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The Plagiarist

Hugh Howey

  The Plagiarist

  by Hugh Howey

  For all the great teachers.


  Adam Griffey lost himself in the familiar glow-in-the-dark sticker. It was a depiction of a bee lighting on a flower, a thirsty proboscis curling out of the insect’s cartoony smile. The sticker held Adam’s attention. The glow of the bee made it seem radioactive, a poisoned thing. It adorned the edge of his beat-up computer screen, the edges curling away as the sticker lost its grip. The remnants of several other stickers stood idly by, just the bumpy adhesive outlines, the colorful bits having long ago been peeled away by Adam’s fidgety hands. He was prone to scratching at them with his fingernails. They weren’t his; they came with the old monitor, which he’d bought off another faculty member. Adam figured it belonged to one of their kids, what with the stickers. He thought about that as his eyes fell reluctantly from the bee and back to the screen. There was a message there, a series of messages typed back and forth. They populated a chat window, the only thing open on his screen. The window suddenly blinked with a new question:

  lonelyTraveler1: you still there?

  Adam picked at the edge of the radioactive bee, thinking of tearing it off. He read back over his conversation with Amanda, his responses in deep blue, hers a bright red. She had asked him a question before he’d gotten distracted. How long had he gone without responding? What would she read in that silence?

  His fingers fell to the keyboard, leaving the sticker for another time. He sat motionless, unsure of how to respond. Thoughts whirled. Adam read the second question up. He read it over and over. Where the fuck had it come from? From nowhere, he decided. He had gone too long without reply; he decided to ignore the older question and answer the more recent one:

  Griffey575: Yeah. Sorry about that. Doing too much at once.

  lonelyTraveler1: you chatting with other people at the same time? you cheating on me? ;)

  Adam glanced over the sad and empty expanse of his monitor and laughed to himself. Twenty four inches by twelve inches of pathetic nothingness. His entire social life, his entire real romantic life, could be contained in one small chat window in a lonely fraction of that abyss.

  Griffey575: I wish.

  He typed the response, then held down the backspace key to erase the truth before he could send it.

  Griffey575: Work stuff.

  He decided that was better. Adam wondered if it counted as a lie if the untruth was as boring as reality.

  lonelyTraveler1: what kinda stuff? for a class you’re teaching? are you writing anything? anything you can share?

  Adam saw how lies could spawn more lies, each offspring bigger than its parent. The truth was, he’d been neglecting his work and his writing. Possibly, in no small part, because of Amanda’s constant badgering to read more. She was—if not his online girlfriend—at least his anti-muse, the woman whose insistence quenched all motivation. Adam had known this of himself since he was an undergrad: he couldn’t think when being told to.

  lonelyTraveler1: you still haven’t answered my other question…

  Which one? Adam thought.

  Griffey575: Which one?

  He hit enter before he could regret asking. He knew which question. He didn’t want to know, but he did. His stomach lurched with the audaciousness of her suggestion. And what did that say about him? How could he have a fake relationship with the real, and a real one with the fake? Which relationship was more real? Which was sicker? And who was the victim? Was anyone really being betrayed?

  lonelyTraveler1: don’t you think it’s time we meet up?

  There it was again. It was crazy.

  Griffey575: In person?

  lonelyTraveler1: how else?

  Adam watched the cursor blink where he was expected to respond. The glowing bee radiated stored sunlight in his peripheral. In the utter darkness around him, he sensed the piles of clutter everywhere. He kept meaning to get to it. He kept the lights off in his apartment, kept the blinds drawn, so he couldn’t see the reminders of his laziness. The bee dimly betrayed him with its steady glow.

  Griffey575: This way seems nice.

  After the barest of pauses, he added a smiley face:

  Griffey575: :)

  It wasn’t sarcasm. It wasn’t real humor. It was an apology, something to soften the blow of what he knew to be the wrong answer. Adam had replied incorrectly; Amanda’s silence confirmed it. An icon came up to let him know she was typing something. It disappeared for a moment, reappeared, then disappeared again. He was watching her think. He wondered what things had been erased, if it was anger or disappointment she was refraining from sending.

  Griffey575: I think I’m just not ready.

  He wondered if that sounded better. It at least filled the silence.

  lonelyTraveler1: I’m gonna find out you’re married, aren’t I?

  Griffey575: I’m not married.

  Such lies were not in him. Such a life, perhaps, was not in him.

  lonelyTraveler1: but there’s someone else.

  Griffey575: There’s no person else.

  Clumsy. The sentence sounded stilted, but it kept his response, strictly speaking, from being an outright lie.

  lonelyTraveler1: I won’t push you. just think about it. or at least write me something, write me something about why you’d want to or not want to.

  A pause.

  lonelyTraveler1: I feel like we’re living in 2 separate worlds lately.

