lights too bright
severe intracranial swelling
high white blood cell level
head hurts so bad
patient is unconscious
1. Zombie Princess
So that’s me—lying here in some secret facility in a glass coffin with tubes and kabelsalat sticking out of me. You might have a hard time telling, but I’m only sixteen—yep, that’s too-young-to-die sixteen, beauty-queen sixteen, really-just-a-kid sixteen, daddy’s-little-princess sixteen. And perhaps that’s where I should start explaining my predicament and suspicions. If I die, I want someone to go to jail for murder. My evil stepmother, perhaps? The evil Ms. Claudia is high on my list of suspects.
But allow me to start at the beginning—I have plenty of time now. The days are long and full of dread and nights are no better—I no longer sleep. And there’s not much for me to do. I went from daddy’s-little-princess to zombie princess in a matter of a few days. Or was it hours? Mind you, I’m trying to keep my spirits up about all of it, but that’s probably because I’m so ignorant of my own prognosis. Although by the looks of my dad—he’s been crying, crying—and the lack of evil eyes Ms. Claudia usually throws my way, my life expectancy isn’t too good. But I digress—easy to do when there’s nothing to keep my mind from wandering…
So back to the beginning. My mom died when I was just a toddler—yep I’m practically an orphan. Like in all good Disney fairy tales, the heroine loses her parents (one or two, depending on how the writers feel that day) early in life. My dad raised me. It was a good arrangement. Happy childhood and all that—ballet classes with pink tutus, ice cream cones in the park, shopping trips in New York City, vacations in London, Rome, Paris—you know, the usual.
We met Claudia in Paris a year ago. I told my dad he should have bought an expensive red car or something to deal with his mid-life crisis, but he picked her—twenty-two years his junior, Ms. Evil Queen, a fako-artist.
And now I’m here, in some lab. Sorry, as I said, my mind wanders. I don’t see things in a linear way anymore. My life just sort of jumps at me randomly. I wonder what drugs they have me on? Oh, what would I give for the Café des 2 Moulins’ Venti, sugar-free, non-fat, vanilla soy, double shot, decaf, no foam, extra hot, peppermint white chocolate mocha with light whip and extra syrup… Okay, enough of that. I’ll try to stick to some semblance of a story for you.
Claudia Elisabeth von Reichenstein—pretentious, isn’t it? I wonder if it’s even her real name? Ms. Claudia—she hates it when I call her that, she prefers mom, can you believe it? She’s almost six feet tall, a Nordic blond-bombshell of epic proportions. Ms. Claudia stands out. I think her real job is to look good. And it worked. She had my dad wrapped around her finger in under a week. What can I say? Men are easy prey for women like that. And I know she trapped quite a few. Her first husband, for instance, was Dr. Tom Blake. He won an Apple Design Award when he was just a junior in high school. He developed some sort of cool molecule augmented with a computer code. Or was it computer code embedded into a molecule’s DNA? Cyber biology has never been my thing. The point of his invention was to make it easier for people with physical disabilities to communicate with the outside world and live fuller lives…in cyberspace.
Tom got scholarships to every university known to man and tons of publicity. And in every news or publicity photo, there was Ms. Claudia, standing next to this gangly nerd. They got married about a year and a million photo-ops after the award ceremony—as soon as Tom was of legal age to do so. Subtle, huh? Somehow, she managed to take Tom’s genius and turn it into her own personal PR machine. The Evil One is not without talent, and social engineering is her specialty.
Ms. Claudia left Tom when he didn’t propel her to fame as fast as she had hoped he would. I don’t think the poor guy understands what happened to this day. Now, he’s a twenty-nine-year-old molecular cyber-physicist—or was that physical cyber-moleculist?—with a ten-year-old son, Bartholomew Blake. She did give him that, and a nasty divorce. At least she didn’t keep Tom for too long—in and out, that’s her motto.
Bartholomew is a cool kid. I call him Doc—he’s more like his dad than his mom. He and his munchkin friends have been very helpful.
I’m getting ahead of myself. But I do want to say that Tom and Doc have been the best part of my dad’s second marriage experiment. And if I am to survive my current zombie affliction, it will be because those guys did something.
I know they’ve been here. I can feel it. Smell it? My senses are so muddled now. And my thoughts are like overcooked spaghetti—mushy, confused, and lacking any structure. I think I’ll just give you a chronology of the events that put me here, in my crystal sarcophagus.
