The frustrating thing was, the next time Lyan visited Jazzy she acted like nothing weird had happened the last time they’d seen each other.
The other frustrating thing was the cravat he had to wear. It was like having your neck hugged by an overly affectionate lettuce.
That metaphor struck him as one of the funniest things he’d come up with in a long time, so he said it out loud for Jazzy’s benefit. She gave him a weird look over the top of her vanilla latte.
“Lettuce is green and poky. Cravats are soft and classy.” She sipped slowly off the top of her coffee, like she was trying not to disturb the wispy white leaf cresting the golden brown drink. “I have no idea how you got lettuce out of that.”
He tried to shrug, but shrugging was hard in a waistcoat. And tailcoat. And white frilly shirt that he still wasn’t convinced real men actually wore in 1811. “It feels like lettuce.”
“I’m not gonna ask how you know what wearing a vegetable feels like.” Jazzy smirked. In her brown leather jacket, white scarf, and sunglasses she looked right at home in the tiny coffee shop.
The walls alternated white brick with wooden slats. Yellow morning light filled the place from several large windows. A sprinkling of simulated customers sat or stood, talking quietly and completely uninterested in the fact that an uncomfortable-looking Mr. Darcy had blessed the place with his presence.
“It’s getting warm in here,” Lyan said.
Jazzy checked her watch. “Terms of the bet signify that the loser still has twenty minutes to go before changing. Suck it up, Darcy.”
He was never playing Snakes & Ladders with her again.
Also, he was tired of waiting for an opportune time to ask her about the weirdness that had happened on his last visit. If he’d been quick on his feet, he could have probably gone from the lettuce thing to gardening, and that would have been an easy segue to “Oh and by the way, what was with the freak-out, last time I was here?”
But now he was too late, and trying to get back to the subject of wearing vegetation would be too awkward and obvious. So he just went for it.
“So,” he said, looking down and stirring his coffee. “That was kind of odd, what happened last time.”
“What was odd?” Her voice was unreadable.
“Blinky tomato plants. Me leaving your house on a slide.”
“Did you like the slide? I thought it was kind of a nice touch.” Jazzy took a longer drink of her latte. Lyan wished he could see past her sunglasses.
“Well, it was kind of sudden. Didn’t really have time to enjoy it.” He raised his eyebrows. “I got sand in my nose.”
Lyan waited. She didn’t say anything.
He stirred his coffee a little faster. “I was hoping we could maybe talk about it.”
Jazzy set her drink on the table and looked down at it. Slowly, she hooked one finger through the handle and slid the mug back and forth.
“If you can’t talk to me, maybe you could talk to the cravat.” Lyan leaned forward. “Go ahead. Look that cravat right in the eye and tell it what’s bothering you.”
Jazzy choked on a reluctant laugh. She put her hand over her face, hiding a crooked smile. “It has eyes now? The lettuce has eyes.”
Jazzy breathed deep through her fingers, and lowered her hand. The smile was gone. “Would you accept an alternative?”
He shrugged. “An alternative to what?”
“Instead of explaining what happened last time you were here, because I really just can’t–” she rippled her fingers on the side of her mug. “What if I took you somewhere I wasn’t really planning on showing you for a while?”
Lyan looked down at the murky surface of his own hardly-touched coffee. “Man. You have a lot of secrets.”
“I know. I don’t like it either.” She looked away. “But it’s nothing you can help with. I’d tell you if I could, I promise. So, do you have time for a little trip?”
Lyan nodded slowly. He wanted to persist, to sit here and demand that Jazzy spill everything. But he didn’t think that would work on her. And maybe just not being told stuff was better than the outright lies he got from Falconer.
His mouth flattened in a smile. “Sure. Long as I get to change first.”
After shedding Mr. Darcy, Lyan went down several flights of stairs, out the front door, and met Jazzy outside.
She stood looking out at the sand-covered hills, hands in her jacket pockets. At a nearby oasis, a giraffe was taking a drink.
Anticipation tingled in his fingers. “Ready?”
She nodded, still looking at the giraffe. “Think you can keep up?”
“Let’s go,” he said.
Jazzy took a couple of steps and vanished.
Lyan focused his cerebrals and found her fast-fading virtual trail, hanging in the simulated atmosphere like settling dust.
The desert, the oasis, and the giraffe all blinked away into the blur of Grid Hop. Colors, textures, numbers whipped around him, and Jazzy’s trail remained a small glowing pinpoint in his consciousness, towing him along.
Then the world burst back into focus, and he stood by Jazzy, on what looked like the rooftop of a skyscraper.
He blinked as his sense of direction slipped back, and his stomach settled. They were standing on a skyscraper. Right on the edge. He tried to step back, and then realized that the roof they stood on was tiny, barely wide enough for both of them to stand on.
Lyan looked down. The building was black, and impossibly high, like something from some weird, messed-up abstract painting. The ground, if there was ground down there, was obscured by a grey fog that hung dark and stagnant about a hundred feet down.
Lyan’s stomach started churning again. Identical skyscrapers surrounded the one they stood on, all stretched-out and distended, packed so close you could probably leap from roof to roof. The idea made Lyan more queasy.
The sky was a flat white, like the underside of a dead lizard. No sun, just a pale light that came from everywhere and left no shadows.
“I hate this place,” Jazzy said, and her voice sounded too quiet, like there was nothing in the air to carry it.
“I can’t say I love it,” Lyan said. He looked over at Jazzy. Her sunglasses were gone, and she looked pale–or maybe it was just the light. He shivered. “I’ve seen some creepy stuff in here, but this wins.”
“Hold on, it gets better.”
