Body Electricby Susan Squires
Victoria Barnhardt set out to create something brilliant; she succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. With one keystroke her program spiraled out of control...and something was born that defied possibility: a being who called to her.
He spoke from within a prison—seeking escape, seeking release, seeking her. He was a miracle that Vic had never intended.
Victoria Barnhardt set out to create something brilliant; she succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. With one keystroke her program spiraled out of control...and something was born that defied possibility: a being who called to her.
He spoke from within a prison—seeking escape, seeking release, seeking her. He was a miracle that Vic had never intended. More than a scientific discovery, or a brilliant coup by an infamous hacker, he was life. He was beauty. He was genius. And he needed to be released. Just as Victoria did. Though the shadows of the past might rise against them, on one starry Los Angeles night, in each others arms, the pair would find a way to have each other and freedom both.
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By SUSAN SQUIRES
LEISURE BOOKSCopyright © 2002 Susan Squires
All right reserved.
Chapter OneVic Barnhardt slammed on the brakes of her black BMW. Adrenaline surged through her. She'd almost hit him! The guy in torn denims screamed something she couldn't understand as he thumped on her hood with the wooden handle of his sign. It said, "McIntire Makes Monopoly Money," in childish letters. The metal dented with a thunk that echoed through the roadster over the shouting outside. Behind him a human chain of burly Visimorph security guards bulged as the crowd of protesters surged toward her. Vic leaned on her horn and stabbed at the button that locked the doors. Where did these crazies come from? Hundreds of them, their mouths twisted in anger, shook their signs or their fists. A brown-uniformed guard jerked the guy back by his collar. Vic gunned into the parking garage. The release of PuppetMaster 12.1 was more than a week away. This was getting out of hand.
The BMW squealed around a corner and Vic jammed it into a space on the lower floor. She didn't have time for this nonsense. The morning's rain had gummed up Sepulveda Boulevard and made her late for a meeting with her boss, Hugo Walz. Since she hadn't bothered to show for last week's meeting, she'd better at least pretend to toe the line. She swung out of the car and slammed the door. It would be hours before she could begin work on what shereally cared about-Jodie. She chafed at that as she heaved her backpack over her plaid flannel shirt, then steadied her breathing before striding across the parking garage, her Doc Martens squeaking against the concrete. The smell of oil and robber hung in the brisk March air.
Naming her project after Jodie Foster seemed right. A strong woman who bucked authority to do what she wanted. Vic managed a grin. Yeah.
Coming out of the garage into a biting wind, she shielded her eyes against the late afternoon sun. Several protesters ran past her through the narrow alleyway. How did they get past the security guards? Vic swung around to see the chain-link fence at the end of the alley sagging under a wall of people. Her pulse quickened. This wasn't funny. The shouts turned triumphant as the fence broke.
She was overwhelmed in seconds, and any hope of a sprint to the employee entrance was dashed. Vic struggled against the tide of jeans and flowered dresses. Elbows and knees and protest signs all prodded her. She yelped in pain and shoved back. These weren't people anymore, but screeching bits of hair and flesh. "Let me through!" she shouted pointlessly. Hers was just another voice in the cacophony of screams.
A flash of white helmet and black chin strap announced the arrival of the police, but that only intensified the surge around her. Vic couldn't breathe. Pain shot through her as a placard connected with her head. The crowd swirled in sickening streams of color. Her knees hit the pavement. Someone stepped on her and someone else. Visions of soccer fans trampling people to death flashed through Vic's brain.
A grip on her arm heaved her upright as though she were being pulled out of quicksand. "You all right?" a bass voice shouted over the tumult. She found herself clutched against a hard body wearing jeans and a plaid shirt not much different from her own. She looked up. Maybe it was the blow to her head, but the crowd seemed distant even as it jostled them. She saw intense blue-green eyes with a sad down-slant. A week's beard hid the bottom half of her savior's face. One blunt hand raked through thick hair worn too long, and pushed it from his eyes. She'd seen pictures: John Reston, nemesis of Visimorph.
