by Tracie Hollis
As a child, Angela Mathers was the victim of a top-secret experimental program that implanted neural chips in children to correct disorders and enhance intelligence. Shunned by society, she, and others like her were locked away in camps.
Now an adult Luman, she is both brilliant and calculating. Her quest for redemption brings her to D.C. where she works to get a government bill that would free the Lumans passed into law.
Isabella Dodge works for Control, the agency tasked with tracking and imprisoning the remaining Lumans. But Isabella has one secret. She’s a Solo—an undocumented Luman who fled the camps years ago.
When their paths cross, an innocent touch sparks something in both women. But is it love, or simply their neural programming? When Control finds out Isabella is a Solo and captures her, Angela finds her answer—she will risk everything to save Isabella, even her own freedom.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"You never know when an idea for a book will come looking for you. I worked as a researcher for a technology company some years ago, and one of my areas of interest was artificial intelligence (AI). However, I learned that AI developments did not consider those in the LGBTQ+ community.
Thinking about that lack of inclusion, I created a tale about a dystopian society that fears two women who fall in love. They don't fear the why; they fear the what. These women were implanted with neural chips, and the unenhanced people of their society assumed that brain technology made them a form of AI. So, that's how my book Unusual Minds got its start."
The Lesbian Review
The writing itself is beautiful. The use of language is emotive and the descriptions are vivid. The story is unique and interesting and I believe that lovers of science fiction will probably adore this book.
Di B. - Overall, I found the book enjoyable, intense, and compelling. I really couldn’t put it down and found that the ending came too soon.
Della B. - …As a debut novelist, Tracie Hollis is distinguishing herself as a distinctive voice in women loving women novels. Her descriptive voice offers us a lush use of language that paints with a masterful hand.
At dawn, a torrent of rain came like a premonition, pummeling the star magnolia trees in my parents’ yard, ripping the spring blossoms from their nurtured existence. But by the end of school that day the rain was forgotten, the sun burnt through the dense gray clouds and shone so brightly a rainbow appeared over the causeway, and Lucy and I straddled our bikes and took off down the road, leaving the fragrance of budding flowers and wet grass in our idyllic neighborhood behind.
We spent most of our carefree afternoons at the river. We would dance between the lodgepoles like the low-slung afternoon sun, and that day was no different. Steam rose off the roof of the moldering old river shack dripping with flowering moss, and Lucy and I picked its sweet-smelling flowers as we stomped around in the slick, marshy earth. Nearby, the gigantic cypress trees leaned out over the Mississippi as if listening to its sloshy song, and their precarious, low-hanging branches curved like beautiful cathedral arches. It was as mesmerizing as a fairy tale, and the Mighty Miss called to us, “Come closer, closer.”
My recollection of Lucy became fractured after those moments, like a broken mirror—its glass shards reflecting different slants of the world. Fragmented snapshots: the flowers Lucy collected were swirling in the brown river’s current, pink petals sucked deep into the thick gravy. The roar of the river muffled the sound of retreating footsteps.
I hadn’t heard Lucy cry out, but she must have. I didn’t want to remember what happened next or the secret Lucy had told me. So, there were different versions of my story, different interpretations of the truth. I pushed Lucy’s memories deep into the recesses of my mind and blotted out how fairy tales turn dark, that rainbows and flowers die, and people are unpredictable. I was a precocious and clever child, but I never imagined the river pulled, pushed, and took.
One week later, he arrived at our doorstep asking questions about Lucy. My parents huddled near me, and the memories returned despite my desperation to bury the truth. Finally, I told him what I had kept a secret––Lucy and I were at the river the afternoon she disappeared.
My mother’s face twisted with fear and disbelief, and then I met his accusing eyes. Deputy Davis’s expression creased with suspicion when he asked me, “Why didn’t you say something earlier?” And “How did it happen?”
And the question I asked myself: Why didn’t I try to help her?
I froze, or perhaps it was because emotions were difficult for me—my mother often reminded me of this. The deputy thought it was a glitch in my programming.
The day after they buried Lucy’s empty casket in the ground, Deputy Davis took me into custody. My mother screamed as he ripped me from her arms. I imagined myself a magnolia blossom floating downriver. Lucy was gone, and I was going after her, some eighty miles past cattails and reeds into the brackish water of the Delta wild. In the shallows, I would rot and unravel in the murky soup.
Lucy’s parents thought I was a murderer and that “little girls like me were prone to telling tall tales.” There was no evidence, no body––the river had washed everything clean, except me. With an almost panicked desire, I have scribbled down my fragmented memories to account for what happened that day at the river, in case they erase me.
Inside the old river shack, he was watching us, an unwanted secret in the shadows. And I wanted someone to make him real, to see him the way I saw River––the way Lucy talked about him.
