Chapter 1

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Kali had been deaf since the day she was born.

Not deaf to sounds or music – those she could hear just fine – but mind-deaf.  What the Paths called their inner ear, well, she didn’t have one. To talk to Kali, a person had to speak out loud and be within literal earshot. And if Kali wanted her thoughts to be heard, she had to open her mouth and give voice to them.

There were a lot of names for people like Kali, people who went through life missing one of the six human sense organs. Deaf. Handicapped. Disabled. Null

She hated all of them.

That was why, in spite of the crap pay and the long hours, Kali worked at The Echo. It was the one place she could go in all of Bellum City and feel like she wasn’t a freak. Or maybe it was just that at The Echo, freak was normal. 

The Echo was Bellum City’s oldest and most historic music club, but it wasn’t one of those uptight, hoighty-toighty joints for a bit of light jazz and small triangular sandwiches. No, The Echo was pure rock ’n roll—dark and gritty and stinking of liquor. A flickering neon arrow pointed to a stocked bar guarded by a bartender with more tattoos than virgin skin. But the main attraction was the high, semi-circle stage that had both seen rock legends and made them.

Kali loved rock music. She’d grown up listening to The Keys and The Bleeding Hearts, and she’d even picked up the synth guitar. It was so damn loud it obliterated everything else. Even the silent sounds she couldn’t hear.

But the real reason Kali escaped to The Echo was because telepathy was banned. She didn’t fully understand the science behind it, but it had something to do with the frequency of telepathic brain waves interfering with the music’s sound waves. At The Echo, nothing was allowed to get in the way of a good concert. 

Kali set a tray of empty shot glasses down on the bar. “Hey, Freddy. Another round.”

The bartender grinned, stretching the black tiger stripes inked across his cheeks. “Already? Concert hasn’t even started yet and they’ll be halfway to tanked up.” 

She shrugged. “They tip alright and no one’s tried to slap my ass yet. Can’t ask for much more than that.”

Freddy’s grin faded. “If anyone tries anything funny…” 

“I’ll tell you,” she promised. “But you know I can handle myself.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Freddy reached across the bar and tweaked her nose. Kali hated when he did that. “I’m just looking out for you, alright? You’re my girl.” 

She raised an eyebrow. “Your girl?”

The bartender blushed through his tiger stripes. “You know what I mean.” 

Kali chuckled. For all his scary looks, Freddy was easy to fluster. And she knew perfectly well that he didn’t harbor any romantic feelings towards her. He knew what she was. Men might want her body or think she was cute, but they lost interest as soon as they realized she was damaged goods.

“Say, Freddy, who’s playing tonight? I didn’t catch the name.” 

He shrugged. “Some foreigner I’ve never heard of. Apparently he’s some sort of rock god in the Redlands.”

“The Redlands? That’s half an ocean away! What’s he doing in Bellum City?” 

Freddy lifted his big shoulders again. “Beats me. Boss says he’s something else, though.”

“Michael said that?” 

Freddy nodded.

“Wow.”  Michael, their boss and the current owner of The Echo, didn’t have much nice to say about anybody. When The Keys played the top hits off their platinum-selling record live at The Echo, Michael reportedly said of their performance, “Meh.” 

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