Michael started to say something, but she held up a hand to cut him off.

“No, please,” she said. Any sign of wanting to intimidate them had washed away completely. She was almost trembling. “We don’t have time, I’m telling you, we don’t have time! I need to get you three inside the VirtNet, and I need you to use those skills of yours. You’ll be protected like never before, I promise.”

“Wait,” Bryson said. “What do you mean? You want us to go inside … here?”

Weber seemed relieved. “Yes.” She turned and motioned toward the heavy metal door at her back. “Everything you need is waiting in there. It’s all set up.”

The place looked like a morgue. Two rows of at least twenty NerveBoxes were lined up against both walls, looking just like the coffins from which they’d gotten their nickname. The low hum of machinery filled the dimly lit room, giving the place an otherworldly feel. It was almost like they were already in the Sleep.

“I’ve prepped three Coffins for you,” Agent Weber said, marching toward the back of the facility. Michael and the others followed. “I’m afraid I don’t have much information to give—Kaine has eluded my best people from the start, and the deeper we dig, the more elusive he becomes. I wish I could’ve brought you in immediately, but it was just too risky. There are people who’d be very … upset if they knew I was bringing you in at all.”

Michael didn’t let on how much doubt he felt. A huge part of him thought it would be the most absurd thing ever to trust this woman and get in a Coffin that was under her control. But this was the VNS. If he couldn’t trust them, whom could he trust? And if he left now, he was sure he’d spend the rest of his life in jail. At least this way he had a fighting chance.

“You haven’t even told us what you want us to do,” Bryson said. “And don’t tell me that our only instructions are to jump into the Sleep and stop Kaine.”

Agent Weber frowned at Michael’s friend. Somehow it was the sincerest expression she’d borne yet, half pity and half remorse. She appeared to feel genuinely guilty that she had to ask them to risk everything once again.

“No, I don’t expect you to stop Kaine,” she said. “In fact, quite the opposite. If you do find him, it’d be way too dangerous for you to try anything by yourselves. I can’t afford to tag you like we did when you went on the Path.”

“Because of your enemies inside the VNS,” Sarah offered.

Weber nodded but then seemed to regret it, catching herself. “They’re not enemies. They just feel—they very strongly feel—that using a Tangent is out of the question. No offense, Michael, but you’re a creation of Kaine now. You can understand why some people would find it hard to trust you.”

Michael shrugged. What she was saying made more sense than he cared to admit.

“I’m just hoping you can find out where he is,” Weber continued, “without actually going there. If we can discover the location of his central coding—if there even is such a place—then I have a plan for how to destroy him. Literally destroy him. We have a program that could set off a chain reaction in his programming and erase him from existence. But it won’t work unless we find his central port.”

She stopped then, seemingly done. Michael almost laughed. And he thought she’d given him hardly any instruction the last time. Mission Number Two looked to be a complete wild-goose chase. But he had his own reasons to pursue it, to find out more about Kaine: Sarah’s parents; his parents; discovering what, if anything, had happened to Jackson Porter’s essence. He could do that for Gabby, if nothing else.

“That’s it?” Sarah asked. “You don’t have leads or anything?”

Weber gave an apologetic smile. “Leads are exactly what we’re looking for.”

Michael looked at Sarah, then Bryson. It was hard to read their faces, but he could imagine what they were thinking—the same things he was. A little fear, a lot of doubt. And, of course, he knew they, too, had that old feeling that swelled up inside: The urge to game. To jump in feetfirst and conquer the Sleep from top to bottom.

But he didn’t say anything. He couldn’t be the one to decide this time; he’d already dragged Bryson and Sarah into too much. The decision had to come from them.

“We have a big problem, though,” Sarah said. The tone of her voice told Michael what Weber might not have sensed yet: they were in, one hundred percent.

“Just one?” Weber replied. “We should be so lucky.”

Sarah ignored the comment. “Every time we’ve gone into the Sleep, Kaine has been able to track us down. No matter how many layers of protection we’ve coded around ourselves. He wants us for something. He wants Michael, anyway. We’ve been trying to avoid Sinking back in.”

“Trust me, I understand,” Weber said. “All too well. Kaine is more powerful than we ever would’ve thought. But I think you’ll feel better once you’re in. Since we figured out that Kaine is a Tangent, I’ve spent hours building a new Hider program. It’s several layers deep—virtually invisible. No one will be able to tell you’re in there, I promise. Especially combined with the fake identifications I’m sure you guys have built yourselves.”

Instead of responding, Sarah turned her attention to Michael. “What do you think?”

“Consider me curious,” he said. Which was completely true.

“The only drawback,” Weber added, “is that you won’t be able to see code like you normally would once you’re inside. That’s the only way it can work. To hide you from the code, the code ends up being hidden from you.”

“Drawback?” Bryson repeated. “You saved that little nugget until the end? That’s more like a deal breaker! What good are we if we can’t manipulate the code?”

Michael’s hopes had crashed as well.

The agent’s face didn’t reveal a thing—she was solemn, her expression focused, her demeanor calm. “Don’t be a child. All I meant is that you won’t be able to access the code in the way you’re used to. You can still use your NetScreens—old-fashioned, I know. But three people as skilled as you are—I think you can handle it.”

“Unless we get into a pinch,” Michael countered. “Whatever we can do on a NetScreen will be slow—probably too slow.”