Aether Chapter 1

Cover art by Jeanette Eileen Widjaja

(Note:  The text that appears below is a pre-release preview which is taken from a version of the manuscript prior to final proof reading and formatting.  As such, it may contain minor errors or typos which will be corrected in the final version of the novel.)

Chapter 1

MAGGIE LEANED HEAVILY ON her cane as she limped into the third-floor break room at One Park Place. Every step sent pain shooting through her hip, and resentment boiled up inside her as she looked around the dingy little room. She didn’t want to be there, but the change in pressure as a huge storm moved up the coast was making her bones ache everywhere they’d ever been broken. That meant that her entire right side from just below her breast to halfway down her leg felt like it was being squeezed in a vice, and every step she took felt like she had ground glass where her hip joint should be.

She’d considered taking something for the pain. Despite the rampant paranoia most doctors had developed in recent years regarding opioids, her doctor was rather generous in prescribing them for her. Not that she ever took them. During the week, she didn’t take them because Nth dimensional vector spaces and mind-altering substances didn’t really go together, and she had work to do. On the weekends, she didn’t take them because pot brownies from the local dispensary got rid of the pain without making her worry about turning into an addict.

She lowered herself into one of the folding chairs at the table and breathed a sigh of relief as the pain dropped to an almost tolerable level. She hooked her cane on the edge of the table, so it stayed within easy reach, and looked around the little space that was decorated in a particularly sad flavor of 1970s ugly. The linoleum floor was yellow with age and peeling in the corners. The refrigerator was a bit newer, but it was still a relic from the Reagan administration. The folding chairs and table pre-dated Nixon’s resignation. The microwave might have been a bit newer, but the only thing remotely modern in the room was the off-brand k-cup coffee maker that sat side by side with a Mr. Coffee that was old enough to qualify for a senior citizen’s discount. The worst part was the poster of Red Coat, which Maggie had always assumed had been put up before he and the rest of the Sun City Sentries had died stopping the Gacrux invasion eleven years earlier.

Maggie had a love-hate relationship with the grubby little space. She hated it because she only ever set foot in it when her hip chose to remind her of just how disabled that same invasion had left her, not that the cane or the burn scars ever really let her forget. The love part was complicated, to say the least.

“Hey,” the complicated part said as she walked into the room carrying a bag from Rosa’s and a tray with two large drinks. Maggie, despite the pain and the resentment bubbling inside her, couldn’t stop herself from smiling. Sierra always made her smile. The two of them had started grad school at the same time, and Sierra had taken one look at the sad, shy, lonely girl hobbling into the physics department’s grad student lounge, leaning on a cane, hair draped so it covered half her face, with a perpetual scowl, and decided they were going to be friends, whether Maggie liked it or not.

Maggie had been prepared to ignore Sierra until she went away, but there had been a huge flaw in that plan. Sierra was Sierra. Beautiful, kind, funny, smarter than most of the professors in the department put together. Maggie has lasted all of a month before she committed the cardinal sin of gay girls everywhere and fallen head over heels in love with her straight best friend.

“My knight in shining armor,” Maggie said.

Sierra snorted as she set the drink tray on the table. “More like your post-doc in Old Navy,” she said as she reached into the bag and started taking out food. She set a foil wrapped sub and a Styrofoam container full of chili cheese fries in front of Maggie, then handed her one of the drinks.

“You say 6562.8 Angstroms, I say 656.28 nanometers…” Maggie said as she started unwrapping the cheesesteak she’d been daydreaming about all morning. Her mouth was watering just from the smell.

“Did they get your sandwich right?” Sierra asked as she opened a Styrofoam container with a big slab of Rosa’s vegetable alfredo lasagna in it.

“Yeah,” Maggie said.

“I brought extra peppers, just in case.”

“Gimmie!” Maggie said as she reached over to snatch the bag. Sierra laughed and shook her head.

“Think I could get my garlic bread?”

“I don’t know,” Maggie said. “What’s it worth to you?”

“Wanna off-tank the Soul Archive tomorrow night?”

Maggie nearly fell out of her chair. She looked up at Sierra, trying to gage if the offer was genuine. She’d been begging for a chance to fill one of the tank slots in their weekly raid for months, and Sierra had kept putting her off.

