Julia was under no pretenses that any moment of her life had ever been real. Every tear that had rolled down her cheek, every kiss in the rain, and every thrill of discovery had been part of the simulation. Ever since something or someone had hit the switch, firing up the simulation and triggering the big bang, nothing had truly happened or existed. At least not in the way people had defined it before her mother had made the discovery. But staring across the street to where roughly one-point-six square miles of downtown Philadelphia had suddenly disappeared, everything very authentic.
“Ahhh!” Daniel, the old man that was a bit more sexist than was forgivable, said. She had spent the past twenty minutes convincing him not to walk across the street and now he moved like a much younger man as he ran away. He wasn’t alone as every part of the city that wasn’t bolted into the worn cement and asphalt was rushing away from the newly invisible city blocks. Everyone except Julia.
“You’re welcome,” Julia said, but her voice was drowned out as a black Ford SUV crossed the render chunk boundary, seemly appearing out of thin air, and crashed into a street light.
She knew she should be running away like everyone else. Even the horrified suits in the tower across the street, which had been sliced in half by the reality hack, were clamoring to get away from the hack. More importantly everyone was trying to flee from who was always nearby when these attacks happened.
Julia had spent a fortune that didn’t belong to her and well over a month of afternoons waiting out for this moment and now that she was staring it in the face she couldn’t do it. She needed to rush into the transparent render chunk and confront the terrorist.
This was her one chance.
And yet she couldn’t move. In the distance, she could see the other side of the render chunk, where several cross-sectioned buildings revealed an equally hectic scene. She’d earned two PHD’s by the age of twenty-seven, and had a greater understanding on the scientific level of what was happening than nearly anyone else alive, but none of that mattered as she stared into the invisible city while sounds of chaos and destruction poured out of it.
Standing on the edge of one of the roughly 124,000,000 different render chunks that compromised reality on earth’s surface, she realized how much she had to lose by taking a step forward into the madness. With a single step she could pass through from one part of the simulation into a completely different technical part of it. Usually, the transition between render chunks was seamless and impossible for humans to discern, but not when one of them had been hacked. And not when she had what the government would surely classify as a weapon of mass destruction in her duffle bag.
The sound of gunshots came from the invisible part of the city, forcing Julia step backward. Every terrorist incident so far had left thousands dead as panic, confusion, and fear overcame all rational thinking. Seeing a reality hack happen right in front of her made the death count feel respectably small. Having the laws of nature distorted without warning was jarring, even if you had already accepted that the entire course of human history had occurred inside of a program.
A desktop computer passed from the invisible portion of the city and slammed into the ground a few feet away, sending shards of plastic and silicon flying through the air. It must have been thrown out the window of one of the offices across the invisible street and if people were throwing things, it was only a matter of time until they started jumping themselves.
“I can do this,” Julia said to herself. “I need to do this.”
There was much to lose by attempting to stop the terrorist single handily and there was even more to lose by staying put. Humanity’s hero, the reality hacker who was sworn to stop the terrorist had been unresponsive to her messages, and had proven himself incapable of stopping the terrorist anyway.
“Because my mother didn’t die for this to happen,” Julia continued to talk herself out loud, letting her voice combat some of the sounds of invisible insanity. “Because I’m the only one that can stop what’s coming. But, mostly because I want to.”
There were a million reasons she shouldn’t even try to do it. Each of those countless logical complaints had its own voice shouting inside her head, joining the chorus of chaos around her. Doubt, fear, inadequacy, and selfishness sang together begging her to stop, but Julia ducked down, opened her bag and found the pieces she was looking for. She placed the headset over her eyes, the quantum key in her left pocket, and grabbed her Ruger 9mm with her right hand before slinging her bag around her shoulder.
Sirens joined the symphony of dread as she took a deep breath and stepped into the void.
Every step was a giant leap of faith. She didn’t make it a dozen steps before she ran into someone who clawed at her and screamed as if Julia was the terrorist. She pushed the lady off and took several hasty steps and ran straight into the side of what must have been another car crash. She could feel the heat of the cars and the smoke from the collision as if nothing had changed, and she used those senses to guide her around the ruined vehicles to where she stumbled up onto the sidewalk.
