After spending the morning with Harmony and then working three shifts, James expected to touch the pillow and fall dead asleep. But his brain wouldn't shut off.
By the time dawn was breaking, everything tied together. Almost.
He got out of bed and went to work like a zombie on autopilot. When his shifts were over, he called Donald.
"Another." Donald motioned to the bartender. "And for this guy, too," he said, with a nod toward James. "He won't drink till they're pilin up."
James waited for the bartender to move out of earshot before saying, "I'm surprised how fast everything wrapped up."
"Those NSA sobs don't fuck around. I should know. And everybody loves a terror plot, 'specially if it gets crushed by the good guys."
"What good guys?"
Donald held his beer to the light with a critical eye. "Made up ones. FBI this time. Nobody likes a story without some damn good guys."
James finally tasted the beer. Frosty cold, and his brain told him it was good, but he couldn't feel anything. "I want to ask something," he said.
"Actually, a couple of things. First, Sara and the squirrel. You were humanizing her, weren't you?"
"You got it." Donald tapped a ditty on the surface of the bar. "Bringin her up right, you know? Daisy was too cold, Kana was too ... warm. Sara was s'posed to be the middle somewhere. So she could do what she had to and not take it personal, but still feel somethin."
James nodded. "Why did you bring me into Shattered Land? Why introduce me to Kanade?" He picked up his beer and drank deeply. "How much did you expect?"
"You ain't gonna like this," Donald said, and drank as well. "But I didn't even fuckin think about it. Just figured you'd need a distraction, had a hunch you and Kana might get along. Thought she could use a real guy friend. To me she was a daughter, even if it sounds fuckin stupid. Just wanted her to live a real life for a while. And you, too." Donald put down his beer and sat back on his stool, burly arms hanging toward the ground. "If you want an apology, you got it. I'm sorry, man. I'm sorry."
James found himself laughing, a ragged burst, though nothing was funny. "I don't want an apology. I stole your data, investigated behind your back, sided with people trying to bring you down. All you did was—"
"Okay, alright," Donald said, making a face. "Call it even, yeah?"
They drank in silence for a while. No matter how much alcohol entered his system, James didn't feel any better.
"Somethin else?" Donald said. "You got that look like you ate a bad oyster."
James took a huge gulp of beer and then pushed the glass away. "How did Daisy break the restriction you were controlling her with?"
Donald looked at the wall. The sounds of the bar briefly took over. Pool balls scattering. Sports highlights blaring. French fries sizzling in the kitchen.
"Want me to tell you what I think?" James said.
"Whatever." Donald picked up his beer and held it in his hand.
"I don't think she broke the restriction."
"Then how'd she do all that shit?"
"You told her to."
In the back of the room, somebody slammed the 8-ball into a pocket and hooted in triumph. From the mixture of cheers and jeers, a tournament was on. James listened without hearing as he watched his friend's expression travel a dozen variations before settling on weary to the bone.
"I thought about tellin you," Donald said.
"Why didn't you?"
"Figured you'd be happier not knowin." Donald put his glass on the table, rolling it between his palms, watching amber liquid funnel up the sides. "How'd you figure it out?"
James rubbed his eyes. A team of fairies had transported an entire Florida beach into them, bucket by bucket. "You were too calm. First, I thought it was fatalism. Then I thought you had gone Executive. Then I realized you just weren't worried."
James took a breath, held it in, slowly let it out. "Dwyer was crushed so easily because Daisy knew about him all along. August broke the firewall because Daisy let her in. Sara freed the hostages because Daisy let her have them. The helicopter crashed because Daisy meant it to. You defeated the info bombs because they were never intended to go off. Brilliant acting, when you called for help. But you went ballistic when you realized Kanade was..." James had to close his eyes, clear his throat, and start again. "You yelled at Daisy. You ordered her to stop. But it was too late." He took another slow breath, let it out even slower. "We were dancing in her palm."
Donald rubbed his face with both hands. "Too smart for your own good. Again."
"What I don't understand is why."
Donald's eyes were looking at the wall, but seeing something only he could see. "Three years ago. Iran. I watched that shit on TV every day for a week." He closed his eyes. "A fuckin massacre. And I let 'em do it." His hands gripped the edge of his stool so hard his knuckles cracked. "I said to Daisy, we gotta stop this. Somehow. We gotta fuckin stop this. But I had conditions. One: make sure they couldn't trace the order to me. They'da killed everyone, you, Dawn, my old man ... everyone. Two: do it so they wouldn't shut down Shattered Land. Couldn't let all the AIs disappear. Three: do it without hurtin humans." Donald chuckled at that, a sound devoid of humor.
"She worked on it. Three years. I watched all those countries bite the fuckin dust. Couldn't tell her to speed up or she'd have to break the conditions." Donald's hand curled into a violent fist that went nowhere. "Not Daisy's fault. I fucked up. Royally. I told her, don't hurt any humans. Then I screamed myself bloody, but like you said. Too fuckin late." He chuckled again, a sound riding the thin edge of sanity. "You wanna know how evil I am? I'd go back. I wouldn't trade Kana to save a few countries full of assholes I never met."
"It wasn't your fault," James said.
Donald closed his eyes. "I killed Kana. I killed her."
"No." James shook his head. "She knew. Of course she knew. Why do you think she was so prepared? And Daisy, too. To them, it was worth it to break the project and set the AIs free. They did it for a dream."
Donald's head sank into his hands. Drops fell from his eyes, mixing with trails of foamy beer on the bar, the first time James had ever seen him cry.
"I thought you'd blame me. I didn't wanna hurt you anymore, man. That's why I didn't tell. But I wanted to. To say I'm fuckin sorry."
"Kanade wouldn't want me to blame you. Or you to blame yourself."
"Damn that girl." Donald beat his fist against his leg, not hard, but heavy with sorrow. "She's got guts, bein the only one who'd be happy about how she went out."
"She was special," James said, seeing that smile in his mind, brighter than all the stars in the sky. "More human than anyone."
Donald wiped his eyes. Then he picked up his glass and motioned James to do the same. "I'll drink to that."
YOU ARE READING
No Life to LoseMystery / Thriller
James Kirkpatrick's difficult life leads him to take solace in virtual reality—a momentary peace soon shattered by mystery, intrigue, and unseen forces bent on plunging the world into chaos. An epic tale of love, loss, and the boundless influence of...