2. Twelve Days Ago
I had a date at a local cyber arcade. All the cool kids at my school were going on virtual dates now—no need to get parental permission, just plug in and go. It wasn’t my first time at the arcade. I wouldn’t trust some guy from my school to take me to weird places without conducting a careful reconnaissance first.
So I took Doc. Like I said, he’s a cool kid, and he worships me. Whenever Ms. Claudia gets stuck with him for the weekend, she drops him off in my room like he’s some sort of useless pet or something. The first time, I really resented it. I have my own life, you know. My dad wants to date an idiot and I get stuck babysitting her cub? No, thank you! But Doc was patient with me, and I grew to like him. He’s nothing like his mother, and I was starting to believe I was seeing a reflection of my own future. So we bonded, and I learned that he has some useful skills.
Doc knew all about the cyber arcade. He was even doing some hacking work for a few of the vendors to supplement the meager allowance Ms. Claudia gave him. So when this dude from my history class asked me out on a date, I turned to Doc for help. I wanted to check the place out, you know? I’d been to a few playground rides out there with my dad, so I knew something, but not much. And while I assumed there was no physical danger in cyberspace, I wanted to come across as worldly, not some naive inexperienced schoolgirl. The dude was older than me, and probably took dozens of girls to their first cyber arcade dates. I needed to be cool about it. So Doc took me before the date.
Our initial plan was to buy me a custom-fit virtual body, an avatar. When one first visits the cyber world, one is given a rental avatar—a generic humanoid body of the sex and age of one’s choice. It works sort of like shoe rental at a real-world bowling alley. But I feel it’s always better to own your own shoes. Just picture it. I know you agree with me. That loaner cyber body works for about two hours then you’re simply zapped home. I’ve tried those out with Dad. It works as expected—eyes, fingers, toes, the works… all on a limited scale, perfect for a little kid or a cyber noob. I wanted something permanent, uniquely mine. I know some geeks at my school who choose the generic avatars so they don’t have to be bothered picking out something good…or perhaps they think that a fresh-off-the-shelf avatar is the perfect match? I don’t really care. I’m going to buy my avatar and take my time doing it, too. Well, my full two hours, then it’s pumpkin time.
Doc and I stopped at the “Body Beautiful” mall—the sacred cyber shopping grounds of all my classmates. I had to drag him there. He is one of those above it all kind of kids—he uses a black panther for his avatar. He didn’t get his avatar at the mall. But I don’t want to be a panther, as cool as that is. I want an avatar that would work well on a date with a boy. A human boy, not a large cat. So we wandered the mall, looking at the displays and different options. And I have to say it was dismal, selection wise. The more I looked, the more ridiculous the Barbie and Ken-like options seemed.
When I finally gave up on the mall, Doc took me out and down a few side streets, where the more discerning customers acquire their cyber bodies and upgrades, where it is also a lot more expensive to buy an avatar. I spent my secret birthday hoard on a green-skinned, orange-haired lizard princess number—cool and still dateable. I have exceptional flexibility and my skin and hair tones can morph into any background color or pattern I choose, like a chameleon. I can completely blend into a graffiti covered wall, for example—passers-by can read messages right through my squamose skin and hardly notice my presence. Doc recommended this adaptive camouflage feature. I gotta give him credit for that. And, of course, my avatar’s figure is exceptional—why skimp on the mandatory minimums? But I also splurged on a rhythm upgrade—my body and hair can instantly move to any beat, no matter how complicated. And it doesn’t even have to be music. The rhythm app actively seeks out acoustic patterns in my immediate environment and accents any gesture or even a slight micro-movement, like a flash of an eyebrow, to perfectly match the stochastic sound progression. Doc and I had a blast playing with the feature until I finally bought it. It makes me into a super dancer, grace in motion. Beautiful. Sensuous. Too bad it isn’t transferrable into my real life. Although Doc said that over time, avatar traits could seep into the real world. One can learn grace, apparently, even via virtual experience. Good thing too, since I’m a total klutz.