“Seriously?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Sierra said. “Your gear’s good enough, and you’ve been doing a great job main-tanking the Sky Palace alt runs.”

“What about Garrett?” Maggie asked. Not because she particularly cared about what happened to the man who had been the bane of her existence for the last six years, but because she didn’t want to get her hopes up again taking the slot she wanted in the raid if it was just going to get yanked out from under her at the last minute.

“I benched him,” Sierra said as she picked up her fork and attacked her lasagna.

“Ouch,” Maggie said. “I’m betting he didn’t like that.”

“No,” Sierra said. “There may have been some yelling.”

Maggie bit her tongue, trying not to ask why Sierra put up with Garrett in the first place. It was an old struggle. She thought Garrett was a piece of shit, both as a boyfriend and as a human being in general. She’d hated him from the day she’d met him. She’d also gone out of her way to be completely neutral when it came to Sierra and Garrett because she did not want to be blamed for the breakup she considered inevitable. Even if she was planning on throwing a party when it happened.

She fished the foil-wrapped garlic bread out of the bag and passed it over to Sierra, then took out the two small tubs of sliced pepperoncini and dumped them on top of her sub.

“So, I need to ask you a favor,” Sierra said. Maggie looked up from her sandwich, suspecting she was about to find out what price she was going to be asked to pay in order to get better video game privileges.

“You need a favor from me?” Maggie asked.

“Yeah,” Sierra said, and Maggie could tell from the slightly nervous look on Sierra’s face that it was going to be a big one. “You know membership on the Safety and Ethics Committee rotates on Monday, right?”

“I do,” Maggie said, wondering what that had to do with either of them.

“They announced the committee roster this morning.”

Maggie leaned back in her chair, knowing from Sierra’s tone exactly what this had to do with them, and exactly where the conversation was headed.

“Hastings got the physics seat, didn’t he?”

“Got it in one,” Sierra said.

“Shit. I’m sorry,” Maggie said, knowing exactly how much of a disaster the news was for Sierra. Sierra’s research into quantum field modelling and imaging was brilliant. Way above the level of work a lot of full professors were doing, much less other second year post docs. Hastings’ work on quantum teleportation was good stuff, but nothing particularly original. There were other research times doing a lot of similar work. Which was why this was a disaster for Sierra. She and Hastings were competing for the same grant, and it was a forgone conclusion that Sierra was going to get it, if she could get approval for human trials from the Safety and Ethics Committee.

Approval she’d gotten earlier in the week. That should have been the end of it, but it was standard practice for the incoming committee to review all ongoing projects and reaffirm all clearances. Normally, that was just a formality, but Hastings had been making noises for months, pretty much since the day he found out that Sierra had applied for the same grant as him, that her work was still experimental, and that it was far too early to begin human trials of her quantum field imager.

“How can I help?” Maggie asked.

“Well,” Sierra said. “The issue is safety, right?”


“So, it will be a lot harder for that asshat to claim that the quantum field imager is unsafe if I have the results of a human test subject in hand,” Sierra said.

Maggie nodded. “Okay. That makes sense. But where do I…Oh. Oh, no. Sierra—”

“Come on!” Sierra said, giving a little huff and a foot stomp that made her sound like an eight-year-old who’d just been told she’d have to finish her homework before she could destroy her nine-year-old brother at Mario Kart.

“You seriously want to put me in your little quantum toaster?”

“It’s not a toaster! It’s perfectly safe.”

“Says you.”

“Please? Come on, Mags. I don’t have time to find anyone else,” she pleaded, complete with what Maggie always thought of as the ‘dreaded Sierra Gomez puppy dog eyes.’ Maggie didn’t think the devil himself could resist those eyes. In fact, she was sure if Sierra added the little lip quiver, Hades himself would throw open the gates of the underworld for her.

“Fine,” Maggie said. “When do you want to run the test?”

“Tomorrow,” she said. “No one else will be here, so there’s no chance of Hastings hearing about it and shutting us down.” She smiled at Maggie as she said it and any trace of reluctance Maggie felt disappeared. Maggie honestly wasn’t sure why she even tried to fight. She knew it was a bad choice, but she never made good choices when Sierra was involved.

“She’s not going to fuck you, you know.”

