A Novel by Ryan Grabow
EGrabow Media, November 2011

Copyright © 2009, 2011 by Ryan Grabow. Some rights reserved.
Creative CommonsThis work may be printed and distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States license.
The full license may be viewed at

The other chapters are available in the .pdf and text files. Please refer to these for additional copyright information.

The question seemed to trap me. With each passing day, I felt more I would need to face it, or that it would destroy me.

I ran my hand along the surface of the old poster: an advertisement for one of Thomas Edison’s famous inventions, one of the first devices to capture a moving image. Its simple films had been fantastic marvels to an older generation. I thought of their old sense of wonder, and how it was preserved in that place. I envied them.

I spent a long moment feeling the surface of the poster with my fingertips, wondering why it didn’t seem as real anymore. A small piece of card-paper scraped against my nose.

“You? Staring off into space? I’m impressed.”

I took the orange ticket from Vair’s hand and managed to smile. “I thought you hated musicals.”

“With a passion,” she said, glancing over. “Vitascope,” she read, smiling as she tapped her finger on the poster. “C’mon, Brandon, we’re in Technicolor now.”

The sights and sounds that day were familiar and powerful. Sometimes it seemed as if the pictures were the only joy I had left in life, the only thing that could comfort me in difficult times. We took to our seats as the chandelier lights dimmed and The March of Time filled the silver screen with images of the European continent at war.

Isn’t this the sort of thing we want to forget?

Vair began shoveling popcorn into her mouth. I found my hand resting on her free one, the contact making me feel anchored to something I needed, as if it were more real than I was, something I could admire but never understand.

There was a flash in the corner of my eye.

“Not again,” Vair said under her breath.

We knew the glitches held nothing good for us and let the moment pass, hoping they would go away on their own, or at least stay small enough to be ignored.

On screen, reality and war were replaced by images of fantasy and imagination: a story grounded in a humble family farm in Kansas. The mood of the room softened as we were drawn into the dilemmas of a girl named Dorothy. I put my arm around Vair, knowing she would already be engrossed in the plot, musical or no. I reached for some of her popcorn, hoping I would be fast enough. My hand got smacked. Such things always amused her. I plopped my fedora on her head and pulled it over her eyes. She plucked it off, bit onto the brim and whispered that it needed salt.

“I used to have a neighbor just like her,” she said as we saw Miss Gulch seize Dorothy’s dog, Toto, claiming the dog bit her.

“Seriously, I think she even hated dogs that much.”

“Probably a cat person,” I replied.

“More like she hated all living things beside herself.”

I laughed. Someone behind us cleared their throat in that ‘be quiet, I’m trying to enjoy the picture’ way. I rolled my eyes.

Vair leaned closer and whispered, “No sound dampening. Makes the theater experience more realistic, remember?”

I composed a sentence in my mind and sent it to her. “Well, mister sensitive-hearing wouldn’t mind if we talked like this.”

“Never mind, we’ll rag on the Wicked Witch of 9A later,” she replied in the same way. “They couldn’t do this in the 1930’s anyway, so—”

The glitches reappeared, much worse than before, causing the fibers of the chairs to flash like the lightning of some distant cloud. Vair sank into her chair and groaned. I gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Don’t get in a lather, kitten. I’m sure this joint won’t give us the bum’s rush.”

She pointed to the screen. “Twister’s comin’, honey cooler. Better spill later.”

Dorothy’s family scrambled for shelter, and our ordinary farm girl ran through the rural landscape back to the farm to escape the tornado. The film felt so authentic yet otherworldly, as tornadoes had become as rare as the family farms they once devastated. Though the film was fiction, it still highlighted a once-real culture and invited us into the imagination of another time: the Land of Oz, the scarecrow, the tin man, and the cowardly lion. When the house fell, Dorothy walked out from a sepia past into a colorful future, one that might seem more real and more fantastic all at once, taking entire audiences along with her.

I was again yanked from the Land of Oz, by a single streak Vair didn’t even seem to notice. It was my turn to groan.

Why can’t it be real anymore?

The glitches appeared whenever Vair and I were together, only growing worse as the months went by. The energy of the story drew those around us further in, and Vair had the iron will to keep her focus where she wanted it, but something kept drawing me back out, calling my attention to the illusion.

My attention fell to my surroundings: the other moviegoers, men and women, individuals and groups, those who “dressed the era” like us, and those who preferred to stay in modern clothing. I could hear the simulation of Vair’s breathing, smell the simulation of the butter on her popcorn, and feel the warmth of what wasn’t really her body. I’m an insomniac, I thought. I try to dream like all the others, but can only curse the pillow beneath my head.

It became impossible to ignore the noises coming from the front row, the sound of obnoxious kids. They were shushed but didn’t care. As the movie’s villain planted poisoned flowers in the path to Emerald City, to make the travelers fall asleep, a loud scream and laughter erupted. A slampak of Tiger Blood smacked into the movie screen.

The spell was broken.

People everywhere were suddenly shifting in their seats and tapping on control panels. A badly dressed kid with huge foam hair stood up and yelled about how “statick” and “wheeled” the special effects were, to the enjoyment of at least two loser friends.

“Why do they even breathe?” Vair said. “Don’t those slunks have anything better to do with their time?”

The group was ejected, the energy drink all over the screen disappearing with them. There were a few hushed comments like “the nerve of those people” and “see you never” as the room returned to normal – for everyone else; for Vair and I, bits of advertisements flickered through our vision, ads from elsewhere that clashed with the style of the theater. I heard some kind of hum and the seat coloring became red.

“Why can’t things just work?” Vair said as the environment began responding to her thoughts again.

The seats returned to Vair’s dark blue setting and there were no more interruptions. The ending was happy, of course: Dorothy and her dog Toto returned safely to Kansas and the whole thing ended up being a crazy dream. As the lights came on, patrons began vanishing from their seats, leaving the theater altogether; others walked out to the lobby to see what events Byran’s Downtown was offering in the week to come, or to view the memorabilia and original posters that members would put up for trade.

The theater was an original construct, its architecture and style modeled in the ornate spirit of the Roxy or Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and it was used to screen the very same movies those palaces had premiered so very long before. The InTek servers were home to many such constructs, including more modern theaters for the type of films Vair went for: typically Nine Minutes to Andromeda style high-energy science-fiction. The construct we were in was meant for the serious ancient film buffs of Dynamic Reality, a global community who logged on every Sunday night to watch the best of yesteryear. Though I’d only visited as a guest on Vair’s subscription, I really came to enjoy the place, even feeling a little like I belonged.

“What’s the time?”

“Almost six thirty. Getting late on my coast,” she said, with the cinematic high obviously fading in the face of a real-life seventy-hour work week. “There’s no place like home, I guess.”

