Jazzy walked ahead of him through the narrow, unlit hallway. She’d never taken him to this part of the house before. Lyan’s heart thudded a little harder.
Rows of wooden-framed pictures covered the walls on either side. Out of the corners of his eye, he thought he saw Jazzy in some of them. But it was weird, whenever he tried to focus on any particular picture, it blurred into an amalgamation of murky colors, like a filter had been slipped over his eyes.
He wanted to stop for a second to get a better look, but Jazzy walked like someone was dangling a vanilla cappuccino in front of her face. He had the unsettling feeling that if he stopped, she’d sweep on and he would get left alone in this long, dark hallway of blurry pictures.
Jazzy dropped away in front of him, and a spurt of panic made him jog a few steps. Then he realized that the hallway became a flight of stairs, going down. Old wood creaked as they descended, the air got colder on his face, and it was so weird to think that none of this was actually real.
The stairs opened into another short hallway, lit by blue candles. It ended at a single door.
Jazzy put her hand on the doorknob, and turned to look at Lyan as he came down. She smiled, almost apologetically. “This gets kind of weird.”
The cold sent a shiver ran through his shoulders. “That’ll be a shock. Since I never see anything weird when I’m with you.”
Jazzy laughed and opened the door.
A far-off whistle keened through the air. Lyan blinked several times. They sat on a wooden bench, looking out a green and yellow countryside. Sun warmed his face from a sky filled with wispy clouds. In front of them, a spidery black railroad track ran from one end of the horizon to the other.
Snatches of conversation murmured around them. Lyan twisted around on the bench. Clumps of people stood close by, or sat on identical benches, talking quietly, reading, looking out at the hills. A man with an impressive curled mustache raised a gloved hand and nodded to him. It all reminded Lyan of a movie he’d seen once, although he couldn’t remember which one.
The whistle came again, closer this time. A train whistle.
He twisted back around. “A train station?”
Jazzy wore a brown jacket and a plaid scarf. She smiled, and her chin dimpled. “You like panda sheep, I like trains.”
He chuckled, despite himself. Surrounded by all this beautiful greenness, and air that smelled like grass and wood, and friendly mustachioed men, the frustration and unpleasantness of a few moments before–the virus, ripping Jazzy’s plants out of the ground–it all seemed like a cloudy memory, growing fainter and more distant as the train whistle grew closer.
He couldn’t let it, though. That stuff had all happened just minutes ago, it was a problem, and they were here to talk about it.
“So where’s this train headed?” he asked.
“Listen to me talk a little, first,” Jazzy said. “Then you can decide if you want to go or not.”
“So…” Jazzy leaned back and crossed one leg over the other. “You’ve probably figured out I have a lot of time on my hands. So I do a lot of research. When Weedly’s not around, I can pretty much go anywhere and do anything. If I know where to look, I can read every book that’s ever been written, every magazine, every scientific journal.”
Lyan really wanted to ask what exactly Weedly did, when he visited, but he couldn’t think of how to make it not seem like a rude interruption. He kept his mouth shut.
“And I found out about this secret place in the Grid. Pretty much the most secret place. It’s called the Collection, and before the virus, it was accessible only to StratosCorp.” Jazzy paused. “What nobody realized is, everything they did in the Grid was recorded. Every day in this virtual space was saved into twenty-four hour chunks, directly into the Collection. So Stratos could literally pull up any day they wanted and play it back, and see what had happened anywhere in the Grid.”
“Like, you could see what anyone was doing, anywhere at any time?” Lyan raised his eyebrows. “I’m sure that was never used for nefarious purposes.”
Jazzy’s grinned. “Of course not. Stratos employees were always responsible and decent human beings, and completely above that kind of perversion. Get your brain out of the gutter.” She poked his shoulder. “Back to my story though—It took me a while, but I found the Collection. And then I got into it.”
“I thought you said it was only accessible to Stratos.”
“I have a lot of time on my hands.” She tapped her head. “And you’re not the only one who can do cool stuff with your cerebrals, mister.”
He hadn’t ever really thought about that before. It made sense–of course Jazzy would have the same hardware that he did. The cerebrals, the miniature Firewall–she had to, or she wouldn’t be here. “Fair point.”
