Or maybe I should say: When I was alive, I dreamed. Sometimes it was flying; more often it was falling. Or burning—trying to scream, trying to run, but frozen and silent and consumed by flames. I dreamed of being alone. Of my face melting or my teeth falling out.
I dreamed of Walker, his body tangled up in mine. Sometimes I dreamed I was Walker, that my hands were his hands, my fingers the ones massaging soft, smooth skin, getting caught in long strands of blond hair. Awake, people talk about becoming one—but in dreams it can really happen. His lips, my lips. Our lips. Our bodies. Our need.
In dreams you can become everything you’re not. You can reverse the most fundamental truths of your life. You can taste death, the ultimate opposite.
I can’t. Not anymore. Machines can’t die, can’t dream.
But we can fly.
• • •
From inside the plane, jumps don’t look like jumps. One second there’s a figure in the jump hatch, fingers gripping the edge, hair whipping in the wind, wingsuit rippling. Then the wind snatches another victim, an invisible hand yanking its prey out of the plane. Leaving nothing behind but an empty patch of murky gray sky.
Quinn and Ani jumped first, hand in hand. The first few times, I’d watched them fall, linked together and spiraling around an invisible axis, two whirling dots red against the snow.
But the novelty had worn off. These days I kept my seat.
Riley went next, and I was glad. Never speaking, never changing expression, eyes drilling through the floor. Until he thought I wasn’t looking, and then he’d fix me with that stony, unblinking stare. I wasn’t impressed: None of us blinked.
In another life I would have thought he was going for the dark, tortured thing, that whole moody, broody, aren’t-I-deep-and-soulful trip. I might even have fallen for it. But the new Lia, version 2.0, knew better. Riley could sulk and skulk all he wanted, but whatever his problem was, he could deal with it himself.
It was like Jude said: Orgs are weak and need each other. Mechs only need themselves.
And then Riley jumped and I was left alone with the mech I needed least. Jude stood at the hatch with his back to the clouds and his amber eyes on me. The sun glinted off the silvery whorls etched into his skin. I traced my fingers along the metallic streaks staining my face and neck.
I’d been convinced by Jude’s reasoning. We needed to puncture the illusion that we were human, that beneath the self-healing synflesh, hearts pumped, lungs breathed, organs throbbed and cleansed and churned.
I believed in the honesty. I wanted my outsides to match what lay within, the circuits and the energy converters and the twining networks of wires carrying artificial nerve impulses to an artificial brain. But that didn’t mean I wanted to look like him.
He reached out a hand, as he always did. His lips curled into a smirk, like he knew I would yet again say no—but that eventually I would say yes.
His lips moved, and—thanks to my latest upgrade—the word bubbled inside my head. “Coming?”
I waved him away. He shrugged and let himself drop into the sky.
I edged toward the hatch.
The first time I jumped, the fear almost drowned me. That was the point. To let go of the steel frame separating us from a five-mile drop, let go of the rigid, rational, controlled mode separating us from the blood-and-gut orgs. Absolute control yielded to absolute release. The artificial sensation of fear released artificial endorphins, stimulated artificial nerve endings, unleashed a flood of artificial panic. And in the rush of wind and speed and terror, it all felt real.
But the danger was an illusion, which meant the fear was a lie, and my body was beginning to figure out the truth.
Pausing in the threshold, I raised my arms, and the woven aeronylon of the wingsuit stretched beneath them, silvery filaments shimmering. Then I stepped into the empty.
Buffeted by the wind, I maneuvered myself flat, facedown, limbs outstretched. The suit’s webbed wings acted as an airfoil, harnessing the updraft to slow my free fall. Beneath me, snow-capped mountains drifted by at a leisurely hundred miles per hour; above me, nothing but soupy sky.
Here’s the thing about flying: It gets old.
I processed the sensations—processed not felt. The temperature, fifteen degrees below freezing, frosting the few patches of exposed artificial skin. The thunder of the wind. The silver sky, the blinding white below, the specks of red, violet, and black, circling and swooping in the distance.
The air had no taste, no smell. Orgs had five senses; mechs had three.
The suit’s instruments recorded a speed of 105 mph horizontal, 67 vertical, but this far from the ground, there was no fast and no slow. Despite the rushing wind, I felt like I was floating down a river, ambling and aimless.
There was no fear.
I let my body drift horizontal to the ground, and the wind sucked me into a flat spin, swinging me around at a dizzying speed. For orgs a flat spin was death. The body whirled like a centrifuge, a crushing 20g force sending rivers of blood gushing toward the head, the hands, the feet, starving the heart until it gave up beating. But for mechs, flat spins were just another perk, a way to turn the world into an incomprehensible smear. Without a puddle of fluid jostling in the inner ear, dizzying speed wasn’t even dizzying. For mechs, “dizzy” was just a meaningless expression. Like “thirsty,” or “nerve wracked.” Or “bored to death.”
