The following is excerpted from Wilders by Brenda Cooper (Pyr, 2017). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
The city sang a song of humanity. People and their companions sat in rounded robotic cars and talked together as they sped through the city on smart streets. Others rode a nearly infinite variety of wheeled devices on paths that ran by or between roads and through parks. These they variously pedaled and pushed or simply stood or sat upon. Singles and families alike walked through greenbelts stained orange and red with fall. Many delighted at the controlled chill that pinked their cheeks and the chance to show off their fall wardrobes. Most chose golds and greens and scintillating browns, but others fought the fall with pastel pinks and snowy whites. Some people chatted with other people, while others talked with their companion robots, with their dogs, or with their virtual coaches.
Many people moved less. They dove deep into the wells of themselves, painting and writing and searching for the next great idea, for the key to happiness, for the perfect body, the perfect fashion. Still others traversed the city’s data and pulled out threads of information, suggesting ways to make it even better.
Some walked alone and unhappy. These were left to their own devices as long as they followed the city’s simple rules and did not steal choices from anyone else.
Under the melody of humanity, the heartbeat systems of the city pumped water and waste, created oxygen, and ate extra carbon. The bones and structure started miles away, reporting and then damping extreme weather, controlling wind and rain and gloomy clouds from the snow-streaked Cascade Mountains to the wild Puget Sound. Automated decision makers in the city filled the air, danced between sensors, and raced through a tangled mesh of fiber optics that infused every street and building.
News packed the city, a glorious cacophony of conversation and facts. The people who owned property or businesses voted on ideas in their neighborhoods, and made change upon change, sometimes to fix problems and sometimes just for fun. This same social experiment filtered through everyone for votes on city leaders and laws.
Greens and blues imbued the city with a natural brightness. Grass lawns covered roofs, some bounded by community orchards of miniature trees no more than five feet tall and festooned with ripening yellow lemons, red apples, and sun-colored apprines. Veins of blue water crisscrossed the city almost like the roads.
A seldom-visible dome of managed air met the ground all around the city; Outside stayed Outside.
People could leave. They could take high-speed sleek hyperloops between cities, which meant never really leaving the protected Inside at all. They could kayak away, walk away, drive away, and even fly away. Even though they could do so, very few people did.
Most who did so never returned.
The very old remembered the times when the barriers between Inside and Outside were naturally permeable, when humans maneuvered cars by themselves, when the great preserves were ripped into being by force as nations everywhere started the great rewilding. But to everyone else, those times were no more than stories, tales of another year, easily dismissed and forgotten.
Those not born to the city had to prove their worth to get in. The tests had become quite difficult to pass as the world inside the cities became more interconnected and quick, more dependent on skills that could only be learned by living them.
Cities held most of the world’s population. Human computing systems, blood and gut bacteria, vitamins and medicines, workouts, and infinite streams of data and entertainment flowed through the city like the milk of a mother’s teat. Objects customized themselves to meet every whim and need of the city’s many inhabitants.
Outside, the great wilding continued like a wrecking ball, encountering resistance from those who had been displaced, stalling in the still-wild weather, or failing, as human and machine alike struggled to comprehend the complexities of biological design and redesign. A dance of chaos and success, of tears and death and rebirth, orchestrated by a combination of NGOs, law enforcement, scientists, and human workers. Assistance came from robots designed to enforce the rules of wild places, to do the heavy work, the destroying work, and the building work. All of these together culled invasive species and managed native ones, counted bears and cougars and bobcats and coyotes. The loosely federated North American cities funded this effort, in hopes of long-term survival.
As fall prepared to give way to winter, the city appeared to be infinitely stable.
On the last morning of the easy part of her childhood, fifteen-year old Coryn Williams stood on the top of the Bridge of Stars and watched Puget Sound shiver with winter. From the fenced observation deck, the seawall below looked thin and foreshortened. Whitecaps punctuated the waves, whipped up by a wind Coryn couldn’t detect. She knew what a breeze felt like, but not what wind that could whip creamed froth out of water might feel like. She imagined that it would pull at her skin and blow her hair around her face and try to force her to move with it.
Paula stood beside her, taller by far, dressed formally in a black uniform with white piping and her sea-blue scarf. She squinted as she took in the view, her smile slight but genuine. Her unblemished skin and perfect features could belong to a model, but instead they showed that she was Coryn’s companion. In spite of her nature, she seemed be genuinely interested in the horizon, the white ferries that plied the choppy water, and the pleasure of standing on top of the highest spot in Seacouver.
