“Your fake tree looks to be on its deathbed,” Tom told Blackburn.
“It’s older than you are, Raines. Show some respect.”
Older than he was . . .
Tom realized it then—Blackburn must’ve had it before. Before he went crazy, before he blew up his kids, before his wife clawed his face and left him. Tom tore his gaze away and saw something that made him feel even worse.
He and Vik had been at the Pentagon City Mall with Wyatt and Yuri while she looked for Blackburn’s Christmas present. Wyatt was a terrible gift giver, since she never guessed even remotely correctly what people wanted, and Tom and Vik didn’t help matters because it amused them to steer her clear of the nice pen Yuri suggested and toward a brilliant purple, lavender-scented candle that had little stars all over the base.
“Are you sure it’s not too girly?” Wyatt had asked them worriedly.
Tom and Vik had both kept straight faces as they nodded. Vik said, “Wyatt, all men like scented candles.”
“Yes. Scented candles are as manly as it gets,” Tom confirmed. “It’s the classic American Sunday: beer in hand, football on TV, and a scented candle burning nearby.”
“Not just in America. When I left my primary school, my father said, ‘Son, you are now a man,’ then he gave me a scented candle and told me how babies are made.” Vik fought to keep his lips from twitching. His voice was a bit strained as he pointed at the glass base. “Plus, the tiny stars will remind Blackburn of outer space. I think he’ll like that.”
That was good enough for Wyatt. She bought it for him. Unfortunately, this got them all scented candles for Christmas, but it had been worth it.
At the time.
Now Tom watched Blackburn rifle through a case in his bare apartment—that single, pathetic candle the only decoration in sight—and he felt like a scumbag. He still hadn’t even thanked him for Antarctica.
“Hey,” Tom tried. “Thanks for saving my life. And stuff.”
It wasn’t the best expression of gratitude ever. Blackburn didn’t seem to care. “I wasn’t going to let you die, you little fool. Now sit down. Let’s see if we can give you a sense of touch. This won’t be specific, Raines. You won’t distinguish between lukewarm and warm, but you’ll be able to feel a cold sensation and a heat sensation.”
Tom lowered himself into the seat, and Blackburn beckoned for him to prop his hands up on the table.
“This all depends on whether you’ve learned to distinguish between hot and cold, soft and sharp on your own. I need the neural associations firmly in place if I’m going to manipulate them.”
Tom nodded impatiently. “Yeah, cold is kind of this slow, vibrating feeling, and hot is this fast one. Sharp is this tiny bunch of pinpricks, soft is a spread-out bunch. I can tell.”
“Close your eyes.”
Tom closed them. Then Tom felt his fingers placed on something that prickled in a way he’d begun to identify as cold.
“What is this one?”
“Very good. Now we’ll substitute the electronic signal, fool your brain into thinking you feel cold like you used to. Keep your eyes closed.”
Code flickered across Tom’s closed eyelids, and his fingertips felt the cold—a terrible cold that throbbed right up his finger into his knuckles. He yelped and withdrew his hand, his eyes snapping open.
Blackburn raised his eyebrows at his reaction, and held up the thing Tom had been touching. An ice cube.
“That was too cold,” Tom said.
“You’re sensitized to it.”
“No, you set up the finger wrong. It felt way too cold.” He didn’t want to go on, but Blackburn thumped the table with his knuckles, so Tom reluctantly put his hands down again.
As Blackburn readied the next sensory test, he remarked, “I hope you’ve noticed that I haven’t pressed you about the situation with Joseph Vengerov.”
Tom tensed. “Yeah, I’ve noticed.”
“I know he wants something from you.”
Tom dragged his gaze up to Blackburn’s, uncertain how much he should say. Blackburn grew irritated. “There is no point in testing your senses if you keep opening your eyes. What do you know about my time?”
Tom closed his eyes. “Infinitely more valuable than mine.”
“What do you know? You do learn sometimes. Sharp or soft?”
Tom’s finger brushed something that felt like a tiny bunch of pinpricks. “Sharp.” When he opened his eyes, he confirmed it—it was the edge of a knife. He found himself staring at it. The words spilled out of him in a great rush. “Vengerov really would’ve killed me. Right? He would’ve done it. Just like that.”
“If he wanted to kill you,” Blackburn said, tapping on his forearm keyboard, “I wouldn’t have gotten to you in time. He was trying to scare you.”
“But he could have.” Tom grew agitated. “He could’ve done it. And he would’ve gotten away with it.”
“Of course. Think real hard: Who writes our laws?”
“And who do congressmen obey?”
“Trillionaires,” Tom said bitterly.
Blackburn nodded for him to touch the knife. Tom pressed too hard and felt a nip of sharpness. He raised his finger up, but it wasn’t bleeding like a real finger would. The skin was pink and almost plastic.
“My dad hates them all,” Tom said. “Joseph Vengerov, Reuben Lloyd, Sigurdur Vitol, all of them, but then he saw Vengerov in person over break, and he didn’t say anything to him. He looked scared of him. I didn’t get it then. But I think I do now. Vengerov could’ve done anything to us. If Dad gave him a problem, Vengerov could just knock him off. And he wouldn’t even get punished for it.”
“That’s the reality of a world ruled by money.” Blackburn pointed two fingers, and Tom remembered to shut his eyes again. “The divine right of kings can’t be used anymore to justify why some people are more equal than others, so now the law does it. The legal system is entirely controlled by money, yet it’s still hailed as a neutral instrument of justice. If you cross the law, you’re the sinner, and you deserve punishment—even if you’re not necessarily violating a universal human standard of right and wrong, you’re acting against the interests of the rich guy who paid a lot of money to make sure what you’re doing is illegal. Soft or sharp?”
A scattering of prickles played across Tom’s finger. “Soft.” And then code flickered before Tom’s eyes. He opened his eyes to see what he’d touched. A cotton ball.
“That’s why you have to tread lightly with men like Joseph Vengerov,” Blackburn added. “If you face an enemy vastly more powerful than you, your first task is to downplay yourself as a threat. You don’t show your face and protest him, you don’t talk about him to a friend, or even anonymously on the internet, because there is no anonymity in a surveillance state—just databases and watch lists. A smart person does nothing to reveal what he truly believes, because if he does, he’ll get neutralized before he can act on those beliefs. The deadliest enemy, Raines, is the totally silent one who acts alone and plans alone and wears a great big smile before his enemies. He’s just another face in the crowd until he’s slipped cyanide in a cup or plunged a dagger into a back. By the time anyone knows he’s a threat, it’s too late to stop him.”
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