Lyan sat on a beanbag, his knees level with his shoulders. Quint paced in front of him. He was saying something about Weedly and the Grid, but his voice sounded a mile away.
Lyan blinked. His tongue was cotton and too big in his mouth. Everything in the room was murky shadows and fuzzy lines, someone needed to turn on a light.
Then like an electric shock, he remembered Demo lunging at him, pale vengeful eyes. He recoiled, fingers digging into soft fabric.
Other snapshots followed—a man holding out his hand, telling him to stop. Driving through heat and flame. A needle pricking his neck.
“Where is this?” he gasped.
Quint stopped and looked at him, eyebrows coming forward. “Have you not been listening?”
Lyan shook his head. Swallowed hard. “I don’t remember.”
Quint blinked, then lowered himself onto a metal stool and rubbed his forehead, grimacing. “I hate repeating myself. You try to change it up, but it still sounds scripted.” He exhaled loudly. “On a scale from one to ten, how lucid are you?”
Lyan licked his lips. “I don’t even know, am I awake right now?”
“Yes. Also no. They knocked out your body, and forced your consciousness into the Grid.”
“I’m in the Grid?” Lyan looked around. His vision was clearing a little; he could make out heaps of rubbish piled across a circular table and spilling onto the floor. Various guns lay haphazard around the room, as well as what looked like long-necked stringed instrument. “Is that a guitar?”
“No. It’s a bass. I play the bass.” Quint rose and stalked to the instrument, the corners of his unbuttoned shirt flapping. He grabbed the bass by the neck and laid it precariously across the table. He turned back around. “Please focus.”
“Sorry.” Lyan slowly released his fistfuls of beanbag. “I’ve never seen this place before.”
“Not many people have. That’s why I brought you here.” Quint tapped his fingers on the side of his leg. “Okay, listen. The men who put you under, they want you here for a reason, I’m not sure why. What they didn’t know is that I was piggy-backing on your cerebrals.”
“Yeah, I didn’t know that either,” Lyan said.
“Okay, well, I’m not explaining that right now. I did all that when I thought you were listening.” Quint started pacing again, squinting at the ground in front of him. “So as soon as you fell into the Grid, I took you here. They do have access to your actual brain, though, so they can find us eventually. But we’ve got some time.”
“Wait, so…” Lyan shook his head. “They’ve got my body, in the real world? I’m a prisoner?”
“That is correct. You can’t leave the Grid.”
Lyan’s stomach tightened. “Why, what are they planning to do with me here?”
Quint shrugged and kept pacing. “I have no clue. That’s what we’re hoping to find out here.”
All those times he’d been in the Grid, and wished that he didn’t have to go back. And now he couldn’t go back. And somewhere in the real world, he was lying unconscious, completely helpless.
They could be doing anything to him, and he wouldn’t know it. For all he knew, they’d scooped his brain out, and he was just a brain floating in some kind of weird fluid-filled capsule. Was that even possible?
He pinched his temples, trying to calm his breathing. It was okay. He was back in the Grid—that wasn’t a bad thing. And this Quint guy was on his side, or at least he’d helped him so far.
“Here’s one happy thought—the guys who kidnapped you aren’t on the virus’s team. Technically, they did save your life.” Quint rubbed his chin. “Now, did they do that so that they could kill you themselves, once they’ve got what they need out of you? No way of knowing right now.”
Lyan tried to adjust in the beanbag, sit up a little straighter. It didn’t work, so he pushed out of it and stood up. “So what, you’re saying they put me here for a reason?”
“That’s what I’ve been saying, yes.” Quint frowned. “Look, I know just barely more than you. I’ve been in the Collection until you came along. But this virus is doing something huge, and we need to stay one step ahead of the guys who are looking for you until we find out what it is.”
Lyan rubbed his elbow. “Last time I was here, Weedly threw me on the ground and sent a monster after me.”
“Yeah, well, this is a different place than the last time you were here.” Quint turned and stepped over an overturned wastebasket. “You’ll want to see this.”
