A World Away

The store was a lot less interesting than Sadie had expected.

When Rainbow told her that he needed to stop by the Karazai store before trivia night, Sadie had asked to join him.

She was kind of regretting that decision now.

She thought Karazai tech would be more unique, but none of it looked that different from human electronics. Neither did the store. The place reminded Sadie of other electronics stores she’d been to. It was a bit cramped, and the walkways created random nooks and crannies. The items, while they were organized into categories, sat in disarray on the shelves. If Rainbow hadn’t told her, she never would have guessed this store sold Karazai components.

She looked over to see if Rainbow was almost done. Rainbow had been arguing with the store owner over some Karazai thing she didn’t understand, but now he was examining a stack of components on the counter. She caught the store owner giving her the side eye.

Sadie ignored him and wandered down another aisle, where the items looked a bit more interesting. A hollow cubic frame, the size of a small safe, rested on the shelf, with various other bits connected to it. It reminded Sadie of a 3d printer. She reached out to play with it.

“Don’t touch that!” the storekeeper said.

Startled, Sadie jerked her hand back.

“Do you even know what that is?”

“Well, it kind of looks like a 3d printer…”

“It’s a graviton collector. Do you have any idea what that does?”

“Well, since you called it a graviton collector, I’m guessing it doesn’t print things.”

The store owner sputtered and said to Rainbow, “Is she even supposed to be in here? She’s, you know, a…”

“She’s a… what?” Rainbow said.

Human.” The storekeeper said to Rainbow, but projected his voice just enough to be sure that Sadie could hear it. Luckily there was no one else in the store.

“Take it up with Arden. He says she’s allowed to have access.” Rainbow swept all the components into a bag he was carrying. “Charge these to my dad’s account.”

When Rainbow and Sadie were outside the store, Sadie said, “You could have told me he was such a grouch.”

“And miss the chance to see that? No way. Besides, he thinks too highly of himself, just because most of the Karazai components here flow through him. It’s about time someone annoyed him a bit.”

They stopped by Rainbow’s house to drop off the components. Sadie was on her way back out when she noticed that Rainbow wasn’t following her. He was heading down into the basement instead.

“I thought we’re going to get some food at the Edge Bar and then crush trivia night.”

“We are. But there’s still another hour or so.”

“But I want to get there early.”

“I just need to fix up the k-net before my dad comes home. It’ll only take a few minutes.” Rainbow disappeared downstairs with the bag of components.

Sadie followed him. It was the first time she had seen the basement of Rainbow’s house. Most of the houses here didn’t even have a basement, but some of the people here had added them as disaster shelters – not from a tornado – but from the endless scientific experiments in Selunia Falls.

Rainbow was already at work at a machine. Two padded chairs faced each other in the center of the room. A coil of wires snaked out of the sides of each chair and connected to a large cabinet along the wall of the room. On the outside of the cabinet were all sorts of controls – screens, buttons, levers.

“We call it the Bubble,” Rainbow said.

Sadie was about to ask what it did, but she didn’t want whatever he was doing to take even longer. She settled into one of the chairs in a gallery along the wall, and she went online on her phone as Rainbow was working.

A while later, having gone through all her friend updates three times and having nothing else to do, she said, “I thought it would only take a few minutes.”

“Yeah. It was a little harder than I thought.”

“Can’t you just fix this when we get back?”

“No, my dad needs to use it tonight. What’s the hurry anyway?”

“Because. I’m bored,” she said. She didn’t want to be rude.

But Rainbow knew her too well. “He doesn’t hate you.”

“He doesn’t like me either. He tolerates me. And I’m pretty sure that’s because Arden said he had to.”

“He’s like that with everyone. It’s different when he gets to know you.”

Sadie changed the subject and pointed at the Bubble. “What does this thing do anyway?” Not only did she not want to talk about Rainbow’s dad, she was getting bored.

“It hooks up the Karazai network – we call it the k-net for short. Full immersion, lets you talk to others who might be hooked in, or explore imaginary worlds.”

“Oh, we have those kinds of things also,” Sadie said. “VR helmets. The older versions were kind of heavy, but now they’re pretty light and kind of fun to play with.”

“VR helmets?” Rainbow stopped working on the machine and stared at her. “VR helmets are toys. This is full immersion. As in, not just sight and sound, but smell, taste, touch. The whole thing.”


