“System Error ahead. Please turn around,” the Concierge’s voice speaks over the metallic growl of my dirt bike.
I rev the throttle and lean into the warm wind. My seat bounces as mud ricochets up around me. Ahead, knobby limbs and crisp leaves dissolve into broken pixels.
The SimGrid mutes as the soft voice fills the space between my ears, again. “System Error ahead. Please turn around.”
“Not this time,” I say. Not the first time I’ve found myself talking to the Concierge. The wind should be cold — shouldn’t it? I remember trying to hide from the wind during winter. Ducking into alleys and behind dumpsters.
“Sys — er — ahd.” Her voice crackles out as the pixels around me grow and blur.
I tug my helmet off. It bounces in my wake. I hold my hand in front of my face. The edges of my peach fingers flicker. A gray line crawls across my vision.
The front wheel slips. I grab for the handle just as it blinks from existence. The SimGrid turns sideways around me as my bike crushes the right side of my body. Gravel and sticks scrape through the lining of my pants. Bones crunch. Dust clogs my lungs. The front wheel spins fruitlessly in midair, slowing to a stop.
“Please remain still. Reset pending,” The Concierge says.
They won’t leave me here. And yet, I’d pull the dirt bike up around me like covers in bed, if I could. But before my endorphins can disperse, the SimGrid blacks out.
• • • •
The front door barely clicks when I close it. The hardwood floorboards are silent under my Kinetic, Inc. flip-flops. Muffled guitar leaks from Zane’s headphones, when I sneak past his workroom. His fingers play over his computer keyboard as if he’s playing piano. I never could sit still that long.
I duck into our bedroom and pull off the newly generated scrubs. The blue papery material crumbles easily between my hands. I shove it into the trash, just as the door swings open.
“There’s a naked man in my bedroom,” Zane says. “Not that I’m complaining.” He smiles and pulls me against him. His full lips press a kiss against mine.
I tilt my head back while he nips and licks down my neck. Zane bites gently. I remember the sharp pain of gravel digging into my hip, the weight of my bike, crack of bone.
I squirm away, running a hand through my hair.
“You okay?” Zane squints, as if his dark brown eyes can bore right through me. They can’t. He’s not even really looking at me.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just . . .” My excuse trails off. We could leave the SimGrid. People terminate their contracts often enough. A year ago, our friends Cora and Brandi left.
“You scare me with that dirt bike, sometimes.” Zane presses his hand to my forehead. Just an hour ago, blood trickled down the scratched skin.
“I’m fine, really. Just been thinking.” I pull on a pair of briefs and a tee shirt.
Zane’s hands warm my waist. He slides them up and down. Do I even feel him? The SimGrid can only approximate. What if it’s wrong? I’ve never really touched him.
“Talk to me, Ash.”
“Have you ever thought about unplugging?” The question erupts before I can stop it.
His eyes widen. “Unplugging, as in from the SimGrid?”
“I mean, when Cora and Brandi left, I thought about it. But only in theory, not in practice. Have you?” He doesn’t wait for my answer. He knows it. We’ve been together fifteen years. He probably knows more about me than the Concierge does. “You have.”
“What if it’s better?”
“It’s not.” His voice is suddenly sharp.
“How do you know?”
“I remember what it’s like out there.” Zane rubs his thumb over an unremarkable spot on his left forearm.
I’m surprised he hasn’t worn a hole through the light brown skin, over the years. I’ve stopped asking why — what was there before he plugged in.
I wonder if I’ll ever get to see his real body. Our avatars show us how we want to be seen, how our minds imagine us. But I don’t think I’ll mind his imperfections.
“You know, we’re not the same, now. We’re not kids. You have programming skills. I’ve won nine of my last ten races. We have over forty years of credit building up with the Concierge, between us. We wouldn’t have to live on the street.”
Zane scratches the spot and bites his lip. “I’ll think about it.”
• • • •
The Error isn’t easy to spot, at first, but it’s still there. A squirrel bounces across my day-old tire tracks, expanding into one big brown-gray pixel in the middle.
I hit the kill switch on my bike and dismount. Air cools the sweat on my forehead when I remove my helmet. I focus on the temperature. The breeze is supposed to refresh me, but now I can’t shake the memory of wind so cold it burns.