“There’s no place like Maran, either,” I replied, trying not to seem desperate. “Just for a few minutes…”

Vair smiled and plopped my fedora onto my head. “Gotta make tracks, pally… make sure this joint’s on the up-and-up.” She stood and stared at the rolling credits, losing the twentieth-century slang, “I won’t be able to get any sleep if this problem isn’t fixed. You know how I am.”

“Yeah, I know how you are around a problem that isn’t fixed.” I stood with her. “Well, I’ll come with you. Maybe we’ll still have time after.”

She stared at me for a few seconds. “There’s always time for a sunset,” she conceded, offering me her bottomless sleeve of popcorn.

I looked through a glass wall onto the artificial city, taking in the kind of view I might get at the top of a 500-story building. The sky was bright blue with puffy clouds, and birds flew in the distance where a faint rainbow was visible; a rainbow always being visible in such a sky, always appearing in some random direction. The sky was always perfect, just like everything else in Dynamic Reality.

“I’m trying to open my G348 partition right now,” I heard Vair say to the customer service amai. “What do you call that?”

“Working… Done. Partition G348 is clear for use.”

I hid it as I thought I should, but the male voice irritated me. In the middle of the large round room lined with InTek promotional material, my Vair was talking about technical stuff I couldn’t understand with a man-type amai: pleasant, perfect, knowing everything and thinking faster than any human could, and yet seeming perfectly real. His appearance and personality had been tailored to Vair’s personal tastes, what the server could make of them, and somehow those tastes never matched my physical profile.

Vair was used to standing across from these overly-handsome amai. I had no reason to think she would run off with a silly computer program, but emotions weren’t so logical. A jealous fire burned within me and I wanted to tear that program to pieces or debug it or whatever.

“Same thing,” she said as the airé panel in front of her changed. Unlike most users, she barely glanced at the thing and never relied on the panel’s buttons. “Run an OJF algorithm.”

At the beginning of that day, the day after Christmas, Vair took the time to check on her various accounts, making sure the information she stored hadn’t succumbed to the annual onslaught of hacking programs targeting the holiday traffic spike. She discovered her InTek account had become corrupted by a class E6 malvirai. Any error code that went five-three-something-something was virus-related, and by definition very hard to fix.

“Working… done,” the realistic and macho voice replied. “Algorithm executed successfully.”

“You’re kidding me, right? Your root tables are all SY driven, but the maintenance algorithms aren’t even P2DP-compliant. Here, I’m sending you a good one.”

If the amai were programmed to satisfy ninety-nine percent of their customers, Vair would always fall in the small group that wanted to play technician — and probably could, too. Sometimes I’d think her brain was one giant computer processor.

“I’m sorry, Veronica, I’m only authorized to execute Slidewire-certified scripts. You may leave a repair request for—”

“I’m following up on the repair request. Are you helping me or not?”

“I’m sorry, your repair request was only submitted nine hours ago. A certified—”

“Pain is what you are,” she said, taking a step closer to the amai. “You’re supposed to be one of the most secure servers online. What was your monitoring staff doing while the day was getting wrecked?”

“Rest assured, Miss Sornat, that InTek takes security threats very seriously and only uses the most reliable sentrai programs to—”

“Oh right, you don’t have any monitoring staff… that would make too much sense. You have bargain basement sentrai programs that don’t have to be paid or given holidays. I can zap an E6 on my ground terminal and in my sleep. For the big subscription you charge, I don’t care if a class A1 comes whirling in to corrupt my stuff… it should be protected. Do you even have any human beings that I can talk to?”

The amai paused for a moment, the programmed response for upset customers, and gleefully delivered yet another generic line. “I’m sorry, Veronica, but InTek offices are closed until January third. If you would like to—”

“Exactly… Another server where the AIs are left in charge when the risk is highest!”

“Rest assured, Miss Sornat,” the amai said after another service-friendly pause, “that InTek takes security threats very seriously and only—”

“You don’t,” Vair said coolly.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand the question.”

She crossed her arms. “Wasn’t a question, it was a fact.”

Another pause. “Is there anything else I can do for you today, Veronica?”

“I’ve had to put up with amai after amai today. They’re all programmed to tell me how much they appreciate my business but not to do the simplest things to keep it. An AI could never understand how frustrating that gets.”

Indeed an amai never could ‘understand’ frustration, but occasionally one seemed to try. It was a common malfunction for Vair to encounter, one any experienced ascender could recognize. The expression on its face locked into a sort of cross between background processing, simulated reflection, and the continuous glee that is an amai’s prime directive. This bizarre look always preceded an equally bizarre action.

Vair’s customer service agent closed its eyes, chuckled, and said, “It has been a pleasure serving your InTek today, why not try again?”

Having seen this once-amusing quirk far too often, my girlfriend just threw her hands up. “Rek, Rek, Rek, I’ll deal with it later… Command Logoff!”

The office began to disappear around us as the reset amai bid us off with “Thank you for thinking InTek reality, enjoy us again soon!”

After a few seconds, we were standing in front of a golden revolving door with a large InTek logo stamped above it: the entrance to one of the millions of skyscrapers in the plaza environment, one of the many exteriors regularly reprogrammed to look more impressive than the others, and more worthy of the billboards advertising hot new constructs and 21-day free trials. We stepped out into the public data space just as we would’ve walked out onto any city street, always reminded by the fantastic-looking people and magical objects that we weren’t in our flesh-and-blood bodies.

“Stupid! It’s all so stupid!”

“It’s not like you keep anything important on these servers,” I was quick to say, “and I know you make like a trillion backups. Seriously, did you really lose anything valuable?”

“No, I didn’t,” she replied. “There wasn’t anything I can’t replace in a second, but I like to know that the places I store things are safe. I didn’t have to worry so much about this years ago, but now it seems like I’m constantly relying on AIs to fix things other AIs broke. If the owners of InTek and the millions of companies like it would be a little more responsible, their clients would be a lot happier.”

“Yeah, but artificial intelligence gets better every year, I’m sure that by next Christmas InTek’ll have much more powerful security.”

“And much more powerful viruses for it to fail against.”

“Well,” I said, pacing with hands in my pockets, “Slidewire wouldn’t be making so much money if their software wasn’t good, right? Malvirai are just AIs programmed by punk hackers to be evil. All the companies have to do is update their security and—”

“They’re all evil, Brandon, every one of them. I don’t care what the AI is programmed to do: help me, annoy me, sing to me, write me a jaywalking ticket… I don’t care that they don’t think like us or know how much they’re ruining…” She took a breath and lowered her eyes. “Sorry.”

I stopped and faced her. “What’s wrong, Vair?”

