“We’re not turning back now,” Michael said. “I don’t care if it’s a trap. I need to talk to her, and this is the only way it’s going to happen.”

Sarah shushed him, raising her hand as her brow creased in concentration. She was straining to hear something.

“What?” Bryson whispered.

Michael heard it. A faint, distant clicking sound. Growing louder, getting closer. More of a tapping. He suddenly knew exactly what it was.

“Footsteps,” he said. “Someone’s coming. And I’ve heard those shoes before.”

“What do we do?” Bryson asked. “Should we hide?” He tried a couple of nearby doors, but they were locked.

Michael crossed his arms and waited. “There’s no reason to hide.”

The footsteps grew to a crescendo just as a figure appeared around the corner up ahead: a tall, stylish woman in a skirt. Long hair flowing over her shoulders. It was too dark to see her face very well, but Michael had no doubt.

Agent Weber clickety-clacked her way down the hall until she stood right in front of Michael. He could see her eyes now, dark, unfriendly. She had them trained on him so fiercely it seemed as if she saw only him.

“Michael,” she said in a commanding voice. “Not exactly how I thought we’d meet up again, but I guess it will do.”

“I … We have to talk to you.” Michael’s words tumbled out. “About a lot of things. But why did you act like you didn’t know me before?”

She smiled, then turned and started walking away. She spoke to him over her shoulder.

“Come. I’ll explain everything, but we need to hurry.”

Chapter 15: Every Speck

Michael and his friends followed Agent Weber down hallway after hallway. Finally, they took an elevator down several floors, then climbed a staircase. Weber remained silent the entire journey. The VNS seemed shut down, its rooms dark and deserted. It was unsettling, especially as they descended deeper underground. Michael highly doubted that every employee had decided to take the same day off.

The reason for the empty facility ended up being the first question Weber answered, one of the few.

“All my agents and analysts are inside the VirtNet for a three-day job,” she said. “They Lifted from their homes—we only have a skeleton crew here to run things.” They entered a small, simple office furnished with nothing but a round table and four chairs. There was another door at the back of the room, made of metal with a heavy locking mechanism, which piqued Michael’s curiosity. “I don’t need to tell any of you that the stakes have been raised in the Kaine affair. We’re sweeping the virtual world—every speck of it—until we find him.”

Michael expected Weber to offer them seats around the table, but instead, she walked to the heavy door and turned to face them. “I know you have questions, but the answers are … difficult. I had no choice but to pretend I didn’t know you back when we last spoke. There are … factions within my agency that disagree with my course of action. I don’t trust them, and they don’t trust me. Yes, you contacted me over a secure communications line, but it was only secure from the outside world. Many within the VNS might have seen our conversation, and I couldn’t let that happen. You have no idea just how secret your mission was.”

Michael thought he understood perfectly. “In other words, you guys screwed up big-time and you’re trying to cover it up. Make us go away.”

Agent Weber was a beautiful woman, no doubt. But something washed over her face when he said that, that made her terrifyingly ugly. It was gone in a flash, and she was answering Michael.

“Like I said, we don’t have time to talk. There are many, many levels to this, Michael. The politics are only a small part of it. Ultimately, what matters is the security of the VirtNet and the safety of the people who frequent it. That’s my mandate, and I’ll do anything—anything—to fulfill my obligations. Do you understand?”

Michael flinched and took a half step backward, then tried to recover and make it look like he’d just repositioned himself to get more comfortable. This lady was scary, and he found it hard to trust her. But he didn’t know where else to turn.

Bryson chimed in. “You keep calling him Michael. Why? His name is Jackson Porter, right? You know everything, don’t you?”

That flash of anger showed on her face again as she directed her look at Bryson. “Listen to me. We don’t have time for this. Yes, Kaine duped us. In a monumental way. In ways you don’t even understand. Yes, I know Michael was a Tangent and was inserted into the body of Jackson Porter. I know it’s happening all over the world. I know we need to stop it. Now, are you here to help me or waste my time?”

“How can we trust you?” Sarah asked. “After you led us to the Path, led us right into the trap Kaine set for us?”

Weber showed no anger this time, just a look of genuine frustration. As if she had a thousand things she wanted to say and no time. “If the three of you would just take a moment to reflect on the sequence of events, I think you’d see that we were fooled just as you were. We tried to find Kaine, and we used you. And it worked. Not in the way we hoped, but it did work. We got our answers—we know more than we ever could have otherwise. Now our problem is to figure out how to stop him before things get out of control. His influence is spreading even though we don’t know his ultimate goal yet. And I’m not just talking about the Tangents he’s humanizing.”

“What else?” Michael asked. He reminded himself not to trust her too quickly, but she seemed sincere. He could see the stress in her every movement. She was scared, and that was a good thing in Michael’s book. “What could be worse than that?”

Agent Weber shook her head. “I didn’t say anything was worse. But the problems inside the VirtNet are just as bad as the problems in the Wake. Kaine is taking over, in ways you’ll realize soon enough.”

“We will?” Sarah asked.

“Yes,” Weber replied. “Look, I went well out of my way to visit you, Michael, after we realized what had happened. We’re all on the same side. I had to tread carefully for reasons we don’t have time to discuss right now. I knew you would come to find me after our admittedly odd conversation over the communications uplink. The timing is good, and I need you—all three of you—more than ever.”