“It’s code,” Michael said, even though he knew they’d figured it out. There was no denying what they saw. It was just too familiar, far too familiar—something they’d seen thousands of times, those combinations of letters and numbers. This purple ocean was full of swimming, wiggling, slithering lines of code. And they behaved as though they were all desperate to create a program. “Infected or destroyed somehow, which is probably why we can see it. But it’s code.”

“Okay,” Sarah said, holding her hands out as if steadying herself. “Let’s put our heads together. What exactly are we looking at here?”

“And how did we get here?” Bryson added. “What happened to that town we were in? Where are we? And while we’re at it, where can I get a burger?”

Michael felt like he was in a trance—he barely heard his friends. He stared at the frothy purple water below them, waves crashing into each other, spray filling the air. Everywhere he looked, those lines of code bounced off each other. There were so many of them, he thought the water itself might be made out of the things.

Bryson gently shoved him with an elbow. “Hey, wake up, maestro.”

Michael shook his head a bit—he had to recalibrate his vision after concentrating to focus on such small things for so long. “Sorry. It’s just so weird.”

“Yeah” was all Bryson said. But then a few seconds later he added, “Guess I’m not getting that burger any time soon.”

“Guess not.”

“The water’s just an illusion,” Sarah said, seemingly out of nowhere. Michael knew she’d been thinking fiercely since they’d arrived in the strange world, and she had a theory already. He wanted to hug her, wet clothes and all, because his mind was worthless mush at the moment.

“Care to expound on that?” Bryson asked.

Sarah looked over at them just as another wave crashed below, buckets of purple water splashing over them. Michael quickly wiped it out of his eyes, eager to hear what she had to say.

She rubbed her face with both hands, then squeezed as much wetness as she could from her hair. “Well,” she said, “I think Kaine is destroying parts of the Sleep. I think he’s marching in and just wiping out the code, ripping it to shreds. And I think it’s all draining into this place.” She waved her arms at the vast ocean around them. “All of this … it’s literally a dumping ground of code and that purple building-block stuff that holds it all together. If we hadn’t been protected by Agent Weber’s programs, I think we could’ve been in serious trouble.”

“Wait, what do you mean?” Bryson asked. “You think we would’ve been pulled apart and dumped in here as nothing but a bunch of code splices?”

Sarah nodded. “Something like that. I don’t know if Kaine … what’s the word … manifested this ocean like this on purpose, or if it’s just some kind of natural result of what he’s doing. But because of the way we were protected, I think we somehow formed—without meaning to—these islands of rock. Otherwise we might be swimming with the fishes, too. And brain-dead, for all we know, back in our Coffins. Or something else just as bad.”

“That lady we saw,” Michael said. “Back in the town. Dissolving into those blue spark thingies, just like what happened to Ronika. Maybe that would’ve been us, too.” He shivered at the thought.

“How in the name of Gunner Skale did you come up with all this?” Bryson asked Sarah. He seemed genuine, like he believed her. It made Michael realize that he did, too. And he wondered if on some subconscious level he’d created this escape—it made him think back to how he’d instinctively manipulated the code right before Kaine triggered the Mortality Doctrine and sent him into the mind of Jackson Porter.

Sarah saw him thinking and just shrugged, smiling sheepishly. “Sometimes I amaze even myself.”

The three of them didn’t speak for a minute or two, soaking it all in. Michael knew how Sarah had come to the conclusion—when you’d spent countless hours digging through the raw materials of the Sleep, you came to understand its workings on an instinctual level. It made sense. And so did what came next.

“I know what we have to do,” he said.

And then he told them.

Chapter 17: Corkscrew

The icy chill when they dove back into the churning waters of the purple ocean took Michael’s breath away. He gasped for air as he fought the whitecaps. Bryson and Sarah were right next to him, struggling to stay afloat.

“This better work!” Bryson yelled at him over the roar of the sea.

“You know it will!” Michael shouted back.

Sarah’s lips quivered in the cold. They were almost the same color as the water sloshing about her. “Just remember that we’re not really breathing the air here anyway. It’s all an illusion. Once we’ve … gotten past the hard part we’ll probably feel more at home than we have since we Sank after seeing Weber.”

“The hard part?” Bryson repeated. “Try horrific. I think that’s a better word. It’ll be the worst few seconds of our entire lives.”

Michael smiled, which creased his frozen face in a way that hurt, made him feel like he was about to crumble into shards. But he totally agreed with his friend. What they were about to do went against every human instinct.

Hopefully it wouldn’t kill them.

“Let’s do it,” he said to his friends. “I’m pretty sure it’ll work.” He flashed another grin at that last part.

“Pretty sure, huh?” Bryson asked, not amused.

“Ninety-nine percent.” That was the honest truth. He just hoped that one percent wouldn’t mean the end.

Sarah found his hand underwater and squeezed.

“Okay,” she said. “I was the one giving the pep talk, but I’m actually scared. I don’t know if I can do this.”

“You can,” Michael insisted. “No more talking about it.”

He sucked in a huge breath, then submerged himself, pulling her down with him. Opening his eyes, he felt the sting of salt, but he forced his lids to stay up, telling himself that he was only imagining the substance around him as ocean water. Abruptly the sting disappeared and his vision cleared.

Sarah and Bryson floated before him, eyes closed, cheeks puffed out, hair floating in halos around their heads. Sunlight slanted in shafts through the purple water, illuminating millions upon millions of strings of code—numbers and letters and symbols sewn together. They were everywhere. Like minnows, they darted back and forth and swirled around each other.