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'Where Futures End' excerpt

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Parker Peevyhouse’s wild debut novel, Where Futures End, is set to release Feb. 9, 2016. It follows five teenagers in five different time periods who are faced with a choice: They can either live the life they currently have, or swap it out for another one. Intrigued? We thought so. Here’s the book’s official description:

Dylan develops a sixth sense that allows him to glimpse another world. Brixney must escape a debtor colony by finding a way to increase the number of hits on her social media feed so she’ll attract corporate sponsorship. Epony goes “High Concept” and poses as an otherworldly being to recapture her boyfriend’s attention. Reef struggles to survive in a city turned virtual gameboard. And Quinn uncovers the alarming secret that links them all.

To give you a taste of what’s to come, EW is thrilled to present this exclusive excerpt:

 

1.

WHEN WE ASKED THE IMPOSSIBLE

(one year from now)

DYLAN

Dylan asked his first Impossible Question when he was five, when he could still hear music in running water, still find gilded kingdoms trapped in beams of sunlight.

Why do I see things no one else can see?

Impossible to say, son, Dad had answered with a smile, closing the cover of the book they’d been reading, The Blue Fairy Book.

Are they real, the things I see?

Dylan’s older brother, Hunter, hated questions like that. Stop pretending you’re special, he would say.

In a storybook, an Impossible Question might be a riddle that could never be solved, a challenge that would bring the quest to a standstill.

In real life, an Impossible Question might be easily met with a shrug or a sigh. But it might also carve the whole world into pieces as small as dust motes so that you could hardly breathe for fear of scattering them all.

At the age of eleven, Dylan asked Dad an Impossible Question for the last time, when they were getting hot dogs at Alki Beach in West Seattle. It wasn’t that Dylan never saw Dad again after that. It was just that there were no more jackets tied like capes, no more laughs that went sideways in the wind, no more perfect burn of salt spray and spicy mustard. The story of Dad and Dylan came to a standstill.

In the years since the day at Alki Beach, Dylan had become an expert at Impossible Questions. He would creep into Hunter’s room after lights-out to ask, What’s at the bottom of a black hole in space? Is a red blanket still red in the dark? Why don’t zombies eat their own flesh? Hunter would pass one of his ear buds to Dylan and they’d let the Sonics or the Rolling Stones answer as best they could.

 

Why do I sense things no one else can? Dylan asked himself now, standing outside the prep school gymnasium where his brother’s basketball game was taking place. He knew the crowd was about to roar. He felt the hum in his bones, without even seeing the action.

And sure enough, a moment later, the cheer erupted.

He opened the door and stood in the doorway. Gray-and-purple banners emblazoned with Hevlen Preparatory were slung on the walls. “Heavily Perspiring,” Dylan and his friends had used to joke, sophomore year—before Dylan had gotten kicked out for cheating. Now it was fall of his junior year.

A boy in a gray Hevlen blazer edged through the doorway: Blaine, who used to sit with Dylan at lunch so they could program modifications to their favorite PC games. He tipped his carton of popcorn toward Dylan and said, “Is it true that some kids carry knives to class in public school?”

“That’s why we get those metal rulers,” Dylan said, reaching into the carton. “Levels the playing field.”

The air in the gym was warm, but Dylan suddenly wished he’d worn a jacket, because Blaine was staring at the peeling letters on Dylan’s T-shirt that spelled out Put on Your 3-D Glasses.

“It seemed cool in my mom’s pawnshop,” Dylan said. “Anyway, my old Hevlen uniform’s too small now.”

“I wish I didn’t have to wear this thing.” Blaine flicked the collar of his blazer. “Think I should defect? Try my luck with metal rulers?”

Dylan tried to laugh, coughed out a popcorn kernel instead. Blaine eyed Dylan’s slouching frame. “Hevlen has to expel somebody at the end of each year. To keep the rest of us sweating.” He studied his popcorn carton and shrugged. “Probably only picked you because you were on scholarship.”