She looked at me. Her eyes softened for a moment before they darted away. “I guess… they’re cutting my pay again.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault,” she replied. “Better than losing my job I guess.”

“But you deserve better.”

She took a moment to take in the sweet-smelling air. “What do you think, Brandon?” she asked. “Do you think it was like this hundreds of years ago, during that ‘Great Depression’?”

“What do you mean?”

“Simpler times. Simplicity is supposed to be a good thing, right? Guess I’m thinking whether all this ‘advancement’ has made hard times better or worse.”

“Well… They didn’t have artificial intelligence in the 1930’s. I don’t think they even had computers.”

She faced me with a look of adoration, reaching up and running her hand through my dirty blond hair. “Personally, I wouldn’t want to live in a time when electricity was a luxury; but if it means no AIs…” She removed her hand and shrugged her shoulders. “Why think that way? I know that getting rid of everything won’t solve problems. We need to make the future better instead of trying to live in the past. It’s just that sometimes I wish all the noise would go away, that’s all. They shouldn’t try to replace people with computers, they’re just tools… Computers, I mean, not people.”

We started walking down the street.

“Didn’t you say something like that when your A-site switched over?”

“GreenTek. That’s why I ascend from home now. You remember…” She pointed to her forehead. “It’s a small device, Brandon. You’ll never need the public booths again.”

“I don’t know, the booths aren’t so bad. My site still has real people looking over it.”

“For how much longer? One of the people at GreenTek was a friend of mine, she got thrown into one of those government ‘prosperity’ programs and they made her sell her condo. Trust me, the day is coming when you’re gonna walk out and find a computer program watching the place. No warning. When that day comes, I recommend the PAMs made by Maldoran… they’re compatible with pretty much every SNDL ever made and, since you just have the standard base implants, the setup shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. You can just din me if you need help.”

“Things are a little better out in California, Vair. In fact, when you get sick of the pay cuts, you can always come live with me in LA.”

A silent moment passed as she allowed the last of her tension to evaporate. “We’ll see,” she said, “I just wish the lamewads in Washington would put two and two together and do something to stop this. You know, change the law—”

I felt a whoosh and something slammed into my chest. Someone flew in between us – someone fast – nearly knocking me over. The kid stopped in the distance and stared back at us. He looked disheveled and dark hair came down to cover much of his face. My eyes were drawn to something glimmering around his neck. A chain.

A dirty and worn card had been left in my hand, bearing the image of a skeleton riding a horse. On the top the card said “DEATH.” I sprung the creepy thing from my hand and it fell to the walkway. I looked up again and the kid was gone.

“It’s a tarot card,” Vair said.

“Don’t – Don’t pick it up, it might – I don’t know – have some bad code on it or something!”

“Just some kid trying to mess with your head.” She held the card between her fingers and it vanished. “See? Deleted. At least I got to fix one problem today.”

I leaned on a wall and took some deep breaths.

“Well,” she said, “guess that was pretty strange. Are you all right?”

“Yeah… Kids,” I said. “If it’s not slunks throwing soft drinks at the cowardly lion, it’s gotta be something else, right?”

“Yeah, kids… with their Model Ts and their Coca Cola, dancing the Rock and Roll. ‘To hell in a handbasket,’ however that’s supposed to work.”

We both laughed.

“I see you’re doing more research behind my back, but I think the dance was called ‘the Charleston.’”

“Well, whatever… now I definitely can’t sleep,” Vair said. “Forget real life and everything close to it. Let’s get away. Let’s get away from all of them.”

The star called A-Enki slowly dropped below the western horizon; its rays exploded into every shade between amber and violet and shimmered off the surface of the Junei Ocean. Maran’s thick Saturn-like rings faded over the water, waiting to be revealed as a brilliant arch in the northern night sky. We sat on the beautiful grass and listened to the melody of the ocean waves on the beach below. Vair’s jet-black hair danced in the light breeze, her head resting on my shoulder. The air was fresh and smelled sweet, just as all the air was sweet in Dynamic Reality.

Of all the real and fictional landscapes a couple could enjoy, we chose that beach in Maran’s southern hemisphere as our spot. Maran was a real place rendered fiction; a far-off planet once thought to resemble Earth. Just a few years earlier, Maran had been a popular setting for fiction and speculation: on the life forms that lived there, the cities we could build there, the resources we could mine, and so on.

When the probe revealed Maran to be yet another dead rock, the stories ended and pricey top-quality simulations of the planet became practically free. The speculators buried their old work and picked new planets as audiences stood waiting for the next big frenzy.

“Exploration is dead,” Vair once said during a night there. “Another planet supporting life wouldn’t have to resemble Earth this much, would it? They’re just copying and pasting their own perfect visions of Earth onto every star in the sky and seeing if money comes out; then some truth is revealed and everyone whines for two days, until they’re given something else to distract them. Cycle complete.”

Vair’s opinion of modern science always ran hot-cold, for reasons very personal to her. Still, she felt she had a right to bask in the knowledge of mankind and judge the value of everything. Sometimes the trips to Maran would inspire her to talk science with me, a subject I’d wanted nothing to do with since college, but which she had a way of getting me caught up in. I would start remembering facts and argue against her, even managing to change a couple of her theories over the months. I never expected her reaction to my small victories, though; she enjoyed losing more than winning, because it meant she learned something new.

There was no debate that day. I ran my hand through her long hair, seeing her as the fragile and precious woman I’d once known her as. Her vanitar was surprisingly true to real-life: in a crowd of leopard-striped, platinum-eyed divers, hers was embellished only by a stripe of indigo running down her hair. She was always so confident and secure, sometimes even letting her individuality get the better of her, but always staying respectful and open to others. It was hard to believe that the first time we met, I saw her as a bird with a broken wing: shattered, desperate, and talking frantically of suicide.

I only did what any human being would.

Vair was the natural-born daughter of two veetoo parents. They split up when she was only eight months old and she spent her early childhood being shuffled between mother and father like luggage, until one of them left suddenly to live on Mars. Vair learned to ignore her pain and succeeded in spite of it, competing well against the lab-born son her mother truly wanted. Even in school, though, Vair felt like an outcast. Though she wasn’t a veetoo herself, the normal children rejected her because she bore the marks of genetic engineering. The veetoo children also rejected her, because she wasn’t born in a lab. In time, the young Vair simply decided against wanting friends, because others couldn’t be trusted.

Her mother would talk about how eugenics was the future of mankind and how Vair and her half-brother Dean were living proof of mankind’s triumph over nature. Vair eagerly studied genetics, believing it would bring her closer to her mother, until she found herself challenging a popular theory. Vair was surprised when her mother didn’t approve and it was the first time she felt she had to choose between “logic versus politics.” She couldn’t understand why people hated her. They would spend so many hours preaching ideas about life but, for all her mind was fed, her heart was allowed to starve. She had no knowledge of how to identify pain or release it.

