Summer wound onward, and Sarah seemed to recover only partially from the incident at Peter’s. She still met with Bryan from time to time, but it seemed out of courtesy rather than genuine interest (sex, at this point, was out of the question). Points didn’t seem to matter either. On one occasion, he even approached her after a frag match, offered her half his earnings if she would just sleep with him, give him a chance to make things all better with his “Ominous touch.” Naturally, this sort of approach resulted in immediate rejection.
He focused himself on other matters, other chatroom acquaintances, frag matches, and, towards the end, retribution.
The idea came to him one restless night in early August, when his tireless libido had him tossing and turning, thinking of ways to regain his former bedroom privileges with Sarah. Revenge may not have been a worthwhile endeavor in the traditional sense, but now that he had a lot more free time on his hands, the little pangs at the back of his mind had begun festering. He went online, signed into his SimpliCITY account, and accessed the player profile database. He had no idea who the neon bully had been, so he performed a search, calling up all male players who were using models with neon green skinsuits. There were more than two-thousand; he sifted through each and every one, exhausting the early morning hours until he matched up one particular player with the access log for the Peter’s server—and by the time he’d collected all the information he needed, he was livid: It was the neon bully’s fault his Internet connection had gone down, the neon bully’s fault he was so skinny, the neon bully’s fault Sarah wouldn’t put out anymore.
He made sure his proxy was working. Then he logged on, found the neon bully lounging in a chatroom. Without allowing himself any second thoughts, he strode to the bully’s table, tapped him on the shoulder, and immediately initiated the Trojan program he’d prepared beforehand.
The neon bully screamed, and even though it was a digitalized recreation, Bryan felt the terror as code became curse, bytes became daggers, and every synapse tapped by the bully’s inputs was ignited with pain. The beautiful part about this particular Trojan was that it ran with the privacy flag on. The neon bully’s table was opaque to everyone else in the chatroom; none of the moderators would know what was happening for a long while—at least not until serious neurological damage had been done.
That’ll show you, Bryan thought.
He clicked out, returned to the SimpliCITY options screen, where he entered the player customization module and deleted his model from the database. He also cleared out his history and cache files, overwriting each sector no less than forty times. If anyone came asking questions (which he was sure they wouldn’t), there’d be no evidence.
Stomach growling, he left his room and went into the kitchen, which was dark and empty (his parents were still locked in their room, working or playing on their computer). The clock on the wall said it was three in the afternoon, though all the windows were shuttered. He poured himself some cereal and sat alone at the table as he ate.
The kitchen stank again.
* * *
Internet time is different from real time by about a third (one minute of Internet time is equal to three minutes of real time). This is mostly due to the little, almost imperceivable idiosyncrasies, such as network traffic, ping times, and hardware capabilities. Spend twenty minutes online and you’ve lost an hour in the real world. You could whittle half your life away just sifting through all the e-mail, waiting for all the downloads.
As such, the final month of summer had Bryan scrambling to make the most of his free time. He ignored his parents (they weren’t around much anyway), ignored his chores; he wore the same sets of clothes for days at a time, neglected food and water for as long as his stomach could handle it. He sometimes pulled eighteen-hour days just to get done all the things he wanted to get done.
Some of it (as much as he allowed himself to admit) had to do with Sarah’s newfound apathy towards him. Though she continued to spend most of her free time online, she often refused any offered social opportunities. Every now and then she’d talk with Bryan, but anything further and she clammed up, made an excuse to leave. For her eighteenth birthday, she had a brief conversation with Bryan via her pager before abruptly announcing that she had other matters to attend to.
The resolution to such a situation was fleeting, though Bryan found that if he kept himself busy, kept himself from agonizing over how to patch things up, he was more easily satisfied by the naïve notion that time would eventually heal all wounds. Still, on the occasions when he would be alone in his start-zone and thinking of how it used to be, remembering how it was to have Sarah lying curled against him, warm and comforting . . . he wished she would simply stop her moping and spread herself open, virtual body and soul—as it was meant to be. Especially now that he had a new model, a new set of hacked sensations for her to share.
He gave her some time to reorder herself. Finally, one day when he could stand it no more, he paged her—kept on paging her over and over despite the fact that she was obviously ignoring him. Her messenger listed her as being in her start-zone; he went there, got stuck outside the door when his password failed.
