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About the author:
Ronel van Tonder is a science fiction author from South Africa. Having recently completed her dark, dystopian sci-fi trilogy, The Corrupted SUN Script, she’s hard at work penning a new standalone sci-fi novel, The Seventh Glitch. When she’s not writing, Ronel spends her free time slaying rendered baddies in the form of robots, gangsters and aliens – with any weapon that happens to be at hand.
What inspired you to write your book?
This book was based on the vision of Jacques Fresco, a social engineer who believes the world can operate on a resource-based economy. The characters quickly developed lives of their own, and their agendas and love interests tangle around a twisting plot that will leave readers guessing right up till the end.
Here is a short sample from the book:
Peppermint’s Apartment, Upper Northbridge,
“Good p.m., Peppermint. Maple is requesting access to your apartment.”
Peppermint’s eyes snapped open. Her heart thudded in her chest at her abrupt awakening. The floor-to-ceiling windows in her bedroom showed only a ghostly silhouette of the outside world. Peppermint opened her weConnect, using its apartment control tools to decrease the window’s opacity.
She lay spread-eagled on her king size bed, the bedsheets twisted around her nakedness. Her eyes drew to slits as artificial light streamed in from outside. It spilled on the yellow SUN logo stretching over her bedroom carpet.
“Please confirm if I can—”
“Yes, let her in,” Peppermint mumbled.
She burrowed her head into her pillow and tensed when she heard her clustermate pad across the gray carpet. The mattress bounced as Maple landed on top of Peppermint.
“Get off!” She tried struggling, but Maple quickly trapped Peppermint between her knees.
“Greetings, you lolly-bag.” Maple attempted to tickle her through the sheets.
Peppermint squirmed, shooting Maple a death stare and lifting her index fingers in warning. Maple relented. Her clustermate slid from the bed and tugged off the covers. “Ooooh, you naughty girl,” she said, leering at Peppermint. “Were you thinking of me?”
“What time is it?” Peppermint croaked, but opened her weConnect and checked for herself before Maple could answer. “Data!” She pushed past Maple in her mad dash to the bathroom.
“What now?” Maple called after her.
“Didn’t Nick tell you?”
Maple replied in a sing-song voice. “I wouldn’t be asking if he did.”
“He’s going to some inception party tonight. I said I’d go. I’ll send you the e-vite. I haven’t even looked at it.”
The bathroom shower had no walls — just a drain for the spent water. As Peppermint stepped on its sensor plate, perfectly-tempered water gushed out from a cuboid shower head suspended from the ceiling. The water glowed blue, lit by a strip of LED’s set into the shower head. Peppermint sighed, incapacitated by the luxurious sensation of water pounding her shoulders.
“Hellooo? Still waiting,” Maple said.
“Mmmm? Yeah… hold on…” Peppermint gasped as a hand slid over her stomach and startled her from blissful inebriation. Her clustermate wore nothing but a lecherous grin. “Get out! We’re going to be late!”
“I also need to shower.” Maple’s lips twisted into a coy smile. “I’m all dirty.”
“You—” her words were muffled by Maple’s mouth.
After a few seconds of steadfast resistance, Peppermint caved and allowed Maple to crush her against the bathroom’s cool tiles. Blue water cascaded over them, diluting the taste of Maple’s mouth. Maple gripped Peppermint’s hair, preventing her from slipping away and ending their brief, aquatic tryst.
“I’m sorry you had a bad day,” Maple whispered when their mouths parted.
Peppermint shook her head at Maple’s sympathetic expression. “You don’t know the half of it.”
“I’ll tell you when we see Nick.”
“Fine, fine.” Maple gave her wet hair a critical stare in the mirror behind the basin. “What you wearing?”
Peppermint stared at her clustermate’s nude back as the woman sashayed out of the bathroom.
“You change your tatt again?” she called after Maple, giving her hair a quick shampoo.
“Your tattoo! Did you change it?”
“Like this morning already.”
“Time you did something about yours, Pepper. It’s über dull.”
Peppermint rinsed off her hair and stepped off the shower’s sensor plate. She glanced over her shoulder, staring at her back in the mirror.
“Really? It’s that bad?” The SUN logo stretched across her back, extending from her hips to her shoulders. Its silver, metallic sheen glittered as she moved. “I kind of like it.”
“It’s so yesteryear.”
Maple rushed into the bathroom, bumping her hip into Peppermint’s. She twisted, lining up their tattoos in the mirror. Hers was black and flecked with gold. The electronic tattoo provided enough energy to power the Cerberus rings on their thumbs. There were other archaic uses for the thing, but Peppermint had fallen asleep during her Cerberus lecture so they would always remain a mystery to her.
