Nationals Park (Ch. 2) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 002

BIONIC BUG podast artWelcome back to the Bionic Bug podcast. This is episode number 2. My name is Natasha Bajema. I’m a fiction author, national security expert and your host for this podcast.

First off, I want to share a personal reflection. Last week, after I proudly posted my first-ever podcast, I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts and realized that I made an amateur mistake in the closing segment. FYI, the slashes in website addresses are not back slashes, they are actually called forward slashes. #facepalm

I re-recorded the closing segment this week with the correction. I had a good laugh about it. The truth is that I’ve been making a lot of amateur mistakes lately… and I realized it’s because I’m doing many things for the very first time. Again. Since I’m in my forties and have built up a nearly two-decade career in national security, it’s been a long time since I’ve been new at anything. It feels so exciting and adventurous. In some ways, I feel like I’m 20 again.

If you take anything away from this at all, you should know that not only is it never too late to start a new career, but in fact, it’s highly recommended. Being an amateur again is incredibly freeing. It’s given me a fresh outlook on a lot of things.

Okay, let’s talk tech. There were a couple of headlines that caught my attention recently. An editorial on April 4, 2018 in the Richmond Times Dispatch entitled “Cybersecurity is Far More Critical than Border Security.”

The Internet was originally created as a network for labs and universities to communicate and share information. The main strength of the Internet is its openness, but this is also its primary weakness. There’s currently much debate against building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. I’m worried that we’ll spend billions and it will become obsolete even before it’s finished being built.

For example, organized crime, drug dealers and friends of cellmates in prisons are increasingly using drones to deliver packages across otherwise impenetrable physical barriers. Moreover, cybercrime is on the rise. Criminals are turning to the Internet and the Dark Web, both of which are borderless, to conduct their activities.

The U.S. is more invested in cyberspace than any other nation. Our society is addicted to the Internet. We can’t even imagine life without it. Our military has grown extremely dependent on the proper functioning of the Internet. And this is a major threat to our national security. Every semester, I recommend a few books to my students for reading. The one on the top of my list is called Ghost Fleet by August Cole and P.W. Singer, a particularly troubling vision for how WWIII might go done. If you want to know what keeps me up at night, this is it.

Many of you may not be aware of a recent ransomware attack against the city of Atlanta. On March 22, a cyberattack shut down the city of Atlanta’s online systems—affecting the computer systems of 8,000 municipal employees. As long as a week after the attack, officials were struggling to keep the government running without digital processes and services. Residents couldn’t pay their water bill or their parking tickets. Police officers were forced to write out their reports by hand. Court proceedings were canceled until computer systems would function  properly. How well prepared are we for such attacks on a larger scale?

I fear the answer is we’re not well-prepared or even aware of the potential threat. Another article written on April 1, 2018 entitled “Cybersecurity Faces Challenges in Congress” notes that Congress is primarily focused on immigration, health care and budget legislation. “Cybersecurity is not necessarily one of the highest policy-making priorities.”

Changing the subject a bit, a headline on April 2, 2018 on Fox News caught my attention: “Company Plans Drones to Carry 400 Pound Payloads.” A Canadian company wants to develop a drone that can deliver packages up to 400 pounds. Well, I’d prefer they don’t fly over my house then. These drones will be able to fly 150 km (93 miles). The company conducted its first tests of the Sparrow drone on March 5. The smaller drone currently has a 5 kg capacity (11 pounds). They’re planning tests for another drone called the Raven with a payload of up to 25 pounds.

Drone delivery is coming. This is a theme of Bionic Bug. Amazon wants to be able to delivery packages by drones. Drone delivery is  currently not legal in the U.S. The timing  depends on when the appropriate regulations can be put into place.

I want to thank my first two patrons—Renee and Cheryl. Thank you so much for your support which allows me to produce the show. If you would like to support my show for only a few dollars a month, please go to patreon.com/natashabajema 

In the first chapter, I introduced some of the main characters—Lara, Vik, Sully and Maggie. Sully was acting strangely. We learned that Lara’s company is in financial trouble. Let’s see what happens next.

Read Nationals Park – Chapter 2

Let’s go behind the scenes. Nationals park is an important setting for Bionic Bug and for me personally. My job is located walking distance from the baseball park. I drive by it everyday and go to a game a few times every year.

When I go to games, I marvel about the openness of the stadium. I was attending a game with my parents who were visiting me in D.C., and I couldn’t get the image out of my head, the image of hundreds of drones flying over the top of the stadium walls and into the park. What should I think? What would I do?

The drone show in Bionic Bug was inspired by a YouTube video I saw several years ago of a 100-drone light show designed by Intel. It was the first of his kind. The drones moved and blinked their lights to the music of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. The half-time show of the 2017 Super Bowl also featured a drone show. More recently, Intel broke their world record at the Olympics opener with a drone show involving a swarm of 1,200 drones.

Most off-the-shelf drones today can carry only a small payload – maybe a few pounds. But as you can see from these drone shows, with swarming capability, the potential for scale is unlimited – instead of lights, think about this. What if each of these drones carried a small explosive and were delivered to a target?

The views expressed in this podcast are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Wicked Bloom (Ch. 1) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 001

BIONIC BUG podast artWelcome to the first episode of the Bionic Bug podcast! My name is Natasha Bajema. I’m a fiction author, national security expert and your host for this podcast. I’m so thrilled that you’re tuning in.

I started this podcast in part to get my first novel into audio format, but I also wanted to share some of my insights behind the book as well as my perspective on where we’re headed in the future. Each week, I’ll kick the episode off with a technology news headline or two that has caught my attention that week. Then I’ll read a chapter from my book. Each episode will conclude with behind-the-scenes technical information.

So, if you’re interested in technology, in reading fiction or want to write fiction based on future technology, you’re in the right place.

Before we get started, I need to offer two caveats:

  • The views expressed on this podcast are my own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
  • I am not a professional narrator. Please note that I will not attempt to read in an Australian or Indian accent because I’ll be terrible and you’ll hate it.

In this episode, I kick things off with a technology news headline: AI Cardiologist Aces its First Medical Exam. During the last week of March, I attended Synapse: Innovation Summit 2018 in Tampa, Florida. Dr. Bernard Meyerson, IBM’s Chief Innovation Officer took the stage to talk about IBM Watson machine learning tools being used across the country in the field of medicine to assist doctors with complex diagnoses.

A machine learning tool is a series of algorithms programmed to analyze input data and predict specific outcomes. Today’s machine learning tools are designed to mimic the way the brain works called deep neural network. As a result, computers can often do specific tasks better than humans.

Computers are better at digesting vast amounts of data and discovering complex correlations among them. In a matter of minutes, a machine learning tool can analyze hundreds of thousands of medical research articles to provide doctors with a possible diagnosis and treatment plans. Machine learning tools are especially effective for complex or rare cases. Whereas a machine learning tool can instantly peruse everything that exists on a topic, doctors may only be able to read several new journal articles per month.

In this episode, I read “Wicked Bloom” chapter 1 of Bionic Bug which takes place in Washington D.C. in 2027. To conclude the episode, I discuss behind-the-scenes information about the book.

In Chapter 1, Sully mentions that the kidnapper in his case threatened to kill his hostage with ricin, a toxin produced from the pulp of castor beans. Ricin is a biological agent and a weapon of mass destruction (WMD). In the U.S., the FBI is the lead agency for dealing with WMD.

  • If you’re writing a novel with a domestic WMD incident, you should definitely bring in the FBI.
  • In 2006, the FBI stood up the WMD Directorate, which works to prevent and prepare for WMD attacks. Prevention is carried out at each of the FBI’s 56 field offices through special agents who serve as WMD Coordinators.
  • These WMD Coordinators conduct outreach with the local community and law enforcement and are on the frontlines of any case related to WMD.
  • In Bionic Bug, Special Agent Robert Martin, Lara’s ex-boyfriend, is a WMD Coordinator at the Washington Field Office.

In Chapter 1, I introduce the concept of driverless cabs and self-driving cars.

  • In Bionic Bug, the D.C. Council has passed an autonomy mandate requiring all drivers to operate their vehicles in autonomous mode. Motorcycles are exempt because of severe objections by the motorcyclist lobby, which claimed it would be the end of the biking industry.
  • Recently, I’ve had several discussions about the dawn of self-driving vehicles and have several thoughts. First, the technology is not there yet as evidenced by recent Uber and Tesla accidents. Second, even if the technology is possible in a couple of years, there’s the issue of technology adoption and societal acceptance. Communities like the National Capitol Region will have greater incentives to give up the freedom of the road.

The views expressed on this podcast are my own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

A Kickstarter Campaign: My Journey to 1,000 Super Fans

Performance Author

I’m about to embark on something crazy (especially since I’m an extreme introvert)… I’ve decided to become a performance author. Wait, what’s that?

You’ve heard of performance artists, right? Well, I’m going to perform for my audience much like a performance artist does. The only difference is I’m a writer, and my audience consists of readers. I’m planning to use crowdsourcing, Facebook Live, podcasting, and short video productions to entertain my backers as part of a Kickstarter campaign.

Say what?

I’ve decided to crowdsource my next novel as part of a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. I’m inviting backers behind-the-scenes into the editing process for Project Gecko (Book Two in the Lara Kingsley Series). Backers will become members of a private Facebook group where they will enjoy direct access to me as an author and to early drafts of my story. In this forum, they will also have an opportunity to shape the story in Project Gecko and my journey as an author.

My primary goal with the Kickstarter campaign is not to raise money to publish a book (although this would be a nice bonus), but rather to begin cultivating my first 1,000 super fans. I’m hoping to reach this goal by the end of 2018, but that’s quite the tall order since I’m starting with only 3 super fans.

Why 1,000 Super Fans?

Former Wired editor Kevin Kelly famously stated about ten years ago that all you need for success as a creator (authors, musicians, artists… anyone who sells things they create) is 1,000 true fans.

A true fan or super fan is someone who will buy up anything you produce. These are the folks who will show up for your book readings or buy a coffee bug with your book cover on it. They will also sing your praises to anyone who will listen, winning you new fans into your club. Super fans are willing to do your marketing for you, and word of mouth is incredibly powerful for selling your books.

In this model, success is defined as making a solid living. It’s important to understand that this approach will not necessarily help you get rich fast, but it could eventually bring in six figures a year. That’s a pretty decent living for most geographic locations in the United States.

The math is quite simple. Let’s say you’re an author, and you produce $100 worth of stories per year. If you have 1,000 super fans, you’ll earn $100,000 that year. If you produce less value per year, then you’ll need more super fans to make up the difference. The point here is that you don’t need to sell millions of copies to make a solid living and succeed as an author.

The Need for Direct Engagement

Despite the Internet bringing the people of the world closer together, we’ve somehow grown further apart. Instead of personal handwritten notes or even well-crafted emails, we use texts and tweets to communicate. We’ve lost the essence of a personal connection. That makes direct engagement special and rare.

Achieving the goal of 1,000 superfans requires building a direct and personal relationship with fans. Today more than ever before, we have the power to reach and interact with 1,000 super fans more efficiently and more regularly. Even with the Internet, however, this can require signficant effort and active engagement on your part. But if it wins you a new super fan, it’s worth it. Right?

The Law of Averages

Wouldn’t it be better to skip the direct engagement and aim for a bestselling novel? That’s easier said than done.

Contrary to popular belief, most books don’t sell many copies. In other words, the bestsellers are the outliers and statistically, two standard deviations from the norm. I’ve searched for reliable data on this, but could only find widely variable estimates on average sales. On average, it appears that a book sells about 250-300 copies per year and about 3,000 copies in its lifetime. That’s the average (middle of the hump).

In January 2018, I released Bionic Bug on one online retailer (read about my soft launch). So far, I’ve sold 18 books, which puts me on track for average sales for its first year. Not bad given my lack of promotion and limited availability.