Coryn had finished her last assignment of the year this morning and sent it off to be graded. It was good, and better yet it was done. She had written about the great restoration with the help of her older sister, Lou, who had her own rather strong ideas. Coryn had compromised with her on the paper, accepting that the rewilding wasn’t even halfway done but not that progress had stopped and perhaps even fallen backward. Standing here on this bridge, with the vast sound to look out over and, beyond all that water, the white-capped mountains of the peninsula, she was even more sure she had been right: the city would be okay.
The bridge under them had stood since before she was born, the tallest bridge in Seacouver, starting just north of historic Pike Place, curving up and over the city in graceful loops, and landing in West Seattle. Three midspan spiral ramps joined the bridge deck to significant old-Seattle neighborhoods, like ribbons falling onto the city. An artist had designed the Bridge of Stars, a scenic skyway designed for walkers and cyclists and runners.
Lou couldn’t be right. Surely Seacouver would continue forever, or at least for years and years into the future, more years than Coryn would ever see.
Up here, she felt like she could touch the roof of the world. She’d earned this perch; only the fit could get here on their own. Coryn’s thighs still trembled a little from the long climb up on bicycles.
Paula, as always, seemed to understand her unspoken feelings. “You are conflicted. Does it feel good to be finished?”
“Oh, yes!” It did feel good. The paper had been a fight—they’d moved in the middle of it, and all the packing and unpacking, while familiar, took time. Her mother begged her father to move them regularly, as if the next house would be just right.
Coryn had stayed up every night for the last two weeks to finish on time. “I thought it would feel entirely different to be in high school.”
Paula raised an only slightly too-perfect dark eyebrow. “Does it feel different at all?”
“Not really. Now I have two weeks off, and that feels good, but every other year I’ve had two weeks off after finishing up. Maybe they should give us a longer break. After all, high school’s a big deal.”
“Don’t get too full of yourself,” Paula replied. She leaned over the bridge as if contemplating the idea of freedom from gravity. The wind plucked stray strands of dark hair and blew them around while Paula tried in vain to tuck them back into her bun. “Did you know that you always come to where you can see out of the city when a big thing happens in your life?”
“You went to the edge of the seawall when you passed elementary school, you rode your bike all the way to the edge and back when Lou went to summer camp in Tacoma, and now you’re way up here, where you can see over and past the entire downtown. Where are you going to go when you finish high school? Space?”
“Silly robot. That would take years of school.” And money they didn’t have. She squinted, wondering if a largish black thing she saw might be a boat. “I’d like to see a whale.”
“They would appear very small from way up here.”
“There was a baby orca born last week. A girl, no less.” Coryn had printed a picture and pasted it on her bathroom wall beside a pic of wild horses running free in eastern Washington, and another one of a twenty- foot-long great white shark off of Guadalupe Island in Baja, California.
“You’re going to be late for your own graduation party.”
Coryn didn’t respond. It would drive Paula slightly nuts—it always annoyed her when Coryn refused to do what was expected. But this was her day, not Lou’s. Besides, she wanted to burn the horizon into her memory.
Her mother hated the city, and so Coryn did most of her exploring with Paula. This particular bridge cost credits to access and she couldn’t just come up here any day she wanted. Her mom had given her the money for the trip, bending over her with a sweet smile. “Your first junior-high graduation present,” she’d called it. She had smelled of soap and medicine and unhappiness. But then, Mom always seemed to be unhappy these days. Dad, too. Coryn often felt like she lived in a different world than the one her parents inhabited. What was there to be afraid of, after all? The city was full of fascinating things, and if she got bored of real life, there were a million virtual worlds. More.
She didn’t really want to go home, not even for a special graduation dinner. Her parents would find some way to ruin the evening.
While Coryn counted ten long, slow breaths, she stared at the joining of sea and sky, at the wind-torn waves, at the far land where Hurricane Ridge had been slammed by its first snowstorm a few days ago. Bits of white still sparkled in the sun, matching the whitecaps, and a pale sky hung over the entire scene. “I want to watch this forever.”
“We have to go,” Paula insisted. “Your mother will be upset with you.”
Coryn turned to her, a slight spark of anger infusing her voice. “That’s not my fault.”
