BY: BRADLEY W. WRIGHT

It’s 2038, and Tara Rivers is fourteen years old, a bit rebellious, and socially awkward. Her family has recently moved to Los Angeles from the Pacific Northwest “rogue” clusters. Tara feels alone and confused. She doesn’t have any friends here, except her cat, Xel, a sophisticated robot with artificial intelligence. The corporation where Tara’s parents work makes an offer they can’t refuse—let them put an implant in Tara’s brain to “cure” her autism and make her neurotypical, or Tara’s father will be prosecuted for manufactured crimes. Tara overhears her parents speaking with the doctors and decides to run away with Xel. She plans to head back to the Pacific Northwest and her grandmother, but first she must escape Los Angeles and the corporation—with all their high-tech locating devices—dodge street gangs and wild dogs, and traverse an unknown wilderness full of unimaginable dangers. Will she ever find a place where she is accepted for who and what she is, or is she doomed to be an outcast from society forever?

TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In The Place Inside the Storm by Bradley W. Wright, Tara Rivers and her robot cat Xel are on the run from the corporation that controls the government. They want to put an implant in the teenager’s brain that will make her do what she is “supposed” to do. Tara is only fourteen, but she is old enough to understand the ramifications and knows that she will never be the same if they are able to complete their plans. Responding to some cryptic messages with coordinates attached, she heads off into the unknown wilderness, hoping that somewhere, somehow, there is a place where she belongs.

A moving and poignant story of government corruption at its worst, this chilling tale will have you on the edge of your seat all the way through.

REGAN MURPHY SAYS: The Place Inside the Storm by Bradley W. Wright is the story of a young girl from the future who has a real problem. Fourteen-year-old Tara Rivers is mildly autistic and socially awkward. But she is highly intelligent and skilled as a computer programmer. So much so that she appears to be a threat to the mega corporation where her parents work. She overhears her parents speaking to the corporation’s “doctors” about putting an implant in her brain to make her conform. Knowing this will change her personality, Tara flees, taking only her backpack and her robotic cat Xel. They head for the Pacific Northwest where Tara’s grandmother, a doctor, lives. Tara hopes to find shelter there. But the trip is a dangerous one. She must outwit or outrun the corporation’s security force, street gangs, enormous rodents, and many other dangers, and she has no idea whether she will actually find safety at the journey’s end.

Combining science fiction, mystery, adventure, and marvelous character development, The Place Inside the Storm is a coming of age story that is both moving and compelling. I highly recommend it for adults and young adults alike.

Chapter 1

The News

July 2038:

I was down at the creek behind our house when I heard my mom calling my name. A light rain was falling, but I had my gear on and didn’t really mind. There was a still pool outside the main current where the water was like glass. I loved watching the drops falling on the surface, joining the stream, ripples moving out. Brown and orange leaves were floating at the edge, rocking gently. My mom called again. She sounded annoyed. She must have been yelling at me for a while.

“Be there in a second,” I yelled back. Xel, my new cat was sitting next to me. The rain didn’t soak into his fur. It had some kind of anti-moisture coating. The drops just beaded up and dripped down onto the wet grass. “Should we go Xel?” I asked.

He turned his head slowly and looked up at me, squeezing his eyes half shut. We ran up the hill together.

Inside the house, I took off my jacket and boots and hung them up in the mud room. There was a heating vent with a brass grill cover right under the row of hooks on the wall. I put my feet on the vent and stood for a minute, feeling the warmth through my wool socks.

“Tara, dinner!” my mom called again.

“Coming.”

My mom and dad and sister Zoie were already at the table. I sat down. Minutes passed in silence as we all focused on our food. My parents were both drinking wine, which was unusual. I glanced up and watched my mom raise her glass and take a sip. She seemed tense. So did my dad. They didn’t show it on their faces, but I could feel it like waves washing over me. It was overwhelming. Something was up. I looked away, took a bite of food, chewed. It felt like plastic in my mouth, tasted like cardboard. I heard my dad clear his throat.

