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✅ YA Fairy Tale Retelling

✅ Cyberpunk Setting

✅ Hacker Heroine

✅ AI Sidekick

Part of the Enchanted Kingdoms Anthology (and only 99c!)





Blurb for Silver Hands, part of the Enchanted Kingdoms Anthology

Sage lived like a paper doll; her destiny to be an arranged marriage to a suitable mate. To please her family.


After a terrible day and night, to save her family she accepted exile and sacrificed her hands.


In the depths of Lowtown, she found the strength to survive.


Can she find the strength to face what she lost?


Silver Hands is part of the Enchanted Kingdoms Anthology.


ABOUT ENCHANTED KINGDOMS


Enchanted castles? Check. Spellbinding magic? Check. Happily ever afters? Check. 100% of proceeds going to charity? We got that, too!


Old tales get a new twist in this anthology featuring 22 novel-length retellings of different classic fairytales—all written by best-selling and award-winning authors. And—because everyone deserves a fairy godmother—100% of proceeds benefit Puzzle Peace United, a children's autism charity!


 

CHAPTER ONE

 

An upcoming amputation put everyone’s nerves on edge.

Within the airy meeting room, the walls and flooring were all done in light wood that shimmered slightly with gloss. Viny plants trailed from their pots near the ceiling, and full-spectrum lights shone from above them. The plants and people needed the lights since the space was situated at the heart of the family quarters of Rayne tower. There were no windows here – no natural lighting. Without the special lighting, people and plants would wither and die over time.

Like the plants needed light, Sage needed something more than the careful existence she was offered, or she, too, would wither away.

The wall screen glowed, waiting for a presentation to begin. Plush but elegant chairs stood carefully arranged through the rest of the meticulously designed space.

In metered defiance, Sage slouched just a hair in one of these chairs while her sister, Mallory, sat with perfect posture in one of the others. Sage bowed her head, enduring her parents’ lecture. Their carefully considered but chastising words flowed into her ears, as inevitable as the spring floods driving into the ruins of Old Houston. Inwardly, she sighed. She was used to it. They’d gone through this argument so many times in the past few years, always reaching the same conclusion. Sage often wondered why they felt the need for these meetings when the result didn’t vary.

“Mr. Abe brought another internal incursion to our attention.” The chill in Mama’s even voice indicated real irritation. She paced on the other side of the long wooden table. “His analysis indicates that it was you, Sage. Would you be so kind as to explain why you continue this behavior?”

Normally, Sage’s mother would not have been so edgy, but a full quorum had been called to witness a punishment for corporate theft. It was the first public punishment in a decade and one they could not skip. Even if the event would be barbaric and hideous, the Rayne family had to function within the corporate code and obey the Council’s decisions.

Sage knew she had left no evidence of her own runs against other networks, proving she had the needed skill to take the credit from other companies if Rayne International needed it. Mr. Abe, the head of Lattice security, had manufactured that evidence after receiving her message. But she couldn’t win this argument. More so because she was a terrible liar and Papa was exceptionally good at detecting any and all lies.

Sage smoothed the rich fabric of her wide trousers. “The security on the research division is substandard. I was checking it, and I gave Mr. Abe a list of the holes I found. Since he hadn’t found them himself.” She couldn’t resist muttering that last even though she knew it wouldn’t help her argument. Straightening her shoulders, she peered up at her parents. “I think I’d do better in Security. Remember what happened when we were hacked?”

Papa’s frown blackened. It sat oddly on his round, cheerful face. He covered his reader with a large hand, staring straight at Sage. “My girl, have you forgotten what happened when you went up against corporate security in the Lattice? How long it took you to recover use of your arm?” His finger tapped against the reader’s screen. “Mr. Abe took on the job after all that and tightened up the security to prevent another raid on our finances.”

I remember I got our desperately needed credit back from the company that raided us. That comment didn’t make it to her lips. She worked part-time for Accounting, and she was also aware of the fact that finances continued to be precarious. The release of the new uplink chips had been delayed again due to issues with supply of materials, specifically the growth media needed to implant the uplinks correctly.

