Wren's mind was mostly at peace for a change as he shooed Cade out of his room. Even now, crippled and crazed as he was, he still relished the prospect of a good dance. This one would be his last, provided he could still lead worth a damn. Best to savor the opening steps.
One moment, he was enjoying the hum of anticipation. And then the next, his world was ending.
They weren't going dark again. That left him panicked, clawing the edge of consciousness, looking for a way out and ready to shut down at any moment. This…this was different. Walls and floor and ceiling twisted in on themselves, their pixels winking in and out. His replacement avatar always fit him like a cheap suit, but now its skin slid off his bones as they splintered and cracked. Half-remembered tastes flooded his mouth—bloody steak, strawberries, latex. His ears pounded and rang, a jet engine right above his head firing next to trumpeting angels.
Maybe Cade's God had decided to bring down the Apocalypse after all.
It struck him as funny so he went ahead and laughed until his head came off.
The tall grass hid him admirably, but damn, did it itch. Wren set the binoculars aside for a moment and scrubbed at his eyes and nose. Stupid allergies.
"Hey, Lenny," he said into his comm. "You think if someone stays in the network for long enough, they might actually start to miss hay fever?"
The pause was so long Wren thought Helmholtz had decided to ignore him—as he often did when Wren got "whimsical"—but finally he said, "We can always simulate it back in to avatars if there's customer demand. Make it an add-on."
"Preexisting conditions a-la-carte. I like it." Wren chuckled. A rock poked him in the belly, so he army crawled a few feet forward. "It is ever not about the profit margin with you?"
Another pause. "Rarely."
He snorted at that, which was a mistake, because it turned into a sneeze. "Gross," he muttered, swiping his sleeve under his nose. "You can put me down for a big fat 'no' on the histamine simulator, okay?"
Wren grunted agreement and tried to wipe his sleeve off on the grass. "Ah, the wonders of nature."
"I don't see why you insist on playing commando out there in the first place," Helmholtz said dryly. "The hack into InfiniCorp's surveillance systems should be online any day now. Why not spy from the comfort of your own office? You do realize I've had a very nice suite arranged for you back here at headquarters, don't you? I even had a decorator in there last month."
"Yeah, I noticed. It's so tasteful now it makes my teeth ache. Tell her I need a sad clown or velvet Elvis or something to feel more at home."
He raised the binoculars back to his face. From his vantage point at the top of a gentle rise just shy of a mile from InfiniCorp's main entrance, it was easy to take in the swarm of protesters.
"And for your information," he said, "I come out here to get a feel for the place. Surveillance footage's so sterile. Not enough angles."
"Hmm. And just how, exactly, are your 'angles' getting us closer to InfiniCorp's fix on the decoherence issue?"
Wren tsked. "C'mon Lenny, when are you gonna learn to trust my methods? It takes a little time to find the right 'in'. I have to scope the place out, get the rhythms down. See who shows up late, who leaves early. Who's driving a shitty car. Who's taking long lunches with his assistant. It'll help me put together profiles on the most likely targets, find the weak spots I can leverage."
"And in the time it takes you to do all this, one of my better programmers might've brute-forced his way past Infini's firewalls."
"No way. These guys expect you're gonna be prying into their systems. They'll batten down the hatches, not leave sensitive information on a networked machine. You want insider info, you'll get it hacking the people, not the machines."
Of course, it was a lot easier to work up a dossier on a rival company's staff when they weren't switching up their patterns to throw off protesters. Helmholtz didn't need to hear that bit, though. He was smart enough to figure it out on his own.
The first two days of Wren's surveillance had been golden. He'd spotted a middle-aged programmer-type taking nips from a flask before going to work, a kid who was probably fresh out of college with a marked-up copy of the want ads tucked into her purse, and half a dozen other candidates ripe for the picking.
And then, on the third day, the Christians showed up.
They'd come in two white busses, Living Word Community Center stenciled in blue along the sides. Scores of fundies poured out brandishing cardboard signs, lawn chairs, plastic coolers, and sunscreen. And for three days running, they'd shown up at eight o'clock sharp and proceeded to wave their signs, chant, hassle the employees, and generally fuck things up for ten straight hours.
It was seriously messing with Wren's ability to choose a dance partner.
Today, they'd come with a third bus, but InfiniCorp was ready for them. Work crews must've taken the night shift to sink the posts and install a chain link fence, constructing a nice little corral for the God squad. Security had managed to herd them into the designated protest area, but the fundies were looking restless.