If average book sales are so low, why not start small by winning one true fan at a time? Unlike a traditional publisher, we don’t have to have a bestseller to survive. As Indie authors, reaching niche markets and building our following organically over time is where we enjoy a major comparative advantage over traditional publishers. We can afford to grow our super fans, one at a time.

With 1,000 super fans, you’ll sell at least that many copies of each new book you put out. And that brings you well above the average.

Why Kickstarter?

In the revised version of his original 2008 article, Kevin Kelly mentions the synergy of crowdfunding platforms for cultivating super fans. This is no mistake. On Kickstarter and other platforms, backers fund projects and then have a stake in their success. When you win backers for your campaign, you are winning potential super fans who are personally invested in your success and will spread the word on your behalf.

I’m hoping to use my Kickstarter campaign to kickstart my super fan club. And like the significant effort that goes into directly engaging super fans, a successful Kickstarter campaign requires a great deal of work. But it’s worth it… especially if you’re after 1,000 super fans.

My Kickstarter Campaign

In my Kickstarter campaign, backers will participate in crowdsourcing if they sign up for Reward #4 (Fan Club) or Reward #6 (Super Fan Club), becoming a member of my private Lara Kingsley Facebook Group (or my email list if they don’t use Facebook). These backers will get to help shape the story, choosing names, settings, character actions, and storylines.

As I edit the first draft of Project Gecko, I’ll pose questions to my backers (on names, settings, character actions, and storyline). Two possible examples:

  • In Project Gecko, a craft beer (the favorite of a male character) plays an important role in the story. I’m currently using a real world name (Blind Pig Ale), but I’d like to use an original name if possible. What would you name this craft beer?
  • I’m currently not sure if the wife of the murder victim should be directly involved in the conspiracy leading to his death. When we reach an appropriate juncture in the story (don’t want to ruin the story with spoilers), I’ll take a vote and backers will get to shape the “whodunit” element of the story.

The “crowd” or in this case, my Kickstarter backers will respond to my queries with creative suggestions. I’ll review the list, choose my favorites, and put 3-5 options back to the group for a final vote. The idea with the highest votes will be used in the book. I will give the backer who came up with the winning idea credit on a special “Credits Page” in my book. And so, my backers will become part of my fiction novel and my story as an author.

To convert my backers into super fans, I’m planning to develop some behind-the-scenes products that will become available if I reach my stretch goals (certain dollar amounts that exceed my minimum goal of $1,000):

  • For example, I’ll make available my “Story Bible” for Bionic Bug, Book One in the series. When authors build a world for their stories, they develop detailed character profiles and often cast actors to play their characters. The Story Bible is an attractive guide to the characters in Bionic Bug, including their backgrounds, characteristics, likes and dislikes and life goals. It will allow readers to go behind the scenes of the story and get to know the characters.
  • I’ve conducted a great deal of research on a range of technologies to write Bionic Bug. As part of my stretch goals, I’ll provide a detailed Author’s Note. This behind-the-scenes overview will describe the technologies featured in Bionic Bug and provide online resources for more information.
  • I’m also planning to produce several Bionic Bug On Location shoots. In these videos, I’ll take readers several real Washington D.C. locations featured in Bionic Bug. I’ll talk about how these locations inspired me and why I chose them for a particular scene in the book.

And finally, I will use Facebook Live and create a Bionic Bug Podcast to read chapters of Bionic Bug to my viewers, discuss the back story, and offer more detail on the technologies featured in the book.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Bionic Bug: “The Drone Show” (Chapter 3)

Baseball bionic bug

Back to Chapter 2

A distant rumbling of engines and rhythmic thumping of rotors filled the air. Seconds later, two helicopters from the D.C. metropolitan police arrived. They hovered above the stadium for a moment before flying in a circular pattern and shining spotlights onto the baseball field.

As she scanned the crowd, something caught her eye in the field-level seating down below. A tall black man wearing a navy coat and a red baseball cap stood in the aisle facing the field and holding up some type of gadget with two thick antennas. He directed his gaze upwards and appeared to be interacting with the drones.

This show is over. If she hurried, maybe Lara could catch him and end this spectacle.

As she turned toward the aisle, the drones turned off their lights, stopped their formations, flew straight up, and disappeared out of the stadium. Down below, security personnel scrambled in all directions as the police helicopters raced after the drones, the thumping already far in the distance.

Screams for more rose from the crowd as they broke into a standing ovation. The commotion blocked her sight of the man. The stadium lights switched to full power, and pop music blared from the speakers once more.

Lara pushed through the crowd just in time to see the man with the gadget turn toward the section exit. Lara thought he looked oddly familiar.

Is that? No, it can’t be Sully.

The man stumbled up a few stairs and stopped to rub his eyes with vigor. Slamming into an empty seat, he bent down and vomited onto the floor. Several people jumped out of his way to miss the projectile. As he tried to find his balance, he looked up toward the next level. Their eyes met for a moment. Lara gasped in dismay and spun on her heel, ready to jump into the aisle and make her way down to Sully. Before she could move, Vik placed a hand on her arm.

“What’s wrong?” He asked.

“I don’t know, but Sully is down there, and he doesn’t look good.”

“Do you need my help?”

“Not with this. I’ll check on him, but I want you to go down to the field level and talk to security personnel, give them your card, and ask them if they knew about this spectacle. Then offer them our investigative services. They’re going to need our help on this one.”

“Okay, whatever you say, boss…” His tone revealed his hesitancy.

Lara ignored Vik’s narrowed eyes and pursed lips. He could be skeptical as long as he did what he was told.

She grabbed her motorcycle helmet and sprinted up the stairs. At the top of the stands, she caught her breath and then made a beeline toward the nearest stairwell. Descending two flights of stairs, she burst through the double doors into the field-level corridor and raced toward the section where she’d seen Sully.

“Ma’am, do you have a ticket for this section?” a female attendant asked sharply. Her whole body was tense, and sweat beaded on her forehead. She planted herself in Lara’s way and crossed her arms, possibly trying to hide the fact that her hands were trembling slightly.

Maybe she also knows the drone show was unauthorized?

Lara shook her head. “Please, my friend is in this section. He’s sick and needs my help.”

The attendant swallowed audibly and looked over her shoulder. She dropped her arms and bit her lower lip. Then she nodded. “Okay, ma’am, help your friend, but then come right back out. I’ll radio for medical assistance, and I’m going to keep an eye on you.”

Lara held her hands up and nodded. “That’s fine. I just need to help my friend.” The attendant let her by, but the stairs were blocked by a stream of people hurrying to get whatever they needed before the next inning began. She jumped into an empty row of seats and stood on her tip toes, surveying the section as best as she could. Sully was nowhere to be seen.

Maybe he made it out already?

Lara turned around and charged back into the corridor. Her heartbeat went wild as her instincts screamed at her; something was wrong. She scanned the entire area, looking for any sign of Sully.

There were people everywhere, queuing for beer and food. Other fans, celebrating the Nationals’ lead, filled the corridor in droves. She’d be lucky to catch him before he disappeared into the masses.

About fifty feet away, a group of people made a hole in the crowd, jumping back as a figure stumbled through them.

“Sully!” she called as his red baseball cap and navy coat came into view.

Mothers pulled their children close, teens pointed and giggled, and a few older fans shook their heads in disapproval as Lara’s friend passed. They probably thought he was drunk. She was slightly surprised security hadn’t picked him up yet, but then again, they had bigger problems at the moment.

She strode forward, but a group of college-aged guys filled the corridor and blocked her path. “Sully!” She pushed through them and caught a glimpse of Sully staggering away from her. He teetered awkwardly against the wall.

“Sully,” Lara called out again, trying to get his attention. She moved toward him. “Hey, Sully!”

He didn’t appear to hear her voice over the noise. Before she could reach him, he lurched down a dark hallway and out of sight. Instinctively, Lara reached for her sidearm before she remembered she’d left it at home. Guns at the ballpark drew unwanted attention and required cutting through mounds of red tape, so she never bothered with it.

Lara darted quickly toward the dark hallway. A few moments later, she turned the corner to check if it was clear. The hallway dead ended. Lara pulled out her smartphone and clicked on her flashlight app. A small beam of light illuminated the hall, and that’s when she saw Sully on the ground. Next to him lay the large, black device he’d been using.

He lay face down, convulsing on the concrete. Foam formed at his mouth, his eyes wide and crazed. She sprinted the short distance and fell to her knees beside him.

“Sully, what happened?” Lara shook his shoulder, but he was unresponsive. “Talk to me!”

Sully coughed, gasping for air, and then his eyes seemed to recognize her. He opened his mouth but only gurgling came out.

“Take it easy, I’ll get help.”

He shook his head and reached into his pocket. The convulsions returned, his entire body in their grip.

Lara dialed 911. “Hang on, Sully!” The phone rang.

Sully opened his eyes wide again and gaped at her. “Feh has… the Buh…” Sully gurgled. “Cy—”

“What are you saying? Talk to me,” Lara pleaded.

“Daarp… ” He pawed at her leg, and as their eyes met, his rolled back showing only the whites. In less than a minute, he stopped shaking and laid completely still.

“Sully!” She shook him but there was no response. Panicked, Lara felt for a pulse, but couldn’t find one.

She dropped her smartphone and started chest compressions. More foam bubbled out of his mouth. Still no pulse.

“911, what’s your emergency?” Lara’s smartphone chirped on the cement next to her.

“Noooo!” Lara screamed. A burst of energy coursed through her body. “Sully, you’re not leaving me… I’m not going to let you.” She continued the chest compressions and breathed into his mouth several times. She felt for a pulse again. Nothing.

Her chest tightened, and tears welled in her eyes. She squeezed them shut, allowing a single tear to escape and roll down her cheek.

This can’t be happening.

Opening her eyes again, Lara felt lightheaded. She climbed to her feet and staggered backward a few steps into the wall.

Lara braced herself against the cold, cement wall, her body shaking. The faint 911 operator’s voice persisted through the phone’s speaker, asking for a response.

She bent over and picked up the phone with her shaking hands, nearly dropping it a few times as she brought it to her ear. As she answered the operator’s questions, her own voice sounded distant, as though she wasn’t the one speaking. Her heart pounded in her chest as she disconnected from the call and dialed Vik’s number.

“Yes, boss?”

“I need you to come here,” Lara said, a slight tremor in her voice.

“I’m still trying to make contact with security.”

“Vik—”

“The guards are all in quite a tizzy about the drone show, and I haven’t been able to get their attention.” She tried again to cut in but Vik continued, “They keep brushing me aside like a pesky fly that—”

“Vik… Sully’s dead.”

There was a pause. “What?” Vik asked. “How?”

“I don’t know. I found him convulsing in a hallway. Foam was coming out of his mouth. I couldn’t save him.”

“Like he was poisoned?”

Lara looked at her friend’s lifeless body. Could it be poison?

“Lara, are you still there?”

If he was poisoned, who could have done it and why? She replayed the scene in her head. He had slid his hand into his pocket.

Sully tried to tell me something. Was he also trying to show me something?

Kneeling next to Sully, she placed her smartphone on the floor and pulled his hand out of his pocket. His discolored fingernails clutched the Star Wars Storm Trooper keychain she’d given him for his birthday.

She stared at the dangling keys. Were you trying to give these to me? Lara carefully opened his hand and pocketed them.

“Lara, I think I lost you.”

Shivering, Lara glanced down at Sully’s body. Sully is gone. The heavy numbness in her limbs and chest prevented the horrible truth from sinking in. Her mind floated above her, struggling to make sense of it.

Then she remembered his strange behavior at the bar. The creepy kid. Sully had wanted to tell her something. Now he wouldn’t get the chance. Looking at his hands, she examined his purple finger nails.

This is not normal. A hint of anger rose in her chest. Her heart pounded, and her spirit filled with determination. Someone did this to you, Sully. I’m going to find them.

“Lara?”

She grabbed her phone and took a deep breath. “Sorry. I’m still here. Scrap the original plan. I need to go check out his townhouse, but I can’t leave the scene. I need you to come to the concessions area behind section 137 and wait here with Sully’s body until the police arrive.”

