The interface room buzzed with giddy elation as Adam logged out. It hardly left room for his sadness as professors and researchers and guests exchanged notes. Adam tugged his temple pads off the wires, then slowly peeled them from his head. He sat there, looking at them for a moment, then wiped the crust from his eyes. Samualson was still deeply interfaced beside him, his chin resting on his hands. The pad of squiggly letters had grown over the last two hours. Adam wondered if his friend might have heard him yelling as he logged out to jot notes.
Someone bumped into the back of Adam’s chair, causing him to drop his temple pads. An apology was offered. Adam felt like killing the man. He felt like deleting something to make room in this world for Belatrix. He never felt anger like this, not this murderous rage. Such fury took more energy than he normally had. He suddenly felt a great reserve of it.
He stood and jostled his way through the joyousness. Another crowd mingled outside. The thick glasses and rows of pocketed pens meant the planetary crowd was wasting no time forming a new world. Their accretion disc would be like lover’s lips to Adam. One man’s heart was shattered to make whole dozens more. But these men could discuss their passion. There was no shame, no lie, nothing hidden. Adam remembered feeling that way about his own discoveries, once. He had had friends in the English department, people he drank coffee with, ate with. Now he had a girlfriend he’d never met and a love who never existed. He wasn’t yet forty and he might as well be dead.
He felt vaguely dead as he stumbled out the building and into the freshly fallen snow.
Adam should have gone home. Distantly, he knew that. He hadn’t slept in two nights. He went to the cafeteria instead and drank coffee. The taste and the heat of it felt far removed from him. He listened to the clamor from the kitchen, the rattle of plastic trays and clang of silverware and chatter from the night crew. He watched the cashier flip slowly through her romance novel, scratching her head through her hairnet now and then. Through frosted glass, he could see a veil of snow begin to descend again. He wondered if there would be enough to cancel his morning class. Somehow, he knew he wouldn’t be going even if they didn’t call it off. He was going to be sick that day. He already was sick that day.
He nursed his coffee until the last sip was cold, went to grab his backpack and realized he’d left it in the lab. He’d left his gloves in there as well. He had his jacket on, but couldn’t remember donning it. The analog clock on the wall let him know he’d been spacing out for hours. A group in lab coats sat in a booth, gesturing excitedly for the hour. Adam didn’t remember them coming in. He wondered if he’d slept. It would be nice if he had.
He went back out into the cold. The snow was the wet kind, sticking to his hair. Adam pulled his hood up and thought briefly about heading back to the lab, then realized he didn’t care about the backpack. He trudged up the walk toward the library, another of the sleepless buildings on campus. He knew them all well.
The policeman behind the night desk waved in recognition. Adam dipped his head even lower than it already felt. He sank into a chair by the periodicals and tried to sleep. He gave up as the sun peeked over the mountains and the students began to emerge from their caves.
The snow had ceased; it wasn’t enough to close campus. Adam knew he needed to call the department secretary, let her know he wouldn’t be coming to class, but even that required some semblance of motivation. He needed an excuse to not call in sick. He wasn’t well enough for even that.
The long path to his apartment was chewed up one step at a time. Up several walkways, around the education building, up, up, up more steps. He pushed down on his knees to force them to work. The snow to either side seemed inviting. Adam imagined spreading out on the wide blanket of it, letting the cold erode away the last of sensation. He would sleep forever and never wake, never feel. He willed himself to do it, could feel his insides moving that way, but the shell of him kept lumbering forward and up the steps, taking the rest of him home with it.
He could barely feel the keys in his numb fingers. He couldn’t tell the door was already unlocked as he worked it open. Adam was too far gone to notice the puddles on the linoleum as he crossed the foyer and into his living room. It was several moments, even, before he realized someone was sitting at his computer.
The woman spun around, a worried frown breaking into a smile, then back down again. “Hello, Adam.”
He didn’t know this woman. He tried to remember if his landlord had a wife. Why would she be on his computer? Adam needed sleep.
The woman rose from the chair and took a step toward him. Adam was too tired to recoil. If she hadn’t been standing by his computer, the name wouldn’t have registered.
She nodded. “Are you okay?” She touched her own face while gazing at Adam’s. She looked worried.
“I haven’t slept,” Adam said. “What are you doing here?” He was simply curious. He strangely didn’t care, or couldn’t quite manage it.
Amanda looked around the apartment. Adam saw the clutter through her eyes. He noticed the tall piles of debris, however, had been raked flat, like fall leaves pushed back to their former state. A dim awareness told him Amanda had been going through his things. He almost cared.
“I thought you had an early class,” she said.
“But why?” He shook his head, clearing the cobwebs. “You’ve been here before?”
“I’m sorry about this.” She waved her hands at the room. “But I couldn’t wait. I couldn’t.”
Adam held up his hands. “I need sleep,” he said. “I can’t handle this right now. I can’t even begin to think about it. I’ve been up three days straight.”
He staggered toward the bedroom. He didn’t care that his online girlfriend was in his house. It almost felt natural. Inevitable. Some part of him knew she was prettier than he’d imagined, but even that couldn’t douse the growing surety that he no longer wanted her a part of his life.
Amanda followed after him. “Adam, I need your writings.”
“My what?” He mumbled it to himself as he reached the bedroom door.
“Your writings. All of them. I need them now.”
Adam leaned on the knob. His head was throbbing. He shook it, and the entire planet seemed to wobble around him. “Need them now.”
“Right now. I’m sorry to have to ask, but I can’t find them.”
Adam turned away from the door and scanned the room. He glanced at the old computer. “They’re not there.” He waved at his head. “They’re in here.”
