Authors: Robin Wasserman
“And I told
I don’t care.”
“I don’t know why you’d want to go back to that shit-hole.”
“Because I want to go
, and you’ve made it pretty clear we can’t go to
I shouldn’t have said it, scratching the wound before it had a chance to scab over.
“I should go,” he said. “You’re tired; I get it.” I could feel him shifting his weight, getting ready to stand.
“No.” I took his hand. We had to get used to each other again. That was all. It had been a long and strange two weeks. We needed to find our rhythm. “Please. Let’s … talk. Tell me what you did while I was away.”
“Same old stuff. You know.”
“I don’t, actually.” Trying to sound playful, not annoyed.
He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter.”
I felt like we were slipping back to the beginning, before we’d known anything about each other, when there’d been nothing to say. I brushed my fingers along his forearm, then traced them up his arm, along his collarbone, resting them on his chest, over the spot where his heart would have been. “Please,” I said again. “I just want to pretend the last two weeks didn’t happen, that I was here. With you. So tell me what we would have been doing, so I can picture it.”
He choked out a bitter laugh. “You wouldn’t have wanted to be here, not for that.”
“For what?” I could hear it in his voice: gathering clouds.
“I wasn’t going to tell you this—” He stopped himself. “I mean, I wasn’t going to
tell you. I didn’t think it mattered.”
It wasn’t like Riley to circle the point like this. He was nervous. That couldn’t be good.
“Sounds like it matters,” I pointed out.
He stood up, crossing his arms over his chest. “I went back to the city.”
Now I was on my feet. “Why would you go back to that place?”
“I just wanted to go.” He uncrossed his arms and curled one hand into a fist, closing it inside the other. “I knew you wouldn’t get it.”
Someone had to stop; someone had to give. I drew close to him, though he kept his eyes fixed on the trees. “Riley.” I touched his shoulder, but he didn’t turn. “That place isn’t safe for you anymore. Things are different now.”
“Yeah.” He didn’t sound angry anymore, only tired. “And you’re just looking out for me, right?”
“That’s my job,” I said lightly, as if none of this mattered. I turned him around, forcing him to face me.
He smiled. “Maybe you should ask for a raise.”
“I’m pretty satisfied with my current compensation level,”
I said, touching his lips. “Especially the perks.” I leaned forward, I closed my arms around him,
. But he let me. Then we were on the ground again, limbs tangled, bodies sinking into the damp earth, finally in sync. It was how we ended all of our arguments, and so far it was effective. I tried not to think about what we would do when it wasn’t.
“Maybe real was a matter of perspective.”
told Riley the next day, on neutral territory. The park was technically called a “free expression zone,” but everyone knew it as Anarchy. The brainstorm of some aging trenders and sellout free spirits who’d outfitted their mansions, garages, and shoe closets and still had credit to spare, Anarchy was designed to be a space where no behavior or appearance, no matter how odd, could be punished. The odder the better, in fact—in Anarchy only banality was forbidden, and the only consequence was invisibility. Little wonder it was always full.
Unless you were crammed into a corp-town,
were mostly the kind of thing you read about in a history book or played at with virtual-reality hordes on the network. Crowds had gone out of fashion right along with pedestrian-packed sidewalks
and sardine-can residence buildings and all those empty shells that once warehoused people who wanted to shop, people who wanted to eat, people who wanted to watch. Trap enough people inside a shell like that and the shell becomes a prison; the people become perfect targets. Blow up enough of them and people stop going. For a long time no one wanted to shop, eat, or watch as much as they wanted to stay in one piece. That paranoia had faded with the bad old days of suitcase nukes and bio bombs, but the effects lingered. Why suffer through a crowd when you can have anything you want delivered to your door for free, when you can play with the masses on the network and then, as soon as they get too loud, too sweaty, too smelly, shut them off and be alone again? These days there were clubs and parties, there was high school—there were crowds to be had, real live people clumping together en stinky, sweaty, stuffy masse. But they were always carefully selected, security screened, invitation only. They were always the same. Random swarm of strangers? We left that to the corp-towns, the cities, and the crazies in the Brotherhood. And now, Anarchy.