“What’s at his place?”

“I don’t know, but nothing feels right about this, and I’m not waiting for the police to mess it up.” Lara glanced at Sully’s body again. Her chest tightened, choking out a shallow gasp.

“Are you sure you shouldn’t wait for the police? To answer questions…” Vik asked. “I don’t think you should interfere with the investigation… I mean—”

Lara clenched her fists to stop them from trembling. “I’ll be of far more use to Sully by tracking down his killer. By the time, the police figure out this was a homicide, the bastard will be long gone. There’s no time to lose.”

Vik heaved a sigh. “Okay, I’ll be right there… uh, Lara?”

“What?”

“I’m really sorry about Sully. He was a good man.”

Lara gulped, holding back tears. “Thanks, Vik. Let’s just get some answers, okay?”

She climbed to her feet and rested against the cement wall in a daze while she waited for Vik to arrive. For a few minutes, she watched numbly as baseball fans walked by the hallway entrance with arms full of craft beers and fatty foods, oblivious to the dead body lying on the ground in the dark corridor, mere feet from them.

Inside the ballpark, the crowd shouted with fury. She briefly hoped her team hadn’t lost their lead already, but as she looked back at Sully, she quickly dismissed the thought.

It isn’t important.

Staring down at him, her arms and legs felt paralyzed. Out of nowhere, a high-pitched ringing pierced her ears. For a moment, it felt as if she were back there roasting in her gear under the desert sun, recovering from the explosion and searching in desperation for her unit. The sudden ringing made no sense. Back then, there had been a bomb. Now, foam trickled silently from Sully’s mouth, shockingly white against his dark skin.

C’mon Lara, this is no time to freeze up. Shaking the tension out, she battled the urge to recoil and regretted stuffing the hot dog down her throat earlier. As a military officer in the National Guard special forces, Lara prepared herself for grizzly situations. But she’d never prepared herself for this.

Somehow this shocked her even more than losing her entire unit to Afghan insurgents. Experiencing death on the battlefield was expected. She would never forget the smell of burning flesh—the foul stench was permanently seared into her memory. Her unit died while she’d survived with only a minor injury. And now Sully was dead, and again she was left alive.

Snap out of it Lara. Sully needs you now.

Feeling a renewed sense of determination, she began searching the scene for clues and snapped a few pictures with her smartphone. She picked up the gadget Sully had been using in the park, and her hand dipped from its weight. In all her years of experience with electronics, she’d not seen anything quite like it.

The gadget had two thick antennae and a rugged construction, both which suggested it was military grade. With the previous display in the park, her gut told her it was a remote-control device for maneuvering drones, but she would need to take it apart to know its real purpose.

Sully, what were you doing with this? Were you running the drone show?

Lara rummaged through his pockets, searching for some evidence of his activities in the ballpark, but they were empty except for a game ticket. Reaching into the chest pocket of his coat, she found his wallet and dug through it. She pulled out a personnel ID hidden inside an interior pocket. Sully’s picture and name were on it, but upon closer inspection, the slightly uneven edge of the photograph suggested it was a forged ID for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). At the very least, Sully committed a felony simply by being in possession of a fake federal ID.

You must have had a good reason to risk getting caught. What could’ve been so important there? She rubbed her thumb over the hard plastic. The ID was in pristine condition, definitely new. You must have used this recently.

“Hey boss,” Vik said, coming around the corner.

Lara nearly jumped out of her skin. Without turning, she shoved the ID in her pocket, hoping Vik hadn’t noticed. What he doesn’t know can’t hurt him when the cops arrive.

“Where have you been?” Lara winced at the harshness of her own words.

Vik shrank back slightly. “I’m sorry. You were hard to find. There are a lot of dark hallways back here.”

Lara took a breath to calm herself. “Well, I’m glad you’re here now. I’m going to check out Sully’s townhouse. Tell the cops I couldn’t stay, but I’ll follow up with them later.” She handed Vik the wallet. “Also, keep an eye on that remote. I have a feeling about it, and I don’t want the cops losing it in their evidence locker.”

“I’ve got it from here, Lara,” Vik said reassuringly.

Lara nodded. She glanced one more time at Sully, her eyes lingering on him for a few moments, unable to leave him until she caught the familiar squawk of a police radio approaching. She tore her eyes away, whispered a last goodbye to one of the best friends she’d ever had, and forced her legs to move. She had a murder to solve.

Stay tuned for Chapter 4…

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Bionic Bug: “Nationals Park” (Chapter 2)

Back to Chapter 1

At the crack of ball against bat, Lara leaped to her feet, hotdog in hand, and cheered as the Nationals player on third slid into home plate. Some relish plopped onto her shoe, but she didn’t care. The baseball park was filled to the brim and full of tension. With the series tied 2-2, this game would determine if the Atlanta Braves or the Washington Nationals advanced to the World Series.

Her mouth watered at the smell of grease wafting under her nose. When she’d jumped out of her seat, she’d accidentally squished the bun a little, but her hotdog, slathered with condiments, still looked delicious. As she leaned forward to take a bite, a large man standing next to her bumped her arm and knocked her off-balance. Fighting to regain her footing, she nearly tripped over her motorcycle helmet on the cement floor below. Then something wet hit her leg, and she cringed.

And that’s why I wear black.

She carefully wiped the glob of ketchup from her leggings with a napkin. Glancing at her feet, she groaned. A large drop of mustard had landed on her lucky baseball glove tucked inside her shiny black Harley Davidson helmet.

“I told you not to pile on so many spices.” Vik chuckled next to her.

“Condiments,” Lara retorted. Suppressing a glare, she rubbed the glove clean with her sleeve before straightening up again to watch the game.

“Whatever,” Vik said, grinning from ear to ear as if nothing could bother him. “Say, were you able to reschedule the meeting with the Langstons?” A uncertain look on his face replaced his grin. He must have just remembered the source of his good fortune.

Lara nodded, not making eye contact. She didn’t have the heart to tell him that the Langstons had dropped her for someone else.

“That’s good. I’m going to get something to eat.” Vik motioned he was leaving. “For some reason, I have an unrelenting hankering for falafel.” He grinned broadly and raced up the stairs.

Falafel? The kid was always hungry. She wasn’t sure if any ballpark vendor served deep-fried balls of ground chickpeas, but she remained silent on the matter. She’d never met anyone so infatuated with different foods—all vegetarian of course.

Lara kept her eyes fixed on the game and finished her supper before it could cause any more damage.

At the bottom of the sixth inning, the score was now tied 3-3 with two outs, and the bases loaded for the Nationals. She clenched her teeth and kept her eyes glued on the pitcher.

Her cell phone buzzed. What now?

Glancing away from the game, Lara scanned the news headline flashing across the home screen of her smartphone:

Wealthy couple, accused of using gene editing tools to create a designer baby,
faces ten years in prison

Lara shook her head in disbelief. The technological changes on the horizon promised enormous benefits. The drawback was all the new ways people could commit crimes and screw with society. She shoved the smartphone in her pocket. I should be savoring the game, not worrying about the future.

She found it strange that in the middle of dramatic technological change, some things stubbornly remained the same—like hot dogs and baseball. Familiar tastes and sounds in the ballpark comforted her, giving her the elusive feeling of home.

What’s taking Vik so long?

Lara turned her head away from the game to scan the mezzanine level for him. She wanted him to have the full experience of her favorite pastime even if it wasn’t as good as cricket. She’d purchased season tickets to the Nationals to schmooze with prospective clients. That way she could write off the tickets she would probably have bought anyway—in theory, it was a win/win.

I guess I could write it off as team building if Vik ever gets back up here.

She massaged her temples. Every time she thought about the failed Langston contract, her head began to throb. There was no backup plan. Nothing else waiting in the wings to pay her bills. Lara squeezed her eyes shut.

C’mon. Just relax. It’ll be okay. Enjoy the game. She opened her eyes and decided to live in the moment.

Her season tickets were located on the first base foul line and offered a great view of the entire ballpark. From this vantage point, she had a decent shot at catching a foul ball or a home run—that is if she had her glove ready. She looked down at her lucky charm near her feet. Bittersweet memories surfaced. Her father would’ve loved these seats. He’d given her the glove on her sixth birthday, taught her the right way to break it in, the right way to oil it, and the right way to catch a foul ball, or if she was really lucky, a home run.

Lara shook off the pang of her father’s absence and looked once again for Vik.

He’s missing the best part of the game. Lara sighed heavily. For the hopeless mission of finding falafel.

Vik never listened to sense when he had his mind set on something. This determination, or “grit” as she liked to call it, was one of the reasons she’d hired him. After a year of his help, she didn’t know how she could survive without him.

Vik was a graduate student at Georgetown and took the job to help pay his way through school. Lara hesitated to hire him at first, but he won her over when she learned he’d turned down a full ride to MIT for electrical engineering and computer science to study criminal justice instead. His family never let him forget it, and for good reason. He could’ve made a lot of money with his tech skills. Lara had seen him do some amazing things.

Lara bit her lip as the “Nats” all-star hitter, Kyran Farrell came up to bat at the bottom of the sixth inning. Farrell had already hit a home run in the first inning, and a grand slam would likely seal the win for her team.

The crowd became silent with anticipation. She sat on the edge of her seat, inhaling the crisp air and trying to calm her nerves. To stay warm, she wore her prized leather riding jacket, which fit snugly over her baseball jersey. As superstition demanded, she adjusted her baseball cap, which kept loose strands of her sandy blond hair in place.

You’ve got this.

The pitch flew straight and fast. She clenched her teeth as the crack of the bat echoed around the ballpark. The crowd murmured in unison. It was too close to call. She followed the trajectory toward center field, but lost the ball in the bright stadium lights. Her eyes anxiously scoured the air.

There it is… it’s going… going… GONE. 

The crowd went wild, jumping to their feet and screaming in celebration. Farrell had done it. With the grand slam, he’d likely clinched the National League Championship. Elated, Lara turned to congratulate her fellow fans and nearly jumped out of her skin. Vik stood right next to her, beaming with a wide, goofy smile.

Sheesh, he’s so sneaky.

“Where have you been? Did you see it?” Lara asked, lifting an eyebrow.

“Oh yes, that hit was nothing short of full blooded,” Vik said. “I was up there in the stands watching the batsman—”

“What?” Lara wrinkled her nose. “Full blooded?”

Vik nodded. “Yep. It’s a good thing. Trust me.”

Lara shrugged. “Did you find your falafel?” she asked as they both sat down.

Vik shook his head vigorously and held out a bag of buttery popcorn. “No, I looked everywhere.” He pointed toward the food vendors in the park. “Eventually, I asked someone, and they looked at me like I was mad or something. I mean, how can they not have falafel? It’s an essential staple. You’d think those new automated food machines could manage something as simple as falafel. But no, they only do things like burgers, pizza, and hot dogs. Where’s the variety? I simply don’t understand this country sometimes.”

If she ever made it to India someday, she’d likely say the same about his country. Lara chuckled and grabbed a handful of popcorn. “I totally get it, Batsman.” Vik either ignored or didn’t hear her teasing.

On the field below, the game moved by rather quickly, at least for baseball. Lara wanted the game to be over before the Braves could recover from the Nats’ quick surge. With the score 7-3, the loudspeakers announced the 7th inning stretch.

“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” blared over the speakers a few feet above her ears as fans began getting up out of their seats. Some people stretched out their arms and legs and moved about in the aisles. Others raced up the stairs to make a final beer run before the end of the game.

Something small appeared in the sky, high above left field. Lara squinted, trying to decipher what it could be. At first, she thought it was her imagination.

What the…?

And then another came into view… and another… and another… and another. They kept coming. Her heart began to race.

Are those mini UAVs?

In seconds, hundreds of quadcopter drones were buzzing high above the stadium seats. In a flash, the stadium lights grew dim, and the familiar ballgame tune stopped mid-song. Bright colors filled the air—blue, green, red, and yellow beamed down from the drones. The crowd fell into a hushed silence, entranced by the show.

