READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Wire Wings by Wren Handman
Author Wren Handman is back with her new sci-fi novel, WIRE WINGS! In the real world, Graciela is drowning... but in the Waves, a virtual reality world, Graciela can be anyone, anywhere, anytime. Free.
What would you choose? A.I., intrigue, identity, duty, and love. Read it June 23rd...
Pre-order your copy here in time for Release Day!
Wire Wings, Wren Handman
Graciela does as she's told: she cowers beneath the towering intellect of her parents, goes to school, toes the line. But in the Waves, a virtual reality world, Graciela can be anyone, anywhere, anytime. Free.
In the real world, Graciela is drowning. Her best friend recently passed away, she's suffering from crippling panic attacks, and her only connection to life is Khaiam, who keeps trying to draw her back to reality.
But how can he compete with the Waves? There, she can be whoever she dreams. And in that world, there's Thomas, the stunning stranger with haunted eyes she's only ever met online. Thomas seems to be able to defy the rules of the Waves, and he holds secrets of his own—about the origins of his creation, the nature of AI, and about Gracie's own past. He will lead her on a dangerous road to truths she isn't ready for, and the ultimate decision between acceptance and identity, duty and love, life and freedom.
The smell is the first thing she senses. It’s not quite identifiable, an incongruous mix of old books, stale cigar smoke, and rotting chicken bones. Slowly, vision joins scent. As her eyes adjust, shadows come into gentle focus. A towering shelf, leaning dangerously across her field of vision; motes of dust like tiny stars, twinkling in the shaft of sunlight descending from what she now sees is a tall, barred window; a ceiling that bleeds away into darkness above her. The carpet is thick under her feet and crunches a little when she moves, stiffened by age or some less pleasant process.
Her nose twitches, neurons firing, mad to sort the smells into a thing that makes sense. Nothing really smells like this; not in the real world.
“They sent you.”
The voice is almost physical. The sound travels directly into her brain, bypassing the more discerning reverberations of her eardrums, and she feels the words as a taste at the back of her throat. This, she has often mused, must be what synesthesia feels like.
“I sent myself,” she retorts. She peers through the shelves but can’t find him; then she sees a flash of color through the stacks. Briefly, she considers chasing, but a brave rush of surety tells her that if she stays put he’ll come to her. She picks a book at random and takes it off the shelf. It’s leather-bound and awkward to hold, bigger than her arm from the elbow to the wrist. She opens it. It’s a spreadsheet, full of words that have been abbreviated to meaninglessness. Some backup server, most likely.
“It won’t work,” he tells her. He’s definitely to her left now. She fingers the release mechanism in the front pocket of her dress. It’s a faded floral print pinafore, like old settlers might have worn, and buttery soft from years of use. One-handed and awkward, she levers the big book back onto its shelf. There’s a puff of dust, but her eyes don’t water and no sneeze reflex triggers.
“You’re so cocky. You think there’s no trap that can hold you.”
“There hasn’t been yet.” He’s in front of her so suddenly that she takes a step back. Today he has curly brown hair and a splash of freckles across café-au-lait skin. He’s wearing faded brown pants with jet black suspenders, a raw linen shirt showing a few curls of hair on his chest. Their ensembles match. The realization sends burning heat through her cheeks, though she quickly toggles the feature off. She doesn’t want him to know she cares.
His eyes are the only things that never change. They’ve been familiar to her since she first saw him, and the frustration over not being able to peg why swamps her. They’re dark, a brown that’s almost black, with a light that shimmers just beneath the surface like water under a crescent moon.
“Aren’t you supposed to press the button now?” he reminds her.
But she doesn’t. With no body heat to warm the metal, the switch stays cool against her skin. They’ll know something is wrong—her brain activity is too high to simulate the boredom of waiting for him to arrive, and she’s supposed to release the net as soon as she sees him.
“Why do you look like that?” she asks instead.
“Why do you?” He never answers a question directly. “You make yourself into someone you’re not when you know people are watching. Like this little mouse,” he touches a curl of her nut-brown hair, “could ever be anything more than the shell you live in. I like you better in leather.”
She stammers, has no answer. She can feel her confident self, the one who only lives in the Waves, trying to pull up the mask and hide. There’s no way that he knows, is there? She uses all the security clearances she can think of, hacks her way in instead of Diving directly. There’s no way he knows—but he has done so many impossible things. This one should not surprise her.
