Quantum Flare, the third book in my sci-fi mystery series, launched this week!
I’m incredibly happy with the reception to the series so far. Readers say the stories are lots of fun and have great characters. They say the mysteries will keep you guessing. And most of all, they want to know what happens next!
This book concludes the three-book rapid release I had planned for this season, but it’s not the end of Gunn. He’ll be back for more before you know it.
So if you’re itching to get into book 3* having already read the first two, or you just want to sample the story to see what they’re all about, here’s an excerpt from Quantum Flare.
P.S. The audiobook for this one comes out on June 9th, and you can pre-order it here.
Despite Dyna’s warning, the Tetrad’s war didn’t come to Earth immediately. Weeks passed quietly in the city of Austin as summer gave way to fall.
Fall doesn’t mean much here. Summer dies slowly in the heart of Texas, and the heat of summer doesn’t dissipate so much as reluctantly allow itself to be coaxed out over the course of several weeks. Sometimes it takes months. Sometimes, winter’s course reverses and several cool days in a row are headed off by a sudden scorcher. When the heat rallies in such force, it’s enough to make you question your sanity.
This year, the city was lucky. As I said, war didn’t come, and after several false starts, the season of relief was ushered in with a heavy hurricane-blown rainstorm and followed up by a cooling northwesterly wind.
I guess even Texas summers have to know when to give up the ghost.
Into this chill, I ran. I stretched my legs and pumped my arms. My old sneakers slapped the damp pavement, their soles worn thin by heavy use. Leftover rainwater splashed and seeped in through the side mesh, soaking my socks. As I hauled around the corner into Zilker Park, what was left of the rubber treads skidded on a slick spot, and I went windmilling into the grass toward a thick tree.
Fortunately, I’d been working on my balance more than I’d been training my endurance. After dodging the trunk and stumbling into a patch of squishy grass, I was able to right myself and keep on going.
My heart pounded a rapid drumbeat in response to the near miss. As I crossed the park, my reconstructed right hand—furnished by the Gatekeeper after mine had been crushed under an alien creature’s monstrous claw—began to throb in time with my heart. I was haunted by this unpredictable shadow pain. Lately, hard exercise had been about the only thing that was certain to distract me from it.
The skin that remained on my composite hand frequently burned with an unseen fire. Worse than that, every once in a while, I’d twist my wrist wrong and end up with a clenched, impenetrable knot for a fist. It was like a charley horse of the hand, if your hands were strong enough to bend metal. More than one beverage container had been obliterated as I got used to the damn thing. Just this morning, at the gym, I’d accidentally ruined a fifty pound dumbbell—bending the metal grip into a pretzel when my fingers cramped while doing a set of curls.
Nearly did the same thing to my Kimber at the gun range yesterday, too. My hand clenched and I fumbled the pistol to the floor. It startled the bejeezus out of the guy in the neighboring lane, who was reloading a thirty-aught-six at the time. Bullets went tumbling from his fingertips and he scowled at me as if I was some clumsy first-time shooter. Probably looked the part. I hadn’t responded to his scowl, just picked up my gun and left, clinging to the shreds of my dignity.
The hand looked more or less normal if you glanced at it. You might think I had strange-looking gloves on if you were in a hurry. Anyone who looked closer would notice that those weren’t bones or tendons beneath the flesh, but metallic rods and ball-bearing joints. Blue-silver and black, the four fingers of my right hand were made entirely of metal. Not a glove, but tiny interlocking metallic pieces shaped precisely like fingers. It was where the palm of my hand met the fingers that the human skin began again. Grafted to each other imperceptibly, the metallic parts disappeared beneath what was left of my skin—an angled slash from the thumb I was born with across the palm in a jagged line. Seam-tight scars ran across the joining of the flesh and metal, and where the cybernetic tech started, the skin was raw and red as it healed and grew together. It had really freaked me out at first to see the meat and metal becoming one. As the weeks wore on, the clear division became less and less normal, and some kind of semi-transparent sinew grew to fill the unnatural gaps. It took a lot of work, at first, to keep it clean and pus-free, and it ached constantly.
