Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part III, Chapter 3
Reunited in a snowbound city, Hasta and Ivan refine their ideas about the nature of the world, then execute the first stage of their plan to rescue Juan.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Hasta didn’t know how long she’d been slogging through the graveyard snow, freezing, when Ivan found her.
She’d thought at first that it would be easy to find her way out, but she’d forgotten how vast Rosehill Cemetery was—350 acres. She tried to walk in a straight line, figuring she had to run into the outer wall at some point, but between the big drifts, the snow-buried tombstones, and the looming monuments that turned her path one way or the other, she somehow never did.
At some point she stumbled across a metal trash can. Shivering so hard she could barely make her hands work, she emptied the stinking trash onto the snow, turned the bag inside out, and wore it like a poncho. That helped some, but more than once she tripped and fell into a snowdrift and nearly couldn’t make herself get up again. One time her eyes drifted closed, but the blue monsters who immediately attacked her on the marble plain, where at least the temperature was neutral, prompted her to smack herself in the forehead with bloody knuckles until she woke up again, gasping and shaking.
Resting a moment against a tall monument topped by a marble cherub, Hasta watched the name carved into its surface at eye level flicker and change from TILLSTROM to VEERAMACHANENI. She shoved herself away from the monument with a little shriek. The name changed back, though it continued to flicker a little until Hasta tottered away into the whiteness.
That was when she thought she heard Ivan shouting her name. “I-I-I-Ivan!” she called through frozen lips. Her tongue felt thick and unresponsive in her mouth. “Ivan!”
“Hasta? Hasta!” He came bounding through the snow like a knight on his long legs, and Hasta fell into his arms.
Ivan wrapped her in an extra down jacket he said he’d borrowed from a kid at the Cradle and led her back along the path he’d blasted through the snow as he ran. Before long he’d broken them into the cemetery’s administration building, and they were both warming up with herbal tea and instant oatmeal that he made that he made on the gas range in the kitchen.
Once they’d caught each other up on everything that had happened, it was time to get moving again. Juan, according to Ivan’s best guess, was a captive at some bunker, and Hasta needed him in her chain.
A couple of pickup trucks with snowplow attachments were parked in a garage near the admin building. Not only could Ivan open the nearest one, he could also turn the lock cylinder to start it without a key. Soon they were plowing a jerky route out through the cemetery’s main gate.
Hasta held her hands up to the vents in the dashboard, rubbing them together in the blissful warmth as they bounced along. “I don’t know how you can be so sure this is all a simulation,” she said. “This heat feels pretty real to me.”
“It’s obviously a really good simulation,” Ivan said. His knuckles were white as bone, hands clamped tight to the steering wheel. “The computing power would have to be massive, but how else would you explain the stats windows?”
Back at the admin building, Ivan had shown Hasta how to summon up what looked like a computer window floating in midair. When Hasta crooked her finger at Ivan, the window detailed all kinds of things about him, including this mysterious listing:
PREV: HASTA VEERAMACHANENI
CROSS: JUAN CASTRO RIEFKOHL
NEXT: KYLIE SUMMER VON DAVIS
As bizarre as the stats window was, Hasta couldn’t believe that a world so detailed, so real, could be entirely virtual. “These information windows,” she said. “Maybe they’re just overlays getting fed straight into our eyes. Augmented reality.”
“Fed from where?” Ivan asked. “And into where? Our visual cortexes? I don’t remember having brain surgery.” Behind them a car honked. Ivan was only driving at about ten miles per hour, but the streets were narrow, the truck was wide, and cars kept slipping and sliding through stop signs at every intersection they came to. “My explanation’s simpler and more elegant.”
“Simpler how?” Hasta asked. “You think we’re really asleep somewhere with our brains jacked into some big computer? I don’t buy it.”
“It all fits,” Ivan said. “You had that brain fart after school yesterday, right? That must have been the break between real life and virtual reality. That’s when the rules changed. Before that, we didn’t have any of these powers.”
“That’s not when the rules changed,” Hasta protested. “Gillian was doing the wrist thing before that, when we were still in detention. And you didn’t feel any brain fart.”
“Well, no,” Ivan admitted. “But maybe I wasn’t paying attention.”
“It was pretty hard to miss.” A horrible thought had been forming, and Hasta decided it was time to bring it up. “Ivan, do you what it means about the end of the world if this is just virtual reality? It means the simulation is shutting down.”