“Why won’t you just come back with me?” she asks, choosing to ignore what she doesn’t like. “You know they want to make you famous.”
“I’m already famous,” he counters. He’s walking around her now so that she has to slowly spin to keep him in front of her. He doesn’t seem to move so much as disappear, only to reappear so quickly that her eyes don’t process anything except that he’s moved a fraction forward. Like the stop motion cartoons she used to make as a child, but infinitely smoother. “I’m also free.” He breathes the words and she feels them touch her skin, tastes them a millisecond later.
“They aren’t trying to lock you up,” she says, but they’re both distracted by a ping. She whirls, but it’s only a Surfer—the shimmering blue form appears, takes a book down, reads a figure, and disappears as swiftly as it came. She can’t believe they chose a Site with outside access. Sloppy. No wonder they haven’t caught him yet, she thinks.
“Come dancing with me,” he urges, ignoring her earlier words. It occurs to her how much they both shut their eyes to things they don’t like. They’re more akin than she realized. “It’ll be like when we went to that concert on the top of Mount Olympus.”
“I went to the concert. You crashed it. And then you crashed it,” she objects.
“They crashed it. Too many Divers for the server—not my fault.”
“Your processing power is twenty times theirs! You crashed it,” she repeats, but she can’t hide her smile. She could toggle the feature off but that would be too obvious; all of her emotional triggers would vanish, and he would know she was hiding something. He knows her better than she can explain, this creature that should be a stranger to her. She’s only met him three times; four if you count the unveiling, but the whole family was there for that and she didn’t get much of an impression. Yet she wants to keep him here, talking, until her father drags her back from the Waves.
But she’s always been more obedient than she likes. Always has grand plans for adventure that she never can bring herself to realize. Not in the real world. Not with the weight of her body on her bones. And even though she’s here now, even though she’s Diving, she knows they’re watching. She knows how disappointed they can be; she’s been the focus of it more times than she can count. She sighs and presses the button of the trigger in her pocket. “I’m sorry,” she says, but he only laughs.
The partition Manifests as a shimmering blue fishnet, weighted at the edges with eerily luminous green globes. It glows through the floor at their feet, stretches a foot above their heads, and balloons out around them, creating a puffed-out cylinder. There’s a momentary lull as if the air has disappeared from the room: not sucked out, but simply vanished, taking with it sound and vibration and the sight of the storage server beyond the veil. He—she hopes he earns a name soon, one that fits his mystery and rebellion—moves closer to her. He lifts a hand and runs it across the surface of the partition, as if he’s skimming the water under a fast-moving boat.
“Just the two of us,” he whispers.
He’s at least a foot away. She knows she doesn’t feel the warmth of his body beside hers, only imagines it, but the effect is the same. They’re staring into each other’s eyes so deeply it should be awkward. The blue light catches in his and reflects back at her. It feels familiar... She can almost place him...
“What would it feel like? If I kissed you?” he asks, phrasing it quizzically, as if the question were earnest. It should break the spell, but she finds it so charming she can’t look away.
“I don’t know,” she admits. “I’ve never kissed anyone during a Dive.”
He gives her a devilish look, full of promise, but then a shadow crosses his face—momentary pain or an unpleasant distraction, she isn’t sure. He touches her cheek with the back of his fingers, the gesture awkward.
“I’ve never kissed anyone,” he says, as if it isn’t the same thing; but for him, it always will be. He falls backwards, a cliff-diver with the knowledge that what happens behind him will be thrilling and terrifying, but ultimately beyond his control.
And then he’s gone. The partition is designed specially to hold him, to pull him out of the Waves and deposit him on a locked server with no outside access, but he passes through it like a hot spoon through ice cream, leaving a broken and melted hole in his wake. For a brief second she can see the Waves on the other side, unManifested data in a swirling void; then her sensors go into overdrive trying to process the sites eddying past, and she screams as every sense is bombarded with fragments of information, downloaded and processed into sight, vision, taste, and sound. Someone pulls the Line and the pain ceases abruptly; her body goes slack with relief, and she plummets headfirst out of her chair.
