Back then he’d played with his hands, developing the imagination that would end up taking him so many places virtually.

It was like that now. Playing. Physically playing. Touching the building blocks of programming, feeling them, squeezing them, trying to reach into their essence and read their origins, understand the bigger picture of what they used to be a part of.

He’d been a part of Lifeblood Deep. Literally. No one was more qualified to do this than Michael.

Piece by piece, he examined. He deduced. He built. He manipulated.

He played.

Time sped by, Michael oblivious to it. He was lost in the fun of the programming. He might’ve worked forever, his body back in the Coffin weakening until even that device couldn’t keep him going.

A tap on the shoulder snapped him out of it.

“Got anything?” Sarah asked.

He waved himself around to face his friend. She seemed weary but satisfied. Bryson had drifted off in the distance, his enthusiasm for manipulating the code making him completely unaware of his surroundings. An indecipherable shadow loomed behind the purple lights beyond his body, as if a giant whale were making its way in their direction.

“I got a lot,” Michael answered, returning his attention to Sarah.

“Me too. I think it’s time we linked up.” She paused and looked around. “Well, guess we can’t do that here. Put our heads together, then.”

“Sounds good.”

They flapped their way toward Bryson, the insane-bird dance bringing smiles to their faces.

By the time they were finished, Michael’s entire body ached and his stomach was growling. It had taken both mental and physical effort to piece all their programming together, and he was starving. Such was the nature of the Sleep. Yes, the Coffin would feed him the nutrients he needed, keep him alive and fairly healthy. But that didn’t mean his mentally infused virtual body didn’t get to the point where he’d kill a roomful of people for a hot dog.

An entire world of logical code extended farther than Michael could see. It was a beautiful, beautiful thing, and the three of them had worked furiously in the last hour or so, copying the details of what they’d learned onto their own NetScreens so they wouldn’t forget. And so they could share it all with the VNS once they returned to the Wake.

Michael clicked off his NetScreen. As fun as the process had been, he was done. Officially done. There wasn’t a molecule in his body that didn’t ache for food, only before settling down for a long nap.

“I can’t believe this guy,” he said, almost used to the tinny echo of his own voice. “I guess I can understand why Kaine wants to be human. But wanting to wipe out half of the VirtNet doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.”

“You know what I still don’t get?” Sarah asked. “Why he wants to be human. I mean, even if he downloads into someone our age, he’s gonna be dead in a hundred years. In the Sleep, he’s immortal, right? He could live forever.”

“Well,” Bryson said, “there’s the Decay that’ll hit him.” Sarah shrugged. “If he can download a Tangent’s brain into a human, I bet he can figure out how to avoid that.”

Bryson laughed. “That’ll be hilarious if he does all this, wakes up in some dude’s body, then gets hit by a bus the next day. I’d even go to his funeral.”

Michael shook his head slowly—something Bryson said had struck him. “No way,” he murmured as his thoughts started coming together. “No way it’s that easy—that Kaine just wants to try out a human body. Something else is going on. Something a lot bigger. Remember what he said about the Mortality Doctrine being a plan for immortality? I mean, he could be planning to switch his intelligence to a new, younger human every twenty years and keep a backup on the VirtNet in case he does get hit by a bus.”

“Well, at least we’ve got a line on him,” Sarah said. “We know where he’s been, what he’s done, and where he’s hiding when he … does whatever he does after a hard day’s work.”

“Do you think that guy even sleeps?” Bryson asked. “You did, Michael, but your programmers wanted you to think you were human.”

Michael shrugged, looking absently into the distance, where all those odd shadows grew and shrank and coalesced behind the spray of purple lights. Despite his fatigue, he was excited at the wealth of information they’d gathered from the broken code. The VNS should bow down and worship the Trifecta to Dissect-ya, he thought.

“How much time do we have left?” Bryson asked.

Sarah looked at her NetScreen, which was still illuminated. “About forty-five minutes. Let’s just hope we’re still connected to her. I don’t see a whole lot of Portals around these parts.”

“We’re connected,” Michael said, so confidently that they didn’t even respond. Sometimes he just knew.

Sarah started to say something, but her mouth snapped shut when the lights around them dimmed. It didn’t take long for Michael to understand, and an uneasy feeling crept into his belly.

The lights that kept the strange world of code illuminated were flaring, then winking out of existence. One by one they were popping like burst lightbulbs. The darkness deepened, or maybe those weird shadows were getting bigger. Either way, it didn’t matter. Something was wrong.

“I don’t think we can wait for Weber,” Michael said. “We need to get into another program.” He already knew exactly what Sarah’s response would be, and that she’d be right.

She didn’t disappoint. “There’s no way. There’s no link from here—this place is nothing but a dumping ground. It’d take us just as long to figure out an escape as it did for us to work backwards to find Kaine.”

“Even if we could get into another program,” Bryson added, “where would we go? Chances are we’d still be about to get chomped on by Kaine’s kill programs, and end up washed right back down in this cesspool. And maybe we wouldn’t quite live through it a second time.”

Michael grumbled. “You guys are downright pleasant to be around.”

Lights flashed all around them, increasing in rapidity, as if struck by a virus that multiplied exponentially. And the shadows grew. The darkness rolled in like a fog, blacking out the world, which had once been full of purple light.