"Hold on," he yelled and slung her across his hip like a child. She clung to shoulders she could feel were massive underneath the plaid flannel, her breasts pressed to his barrel chest. He waded through the chaos, clearing a path with his other arm. He didn't seem to care whose head he cracked. Police and demonstrators alike gave way. Vic felt his body under hers, brawny muscles, unrelentingly male. Jeez, Vic, she commanded herself, get a grip.
When they were clear of the crowd, Reston continued down the alleyway at a trot, oblivious to her breathless squirming. "Put me down," Vic managed. He turned the corner and set her on a loading dock with an unceremonious thunk. Somehow he ended up standing between her parted thighs. Both he and she panted. The screaming, the whining of the sirens, seemed a long way off.
She meant to thank him. After all, he had probably saved her life. But wasn't he responsible, too? He was the driving force behind these protests. The way he had just hauled her around like so much luggage-and here he stood staring at her as if she were some kind of circus animal. "Maniac! What gives you the right to stage attacks on people just trying to go to work?"
"Sorry," he muttered, his expression rueful. "This got out of hand."
"Out of hand?" Her gazed flicked over him. He looked like some Greenpeace geek with that long hair. His jeans were torn at the knee. Then there were those eyes. And the mouth. What kind of lips hid under that beard? She couldn't quite see. His undershirt peeked from his flannel at the neck. It was the kind of shirt that would leave those powerful arms bare. Something in her wondered what he looked like without the flannel. Vic pushed that something down. "You ... you people are crazy!"
"I might say the same," he growled. "You're helping Bob McIntire hold the world's computers for ransom. Every time he issues an upgrade, everybody has to repurchase something they already own just to function in society. Don't you have a conscience?"
"And you brought the Justice Department down on him last year for antitrust. Don't you remember what happened to the economy when they broke up Microsoft?"
"And now Visimorph is worse. A good economy doesn't make it okay." They glared at each other.
Vic parted the gel that slicked back her short brown hair and fingered the lump beneath that was beginning to make her head ache.
"You're bleeding." Reston touched her jaw to turn her head with callused fingers.
Vic shuddered away as though she'd been shocked by a taser. "I'm fine."
"You're not fine." He slid a blunt, strong hand behind her neck and touched her chin again. Vic's hands trembled. Must be the adrenaline wearing off. "You could use a stitch or two and a whiskey chaser for some Advil."
All Vic could do was stare at him, maybe because he was way too close. Did he have to be standing between her knees, for Christ's sake? And why didn't he move his hand off her neck?
"Don't get hostile. I'm not asking for a date." Unexpectedly, he grinned. It made his eyes crinkle up as if they'd never been sad. As he pulled his hand away, he came up with the little queue of longer hair she kept tucked carefully under her collar when she was at Visimorph. "What's this?" he asked, smiling. "You hiding some shred of femininity here?"
Vic slapped his hand away, anger rising in her throat. "What the hell do you know?"
He raised both hands in surrender. "Hey, what could I tell a Visimorph clone?"
Vic was outraged. "I'm not!" If there was one thing she wasn't, it was a Visimorph clone.
"No?" He lifted his chin.
She didn't owe this guy any explanations. So, why did she want to explain? She examined those seriously blue-green eyes. It was none of his business that McIntire had bailed her out of jail for hacking so she could make Visimorph's security systems impregnable against hackers just like herself. One misstep and she would be busted on a parole violation. A half step up from slave labor. It wouldn't matter to some fanatic like John Reston. She glanced away, then back.
A muscle worked in Reston's jaw. Did his eyes flash with disappointment? He didn't say a word, just put his hands around her waist and lifted her off the loading dock. She couldn't help but grasp his forearms where the sleeves were rolled to his elbow. The light hairs over the cords of heavy muscle made her feel fluttery. "You'd better get round to the front door," he muttered, "if you want to go to work so badly."
She pulled away and stalked around the loading dock without looking back. Arrogant bastard! When she was sure he couldn't see her, she peeked over the platform. He was looking at the spot where she had disappeared. After a moment, he shoved his hands in his jeans pockets and turned back toward the melee around the corner. The roar of the crowd washed over her again. A bullhorn demanded something insistently. She chewed her lip and took two slow breaths to calm down. There was no fooling herself about her reaction to this guy. How could she have so little control? She jerked her thoughts back to Jodie and started the long trek around the huge Visimorph campus to the visitors entrance.
