An Upgraded Upgrade

Yeah, I went there with the post title.

Upgrade is the book I am most asked for a sequel for. Sadly, it didn’t sell very well, so I never completed the next two (2!) books I’d planned in the series. Upgrade offers a complete story, but it leaves the door open for said sequels, leaving many people with nothing to do but send me angry emails with the subject: Where is the fucking Upgrade sequel?!

I hear you.

So, you’ll get the next story before year’s end (assuming I don’t get cancer and die first, or something else as dire … new kittens arrived, and they’re hell on productivity). Before I launch the new book, I need to ask myself a really important question.

Why didn’t the first one sell well?

I’d originally dismissed lackluster sales a result of people not digging on cyberpunk as a genre as much as, say, space opera. While this is true-ish, it can’t be the entire reason. Otherwise, William Gibson would be living under a bridge.

Analysis? Hah. A lot of this is tea-leaf reading, but I think there are three critical issues with the book.

  • It’s too long. Most people prefer 70-90k books in science fiction. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but if you’re under 70k readers find the story short, over 90k and they’re be waiting for it to just fucking end. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but if most people read books 80k words long, then most people will stumble at a monster of 160k.
  • It sags in the middle. The book has two main story arcs welded together. There’s a logical endpoint for the story, but the book doesn’t actually end. While I have very little hard data, because retailers don’t share reader behavior with me for good privacy and competitive advantage reasons, I suspect a few people hid the mid point, while sweat from their brow, and put the book down.
  • It’s not very well writtenUpgrade was my second ever book, and there are lots of words used incorrectly, in the wrong order, and shit often doesn’t make sense. I’m editing it right now (more on this in a moment) and there are pieces I read and wonder, “What the actual fuck was I trying to say?”

To do any next book justice, I need to fix these problems. I’m tidying Upgrade at the moment, and thought I’d give you a taste of what the edits might look like by comparing the first chapter. I’m a firm believer in Han-shot-first, so I’m keeping the story and character beats the same, but making the words betterer. This means people who’ve already bought Upgrade and enjoyed it won’t need to rebuy it (the story stays the same), but newcomers to the series get a smoother ride.

Yes, I just used betterer. I’m a writer. Here we go.


Original First Chapter Without a Name

The green neon flickered behind the bar, as tired and listless as any of the patrons. The bartender watched him, one chromed arm working a dirty rag over a dirtier surface. His eyes were underlined with a smatter of hanzi, the logograms giving off a soft phosphor blue bioluminescence. A couple of teenage ganguro girls were making out in a dark corner, the pastel of their eyeliner garish with the green from the bar. Bright clothes whispered as they rubbed against each other.

Carter had said this was the place. The point of origin. Someone had come in here, dropped some credits into the old terminal on the back wall, made a play to buy company assets.

“Hey. Pal.” Mason put a grainy photograph down on the bar. A side shot of a man, sunglasses on, greasy hair over a face gone soft and ugly. Carter had uplifted it from the terminal. “Know this guy? A buyer.”

The bartender didn’t look at the photo, his gaze touching the bottles stacked up in front of the flickering neon. The dirty rag paused. “I never heard of that mix. Been making drinks a long time now.”

Mason tapped his finger on the photo. “It’s a popular drink. Exactly the thing you’d get in this part of town.”

The bartender shrugged. “Drink like that, might be expensive.” The rag resumed motion, the bartender’s chromed arm picking up the green light and pushing it around the bar top after the rag.

Mason saw the hanzi under the bartender’s left eye flicker, the glow stuttering before coming back on clean and smooth. He pressed some greasy notes down on the bar next to the photo. “I understand. Maintenance. Got to keep the kitchen in working order.”

“Exactly.” The rag stopped moving for a moment, then started its motion back up. Mason caught a reflection in the chromed arm as a man walked in from the street. A sharp gust of night air followed him in, the faintest hint of sewage mixing with the acrid scent of the rain. The bartender nodded at the newcomer. “It’s killer out there.” The photo and the money were gone, whisked off the bar as if they’d never been. The bartender moved further down the bar, filling a cocktail shaker with dirty ice.

The newcomer sat down next to Mason, a hit of too-strong Davidoff cologne hanging around him. “Mind if I sit here?”

“It’s a free country.” Mason didn’t turn, taking in the expensive suit cuffs out of the corner of his eye.

