Authors: Tony Bertauski
Tags: #socket greeny ya science fiction adventure
Copyright © 2010 by Tony Bertauski
All rights reserved, including the right of
reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
This book is a work of fiction. The use of
real people or real locations is used fictitiously. Any resemblance
of characters to real persons is purely coincidental
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Dedicated to those who search.
* * * * *
Virtualmode: an alternate reality where there
is no pain. No consequences. No fear. A place that is numb and
Not cold, but empty.
* * * * *
Your entire life can change in one day.
It’s not like my life didn’t need it.
Basically, I lived a life of killing time. I was zoning out on a
steady diet of video games and energy drinks. The only thing that
made school even slightly bearable was getting into a fight at the
end of the day. Sometimes, the sound of a crunching nose made life
worth living. Even if it was mine.
The day my life went inside-out started like
any other day. I got to study hall just before the bell rang. Chute
was reclined with her eyes closed and the transplanter discs behind
her ears. Her red ponytail was hanging over the seat. Streeter had
already crossed over. He was lying back with a grin on his face and
his fingers laced over his belly. I stuck the transplanters behind
my ears. They sucked at the soft skin under my earlobes. My small
hairs stood up and a spot quivered in my head like a tuning fork.
The numbing took over.
There were no lights in the darkness behind
my eyelids. No colors. A deadening sensation oozed down my neck and
consumed me. Sound faded and the outside world drifted away.
Temperature became non-existent. I left my skin behind and my
awareness—whoever I am — was drawn into the Internet and
transplanted into virtualmode.
For the moment, I drifted in darkness with
the falling sensation. This was the place where most people failed
to enter virtualmode. They couldn’t handle the drifting.
Virtualmoders knew how to ride the in-between like a wave.
I entered my sim that looked pretty much like
my skin, except for the hair. I liked my sim bald. Back in the
skin, my hair was past the shoulders and white as snow. Don’t know
why it didn’t have color.
Darkness took form. First, there was an empty
room with lumpy, colorless furniture. The gray walls turned into
wood paneling with frosty windows. Cheap sofas, frayed rugs covered
the floor and monstrous deer heads looked down from mounts, their
glassy eyes reflecting the fire in the hearth. Above the fireplace
was an enormous moose head.
The flames flickered over the dry wood,
occasionally licking the old stone around it. The top of the mantel
unfolded and a tiny woman, blond hair and sweeping curves, stepped
out and crossed her perfectly smooth legs.
“Can’t feel the heat?” she asked. “Upgrade
your gear with Dr. Feelers’ tactile attachments. Dr. Feelers puts
you in control of the nervous system inputs, you can feel as little
or as much as you like. Fire too hot? Turn it down by—”
“Off.” Chute’s sim was taller than her skin.
It was leaner and more dangerous. “Dr. Feelers don’t work,” she
mumbled, even though she was rubbing her hands in front of the
A giant barbarian came out of the next room
with a wooden chair that looked tiny in his hand. Streeter’s sim
was ten feet tall, muscles bulging off his neck and rippling down
his arms with a bloody axe dangling from his hip. I always thought
he should just go the whole nine and wear a loincloth. Dude was
four feet tall in the skin, the shortest high school sophomore who
ever lived, but in virtualmode he was a god.
He kicked the sofa away to make room and sat
in the chair that groaned and splintered but somehow held him.
Control panels emerged from the floor and wrapped around him like
“What’re we doing here?” I asked.
“We’re going to get our kill on.”
“I just got pardoned for fighting. We get
caught, just stamp my suspension.”
“Don’t worry, Buxbee’s out of town.”
Streeter’s rich voice vibrated off the walls. “That substitute has
no idea where we’re going. I set up a false scenario. As far as
anyone’s concerned, we’re reliving Desert Storm for history
I looked at Chute. “Did you know we were
“He didn’t tell me. If you were in class on
time, he wouldn’t have told you, either.” She turned her head, the
ponytail whipping around. “That’s the way he does it.”
“All right,” Streeter sang to himself. “If
you’re wondering where we are, I hacked us into a world—”
“Whoa, wait a second.” Chute held up her
hand. Her sim looked like it had never seen the sun. “I don’t think
we need to be hacking into anything, Streeter. You got caught last
time and we don’t need to be wandering around some protected world
while we’re in class!”
His bushy eyebrows knitted together like
enormous caterpillars. “First of all, I didn’t get caught last
time, someone ratted me out. And they couldn’t prove I hacked
anything so, technically, I wasn’t caught. Secondly, stop being a
wuss. Right, Socket? Right?” He smacked me with a fist the size of
a basketball. “We’re in, we’re out, no harm, no foul or whatever
else jocks say before a game. We’re not getting caught. Besides,
this place is one hell of a ride. I hacked in the other night just
for a little taste and me likey.”
I didn’t care one way or the other. I never
wanted to admit it to Streeter, but I was getting a little bored of
virtualmode battles. So was Chute, I could tell. But Streeter lived
for it so I shrugged.
Streeter smiled. “All right, good. This place
is called the Rime. It’s a bunch of twelve-year olds with rich
parents. I say we vaporize their asses down to bare data and
harvest all their experience points. They aren’t worth shit, but
who says we can’t have a little fun.”
