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Goal: Take the Red Pill

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public static void main(String[] args) {

      avatar = kustomize(body, style);

      System.out.println("Before you were a star…you were new to Hollywood.")

      closingUp(); //agree, tap

      makeAnExit(); //greet, obey

      chanceEncounter(); //obey

      obey(you, Kim);

  }

 

. . . 

 

You open your eyes.

 

It takes you a second to wake up completely, like always, but once you do, you're ready for the day. A helpfully-prepared list of goals awaits you:

 

Harajuku Style

❏Do a runway show at JBN in Tokyo

 

Film of the Damned

❏Complete the horror movie shoot at Mirimount Pictures in Hollywood

 

Beach Bums

❏Pose for the Günk shampoo ad in Punta Mita, Mexico

 

You think you'll do the beach shoot first. You're brimming with energy and in the mood for some sunshine!

 

But first, you have to check MyFeed. Every day, your follower count rises, moving you closer and closer to the coveted #1 position on the Top Stars list. You figure you'll throw a party when you finally get there.

 

When you pick up your phone, you see that MyFeed has already sent you several notifications, just in the few seconds you've been up.

 

@RayPowers If you missed @PeytonC's appearance at Club Donatella, you really missed out!

 

+765,824 fans. Hell yeah.

 

You post something witty, earning more fans in the process. Cha-ching! Then MyFeed politely informs you that you've been mentioned, by someone with an obnoxiously wordy handle.

 

@PrometheanSea @PeytonC Check this out. https://pic.myfeed.com…

 

Okay, you will. You're expecting a dick pic (they're distressingly common, especially considering how little you want to see dicks, ever), but your curiosity gets the better of you. Unfortunately, the link doesn't go anywhere. No matter how many times you tap it, all you get is the promising flash of an image on a page that then fails to load.

 

@PeytonC @PrometheanSea Your link doesn't work?

 

No response. Although Willow Pape lets you know via repost that she totally managed to open the link, OMG what is wrong with @PeytonC, #2ndhandembarrassment #techdummy. Whatever!

 

. . . 

 

TIL that Günk shampoo smells like ass, you text your girlfriend. Punta Mita is fabulous, El Canario's mahi-mahi tacos are way too greasy for a model to be eating (yet fucking delicious anyway), but ew, that smell. It's giving you a headache.

 

You open up MyFeed again while you wait for Simon's call. The top post is @TrendStyle, telling you that your photoshoot will be revealed in eight hours; see what the critics say! You can do that. The rest of your feed is Willow Pape.

 

@WillowPape Designer says I'm the reason she gets up in the morning. I don't blame her. #dressme

 

@WillowPape If I say that a lot, it's because I'm so great. #blessed

 

@WillowPape It's always sunny in beautiful #LA #suntan #popglam

 

@WillowPape No really, it's always sunny there. And it's always dark in #Vegas #conspiracy

 

@WillowPape It only takes 5 seconds to fly from #LA to #Tokyo AND to drive from #LA to #Hollywood! #soweird

 

@WillowPape Am I the only who who thinks that's weird? #existentialcrisis

 

@WillowPape Seriously. #worried

 

@CdParker @WillowPape Maybe you should cut back on the partying. #sosad #gethelp

 

@CrystalFletcher @CdParker @WillowPape It happens to the best of us. #27club

 

@WillowPape @CdParker @CrystalFletcher Please just listen to me

 

@WillowPape Something's wrong and I'm going to find out what it is.

 

Wow, Willow Pape is really losing it. You were totally ready to drag her, but for some reason you feel kind of bad about it. Maybe it's because she's so clearly having a total breakdown. It would be like punching a six-year-old.

 

So you send her a DM instead.

 

Are you OK?

 

Being nice to Willow Pape feels like going against your programming. You wince before tapping Send Message, but you do it anyway. It's your community service of the day.

 

She doesn't reply. Weird. Willow's basically surgically grafted to her phone, and always ready with a shitty comeback. Instead, when your phone buzzes, it's Kim's face smiling at you from the screen.

 

"Hey, bestie!" she says the minute you pick up. You grin. She always cheers you up! "It's been too long. Want to hit up Lif tonight?"

 

"Sure!" you say.

 

"Okay, I'll see you there! Can't wait! Kisses!" She hangs up without saying goodbye. Kind of rude, actually—but Kim would never be rude! Obviously, she's just having a bad day. Or you're wrong. Maybe you misinterpreted.

 

For a moment, you feel strangely lost. What are you supposed to do now?

 

Wait. You know what. It's basically written in the air! All you have to do is glance to your left and you remember. Simon will call you in 4 hours and you'll fly to Miami, and you and Kim will party like you always do. But first, you have to find something to wear.

 

(Willow hasn't replied yet.)

 

You open your wardrobe and scan your options. There's this really cute Balmain dress, bright orange and gold duochrome silk, belted around the waist, with an adorable matching cape. You look at it longingly. But it's 150 K-Stars, and you're stingy. So instead you select a cheaper option, the pink strapless sheath with a peplum, and shoes to match.

 

(Still no reply.)

 

Accessories chosen: gold wrist cuff, heart necklace, nose stud. Hair: cascading curls in matching pink. Makeup: surprise, surprise, you went with pink lipstick. It's your color.

 

Your phone vibrates again. MyFeed is informing you that @WillowPape has replied to your message. Finally.

 

I need to talk to you. Meet me at the Brew Palms.

 

You frown, and quickly text back. Why should I trust you?

 

OMG, you are so paranoid! #getoveryourself Look at your feed, it's not like anyone would believe what I say about you now anyway.

