Lyan hoped that if he mulled it over, the whole thing with the half-naked, steak-eating guy might start making more sense. He was still trying to wrap his brain around it all when Jazzy appeared on the elevator.
He opened his mouth to tell her about it, but she was already talking. “Lyan! I had a thought. I think I know how we can see where our vice president is going.” Jazzy stopped in front of him, her eyes snapping with excitement. “When I first found this record I thought, well, why don’t I just follow him and see where he goes? But I couldn’t because as soon as he gets outside, he Hops to an encrypted waypoint. Like, super encrypted, it’s a type of security I can’t crack.” She paused to drag in a quick breath. “But here’s my thought. You unlocked my door, right? Just earlier today?”
That just stirred Lyan’s thoughts into a bigger tangle. “What?”
“My door, to my house. Weedly built that lock, the encryption on that thing is so complex I couldn’t even break it from the outside.” She poked his chest. “But it didn’t faze you. Correct?”
Lyan chuckled, unsure. “Yes, I–yeah, I guess.”
“I don’t know if it’s your hardware, or what. But if you can crack my door, I bet you could follow Mr. Happyface to wherever he’s going.” Jazzy swung one foot back and kicked her toe on the ground. “So maybe let’s plug out, run this record again, and see if I’m right.”
“Okay, okay.” Lyan pointed at the elevator with his thumb. “But some guy just left, he was talking to me. Was that supposed to happen?”
Jazzy blinked, and frowned. “He was talking to you? You must have said something to him, he wouldn’t have reacted otherwise.”
Lyan shook his head. “Didn’t say a word. He looked right at me and started talking.”
The excitement in her face flickered out, and her eyebrows came forward. “What about?”
“Um, food. And how eating it here makes you full in the real world.” It sounded moronic, and his cheeks went warm. “It was a little weird. He was eating a steak.”
“What did he look like?”
“Really skinny. No shirt.” He struggled to remember–he hadn’t exactly been studying the guy’s every feature. Then a new thought chilled him. “It’s not Weedly, is it?”
Jazzy looked down, eyes darting back and forth. “It’s not Weedly. He can’t get in the Collection. I’m about ninety-nine-percent positive on that.”
Comforting, almost. “Then who?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know.” She chewed her bottom lip.
Lyan shifted on his feet. “Okay. What if we just plug back out, regroup, plug back in, and continue like normal? If we see this guy again, we can adjust our plan, but–”
“No. No, we can’t do that.” Jazzy spun around. “We’ve got to abort.”
She was already walking for the elevator. Lyan huffed through his nose and followed her. “Jazzy, come on.”
They stepped onto the oval together. “First floor,” Jazzy said. She wasn’t looking at him.
The room flew into white.
“Jazzy, what’s going on?” He bent his knees a little, tried to meet her gaze. “I mean yeah, random steak-eating guy is weird, but I don’t get this. Can we try to find him, maybe, ask him what he’s doing here?”
The first floor materialized around them, all those weird trees and the metal clock thing.
Jazzy stepped off and beelined for the nearest wall. “Lyan, just because this is a simulation doesn’t mean it’s a game.” Her voice was tight. “You’re not realizing what a delicate balance we’re riding on, here. How many things could go wrong.”
He followed her. “I guess I don’t. So give me a list.”
Jazzy kept walking, touched the wall transparent, and stepped through it.
Lyan held back for a second. She was doing it again. The thing where she behaved drastically and told him absolutely nothing about what was going on. His mouth tightened, and he looked back at the clock as if it could give him some enlightenment.
It looked vaguely like an artichoke. A silent, unsympathetic artichoke.
Lyan balled his fists, turned back, and followed her through the wall.
Back on the train, they sat in silence. Jazzy stared out the window. Lyan’s thoughts smouldered hotter with every clack of the wheels.
When she’d agreed to bring him here, he’d thought that they had started being a team again. Apparently not.
Was it just going to keep going like this? With her knowing everything, revealing nothing, and him just following blindly? He couldn’t deal anymore. It was bad enough having to share his best friend with some kind of sociopath supervirus kidnapper.
Not that he was super knowledgeable on the subject of friends. He’d only ever had Jazzy. But he was pretty sure that the ache he felt in his stomach right now was an understandable side effect of being lied to by the person you cared about most in the world. Because really, what was the difference between Falconer’s lies and Jazzy’s silence? He was just as much in the dark either way.
“Sleep isn’t something that happens in the Grid,” Jazzy said, like she was just carrying on a conversation they’d been having the whole time. “You don’t need to, I guess, not physically. Before, I always thought that would be nice. Not needing sleep and having all that extra time to get things done.” She inhaled, slowly. “Never really realized how much I’d miss it.”
More rails clacked by. Lyan didn’t look at her.
“Are we going back?” he said, finally.
Her pause was almost as long. “It’s not going to work,” she said finally, her voice low.
“What’s not going to work?” Lyan dug his fingers into his seat, trying to keep the frustration out of his voice. “I thought we’d just figured out that we could go get that code now, because I’m awesome and have Super Cerebrals. I don’t see what’s not going to work.”
“The whole thing.” Her voice cracked in frustration. “Even if we found that code, we wouldn’t be able to use it. Weedly’s smart, he knows there’s a chink in his armor, and he’s made it the hardest thing in the world to get to. We just don’t have the resources.”
