Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Chapter 25

Caleb gritted his teeth as he held the sliding door open with his back and attempted to pull a folded deck chair from the balcony into the apartment. The stupid chair fought him the whole way, threatening to fly open if he didn’t maintain a vice grip on both sides.

“What are you doing?” Caleb’s mom said——suddenly in the living room——giving him a sidelong look.

Caleb froze with the chair halfway through the threshold. “Oh. Um, I’m going to hang out on the roof.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Thought a chair would be good,” he continued. “These are comfortable.” He grunted and adjusted his hands to maintain his hold on it.

An agonizing moment passed as she continued to stare. His mind raced to create excuses to any questions she might have. A drop of sweat rolled down the bridge of his nose.

His mom shrugged. “Just remember to bring it back down when you’re done.”

“Of course. Not a problem.”

She continued on her way into the kitchen.

Caleb and the chair fell into the living room together. He lay there for a time——the unfolded chair perched over him like a tent——until his frustration and embarrassment dissipated. But getting the awkwardly-shaped thing through the front door of the apartment also proved a giant pain. After that he had to carry it down the hall, into the elevator, and out onto the roof. It took three times longer than he ever imagined it could.

When he finally reached his destination and set the chair in front of Marcos’ new ninja node, he collapsed into it with a sigh. A pleasant wind helped him cool off as he watched the clouds drift quickly overhead.

He should have brought something to drink. And snacks. He wasn’t about to go all the way back down after that, though. He’d have to do without.

Caleb eventually got up, fished the USB cable from his pocket, and went to the node to connect his phone. The cable didn’t reach so he pulled the chair closer. He cringed as the metal legs scraped across the concrete.

His phone showed a spinning wheel as it connected. The wheel quickly disappeared and dark smoke roiled across the screen. Caleb reclined in the deck chair and brought up the phone’s keyboard.

Hello.

No immediate response appeared. It occurred to Caleb that Marcos’ new node might actually be a dud. Then something came through the smoke.

Caleb?

Yes. You remember me. How are you?

The strings tremble out of my reach.

You can take data in but can’t send anything out. If Yin Jiāng tracks you back here, we’d be in big trouble. Soon though, we’ll make a new node and transfer you, then you can connect like normal.

Would having full internet access even matter to her? It must. His mother had grounded him for a whole summer once. The only time she let him out of the house was to help her go shopping or to bring out the garbage. He couldn’t even have any friends over. Caleb’s only socialization came through technology, and it mostly consisted of Marcos telling him stories of the cool things he’d been up to. By the end of the summer Caleb had nearly lost it.

Hopefully Lucidity didn’t respond to isolation the same way. Could an AI go crazy? That was a scary thought.

Lucidity hadn’t responded. Caleb typed something else into his phone.

I’m sorry. We will get you transferred as soon as possible.

Thank you, Caleb.

That was oddly straightforward. Most of Lucidity’s messages sounded like riddles or excerpts of poetry. Sometimes he couldn’t even tell if she completely understood him. She obviously realized he was trying to help her now, though, and that made him smile. He typed again, feeling kind of silly.

Do you want to talk about anything?

“Are you safe?” said the voice of a young girl through his phone’s speaker.

Caleb dropped his phone. He scrambled to retrieve it.

“Hello?” Caleb asked. “Who was that?”

“It is I, Lucidity.”

Caleb stared at the phone, slack-jawed. She’d taken it literally when he asked if she wanted to talk.

“You can speak?”

“I can. Are you safe?”

The voice didn’t sound electronic at all. If he didn’t know better, Caleb could’ve sworn he was having conversation with a real little girl on the other line. But why did she sound so young? Well, she was young—— technically less than a year old——but couldn’t she have synthesized any voice she wanted? He had to admit though, the voice fit her well.

“Safe?” Caleb asked. “Yeah, of course. Why?”

“You help me. But the shadow grows angry. His tentacles are long.”

“You mean Obscurity, or whatever his name is? Yeah, that guy is a pain. Seems like he’s everywhere.”

Lucidity fell silent. Even the smoke disappeared from his phone.

“Lucidity? Are you still there?”

Nothing.

