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Authors: David Liss

Randoms

BOOK: Randoms
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For Eleanor and Simon

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I've been working as a professional writer for fifteen years, and I can honestly say I've never enjoyed working on a novel as much as this one. Part of that fun came from sharing early versions with test readers whose encouragement helped to get me past the doubts of radical genre-shifting. Veronica Goldbach, Sheri Holman, Sophia Hollander, John Aidan Kozlovsky, John Minton, Iris Sabrina de Andrade, and Heather Sullivan all provided astute and delightfully dorky feedback, as well as much-needed enthusiasm, during the early days of this project. I am also lucky to have benefited from the advice, brilliance, and friendship of the boldest federation of writers ever assembled: Robert Jackson Bennett, Rhodi Hawk, Joe McKinney, and Hank Schwaeble. And a special thanks to Jonathan Maberry, who badgered me into writing this book in the first place.

I am grateful, as always, for the direction provided by my agent, Liz Darhansoff. I also can't sufficiently thank the team at Simon & Schuster for their cosmic efforts in getting this book into shape. I am convinced David Gale must be the most insightful, hard-working, and dedicated editor in the business, and I feel very lucky to have benefited from his knowledge, patience, and Jedi mastery. A huge thanks goes out to Liz Kossnar, the Han Solo of editorial assistants. I am thankful and relieved the book landed with as sure-handed and thoughtful a copy editor as Karen Sherman.

This book owes much to support, love, and geeky enthusiasms of my family. My son Simon has always been ready to share my own genre obsessions, and my daughter Eleanor provided excellent age-appropriate feedback (thanks for suggesting flying saucers!). She also sat with me as I rewatched Star Trek films (not
Star Trek V
, just so we're clear). My wife, Claudia, has always been my best and most clear-headed champion. I'm lucky to be married to someone with whom I can converse in Klingon. And, finally, anyone who reads this book will understand why I must also thank my cats for always being themselves.

Part One

FIRST CONTACT

CHAPTER ONE

T
anner Hughes was in the process of smacking me in the head and making some unflattering observations about my masculinity while his girlfriend, Madison, leaned against the wall, tapping on her phone. This was the music of my humiliation—the vacuum whoosh of texts on their way out and the chime of those coming in. We were in my science classroom, and I was supposed to be taking an after-school makeup quiz. Mrs. Capelli, my teacher, had stepped out ten minutes before, telling me she was
trusting me
to conduct myself
responsibly
. I wasn't sure if retreating with my arms raised to protect my face qualified as responsible behavior.

I wasn't a total coward. Under the right conditions, I was willing to take a stand. When you traveled as much as my mom and I did, and started a new school every year, you had to be ready to face guys like Tanner Hughes, who were always on the lookout for fresh victims. That was the theory, anyhow. In practice, I wanted to keep things from escalating. I was in sixth grade, Tanner was in eighth, and he looked like maybe he had enjoyed some of his earlier grades enough to want to repeat one or two of them. He was easily six inches taller than I was and had about a twenty-pound advantage, all of it in muscle. I'd confronted my share of bullies, and I knew how to play the odds. In this case, I put my money on holding out until the teacher returned, which I hoped would be very soon.

I also wanted to believe that maybe after Tanner got in a couple of jaw-rattlers, Madison might possibly ask her boyfriend to back off. Girls were apt to become bored with felony assault. No luck there. Every time Tanner took a swipe at me, Madison sighed, like she was
OMG, so
bored
, and then went back to her phone.

I'm not saying I hadn't given Tanner Hughes good reason to hate me. I had after all, shown up in
his
school, offended him with what he considered a lame haircut (I had been trying to coax my slightly limp brown hair into looking like Matt Smith's, and I was happy with the results, but I respect dissenting opinions), and, perhaps most seriously, looked at him in the hallway. In my defense, he had been standing in the part of the hallway where I was heading, and I like to look where I'm going, but still. I understood his point.

We had, in other words, pretty much irreconcilable differences. He found my existence offensive. I wanted to exist. I didn't have a lot of faith that we were going to work out a compromise.

I was considering the hopelessness of my position while also sidestepping a shove that would have knocked me into, and possibly through, the wall, when Mrs. Capelli returned to the classroom. She'd left me alone and made me promise to do nothing but finish my quiz, so I could understand how it might look bad to see me with Tanner and Madison in the room. That said, Tanner was in the middle of stamping his boot treads all over the emptied contents of my notebook, which he'd taken the time and trouble to scatter across the floor. I kind of thought the evidence might point toward me not really welcoming the company.