“It links directly into your neural pathway.” He went back to fixing the machine. He pushed in the last couple of circuit boards and closed the panel. “Ok. Time for trivia night.”

But Sadie was interested in the Bubble now. Her curiosity fought with her distaste for Rainbow’s dad, but finally won out. “Show me.”

“Show you what? The k-net?”

“I want to see what it’s like inside.”

Rainbow was amused. “What happened to avoiding my dad?”

Sadie knew she was being baited, but she didn’t care. “Are you going to show me or not?”

He shook his head. “I can’t. I don’t know what effect the neural link has on humans.”

“I feel like a lot of other Karazai stuff works on humans. I want to try it.” When Sadie saw that Rainbow was about to protest again, she said, “I had to wait around while you fixed it. The least you could do is let me see what it’s like.”

“Well, I guess your biology is actually quite close to ours, somehow… Fine, it’s worth a try. Sit in one of the chairs.”

Rainbow attached a set of electrodes to Sadie’s ankles and worked his way up, attaching electrodes to her wrists, her shoulders, and finally her face. They were cold at first but adjusted to her body temperature. Sadie didn’t feel anything sticky on them, but somehow they attached firmly to her. The other end of the electrodes connected to the panel in the wall through a collection of cables.

Rainbow sat in the other chair and attached himself. “Ok, we’re zoning in now.” He pushed a button.

Sadie blinked her eyes, and in an instant the world shifted. She was no longer in Selunia Falls. She didn’t think she was even on Earth anymore. The sky was no longer blue, but purple. And there was no longer one sun in the sky, but two. Binary stars. She felt a little breathless and lightheaded.

“Is this… real?” Sadie asked.

“It’s a virtual rendition of the real Karazai world.”

“Oh, so this your home then!”

“It’s where I’m from,” Rainbow said.

They were in the middle of some kind of plaza. Other people – Sadie assumed they were Karazai – were milling around.

“Are those other Karazai?” she said.

“They could be. But no, we’re not connected to the other k-nets right now. These are other characters that are generated by the computer. NPCs.”

“Is this what you and your dad do with this thing? Visit home, since you can’t actually go back?”

“My dad doesn’t visit this world. It reminds him too much of what he lost. He only uses this for business meetings, when he connects to the other k-nets and they discuss whatever it is that they discuss.”

“What about you though?”

“I don’t really visit here for… other reasons.”

Sadie didn’t pry.

“Ok, time to go back.” Rainbow grinned. “Time passes here the same as it passes in the real world, and it’s time to go to trivia night. Just imagine yourself falling out of this world, and you should find yourself back outside.”

She did what he said, and felt herself falling out of her virtual body. It felt strange, twirling through the emptiness of a void, even though it only happened for a moment before she found herself back in the chair in Rainbow’s house. She disconnected herself from the Bubble, and waited for Rainbow.

He should have been just behind her. But when a minute passed, and then two, and he was still sitting there, frozen, she knew something was wrong. She gently prodded him, but he gave no sign that he had felt or heard her.

She considered disconnecting him, to see if that would bring him back, but the thought better of it. Wouldn’t disconnecting him from the machine kill him, while he was still in there? She was sure that was some kind of scifi trope, and she figured tropes usually had an element of truth to them. She knew she could disconnect a VR helmet safely, but this was technology she was unfamiliar with.

Better not to risk it, she thought. She muttered to herself, resigned, as she sat down on one of the chairs along the wall to wait. Rainbow’s dad would be home soon.

It was worth it, though.

“It’s a good thing you didn’t try to disconnect this,” Rainbow’s dad said.

His name was David, and he had been surprisingly calm even with his son stuck in the k-net. Sadie described what they had been doing that afternoon – leaving out the part where she had gone into the k-net. He wouldn’t have approved of that.

David checked Rainbow, who seemed to be fine physically. Whatever Rainbow was doing in the k-net, in this world his breathing was slow and even. When there was no immediate danger, he summoned Faye, a Karazai technician, to examine the Bubble. She arrived soon after and they popped open the panels and combed through all the components of the machine. Sadie recognized some of the components as the ones that Rainbow had just bought that afternoon.

“There,” Faye said, pointing to a gray cube inside one of the panels.

David examined the cube. “You’re right,” David said. “It’s been tampered with.”