It didn’t make me jump for joy to know that the alien tech in my hand was a part of me now, forever. When I stopped to think about it logically, I was partially relieved that I hadn’t lost use of my hand entirely. Better to have a working hand than a missing one, right? Emotionally, however, I remained ambiguous. The knowledge that the tech was paid for and provided by the Gatekeeper had been the cause of more than a few sleepless nights.
I didn’t like owing anyone anything, least of all the local offworlder mob boss. I was still over a hundred grand in debt to him, thanks to a bad business loan of mine he bought from the bank. Creep did it just to hang over my head as some kind of twisted insurance policy.
Despite the recent rain, Zilker Park was full of workers setting up for a concert this weekend. I ran by two men pitching a tent, along a row of portable toilets, and past another group of workers setting up the stage. Although my increasingly keen eye for spotting offworlders had been honed by my recent troubles, these guys all appeared to be human. Human, or at least very convincingly so.
Apart from my buddy Vinny, who I sometimes forgot was a fur-covered Pangozil because he kept his human disguise activated 24/7, I hadn’t seen many offworlders around town lately. It was almost as if they were all in hiding. Or maybe they were hunkering down to wait out the coming storm…
The coming storm. The war between the intergalactic authority known as the Federation of Lodi and a separatist faction called the Tetrad. It wasn’t our war to fight, but for some reason we’d been dragged into it. According to Dyna, the Tetrad had recently managed to split the Federation’s space navy and turn the Pangozil homeworld into a battleground, surfacing a decades-long pattern of underground resistance. And after meeting a Tetrad operative named Tanamir and seeing him trade hostages with the Gatekeeper under cover of night, I’d become convinced that Earth was next.
It was only a matter of when.
At this uncomfortable notion, I picked up my pace and rounded the other side of the park, cutting back across the city toward my office on the east side.
The dull pain in my hand faded as I ran. My entire focus honed in on my stride, on planting each foot firmly on the pavement in front of me, on breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth.
I ran past the ruins of the Museum of the Weird. Below ground, the Gatekeeper’s underground nightclub, Harbor, had once been a popular offworlder destination. A crew had cleared the rubble of the Museum and started rebuilding the structure about three weeks ago. Austin City Council couldn’t tolerate a building in the middle of the tourist district looking like a pile of rubble for very long and the construction crew was working overtime. The first story had already been framed. As for whether the Gatekeeper’s nightclub would be rebuilt below, I couldn’t say for sure. And I couldn’t say what kind of photon-cloaking device the Gatekeeper had on that place to keep it from being discovered, either. But there hadn’t been anything in the news about it.
Like other offworlders, in recent weeks the Gatekeeper had made his presence scarce. Not even his Daacro spies flitted through the sky above.
And that was fine by me. The Gatekeeper and his cronies had gotten me into enough trouble with their meddling ways.
Their absence, however, made me suspicious. The Gatekeeper’s decision to ignore me told me something: he didn’t know that Annabelle and I had witnessed him making a deal with Tanamir. If he had, he’d have come to me by now, either to threaten me with violence, issue said violence, or to extract a promise of silence.
That meant that I actually had one up on the offworlder powers that made their home in my city, for a change. It wasn’t a huge advantage, since Annabelle and I had been too far away to hear the details of their arrangement, but I wasn’t about to blow whatever slim edge I had by asking around about whether or not the Gatekeeper was going to be able to reopen his nightclub, either. The war may not have been here yet, but it was brewing, and I needed every advantage I could get.
Bottling up the anger and irritation that surfaced with these thoughts, I poured the rest of my energy into one last flat-out sprint, dodging cars trying to merge onto the highway in a hail of honks as I crossed beneath the overpass. I finally slowed down when I reached the sidewalk on the other side, the car noises fading and moving away behind me. My legs and lungs shook as I caught my breath and walked the rest of the way to my office, water-logged running shoes squelching with each step.