“Tara. Zoie. We have something to tell you.”

I didn’t look up at him. Zoie did. I could see her out of the corner of my eye. She was waiting eagerly for the bomb, the explosion, the news. In that way we were opposites. I hated news. I hated confusion and disruption.

“I’ve decided to take the job at Xia Yu Corp,” he went on. “They’ve offered your mother a position too.”

As soon as I heard the words it was like I was falling. I could still see the table, my plate of half eaten food, but it was like I was seeing it from far away, through the mouth of a well, and I was falling down, getting farther and farther from the opening. Black shadows and silence were hugging me and pulling me down.

Chapter 2

The Day Before

I dropped my backpack and sat down hard on the bed. Eyes closed, hands covering my face, I held still and let the silence and solitude calm my thoughts. After a moment, I felt Xel join me. He sprang up onto the mattress and stalked around in a slow circle, sniffing the bedspread. Done sniffing, he curled up next to me with his warm back against my thigh. I knew the warmth was from his internal fusion pack. He wasn’t a real cat, but his temperature was carefully calibrated to feel like the warmth of a real cat so it fooled me most of the time, if I didn’t think too much. I sat for a while longer, emptying my head, just breathing, then slowly straightened up and opened my eyes.

It had been two months since we moved to Los Angeles, but I was still getting used to the new surroundings. I spent the first fourteen years of my life in the same house so it seemed okay to take my time adjusting. Not that my parents agreed.

My new room was small, but at least it was all mine. There was just the bed I was sitting on, a desk, a dresser, a narrow doorway leading into my own tiny bathroom. I had to admit, not sharing a bathroom with Zoie was pretty nice, but I would have happily traded the private bathroom for my life back in old Oregon in the Pacific Northwest Cluster.

My bed in our old house had a real wooden frame. It was rickety and there were at least seven coats of paint on it that chipped off and revealed colored layers like sedimentary rock. There was a spot—right where my hand hung down if I was laying on my back reading—that was completely bare from me picking at it. We left most of our furniture behind when we moved. My new bed didn’t even have an underneath. It was just a raised platform that grew up out of the floor with no seam. It probably was grown actually. I remembered the Xia Yu relocation specialist saying something about bacterial carbon frame construction when she showed us around the building. Outside my window I could see the sun over the ocean—a flat orange disk low on the horizon. I stood up and went to the window. Our apartment was on the twenty-second floor. I looked down, way down to street level, and saw the flow of pedestrian traffic, trains, autocabs. Even from so far up, the people on the street were recognizable based on their clothes—mid- and high-level corp techs like my parents, lower-level workers mostly dressed in white jumpsuits with the logo of their corp, and students like me in school uniforms. They were all surrounded by a flashing rainbow of virtual characters and text. I focused on one, and it zoomed up toward me, a fuzzy purple bear in a little antique airplane. It was the mascot for Blinkyswig. Zoie loved Blinkyswig. She drank one of their chalky ultra-sweet protein shakes every morning for breakfast. I didn’t know how she could stand it. The purple bear waved to me and flew back down toward the street.

“Disable ad content,” I said and the rainbow vanished. Maybe the only good thing about moving to Los Angeles and joining Xia Yu Corp was getting AR specs with the ad free subscription supplied as a benefit. They weren’t the newest model, but they worked. All employees and their families got them. My parents’ old employer was the infrastructure branch of the PacNW Cluster Government. They didn’t give much in the way of benefits. Now, whenever I wanted, I could turn on and off the juggling purple bears, dragonflies buzzing my ears, and distant T-Rex monsters holding up giant signs. Mostly, I left them off.

I watched for a minute more then flopped down, head on my pillow, and went back over my day.