In a perfect world, Tanner Hughes would have been deliv
ered over to our educational correctional machine and suffered a stern talking-to for his crimes against society and my notebook. This was not a perfect world, however. Tanner was the goalie for the school soccer team—it never hurts to have a guy the width of a garbage Dumpster standing in the way of the opponents scoring—and that team was one game away from securing a place in the middle school state playoffs. That Mrs. Capelli's son was a starting midfielder only served to bring the truth into sharper focus. After all, Tanner's version of events made perfect sense: I'd invited him into the class and demanded that a meathead with a C-minus average help me with my quiz. When he'd refused, I'd become so “spastic” that Tanner had been forced to defend himself. When Mrs. Capelli asked Madison if that was what had happened, Madison shrugged and mumbled a stirring “I guess,” which would have convinced even the most hardened Tanner doubters out there.

That was how I ended up in the front office so the principal could discuss my many deficiencies with my mother.

A lot of kids cringe at the prospect of their parents being called in to the principal's office. A lot of kids are afraid of their parents. A lot of kids, I am led to believe, have crummy parents, but I was not one of them. I was not afraid of my mother. I was afraid
for
her, because the last thing she needed was more stress. My mother had recently been handed a bad diagnosis—a really bad one. Scary, terrifying, bad. Besides medicines her insurance company would not pay for, and exercises she had no time to do, what she needed most was to reduce the amount of stress in her life. Thanks to Tanner Hughes, Mrs. Capelli, the principal, the school, and the game of soccer, I had just become the source of more stress.

To look at her, you wouldn't know she had an unbelievably awful disease. She sat in the principal's office in her pantsuit, legs crossed, her brown hair up in a bun. No one else would have noticed the new and deeply etched lines around her eyes, the creases in her forehead, and the appearance of a few streaks of gray in her hair. On the other hand, I kept a running tally of how she looked from one day to the next.

“So,” she said to Principal Landis, “tell me again why Zeke is in trouble and this other boy is not.”

Principal Landis was not what you would call a thin man. He
was
what you would call a fat man. I understand that no one is perfect. I, for example, am both tall and thin—there are those who have referred to me as
gangly
—and I've already mentioned my controversial haircut. All of which is to say that I've been on the receiving end of personal insults. Empathy being what it is, I try to avoid making fun of how someone might look, but if the person in question is a complete jerk, then I say it's a good time to make an exception. This was one of those times. Principal? Fat.

I don't want to suggest that Mr. Landis was circus-freak heavy. He was not grotesquely fat. He was, however, hilariously fat. Every part of him was overweight. Even his ears were fat, his nose was fat, his fingers massive, blubbery loaves, and it was hard to take him seriously. Also, he was balding. There's no reason a receding hairline has to be funny. Many men wear baldness well, even make it look cool. On my principal: funny.

Mr. Landis leaned forward, his fat wrists splayed on the desk. The desk, in response, creaked. “Though he has been with us only a few months, this is not the first time Zeke has been involved in an
incident
,” This last word generated air quotes with sausagey fingers.

“If by
incident
,” my mother said, somehow resisting the urge to air quote back at him, “you mean that boy bullying him, then you are absolutely correct. I'd like to know why you aren't doing anything about this.”

“This accusation of bullying is troubling,” said Mr. Landis, now leaning back and intertwining his large fingers. “I take it very seriously.”

He said this with such finality that I was tempted to rise, clap my hands together, and say,
I'm glad we got all that worked out.

My mother wasn't buying it. “I don't see that you do take it seriously. This is the third time this semester that I've been called in to discuss Zeke's behavior, and each time his behavior, as near as I can tell, is his getting picked on.”

Mr. Landis narrowed his eyes and pressed his lips together in a show of indignation. “Let me remind you that we are not here to discuss what other students may or may not have done. Zeke has not done a very good job of settling in at this school, as you are no doubt aware. I understand that your career has led you to move frequently, but that does not change the fact that Zeke has difficulty making friends, and he has antisocial interests. Together, these factors suggest the profile of a student who might present a danger to himself or others.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Are you saying that because Tanner Hughes comes into a classroom where I'm taking a quiz and messes with me, you think I'm going to show up with a gun and starting shooting up the place?”

“No one mentioned guns,” Mr. Landis said, “until you did, just now. Quite honestly, I feel unsafe.”

My mother stood up. “We're done here.”

Mr. Landis looked up from my file. “If Zeke makes an effort to stay out of trouble, I will certainly rethink how seriously we have to take his threats against the school.”

My mother stared at him for a long minute. I knew her well enough to understand that she was seriously considering making a comment that included the words “fat,” “bald,” or both. I also knew her well enough to understand that no matter how seriously she considered it, she wouldn't actually do it. At the time I thought it was probably the right decision, but later I would wish she had indulged.

I had no way of knowing that I was never going to set foot in that school again.

