“You seem kind of frozen, kind of stuck, in a few ways.”
Sasha’s words, that night in The Crown Pub, pressed in against AwDae, pushing thoughts out of the way and blanketed eir mind.
Ey had lingered around the house for a few hours, simply laying on the floor and poking around in various rooms, all as empty and static as the school had been. Eventually, ey paced back outside and across the road, to the countless acres of state-managed open space that abutted the foothills. Walking slowly, ey paced along a few of the trails and deer tracks, mind spinning helplessly over eir hopeless situation.
There was no birdsong, and while ey occasionally heard the buzz and chirp of insects, ey never saw one throughout the long, aimless walk.
Ey gave up and returned home. Ey wasn’t tired by the time the sun went down, but for lack of volition, ey bundled up in what had been eir old bed and slept.
Having gone to bed so early, of course, AwDae woke up before sunrise the next day. Eir alarm clock, still familiar after nearly a decade, told them it was just past four in the morning. At least I made it past the witching hour, ey thought, barking out a laugh. Something about the idea of time in such a timeless space tickled em and made em sad all at once.
As it was still dark, ey decided to take advantage of it for another attempt at exploration. Fog be damned, ey slipped out of the house and started pacing around the neighborhood, even making it down to the school on the hill, searching for any lights that might be on in the middle of night that weren’t otherwise expected.
The results were largely negative. While all the houses and the school’s windows were dark, all the streetlights lining the road were still on in the pre-dawn darkness.
Ey trudged back up the hill toward home and slipped back inside in the dark. Turning on the kitchen light brought little warmth, so ey turned it back off again and waited for the sun to rise once more.
With the fog limiting render distance, sunrise took the form of a slow brightening, almost imperceptible at first, as the world around home lifted through grayscale into brilliant colors.
During high school, ey had often messed up eir sleep schedule enough to see the sun rise. Some days, ey would go down to the school for a run around the track before pacing eir way back up to the house again, sweating and invigorated. This whole sim seemed designed to, as Sasha had put it, keep em frozen in the past. The act of watching the world brighten and…well, not come to life, but at least gain color tugged at memories of countless days, waiting for eir mom to wake and make coffee.
AwDae paced back to the kitchen, claws clicking on the hardwood beneath eir feet. Prowling through the cabinets revealed nothing. The fridge was bare, as well. There weren’t even dishes to be used, and on testing, the faucet didn’t produce any water.
“What in the hell…”
It didn’t make any sense. The whole world was rendered in such loving detail. Why not include things that others would expect to be in a house? Of courses, perhaps it was due to the limitations of the sim being run from eir implants, though ey still doubted that the implants would be able to run such a thing in the first place. Scent, taste, and texture were all available to the simulated experience, but were notoriously expensive to implement. Even if the cabinets had contained coffee, even if ey had been able to boil water, the chance that ey would be able to get the full experience was doubtful. Ey had smelled the seats in the auditorium, ey remembered, but the full experience might not be possible.
“All I want is something real,” AwDae whined, fists parked firmly on the counter in front of the sink. Tears stung at eir eyes and ey slowly sunk down to the floor of the kitchen once again. “That’s all I want.”
The sulk lasted a good half an hour, with the fox crying off and on, and by the time ey levered emself back up onto eir feet, eir backside was numb.
Tail hanging limp beneath the skirt, ey trudged back upstairs to eir old room and slipped back onto the bed, simply laying down on eir front, muzzle facing away from the windows and in toward the closet. Ey ticked off the list of people in eir life who might be thinking of em.
Johansson was probably stressing out, and stressing out the rest of the Troupe in turn. His response to unknown situations was to try and make them into known situations, putting all his nervous energy to work getting things into a state where he could understand them again. Even with another tech handling sound, even if that had gone well, the boss would doubtless be jumpy and on edge.
Caitlin and Sarai would probably be missing em on a more personal level than Johansson. AwDae was certainly friendly with the entire company, but ey had gotten closest to those two, sharing conversation that went beyond the Troupe, beyond theater. If anyone was able to reach out to eir friends outside of STT, it was them.
And of eir friends, Sasha was the one that kept coming to the fox’s mind. The skunk was the one person, aside from eir parents, who had been in eir life the longest, and probably the one who understood em best, even including eir parents. Sasha had to be worried, even with em having been gone for so short a time. She had to be looking for em. Or perhaps, ey thought wryly, ey simply wanted that to be the case.