By now he was infuriated; he wanted results. It wasn’t the most eloquent way of doing things, but he nevertheless went to one of the warez chatrooms and found some information on how to override the security on most standard start-zones. After five minutes of working to exploit a firewall vulnerability, he was in, standing in the middle of scattered pillows and discarded clothing and Sarah writhing exquisitely beneath the ministrations of her lover.
Bryan must have said something, made a noise, for suddenly her eyes snapped open and she swore out loud as she untangled herself from her partner, covered herself with a spare bed sheet. The shaded polygons comprising her skin were glistening.
“Oh-geez-Bryan,” she gasped.
He backed away, forgot for a moment that he was in cyberspace and fumbled for the doorknob (when he could have just as easily clicked out).
Sarah stumbled to her feet, stepped towards him, tried to explain as, behind her, the man she’d been fornicating with clicked out. “I’d never do this to you in real life, but it’s just the Internet, right? It’s not real—you have to understand! You’re my friend, but . . . a woman also needs strength, a protector. What I mean is . . . after what happened at Peter’s . . . you’re special to me, of course, but I need more, you know? We’re both adults now, you understand. We have to make provisions for the future. Oh, Bryan—please don’t be upset.”
Bryan’s arm reacted of its own accord, and he clicked out, exited the game entirely. Alone in his bedroom, he sat for a moment with lenses still dulling his vision, inputs still tingling on fingers and toes—the real world—and tried to think of what to do, how to process the realization that his girl had been with someone else.
The tart, he thought, though he couldn’t quite make himself angry enough to really mean it. She couldn’t wait, couldn’t wait to be eighteen and out of school so she could latch on to the first guy she met who’d provide for her—and now all she has to do is put out for him whenever he asks and she’ll never have to get a real job.
He tried to shrug off the humiliation, tel
l himself that Sarah had merely been a girl he’d fooled around with online—after all, outside of SimpliCITY, they hardly spoke to each other. Even so . . . it hurt.
He was tired. As of late, his sleep patterns had been erratic; he might have dozed off, but, as usual, his brain wouldn’t quiet itself. He might have eaten something, then, but the thought of food made him nauseous. Something in his gut threatened to turn over, so he ignored hunger, denied fatigue, went online once again—and all the physical aches and pains became background noise.
There was a frag match being held at an arena called Satan’s Gate. Bryan joined an armada of hideous creatures, ravenous demons, grotesque aliens, and slaughtered as many members of the opposing team as possible. In such fashion he lived entirely online for a week. Maybe he slipped out to use the bathroom once in a while, maybe he foraged here or there for stale potato chips—he couldn’t remember. He was too distraught, too upset—and it was ultimately easier to simply flood his brain with sensory input at all times than it was to cope. He might have started to enjoy himself, even—until, during a crucial moment during a match, his vision flickered dark and he stumbled unexpectedly onto the virtual ground. All around him the game continued, he heard the echoes of gunfire, players exchanging quips, and all he could do was listen as he lay frozen. His thoughts became jumbled, and a dull hum filled his head—then he became utterly disconnected from everything.
Dead inside himself.
* * *
The bloodied fallout from a perfect frag drew Bryan forth from a deep trance. He opened his eyes, rolled onto his back, found he was covered in meaty bits of virtual flesh not his own. Somewhere nearby a player cackled fiendishly and then scurried off in search of further prey.
Bryan reached for his personal menu, clicked out of the Satan’s Gate arena. Glancing at the time stamp, he saw that he’d been asleep for nearly twelve hours.
He signed out of SimpliCITY, removed his contact lenses—he was back in his bedroom, back in his shivering, malnourished body, all thin and pale and pathetic, and it felt absolutely perverse.
He disconnected himself from his computer and sat staring wildly around the room, his heart still fluttering in his chest, nerve endings nearly going into shock. The air was stale, putrid—his own body odor was enough to make him gag. Days going without a bath, the sweat accumulated from a dozen simulated battles now staining his skin and matting his hair—he was parched.
Never thought I’d have enough of this, he thought, getting to his feet. He kicked off his inputs, and stood as still as possible for a moment as the blood rushed to his head, making him dizzy. There was a door at the other end of a field of discarded clothes, soda cans, candy-wrappers—stuff that has somehow grown into a two-foot tall pile of its own accord. He waded through, opened the door, stepped out into the hallway. He was vaguely aware that he was naked, but it didn’t matter because he was delirious—and besides, his parents’ door was closed. He could hear the usual newsfeed audio emanating from inside, see the neon glow shining beneath the door.