“Anyway, so there for a while, I spent a lot of time in the Collection. Reliving the days before Weedly hit, back when pretty much everyone in the world was jacked into the Grid. It was weird. But I did some snooping, and I came across something interesting.” A half-smile played on her mouth. “Did you know that Stratos knew about the virus before it was released?”
He had to let that sink in for a bit. Then forced a laugh. “You know, I’m just going to stop being surprised by stuff you tell me. Everything I’ve ever learned in the Firewall was a lie, I’ll just take that as a given and things will be great.”
Her smile faded. “I guess that maybe hurts a little. Sorry.”
“Nah, it’s fine.” The train whistled again, and a low rumble began, the clacking of faraway wheels on tracks. “So Stratos knew about Weedly. Did they just let it happen?”
“I’m not sure of all the details. I had to do a lot of piecing stuff together. But from what I can tell, it seems like Stratos was scrambling to disarm the virus before the terrorist group released it. They kept it a secret, because they knew if people found out what was coming, there’d be all this worldwide panic.”
“And they weren’t quite fast enough.”
“Nope. But I think they were close,” Jazzy said. “I’m pretty sure that right before Weedly hit the grid, Stratos raked up some intel on a weakness the terrorist group coded into the virus–like a backdoor to disable it. I don’t know, they might have been planning on using it to to bargain with Stratos somehow. But then Weedly got out of control.”
Lyan nodded. “So, you’re thinking we can use this?”
“From what I’ve read, Weedly shouldn’t be able to change his base programming. He just adds on to it as he evolves. So the original backdoor might still be there. He’s probably built around it, made it hard to get to. But if we poked around in the right places, maybe we could find something that would give us a clue where it is, and what it is, and maybe how to use it.” Jazzy smiled wryly. “You do realize what a long shot this is.”
The train veered into sight around a green hill, a sleek black string of cars. Its whistle came long and earsplitting, along with a clanging bell. All around them, the people began shutting their books and standing up and coming forward in a bustle of expectancy.
“There’s something else you should know about the Collection,” Jazzy said. “If we go there, we’ll be walking around in a past version of the Grid, and it’ll seem completely like we’re there. Sights, sounds, taste, everything. We’ll be able to interact with people and the environment if we want to. But if we do anything that changes things in a big way, it’ll start corrupting the record, and it could crash. I’m not sure what exactly would happen to us in that case, but I feel like it wouldn’t be good. So there’s that to think about.”
“Okay,” Lyan said. “So I probably shouldn’t run for political office like I’ve always said I would do if I went back in time.”
Her eyes stayed serious. “I’m just saying this is really dangerous, Lyan. And it could be a total waste of time.”
Lyan thought about his last few days in his cell, and his mouth twisted wryly. “Can’t be a bigger waste of time than my life has been for pretty much forever.”
Brakes hissed, and the train chugged to a stop, blocking the view of the hills. Doors opened, and blue-capped conductors swung down to usher in the small crowd of passengers.
“So can we actually get on the train?” Lyan asked.
“It’s just a fancy way of getting to the different waypoints I’ve made through the Grid. If you want to go to the Collection, it’ll take us there.”
She brushed hair out of her face and watched the people walking forward to board the train. Lyan couldn’t read her. Did she really want to do this, or was she just humoring him?
“You think we could really find something?” he asked.
Jazzy steepled her fingers in her lap. “Like I told you, it’s a long shot.” She shrugged one shoulder. “Honestly, I try not to let myself get excited about things like this. I don’t really deal well with disappointment.”
The last of the passengers finished boarding, but the conductors stayed outside, watching Jazzy and Lyan expectantly.
Lyan had a sudden pang of longing for it to all be real–the train, the clouds, the passengers. He wanted the guy with the mustache to be a real guy with a real life and a name like Harold or something, and not just a simulated character, there for their benefit.
He also wanted to be sitting on this bench having a normal conversation with Jazzy, laughing and talking and him wearing that dumb cravat. Like they did before he knew that the virus called itself Weedly and was keeping his best friend prisoner.
He looked over at Jazzy and forced a grin. “Well, even if we don’t figure anything out in there, can you think of anything more fun than time-traveling with me?”
“So that’s a yes?”
“Also, I’ve always wanted to ride a train.”
She smiled. “All aboard, then.”
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