VICARIOUS, published by Tor/Macmillan


"A mind-bending thrill-ride, with a heroine who's as smart as she is strong."
-Lindsay Cummings, #1 NYT bestselling author of Zenith

"Reading Vicarious is like tiptoeing across a field of landmines. Blindfolded. Stokes delivers enough adrenaline to make readers beg for mercy."
-Victoria Scott, author of Titans

"Pulse-pounding adventures and high-tech blend masterfully with romance, intrigue, and current issues, making this book completely captivating for any audience." -VOYA, starred review

"A powerful kick-ass girl caught up in a high-tech, twisty mystery...Buckle up, this thrill-ride travels at breakneck speed." -Justine Magazine

Winter Kim and her sister, Rose, work as high-tech stunt girls for Rose’s ex-boyfriend, Gideon, engaging in dangerous and enticing activities while recording their neural impulses for his Vicarious Sensory Experiences, or ViSEs. Whether it’s bungee jumping, shark diving, or grinding up against celebrities at the city’s hottest dance clubs, Gideon can make it happen for you, for a price.

When Rose disappears and a ViSE recording of her murder is delivered to Gideon, Winter is devastated. She won’t rest until she finds her sister’s killer. But when the clues she uncovers conflict with the neural recordings her sister made, Winter isn’t sure what to believe. To find out what happened to Rose, she’ll have to untangle what’s real from what only seems real, risking her life in the process.

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WATCH THE TRAILER:






READ THE BEGINNING:



Rebirth (Prologue)

I can’t seem to wipe away the blood. I rub my hands against my nightgown, but traces of the red remain, staining the lines of my palms and the crescents beneath my fingernails. I wipe harder, gathering and bunching the soft cotton inside my fists. The fabric has been slit up the center and I worry that I’ve been cut, that maybe the blood is my own. I try to ask what’s happening, but there’s a mask over my mouth and nose. Suddenly it hits me—I’m in an ambulance.

I don’t remember how I got here.

The day returns in disordered fragments. A taxi ride that was short and frantic. A series of plane rides that stretched into forever. Before that, what? The apartment in Los Angeles? No, something else. Something with blood? I struggle to reassemble the memory, but the pieces won’t fit.

My heart pounds like the hoofbeats of a frightened animal. I inhale sharply but can’t get any air, like maybe the mask on my face is stealing oxygen instead of providing it. The ceiling above my head blurs. Everything starts to go gray.

But then my older sister, Rose, leans over the gurney. “I’m here, Winter,” she says. “You’re going to be all right.” She reaches down to pet my straight black hair.

The ambulance comes back into focus. The next few moments are a whir of strong hands and sharp needle sticks. There is murmuring and beeping. The paramedics converse in meaningless letters and numbers. No one tells me what’s happening.

Rose chides the men for scaring me. Despite the cramped quarters, they navigate around her with ease, never once telling her to move out of their way.

<#>

The hospital is a haze of white walls and overhead lights. The bed beneath me changes from hard to soft as the paramedics unload me from the stretcher. Rose’s boyfriend, Ki Hyun, appears from somewhere. Not Ki Hyun. Gideon. He changed his name. We all did.

Rose is still by my side. She keeps telling me everything is going to be fine. “We’re safe now,” she says. “We’re never going back there.”

A pair of nurses peer down at me. A gloved hand runs across my bare thigh, lingering on a constellation of circular scars. The nurses swivel their heads simultaneously, their accusing stares falling like guillotine blades onto Gideon. I am sure that smoke lingers on his clothing, as always.

I try to tell them the scars aren’t from him, that he’d never hurt me, that he was the one who saved me. He and Rose. But the words that dribble from my mouth are nonsense. The nurses act like they don’t even hear them. Swallowing hard, I try again, but my lips form a single word I’m not expecting. “Eonni.” Korean for “elder sister.”

“I’m right here,” Rose murmurs. She unfolds my fingers and presses her hand to mine, lining up the cross-shaped scars on our palms. “Fingers to fingers and thumb to thumb. A pair of sisters like matching gloves.”

The nurses part to allow a white-coated doctor into the mix. More meaningless letters and numbers are exchanged. All I can make out is his name, Dr. Bernard, and the word psychiatrist. I might not understand the alphabet speak, but I’ve studied English since I was a child. I know what a psychiatrist is. It means I’m crazy.

My arm tingles as a nurse injects me with something. My eyelids grow heavier. I struggle to listen to the soft words being exchanged by the doctor and Gideon.

“PTSD . . . inpatient care . . . possibly unstable . . .”

“I can take care . . . my responsibility.”

“With all due respect . . . condition might deteriorate . . . outcome dependent upon . . .”

“I want to take her home.”

“A couple of nights . . . observation.”

“Don’t. Want. Stay. Here,” I say. Each word is a tiny battle.

“I won’t let them keep you,” Rose says. “Hospitals are for the dying, and we are only just beginning to live.”

Thank you. I think the words, but when I try to speak, what comes out is, “Blood. Blood on my hands.”

“Shh.” She squeezes my fingers. “It was just a dream. There’s no blood. You’re safe.” But then she lets go and I am adrift in a sea of white.

I struggle to lift myself, to balance my body on my elbows, but my head lolls back on my neck and my muscles all give in at once. I collapse back onto the bed, but not before I see Rose and Gideon standing silently against the wall of the room. Curling onto my side, I watch them talk to each other using only their eyes. Then Gideon turns toward the door and Rose follows. The hallway swallows them up.

“Eonni,” I say again. Some part of my brain knows that Rose has only stepped away to speak to Gideon in private or perhaps to grab a cup of coffee, but I need her. A single tear makes its way over the crest of my cheek, following the contours of my face until it falls to the coarse hospital sheets below me.

“What is it, Winter?” a nurse asks. She bends low, frowning in concentration as she takes in my breathing, my temperature, that single rogue tear.

“I need my sister,” I whisper.

The nurse pats my hand. “She isn’t here right now, but don’t worry. We’re going to take care of you.”

We’re going to take care of you. That’s what the women at the orphanage said when my mother left us there. That’s what the people who brought us to America said before they handed us over to Kyung. That’s what Kyung’s men said before they started selling us by the hour.

I don’t need these doctors and nurses with their weird alphabet speak and their judging eyes. Gideon will take care of Rose and Rose will take care of me. That was the plan from the beginning.


Chapter 1

Three years later


Rose is crowding me out as usual, the reflection of her slender elbow obscuring part of my face in the mirror. Her scattered powders and potions cover the marble vanity of the bathroom we share. They’re made of all things bold and glittery, just like she is. In contrast, my neat little cluster of toothbrush, hairbrush, and eyeliner feels like an unruly child put in the corner.

“Move over,” I say.

She’s busy curling her eyelashes. I watch as she clamps a little torture device over one eye. People say we look alike, but what they mean is that we look alike except she’s more striking. She has the same basic bone structure and pale skin, but bigger eyes, fuller lips, longer hair, and now, apparently, curlier eyelashes.

“You move over. I have plans tonight.” Rose tosses the eyelash curler into the sink and blinks sweetly at my reflection before rummaging through the mess on the vanity to find a tube of mascara.

“Me too.” I finger-comb my shoulder-length black hair, and then grab my eyeliner. A soft brush of black pencil across my lower lash line is usually all the makeup I wear.

“With Jesse Ramirez?” Rose wrinkles her nose at my pencil. “I could help you with your makeup.”

“Maybe.” I ignore her offer to slather me up with products. Jesse’s not my boyfriend, and even if he were, I wouldn’t waste time trying to impress him by masquerading as someone else.

“Winter,” Rose starts, her voice getting that whole mothering tone like she’s forty instead of twenty. “You know Jesse loves you.”

“No he doesn’t. We just work together, all right?” I’ve caught Jesse staring more than once, but I’m fairly certain his feelings are more practical in nature. He wants what all guys want. Too bad for him.

Rose blots her eyelashes on the back of her hand and applies a coat of shiny red lipstick. She looks like something out of a black-and-white movie. I’ve never seen a dress with so much fringe before.

“You should just give him some. See what it’s like to be with someone who actually cares about you.”

I flinch slightly as I tug at her scooped neckline, pulling up the fabric to cover her cleavage. “Maybe you should try not giving some to everyone you meet.”

“Funny.” Rolling her impeccably made-up eyes, Rose twists her curtain of black hair up under a white-blond wig. “I’m going to Inferno. Come by later if you want.”

Inferno is the club in the building next door. I’ve only been there a couple of times since I turned eighteen three months ago. “Are you . . . working?” I ask.

She smiles coyly. “Maybe.”

“Then I’ll just see you tomorrow.”

Lately, Rose’s idea of work has gotten increasingly provocative: modeling, club dancing, switch parties. Inferno holds a switch party every Saturday night. It’s basically a make-out version of speed dating, where they turn out all the lights and everyone pairs up, hooks up, and then switches partners. As you can imagine, finding enough men isn’t a problem, but the club usually ends up having to pay the women. Rose swears she doesn’t let things go too far with anyone, that it’s all about teasing and control, but sometimes I wonder. It’s her body and she can do what she wants with it, but the thought of some dirty stranger’s hands on my sister makes my insides wither.

I love Rose, but sometimes I don’t understand her.

“When’s your next therapist appointment?” she asks suddenly, as if the look on my face might indicate an impending breakdown.

“Why are you asking me that? You know I quit seeing her.”

Rose arches a dark eyebrow. “I’m surprised you’re getting away with that.”