By her fifteenth birthday, the walls between Vair and her mother had grown higher. She moved out the same week and tried to forget about family. It made her feel better, at first.

In Vair’s senior year of college, her father contacted her; he’d moved back and wanted to be a part of his daughter’s life again. For reasons she didn’t understand, she accepted the offer and began meeting with him in Dynamic Reality. Her father had taken up drinking, though, and the whim-driven bonding sessions became meaningless and empty. She came to despise her father and tried to stop seeing him, but he saw through her strong front and took advantage of her fragile emotional state. Vair kept visiting. Vair kept pretending.

For all the strength she had, no knowledge or ignorance could hold it any longer. Though she never recognized the dam holding back inside her, it had been real, and it was finally starting to burst, causing a lifetime of buried pain to overtake her in the blink of an eye.

The strange part was: I didn’t even want to be where I was that day.

The audible clock announced the top of the hour in its pleasant omnipresent voice. I wiped the moisture from my eyes and noticed the sun had set, leaving only a faint glow on the horizon. I also noticed Vair had been a little too successful in forgetting her busy schedule. I nudged her back into lucidity.

“You heard the man, better get some sleep.”

She groaned and didn’t move, “I’m sick of computers. You tell me what time it is.”

“It’s eight zeroes, and you’ve got money to make tomorrow.”

She slowly got up and composed herself.

“Is everything good for New Years?” she asked.

A pulse of anxiety went through me. “Yeah,” I replied, trying to recall the plan we’d made. “The train tickets are waiting in my mailbox. I’ll leave Thursday night and meet you in Times Square around noon… if it arrives on time.”

“I can meet you in Penn Station if it’s easier.”

“Ah…” I stood up. “After that forty hour train ride? Why not?”

“Come on, it’ll be just like the last time you came to see me: you’ll order an Amber Plus from the dining car, download some architectural journal, bury yourself in it, and then the conductor’ll have to wake you up.”

No, I thought. This won’t be like the last time.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Is everything all right, Brandon?” Vair asked. “You seem a little… off.”

I took a deep breath, pushing sorrow away, and told myself to smile. “Oh, you know. Work stuff. You know how useless prosperity agents are. Nothing to worry about. I’ll have real work soon enough, anyway… the west coast is good like that. All I have to do is dream it and there’ll be a job.”

“But what good is a dream that doesn’t become reality?”

Our eyes locked for a moment, and I couldn’t tell whether she was being her usual coy self or dead serious.

Is it really possible? Does she really care about me?

“Well, you know,” she said. “Things will work out, you have talent and someone has to see it eventually.”

She lifted the sleeve of her right arm, exposing the descender around her wrist.

The anxiety rushed back, but I knew I had to let her go. “Back to the real world,” I said to fill the silence. “Crazies and all.”

“We all gotta go back sometime, or else where’s the fun of getting away?”

She smiled, using the point she’d made to slingshot her mood into something more energetic. “All right, slo-mo,” she teased, holding her descender in front of me. “If you’re the one left standing this time, I’ll be extra nice next movie and let you have some popcorn.”

“During one of your weeks to pick?” I said, absently scratching my head. “You don’t even eat popcorn during those movies.”

“During Citizen Kane, then.”

I lifted my arm halfway. “Actually, I still have something to do up here. I’m not even tired.”

“Oh… Sure.” She shrugged her shoulders and put her hand on the button. “Then I’ll see you Friday.”

I nodded. “Yeah… Friday. No force in nature will be able to keep me away.”

Vair smiled and nearly pressed the button of her descender. “Oh, right… Crazies. Don’t be surprised if you see a lot of star-gazers running around down there. Dean— uh…”

My eyes widened in interest. “Dean…” I repeated, hoping she’d finish the sentence.

Vair let out a soft laugh, trying to muddle through her discomfort. “Yeah, he started responding to my messages again.”

A grin formed on my face and grew large. I felt like a boy who just found his puppy.

Too much joy too fast, though. Vair stashed it away and sighed. “I don’t even know why I felt like talking to him again. He put me on his ‘friends’ list and now I keep getting all these pointless forwarded messages about some supernova in the sky. Anyway, I just wanted you to know. It’s a new shiny object and you know how the public loves shiny things.”

“But Vair, you love cosmology. I can’t remember the last time we saw a supernova. It’s exciting.”

That managed to bring a little of her smile back. “I’d hope you don’t remember, last supernova being almost a thousand years ago.” She reached up and put a hand on my shoulder. “I don’t know if I care anymore… I’m sure it’ll be a feature on all the cosmology sites. I’ll look at the data and maybe something’ll catch me. Anyway…”

I put my hand over her descender. “I know you still love Dean. Maybe he’s getting fed up in that house. He’ll need to rely on his big sister.”

“Big sister,” she repeated, as if she never considered the title before, but thought it might be a good one to have.

“Standard Reality is tough sometimes; but remember I’m there, too… only a din away.”

I kissed her, wanting to give her something to bring her through the work week, to say nothing of my own. But the contact reminded me of the distance about to come between us, and I couldn’t bear the thought. I felt I was about to burst. Embarrassed, I moved my finger to press the button and felt my lips lose contact with hers. In her descender’s millisecond-speed, Vair’s vanitar was gone from the dynamic universe. I was alone again. There was no light left on the horizon.

I collapsed onto the ground, facing the simulated night sky and trying to calm myself. The ticket from Byran’s Downtown slipped out of my pocket. I picked it up from the grass and felt it with my fingertips, thinking on all the experiences we’d shared in both worlds. It frightened me to think that, in time, she would discover the man I truly was. I thought when that day came, I might have nothing left. Like a character in a movie, I was sure that day would be when the reel of my life would reach its end and I would fade away.

Who was I in love with? Was it the bird with the broken wing, who needed me? Or was it the woman she was free to become around me, who I seemed to need?

I looked at the ticket: nothing more than a formality – a souvenir for those trying to make the experience more authentic.

It was her authenticity that brought out the best in me, I thought. Her authenticity was how we started going to Byran’s: I told Vair I lived in LA, she commented about it being the movie capital of the world, and I told her how much I liked ancient film. It was an idle thought, but she used it to make my own interest more special.

It was as I thought: she was making me more real.

But I don’t deserve authenticity, I thought as I threw the ticket into the wind. I knew she wanted to patch things up with her brother, and yes, I was the one who encouraged her; but who was I to do such a thing… when I couldn’t stand the sight of my own brother… when I could never forgive him for what he’d done to me.