A few seconds later, the opening notes of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 came over the loudspeakers at top volume. Instantly, the drones began flying in unison, changing their formation and colors to the beats of the music.

Her eyes widened. It was mesmerizing.

And terrifying.

Lara gripped her armrest as a distant memory of the Afghan desert sky coming alive with armed drones flashed through her mind. Swallowing hard, she focused on her breathing, trying her best to suppress the dark memory. Her arms came to her chest as her entire body tensed. No Lara, this is not the same thing. She took a deep breath and pushed it out as fast as she could, releasing tension. As the breath escaped, her muscles relaxed.

Vik glanced at her, worry in his eyes. “Are you okay?”

“I’m not a fan of drones—at least not anymore.”

Vik looked back at the show. “But they’re beautiful.”

Lara refused to look up at them. More like incredibly agile platforms, capable of ever-greater distances, carrying heavier payloads, and effortless navigation. Capable of killing…

“I’m not sure I’d use the word beautiful, Vik.”

For the first time in human history, nearly anyone could project power into the air—for good or for bad. She never understood why the U.S. government allowed drones with significant capabilities to become mainstream. In the early years of the drone revolution, the Army underestimated the threat, and her comrades had paid the price with their lives.

Until recently, the District of Columbia and most of the surrounding areas had been a no-drone-zone. At least until Congress approved nationwide commercial drone delivery. The change relaxed the rules to allow citizens in the nation’s capital to benefit from speedier delivery services, but key segments of the District, including the ballpark, remained strictly “no-drone” zones for national security reasons.

“This is the most amazing thing I have ever seen in my entire life,” Vik said, his eyes wide as he gazed at the sky in complete awe. “Lara, can you imagine how much work went into programming the software that instructs them to follow certain flight paths, turn their lights on and off, and move so precisely in coordination with one another?”

Of course, he sees the code.

“Yes, I can,” Lara replied, her jaw clenched tightly. What she couldn’t imagine was the bureaucratic and security nightmare of getting such a stunt approved. Authorities would never permit a swarm of drones to take flight this close to the U.S. Capitol Building and the White House.

Squinting to see in the dim light below, she studied the behavior of the security personnel. From their frantic body language, constant radio chatter, and how they pointed their flashlights into the sky, she could tell they knew nothing about this so-called “show.”

“Something’s not right with this picture,” Lara said, abruptly getting out of her seat.

“Lara, why must you always think there is a conspiracy behind everything?” Vik asked. “Enjoy the show for once. The ballpark management obviously arranged it as part of the 7th inning break.”

Lara snorted. “It’s the 7th inning stretch, and you’re right. This was planned.”

Just not by park management.

Read Chapter 3

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The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Bionic Bug: “Wicked Bloom” (Chapter 1)

12 October 2027

Now that’s where I draw the line.

A documentary about the dawn of passenger drones flashed across the lonely flat-screen television hanging on the wall. Lara Kingsley imagined for a moment what it would be like to live in the 1960s animated sitcom The Jetsons, and her inner control freak shuddered. In her lifetime, she’d be forced to embrace flying through the sky in some autonomous contraption.

Suppressing the thought, Lara squeezed herself between two stools and leaned over the sticky wooden counter to shout her drink order to the bartender—a beer for herself and a cocktail for Maggie, who tended to run late. She avoided soiling her stretchy black dress; it was the first one she’d bought since her late twenties, and she wanted it to last just as long as the previous one.

Located at the edge of NoMa, a trendy neighborhood north of Massachusetts Avenue in Washington D.C., Wicked Bloom offered a cozy urban décor of exposed brick and wood paneling, and the perfect mix of local draft beers, upscale cocktails, and home-style cooking. Her friend, and fellow private investigator, Phil “Sully” Sullivan, owned a townhouse a few blocks away. This bar had quickly become their favorite hangout spot. Every week, they met, grabbed a drink, and exchanged information on their latest cases.

Waiting for the drinks, Lara glanced toward the end of the bar where a strange young man in his twenties sat by himself and nursed a beer. There was something off about the kid. Lara couldn’t shake the feeling he was watching her, but when she looked at him again, he turned his pale blue eyes back to the liquor bottles on the back-lit shelves lining the wall behind the bar.

The kid wore black, thick-framed glasses and preppy, college-style clothing. Despite his youthful appearance, there were dark circles under his eyes and a foreboding about his presence. She made a deliberate note of his features in her head. Probably just one of the many university students that swarmed the D.C. social scene during the academic year.

“Who are you and what have you done with my mate?”

Lara looked up to see her friend Maggie towering over her, like a supermodel, in three-inch red heels and a matching floral dress. It had taken a little work, but she’d convinced Sully

to let her introduce Maggie to him at this party. Once he laid eyes on her, of course, he’d drool just like any other man.

Lara rolled her eyes and laughed.

Maggie lightly tapped Lara’s shoulder. “No leather jacket today? Is the world coming to an end?” She laughed. “But, seriously, you look great. I thought we were forever caught in a cycle of leather and leggings.”

For once, Lara had left her black leggings and leather riding jacket at home. With an actual purse slung over her shoulder, she felt less out of place beside Maggie, who was always decked out from head-to-toe in the latest trends. It didn’t help that she also had a Ph.D. in Entomology. No one was supposed to be that perfect.

“It wasn’t easy. You’re lucky I’m not wearing my Army cammies.” Lara smirked. Dressing up meant she had to do two things she hated: leave her motorcycle at home and take a driverless cab.

But she willingly made the sacrifice for Sully. They’d first bonded years ago over their shared orphan status while working on a group project as undergrad students at MIT. From that point onwards, they’d pledged to have each other’s backs for life. They were family.

Sully had just secured the safe return of a kidnapped teenage girl. The girls’ wealthy father had given him a large reward for his private investigation, which had cinched the case. The mayor had even given Sully a personal accolade. With his five minutes of fame, Sully wanted to celebrate. He also wanted to blow off steam. The past couple weeks had been intense. So, he’d invited his friends and several colleagues from the D.C. Metropolitan Police, and the FBI Violent Crimes Division for drinks and food at the Wicked Bloom.

“So, which one is Sully?” Maggie asked as she bit her lower lip and scanned the room.

Lara turned and pointed to a table in the far corner where Sully talked to another black man. As usual, he gestured with every word, his facial expressions dedicated to whatever story he was telling. “He’s the well-built, handsome black guy at the table over there.”

She frowned. “I thought you said the bloke was a PI. With that starched white shirt and khakis, he looks just like a federal agent.”

“Not the stocky one, the taller guy with the goatee wearing the blue polo shirt.”

Maggie’s frown turned into a broad smile. “Yeew, he’s cute all right. Good-looking, smart, a successful private investigator, and now a bloody local hero. I can’t understand why you don’t go for him now that you’re single again. Are you sure you’re okay setting us up?”

Lara sighed. “If we had that kind of chemistry, it would’ve happened already. Plus, now we’re practically colleagues. It’s never a good idea, mixing business and pleasure.”

Sully must have sensed they were staring at him. He looked, grinned, and gave a casual wave. But he remained seated, engrossed in his conversation, and didn’t come over to greet them.

The bartender placed two drinks on the counter and slid them toward Lara. “Put these on Sully’s tab?”

Lara nodded, grabbed the cold, wet, pint-sized glass of Blue Moon and handed the Champagne cocktail to Maggie. She glanced over at the counter. The creepy kid had disappeared. The beer sat unfinished, a thick layer of foam at the top of the glass. Lara scanned the bar, but there was no sign of him.

“Cheers,” Maggie said, clinking her glass against Lara’s, but she barely noticed it. “Earth to Lara?”

“Sorry.” Lara turned back to her friend and smiled, taking a large sip of beer. The cold citrus tasting liquid soothed her parched throat.

“Hey, Lara!” A familiar voice called out.

Nearly spilling her beer all over the floor, she spun around to see Vik bounding into the bar with a goofy grin on his face and excitement beaming from his dark brown eyes. His thin arms swayed back and forth as he approached. For a young Indian man, Vik was on the taller side, but the rest of his features betrayed his nationality and age.

“Do you always have to surprise me like that?” Lara groaned at the splatter of beer on the front of her dress.

Vik made an “I’m sorry face” and shrugged. “The Langstons want to sign with us for their new surveillance system.” Having spent his formative years in the U.S., Vik’s accent barely registered. When excited, he couldn’t hide his natural inflection.

“That’s great news,” Lara said, relieved Kingsley Investigations might finally have a new client. She’d been waiting on pins and needles for their email after sending them a quote last week. “I’m really glad you could make it. Sully desperately wants to talk to you about some computer work you can help him with. But, you should grab a drink or something to eat first.”

Vik looked around the room as if he were calculating the costs based on what people were wearing. His eyes dimmed as he gave a half smile to Lara. “I’m not really hungry.”

“Sully’s buying.”

“Oh goodie,” he said as his eyes lit back up. “I’m actually famished! What’s good here?” Vik stared up at the giant chalkboard where the specials of the day were displayed.

“Uh, barbecue, brisket, steak, and burgers…” Lara read off the list on the chalkboard, gauging Vik’s expressions for a positive response.

His shoulders slumped with disappointment. “I guess I’ll just have the spicy collard greens then.” Vik walked over to the bartender to place an order. Maggie followed after him, her auburn curls bouncing.

Shaking her head, Lara didn’t understand how vegetarians could survive. Tofu was not a satisfactory replacement for meat.

Sully walked toward her, holding a pint of Guinness in his hands.

“Cheers to the man of the hour,” Lara said, raising her glass.

“Thank you, and thanks for coming. I’ve been so wrapped up lately, we haven’t had time to celebrate your last case. Does that put you in the black yet?”

Lara looked away and shuffled her feet. “Getting closer.”

Sully smiled, clinked his glass against hers, and took a long, slow drink.

“Besides, tonight is supposed to be about you, and I have a certain someone here to meet you.” She looked back to the bar.

“Is that the Maggie?” He beamed, pointing across the room to where Maggie and Vik were ordering food.

Lara nodded.

“Wowza! She’s friends with you? How did that happen?” Sully shot her a mischievous grin and took another long drink.

Lara glared at him. “Hey, that’s not funny. I met her two years ago at a Mensa event. We’re different, but we clicked. She’s a great person. Incredibly successful, too.”

Sully frowned, itching his elbow. “Mensa? That’s not the genius group thing you used to attend all the time, is it?”

Lara nodded. She’d joined the elite high-IQ group as an alternative to online dating. She was sick of dumbing herself down to get a first date. The guys always found out the truth eventually, and then they’d go running for the hills. Lara had a penchant for learning nerdy details about everything and couldn’t hide her technical knowledge.

At Mensa events, she’d hoped to find herself a match among the brightest top-two percent of the population. Instead, she ended up meeting Rob. Her motorcycle had run out of gas two miles from a Mensa event. To make matters worse, she had forgotten her wallet again. Rob, the FBI special agent with a normal-ish IQ, bought her a tank of gas, won her heart, and eventually shattered it.

“Are you intimidated because she’s smarter than you? Cuz if that’s the case, I don’t think we can be friends anymore.” Lara stuck her tongue out at him.

Sully smirked. “Nah, you know I can hang with smart women. I’m not insecure like your ex-boyfriend. Plus, she’s smoking hot. You said she’s Australian right?” When Lara nodded, Sully pressed his lips together. “Mmm-hmm. I can’t resist a woman with an accent…”

Lara grimaced. “I sure hope you’re interested in more than that.”

Sully smiled and rolled his eyes. “Course I am. Those are just nice perks.”

Lara shook her head in disapproval. “Anyway, speaking of my ex… why isn’t he here tonight? I thought he weaseled his way into working with you on the kidnapping case.”

Sully finished his beer and motioned for the bartender to give him a refill. “No weaseling, just the regular jurisdiction game.”