The glowing silver symbols on the monitor burned in the darkness like the white light you walk toward after your heart stops beating. But tonight they didn't seem like salvation at all. Music pounded through her earphones. Instead of helping her concentrate, the syncopated rhythms and whining keyboards of the Shards just scraped her nerves. Vic knew she was close, either to a breakthrough or a breakdown. She scanned the code, her eyes scratchy and watering. She was the creator of Cerberus, the security program that defended Visimorph against the world. How come she couldn't link a few borrowed neural nets? Without robust links, all the power in the world wouldn't give Jodie the feel of sentience.
Vic threw herself back in her ergonomically correct chair and ran her hands over her gelled hair. The lump was still there. She'd skipped the stitches and the whiskey, but it had taken maximum doses of Advil to tone down the headache. What a day! A riot, a clunk on the head. Then that Reston guy had thrown her all off balance. Not just his challenge about working with Visimorph. There was a reason she never allowed herself to get very attracted to men. It was distracting. She liked programs better: They operated on rules you could understand.
The smell of stale coffee and recycled air mingled with the vague chemical odor from her printer. Vic tapped her headset, clicking over to a soothing track of Organic R&B and took a swig of Diet Coke from the half-full can standing among several empties. At least she'd had a great excuse for being late to Hugo's meeting. She stood to stretch and surveyed the dim cubicles receding into the darkness beyond her own half walls. Everyone had gone.
"Must be Friday," she muttered. Was it? She glanced at her computer screen. Twelve after midnight. Not Friday at all, but Saturday. She slumped into her chair and reached for her track pad. Forget John Reston. Some environmental crazy was not her type. Jodie was waiting to be born. Vic pushed her finger around. The cursor on the screen didn't move. "If this thing freezes up on me ..." Her threat collapsed. What would she do? Despair or something.
Wait a minute. The screen shimmered. The silver-blue figures trembled from top to bottom. What was going on here? Vic peered closer as they stabilized. That section of code ... the groupings were different, weren't they? And there! Something was changing her work! A virus? Bile surged up from her stomach along with the panic. She couldn't lose code now! She lunged for the Utilities function to scan for a virus, but her cursor was still frozen.
"God damn it!" she whispered. Somebody was getting into her code. She stood and scanned the dim recesses of the cube farm. Carpeted half walls outlined a maze for the Visimorph rats. Whoever it was, was working in the dark. She spun out of her cube and stalked down the corridor, peering into the workstations. Code glowed on a screen from Rick Chong's cube. He was still here. "Hey, Chong, what's the idea?"
Chong's silhouette turned in the semidarkness. "And your meaning is ...?"
"I mean, are you messing with my code?" She peered over his shoulder. Code from the Communicator upgrade her team was working gleamed in tidy lines. She took a breath. The blood pounding in her neck began to slow.
Chong flipped on his desk light to get a better look at her. "You finally lost it?"
Vic cleared her throat. "I'm having trouble with some ... changes I'm trying to make."
"Aren't we all?" He gestured at the screen. "What crappy programming on the Communicator! How are we supposed to upgrade this bletcherous shit?"
"We're supposed to make the software elegant. You know, 'The Only Link You'll Ever Need to the Outside World.'" She quoted Sunters phone and Internet device's ad campaign. "That's why we're redoing the operating system and not someone else. 'Cause we're the best."
Chong shook his head in disgust. "Corporate bull. And only that company would have named these things for that Star Trek device deal. They're such geeks." As if that were the last straw.
"Long for your samurai days, hacking for fun instead of for Corporate America?" she asked.
He grinned. "Don't you?"
She suppressed most of a smile. "Sometimes." Her eyes slid over him. His thick black hair was pulled into a ponytail maybe six inches long. He had the sleek muscles of a martial artist. Not the body type she liked most. That would be more like the infamous Mr. Reston. Way dangerous. But Chong was just the type she usually chose, for safety's sake. Smooth and lean. A blue-and-green flourish peeked from under one sleeve of his black t-shirt as it stretched around his biceps. A dragon? A vine? Why had she never noticed it? She scanned his cube. A mahogany stick, polished and rounded, poked out of a gym bag. He did do martial arts. She'd never asked him about himself, She'd hired him because he'd been a hacker, though he hadn't actually been in jail, so he wasn't on the slave labor program like she was. They were outsiders, both of them. Maybe she should know more about him, starting with whether that was a dragon or a vine.