I bought upgrades until my money ran out. I got Aroma-Hue—a synesthetic simulant where smells are matched to colors. It works particularly well with my chameleon body type. I added the Snake Hair app—my hair can choose to move independently of my body or the environmental conditions. I couldn’t afford the single strand autonomous version, but even at the low-level fidelity, where hairs bunched together into packets of hundreds per dreadlock, it looks fantastic. There’s a Medusa quality to it. A high-fidelity version could, of course, arrange itself into any hairstyle, each hair placed perfectly, and execute any specified dance movement—dancing hair origami. But that was way out of my price range. Despite an imperfect coif, my avatar is still awesome. And Doc even bought me shape-shifting eyes! I was way over budget, but the kid treated me. I won’t forget that. If I live, I’ll pay him back with interest someday.
After we squared away my appearance, it was time to do a bit of exploring. Just like anywhere, there are good hoods and bad ones. I needed to know where the school kids hung out, where the real bad elements lurked, and where the edge is—you know, The Edge. Back then, I believed that The Edge was where everything cool was happening. Dorks stayed away from The Edge. Trouble lay beyond, on The Far Cinct. I didn’t want trouble, but I also wanted to be cool. Doc showed me the boundaries, which was very useful. It’s not like there’s an actual line demarcation labeled The Edge Starts Here.
At the cyber arcade, I moved around like I knew things. Doc, of course, actually knew things—I had to fake it. But I looked good, and people are willing to ignore a lot of awkwardness if the person being awkward is attractive. I was like honey or flypaper, making all eyes stick on me. That’s why we got my avatar body first—that and because I had to, of course. Doc had been using the same appearance since he was like five or something. He’s smart like that. His big, slick, black panther has powerful moves. And Doc has this ability to suck the light out of any space, to create a personal shade to hide in. That’s very useful because I can become as dark as any shade too and hide inside it. This sucking light trick isn’t anything anyone could buy, either. Doc programmed it himself. He’s unique in this way as well.
So we skulked near The Edge for a while. Weirdly ugly avatars sold illegal stuff in the distance. Passes to adult pleasure palaces, snippets of codes that robbed enhancements from unsuspecting cyberspace tourists, augmented body parts designed for deviant sex acts—all of it was right there beyond the edge. (Doc had to explain things to me, embarrassing!) “Everything is for sale beyond The Edge, out in The Far Cinct,” Doc said. And some of this illegal stuff filters into the sunny and safe world of our local cyber arcade.
Here, the law rules and authorities monitor transactions. But The Far Cinct is a free for all. I really wanted to go exploring over there, beyond The Edge. But I couldn’t take a ten-year-old with me, though, and frankly, I was too much of a goody-two-shoes to go to The Far Cinct by myself. The edge of The Edge was plenty exciting for a noob like me. And I was secretly planning on dragging my date over here and telling him all of the crazy goings on over there. Doc told me that he’d sneaked in a few times—there’s more money to be made over there. That’s how he was able to buy me all these cool enhancements.
After we were done scaring ourselves silly, we went and played in the virtual amusement parks. All of the movie previews were free, of course, and we could shoot, fly, jump, and extreme-sport ourselves silly until our real bodies demanded nourishment. I had a blast with Doc. It was too bad Ms. Claudia had to take him away and give him back to his dad, Dr. Tom Blake. I would gladly go avataring with Doc anytime.
3. Nine Days Ago
That was the night. The dude called me after dinner, and I told Dad that I wasn’t feeling well and locked myself in my bedroom. That’s a huge advantage of virtual dating—neither of our parents knew we were doing it. Doc knew, but he was the only one. I didn’t even tell my girlfriends at school. I was planning on springing it on them—all mature like—the following morning, laced with all of the juicy details.
I told Dude I’d meet him next to the “What Lies Down Below” movie experience. It was one of those horror smash up flicks so popular with boys at school right now. Not my thing, but I wanted to project a no-fear persona for this. Plus, my amazing avatar would rock against all the contrast and fast color changes. And it did. I leaned on the wall, waiting for Dude to show up. He didn’t see me at first, but when he did, I swear I blew his mind. His little off-the-shelf body, dressed in virtual leathers and furs with distressed metal spikes and buckles, was nothing by comparison, just an ordinary guy-thinks-it’s-badass avatar. I figured he thought he’d impress me with his macho-ness, but next to me, he was just a boy playing dress up. Thank you, Doc!