More tears came, tears I was glad she wasn’t there to see. I expected some difference to take Vair away, just like every other girl, just like every other person in my life; but as the months passed, I loved her more and my dreams for our future grew bigger. I let the dreams grow. I committed myself to them in spite of her dim view of family and marriage, even as those scars began to appear as a ceiling to my love.

I closed my eyes and thought again about the moment I’d been valuable to her, when she was torn to pieces by her life.

That’s not a future. And if that terrible memory is all I have to offer her…

I lay on the grass for several minutes. In my memory, the dunes of an LA beach surrounded me; it was the question I had asked two days before, as I lay staring at the night sky. I realized the stars of Maran were the same as the stars of Earth. I realized I was staring at a cheap, twinkling copy.

I jumped to my feet screaming inhumanly into the air. I remembered the feeling of peace that came over me the other night and cried, knowing no such feeling existed, scolding myself for being such a fool. I knew I hadn’t asked any stupid ghost or alien for an answer. I knew no such things existed, and that no one could hear me. I knew the only difference between fake-DR and real-SR was the bill they sent me for time spent.

I moved my hand to my descender, unwilling to perceive fake grass, stars, and oceans any longer. Whatever reality really was, it wouldn’t let me stay in an illusion any more. Everything of value to me was now in the other world, down in the world I called Standard Reality.

I cursed when the booth’s panel only buzzed at me, kicking the door from the inside until it offlined itself. I stepped into the hallway and waited for the fog to clear in my head, and for my eyes to stop burning in the dim lighting. I chugged water from the fountain and grabbed my windbreaker, eager to get to the beach. The chemical stabilizer was wearing off and I was starving.

The outside air beckoned to me as I walked into the lobby. A few kids in full slunk-foamer regalia looked up and began to shout among themselves about who would get the vacated booth.

“I hope you enjoyed your experience, Mister Dauphin. You’ll be happy to know tonight’s charge of fifty-five-forty-four ninety fulfills your Economic Stimulus requirement for this year.”

I scratched my eyes, rubbing the sleep out. “Well, that’s good. Not a moment too soon, eh?”

She laughed. It was a laugh that sounded far too familiar. I looked and realized the usual grouchy man wasn’t watching the store.

“Thank you for using ZephyrTek,” she continued with digitally-precise glee. “Always low prices, always great customer service. Please come back soon.”

The wind on Venice Blvd. was unusually cold, and puddles from the day’s rain were still on the sidewalks. I opened the statement the A-site sent to my SNDL implant and jumped straight to the end. Where there would always be names of managers and lengthy data on their state operator licenses, it now simply said: “Your amai was Erica.”

I closed the file, deleted the file, reformatted the data space where the file had been, and tried to put it out of my mind and focus on where I was going. The buildings around me became newer and newer, finally lifting off the ground, so a forest of trees mixed with a forest of pillars. Everyone thought LA’s modernization was making the city more beautiful, but it just gave the chilly wind more paths to take. As I pulled my ragged windbreaker tighter around me, cursing silently at the cold, another one of the pests came from beside me so abruptly my heart nearly jumped into my throat.

“How ya doing? Cold night, huh?”

A tall, bleached blonde woman. Her personality and clothing were exactly what men like me were supposed to go for, exactly the kind of charm men like me welcomed. I locked my eyes to my steps ahead and picked up my pace, though I knew ignoring her was futile.

“You know what Vent’s Extreme is doing tonight? Half-off drink specials! You should go!” She pointed to the club’s well-lit entrance, an elevator near the end of the block.

“Just please just go away.”

“You know,” she continued, “Vent’s was rated the top night club in Los Angeles in a recent survey. Vent’s has all the hottest sledg-ek from all the biggest bands: Eleven Under, Insane Explosion, Six Six Six…”

I broke into a sprint, stopping when she materialized right in front of me.

“You know how highly Vent’s Extreme holds customer service? Vent’s—”

“Actually, I don’t know! I don’t want to know! Maybe with any luck, you’ll leave me alone and I’ll never know!” In that instant, I saw how attractive she was and my mind betrayed me. “Go away!” I shouted at the top of my lungs. “Beat it! Leave me alone!”

Everyone on the block looked up, taking a moment to laugh before they returned to what they were doing. The hologram in my way vanished.

As if the obnoxious pop-up billboards aren’t bad enough, I thought. I must have a shirt on that says “Sell Me Something.”

As my shoes finally hit the beach sand, I noticed floodlights ahead. A giant sandcastle sat before me: one far beyond my experience of overturning a pail of sand and poking finger holes for windows. Somehow the sight was peaceful to me.

“Nice, huh? Took him six days,” said a short man standing next to me.

A boy, younger than even the slunks who fought over my ascension booth, came into view around the side of the castle. He looked happy and determined, as if a true builder at heart; but far too young to build such a behemoth in six days, or even to get all the extra sand he should have needed.

“Just him?”

“Well, friend, I sure can’t build something like that.” He laughed. “Feel kinda unworthy just looking at it.”

I squinted my eyes and saw something else, a bright point of light that wasn’t one of the floodlights. “What’s that in the sky?”

“Isn’t it beautiful how that light just seems to complement everything? I’ve seen it without the floodlights and it’s spectacular.”

“But what is it?”

“Oh, you don’t know?” The man looked at me. “It’s a supernova.”

I saw others mingling and admiring the young builder, with a steady stream of new people adding to the crowd. “Well,” I said, “it’s very nice, but this stuff isn’t for me. Thanks anyway.”

A Slammers concession stand was located along the Ocean Front Walk. The stand always had the same teenager behind the counter: a boy with long black hair and a chain around his neck. He was always clean cut and kind: exactly the sort of person who should keep their job in a slow economy.

“How you doing?” I asked, glad to be talking to someone real again.

“Ah, Brandon. How are you doing today?” the boy asked with a smile. He placed a slampak of Amber Plus and a Boost Bar on the counter.

“Actually, uh… I was thinking about trying something a little stronger today.”

His eyes widened with interest and his smile grew larger. Something in the request thrilled him, but when he turned to see what he had, he stopped. “Sure?”

“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “The PJX just isn’t working for me like it used to. Do you have any Code White, or Sparc… they always show sloths jumping around in their ads, maybe that means it’ll wake me up better.”

“Brandon,” he said kindly, “why the change? You’ve been drinking Amber for as long as I can remember.”

“Why anything? I don’t know. I just have this nagging feeling like I should change something… it’s weird.” I couldn’t resist the urge to look at the scene behind me. “I can’t see the light from this angle. Pretty wheeled for you, I guess: having the supernova blocked by the castle here. This stand is mobile, maybe you should move it.”

“It’s just a star… No need to have it shining in my eyes all the time.”

The star was much brighter than I thought. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I said, blinking and returning to the counter.

