Time for the next chapter of my serial novel, THE LINE. But first, a reminder that I'll be posting a chapter or two or three here on my blog each week until all 330 pages are up here and available to read for free. Or you can spend 99 cents and download the whole thing on your favorite e-reader right now by going:
If you're new to this and want to get caught up on the first two chapters I've already posted:
Okay. Back to the deli we go ....
3 HOURS, 7 MINUTES
The world was ending. And Al Boyd was watching it happen.
She’d just swapped apps and opened up VirtuEarth. The mobile app was new, and it still had a few ghosts in the machine, but Al was an early adopter, so the glitches were worth being on the leading edge. She was a beta tester on VirutEarth from the way back and it had been her main gaming fix for 18 months. That was a lifetime in MMO, but she loved nothing more than grinding on a Triple A game.
To the thousands of registered VE users, she was CaptainPlanet. That was how early she had signed up for the game. Now there was a CaptainPlanet1, a CaptainPlanet2, a CaptainPlanet69 and a CaptainPlanetJayZRules. But she was the first. The one and the only. The Alpha. Everybody knew who the hell she was. She was CaptainPlanet. Period. Nobody did so much as plant a damn tulip in VE without her say-so.
The first thing she'd done – the first thing she always did – was head to the Green Tea Room. That was where the community callboard was, and it was where you received the EnviroMissions that boosted your XP. But that wasn’t the purpose of Al’s visit today. There was a poetry slam coming up later that night in the forums, and she wanted to get her ass registered for that. She’d never written a poem before, but Al didn’t think it would be that hard. You just talk about something sad, but you do it in fewer words. And the words you do use have to be super pretentious. Boom. Poem.
Her avatar – hood up, hands stuffed in pockets, like her mama – had just entered the Green Tea Room and stepped up to the community callboard when it happened. The end of the world.
The first thing she noticed was shit getting floaty. The controls were loose, response sluggish. Then came the freeze-up. That was something any online gamer got used to, and to most it wouldn’t have been much more than an annoyance. But Al wasn’t most people. Most people don't re-write Government source code for fun. Most people don't create a riot whenever they step foot inside the Web. Most people weren't compared to a God. So this freeze-up, this commonplace thing, it meant something different to Al.
It meant the end of the world.
She smacked her tablet and then hated herself for doing it. She wasn’t a Luddite, she knew hitting it wouldn’t fix shit, but it was a reflex. Still, what would she do next, shake it like an etch-a-sketch? Blow in the ports like the tablet was an old-school Nintendo cartridge?
“Don’t be an idiot, Al,” she muttered.
She took a breath and focused on the problem.
The buffering wasn't ending and the page wasn't refreshing. The screen was still frozen, the colors and textures popping and shifting, draining and melting away in a blur of pixels. The texture on the community callboard flyers flickered and wavered. One flyer vanished completely. So did the tall, red-haired avatar next to Al’s. This wasn't something a soft reset could fix. This was permanent. This was final. This was goodbye.
There was no time for virtual hugs, no farewells to friends. One minute, VE existed. And the next, it didn't. And she couldn't tear her eyes away. She was transfixed, hypnotized by the apocalypse playing out on the 9-inch screen of her jailbreak Android.
VE’s end – its final moment – came with a whimper, not a bang. Suddenly, everything just faded away. The avatars, the furniture, every piece of paper on the callboard, even the callboard itself. Al found herself staring at a shell of the Green Tea Room, all flat gridlines and greyscale tones. And then the error message appeared:
ERROR: Lost server connection. Your client may have erroneously disconnected or the server may have crashed.
A shiver raced down Al’s spine. She dug in her bag, grabbing her gear. She needed to run some tests and see just how bad this was. Was VE over for everyone or just for her? She pulled out her cell phone, powered it on. She was still getting a signal. She opened her web browser, launching the Chicago Tribune webpage. If there was a major outage, it would be breaking news. That was the era they lived in now. But before the screen could load, her cell phone screen bricked, too. Turned to blankness and blackness in her hand.
“Shit!” she said, a little too loud.
