Cold flashed through Lyan as his implants disconnected from the simulator, and then he was on his back staring at the black-carpeted ceiling of his cell, with that familiar metallic taste in his mouth.
He grunted and ran his teeth over his tongue, then kicked his feet down. The gyrochair responded smoothly, rocking him up to a sitting position. His monitor glowed yellow in the workstation in front of him, throwing a pale wash over all twelve square feet of the room.
Lyan blinked away the film over his eyes, and the monitor came into focus, showing the chat room, chattering away with the consternation of the other trainees.
AUBREE: Guys who broke the sim
CHAN: I was totally rocking there, why
AUBREE: why is the simulator broken
CHAN: did everything go down? Like I was OWNING em.
JEFF: I can see your score bro
AUBREE: Is training over
AUBREE: Falconer, whats happening with the sim, is there a bug?
A humorless laugh whiffed through his nose. They had no idea.
None of them would even think of turning their Cerebrals on the system like that. They were all fine with chopping and shooting and exploding Infects into pieces, week after week, phony virtual Infects that were no kind of reflection of what they would supposedly, one day, be fighting. They hadn’t seen what he’d seen.
But then, even if they had, they’d probably just shrug and bury themselves deeper in their stupid virtual massacres. He’d long given up trying to talk to them about anything. Aubree was sort of cool, sometimes, when he tried to private chat her, but even her conversations sounded stale and regurgitated after a while, like she was just repeating the same thing over and over with different words.
And since he’d met Jazzy, he’d been even more frustrated with conversations that were just scrolling words on a screen. Why do that, when you could look at someone face to face, and watch the way your words made the other person smile, or laugh, or look thoughtful. It was sort of magical, as Jazzy would probably say.
He reached forward with his Cerebrals, and switched chat off. The screen went black, darkening the room for a moment, and then came back blue, with the white logo of Firewall Zero floating in the middle.
Lyan waited a few moments, rocking back and forth in his gyrochair. Then the screen flickered, and Falconer’s head and shoulders filled it. He was grinning, like always, around the stem of the wooden pipe clamped in the right side of his teeth, like always. Impeccably groomed, but the tiny yellow tobacco stain on the right side of his white, pointy goatee was definitely there, and definitely growing, although it looked like he’d powdered it with something to keep it quiet.
“You stinker,” Falconer said.
Lyan rocked a little harder. He couldn’t repress a smirk. “You liked that?”
“Do I like cheaters who hack my simulation and shred the code that took five Updaters five days of around-the-clock labor to put together? I don’t know, Lyan, I’ve never asked myself that question before. Y’know?” He puffed, and a cloud of pipe smoke made his face, but it cleared and his teeth were still there, still huge and white, still grinning. “I mean, yeah, your childish stunt was impressive, and I can’t really say I saw it coming. Did you plan that out, or was it just a spur-of-the-moment kinda thing?”
“I’ve thought about it before. But I didn’t really plan doing it today, it just sort of happened.” Lyan stopped rocking and let the gyro chair bring him upright. “I was bored.”
“Okay. Okay.” Falconer nodded. “You were bored, so now a crew of Updaters are going to leave their posts behind the front line of the Firewall Zero, where they are slaving night after night to keep a killer virus from getting inside and zombifying two-and-a-half million people. Just so they can fix a training simulator for a bunch of teenagers. That makes sense. I’m so sorry you got bored.”
Lyan shifted in his chair. He hadn’t really thought of it that way. A couple of comebacks drifted through his head, but none of them seemed like a good idea in the face of Falconer’s toothy smile. And the fact that the man had a pretty good point.
His stomach sank a little, but he tried to keep it from showing on his face.
“Is my subtle sarcasm registering over there?” Falconer removed his pipe, and his smile disappeared. Smoke wafted from his nostrils. “Jeez, Lyan. You’re a good kid. You used to be a really good trainee. Something going on that we need to talk about?”
Lyan tilted his head toward the ceiling, and his chair tipped back a tad. Nope. Nothing they could talk about.
“I mean. You’ve been unfocused. Acting up in the sims. Not engaging with the others. You doing okay? Maybe we need to modify your routine a little. Give you a change. Whaddya think?”
Lyan kept looking at the ceiling, three feet above his head. You could let me out of this box more often, he thought. Why don’t we do that. That would be a nice change.
“Lyan. Hey.” Falconer’s voice lost a little of its hard edge. “Listen, it’s rough. I know that. We’re asking more of you and the others than probably anyone else in the world. But that’s because you guys are special, right? You got a freaking minature Firewall in your brains. You guys are gonna go out there and save us all. But it’s got to be when you’re ready for what’s out there.”
I know what’s out there, Lyan wanted to say. He wanted to yell it so loud it would shut Falconer up, maybe make him speechless for once in his bearded, pipe-puffing life. I know what’s out there, and it’s not what you’re telling us.
“Get some rest,” Falconer said. The pipe clacked as he put it back between his teeth. “Watch some movies. Listen to some music. I recommend Chopin, it’s nice and relaxing. Stop jacking around with your Cerebrals. I’ll try to arrange for you to get a chat with your mom soon. ‘Kay?”
“Okay,” Lyan said.
The room darkened as Falconer signed off, then the blue tint thrown by the screensaver washed back over the ceiling. Lyan closed his eyes, but he could still feel the walls, the six carpeted surfaces of his cell throbbing in the periphrial of his mind, surrounding him, caging him.
Every year, on his birthday, the wall opposite his terminal lifted up, and he stepped out into the elevator that took him to the surface, where Falconer and six or seven burly security guys waited to escort him around Firewall Zero. Eight hours to walk in a straight line without bumping into a wall. To take in the gray buildings and tired-eyed passerbys and pretend that he was just one of them–a normal person, not a military experiment, an Infect-chopping portable Firewall.
He’d heard it all before from Falconer, all the stuff about being a hero, and special, and he was going to save the world, and yada yada. There had been a time when that would have made him feel like a rockstar. Back then, even the hint of a compliment from Falconer would leave him on cloud nine for days.
Then he’d found the StratosGrid. Now, everything Falconer said sounded like Here’s a lie, there’s a lie, here’s one more big fat lie. Here’s some pipe smoke in your face to go with that lie.
He squeezed his eyes shut tighter, and a bead of sweat traced his cheekbone.
It had been three days since he’d been to the Grid. He knew what Jazzy said, that it wasn’t a good idea to spend too much time there, that he needed to hold himself to the once-a-week rule. But it had been three days, and each second felt like a needle sinking slowly into his skin. Four more of those days until he could feel wind on his face, look up and see sky instead of ratty black carpet. Four more days until he could hear Jazzy laugh.
Forget that—he was going now.
He wiped sweat out of his eyes and leaned back, letting the gyrochair fold flat. He closed his eyes, relaxed his muscles and reached out with his Cerebrals.
The walls dissolved in his mind, and space became tangible, a shimmering pyramid of different patterns and textures. He pushed through them, feeling around with his Cerebrals like a guy fumbling for a light-switch in the dark.
Then he found it. It was in a slightly different place than last time, a tiny crack in the fabric around it. Easy to overlook. He had overlooked it, so many times, until about a month ago.
He strained, wiggling his mind into the crack, then pried it open.
It gave way, and he pushed through into a world of color.
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