The headset she wore constantly gave her audible directions. It was an old virtual reality piece with some headphones that she had cobbled together in preparation for an attack like this one. The entire setup, including the phone that powered it, had cost her fiancé a pretty penny. Phones powerful enough to pull this off were borderline illegal and getting it to work in unison with the headset had required some personal help from Tanner.
She had spent weeks trying to prepare herself for any possible hack; luckily the terrorist had used another sensory hack today, which was consistent with his pattern of actions. She’d never heard of a render chunk being invisible, but it wasn’t outside the realm of possibilities based off of what her data had told her. She had been tracking every movement, hack, and rumor about the terrorist for several years and that data had led her here.
A sensory hack had appeared to be the best-case scenario when she was laying out her plans, as they seemed relatively harmless. But now that she was trying to find her way in the midst of one, she realized just how devastating they were. It was pandemonium and there was nothing anyone could do to alleviate the situation, all they could do was wait for the simulation to detect something was wrong and correct itself.
“FooBar!” Julia shouted, as window not far from her shattered. Far too many years of school had taught her a special program oriented curse vocabulary, which she employed with speed and grace. “This was such a bad idea.”
She picked up her pace, taking cautiously large steps forward, getting away from whatever was happening behind her and also moving toward the ground floor of the bank. They called the man behind this the terrorist, but Julia had been convinced he was a glorified bank robber until her research had found the pattern that kept her up at night. Her terrifying discovery had the strange side effect of making her feel closer to her mother than ever before.
Julia knew in a small way what it must have been like for her mom when she had realized that she had just made the greatest discovery in human history: that we didn’t exist in a base reality. A discovery that had cost Julia her parents and hadn’t earned her mother a spec of the fame she deserved.
Julia’s own discovery wasn’t nearly as scientifically foundational, however, it was just as important and far more urgent. She had wrestled with turning herself and the information over to the government, but she’d already seen too many of her friends tech friends disappear under the Shepard regime.
“Correct 30 degrees to the east and continue for 25 feet, then turn left,” the headset spoke. Julia complied as fast as she could. She was taking far too long. Reality hacks didn’t last for more than a few minutes, but they were always long enough for the terrorist to make off with whatever it was he was after.
“Continue for 1000 feet and then your destination will be on your left,” the headset announced and Julia broke into a jog. It was dangerous, there were likely more crashed cars or fallen bodies for her to run into, but she hadn’t come all this way to play safe. If she had wanted to be safe, she would have given up on technology long before she had found her mother’s private records.
At 800 feet she passed what sounded like several children crying. At 200 feet someone hit the ground with a solid thud. Her headset was announcing she was 50 feet away when the simulation finally resolved the hack, replacing the foreign code that had been injected to override the constants that governed humanity’s reality with the correct values, restoring visibility to everything within the render chunk.
Julia tore off the virtual reality headset that now displayed a three-dimensional model of the city and looked over the wrecked streets. It was worse than it sounded, bodies lay on the streets and cars were parked halfway inside buildings. Papers rained from the sky and people clutched to strangers weeping. The cheers of sheer relief would have lifted her spirits if they hadn’t meant that she had failed. She was too late. Her months of preparations, risk, and lies had been for nothing. She hadn’t been able to stop the terrorist or prevent his sinister pattern.
She slowed just outside the doors of the bank in disbelief. It had always been the most likely outcome, but somehow she had convinced herself otherwise. She slammed the headset into the ground while moving her gun to her pocket. She would have thrown it too, but she didn’t want to leave a gun lying around. Julia didn’t like guns.
Pop! Pop! A pair of gunshots from inside of the bank was followed by a half dozen people bursting through the bank door running for their lives. Julia pulled her gun free from her pocket, hid it behind her back and pushed through the fleeing people into the bank.
“That’s the terrorist! That’s him! Where’s Humanity’s Hero?” a woman was beside herself, yelling at her husband as they sprinted toward Julia and the exit. Julia’s eyes searched the bank, where she found a guard laying in a pool of his own blood, near a side door.
Julia raced over to him, not worrying about hiding her gun anymore. His brown uniform was stained through with dark blood and he was struggling to breath. She didn’t know much about the medical field, but she knew that he was going to die and no one had stayed to help him. She heard another gunshot coming from behind that door and she snapped her trembling weapon up in response.
