Below is an excerpt from
Neon Fever Dream by Eliot Peper. Neon Fever Dream is about a dark secret hidden in the swirling dust and exultant revelry of Burning Man. It’s a fast-paced thriller with a diverse cast that weaves together everything from the ripple effects of the Sri Lankan civil war to the impacts of new technology on international organized crime.
I chose this excerpt because it weaves together the most important elements of the story: international intrigue based on real-world issues, psychological thrills with lots of personal twists/turns/lessons-learned, and unique Burning Man setting.
Bass reverberated through Asha’s body, and she let the rhythm guide her movements. DJ Xenn stood on a three-story platform, head tilted to press the headphone against his shoulder as he nodded ever so slightly along with the beat. Smaller stages stood to either side, the backlit shadows of naked dancers spinning and entwining on massive canvas screens. The crowd surged with the electronic crescendo, hundreds of wildly costumed people moving as one.
Lynn grabbed Asha’s hand and spun her. Asha leaned backward as she came around and slid an arm behind Lynn’s back. Derek, Marlon, and the Vikings cheered the move, and one passed a plastic bottle filled with more champagne. Asha took a swig—the dust had parched her throat, and she welcomed the sparkling relief. Handing the bottle off to Lynn, she let the trumpets carry her into a series of whirling dance moves.
Grids of multicolored lasers skewered the floating particles of dust and blasted into the night sky, perfectly synchronized with the music. A Mayan warrior emerged from the throng in front of her, gold and copper bangles scattering light in all directions. His movements were as graceful as a professional dancer and oversize pink sunglasses softened his angular face. Melodic undertones began to build on top of the synth beat. A beautiful girl with a short Afro in an olive jumpsuit unzipped to the navel swung a combat-booted leg over his thigh, and their movements became one with each other and the music. The crowd parted, and the couple’s movements mesmerized and inflamed Asha.
DJ Xenn held a hand in the air, and the song reached for a climax along with him. The track crested like a tsunami, and the massive flamethrowers surrounding the circular dance floor belched seven-meter pillars of fire straight up at the stars. Heat rippled out over the dancers, and the couple’s lips met in a long, extended kiss that broke only when the girl pushed off the Mayan’s chest and spun away to disappear into the crowd.
Asha turned to find Lynn biting her lip and staring back. Those gold and emerald eyes were hypnotizing. Supreme confidence and desperate loneliness wrestled in their depths. Cinnamon and smoke.
“Come on,” said Asha. “Let’s get out of here.”
The set was over. DJ Xenn spun a chill-out track and descended from the throne. The crowd milled and migrated toward the exit. They lost Marlon and the Vikings in the hubbub but didn’t bother finding them. Once Lynn and Asha had made their way out of Green Ocean and located their bikes, they started pedaling back to Camp Wino.
The chilly night air whisked away Asha’s sweat and raised goose bumps on her arms. The glittering intoxication of the champagne waxed philosophical. Asha remembered cool evenings on the plantation, crickets chirping, tea leaves rustling, secrets exchanged. This was the thrill. This was the adventure she had been aching for. This was the pearl hidden in the oyster of life that her parents had never found.
“On the drive in,” said Asha as they rode side by side across the dark desert, “you mentioned that you did some reporting on the Tamil Tigers.”
“Yes,” said Lynn. The wind and dust had subsided, and they were able to ride barefaced. “Beijing was quietly sending financial and military aid to the government as they prepared for the final offensive campaign.”
“Have you heard of the Karuna Faction?” Something cracked in Asha’s tone, like the first fault line to give way in an impending earthquake.
Lynn shook her head.
The leader of the Tigers had a falling out with his top commander and bodyguard, Colonel Karuna,” said Asha. “Karuna split off and formed an independent militia and then allied himself with the government. The government used them as a black ops unit, giving politicians deniability for messy wetwork. They disappeared political opponents and Tamils from all over the country, often demanding ransoms from expatriate family members as a fundraising mechanism. But I didn’t find out any of this stuff until after.”
Asha sucked in a breath. Her pulse was racing. She hadn’t ever told anyone about this besides Dov. She kept it locked away deep inside, but for some strange reason, she wanted to tell Lynn. It felt right to have it come out under a dome of brilliant stars in a place that felt apart from the world.
“My parents are Sinhalese, not Tamil,” said Asha. “And despite the fact that their tea plantation makes them leaders in the local community, they’ve always avoided politics. They focus on the people they can talk to, see, and touch, not on ideological abstraction. So when the government started disappearing people in Colombo and Tamils started fleeing for the countryside, my parents quietly offered food, water, and sanctuary to the most desperate.”