“Rainbow just bought that this afternoon and put it into the Bubble,” Sadie said. “I saw him do it.”

David frowned. “I need to make some calls,” he said.

While he was gone, Sadie asked, “What does that do?”

“Persona converter.” Faye didn’t bother to explain more, though it wasn’t clear if it was because she didn’t want to give away Karazai secrets, or whether she thought Sadie wouldn’t understand.

Doesn’t matter, Sadie thought. I can guess what it does from the name.

“I called Arden,” David said, when he returned. “This is a security matter now. In the meantime, Faye, can you see if you can get Rainbow out of the Bubble?”

“I stopped by on my way here to question the Karazai seller,” Arden said, when he arrived at the house. “Kind of a weasel, that one. He claims that he doesn’t know anything about any malfunctioning parts.”

“He’s lying,” Faye said. She had extracted the persona converter and placed it on a table next to the Bubble. “Look at this. Definitely tampered with.”

“Is it possible that he didn’t know about it?” Arden said.

“I’ve dealt with him before,” Faye said. “He knew about it. Probably took a bribe to do it.”

“You think it’s sabotage, then, and not an accident.” Arden’s tone was grim. “I’ll have another talk with him when we’re done here. So, can you get Rainbow back?”

“I was studying this converter while waiting for you to get here. It’s been tampered to trigger when a Karazai tries to leave the k-net. Normally you would just be able to zone back out. But with these persona converters, some code is triggered, which locks you into the k-net.”

“What would be the point of keeping someone in there?”

Faye shrugged. “I don’t know. Leverage? Anyway, I keep a supply of extra converters in my work bag. We’ll put in a good one and then he should be able to zone back out. It’ll just take a few minutes.”

Sadie sat along the wall to wait again, but lasted only a minute before she had too much nervous energy and started pacing. She wondered if somehow her presence had triggered the Bubble failure. It was true that the persona converter had been tampered with. But she wondered if somehow her being in the k-net had something to do with it. It was silly, but she couldn’t push the thought out of her mind.

“Is everybody ready?” Faye said. Seeing their collective nods, she continued. “We just have to reset the Bubble and that should restart the persona converter. That’ll notify Rainbow inside the virtual world, and he should be smart enough to know what that means and try to leave again.”

“But I thought we can’t disconnect him while he’s in there. Won’t resetting the Bubble kill him?” Sadie asked.

“It’s not a disconnection,” Faye said. “It’s a soft reset. The Bubble will go into standby mode for only an instant and it’ll be fine. Anything else?”

When no one answered, she said, “Resetting now.” She pushed a button on the panel. The people in the room held their collective breath as the machine went to standby power. The screens on the panels blinked and a burst of text scrolled on the screen as the machine executed its restart sequence. The fans started again as the Bubble came back to life.

“Rainbow?” Faye said, when the screens stopped updating. “Are you back?”

Rainbow remained unchanged from before. Suddenly there was a loud pop, and all the lights in the room turned off and the machine went dark. It happened for less than a second, before a different set of lights – the emergency lights – turned back on. The machine went back into standby mode.

Faye finished her analysis of the Bubble. “Something overloaded the power and forced us onto backup generators. The good news is, even though the k-net turned off for a second, it didn’t kill him. He’s still in there somewhere,” Faye said.

“But?” Rainbow’s dad said.

“But we don’t know where he is. When the power turned off, his neural signal blinked off also. We haven’t been able to recover the signal. So we won’t be able to recover him from out here. Someone has to go in and bring him out.”

“So? I’ll go. What’s the problem?”

“The problem is no one can go in right now. That massive power surge was caused by us trying to remove the persona converter. The tampering was more sophisticated than we thought. Not only is it programmed to trap anyone who tries to exit the Bubble, it also infects the system to overload if it’s run with the tampered converter removed. So until we’re able to figure out how to deactivate it safely, we can’t risk removing it.” Faye saw the look on David’s face. “I’ve called up everyone on staff. We’ll have this figured out by the morning.”

Arden’s phone buzzed, and he checked the message. “Is your backup generator going to last until morning?”

“The Bubble uses a lot of power, even in standby mode. We’ll be lucky to get another hour out of it. Why?” Faye asked.

“The power outage took out the entire town. You’ve got however long the generator’s got.”

“Are you serious?” David said.