Maggie jumped a little in shock at the unexpected sound of Garrett’s voice. The move sent pain shooting through her hip, and she looked up from her computer to see him standing in the door of the closet she called an office, glaring at her.

“What?” she asked, trying to get her head around what he just said.

“Sierra,” Garrett said. “She’s not going to fuck you.” The anger in his voice sent a chill down Maggie’s spine. She turned her chair so she was facing him. As she did, she wrapped her hand around the heavy steel shaft of her cane.

“What are you talking about?” Maggie asked, not really needing an answer. There was only one person he could be talking about, because there was only one place where their circle of friends overlapped. She didn’t know what brought this on.

Garrett took two steps into her office, and Maggie tightened her grip on her cane. She swallowed her pride and pushed back a bit from her desk. As much as she wanted to pretend like he didn’t scare her, the truth was, she’d always thought he was a little scary, and she’d never wanted to be anywhere near him if she could help it. It didn’t hurt that having the extra room gave her more space if she needed to use her cane. She wasn’t under any sort of delusion that she could win a fight if he actually attacked her, but there were plenty of other offices close by. If she screamed for help, it would come, and a couple of good, solid whacks with the cane might keep him from hurting her too badly before it arrived.

“You think I don’t know that this was your idea?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Maggie said.

“Bullshit!” Garrett said. “Sierra and I’ve been together for six years. Girls don’t just dump you after that long.”

“Sierra dumped you?” Maggie asked, fear suddenly replaced by shock. Sierra hadn’t said anything about dumping Garrett at lunch.

“Right,” Garrett said. “Like you didn’t know.”

“Honestly, I didn’t.”

Garrett snorted and took two more steps forward. He put his hands on her desk and leaned over it.

“She’s never going to fuck you,” Garrett said. “You think I’m stupid, that I don’t know about your little dyke crush on her, but I do. It’s pathetic. You’re just embarrassing yourself. You’re nothing but a charity case. A fucking diversity hire. A hideous, crippled freak. People get sick just looking at your face. And when Sierra realizes the only thing you care about is getting in her pants, she’s going to drop you and coming running back to me.”

For a moment, Maggie’s tiny little office was dead silent as she stared at Garrett in shock. Not shock at what he thought about her, but shock that he’d said it out loud. It felt like he’d broken some unspoken rule they’d agreed to, where they both just quietly hated each other but never actually said all the horrible things they thought about each other.

It took longer than Maggie would have liked for it to completely sink in, but when it did, anger replaced shock and fear both as Maggie’s temper flared, and she got a reminder of all the reasons she worked so hard to keep her temper in check. As the anger flowed through her, it shut down the part of her brain responsible for thinking and the part responsible for good judgement and the part responsible for self-preservation. She stopped caring that Garrett was built like a linebacker, that he had a good eighty pounds on her, and that half her body was held together with titanium screws and hope, rather than solid, reliable bone.

She slid her hand up, grabbed the handle of her cane, and drove the cane down onto the floor of her office. The small click as the top part of the cane caught against the spring-loaded pin that locked the telescoping foot in place sounded a bit like a sword being drawn as Maggie used the cane to force her way up to her feet. The pain shot through her hip was bad enough that at any other moment, it probably would have dropped her, but between the anger and the adrenaline, she barely noticed it. She leaned forward, getting right in Garrett’s face.

“In the six years you and Sierra have been dating, I have never spoken a word against you,” Maggie said. “Not once. Not when you acted like an asshole. Not when she had to apologize to a member of the guild because you were a giant dickwad to them in game. Not when you threw a hissy fit because she finished her degree while you were stuck trying to find a new advisor who would put up with your shit. Not even when Sierra was sitting on my couch, bitching up a storm about all the different ways you were a shitty boyfriend.

“If she dumped you, it didn’t have a damn thing to do with me. It was entirely because you are a whiney, pathetic, self-righteous, entitled piece of shit with overblown delusions of adequacy.”

He was going to hit her. Maggie could see it in his eyes. He hadn’t quite made the decision yet, but she could see him psyching himself up for it. She could almost see all the excuses running through his head. She was so focused on him that she almost missed Jamal stepping into the room.

“Is there a problem here?” Jamal asked.

