Adam arrived late to find his morning class already full. He shut the door behind him—too loudly, everything too loudly of late—and strolled along the phalanx of his seated freshmen. The kids sat like powered down robots, gazing ahead. This forever perplexed Adam, ever since he started teaching. The cliché from films was a more raucous student body: balled paper flying; kids sitting on desks, swinging feet; boys with bravado and girls with batting lashes twisting in their seats. In all his years of teaching, he’d never seen such a scene, not once. It was always the blank stares, the lethargy, the sense among them that the first who moved or uttered a word would be eaten by the others—or worse, be made unpopular.
Adam dumped a stack of papers on his desk and made a show of arranging them. The thick silence of the room annoyed him, but he allowed it to fester. He resented his eight o’clock class. He knew they felt the same way, but what were they missing? More sleep? Escape from their hangovers? His preferred life was daily truncated by a day job he wished he didn’t need. He thought this as he scanned their faces, all a weird mix of wide eyes and boredom. If it weren’t for the access to the University server farms and their sims, he wouldn’t put up with the kids at all. Well, and the health care. The health care was nice.
He shuffled papers around. He tried to glean from graded assignments which class this was. He had nothing planned for the day. He rarely did.
They hypocrisy of Adam’s existence, the layers and layers of hypocrisy, were always right at the surface. He was dead tired from doing what, just a handful of years ago, he mocked kids for: playing video games. The greater irony was that the school’s server farms had been built out of tens of thousands of their PlayBoXes wired together. Not that Adam understood the technical aspects, just the humiliating truth that a lifetime of pointing out the great waste of videogames and game systems, and now the life he preferred to live was deep inside the enemy’s gates. He considered the literature they were discussing in class, the literature that had formerly been his life. How did it compare to exploring actual worlds? To living among aliens? To soaring around binary stars and watching them spit flares into one another? And how was his hobby that different from the previous generation who wore headphones instead of temple jacks and slayed dragons and shagged elves instead of doing “research?”
“Does somebody want to pass these out?” Adam held forth a stack of writing assignments with checks on them. He hadn’t actually taken the time to read them, just verified that they existed. A student he particularly loathed, seated to Adam’s left, was the first to volunteer. Adam rubbed his palms over his eyes, his fingers through his unwashed hair. The similarity with video games wasn’t his greatest hypocrisy, not by far. If any of his students plagiarized, they would be flunked. They knew that from the start, and it was a temptation they had to avoid. Adam, meanwhile, had the opposite problem. His job was to steal words, but lately he hadn’t even been able to summon the motivation to do that. While papers, marked red with ink, fluttered their way through the room, an old conversation with Adam’s mom came back to him, as clear as if the phone were still pressed to his head—
“I’m just so proud of you honey!”
“Thanks, Mom.” Adam held the phone in front of his face, the mouthpiece under his chin, the rest of the phone slanted dangerously away. The ear-splitting scream of his mother’s voice was partly dampened by the extra distance it had to travel, and she could still hear him.
“My own son, an author.” Adam could picture her gingerly lifting each page and laying it to rest on the previous one as she read. “Cindy in my bridge club bought a copy. We’re racing each other to the end— But not so fast I can’t enjoy it.”
“That’s great, Mom, but you do know—”
“I really love the Marsha character. When she tells Reginold to get out of his own house—”
“I love that part. Yes, Dear?”
“You’re not telling people that I wrote the book are you?” Adam nuzzled the phone against his ear and pulled on the silence. He could hear his mother breathing on the other end, winded from excitement. He didn’t call as often as he should.
“Your name is on the cover,” she said. “Adam Griffey. And you dedicated it to your mom. That’s me.”
“Mom, I discovered the book. We’ve talked about this.”
“But this is your book.” The pain in her voice was gut wrenching.
“Yes, and the royalties are mine, and I get a lot of credit with some people for discovering it, but it wasn’t written by me. Please don’t tell Cindy or any of your other friends that I wrote the book.”
“So who wrote it?” Her voice had gone quiet. Adam could hear her flipping through pages, could almost picture her weathered fingers quivering as she did so. He had told her about this. He remembered telling her about this.
“Mom, do you remember the worlds I told you about? The simulated ones where people here at the university study the weather, and the way the plates of the crust move, and how stars and moons form and all that?”
“The video games?”
Adam sighed. He looked from a pile of dirty laundry to a moldy mound of stacked plastic rising out of the sink. He had none of the time for this.
“It’s similar to video games, Mom, but a lot more complex and a lot more useful. People do real good research in there. That cure for testicular cancer came from one of these worlds.”
“They cure cancer there?”
Adam was teaching his mother to perform brain surgery over the phone. Keep your index finger extended along the back of the scalpel, like so. But a little bent. You’ve got the cordless drill charged up?
“They do a lot of things on these worlds, Ma. It’s a lot like this world. People get up and drive to work. It rains. Things get wet. They erect buildings, and the windows need washing after a while. And people write books and plays and poetry and what-not.”
“And someone on this world wrote this book?”
“And you just took it?”
“Ma, you know these people aren’t real, right?”
“So they don’t mind? Do you tell them?”
“No we don’t—” Adam thought about it. They would mind, wouldn’t they? “Mom, we can’t exactly tell them that they aren’t real. That we created them and we really like their work so we’re gonna share it in the real world.”
“Why not?” His mom groaned. “I thought I raised you two better.”
Adam slapped his palm on his chest. “It isn’t up to me, Ma! Besides, I don’t think you could convince them of what you’re saying. They think they’re real. You’d be locked up in a padded room until you logged off.”
“Forget it, Ma.”
“What am I supposed to tell the ladies at Bingo?”
“That I’m really good at what I do. Tell them that I can memorize fifteen pages in a single session, word for word. Tell them there’s no way we can copy stuff straight out of the quantum drives, Mom. Say that. Tell them “quantum drives.” Tell them that there’s hundreds of thousands of people trying to do what I do, to find that one great work in a sea of tripe, and most of them can’t. Tell your friends that I’m really good at seeing the works of art among the piles of stories. Tell them that I’ll be the one to find the next Shakespeare, Mom.”
“But you won’t tell him—”
“This new Shakespeare. You’ll memorize his stuff, and you won’t tell him.”
Adam cradled the phone to his ear. He tangled his fingers up in his hair. “He wouldn’t believe me, Ma, even if I did. These people aren’t real. It’s like a video game, just like you said.”
“So Marsha and Reginold—”
“Those are characters in a book written by a virtual person.” Adam said it slowly.
“But they’re in love with each other.”
He sighed. “I suppose they are. In their own weird way.”
“How did a video game write about that?”
“Hey, Ma? I gotta go. I’ve got a class in an hour.”
“Does your girlfriend, does Amanda know this is what you do?”
“Yeah,” Adam lied.
“And she’s okay with it?”
“Of course.” He rubbed his temples.
“When am I going to meet her?”
Not before I do, Adam thought.
“Soon,” he said.
“Okay. Well, I still like the book.”
“Even if you stole it.”