It was where you went if you wanted to be seen; it was also the perfect place to fade into the background if you didn’t. It was a free-for-all that let the luxe class imagine, for a safe, limited time, that they too lived in a lawless city of anything goes. No one was different, because there was no same. It was the kind of engineered, officially sponsored freak zone I was forced to hate on principle—officially endorsed transgression being a contradiction in terms.
That was in principle. In practice I loved it. Anyone could wander through. Anything could happen.
It had become a standard postargument routine for me and Riley. We sat in the same spot each time, a stone bench at the edge of the chaos, and over the course of a slow, quiet morning we eased into each other. Never talking about the argument the night before, staying a safe distance from combustible topics, musing about the weather or the trees or the naked man sprouting a peacock plume. Maybe that was the real reason we kept gravitating back to Anarchy. It was a guaranteed supply of safe, meaningless conversation. And that’s what we were doing when I told him—carefully,
—that Jude had resurfaced.
I didn’t tell him the truth about what had happened the last time we’d all been together.
And I didn’t tell him about the kiss.
“We have to find him,” Riley said. He folded his hand around mine. It had been six months, and I was used to the fact that his hand was larger than it had been before, that our palms nestled differently now. His hand no longer felt like it belonged to a stranger. I had known this new Riley, in this body, longer than I had known the last one.
But that was the problem. I couldn’t stop thinking in terms of the old Riley and the new one. I knew the different body didn’t make him a different person. At least it shouldn’t have. But there was something that didn’t fit the way it had before. It wasn’t the larger hands or the sturdier build or the darker skin. This body was as handsome as the last, maybe more so, because
there was a confidence about him that hadn’t been there before, a new comfort with the body and the way it looked and moved. This was the face he’d grown up with. I wondered if, during all those months in a generic mech body, he’d felt like a stranger to himself.
Now he felt like a stranger to me.
The old Riley had been there with me the night of the explosion; the old Riley, my Riley, knew what he’d done to Jude; he knew what it felt like to have the building collapse around him and watch the flames draw closer. This Riley never had those memories, because he’d been backed up on the computer before that night happened. If we were nothing but our memories, then this Riley was … different.
Someone, something had died in that fire. But I wasn’t allowed to mourn him. I wondered if Riley did. I would never ask. Questions like that hung in the space between us, the silence we pretended wasn’t there.
“If he’s back, he must want our help,” Riley said.
“He didn’t look like he wanted help.” I hadn’t repeated the cryptic words Jude had offered me.
You’ll know where to find me,
he’d said, certain I could solve his riddle, and certain I would want to. “He looked like he wanted a party.”
“If he’s back, why not tell me?” Riley sounded hurt.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t think he blames me?”
“He can’t,” I said, because it was too late to tell him the truth: that Jude most certainly blamed Riley, for shooting
him, for setting the secops on him, for betraying him, for choosing me.
“If he’s been hiding from us, he has a good reason.”
It was another gift to him, this pristine version of Jude, who deep down, despite all evidence to the contrary, was a good guy. An imaginary Jude deserving of Riley’s imaginary friendship. The fairy tale was real to Riley, and who was I to say that didn’t matter? Maybe real was a matter of perspective.
Maybe I would tell myself anything to justify keeping my mouth shut.
“You think we should let this go?” he asked.
It occurred to me that
should let this go while
did everything I could to track down Jude before he could track down whatever petty revenge scheme he was surely plotting. But all I could say was, “Probably.”
It wasn’t enough.
“Maybe. But I can’t. I’ve got to know if he’s okay.”
So we started our hunt.