He made his way towards the kitchen. There was a horrid smell in the air, like the most rotten garbage. It had been growing over the past week or so; he’d been purposely ignoring it, hoping that either George or Leah to take care of it. Evidently they’d been following the same line of thought.
Bryan swore under his breath, retreated into his room to look for his pants and shoes so he could take the trash out. He found the pants, but the shoes . . . he’d forgotten where he’d put them, probably hadn’t worn them since the server outage.
Back in the kitchen: The place was a mess, rife with a foulness all its own—but underneath there was something else. Something not even decaying cabbage and beans could produce. Bryan looked for fresh garbage bags to wrap the old ones in, but he couldn’t find any. He opened the fridge and searched vainly for a soda, a bite to eat; there was nothing but old cheese, petrified Chinese takeout. The racks were virtually empty, and he realized, subconsciously, that he’d been eating all the food in small bits, here and there.
“Mom!” he called, becoming irritable. Only minutes away from the Internet and already he was feeling an ache to get back.
In the hall again, he stopped outside his parents’ room. The smell here was horrendous.
“Mom! Dad!” he hollered, banging on the door, sniffling, finding chilled snot trickling down his upper lip. Vaguely, he recalled coming down with a cold earlier in the week, but had not paid much attention to it.
He banged a few more times before grabbing the knob and shoving the door open—and catching himself in mid-step, his limbs stuck in a momentary delay as his brain tried to process the scene before him: George and Leah, sitting together at their computer, caught in a sickening embrace, the skin peeling off their faces, tiny flies and beetles feasting on half-jellied eyes, the odor of human decay washing over Bryan in a rush of stale air.
He stumbled backward, the reality hitting him—dead, he thought. Days ago, weeks, maybe . . . my God . . . .
Holding his pants up by the waist so they wouldn’t slip off his bony hips, Bryan turned and ran. He fumbled with the locks on the front door, tore it open, stumbled out into the corridor, down past identical doors on ether side. He slammed his fists against several, screaming for help as he went, but nobody answered. Maybe they didn’t want to answer—maybe they couldn’t.
Outside, the city air was acrid, full of noise and exhaust. It was light out—it shouldn’t have been, it should have been night. Bryan tried to be certain, but his biological clock had been turned upside down.
There was yellow police tape draped all across the security fence. When he tried to let himself out, his password failed—the gates were all sealed from the outside with heavy padlocks. He didn’t understand what he was seeing, what was wrong with this real-not-real world. His hands shook, he saw cars pass by but they were like shaded polygons. Pedestrians walking on the other side of the street had become soulless sprites, and they seemed not to hear his cries for help. The ones who did merely looked away, quickened their pace. Bryan wanted to click his personal menu, found his hand reaching up into the air, trying once, twice, three times when he realized it wouldn’t work.
He sneezed. The pressure in his lungs caught him off guard and he felt pain in his ribs. He thought of the custodian, how he’d hated the man for being old, for being eccentric—for being real.
The entire apartment complex was locked down tight. Bryan tried every entrance, to no avail. By the time he’d made a complete circuit of the campus he was coughing and sneezing, and his bare feet were caked with mud. Still gripping his pants about his waist, he made his way to a nearby stairwell and seated himself on the bottom step. Between bouts of tears, fits of coughing, he tried to make sense of his situation (how had he come to awaken in a world as mad as this?). Obviously, something had gone wrong, there had been some sort of accident, but why had the authorities not checked on his family, on anyone else’s family, before condemning the complex?
It was all too scary to think about. He couldn’t handle the fear and uncertainty; he cried, holding himself for what seemed like hours. Eventually, as the sky reddened and the light started to fade, h
e knew there was no one coming for him—and so he decided that this world couldn’t possibly be real. Of course it couldn’t be real.
He left the stairs, slowly walked back inside the complex, up to the fifth floor where the door to his parents’ apartment still hung open, allowing the horrid stench free reign. He went inside and to his room, where he sat at his desk and attached the inputs to his fingers and toes. The familiar voice welcomed him back online, where it was warm and clean and safe.
Bryan’s fear settled itself. His synaptic processes distributed themselves across the Net as he checked his e-mail, read the news, played the games. His cold, the infection devouring his sinuses, the hunger pangs spearing his stomach—the faux-world he’d been born into—was a faraway memory, and even as the memory began to fade he was convinced there was no place he’d rather be.