Ivan hunched grimly over the wheel, not looking at her. “But that’s good, right? If the simulation ends, we just wake up. We ought to let it happen.”
Hasta shook her head vehemently. “No way. What if you’re wrong? What if the simulation is all there is? What if when it ends, so do we?”
“But what about that message in the alley?” Ivan said. “‘Prepare, the end is near.’ Maybe it was like a network shutdown warning. Time to save your work and log out.”
Hasta shivered. “That only strengthens my point.”
“No, think about it. In order to log out, you have to be logged in. From the outside!”
“Okay,” Hasta said grudgingly. “But if we were supposed to log out, wouldn’t we know what we were logging out of? It’s not like we saw the warning message and knew what it meant. Although . . .”
“What?” Ivan prompted.
“LaVell Rigby,” said Hasta. “I told you how he attacked me, right? He didn’t seem like himself, and he was saying weird things like how I couldn’t be an ‘operator.’ When I told him about the warning message, he freaked out. Suddenly he seemed like his normal self again, and he couldn’t remember anything that had happened.”
“Like he was possessed,” said Ivan slowly. “Or occupied. And then the occupier logged out.”
“That’s freaky, H.,” said Ivan. “Because if that was an operator, and if we aren’t operators, then what in the world are we?”
Ivan slowed the truck. They had turned east and were coming up behind a line of stopped cars. Low brick industrial buildings lined one side of the narrow street, bungalow-style houses the other. Five or six cars ahead, soldiers in winter camouflage were dragging a man off the sidewalk and into an Army truck.
The metallic taste of fear filled Hasta’s mouth. “What’s going on up there?” she asked.
“No idea,” Ivan said, sounding tense. “But I don’t like it.”
Ivan shifted into reverse, backed up a few yards, and made an awkward turn into an alley. One tire bounced over the curb, and the toolboxes lining the bed of the truck clattered. “All these one-way streets are really confusing,” he said, panic tinging his voice. “But I think we’re close to this bunker.”
The truck sideswiped a dumpster with an awful squeal. Hasta jerked in her seat.
“Sorry! My driving skills are mostly theoretical. So, um,” he said brightly, “you got Kylie to flip you out of the school, huh?”
The probing tone in his voice stood out like a broken thumb. “Yep,” Hasta said.
“Did she, um, say anything about me?”
Irked, Hasta said, “Oh, she had plenty to say. That girl’s got some strange ideas in her head.”
“Oh, really?” Ivan said. The truck jounced hard over a speed bump.
“Just drive, will you?”
“Gee, sorry.” They turned into another alley. “Okay, we’re just about there. I want to come up on this place from the rear. Frida made using the front door sound like a really bad idea.”
High brick buildings hemmed them in on both sides, but about halfway down on the right a little parking area opened up. After that, a brick wall continued all the way to the next street.
Ivan pulled the truck to a stop in the middle of the alley. Hasta climbed down into the hip-deep snow. Distant honking and shouts reached her, muffled by the gloomy snowfall. Ivan closed his door quietly. Together he and Hasta crept ahead to the open gate and slipped into the walled yard.
A couple of old cars and several big piles of junk occupied the broad yard. Two feet of mushy-looking snow overlay it all, pitted where the underlying mud and muck had produced slushy holes. A two-story brick building squatted at the south end of the yard.
They picked their way cautiously toward the building, moving like seasoned commandos from one random junk pile to the next. When Hasta took cover behind a big segment of an old industrial cooling system, she saw a dozen glittering eyes staring at her from inside a vent. The hairs stood up on the back of her neck as the rats bared their yellow teeth and backed as far away from her as they could. Ice crusted their spiky fur.
Soon Hasta and Ivan crouched together in the mucky snow behind one of the rusting cars. They were ten yards from the building’s back entrance.
“So Juan’s in there?” Hasta said.
“That’s my best guess,” Ivan said. “Mr. Sunshine’s gone to a lot of trouble to hide this place. Satellite photos show a bunch of houses on this block instead. Maybe it looks that way to drones, too. I mean, um, normal people.”
“You said the entrances are booby-trapped?”
“That’s what Frida told me.”
Hearing that name over and over set Hasta’s teeth on edge. “Frida sure told you a lot,” she said.
