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©2019 by Alanna Peterson. All rights reserved.

Chapter Fourteen

Friday June 19

Even now, days later, the words haunted Cyrus. They're lying to you. All of you.

 

After he'd first read the message, he tried replying, to no avail. And as soon as he closed it, it vanished from his post box as if it had never existed. That left him wondering if he'd imagined it in the first place. Or maybe it was just part of the game. There wasn't much to lie about in NutrexoWorld, though, unless Lord HiFi was being dishonest about the going rate for Blazin Bitz. But it didn't make sense that someone—an Elite, no less—would bother warning him about a trifle like that.  

 

No, the message meant something else. He kept logging on with the hope that he'd find another note explaining further, but his post box remained empty.

 

This annoyed Cyrus. He'd been sent one cryptic and unhelpful message by an anonymous informant—but what was he supposed to do with that information? He wasn't about to confront Dr. Snyder; he hadn't seen her since she drew his blood two days ago. He thought about asking Erika, but couldn't figure out what to say. So, I was playing this game—yeah, one I'm not supposed to have access to—and someone said you were lying to me? And hinted that the others might be here too? Care to enlighten me as to what's really going on?

 

The weirdest thing about it was that the longer he was here, the less he cared. Thinking about the protest, and all the other things he could not remember, always made him vaguely uncomfortable. Yet he couldn't bring himself to feel as upset as he probably should. 

 

So he played for a few more days, hoping to figure out why someone had given him access to this game, and what they were trying to tell him. He certainly couldn't ask any of the players. He didn't know who any of them were in real life, and if the Elites were listening to every word, he couldn't risk saying anything that would tip Erika off to his identity.

 

Bitz-picking quickly grew tiresome, but Cyrus managed to secure a spot in the estate’s kitchens. He began in the lowliest job, the rat slayer who kept plague-infested rodents from devouring all the food. When given a chance at cooking, though, he proved to be as good at creating virtual meals as he was the more tangible kind. Of course, it was much easier; all the food was made with Nutrexo-brand food mixes, and besides, it only had to look edible. 

 

Then, the previous night, an epiphany had come. He had finished a successful shift in the kitchen, which he'd started by killing a record number of rats and finished by baking a five-layer cake that received perfect scores from Lord HiFi. Afterward, he wandered through the fields of NutrexoWorld, circling the FireWall yet again, wishing that some non-Erika Elite would come out to explain everything. No one did, but when he stared out at the horizon he noticed something that made him drop his video game controller.

 

It wasn't much: just a tall, white grain silo.

 

A silo.

 

He felt like a complete idiot.

 

Cyrus hadn't really stopped to consider the possibility he was at SILO; everything that happened with Dr. Snyder the day of the protest had seemed totally disconnected from what he and Andi were investigating. But when he thought about it now, it made perfect sense. The food, the blood draw, the mysterious lack of answers... it had top-secret research project written all over it. 

 

So had they all been taken here? Naveed, Roya, Andi too? There was no way his parents—or Andi's—would agree to that; they must be looking for him. 

 

But no one had rescued him yet. He didn't want to speculate about why that might be, so he gave himself a new mission to keep his mind off the unpleasant possibilities.

 

He was going to breach the FireWall.

 

All this time, he'd been respectful of the boundaries within the game, determined not to cause any trouble after his last attempt at hacking. Now, it was time to stop holding back.

 

He poked into every corner of the game, and eventually hit gold: he managed to open up the source code.

 

While this was thrilling, he didn't know where to start. It was written in a programming language he didn't know very well, so first he had to piece together the basic commands, the syntax rules. Plus, he only had his video game controller to work with, so any new code would have to be written by selecting each letter on the on-screen keyboard. It made him tired just thinking about it.

 

At first he hoped to get online, so he could contact his parents. But by examining the code, he determined his game was connected to the others only through a local computer network, not via the internet. So much for that idea.  

 

As he clicked through the endless files, he began to wonder how Elites were able to watch characters and read their conversations. He found his answer in a subfolder called “Monitoring,” and had to stop himself from cheering out loud: system administrators could observe the game without appearing onscreen, and the code was right there for the taking.  