I dilated my eyes into six-pointed stars and winked at him. When he was able to walk and talk at the same time again, he managed to say something about how good I looked. I allowed my irises to explode in a kaleidoscope of colors—a little thing Doc sent me earlier. I didn’t even look to see Dude’s reaction. Just waited for him to recover.
We enjoyed a ride, then he took me to this sweetchious rave palace with loud music and color vortex effects. He probably planned to crush me with overstimulation, but it just made my lizard avatar look better and better. At the end, they did this hypno-tornado thing in tune with my chameleon display and snaky hair waving. I was the dancing queen of the night…not so hard with my rhythm app upgrade. But still cool.
The date was uneventful after that. Dude “took” me home. We said goodnight. Dude didn’t even have the guts to ask me on another date until the following day at school. I felt a borderline eudaimonia all day. Look it up…
4. Six Days Ago
Ms. Claudia deigned to notice me. After we ate dinner, she asked me how I was doing and whether I’ve ever been to the cyber arcade. That was just a bit too close to be a coincidence. I didn’t know what Doc told her, so I just gave a non-committal answer—yeah, sure, probably, no big deal. She told me that her modeling company was scouting locally for some talent, a girl or a nekama (a boy pretending—they didn’t care about real world gender in cyberspace). Yeah, whatever. But would I be interested? I told her that Dad wouldn’t really approve of me doing stuff like that and I had a lot of homework. But Ms. Claudia said I was missing out. That there was this sensation the other night at one of her clubs and she had seen the footage. But nobody knew who it was, and it would be lovely if I could help her out and ask about it at school. She even promised to take me to the cyber arcade and show me around as an incentive. I just smiled a lot and went to my room as soon as I could. I had a date with Dude that evening but now it was complicated.
I canceled on him that night and got ahold of Doc. I needed to know if he’d spilled the beans. I shouldn’t have accused him like that. Doc would never rat me out. But he did say that he heard his mom speaking to someone about me—the Lizard Princess cool avatar me.
So what was I supposed to do? Not go back? Never date? Lose my amazing avatar body? No, no, and no!
But I couldn’t hang out at the happy arcade zone, not while the Evil One was looking for me. I needed to cross over The Edge—Ms. Claudia wouldn’t follow me there. There was no reason for her to. The Far Cinct wasn’t a place where dancing queens hung out, I reasoned.
I told Doc my plan and he told me I was crazy—nice girls like me don’t go beyond The Edge. But what about avatars like me? Where do they go? Wherever they want, that’s where. So we argued, and Doc finally relented and said that he would write some code for me. For protection. I was good with that.
5. Three Days Ago
Doc sent me this file named Mirror-Mirror.app. He said it was a communication tool. He would be on one side, and I would be on the other—Mirror-Mirror. Get it? He wouldn’t monitor or spy on me and Dude, but he would stand by to pull me out if I got into trouble. One minute, I’d be there, and the next, I’d be on his side of the mirror, someplace safe, in querencia.
You obviously understand that to leave cyberspace, one usually has to go to a predefined exit. These exits are monitored for malware and such. But they are also spread out. If you’re not next to one and you get in trouble, it could be bad. Since Ms. Claudia had her spies looking for me, I had to have a way to get out in a hurry. And my winking out of existence would just make me more exotic to Dude. I figured he wouldn’t tell on me—there’s more power in knowing a secret than in telling it.
So, armed with Mirror-Mirror, I locked myself in my bedroom again and went to meet Dude right on The Edge, away from the regular dating scene. The anticipation was exhilarating. My lizard body was pulsing with excitement—emotions and enhancements are evidently tightly linked.
Dude tried to drag me back to that rave palace, La Chingada. Apparently, he got mucho macho points for bringing me the other night. My awesomeness clearly had some transference property. Too bad. I didn’t really want to share, not that way. I almost agreed to go back so I could reclaim the glory for myself, but The Evil One… Not worth it. And I really wanted to explore The Edge. For all his avatar lameness, Dude was still quite a cyber specimen and I had a feeling no one would mess with us. And I had Doc…
We tried to be casual, getting closer and closer to The Edge. As we got close, the world around us shifted in curious ways. The first thing I noticed was the dearth of other school kids—the giggling hordes were simply gone. And the soundscape tone shifted—there were more, deeper, disjointed notes and strange wispy melodies. The boom boom boom of the rave scene receded. There was still constant background music, but nothing I recognized. It was exciting. My rhythm app was responding to the slightest changes in our environment by driving my lizard scales into ever more intense colors and pattern shifting. I was even astonishing myself.