Lyan sat still for a moment, and then his jaw tightened. “You know what, that’s a load of crap.”
Her eyes widened, surprised.
“What do you mean, we don’t have the resources? We’re running around in the biggest dump of information of all time. We could figure out how to do anything, if we dug deep enough.” Lyan leaned forward, put his elbows on his knees. “You should have seen your face just a little while ago, you were excited.” He stopped, groping for words. “That guy I met, he totally changed your mind. You’re freaking out. Why?”
Brakes hissed, and the train began slowing to the clanging of a bell. Lyan stayed taut, staring into Jazzy’s face. Her eyes flickered to the ground, and her expression crumbled into uncertainty.
The train stopped. Around them, the passengers began shifting around, rising and shuffling down the aisle.
“I am freaking out, because…” Lyan prompted.
Her head snapped up, and she glared at him. “Stop, Lyan. I don’t need that.”
“Then just tell me!” Lyan slammed back against the seat, growling inwardly. “Just tell me why we’re not going to even try.”
She closed her eyes, still scowling, but it was a tired scowl. “Weedly can’t get into the Collection, but that means that a lot of other things can. Some of them are just as bad as Weedly. It’s why I stopped going, the first time.”
“Okay. Glad we cleared up all that confusion.” His sarcasm came a little harsher than he intended. He softened his voice. “Why didn’t you tell me that? Why did you go back at all?”
“I don’t know. I guess I thought—I don’t know what I thought.” She leaned forward, rubbing her temples. “I get why you’re mad, I do. I would be too.” Her voice broke. “See, this is why I wanted you to go away, this morning. I’m just going to get you hurt. You need to go. And not come back.”
The ache in his chest swelled. Slowly, he nodded. “Okay.”
The train was empty now. Jazzy sat still, breathing through her hands. Lyan looked out the window, at the soft green hills. His throat hurt. “Okay.” It didn’t sound any better the second time around.
He pushed off the seat. Jazzy didn’t move. He stood there for a moment, his hands hanging listless by his sides.
What did he even do now? What did you say–Goodbye? Nice knowing you? Sorry you couldn’t just tell me the truth and keep me around?
Whatever. His fists tightened, fingernails biting his palm. “I think I’ll stay on the train.”
“What?” She looked up, wiping the corner of her eye with a finger.
“I’ll go back to the Collection.” He hoped his voice would ring steady, and it did. “By myself. Follow the guy, get the code.”
“That’s not—that’s not a good idea,” Jazzy said.
“Why not? It’ll give me something to work on.” He breathed deep. “Save the world and all that stuff.”
“No, it’s not that I don’t want you to save—” Jazzy halted, and spread her hands on her knees. “The Collection’s not a good place to go on your own.”
“You went there on your own.”
“And that’s what makes this the voice of experience,” she said. “It’s not just what I said earlier about other things being able to get in; it’s the Collection itself, it messes with your head. You don’t want to be alone there.”
Lyan shrugged. “Honestly, I could use some alone time.”
“The train won’t work, it’s only programmed for me.”
“Then I’ll look for the Collection on my own. I don’t need your train.”
Jazzy’s chin jutted, her eyes narrowed, and she looked away. She breathed hard for a few seconds, and then her shoulders slumped, just a little.
“Look. I’ll go with you,” she said quietly. “Just for the code. We’ll get it, we’ll come back, and then— you can leave.”
She sounded tired, fragile, and it stabbed him right in the gut. Part of him wanted to step forward, pull her up from that bench seat, and hug her until she smiled. But that was stupid, and thinking about it just made everything hurt worse.
“I thought you were scared of going back,” he said.
“We can be fast. In and out.” Her mouth twisted in not quite a smile. “You want to do this?”
“You really don’t have to.”
“I know.” Her throat bobbed in a swallow. “Consider it an apology.”
A few moments of silence, and then Lyan nodded and lowered himself back to the seat. “Alright, then.”
They got out of the limo at the same spot in the middle of the street, walked back through the same crowd of people. No talking, no glances at each other, just tight, quick strides toward the big blue tower.
Lyan’s thoughts whirled. What was he even doing? Following a lead, a flimsy clue, that might move him an inch further toward saving the world?
He’d been angry, that’s why he had insisted on coming back. He was still angry. But now, the reality of what he was trying to do was like an insistent finger tapping his forehead. Even if they got their hands on this code, what then? Jazzy had been right earlier, he had no idea how to use it, or where to use it, or even if there was a remote possibility of it working.
And whatever he did from now on, it was going to be on his own. Without Jazzy.
He almost hoped that their search here was futile. Then there would be no excuse to prevent him from going back to his cell and burying himself in the training sim, hacking wave after wave of simulated Infects until his brain turned to liquid and ran through his nose. That was a good plan. He’d put that on his schedule.
They walked through the security guards and into the tower. Crossed the room, and when the elevator came into view around the weird morphing clock, someone was standing on it. Waiting for them.
Lyan and Jazzy froze.
He wore a shirt now, but none of the buttons were done and it hung open in the front. He held a compact pistol close to his chest, pointing at them.
“I’m Quint, by the way,” he said. “Don’t run or anything.”
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