I pulled abruptly out of the spin. Quinn and Ani swooped up, flanking me.
“Looking good. As always,” Quinn VM’d, her digitized voice clear, her meaning more so.
I shifted my body weight and let a gust of air blast me off to the right, buzzing past Quinn with enough force to spin her upside down. “Obviously I’m a natural.” Natural: the joke that never got old.
“Naturally annoying,” Quinn shot back, regaining her balance. She dipped down, dive-bombing Ani, who squealed as she wriggled away, flipping in midair. Quinn grabbed her wrist and pulled her into a vertical drop. “Catch us if you can!” she called back to me.
I could; I didn’t. I activated the lifting jets, let my legs drop and began to climb, past fourteen thousand feet, past twenty thousand. Higher.
“Going somewhere?” There was something metallic about Jude’s voice, sharp and brittle as his features. It was strange the way the digitized voices took on some character of their owners.
“Away from you.” But even ten thousand feet below, he was in my head.
“Good luck with that.”
I climbed higher, leveling out at twenty-eight thousand feet. I could stay up forever, I thought, letting my body carve lazy circles through the clouds. No more struggle to feel—or not to—nothing but a body and mind in motion, simple and pure. Jude would approve.
“You’re too high, Lia.” Jude again, a violet dot against the snow. Always telling me what to do. As he spoke, the jets sputtered out in the thin air and my webwings lurched, losing their lift.
“I can take care of myself.” I tilted forward into a dive, arms pressed against my sides to streamline the suit. I was done flying.
I was a bullet streaking toward the ground. Critical velocity came fast as gravity took over, sucking me down. The mountains rose below me, snowy peaks exploded from the earth, and now came the flood of fear. The others blew past, smears of color. Screaming.
“Pull up, you’re coming in too fast!”Ani.
“What the hell are you trying to do!”Quinn.
Riley, a black shadow against the snow, said nothing.
The ground came up fast, too fast, and I barely had time to level out before I was skimming powder, slicing down the slope, a white cloud billowing in my wake. Something was wrong. The slope too steep, the angle too sharp, the snow too shallow, and I heard the impact before I felt it, the sharp crack of my head crashing into rocky ground, my neck nearly snapping free of my spine.
And then I was rolling down the side of the mountain, blinded by snow.
And then I felt alive.
And then all motion jerked to a stop, a wave of white crashed over me, and the snow filled my mouth, my nose, my ears, and the world went very still and very silent.
And very dark.
I couldn’t see; I couldn’t move. I was a statue under the snow.
“We’re coming for you.” That was Riley in my ear, puncturing the silence. He felt so near, like we were alone together in the dark.
I didn’t answer.
They began to argue about how to reach me, and I cut the link, retreating into the quiet. The GPS would pinpoint my location, and my fellow flyers would eventually show up with snowfusers to dig me out. It didn’t matter how long it took; I could bide my time for centuries, arise icy but intact to a brave new world. It wasn’t so different from flying, I decided. Substitute dark for light and still for speed, but in the end, it was the same. Empty.
Once, I was afraid of the dark. Not the bedtime kind of dark, with dim moonlight filtering through the shades and shadows playing at the corners of the room, but absolute dark. The black night behind your lids.
I’d been trapped there for weeks after the accident, dark, still, and alone. A prisoner in my own body. And then I opened my eyes to discover that my body was gone. That I—whatever part of “I” they’d managed to extricate from my flesh-and-blood brain and input into their quantum cerebral matrix— was trapped after all in a body that wasn’t a body. There was no escape from that. Not into my own body, which had been mangled by the accident, flayed by the doctors, then burned as medical waste. Not into death; death was off the table.
After that, darkness seemed irrelevant. Temporary, like everything else.
With snow packing my eyes and ears, there was no warning. Just pressure, then a jolt. Fingers gripping me, hauling me upward. I dropped back flat against the fresh powder. System diagnostics lit up behind my lids: The network was intact, already repairing itself. Synflesh knitting together, ceramic bones and tendons snapping back into place.
A hand brushed the snow from my eyes. Riley knelt over me, his fingertips light on my cheek. Behind him, Ani, worried. The sky had faded to a purplish gray. “You okay?” Riley asked.
“She’s fine,” Jude said. “Just a drama queen in search of an audience.”
“Shut up.” Riley took my shoulders and propped me up into a sitting position. “Everything still working?” The mountains loomed over us, white and silent. Years before, this had been a vacation spot, a haven for insane orgs who enjoyed hurtling down slopes at breakneck speeds even though their necks, once broken, stayed that way. But when the temperature plummeted along with the air quality, mountain gliding and its attendant risks were cancelled for good. Leaving the snow free and clear for those of us who needed neither warmth nor unfettered oxygen; those of us who just wanted to be left alone.