“System Error ahead. Please turn around.”
“You just don’t quit, do you?”
Every step closer, the snake of gray pixels works its way farther across my vision. I feel like I’m walking in slow motion. My hands expand and blur, like the squirrel. Peachy block hands. I can still feel my fingers wiggle. They re-form as I reach forward and rest against a tree. When I drag my left palm down the bark, it doesn’t just scratch, it cuts.
Adrenaline races through my arm, tingling almost pleasurably where blood beads to the surface. I wipe it on my jacket and glance around. No one’s here. I need to know what it feels like.
What it really feels like.
I rest back against the sharp tree and unfasten my pants. Not the most romantic — or sexy, for that matter — but the first touch electrifies me. I close my eyes and imagine Zane’s fingers wrapped around my cock. His lips warmer and wetter against my neck. I wrap my left arm around the tree, overhead. The bark bites in my hand like I wish Zane’s teeth would do to my neck.
I hug the tree tighter, stroke myself faster. Warm blood drips down my arm, tickling every hair in its path. My moan crackles and fades like a dying firework. My heart wants to slow, but I push it, rubbing the head of my cock.
My body feels like it might dissolve into a billion pixels at any second. Lightheadedness settles in. So close. I’m so —
My cry cuts off. I come in silence. My body climaxes — all of it. Pain and pleasure twine together and vibrate across my skin.
I relinquish the tree and gasp for breath. Blood slides down my arm and stains my sleeves. My knees buckle, tailbone slams into the ground.
My heart slows its beat. My pixels flicker out. I’ve done it, again.
“Please remain still. Reset pending.”
• • • •
Zane looks up from his chair. Shadows blacken his eyes like dark smiles. Blue paper peeks out from between his balled hands. Same as the scrubs I wear, now.
“Hey,” I say, my voice restored to its usual smooth texture.
Zane doesn’t respond. His eyes fall to his fists. “Don’t you like what we have, here?”
“Yes.” The word is more reaction than answer. I can’t lie if I want him to believe me. “And no. It’s not you — or me. It’s this place.”
“I’ve noticed.” When Zane opens his hands, the blue paper scrubs blooms like a flower. “Why didn’t you tell me you reset?”
“I didn’t think it was a big deal.”
“Not a big deal?”
“It’s not like I can really die, here.”
“Yeah, but you still killed yourself, Ash!” Even though Zane is sitting down, I feel him towering over me. “Just imagining you dying . . .” He covers his face.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I won’t do it, again.”
I don’t tell him I want to. That I want him to come with me, next time. I want us to make love that warms us like the sun and then burns us up, when we get too close.
“But, you will.” Zane finally looks at me. He circles that spot on his arm, draws a bullseye around it.
“You could come with me,” I say. “There’s a System Error, right off the trail where I ride. Everything feels different, there. Like reality.”
Zane’s mouth smashes against mine. His hands thread through my short curls, holding me still for his tongue and teeth and all I can think about is how much better this would all feel outside the SimGrid. Even the Error is only a glimpse of real pain, real pleasure, real love.
“Does this not feel real to you?” Zane whispers.
“It used to.”
“What about this?” Zane charges me like a linebacker, half scooping me up, half pushing me, until I collide with the couch.
The wooden feet scrape across the floor. I recline under his weight. My legs automatically curl around his waist, cinching us closer. Zane doesn’t bother taking my pants off. He shoves his hand down the flimsy scrubs. They tear as he rubs my growing bulge.
I try to be with him, but I’m back in the woods. Zane’s lips are too soft and my skin is only pixels, my nerves only lines of code.
When he pushes inside me, I gasp, lingering in the moment, the fullness, the closeness, the -ness of it all. I want him. His body, the person inside it.
My body is just lying in a medical bed, somewhere. Programmed nanites stimulate my prostate with their best imitation of Zane’s cock. I’m not really stretched, not open to him.
“More.” I slide my hands under his shirt and hold us tight together. “More, Zane. Please, more.”
I scream and seize against him. His bite draws blood. Its warmth reminds me of the cutting bark and my electric fingers.
My body — my avatar — goes through the motions of orgasm: blood rush, nerve spasm, glowing pleasure. It feels real-ish. More like a heat lamp than the sun.
