The Epitome Cafe was about a hundred stories up, surrounded by a clear bubble that allowed an unrestricted view of the city stretched out below. The bubble held about thirty round tables of varying heights and colors, like a cubist painting of a mushroom forest. Smiling AI waitresses pivoted and glided between the tables, delivering steaming beverages.
Quint sat in the back of the cafe, framed between two nearby skyscrapers, legs crossed under the table. An untouched mug of a very black liquid sat in front of him. Two stocky men sat on either side of him, identical down to their square jaws, square-rimmed glasses, and squarish haircuts.
Quint did not look happy to have them there. They didn’t appear to be emotionally biased one way or the other.
Suit joined the table and nodded to the spectacled twins. Lyan followed him and lowered into the red, cushiony seat across from Quint. Almost imperceptibly it adjusted, molding itself to fit the contours of his back. It should have been the most comfortable thing in the world, but looking at Quint’s pinched face, he felt like he was sitting on the lip of a volcano.
“Now that we’re all relaxed here,” Suit said, “you can call me Morelan.”
The name didn’t ring a bell for Lyan, but Quint straightened, his eyes narrowing even further.
“Yes,” Morelan said, as if answering an unasked question. His mouth twisted wryly. “I know you too, Quint. But a lot has changed since the virus. To both of us.”
Quint rubbed a circle on the table with his palm, like trying to wipe away a stain. “But you’re AI.”
Morelan nodded. “Not everyone has your privileges when it comes to Grid travel. A little more creativity is required.”
Lyan looked at Quint for help. “I’m out of the loop, who’s he?”
Quint leaned back, staring at Morelan with a hint of amused interest. “It’s been a while, but the last time I heard the name Morelan Crim, it was attached to one of the brightest minds in StratosCorp. And unless I’m way off base, he’s the man who’s got you captured right now.”
“That’s correct,” Morelan said.
“But you’re not really Morelan,” Quint said.
“Well, that’s a long existential discussion that we don’t really have time for, isn’t it?” Morelan leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. “Shortly before the StratosGrid fell to Weedly, Morelan Crim used his own consciousness as the template for a rogue program that could be his eyes and ears in the Grid. Memories, personality, everything was copied.”
He lifted his arms in a small, self-indicative shrug.
Quint nodded slowly. “Well. That’s gotta be a little odd for you.”
Morelan shrugged. “I’ve had a long time to get used to it.”
A hard knot of frustration was bunching up between Lyan’s shoulder blades. All the small talk was great, but not quite as fun for the guy who’d just been kidnapped in two different dimensions.
He raised his hand. “Hey, can we talk about why we’re all here?”
Quint looked at him, blinking as if he’d forgotten about him. Morelan turned slowly in his chair, expressionless.
Lyan swallowed. “Also, I’d really like to know if I have all my fingers.”
Quint’s forehead creased. “What?”
“It was a necessary threat,” Morelan said. “My apologies.” He paused. “You’re under heavy sedation to keep you from plugging out of the Grid, but you’re unharmed.”
The words brought a stab of relief, but it didn’t make Lyan’s apprehension just poof away. Heavy sedation was better than missing fingers. But he didn’t have to be exuberant about it.
In fact, he was sick of it–of everything. A psychotic virus in a cowboy hat, a mutant monster with no mouth, now some guy who’d copied his brain into the Grid.
He was just the kid who’d spent his life in a chair in a dark room. Being lied to. Being Falconer’s tool. Everything he’d done to break out of that box, grab his own life by the nose and live it, and he’d only succeeded in being an even better tool. And betraying his only friend.
It was stupid that he was even sitting here right now. He should be out there, looking for Jazzy.
This was so much bullcrap.
Heat surging into his chest, he pushed up from the table and stepped back. His hand flew to the back of his chair to yank it over backward, but it was rooted to the ground, so he just stood there clenching it white-knuckled, breathing hard.
All other faces at the table stared at him. The square-face twins began to rise, but a finger-twitch from Morelan sent them back down again.
“I’m not playing this,” Lyan said, his throat tight and aching. “You tell me why I shouldn’t just walk away from this table.”