Wren scanned some of their more legible signs, spotting the familiar PAY NOW, BURN LATER; MY INFINITY IS IN HEAVEN; and $$$ CAN'T BUY SALVATION. MY SOLE'S FINE WHER IT IS was a new addition, no doubt hastily made.
"This church group must be giving free head as compensation for protest time or something. There's more of them showing up every day. Don't any of these people have day jobs?"
"Apparently not," Helmholtz drawled. "Any media coverage today?"
Wren panned away from the protesters with his binoculars. "Just one news van down the road. Local."
"Only one? Pity."
"'Pity'? What's wrong with you, Lenny? You want the competition getting free publicity? It might be negative, but exposure is exposure."
"Mmm." Helmholtz packed more smugness into a single syllable than most men could cram into an entire sentence.
"You plotting something?"
"Hmm? I'm sure I have no idea what you're talking about."
Wren could've pried. But no matter how much he argued that he'd be most effective inside the loop, Helmholtz still played his cards close to the vest.
He swung his binoculars back to the protesters. Half a dozen kids—probably none of them older than six—had struck up a game of tag in the cramped pen. As he watched, one of them clipped an old guy wearing a crucifix so large it looked like he'd dressed for a vampire hunt instead of a protest. The old man swatted at the kid with his sign—HEAVEN DOESN'T ASK FOR A CREDIT RATING. Wren gave the game another five minutes before a kid either skinned a knee or found himself put over the knee of one of the crankier adults.
"Whatever," he said to Helmholtz. "Anyway, you know the only reason these Bible-beaters aren't picking on Animus like this is because we're stuck in the prototype phase and they've barely noticed we exist. We're losing."
"All in good time, Sperling," Helmholtz assured. "Slow and steady wins the race."
"Slick and sneaky, more like."
"You'd know more about that than I."
Yeah, right. Wren rolled his eyes at that, but held his tongue.
"Would you prefer the crowd was in front of our offices instead?" Helmholtz asked. "I would have thought someone like you would've tired of being in the Fundamentalists' crosshairs years ago."
"Someone like me? What, a devastatingly handsome Midwesterner with a dick so beautiful it deserves to be bronzed and a set of brass balls to match?"
Helmholtz paused again. "Charming. Not quite what I had in mind, though."
"Yeah, I know what you had in mind," Wren said. "And hell yes, I wish they'd picket us instead. Publicity's publicity. Come to think of it, maybe we should spread it around more that you put a cocksucker on Animus' board of directors. Maybe that'd turn their attention our way? Two-for-one hate special?"
Helmholtz chuckled dryly. "You could always go down there and get their attention with a demonstra-"
The rest of what he said was drowned out by a weird popping sound, followed by a rumble that Wren felt as much as heard. A dense, expanding swirl of gray swallowed the horde of protesters.
"Shit!" Wren crawled forward and adjusted the magnification level on his binoculars, trying to see beyond the murk. Two InfiniCorp security guards ran into the growing cloud, hands going for their tasers. Debris littered the ground—twisted bits of chain link, charred signs, tattered pieces of what might have been fabric that Wren didn't want to think about.
Something in the periphery registered as wrong and he scanned up. The office space closest to the holding pen for the protesters listed, dripping glass and bricks down into the cloud of destruction. Car alarms chirped incessantly from the parking lot.
"Fuck, Lenny, are you hearing this? I think part of the building's coming down." He shifted his attention to the news van just in time to catch a chubby camera man pelting out, a blonde reporter in a pink power suit teetering after him on her high heels. "Put on Channel 10. They're gonna be showing footage."
Wren focused back on the cloud, waiting for survivors to begin emerging. It kept growing, obscuring more debris. No one walked out of it. Christ, what kind of psycho bombs a place the day his protest group shows up en masse?
"Lenny? You still there? They got a video feed going yet?"
InfiniCorp employees began to stumble out of the front entrance. They stared helplessly at the destruction, blinking and dazed as more security personnel led them over to a distant, half-empty parking lot well beyond the explosion's reach. A few cradled injured arms to their chests or pressed handkerchiefs against bleeding foreheads and noses, but they were all on their feet.
Nobody came out of the cloud. They'd had little kids with them, for fuck's sake!
"Helmholtz? I, uh, I'm not seeing any of the fundies," he said, voice cracking. The smell of smoke wafted in on a breeze. "Fuck. You think any of them knew they had a terrorist on board today?"
"Probably not." He was entirely too calm. Had been all along.
Wren's heart thudded uncomfortably. He swallowed against a sudden surge of nausea, mouth flooding with thick saliva. No, he couldn't have. He's a cold bastard, but he's not that cold.