“It’s a mess out there,” Arden said.

“I’m the leader of the Karazai,” David said. “That’s my son in there!”

“It wouldn’t matter if you were the president. Power’s not coming back on tonight. Do you have any other generators you can bring over?”

“It’s a special power supply. We don’t just keep extras of those sitting around.”

Sadie didn’t want to bring more attention to herself. But when no one else had any ideas, she made her suggestion.

“So you said no one could go in there. I guess you meant Karazai. But could a human go in there?”

“A human going into the k-net? Absolutely not,” Faye said.

“But it would be possible, wouldn’t it?”

“I would have to study the neural link-”

David cut her off. “Then study it.”

Faye worked at the terminal. After a few minutes, she said, “It looks like this tampered converter is finely calibrated. So I guess if a human tried to go in there, they would be able to get back out. That’s assuming a human could even connect to the neural interface.”

“But human and Karazai have really close biologies, right? So it should work?” Sadie said.

She noticed that David was giving her a curious look. Meanwhile, Faye glared at her. “How would you know?”

“I’m just guessing…”

“Enough,” Arden said. “If a human can go in there and bring Rainbow home, then we need to do it. I’ll go in there and get him.”

Faye appealed to David, who had stopped listening to the conversation and was now examining the persona converter carefully. “Are you really going to let him go in there?” Faye said. But David wasn’t paying attention to either of them.

“How would you even find him? Do you even know where to look?” Faye said. She and Arden continued to argue for a bit.

“I’ll go in there,” Sadie finally said.

Arden looked at her in surprise. “No.”

“Like Faye said, you’ll need to find him in there. I know him. I know where he’d be. And, there aren’t any other humans that know him well enough.”

“You’re not trained for this. I’m not letting you go in there.”

“I think Sadie should go,” David said.

“Really?” Sadie wasn’t sure who was more shocked, her or Arden. Arden looked like he was about to object again.

“She’s right,” David said. “You won’t be able to find him. She would.”

“I can do it,” Sadie said.

The decision made, Sadie stepped into the Bubble and sat down in one of the chairs. She almost started attaching herself to the machine, before realizing it would give away her secret. She waited, instead, for David to come help her. When she was connected in and ready, Faye powered on the machine, and the familiar noise filled the room.

David leaned in next to Sadie. “You don’t know anything about Karazai technology, but somehow you guessed that the persona converter had been calibrated for only Karazai,” he said quietly. With the machine running, neither Arden nor Faye could hear.

Sadie tensed. “Just a lucky guess.”

“I studied that converter. Faye may not have noticed, but I did. Two people triggered that persona converter. I know you were in the k-net.”

She wanted to deny it, but she knew it wouldn’t do any good.

“That’s why I wanted you to go in there. You’ve been in there already, you know how the system works. And I know you’ll be able to get back out safely. Go bring Rainbow home.” David patted her on the shoulder, and stepped back from the Bubble. To Faye, he said, “She’s in. Activate the k-net.”

“Remember,” Faye said. “You don’t have much time. When you find him, grab him and zone out of the k-net. He won’t be able to zone himself out because of the persona converter, but that doesn’t matter. Grab him, zone yourself out, and he’ll ride your signal and come out with you.”

Sadie zoned in, expecting to see the purple sky of the Karazai world.

Instead, she was startled to see Selunia Falls. It was the Selunia Falls she knew, in every detail. Except it was empty. Not the kind of empty where she was walking home alone at night, and there was no one else around. The kind of empty of a virtual void, where time itself had stopped flowing.

Faye’s voice spoke into her ear. “Sadie, are you there?” She reached up to her ear and found an earpiece.

“Yes. I’m here. I’m outside Rainbow’s house. But there’s no one else here.”

“That’s the machine conserving power.”

Sadie searched through all the rooms in the house. “He’s not here.”

“He must have bunkered down in what he thought would be a safe place.”

“I’ll try the lab.”

Fortunately Rainbow’s car was parked in the driveway. She took his car keys from the bowl just inside the entrance and started driving. With no one else on the road, she was able to speed way above the limit. But she had only been driving for a minute before Faye spoke to her again.

“Are you there yet?”

“It’s a twenty minute drive! There’s no one else here so I can make it in fifteen though.”

“You don’t have twenty minutes! You barely have fifteen minutes. And why are you even driving?”