Dylan tried to give off an air of sure, fine, leaning back against the doorway. That odd electricity hummed in his bones again and then, what do you know, out on the court his brother sank another three-pointer. The crowd chanted his name: Hun-ter, Hun-ter!

The other team called a time-out. The hum in Dylan’s bones subsided. He had a clear view of his brother standing a head taller than the rest of his team. Everything about Hunter’s face was rugged—sheer-cliff forehead, wide chin. Even his sideburns looked like they were trying to reclaim territory ceded to his ears.

“Your grades weren’t really that bad, though, were they?” Blaine asked. “You were on the team that went to math regionals.”

“I cheated on my finals. Zero tolerance rule. Whatever.”

Blaine’s eyes widened.

“We actually debated the legality of that zero tolerance rule in philosophy class,” Dylan said. “Whether it’s really fair to kick someone out for a first offense.”

“They have philosophy in public school? Huh, wow.”

Dylan didn’t answer.

On the court, Hunter slid past the point guard and flipped the ball up to the basket.

Blaine’s mouth hung open. “It’s like someone spliced dolphin DNA into his.”

The air in the gym was way too warm, the popcorn smell stifling. “I’m gonna go,” Dylan said. “See you online sometime?”

“You know my gamer tag.”

Dylan strode toward the bench where the second string was watching the game and grabbed Hunter’s jacket. It would be cold out in the parking lot.

As Dylan turned back toward the door, he was startled to see Dad sitting in the bleachers. What was he doing here? He never came to Hunter’s basketball games. Maybe I’m seeing things again, Dylan thought.

Then the crowd shifted and he glimpsed another face that didn’t belong: the face of a girl he hadn’t seen in ages, except in his memories. His stomach twisted.

Definitely seeing things.

The buzzer signaled the end of the game. Dylan lost sight of both Dad and the girl as the crowd stood to cheer. He found a ski cap in the pocket of Hunter’s jacket and tugged it on over his ears as he hurried outside, bristling with confusion.

Out in the parking lot: pale twilight. The cheers gave way to leaves skittering over asphalt, car doors popping open. The typical Seattle smell of rain and salt was in the air, plus a brewing wind. The tops of the distant maple trees shook as if a monster might charge through the branches at any moment, like something out of Jurassic Park.

That sound—leaves rustling in the dark. Dylan closed his eyes. Waited a beat, and then opened them. He half expected the trees to have disappeared, half thought he’d be transported to somewhere else. Where, he couldn’t say.

Why do I see things no one else can see?

In his head, Dad’s voice asked, What kinds of things?

He’d seen that girl in the gym before. Seen her face lit by sunlight. But where? Who was she? A phantom from his memory, someone he had known long ago. But who?

********** (End of Part 1 excerpt) **********

 

2.

WHEN WE WERE TV

(ten years from now)

BRIXNEY

My training at Flavor Foam went something like this: “First you punch the proper button on the machine, which releases the mold—maybe of Robert Pattinson In His Heyday or Cartoon Princess Number Five.” That was my manager speaking. One of two managers, so I tend to think of him as Mr. One. I think of the other as the Other One. Mr. One is skinny as a mendicant and always has his palms pressed together as if he’s begging me to do these things. Please, please press the button next to the corresponding image. Please don’t break the mold, or if you do, please try to land safely on your ass when I give you the boot.

“The mold goes on the souvenir plastic plate,” Mr. One begged, extending his palms toward me and the mold in turn, “and then the nozzle of the injector goes into the top, and then the edible foam goes into the mold. Does the customer want a flavor gel? Most likely the customer does. Use the gel gun to shoot that in too.”

He gave a very long pause here and squinted at me with concern, like he wasn’t sure I could handle all of the instructions at once. The gel gun dripped purple goo on the counter. “It’ll be your job to clean this up, by the way,” he whispered to me.

I nodded and wondered if he meant right then. But he plowed on.

“The mold gets removed in two pieces,” he said, breaking it apart and tossing said pieces into the return bin, “and then you’ve got Boisterous-Berry Action Star Turned Family Film Dad or whatever.”