Sage spent the rest of her time in Design, working on the next generation design for the uplink. While the version Rayne offered was groundbreaking work, she had found– and gotten approved– some tweaks in the design to make the uplinks integrate into the user’s nervous system even more smoothly.

Rayne International had altered the original design from Sage’s parents for safety reasons, but Sage wanted to continue her parents’ work. She hoped to someday be given access to the schematics for the prototype, which she and Mallory had in their brains.

“No exterior agency has gotten through the defenses. Security is too risky for a family member to work in. Your time would be better spent working in your assigned divisions, preferably in accounting,” Mama finished the old argument. A tiny but unreadable smile curved her lips, and Sage knew that the next thing her mother was going to say would rattle her. “Or attracting a good husband to the company. You’re a Rayne; we’ve had offers for Mallory and you already even if you’re not ‘out’ yet.”

Blindsided, Sage gaped at her. Offers? To be married? She’d only just turned eighteen! What about their brother Gideon? He was twenty-four and still not engaged!

Her sister Mallory, ash blonde and perfectly groomed, looked up from her reader in the corner chair. She met Sage’s stunned glance with a smile full of dry amusement and then turned her attention to their parents. “From whom? I thought it went against custom to offer before we turn twenty.”

She had deflected attention from Sage to her effortlessly. Sage breathed a silent “Thank you” and exited the room as Mama called a suitor’s dossier up on the wall screen for Mallory to peruse. Of the two of them, everyone thought that Mallory would make a better wife.

Mama and Papa knew she had left, but Mallory had given everyone an opportunity to distract themselves from the rising tension. She could almost follow the logic– let Sage get used to the idea to avoid the protests pouring out uncensored.

She hurried to her room, down halls decorated with Mama’s delicate touch. The public areas of Rayne Tower spoke of Rayne’s power: white marble floors, expensive carpet the shade of champagne, and gold gilding everywhere. These were all signs of wealth and success. Here, where the family lived, the décor was simple, plain, light gray walls and iron-colored floors, comfortable but bland furnishings, and open spaces where possible. Here, they could wear casual clothing rather than the fashionable and expensive outfits required for public view.

Sometimes, Sage wished they could live like that all the time, but then their competitors would assume Rayne International was having cash-flow problems and attack their holdings, either in the Lattice – the biotechnological network – or in the physical world. Any deviation from expectations attracted assaults, and a second-tier company like Rayne couldn’t take multiple strikes in a short time. They’d fall like the countries of the past – the ones Mallory liked to read about. She enjoyed history, unlike Sage, who embraced the future.

Safely in her room, Sage sat on her bed and exhaled a deep sigh. The cool color scheme of her room, all blues and greens shining in the natural light from one of the few windows in Rayne tower, helped calm her.

The fact her parents had finally yielded to her pleading and let her have the room, despite the danger of the window, proved they loved her as much as the new glass in the window, certified safe against guided missiles.

It gave her a view of sun and sky and bay, what she could see unobscured by the other corporate towers rising to kiss the clouds, and the ramshackle man-made islands of settlements that huddled at the towers’ bases. The settlements interconnected with bridges and boats, forming Lowtown, the population pool where agricultural and low-skill workers came from. Rayne International’s tower was close enough to the edge of the bay that only a few towers stood nearby. It wasn’t close to the center of the city where the huge towers of first-tier companies blotted out the sky.

Further north, the mounds where the ruins of old Houston poked up out of the rice paddies and marshes, and the great walls, built to keep the Infected out, were at the edges of the fields that fed the city.

She wasn’t entirely sure if the Infected were even still a threat; it was a convenient fear to keep Lowtowners focused away from their living conditions.

A variant of the rabies virus dubbed RY7 had ravaged the planet. Most of those infected died from nerve degeneration, but those who survived suffered brain damage, often in the impulse control centers. They became creatures of appetite and intelligence, and because of that, they were seen as a threat and driven from populated areas.

No one was sure how the infection began.