It was a school day and, like usual, I spent most of it trying to be invisible. Staying invisible was the best way to have a boring day instead of an awful one. I almost managed it, but on my way home, there was a group of older girls from my programming class ahead of me. They were walking to the same train stop as me. We were a block away from our school—Playa Vista Community STEM High School which I was “very lucky to be attending” according to my mom. I closed my eyes, remembering…

***

The light changed. I followed the group of girls and stepped up onto the raised platform that took up the middle lane of the road. A train was just pulling up. The doors slid open and I stepped on, looking around for a place to sit. Just the few minutes outside and I was already overheated and sweating through my itchy shirt. I spotted a seat a couple of rows up to my right, next to an old woman with a shopping cart that took up most of the legroom. I slid in, angling my knees out into the aisle. The train was moving slowly. I settled down into my seat and gazed out the window, checking my feed on my specs. Messages and posts scrolled by, superimposed over the buildings moving by outside: air quality alert, virus outbreak, math homework due tomorrow. We came to another stop and the doors slid open. A crowd pushed onto the train and passengers standing in the open space by the doors were forced up the aisles to accommodate the new riders.

“Nice respie.”

I looked up, confused, raising a hand to my particle mask. Everybody called them respies in LA but I was still getting used to the slang. One of the girls from programming class was now standing in the aisle next to my seat. She had long, straight, black hair and somehow seemed poised and elegant despite her school uniform—the same green polo shirt and black pants I was wearing. She seemed so perfect. I squinted up at her. Her respie and her specs were both recognizably new and expensive—at least two generations newer than mine. The other three girls were also there, standing behind her. The LEDs on the front girl’s respie glowed green and her voice came out sounding flat and robotic.

“I heard that it’s more efficient than iteration,” she said.

One of the other girls laughed, turning to face her companions, and her laughter came out with the same robotic tone.

“Sorry,” I said, addressing the lead girl, confused. Then I remembered: in programming class I had made a comment about recursion being more efficient than iteration for solving the problem we were working on. The train was pulling into a stop. The girl tilted her head sideways and lifted a hand, waggling her fingers in a kind of dismissive wave as the group all turned.

“You might want to consider antiperspirant,” she said, looking back over her shoulder and lifting an arm. Her companions laughed again, turning to look at each other as they walked down the aisle and exited together. I watched them go then stole a glance at my armpit. A circle of sweat was visible through my shirt…

***

I had been teased and bullied before. It was nothing new, but it still hurt every time. Laying on my bed, I could feel the familiar tightening in my chest, anger mixed with mortification and deep lonely sadness. The incident on the train was typical. I just never seemed to be able to act like everybody else, come up with the right answer, look the right way, know what to say. Sometimes I felt like all the other people were in some kind of zoo habitat, and I was on the outside of the glass enclosure, isolated, watching and trying to figure out their rules.

I stood, walked into my bathroom, and looked at my reflection in the mirror. There was a line pressed into my skin from the respie and my hair was a frizzed out mess from the humidity outside. I sighed, picking up my hairbrush.

“I look like hell,” I said to my reflection, repeating one of my mother’s favorite lines.

“I think you look fine.” Xel’s voice was low with a little bit of rumble.

I turned and looked down. He sat on his haunches in the doorway, green eyes peering up at me. His fur was long, stippled and striped, gray and black and white. Tufts of fur curled up out of his ears. He was modeled after the North American bobcat—larger than a house cat but still much smaller than a puma or mountain lion.

“Xel. You aren’t objective. You’re programmed to like me no matter what.”

“That may be,” he replied. “However, my processing is subtly different today. The update you ran yesterday seems to have altered my perception. There is a new dimension to my thinking.”

I bent down and ran my hand over his head, pushing my fingers through the soft fur. “That reminds me,” I said. “I want to check in with Shen and Alberto about how their cats are doing.” Back in my room, I sat down on the bed and tapped the contact on my specs. “Cybex Cat Club,” I said. There was a momentary rush of blurred movement then the home page scrolled up. It was an old-fashioned web site. Shen had told me it was modeled on something called a BBS from the early days of the internet. I took a moment to scan the news feed. Nothing new.

“T-Ninety-One chat space,” I said and the new page opened.