 

An invisibility potion. Perfect.

 

By then, it was well past midnight, and the only NutrexoWorld creatures stirring were the plague-ridden rats. Cyrus could barely keep his eyes open, and the code was starting to bleed together, so he told himself he'd take a nap. Just for a few minutes.

 

But when he awoke, Erika was setting his breakfast on the coffee table and replenishing his Blazin Bitz stash. Cyrus, thankful he'd had the foresight to turn off the TV, waited until she was gone before logging in to NutrexoWorld.

 

He showed up ten minutes late for his Friday morning kitchen shift. The head cook was not happy, but didn't have much time to scold him, because they had to go upstairs for a mandatory meeting with Lord HiFi. 

 

Cyrus spotted WindWhisperer in HiFi’s parlor, and peeked at her chest as he typed hello. The room was packed—it seemed that all of Nutrexington was there. 

 

Lord HiFi entered and addressed the crowd. “As you may know, King Richard recently issued a new decree: he wishes to cut down the orchard and cover this land with corn. His Elites have counseled that cows fed corn will grow fatter sooner, and the Elites also can turn corn into fuel. He dreams of bringing the automobile to this kingdom, and connecting Nutrexington to Northwood and Southport, so that the entire kingdom can be traversed in a day.”

 

A woman identified as Joules turned to Cyrus and WindWhisperer. “Think of it! All the way to Southport in a single day. I’d be able to visit my family on the weekends!” 

 

HiFi continued, “We must not let this happen.” 

 

No one wrote a word.

 

“For centuries, this land has provided for us,” he went on. “If we allow the magnificent Bitz-trees to be cut down, these fields will feed automobiles instead of us. Automobiles that we don’t need! Our horses have served us well. And cows do not want to eat corn; they are suited for eating grass. A diet of corn will make them unhealthy. We do not want to eat meat from unhealthy animals! And we should not be forced into dependence on other fiefs just to suit the whim of the king. I intend to fight for our orchard, for our way of life. If you do not care to join me, I ask you to please leave now. Those who stay are willing to fight.”

 

Joules wrote, “Easy for him to say. Of course he wants everything to stay like it is. He’s a landowner.” She turned and left, but Cyrus stayed, along with WindWhisperer and a handful of others.

 

HiFi could not look dismayed; he always had the same expression. Instead, he wrote, “I am disappointed that more did not stay. But all of you shall be rewarded for your loyalty.”

 

“We’re with you. What’s the plan?” asked Cyrus.

 

“All I want is to have a chat with King Richard, but he has turned down my requests to meet him. That leaves us one option. Form an army, and lay siege to the castle.”

 

Cyrus wondered if HiFi knew the Elites were monitoring this conversation. It was an impossible task. How were they supposed to attack an enemy that knew their every move? 

 

“I've given each of you 100 extra coins to purchase weapons and armor. Now, go forth. Spread the word.” Cyrus was about to follow WindWhisperer out the door, thinking he'd head over to the blacksmith's to snag the battle ax he'd had his eye on, but Lord HiFi stopped him.

 

“On a completely unrelated note, I have another job for you,” HiFi wrote.

 

“How can I be of service?” Cyrus asked.

 

“Today is Sir James' birthday, and I would like to send him a cake. I trust you can create a work of art for him?”

 

“Oh, yes, sir. Any special requests?” Cyrus was hoping HiFi would give him some guidance; he wasn't sure whether he was expected to poison the cake, or add a little rat blood or something. 

 

But all Lord HiFi wrote was, “No. But bring it through the parlor on your way out. I'd like to see it before you deliver it to the Iron Gate.”

 

So Cyrus spent the next hour baking and decorating the cake. He wanted to get back to the code, but he knew the head cook would fire him—or at least confiscate his battle ax money—if he stood motionless in the kitchen instead of scrubbing dishes while the cake was in the oven. Even as he worked, though, he was thinking hard, coming up with a plan.

