A snowflake fell amongst the digital trees, pulsing lightly as it passed between its brothers, floating down to the white ground. X stood with his hands on the railing of the wooden bridge he had just finished creating, admiring the texture. It felt just like it would have in Terrareal, out there where nature was the true creator, where the bridge was just the sum result of necessity, a tool to be used to cross the oft-empty creek below it. But here, in the virtual construct, buried deep in the outer reaches of the Net, it was a true miracle. To make it feel like it did, smell like it did, was a feat that X took great pride in.
He looked around at the trees that had sprouted just moments before, already reaching high into a gray sky that flickered black when he wasn’t concentrating. They were reproductions too, faithful, but not perfect, the byproduct of countless digital photos fed to fractal generators. They found the underlying code in all things natural and reproduced it for the entertainment of those who knew how to invoke them. The tips of the trees, so far overhead, were already frozen with accumulating snow and swaying in the still air.
It was just as he remembered it, if not better. Gone was the biting cold, though the snow and the frost remained. Gone was that awkward feeling of not knowing if he was going to get to kiss her or not. And in the back of his mind, he did not worry about what might lurk in the shadows of the forest. There was nothing to fear in the Net. Even so, he turned his head to the sky, reached for a memory that held no answers, and decided on a generic full moon, looming directly overhead, radiating a soft glow onto the forest scene.
X checked the glowing sliver on his wrist. C was late.
It was nothing to be worried about; C often made belated arrivals to their scheduled meetings. Life back in Laurel wasn’t as free as X’s in Austin. Where he had a supposed curfew of eleven that was little more than a requirement for him to show his student ID to get back into the dorms, C had parents who told her to be home before the streetlights came on. The reasons for her delays were always varied, but entirely plausible. Dinner had run long, her stepmother had made her do the dishes by hand, or the dogs had to be walked. X remembered those things, had seen them during the senior year he had spent in high school with her. He could imagine her standing over the sink or walking their miniature pug along the well-lit sidewalks of Dark Hawk Circle. He could even see her sitting at the table in their formal dining room, eyeing the clock that hung over the doorway leading to the kitchen. She’d be watching the minutes tick by, wondering how long he would wait for her.
His mind wandered, tried desperately to pull the fantasy in another direction. In this new and better version, he saw her drying the dishes with only the smallest amount of attention on the process, leaving them slightly damp in their stacks. Then she was announcing to her parents that she was done, her voice growing dim as she opened the door to the basement. Running down the stairs, she would start to smile, knowing that in a few minutes, she would be standing next to X, next to the boyfriend that had left her after graduation, had moved halfway across the country to go to college, and he would be as real as if he were standing there in the basement with her. Maybe the excitement and anticipation would be too much for her, X thought, and she would fumble with her rig, momentarily forget the way X had shown her to put it on.
A memory flashed in X’s head and suddenly he was standing at his desk in his old bedroom, collecting various pieces of electronic equipment into a pile. His words came out automatically, “Have you ever jacked in?”
“What’s that,” asked C. She was sitting on the bed on the other side of the large basement room, buttoning the last clasp on her striped white and blue shirt.
X thought about the question for a moment and decided that a simple demonstration would be sufficient. He held up a tangled mess of black plastic, reflective lenses, earbuds, and miscellaneous wires. From one side of the glasses, a small electrode swung freely, destined for a spot just over the spine on the back of the neck. “Do you have one of these?”
“No, I don’t think so. What is it?” She grabbed her bra from the floor where it had been discarded earlier and hid it in the folds of her jacket on the sofa. She joined X at his desk.
“This is a homebrew, vintage nineteen ninety-eight, BSC immersion rig.”
C took the contraption from X and held it up to her face. It fit awkwardly. “Am I supposed to see something?”
“I haven’t turned it on yet,” said X. “Here, sit down first.” He guided her into the chair. “Lean forward a little so I can stick this on.” X grabbed the dangling electrode and wet it with a lick of his finger. He placed it carefully between two raised bumps on C’s spine, letting his fingers linger on her neck an extra few seconds. “Alright,” he said, easing her into a reclining position, “I’m going to send you to one of my favorite constructs. It’s a small ice cream shop in Italy—”
“Is it going to show up on these glasses?”
“It’ll be a little more intense than that, but all you have to remember is that nothing can hurt you in the Net. There is no pain, got that? There will probably be a man behind a counter. He’s kind of big, but he’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. You’re only going in for a few seconds, so don’t try to take it all in at once. You need to ease into it.”
C explored the electrode with her fingers. “Are you sure this isn’t going to hurt?”