Xel was a T91 model. The newest—just released a couple of months before. My father had made a trip to Shenzhen for his final interview with Xia Yu and brought Xel back for me. They gave it to him as a kind of signing bonus when he took the job. T91s weren’t available in North America yet and, even in Asia, very few people had them. My father had told me to keep it quiet since he wasn’t really sure they were allowed to be imported. The technology had taken a massive leap between the T90 model and this one. People in the Cybex chat spaces said it was military grade artificial intelligence. Xel was just Xel to me, though. He was a good companion. He kept an eye on me, asked me how I was doing, always listened. Intellectually, I knew he was a robot cat with a neural network brain but most of the time I just thought of him as a real cat who could talk—a friend. I’d only had him for a few months but he was already a big part of my life. I turned my attention to the chat space and Shen’s avatar was there. Alberto was there too.

“Tara, welcome,” Shen intoned. He always spoke with a kind of deep, pretentious drawl. Shen and Alberto were sort of friends too but not the kind I would ever meet for real, in person.

“Hello, Shen,” I answered. “Hi, Alberto.”

“Hi, Tara.”

“How are your cats?” I asked, jumping straight to business.

“We were just talking about that,” Alberto answered. “Jashi started acting funny after the update. She was saying words in the wrong order. Not making sense—”

“The same thing happened with Bao,” Shen broke in. “I had to roll back the update. Alberto did too. But Xel is okay?”

“Yeah—seems to be,” I answered, running my hand through his fur and feeling his body rumble with a low purr. “He said something about perceiving things differently. I don’t know what that means. I didn’t use the same mod as you two, though. I modded the mod.”

“What did you change?” Alberto asked.

Soon we were into a deep discussion of the T91 firmware code. Xel curled next to me on the bed, one ear turned my way as if he was listening in. I had been hacking since I was old enough to read and write. My parents were both programmers. It was the natural language and activity of our family. Except for Zoie—my little sister didn’t want anything to do with writing code. Sometimes I wondered whether I really cared about it myself. Maybe I just did it because it was expected, because I had never really tried anything else. I was good at it though. I knew that. My solution to the problem in programming class earlier had been much better than the one in the book—simpler and more elegant. It didn’t matter though. I was a freshman in a junior level class. They weren’t going to listen to anything I had to say.

I ended up transmitting my version of the firmware to Alberto and Shen so they could try it out and made a plan to speak with them the next day so we could compare notes. With a quick command, I hopped then over to Dazzled.

Rosie, my best friend from Oregon, was online. I browsed through her recent feed. There were posts about parties, class trips, a recent outdoor education field trip. Looking at her posts I found myself yearning for home. Not this place, this wasn’t home. Yes, it was colder there, and it rained all the time, and everybody was poor, but it was my real home. PacNW was poor, a rogue cluster with no support from the federal government. Before we moved, my parents were both programmers for the cluster government. My father complained all the time about having to keep the power and sewage treatment plants running with patches on top of patches, both physical and digital. He had jumped at the chance to move south, and my mother had been excited about it too. Xia Yu Corporation was a step up for both of them. They had explained it all, but it still felt like a step back for me. It had never been easy to make friends. The few I had were precious. Suddenly, Rosie’s avatar popped up.

“Tara! How are you?”

I felt the tears I had held back earlier begin to roll down my cheeks. “I’m okay,” I answered but my voice was thick with the sob I was holding in.

“You don’t sound okay.”

“I miss you,” I said. “LA sucks.”

***

I spent half an hour talking to Rosie, calming down and telling her about the new school, the building where we lived, the few trips we had made on weekends to museums and shopping. Eventually, her mom came home and she had to go. I said goodbye, feeling better but still not great, then settled back and just lay there on my bed, thinking. Leaving the PacNW cluster was not like a normal move. It would be hard to go back. The federal government was fine with people moving out, especially skilled workers.

They didn’t allow migration back into rogue clusters like PacNW though. I would probably never see Rosie again unless she decided to go to college somewhere outside PacNW and her parents actually let her go. I was picturing us reuniting freshman year of college when a message marked urgent popped up, pulsing silently. I considered ignoring it but decided it might be from my mom, asking me to pick Zoie up or something.