“That’s the biggest lie I’ve heard this week.” The man shook water from his coat, throwing the heavy jacket over a vacant barstool. “Hasn’t been free since they invented the credit card.”

“You don’t seem to be suffering.”

The man gave a quick laugh. “Business is good. What can I say?”

The bartender pushed a glass tumbler in front of Mason, the ice nestled in around a rich amber liquid. The algae in the drink sparked a bright pink, flecks of light flashing in amongst the amber and ice. “Your drink.”

Mason nodded his thanks, taking a sip. The liquor was rougher than he was expecting. He coughed. “Christ.” He saw the splash of white as he set it down, a scrap of paper stuck to the bottom of the glass.

The man next to him gestured at the bartender. “Whatever he’s having.”

“You really don’t want to do that. Last time I order the house speciality, that’s for sure.”

“I can handle it.” The man put some cash down on the bar. “These throwbacks need to get linked. I hate cash. Too… dirty.”

“At least it’s quiet.” Mason took another swallow of the drink, then looked again at those immaculately tailored cuffs. He looked back down into his drink, reading the address written on the note before looking back up. “It’s probably as good a place to die as any.”

There was a heartbeat of silence before the pressure built in the air. Mason felt the lattice react, its prediction routines making his hands grab the edge of the bar and heave him over the top of it as the blast wave hit. He felt himself get tossed against the back wall, the perception of time slowing as overtime flowed around him — Mason could feel the fibers in his jacket stiffening to take the impact. Glass and liquor rained down on him from the shattered bottles above the bar. His optics flicked as they adjusted contrast, first to the flash of light then to the shadows dancing in the bar. A single neon filament flickered above Mason, stuttering out the last of its life in refracted green before the bar went dark.

“I’m glad you appreciate your situation.” The man’s voice came from the other side of the bar. “No offense. Like I said, business is good.”

“None taken.” Mason planted his feet against the bar, bracing himself in the narrow space. He pulled the Tenko-Senshin out from under his jacket, the whine of the weapon soft in the darkness as it came to life. The nose of the weapon tracked the sound of the man through the bar as if it had a mind of its own. “Reed Interactive?”

“Good guess. But no — Metatech. Apsel?”

“Yeah.” Mason swallowed. Careful — Metatech means milspec bionics. “What are they like?”

“Metatech?” The man paused. “They sure as shit provide better backup than Apsel.”

Mason’s smile glinted in the darkness. “What makes you think I need backup?”

The man chuckled, the sound moving towards the door. “Buddy? You look fucked to me.” 

There was the sound of the front door opening, followed by a thud as the grenade rolled in. Mason rolled away, scrambling to the back of the bar. He hit the door to the kitchen as the explosion went off, tossing him across the room and into the short order stove. He fell hard, then pushed himself upright. His optics flickered in the darkness — goddamn EMP — then switched into thermal, the intense bright square of the Tenko-Senshin’s energy pack picked out against the blue black of the floor. He picked up the weapon, feeling the cool calm of the hard link as his palm gripped it.

Only an amateur would rely on an EMP grenade against a syndicate asset. Top shelf bionics barely noticed. Only an amateur — or someone who really did have the arrogance of backup.

“Mason?” The link flicked into life, her voice clear and cool inside his head.

“Now’s not a good time, Carter.” Mason walked back to the door out to the bar. Something was on fire. His optics adjusting back to visual light as the heat from the flames scored the centre of his vision with white. “I’ve got a bit of a thing going on here.”

“That’s what I’m calling about.” She paused. “Don’t go through that door.”

“You checking up on me?” Mason looked through the cracked glass of the small window set into the door. He could pick out bits and pieces of what the bar used to be under the jumble of tables and chairs, a mess of plastic and wood veneer. “I didn’t know you cared.”

“They used energy weapons. The signature is quite clear from here.”

“Plasma?” 

“Looks like.”

“Jesus. You get cancer from those things.” Mason edged the door open, the snout of the Tenko-Senshin pushed out ahead of him.

“No.” Carter sounded annoyed. “You get burning from those things. It would kill you, and you would hurt the entire time you were dying. You were lucky. And careless. You’re not going to be alive long enough to get cancer.”

“Like I said, now’s not a good time. You can hector me later.”

“Why not just go out the back?”

