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Root: Part III, Chapter 11
While Hasta rallies the troops to join her on her epic trek to Mount Rushmore, a testy Ivan finds himself jonesing more and more for drift.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
“Hey, Frida,” Hasta said from the truck’s front passenger seat, “can I see that thing again?”
Frida sighed and dug into the pocket of her plaid wool coat. “Just be careful with it.”
Her elbow jabbed Ivan in the ribs. “Ow, watch it,” he said testily, though it didn’t really hurt.
“Gee, sorry, geek,” said Frida, handing the cell phone up front. “I didn’t realize you were such a delicate flower.”
“I did realize you were such a—”
“Please, children,” said Mr. V. in the driver’s seat. “If we can’t get along amongst ourselves, how can we hope to succeed in our quest?”
Ivan stared moodily out the window. “Whatever,” he muttered.
Hasta craned around in her seat again. “You called this a scrambler?” she asked Frida. “It looks just like a regular phone. How does it work?”
“Beats me,” said Frida. “A.A. gave us each one when we joined up. He said to always carry it with us, and if some creep in a trench coat ever gave us any crap, point it and press TALK. If you hadn’t bailed on us last night, he probably would’ve given you one too.”
“Hmm.” Hasta held the scrambler out to Ivan. “Hey, dude, you want to check this out?”
He waved her off, and Frida took the thing back.
“Ivan, are you okay?” Hasta asked.
“I’m fine, all right?” Ivan said, watching the shops pass by. He rubbed the ball of his thumb across a scar in the door’s armrest. “Just tired.”
The hunger was making him cranky again. He was sweating, his hands were trembling, his head and stomach were killing him, and all the while Juan sat there in the front seat next to Hasta acting like the king of the world. Juan was not the type to run toward danger. That was Ivan’s thing—or at least, it had been before they traded weapons in the dreamworld.
Now drift was all Ivan could think about. He’d never even tried it once, but still he had visions of the fine dust flying up his nose to sink into the mucous membranes of his sinus cavities, the beautiful transition as the world brightened and softened and he began to float away on a loving cloud of contentment.
That wasn’t him. It wasn’t his memory. Why should he have to suffer for the choices Juan had made?
Earlier Ivan had lagged at the back of the group fingering the baggie in his pocket as Hasta led everyone through the yard behind the Bunker to the work truck. But Kylie had dropped back too, surreptitiously wiping the tears that still trailed down her cheeks.
“Hasta made me—made me do something this morning,” she said to him quietly. “Something I didn’t want to do. She told me it might save your life.” She sniffled. “Did it?”
Ivan shrugged, feeling very awkward. “Might have,” he said. “Yeah, whatever it was, it probably did.”
Kylie’s back straightened. “Good,” she said, picking up her pace.
Ivan had wanted to hurry after her and take her hand. Her jacket was too thin. He wanted to give her his. But he sensed these weren’t the right things to do, so he trailed along behind her and took his hand out of his pocket.
In the alley at the truck, Hasta had addressed the group. “Ivan and Juan and I have a journey to make, a long one,” she said, holding Juan’s hand up in hers. “We’ve all seen enough weirdness today that I trust you’ll take me seriously when I tell you what it’s about. Ivan and I have a theory that this world of ours may actually be a very convincing computer simulation.”
No one argued or gasped. Ivan watched Frida, who at Hasta’s insistence had scrubbed off most of her blue makeup. A light seemed to dawn on her face, but she said nothing.
Ivan didn’t trust her.
“Are you talking, like, virtual reality?” Kylie asked.
“In essence,” Hasta said, meeting Ivan’s eyes for a moment. “Ivan and I have different ideas about what that means exactly, but we agree that the simulation appears to be shutting down.” Now there were gasps. “I’ve been told that the only chance we have to keep it running is to plead with Brahman—this world’s main god, I guess. To do that we need to go to Mount Rushmore and find a bus. This all sounds crazy, I know. So who’s coming?”
Frida raised her hand. “If the simulation ends, wouldn’t we just wake up? I mean, we must be plugged in somewhere.”
Hasta looked at Ivan again. “That’s the question. We don’t know, but we don’t want to risk guessing wrong. Now, does anyone want to stay behind?”
No one did.
While Hasta tried to sort out travel arrangements, Ivan crooked his finger at the work truck and called up a stats window. He’d been thinking about his dial-turning gesture, and he wondered if there was a more fine-grained way to access the same function.
