The neon bully and his friends laughed. One of them reached for Sarah and held her arms at her sides so she couldn’t click out. Bryan lunged forward, tried to operate his jagged anatomy—and all of the sudden he was frozen. Sarah was saying something, but her voice was on a delay, the sample-rate suddenly plummeting into a static soup—
—the connection cut out.
Bryan switched off his inputs and found himself back in his bedroom, the musty darkness aglow with light from his computer screen, an unsatisfied tremor in his gut. He was sweating.
Lowlife bastards!he thought, attempting unsuccessfully to log back on. At first he thought it was his computer, a program error or system lockup caused by the neon bully’s malware, but everything was working, SimpliCITY was still running, though he was stuck at the options screen. After a moment’s trial-and-error, he realized his Internet connection was down.
It felt funny to be back in his own body. For the past month—morning, afternoon, and night—he’d been Ominous; now he was merely Bryan, small and scrawny. His skin seemed not to fit, he had to reach farther for the inputs on his toes, his clothes seemed two sizes too large . . . he felt like an intruder in his own home.
Out in the hallway, George was already dressed and drawing on his jacket. “I’m going to check the receiver outside.”
Leah had nothing else better to do, and Bryan was, with each passing minute, increasingly desperate to facilitate the revival of his Internet connection. Along with his mother, Bryan followed George downstairs and outside to the promenade, where the other tenants (all of them, it seemed!) had converged in a sort of spontaneous fair.
“Hang tight,” George said. He patted Bryan’s shoulder and headed over to where the receiver antenna sat, a towering monolith aimed at the overcast sky. There were several other men and women standing close together, scratching their heads and furrowing their brows in perplexity over the situation. George said something and then hopped onto the receiver platform, started examining the equipment for physical anomalies.
Bryan took uncertain steps between clusters of men and women, young and old, people he’d been vaguely aware of as his neighbors but whose physicality in this instance set butterflies to his stomach. There were a few children clinging to the pant-legs or skirt tails of their parents. No adolescents. Everyone seemed on edge.
He drew up beside one small group. A forty-something man (Bryan was almost sure his name was Goudie) was taking long, luxurious puffs from a strong-smelling Perfecxion as he blew scented smoke and righteous epiphanies into the chilled evening air:
“It’s all part of their plan: Knock out our Internet connection, get us out on the streets waiting around for the repair guys to fix things, and BAM! A car full of martyrs comes careening around the corner, a shuttle flies overhead spewing out anthrax dust across the entire city—an escaped convict straps some explosives to his chest and extinguishes half a million lives in the blink of an eye. The whole point of the Net is safety, the privilege of being able to interact with the world without having to put our necks on the line just to buy groceries. Office slaves like us, we’re supposed to be a step above all the rest of the degenerates, but then something like today’s outage happens . . . we might as well be blue-collars.”
An older man, clad in faux-leather and denim, chuckled and said, “That’s why we’re the beta-testers. Catch all the bugs now so that there are no surprises when they roll the final system out. The shit’s gotta feed an entire city for God’s sake.”
“Rubbish,” Goudie grunted. “They have redundancies, backups—have you ever been to the mainframe node? A mile-wide crater of clustered computers, connected to their own power supply and running day and night. It’s impossible to knock them out, be it by power outages, acts of God, or jihad terrorists! No, the government does this on purpose. A social test or something. See how we react. It may be part of the quality assurance process, but I say it’s all hooey. We work our asses off five days a week—we pay for the service, beta or not, so why shouldn’t we get it? find some other test group to do this psychological crap.”
The old man chuckled again; it was an empty, hollow noise. “I tell you one thing: I’d much rather be inside right now, with a nice cup of coffee, than standing out here. God knows how many misfits are just waiting around for the right moment to pounce. If it weren’t for the security gate, I’d never even have come down.”
Bryan looked away from the group, glanced nervously towards the street. There was a vagrant—skin like leather, clothes like soggy husks—sitting on the adjacent curb and staring right at him. He wondered if the man had always been there or if he only came out on nights like these.
Nights when the world came to a halt.
George and Leah eventually met up with him again and reported that there was nothing physically wrong with the receiver. He spoke with them for a while about nothing. Eventually the novelty of the situation wore off, and they retreated back into their apartment.
Leah pouted wistfully at the blank television screen, then started tidying up the kitchen; George sat dutifully in front of his computer and waited for the servers to go back up. Bryan went back to his room, stood for a moment in the decadence and considered picking up the dirty laundry off the floor . . . but then he realized he’d have to clear out his closet as well to make space—so he took to fidgeting instead, checking the computer cables, running a virus scan.
Passing the time and trying not to think too much about the circumstances involving the incident at Peter’s.
A while later, Leah asked him to take out the trash—five heaping grocery bags that had been accumulating beneath the kitchen sink for weeks. Though he resented the task, he nevertheless set himself to it.
Halfway down the outside stairwell, he realized he couldn’t remember where the garbage bins were. He cursed indiscriminately and stepped into the drizzle, his breath coming in hot white puffs. He could hear police sirens in the distance; the noise seemed to echo and reverberate through the promenade, which was now completely empty.
How lonely it is without everyone milling about, he thought. Like an empty chatroom.