No one stopped us as we approached; no one questioned what we were doing there at The Edge. What, in my mind, was an impenetrable barrier, in reality, was nothing. Nothing at all. It was like we were just going for a uitwaaien, just a stroll.
Deeper inside The Edge, we came across our first cyber ghost. Doc explained to me that ghosts were manifestations of programmed entities—just someone’s code written to interact with avatars of real people. They weren’t people at all. They had minimum body specs, just enough to carry a message or execute an action. They looked ephemeral, floaty, transparent, and, for the most part, lacking facial features. I guess that’s why people called them ghosts. Doc warned me to stay away from them. Some carried infections and could pass them to unsuspecting avatars. He wasn’t very specific how close or what kinds of infections, but I made Dude take a wide detour to avoid one specter floating a bit too close to us. I guess Dude was scared of them too—he wasn’t making fun of me for being so cautious.
The Edge was a somber place. Lots of blacks and grays. The surfaces were non-reflective and had a light-sucking quality like Doc’s panther avatar. I could see where he got the idea. But farther on, beyond The Edge, things perked up again. There was a jumble of light and color and a beat. More chaotic than a rave, but still a beat. I could feel the distant rumble in my chest, my rhythm app responded to it. It was strange because I wouldn’t have thought my avatar body would resonate so much to irregular—almost completely arrhythmic—sounds, but it did. None of the girls from school described anything like this when they talked about their dates at the cyber arcade. So either I had a better-made avatar (a given), and/or there were more layers of programming here, enhancing the space for its users. I checked Dude out, hoping to see if he was feeling it, but he was too good at hiding all feelings. He puffed up to occupy the maximum space his avatar could fill out and tried to look fierce and dangerous. I thought it was a good idea. I even went so far as sliding my arm under his for support and encouragement…his or mine, it didn’t matter.
The cyber arcade neighborhood was well laid out, like a grid. The streets of The Edge weren’t. They twisted and turned so there was no way to see more than a few yards ahead, no matter where you were. It would have been easy to get lost without the map app telling us exactly where we were relative to the arcade. Far. We were quite far in by then.
I made my legs suck up the pavement pattern when we reached one. It was a strange mixture of old-timey cobblestones and cut metal with rivets. These two styles seemed to be in a constant battle for dominance. I could see the pattern boundaries shifting. It was like steampunk sensibilities duking it out with Victoriana. And my legs reflected the battle… or, perhaps, spurred it on. It was quite pretty, I thought. The top part of me was still a bright lizard green. I didn’t like the dull noir of the surrounding buildings.
“I think we should go back,” Dude said, perhaps not for the first time. I wasn’t really paying attention to him.
I tried to ignore Dude and act all cool, but I started to feel out of sorts too. It was like all joy was sucked out of us along with the color. It was a real effort to keep my green up. And Dude was straining with his silver and gold buckles and stuff.
“Don’t you want to see what’s on the other side?” I asked innocently and even smiled.
The problem was that “the other side,” The Far Cinct, was just not getting any closer. We could see the sex shops and demonic drug-enhanced parties, but we couldn’t get there. The map app wasn’t very helpful, either. It kept showing that we were just around the corner from all the action. But that corner was perpetually out of sight.
“I think we need a key or a password or something,” Dude said. “We should have been there by now.”
I hadn’t considered that The Far Cinct might be restricted. Doc never said anything. But then, I told Doc that we’d just hang out on our side of The Edge. But The Edge was a dud. There was nothing really here. What gives? It looked so much more interesting from the arcade. The grass is always greener and all that.
“I can’t really hang out at the arcade,” I finally admitted to Dude. “My stepmom… you know, she’s a witch.”
“Oh,” he said. “We could go to a private party. Invitation only kind of thing. Your stepmom wouldn’t be able to get in there,” he promised. But I think he would have said anything at that point to get me to go back.
Ms. Evil would actually have no problems getting in anywhere she wanted—that was her superpower. I thought it but didn’t say so out loud. Besides, what kind of private party? The girls at school talked about boys doing strange sex things with their avatars at some private parties. I didn’t want to do that. It’s one thing to look sexy and exciting—that was educational—but I wouldn’t participate in anything perverted.