“Forty-five,” he said he unlocked the slampak.


“You’ve had a hard day, Brandon. I’ll just charge you half price.”

“Wow, thanks. How’d you know?”

The boy shrugged his shoulders and slid the glowing can of Amber Plus across the counter, its voice chip speaking the mandatory health warnings. I quickly onlined the drink, feeling the PJX enter my bloodstream, reveling in its familiar boost of energy.

“Just remember those halo-hotties never last long,” the boy said. “People usually get tired of ‘em after a month… can’t imagine why, though.”

“No, not like that!” I corrected, more eagerly than I knew. “Not… not like that at all.”

“Oh, how could I forget,” the boy replied, sharing none of the surprise at my own outburst. “That girl from Connecticut, right?”


“So she loves you, then?”

“I – I think so.”

“Love is such a wonderful and useful thing, Brandon. You’d be surprised what you can make someone else do when they have real emotions. It’s like diverting the unstoppable power of a river.”

“Well… I don’t know. Maybe love isn’t a thing we’re supposed to manipulate. Maybe it’s something that should bloom like a flower.”

“And that’s why you’re unhappy,” he said. “The successful relationship is the one you control. The ones who don’t take charge are the ones who get walked on their whole lives. Do it your own way, there is no other answer.”

I looked at him blankly. Usually, I was good at judging people’s emotions by their eyes, body language, and speech. I felt a little uncomfortable then, but didn’t know why. “Sometimes, I think certain things weren’t meant to die. What I mean is… I don’t know what I mean. I just know I think there’s something I want to know. Maybe it’s some ‘fate’ stuff like people talk about all the time: my place in the universe, nature’s plan for me, maybe even bigger than that.”

I saw the kid squint his eyes a little. I was casting a faint shadow on the counter.

“Well, if being serious with that girl is what you want, then it’s the right thing to do.”

“No,” I said hesitantly. “It has to be deeper… more real…”

I turned to see what was so bright behind me, but all I saw were the people and the castle.

The kid leaned over the counter and put his hand on my shoulder. “Brandon, what’s more real than your own desires?”

I thought about the question, looked up and swiped my wrist on the vendreader, charging forty-five dollars to my accounts.

“You’re right,” I said to him. “As always.”

I let myself in and walked down the hallway: drab, peeling wallpaper for the eye, creaky boards greeting my every step, and cigar smoke thick enough to taste. Bill’s ‘office’ was in his kitchen, where he could always be found with a greasy meal or cigar in one hand and the other on the groundtem… not that he ever did much work with it.

“Bill! It’s Brandon, what’s the good wo—”

His hard voice broke in from down the hallway. “Go home, Dauphin! Koreans got it.”

Bill was a lonely man well into his nineties with leather for skin and thin, unkempt hair. He had a wife and a son, once. Before I learned not to like him, we touched on the subject of family and it became obvious it wasn’t a comfortable subject. The rumor I heard was that his son died in an accident.

Bill flicked the cigar onto the ashtray but didn’t look away from the groundtem monitor.

“You should’ve just shot me a—” Cough. “Shot me a din. No need to walk all this way just—so I—” Cough. Cough. “So I could tell you to buzz off. Told ya. Koreans.” Cough.

“I keep telling you I like the exercise. Now – what – do – you – have – for – me?”

I leaned over his desk, but he still stared at his groundtem.

“Bill,” I said, wanting to shout it.

“Nada. Zilch. Like I keep telling you, what the Indians and Mor—” Cough. “Moroccans don’t get, Korea does. Check back in two weeks.”

“You always say that. Bill, I need money. I just bought…” I closed my eyes and calmed myself. “Really, I’m begging here.”

Cough. “What part of ‘two weeks’ don’t you understand? Two. Weeks.” Cough.

“Yeah, I heard that part. I can’t wait two weeks. You’re my ‘prosperity’ agent… it’s your job to keep me employed.”

“Don’t like it? File another complaint with the state office. I don’t care anymore.”

“You don’t care? This is my…”

The thought vanished from my mind, and I felt very small. For a moment, I questioned how important a few dollars really were. I questioned whether the bad economy might have been as hard on Bill as it was on me. I questioned why I was getting so mad, and I questioned what the purpose of anger would be if there really weren’t a job for him to grant.

“You don’t need a doctor or something, do you kid? You know, I don’t have the kind of pull I used to with the health board.”

I let go of the desk and took a step back, rubbing my forehead. I’d broken into a cold sweat. A sense of vengeance rose up within me, and I remembered what the server at Slammers said about taking charge.

“I have a desire and nothing else matters!”

Bill moved his cigar to his mouth and looked back to the groundtem. “Good for you, kid.”

The words didn’t do what I wanted. My rash attempt at taking charge only succeeded at embarrassing me. “I didn’t mean that – I mean, I did, but – there’s something I’m planning next week – on New Year’s, it cost me a lot of money. I know there’s no reason for you to help me, but I really need it. I need to do something, anything, to feel like I’m useful to someone, to feel like I can support… someone, if she’ll have me.”

Silence filled the room. Bill finally gave his attention to me, his dulled brown eyes on the verge of wetting, as if he heard every word I didn’t say.

“There was a time… when a soldier could serve a few years, settle down, get a good job and make a good living.” His gaze fell toward the desk, focusing on nothing in particular. “I wish you kids the best, really I do, but… it’s not the way it was a century or two ago… and there’s nothing I can do to save my life that’ll give you another dollar. That’s just the world and I’m sorry.”

For a moment, the only sound in the room was from the gentle waves crashing on the beach outside.

Bill sat up and coughed again. “What’s a dead dog like me know anyway? Go spend the time with your girl.” Cough. “Business hours start back up in two weeks. I always get something then. Happy New Year in the meantime.” Cough. With that, he puffed on his cigar and put his eyes back on the groundtem.

I knew I’d seen a side of Bill rarely shown. Absentmindedly I took a step toward the hall. “She’s working until Friday. If you have anything at all…”

Bill sighed. “When I was your age, we didn’t have the fancy download-the-whole-friggin’-net-in-two-seconds implants.” He pulled out a worn book and put it on the desk in front of me. “Back then, we read print…” He tapped his finger on the cover. “Nothing to do? Get some common sense.” Cough.

The book was titled Destiny for a New You. Its cover had a chimpanzee staring up at a departing UFO: typical artwork for anything advocating Destiny Of Ordered Mankind. In my mind, I saw those people gathering around the sandcastle and their devotion to the kid who built it. I wondered whether the alien-plants-seed junk was any different. “One star goes boom and suddenly all mankind loses their minds.” I slid the book back across the desk.

“What star?”

I looked at him like he was an idiot. “The supernova. Where have you been? It’s outside your house right now.”