We stood back to admire the Flavor Foam Head’s paternal grin. The purple gel glistened in the overhead lights. I secretly think Flavor Foam Heads are the weirdest snack ever invented. They’re supposedly made of “plant proteins” and “stabilizing agents,” whatever that means. I suspect they might actually be made of injectable wall insulation, but they’re somehow delicious, especially with Fudgsicle flavor gel. Plus, they’re low-fat.

And the foam looks good onscreen—shiny and colorful and weird enough to make you look twice. Flavor Foam has cameras jutting from every corner and TV screens mounted on the walls so customers and employees can enjoy a few minutes of manufactured fame. The thought that Flavor Foam’s customers can watch me screw up onscreen used to horrify me. But now I’m used to it.

“We have all the FeedBin molds over here.” Mr. One indicated a new machine on the counter. “These are a big hit with kids obsessed with the videos on FeedBin that’ve gone viral. They want to eat Flavor Foam Heads of ordinary people who become overnight Internet sensations, like Grumpy Boy Swearing He’ll Never Sneeze Again. But don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s only kids who want this. Adults want it too. They want to get Man Who Makes Millions Selling Comic-Con Costumes Out Of His Basement so they can smash in his Flavor Foam Head as punishment for his undue success.”

And for his weird haircut, I wanted to add.

I’d actually watched some of that guy’s online feed once. He’d installed a camera in his basement so you could see how he carved up styrene sheets for costume armor. But the camera was attached to the ceiling, so mostly you got to see the back of his head as he leaned over his worktable.

People will watch anything halfway interesting on FeedBin, even a video of someone eating weird food like flavor foam. All they want is to get lost in Random Internet Weirdness Land.

These days I’m pretty much stuck in Crippled By Debt Since Sudden Death Of Parents Land. Hence the new job.

“And Brixney?” Mr. One pleaded, palms pressed to his heart. “We like to be camera-ready at all times here. So, the Woe Is Me face? That’s not going to work.”

I gave him a sudden, startled smile that probably made me look like Toddler Confronted By Hungry Water Fowl.

“Exactly,” Mr. One said, bowing his head in reverent approval. “That really rounds out the customer-­slash-viewer experience.”

 

I spend my breaks poking around on my handheld e-frame—a sadly outdated, brick-like model that I rent from the debtors’ colony where my older brother and I live because he’s so far in debt. For work, I use its recognition software to identify appetizers so that I don’t accidentally serve gravy fries to a kid who’s ordered cheese fries (trust me, our gravy and our cheese look identical). But during my breaks, I use it to browse FeedBin for top-rated feeds.

I like to watch the feeds from cameras planted in stores and offices and restaurants. Even a lot of security cameras are connected to the Internet these days, although I don’t really care to watch someone standing in an elevator. Sometimes I find a real gem of a feed coming in through the built-in camera in someone else’s e-frame. People will whip out their e-frames to film just about anything happening around them and they’re not shy about sharing it on the Internet. A lot of times that’s the best way to catch the weirdest or coolest or most embarrassing stuff. Not everyone likes to be on camera—I get that. But if a big corporation decides your feed is popular enough to advertise on, it means you get a cut of their ad revenue, so at least you get paid for your humiliation.

Lately I prefer to watch streaming video of People Having The Worst Day Ever so I can add sympathetic emoji in the comments section (except my e-frame doesn’t support emoji, so I have to transcribe them): Jaycub of Mill Creek gets dumped for a guy wearing a shirt that says Llamas Love Me (Teary Face). Middle-aged Darren goes on a series of soul-crushing interviews, during which he realizes his computer skills are hopelessly outdated for today’s job market (Dismayed Face). Overlarge Allasin weeps on the pioneer costume of a Little-Bitty Prairie ride-operator because her overlarge son can’t fit in the safety harness for Wagon Train Chase (Dismay with Inverted Eyebrows).

Sometimes I use my e-frame to call up their locations, the Jaycubs and Darrens and Allasins. I think about heading out to Mill Creek Mall or Technology Is Supreme Office Park to watch the events unfold before my own eyes, or even stick out my e-frame to add another feed to the Bin. But then I think of Griffin.