Lara raised an eyebrow. “But he doesn’t work kidnappings.”

“Ricin. The kidnapper threatened to poison the girl if the ransom wasn’t paid. Since it involved a chance of biological weapons, Rob’s entire unit was called in.”

Lara furrowed her brow. “Ricin, again?” Bad guys seemed obsessed with the rare toxin. She and Sully had a lot of theories, her favorite being it all started with a TV show protagonist using ricin to kill off his enemies. “Any chance you might have slipped Rob some?”

Sully gazed awkwardly at the floor.

“Just kidding. I’m okay if he’s here.”

Please don’t be here.

Another woman had lured Rob away from her six months ago. Lara couldn’t fathom why he’d dumped her for Bimbo Barbie Doll. It grated on Lara’s ego that Bimbo Barbie was nothing like her, except for the blond hair and blue eyes. Though she tried not to let the whole thing bother her, it still did, even after so much time. She’d thought she knew Rob, thought she knew what he wanted. Maybe she never knew him at all.

Sully absentmindedly scratched his neck. “He’s not coming. I didn’t invite him. You’ve worked so hard to get over him, and you’re finally back on your feet. I didn’t want to mess with that.”

Lara snorted. “You mean you want me out working so I can pay you back…” She fidgeted with the sleeve of her dress. “You know I’m good for it, right?”

Sully shook his head. “C’mon, Lara. You know it isn’t like that with us. And I just got a huge chunk of change from this case, so I’m good, okay? You pay me back when you’ve got the cash.”

Lara nodded. She felt uncomfortable even using the take-a-penny at the gas station, and Sully had loaned her enough to cover three months of bills. It wasn’t enough, but she couldn’t bring herself to ask any more of him.

The bartender took Sully’s empty glass and handed him a fresh pint.

Lara gave Sully a curious look. “How many is that?” Sully never threw back beers so quickly. “Is something going on with you?”

Grasping the beer glass tightly, Sully shifted back and forth on his feet. “Nah, I’m fine, Lara… just kicking back after a stressful few days.”

Lara could tell he was lying. “Is it another case?” Sweat glistened on his brow. As she looked down, Lara’s eyes caught a strange discoloration in his fingernails on the hand wrapped around the beer glass. “What’s wrong with your nails?”

Sully switched the beer glass to his left hand and shoved his right into his pocket, hiding his nails from sight. His eyes darted around the room as he lowered his voice to a whisper. “Lara, I can’t talk about it here.”

She shot him a concerned look. “You’d tell me if you were in any real trouble, right?”

Sully nodded, stealing a glance across the room. “This is just not the right time or place.”

Lara couldn’t shake the feeling something was off but didn’t want to force the issue. At least not now. “Okay, let’s meet up later this week then? I want to hear all about it.”

He didn’t respond.

Lara caught a glimpse of the kid out of the corner of her eye as he returned to the corner. His gaze pointed straight at them. “Do you know that guy over there? Something seems weird about him.”

Sully glanced, and his body went tense. “Lara, I gotta go. We’ll talk later, okay?”

“But, it’s your party,” she said as he raced out the front door, phone in hand.

And I haven’t introduced you to Maggie yet.

Lara shook her head. She wanted to call after him, but didn’t want to cause a scene. She looked back at the corner bar.

He’s gone again. Lara swung her head around, searching for the kid. Does Sully know him? Was that kid why he ran off? Or was it something else?

She spent the next several minutes searching but couldn’t see the kid anywhere. She sipped her drink and tried to turn her detective voice off. It’s a party, not a mystery.

“Hey Lara, I’m going—”

Startled by Vik’s voice, Lara dropped her beer glass on the ceramic tile floor. As the glass shattered and flew in multiple directions, the blood drained from her face. Lara stood frozen in place, surrounded by glass and beer splatter.

“Uh… Lara? I’m sorry I scared you,” Vik said sheepishly. “I’m starving. I’ve got to get some real food.”

A server rushed about her with a broom and dust pan, cleaning up the glass, and reassuring her that it was fine while she kept apologizing.

After the mess was cleaned Lara turned her attention back toward Vik. “Yeah, you should get something to eat.”

“You going to be okay by yourself?” Vik asked.

“I’ll be fine. Maggie’s here.”

“No, Bug Lady left a few minutes after she noticed Sully leaving.”

“Why can’t you just call her Maggie?” He’d given her the nickname after finding out about her obsession with insects.

Vik shrugged.

Lara glanced around for Maggie, but didn’t see her. “I guess I’ll be calling it an early night, too. I should have driven.” A terrible realization crossed her mind, and Lara dug her hand into her purse, feeling around for her keys. Shit. “I locked myself out of the townhouse again. Could you lend me your keys?”

Vik scrunched up his face. “You remember I’m coming to work at the office super early tomorrow morning, before class, right?”

Lara grimaced. “Ugh, I had forgotten all about that.” She’d rather not get out of bed at zero dark thirty to let him in. “Would you mind coming with me so I don’t have to call the landlord?”

Vik seemed hesitant.

“I’ll pay you for your cab and even buy you a veggie pizza.”

Vik laughed. “Sure, boss. Whatever you say…”

*****

The driverless cab pulled up to her Georgetown townhouse, the brakes screeching like they were overdue for maintenance. D.C. Council may have had a laundry list of reasons for approving the mandate on self-driving vehicles, but for Lara, driverless cabs had only one redeeming quality: no more tipping drivers.

The motorcycle lobby fought against a blanket requirement for autonomy advocated by the local government, arguing it would mean the end of the biking industry. Had she owned her bike at the time, she would have been on the picket line too.

As Lara tapped her credit card on the machine to pay the fare and waited for the transaction to go through, Vik climbed out of the back seat and hopped up the stairs to unlock the front door.

She gazed fondly at her shiny, blue Harley Davidson Street 500 parked in front of the townhouse. The only thing she loved more than her bike was her baseball glove. Until she bought the bike she didn’t realize how much she coveted freedom of the road. Sure, riding a motorcycle was incredibly convenient in the city of self-driving cars. Easy street parking and incredible fuel economy were great perks, but the liberation she felt with each roar of the engine kept her falling in love with the bike all over again with every ride.

Plus, it would never lie, cheat, or slip out in the middle of the night. Or drive away with Bimbo Barbie and later have the nerve to ask through text if she could pack its things and drop them off.

Lara bought herself the bike as a reward for hitting her first salary goal a year ago. She still had a way to go before hitting her dream salary, but she was all about baby steps. And rewards. Given her current financial circumstances, the purchase might have been premature. She flinched at the thought.

Never count your chickens before they hatch. Or better yet… before they have chicks of their own.

The credit card machine beeped, and a receipt shot out of the slot. Lara grabbed the slip and exited the cab. With her feet back on solid ground, the knot in her stomach loosened. Vik had already gone inside the townhouse and left the front door cracked open. She glanced nervously up at the third floor.

No lights, thank God.

The outside of the three-story row house was in decent shape for being built in the late 1800s, but the interior needed an update. Despite the building’s three separate units, only two tenants occupied the old red brick townhouse. Her firm was located on the first floor of the building with her apartment conveniently situated on the second floor. Her third floor neighbor and landlord, Jake Crawford, was an extremely quiet and overworked lawyer, who came and went mostly during the wee hours.

Jake made a killing each month renting out the other two floors to Lara. For the past two months, however, she couldn’t pay the rent. He’d given her a formal notice to pay, but she asked him to cut her a break. To avoid the trouble of finding a new tenant, he agreed to stand down for a month. His patience had just run out, and he recently filed an eviction lawsuit against her to recover past due rent and force her removal from the premises. She now had thirty days to pay the past due rent or to move out.

Lara remained on the fence about whether to stay or move. There were more affordable locations, but for her two-year-old business, the posh location in Georgetown sent the right impression to prospective wealthy clients. If things didn’t turn around fast for Kingsley Investigations in the next few weeks, she might not have a choice in business location or anything else.

Hopefully, it won’t come to that.

When she walked through the door into her office on the first floor, Vik was already on the phone ordering the pizza she’d promised him. Lara put her purse down on the island in the kitchen area and plopped down on a stool.

When she moved in two years ago, she’d converted the entire first floor apartment into her base of operations. The living area with direct access to the kitchen served as office space for herself and Vik. The bedroom in the back housed the photocopier and other office equipment. Filing cabinets took up any extra space in the room; they contained all her case records and personal files.

Vik put the phone down and shot Lara a serious look.

“What?” Lara glowered back.

He shoved his hands in his pockets. “I’ve been meaning to have a conversation with you. There’s never a good time, but I suppose now is as good as any other.”

Lara raised her eyebrow. “What’s up?” She was too tired to have an important talk.

Vik pressed his palms to his cheeks. “Um, I’ve been noticing some troubling trends in the business expense account. There are large sums of money going out, but nothing coming in at the moment. I am not sure if we have enough to cover this month’s expenses.”

Lara shrugged her shoulders. “Oh that? I wouldn’t worry. I’ve been paying off the back bills from the few months when… well, you know, with Rob.” Vik opened his mouth to speak but Lara kept talking, “You know we’re about to land a huge client. I’m planning to take the Langstons to the ballgame next week. I’ll close the deal before the ninth inning. The retainer should cover everything for this month.”

Vik frowned. “But what if something goes wrong? Will you still be able to…” he broke eye contact and finished. “… pay me? Because Sully needs some work done and—”

“Of course. I’ve got you covered. Don’t worry about it, okay? And I don’t mind you working for Sully, but I’m going to need you here for the new job.” Now Lara looked away. If she was being honest, she couldn’t guarantee she could pay Vik for his time. But the thought of losing him, even to Sully, was too much. Vik wasn’t just an employee; he’d been her rock through the roughest months since her return from Afghanistan two years ago.

After deploying twice to Afghanistan and returning home wounded from an IED attack, Lara concluded her term of service with an honorable discharge from the Army and transitioned to the National Guard. She could never have imagined the government would repay her years of service and tremendous sacrifice with betrayal.

Shortly after returning home, a Pentagon bureaucrat contacted her with some bad news. Under pressure to fill gaps in the Army’s ranks, the recruiter had offered illegal incentives to entice her re-enlistment. To her disbelief, the bureaucrat explained to Lara that since these incentives were against the law, she’d have to pay them back in full with interest.

Requiring veterans to pay back bonuses when they’d no idea they were illegal fell squarely on the side of just plain wrong. Lara railed against the injustice of the system to no avail. The bureaucrat apologized for the inconvenience, claiming their hands were tied.

The law is the law, she said.

This left Lara with two choices. She could take it up with the justice system or begin repayment. She didn’t have the money to hire a lawyer, and her faith in the system to deliver justice was forever tainted. She agreed to repay the debt, but had recently fallen behind on payments. The few months she’d spent wallowing in her grief over Rob’s deception had made things even worse.

After several minutes of silence, Vik gave her a half smile. “I wouldn’t have brought it up… it’s just that my aunt and uncle have been on my back lately about finishing school and becoming financially independent. I need a steady income to secure my U.S. citizenship. Without that, they’re worried about the marriage proposal falling through. Shanaya’s family comes from money, and they have high expectations for her match. I need to demonstrate ‘the right way of living’ before they’ll agree to a wedding date. My aunt and uncle are threatening to make the trip all the way from New York City to put me back on the straight path.” He pretended to shoot himself in the head.

Lara chuckled uneasily. She found it odd that the institution of arranged marriages continued to thrive in many countries. Vik and Lara often debated the virtues of an arranged marriage versus falling in love, and she wasn’t about to get into it with him again.

Then again, maybe I could use the help.

After her last experience with love, she doubted she believed in marriage at all. Her parents died when she was young, she had no living relatives, and her time in the Army gave her front row seats to failed marriage after failed marriage. Lara had never seen the value of marriage, arranged or not.

The doorbell rang.

“That must be my pizza,” Vik smiled eagerly.

Lara’s eyebrows shot up as her stomach growled for thirty seconds straight. She and Vik both stared at her middle until it stopped.