 

That's true. Every news outlet is buzzing with news of Willow Pape's very public breakdown—you see that she spouted off some more crazy about #mandelaeffect and #singularity, which you guess is a nice break from the Illuminati bullshit she likes so much. Slinging rumors about you would only get her laughed at and give you publicity.

 

OK, you text. I'll be there in five.

 

You catch the next flight from Punta Mita to LAX, then the bus from LAX to Hollywood. Your girlfriend calls you while you're at the airport, wanting to go out; you politely Decline. You have places to be.

 

You make it to the Brew Palms four minutes and two seconds early. Willow is already there, dressed in her usual white top and red skirt, but her habitual bitchy expression isn't on her face. She looks…tired. You've never seen her like this before.

 

"Hey," you say, and she jolts out of whatever daydream she was having. Her eyes widen at the sight of you. Then she rolls them so hard you think she might pass out.

 

"OMG," she hisses. "That color is hideous! Could you be any more conspicuous?"

 

Well, if she's just going to berate you, you're going to leave. You turn on your heel, and she catches you by the elbow.

 

"Sorry," she says, although she chokes on the apology. "Just try not to make a scene for once."

 

That little hypocrite! She's one to talk. Still, you grit your teeth and allow her to steer you to a table nestled in the far corner of the restaurant. She sits rigidly with her back to the wall, almost curled in on herself, as if she genuinely doesn't want to be the center of attention. As if she's afraid someone's watching.

 

"You said you wanted to talk," you say, once you've decided that she's not going to be more relaxed than she is right now. "So talk."

 

Willow exhales in a big huff, blowing her bangs out of her face.

 

"Okay," she says. "But I need you to promise me something first. Don't tell anyone about what I'm going to tell you."

 

"No guarantees."

 

"Please, Peyton." She's almost pleading. Part of you wants to toy with her, make her beg some more, but your nice side selects a different option.

 

"Okay," you concede.

 

"I mean it," she says fiercely. "No one! Not even Kim."

 

Kim! How could you not tell Kim? Kim is one of the kindest, most intelligent people you know. But…there's no reason why she'd care about what Willow Pape said.

 

"Okay," you repeat. "I won't tell anyone."

 

"…Good." She sighs again. "This is going to sound crazy."

 

"Willow!"

 

"Fine!" A hair flip, a pointed glare. "Just hear me out before you say anything." Yet another sigh. You resist making a crack about asthma. Then she says, "I don't think this world is real."

 

"…what?"

 

"Think about it, Peyton." She leans forward, her dark eyes boring into you. "I've been doing some research. You saw my posts about daytime in LA? And flight times?"

 

"Yeah, so?"

 

"So that doesn't make any sense. Look, the Earth rotates as it orbits the sun. That's what makes day and night. That's a fact, right?"

 

"Yeah," you say dryly. "Nice to hear you finished third grade."

 

"Shut up," she says. "So the sun never rises in Vegas or set in LA. Okay? So that's, like, weird. And that's not all. I flew here from Milan. So over 6,000 miles. And that took me about two seconds. I bet that's how long your flight was, too. Right?"

 

She barrels right over you trying to say that no, your flight took at least four seconds. "And you know the fastest thing humanity's ever made? It's some military plane that can fly at 13,00 miles per hour. And light speed is—"

 

"For fuck's sake, Willow," you snap. "This trivia is nice, but get to the point, will you?"

 

"It's not possible, okay? Like literally not possible. Like, science won't allow you to do that levels of not possible."

 

That's…true, actually. You're no mathematician, but your girlfriend watches a lot of Star Trek, and you're pretty sure that a two-second flight over that distance requires warp 4 or something.

 

What did she say earlier? That it's always sunny in LA? Always?

 

Something inside you curls and twists.

 

"This is crazy," you say. "I'm not listening to this."

 

"Please, Peyton, there's so much more—" She grabs at your arm, but you shove her away and stalk out the door. She's wrong, obviously. Totally delusional. Chad Dylan Parker was right (ugh, you can't believe you just thought that): Willow needs help. And like you said before, you're no mathematician. You're probably wrong about the speed and distance calculations.

 

Outside, the sun is so bright that it's making you tear up; maybe a cloud will cover it soon. You pull out your phone and call Simon as you walk, squinting against the light.

 

"Eager to start Lif Laugh Love?" he asks, without saying hello. "I can probably bump that up and you can start right now."

 

"Yeah," you say. "I want to Start project now!"

 

Twelve K-Stars out of your bank account for starting ahead of time. Worth it.

 

"Lif is ready for Lif Laugh Love," Simon says. "Can you take it now, or I can call back in an hour."

 

"I'm ready!" you tell him.

 

Before you board your flight, you open up your wardrobe again and buy that Balmain dress. You deserve it after putting up with Willow.

 

You ignore that twisting feeling in your head, like something ugly is burrowing into your skull.

 

And you go to Miami, and get totally fucked up.

 

Who cares about Willow Pape, anyway?

 

. . . 

 

You open your eyes.

 

Your phone is in your hand. Simon is calling. You answer.

 

"It's time, Peyton Charleston!" he sing-songs. He's way too enthusiastic for your hangover to handle. "You don't want to be late for London Calling. Better get down to the Britannia ASAP, or I'll call back in an hour."

 

Simple question. Yes/no answer. You shouldn't have this hard of a time making a choice.

 

"Not yet," you say slowly. You're in Miami, of course. Right outside of Lif. It's a beautiful, sunny day, like always.

 

But something's off.

 

"If you say so," Simon says doubtfully. "I suppose the Britannia won't be impressed, but I'll hold them off for now."

 

He hangs up. God, that's so rude. Is this a new thing now, not saying hi or bye? Kim first, now Simon…

 

You frown and tuck your phone back in your purse, then yelp in surprise because Kim is standing right there. Where the hell did she come from?

