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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Sci-Fi & fantasy  ➡  Science fiction  ➡  Adventure

The Making of Socket Greeny: A Science Fiction Saga

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

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  • {color:#000;}2
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  • {color:#000;}5
  • {color:#000;}6
  • {color:#000;}7
  • {color:#000;}8
  • {color:#000;}I
  • {color:#000;}No Rime or Reason
  • {color:#000;}Shadowplay
  • {color:#000;}Perp Alley
  • {color:#000;}In the Moody
  • {color:#000;}Wormholed
  • {color:#000;}Faceless
  • {color:#000;}Piked

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Your true nature is a train.

Either get on board or get run over.

1

I am Socket Greeny.

My story is a long one. An unbelievable one. It’s the sort of story that leaps from dreams or a bad trip. If you refuse to believe it, I can’t say I blame you.

The details of my birth are confusing, something I won’t bore you with. I had two good parents until I was five. Dad died. After that, it was just Mom and me. Some folks felt sorry for me, but we all have to die.

So I thought.

I was pretty much a normal kid, except for the hair. Pure white, it was. The kind of white that falls on snowflakes. I didn’t know why it didn’t have color and really didn’t care. Other than that, I was just a normal kid growing up in a single-parent home.

Until high school.

I remember the day when things started to turn. I know everything about my life, of course, but that day I remember with great clarity. That was the day I felt big change coming. You know the feeling, when something big is about to happen?

True nature was coming for me.

It started after school, late autumn.

It was unusually cold for South Carolina. I was lurking at the edge of the woods, standing beneath the shade of a live oak and blowing into my hands for warmth and watching these jocks bully a short, fat kid.

There were three of them.

They were under the bleachers, the same bleachers that in just a few months would be blown to pieces and my life would never be the same. They stood around the short, fat kid that was maybe half their height but equal their individual weight.

_Streeter. The poster child of lifelong gaming. _

The jocks lured him under the bleachers by pretending someone wanted to deal off some gear at a good price. Streeter—ever the sucker for virtualmode gear—bit hard.

And I let him.

Maybe I was bored, or maybe I wanted him to feel a little burn. He was a troublemaker. We all were, but Streeter was going to get us all killed one day. It wouldn’t be long before I was the one that brought trouble to the world. For now, Streeter was about to take a beating.

“Hey!” I shouted.

They all watched me approach with a rubberband in my mouth. I twisted my hair back and tied it off. It was hard to throw swings with hair in your eyes.

“About time,” Streeter muttered. “You out for coffee?”

“Oh, you got this?” I asked.

“The white knight,” one of the jocks said.

I didn’t know his name because I didn’t know any of their names. He was the shortest of the three with the biggest mouth. As jocks go, he was the worst, always thumping his chest and banging on geeks, kicking their chairs, calling them names. [_A third-degree asshole. _]

I was looking forward to this.

There were three of them, I realized that. But I was sixteen with a stack of chips on my shoulder and drunk on youth. I was up for the challenge.

“Get on your way, toolbox,” the asshole said.

“It’s Socket,” I said.

“A name so stupid I don’t know whether to laugh or punch you in the face.”

“Try both.”

“Calm down, Drake,” Jack said.

I knew Jack. He was head jock of football or baseball or bowling or something. He was also the one Streeter screwed over. Well, sort of. He screwed over his brother, Josh. And, technically, we both screwed him over.

Mostly Streeter.

“We don’t want trouble,” Jack said. “Just talking.”

His left hand moved in calming gestures, but his right hand was still in his jacket. That worried me. Nobody kept one hand in their pocket when a fight was coming.

“Then walk off,” I said.

“As soon as Streeter makes things right,” Jack said, “we’re gone.”

“How many times I got to tell you?” Streeter cupped his hands around his mouth. “I. DIDN’T. DO IT.”

“You’re a terrible liar,” Jack said. “The proof is all over my brother’s account. Or what’s left of it.”

“There’s nothing left of it,” Streeter smirked. “I mean, that’s what I heard.”

“Just restore his account,” Jack said. “Bring back his sims, flush his virtual coffers and rebuild his worlds. We’re all square.”

“How am I supposed to restore it? Someone wiped his sims and cleaned his data. You can’t just hit the undo on something like that. Besides, your brother deserved it.”

“You can do it. You know you can.”

Jack was right there. If anyone could restore data, it was Streeter. Whether he was the one who erased it or not.

“I’m not a world builder,” Streeter lied. “And if I was, your brother lost it all in a fight, so why are you bent?”

“Because you don’t fight fair,” Jack said.

“Neither does your brother.”

“He didn’t deserve to lose everything. He’s been building those accounts since he was five.”

“Yeah, well, he did deserve it. He’s been snaking in the dark worlds and you know it. If he wasn’t trying to skim data off everyone, this probably wouldn’t have happened. You got to admit, Jack. Your brother’s kind of a dick.”

“You’re going to do it.”

“You can’t make me.” Streeter screwed up that froggy face of his and spit out laughter. “Your brother had it coming, Jack. Face it.”

I think Jack would’ve blasted him one if I wasn’t there. Then again, Streeter wouldn’t have been so mouthy, either. Jack took a stroll to walk off the tension. His back was to us, his hand still in his pocket. I got the sense he was stalling. Or maybe listening to a call.

“You’re a turd that lived,” Drake said. “Your mom should’ve flushed you.”

“You guys always travel in packs?” I jumped in.

“You want to make it one on one?” Drake said. “Let’s go, toolbox.”

“Shut up a second,” I said. “Jack, what do you want to do? Streeter said he didn’t do it. We going to fight, or are we all just wasting our time?”

I was ready to roll. Drake was, too. I could feel it. It was his body language or some energy-hipster vibe he was giving off. I could feel his thoughts like sound waves pulsing through the atmosphere.

I didn’t realize how weird that was.

If I had to take the three of them, I figured a swift kick to Drake’s thigh would buckle him long enough to throw a bomb at the third jock, whatever his name was. Jack would come at me then, and I’d have to tackle him. At that point, they’d all probably pound me. Wasn’t a great plan, but I’d get my licks.

That was what I loved about the skin.

Virtualmode environments and live-action simulated reality could never replace the vibrancy of skin and bone. My life was a mess, my family a wreck, and school a drag. I lived for a little excitement.

Like this.

Jack tapped his cheek. His back was still to us. I figured he was ignoring me. Drake and I were about to trade swings when I heard him answer a nojakk call—the miniature communication chip imbedded near his jaw.

“You got it?” he asked. “You’re sure? Positive?”

There was a pause. Something just went down. Or was about to.

“All right. Good.” Jack’s hand finally came out of his pocket.

For a moment I thought for sure it was a weapon. Maybe he skipped a groove and was about to go mental. It didn’t make any sense, but it wasn’t impossible. This would be the first day in a long line of many that I would learn that lesson.

Nothing is impossible.

I calculated every possible reaction. Could we run or hide? Use one of the jocks as a shield? Call for help? There were a hundred other scenarios, but I couldn’t figure them out in the span of a second. If I only had more time.

And then the air smudged.

That was the best way I could describe it. The space behind Jack sort of wrinkled from heat. Something was there and then it was gone. It felt like something was hiding in plain sight, no other way to describe it.

Jack tossed something at Streeter. “Done.”

It was a phone. A black, rectangular phone. Not a weapon, not a threat, just an old smartphone. Streeter stared like he’d just been handed a broken vial of radioactive waste. He tapped the screen.

Looked up.

“Don’t say you didn’t deserve it,” Jack said with a smile. “Believe me, it’ll get worse.”

“What is it?” I asked.

Streeter stared. The phone had sucked the life out of him.

“What the hell just happened?”

“Come on,” Jack said to the others.

“Hey! Hey!” I moved quickly, intending to snatch Jack’s sleeve and spin him around, get up in his face. The battle was over and I didn’t even see it happen. We weren’t going down without a fight.

Drake intercepted me.

I knew he would. He was coiled up, a trigger ready to unload. My quick little grab was all it took. In a court of battle, he would be found guilty of throwing the first swing.

I was just defending myself.

He threw a wild roundhouse, one of those angry swings that was as primitive as it was savage. Instead of ducking, I moved into it. My shoulder took the brunt of his forearm, but before he could adjust his weight, I heel-kicked his calf and pushed him backwards, landing on him with all my weight.

The air whooshed from his lungs like a fat man falling on a beanbag. Wheezy breaths whistled in his throat. I was in full mount with the intention of putting an elbow on his jaw and crushing his nojakk seed—

“Stop it!” It was a female voice, a voice I knew well.

Someone I didn’t expect to find us.

It was enough to give me pause, enough for Jack to drag me off. There she was, red hair bouncing as she sprinted across the field.

Chute.

Behind her was the assistant coach wearing athletic shorts despite the brisk autumn air. Drake was on his knees, air finally reaching his lungs. I’d been in that position many times, hangdogging on all fours with a string of drool reaching the ground after someone got the best of me. Not a fun place to be.

But alive.

“The hell?” the coach said, slightly winded. “Damn it, Drake. Get up. What the hell you doing, son?”

He didn’t ask me. Didn’t even look at me. Chute, on the other hand, stared lasers through my head. I stared them right back and silently mouthed, You brought a coach?

Jack explained it was a misunderstanding, and it was all straightened out. Nothing happened, despite how it looked.

“Tell that to Drake,” I muttered. He was picking grass off his lip. It was an asshole thing for me to say, but despite what Jack said, we didn’t start it. Jack’s brother messed with Streeter and he got what he deserved. And now Streeter was staring at a phone like it was scrambled eggs, and I never got to finish what I started, so I was feeling a little dickish.

Sue me.

“Get the hell out of here.” The coach smacked Drake in the back of the head. “I catch you around these people again, you’ll stay after practice.”

[_These people. _]He was talking about Streeter and me. It took everything I had not to unload a dick comment on him. Would’ve got me a detention or suspended or something, but sometimes it was worth it.

Jack didn’t look back, didn’t gloat or smile.

He was probably a good guy, just standing up for his brother. Couldn’t blame him for what he was doing. Somehow he beat Streeter. Whatever was on that phone wiped him out. Otherwise he wouldn’t be standing there glassy-eyed and unblinking, he’d be spouting all the asshole thoughts I was holding back.

Oh no, coach. We have to stay after practice? We don’t get to play in the game? Say it isn’t so, coach. Please don’t tell me I can’t flex my chiseled abs.

“You brought the coach?” I said.

“I didn’t bring the police, so relax,” Chute said.

“You brought the coach?” I repeated.

“Look, this is stupid. They were going to beat the lights out of you. What’d you want me to do, sit in the bleachers and cheer?”

“It’d be cool if you let me handle it.”

“Yeah, we’re not cavemen, Socket. There are other ways.”

“There were three of them, Chute. They weren’t asking Streeter to the dance.”

“And what were you going to do, karate chop them into submission? They’d get you back. This is the skin, Socket. There’s no respawn, no starting over. You break a bone and it hurts. This is all so stupid and you know it.”

“Look, I didn’t start this.”

“Really?”

“How’d you find out, anyway?”

“I heard,” she said.

Yeah, she heard. A lot of things like that happened in my life. Maybe they happened to everyone, those moments where something could go horribly wrong and then it doesn’t. Some people talk about guardian angels like some benevolent beings watching over them, guiding them away from potholes and down the right path. I just didn’t believe in that. Not destiny or divine intervention or magic spells. None of it.

But sometimes, I had to admit, something was steering.

“What’s wrong with him?” Chute asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

I explained what Jack said before throwing him the phone. We asked what was on the phone, what this was all about, and Streeter just stared. Finally, he looked up with defeat in his eyes, the color drained from fleshy cheeks.

“For dumbasses,” he said, “this is genius.”

He held up the phone.

It made no sense. Then again, Chute and I didn’t understand half the gearhead nonsense that drove the virtualmode Internet. Streeter was our captain in all matters of alternate reality.

“What?” I asked.

He explained in technological jargon, the equivalent to explaining calculus to an infant. I could probably understand it if I cared, but I just wanted the bottom line.

“Hey,” Chute said, “in English.”

“They wiped out my account,” he said. And he said it, believe it or not, with a smile. Like what just happened didn’t blow up his life, everything he worked for. Just like what we did to Jack’s brother.

“This whole thing here, this confrontation like they were going to beat my ass, was just a decoy. This thing kept my alarms from going off”—he held up the phone—“while someone totally whitewashed my account.”

“Who is someone?” I asked.

“Who do you think?”

Jack’s brother, Josh, I figured. That was who called on the nojakk, who confirmed the deal was done. It was that or a virtualmode hitman. That family had more money than a corrupt government.

“Why you smiling?” I asked.

“Well, because they’re still dumbasses. They think they took all my credits and stole all my sims, but those were just my side accounts. I mean, come on, my real stuff is under enough encryption that that idiot couldn’t get to it with a team of superheroes.”

“You sure?” I asked.

I asked because nothing was unhackable. Streeter told me that all the time. In the world of virtualmode cyberspace, nothing was untouchable. We were all vulnerable. And none of us knew just how vulnerable we were. Not even Streeter.

We were all about to learn that lesson.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Streeter said. “Now let’s go have some fun.”

“Where?” Chute said.

Streeter walked backwards. “It’s on, Chute.”

“Oh my God. Are you serious?”

“You’re not my mom.”

“I’m the voice of reason.”

“What?” He put his hand to his ear. “I… I can’t hear you. The wind is blowing.”

“This is stupid,” she said.

“Did you just meet him?” I asked. “This is what he does. He lives for this stuff. Finally, a formidable foe.” I imitated his scratchy voice.

“You’re not much better,” she said.

“I didn’t start the fight, Chute.”

I just finish them.” She imitated me.

I hooked my finger around hers, nuzzling into her hair. I loved the way she smelled. Streeter had already marched halfway across the field; he wouldn’t see us. He didn’t know we were hooking up. Best friends don’t do that, he would say.

So on the down low, I put my arm around her. We followed from a distance. I could hear him muttering up ahead, talking out his thoughts, laying out his plans.

Just beyond him, the air wrinkled.

Something was steering.

2

“Let’s get out of here,” Chute said.

“Where?” I said.

“Anywhere.”

“What about Streeter?” He was inside the classroom, his gruff voice bargaining with Mr. Buxbee, the virtualmode instructor.

“He can take care of himself,” Chute said. “He’s a big boy.”

“What’s wrong with you?”

Chute leaned against the wall, bouncing her head on the bricks, her red hair a bit longer than mine. Thicker.

“He’s going to find us trouble,” she said.

“He’s a natural.”

“We do this with him,” she said, hooking her finger around mine, “then we lie low for a while. Promise?”

“Yeah.”

I meant it, too. At least until we were bored.

Her lips were grim, her freckled complexion flushed. I was caught up in her blue eyes, the wrinkles in the corners, the tension in her forehead. She was gorgeous. Always had been. Guys gave her second looks, but we were always just friends.

I woke up one morning and she changed.

Some sort of magnetic hypnotism in the way she looked. I couldn’t get enough of her. I believe the health teacher called that hormones. But whatever. Thankfully, she felt the same about me.

The air wrinkled.

That was the third time it happened. I chalked up the first two times to stress and weather, but this time it was in the hallway, a watery reflection that bent space. This time it was different.

I could feel it.

It was three steps away from me, a warm glow of emotions warping the air, a trapdoor of feelings tugging at my stomach. It was familiar, like the comfort of home but dank and moldy. Drippy.

It tingled beneath my scalp.

Twisted my stomach.

“You okay?” Chute asked.

Her voice was on the periphery. I wanted to touch the distortion waving in front of me, dip my hand in the ethereal waters and see what was beneath. One thing felt certain.

It was deep.

Chute’s voice faded. The hallway evaporated. The school gave way to damp caves.

Tropical jungles and thick air.

And sun and space.

And speed and power and secrets and—

“What are you doing?” a man asked.

I had my hand out. The rippling air was gone, and so were the tropical impressions, the deep cave.

“We’re waiting for Streeter,” Chute said.

Mr. Fattoney was looking at me, his briefcase at his side, waiting for an answer.

“He’s in there,” Chute answered for me. “Streeter’s in there.”

Words wouldn’t come to me. I looked suspicious and guilty, my usual disposition. Mr. Fattoney knew it well.

“School’s over,” he said. “Come on, let’s go. You probably have chores waiting at home.”

“They’re with me.” Streeter popped his head out of the classroom. “We’re doing a project.”

Mr. Fattoney drummed his fingers. He trusted Streeter even less than me, and would’ve escorted the three of us off school grounds had Mr. Buxbee not pushed his way past Streeter. The heavyset virtualmode instructor was an adult version of Streeter: portly and heavy-lidded. His lower lip plumped out when he thought deeply.

“It’s fine, Mr. Fattoney,” Buxbee said. “Streeter’s doing some maintenance for me.”

He didn’t say anything about me and Chute, but Mr. Fattoney suddenly lost interest.

Buxbee had a few words with Streeter, his lazy eyes brushing over me and Chute before he waddled down the hall. “No trouble,” he called back.

“No, sir,” Streeter lied.

It wasn’t an ordinary classroom.

Instead of plastic molded seats and tiny flats of desk space, the virtualmode lab was arranged with rows of padded recliners to comfort the vacated skin during extended journeys into virtualmode. It smelled clean and sterile. Fake.

Streeter trotted to the front. Buxbee’s desk—the only desk in the room—had several monitors and a few keyboards. Within its confines was the padded chair royale, the cushiest of them all. He could go deep several hours at a time and get up without the slightest bedsore. A virtualmode leather ass.

Above the antiquated whiteboard, it read The body gives rise to the mind as soil supports the tree.

A quote from almighty Buxbee.

“How’d you get Buxbee to let us in?” Chute asked.

“Sweet talk.” Streeter fell into Buxbee’s chair. “I’m writing the updates for a new patch. And then there was the other thing.”

“What thing?”

“Grab a seat.”

Chute looked at me. She didn’t know about Streeter crashing the school’s portal. He made it look like an accident, but with him nothing was accidental. Buxbee, on the other hand, banished him to cleaning up his mistakes before he was allowed in the upstairs lab, where all the best virtualmoding happened.

“He still trusts you?” Chute asked. “After that?”

“Buxbee loves me, he can’t help it. Now strap in.”

I had already settled into a chair and fished a set of transplanters from the armrest. Chute didn’t budge.

“I didn’t sweet-talk you in here to stare at my skin,” he said to her.

“You’re full of it,” Chute said. “You just want someone to blame.”

“Chute, I’m hurt. Seriously.”

“Shut up.”

“She’s right,” I muttered, playing with the translucent transplanters. “It’d be polite to tell us what you’re going to blame us for before you did it.”

Et tu, Socket?” He flopped into Buxbee’s giant chair, feet not touching the floor, and said loudly and clearly in case the world was listening, “Listen, we’re going into the main hall and cleaning up some code, that’s all. I could use an extra pair of minds to help, and we’re a team and I like you guys. You’re my best friends.”

She refused to sit, but since I was already comfortable and Streeter was staring bullets, she relented. He’d boxed her into going so many times that it was senseless to argue. It was either babysit our skin while we went in or go home.

Truth was, she liked trouble, too. It was just harder for her to admit.

Chute fell in next to me, pulled the hairband from her pony and cursed. I twirled the transplanters and kicked back. Streeter was already leaned back, transplanter discs stuck behind his ears, eyes closed. I fixed one of my transplanters behind my ear, the suction cup kissing the soft skin, and took Chute’s hand.

I closed my eyes and felt her soft, warm hand fade into the blackness as I planted the second disc. Later we’d wake up with sweaty palms and stiff joints. For now, my consciousness swam in the virtual darkness with no skin, no containment—a formless void in between flesh and the digital universe.

And then I landed.

A new body formed, a simulation of the one sitting in the recliner, this one generic with limited senses of touch and feel. Around us were the great halls of an ancient library. The shelves were endless, the binders of old books packed on each rack that soared ten stories toward a glass domed ceiling, where sparrows flitted about. Rows and rows of long shiny tables were lined down the center.

“What’s this?” Chute said.

“Main hall,” Streeter said.