“I think we’ve already made that clear,” Morelan said.
“Yeah, the finger thing.” Lyan grinned, humorless, teeth clenched. “You know what, I don’t care.”
His own words echoed in his ears, terrifying him, but he kept going.
“Cut all my fingers off. Sure.” He paused, gathering words from the scorching knot of anger in his sternum. “But you’d better not mistake me for being defenseless here.”
Morelan splayed his fingers wide on the table. “Lyan, think about this.”
The man’s voice was stiff, condescending, like a thumb shoved into a bruise. Lyan’s jaw tightened, molars grinding.
It wasn’t a gut reaction. He was thinking crystal-clear, deadly clear. He reached out with his cerebrals, snagged the rim of Quint’s mug, and yanked it over.
Quint, the twins, Morelan, all stiffened as if pulled by the same puppeteer’s string. And with the tendrils of his still-outstretched cerebrals, Lyan felt the fabric of the Grid vibrate, an uneven breath rippling out through the noisy cafe.
The friendly cafe hubbub changed somehow, a shift lower in pitch, as if the room was absent-mindedly trying to keep up the conversation while trying to find the bug that had bit it.
The others sat frozen, staring past Lyan. He wanted to turn around, see the effects of his poke on the spiderweb, but he’d seem more in control of this situation if he didn’t.
Slowly, the ambient chatter returned to a normal level. Lyan didn’t realize he was holding his breath until the headrush made his surroundings go fuzzy for a few seconds. He tightened his grip on the back of his chair, exhaled, kept his balance.
The brown river of coffee divided the table, running over the side and dribbling into Morelan’s lap. Morelan studied the growing puddle, his thin lips twisting wryly.
“You do realize they’d only be coming after you,” he said. “If you started playing with the Grid like that. They’d see you as the threat, not us.”
“Not planning on playing with it,” Lyan said. “If you push me, I will tear crap up. At some point, I figure it’s going to get Weedly’s attention. And I feel like you don’t want that any more than I do.”
The more he talked, the worse of an idea it sounded. And he didn’t really care. Everyone else at this table was silent, reassessing and recalculating, because of him. He was in charge, the way a guy with a bomb strapped to his chest was in charge.
Hey, he’d take what he could get.
“What do you want?” Morelan asked quietly.
Lyan raised his eyebrows. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d like to walk away and not see any of you again.”
Quint frowned, and looked like he was about to say something. Lyan pointed at him. “You’re included. I don’t know if you think you’re some kind of kung-fu mentor guy, teaching me the ways of the Force or whatever, but I’m tired of running around on your tail.”
Quint rippled his fingers on the table. “You do realize that I’m in your head?”
“Not my fault,” Lyan said. “You’re the one who decided my head would be fun to jump into.”
“My consciousness is literally in your brain,” Quint said. “And the Force isn’t kung-fu, not sure if you–”
“Shut up,” Lyan said.
Quint leaned back and grimaced at the ceiling.
Lyan took a step back from the table. The twins stared at him, unblinking through their rectangular glasses. Morelan took a napkin from the middle of the table and slowly mopped his lap.
“Before you go,” the man said without looking up, “are you interested in hearing why we’ve gone to all this trouble to find you?”
“Kidnap me?” Lyan shook his head. “Nope.”
Morelan looked up. “I can’t do anything to stop you walking away. But after that, I can promise you nothing concerning your welfare here, or outside the Grid. I’m not the one who’s holding you prisoner. I’m just the messenger.” He had a strange look around his eyes, like the ghost of a wince.
Quint leaned forward, eyes wide in frustration. “What he’s saying is that it’s stupid to run, because they’ve got you anyway.”
They were all right, that was the thing. The anger in Lyan’s chest was shifting to breathless, constricting panic. He tightened his fists, trying to dig his fingernails into that stupid, raging confidence he’d had a minute before, pull it back.
He could do this, he told himself. He could walk away. Yes, somewhere outside the Grid he was lying unconscious and a prisoner, but that was far away. Here was real, and visceral, and he had power.
“If you follow me, I’m bringing us all down,” he said, and walked away through the forest of tables.
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