X smirked. “Well, naturally your first time might hurt a little.”
He threw the switch.
C’s mouth had been open slightly, intently drawing deep breaths to calm herself, but it snapped up tight as the images began pouring from the lenses, pale echoes of digital imagery seeping directly into her spine via the umbilical electrode. Her hands gripped the arms of the chair tensely, whitening at the knuckles.
He let her stay for all of seven seconds, long enough for him to notice that she was holding her breath, something she would have to unlearn if she ever wanted to stay in for an extended period of time. The whirring of the rig slowed as he depressed the switch, severing the feed.
As X removed the rig from her head, C let out the breath she had been holding as one long gust. Her body relaxed, melting into the chair. Her eyes blinked rapidly.
“That,” she began, her voice failing her.
“Breathe,” said X gently, half sitting on the desk, studying her.
C looked up at him. “I saw a man.”
“He was so real.” The memory flickered. “He said something to me, in Italian.”
X’s teeth showed through his smile. “He was probably just saying good morning.” He glanced at his wrist, tried to do the Italian time zone offset in his head, and then realized that it was just a simulated construct.
“That was so dope,” said C, wistfully. “Can I go back?”
X tapped his wrist. “Next time,” he promised. “Besides, I need to build you a proper rig, one fitted for that beautiful face of yours.”
C blushed slightly at the compliment. “Did you make yours?”
“Yeah,” he started, consciously trying to minimize the nerdcore language. “You can buy them, but the good ones are really expensive. It’s cheaper just to build from scratch, code your own OS, load it up with custom firewalls, and…” He trailed off.
“Yeah, I didn’t understand any of that.”
“Don’t worry,” said X, chuckling, “it doesn’t matter. It’ll take me a week or two, but we’ll get you your own rig. Then you’ll be able to jack in at home.”
“Can we jack in at the same time?”
“That’s the idea.” X took a step back as C rose from the chair, well within the border of his personal space.
“So we can hang out in there? And… do stuff?”
“As long as we’re both jacked in, we can do anything we want.”
“So,” she said, moving her face closer to his, “is that gonna make us jack buddies?”
X smiled at her, closed the gap between them to steal a kiss. He drew back, his lips less than an inch from hers. “At the very least.”
The sky pulsed red in the forest construct and a voice droned from nowhere, “C is calling.” X shook his head and watched the bedroom memory crumble in front of him. A small bud materialized in his ear and he tapped it quickly to activate it.
“Where are you?” The words came across the line as a tinny sound in his head, digitized but recognizable.
“I’m here,” he replied, “waiting.”
“I don’t see you.”
“I see you,” said X, looking off into the distance. In front of him, the bridge gave way to a snow-covered path that led away several feet, then broke off into two directions. Going to the left, he remembered, would take him back to Black Star Circle, to the row of townhouses that he had called home until last May. Going right would lead him to C’s house. Of course, the construct would end long before he even got out of the forest. C was there now, on the outskirts of the construct, stuck on a one-way path wondering where he was. Through the bare trees, he could just make her out, standing with her back to him. “Turn around,” he suggested.
“Oh,” said C, spying a flash of color through the mesh of trees.
The sound in X’s ear cut out and the earpiece dissolved in place. He listened to the sound of her boots crunching in the snow, tried to remember what other instruments had been playing that night. With a quick glance to the side, he brought water bubbling up through the rocks in the creek bed, water that began to flow off into the distance, gurgling all the way.
C took her steps slowly, leisurely, admiring the detail in the construct. She recognized the place, but it didn’t jibe with the Terrareal version. Out in the real world, it was the middle of October, hardly fall, and certainly not snowing. “Oh my God,” she said as she stepped onto the bridge, “how did you do all this?”
“Magic,” replied X, making a flourish with his hands. “Do you like it?”
Her face lit up, the twinkling snowflakes reflecting off her teeth. “I love it!” She moved to embrace him, but X held up a finger.
“That’s not how things went,” he said, smiling. He took C’s arm softly around the elbow and guided her to the end of the bridge. Her dark blue jacket had texture, with rough denim and pearly buttons. It even incorporated the melting snow as it landed. It was one of the most difficult texture programs that X had ever created, but the time and effort was worth it to see her wearing it.
X motioned with his hand to the empty bridge. “Watch this.” He moved behind C and wrapped his arms around her waist. He concentrated, let C feel his hot breath on her cheek as he recited the magic words in his mind.
