile he tried to give them all now was curdled. It vanished altogether when the family’s other sapp, Babs’s codefather Crane, walked up in a butler costume, proffering a tray of champagne flutes.

“Thanks, Crane.” Frankie took two flutes, passed one to Jermaine’s father, and set about distracting him with an earnest monologue about Ember’s latest theoretical maths breakthrough. “If we Solakinder manage to open a seven-wormhole network,” she enthused, “it’ll be down to Ember. And we could never have done it without Jermaine pioneering the new implant tech—”

Char Mwangi tutted. “You make it sound like Jermaine grew the implant tish himself. He is but one member of the innovation team.”

Frankie gave that bit of prosocial wanking the very tiny nod it deserved. “And now he’s in the thick of the quantum-comms experiment. You must be so proud!”

The elder seemed to thaw a little. Crane moved on, buttling in barely legal defiance of the sapps’ work stoppage.

A gust of simulated wind caught the ship’s sails, crisping the fabric out with a gratifying snap. Surprise surged into the waves. Up at the wheel, Frankie’s fellow test pilot, Hung Chan, had booted up a tutorial on the rudiments of ancient seafaring. It was a far cry from flying FTL ships or planting wormholes, but his expression was blissful.

Frankie laid a hand on the small of her back and sent him a quick, secret text, via the pilot’s augment in her sacrum: All good, Pupper?

Any happier, Cap’n, I’d be widdling on the deck! They’re adorable, by the way.

Who?

Your whole fam damly.

She sent thumbs-up and let her gaze rise above her friend, where more of her in-laws—Ember’s mothers, kitted out as usual in licensed Star Trek gear—were high in the mainsail rigging.

Whole fam damly. She wondered, absently, if Hung was angling for an offer to join the Ferals, maybe in some kind of little-brother role. Though Jermaine would be attracted to him, inevitably.

She ran a thumb over the spyglass at her hip, triggering an inapp purchase within the sim. In response, a pod of dolphins made a spectacular, water-spraying leap, arraying themselves around the ship’s bow to cries of delight and applause.

“Such a gracious host,” Maud murmured, fanning herself with her straw hat.

Frankie offered up her best rogue’s grin. “Who says I don’t play well with others?”

“We could get up a poll on that,” Ember said. Jermaine snorted.

“Fuck you very much; the question was rhetorical.”

“And now we’re back on brand,” Babs said.

“Sure, gang up on me. No wonder I spend half my time in deep space—” An elbow to the ribs—Maud—cut her off.

The sim dolphins broke the sheet of the sea again, flinging diamond spray as they cut through the sunlit surface of the water.

The dolphins, the ship, and the party-goers were all illusory. Not so that elbow, or the heat of Maud against Frankie’s body. The two of them were cuddled up in bed, out on the Surface, even as their attention was deep in Sensorium.

Soon their guests would move on to other entertainments, and they would come out of the sim entirely, and . . .

Maud startled, then raised a hand to her face, covering surprise by stroking her sideburns. “There’s your stepmother.”

Rubi Whiting was indeed entering the sim from belowdecks.

This can’t be good.

As if hearing her thought—reading it, more likely, as Frankie hadn’t much of a poker face—Rubi opened with gestural moji, signs meaning no news. Most of their heart-to-hearts started this way: Rubi basically assuring her that nothing had happened to Gimlet, Frankie’s wayward parent.

Relief momentarily unclenched her fists.

“Go.” Maud gave her a nudge.

“Bollocks to that,” Frankie said. “She’s bringing work to a party.”

“You don’t know it’s work.”

“Don’t I?”

“You’d be happy it was work if you weren’t changing projects. Remind her it was her idea—”

“To demote me?”

“Be prosocial: say transfer.”

Hung brought Surprise into a hard turn to starboard, and the ship’s deck tilted. The cosplaying in-laws in the rigging reached down, fingers not quite reaching the fins of their dolphin escort. Frankie felt sun on her face, the solidity of her family around her. She caught a whiff of brine and woodsmoke.

“I’ll be back.” She kissed her packmate, separated herself reluctantly from the cluster of her family, and swaggered over to Rubi in best ship’s captain fashion. Salute? Nah.

“Any word?” After all, nobody’s dead hardly counted as a status update.

“Gimlet has extended their fact-finding mission.” Rubi was running Diplomatic these days, and her toon wore an infestation of tags, notes showing her high position on the Worldsaver Leaderboard, her Cloudsight rating, and her personal value as a currency. The last was one of the many things that made her an oddity—Rubi had inadvertently spawned an economy of favors two decades earlier, during a long-ago political crisis. Now she had an assessed value, like a bank.

Frankie felt her eyes narrowing. “For how much longer?”

“I’ve no idea, Franks.”