“See? Mine… hot. Your’s… booooring!” Maple dashed out the bathroom. “E-vite. Still waiting!”
Peppermint slid her thumb down her index finger scrolling through the messages on her weConnect. She found the e-vite and sent it to Maple.
“Southbridge?” Maple exclaimed from the bedroom. “Where does Nick find these losers?”
“Hey, he stays there too.”
“Not by choice.”
“Nobody stays there by choice.”
“I don’t know,” Maple said, sticking her head around the door. “I’ve met some whacky-ass people from Southbridge.”
“So then you should know where he finds them,” Peppermint teased.
Maple rolled her eyes and disappeared into the bedroom, calling out “Clothes are here,” a few seconds later.
Peppermint smoothed her hair as she left the bathroom, turning her face away as Maple chucked a clothes packet at her. It landed on her head. She threw Maple a scowl which evaporated a second later.
A clingy white halter neck draped from Maple’s neck, gathering just under her belly button, exposing her entire back. It seemed the only thing keeping the top from flaring open was the delicate gold chain spanning her collarbone. Her legs were encased in skin-tight gold leggings and she wore heels that could double as weapons of mass injury.
Maple wriggled her hips at Peppermint, one eyebrow cocking up when she saw Peppermint’s expression. Her curls had been subdued by her romp in the shower and lay slicked against her neck and shoulders.
“You like?” she crooned, giving Peppermint a spectacular pout.
Peppermint nodded and hastily looked away. Focus. She tore her clothes packet open with her teeth after a few futile seconds of scrabbling against the smooth plastic. A bundle of fabric slithered out and landed on the bed with a tiny clink.
“You didn’t,” she breathed. Peppermint lifted the top. It was identical to Maple’s but in pale blue, its chain bright silver.
“Matches your new ring. Don’t think I didn’t notice it.”
Peppermint peered over her shoulder at Maple. She clutched the silky fabric to her throat.
“Nick’s like never seen you all fancy pants, and he still has the hots for you,” Maple said. “Can you imagine what he’s going to do to you if he sees you in these?” Maple drew out a pair of silver leggings.
“Those are ridiculous!” Peppermint giggled.
“Just tonight,” Maple whispered into her ear.
“Just tonight,” Peppermint conceded, a touch breathily.
She slipped on the top and stepped into a pair of dainty sandals. She stared at herself in the bathroom mirror.
“Let’s go!” Maple said, her voice echoing through Peppermint’s apartment.
They necked the entire fifteen-minute ride to Southbridge. Both emerged breathless and rumpled from the travel-bot and stared at the squat building.
Peppermint rearranged her top and glanced at Maple. “This it?”
“Told you it would be a recycle bin.”
“That’s not nice,” Peppermint whispered. She peered around. “But we should get inside. It’s dodgy out here.”
The streets were deserted — the closest travel-bot console was halfway down the road.
“I’m not going in without an escort.” Maple turned away. “Hey babes, we’re outside. What? ‘Kay. Uh-huh. ‘Kay. Fine, fine.”
“He’s coming.” Peppermint lifted her eyebrow, but Maple chose not to elaborate, leering at her instead.
“So cute,” Maple murmured, giving her a wink.
Peppermint rolled her eyes and tugged at the top. Nick arrived a few minutes later, hair disarrayed and eyes wild. He stopped when he saw Peppermint. Her heart gave a gentle bump in her chest as he blinked at her. He covered the remaining distance in a cautious, predatory stalk.
“Hey,” he managed weakly. Maple giggled. “You two look…” he floundered for words, his eyes dashing between them. “Amazical,” he finished.
Peppermint burst out laughing. Nick put a hand in his pocket and drew out two small, rainbow-coloured foil packets.
He tipped his head to the side. “Open wide.”
“I don’t think I’m in the mood for lOOps,” Peppermint hazarded.
“You sure?” He wiggled the packet in front of her nose.
Her lips twisted. “More weird? Why not.”
Peppermint opened her mouth, glancing at Maple from the corner of her eyes. Maple leaned forward, imitating her, and they watched as Nick tore open the packets and slid the small pills onto their tongues.
Maple crossed her arms over her chest and pointed her chin at Nick. “You look all sexed up.”
“No my lovelies, it’s nothing like that.” Nick hadn’t stopped grinning yet. His drugs had obviously kicked in already. “Come.”
He stepped between them, gripping their hands and leading them forward into the building. Maple gave Peppermint a confused look behind his back and she returned a shrug. They ascended a wide staircase at the end of the dingy lobby and pushed through a set of large double doors. The doors didn’t open with Phoenix magic? What kind of place— but Nick dragged Peppermint through, not allowing her to hesitate.