 

Finally, the cake was ready, and Cyrus carried it to the parlor. The butler hurried off to fetch Lord HiFi, who entered holding four sticks of dynamite. He didn’t say a word as he pushed them into the cake, so that only the tips of their fuses stuck out, like birthday candles. Zounds! Cyrus thought, but knew better than to exclaim anything in the chat box. He wondered if an Elite was observing the scene.

 

Lord HiFi wrote, “’Tis a beautiful cake. Now, off to the Iron Gate with ye. An Elite will meet you there. Make haste.” 

 

While Cyrus respected Lord HiFi’s boldness, he was also slightly annoyed at this unexpected development. There wasn’t much he could do about it now, though. He’d established himself as being aligned with HiFi, so removing the dynamite would be out of character and potentially suspicious. It was very important that he act normally.

 

When he arrived at the FireWall and approached the Iron Gate, a woman was waiting. She wore a red cloak, the standard dress code for Elites. Cyrus bowed while balancing the cake, which might have ended messily in real life, but was easily accomplished in the game. 

 

“Thank you,” the woman wrote, and Cyrus inhaled sharply when he read her name.

 

Lady Erika.

 

He was tempted to run away, abandon his plans, return to the kitchens and cower in a corner. But he stopped himself. Act normal. Act normal.

 

“You’re welcome,” he responded, turning to leave. Now was his chance: he took a deep breath as he pulled up the source code at the bottom of his screen, and was about to execute the invisibility program when Lady Erika spoke again.

 

“Wait. I have something to tell you,” she wrote. 

 

He braced himself. This was it; she must know what he was up to.

 

But what she wrote was unexpected. “I want you to know that my loyalties lie with King Richard, and they always will.” The words lingered on the screen long enough that he was about to prompt her to go on, but then she began typing again. “So I need you to deliver a message to your Lord. Do not rise up against the king. If you do, there will be consequences.”

 

Cyrus was glad she couldn’t see his real eyes staring at the dynamite-filled cake. He hoped HiFi knew what he was getting into. 

 

“I'll deliver the message,” he wrote.

 

“And make sure you check your post,” Lady Erika added. “Thank you for delivering the cake. Good day.”  

 

Cyrus had been so busy he hadn't checked his post yet, but there was no time for that now; Erika was carrying the cake to the gate. He bowed and wrote, “Good day, m’lady,” before walking away. When he'd put enough distance between them, he pulled up the code and ran the program.

 

It worked as he'd expected: his avatar vanished from the screen. The Iron Gate groaned open as Erika entered, turning around to make sure Cyrus hadn’t followed. She apparently saw no one, even though he slipped through the gate before it slid shut. 

 

Once inside the stone walls of the castle, he followed invisibly as she walked through a long hall lined with a series of doors, stopping at the one marked Erika Sinclair. She set the cake on the desk next to a stack of leather-bound books and sat in front of a computer.  

 

Cyrus didn't pay much attention to what she was doing at first, because he was too busy pulling up his post. Sure enough, there was a new scroll from his informant—Erika, he now suspected. It was brief: I'm trying to help, so hang in there, okay? And don't worry about the girls. The girls are fine.

 

He read it over several times, memorizing the words, knowing that it would self-destruct once he closed it. At least this message was more straightforward than the last, but something about it was still unsettling. 

 

The girls. That's what it was, the repetition of that phrase. The girls are fine. So both Andi and Roya were here, and they were okay, but... what about Naveed? 

 

Two possibilities came to mind. Either Naveed wasn't here, or he wasn't fine.

 

Cyrus couldn't think about that now; he needed to pay attention to the game. This wasn't easy, not while he was fitting all the pieces together: Erika knew he was playing the game; she must have sent the messages; maybe she had given him access in the first place; she was trying to help somehow.

 

He closed his post and found himself staring at Erika's computer again. It wasn't a blank, generic screen, though; tiny icons for documents and folders were scattered across the desktop, and an email program was open. Cyrus could hardly believe it—he seemed to have stumbled across a window into Erika's actual work computer. A computer that was almost certainly connected to the internet.