“I don’t know…” I started. But he yanked my arm, still intertwined with his, and pulled me backward hard. I think I yelled. I wasn’t expecting Dude to get rough with me. I twisted and kicked, and he dropped me on the ground and ran. I gathered myself and got up. By then, Dude was long gone—I couldn’t even see him anymore.
I was considering getting all pissed at him, but then I looked up and saw a large group of ghosts floating my way. They were all around me, closing in.
“Hey there,” I said, raising my arms in supplication. “I’m just visiting. You know, nothing confrontational or anything.”
They kept coming at me. I wasn’t sure they heard me. Were code phantoms even capable of hearing? I didn’t know! Doc said they had limited senses.
I stepped back. And again. And again. The streets are narrow in The Edge. I had to hit a wall pretty fast… but I didn’t. I just walked backwards, herded by ghosts. This went on for a while. I called Dude for help several times, but he never replied to me. Jerk! And then I tripped and fell. My body absorbed the pattern of the pavement. No, it was more like I just became part of the pavement. And I lay there, sprawled out, watching a fright of ghosts slide over and past me.
After a while, I picked myself up and ran to the arcade side and to the closest cyber exit.
Doc contacted me in the middle of that night. No, I wasn’t sleeping. I couldn’t. I was still shaken by my experience. It wasn’t that anything bad really happened to me—other than figuring out that Dude was as worthless as a chocolate fireguard—but I was so unsettled. I couldn’t sleep.
“Jude,” Doc buzzed my direct cyber connection. I gave him my personal contact after deciding that we would be close. “Jude? Are you asleep?”
“No. What’s up, Doc?”
“Why didn’t you use Mirror-Mirror?”
Frankly, I totally forgot about it. Duh! I could have ditched those ghosts at any time. That was dumb. Oh well.
“I didn’t think of it. Sorry, Doc,” I said.
“Do you still have it?” he asked.
It was a strange question—Mirror-Mirror was just a bit of code. Why wouldn’t I have it? It was not something you could misplace or drop somewhere by accident. “Sure,” I said.
“Check, will you?”
He had me nervous. I rifled through my personal files on the cyber terminal. My lizard avatar with all of the add-on apps— including the cool eyes—was there, and so was my personal journal—empty, but it was there if I ever felt like writing something. But the Mirror-Mirror—conveniently shaped like an ornate hand mirror—files were missing. How could that be? My personal files were encryption-protected by my own brain frequency. I had to take action to lose them. And I hadn’t.
“They aren’t here.” I was irritated.
“That’s what I thought,” Doc said. I sensed a bit of panic in his voice then. And I was feeling something close to it, too. My files should have been there. Should have!
“Where did it go?” I asked.
“Someone took it,” he said.
“I don’t know. But I felt it being taken,” he said. “I had Mirror-Mirror keyed to just you and me, Jude. There was no way… no way…” Doc sounded confused, upset.
“Did someone else try to use it?” I asked.
“I think so. I think someone was tracking you. Keeping you in The Edge.” That made sense. “And they took away your exit, too,” Doc added.
“Did you see what I did to get away from the ghosts?”
“Ghosts? No. I tried to look but I was blocked. I was only able to monitor you for a few turns into The Edge. Then you were gone from my side of Mirror-Mirror.”
“Did Dude make it back okay?” I was uneasy. For the first time that evening, I was actually worried about the guy and not just angry with him for running away and leaving me to the ghosts.
“Oh, he’s fine,” Doc said.
And then, just like that, I was back to feeling angry again. Jerk. All that chivalrous stuff was just for show, like the stupid silver buckles and fake fur. Dude was a coward.
“Did you come in contact with anyone out there?” Doc asked.
“No, not really. There were ghosts, but we… I managed to stay away. And you just said that you’d lost me early on.” There was no point in telling Doc about my scary encounter now—the ghouls never touched me. I was almost positive.
“Well, someone managed to steal your set of Mirror-Mirror.”
“Hmm. Can you link up to my set still? Are the Mirrors still paired like that?”
“Yes.” He didn’t elaborate.
“And did you?”
“I’m scared to,” Doc said. He sounded like the ten-year-old boy he really was, not a giant, light-sucking black panther.
“Then don’t do it,” I said. “Just get rid of your set. Dump it.”