“Which has nothing to do with anything.”
Coryn stared out over the water, determined to remember the sharp ridges of the Olympic Mountains, the rippling white-caps, and the fascinating, unexpected gardens and pools on top of the biggest buildings. “I can’t wait until I’m eighteen and you can’t tell me what to do any more.”
Paula eyed her with the infinite patience of a companion robot. “Lou will be worried.”
Yes. And Lou would make her party fun. Even though she couldn’t depend on her parents to be in a good mood, she could depend on Lou.
She reluctantly turned away and pulled her AR glasses on. They were required for transportation, even biking. The city saw more clearly through her glasses than she did, always ready to keep her safe. Lines of travel and traffic began to paint themselves in a light wash over the real world, showing the foot and bike traffic on the bridge and, far below, the heavier city traffic. Green for cars, blue for bikes, yellow for peds, red for trains and other mass-transit. She swung her leg over her bike, settled her hands on the grips, and blinked twice to tell the city she was ready to go.
Maybe Lou would be home by now.
She pushed off into an opening in the bike traffic to glide down the long, gentle slope toward the South Seattle streets. The overlays on her vision sparked and changed as she moved, traffic control directing the complex dance of transportation. A blue light blinked to show her Paula had started down as well.
Wheels thrummed and wind pulled her hair back and whipped it against her cheeks. As she neared the bottom, the ramp plunged into the city, housing and stores rising around her as she powered down through skyscrapers.
At the bottom of the bridge she slowed precipitously, barely managing to stay on her bike, cutting it close enough for traffic control to scream in her ear. She frowned, slid right, and almost fell, then headed home at a more dignified pace. Down here in the crowds, the city would notice and record safety risks, and she hated drawing attention.
Fifteen minutes later, she turned onto her family’s current street, Paula right behind her.
Blue and red circles of light stunned her eyes, the primary-school colors of ambulances and police cars. Warnings flashed in her peripheral vision. She squinted and rode forward. The city allowed her through while it detoured others right and left.
As she drew closer to home, a deep dread made her want to stop. She didn’t, but her thighs felt as if she wore stones on her feet instead of neon yellow sports shoes with purple laces.
Cars had chosen to park at odd angles, blocking the street. Men and women and robots in uniforms padded in and out of her house.
Maybe it was just an AR hack.
She ripped the glasses off her face.
Blue and red light washed across her face, forcing her to squint.
Someone spotted her. Lou.
She stood on the sidewalk, shaking, fists balled at her side, her hair wilder than usual, some of it falling over her thin face. Her blue eyes looked bright and wide. Red handprints smeared her shirt.
Coryn’s bike clattered on the street as she raced into her sister’s arms. Lou smelled of blood and fear. She felt like metal in Coryn’s arms, like the unyielding bridge, even though tears ran down her face and fell onto Coryn’s cheeks. Coryn’s breath came fast and she shivered, rooted on the street, nothing existing in that moment except her sister.
Paula grabbed both of their shoulders and hissed, “Stay here.” She marched straight into the house.
“What happened?” Coryn whispered.
“They . . . they died. Someone killed them, I think. I don’t know. I couldn’t stay. I came into the house and there was blood everywhere and blood on Mom’s face.” Her words stopped as she heaved for breath and clutched Coryn even closer. “Blood on her shirt and everywhere, everywhere, oh Coryn, it was everywhere. I’ve got it on me.” She pushed Coryn a little away and looked down. “And now you’ve got it on you, on your shirt; we’re stained with it.”
Lou was still seventeen. In a few months she would be an adult. Lou’s head rested on top of Coryn’s and Coryn’s arms circled her lower waist, her fingers running along Lou’s backbone.
Coryn watched the crowd seethe with uniforms and onlookers. When Paula finally came back outside, she wore one of her strict robotic expressions. It was the same one she used when she was furious with Coryn or Lou. “You can’t go in. I’ll take you up on the roof, and we’ll get some food, and we’ll wait together. The police will come find us as soon as they can.”
Coryn didn’t want to see whatever Lou had seen. Lou never came undone like this, never lost it, never cried. As frightened as she was about her parents, seeing Lou cracked into pieces was . . . impossible.
Lou always led. Always. Except now Lou trudged behind Paula with her head down, shoulders drooping, one hand holding Coryn’s loosely.