Before he could contemplate it any further, a hint of movement at the smoke and dust's edge snagged his attention. The binoculars creaked in his grip.
"What the-?" The dust seemed to bulge out in a small section, maybe about six feet high, and then patter to the ground. A trick of the light?
A man staggered out from the break in the cloud. He still held a cardboard sign by its wooden grip.
Grateful he'd shelled out for a damn fine pair of binoculars, Wren zoomed in. The man was young, probably not more than twenty. He walked stiff-legged, a shock of carrot-colored hair flopping over his face with every jolting step. His limbs were long and gangly, mantis-like, and covered in freckles. He wore a grubby pair of sneakers, jeans that were too short on him, and an off-white t-shirt advertising Living Word Bible Camp '15. Wren saw that his lips were moving, but couldn't make out any words. He clutched his sign with both hands like a talisman. It read: ONLY GOD'S KINGDOM IS ETERNAL.
And the kid didn't have a scratch on him. Not a smudge of dust. Even his sign was spotless.
Another figure emerged from the cloud, this one so covered in soot and dust he looked like a dried out mud man. He lifted his head, calling out to the kid before pulling a taser. Only then did Wren realize this second man must've been one of the security guards who ran into the blast area. The kid lurched forward, oblivious. Weapon extended in one hand, the guard touched the comm at his ear before making a grab for the young man.
He never made contact. As Wren watched, sweat slipping his grip on the binoculars, the kid stopped. His shoulders sagged. The guard looked like an apparition, gray and greedy, reaching for the living. His hand was still a good foot away from its target when, suddenly, he went flying back into the blast cloud like somebody tugged him there on a line.
Or like somebody flung him away.
"I'll be damned," Wren whispered.
The kid tensed, body coiled tight. He twitched like a rabbit working up the will to bolt. And then he sprang into motion, bounding away with long strides.
"Sperling?" Helmholtz' voice was a wasp in his ear. "You might want to think about getting out of there before security finds you and starts asking questions. Unless you think you can use this to your advantage in finding a leak on the decoherence issue?"
Wren needed to swallow a few times before he could make his voice work at full volume, mouth gone bone dry. "Put somebody else on it," he said, stowing his binoculars but keeping his eyes trained on the spec that was the running rabbit. He patted down his pockets for his keys. "I think I just found something a hell of a lot more useful."
He came back slowly, his limbs heavy and wrong, his head full of cotton…or maybe it was fiberglass. The ugly florescent light above him buzzed. Why'd we ever bother simulating such a piece of shit experience? He needed to take some time to recode his room, get some floor lamps in here, maybe even go to the effort of putting in a window.
A dark shape moved in the periphery, cutting off disjointed thoughts of remodeling. Wren struggled to sit up in his bed. The avatar didn't age, but he felt every year he'd spent in this place.
No answer, but Victor stepped into his line of sight, arms crossed over his chest, eyes hard and bright.
Run, Rabbit, Run.
"Victor," he said, running a hand over his face. "I don't think I feel like dancing right now, baby."
The other man's brow furrowed. "What?" A blush spread over his cheekbones.
Shit, Sperling, pull it together. Eyes on the prize, remember? He chafed both hands against his face, digging the heels into his eyes. Wren tugged on the dangling threads of his thoughts and tried to weave sense.
Not the Apocalypse. Power surge? The wrath of Victor?
He shook his head. "Nothing, sorry. You okay?"
Victor nodded. "Better than you right now, I think."
Somebody's getting sassy. Wren snorted.
Victor moved closer, arms still crossed over his chest. "I'm not making any promises. I don't know these people you want me to help. Don't know who they were, don't really know what they did. I need to see a lot more of Animus and find things out for myself, because I'm not ready to take your word for it. You want something I have, but you can't get it without my help." He broke eye contact for a moment, chewing nervously on his lower lip. Then he drew in a deep breath, meeting Wren's eyes again. "And that means you have to listen to me if you ever want to get what you're after."
I'll be damned. The surprises kept coming. Wren kept the smile off his face, but only because he knew Victor would take it the wrong way. "I'm listening."
"I want the chance to figure out who I am now…how things work here. And I guess part of that means I'm going to have to learn to deal with this…ability. So I want you to help me learn how to use it here."
Now Wren couldn't keep the smile off his face. Maybe he felt like dancing after all. "I can do that."
"But," Victor said, raising a finger, "I'm only doing this because you said you were going to ask me for what you wanted. You need to let me make up my own mind, and if my answer's no, it's no."
Wren nodded. When I'm through with you, Victor, you won't even remember no was an option.