Julia looked down to the dying guard and her heart sank. The man’s eyes were alert and the grimace on his face had a sense of understanding. She searched around for anyone else, who could put pressure on the wound, or help comfort the man and found no one.
“I have to go after him,” Julia said both to the man and herself. This wasn’t a game, people were dying and she needed to chase after a mass murderer. The guard gurgled and Julia wasn’t brave enough to look back down to him as she cautiously pushed through the door and into a stairwell just before everything within a mile of her disappeared once again, leaving her with nothing but a nice view of the city blocks in the distance.
“That’s just perfect,” Julia said as she started climbing. It was impossible to do it gracefully or efficiently. Another gunshot rang out above her and Julia pushed herself up more steps as quickly as possible, which was not overly quickly given she couldn’t see anything and her bag was weighing her down. She was convinced she was going to run into a wall marking the end of the stairs any step now, but that never came. Instead she continued to climb, sucking in huge gasps of air to fuel her. She almost gave up before the render chunk returned to normal.
A door slammed shut several flights above her and Julia raised her gun looking for the terrorist. She was closer to her target than she had thought. Her left hand moved to her pocket where she found her quantum key. She clutched it in her hand as she forced herself up two more flights of stairs where she paused for a split second to gather her nerves and some much needed oxygen.
Julia slowly pushed the rooftop door open and inched outside gun first. Her mind begged her to turn around, but her heart wouldn’t allow it. She wanted to do this, she needed to do this, she owed her mother and father this.
Her left hand clutched the quantum key. Unleashing the power it contained was something she was hoping to avoid, but if it meant capturing the terrorist, she wouldn’t hesitate.
“Drop it,” a man growled from her side and Julia felt a splash of fear and a tidal wave of embarrassment. What had she been thinking, chasing after the terrorist with a handgun? She was a jobless professor and underground hacker, not a secret agent.
“Don’t shoot me,” Julia plead as she dropped her gun and bag to the ground and slowly raised her right hand into the air. Her left hand hesitated, beginning to let go of the quantum key and then clutching it again. She could activate it now, but the terrorist hadn’t killed her and if she hacked reality he might.
“Both hands, in the air, palms open” the man said. “Quick.”
Julia awkwardly pinned the key against her palm with her thumb careful not to activate it while trying to hide it from the terrorist. It was too large to make it an easy task.
“What are you trying to do?” Julia asked, hoping to get the answer to her pattern as much as she was hoping to distract him from looking too closely at her hand.
“Shut up,” the terrorist said. “And get on the ground.”
“Just tell me what you’re trying to do, I’ve seen the pattern. The memory locations, everything, I knew you were going to strike today and—”
The man slapped her across the head, knocking her forward and sending her quantum key flying away from her. She caught herself, but couldn’t keep her eyes from following an asset so valuable not even her fiancé could afford it on the open black market. At least, that is what she assumed, no one sold quantum keys, because only a handful of people knew what they were and why they were the most powerful weapon on the planet.
“What’s that?” the man screamed at her.
He hit her again. This time with the back of his hand across her face, sending her all the way to the ground. Sirens were sounding all around the city; however, she knew none of them were going to be coming to help her. Philadelphia was in distress; there was no reason for them to respond to a bank robbery first. It was a genius plan on the terrorist’s part.
“What’s in the bag?” Julia asked looking to the man’s feet where a backpack was bulging from the inside. “You’re not after the money. Not really. We both know it.”
“I said shut—” the terrorist dropped to the ground dead.
It shocked her. Even knowing that nothing was real and mentally preparing herself for the man’s death a thousand times over during the last month hadn’t fully prepared her for it.
His gun bounced on the ground next to his limp body as Humanity’s Hero appeared in the air above them. His black body armor glowed with orange lights giving it the impression of a high-tech super hero costume floated. He stood on top of a hover board that matched the futuristic looking weapon that he held. Julia made eye contact with the man as she floated down to the roof of the bank, with a satisfied scowl on his face. His hair was silvering, but his body looked like that of a man a decade too young to be showing signs of age. He was unmistakably the man who governments had branded as Humanity’s Hero and people worshipped. While Shepard and the preservationist party cited the terrorist as the ultimate need for restrictions on all technology, Humanity’s Hero was the counter point. He used reality hacks to defend people and technology to do good. To Julia’s disappointment he didn’t get too politically involved, but she admired him anyway.
