Tom glanced at the girl beside him, her deep blue eyes blank and emotionless despite the serene smile on her lips as she led him through the park. Everything was familiar, yet alien at the same time; the buildings they strolled past were replicas of the link-houses Tom passed everyday on his way to the café, minus the crude ‘art’ that decorated them, of course. He continued staring at her, captivated by the way she seemed to glide over the grass that simply refused to stain their shoes. “Tom!” she called, a bright smile widening her cupid’s bow as her voice snapped him out of the silence he’d sunken into. “We’re here,” the smile was plastic, he realised; his eyes darkening as he closed in on her.
“Where are we?” he heard himself ask, before he shook himself and forced his eyes to meet hers. “We’re in the city, silly,” he faintly heard Hailey laugh, her small hand hitting him playfully before he heard a sigh leave her.
Looking over the ‘world’ he’d created, Tom couldn’t help but feel proud, his eyes taking in the results from the weeks he’d spent meticulously typing in each layer of the coding that had finally taken shape in the form of the alternate reality he was standing in. But even as he took in the sights; the perfect world where the skies were clear, the birds still sang harmoniously, where people smiled and laughed; where you couldn’t hear the screams of victims, where the screeches of car tires didn’t result in deaths, Tom could see the flaws that made ice slink down his spine. The world was pixelated, he realised, his eyes fixing instantly on the flaws where the cars appeared to blur into the tarmac, and where the lines of definition were less than the perfection he demanded from himself.
“Tom,” the girl beside him was tugging him furiously now, her blank eyes wide and filled with something he almost could call fear as he let her pull him into the elevator, her breathing harsh and panicked before she forced the emotion behind the plastic smile she’d tailored for herself. “What was that?” Tom turned to look at the female shaking her head to herself, her eyes downcast as she backed into a corner of the elevator. The rest of the ride was in silence, Tom noted, shrugging and resorting to fixing a critical eye on the inside of the elevator. Finally, when they were jogging through the park, the girl stopped short under the shade of a tree; her mouth opening before a small voice left her.
“They get rid of the Defects,”
The tapping on the window was getting rather annoying, Tom realised as he flicked his eyes up to the window pane, watching as the red-breasted bird chirped before hitting the glass once more with its beak. Getting off his chair, the man made his way to the window, glaring darkly at the bird before wrenching the curtain over the small animal, effectively blocking out the only source of light into the room at the same time. “Perfect,” he snorted, running a hand through his rumpled hair before sinking heavily into the squeaking chair.
The glare from the screen in front of him was painful, but bearable, he told himself firmly as he set his fingers onto the keyboard before resuming the furious typing he’d been doing. There were piles and piles of pages, a mesh of numbers, letters and special characters decorating the page in fading black ink as Tom worked his way through each of them. He cursed himself every time there was a mistake in the coding, shaking his head occasionally at his work before tossing aside a few pages, a dozen or more scattering in the same instant before Tom finally snapped. His eyes were furious as he grabbed a fistful of sheets off of the floor, the pages crumpling easily in his hand as he tossed them carelessly onto the table.
Three weeks later, he was whistling merrily as he scanned through the thousands of lines of coding, reading through each before making a few minor adjustments. “What about security?” a deep, familiar voice asked. Tom turned to look at Daniel; the shadows under his eyes making his skin look paler than it actually was. “Security?” Tom repeated, his voice completely confused and the unbeatable exhaustion he felt ringing in the single word as Daniel rolled his eyes. “Yes Tom, security … what about viruses, glitches? You can’t expect yourself to be monitoring this thing twenty-four seven, do you?” Tom winced at the man’s words. He had in fact, been completely ready to monitor the game permanently.
“Fine, fine,” Tom muttered, mostly to himself, before slumping in front of the computer, eyes dead as he quickly entered a crude programming for the ‘Sweepers’ as he called them.
“Hailey …” Tom’s voice was guilty as he spoke, the female smiling cheerfully at him before taking his hand and leading him back to the apartment. ‘Remember Tom, she’s just a program,’ he scolded himself, frowning before smoothing out the crinkles in his expression when the female turned a curious pair of eyes towards him. “We shouldn’t be out too late,” her voice was hushed as her grip on his hand tightened, her small limb grabbing onto the sleeve of his jacket and pulling him hurriedly through the streets.
Tom wanted to laugh at the absurdity of her words. Late? The sun was barely setting.
“Come on!” her voice was forcefully polite now, her fingers clawing into the thick sweater before Tom gave in. He trailed after her as she led him to a pristine looking building, each pixel glaring at Tom in a way that made him wince. Her blank eyes stared back at him, lightened by the reflection of the setting ‘sun’.
Tom was glaring at the man now, his teeth gritted so hard that he thought that he’d have chipped a tooth by now. “Tom … you need to stop,” Daniel’s voice was firm as he spoke, his dark eyes flashing with emotion as he barred Tom from moving towards the seat with an arm. “Get out of my way, Daniel,” Daniel hadn’t yet heard the man’s voice as it was, and honestly, with the shadows under his eyes and pasty skin that made his once-pale freckles stand out, Daniel couldn’t really say that he was looking at Tom at all.
“Tom, I’m serious,” the older man spat out, gripping one of the headsets and moving to drop it to the ground. “Don’t you dare,” Tom’s eyes were slits of ice as he glared at Daniel, his words hissed as his fingers hooked into claws. “Two days, Tom, that’s all I’m asking,” Daniel said quietly, putting the headset he’d designed back onto the designated leather chair. “Two days?” the exhaustion that finally settled on Tom’s shoulders made him stare confusedly at the man.
