Yesterday had been a week since that last visit to the Grid.
Usually, nothing would have stopped him from plugging in at the first possible minute. And he started to, had gotten as far as lying back and closing his eyes.
Then for some reason, instead of activating his cerebrals and finishing the connection, he’d opened his eyes, swung his gyrochair up, and pulled up a library of early 21st-century sitcoms.
He had a lot of time. Sim training wouldn’t start for another three days.
He’d picked a show at random, and now he was halfway through season twelve. He’d grown to hate every single doofus and doofusette that stumbled and one-linered their way across the flickering screen. He hated the canned laughter tracks, all four of them. His eyes felt like they’d been swabbed with sandpaper.
But if he switched it off, then his brain would start thinking again, and that was worse. He didn’t want to think about the darkness surrounding him, the four walls, the repetitive chatter of the other trainees in the chat box.
And he didn’t want to think about what he’d seen, back in the Grid.
When he shifted in his chair something crinkled in his lap. A half-empty, ripped-open food packet. He held a munched-on protein wafer in his right hand. Funny, he didn’t remember getting up for that.
His sitcom froze, right in the middle of some guy named Bob or Todd getting hit in the groin for the third time this season. The picture faded, replaced by the grainy image of a woman with wavy grayish hair with anxious lines around her eyes.
“Lyan? Honey, are you okay?” The audio came out of sync with the video, making it look like a bad English dub.
Lyan sat up, blinking and brushing wafer crumbs off his chest. “Mom. Hey.”
“Hey, baby.” She leaned into the camera. “Are you sick? Falconer says you’re not, but you look… you don’t look well.”
“I’m great, mom.” He attempted a grin. “How are you?”
“He also says you missed your exercise today and yesterday.”
Lyan winced. He must have missed the beep signaling that it was time to plug into the Phys Ed sim. Surprising that Falconer hadn’t gotten on his case about it. “Yeah. I guess so.”
“You have to exercise, hon. You can’t just be sitting all the time, it’s not good for you.” It was the forced smile, the one where her eyes winced at the same time. “You okay? Anything we need to talk about?”
“Nah, it’s fine.”
“Lyan, a mother’s intuition.”
Lyan rubbed his eyes. “That mother’s intuition have anything to do with what Falconer’s told you?”
She paused and bit her lip. “He said you’ve been… listless. Unmotivated. He says you sleep a lot.”
Heh. Sleeping. That’s what they thought he was doing, when he was plugged into the Grid.
“I’m gonna be fine, Mom.”
“I’m your mother, Lyan.” Hurt edged her voice. “You’re supposed to be able to tell me anything.”
He sighed and looked down at his shoes, sprinkled with wafer crumbs. He knew he was supposed to. But she was a floating head on a screen that showed up every few months and asked the same questions about how he was doing, and how his training was going. And she lived in some other Firewall way across the country, so he didn’t even get to see her on his birthday.
“I met a girl,” he blurted.
And then mentally kicked himself in the gut. What the heck? How was he going to explain himself out of that?
Mom stared, unblinking for a few moments. At first he thought the screen had frozen, and then she blinked. “A girl? In the Firewall?”
“Um, no. She’s…” He swallowed. “She’s one of the trainees.”
“And you just now met her? What’s her name?”
“Her name is…” Crap. If he told her the truth and she asked Falconer about it, she’d find out that there was no trainee named Jazzy. “Her name’s Aubree. I mean, I’ve known her for a while, we just started… talking more and stuff.”
“So…” Her face was expressionless. “You have… feelings for this girl?”
He winced inwardly at the thought. Aubree. Yeeesh. “Yeah, pretty much.”
“Oh honey.” She smiled, suddenly. “That’s totally normal. You’re about that age.”
He had no idea what that was supposed to mean.
“But you do realize you can’t get too attached to this girl,” she said. “It’s not wise, with what you both do.”
“Um, you mean with all the Infect-fighting we’re both going to be doing?” He nodded. “Co-worker drama and everything. Duly noted. No more crushing on Aubree.”
“Lyan.” Her smile was kind of thin and stretched. “You can’t be thinking about girls, with what you’ve been called to do. You have too much of a responsibility, you can’t let in the distraction of a relationship.”
“With anyone, ever?” The thought jarred him. He didn’t really know why—it’s not like he’d really considered the idea much. There was Jazzy, of course, but it wasn’t like he could ever… Anyway, he didn’t even know how that would work, with the Grid and all. Maybe if he ever got outside the Firewall, he could track her down, but there was the whole freaking world out there. She could be anywhere.
The memory of her hug surfaced in his mind, the warmth of her chin on his shoulder, and for some reason a knot formed in his stomach.
“With any girl, Lyan. Or any boy. You know, if you leaned that way.” Her mouth bent downward at the corner. “I’m sorry, honey. Falconer would tell you the same thing. I’m surprised he hasn’t already. Does he know about this girl?”
“No.” Lyan picked at the torn edge of his food packet. He wished she would hang up.
“You’ll tell him, won’t you? He was your age once too, you know.”
Somehow Lyan doubted that.
“Honey. I know you don’t want to hear this. I love you, you know that?” She leaned forward, her face filling the screen. “I’m so proud of you. Every day, I think, my son is going to be out there, saving the world—”
The knot in his stomach turned hot, and he clenched the arms of his chair. Without really thinking, he lashed out with his cerebrals, finding the wireless signal carrying the video and audio feed to his display and strangling it.
“Didn’t catch that, mom,” he said through his teeth, “Kinda breaking up there.”
Her video feed went fuzzy, along with whatever she said next, and then blipped away. The display was dark for a second, then popped back to resume Todd or Bob’s bent-over throes of exaggerated, expletive-laced agony.
Lyan killed that video feed as well. It was replaced by the logo for Firewall Zero, motionless, glowing. He couldn’t make that go away with his cerebrals—he’d tried before.
Lyan swung his chair back so he wouldn’t have to look at it. He squeezed his eyes shut, and massaged them with his palms.
If he was in the Grid, he could just reach out with his cerebrals and burn everything away, the four walls surrounding him, the screen and the stupid Firewall logo, the elevator shaft he stood in once a year, that took way too long to reach the surface.
But he wasn’t in the Grid, and everything was solid and dense and made of atoms and molecules, not flimsy, shreddable lines of virtual code. He was stuck. Stuck, stuck stuck.
He wanted to plug into the Grid forever, just get trapped there and never go back, while his real-world meat body lay in the gyrochair, vegetative. Maybe it would just rot away, and he’d just be a skeleton lying there.
And then what happened? Would he die in the Grid? Would he disappear? Or would he just go on there forever, a simulation of his former consciousness? Immortal, probably. Ageless.
He didn’t want to save the world. He just wanted fake sun and fake coffee and Jazzy and pandas that thought they were sheep.
But he couldn’t. If he didn’t come back, Falconer would find out. And the Updaters would figure out a way to squeeze him back out of the Grid and into his cell again. And Falconer wouldn’t let him go back. He’d be stuck here for the rest of his life. With no escape.
Every muscle in his body shrank at the thought, and he struggled to control his breathing. He was okay. He still had the Grid. He could go whenever he wanted.
But it didn’t stop. Sweat blurred his vision, he gasped for air, the cell was an oven and he was being cooked.
Groping out blindly with his cerebrals, he fought back the terror closing over him just enough to find the crack of the entry point, and squeeze through it.
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