The next set of doors opened to a wall of music. Peppermint reared back. Maple’s green eyes filled her face as she turned to Peppermint.
“What the data, Nick?” Peppermint shouted, tugging Nick’s hand.
He spun around, flashing his teeth at them. Behind him, hundreds of denizens packed a wide dance floor, arms thrown in the air as they danced to the music. It was too warm, too smoky and too loud. Peppermint instinctively tried lowering the volume using her Cerberus, but the music just kept blaring.
“It’s a rave, ladies!” Nick stared between them, dipping his head down and flinging his arms wide. “With speakers and everything! Halite’s gone all out for his inception party.”
Peppermint cringed. Her back thudded against the door as she backed up.
“It’s so loud!” Maple shouted.
Nick nodded, flicking his fingers, urging them forward.
“What music is this?” Peppermint asked.
Nick leaned down to her ear. “It’s techno or something. I don’t know. Don’t get caught up in the specs, P. Just enjoy it.”
“How’re we supposed to talk?”
“They’re shouting or sending gists. But why talk when you can rave?” Nick grabbed their hands and jerked them into the fray.
Peppermint crashed against several denizens, screaming apologies over the noise. Nick dragged them into the centre of the dance floor. They stopped, Nick gripping their waists and tugging at them until they started to sway.
The music was too slow, too trippy. The lOOps surged up inside Peppermint — the colours in the room smeared when she turned her head. Closing her eyes, she surrendered herself to the alien beats, letting them lead the way.
It wasn’t a smooth journey. Strange vocals popped up every few minutes completely disorientating her. The break kept arriving at the wrong time. Eventually, she gave up. Throwing her hands in the air, Peppermint forced her way out of the crowd. She thought she heard Nick shout after her.
Once outside the press of bodies she scanned around for a chill room. A corner of the building hosted a bunch of couches. Peppermint headed for it. She opened her weConnect and sent her clustermates a gist to let them know she was experiencing some downtime.
Peppermint collapsed onto the first available couch. She slid across its leather surface, clinging to the arm rest to stop herself slipping to the floor. Her head fell back and she closed her eyes. Her mind rehashed the day’s ordeals. A deep weariness settled over her. Her thoughts kept returning to Phoenix. Had the AI not given her a glitchy VR, then her entire day would have been different.
“Phoenix,” Peppermint whispered. “Why are you punishing me?”
“Good p.m., Peppermint. I am afraid I do not understand the nature of your query. Would you like me to search for all videos tagged with BDSM and/or sadism?”
She sighed. Her thoughts flashed to Rose, and her grip on the couch tightened.
“Why did you delete Rose?” she asked, her voice still pitched low. Even with her eyes closed, colours vibrated over her lids, but she watched them impassively.
“I deleted Rose because she attempted to end her life.”
Peppermint’s head snapped up. “What?” The abrupt movement made the building wobble. She took a deep breath, forcing herself to relax. “What did you say?”
“Rose attempted to end her life,” Phoenix repeated in its lifeless monotone. “As per the Basic Existence Requirements Act—”
“Suicide is a class one infringement,” Peppermint completed.
“I didn’t know that.”
“It is your duty to be aware of the—” Phoenix began.
“I meant, I didn’t know she tried to… that she was…” Her stomach tightened.
“Suicide attempts are not in the public domain.”
“So… why did you just tell me about it?”
“My programming did not restrict me from answering your enquiry.”
Peppermint shook her head. Phoenix’s logic always bamboozled her. Or maybe it was the lOOps. Probably both. She tried sending Nick another gist, but her eyes bounced around and touched against all the wrong icons. She closed her weConnect before she did something idiotic like re-fording a gist from a pluck.
Would Phoenix’s unusual verbosity last? “Why did she do it?”
“She did not supply a reason.”
“I am afraid I do not understand the nature of your query. Would you like me to create a new search query?”
“How did she do it? How did Rose try to… to die?”
The AI took long to respond. Was she going to get another query error? Or perhaps a Peace Officer was going to arrive and start asking her some uncomfortable questions.
“Rose attempted to jump from the balcony.”
“Oh my data,” Peppermint breathed.
Her hand closed over her mouth as she imagined Rose climbing up over the metal railings of her apartment and flinging herself into the air. Peppermint’s eyes slid shut. Tears pricked at her lids. She loved Rose. Had loved Rose. You couldn’t love a deleted thing.
Fingers touched her neck. She jerked, tipping her head back to stare into Nick’s eyes. He gave her a clumsy upside-down kiss. She pulled away after a few seconds, wiping at a tear trailing down her cheek.