Lyan followed Quint over to a low kitchen counter strewn with assorted, unfamiliar gadgets that blinked a chorus of yellow and orange lights. Quint reached under the counter and flipped an out-of-sight switch.
Nearby on the wall, an array of shutters whirred and folded away, revealing a circular window. A tube of white-blue light cut into the room, exposing armies of floating dust. Quint walked to the window and looked out. His mouth narrowed into a tight line.
Lyan stepped up to the other side of the window and looked out, squinting into the light.
He blinked. The city lay a couple hundred feet below them, spread out in miniature. They were higher than most of the skyscrapers and spires around them, and the sudden realization of height made his vision swim a little.
But then he saw the movement. The walkways were shifting, buzzing with specks of color. People. The streets blurred and flashed metallic with traffic.
Quint had said this was the Grid, but there were people here. Were they back in the Collection?
Something metal flashed by the window like a ginormous beetle trying to get in. Lyan flinched back, but it was just some kind of flying vehicle, swooping toward the city in a gentle arc.
“Where did you say we were, again?” Lyan asked, without taking his eyes off the window.
“Like I said, things are a little different.” Quint pointed. “Purple building, off to the right.”
Lyan leaned to the side, his gaze following Quint’s finger. It was a massive, blocky building with purple walls and a steeple. It looked like an oversized caricature of a retro, 21st-century-ish church.
Then he took a closer look at the steeple, and realized it wasn’t a steeple.
It was a statue of a familiar figure in a cowboy hat, brandishing a microphone above his head in a victorious rock n’ roll stance. Purple, like the rest of the structure.
None of this made sense. Lyan thought back to the needle prick in the side of his neck. Maybe he was just tripping, some weird chemical-laced dream. Maybe he’d wake up in a prison cell any minute.
“It’s all connected,” Quint said. “You and that blonde girl show up and interrupt my dinner, the Firewall hauls the blonde girl away, then the virus takes down the Firewall from the inside, and suddenly the Grid’s populated again. And there’s a purple church with a Weedly statue.”
Lyan’s fists tightened. “Her name’s Jazzy.”
“What?” Quint’s eyebrows raised, and then he nodded. “Oh. Okay. Weird name. We need to find out what happened to her. She’s got something to do with all this.”
He hadn’t really had time to think about Jazzy, with all the running for his life. Now it all resurfaced. The way she’d looked lying limp on the sidewalk, a jungle of traffic between them. Lyan closed his eyes, clenching his jaws so tight his molars squeaked.
He was back in the Grid, but it was a different world now, and he didn’t know where Jazzy was.
“Look, we don’t have much time, so here’s the plan,” Quint said. “You tell me the entire side of your story. I’ve figured out bits and pieces, but I want to hear it from you. We can work from there.”
Lyan opened his eyes, and looked down at the church again. He couldn’t make out the facial expression on the Weedly statue, but he could imagine that crooked smirk, and it started a slow, scorching heat in his gut.
Run, Weedly had told him. And he had. But here he was, still alive. Which seemed to be a different outcome than what Weedly had planned, with all his machinations and manipulating and his stupid dancing.
He hadn’t really had time yet to think about how it had felt, punching his cerebrals into Demo’s consciousness, watching the lights go out, seeing that massive thing toppling over onto the ground. Hearing Weedly’s cry of rage and surprise.
Combined with all the other things that had happened in the last twenty-four hours, he couldn’t really call it a victory. But it was something.
Lyan exhaled. “Can we get her back?”
“Your friend? I have no clue.” Impatience laced Quint’s voice. “I might have a better idea in a minute, whenever you decide you’re ready to, you know, do things.”
He could get her back. He’d rip apart every strand of code in the Grid if he had to. The heat in his stomach roiled outward, tightening in his shoulders.
And if she wasn’t in the Grid, he’d rip apart whatever else he needed to.
Lyan gave one last look at the Weedly steeple, and turned to face Quint.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s do things.”