Garrett turned around, ready for a fight right up until he realized who was standing there. Jamal was a thin, wiry man who was a good four inches shorter and probably fifty pounds lighter than Garrett. He had also spent twelve years as a marine before going back to school to get his PhD. Garrett just sort of withered as Jamal stared at him. Something that left Maggie feeling torn. On the one hand, she knew it was for the best. On the other hand, she really, really wanted to see Garrett get the ass kicking he had coming his whole life.

“No problem,” Garrett said. “I was just leaving.” He headed out the door, and Jamal moved, letting his pass. Jamal waited a minute before turning to Maggie.

“You okay?”

“Yeah,” Maggie said. She sat back down as the pain started to hit her. She took a deep breath and looked at Jamal. “How much of that did you hear?”

“Enough,” Jamal said. “You want me to go get Doctor Miller so you can file a complaint?”

“No,” Maggie said.

“You sure?” Jamal asked.

“Yeah,” Maggie said.

“You know, you let him get away with shit like that, sooner or later, he’s going to hurt someone.”

“Maybe,” Maggie said. “But I…don’t want to get mixed up in the middle of that.”

Jamal rolled his eyes.

“Sierra’s my friend,” Maggie said.

“If she were your friend, she wouldn’t ask you to put up with Garrett’s bullshit,” he said. “You deserve better than that. You should choose to do what’s best for yourself once in a while.”

“It’s not that easy,” Maggie said.

“Sure it is,” Jamal said. “He threatens you, and instead of worrying about what Sierra will think, you choose to protect yourself, and file a complaint with Doctor Miller.”

“I said no.”

“Fine.” Jamal sighed. “But if you change your mind, you know where to find me.”

“I do,” Maggie said.

Maggie stared out the passenger’s side window of Sierra’s minivan as they drove down the interstate. Normally, she would have just walked to the monorail station, but with her hip acting up, she’d accepted Sierra’s offer to drive her home. Sierra offered every night, but Maggie normally turned her down. There were a lot of reasons for that. One was her enormous crush on Sierra, which probably would have been enough on its own, but there was also her fear of cars. On her best day, she hated them. With the pain in her hip reminding her of how her parents and her brother died, and the confrontation with Garrett still bouncing around in her head, she was having a hard time not feeling like she should have stuck to her routine, even with the pain.

“Are you okay?” Sierra asked as she moved them into the exit lane that led to Maggie’s neighborhood.

“Rough day,” Maggie said.

“Aww…Hard time figuring out how to violate the fundamental laws of physics?” Sierra asked. It was hardly a new question, and normally, it would have provoked a cheerful argument over whether the project Maggie was working on violated the law of conservation of momentum or not, but in that moment, the humor was lost on Maggie.

“Did you break up with Garrett?” she asked, looking over at Sierra. The smile on Sierra’s face faded as she glanced over at Maggie before looking back at the road.

“How’d you guess?” Sierra asked.

“He came into my office,” Maggie said.

“He what?” Sierra asked, and Maggie could hear the anger in her voice.

“He thinks I talked you into dumping his ass.”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Sierra said. “I’m sorry. If I’d known he was going to pull something like that, I would have brought my laptop up to your office and worked there all day.”

Maggie made a noncommittal noise and went back to staring out the window.

“I should have warned you,” Sierra said.

“Is that why you’re letting me take the off-tank slot in Soul Archive?” Maggie asked.

“No,” Sierra said. “More like me letting you take the slot is why I finally dumped his ass.”

Maggie turned to look at Sierra. “What?”

“I told him I was going to let you have the off-tank slot this week, and he pitched a fit. He said the slot belonged to him because he’d been doing it for six months. When I told him that was why it was time to give someone else a shot, he just started pouting like a baby the way he always does when he doesn’t get his way, and I don’t know…I just realized that I’d been putting off a lot of shit because I didn’t want to deal with his reaction. I sat there, watching him going on this rant about something, I don’t even know what it was, and all I could think was that I’d spent the last few years planning my life around what I needed to do to avoid one of his tantrums, and I was tired of it. I was sick to death of missing out on shit I want because my boyfriend is a whiny little manbaby. So, I told him to take his shit, get out, and to not come back.”


“Really,” Sierra said.

“How did he take it?”

“About as well as you’d expect,” Sierra said. “I had to write my landlord a check this morning to pay for patching a hole in the wall and putting a new lock on the door.”