“Yeah, I know that. What’s with the generics?”

Our sims were translucent and featureless. We looked like nude manikins made from stretchy glue. This wasn’t our normal.

“It’s just simpler for us to work, that’s all,” Streeter lied with his puppet-slit mouth. There might as well be a flashing sign around his neck whenever he tried to lie.

“And what are we doing?” Chute deadpanned.

“Cleaning up code.”

The library books were packets of computer code. Most programmers liked to work in familiar environments. Buxbee’s graphical interface was a magical library, a not-so-subtle appeal to our technology-addicted brains that books are fun!

“I’ll take that row,” I said. “You want to start in back?”

“We need to clean up my mess first,” Streeter chimed.

The tables were scattered with random stacks of books, some neatly squared. Others appeared to have been dumped from a bucket. These were usually the bundles of raw code that needed to be sorted.

“Which one?” I pointed at a leaning tower of hardbacks.

He shook his head. His sim’s black glassy eyeballs looked over our shoulders. Chute and I turned around. The shelves on the back wall were almost empty. Below them was a mountain of books, something a dump truck would leave behind. Tables and chairs had been crushed, broken fragments of furniture tossed across the floor.

“That?” Chute said. “Are you freaking kidding me? Did you build a bomb?”

“No, no. Nothing like that.”

“Why is Buxbee still even talking to you?” she said.

“It was a code explosion.”

“Oh, you mean like a bomb? Because I just said bomb and you said no, no, nothing like that.

“It was… I was working on a new thing and it fell.”

“Like a bad foundation,” I said. “Root code was corrupt.”

“Yeah.” He lifted a finger. “But it wasn’t bad.”

“It ain’t good, Streeter,” Chute added. “That’s going to take you months.”

“And that’s if we help.” I stepped through the carnage, debris dusting to my sim’s whitish shins. The closest book was a thick hardbacked dictionary with bent corners. Code scrolled down the thin pages. I flicked through the color-coded symbols and matched them up without really knowing what it meant. Webby strands stuck to my fingers.

“Make that a year,” I said.

“I help and I get a new sim out of this,” Chute said. “You build me a custom job exactly how I want it, that’s the deal.” She slung a book over her head. The pages fluttered like a dying kite that caught a sudden updraft.

Streeter stood back from the mess, bouncing his fingers while we sorted through novels, encyclopedias, and atlases. The sparrows near the glass ceiling startled at the spectacle. I wasn’t used to seeing Streeter so normal sized. Despite the generic sim, his mannerisms were crystal.

He just watched.

“You a supervisor now?” I said.

“I want to show you something,” he said. “Buxbee said I could.”

“Sure.” Chute dropped a biography of American presidents. “Let’s waste more time. I’m in.”

I climbed out of the fray, my sim stumbling through the mess. Despite the sensationless experience, the sim handled nicely, rebalancing itself whenever I leaned too far one way or another. Filling a sim was like driving a car. You couldn’t feel the tires on the road or the brake pads that were stopping, but you knew how to make it go.

Streeter led us between towering bookshelves while Chute complained. We made several turns until we reached a set of double doors. They weren’t against a wall but rather built into a bookshelf like a grand shortcut.

“You ready?” Streeter grabbed the brass knobs.

“I doubt it,” Chute said.

After a dramatic pause, he tugged the weighty doors open. A blast of wind ruffled pages. I could smell fallen leaves.

_Smell. I can smell. _

Having a sense of anything in virtualmode was advanced coding, but I could smell autumn on the other side of the doors. Streeter stepped to the side. Chute and I walked through the doorway but not into the aisle on the other side of the bookshelf. It was a stone portico.

Beyond was a futuristic cityscape.

Metal spires gleamed with sparkling glass; lights flickered along silvery roadways with sliding traffic. The sky was a miasma of floating balloons and hovering gliders. It was right off the cover of an Asimov novel.

“Dude.” The word limped off my tongue. “You built this?”

He nodded. Of course I did.

This was an achievement. The details were precise. And the vague sense of smell, the slight breeze across our faces, added to the sense of reality. Even for Streeter, building a virtualmode environment from scratch code required teams of sophisticated coders. Streeter did this by himself. _Of course he did. _

We stood with our hands on the smooth railing, hundreds of feet above the view, absorbing the wonder of a new world that existed in a digital universe, a virtual world we were seeing with our mind. All was forgiven. Even Chute’s irritation was purged.

“Can we go down there?” she asked.

Something seemed off about what she said. I mean, I was wondering the same thing. If we could walk the streets and interact with the inhabitants—real or not—I think we would’ve wept with wonder. This was something spectacular, but to actually be part of it would blow our minds. So it wasn’t what she said, but how she said it.

Not how she said it. Where.

She was standing to my right. But I heard her ask the question from the left.

The realization clicked into place at the same time for both of us. We turned to see three generic sims standing at the railing and admiring the view exactly like us.

“No,” one of the sims answered. It was Streeter’s voice.

“Still,” another sim answered, “you’ve outdone yourself.”

That was my voice.

When we turned, Streeter was no longer standing next to us. He was at the far end of the portico, poking his finger into the stone floor. The granite melted around his finger. And then he yanked it across the floor.

A white square opened.

The light was bright and clean, a luminescence that caused us to turn away. When our visuals adjusted, Streeter had his finger to his lips and waved us over. With our simulated duplicates chatting on the other end, we looked into the well of white light.

Streeter nodded.

He stepped into it.

His sim was swallowed by the light. I looked at Chute. Her featureless sim bland and emotionless, I could feel the doubt emanate in waves. This was trouble. And we couldn’t resist. It didn’t occur to me that not only was I feeling her emotions, but I was sensing them in virtualmode. I should’ve been mildly freaking out, but it just felt normal.

That was how things were changing. Starting that day, the extraordinary became the ordinary. I was feeling emotions from other people, sensing what was about to happen.

Special was becoming just another day.

She disappeared into the white.

I followed.

3

No sense of falling.

We passed from one virtualmode environment to another. The white faded in one long stroke. The outlines of doors were the first images to arrive.

Streeter stood at the center of a circular control panel, hunched over with an intense focus on his hands.

“What is this?” Chute said.

“This is the thing I was working on,” he answered. “The real thing.”

“I thought that was the thing.” She pointed up where the portico was, where the view of the city amazed us, what we assumed caused the avalanche of library books.

“Sort of.”

He raked his fingers over a cluster of three-dimensional images and blabbered a line of jibberish. He was in beast mode, tight on time and without the patience to explain what the hell was happening.

The white doors were arranged side by side in the circular room. Red pigment bled into one of them, accentuating Victorian panels, an ordinary closet door or something less significant. Streeter pushed aside a control panel and, ignoring the brassy doorknob, stepped through the illusory door.

A barbarian emerged and turned it into splinters.

In furs and dangling axes, the oversized brute leaned back and let loose a battle cry through a matted bush of whiskers. Muscles bulged along scarred arms.

“Oh, God,” Chute muttered.

“I told you!” he bellowed. “Jack and his snot-loving brother can’t wipe me out! I got plans inside plans, baby. Locks inside locks. And they’re going to eat it.”

“I’m bailing,” Chute said.

“Not yet.”

The room thundered beneath his footsteps. The brutish sim was impractical to run a control monitor, the hairy fingers swollen sausages that often missed a gesture or confused Streeter’s orders, but this was his favorite sim. Had been since we were little.

Like five.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

He resumed ignoring her, his fully fleshed facial features now clearly etched with concentration. Chute would become a distraction if she didn’t get some answers. And then there would be a fight and someone’s sim would break.

“The avalanche,” I said, “was just a distraction.”

“What do you mean?” she said.

“He blew up the library on purpose.”

Streeter pointed at me without breaking stride.

“The futuristic city,” I continued, “was Streeter’s project. I’m guessing Buxbee wants to enter it into a competition or something, but Streeter used it as a distraction to build a back door. So when that data crash spilled Book Mountain, Buxbee didn’t see him build this room.”

“And now guess who has access to the school’s portal?” he said, his voice shaking the walls. “And all its power.”

“Buxbee’s going to kill you,” Chute said.

“He won’t find us,” Streeter said.

“Us? You know he will!” Chute said. “He catches everything.”

“This place is temporary. It’ll collapse in a couple of days without a trace. Buxbee will never know.”

“Then why waste your time?” she asked.

“Well, for one, I just wanted to see if I could do it. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, and Buxbee sure as hell wasn’t going to let me build a universal control room on the school’s portal.”

“Good for you.” Chute applauded. “Now you’ll be suspended.”

“And two, I want to build something like this at my house. And now I know how. Buuuuuut more importantly, I can do this.”

He jabbed one of the panels. He smiled blocky teeth. A whiff of greasy breath crossed the room, the olfactory senses he programmed still active, unfortunately.

“Account restored,” he said. “Those douchebags thought they wiped me out just when I finished this room. God, they have no idea what’s coming. Poor bastards.”

“Maybe we should let them think they won,” Chute said.

“That’s one idea. Oooooor…”

This time he shattered the control center with his wrecking-ball fist. The walls spun, the doors clicking. We stood in the center of a roulette wheel that curdled my stomach.

“Make it stop!” Chute shouted.

“Give it a second!” Streeter replied.

I was about to throw simulated barf and considered shouting a code bailout command that would put me back into my skin. The clicking slowed. When it stopped, one door remained.

It was blood red.

Streeter meandered toward it, his uneven steps shuffling side to side. He hunched over, spread his fat hand in the center and pushed. It fell without hinges and floated without a sound.

In the foggy space beyond the doorway, a steel wheel began to emerge. Slowly, the details of an enormous vault took shape.

He looked back and smiled a greasy, blocky smile.[_ Enter big trouble._]

“Maybe you should get off,” I said to Chute.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Socket knows,” Streeter said. “Right?”

We were just a bunch of high school outliers with a taste for a little trouble. Emphasis on [_little. _]But every addiction starts out small. We’d been crossing little lines of trouble for years.

This was big.

“Jack and Josh’s family account,” I said.

“Yeah boy.”

“No,” Chute said. “We can’t do the whole family.”

“I’m not going to do the whole family, Chute,” he sang. “Just Jack and brother dickhead. I cleaned Josh out the first time, but he had backup files hidden in the family vault. Now it’s time to finish the job.”

“That dickhead is a kid!” Chute shouted.

“That dickhead tried to take everything from me!” Streeter’s barbarian voice shook dust from the ceiling. “He wants to play with the big boys, then he plays by big-boy rules.”

He was right, in a way. You get into the virtualmode war worlds and all bets were off. That was where Jack’s little brother double-crossed Streeter. Technically, Josh did nothing wrong, but these were big-boy rules. Which meant no rules. Streeter had wiped him clean.

He was about to do it again.

Streeter thumped his chest and belched. That also shook the timbers. His stomach gurgled and he began to gag. His cheeks turned purple, his eyes bulging. In the skin, that was a sure sign of choking. But I’d seen him pull this gig before.

He cupped his hands and opened his mouth. A slimy lump oozed off his tongue. Streeter wiped his lips with the back of his hand. Inside a layer of dripping mucus was a metallic ball—a hacker’s tool that gestated inside his sim until it was needed.

“Sayonara to the Jack and Josh show,” he said.

“Wait!” Chute shouted.

She felt the same dread I was feeling, I was thinking. Something wasn’t right here. There were legal ramifications, sure. But it was more than that. Was it because it was too easy? Too perfect? Or did it have something to do with the strange rippled air I’d seen in the hallway, the odd flashbacks of caves.

It was possible I was just starting to lose it, that the line between reality and virtualmode was blurring and I was beginning to suffer from reality confusion, a brain disease that developed in adolescent virtualmoders.

But something was off.

With a no-look move, Streeter tossed the mucus hackball. It splattered once off the floor and rolled through the doorway. When it made contact with the vault door, the room shuddered.

Streeter laughed.

Steam rose off the hackball. A hole dissolved around the stainless steel surface. The wheel began to sag.

Thoomp.

The hackball disappeared.

A red-hot hole was left behind. In a moment, the vault door would fall off and Streeter would have digital access to everything that family owned: finances, heirlooms, documents, secrets. Everything. Even if he left all that untouched, if he just dragged out Jack’s and Josh’s accounts and torched them like gasoline-soaked tissue, the family would not be happy they were hacked.

They would look for us.

They would find us.

We crossed a line.

A moment of stillness filled the room. The hissing around the melting vault went quiet. Streeter’s laughter trailed off. His bushy eyebrows pinched together. He took one thundering step and peered closer.

Perhaps if we’d called a code bailout at that moment, nothing would’ve gone wrong. It would have stopped what was about to happen to me. Maybe[_. _]

I doubt it.

It started like a distant train, the rumbling of steel wheels beneath our feet. That lasted a second or two before the hurricane arrived.

A fierce vacuum whistled through the hole.

Streeter teetered against the gale force. In one fluid motion he ripped an axe from his chest and drove it into the floor. His spike-studded boots began sliding. Slowly he was drawn toward the doorway, and only the iron spike of his battle-axe held him steady.

“Code bailout!” His voice was a distant, useless call.

Chute and I clung to the command center. The rivets popped at the base, the metal pedestals bent. Our lightweight sims were pulled into comical horizontal positions like gravity-defying acrobats. Her slit mouth jawed in frantic puppet motions, but the words were gobbled up by the howling vacuum.

It’ll get worse.

Jack said that when he handed Streeter the phone, said it would get worse. Because this was a trap. They knew Streeter had backup accounts, knew he’d come for them.

This was waiting.

Using both axes, Streeter walked his way toward us, shattering the floor tiles with each swing. The flesh on his cheeks was strewn in g-force waves, his barbaric beard pulled flat. He was reaching for the command center when the first tendril snaked out of the vault.

Like a poison-tipped whip, it thudded through Streeter’s backside. I expected to see it come out his chest, but it plugged inside him. He began to quake, eyes rolled back, mouth spasming.

There was no avoiding the second one.

It hit Chute in the left thigh. I reached for her and nearly lost my grip. If I could grab hold of that demonic cord, perhaps my weight would pull it out of her, would’ve given her some extra time for the portal to overload and automatically bail her back to the skin.

The third tentacle hit me.

Its tip wiggled inside my sim. It spread like arteries and began downloading. Passwords, currency, accomplishments, sim worlds… everything.

They would take it all from us because that was what we were about to do. And there was nothing we could do to stop it. We were there illegally. There would be no retribution.

Checkmate.

The room went dark. The tentacle advanced down my legs and through my arms. It branched up my neck, reached my head, and began to suck out deep memories from my subconscious.

Pop.

It all went silent.

No sound. No form.

I hovered in a nowhere void of blackness with no eyes, no mouth. A sensation of falling was around me, but the wind did not blow.

Just timeless falling.

Endless blackness.

The dank smell of a cave returned, the vision of what I had seen in the hallway. There was the scent of trees and the rustling of foliage.

And then objects.

At first there were colors.

Every spectrum of light fluttered around me in a bright array of mad leather flapping, a storm of red, orange, silver, blue, purple… colors of every possibility swarmed around me in a merging swirl of vivid pastels.

Something grabbed my arm.

They were gone.

4

The emergence began.

That slow return to the skin, the consciousness finding its way back to the physical world, the nervous system tingling, ears stuffy.

But this was slower than usual.

I awoke in paralysis, staring at the tiny constellations in the ceiling tiles. Sensation returned as molasses, my skin a wet bag of sand in an atmosphere of accelerated gravity.

Perfect silence filled the classroom that seemed to extend throughout the entire school. I could feel the building breathe through the ventilation ducts, could feel electricity hum in the walls.

The air was thick and congealed; tension crackled.

Am I still in virtualmode?

No. There was too much sensation to be artificial space.

But what if virtualmode had full sensation? What if there was touch and taste? Smell? Streeter had somehow made that happen in a very faint sense, but what if it was full-on? How would I know I was awake?

Asleep?

Something vibrated. A row of stones was chattering. Then grinding.

Chute.

Her fingers clawed the armrests, nails digging into the cushion like a crumbling ledge. Feet dangling. A thousand-foot drop below.

I snatched the transplanters from my neck, the impulse of electrical teeth uprooting my brain. The floor tipped, a ship riding a rogue wave to the crest. I grabbed onto her before flying across the deck.

“Chute.”

Her eyes danced beneath the lids. Molars grinding.

“Hey! Hey!” I gently slapped her cheek. “Come up, Chute.”

Ripping the transplanters off wouldn’t hurt her, but she would puke upon emergence, the equivalent of being shot from a cannon.

But nothing was working.

I took hold of the cords and pressed my cheek against hers, skin hot and moist. Jaws flexing. Her teeth were about to crack under pressure.

“Chute,” I whispered.

“Hhhuuuuuuuuuuu!” She sat up and nearly knocked me to the floor, a drowning victim swallowing a long-awaited breath

“Hey,” I said, calming her. “Hey, you’re here. You’re here.”

Her eyes were blank, focus dialing, no longer lost in the void between skin and sim.

“What happened?” she asked, trembling.

Her head bobbed in a steady rhythm, her tongue fat and lethargic. I could sense the heavy blood circulating through her veins like lead, bubbles of sleep tickling her gums. Did I really feel that?

I wanted to kiss her right there, draw her into an embrace until we fell asleep.

“What the hell you doing?” Streeter said.

I jumped up and collided with an empty chair. The floor had levelled out—no more ship at sea wobbling—but my legs were still rubbery.

“You almost got us killed!” I shouted.

“Relax,” he said, still staring at the more-than-friends scene he just witnessed. “You don’t die in virtualmode.”

“Are you insane?” I said. “I’m talking about getting arrested, a permanent record for hacking and identity theft.”

“Yeah. Sorry about that.”

“Damn right you are. That was a trap. You know that.”

“I know it now.”

“You walked us right into it. The…” I shook my hands, the creepy memory of tentacles searching my body and scratching my brain. “That wasn’t right, Streeter.”

“Yeah, I know. I was there.”

He raked the transplanters from behind his ears and turned to the monitor.

“That was a trap,” Chute said.

“He already said that. What were you two doing?”

“I was… she was having a seizure. Her eyes and her teeth… I didn’t think she was coming up.”

“So you climbed on her lap?”

“I fell—that doesn’t matter! What the hell happened?”

A long stare, then he went back to tapping the keyboard.

“Streeter?” Chute stood up. “What happened?”

“I don’t know! Give me a second.”

“I felt like I was…” She touched her throat.

“You can’t die in virtualmode, all right. Worst that can happen is we lose sims, so both of you relax.” He leaned into the monitor, danced on the keyboard, and scrolled through several panels. “That’s weird.”

“What?” I asked.

“We’re clean.”

“What’d you mean?”

He hammered the keyboard and began muttering.

“Streeter,” I said, “what is it?”

“We’re clean. Nothing happened.”

“Nothing happened? You are insane.”

“No, that’s the record. It says none of what just happened happened.”

He went back to mad ramblings. Despite what he saw when he got back from the skin, I reached out for Chute. She took my hand and squeezed.

“Where’d you go?” she asked.

“Huh?”

“You disappeared,” she said. “The three of us were getting inhaled and then you were gone. It was just Streeter and me hanging on.”

She went on about ropes, as she called them. She was the first one to the hole, the ropes pulling her through like a cartoon. She couldn’t feel her feet when she got back to the skin.

“How’d you do that?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Streeter added. “How did you do that? They locked us out of bail out. How’d you get back to the skin?”

“I don’t know.”

He squinted at me.

“Don’t look at me like that,” I said. “You tell me what happened. You dumped us in that trap, remember?”

Those weren’t ropes. They were tentacles. I didn’t know what the hell they were experiencing when they rooted inside their sims, but apparently they weren’t falling through a field of colorful confetti and trees.

There was something I was forgetting, or something I didn’t want to tell them. Something that felt real. Something that grabbed my arm.

Did someone pull me out?

“All right, folks.” Buxbee’s booming voice made us all jump. “Time to close up shop. Your parents probably have dinner waiting.”

We hadn’t bothered looking at the time. Two hours had passed. Later, Streeter confirmed that we’d only logged forty minutes. That meant over an hour was missing.

