Jazzy’s house was still all huge and blocky and Victorian. That was odd.
Usually, she changed it every week. Sometimes more. He’d been expecting a space headquarters, or a Dracula castle or something.
Lyan ran up to the door and pounded the ring on the bull-headed knocker. He waited, shifting back and forth on his feet, rehearsing what he’d say when she came to the door.
This time, they were going to talk and he was going to get some answers. About her, about this whole place, about all the weird crap she didn’t want to talk to him about.
Man, he missed her. He hadn’t realized how much.
He pounded the knocker again. Why wasn’t she coming to the door? Maybe she sensed that he was coming for more than just their normal hanging-out. He was knocking a little louder than he normally did.
Lyan waited a few more seconds, and a scowl tightened on his mouth. He reached out and jiggled the door handle. Locked. He started to step back, discouraged, but then a thought struck him.
Closing his eyes, he nudged out with his cerebrals, feeling around the door handle, the lock, flossing it down to its base code. The lock was pretty heavily encrypted. He could just shred the code into virtual dust, destroy it entirely, but Jazzy probably wouldn’t appreciate that.
Would she appreciate him breaking into her house in the first place? He shoved the question aside–cross that bridge when he came to it.
Lyan tugged on the encrypted code with his cerebrals. His temples glowed warm with the effort. Slowly, he pushed through it, unscrambling the fragmented data.
The lock snapped back.
He depressed the thumb latch and pulled the door open. A tiny pang of guilt made him hesitate. Jazzy had never locked her door before–wasn’t that a pretty good indication that she didn’t want visitors right now?
Too late now, though. And it was either continue on and explain things to Jazzy, or go back to his cell.
The foyer was murky and unlit. Lyan took a step onto the black-and-white tile floor. “Hey, Jazzy?”
Nothing. A dragon-headed walking cane studied him disapprovingly from the umbrella rack. He walked past it, looking up at the white staircase that stretched up to the second-story balcony. All the doors shut, no lights turned on. A shiver tickled his shoulders.
He put one foot on the bottom step and swallowed. “Hey Jazzy. You up there?”
So weird. She was always right there to let him in.
Lyan hesitated. For some reason his thoughts went back to that one time in the garden, when the tomatoes had started glitching, and there was that knock that came from nowhere.
He shook it off, frowning, and started up the stairs.
It was even darker up on the balcony. The white doors with silver knobs almost glowed in the dimness. He went to the third door, the door to the garden room, and tried the handle.
Locked. He growled under his breath and prepared to decrypt again.
“Hey,” Jazzy said behind him.
Lyan turned. Jazzy stood at the top of the stairs, one hand on the balcony railing.
Heat filled Lyan’s face. “Wasn’t sure if you were home.”
“And I wasn’t sure if you were coming back or not.” She laughed a little huskily. “I thought maybe I’d scared you off, with what happened last time.”
“You thought that was scary?” He tried to sound light and offhand. “I fight monsters with a machete, every week. And some of them make gargly noises and slobber and stuff.”
The corner of her mouth tugged upward. “Boy, that is scary.”
“I know. So if you’re trying to scare me, you’re going to have to try a little harder than taking me into the freaky abyss of despair and lost wandering souls, is all I’m saying.”
She looked down. “I’m glad you came back.”
Lyan tried to remember the things he’d been going to say—well I’m not going to come back if you don’t tell me what’s going on around here. Now, looking at Jazzy, it all just stuck in his throat.
She looked tired. Dark circles under her eyes stood out even in the dimness. Or was that just his imagination? You didn’t actually get tired in a simulated world, in a simulated body, did you?
“Are you safe here?” The question blurted out without much thought.
Jazzy looked up, blinking.
“I don’t mean wherever you are in real life, it’s a given that reality is dangerous and we could probably die there any minute.” Lyan stopped and took a breath. “I mean, are you safe here, in this house.”
Jazzy bit her lip and stared past him for a few seconds. Then she swallowed and looked at him. “I’m safe here, Lyan. I’m fine. But you’re not.”
Silence spread between them. Lyan thought of the flickering tomato plants, and another shiver crept up his back. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m glad you came back, but I shouldn’t be.” She rubbed her hand on the railing. “You shouldn’t ever come back here again.”
Lyan nodded slowly. “Okay. Why?”
“I can’t…” She looked away. “Gosh, Lyan, how hard are you going to make this?”
Lyan’s throat tightened. He tried to swallow it away. “I’m going to make it hard, Jazzy, because this whole thing is really starting to tick me off.”