Eir parents, always loving but always distant, would doubtless be concerned, but ey know their tendency to freeze up when confronted with something like this. Mom was the type who might sit by eir hospital bed and hold eir hand, but not necessarily the type of person to do any digging into what had happened or why. Dad would simply be frozen, unable to deal with any emotions surrounding the event.
Ey turned eir face to rub it against the pillow, leaving the pillowcase damp from tears, then grumbled and sat up once again, eyes wandering around eir old room.
On a whim, AwDae got up and padded to eir bookshelf and pulled down the most weathered book ey could find, a bit of sci-fi ey had read countless times, starting in high school.
The fox flopped back onto the bed once again and flipped open to a random page, then frowned. Ey blinked several times to try and focus, but the words seemed to swim across the page. Instead, ey flipped to the first page in the book, and the swimming effect seemed to slow and coalesce into words once more.
The effect was strange. As ey read, the words would slow slip into order — though the world around em remained static and unchanging — and each time ey flipped a page, it would take a moment before ey could move on.
Eir frown deepened. This wasn’t the book ey remembered. The story was there, familiar as always, but the text read like a retelling of it. An admittedly quite detailed one, but a retelling all the same. It used words AwDae would’ve used, rather than those the author might’ve chosen.
Setting that book aside, ey levered emself up to go pull another book down and give that a go. The effect repeated itself, but ey had a hard time getting the words to settle down on the pages, even starting from the beginning. Brow creased with a frown, ey tried with a few more books. One ey hadn’t read yet — one of those impulse purchases that one always means to read but never gets around to — was simply an unintelligible jumble of letters.
Still frowning, the fox sat on the edge of eir bed and picked up the original book, thumbing through the pages and watching the effect distractedly. Words jumped out, and occasionally a phrase would form, but nothing exact. It was as though the book was deciding what to become from moment to moment, based on where ey inserted their claw when flipping through the pages.
On a whim, ey skittered quickly back down the stairs to the pack ey had brought from the school and fished out the scraps of notes ey had there, including the piece of paper with Cicero’s DDR votes on it. No swirling, disjointed effect happened with this text.
It took a good hour of exploration and thinking to puzzle out what might be going on.
Of course AwDae’s implants wouldn’t have the complete text of the dozens of books on eir shelf. How could it? Ey had only ever read them as hard copies, never through the software mediated by eir implants. Hell, never on a screen of any kind. So of course, ey wouldn’t be able to read the books here in the sim, if the sim was confined to eir implants.
And ey was increasingly starting to doubt that the sim was in eir implants.
A middday walk through the open space again netted them a hypothesis. A shaky one, perhaps, but something more plausible than what information they had been working with.
There likely was some information stored in eir implants. Some hundreds of gigabytes, a terabyte maybe, enough to store a good chunk of data, but not necessarily an entire sim. Certainly not one this big.
However, maybe it was that the implants themselves didn’t store the sim, but simply acted as a framework? Maybe AwDae’s brain provided all of the information needed to show em a sim, and all the implants did was turn it into an experience. Maybe the implants were the mirror to eir mind’s eye.
That would be why the text of the books was jumbled, and when it wasn’t jumbled, it was wrong. It was just eir recollection of the book being mirrored back at em in a way that was tangible, as much as anything was in sim.
That would explain why ey had been able to smell the seats of the auditorium, too. It was a scent that must’ve been permanently ingrained in eir memories.
And yet, this was an imperfect sim, based as it was on memories. The school with its countless hours of memory invested in it, doubtless had plenty of detail. As did eir home. And yet AwDae was willing to bet that, were they to go into another house on the block, ey wouldn’t find anything. Or perhaps ey wouldn’t be allowed in at all: after all, ey would have no memory of the inside, so why would the minimal system of implants-mirroring-memories be willing to show em anything.
Of course, this had some strange ramifications. This meant that eir implants were still acting as implants, but instead of taking signals from eir computer and eir mind, they were only taking in information from eir mind. That meant that everything was still up and running as though ey were delved into the ‘net.
Which was absurd, of course. There was no way for the interferites to run without power and data coming from the NFC pads on eir forehead or the contacts on eir fingers.
Perhaps getting lost was as simple as several redundant fail-safes failing in turn, implants remaining on even after contact was lost with a workstation.
As AwDae sat on the fence bordering the open space park watching the color of the light duck down through golden and into salmon, ey realized ey would need to be more deliberate about eir search. If ey was limited to places ey had memories of, ey would have to remember just which places those were.