The window popped up before him. Scrolling through a list of the truck’s attributes, Ivan found COLOR (EXTERIOR), and beside it a small white rectangle. When he touched it, smaller window popped up above the first, filled with a two-dimensional color spectrum. Ivan touched an orange-y part of the spectrum. Beneath the snow and encrusted mud, the truck turned orange.
Ivan smiled. Hacking—that made him feel better.
No one had noticed the truck yet, but Frida, standing apart from the group, was giving Ivan a strange look. She came over. “So, um, they’re together?” she said, nodding toward where Hasta and Juan were holding hands. “That’s the weirdest thing I’ve seen today.”
Ivan glanced over and grimaced. “Tell me about it,” he groused, looking back down at his work.
“So what are you doing?” Frida asked.
“Just my part,” said Ivan.
He scrolled some more, not sure what he was looking for. He knew it when he spotted it, though:
CAB STYLE: REGULAR
He touched the word REGULAR. A menu popped up with a selection of three choices:
Ivan wasn’t sure what an access cab was, but a double cab sounded like just what they needed. He touched that word.
“Aaaahh!” shouted Hasta, jumping away as a small avalanche of snow cascaded off the truck. It had just grown about four feet longer. Its cab now featured two sets of doors and a backseat. She glared at Ivan. “Did you just do that?”
He gestured at the truck, grinning weakly. The transformation had left him feeling shaky. “Enough room now for all of us,” he said.
She looked for a second like she was going to be mad, but then she too burst into a grin. “Full tank of gas?”
Ivan scrolled up, tapping and changing more options. Frida moved around to stand next to him, watching him work.
“Dual tanks,” Ivan said, “both topped off. I can’t seem to push the fuel efficiency past twenty-two miles per gallon, but I’m not sure that matters.”
“I don’t see anything,” Frida said looking up at him, her blue eyes bright.
Ivan wiped sweat from his face before it could freeze. “If there’s time on the road,” he said, “I’ll show you how to do it.”
Their first stop had been a 7-Eleven, where they loaded up on provisions—junk food and the like. No one had much cash, but Ivan solved that problem by turning their singles into fifties. Juan bought a cup of coffee there. Ivan did not.
Now the six of them were heading west on Lawrence Avenue, bound for the Kennedy Expressway. Hasta and Juan sat up front with Mr. V., while Ivan, Frida, and Kylie sat in back. Ivan and Kylie each had a window seat. Neither had said much to the other since that moment in the yard.
It was five miles from the Bunker to the expressway. Between snow plows, skidded-out cars, and jam-ups at major intersections, the going was slow. Hasta was bouncing in her seat the way she did when she got too antsy sit still.
She turned her head. “Hey, Ivan, do you think you could change this thing into a helicopter?”
A wave of nausea coursed through him at the thought. “If I could do it, you could too,” he said. “But we’d still need someone who could fly it.”
Hasta gave him a crafty look. “Maybe I could download a pilot module.”
“Module or no, I wouldn’t fly with you,” Ivan said, folding his arms.
Beside him, Frida sighed loudly. “You two bicker like my stupid mom and—”
A shuddering vibration shook the truck, accompanied by a rumble so deep Ivan felt it in his bones. Taillights flared ahead of them, and Mr. V. stepped on the brakes. “Hold on, kids!” he said.
Frida grabbed Ivan’s leg, and Ivan grabbed hold of the handle above the door. The truck slid ten or fifteen yards on the slick asphalt, its rear end slewing to the right, before it finally stopped. But the shaking continued, and the rumble grew like the roar of a freight train. People ahead were getting out of their cars and promptly falling down.
Juan and Kylie both started opening their doors. “No!” Ivan shouted. “We’re safer in the truck.”
“It’s starting,” Hasta said as the doors slammed shut again. “Oh, God, we’ll never get there in time.”
“We’ll make it, little flower,” said her father, clinging to the steering wheel. “We’ll find a way.”
The truck jolted around on its springs, sliding a few more feet. Ivan nearly spewed his meager tea-and-oatmeal breakfast.
Frida slammed suddenly against Ivan, her elbow digging into his ribs. “Jeez, Kylie!” Frida sputtered. “Keep your bony—”
But Kylie hadn’t shoved her. A towheaded boy in striped pajamas sat jammed between the two girls.
“Now this is what I call exciting,” said LaVell Rigby, flashing a predatory grin. The shaking stopped and the roar subsided. “Can we do that again, Dad? Huh, pretty please?” √
To be continued…