Seventeen-year-old Lake spends her days searching a strange, post-apocalyptic landscape for people who have forgotten one very important thing: this isn’t reality. Everyone she meets is a passenger aboard a ship that’s been orbiting Earth since a nuclear event. The simulation that was supposed to prepare them all for life after the apocalypse has trapped their minds in a shared virtual reality and their bodies in stasis chambers.
No one can get off the ship until all of the passengers are out of the sim, and no one can get out of the sim unless they believe it’s a simulation. It’s up to Lake to help them remember.
When Lake reveals the truth to a fellow passenger, seventeen-year-old Taren, he joins her mission to find everyone, persuade them that they’ve forgotten reality, and wake them up. But time’s running out before the simulation completely deconstructs, and soon Taren’s deciding who’s worth saving and who must be sacrificed for the greater good. Now, Lake has no choice but to pit herself against Taren in a race to find the secret heart of the sim, where something waits that will either save them or destroy them all.
opens in a new window[dropcap type=”circle”]T[/dropcap]he sim was shrinking.
With every person who woke, a section of it closed for good.
So why was it still so full of empty pockets?
Lake wandered a neighborhood where the houses sat at drunken angles, their foundations cracked in soggy soil. Every door along the street stood open.
“Where did they go?” Lake wondered aloud.
She sat on the tilted porch of an empty house, her head in her hands. It was getting harder to find pockets of the sim she hadn’t already searched. And the pockets she did find were lonely places, full of gloom and silence.
But there was one place she could go that she knew wouldn’t be empty.
She got to her feet and turned toward the unfamiliar house whose porch she’d been moping on, wishing now with her whole heart that it was her own house. She closed the front door, waited a beat, opened it again.
It should have led her into a stranger’s cobwebbed home. Instead, Lake stepped right through to the backyard, as if the front of the house were a movie-set façade.
Not just any backyard, either.
Her own. Patchy lawn, birch tree, and—
“Willow.” Lake’s breath went out of her.
There was Willow, kneeling in the middle of the yard, holding an ordinary garden spade like an ordinary person.
Her small, wiry frame was bent with determination. Brown hair mostly free from its ponytail, pointed chin smudged with dirt. Jacket hanging off one shoulder in that way she’d started wearing it.
But it’s not really her. It’s just the sim.
Lake stepped onto the grass, and it gave under her feet just like real grass. The jasmine along the back fence thickened the air with sweetness. Bees droned, unseen. In the shade of the birch tree, Willow smoothed a patch of dirt with her garden spade. She pushed messy hair away from her face, just like a real person would. The sun shone, birds whistled. So real.
Lake tried saying what a real sister would say: “I’ve been looking for you everywhere, dummy.”
“Everywhere but the backyard of the house I live in?” Willow said, cracking a smile. “Who’s the dummy, then?”
This isn’t real. Willow’s messy hair hanging like smoke around her face. Her bare feet glowing in the sunlight at the edge of the birch’s shade.
“Mom’s going to be mad that you were digging in her yard,” Lake said.
“I buried something.”
Back home, Willow always did stuff like that. Collected shells from the nearby beach and hid them in her drawer, found sticks in the garden and made fairy houses under the bushes. “That’s not going to make Mom any happier.”
“I like knowing there’s a secret under the dirt,” Willow said. “I like that there’s something in the world that only I know about.”
Lake held out her hand and helped Willow up, astonished that Willow’s palm against hers was enough to tame the fierce loneliness she’d felt only moments before.
From her sister’s wrist hung a blue bracelet of knotted thread, matching Lake’s own. Strange, how something so insubstantial could keep them tethered to each other.
“Come on,” Lake said. “If you’re done burying treasure.”
Willow tried to turn back to the house, thinking they were going inside. And the sim would have obliged her, if Lake wanted it to. It would re-create their home, right down to the scuff marks on the kitchen tile.
But Lake said, “Not in there. I can’t . . .”
Willow gave her a questioning look.
“I can’t go in there,” Lake said. It was a vault she’d never get out of. “Let’s use the gate.”
She led Willow to the tall fence and lifted the latch on the gate.
“We’re not going to the pier again, are we?” Willow asked. “It’s creepy when there’s no one else there. The carousel looks haunted—all those sun-bleached horses.”
“No. I’m tired of empty places.” Lake opened the gate, picturing the place she wanted to go next.
“I buried something,” Willow said before Lake could steer her through.
“You said that already.”
“I like that there’s something in the world that only I—”
“Please, Will.” Lake pressed her eyes closed, unnerved. “You’re repeating yourself.”
Willow sighed. “You think everything I do is annoying.”
Lake tugged Willow’s jacket back onto her shoulder. Willow slipped it right back off. Just like the real Willow would.
Lake’s heart squeezed. I shouldn’t keep coming here.
She took Willow’s hand and turned to the gate. “Good thing I’d rather be annoyed by you than entertained by anyone else.”
No more lonely neighborhoods, Lake decided. Not today.
So here was a pub. Scuffed doorway, high-backed wooden booths, dull copper walls. Muted piano music, as though someone were playing in a back room. Lake knew every note. Same tune every time she came.