She opened her mouth to interject. He cut her off. “You think I want to leave here and go spend every day shut up in my little black box, just wondering and wondering what happened here, and if you’re okay, and what I could have done differently? Sorry, I just don’t want to go crazier than I am already.” He grabbed the handle of the garden room door. “So let’s go somewhere we can sit down and talk, and you at least tell me why.”
Lyan tried to open the door, but the handle stuck. He’d forgotten—it was locked. He took a deep breath, stepped away, and pointed at it. “Can you unlock your door, please?”
Jazzy looked at him for a minute, face empty, and then brushed past him to the door. It opened easily to her touch. Garden smells drifted through the open door.
“Okay,” she said, and went in.
Maybe it was just him, but the tomato plants looked sort of peaky, maybe just a hint of withering around the edges of the leaves. The hilly plains of wheat in the distance were empty, the tractors nowhere to be seen. He knew they weren’t real tractors, with real people in them, but he still wondered where they’d gone.
Jazzy sat cross-legged across from Lyan, on the other side of a row of tomato plants. She brushed hair back over her ears and didn’t look at him.
“So,” Lyan said. “Tell me why I can’t ever come back.”
Jazzy reached out and plucked a leaf off the plant in front of her. “Because it’s dangerous for you to be here.” Her face stayed impassive, but an edge of huskiness touched her voice. “I hate that I’ve just let you keep coming.”
“How, Jazzy? I’m a simulated avatar in a virtual environment, what can hurt me in here?” Heat roiled in his stomach. “Is it that I could forget about reality, and get stranded here or something? Because you know what, that would be the best thing that ever happened to me. I’ve spent most of my life in reality. It’s the worst.”
A wince narrowed her eyes. “You shouldn’t ever say that.” She slowly tore the leaf down the middle, and its blood glistened green. “But that’s not the danger, Lyan. The danger is–” She looked up at him, and her eyes were dark and tired. “You’re not the only one who visits this house.”
“Okay.” He didn’t like the sound of that. “So, is there someone else who comes by and lets you put them in Mr. Darcy costumes?” He forced a laugh, hoping it sounded more like a joke and less like a jab.
She laughed breathlessly and pulled off another tomato leaf. “No, it’s not like that.”
“Well, good. My feelings were about to be hurt.” Where was she going with this? “So if it’s not like that, what is it like?”
“It’s…” Jazzy took a deep breath. “If your visits happened at the same time, you could be in trouble. Bad, bad trouble.”
Lyan thought again about last week, the glitching tomato plants, the phantom knocking. He dug his fingers into the warm dirt behind him, and tried to keep his voice light and bantering. “Gosh, what kind of people are you having here?”
“Please stop making this a joke. I’m so serious right now.” Her eyes pleaded. “You have to leave.”
His jaw tightened. “Not when I still have no idea why. Tell me about this other guy.”
“I didn’t say it was a guy.” An edge crept her voice. “Lyan, knowing more isn’t going to help anything.”
“I asked if you were in danger here, and you said you weren’t,” Lyan said. “You’re not convincing me.”
“Still not convinced.”
“I’m fine. You’re the one who won’t be, if you keep hanging around here.” Her cheek twitched. “Why are you being this way?”
“I don’t know, Jazzy, maybe it’s just that this whole thing feels pretty lopsided.” His voice was too loud, too harsh, but he kept going. “Because I tell you everything. You know everything there is to know about me. But I’m just starting to realize, I don’t really know you at all.”
“And that’s a good thing, it’s for your own good.”
“Well, I wish I could know that for sure. But you won’t really help me out there.” Lyan pushed to his feet, still clenching fistfuls of dirt. Pain creased her face, and he turned away to avoid it, stumbling back toward the door.
“That’s why you’ve got to trust me,” she said.
“I don’t think you’ve given me a good reason to,” he threw over his shoulder. His own words punched him in the gut, pinching his insides with remorse. He hated that he was talking to her like that. But it was all just bubbling up from the tight, searing knot in his chest, and he couldn’t stop it.
And there was a part of him that didn’t really want to stop it.
“I’m a prisoner here, Lyan.”
Lyan halted, and turned around. “What?”
She was standing too, clenching her hands in front of her. “I can’t leave the Grid. Ever. I’m a prisoner.”
Lyan took a deep breath. “Okay. Does this other person you were talking about have something to do with that?”
“Yes. No. It’s not a person.” Jazzy swallowed. “It’s the virus.”
Lyan stood still, hoping her words would all line up and make sense somehow.
“The virus?” he asked, finally.
“Like the virus, the one that–“
“The one that tore the world all to hell and destroyed civilization as we knew it. Yes.”
“So it just… keeps you here?”
“Yeah. I mean, it lets me do pretty much what I want.” She shrugged. “As long as I’m in the Grid.”
