Weedly. It was weird, Jazzy talked about this virus the way you’d talk about a flesh-and-blood person, but he’d never actually been able to picture it that way. Viruses were virtual diseases, clouds of code conjured up by guys with fancy cerebrals. Not a dancing weirdo in a cowboy hat.
Who apparently wanted to kill him. Or something?
Weedly didn’t appear to know anything about him though, or what he could do. Which meant that he might have an advantage.
Lyan braced his feet, clenched his jaw, and lashed out with his cerebrals. The room collapsed into its virtual underpinnings. Weedly–the cowboy hat, glasses, pointing finger—melted away. In his place was a churning, formless mass of code, layer upon layer.
Lyan slashed into it, looking for something he could grab onto and start shredding. But the code shifted and blurred, it was like trying to find a handhold on the inside of a tornado.
And then something seized his outstretched cerebrals. Clamped down like an enormous pair of jaws, and shook him.
Literally shook him. Like a rag doll.
Lyan gasped in shock, and then the jaws slung him to the side, and the room came back just as he hit the ground and slid flailing into the wall.
“Oh my God, I love it!”
Lyan rolled over, flinging a hand up to shield his face. Weedly bounced toward him, arms outstretched.
“Didn’t even think twice, you just RARRRH, pounced at me. Like a cornered jungle cat, man, I love it so much.” Weedly burst into laughter, and then stopped just as abruptly. “Hey, hold on a sec. Wanna check a tiny thing.”
The jaws clamped down again, and the room fell away without him triggering it. The invisible force pinched down on his cerebrals, searing agony through his skull. One more time, pain in a place where there shouldn’t be any.
Then it stopped, the room came back, and he uncurled, panting on his side.
Weedly knelt by him. “Now that’s fascinating. You are a fascinating person, don’t ever let anyone tell you differently.” He tapped Lyan’s temple. “What you’ve got in here—just wow, man.”
Lyan recoiled from Weedly’s finger. “You think I’m the only person like me?” he said between his teeth. “There’s a whole crew of us, and they’ll come after you even if I’m gone. They’ll take you down.”
He winced inwardly. The thought of Aubree or Chan or any of the other trainees going after Weedly felt like a dumb joke.
And then Weedly smiled, and that didn’t make him feel any better.
“No, Lyan. No no no.” Weedly shook his head in sympathy. “Oh man. I hate being the bearer of bad news. You really still believe you have a bunch of buddies out there, somewhere?”
Lyan steeled his face. “If you don’t believe me, just wait.”
“Oh man. This is heartbreaking.” Weedly’s mouth turned down at the corners. “Look, Lyan. Buddy. I don’t know how else to say this.” He paused, and then grinned suddenly. “How about I don’t say this. I’ll show you.”
Something else latched onto Lyan’s cerebrals, a little gentler this time, but just as unshruggable. It pulled, and Lyan slipped one more time into the underpinnings of virtual reality like a swimmer being dragged underwater.
But then Weedly pulled harder, and Lyan went inside-out, sucked into himself.
Abstract color danced around him, auroras built from infinitely complex code. His own mind, translated by the Grid. His physical body was left behind somewhere, but somehow he still felt sick to his stomach.
He couldn’t see Weedly, but he could feel his pull, towing him into the middle of an ever-exploding column of light. Color surrounded him, and then the color morphed into familiar images.
His cell. There was the glowing screen in front of him, and the firmness of his gyrochair against his back. And his mother’s face, grainy on the screen, mouth moving without sound.
This was one of his memories. Weedly was rifling through his memories, and he was along for the ride.
Weedly tugged him toward the screen, his mother’s face. The screen grew bigger, soaring to every corner of his vision.
And then he could see past it somehow, into the stream of energy that blazed through the air and formed the image on the screen. Weedly’s pull strengthened, dragging him up the stream, against the current of sparking, popping energy.
Lyan concentrated, trying to bring his scattered thoughts together. What was the deal, were they following this all the way back to where it started, the camera recording and transmitting the video? This shouldn’t work, not if it was his own memory.