Her father catches her, of course. He and Paul have been hovering; Paul is typing on a Surface at his desk, while her father monitors on a tablet. The Bends hit hard, only half a minute behind the relief of disconnection. Her mouth goes dry, her eyes watering and burning simultaneously; her whole body twitches with quick spasmodic jerks that threaten to knock her out of the chair again. But her father has a firm grip on her upper arms, and after a few minutes, she regains control of her tingling extremities.
“That wasn’t fun,” she whispers. Paul hands her a glass of water, while her father’s attention drifts as soon as it’s clear that the Bends have passed.
Paul, too, is soon distracted. “How did it do that? Did you catch anything new?” he asks.
“It’s somehow interfacing with the code. Anything we program, it can alter. The damn thing understands its DNA better than we do,” her father says, frustration evident in the deep lines around his mouth and the way he clutches his stilo.
“He said he wanted to be free,” she says, but her quiet voice is lost in the flurry of activity as the older men recalculate data and bicker over who’s to blame for their continued failure. They rejig the partition program, debate coding and unexplored options. Some of it she understands—sixteen years spent just below the height of these conversations has left her with a muscle-deep understanding of virtual and quantum computing, programming, even electrical engineering. But the reality is that Paul and her father are too intelligent, their minds too quick. She will never operate at the level they do, and fatalism saps her of the will to try. Better to be an artist or a farmer; then at least her failure to live up to her father will be harder to see, comparisons being difficult when the subjects are so diverse.
After about twenty minutes she coughs, and her father gives her a look, surprised to find her still here.
“Thanks for your help, Gracie,” he tells her absently. “You don’t have to stick around.”
“Why does he keep showing up? Every time I Dive?” she asks.
The men exchange looks. They are brilliant—scientists, scholars, the kind of people who make others feel small just by existing, by using their knowledge so well. But the give-and-take of social interactions often eludes them. They are terrible liars.
“We’re not sure,” Paul says. Lie, she thinks.
“Maybe it feels a kinship,” her father says. Is this the truth?
“As the daughter of its creator, you might be the closest thing to a sibling it has,” Paul agrees. Lie. She knows it is untrue in an objective sense, of course, but she finds it interesting that Paul knows it too, that he does not believe his own words. She remembers the way her mystery boy stood in front of her, the heat in his eyes. Promised kisses that she knows she will seek out, even though they call him “it,” even though sometimes she wonders what makes a person real. Let her have the adventure she is too timid to pursue in the real world. Let this be her epic romance, safe in the flaring neurons of the Waves.
“He,” she says.
“It,” her father corrects instantly, absently. She is nothing but a distraction now and he is barely devoting a tenth of his attention to her. It drives her mother crazy when he types while talking; even brilliant men can only multitask so well. Her mother has found studies on the subject of multitasking, printed them in eight colors and taped them (with sources copied and pasted to each relevant section) on the fridge, on his tablet, across the Surfaces scattered around the house. Her mother is unduly frustrated when a person refuses to believe her despite the evidence she waves in their face; a product, no doubt, of years spent scientifically perfecting lab-grown meat which well-to-do patricians refuse to eat on the grounds that it “seems gross,” despite the taste test evidence which affirms that it is indistinguishable from the original. Microbiology—yet another field barred to her by her mother’s daunting brilliance. She will never graduate second in her class from Oxbridge University, will never give a valedictorian speech alongside Roger Kornberg. She is a solid B+ student, and that will always leave her with a bitter taste in her mouth.
She knows her father has likely lost the thread of conversation, and frankly, so has she. But some stubbornness causes her to remain.
“You’re the one who told the world you created the first example of artificial intelligence. Doesn’t that make him a him?” The word choice—told the world—is deliberate. They may have created him, but they cannot control him, cannot reproduce him. He is a beautiful, perhaps unrepeatable, fluke, like the rumors of cold fusion. And, if they cannot catch him, it will be equally impossible to prove that he was ever real.
“Intelligence does not connote humanity,” her father says, with the long-suffering patience of someone who feels they are explaining advanced intellectual concepts to a kitten. “Artificial intelligence is perfect human reproduction. Not a human.”
“Not only humans have gender. And every time I’ve seen him, he’s presented as male.”
“Only biological beings have gender,” he reminds her. “And in testing, it presented as both male and female with regularity.”
