It took every ounce of willpower in Lyan’s body to keep from running.
He pushed down the sidewalk, shouldering between a guy in a glittery jacket and a large woman who smelled like grapes. The tide of people kept coming, and he fought his way upstream like a salmon. A desperate, hopefully inconspicuous salmon.
Don’t look until you turn, Quint had said. That was getting harder to do. His neck muscles ached with the effort of keeping his gaze forward, fixed on the sidewalk ahead and the pale blue tube of the street lift.
He made it to the lift pad, almost stepping on the heels of the massive guy in front of him. The tube swept him up at a steep angle toward the crisscrossing walkways that made up the city’s second level.
Lyan let himself turn then, scanning the streets as they fell away beneath him. People milled in the streets below, melting to a collage of color and movement. They were blending to anonymity, and he was flying above the city like a freaking banner.
He reached the top and stepped out onto the second level. The pastel-colored main walkway ran the same direction as the street below, with sidestreets curving off to the upper city levels. Shimmering, two-dimensional billboards cluttered the air just above face level, advertising products and entertainment venues. If you showed interest in one, it popped over like an obedient puppy, ready to direct you to the nearest location of its wares.
Lyan kept his head down and hurried to the nearest sidestreet. He hoped the people around him couldn’t hear his heart thudding through his sweater. He needed something thicker, like an overcoat.
Then he’d really blend in. Like a penguin in the Wild West.
He hesitated just before he stepped onto the side-street, daring a sidelong glance back toward the lift. Quint had stressed the importance of checking for tails every time he changed directions.
A group of chatty teenagers went by, and Lyan stepped into their slipstream, following them up the side-street toward a metallic, multi-spired tower. He summoned an info display as he walked, semi-transparent words that scrolled in front of him with an overview of every room and service in this particular tower. He skimmed the list until he found it–The Totes Magotes Fight Club. Floor sixty.
The teenagers reached the black glass doors and disappeared. Lyan pulled up in front of it, and an orange display asked him for a floor number.
He turned one more time, scanned the crowds on the walkway. Everyone was going somewhere different, eyes glazed over as they browsed their personal displays.
He didn’t see anyone that looked like they were particularly interested in him or where he was going. Stomach prickling with anxiety, Lyan turned back and used his cerebrals to dial in floor sixty.
The glass hummed, became slightly transparent, and through it Lyan could see the dim glow of colored lights. The muffled roar of a crowd drifted through the door. Lyan stepped through, and the roar engulfed him.
Lyan wasn’t actually sure if the Amateur Arenas had been something that existed in a pre-Weedly Grid. But now they were everywhere, and they were popular.
The idea was that before you stepped into the arena, they made a backup of your consciousness and physical form within the Grid. If you lost your limbs or internal organs to a battleaxe, minigun, or wrist-cannon that fired tiny live chickens at the speed of sound, your mutilated body could be discarded and replaced by the shiny pre-fight copy.
When Lyan pushed his way onto one of the balconies overlooking the arena, a harpoon-wielding astronaut was fighting a man in a butterfly suit. A light show illuminated them in a staccato burst of reds and oranges. The crowd vibrated with murderous anticipation.
Quint stood a little back from the edge, hands in his pockets. He wore a sleek jacket over a turtleneck, and looked just as comfortable in it as he did his usual unbuttoned dishevelment. Lyan waited a moment, then stepped up next to the man. In the arena, butterfly man slammed the astronaut upside the chin with a giant hammer, throwing him across the arena. The crowd screamed in delight.
“If you came in here followed, I will throw you to that butterfly,” Quint said quietly.
Lyan slid his hands into his pockets. “I couldn’t see anyone. They wouldn’t have known what floor I was going to, anyway.”
The astronaut landed hard on his back, but managed to twist away from the butterfly’s next skull-crushing swing with a nimbleness that seemed a little ridiculous in his bulky gray suit. The butterfly tried to recover, but his swing carried him forward onto the astronaut’s harpoon.
The crowd erupted. The butterfly stood bent over the harpoon like a man with a stomach cramp. The astronaut punched the sky in victory as the arena floor lowered, taking them both out of sight. They were replaced by a holographic slow-motion replay of the killing blow, twice as large and spinning 360 degrees for the benefit of the delirious spectators.
“And that was how Arnie the Astronaut got into bug-collecting,” Lyan said.
Quint didn’t look at him. His mouth tightened into a thinner line, if that was possible.
Lyan winced inwardly. He was always forgetting that Quint didn’t appreciate snark or sarcasm unless Quint was the one being snarky or sarcastic.
Also, when he was nervous, he handled it with copious amounts of snark and sarcasm. Altogether it was an equation that had not made for a seamless bonding experience so far.
“So, what have you figured out so far?” he asked, under the noise of the crowd.
“Bits and pieces. I’ve been parsing what code I can, without attracting too much attention.” Quint paused, then dropped his voice to a mutter that Lyan had to strain to hear. “Have you used your cerebrals?”
“To effect things,” Quint said. “Destructively. Like when you took down the big guy back at the Firewall.”
Lyan remembered the raw hate staring at him out of the monster’s eyes, the burn in his temples as he’d punched into the thing’s consciousness and powered it down. A tiny echo of adrenaline trickled into his gut. “Yeah, I’m not even sure what happened there.”
“You forced the code. You made things happen that weren’t supposed to. Have you done anything like that here, since you’ve arrived in the Grid?”
“Nah,” Lyan said with nonchalance he didn’t feel. He didn’t think he had, anyway. Eighty-five percent sure.
Quint was quiet, then cleared his throat. “Okay. Because you need to not do that. Unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
Lyan’s shoulders tightened. An announcer’s voice rumbled through the air, announcing the next fighters, and the crowd screamed approval.
“Things aren’t normal with the people here,” Quint said. “Weedly’s done something to them. Something messed up. I’m not really sure what it is yet, but.” He paused. “The whole fabric of the Grid is different now. The code. It’s like there are all these safeguards running through it, trip wires. Like a spiderweb. If you screw with the code, you’re yanking on the spiderweb.”
Lyan nodded. “Okay. Do not screw with the code then, is what you’re saying.”
“What worries me,” Quint said, “Is you. You have this hardware in you, and you can do crazy stuff with it, you can literally rewrite the world around you by thinking. And you have no idea what you’re doing. You’re like a baby with a bazooka. I can’t figure out what the Firewall thought they were doing with you.”
Lyan set his teeth. “Are you telling me to be careful, or are you just deliberately being offensive?”
“Both,” Quint said. Then he stiffened, almost imperceptibly, and lowered his head as if listening for something.
Two figures stepped onto the arena, silhouetted against fog that crackled with blue lightning.
“I think they’re getting close,” Quint said.
Lyan’s hands made fists in his pockets. “You know, how?”
“I have my own spiderwebs.” Quint straightened. “Listen. They don’t want to attract notice any more than we do.”
“And these are definitely the guys who have my real body, in the real world?” It was so weird, it was like running from somebody who already had you leashed and was reeling you in, inch by inch. He tried to breathe deep, but the fog and the lights were making the room feel small, claustrophobic.
“If Weedly had found us, we’d know.” Quint put his hands on the small of his back, stretched. “Okay. I’m going to go down to the street, walk three blocks north, and then hail a ride to a place called the Epitome Cafe. After I leave, you wait twenty minutes, then go down to the street, walk four blocks south, and hail a ride to meet me there.”
Lyan frowned. “Twenty minutes?”
“Twenty minutes exactly.” Quint took a step backward. “And keep your bazooka stashed.”
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