Same boy at the bar, now adding to a ceiling-high model bridge made entirely of toothpicks. Ransom had a gift for making his corner of the sim ordinary and dreamlike at the same time.
Lake walked toward him, her worn boots hitting the wooden floor with a noise that made him turn on his stool. He leaned back against the bar, his shirt stretching over his chest, his body forming a long, sloping line. Lake breathed smoke that hadn’t been there a moment ago, saw the gloom in his eyes veiled through it. She pressed herself against the bar next to him. “Good day or bad day?” she asked.
He intertwined his fingers with hers. The warmth of his palm melted some of her anxiety. “Want to guess?”
Lake looked over his toothpick bridge rising from bar to ceiling. A jagged mass of splinters. “That the Golden Gate?”
“Does it look golden.” His voice dropped on the last word. He drew in a mouthful of the smoke hanging in the air and blew it back out.
“How about I buy you a drink?” Lake said.
He lifted her hand in his and kissed her knuckles. “Ah, but we’re all out of ice. Not to mention glasses. And anything liquid.” He nodded at the bottles lined up behind the bar, faintly wet but otherwise empty, rows of glass teeth.
Lake sank back from him. “Why are you punishing yourself?”
“Maybe I’ve got a limited imagination.”
Pennies covered the pub’s walls in careful rows, glinting through the tracery of smoke. Ransom’s creation, along with the rest of the pub. “I’ll never believe that.” Lake trailed her fingers over his temple.
He pulled away from her touch, apparently unable to escape whichever particular brand of gloom had overcome him that day. Or no—something else was making him uneasy. Lake followed his gaze to where Willow sat in a booth like she was waiting for service, the green of her jacket muted by swirling smoke.
“Aren’t you going to say hi to Willow?” Lake asked.
Ransom threw Lake a dark look and turned back to his toothpick bridge. “Why are you punishing yourself, Lake?”
Smoke in her lungs, in her stomach.
Ransom sighed. “Hi, Willow.” He balanced a toothpick on a bridge strut. It quivered, then stuck, like a magnet to iron.
“He doesn’t like me,” Willow said to the smoke floating around her. She offered Ransom a catlike smile. “Is it because I’m thirteen and crashing your bar? Or is it the other thing?”
“There’s no alcohol here,” Ransom pointed out.
“So it’s the other thing. The not real thing.”
Lake tugged on Ransom’s hand, desperate to redirect the conversation. “Don’t be upset about Willow. I can only spend so much of my time in the sim by myself.”
He traced his thumb over hers. “So don’t spend so much time in the sim. You hang around fake people more than you do real people.”
Lake got that feeling again: smoke churning in her stomach. “Someone has to clear the place out.”
Ransom turned to work on his bridge, so Lake’s view was only of his tensed back.
“Most of the pockets I find lately are empty,” Lake said. “Any idea where everyone’s gone?”
“They must be grouping together.”
“You haven’t seen anyone lately?”
Ransom shrugged. “Don’t get around much.”
Lake watched him add to his impressive sculpture. “Do you even try anymore?”
“I try.” He rubbed a hand over his eyes. “I wind up in the same few pockets. The beach where we met, a couple other places. The sim doesn’t work right for me.”
“And no one comes here.”
“No one except you.” He gave Willow a reluctant glance. “And her.”
“What a nice bridge,” Willow said, an edge to her voice. “Did you do the pennies, too?” She peered through the smoke at the pub’s copper walls.
“You asked me that last time,” Ransom said, taking another toothpick from a box on the bar.
“When was that?” Willow asked.
Ransom nudged the toothpick into place. “Hard to measure time here. Let’s say, one bridge ago.”
Willow stood and wandered closer to the bar. “Once at school they showed us a black-and-white photo of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was all jagged, hanging in the air on cables.” She touched the splintered edge of the toothpick bridge, frowning as if in concern. “If you didn’t know it was half-built, you’d think a monster had snapped it in half.”
Ransom dropped his toothpick at the word snapped. “Don’t break my bridge, Willow.”
“I would never,” Willow said flatly, her hand still lingering.
Ransom picked up the fallen toothpick, licked it so it’d stay in place, stuck it on a ladderlike bridge-tower. “It’s all I have to show for my time in the sim.”
“You met me in the sim,” Lake reminded him.
Ransom smiled. “Guess the sim’s not all bad, then.”
Lake thought of the dappled shade the birch tree made in her simulated backyard. Thought of Willow kneeling in grass as if it were another ordinary day. No, it’s not all bad. That’s what makes it so dangerous. “The music’s not the best,” she said.
“You don’t like my music?” Ransom said, and in the back room the piano playing stopped.
“Well. I like hearing what kind of music you listen to when no one’s around.”
“Sad shit, mostly.” He cracked another smile. “Gets me in the mood for when company finally comes around.”
She slipped her hands into his and pulled him closer, wishing she were one of his magnetic toothpicks and he were a toothpick bridge. “I wish I could come more often.”
“I wish I could leave.”