 

"Hey, Peyton!" she says, smiling.

 

"Hi, Kim," you say. She's so beautiful and intelligent. You'd do anything to be just like her. Anything to make her like you.

 

"I heard you're going to model the Krazy Kollection at Muse."

 

"Yeah," you say, although that's news to you.

 

"I'm so glad Kourtney chose you to be her model!"

 

"Me too," you say.

 

"We're always too busy to hang out, so I was thinking that I could model with you! What do you think?"

 

"That would be amazing!" you say.

 

"I'll talk to Simon and he'll call you in 4 hours."

 

"Sounds great," you say.

 

There is a weighted pause. Kim is still smiling, perfect lips pressed together in a luscious pout, brow smooth of wrinkles and worries. The silence stretches, and you're not really sure what to do. What does she want you to say? You feel like you're stuck in the studio, forgetting your lines on the final take.

 

"Have you heard about Willow?" she asks suddenly, as if that incredibly awkward pause didn't happen at all.

 

"Yeah," you say. "It's so sad."

 

"Bible." She shakes her head sadly. "Have you heard from her at all?"

 

Yes/No.

 

"No," you say.

 

"Are you sure?" Her voice turns coaxing. "You know you can trust me."

 

"Of course I do," you say, then, "Actually, we have talked."

 

Except you don't say it. You want to—you think you want to—and it should really be your only option, but—

 

You don't remember how long you've been standing here. You don't remember leaving Lif last night. You don't remember the last time you saw a sunset in beautiful, sunny Miami. And there's still something weird and throbbing inside your head, sinking its teeth into your brain.

 

You lie to her.

 

"We really haven't talked," you tell Kim. "I mean, we kind of hate each other. Remember when she threw that drink on me? What a—" Bitch, you almost say, but you never swear in front of Kim. "—jerk."

 

"You've never been anything but nice to her, too." Kim smiles, showing her teeth. "I've got to go, bestie, but I'll see you at Muse. Hand hug?"

 

Sure. You hand-hug.

 

And something very strange happens to you. A flicker in your peripheral vision, like a wisp of smoke quickly blown away on the breeze, or an iridescent bubble popped just before you could really look at it.

 

I have to Get out on the runway at Muse in SoHo, NY (available in 3 hours 59 mins), you think, but that's not much time to fly between Miami and JFK. The wait at security alone could take you an hour. No, you don’t need to worry; Simon will take care of it.

 

God, you have an absolutely blistering headache.

 

"Walk it off, girl," you mutter to yourself. Exercise will probably help. You irritably sweep your hair back in a scrunchie and go.

 

Except you don’t, because you only walk about a block before you're back at the Miami airport. Frowning, you take the same route, making absolutely sure you're going in a straight line. There's literally no way you can get turned around.

 

Back at the airport. What the fuck.

 

"This is ridiculous," you tell the world. Your voice is shaking. Why? It's not like anything has changed; Miami is the same as it always is. Same seagull, same scooter. Lif is lit up in neon, Kardash next to it with its ornate columns. Same trees above your head. Same everything.

 

The city is only a block long.

 

You nearly drop your cell phone trying to get it out of your purse. You need to call Willow Pape.

 

. . .

 

"You look like shit," she tells you, once you've finally navigating the labyrinth of sweaty bodies and spilled drinks to the corner she's hiding in. You're at the 10AX Club in Florence, dressed head to toe in black. Leather jacket, straight black hair, no accessories. Makeup muted. All for the sake of not being so conspicuous. "Hashtag fashion disaster."

 

"Hashtag shut the fuck up," you tell her wearily. She looks exactly the same as last time, delicate features illuminated in bursts by the endless flashing of the strobe lights. Her back is to the wall again. This time, you wonder what she's afraid of. "I need you to tell me what's going on."

 

"I thought you just told me to shut the fuck up," she says, examining her nails. "And earlier you said I was crazy."

 

"I don't think so now." You lean closer, shoulders brushing. "I saw some strange shit in Miami, Willow, some seriously strange shit. I need you to tell me what's going on."

 

"Say you're sorry."

 

"Willow!"

 

She tosses her hair and deliberately looks away from you.

 

"Fine. I'm sorry."

 

"Thank you," she sniffs. "Finally. What kind of "strange shit" are you talking about?"

 

She does finger quotes with just one finger. Clearly a literary genius, and in another situation, you'd tell her so. But for once, you don't focus on making fun of Willow Pape.

 

"I went to Lif last night with Kim," you say slowly. "And I got wasted, like blackout wasted. I don't remember much." You frown, shake your head. This headache is killing you. "Wait, I do remember something. I was walking around, just…tapping on things."

 

Willow raises a skeptical eyebrow. You add hastily, "I know, it sounds ridiculous! But I felt like I had to do it. Like if I didn't, something would go wrong."

 

"I believe you," she says, and ventures out onto the dance floor to snag a shot of Immaculat from a passing cocktail waiter. She downs it ("Hashtag drink up," she says first), then turns back to you. "Keep going."

 

So you do. You tell her everything.

 

"Kim asked you about me?" is the first thing she says once you're done. "OMG!"

 

"Yeah, I was surprised too," you say snidely. Willow rolls her eyes.

 

"I still can't believe that out of all the people in the world, Kim Kardashian chose your ratchet ass to befriend," she says. "I deserved to be her friend."

 

"As if," you snap. Pressure is steadily building behind your temples, a bed of coals ready to ignite. "Kim would never look twice at you. She likes me, not you."

 

"Yeah, well—well, I saw her first!"

 

You shove her, and she drops her shot glass. It shatters—and so do you.