“Twelve-year olds?” Chute said.
“Yeah, seriously. We ain’t got time for a
real battle. It’s just a little quickie, come on.”
The monitors lit up. Streeter scanned them,
mumbling to himself as he surveyed the environment outside the
cabin. Chute was already sitting on the couch with her arms locked
over her chest checking her emails. She wasn’t going to talk, so I
figured I’d check mine, then changed my mind. There’d just be a
thousand unread emails and I wasn’t going to read them. Besides,
there was likely a video message from Mom with the worn out face
telling me she wouldn’t be home tonight. Again. So I sat next to
Chute and zoned out for a while.
“You all right?” Chute said.
“Yeah, I’m all right. You?”
“Something’s bothering you.”
Life was bothering me, but I couldn’t explain
that to her. It was just one of those days, but I could never hide
it from Chute. She looked right through me.
Streeter clapped his hairy-knuckled hands
that sounded like paddles and smiled, his teeth big and square and
chipped. “Let’s shred some twelve-year-old ass.”
“Don’t say it like that,” Chute chimed.
Our clothes shifted and changed, turned
white, speckled with browns and blacks and hung like rags. A battle
staff appeared in Chute’s hands. Evolvers materialized on my belt,
simple handles that looked less threatening than Chute’s pole but,
once activated, transformed into any weapon I visualized.
A clean-cut kid appeared at the door. “Are
your weapons weak? When you need to destroy and do it fast, think
the Canonizer.” He held up a pistol with an oversized barrel. “It’s
rapid, compact, and requires a fraction of the code—”
We walked through the apparition and his
cheesy weapon onto the front porch. The boards were gray and
weathered like the sky. The cabin was buried in a dense forest. A
narrow path at the bottom of the steps carved between the
snow-crusted trees. My breath came out in long clouds.
I could feel all the way back to my skin and
it felt cold. Maybe it was my imagination or maybe I was just
nervous. Or maybe things were about to get really weird.
My guts were everywhere.
I was staring at a gray sky streaked with
snowflakes blowing like tiny bullets, remembering two words. True
Nature. Someone whispered them into my ear just before something
Everything seemed so unreal, like time was
moving in slow motion. The sky was like a steel sheet that
concealed the sun. It looked cold. There were shouts and the
howling of wind but even that was blotted out by a high-pitched
whine inside my head like I’d been knocked out with a concrete
Putty-like goo bubbled and burped from gaping
holes in my chest and my stomach was just plain gone. Instead of
intestines, the ground was splattered like someone dropped a brick
in a bucket of paint.
Just my sim. For a second, I forgot I was in
virtualmode, afraid that was my skin smeared on the ground.
am I still here? If I died in battle, I should’ve been kicked back
to the skin. And why can’t I remember anything?
I was on a frozen tundra with snowy dunes
rolling all the way to the horizon and pointed snow-capped
mountains in the far off distance, but where I was laying it was
bare ground like some sort of fiery meteorite filled with gray
gooze exploded. There was a shadow in the white landscape, slipping
among the scoured snow drifts like a tattered ghost fleeing the
scene of a crime. Suddenly, a giant blocky-toothed barbarian was
leaning over me, his face criss-crossed with pink scars. Streeter’s
lips were moving but I barely heard the words.
“Bail out! Code bail out!”
A girl slid across the ground and elbowed him
out of the way. Somehow, her cowl stayed pulled over her head but
her red hair spilled out. “Get us out of here, Streeter!”
“What’d you think I’m doing?”
“You’re standing there with your thumb up
your ass!” She cradled my head and bit her lip against the wind
that was biting back. “I told you, Socket, I told you,” she said,
not so quiet, “I told you we shouldn’t let him hack us in here. I
told you something would go wrong.” She held up her hand, my guts
dripped off in the wind. “You knew it, too.”
Maybe I did, but I always felt like something
was wrong. With me. With the world. Everything.
Streeter was screaming and cursing. Something
wasn’t working. Bail out always took us back to the skin. “I told
you, Streeter,” Chute shouted, “now those Rimers got us locked in
here until they shred our sims to goop! We’ll be lucky if they
don’t report us to the cops!”
“Just shut up, let me think for a
Streeter stomped around, muttering to
himself, thinking out loud before falling on the ground and
hunching over something in his hand.
“What happened?” My voice echoed in my
“We don’t know,” Chute answered. “Something
exploded.” She glanced down at my farting chest wounds. “We don’t
know how that happened.”
The shadow ghost was back, playing peek-a-boo
in the snow as it weaved in and out of the ground, its body
flapping madly. I pointed at it now standing beside Streeter but
Chute pushed my hand down. “Try not to move, it’s only going to
screw up your sim. It’s going to take like a month to fix as it
is.” She bit her lip again but not against the wind, this was more
“That thing.” I nodded at it. “Who is
She looked. “What thing?”
She looked again but only shook her head.
“He’s delirious.” Streeter was now sitting
with his legs folded, poking at something in his hand.
“It’s right there,” I said, pointing
“Look, there’s no shadow sim.” He waved his
hands right through it.
How could he not see it?
“It’s right next to you.”
“You’re brain damaged. Shadow sims can’t
stabilize in this environment, so just relax, I’ll get us out of