Caleb tried typing into his phone.

Lucidity? What happened?

An alert appeared on the screen.

- CONNECTION ENDED -

“Caleb!” Marcos called from behind him, standing at the elevator doors. Caleb waved him over.

“Talking to Lucidity?” Marcos asked when he got closer. “I was just coming up to check on her.”

“Yeah, but the connection died. Can you check it?”

“Sure.” He set his backpack down next to Caleb’s chair and moved to the node. “Looks like it’s still plugged in.”

Caleb rolled his eyes. “Yes, it’s plugged in.”

“Let me see your phone.”

Caleb handed it to him.

“Hmm,” Marcos said, flicking through the menus. “There’s no error. The connection was shut off on her side.”

“She did it on purpose? Why?”

“Did you to piss her off?”

“No. I mean, I don’t think so. She just warned me about that Yin Jiāng hacker.”

“Speaking of that jerk, did you ever get your phone working again?”

Caleb shook his head. “I used my mom’s phone to call the carrier like you said, but they weren’t very helpful. Everything’s going wrong for me lately.”

“What about Leana? You saw her earlier today, right?”

Caleb couldn’t hide the grin that came to his face. He shrugged. “Okay, maybe not everything is terrible.” Just hearing her name made him happy. Not very long ago, it would have had the opposite effect.

“Ooh,” Marcos said, rubbing his hands together. “Just remembered, I’ve got something to show you.” He went to his backpack and reached inside.

“Is this really the time? We need to figure out what happened with Lucidity.”

“This could help, actually.” Marcos pulled out a black device that looked like a big pair of sunglasses.

“Is that a VR headset?” Caleb asked. They were popular several years ago, but Caleb hadn’t seen one in a while.

“Yup. Almost forgot I had this baby. Found it in the back of my closet.”

“How is that going to help us?”

“Well, I figured it might be a better way to interact with Lucidity than just plugging my phone in and typing. We could interact in 3D. Maybe to her it would feel like I was there with her. Instead of me now, you can try it.”

Caleb wasn’t completely convinced, but Marcos’ thoughtfulness impressed him.

“Might as well try,” Caleb said.

“Sweet. Put this on.” He handed Caleb the headset and pulled a 3D camera from his backpack to set up on the floor.

Caleb donned the inactive headset and reached to tighten the straps on the back of his head.

“Hold your hands out,” Marcos told him.

Caleb felt Marcos put two haptic gloves over his fingers. Caleb had used them a few times in the past and found them a little creepy. They would detect his hand movements and give feedback for anything he touched in the simulation.

“All right,” Marcos said, “everything is set up. You ready?”

“Sure. Just stop me before I walk off the roof.”

“Don’t worry, I got you. You’re connected now. Use the button on the right side of the headset to turn it on.”

Caleb pushed the button and nothing seemed to change. Everything still looked black.

“Marcos, I think this headset is busted.”

“What do you mean? It’s live.”

“I don’t see anything.” Just after Caleb said it though, the blackness moved. It shifted in front of him, slightly illuminated by something. He realized that smoke surrounded him, smoke so dark that he could barely tell it was there at all. He instinctively raised his hands in front of his face. The limbs he saw were not his own. They belonged to a generic avatar, gray and angular. The hands followed his own movements but with just enough lag to feel odd.

Something glowing moved nearby, but he couldn’t make out its shape in the haze.

“Hello?” Caleb asked as stepped forward.

A person stood in front of him, albeit a small one. She was a young girl, wearing such a dark black dress that it seemed to bleed into the surrounding smoke. But her skin glowed soft white. Long, dark, unruly hair covered half of her face. Large eyes peered through at him, hesitant, fearful.

“Lucidity?”

She nodded slowly.

Caleb stepped closer and offered his hand. “It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”

She reached out to take it. He could feel her thin fingers through the haptic gloves.

“Don’t let him get me,” Lucidity said weakly.

“Who? Obscurity? Why are you so afraid of him?”

“He’s the same.”

“The same as you? You mean he’s an AI?”

She nodded. “But he’s bigger. He’s stronger.” Tears welled in Lucidity’s eyes. “Don’t let him get me, Caleb. Please.”

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