Ivan turned a little red. “As if, dork. Anyway, one of us may have to flip the other one inside.”
“I wish we knew the layout inside first.”
“Maybe there’s a way to see it.” Ivan peered around the back bumper of the car and crooked his finger at the building. He tapped the empty air a couple of times and peered studiously at some invisible window.
“What do you see?” Hasta asked.
“Floor plan, if you can believe it,” said Ivan with a delighted laugh. “Okay, there are two levels, of course. But except for a few rooms or hallways around the perimeter, the space is totally open. Oh, wait, there’s a tiny little room smack in the middle of the second floor—just a closet, really. I wonder if that’s where they have Juan.” He turned to lock eyes with Hasta. “Think you can flip me up to the second floor?”
Hasta didn’t like sending Ivan inside alone, but of the two of them she did have better precision. “Code Fred if you need me,” she said sternly. “And if you can, find a way to let me know it’s safe to come inside.”
“Aye-aye, admiral,” Ivan said with a jaunty salute. “Now let’s do this.”
After scanning the building closely, Ivan moved about six feet into the open snowfield. Hasta followed, slogging through the muck, and was about to start lining up her shot when the door in the back of the building began to open.
Hasta and Ivan both spun toward the sound. The short agent stood there with a stupefied look on his face, holding the door open with one hand while a key ring dangled from the other. His expression quickly changed to one of petulance and anger.
“Oh, great,” he said, in the instant before both Hasta and Ivan flipped him in unison.
To Hasta, the small resistance felt like a perfect strike with a pool cue. Somehow she knew this shot was solid. The agent vanished almost before he could move his hands. His key ring plopped into the snow.
“That’s twice I’ve nailed you, shorty!” Hasta crowed.
“Hey, that was me!” Ivan protested. He grabbed her by the arm and dragged her back behind the car. “That’s two times for me.”
Hasta whacked him on the arm. “You do this in Soul Warrior too, you jerk,” she said. “But that one felt right. I know it was me.”
“It felt right to me, too,” Ivan said, rubbing his arm. “The cleanest hit I’ve ever made, like a home run.”
Hasta whacked him again on the arm, this time in excitement. “Maybe we both hit him, and that’s why it felt like it did.”
“Yeah, maybe. Let’s just hope we sent him farther than either of us could have done alone.” Ivan studied her. “So how do you feel? Do you have another shot in you?”
“I feel pretty okay,” Hasta said. “I can try.”
Ivan peered out at the building again. “Then let’s take our next shot.”
Hasta followed him a few feet out from cover. Ivan shifted from foot to foot self-consciously while Hasta positioned herself facing him. She squatted, trying to sight through Ivan to one of the translucent second-story windows.
“You sure you want to do this?” she asked, stomach in knots. She was terrified of flipping him too far, of sending him into thin air on a rising incline.
“You can do it, ace,” Ivan said, almost like he was reading her mind. “I trust you.”
His words filled Hasta with confidence. She stopped chewing the inside of her cheek and closed her left eye. She tried to judge the distance to the building, tried to picture Ivan safe on the far side of that window.
She extended her finger and pushed.
Ivan felt like a pinball, shuttled from one bumper to the next while a field of colorful lights flickered and flashed around him. He couldn’t have said how long that went on, but when he landed with a thunk in total blackness, the interlude seemed to have passed in the briefest of instants.
He pitched backward and hit his head on a hard, rough wall. He felt more than heard a dull clang. Rebounding, he smacked against another wall no more than a foot or two in front of him. He put his arms out to the sides for balance, but both hands touched walls well before his elbows could straighten.
Though the air was cool, Ivan broke into a sweat. He felt his way around the tiny space. A fine metal mesh or grid, cold to the touch, covered the walls of a chamber no larger than the inside of a phone booth. Or a closet.
He panted for breath. The blackness swam around him. He put his arms out to keep from falling, to hold back the walls that were closing in, that wanted to crush him. He pushed and pushed, first one way then the next, but the unseeable surfaces would not stop pushing back. Dizzy, desperate, he sank slowly to the floor, arms and back trailing down walls whose massive weight of metal tilted crazily over him.
“Help!” he cried weakly, unable to draw enough breath to shout. Knees to his chest, Ivan wrapped his arms over the top of his head and rocked. “Let me out!” he wailed, trailing off into weeping. “Mom, please, let me out.” √
To be continued…