The Thousandth Floor

Page 81

Or really guilty about something.

Leda tucked the box away and moved back down the hall. But even after she crawled into bed, she couldn’t fall asleep. She felt anxious. She wished she could flicker Atlas, but it was the middle of the night and she didn’t want to seem crazy.

What’s the latest on Atlas? she wrote to Nadia instead, not really expecting to hear back right away.

Moments later, though, she got a reply. I have something now, actually.

Leda started reading, and felt immediately stunned. It seemed that Atlas had been in the Amazon for the last few months, working at some kind of wilderness lodge. Nadia had even attached a few aerial photos as proof, taken by what must have been passing satellites.

You hacked the State Department? Leda couldn’t help asking. These images could only have come from the government comm network.

I told you, I’m the best.

Leda lay there in bed, her eyes closed, muttering to her contacts as they projected one image after another for her. The guy in the photos was more deeply tanned, and he had the beginnings of a beard, but it was definitely Atlas.

She tossed back and forth, wishing she could fall asleep. Dark, twisted images from the nightmare flitted through her mind. The flicker to Ross was still projected on the inside of her eyelids. God, she wanted to send it.

Did anyone else ever feel this way, alone and frantic, haunted by a fear she couldn’t quite place? Did Avery? Leda doubted it. But part of her wondered if Atlas might understand. Maybe he had disappeared last year because he’d been running away from something too. Something big, if he had to go all the way to the rain forest to escape it.

Whatever it was, she wondered if Atlas had ever figured it out—or if his demons still chased him at night the way hers did.


WATT STOOD OUTSIDE Norton Harcrow Men’s Attire on the 951st floor, waiting impatiently for Avery.

Many social scientists find that nervousness can be reduced by rituals such as counting, especially while picturing an innocuous animal. For instance, sheep, Nadia projected onto his eyes.

I’m not nervous, Watt thought at her, irritated.

You happen to be exhibiting many physiological signs of nervousness: elevated heart rate, sweaty palms. A cartoon sheep overlaid his vision. Watt gave his head a shake to dissolve it.

Can you just be quiet unless I ask you a question? He self-consciously wiped his hands on the inside of his pockets as a hover pulled up, and Avery stepped out.

“Watt!” She tossed her waves of sunflower hair over one shoulder. She had on a simple white dress that showed off her lean, tanned body. A necklace of dark stones glittered distractingly at her neckline. “I’m so glad we’re doing this,” she said, leading him forward into the store.

“Thanks for coming with me,” he replied. “And for inviting me to the gala, of course.”

“We are talking about the same event, aren’t we?” she teased. “I mean, I feel kind of guilty for dragging you along. You know how these things can be.”

No, I don’t know. But I don’t care. You’ll be there. Watt was saved from replying as they passed straight through the solid wooden doors of the store, which, it turned out, weren’t solid wood at all but a location-based holo that shimmered and re-formed after they passed. He looked back over his shoulder and saw that the entrance had now shifted to resemble marble Greek columns. “How weirdly Ionic of them,” he remarked dryly, just as Avery sighed and said, “I love those doors.”

Watt felt a flash of guilt—he’d never insulted something that a girl cared about, Nadia always saved him from this kind of thing—but to his delight, Avery had started laughing at the pun. “I think those are Doric, but nice work,” she said with mock seriousness. “Eris and I are in art history this year, you know.”

“That must be torture for you and Eris, looking at lots of pretty things you’re not allowed to buy,” Watt ventured, and immediately worried he’d gone too far. He wasn’t accustomed to handling this kind of banter alone.

But Avery just laughed again. “You know, no one’s ever put it to me quite like that, but you might be onto something.”

“How’s Eris doing, by the way?” Watt asked, thinking of the party.

“I’m not sure, honestly,” Avery said. “She left school in the middle of the day today, which can’t be good, right?”

Watt wished he could offer to help, to look up where Eris had gone if that would calm Avery’s fears, but of course that was impossible.

As they walked through the store toward the formal section, salespeople at various counters nodded and murmured hellos to Avery, greeting her by name. “Everyone here seems to know you,” Watt said, a bit intimidated.

“I shop a lot.” Avery shrugged.

“It’s a men’s store,” Watt couldn’t help pointing out.

Avery smiled. “I know.”

He followed her past racks of brightly colored ties, belts and boxers and sleek briefcases, to a spacious area marked FORMAL. The walls and floor of this section were a stark industrial white, the space littered with leather chairs and small couches. Watt looked around but didn’t see any clothes.

“A little blinding in here, isn’t it?” he pointed out. The white was so bright he almost put his contacts on light-blocking.

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