“Okay, then.” Streeter surrendered the captain’s chair to Buxbee. “Guess we’ll see you tomorrow.”

There was no way Buxbee wouldn’t see the anomaly. Nothing got past him. We hustled for the exit, a quick escape that might buy us the night before his punishment rained down.

“Streeter!” He froze us in the doorway.

“Yes, sir?”

“Thank you for the hard work.” Buxbee rested his arms on his Buddha belly. “You’ll make your way back into my good graces before long.”

“Right. Good.”

We really didn’t know what he was talking about until the next day when Streeter logged into the virtualmode library. The mountain of books we had gone in to clean up was missing.

Like we finished it.

5

Rain drizzled from the shop’s awning.

A wet shiver slipped beneath my jacket. I held two to-go cups of coffee to my cheeks and coughed. Even on sunny mornings, it was a hard climb out of bed. Some days, I just didn’t see the point. I had a counsellor that once said I was depressed, that there were treatments for that. I told him life sucked, was there a pill for that?

I don’t think so.

A maroon sedan pulled up. Chute got out and leaped for cover. Her sister waved from the driver’s seat.

“That for me?” Chute asked.

I handed her a cup. She cradled it beneath her nose and closed her eyes. After a sip and a smile, she said, “You all right?”

“Yeah,” I muttered.

“Convincing.”

“Haven’t slept much.”

That was an understatement. Mom hadn’t been home since our detour in Buxbee’s lab. That was three days ago. She often went on work excursions, but never spontaneously. And not for three days. I spent the nights binge-watching. I doubted she was sleeping, either. It was the way she operated.

“Go inside?” Chute asked.

“Not yet.”

“Want to stay out here and freeze?”

“For now.”

She shivered against me, her hand brushing against mine. “Want to talk about it?”

“Not really.”

“Your mom?”

A lump swelled in my throat. I hated when that happened. The lump, sure. The emotion on my face, too. How did Chute read me so easily?

“Where is she?” she asked.

“Where do you think?”

“She’s all right, you know.”

“Think?”

“Know.” She leaned in harder, the warmth of her shoulder bleeding through my jacket. Her finger hooked around mine; she rested her head on my shoulder and sighed.

I told her what was really wrong.

That I didn’t feel like myself. Ever since Buxbee’s lab, my skin just didn’t feel right. I felt sort of shrink-wrapped in a wool blanket, a worm transforming inside a cocoon. Over-the-counter meds wouldn’t change it. Or hot showers. If I had to put it in words, it felt like sadness. Sadness because I was changing. I was leaving. Weird to say it that way, but that was it: I’m leaving.

I’d known Chute all my life, but felt like I just met her.

I couldn’t tell her I was leaving.

“What do you think Streeter wants?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

He insisted we meet at Gearheads.

Gearheads was a public hub, a gamer’s delight. Nothing shady went down inside Gearheads, too many restrictions. No tricks, Streeter said. That was the only way Chute was going to show up. No tricks. His message was critical, he said. Even with a tropical storm making less sense out of getting out of bed, we had to meet him. We had to see this.

I saw a familiar car pull into the parking lot and shrugged. Chute picked up her head, but we remained shoulder tight. The car stopped at the curb. We waved at Streeter’s grandma when he hopped out of the passenger seat.

“Get me one?” He pointed at the cups.

“You don’t drink coffee,” Chute said. “Why are we here? What was so important?”

“You got a hot date or something?” He stared at our shoulder contact. We were leaving clues like bad criminals wanting to be caught. He played the idiot detective that didn’t want to know.

“Socket’s not feeling well,” she answered.

His gaze lingered on me before he pulled open the door. “Shall we?”

It was warm inside Gearheads.

The store smelled like newly pressed plastic and old carpet. A handful of gamers were scoping out the latest virtualmode gear, most of them head-nodding Streeter as he passed. A slumping guy was behind the counter, his hair thinning, glasses thick. He looked like a pile of melting flesh. Could be Streeter in thirty years.

“Heeeeeeey,” he said. “How is it, Streeter?”

“Chief,” Streeter acknowledged.

They talked tech for a few minutes while Chute and I sipped our cooling cups of joe. Someone joined them to debate the newest transplanter update, and I was thinking Chute and I could slip down to the coffee shop without anyone noticing.

“Use one of your rooms?” Streeter asked.

“Booked, my man.” Chief looked at his computer. “Get you in tomorrow.”

“Just need a monitor.”

“You come here for a monitor?” Chief said. “You grounded?”

“Need some anonymity. Nothing big, just a side project.”

Chief sighed. For a second, it appeared he would say no. “Just, uh… all right. No illegal activity. No hacking, racking or stacking of identities. No duplications or ratting.” Chief recited the rules for the thousandth time.

“Yeah,” Streeter said. “We’re not going out.”

“Then why you here?”

“I don’t need eyes.”

Again, Chief appeared to think twice about giving the keys to one of his portals to Streeter. No one came to Gearheads just to use a computer, you came to go out on virtualmode. He had a good reason to be suspicious. And it was Streeter, so he had two.

“School project,” Streeter said. “We need it on the down-low, know what I mean?”

“My ass,” Chief said. “Gum it up and you pay.”

“Nick my account if I do.”

“Dump your account if you do.”

We followed Streeter into the back. The virtualmode rooms were behind closed doors. They varied in size, from solo rides to group outings. We went to the back room, where curved monitors were stationed against the walls. It was a poor man’s way into virtualmode, a three-dimensional visual of the environment without immersion.

“Over here.”

Streeter led us to the corner and turned the monitor so the few kids in the room—a couple ten-year-olds totally soaked in a game—wouldn’t see what we were doing if they happened to look up. He plugged in a flash drive.

“Somebody messed with Buxbee’s library,” he said.

This wasn’t news. We put ourselves deep in the hole and somehow nothing happened? Chute and I cleaned up twenty books at most, and the entire stack had been sorted and cleaned when we got out. That didn’t happen spontaneously.

“We know,” Chute chided. “Anything else?”

“Just watch.”

He looked back over his shoulder and turned the monitor a bit more. We watched a scene of our generic sims walk through the library and gawk at the view out back before coming back to clean up the mess.

“That’s it?” Chute asked.

“We didn’t go back to clean up,” he said.

“Yeah, we know.”

“Don’t you think it’s strange?” Streeter whispered. “Someone went to a lot of effort to rebuild the time line so that no one knows what happened? That’s not easy to do, Chute. I’d say it’s impossible. But here we are.”

“If you want to send someone a thank you card for saving our asses, I’m in. Otherwise, bye-bye.”

He grabbed her arm. “You think that was Jack and Josh’s big surprise? Sucker us into plundering the family vault then erase everything and act like nothing happened? Come on, Chute. Something big is here, admit it.”

“Oh, I’m admitting it. And now I want to leave it alone.”

“Hold on.” He grabbed her again. “Just… just watch, okay. One more thing.”

This time he zoomed the view on our sims walking out to the portico, the futuristic cityscape twinkling in bright detail. Our generic sims sauntered off to the left in casual conversation, no hint of us sneaking off to the right. We never went to the left. We stood there the entire time, and then I heard the sims to the left. That was Streeter’s distraction. And then I saw it.

_The wrinkled air. _

A heat wave baked the space above the portico for less than a second. And then our sims went back to the library.

“See that?” Streeter said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Yeah? You saw it, Socket?”

I was nodding. “I saw that in the hallway before we went in.”

“You saw the footprint?” Streeter said.

“Footprint?”

He rolled the footage back and pulled the view toward the stone flooring of the portico. A few keystrokes slowed the action. Then he rolled a heat-sensitive overlay onto the scene.

“This was the pivotal scene,” Streeter said. “So I ran it through an array of diagnostics and got lucky right… about… there.

The timestamp measured its appearance as only lasting two milliseconds. It was the damp impression of a bare foot. It occurred just after the heat wave, but Streeter didn’t seem to think that was weird.

Or didn’t see the heat wave.

“Evidence.” He sat back. “Someone entered the library under some cloak and rewrote everything. The question is why.”

“No, a question,” Chute interrupted. “Just a thank you.”

“Whoever did this has real power, Chute. This shit’s above the law and it ain’t the government. We’d have been arrested if it was.”

“You admit it!” She leaped up. “You almost got us arrested!”

The kids on the other side of the room looked over. Streeter pulled her down and leaned in. “Okay, you’re right,” he said just above a whisper. “I got us in the shit, but why did someone bail us out, huh?”

“I don’t care.”

“We need to know.”

“No, we don’t. We need to stay as far away as possible because we got lucky.”

“There’s no such thing as luck. We attracted real power, Chute.”

“Breaking the law doesn’t attract real power, Streeter. It attracts law enforcement.”

“We didn’t get arrested, did we? Right, Socket? Am I right?”

I didn’t know which way to flop. On the one hand, Chute was right. We got lucky; we shouldn’t push it. I was all for a little trouble, but I didn’t want to go to jail or, worse, put my mom through a legal battle. A fight here and there was just kid trouble.

These are big-boy rules.

But there was something going on. And deep down, I wanted to know. Deep down, I’d always felt like there was something bigger to life, some truth behind the curtain that I wanted to know. I wanted to know, needed to know my true nature. My original face. My real self.

[_I’m behind the curtain. _]

“The air,” I said. “It wrinkled just before the footstep.”

“That’s what I’m talking about.” Streeter punched a fist into his open palm. “Wait, what?”

“Back it up.”

It took three times before he saw it, the subtle heat waves that roiled the atmosphere. He seemed to be going along with it at first, just to keep me on his side.

Then I told them about the hallway.

And what happened when I disappeared in the vault room. The tentacles and the memories. The flapping colors and silver flashes. The strange grip on my arm just before I vanished.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Chute said softly.

“Sounds like you fell through a trip world,” Streeter said. “Maybe some sort of virtualmode bleedover or fracture, I don’t know. Why were you holding out?”

“I needed time,” I said. “It just feels… I don’t know.”

“What?” Chute asked.

I didn’t want to say it. It was more likely Streeter was right, that I was going through some reality confusion, the overlap of virtualmode environments and reality. A sort of burnout for virtualmoders.

But I couldn’t help feeling this way.

“It feels like I’m remembering,” I said.

“Remembering what?” she asked.

I shook my head.

“Memory extraction.” Streeter snapped his fingers. “You said it felt like the whips rooted in your head just before you disappeared, right? Someone pulled you out. Someone doesn’t want anyone accessing your memories.”

“What memories?” I said.

“Or maybe they don’t want you to remember,” Chute added.

“Yeah, yeah,” Streeter said dreamily. “But why you?”

He sounded jealous. He was virtualmode royalty, not me. Why would anyone want to protect what was in my head. I just pounded energy drinks and binge-watched videos. I was an average teenager.

There was something behind the curtain. And the curtain almost got pulled aside. Someone was there to stop it.

Someone above the law.

“What makes you so special?” Streeter mused.

“Reel it in, narcissist,” Chute said.

“Don’t use big words.”

“Reel it in, dick.”

“I’m just saying, why would someone with this much power be protecting us? Or Socket, if that’s what it is.”

“You’re missing the obvious,” I said.

They both stared for different reasons. Streeter wanted more. Chute wanted it to stop.

“That wrinkled air,” I said. “It happened in the hallway. And under the bleachers, too.”

It took a moment to sink in. That sort of anomaly in virtualmode could be chalked up to coding error, even with this strange rewrite of the timeline. But in the skin? We could blame it on brain burn, that I was starting to cook, but all of this happened in the skin and in virtualmode. It wasn’t just a hallucination. Something was out there.

Someone is steering.

“What’s happening?” I whispered.

“I don’t know,” Streeter answered. “But we’re going to find out.”

“Play back the library.” I scooted my chair forward. “There has to be more evidence, a thread we can follow.”

“Are you both tilted?” Chute said. “You’re actually going to follow this?”

“I’m sorry,” Streeter said. “This is for people with balls.”

“I’m going to stuff you in my shoe.” She snatched the flash drive out of the computer. “And keep you from finding more trouble.”

“And you think I don’t have a backup copy?”

She stared at the miniature memory stick and shook her head. A deep sigh. “Why?” she said. “Why do this?”

“Why climb a mountain?” Streeter said. “Why go to the moon? Because it’s there, Chute. Something out there wants us to climb it.”

“Someone’s watching,” I muttered.

“Who?” she asked, begging. “Why?”

I shook my head.

“Socket has a secret,” Streeter added.

“I do?”

He nodded. “They’re protecting your memories from getting out. Even you don’t know what it is. But we’re going to find out what’s in there. What makes Socket Greeny tick.”

He held out his hand. Chute tossed the flash drive back. We were going to follow the bread crumbs. We might end up boiling in a witch’s cauldron.

Or find a pot of gold.

As it would turn out, no one could guess what was behind the curtain. Least of all, me.

6

Laundry was flapping.

My neighbor down the street, Mrs. Higgins, was old school that way and clipped her laundry to a cord strung between her back porch and the privacy fence. I helped her put it up a few years ago.

It was hot. A scorcher for summer. I was soaked in sweat when a fierce wind came out of nowhere. Sheets snapped off Mrs. Higgins’s line; towels rolled through the grass. She needed to get them inside before—

WHOOMP.

I shot up from the couch; an empty bag of chips crinkled beneath my feet. It took a moment to catch up with my surroundings, my heart pulsing in my ears. I was at home with the television on—a sci-fi flick I’d seen a thousand times about artificially intelligent machines and the illusion of reality.

The ceiling fan wobbled overhead, the chain dancing in the uneven churn. I couldn’t remember turning it on that high, but it was welcome. I was burning up, my hair matted across my forehead, shirt soaked through.

The rustling of bed sheets returned.

I was dreaming that. It was the sound of Mrs. Higgins’s laundry on the line, the snapping of linen and tumbling of wet towels on a blazing hot afternoon—

There. I heard it again.

This time behind me.

All the lights were off. The house was dark except for the television. Shadows danced off sharp corners, splashing eerie images off the windows.

I muted the volume.

Listened.

It was coming from Mom’s bedroom. The door was closed, no light beneath it.

“Mom?” My throat was tight. I sounded prepubescent and tried again, deeper this time. Manlier. “Hey, Mom. You home?”

The thought of announcing I had a man-eating dog with me crossed my mind. I pushed my hair out of my eyes, damp and sticky. I was parched with fever, my throat gritty.

I stood outside her door, hand on the knob, and counted to three. Then ten. Then started over, swearing if I didn’t hear anything that I’d just leave it alone.

“This is stupid.”

I threw the door open and stepped back. My pulse crashed in waves. The room was spotless.

As usual.

I found the light switch. The bedspread was without a wrinkle. The pillows fluffy without a dent. Everything just as she left it a week ago. I stepped inside. A surge of endorphins kept me hyperalert, my ears targeting every little sound. Someone had been in her room, I could feel it. Yes, I feel it.

But there was no evidence, no nothing.

I’d been sleeping alone in the house for a week, and now I had a raging fever with the insatiable urge to shed my skin like an old suit. These [_feelings _]were hallucinations, not premonitions.

Her dresser was clean, no knickknacks. A lamp at her bedside with a glass of water waited for her return. Nothing was out of order, unlike the rest of the house trashed with pizza boxes and empty bottles of energy drink, a not-so-subtle way of punishing her extended leave of absences from the job of Mother.

A job she hardly seemed to care about.

I looked through the closet, under the bed, in her dresser drawers. I wasn’t going back out to the couch without a full inspection. Any other noises I’d chalk up to hallucinations and enjoy the ride.

Outside it was dark.

It was close to midnight. I pried apart the blinds with two fingers. The outline of a maple was barely visible in the dark, the gray branches slightly lighter. I let go of the crinkled slats when something flashed.

My heart jumped.

That feeling was back, the one that told me someone was in the room. Someone was watching. Only this time there was evidence. Something flashed a pair of golden orbs. I saw them in the tree’s canopy.

And another pair.

Three, altogether.

It could be a cat. Well, three cats. All of them sitting in the tree and staring at me. And blinking very slowly.

Shit.

This wasn’t a dream. I checked the window to make sure it was snapped closed and locked, then backed out of the room and went to the kitchen. I turned the television off and sat back in the dark to let my eyes adjust. Easing over to the back door, hand on the light switch, I paused.

Took a breath.

[Hey.]

My thighs liquefied.

I flopped onto the countertop and threaded my fingers through my hair. My heart was exploding.

[_[What’re you doing?] _]Streeter’s voice came through my nojakk implant, vibrating in my head.

I touched my cheek. “Dying.”

[Nice.]

I flipped the switch. Light flooded the backyard and the neighbor’s cat leaped over the fence. Everything was creepier in the dark. Even cats.

“It’s midnight,” I said.

[I been thinking and noticed you were awake. Am I ruining your beauty sleep?]

“You’re ruining my health.” I chugged a cup of water and downed two ibuprofen. “Should I ask what you’re thinking?”

[Always.]

Of course, he’d been planning the next attack. He didn’t call it that, more of a seek-and-discover mission, but it included ways to get back at Jack and his brother. I half-listened as I fell onto the couch and booted the television on.

[We go back to the vault,] he said.

“Chute will kill you.”

[She doesn’t have to know.]

“She’ll find out. Then she’ll kill you.”

[She’s not the mom, Socket. Get some balls.]

I called up a list of messages on the television. Mom left one every day. They started with an apology, something came up, make sure I brush my teeth and get my homework done. It was bad long-distance parenting, like she was reading from a script that she wanted to feel but couldn’t, a fake-it-until-you-make-it attempt that had been stuck in fake mode since forever.

“Why you doing this?”

[You have lost your balls.]

“You lost your mind.”

[It’s the challenge, Socket. It’s fun. Something happened we don’t understand, come on now. Let’s go discover something, right?]

I queued up Mom’s last message, the one that told me to clean up the house.

[_[I want to help you.] _]Streeter said.

“Me?”

[Yeah, man. You’re always there for me, you know. A little late sometimes but always there. I’m there for you, bro. You’re no trip, Socket. You’re the real and I’m just here for the ride.]

“Look who’s tripping now.”

[Be lying if I said I wasn’t looking for gold. Whoever duped us has some big guns that I’d like to cop, but you’re the key to it all, see? You feel that? That whole scene at the vault was triggered by your memories. Something was unlocked that someone didn’t want you to see.]

“The truth is out there sort of thing.”

[You’re not curious?]

Was I curious? I was more scared. To see your true nature is a hell of a show. What if I didn’t like it? Would it be better to just suffer in ignorance than take that chance?

As it would turn out, I wouldn’t have a choice. When it came to true nature, none of us do.

“Get Chute on board,” I said. “I don’t want to be on her bad foot.”

[No. Of course you don’t.]

“What’s that mean?”

He took a long pause. [Gearheads on Friday. I got us three seats.]

I tapped out and leaned back, yawning. The pills were already taking the edge off the aches. Instead of calling up the television, I played Mom’s last video message, the one where she apologized, told me to clean up, asked me to call her back, she couldn’t help being gone. She looked so tired, so stressed. It was just like the rest of the messages, except for the last part.

“Be careful, son,” she said.

[_Son. _]She never called me that.

I tapped my cheek and called her name. The call clicked in nonresponse. She was too busy to answer. Or maybe sleeping for once.

Something rustled in her room again.

I was back on high alert.

I grabbed an old Wiffle ball bat and nudged her door open with my foot. Once again, all was in order. I eased into the room and went through another inspection under the bed and in the closet. Even peeked through the blinds. This time the cats weren’t there.

Maybe if I turned up the television, I wouldn’t hear it again.

The glass of water was still on her nightstand. I stopped in the doorway. A small black flash drive was next to it.

That wasn’t there before.

7

“YES, MA’AM,” STREETER SAID. “TELL us when Chute gets here, okay? Thanks.” He closed the bedroom door. “Here. Take these.”

I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling. Streeter stood over me with a glass of water and two white pills. I threw my weight forward to escape the cushy embrace of the beanbag, the vinyl covering sticking to my arms.

“Gramma said take them both,” he said. “Wanted to ask your mom if it was okay, but I said she was busy.”

I chased the pills with heavy gulps and collapsed. My hair was plastered to my forehead. The plastic chair felt like a pot of boiling water.