She dropped his hands. “That would be nice.” She gestured toward the bridge. “Ever seen it in person?”
Ransom tipped his head to one side, neither a yes nor a no.
“I could help you if you would tell me things like that,” Lake said. “If you would tell me anything about your life before.”
“I don’t like it when you do your trick on me,” Ransom told Lake. “The thing you do to people who are stuck in the sim.”
“The thing I do? You mean, help people get out?”
“You think you can figure me out and I’ll suddenly be able to leave. But that would only help if my problem was remembering what’s real and what’s not.” He looked at Willow, who stood now at the wall, trying in vain to dislodge a penny.
I remember Willow isn’t real. How could I forget? “You won’t let me help you because you’re afraid I can’t,” Lake told him.
“I won’t let you help me because I don’t want you wasting more time in the sim than you have to.”
Lake smiled sadly. “I don’t believe you.”
“You never do.” He rested a hand on her shoulder. “Not when I tell you how dangerous the sim is, or when I tell you it’s got a stronger grip on you than you think.”
Lake pulled away from him, uneasy at the desperation in his voice. He wants me to stay away from Willow. But how can I?
“I know all of that,” she said. “What I don’t understand is how you can know the sim isn’t real and still be trapped inside it. I don’t understand why you can’t move through it the same way I can, why you get stuck.”
“I think I only go where Lake takes me in the sim,” Willow cut in. “But I’m not sure. I have a hard time remembering.”
Lake gave her a faint smile. “It’s okay, Will.”
“Maybe if someone else came with us in the sim,” Willow said, “they’d be able to take us to another pocket?”
“I can’t bring other people in,” Lake said. “Too much of a chance they’ll get stuck again.”
“Speaking of,” Ransom said. “How long have you been in today?”
“Kicking me out?”
“I don’t think she even sleeps anymore,” Willow said.
“I sleep,” Lake said.
Ransom’s face was lined with worry. “Sim-sleep doesn’t count.”
“I don’t like the dreams I have after I’ve been in the sim. They feel wrong. Blue trees, a frozen sun. I think it’s a side effect of using the sim.”
That only seemed to agitate Ransom further. The box of toothpicks fell to the floor and scattered.
Ransom didn’t bother picking them up. “I’m worried about you. I’m worried you’re spending so much time in the sim that you’re forgetting what’s real.”
“What’s the sim good for, if not for pretending to have what you can’t?” She pulled him close, ready to make that glum look vanish.
A thunder of boots from beyond the doorway.
Lake shot to her feet.
The way Taren looked at me in the eatery, like he knew.
Like he might tell someone.
“Someone knows I’m here.”
“What’re you talking about?” Ransom asked.
“The door, Ransom! Someone’s here.”
Ransom threw out a hand so that, across the pub, the door slammed shut through the sheer force of his will.
Then—a sound of thunder. Someone pounding on the door.
Lake backed along the bar, toward Willow. “Come on, Will, we have to go.”
Confusion clouded Ransom’s expression. “Lake, what’s going on?”
“Can’t you hear it?” Lake said. “Someone’s pounding on the door!”
The blows against the door kept coming. The doorknob rattled loud as gunfire.
Lake had to shout. “The door to the back room?”
“There’s no back room,” Ransom said. “That door is the only way out.” He looked between the door and Lake, still confused. But he moved to the end of the bar and grabbed a baseball bat propped there, ready to defend her.
“Forget the bat,” Lake said. “There’s got to be another way out.” She gripped Willow’s hand and pulled her around the bar to crouch on the sticky mat.
Hiding won’t work. Her lungs hurt from breathing so fast.
She turned and found a row of cabinets behind her. “Ransom! I need something to mark the cabinet door!”
A cracking sound, and then Ransom appeared with a piece of bridge he’d wrenched free. Lake pointed to the only cabinet door big enough to let them crawl through, and Ransom fell to his knees to carve an X into it.
He jerked it open. “Go.”
Lake hesitated. “What about you? It won’t work for you.”
“It’ll take me to another part of the sim, at least.”
Lake wrapped her hand around the back of his neck and pulled him into a kiss. “I’ll find you later,” she told him. Then she pushed Willow through the cabinet and crawled after her.
Woke up drenched in sweat.
Ransom’s words rang in her head: “You’re spending so much time in the sim you’re forgetting what’s real.”
She wished she could believe that Willow had woken up somewhere on the ship too.
But that hadn’t been Willow.
Just a figment.
“I miss you like crazy,” Lake said to the empty stasis chamber.
She lifted the lid and tumbled out of the bed, bones weighted with loneliness. She almost couldn’t bring herself to slide open the chamber’s steel panel, because she knew it would feel terrible not to see Willow waiting on the other side.
I’ll see her when I go back in, at least.
After a long moment, she tugged the handle and heard the click of the panel-door unlocking. It slid aside.
And there stood Taren.
Lake’s heart hammered in her chest.
So it was true: he’d guessed her secret.
“Lake?” He’d been waiting for her. And if he told the others what he knew . . .
They would make sure she’d never go back into the sim again.