April 2, 2030
Twenty-two Years Later
The day Angela had been waiting twenty-two years for was finally here. Unable to sleep, she got up, gazed out the window overlooking the compound, and watched the city streetlights slowly flicker out as a weak palomino sunrise woke the hazy D.C. skyline. The compound was in the heart of the city. It felt vague and foreign to her, less like a home and more like a concrete cage. She was born in the small town of St. Edenville, Louisiana, her family transplanted there from the north. Her father was a lawyer and her mother a housewife. They had money and were once well respected by the locals, but Angela’s predicament had changed all that. For her, for them, and, in due course, the whole country. Sometimes at night, she could still hear the river’s angry churning.
She touched the windowpane and felt the hum of the city vibrating under her fingertips, a constant reminder that she was suspended as the world changed around her. Her fight to regain what was lost seemed ill-omened, but like a robbed treasure hunter she would risk everything to find it again. And this morning, she felt it reverberating all around her. “Redemption,” she whispered to the four walls.
In a sports bra and shorts, she stepped onto the treadmill and pressed Start. The treadmill and music came to life, and so did her heart.
Redemption. Angela felt it deep in her bones, banging hard with every footfall. She raised the speed of the treadmill and then reminded herself of the task at hand. She grabbed her tablet, propped it up on the treadmill, touched the screen, and worked on the speech she would give today. As the sun breached the US Capitol’s broken half dome, she pushed herself harder, moving her legs faster as her fair complexion shone with sweat. The tattoo on her left hand caught the sunlight and reflected a rainbow of colored teardrops across the ceiling that fell like rain down the wall. As a child, she had loved the smell of rain, but then it rained the day he took her, and the petrichor was replaced with the bitter odor of tobacco on Deputy Davis’s breath. “Angela Mathers, by order of the federal government, I place you in custody.”
The smells that marked her past were turning points in her life: before Camp I/O and after. Like the odor of old fruit when Sister Agnes dragged her from the back of Davis’s police car and into camp.
Camp I/O was a converted insane asylum from the Antebellum era. The State of Louisiana had transformed it into an “academic camp for children with chip enhancements”—a fancy name for jail—where the enhanced were segregated from the unenhanced.
This was Angela’s first night away from home, and she lay awake in the foreign bed that smelt like fried cabbage. Lost in the rows of bunks filled with sleeping children. She listened to the unfamiliar whimpering and raspy breathing. There were so many others like her—her parents had never told her.
What are you in for? The question came out of the darkness. Angela turned and saw a boy sitting on the bunk next to hers. He smiled as a wisp of dark, wavy hair covered his droopy eyes. Angela was struck by how fragile he looked.
She stammered aloud, “Intelligence. And you?”
Shhh…use your chip to talk, or they punish us. The other children’s words rang out in the darkness. She hugged her knees to her chest, wishing to be alone. Angela noticed that his lips were slightly apart, but he didn’t move them to talk. We call it silent-messaging, he messaged. Angela concluded they were using telepathy, a form of precognition that only children with neural chips could do and the guards could not hear.
The boy silent-messaged, I’m Warren Harris. What’s your name?
Her heart froze as she pondered if the others knew about her complicated past. Suddenly, she feared every thought that entered her mind was being projected into the room like radio waves, and everyone could hear her inner thoughts. Angela tried to clear her mind, arranging her face into a blank expression, then pulled her sheet higher and tighter against her body, staring back into Warren’s dark eyes as he watched her.
Princess, messaged another boy, popping his head up from the bunk behind Warren’s. That’s what we will call you. I’m Jonathan. His brown skin was lost in the shadows, but his toothy smile warmed her heart and she bowed her head bashfully.
Don’t worry, we aren’t mind readers.
Warren added, We silent-message so the Old Fashions don’t hear us.
Open your mouth slightly and think the words. Try it, Jonathan said, moving closer to her.
What are you in for? Angela silent-messaged for the first time. It felt like innate magic to her, the way each word vibrated through the air like a little energy pulse. Jonathan’s face lit up, and he wiggled his ears. She tilted her head and messaged again. With those ears, have you overheard why we are here?
They think I’m a computer, and Warren…well they aren’t sure but they know his eyesight is unnatural. To learn the truth they are experimenting on us like lab rats. Jonathan’s expression saddened and his voice died away.
The doorbell buzzed, pulling Angela out of her thoughts. She slowed the treadmill while checking the security monitor above her desk. A man’s dark, restless eyes stared into the camera lens. She exhaled sharply; this was the last thing she needed this morning. She turned off the treadmill and moved through her apartment. Everything there was standard government issue. The decor was sparse and sterile and nothing personal was displayed. She didn’t care if it looked like she had no human sensibilities. In her mind, she wasn’t getting comfortable; this situation was temporary.