CHAPTER TWO

F
or the record, I did not have difficulty making friends, at least no more than you would expect from a kid in my situation—which, admittedly, produced some challenges. My mother was an environmental compliance consultant, and that meant she moved around the country helping companies keep up with changing pollution laws. Every year or so we found ourselves in a different city, something that was never easy for me, and was getting harder each time.

Starting a new school partway into the first semester of the sixth grade was particularly tough. Cliques had already been formed, and most kids were friends with people they'd known for years. Still, nerds find each other. Not because of appearances, though. I like to believe I look like your average kid. I don't wear Coke-bottle glasses or pull my pants up to my armpits. I don't spend too much time worrying about my clothes, but I dress okay. I could probably benefit from a little time lifting weights, but I'm still kind of athletic, and I'd been on the track team at my last school.

When I got to my new school, it didn't take me too long to find a group to hang out with. We RPGed, talked books, movies, and comics. We played video games, both in person and in co-op. I was not, and never had been, the loner sitting in his room, looking at pictures of automatic weapons and thinking about how
they were all going to pay
. I figured Tanner Hughes
and his kind would pay by spending the rest of their lives being themselves. The kids I had problems with were their own worst enemies. They could be counted on to take revenge against themselves sooner or later.

Even so, I didn't have any epic, lifelong friends. Kirk and Spock. Data and La Forge. Han and Chewie (though that relationship always felt a little one-sided to me). Those were the kind of friendships I envied. I wanted a friend who would call me in the middle of the night and say, “I need you to go to the main bus station in Tucson, Arizona. I can't tell you why.” I would hang up and then be off to Tucson, regardless of the consequences, because this would be the sort of friend who wouldn't ask me to go if he didn't need me. He would know he could count on me, and I would know I could count on him.

I didn't have friends who even came close to that level. Still, what I had was okay.

•   •   •

My father, Uriah Reynolds, had been a professional dork, which I guess meant dorkdom was in my blood. For years he made his living as an editor of fantasy and science-fiction novels. I used to love going through his home office, looking at the books he had lying around, thick volumes with pictures of aliens and spaceships and futuristic cities on the covers. In those days, I had a normal life. We lived in a quiet New Jersey suburb, an hour from New York City, and, in the way of little kids, I expected my life to be like that forever.

My dad went to sci-fi and comic conventions all the time, and he'd always come home with great stuff—
Star Wars
and
Star Trek
action figures, ship models, toy blasters and phasers. Whatever else he brought me, he would always try to find
something related to Martian Manhunter, who was my dad's favorite superhero and so became mine: Martian Manhunter toys, mugs, key chains, posters, and snow globes. His green skin, protruding brow, and muscular chest crossed with two red bands were all as familiar to me as my own reflection. Martian Manhunter wasn't the most popular member of the Justice League, but my father was drawn to the sad nobility of the honorable survivor of a lost race.

He enjoyed his work in publishing, but he was always reaching for something more. Sometimes he would disappear into his office, typing away relentlessly on his keyboard, working on his own stories. I never thought too much about it, but then he found an agent, and his pitch for a TV show was picked up by one of the cable networks. It was a sci-fi series called
Colony Alpha
, and for a while it looked like my father's dreams were going to come true.

The network gushed enthusiasm about the show. It was going to be a huge hit, they assured him. I remember sitting on the rug in our living room, watching him pace around the house as he talked to his agent or the show's producer on the phone, excitement visible in his every movement.

Then, in the way dreams do, his dream began to unravel. There were the casting problems. A couple of feisty kids were thrown in to improve the show's appeal with young viewers. The network added a former swimsuit model whose main function was to walk around in a bodysuit and strike poses. The special effects were mind-bogglingly bad, and the talentless directors they brought in to save money made every scene feel like middle school theater.
Colony Alpha
was canceled after five weeks, the network never bothering to air the last three episodes.

My father was devastated, but he had come too close to give up.
Colony Alpha
was his dream, and he believed he could bring it to life somewhere. When an Australian TV producer contacted him about relaunching down under, my dad jumped at the chance. This, too, turned out be just another false hope. I still remember hearing the phone ring, seeing my mother at the kitchen table, her back slumped, her shoulders trembling so violently that her shirt rippled. I couldn't see her face, and she made no noise, but I knew she was crying, and I knew I was never going to see my father again.

The show's producer had been taking my father to visit some possible shooting locations. It was early in the morning, and there was no traffic on the Sydney highway. The police suspected the producer had wanted to show off, to impress my father with what his new Ferrari could do. A tire blew out, and the car rolled five times before it fell off the bridge.

That was five years ago.

In the year before he died, my father had to endure the jeers of science-fiction fans—his own people, as he put it—over what a piece of garbage he had created. He hated that fans believed that what they saw was the show he had envisioned. I think that was one of the reasons he worked so hard to find a new home for his idea.

