Excerpt Reveal: Glass Houses by Madeline Ashby
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Excerpt Reveal: Glass Houses by Madeline Ashby

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A masterful near future whodunit for fans of Glass Onion and Black Mirror; join a stranded start-up team led by a terrifyingly realistic charismatic billionaire, a deserted tropical island, and a mysterious AI-driven mansion–as the remaining members disappear one by one.

A group of employees and their CEO, celebrating the sale of their remarkable emotion-mapping-AI-algorithm, crash onto a not-quite-deserted tropical island.

Luckily, those who survived have found a beautiful, fully-stocked private palace, with all the latest technological updates (though one without connection to the outside world). The house, however, has more secrets than anyone might have guessed, and a much darker reason for having been built and left behind.

Kristen, the hyper-competent “chief emotional manager” (i.e., the eccentric boyish billionaire-CEO Sumter’s idea of an HR department) is trying to keep her colleagues stable throughout this new challenge, but staying sane seems to be as much of a challenge as staying alive. Being a woman in technology has always meant having to be smarter than anyone expects….and Kristen’s survival skills are more impressive than anyone knows.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of  Glass Houses by Madeline Ashby, on sale 8/13/24


CHAPTER ONE

It feels good to wash the blood off her hands. It had dried tight to her skin, pitting the creases of her knuckles like rust. She is not sure how much of it is her own.

Stray strands of hair, caked in even more blood, come away in her fingers. Recently highlighted, it now drinks the blood eagerly as if to replenish its lost proteins, turning it gloriously red. The air smells of smoke and salt and the kinds of flowers now found only at fancy studios.

She had gotten her roots done before taking the trip. She had gotten everything done. Fingers and toes, legs and underarms and landing strip. Her mouth had filled with light as they gave her TV teeth and a Barbie cunt.

How many days ago was that? The crash makes it hard to remember.

She had emerged from the belly of the plane feet first; felt the sun on her toes. It had tingled, like a numbness receding. Then her grip slipped and she was sliding down and down and down the rest of the way, landing on a pile of battered luggage.

It was like being born.

Now she stands at the lip of the waves and wonders about sharks. They say most sharks kill people in only three feet of water. Pushed by hunger and desperation, they circle closer and closer to the splash patterns blithely made by foolish swimmers and snap them just above the ankle. Her boss said the same was true for startups. In the ocean and in business, it didn’t take a big shark to bloody the waters. All it took was one big bite in the right place, and the competition would bleed out while frantically treading water, desperate to stay afloat.

She walks farther into the ocean. Salt water stings her legs. It is warm. Bathwater warm. Blood warm. So, she is in a warm place. Palm trees. White sands. The sort of paradise they were promised. Their reward—a celebration.

Are the others alive?

The waves hit above her knees. Maybe they are dead. Maybe they are all dead, and this is Hell. Or Heaven. Or purgatory. Maybe this is her own unearned twist ending, the kind that makes no sense.

She wades up to her waist. Here she feels the current’s tug more strongly. She feels better semi-weightless, toes gripping the velvety sand, than she did standing on dry land’s cruel gravity. Bodies are always such a problem. She thinks this must be true for most women. No wonder so many girls fantasize about being mermaids.

She pushes herself deeper, the water up to her chest. Then her chin. Then her eyes. Maybe being dead would be better. More convenient for everyone. More convenient for her, especially.

Survival is work. Hard work.

Underwater, the hair slowly lifts off her scalp. She senses the crusted blood there dissolving, salt returning to salt. It feels like undoing the Velcro on a child’s sneaker. Some of the coders she’s met still wear those. Why would they waste their precious executive function doing something so banal as tying shoelaces? It was like cooking and cleaning and laundry and driving from place to place: things their mothers used to do for them, until they found quieter and more reliable automation elsewhere.

She sinks down lower in the ocean, until the sand hits her knees. Her hands float up without initiative. I surrender, she thinks. At her gym, that’s what the move is called. It is the motion of a soldier holding a gun crosswise, as though marching out of a jungle and kneeling before her captors.

I surrender. I surrender. I surrender. 

A hand brushes hers.

She rockets out of the water. She blinks blind, wet eyes into the dying sun. On the waves in front of her floats a body. He is face up. Birds and bottom-feeders have been at him. He looks like a cake with swipes of frosting missing. The eyes are mostly gone. But she still recognizes the shape, the hair, what is left of the ears. It’s Craig. His sneakers are still on, their proprietary polymers now swollen with salt water just like the rest of him. How long has he been in the water? When did the crash happen? She has no memory of anyone trying to awaken her. Maybe the others had assumed she was dead.

Or maybe they just hoped she was.

“Kristen?” Someone is calling her name.

“Hey! Kristen! Kristen, stop!”

She keeps looking at the horizon. She hears the splash that her boss, Sumter Williams, makes while jumping into the ocean. Her job is to know him well, so she recognizes his gait faster than any airport security system, and identifies the sound of his indrawn breath before she even hears his voice.

“Don’t move! I’m coming!”

He sounds exhausted. Hoarse. It’s his post-conference voice. His throat is dry. If they were at work, she would get him a water and he would have no idea where it came from. But they aren’t at work, so he embraces her from behind. Apparently he has been out of the plane long enough for the hair on his arms to turn golden.

