There was always that moment, just after slipping into the Grid, where Lyan lost himself.
Like the edge of sleep and waking, when your eyes were open but you were still halfway in your dream, and you couldn’t remember your name or who exactly you were. Only you had no eyes, or anything really, because your physical form was being sucked away into this giant vacuum, where for one tiny second, you ceased to be.
It was a little terrifying.
He knew what was happening—his cerebrals were letting go of their hold on the real world and reaching out for the Grid. And he always tried to be ready, to keep that one bit of tangible knowledge through the transition. It’s just a computer process, dummy, just ones and zeroes. It never worked, though.
And then everything would come wooshing together and he’d be there, standing on ground that was soft and spongey under his feet, with a soft breeze tickling through his hair, and sunlight warming his face. Warm. Fresh. Bright. Totally fake.
Lyan sucked air through his nose and turned in a slow circle. He stood on a single hill, surrounded by green and yellow fields that stretched out on all sides to a flat horizon. The sun floated in the right side of the sky, and he grinned up at it, squinting at the glare.
In the real world, you weren’t supposed to look directly at the sun because it could blind you and stuff. Here, it didn’t matter because your eyes weren’t real, and neither was the sun. Whenever he arrived, he liked to spend a good twenty seconds staring at it, just because.
On his first trip to the Grid, he’d gone through a configuration process where he’d been given the choice of about a gazillion different Welcome Rooms. The spaceship one was cool, and he’d used that one for a while, but he’d finally settled on this one—the big hill, surrounded by fields of fluffy, grazing sheep.
Or they used to be a sheep, before the one trip where he found the place with all the Welcome Room hacks and mods. Now the fields were full of pandas that walked on all fours, chewed cud, and baa-ed. It was hilarious.
Lyan jogged down the hill, jumping the last few feet. A panda cub came frolicking by, kicking up its back feet and bleating at him. Lyan grinned and reached out to pat its head, but it bounced away, trying to shake a tail that wasn’t there.
Lyan looked out past the pandas, at the horizon, and concentrated. Silver words popped into existence in the blue sky, markers for the different Grid Hop waypoints he’d created. He turned toward the one that said Jazzy, and took a step.
The Welcome Room blurred, wooshed away, and then he was standing on the road in front of Jazzy’s house.
The road ran ruler-straight, right up to the front door. The house was a little different every time—today it was big and square with a gazillion windows, like one of the mansions from that Jane Austen book she liked—but it wasn’t confusing, because it was the only one. Just a single house in the middle of a big sandy desert, dotted with the occasional palm tree.
Lyan jogged up to the door. There was no door bell, just a giant freaking knocker that looked like the head of a grumpy bull. He reached up and slammed the knocker a few times, then stood back, scuffing his shoes on the street and whistling.
The knob rotated with a creak, and the door swung inward. Jazzy stood in the opening, wearing a plaid shirt with sleeves rolled up to her elbows. Brown dirt smudged her hands and ringed her fingernails. Her hair was blonde now, and cropped a little past her ears.
She raised her eyebrows, and a couple of lines appeared in her forehead. “Lyan. Hey.”
He blinked. “You changed your hair.”
Jazzy rubbed her neck, leaving a small smudge of dirt. “Yeah. Um… So you’re here kind of early in the week.”
“Early? Am I early?” His hands felt a little heavy and awkward all of a sudden. He put them in his back pockets. She had talked to him about not visiting quite as much. She thought he might lose his grip on reality or something if he started spending too much time in the Grid.
He was pretty sure that spending time in his cell would be a much quicker way to lose grip on reality. But he’d told her he would ration his time better. And now here he was.
A disarming grin might be in order. What did a disarming grin look like, anyway? He did something sort of smile-ish with his mouth and hoped for the best. “Time sort of melts together when you’re all locked in a little black box.”
She looked like she might smile back, but looked down instead. “I guess it would. But we’ve talked about this whole spacing-out-Grid time thing.”
“I know. I know. I’m sorry.” He dug his hands into his pockets. “I just, I broke the simulator, and got preached at by Falconer, and I was going crazy in there, I had to come see you. Won’t happen again. Promise.”
“Okay. Broke the simulator. I’ve got to hear this.” Her eyes squinted into that sort of smirk she did, and she held the door open wider. “You want to tell me about it while we plant tomatoes?”
Tomato plants were fun. The leaves were soft and sort of fuzzy, and all you had to do was stick them in the ground in a little hole, and pat them down, and they grew all by themselves. It was easy and repetitious, like whacking Infects in the simulator, but the difference was he had Jazzy to talk to while he did it.
He’d met Jazzy a few weeks after his first Grid trip. He’d been running around, exploring, a little giddy with the hugeness of this new frontier, and the freedom, and the fact that it was just him and nobody he had to answer to or share it with. And then he bumped into Jazzy, and all of a sudden there was somebody. And he liked it a whole lot better.