“You go to a doctor?” Streeter asked.

“No. I’m fine.”

“Yeah, you look great.”

“I just… I’m a little warm. Allergies or something.”

“Like allergic to air? Allergic to breathing? Living?”

“You want me to go?” I attempted to crawl out of the bag. “You can do this by yourself.”

“No, no. Not what I’m saying. Just wondered if you’d been. Pills should take care of it and, you know, you can always go tomorrow.”

I rolled back into the pocket and sucked on an ice cube. I didn’t want to go to the doctor. I should’ve, but then I’d have to call Mom and then she’d ask all kinds of questions. This happened every once in a while, anyway. I’d get a fever and then it’d be gone, like some sort of heat wave on the inside. Mom used to say it was growing pains, but I never heard of anyone having juvenile heat flashes.

I stopped telling her about them a long time ago.

The doorbell rang.

“She’s late,” Streeter growled.

He went to let Chute inside, but his gramma beat him to the door. Five minutes of exuberant conversation went by. No one came over to Streeter’s house without going through the grandparent gauntlet.

I dug the flash drive from my pocket and turned it over. I’d never seen that around the house. It was short and black. No markings or manufacturer’s logo. Just a blocky little memory stick that wasn’t there when I walked into Mom’s bedroom the first time.

I heard strange noises in the room, I found a mysterious flash drive, I was running a fever, and Mom had been at work for almost a week. This all seemed suspicious, but at the time that was all it was. Just a weird day.

A weird life.

“Whoa.” Chute walked into the bedroom. “You all right?”

“Fine.”

She dropped on her knees and put her hand on my forehead. “You’re hot.”

“Thanks.”

“No, I mean you have a fever.”

“I just took something.”

“What are you doing?” Streeter closed the bedroom door.

“Socket’s sick.”

“You a doctor?” he said.

“He needs one.”

“He’s fine. Grandma took his temp; he’s overheated, that’s all.”

“He’s got a fever.”

“So what? I get them all the time, take a pill and get some rest. Probably a virus and there’s nothing you can do about that, right, Socket?”

“He needs rest.”

“Looks comfortable to me. You comfortable, Socket?”

“No, I mean we shouldn’t be doing this, not today.”

“Look, we’re not running a marathon, Chute. We’re just spending an hour in virtualmode. He can handle it; he’s a big boy.”

“We stop by a CVS,” she said. “Run a medical scan. If it says he’s all right, we go. If not, we don’t.”

“We’ve got one of those. If he checks out, are we good?” He didn’t wait for an answer and left the room in search of the home medical scanner, a device that he would manipulate into saying what he wanted it to say. I knew that because I’d seen him hack the thing into staying home sick when he was just fine.

Chute closed the door. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing. I’m fine, really.”

She continued staring. I felt my temperature rise. Everything felt wrong, but how could I tell her that without dragging her into it.

That’s how I felt.

Sometimes I felt a bit guilty for falling in love with her. There would come a day that I blamed myself for dragging her into all the trouble. It would be my fault that she would suffer so much. If I could just ignore her, walk away from my feelings, then she’d have a different life without me. Would that mean it would be better? Or just different?

It didn’t matter.

I couldn’t walk away from her any more than I could wish away the fever.

“Let’s just do this,” I said. “Streeter booked the room and wants us to come along. We look, we go home, everybody’s happy. We’re not running a marathon.”

“You need sleep, Socket.”

She was right about that. But going home wasn’t going to solve that problem.

“Here we go.” Streeter marched in with a small leather pouch, unpacking the contents and slapping them across my forehead and arms. A few seconds later, he turned the tablet toward Chute.

“Slight fever,” he said. “Nothing abnormal.”

His voice cracked a bit. Chute caught it, too. He was holding something back. Later I’d learn my fever was almost a hundred and three. It would get up to a hundred and seven. That was impossible. My organs would be shutting down. Streeter would later confess that the device was broken, that he’d hacked the software too many times.

Still, he knew something was wrong.

“He’s not going to die,” Streeter replied. “The scan said he’s fine.” Streeter shook the tablet. “When did you become such a drag, Chute? You’re a virtualmode kill queen.”

“This isn’t virtualmode.”

“Yeah, no shit. What’ve you got there?”

He was talking to me, but I’d zoned out while those two did their dance. This was going to drag out until dinnertime, and I was getting tired.

“Hey, ponytail.” Streeter pointed at the flash drive. “Where’d you get that?”

“This?”

“Let me see.”

“It’s blank.”

He wiggled his fingers. I tossed it like a pebble. I’d already plugged it into a laptop and there was nothing on it. The mystery seemed to die after that. Mom brought computer stuff home all the time. The flash drive had to be hers; I just didn’t see it when I first walked in her room.

And the flapping sounds were just laundry, right?

“Where’d you get this?” Streeter asked.

He studied it like a jeweler sizing a diamond. I told him, but he didn’t believe me. I decided not to tell them about the flapping and the cats in the backyard, their eyes glowing from the tree.

“I found it,” I repeated. “I told you, it’s just a blank.”

“It needs a virtualmode port, ding-dong,” he said. “You don’t have one of those at home.”

I hadn’t noticed. Streeter mumbled about advanced USB ports that I couldn’t read, something used in virtualmode code writing. Then he dug a set of VR goggles from a drawer and strapped them on.

“Let’s go,” Chute whispered.

“I can hear you,” Streeter whispered back.

Honestly, I felt better now that I was out of my house. Sitting around made me worse. I’d rather be busy with a fever than staring at a television with a fever.

“Huh,” Streeter grunted.

“What?” I asked.

“It’s empty.”

“Yeah. Like I said two seconds ago.”

“Yeah, but you don’t have a VR drive to read this.”

“Still empty,” I repeated.

He turned toward me, with oversized goggles swallowing the top half of his face. “For a second there, I thought you were special.”

“Never said I was.”

“You’re a gift to humankind, Socket Greeny. Look at that hair.”

I crawled out of the beanbag and stripped the ridiculous goggles off his head. He blinked heavily, cussing me out for throwing his gear around.

Grandma called, asking if we were ready.

Chute wasn’t happy about it, but she went with us. We were just going down to Gearheads for a couple of hours, that was all. We weren’t running a marathon. But that would’ve been easier.

I left the flash drive in the room.

“Need some help?” Streeter called.

“No.” Chief was sorting through a spill of papers. “Your room’s ready.”

“Who peed in your coffee?”

“I’m tired of cleaning up messes. Don’t you go making one, too.”

“We’re not going out.” Streeter held up his flash drive, all the data we’d be parsing was on it, not on the Internet or in the cloud.

“What’s wrong with him?” Chief said.

“Who, Socket? He’s got ebola.”

“Yeah, no drinks, Socket,” he said.

I chugged the ginseng tea Chute bought, her natural approach to boosting immunity. Chief could evidently still see my death aura.

“And don’t infect my gear.” Chief turned his back on us.

Streeter led us into the back rooms of the former massage parlor, the small spaces excellent for leasing to virtualmode teenagers instead of pervy businessmen. The hallways were narrow and dim and cold enough that a glass of ice would last all day. Chute rubbed her arms. Ahead, a kid about our age opened a door.

“What’re you doing in there?” Streeter asked.

“Getting your room ready.” He held the door open.

“You work here?”

“Just started.”

There was no reason not to believe him. Chief didn’t let people wander around the rooms, and he hired high school kids all the time. We believed him.

And that would make all the difference.

There were four oversized chairs arranged in a short line and all facing the same direction, like a movie would play on the mustard yellow wall. It smelled like cleaning solution and bath salts. Streeter fell in the front chair and passed back a slide box of our own personal transplanters we fixed to the connectors.

Never lease transplanters, he always said. They suck.

I was more concerned about the perverted spirits lurking in the walls than transplanters sipping on our nerve lines. I dropped in the chair behind Chute, the plastic cover crunching under me. Her head popped over the back like a puppet.

“How you feeling?”

“Better,” I lied. “The drink was good,” I lied again.

“Stop chatting,” Streeter called. “We got an hour and we’re running low on credits because of douche bag.”

Douche bag being Jack and his brother.

The clatter of Streeter’s flash drive found a port in the chair’s control panel.

The lights dimmed.

Breathing slowed.

I considered leaving the transplanters on my lap and closing my eyes, but he’d come out for me. I was curious, but I was also tired. There was no way anyone would guess what we’d find. My whole life would play out that way, just an endless display of surprises.

All the way to the end.

Just before I went inside, the space at the front of the room wrinkled in the curious heat wave. I pulled out and searched for it, seeing nothing this time. When I planted the transplanters the second time, the air remained still.

Chute was already inside, her sim an animated version of her skin, complete with the red ponytail. She was staring at Streeter the barbarian, who was dialing a hovering display of controls.

“We better not be going out,” she said.

“We’re not,” he said. “We’re staying on my data stick.”

I was with Chute on that. Staying on the flash drive would guarantee no troubles.

Particles trickled around us like colorful grains of sand, filling the white space with details of our environment until we were standing on the portico once again. It was exactly as we’d seen it, only this time we were voyeurs instead of participants.

The generic sims were off to the side and frozen in the moment Streeter programmed. Chute and I admired the view while he fussed.

“So I got it narrowed down to this,” he said.

We went to the middle of the portico and stood around the mysterious footprint. Streeter, shoulders slumped, battle-axes clanging, stared at it like a dead end.

“So?” Chute said.

“I ran an analysis on it and came up with nothing.” His voice boomed off the walls. “There are no sims registered with a footprint of that size and texture.”

Or lack of texture. There were no swirls or wrinkles that would be evident in a normal footprint. But these were sims, so smooth skin wasn’t necessarily unusual. Something about it, though, appeared… robotic.

“There’s got to be millions of unregistered sims,” Chute said. “You’ve got, like, twenty of them.”

“No, there’s something different about this.”

“No, you want there to be something different. If you look for something, you’ll find it even when it’s not there.”

Streeter called out commands. Animated dials appeared in front of him. He punched his thick, knobby fingers into various openings and spun them like old rotary phones. Time frames advanced in tiny slices. The footprint appeared and disappeared as he went back and forth.

“Something’s here,” he muttered. “The data is wrong.”

He slowed down time, slicing it into thinner and thinner segments so that it advanced at a million frames per second. He hypothesized a theory with each cycle. First it was something about an underground sect of hackers keeping virtualmode justice. Then it was an alien race, then artificial intelligence, then some Gaia theory he read online.

Each time he cycled through the footprint, I felt a static heat flash prick inside my ears. The air was coming from an exhaust pipe. There wasn’t air in virtualmode; I wasn’t breathing. I wondered if the air conditioner had failed back in the skin.

And then I saw it.

“Back up,” I said.

Chute had wandered off in boredom. She watched from a distance as Streeter dialed back the sequence. A jagged string of light cut the space right as the footstep disappeared.

“There!” I said.

“What?”

“You don’t see it?”

Streeter shook his head. I told him to slice time thinner. He walked it right up to the edge.

Flash.

“Right there.”

Chute stared. Streeter looked stupid. They weren’t seeing it. “Thinner,” I told him.

“That’s all I got,” he said.

“Then slower.”

Rocks of frustration rattled in his throat. He took that beefsteak finger and dialed a semitransparent control disk ridiculously slow.

“This is going to take all—”

“Stop!”

And there it was: a kinky thread of static electricity. It was the width of a human hair that sizzled white-blue all the way into the sky.

Streeter’s mouth fell open, his blocky teeth peeking through the bushy whiskers. Chute approached warily.

“You see it?” I asked.

They nodded.

“Yeah,” Streeter said. “But how did you?”

“What’d you mean?”

“I mean I got this parsed down to a billionth of a second. And you saw it.”

I didn’t exactly see it. I felt it. It was a static image, yet it teased something inside me like electrical currents carved their initials on the lining of my stomach. But it wasn’t lightning and it wasn’t some dangling electrical wire. It felt like a fissure, as if the universe had cracked and light was leaking out.

A crack in time.

“What is it?” Chute asked.

Streeter was shaking his head. He didn’t know, but he knew something was hidden in this scene. It wanted to be found.

“What is it?” he asked me.

“How should I know?”

“You found it.”

“I just saw it.”

But they knew. They could see the connection. They knew this was all about me. First the vault and now this. True nature was chugging down the tracks.

What the hell am I?

“Well.” Streeter sighed. “Let’s take this slow. Um, I guess let’s see if it registers voltage. And then—”

An earthquake rattled the world.

Streeter dropped to one knee. Chute fell into me. We crashed on the stony floor as the wall behind us crumbled. It didn’t fall straight down, however.

It imploded.

The library was gone. Instead of endless shelves of books, there were piles of gold coins and glittering jewels. Sitting upon the golden nest was a fat, black dragon, wings folded across its back. Obsidian eyes peeked through leathery slits. A yellow-fanged smile dripped saliva that sizzled on the floor.

“Checkmate,” it said.

“Oh, good god,” Streeter cried. “Are you effing kidding me?”

The dragon’s laughter loosened stones that teetered in the remains of the walls.

“How’d you get in here?” Streeter shouted.

“Magic, dumbass.”

I recognized the voice. It wasn’t some warlock from another world, not a space alien guarding our newly found secret. This was a fourteen-year-old asshole that wanted revenge.

Josh.

“Yeah?” Streeter snatched the battle-axes from his chest. “Well, abracadabra, mother—”

The first chain sprang from the floor and hit Streeter in the chin. A spigot of blood gushed from his beard. The next two came out of foggy air and hit his wrists like spidery strands of metal. The next two snaked around his ankles. He was hoisted above us and spread-eagled, a puddle of sim-blood dripping on the stones.

Josh the dragon had only blinked.

We were so screwed.

“You said we weren’t going out!” Chute shouted.

“We’re not.” Streeter’s lips were fat, teeth missing.

“Then how’d he get in here?” she countered.

Streeter’s flash drive created this environment. There was no connection to the Internet. Chief ran a tight operation; there was no hacking in his club.

But there was the kid. The one that prepped the room.

_He loaded a back door. _

Chief wouldn’t be looking for it since we didn’t go out. Josh was probably in the next room, laughing his ass off. I knew that because mounds of gold cascaded beneath the dragon’s laughter.

It was a stupid sim, dragon and coins. But he had us.

Nothing stupid about that.

“All right, all right,” Streeter lisped. “You win. What do you want? You want everything? You can have it, jerk off. I’ll just hunt your ass down another day.”

“Say it,” Josh roared.

“Say what?”

“I win. Say it.”

“I win,” Streeter said.

The chains racked tighter. His joints began popping. He didn’t scream because he didn’t feel it. But he was about to have his favorite sim pulled apart.

“You win,” he said.

“Louder.”

“You win! You win, all right! I’ll post it on the boards and put the word out, you win, all right? Just let me down.”

“I’m not letting you down.”

“Well, what do you want?” Streeter whined.

“I want it all.”

“You know, Chief is going to be pissed when he finds out you wired his room,” Chute said. “Probably never let you come back.”

“You can shut up,” Josh said.

“She’s right,” Streeter said. “Let’s just call a truce, huh? I love you, you love me. What’d you say, Joshy.”

He hated Joshy.

“I want the spoils.” Josh spit a bubbling wad that ate a hole in the stone beneath Streeter. A red-hot pit of coals opened up. “I’m going to take everything from you and you’ll be nothing. I’ll be king. I’ll be a rich man.”

The chains began clicking. Streeter was lowered just above the pit, his fingers scratching crumbs from the steaming edges.

Boy,” Chute said. “You’ll be a rich boy.”

The smile dropped off the dragon’s lips. He turned his head, the sound of old leather creaking. The body inflated like a balloon. Josh pushed one nostril closed with a long, hooked claw. A stream of liquid blue fire blasted from the other nostril.

I leaped in front of her and was drenched in a sizzling bath of flames. When the fiery shower ended, my sim was charred and crispy. Chute put her hands on my cheeks.

“You’re burning up,” she said.

“I know. Fire does that.”

That wasn’t what she meant. My vitals were spiking in the skin. My fever had breached a hundred and four and was still rising. And it had nothing to do with the dragon breath.

“What’s up with them?” Josh asked.

“Ah, they got a thing.” Streeter craned his neck.

So he knew. He knew all along. He probably knew before we did. Chute and I were always going to be together. We would have something no one could get between.

Not even death.

“I’m taking everything,” Josh said.

“You know I’ll never stop coming after you.”

Josh tapped a long claw on the stone, chiseling a hole into the floor. Black, shiny beetles bubbled out, their hardened legs clicking against the granite as they fanned out in thick streams.

“I’m counting on it,” Josh said.

The bugs teetered around the pit. “Take me,” Streeter said. “Leave them alone. This was all my idea.”

“Oh, I’m taking you. Yeah, for sure. I don’t really care about you anymore, I just don’t want you to have anything. What I really want is him.”

That curved talon pointed at me. And the blackened eyes glittered.

“Socket?” Streeter said.

“Something’s up with him. The trap in the vault you so stupidly walked into should’ve worked. Something about him.”

“That’s what I said!” Streeter shouted.

“Get us out of here!” Chute screamed.

I assumed code bail out was locked up. Again. And, quite frankly, I’d stopped caring at that point. Every time I moved, a chunk of my sim fell like baked layers of blackened toast. This was all stupid anyway. Just get it over.

I’d been feeling that way for quite a while.

“This is so great,” Josh said. “I’m going to walk those bugs down your throat and out your ass. Then I’m going to duplicate your sims so I can play with them later. I’ll own your registered identities and do what I want. You’ll never virtualmode again. How you like them crackers?”

“Shut up,” Streeter spat.

The bugs began leaping. He shook them off at first, but there were too many. They crawled through his hair and into his beard. He spit them out, but they kept coming, running up his nostrils, in his ears. He let out a warrior’s roar. The chains shook; the walls quivered.

“We’re going to have fun.” Josh turned to us.

Next to me, the kinky wire began to glow. It hadn’t occurred to me that Josh didn’t see it. It was white hot. He would’ve forgotten about me had he seen it. But it wasn’t glowing.

[_Something’s inside. _]

“Socket!” Chute was holding me. “You got to get off; you’re over a hundred and five!”

“Hey!” Streeter choked. “Let him off, Josh. He’s sick!”

This was no joke. My fever was nearing a hundred and six. Ordinarily, alarms would be firing at Chief’s desk. I would be immediately bailed out and taken to a hospital. But Josh had locked us in and overridden the vitals. On the outside, we were resting peacefully in the chairs.

“Not falling for it.” That was the last thing Josh would say.

The bugs came for me.

Columns of black, shiny shells clacked around the hole below Streeter and marched at us. Chute stomped them out, but they flooded up our legs.

She screamed.

Josh laughed.

Streeter bellowed.

Despite the terror, a moment of calm wrapped around me, a total sense of everything being in its rightful place. Everything was exactly as it should be.

The kinked wire etched the air with branding fire.

My olfactory senses opened fully. The smell of burning insects filled my nostrils. My blackened skin was flaking off, the cracks glowing orange. The insects were smoking as they made their way up my legs. By the time they reached my waist, they burst into tiny balls of fire, disintegrating before falling to the floor.

Large chunks of my sim fell. Great, crusty scabs shattered on the floor.

The world shimmered in waves.

“Dude,” Streeter said.

I heard nothing more.

My body burst with the force of a thousand volcanoes. Flames devoured the world.

I was the flames. I consumed the world.

I am the world.

Does fire see itself as fire? It is just fire.

I am fire.

I just am.

Nothing existed but ashes. Yet I was not in the skin. I was somewhere in the ethers of virtualmode. From the dusty ashes, a broken line appeared.

Glowing white hot.

It beckoned me.

Invited me.

A fissure in space, a crack in time. Something wanted me to see the secrets it held. True nature was on the other side.

I reached.

Green.

_Trees. Sky blue and brown earth. _

_The smell of life. _

I stand in the middle of a jungle, the sounds of birds calling, mammals scrambling. Dewy leaves dripping.

The humid air kisses my cheeks with damp lips.

I have never felt anything so beautiful. So loving.

A path lies before me. It meanders toward a massive tree.

