The world is changing, and humanity must change with it. Rising seas and soaring temperatures have radically transformed the face of Earth. Meanwhile, Earth is being observed from afar by other civilizations . . . and now they are ready to make contact.
Vying to prepare humanity for first contact are a group of dreamers and changemakers, including Peter Hendrix, the genius inventor behind the most advanced VR tech; Charyssa, a beloved celebrity icon with a passion for humanitarian work; and Kanoa, a member of a global council of young people drafted to reimagine the relationship between humankind and alien societies.
And they may have an unexpected secret weapon: Owen, a pop megastar whose ability to connect with his adoring fans is more than charisma. His hidden talent could be the key to uniting Earth as it looks toward the stars.
But Owen's abilities are so unique that no one can control him and so seductive that he cannot help but use them. Can he transcend his human limitations and find the freedom he has always dreamed of? Or is he doomed to become the dictator of his nightmares?
Release date: August 29, 2023
Publisher: Del Rey
Print pages: 246
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The Blue Beautiful World: A Novel
THE EMISSARY KEPT on digging his own grave, centimeter by centimeter, word by word. He had been ill served by a poorly trained spy service, but that was no excuse. A coronation was a time for traditional platitudes and ceremonial courtesy, all the small flourishes and grace notes that such formal occasions demanded to ensure that the usual hierarchies were firmly in place and the new names alongside the ancient titles would be honored and respected.
It was certainly not a time to bring up family gossip.
The newly crowned monarch all but glowed with attentiveness, and her attendants, knowing the trap well, made no attempt to hustle the emissary away and move the next dignitary forward. They waited. One idly adjusted the fall of ice-blue fabric that poured from the monarch’s left shoulder to puddle at her feet. Snow white her robe, ice blue her mantle, platinum bright the embroidery on her vestments, telling in symbol and sign all the tale of her dynasty.
The dynasty the emissary presumed to speak of.
How her mother must be proud of her…at last.
How their blood had returned to the purity of prior generations…eventually.
How reassuring it was that her brother—apologies, adopted brother—would no longer embarrass the chronicles of their line with his whims and oddities.
The monarch made no reply but smiled and smiled until at last the emissary, uncouth as he was, faltered in his performance, like an actor who realizes he must have missed a cue somewhere.
“Esteemed Lady, where is your brother?” No nonsense about his adoption then, the old fool. Simply a direct question that she could answer freely in the comfortable knowledge that the information was too late to be of any use to anyone.
She matched the now-sincere smile on her lips with a gleam of hungry humor in her eyes. “Paris, my dear ambassador. Did you not know?”
IN PARIS, THE streets were screaming.
Not literally. But nearly. The sound reverberated from every paved road and brick wall. A vibration of thudding feet strummed through lines of traffic stopped by bodies moving too thickly to be pushed aside by mere motors and machinery. Up ahead, a few cars still managed to press forward through the crush of the crowd. One car, anonymous with dark-tinted windows, made as if to break away. The crowd scented quarry and surged toward it.
Another car took advantage of the space temporarily created to nudge its way into an alley. To the uneducated eye, in the darkness of evening, this vehicle appeared to be normal in every respect. The make and age were common, and the occupants were visible behind clear glass—but then the left rear window rolled down, and the high-tech VR glass flickered, dropped its display of an upset and frustrated family of four, and showed instead the pop star, his driver, his manager, and his security.
The family had been fake, but the frustration in the car was real.
“Get that window back up,” the manager snapped.
The pop star gave her an apologetic glance, quickly blew a stream of smoke outside, and obediently put the window, and
their disguise, back in place.
“Can’t you do something about the crowds?” the bodyguard asked him quietly, as if already knowing the answer.
The star took another drag on his cannabis cigarillo and exhaled slowly, not caring where the smoke went. His eyes were very tired. His fingers trembled slightly as he leaned forward and tapped the ash into a used mug sitting between his feet. “Well,” he said simply, “it’s a lot.”
The driver said nothing. In a few minutes the street behind them cleared. The decoy had done its job. The driver maneuvered the car around with a precision that was entirely her own human skill and turned onto the main road.