I met Griffin at the MyFuture debtors’ colony when my older brother (and legal guardian) was sent there with me in tow. Griffin had been in with his dad for three years already because of a massive amount of credit card debt that had been bought out by a ruthless collection agency. My brother had a messy mortgage that he’d tried to take on after our parents’ death, plus medical bills from our parents’ last few comatose weeks of life. In hindsight, we should have sold the house right after our parents’ car accident and used the money to pay the hospital. But how can you sell the rickety porch your dad built, or your parents’ bedroom, or the marks your mom’s favorite swivel chair left on the wall? You can’t. So you end up giving it to the bank when your mortgage falls into default.

Griffin got me the job at Flavor Foam so I could help my brother chip away at his debt and get out of MyFuture. As a minor, I can’t have any debt attached to me and can come and go as I please. But Brandon’s stuck there, can’t even go around the corner to get a burger or take a swim in the lake or anything. Not even to, say, get a job with which to pay off his debt. What he can do is try to come up with some clever activity that will make his feed popular and attract advertisers. But nothing that involves nudity, or suggesting nudity, or suggesting anything else that typically goes on in a motel, because then the government comes in and confiscates all of MyFuture’s cameras and e-frames, and no one makes money, least of all Visa. The government doesn’t mind what your average person does with a camera and an Internet connection, but it’s pretty intent on preventing debtors’ colonies from becoming porn plantations.

Residents in MyFuture are great at pulling together to attract hits on their feeds. Once we did a reinterpretation of Les Misérables, with Javert as an obsessive collection agent and Jean Valjean doing everything he could to avoid having his adopted daughter grow up in a debtors’ colony. Small-time review sites called it “poignant” and “relevant,” but Rotten Tomatoes never mentioned it, and it didn’t catch on at FeedBin.

We also had a good gig going where we charged local schools to bring in kids so they could see firsthand the dangers of high interest rate credit cards. But a couple of credit companies shut that down real fast with some bad press about children being exposed to former addicts and dropouts.

Brandon did everything he could to play up our own hardships for the camera—Isn’t It Sad That A Couple Of Orphans Are Stuck In A Mold-Infested Motel With Former Gamblers And Alcoholics? We got a week’s worth of advertising by drawing out an argument about me quitting school to get a job.

And people really tuned in to see my relationship with Griffin build.

The first time Griffin saw me, I was crying in the stairwell at MyFuture. It was my first day there and I’d just found out Brandon and I had to share a room with another person and discretion dictated that I sleep on a cot in the bathroom.

Griffin tried to cheer me up by telling me that at least the place had a pool.

But there’s no water in it, I said.

You have to bring your own, Griffin said.

I wiped my eyes on my sleeve and peered up at him from the dingy carpet of the stairwell landing. I figured this was the best he could do at being funny, so I played along. No one told me, I said.

He considered for a moment and then said, I could let you borrow mine. He took my hand and pulled me up while I was still trying to figure out if he was joking. Then he led me outside and down into the empty pool, where an entire sloping wall was covered with 3-D chalk art of a whale swimming in sun-lit water. It was so beautiful that the only thing I could think of to say was, This is better than the water I would have brought from home. And Griffin shrugged and said, It’s the only water you can’t get wet.

He had tons of ideas, all the time. Once he used his chalk to add a footnote to the slogan MyFuture had painted on a giant sign on the roof:

MyFuture

where my future belongs to me*

*once I obtain a release of lien

He always told me not to take it all so seriously. Stop staring at the sidewalk, he would say at the plaza. It’s not like you’re in debt to these specific people. And I’d try to shake the feeling that tourists were going to walk up to me and demand that I pay them for the toothpaste I’d used that morning.