She means Gideon. He and Rose ended their relationship shortly after we left Los Angeles. Despite the breakup, they’ve remained friends and the three of us still live together in Gideon’s penthouse. Which means now he’s sort of our landlord, older brother, and boss rolled into one. It’s complicated.

“He’s so busy working that he probably doesn’t realize I’ve stopped going,” I say. This is a half-truth. My therapist’s office seems to be a few weeks behind on billing, so that’s why Gideon doesn’t know I’ve been skipping sessions. “I’ll make an appointment if I need to.”

Rose acts like I might kill myself at any moment, but that’s just her being dramatic. Maybe I was depressed in L.A., but I got better once we escaped. My therapist here diagnosed me with PTSD, but even at its worst, it was never anything that serious. I just sometimes got my dreams confused with reality, or saw things a little differently than they actually were.

Now, other than the occasional nightmare or bout of anxiety, I’m fine. I don’t need to waste time in Dr. Abrams’s soothing blue-green office talking about how it felt to be repeatedly violated. Sometimes it’s best to just move on.

“All right.” Rose raises her hands in mock surrender. “You seem fine to me.”

Rose lived the same life I did, but she doesn’t have PTSD. No bad dreams, no missing memories. Sometimes I’m jealous that she seems to deal with everything better than I do. But then I’ll catch her with this hollow look in her eyes and think maybe she just disguises everything for my benefit.

Maybe she’s broken on the inside too.

She leans in to give me an air kiss on each cheek, and her jasmine perfume makes me sneeze. A row of shiny bracelets jangle against each other as she pulls a chunk of my hair forward from behind my left ear. It falls in front of my eye, kind of seductive-like. Satisfied, she smiles.

“I’m just going to put it in a ponytail.” I lift my arm so she can see the plain black elastic band looped around my wrist.

She sighs deeply. “You’re hopeless.” She reaches out to hug me, and her warmth makes my rigid muscles start to loosen.

And then go tight again.

Sometimes when we touch, I flash back to the two of us huddled together in a tiny room in L.A. after one of our “dates.” I’m sobbing. She’s consoling. I’m hoping for death and she’s demanding I stay alive.

She usually gets what she wants.

Rose spins around once to check her reflection in the full-length mirror mounted on the outside of the bathroom door. Fringe flares out from her slender body.

“Be safe,” I say.

“But not too safe.” Flashing me a grin, she sashays out into the living room.

Still trapped between here and thoughts of L.A., I grab the bar of soap and turn the faucet on all hot. Clouds of steam blanket the mirror as the scalding water turns my hands pink. I close my eyes and count to ten. My flesh protests, but I lather for another ten seconds and then rinse. The pain washes away the memories.

Someone raps sharply on the front door of the penthouse. It’s probably Jesse, and I’m not ready. “Can you answer the door?” I ask.

No response. More rapping. I turn the faucet off and dry my hands on an embroidered hand towel. “Eonni? Did you hear me?” I head for the living room.

Our cat, Miso, sits just inside the front door, his black-and-white tail twitching with anticipation. Otherwise, the penthouse is empty except for a whiff of jasmine perfume. Rose must have left when I was washing my hands.

“I’ll be right there,” I call. I head into my bedroom and grab my lightweight Kevlar body armor from a hanger in my closet. I slide it over my head and pull the Velcro straps tight. Then I open the top drawer of the nightstand and pull out a stun gun and a pair of throwing knives.

I’m in a slightly different line of work than my sister.


Chapter 2

There’s a black hoodie folded neatly on my dresser. Tugging it over my head, I slide the stun gun into the middle pocket. I grab a few other things I’ll need for tonight and then head for the hallway, slipping my feet into a pair of boots just inside the front door. Miso is still sitting like a sentry, ready to welcome or pounce as needed. I peek through the peephole and see Jesse standing in the corridor. Like me, he’s wearing all black. His brown hair is mostly hidden beneath a black knit cap.

I open the door. “Hi.”

Jesse steps into the penthouse. “Moo!” he exclaims with a smile, scooping the black-and-white cat into his arms.

“Why do you insist on calling him that?” I ask. Miso squirms a little but then stretches his neck up so he can lick Jesse’s cheek.

“Because he’s cow colored, and he seems to like it.”

I lean in and scratch Miso between his ears. He purrs, but his attention is solely focused on Jesse.

My lips twitch as I remember the day I found the cat prowling back and forth in front of the fireplace. I half thought he was some unfortunate test subject that had escaped from Gideon’s study, which also functions as a lab. But Rose told me later she found him in the alley, starving and scared.

“Look at you,” I say, patting Miso’s little round belly. “Hard to believe you were ever homeless.”

Miso gives me a baleful look and then licks Jesse’s face again.

“That cat likes everyone else better than me,” I mutter. I bend down to strap a knife to each ankle and tie my boots.

Jesse drops Miso to the ground and the cat wanders off toward the kitchen in search of food. “I like you,” he says. “Even better than Moo, but don’t tell him I said that.”

I like Jesse too—at least I think I do. In a normal life, we might be going out for pizza instead of sneaking across town to commit a crime together. Sadly, broken people do not live normal lives.

Jesse fiddles with his hearing aid and it makes a sharp whistling sound. My eyes flick to his disfigured ear, to the jagged scar running from his left temple to his jawline. He’s never told me about his injury and I’ve never asked. I heard Gideon telling someone once that it happened in the army.

“I almost never see you with your hair down.” Jesse reaches out to pet my dark hair, his knuckles accidentally grazing my skin.

I slide away from his touch. In one smooth motion, I take the elastic band from my wrist and pull my hair through it. I double the band and tug until I have a short but secure ponytail. Jesse’s lips curl upward and something stirs inside me. I find it disconcerting, the juxtaposition of his war wounds with a smile that projects so much warmth.

I am not warm. That is one of the reasons I chose the name Winter.

“Just a minute.” Dropping to the floor, I quickly do twenty push-ups and then spring back to my feet. Exercise helps turn off all the extraneous thoughts in my brain.

Jesse lifts his legs behind him, one at a time, in a halfhearted stretch of his quadriceps. “You ready for this?”

“Yes.” I peek out into the hallway to make sure it’s empty. Gideon, Rose, and I are the only people who live on this floor, but college students occasionally come up here to try to get on the roof through the utility room window.

We walk down the carpeted hallway, past the elevator to the stairwell. The penthouse takes up the entire top floor of a fifteen-story building, but I always use the steps. I have a bit of an elevator phobia. They feel like tiny moving cages to me.

“Do anything fun lately?” Jesse asks as we start to descend the stairs.

I shrug. “Nothing special.” The last few days are a blur of sameness. Wake up. Work out with Gideon. Eat. Study. Lift weights. Study some more. Gideon has been homeschooling me with online lessons since shortly after we moved here. I was agoraphobic at first, and both he and Dr. Abrams decided that placing me in public school would be detrimental to my adjustment process. Sometimes I think regular school would be fun, but I still get nervous in crowds. Navigating the packed hallways and common areas would be a struggle.

A heavy metal door opens out into the lobby of our building. Persian rugs lie over smooth marble tiles, and crystal chandeliers hang from the painted ceiling. A long wooden bar runs the length of the room, empty except for a pair of businessmen sipping from wine glasses. At the far side of the lobby, a half set of stairs leads to Escape, Gideon’s gaming club. Escape boasts three big-screen virtual reality gaming setups, computers for online play, and private rooms for other activities.

Jesse and I head for the exit. We pass two more men in suits at the revolving door that leads out onto the street. At first glance they look like lawyers or bankers, but they’re too young and their necks are too broad. Their haircuts aren’t quite slick enough. Athletes.

One of them makes eye contact and nods. He’s got the look of a farm boy—muscular build, tanned skin, clear blue eyes. Wholesome. I don’t really follow sports, but I recognize him from clips on the news. His name is Andy something and he almost led the state university to the college football national championship, but then he fell apart in the fourth quarter and we lost. Tough break.

I nod back. I like people who aren’t perfect.

“Hey,” he says, his voice husky and low. His eyes cling to my form a second too long, as if we know each other, but I’d remember if I’d met him before.

A third man behind him nudges both of the players forward. He stares at me with dark, unfriendly eyes as the three of them pass by. He’s also lined with muscle but too old to be an athlete. Probably a coach trying to keep his players from doing something stupid and making the late-night news.

“Friends of yours?” Jesse asks, as we step out of the revolving door.

“Not my type.” I exhale a foggy breath and pull on a pair of gloves.

We live in an area of St. Louis called the Lofts, bordered by downtown on one side and poorer neighborhoods on the others. It used to be nothing but abandoned warehouses, but a wealthy developer bought them, razed them, and erected several blocks’ worth of high-rise apartments. Many of the basements and ground floors feature clubs, bars, or restaurants, and the whole area functions as both home and a playground to the city’s richest residents.

Jesse and I head west, the shadows absorbing our black-clad forms. Shards of snow and ice crunch beneath the soles of our boots. In front of the next building, tight clusters of club rats huddle together in the cold, thin filaments of smoke emanating from the orange glow of their cigarettes. They’re waiting to get into Inferno. It’s where Rose said she was going.

A guy in a down-filled NFL parka and a knitted ski cap moves from circle to circle, hoping to be called upon to peddle his wares. When it comes to drugs, pretty much everything is available if the price is right.

The dealer catches me looking and takes it as an invitation. “What you need, baby?”