“I can’t,” he said. “It doesn’t work like that.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “It’s just a code—”
“I’ve plugged it in.” Doc said in a rush. “I wanted to be right there for you. Just in case, you know? So I plugged in. I’m sorry, Jude. I know you told me not to spy on you. But I wasn’t sure I could be quick enough to get you out if something bad happened. So I plugged in. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, Jude.” He certainly sounded very sorry. If I wasn’t so unnerved by this whole evening, I would have felt sorry for him. But I still needed to know what was going on.
“I still don’t know what you mean, Doc,” I said in as calm a voice as I could muster at the time—so not very. “And I forgive you for whatever.” It’s not like anything worth spying on happened with Dude. Dude was a dud. “Just explain what you’re talking about. What does it mean that you’ve plugged it in?”
“It means I was there, with you. As a panther. I walked behind you until you disappeared. I was plugged into Mirror-Mirror. But I couldn’t hear you or anything. So please don’t be upset that way—”
“I’m not upset that way, Doc. I just don’t understand. You were there?”
“And you plugged in…”
“But I didn’t plug into my side of the Mirror-Mirror.”
“Okay. But then something happened?”
“Yes. You obviously didn’t have the paired Mirror anymore, because someone else was plugged into it.”
I took a moment to digest this. “Do you know who, Doc?”
“No. I was too scared to look. I tried to pull out, but they had me.”
“Are you home now?” I was suddenly scared for him. “I mean like home-home. You aren’t still wandering out there as a panther, are you?”
“I can’t get back, Jude. They snagged me. And I can’t get out.” He was almost crying now. He was such a little kid.
“Okay, okay, okay.” I tried to think it through. It was around three-thirty in the morning. It was a school night. Doc was stuck in cyberspace, in the bad part of cyberspace. “I’ll go back and get you,” I said.
“You’d do that for me?” he asked.
“Of course! You are officially my baby stepbrother. Of course I’d go back for you. Now, where are you, and how do I get to you?”
“I’m hiding on The Far Cinct. I can blend in, you know.”
“I know. I can too.”
“The chameleon thing. It’s not as good as your light-sucking trick, but it’s good enough.”
“So I’ll go back and get you, and we’ll return together,” I said. I ran into my private bathroom, a safe place to plug in, and then grabbed a glass of water and stuffed a cracker in my mouth. I was starving and thirsty and tired and cranky and… and really frightened. Doc’s mood rubbed off on me. How was I going to get him out? He was far more capable in cyberspace than I was. “How will I find you?” I asked with my mouth full of wet cracker.
“I’ll show you a dot on the map once you get close,” he said.
“Why not now?”
“Just come for me,” he pleaded. I figured he was worried that someone might hack him and get to him before I could.
I plugged in and was back at our local cyber arcade. There were still a few delinquents hanging out. Their parents probably had no idea that their kids weren’t really tucked in safe and sound in their little warm beds. Well, neither was I.
I ran towards The Edge. I tried to take the same path Dude and I took earlier that evening. I figured if Doc followed us, he would be someplace there, along our route. Unfortunately, I passed right by La Chingada, the rave club. And it was still hopping. They spotted me before I could take evasive action.
“Hey, Lizard Girl!” a giant Godzilla bouncer stationed at the door called to me. His voice was booming, space-clearing. Instantly, dozens of people were staring at me. There was a wave of recognition, and I felt a tug, a compulsion to go inside.
That pull flipped me out enough to snap out of it. I bolted, moving like a green blur against the neon of the party zone. I could sense people chasing me. I zigged into dark alley. It wasn’t The Edge yet, but it had that feel. I don’t know what made me think of it, but I made my coloring black and white and fuzzed out. I tried to chameleon myself into a ghost. It wasn’t a good impression, but out here in the dark shadows, I thought it might be good enough to fool my pursuers. I stood in the gloom and waited.
A small group of ravers turned down my dingy alley. And stopped. So fast that the guys in front almost fell over as the ones in the rear ran smack into them. But they didn’t go any farther down the alley. I made myself go “transparent” by sucking up the background, leaving only a slight outline of mercurial grayness. That did it—they stumbled away, pushing and screaming for their buddies to “move it, go go go.” I just kept doing my ghosting trick. A few more ravers looked into the alley, but quickly decided to look for me elsewhere. I listened to the noise receding—the screaming and calling for Lizard Princess—farther and farther away from me. I noticed that I was trembling—here and back home in my bathroom. My shivering probably helped sell my wraith illusion. I decided to keep ghosting all the way to The Edge.