“Geez,” Vik said, grimacing. “That was… disgusting.”

Lara rolled her eyes. “Here, take this and get us some food.” She thrust a twenty-dollar bill into his hand.

It’s official. I’m broke.

As Vik went to get the pizza, Lara’s smartphone buzzed, and a text appeared on the screen from Mr. Langston.

Sorry to cancel our meeting next week.

We’ve decided to go in a different direction.

Shit. Lara’s face fell. That didn’t take long. Different direction… so they’re hiring a man to do the job. She couldn’t confirm her assumption, but she’d run into too many men who didn’t think a woman could know her way around surveillance technology. Their loss.

Her stomach growled again in response to the intense aroma of melted cheese, grease, and green peppers floating through the air. Vik walked back into the kitchen and put the box on the counter. He grabbed a slice and stuffed the whole piece into his mouth. He froze at the look on her face.

“What’s wrong?” Vik asked through a mouth full of food.

His uncanny ability to detect the slightest change in her mood didn’t go unnoticed. Of course, he had tons of practice reading her, having been the only one capable of coaxing her off the couch after her heartbreak.

Change the mood. Lara forced a toothy smile. “Guess what?”

Vik’s eyes widened expectantly. “What?”

“You get to go to the baseball game with me next week!” Lara exclaimed with a facade of white teeth. Vik had been complaining about his cricket withdrawal for months. It wasn’t cricket, but baseball came close enough.

Vik screamed with delight and ran over to her, hugging her tightly. Then he pulled back, and a paranoid look came over his face. “But wait, I thought you were taking the Langstons? Did something happen?”

“They texted while you were getting the pizza. We had to reschedule our meeting.” Her stomach twisted as the words came out, but she kept the plastered smile in place and changed the subject. “Did you notice that strange kid sitting at the bar tonight?”

Read Chapter 2 Now

 

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The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

So You Wanna Bank Your Books?

In my first two years as an aspiring author, I can’t count how many times an experienced Indie author told me I should “bank my books” if at all possible. They claimed if they could do it all over again, in other words to start fresh in their Indie careers, this is what they’d do and this is what they recommend we do… that is if we want to work smarter, not harder. Well, I’m not buying it… at least not what they’re trying to sell me. In retrospect, everything appears different. We tend to forget some things.

But what does banking your books mean? I googled it and couldn’t find it described or defined anywhere. But I’ve heard it a lot.

It refers to holding back your books until you can publish at least three in a row, one each month or one every two months, before Amazon’s dreaded cliff into obscurity sets in. This strategy capitalizes on the preferential treatment given by Amazon’s algorithm to recent sales over older sales. Since new releases may enjoy higher spikes in recent sales, they can achieve higher rankings for a limited time (until momentum is lost and sales drop).

Releasing one book after another allows an author to leverage momentum from Book 1 into sales for Book 2 and then sales for Book 3 (e.g., a book funnel). As readers clamor to buy up the three books in your series, the spike in sales will have an impact on the ranking for your entire series. Even more exciting, all three books will remain higher in Amazon’s rankings for a longer period of time as a result of these sales. Higher ranking means more visibility. More visibility increases your chances of being discovered by new readers and lead to more sales. In other words, you get more “bank” (cha-ching) per book.

I’m not arguing with this strategy. It is brilliant. And if you can wait as long as it would take you to finish three books (more is better, so four or five would be ideal), then go for it. You’re a stronger person than me.

For most new authors, this banking strategy is a catch-22. Most of us have full-time jobs and devote our limited free time to writing. The idea of waiting 2-3 years (maybe longer) before publishing doesn’t sit very well for a number of reasons.

As newbie authors, we just want to get something out there. First, we need to prove to ourselves that we can write, finish, and publish a book. The voices in our heads tell us: “You’ll never be an author. You don’t have what it takes.”

Like any new author, I want to hold the book in my hands. I need this. For any author, publishing the first book represents a huge psychological win. It justifies the constant sequestration and madwoman typing on my computer. I’m doing something. This is worth all the time and money I’ve invested. This is worth the relationships I’ve put on the back burner.

Many of us also perceive a need to prove to others that we’re not sitting on the couch and watching TV like everyone else. When we say we’re writing, we’re actually writing. Here’s the proof: we hand them our first book. After three years of not being able to produce a single book we’ve written, no one will believe us anymore. Worse, maybe we won’t be able to believe ourselves anymore. Where’s the proof?

But if we bank our books from the start, we may run into other problems… if we don’t publish as we write, we won’t build up an audience. Without an established audience and an email list, it will be challenging to drum up the sales even with a sequential release on Amazon. What good would such a brilliant strategy serve if we don’t have any readers beyond friends and family? In that case, I’m told my “also-boughts” will be ruined (if your friends and family don’t regularly buy books in your genre, your also-boughts might turn out to be gardening books; this can affect your sales). Okay, so now what?

I’ve built a new strategy for myself that will allow me 1) to meet my psychological need to “be an author”; 2) to get my book out there to friends and family and anyone who cares to read it; 3) to begin building my reader base; and 4) to simultaneously bank my books with a series launch on Amazon in 2019.  I’ve called it a soft launch, but it’s more like a smarter launch 🙂

My strategy capitalizes on a single truth about the Internet: You don’t exist at a retailer until you press publish. And that means you can get your book out there and bank them on Amazon and other retailers later.

Amazon doesn’t know that I’ve published my first book (maniacal laugh), a mystery novel called Bionic Bug. That’s because I’ve only published Bionic Bug on Kobo. For now.

Amazon holds the leading market share in the e-retail book market (79.6% in the U.S.). Kobo comes in a distant fourth in the U.S. (with 0.3%), but fares better in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. Okay, publishing on Kobo may sound like a pathetic launch strategy to you, but do the math. The bigger the market share your chosen retailer holds, the bigger fish you need to be to get to the top of the rankings. That means it might be easier for a new author to gain traction at Kobo than at Amazon.

In my first month, I’ve proven my strategy works.

rank

Release Day for Bionic Bug on January 18, 2018

I made my book available for pre-order for a few weeks leading up to my release day. Note: I don’t have an email list so I didn’t send any emails, but rather made my family, friends, and colleagues aware of its availability on social media (Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn). On the day of its release, Bionic Bug made it onto the “Trending Now in Mystery and Suspense” alongside some pretty amazing neighbors. How many ebooks did I sell to get there?

9 ebooks. Yes, you heard that right (while I whimper from pain in the background). In the meantime, I’ve sold a whopping 15 ebooks in three countries (which I’m super proud of). Of course, I didn’t expect huge numbers, but double digits on day one would have been nice. And yes, I’ve fallen back down the charts for now.

What does this mean? If I do a promotion or engage in some marketing and sell 20 books on Kobo in a day, I might end up back at the top of the trending list. To get next to the likes of Lee Child and Ernest Cline on Amazon, I’d have to do much more than that.

Here’s the most important point. My book is out there and available if someone is interested in reading it. And that feels… unbelievably good to me as a new author. Now I can focus on writing Book Two, Project Gecko and Book Three (FYI, you just got the first ever sneak peek of its title and cover concept above).

I’ve only covered points 1 & 2 of my strategy above. In my next post, I’ll share my plan for how I plan to build my reader base while I wait to bank my books…

NOTE: As newbie authors, we encounter any number of challenges on our journey toward making a decent living from writing (or just getting the right audience to read our work). Within the Indie community, we are lucky to benefit from the wisdom and lessons learned from those who came before us. For the past 18 months, I’ve listened to about 10-12 hours of writing podcasts per week. If you want to get smart and devise the right strategy for your first books, I’d suggest listening to The Creative Penn, The Sell More Books Show, and the Self-Publishing Formula Podcast to name a few of my favorites.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

When Technothriller meets Cozy Mystery…

What happens when technothriller meets the cozy mystery genre?

You’ve probably heard of sci-fi, thriller, mystery, and fantasy, but maybe not a technothriller or cozy. Before I delve into an explanation, here’s how I’d define these lesser known genres:

  • Technothriller – A subgenre of suspense fiction that draws from thriller, spy fiction, science fiction, and action and depends heavily on technical descriptions of advanced technology (computers, weapons, Internet, machines, etc) to drive the plot forward. Famous authors include Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy. The genre first became popular during the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Cozy mystery – A subgenre of crime fiction that involves an amateur sleuth (usually female) who solves a murder within a small and intimate community. The genre is reminiscent of the classic murder mysteries of the 1920s and 1930s, which were inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Of course, the most famous author of cozy mysteries is Dame Agatha Christie.

Based on the above definitions, the answer to my question would depend on how you mix things up. In some ways, the styles are polar opposites and irreconcilable. However, that depends on what feels “cozy” to you. After spending 18 years working on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) issues, I believe that cozy is in the mind of the reader.

For example, by placing thriller elements within a cozy mystery context, you could get a light and enjoyable read for the typical thriller reader–an escape from our otherwise grim reality or a “beach read” for summertime enjoyment. On the other hand, for the typical cozy reader, the addition of thriller elements provides a bit of a jolt and creates an action-packed mystery novel that tests the boundaries of a cozy mystery novel (a bit more violence, bloodshed, and perhaps a swear word or two).

I didn’t consciously pick and choose elements from the two genres; my particular blend came from an unmet need in my own life. Only now as I reflect on it, do I realize what I did and why.

When I first started writing Bionic Bug in 2016, I set out to write a novel that I desperately needed at the time–a story that was packed with tension and suspense, a story that featured concerns about the rapid pace of technological advancement, and most important of all, a story that offered me a delightful escape into another world from my increasingly grim reality.

You see, at the time, I was also writing a dystopian trilogy called Nuclear Conspiracy which examined the erosion of democratic institutions in the U.S., the rise of fringe far-right groups and domestic terrorism, and the increasing capabilities of individuals through advancements in technology.

Since the start of 2017, however, I feel like I’m living this nightmare at times. And I don’t want to read about it for fun. At least not now. It’s way too close to home. I’ve since shelved the trilogy for a later time when my concerns about the collapse of our country are a bit more distant. I need an escape.

Don’t get me wrong, I still want to confront serious and edgy issues such as the risks of emerging technologies and threats posed by WMD. I think about these things every day in my work at National Defense University. But I also need to be comforted by the ending. I just can’t do dystopia right now. It feels too real at the moment. Rather, I need a sprinkle of fantasy, a world that bears some similarities to my own but is also sufficiently different that it need not add to my daily worries.

For my fiction escape, there were a few requirements up front. I didn’t want the story to be too fantastical, so divorced from my reality that it didn’t offer me a chance to cope with it. But I knew that the good guys needed to win without question and hand sweet justice to the bad guys. Furthermore, the positive side of technology must prevail over the bad. Finally, the ending must feel highly satisfying and produce hope for a better tomorrow.

I didn’t just want this, I needed it. More than I even knew when I was writing it. For all of these reasons, I felt drawn to the mystery genre and its tidy conclusions.

I wasn’t entirely new to classic mystery novels, but admittedly I haven’t ready many as an adult. My love of mystery can be traced back to my childhood when I consumed every book in several young adult mystery series: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys and Trixie Belden. As a reader, I loved being involved in solving the mystery. It was engaging and highly satisfying to guess the right suspect. But I also loved feeling in control. I could enjoy the suspense knowing that it would end well.

As a child during the 1980s, I also grew up on murder mystery shows like Murder She Wrote, 21 Jumpstreet, and Magnum PI. For me, these shows offered me a suspenseful journey, an opportunity participate in solving a crime, and an entertaining cast of characters. When the show came to an end, it wrapped up in a nice, tidy package so that I could go on with my life. Today, we have similar shows called procedurals like Blue Blood, CSI, and Law and Order. They are grittier than before and more directly focused on the crime at hand and police procedure. Still for me, they fulfill the same function in my life–a brief story of suspense and tension that ends with justice served and a feeling of satisfaction.