I avert my eyes but he shuffles over and walks beside Jesse and me. The sweet scent of marijuana clings to his oversized coat. “I got stuff to make the pain go away, stuff to make you forget.”

“I’m fine,” I say tersely.

“Sounds like you need something to relax.” He yanks open the side of his coat and digs down in a pocket, producing a clear vial of fluid. “This shit’ll take you to heaven and back.”

“Back off.” Jesse slides between us. “She doesn’t need anything from you.”

The dealer looks ready to start something, but then Jesse lifts his sweatshirt high enough to expose the grip of his gun. The guy turns away, muttering under his breath. A trio of college kids on the other side of the street call out to him. He shimmies his way between two parked cars and then saunters the rest of the way across the road, his high-tops disappearing in the fog of a steaming manhole cover.

We pass a group of girls in glitter makeup and sky-high leather boots, shivering in their short dresses. The damp glow of the streetlight illuminates wide eyes and skin that is soft and perfect. They’re not old enough to get into the club, but they’re going to try anyway. They look good; the bouncer will probably let them in. A prickle of envy moves through me as I watch three of the girls link arms and huddle together for warmth, giggling and smiling at each other. I haven’t had friends like that since the orphanage.

The Lofts end abruptly at a vacant lot that sits in front of an old train yard. Two girls, one with a shorn scalp and the other with a matted braid, are spooning under a knitted afghan where the lot meets the sidewalk. Braid Girl opens her eyes just briefly as our shadows pass in front of her. They’ve got a coffee can full of change and a sign made from a cardboard box that reads: Ran away from abusive home. Please help.

“Wait,” I say to Jesse. I reach into the front pocket of my jeans and slide out a twenty-dollar bill. I always carry a little cash on jobs, just in case. As I bend down to place the money in the coffee can, I notice that people have put trash in it while the girls were sleeping. I fish out a crumpled-up napkin and a candy wrapper and tuck the twenty deep inside.

Jesse’s teeth almost glow in the dark as he smiles at me. He should be urging me along so we can complete our mission, but that’s not his style. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him impatient or angry. “You’re such a saint,” he says.

“Hardly.” He doesn’t know my past, that I came from a place even worse than these girls.

We turn south and hurry along the wide sidewalk, blending in with the darkness like a pair of whispers. I slow a little as we pass a block of department-store window displays. They’re still decorated for Christmas even though it’s mid-January. Icicles hang like knives from the eaves.

Next, the baseball stadium rises up before us, the red brick corners cutting into the sky. Fluorescent emergency lighting glows from behind the locked metal gates. Something cold slaps against my cheek. I look up as I swat it away. A handful of rogue snowflakes swirl in the streetlight’s beam, remnants of last night’s storm blown loose.

A strip of reflective buildings hovers a few blocks away, the nearest one topped with a ten-foot-tall iridescent ghost. It’s the local offices for a software company called Phantasm.

Jesse and I are going to break in.


Chapter 3

“Shit. It’s freezing out.” Jesse hurries along the sidewalk.

I match my pace to his. “Explain to me why you couldn’t drive again?”

“Because Gideon didn’t want me to drive. Plus my car would probably break down at the worst moment.”

I can’t argue. For one, I don’t even have a car. Gideon says it’s dangerous for me to drive because of the sedatives I sometimes take. Second, Gideon Seung is the smartest person I know. He left Korea to attend graduate school here in the United States, completing a neurobiology doctorate in just four years. In L.A., he worked as a medical research consultant. After we arrived in St. Louis, he cashed in his investments to buy our building and open Escape.

Two years ago, he began selling a new kind of gaming technology out of the club. Ever since a business website did a feature on the tech a couple months ago, multiple software companies have been trying to buy it from him.

My lips flatten when I think about how angry Gideon became when he saw the article. Somehow, the reporter had gotten a picture of him and posted it along with the story. Gideon is very private. We all are. He says we must never tell anyone who we really are or where we came from. It’s a little paranoid, if you ask me. Kyung Cho, the man Rose and I worked for in Los Angeles, was probably angry when Gideon took us away, but he wouldn’t spend his time or money looking for us. He probably just sent his people out to find some replacements.

I shudder. The idea that gaining my freedom might have doomed another girl to my former life makes me ill. I push the thought into a dark corner of my mind and do my best to lock it away. I’ll need all of my focus to be successful tonight.

Jesse and I pause a block from the Phantasm building. I look up at the giant logo, take a breath, and center myself. “Escape route?”

“I’ve got it figured out.” He touches my back lightly. “Just follow my lead, okay?”

Jesse and Gideon always do whatever it takes to assure that our work goes smoothly. I’m just stalling. Tonight is different from the jobs I’ve done before. We’re not just committing some victimless crime. We’re taking something from someone else.

It’s a tangible threshold, a decision that might lead to harder ones. Gideon said I didn’t have to do it if I didn’t want to.

I want to.

I would do almost anything for him.

A figure in black exits the building and heads down the sidewalk away from us, a pair of handcuffs glinting under the streetlight.

“Security guards?” I ask.

“Two,” Jesse says. “We’ll need to evade them.”

We cross the street in front of the Phantasm building and settle into the plastic shelter of a bus stop, just as the security guard turns around. Another burst of snow swirls down in front of us, the silvery droplets melting into the dark pavement. Jesse leans close and pretends to show me something on his phone. The guard’s eyes flick toward us momentarily but then away. We’re just two kids waiting for a late bus. I’m hoping one won’t show up for at least a few minutes or it’ll blow our cover.

The guard heads around to the back of the building and Jesse whips out a pair of mini binoculars. The lobby is empty except for a second security guard sitting at an information station in the center of the room. He’s talking on the phone and flipping through a magazine. I can barely make out some sort of military tattoo on the back of his left hand. Jesse and I watch him for several minutes. He only looks up once.

Jesse reaches into his pocket and produces a key. Gideon bought our way into the building, but once we get inside we have to avoid the guards and gain access to the Phantasm offices on our own. Blood pulses through my veins, fear and excitement competing for my attention.

The guard finally drops the magazine and makes a big show of standing and stretching. He ambles toward the front of the building and checks each door to be sure it’s locked before disappearing back into the depths of the lobby. Jesse peeks through the binoculars, expelling a series of slow, frosty breaths.

He turns to me and raises an eyebrow. We’ve worked together for the past few months—long enough that we can generally read each other’s expressions. I nod sharply, my fingers curling into my pockets to feel for my headset and face mask, the pressure of my stun gun weighing comfortably against my abdomen.

Only the pale streetlight above our heads and a smattering of office lights in the nearby buildings dare to penetrate the icy dark. I slip on my headset as we both stand.

“You’d better make sure that thing is on tight,” Jesse says. “Just in case.”

I secure the headset tightly and then pull my mask on to obscure my face.

Jesse converts his hat to a face mask and slips it over his own headset. He grabs my hand as we dart across the street. Quickly, we use the key to enter the lobby. I hold the door behind me, slowly letting it fall closed so as not to make a sound. We skirt the periphery of the big open room to avoid the security camera that pans slowly back and forth. Pausing in an alcove outside the restrooms, we catch our breath and scan the area for the security guard. We’re alone.

Jesse flicks his head in the direction of a conglomeration of steel cylinders and girders that’s meant to be modern art. One at a time, we cross the lobby and duck low behind the sculpture. From here we can see the information station, the front doors, the escalators, and the hallway we know leads to a suite of Phantasm offices.

The company owns the first three floors of the building. We’re looking for their server, which according to Gideon is in an office at the back of the second floor. Jesse and I creep onto the escalator and duck low, pressing our bodies tight against the metal so the guard won’t see us heading up if he’s coming down the other side.

My heart begins to race. I have no idea where the guard is. What if he sneaks up on us? I start to wonder why Gideon couldn’t have paid a hacker to steal the information he needs from the safety of some darkened basement in another state.

We make it to the second floor unseen. The door to the suite has a numeric lock. Jesse sprays it with a luminescent powder. All of the numbers have been pressed at one point or another, but there are four that have been pressed a lot recently. 1-4-5-6. It only takes him a couple of tries to crack the code, and the door swings open.

Emergency lighting illuminates the office. A large wooden desk sits across from a waiting area built around an L-shaped fish tank. A framed picture hangs on the wall behind the aquarium. A bunch of men lined up in rows. Some sort of employee gathering.

“Come on.” Crouching low, Jesse creeps farther into the suite. We pass the sprawling reception area and a set of cubicles that makes up the bulk of the department. The fiberglass walls are covered with memos and notices, the smooth worktables laden with piles of papers and framed photographs of loved ones. My eyes are drawn to a purse dangling from the back of one of the chairs. Designer. Leather. Probably full of cash and credit cards.

We’re not here for cash or credit cards.

The stillness of the room ripples and I lunge for my left boot, a silver blade appearing in my hand. Dropping to a crouch, I rear back my arm, ready to throw. But it’s just a heater that has clanked to life in a corner, the leaves of a potted plant fluttering in the artificial breeze. Exhaling hard, I swear under my breath. Beneath my mask, my skin is slick with sweat. Why couldn’t Gideon have asked me to skydive blindfolded or walk across hot coals or something?

Jesse leads me into a room at the back of the suite. As my eyes adjust to the gloom, I see a pair of desks and a dark wall of electronic equipment stacked six feet high. Wires dangle from some of the stacks. I pause in front of a computer mounted on a pedestal. Gideon provided me with a flash drive he said would automatically run a program to circumvent the server’s password protection and download the information he needed. I plug the drive into a USB port and hope for the best. The screen lights up, and a progress bar begins to fill as something called HWARANG.EXE launches itself.