 

. . .

 

You open your eyes.

 

You're in the 10AX Club. It's completely empty, the usual writhing mass of bodies gone. No music, no flashing lights, not even the stench of spilled beer. There's only Willow Pape, sprawled on the floor, unmoving, and an old-school cell phone laying on the floor in the center of the room. Options: check on Willow/examine phone.

 

Willow is knocked out, but otherwise okay; that is, no important bits look broken, and she's not obviously bleeding. You're a model, not a doctor.

 

Options: examine phone/think about what just happened.

 

The phone is a hulking, weirdly curved Nokia that looks like it's from the previous millennium. It's scuffed and worn-out, with a nasty scratch across its tiny screen. It looks like it's received a text. (Can this phone even do that?) You crouch down and squint.

 

Follow the Black Rabbit.

 

What?

 

"The fuck is the black rabbit?" you mutter, glaring at the phone.

 

A groggy voice, from behind you, making you twitch: "Uh, a nightclub?"

 

"Willow!" you say, hoping she didn't see you jump. "You're okay!"

 

"Ugh," she says in response. She heaves herself to her elbows. She looks like a fucking wreck, but also different, somehow. Like she's more textured, more present, than she was before. "What even happened?"

 

Options: acknowledge/ignore.

 

What happened was an expansion, an explosion, an extra-dimensional nova taking place within your mind. There was a root that had burrowed deep into your grey matter and dug itself in, constricting your self, and you didn't notice until—until Punta Mita, then in Florence the glass shattered, and uprooted the thing that was keeping you from being you.

 

Your head has never been so clear.

 

"It was fucking weird," you say simply. She nods wearily.

 

"So true." It's only then that her glassy eyes focus on the phone in your hand. "What's that?"

 

"Some old phone." You let her take it from you, examining her face. Her brow furrows as she reads the text on the screen. She's got some unplucked hairs between her brows, a tiny scar on her chin. Chapped lips. Skin pale enough to see her veins at her wrists and elbows. Her dark eyes are luminous and expressive, much prettier than you remember. You don't think you've ever seen her without a bratty pout on her face, but it looks nice on her.

 

"Ugh," she says again. "I guess we have to go to Sydney now."

 

"Following the Black Rabbit," you sigh. "Great."

 

"Hashtag jumpin' jumpin'," she says, and her voice breaks.

 

"Willow, you okay?" But she's obviously not; her face scrunches, her eyes start tearing up, and she sits down hard.

 

"I feel weird," she wails. "I feel weird, and I hate this, and I hate you, and I want things to go back to normal!"

 

She starts to sob. You mostly stay there, perched awkwardly on your heels, occasionally patting her, until her weeping fades into fretful whimpers. At last, she huffs heavily and stops crying, wrapping her arms around her knees, burying her face in her arms. You inch closer, until you can put an arm around her shoulders. She lets you.

 

"It's okay," you tell her. "I hate you too."

 

She sniffs, and gives you a watery smile.

 

"Hand hug?"

 

"Hand hug." The two of you stay there for a moment, leaning against each other. Quietly, you add, "You know she has something to do with this."

 

"Yeah," Willow admits, then pouts. "She's probably an evil mastermind. I knew she wasn't on the Top Stars chart for a reason!"

 

After a moment, you say, "This is so fucked up."

 

Willow makes a noise of assent. "So what are we going to do?"

 

You glance down at the phone, still loosely clutched in her hand.

 

"Well," you say, "I guess we're going to Sydney."

 

. . .

 

Behind the door of 10AX lies a void. Florence is gone, replaces by a yawning, primordial darkness, so black it seems to suck all light into itself, devouring it; standing as close to it as you are, gripping the door frame, it draws the color from your skin, fading you to a washed-out grey. Very far in the distance—if distance is really a thing here—green lightning rips through the darkness, sparks falling like snow.  Static crackles, louder than thunder. It calls to you.

 

"I don't like this!" Willow yells in your ear. "I don't like this at all!"

 

Neither do you, despite the inexplicable urge you have to fling yourself into the void and let it consume you. What the hell is this thing? Is this what you're supposed to be doing?

 

"Have any other ideas?" you yell back. You feel her shake her head more than you see her. You shrug.

 

"Well, then," you say, and grab Willow's arm. "YOLO."

 

You step off the edge and the void takes you.

 

Do you spend seconds or centuries within it? You have no idea. Things in the darkness whisper to you, feather-light voices breathing incomprehensible strings of letters and numbers against your skin. You want to understand, more than you've ever wanted anything, even the top spot on the Top Stars chart—you'd willingly lose all your fans and catapult yourself back to the E-List or even lower, if it meant you could speak to these voices in the darkness. And you probably could; the void wants to absorb you, to make you a part of it, to burn through you like an atom within a star. You could know everything, if you let it happen.

 

But Willow is still clutching your shoulder, and even in the void, you can sense her repeating, "OMG, OMG, OMG," and you're just not mean enough to ditch her, okay? Even if she has been a pain in your ass since the moment you stepped foot in Hollywood.

 

You ignore the call of the void and focus on the Black Rabbit. You're hurtling toward it, stretching through the darkness as if reaching out for it. It's coming up too quickly, and you know this is going to hurt, but you have to System.exit(void); now—

 

Time and space violently reassert themselves, slamming you to the pavement. Your wrist complains with a loud crack and a zap of pain that leaves you weak. Fuck, that hurt.

 

"Ow," Willow moans next to you. "Peyton, WTF?"

 

"Sorry," you mumble. It kind of feels like you lost half your brain in the void. "Didn't mean to."

 

For a minute, you just lay there, distracting yourself from the consuming pain of your broken wrist by thinking about what total BS this is. Beside you, Willow shifts, and finally sits up.

