Adam patted his pockets as he left his apartment, making sure he had his keys. It was winter; the days were short. A blanket of black hung over the campus. A blanket of white covered the ground. He shut the apartment door too hard, rattling the windows. Of late, all doors closed hard for Griffey, or not at all. They were slammed or left wanting. It was about motor control, and Griffey was losing his. He looked back to the window to make sure it was okay and saw his reflection. The scruff on his jaw measured the long nights, nights such as these when he should sleep but couldn’t. He remained awake, a diurnal creature, but it was the opposite of day.
A name not meant to be whispered or shortened was both. Adam turned to find his friend standing at the bottom of his apartment’s stoop, freshly falling snow gathering on his knit cap like stars falling from the blanket overhead.
It was a better name for truncating, but Griffey refused.
“Let’s go,” Samualson said.
Griffey shrugged his bookbag over his shoulder and felt suddenly like a student again. He could do this: transform, become something different. From tadpole to grad student—something in-between—and now a creature that could slither back and forth across the divide. He stole after Samualson, his bag jouncing on his shoulders, through the dark campus lit sporadically by blue rape lights and a sliver of a waning moon. Ahead of him, keys jangled in one of Samualson’s pockets. One of those keys was key. The liberal arts access hours were no longer enough for Adam, they hadn’t been for a while.
“Hey, did you hear?” Samualson’s voice streamed back through the snow.
“Did I hear?” Adam hurried to catch up, crunching through the snow along the edge of the path. “I hear tons. I hear too much. What’s up?”
“Virginia Tech.” Samualson turned his head as a gust of wind brought cold and a flurry of blown snow. “Their farm got razed.”
“Every server. Deleted. Formatted.”
“You’re shittin’ me.” Adam tucked his scarf into his collar. “When? Last night? Today?” He couldn’t believe he hadn’t heard.
Samualson groped in a noisy pocket of his puffy jacket and drew out an orb of light, the glow of his phone dazzling the snow. “Just now.” He flashed the screen at Adam. “Read about it on the walk over. They think the writer’s guild might be responsible, but again, nobody’s taking credit.”
Adam shook his head. “That’s three farms razed this month.”
“Yeah.” They turned a corner around the administration building, entering its lee and escaping the bitter wind. “So three farms went online this month and three others got hosed. That’s pretty weird.”
Adam’s exhalations billowed in the air in front of him, then trailed off behind. He pulled his scarf over his mouth. “How many worlds was Tech simming?” His voice was muffled and wet against his nose.
“Sixteen. Four Terran and the rest Xeno. I work with a guy who had remote access to some of them. He’s gonna be crushed.”
“Sixteen worlds. Fuck me, that’s a lot to lose.” Adam glanced up at the sliver of a moon left over campus.
“They’re saying something close to eighty billion sentients are gone. No telling how many lesser critters.”
“Or works of art,” Adam reminded him.
Samualson shrugged and stuffed his phone away. His hands were pale blue from the cold. He dug in another pocket and pulled a glove out, then wiggled it on. “That’s your domain,” he said.
They shuffled in near silence across the campus. Adam could hear the tinkle of invisible sleet hitting the crust of snow around him. It was a small campus, which kept the moonlit and dotted-blue jaunts short, but it was a hilly campus, prone to gasping and wheezing. The university was small by necessity, nestled down and crowded in by three rising slopes, like two bosoms and a great belly, all perched on the thin sternum of a high valley. It was a place that caught snow and gathered high-flying and lost souls. Griffey considered that as they reached the Madison Mitchell Jr. Computer Science building. He stamped snow off his boots while Samualson fumbled through his ring of keys. Adam watched a snowflake fall on the back of his glove, the white standing out on the black for a moment before the edges of the fragile crystalline structure folded up into a drop of water. The clarity of the transformation was stunning.
“Look how real all this is,” he said aloud, not meaning to.
Samualson turned and studied his friend, a shiny key pinched between the padded fingers of his glove.
“You feeling okay? You look like shit, man.”
Adam glanced up from the falling, melting stars. “How does it feel this real when we’re in there?” He jerked his head up at the building. Samualson turned back to the lock, inserted the key and opened the door, which squealed on frozen hinges.
“I take it you don’t dream much.”
Adam laughed and stomped more snow off his boots. “I don’t sleep much anymore.”
“Well if you slept more, you’d dream more, and you’d see how good your brain is at making something of nothing.” He held the door open for Adam, who shuffled through with a dusting of snow. “You know there’s a spot in the center of your vision where you can’t see?”
“Where the retina goes through.” Adam nodded. He didn’t see the connection.
“Your brain fills that in perfectly.” The door clanged shut behind them. “I was talking to a professor in the bio department about this a month ago. You know what he said? He said roughly thirty percent of everything we see is hallucination. It’s our brain smoothing things over so the world’s not so pixelated.” Samualson nodded down the hallway. “That’s how everything in there feels just as real as this, as real as our dreams.” He patted Adam on the back, letting loose an avalanche of clinging snow. “Seriously, man, you’ve gotta get some sleep. Why don’t you take a night or two off. These worlds aren’t going anywhere.”
“That’s what Virginia Tech thought.”
Samualson laughed. “Ours are a pittance compared to that.”
They strolled the dark and empty hallways papered in hasty assignments and jokes written in binary. The two old friends fell silent, but Griffey imagined he could hear the roar of billions of tiny whispers, or at least the busy little arms of quantum hard drives click-clacking dutifully back and forth, waving over entire worlds like gods, moving and doing things. Behind them, a trail of puddles, of melting snow, flowed through the hallway.