“Two reasons. First, they’ll be expecting that.” Mason stepped through the kitchen door, his feet crunching on the broken glass of fallen liquor bottles.

“The second reason?”

“The bartender did me a solid. Gave me an address. He’s in here somewhere.” Mason cocked his head. “What. No snappy comeback?”

“It’ll be expensive.” Carter sounded doubtful.

“Put it on my tab. Are there some budget cuts I missed the memo on?”

“I’ll call a medivac.” The link went dead.

Mason stepped over the still form of a gang banger, flung from the centre of the energy strike. He looked down at the body, shaved head face down against the dirty floor, then scanned the rest of the room. The radius of damage was from where Mason had been sitting at the bar, more or less. His optics drew a line on the overlay back to the booth that was the point of origin. No sign of the ganguro girls that had been there, the booth black and empty. A fluorescent light stuttered briefly to life, then went dark as the sprinklers kicked in. Muddy water trickled listlessly from the ceiling for a brief moment before dying out, loose drips of dark water sticking to the ceiling nozzles.

He found the bartender sprawled backwards against a broken table. The bartender’s chrome arm was gone, the stump smooth and pale — cheap work without anchoring. Or maybe the guy just didn’t want to get that close to the metal. Mason did a scan, his HUD picking out the injuries. He knelt down. “Hey.”

The bartender coughed, the sound ragged and wet. “I tried to… Anyway. Did you get the address?”

“I got it.” Mason nodded at the door. “It’ll keep a few minutes longer.”

The bartender grabbed at Mason’s bicep with his flesh hand. “You don’t understand. They’re killing us.”

“Killing you?”

“The rain. Your buyer. That’s what’s for sale. Don’t you know?” The bartender coughed again. “Will you—” 

“That’s the plan.” Mason stood up. “Who was it?”

“What?”

“Who did you lose to the rain?”

The bartender looked up at him, the firelight playing across his features. The blue had faded out of the hanzi, leaving grey marks like scars. “My brother.”

Mason nodded down at him. “Try not to move. A medivac’s coming.”

“I can’t afford that.” The man’s eyes turned pleading. “I — just leave me here. I’ll be ok.”

Mason looked down at the Tenko-Senshin, the weapon’s hum a gentle touch against his hand. He moved towards the door. Before he stepped out onto the street, he looked back. “It’s on the house.”

“Which house?” The bartender tried to push himself upright. “Who’m I gonna owe for this?”

Mason didn’t reply as he walked outside into the hissing rain, the door scraping shut behind him.


Off Grid

Never go off the grid. That was the rule. It kept Mason alive. If you had to, make sure you had a weapon and backup. Apsel’s reach stopped where link coverage ebbed away to a gritty residue.

Mason had a weapon, but backup was a long ride away. You’re fifty percent there. Stop complaining. Get inside.

Seconds was the kind of bar nobody would go twice. An old chipped door, the auto sensor broken, the sliders sticky with beer or blood. Mason shouldered it aside. The interior was warm. Humidity stuck like a bad odor to the air. In its better days, it would have hosted over a hundred bodies, the pump and beat of music making their own statement.

Today? Fewer than a dozen. The people inside were nursing drinks, telling themselves the usual sorts of lies. He eyed a woman by the bar, working what magic she had left on a john, her use-by date well passed. The john was no better, a long stringy guy with fewer teeth than he’d been born with.

Neither were worth credits or paperwork.

He wasn’t here for hookers or their clients. Mason was here for the promise of a lead. Most people would call it a rumor, but he’d spent enough time off-grid to know where truth lay among the grime.

Mason’s optics scanned the bar, picking out the mods. Seconds wasn’t the kind of place you went into blind. His first pass gave him nothing to cry about. Bionics done on the cheap, a knife where a laser would be best, out of fashion chrome making the wrong kind of statement. Nothing here was milspec.

The green neon flickered behind the bar, as tired and listless as any of the patrons. The bartender watched him, one chromed arm working a dirty rag over a dirtier surface. His eyes were underlined with a smatter of hanzi, the logograms giving off a soft phosphor blue bioluminescence. A couple of teenage ganguro girls were making out in a dark corner, the pastel of their eyeliner garish with the green from the bar. Mason’s audio brought him the whisper of their bright clothes as they rubbed against each other.

