He went down, looking for ground that wasn’t transparent and hundreds of feet above thousands of moving bodies.
But his dizziness didn’t go away when he reached the street. There were too many people, too many faces and voices and flashing colors. Everything was moving, churning, one hard gust removed from collapsing and blowing away in shreds.
Lyan walked upstream, brushed on all sides by shoulders and arms and hips. Some flowing article of clothing flapped in his face like a neon-colored bird, and he swatted it away.
A chill coiled around his shoulders and clamped icy jaws around his throat. He tucked his chin into his chest and walked faster.
There was nowhere to go. The city had folded him into itself, he was a diver too far down, losing air and rising toward a surface he couldn’t reach in time.
And there was no surface, there was no getting out. Every box he jumped out of was just a bigger box.
And he couldn’t breath.
Black edged his vision and dripped across it. He tripped, and his shoulder drove into somebody’s chest. He mumbled an apology over their cursing and kept going.
Through the filter of black static, something caught his eye, a patch of color that wasn’t a floating billboard or flashy clothes. Down the sidewalk, through momentary gaps in the crowds, he saw grass.
Lyan staggered for it, like that diver making one final desperate surge.
He broke through the ranks of pedestrians, and his feet left hard sidewalk and met a cushion of earth.
Lyan stumbled to his knees and reached out through the haze, fumbling his hands into a tiny forest of grass blades.
They were cool on his palms, tickling the ends of his fingers. Lyan closed his eyes and dug his fingers past the grass and into the gritty dirt beyond.
He stayed like that, his heartbeat pounding in his ears. Slowly it subsided and noises began to fade back in, street sounds and thousands of shuffling feet from behind him. The cold band around his lungs relaxed, and breathing was back.
Lyan opened his eyes. In front of him, grass sloped down into a small valley, dotted with the occasional raised flower bed or orange-leafed tree. A lone couple strolled across the scene, holding hands.
Lyan looked over his shoulder. A few yards back there were the sidewalks, the street, the torrent of people. He turned back around, and poof, grass and trees again. It was like another world.
He hadn’t seen anything this green and growing since his old hub, his own personal entrance to the Grid, back in his cell. With the clouds, and the hills. And pandasheep.
The pandasheep. He missed those guys.
Lyan breathed deep. It smelled like sun and earth, and things that you planted.
It made him think of the last time he’d had his fingers buried in dirt. Tomato leaves brushing his wrists, Jazzy wiping a smudge of dirt from her cheekbone.
He hadn’t really had time to dwell on it until this moment, but now a heavy awareness was descending; that he was surrounded by a million people right now and none of them were Jazzy.
It hurt—physically, a deep ache in every pore. He put his hands over his face and breathed through his dirt-crusted fingers, and wished so hard that she was here.
It didn’t really even make sense, how badly he wished that. In the time she’d known him, she’d only made his life more confusing, more frustrating, more complicated. And yet in this moment, he would have gladly given Morelan the go-ahead to cut off all his real-world fingers right down to the knuckles, if it meant he could just have Jazzy sitting next to him.
“This place, huh?” said Quint, close to his ear. “Skyscrapers, skyscrapers, skyscrapers… now grass, all the grass. Sure. Makes sense.”
Lyan jumped a little, startled. And then came within an inch of throat-punching Quint for not being Jazzy.
Instead, he sat on his fists and breathed hard through his nose. “I told you not to follow me.”
“Back when you did the stupid thing? I remember,” Quint said. He crossed his legs and slouched forward. “I also reminded you that I’m stapled to your subconscious, so who’s not listening now?”
“I still don’t know why you did that,” Lyan said. “If we’re talking about stupid things.”
“Fair question.” Quint squinted at the strolling couple. “I’d been in the Collection ever since the virus. Didn’t really think I was ever getting out. Then you came along, I took a look at your hardware, and I saw there was a chance of me getting out without getting all Infected. I piggy-backed. Probably not the most neighborly thing to do uninvited. Maybe I was a little desperate. Also consider that without me in your head, you would definitely have died in several pieces.”
He shrugged. “So, for better or for worse, I guess. And it’s definitely worse when you’re flipping off the guys who have you prisoner and can do whatever they want with your comatose body.”
Lyan wanted to be angry, to say something witty and storm off like last time, but he really just felt like throwing up on the grass. Because he knew Quint was right.
He ground his teeth so hard his jaw popped. Nothing he did worked, it was all just senseless, stupid.
But at least sitting on his butt in this grass, he was doing something out of his own agency. Making his own decision. Even if his real-world body was probably having appendages removed right now because of it.
“And I dunno. I’m not going to say you’re not having a rough week.” Quint shook his head. “I’ve lost people too, you know? It’s the worst thing, I know it is.” For the first time, Quint’s voice faltered, a flicker of unsurity. “But your lungs keep going, right? Your heart keeps beating, even when your brain is in a freaking virtual petri dish with a million other people’s brains and you don’t know what the hell it is to be really alive anymore.”
