Silence broke across the room like a wave. Lyan’s thoughts swirled in the current.
Then Jazzy whirled, grabbed Lyan’s arm and spun him around. “Run,” she gasped.
Lyan lurched into a run just behind her, lungs frozen and refusing to do their thing. Behind him, he could hear the Quint guy shouting something, but the hammering of his heart drowned it out.
Crap. He was going to die. He was going to get shot in the back in about half a second. Crap.
He wondered crazily what happened when you got shot here, did it hurt? Would he just wake up, gasping in his gyrochair? Would he just die?
They sprinted toward the morphing clock, and Jazzy flung an arm toward it. As if struck by an invisible bowling ball, the clock flew apart, a shimmering shower of metal spheres that sprayed their faces as they ran through.
They came up short at the wall. Jazzy slapped it. “Come on, come on.”
It faded transparent, and they dove through it, landing wobbly on the other side. They took off running down the white path, toward the street.
“Hey! Hey!” Quint’s voice came way too close for comfort. “Not gonna hurt you! Stop!”
“I can’t plug out,” Jazzy gasped. “He’s blocking us.”
He hadn’t even thought of manually plugging out. They sprinted toward the street, the swarm of dark-windowed vehicles, and Lyan reached with his cerebrals. Tried to trigger the disconnect that would kick them out of the Collection.
Nothing happened, the trigger didn’t work.
Fear clutched his ribcage, and he ran faster.
Then they were in the street, and vehicles whizzed past them. A few yards away, a long dark car stopped in the middle of the current, and the passenger door slid open. Jazzy’s limo.
They raced for it, Jazzy just a little ahead of him. She scrambled in, flinging her hair out of her face with one hand. Lyan followed, throwing a look over his shoulder.
Quint wasn’t visible through the blurred rush of traffic. The door slid shut, and the sights and sounds of the street collapsed into quiet dimness. The silhouettes of outside whipped past the darkened windows as the limo gained speed.
Jazzy sat on the edge of her seat, mouth grim. “I don’t know what he’s doing, but the limo’s not plugging out either. We have to get away.”
Lyan’s power of speech came back. “Jazzy, who is that guy?”
“I really don’t know.” She rubbed her temples.
Lyan squeezed his eyes shut and tried again to plug out. It was like trying to flex a muscle that wasn’t there anymore.
“What if we talked to him?” he said, and then winced at how stupid it sounded.
“He pointed a gun at us. He’s keeping us from plugging out.” Jazzy breathed hard. “I’ve met people here before, Lyan, not good people. Whatever they want, it’s not nice. We have to lose this guy.”
Something caught the corner of his eye, a strange movement, and he turned his head to see a dark shape in the window, springing larger.
It filled the entire window for a millisecond. He was opening his mouth to say something to Jazzy.
And then metal screamed and something the size of a building slammed into him. He was flying, or the world was flying around him, he wasn’t sure which.
Then he was outside the car, skidding on hard ground, flipping over and over like a thrown doll.
A calm, cool thought entered his mind, that in the real world, his skin would be peeling off like a glove right now.
He came to a stop on his face, one cheek mashed against a street that was hard and smooth and totally harmless to his simulated body. He wanted to laugh. But then a scream tore the air, and it was Jazzy, and it raked icy claws down his spine.
Lyan staggered to his feet. On the other side of the street, the crumpled body of the limo lay across the walkway, next to an oblong shortwing copter. Yards away, three men in white uniforms stood over Jazzy, jabbing her with yellow-glowing rods. Oblivious pedestrians stepped around them, unseeing, uncaring simulations.
Jazzy writhed on her back, and her scream cracked into a guttaral screech. Rage surged into Lyan’s muscles, and he threw himself at the street.
Before he reached it, a hand clamped onto his shoulder from behind, and yanked him backward. His feet went up, and he crashed onto his shoulderblades.
A man’s face stared down at him, impassive. Lyan grunted defiance and started to lift back up. Yellow glowed in his vision, something hard stabbed him in the chest, and pain–actual pain–crackled through his body, dropping him like a rock.
White-hot agony arched his spine and tore the world away around him. He could feel every line in the code of his simulated body sizzling like meat.
It stopped, and he went limp. His vision faded back, and through a haze of tears, a new face appeared above him.
“Well, son, can’t say I enjoy seeing you like this,” said Falconer.
The man grinned at him, his head cocked sideways. His smile looked strange and empty without his wood pipe. The other man looked toward the street, unblinking in his spotless white uniform.
Lyan’s eye twitched. He couldn’t move. He had to be hallucinating now, Falconer couldn’t really be here.
“Bummer, right? You get all cocky, thinking you’re invincible, nothing can hurt you because you’re in a virtual reality, like this video game character or something, and then some jerk hits you with a spicy-stick.” Falconer shook his head pityingly. “I remember how that feels. It’s humbling.”