  Adam laughed nervously. His fingers left the keyboard and moved to rub his sore temples. For a brief moment, just an insane instant, he considered telling Amanda the truth. He pictured typing all the craziness of his life out in one uninterrupted, suicidal message. He imagined her sitting there, staring at the icon that let her know he was typing for hours and hours while he crafted a biopic admission of how scary and surreal and demented his life had become…

  He deleted the thought.

  Griffey575: I do have a piece I haven’t shared.

  His mind was suddenly in a spilling mood—as long as it was spilling other things. It sought release of some cryptic truth. There were thousands of haikus that Adam kept to himself. They lived in his head, swirling beneath the layered façades, keeping him company. The impulse to let one out became great. He figured he could trade it for the impossible thing Amanda was asking, this meeting each other in person. Perhaps a bartered poem could delay the inevitable.

  lonelyTraveler1: oh. PLEASE!!

  Griffey575: Just one, then I really need to get some sleep. I have an early class.

  lonelyTraveler1: is this a new one? when did you write it?

  When did he write it? He couldn’t exactly remember. All his life, Adam had wanted to be a writer. The problem was: he was too good at reading. He had too many of Shakespeare’s sonnets memorized. Too much Blake and Shelly and Proust. All that good stuff was crammed up in his brainstem, pooled in his pons, dripping down his spine, now a part of his very fiber. Trying to sneak a sham of his own past such a gang of real McCoys was impossible. Adam’s great gift—knowing the good stuff—was also his failing. The only words of his own that he could sneak through his literature-stuffed brain were his little haikus, unassuming and light on their feet. They were like neutrinos streaming out from the dense center of a star, cruising across the cosmos invisible and unknowable.

  Griffey575: About a year ago I think.

  He hit enter, let the words come to him from memory.

  Griffey575: Here it goes; then I need to get away from this screen:

  Moments spill through hands

  idling away at nothing

  To puddle in years

  Adam logged off, but the chat window remained open. It held another uncomfortable conversation he could scroll through and regret. He
read over the poem and realized that at that very moment, Amanda was reading it as well. They were both seeing it for the first time. It was as if some part of him had been excised. Released. Set free and exposed.

  He wondered how much of him she would see in the poem. Could it be read in any way other than the obvious? Full of regrets? A loser continuing to lose?

  Not for the first time, he tried to imagine what Amanda looked like. Not that it mattered, but the human brain seemed to need to know. Eyes were used to engaging with other eyes while voices crossed. They were too accustomed to scanning faces for revealing twitches, the curl of lips, the flare of nostrils. Speaking in nothing but font was unnatural and stifling.

  Adam gave the webcam above the psychedelic bee a nervous glance. It wasn’t plugged in, never had been; it came with the monitor. Still, it felt like people could see him sometimes, see the real him stripped of his avatars. Not Amanda, not his mother or sister or anyone he knew—he felt like millions of strangers could see him in his dark and filthy room, like they spent hours watching him, like they knew him better than he knew himself.

  Adam closed the chat window, turned off his computer, rubbed his eyes. It was so late it was early. And Amanda had been right, even if she’d only meant it as a figure of speech: they were spending too much time on different planets. The haiku, he thought, captured that all too well. So much simplicity and truth in seventeen syllables. And now it was out in the world and no longer rattling around in his brain. He laughed to himself, scratched the beard sneaking out of his skin, then saw the hour and realized he had the time for neither a nap nor shower. Not if he was going to see his other girlfriend before his eight o’clock class.


  Between these temples,

  aching and burning and sore

  my universe lies

  He only had two hours before he had to be at class, but the simulator would make it feel like six. Blazing computer chips worked much like morning dreams, compressing time. It made living two lives all that easier.

  Adam used his faculty pass to swipe his way to the labs, then picked one of the jacks in the far corner. He had the room to himself, four in the morning being too late for most and too early for all, but he still went for as much privacy as possible, knowing he would probably have company before he jacked out. There were only a few reasons to hit the sims at certain times of the day, prostitution being the foremost. Adam wished the stigma weren’t true in his case. He wished.

  The seat squeaked as he settled into it. Adam swiped his ID through the reader; the beeps and whirrings of the booting machine were as familiar as a favorite song. And like music, they did something to his autonomic nervous system: his sleepless brain felt a jolt of energy, a dangerous surge of love and lust. He took his temple pads from his backpack, untangled them from each other, then wiped the cups off on his shirt. A dab of adhesive grease went on each, then he pressed them to the sore points on either side of his head—points he could feel without having to check the mirror. The burn there had become constant.

  Adam waited impatiently for the simulation to boot. This was the longest part of his day. He could compress all the rest of his hours right into these handful of moments, he was sure. It was also the time when he truly reflected on what he had become, what he was about to do. It was in these moments that he truly loathed himself.