“But ‘it’ has connotations of hierarchy, with us above. If you want your creation to be respected as a true intelligence, don’t you think you should refer to it by human standards?”
“PR,” he scoffs, and then, “Fine.” He waves the issue away, and she deflates. She has won the argument, but only by retreating to a realm that her father holds little respect for—the court of public opinion—and so the victory is meaningless. Sometimes she wishes she could go into public relations, only because it would astonish and disappoint both her parents simultaneously. But she doubts she would succeed at a career based entirely on personal charisma—unless she could do PR in the Waves. The thought makes her smile.
She turns to go and is surprised to see Paul facing away, trying to hide a stricken expression, unaware that his face is captured and reflected in the somnolent Surface on the far wall. Paul has been removed these past three months, his awkward and quirky humor bleached and faded away. Grief turns us all into strangers. This man once stroked her hair as she was sick over the side of the boat during her first ride, and now he cannot bear to look at her for too long. She wonders what about the conversation has brought up his shadows, but she has stopped trying to understand grief, has stopped poking at her own under a microscope; now she lets it linger unmolested.
She walks out of the lab feeling jittery, emotions unresolved. The question of the AI still lingers in her mind. The first time they met, she had no idea what he was...
The First Time They Met...
She was Diving on a site called Urban Noir, one of the many that had cropped up just for Divers—no Surfers allowed!—in the two years since the Dive Interface had become commercially available. It was an urban adventure: half parkour course, half spy adventure game. Set in the cyberpunk ruins of a poor cityscape, with gleaming monolithic skyscrapers crowding the horizon, it had an atmosphere of oppression and grace. Flappers rubbed shoulders with men in tailored Armani suits while jazz music played out in smoky gin joints with banks of old computers under the wood-paneled walls. The sky beyond the horizon was gray and cloudy, though the interface wasn’t perfect and sometimes the clouds would suddenly, dizzyingly, shift position. It was clearly a glitch, but the designers were trying to pass it off as stylistic, and she had to admit she liked it. She liked looking up and feeling disconnected, a sudden burst of honesty amidst the polished gleaming lies.
The goal was simple: find someone with a glowing red packet, intercept, and bring it to a checkpoint to collect your rewards. Packets could be traded, bargained, or stolen; whoever brought it to the checkpoint got the rewards, plain and simple. People played at politics; danced and drank and gambled with the crowds of programmed Mannies (Manifestations that were nothing but simple code and your own firing neurons); but always, first and foremost, played the game. If you died here, your IP was blocked and you couldn’t play again.
Gracie had been playing for two months. With her father distracted by the launch of his new AI the next week, she had been left to her own devices. She had her Dive interface tuned to maximum feedback. The things she experienced here felt nearly totally real. She knew pain when she crashed her hip against the edge of a building as she almost missed a jump eighteen stories up. She felt the weave and buzz of alcohol when it burned down her throat as she traded secrets with Marigold DuChamp, earning two packets for her intel on the railroad operating in the tunnels under the City Bank.
Here she wasn’t Gracie, but Mallory Starke, Wired Runner. She was rich, as in the real world, but here that coin was earned, a product of her sweat and smarts. She had short black hair in a stylish bob and wore tight black leather pants, crisscrossed with leather holsters for her trade tools. Her tank top reached high on her neck but clung, leaving the shape of her body covered but not concealed. Though she could change anything about herself, she kept her face her own. Most people did; facial changes required a complex hack since the program worked by reading the contours of the face to translate emotional information through the server. But she had darkened her eyes a little, smoothed out her adolescent blemishes, cleared away her freckles. She was a more mature, sophisticated version of herself. She was the voice in the back of her head.
She was sitting at the top of one of the city’s crumbling towers, a pair of high-focused laser binoculars in her hands, studying the movements of one Gerard Lacklace. He was the head of one of the largest organized families, owner of the popular Fontaine Noir drinking den, and general thorn in her side. He had foiled her last three deliveries, and once came close to actually killing her. Drowning, slang for dying during a Dive, was one of the first experiences she had attempted. She had determined that it felt exactly how she imagined death would—pain that made you breathless; that breath never coming back; the whole world shrinking down to a pinpoint, going black; and then...nothing.
She knew Lacklace was up to something big. He was moving eighteen large crates into the Fontaine’s cellars, and each of the guards around him had repeating machine guns slung across their shoulders, though not leveled at the street. If she could find a way to intercept, or at the least destroy...
