CHAPTER 4. THE FADED IMAGE OF A BEAUTIFUL GHOST

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It’s such an unnerving moment—light years away the most unexpected thing I’ve ever experienced in SlipStream—that I immediately press the GAB implanted at in the back of my neck and pull myself not just out of the virtual worldgame, but out of the Grid entirely.

I see a swirl of colors, like a Technicolor black hole, and for a second I wonder if the GAB didn’t work, and I’m somehow still stuck in the Grid and in SlipStream (and whether SlipStream itself is crashing)—until my eyes fully focus and I realize I’m just watching my clothes spin around, entering the rinse cycle.

I re-adjust to reality, and am relieved to find myself exactly where I left my body—in my basement, in our laundry room, doing my laundry on a Sunday afternoon.

As I stare at my clothes spinning around and around, I think see her face in the swirl.

A residue image, an acid flashback, a fading dream.

There she is—Dr. Lianna Haven, Hal’s mom, Dr. Alec’s wife, the brilliant co-creator of GAIT, founder of Haven Corp, one of my heroes. Heroines. Who is actually in New York Hospital, dying in a hospital bed.

I take a deep breath and try to calm myself down—because seeing Lianna Haven in SlipStream makes me think I’m losing my mind. Of course it’s possible to program your Grid Avatar to look however you want. But it’s not just extremely difficult to code a convincing impersonation of a well-known person—it’s extremely illegal.

And that avatar looked just like Lianna. On a hidden base inside an asteroid in SlipStream. What the hell is going on? Did I really see what I think I saw? Twice in twenty-four hours my mind seems to be playing tricks on me. I must be losing it.

As her spectral image fades away into a swirl of clothes and colors, I try to make light of the situation with an internal joke:

She’s just a ghost in the washing machine!

But the joke backfires, scaring me even more. “A ghost in the machine.” It’s an old-fashioned science fiction term that suggests a person can continue to exist after their body dies, if their soul and mind is captured in a machine… or a matrix… like the Grid. But it’s science fiction. It’s impossible.

And Lianna Haven isn’t dead. She’s in a coma and they say her higher brain functions are working perfectly. Could she be awake in the Grid? What if she were patched in during the accident and never puller herself out? OR—even if she wasn’t in the Grid during the accident—could she have coded something into SlipStream to preserve her conscience? Could she essentially be a ghost in the machine?

This line of thinking is of course ridiculous, so I cut myself short. There are no ghosts in the Gird, or in my washing machine, or anywhere else.

This must be a figment of my hyperactive mind. Which I now genuinely fear I am losing.

I decide to patch back into the Grid, back into SlipStream, and hope that whatever it was that I saw in that corridor will be replaced with a more expected avatar—a Python pilot, a handsome flyboy. Something typical, expected, normal.

I reach behind my neck and press the GAB.

Mind on the mission.

3. GRID

***

And just like that, I’m back on the base in the asteroid, back in the arched entryway to that corridor…

Facing Dr. Lianna Haven.

She looks exactly as she did in the media, on the newsfeeds. Except even prettier. And being so close to her, as I never was in reality, I have the ability to look into her eyes. And those eyes somehow remove the fear that I had just moments ago, replacing it with an overwhelming sense of trust. A strange confidence that I may actually be interacting with the Dr. Lianna Haven.

And yet she doesn’t seem quite like Lianna… It’s almost like a kid version of Lianna—as I gaze into those eyes, they seem slightly wider and more innocent that they ought to be… Like they are the eyes of a child. They feel infinitely kind, curious… maybe even a little naive. As if they are exploring the virtual world for the first time. They do not seem like the eyes of someone who helped build the world.

She looks back at me and smiles—and like her eyes, her smile is wide, beautiful, and innocent, like that of a child. Or perhaps like a carefree woman, happy as a child.

Then she reaches her hands out as if to touch me. It’s an intimate gesture, and while logic might suggest I back away, I’m drawn closer to her. For some inexplicable reason, I want to help her, to give her whatever it is she wants.

And right now, I think she wants to touch me.