There was a vaccine, but it was not given out in the wilds. Children born from Infected parents were infected themselves. It made travel on land terribly dangerous.

Sage had been working on ideas to improve the conditions of the Infected, but she hadn’t been able to get any funding. Mallory had promised that she’d help put together the grant request as soon as she finished up the project she was working on, but time was running out.

She curled her fingers around the edge of her mattress. If they married, there would no longer be options of aiding those in need. Sage didn’t want to leave her family. She had no desire to be married yet. But if Mama hadn’t turned down the offers unread, that meant that the family needed to consider options. Marriages were a tried and true capital generating strategy.

Sometimes, Sage wondered if they hoped it would stop her from agitating to work security by giving her a child to bring up. Mama had once mentioned that having children caused her to cut way back at her job in Rayne International until they were old enough to manage without immediate supervision for a few hours.

Mallory must have known that other options needed to be considered. Otherwise, she would have reacted more. How had she found out before Sage?

Across the room, the formal white robes for the Council meeting, already laid out for her to wear, sent a chill over Sage’s skin. She didn’t want to think about any of this– punishment or marriage.

She closed her eyes, switching to perception through her uplink. The device in her brain accessed the Lattice at the speed of thought, the virtual world rising up around her. It was an environment of data flow and facts that made sense to Sage in a way the physical world often didn’t.

The Lattice held all the digitally stored information in the world. Unlimited storage and processing power were enabled by the nanite population that existed in every living cell of every creature on Earth, largest to smallest. Some small paranoid sites used physical storage made from unliving materials to keep it isolated from the Lattice, but the lack of memory volume made that rare.

Sage and her sister had the fastest uplinks in existence; they’d been the human test subjects for Rayne’s new product. Sage had been adopted because of it, keeping all the revenues within the family from the patent. Normally, human test subjects were given a percentage of gross profits in exchange for the risk. Didn’t need to do that for family.

Some said she came from lesser blood. Her parents, the Liús, had been the designers of her uplink, but when they died saving Papa from an assassination attempt, they had left Sage an orphaned toddler. The Raynes adopted her.

Rayne had made successor models slower to preserve the family’s advantage. Sage accepted that, but certain portions of the Rayne family did not. Lab rat, her Aunt Emma called her. Her aunt would never say that to Mallory – or about her – though Sage’s sister had the same version of the uplink implanted in her brain.

As a tiny parakeet, her imago, the form her consciousness took in the Lattice, fluttered within the blazing tunnels of Rayne’s firewalls. Sage smiled as Smoke, her friend, materialized close by. The AI enveloped her puny feathered body as it sensed her emotions.

Rumor had it that wild AIs roamed the Lattice, and Smoke confirmed those rumors as did Star, who was Mallory’s friend. Shy and difficult to communicate with on a verbal level, Smoke and she made do with images and emotions. Sage thought the problem was that the AI’s thoughts were just too fast for her to parse whereas emotions worked differently. She’d often been curious how Smoke perceived the emotions, too; perhaps as electrical patterns in Sage’s brain? The idea fascinated her.

As they traveled through the Lattice together, Sage had discovered that within her friend's embrace, she was – by all intents and purposes—invisible. A shadow. One with the spaces between all the bright, living, broadcasting life lights of the Lattice. She was completely unnoticed...and unnoticeable. It made hacking runs, among other interests, that much more attractive; though she’d been careful after the first one.

Today, she just wanted to fly and roam the Lattice. She needed to be away from all of the physical things in the world she didn’t want to do. Maybe Felix would be out in the fields. She hadn’t seen her friend in a week, and he wouldn’t come into New Houston without her.

She flew through Rayne’s firewall and out into the city proper. The geography she perceived generally matched the real world’s, open space this high in the air and water moving far below. She headed for the rolling hills beyond the shoreline. Her wings blurred as she sped past the other firewalls of House towers, soaring over Lowtown full of the flickering glow of the people who lived there.