I smile.

This is where I belong. I want to see this, be this. Yet my feet are heavy and still. My legs stiff and unrelenting. Pressed into the soil is a footprint, its unique shape matching that left behind on the portico. A signpost that I have arrived.

In the distance, a flock of brightly colored birds breaks into a swirling cloud, a rainbow of sparrows. Their bodies are oddly shaped, wings snapping sharply. Eyes glowing. But not birds.

Something other than birds.

Below this spectacle are three figures. They are too far away to see details, but even from this distance their shapes are distinguishable. One is a dark-skinned man. The other has long hair like mine: long and light-colored but not white. The third wears only a plum-colored robe that flutters, his silver skin glittering.

“Where am I?” I whisper.

_They should not be able to hear me, but here space is irrelevant. There is a connection between us that no space can separate, entangled particles that obey the laws of quantum physics. _

“Home,” I hear.

The world turns watery. Tears brim in my eyes. “I don’t want to leave.”

[_“Soon,” I hear. “You will come home soon.” _]

I think I am crying because I taste home. Finally, I found it. I’m not alone.

I belong somewhere.

8

A steady bump.

A mechanical whir.

A cloth was pulled from my forehead, replaced with one cool and damp. It smelled clean around me, the sterile astringency of medical precision—but oddly mixed with humid earthiness. Like dirt tracked in.

There was a deep inhalation. It paused before rushing out.

Mom.

She was there, somewhere. I wanted to call for her, tell her I was all right, to drop the worried look that tightened her forehead and weighed down the corners of her mouth. I couldn’t see her, though. I couldn’t see anything. A heavy blanket lay over me, my body unresponsive. Eyelids sheets of lead.

But I wasn’t on fire.

This didn’t smell like the back rooms of Gearheads. Didn’t smell like home. It had an orderly feel. Something oily and gleamy. Occasional whirring, the intensity of bright light.

“Kay?” A deep voice called my mom.

She shuffled at my side, her smart shoes clicking the floor. I didn’t hear a door open or close, but her footsteps suddenly went silent.

Someone else was with me.

Instead of hard-soled shoes, the footsteps were damp and sticky. Bare. I felt a shadow fall over my face. A circular bandage was pulled off my neck and replaced with another one.

I had no reason to think this person was male and not female. I couldn’t smell him or even hear his breath. It felt like a he.

I remembered fire and ashes. There were faded images of Chute and Streeter like seeing them through the wrong end of a telescope. I tried to remember where I was after that and how I got here, but it was all so fuzzy.

So gray.

Mom’s footsteps returned but remained on the other side of the room. She was joined by a heavy set of boots and a deep voice incapable of whispering. Their words were blurred and indecipherable. They were speaking English, but nothing that made sense.

Mom’s replies were sharp and worried. I imagined her staring from a doorway, arms crossed and toe pointed. She would be an unblinking shell, an armored likeness of herself, a transformation that occurred the day my dad died, a sort of emptying out. She would be staring as if a certain level of concentration could will her wishes into reality. But life operated on life’s terms, not on her desires.

What’s wrong with me?

Footsteps started toward me.

“Status?” a man asked.

“Stable.” I assumed this was the bare-footed assistant fussing with my neck bandages. “A virus has been detected and treated. His temperature is near normal. There is no indication of anomaly or sign of inherent traits.”

Inherent traits?

“He’s not…” Mom’s voice trailed off. She couldn’t finish the thought, so unthinkable it was.

“No. He does not exhibit an expression of time-slicing. There is no evidence of turning. He is normal, Ms. Greeny.”

Time-slicing? Turning?

For a moment, it seemed conceivable that I was still in virtualmode. I would’ve believed it had Mom’s presence not been so convincing. Still, I was unfamiliar with any of these diagnoses.

I was normal.

“Keep him overnight,” the man said. He turned and said, “He’s fine, Kay. I know how this looks; I know what you’re thinking. We’ll monitor him, but there’s nothing to be concerned about. Your boy is perfectly normal.”

His exit was decisive. His heavy footfalls disappeared abruptly, as if he was suddenly not there.

Mom was by my side. I felt her hand on my arm, warm and firm. She didn’t shake. The worried look would be etched between her brows, but weakness would not haunt her. These were the moments she dropped the armor and I saw the mom from the early days.

The mom from before dad died.

“I will put him under,” the bare-footed man said, his voice soothing, almost melodious.

Mom’s grip hardened. Then she thanked him and said his name, a name I would one day come to know and trust. A name I would come to love.

“Thank you, Spindle.”

The darkness of unconsciousness passed beneath the scalpel of a time surgeon. One second I was bathed in antiseptic darkness, the next was the comforting smell of cookies and bread, the sweet fragrance of tea olives in the backyard.

Home.

I rolled onto my side, the heavy blanket of paralysis having vanished, and opened my eyes. My mom stood next to the bed like a guardian awaiting my arrival. No worried look possessed her.

Just patience.

“What happened?” were my first words.

“You overdid it.” She chuckled. “How do you feel?”

I attempted to sit up, my head a concrete block. There was a circular spot just above my collarbone that was tender to touch. I had no memory of what had happened or where I’d been. My memories had all been wiped away like words on a chalkboard, ghostly lines barely visible.

“Was I hit by a truck?” I asked.

“Too much fun. I’m going to make you rest.”

“You’ll have to stay home to do that,” I challenged.

A shadow of a smile crossed her eyes. “I’ll take some time off.”

She was nodding. Of course, she’d said that before, even promised. But she never explained herself. There were so many things she was hiding. Why can’t I remember anything?

I didn’t ask her that.

But she knew why, just wasn’t going to tell me just like I wasn’t going to tell her about the flapping in her room and the golden eyes in the backyard.

Secrets. We were good at that.

I wanted to drop the charade, to strip down to the real and see the mom from before Dad died. The truth can be dangerous, she once said. And painful.

“Lie back down,” she said. “You need rest.”

She came back with a glass of water and a couple of ibuprofen, then placed her hand across my forehead and gazed at me. She loved me like a mom loved a son, but sometimes I felt like she had to make an effort, that it didn’t come easy.

She missed Dad, I believed.

I would discover, one day, it was more than that. Much more.

Someone was watching.

“You dead?” Streeter asked.

I ached all over. It even hurt to smile. “Not yet.”

“How you feeling?” Chute was kneeling on the other side of my bed. It was her hand on my arm now.

“Like roadkill.”

She caressed my bicep, squeezed my shoulder, and looked at me adoringly. Streeter shook his head.

“Where’d you go?” he asked.

“Give him a sec, will you?” she said. “He just woke up. Take these.” Chute passed me a glass of water and two ibuprofen. I’d been asleep long enough to take two more. “Your mom went to the store. She’ll be right back.”

She watched me down the water then left to get more. I smacked my lips. Streeter was still shaking his head.

“So you know?” I asked.

“Dude. Like dating your sister.”

“Yeah, it’s nothing like that.”

His lips curled, eyes squeezed shut. He clutched his stomach and dry heaved an avalanche of disgust.

“All right, all right,” I said. “Relax.”

He kicked the bed. “You better not screw us up.”

He was afraid of losing her. Once you cross the girlfriend-boyfriend line, friendship was no longer an option. But how could I tell him that Chute and I were made for each other, that we’d be together to the very end. Yeah, that sounded naïve emo. Not in this case. I could [_feel _]it.

I could feel a lot of things.

The front door of the house opened. Mom was home with groceries and Chute was helping. We could hear them talking.

“So where you been?” Streeter asked.

I looked off and tried to remember. Memories were still elusive. Like catching fog with your fingers, there was nothing to grasp. All I could do was shake my head.

“Gearheads,” I said. “Last thing I remember. And fire.”

“Ha, yeah. Fire. A lot of that. You burned it down.”

“Gearheads?”

“No. You burned down virtualmode. All of it, bro. Chief’s entire network is cooked. He kicked us out for life.”

“Wait, what?”

“It was so worth it. Everything Josh had is toast. I mean everything. Whatever the hell you plugged in, it followed his sim back to his account and fried it all. It was awesome.”

Josh.

Through the flames, I remembered the dragon shooting flames from a nostril. My sim charred. There were data-eating bugs and holes in the sky.

And a hospital!

That was it. I was in a hospital. I remembered the smell, but couldn’t open my eyes. Cold compresses and sterile bandages on my neck. And… what else? Something else.

I was missing something.

It turned out, I was missing a lot. There was nothing concrete after the dragon. Nothing but flames. It would be quite some time before I remembered where I was.

“How’d you do it?” he asked. “I never seen a weapon like that. More importantly, can you do it again? I mean, that was total annihilation, complete incineration. We get that weapon in our toolbox and we wipe out the competition left and—”

“I don’t remember.”

“What do you mean you don’t remember?”

“I just don’t.”

“You don’t just dial up a weapon like that on accident. What’s going on?”

That was the big question. [_What’s going on? _]Streeter was trying to figure out how to dominate virtualmode while my life was turning inside out. Couldn’t he see the cocoon sitting in front of him?

“So where’d you go?” he asked.

“I told you, I don’t remember.”

“No, I mean how’d you get out of Gearheads? You were gone when Chute and I got back to the skin. Chief was distracted when we crashed all the servers but said he never saw you leave.”

“Crashed the servers?”

“You flamed out his network and he blamed us. We’re banned for life and I don’t blame him. I mean, I was pissed at first; you kind of left us high and dry. We took the fall for the awesome weapon that you have no idea how you unlocked, but whatever. But then you weren’t at home for a day, and she—” He jabbed his thumb toward Chute’s voice “—was all freaking out and going to call the police when your mom left a message, said you’d be home in a couple days, figured something weird happened that, [_again, _]you don’t remember, but like I said, whatever. There ain’t no back door at Gearheads, so how’d you sneak out?”

I was shaking my head with a strange intuition. It was all impossible, but for some reason this all had to do with time. I didn’t exactly know what that meant and I sure as hell couldn’t explain it, but it was time.

_Time is malleable. _

Einstein recognized time as a dimension that could be manipulated. All the strangeness leading up to Gearheads was nothing compared to whatever happened in the fire.

Time. What happened with time?

“Sorry,” I said.

“For what?”

“Getting us kicked out.”

“Don’t worry.” He waved it off. “I’ll upgrade my home gear and there’s always Buxbee’s lab. It was worth it.” He pushed junk around my desk, picking up a frayed pair of portals. “I’ll get you upgraded, too.”

Chute returned with a fizzy glass of ginger ale. I wasn’t sick anymore, just sore. But I took a sip. She sat on the edge of the bed and took my hand, our fingers weaving together.

“Can we not do that in public?” Streeter stared at us through my outdated pair of VM goggles. “I need more time.”

We ignored him.

Our boyfriend-girlfriend deal was his problem.

Streeter distracted himself with new plans for upgrades, where we were going next in virtualmode and how we were going to do it. “That flame weapon,” he said, eyes dreamy. “We find that…”

We’d find the reason for the flame weapon, but it would be nothing like he thought. Nothing anyone could’ve guessed. Me included.

When it came time to leave, Chute kissed me on the forehead to the sounds of Streeter gagging. She almost knocked him over. He was still dragging the joke out when he stopped in the doorway. “Almost forgot.”

He dug in his pocket and tossed a little black square on the bed. The flash drive.

“Chief found it in our room,” he said. “I searched it for the flame weapon, but it’s still empty. Don’t know what use it is, but he still blames us. Whatever.”

I held it between finger and thumb—an ordinary black square that appeared to have no data. I had left it at Streeter’s house. So how did it end up in the room?

The wrinkled air.

I’d forgotten about that weird little event that started under the bleachers. I’d seen it just before we uploaded in Gearheads; it was in the room with us. I was feverish at that point, so of course, it could have been a hallucination. Maybe if that was the only thing, I would’ve believed it.

Still, how did it end up in the room?

“Where’d you get that?” Mom stood in the doorway.

“Just… found it. Why?”

She held out her hand. I gave it to her and the worried frown returned. She looked at me without saying anything. Her secrets seemed to hover just below the surface. She wouldn’t let them out, but I had the strange sensation that if I just concentrated, I could pull her thoughts into the open. And then I’d know everything.

Was I ready?

It wasn’t my choice.

My true nature wanted to be discovered. When the time came, the world would know my true nature, too. The universe would sing it.

I am Socket Greeny.

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The Discovery of Socket Greeny

BOOK 1

The Socket Greeny Saga

I

Virtualmode: an alternate reality where there is no pain. No consequences. No fear. A place that is numb and safe.

Not cold, but empty.

No Rime or Reason

Your entire life can change in one day.

It’s not like my life didn’t need it. Basically, I lived a life of killing time. I was zoning out on a steady diet of video games and energy drinks. The only thing that made school even slightly bearable was getting into a fight at the end of the day. Sometimes, the sound of a nose crunching made life worth living. Even if it was my nose.

The day my life went inside-out started like any other day. I got to study hall just before the bell rang. Chute was reclined with her eyes closed and the transplanter discs behind her ears. Her red ponytail was hanging over the seat. Streeter had already crossed over. He was lying back with a grin on his face and his fingers laced over his belly.

I stuck the transplanters behind my ears. They sucked at the soft skin under my earlobes. My small hairs stood up and a spot quivered in my head like a tuning fork. The numbing took over.

There were no lights in the darkness behind my eyelids. No colors. A deadening sensation oozed down my neck and consumed me. Sound faded and the outside world drifted away. Temperature became nonexistent. I left my skin behind and my awareness—whoever [_I _]am—was drawn into the Internet and transplanted into virtualmode.

For a moment, I drifted in darkness with the falling sensation. This was the place where most people failed to enter virtualmode. They couldn’t handle the drifting. Virtualmoders knew how to ride the in-between like a wave.

I entered my sim that looked pretty much like my skin, except for the hair. I liked my sim bald. Back in the skin, my hair was past my shoulders and white as snow. Don’t know why it didn’t have color.

Darkness took form. First, there was an empty room with lumpy, colorless furniture. The gray walls turned into wood paneling with frosty windows. Cheap sofas, frayed rugs covered the floor and monstrous deer heads looked down from mounts, their glassy eyes reflecting the fire in the hearth. Above the fireplace was an enormous moose head.

The flames flickered over the dry wood, occasionally licking the old stone around it. The top of the mantel unfolded and a tiny woman, with blond hair and sweeping curves, stepped out and crossed her perfectly smooth legs.

“Can’t feel the heat?” she asked. “Upgrade your gear with Dr. Feelers’ tactile attachments. Dr. Feelers puts you in control of the nervous system inputs; you can feel as little or as much as you like. Fire too hot? Turn it down by—”

“Off.” Chute’s sim was taller than her skin. It was leaner and more dangerous. “Dr. Feelers don’t work,” she mumbled, even though she was rubbing her hands in front of the fire.

A giant barbarian came out of the next room, with a wooden chair that looked tiny in his hand. Streeter’s sim was ten feet tall, muscles bulging off his neck and rippling down his arms, with a bloody axe dangling from his hip. I always thought he should just go the whole nine and wear a loincloth. Dude was four feet tall in the skin, the shortest high school sophomore who ever lived, but in virtualmode he was a god.

He kicked the sofa away to make room and sat in the chair that groaned and splintered but somehow held him. Control panels emerged from the floor and wrapped around him like mission control.

“What’re we doing here?” I asked.

“We’re going to get our kill on.”

“I just got pardoned for fighting. We get caught, just stamp my suspension.”

“Don’t worry, Buxbee’s out of town.” Streeter’s rich voice vibrated off the walls. “That substitute has no idea where we’re going. I set up a false scenario. As far as anyone’s concerned, we’re reliving Desert Storm for history class.”

I looked at Chute. “Did you know we were doing this?”

“He didn’t tell me. If you were in class on time, he wouldn’t have told you, either.” She turned her head, the ponytail whipping around. “That’s the way he does it.”

“All right,” Streeter sang to himself. “If you’re wondering where we are, I hacked us into a world—”

“Whoa, wait a second.” Chute held up her hand. Her sim looked like it had never seen the sun. “I don’t think we need to be hacking into anything, Streeter. You got caught last time and we don’t need to be wandering around some protected world while we’re in class!

His bushy eyebrows knitted together like enormous caterpillars. “First of all, I didn’t get [caught _]last time[, _]someone ratted me out. And they couldn’t prove I hacked anything so, technically, I wasn’t caught. Secondly, stop being a wuss. Right, Socket? Right?” He smacked me with a fist the size of a basketball. “We’re in, we’re out, no harm, no foul or whatever else jocks say before a game. We’re not getting caught. Besides, this place is one hell of a ride. I hacked in the other night just for a little taste and me likey.”

I didn’t care one way or the other. I never wanted to admit it to Streeter, but I was getting a little bored of virtualmode battles. So was Chute, I could tell. But Streeter lived for it, so I shrugged.

Streeter smiled. “All right, good. This place is called the Rime. It’s a bunch of twelve-year-olds with rich parents. I say we vaporize their asses down to bare data and harvest all their experience points. They aren’t worth shit, but who says we can’t have a little fun.”

“Twelve-year-olds?” Chute said. “Seriously?”

“Yeah, seriously. We ain’t got time for a real battle. It’s just a little quickie, come on.”

The monitors lit up. Streeter scanned them, mumbling to himself as he surveyed the environment outside the cabin. Chute was already sitting on the couch, with her arms locked over her chest, checking her emails. She wasn’t going to talk, so I figured I’d check mine, then changed my mind. There’d just be a thousand unread emails and I wasn’t going to read them. Besides, there was likely a video message from Mom with the worn-out face, telling me she wouldn’t be home tonight. Again. So I sat next to Chute and zoned out for a while.

“You all right?” Chute said.

“Yeah, I’m all right. You?”

“Something’s bothering you.”

Life was bothering me, but I couldn’t explain that to her. It was just one of those days, but I could never hide it from Chute. She looked right through me.

Streeter clapped his hairy-knuckled hands that sounded like paddles and smiled, his teeth big and square and chipped. “Let’s shred some twelve-year-old ass.”

“Don’t say it like that,” Chute chimed.

Our clothes shifted and changed, turned white speckled with browns and blacks, and hung like rags. A battle staff appeared in Chute’s hands. Evolvers materialized on my belt, simple handles that looked less threatening than Chute’s pole but, once activated, transformed into any weapon I visualized.

A clean-cut kid appeared at the door. “Are your weapons weak? When you need to destroy and do it fast, think the Canonizer.” He held up a pistol with an oversized barrel. “It’s rapid, compact, and requires a fraction of the code—”

We walked through the apparition and his cheesy weapon onto the front porch. The boards were gray and weathered like the sky. The cabin was buried in a dense forest. A narrow path at the bottom of the steps carved between the snow-crusted trees. My breath came out in long clouds.

I could feel it all the way back to my skin and it felt cold. Maybe it was my imagination, or maybe I was just nervous. Or maybe things were about to get really weird.

Shadowplay

My guts were everywhere.

I was staring at a gray sky streaked with snowflakes blowing like tiny bullets, remembering two words. [_True Nature. _]Someone whispered them into my ear just before something happened.

Everything seemed so unreal, like time was moving in slow motion. The sky was like a steel sheet that concealed the sun. It looked cold. There were shouts and the howling of wind, but even that was blotted out by a high-pitched whine inside my head like I’d been knocked out with a concrete block.

Puttylike goo bubbled and burped from gaping holes in my chest and my stomach was just plain gone. Instead of intestines, the ground was splattered like someone dropped a brick in a bucket of paint.

Just my sim. _]For a second, I forgot I was in virtualmode, afraid that was my skin smeared on the ground. [_Why am I still here? If I died in battle, I should’ve been kicked back to the skin. And why can’t I remember anything?

I was on a frozen tundra with snowy dunes rolling all the way to the horizon and pointed snow-capped mountains in the far-off distance, but where I was lying, it was bare ground like some sort of fiery meteorite filled with gray ooze exploded. There was a shadow in the white landscape, slipping among the scoured snowdrifts like a tattered ghost fleeing the scene of a crime. Suddenly, a giant blocky-toothed barbarian was leaning over me, his face crisscrossed with pink scars. Streeter’s lips were moving, but I barely heard the words.

