Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

The Plagiarist: Chapter 5

The interface room was packed. Adam had rarely seen it so full during a night shift. Usually they would find a lone professor or technician in the room, working late. Adam preferred it like that, preferred it more when he had the place to himself. He worried his facial twitches or some uttered word would give away his romantic trysts. He’d never gleaned anything from Samualson that made Adam think he suspected, but still he worried. They made fun of people who jacked in to jack off. It was no secret lots of them did. Porn had nothing on virtual whores who didn’t even know they were virtual. Tenure had been lost over particularly exotic sprees. Adam justified it because he was in love, or thought he was.

“Damn,” Samualson said, seeing the crowd. “Is there a rally tonight?” He glanced over at the scheduling board where groups signed out clusters of terminals for meetings. One of the bigger groups on campus was the cycling club, a habit more loathsome than jerking off in Adam’s opinion. These people actually simmed bicycle riding. They spent their time on foreign worlds, riding bikes, their brains flooded with endorphins from simulated exhaustion. Adam could always sense when he was interfacing right after a cyclist. The seat would remain warm for hours, the stench of sleep sweat in the air. It was disgusting. The fact that most of them were grossly overweight didn’t help.

“There’s two over in that corner,” Samualson said.

Adam flipped his backpack around and dug for his temple patches. He followed his friend through the busy room.

“Whatcha going after tonight?” Samualson asked. He sat down in front of one of the terminals and squeezed gel from a tube and onto his finger. “That elusive Shakespeare?”

Adam laughed. “I’ve given up on him.” He plugged his temple patches into a dangling cord. “There’ll never be another.”

“That children’s series you picked up last year seems to be doing pretty well.” He dabbed gel onto his temples and the base of his neck, checking his placement in the small circular mirror mounted on an arm from the wall. Adam did the same; they looked like performers getting ready for a show. It was an apt illusion.

“That series is drivel,” Adam said. He smiled at his friend’s reflection. “Don’t get me wrong, the royalties are good, but I’d rather have the hours back I spent memorizing them.”

“Or the brain cells.”

Both men laughed as they began pressing the interface pads into the dabs of gel. Adam did his temples first. He tried to ignore the blue crescents under his eyes. Sleep had become as virtual, as ephemeral, as his work.

“So whatcha after, then?” Samualson wouldn’t leave the line of questioning alone. The machines at their feet hummed to life, leaving thick seconds to fill with banter.

“I’m dabbling in art, actually.” He glanced at Samualson and hoped the shame of the lie would pass for the shame of the admission.

“Art?” He chuckled softly as he pressed the wide hookup against the back of his neck, right on his brain stem. “Good luck with that.”

“It’s all luck,” Adam admitted, though he was thinking of something else. “Are you still working on that same protein?”

Samualson flipped open a pad of paper and touched a pen to his tongue, a nervous tic more than a functional act. The man on the other side of him twitched, his head leaping up from his folded arms then crashing back down again. “Yup,” Samualson said. He slid pages up the spiralbound pad to find his place. Adam saw line after line of four letters repeated: CTTGACATGCA… It seemed like mind-numbing work: Poring over a virtual microscope, or cyclotron, or whatever biologists used—memorizing a few hundred letters—jacking out—writing them down—jacking back in. It gave Adam a headache just thinking about it. Transcribe a few letters the wrong way and the cure for liver cancer instead turns a poor kid into a glow stick. If Adam got a word or two wrong, nobody knew or cared. The difference between the hard and soft sciences was nothing compared to the chasm between him and either of them.

The machine at his feet beeped, letting Adam know he had a connection to the school’s server farm.


Adam smiled at the thought of worlds springing up from plowed rows of dirt, cloudlike shrouds unwrapping to reveal blue and spiral-green planets of life. The word farm was a holdover from the first cluster of computers used to create entire worlds: the server farms of Pixar, who used these naturally-grown worlds as backdrop for feature films. The idea was a bust, the worlds never cooperating with the creative direction of the film, but like much good science, one man’s failure was another’s discovery. Pixar’s world wasn’t compliant, but other scientists were looking for worlds so detailed and spontaneous that they could observe the alien from home.