“Are you well?” Humanity’s Hero asked with all the super hero confidence and pageantry that she saw on television. It didn’t match his demeanor as perfectly in person.
“You got him,” she managed as she climbed to her feet, awkwardly grabbing her handgun and trying to put in her pocket. It didn’t really fit, but Julia didn’t want to talk to one of her idols with a gun in her hand. She hadn’t been the one to stop the terrorist as she had hoped, but at least it would be the end whatever it was he was trying to do.
She had been moments from death a moment ago, and was now speaking with a man who used the understanding of science to help save people’s lives and she felt embarrassed for her disappointment.
Julia would have been famous if she had managed to stop the world’s most infamous villain, which was a platform she could have used to give her mom the recognition she deserved as well as perhaps change the world’s opinion about technology. It would have been life changing, and she realized only now after the primary threat was gone how much that had secretly meant to her. She was ashamed.
“Him? Oh you mean the terrorist, as the news calls him. I’m afraid not. This man here was nothing more than one of his lackey’s I’m afraid.” The hero dismounted from his hover board, which appeared to be powered by a series of drone like propellers.
“That wasn’t him?” Julia asked again as she graciously accepted the man’s hand and allowed him to help her to her feet. She wasn’t much for chivalry, but meeting one of the pioneers of reality hacking felt like a special exception.
“I’ll only be officially communicating with the officials and their press. You’ve been brave to attempt to help, I’ll do my best to acknowledge that,” the hero said, ignoring her question and killing a bit of his mystique.
“We need to talk,” Julia said. She was still trying to catch her breath from climbing what felt like endless flights of invisible stairs and then nearly dying.
“I’m afraid I don’t have time for that,” the hero said. He picked up the backpack that the dead man left behind and made for his hover board. “I trust you can manage without me. There is much to be done.”
“Cut the crap,” Julia said. She was too exhausted to flatter the man who had fallen astronomically down her scale of starstruck-worthy in a few sentences. “You’re not some super hero, with powers and all that. You’re a hacker, just like me. So you can save the act. I need to talk to you about something I’ve discovered. Something concerning.”
She had his attention, but her instincts were to play aloof now. He hadn’t taken her seriously when he saw her as the damsel in distress. She walked past him slowly, to where her quantum key had fallen near the ledge that stood dozens of stories above the street. The poor people down there were likely bracing themselves for a third bout of invisibleness unaware that Humanity’s Hero had arrived.
“What are you talking about?” he asked, his bravado was gone replaced by an arrogant curiosity. She knew that voice well. This man was clearly a competent programmer who thought himself smarter than everyone else. In his defense, he was probably right.
“There’s a pattern,” she said. She stooped for her key and turned to face him. He stood with one foot on his hover board and eyed her impatiently. Her stomach tightened as she realized what might happen if she played this right. She was going to tell him about the pattern, and maybe just maybe he was going to ask her to help him. That would provide a platform plenty big to achieve her goals and save the simulation.
“To the terrorist’s attacks. I’ve… I’ve been following them for a while, not just the major ones but the smaller ones too. I’ve been running some algorithms on the data and I’m sure there is something more going on. Something… dark.”
The hero looked her in the eyes and studied her closely.
“What do you mean?” He asked. “How do you know all this? Who are you?”
“You’re not the only one that still knows how to use technology,” Julia said with a smile that earned her a tick of the head and raised eyebrow. “The places he’s been hitting. They’re connected. The memory spaces behind them are all related. I don’t know what it means, but there is something to it. I’m sure of it. I was coming up here to try to stop the terrorist myself, but maybe you know what it means. The implications… are worrying…”
“What did you say your name was?” the Hero asked. Julia watched as Humanity’s Hero’s expression changed from intrigue to worry to something darker. Standing before her was the world’s leading expert on quantum exploits, who was universally adored for using that power to combat those that threatened so many, and that man slowly moved his hand to his side and drew his weapon.
“No. It can’t be, can it?” the hero looked her over and laughed to himself. “The spiting image. Well, this is regrettable. Tell me you’re the only one who knows.”