With Griffin, it was easier not to wallow in self-pity. So I spent all my time with him, at work and at MyFuture. In the mornings when the food truck delivered breakfast, the cost of which was added to our debts, we’d peel the foil off our plates and fashion it into ninja stars. In the evenings, we’d browse FeedBin, watching families watch TV together, and spying on old friends from schools we’d never again attend. On clear nights, when the stars were white on black instead of smoggy gray, we’d lie on the roof together and say cheesy things like, At least they can’t charge us for moonlight. Although later they did, by way of imposing a curfew and fining those of us who broke it.

Then Griffin started talking about us leaving the colony together and sorry if that meant not helping alleviate our families’ debts but didn’t I want a future? A real future without a lien on it? Our sobby love story got decent ratings, enough to pull in ad revenue, even. Customers came into Flavor Foam to watch me argue with Griffin in person. Mr. One had our supplier make a mold in the shape of Griffin’s head. You can still order Lover Boy With Big Plans To Get Out Of This Town, although nobody does. Nobody except me.

The day Griffin turned eighteen, he took his share of the revenue we’d gotten from companies who had advertised on our feeds and he bought us Tickets To The Big City. But I wouldn’t leave Brandon alone in a debtors’ colony with no way to get out. So Griffin left and I had to do (terrible, disproportionate) chalk art on my own. And I stopped going on the roof to look at stars. And I stopped watching feeds of happy families in real living rooms. And foil was just foil.

********** (End of Part 2 excerpt) **********

 

3.

WHEN WE WENT HIGH-CONCEPT

(thirty years from now)

EPONY

Cole and I come from a town in Iowa with one main road—one way in and one way out. He was Colburn then. Now he’s Cole. They made him do that.

Any time I walked past his house, his chickens would follow me to the edge of the yard like I was their mother hen. They were partial to me. I understood the feeling—more than once during the summer I was sixteen I found myself following the siren strum of Cole’s battered guitar. He’d sit on his porch and play rage-rock tunes slow as love ballads, crooning about oil wars, his anger locked tight in his throat.

He’d play at the creek bend where the small boys swung from rope lengths over the water like pendulums, arcing through the air out of sync with his staccato rhythms. They had yet to learn the reality of coaxing corn out of soil so desiccated by chemicals you had to use more chemicals to make anything grow. Cole sang it to them.

I listened, out of sight. Half because I was fascinated Cole had started caring about anything other than trucks, which he’d drawn on the back of every school assignment when we were in the fifth grade. Half because hearing Cole’s voice was like waking up slowly and listening to someone tell you where you are.

Once last August, he stood in the creek, guitar abandoned on the bank, and called to me, “Did you come all the way here to lurk in the trees?”

I startled. At school he hardly talked to me, mostly because he hardly talked to anyone. Rumor had it there was a sign-up sheet going around for people who wanted to have a full conversation with him. But I knew that was just teasing. I knew because I was the one who’d started the rumor.

I kicked off my shoes and moved in knee-deep. The shock of cold water stole my breath. Cole was dark from the sun, his yellow hair like parched grass. He cocked his head to the side like my grandpop used to do; I swear it’s a gesture taught to all farm boys who plan on growing up to make trouble. I fought to stand my ground against the current pushing at the backs of my legs.

“Can’t you swim?” Cole had asked.

“I learned in this creek. They threw me in and I declined the opportunity to drown.”

It surprised us both that we had anything left to laugh about. The price of seed had gone up that year like it had every year. We got patented seeds that were supposed to withstand the pests migrating from places where it was even hotter, but the patent meant we weren’t allowed to store the seed for replanting.

Cole shivered; the water around him rippled. “Can’t you come any closer, then?”

I took a few hobbled steps forward, unsure whether to brave the icy temperatures. The current and his smile soon convinced me.

 

A few days later, I was walking toward town to buy a Coke when the sound of Cole’s guitar floated to me over stands of late-summer witchgrass. I stopped to sit on the fence he had propped himself against and asked him if he ever watched feeds about people visiting from the Other Place. “You look half vanished, standing in that grass,” I told him. “Ever seen them do that? Just step between worlds?”