Lyan patted down the dirt around a tiny little plant, and stayed kneeling by it, stretching his back against the warm sun filtering through the back of his T-shirt. No matter what theme Jazzy had her house decked out in, the Garden Room was always the same—a white picket fence surrounding warm brown dirt and rows of green growing stuff, and outside the fence a simulated view of distant crop fields, complete with a few lazily-moving tractors.
“I can’t believe you finally tried it,” Jazzy said, shoveling out a hole a little further down the row of upturned dirt.
“I’m just sad I won’t have the chance to do it again,” Lyan said. “Falconer was ticked. Gave me this speech about my responsibilities and how I’m supposed to save the world and crap.”
She sat back on her knees and cocked her head to the side. “You don’t want to save the world?”
Lyan stabbed the ground with his hand shovel. “I don’t even know what the world’s like. Like, I’ve seen it. Once a year. They take me out and walk me around, and I get to look at all these dirty buildings, and people that won’t talk to me because I’ve got all these guys with guns standing around me, and I guess that’s supposed to make me feel obligated or something?”
Jazzy popped a baby tomato leaf in her mouth and chewed on it. She arched an eyebrow. “That’s a sort of terrible thing to say.”
Lyan pushed his shovel in and out of the ground, making little semi-circle slices in the dirt. “I just want somebody to tell me the truth, you know?”
“Is that a cue for me to say, ‘Well that’s what I’m here for,’ or ‘You’ll always get the truth from me, buddy,’ or something sappy like that?”
He looked up and grinned. “Nah, I was hoping it’d be a cue for you to tell me your life story in excruciating detail, finally.”
She shook her head, a half-smile drifting onto her face. “Tell you the truth, yes. Tell you everything, nope.”
“C’mon. You know everything about me. I might feel better if I knew your life outside the Grid was just as crummy as mine.”
“Maybe it’s not. Maybe I’m a princess and I live in a giant cupcake.” She swatted his shoulder. “Plant some tomatoes, pal.”
It was a little irritating, how tight-lipped Jazzy was about her real life. She’d told him that it didn’t matter, when he’d tried to dig it out of her. He had yet to mention that it was a little hypocritical of her–insisting that he regulate his Grid time, when she seemed to spend an awful lot of time there herself.
Maybe she’d already lost her grip on reality, and was stuck here or something. That didn’t seem like such a bad thing to him, really.
Jazzy kneaded her hands into the dirt, making a hole for another tomato. “One thing about the real world, though. From someone who’s spent some time there.” She finished the hole and lowered the tomato in root-first. “There are sucky parts that aren’t worth saving, but there are some pretty great parts that are. And I dunno…” She finished patting the dirt down around the plant and sat back on her knees, studying it. “There are probably different ways of saving the world then how they might want you to do it. You’ll figure something out.”
He snuck a look at her over the plant he was fumbling with. She was staring at the ground, with a little fleck of tomato leaf stuck to her upper lip. It was kind of cute.
“Hey, what’s that,” she said.
“A tomato plant? A planted tomato plant.”
“No, no.” An edge came into her voice. “Look at that.”
He looked closer at the plant, and frowned. It was flickering. Like a loose lightbulb. The flickering increased, and then he realized his was doing the same thing. He’d seen something like that before, in the simulator—there’d been a bug, and one of the Infects had started going all blinky.
“You should go,” she said. She sounded breathless—scared. He’d never heard her sound scared before.
“What, what’s going—”
A couple of knocks rang out, like someone knocking on a heavy wooden door. That didn’t make sense.
Jazzy jumped to her feet, wiping her hands on her jeans. “Lyan, I’m sorry. I’ll see you later.”
She swiveled and ran toward the gate. Lyan opened his mouth to say something, ask what the heck was happening, but then the ground opened up under his feet and he flew downward with a yelp.
The Garden Room disappeared, and he was hurtling down a spiraling yellow tube. He grabbed at the sides, but they were slick plastic or something, and he just sped up.
Then he was out of the tube, and flying through the air, and just when his arms realized what was happening and started flailing, his heels hit solid ground and he flipped over to crash on his stomach.
Warm sand shot up his nostrils. He sneezed and scrambled to his feet, and his disjointed thoughts snapped together.
What the heck.
He whipped around. He stood outside Jazzy’s house. The yellow opening of a slide protruded from the red brick. Lyan stepped toward it, but then the slide retracted, and the brick closed over.
Lyan staggered around and broke into a jog toward the front of the house. There was the street leading up to the front door, but—there was no front door. Just more red brick, and those stupid Jane Austen windows.
He sneezed sand and just kept staring.
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