Title: Sugar Skulls
Authors: Lisa Mantchev & Glenn Dallas
Genre: Dystopia, New Adult, Science Fiction
Release Date: November 10, 2015
Welcome to Cyrene, a city where energy is currency and music is the lifeblood of its young citizens. Everyone lives on the grid, and the residents of the world’s largest playground are encouraged to pursue every physical and emotional pleasure imaginable.
Vee is the lead singer of the Sugar Skulls, an all-girl band that is Corporate’s newest pet project. Micah haunts the city like a ghost after an overdose of a deadly illegal street drug knocks him off the grid. When Micah and Vee forge an immediate, undeniable connection, their troubled worlds collide.
Trading concert stages for Cyrene’s rooftops and back alleys, they have to evade vicious thugs and Vee’s possessive manager as they unravel the mysteries connected to their dark pasts. And before the curtain falls, Micah and Vee will bring the city to its knees in their desperate bid for love, home, and a future together.
She looks straight at me. Gazes at me. Gazes through me.
The first note slips past her lips. It rolls over the crowd, and they’re instantly hers, already amped and soaring higher. There’s nothing quite like popping your Cyrene cherry, and a hundred newbies are experiencing it all around me as their nanotech processes the music, the drugs, the booze.
I miss that.
So it damn near knocks me on my ass when her words smash into me, and inside I unfold, like flesh-and-blood origami. Hands numb, mouth dry, blood on fire. I just stand there, rigid, muscles refusing to respond. Can’t move. Gotta move. Too exposed here. But her voice runs through my veins like napalm.
For a moment, a long moment, an eternity of a moment, I’m lost. This . . . this is impossible. Flutters and tingles and frissons long absent, jolting me as dormant synaptic pathways are jarred back into service. If strings ran up my spine, she just plucked the high E, a fierce vibration that shakes me to my core.
She looks away, and quakes subside into mere tremors. I close my eyes, welcoming new sine waves of sensation for three sharp breaths, then open them again, back in control. Propping myself up against the bar, I abandon my drink to process the last few seconds.
All these months, there’s been nothing. But just now? I felt it. I feel it. I pulse with life, lightning dancing across my skin as she batters the crowd with furious verses.
But I’m stuck on that first gasp.
One note. One word. She laid me low and resurrected me in one fell swoop.
Who is this girl?
Wrapping the microphone cord around my hand, I really lay into the lyrics, jacking straight into the brains of the audience. The boys and girls slosh around the pit like iridescent-foamed water in a dirty fish tank.
Except for the guy. The guy at the bar with the piercing gaze and the messy hair and the look of a lost soul. I’m too far away to see the color of his eyes, and he isn’t wearing anything worth noticing. Not the sharp edges of clothes fresh off the rack. Not the silver glint of a dozen facial piercings. None of the writhing subdermal implants or interchangeable magnetic tattoos that are the latest trends to hit hard and fast. At least, not any I can see from my vantage point. Black shirt and jeans that help him fade into the background. Dark blond, lacking all the bleach and color of anyone who spends any time in the sun or a salon. Even leaning back, every line of his body indicates a readiness to bolt.
I force my attention back to the pit, determined not to spare him another thought.
Just another gig, Vee. Just another audience. Get through the song, already.
Need to move. Need to run. Should run. Should get out of here.
It takes supreme effort to tear my attention away from her long enough to acknowledge her partners in crime. Treble summons entire orchestras and metal bands from her laptop and synth with a few frenzied keystrokes. Trouble snarls with hungry delight as she channels torrents of sound with a pair of haptic gloves, manipulating the very notes midstream like an angry sorceress as holographic turntables whirl in the foreground.
But front and center, there’s Her. She’s a creature of myth, with Her siren song and Her banshee wail. The set’s barely begun, but the hive’s heart and my heart both beat to Her drum.
Our eyes finally meet again, and I’m thrown back into a surging sea. When that first note hit, I was a drowning man finally breaking the surface. This time, the current simply takes me.
Outside, I betray nothing. Cucumber-cool and casual, even as Her eyes narrow and Her gaze bores into me. My crippled nervous system allows little else to show. But inside, I’m a being of crystal, oscillating in perfect harmony.
