“Spill it, kid.”

The words had barely come out of her mouth when the house rocked with a gunshot in the kitchen. They heard a woman’s scream, followed by the clanging of pots falling to the floor and the loud cracks of dishes breaking. Then the gun fired again. This time no one made a sound.

Sarah was up off the couch, moving before Michael could grab her. She was across the room, heading for the kitchen, Michael on her heels.

“Sarah, stop!” he yelled. “Stop!”

She didn’t even slow down. Michael imagined someone waiting for her, gun loaded, ready to kill. He tried to catch her, but she was too far ahead. He slipped into the hallway, ran toward the kitchen. Sarah stood frozen just past the doorway. His heart lurched: he was expecting another gunshot. Expecting his world to crumble in front of him.

But nothing happened.

He threw his arms around his friend, pulling her back several steps. Then he saw what she saw. The kitchen was a disaster—drawers and cupboards thrown open, pots and pans everywhere, broken dishes scattered across the tile. The back door had been rammed open and hung crookedly on one hinge, swaying slightly. And there was blood. Not much, but it was definitely blood.

Her parents were gone.

Sarah trembled, raised her hands to cover her mouth. But she didn’t make a sound. Michael ran into the backyard—a wide patio and a lawn with a few small trees—and looked around but didn’t see anyone. He went back in, found Sarah, tried to pulled her into his arms. But she resisted. Instead of being wet with tears, her face had reddened with anger.

“What …,” she started to say, but didn’t finish. Michael felt just as speechless.

He searched the kitchen for clues. On a granite island in the middle, in a clearing in the debris, lay Sarah’s father’s gun. It looked as if it had been placed there deliberately, on top of an envelope. The envelope seemed so foreign—people hardly used paper anymore. Michael was sure there was something horrible written inside; he just knew it.

“They left a note,” he whispered to Sarah.

“What?” she asked, understandably dazed. “Where?”

He pointed and she grabbed it.

It was as if they’d been shifted back into the Sleep, immersed in a VirtNet game. Sarah seemed to be moving in slow motion as she picked up the envelope, tore it open. Even the words of the NewsBop anchorwoman seemed warped as they echoed down the hallway. Michael’s vision blurred as he stared at Sarah’s hands, removing the message.

She unfolded the paper and scanned it quickly. Then she looked up at Michael, tears welling in her eyes.

“What does it say?” he heard himself ask. His voice sounded like it was coming through a tunnel—it seemed barely louder than the anchorwoman’s. He couldn’t focus on anything, and there was an odd ringing in his ears.

Sarah had gone even paler. She looked down at the paper again and read the words aloud.

“This is your last warning. Never again doubt the consequences of disobedience. Obey, and they live. Disobey, and they die. Help me, Michael, and live forever.”

Michael’s heart sank. Now his problems had spilled over into Sarah’s life, jeopardizing her parents. Kaine was insane. He was totally, utterly insane. He’d taken—and probably hurt—Sarah’s parents just to prove he could. To ensure he’d get what he wanted.

But something was off. The NewsBop lady’s voice hit him in waves. It took a few moments until what she was saying finally sank in, a light piercing the fog of his jumbled mind.

“Oh no,” he whispered. “No.” How could everything have fallen apart so suddenly?

“What?” Sarah asked, the look on her face reflecting the terror Michael felt.

Without answering, Michael turned and left the kitchen, following the anchorwoman’s voice to the living room, where the HoloProj still broadcast its images onto the wall. He didn’t want Sarah to see, didn’t want what he’d heard to be true, but there just wasn’t a choice. Sarah was already beside him, staring at the screen.

A huge picture of Jackson Porter filled half the wall.

Jackson Porter. Also known as Michael.

Words scrawled across the bottom talking about a nationwide manhunt for the missing teenager, wanted for crimes related to cyber-terrorism. A large monetary reward for anyone with information.

He turned to look at Sarah, and the look on her face broke his heart.

“I can explain.”

How many times had he heard someone say that in the movies? He might as well admit guilt. Sarah’s expression didn’t change. Michael figured he had ten seconds before she pulled up her NetScreen and called every official authorized to carry a gun within a hundred miles. Or worse, she might attack him herself.

“The Mortality Doctrine,” he said. “I was just about to tell you. It’s Kaine. He did this to me. To that kid, Jackson Porter.” He pointed at the wall, but the NewsBop had finally moved on to another story, mercifully removing his face from the enormous screen.

“What are you talking about?” Sarah responded. At least she’d stayed.

“Look …” He searched for the words to begin his story. “Can we sit?”

“My parents are gone!”

Michael knew he was about to lose her. “I know, I know.” He could see how upset she was and wanted to touch her, to connect with her somehow.

Before he could, though, she turned from him and walked away, reaching up to squeeze her EarCuff. Over her shoulder, she said, “For all I know, you distracted me so one of your buddies could kidnap them. Next you’ll be asking for ransom. I’m calling the cops.”

“I was a Tangent, Sarah.”

She stopped in the doorway. Her NetScreen hovered in front of her, illuminating the hallway with an eerie green glow. With a few swipes of her fingers she’d already reported her parents’ abduction. Hopefully, just the abduction. She had to do it; he knew that. But he also knew he couldn’t be around when the authorities showed up.

She finally faced him again. “Okay. I don’t know what’s going on, but I know that you’re Michael. You better go before the police arrest you. Obviously I won’t tell them you were here.”

Michael desperately wanted her to understand. “It’s what Kaine was doing. He lured Tangents to find him, setting it all up so he could find the best programs for his experiment. I think he even duped the VNS. I passed the test, and somehow he transferred my … whatever you wanna call it. He put me in the body of this guy. Jackson Porter. He killed him. I killed him, Sarah. I … stole him.”