“Bail out! Code bail out!”

A girl slid across the ground and elbowed him out of the way. Somehow, her cowl stayed pulled over her head, but her red hair spilled out. “Get us out of here, Streeter!”

“What d’ya think I’m doing?”

“You’re standing there with your thumb up your ass!” She cradled my head and bit her lip against the wind that was biting back. “I told you, Socket, I told you,” she said, not so quiet, “I told you we shouldn’t let him hack us in here. I told you something would go wrong.” She held up her hand; my guts dripped off in the wind. “You knew it, too.”

Maybe I did, but I always felt like something was wrong. With me. With the world. Everything.

Streeter was screaming and cursing. Something wasn’t working. Bail out always took us back to the skin. “I told you, Streeter,” Chute shouted, “now those Rimers got us locked in here until they shred our sims to goop! We’ll be lucky if they don’t report us to the cops!”

“Just shut up. Let me think for a second!”

Streeter stomped around, muttering to himself, thinking out loud before falling on the ground and hunching over something in his hand.

“What happened?” My voice echoed in my head.

“We don’t know,” Chute answered. “Something exploded.” She glanced down at my farting chest wounds. “We don’t know how that happened.”

The shadow ghost was back, playing peekaboo in the snow as it weaved in and out of the ground, its body flapping madly. I pointed at it now standing beside Streeter, but Chute pushed my hand down. “Try not to move, it’s only going to screw up your sim. It’s going to take like a month to fix as it is.” She bit her lip again but not against the wind, this was more about Streeter.

“That thing.” I nodded at it. “Who is that?”

She looked. “What thing?”

“That shadow.”

She looked again but only shook her head.

“He’s delirious.” Streeter was now sitting with his legs folded, poking at something in his hand.

“It’s right there,” I said, pointing again.

“Look, there’s no shadow sim.” He waved his hands right through it. [_How could he not see it? _]

“It’s right next to you.”

“You’re brain damaged. Shadow sims can’t stabilize in this environment, so just relax, I’ll get us out of here.”

“You better,” Chute said.

“You’re such a wuss,” he replied.

“And you’re dead meat if you get us suspended.”

“Relax, we’re not going to get caught by that lame-ass substitute; he doesn’t know his bunghole from a hole in the ground. I guarantee he doesn’t know how to monitor virtualmode activity. And the cops would be here already if the Rimers were going to report us, so just freaking relax, all right.” He snorted, shaking his head, probably thinking, Wuss.

But they were missing the obvious. There was a shadow standing right in front of us and only I could see it. And now each time the shadow moved, I felt a tug somewhere inside, all the way back to my skin that was sitting in study hall.

Chute closed her eyes, shaking her head. I took her hand. She was probably reclined in the study hall with the same worried frown crunching the freckles between her eyebrows. I could almost feel her skin tense up. And then I realized I could feel it. I could feel her hand cupped inside mine. It was warm and shaky. And the bits of sleet and snow stung my cheeks. Each time I felt the tug of that shadow moving around, I could feel more, like I was a vessel filling up from the inside.

I should’ve been having a full-blown freak-out. Feeling something in virtualmode? But I felt Chute’s fingers scratch me as she lifted my head. I could smell the fragrance of her hair snapping in my face like fine whips.

“This is weird,” I said. “I can feel you.”

“What?” Chute put her ear closer to my lips.

“You guys want to stop playing boyfriend/girlfriend for like two seconds and help me?” Streeter said.

“I’m sorry,” Chute shouted, “do you need some help? Here.” She scooped up a handful of liquid guts and splattered it along Streeter’s backside. “Anything else?”

He looked over his shoulder. “That really wasn’t necessary.”

While those two argued, I rubbed my fingertips together, feeling the brittle texture of my fingerprints and the arctic wind bite my exposed skin. My senses sharpened quickly, but it went beyond that. I felt the ground under my back and the snowflakes drive across the snowdrifts, like I was becoming part of the environment, plugging into the ground. I sensed the surroundings like they were my own body and the cold was no longer cold and the wind no longer windy because I was the cold and I was the wind. I felt the shadow sweeping around me. It felt so familiar, like seeing someone I once knew.

I felt the ground tremble. Felt the bodies growing from the frozen soil beneath the blanket of snow before I actually saw them emerge like blackened sunflowers.

I yanked Chute’s flapping sleeve and jerked my head in the direction of the disturbance. She looked over and sat up straighter. The wind knocked her hood off; her long hair whipped sideways. “We’re screwed.”

The sunflowers transformed into small, stout warrior thugs with beards and bushy eyebrows, with battleaxes and long swords they gripped with sharpened claws. There were a hundred of them that slowly worked toward us through the snow. Seemed like the wrong sort of warrior sims to have in a world of snowdrifts, but they’d get to us eventually.

Streeter leaped up and pulled his staff out of the snow. It was as thick as a tree trunk topped with spikes with bits of skin and hair and brains. He looked at the sky like he was studying the weather, then bowed in prayer. An electrical field crackled around the spikes and dark clouds rolled out of the gray sky like smoke pushing through holes from the other side. I could feel my hair stand on end. Streeter rammed the staff on the ground and lightning bolted down, frying every one of the tiny warriors in their tracks, leaving behind smoldering holes.

“That’s called a shit storm,” he said.

“There’s more coming,” I said.

“Yeah, well, I can’t keep pulling lightning out of my ass; it takes too long to power up.” He jerked his head at Chute. “Why don’t you do something?”

“What do you want me to do?” Chute answered. “I’m a healer.”

“Oh, yeah. I almost forgot.” He stared at my dripping chest cavity and rolled his eyes. “You’re doing great.”

“That’s it.” She was on her feet, reaching into her sleeve. Streeter held out his hands, not trembling or in surrender but begging her to rethink. Chute pulled a long, slender staff from her sleeve, impossibly long to fit inside her cloak, and spun too quickly for the barbarian to do anything. The pole flexed under the velocity of her swing and it cracked on the back of his legs, making a sound like a textbook dropping flat on a desk.

“Socket!” Streeter dropped on his knee. “You better stop her!”

“I’ll show you how much I suck!” Chute dropped three more quick shots on him, deftly avoiding his half-hearted attempt to snatch her. She flipped over him and drove the staff into his back, driving him face first into the snow. “Who sucks now, douche bag!”

Streeter could’ve knocked her halfway across the tundra if he wanted to. Sometimes he did, but most of the time he let her get it out of her system. Sometimes I broke it up and sometimes I watched their spats play out and they always ended with one of them damaging the other’s sim and then cursing each other for all the trouble. This time, I didn’t do anything because I was feeling it. I felt Chute’s muscles tense, Streeter’s knees throb. And this time I stopped them not by stepping between them. I stopped them with a thought.

[Stop.]

Chute was in mid-strike, ready to put a hole through Streeter’s right lung, when the thought struck her and her body obeyed as if the thought was her own. She looked around, like someone had whispered it to her, but I simply willed her to step off Streeter. Streeter looked up, his scraggly beard powdered with snow. They could feel something, too. They could feel me inside them. And then they watched my stomach begin to rebuild itself, regenerating simulated flesh, filling the holes in my chest until my body was whole again.

Streeter got on his knees and looked at Chute. “I owe you an apology.”

“I didn’t do anything.” Her mouth barely moved. “How’d you do that?”

The shadow walked up behind her and through her and stood between us, its ghostly form snapping in the wind. I sat up and looked at my hands, unsure if this was virtualmode or a dream.

“Do I know you?” I asked the shadow.

Streeter and Chute looked at each other. Streeter said, “I think he’s having a stroke.”

“Socket, are you all right?” Chute asked.

But I didn’t hear her words. I felt them, understood them like they were my own. I penetrated everything in this world, felt the tree limbs blowing on the mountaintops and the squatty warriors emerging in the distance again. I was everything except the shadow. I got up without much effort, like I levitated onto my feet.

[_[You’ve known me your entire existence.] _]The thought was in my head, but it was not mine. It came from the shadow that had no face.

“Did you do this to me?” I raised my hand, rubbing my fingertips. “Are you making this happen?”

“You’re starting to worry me.” Chute stepped through the shadow and stopped so the two were superimposed, making her fair complexion a shade darker. “We need to get you back to the skin.”

“Yeah, get off the crazy train, Socket,” Streeter huffed, gripping the staff with both hands. “I’m going to need some help for the next wave.”

“Who are you?” I asked.

The shadow didn’t gesture, shrug or say anything[_. _]It remained superimposed over Chute’s worried expression. Whatever she said after that was lost in the wind. The familiarity of the shadow had a taste and a smell, some sort of presence not generally associated with one of the five senses. I felt it like a thought or an intuition.

“Did you heal me?” I asked.

[You were never broken.]

“Socket, you’re freaking me out, here,” Chute said.

“I ain’t got time to wait for him to come back.” Streeter charged past me and my crazy rambling. The tiny Nordic warriors were black as tar, staining the snow as they shoved through the drifts. They were close enough to hear their snarling. Streeter let out a war cry, the same one he let loose before every clash, the same howl that Chute said made him look like a drama queen, and charged ahead to meet them head-on, bringing down the spiked club to crush the first one’s skull.

Something squirmed in my belly. I had the vision of a bright star twinkling inside my stomach. A spark that, for a moment, blinded me. I felt my mind wrap around it and fuse with it.

And then things slowed.

Things stopped.

I could see in 360 degrees as if every particle of snow that hung sparkling in midair like tiny Christmas ornaments were my eyes. I did that. I was the one that willed the world to stop, for the wind to die and everything in it to take a time-out while I could think. I didn’t intend for things to actually stop, but that’s what I wanted and that’s what happened. I took one of the snowflakes between my finger and thumb, studying the crystalline detail. It began to melt and water dripped down to my knuckle.

It was dead silent. Dead still.

The shadow was standing in front of Chute. Without the wind, his form shimmered like smoky particles loosely clinging together. I opened my mouth, trying to figure out what the familiar flavor was, trying to figure out just who the shadow was. And then a thought came from somewhere deep inside, some place that had been stored in the lockers of a three-year-old toddler. I was in a bathroom and smelled the scent of a man shaving at the sink. It was a safe smell. The man rinsed the razor and smiled down at me.

I couldn’t bring myself to say it, couldn’t say the word that I identified with this essence I was experiencing because the man that was shaving was dead. He died when I was five.

“What the hell is going on? Is this some sort of goof?”

I reached for the shadow, but my hand waved through the wispy form, and as it did, the essence tasted stronger, tingling all the way to my stomach, wrenching me with a helpless sense of falling, almost dropping me to my knees. But the essence was unmistakable. Father.

[The time has come to know who you are.] _]The thought had a distinct tone, but it was unlike the voice I remembered as my father’s. [For you to know your true nature.]_]

Time wasn’t to be measured in that still moment. The hands on a clock would not be moving. At some point, I stepped forward and merged with the shadow, and the essence filled my emptiness, those pockets I did not know existed. Emptiness that yawned inside and sometimes pissed me off, made me sad and pissed me off at being sad. Emptiness for my dad dying and emptiness that he left me to figure things out on my own. Emptiness for having to look at the emptiness in my mother’s eyes. Emptiness that left me awake at night, staring at the ceiling, wondering what the hell was the point of living. And now I didn’t feel those things. I felt so present. So complete.

When the ground trembled, I realized I’d closed my eyes. The shadow was no longer there. And the ground continued to shake. The snow vibrated and the statue-like sims of Chute and Streeter shook, too. I no longer felt connected with them or the rest of the environment.

On the horizon, the ground broke open and snow spilled inside a widening crevasse that snaked towards me, ripping the ground like God had grabbed both ends of the world and decided to pull it apart. I watched the rip race under my feet. The falling sensation was back in my stomach because this time I was falling for real, down into the empty blackness that tasted like essence, that sixth sense, only this time it tasted steely and hard.

Blackness was all there was. No sim. Just falling.

I felt the hot needles of my sweaty skin sticking to the armrests of the study hall chair. I opened my eyes back in my skin. A silver ball hovered in front of me. Its surface gleamed like polished metal with a red eyelight beneath the surface. “The three of you must follow,” the lookit said.

I was firmly planted in the seat, but still felt the falling.

Perp Alley

“Justin Heyward Street,” the lookit announced.

“You know, middle names are so unnecessary,” Streeter said, sitting forward and rubbing the feeling back into his face.

“Anna Nancy Shuester,” the same lookit announced. Chute quickly did the same as Streeter.

“Socket Pablo Greeny.” Its red eyelight shot right into my eyes. “The three of you are to follow.”

Honestly, I still wasn’t sure where I was. I gripped the armrest like my chair had been dropped from a cargo plane. I was still trying to return to my skin. I felt out of sorts, like half of my awareness was somewhere else. Back in my sim?

The lookit wasn’t going to wait. It was about to call security when the room suddenly erupted. All the virtualmoders sat up, groaning and cursing, ripping the discs from behind their ears. The lookit’s eyelight was spinning, recording the hundreds of study hall sound infractions. It blazed around the room, trying to get control, then called for security and returned to the front row. The substitute teacher was watching a music video, looked up and closed his laptop.

“The three of you must follow,” the lookit repeated.

I could barely feel my legs when I sat forward. Chute hooked her finger around mine and led me up the steps like the living dead. The queens, rats, burners, gearheads, jocks and goths and anyone else that couldn’t thought-project into virtualmode looked up from their laptops and tablets and stared at us. Virtualmoders were all back in their skin.

“Did you do this, Streeter?” someone shouted. “Did you crash virtualmode?”

“Psssht. Noooo.” He wasn’t guilty, not this time. Streeter walked faster as wads of paper came flying.

Perp Alley consisted of five plastic chairs against the wall. A heavy door with wire-imbedded glass was across from the plastic chairs and behind that were the offices of the dean of boys, the dean of girls, various assistant principals, and the principal. This trip had the dean of boys stamped all over it.

I was feeling better after walking down the hall. The lookits wouldn’t let us talk and that was all right, it gave me some time to think. Streeter had already asked what the hell happened. What happened? I was haunted by a ghost, that’s all. Oh, did I mention it was my dead dad? Yeah. Oh, and I stopped time and connected with the entire universe and experienced a moment of spiritual oneness. Any questions?

Once we sat, I told them about the shadow, that time seemed to stop and the world split open, that it must’ve been some special weapon the Rimers set off, and blah, blah, blah, I don’t know what happened, either. Crazy shit happens all the time in virtualmode.

“The world split open?” Streeter asked.

I described the black crevasse.

“That’s serious, Socket. I mean, if you fell inside that rip, you could be disembodied, your awareness floating somewhere in the in-between forever and ever. They did a special on Discovery, virtualmoders that lay there like vegetables for months and months after they got swallowed in a crash.”

I didn’t bother telling him I did fall in.

Chute was looking more through me, sort of like a cop looking for the truth. I buried my face in my hands when the room started spinning. I wasn’t falling, but both my feet weren’t exactly on the ground. Chute rubbed my back. I just wanted off the ride.

“I want revenge,” Streeter said.

“Just stop,” Chute snapped. “We hacked into their world and they taught us a lesson and that’s the end of it. Besides, you said it yourself, we crashed the world, so it probably doesn’t even exist anymore. You should be worried they’ll find us and make us pay for it.”

“Naw, they’ll have safeguards against a hiccup like that; it’ll snap right back together. Besides, those shitheads aren’t going to report us because they were duping. Those little black things were automated versions of a dupe to avoid detection, like empty manikins with a single mission. They probably blew up Socket. Hell, we could report them to the cops and have them arrested for duping. But that wouldn’t be any fun. I’d rather make them pay.”

“They can dupe if they want to, it’s a private world.”

“Um, hello. Duplicating is illegal, in any form or fashion. Read your virtualmode code laws: Any attempt to duplicate your identity, whether for business, recreation or just plain whatever, is not allowed under any circumstances. Period, the end. You know it, I know it. I don’t give a shit if they did it in their dreams. You can’t dupe.”

“I really don’t give two craps,” Chute said. “Why would anyone care what they do in their world? Stupid.”

He walked several steps away, scratching his thick shag of brown curls like he needed a time-out from stupidity. When he returned, he had an intense look of concentration that flattened his face, making him look more like a frog than usual. He said slowly, “You don’t listen in class, do you? First of all, I’m just going to ignore the improvement in safety that virtualmode laws have done, just forget all that. The world is going digital, Chute. In five years, half the world’s population will be able to virtualmode, creating a digital reality with digital bodies and digital homes and everything, get it? People will be doing business from their homes, commerce and manufacturing and colleges will all be in virtualmode. If people start duplicating their identities, how the hell are you going to know what’s real and what’s not? You won’t! So you can’t dupe, Chute. Get it? You want to write that down so you don’t forget? No. Duping. Period.”

Chute jumped out of her seat and shook her finger right in his face. “Don’t take that tone with me. I don’t live and breathe for the virtualmode like you, so I don’t know the stupid laws. Next time you talk like that, I’m stuffing you in a locker.”

Streeter surrendered. “Hey, don’t take your sexual frustrations out on me. I didn’t blow Socket’s mind.” He snapped his fingers. “Socket, come back from the dead, buddy. Anytime now.”

I looked at Streeter snapping. I shook my head, returning from a dreamy state. I’m back in the skin, I had to remind myself. Maybe Streeter was right. There were already studies suggesting that excessive virtualmoding was causing a disconnect between mind and body, where one would have a hard time distinguishing between reality and fantasy.

I needed a three-day suspension. Maybe stay off virtualmode the whole time. Streeter would bitch, but I needed a break.

Flip-flops slapped from around the corner and a girl with short, black hair flip-flopped in our direction. Streeter stared up at her with his tongue about to roll out. She had to walk around him, flicked her eyes at Chute rubbing my back, and went into the administrative office, but not before a sudden drop in altitude pulled my stomach through the floor. I hung onto the chair for dear life.

[_[Socket Greeny, in trouble again? Shocker.] _]

“Did you hear that?” I said. “Did you hear what she was thinking?”

Chute clenched my arm tighter. Streeter and Chute looked at each other, exchanged knowing glances; then he sat on the other side of me. “Dude, you sure you’re all right? I mean, you’re starting to scare me a little with the wacky talk. You sure your nojakk isn’t flaring up.” Streeter tapped his cheek. “You hear me now? Hear me now?”

My cheek vibrated and I heard him through the nojakk seed imbedded in my cheek. But I heard the girl thinking. A thought was a thought, not a goddamn voice chiming from a nojakk. I waved him off and buried my face in my hands again.

“Listen, buddy.” Streeter dropped his hand on my shoulder. “You’re not hearing voices or thoughts or stopping time. You’re just in a fuzzy area right now, reconnecting with the skin. It happens all the time; don’t press it. Take some deep breaths, in with the good air, out with the bad.” Streeter demonstrated deep breathing. “Don’t crack on me. I need you.”

“You’re not taking him back to the Rime,” Chute said.

“Don’t be hasty. And you’re not his mom.”

I did take some deep breaths and did feel better. This was like a bad dream that took longer than usual to fade. The office door opened. The secretary stuck her head out. “All right, y’all. Mr. Carter wants to see you now.”

We got up. I felt fine but suddenly realized I was mad-crazy starving. I could feel my ribs poking through my shirt, like I hadn’t eaten in days. Maybe I was getting a bit hypoglycemic. There was a girl in my social studies class that was hypoglycemic and she had symptoms like that. Maybe she forgot to mention the hallucinations. And thought-reading.

“Not you, Socket,” she said. “Your mother will pick you up at the curb in a few minutes. You need to go right out.”

“My mom?”

“She called right after y’all got caught doing whatever you were doing, and said you have a family emergency. Don’t worry, you’re still going to be suspended.

“Oh, man.” Streeter stepped away from me like he might get infected.

I watched the two get escorted inside and past the secretary’s desk. Chute turned and pointed at her cheek, mouthing the words call me. Streeter and Chute wouldn’t be feeling too bad about their fate. Streeter lived with his grandparents and he would make up a story as to why he was home and they would believe it. Chute’s dad would be upset, but he was always easy on her. But my mom?

Shit storm.