Rubi’s fingerling dreadlocks showed a faint encroachment of grey. Cropped close at the left temple, a hexagonal grouping of the dreads—her trademark—was tipped with animated golden honeybees. On the Surface, she wore the same dreads, capped with carved wooden beads. She had long since given up playing sim premieres, but she still carried herself like a fighter.

“Then you’re here to wish us well?” Frankie checked the perimeter icons in her HUD. In her lower peripheral was the number of people following their conversation in realtime. Eleven thousand; hardly anyone. “Happy Superversary, Ferals! I’m printing you a bottle of wine.”

Rubi gave the smallest of headshakes. “Project Bootstrap is finalizing plans for the portal expansion.”

“Opening Portals 6/7?” She signed the slash between the six and seven as she spoke the words—portals six seven—and her fingertips tingled as she sliced the air.

Frankie had been nine when the confederation of human and AI entities collectively referred to as the Solakinder were first contacted by offworlders. The aliens hadn’t really said hello, not at first. They’d logged on to Sensorium’s social networks, begun interfering with global politics, and then, when they got caught, asked—nicely, the first time—if Earth would like to join their greater intergalactic empire.

The answer, initially, had been a polite No, thank you. Not surprisingly, the offworlders had asked again, less nicely, earning themselves a response with a tone more in the region of Piss off!

It was easy to expect the asks would escalate. Possibly escalate all the way to invasion. And so Diplomatic, as led by Frankie’s parents, had negotiated a costly devil’s bargain.

If Earth wanted to maintain its independence without getting swallowed by the Exemplar races, as they called themselves, they would have to develop the technologies that had brought those races to their solar system. What’s more, they had to invent all those #supertechs without any hints from the advanced races.

It was a noninterference rule, of sorts, with Earth as the culture the aliens were—supposedly—not interfering with. Privately, Frankie called it the weaponized Prime Directive.

So far, the Solakinder had opened a loop of five stable wormholes, expanding their footprint within the home solar system. Opening Portals 6/7 would put them within hopping distance of Alpha Centauri and an Exemplar portal there. And just in time, too.

Frankie felt a grin breaking across her face. She didn’t see corresponding excitement on her stepmother’s. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s faster than expected. Your transfer to Quantum Comms has been delayed—”

“Can’t we push up the installation? Loop Maud in?”

Rubi shook her head. “Insufficient time to do the testing.”

Frankie’s mind raced. She’d agreed to the experiment that would patch Maud into the pilots’ off-the-record comms so that the two of them could talk properly, off the record. “If they’re rolling out the new portals, they’ll need every augmented pilot they can get.”

“Exactly,” Rubi said. “You’ll be EMbodying a pegasus out at Emerald Station. Overseeing the launch of Portal7 .”

A twinge of disappointment. She’d hoped to be at Proxima Centauri. Still . . .

“So?” And then, reading Rubi’s expression of concern: “Ember’s maths are solid. It’s not going to be that dangerous.”

“You took the riskiest position when we expanded from three to five portals.” Rubi thrust her hands into her pockets. “You don’t have to jump at hazard duty again.”

“If I don’t, they’ll assign Hung to Sneezy,” Frankie said. “Kid’s good. But.”

Her stepmother shrugged. Unwilling to say more in a public transcript, no doubt.

You think something’s going to go wrong. And if you think that, it’s because . . .

“I’m right, aren’t I?”

Rubi stared at her over the rim of a simulated glass of bubbly. Behind her, party guests were trying to figure out the mechanics of loading the Surprise deck cannons.

It had never seemed likely to Frankie that the offworlders would go from Please give us your planet to Hand it over, kids! to a simple Gosh, we’re sorry, we’ll back off. Come play with us whenever you’re ready.

“You’re right.” Rubi ran a finger over the rim of her glass, letting that sit. And then adding, after too much pause, “If you opt out, Hung goes.”

She meant that Frankie was right about someone sabotaging the Bootstrap Project.

All this time, you’ve been insisting I was paranoid.

Temper simmering, she glanced past Rubi to Maud.

“You made promises, Frankie. Keep them. Pull in your horns; play it safe.”

“Maud will understand if I do one more mission.”

“Are you sure?”

Hazard duty, again, and now even Diplomatic agreed there was actual hazard.

Dolphins broke the water near Surprise, chittering. The sailing ship was a fictional monument to a colonial power—and a reminder of all the damage it had done. Frankie looked at Ember, costumed in his starved-prisoner affect.

Rubi was waiting, face schooled to calmness. She had come already knowing what her wayward stepchild would say.

“I am not opting out of anything,” Frankie told her. “If Sneezy’s where the action is, Sneezy’s where I’ll be.”

Copyright © L. X. Beckett 2021

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