“What do you mean?”

Sadie could hear the invisible sigh on the other end.

“Sadie,” Faye said. “That world isn’t real. None of that is real and physical rules don’t apply. Just will yourself there, and you’ll be there.”

Will yourself there…? Well, I’ll give it a try I guess… Sadie closed her eyes and imagined herself in the lab.

And she was no longer sitting in the car. Instead she fell backwards, reaching out her hands to try to grab onto something, but all she found was air, and she landed hard onto the tiled entrance of the lab. There was no one there to see, but it wouldn’t have mattered if there were, because she was too excited.

“I did it! But… I don’t know where Rainbow’s office is.”

“I’ll guide you,” Faye said.

Sadie followed Faye’s instructions as she sped through the lab. “Rainbow! Are you here?” she shouted along the way. She shoved the door to his office.

It was empty. Just like the rest of the lab.

“He’s not here either.”

“Sadie, the backup generator’s running out. There’s only five minutes left. You need to come back.”

“What happens to Rainbow if the power goes out?”

There was no answer.

What happens?

“If you don’t get out,” Faye said, “then both of you will die in there.”

“I still have five minutes. I’m going to find him.”

“The subsystems are starting to shut down, to save power. I won’t be able to speak to you much longer.”

“I got it.”

Sadie tried not to focus on how much time was left and to focus on where Rainbow might be. She had searched the house, and she had searched the lab.

Where would he be?

Faye’s words echoed in her mind. He would be hiding in a safe place. Sadie tried to reach out psychically, and whether it was just intuition or Rainbow trying to make contact, she wasn’t sure – but she knew where she needed to go. She closed her eyes and willed herself.

She found herself inside Anna’s Cafe. A shadowy form was sitting in the corner, the only other person she had seen in Selunia Falls.


The form didn’t answer.

“Faye, I found him!” But there was no response from the earpiece either.

Must be disconnected from low power…

“Rainbow,” Sadie said. “I’ve come to get you.”

Rainbow appeared not to have heard her. She took a tentative step towards him. The tables in the cafe shifted, forming a barrier between them. She saw a blur of movement reflected in one of the legs of the table and whirled around, thinking that maybe someone else had come in to get them.

The movement was coming from outside. But it wasn’t a person. It was the world itself, falling apart. The buildings were dissolving, first into wireframes, and then disintegrating completely into particles that floated off into space. The collapse was still on the far end of the street, but it was making its way towards her.

Sadie forced herself to remain calm.

“Rainbow. It’s me. Sadie. Remember me? I was working here when you first came in, and you chose that exact same seat.” Outside, the destruction was now across the street. She pressed on. “Remember when you told me your name, and I thought it was a funny name and you said you picked it out yourself?”

Rainbow finally looked up, and she saw the recognition in his eyes. “Sadie? Is it really you?”

“Yes,” Sadie said, and she was half laughing and half crying. She lunged forward, and this time the tables in the cafe remained where they were, and he was reaching out now, and so was she, and she grabbed his hand.

It was one week later.

It should have been trivia night at the bar, but Rainbow and Sadie were on their way to Rainbow’s house instead.

“I thought your dad used the k-net on Tuesday evenings,” Sadie said.

“Not anymore. Karazai meetings are in person now, until they can figure out who was sabotaging the equipment. There might be more tampered machines out there.”

“Then how do you know it’s safe for us to use.”

“Trust me. We’ve scrubbed this machine thoroughly. It’s safe.”

They arrived at the house just as David was on his way out. It seemed to Sadie that he had warmed up to him, at least just a little. He even gave her a hint of a smile.

She supposed that was the most she was going to get.

“You’re using the k-net?” David asked. “To do what?”

“Oh, I just wanted to show her what the k-net is really like. You know, when it’s not about to come completely apart. I figured we could take a flyover of Selunia Falls.”

David frowned. “It’s not really meant for humans.”

“She saved me, dad. I think she’s earned the right.”

David shrugged. “I guess it’ll be alright.” He got into his car and drove off.

They went into the basement, where the mess from last week had been cleaned up. Rainbow connected Sadie to the Bubble, then connected himself.

They zoned in.

Sadie turned to Rainbow and was about to tell him that he had set up the wrong location. But he winked at her before she could say anything, and Sadie just smiled back and basked in the purple sky.