Lyan wanted to scream at Falconer, demand to know what was going on, but the best he could do was a weak gagging. This wasn’t supposed to be happening. Not hurting, not in the Grid.
Falconer rubbed his hands together, like working up a good soap lather. “You’re probably worried I’m mad at you, son. Sneaking behind our backs like you did. But don’t be. In all honesty, cross my heart to God, I’m thrilled.” He shrugged one shoulder. “You took a little longer to get the girl here than some of us wanted, but I never lost faith.”
The girl, he was talking about Jazzy. Nausea swept through Lyan. It didn’t make sense.
Jazzy wasn’t screaming any more. He strained until his eyes felt like they were popping out of his skull, trying to move. Finally he managed to lift his head a few inches off the ground.
He couldn’t see past the rush of traffic. Couldn’t see what they were doing to her.
Lyan looked back at Falconer, imploring. Please, help. Don’t let them hurt her.
Falconer chuckled. “No worries, your little friend is gonna be just fine.” He pointed down at Lyan. “Afraid you won’t be seeing her anymore, though. Not that you’d want to, after everything she’s put you through.” He winked. “Girls, am I right? Break your heart every time.”
The man crouched down, bringing his face a few inches from Lyan’s. The yellow tobacco stain his real-world beard sported was nowhere to be seen in the well-groomed, impossibly white beard of simulated Falconer.
He patted Lyan’s knee. “You’ve passed the first stage of your training, son. Congratulations.”
Lyan willed his body to move, punch Falconer in his face, jump to his feet and run to Jazzy. But his arms and legs just lay stupid and rebellious. Nothing worked.
Something cracked nearby, and then a sound like someone spitting. The agent standing above Lyan grunted and collapsed.
As soon as his body hit the ground, it disappeared. Falconer’s recoiled, his grin vanished, and he sprang upright.
Panic surged through Lyan. He clenched his teeth, fought to lift his head just high enough to see what was going on.
Quint strode toward them, through the clusters of pedestrians. His pistol gleamed in his outstretched hand. Without slowing, he fired another shot.
Falconer ducked, cursing, and took off at a run, disappearing from Lyan’s field of view.
Adrenaline dumped through Lyan’s cramping muscles, melting enough of the paralysis for him to drag himself to his knees. But Quint wasn’t looking at him, he was aiming his pistol across the street, firing rapidly.
Lyan turned his head in time to see Falconer being pulled into the copter, which was hovering a few feet above the walkway. A door slid shut behind him and the vehicle shot upward, quickly passing the tops of the highest skyscrapers.
Then it vanished, dissolving in the blue sky.
Lyan struggled upright, scanning the opposite walkway for Jazzy’s blond hair, her red jacket. She’d been there just a moment.
He tottered forward, inwardly screaming at the sluggishness in his legs. She had to be lying over there somewhere, he just couldn’t see her through the traffic—
Quint’s scraggly sideburns and staring blue eyes appeared between Lyan and the street, and hard fingers prodded his chest, halting him. “They grabbed her out of here, okay? She’s gone.”
Lyan threw his arm into the man’s shoulder, tried to step around him. Quint grabbed his wrist, slammed a knee into the back of his leg, and once again Lyan lay on his back.
Quint crouched over him. “Look, sorry I couldn’t save your friend. Back at the tower I thought you might be the bad guys. Misunderstanding. It happens.”
“Where is she?” Lyan’s voice creaked like a bad hinge.
“They’ve got her. I don’t know who she is, I don’t know what they’re doing with her.” Quint ran a hand through his hair, disheveling it even more. “If we’re going to help each other, you’ve got to tell me who you are and what the hell you’re doing here, and you’ve got to do it in about thirty seconds, because the world is ending.”
Then Lyan noticed how quiet it was.
No more traffic noise, or murmur of thousands of voices merging into one. Silence. He craned his neck to look at the street. All the cars rested motionless, lifeless behind their darkened windows as far as he could see.
No people on the walkways. The smooth white paths stretched out, empty, on either side of him and Quint, as dead as the streets.
A chill crept up his neck.
“Do you think I’m kidding? I’m not kidding,” Quint said, and threw a look over his shoulder. “Okay, not enough time now. Change of plans.” He scowled. “Can’t believe I’m about to do this.”
The man dropped his gun and grabbed Lyan’s head with both hands, one palm on either side of his face. Lyan tried to jerk away, but a sudden heat shot through his temples, and he was frozen again, eyes locked into Quint’s.
“The virus was released about sixty seconds ago,” Quint said. His voice sounded deeper, closer, as if it was vibrating in the bones of Lyan’s face. “The Grid’s being evacuated. This record ends in a few seconds, so listen very carefully. When you get back—”
Then his voice cut off, Lyan’s surroundings crashed into blackness, and his consciousness floated in the vacuum between Grid and reality.
In the split second before knowledge of himself blinked out, Lyan had one final thought:
Jazzy was gone. And it was his fault.
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