I regain control of my breathing and help Zane finish. Flexing, kissing, holding. He doesn’t know any different — any better.
Zane’s weight rests on me. He feels like a feather compared to my dirt bike.
“I love you.” His forehead presses against mine, sticky with sweat.
“I love you, too.” I want to think that I’m looking at him. I want to forget the Error, but I can’t.
“I don’t want to unplug,” Zane says.
“That’s the real world, out there. We have to get jobs and —”
“I know.” I curl my fingers through his. No kid who grows up in the SimGrid does so because they had a great life outside. “We can do this. We’ll get a house — a brick and mortar house.”
Zane chuckles. “Think smaller.”
“Fine, a real apartment.” I smile, too. “Get jobs.”
“Pay taxes, bills —”
“Make friends, taste food.”
“I’ll do it.”
I don’t respond. What if he takes it back?
“Just promise me, if it doesn’t work out, you won’t hurt yourself.”
Zane squeezes my hands in his. “Because it might not work out. I need you to be realistic.”
Realistic. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.
• • • •
“Next, please.” A Concierge looks up from her desk. She’s not real, either. Just code written by a Kinetic, Inc. staff person, holed up in a cubicle.
“Hi.” I’m not sure if I’m holding Zane’s hand so he won’t back down or so I won’t. My whole body pulses with blood and nerves. This is the most real I’ve ever felt.
Zane takes over, saying the words I can’t. “We’d like to unplug.”
“All right, let me pull up your files.” Her fingers pitter-patter over the keys, not unlike Zane’s.
What if he ends up in an office, somewhere? Taking orders from a money-hungry boss, or overqualified and bored out of his mind. That would be my fault.
Zane rubs the spot on his arm. I’ll get to see what’s really there, once we’re back in our bodies. Our avatars adjust to our vision of ourselves, smooth out blemishes, suck out belly fat, de-frizz hair. Erase scars.
“Please place your forefingers on the readers,” the Concierge says.
We do, not releasing each other.
A green light flashes under our fingertips. “Thank you,” she says. “A Concierge will take you each to a medical bed, where we will reunite you with your bodies.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that. We’d like to thank you for contracting with Kinetic, and allowing us to harvest your potential!” The Concierge’s smile is faker than the whole SimGrid. “Now, through the doors to your right. A Concierge will be waiting.”
“Let’s go,” Zane says. He wraps an arm around me.
I almost don’t believe my own steps. Why even program this building? Why make us walk this path? Lie down in fake medical beds, hook us to machines that don’t exist?
The Concierge splits into two identical versions of herself. Each gestures to a different door.
“Can’t we go in together?” I shrug. “It’s not like it’s real, anyway.”
Both smile and glance at each other for approval. “We can arrange that.”
Suddenly, there’s only one door and I can’t remember them merging, but they must’ve. Zane and I walk through together, hands still clenched into one fused, brown-peach fist.
“I will ask you to lie in separate beds, please. Though your avatars are not, as you’d say, real, the process helps your subconscious mind prepare for the reunion. In addition, I advise you both to remain still upon waking. The muscle stimulator program will have ensured that you can function, but your bodies may still require time to adapt.”
“Okay.” But I don’t move.
“Ash.” Zane wiggles his fingers.
Suddenly, everything feels so real. Like we’ve never been closer and I don’t want it to end.
It’s just cold feet. Remember how the System Error felt. Unplugged, I won’t need to crash my bike to feel something.
“Yeah?” I respond.
“I love you.”
“We’re not dying.” The words feel like a lie, when I say them.
“I know, but . . . just in case,” he says.
“I love you, too.” I wiggle my fingers against his in return. “See you on the other side?”
Zane smiles over his worry and doubt. “Yeah. Can’t wait.”
The Concierges help us into separate beds. Straps fasten around our ankles and wrists; a big one crosses my forehead, forcing me to stare at the shiny silver ceiling. The Concierges flip switches and press buttons. None of them can mean anything. Why don’t they just unplug us while we sleep?
Zane’s voice is the last thing I hear. “Ash?”
• • • •
“Ashley, can you hear me?” Gloved fingers peel my eyelids back. Bright furry lights shrink into needlepoint lasers. “My name’s Dr. Ralio.”
