Something warm and wet landed on his arm. He looked down to see one of those blue fragments of light fluttering across his skin. He swatted it away, watched it tumble to the ground and disappear into an abyss of crumbling code.
“Faster!” he yelled, barely hearing himself over the din of wrenching squeals.
Sarah was right next to him, sprinting hard, fists clenched and arms pumping. Bryson ran a few steps ahead, pounding the loose pavement. The expanding chaos was about to overtake them.
Michael focused on the Portal. Only forty or fifty feet away. It was fading, a ghostly pillar from a dream. And then a chasm opened under it, a massive hole in the ground that faded into a crumble of pixels and a swirl of gibberish code. He watched in shock as the Portal fell into the abyss. Just like that. Gone.
Michael stopped. He sucked in huge, gulping breaths as he turned in a circle, watched the world disintegrate around him. Sarah was there, and he pulled her into his arms. Bryson joined them, and they clasped each other in a group hug. Noise and destruction everywhere.
Sarah had leaned close to Michael’s ear, and he was sure she said something, though he didn’t hear it. Just as he felt her warm breath against his skin, the ground below them collapsed and they fell into the chasm of infected code.
Michael lost hold of his friends and was swept away.
Chapter 16: The Infinite Ladder
Michael didn’t know how or when it ended.
There was no crash landing. His Aura didn’t find itself broken from falling onto some hard-packed land miles below the old dusty town. The noise was gone. There was no sound at all. Only a numb silence. A silence so complete it hurt his ears. Yet he lay on his back in a dark, still space.
He gently rolled over onto his side, then sat up and assessed how he felt. He expected pain, or at least a few aches, but he was fine, if a little dizzy. The darkness around him was so heavy it almost felt like it was pressing down on him. Reaching his arms out, he got to his feet and shuffled around, hoping to find a wall, a chair, something. But there was nothing except the solid ground under his feet and that blaring silence.
“Sarah?” he called. His voice sounded strange to his own ears, as if he had a cold and his head was stuffed up. “Bryson? You guys out there?”
He jumped back a few steps, swung around in a circle, desperate to see. That voice. It was unsettling … mechanical and haunting, like something you’d imagine hearing from another dimension.
He sucked in a quick breath, turned in a circle again. “Sarah? Bryson?” he whispered. Then he yelled. “Guys! Is that you?”
“Mi-chael.” The voice was so odd and otherworldly he couldn’t tell if it was male or female.
“Sarah!” he shouted. “Bryson!”
He remembered his NetScreen, hurriedly clicked his EarCuff to flash it up. The green glow almost blinded him but revealed nothing in the darkness. He shut it off, realized it would be better for his eyes to be sharp and adjusted—the screen would only blunt his night vision.
Shuffling forward, arms before him, he headed toward where he thought the voice had come from. Only there was nothing. He walked and walked, sure he was going to smack into a wall at any second, but still nothing.
He stopped. This time the voice sounded like it had come from above him. Michael froze, calmed his breathing, and waited, head tilted back to look up, searching the darkness. Finally, after a few seconds, he thought he saw a faint light hovering a hundred feet or so above him in the black, starless sky.
He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled as loudly as he could. “Sarah! Bryson!”
But that light was still there. It was faint, but it was there. He sat down on the ground and lowered his head. He had to think. Being cut off from the code was driving him nuts. Never in his life had he been forced to use a NetScreen to program within the Sleep, and he didn’t know if he’d be good at it. The code in the VirtNet was so different from back in the Wake. It was more visual and intuitive. But he had to try. He had to get up to that light. Somehow.
He brought his screen blazing to life and got to work.
It took an hour. Possibly the longest, most excruciating hour of his life. Sweating, concentrating, digging through endless lines of code, surrounded by that awful darkness and pressing silence. And what did he get for all that effort?
He ended up stealing it from a game he’d played long, long ago called Donkeys on Platforms. One of those games that was so outrageously silly that everyone fell in love with it. The player had to navigate an intricate maze of bridges and ramps and arches and landings, all of it complex and jumbled, barely rational, avoiding an endless array of traps and freaky creatures. All to find lost donkeys and bring them back home to a guy named Scooter.
Eventually Michael had gotten bored and programmed gigantic, gravity-defying ladders to beat the system. Now, as Jackson Porter, it wasn’t that hard to duplicate it.
One of those ladders now loomed above him, stretching into the darkness toward the light far above.
He started climbing.
The light in the distance got brighter as he ascended, its boundaries more defined. It was a cold light, almost blue, and it shone through an opening that appeared to be a perfect circle. He had to stop several times to adjust the programming of his ladder, make sure it led him in the right direction. Far below, it scraped along the floor as it moved at his will. The wonders of the Sleep, he marveled.
Up, up, up Michael went, always toward the light. He was sure someone wiser could come up with a really good philosophical parallel, but all he could think about was how sweaty his hands were and how much he missed his friends.
After a good thirty minutes of climbing the impossible ladder, he reached the edge of the light source. He stopped a few feet below and looked up to the fake sky—gray clouds cutting across the blue. He paused, took a final deep breath, and went the rest of the way, like a worker climbing from the sewers through an open manhole to a busy city street, hoping that nothing came by to swipe off his head.
Two rungs below the light, he stopped, so shocked by sound that at first he didn’t know what was happening. He’d become used to the silence, even in such a short time. What he heard now was distinct and familiar: the majestic, rolling swells of the ocean.