Searching for him by name proved useless, as expected. But there were cryptic references to a mystery mech popping up at certain elite gatherings, turns of phrase I recognized from my own days as Jude’s dummy—“the past is irrelevant,” “natural is weak,” “natural is hell”—that pointed us in the right direction, underground zones devoted to tracking his sightings. And once we knew where to look, he was everywhere. There he was bobbing in the background of a vidlife; there he was pretending to
dose with a pack of zoners; there he was posing with a bunch of skinnerheads, their eyes large with longing. And he’d been noticed. Probably by BioMax, who had apparently decided to ignore the issue as long as he kept his mouth shut and didn’t blow up anything else; definitely by a slow-growing cult of net-fans, orgs and mechs alike, who’d established stalker zones that went crazy every time there was a new sighting. Theories flew about who he was, what he wanted, whether he was some kind of messianic figure determined to save us all or the skinner manifestation of original sin, weaseling his way into the org world so he could tear it down from within. The persona and its attendant mysteries were so carefully crafted that I could only assume Jude had cultivated them himself.
Not that Riley could see that, or would have cared if he did. All he saw was confirmation that Jude hadn’t disappeared forever. Thus: “We have to find him,” again and again, until there was nothing I could do but pretend I agreed. It was like he’d conveniently forgotten the way things had been with the three of us. The arguments. The sniping. The way Jude had held Riley hostage to the mistakes he’d made in the past, and the debt he owed Jude for things he’d done when he was too young to know better. The way Jude had sometimes looked at me like I was nothing, a passing phase, some toy that Riley would eventually get bored with. And then the other times, when he’d looked at me like … like he could see straight through me, into the secret at my center, one that I didn’t even know myself. Like he and I were the same, and, stuck on the outside, Riley would never understand.
But Riley and I were the only unit that mattered, which was why I went along with him on the search in the first place. We exhausted all the network sources without getting any closer to tracking down our target—Jude’s fans were obsessed with him, but their devotion was, without exception, practiced from afar. We needed off-line help, and there was one obvious place to start: the only mech besides Riley who we knew Jude would trust—though he had every reason not to. She was out of commission, so we started with the next best thing.
“You.” Quinn Sharpe’s face appeared in my ViM, unsmiling. She’d apparently missed me about as much as I’d missed her. “What?”
“I’m fine, thanks,” I said sweetly. “Life is good, and yes, I’d love to tell you all about it, thanks
much for asking, but I’d hate to interrupt what I’m sure is a busy day.”
“Then I guess you shouldn’t have voiced,” Quinn shot back. “Is that all?”
I could see her reaching for the disconnect. “Wait!”
I glared at Riley over the screen. This was exactly why I’d wanted him to do it. But he’d been under the mistaken impression that, deep down, Quinn liked me.
“I have a favor,” I said.
“Then I guess you don’t need one from me.”
I instructed myself.
Don’t fight back.
“I’m looking for Jude,” I said.
At Jude’s name her mask of scorn turned into the real thing.
know where he is?” Quinn snapped. “You think he tells me anything? He hasn’t even talked to me since …”
“Since you used him to screw over Ani?”
him for anything but screwing,” Quinn said. “Ani had nothing to do with it.”
“I’m sure that would be a huge relief to her.”
“Drop the act, Lia. It’s not like you care about her any more than I do.”
I could hardly care less. There’d been a time when I thought Quinn might actually have loved Ani, or at least whatever the Quinn-world equivalent of that emotion might be. But she’d done an excellent job convincing me otherwise.
“I care,” I said.
“Then why are you wasting your time asking me about Jude, when you could be asking her?”
“You know I can’t do that.”
Which you would know too, if you gave a shit.”
“You’re saying she’s—”
“Awake,” Quinn said. “New body, healed brain, totally compos mentis. Figured you’d know that. Seeing how close the two of you are.”
I couldn’t believe it. BioMax had been studying her brain, searching for signs of what the Brotherhood had done to it and what they might have learned. They said the research would last “indefinitely,” which I’d started to believe meant forever. “I didn’t know.”