As an adult, I shifted gears to become an avid thriller reader, consuming everything from Tom Clancy to Michael Crichton to John Grisham. There’s nothing quite like a page-turner that gets your heart pumping so hard you can’t go to sleep until the story ends. And so, mystery novels lost their allure for a time. However, today, I don’t need a thriller to get my heart pumping. For sleepless nights, I need only to read or watch the latest news. Sometimes even a devoted thriller reader needs an escape…

That’s why I began writing a mystery series that combines elements of classic mystery novels (cozy mystery) with some elements of thriller.

In my mind, Bionic Bug leans more strongly toward the cozy mystery genre than technothriller, but it amounts to a perfect blend for my current frame of mind. It’s been fun to escape to a somewhat futuristic world full of suspense and tension and to follow Lara Kingsley as she solves crimes and navigates radical technological change. I hope you enjoy it, too. If you’re already interested in an action-packed escape, you can check out Bionic Bug right now. 

In the table below, I illustrate what elements I’m borrowing from the cozy mystery and technothriller genres. I also provide an in-depth description about the contrast between the two genres. If you’re an avid reader of either genre, you can see here what rules I’m bending to write the Lara Kingsley Series and decide if you want to give it a shot.

SPOILER ALERT: The following contains minor spoilers from Bionic Bug for the purpose of illustration.

Bionic Bug Table

Setting

In a cozy mystery, the story most often takes place in a small town or community. The key word here is intimate. As a result, everyone knows everyone, and there is a limited pool of suspects. In such a setting, it makes more sense that an amateur sleuth might play a role in solving a murder. In contrast, the setting for a technothriller is expansive and global. Throughout the plot, the story moves quickly from location to location.

Bionic Bug takes place in Washington, D.C. and the surrounding region. For now, this will remain the general location for the Lara Kingsley Series. Although D.C. is a big city and the seat of U.S. national power, most who live here would agree that it is intimate in several ways. For one, I never fail to run into someone I know when I go out into the city or even visit my local grocery store. Beyond that small town feel, however, professional circles tend to be very small. In a specific field, everyone is connected to everyone else by no more than one degree of separation. For that reason, I don’t think choosing D.C. as the setting for my series stretches the expectations for a cozy mystery. However, it does diverge significantly from the setting of a typical technothriller.

The Protagonist

In a cozy mystery, the protagonist is typically an amateur sleuth and most often a woman. The sleuth becomes drawn into the details of a crime due to specific circumstances. The sleuth then takes action to solve the crime by uncovering clues, interviewing suspects, and chasing down leads. Sometimes, the sleuth is familiar with the victims of the crime or comes across the scene of the crime in their daily routine. In a mystery novel, the sleuth drives the story, and the readers are often a step behind.

In a technothriller, the protagonist is reactive rather than proactive. Unlike in a mystery, it’s the clever and capable villain who drives the story, and readers tend to be one step ahead of the protagonist. This creates the tension for the readers. Although the protagonist triumphs in the end, he or she will end up at the mercy of the villain in a classic confrontation where all appears to be lost. The readers will question whether or not the protagonist can get themselves out of the impossible situation and experience relief when they manage to stop the villain.

In Bionic Bug, I leverage elements from both cozy mystery and technothriller. Lara Kingsley is a licensed private investigator specializing in the installation of high-end surveillance systems. Thus, she’s an amateur sleuth when it comes to homicide cases. Lara becomes involved in solving the murder because of personal reasons.

However, the storyline has a technothriller twist. While Lara works to solve the mystery of her friend’s death, she also confronts a rogue scientist (villain) who seeks revenge on the U.S. government. In order for her to succeed, she must find her friend’s killer, overcome several dangerous encounters with the villain, and stop him from harming innocent people.

The Supporting Cast

The supporting cast for a cozy mystery includes a variety of quirky, entertaining, and likeable characters. In a cozy mystery series, many of these characters make repeat appearances and have relationships with each other. Often, a cozy mystery protagonist will enjoy the company and assistance of a sidekick.

In contrast, a technothriller involves one or two main characters who are key stakeholders in the story, and their history, personality, and characteristics are described in detail. Often, these characters have no prior knowledge of each other and get to know each other as the plot unfolds. The rest of the cast supports plot points, but are not extensively developed as part of the storyline.

In Bionic BugI favor the approach of a cozy mystery to create a sense of intimacy and strong character development. To do this, I introduce a case of vibrant and quirky characters who will continue to appear throughout the series:

  • Vikram Abhay is Lara’s trusty sidekick. To finance his graduate education at Georgetown, Vik works part-time for Lara as her cheerful assistant and computer programmer extraordinaire. Vik aspires to develop a sophisticated information-based crime mapping system using big data and artificial intelligence. His system would not only track and solve crimes, but also predict them before they occur.
  • Mario Sanchez is Lara’s wily nemesis. Detective Sanchez works for the D.C. Metropolitan Police homicide division and stubbornly pursues all suspected killers in the pursuit of justice. Not fond of private investigators and their meddling, the detective does not always tolerate Lara’s involvement on a case.
  • Robert Martin is Lara’s charming ex-boyfriend. Special Agent Martin works for the FBI Washington Field Office and serves as the local WMD coordinator, making him the focal point for any crimes involving weapons of mass destruction.
  • Maggie Brown is Lara’s brilliant best friend. Dr. Brown the Director of the genetics laboratory of the Department of Entomology at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Each of these characters will have their own storyline which will evolve over the course of the series.

The Plot

In a cozy mystery, the plot begins with a crime that usually takes place off-stage, often a murder motivated by greed, jealousy, or revenge. From that point, the author invites the reader to help solve the crime alongside the sleuth in a character-driven plot. Following a trail of clues, false leads, and red herrings, the amateur sleuth attempts to make sense of all the information and solve the case.

Most cozy mysteries do not feature violence, blood, and gore on the page, but rather between the lines. Moreover, the plot is not a rollercoaster ride of twists and turns, but rather about uncovering surprising revelations.

In contrast, a technothriller involves a life/death conspiracy to commit a crime that involves advanced technology. When the novel begins, the crime hasn’t happened yet, and the protagonist must race against the clock to stop the villain’s plan from succeeding. Rather than clues and false leads, the protagonist must overcome impossible obstacles depicted in fast-paced action scenes like chases, explosions, and shoot-outs. Technothrillers are full of plot twists which increase the tension and stakes for the characters. Finally, the plot is driven largely by technological exploration. As a result, technothrillers provide signficant technical detail about the featured technologies and how they work and contribute to the story.

In Bionic Bug, I have borrowed heavily from both genres to shape the plot. Lara must identify her friend’s killer, solve the murder, and make sure justice is served by following the clues and unraveling the truth. However, she also confronts a villain who has developed the ultimate biological weapon and plans to unleash it on innocent victims to gain revenge against the U.S. government. In addition to tracking clues, Lara has to race through several action-packed scenes where her life and the lives of people she cares about are at risk. She must stop the villain before it is too late.

The Ending

In a cozy mystery, the ending typically involves the big reveal of the killer and all the clues that helped the sleuth solve the crime. The killer is brought to justice, and the good guys win. The ending for a technothriller can be somewhat similar: the good guys triumph over the bad guys, but the tone is often more grim. The ending might be a warning to all about the dangers of technology. A technothriller can also have an apocalyptic ending where things go very wrong for the world, even if the good guys still win.

In Bionic BugI’ve chosen to favor a satisfying cozy mystery ending over a grim technothriller ending. The crime is solved, the villain is stopped, and the killer goes to jail. Things are mostly brought back in order, albeit bittersweet at times. Technological change is generally positive. Lara lives to fight crime another day.

Cozy is in the mind of the reader.

Bionic Bug is now available for purchase as an ebook at Kobo. Click here for more information.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

2017: A Bug’s-Eye View

Every year, it’s a good habit to set some goals for what you’d like to achieve for your health, lifestyle, career, and lifelong dreams. For 2017, I made a list of goals I wanted to achieve as a writer. And this year, I learned that to set realistic goals for yourself, you need to have a bird’s-eye view. For this, you need to understand how long certain tasks take, how long you require to get them right, and a good idea of the time you’ll need to navigate life’s twists and turns. Without this knowledge, you’re not likely to see the full picture.

In 2017, I was still new to the world of being an Indie author. Everything was new to me. In other words, I had no idea how long it would take me to edit my first draft, how many edits I’d need, how long it would take to work with a story editor, how long it would take to work through line edits. And I also had no real understanding of how much all of this would cost (money). Instead of the big picture, I had a bug’s-eye view. Every task appeared huge, unmanageable and endless.

Last year, I set out to achieve some rather ambitious goals:

  • Launch a crowdfunding campaign to fund my Nuclear Conspiracy epic political thriller trilogy.
    Outcome: 
    Failure. I didn’t realize the incredible amount of work that goes into a crowdfunding campaign. I was too overwhelmed editing Book 1 to give this project serious attention and decided to postpone until I had more time.
  • Publish Book 1 of Nuclear Conspiracy.
    Outcome: Failure. After the first edit, Book 1 was already 150K words. That’s when I started to think that I had bitten off more than I could chew. It has eight character POV (like George R.R. Martin), and I struggled to make the storylines cohesive and get the pacing right for a thriller. When I did the math on the editing costs, I realized that I couldn’t even afford to edit the book when I finished. After much debate, I decided to shelve the trilogy until later in my author career.
  • Complete drafts of Books 2 and 3 of Nuclear Conspiracy. 
    Outcome: Failure. I managed to start an outline for Book 2, but have shelved the trilogy until 2019 or even later.
  • Enhance author platform by producing more issues of Technical Series on WMD Issues and Film and WMD Series and writing blog posts.
    Outcome: #Itotallyfailed. I have a full-time job and have very limited free time to spend on writing. I realized rather quickly that if I spent this time on my platform, my writing would go nowhere. I wrote four new blog posts, which doesn’t come close to meeting my one-a-month goal, but it’s better than nothing. At this point in my writing career, it makes more sense to prioritize… my fiction writing.
  • Complete draft of Bionic Bug.
    Outcome: Success! I completed the first draft of Bionic Bug in April and sent it to beta readers for their feedback. By the end of April, I decided to shelve Nuclear Conspiracy and focus on the first three books of the Lara Kingsley Series instead.

If I were to judge the success of 2017 on completing the specific goals I set for myself, then this year was an abject failure. I only accomplished one goal. But when I reflect on the entire year, I can’t believe what I’ve achieved and how far I’ve come as a writer.

Here’s a review of what I achieved:

  • Attended several writer events.
    Outcome: New friends and connections! I attended three writing events this year, and it’s hard to overstate how much they changed my life. In February, I attended the first Story Grid Workshop hosted by Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl in New York City. I spent two days delving into the Story Grid editing technique and learning how to self-edit and made my first writer friends. In April, I attended the Smarter Artist Summit organized by Sterling & Stone. I got to meet Sean, Johnny, Dave, Christine and many fellow authors who I now consider friends. In July, I attended the one-day FBI Workshop, which is part of ThrillerFest. The most exciting part of my time in NYC was meeting Joanna Penn in person (no picture to prove it). I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to attend these type of events and get connected into the Indie community. This year transformed my life.

    IMG_1140

    With Shawn Coyne and Steven Pressfield

  • Taught four video classes on WMD to writers.
    Outcome: New skill! They say that one thing leads to another, and that’s true with a writing career as well. After attending the Smarter Artist Summit, I applied to join Stone Table, which is a community of artists seeking to leverage each others’ knowledge and skills to turn their art into a thriving business. For my contribution, I developed four Writers of Mass Destruction (WMD) courses on nuclear, biological, chemical and radiological weapons to help writers get the technical details right. I’d never done a live video course before, and this helped me leap forward in my confidence in developing online content.
  • Earned my first $14.85 for writing fiction.
    Outcome: Earnings! I decided to run an experiment on discovery using NoisetradeI uploaded a sample of Bionic Bug onto the site and used social media to get the word out. For a short time, I was on the top of the charts. I received 33 downloads and $14.85 in tips in just a few days. Okay, it didn’t last, but it was exciting and gave me some ideas for marketing in the future.