It was the third great agricultural revolution. Farms, in just the last decade, began sprouting all over. Government owned, university owned, even a few private ones. The flood of research from these farms drowned out all else, and never abated. A theory would be published in the morning and overturned by mid-afternoon. Planetary formation and plate tectonics; punctuated equilibrium and mass extinctions; arsenic-based lifeforms and exoskeletons. If you weren’t jacked in, you weren’t playing.

Science was exciting again. It moved to the forefront. Everyone wanted the red blisters on their temples from too much virtual time. Universities and even high schools changed tack overnight, catering to the surge in computer scientists and math majors. The hard stuff dominated the soft sciences and the liberal arts clamored for a claw-hold on campus. This scientific renaissance lasted but three years. And then there was Dylan Pyle to restore order.

Adam’s temples began to heat up, he could feel the tingling on the back of his neck like a fear response. His thoughts turned to Dylan Pyle as the interface took hold.

Eight years ago, nobody had ever heard of Dylan, nor should they have ever. A biology research assistant with dim prospects, Dylan transformed overnight into the greatest living author of all time. His debut novel, Whispering to Ghosts, won every award it qualified for, and some that were marginal. He followed it up with a crime novel that re-wrote all the rules, then a young adult tome as successful as it was massive. The only thing more surprising than this young man’s mix of prolificacy and talent was his refusal to take his writing career seriously. “I dabble,” he would say in rare interviews. “I’m a scribbler, nothing more.” The reticence to accept his talent, the reclusiveness, the desire to stay on as a humble research assistant, to pour himself into his lab work, it all served to heighten his fame. The glass bubble around him survived three years of awe and praise. It shattered when a fellow researcher discovered Dylan’s secret: the boy had a single talent, one of near-photographic memory. He was found in one of his worlds, reading a novel in a park, committing the prose to memory. Selecting from the top writers of several worlds, he translated their genius into his own, word for word, colon for colon.

Adam felt a zap at the base of his skull, then the electric zippers pull over his crown, letting his skull seem to split in half. He shivered with the out of body experience, the sense of self floating out of the top of his head before it was sucked back into his gut. He grunted, heard an utterance by Samualson get cut off by the transfer, and then he was gone. He was joining the legions of plagiarists who had followed in Dylan Pyle’s wake, soaring down to artificial worlds, scrapping them dry of their great art before the scientists were done with them.

There should have been an uproar, Adam thought. There should have been controversy. Outrage. Those were normal, human responses to having been duped. But a stronger impulse seized the popular imagination: the ability to be great overnight. It was a new type of lottery, one where fame and talent were won rather than simple money. The heyday of the sciences came to a sudden close. Of course, discoveries were still made, real progress was won in astrophysics, biology, and psychology. But suddenly, the science wings and computer science centers were overrun with talentless hipsters who thought they had an eye for genius. Courses on memorization were invented. Adderall became the pill of choice. Server farms groaned under the stress. Temples were seared. Tubes of gel were rolled until they were dry.

The Anti-Renaissance ensued. As Adam logged into his account, he shivered at the memory of it. Hell, he was still living it. The outpouring of stuff, of crap, was so intense, nothing could be seen nor heard. The variety and quantity were too much. It was a repeat of what YouFilm did to cinema, what Auto Tune did to the music industry, what genetic splicing did to sports. The bar wasn’t raised so much as buried under the pile of crap; and offline talent, actual talent, rebelled. Farms were attacked, physically, by bands of marginal musicians and writers. The avant garde became the bomb-chuckers. And meanwhile, consumers pulled away from it all, paralyzed by the sudden confusion of choice and novelty.

The universe of simmed worlds appeared before Adam. Here is where he would have, a year ago, agonized over the choices. It had been a long time since he’d chosen. He was more an automaton than the sims. He moved his virtual self, shifted his awareness, went to choose the planet where his loved one resided—

And then he saw the deletion notice.