Keeping to buildings’ shades and shadows, I maneuvered into the dark monochrome streets of The Edge. I had to move slowly, running would have given me away—ghosts never seemed to be in a hurry. Soon, the streets were sucking up light and color, and I found that it was actually easier to stay ghost-like than to keep up the green lizard color scheme. I didn’t realize how much energy my avatar took when I was here last, just a few short hours ago.
I floated down the narrow streets. Come on, Doc, show me where you are, I thought loudly. But the kid wouldn’t highlight the map with his position. So I kept going, farther and deeper into The Edge.
I saw several real ghosts a few streets away from me, visible only for a moment or two as they passed through an intersection. And that was just fine by me. I’d had enough ghosts for one night. For a lifetime, really.
“Cat eyes.” I barely heard Doc’s voice. Cat eyes? What did he mean? Was he asking me to draw something? Should I pattern my skin with cat eyes? I was too tired for riddles. And just as I was losing to frustration, I got it—make my eyes into cat eyes. Of course! I squinted and triggered the eye software Doc gave me. A quick scroll through options and I found the CatEyes feature. Nice.
I didn’t have a mirror, but my eyes should have looked like big yellow fluorescent plates with vertical slits—not the right look for a ghost. I almost changed them back to a dull gray. I glanced around—the streets were still empty—so I chanced keeping the cat eyes. I focused inward then noticed a small red smudge on the map app. Doc!
He was beyond The Edge, not far from the Enhancements Try-n-Buy Emporium he pointed out earlier. In fact, it might have been the same building. I thought of my shape-shifting eyes and Doc’s panther avatar—it made sense that he would moonlight for an avatar-enhancements monger.
I noted my own location and a path that would take me to Doc. I also made myself memorize the local area on the map. Then I restored my eyes to dull gray, wanting to keep my ghostly disguise for as long as possible.
I floated slowly in Doc’s direction. Street after street, and I wasn’t getting closer. I had to stop and check Doc’s location several times. Each time, his hiding place was just as far away as when I started. It didn’t make any Euclidian sense. What did Dude say? There was something keeping us… me from crossing over The Edge. What? Nothing was asking me for a password. There were no obvious checkpoints. No sentries. No login daemons. Aside from a few ghosts, there was no one out here but me.
Doc never mentioned a barrier. He seemed to be able to move back and forth through The Edge into The Far Cinct. He was hiding out there now, beyond whatever was stopping me from entering. Did Doc have an explicit permission and I didn’t? I couldn’t figure it out. And it was getting late. Or early. It felt like hours had passed. I even stopped seeing ghosts. They must have retired for the night… or was it morning? I was going to be late for school…
“Doc?” I tried to call him a few times. But my calls were barely above a whisper, and he never answered. Either he was too scared to respond or he was unable to. Both were bad. I had a strong feeling of waldeinsamkeit—being alone in a dark wood… except these weren’t woods, and I wasn’t as alone as I would have liked.
While it was difficult to maintain hue in The Edge, it was also hard to suck up patterns off the pavement. I’d been doing my transparent camo thing, chameleoning for a long time, and I could sense that I was about to lose it. I edged into a dark corner when I felt my legs and torso breaking the pattern. I became solid… well, I was solid all along, and now I looked it too. But I didn’t get my color back, I was mostly shades of gray with maybe a hint of green and a touch of orange in my hair. My hair also lost the snaky upgrade and just hung loosely on my shoulders. It was like all of my enhancements drained out of me, and my avatar turned a drab, factory gray. At any other time, I would have been disappointed—I’d invested so much into my avatar—but I simply didn’t have the energy to care just then.
I looked around. The alley was still empty. I no longer looked like a ghost, but I also didn’t look interesting, just a drab gray scarecrow. I moved along the walls, blending in more or less, pretending to belong. I certainly wasn’t looking for attention—I kept telling myself to keep cool and to keep walking towards Doc. And the amazing thing was that I started to make progress. The drab me was getting somewhere, where the exotic me couldn’t move an inch. It was like I found a current that carried me forward, but I could only float if the weight of my enhancements was off. It seemed easy now.