Down, Vic. This was just an echo of her encounter with John Reston. She was way out of control. Chong was her employee. Never dip in the company pool. Chong would probably be shocked if she came on to him. She was acutely conscious of her asexual attire, her short hair, her longer queue of hair hidden away. New employees often mistook her for a guy until they saw her face. Her look was necessary to get taken seriously in the world of computers. A disguise. That was what she told herself, anyway. He'd be even more shocked if he knew where she went after work. She pushed that thought away.
"You got no life?" she asked, fingering the metal clips on her ears. Silly question.
"More than you." He turned to his keyboard. His fingers skittered over the keys in little staccato blasts. He hit the last key with some bravado and looked up. His almond eyes were flat black. "Don't worry, I'm leaving." Leaning back in his chair, he clasped his hands behind his neck, stretching, then glanced toward her cubicle. "Your private projects are none of my business, Vic. But don't think I'm stupid. There are private projects."
Vic flushed. "Yeah, well, we all have private doings."
Chong turned and clicked to save his code. "You might be a porn addict, of course." He shut down and swiveled in her direction. "Probably not, though. So I ask myself, why don't you work from home on whatever you're doing? I figure you need power. You're after the Big One."
Vic tried not to look stricken, caught out. "Get off it. No one's even sure it exists." Some people thought Visimorph was trying to break into the hardware business at the top of the food chain. They were right. Visimorph was using light pipes: a billion photon streams generated by a laser, doing simultaneous computations right down in the basement here in Santa Monica. No silly little silicon chips for Visimorph. The light pipes would increase their computing power by about a zillion-fold. No telling what Bob-O could do with that kind of speed. McIntire called the huge computer Neuromancer, and Vic wondered if he remembered that the fictional Al was software not hardware. Maybe he'd never really read Gibson's book.
"It exists. And Visimorph uses Cerberus for security." Chong smiled a Mona Lisa number. "I figure you go pretty much where you want."
"You figure wrong." Vic shoved her hands into her jeans pockets. "Why do you think they won't let me work the upgrade? They've taken it way beyond my version. You could probably call it Hydro now with how the security layers must morph."
Excerpted from BODY ELECTRIC by SUSAN SQUIRES Copyright © 2002 by Susan Squires
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Susan Squires is an RWA Golden Heart Award recipient and multiple RT Reviewer's Choice Award finalist. Squires is a very unique writer who is able to master various time periods. Of her five novels published by Dorchester, both Danelaw and Danegeld are Viking romances set in Medieval Britain; Sacrament is a vampire romance set in 1800 Britain; Body Electric is a contemporary romance dealing with issues of Artificial Intelligence; and No More Lies is a sci-fi romantic suspense novel dealing with issues of genetic manipulation. Body Electric was named one of the top ten most influential paperbacks of 2002 by Publisher's Weekly.
Squires graduated from UCLA and now works as an executive for a Fortune 500 company. In her free time, she enjoys to write. She now writes Regency vampire romances for St. Martin's Press.
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Victoria Barnhardt has achieved her lifelong dream of creating a truly intellegent computer program, one capable of sensation, feeling, and independent thought. She names it for Jodie Foster, but is in for a surprise when Jodie turns out not to be female, as she intended, but male. Not only that, but her program rapidly takes off, growing in capacity and capability at an incredible pace. Unfortunately, this begins to cause her problems at work, as Jodie is starting to draw unwelcome attention from her corrupt bosses. Vic loses her job, but is not done with Jodie, nor he with her. He contacts her, asking for a body; he has even selected one. It happens to belong to John Reston, a thorn in Vic's former bosses' collective sides, and someone she has secretly desired. Through incredible means, they are able to download the majority of Jodie into the brain dead man's mind. Now on the run, the two must fight to preserve not only their newly awakened love, but their existence. ***** A combination of two groundbreaking movies, TRON and STARMAN, this novel is itself taking on new frontiers. Ms. Squires, who improves with each book, has created a frightening possible, fascinating world that gives the reader much to think upon. Vic is a dynamic, realistic heroine, with troubles and who lives the cutting edge, stressed life of a modern career woman. Jodie combines innocence with masculinity in a most charming fashion. You have never read a romance like this one, but hopefully, there are more to come. ***** REVIEWER: Amanda Killgore.