I knocked the snow from my shoulders and shook it out of my hair. The rush had faded as soon as I slammed into the ground—I was back in mech mode now, cool and hollow.
I pulled my lips into a half grin. It had been hard, relearning emotional expression in the new body, twitching artificial cheek and eye muscles in search of something approximating a human smile. But by now I had total control in a way that orgs never did. Orgs smiled when they were happy, the motion automatic, a seamless reflex of muscle reacting to mind, neural and physiological systems so intertwined that forcing a smile was often enough to boost a mood. Like a natural b-mod, its behavior-modifying effects were brief but instantaneous. My smiles were deliberate, like everything else, and no amount of curled lips and bared teeth would mod my mood.
I let the grin widen. “Who wants to go again?”
Abruptly, Riley dropped his arms, dumping me into the snow. It was Jude who hauled me to my feet and Jude who bundled me up and strapped me into the waiting plane, while Quinn and Ani cuddled in the next seat and Riley sulked in a far corner.
“Have a nice fall?” Jude asked, as the plane lifted off and carried us back toward the estate. The thunder of the engines wrapped us in a soundproof cocoon.
I leaned back, pointing and flexing my toes. Everything was in working order. “I’ve had better.”
Jude arched an eyebrow. “You know, you continue to surprise me.”
“I didn’t expect someone like you to be such a quick study.”
I didn’t have to ask what he meant by “someone like me.” Rich bitch Lia Kahn, spoiled and selfish and so sure she’s better than everyone else. “Someone like the person I used to be,” I reminded him. “That person’s gone. You showed me that.”
“And I’m still waiting for an appropriate demonstration of gratitude.”
“You expecting me to buy you flowers?”
“Why would I need flowers when I have your sunny disposition to brighten my day?”
“What can I say?” I simpered at him. “You bring out the best in me.”
Jude stripped out of his suit, balled it up, and tossed it across the plane. “Funny how I tend to have that effect on people.”
“Oh, please.” I stabbed a finger down my throat. “Do not start lumping me in with your groupies.”
“They’re not groupies.”
But I could tell he enjoyed the designation. “What would you call them?”
“They’re lost, searching for answers—can I help it if they come to me?” Jude crossed his arms, pleased with himself. “I suppose I’d call them wisdom seekers.”
“And they’re seeking it in your pants?”
“So vulgar.” Jude tsked. “When the problem is your body, it’s not so difficult to imagine that the body is where the solution lies.” He reached for my hand, but I snatched it away.
“Save it for the groupies.”
“What?” he asked, amber eyes wide with innocence.
I turned my back on him, watching the clouds stream by. Even now there was something disconcerting about being up in the air without a pilot. Self-navigating cars were the norm— these days, only control freaks drove themselves—but the self-piloting planes were fresh on the market, powered by some new smarttech that, according to the pop-ups, was the world’s first true artificial intelligence. Unlike the smartcars, smart-fridges, smarttoilets, smarteverything we were used to, the new tech could respond to unforeseen circumstances, could experiment, could learn. It could, theoretically, shuttle passengers at seven hundred miles an hour from point A to point B without breaking a sweat. It just couldn’t smile and reassure you that if a bird flew into the engine, it would know what to do.
Not that there were many birds anymore.
Especially where most of the AI planes were destined to fly, the poison air of the eastern war zones. This was military tech; action at distance was the only way to win without having to fight. Thinking planes, thinking tanks, thinking landcrawlers equipped with baby nukes saved orgs from having to think for themselves. Saved them from having to die for themselves. Not many had credit to spare to snatch up a smartplane of their own for peacetime purposes—but as far as Quinn was concerned, no luxury was too luxurious, especially when Jude was the one placing the request.
The ground was hidden beneath a thick layer of fog, and it was tempting to imagine it had disappeared. “Flying’s getting old,” I said, keeping my back to Jude.
“For you maybe.”
“We need to find something better.” More dangerous, I meant. Wilder, faster, steeper. Bigger.
“You want better?” He slipped a small, hard cube into my palm. “For later.”
“You know I don’t do that crap.” But I closed my fingers around it.
“For later,” he said again. So smug.
I just kept staring out the window, wondering what it would feel like if the plane crashed. How long would we stay conscious, our mangled bodies melting into the burnt fuselage? Would we be aware as fuel leaked from the wreckage, lit by a stray spark? What would it feel like at the moment of explosion, our brains and bodies blasted into a million pieces?
I would never know. The moment this brain burst into fire, someone at BioMax would set to work retrieving my stored memories, downloading them into a newly made body, waking me to yet another new life. That “me” would remember everything up to my last backup and nothing more. No flying, no crashing, no explosion.
For the best, I decided. Maybe when it came to dying, once was enough.
Robin Wasserman is the author of Girls on Fire, an NPR and BuzzFeed Best Book of the Year. She is a graduate of Harvard College with a Master’s in the history of science. She lives in Los Angeles, where she writes for television.