The night took on a silvery sheen, and Asha felt light as a feather. “Once, they even fostered a young boy, Rakash, whose parents had been killed. I was five years old, and he lived with us for about a year. I was delighted to have someone my own age to play with on the estate. He was like a brother to me, and we were masters of hide-and-go-seek. But my parents didn’t go to great lengths to hide their charity, and eventually word got out. Some elements in the Colombo power structure felt they were sympathizing with the enemy and undermining the government’s terror campaign against the Tigers, who were, if anything, even worse.”
“The memories were buttoned up so tight that releasing them felt at once sacrosanct and sacrilegious. Asha glanced over and saw that Lynn’s face was tight, tiny lines forming at the corners of her eyes. “One night, after I had just turned six, five Karuna men showed up at the house. My dad hid me when he saw their truck coming up the drive. They beat him and my mom.” Dizziness rendered Burning Man’s neon midnight horizon dazzling. “Then they executed Rakash.” Something halfway between a gasp and a sigh escaped from Asha. “They were laughing as they drove away. It was all a big joke to them. Just another day’s work.”
The words hung in the air between them as if branded in fiery script. They smoldered and morphed in the ensuing silence, taking on texture and weight. Asha was surprised to find that the admission made her feel more free than vulnerable. Secrets lost their power when shared.
“Asha, I’m sorry,” said Lynn. “I’m so sorry.” There was a foundation of gravitas under the words that made their stark simplicity more impactful. They came from the heart, a heart that knew pain.
“I’ll meet you back at camp,” said Asha. “I need a bathroom break.”
“I’ll go with you,” said Lynn, concern written all over her face.
“No really, I’ll be okay.” She wanted a moment alone to pull herself together.
Asha parked her bike and found a vacant unit in the long line of porta-potties abutting the street. She had expected them to be disgusting, but they were serviced multiple times per day and by porta-potty standards, things could be a lot worse. Regardless, she was glad she had a respirator.
She closed the latch and peed. The EL wire stitched into her jumpsuit emitted psychedelic patterns of light that made the graffiti inscribed on every available surface roil and swirl. The hard walls of reality softened, revealing themselves to be nothing but permeable membranes. Her jaw opened and closed reflexively, and her tongue explored every corner of her mouth. Her heart rate accelerated, and her breath was hot, wet, and stale inside the respirator.
It wasn’t a porta-potty. It was a closet. Light bled through the keyhole. Asha knew she shouldn’t look. No good could come from it. But dark curiosity metastasized into inexorable compulsion. It would not be denied. She didn’t stand much higher than the doorknob, so she barely had to bend over to glue her eye to the keyhole, vipers tangling in her gut.
Her mother screamed before one of the men backhanded her across the face, knocking her unconscious when she hit the floor. Her father argued, then begged, then pleaded. But the men hadn’t come for words. They were not the kind of people who afforded words much weight. They tore off his shirt and beat him to within an inch of his life.
Once they were finished with him, they abandoned him on the floor and hustled out through the back door, smashing things as they went. She heard them on the veranda. Laughing. Talking. Taunting. The gunshot snapped her body to attention. She bit her tongue and tasted blood as it echoed out over the tea fields. More laughing. Then an engine rumbling off into the night.
She didn’t know how long she stayed in that closet. Finally, her father managed to pull himself over to her mother, checking her heartbeat and breathing with his broken hands. Ever so gently, he lifted her to the couch and then stumbled over to the closet, blood and mucus turning his face into a nightmare mask. Fear and confusion hummed at a high voltage inside Asha. This wasn’t how the world worked. Her father ran the estate. He was a gentle and well-liked leader within Haputale. People looked up to him. People respected him. The closet door opened, and he hugged her close, sobs wracking his body. His pants were warm and damp against her cheek. Eww. He had peed himself. Adults weren’t supposed to wet their pants. She pulled away, trying to escape. Gross, Thaaththi, you peed your pants. Although he reacted with a sad smile, she would never forgive herself for uttering those words.”
You cannot control the world, but only you control how you react to it. Asha squeezed her eyes shut and shot out a hand. The plastic was smooth and cool beneath her palm. The reek of urine was coming from the porta-potty, not childhood ghosts. She was at Burning Man, taking a pit stop on the way home from a dance party. Haputale was a world away. Pushing her goggles up on her forehead, she swiped away the tears and stood.
She walked her bike the rest of the way back to Camp Wino, letting her breathing and thoughts settle back into some semblance of normal. Locking it on the rack, she ducked under the canvas sheeting and stepped up into the van.”
Lynn was lying on top of her sleeping bag, still fully clothed, reading a tattered paperback with a flashlight. Need welled up within Asha like lava bubbling to the brim of a volcano. Enough games. She knelt onto the mattress, gently pushed the book away, and slid a hand into one of the slits in Lynn’s leather costume to explore the flesh beneath. Lynn sucked in a breath, and her pupils dilated. Desire transformed from alluring to imperative. Asha leaned forward, and their lips met for the second time.
What I want is to live my own life. The rest of the world could go fuck themselves.
The sex was furious, tender, and heart-wrenching.