AwDae stood in the sunlight for a moment, blinking.

Ey felt weak. Not from hunger, nor lack of sleep. Just worn out, exhausted. This was starting to feel like grinding: that drudge that you went through when playing some role-playing game in order to level up. It was always cast in a negative light, but then, you could quit a game. Here ey was, finding clues and all the nonsense that went along with gaming, and for what?

There was even a fog of war.

“So much bullshit,” ey laughed bitterly. No sense in keeping quiet about it.

Ey stripped down to eir underwear and shook eir fur out. There wasn’t much in the sense of comfort in a sim, so much as sensory inputs that the computer decided to send your way. The musty smell of the auditorium seats had been one thing, but ey was starting to feel that, given the way this sim was constructed, there would be rather more than less sensory input. Eir tux was not made for fox-people, and eir fur was decidedly matted.

There was nothing to feel all that self-conscious about — ey was a genderless furry in the middle of an abandoned sim, after all — but ey folded eir clothes up all the same and set them on the sidewalk in front of the school before heading to the grass, the cool blades of the plants a welcome change from the indoor-outdoor carpet or tile of eir old high school and the roughness of the concrete. Still clothed only in eir underwear, a simple garment made more to keep other sim participants at ease should ey disrobe, ey sat roughly down on the patch of grass, tail flicking about behind em.

“Alright. So.” Ey plucked viciously at a few close-mown blades of grass and held them pinched between eir pawpads. “Cicero is Lost. He was voting on a bunch of stuff as usual, leading the comment boards. He voted on something, and it had passed, but that doesn’t show in the records. That’s three things gone.” Ey plucked blades of grass with eir free paw, enumerating the facts. “The vote cost, the bounty, and the comment he made.”

Ey swished eir tail around to the side and hiked eir backside up enough to slip it beneath em, rolling onto eir back to stare upwards. It was too bright, so ey draped eir arm, fingers still clutching at grass, over eir eyes. “And now I’m Lost. I was working, and then I was here. Before working, I was digging into Cicero…”

Ey trailed off and spent a few moments thinking, then a few more just feeling the earth beneath eir fur, the way the grass seemed to find a way through to tickle at em more directly.

“So had Sasha, though. She was the one who got me the deck in the first place.” Ey ran through the acts ey had taken on the deck ey had been given. Eir first write to the deck had been on the note about the voting records. Prior to that, if such things were tracked, there was only the sorting and sharing of records.

Ey lifted eir paw once more and stared at the remaining torn blades of grass before tossing them aside. “Ah, hell. I’m talking to myself. If I’m going to go all cast-away, I might as well pick myself up a real companion, rather than just some blades of grass.”

Laughing, AwDae stood up once more and gathered up eir tux, heading back to the room with the couch and all of the costumes. Ey hoped ey could find something that would fit eir form, taking into account that ey was a fox, now, instead of a human.

AwDae wound up in a simple, pleated skirt and a rather plain shirt.

The skirt fit well with a tail, certainly far better than having eir trousers sag beneath the base of the tail awkwardly. It was a nice robin’s egg blue, but otherwise undecorated. After all, most decorations would get lost in the distance between the stage and all but the closest audience members.

The shirt was made for someone with broader shoulders. RJ might have filled it out, but on the fox’s slim form, it was rather baggy, which ey could hardly complain about. Again, it was a plain white, but it didn’t compress eir fur down too much, like the tux shirt with its fake pleats along the front had.

Ey spent a few minutes considering what to do with the tux. On the one paw, it was just an artifact. In theory, everything out here was just bits, even eir own body. By choosing clothes that were ‘more comfortable’, AwDae was simply instructing the sim how best to treat eir body. Clothes that were more comfortable were no different from clothes that weren’t, it was just how the numbers added up.

On the other, though, the tux was the only thing ey had brought with from reality, if such a thing could be said. It might just be a set of bits and bytes, but it was eir set of bits and bytes. Something to tie em back to the world outside this sim.

Ey finally came up with a solution and found a pack that had obviously gone along with some war-themed production. Drab and dusty, made of thick canvas, it would do well to carry along anything that would help, including eir notes ey had made. Ey laid eir tux out on the ratty sofa and rolled it into a tight cylinder; an empty sim would care little if eir tux got wrinkled. Ey stuffed the tux down at the base of the back and folded the notes into a small pocket on the side.

Finally, thus equipped, ey headed back to the auditorium on a whim. Once there, ey made sure that the room was put to sleep, and, without even thinking of it, snagged the one live microphone ey’d found earlier. Ensuring that it was off to conserve batteries, ey added it to the notes: a small token of where ey’d come from.

“Not going to do much without the receiver, much less a sound board to plug into,” Ey murmured, then shrugged and buttoned down the flap above the pocket.

Ey briefly considered food or rations before dismissing that as an even sillier idea. Ey didn’t feel hungry or thirsty, even after so long in the school, so obviously, eir body had been taken care of. There was nothing ey could do about it from within the sim. All that food and water would do would make the sim tell eir body that the pack was heavier.

From there, ey made eir way back toward the front doors of the school, pushing them open against the pressure differential, the breeze outside ruffling eir fur and skirt as ey stepped out into the sun once more.

The grey mist turned out to be a render distance.

Render distances were used to reduce the amount of work the computer had to do to render a scene in a sim. If one was in the school, that was pretty simple. Buildings were fairly easy, made up mostly of polygons with textures attached. Of course, if you got close enough, those textures would be mapped to an artificial surface to give them more depth, causing the system to work harder, but that was rarely an issue.

Outside, though, that was difficult. There were trees, curves in the ground, more complex shapes. If, as AwDae suspected, all of this was happening within eir own gear, a render distance made sense. It was as though visibility had been reduced to a hundred or so meters, but in a way that didn’t dampen the sunlight at all.

Had it been a barrier, AwDae could have walked up to the fog, but no further. As it was, though, ey was able to follow the street ey would’ve taken to the home ey grew up in, way back in America, and the fog simply receded before em. Ey could never truly approach it, it was just a small bubble into which ey had been placed: a bubble that moved along with em.

The act of walking away from the school, wearing a backpack and heading towards home, did a lot to dredge up memories of their time in an American highschool in the ‘90s. Though ey was a fox now, not a whole lot had changed. Ey had carried eir tablet and few books too and from school in a pack not much different than the one ey had been wearing. That was about the time ey had started to get more inventive with dress, and ey had worn several bits of clothing ey had picked up from thrift shops, finding a few different antique fashions to throw together into something ey could call eir own.

Ey prowled through memories of Sasha — of dating, and then of becoming better friends after anything more than that hadn’t worked out. Ey thought back to her coming over to stay the night, eir mom checking in on them at one in the morning just to make sure everything was okay (and, bless her heart, to make sure they weren’t having sex).

Ey missed Sasha’s company, most of all. Together, the two of them would’ve been able to keep each others’ spirits up. Sasha would’ve been able to figure out the problem with Cicero’s voting record much faster then ey had, and ey would’ve been less alone, would’ve felt less hopeless.

Ey trudged on toward home, reaching a paw up to snag a handful of leaves from one of the trees as ey passed, feeling the reluctant snap as they pulled loose from the branches. For all the sim’s complexity, school in the spring was pretty far remote from London in the winter.

“School, hmm,” AwDae mused aloud fanning the leaves out in eir paws. “Why school, anyway?”