Paula drove them slowly and inexorably through the gathering crowd and away from the sirens. She took them into the apartment building next door to theirs and up the elevators to the roof. She had them move like they had when the girls were little, all in a line: Lou in front, then Coryn, then Paula watching over them both.
Lou sobbed and sobbed, blowing her nose. Still, she led them carefully through the patio tables. Coryn tripped on a table-leg and Paula caught her halfway down, a graceful arm appearing for Coryn to grasp onto before she landed in a flowerbed. A short bridge joined two rooftops. As they crossed it, Coryn looked down to where the revolving colored lights illuminated the gathering crowds and saw her bicycle on the ground, unlocked and orphaned. She had a sudden urge to turn around and put it away.
A few of their neighbors had come up onto the roof as well, people Coryn recognized but didn’t know well. One couple got up as if planning to speak to them, but Paula blocked them, murmuring soothing words.
The robot directed the girls to a table in the middle of the roof and they sat silently.
A faraway look came over Paula, her eyes fastening on the horizon, or maybe on the thin ribbon of bridge far above them. Coryn knew the look; Paula was getting a lot of information and processing it. She’d notice if her charges left, or any kind of danger approached, but she probably wouldn’t demand anything from Coryn and Lou for a few minutes.
Lou looked even more lost in thought than the robot. A cat worked its way over to the girls, rubbing up against them both and head-butting Lou until Lou dropped her death-grip on Paula’s hand and touched the cat’s cheek. The cat stayed near them for a long time, circling and then stopping for pets and then circling them again. Its wide, golden eyes matched the brown and gold stripes on its tail and forelegs and contrasted with the brown fur that felt like silk under Coryn’s fingers.
“Be careful,” Paula admonished them. “That’s got to be someone’s pet gene mod.”
“Why?” Lou asked.
“It’s too perfect,” Paula said.
“Like you?” Coryn shot back, immediately regretting it.
She didn’t call for an apology the way she usually did, but Coryn gave her one anyway. “I’m sorry, silly robot.” She had to work hard to get the word through her thick throat.
Paula smiled in approval and watched the girls entertain themselves with the cat until it appeared to get bored and walked off.
Even though she hadn’t known the cat, she felt bereft as it walked away and left them alone. They were lost. Alone. Everything had just changed.
Eventually, two policewomen made their way carefully through the crowded rooftop, one for each girl. The youngest one knelt by Coryn, a beautiful woman with the dark eyes and the old-amber complexion of an East Indian. “Hello,” she said in a honey-soft voice, a sad voice, “I’m Mara.” She knelt down so her eyes were even with Coryn’s. “You know that something happened to your parents?”
“They’re dead,” Coryn saw no reason to pretend she didn’t know. She’d known since she saw the blood on Lou’s shirt.
The policewoman’s eyes softened, and she bent her head and made notes on her slate.
“Why did they die?” Coryn asked.
“Do you mean how?” Mara asked.
She already knew that. Lou had told her they were killed. But they were just normal people, and that shouldn’t have happened. “No. I want to know why.”
Mara shook her lovely head; her thick, dark hair swished back and forth across her navy-blue uniform. She took Coryn’s hands in hers. Her long nails were painted a bright pink, and the little finger and the thumb on her right hand had started chipping.
Everything Coryn could see looked like that, colorful and crisp. The street lights shone unusually bright, with pale haloes around them. The cat stood on the edge of the roof, flicking its long tail back and forth. The beer in a nearby glass glowed yellow-orange.
Her parents were dead.
Mara reached for her, but Coryn turned away. Paula stood right behind her, opening her arms. Coryn leapt up into them. She gave the robot her weight as if she were still a small child, clutching Paula as if her life depended on it. She buried her head in the robot’s soft shoulder and squeezed her eyes shut.
If only they were back on top of the bridge, with the wind blowing beyond them and the possibility of a whale.
Brenda Cooper is the author of Wilders, Book One of the Project Earth series; Edge of Dark and Spear of Light, Books One and Two of The Glittering Edge series; The Creative Fire and The Diamond Deep, Books One and Two of Ruby’s Song; and The Silver Ship series. Her most recent short-story collection is Cracking the Sky. She is also the author of Mayan December and has collaborated with Larry Niven on Building Harlequin’s Moon. Cooper is a working futurist and a technology professional with a passionate interest in the environment.