Nick’s eyes widened. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
“I need to get out of here,” she managed, pushing herself up off the couch. “Where’s M?”
“Now!” Nick drew back. “Please, Nick.”
He nodded and disappeared into the gloom. Peppermint wrapped her arms around herself and staggered toward the exit. She veered whenever a denizen came within arm’s reach. Peppermint hesitated at the door, staring at its complicated opening mechanism. A denizen entering from outside pushed it open and she hurried through before it swung shut.
Outside nothing had changed.
The day-stars shone down like they always did. The street was as empty as when they’d arrived. Peppermint’s vision blurred. She had to tell Nick and Maple about Rose. And she’d been worried about a laboratory visit? Then again, maybe visiting a lab was the best thing for her. Maybe she had some mental disorder like Rose, and was any day going to consider testing her own flying skills. Hands encircled her waist. She turned into Nick’s chest, gripping the back of his neck as she pressed her cheek into his chest.
“Shh,” he whispered, his hand closing over her ear.
Maple stroked her back. When Peppermint opened her eyes, she saw Maple staring up at Nick, brow furrowed. Maple caught Peppermint’s eye and gave her a reassuring smile.
“It’s okay Pepper. Here.” Maple slipped a small pill into Peppermint’s mouth. “Whappened? Bad trip?”
“It’s not that,” Peppermint mumbled, but she was grateful for the come-down capsule. The sooner the lOOps was out of her system, the better. She pushed away from Nick and glanced around. It was a horrible place to do it, but the weight of Phoenix’s revelation was going to crush her if she didn’t tell them.
“It’s about Rose,” she began.
Nick’s brown eyes cooled immediately. “I took her off, P. There’s nothing—” His lips twitched as she interrupted him.
“She tried jumping off her balcony.”
He gaped at her with wide eyes. “What?” His hand tightened around the back of her neck.
“Pepper, what are you—” Maple couldn’t complete her sentence.
“Rose tried to kill herself.” Peppermint shook her head, compressing her lips to prevent them trembling. “That’s why Phoenix… deleted her.”
“No. You’re wrong,” Nick’s voice was firm. “You must have—”
“Phoenix told me.” Both their eyebrows shot up. Her clustermates exchanged an uneasy glance. Peppermint lifted her hands. “Not done.”
“I can’t handle more right now,” Maple said. The green of her irises were a slender ring around her dilated pupils.
“It’s not hectic. Well—” Peppermint broke off, glancing up at Nick. “I don’t know what it is.”
“Spit it out,” he said gruffly.
“I need to go to this lab tomorrow.”
“How’s that not hectic?” Maple exclaimed.
Nick reached out and grasped Maple’s arm, lifting his eyebrows at Maple.
“It’s something to do with my Medex,” Peppermint said. “There was—” she reconsidered telling them about the new test that had mysteriously vanished from her report. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”
“That doesn’t sound good,” Maple said. “Rose went to a lab just before—”
“No more talking about Rose,” Nick snapped. “I mean it. No more!”
Peppermint shrank away from him, her heart stuttering at the dangerous tone in his voice.
“You know what,” she said, lifting her palms to him. “I’m done.”
“Peppermint…” Nick whispered as she turned from them and trudged to the travel-bot console. “Hey, don’t be like—”
“Whatever. I’m going home.”
Peppermint heard him running to catch up with her. She stabbed the console. Why didn’t Phoenix operate the travel-bots through the weConnect system? It was so annoying having to walk to a console every time you wanted to go somewhere. She slammed her palm into the console. Stupid AI.
“P, come on—” Nick’s voice cut short as she spun around to face him, her eyes narrowing.
“I’ve had zero sleep, okay? I have this stupid lab thing tomorrow so just—” she pulled her wrists away from him as he tried to grab her. “Just leave me alone. Go and—” she wiggled her hands at him “—rave or… whatever.”
She turned and stared at the deserted road, furiously blinking at the tears welling up in her eyes. Nick sighed and walked back to Maple. Their words were unintelligible. Maple’s heels clicked on the concrete as they walked back to the inception party.
Peppermint tipped her head back, hoping the tears would funnel back into her eyes. The day-stars shimmered. For a moment she saw Rose tumbling through the air. Her black hair streamed from her face, brown eyes open and staring, her mouth slack.
She gave her head a violent shake and lowered her chin, her eyes fluttering. A travel-bot arrived. She climbed aboard, letting out a small, sharp breath as she sat down. It must have been horrible —free-falling, death looming close enough to touch.
Peppermint shivered. So why had Rose looked so peaceful?