I blink and her face focuses from a blur of golden brown pixels — no, not pixels. Real skin. I reach up with a finger and touch her cheek.
She smiles. “Yes, you’ve successfully unplugged.”
My focus shifts. How can I look at just one thing when there are so many? I hold a hand in front of my face. The fingers are short and thin, the nails smooth and well-rounded. These are not my hands. I press them against my chest to stop my heart from exploding.
Breasts. I pull down the blue paper sheet and sit up. Breasts like two water balloons wrapped in skin, hanging off my chest. I flatten them and look down.
Nothing. There’s nothing down below, nothing between my legs. Just a space. A void. A hole.
Not even the scream is mine. A high, wailing scream, like a little girl throwing a tantrum.
“Ashley, is everything okay?” Dr. Ralio presses a hand to my forehead and glances at the monitors behind her.
“No.” My voice breaks off. Not my voice. The wrong voice. Oh god, it didn’t work. Am I still plugged in? I can’t be. Nothing is pixels here. Dr. Ralio’s skin is blemished, the ends of her coarse hair frayed.
The room whirls around me when I swing my legs over the edge of the bed. It feels more like I’m controlling a video game than my own muscles.
“Ashley.” Dr. Ralio grips my shoulder. “Remember what the Concierge said; you shouldn’t move too quickly. The muscle stimulators and nourishment fluids keep your body in shape, but you still haven’t walked in twenty-five years.”
My knees buckle when my feet hit cold tile. Dr. Ralio catches me, but seems more concerned with holding the flimsy hospital sheet over me than keeping me upright.
“Please, Ashley. Your body needs time to adjust.”
“Is there a mirror?” I gasp at the sounds coming from my throat, formed by my tongue. “What happened to my body?”
“Ashley, please sit down. An exit counselor is on her way to speak with you. I realize it may be a shock not having seen your body since age five, but I promise you’ve grown into a healthy young woman — just as Kinetic promises.”
That’s what happened. They put me in the wrong body.
I laugh, an angelic, fluttering, ridiculous laugh. I don’t even mind, knowing it’s just a fluke.
“Please, put some clothes on. We provide a basic set for your exit.” Dr. Ralio opens a drawer with jeans, tee shirts, socks, bras, and underwear.
I grab my disposable sheet and wrap it back around the body. “No, that’s okay,” I say. “I’ll wait until you put me back.”
Dr. Ralio’s head tilts like I’ve seen a dog’s do, before. “Back . . . in the SimGrid? I thought you wanted to unplug. We received your request —”
“No! God, no. I don’t want to go back in there. Back in my body. My real body. This is obviously wrong.” I stretch out a black curl and let it snap back.
“Um.” She’s saved from bumbling an apology by the door.
It can’t be good for business, putting contractors back into someone else’s body.
“Ms. Trent, this is Ashley Redding. She just unplugged.”
“My name’s Ash,” I say. “And I’m not a ‘she.’ I don’t know whose body this is.”
“I’m just. I’ll. Okay.” Dr. Ralio’s lips pinch together as she ducks out.
“Ash, is it?” Ms. Trent’s smile is softer, clearly designed to placate me.
“Yeah. I’m actually meeting someone — my boyfriend also unplugged — you don’t have to give me the spiel. You can just plug me back into the right body.”
Ms. Trent clasps her hands. “Do you remember when you signed your contract with Kinetic, Inc.?”
This is such a waste of time. I close my eyes and picture Zane waking up. Putting on the provided clothes. Cashing out his credits. Waiting. He’s nervous. He’ll be nervous without me. I convinced him to do this and I’m not even there for him.
“Yes, I remember signing up. I was five” — a picture of a scrawny child lights up the monitor — “when a representative visited my group home. She promised I’d be placed with a nice family in the SimGrid.” With parents who would love me more than they loved heroin.
“Correct.” Ms. Trent smiles. “You know, we keep constant surveillance of all our contractors to ensure their physical safety while their minds are plugged into the SimGrid.”
“Okay.” I hear my real voice in my head every time this woman’s voice comes out. The body is starting to irritate me, to itch like a skin that needs sloughing off.
“I want to play yours, if you don’t mind.”
“How long is this going to take?”
“Not long. I’ve set it to play at one million times the speed.” She hits play.