Carter had said this was the place. The point of origin. Someone had come in here, dropped credits into the old terminal on the back wall, made a play to buy company assets. Mason slicked rain from his jacket, then made his way to the bar. His tailored clothes said cash and syndicate. No one got in his way.

Not yet.

Mason’s overlay highlighted the bartender. No ID. No link. A targeting reticule on his optics with no data, showing a ghost who worked down here because up there was impossible. An illegal, like all the rest.

“Hey.” Mason put a grainy photograph down on the bar. A side shot of a man, orange mirror sunglasses on, greasy hair over a face gone soft and ugly. Carter had uplifted it from the terminal. “Know this guy? A buyer.”

The bartender didn’t look at the photo, his gaze touching the bottles stacked up in front of the flickering neon. The dirty rag paused. “I never heard of that mix. Been making drinks a long time now.”

Mason tapped his finger on the photo. “It’s a popular drink. Exactly the thing you’d get in this part of town.”

The bartender shrugged. “Drink like that, might be expensive.” The rag resumed motion, the bartender’s chromed arm picking up the green light and pushing it around the bar top after the rag.

Mason saw the hanzi under the bartender’s left eye flicker, the glow stuttering. He pressed greasy notes down on the bar next to the photo. “I understand. Maintenance. Got to keep the kitchen in working order.”

“Exactly.” The rag stopped moving for a moment. Mason caught a reflection in the chromed arm as a man walked in from the street. A sharp gust of night air followed him in, the faintest hint of sewage mixing with the acrid scent of rain. The bartender nodded to the newcomer. “It’s killer out there.” The photo and the money vanished, whisked off the bar as if they’d never been. The bartender moved further down the bar, filling a cocktail shaker with dirty ice.

The newcomer sat down next to Mason, a hit of Davidoff cologne washing off him. “Mind if I sit here?”

“It’s a free country.” Mason didn’t turn, taking in the expensive suit cuffs out of the corner of his eye. Tailored sleeves went with the cuffs. Might be an exec out for some fun at the people’s expense.

Might be syndicate trouble.

“That’s the biggest lie I’ve heard this week.” The man shook water from his coat, throwing the heavy jacket over a vacant barstool. “Hasn’t been free since they invented the credit card.”

“You don’t seem to be suffering.”

The man gave a quick laugh. “Business is good. What can I say?”

The bartender pushed a tumbler in front of Mason, the ice nestled in around a rich amber liquid. The algae in the drink sparked a bright pink, flecks of light flashing in amongst the amber and ice. “Your drink.”

Mason nodded his thanks, taking a sip. The liquor was rougher than he was expecting. He coughed. “Christ.” He saw a splash of white as he set it down. A scrap of paper was stuck to the bottom of the glass.

The man next to him gestured to the bartender. “Whatever he’s having.”

“You really don’t want to do that. Last time I order the house speciality, that’s for sure.”

“I can handle it.” The man counted notes on the bar. “These throwbacks need to get linked. I hate cash. Too … dirty.”

“At least it’s quiet.” Mason took another swallow of the drink, then glanced again at those immaculately tailored cuffs. He looked back down into his drink, reading the address written on the note. “It’s probably as good a place to die as any.”

There was a heartbeat of silence as pressure built in the air. Mason felt his lattice react, its prediction routines making his hands grab the edge of the bar, heaving him over the top of it as the blast wave hit. He was tossed against the back wall, his perception of time slowing as overtime flowed around him.

Mason felt the fibers in his jacket stiffen to take the impact. Glass and liquor rained down on him from the shattered bottles above the bar. His optics flickered as they adjusted contrast, first to the flash of light then to the dancing shadows. A single neon filament above Mason stuttered out the last of its life in refracted green before the bar went dark.

“I’m glad you appreciate your situation.” The man’s voice came from the other side of the bar. “No offense. Like I said, business is good.”

“None taken.” Mason planted his feet against the bar, bracing himself in the narrow space. He pulled the Tenko-Senshin out from under his jacket, the whine of the weapon soft in the darkness. The nose of the weapon tracked the man’s footsteps as if it had a mind of its own. “Reed Interactive?”

“Good guess, but no. Metatech. Apsel?”

“Yeah.” Mason swallowed. Careful — Metatech means milspec bionics. “What are they like?”

“Metatech?” The man paused. “They sure as shit provide better backup than Apsel.”

Mason’s smile glinted in the darkness. “What makes you think I need backup?”