“Fuck,” Maggie said. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s my fault,” Sierra said. “I should have dumped his ass years ago.”

Maggie bit her tongue to keep herself from agreeing. She really, really wanted to, but there was a tiny little voice in the back of her head reminding her of all the times in the past when she’d gotten her hopes up because Sierra and Garrett had a fight. She hoped this was different, but she’d give it some time before she ended her policy of not trashing Garrett in front of Sierra. But try as she might, there was one thing she couldn’t keep to herself, because not knowing, one way or the other, had been driving her crazy.

“Did you tell Garrett about what happened at the hospital?” Maggie asked.

“What?” Sierra asked, sounding genuinely horrified at the thought. “No, of course not.”

“He seemed pretty convinced that I talked you into dumping him because I’ve got a crush on you.”

“He must have figured that out on his own,” Sierra said. “I swear, I never said a word. Not to anyone.”

“Okay,” Maggie said, relief flooding through her. She hadn’t realized how much the thought that Sierra had told Garrett about her drug-addled confession had bothered her. The whole thing was more than a little humiliating. She’d broken her hip again, and Sierra was there when she’d woken up from surgery. Not unusual in and of itself. Sierra took Maggie to all her doctor’s appointments and had been there for every surgery Maggie had over the six years they’d known each other.

What had been unusual was that somewhere around the time the nurse hung the third or fourth bag of Dilaudid, Maggie had decided to confess her undying love to Sierra. She still wasn’t sure why she thought it was a good idea. Maybe a mixture of being high as a kite, and the fact that it was the first surgery she’d had since the invasion where her grandparents weren’t there for her recovery.

Whatever made her do it, the whole thing had been humiliating once she’d sobered up. Maggie wasn’t sure which part was worse. Having to sit through Sierra’s painfully earnest explanation that she was heterosexual or having to deal with her own embarrassment over the fact that she’d recited Emily Dickenson to a straight girl. Maggie had tried to play the whole thing off as just the drugs talking, but Sierra had seen through that right away. She’d sworn that she would never tell a soul, and then, she’d proceeded to refuse to let Maggie hide from her, which was probably the only reason their friendship survived.

The thought that Sierra might have broken her promise and told Garrett had been eating at her all day. She hadn’t wanted to believe it was true, but she had spent the last six years convinced Garrett didn’t know she had feelings for Sierra. The fact that he threw her feelings in her face meant she’d either misjudged how perceptive Garrett was, or that Sierra had told him.

Now that she knew Sierra hadn’t broken her promise, Maggie felt a little better about the whole thing, even if the confrontation in her office was a bit scary.

“I’m sorry he accused you of that,” Sierra said.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s not a big deal.”

“It is,” Sierra said. “It was a shitty thing for him to do.”

Maggie shrugged, regretting having brought the subject up at all, and they spent the last few minutes of the trip in silence. When they reached Maggie’s house, Sierra pulled into the driveway, and put the van in park.

“You want me to come in and help you get changed?” Sierra asked.

Maggie looked out of the windshield of the van and stared at her house as she thought about it. She knew that getting ready for bed when she was hurting like this would be a foretaste of hell. It was bad enough on a regular day. Most of her outfits consisted of stretch waist skirts, button up shirts, and slip-on shoes. Things that let her avoid bending down to get dressed or undressed. But in the shape she was in, lifting her arms over her head was a no go, which meant she was either going to leave her clothes in a pile on the floor and sleep in a bathrobe, or reduce herself to tears trying to put on a nightgown.

It would hardly be the first time Sierra had seen her undressed. Maggie had had surgery three times in the last six years, and all three times, Sierra had stayed with her while she recovered. She’d helped Maggie change, helped her get to and from the bathroom, even helped her shower. It shouldn’t have been a big deal, just a friend helping a friend, but Garrett’s words were still ringing in her ears, calling her a charity case and a hideous freak. Words that would have been a whole lot easier to shrug off if she didn’t believe them herself. If that wasn’t exactly what she saw every time she looked in the mirror.

“I’ve got it,” Maggie said as she opened the door. It was the wrong choice, but it was the only one her pride would let her make.

“Are you sure?” Sierra asked. Maggie could hear the worry in her voice, and it was almost enough to change her mind, but then she heard Garrett saying, ‘She’s never going to fuck you,’ and it was too much to deal with.