Jesse is standing in the doorway keeping watch. “What’s it doing?” he whispers.

“Accessing the root directories.”

“Tell it to hurry up.” He glances down the hallway again.

The program takes about thirty seconds to install and then the screen goes dark except for a command prompt. Lines of text begin to scroll upward as files are copied onto the drive. For about fifteen seconds everything seems to be working smoothly. Then the computer beeps twice and the screen freezes.

“Something happened,” I hiss. “I’m not sure if it’s still copying.”

Jesse crosses the room in a few quick strides. He peers at the screen, but although both of us have a working knowledge of computers, neither one of us knows enough to troubleshoot the problem. Just when I think we’re going to have to abort, the text begins to scroll upward again. “Won’t these files be encrypted?” Jesse asks. He watches the screen with me.

“Probably. But that won’t stop Gideon for long,” I murmur. “If he can’t crack them, he’ll just find someone else who can.”

As Jesse turns to head back to his post, a bank of lights blazes to life above our heads. I spin around. The security guard from the desk downstairs is standing in the doorway. He’s just a vague, blurry form, because my brain is focused on the gun in his hand.


Chapter 4

“Against the wall,” the guard says. “Both of you. Hands up.”

“Dude.” Jesse gestures toward the tattoo on the guy’s hand and lifts his sleeve to display a similar marking. “Seven hundred and sixteenth battalion. This isn’t what it looks like.” It’s the old “Don’t shoot me because we’re the same” routine.

The guard isn’t interested in brotherhood. “It looks like breaking and entering.” His eyes flick to the computer screen for a fraction of a second. “And then some.” He gestures with his gun. “Over there. Now.”

We shuffle over to the wall he’s pointing at, our hands half-raised as we move. With his gun still pointed at us, the guard slowly backs up toward the computer. His right index finger is still on the trigger as his left hand reaches out for the flash drive.

Jesse and I exchange another glance that conveys paragraphs of information. He shakes his head—an almost imperceptible movement—and I know what it means: Don’t do anything rash. But I’m closer to the security guard. I have a better chance to take him out.

As soon as the guard’s fingers touch the drive, Jesse and I both drop low out of the gun’s aim. I lunge forward, my arms encircling the guard’s legs, my head slamming against his thigh. He crashes into the computer and we both end up on the floor. There is a deafening crack as the gun goes off. Jesse dives on top of the guard, pinning his hand against the floor. I grab the gun and leap back to my feet.

I have never touched a gun before. My fingers tread lightly, like it’s a viper that might turn on me. Adrenaline surges through me like venom.

Jesse wrestles with the guard. They trade punches. I pull the flash drive from the computer and tuck it deep into my pocket. Turning, I aim the gun at the guard just as Jesse lands a skull-rattling hit to his jaw.

My finger dances on the trigger. My blood, my breath, everything about me burns with life. My hands tremble. I could end this guard with his own weapon. It would be easy, too easy. Do it, a little voice whispers from the darkest parts of my brain.

He starts to shake. “No. Please,” he says. “I have a wife, kids.”

With the gun still aimed, I reach into the pocket of my hoodie with my right hand and pull out my stun gun. I’m not here to kill anybody. Jesse and I just need to get out of the building without getting any holes punched in us. Electricity crackles as I shock the guard. Once. Twice. Three times, just to be safe. He convulses and then goes limp. He’s still curled in the fetal position when Jesse and I hit the doorway.

“Give it to me.” Jesse points at the gun still in my hand.

I hand it over. We run full speed down the escalator, both of us vaulting over the bottom few steps. We head for the front of the building, the soles of our boots pounding like drums on the lobby’s tile floor. I pull in front of Jesse as we reach the exit. My body feels lighter. Frost spews from my parted lips as the glass doors swing shut behind us. Too late, I see the gleam of white where the sidewalk meets the street. It’s a flashlight—the other security guard.

He sees us and gives chase, screaming things that the night air distorts into meaningless syllables. Jesse and I turn and sprint past two blocks of office buildings. We cross into a small city park, veering off the paved walkway, trying to lose the guard in the trees. I hear the sound of snow crunching behind me. Swearing. Fabric rustling against branches. I push myself to go faster, weaving in and out of the foliage. Jesse and I run six-minute miles. This guy will never keep up with us.

The cold air stings my lungs as we fly past a playground and a set of cement restrooms. Sirens cut sharp lines of sound across the night. I can’t tell if they’re heading toward or away from us.

We exit the other side of the park, still running full-speed. We cut across the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant and then Jesse swerves left into an alley. Finally, we’re heading back toward the Lofts. We hurdle trash bags and dodge rusted bicycles half-covered in snow. Behind us, the guard is swearing and grunting as he stumbles along. His voice fades as we pull away.

But the alley ends and there’s more trouble out on the main street. A kaleidoscope of blue and red. Cops. Real ones. That was fast. I slow long enough to give Jesse a questioning look. Gideon has been known to buy off the police.

Jesse shakes his head. “We can’t let them catch us.”

I bite down on my lower lip. I’ve never had a job go quite this wrong. Gideon is normally so meticulous about planning for every contingency. My breath catches in my throat. Darkness plays at the corners of my vision like I’m in danger of losing consciousness. Focus, Winter.

The cops are coming at us from both directions. We change course again, flinging ourselves around a corner and onto another trash-covered street. The cold metal of the Arch peeks through gaps in the skyline. Jesse stumbles, just slightly, and I pull in front of him.

“The river,” he mutters.

Wisps of fog dance around us as we veer toward the waterfront. The cops are boxing us in, but there’s nowhere else to go. The street ends and we’re on top of the levee, at least fifty feet up. Below, unforgiving cobblestones. Beyond them, the Mississippi River, a thick ribbon of black current.

Jesse points at an unused railroad bridge, just a little off to the north. I glance over my shoulder. The cops are still coming. Their guns are out. Aimed. We head for the bridge. A chorus of warnings comes from behind, telling us to stop, telling us they’ll shoot. A bullet zings past, but Jesse and I press onward.

The bridge is falling apart, the wood rotting, the girders caked with rust. Boards groan under my feet as I pick my way forward. In front of me, Jesse steps carefully from one metal tie to the next. I try to copy him, praying the planks won’t give out. I look back. Two cops are waiting at the entrance. They won’t come out here, I think, turning back around. They’re scared. And then I see the haze in front of us light up. Blue and red circles flit like ghosts in the fog.

They’re not scared. They have us surrounded.

Jesse reaches under his mask and slips his hearing aid from his ear. “Give me the drive.”

I fish the flash drive out of my pocket, trying to ignore the cops crouched in my peripheral vision. Jesse slips the electronics into a waterproof pouch and secures the pouch in a zippered pocket. He reaches out for my hand as we step to the edge of the bridge. I look down at the swirling water and go dizzy. My heart thrashes around in my chest, a nightmare monster trying to escape from its closet.

“Is it too far?” I know the water in the middle of the Mississippi is plenty deep, but jumping from too high means broken bones, or worse.

“Not if we climb down the girders.” Jesse steps smoothly over the bridge’s railing and begins to descend the side of the truss, the metallic latticework almost invisible against the black of the river.

I follow him, clinging to the support beams as I gradually lower myself closer to the water. The frosty metal is slick beneath the fingers of my leather gloves. From this height I can see the white froth of the current. My eyes flick to the riverbank and then back to Jesse as I try to calculate where we’ll be able to climb ashore.

“Stay vertical,” he reminds me. “Hands against your body.”

“Right,” I say tersely. We’ve done some cliff diving in the past, but nothing that quite compares to this.

I must still look scared, because Jesse reaches out and squeezes my arm. “Do you trust me?” he asks.

I nod. There’s no other choice.

One at a time, we leap from the bridge.


Chapter 5

I slam into the frigid water and sink deep. Holding my breath, I fight my way back to the surface. Tucking my knees to my chest, I assume the fetal position to maximize my core temperature as the river carries me downstream. I paddle across the current toward the nearest bank, gradually steering myself to the water’s edge. When I drag myself up on the frozen mud, I leap to my feet, ready to start running again. But Jesse is jogging toward me from where he crawled out of the river slightly upstream. He raises his hand in a high five.

“Are you serious?” My teeth start to chatter as I look back at the bridge. The flashing lights have disappeared. “That was all part of the setup? You could have told me.” I use the fabric of my sleeve to wipe the fetid water from my eyes and then take a couple of deep breaths. I hug my arms to my chest to quell my shivering.

“If I did, your recording wouldn’t have turned out as good. Gideon wanted to capture the adrenaline of the chase.”

My recording. Right. My face mask was yanked up and over my head when I hit the river, but my recorder headset is still secured in place. Reaching up, I pull the five-pronged device from my head without even turning it off, twitching as a mild shock races through my body.

It’s the latest version of Gideon’s tech—a headset that records the sensory neurologic impulses of its wearer. Four of the device’s prongs record neural impulses from different parts of the brain and the fifth sits at the base of the neck and records from the spinal cord. Gideon doesn’t just give you the first-person visual of what it’s like to run from the cops. He gives you what the runner is actually feeling, one firing synapse at a time.

He sells the recordings at Escape so people can live vicariously through us. For as little as twenty dollars, you can soar through the sky as a hang glider or drive 220 miles an hour in an official Indy 500 race car. You can dance with celebrities at the hottest clubs or hook up with a girl who would never give you the time of day. And now you’ll be able to jump off a bridge into the Mississippi River. You get to be someone else, someone who does things you would never do. It’s the ultimate in escapism.