Behind them, the streets continued screaming.
OWEN OWEN OWEN!
Only the rich could buy that special kind of identity—the fame of a single name, the hush of origins unknown. Whoever he had been in the past, he had been wealthy enough to completely bury his old self before embarking on a new career. Which, given the fawning curiosity of the world of film, virtual reality, and media, was still amazing.
People considered the manager, Noriko Fournier, to be the real brains of the operation, but to what degree was anyone’s guess. Did she pluck him from obscurity and train him in the way that she wanted him to go? Was she the Higgins to his Eliza? She was legitimately, verifiably pre-moneyed when it came to the Owenmania industry, thanks to her family’s banking roots. She could have done it. But what would make her want to do it?
She was famous for her scowl, her brusqueness, and her general air of hating her job no matter how many billions it made her. People said the only reason Owen put up with her was to get a break from the incessant adoration. If so, she delivered and then some, and not only to him.
She glared across the table. “You will entertain no other bids. Owen will pay whatever you ask.”
The man in the pale linen tunic cleared his throat nervously, no doubt unaccustomed to being threatened with large sums of money. “It’s not us. There’s a procedure. Our laws require sealed bids and approval by a committee.”
Noriko raised her eyebrows in disbelief and displeasure. “There will be no other bids,” she said again with greater emphasis. “Owen’s offer is to the players, not to the club.”
Linen Tunic looked helplessly to his left. His colleague, a heavyset man made more imposing by a deep red jacket, spoke with all the care and caution of a man trying to defuse a bomb. “The players have
contracts with the club—”
Noriko whisked away the explanation with an impatient brush of her hand and completed the gesture by slamming four well-manicured, hard-lacquered nails into the wooden surface between them. The men flinched and eyed the black tips with concern.
“You have not read the proposal that I sent in advance of this meeting. You are wasting our time. Compensation for amending the players’ contracts is included.” She breathed out and repeated softly, “There will be no other bids and this offer will expire within twenty-four hours.”
Red Jacket slid a black leather folder from a space ten centimeters to his left to the exact center of the table, where it was perfectly aligned with his breastbone. He laid his fingertips on the folder with a light but firm touch. “But we have read the proposal. Thoroughly. And we cannot help but wonder…why is Owen so desperate to own a football team? And why this one?”
“He has his whims,” Noriko stated in a tone that was too flat to even register as disapproving.
“Why this one?”
“He sees that they have potential.”
“We are sixth in the league and falling. There are other, more successful teams for sale at the price you’re buying. Why this team?”
Unexpectedly, Noriko smiled. She flexed her hand from tense claw to resting palm down, mirroring his own hand. “He sees their potential, and when your players rise to the top of the league, there will be no doubt that their success is due to him.”
In the small moment when he could not think of what to reply, she touched her own fingertips to the proposal and shifted it five millimeters farther under his hand. It was the softest, most subtle movement she had made all day.
Then she stood abruptly and tossed a small black chip onto the table. “Should you or your committee manage to make a decision within that time, you can reach me via this closed network.”
She stalked out without a farewell. Madame Noriko Fournier was also famous for her indifference to greetings, apologies, and small talk of any kind.
The luxury carriages of the Magistrale Privée were soundproofed. State-of-the-art shock absorbers dampened even the smallest vibrations of the train’s motion. As far as overnight trains went, you couldn’t ask for anything
better, but Owen wasn’t sleeping. For once, he wasn’t even smoking, though he restlessly turned a cigarillo over and over in his right hand while staring out the window at the starlit sky and the mirroring scatter of lighted human habitation in the landscape. His bodyguard reached over and took it away. Owen didn’t react.
“You should be sleeping.”
It was an observation, not an order, and Owen replied to the question lurking in the shadow.
“Even the cannabis doesn’t help,” he explained with a brief glance at his bodyguard’s expressionless face. “Anyway, Tareq is joining us in Munich.”
“You don’t have to be awake for that.”