He wanted to be back inside, back behind locked doors and shuttered windows, the warm office chair cradling him as a loved one might. To and from school was all he was used to; anything else was unnecessary (and dangerous) because it was real. Not like in a game, where you could just restart if you needed to, but cold and real and terrifying.
The garbage bins, it turned out, were tucked into a mossy crevice behind the apartment complex. Bryan lifted the rickety lid—and let loose an inadvertent yelp as he heard a frantic scuffling from within. He jumped back; the garbage bags slipped from his hands and fell noisily onto the ground.
“Easy there, son,” came a ragged voice from behind.
Bryan jumped again, turned around to see some sort of living monstrosity coming towards him, a flesh engraving, white-whiskered and snow-headed. The man’s custodial uniform hung off him like a shed skin not yet discarded—he was carrying a toolbox.
A blue-collar custodian, Bryan realized.
“Hi there,” the man said, extending his hand. “A bit jumpy tonight, eh?”
Bryan flinched, unconsciously lifted his hand into th
e air. When his personal menu failed to pop up, he blushed, remembering that he wasn’t online, and quickly stuffed both hands into his pockets.
The custodian chuckled. “I suppose that’s the currently popular greeting method these days?”
“Um, no,” said Bryan. “I was . . . stretching.”
“I see,” said the custodian. He looked up at the sky. “Look at that cloud cover. Bet it’ll be drizzling all night.”
Bryan shifted from foot to foot and bit his lip. One of the garbage bags had ruptured at his feet; he wondered if he might be able to persuade the custodian to handle it for him. “Um . . . have you seen anything on the news about the outage?”
“Yeah . . . Internet’s down.”
“Oh, why, no. Nothing on the radio about that.”
“Sure. I prefer to play it by ear—radio only. Don’t even have a TV.”
“No TV?” Bryan croaked, eyes widening.
“Nope. No Internet either.”
“But . . . what do you do, then?”
The custodian raised his toolbox. “Work keeps me busy. In my free time I like to read—and not the e-books or virtual texts you find in the fancy computer cafés, but real paper hardcovers, stuff from the twenties, from the 1900s, even, before the paper conservation laws went into effect. Sometimes, though, I just relax and listen to music, the old compact discs my father passed down to me. He had some good stuff: Serrie, Matsui, Garrison—all the classics.”
Bryan nodded. He understood music (though he couldn’t for the life of him recognize any of the names the custodian had just rattled off), but reading old-style? Plowing through a full-length novel without any SmartNotes hovering in the margin, providing definitions and federally-approved interpretations for the words and phrases he didn’t understand? Nuts! Utterly crazy!
“Wow,” he said after a moment. He wasn’t really impressed; he just didn’t know what else to say that would help him reach a swift conclusion to the conversation.
Thankfully, the custodian started to turn away after a moment. “Well, I’d best be on my way—there’s a broken kitchen faucet in C-5. Oh, and don’t mind ol’ Ginger there.” He gestured at the garbage bin. “Her cat-senses tend to make her skittish around people, but otherwise she’s harmless.”
Bryan nodded and watched the custodian recede into the darkness. Briefly, he heard the sound of the man’s steps as he made his way into the apartment building, then there was simply the ambient noise of the city, the pitter-patter of raindrops striking the concrete, Ginger’s foraging—Bryan took a deep breath and was glad to be alone again. He crouched, stuffing the remains of a TV dinner back into the ruptured garbage bag, and cursed himself for allowing a mere blue-collar to upset him so. In fact, now that he thought about it, he hated the custodian with a passion, always had—even though he didn’t know the man’s name and had only ever seen him on a handful of vaguely-remembered occasions.
Doesn’t matter, Bryan thought as he deposited his refuse into Ginger’s rusty abyss. He sucks anyway—this world sucks. Let him and all the other blue-collars run rampant in their shit-kingdom. I could cream them all in SimpliCITY . . . when it’s back up.
The stark memory of the custodian’s wrinkled flesh and malnourished frame stuck in his head long after he’d gone back upstairs to his bedroom. It made him anxious to get back online, back where all the chemicals in his blood were baselined.
For the remainder of the evening he paced back and forth in front of his desk and chewed his fingernails, inebriated himself with lukewarm cola from a two-liter bottle that had been sitting on the floor beside his bed for a few weeks.
Around midnight the servers came back up, and he let loose a long sigh that had been accumulating in his lungs since his meeting with the custodian. He attached his inputs, signed on, and found Sarah watching TV in her start-zone. She’d switched to a completely different player model.
“Wow,” Bryan said, sitting beside her. “Look at you.”
“That was pretty messed up,” Sarah said. She scooted away from him.
“Leaving me there with those jerks.”
Bryan frowned. “I didn’t leave you there—I was kicked off. Some kind of glitch in the system.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Sarah faced him; she had the mother of all scowls on her face. “You weren’t there. You didn’t see how they made fun of me, made me feel like nothing. They took a picture they scanned from the yearbook and turned it into a pig-face. They made me wear it. They held me down and told me to shout it out loud so everyone could hear, Pig Face! Pig Face! They called me names just like they did in school—they were blue-collars, Bryan. They had no right!”
Bryan reached for her, but she shrugged away once again.
“Leave me alone,” she said.
“I came here to see you—”
Bryan paused for a moment, perplexed, a bit disappointed, then reached for his menu. “Fine,” he said, and clicked out.