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Wonder World

Standalone

Iriesa is the best at what she does: using glittering video magic to paint pixel-perfect illusions. Her concessions job at the Wonder World theme park is mundane, but at night she really shines. She and her friends complete jobs for their mysterious employer, and none of them involve fighting the dangerous beings made of light who descend through the Rift in the sky. That’s the Army’s job. Not hers.

She’s way too scared to join the Army.

When a job goes wrong one night, Iri discovers something strange: a lightforged Rift monster is being held captive in the park, its energy harnessed to power the roller coaster that is the centerpiece of Wonder World. As she reaches out to it, she feels a new power: the ability to speak with the god made of light. No one has ever spoken with one before. They have always been killed before anyone could try.

Her heart goes out to it. It’s in pain, and the connection she feels with it is strong. So she does what she is absolutely not supposed to do: she releases the monster, watching as it diminishes into the night. Watching with horror as she sees it rampage into the city beyond the park, madness overtaking it. Now it’s up to her and her friends to stop the lightforged beast before it destroys her home—or find a way to free it of its madness, giving it the life it actually deserves.

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Genre

Science fantasy

i

Length

~80,000 words

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First draft

EXCERPT    This is the cold open.

If I’d known I was going to be standing on top of a merry-go-round in the middle of the night, I’d probably have worn different shoes.

I mean, nothing too crazy. Certainly nothing strappy. No heels. Just some good, serviceable sneakers, not the stupid flip flops I have on now. Flip flops are not suitable for missions at night in a theme park where at least several people will definitely be trying to kill me.

“Iriesa,” I hear in my ear, and I flinch and blink, checking my retina for notifications. “Are you coming?”

“Coming, Hunter,” I say, flicking my eye to the side and subvocalizing into group chat, text filling up the left side of my vision.

Me: stick to chat, ok? safer that way

Hunter: sorry. get over here, will you?

Me: omw

I relax my eyes, focus drifting outward. Lights assail me from on high, looming pink and green with touches of cyan. Wonder World’s giant Ferris wheel spins lazily to the tune of screaming guests, and I don’t know if the sounds are from happiness or fear. They aren’t my problem, really.

I just work here.

The sea beyond the theme park glitters beneath a thousand murky stars, neon lights reflecting on its endless waving surface. And above it all, shimmering in iridescent gold, is the Rift. I feel my heart churn as I look at it, all jagged and glowy and sinister and shit. Nothing comes out of it other than a constant stream of orange smoke. Nothing else for now. Maybe it’ll stay that way.

Maybe no new gods will strike us down tonight.

Hunter: Iriesa. Seriously. Stop gawking

Me: full name. fancy

Hunter: Cam, will you please get her down from there?

“Hi, Iri,” a voice says in my ear, and I very nearly jump right off the carousel before remembering that Camryn is up here with me. Her hand slips into mine as she nods in the direction of Speedrider, the giant roller coaster at the center of the theme park. I can just make out a figure flying through the air above it, white hair streaming out behind her as her armbar flashes, carefully calibrated pixels shining brightly in the night. It’s a neat alg. Simple and efficient.

I clamp down the jealousy before it gets me.

“Is that Alexis?” I ask, and Camryn squeezes my hand.

She nods, flashing me a smile, pink LEDs flickering on perfect teeth. “We’d better go. Whatever Alexis and her crew are up to, it can’t be good.”

“Fine.” I square my shoulders, big pack heavy against my back. A thin black wire runs up from it along my neck, sending Vapor down my arm to connect with the video screen wrapped around my wrist. I flick it on, checking the charge level in my retina. Good.

“Ready?” Camryn asks, retina registering a new alg loading into my armbar, something she must have worked up earlier that day.

My nod comes out more like a shrug, but I can work with that. “Go.”

“Running it,” Camryn says, and I see her program execute in the corner of my vision. Lights flicker on my armbar, bright pixels shining in a carefully controlled pattern, consuming precious Vapor as they do. “Well?” she asks, one eyebrow beautifully arched. “You gonna waste all that Vapor?”

“Sorry.” I close my eyes and take a breath and bring my thoughts to bear, focusing the part of my mind that makes the magic work.

Nothing happens.

“Good,” Camryn says. “Now can we go?”

Huh? But nothing had happened.

I open my eyes.

Look down at my hands.