Julia’s eyes fixated on the man’s futuristic gun where she could see his finger start to apply pressure to the trigger. He wasn’t going to wait for her answer; he was going to shoot her.
Julia didn’t take her eyes off of him while she jumped backward, off the ledge and into the thin air above the ravaged Philadelphia streets.
Julia activated the quantum key by pressing the depressed center on both ends of the device at once. She squeezed as hard as she could while she flew away from the top of the bank and hovered in the air for a brief second as the realization of what she was doing sunk in.
She felt the quantum key vibrate slightly letting her know the next quantum structure had loaded, as she started to sink, nothing happened. The first quantum structure had already been used by the first bout of invisibility. Her body flailed about now as she tried to rotate herself so she could see the ground below her. The quantum key clicked again, another miss as the structure it had used had also been taken advantage of.
A bullet, or something similar to it, hit a window across the street and shattered the glass as she managed to turn around and see the ground below as her body started to pick up velocity. For a moment she wondered if her quantum key had succeeded and instead of injecting the intended exploit, it had instead managed to slow time itself. It had to be possible, now that the thought danced through her mind, but it didn’t stay with her long as the ground started to accelerate toward her.
The key clicked again. This time the quantum structure it assembled inside of the key hadn’t been previously used. The simulation didn’t know how to account for this particular quantum arrangement, which created a very brief window of 2-3 nanoseconds where foreign code could be injected into the 1.6 square mile render chunk the key was inside of. This allowed people like the terrorist, Humanity’s Hero, and now Julia to temporarily change the laws of nature.
Gravity in a very distraught section of downtown Philadelphia disappeared as Julia’s hack changed the gravitational constant from about 9.8 meters per second, to zero. The fact that her exploit had worked thrilled her and horrified her at the same time. Her calculations had been successful, her mother’s research had been valid, and Tanner’s injected code had worked. She’d successfully unlocked the secrets of the simulation as only a handful of people before her ever had. She had also unleashed an extraordinarily dangerous modification of reality on an already distressed city.
As proud and terrified of her work as she was, neither of those emotions helped to address her main problem. Humanity’s Hero was hunting her, and turning off gravity had done nothing to stem her fall. She no longer accelerated but she was still falling fast enough to either kill or seriously maim her when she hit the ground. Even a broken leg at this point would mean certain death with Humanity’s Hero shooting at her.
She yanked the gun from her pocket and centered the back of it against her chest and squeezed the trigger as best as she could. She was in desperate need of some reactionary force to slow her decent. The first shot recoiled and started spinning her faster than she had anticipated. She didn’t have time to try to correct herself, so she continued to shoot through her clip, pulling the trigger every time she had a clear view of the ground. The move did succeed in slowing her fall, but it also sent her flipping out of control, careening back toward the bank, while still falling toward the unforgiving ground. It also had the distasteful side effect of causing her to vomit.
Given the nature of gravity at the moment she was grateful for every bit of projectile momentum from the bile. Balls of it floated out of her mouth and splashed against the side of the bank in disgusting fashion. What made it worse was that she smashed into the same wall a moment later. Julia tried to grab onto the side building but she did it too strongly, pushing herself just out of comfortable reach. It was infuriating being a fingernail’s length away grabbing a ledge to stop her decent and not being able to claw her way forward.
A cab that had survived the previous hacks was now shooting upward into the air toward her. Gravity no longer kept it on the ground and its push against the earth had launched it perfectly to smash her against the bank. The driver and passenger had bailed out of the vehicle, pushing away against both sides, not realizing that they also lost all ability to control themselves as they floated down the street.
Julia tucked her legs in and tried to change her angle to lessen the impact. She was only twenty feet from the street, but there was no way to dodge the taxi entirely. She threw her gun and quantum key in a desperate attempt to alter her path. The resulting effect was just enough to allow her to use her legs to absorb some of the force of the taxi, flipping around before pushing off the bank with her feet at a more advantageous angle, avoiding getting crushed at the same time.
Bikes, debris, and a surprising number of people who had been dumb enough to test the change in gravity by jumping were filling the air.