“I’m fine,” Maggie said. She swung her legs out of the van and hopped out, ignoring the jolt of pain that shot through her hip. She grabbed her purse and slung it over her shoulder, then grabbed her cane.

“If you’re sure,” Sierra said.

Maggie looked at Sierra and forced herself to smile. “See you in the morning.”


Maggie closed the van door and hobbled to the front door of her apartment. She punched the security code into her door’s keypad and opened the door. Once she was inside, she gave the deadbolt a quick twist to lock it, then headed for the kitchen. She grabbed one of the beers she wasn’t supposed to drink out of the refrigerator, then headed into her bedroom. She hooked the end of her cane on her desk, kicked off the clogs she was wearing, then pushed her peasant skirt down past her hips and let it fall to the floor before unbuttoning her shirt and letting it drop on top of the skirt.

She sat down at her desk in nothing but a pair of panties and reached for the thousand count bottle of ibuprofen that lived next to her monitor. She popped two of the little orange pills into her mouth and chased it with a swig of beer. Something her doctors assured her was tantamount to suicide, as if that wasn’t encouragement to do it more often. She considered going back to the kitchen and getting one of the brownies from the dispensary but decided against it since she had Sierra’s experiment in the morning.

She logged into her desktop, and spent a good five minutes staring at the Black Sky icon. She considered logging into the game. She knew she should. If she was off-tanking the guild’s raid the following night, she should spend a bit of time farming just to make sure she had all the consumables she would need. Maybe tank a couple of dungeons, just to get into the groove. Instead, after five minutes of staring at the icon, she admitted she wasn’t feeling it.

She looked down at herself. At the burns that covered the right side of her body. The melted wax look of the skin covering her right arm and leg. The breast that was more silicone implant than living tissue because the original had been so badly burned. She looked and she wondered if Red Coat had really done her a favor when he’d ripped the door off her parents’ car and pulled her out of the fire.

She knew her mood was spiraling, but she honestly wished Red Coat had just minded his own fucking business. That he’d just gone and fought the aliens that day instead of trying to save someone who was already past saving.

She took another swallow of her beer and tried to remind herself of all the reasons that wasn’t true. She had a great job, she had a wonderful best friend, she had even, the year before, managed to have a girlfriend for a little while. The reminders usually helped, but they weren’t working that night. Probably because she was already too far down the spiral.

She took another pull off her beer and reached for something she knew would work. Instead of clicking on the Black Sky icon, she clicked on the one for Digilife, and logged in.

Black Sky was a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game. It had a shared game world full of enemies to kill, dungeons to run, raids, player versus player battlegrounds, and all the usual bells and whistles. It wasn’t the most popular one out there, but she and Sierra both preferred the sci-fi theme to the fantasy theme of the larger games. Maggie had spent more hours in Black Sky than she cared to admit, and she loved it, but it wasn’t what she needed that night.

Digilife was about as different as you could get from Black Sky. It was a third-generation virtual world. There were games inside the world, but there were also entire cities with parks, schools, office buildings, houses, sewers, warehouses, docs, bars, night clubs, strip clubs, red light districts, hotels, and brothels. There were kingdoms with keeps, castles, towers, labyrinths, caves, dragons’ lairs, and fairy groves. There were space stations and star ships and submarines. Anything anyone could dream up, they could build and upload to the grid.

Maggie loved it because it let her escape. When she logged in, she wasn’t Maggie anymore. She was Bobbie, and Bobbie was everything Maggie wanted to be but wasn’t. Bobbie was confident, bold, and beautiful. She wore leather pants and flannel shirts and strutted around in biker boots. She wore evening gowns and high heels, cocktail dresses, and three-piece suits. She rode horses and motorcycles and flew star fighters and took pretty girls back to her house without having a panic attack when they started unbuttoning her shirt.

It took about two minutes for her Digilife client to finish connecting to the grid, and Bobbie to show up on screen in all her tanned, purple-haired glory, and Maggie could feel her mood picking up the whole time. She didn’t even have time to check her contact list to see who was online before a message popped up from Kelly, who, despite not knowing Maggie’s real name, was probably her closest friend in the world besides Sierra.

Maggie smiled and started typing.

Continue to Chapter 2