 

Erika was clicking on a new message she'd just received from Tara Snyder. Cyrus read over her avatar's shoulder as she pulled it up.

 

Erika, we’ll need to move our lab meeting. I have some urgent experiments to conduct and can’t make it this morning. 2pm tomorrow in the library—my office is a mess right now.

 

Erika began typing a reply. Cyrus took off his glasses and rubbed his bleary eyes in disbelief, but the words were still there when he put them back on. 

 

Urgent experiments? WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO HIM, YOU PSYCHO???

 

Then Cyrus watched them disappear, letter by letter, as she deleted the reply. 

 

He felt uncomfortably warm, as if surrounded by a strange, blinding light. He wanted to shield his eyes, but hiding from it wouldn’t make it go away.

 

Shit. So Naveed wasn’t fine—he was in trouble.

 

A man identified as CliffEastman knocked on Erika’s office door. “You got the cake? Good—James is already in the courtyard.”

 

“He is? I’ll be right there.” She fired off a terse reply to Dr. Snyder (“OK, see you then”) before lifting up the cake. Cyrus, still dazed, decided to follow her. He was tempted to see if he could poke around on her computer, but needed a minute to think first. He could always come back while everyone was distracted by exploding cake. 

 

They entered the courtyard through an archway covered in vines. A blue pond filled much of the space; a flower-lined path circled its perimeter, and a series of stepping stones led to a white gazebo on a small island. Erika crossed the stones and set the cake down on the table. 

 

Several other red-cloaked Elites gathered in the gazebo, pouring drinks. “Sir” James, dark-skinned and broad-shouldered, wore a party hat atop his cloak hood.

 

“Ah, here’s the cake!” James wrote. “Looks like Lord HiFi wanted to give me a little present.” He pulled out the sticks of dynamite, and the chat box filled with Jolly!s from the other party guests. “Isn’t that cute? The old ‘explosive cake’ trick.”

 

“Wait a sec, I’m behind on what’s happening in the advergame,” Cliff wrote. “So the peasants are getting restless? Killing rats and fighting bandits isn’t enough to keep them entertained?”

 

“Apparently not,” James replied as he sliced the cake. “We’ll need more combat when we release the commercial version. Maybe we'll have another country declare war. Evil King Hannigan has a nice ring to it.” 

 

“Love it!” Cliff wrote. “But what are you going to do with Lord HiFi?”

 

“Oh, I’ll let him have his rebellious fun for a while. Then we’ll show him what happens when he messes with King Richard.” James ate his cake. “Mmm, this is the best virtual cake I've ever pretended to eat. Truly dynamite.” 

 

There were more Jolly!s. James continued, “Seriously, though, I think this guy's getting too into the game. He's one of my research subjects, and he's been playing nonstop. Think I'll cut him off for a few hours later today. Make him do something else for a while.” 

 

A woman identified as Katherine asked, “So how's everything going with the study, James?” 

 

“It's okay—I've been trying for weeks to get more subjects, but a few days ago Tara decided not to enroll anyone else. So after these two are done, I'll be closing up shop. It'll be so nice to get back to the city again. I'm sick of this place. Thank God you built this remote desktop system into the game, Cliff. Without it I'd probably go insane alone out here.”

 

“Hey, I'm still around,” Erika wrote.

 

“Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. I never see you anymore. What have you been working on with Tara? She keeping you busy?”

 

“Yes,” was all Erika wrote.

 

“Did you tell her about my party?”

 

“No. She wouldn't show up anyway,” Erika wrote. “She’s running an experiment this morning.”

 

“Good,” James replied. “Because, Cliff, I've been dying to know if you've talked to Scott. Strange that his transfer to Boston was so sudden. He was here for that whole security breach mess on Friday and didn’t say a word about leaving. Then on Monday he was gone. Do you think Tara tried to blame it on him or something? I mean, she and I have had our moments... just wondering if he told you anything.”    

