He was being trained again, and Lyan had about had it with the simulator’s crap.
He stared around at the ruined city, buildings jutting like broken teeth, yellow paper blowing listlessly across the ground in a stale breeze that smelled like somebody’s navel.
Lyan’s lips pressed together, and he drummed his fingers on the side of his leg. Overdoing it. They were always overdoing it. In his temples, the warm pulse of the cerebral implants grew stronger, as if he needed the reminder that none of this was real.
In the broken-down strip mall ahead of him, one of the windows shattered, and an Infect in a white tank top sprang through, landing in a crouch on the cracked asphalt of the parking lot. It straightened, yellow eyes coming up to stare at Lyan. Metal gleamed through the hole in the kneecap of its baggy jeans, and dead flesh sagged around a prosthetic lower jaw that hung open a few hungry inches.
Lyan sighed through his nose and hoisted his machete. Come on, he thought. Give me something new, big boy.
It grated out a metallic screech and sprinted toward him, arms hanging by its side. It ran like a chicken. Maybe a little faster than last time, but not by much.
Lyan waited, sidestepped its stupid chicken run, and lashed out with the machete. Thunk. Right into the back of the Infect’s head, and almost all the way to the other side. It collapsed forward, and Lyan stepped past it, using its weight to wrench the machete out of its skull.
A chorus of shrieks and groans erupted behind him, the same sound effects they’d been using ever since he’d started the simulator, when he was thirteen. Then it had been terrifying.
He turned. A spattering of Infects burst from the gaping doorway of a former restaurant. Their speed made him hopeful. Maybe the simulation was going to introduce a smidgen more realism, this time.
But nope. They got close, spread out in a semicircle, and stopped, glowering at him in their various stages of infection. A chubby woman Infect with stringy hair charged him. The rest stayed back.
Lyan growled with frustration and decapitated it.
The problem was, he knew what it was really like out there beyond the Firewalls, what Infects were really like. He’d seen those videos he wasn’t supposed to have seen, out there in his secret visits to the StratosGrid.
A mostly-metal Infect charged him, steel teeth bared. Lyan ducked under its claws, swept its legs with the back of his machete, then chopped its neck.
Real Infects didn’t hold back, politely waiting their turn and making gargly noises. They were quick and noiseless, surrounding and eviscerating you, then carrying you away in pieces for disposal before your blood could put a stain on their sterile, spotless city. Like ants.
Ants were probably something else he wasn’t supposed to know about.
Two Infects broke away and ran at him together. Whoo. Two at a time. Big deal. Sidestep, chop. Spin the other direction, duck, chop. Both of them joined the others on the ground, twitching as their stupid computer brains shorted out.
Also, real Infects didn’t die this easy. He’d seen the video of the one that had half its body blown away, just to keep right on running and punch its fist through the chest of the guy who had shot it.
It made him mad. He and the others, they were supposed to be training to fight Infects, to beat off the scourge and be the new hope of civilization. How was that going to happen when all they did was play these kid games?
And he couldn’t complain to Falconer about it, because then Falconer would get nosy and ask how he knew the simulation was going easy, and the whole thing would be up, and then no more sneaking off into the Grid.
No more seeing Jazzy.
Lyan gritted his teeth and growled at the oncoming Infect, a big hulking monster with a blade for a hand, and some kind of glowing glass tubes where its eyes should have been. It growled back and lunged. Lyan lowered his machete and stood still, bracing himself.
It stabbed its blade right through his abdomen.
There was no pain simulation in the program, at least not at this stage of training, but right away Lyan’s arms and legs went cold, and his vision flashed red and started to fade.
A small, irrational flicker of fear started in his chest, but he blew it off and mustered the fraying ends of his focus to stare into the Infect’s skeletal face, right into the glowing blurs of its eyes. He triggered his Cerebrals. His temples glowed hotter as the synthetic membrane lacing through his gray matter sparked across his consciousness.
Time slowed to a creep. The world around him became numbers and letters, the coded essence of the simulated environment. He could see the pseudo-consciousness of the Infect, the lines of computer code that carved out the fake brain of a virus-infested monster. Lyan followed the code, pulling it through his mind like a string until he found the line of numbers and letters that connected the Infect to the twelve others, running from one to another in a glowing string.
He focused on that one line, yanked it through his mind, and lit it like a fuse. Then he let go.
The world dropped back into realtime, the Infects around him returning to solid flesh and metal. They tottered for a moment, and then shattered into burning fragments as the corrupted code tore through them.
No longer held up by a blade through his middle, Lyan collapsed onto his side. He couldn’t feel his extremities anymore, and as the red fog took over his vision, he chuckled.
He’d always wanted to try that. He wondered what Falconer would do.
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