    Noisetrade

    Bionic Bug reaches the top of the Mystery & Thrillers chart

  • Completed Nanowrimo for the second time in a row.
    Outcome: Victory! NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month, and it takes place in November. Hundreds of thousands of writers attempt to write 50,000 words in one month. I decided to begin the first draft of Project Gecko, Book Two of the Lara Kingsley Series. Not only did I finish, but I wrote more than 50K with four days to spare.
  • Started to learn Dragon Dictation.
    Outcome: Better luck next year? I finally decided to give dictation a try and invested in the necessary equipment and software. In the beginning, I was impressed by my word count, but building the skills and developing a routine that would work well for me has been difficult. After two weeks, I realized that dictation is a new skill that requires your brain to build new pathways between the verbal left side of the brain and the creator on the right side of the brain. It will probably take me about two months of daily work to hone the skill. And since I was in the middle of Nanowrimo, I gave up. But I will try it again in 2018.
  • Edit Bionic Bug.
    Outcome: Ready to go! Once I decided to shelve Nuclear Conspiracy and focus on the Lara Kingsley Series, I had my marching orders. I spent two months editing Bionic Bug before working with a story editor for three months. Then I sent it to a line editor and had professional covers done. In December, worked through the line-by-line edits and finished the final draft of Bionic Bug, which I will release in January 2018. This is the biggest accomplishment of my year, and I’m thrilled.

This year turned out great, but it didn’t go at all as I expected. My biggest lesson is that as a newbie author, I didn’t have the bird’s-eye view I needed to set the right goals for myself. And I’m hoping that I’ll do much better this time. I guess we’ll see 🙂

Here’s what’s in store for 2018:

  • Publish Bionic Bug on Kobo on 18 January. I’m planning to “bank” the first three books of my series on Amazon, so I’m only doing a soft launch on Kobo to start. When I’m ready to launch the series, I will release them one after the other on Amazon sometime in 2019.
  • Launch a crowdfunding campaign for Project Gecko on 18 February. As part of my campaign, I am crowdsourcing my next novel. In an exclusive Facebook Group, readers will get the opportunity to shape the story–i.e., choose settings, name things, help make decisions on character arcs and much more. I will offer signed limited edition hardcover copies of Bionic Bug and other cool stuff.Kickstarter advertisement
  • Attend the Smarter Artist Summit on 26-27 February in Austin, Texas.
  • Complete the first draft of Project Gecko by 18 March. I’m planning to get the first draft of my next book down before readers become part of the editing process.
  • Attend ThrillerFest in July in New York City. As part of this event, I’ll be participating in PitchFest and have the opportunity to meet with over 100 agents. I’m committed to being an Indie author, but am curious to see how I’d be received (or rejected) by the traditional publishing world.
  • Publish Project Gecko eBook on 18 September. After working with a story editor and line editor, I will release the eBook on Kobo.
  • Complete the first draft of Genomic Data. Before the year is out, I plan to finish the first draft of the third book in the Lara Kingsley Series in preparation for another crowdfunding campaign.

It’s going to be a busy and exciting year. I hope you’ll continue to follow my journey from national security expert to becoming a published fiction writer.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Adventures in Dragon Dictation

Dragon

My doctor told me that writing fiction is killing me slowly. Okay, so that might be a bit of an exaggeration. But she did warn me about the negative impacts of sitting in a chair on my health. After two years of writing fiction, we already see the signs.

In case you didn’t know this already, sitting is not good for you. Several studies suggest that sitting slows your metabolism and not just while you’re sitting, but even when you’re active (google it and you’ll find a bunch of informative articles). Wait, what? “Are you telling me that by sitting all the time, I also burn fewer calories when I exercise?” Yes, that’s what I’m saying. That means that all the pain and suffering you incur while running or working out will yield reduced results.

If you’re like me, you sit a lot. I have a full-time job, which keeps my butt firmly in my chair at my computer for about 40 hours a week, give or take. As a routine, I try to get up and walk around at least once per hour (my watch thumps me as a reminder), but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m sitting in one place for most of the day. To make matters worse, in my free time, I sit for about another 18 hours a week to write fiction. My doctor told me to stop sitting so much. But then how am I supposed to write fiction novels in my spare time?

This year, I made it one of my top goals to learn dictation. Instead of sitting at my computer and typing my stories, I would dictate them into a recorder and then transcribe the recordings into written text. Joanna Penn and other authors who have already made the leap inspired me, and I was determined to do so myself, even if the notions of speaking into the air and not having the words appear on the screen in front of me seemed foreign.

In addition to the health benefits (no more sitting and saving my arm from chronic tendonitis), I expected to achieve gains in my productivity as a writer for three reasons. First, I have a maximum of about 1-2 hours per weekday to work on my fiction because I work full-time, and at home, I’m tethered to my computer. But what if I could convert the one hour I spend walking my doggies each morning into writing time? I’m already used to multitasking on my dog walks, either by listening to podcasts or audiobooks. Why not dictate my novel during that hour instead?

Second, I’ve heard from other authors that diction produces a higher word count per hour than typing, reaching levels of 3,000-5,000 words per hour. I’m a fast typer, but definitely not that quick. Third, and I’m terrible at this, I won’t be able to edit while writing and will get my first draft down on paper before attempting to fix things. I can’t help myself. When I see the words appear in front of me, I want to go back and change them. And this interrupts my flow.

Two weeks ago, I decided to launch my adventures in Dragon dictation. Before investing in a system, however, I read a couple of helpful books: The Writer’s Guide to Training Your Dragon by Scott Baker and Dictate Your Book: How To Write Your Book Faster, Better, and Smarter by Monica Leonelle. Before you invest in a dictation system, I highly recommend that you do a little research first and decide what approach will be best for you.

My Set Up

First, a couple of words on my set up. Based on what I read in Scott Baker’s book, I decided to purchase Dragon 13 premium ($140) for the PC even though I’m a Mac user. I had heard a lot of negative things about the Mac version of Dragon and decided that it was worth it to buy an inexpensive PC to get the system that would work best for me. Note: This is not the most recent version of the software, but I wasn’t ready to shell out the money for the next version.

  • PC – To run properly, the Dragon software requires a lot of juice. I followed Scott Baker’s recommended specifications from his book. I did some research on Best Buy and Amazon and found that I could purchase a fairly inexpensive PC with the appropriate specifications. I focused on making sure that my computer had 8 GB of RAM and a microprocessor of at least 2.75 GHz. I ended up going with a Lenovo IdeaPad 320 at about $400.
  • Microphone – Next, I decided on my microphone system. I wanted a system that would function while on the go. Scott Baker recommends a wired microphone for dictation. He argues that Bluetooth or wireless microphones just don’t produce the desired quality for good dictation. Again, I did extensive research on what headset I thought would work for me, and I ended up buying a Jabra headset costing about $100. If you use an iPhone, pay attention to the type of audio connector. Many headsets come with a USB.
  • Recorder – Many authors use a separate voice recording device to record for dictation sessions, which cost between $60 and $120. However, since I want to do my dictation while on my dog walks, I decided that my iPhone would be the best device for recording. Based on Scott Baker’s recommendations, I decided to download the Voice Record Pro app onto my iPhone. It’s free and appears to have a lot of capabilities.
  • Notes – To provide an outline or beats for me to follow as I dictated, I decided to use the iPhone notes app or send myself an email with the outline for the next chapter.

Day 1

On my first day, I had to set up my new PC laptop. This process turned into a full day enterprise because I made some critical mistakes. After completing the basic setup on the PC, I decided to install the Dragon software. Scott Baker warns that installation can take quite a long time. He was right. Installation took about 50 minutes.

Unfortunately, at the same time, my PC (Windows 10, heavy sigh) was working on some Windows updates behind the scenes. I’m a Mac user, and typically the Mac warns of any automatic processes and gives an option to opt out. After the Windows updates downloaded, my computer restarted and the updates were applied. Sadly this process took over two hours.

By the time the Windows updates had finally loaded, my Dragon software no longer worked and indicated that it required a reinstallation. And then I realized that Windows 10 is truly @#$@#$% up and decided to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro. I called a Nuance the producer of the Dragon software and asked them if Dragon 13 Premium is compatible with Windows 10 Pro. They said yes and recommended uninstalling Dragon before upgrading to the new operating system. #facepalm

I upgraded to Windows 10 Pro, which thankfully took approximately 20 minutes. Then I reinstalled Dragon which took another 50 minutes. By the time I finally got started, I’d reached the end of the day. However, I took a few minutes to train Dragon by dictating several scenes from my first novel. Scott Baker recommends that you avoid reading through the tutorials or your emails because this will mess with the accuracy of your profile.

In preparation for my first real dictation session, I began typing the first scene of my next story, and I sent the text to myself by email.

Pro Tip: Windows 10 sucks. If you buy a PC to run the Dragon software, I recommend that you upgrade to Windows 10 Pro before installing the Dragon software.

Day 2

On my second day, I decided to try out my first “dictation dog walk” at 5 am. I began by reading the text I had already written (sent to myself by email), adding in all of the annoying punctuation. When I got to the end of what I had written, I carried on for a few sentences off the top of my head and then suddenly I froze up. I just couldn’t picture what I had already written and was stumped. My mind was blank. So, I stopped recording after only a few minutes. #fail

When I got home, I successfully transcribed the recording into the Dragon software. I should note that Voice Record App has many options for sending your file by email, by text message, or to Dropbox, etc. Please remember to convert the file from an MP4 to an MP3 first. I made the mistake of sending an MP4 to my computer by email and then trying to transcribe into Dragon, which does not transcribe from MP4 files. I went back to my original file and converted it to an MP3 and then was able to transcribe the recording.

Pro Tip: For successful dictation session, it’s helpful to have some beats or an outline to help guide your thoughts. #duh

Day 3

On my third day, it rained off and on for most the day. So, I decided to try my second dictation session while walking around the house. Before the session, I had drafted some beats and a brief description of different elements. I might have written too much because I had to scroll up and down on my iPhone screen, which made me fumble here and there.

My punctuation fell apart to the on day three, and I kept pausing for long periods, not knowing what to say next. It’s not a problem to take breaks when you’re dictating. If you’re silent, there are no words and nothing to dictate. But initially, my pauses freaked me out, contributed to some stage fright and led to significant frustration (and swearing). I ended my session abruptly, worried that I had wasted a ton of money ($640) on a failed investment. I also felt incredibly disappointed. I thought that dictation would be my lifesaver.

When I looked at the recording, I did a major double take. Before quitting in dramatic fashion, I had dictated a mere five minutes and counted 358 words in my transcribed file. If I continued dictating, even at that stilted pace, then I would “write” approximately 4,800 words per hour. Despite my growing frustration, this data point restored my confidence and kept my spirits high. #notgivingup

In the end, I realized that the scene that I was dictating required a great deal of research to be written effectively. As a result, I lacked the confidence to speak into the air and felt a bit stumped. And that led to my frustration and lots of swearing on the recording.

Later that afternoon, the rain let up, and I decided to go outside for a dog walk. I gave dictation another try. This time, I had no beats and no outline, just a basic concept in my head. I ended up dictating 443 words in eight minutes. That amounts to 3,322 words per hour. I felt pretty good about that session, especially because I didn’t have anything well thought out beforehand.

My hope renewed, I decided to try dictation one more time and see how quickly I could “write” this blog post. In a 14-minute session, I dictated 1,332 words, at a pace of 5,709 words per hour. HOLY @#%^#!

Pro Tip: Stick with dictation and be amazed. I’ve only worked on it for two days and have achieved unbelievable results. Dictation is learning a new skill. But I believe that once you write new neural pathways in your brain, dictation will become second nature.

Rather than bore you all with a day-to-day report, I’ll check in again in a month and provide an update. Stay tuned!

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.