Gabby nodded but wouldn’t make eye contact with her.

Sarah continued. “These Tangents … some of them are completely lifelike. And now they’re beginning to become sentient. Michael had no idea any of this was happening.” She looked at him apologetically, but he was deeply relieved that she was doing the talking. “He was a Tangent. But there’s another Tangent—Kaine—he’s figured out this process that downloads the intelligence of a Tangent into a human brain. Essentially the human brain’s just a biological computer. People have been saying this is possible for decades. Am I making any sense?”

Sarah spoke so calmly, and so matter-of-factly, that Michael looked on in awe. He actually thought she had a chance of convincing Gabby. Which was a good sign. They might even have a chance with the VNS.

Gabby leaned on the table. “So all three of you, right here, right now, are telling me that a Tangent named Michael was … downloaded into my boyfriend’s brain?” She turned and faced Michael. “That this … person … is no longer Jax? That Jax was just drained, like a flushed toilet? That’s what you’re telling me?”

Michael felt sick having to explain again. “We don’t know how it works exactly. I’m actually hoping that somehow he’s, I don’t know, stored somewhere. I mean, if it can happen in one direction, why not the other? Maybe he’s still … maybe he still exists. Who knows, maybe we can save him.”

Gabby laughed, but there was no trace of humor in it. “Honestly?” She shook her head and folded her arms, leaning back with a heavy sigh. “I just don’t know how I can possibly believe all this.”

“Just think about Jackson,” Michael said. “Jax. If you really knew him that well … I mean, do I seem like him to you? At all?”

She shook her head. “Nope. You most certainly do not.”

She paused, considering. “So keep talking.”

They talked for another hour. Bryson got coffee and pound cake for everyone, and they swapped stories, showed her things on Bryson’s old NetPad—even pulled out the ancient NetTab for a while to share some of the odd stories they’d researched about possible Tangent sightings around the world. Michael told Gabby about his old life, about his family, about Helga, about everything. Sarah brought her up to speed on Kaine and what he’d done to them. Bryson told her how they needed to get into the VNS and confront Agent Weber.

They talked and talked and talked, and Gabby listened.

Finally, as if they’d exhausted the English language, silence fell upon the table. Michael waited anxiously to see if they’d been able to convince Gabby.

She sighed and put her hands on the table, picking absently at a fingernail. “I know this sounds corny, but I don’t care. I love”—she faltered, flickered a glance at Michael—“loved Jax. I did. I do. It’s so confusing! You guys have seriously screwed up my head forever.”

Michael didn’t say anything, and wisely, his friends didn’t, either.

“Listen, I don’t know what I believe,” Gabby continued. “But I know Jax, and this guy isn’t Jax.” She jabbed a thumb at Michael. “No offense. It’s just that … I can tell he’s missing. Ya know? And all those stories you showed me … If nothing else, you’ve got me freaked out.”

Suddenly a composure came over her that was transforming. She sat up straighter; her eyes brightened; her skin seemed to glow. Michael could tell she was on the cusp of making a major decision, and he waited breathlessly to hear it.

“I can’t be spotted anywhere near VNS headquarters,” she said. “Too many people there know me because of my dad. But I can help you get in.”

They leaned closer as she kept talking.

The Falcons’ stadium was a massive thing, all glass and shiny metal. It looked like some mother spaceship from a sci-fi movie, ready to blast off for the stars. Since it was the offseason, the parking lot was an empty sea of asphalt, surrounded by multilevel structures erected to hold even more cars. It seemed that they had available parking for every person on the planet to come to a Falcons game.

He and his friends ran across the wide lot, the surface under their feet beginning to heat up from the morning sun. “In Lifeblood Deep, there was a space toward the front—a private parking spot that opened up like a trapdoor. That must be what Gabby was talking about.” He hoped they could find the right one.

Sarah already had her NetScreen lit up. It was hard to see in the sunlight, but visible enough. Gabby had said that once they got within the range of the thousands of signals that floated around the stadium, they’d be able to find the crack they needed to dive into. They’d gone over everything in the coffee shop as best they could.

“Man,” Sarah said. “This place is swarming. It makes our home signals look like cheap old radio stations. There’s more information flying around here than I’ve ever seen before. Even deep in the Sleep itself.”

Bryson clicked his tongue. “Well, there you go. We must be in the right place. Let me get linked up with you.”

The two of them worked at their screens, making Michael feel a little left out. He knew what they were doing. He’d noticed it on several occasions. They were worried about him, thought he was fragile. On edge, especially after the strange encounters during the last day or so. He couldn’t blame them for treading lightly with him. It was almost as if he were a newborn.

They stopped at the last—or first—row of parking spaces, closest to the hulking stadium itself. Michael looked around, took it all in. The structure loomed above them like a mountain of metal.

“This is where she said it’d be,” he said. “Northeast corner.”

Sarah sat on the curb, her eyes never leaving the faint glow of her NetScreen, and Bryson sat right next to her. Gabby had given them a few leads based on things she’d learned on her frequent visits to see her dad. As his friends worked those leads, Michael stood in front of them, feeling dumber by the minute.

“Anything I can do?” he asked. “Last I remember, I was pretty smart when it came to things like this.”

Neither Bryson nor Sarah acted like they’d heard a word he said. He forced a laugh, but that didn’t work, either. Giving up, he clicked on his own NetScreen and started dinking around to see if he could find something they might have missed.