Saturday Shorts: Upgrade Excerpt #2

Belated again this week… But for good reason–I spent yesterday doing lots of work. Critting on Scribophile, editing Upgrade, chores around the house…

At any rate, apologies for the belatedness.

Today I’m sharing another excerpt from Upgrade, the opening of Chapter One. I’ve revised it after some feedback that it wasn’t compelling enough. Hopefully, this opening is more reader-ensnaring!

Once the first chapter’s in perfect shape (still a ways away), I’ll be posting it in its entirety, just as the first chapter of Augment is available to read.

For those of you not familiar with the Augment universe, Viki is an Upgrader, and the main character of the series. The sections in her POV are told in first person. Halle, her friend, is an AI, who had a few chapters in its POV in Augment, and far more chapters in its POV in Upgrade; its POV is told in third person. Agent Smith played a major role in the previous book, and is back in the thick of things again in this book. For the life of me I can’t remember if I actually have any chapters or scenes from his POV in Upgrade, although there were a few in Augment.

The following excerpt is from Viki’s POV.

Upgrade, Chapter One, Excerpt

I glared out my window at the bright blue sky. The last day of summer vacation, and instead of being outside, enjoying the warm sun, I sat at my desk, wishing tomorrow had already arrived.

What sort of an end to summer was that?

My fingers drummed on my thigh, and I glanced at my laptop’s screen. “Halle, is the update done yet?”

The tabby cat sitting in the middle of the desktop yawned and shook its head. “Sorry, Viki, it is still downloading.”

I groaned and rested my forehead on the cool surface of my desk. Sometime last night Realmshards, Halle’s and my favorite game, had released a massive update. With so many players out there, determined to get in one more full day of gaming before homework started piling up, the servers were having trouble keeping up with the demand. Even Halle, who, as an AI, had the ability to tweak things so our copy of the download didn’t stall or fail, couldn’t make it download any faster.

“Perhaps you should go out for a run,” Halle suggested. “It will be some time before Realmshards is ready.”

Normally, I loved running. At the moment, though, the thought of facing the summer heat alone did not appeal to me.

Not for the first time, I fervently wished Neela was still speaking me. Or Annabelle or May, for that matter. But ever since my best friend had accused me of being an Upgrader who’d been Augmented by choice, we hadn’t spoken. Neela didn’t even answer the door when I tried to visit early in the summer. I hadn’t tried again.

Without her to drag me around to parties and the beach and the mall and all the other places we usually hung out during the summer, I spent most of vacation in front of my computer. James was too busy packing for college and working at his summer job to spend much time with me, and Dad and Mom had hectic schedules—him at the research lab and her at the hospital—for most of the season. Halle all but had the kitchen robot drag me outside at times to get some sunshine, but for the first time since I had gotten out of the wheelchair, I was returning to school almost as pale as I had left it.

Not that it mattered. After what had happened, I doubted that many people planned on comparing tans with me.

“Viki?”

I shrugged, a slight heave of my shoulders. “Any messages from James?” He’d left for college a week ago and I’d barely heard anything beyond him having arrived safely.

“Your brother has yet to send a message since the last one was a few days ago. Do you want to send him one?”

“No, he’s probably busy.”

There was a long pause. I finally looked up to find Halle still sitting with its striped tail curled around white paws, ears flicking back and forth.

It cocked its head. “It is the last day of summer vacation. Usually you celebrate by doing something special. Why not do something to take your mind off tomorrow?”

“Like what?” I grumbled. “It’s not like you can walk out of the computer and go to the beach with me, and I have no one else to hang out with.”

“No, I cannot.” There was a hint of sadness in Halle’s voice, and I winced. Sometimes, I had a feeling my friend regretted its incorporeal form. I could understand; I remembered what it was like to be unable to move under my own motivation. My hand brushed against my right knee. Running was pretty much the only thing that got me outside this summer, and usually only in the early morning or late evening. During the hottest hours of the day, the last thing I’d wanted to be doing was working up a sweat, since I’d want to go to the beach to cool off, and there was no one to hang out with there. And, knowing my luck, I probably would bump into Neela and the others there if I went by myself.

Halle’s tail twitched. “You should find new friends to spend time with.”

“It’s not that easy,” I said. We’d had this conversation multiple times, and it always went the same way. “Everyone knows who I am.” Even though the Government released a statement saying there had been a mistake, and I hadn’t actually augmented myself, there were still many who didn’t believe it. Neela being one.

“In Snowvale, yes, but outside of Snowvale, most people probably would not remember you. It has been several months, and you are not the only one who has been accused of Augmenting or Upgrading illegally.”

“I know, but if they haven’t already heard about me, someone’s going to tell them.” I could recall all too easily how the last term ended. My coach kicked me off the track team, right before our big meet. If that wasn’t horrible enough, everyone avoided me in class, in the hall, even in the cafeteria. It was just like my childhood all over again, when I was in the wheelchair, the kid who should be pitied from a distance. Except this time, Neela wasn’t there to help me. She was on the other side of the line. And it wasn’t pity being thrown my way, but disgust.

“Not everyone is going to care about a rumor,” Halle said.

Bouncy dance music burst from my computer speakers, and I jumped, nearly falling out of my chair. “Halle! You startled me.”

The cat pranced about the screen. “You should cheer up. I will have the kitchen robot make cake, and I have sent James a message to see if he is available to chat.”

“You shouldn’t bother him. He probably has homework to do.” I grimaced. Yet another thing I wasn’t looking forward to. I would be a junior this year, which meant thinking about tests required by college admissions, the yearbook, prom, and other senior-related things, with loads more homework on top of all of that.

The dance music cut out, and Halle stopped dancing, its tabby colors fading to a muddy brown. “You…have a message.”

I frowned, wondering why my friend seemed reluctant to pass it on. “James didn’t yell at you, did he?” Ever since learning about Halle’s existence, my family had accepted its presence to various degrees. James treated it like having another sibling, one that lived in the Cloud and was capable of learning practically anything. Unfortunately, James sometimes clashed with Halle regarding its know-it-all tendencies. There had been more than one shouting match between my brother and the house’s speakers.

“No. It is not from James.”

“Who is it, then?” I couldn’t help but let my hopes rise a little—it wouldn’t be Mom or Dad. Could it possibly be Neela? Perhaps she had finally decided to forgive me. Not that there was anything to forgive—I hadn’t asked to be augmented, a fact she refused to believe despite all available evidence. Her lack of trust still stung, but I hoped our friendship could be salvaged.

“It is from Agent Smith,” Halle said.

My hopes crumbled and fell, a sudden weight in my stomach. I licked my lips and swallowed, fingers tapping on the desk’s surface. “What does he want?”

“He wants to meet with you. With both of us, in fact. Today.” Halle’s voice shook a little bit. Unsurprising, given that the last time we crossed paths with the government agent, Halle almost died.

“Did he say why?”

“No.”

“He better not be trying to get you back again.” My fingers curled into fists, and I shoved away from the desk, sitting up in my chair. “When does he want to see us?”

“Right now, actually. He is standing outside.”

No time to prepare. Another brick landed on the already heavy weight in my stomach. Still, if we refused to see him, what would he do? What could he do? Halle was free. It was never going to let itself get taken again, and if it needed to, it could escape easily. I, on the other hand, had my family to worry about. I clenched my teeth. The Government would not hesitate to threaten my family, of that I had no doubt. Not after they used me for bait a few months ago to capture my biological parents.

“Fine,” I said. “Let’s see what he has to say.”