“Sleep through the carriage unlink from the MP Est and uplink to the MP Nord? I’ll be awake and outside and recording, thank you very much. My aunt would never forgive me if I neglected my journal.”
“Your aunt would never forgive me if I let you collapse from exhaustion.”
Owen’s smile was half fondness, half exasperation. “You’re my bodyguard, not my nursemaid. I’ve done this before, you know. Declaiming and debating for nearly twenty hours at a time. Eight-hour concerts are easy after that. Yes, I’ll sleep for a week when we stop, but I won’t break.”
The cold mask fractured and revealed a weary resignation as the old gendarme, for such the bodyguard was, rubbed a hand over graying hair. “I came out of retirement for you.”
“Thank you,” Owen replied softly, sincerely, completely deflecting the implied reproach and offering in turn something strangely close to affection.
Sharp black eyes pierced him, not questioning his motives but demanding a larger portion of truth. “I’m afraid for you. I’m afraid for us, our chances. Did you bring me here to share a hero’s death with you?”
Owen shuddered. “Hellfire no, not in my wildest nightmares. Don’t be melodramatic. And trust me. I wouldn’t have come here if the chances weren’t good…well, at least reasonable. I trust you to let me know when I’m starting to go too far. I respect you and I will listen to you.”
Owen and Ahn regarded each other seriously for a long, silent moment. They both knew what was coming.
Finally, Ahn said it. “Go to bed.”
Owen grinned. “Yes, General.”
Suddenly, there was a loud chime. Owen frowned, glanced at his wrist, and chuckled. “Noriko closed the deal. Looks like I might get a good night’s sleep after all.”
People wondered how Owen could be everywhere at once, performing, negotiating
deals, expanding his empire. The truth was simple: he had the knack of traveling light.
Concerts, for example. He had no backing band, no roadies, no equipment, no favorite accessory or costume without which he could not take the stage. He would draw from a pool of the best instrumentalists and backup singers in the area, order a bespoke outfit from a local fashion house, cover a popular song by one of the region’s most famous musicians, and debut a song written by a local songwriter in the national style and rhythm.
The rehearsal phase was intense, relying on several in-the-flesh and virtual reality practice sessions, logistics planning, fittings, and more. Media speculated that Owen’s residence had a military-grade VR hall that could connect to and mimic any location on Earth and a few beyond (remember the Orbital Tour, which covered all the space stations and included a thrilling piece of spacewalk choreography?). They weren’t entirely wrong, but no one, not even his so-called inner circle, could confirm or deny the existence of such a thing. When Owen played host to colleagues and other celebrities, it was at rented ranches and long-leased mansions, and never, never where he slept.
The result was remarkable, unique, and very lucrative. Every country, every city claimed Owen as their hometown hero. He spoke just enough of six languages to charm his audience, and did so with a flawless accent. He could sing in any language, from the challenging clicks of Xhosa to the subtle tones of Vietnamese. He became the global Everyman, but somehow personalized, like that distant cousin on the far fringe of the family tree who is still recognized as kin. In addition, the attention of the fan bases of all the local talent he employed combined to exponentially enhance his appeal. No wonder his true nationality was a secret.
“Don’t worry. I pay my taxes in full,” he told the media, and it appeared to be true. One investigative journalist drew up a complicated chart of Owen’s tour schedules and the laws of various tax domains to claim that he could not be from a country that taxed by citizenship rather than duration of domicile. But a team of independent auditors verified that taxes were indeed being paid to some entity, so the story fizzled out.
Of course, he had his detractors. One critic noted with great snobbishness that Owen’s many awards were all secured by popular voting rather than by a jury of his peers, and the best that could be said of him was that he had redefined the genre of ethno-folk pop. Another, sounding more bewildered than bitter, said that attending an Owen concert was indeed an experience, with spectacular performances from the backing musicians and so much audience participation that it felt like the world’s biggest and best karaoke party...
but Owen had such an ordinary voice, just about able to stay on key and not much more. And he never wrote a lyric or a tune. So why was he so famous?
Dammit, he wasn’t even that cute.