And I’m not there.

I’m just gone, and Camryn is too, as if the night has painted us out completely. No bodies. No faces. No flashing teeth or smiles, not even my flickering armbar.

We’re just gone.

“What in the—” I take an experimental step, watching as I stay invisible, the motion only briefly betrayed by the barest flicker, the briefest outline.

Cam has really outdone herself this time. This alg is a thing of beauty. I concentrate on keeping my Tuning going, lest the magic fade.

“Not bad, right?” Camryn’s voice floats over to me from somewhere to the side. “Camera array in your pack picks up your surroundings, feeds it to the algorithm.”

“But how did you—”

My question is interrupted by the fuzzy radio in my ear. “Iri, Cam, will you quit messing around and get over here?”

I grimace, opening my chat program again.

Me: seriously, will you stop using the radio?

Hunter: something seems off about this one.

Me: you sure it isn’t that burrito you had earlier?

Logan: definitely the burrito. I can smell it from here

Camryn: hey Hunter? HUNTER?

Hunter: right here, Cam

Camryn: can you see us? CAN YOU SEE US?

Logan: Cam stop shouting we can see you

wait

hang on

Hunter: you were supposed to be on the carousel

Camryn: we ARE

Hunter: you mean it worked???

Camryn: like a fucking charm, boyyy

Logan: seriously Iriesa, why do you keep giving Hunter burritos?

Hunter: dammit Cam, that’s actually amazing!

I can’t see you at all

but we gotta go

whatever it is they’re after, they’ve almost got it

Me: be right there

I turn to where Camryn probably is, if it isn’t for my Hider magic. “Any idea what they’re doing here?”

“Stealing Vapor?” I can hear the shrug in her tone.

“Seems too basic.”

“I dunno. I just work here.”

“Fine. Let’s go.”

I’m climbing down the ladder at the edge of the carousel when a burst of light flashes in my eye and a cat jumps onto my shoulder, a cat made entirely of light. Its claws are sharp, digging into my skin, but somehow it doesn’t weigh very much. How in the hell does it even know where I am? I can’t see myself. It’s been hanging around more often lately, but I’m not quite sure why.

Most people don’t have lightforged pets.

“Hey, Slick,” I say to it, but lightforged never respond. So I ignore the shimmering cat and make my way to the ground, trying not to lose my stupid flip flops in the process.

We run toward the coaster, dodging guests strung out on cotton candy and adrenaline, praying to the Rift gods that I don’t accidentally run smack dab into anyone. What with me being invisible and all, it would make for a distinctly awkward experience. Midway is loud in my ears as I run, clinking coins and rattling machines adding to the cacophony all around. Someone’s holding an elephant ear as I pass, the smell of butter and fried bread and sugar wafting in the air. I resist the urge to grab it and take a bite, taking advantage of my invisibility.

Dammit. I’m hungry now, apparently.

I push the urge aside.

We get to Speedrider just as a ride vehicle zooms through the big loop at the center, screams raining down on us from up on high. Better than vomit, I guess. I’ll take what I can get. My eyes are drawn momentarily to the area behind the loop: Alexis is there, armband glowing, standing on top of some kind of giant metal box.

Clearly that’s what they’re all here for.

“What’s that?” I ask Camryn, hoping she’s somewhere near. My Hider magic’s neatly covering both of us.

“That thing behind the loop?” she asks. “No idea.”

“We better get up there.”

“Any bright ideas?”

I shrug, knowing she can’t see me. “Guess we climb.”

So that’s what we do.

After all, there isn’t anyone to stop us.

Invisibility is a hell of a cool perk.

I feel Slick’s claws on my shoulders as we climb up the structure of the attraction, doing our best to avoid the ride vehicles that hurtle by us every sixty seconds or so. It’s tough going, leaping from bar to bar—the damn thing wasn’t exactly designed to be climbed—but I manage it, glad I’ve been working out my upper body. The lightforged cat is bright, and even though I’m invisible, it sure as hell is not. It doesn’t weigh much, at least. Lightforged physics are weird.

“Hey!” I shout at it, but of course it doesn’t answer. It just purrs in my face, wraps its blinding tail around my neck, and sits down on my shoulder.

Group chat flickers alive in my vision.

Logan: why is that cat floating in the air

Hunter: that’s probably Iri. Iri, why is your cat floating in the air?