Later, she might poke around in the towers to find interesting information. Browsing through their departments was like visiting the library Mallory had discovered when they went to DeeCee to visit their distant cousins. Mallory had fallen in love with the books’ physicality. Sage enjoyed the analogy though physical data storage seemed woefully bulky. She didn’t understand why Mallory found the weight and feel of paper pleasant.

With the unlimited storage and processing power enabled by the nanites, Sage didn’t see the point of physical storage, but she humored her sister anyway. Felix had told her he knew someone who traded in physical books, and an idea sparked within her. Mallory’s birthday was coming soon, another reason to try to find him.

Not that she needed an incentive. He was fun to be with.

As she flew past the sketched-in outlines of rice paddies and then fields of grain and vegetables, full of constellations of data that indicated laborers in the physical world, she spotted the waveform that was Felix’s imago. It shifted area and form constantly, an interesting take on chaos theory. He waited near AquaDLite’s firewalls. The construct that represented the company’s Lattice defenses gleamed like diamond beneath the venomous vines crawling on its surface. She hadn’t tried to peek inside that company yet. Their defenses were impressive. Still, Sage was tempted every time she saw it but put off trying to penetrate them until she tweaked her programs more. The challenge was almost irresistible, but she didn’t want to die or get caught.

Wrapped within Smoke, the AI’s form a haze on her perception of the Lattice, Sage snuck toward Felix’s ever-shifting wave. He flowed back and forth, just outside the defensive line of the installation, examining its exterior. Shadow hid her as they snuck up on Felix. She brushed her feathers against the AI as she emerged, and the wave shuddered in surprise when she popped into visibility.

Don’t do that! The resonances indicated amused exasperation when he messaged her. In the Lattice, communication was better than speech– faster and more comprehensive in its meaning. Not least because the desired emotion and tone was clear.

Why not? It’s fun. Sage sent him a grin that dinged and rolled as if it were giggling too. What are you doing out here? I was going to see if you were anywhere nearby, but this is my backyard.

Smoke retreated to her other side as Felix’s imago flowed next to Sage. The AI hid from nonfamily.

You were upset a couple days ago when you mentioned the sentencing. I thought I’d see if you wanted moral support. Especially if your nasty aunt will be there.

There went not thinking about the judgment, she thought to herself. She felt the urge to sigh. Even if she wasn’t breathing here, physical habits were ingrained in her mind.

Sage created a chatroom, manipulating the shared low level enhanced reality matrix to section the area off. A small hut of grass and leaves erupted from the brush of lights that resembled grass growing in the real world. She flew in, Felix following in the shape of an oval puddle of water that slithered along and through the grass like a digitized serpent.

While the walls of the hut appeared simple, the code that went into it was anything but. To Sage, the code was intricate and beautiful. This portable firewall would ensure the privacy of their conversation.

Smoke wrapped itself around the outside of the construct to hide its existence from the other presences in the Lattice.

I do. I do want support, but the Council Hall cuts off access to the external Lattice. She paused. Have you ever seen a judgment or sentencing?

They’d known each other for three years. He had warned her off before she tried to slip through a firewall he was guarding. Back then, his imago had been a beautifully rendered lynx, complete with tiny ear tufts and fur that stuck out in every direction. Intrigued by the sheer detail of his imago, she’d obeyed. He had fascinated her.

Afterward, he asked her into a public chatroom. They’d talked for hours in real-time, discussing programming and theories on whether AIs could exist. He didn’t believe in them, but despite that, his arguments showed a keen and open mind. Neither of them had talked much about who they were though Sage had admitted to belonging to a House in Houston a year before when he told her he knew she was a Rayne. He had not yet told her how he figured it out. She was never sure she wanted the answer, anyway.

Yes. But Houston still uses the old Code. San Diego moved to a restitution-based judgment style. Less bloody with more money. Some would say it’s less fair; the rich can buy off any crime. The swirling water floated in the air near her perch.

Same as here. There’s always a way out if you have enough money. The fact bothered her.

Rayne was one of the many hungry second tiers, all fighting to reach the height of power and control. HTI, the security company Aunt Emma ran, was much closer to that level than Rayne.