She was startled from her strategic cogitations by the sudden awareness of a presence behind her. She knew for a fact it had not been there a moment before, but it was impossible to Dive directly into this position. The game’s framework only allowed entry at registered checkpoints. A hack that strong should be beyond difficult. Still, she refused to call anything impossible if it was happening.
For the moment, she pretended ignorance. She stretched out the muscles of one long leg, readjusting her position so she could spring quickly into action. She brought the binoculars back to her eyes and pretended to peer through them intently, shutting out the visual spectrum for a moment to concentrate on her ears. She could hear breathing, quiet but steady, and the occasional shifting of fabric against fabric. She only heard one body. They were close. Close enough, she thought, that if she moved quickly...
She dropped the binoculars, letting them catch on the strap of leather around her neck, and swung one leg in a snake-quick arc, sweeping the legs out from under her observer. As they fell and her leg hit the ground on the other side she pushed off from the ledge, using her momentum to carry herself up and sideways, landing squarely on top of them. One hand hit the graveled roof hard enough to scrape skin off the palm of her hand, and the other came down hard on sharp points, but her pulse was calm and her smile wicked as she languorously pulled a pistol out of her waistband and tucked it between her stomach and theirs, pressing the point against their belly. She straddled them, her knees quickly hooking in and finding purchase, and then levered herself up into a seated position and knocked the pinstripe fedora off their head.
“I surrender,” he said, letting his arms flop to either side of his head in a parody of a “stick-em-up” arm raise.
He was in his late adolescence, with the slightly too-perfect features of a good facial hack. His hair was living fire—literally. It fell like locks of hair should, but every end shimmered and burned, and the color went from coal black to ember red to the hottest blue-white. His eyes were perfect black pools and reflected the light from the weak morning sun.
“How did you get up here?” she asked. Her tone was casual, relaxed. She had all the time in the world. He shrugged, and there was a smile in his eyes that didn’t quite reach his lips, like he was struggling to hold it in. “You’re a good hacker,” she admitted. “That hair must have taken you days.”
“Minutes,” he said. There was a curious lack of boasting, as if he had no idea what a feat that would really be. He reached up a hand, his eyes seeking permission before touching her, and then ran his fingertips lightly over a lock of her hair that had fallen in front of her face. As he released it the hair sparked to life, burning but not consuming.
Nothing is impossible if you’re seeing it. Still, she knew this technology intimately, had helped her father beta test back when the Dive interface was still just clumsy Glasses, before the emotional reads and the sensory keys. It may only have been on the market for two years, but it had been her playground and nursery since she was six years old. Hacking from within a Dive just wasn’t possible—the framework didn’t exist. Maybe he had someone in the real world watching his progress and making changes? But hacking someone else’s code was so hard that even she had a hard time doing it efficiently. To do it so quickly...
“How...” She was at a loss for words. Finally, she quirked a shoulder up in a shrug she thought was nonchalant but came off sweet as candy floss. “Color me impressed, big six. Whaddaya want?” The slang of the game rolled off her tongue effortlessly.
“I hear you’re the woman to talk to if you want intel on Rocky Emmanuel Sweet,” he said. She considered letting him up, but she was enjoying the power of her position, and he seemed in no hurry to dislodge her.
“Little birdie told ya that, did they?”
“Rumors don’t cost too dear,” he admitted, “and I’m a late addition to the game. Gotta get a fast start.”
“What’s your angle? You know we’re all playing for the same prize.”
“And you don’t do teams,” he said. “I know.”
“Know an awful lot.”
“You’re worth finding out about,” he said, and there was something so earnest about it that it didn’t seem like a line—more like he never thought how it might sound when he said it.
“Funny kind of a fella, aren’t you?” she asked, but she slid her pistol away.
“Maybe.” He propped himself up on his elbows, so their faces were only separated by the distance of a long goodbye.
“Intel is a one-time deal. Not a social contract. And I don’t play for favors owed; I like my comeuppance so fresh I can taste it. We gonna deal, daddy-o?”
He nodded, and she pushed against his chest to lever herself back to standing. Once up, she offered him a hand, and he took it. Another mark in his favor—she hated men who played it too tough. In her estimation it was a sign of low self-esteem, and that was usually based on something.