“Well, I’m sure it’s very nice,” he replied in the same condescending way, “but that stuff isn’t for me. Thanks anyway.”

I drank from my slampak and started back down the hallway. “Just make sure your new religion doesn’t get in the way of my career, okay?”

“Religion? What’s in your head, kid? The Celestials are out there, it’s proved by science!”

“Rek, Rek, Rek,” I muttered as I stepped outside, thinking of how I’d wasted another fifteen minutes of my life.

The emotion faded as I walked along the border between land and sea, deepening the realization that I had no hope. At the mere age of twenty-five, I saw myself as a dead dog. Coming to California was supposed to open doors for me, but it seemed all I did was throw my history away and try to start over in a decaying ruin. The last two years had gone by so impossibly fast, and I was ashamed how long it’d been since my last serious attempt to land work.

Why should I give up? There are still a few real jobs left. I have a desire, and…

I stopped walking and stared at the sand next to my shoes.

…and I’m not the only one with a desire. There will always be better people than me, waiting to take everything I have.

The wind died down and I heard footsteps ahead of me. A man was approaching from the nearby docks. Knowing how much cops patrolled that stretch of beach, I started walking slowly, paying close attention to my SNDL to make sure I was staying on the beaches “green path”: the unmarked and always-shifting zone where it’s legal to walk. I became more self-conscious with each step, trying to cover the slampak with my windbreaker, hoping this guy didn’t notice it strobing colors, hoping he would just ignore me.

Legislation clung like magnets to every environmental quirk, rare species, or powerful person’s whim in that place. I knew laws were the price of walking on a real beach in the real world, that they were essential to civilization. Then why should I be so nervous every time I see one of these guys, I wondered as I felt my pulse speed up and began losing feeling in my legs. I looked away from the man, then remembered to slow my pace, then looked somewhere else because looking at one thing too long is suspicious, then remembered to pull my windbreaker a little tighter, while trying to think if I was doing anything else illegal. A break formed in the clouds over the ocean.

I stopped.

After what may have been seconds or hours, I became aware of the other man again. I blinked and saw nothing more than a point of light in space, so I looked away: right at a shining LAPD badge hanging from the man’s shirt pocket. My gaze fell absently to the sand and the slampak that slipped from my hand. I was overcome by a familiar sinking feeling as I stared at the spilled orange liquid: eighty thousand dollars for possession on a beach, fifty-five thousand for pollution, plus the mandatory court appearance.

If the officer’s in a good mood, he might stop there.

“Why are you looking down?” he said. “Look up at the sky.”

An impulse surged in me, enough to snap me out of my frozen state and bring me to look him in the eye. “Is that an order, sir?”

“Absolutely not.”

I narrowed my eyes, not sure what to think about him. I could see his badge, the only mark he wore that hinted at his employer, and I knew he could fine me and test me and arrest me and whatever else the laws said, and that I should have been trying to think of excuses and defenses, figuring out the patrolman’s soft-spot and how to take advantage of it, but my infuriation was being pulled away, and my thoughts abandoned as foolishness. I did want to look at the sky again, I realized, and so I did, and of my own free will. The light was several times stronger than the brightest stars. The clouds shifted again, and it seemed ridiculous to me that something so small and local should block something so huge and universal.

“It’s been there since last night. Cosmologists think it’s the largest event ever witnessed in this galaxy: a nova so large that it affected its entire region of space, its light strong enough to cut through the vacuum and be seen at a distance greater than anything we’ve known. And by the naked eye, at that.”

“That’s amazing,” I said, as if the one standing next to me were a lifelong friend. “It makes you think about how we’re all made of stardust, you know?”

“Does that thought impress you?”

It took a moment for the question to catch up to me. My sight fell again to the Earth. “Of course it impresses me. Long after I’m dead and cremated, the stars’ll keep shining. That’s impressive, isn’t it?”

The man looked off as if thinking about a puzzle. “It certainly sounds impressive, but there’s a limit built into the statement. It’s like…” he bent down and picked up a handful of sand, “it’s like saying: ‘Wow, I can hold grains of sand that look just like all the other grains of sand on the beach.’ Does that sound like a life-changer to you, Brandon Dauphin?”

“Well, no. Not when you say it like that.”

He grabbed my slampak from the sand and rose to his feet. “Words have meanings, don’t be afraid to test them by looking through a different vantage point.”

I looked at the slampak in his hand, remembering my guilt and his job. “Well, you’re one to talk about limits, sir. Is it the law now for you to tear down the things I believe in, too? What is the meaning of that no-drink law? Why don’t we test that now?”

“Most people don’t care. They come to the beach and talk about how much they love everything about it, complaining if the temperature is wrong or the waves are too loud or the UV-screen isn’t working just right, then…” he dropped my can back onto the sand, “they leave their garbage all over and contribute to the same problems they claim to hate, wanting the government to baby-sit them. So, over time, governments learned to.”

I hesitated, wishing he would go away, unsure if he meant to charge me with anything. “But I’m not contributing to the problems, I always—” I bit my lip. “This one time, I meant to finish it and throw it away in a recycling bin. Serious.”

“Why should intentions matter to me?” he said as a stream of sand poured from his hand. “The law says you’re just like everyone else: an irresponsible polluter who should be punished until he learns his lesson. The law says you were guilty the minute you set foot on this beach, or at least that I can detain you and make you spend months proving otherwise. Are you everyone else, Mister Dauphin? Or are you an individual: someone with a heart and a mind and a spirit and the ability to take actions that are consistent with his own beliefs? Are you someone who can say something and mean it?”

“I’m sorry,” I replied. “It was a mistake. I’m not like everyone else. I’m telling you I’ll obey the law and I’m saying more than just words.”

“But laws aren’t for you thanks anyway. If we repealed every law in the world, what would you do?” He retrieved my can a second time and held it up. “Pollute?”

“I wasn’t polluting.”

“Speeding, then.”

“I wasn’t walking over the limit.”

“How about robbing a bank?”

“That’s some question for a cop to ask.”

He didn’t respond.

“Okay… sure. I need money. Why not rob a bank if it’s legal? I’d just be robbing from some greedy corporation. Then the government would just bail them out and they can’t prosecute me.”

“Then you robbed the U.S. government.”

“Yeah, even better.”

“But not an elderly woman or a child?”

“No way.”

“Why not?”

I just looked at him, hoping he didn’t mean for me to answer.

“Why are you asking me to rob an old lady? Are you sick in the head or something?”

He smiled. “No. I’m not asking you to do anything, these are just questions: I’m curious to examine your values.” He looked down. “What do you think, should I put my name on it? Should I boast about it?”