He reached the end, the origin of the signal. It disappeared into a dense mass of code. A program of some kind?
It didn’t make sense. There should be a camera, or something.
Weedly’s voice whispered into his consciousness. “Say hi to Mom.”
And then, staring at the disembodied program, he saw it. Lines of code painting a portrait of faded gray hair, worried eyes. Another segment of the program buzzed through thousands of calculations in one millisecond, constructing a string of words and preening them into just the right tone and inflection.
I’m your mother, Lyan. You’re supposed to be able to tell me anything.
Lyan recoiled, but Weedly’s vise-grip on his consciousness wouldn’t let him look away. It was like a giant hand squeezing his face into chipmunk cheeks, forcing him to stare at this thing building the face he’d called Mom for as long as he could remember.
Then Weedly let go, and it all flew away. Lyan lay on his side, pain pulsing through his temples.
“Artificial intelligence, I freaking hate it,” Weedly said, standing above him. “People just use it to do the worst things. Even I can’t imagine tricking somebody with a fake mom like that, and I’m a soulless virtual entity.”
Rage burned in his muscles, and he struggled to his feet. “That wasn’t real. You can’t see into things from my mind like that.”
“I can totally see into things from your mind like that.” Weedly spread his hands and grinned. “I’m magic.”
Lyan clenched his fists, resisting the urge to strike out at the man again. “No. My mother’s annoying and pretty much useless, but she’s not a simulation.”
“Come on, Lyan. She’s not even a good one.” Weedly shrugged. “They put a little more work into her than they did into those stupid chat box buddies of yours, but for the most part it’s just sad. I mean, have a little more pride in your art, people.”
This guy knew everything about him. Everything, just from a few seconds of peering into his mind. Lyan fought to stay calm. “You’re screwing with my brain, Weedly. You’re just a virus. You’re not even real.”
“Ouch. Racism.” Weedly took a step back, and a cold edge came into his voice. “Screwing with your brain? I’m the only one telling you the truth here, man. And hey, who’s the bad guy here? Last I checked, you were the one who invaded my Grid and seduced away the only person who ever meant anything to me, and then got her kidnapped by people who will probably examine her and torture her and use her as a weapon against me. So I don’t feel very much like the bad guy right now.”
“Jazzy was a prisoner here,” Lyan said. “She wanted to leave you, you know that, right?”
Weedly’s mouth tightened. Through the sunglasses, Lyan coud feel the man’s eyes trying to burn his face off. “She loved it here. I was the best thing that ever happened to her. Except you wouldn’t know, because you have no idea what her life outside of here was really like, do you?”
Lyan’s stomach tightened. All the snappy, snarky retorts danced just out of his brain’s reach.
“Yeah. You know what?” Weedly’s grin returned, a little crooked. “I was starting to feel sorry for you, bro. I really was. But then your stupid mouth said her name, and… well, I did swear an eternal and binding oath.”
Panic surged. He couldn’t run. There was no running from a guy who could grab your brain and shake you with it. He couldn’t plug out, there wasn’t enough time.
“I have an idea. And I really like this one, so hear me out.” Weedly clapped his hands together and walked across the room. “I guess you wouldn’t know this yet, but I’m about to tear Firewall Zero to rubble. It’s going to be awesome.” He swiveled to face Lyan, beaming. “So. In a few hours, I’m going to have the means to send the elevator down to take you out of your little pukehole. If you decide to come on out, I’ll be sending a buddy of mine after you. He’s ginormous, he likes ripping people’s limbs off, and he does absolutely whatever I tell him to.” Weedly shrugged. “Or you can stay in the pukehole. And starve to death, because everybody up top is going to be dead. Choices, choices.”
Lyan tried hard to breathe. Maybe Weedly was bluffing. He couldn’t really do any of that. Could he?
He had no idea. He didn’t know anything anymore.
“Now begone!” Weedly turned and walked away, snapping his fingers in the air. “Back to your pad. My schedule’s swamped, I’m all outta time here.”
He halted, turned again, and pointed. “Oh, and hey. Clean up those food wrappers in your cell when you get back. It’s disgusting, and you’re better than that.”
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