Her virtual hands reach out to touch my virtual self, and the next thing I know, she is cradling my face in her hands.

And while touch sensations in SlipStream are limited due to their difficulty to code, there is a genuine warmth in those hands that I’ve never felt before anywhere in the Grid. As if they are physically real. And she smiles softly, as if she feels it, too. Then she opens her mouth and says:

“I have been watching you, Asha.”

Like her eyes and her smile, her voice is softer than I expected. And she knows my name. I’m not scared, and yet I am totally paralyzed.

“You are a very talented, unusual girl….”

Unusual. Is “unusual” a compliment?

“And you know my son Hal.”

Though she speaks the words like a statement, it somehow feels like a question. One that I’m compelled to answer. And so—

“Umm.”

That is the first thing I say to Dr. Lianna Haven. Umm. Umm! I am such an idiot. I want to kick myself for sounding so stupid, but this is all happening so quickly, and it shouldn’t be happening at all. So I quickly add:

“Sort of. No. Not really.”

Which makes me sound only marginally less stupid.

But she seems not to think so, or not to care. She just smiles again, soft and kind and warming. So I continue:

“But thank you. Dr. Haven. For the compliment.”

“You’ve earned it. And I need your help.”

My help?

“I need you to bring Hal to me.”

I need to bring Hal Haven to a corridor, on a hidden base, in an asteroid, in SlipStream. To see his mother. Who is dying, back in the real world. This is insane. There’s no way I will agree to it.

“Yes. Of course. I will.”

Over the next week, I’ll spend countless hours wondering why I instantly knew that to be my answer, despite my better judgment and my immediate resolve. Five words. One simple, unexpected answer that changed my life.

She bows her head slightly, as if a gesture of sincere gratitude.

“Thank You, Asha. And when you bring me Hal… I will give you the datacard.”

The datacard?! All of a sudden I remember the SlipStream mission that led me here in the first place—to retrieve a datacard filled with some sort of pivotal research being held by a mercenary Python pilot. Who turned out to be Lianna Haven.

It’s the first time the obvious solution occurs to me—this image of Lianna Haven must be a part of the game. Perhaps she’s not an avatar at all. She’s a very talented SlipStream programmer’s homage to one of his (her?) heroines. She’s just bits of code.

But that doesn’t feel quite right. Lianna’s asking for Hal—I’ve never heard of a game requesting a specific player from the real world (though it’s not impossible). And I’m pretty sure Hal isn’t even a gamer. Moreover, SlipStream is created, owned, and hosted by HavenCorp. There’s no way they would allow Lianna’s image to be used in this awful way, calling out for her son. In the real world, she’s dying in a hospital bed. If this whole incident were part of a game sequence… it would be in pretty poor taste.

And it’s not likely to be a clever programmer’s Easter egg that Haven Corp doesn’t know about—all programmers respected Lianna Haven. It would be worse than poor taste, it would be downright disgusting. Totally un-c3 as we programmers say (i.e. against the coders code of conduct).

And then Lianna smiles at me mischievously—as if she is the center of the cleverest inside joke of all time. Only I’m not clever enough or inside enough to get it. Was that a joke? About giving me the datacard?

“Dr. Haven… Are you… just part of the game?”

And then her face turns serious, all childish impressions vanish. Although her smile remains—still kind, but now world-weary.

“Oh, Asha. That would be like calling you just a collection of cells, a complex organism, a part of humankind.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You would be correct, and yet you would be missing the soul of the answer you seek.”

“Then I don’t think I understand the question.”

“Yes, Asha. I am part of the game.”

And that’s a huge relief… until she adds, before disappearing completely:

“But not the one you think.”

 

You’ve been reading CHAPTER 4 from the new young adult illustrated novel ASHA ASCENDING, ­­­­written by Vivek J. Tiwary with art by Sara Richard. Please FOLLOW this blog to read previous and future chapters, serialized here for free.

Please also LEAVE A REPLY below and let us know what you think– we take our fan feedback seriously! Thanks! – Vivek + Sara

 

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