Josie cheered. This would be so much better with a crown.
Dad stepped up to the Christmas tree. He opened a chat window to both his children. “I’ve hidden the pickle like I always do, but because Josie has an advantage now, we’re giving William a five second head start.”
“Oh!” Josie wrinkled her nose. “Fine!” She adjusted her new crown, feeling the uplinks pulling on her scalp a little bit. They needed some fine tuning yet, but it was amazing being able to open up so many windows. And the threespace uplink should make looking for the pickle so much easier.
William bounced on his toes and reached up to make sure the uplink to his circlet was properly attached. “If I find the pickle first, can I get a crown like Josie’s?” his ping fairly exploded.
Dad shook his head. “Not until your skull reaches its adult size, just like every other kid.” He knelt to give William a hug. “But you know what? I bet you’ll still have a merry Christmas.” He winked.
“Dad, can we go?” Josie was growing impatient. She was delaying two other textboxes with friends so she could really concentrate on the hunt. Finding the pickle might be a stupid tradition, but that didn’t mean she didn’t want to beat her brother.
Dad nodded. “All right. William… go!” He opened up a stopwatch program at the word go, allowing Josie to see the numbers. Those five seconds stretched on forever.
Finally, she was allowed to plunge into the tree. With her threespace uplink she pushed her avatar into the branches and started opening every hyperlink that hung from the branches. This branch held a lot of family albums. Dad might hide the pickle here, but she didn’t think so. She sent a second avatar down a few branches to get into the recipes and started opening those, too. Logical place for a pickle to hide. She sent a third avatar over to the upper branches to rifle through the religious stuff.
Josie never would have been able to do all this with her old circlet. That only allowed one avatar tied to physicalsight. She wasn’t bound that way anymore! Three avatars all at once, each doing what she commanded. It was a little overwhelming; she wasn’t used to dividing her attention that much yet.
The clock kept ticking. Seven seconds. Time stretched into eight seconds. Two hundred fifty-seven files gone through; still no pickle.
The clock jerked to a stop. She physicalfelt William jump up and down again as he pumped his fists in the air. “Found it!” he vocalized.
Josie rolled her eyes. He was always more physical than he had to be. Especially when he won.
– – – –
“Did you see that link?” Tamara pinged into the textbox.
“Well, yeah. I’m the one who sent it to you,” Josie responded.
The two chatted in one box while she participated in three other textboxes and idly checked her email. She could do so much at once now with her crown. She loved it!
“All right,” mom pinged into a new textbox. “Time to get to church. Turn off your crown now.”
Josie wrinkled her nose. “Mom, do I have to? I can concentrate on church stuff and still have the crown on.”
“Nope. Turn it off. Let’s go.” And with that, mom closed the textbox from her side.
Josie heaved a sigh and signed off from her chats, shutting down the programs, and then the uplinks themselves. Physicalreality was so boring now. There was only ever one thing to do at a time.
She trudged to her room to get her coat and followed her family outside into the cold. Stupid cold. She wouldn’t have to feel cold if her crown was on; it could override those nerves as long as she wasn’t in danger. She wouldn’t be bored, either.
They made it to church. It was a cement-floor basement with flickering fluorescent lights. Shepherd greeted them as they came in. His crown was off, too. It was his fault she wasn’t allowed to have hers on. Josie knew of other churches where people could have their crowns on. They could do lots of things at those churches and not always have to listen to Jesus stories, either.
Shepherd vocalized once the time came. “Brothers and sisters, I want you to imagine a top-of-the-line crown. One that allows your brain to run fifteen avatars at once. Multiple threespace uplinks. It has everything you could imagine, and you’re good with it. What would it take for you to turn off that crown and set it aside?”
Josie huffed. Her parents were the only ones that made her turn off her crown.
“Now, imagine someone used to all that. Maybe, say, a general or some other bigwig from the war. He’s always ordering his troops to do this or that. How would it make you feel if he turned all that off so he could concentrate on just you?”
Josie considered. Yeah, that would be a big deal.
“That’s what Jesus did. He had a crown. He ran the universe! He was everywhere at once, not just in avatars, but really there! But he decided to live in physicalreality. He stepped away from his crown, set it aside, so he could be in only one place. That’s Christmas. Tonight, we honor him by concentrating on him as he has concentrated on us.”
Josie wrinkled her nose. It was still stupid. She liked her crown. She could concentrate on church and other things at once.
– – – –
Josie raised the textboxes higher in her physicalsight interface. No big deal; she walked this way all the time to get to school. Not that she needed to, anymore. Next year everyone in her class would have crowns, and they’d physicalstay at home but still go to school. So much better.
She stumbled on the curb and fell into the street. Well, OK. Maybe she should close one text box until she got used to more multitasking.
And then the school bus hit her.
The tires crushed her ribs. Parts under the bus grabbed out her hair. She couldn’t move her hands. She could still see the text boxes, but they were funny now. The words didn’t make much sense. She pinged that she needed help. She tried pinging the driver, but she didn’t know who it was. She hurt. She tried turning off her pain receptors through the crown, but with only marginal success.
She saw sky again. The bus must have gone over her. People were gathering around her. She tried pinging out, but now the crown was malfunctioning or something. She couldn’t call for help. And the people were watching. She could tell some of them were recording and posting on the uplink. They were multitasking and ignoring her all at the same time.
She was alone.
And then she felt a hand on her forehead. “I’m sorry, baby,” someone vocalized. “I didn’t see you in the street. I’m so sorry.”
Her pupils twitched and she was able to see the face. The woman had some sort of wetness in her eyes.
Josie’s mouth wasn’t working right; she couldn’t vocalize. She pinged to the person, “You’re recording and sending this out so other people can see, aren’t you?”
“No, honey,” the woman vocalized. “I’m here with you. That’s all that matters. People on the bus called emergency. Someone’ll be here soon. I’m waiting with you until they come.”
“Why is it cold?”
“Honey, it’s winter. Of course it’s cold.” The woman took off her jacket and laid it over Josie. “I’m here with you. That’s what matters. You’re not alone. I’m here with you.”
– – – –
Josie left the hospital in just a few days. She healed. She learned to run conversations and walk safely. She was able to use her crown and still be in physicalreality as needed. But something stuck with her. She couldn’t shake a certain thought. Her dad was eating breakfast at the table one day when Josie had to bring it up.
“She stayed with me. She didn’t bring up an avatar to stay by me in my crown. She… she physicalstayed with me.” Josie couldn’t understand. “How come?”
Dad’s face twitched a smile. “Did you like that she stayed with you?”
“Well, yeah. It… it meant more.”
“That’s why she stayed. She knew that you needed someone to be with you. It was important that she set aside everything else and just be with you.”
Josie closed her eyes. “That’s why you wanted me to turn off my crown. At church. So I could just be with Jesus.”
“Yeah. It was.”
“And that’s why he set down his crown. So he could be with us, just like we were. So he could rescue us.”
“I’m sorry, Dad. Do you think… do you think I can try again? Will he let me?”
Dad nodded. “Yeah. He will. You were forgiven a long time ago. He stayed with you and paid all his attention to you, and he’s going to keep doing it. You’re that important to him.”
Josie nodded. Maybe turning off her crown wasn’t that big a deal after all.
This story takes place within the world introduced in Crownless.