"See, this is why I don't usually drive," Madisson said.
"Well, I'm not allowed to," Idle responded. "No license, no instruction. Not even sure which one of those is the, uh, brake."
The two women, one slim and athletic and almost boyish, one larger and much more voluptuous, looked briefly at one another, then at the snowbank their rented car was lodged in.
"How do you get around?" the short-haired athlete asked.
"Never leave the city," the redheaded programmer replied. "Hardly leave my chair." Idle poked her paunch. "What about you, if you don't drive?"
"I can drive, I just usually don't."
"Where were we going, anyway?"
Madisson shrugged. "I was just driving. That way." Madisson pointed down the road. "That's where we were supposed to go, right?"
Idle blinked. "Uh. I guess?" She frowned. "We were just driving along when... wait."
They looked to each other again. "When did we start driving?" Madisson asked.
"More than that. Who the fuck are you?" Idle's question wasn't angry, just curious.
"Could ask you the same thing." Madisson scratched her temple by her brown eyes. "Oh! wait, this is the... thing."
Idle laughed. "Okay, sure, it's The Thing. I'm not in the city..."
"I'm not in Morpheum..."
"We're just two girls from different worlds stuck in a car in a snowdrift."
Madisson laughed and opened the door. "Which means that it's almost impossible that anything could possibly hurt us." She shivered before she undid her seatbelt. "I'm not really dressed for winter."
Idle looked her over, feeling the goosebumps rising on her own arms. "You're hardly dressed at all. Normally with a skirt that short I'd wear something under it."
"Oof, and with ground this cold I should have shoes on instead of these thin sandals. Maybe a jacket for the wind instead of just my uniform top?"
"I think we're both a little underdressed," Idle said, opening her door. "I'm used to very cold winters, I wouldn't go out in this beachwear."
"That's a pity, it suits you." Madisson stepped out of the car and shivered again. "So, car in the snow, two half-naked girls in the cold... what do we do next?"
Idle got up. "Got a phone?"
Madisson shook her head, holding up a device. "No reception. Not sure who I'd call to begin with." She crossed her arms tightly across her chest.
"Yep. Same. So..." Idle walked around the car. "Huddle for warmth?"
Madisson grinned. "We would've been better to stay in the car if we were gonna do that."
"I'll put it in the options list."
The athlete giggled. "Alright, so you're used to this?"
"Yeah, and this isn't... Seems weird to say, I guess, but it's not cold enough."
"What do you mean?"
Idle gestured to the ground. "Snow, right?" She stomped a bit, making a crunching sound and leaving behind prints. "And wind, and a cloudy day... Should be colder."
Madisson tilted her head. "How do you know?"
"I'm Canadian. I know winter."
"So... so what does that mean?"
"Not sure. Simulation?"
"Simulation?" Madisson repeated.
"Yeah, you know." Idle mirrored Madisson's pose, trying to keep warm. "This isn't quite right. So maybe The Thing is a simulation, right?"
"Like a VR thing?"
"Exactly like a VR thing." Idle grinned. "Wanna fuck with it?"
Madisson stomped a bit and shivered. "Three questions, how're we gonna do that, will it make things warmer, and will it be fun?"
Idle counted her answers on her fingertips. "Messing with the rendering software, I dunno maybe, and yeah, sure, why not?"
"Messing with the rendering software? Sorry, I don't know a lot about this stuff."
The crafter reached down and scooped up a handful of snow. "All the particles that make up the snowball have to have math attached to them." She turned and launched it at the trunk of a nearby tree, watching the explosion of powder. "Move enough of it around fast enough and the computer won't be able to handle it all."
"Sure, I'll stick my hands in the cold, what the heck." Madisson laughed, but followed suit. Instead of tossing her snowball at a tree, though, she giggled and threw it at Idle.
"Hey!" Idle complained. "I thought we were in this together!" She bent down to get another handful of snow and when she looked up, Madisson was sprinting through the sparse tree cover, leaving a trail of giggles behind her.
And footprints. Which Idle followed at a jog.