 

“No. I was hoping you guys knew more about what’s going on. He hasn't come in to the office this whole week. Sounds like his daughter's a total wreck.”

 

“So sad. Can't blame her, after what happened to her boyfriend,” Katherine wrote.

 

“I know, those poor kids. It’s all anyone can talk about, even here on the other side of the country.” 

 

Whoa, hold up, Cyrus thought, as he experienced yet another surreal insight. Brooke had gone to Boston, and her dad’s name was Scott, and he worked for Nutrexo. The “poor kids” must be the four of them—but didn't these people know they were right here at SILO? Well, one person knew for sure. But Erika sat motionless against a white pillar, silent and placid as the blue water stretching behind her. 

 

“I met the boys once, at a Christmas party,” Katherine was writing. “James, do you remember that? The year we had dinner at Canlis?”

 

“Vaguely,” he replied.

 

“I didn’t know Mahnaz—we never worked together—but I was seated at their table that night. She brought the boys with her, and they were dressed up in these little suits. God, it was adorable. I asked Naveed what he was learning in kindergarten, and he started to tell us a fairy tale. Hansel and Gretel, I think. Everyone was so captivated that no one noticed Cyrus had disappeared until after the story was over. Mahnaz called to him, and Sam got up to look around, but then Cyrus popped out from under the table, threw his suit into the air and streaked across the room shouting, ‘I’m NAKED!’ Mahnaz was mortified. They didn’t stay much longer.”

 

“Oh yeah, I do remember that! It was hilarious,” James wrote.

 

“I can’t get my mind off of it. Those little boys. Those tiny suits.” There was a pause, and then she wrote, “Sorry, guys, got to go. Ellie woke up from her nap. I’ll sign back on in a few hours.” 

 

That was as much as Cyrus could take; he turned his back on the birthday party and retraced his steps to Erika’s virtual office. Maybe it was for the best that he’d never heard this story before; he didn’t want Maman trotting it out when he inevitably started bringing girlfriends home. But, to his mind, its omission from the annals of amusing family anecdotes could only mean one thing: he had always been an embarrassment to his mother.

 

Now was his opportunity to prove himself, to be the hero for once. At Erika’s desk, he was pleased to see that she'd left her computer unlocked, and that he was able to manipulate it. Another permission bestowed by that monitoring code, maybe. He opened a web browser, intending to log on to his email and contact his parents, but it took forever to load the homepage. While he waited, a new message appeared in her inbox with the subject line, “Urgent: draft of slides for board mtg.” 

 

Erika, I reviewed the slides. They still need some work; see notes in the attached file.

 

An older message in the thread, sent by Dr. Snyder on Wednesday night, explained further. 

 

Erika, I need you to compile the tables and draft the slides for the board meeting. It’s on Mon at 10am—please send them to me by tomorrow night so I have time to review.

 

Cyrus opened the file, scanning through the slides, trying to stuff more information into his already-crammed head. He wanted a copy to look back on later, so he forwarded the message to an anonymous email account he’d created back when he and Dev had fancied themselves hackers, then permanently deleted it from Erika's sent items and marked the original message as unread to cover his tracks.

 

The browser homepage still hadn’t loaded, so he gave up and started a new message in Erika’s email program. He had just typed in his parents’ email addresses—which, in typical boring parent fashion, were their full names—and the subject line (HELP!) when a red-cloaked figure entered the office.

 

Erika was back.

 

He closed the message and logged out of the game, but it was too late. She had seen the email composing itself on her computer screen, and it wouldn’t take long to figure out who’d written it.

 

Cyrus reached for a handful of Blazin Bitz, because that was his reflex now. This time, though, he let the chips fall back into the bowl. He wasn’t hungry at all. 

 

He couldn’t go back; the game had distracted him too long, and it was no longer safe there. Erika might have been sympathetic before, but she would no doubt be angry at him for breaching the FireWall. And even if she still wanted to help him, whatever she was doing wasn't working fast enough. 

 

It was time to go. He had to figure out how to escape. 

 

And, apparently, he had to save his brother.

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