Enjoy this excerpt of The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu, out on April 30 from Angry Robot Books:
When out-of-shape IT technician Roen woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it.
He now has a passenger in his brain – an ancient alien life-form called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Now split into two opposing factions – the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix – the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet, and the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that’s what it takes.
Meanwhile, Roen is having to train to be the ultimate secret agent. Like that’s going to end up well…
It was well past 10pm by the time Roen left the office. Heels dragging, he trudged out of the building and made the lonely walk to the parking garage six blocks away. The clouds were out in full force tonight, common at this time of year, and a stiff breeze blew in from the lake. He picked up the pace and continued south on Wabash, hearing the rumblings of the train as it passed nearby.
Roen had the option of parking closer at the Grant Park garage, but parking there cost thirty bucks. That’s like two pizzas, so he was resigned to making the long trek to the further away but cheaper garage.
Suddenly, his highly attuned sense of self-preservation began to let him know it was unhappy. Something didn’t feel right. This part of the Loop was poorly lit and a little rough. He fidgeted as his eyes darted up and down the street. It was deserted except for a homeless guy crossing the intersection. And there was no one walking behind him either.
Then the homeless guy changed directions and moved onto an intercept course. Roen sighed. He had learned to always keep a few dollar bills on hand to give to beggars. It was the easiest way to get rid of them. He handed a buck over before the guy even said a word. “Here you go,” Roen said hastily, and tried to walk around him.
“Thanks, boss,” the homeless guy replied, shifting to his left to block Roen’s path. “Look man, I’m hungry. Dollar ain’t gonna buy much. Let me get a few more for a meal.” He stepped in really close. Roen smelled the faint traces of liquor and the stale aroma of unwashed clothing.
“Sorry,” Roen mumbled and tried to pass him again. The homeless guy became more insistent and continued to block his path. “Hey, back off,” Roen stuttered, throwing his hands out to keep the guy at arm’s length.
The homeless guy growled. “Why you gotta push me? I’m just asking for a couple bucks to eat.” Then the homeless guy shoved Roen hard, causing him to stumble a few steps.
Not one for confrontation, Roen turned into a side alley and immediately regretted his decision. Alleys were where bad things happened and he just did the exact thing the Idiot’s Survival Guide to the City would tell him not to do. It was a dead end. He turned around and faced the homeless guy, slowly retreating. “All right, how much you need for a meal?”
The homeless guy grinned. “Price just went up, boss. You gone hurt my feelings.” Then he became a mugger as he pulled out a knife. “It’s going to cost you your cash, your train pass, that bag you carrying, oh hell, everything you got.”
Roen fought the rising panic climbing up his throat as he stumbled backward. How did he get himself into these situations? He thought, Damn you, Musday!
“Look,” he stammered, barely getting the words out, “let’s talk this over. I can give you my money, but this is my work bag. I need the stuff in it. I’ll get in trouble.”
“You don’t think you’re in trouble now? This ain’t no negotiation, asshole.”
Tell him that he can have the money, but you are keeping your bag.
Roen looked confused. “What did you say?”
“What’s wrong with you, boss? God, you dumb. Give me your stuff or I stick you.”
Roen retreated until his back bumped up against a dumpster. He began to hyperventilate.
What kind of a mugger uses a knife? It is almost insulting. Listen carefully; there are some wine bottles at your feet. Pick them up.
“Who said that? What’s going on?” Roen cried.
Your feet. Bottles. Pick. Them. Up. Now!
The mugger advanced. “I’m losing my patience with you, tubby. You’re going to be a fat dead man any minute.”
Roen looked down at the ground and saw several empty wine bottles. He picked up one in each hand and brandished them in front of him.
Hold them by the neck. The neck. The skinny part.
Roen hastily switched his grip. “Stay back,” he warned. The mugger paid him no attention and continued to advance. He was no further than a few feet away now.
Break the bottles and wield them in front of you.
For a split second, Roen saw an image of a black-armored gladiator standing in an arena holding two swords, one held high over his head and the other in front of his chest. He didn’t know what was going on or who was talking, but he was so scared right now that he did whatever this voice said. He took the two bottles and smashed them together.
Thunk. They didn’t break.
What the…? Roen looked down and tried again.
Thunk. Thunk. The damn bottles wouldn’t break.
“Oh, for the love of…” Roen gritted his teeth and tried even harder.
Thunk. Thunk. Finally, they shattered into two jagged shards that he waved in front of him triumphantly, trying to imitate that already fading image of the gladiator.
Good. Say something mean.
“You… you give me all your money!” Roen yelled.
That is not what I meant.
The mugger did a double-take. “What? I’m robbing you. Give me all your money!”
“Not anymore,” Roen cried. “I’m robbing you!”
“You can’t rob me. That’s not how it works.” The mugger no longer seemed so sure of himself and retreated a few steps.
The two stood very far apart from each other, both harmlessly waving their respective weapons. Every time the mugger advanced, Roen scampered backward. And every time Roen crept forward, the mugger retreated. This back and forth continued as they swore at each other.
“Come on, you fat asshole,” the mugger snarled.
“You’re a jerk, and you stink,” Roen answered.
Roen’s eyes darted around the alley. “Is my brain trying to get me killed?”
Bullies are cowards. Attack!
Nearly a minute into their standoff, after a lot of bravado on both sides, something in Roen snapped. With a burst of momentary courage and the high pitched roar of a raging mouse, he swung the broken bottles above his head and charged. The mugger seemed to finally have enough and fled. Roen chased him for about twenty feet before the physical exertion wore him out. He stopped and bent over, panting.
Let him go. You did well. Go home.
“Who is this?” Roen gasped, sucking in large gulps of air.
But the voice was silent. Afraid that the mugger would come back, Roen hustled as fast as he could to his car and drove home. He stepped through his front door shortly after 11pm, his hands still shaking. His heart felt like it was going to burst out of his chest. It was too bad Antonio was working at the hospital tonight. He could really use someone to talk to.
Roen plopped himself onto the couch and turned on the television. His stomach growled and he decided that it was time for another dinner. He tossed his shirt onto the floor, popped in a frozen pizza, and proceeded to channel-surf, never staying on one channel for more than a few seconds. This went on for the better part of an hour. It wasn’t until after he finished his pizza that he decided there was nothing worth watching.
Roen looked up at the clock; it was just past midnight. With a sigh, he picked himself off the couch and moved the party to the bedroom. He turned on his computer, grabbed a bag of chocolate chip cookies and began to dig through it. For the rest of the night, he immersed himself in a video game until the clock struck 3am, reminding him that he had to be up in a few hours.
Wearily, he tore himself away from the computer and made his way to bed, idly thinking that he should sign up for a gym sometime this year. He had been saying that since New Year’s, and it was already March. Soon, he would do it. Just not this week. Maybe next month. Or maybe when summer started. Definitely sometime before the year ended.
The Lives of Tao © Wesley Chu 2013