“Two days without the game,” Daniel repeated, stretching the words out and slowing his speech, like he was talking to a child. “And you’ll stop bugging me about this?” Tom’s eyes were narrowed in suspicion; it wasn’t like Daniel to cut deals … it was either you did it, or you didn’t. “… Fine …” Tom found himself nodding swiftly, grabbing his jacket and leaving the small apartment quickly. “I’ll see you on Saturday then,” he called as he stepped into the elevator, his voice ringing down the hallway.
For the first time that month, Tom stepped into the sunlight.
He hissed as the golden rays lathered his skin, wincing as his eyes stung, and as his teeth began chattering. Quickly, he made his way down the street, pulling his jacket tighter around himself and breathing heavily into his fisted palms. God, his calves screamed and burned as he reached his apartment, fumbling for the security card for a moment. ‘They didn’t have these in the Game,’ he thought, remembering the hundreds of times he’d entered Hailey’s apartment without ever seeing her pull one out of her pocket.
It was easy enough to fall back into his routine; coffee, sleep, coffee, sandwich, then programme.
He looked out of his window, revelling in the lack of pixels; the lack of terror-filled programs greeting him with blank eyes and plastic smiles. He breathed in the pollution with a smile, ignoring the sting that immediately attacked his eyes and nose, sending him into a coughing fit. He stared into the sky, the shapeless clouds filling the darkening sky, looking less than perfect in every aspect, but still better than anything Tom had seen in a while.
Tom remembered the memory of Daniel with a small smile as he lazed around on the couch, propping his feet on the table before resting his head on the back of the couch. When he’d returned, Hailey had greeted him with a stiff, polite smile, her eyes darker and blanker than anything he’d seen in the Game, and her back ramrod straight until they’d reached her apartment.
Finally, Tom had seen something akin to emotion. She’d yelled, screamed, and hit him with her small fists when he’d tried to quieten her down. Finally, when she looked up at him, her eyes were damp, fat drops of liquid clinging to her long lashes before dribbling down her cheeks. She’d asked him if there was something wrong with her, because she wasn’t supposed to be sad; she was supposed to be happy, perfect.
Those were the only two lines that Tom needed before he had her tight in his arms, his face buried in the crook of her neck as he sobbed into her shirt that didn’t seem to get wet. Then he’d laughed through his tears, chuckling wetly when she panicked, her fingers dabbing uselessly at his cheeks in an attempt to stop him from crying.
Then he’d revealed everything.
And by everything, he meant everything.
They stared up at the black sky, white patches of pixels called ‘stars’ glimmering down at them before Hailey spoke quietly beside him. “What’s it like … what’s it like where you come from?” Tom didn’t want to look at her, because no matter how emotional she sounded, her eyes would be blank. “It’s … not perfect,” he replied, staring into the sky and realising how each ‘star’ seemed to be the exact same size.
“Not … perfect?” she sounded confused, Tom smiled as he twisted to look at her. Even in the darkness, with the remnants of her tears drying on her cheeks, she still managed to look perfect. Each curve and point on her face highlighted smoothly by the barest glint of light that managed to touch it.
“Yeah … people are rude, it’s dirty, the air doesn’t smell great, and the animals aren’t really as friendly,” Tom laughed quietly, “but I guess that’s our fault, anyway,” “It sounds … odd,” he chuckled at that, before shrugging. Underneath his shoulder-blades, the grass felt too soft, too smooth.
“But it sounds nice,” her voice was wistful when her eyes met the man’s; her blue eyes shadowed with a kind of sadness that made Tom want to hug her. His eyes widened. He could feel tears prick at his eyes, emotion … there, he’d finally seen it.
“It’s only a matter of time,” she said suddenly, her voice heavier and lower than he’d ever heard it. There was a darkness in her expression that made Tom feel like a million bugs had made their home under his skin. “What d’you mean?” he asked, forcing his voice to lighten; forcing himself not to act like he already knew what she meant.
“I’m a Defect,” the moment the words left her lips, it was like someone had punched Tom in the gut. A Defect, no, Tom wanted to laugh at her words, but he couldn’t. “It’s my fault,” he knew what to expect even before she nodded.
“I made you change … I made you this way,” something shifted in the darkness around them, and even before he saw it, he knew what it was. “I’m glad for it, though,” there was a small smile on her lips as she looked at him, her dark hair silver in the false moonlight; splayed across her shoulders and down her back.
It ended quickly enough, Tom realised when his eyes snapped open, and he was facing Daniel once again. “I’m done with the game,” he told the man, watching how, despite the relieved smile that lifted his lips, his dark eyes were still filled with worry. “What changed your mind?” Tom shrugged at his words, not replying even when Daniel got into his face. “It’s good to have you back though,” a small, nervous smile lifted Tom’s lips. “Thanks,” his voice cracked when he spoke, and in a minute, he was out of the apartment, ignoring Daniel as he yelled after him.
It was rather nice, Tom realised, to be sitting in the real world again. The smoke stung his eyes, and the rudeness made him want to scream, but he still managed to see the glints of happiness here and there.
The girl with her mother across the street getting an ice-cream, or the man who was lifting the injured puppy off the road, wrapping the limping animal in his coat before returning to the sidewalk; or even the old man who was reading his paper on the bench, his hat flying off his white head with a gust of wind. It took a teenager less than a minute to chase after the black cloth on his bike, riding back to the man to hand it to him with a nervous smile.
It wasn’t perfect, sure, but it wasn’t really the worst thing out there, was it? Tom looked up from the notepad of codes just in time to see a shockingly familiar woman walk past him with a steaming jug of coffee in her hands.
Or maybe, somewhere out there, perfection did really exist.