“He’ll burn hot and bright and fast, and then he’ll crash,” Juergen, the guitarist, predicted cheerfully. “And until he does, it’s an honor to ride on his generous coattails.”
“That’s a little disrespectful,” Mariane, the bassist, murmured. She wasn’t really paying attention. This was her biggest paying gig in ten years, and she would say and do absolutely nothing that could jeopardize her great good fortune, or screw up the chance of opportunities in the future. Muttering the occasional aside to chatty Juergen was a low priority. Communicating clearly with the sound engineers was key. Maintaining a good rig and learning how to sweet-talk audio engineers had carried her far in her career. “Juergen, focus. He’ll be here in twenty minutes.”
“He’ll be late. His kind are always late.”
The public address system suddenly kicked in at high volume. “I’m here. Early. Having a quick word with the mixing engineer.”
Mariane tucked her chin down to stifle a giggle. Trust Juergen to forget that his mic was potentially live to all the audio engineers. And trust Owen to pull a little trick like that. They’d seen some of his personality during their VR rehearsals, and thankfully he wasn’t an asshole. He would embarrass Juergen for a brief moment, then continue as if nothing had happened. Not a grudge-holder, not a bully. A rare gift among the megastars. She was inclined to like him. Nothing more—he wasn’t to her taste. Too young and weedy. The mere idea made her feel like a pedophile; she shuddered and shook off a brief wave of chilly nausea.
“Let’s have the intro to ‘Days of Summer,’ shall we?” The mixing engineer’s polite, Welsh-accented voice brought her back to reality. Those butterflies in her stomach weren’t for Owen’s witty remarks. She was nervous, that was all. A natural physical reaction to a frighteningly huge and exciting night in her life. She pressed her fingertips hard against the bass’s strings, defiantly playing a quick, complex riff to ground herself. Time to focus. Time to perform. Time to shine.
“I love you, man!”
Mariane allowed the
giggle to escape this time and lifted her head from Owen’s lap for just long enough to take another pull from her bottle of pilsner. They were all high for various reasons and on various intoxicants, but Juergen was reliving some old California holiday memory and had turned completely into Surfer Dude Cliché.
“Love you too,” Owen replied casually. He drew hard on his cigarillo, lighting it to a sharper glow in the semidarkness, then glanced anxiously down at Mariane’s face and cupped a shielding hand under his cigarillo and its few millimeters of dangling, hot ash.
“Not, like, in a sexy way, because I’m nineteen, you know? And you’re at least two decades older than that, so…ew.”
Mariane felt Juergen’s shudder of disgust through her knees. They were all slumped in a pile on the floor of a glass-roofed penthouse, drinking, smoking, and watching the stars. Other humans were in similar piles around them, some within a hand’s brush. Everyone waiting for the sun to come up.
“Doesn’t have to be in a sexy way,” Owen replied calmly. “Non-sexy is fine too.”
“It’s just…I’ve never felt that…” Juergen’s arms described big circles in passionate speechlessness, creating surging waves of movement along Mariane’s legs. “It was transcendent,” he said, finding the word at last. “The musical zone. We were one. We were…It was like religion. You could start a church! Church of Saint Owen—”
Owen’s sigh sounded like pain rather than weariness. “No, don’t say that.” His hand found Juergen’s shoulder, softening the harsh words with a brief touch. “You did great. You all did. Put your heart and soul into your music. Couldn’t have asked for more.”
Mariane listened pensively. Owen sounded sincere…and yet sad. Burning, then crashing. His legs shivered under her, an unconscious tremor of remnant adrenaline. The energy of the stage, still taking its time to leave his body and find earth. He drew deeply on the cigarillo again, as if desperate for the cure to hurry up and take effect.
Suddenly, Mariane felt profoundly sad herself. It was such hard work, and worse yet if you had to be a celebrity too. She wanted him to be okay, not dead in his early forties, used up by all those coasting along on his generous coattails. Saint Owen the martyr. It wasn’t fair. And now she felt both sad and angry, glaring up at the stars as if it were their fault.