A bullet hit the front of the taxi and another zipped by her. Julia looked up to where Humanity’s Hero had lowered himself over the edge of the bank and stood on his un-powered hover board and held himself against the side of the building with his free arm. Luckily another vehicle passed over her a moment later, shielding her. The Hero’s hover board wouldn’t work well without gravity unless he wanted to become a human rocket, or he was willing to fly it upside down, meaning she had a few seconds to figure out how to survive as his ability to chase her was hampered.
She was moving faster now, but her angle was better; she would scrape against the ground rather than pancake into it. Now she just needed to figure out how she was going to slow down so she didn’t grind her body against the asphalt. After that she’d figure out how she was going to escape from Humanity’s Hero with no gun, or reality hacks at her disposal.
“Watch it!” a man shouted at her as she nearly collided with him. His tone seemed to imply that she was being reckless and the fact that they were about to collide with each other in mid-air where neither of them had any control over their trajectories had no bearing on the issue. No matter how many rules she changed about nature, this was still Philly.
“Sorry,” Julia apologized, more for that fact that they were both suspended in air than for their near collision. As soon as the man was past her she saw a human chain down the road start to form as people locked arms with one another. It was a beautiful moment of humanity that Julia would have appreciated more if another bullet didn’t graze her left side, passing close enough to pierce her hoodie. She spared a glance up to Humanity’s Hero who was lowering himself down the building deliberately, with a frustrated look on his face. He looked to be taking his time to aim, which Julia figured was a matter of him trying to mentally adjust for the lack of gravity. She’d take every second she could.
The human chain panicked at the sound of bullets and broke apart momentarily until the people grabbed onto to each other once more. They had no choice but to stay together. Julia caught the arm of a round black woman and was clotheslined by the leg of an Asian man. Her forced pushed the chain backward, rotating the entire structure of ten humans around the streetlight they were using as an anchor.
“Gotcha!” the lady said as she held on to Julia.
“Thank you!” Julia shouted to everyone. They had saved her from a great deal of pain, and maybe even her life depending on how or what she might have used to stop her momentum otherwise.
“You’re heavier than you look,” a man said from below her in the chain, but she couldn’t see who it was.
“You can say whatever you’d like about me after that,” Julia said. Before anyone could respond a bullet hit the woman who had caught her in the arm, ripping through it and sending a spray of blood flying into the zero gravity air. She roared in pain and this time the chain disintegrated for good, but thanks to the lack of current momentum it mostly hovered in place.
Another shot passed through her hair that was floating above her in a giant fan. She couldn’t even see the Hero through all the clutter that was floating in the air, but he was still able to get good shots off at her. She reached out and grabbed the nearest person and shoved them upward. It had little reaction, nudging her downward and into some of the blood of the large woman who was bellowing as anyone would after being shot.
The simulation once again found the injected code and restored its laws back to the original standards. Julia dropped eight feet to the ground and landed on a pile of people who had saved her life. She started to get up and run, but the rainfall of cars, people, papers, water, and everything else that hadn’t been secured started stopped her. The screams were the worst yet, especially the ones that ended suddenly a few seconds after the return of gravity.
She had caused all of this. It was worse by far than either of the two rounds of invisibility. Cars fell to the ground, exploding their tires and airbags. People who had done nothing wrong saw their lives end in violent ways. Julia had done this all to save her own life. She needed to survive, reality and the simulation might depend on it, but inside she knew that the thought hadn’t crossed her mind when she activated the key. She had been thinking only of her own survival.
And that instinct drove her now as well.
Julia sprinted away from the people who had caught her with their human chain, leaving them bruised, hurt, and bleeding. She needed to escape. Besides, staying around would only endanger them, but that felt like an excuse.
She ducked into the first subway station and ran down the stairs only to find the station in worse shape the streets above. The trains had launched off of the tracks during the gravitational alteration and the resulting destruction had been catastrophic. Julia didn’t hesitate. She raced through the station and up the opposite exit, tearing her hoodie off and throwing it on the ground as she passed by a homeless man who was having a seizure.
Once she reached the surface again, Julia took a hard left and sprinted down the street. She’d need to stop running eventually as it was only going to draw attention to herself, but she couldn’t stop now. It was too soon. She needed to keep moving, to keep sprinting away from who chased her and what she had done.
She was well outside of the 1.6 affected miles when her body gave out and she collapsed on the side of the street and started to shake uncontrollably as fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars raced to where she had unleashed her first reality hack.