She glanced up and realized Ciaran was staring around at her from his place ahead of her in the line. Ciaran, the tall red head with the spray of freckles across his nose. The boy born in Ireland who’d moved here at the age of 10 to bug Al forever with his hotness. She felt her stomach clench and fought the urge to crawl into her bag and hide. How long had he been looking at her? Did he see her smack her tablet like an idiot?
Stop looking at me stop looking at me stop
Ciaran held up his cell phone, pointed a finger at it and furrowed his brow. Al nodded, held up her own tablet, showing him the black screen. So it wasn’t just her.
Ciaran shook his head and left his spot in line, heading back Al’s way. She felt her pulse accelerate and tugged on the strings of her hood, pulling it in tighter around her face. She dug in her bag, tried to look busy. But Ciaran didn’t care.
“What’s the shite’s goin’ on, love?” he asked in that Irish accent the girls found so damn charming.
“No cuts, asshole,” Miller said, grabbing Ciaran by the shoulder.
“I was already ahead of you, eijit,” Ciaran said, turning his head slowly. “Now git yer paw off’a me or lose it.”
“Oooh, tough talk from the Leprechaun,” Miller said, chuckling. Ciaran’s muscles flexed. It was a small, imperceptible movement – the first rumble deep underwater that would become a tidal wave. Al saw it. Miller didn’t. He kept his hand locked on Ciaran’s shoulder.
And in the moment before Ciaran spun and made good on his promise, Reed flung Miller’s hand off Ciaran.
“Don’t wanna catch Ginger, Miller,” Reed said. “You’d look weird with freckles. Weirder than Ciaran, even.”
Reed fumbled the pronunciation of his name on purpose, making it come out like ‘Siren,’ instead of ‘Kear-an.’ It was petty and childish and pretty much Reed’s favorite type of gag.
“Listen to your boyo, mate,” Ciaran said to Miller, even though his eyes were locked on Reed. “He may be a mentaller, but he’s spot-on ‘bout this.”
“Enough with the accent, man,” Reed said, rolling his eyes. “You live in Rogers Park.”
Ciaran ignored this last part and turned back to Al. Al’s face scrunched up in a wince as his eyes found hers.
“What, dude?” she asked.
"What’s going on, Al?”
“Don’t look at me, man!” Al said, hiking her shoulders up around her ears and turning away from him.
“Al, you know why I can’t get my email?” Jess said, leaning out from her spot toward the back of the line. Luke, standing next to her, leaned out as well. More eyes on Al. Just what she didn’t need.
“Shit man, did everybody at our school get a Goddamn coupon today?” Al mumbled, tugging on her hood strings. She hated having to explain shit to people. Hated speaking to people in general, really. It made her feel small when she knew in her heart she was mighty. She was CaptainPlanet, man.
"Ain’t nobody getting reception anytime soon," she said, her eyes boring into the floor.
“Explain that, love,” Ciaran said, lowering his head and trying to meet her eyes.
“What’s going on?” Reed said, leaning in closer to hear Al. Ciaran cut him off, put a shoulder between them.
Jess and Luke left their spots in line and headed up to join Ciaran and Al. Al shivered again, rolled her head around on her neck. Suddenly the deli felt like it wasn’t full of a few dozen people, but a few hundred. Her breath was turning shallow, sweat beading down her back. If everyone would just stop looking at her, just leave her alone for a second ...
“Is it the deli?” Luke asked. “Bad reception or something?”
“Why is everybody taking cuts?” Miller asked.
“What the fuck’s going on?” Reed said. “What are you guys talking about?”
“Shut the feck up,” Ciaran spat over his shoulder as he, Luke and Jess leaned in closer to hear what Al had to say.
"It ain't just a matter of reception,” Al said. “I'm talking no 3G, no 4G, Wi-Fi. Nothin."
“I asked you a question,” Reed said.
"You're telling me that this little deli is that much off the grid?" Ciaran said.
"Nah, man," Al said back, trying to look him in the eyes so he’d know she was serious. "I'm telling you there ain't no grid. It's gone."