My younger self looks dead, like he’s lying in a coffin. Cleaned up by the staff, but still boney and scraggly. Sensors and wires stick on and out of his little body. Then, the image moves, as if a poltergeist has possessed him. The tiny twitches over time, hands of the nurses as they trim nails and clip hair.
My hair grows longer than I would wear it, grows healthier and fuller, shinier. My cheeks plump and soften, lips round out. Two mounds begin to form on my chest under the papery sheet. Lasers flash bright red every couple of seconds.
I rub a hand over the wrong body’s smooth legs.
“Ash, I hope you can see where this is going,” Ms. Trent says.
“I’m, uh . . .” I try to finish my sentence, but I can’t breathe.
Black spots eat through my vision. The walls squeeze in around me. This can’t be real. My heart bursts into a billion little hearts that hijack my blood stream and pulse until my fingers might fall off. I can’t feel my fingers. My legs stop working.
“I can’t —” Breathe, I can’t breathe.
“Ash, can you hear me?” The sentence fades under a loud buzz.
I’m grateful when the blackness blots my vision and my breath stops coming.
• • • •
I wonder how long I can stand here before Zane gives up on me and leaves. I’ve bitten down all the fingernails on these hands. They were too long. I don’t look down at the body. I only look out the one-way window into the waiting area, where Zane sits. Our eyes would meet if he could see through this glass.
A Kinetic button down covers the spot on Zane’s arm. He clamps a hand over it as if he’s keeping himself from bleeding out. His body is better than his avatar, not because its muscles are better defined or its cheekbones are higher, but because it’s his. His hair is shaved shorter than I’m used to and his face is smooth and clean, but he still looks like the same person.
Dr. Ralio told me I had a panic attack. I’d never heard the word ‘transgender’ before. I didn’t know there was a condition that could trap you in someone else’s body.
How can I face Zane? He won’t recognize me in here. I don’t recognize me.
Staff push by, files in hand, escorting other contractors. No one sees me. I’m not a contractor anymore. They have no obligation to help me. I have no one. Only Zane. Maybe.
Slowly, I push the door open. Zane looks up. When he sees me, he sighs and rests his forehead on his hands.
I sit next to him and unfold the note I’ve written. There’s no way I can speak with this voice. It’s bad enough I have to show him this body. I fold it back up before holding it out to him.
Zane looks sideways at me. He takes the note. “Who gave this to you? Was it Ash?”
I don’t answer. He unfolds the thin paper so fast, I’m afraid he’ll rip it. I can’t bear to re-read the words. My handwriting is the same. Mostly. I hate these hands. They’re too small and soft.
I can’t sit here. My breath’s already clogging my throat, the black spots taking over like broken pixels. I want this to be an Error. I want to reset.
Zane crumples the paper between his fists.
“I’m going to go,” I whisper.
His hand catches my arm before I can stand.
“If you’re lying to me —”
“Why would I?” My voice wavers.
“I don’t know. I don’t.” He re-reads the note. “Was any of it real?” he asks.
“All of it was real.”
I feel gross when he looks at me. He doesn’t want to look at the breasts, but he can’t stop himself. They don’t belong there. I refused to wear the bra.
“Did you know?” He’s still staring at them.
I shake my head.
“I don’t believe you.”
“I don’t either,” I say in the fake voice. Every time I hear it, I want to scream, but that only hurts more. “But it’s true.”
“I don’t want to be here, alone.”
I return to a bearable whisper. “I don’t want to be here at all.”
“Can they fix it?”
“There’s surgery. Injections. Paperwork.” I can barely remember the options. I was trying too hard just to breathe. Just functioning in this body is more work than it’s worth.
“Years,” he considers the word.
We’ve already wasted too many years.
• • • •
The warm ground cradles my body. I squint up at clearly formed leaves — not a pixel out of place.
Zane rolls up his sleeves and clasps my hand. “Guess they fixed the System Error.”
“Sorry. I know you wanted to show me.”
“No, it’s okay. I’m just glad to be here with you.”
I lift our hands into the air. Gravity drains the blood back into my body. Pins prickle through my fingertips.
Several dark, raised scars claim the unremarkable spot on Zane’s avatar now. He doesn’t hide or fidget with them — and I don’t ask. I don’t need to know. This is enough.
For us, this is real.