Across the street from my office building, I noticed a new vehicle that hadn’t been there when I’d started my run—in my line of work, you notice these things—an unmarked police cruiser, charcoal gray with tinted windows. Cop cars all looked the same to most people, but I knew this one belonged to Detective Sheila Gonzalez.
Pacing on the sidewalk near the car was a middle-aged woman wearing an odd outfit—mismatched coveralls, tie-dyed blue and purple rain boots, and a frizzy rainbow-colored mop of hair. In Austin, the odd outfit and hairstyle didn’t rank very high on the weird scale. I’d seen far stranger modes of dress. But something about this lady caught my eye. She wore that sidewalk down, nervously biting her nails, licking her lips, and muttering to herself. When she saw me staring, she blanched, turned, and hurried in the opposite direction.
With how many homeless folks tended to loiter around this part of town, and on account of it being Austin, I shrugged off her eccentric behavior with only a moment’s consideration.
Peeling off my soaking wet shoes and socks, I walked into the office barefoot, letting my shaking legs carry me slowly up the narrow staircase and along the thin carpet to the last office on the second floor.
My office door had my business name printed in blocky letters on the frosted glass—Gunn Bounties. As expected, the door was slightly ajar and voices drifted out to me.
“—irresponsible what you’re doing,” Detective Gonzalez was saying.
“Um, judgmental much?” Anna asked.
It was all I could do not to bite the inside of my cheek in frustration. I waited in the hallway for an opportune moment to enter, hoping that they would finish their argument before I walked in.
Annabelle had been in the office when I left, tinkering with her website. Most of what she told me about what she was doing to “optimize the reader experience” had gone way over my head, but she’d been very excited about how much traffic the site had been getting in the past week. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that that was exactly what was eating at Gonzalez.
“What right do you have to publish this?” Gonzalez demanded. “It’s demonstrably false.”
“Big words, Detective.”
“I already told you, the crime scene investigators determined that the explosion at the Museum of the Weird was caused by a faulty gas line. Accidents happen.”
“You don’t really believe that, do you?”
“Why would they lie about it?”
“Maybe they’re not lying. Maybe they’re just wrong.”
Gonzalez heaved a frustrated sigh. I knew the feeling, having had Anna argue circles around me many times. On the outside, Annabelle was blonde and bubbly and a little shy. Her alter-ego, however, the paranormal investigative journalist known to her readers only as Marsha Marshall, had a tenacious streak to match even the bullish stubbornness of Detective Sheila Gonzalez.
“It. Was. A. Gas. Leak,” Gonzalez insisted, biting off each word with her teeth.
“Is it still a leak if the leak was caused by a person?”
“Are implying that it was… what, terrorism?”
“Your word, not mine.”
“CSI never found any sign of explosives or tampering. If you’re going to insist on publishing conspiracy theories, I wish you’d just write about aliens and be done with it.”
“I’d love to,” Anna said. “But it’s not like there’s a long list of offworlders lining up to be profiled for the blog.”
Gonzalez snorted. “No, I expect not.”
“What about you? You’d make a great interview. The former police chief’s daughter herself. If you were willing to go on the record about extra terrestrials…”
“Are you kidding me?”
“So,” Anna said in a matter of fact tone. “Detective Gonzalez. Tell me about the first time you met an alien. Was it a little green man, or one of the grays?”
“I’d be the laughing stock of the whole department,” Gonzalez muttered. “They’d roast me on a spit if they found out I talked to you.”
“Oh, I love barbecues. Are they selling tickets?”
I was split between laughing and rolling my eyes. Anna was baiting the detective, and Gonzalez was responding like she always did—without a sense of humor. This was going nowhere fast.
And I was thirsty.
“Goddammit, Anna, would you please take this seriously before I have a fu—”
Clearing my throat loudly, I pushed the door the rest of the way open, then closed it behind me.
