The sunlight just barely peeked through the top of her pod. Silt had been building up against the Polyurethane Speck-Off Dirt Resistant All Clear™ half-sphere house for a few weeks now, but Ella wasn’t worried. She kept telling herself that the guys at PodLA knew what they were doing, and that some cleaning or extraction mechanism would kick into action soon enough. They had designed these things well. Almost too well. When they were first released in beta, the news outlets had decried the “over-engineered glass prisons” as architectural monstrosities, and said that the only good thing about them was that no one would ever see them. But the simplicity that the dwelling promised had entranced Ella, so after she finished grad school she mortgaged the rest of her life to have on to herself forever.
She was free here. Sheltered from the hellscape on the continent. Daily food and water deliveries. Every comfort a reasonable person could want. Complete access to the collected scholarly works of the world. Virtual worlds she could visit were a dime-a-dozen. Some human contact would have been nice every now and then, but at least she had access to whatever communications were still out there. These days, it was just from whichever pockets of survivors had cobbled together a connection to the web. From what she could tell, there were some larger tribes forming back on the continent. Didn’t matter - she was safe in her bubble. PodLA’s sub-drone deliveries were unaffected by the radiation, and the completely automated system showed no signs of giving up.
Her cup of reconstituted coffee suddenly listed dangerously in her hand, almost spilling onto her thumb. Another quake. She wobbled to a chair and sat just as it hit. Bigger than usual. She couldn’t feel much, other than the damn coffee that was now dripping down her wrist, but she saw the silt ebbing and creeping and layering just a bit more as her glass house sunk deeper into its epipilagic sludge.
More silt than usual today. Maybe more activity on the surface? Sometimes the aftershocks from tactical nukes in old LA worked their way out to her. She hadn’t noticed any big updates on the web, but that might be just as telling. The shaking passed, and her little bubble gurgled into its new resting place. Her GPS said she was still a few miles off the California coast, but with no one maintaining the satellites anymore, the signal was notoriously unreliable. That’s why the nukes had slowed down so much. A missile without GPS was about as accurate as a kid with a stick murdering the empty air around a piñata. The thought did not inspire hope.
Desperate for a diversion, Ella grabbed her VR leads, stuck them onto her temples and plugged into her phone. She closed her eyes and her body assumed a familiar limp position in her red chair.
She’d been through most of the good, AAA worlds at this point. She had even gone through some of the mediocre ones. The Chinese knock-off of “Titanic” had been particularly entertaining. The programmers had mistranslated so many of the old timey-words that the ship was more like a badly-kempt department store than the luxury liner from the movies.
She slowly browsed through the list, sampling a few tutorials. The leads monitored her electrical responses and after a few minutes, it recommended a barely-accessed sim that it knew she would just love. It was entitled simply: “Big Country.” She agreed to the charges and was unceremoniously dropped into the sim.
Woah. This one was good. Like. Military-grade sim good. She was standing barefoot in an open field, grass peeking through the spaces between her toes. Her avatar was some kind of settler woman from the 1800s: all very Little House on the Prairie. There were no other avatars that she could see in the sim - common these days - but unlike some of the escape-room or other game types, she didn’t see any barriers in this one. The fields just stretched out around her as far as she could see. Gentle hills covered thick with wheat and vibrant cover crops sang the quiet songs of early spring as they undulated out from her starting zone.
And it wasn’t just the draw distance. The detail was incredible. Each blade of grass was individually rendered, and she could feel the wind caressing her curled ginger hair as it whizzed up and down the fields.
Ella hiked up her worn gingham dress and eagerly made her way to the top of the nearest hill. The soft soil gently gave way under her pale feet as she scrambled up the slope. Her eyes crested the horizon and revealed an empty but full wonderland just like the last hill. A smattering of trees here and there. One long, straight, washed-out dirt road, and no trace of humanity. It was unlike any other simulation she had ever experienced.
Somewhere, in the back of her mind, she knew that she was really just a blip on a huge computer bank spinning it’s drives in San Jose. The simulation had a number, an access code, and all of her credit card information. But for now, for a glorious hour, she was a pioneer woman with all of Kansas’ natural bounty at her fingertips.
Overwhelmed with a sense of gentle comfort, she dropped onto her back and let the sun warm her face. This was a novelty she hadn’t really enjoyed in the years since she was delivered to her glass home. The wind rustled her curls and another wave of glisten oozed over the wheat field in front of her. As she watched the shimmering breeze push the stalks out of its way, she was overcome with the desire to chase it. To sink into the very grips of Mother Nature herself and join this land’s simple dance of nothing and everything.