The ironic thing is that
Colony Alpha
went on to become the poster child for quality genre shows mutilated by clueless network suits. It is often called the greatest science-fiction show that never was. There's fan fiction, lists of dream casts for a reboot. On YouTube you can watch fan films based on scenes from the original scripts. The dork blog io9 once ran a post called “Ten Ways
Colony Alpha
Changed Science Fiction.”
Uriah Reynolds did become the sci-fi hero he'd always dreamed of being, but it only happened after he was dead.

•   •   •

Between work, dealing with her terminal disease, and taking the time to bail out her delinquent son, my mother didn't have much time to cook. Once she had rescued me from the principal's office, we stopped to pick up Chinese takeout so we could enjoy a quiet evening of sitting at the kitchen table and complaining about my life.

The previous year we had been in Albuquerque, where even in the winter it didn't get dark until pretty late. Now we were in Wilmington, Delaware, and though it wasn't yet five o'clock, the sun was already going down. I liked that, for some reason. I liked the cold and the quiet, and how our house was well lit and warm against the early December chill. It was nice and comfortable and safe, except in all the ways it wasn't. No matter how funny or lively or good-natured my mother might act, I knew nothing was ever going to be comfortable for her again.

“I'm really sorry you had to deal with that stuff today,” I told her.

She put down her disposable chopsticks and leveled her gaze at me. “You've got to be kidding me, Zeke. Do you honestly think I'd be angry with you?”

“I know, but I hate that you have to take the time and put up with the stress and all that.”

She smiled. She looked perfectly okay. That was the thing that made no sense to me. She looked so healthy and normal, it was hard to believe that was all going to change. Six months before, my mother had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, also called Lou Gehrig's disease. It's a
degenerative neurological condition that causes gradual but catastrophic muscle failure. At some unknown point in her future, she would begin to lose the ability to control her limbs, and then, slowly, she would suffer failure in the muscles that allowed her to do things like breathe and swallow and blink. She was going to become a living corpse, trapped within her own failed body. I didn't want to think about her journey from healthy to disabled to helpless, but sometimes I couldn't think about anything else.

“Look,” she said, “just promise me you'll stop threatening your principal.”

We both laughed.

“If I made that joke at school, I would totally get kicked out,” I said.

Now she was serious. “Do not make that joke at school.”

“Mom, I'm not a complete idiot.”

“You're twelve,” she said. “That means you're a complete idiot at least part of the time.”

Then came the knock at the door.

I got up to answer it, and when I threw the doors open, I saw two men on the front stoop. I hadn't turned on the porch light, and their dark suits made them almost invisible. They had grave expressions, stiff postures, and earpieces. They looked scary and governmental.

“I swear, we were kidding,” I said. “I'm not going to threaten my principal.”

The men looked at each other, then at me. “Are you Ezekiel Reynolds?” the taller one asked.

I thought he was about to arrest me, so all I could manage was a nod. I also flicked on the porch light. Just because you are scared doesn't mean you can't be polite.

“I'm Agent Jimenez, and this is Agent McTeague. May we have a word with you?”

My mother was now standing behind me. “What's this about?”

“Ma'am, we would rather not say on the front porch.”

“Do you have a warrant?” My mother had just shifted into she-bear mode.

“Ma'am,” said Agent Jimenez, “it isn't that kind of conversation.”

“So this isn't about . . .” My mother decided not to finish that thought.

“Ezekiel's threats against his principal?” Agent Jimenez asked with death-row seriousness. Then he grinned. “No, ma'am. Your son is not in any trouble.”

My mother sighed. She was clearly feeling less threatened, but she wasn't quite prepared to let the men into the house. “Look, I'm not comfortable with this, especially considering how vague you're being.”

“I understand,” said Agent McTeague. “We anticipated some natural reluctance on your part.” He touched his earpiece and said, “We're go for Renegade.”

I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded cool. I'd never been go for anything, at least not that I knew of.

The doors of one of the black cars in the driveway opened, and more people in suits came out. It was dark and I couldn't see who they were, only that several of them were standing around one person, as if protecting him. It was only when he stepped into the porch light and was standing just a couple of feet away from me that I recognized him.

“Mr. Reynolds,” he said. “I hope I can have a few minutes
of your time.” He spoke in his usual serious but easy tone. It was the kind of voice that let you know he was a friendly guy, but not one you wanted to mess with. I'd heard him use this tone a million times on TV.

“Um, sure,” I said. “Okay. Come on in. Sir. Please.”

I stood aside to let him pass, because that seemed to be the right thing to do when you receive a visit from the president of the United States.

Of America. Just so there's no confusion.

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