It wasn't necessary to track Madisson, she was plainly visible in the leafless forest, but following her meant that Idle could keep an eye on the footprints themselves, to test her simulation theory. The wind wasn't strong enough to erase their tracks completely, but Idle could still feel the sting of it on the back of her legs, arms and neck. She kicked up as much snow as she could as she went.
Maybe it was an overactive imagination, but Idle swore that when she looked away, prints would vanish. Maybe it was just the activity, but Idle believed that the air was getting warmer.
Madisson didn't try to get out of sight; Idle was steadily getting closer to where the athlete had paused to make up an arsenal of snowballs. The first volley fell well short of Idle's position, but Madisson's laughter reached her easily.
"Still think you're right?" Madisson hollered.
"Footprints have vanished, I think," Idle shouted back, "so my guess is pretty okay." She braced herself, grabbed an armload of snow, and sprung forward in a charge.
Her experience with snow and snowball fights served her well. The snow wasn't really right to pack properly, so when the first projectile hit, it dissolved almost immediately into powder. Madisson laughingly protested as Idle loomed closer, slipping as she tried to move backwards and landing firmly in a seated position as Idle dropped her charge on Madisson's head and shoulders. A leg lashed out and hooked Idle, pulling her over onto the frosty earth, and the two of them rolled and laughed for a moment or two.
"I think you might be right about the simulation thing," Madisson said from above Idle, proving herself stronger at least in a play-fight.
"Oh yeah? Snow's not so cold?"
"You tell me, you're the one without a top."
"What?" Idle looked down. "Holy shit, how did that—"
"You're the one that told me about the whole 'messing with the rendering' thing, how should I knmmmph!" Madisson found herself cut short when Idle mashed a handful of snow into her face.
Idle just grinned. "I guess the program knows what's important to preserve." She pushed up some, but Madisson resisted being thrown off. "Snow that's not cold is messing with me a bit." She grabbed more handfuls of snow and tossed it into the air. "Let's see if we can get this thing to crash entirely."
"You're not worried about what might happen?" Madisson said, brushing the water from her eyes.
"I'm more interested in seeing if your clothes will be next."
Madisson laughed again, scooping up more of the precipitate. "First time someone's ever tried that way to get me naked."
Idle grinned. "I'll try anything once."
The two of them separated and started tossing the powder about, and it was only a moment or two before other glitches were starting to show. The wind was the first thing to stop. Madisson lost her sandals, much to Idle's disappointment. All their tracks were vanishing, including the spot where the two of them had rolled about on the ground.
And then Idle tossed a handful of snow directly at Madisson, who turned aside, and didn't turn back. She remained in place with her hands up and her upper body twisted away from the incoming projectile.
There was no response. Idle couldn't even see any evidence of breathing.
"Hey there, you okay?"
Idle walked over to the athletic girl and tapped her shoulder. No response. Nor to another snowball to the face, nor to one down her shirt, nor to a cold hand on the bare skin of her ass. Her skirt and shirt were similarly fixed in place.
"Oh for..." a voice cut through the atmosphere. "Can you not fuck with the program, please? This is the third goddamn time..."
Madisson vanished first, then the atmosphere dissolved into a blue blur. Idle removed the VR helmet and looked across the aisle to where Madisson sat. "I just can't help it, the moment the fourth wall starts to crack..."
Madisson laughed and turned to the dark-skinned girl standing at a computer console nearby. "Sorry, N.J., it's probably just us. Maybe a little less immersion, so we can remember it's a program?"
N.J. shook her head. "It's kind of the point, right?" She looked at the readout. "Maybe it was a mistake to try and add in this other technology."
"The Alterations stuff?" Idle said in surprise. She got to her feet. "I tell you, the fact that you guys haven't discovered this stuff with all the awesome things you have..."
Madisson also stood and stretched. "Lunch break, then try again?"
N.J. moaned, pinching the bridge of her nose in irritation. "Yeah, fine, I'll work through my lunch, you two go have fun."
Idle held out her arm. "Let's get something cold."
"You got it." Madisson linked arms with her guest, and the two of them left the testing facility.