Seconds crawled by and swelled into minutes. Lyan held his breath, and thought for a second he could hear the fish breathing in their sterile little globe.
Then, the air above the oval popped, and a man materialized on top of it. His shoulders stretched the seams of his dark green suit to the limit, and his face looked like it would break your hand if you punched it.
The man—the vice president, Lyan guessed–stepped off, his mouth an expressionless line. Stood for a moment, rubbing his giant hands together.
Lyan shot a look at Jazzy. She mimicked the man’s movements, face deadpan. Lyan had to grin, despite himself.
The vice president crossed the room in steps surprisingly quick for a man his size. He stepped around his desk, slid his hands across the surface, and leaned on his arms. He stared down at the wooden surface, then up at his fish for a few moments.
“Kind of boring so far,” Lyan said.
“Oh, be patient,” Jazzy said.
The vice president looked down at his desk again. “We’re secure,” he said. “Go ahead and talk.”
A translucent display appeared in front of his face. The outline of a man’s head was visible on the faintly glowing yellow rectangle, but Lyan couldn’t make out details.
The vice-president nodded, eyes glued to the screen. “Do we have a time frame?” he asked. He waited, nodding slowly at whatever the man on the screen was saying.
Then he stopped nodding, and his mouth bent into a deep frown. “What kind of complication?” A pause, and then a dangerous chill rumbled into his voice. “No, no, what kind of complication?”
Another pause. The vice president shoved off the desk. The display followed him, hovering ten inches from his nose.
“No, stop. That’s unacceptable,” he said. “I’ll be there in five minutes. You have that code ready to go in three.”
More silence from the phantom on the display. The vice president’s mouth returned to a flat line. “We’ll talk about that later,” he said. “Just do your job. And if you jump off a roof somewhere, I’m not guaranteeing your family’s safety.”
He swiped the display away like a pesky fly and strode back to the elevator. Three seconds later he was gone.
Lyan breathed out. “Okay, what did I just see?”
“Well, the vice president just threatened to hurt some poor guy’s family if he committed suicide. So that’s kind of sad.” Jazzy walked to the desk and sat on it. “Did you hear him mention the code, though? I think that’s the code I was talking about, the one for neutralizing Weedly. They were just about to use it, I think. But it’s too late.”
Lyan’s neck prickled. This was happening right now. Or not really. But still, in this simulated replay, this choreographed recording of virtual past, a killer virus was just about to be dropped into a big petri dish of human consciousnesses.
Creepy thought. He tried to forget it.
“My original plan, after I found this, was to search this house—every floor, hack into every personal data cloud I could find, and try to dig up either info on the code itself, or info as to where he went just now.” Jazzy kicked her heels against the side of the desk. “Because it’s got to be some kind of secret StratosGrid facility. And once we knew where that was, we could go there and snoop around until we found out something about that shutdown code.”
Lyan nodded. “Sounds like a good plan. Why didn’t you do it?”
“That was about the time I got discouraged. I quit digging.” Jazzy slid off the desk. “But if you’re still not discouraged, and you still want to do this, we can stick with my original plan and search this whole stinking skyscraper. If you’re up for that.”
“And how many floors is this guy’s house?”
“Forty,” she said. “We’d have to make a few trips.”
Lyan laughed dryly. “No kidding. Long as I’m back for training and stuff—I’ve missed a couple of those lately, so I’m probably on thin ice.”
“Yeah,” Jazzy said. “Don’t give them any reasons to start asking questions. We’ll be smart—just small chunks at a time. But we could still probably get an hour or two in now, if you want.”
Lyan shrugged. “My schedule’s pretty open.”
Splitting up wasn’t Lyan’s idea. Jazzy had convinced him they’d be able to cover way more ground that way. She also seemed to think they’d be “less distracted”.
Viable points, maybe, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t grumble about it.
The third floor was some kind of lounge, filled with more of those weird plants, and long L-shaped couches. It was warmly lit, kind of homey, and not at all creepy unless you started to think about how quiet it was, or how somewhere in this virtual world, a virus was being unleashed that would turn everybody in the real world into dead-eyed killing machines.
Yep. The room got creepy really fast.
Lyan shook himself, growling in his throat. He was being stupid. This wasn’t a field trip–it was a mission. He was here to save Jazzy. Well, and the whole world, really, when it came down to that. Couldn’t forget the whole world.
He walked a little further into the room, and flicked his hand through the leaves of a miniature tree. He was probably wasting his time here—he doubted Mr. Vice President kept any kind of sensitive information in his living room.
Still, he had to look. Lyan closed his eyes, took a breath, and reached out with his cerebrals.
In his mind, the room dissolved into spirals and whorls of code. The couches, the walls, every leaf on every plant and the air in between was a cluster of virtual dust and glue, and he pushed through it like water, sifting and searching for hidden data.
Nope, nothing. No pockets of encrypted code pointing to a personal cloud. He probed out farther for one last sweep, just to make sure.
Wait. What was that? In the back of the room. Something—different. He squeezed his eyes tighter, concentrating on the area.
Yep, there it was. Not a data cloud. A cluster of code that was vibrating, humming with unpredictability and unfollowed possibilities. Something that only came from a separate consciousness. Somebody was in the room with him.
Warm adrenaline squeezed into his stomach. He jerked his cerebrals away and opened his eyes, staring at the place he’d encountered the anomaly.
It was in the back of the room, on a couch, hidden by an ornamental shrub. But now that he was looking, he could just make out a figure through the foliage.
His heart beat a little faster. It was okay, though. Because anyone in here was just part of the recording, right? Just a simulation. It wouldn’t even notice him unless he walked up and talked to it.
He walked forward, slowly, craning his neck to see over the shrub.
The figure came into view. A man sat cross-legged on the couch, wearing nothing but a pair of baggy green sweatpants. He was skinny, with muscles that popped like wire under pale skin. Dark, disheveled hair fell almost to his shoulders, merging with scraggly sideburns that crawled all the way down his cheeks. His sole attention was on a brown, red-streaked steak he held in his hands and tore bites from with his teeth.
Lyan froze, blinking.
The man looked up, and pale blue eyes locked with Lyan’s. He stopped chewing.
Lyan sucked in a breath. Wait. This guy couldn’t have noticed him. That’s not how it worked. Had he said something, engaged the man in some way?
The man began chewing again, slower this time. He didn’t look away. Finally he swallowed.
“This is a really good steak,” he said.
Lyan jumped. His thoughts tumbled over each other in his brain, screaming at him. He couldn’t move.
“I mean, yeah, it’s not real. But your mind doesn’t know that, you know? You’re tasting it, it goes into your stomach, and if I plugged out right now, back into the real world or whatever, I’d be full. That should scare people, what this place does to your brain.” The man lifted a hand and tried to wipe a grease spot off his cheekbone, and only succeeded in smearing it larger.
Lyan opened his mouth, and shut it again.
“I dunno. I just think people ought to think about those things, every once in a while.” The guy shrugged and swung his feet down to the ground. “But I guess at this point it doesn’t really matter, does it?”
He stood up, the half-eaten steak dangling from his hand, and walked toward Lyan.
Lyan stumbled to the side. A string of senseless thoughts flashed through his mind: Dodging, throwing a punch, running. But then the guy brushed on past him, and walked to the elevator.
He stepped up onto the raised oval, stood there on his skinny bare feet. “It’s getting crowded in here,” he said, an edge of irritation in his voice.
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