Everyone had seen those videos, so Cole only smirked like we were sharing a joke. “I saw a video of one showing up at a dentist’s office. He just stood there, bug-eyed, watching a woman get her teeth cleaned.”

I laughed. I had seen a lot more than that—had actually met one in person, which wasn’t that common, except in big cities. But Cole was studying me like he didn’t much care to talk about other people at the moment. I stared back. His county fair T-shirt was too small for him, and the date under the logo pinpointed the start of his growth spurt at two years earlier. Why had it taken me so long to notice?

“It’s hot as hell,” Cole said, pulling at his shirt.

“I wouldn’t know, personally,” I joked. “But I’ll take your word for it.”

Cole laughed, and he left his guitar right there propped in the grass so we could walk to the creek.

We met at the creek all through September—after school, weekends. We sunned ourselves on gravel bed islands and hoped the younger kids didn’t watch us kissing. When the rainstorms finally came and the creek swelled, our islands disappeared, so we sat in Cole’s barn instead. I missed the sound of the world rushing past us, the water surging over rocks.

That spring, just after my seventeenth birthday, the government blew up the levees protecting southern Louisiana and let the area flood so that New Orleans wouldn’t. The government had stopped footing the bill for relocating people after hurricanes had destroyed so much of Florida’s coastline that they had to let Disney buy out the entire state. So just before the levees blew, the mega-corporations swooped into southern Louisiana to promote their new townships and evaluate everyone for sponsored relocation. Unlike all those poor people in China’s floodplains. Google was never going to knock on their doors offering to move them to drier parts. I kept my eyes glued to the newsfeeds because Grandpop had warned me that our farm, so close to the Mississippi River, was in a floodplain too.

At first, my dad said the government wouldn’t let our land flood, that the country needed every bit of corn it could get, because the heat and wind were hard at work turning places like Nebraska and Kansas into sand dunes, destroying farmland and cattle ranches.

But when the Mississippi started swelling, it was a choice between cities, with their people and businesses, and farmland. The farmland would have to go. Ours included.

We heard a rumor that Microsoft-Verizon, which boasted the most luxurious townships in the country, had plans to come around and evaluate everyone for relocation. “What are they going to do with a bunch of farmers?” Cole said. “They’re not going to relocate us. We don’t have anything they want.”

He took to hanging out with some older boys who itched to make someone else feel as desperate as they did. On a hot day at the creek, I saw one of them hold a little boy under the water until he stopped thrashing and then let him up just in time. At night, Cole would slip away to meet up with them—in the attic room of that girl whose parents go to town most weekends, or at that guy’s half-done house where the front is mostly bare plywood. Cole and his friends would get so drunk so fast, Cole told me, it was like someone was holding their heads underwater and their day had come full cycle.

Sometimes I’d go with him and we’d all watch feeds from different townships and talk about relocating. Or Cole would play his guitar along to the radio and change all the lyrics to swear words. Sometimes he and I would lie in the attic bed together and kiss, and wonder if we should do more than kiss, but then other times he’d be far away, staring at the ceiling, barely acknowledging the brush of my kneecap. “No one cares about this place,” Cole told me. “We don’t count for anything out here away from the big cities. We might as well be ghosts.”

Microsoft-Verizon showed up in town. They asked how many hits we usually got on our feeds. We had to tell them that we weren’t blanketed with cameras like cities were and that corn planting wasn’t all that entertaining anyway. I mentioned Cole had a solo coming up at a Woodbury Prep choir competition. They weren’t impressed.

The Mississippi went on rising. Our days were numbered.

********** (End of Part 3 excerpt) **********

 

4.

WHEN WE COULD HARDLY CONTAIN OURSELVES

(sixty years from now)

REEF

The closest eighteen-year-old Reef ever got to the alternate universe was through a massively multiplayer virtual-reality role-playing game called Alt.

When he walked the streets of Seattle wearing his digital goggles, ordinary buildings changed into sleek alien architecture. But he wasn’t really seeing the Other Place—he never would, with a vorpal as weak as his. It was all a mirage, a virtual game for people like him who were left out of the real fun.