Gonzalez stopped mid-expletive and turned to look at me. She seemed chagrined to have been caught yelling in my office, but also clearly put out by Anna’s flippant attitude.
Sheila and I went way back. I knew that look—she was certain she was in the right. If not factually, then at least ethically.
I shifted my eyes to Anna, who gave me a tight smile. I had to swallow a laugh. She was actually enjoying tormenting the detective! I wanted to shake my head ruefully, but remained still and therefore, neutral. I hoped.
“Did you see this?” Gonzalez demanded, drawing my attention back to her. She was holding her phone out to me.
I sympathized with her righteousness—not because I shared it today, but because back during the brief fling we had in college, I’d been roped into lots of these kinds of discussions with her. I was young and dumb back then, ignorant about women, and unfortunately, she’d been in the right more often than not. Gonzalez rarely started an argument she didn’t think she could win.
The article showing on her phone’s screen was titled, Explosion on Sixth Street—Accident or Cover Up? The site had a fresh new design that I almost didn’t recognize as the blog of Marsha Marshall. Her aesthetic taste used to tend toward gaudy colors, curly fonts, and animated graphics. This page was clean, easy to read, and professional.
Anna had been busy over the past few days.
“The investigation is closed,” Gonzalez insisted. “They found no evidence of explosives at the scene, just a busted gas main and a pile of rubble.”
I held up my hands. “I don’t want to get involved.”
“You already are involved, Gunn.” Gonzalez said, using my name but glaring at Anna.
I sighed. No reason to deny that, I supposed.
“You have to admit, Sheila, it’s super suspicious,” I said. “If it was a busted gas main that caused the explosion, how did it get broken? Someone could have tampered with it, right?”
Exasperated, Gonzalez waved her hands around her. No, really, she did. I had to step back to keep from getting whacked in the cramped confines of my small office.
“Don’t either of you have any kind of… of… journalistic ethic? Even if you’re right—which you’re not—and even if you did have proof—which you don’t—it’s irresponsible to spread these kinds of rumors. It erodes public confidence in the real investigators!”
At that, Anna gave a frustrated chuckle. Then she said, “The piece didn’t accuse anyone of a crime. It just asked a simple question.”
“And now everyone at the department is talking about it!” The muscles in Gonzalez’s jaw clenched. She put her hands on her hips, flaring back her somber gray suit jacket to glare at me this time.
“They are?” Anna said, her eyes suddenly hopeful.
“Not in a good way, Anna, trust me. And I don’t like having to lie to my colleagues.”
“But they’re talking about it,” Anna insisted. The impish grin spreading on her face caused adorable dimples to form in her cheeks. “Maybe that explains the bump in traffic.”
I couldn’t help but return her triumphant smile with a smirk of my own.
Gonzalez, ever observant, rolled her eyes and pretended to gag as she pointed a finger into her mouth behind Anna’s back.
I sighed. “Sheila, I’ve already read the article. Several times. Anna didn’t say anything that couldn’t be independently verified. All she’s saying is that the investigators may have missed something. Which I agree with, by the way. No way that explosion was a freaking coincidence. I was there.”
Gonzalez went very quiet and clenched her jaw. Suddenly, I knew why she was really upset.
“You think it’s dangerous to publish this piece, don’t you?”
“Don’t you?” Gonzalez snapped. “I still find it hard to believe about this Harbor place being down there, but between what I’ve seen and what you two and Vinny have told me, the Gatekeeper and this Tetrad are dangerous enough without taunting them.”
“The article doesn’t identify either of them by name,” Anna pointed out. “There’s no mention of Harbor, and no implication of offworlder involvement whatsoever. Vinny and Gunn both insisted on that.”
“Still,” Gonzalez said.
I grunted, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. I did see her point, but the article was innocuous enough by itself, and I had hounded Anna until she took out any reference to Harbor or anything at all being located beneath the Museum. No matter how cute she was, all excited about her new website, I couldn’t afford to let her give away the slim advantage we had over the Gatekeeper. She saw the sense in that. It hadn’t been hard to get her to agree.