Sage had never known her uncle, Mama’s older brother. His death soon after he inherited HTI had put Aunt Emma in a bad place. She had needed money and influence quickly to save the company. Somehow, she had found Lazirio.

When he became her husband, he took the Persky surname and had never made a decision since– as far as Sage knew. He’d brought money and influence with him. He was also a younger child of a first-tier family. Aunt Emma, as stubborn and sturdy as a firewall, did the rest.

Unlike Aunt Emma, Mama hadn’t had to marry to advance the family. Everyone knew Aunt Emma envied her for that.

She tucked her wings tight against her body. It’s going to be horrible.

Felix flicked virtual water in her direction. Want to scope out HTI again? Check out the firewall construction?

Agreeing, she flew out, grateful for the distraction.

They reached HTI’s perimeter in seconds. The line between open Lattice and the corporate territory was smooth and glossy like an onyx, a bit like AquaDLite in the seamless way it was put together. Sage hadn’t tried to get through it yet. While AquaDLite defenses might kill her, the risk was that Aunt Emma’s wouldn’t. Life would only be extremely unpleasant if caught.

She wished she could find a way to persuade Papa to let her handle Lattice security for Rayne. She was good; she’d proven she could penetrate tight security and find flaws in firewalls, but he refused to listen to reason.

Impressive. It reminds me of another system I’ve seen back home. Felix glided by her side, the chaotic movement of the water in his imago reflected in the firewall.

Can you talk about it?

Felix hesitated. No. But I will say that if it’s similar, there’s nasty lethal protocols involved. Which is strange for a second-tier security company. The water rippled with his agitation.

What on earth could Aunt Emma be hiding? Within Sage, curiosity blossomed, full-fledged in a moment. She focused her detection on the wall, magnifying it, looking for insight on how the code behind the image functioned. She’d put the final touches on that program yesterday, in hopes of working out some of the more difficult firewalls.

The closer analysis revealed that the smooth surface was actually a close interlay of scales representing overlapping routines, to provide better coverage. They flexed, though, opening and closing. So a small program could fit through them if timed correctly. An alternate potential weakness, she noted to herself.

Since data – personal or not – also had to enter and exit, there had to be passwords to spoof. All she had to do was find the entry point. She settled back to watch. Soon, she’d have to leave for events in the physical world, but patience was a virtue.

Felix settled under her to watch. The digitized water reflected her imago, a nice touch, as she fluttered above him. Silence stretched between them.

Watching the firewall, Sage’s thoughts drifted to Mama’s last words to her. She blurted, Mama is entertaining offers for me. I'm not happy about it.

Felix’s waters rippled as if a drop of water had landed in his middle. Well, it can hardly be a surprise, can it?

Sage’s wings missed a beat. The comment hurt, startling her. You mean you think it's okay?

No. I think it shouldn't be a surprise, given your mother's feelings about tradition, protocol, and devotion to the company. It's not common knowledge that Rayne is having issues, but enough people know that she must be trying to secure alliances.

You know about it? Sage fluttered in a circle over the water in shock.

Of course. I make it my business to know things about you. A strand of the water rose and brushed her tiny talons.

Sage fluttered, intrigued by, and uncomfortable with the comment. The resonance of the comment indicated an interest in her, and she found herself responding to it.

Felix’s imago iced over as it morphed into a tall, thin stream of water. Something is coming.

Sage didn't hesitate. They were outside the first layer of HTI's firewalls, but her aunt's security programs were fierce and sometimes didn’t discriminate well between witness and enemy. Much like her aunt.

Felix had long ago proven that he was far more sensitive than she to the warnings embedded in the shifts in data. At Sage’s signal, Smoke wrapped around them both. This way, she could watch people emerge and get a good idea of how entrance and exit worked.

Felix’s imago morphed from ice to a cloud of mist, hovering and darting within Smoke’s confines. Sage brushed her wings against him.

Look outside. We’re fine! She tuned the message as bare and short-ranged as she could, depending on Smoke to confine the signal.