So she did.
She sprang from her loamy bed and hurtled down the hillside. Bare feet pumping, green-and-white fabric flapping, breath ragged and determined. She broke past the one-by-one grass square and into the adjacent square of wheat field. Another breeze blew by her, pushing her even faster before rushing forward and pushing her back into second place. She found herself cresting hill after hill without looking back, laughing and sweating and running and living.
The wind was becoming more mechanical now. Syncing to her ragged breaths and chopping at her chest. It was disappointing - the San Jose computer bank must have been heating up with all the strain her unexpected speed had put on its processors. But it was too glorious to allow herself to be defeated. This was the best game she’d ever played. The only rule was simple and clear: Be free, child.
The ground had begun to level out, and in the distance, she could now see the fields as they were being drawn. She caught a glimpse of the empty grid beyond a one-by-one patch of tilled soil just ahead. Steady now. Come on, San Jose.
Her race was coming to an end. Her avatar had run out of breath, and she could feel each breath of simulated air tearing at her throat. But her mind was much stronger than this body, and she urged herself on through the expanse. The view of the grid was getting larger. Shit. Come on, San Jose. Draw. Draw, damnit. She stepped onto the final rendered one-by-one field of plowed dirt. The soil didn’t respond to the heavy thunks of her heels anymore. It was rigid and unresponsive. With the last of her energy, she leapt across the glowing black threshold and felt her avatar melt away as she crossed the plane between the sim and a black expanse.
The grid. Usually a programming error. Highly unusual for a high-dollar project like the one she was in. Almost always cause for a refund at the very least.
She now perceived herself as a skeleton of sorts. An ungainly collection of digital joints and connectors upon which a body was usually drawn. A gently humming jet-black expanse stretched in front of her, interspersed with evenly-distributed blue dots. She turned to look behind her.
It was still there. The rendering had caught up to the edge now, and she could see her footprints in the soil where her race had ended seconds ago. It was as though an invisible wall separated the beauty from the void.
With some difficulty, she turned her new body around and lurched toward the sun-drenched fields, hoping that she could slip back into paradise. The white sphere of her foot joint joint crossed the plane, and every pixel in the columns to her left and right was unceremoniously erased in a wave of destruction. The creeping blackness of the grid had just eaten acres of the priceless Kansas farmland.
She looked down and saw one of her old footprints half-erased in the rich brown silt. She raised her empty bones and tried to re-enter the footrace she had left just seconds ago. The footprint blinked into glowing darkness. It had been replaced with a line of dots marking another abstract unit of distance. The farmland on either side disappeared again too.
Again and again. With each step she took forward, she saw fields and hills and wheat and sun and joy consumed by the unholy blackness. Her shining moments were being erased by a digital destroyer; herself.
The skeleton that was once Ella’s farmgirl avatar fell to all fours. The joints heaved with pain, and the facial nodes creased and uncreased in an awkward, unsynced series of bits and bytes.
Groping with her hands, she reached down and desperately tried to grab a handful of good dirt. With each swipe of her hand-like digital skeleton, the rich squares were sliced away, never to return. She lurched to her feet and drunkenly shambled toward the wheat field on the next plot over.
She could see the wind whizzing down the hillside, shaking the heads of each plant, joyously proclaiming the bounty of the world that she no longer lived in, but she could no longer feel its gentle touch on her face. She clutched at the golden stalks, but with each grab, more of her paradise fell away. Her skeleton collapsed, sobbing, with blackness behind it and heaven ahead. As the white dots and lines shook uncontrollably, a chime sounded: Her hour was up.
Ella awoke in her chair with snot running down her face. Her red cardigan was soaked with tears, her body exhausted and spent. She raised an arm to clean her face and pull the leads from her temples. She let go of her overheated phone and let it slip onto the floor, then pulled herself into bed to continue sobbing.
Blinking through her tears, she looked up at the top of her glass prison. Another layer of silt was slowly being added to the blackness that already surrounded her. Her pod was sinking deeper and deeper into the ocean muck. It would be completely covered in just a few months.
Now that she had seen the real thing, she could sense that even the sunlight entering her pod was nothing more than a weak simulacra. The majesty of the star was tainted by 200 meters of dirty ocean water and broken by floating debris.
She closed her eyes and reached out onto the slowly enveloping darkness, grasping for one simple strand of golden wheat. Aching for the afternoon sun. Crying. Screaming. Dying, for one last breath of Kansas.