Michael squeezed her shoulder. “We’ll find your mom and dad,” he answered. “We’ll figure things out with Kaine. I just … what if looking for Bryson … what if they do something to him?”

Sarah sighed. “He’s already in danger, and we can’t do this without him. We’ll just have to be smart and careful.”

Michael loved it that neither of them had even considered caving to Kaine, reporting for duty—or whatever it was—like the Tangent wanted them to. He thought about Gabriela one more time, but it still didn’t feel right to tell Sarah about her. Later would be better.

“Okay, then.” It was time to stop feeling guilty and get to work. “I’ve got a list of things we need to do.”

The next day, the two of them were at a table, eating cereal. The kind with lots of marshmallows that lied and said it was good for you on the package. And Michael felt safe. He was confident that both his and Sarah’s new multilayered identities would hide them from whoever was looking for them, both the good guys and the bad. They’d also found an apartment that rented by the month. After the encounter with Gabriela, Michael had decided he needed to move.

Somewhere along the way, Sarah had forgotten the rule about not talking with your mouth full.

“It’s not a bad place, really,” she said after shoving another spoonful into her mouth. She looked around at the small kitchen and the adjoining living room—empty—then down the hallway, where there were a couple of bedrooms. Each contained two items: a single mattress and a fully functioning, brand-new Coffin. The coffins hadn’t been cheap, and Michael halfheartedly promised himself to pay back the Porters someday. For the money, if not for stealing their son.

“Well, not really how I imagined my first place on my own,” Michael said. “You know, living next to cranks and prostitutes.”


“Yeah.” Michael rolled his eyes. “Crankheads? Druggies?”

She gave him a blank stare.

Michael smiled. “You’ve lived a sheltered life.”

“You were a computer program,” she countered.

“Ouch.” He took another spoonful, chewed, swallowed. “I guess we can’t put this off anymore. Time for the Sleep. You ready?”

Sarah put her spoon down. “I’m ready. But you’re sure you agree with me?”


She’d been insistent that instead of trying to find Bryson in the Wake, they needed to Sink into the Sleep and search for him there. They had far more skill at hiding themselves in the VirtNet than they did in the Wake, and it would be safer for them and for Bryson. They’d purposefully held off on contacting him until they went in—no reason to risk testing how well they’d set up their new identities until they couldn’t wait any longer.

“Things should’ve settled down by now, right?” she asked.

“At least a little. If they’ve been watching the Sleep, I’m sure they expected us to have gone in by now.” The truth was that Michael been worried about this. Kaine was even more powerful inside the VirtNet, but then again, so were Michael and Sarah. They were doing the right thing. “Let’s just hope Bryson’s okay. I bet they’ve been watching him like a hawk.”

“Like a hawk,” Sarah repeated with a grin. She always made fun of him for using old-man clichés. “I’m sure his new identity is even better than ours.”

“Yeah. You get enough?” He nodded at the cereal. It was what passed for gourmet without his nanny, Helga, around. His heart ached at the thought of her. He missed that crazy old German woman so much. Even more than his parents, if he was honest. But he was trying his best not to let himself go down that road—it was possible they still existed. It was.

“I think three bowls oughta do it,” Sarah confirmed.

“Then let’s Sink.”

They left the dishes on the table.

It was weird for Michael to get into the Coffin. Not that it felt any different from the countless times he’d done it before. It was just that this was the first time he was doing it as a flesh-and-blood human. It scared him and excited him at the same time. Even though his life had gone from crummy to crappy, he was eager to Sink into the Sleep again. In many ways, he was literally going home.

Sarah had closed her bedroom door—most people stripped naked before getting into a NerveBox. Keeping his boxers on just in case, he stepped into his brand-new Coffin, the latest and greatest model, and lay down. He pulled the door shut on its hinges, relishing the feel of the tiny NerveWires snaking across his skin and burrowing inside, the sound and feel of the AirPuffs and LiquiGels surrounding him, all systems testing to make sure he’d have a true VirtNet experience.

Of course, part of him feared it. Things were so different now. How could he know what might happen? And there was Kaine. Always Kaine. But then …

There was also Helga. His parents. His old life. Maybe, just maybe, they were out there somewhere. Somehow.

He closed his eyes and the Sleep took him away.

Most people ended up at a Portal in a public place when they Sank into the VirtNet, anything from a city street to a mall. Then you walked or rode to the destination you were in the mood for. Restaurant, movies, massage parlor, dance hall. Or, of course, the gaming depots. Michael had an itch to do just that but knew it was the last thing on the list. This was not a gaming tour.

When he Sank into the Sleep this time, he chose to emerge in an emptiness like deep space, with code swirling around him. These Sink locations existed, but your average gamer wouldn’t know how to find them. Or care to, really—Michael and Sarah wanted to be sure to stay out of sight.

Michael floated amid numbers and letters moving in a blur of speed. He could easily sense Sarah’s presence, and he reached out with virtual fingers to manipulate the code around him. He was relieved to discover that he hadn’t lost his touch. Swiping and typing, he moved code around almost faster than he could think. Sarah was doing the same, following the plan they’d laid out.

Soon an opening appeared, a black square—a silhouette against the code. It was like the Portals that flashed open around the stone disc of the Path. Michael catapulted himself forward and through the opening to a place that only three people in the world knew about.

His feet landed on a soft forest floor, moist leaves giving under his weight with a squish. Mist curled around his legs, and giant trees surrounded him, moss hanging from their limbs as if they were melting. The forest was a work of art; it looked ancient, and Michael and his friends had spent countless hours designing it out of code. But the true masterpiece was the tree house they had programmed, one of his proudest achievements. On the outskirts of the outskirts of Lifeblood, in a place no one would ever go. And if anyone did go there, they wouldn’t be able to see the tree house anyway. It was a brilliant example of elusive code.