Running is the last thing on my mind now.
I should call a bouncer and have him ejected. Injected. Hauled off for a diagnostic and a thorough probing. There’s something not right. Not right with him. Not right with the way he looks at me or the way the song pours into him like water into the desert.
I force myself to look away, to push through the next song. If it’s not working for him, he’ll leave, right? He’ll go register a complaint with the main office, and they’ll roll up to the Loft and ask a lot of questions that boil down to the same freaking one I have:
Why isn’t he responding to the music?
Approaching the end of the set, the lyrics get rough around the edges, liable to rip if I lean into them any more than I already am. Everyone below me is frantic, writhing. Thrum output’s still on the rise as the lasers scan the crowd, gather up the ambient energy, and funnel it away. Neat, clean, efficient—and why we’re all here.
Except for the guy leaning against the bar. Separate from the others. Motionless. Gaze latched on me like he’s dying and I have the cure in my pocket.
That’s when I realize he’s responding, all right. Just not the way I expected.
Fuck the grid. I’m the one with the power right now.
The mood is shifting. The air is thick with it, the crowd buzzing and overstimulated, neurons firing and misfiring as the hive responds to Her rage, and She unleashes it. I swear, the ground trembles with thumping bass lines. She just might bring Hellcat Maggie’s down around us.
Now Her eyes won’t leave mine. She’s no longer the eye of the storm; She’s the storm itself, pounding the crowd and sweeping them along with Her.
I’m pushing it. I can feel the stress building in the new thrum-collectors like a force field against my bare arms, my throat, my lips. It’s too much for this crowd, too, their fresh nanotech already blitzed out and buzzing. I should dial it back. Get backstage. Take a handful of pills. Chill the fuck out.
It’s been a year since the last blowout, the last blackout. Three hundred and sixty-five days of uninterrupted consciousness, flushed down the toilet for the sake of some asshole staring at me from the bar.
I twist the microphone out of the stand and launch into something new. To hell with the set list. To hell with Corporate-approved garbage. I find words that have been bouncing around in my head for so long that I can spit them out now, perfect and round. “It’s all just screams and whispers, just prettied-up and dyed. Your fuck-façade all faded, a tarnished future bride . . .”
Somewhere behind me, Jax loses her shit.
“What the hell are you doing?” she shouts over the thumping rhythm that’s our artificial heartbeat. “Break time! Sasha’s gonna wet ’em, and I need a hit of silvertip!”
Despite the protest, she turns up every dial and pushes up every slide, fingers moving over the touchscreens with brutal efficiency. Sasha’s already pulling in chants from sixteenth-century monasteries and screams recorded in hospital waiting rooms. I can feel the fluid in my inner ears pulsing.
I’m going to get a reaction out of our silent onlooker, even if I fall headfirst into a blackout.
So I let him have it, all the words and the anger and betrayal and despair I hold in my hummingbird heart. The rest of the crowd moans and sways, crashing into each other, molecules colliding. Hellcat Maggie shouts something at Sasha, then tries the headset, but all I get from my earpiece is crackling feedback that drives me hard into the next verse.
I lock eyes with the stranger, vomiting up all my dark, dirty guts for him to see. Below me, the flotsam holds itself upright. If these people were pleasantly giddy before, now they’re stumbling drunk. A few fall and are dragged to the side by security. A couple kisses so hard that blood trickles from the corners of their mouths. A threesome in the back crashes into an alcove, tearing the velvet curtains from their brass rod.
I can’t stop myself now. I close out the set with a crescendo that drives everyone and everything off a cliff and into glorious sonic freefall.
When not working on puzzles for Penny Press or writing about them for PuzzleNation, Glenn Dallas is an author of short stories and at least half of one novel. After appearing in the acknowledgments of several outstanding novels, he looks forward to returning the favor in the future.
Lisa Mantchev is the acclaimed author of Ticker and the Théâtre Illuminata series, which includes Eyes Like Stars, nominated for a Mythopoeic Award and the Andre Norton Award. She has also published numerous short stories in magazines, including Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Weird Tales, and Fantasy. She lives on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State with her husband, children, and horde of furry animals.
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