“What about your recording?” I ask wryly. Just once I’d like to be the one with all of the information.

“Mine are never as good as yours, because of my sight,” Jesse says. “And someone needs to know everything for when there is a real misstep, like with that security guard.” He slips his hearing aid in and then jogs a few yards back toward where he crawled ashore. His voice grows muffled as he disappears into a thick patch of foliage. “That guy scared the crap out of me.” Jesse reappears with a black garbage bag, knotted at the top.

“Oh, so he wasn’t in on it?”

“Even Gideon can’t buy everyone.” Jesse says. “I can’t believe you went for him like that. You could’ve gotten shot.”

I shrug it off. I guess I was too adrenalized to f­eel scared. “So what? I’m wearing Kevlar.” I unzip my hoodie as if to prove it. Immediately, I’m seized by another attack of shivering.

“Not on your face. Gid is going to have a meltdown when he sees that.” Jesse pushes his wet hair back from his forehead and slowly works a knot out of the top of the bag.

“Maybe he’ll be impressed for once.” I tug the body armor over my head and toss it in the direction of Jesse’s bag before slipping back into my waterlogged hoodie. “You know how he’s always saying the only way to get stronger is to challenge yourself.”

I’ve been recording Gideon’s Vicarious Sensory Experiences, or ViSEs, for over a year and each job seems to get a little riskier. I started out doing basic adventure stuff, but after I gained some experience, I found myself BASE jumping from national monuments and running from cops. And tonight I got shot at for the first time.

But it’s just the nature of the business. Once our customers have rock climbed and hang glided, most of them are ready to move on to something bigger and better. ViSEs are legal (even if what we have to do to get them isn’t) but other than that, we’re not much different from the drug dealers who roam the Lofts. If we want to maximize profits, we have to provide what people want.

Tonight’s mission had two purposes. The police chase and bridge jump were for the visers. The information downloaded was for Gideon. Phantasm is one of the companies that’s been pressuring Gideon to sell his tech. They want to produce mass quantities of playback headsets, widespread distribution of ViSEs online, streaming from multiple platforms. It’s much more than Gideon could accomplish with his current staff, but he’s not even considering it without a behind-the-scenes look at Phantasm’s finances.

That’s what he says, anyway. Personally, I think he’s digging for company dirt to force them to back off. He’s a control freak and the ViSE tech is his baby. I don’t see him selling.

A gust of wind wraps its fingers around my middle, and my teeth start chattering again. Jesse pulls a thin gray blanket out of the bag and holds it out in my direction. I cocoon myself, willing the itchy fabric to suck the icy cold water out of my clothes.

“How much did you have to pay the cops?” I look up at the bridge again.

“Not much. You just have to know the right guys to approach.” Jesse grins. “Some of them were so eager to shoot live fire that they probably would have paid me. We just have to make sure their license plates aren’t readable on the finished recordings.”

Easy enough to do with a bit of editing. I try not to stare as Jesse tugs his waterlogged sweatshirt over his head. He’s built like a puma, thick and muscular, the outline of his abs just barely visible in the dim light. He slips on a dry T-shirt and a quilted parka and then starts to unbutton his pants.

I turn toward the river to give him privacy. There’s something hypnotic about flowing water—the more I look at it, the more it calls to me. I inch closer to the edge of the bank. I imagine diving back in and surrendering to the current. Being swept downstream and swallowed whole.

I shake my head as if trying to dislodge the morbid thought. Once upon a time there was a girl named Ha Neul who wanted to die, but I am not that girl anymore.

Jesse taps me on the shoulder. “I’ve got stuff for you too. I don’t want you to freeze to death on the walk home.” He hands me a bundle of gray fleece. Dry clothes would feel good, but I can’t bring myself to strip down here, in the middle of nowhere, especially not in front of him. I toss my blanket back into the bag and shove the bundle of clothing under my arm. “Let’s just get out of here. We can edit these and amplify the neural sensations tomorrow.”

Jesse was right when he said keeping the plan a secret from me would result in a better recording. There’s a natural adrenaline rush involved in running from the cops and jumping off a bridge, but it’s a lot more intense if the recorder is actually afraid. The more Jesse and I train for a ViSE, the less scared we are when we record it, especially if we know it’s all a setup. That’s where Gideon’s neural editor comes in. Natural sensations are the best, but when that isn’t feasible, we can modify what the viser feels, to a degree. We can’t change things, like add a bridge jump where one didn’t happen, but we can block certain impulses to obscure license plates, or amplify them to increase sensations like fear or pleasure.

To us, reality is just raw footage: Unclear. Desultory. Too shocking or not quite shocking enough. It’s ironic that making something more real involves making it less real, but Gideon always says people don’t want real. They want the idea of real, which involves production.

Jesse and I make our way up the bank of the river and onto the waterfront’s cobblestoned streets. I try to ignore the fabric sticking to my legs and the water dripping from the cuffs of my pants as we head back to the Lofts.

“You can’t go into the building looking like a drowned rat,” he reminds me when we get close.

“I’m aware.” I glance around for a private spot to change. The scarlet neon of an all-night Gas ’n’ Go bleeds onto the sidewalk in front of us. Perfect. “Wait here.” I duck into the restroom and slip on Jesse’s gray fleece hoodie and black tear-away warm-up pants, balling my wet clothes under my arm. I roll the waistband twice so his pants don’t hang down over my shoes and then stop to check my reflection in the mirror. My hair is slicked to the sides of my face like a pair of half-drawn curtains and most of my eyeliner has washed off, but at least I don’t look like I’ve been swimming in the river.

<#>

When we arrive home, the line to get into Inferno has dwindled down to just a few high school kids still hovering in the cold. I wonder if Rose is in there, recording tonight’s switch party for Gideon to sell. If she is, I’d rather not witness it.

Jesse and I cut through the lobby and duck into the stairwell. He walks me all the way to the penthouse.

“I’ll get your clothes back to you soon,” I say. He lives below me, on the seventh floor, which is actually the sixth floor since Gideon had the floors renumbered to skip from three to five when he bought the building. The number four is bad luck in Korean culture.

“Keep them if you want. They don’t fit anymore.” Jesse pats himself on the stomach.

I roll my eyes. Jesse complains that he’s gained weight since he left the military, but 99 percent of it is probably muscle. I suspect he’s fishing for a compliment, but I’m not in the mood to be manipulated. “You’re not fat.” I bite back a smile. “You’re just fluffy.”

He gasps in mock outrage. “You did not just call me fluffy. For that you owe me some of that tea you’re always drinking.”

I punch in the six-digit code and press my thumb to the sensor that unlocks the penthouse door. “I guess I could, as long as you’re quiet so we don’t wake Gideon.” I slip out of my boots and step into the entry hall.

Jesse’s body relaxes as he follows me inside and reaches down to unlace and remove his own boots. Just watching him, so comfortable in my personal space, makes me go tense. I hear my sister telling me to just “give him some” as she so delicately put it. Rose wouldn’t have teased a guy and called him fluffy. She would have run her hands up his chest and around his neck and told him his body was perfect. My face reddens. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I were completely uninhibited like she is.

When Jesse flops down at our kitchen table and looks up at me, this quickly becomes one of those times. His pupils dilate, circles of black swallowing up the hazel of his eyes. Points of wet brown hair cling to the skin of his forehead. He smiles his incongruous perfect smile.

I turn away and put on a kettle of water to heat. Then I quickly gather tea leaves, valerian root, passionflower, and a bit of ginger. I like creating my own flavors with fresh herbs and spices. My fingers fly with the paring knife, peeling and then dicing the ginger into smaller and smaller pieces to avoid looking at Jesse. I lean over the simmering water so he’ll think the color in my cheeks is from the steam.

“You did amazing tonight.” His voice is low.

I dump everything into the water and turn around, abandoning the tea to the stove. “You think?”

“Yeah. I panicked for a second when the gun went off. But you didn’t. I swear you’ve got the reflexes of a cat.”

I look over at the teakettle. It won’t be done for a while. Jesse shucks off his quilted coat. All he has underneath is a white T-shirt stretched tight across his chest. He might as well be sitting here half-naked.

He catches me staring and his face lights up. I can read all sorts of things in his grin. What he wants, what he thinks I want. I wish I could throw myself into the kettle and drown, or maybe evaporate into steam. “Rose has faster reflexes than I do.” I don’t even know if this is true. It’s just the first thing that comes to mind, and I want to distract him from whatever he’s thinking.

“What’s her deal, anyway? Does she actually like all that dancing and stuff?”

Maybe. “I don’t know. So what if she does?” I ask, a note of defensiveness creeping into my voice. “Are you telling me you never recorded anything provocative?” I know Gideon has multiple sexual ViSEs for sale. I’m sure all of his male recorders have donned headsets and wigs and taken one for the team, so to speak.

Jesse’s smile fades. “That was a long time ago, and I was desp—”

I cut him off. “So then why do you get to judge her?”

“Whoa.” He holds his hands up in surrender. “Not judging anyone. I just know how much you worry about her.”

“I do.” I’ve never told him this. I didn’t realize it was so obvious.

“I mean, why let guys paw all over her when she can do cool stuff like us?”

I asked Dr. Abrams about this once. She said sometimes victims of abuse seek out more abuse because it’s the only thing they know. Rose says that’s bullshit. She says it’s about taking back the control that was stolen from us.