In the middle of the bridge, two vertical lines appeared, gashes in the fabric of virtuality. They spread slowly, letting a blinding light into the construct. Below, two compacted footprints appeared in the snow, joined shortly thereafter by another slightly smaller set. C’s eyes marveled at the scene, watching the light dance in front of her, full of shifting hues and saturation, a sparkling rainbow of creation.
Two shapes came into being, perfect replicas of X and C, if not a few months younger. X’s hair was longer then, pushed back over his ears with the rest hidden under a backwards baseball cap. C’s clone wore a black coat with white-lined pockets. Her dark brown hair was down, covering her ears and protecting them from the cold that wasn’t biting. Snow began to dot her head.
“How is this possible,” asked C.
X opened his eyes, like waking from a pleasant dream. He squeezed C tighter and whispered quieting sounds in her ear.
The clones stood face to face, moving slowly, ramping up to the normal speed of life. They smiled, each reflecting the other’s facial expression. The new X moved his lips, but there was no sound. The C clone moved her lips in reply, but the gurgling stream below was the only noise in the construct.
C turned her head to X with a questioning look on her face.
“They can’t talk,” he explained. “They’re just virtual copies, not replays. They’re not intelligent, just programmed.” His voice turned softer. “No brain, no memories, nothing to go on.”
X’s clone began to move, walking in slow circles around his prey as she stood smiling at the center of the bridge.
“Are they textured,” asked C.
“Yours is, mine’s not. It’d be hard to do both.”
“Can I touch them?”
“Yeah, I guess.” He tried to make it sound like he had never considered the thought before.
C moved out of his embrace and approached the clones slowly. She didn’t notice X focusing, bringing the puppets to a standstill. She pulled her white gloves from her hands, lifted one to her clone’s face, and gasped quietly. It was textured, beautifully so. With her other hand, she felt her own cheek, felt the same warmth.
“This is wonderful,” said C, looking back at X. “You did this all from memory?”
“More or less,” replied X, a little embarrassed. “Computers can do a lot from one man’s memory.”
C took her clone’s arm, raised it in front of her, and removed the blue gloves. “Her fingers are just like mine.” The black sleeve fell back. “Jesus, she has goose bumps!”
X walked up beside her with a grin on his face. “Physically, she’s as real here as you are.”
C stepped in front of her reversed reflection and unzipped the black coat. She pushed it off the shoulders of her clone and exclaimed, “She has boobs!” Under the textured red turtleneck, C found a thin white undershirt. She examined her double’s breasts and then looked to her own chest in comparison. “Hers are bigger than mine.”
X chuckled, but stopped when he noticed C’s disapproving look. “What can I say? Maybe my memory just isn’t that good. I guess I should have spent more time with them.”
“Uh huh,” said C, no longer listening. Her eyes were walking the length of the clone’s body. “Does she,” she asked, hesitantly, “does she have a… you know? Is she complete?”
“Of course not,” he lied. “What am I, sick?”
She shrugged in response.
“So,” said X, trying to change the subject, “what are you in the mood for tonight?”
The smile faded from C’s face as she continued to look over her clone. It was a few moments before her eyes came back to X. “I can’t stay very long. I’m dogsitting for a lady down the street, so I have to get up really early tomorrow to go walk them.”
“Them? How many does she have?” Inside, X’s heart sank. He knew that when she said she couldn’t stay long, she meant she had just popped in to say goodnight. Feigning interest in her extracurricular activities was an automatic response, a simpler and less damaging way of dealing with his disappointment.
“Like three,” said C, “but they’re big.”
X drew her into his arms again, looked deep into her eyes to let her know that he was more interested in being close to her than anything else. After an empty pause, he said, “So I’ll see you tomorrow then? Perhaps somewhere a little warmer?”
“I like it here,” she replied, pressing against him, “it reminds me of the first time we kissed. That’s what they were doing, right? I remember you walking around me like that. All I could think was why doesn’t he just kiss me already?”
“Funny, I was thinking the same thing.”
C reached up and touched him on the nose. “See you tomorrow then.”
“Good night,” replied X, “sweet dreams.”
“What are you going to do for the rest of the night?”
X looked around at the construct. “I don’t know. It’s a big Net, I’m sure I’ll find something to do.”
C glanced at her clone. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. Promise?”
Again he lied, “Sure.”
“Then good night, I love you.”
“And I you,” he said as she pixilated in front of him, dissolving into the ether, bound for her homedir. In the space of two breaths, she would already be out of the Net.
X turned in place as the construct shimmered and pixilated. He walked aimlessly down the path, creating it on the fly as he moved deeper into the forest.