“Hello?” Adams waited on the line. “Saggy?”
He put his palm up to his comm. It had been five minutes since Jimmy had responded. Normally Adams would’ve hung up by now, but when he strained really hard he swore he could hear faint breathing.
“Hello?” he tried again. Maybe Jimmy had accidentally switched the comm to one-way, in which case Adams would be able to hear Jimmy, but Jimmy wouldn’t be able to hear Adams. Adams sent a quick pulse. That should at least let Jimmy know to check.
Adams waited. Nothing.
He leaned back in his chair, his patent fiber suit making annoying stretching sounds as he went. It wasn’t like Jimmy to drop off like that. Maybe he'd lost signal. Adams tapped his fingers along the side of his head. Comms didn't lose signal like that though, not Outside at least. His drumming stopped. What if Jimmy wasn't Outside? It would make total sense. He'd gone ga-ga over that girl and he'd been acting weird ever since. Plus there was an SDZ at the site, and that would explain the comm signal dropping –
Adams cut the comm himself. If Jimmy was doing something bad right now, Adams couldn't risk being connected to him – not with everything going on with MB Davis now too.
He couldn’t believe it though. Did Jimmy really cross over? Was he with a Pure girl right now? Was that kid insane? Risking everything – his entire EIU career – for a crush? In all their years together, Adams had never heard Jimmy make a single comment about girls, and there was no doubt Adams had given him plenty of chances to do so. Jimmy had just never seemed all that interested. To be honest, Adams had always half suspected Jimmy was gay, especially with those two moms he had. He felt bad for thinking that.
Adams pulled up the EIU feed of crush girl and her companion running down the tunnel, right before the signal went out. He couldn’t see the girl’s face from this angle, hidden behind her black stringy hair. She looked kinda gross. Extending out from under her mini-skirt, her legs were skinny and pale. He didn’t think he’d ever seen legs that pale – they had to be a 1 or maybe even a -1 if there was a -1. Honestly, he didn’t see what the big deal was. If he ever got back through to Jimmy on the comm, he would tell him so.
“Hey,” Lisa said from behind, throwing a Nutri his way. “You’re back.”
“Ha, yeah,” Adams said, swiveling to face her. “Snuck back in while everyone was still on break.” He held the Nutri up. “Thanks.”
“Whatever,” Lisa replied, heading towards her monitor. “Did you hear they extended break? After the whole MB Davis fiasco… I guess the MB’s just need time to regroup. My bet is they're waiting to see what Shruti has to say when she comes out of faze. Everyone’s down in the caf talking about it. Pretty nuts.”
“Yeah! Yeah I heard… Pretty nuts.” Adams felt his palms getting sweaty. For an athlete, he wasn’t very good at keeping cool. What would happen when Shruti, the bathroom bystander, woke up? Faze only lasted four hours, and she'd already been out nearly three…
“So…” Lisa said, casually sliding into her chair. “You ready to tell me what all that was about earlier?”
“All what was about?” Adams said dumbly.
“Oh… you know…” Lisa drawled, “just how as soon as the alert went up, you bolted out of the room, disappeared for forever, and now happen to be back sitting calmly at your desk while everyone else is swapping conspiracy theories and trying to figure out how the hell she escaped…” She grabbed a jab and spun it innocently on her desk. “Any ideas about that Adams? How MB – sorry – civ Davis could have possibly escaped?”
Adams’ eyes stayed helplessly locked on hers as his right leg started to jitter up and down. He sucked at lying. He clenched her Nutri in his hand, feeling it turn soft and warm in its wrapper. He tried hard not to blink.
“No,” he said, voice hoarse and exposed. He cleared his throat. “No idea.”
“Mmhmm…” Lisa replied, playing along, “Right. No idea.” She grabbed the jab mid-spin and pointed it in his direction. “Then do you wanna tell me why there’s a picture of her stunner on your screen?”
Adams swiveled around. There, front and center, was the report he’d run on the mystery device. All thoughts of Lisa left his mind. The results were in. He scanned the text, leaning closer, not trusting what the small words seemed to say. But it was there all right, just as MB Davis had suspected. It was a flame, a portable device that could burn people without standard protocol or equipment. Nobody had this – nobody had even heard of it. He'd had to run it through seven databases – two of them heavily encrypted – to get a match. He rotated quickly through the device's print manifest, past his own profile, through MB Davis’s, to the end. A picture of a sharp, stunning woman sat staring at him. He read her name: ‘Jean Paltron.’
He had never seen or heard of this woman before in his life. He didn’t know who she was or what she did – all he knew was that she owned one of the most dangerous and illegal devices on the planet. And he had seen it used right in front of him. Looked like Shruti might not be waking up soon after all.
Jimmy held still. He couldn’t move now; it was too late for that. He was completely exposed. All he could do was stand still and hope that his dark alloy suit blended in with the grays of the room. Barb stayed crouched at his feet, frozen in place; he could feel her eyes on him. He breathed in carefully, letting his lungs fill with air as slowly and silently as possible.