“Speaking of which,” Anna said. She held out a small digital recorder to me across the desk. “This came while you were out.”
She didn’t mean the digital recorder itself, but the message stored on it, as indicated by the blinking red light. Hesitating, I took it, cranked up the volume and clicked play.
“Greetings, Gunn.” The cyborg Peacekeeper’s whistle-chime voice came clearly through the tiny speaker. I’d met many Lodians since I first met Dyna, but none of them had as many augmentations as her. I flexed the joints of my own cybernetic hand while I listened to her message, careful not to turn my wrist outward and risk causing another cramp. “I hope this finds you and your friends well. I appreciate the extra detail you sent us. Our analysts agree that this Lodian who calls himself Tanamir is most likely ex-Defense Forces. The burn scar on his neck could have been caused by the kind of chemical weapons used in the Vortex Wars. However, he was smart enough to use a new name. We didn’t get a hit in the Federation databases on anyone named Tanamir. I have my guesses as to who he really is, based on your description of the events and his approach. As such, in the meantime, you and your friends would be wise not to do anything that might attract undue attention—”
“Told you,” Detective Gonzalez muttered under her breath.
“Shh,” Anna said.
“—until I arrive,” Dyna’s recording continued. “By the time you receive this message, I will already be traveling back to Earth. Take care. I will see you all soon.”
The recording ended and the three of us exchanged glances.
Anna’s face reflected her sheer excitement and anticipation. She’d met Dyna once, but her memories of it had been wiped after the event. I had no doubt she was, at this moment, brainstorming ways to get a quote or a photo from Dyna for her blog.
Gonzalez, however, frowned. Unlike Anna, the detective’s memories of the carnage Dyna had caused trying to stop an alien fugitive had not been erased.
“Just her?” Gonzalez asked.
“Her partner, Kilos, will probably come with her.”
The detective’s frown deepened.
Personally, I was glad to hear that Dyna was planning a return trip. I was out of my depth when it came to the Tetrad. How could I do anything meaningful to counteract what Tanamir was planning next when I didn’t know what he was trying to accomplish in the first place? Having Dyna back here would be a huge advantage. She should be able to provide some answers, or at least point us in the right direction. All we had to do in the meantime was sit tight and not screw it up.
“Dyna told me before about how overtaxed the Federation forces are fighting this war,” I said, trying to reassure Gonzalez. “Peacekeepers are the scouts and field agents. She’s probably being sent back to see if she can handle the problem on her own. If she determines that it’s bigger than she can deal with, then maybe her boss will finally agree to send in the big guns.”
“Why don’t I like the sound of that?” Gonzalez mused aloud. It was a question neither Anna nor I attempted to answer. “And how long do you think it’ll take her to travel here?”
I shrugged. “The messages seem to take, what—a few days to get back and forth? Seems logical that it would take her at least that long, probably longer, to get here.”
“Thirty-six hours is the shortest time we’ve waited between messages so far,” Anna said. “The longest is two weeks. We don’t necessarily respond right away, and I’m guessing she doesn’t either.”
“How much do you trust this so-called Peacekeeper, Gunn?”
“Do we have to go over this again?” I asked. “She’s helped us before. Her messages all seem to indicate that she’s trying to help us now.”
Gonzalez sighed, pacing across the tiny office. I grabbed a glass and fetched some tap water from the bathroom down the hall. Then, I found a gym towel in the office and used it to dry my face.
Gonzalez finally sat on the narrow windowsill, her back to the street below, and looked me straight in the eyes.
“Meanwhile,” the detective said, “she makes a good point. We shouldn’t be attracting undue attention.” Gonzalez glared at Anna. “You should unpublish that article.”
“No way, Jose. My readers would be furious.”
I groaned, attracting the attention of both women. Averting my eyes, I reached out and set my finger on the digital recorder to play the message back a second time.
I froze when a knock sounded at the door.