“By ‘better’ do you mean ‘better’, or ‘worse’?”
She looked at him, mouth turning up in a wincy sort of smile, and hopped off the side of the skyscraper.
A startled yell burst out of his mouth. He watched, arm outstretched, as Jazzy dropped away, became a speck, and disappeared into the gray haze.
Lyan stared, fighting to get his breathing under control. Maybe this was like staring at the sun. Staring at the sun didn’t hurt you here, in this virtual reality. Dropping hundreds of feet into weird gray mist probably didn’t either.
“Shoot,” he said under his breath, and jumped off the edge.
Heat exploded through his gut and raged upward into his forehead. The sleek black sides of the skyscrapers shot past him. Almost without thinking, he focused his cerebrals on the air around him, flailing out with them like invisible arms. His fall slowed.
Okay so that was actually pretty cool.
Still, he was going faster than he liked when he hit the grey haze. It whipped around him, and then he was out of it, and his feet hit solid ground.
He staggered, went to one knee, and his hands went down on cold concrete. He pushed himself back upright. Jazzy stood with her back to him. They were on a street lined with the skinny black skyscrapers that shot up into the haze above them.
And they weren’t alone, he realized with a jolt. People moved around them, a steady flow of arms and legs and faces—
Holy crap, their faces. Another yelp made it out of his throat.
“They can’t hurt you,” Jazzy said without turning around.
The people moved along the sidewalks in a constant shuffle, arms motionless by their sides. Their faces were the same color as the dead-lizard sky, eyes stretched wide, mouths gaped. The same pure, agonized look of terror was mirrored on every face. Men, women. Kids.
Lyan thought about running. He threw a look over his shoulder. The street just stretched out to an invisible horizon, along with the rows of skyscrapers and endless shuffle of white, frozen faces.
Lyan squeezed his eyes shut. He could feel the pounding of his heart in his eyelids.
This was all just a simulation. Wasn’t real. Lines of code. The thought didn’t help.
“They probably tell you that people who’ve been infected by the virus are dead,” Jazzy said.
Lyan opened his eyes. Jazzy was facing him now. She stood stock still, framed on either side by the sidewalk shuffle.
“And their bodies are. That’s why they keep upgrading, replacing the pieces that stop working with metal.” Her throat bobbed as she swallowed. “But their minds are still there, Lyan. Their consciousnesses. They’re locked into themselves, with no control over what they do. They see everything. They—feel… everything.”
Jazzy’s words crammed into his skull, searing through the nightmare around him. He opened his mouth, but all his words just mushed around in his head, refusing to form a coherent reply.
Her face softened. “You want to go back?”
They Hopped, and it all disappeared. A crazy thought shot through Lyan’s brain, an irrational desire to be able to feel the speed of the Hop, wind in his face, gravity pressing his stomach back against his spine, something to reassure him that he was actually shooting away from that place with the skyscrapers.
Then they were back in front of Jazzy’s house. The giraffe raised its head from the oasis, gave them a curious glance, twitched one ear, and lumbered away.
They were quiet for a moment.
“I guess you might have probably hated that,” Jazzy said.
Lyan inhaled the warm desert breeze. He could still feel the staleness of that other place on his skin, like the air was frozen in time. He licked his lips. “It was pretty awful.”
He paused, and then turned to Jazzy. “So… they see everything. Everything that’s going on around them. Everything they’re doing.”
She nodded, mouth thinning. “Yep.”
Memories of the all the videos he’d seen popped into his head. The attacks, the dismemberments. Efficient, deadly, expressionless. Lyan shuddered. “That’s… that’s just… man.”
“Yeah. Man.” Jazzy looked out at the retreating giraffe. “They’re not like the Infects in your training simulator, Lyan.”
He’d known that. But not quite to this scale.
“I have this crazy thing I think about, sometimes,” Jazzy said, quietly. “Wanna hear it?”
“Sure,” he said.
“I think sometimes… what if the virus was gone, and you could get in and rescue them. Pull their minds out and save them. Put them into new bodies, or—I don’t know.” She looked at him, lips pursing. “They’re still people, Lyan.”
He nodded, slowly. The idea was still sinking in, much as part of him wanted to shut it out.
“I guess that’s what I meant, the other day, when I told you… that maybe there was some other way to save the world. Killing those people isn’t it.” She swallowed. “And I just think, maybe you can figure it out.”
And she looked at him like she really thought he could. “Jazzy. I—” Frustration rose in his throat, choking him. He looked away, gritting his teeth.
What did she think he could do, really? Locked in a cell, fed all kinds of garbage they called training. What was in the real world that was worth saving, anyway?
He thought about his mother, and felt a cringe of guilt. She was in the real world. And Jazzy was too, he guessed. Somewhere.
Jazzy patted his shoulder. He turned toward her, and she reached up and hugged him.
She’d never done that before, and it shocked him motionless. He stood there, arms by his side, and she rested her chin on his shoulder.
“Sorry, buddy.” Her voice warmed his ear. “I put you through quite a day, didn’t I?”
Something about the way she said it put a lump in his throat, and he didn’t really trust himself to respond. Not that he knew what to say anyway.
Jazzy backed away, and gave his shoulder another pat. “See you soon.” She smiled and turned away, walked up the steps to her house and disappeared inside.
Lyan stood there for a while, staring at her door. Then he turned back to the desert. He realized that he was absentmindedly rubbing the place on his shoulder where Jazzy’s chin had rested, and he dropped his hand, frowning.
He needed to get back to his cell. He needed to just sit in the dark for a long time, and just think.
Or maybe first, he would just sit in the dark for a long time without thinking. Good plan.
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