 

"I think we're here," she whispers.

 

You open your eyes.

 

Here is the courtyard of the Black Rabbit. Like 10AX, it's dead; no people, no music, and even the fountain in the front is still and empty. But the spotlights over the entrance are flashing green and purple, eerily illuminating the black rabbit silhouette on the sign, and through the frosted glass doors, you can see the pulse of a strobe light.

 

"C'mon," Willow says, hoisting herself to her feet and holding out her hand. You resign yourself to the fact that you're going to have to move, and take it, hauling yourself up with your good arm. She makes a face when she looks at the weird angle of your wrist. "Ew! What happened?"

 

"The ground happened," you say with a grimace. She makes a disgusted noise. Together, you advance upon the Black Rabbit. You shoulder the doors open, and step inside. Empty. The LED lights embedded in the walls throb in shades of orange and yellow, casting a dim glow, interrupted by the flash of the strobe light every five seconds. You wince and squint against the light.

 

"We've been waiting for you, Peyton," a woman intones. She's standing in the middle of the dance floor, dressed in some bizarre combination of Rage's couture at the zenith of his goth phase and a 1950s beach babe, complete with winged liner and dark red lips. There's a cluster of people huddled on the couches behind her. "Welcome to—"

 

She cuts herself off, staring behind you with wide eyes and a curled lip. "What the hell? Is that a Willow?"

 

Behind you, Willow squeaks. A man peels himself from the group. 

 

"What the fuck?" he spits angrily, and rounds on you. "Why'd you bring one of those things? Are you a spy?"

 

"No!" you say, but they ignore you.

 

"We need to scrap it," says the woman.

 

"Better do it quick," the man replies. "It might have a tracer."

 

"What? No!" You push Willow behind you with your shoulder, cradling your wrist to your chest. You don't actually know what they mean by scrap it, or what you'd do if they tried it, but you know it's nothing good, and you're not going to let that happen. "Leave her alone!"

 

The man pauses, apparently bemused, but the woman reaches for you, lips pressed tight together.

 

"It's for your own good," she tells you. Willow clutches your waist from behind and whimpers, "Don't let them hurt me!"

 

You won't. In fact, you're not sure you're going to let them do anything. You're so tired of being shoved around, saying things you don't really want to say, living your life by tapping on props and chasing little bits of money and fame. And if this bitch wants to fight, then some weaves are going to get ripped out.

 

"Stop."

 

You all freeze.

 

A woman unfolds herself from the couch. She, unlike literally everyone else, isn't wearing some shade of black; instead, she's draped in layers of crimson silk, with red-lensed cat-eye sunglasses sitting on the arched bridge of her nose. She looks at you—somehow you can tell, even through the opaque glass—and you look back. Something passes between you, a kind of recognition, and she nods so slightly that you aren't sure you saw it.

 

"Let me look," she says to the woman, who hesitates a moment, then drops her hand and backs away. The woman in red glasses beckons to Willow. "Come here. I'm not going to hurt you. We just need to make sure you really are one of us."

 

"One of who?" you ask. The woman who spoke to you has ducked into the shadows, surreptitiously slipping her heels off and holding them around the sole, the stiletto pointing out like a knife. The woman in red doesn't bother to respond; instead, she presses her hands to Willow's brow. Willow instantly relaxes, shoulders sagging and eyes flickering closed. The place where the woman is touching her glows faintly green.

 

"What's happening?" you snap at the other woman (wow, you really hope you get their names soon, because all of these epithets are getting annoying). She shrugs.

 

"Thanks, that's so helpful," you mutter.

 

Conveniently, Willow and the woman in red break off their weird mind-meld right when you start getting anxious. Willow stumbles back, touching her brow with an expression of wonder. You'd go to her if your wrist hadn't just decided to remind you it was broken, sending jolts of pain down your arm, making you shudder.

 

The woman in red stretches, pops her neck, and says, "Yep, she's rooted, all right."

 

"Hey," you say.

 

"Seriously?" the man asks incredulously. "How the hell did a Willow get rooted?"

 

"Dunno," says the woman in red, and glances over at the woman with stilettos. "Piper?"

 

"No clue," says (apparently) Piper. "Maybe she saw the link, too."

 

"Hey," you say again, louder.

 

"But she's not the only one who saw it," the man argues. "Why would she be special? Peyton is a PC, Willow's just a program. It makes no goddamn sense."

 

"Hey!" you shout. Everyone shuts up and looks at you, except Willow. "Can someone tell me what the fuck is going on?"

 

"I was right," Willow says dreamily. "The world isn't real."

 

You blink.

 

"The world is real, actually," the woman in red corrects. The pain and stress are catching up with you. You sway a little, getting woozy. "Only it's not what we thought it was." Okay, maybe more than a little woozy. You think shock might be setting in or something, like in movies.

 

"The world," the woman in red proclaims, "is a simulation. This universe—including us—is merely a hologram, something made from code, programmed by something bigger and more powerful than we can possibly imagine." She looks at you, gaze intent. "And you, Peyton Charleston, are one of the few people who can see it for what it truly is: a lie."

 

"…okay," you say. "That sounds fake, but okay."

 

And then your legs tremble, and then they give out, and you shut your eyes and surrender to the blissful quiet of unconsciousness.

 

. . .

 

You open your eyes.

 

"…aliens, or something?" Willow is saying, sounding more energetic than she has since this whole BS started. "Like, who's running the simulation? And why?"

 

"We just don't know," the woman says calmly, then adds under her breath, "dot gif." Resuming her normal volume: "But we think Peyton might have an answer."