She opened the door to find Jeff Lewis standing outside, hands shoved in his pockets. He had been Angela’s monitor for the last eight years, and she knew he expected the worst from her. Everyone did. Clean-cut and sharp-edged, he was dressed as usual in over-starched khakis and a crisp navy shirt. His build was compact like that of a lightweight boxer, but he was still a head taller than she was. He scrutinized Angela—that was his job.
Winded from her run, Angela greeted him. “Lucky me. Another unscheduled visit by the Chip patrol.”
He rolled up his sleeves, showing off his tanned muscular forearms and said, “Good morning. You really like that treadmill, don’t you?” His casual conversation was awkward, and they both knew it.
“It’s not like I can spontaneously run around the block without security drones and a helicopter swarming me.”
She had meant it as a joke, but he shot back, “Not funny.”
Angela turned and left him at the door. She had learned the hard way which of his buttons were best avoided. “Does your visit have anything to do with the hearing today?” She hid her hopefulness by drinking a glass of water.
Jeff closed the door and followed her into the kitchen. “Maybe.”
She finished her water and, checking the time, moved into the bedroom. She couldn’t be late this morning. She would just need to work around him. She undressed, stepping behind an open closet door out of his direct view.
He cleared his throat. “I brought your credentials for the hearing. When they question you, make sure you are humble, unassertive. It will reflect on me if you are unruly. So be factual, but unemotional. Um, not inhuman, though…I mean, don’t be devoid of emotion,” he stammered.
Angela felt his eyes on her, turned, and caught him watching her undress. “Christ, Jeff,” she muttered under her breath. She quickly grabbed her robe, pulling it on. Knowing he couldn’t touch her didn’t seem to stop Jeff from staring. She sighed. “I know how to act spineless.”
“For the record, you never appear spineless. Just remember your place,” Jeff warned.
“How could I forget?” She waved her left hand, showing the tattoo that the government had branded her with. She winced internally. Most Jeff types found her intellectually terrifying, so she had learned to hide her acumen. It was the only way she could earn their trust. She couldn’t afford to make Jeff angry, not today of all days. He could put her under house arrest. Then she’d be held in contempt for not showing up at the hearing, and all of her hard work would be lost.
She wrapped her hands around her elbows. “Is there something else you need, or may I go?” Jeff mirrored her pose, crossing his arms over his chest. When he didn’t answer, she brushed past him and into the bathroom. As the warm water of the shower washed over her, she almost forgot he was out there sweeping her apartment meticulously: checking her desk, opening drawers, downloading her voice and text messages. When the front door closed with a soft thud that vibrated the shower door, she released the sigh she had held in ever since he had arrived. He’s gone.
* * *
The sliding doors of Angela’s apartment complex opened, and city traffic noise swallowed her whole. Trucks and cars trundled by, spewing exhaust fumes. As the world’s population increased, older technology from 2030 was unable to keep pace, and a steel-gray smog hung over D.C. today so thick it looked like it had been painted on with a bristle brush, layer upon layer, rendering the city colorless. She remembered the summers of her youth in Louisiana being muggy and hot but nothing like the oppressive heat in the compound’s concrete and metal landscape.
She stopped at the guard station, holding her manicured left hand up to the security camera as it scanned her tattoo. When it returned a beep, she stated, “Committee hearing at the Capitol.”
The guard gave her a slight grin as he looked her over. Absently, she smoothed her skirt with her palm. She had chosen today’s outfit carefully. At first, she’d considered wearing black; it made her appear slimmer, but shorter. She liked her curvy shape but at just a few inches over five feet, she was self-conscious about her height.
Angela had decided in the end that this was not a funeral. She refused to think of it that way. She chose a white business suit instead, cheap and off the rack, but she wore it like a Valentino. The rest of her ensemble included boots with four-inch heels and a computer tote slung over one shoulder. Having on the right costume secretly filled her with power and stature. She felt good. Like a white knight, she flipped her long, blond hair over her shoulder and marched away, ignoring the guard when he said into the walkie clipped on his shoulder, “A0M01 is on the move.”
She joined a cluster of commuters walking to work, many of them, like her, former members of the camps. The camp era had been a costly one for the US government. As the children in them became young adults, Congress had realized they were valuable assets to the workforce and had deinstitutionalized them. When Angela turned nineteen, her world shifted and she became a government contractor, assigned to D.C., one of the five metropolitan labor compounds. The compounds were a blending of society. Some people lived amongst them in the compound, prospering as small business owners, service workers, frontline workers, you name it. People who were intolerant of Angela’s kind moved out to suburbia. She and others like her were the only ones required to work a sixty-hour week with a meager stipend, government housing, and the freedom to move––under the watchful eye of the government, of course.
The D.C. Compound was where liberty and law enforcement collided. Overhead, security drones buzzed by, and CCTV cameras perched on buildings and signposts tracked everyone’s movements. The government put forth extreme measures to protect society from Angela and others like her. Electronic eyes followed her wherever she went. But she had learned ways to avoid the eyes, keeping parts of herself hidden and private.