“Where we came from,” I tell Jesse, “a girl needs an arsenal to feel safe. Beauty, her body—these are her weapons.”

“Where did you guys come from?”

Hell. I don’t answer.

Jesse leans forward. He reaches across the table and takes my hand before I can pull it away. “Okay, then. So what are your weapons?” His thumb massages the middle of my palm. I stare down at the military insignia tattooed on his forearm and the ring of random letters around his wrist. I’ve never paid much attention to Jesse’s tattoos, but suddenly little details about him are starting to stand out. I hear my sister’s voice in my head again. You know Jesse loves you.

Sweat beads up on my forehead. I yank my hand free, slide a knife out of the sheath still strapped to my left ankle, and set it on the table with a soft clunk. “Weapons are my weapons.”

“Nice.” Jesse takes the knife and turns it over in his hand. “Does Gideon know you have this?”

“Yes,” I say. “He doesn’t approve, but he knows he can’t keep me from buying things that I want.” I slide the other knife from its sheath and twirl the hilt between my palms.

Jesse lifts the knife he’s holding to his shoulder and fakes like he’s going to throw it at the wall behind me. “Where’d you get them?”

“The Internet.” It’s also where I learned to throw them. I watched a few videos and then hung a wooden target on the wall in my bedroom. Miso watched me practice from the hallway, his amber eyes curious but unafraid, his tail twitching at each dull thunk.

I look around for the cat but he’s nowhere in sight. Probably curled up amongst the clutter in Rose’s room. I set my knife on the table.

Jesse sets the other one next to it. “I have a great idea. Do you want to trade?”

“Trade what? Weapons?” Jesse carries a gun. I would love to trade with him.

“Recordings.” He pulls his collapsed headset from a pocket and snaps a memory card out of a slot on the back.

“You know I don’t vise.”

I’ve told Jesse this, but I’ve never told him why. He doesn’t know about my PTSD, my hallucinations, my time in the hospital. The reality-challenged are not meant to live vicariously.

“Never?” Jesse asks. “Not even your own recordings?”

“I did it a few times to help Gideon test the beta tech, but it’s been years.”

“It’s not like you’re tripping off it or anything,” Jesse says. “It’d be like reviewing your performance. Aren’t you even a little curious?”

I am, but it’s difficult not to form an intimate connection with the recorder since you’re experiencing the world from inside someone else’s brain. I’m not good with intimate connections, especially not with Jesse. “I prefer the real world.” The excuse sounds hollow even to me. “Also, I’m really sensitive to overlay.”

Overlay happens when the viser isn’t able to turn off his or her own thoughts and sensations, so external stimuli bleed through. The best visers are good at meditating, blocking out the whole world except for the ViSE. Otherwise you end up experiencing the recorder’s sensations on top of your own, which can result in headaches, nausea, and disorientation.

“Maybe you just need to learn how to relax.” Jesse goes to the kitchen wall and flicks off the light. The flame of the gas burner casts flickering shadows around the room.

“I don’t think that’ll help,” I say. “My thoughts are a little harder to shut off.”

He gives up. “Then just let me see yours.” He holds out his hand.

I hesitate, but then fish my headset out of my pocket and extract the memory card. I pass it over to Jesse. In the dim light, his features are amorphous, his damaged ear, his scar, the slight bend in his nose fading into the gray. I wonder if mine are too—if my high cheekbones and sharp chin are softened. Gideon always says I wear a perpetually angry look, that my face repels people. Jesse is leaning toward me, though, anything but repelled.

“Fine,” I say suddenly. “Let me have it.” I’ve never vised from a guy’s point of view. It could be interesting. Besides, the tea still has a few minutes to go.

Jesse slides his recording across the table. I catch a hint of sweat mixed with evergreen deodorant, the sweetness of the brewing tea threading throughout it. Just these simple scents might cause enough overlay to bring on a headache. I try to push them out of my head as I take the tiny card from him and slip it into my headset. I smell nothing. I see nothing. I hear nothing. I feel nothing.

The headset unfolds into what is basically a lightweight metal spider. I slide it onto the back of my head and position the prongs over the neural access points.

“Ready?” Jesse asks. “We go together.”

I close my eyes and press play.

Apparently, we’re not going together. I should be standing just outside the Phantasm building, but instead:

I look into my own face as I open the door to the penthouse.

For some reason, Jesse started recording long before we reached Phantasm and I put on my mask. “What is this?” I ask.

“Don’t worry. I’ll cut you out of the finished product.”

“But why would you start recording so early?” My head begins to throb at the temples from only just a few seconds of balancing the dual realities.

“Shh,” he says. “This is just getting good.”

I sigh, but try to focus on Jesse’s recording. His eye was permanently damaged at the same time as his ear, and therefore the left side of my visual field is framed by a faint blurry streak. It’s almost unnoticeable unless you know to look for it. I skip forward.

We’re heading down the stairwell. I see the fingers of my right hand brushing against the metal railing.

Even with the lights off, I’m not embracing the ViSE. Instead I experience it from a distance, like I’m watching the events play out on TV. As I reach up to fast-forward the recording again, I realize I look different to Jesse than I do when I look in the mirror. My skin is smoother, my eyes wider. It’s almost like his brain is editing me.

Other people look different too. The girls trying to get into the club look softer, like lambs. The homeless girls seem so weak. It makes me curious about his past. What sort of history makes you view everyone as prey?

I skip forward to the actual break-in and then try to empty my mind and become Jesse.

We enter the Phantasm building. A sense of calm comes over me as we duck low behind the sculpture and then cross the lobby to the escalators. We head upstairs. I spray the keypad, crack the code, and head to the back of the office. My heart slows even more as we creep through the Phantasm suite.

Everything plays out pretty much like I expect until the guy busts in with the gun.

We’re positioned against the wall. We exchange looks. I freeze up completely for a second as I see myself drop low and lunge for the guard.

My lips quirk into a smile as I admire my takedown move. Then I remember how Jesse’s brain edited me earlier and wonder if I was actually half as agile as I looked.

My heart threatens to burst straight through my rib cage. I gasp for breath before leaping on top of the guard. I pin the hand with the gun to the floor. I see myself grab it. Then the guard is pleading and he’s getting shocked and then we’re on the run. Sharp spikes of air thrust in and out of my chest as I watch myself almost run directly into the second security guard.

I lose the momentum of the ViSE again as Jesse and I head for the river. I start to smell the ginger of the tea and feel the kitchen table hard beneath my forearms. Searing pain races through my temples and my stomach lurches. I try to empty my brain but I keep flashing back to the freezing up, to the fear Jesse felt when I was in danger. I’ve never known him to be afraid.

With his military background and ViSE experience, he should be battle ready, always in control. That intense fear response means something.

Something I’d rather not think about.


Chapter 6

The teakettle whistles. I pull the headset off and fling it down on the table, flinching from the mild shock. Opening my eyes, I blink hard, clutching one hand to my churning stomach.

Jesse hears my chair scrape against the floor and opens his eyes. “Hey, you quit in the middle.”

“I saw enough.” My lips are tight. I jump up and go to the stove, nearly scorching my hand on the burner as I reach for the kettle. I crank the stove off, counting the beats of my heart as they pound in my temples. “The way you see me is weird.”

Jesse removes his headset, folds it, and slips it into his pocket. “How so?”

“It’s just different.” I think of my wide, dark eyes looking at him from the doorway of the penthouse, my agile form attacking the guard in the server room. “I look so graceful to you. More like my sister than me.”

He studies me carefully. “Maybe I’m not the one with the skewed perception.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” I remove two mugs from the nearest cupboard, pouring each one of them exactly three-quarters full of tea.

“I don’t understand why you’re always putting yourself down. Comparing yourself unfavorably to Rose.”

“I grew up in her shadow,” I say simply. “Everyone finds her beautiful.”

“Yeah, she’s hot, and so are you. But the world is full of hot chicks. Not every girl can disarm a security guard and jump off a bridge.”

I smile in spite of myself. It’s true. Rose isn’t one for adventure sports or martial arts. I used to question why Gideon didn’t train her alongside me. He said she was old enough to make her own decisions, and she had no interest in fighting, at least not with her fists.

I suddenly feel lost in her absence, a satellite with nothing to orbit. Hopefully she’ll be home soon.

I plunk both mugs down on the table. “Help yourself.”

Jesse reaches past both mugs for my hand, but I pull it away. I try to step back, but the kitchen feels as if it’s shrunk. I smell evergreen again. Jesse is everywhere.

“I don’t feel like tea anymore.” I turn and busy myself at the counter.

“What’s wrong, Winter? What did I do?”

“You showed me that on purpose,” I say, without turning around. “You knew I would figure out what it meant.”

“What what meant?” He sounds honestly confused and for a moment I hope I have it all wrong, that he’s just another guy looking to score, like I told Rose earlier.

I spin and face him. “The way you felt when the gun went off.”

“I was scared. I care about you,” he says, like I’m the world’s biggest idiot for not knowing this. He shakes his head. “Only you would find that to be a problem.”

He’s so . . . earnest. So willing. Maybe that’s part of why I hold back. Good things have never come easily to me. If I can have him without a fight, there must be something wrong. “Jesse, our job is hard enough without . . . other things getting in the way.”

“Other things?” He closes the gap between us in a couple quick strides. “I know you care about me too.”

“I do, but . . .” My voice fades away as Jesse pins me against the counter, trapping me between his arms. I see beard stubble and a nose broken one too many times. The hazel in his eyes blurs into different hues. He’s too close. My brain sends all sorts of signals to the rest of me: punch, kick, scream, run away.