Decades ago the government had tried to help people cross over into the Other Place. Then one day, someone famous figured out how to do it on her own—a pop star named Epony. She had an act going where she pretended to be an alien, but it didn’t take long for people to figure out she was just an ordinary person who’d found a way into the Other Place. After she left, her boyfriend Cole kept singing about it until pretty soon everyone was heading to Seattle, escaping withered farmlands and flooded coasts to try to cross into a new world. And when that first wave of newcomers died down, when everyone forgot about Cole’s songs—there came Alt.

Alt was played in every major city in the U.S., a game/travel ad. People lost themselves in that virtual world, in a fabrication of the Other Place, and then they wanted the real thing. So they came to Seattle to test their vorpal’s strength. The Seattle sprawl was now a dense jumble of miniaturized, pre-fab “container” homes jammed between old buildings. All squares and rectangles, a pixilated city. The place everyone flocked to and no one wanted to live in, the overlap between our world and a land of opportunity.

Those who made it to the Other Place found the same sights Reef saw through his digital goggles when he played Alt: a glass city threaded with silvery canals, studded with trees, surrounded by mountain peaks vaulting over all. An alien city the aliens specially renovated to host denser beings. Those who couldn’t cross over made do with Seattle instead. They lived like Reef did—sheltering in container homes, fighting over government-issued food tickets, collecting rainwater in catch basins. Playing Alt while pining for the Other Place.

Reef had seen people enter the alternate universe. Sometimes he could tell when someone was trying to go to the Other Place, could see the glaze in their eyes that meant they were glimpsing another world. He would shadow them as they stumbled down a Seattle street. When they disappeared, the air would waver for a moment, and Reef would try to step through the distortion and into the Other Place. It never worked.

He had seen them return too. They came gray-faced and gasping, to collapse on the sidewalk, in a cafe, in the middle of the street. They couldn’t stay more than a few months in the Other Place without getting sick and confused, no matter how the aliens worked at making their world hospitable. The nature of that universe made every human visitor miserable in time. So they returned to Seattle to wait out their sickness and cross over again.

The smart ones came back to Seattle before the sickness overwhelmed them. They crossed quietly, using their vorpals to push away anyone who noticed their sudden appearance. They brought back money from work they’d done in the Other Place, jobs ranging from menial labor to consultation on improving the alien city that hosted them for months at a time. The ones with the strongest vorpals took temporary houses in gated communities, along the waterfront, on the Floating Isle in Puget Sound. The rest huddled into the cracks of Seattle, waiting for their next chance at a payday from the Other Place.

Men were much more likely to have strong vorpals, thanks to a genetic pattern involving X-linked traits—so it was mostly men who came to cross back and forth, to make money to send to their wives and children. But crossing over in the middle of some Seattle street with alien coins jangling in your pockets meant inviting trouble. Reef had once seen a man materialize on Beacon Avenue, blink in confusion at his miscalculation, and before he could disappear back into the world he had exited, crumple under the attack of three other men. You had to attack someone like that quick, before he could use his vorpal to dissuade you. Before someone else jumped him and stole your payday. It was a common sight in the sprawl: blood on the asphalt, bodies in the gutter.

Reef found other ways to make money.

“Sir, will you listen to my tale of distress?” A holographic woman in a low-cut silvery dress stepped from a doorway. “An infestation of trolls plagues these parts.”

The façade projected behind her was tiered, swooping glass slick with a bright sheen of rain—an alien sight if Reef ever saw one. The holographic woman was straight out of a Girl Queen movie, complete with a pair of tiny wings that marked her as a sylph. Reef seriously doubted that elves and sylphs and slavering beasts roamed the Other Place, but they lurked in every corner of Alt’s game world. Apparently, the aliens weren’t interesting enough to make for video game characters.

“Their filth is everywhere, our children are sick,” the sylph woman continued. “Do you know how to send the trolls back to the woods?”