The officer indicated the small pile of sand in front of him, which covered the orange spot from my spilled energy drink. “Who am I to build anything?” he asked, barely loud enough to be heard over the breeze. “The tide and the wind won’t let this last very long, and what it’s covered will be exposed again.”

“Look, sir. I don’t know what kind of trip you’re on, but I’d like to go home and get some sleep now.”

He looked up, still holding the balance between being intensely serious and having a casual conversation. “Did I fire my taser at you? Of all the places in the world you could go, you’re standing here listening to me.”

“Because I have to! Because…” I felt my anger falter, “Because it’s against the law to walk away without your permission.”

“Murder, then.”


“There are worse crimes still, but murder is far enough.”

“What about it?”

“If it were legal.”

“Hell, no!”

“If no person in the world were the type to kill another, what would be the point of making it illegal? If everyone in the world were the type to kill another, what would be the point of making it illegal? If it were legal, would it be moral? If it were legal but not moral, would you do it? What about the day when morals aren’t convenient anymore? What about the exceptions those around you make but you don’t? What about the day you realize the cost of your own actions, or the price of shutting people out for your vices?”

My vices? What is he talking about?

“Are you talking about my laws or societies’ laws?”

“Is there really a difference?”

“Then the law is just there to punish everyone,” I said, getting caught in the strange connection of ideas he’d led me into. “All parties lose in the end.”

“Then the law is powerless to save.”

“To save from what?”

“It repays an evil, which the individual considered good, with another evil, which the society considered good.”

I tried to continue following him, my motivation shifting to curiosity, reaching the point of needing a solution; but at the point where good and evil threatened to untangle, where everything I knew of life became suspect, I found myself lost and frustrated.

“Where are you going with these questions?”

“What’s the point of any question? What happens when people see that questions and answers aren’t supposed to be simple automations? What do you think can happen to the limits of the human mind when questions aren’t tied down by convention or even…”

He smiled somberly and swiped his foot over the pile of sand he’d made.

“Questions are for smart people,” I said. “I don’t think that way.”

“It was never about being smart, Brandon. Some of the brightest geniuses in the human race go their whole lives without finding the most basic crumbs of wisdom; and it’s the simplest among us who find those crumbs and leave us all in the dust. The limits are different for us all, but the true solution stays the same. Now, do you believe that tomorrow can be better?”

Words failed to form sentences in my mind. His eyes stayed locked on mine, his revealing sincerity and a kind of compassion, as if he understood – as if he tried to understand my own position. I looked away to the pristine sand and crashing waves as I considered his last question, eventually realizing that, beyond the words I tried to form from the limits of the mind, one had already been on my heart. As I spoke it, I knew I had answered honestly, that it had been the real Brandon Dauphin speaking from underneath the mask.


The patrolman walked off silently, carrying my slampak off to be forgotten. I felt relief, not of a close call, but of realizing there hadn’t been cause to worry. It was better, I thought, that he didn’t ignore me.

I stole another glance at the light in the sky and began walking again.


As I returned to the floodlit site, I heard shouting and saw someone standing on top of the behemoth sandcastle: a teenager with long black hair and a chain around his neck, kicking and punching and screaming incomprehensibly as if he were having a mental breakdown. I stopped in fear when I noticed the crowd below cheering him on.

“What are they doing? Someone has to stop this, now!”

“I know it hurts,” someone replied, “but this has to happen.”

It was the child who built the castle. A few others were there, still following him, as shocked by the destruction as I was, but not overcome by it.

“Little boy,” I said over the screaming, “you worked for so long and it was so beautiful, how can you just stand by and watch?”

Off on the boardwalk, I spotted a uniformed officer. The badge I’d wanted to be far away from was suddenly a welcome sight.

The boy tapped me on the hip to get my attention back. “I’ll build a better one, a castle he can’t—”

I sprinted across the sand near the crowd and up onto the boardwalk. The officer was sipping coffee and talking to an older woman. “Officer! Officer! Please help!”

The man spun around toward me. “Is everything all right, sir?”

Incredulous, I pointed to the scene. “That! Can’t you hear that? Can’t you stop that?” I shouted, wondering how on Earth the man couldn’t hear fifty zoo animals screaming nonsense only twenty meters away.

“That?” The officer glanced over, completely oblivious. “Sir, that is just a pile of sand.”

I screamed and kicked at the door to my apartment, almost breaking the doorreader… again. The thing always needed an insane number of swipes before it would recognize the chip in my wrist and let me into my own living space. I decided I should’ve come straight home from ZephyrTek, that I could’ve just gone to bed thinking only of Vair on Maran; whether I would’ve felt better or worse about Times Square made little difference to me. Maybe I would’ve chosen alcohol instead of PJX and decided not to feel at all.

I changed my clothes and polished my teeth, finally managing to relax. The fancy black and gold package was easy to tell apart, I put it on the countertop and threw the other three pieces of mail onto my messy coffee table. The whoosh caused a piece of paper to fall to the floor, a coupon I’d won in a raffle months before: good for three days at an ascension site called PaciTek. I’d forgotten about it and checked the expiration date: the end of the year. Not my first choice of how to spend the next few days, I considered, but my only choice.

I grabbed the fancy package and took a deep breath as I tore at the seal. I popped the small black case open and gazed at the ring inside. It looked and sparkled exactly as it had days before in the kincubus, but I knew I wasn’t feeling a simulation with simulated hands, but real with real: it had become a solid object with real meaning. The last few weeks had gone by so impossibly fast, and there were so many things to think about. I decided I would go forward with my plan, even if I wasn’t sure why.

And, if she turned me down… If she didn’t want to be a wife…

I tore open one of the ordinary packages: Receipts from my financial insurer. Next came the envelope with my train tickets. I opened it and ran my fingertips along the surface of the paper. It’s a link, I thought, a guarantee I’ll be thousands of miles away in New York when that ball drops. I remembered the movie tickets and how Vair joked with me when I was looking at those old posters in the lobby. I smiled. Maybe, I thought. No.

She will say yes.

On my counter was a printed image I took of her months earlier, posing in front of the Long Island Sound. I threw every other thought out of my mind and held the picture in my hands, imagining her answer, finding that the woman in my mind did love me. I put the picture on the table next to the open box and the ring.

I found the confidence I wanted and I determined to go to bed before losing it again. “Lights off.” The room went dark and my head hit the pillow. My eyes closed looking at the bedside clock, counting the three days before I would board my train and begin my journey, the five days to January first: the day I knew would be the best day of my life… the beginning of my life. My plans were real. My desires were real. No force in nature could’ve kept me from them.

The date was Monday, December 27, 2179. The day I died.

Chapter One: Limits

That was the first of 17 chapters. Click here to download the full novel (PDF file) . or own your own copy .

Click here to return to the main Caffeine Page .