Amanda visibly wilted. She looked at her watch. “How many haiku haven’t I heard?”
“I can’t do this,” Adam said. “I need you to leave. You shouldn’t have come here.”
She didn’t look all that upset to hear this. She took a step toward him.
“Did you hear about Virginia Tech?” she asked him.
He remembered something about Virginia Tech. He couldn’t quite place it.
“Their servers,” Amanda said.
Adam tried to snap his fingers and failed. “Yeah,” he said.
“They’ve already duped the data from M.I.T. They have a dozen worlds already up and running this morning. Dozens more are coming online at universities all over the world.” Amanda frowned. “Did you know your South Korea went online with their own world last week?”
“My South Korea?” Adam fell sideways against the doorjamb and remained propped there. He was going to fall asleep standing up.
“I can’t keep taking them down, Adam.” Amanda looked grave. “It takes too much time. More are going up than I can take down. My boss won’t have any more of it, not for the trickle coming out of this place.” She waved her hands around her.
Adam pressed his palms to his temples. One girlfriend was deleted, the other was crazy. He slid down the wall until his ass hit the carpet. His head rested in his hands.
“I need anything you can give me,” Amanda said. He heard her cross the room, could feel her standing above him. “Three or four haiku. Anything. Please, I wish we had more time.”
“Tomorrow,” Adam said. “Please leave me alone.”
A hand clamped down on his wrist. “There is no tomorrow,” Amanda hissed. He looked up at her. “Are you listening to me? I know what you do, who you are. I’m a plagiarist, too. You know how this works; I don’t have time to explain it to you.” Amanda pointed toward his window. “You’ve got hours left. Your legacy is all that matters. Don’t you understand?” She shook her head. “Of course you don’t. You have no idea what you mean on my world. You don’t know what I’ve discovered.”
Amanda stepped away from him. Adam felt bile rise up in his throat. Her words were settling like snow upon his consciousness, forming something.
“What are you saying?” Adam asked. He looked at his palms, flexed his fingers.
“Please,” she said. She backed away from him and looked out the window. The blinds were up. Adam never had the blinds up. “You have to say it to me. I can’t copy it straight out of here. You know how it works.”
“This is real,” Adam told himself. He rubbed his fingers together. It was as real as the sims.
It was as real as the sims.
“I’m sorry,” Amanda said, not for the first time. “I really am. I like you. I— I feel maybe more than that for you.” She bit her lip and looked away. “This isn’t easy for me—”
“This is real,” Adam repeated. He stood up and took a step toward Amanda. Outside, the sun was peeking over the mountains, the clear sky dazzling against the snow. The brightness of it lanced into Adam’s brain.
“Say whatever comes to mind,” Amanda said. “You’ll be remembered for it.”
“I’ll be remembered,” he whispered.
But Belatrix won’t be, he realized. It was what he’d wanted to tell her, but couldn’t find the words. She was real as long as he’d known her, would remain real as long as he recalled her. Was he not real? Was this a trick? If he went, and the memory of her with him, then all was lost. His mind spun with the layers and layers and layers. Filster had started simming worlds, so it had to be deleted. What about the worlds on Filster when that happened? The people there thought they were real. What were they doing when they were deleted? How few were told in advance?
Adam looked out over campus, at the amazing view he’d seen maybe once or twice before.
“How long?” he asked. He thought about the hundreds of worlds simmed on Earth. How many had worlds simming in them? Or in them, one more layer deep? How many Earths were there on Amanda’s world? Could this be real?
“Not very,” she said.
“What if you’re not real,” Adam said. He pressed his hand against the frosted glass and felt the cold beyond.
“I think about that a lot.”
Adam wanted her to not be real. He wanted company in that sudden loneliness that had overtaken him. He wanted to hurt her in some way.
“These things happen so fast,” she said. “They reach a tipping point. Believe me, I did everything I could—”
“Make a copy.” Adam turned to her. “Make a copy of me. Or delete the farms.” He looked back over the roofs of the department buildings. “I can pull the plug on these. I can. I know where the backup relays are—”
Amanda placed a hand on his shoulder. “Adam, it’s been decided much higher up than me. I’ve already begged on your behalf.”
“On my behalf?” He wiped tears from his cheeks. “What do you mean? I’m nothing.”
Amanda frowned. Her eyes were following his tears as they streamed down. She seemed reluctant to touch him any further.
“That’s not true,” she said. She bit her lip again. “We are drowning in stuff to consume, just like you. Just like all the words that are simmed and the worlds they sim. But I found your poetry, this syllabic form found nowhere else, this simplicity, this elegance constrained. I’ve become an expert on it, mining the ancient hills for every nugget, combing the scrolls, going back to its roots—but you are the one.”
Adam sobbed. His head spun from the night’s tragedy and the day’s disbelief. Amanda touched his cheek.
“The hours we spend pouring over a single poem of yours—” Amanda sighed. “They are the closest we get to silence on my world. The closest to a pause for thought. We sip on your works, Adam Griffey, to keep from drowning in all else.”
“That can’t be true,” he said. The sobs and tears felt so real.
“The end is coming any moment now,” Amanda said. “Please don’t take them with you. Please.”
Adam swiped at his cheeks. He was about to speak when there was a great rumble outside. It seemed to emanate from the very belly of the Earth. Amanda looked past him to the window. Adam turned. A plume of gray burst up through the milky white. Mountains, long dormant, erupted. A cone of black mixed with bright red, fading as it coursed through the cold air. The ground spit dirt. The world shook. Amanda pleaded.
The world that wasn’t
became simply that once more
and all was gray ash.