Today's Reading

CHAPTER ONE

Exactly forty-four hours before a building would collapse on top of her, Zoey Ashe was shuffling drunkenly around her mansion in a bathrobe, munching Doritos.

She'd actually gotten lost in her own home, dully convinced that someone had switched around all the rooms as a prank. She'd gotten up in search of her favorite drunken-night food (the Doritos in the heated bag that makes them taste like they'd been pulled fresh from a deep fryer) but when she arrived back at the guest bedroom, she'd opened the door to find a chemical-stinking storage room packed with housekeeping equipment, including the pair of floor-cleaner robots plugged into their chargers like a couple of sleeping tortoises. Zoey had gotten distracted for a while, giggling and trying to feed them Doritos, until she'd lost interest in that and stumbled back into the hall. That's when she heard the alarm.

It sounded like it was coming from outside, a robotic woman's voice sternly warning an intruder that terrible consequences were coming their way unless they turned back. Zoey shuffled back toward the main stairwell leading down to the front entrance, only to instead find herself in the foyer at ground level—ah, that's why she'd gotten lost, she was on the wrong floor. She pulled open one of the obscenely heavy, twelve-foot-tall etched-bronze doors, paused to wipe Doritos dust off the knob with her robe, then stepped out into the night, only remembering she was barefoot when she felt the cold cobblestones under her toes.

"You are on a course to violate restricted airspace over private property," stated the alarm voice with chilling robotic indifference. "You have five seconds to turn back or automated countermeasures will be used, up to and including lethal force." Zoey thought it was funny that this kind of computerized warning voice was always coded as female. She had brought it up with the person who'd installed the alarm system and was told that for the type of guy you're trying to deter, a stern woman was the last voice they'd ever obeyed: a schoolteacher, a mother, or whatever female family member had gotten stuck with raising them.

Zoey surveyed the area and saw nothing out of the ordinary, unless she counted the pair of white trucks belonging to the company that was about to install a pool out back, which she had apparently ordered at some point.

But they'd been there for days and surely the estate's ingenious threat detection knew that. Then, her sluggish brain finally processed what the robotic schoolmarm was saying about "violating restricted airspace" and she squinted up into the night sky, scanning it for hovering lights.

The last few times she'd heard this alarm it had turned out to be paparazzi—usually drones, once a helicopter—hoping to catch some kind of crime or other depravity occurring at the estate, as if Zoey's people would do that kind of thing out on the lawn. Then she looked down at herself and remembered why the March night felt so much colder than she'd expected: she was wearing a fluffy white bathrobe, but that was it. Her underwear had been discarded in the hallway, the dress she'd worn to the evening's awards ceremony had been left in the car (she actually wasn't certain it was an awards ceremony, it could have been a charity banquet or possibly a wedding reception—she just remembered a lot of tuxedos and mandatory clapping).

The intruder apparently hadn't turned back. The AI dominatrix voiced a new message, stating that they were now officially flying over private property and that countermeasures were being readied. Though, if they were here for photos, they probably had everything they wanted from Zoey's appearance alone. The tabloid media outlets loved to simultaneously describe Zoey as fat and disgusting while also publishing as much of her bare skin as they could steal. One drone had caught her sunbathing on a private beach in an extremely conservative two-piece, then ran the photos under a headline saying she was "flaunting" her chunky horror of a body. The next day, a progressive women's publication pushed back by describing Zoey's choice of public attire as "brave," which hardly made the situation better. The point being, if this was just a flying camera, the operator now had pics/video of Zoey in her rumpled bathrobe, standing on her driveway among the marble statues while holding a Doritos bag, her hair looking like it had spent the last couple of hours being pawed and pulled by a sweaty line cook. She briefly considered pulling open her robe and flashing them but figured tabloid readers probably wouldn't be impressed by that a third time.

The robotic schoolmarm gave a final warning that projectiles were on their way and that if they hadn't yet turned around their aircraft, it was probably too late, so why bother. Zoey still couldn't see the airborne intruder but thought she could hear it, that weird pulsing rush of little drone engines. Then a couple of spotlights kicked on from the yard and there it was: not a drone or a helicopter, but something in between, a personal flying device carrying some idiot over the wrought-iron main gate, then soaring above the hedges and statues along the winding driveway.
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