Michael and his friends continued to sink, slowly but steadily, the physics of the situation seeming to have vanished now that they’d decided what to do. Down, down they went, arms waving, legs kicking.

Michael reached out, tapped them both. As he did, they each opened their eyes. And then they were all staring at one another. Michael knew that the fear on his face and in his eyes matched what he saw in his friends’. Terror. They were about to do the one thing every human feared, no matter how brave.


Michael pointed at his mouth, trying to show them they had to do this. It was now or never. His lungs burned, begging him to take a breath. If they didn’t psych out their bodies soon, they might very well die of asphyxiation.

Sarah nodded, and so did Bryson.

It had been Michael’s idea, so he felt like he had to do it first. Every molecule of his body screamed at him to shoot back to the surface, breathe in that rich air that filled the world above the ocean. But he fought back. With one last, desperate look at his friends, he opened his mouth and let the water rush in, then sucked it down his throat and into his lungs.

There were a few seconds of sheer panic, his chest filled with agony and a wrenching need for air. Spasms riddled his body, and his heart suddenly felt empty and lifeless, slowing down, forgetting how to beat. He twisted left, then right, instinctively sucking again and again at the sea around him, as though if he tried hard enough he could pull in the oxygen from the water like a fish. He saw his friends beginning the process, bubbles of air streaming from their mouths, their eyes wide with fear. Just when Michael thought he might choke, he felt a sudden and sweeping rush of calmness spread through his muscles as his lungs filled with air. His heart was whole again, thumping and thumping, if a little fast.

The transition was instant, nothing like that of a newly surfaced man who’d been close to drowning, and he knew what had happened: his body and mind—safe and sound back in the VNS Coffin—had switched from the state of illusion within the Sleep to normal function. From edge-of-death fantasy to all-systems-okay. As a result, he was no longer submerged in anything like water. The cold, the wet, the ocean pressing down on him, the muted sounds—all gone, replaced by open air. Michael still felt buoyant, as if he were floating, and was still surrounded by lines of code, but he could breathe. And each lungful of air felt like heaven.

Sarah was just a few feet away, and he could see by her ease that she’d completed the transition herself. Bryson came along a few seconds after her, though he was farther away. Together they floated in a surreal world of purple lights and code, in desperate need of someone to splice it all back together.

“That was the worst few seconds of my entire life,” Sarah said. Her voice was a little … off. Almost robotic, like it had been charged with static. “Remind me to never go swimming again.”

Bryson flapped his arms, looking like a deranged oversized bird, but somehow it worked to move him closer to the other two. “I’m gonna have to say that was about a nine on the old sucky scale. I’d rather get eaten by the Lizards of Laos than go through that again.”

“But it worked, right?” Michael asked. He didn’t mean it in an I-told-you-so way. He was just filled with a ridiculous amount of relief that they hadn’t drowned. Of the countless times he’d been virtually killed throughout the years, for some reason this one had felt most real.

“Uh, I guess,” Bryson murmured, gesturing with his hands at the bizarre world around them. “If you call this working. I was kinda hoping for a library or something. At least a chair.”

Sarah spoke in that manner that showed she was doing some seriously deep thinking. “It’s weird, you know? Because of all the programs Weber drenched us in to make sure Kaine couldn’t find us, it was like we were cut off. At least from what we were used to. But then here we are. Code all over the place. It’s almost like normal, when we close our eyes in the Sleep and access whatever program we’re in.”

“Almost being the key word,” Michael replied. “I hope we can do something with all this. Otherwise Weber will bring us back and all we’ll have to say for ourselves is that we got to go swimming and feel what it’s like to drown. We’ve got nothing on Kaine.”

“How much time has passed, anyway?” Bryson asked.

Sarah pulled up her NetScreen, its glow odd-looking in the world of flying code. She scanned through a few things, then shut it back down.

“We have tons of time before she pulls us back out,” she said. “Like thirteen hours. So what do you guys want to do?”

Michael had no doubts. “There’s only one choice. We need to put some of this code together. If it’s all stuff that was destroyed by Kaine, like that town we were in, then it’ll have traces of him. Or whoever works for him. Or whoever did it for him. Anyway, I think we can work backwards. Maybe even find out where he’s hiding, if we’re lucky.”

Bryson snorted. “You make it sound like we’re going to make sandwiches or something. This is going to be harder than Devils of Destruction, my friend.”

“Yep,” Michael replied. It would be.

“It won’t be that bad,” Sarah said. “We only need our brains for this, guys. Time to put on your big-boy pants and get to work.”

Bryson looked at Michael. “Are we sure she wasn’t the Tangent? One of those pain-in-the-butt sidekick programs in the Ancient Digs of Runeville game? I’m pretty sure she was one of those.”

Michael responded by waving his arms enough to turn himself around, putting his back to his friends. Purple lights shone in front of him, and mysterious figures lurked in the distance, obscured and fuzzy. Lines of code buzzed about him like a million marching caterpillars, ready for him to dissect and put back together. It was programming in a way he’d never done it before, and he was more than a little excited.

Squinting with concentration, he reached forward and literally dug in.

It took a while to get used to this new method of manipulating code. It brought Michael back to his childhood days—his fake, fabricated, programmed childhood days—when, while living his life within the virtual world of Lifeblood Deep, he’d played with toys. Actual, tangible toys. SealBlocks and ViviCars and SimLasers and the countless figurines of those games the “big kids” played in the Sleep. Kids weren’t allowed to immerse themselves in the VirtNet until they were eight years old. Everyone was worried about proper brain development and acquiring social skills, so they’d made a law, though the age changed every few years.