“Stop.” He’s breathing hard. “Please stop.”

“Where did your watch go?” Kristen asks.

What?” He spins her around. He doesn’t look too bad, considering: sunburn, chapped lips, a bruise near one ear, a scrape on his jaw. But he also looks surprised, the kind of surprised that means he’s about to be angry. He seems to want to shake her. “We survive a fucking plane crash and you want to know where my watch went?”

“You love that watch. The band—” The band was your father’s, she is about to say, when he wrenches her to him. The company designed a custom bezel just for you, to fit that band. That’s how much your brand is worth to theirs. But he is stroking her hair and digging his chin in her shoulder. So instead she says what all Canadians say when they feel awkward: “I’m sorry.”

“I’m not mad. I’m just scared. I was scared you were . . .”

“. . . Quitting?”

He chuckles. There’s a slight wheeze to it. “Yeah. Quitting. And I refuse to accept your resignation.” He pulls away and smiles. “I mean it, Kiki. I need you here with me. Between the two of us, you’re the only one who actually knows how to start a fire.”

Kristen remains silent long enough for him to realize his blunder. Perhaps the burn scars are less prominent now. Perhaps he didn’t even notice them when he ran his hand up and down her back.

“Oh, Jesus. Kristen, I’m sorry, I didn’t think—”

“We should take care of Craig,” she says.

So that’s what they do next. Towing his body across the water is easy enough, with Sumter there. It isn’t until they hit the beach that Craig really begins to feel like deadweight.

Sumter sinks into the sand beside her. “He’s heavier than he looks.”

“We’re in shock,” she says. “I think I have a concussion.”

“Let’s see your eyes.” Sumter takes hold of her chin. “This is probably inappropriate,” he murmurs, squinting into her face. He holds up his other hand to shade his view of her eyes. “Well, your pupils are decidedly un-Bowie-like. So that’s something. What was he even doing out there, in the water? What were you doing out there? Did you see him? Is that why you walked out there?”

Kristen shakes her head. “No. I just wanted to clean up. I have cuts . . .” She holds out her hands. “I thought the salt water would help.”

“Smart. But you still scared the shit out of me.”

She is going to be cold, soon. Entering the water with her clothes still on was a bad idea. “When did you get out?”

“Me? I don’t know. An hour ago? Maybe more? The sun was higher up, but . . .” He flicks the skin of his right wrist with the fingers of his left hand. There is a band of skin there where he is whiter than usual. “I remember my arms flying up; my watch must have hit something and fallen off. So I couldn’t contact anyone. That’s why I left you in the plane; I was looking for people. I’m guessing whoever else made it out is doing the same.”

Kristen blinks three times. Then she remembers she’d removed her HeartEyez contacts for the flight. Sumter had removed his, too. They had used them at passport control, and then to log themselves on to the flight manifest. But the lenses dry out during air travel. And they’re mostly useless midair, unless the user needs active monitoring for heart attack or seizures. She’d already turned the Wuv functions off by the time they boarded. She had been looking forward to never needing to use Wuv again. Had she put the lenses in her carry-on? Where is her carry-on? Where is her passport? Biometrics are useless without a reader. Kristen stares at her meaningless fingers, considers her meaningless eyes. Without supporting infrastructure she is nothing, no one—nameless.

It feels liberating.

“You checked on me before you looked for anyone else?”

He scoffs. “Uh, yeah? You were sitting right next to me, remember?”

She doesn’t remember. She remembers helping Sumter with his lenses, in the tiny airplane washroom. But she didn’t wake up in the washroom, so she must have returned to her seat. If the cabin pressure dropped abruptly, would they all have passed out simultaneously? The others on the plane, the dead ones whose corpses she’d crawled past, must not have buckled their seat belts in time. They would have been thrown every which way, if the plane went into free fall or rolled over.

“Do you remember what the plane told us? Did it warn us about a crash?”

Sumter shakes his head. “Nope. It just told us to sit down and buckle up. Turbulence.”

Kristen remembers her bare feet on plush white carpet, the delicate stem of a champagne flute in one hand. The champagne was dry and musky, not too sweet. Actual champagne. Actually French. Not a hint of wildfire on the bouquet. She’d had too much of it.

They’d had so much to celebrate.

“Do you remember anything else?”

“No. It’s a blur. A blur that hurts.” He looks over his shoulder. “There’s an airstrip. The plane must have found it, when it was hunting for a place to land.”

The plane. The plane had found an airstrip. The plane that had told them when it was safe to stand up and when they needed to sit down. Because, of course, they had opted for the easiest flight—the simplest, quickest option between acquisition and celebration. The shortest distance between two points is not a straight line, but an automated one. Sumter chartered the private flight himself. Their plane had no pilot.

“Do you think . . . ?” She licks her lips. Even after her dip in the water they are dry, cracked. She tastes blood. “Do you think someone could have hacked the plane?”

Sumter stares out over the ocean. “What, like our being here is the result of some sadistic plot to strand all the principals of our company on a remote, desert island, where we slowly die of thirst, begging forgiveness for developing the world’s first emotional currency?”

He turns to face her. “Yeah, that thought crossed my mind.”

Copyright © 2024 from Madeline Ashby

Pre-order Glass Houses Here:

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