The man laughed as he made for the door. No hurry in it, like he did this kind of thing on a daily. “Buddy? You look fucked to me.” 

The door squealed a complaint as it opened, followed by a thud. Grenade. Move!

Mason rolled over the bar. He hit the door to the kitchen as the explosion went off, tossing him into a stove so grimy it looked like a movie prop. He fell hard, then pushed himself upright. His optics flickered in the darkness — goddamn EMP — then switched to thermal, the intense bright square of the Tenko-Senshin’s energy pack outlined against the blue black of the floor. Mason felt the cool calm of the hard link as his palm gripped it.

Only an amateur would rely on an EMP grenade against a syndicate asset. Top shelf bionics barely noticed. An amateur, or someone who really does have backup. You got what you came for. Time to go.

“Mason?” The link flickered into life, Carter’s voice inside his head.

“Now’s not a good time, Carter.” Mason went back to the kitchen door. A couple of tables burned, shedding sooty black smoke. The heat from the flames scorched the centre of his vision with white, so he switched back to visual light. “I’ve got a bit of a thing going on here.”

“That’s what I’m calling about.” She paused. “Don’t go out the front.”

“You checking up on me?” Mason looked through the cracked glass of the door’s small window. The jumble of wreckage wasn’t recognizable as the bar he’d walked into. A mess of plastic and wood veneer nestled atop bodies. “I didn’t know you cared.”

“They used energy weapons. The signature is quite clear from here.”

“Plasma?” 

“Looks like.”

“Jesus. You get cancer from those things.” Mason pushed the snout of the Tenko-Senshin ahead of him.

“No.” Carter sounded annoyed. “You get burning from those things. The fire would kill you, and you would hurt the entire time you were dying. You were lucky. And careless.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re not going to be alive long enough to get cancer.”

“Like I said, now’s not a good time. You can list my failings later.”

“Why not just go out the back?”

“Two reasons. First, they’ll be expecting that.” Mason stepped through the kitchen door, his feet crunching on broken glass.

“The second reason?”

“The bartender gave me an address. He’s in here somewhere.” Mason paused. “What, no snappy comeback?”

“It’ll be expensive.” Carter sounded doubtful.

“Put it on my tab. Did I miss a budget cuts memo?”

“I’ll call a medivac.” The link went dead.

Mason stepped over a body flung from the centre of the plasma strike. He looked down at the body. Not this one. The radius of damage was from Mason’s spot at the bar. His optics plotted a line on Mason’s overlay, showing the point of origin.

A booth, no different from the rest. There was no sign of the ganguro girls who’d been there, the booth black and empty. A fluorescent light stuttered briefly to life, then went dark as the sprinklers kicked in. Muddy water trickled listlessly from the ceiling for a brief moment before dying out, loose drips of dark water sticking to the ceiling nozzles.

Mason found the bartender sprawled backwards against a broken table. His chrome arm was gone, the stump smooth and pale. Cheap work. No anchoring. Or maybe the guy just didn’t want to get that close to the metal. Mason did a scan, his HUD telling the violent story of the bartender’s surface injuries. He knelt down. “Hey.”

The bartender coughed, the sound ragged and wet. “I tried to … doesn’t matter. Did you get the address?”

“I got it.” Mason nodded at the door. “It’ll keep a few minutes longer.”

The bartender grabbed Mason’s arm. “You don’t understand. They’re killing us.”

“Killing you?”

“The rain. Your buyer. That’s what’s for sale. Don’t you know?” The bartender coughed again. 

Mason stood up. “Who was it?”

“What?”

“Who did you lose to the rain?”

The bartender looked up at him, the firelight playing across his features. The blue had faded out of the hanzi, leaving grey marks like scars. “My brother.”

Mason nodded. “Try not to move. A medivac’s coming.”

“I can’t afford that.” The man’s eyes turned pleading. “Just leave me here. I’ll be ok.”

Mason looked at the Tenko-Senshin, the weapon’s hum a gentle touch in his hand. He moved towards the door. Before he stepped into the street, he glanced back. “It’s on the house.”

“Which house?” The bartender tried to push himself upright. “Who’m I gonna owe for this?”

Mason didn’t reply as he walked outside into the hissing rain, the door yawning behind him.


Let me know what you think of the changes in style. It takes a hyooooge amount of time to do this, so I hope I’m doing it right 🧐