“Open new,” I said and the text zoomed in. It was a string of numbers, a line break, then another string of numbers. Below that it said:

freedom and safety

There was nothing else to the message. I looked at the sender line and it just said anonymous. I had never seen that before. I didn’t even know it was possible. I looked back at the numbers. They were GPS coordinates I realized suddenly. Weird. Maybe it was some kind of joke or marketing campaign.

“Tara?” my mother’s voice said. “I’m home. Are you in your room?”

“Close message. Archive,” I said and the message faded away. “In here,” I called.

I heard footsteps then my mother’s head appeared, leaning into the doorway. She kept her hair short since the move. I was still getting used to it.

“Resting?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you do your homework already?”

“I only have one assignment. I’ll do it after dinner.”

“Okay. You all right? Ava told me you covered your biosensor.” Her voice was distracted, and I could see that she was looking at something in her feed. Ava was the house computer. I could never bring myself to call the computer by name. I called Xel by his name, but that was different. I glanced at the woven metal tube on my wrist. There was just a bit of sun left above the horizon and the steel thread gleamed in the light from the window, throwing off tiny rainbows. Rosie gave it to me before I left. All minors in the federalist clusters were required to have biosensors. It was like a tattoo but with functional circuitry. I liked to cover mine up because otherwise the house computer was always telling me my blood sugar level was low or I was dehydrated.

“Fine. I just want to rest until dinner.” I answered.

Zoie’s head and torso appeared then, leaning around the doorway too. She was still wearing her black leotard from dance class.

“Lazy sister,” she said, “Always sleeping.”

“Shut up, Zoie!” I sat up. “Mom, make her go away.”

“Okay, let’s go,” my mom said, disappearing from the doorway.

Zoie’s face lingered for a moment, sticking her tongue out at me, then she was jerked away with a look of surprise.

I flopped back down on the bed and closed my eyes. Something felt weird about the way my mother had been acting the last couple of days. She wasn’t normally distracted. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking to each other but, when we did talk, she was usually laser focused like she was with everything else she did.

My father, on the other hand, was always distracted—reading something in his feed or thinking about some problem he was working on. Nothing new there.

I fidgeted and thrashed, unable to get comfortable.

“Is there something wrong, Tara?” Xel asked from the foot of the bed where he was curled up.

I knew he wasn’t really sleeping. He didn’t sleep. But it was part of his programming to act like a real cat. So, he spent a lot of time laying on my bed with his eyes closed.

“I don’t know what’s up with my mom, Xel. She never used to be too busy to talk to me. It’s almost like there’s something she doesn’t want to talk about. Like she’s avoiding having a conversation.”

“Interesting,” Xel replied. “In western psychological theory, there is a concept known as avoidance behavior or avoidance coping. It is related to anxiety. Perhaps your mother feels anxious about having forced you to move and leave behind your friends. Maybe she is avoiding speaking with you so she doesn’t have to discuss it.”

I eyed Xel. He had never offered this kind of opinion before. “That sounds really possible, Xel. I hadn’t thought about it that way,” I answered.

He looked back at me, blinking his eyes slowly.

“Dinner is ready. Please come to the dining room.” It was the house computer. I sat up and swung my legs over the side of the bed.

“I’ll be back in a while, Xel,” I said, patting his head. “You stay here. Mom doesn’t like it when you’re in the dining room.”

Xel squeezed his eyes closed again, nodded, and cocked his head to the side, watching me go.