Vic Barnhardt is a rarity. A female former hacker, she is a shining star at Visimorph, a computer company that controls the market with a worldwide monopoly. The company's ethics are at question since they release upgrades and products that force the consumer to buy more products and hardware so that their computers will run. Vic feels like she has found her niche in the company when the CEO, Bob McIntyre, bails her out of jail and the hacker is installed as an employee of the most influential computer corporation in the world. Vic creates a nearly unhackable computer system for the company but is otherwise unfulfilled by her work there. Vic feels unsettled in such a male dominated company and prefers to mask her very female traits by tucking her long hair under her shirts and wearing no makeup. At night, the wild woman in her comes out when she dresses to impress in leather and frequents some of the seedier nightclubs. As Vic finds some of her work at Visimorph unchallenging, she begins to spend later and later hours on her special pet project, an AI she names Jodie, after Jodie Foster. Vic feels that she can right the wrongs of the male dominated workforce as well as her own family's hang-ups about femininity through Jodie. She hopes that it will open the doors for females of a technological bent to find their way into major corporations without the prejudice she has faced both as a hacker and in the workforce. Jodie slowly begins to come to life before Vic's astounded eyes. As she gets to know her creation, Vic is amazed to see Jodie's personality and independence as such strong forces. When Jodie announces to her that he is male instead of female, Vic is shocked and tries to understand. Jodie's gender is soon the least of their problems. As Jodie has grown and assimilated information, the computing power needed and the space for storage has grown exponentially, and now Bob McIntryre is suspicious of Vic and her motives. Vic and Jodie continue to grow closer as Jodie comes into his own. Curiosity about the senses abound and Vic tries to sate those by voice recognition software and video cameras but some senses must remain a mystery. How can she teach a computer program how to touch? As Jodie reaches out more and more to Vic as a friend, she begins to struggle with the moral implications of Jodie's longing for a physical state. Soon, Bob McIntyre knows that Vic is hiding something. This influential billionaire will stop at nothing to get Vic's secret from her. As the net tightens around both Vic and Jodie, Bob's true personality begins to show itself. Can Vic find a way to free Jodie from the prison of his existence? Can Jodie help Vic to become more feminine and learn to love? Body Electric is a blockbuster release that transcends genres. A perfect meld of techno thriller, science fiction and romance, Ms. Squires has created a release that redefines the genre and raises the bar of science fiction romance. Do you like Catherine Asaro's books? If so, you will love Body Electric! Readers will respect the technical intricacies of the story while never losing sight of a romance that transcends all boundaries. Ms. Squires is a visionary in the realm of science fiction romance and 'Body Electric' is a masterpiece! Briana Lambert from Timeless Tales Book Reviews
Visimorph dominates the software industry by control of the most widely used operating system, which is on just about everyone¿s computer. Owner Bob McIntire makes a fortune as every upgrade result in people required buying the latest software or not function in society. Working for Visimorph, former hacker Vic Barnhardt provides security programs to stop her former colleagues from breaking and entering computers. Secretly, Vic creates an Artificial Intelligence that she names Jodie. Vic wants Jodie to feel feminine without the trappings of society that the developer believes forces people like her to hide her curves to be accepted amidst her peers. Jodie begins to take over programs, servers, and libraries owned by others, but to Vic¿s chagrin feels male and is falling in love with his creator. However, Bob learns about Jodie and has plans to use the AI to further his own goals. BODY ELECTRIC plays out on several levels as Susan Squires takes a giant leap towards superstardom. The story line is a powerful science fiction that digs deep into the meaning of life. The plot also takes a close look at gender in a highly technological society. The characters make this tale work as readers believe that Vic is a confused woman struggling for her sexual identity as much as Vic battles with her/his ¿human¿ identity similar to the Malkovich movie Making Mr. Right. Ms. Squires has written a powerful novel that will earn the author many accolades and awards. Harriet Klausner