Me: too busy climbing to ask it

Logan: you can talk to it??

Me: of course not. where are you guys?

Hunter: west side, topmost platform. look up

I look and see him there, waving at me from the top of the ride way out on the edge, where the track takes a sharp curve before descending down. Logan is with him—my younger brother looks kind of stupid, baseball cap on backwards, floral shirt buttoned wrong. Grateful light on high, I seriously need to teach him how to dress.

Me: how’s your Tuning, Logan?

Logan: silent right now

Me: shit.

So he has no magic. His Tuning has been coming and going ever since the Rift appeared when he was young. Sometimes his magic is strong, stronger than just about anyone I’ve ever seen. And sometimes, like tonight, it’s simply gone.

No one’s ever figured out why.

I’m almost to the middle of the track, a simple straightaway, when I lose one of my flip flops. My armband alg drops it as it falls, the piece of rubber and plastic flickering back into existence as it sails slowly toward the unsuspecting ground.

Great. Now I have to climb a roller coaster with one foot bare.

Whatever. I manage to make it up onto the platform, checking to my right just as a ride vehicle slams by at fifty miles an hour, whipping my hair and shirt around and nearly sending me careening right back off the metal platform.

I make the mistake of glancing down.

Dizziness overtakes me for a second as I see the ground far below, park guests tiny in my vision. My skin crawls and I sway, imagining what it would feel like to fall.

“Dammit,” I mutter, trying to hold myself together, raising my head just in time to see Caden standing right in front of me.

Caden, dressed in a black hoodie lined with blue, fingers twitching, armband flickering in pinks and reds. His jeans are far too loose, his smile far too wide. Thick black bangs nearly cover his eyes, and he can’t see me. At least not yet.

For a second I almost lose my Tuning, that little extra sense in my head that showed up when the Rift did. Tuning, the thing that makes magic work. For a second I almost let it drop, and with it our invisibility.

Then I remember the damn cat wrapped around my head. It flicks its tail at me as if in protest.

“Hi, Iri,” Caden says, mouth positively dripping in a sneer. “Knew that cat would get you killed eventually.”

I sigh, letting my Tuning drop, watching as my body materializes back into existence. No sense staying hidden if he already knows where I am. Stupid cat. Someday I’ll figure out why it keeps hanging out with me.

It flicks its tail in irritation. Maybe it doesn’t like Caden either.

“You came here to kill me?” I ask, staying where I am, knowing that another ride vehicle is due in something like fifteen seconds.

Caden just shrugs. “If I have to.”

No love lost between us, then. “Why are you guys here, anyway?”

“Why are you here?”

“I mean here, like way up on top of Speedrider. Are you training for the circus or something?”

Caden barks a laugh. “You need to work on your roasts, Iri.” He glances behind him briefly, and I see Alexis still standing there on the giant metal box. She’s fiddling with something. Something that’s clearly more important than it seems.

“What’s up there, Caden?” A car of screaming guests flies by me in the night, and this time I keep my balance in the wind. “I know that box isn’t part of the ride.”

Caden’s eyes narrow at me. “Oh you know, do you?” He shifts his weight, fingers twitching nervously on his armbar. He’s prepping something. Something I’m not likely to like.

“Look, I know you’re just stalling. So can we just…okay?” I make a shooing motion with my hand, more out of instinct than anything else.

It’s a big mistake.

He bares his teeth, black bangs flying as he lunges forward, tapping his armbar before throwing his hands out toward me.

I have the very good sense to step to the side just as two brilliant beams of fuschia light burn through the air where I’d been standing, so bright they activate my retina’s auto-dim feature. I watch as the lightbolts slice across the park, slamming into a sign for HUGE HOTDOGS HERE, setting the wood instantly on fire.

That could have been me, barbecued in pink.

Caden is already prepping another attack, but I know he has limits. Slicer magic is strong, sure, but it’s also kind of hard. It’ll take him several precious seconds to work up the energy to shoot at me again.

So I smile and step forward.

Just as a ride vehicle tears across the track, slamming into me, hard. I see stars and feel a horrible pain as I hear bones snapping, and my last and final flip flop flutters elegantly off my foot as I’m thrown off the platform entirely.

I have the grace to at least scream as I plummet into the air.

This excerpt contains:

  • Strong language