***

“The problem is that the concentration of the droplets is suboptimal…”

My mother and father were discussing a project at work. My father was on a team working to make Xia Yu’s cloud brightening technology more efficient. I didn’t understand it, mainly because my father never stopped to explain. I looked over at Zoie and saw that she was zoned out, staring at something virtual happening behind her specs. I zoned out too, staring at my plate. Half my dinner was still there, uneaten. The idea of putting another bite in my mouth made me feel nauseous. It was instafood. All the right nutrients were there in the right amounts, but it didn’t taste very good. You had to eat it without thinking about what you were putting in your mouth and swallowing. If you concentrated on the food or the flavor at all, it became difficult to continue. My father used to cook real food sometimes when I was younger. He liked to try complicated recipes. My mother never cooked. Now, we ate instafood pretty much all the time, except on the rare occasions when we went out to eat. I got up, scraped the rest of my food into the composter, and put my plate in the washer.

“I’m going to do my homework,” I said.

My father didn’t look up, just nodded and kept talking. Zoie didn’t look up either. She was smiling at something, eyes distant. My mother turned her head, giving me a strange look. I couldn’t tell what it meant so I shrugged and continued on out of the dining room. Back in my room I flopped down next to Xel.

“How was dinner,” he asked.

“Same as always,” I answered. “More weird vibes from my mom.”

“Maybe you should ask her about it directly when you get a chance.”

“That’s probably good advice,” I said, thinking about my mom’s face when I got up from the table. “I will.”

I spent the next hour working on my homework. I had to write a two page biography of an important scientist. That was all the info the assignment gave. Since starting at PVCSTEM I had noticed that the teachers gave really vague assignments. I didn’t do well with vague so I always asked Xel to help.

He suggested Margaret Hamilton—a computer scientist who worked on the Apollo space program—and gave me a possible outline. I researched her for a while then quickly stitched all my notes together into a paper. It was eighty percent done. I could finish it tomorrow. I didn’t feel like doing any more. I was in the middle of a good book—an old SciFi novel from the nineteen-seventies. I wanted to just go to bed, read for a while, and then fall asleep.

“Done with your homework?” It was my mother, poking her head around the door again.

“Yes. I’m going to get ready for bed.”

“Okay. Remember, I’m picking you up from school at eleven-thirty for your doctor appointment tomorrow.”

I looked at her, puzzled. I didn’t remember her saying anything about the appointment before. “What doctor appointment?”

“It’s just a check-up.”

“But I just had a check-up before we moved.”

“They weren’t able to transfer your medical records. You need to see your new doctor. Be at the front desk at eleven thirty, okay?” She was already walking away.

“Mom?” I called after her but she didn’t answer. I turned to Xel. “Do you see what I mean? She’s acting weird.”

He looked toward the door. “You should go talk to her Tara.”

“I don’t want to right now. I’m going to get ready for bed.” First, though, I pulled up my calendar and checked the upcoming events. There it was—sandwiched between a quiz in math class and a notification that my essay was due by three p.m.—an appointment with someone name Dr. Kimberly Gutierrez.

I couldn’t figure out how I had missed it before. I took off my specs, dropped them on the desk next to my bed, and got up. “The appointment is there, Xel. Am I losing my mind?”

“It is common for human adolescents to go through a period of absent mindedness and distraction at your age. There are hormonal effects—”

“Adolescent!” I said, cutting him off. “Did you just call me an adolescent?”

Xel blinked at me. “Technically, the age of—” he began, but I cut him off again.

“Fine. I don’t want to be called an adolescent, though. Can you just say teenager?”

“Very well.” He seemed taken aback, as much as it was possible for a cat to express something like that anyway. “I apologize if the term distressed you.”

“I’m sorry for yelling, Xel. It just seems so clinical.”

“I understand.”

“Okay. I’m going to brush my teeth.”

***

Ten minutes later I crawled under the covers. Xel was curled at the foot of the bed, eyes closed, purring. I put on my specs and opened the book I was reading. The page scrolled up and I picked up where I had left off.

The unforetold, the unproven,

that is what life is based on…

It was a line of dialogue, one character speaking to another. I thought about that for a moment. It seemed true but it also seemed to have nothing to do with my life. Every day was the same for me, everything predictable. Something unforetold might be nice but I wasn’t going to hold my breath. I shrugged and continued reading.

© 2018 by Bradley W. Wright