She trusted Felix not to talk about Smoke.

The scales in a small area of the firewall thinned, paled, and vanished as a tiny jester, wearing a hat with two horn-like points with bells on the end, ran through the opening, pursued by a pod of orcas.

Sea life and land life could mix in the Lattice with ease, and Aunt Emma had a fondness for sea mammals. “The supreme predators of the sea,” she called them with pride. The shape of the hunter-killer programs argued her full awareness of their abilities and actions.

As the water environment didn’t slow Sage’s bird imago at all; neither did the air environment hinder the orcas.

Huge compared to the jester, the orcas’ sensor blasts kept him momentarily pinned as they flowed around him, but their black bulk didn’t obscure him completely.

Spotting a weakness in their defenses, the jester launched a spray of countermeasures to blind the killer whales and ran for its life, crossing into the open territory. The bells on his hat jingled. Technically, pursuit should cease beyond the corporate grounds, but it never did. The hunter-killer programs sped after the jester, easily catching up with him.

Sage realized the programs must have a human interface– the orcas were toying with the would-be hacker. The cruelty made her feel sick. In security, she might have to kill an intruder, but not torture them like this. Giving hope then yanking it away. The casual viciousness sickened her.

She snuck a glance at Felix. The water had formed into a smooth drop, attention intent but showing no reaction.

Over time, the orcas herded the jester back to the corporate grounds.

The jester screamed for help at the first orca bite. The bite and the blood that spurted from the imago symbolized the fact that the jester’s firewall had been penetrated, and hostile code was being fed into his uplink. Since the uplink was wired into many portions of the brain, commands that caused overheating or structural issues killed the owner as certainly as a stroke. VR could kill through sheer feedback as well if the code took that direction instead.

Sage jerked, fighting the urge to help. If an imago died in Lattice, so did their counterpart in the real world. His death was going to be drawn out, and she wanted to help even if he must have known what he was risking by his intrusion.

Sage tensed, ready to dart forward.

Felix’s imago wrapped around her.

Don’t. You’ll be killed. That is far more than any second-tier should have for their security. The resonances of his message indicated worry and anger.

Smoke situated a portion of itself between them. It pinned Sage down just as firmly as Felix’s imago.

Another scream, the desperation in it tearing at her.

Whoever’s doing this really likes their job, Felix messaged, the resonances disgusted. I’d avoid HTI’s security; this is pure sadism.

Is there anything we can do?

Neither of us is prepared to handle programs like those right now. There’s nothing we can do, Sage. But I am going to find countermeasures. I don’t like sitting here anymore than you do.

Felix’s imago transmitted the impression of a hug. It did nothing to soothe her.

He continued, I've seen top-line security, and that was top-line. And nothing in your answer repertoire says that she should be able to sign them. Therefore, she's getting them from someone else. Which means that she's in debt to somebody, somewhere, and that could be risky for you and Rayne.

The screams stopped.

The pod of orca swam a lazy circuit after the imago vanished. Somewhere, in the real world of Lowtown or Hightown, a person had died in agony. Sage mourned them.

After the orcas swam back through the firewall, Smoke unwrapped Sage and Felix. The water shuddered violently, stretching out into a mist before snapping back to a hovering puddle.

The puddle faced her. I'm not going to ask you about my speculations right now, but I'm going to want to know in the near future.

Agreed. Sage's answer was swift as she fought the sympathetic sorrow within.

The puddle brushed her talons. Unspoken friendly resonance wrapped around her, and she returned it.

Who was Felix in the physical world? Sage wondered it for the first time and braced herself to ask. It was a rude question, but she didn’t think he’d mind.

She fluttered back to take another look at the firewall, readying the question. Felix flowed beside her.

And then, she felt her imago freeze as she was dumped back into physical reality.



Daphne Moore writes speculative fiction and romance. Before she even knew how to read, she was telling stories to her younger brothers about monster plants and vampires. Then she grew up, and started writing her stories down...


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Copyright © 2019 Jessa Lucas

All rights reserved. This work or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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