Stuck in this standing position, Jimmy watched the new visitor through the glass. It wasn’t easy to tell if the person was a man or a woman. They had a petite figure and short, black crop-cut hair. They wore a white flapsuit with a blue tinted pleximask. They held a datatab so thin it looked like a sheet of paper made of glass.
And all they had to do was look up and Jimmy would be caught.
The visitor began walking slowly between the tanks, taking notes distractedly. How long had they been in the showroom while Jimmy and Barb had been arguing? And if they'd been in the room all along, how had they not heard them? How had they not seen them? Maybe the glass gave off a reflection from the tanks. Maybe it was a two-way mirror, and it was designed not to be seen through. They were on the Inside, after all, Jimmy thought, maybe they still used stuff like that. No way, he decided, looking again at the tab in his or her hand. Not with the rest of that stuff. Everything in that room looked Outside made. Including the visitor.
Whatever the explanation was, Jimmy decided, he wasn’t prepared to push his luck. He had to assume that both sound and light traveled through this window, and that the visitor might catch a glimpse of him any second now.
He needed a plan of action. He could wait until the visitor’s back was turned and quickly duck down to join Barb. If he ducked down though, the idea of having no visibility was unsettling to him. At least this way he could keep an eye on what the visitor was doing. Then again, if the visitor decided to turn on some lights, even inside the showroom, that could be the end of it. Jimmy was standing near enough to the glass that he would easily be seen.
As Jimmy weighed his options, the visitor continued his or her rounds through the tanks. At each tank they stopped and tapped methodically on their tab, as if they were taking inventory or making adjustments. The current tank they were stopped at was one Jimmy had been looking at before – it was the one with the pink and black things that looked something like a blend between cats and dogs. They had spots, and a curly tail… The visitor placed a small stack of three or four lenses on top of the tank, then shifted away.
Jimmy sensed movement by his feet. Without tilting his head, he used his peripheral vision to see that Barb was crawling away from him. What was she doing? Where was she going? Without moving his upper body, Jimmy frantically flicked his free hand for her to stop moving. He mentally begged her to stop. One wrong step, one loud sound and –
Barb slowly stood up on the far side of the window, out of frame. From here, she could make eye contact with him. Suddenly Jimmy felt less panicked – they were in this together. Barb looked amazingly calm. She gestured at him to wait, and then back up slowly. To get out of frame, it was closer to reach his side than hers. All he needed was the right moment.
A loud dragging sound came from inside the showroom. The visitor was pulling over a chair. Jimmy watched as he or she centered their chair directly behind the tank of chameleons, and sat down, facing right in his direction. Oh jesus. Jimmy could feel the back of his neck start to strain, and his arm, still held up to his ear, start to tremble. Well that settled one thing, he noted, the room wasn’t soundproof. And at this rate, they were going to be here for a while.
Jimmy’s comm pulsed. If he could have frozen more, he would have. His ear piece was dangling in plain view, hanging out of his chest pocket, right where he’d dropped it. One pulse made it vibrate and blink blue. One more and they would be discovered in moments. Without thinking, Jimmy dropped suddenly to his feet. He looked quickly at Barb who was still standing. Her mouth clammed up in shock; her eyelids flew open. Her body language screamed No! but as she checked quickly through the glass, she softened a bit. She held out her hand, telling him to wait – maybe the visitor was staring at the place right where he’d been, maybe they were boring a hole through the wall right where he crouched. Maybe they had X-ray vision. Jimmy quickly reached into his pocket and powered off his comm. He should’ve shut off the damn thing when it was getting low anyways. After what felt like an eternity, Barb’s hand folded and gestured him to scuttle backwards until he was finally out of frame from the window. He took a deep breath and let his neck rotate back. The pain in it was killing him. He could feel hot blood throbbing through it for the first time. He stood up, feeling pins and needles in the backs of his legs, watching Barb’s eyes the whole way. Now he was standing.
From this vantage point, Jimmy looked a lot smaller than Barb remembered. Not that she’d known him that long, but still – she couldn’t get over how young he looked. At least he was safe, no thanks to that annoying buzzer thing he was always talking into.
“Safe” – it felt ridiculous to even think the word. She had no idea where they were, still, and now instead of being with Dirth who she had somewhat trusted and who knew how to get them back home, she had followed this twelve year old through a godfucking labyrinth to who knows where. He didn’t even know what animals were!
Just her fucking luck she’d be dying right where Connor did, trying in some sick way to avenge him, and with what, the truth? But at the same time, it was weird – she wasn’t as scared as she knew she should be. Somewhere between the near escapes with Dirth, all the loud yelling robots, and now this dark creepy science lab, all the newness she was experiencing induced a weird surreal fantasy in her. It was like doing drugs with Sandy. Sandy. She supposed that was one person she should be scared of dying to live for. Barb reached under her jean jacket to feel the scratched scars on her wrist. She bit her lip. She should live. She should probably try to live.
Jimmy motioned for her to look through the window.
She looked in. The chick had taken off her visor. She was Asian.
Jimmy was taken aback. The visitor was a woman with 20 color hair and 2 color skin. It wasn’t her vision that struck him – although a week ago, it would’ve been – the EIU cleanup had introduced him to all kinds of new people. It was her face. Her actual features. She was familiar to him.