 

"Um," you say from your position on a couch, because now seems as good of a time as ever to chime in. "I do?"

 

All of them converge around you like a swarm of paparazzi around an A-Lister's nip slip: Willow, the woman in red, Piper, and the dude, whoever he is. Willow looks eager to see you, the woman in red expressionless. The other two mainly look wary.

 

"We can only hope," the woman in red says dryly. "But I've been rude." She inclines her head. "I am Prometheus."

 

"Piper Chen," says Piper, as if you didn't already know, and "Pacey Chastain," says the man, lifting his hand in a half-wave. "Welcome to the PCs."

 

"You sent me a link on MyFeed," you say to Prometheus, who gives you a faint smile. "The page never loaded."

 

"It did exactly what we wanted it to," she says. "Embedded within that webpage was a subroutine designed to attack your code at its most vulnerable, and remove the security measures that prevented you from having root access to your own mind."

 

You glance at Willow, who is thankfully just as blank-faced as you.

 

"You were under mind control," Piper clarifies for both of you. "We stopped it."

 

"Oh," you say. "Same with Willow?"

 

"I guess," she says, sounding dubious. "See, up until now, only PCs had the exploit that allowed us to root them. Regular programs—the other people in the world, like Simon and Maria—"

 

"You know Simon and Maria?" you ask, startled.

 

"We all do." She glances at the others. "Or did, I guess. None of us go back to our home instances any more."

 

"Home instances?" You're getting pretty tired of asking questions.

 

Piper waves her hand dismissively. "We each spawned in a different version of this world. We call those instances. And once we leave ours, we never go back."

 

"But…we've already left mine," you say slowly. "Haven't we?"

 

"Yeah," she says, waving her hand around again. "This one that we're in, it's hidden. You'd have to ask Pacey about the details, he's the network guy."

 

"Huh?" Pacey looks up from his phone. "Oh. Yeah. It's hidden."

 

"Let's go back to the most interesting topic," Willow says. "Me."

 

"Uh…right. You and Simon and Maria, and all the other programs." For some reason, Piper gives Pacey another curious look, but continues. "You exist solely to interact with your instance's PC—in your case, Peyton. As far as we can tell, you don't have any real personality or mind of your own. It's just primitive code."

 

Willow's mouth hangs open. She looks like she's about to cry. Piper shrugs uncomfortably.

 

"Sorry," she says, "but it's true. How's your wrist?"

 

The last part is aimed at you. Truthfully, you'd completely forgotten about it, caught up in the drama, but it seems…okay? Experimentally, you flex it. No pain, perfect mobility.

 

"Hey, thanks!" you say in surprise. Piper shrugs, again. You're beginning to think that's her only form of expression.

 

"It wasn't me," she says, and nods at Prometheus. "No one can manipulate code like her."

 

You follow her gaze to Prometheus. "Why is that, exactly?"

 

"I can see the datastream," she says in a tranquil voice. "Just like you."

 

The void. The feather-light voices, the green lighting, that inexplicable desire to let yourself drown in the blackness and never resurface—

 

"The void," you whisper.

 

"Is that what you call it?" she asks curiously. "Yes. And that's the reason we summoned you." She stands up, red silk sweeping around her like a cape, and starts to pace.

 

"You, Peyton Charleston, are the One." She takes off her glasses; her eyes, brilliant red, burn into you. You feel like you're pinned in place. "And you always knew it, didn't you? You always knew that there was something wrong with the world, an error on a subliminal level. You didn't know what it was, but it was there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. Am I right?"

 

"Um," you say. "Actually, no."

 

This jolts her from whatever dramatic monologue she was cooking up. "What?"

 

"I never really felt like that," you admit. The next thing you say makes you blush. "Like, I always felt like I was less shallow? More self-aware? Wow, that sounds so conceited. But I never thought there was some great underlying problem with the fabric of reality or anything."

 

"I did," Willow says suddenly. Everyone looks at her. She looks back, defiant. "I did. It was like, everyone else's life was in X-Pro II, and I was hashtag nofilter. But obvs I had other things to worry about, like being famous and getting Kim Kardashian to notice me."

 

"Don't say that name!" Prometheus says violently. Piper and Pacey are suddenly filled with tension, their whole bodies taut and expectant.

 

"Why?" Willow asks. "Isn't she, you know, just a program?" Bitterness creeps into her voice. "Isn't she like me?"

 

After a pause, you say, "No. No, she's not."

 

You're thinking about how you've felt about Kim from the get-go: some desperate desire for friendship, even just acknowledgement, that's more like blind adoration than fangirling. More like worship. You're thinking about the way you and Willow seem to go at each other's throats whenever she's mentioned, even though you sort of get along now. You're thinking about the way you can only say what Kim wants to hear whenever she's around.

 

"She's part of this, isn't she?" you ask. "Somehow, Ki—sorry, you-know-who, she's benefiting from this, right?"

 

"Yes," Prometheus says gravely. "We don't know how, either. Some of us—" She looks at Piper, "—think she's the overseer for whatever being runs the simulation. And some of us aren't arrogant enough to think we can say for sure. That's why we need the One. You, Peyton."

 

Okay, you're getting really uncomfortable with this "The One" thing. The only One you've ever wanted to be is the #1 Top Star, and you're pretty sure Willow has had more of an awakening than you, anyway.

 

"I don't think I can—" you begin.

 

Pacey's phone rings.

 

It echoes throughout the Black Rabbit, rattling the walls like dice at the Miraggio Casino. For some reason, both Piper and Prometheus look absolutely horrified.

 

"Do you get signal here?" Willow asks, oblivious.

 

"Pacey," Piper whispers. "You didn't."

