“Two important things,” Jazzy said, as they made their way along the walkway. “One: None of these people see you.”
Lyan sidestepped a large man in a purple jacket. “I thought they seemed a little preoccupied.”
“All this has already happened, which means everything they do is predetermined. We’re just little invasive bits of code floating around and observing.” She had her smart voice on–the one she used when she talked about the Grid and coding and all that quantum stuff. Lyan had often wondered if she even knew she did that. “If we interact with someone directly, there’s a limited amount of theoretical code that allows them to react. But that’s where we have to be super careful, because the more we alter the predetermined events in this record, the closer we get to corrupting it.”
Lyan nodded. “So don’t talk to strangers and we should be fine.”
“Just generally, as a rule of thumb.” Jazzy walked with her eyes straight ahead, no glances at the buildings soaring above them, or the flow of strangers around them. James the conductor had said something about how often she came here–Lyan had to wonder just how many times it had been.
“So what’s the other important thing?” he asked.
“Okay, so when the guys at Stratos accessed the Collection, they could easily navigate through virtual spacetime. They could rewind a point in time as many times as they wanted, or jump forward to a future point, without leaving the record. I don’t know if they had special cerebral hardware, or what, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to do that.” Jazzy walked a little faster. “So, if we don’t show up in time for the thing I wanted to show you, we’re going to have to jack back out and do the whole thing over again.”
Lyan jogged a couple of steps to catch up. “So is that bad?”
“Well, it’s a pain.” Jazzy paused. “Also, too many times and it’ll be seen as suspicious behavior by the Collection’s security program, which would then fry our brains. Our literal brains. In the real world.”
Lyan winced. “I thought this place was supposed to be safe.”
She smiled brightly. “Nowhere is safe. You should be used to that by now.”
One building at the end of the street stood out–a sky-blue tower rising at least fifty feet higher than all the rest, then splaying out into multiple thin, curving spires.
Seven men stood in front of the tower, wielding compact firearms and blank expressions. Each of them looked about seven feet tall, and wore suits that were the same blue as the tower. Artificial intelligences, probably, instances of a high-level security program.
Jazzy walked straight toward them. Lyan followed a step behind. “And these guys don’t notice us either?”
The tower loomed above them. Jazzy didn’t slow as they passed through the line of guards. Impossibly green decorative plants lined either side of the slick black walkway that drew a path between them and the base of the tower. “Everything in here is just a representation of something that used to exist in virtual reality. They won’t notice you unless you walk up and announce our intentions of breaking into their boss’s house.”
“I kind of wondered if that’s what the plan was,” Lyan said. “So this is somebody’s house?”
They reached the tower. It was eggshell-smooth, no windows or doors that Lyan could see. Jazzy reached out and patted it. “Uh-huh. This is the humble abode of the vice-president of StratosCorp.”
Lyan’s pulse thumped. Vice-president. Of StratosCorp. And he was about to go into the guy’s house. Technically, it was only a simulation of the simulation of a house, but still. The thought was a little dizzying.
He couldn’t help a quick look over his shoulder at the security guards. They stood oblivious, facing out toward the bustle of the city.
Jazzy kept her hand on the side of the tower. Her eyes went foggy, sort of unfocused for a second.
And then the wall in front of them seemed to fade, going just translucent enough to show murky outlines of what was beyond. Jazzy looked at him, cocked an eyebrow, and stepped into the wall.
She passed through, and he could see her silhouette through the wall, blurry and dark blue.
Lyan gulped his lungs full of air and stepped forward, the skin on his face involuntarily tightening in anticipation.
But he didn’t feel anything, and when he opened his eyes, he stood in a cream-colored hallway, filled with light that seemed to glow from the walls themselves.
And Jazzy was laughing. It was that airy through-the-nose laugh she did when she thought something was really funny, where she would kind of bite the tip of her tongue.
“Enjoying yourself already?” Lyan said.
“I am enjoying the face you had, coming through.” She patted his shoulder and turned around. “No time, though. We have to move.”
The hallway opened up into a round room that had to be almost the entire width of the tower. The walls sluggishly pulsed between deep blue and a calming shade of purple. Ornamental plants like the ones from outside were arranged throughout the room. They sprouted up as green and healthy as if the shiny white floor they grew from was fertile brown soil.
An abstract sculpture constructed from millions of tiny metal spheres dominated the center of the room. As Lyan and Jazzy walked closer, it moved, shimmering as it molded itself into a new shape. It froze again, motionless in a totally new and indecipherable shape.
“It’s some kind of clock,” Jazzy said. “I don’t think anyone actually knew how to tell time on it, but they were pretty popular there towards the end.”
They walked past the weird clock. On the other side of the room, a section of floor was raised in a light-green oval, big enough for a few people to stand on. Jazzy stepped up onto it, and Lyan followed suit.
“Floor thirty,” she said.
Their surroundings blinked away into total white, except for the green oval they stood on. Then color came crashing back around them, in the form of a large, square office room.
Dull browns and greens now, instead of glowing blues and purples. Soft carpet. A huge wooden desk took up the center of the room. The only other furnishing was a translucent, water-filled sphere hanging from the ceiling, in which two gold-colored fish floated aimlessly.
They stepped off the oval. Jazzy turned to face Lyan and took a few backward steps, hands behind her back. “So what’s going on here is the biggest lead I have so far. Come away from the elevator, and give it about seven minutes.”
Lyan went to stand next to her. She looked intently at the oval, which was dark brown now to match the color scheme of the room. Apparently, Jazzy wasn’t going to relinquish any more information until whatever they were waiting for decided to happen. Lyan breathed heavily through his nose and fixed the elevator with an impatient stare.
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