In the Moody

MOM PULLED INTO THE PARKING lot. Her car was a silver, square thing. It didn’t look like any model I’d seen on the road, certainly not one Ford or Chevy manufactured. It came from work, and like most things concerning her employer, I was clueless.

She was looking at the soccer field, where a bunch of students were testing hovering jetter discs. Some new company donated them to the school, said the jetter boards had antigravity boosters that could carry three hundred pounds and they wanted the virtualmoder students to learn how to ride them. They said they were sponsoring a new game that would revolutionize sports. Tacket or tagghet or something like that. Ordinarily, that would get my interest, but anything that had to do with school and/or school spirit was immediately off my to-do list.

When I got in the car, she handed me two breakfast bars in white wrappers. “How’d you know I was hungry?”

She didn’t answer, just eased through the parking lot. I tore open the first one and nearly swallowed it without chewing. My mouth filled with saliva and my stomach roared. It was like a shot of adrenaline tingling under my scalp. I chewed the second bar and laid my head back. Finally, I felt back to my skin. What the hell are in these things? The wrapper had no writing on it, no label, and no ingredients. I licked the inside of it.

We were on the interstate heading towards Charleston. Mom gripped the wheel like it offended her. The skin over her knuckles pulsed. But she grabbed everything that way: coffee mugs, doorknobs, and little soft, innocent puppies. She stared blankly through the windshield. Maybe I was in trouble, I wouldn’t really know for a while. We didn’t talk about things that involved feeling.

That’s the Greeny way.

I tapped up music on my nojakk and watched the traffic.

Half an hour later, we started over the 2.5-mile, cable-stayed bridge that crossed over the Cooper River. “We going shopping or something?” I asked.

She readjusted the stranglehold. “I’m taking you by the office.”

“Awesome,” I muttered. I didn’t want her to hear that, but it was so silent in that car you could hear a sand flea fart. But she didn’t take the bait, just kept her eyes ahead with one hand on the wheel and the other tucked under her arm. She was hiding her right hand.[_ _]

“Thought you quit that,” I said.

“Nothing wrong with a moody,” she answered.

She fidgeted in her seat, then calmly put the moody cube in her purse and drank from a bottle of water. Her thumb was red and swollen. I knew about moody cubes, heard the warnings in school every day. Some company convinced the FDA that a little black square could stimulate dopamine production by relaying messages through the nervous system, and relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety. They argued that because the brain was essentially a poppy field producing natural _]happy sedatives, it was nothing like narcotics. The FDA said sure, but it should at least be prescribed and the company responded, [_Yeah, we’re okay with that.

I sometimes pressed her into giving up the habit because that couldn’t be good. But sometimes I couldn’t stand that dead-zone look on her face and just let her get some relief. I looked back out the window and watched the ships below, wishing I could smell the water or the salty South Carolina breeze, but there was nothing getting inside that car. It’s like we were sealed inside a tomb.

Mom drove through downtown, waiting more often for College of Charleston students and tourists than actual traffic. We passed the art dealers and law offices and souvenir vendors and old retired horses pulling antique-looking carriages full of New Yorkers and Midwesterners listening to the driver, sitting backwards on the front, telling ghost stories and rehearsed jokes about the good old South and the charm of the Holy City.

Her office was a block past the regal steps of the Custom House. It was just a simple black door wedged between an art gallery and a chocolate shop. No sign hanging on a rod perpendicular to the building or a window to see inside, just small letters on the door. Paladin Nation, Inc.

They were in desperate need of an advertising agency; they were barely a step up from a manhole. In fact, if you didn’t look right at the door, you didn’t notice it. I walked past it three times once. Mom slowed up to the curb just as a man stepped out of the door. A young guy in good shape with a proper haircut opened the car door for her. He didn’t bother with me.

Mom waited at the office door. She pushed her hair behind her ear, it fell back, and took a deeper breath than usual. I thought she was more distant than usual. In fact, she felt cold. No, she [tasted _]cold, like some sort of essence. I shook it off. Didn’t want to go there. I’d been grounded in my skin for a whole hour and preferred it that way. But I couldn’t help noticing her coldness brought a taste of sadness with it. Sometimes I didn’t even feel related to her, like she was just a stranger watching over me, like I was some sort of orphan. _Good times.

The door led up creaky steps to a tiny room. There was a receptionist area behind a counter with a computer, desk, and files, but there was never anyone there.

Mom told me to wait for her, she’d be right out, then went through the only door to the left of the receptionist area. I never went beyond that door. I had a vague memory of going beyond once with my dad when I was real little, but there wasn’t much but a short hallway with three doors. The only thing I remember after that is a blue light and then I fell asleep, dreaming of caves and jungles.

I sat in the waiting room and slouched down. No magazine rack, no television or pictures of beaches with birds. I crossed my arms and laid my head back and closed my eyes, but the slightest motion in my stomach made me bolt upright. Not going there. Nope.

I slid my fingers over the black iHolo strap around my wrist. An image illuminated above the strap like a holographic screen no matter which way I turned my wrist. I pushed the icons around, looked at a playlist I’d put together earlier that week, and uploaded it to the nojakk, then booted up the music. While an acoustic guitar echoed inside my head, I went to my email and noticed the news headline.

International Virtualmode Blackout.

The story began in a virtualmode network hub inside a warehouse with a single aisle going between lines of blue, pulsing orbs, five feet in diameter and encased in clear boxes, with lab technicians wearing white coats and hardhats inspecting them. I’d seen portals before; the school had one in a basement below the Pit. It was the powercell that transported a user’s awareness into virtualmode. I’d heard physicists explain how the intense power and density of portals allowed them to transcend time and space and interact simultaneously. Trippy shit. But no one cared how they worked, just that they worked.

“Sometime around 10:43, Eastern Standard, virtualmode experienced its first blackout,” a reporter’s voice announced as the lab technicians observed the portals. I turned the music down and sat up. “According to sources, a surge from somewhere in the world caused an international crash of all virtualmode worlds. Authorities say the balance of power has been restored and that normal activity has resumed, although there seems to be some confusion as to where the surge originated.”

That’s when the rip occurred. Did I make the whole thing crash? [_Impossible. _]Those portals were like a thousand nuclear reactors doing some sort of cold fusion. How in the hell—

Zzzzzsthhhp.

The iHolo image scattered for a second.

I shut down the music and felt the floor shudder. It came from the door. I was remembering the blue light again when the door opened and Mom was followed by a man. She stood to the side and let him pass. I jumped up.

The man walked fluidly. He was a bit older than Mom. His hair was streaked with gray and his face clean-shaven, what most women would call a handsome man with a smoldering attraction. He stopped only a few feet away, but the room was so small he couldn’t get much farther away. I wondered if I should bolt for the stairwell just in case a mugging was about to go down.

But then I tasted a taste, an essence. It was deep and sort of minty. Potent. I’d experienced that before. Maybe seen this guy before. Behind the door?

I looked at Mom. Christ, no one was saying anything. This was beyond awkward. The man was looking through me, studying me, like a doctor without the stethoscope and white coat. If he asked me to take my shirt off, it was going to be stairway city.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Socket.” He extended his hand. I shook it. “Now that you’re grown up.”

I nodded, wondering why it felt like I was meeting the president.

“My name is Walter Diggs.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“It’s been a while since I saw you last, but I’m sure you don’t remember. You were only that big.” He put his hand down, the universal sign for a short person.

I was struggling with the memory of going through the door when I was [that big _]and linking it to the minty essence, but the memory ended up in caves and jungles. Then I remembered colored bats coming out of the trees. A real messed-up dream[._]

“I knew your father,” Walter said. “He was a fine man, he was. I was damn proud to have known him. No one could replace someone like Trey Greeny.”

[_Oh, shit. Is this the stepfather talk? I’m not trying to replace your father, Socket, no one could. But I’m in love with your mother and you’re going to have a new baby brother. Now go clean your room, asshole. _]

Walter started laughing. He looked over at Mom, who returned his laughter with just barely a flicker of the corner of her mouth. He looked back at me. It was getting weird.

“What I’m trying to say is if you’re half the person your father was, you’ll have a lot to offer the world. But I suspect you’re twice that.”

“Thank you, Mr. Diggs, but I’m not sure what any of this means.”

“Things are a little sketchy, I know. But it’ll make sense real soon. Your mother is going to take you to meet some people in our facilities.”

“I don’t even know what you do.” I shuffled back until my leg hit the chair.

“You will, soon.” Wink.

No one winks when something really shitty is about to happen. Right? “Should I be worried right about now?” I looked at Mom. She was still cold. Walter offered a smile that, compared to Mom’s, was like the sun.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you grown up. I look forward to working with you.” He squeezed my shoulder, made eye-contact with Mom, and then was through the door from where he came, closing it behind him.

Mom opened the door to the stairs.

“Wait, what just happened?”

“There’s a lot to explain,” Mom said. She was itching for that moody. “I’ll tell you everything on the way.”

“We’re not going with him?” I asked.

“The facility is a long way from here,” she said. “But it won’t take long to get there.”

“We’re flying?”

“No.”

Now what in the hell does that mean?

Wormholed

THE PARKING ATTENDANT WAS WAITING out front with the door open. Mom took the first left turn and then another left down a narrow alley wedged between tall buildings. No one would notice it from the street, and if they saw it, wouldn’t think to drive a car down it. It ended at a brick wall and backing out would seem impossible without swiping a door handle. There was a garage door on the left, which would’ve been directly below the office.

I had a feeling we were going wherever minty-man Walter Diggs went, although getting back in the car for a trip around the block made no sense. Mom had a whole life of secrecy. When she wasn’t home, I’d go through her files and look under her mattress and through her closet to find out what she was doing. Now the jig was up and I was minutes away from everything. I always thought it would be more fun to find out.

The garage door opened and she eased into the lightless space as the door closed behind us. “This is going to feel funny,” she said.

“You mean funny, ha-ha?” I answered. I was starting to squirm. The falling feeling was coming back.

“We’re going through a wormhole, like a puncture in the fabric of time and space.”

“Where we going?” I said, almost casually. Why not? Today wasn’t making any sense, why not finish it with a trip through a rip in time. And space.

Mom laughed, sort of. It was mostly a hiccup, but not a smile, and certainly no joy.

A door in front of us began to open, blue light spilling out. “Close your eyes,” she said. “And make sure your tongue is pushed against the roof of your mouth.”

The blue light engulfed me. I clenched my eyes shut, grabbing onto the door. I felt like one of those cartoons getting steamrolled flat as paper. Thought I was going to scream, then puke. I didn’t see blue. I didn’t see anything. My lungs were burning and I gulped for air, drooling on my shirt when I realized we were through.

“Oh, Jesus,” I blurted.

It was night. We were still in the car, although it wasn’t moving. Instead, we were idling on a flat piece of ground with miles of boulder-strewn wasteland ahead of us without a road in sight. At the far end was a sheer-faced cliff. The full moon revealed streaks of ochre like ancient bloodstains. It stood like a monolith, like God had plopped down a massive block of granite and said, “End of the world, assholes.”

“This society has existed for as long as history’s been recorded.” Mom took a breath and touched the center panel. Lights appeared on the speedometer; holographic images illuminated the dash with maps and data and green dots and red dots and bullshit that looked more like a fighter jet than car. “We protect humankind from extinction.”

“From what?”

“Once upon a time, it was natural disaster and plague and wars. In this era, the threat of extinction comes from humans.” Her eyes appeared deeper set in the moonlight and the glow of the instruments. “Humankind lacks understanding. As a species, we are still in our infancy. Our potential is limitless, but first we must survive to realize it.”

“Are you one of them?”

“In a way.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means the answer is complicated. There’s a lot to understand; you’ll have to be patient. For now, just know that we can do things that normal people can’t.”

She touched the control panel. Something thumped beneath the car. And then we were moving forward, only we weren’t rolling. We were hovering. The car was flying. Not fast like spaceship fast, it was more like a slow hover that crossed over the impossible terrain. The wheels had folded beneath the car. No one was getting across this ground without one of these.

“You got to be shitting me.”

“Watch your language, Socket.”

I sat back, realizing I was still holding onto the door. We were halfway to the red cliff when I relaxed. “What’s this place called?” I asked. “This club, or society.”

“The Paladin Nation.”

“This is it, here?” I pointed at the looming cliff.

“No, it’s all over the world. This is just one of the compounds.”

I watched the cliff get closer. “We’re not in South Carolina anymore.”

She almost smiled, I could feel it.

There was no door in the side of the mountain. Instead, we passed through it, like it was only an apparition, into an enormous cavern. Mom touched a few buttons on the console and the car gently sank to the ground.

The cavern was dome-shaped, complete with authentic dripping stalactites. [_Caves and jungles? Maybe that wasn’t a dream. _]

Mom pushed the steering wheel up and locked it out of the way. She gathered items from the backseat. I still hadn’t let go. I had just taken my first ride in a flying car, hit a transportation wormhole, and now I was parked inside a mountain somewhere in the world that had mountains.

A large, gray sphere emerged from the wall. Several more appeared, floating inches above the ground like supersized lookits. They took positions around the car, waiting.

“Servys,” Mom said. “Technology is a bit more advanced here. You’re going to see some things that don’t exist in the outside world yet.” She had her thumb buried in the moody again. A look of eerie relief was on her face.

“I wish you’d stop that.”

She closed her eyes, pushing her thumb in deeper. “There’s so much to do, Socket. I just need to catch my breath.”

“You don’t have to save the world.”

She tucked her hair behind her ear with her free hand. “Sometimes the world needs you and you have to be there. You’ll understand one day. And I hope you find more strength than your mother.”

I gently pulled her thumb from the moody, red and swollen. “You’re plenty strong.”

“Let’s hope so.”

She opened her door and stepped out. I turned to mine—a silver man was at the window. He had no face.

Faceless

HIS EGG-SHAPED HEAD WAS FEATURELESS. No eyes or nose, mouth, ears or chin. Just a smooth egghead with an eyelight pointed at me.

“Welcome to the Garrison, Master Socket.” He waved a silver hand. “Do you need help exiting the vehicle?”

If I hadn’t seen the colors move on his face, I would’ve sworn a real person said it. He looked like he was from a movie, standing six feet tall on two legs: A humanoid mech. The arms and legs were sinewy like an Olympian. And to top things off, he wore a loose plum-colored overcoat, sleeveless, cinched at the waist. But sure, why not. This was already shaping up like a dream, why not send in the flying dragons.

Mom was out of the car, explaining something to him. The servys repositioned themselves around her. One went to the back of the car and returned with her briefcase firmly gripped by an arm that had grown from its spherical body. The robe-wearing silver mech pointed at me. I was still grabbing the door. So far I’d looked at everything through the safety of a window. Getting out was another level. I reluctantly opened the door.

I’ve been here before.

It was the smell. Pleasantly musty and wet. Ancient. I was here long, long ago. Maybe it was take-your-kid-to-work day. I always thought it was a dream. Same cave, same smell.

“Socket,” Mom said, “this is Spindle.” The silver mech placed his hand on his belly and gestured with a small bow. “He’s my assistant. He’ll be your guide for the day.”

“You’re leaving?”

“I have to attend an urgent meeting.” She touched my arm, like an apology. “Afterward, we’ll meet in my office.”

“Are you kidding me? You’re just going to leave me here with… with…” Spindle’s eyelight stared at me. “You can’t do this to me, Mom. This isn’t right. I’ve got crazy things in my head and you’re flying a car and then there’s the wormhole.” I paced around, thinking about taking a hit from her moody. “This is bullshit.”

“Don’t curse.” Her left eye ticked. “We’ll discuss it later. In the meantime, Spindle will escort you to security assignment. You’re going to like him. You’ll be safe.”

Oh, great. Telling me I’ll be safe meant I was in danger, like when someone says they ain’t scared means they’re really scared shitless. But Mom wasn’t prone to signs of affection. It didn’t happen often, so I was caught by surprise when she gently placed her hand on my cheek. “I’ll see you in a couple hours.”

[It’ll be all right.]

That’s what she was thinking. Instead of telling me where I was and why, she just wanted me to know it was all going to be all right. The last time she said that, she took me to the doctor for shots. While I waited, the nurse told me we were waiting on [_a little stick, _]then rammed a needle in my ass. I would’ve preferred a better explanation, then and now, but her touch and smile seemed to be enough for the moment. What else was I going to do? I didn’t know how to fly that car, and even if I did, where the hell was I going?

Mom was off to the only door in the cavern. The door slid open and closed behind her, leaving me with the muscular android.

“Do you have any questions?” Spindle asked.

His posture was friendly, his face bubbly yellow and orange. He was completely unaware I had just been squeezed through time and space for the first time like a birthing canal. But he waited patiently, the eyelight glowing, like a video game character waiting for my response.

“Okay. Ummm… where am I?”

“You are in the Garrison. It is one of many global training grounds of the Paladin Nation.”

“Right. The Paladin Nation.” I glanced around the cave. “Why haven’t I heard about this place until about three minutes ago?”

“There are many things you have not heard of.” He gestured to the servys still bobbing around us. “Nanoplastine technology, for instance. These servys are composed of cellular-sized nanomechs that make up a generic round body, much like the cells of your body. A processor is located at the core and can shift the cellular nanomechs into whatever form is necessary. Very useful. Humanity has not been granted access to this technology yet.”

“What, you don’t like to share?”

“Many discoveries are still considered too dangerous. When the circumstances are right, they will be released.”

“These Paladins,” I said, “they’re human?”

“That is correct.”

“What gives them the right to horde all this stuff?”

“The Paladin Nation is a much more evolved race of humans. The general public cannot be trusted with such power. It would be like giving a gun to a two-year-old child. In the hands of a responsible adult, a gun can be used safely. However, a two-year-old child would likely harm himself.” He pushed his shoulders back and tilted his head. “Does that make sense?”

“But adults still shoot each other, so I’m not sure the gun analogy works.”

“That is why it is a perfect analogy. Even guns are used irresponsibly. Can you imagine what the same people would do with some of these magnificent advancements?”

Spindle waited for my response. His facial colors were muted yellow, fading back to silver. He turned to the servys. His face jumped with dark blues, but he said nothing out loud. The servys drifted back to the walls and merged through them as if the openings were all there, just masked with the illusion of rocky walls.

“If you have no more questions, we can proceed to security assignment. We can begin our journey with a friendly gesture.” He held up his hand, fingers spread. “Stick it, Master Socket.”

I looked at his expectant hand. “Do what?”

“Stick it.” He shook his hand. “It is a friendly handshake that kids do. You stick it.”

I held up my hand like his, expecting something like a high five.

“No, no, you stick your fist in the palm of my hand.”

I did like he said, only in slow motion. Where’s this going? He wrapped his soft, fleshy fingers around my fist and shook. “Do you see?” he said. “You stuck it.”

“What, you mean, like, Paladin kids are doing this?”

“No, kids in society. Kids like you do this, yes. I hope I did it right. It is a friendly gesture. Did I do it too soon? Should we be better acquainted before such customs?”

“I’ll be honest, I never heard of it.”

“You have not?” His head looked yellow again, splattered with specks of black. “My data says this is very popular.”

“Where’d you get the data?”

“The data originated from a teenage website named Pops. It is rated the number one virtualmode website for teenagers in your age bracket.”

“There’s your problem. Pops is for little teeny girls and boys wanting to meet their favorite boy bands and movie stars. About as stupid as it gets.”

“Is that true?” The colors changed. “I will have to rewrite my database.”

“Good idea. And don’t ever do that gay handshake again.”

“Please do not curse, Master Socket. It is unbecoming of you.”

“I didn’t curse.”

“I believe you did when you used the term ‘gay’ as a derogatory reference.”

Now the colors on his faceplate were dark. I was being scolded by a robot. And he wasn’t moving until I complied, I thought. “Yeah, okay. No problem. Consider the word erased.”

“Very good.” The faceplate brightened. He stepped aside and gestured to the door. “Let us proceed to security assignment.”

We went through the same door as Mom. It was an elevator.

“This is a leaper,” Spindle said. “It will take us to any part of the Garrison in a matter of seconds. It can move as fast as two hundred miles per hour.”