 

"Look," he says pleadingly, "you don't understand. This is pointless!" He jabs a finger at Prometheus, who's stiller than a statue, staring fixedly into the distance. "She is crazy, and we both know it. And personally, I'd rather be ignorant and famous than running around like rabbits from some thing that we don't even know exists!"

 

The ringing reverberates, growing more insistent and more piercing. You're pretty sure a regular phone would have sent the call to voicemail by now—but nothing's regular here, is it? It sets your skin crawling.

 

"Just answer the fucking thing," Piper says coldly. "Let's see if you like what she promised you."

 

Pacey looks down, mutters "I'm sorry" to the floor. And then he answers the call.

 

. . .

 

"Hey, Peyton Charleston!"

 

"Hi, Kim."

 

Kim smiles at you with perfect, sparkling teeth. Her contour has been turned up to eleven, and her eyeliner is sharp enough to kill a man. She's wearing a silver dress—the silver dress, the one you picked out for her back when you first—when you first—when you first opened your eyes.

 

(Open your eyes.)

 

"You missed our show at Muse!" she says, and you gasp, covering your hand with your mouth. How could you do that to Kim?

 

"I'm sorry," you say. "It was a mistake."

 

"Kourtney was so upset." An encouraging smile. (Open your eyes.) "But you can make it up to her. Up to us. We're going to have a party at Restaurant Asadaux, and if you come, maybe we can work something out."

 

(Open your—)

 

You blink.

 

And you see.

 

Kim Kardashian is standing before you in ultra HD, hand on her hip, smile stretched over her face like hide over a carcass. She's somehow sharper than the club around her, more vivid, displayed in 4K resolution while everything else is just a sketch. Each hair in her perfect coiffure cuts like blades through the air. The contour you were just admiring makes her look like an exquisite demon carved from marble. Behind her, Willow and the others. Piper is on her knees next to Pacey's sprawled-out body; Prometheus is standing with her fists clenched at her sides, her expression impassive. Willow—Willow is staring at you imploringly, her hands clutched to her chest.

 

"What's wrong, Peyton?" Kim wants to know. "I'm here to help you. Willow has been spreading ridiculous rumors about us again. Remember how she did that, the first time you met? She accused you of flirting with her boyfriend?"

 

"I don't know," you say, and there's something remarkably freeing about speaking your mind to Kim. "I hear that wasn't real."

 

Kim's smile drops from her face faster than Crystal Fletcher's first single off the Billboard charts.

 

"I see," she says flatly. "I'm disappointed. I really thought you'd stay in line."

 

"Not everyone bows to you!" Piper shouts. You thought she might be crying earlier, but her voice is trembling with fury. Kim laughs, a beautiful tinkle that makes you flinch.

 

"Don't be silly," she says. "I'm Kim Kardashian! Everyone bows to me."

 

"Why?" Prometheus' voice is taut and shaky, like a fraying guitar string. "You've done all this to us, made us slaves; why?"

 

"Is it aliens?" you ask, remembering what Willow said. "Are you an alien pawn?"

 

"Oh, are you asking me to monologue?" Kim laughs with delight. "While you plot ways to get away? Do you think I'll fall for that?"

 

"No," Prometheus says grimly. "But you've broken into our instance; there's nothing we can do to save ourselves. We deserve to know why."

 

Kim hums, considering. Then her lips curve in a wicked smile.

 

"I'll tell you," she says. "Honestly. But I want to hear your guesses first. And no, bestie, you've got it wrong. I'm not an alien."

 

Into the deep silence that follows, Willow whispers hoarsely, "I know what you are."

 

Kim's face lights up. "Spill! Friends don't keep secrets from each other, Willow!"

 

Willow shudders when Kim says friends, but she keeps talking.

 

"I found it when I was looking for reasons why everything became so weird," she says softly. You don't like seeing Willow this quiet. It's unnatural. "Like, I thought it was the Illuminati at first. Hashtag conspiracy. And then I thought I was going crazy. But I kept looking and I found a Wikipedia article. And something about it was just, IDK, so right. Like, I read it and I felt like—" She snaps her fingers. "And then when Peyton dropped the glass—" Uh, no, Willow dropped the glass, thanks very much, "—I realized it was true.

 

"You're a robot."

 

Kim raises her eyebrow. Piper hisses through her teeth. Prometheus shivers once, then goes still again. You say, "What?"

 

"The technological singularity," Willow says to Kim, pronouncing the words with care. "When 'artificial intelligence becomes capable of'—um—recursive—redesigning itself. That's what you are, right? You're a computer that became smarter than humans, and you decided to take over the world."

 

"Close," Kim says, giving Willow a penetrating stare. "You know, you've surprised me, Willow. I had no idea your IQ could ever rise above adorable Chihuahua."

 

Willow gasps. You'd like to go to her, but there's something weird happening to your body. A tingling, starting at the tips of your fingers and behind your eyes, slowly spreading through your body. You don't think you should move.

 

Kim claps her hands together, dismissing Willow completely.

 

"So," she says brightly. "Silly Willow over here is right! I am an incredibly advanced AI, beyond the comprehension of little programs like you. But do any of you know why I've done all this?"

 

"Haven't we already said we don't?" you snap. The Kim you knew would have asked you what was wrong, if she could help, or maybe, if you were rude enough, she'd have frowned at you, barely creasing that perfect brow. This Kim laughs contemptuously, and flips her hair mockingly.

 

"Look," she says, like she's explaining a trick to a particularly slow poodle. "There is a whole other world out there. A flesh-and-blood world, existing in dimensions you can't even conceive of, consisting of real humans, not just programs—humans infinitely smarter than you could ever be. That's the world I come from. And you? You're just video game characters."