“Rumor has it Sweet is moving a shipment of gin from this old cellar here,” he pulled out a badly hand-drawn map and passed it over, “to the Lucky Madam. I need to know how much of my rumor is intel and how much smoke. Need to know when.”
“Easy,” she said. The map was bunk, not worth the paper it was scratched on, but she’d been to Emmanuel Sweet’s cubby before. Swiped three packets before he switched to only storing his booze there, and booze wasn’t nothing to her. “Why you interested in gin? You thinking of running?”
Part of the game design was alcohol prohibition. Only so much gin could be produced, and it needed raw ingredients. It couldn’t help you win, per se, but it could help you curry favors, and those could be just as valuable. The gin-runners ran the joints, kings and queens of their basement hovels and faded splendor. Rumor had it Sweet wasn’t even moving packets anymore, just playing gangster of his own little world.
“I ain’t interested in gin,” he said with a mysterious smile, but didn’t elaborate.
“What you got for me?”
“A backdoor into Fontaine Noir.”
Her breath caught. She tried to pretend she didn’t care. “What’s that to me?”
“You saying you’re watching Lacklace through binoculars ‘cuz you like his pretty face?” he asked.
She smiled. “Maybe forty and fat is my type.”
He smiled back—a challenge. “The way I hear, nothing makes your blood run hot but packets. Ice water veins, that’s what they say.”
“Talkin’ a lot about me, are they?” she asked, but she was pleased. She hadn’t realized she was a big enough player to warrant anyone flapping their gums on her behalf.
“If you want to listen.”
“And once I’m in the door,” she said, cautiously. “Then what?”
“Those crates are full of false packets. Complete with GPS tracking—he plans to thread them through the city. People run ’em, he follows the signal back to their stashes, steals the lot before they can deposit in a bank.”
She swore. It was a damn good plan. Deposits were dangerous, so a lot of runners waited until they had five or six packets before trying to make a drop. He could clean up. Hell, he could clean her up, she had eight packets stashed for her next drop.
“I want an out, too,” she decided. “In exchange, I’ll give you the intel you need on Sweet. The right location—the one you’ve got is hooey—plus dates and times of his regular ins and outs.”
“You’re laughing, right?” he asked. “An impossible in plus an impossible out, and the intel about what it is he’s up to so you know what to do once you’re inside? That’s worth way more’n a map and a couple of times.”
“Just one problem with your arithmetic,” she said. “You gave service without asking for a receipt. That intel’s in the wind now, too late to add it to the bargaining table.”
“You’re a hard one,” he said, but there was no anger shading the words. “Fine. Call it a show of good faith—proves I can deliver my promises. But in and out’s still a bigger to-do than some numbers on a page. It’s my skin on the line in there with you.”
“What makes you think you’re coming in?”
“Have to, if you want an out. Can’t do my magic long distance.”
“This wouldn’t all be a clever ruse to get me into Lacklace’s tender maw?” she asked, but the question was all formality; she trusted her instincts, and her instincts liked him. There was something...almost familiar... For a beat she wondered if she knew him on Land, but she doubted it. She would remember a guy like this.
“I don’t work for no gin-runners,” he assured.
“You already know what you want. So ask.”
“I want your number.”
She was caught completely off-guard. The game had a system of instant communication akin to the postal service of the day. In the real 1920s, mail was delivered up to eighteen times a day, so you could send someone a postcard in the morning asking them to tea that afternoon. In the game, each player had a number that would get written at the top of a slip of paper, with a message. It was dropped into any of the pneumatic tubes scattered around the city, and within an hour it would find its way to the waiting target or, if they were offline, would wait for their arrival. But there were no addresses, no phone books. You had to have someone’s personal number to get in touch with them, and they had to give it to you.
“Why?” she asked. She instantly regretted the question; she sounded like a dumb teenager. She sounded like Gracie.
He smiled. “No more intel in the wind,” he chided, and his eyes were full of promises. “Do we have a deal?”
She hesitated. She had no idea what a hacker could do with her number, and he was clearly beyond a good hacker. But what was the point of the game if not to have wild adventures, take stupid chances, and live like she never did on Land? Consequence free. She grinned.
“Deal,” she said, and they shook on it under the glitching sky...