“Two hundred? We’ll be pancakes.”

“Not to worry. Antigravity floaters offset the velocity. You will not feel motion.” Spindle stepped inside. “This is the main mode of transportation within the Garrison. Centuries ago, when the Paladin Nation was in its infancy, these were just tunnels. Technology has advanced.”

“Yeah. No shhhi… no kidding. I take it this thing wouldn’t go anywhere without clearance.”

“You would not be here if you did not have clearance.” It seemed like he was refraining from laughing at something so stupid because, clearly, you’re not getting here without a wormhole and a flying car. “Spindle, access code 0452B. Security assignment room, level 1. Prepare for new arrival.”

There was a sharp pang in my stomach, and then it was gone. The door opened to a short, doorless hallway. So far I’d been in a cave and now a white hallway. For all the technology, Paladins weren’t flashy.

Spindle started down the corridor and stopped halfway. “Here we are.”

“Where?”

“Doors are composed of plasmic particulates creating the illusion of a solid surface.” He pushed his hand through the white wall in front of us. “Much like the cliff you drove through.”

I knocked on a solid wall. “It’s not working.”

“That is because you are touching the wall.” His face lit with sunny yellows, shaped a little like a smile. Dumbass.

“Are you laughing at me?”

“Laughing? I do not experience emotions, Master Socket. However, it does appear odd you are trying to push through a wall when the doorway is right next to you.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t see a doorway.”

“Not yet.” He walked through the wall, poking his head out several seconds later. “Are you coming?”

“I’m not used to walking through walls.”

“Here.” He extended his hand. “I am programmed to assist you.”

An odd color lit his face. He lightly pulled me through—like a sheet of frigid air—into a large room. It was empty and sterile. How exciting. Let me guess, dinner is white rice with water.

“This is the security assignment room. I will assign you level one access. If you will have a seat, I will start the process very soon.”

“You mean, on the floor?”

Spindle crossed the room in five steps. As he did, it reshaped. A chair emerged from the wall. End tables popped out of the floor. The white walls turned dark green with burnt orange trim. Pictures formed on the walls with views of oceans and deserts. A window appeared with a view of scenic mountains, a flock of birds passing by.

“Now that’s what I’m talking about.” I sat on the chair and felt it reform to fit my body, leaving me weightless. “This room… it’s made from the same stuff as those servys?”

“Yes.” He was busy with a control panel on the wall. “Our rooms can suit any purpose. I hope you are comfortable. We will begin in a minute.”

A vase emerged from a table with flowers. I took a white daisy and sniffed. It smelled like a flower. The room was a regular room in any house across the world, yet it wasn’t. It was buried in a mountain made up of tiny cell-sized robots that made a flower smell like a flower and a window overlook a mountain. I could dig this.

“Can I ask you something?” I said.

“You may ask me a question at any time, Master Socket.”

“What’s my mom do?”

“She is the commander’s assistant.”

“Commander? You mean this is like a military?”

“It is not a military, but it has order. There is protocol. Any society must have rules and it must have leaders. Commander has been traditionally used.”

“So my mom, she’s a Paladin?”

The eyelight circled to the back of his head and focused on me while his hands continued to work. “No, Master Socket. Paladins have inherent abilities that she does not possess. She has developed some mild extrasensory powers, but she is a civilian, and she is vital to the Paladin Nation. Has she not told you these things?”

“We don’t talk a whole lot.”

“But she is your mother.” He stopped working. “Your caregiver.”

“She’s been a little busy. Since Dad died.”

His face sparkled. “I knew your father.”

“You did?”

“Yes.” His eyelight drifted upward, thinking. “Your father was a remarkable man. He was head of mech design and maintenance. Your father was involved in my prototype design and personally worked on my bodyshell.”

“He was a Paladin?”

“He expressed Paladin traits, much more than your mother, but never fully realized them. He worked in the Garrison and was not often involved in missions. The Paladin Nation has been watching to see if you would inherit his traits. I believe you caught them by surprise.”

“What’s that mean?”

“All the details will be revealed to you soon.”

My dad died for a secret agency and no one ever told me. That’s super. No doubt she knew I was next in line to follow in his footsteps. What else did Mom have in the family vault?

I buried my face in my hands and took a deep breath. I want off the crazy train.

“Was he a good father to you?” Spindle asked.

To me? He was asking like my father was a good father to him. Did he think we were brothers?[_ _]I shook my head, my voice echoing through my hands. “I guess. I don’t remember much.”

“I remember your father quite well, from the very first day he ignited my awareness panel.” His eyelight drifted up again. He was lost in thought for several seconds while colors flashed on his face. “We spent every day together in the beginning, perhaps the entire first year of my existence. He worked on my programming to perfect my learning impulse. After that, I saw him once a week. That is unusual, you realize, for a creator to remain after programming is complete. Your father did that.”

He had that drifting look again.

“You miss him?” I said.

“Miss him? I am not sure what you mean.”

It feels like there’s something missing, that’s what. It’s longing. Sadness. It’s all of the above. “It feels… empty.”

“Empty?” He contemplated that, feeling his belly with his hand. His face brightened in a got it _]moment. “There is something missing. A… hole in my awareness. Not a hole, but an…” His eyelight focused on me. “[_Emptiness. Yes, I do sense that[_. _]I do miss him, Master Socket. Thank you for teaching me.”

The colors on his face ran through the full spectrum, brighter and brighter. I didn’t consider emptiness something he needed to thank me for. For me, it ached. But for Spindle, it was obviously something joyous to experience. Whatever.

He turned back to the control panel, then said, “If you hold still, a body print is being scanned and a security access level assigned.”

Tiny shock waves started at my feet and ended at the top of my head. The control panel folded back into the wall. The pictures, vase and flowers dissolved. I stood and the chair disappeared. The room was empty once again.

“You have been assigned level one access.” Spindle walked through a dim arching outline on the wall. I could see the doorway now. No more walking into walls for me. I followed him into the hall.

“You should be able to see doorways to rooms you have clearance to enter,” Spindle said. “Do you see them?”

There was a similar outline that simulated a doorway at each end of the hall. I nodded. “Got it.”

“Good,” he said. “Agent Pike is waiting.”

“Agent Pike? Who’s that?”

“He will be conducting your preliminary evaluation.”

“Whoa, wait a second. I thought we were going to Mom’s office. I don’t know anyone named Pike.”

“All potential cadets are evaluated for potential traits upon arrival. It is the first assignment after security clearance.”

“I’m a cadet? Wait, when did that happen? I didn’t sign up for anything.”

Spindle remained absolutely still, assessing the conversation. “Why do you think you are here, Master Socket?”

“I don’t have a clue.”

Long pause, again. “You were assigned to the Garrison because you exhibited exceptional abilities that need to be assessed.”

“When the hell did I do that?”

His face darkened, but he let the hell word slide. “It will all be explained to you after the preliminary evaluation. However, it is imperative that we remain on schedule. You need to report to Agent Pike immediately.”

I grabbed him as he turned. “Wait, I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s going to happen at this… evaluation.”

“Agent Pike is a minder; he has extraordinary psychic ability. He will assess your potential.”

“So I am a Paladin?”

Pause. “That is up to Agent Pike to decide.” He stepped quickly before I could grab him again. I was trapped in a short hallway inside a mountain about to meet a man named Pike. It’s just a little stick, Socket.

We walked into a leaper at the other end of the hall. “We will be traveling at 189 mph in a northwest direction exactly 33 degrees above ground level, covering 5,133 feet. Are you ready?”

Hell no. A falling sensation twisted my gut.

“We have arrived.”

It was another short hallway, a gray archway at the far end. Spindle walked with his shoulders square, his head held high. My knees were unreliable, but I forced myself to follow. I wanted to hold his arm, but I wasn’t going to look like a pussy. Even if I felt like one.

“You will have to enter alone,” Spindle said. “I will wait here.”

I brushed my fingertips across the chilly gray archway. “So you’re saying he’s just going to ask questions, nothing else?”

“Yes,” Spindle said. “And assess you.”

Assess me. Goddamn, I don’t like the way that sounds. “Where’s Mom?”

“She is sorry.” His fluid voice faltered, just a bit. “She is very aware of you.”

Was that supposed to calm me down? Don’t tell me the truth or I’ll freak out. I was turning numb and couldn’t stop nodding.

“Agent Pike.” Spindle patted my shoulder. “He is waiting.”

The weakness in my knees was now in my chest. If I waited any longer, I was going to fill my shorts. As I saw it, there was no choice. Nowhere to run. The nurse never says the shot’s going to hurt. She’ll say it’s just pressure, that’s all you’ll feel. _]I put my foot through the archway, felt Spindle’s hand slip off my shoulder, and plunged to the other side. [_But we all know that shot’s going to hurt like hell.

Piked

Pressure.

It was around me as soon as I entered, wrapping around my body and dimpling my skin like a golf ball. A frail man sat on a chair, his hands on his thighs. Stubble shaded his scalp. His narrow sunglasses partially wrapped around his head, the lenses convex and black.

“Have a seat.” His voice was clipped, cold and dry.

A similar chair emerged from the floor in front of him. I pulled it away. We didn’t need to sit that close. Tiny cracks appeared around his mouth.[_ More pressure._]

[Agent Pike has mental pressure at level one. The subject is feeling discomfort, but seems to be controlling his nerve response unconsciously.]

The thought was in my head. I looked around the room, white and empty, and there was no one here except me and this gecko-looking nutjob.

Agent Pike twitched. Nothing noticeable. His eyebrows lifted a few microns. How did I notice that? Gecko. _]There, it happened again. He heard me. [_Is that right, Mr. Gecko?

“I am Agent Pike,” he said, no warmer than his greeting.

A servy emerged from the wall. Three arms grew from the middle of its body. I pulled my arm away. It stopped and turned its eyelight to Agent Pike.

“The servy simply needs to monitor your vital signs and take a few samples. It will be painless.”

The eyelight returned to me. I could’ve fought the thing, but they were going to get samples one way or another. I had the feeling I was going to need all my strength by the time this “evaluation” ended. One of its arms wrapped around my elbow, turning it numb. The other two arms touched various parts of my back, neck, and chest.

“You performed an unauthorized timeslice today at 11:25 a.m.,” Agent Pike said.

“Yeah, I didn’t do anything.”

“Timeslicing is a stoppage of relative time. Since this incident, you have heard random thoughts. Has this not happened to you?”

[_I don’t like this guy. _]

“We know this to be true, but your cooperation will make this transaction easier.”

He didn’t need me to answer. He wanted me to answer. So I nodded. Fine. There’s your transaction, weasel.

The servy pulled its rubbery arms off and merged back into the wall. Three spots of blood beaded on my arm. Blood, skin, tissue, muscle. You forgot a chunk of brain.

Agent Pike’s eyebrows shifted again. More pressure.

The dimpling sensation was deeper, more intense. I grabbed the bottom of the chair. A line of sweat popped up on my lip. That last wave went deep, like the dentist forgot to numb me before drilling.

“Only Paladins have the ability to cease relative time,” he said. “It is not magic. We have the ability to alter our metabolism to move and think infinitely faster than the ordinary human, to experience time stopping. The ability can be performed only in short bursts before the body consumes all its energy. You were very hungry after timeslicing, were you not?”

He paused. We know this to be true.

“Your timeslicing ability was activated by an unknown presence that approached in the form of a shadow. This person was traced to the Garrison, but we do not know the identity.” His nostrils flared, blowing hot air. “Tell me who the shadow is.”

I barely remembered what happened; how would I know who the shadow was? This guy was a moron if he thought—

My eardrums popped. The air thickened.

“You are sixteen years old.” Agent Pike’s voice was now unusually loud, slightly echoing. “Paladin cadets do not timeslice until they are twenty. Your activation is an anomaly.” His lips moved softly, no more than a whisper, but the words rang. “WHO ARE YOU, SOCKET GREENY?”

[Agent Pike, back down the mental pressure.]

His stare locked me in the chair. I couldn’t move. It was a full-blown seizure. The chair legs rattled.

[Agent Pike! You are ordered to back off! The subject is unstable; you must stop the pressure immediately!]

A black tunnel collapsed around me. My head split. No, not my head. My mind. Pike went looking for answers. Psychic fingers pushed inside like cold spikes. I let out a howl that died in the dense air. Memories hurtled out of the blackness, falling at random. Things I’d forgotten played like movies.

Two years old. Dad pulled me from the car and Mom came around. The room was large and dank. Musty[_. The parking cave. _]Dad carried me and his footsteps echoed. A man greeted him. Shook his hand.

“He’s showing signs,” Dad said.

The man ruffled my hair. His breath minty. I hid my face in Dad’s shoulder. “We’ll keep an eye on him,” the man said.

Icy pain cut me. Pike dug deeper.

I was four, holding Dad’s hand. The carnival lights illuminated the night that smelled like straw and sugar. I ate something fried on a stick. Dad tore off a piece, popping it in his mouth. “You want to go on that one, Socket?” he said.

A capsule ride shot straight up, disappearing above the lights.

“Trey,” Mom said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. He’ll get scared.”

I held his rough hand and we climbed inside the capsule. It was humid and smelled like puke. We strapped into the seat and I was thinking Mom was right. I grabbed Dad’s arm when we blasted off, burying my face in his coat.

“It’s all right, Socket,” he said. “It’ll be all right.”

Mom was waiting for us when it was over. She was wringing her hands, but she was smiling. Smiling.

Pike plunged deeper. Memories popped like bubbles, overlapping each other. Confusing one with the other. I was spinning. Faces passed. Days went by. The memory wheel stopped.

I was five. The colorless sky was cold.

Men were dressed in dark uniforms with white gloves, standing in line. They lowered a casket into the ground, a flag draped over it. Dirt thudded on the lid. A few people cried, but most were expressionless, like soldiers that knew the line of duty. Mom was dressed in black. Her face was sallow. Eyes were sunk in the dead zone.

A man rustled my hair. “Your father was a good man.”

His breath was minty. My stomach was hard and cold; that block of ice I would carry the rest of my life had already formed.

Memories fell faster, each one stacking on top of the next. Pike flipped through them like playing cards, each one ripped from somewhere dark and quiet. The catalogue of my life reeled in front of me.

I was tearing.

He was coming in. I couldn’t keep him out. I wasn’t big enough to contain him.

The memory of the Rime appeared, fast-forwarded to the shadow. The view was fading. Pike grappled with the memory, trying to bring it into focus. His mental fingers grew colder. Sharper.

WHO IS THE SHADOW?

It just hurt.

Too much.

“You are not authorized to enter this room!” Pike slithered out of my mind.

I was back in my skin, slumped in the chair. Empty and violated. Several people entered the room, emerging from the seemingly solid walls. Their hair was short. Their uniforms tight and black. Two of them wore black glasses. They stepped on each side of Pike like bookends. Pike jumped up, his chair falling back and dissolving. Spindle wrapped his arms around me and kept me from falling.

“You were ordered to back down twice!” Mom shouted. “YOU WILL NOT BREAK HIM!”

“I am in charge of this preliminary!” Pike retorted with equal venom. “You have no right to be in here!”

“He is my son!” Mom shot back. “And this has become a psychic lynching! You were not authorized to probe deeply!”

“There is a traitor in the Garrison. I will use whatever methods necessary.”

“This preliminary is over. You will be removed from this assignment.”

His face reddened. “I am primary minder. I decide methodology. I assess traits; my decisions are final. Understand, [_civilian, _]I will not go.”

“You can have this conversation with the commander, if you like, but either way, we are finished.”

Pike turned; the glasses slipped, revealing white eyeballs. No iris. No pupil. He fixed his glasses and stared at Mom, but she didn’t flinch. She stood in front of me, her hands clenched. Veins pulsed in Pike’s neck. Tension hissed.

“Try it.” Mom stepped closer to him, her nose almost touching his. “Go on, get inside me and try it.”

The room charged with static. Her hair floated out.

“If you dare to penetrate my mind, you will not see the outside of a prison cell for eternity, I will see to that personally, Agent Pike. If you do not contain yourself in the next few moments and leave this room, I will bring a team of minders in here to incapacitate you for the rest of your life. If you don’t believe me, then try it.” Her lips were very thin. “Back. Down.”

The vein throbbed on Pike’s neck. A bead of sweat rolled down his temple. He calmly adjusted his black glasses. He sucked air between his teeth, took his time turning, and glided through the wall. The two black glasses-wearing men followed as did three black suits. Two men stayed in the room, hands behind their backs. At attention.

My mind was still cleaning up the memories Pike uncorked, trying to put them in their rightful places. They swirled like papers finding their way back to the ground.

“Get him to the infirmary,” Mom said to Spindle and the men. “I want a medical minder to begin decompression wave therapy immediately. Have the medical mechs monitor his vitals and administer sedatives but do not put him to sleep. Once normal brain activity resumes, I want him asleep for twenty-four hours. All activity is to be sent to my office; keep me updated of every second, Spindle. And I mean every second.”

A stretcher floated inside the room. Servys laid me on it and guided it down the short hall to the leaper. Mom and Spindle walked alongside.

“I will be updating Commander Diggs with what just happened,” she said. “Contact all my appointments for the rest of the day and reschedule for tomorrow.”

“But you have an appointment with the director of—”

“I don’t care,” she said. “I need some time with the commander.”

I took her hand. It was hot. Wet.

She pushed her hair back. The rigid muscles loosened along her jaws and around her eyes. She stopped the stretcher before it went inside the leaper, squeezed my hand and pushed the hair off my forehead.

“You made it,” I croaked.

She nodded, feeling my forehead. She whispered, “Get some rest.” She stood back. “I’ll be with you soon.”

We moved onto the leaper. She watched from the hallway. She would not rest. Not tonight. There was too much to do.

*This has been a preview of *

The Discovery of Socket Greeny

Book 1 of The Socket Greeny Saga

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This book is a work of fiction. The use of real people or real locations is used fictitiously. Any resemblance of characters to real persons is purely coincidental.


The Making of Socket Greeny: A Science Fiction Saga

Socket Greeny is not normal. His funny name and snow-white hair are the least of his problems. When a devious prank goes bad, Socket and his friends realize they are about to lose everything they’ve worked for in the alternate reality universe of virtualmode. But when the data drain encroaches on Socket’s subconscious memories, some mysterious force erases the event entirely. Subtle clues suggest there's more to him than he knows and will lead him to discover why his mom is always at work. And just how far from normal he is. The beginning of Socket Greeny’s epic journey to save himself begins with the making. The universe is depending on him. INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR When did you start writing? My first effort started with Socket Greeny. It was a story I started for my son because he hated to read. It didn’t work, but this character – Socket – took root. It was the first time I felt possessed by a character with a story to tell. It took me 5 years and countless rewrites to get it right. I waited by the mailbox after that, but the giant paycheck never arrived. If you can’t make money, why write fiction? I didn’t say you can’t make money. There are a lot of people out there with a good book, whether it’s romance, dystopia, science fiction or young adult. I’m just a minnow in a crowded pond. It took a good deal of networking and research to realize just how hard it is. Thanks to epublishing, I can get the book out. That frees me up to write what inspires me. Writing is the true love. There’s something deeply satisfying to have characters come to life in your mind and watch their stories unfold. It’s a deeper experience than reading someone else’s story. What do you want readers to get from your stories? I’ve always been inspired by fearless writing that asked poignant questions; questions like who am I and what is the universe? Things that made me look at life slightly different; books that exposed a layer of reality. Writing in the young adult genre appealed to me most because that’s the age I really craved those questions and answers. I want readers to see the world slightly different. What is your favorite character? I love a bad, bad antagonist that you can’t entirely hate; there’s some smidgeon of redemption you feel inside this demented, sorry character. Heath Ledger’s Joker. A despicable character that didn’t deserve an ounce of pity, but, for some reason, I didn’t hate him as much as I should have. It’s that character I find most intriguing. In The Socket Greeny Saga, the character Pike was my Joker.

  • Author: Tony Bertauski
  • Published: 2017-04-28 03:05:16
  • Words: 32914
The Making of Socket Greeny: A Science Fiction Saga The Making of Socket Greeny: A Science Fiction Saga