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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.


Chapter One

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.