“It lets you? I just… sorry, I’m having trouble with this.” Lyan shook his head. “You’re kind of talking about this virus like it’s a person or something.”
She smiled dryly. “I’m pretty sure it likes to think it is.”
“But it’s a virus. It’s just code. People built it.”
“They did. But after a certain point, it started building itself.” Jazzy rubbed her fingers together, knocking off pieces of shredded tomato leaf. “Think about it–a quantum virus released into the StratosGrid, an entire galaxy filled with all the information in the world. And all the minds and personalities in the world. And I don’t know, at some point I guess it started thinking like a person. An impossibly intelligent, sociopathic person.” She paused. “He calls himself Weedly.”
Lyan stared down at his lap. He hadn’t had any clue. Yeah, he’d known that the virus was constantly changing, evolving, and that’s why they needed the Updaters to keep up the Firewall, but they’d told him that it was just the nature of the virus, the complexity of the quantum engineering. They hadn’t said anything about it being freaking sentient. Or that it liked taking prisoners.
“Weedly’s a dumb name,” he said.
“He seems to like it.”
There was a pause. Silence rolled in from the far-off, tractorless hills.
“He almost saw you that one time,” Jazzy said, her voice almost imploring.
“Yeah, but he didn’t.” Lyan looked at her. “I liked the slide, by the way. It was fun. I wouldn’t mind doing that again.”
“Quit being stupid.” Tired lines creased her forehead. “If you keep coming, someday Weedly is going to find out, and it’s not going to be good.”
“What, would he be jealous or something?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“Okay.” A hot ache started between his ribs. He wanted to pound it out, or yell it out, or something, but instead he started to turn away again, toward the door. But it didn’t feel right, just walking out on all of that, all the angry words he’d hurled still floating around.
He cleared his throat. “Hey, I’m sorry. About all the stuff I said.” He darted a look at her. Jazzy quickly looked down, but he’d seen her face. Pinched, hurt, with white lips and scared eyes.
She was in exactly the same kind of hell he was, wasn’t she? She had a little better lighting, and more room to move around, but when it was just you and a world-dominating virus named Weedly, maybe you still got the same kind of lonely. And maybe eventually you’d go the same kind of crazy.
His anger came back, less blinding and slower-burning. They were trapped, both of them, and it didn’t matter if it was a sociopath virus or a grinning man smoking a pipe. Their lives were being twisted and turned and driven, and neither of them had ever done a thing to try and stop it.
He took a step toward Jazzy. “Hey, no. I’m sick of this. I’m sick of all the lies and manipulations and crap.”
She looked up at him, eyebrows lifting in surprise.
“What’s keeping you here?” he asked. “I mean, if the virus was gone, could you just plug in and out like normal?”
Jazzy hesitated, then nodded.
“Okay. So what if I just stick around and help you get rid of him?”
Jazzy blinked. “You’re talking about the virus that beat StratosCorp and wiped out half of the world population. You know how many scientists there are who work on nothing else but trying to take down Weedly?”
Lyan shrugged. “Well, I’ve got nothing else to do.”
“It’s sweet, Lyan, but I can’t let you—”
“No, look, think about it,” he said. “All those scientists are stuck out there, in the real world. They can’t get into the Grid, where the virus actually lives. Because this is his natural habitat, right? He’s probably not expecting to get hit from inside, because he thinks he owns everything in the Grid.” He tapped his chest with his thumb. “So I’m like the secret weapon here.”
A reluctant smile quirked her mouth. “A secret weapon of humility and modesty.”
“Look. Remember telling me that there were other ways to save the world, I just had to figure them out? I’m figuring this one out right now.” Lyan wanted so badly for her to listen, and it made his voice shake a little. He cleared his throat and then went on. “And if you make me go back, I’m just going to sit in my cell and do the sims and the training and eat and whatever until I rot in my chair, because everything I care about saving is in here.”
He stopped, and there was silence, and he suddenly didn’t know what to with his hands. He crossed his arms, and it didn’t feel right, so he just put his hands in his pockets.
Jazzy sat looking at the ground, still rubbing her green-stained fingers together. “I keep telling you, that’s a terrible philosophy to have.” Her voice sounded stretched, forced.
Finally she sighed. “So did you have any ideas?”
Lyan swallowed hard in relief. “I was hoping maybe you did. You know him better than anyone else, surely you’ve seen some weaknesses, or something we could work on. Exploit.”
Jazzy exhaled slowly. “There’s one thing, maybe. But I’ve thought about it a lot, I don’t know if it would work, or how.”
He tapped his chest again. “Talk to the secret weapon.”
A smile softened her eyes. “Sure. Okay, secret weapon, let’s talk.”
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