Sarah reached out and rapped her knuckles on the door. It rattled, and the loose handle knocked against the glass, but it didn’t open. Michael studied the doorframe, all dusty metal surrounded by warped wood with chipped brown paint. He started to wonder about the place—it seemed a little over-the-top for a front. He remembered visiting—and by “visiting” he meant “being kidnapped and forcefully taken to”—Agent Weber’s office, and how it had been underneath the football stadium. The VNS liked lurking in the shadows, it seemed.

Sarah finally knocked again when no one answered, this time harder, making everything shake just a little more vigorously.

“Come on, come on,” Bryson whispered.

Something clicked on the other side of the door and it swung open, one of those old-school bells attached to the top ringing with the movement. Somehow, to Michael that seemed even more out of place than the building itself, for an establishment that supposedly protected the world’s most important source of commerce and entertainment. The man who’d answered the door was even more absurd.

Short, chubby, with gray-flecked scruff on his face and wispy hair combed over his flaky scalp, the man wore a stained tank top—yellowed, with even yellower spots—revealing hairy arms that looked as if they hadn’t seen the sun in twenty years. Brown suspenders kept his brown pants from falling down, and a stubby cigar—not even lit—hung from his mouth like he’d forgotten about it hours ago.

“Who are ya, what do ya want?” he asked in a surprisingly high-pitched voice.

Sarah had taken charge and she kept it. “We’re here to speak with an agent about something important—something very important. And it’s related to the VirtNet.”

Michael wanted to sigh. As much as he loved Sarah, it hadn’t been the best introduction ever. A little hokey.

“We have an appointment with an agent,” Michael said on instinct.

The man popped the cigar out of his mouth and started coughing, great, heaving, retching sounds that made him seem as if his chest might explode. Michael winced.

“What’s that?” their host grunted, still clearing his throat.

It was Bryson’s turn. “Look, man, you don’t have to give us the runaround. We know this is a branch of the VNS, and we have some very serious stuff to talk about. Please bring us to an agent—we don’t have much time.”

At least he threw in a couple of pleases, Michael thought.

The man jammed the stumpy cigar back between his gray lips, then spoke around it. “What’s the name of the agent? And the passcode?”

Michael suddenly ached for the Sleep, where they could hack their way to finding that kind of information. Now the only thing they had to rely on was their wit and charm.

“Look, sir,” he said, “we don’t know the local agent’s name. And we don’t have a passcode. All we need is five minutes. I swear you guys won’t regret listening to us. Please.”

“Harmless as butterflies,” Bryson said with a goofy grin.

The man chewed his cigar like a stick of beef jerky. “Inside. Now.”

Michael let out a big breath and followed Bryson and Sarah into a musty, dimly lit lobby with three hard-backed chairs and an empty desk. The man told them to wait there; then he slammed the door, the bell dinging madly.

After he disappeared through a different door, Michael looked at his friends. “He’s … interesting.”

Sarah nodded slowly; Bryson made a shuddering look of fright.

Less than a minute later, the cigar-chomping man returned. He propped the door open and nodded for them to walk through.

“Agent Weber will see you now.”

Bryson and Sarah started to follow their host’s gesture, but Michael hesitated. There was no possible way that Weber just happened to be at this location, a barren dump in the middle of a seedy neighborhood. The man seemed to sense his doubts.

“Via uplink,” the guy muttered, as if he’d grown weary of speaking in life.

“Oh,” Michael responded stupidly.

He went along with his friends through the door and down a long hallway that became nicer—unstained carpet, fresher paint—and better lit the farther they walked, Cigar Man shepherding them from behind. He barked for them to turn left, then right, then down several flights of stairs, the floors unmarked. Finally, he led the group through another door, down another hallway, and into a small room with a giant WallScreen already lit up.

Michael took in a quick breath, his throat tightening, when he saw the giant face of Agent Weber staring at them. Her dark hair, her exotic eyes, the knowing look, as if she could read your deepest thoughts.

“Sit,” their host commanded.

There was a long table surrounded by padded chairs. Without a word, Michael and his friends sat down. He noticed that Sarah and Bryson were trying to avoid eye contact with the woman on the wall. As if she weren’t intimidating enough, Michael thought, now she was literally larger than life, hovering above them. He remembered the day she came to see him, personally, after he’d awakened in poor Jackson’s body. Seeing her had comforted him, at least a little, made him feel like he wasn’t alone and the VNS would help him figure things out. But then, he hadn’t heard from her or anyone else since—unless you counted the possible sighting in Lifeblood, by the tree house.

He felt a prick of anger, a thumping of his pulse in his temples.

“You may leave us now, Patrick,” Weber said, her voice booming from speakers all around them.

Bryson looked like he was struggling to hold back a smirk. He mouthed the word Patrick at Michael as if that were the funniest name he’d ever heard.

After the man and his cigar left, an uncomfortable silence settled on the room. Michael tried his best to maintain eye contact with Agent Weber, wondering where exactly the camera was located that allowed her to see them. Determined to show some guts, he waited for her to speak first. But she let it drag out.

Finally, she said, simply, “What do you want?”

Michael’s pulse thumped a little harder.

“What do we want?” he repeated. “I thought maybe you’d say something a little nicer, like ‘It’s lovely to see you safe and sound, Michael. I’ve been meaning to get in touch with you, Michael, but it’s just been crazy town at work. Please accept my apologies, Michael. Oh, and sorry about dropping in on you in Lifeblood, Michael.’ Something like that.”