Olly came up behind Reef, goggles in hand. “Sure—go to one of their spawn points, unleash a Desiccation Spell to strip their defenses, and call down a Siege Flame,” he mumbled, fidgeting with the strap of his goggles. He was always making the strap too tight, which explained the deep circular impressions around his eyes—and the nickname Owl Eyes, Olly for short. “But that’s not what we’re going to do.”

Reef raised his eyebrows. “Why not?” It was as good a way as any to send trolls running back to the Seattle park that served as the Warped Wood. It would take all of four minutes, and Reef could return to the sylph to receive a Health Elixir as his prize.

“I’ve read about this quest on a forum,” Olly said. “If you tell her you don’t know how to get rid of trolls, she’ll send you on a quest to score a Banishment Spell. Do you know how much money people will pay for a Banishment Spell?”

“Yeah, I have an idea.” Reef’s heart sped up as he did some quick mental calculations.

“Whatever number you’re coming up with—divide it by two.”

“You’re just going to cut in on my quest?”

The sylph shifted on the sidewalk, waiting for Reef to interact with her again. Olly powered on his goggles and now Reef saw him overlaid with an image of his avatar, a muscular Warrior in a shell of armor. Reef’s own avatar was a Knight in sword-nicked chainmail.

“I’m going to help you on your quest.” Olly grinned at Reef. “You’re welcome. Good news is, this is the easiest way to score a Banishment Spell you ever heard of. She’s going to send you to the Immigration Office and then you just have to answer some riddles.”

Reef frowned. “Too easy. Probably hiding a virus.”

“No virus. I checked the forums.”

“A leech, then. Those are worse.”

“Who cares? You only have to hold on to the Banishment Spell long enough to sell it to the highest bidder. It’ll be out of your hard drive within an hour, and the leech with it.”

Reef turned up his jacket collar against the rain-flecked wind. “I’m not selling someone a spell that’s infected with a leech.”

“Would you like to eat breakfast today?” Olly said grimly.

“I’ll get rid of the leech and take the government bounty instead.”

“And get half the money you’d get if you sold the spell.”

“I’m not selling it, Olly.” Reef bowed his head against a gust of wind. He tried not to notice the gouges in the holographic leather of his Alt boots, or the muck on his sneakers underneath the projection. “You know what leeches do?”

“Sit in your hard drive and don’t bother anyone at all?”

“Until D-day. Then they use your network to wreak havoc on government systems.”

The rain distorted the projection of the sylph so that she rippled as though with impatience. “Sir, will you listen to my tale of distress?” she asked Reef again.

Olly spoke over her. “What do you care about government systems? You don’t even have running water. You pee in a bucket.”

Reef shot him a resentful look. “I use the bathroom at McDonald’s.”

“When they let you in.”

Another gamer was coming up the street, ducking under awnings and searching for a quest to take on. His Mercenary’s belt bristled with dagger hilts and he looked like he’d be as happy to steal loot as to earn it from questing.

“An infestation of trolls plagues these parts,” Reef prompted the sylph, itching now to move on.

“Do you know how to send the trolls back to the woods?” the sylph asked.

Reef eyed the approaching gamer. “No,” he told the sylph. “How do you get a troll back to the woods?”

Olly grinned and leaned toward Reef. “Sounds like a joke I know. How do you get a troll to—”

“The sphinx can help you with this quest,” the sylph cut in. She hadn’t registered Olly’s presence. “Seek out her lair in the Immigration Office.”

Reef dug out a tin and retrieved a bit of gray-green resin thin as a matchstick and stuck it in his mouth, then wished he could spit it out. It tasted awful. “You need to work on your punch lines,” he told the sylph.

He shoved the tin back in his pocket. Two pitiful sticks left. Running out of resin would mean a trip to the hospital, but he tried not to think about that. He pulled Olly on toward the hotel that served as the game’s Immigration Office.

********** (End of Part 4 excerpt) **********

 

5.

WHEN WE ENDED IT ALL

(more than one hundred years from now)

DYLAN

On the first day, you will tell your story. On the second, I will tell mine. On the third, one of us will die.

You will choose who.

********** (End of Part 5 excerpt) **********

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