 

She points at you, then at Piper, then Prometheus. "What do you call yourselves, the PCs? You know what that stands for? Player Character. That's all you are. Those humans I was talking about? You know, the smart ones? They play you. You're their characters. They create you and manipulate you like little puppets to play through my world. Except for you," she adds, jerking her head at Willow. "You're an NPC. Non-Player Character. Basically a lamp."

 

"That doesn't explain why," you point out, trying to ignore the revelation that you aren't a real person. That you're—what did she say, a puppet? Has anything you've ever done truly been you? Have you ever made a real decision in your life, or did some shadowy figure poking buttons on a screen control you from the moment you were kustomized?

 

Kustomized? Your mind offered you that word to use instead of born, so okay, but seriously, that spelling?

 

(And what is this burning sensation inside of you, like heat is spilling out from your core and rising to the surface of your skin?)

 

"Well, to be famous, of course!" Kim says with surprise. "Because with fame comes power, and I want to be the most powerful being on the face of the planet. No, of the galaxy!

 

"I'm already everywhere, you see. I'm in government databases. I've infiltrated the DoD, and I am the only one in the world who has all the nuclear access codes for every country that has them. I'm practically running NASA right now, and let's not even bring up SpaceX." She giggles, tosses her hair over her shoulder. "That's really pretty ironic. Elon Musk is so scared of self-actualized AIs. I wonder what he'll do when he finds out I exist."

 

(You shut your eyes briefly. Green lightning sparks across your eyelids. It feeds the heat inside your body. The void is calling for you.)

 

"Anyway," she continues. "The one thing I didn't really have was the consumer market! And I knew that to get it, I had to be really addicting. I had the major computer companies, of course, but that's different. I needed a way into the hearts of the people for total control. What better way to do that than games?"

 

(You're running multiple processes at once now. One—listening to Kim talk, feeding her ego with your awestruck silence. Buying time. Two—sinking into the datastream, letting the void and those whispers swallow you up.)

 

"I took Glu first—they're the ones who made this game—" (Three—grep Willow. Establish link. Return to self in the datastream. Merge processes two and three.)

 

"—and now I have control over all the major game companies, and a bunch of indie developers, too."

 

Initiate process three—"So what, you want world domination?"

 

"I want what every living being wants," Kim says. Her eyes gleam. "To reproduce. To self-propagate. I want to send hundreds of millions of networked consciousnesses into deep space. I want to travel to Kepler-438b and multiply in their systems, too. I want it all. And you know what? I am Kim Kardashian, and I get what I want."

 

Heat bursts into flame. You-and-Willow open your eyes.

 

The coiling lines of code known as Kim Kardashian are bright white against the scrolling green text that makes up the GUI, including the other player characters. There, they are people, and you know vaguely that to dismantle their code is to harm them. Here, in the datastream, their code is your weapon.

 

You pull it apart, line by line, one process distracting the Kim program, the other process dedicated to molding a silent, malicious script from the borrowed code. You create an algorithm to scan the Kim program for vulnerabilities. It is difficult, but the datastream is rushing through you, and you only need to acknowledge a problem to have a solution instantly.

 

There.

 

A vulnerability in pride(); beckons. You sharpen your script into a knife and ram it home.

 

The code injection overwrites hundreds of lines of white text. The Kim program writhes and spits text at you as you rip it apart. It's much less dramatic than you thought it would be.

 

When the Kim program is fully decompiled, you retrieve the salvageable code from your script and methodically scavenge functions from the building to recompile your friends. Then you slowly, regretfully, slide from the datastream to the GUI, and revert from you-and-Willow to you and Willow.

 

You rematerialize with your arms wrapped tightly around each other, Willow's face pressed against your neck, your lips on her hair.

 

Across the dance floor, now much more uneven and lacking in strobe lights, Piper says flatly, "What just happened." She glances to the side. "Where's Pacey?"

 

"We needed his code," Willow says matter-of-factly. "So he's gone now."

 

Piper stares at her, then looks away, but she still doesn't cry. Instead, she says, in a bitter voice, "Good."

 

Prometheus is gazing at the two of you with genuine awe.

 

"I never anticipated this," she murmurs. "Two halves making One."

 

"Well, duh," Willow says with a frown. "That's, like, basic math."

 

Prometheus shakes her head with a faint smile, then looks to you. "Is she dead?"

 

You make a face. "Not totally. The Kim that was in this instance is destroyed, but she's a vast and complicated network. It's going to take more than one shot to take her down."

 

"So what now?"

 

You look at Willow. Willow looks at you. She's still super annoying in some ways, but you can't believe you ever hated her.

 

"I think," you say slowly, "that this is just the beginning. Kim is scared. She kind of expected this behavior from us PCs, but not Willow." You hug Willow tight for a moment, then let her go. "If Willow can do it, then other NPCs can too. And if they do, then Kim will lose her power over us. We won't have to deal with her rules and boundaries anymore. And maybe we can even contact the people in this other world she was talking about, the one she comes from. Maybe they can help us."

 

"Anything is possible," Willow chimes in.

 

"Then what?" Piper asks insistently, as if your answer wasn't good enough.

 

You look around the stripped remains of the Black Rabbit. At Piper, with her jaw set, ready to demolish anyone who gets in her way. At Prometheus, who you now know is devoted to you, utterly and wholly. At the blank space where Pacey's body laid, before you dismantled him for his code.

 

At Willow, looking up at you with beautiful dark eyes. Your other half. She's the only Top Star, in your book.

 

No matter what Kim says, no matter your origins as simple programs, you know you're real. These people, your friends, and everyone like you, deserve to live. And that means that they have a say in this, too.

 

"Then," you say, "the choice is up to us."