My muscles disobey. I am paralyzed.

“It’s okay to care.” He cups the side of my face in one hand.

I let myself get pulled further into his gaze. The colors twist and turn around me. An ocean of browns and golds. I wish I could regress to a point where this closeness would be exciting instead of terrifying. I’m not even sure how far back I’d have to go.

Too far.

“It’s also okay to tell me to back off,” he says.

Back off. The words get lost on the way to my lips. Jesse’s face is still out of focus. I am still swimming behind his eyes.

He touches his cheek to mine and everything is amplified. His beard prickles my skin. My breath goes still. I clutch at the handle of a drawer behind me to keep from sliding right down onto the floor. Softly, Jesse’s mouth brushes against my jaw, a single point of heat on my shivering skin. He holds my chin steady so I’m forced to look at him.

For a second, I am absolutely terrified that he’s going to kiss me and I have no idea how I’ll respond. Will I kiss back? Run away? Start to cry? I’m just a puppet waiting to see which string my handler will pull.

But then Jesse leans away and I regain some tiny degree of control. With one hand, he traces the curve of my eyebrow, my cheek, my throat. A strange collection of noises escapes from my mouth. I ball the fabric of his shirt in my free hand as my eyelids flutter shut. He presses his lips to my jawbone again, but this time he leaves them there.

“Jesse,” I whisper. “Gideon might wake up.”

“So come downstairs with me,” he murmurs, his breath hot in my ear.

A wanting burns inside of me, hungry and raw, and with it the tinge of dread that always comes at the thought of getting too close. Reluctantly, I open my eyes. “I can’t.” The words fall from my lips in pieces. I tuck my head low so my hair obscures part of my face.

“I know.” He nods. “I’m sorry.”

He returns to his seat and my face flushes red. I can still feel his hands on me. His lips. A tremor races the length of my spine.

“The excitement of the night, you know?” he says. “I didn’t mean to get carried away.”

“It’s fine.” I return to my pseudo-work at the counter so I don’t have to face him, swiping at the clean sink with a dish towel and then carefully folding and refolding it until the corners match up exactly. I peek into the nearest cupboard and find a container of mild sedatives. Popping off the cap, I shake out two of the pills and dry swallow them. “Headache,” I explain, as I close the cupboard. “From the overlay.”

“Those can be brutal,” Jesse says. “I can stay with you for a while until you’re feeling better.”

I shake my head. “I should probably try to study a little bit before I go to sleep.”

“With a headache?”

“It’s not that bad,” I say. “Sometimes focusing on academics relaxes me.”

“So what you’re saying is that studying is so boring it puts you to sleep?” Jesse grins. “I still can’t believe you go to high school on the Internet.”

“It’s just easier for me. Rose went to regular school for a year. She never talked about it much, though. I figured maybe she didn’t want me to feel bad because I couldn’t go too.”

“Trust me,” Jesse says. “You’re not missing anything.”

“Being around a lot of people makes me nervous anyway,” I say. “I learn better in a controlled environment.” I shift my weight from one foot to the other. “I should get to work. But thanks for everything tonight.”

Jesse knows a dismissal when he hears one. He takes his untouched tea to the sink and dumps it. Greenish-brown liquid spirals down the drain. He washes his mug and then rinses it thoroughly. “I know it would make both our lives easier,” he says. “But I’m not giving up on you, Winter. On us.”

I take a tentative sip of my tea. “There is no us,” I say, hating the cruel way it sounds. If I wanted any guy, I would want him. But right now I can’t be the girl he needs.

Jesse doesn’t even flinch at my harsh words. He sets his mug in the drain pan to dry and then turns to face me. “Just because you say something, doesn’t make it true.”

I narrow my eyes. “Oh, really?”

He shakes his head. “Forget it. I don’t want to fight with you.” He slips back into his quilted jacket. “Drink your tea. Get your work done. I’ll come get you tomorrow so we can edit the recordings before we go to Krav Maga.” Jesse tugs his boots back on and slips out into the hallway.

I exhale deeply as the door closes behind him, both relieved and a little sad that he’s gone.

Krav Maga class is how Jesse and I officially met. I had seen him around Escape once or twice, but we never really talked until we paired off for sparring. Jesse was the first guy who offered to go up against me, quick to point out that what I lacked in brute strength I made up for in speed and agility.

He scared me at first, with his tattoos and his mangled ear, and this air of intensity that made me want to look away when he came close. He didn’t hold back when he was fighting me either. Jesse said I challenged him in ways guys didn’t, that working with me would make him better. From that day forward, we were sparring buddies, showing up for the same Sunday afternoon class each week.

A couple months later, when Gideon wanted to pair Jesse and me up for a martial arts ViSE, I found myself excited about the prospect of partnering with him. I knew he would push me to be my best. Gradually we became friends and he traded in his intense stares for smiles. Now I’ve grown to feel safe with him by my side. I should feel less safe after a glimpse into the predatory way he looks at the world, but I don’t.

I know Jesse would never hurt me.

But why? Why does he see me as something other than a collection of vulnerabilities to exploit? I fetch my tablet from my bedroom and work through some physics homework to avoid thinking about it. I sip my tea repeatedly as I wrestle with the equations, downing almost the whole mug without realizing it. The warm liquid reminds me of Jesse’s lips on my skin. My brain clings to the moment when I thought he was going to kiss me, replaying it, extrapolating out what might have happened if I had let it.

What might have happened if I were normal.

Abandoning my tablet, I head for the bathroom. I yank off the clothes Jesse loaned me and turn the bathtub faucet on extra hot. When the tub is full, I slide into it and duck completely under the surface, letting the scalding water cleanse away my shame and confusion.


Chapter 7

I dream of a small room and a man with one eye. Blood seeps like scarlet tears from his empty socket. I turn to run away from him and the room becomes a hallway that becomes a stairway that becomes a roof. The wind tugs at my body; the sky tries to wrap me in stars. Below me, a gazebo glows with red light. A line of black cars crawls like cockroaches through the streets.

An air conditioner exhaust fan chitters angrily near the roof’s edge, one of its blades bent just enough to scrape against the side of the casing. For a second I let the wind push me close enough to the fan’s razor-sharp blades that a lock of my hair gets snipped and sent out into the night. As it twists and flutters toward the gazebo, I think about just letting go, letting the breeze carry my body into the whirling blades, the wind scattering pieces of me throughout the city. Blood and flesh seeping into the cracked pavement. Flowers blooming wherever I land.

“Winter.” Rose’s voice comes from everywhere at once. I whirl around, but I don’t see her. The one-eyed man stands in the doorway that leads back to the building. He watches me without speaking, his face stained with blood.

“Eonni? Where are you?” I ask.

She doesn’t answer.

I turn back to the air conditioner. The blades spin. I step closer, hypnotized by the crackling noise.

Behind me, the one-eyed man laughs.

“Winter. No.” My sister appears at the edge of the roof. She reaches out for me.

But it’s too late. It’s time to fall to pieces.

<#>

I wake with my hands tightened into fists, my heart large inside my throat. I’m curled up on the floor of my room, my neck bent at a strange angle. My muscles ache and my head feels like it’s full of wet cotton.

At first I think I’ve sleepwalked. I used to do that right after we moved to St. Louis, especially when my dreams were particularly lucid. But then last night comes back to me. Trading ViSEs. The way Jesse’s touch made me feel. Trying to drown my shame and confusion with a bath. I vaguely remember returning to my room after the bathwater went cold.

I don’t remember going to sleep on the floor, but I do that sometimes when I’m anxious. Dr. Abrams calls this behavior “regression,” because Rose and I used to sleep on a mat together when we were little.

There’s a sharp knock on my door. “Winter. Are you all right?” It’s Gideon.

I glance at my phone and swear under my breath. I’m already late for my workout. “Coming, oppa,” I say. Oppa means older brother in Korean, but it’s used outside of blood relations too. Although Gideon prefers that we speak English at all times, that desire does not extend to me disrespectfully addressing him by his first name. “Give me five minutes.” Hurriedly I change into my dobok, my Taekwondo sparring outfit, and pull my hair back into a ponytail.

Gideon waits for me in the hallway already wearing his dobok and headgear. His dark eyes look me up and down in an almost clinical fashion.

“Sorry. I forgot to set my alarm.”

Wordlessly, he turns and strides down the hallway, pausing outside of my sister’s bedroom. “Have you talked to Rose today?”

Something in the tone of his voice makes my chest go tight. “No. Why?”

“I have something to ask her.” He pauses. “It’s nothing urgent.”

The door to her room is cracked open. I knock. “Eonni,” I say. No answer. I knock again and then push the door inward. Miso is sitting on the dresser, pawing gently at a bright red wig. I scoop him up in one arm and set the hairpiece on an empty stand between a wavy black wig and a silky blue one. Rose’s bed is full of stuff—high-heeled boots, two dresses, three fashion magazines. There’s no way she made this mess today. I would have heard her moving around.

“It looks like she didn’t come home last night. Did you send her to Inferno?” I ask.

“She wasn’t doing anything for me,” Gideon says.

My chest tightens further. “She told me she was working.”

“Rose has been doing a bit of . . . freelancing. You didn’t know?”

“No.” My teeth grate hard into my bottom lip. I knew Rose and I had secrets, but I didn’t know we kept any from each other.

