Gabriela’s face had frozen, her lower lip trembling—Michael couldn’t tell if it was out of sadness or anger. Her expression changed several times, remaining impossible to read. The moment stretched out as she stared him down with those piercing dark eyes. Then she stood up.
“Just how …,” she began, then stopped. She pinched the bridge of her nose, took a deep breath. “Just how stupid do you think I am? How can you … how can you be such a coward to lie to me like this? I’m not going to sit here and beg for the truth. I can’t believe I risked being grounded for the rest of my life to come chasing you. Good. Bye. You need serious help.”
She gave him a long, sad look, but try as he might, he couldn’t find a response. Mostly, he just wanted her to walk out the door and never come back. But then, a part of him …
“Have a nice life, Jax,” she said, so calmly that it stung. “You want to act all crazy—run and hide, pretend whatever—fine. I’ll be there for you when you finally see a doctor and get some meds.” She shook her head and walked toward the door. “I need to go to Atlanta to see my dad. He’s sick, and I thought you would care, but just forget it.”
Michael was suddenly on his feet. “Wait! Just … wait.”
She turned and looked at him, her expression blank.
“How could I possibly make that story up?” he asked. “You … you even said when you came here … that you could tell I wasn’t Jackson.”
She laughed bitterly. “I meant that, I don’t know, metaphorically, for God’s sake. Something is wrong with you. You’re not the Jax I know. You really expect me to believe someone switched your brain with someone else’s? How can you even go there when my dad …” She stopped and whipped around, opened the door.
“Your dad what?” Michael shouted.
She didn’t answer, stepped out into the hallway. Started pulling the door shut.
“Your dad what?” Michael yelled again.
But the door slammed so hard it shook the room, and she was gone.
He thought about chasing her, but how could he? As guilty as he was of hurting Gabriela, how could he possibly put that ahead of finding his friends? He needed to figure out his own life. Get back into the Sleep. Find out if his family still existed in the artificial world.
He remembered why he was in that hotel in the first place. In another city.
She came to him two days later.
It was an excruciating wait. He almost went crazy, but he was too nervous to leave, and he didn’t want to enter the Sleep until Sarah could do it with him. Especially since the three-day ultimatum from Kaine’s messenger on the train—the lady who’d jumped to her death—came and went as he hid in anonymity.
He sent Sarah several encrypted messages during the wait, using a trail of clues about places they’d been in the VirtNet to lead her to his new hotel. Then he paced his room, trying not to worry that she’d decided not to come. Or that something had happened to her. Or that Kaine had caught up with them. Sarah would have to take care of things with the police, deal with family—not to mention how insanely upset she must have been. But his stomach didn’t care about all that. Until she knocked on his door, he was sick.
And then there she was.
“I’m really sorry, Sarah.”
It was all he could say. He sat on the edge of the bed, she on the chair by the desk. They’d shared a long, silent hug, and once he did speak, the words felt laughably inadequate.
“Michael …” She paused, and he suddenly wished she wouldn’t say anything. He wished he’d never gone to look for her, though he couldn’t imagine what he’d do without her.
“Look,” she said. “I have to believe my parents are alive. And, well … and that the police will find them. I have to. Plus … our lives got flushed a long time before this happened. It’s not your fault.”
Michael burst out in a huge laugh before he could stop himself. “Yeah, right. It’s totally my fault! I’m the one who dragged you and Bryson into this mess.”
Sarah let out a grunt of frustration. “That’s exactly the opposite of the point I’m trying to make. Bryson and I could’ve easily said no. We could’ve run away. We didn’t have to follow you onto the Path. It was our choice, and I don’t want to hear you blame yourself again. Especially about my parents. Kaine probably would’ve come after me and my family eventually. I know way too much. Michael, you’re my best friend, end of story. I’m part of this.”
Michael couldn’t allow himself to feel the relief that her speech should’ve brought. “But that’s just it,” he answered. “I’m not even real. I’m a computer program. How can you say that a string of code is your best friend?”
She got up and walked over to him and sat down on the bed. “Because I can,” she said. Then she pulled him into a tight hug and whispered directly into his ear. He could feel the warmth of her breath.
“I don’t understand what’s happening. All I know is you are you. You’re Michael. I could tell from the very first time you started talking. I saw it in your sweet dorky eyes.”
“But they’re not my eyes,” he mumbled. He thought of Gabriela, whether he should tell Sarah about her.
“But you’d never seen my real eyes, either. What’s the difference? The Sarah you’ve always known was basically a string of code, too. We are our thoughts and memories and personalities. I’m Sarah and you’re Michael. You’re the same. So can we please move on and figure out what we’re going to do?”
Michael found it almost impossible to believe that someone could be that much of a friend. He wanted to kiss her—he didn’t know how else to express what he felt. But it’d be just his luck to screw everything up by trying to pull that off.
“Thanks, Sarah. Seriously. I’d try to say something life-changing, but it’d just come out sounding stupid. You have no idea how relieved I am.”
She kissed him on the cheek. “You and Bryson are all I’ve got now. We need to find him, Michael. He can help us. And then we need to stop Kaine from whatever he’s up to and find my parents. Could he be planning to replace them with Tangents?” It was as if the thought hadn’t occurred to her until she said it out loud. Sadness clouded her eyes as she looked at him.