  The lab disappeared as the sim took hold. The twinkling lights of the idling machines all around him were replaced by alien constellations. Adam floated in the center of an artificial cosmos. He was God. He could go to any dozens of planets and planetary nebula, observe tectonic plates shifting with x-ray vision, or zoom to the level of the protein and watch the molecules fold as salinity and temperature shifted. His choices were limitless, but of course he had no choice. He hurriedly selected a familiar star out of one of the constellations. The star was named Beatrice Bondeamu Gilbert III, after the donor who paid for the servers on which it was hosted. Artificial stars were like academic halls: a few million dollars and your name lived on forever.

  He aimed for the fourth planet out from the star, nestled right in the Goldilocks zone. The glowing blue-green ball was named Hammond after Beatrice’s late husband. Adam “chose” the planet with his mind. It was as simple as looking at something and wanting it. He wanted it.

  There were a million ways to approach the planet. If from the entomology department, one might swoop through the night clouds like a bat, virtual sonar picking up invisible bugs to collect. The climatologists would play like gods bored with their food, sitting over the clouds and swirling them with their fingers, taking notes, testing theories. Geneticists would become the size of molecules and be lost in worlds the scope of Mendelian peas, causing mutations. Adam had little use for such scientific probings. He remained much as himself, if a little taller, thicker of hair, more tan, and less paunchy. His virtual being emerged from a bathroom stall in a bookstore he had claimed as his own territory—had paid quite well for it, in fact. He pushed open the door and nodded to a customer walking by.

  Hammond was one of the handful of humanoid planets, where evolution had been rigged to emulate Earth’s. As such, it was not as jarring to be an avatar as some xeno-sims could be. It felt perfectly natural to nod to someone who didn’t exist, who was just a bunch of ones and zeros. The computer simulated customer smiled and nodded in return. It, of course, thought it was real. The customer thought the book it was about to pick up and peruse was real. It thought the sunshine streaming through the front windows, and the grime streaked across those windows, and the dust floating in the air like a grid of stars, and the clatter of bells whacked by an opening door—every simulated person in the entire bookstore thought every single bit of it, including themselves, was all real.

  Adam soaked it in. He wanted it to be real as well.


  He turned. Belatrix stood behind him, her green work apron hanging around her neck, two creases running down it vertically from having been meticulously folded the night before. Curls of brown hair hung like springs behind her ears. Her bright eyes smiled at him, crinkles radiating away from their corners. “I didn’t see you come in,” she said. At least, that’s how it was translated for Adam.

  Belatrix showed him the small stack of books she was shelving, as if to apologize for not hugging him. Adam smiled what he knew to be a perfectly symmetrical smile full of brilliant teeth.

  “I kinda snuck past to the bathroom.” He waved a little wave to forgive the lack of a hug. Adam glanced at the books in her hands. “You getting off soon?”

  “I am.”

  She was. Adam knew she was. He had chosen the time carefully when he logged in. He had to be in class in two hours, but the flow rate would give him six. Belatrix smiled at him then slid a book into place. Adam tried not to think of the other him, the fleshy him, and the real world waiting and spinning around him. He gave himself up completely to the sim.

  “How was work?” Belatrix asked as she pushed open her apartment door and shrugged off her coat. It had drizzled on their walk over from the bookstore. Adam wiped his feet on her mat, then kicked off his shoes. Details like the mud, the shiny drops of water on the tile—he still marveled at the completeness of the illusion, the scope and scale of the digitally constructed world. It was easy to lose oneself in it, to become bewildered by it all.

  “That interesting, huh?”

  Adam broke out of his trance and helped Belatrix hang her jacket on the hook by the door. “Work was fine,” he said. “Closed a pretty big deal this week.”

  He was sure it was true. When he wasn’t present to fill and steer his avatar, the computers moved it about as autonomously as anyone else on planet Hammond. Belatrix, in fact, had probably spent more time in his avatar’s place of work than he had.

  “Some tea?”

  “Sure,” he said, even though he hated the stuff. It wasn’t tea, but that was the closest translation for the language parser. Horseshit would have been more apt, bu
t the translator stuck to categories such as “warm beverages.” The only thing it left untouched were proper nouns, which left Adam’s avatar with the moniker of Phurxy, a dreadfully common name on Hummond’s Southwest continent.

  “Bitter apple?” Belatrix held up a grainy lump of spice. Again, the translation was a mere approximation.

  “Please,” Adam said. It made the hot horseshit taste more like wet dirt, a distinct improvement. Adam often considered fast flowing the time through these bits, but the domestic foreplay was a crucial part of the fantasy. This was the life he wanted to live, here with Belatrix in her tidy apartment. He took the steaming bowl and glanced in the mirror at his clean and neatly groomed self. His avatar had taken the time to do that in the morning, brushing his teeth and his hair. It felt like room service for the body and soul. He luxuriated in his sense of self.