What were they doing? His muscles cramped; he had the urge to open the door and get it over with. But he held back, straining to hear something, anything at all. He might as well have been in the depths of space. The silence was loud. More seconds passed.

Then, just like that, the world was full of sound.

A scuffle of feet. Creaking noises. Grunts. Soft thumps. Metallic clicks. Muted moans, as if someone had a hand over their mouth. Michael’s whole body tensed—he didn’t know what to do, what to make of it. His friends might be in trouble, but it seemed odd that neither one had called for help.

More sounds of struggle: a flurry of footsteps, a crash like bodies hitting the fridge. The thunderous boom of gunshots. Someone shouted something he couldn’t make out, then ran, footsteps fading in the hallway. A man, close by, groaned in agony.

Finally, unable to hold himself back any longer, Michael reached out to open the door, when everything fell silent again. His hand froze in midair, uncertainty flooding him.

A few seconds later there was another grunt. Then heavy, uneven footsteps, crossing the kitchen floor, as if the person had been injured.

Thump, drag, thump, drag.

Getting louder, heading straight for the cabinet in which Michael huddled like a terrified kid hiding from a bully. He couldn’t take it anymore. Wishing desperately that he had a weapon, he pushed open the door and crawled out—he’d hoped to leap to his feet, ready for a fight, but instead he tumbled and tripped over the lip of the cabinet’s bottom.

Sprawled across the kitchen floor, he looked up to see the figure of a man looming over him, eyes hidden in shadow. The man clutched at his chest with both hands. Michael started to scramble, trying to get his arms and legs under him, a bolt of fear like lightning in his chest. The man groaned, then fell, crumpling in a heap on Michael before he could back away. Then a last gargled breath escaped the stranger’s lungs and he went totally still.

Michael froze, trying to digest what had happened.

The red emergency lights from the hallway didn’t do a thing to cut the darkness in the kitchen. He crawled partway out from under the intruder and squeezed his EarCuff. His NetScreen came to life, casting its glow on the man who’d collapsed into his lap. A cop. He had blood on his face, on his uniform, smeared on the shiny badge pinned to his shirt, his hands, everywhere. And his eyes stared at the ceiling without a spark of life shining within. The man was dead.

Michael looked up and realized that both of the cabinet doors of his friends were open, and Bryson and Sarah were still inside, staring out at him. Bryson looked as stunned as Michael felt, but Sarah had an odd expression on her face. Relief more than horror.

“It worked,” she whispered.

Chapter 13: Happy Dance

It finally hit Michael that he had a dead, bloody guy sitting in his lap, and with a shudder he pushed the man off and scrambled away until his back slammed into the far wall of the kitchen. The NetScreen bobbed up and down as he moved, throwing spooky shadows across the room. His breaths came in ragged bursts, and he looked at Sarah, not even knowing how to respond to what she’d said.

She and Bryson were crawling out of their hiding spots and getting to their feet at the same time. Sarah was already working at her NetScreen before she was standing. Michael took in the rest of the kitchen and saw a dead woman perched up against the fridge with a bullet hole in her forehead. The woman was a cop, too. What had Sarah done?

When he looked back at her, she returned his gaze as if she’d read his mind. She stopped typing and swiping, and her shoulders sank as her expression melted into sadness.

“What happened?” Michael asked quietly.

Sarah’s eyes fell to the man on the floor and she recoiled as if she’d just realized what had happened. Then she looked to the right and saw the dead woman. Squeezing her eyes closed, Sarah crumpled to the floor and buried her face in her arms.

Michael and Bryson exchanged a quick look of alarm and then they were both beside her, helpless but there. Michael rubbed her arm, feeling like a fool. He didn’t want to push things, but he knew more cops could be on them at any second. Especially after … whatever she’d done. Two people dead. Two police. It didn’t get much worse than that.

Bryson did the asking. “Sarah, what in the world happened? We need to get out of here.”

“I know, I know,” she said, lifting her head. Michael had expected tears but there were none. Just a look of perfect heartbreak. “Don’t worry, I’ve got it all figured out.” She stood up and composed herself, brushing off her pants. “Just follow me and we’ll be out of here in five minutes.”

“But …” Michael couldn’t find the words.

Sarah walked toward the hallway. “I’ll explain along the way.”

A half hour later, the three of them were walking through a subway tunnel, on a raised platform above the tracks, heading for an exit that was far from the scene of action. And Michael’s heart ached for Sarah.

He remembered the thousands of times he’d thought about why he loved the Lifeblood game so much: nothing was more exciting, more brutal, more like real life. What an idiot he’d been. The only reason it had been so fun was because it wasn’t real life. Not even close. Nothing like this.

“Maybe we should take a break,” Bryson said. “Sit our butts down.”

They reached a station full of people heading to or coming from their trains, eyes glued to NetScreens, avoiding each other in a fashion that had always seemed like magic to Michael. But then, walking and Netting at the same time had become as much a part of life as walking and breathing.

They found a bench and took a seat, Sarah in the middle. No one said a word. Michael leaned back against the cold brick of the subway wall and closed his eyes. He needed to somehow come up with the right words to make Sarah feel better. It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her fault at all.

She’d done what she had to. Hacked her way into the communications system, sending out a top-level alert to every officer in the building. It said that the “perps” had stolen uniforms and were in the kitchen of the fifty-fourth floor, planting a bomb.

All she’d hoped for was some confusion and a sense of panic—she’d figured someone might call all the police back long enough for the three of them to escape via a hidden route she’d already mapped out from the building schematics. A route that led to a private maintenance entrance to the tunnels of the subway system.