Sarah stopped. “Do I dare bring up my NetScreen?” She shot Bryson an annoyed look. “And not because I give a crap if people think I’m cool or not. Do you think Kaine will be able to track us if we start connecting to the code?”

“I’m sure Weber thought of that when she said we could do it the old-fashioned way,” Michael replied. “If our Auras are as protected as she promised, our NetScreens are safe. Don’t you think?”

In answer she squeezed her EarCuff, bringing her NetScreen to life. After a few seconds of poking around, she said, “Man, it’s hard to see much. Everything keeps flickering and bouncing. I’m not used to coding with the NetScreen in the Sleep, but something seems wrong.”

Michael clicked his own EarCuff to take a look, and it was just as she described. He’d rarely seen the code of the Sleep from this vantage point—from the dinky square of a NetScreen—but it did seem off. The code randomly jumbled up in some places and bounced across the screen in others, mixing itself even more.

“Weird” was the best he could offer. He tried entering a line of code here or there, but nothing seemed to work. The letters and numbers just got swept up into the chaos of the screen, to no effect that he could see. “Very weird.”

“Do I even need to open mine up?” Bryson asked. “You two seem to be getting nowhere fast.”

Sarah started to answer him but barely got out a word before she was interrupted by a drawn-out scream coming from around the corner of the closest building. Michael looked up, an icy shiver running down his spine, just in time to see a woman run out from behind the building, clutching at her throat as if someone were trying to strangle her. She lurched forward a few steps at a time, struggling against some unseen force. She staggered into the middle of the street, then collapsed.

The fall revealed her back, and Michael sucked in a quick breath. Little rectangles of sparkling blue light covered the area between her shoulder blades, leading all the way up to her neck and the back of her head, swarming her hair as they fluttered. He remembered all too well where he had seen such a thing before: the Black and Blue Club. KillSims. They’d eaten Ronika’s digital soul, not only devouring her code, but also permanently damaging her brain in the Wake. The same thing appeared to be happening to the lady on the street. Like burning embers, the bright blue rectangles spread over the woman’s body.

“They’re eating her,” Bryson whispered, and Michael realized it was the creepiest thing he’d ever said.

Sarah moved forward as if to help, but Michael snagged her by the arm, pulling her back. She slammed into him and they both stumbled.

“What’re you doing?” she asked, working to break free of his grip. “We have to …” But then she stopped in defeat, slowly turning to watch as the woman was consumed by the attack on her code. She shone from within, brilliant blue lights pulsing like a heartbeat.

“There’s nothing we can do,” Michael said. “Who knows—it might spread to us if we touch her. And if there are KillSims around, then we need to get out of here, fast.” Like he even needed to say it.

The ground beneath his feet bounced, throwing all three of them a full foot into the air. Michael caught his balance, holding on to Sarah, but Bryson fell to his knees.

“What wa—” he started to say, but then the street jumped beneath them again. This time, Michael and Sarah fell, too.

The ground trembled, small vibrations at first but then stronger, until Michael felt like he was on a boat being tossed about on an angry sea. The buildings around them shook, then swayed back and forth in a way that made no physical sense. They seemed almost rubbery, bending and warping, yet cracking in places. Streams of broken rock shot out from the stress. Noises filled the air, great booms and groans of metal. It reminded Michael of the visions he’d had during the Decay process of his Tangent programming, but it was obvious that his friends were being affected as well.

He placed his hands on the rocking surface of the street and steadied himself, then slowly rose to his feet, balancing as if he stood on an AirSurfer. He reached for Sarah and helped her up, too—it almost felt like they were dancing.

“I’m not in the mood for this!” she yelled sarcastically over the thunderous noise. But her face had paled with fear. Michael wondered if she’d momentarily forgotten that they were in the Sleep.

“Guys, look!” Bryson shouted, pointing down the street in the direction they’d been heading.

Michael had to take a step to his right to see around Bryson, and the movement almost made him fall down again. But he caught his balance and surveyed the scene, not sure what his friend had meant to point out. There was a lot to see.

The woman who’d been digitally attacked was now nothing more than a roughly human-sized form of flashing blue planes of light, and some of them had started to drift away, caught in a wind that Michael didn’t feel. He had no clue what had happened to her—there was still no sign of KillSims.

Beyond the woman, farther down the street, weird streaks of odd colors were falling from the sky like lightning. It looked as if the skyline were made of paper and claws were tearing it apart. Green and blue and yellow light flashed so brightly that spots danced in Michael’s eyes even when he turned his head. He timidly glanced back and saw that the tears in the skyline were growing, lengthening to touch the ground, spreading toward where he stood.

He understood what was going on. At least on some level. Someone, somewhere, was literally erasing the place from existence, and Michael wasn’t so sure what would happen to them if they waited around to witness its destruction.

“Get back to the Portal!” he yelled. “Now!” Visions of the three of them back in the VNS Coffins, brain-dead, haunted his mind. “Go!”

He didn’t need to tell them. They were already running, stumbling back down the street in the direction they’d come. A distinct sound filled the air, overtaking everything else—a high-pitched, grating squeal. Michael looked over his shoulder and saw a huge gap in the road arrowing toward them, the pavement faded into a jagged line of fuzzy digital static. The world itself was coming apart, and his ears felt like they might start bleeding from the horrible noise of it all.

The land jostled beneath their feet, gashes in the programming fell like lightning all around them, and the noise got impossibly louder. Michael saw the silver column of the Portal up ahead, and even it seemed less substantial than normal.