Lyan looked over at the man. Quint stared down the grassy slope, eyebrows pulled forward in a glare, forehead wrinkled in a question.
For some reason, Lyan felt a stab of guilt for not ever wondering what Quint had gone through. He thought about the first time he’d seen him, sitting on a couch eating a steak with his bare hands. Had he really been like that ever since the virus had driven him into the Collection? Alone, surrounded by ghostly imprints that didn’t see him or acknowledge his presence?
Maybe the only weird thing about him was that he wasn’t crazier, after that.
Lyan looked back at the walking couple, now hiking back up the slope toward the street. “Look, I know the thing back at the cafe was stupid. I just, I can’t get involved—I can’t do it, whatever they want.” He ripped up a patch of grass and sprinkled it back over its old growing place. “I don’t have the time for that, I’ve got to look for her.” He swallowed, his throat aching. “You know?”
Quint stayed quiet for a while, then stretched his legs out with a sigh. “Sure. I mean, yeah. I get you.” His voice drifted back to its normal biting dryness. “But look. No more of what you did back there. You’ve got to think about something other than you and your achy heart for a change.” He sat up, pointing back toward the street. “All these people in here. Have you thought about where they’re from?”
Lyan met the man’s expectant gaze, a little taken aback. Was it a trick question? He’d assumed Weedly had just populated his new Grid with a bunch of AI citizens or something, maybe based on what he’d seen of the old Grid, when he’d come crashing in and turned everyone into his mindless killer drones.
So no, he hadn’t really thought about it. He shrugged, shaking his head.
“Weedly didn’t kill anyone. When he infected them. He took over their nervous systems through their implants. Their minds were banished to this weird limbo in the Grid, still aware of everything that was happening, but totally powerless to stop it.”
Lyan remembered the place Jazzy had taken him to once, where he’d seen the Infected consciousnesses. Eyes and mouths stretched wide in helpless horror. A shiver ran up his spine. “I knew that.”
Quint didn’t blink. “All those people, they stayed that way while their real bodies decayed away around the cybernetics, while everything but their brains were slowly rebuilt. Awake and watching the whole time. Until recently.” He raised and lowered his pointing finger slowly, gesturing at the murmuring city. “When he pulled them all out and put them in here. His happy new kingdom. Weedly World. Just their minds. Outside, their bodies are probably carrying right on being Infects, they just don’t have to watch it anymore.”
Lyan could relate, a little—walking and talking and living just as usual, with no clue of what was happening to his actual body, outside the Grid. “Do they remember?”
“I doubt it,” Quint said. “They’re too sane. You couldn’t go through that and then come live your happy little virtual life like it had never happened. Maybe he wiped their memories. Maybe even gave them new ones. I don’t know, I haven’t gotten that far.”
Lyan rubbed his neck, trying to wipe away the crawling. The strolling couple passed by a few yards away, playfully bumping shoulders and laughing over some secret joke. His arm was around her waist, her fingers were tucked into his back pocket. Lyan tried not to imagine them silent and empty, patchworks of metal and dead flesh.
“Whatever’s going on here, it’s a lot bigger than what’s happened to you, or me, or your girlfriend.” Quint’s eyes were squeezed shut, and he pinched the bridge of his nose like he had a headache. “Look, you need to go back and talk to those guys. From what they’ve told me, it sounds like we at least have a common enemy.”
Lyan leaned back on his elbows. “They want to take out Weedly?”
“I get the impression.” Quint leaned back as well, stretching out his legs and stacking one shoe on top of the other, heel-to-toe. “So let’s go chat with them. I’m not saying trust them. Just hear them out. It’s not like you have an array of options here.”
Lyan stared at the horizon, lined with trees–a perfect little forest. Beyond that, the hazy outlines of more skyscrapers, more city. Did it ever stop? Where, exactly did the Grid end? Did it, or did it just stretch on into infinity, a universe-sized haystack with no guarantee that the needle was even there to find?
He was tired. He just wanted to dig his fingers back into the dirt and stay anchored there.
“I don’t want to give up on her,” he said.
“So don’t. Did I say give up on her? Listen,” Quint said. “Talk to Morelan. Maybe do his thing, whatever it is. And along the way, I’m going to help you find your friend. Wherever Stratos took her, there has to be some way there from the Grid. And if there isn’t, we’ll figure something else out.” He pushed to his feet, flicking grass off his pants with brusque finality.
It wasn’t that reassuring. It didn’t do anything to make that haystack seem smaller, or banish the cold, frustrated knot in his gut. But Quint was right. There were two options; a stupid one, and the other one.
Lyan squinted up at him. “So don’t trust Morelan, but trust you, is that what you’re saying?”
Quint smiled, narrow-lipped. “A little more than you’d trust any other voice in your head, yes.”
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