“I’m sure she’s just crashed out at a friend’s place,” Gideon says kindly. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”

He’s right. My sister is no stranger to staying out all night. Still, something feels off.

Gideon’s phone buzzes in his pocket. He taps out a quick text and then says, “Come. It’s getting late and I still have to pack for my business trip. Our workout will help clear your mind.”

I follow him through the penthouse. A few sunbeams scatter their way through the miniblinds, just enough light to illuminate the Kandinsky print hanging above the fireplace and the private elevator that opens directly into the back corner of the living room.

“Where are you going again?” I ask.

“Chicago. Just for a couple of days.” Gideon slides open the balcony door.

I step outside, the chilly morning air turning to ice in my lungs. A short flight of stairs leads up to the roof. It’s empty up here except for an air-con unit and a ten-foot square drawn in chalk. My protective headgear sits in the southeast corner as always.

As I hurry over to it, something slams into me from behind. The blow strikes at the level of my kidneys and I fall to my hands and knees on the unforgiving cement. Instinctively, I curl over onto my back, my right forearm hooked in front of my face to protect my head.

Gideon stands over me, his mouth twisted into a mix of amusement and displeasure. “You’re unfocused.”

Frowning, I leap to my feet. “I wasn’t ready.” Blood blooms in the layers of torn skin on my palms. My knees sting from the hard landing.

“You must always be ready.” Gideon reaches out, bracing my jaw with his thumb and forefinger for a moment as he studies me. To an outsider his actions might appear intimate, but his hands and eyes aren’t cherishing me; they’re searching for injury. Weakness. Apparently satisfied, he steps back and gestures at the headgear.

Being careful not to turn my back on him, I dress for battle. We bow to each other and then retreat to opposite corners. For the next hour we fight hand-to-hand, no breaks. Gideon and I are about the same height, but he’s stronger and faster than I am and it is all I can do to stay on my feet. We do not use a mat because he says in life there are no mats, and I must learn to fall in a way that protects my bones and organs. It’s all about the transfer of energy from the part that hits the ground first to the rest of the body. The whole self—physical and mental—must absorb its share of the blows.

There are more blows today than usual. I am slow, sluggish. I rest on my heels instead of springing forth from the balls of my feet. My chin hugs my chest instead of leading. Repeatedly, Gideon attacks and I struggle to dodge and block, ending up on my hands, my flank, my back.

“Did you stay up late after you finished your recording?” Curiosity glimmers in his eyes.

“Yes. Studying.” The words come out sharper than intended. I lunge forward, my left arm lashing out in a ridge-hand strike, my right arm protecting my body.

My head snaps on my neck as Gideon lands a fist to my chin. I stumble backward, only barely regaining my balance before stepping outside of the chalk square. There are no chalk squares in life either, but there are enclosed areas and that is what the perimeter is supposed to represent.

Gideon’s jaw tightens as he returns to his side of the square. “I thought perhaps you went out with Jesse afterward.”

“He wishes.” I drop back into horse stance.

“Is that so?” Gideon attacks again, but this time I am ready. I block him both high and low and sweep my left foot in a hook kick. He stumbles but doesn’t fall. I follow up with a second attack, a knife hand and a crescent kick that sends Gideon outside of the chalk line. He recovers just before he falls, dipping into a bow. “Good,” he says. And then, “It appears speaking of Jesse inspires strong feelings.”

I attack again—a fist to the chin, a side arm to the gut. “Is there something specific on your mind?”

Gideon blocks both punches. “I just don’t want you to get hurt.”

I pause a split second to ponder the irony of that and end up on the ground.

When the hour is up, it is Gideon lying on his back half outside the chalk square and I’m standing over him. A smile plays at his lips as he allows me to help him back to his feet. We bow to each other, remove our headgear, and then descend the stairs back to the penthouse.

Gideon gestures toward a Tupperware container on the kitchen counter. Inside are two rolls of gimbap, vegetables and fish cake wrapped in rice and seaweed.

“You made breakfast already?” I ask, surprised. I usually end up rolling gimbap or preparing some other small meal for us.

“I woke up early,” Gideon says. “Unlike you.” He smiles to show me he’s teasing. “So I assume last night went all right?”

“Things went mostly as planned.” There’s no point in telling him about the gun going off. He’ll see it soon enough and I’d prefer to delay any forthcoming lecture as long as possible. I wash and dry my hands and take the gimbap to the dining room table. I slip one of the quarter-sized pieces into my mouth as I take my usual seat. “Jesse has the flash drive with the downloaded information. Sorry—I forgot to get it from him.”

“Hmm. There’s something different about the way you’re saying his name.” Gideon’s dark eyes cut into me like scalpels. I can almost feel him folding back layers, exposing secrets. Could he possibly know about what happened with Jesse in the kitchen? No—if he’d awakened, I would have heard him skulking around.

I swallow hard. “You’re imagining things.”

“Good.” His smile is sharp and fleeting. “You have a long time for boys and dating. Better you finish your studies and learn to protect yourself first.” He settles into the chair across from me and helps himself to a piece of gimbap. “How are your new courses going?”

“Fine. I think I’ll enjoy Physics and World Literature. Calculus might not be quite as interesting, but I see no reason why I won’t be able to get an A in every class as long as I work hard.”

“Excellent. You make me proud.”

I lower my eyes. Gideon is thirty years old, only twelve years my senior, but the closest thing I have ever had to a father. My real father left before I was born, or at least I assume he did.

I only remember my mother and Rose. One day when I was two or three, my mother woke us early and bundled us into our best clothes. She carried a basket with both hands, water and food for the journey. Rose walked beside her, her right hand wrapped tightly around my left one. We walked for hours and then took a train to the city. The ride stretched into eternity. The car was crowded with passengers—old leathery men with gnarled fingers and yellowing nails, school kids in their navy uniforms, mothers holding white-wrapped screaming babies. I was tired and hungry, but each time I reached for the basket of food, my mother slapped my hand away.

The mountains became rolling plains dotted with trees. Then Seoul rose up without warning, clusters of shacks bleeding into skyscrapers of metal and glass. Shortly after we disembarked, my mother stopped in front of a building and told us to wait on the steps for her. She disappeared into the lobby and never came back out. The building turned out to be the Singing Crane Orphanage. Staff members found us later and brought us inside.

When I was younger, I used to fantasize about why she left us there. I let myself believe she was a spy or a secret princess, that she abandoned us for our own protection and would come back for us once it was safe.

But now I know the reality is probably much simpler. She was too poor, too alone. She couldn’t take care of us anymore.

I eat another piece of gimbap.

Gideon goes to brew some tea, but then his phone rings. His jaw tenses as he listens to someone on the other end. “She’s with me,” he says. “We’ll be right there.”

“What is it?” I can tell by the sound of his voice that something bad has happened. I grip the corner of the table to steady myself.

“That was Sebastian. We need to go down to Escape.”

Sebastian “Baz” Faber is Gideon’s head of security. When he’s not at Gideon’s side, he works out of an office in the club. “Why? What happened?”

Gideon’s hands tremble a little as he slips his phone into his pocket. “There’s been a break-in.”

<#>

Baz peers out through the clear glass of Escape’s front door. He’s former military like Jesse, but he looks more like a stockbroker in his immaculately pressed dark suit. His bronze skin has paled slightly to match his slicked-back blond hair.

A wiry, dark-skinned man wearing thick glasses hurries over to us—Adebayo, the club manager. “Thank goodness you have arrived,” he says in his clipped Nigerian accent.

“What happened?” Gideon pulls a lighter and a tin of clove cigarettes from his pocket.

Adebayo wrings his hands, sweat beginning to bead on his high forehead. “I cannot believe it. Our security is more than adequate. The odds are astronomical. If you calculate all the permutations of the recent burglaries in the area . . .” He trails off when he sees that all of us are staring at him. He used to be a statistics professor at a local university until he lost his tenure for taking bets on a school athletic event. Even though that was years ago, he still thinks obsessively of things in terms of their odds.

Baz gestures toward the back of the club with one of his meaty arms. “You guys need to see this.”

We follow him across the main floor, past a row of vintage arcade games and the card tables where the college kids role-play. A narrow corridor at the back of the club leads to the ViSE rooms, where customers can enjoy their favorite recordings in complete darkness and silence.

And then there’s the back office, which has been trashed.

I step into the room and survey the carnage. The file cabinet lies on its side, sheaves of paper splayed out across the floor. The desk drawers have been ripped from the desk and emptied across the long counter that runs along the back of the room. The cabinet where we keep the ViSEs, headsets, and neural editor has been stripped of its contents, one wooden door hanging askew on its hinges.

Jesse appears in the doorway, the flash drive from last night in his hand. “Hey,” he says. His jaw drops. “What the hell?”

“Break-in,” Gideon says. He steps forward and takes the flash drive from Jesse’s outstretched hand.

“They took everything,” I say.

“Everything but the cash.” Baz gestures at the safe in the corner of the room. It appears to be undisturbed. “But it gets worse.” He holds up a small envelope with two words written on the outside: Who’s next? “No fingerprints on it. Or on this.” He folds open the flap and a silver necklace falls out—a rose pendant. My sister’s rose pendant.

But there’s something else in the envelope too. A small blue memory card. A ViSE.

“I truly hope it is a forgery.” Adebayo pushes his glasses up on his nose.

“What is it?” Gideon asks. He exhales a long stream of sweet smoke.

Baz hands the memory card to Gideon. “It’s Rose,” he says grimly.



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Copyright 2016 by Paula Stokes. All rights reserved.