Slowly, as the edges of her vision cooled from red fury to gray resignation, Mariane realized that Owen was looking down at her with a warm smile. She smiled reflexively in return. For a long moment they remained like that, gazing into each other’s eyes in perfect, non-sexy understanding.
And that was fine too.
Owen crushed the last of the burning weed into the concrete floor. “Sun’s up. I’m off.
He quietly shifted himself out of the weight of limbs and warmth of skin. “Mariane, Juergen, I’ll see you in Prague.”
Noriko was still in Paris, but not for long. She had a few more meetings to get Owen’s new football club a fresh set of coaches and admin personnel, and that meant two stops on the road to Amsterdam. She didn’t need to be present at the Berlin concert. She had competent staff in place to handle everything Owen would need, and they didn’t need supervising. For these meetings, she was the only option.
Owen had told her his full plan in confidence. “Let them think I’m just having fun. You know otherwise and you know who and what are key to this project working out. Negotiate accordingly.”
He hadn’t needed to add that. Noriko’s talent and curse was the depth of her competitive nature, and even if the football club had been, as she claimed in meetings to outsiders, the mere whim of a man with too much spare cash on hand, she would have fought to get the best deal regardless. She had her own reputation of excellence to maintain. While she respected Owen for his strong work ethic and infallible ability to organize and get results, she too felt that his life was not exactly sustainable. She would keep herself prepared to launch a post-Owen career. He would understand. They both knew no other loyalty than competence, no attachment but success, no stability but the next adventure.
Owen impressed her. His look varied from the delicate, waiflike freshness of a teen idol to the grizzled, whipcord-and-washboard toughness of a decades-seasoned rock star, but beyond all sense, he reminded her of her maternal grandfather—a broad, fat man who could be as placid as a mountain or as volatile as an active volcano…all dependent on which mode would get him what he wanted.
For that reason, or other reasons she had yet to identify, she wanted very much to make Owen proud of her.
In Strasbourg there was a postgraduate research associate specializing in sports science whom Owen particularly wanted. Noriko hoped the terms would be enough to entice. She also hoped she could, however briefly, tap into her grandfather’s wisdom and be the mountain for this encounter instead of the volcano.
The meeting took place in a large office crammed with three desks, a treadmill and a stationary bike connected to a hanging-grid array of tablet computers, and a small kitchen table pushed under the main window. Boxes of assorted energy bars, nutritional supplements,
and vividly tinted bottled liquids cluttered the table’s surface, while a small dog slept peacefully in the clear space underneath.
“Sorry about the mess.” Isala Kuria waved Noriko in and limped after her. “Claude is teaching all morning today. Briana is out sick. We won’t be disturbed.”
Noriko looked around for a place to sit. Kuria cleared a bundle of papers from a chair. “Here we go. Something to drink? There’s coffee, just made.”
Mountains aren’t fussy. Noriko accepted a mug of strong but murky arabica and made her own important first step in the negotiations by offering a bag of palmiers and pains au chocolat that she’d bought from a neighboring bakery. Kuria smiled and found a clean plate, and for a minute or two they were content to eat and sip in comfortable silence.
The dog opened his eyes and blinked sleepily at them, but didn’t budge.
“He’s very well behaved,” Noriko said at last in mild surprise.
“He’s lazy,” Kuria corrected. “But yes, Claude has trained him well about food. We don’t want him poisoning himself with the free samples.” She nodded at the stuff on the table.
Noriko realized that Kuria would continue the small talk for as long as it took to make it clear that she was not desperate to say yes to whatever Noriko might say. However, the atmosphere was friendly, almost relaxed. Kuria wasn’t playing a game for spite.
“Our offer has intrigued you?” Noriko said at last, keeping her tone light, as if she too were merely curious.
Kuria gave her a reproachful look. “It’s too much. I thought it was a joke. I didn’t expect you to turn up.”
“It’s not a joke.”
“There are far more experienced coaches available.”
“My employer looks for other qualities than experience. He wanted me to tell you that he read your paper on physiological effects of VR training that enhance team performance.” Noriko watched Kuria intently to detect what, if any, impact her words might have. ...
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